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Time and Again

Time and Again

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Jan. 3rd, 2016

Kalama, WA

 

“You don’t get to stop this.”

His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs, his sorrow great enough that it felt as though his heart was breaking in two.  Not once in the past decade of his life had he felt this way, so bare, so emotionally powerless.  Everything had been closed off until now, and that dam, built up after so many years of bitter disappointment, had finally broke.

He was feeling for the first time, and it was in front of the last person he’d want present when it happened.

“Not now,” he breathed, the foggy plume of breath escaping from his lips hanging on the crisp air for a moment.  “Not now, when everything needs to go right.”

“This one wasn’t yours to save Larry, not now and not ever.”

“But why?” Larry breathed, still looking down upon the still, inert form of the woman he’d noticed so many times since coming to this little side of the road town.  She was so peaceful in her stillness, so serene that he could almost convince himself that she was asleep.  But the lack of any movement from her chest, the utter absence of breath escaping her lips, it was more than obvious.  She was gone, and for the…..

“I can’t remember,” he said in a small, pitiful voice, “I can’t, remember, how many times.”

“You don’t want to know.”

He wanted to rise up and smack the hell out of this person, this unknown force wearing a human skin.  All he wanted right at that moment was to find something hard and heavy to beat him down and show him what it felt like to wear a human form.  But Larry already knew the danger of such an act, and knew it was pointless as well.

But still, he wouldn’t mind trying again.

“I’ve done everything right so far,” he said, still on his knees over the old woman, Sadie her name had been, “I’ve done everything right and people have been better off.  I’ve made a difference goddammit!”

“And you made one for her too,” the man said, his voice seemingly sincere, “You gave her what no one else had given for a very long time.”

“What?” he croaked, “What did I do that made her life better?!”

“You tried.”

He just wanted to wake up and find this had all been a dream.  As he closed his eyes he

felt the hot tracks of tears staining his cheeks, wetting the beard stubble that had developed on

his unshaven cheeks during the past few days.  This had become tiresome a long, long time ago, and he just wanted it to end.  He knew the path he wanted now and it yet it seemed so far away, and unreachable in a sense that he could not adequately describe.  He wanted something so good and pure that he’d been willing to change everything to get it.

And all he could say was that he’d tried.

He needed to sleep, to just go to sleep and not wake up. But then he’d tried that too hadn’t he? Nothing worked as it should have any longer.

“Larry,” said the other, his voice calm and still infuriating all the same, “It’s time to go.”

“No,” Larry said, shaking his head, a sniffle causing him to grimace as he stayed where he was. “I can’t leave her, I won’t.”

“She’s not your responsibility Larry, not now, and not ever.”

“Well then whose is she?!” he shouted, rising swiftly to his feet as he faced the handsome visage of the tormentor without a true name, the one person in this entire godforsaken town that could recall everything that he’d done from one day to the next.  He had better since than to strike the individual, he’d tried that too with disastrous results. His left eye still twitched a bit as he thought about it.

“She’s mine,” he said calmly, his hands stuffed in his pockets much as would be expected on a wintry, bone-chilling evening such as this. The streetlights just barely cast their light in this direction, painting the two of them in the sickly, pale orange light that seemed so normal.  This night it was no less, but the shadows it cast upon the other’s face were deep and unnatural in that moment, almost as if he was something born straight from the darkness, a shadow that had assumed human form.   Larry could almost believe this was true, but wouldn’t bother entertaining such a fanciful notion at the moment.

“Are you here for the town, or for me?” he almost snarled.

The stranger, no he wasn’t a stranger, not any longer, stepped forward as he went almost nose to nose with Larry, his breath fogging up between them as he spoke.

“I’m here for whomever I’m assigned to Larry.  In your case, I’m a glorified sitter.”

“What about her case?” Larry asked in a dark tone, his anger still boiling over as he pointed behind him, “What are you to her?”

“To who?” the other asked. The audacity of the question caused Larry’s jaw to drop as his anger spiked yet again, his need to hit something, someone, anyone, outreaching his common sense as he whirled around to point at the fallen woman, only to realize suddenly and without any understanding that the spot where Sadie had fallen was devoid of a body.  She was gone, just gone, without a trace and without anything to show she’d even been there save for the imprint of her body upon the thin skein of snow and ice that she’d collapsed upon.

He whirled back on the other, fully intent on voicing his objection as well as a few expletives that he knew would not insure the other’s friendship, but as with Sadie, the man was gone.  Larry sputtered as he took a startled step back, frustration showing plain upon his outraged features as he looked once more to where Sadie had been.  Not even a small wisp of steam had risen from the spot, nor had he heard anything or anyone move.

“Go back to the hotel Larry,” the other said, his voice maddeningly close, “Get some rest.”

Frustrated and angry as he was, Larry couldn’t deny that this was good advice, that after a day spent doing as much as he could he was exceedingly tired.  Maybe he should just back to his hotel and get some rest.  At least there he seemed able to avoid the other for a short amount of time.

Every step he took back to his hotel felt as though it was a step in the wrong direction, a step backwards so to speak, and yet he couldn’t find any other direction to go.  He was stuck, much as he had been for longer than he could really remember.  The world would be here tomorrow, that much was certain, but it wouldn’t have moved on.  That was the worst certainty.

*                      *                      *

 

5:30 am

 

He’d always been an early riser, but as his eyes opened slowly, almost painfully so, Larry Goodkin had to wonder if keeping them open would even be worth it today. It had almost seemed worth it yesterday, and the day before, and many days leading up to that, but today he felt the weight of what he could only describe as the weight of responsibility on his chest, a forceful presence he’d felt in the past but always ignored on principle.  Too long it would seem that he’d denied fate, as it had finally come round to collect its due from him.

Most people would have expected to get bitch-slapped by a thing such as fate, but the situation he found himself in was one that felt more akin to a continual barrage of slaps, kicks, punches, and even a few cup-checks that he’d failed miserably.  In short, life was at the current moment, and in the same day, kicking the ever-living hell out of him aside from when he was doing something right. Then it felt almost right, complete in a way that he’d not felt in much too long.

Inhaling through his nose he listened patiently to the announcers on the radio as they debated over the virtues of “Wild Thing” a song that Larry had once enjoyed in his youth, but now felt was a bit over the top for an early morning wakeup call.  The title alone seemed to imply a youthful, carefree existence that was years behind him, but still he was a creature of habit and could not help but listen as he rolled out of bed, grimacing at the cold feel of the hardwood floor beneath his feet.  He’d asked the elderly couple that ran the inn if they could muster up an area rug or two for the chill flooring, but they’d replied, with smiles no less, that they offered complimentary slippers that were quite cozy.  What the hell kind of place did that sort of thing anymore? Had any place ever done anything so crazy?

At first he’d thought of course a place such as this would offer such a service, nestled into

the wilderness and cut off from the world that existed just around it as it was. Kalama wasn’t so

isolated that it was considered BFE, but it was definitely far enough away from a decent

restaurant or bar that Larry had felt like reaming his agent for bothering to book him in this go-

nowhere town.  Mike had assured him however that thanks to the convention taking place just

down the road in Longview that hotels were hard to find for even the most noteworthy authors and minor celebrities.  When he’d asked why he wasn’t being afforded a better room Mike had told him that he needed to sell a few more books before he reached first-priority status.  Larry had almost launched his cell phone towards the nearby highway at that remark.

Rising to his feet he winced at the cold chill of the floor, wanting only to jump back into bed and forget that this day had ever happened. He’d done that too, only to realize that the days would keep rolling on. Plus, the innkeepers would eventually begin to knock on his door wondering if everything was okay.  They were kind old folks, but also a little nosy.

The radio announcers went on with their morning spiel as he slowly, methodically shuffled his way to the bathroom, seeking relief and then the ice cold shower he knew was coming.  If this was hell it was damned cold, and nothing seemed poised to ever warm up.  There had been a moment though, with his publicist’s assistant that he could….

No, nope, nada, she tolerated him, thought his work was good enough to read, but that was it.  She was moderately attractive and seemed like a lot of fun in theory, but their personalities were just too different, too….

But why not?

Only a few moments later the cold shower he endured took all such thoughts away for a while.

*                      *                      *

 

7:23 am

 

“Here, it gets a little gummy when it gets too cold.”

Larry pushed his hot, almost steaming plate of biscuits and gravy over to the old woman, nodding as she smiled at him in such a way that his heart clenched.  He was doing his absolute best to not look as though he pitied her in any way, he’d learned that lesson some time ago when Sadie had clocked him hard enough to leave a well-defined bruise under his jaw.  She didn’t take kindly to pity or to condescension as she’d explained not long after.  Thankfully she had at least apologized for almost breaking his jaw, but it had been a valued lesson.

Instead of saying anything however Sadie just smiled and tucked into the meal once again, wiping at her lips now and again as he could see the absolute contentment in her eyes.  As a waitress, her name was Amelia, came by with their next order, a heaping plate of pancakes, sausages, and scrambled eggs, Larry made room for the new plates by picking up the old ones, handing them to Amelia with a smile and a “thank you” that the young woman graciously returned.  This at least was a good part of the day.

“Larry? What’s going on?”

Sadie looked as though she might bolt in the next second suddenly as the voice, known to

Larry, came from behind him.  Indicating that it was okay, that she could and should go on with

her meal, Larry turned around to see as Jordan, his publicist’s assistant and the poor woman

who’d been assigned to accompany him to this convention, came walking up in her usual, self-

assured manner.  She was stunning was his first thought despite the fact that she wore the same winter clothing that hid away her enticing curves and womanly figure. She looked a bit confused was his next thought.  Of course she was always confused when she found him here, at least at the onset.

“Hi there. Oh nothing really, just sitting down to a meal with my good friend Sadie here.”

Jordan stood at the end of the table looking down at Larry as she always did, one eyebrow cocked and the other frowning in that usual “I don’t believe your bullshit” look.  He’d tried to woo her more than once since they’d been here, and each and every time it had ended badly. The last series of mishaps had left his cheeks stinging for weeks if he had to be honest, as he had tried too hard, not hard enough, and had made a general ass of himself trying to impress a woman nearly seven years younger than him and more likely to fall in love with a man her age rather than over the hill author who’d hit a slump.  But there was something about her, some quality he couldn’t deny that kept him going, despite the heartache that had been borne on an unending tidal wave of meaningless, uninspired days that continued to roll on.

“Did you want to join us?” Larry asked.

Jordan paused, as did Sadie, each one of them looking at him in expectation, and in Jordan’s case, mild interest.

Which, as usual, she shook off by saying, “Um, not right now thank you, but I did get hold of” Mike, she was going to say Mike, “Mike, and he told me that we need to be in Tacoma by tonight for another signing. He’s” –going to see if we can schedule at the nearest Barnes and Noble, Larry thought, and sure enough she repeated it verbatim as he’d heard for so many different times. Sometimes the words were laced with contempt, other times they came with long-suffering patience, but as of late they’d been slightly more upbeat and even curious, as though she was attempting to figure him out and was quite intrigued by his sudden turnaround.

Larry shook his head, certain of what he was going to say and already certain of her answer, and of Sadie’s. The only thing he wasn’t certain of was where the other, he called himself Ryder, with “y”, was at that moment.  Among the entire town the man was the only feature that wouldn’t sit still, and could not be understood as the others were. For some reason that frightened Larry just a little, but he couldn’t say why.

“I would love to head to Tacoma, it’s always a good turnout. But the storm that’s coming is going to close down the roads soon.  I’d rather not get stuck in the middle.”

Jordan frowned, “But it’s not supposed to hit until tomorrow, and we can be there tonight.”

Larry sighed, “Trust me, it’s going to hit a lot sooner.”

It wasn’t all that often that I-5 was closed for anything other than construction, and even

then it was usually reduced to one or two lanes.  A complete closure was a disaster for those who

had to travel back and forth along the widely used highway, as the long ways around were truly

inconvenient and involved traversing miles and miles of back roads that were not as well mapped

and hardly ever as capable as I-5 was of conveying people to their desired destinations.  In short,

the closing of I-5, the absolute and total cessation of all traffic, would take an act of God or

something akin to what he was living through now.

“Are you keyed into a database I don’t know about?”

He always wanted to laugh when she asked this, but had learned better through many, many interactions.  Instead he just smiled, “One more day spent in Kalama won’t hurt us.”

To that she actually smiled, and he felt his heart warm as he always did when she favored him with such a gesture. Good God, why had it taken so long?

*                      *                      *

 

10:35 am

 

“So are you here to torment me?”

The newspaper in Ryder’s hands rustled as the man straightened a page, his eyes never leaving the print that had never changed a single day since the two of them had been here. Or at least since Larry had been here.

“I told you before Larry. I’m here to babysit and make sure you find your way to the right path, nothing more.”

“And to ferry old, homeless women from life to death.”

“I’ve no idea what you mean.”

“No,” Larry grinned fiercely, “Of course you don’t.”

The two men didn’t talk for several minutes after that, but it was a welcome silence. There weren’t many people out and about today thanks to the wind chill that could touch a person even through several heavy, insulated layers, but still here the two of them sat.  He was expecting Jordan to come walking by in precisely five minutes, but only because this was where he’d met her more than once. Ryder had never been here though, and it made him curious.

“Are you going to be here when she comes by?”

“Nope,” Ryder replied, “Because she’s already on her way.”

Larry looked up at him as the man began to walk off, “Well hell, sit and stay awhile, let her get to know you like I have.  Oh yes Jordan this is my friendly neighborhood stalker, please, get to know him and by the way, do you realize this is the thousandth time you won’t remember talking to me on this corner?”

It felt dangerous to talk like this, as though his mind was trying to unravel and the only thing holding it together was his selfish sense of self-preservation. Somehow though it still felt justified.  As Ryder stopped and turned to look at him in a kind of irritated, almost fatherly manner, Larry grinned again, the gesture carrying no warmth and only the mild contempt he felt for the figure.

“Just go on and be quick about your business Larry,” Ryder said as he folded his newspaper, “I’m getting bored watching you every day.”

With that the other man turned on his heel and left, leaving Larry staring after him with a

diminished grin and a very strong sense of foreboding. Where was Ryder watching him from?

He supposed it made sense, but it was also damned creepy.  Before he could continue thinking

about that however he heard his name spoken again, and could not deny the pleasure that it brought him.

*                      *                      *

 

4:56 pm

 

“Are you seriously not going to try this time?”

“Would it make any difference?”

Both men watched the old woman stumble and stagger her way along the dead-end alley, her heart giving out with each step as she struggled for every breath.

“No, it wouldn’t,” Ryder admitted, “But I’ll admit that you did her a kindness.”

“Now, or this morning?”

Ryder didn’t respond for a moment, and that was all it took for Sadie, the old woman that Larry might have never known until this day, this never-ending, continual nightmare of a day, to drift away completely, collapsing upon the ice-coated ground just outside the local supermarket.  It was as ignominious end as anyone could ask for, and less than he figured Sadie deserved.

“Both,” Ryder said as he started walking forward, to presumably take care of Sadie in his own way Larry thought. He had so many questions he wanted to ask, both mundane and more existential. Being an author he knew any number of questions might go unanswered or even worse, be assigned an ambiguous reply that couldn’t be defined in easy, simplistic terms.  He wrote stories that went like this, he’d never once imagined that he might be living in one.

“Do you know where she’s going?”

Ryder stopped for a moment, turning around to regard Larry in an almost solemn manner as he took his time to reply.

“Does it matter?”

Larry thought for only a moment before replying, “It might.”

The other took a breath before speaking again, “Why?”

“Why not?”

“Do us both a favor Larry, handle your business and be done with it.  I want to move on, and so do you.”

The two men looked at one another, one with irritation slowly staining his features and the other with dawning realization.  Larry couldn’t imagine what life might be like after all this, but he could at least think it might make a great deal more sense.

“Any ideas on how to go about that?”

“Nope,” Ryder said, though Larry doubted this, “I’m your watcher, not your damned guide.”

Something about the way Ryder said that gave Larry chills, but then it always did when the other man was so cryptic.  No matter how long he’d been here he just couldn’t get used to that.

*                      *                      *

8:23 pm

 

Nothing he did was enough. It wasn’t even close, no matter how much progress he believed he was making. And he couldn’t get her to understand, no matter how much he tried to wrap his head around it.  He was an author goddammit, he needed to put the words out and he needed to make her understand. But he couldn’t force another person to believe.

How did you just tell someone you were living the same day over and over, that you predict their movements down to the smallest facial tic, and could tell them everything about themselves because you’d listened so many times?  She would think he was a nut, that was it, plain and simple, but he kept finding that he was tempted to try.  The brown bottle of faintly watered down ale in front of him had remained mute on the subject at hand, though he hadn’t expected much from it aside from the slight numbing sensation that it and several of its brethren had bestowed upon him so many nights.  One night he’d had a few too many brown bottles and been kicked to the curb, literally in fact.  That night he’d passed away from alcohol poisoning, only to wake up in his quaint little room in the same hotel he’d been placed in before the snowstorm had come along.

That had been damned painful he’d discovered.

“I’ve come to a couple of conclusions about you,” said a voice off to his right, a very unwelcome voice at that moment.

Larry didn’t even speak, just snorting as Ryder sat next to him, ordering his own brown bottle of beer as he adjusted his seating.  If he took offense from the rude noise that had just been sent his way he hid it well.

“You’re a pussy, plain and simple.”

Larry felt like punching him just then, but he was all but certain that he’d simply fall off of his stool just then. The bartender, a big, surly man named Gil, just shook his head and walked off, obviously wanting no part of this conversation.  That was okay, he walked away from a lot. The big man wasn’t much in the way of breaking up little domestic spats, only head-knocking, ball busting, skull-breaking fights that would smash up his joint.  Larry could respect that.

“You’ve had all this time to figure out what to do, how to do it, and make amends, but you’ve never once thought of anything other than doing just exactly what you’ve wanted to do.”

“Did you rehearse this little speech?” Larry asked, “Should I be paying attention?”

Ryder took a swig of his drink before replying, “Nope. If nothing has sunk in by this time I’m almost certain that I’ll be extended far beyond what I was hoping on this particular assignment.”

“Who are you anyway?” Larry asked, narrowing his eyes at Ryder as he leaned closer, “Huh? Are you the angel of death? Are you a pain designed just to fit on my ass?  Or are you just some crazy bastard that got stuck here with me?  I mean I really want to know now, considering that you just pop up wherever and whenever you want.”

Ryder took another drink, paused, and then took another before setting his beer down

gently on the bar, turning to look fully at Larry as the other man pulled away, not liking what he

saw in the man’s eyes just then. If he hadn’t been already into his cups, as his father would have said, he would have sworn that Ryder’s eyes had turned just a faint shade of black at that moment, the darkness eclipsing his eyes entirely for just a split second. But that could have been a trick of the shadows as well.

“I am a man who is growing bored, and in that case you should be very frightened.  People like me that get bored are bound to do something eventually that wouldn’t end well for any of us.”

“Take it easy down there boys,” Gil said, eyeing them carefully as he then went back to his own discussion. That gave Larry pause, as Gil had never to date said much of anything to him, not even when he got truly shit-faced and had had to be rolled to the curb. If anything Gil treated him with a quiet kind of neglect, as would a long-suffering parent who’d grown tired of reacting to an ignorant and arrogant child.  The mere fact that Gil had spoken sent a chill down his spine for more than just that reason however.

“So then tell me o’ wise one,” Larry said, attempting to regain his composure, “ What am I supposed to do?”

At that Ryder laughed, shaking his head as he took another swig.

“If I was allowed to tell you that I still wouldn’t,” the man said.

“Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?” Larry said, raising a single eyebrow.

Ryder looked at him then, really looked at him, and in those dark eyes Larry saw something that made him believe that Ryder’s claim of ambiguous danger wasn’t just a boast, it was real.  In fact it almost made him want to run out of the bar and start doing good things right that second. But the last bit of nerve he still had made it possible for him to stay.

“You’re not a bad man Larry, not a good one, but not the worst I’ve ever seen.  But I am growing bored with this constant bullshit you seem to call your life.”

Larry took a drink, contemplating telling Ryder where he could stick his boredom, but the truth of it was, the man was right. It was a hard pill to swallow, but Ryder was correct in his assessment.  It was time to change, and to do that he needed to want it.  At that moment he could only think of one thing, one person, that he wanted, and that alone spurred him to look at Ryder, who had already presented his bottle for a cheers it would seem.

As their bottles clanked together, Larry spoke, “You’re an asshole.”

Ryder nodded, “And you’re a prick.”

With that they drank in silence, and it was surprisingly the best time Larry had had in the past few days.

*                      *                      *

 

4:45 am

 

Tomorrow, or today he supposed, was going to be a long, rough day thanks to his current

plan, but it would have to work. He had to memorize everything he planned to do, everything he

needed to do, and would have to on target with every last bit of it.  But he was hoping against

hope that it would not only make his life make sense again, but that it would remind him of what life had once been about.  If he couldn’t have his freedom from this day, then he would at least have those moments to enjoy for eternity.

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Lack of Space

Lack of Space

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Saturday

 

            There was nothing to do.  This was the continuing problem of the young man who now lay upon the top bunk of cell number G-2, pod G-4.  He’d tried counting off the passing seconds in his mind only to find out that such a mind-numbing attempt to pass the time led to little more than a tension headache.  Thinking of what he would do once he got out didn’t help either, since for all he knew it might be some time before that happened.  Talking to his cellmates was an off and on prospect.  When it did happen it was pleasant enough, the three of them found enough subjects to speak of and often shared a good laugh.

            Of course, they had been in this institution far longer than he had and knew many more of the inmates.  He didn’t have the charismatic personality or even the desire to get to know the others, so here he was.  At least he wasn’t in E pod, the trustee that had been in the holding cell had tried to get him to erase the graffiti that former inmates had scrawled across the walls and bunks.  He’d scoffed at the other man’s attempt to act authoritative and simply tell him what to do.  The man was an inmate as well, though with the special privileges that came with being a trustee.  He had no idea what it took to gain such a position, nor would he be interested in learning.

            “Hey man, you read much?”  Looking up from where he lay, Colin Simmons saw as one of his inmates entered the cell.  The short, bald man was a Latino, dark-skinned and dark-haired.  The only hair he had on his face however was the bushy black beard and thin moustache that adorned his face.  His name was Enrique, though he had told Colin to simply call him Ric.  For the past day and half that he, Ric and another man named Marcus had shared a cell the two men had made Colin feel quite comfortable.  For the first half day he’d done nothing but sleep to wear off the terrible hangover that had resulted from a night spent drinking far too much.

            This was his first and hopefully last time in county jail, courtesy of three warrants for possibly one of the dumbest reasons, in his mind anyway.  For the past year Colin had been avoiding the problem of which he could have easily been rid of.  His driver’s license had been suspended for some time before he’d finally been hauled in, though why it had become suspended in the first place he couldn’t remember.  Whatever the case, here he was, all because he’d been dumb enough to drive his father’s work van in a neighborhood that was routinely patrolled by cops.  He’d been fully intent on leaving his friend at the house they’d ended up at after a night at the bar, having though that he had a good chance of getting laid if he were to leave as soon as his friend was dropped off. 

            The women had ducked out on him however, leaving Colin frustrated and heading back towards the house where his friend was already engaged in late night activities with the roommate of their shared friend who owned the house.  Colin hadn’t even made it to the door of the house, forgetting in his drunken stupor just which house it was.  The neighborhood looked quite different at night and without a sober view.

            He’d been heading back to his van when the police car had pulled up, lights flashing slowly as two uniformed officers had stepped out.  Never having been one to do anything but what he was told Colin had quietly done as they asked, sitting upon the curb

that ran the length of the street as the officers had asked him their questions.  Colin had answered honestly, though his guts had been churning madly the entire time, making him think that he might well have crapped in his pants had he not been scared that he would be hauled in on a drunk charge. 

            The two men had to have known that he was three sheets to the wind.  Colin was good at hiding many of the telltale signs of being drunk, though there were still others that he couldn’t quite control, such as his breath.  His dilated pupils were a good tip off as well when one of the officers had shined a light into his eyes.  After informing him that he had warrants out they had cuffed him and seated him in the back of their car, which had been quite comfortable even with his hands bound.  Colin had gone quietly after informing them that yes there was someone they could call to pick up the van, and that no, he did not have any weapons on his person.

            He almost felt like a fool for trying to give them the name of an old coworker when they’d asked him for identification. His license hadn’t been in his pocket at that time and he hadn’t wanted to get popped for driving without it, again. When they had checked the name he’d given them the lead cop, a nice guy who’d spoken to him with at least some respect, had decided to give him a second chance.  Most cops would have told him to roll over on his stomach before slapping the cuffs on. 

            The ride to the station house in downtown Vancouver had been reasonably comfortable, the cop had even struck up a conversation with him to ease the tension, or maybe he’d just been bored. Whatever the case he’d obviously believed that Colin wasn’t a threat, as he’d spoken to him almost as if they were buddies.  But the truth of the ride had presented itself soon enough and he’d been taken out of the back of the car and escorted to booking, where he’d given over everything in his pockets, took the few silver rings he wore, aside from the one over his right index finger. That one had been on there for so long he’d given up on trying to get it off.

            An old accident had school had left a large lump of scar tissue along the inside of the finger, preventing him from taking off the ring without dislocating his finger. He’d tried it once and the pain hadn’t been pleasant.  To make matters more embarrassing though one of the cops on hand had attempted to get the ring off with soap, then baby oil, and had in effect stroked his finger until finally giving up.  It had made him glad that his friends hadn’t been around to see it.

            After that he’d been allowed to visit the bathroom, with the door open, so he could change into his blue, ill-fitting jail clothes and rubber sandals.  His stomachs had been doing a strange mixtures of acrobatics and flip flops in his body just then, and he’d been almost certain he was going to puke. When the cops had called for him to come out though he’d sucked it up and gone on his way. 

            The next step had been fingerprinting and photographing, placing him in the system he’d tried so hard to stay out of since he’d turned eighteen.  His mug shot had made him look like a hardened killer, but really he’d felt all but certain that some guy inside would be trying him by the end of the night.  His buzz had been all but gone at that point, the sick feeling was all that was left. It wasn’t helped by the fact that after the processing he’d been given a brown paper sack lunch and tossed into a drunk tank what

was filled wall to wall with snoring, farting, and generally unwashed men.

            It had taken every bit of balance he still possessed to make his way between the outstretched mats without stepping on or tripping over someone.  The one spot available at the back of the room had seemed to glare at him with its white tile and badly scarred walls as if to say “You expected the Hilton?” Heaving a quiet sigh he’d taken his place, which, it turned out, was directly in front of the only toilet in the room.  Colin had taken only a cursory look at his bag lunch before deciding that the milk was the only thing that might not send his stomach into violent spasms at that second.  Drinking it down he’d put the other stuff away, rolling over to just drift off.

            He couldn’t have been down for more than a few minutes when the last sounds he’d wanted to hear reached his ears.  Opening one eye he’d seen a grizzled old man squatting on the pot, his nearly-toothless mouth open as he grunted and strained, attempting to pass what must have eventually been the world’s most painful shit. When he was done he just got up, made a cursory wipe of his ass, and moved off. The old bastard hadn’t even bothered to flush, and worse than that, the odor of the turd he’d battled to pass had decided to make an entrance not too long after.

            If someone had flushed it Colin wasn’t aware later on, because after that little episode he’d placed his hand over his mouth and nose and huffed on the faded smell of latex pain that hadn’t been completely scrubbed from his hands after a long day’s work. All he knew was that when his name was called to get placed in a pod he was more grateful to be up and moving than he would have anticipated.  He was on his feet and grabbing his pad, sheet, and towel before the officer had finished reciting his name, ready and willing to move to a different room where hopefully his fellow inmates wouldn’t be so crude as to leave evidence of their nightly forays to the porcelain god.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            All that shit had happened on Friday night.  Had it happened on a Thursday he probably would have been out by yesterday. But the weekend eliminated any chance of seeing a judge until Monday.  He’d asked several officers if his case would include further jail time, but none of them had been able to give him a straight answer. Some judges could be stern, others just wanted to hear that you’d messed up and would never do it again.  According to his cell mates, at least the one who’d already gotten out of this shithole, cases such as his were kind of a waste of time to most judges, as the orange shirts, the felons, were often those that were looked at under a microscope.

            It didn’t make him feel much better, but it was something. Some people might have told him to not take a con’s word for such things, but right now Colin felt more confident in accepting the word of a fellow criminal than the cops that obviously didn’t give a shit.  He knew at this point that keeping his mouth shut and his head down were what had served him well.  Colin was big enough that a lot of guys didn’t see him as an easy mark, and by keeping to himself he was able to keep from mouthing off and challenging the wrong person.  He’d already seen how that went earlier this morning.

            Some jerkoff whose name he didn’t even know had been in the process of jaw-jacking another inmate since just after breakfast. What the argument had been over no one knew, and no one really cared.  In jail, as he’d learned thus far, it was more important to mind your own business and not know everything, or learn how to know anything within the first few minutes.  He wasn’t the type that liked to butt into anyone else’s business, and had so far kept it that way.  If the little guy that had caused the ruckus had had his way though, Colin would likely be on the hot seat by now.

            He’d been minding his business not long after breakfast, which had been served on a plastic blue lunch tray and had consisted of a hardboiled egg, a small package of cereal, a sugar packet, and a small carton of milk.  They were given plastic spoons as well, but eating cereal out of the shallow basin of the tray had seemed like a bad joke.  Colin had eaten his dry and then drank the milk, but had given away his egg to one of his cellmates when they’d asked.  Ric had asked him if he wanted anything in return, but Colin had just shook his head. At the very least Ric had said he would get him back.

            It could have been only about ten minutes after their breakfast trays had been taken, as the next episode of COPS had been playing on the single television suspended above the common area.  Why the inmates seemed to like that show so much baffled him, but he’d said nothing about it.  His attention had been on the piece of paper he’d been writing on for the past few minutes, a concession from Ric for giving him his egg at breakfast.  Ric had also lent him a pencil after discovering that he was an aspiring writer, claiming that it was cool to meet someone who knew how to spin a good tale.  Colin hadn’t had the heart to tell him that he’d never sold anything in his life, that it was just hobby.

            At any rate, the mood in the common room had been fairly calm until the instigator of the scuffle to come had started talking shit to the guy who would almost kill him only a few minutes later.  Colin had listened with only half an ear as the black-haired punk, a tiny guy really with hardly any weight to him, had all but spit on the guy he’d had an issue with.  After looking at the black-haired guy Colin had figured that most of the guys in the pod could have picked him up and snapped him like a toothpick, but then little guys almost always had big mouths.

            So the shit-talking had gone on until it had finally come down to the other guy, a taller, blond-haired man with a definite anger problem, had invited the black-haired dude to settle this matter in his cell. Like a fool the instigator had gone up, thinking perhaps to sucker punch the other guy and end it quickly.  Unfortunately that was not how it had happened.  Colin had kept his seat, as had had Ric, when half of the pod had gone racing up to the next level to watch the fight, only a few of them offering words of caution as to how their hurried movements would attract the notice of the guards. 

            The loud smack of bone on flesh could be heard from one of the cells upstairs, and Colin had looked up just long enough to see the little black-haired guy come flying out of the cell, backpedaling so fast that he hit the upper railing with full force. He almost went over right then, but had just barely managed to catch himself by wedging his ankle painfully in between the bars.  Colin had gone back to his writing, thinking it likely that no one would have tried to catch the guy if he’d actually fallen. 

            After that black-hair had gone around trying to talk to the others in the pod, attempting to make friends and allies so as to get back at the other guy.  He’d met with failure and outright hostility for the most part, and had come to Colin almost last among them all.  When he’d come close Colin had held up his hand, palm outward, and simply said “No.”

            The punk had actually seemed to take offense from this, the bright red mark between his mouth and nose seeming to glare at Colin as the punk had dared to sit down at the same table. Ric had even attempted to get him to leave by stating that they were busy, at which point he’d invited Colin and another guy at the table to join in a friendly game of poker.  Ric had been playing Solitaire up to that point, but had made a quick decision when he’d seen that the black-haired punk hadn’t been ready to go away.  When black-hair had decided to tell Ric to deal him in, Ric had told him to take a walk.  That hadn’t gone over well.

            Ric had watched him go, grinning to himself as he’d shaken his head. He wasn’t afraid for his safety, not in a place like this.  In county it was hard to get away with anything. There were guards everywhere, and their response time was amazing as he’d already seen. The first night he’d been there, Colin had been forced to get up and vacate his bunk, which hadn’t been too hard since he’d been sleeping on the floor.  Staying awake at the table in the common room had been the hardest part as the guards had tossed the cells, searching for contraband and materials that weren’t allowed. 

            They’d found a few things, but nothing in Colin’s shared cell.  Everything inside had been purchased by his cell mates from commissary and was approved. How they used it to their benefit though was kind of odd. 

            Anyway, black hair had ceased to be even a passing issue after that. Ric had been elated all that day as he’d told Colin and their other cellmate, a lanky, curly-haired kid named Lenny that he was getting out for work release.  Work release in Clark County was the working man’s jail, as some called it. You got better meals, more time out of your cell, and got to go outside to work.  It wasn’t spending your time cramped and stuffed into a cell that was in truth no better than a broom closet. 

            In fact Ric had gotten out just before lights out, which wasn’t usual, but had to have been nice.  He couldn’t wait to get out of this place, but he had one more full day to go. The rest of Saturday had been largely uneventful, but of course jail wasn’t meant to be like summer camp.  The accommodations and the food weren’t much different though. 

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            When the lights came on in the pod they came on throughout the entire space. Common room, cells, everything came on at once.  It was hard to remain asleep once the lights came on, but impossible when the guards suddenly told you to vacate your bunks and get your ass into the common area.  But it was considered a bad idea to cross the guards, and so Colin and Lenny, who was supposedly being extradited back to Las Vegas in the morning, were on their feet and in the common area in the next two minutes, bleary-eyed and unable to fully process why they and the rest of their pod were staring at what looked like two pods worth of inmates.

            The guards quickly explained the situation. The two neighboring pods had been contaminated by an unknown gas leak and had been deemed unsafe after one inmate had almost choked to death due to the fumes and another had fallen over in their cell and struck his head on the metal toilet.  None of it was processing all that well, but when the bottom line came both Lenny and Colin had to look at one another and shake their heads.

            Until the leak, which had been somehow stopped just before it hit their pod, could be fixed, all three pods would be staying in this one space.

            Bunk assignments had already begun by the time they were allowed back to their cells, and it wasn’t long before Lenny and Colin had not one, not two, but four new bunkmates.  Two of them were white, two were black, and all four of them were in a bad, bordering on confrontational mood.  One of them, a young black man who seemed incensed that he was being made to lie on the floor, tried to reason with Colin to give him the top bunk, only to be told that it wouldn’t be happening. When reason didn’t work, he tried to tell Colin why it would be best to just give him what he wanted. When Colin still didn’t give in the guy tried intimidation by standing at the side of Colin’s bunk and staring at him. When that didn’t work he tried to get physical, only to be reminded quickly and without any further violence that he was a visitor here, no matter if he’d been in longer than anyone like he claimed.

            He didn’t like hearing that, but then he also didn’t like the position of Colin’s foot only a foot or more from his nose. The addition of finding out that Lenny had been ready to mash his balls into jelly hadn’t helped him any. With a half-hearted promise to pick this matter up later the young man had gone back to his own pad, still grumbling under his breath right up until he’d fallen fast asleep. That had been the end of their confrontation, at least until morning.

            Breakfast came early in county, and without any more fanfare than the clattering of plastic trays and the grumbling of inmates as they shuffled forward upon hearing their name called. Colin had still been attempting to open his eyes fully when the young man from the night before had approached him, claiming that if he wasn’t going to get the top bunk then Colin should at least give him his morning sugar and cereal packets. Lenny had gone so far to laugh at him, but Colin hadn’t bothered looking at him as he’d spoken, acting with such disrespect that it hadn’t gone unnoticed. 

            He’d heard enough about county from friends that, in their infinite lack of wisdom, had made frequent trips to this place.  One of them was even proud of the fact that he knew the prison by memory.  What he had said to the young man was tantamount to spitting in his face, and he knew that even on the outside you didn’t act this way towards anyone without expecting repercussions.  Thankfully he’d never been a racist, a bigot, or even had an issue with race, religion, or any other difference that separated people. All he had a problem with was rudeness, and his own words had unfortunately made him a hypocrite in that moment when he’d told the young man that he could have his breakfast when he was done with it. 

            Translation: eat shit.

            A surprising number of inmates that had heard this had understood it. In this type of place he could believe that the inmates had heard damned near everything and weren’t easily surprised.  The level of disrespect he showed the younger man though was easily translatable as arrogance, and he almost paid for it later on. 

            Breakfast had been over, Lenny had been out in the common area doing something, and Colin had been in his cell reading one of the few books that his cell mates had offered when they found out he was an avid reader.  In the short time he’d been here he’d already gone through half of their sad little library, reading a Christian romance novel, an obscure fantasy book from the 80’s, and the majority of a spiritual guide written by a man who identified as a born again snake-handler.  He’d almost rolled his eyes trying to think what other titles might have been donated to the county library, if there was one.

            He was reading an older Tom Clancy novel when the young man he’d told to eat shit had come into the cell, his eyes never once leaving him as Colin had finally felt the need to acknowledge his presence. At that point he’d also seen one of the young man’s friends leaning against the entrance to their cell, positioned just so that the guards outside the pod couldn’t easily see into the space.  Colin had rolled his eyes this time, having known that this kind of thing would be coming.

            “Think twice,” he’d told the younger man without getting up.  He wasn’t about to show fear to this punk.  He didn’t need trouble in here, he just needed to get out the following day and all would be right. Well, he’d be out at least, and then he could get to work on making everything right.

            “You dissed me in front of my boys homey,” the young man said, his fists balling as he was preparing himself for action. “You don’t ever diss a guy like me.”

            “Why’s that?” Colin replied, “You gonna tell on me?”  He was pushing it, but he wasn’t about to back down to anyone, not now and especially not in here. If he got roughed up for being rude that was one thing, but he wasn’t about to kowtow to some ignorant, blue-shirt-wearing bitch that thought he was hot shit because he’d been in this place so long.

            “Get yo’ ass off that bed or I’m gonna pull it off,” the young man said, “I’m gonna kick your ass bitch.”

            “That’s all you’ve got?” Colin asked with a smirk, “You’ve had all morning to come up with something terrifying and all you can think of is ‘I’m gonna kick your ass bitch’?  My ten-year old niece could have done better than that.”

            “Motherfucka get yo’ ass down!” the young man insisted, not raising his voice as he looked quickly to the door, making certain that the guards  hadn’t noticed the exchange.  Colin wasn’t normally a violent person, but even he understood the difference between being the outsider and being the bitch when it came to county. He was for damn sure not going to be the bitch, not even for a single day.

            He rolled over quickly, reaching out with both hands as he allowed the Tom Clancy novel to go sliding to the floor with a dull fluttering of pages.  The young man didn’t know what the hell was happening as Colin wrapped both hands behind his neck and pulled forward, yanking himself off the bunk soon after. The resulting sound of flesh hitting metal was louder than he would have liked, but by the time the young man’s head had rebounded from the steel Colin was already off the bed and making it look as though he’d been trying to catch the younger man.

            The move shouldn’t have worked as well as it had, but he couldn’t deny the usefulness of it as the young man’s eyes rolled up in his skull, his body going limp as he began to fall.  Colin was there in the next instant to catch him before he hit the mat-covered ground. He might not have hurt himself, but there was always a chance he might have hit his head on the bottom bunk and made things worse.

            Instead Colin managed to catch him and lower his inert body to his own bunk without any further damage. His friend though was converging on him quickly. 

            “Do you want to fall down too?” he asked the friend, who was a rather hulking specimen that could probably turn Colin inside out.

            “Huh?” the man asked, clearly not understanding. His attacker hadn’t opted for the intelligence factor in his backup.

            “He tripped and fell,” Colin said, putting a small measure of steel into his voice.  “If the guards ask that’s what I’ll be saying happened.  So did you want to get all medieval right here and now or did you want to just fuck off?”

            “He’s gonna fuckin’ kill you white boy,” the big man said, “You just made him look the fool.” 

            “In front of a whole pod where no one saw shit,” Colin retorted, looking pointedly up at the big man, “except you, and me.”

            He let the unspoken threat hang out there for a moment, savoring the uncertain look on the big guy’s face as he tried to decide just what to do.  It was like watching a dim-witted bear trying to add two and two together.

            “You don’t talk, neither will I,” Colin said as laid the young man down before straightening up, “And I won’t need to tell the guards what was about to happen here.”

            “Snitches get stitches man,” mumbled the big man.

            “So do bitches,” Colin almost growled, “Remember that.”

            The big man walked off slowly, not speaking but obviously not willing to forget this. Colin felt his heartbeat accelerating just a bit, he’d done something a little rash, but he’d had justification for it. It wouldn’t matter to the guards, he knew that much. They would likely bring this news to the judge he was supposed to be seeing tomorrow if they found out.

            Just as he was about to get back on his bunk Colin noted Lenny coming in the door, whistling to himself as he looked at Colin and nodded.

            “Pretty boy taking a nap?” Lenny asked, indicating the unconscious form of their roommate at his feet, “I don’t know if I’d be standing so close to him right now man. He might wake up and think you’re trying to mount him.”

            Lenny had a good chuckle at that, and Colin tried to join in, but he was more interested in climbing atop his bunk and getting back to his book.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            The rest of the day was uneventful.  He played some poker, borrowed a pack of cards to play Solitaire, wrote a little more, read some more, and even laid down to just stare at the ceiling for a short time. The punk had finally woken up with one hell of a bruise on his forehead and no idea how he’d gotten it.  When asked about it Colin had stated he knew nothing about it. Teezy, the name that others knew the young man by, had professed that he’d been talking to Colin and then felt a sharp pain in his head before passing out.

            When a few guys had asked him why he didn’t report that one of his roommates had passed out Colin had replied that he hadn’t been aware of it. He’d turned over to read, ignoring Teezy, and when he’d turned back he’d been gone.  It was a bullshit story to be sure, and no one was really buying it, but Teezy and his big friend weren’t saying anything to contradict it, so Colin knew that one of two things was bound to happen. They would move forward from this without further issues, or he would in for a long night.

            Teezy and his big buddy wouldn’t even look at him the rest of the day, preferring to be on the other side of the pod when Colin decided to come out of his cell.  He was under no illusions that they were afraid of him, but they didn’t want to risk the interference of the guards.  They wanted to get him when he wasn’t on his guard, and when they could proceed without anyone butting in.  In the pod that would be difficult, but he wouldn’t put it past the two of them to find a way to make it possible.

            As it turned out he only had to wait for lights out.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            All the prison stories ever told, all the movies ever made, were a bunch of bullshit so far as he was concerned at the moment.  True, he was in county, which was different, but he’d heard so many tales about this place and what happened that he’d been scared shitless upon being caught.  But now that he was here he couldn’t imagine why he’d ever been scared.  This place was boring, that was about the worst thing aside from the food. Colin understood it wasn’t supposed to be like a stay at a luxury hotel, but sitting around reading outdated books, begging and borrowing what materials you could just to entertain yourself, and staring at the walls got very, very boring with a quickness he’d not expected.  There was no paranoia or feelings of claustrophobia for him, but then again he’d not been here that long.  He imagined that if he was here for a month or more he might feel differently.  That wasn’t going to happen so long as he could avoid it though. He was supposed to be getting out tomorrow after his arraignment hearing, and would be a free man again.

            Maybe that was why Teezy had planned his little parting gift the way he had.  For all the stories and myths that were told about jail, some were too real. Teezy didn’t manage to create a shiv or a shank during the day, but he had managed to visit the commissary where he had an account it would seem.  What he’d purchased had seemed innocuous enough, a small bar of soap, a few sugary snacks, and a bag of chips.  Unfortunately the soap hadn’t been part of his normal purchase, though he hadn’t known this.

            Lights out had come without any trouble, as the inmates had all retired to their bunks without fail.  Upon entering his shared cell though Colin had accidentally shifted Teezy’s mat before he’d reached it, which had almost caused a scene.  The fact that the guards had still been in the pod had kept the other man from shouting at him though. Instead Teezy had given him a look that Colin knew all too well. It meant “Your ass is mine.”

            He hadn’t said anything, just climbed into his bunk and ran over his few options as he let the thought of what he’d seen run through his mind.  The bar of soap had been wrapped tightly in Teezy’s pillowcase, creating a simple but painful weapon that could cause at least some harm and possibly humiliation if he managed to hit Colin just right.  He wasn’t going to depend on Lenny again, or their other cellmates if Teezy decided to attack. This time he needed to end it.

            Thankfully Teezy wasn’t the patient type.  Colin was lying on his back just waiting when he saw the young black man stand up, brandishing his homemade weapon as he spoke in a harsh whisper.

            “I want that top bunk bitch!”

            He swung the pillowcase as he spoke the last few words, but had not realized that Colin was still awake.  It took just a split second to reach up and grab the descending pillowcase, the bar of soap standing out in stark relief as he watched it aiming towards his face.  Colin ruined Teezy’s chance to beat him as he ripped the pillowcase away and, more out of luck than skill, backhanded him with his left hand so hard he felt the other man’s teeth through his lips before he was knocked away. 

            Colin’s hand immediately began to sting as rolled up to his knees, staying just inches shy of the ceiling as he swung the pillowcase.  So stunned was Teezy that he didn’t manage to block the first two hits as the bar of soap smashed across his left eye and then his right cheek as Colin just started swinging, aiming for wherever he could see

as Teezy, finally over his initial shock, began to cover up.

            He was angry to be certain, but he was also tired and sore from sleeping on a thin, foam mat with only a hard metal bunk beneath to offer any comfort.  He was tired of people like Teezy who thought they could take what they wanted, guys like the dipshit who’d gotten his ass kicked and then attempted to make friends with half the pod, and especially tired of being in this goddamned place.

            His anger played out as a flurry of hard, stinging blows that landed on Teezy’s arms and shoulders, with a few bouncing off the back of his head. The last hit had him raising his head as Colin could see tears of pain, or shame, streaking down his cheeks. This just infuriated him even more as he saw the glistening trails, prompting Colin to grab the bar of soap in one hand as he watched Teezy open his mouth to presumably yell, or perhaps call out for the guards, or both. 

            It was just like a bully was what Colin figured.  Once they realized that their intended victim could, or would, fight back, they became crying little bitches that sought to act like the victim.  Colin was definitely pissed off now as he rammed the bar of soap, still covered by the pillowcase, into Teezy’s wide open mouth. He had a perverse moment of enjoyment as he saw Teezy’s eyes widen in shock as he bit down out of sheer reflex, his teeth almost catching Colin’s fingers as he felt them slide across the skin of his knuckles. Worse than having the cloth-covered bar shoved in his mouth was the fact that Teezy could not control his reflex, and bit even harder as his teeth punched through the flimsy cloth and deeply into the soap.

            The others had barely stirred at this point, but he could hear Lenny coming awake slowly beneath him, and the other three were stirring in their sleep as Colin looked hard at Teezy, speaking in a low, dangerous voice.

            “Go back to bed Teezy,” he said calmly, still at a whisper level, “You had a weird dream and thought your soap was a candy bar.  Next thing you know you’re awake and your teeth are filled with soap chips instead of chocolate.  Do yourself a favor and leave me alone for one more day.  Otherwise it’s about to get a lot worse.”

            “Man you two need to get a life,” mumbled one of the others.

            Colin didn’t take his eyes from Teezy, “You ever had a comb rammed up your ass?”

            Teezy’s eyes widened, but Colin spoke again, “Lenny, you still got your comb?”

            “Just wash it after you’re done man,” Lenny said sleepily as he rolled over, “It’s on the desk.”

            Colin smiled at the horrified look that Teezy gave him, seeming to forget that he still had his teeth buried in his bar of soap.

            “Soap chips in the teeth, or potential anal trauma?” Colin asked Teezy as he cocked his head to the side.

            It was then that Teezy unclenched jaw, spitting out soap as he was careful to turn his head.  Otherwise he would have spit them right onto Lenny. 

            “How about I just go to the guards and let them drag your ass off to solitary, bitch?”

            Colin shrugged, “You’d need reliable witnesses,” he said, looking around.

            “I didn’t see anything,” Lenny said from his bunk, still turned around.

            “Me neither.”

            “Nope, I was fast asleep.”

            “We heard you spittin’ out soap, that’s all.”

            Colin managed a grin as the other inmates spoke up, and that grin continued to spread as he saw the anger rising in Teezy’s tear-filled eyes.  As Teezy looked back at him all Colin could do was shrug.

            “I’ll be gone tomorrow,” he said calmly, “And then you can forget all about me, and this little episode.”

            “I won’t forget,” Lenny said in a half-sleeping voice.

            “Me neither.”

            “Nope, won’t forget, bitch.”

            Teezy looked like he wanted to stomp the life out of each person in the room, but that kind of ruckus would be sure to bring the guards, and no one wanted that., especially when he was the odd man out.

            Teezy looked back to Colin, who was already rolling over to go to sleep.  He felt better than he had all weekend.  And for the rest of the night there were no more ill-fated attempts to disturb him.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            The next day came early, and as they rose and exited their bunks Teezy wouldn’t even look at him, much less speak to him.  Colin ate breakfast, then was escorted to his video arraignment a short while later.  He was eating lunch when Teezy and his big friend from the day before seemed poised and ready to make their way over to where he was sitting. It was only when he looked up and shook his head that Teezy seemed to think twice. When Lenny and the other three men from their cell looked up as well it was obvious that Teezy wouldn’t be coming out of this scenario as the victor, and he wisely backed away.

            It was just before dinner that the sweetest words he’d heard in some time came through the door, words he’d been waiting on for a few hours.

            “Simmons, roll out!”

            He knew what that meant and wasn’t at all sorry to trade his mat to one of his cell mates, or his towel, or even his slippers. Giving one last goodbye to Lenny he was out the door and gone before he could even begin to wonder if Teezy’s bitch ass would be allowed to get the top bunk.  Once he hit the doors leading out to freedom, he couldn’t have cared less.

Honor in Training

Honor in Training

By Tom Foster

 

Spring 1998

Thursday, May 20th

 

 

Sweat poured off his young body as he tried to focus on keeping the pain at bay.  His sensei had already told him that the first person in the class to take a wrong step would be the one who cleaned up all the equipment, which he had been good enough to scatter around the fringes of the room.  At seventeen years of age he was beginning grow tired of such practices, though he knew well enough to realize that the teachers were in their position for a reason.  They had most likely gone through the same frustrating methods at the hands of their masters long ago.

“Don’t focus on the pain people, let your breathing come in and out, slowly and easily.”  He felt like telling the older man where he could stick his breathing exercises.  Inhaling through his nose and exhaling in the same manner he tried to ignore the man, allowing his mind to drift back across the river towards home.  In only one month he and his girlfriend were going to embark on journey in their lives that they expected would bring great change in their lives.  For the last eight years of their lives he had wondered what this would feel like, knowing that eventually they would soon join the wider world outside of high school.

“Ferris, if you concentrated on what you were doing as much as you sat around daydreaming, you’d be teaching this class now.”  Looking over at his girlfriend he saw as she offered him a look that suggested he mind his infamous tongue.  Biting back the retort he felt forming in his throat he remained silent, knowing that it didn’t take much to upset his sensei these days.  Much of it had to do with the fact that of all the students that had come and gone he still remained, taking the most advanced classes and mastering whatever he was taught.  Still it wasn’t enough for this man, he seemed to always find fault in something he did.

When most people decided to push so hard it meant that they truly believed in him, though with his sensei he had the feeling that the man simply didn’t like him.  He’d been told more than once that this was just ridiculous, grown adults didn’t often make it a practice to target their younger counterparts.  Of course, it was always said by those who didn’t have to see or hear firsthand what went on in the dojo.

Standing with legs spread shoulder width the entire class had been told to keep the position about five minutes ago, during which many of them had already discovered that their muscles had begun to cramp.  He was no exception, though he had learned years ago how to ignore his body’s aches and pains enough to endure as much as he needed to.  With their arms extended in front of them the entire class looked ready to simply shake their limbs out and leave.

Sadly this was one of the only three dojo’s within fifty miles of his home.  Their instructor was indeed talented enough as well as accredited, though his failings were only known firsthand to his students.  He was impatient, overly demanding and at times pushed his students far too hard, several kids having injured themselves in years past.  Somehow he still had his studio, a moderate sized space located on the third floor of the Carden building in what was considered downtown Astoria.  The red brick building played host to private residents as well as several small businesses that took up the

 

ground level.  Fire escapes were located on both the north and south sides, though the north side was rusted so badly that it had been in need of being replaced for years.

He had the insane urge to fall forward from the stance he now held, place his hands upon the floor and swing his legs upward into a handstand.  Refraining from that notion however he ground his teeth together in frustration, the static practices that their sensei wanted them to drill over and over grating on his nerves.  This style was indeed powerful, that much had been shown in past matches he had conducted upon this very floor.  It wasn’t the style that he truly was enamored of however, since he favored constant movement over the stop and go motions of other disciplines.

That was where Capoeira came in.  He’d yet to find a discipline that could match its energy, though in truth it lacked the power of other styles.  It was far more showy, but it also offered a better range of motion and promoted a stronger sense of balance.  This had appealed to him quite readily, though the intense training he and his girlfriend had been through in the last four months had at times seemed a little excessive when taken with that of the training the two of them went through during the weeknights.

Capoeira took up only one day out of the week, though in that one day the two of them learned more about themselves than they had in years of martial arts instruction.  Tae Kwan Do, Karate, Tai Chi and now Taji Chin Na at his request and only on every other day had taught him much in the ways of endurance and control, but with Capoeira he felt a freedom that other styles did not allow for.  Aside from being illegal in the United States of America, the Brazilian art of dance fighting offered him a chance to express himself in a way that he hadn’t found until now.

The first moment in which he’d shown his sensei his knowledge of the art he had been forced to endure a lecture that had blistered his ears.  His sensei did not believe in the art of Capoeira, claiming that it was for show offs and those who were more interested in looking like movie stars.  He had been told in no uncertain terms that he was never to express himself in such a way again, not in the dojo and not anywhere else.  The words hadn’t sunk in as the teacher had hoped they would, mainly thanks to the fact that he didn’t make it a practice to listen to demands made by anyone but his parents.

Even his teachers in high school had learned what happened when they made demands upon his person, even modest demands that he could easily meet.  He tuned them out quite easily, doing what he wanted without regard to the consequences.  When it came to martial arts he hardly ever listened to his instructors, save for the man who had been kind enough to teach him and his girlfriend dance fighting.

As their teacher walked in front of the class to begin drilling them he suppressed the need to roll his eyes, knowing that the older man would not look upon such rudeness without commenting.  As he began with basic punches, both hands starting at the sides of the body, one punching out and then followed by the other, Tyler couldn’t help but wonder how he stood the monotony of his position.  No doubt sensei had his methods, but to have to do this every day, over and over, Tyler wondered if he ever just got bored of the same old thing.

This was the same concern he had expressed to his parents upon requesting that they allow him to study different disciplines.  At first they’d accused him of not paying good enough attention, wanting to switch because he didn’t allow himself to truly learn

everything he was being taught.  After this he’d come to wonder how in the world adults could be so smart and so naïve at the same time.  Being seventeen didn’t mean he was stupid or so inexperienced that his attention span was measured in nanoseconds, it just meant he was eager to see as much as he could in the time he had.

Going through the drills he let his mind wander, confident that he could still convince their sensei that he was paying attention.  His thoughts drifted to another discipline he had learned only two years ago, his skill in the art of Kenjutsu remarkable for one his age, or so his teacher had told him.  For whatever reason he felt an affinity for martial arts, whether hand to hand or with weapons.  His family did not share the same proclivity, though they seemed to understand well enough to support him through his training.  Since the age of six and five Tyler and his girlfriend Kerian had been enrolled in one martial arts class or another, picking up on several styles by the time they had reached their teenage years.

“Ferris!  Pay attention!”  He finally did roll his eyes, not acknowledging the glare that his sensei shot his way, snapping his attention back to the fore as he mimicked the moves along with the rest of the class.  Damn and hell if this wasn’t just boring.

*                      *                      *

 

“I’ve never been able to figure out why you provoke him like that.”  Tyler and Kerian were outside the building waiting for his parents to arrive, their muscles sore like always after such a strenuous exercise.  They would be fine tomorrow, but for now they didn’t even want to move.

“I dunno, maybe it’s just cause he’s an ass.”  Opening her mouth wide Kerian’s eyebrows shot up as she pushed her boyfriend roughly to the side, laughing as he pretended to be hurt.  She couldn’t exactly disagree with him, their sensei was a harsh man, but she found it hard to speak of people in such a way.

“That’s not nice y’know.”  She scolded him lightly, lowering her eyes to make her point as he rolled his own, telling her that she was not getting through to him.  “You know you’re problem?  You don’t take anything seriously enough.”

“Well golly, I suppose now I’ll just have to learn my lesson by falling as low as I can go, and then gain my way back up through humility and patience.”  She pushed him again as he laughed, rolling her eyes at his jovial mood.  Sometimes it seemed that Tyler didn’t really listen to anything or anyone, living his own life by his own means and worrying about the consequences later.

She knew he cared about life, about her and those around him, but it was hard sometimes to figure him out.  Even after having lived with his family for the last eleven years she still couldn’t understand how he lived so carefree at times and still managed to be serious during the moments he needed to.  She found at times that all she could do was grin and bear it, going along with him come what may.

Looking both ways along the road she saw little traffic coming or going, the setting sun glinting off of the tops of the town’s buildings as evening began to pass into night.  Normally they would have driven home, but a rather poor run of luck had landed Tyler’s truck in the shop with a thrown rod.  Despite being able to pay for the overly expensive job the mechanic had told him it would be several days before he could even

get to his vehicle, having been backed up with work for nearly a week.  So they were left with public transit, which did not run this late, or depending upon his parents.

The book store that lay across the street from where they stood had closed only minutes before they had reached the sidewalk, otherwise they would have been able to take a seat and enjoy a story or simply a cup of coffee while they waited.  Towns near the coast were notorious for being early risers and early to bed.  Often their hours did not extend past seven or eight o’ clock in the evening, much to the dismay of tourists who were used to other towns that stayed open all night.  The taverns were the only locations that stayed open into the wee hours of the morning, and much of the time this depended solely on how much business they received.

Tyler had been in one of the taverns in town, a place called the Wet Dog down near the docks.  He had gained entry without being asked for identification and therefore had managed to spend the next two hours in the place, seeing what the night life of those twenty-one and older was really like.  To be honest he really hadn’t been that impressed.  True, it had been a new experience and something he wouldn’t ever forget, but in all it was kind of mundane as opposed to his average night.

If he and Kerian weren’t sparring outside or out in the garage that lay separate from their home they were usually watching television or a movie with his parents.  Some nights they helped either with dinner or the dishes, performing chores whenever asked and at times just for the hell of it.  They were good children, or so they had been told.

The two of them got enough excitement without being inebriated, one of their favorite pastimes including long walks along the beach or within the woods beyond the hills that lay behind their home.  Several old logging trails lay scattered about the wilderness beyond the hills, pathways that had long ago been used to transport machinery and logs on their way towards the town of Longbeach, the namesake of the peninsula they called home.

Their house lay nearly at the end of the peninsula, only five miles away from its end in Surfside Estates, a small spread out community that had existed for a far shorter time than the town it was closest to, Oysterville.  Once the county seat, Oysterville had flourished, its primary trade, its namesake, guaranteeing its notoriety for far longer than either of them had been alive.  Now it was a small, quaint little tourist attraction, a step back in time for those tourists who were camera happy for anything that seemed like history.

“Hey there they are.”  Kerian pointed down the street as a familiar vehicle came rolling along, its bright headlights glaring despite the fact that there was still light enough to drive by.  Picking up their gym bags Tyler and Kerian walked out to the edge of the curb, waiting patiently for his parents to pull up.  It took only moments for the car to stop near where they stood, Tyler getting in back of the SUV and Kerian sliding in front.  The driver’s seat held Tyler’s mother, her grin alighting upon each of them in turn as they returned it with their own.

“So did you learn anything new?”

“Yeah, Tyler learned how to keep the sensei good and annoyed for a prolonged period of time.”  Looking back at Tyler she grinned even wider as he crossed his eyes at her, not bothering to stick his tongue out as his mother looked back.  Giving him the

usual “learn to control yourself” look she turned back to the wheel, releasing the brake after checking for oncoming traffic.  As they reached the end of the block she turned right onto Kohler Street, going uphill for another block before hanging another right.

“Can’t you go one session or even a day without rubbing someone the wrong way Tyler?”  Her tone was light as she asked this, though he understood her meaning quite well.  Both of his parents knew too well that of their three children he was at times the most difficult, seeing nearly every opinion different from his own as a challenge.  While it was quite normal it still grated on the nerves at times, since he was often unwilling to let go of an issue once it was presented to him, like a dog worrying at a bone someone had tossed in its snout.

Tyler didn’t go looking for trouble, he just didn’t let it go once it found him. As he made himself comfortable in the back seat he allowed himself to relax finally, far enough from his sensei that his nerves didn’t feel worked over.  As Kerian and his mother began to talk in the front seat he looked out the window as they drove along, watching the town of Astoria recede as they traveled along the bridge.  Large sandbars were evident to either side, several gulls landing upon them to search for a meal, their cries ringing strangely in his ears as though from the end of a long tunnel.  Working one finger into his ear he wiggled it back and forth, taking it out only to discover that the gulls had gone silent for a time.

He disregarded the strange effect, concentrating instead on the road ahead as the last section of the bridge loomed over the car, its green iron girders and beams catching the headlights as they sped along.  He knew almost every inch of the upper surface of the Astoria bridge, having traveled it by both foot and car so many times.  As they exited its four mile length he turned to look through the back window, glimpsing the bridge one more time before they sped away.  Shadows pooled along the entire length of the steel and concrete construct, confusing him for a moment as he realized that there was enough light to still illuminate its surface better than what he was seeing.  Blinking several times he lost view of the shadows as they rounded a bend in the road.  He turned forward again, frowning slightly before gently shrugging his shoulders.

*                      *                      *

 

Friday, May 21st

 

 

The next day found them in their separate classes as they prepared for another day of instruction at Ilwaco Jr./Sr. High School.  Consisting of grades seven through twelve the institution had originally been just a standard high school, and had been located upon the hill where now the Hilltop Elementary School resided.  Many years ago, when several of the teachers who now instructed at the high school had still been students themselves, a devastating fire had coursed through the building.  Much of the school had been destroyed in the process, though through careful effort and the support of the local community much of it had either been saved, restored or replaced.

To this day many sections of the old school were still not quite up to code, but as long as nothing was falling apart, people were happy.  In the high school there were several areas of repair that those in charge had been meaning to get to, but had yet to fix properly.  One of those inconsequential things was no doubt the funding that allowed

science courses to purchase the necessary materials that other schools only had to mention to receive.

Ah well, you did what you could with what you had, no complaints. Besides, Mr. Milner seemed to enjoy the time he spent on the water gathering their specimens.  With the commercial fishing license he had so faithfully kept since he was a boy it was his pleasure to provide for his classes.  Having less students than the bigger schools helped as well.  Lifting his scalpel Tyler looked up at his teacher as the older man bent over to help another student, one of the thirteen individuals who had actually signed up for Marine Biology this period.  As a morning class it had the tendency at times to be too much to easily assimilate, especially with the enthusiasm that Mr. Milner tried to instill in his students.

Tyler enjoyed the class, it allowed him to learn more about his home in an environment where the instructor actually cared and helped to facilitate learning.  Many of the teachers in this school were the same way, only a few had been here so long that they were on the verge of burning out or becoming far too jaded.  Tyler had much respect for his teachers, though at times even he realized that they wondered if he really was paying attention to what they said.  He was, but his attention was as diverse as his interests, meaning he felt it necessary to focus on more than one thing at a time.  He often found such single-minded pursuits to be rather boring, though he kept his mouth carefully shut, knowing that those in charge often didn’t like knowing that they weren’t the center of attention.

“Okay class, I want you after carefully making your incision to gently peel back the outer layer of skin, thereby revealing the innards of your sharks.  If you find that the skin is stuck gently take your scalpel along the inside to clear away any connections that remain.”  Sand sharks as they had learned did not grow to enormous proportions like other members of their race, but were still enough like their larger cousins to offer some insight into a shark’s anatomy.  Tyler easily peeled the skin of the thing’s belly back, pinning it to the waxy layer that filled the bottom of his dissecting tray.

As he peered within the shark’s body he consulted the black and white diagram they’d all been given, knowing that Mr. Milner would not get after him for moving ahead.  He was one of the best, or at least most attentive students in this class, affording him just a little more privilege than others.  Raising his scalpel he carefully eyed the miniature maze that lay within his specimen, trying to decide what to remove first.

From humble beginnings.

He started in his seat slightly as the whisper seemed to come from every direction, his glance turning left and right, going largely unnoticed by the rest of his classmates.  The only one that really seemed to notice his strange behavior was a freshman that sat behind him, a younger girl name Madeline Rohen.  Everyone just called her Maddie, or in the case of those who chose to follow the sometimes cruel hierarchy of high school, there were other names that had been affixed to her person.  Tyler knew some of her life’s history, he had talked to her enough times to get the gist that she was not the happiest or most blessed among her fellow students.

That didn’t really matter to him however.  He was still trying to figure out just where that strange whisper had come from.  It had sounded strained, as though the

speaker was in great pain.  Setting down his scalpel he leaned back in his chair, unsettled at that moment for no particular reason.

“Hey.”  Turning in his seat he regarded the freshman,  offering her a warm smile which she returned.  With wavy black locks tied back in a bun against her neck her young face was pleasant enough to look at, not overwhelmingly beautiful but definitely cute.  Her body was that of an athlete thanks to the last seven years of Track and Field, the sport one of the only joys in her life.  He knew that she was the middle sibling of four, with one younger brother and two older sisters.  One of her sisters had graduated just last year, while the other was only a year ahead of her.

“What’s up First?”  She smiled at the simple nickname, earned at their last track meet spent together as competitors.  Many of the individuals on their team had done well this year, qualifying members of their team in nearly every event.  Aside from Basketball and Volleyball, Track was one of the sports that their school tended to excel at.  Every year at least five or more athletes went to state, and this year had been no different.

Tyler had gone in both the shotput and for discus, while his girlfriend Kerian had gone for the 110 high hurdles and the 200 yards sprint.  Maddie had qualified for the 3200 meter run, though she had not placed, going home with no award but a deep satisfaction from having gone so far.  His nickname for her had come from her victory in the district championships, her hard won fight to succeed inspiring even those teammates who hadn’t thought she was worth the shoes she ran in.

He’d always liked her.  She was smart though extremely shy, leaving him at times to wonder what her home life was like.  From the way she held her head down all the time and refrained from being outspoken or even recognized he found it hard not to feel sorry for her.  That mistake had cost him only once however when she had responded to his kindness with resentment, thinking that he pitied her.  Since then the understanding between the two of them had been such that she understood his feelings towards her, while he knew that despite her downtrodden appearance she was more than what she appeared.

“Are you, um, going to be around on Saturday?”  Tyler turned back to his dissection for a moment as Mr. Milner passed them, tapping lightly on his worktable to let Tyler know that class was in session.  As soon as he’d passed however Tyler turned back to Maddie, offering her a small conspiratorial grin to let her know he hadn’t ignored her.  He did wonder why she was asking.  Despite their mutual respect they did not run in the same circles, their short conversations few and far between.  Still it would be rude not to answer.

“I guess.  I’ll probably be out on the beach or around somewhere.  Why do you ask?”  She flushed slightly before responding, which confused him a little.

“Well, I was wondering if you’d, ah never mind.”  He leaned closer to her with his eyebrows raised, trying to prompt a response from her.  She seemed to lose herself in her dissection however, her single-mindedness a defense against embarrassment.  He relented, going back to his own specimen with only one glance back.

“Well if you find what you wanted to say, I’m always around.”  He muttered the words, knowing that they were still audible enough for Maddie to hear.  Tyler didn’t see

her gentle smile as she blushed again, her heart skipping a beat as she basked in his attention.

*                      *                      *

 

At lunch he and Kerian met up in the stadium outside the school, their own private lunch area.  Normally there were a few other students present, mostly skaters and others who didn’t care to take lunch in the crowded cafeteria.  Today however there was only the two of them and Maddie, whom Tyler had invited to come sit with them.  It was a rare occurrence, but both he and Kera had found before now that she was good company when they could get her to talk.  If it happened only a few times a year then so be it.

“So what were you going to ask me in class?”  Tyler bit into a ham and cheese sandwich after asking, looking over to the freshman with his calm blue-green gaze.  Kera was thoroughly enjoying the leftovers from dinner the night before, a turkey and Swiss cheese Panini that his mother had learned to make.  Maddie had been hesitant to share their lunches with them but had cracked as they had insisted, almost thrusting the food into her hands.  After seeing the meager lunch that she had brought from home it had been easy, their decent natures not allowing them to see her go hungry.

“Well ah, I mean um…are you two doing anything on Saturday?  I mean are you going to be around?”  Wiping her lips before answering Kera looked sideways at the younger girl, wondering just what she was trying to ask.

“I was just wondering if maybe you two would mind if I hung out with you this weekend, you know if it’s not too much trouble.  If it is then that’s okay I can find something to do.”  She was stammering as Tyler and Kera looked at one another, clearly not understanding what she was getting at.

“Are you alright Maddie?”  She looked up at him with her doe-like eyes full of hope that he wouldn’t say no or tell her that he didn’t want her around.  Looking back to Kera he almost grunted in frustration as she simply shrugged, indicating that it was up to him.  Both of them knew that their Capoeira instructor, Mr. Ken Delong, had already told them that he didn’t want anyone else knowing that he was instructing them.  He wasn’t a bad man in any way, it was just that what he was teaching them would get him in serious trouble if he were found out.

Thus far only the occasional passerby had seen the three of them on the beach, their chosen meeting spot being the stretch of coast a half mile from their house.  That was fine since the average spectator most likely wouldn’t think twice about what they were doing, thinking perhaps that a martial arts instructor had been good enough to take a couple of students aside for a private session.  Around these parts it wasn’t entirely uncommon since a large portion of the children that lived upon the peninsula were enrolled in martial arts of some type.  The reasoning for this wasn’t always clear, but it had been a practice for the last twenty years.

“I just, I just wanted someone to hang out with you know?”  She hung her head, screening her eyes from the two of them effectively as they once more shared a look.  Mr. Delong had been very adamant about no spectators and since he was giving them free

lessons it didn’t feel right to bring along an uninvited guest.  Still, the downtrodden look that seemed to hang over her was hard to ignore.

“Well, we can have you meet us out near our home if you can get there.”  Looking at Kera he still didn’t see any sign of warning or silent alarm in her face, only a calm acceptance of the decision she’d already known he’d made.  Maddie’s face lit up noticeably at the reply, her fingers digging into the half sandwich that Tyler had given her.

“You gonna eat that or smash it?”  He pointed his gaze down at the sandwich in her hands as she released her grip, taking a large bite as she smiled up at him.  Thankfully it wasn’t a full smile, though both he and Kera couldn’t help but return it.

*                      *                      *

 

Saturday, May 22nd

 

 

When Saturday came it found Tyler and Kera walking to towards the beach at around eight o’ clock in the morning.  Mr. Delong, living all the way in LaCenter, would have already left from home to reach them in time.  In the past years worth of weekends they had yet to understand just why he had approached them as he had, why he would bother to make the nearly two hour drive just to instruct them for a few hours every Saturday.  There was no doubt in their minds that he could have found someone else much closer to pass his knowledge on to.

Still, why look a gift horse in the mouth?  They were both more than grateful for the chance to learn something new and had taken to the art of dance fighting with a zeal that had surprised even Mr. Delong.  Each day they’d trained they had progressed, the movements they were shown coming to them like a second nature.  So flexible were their bodies now that it was all they could do during their sessions in Taji Chin Na to not break into a smooth rhythm of constant motion as they had been taught.

“Think she’ll be here?” Kera shifted her gym bag as she spoke, slipping the shoulder strap over her head so that it rested on her opposite shoulder.  The bag bounced lightly against her left hip as she walked, her athletic curves alluring in the light green jumpsuit she was wearing.  Around them the landscape was still waking up, the smaller animals and insects announcing their existence to the world as they had daily for their entire lives.  The morning dew glistened off scrub grass and conifers alike, painting the area around them in a pleasing mosaic of color.  Houses that had been built only a few years ago lay dark as their occupants were either still asleep or not in residence at the time.

About half of the houses that were built along this coastline and farther inland belonged to what the locals liked to call ‘snowbirds’, people who were present in the more pleasant months and then left when the storm season came.  Tyler and Kera had lost track of just who was who anymore, not really caring as long as much of their home remained wild.  According to his parents and several other adults they spoke to regularly however it would no doubt not remain that way in the years to come.  Rumors had it that there were already plans to begin building houses in the far reaches of Surfside, areas that he and Kera had wandered since they were small children.

“We told her what time and where to be, so I’d hope she’d make it.”

“What do you think Mr. Delong will say?”  He didn’t answer, tilting his head as though to say that it would be best to deal with that problem once they reached the sand.

*                      *                      *

 

As it happened they needn’t have worried about either Maddie or any averse reaction from Mr. Delong over her presence.  As they walked upon the slightly overgrown trail that led from the asphalt to the gray sands of the coastline ahead Tyler felt a slight tingle run through his body.  Without being able to explain it he pressed forward at his normal casual rate, barely noticing as Kera seemed to feel the same sensation.  Both of them ignored this feeling, walking steadily towards the large dune that obscured their view of the ocean from where they stood.

The roar of the mighty Pacific was like a sweet symphony in their ears, a lullaby that had been present in their lives seemingly forever.  That it called to them was an understatement, that it was a part of them and vice versa was far more accurate.  The ocean in all its vastness had ever seemed to them like a second home that lay within their reach but so far beyond, an enticement that they could look upon yet never fully grasp.  They’d never bothered to discuss such things with anyone save themselves, figuring that either people wouldn’t understand or would simply discount their words as youthful exuberance.

As the crested the dune however both of them couldn’t help but inhale deeply the sweet scent of salt air that permeated this place.  Most people thought it quite rank, the odor of dead animals and other matter that was washed ashore not fitting in with their idea of what a normal beach should be like.  For Tyler and Kera however the gray windswept carpet that lay before them was far more majestic than any tropical resort ever could be.  Like so many places there was a power here that one could feel if they were to content to let themselves try.

Leaving their shoes and gym bags in the thickets of dune grass to the sides of the dune they began to stretch as they made their way down to where Mr. Delong, he would not abide the title of Master, and Maddie stood.  The two of them were conversing in what seemed to be pleasant tones as Tyler and Kera approached, Maddie smiling at whatever Mr. Delong was saying.  Their instructor graced them with a smile and a bow shortly after they bowed to him, Maddie watching with rapt attention the formalities that played out in front of her.

“We have a guest today it seems.  Would either of you care to explain?”  The smile did not leave his face as he spoke, though the slight edge he put into his voice escaped no one’s notice.  Maddie looked apologetically to them as they looked from her to each other, thinking up a good explanation that the man would accept.

“Well spoken.”  All three of them arched their brows in confusion as Mr. Delong laughed, a hearty and pleasing sound.  “If you had began to give excuses I would have considered this trip today a waste of my time.  Instead you sought to think before you spoke, a wise choice.”

“So you’re not mad?”  Kera winced as she asked, not quite sure that she wanted the answer.  Their instructor only nodded a few times before replying, his smile still wide.

“Your friend Madeline and I have had a chance to speak, of you mostly since it seems she was eager for you to arrive.”  Motioning towards Maddie with one hand he

turned towards her, all three of them seeing the grateful smile upon her young features.  It seemed as though she might soon pass out she was so deliriously happy, which prompted Tyler to clear his throat, indicating that he was ready to begin.  Nodding once Mr. Delong

silently agreed, waving both him and Kera over to stand upon the wet sand only a few feet away.  Patting Maddie gently on the shoulder Tyler stepped towards the older man, joining him and Kera as they began their warm-ups.

Nearly ten minutes later their warm-ups flowed easily into a practice session unlike any Maddie had ever witnessed.  She had sat in on training sessions before in dojo’s spanning from here on the peninsula to as far as Vancouver, and never had she seen something this fluid, this alive.  Watching these three people go about their workout she found herself mesmerized, unable to tear her gaze away as she watched the intricacy and precision with which Tyler and Kera executed each move.  At certain moments it was hard to determine who was the master among the three of them, so skilled did they seem.  The older man however proved at times that he was indeed the superior fighter, catching Tyler and Kera off their guard just enough to trip them up, forcing them to begin again.

After three hours time she had witnessed more action in her life than any movie screen could have ever shown, more poetry in motion than she had thought possible.  She had found herself almost crying at times, the beauty of what she witnessed stealing her breath as both Tyler and Kera seemed to flow steadily without fear of exhaustion, their bodies little more than continual motion as the sands beneath them churned under their feet.

Bowing to Mr. Delong they remained still as the older man returned the bow, dismissing them as he began to walk down the beach in the direction of the next approach.  She had already spoken with the older man before the two of them had arrived and understood that this was just a part of their Saturdays.  As the two of them came closer she rose to her feet, brushing sand away from the seat of her jeans.  They spoke in low tones to one another as she waited for them to retrieve their gym bags and shoes, patient as they each retrieved a towel to dry themselves off.  She felt as though she should have been ready for them by retrieving their bags, though that seemed as though it might have been a little presumptuous.

“Hey Maddie, enjoy the show?”  She smiled at Tyler as he spoke, her heart warming as he grinned, telling her he was just kidding.  Kera laughed at that, slinging her arm around Maddie’s slim shoulders as they began to walk down the dune.  Nothing could have made the freshman happier at that point, her heart near to bursting at the mere touch of the senior.

“Well Mads, tell ya what.  Let’s go home, get us cleaned up, and then the rest of the day is all ours, whatcha say?”  Hugging her closer Kera grinned at her, the smell of sweat and salt air seeming to Maddie the sweetest scent she had ever encountered at that time.  As they kept walking she couldn’t help but agree that such a thing would be just fine.  It would be just fine.

The Town That Disappeared

The Town That Disappeared

By Tom Foster

 

 

April 2nd, 2014

Somewhere along I-5 Northbound

 

            It was there, I know it was.  A whole place doesn’t just up and disappear.  It doesn’t, I know it doesn’t. I saw the lights starting to glow before it was gone, and I knew it was there.  I’m not crazy, I know what I saw, and I know what was there in front of my goddamn eyes.

            I’m not crazy!

            I was walking along the highway one day, it’s not too far from my home after all, and I expected to reach the small town of Woodland, Washington only a few hours after leaving my home.  You might think I’m nuts to even bother walking along the highway, it’s not at all safe and runs the risk of a cop picking me up because it’s so “illegal”.  Pah, my father would have gladly spat at the cop and told him where to go with his illegal bullshit.  But my dad’s been dead and gone now for nearly thirteen years, and he surely would’ve smacked me upside the head for thinking what I’m thinking now.

            The whole world around me has gone crazy, and I can’t understand it.

            To be fair I’m what’s known as the town drunk, always in my cups and don’t give two shits about what anyone thinks.  But just because my lips are always around the rim of a bar glass or a bottle doesn’t mean I’m nutso.  I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest now for going on fifty-two years, and I know what’s what.  I know that Kalama, where I’m from, is only a little over eleven miles, a short enough distance for someone that used to do the hood to coast run when I was younger. If I was still in the same shape I was in when I was in my thirties I could cover that span in a little over an hour.  Now it takes me a little over two hours most times to cover the distance, if one of the local highway patrolmen don’t bother getting up in my business, as the kids like to say.

            But I tell you now and I say it before Jesus Christ Almighty and before all of His saints and angels alike, the town was not there.

            You think I’m drunk right? Hell no, that would be more fun and offer me a better excuse. I might have pickled my body and my brains years ago, but I know what’s what and I know that the town of Woodland disappeared when I was there. I saw it!

            Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Old duffer’s gone and let the drink fill in the empty

spaces that the alcohol destroyed.  My mind is still as razor sharp and fit as it ever was despite

my drinking. I still hold down a job and keep it under control long enough to get an honest day’s

work in. I manage to keep a household secure and in one piece. I don’t hit my wife and have

never struck my kids. I’m known as a happy drunk goddammit, I don’t hurt people when it’s not

necessary. But I’m still a drunk, and everyone knows it. After work I’m drinking, during dinner

I’m drinking, and whenever I’m not at work or have a free moment I’m drinking. My wife has

learned to live with it, as have my kids.  I can say with a straight face that I’m a responsible drunk, or, excuse me, alcoholic.

            I sometimes forget that people feel the need to be all PC and shit.  I grew up in a time that if you had something to say you said, and if the other person didn’t like then you might get a hard knock in the nose.  Nowadays people need a “safe place” and over-obsess about their feelings and the motivations behind why this person said this or that person said that. I’d dare a shrink to try and analyze my mindset after seeing what I did. I’d probably be sent to the nearest psychiatric facility and pumped full of sedatives in the next hour.

            I’ve seen old pictures of Woodland, when it was a logging camp primarily and didn’t have the fancy roadways and overpass it has now.  Back then the land was owned by only a few people and the government, but was still wild.  People didn’t really know what to do with such wide open areas in that era, except maybe to settle them and make a homestead.  Believe it or not the town didn’t really get a reputation as logging town despite where it sits.  It was a trade town, built around a single homestead that eventually blossomed into a city.

            Nowadays it’s gone the way of a lot of older cities that started well over a century before.  Businesses have come and gone, people have come and gone, and the town just kind of drifts now and then, unable to find itself for a while before something or someone comes along that reminds the people of their supposed greatness. It’s kind of inspiring in a way, but sad too considering that they’ll lose that focus once again, and all too soon.

            I can’t say much, as I’m a Kalama native.  My city was at one time a part of the logging industry but has since that time kind of fallen into lethargy. You can see the bulk of our little town, city is such a strong word, as you speed by on the highway. It’s a place where people tend to drift and just stick like barnacles, or like seedlings taking root.  Yeah, that works a little better. 

            It’s the kind of town that if you’re raised there you try like hell to get out once you have the chance, or you get stuck.  I got as far as Longview in my youth and then felt myself getting pulled back, and here I am.

            But back to that disappearing city.

            Places don’t just fade away like I’ve seen.  I’ve done a bit of research on ghost towns and found some interesting sites.  Even sober and with a ringing headache I can honestly say that what I’ve found is kind of disturbing.  I looked up this town called Ashley, Kansas, and didn’t initially believe what I’d read. It was like someone had put zombies, demons, and UFO’s into a blender just to see what would come out.  The story was obviously unbelievable, and even looking up Ashley, Kansas on the map revealed that the place didn’t exist.

            There were plenty of reasons given as to why and how this could be.  People want to believe the unbelievable, they want to be frightened and shocked all the damned time and won’t see past the sensationalist garbage to realize that the truth of the world is less than glamorous and mystifying.  People want to believe so badly that they’ll fool themselves.

            I didn’t want to see this, and I for damned sure didn’t want to start thinking of myself as a crackpot.

            You won’t believe me, and that’s okay. I barely believe and I’ve seen it. That’s how the explanation is supposed to go, isn’t it?  The one telling you he doesn’t believe is supposed to convince you through sheer willpower that he’s telling the truth and that he’s not the crazy asshole he seems to be?  Well shit on that, you’ll either believe or you won’t, and I’ll tell things the way I saw them.

            I was walking along I-5 as I’ve done in the past, making my way along without a care in the world, a flask in my hip pocket and a pint in my rear left.  It would have been easily seen by any of the freeway cops that patrol the strip so regularly, but I tend to keep out of sight when I want a nip. I might be an alcoholic but I ain’t a goddamned nitwit like some other folks.  I also carry a fifth in the pack I always carry on long walks such as this, as well as a decent-sized meal that can carry me through. 

            The traffic on that day was fairly light, being as it was about a month ago on a Sunday, and on the Lord’s day most people don’t want to travel as much, unless of course it’s coming home from vacation or taking off to someplace no one knows where.  People are funny, they wait and wait to take vacations and once they do the vacation is most often worse than the life they’re trying to escape from.  My own family likes to take vacations, but just so long as its somewhere we can get away from one another for a short while.  Hell I’ve lost count of how many vacations we’ve spent in the same place but still apart. I think it has something to do with me being a drunk, but by the time we get there I’m three sheets to the wind by the time the trailer’s set up.

            Anywho, I was alternating walking close to the highway and just beyond the guard rail as much as possible. I didn’t want to be seen but I also didn’t want to slip down the embankments that run the length of the highway. Some of them are damned hard to walk even in dry conditions, and that day we were still coming out of a wet winter, so the ground was plenty saturated. 

            I didn’t think a thing about anything, this was just one more walk down the same highway I’d taken before, but I guess I should have known something was up. There weren’t any screeching tires or panicked faces that I could see through the windows, not even a hurried glance back that might have indicated something was wrong. A lot of people though, around the time that the sun was starting to set, started getting this really funny look in their eyes.

            You know that look you get when you’re really, really tired, but don’t want to nod off just yet?  It’s a glazed kind of look, the type most people reserve for when they’re so out on their feet that they don’t even realize it until their body gives up the ghost and dumps them to the ground.  People can still operate in that mental fog I’ve noticed. Hell I’ve done it plenty of times before my boss told me to not bother coming in if I wasn’t laced up tight and without a drop of the nip in my blood. 

            I was still walking along, assuming it was a good day to be out in the ever-decreasing

wilds, when I happened to notice a few individuals across the highway shaking their heads as

they passed by.  I took the opportunity to stop within one of the wide, grassy medians that

separates the northbound and southbound lanes, having risked my life to cross the busy road just

so I could have a nip and a bite, but I saw them. 

            Most of the time if you’re moving you don’t have much chance to see the people in their cars. The speed they’re going is just too damned fast to allow anything more than the barest glimpse inside those dark windshields. But I could see enough of them that I noticed something funny.  One or two people looking strung out, worn out, or otherwise tired, is pretty normal. People travel I-5 back and forth all the time, and there’s always those commuters that make that ungodly trip from point A out in the goddamned BFE to wherever they might be working in the city.  Can’t be helped sometimes, the pay is just too good to pass up despite the time you spend on the road. The missus and I did it for awhile until the kids damned near burned the house down on one occasion.  

            Anyhow, I was biting into my sub sandwich, heavy on the spices and meat and light on the veggies like the missus knows I like it, when I started paying attention to the drivers headed north.  It was kind of hard to see at first, but a few of those were going slow enough that I could see them shaking their heads so as to clear the cobwebs or something like that.  I found it kind of odd that so many people would be so tired all at once, but as strange as it seemed daylight was wasting, and I meant to make it to Woodland before true sunset, so as to be able to call the missus to come and pick me up. 

            These little walks of mine have been a particular quirk for years, and one that the wife and kids have learned to live with.  They worry about me and all that, but they know too well that being born and raised around this place I know my way around. They still worry though, and despite not showing it or telling them, I appreciate it.  Drunk I might be, and watched closely everywhere I go, I’m still not completely heartless.

            After taking another few drinks and stowing what was left of my meal and my drink back in my pack I braved the mostly empty lanes of traffic again in order to make it back to the east side of the highway, finding solid enough ground to tread upon while making my along the final stretch into Woodland.  Only problem was I didn’t see anything that would have allowed me to recognize the area I was looking for.  This here is the part where I might begin to sound a little cracked in the head, as my dad would have liked to say.  It’s also where I began to feel like things around me were becoming a little bit unraveled. 

            I know the entrance into Woodland well, and I know what to expect.  The road signs that hang suspended above the highway have stood there since I can remember, always telling travelers and commuters alike which way to go, which road goes where and faithfully delivering them to those places without fail.  Only now they weren’t there.  I thought at first that I might have had a more than just a nip during my last stop, that I’d somehow drank more than I needed to in order to keep going, but that just wasn’t the case.  God help I think I wished it would have been just then.  Having my wits disappear down a bottle would have been a hell of a lot better than living with the memory I have now.

            The signs weren’t there.  The turn-off wasn’t there, and as I crested the rise I felt the

strange sensation of pushing through a warm, stiff barrier almost like a rising mist, but I couldn’t

see anything.  Once I was past that feeling I shook myself several times and looked forward. I

saw Woodland, but it didn’t look right.  I know, that sounds like the rambling of a drunkard who’s taken one too many before going on a long hike. But it did not look right at all.

            It looked almost like a picture out of focus, fuzzy in a way due to bad exposure or the hands of the person behind the camera shaking too damned much.  I had to stop on the side of the road and continue to blink as I sat my ass on the guard rail, hoping no one would just come plowing into me.  Or worse, I didn’t need a member of the vaunted highway patrol coming by to perform a damned breathalyzer. I’d been collared enough times by then to be on a first name basis with most of the precinct, an honor my wife isn’t too proud to claim.

            I got back up and started walking again, noting how the setting sun was kind of turning the whole landscape ahead of me ablaze with color.  Drunk I might be, but I can still appreciate a good sunset and the way it seems to revive the land if only for a few moments.  Just then it was like the land ahead of me was on fire, just waiting to burst into flames. It was so bright I had to squint just to see, and even then I had to put up a hand to shade my eyes from the brilliance. That was when the weirdness really started to happen.

            Once the sun was down the highway remained, the bridges near the end of town remained, still supporting the traffic that continued onward, unfazed it would seem by the swiftly dissolving buildings, the way that people on the side of the road, in the market parking lots, and those busily going about their business, just seemed to disappear.  I felt my jaw drop at this as in their place I saw trees, nothing but trees and gently rolling hills for as far as I could see.  Remember, I know Woodland, been around here all my life. 

            But it wasn’t there anymore.  As dusk swiftly made its transition to night I stood on the side of the road, finding a perch to settle my butt down on as cars came and went. None of them even slowed down as they went by, as though the disappearance of an entire town was something that happened every day.  I felt almost like I was in a movie, or perhaps one of those shows where the dipshits with the mesh hats jump out and yell “Surprise!”  Imagine my disappointment that nothing even half as crazy as this happened.

            I didn’t have a phone on me at that point, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t. My wife likely wouldn’t have understood a damn thing I would have said just then, and I wouldn’t have blamed her.  Anything that might have come out of my mouth at this point would have sounded like a whole mess of nonsense that no one wants to deal with.  I was there, and I was just waiting for my senses to clear and someone to tell me to get the hell out of their way. After all, I’d sat right where a road should have been if not for the soft hillock I’d found to park myself on.  But nothing happened. Cars just kept going by, and by, and by.

            Most men and women might go stark raving mad at such an occurrence, and I think I felt a few screws loosen upstairs, but not enough to send me over the edge.  Really, I just wanted a drink.  So I sat there and I drank, and I drank, and after a while I think I must have passed out because by the time I woke up it was early morning, and the sun was just starting to crest over the woods to the east. 

            Of course the first thing I did was look around, and all I saw again were hills and trees.

The town hadn’t come back at all, not even a single building, and cars were still going by on the

highway just a hundred feet away. Surprisingly I hadn’t been hauled off by the highway patrol, which was just as odd.  I think I was more grateful than anything really, considering that I could have been spending that night in the county clink if they’d bothered to look for me. 

            I smacked my lips, I slapped my cheeks until they were rosy, and I blinked however many times I could to make things come back, to make myself think it was all just because of a drunken binge. But nothing happened as the sun continued to rise in the sky, painting the overhead landscape a gentler, less imposing blue as a few clouds were shown high above the mountains to the east.  I was all set to gather my pack and just get going until the blast of a horn nearly made me soil myself. 

            Now recall I said that I had been seated on the spot where a road would have run through.  The horn was issued by a driver that had seen me somehow appear in the middle of the road at the last second, and couldn’t have stopped had he tried.  The truck, a big-ass Peterbilt that managed to skid to a bone-jarring stop only a hundred yards off, would have flattened me like a pancake if I hadn’t dove out of the way, scraping one shin pretty good on the pavement and scuffing the elbows of my sweater considerably. Small prices to pay to avoid being road pizza.

            The driver got out of the truck and came running back to me, partly to see if I was hurt and partly to cuss me out for being in the middle of the goddamned road. He actually asked me if I’d passed out in the middle, being as he could smell the alcohol on me.  I replied with a grimace that if I’d parked my ass in the middle of the road the smokies would’ve already tossed my flea-bitten hide in the drunk tank.  His anger subsided a bit, but he still wanted to know where I’d come from all of a sudden.

            My mind was whirling too fast and was filling with too many questions to give him an honest answer just then, so I said the only thing that could come to mind. I’d been walking, and unfortunately not watching where I was going. My head was filled up with one lie after another as I fed it to him, and he accepted it grudgingly but a firm nod of his head as he told me to be more careful. After ascertaining if I was indeed alright he went on his way, tipping his cap while grumbling the entire way back to his rig.  People had stopped to look by then, but it wasn’t a big crowd.  Around these parts it doesn’t take much to gain attention, but unless it’s a big accident you don’t warrant a second look by a lot of people.

            I stumbled off to find a safe place to walk, looking all around as a few people still stared after me, perhaps thinking to call the cops, perhaps to even wonder just what kind of element was inhabiting their town now. That’s how it happens you know. A single person can be noticed in a town of any size if they act just a little different than what is considered normal.  It takes almost no effort at all to be noticed by those who are otherwise unfamiliar with the different ways people act outside their sphere of influence.  You take a person from the big city and put them out here in the border towns and you’ll notice. Take one of us and plunk us down in the city and there’s bound to be notice.  My kids tell me that way of thinking is outdated, old news, but I dunno, I happen to think it still applies.

            Woodland was back, and I didn’t know. Worse than that, for all the times I’d walked

through this place, all the memories I had here, and all the roads and avenues I had memorized, I

now felt like a stranger, an intruder.  It was as though  the disappearing act pulled by the town had excluded me in a way I’d not been prepared for.  Somehow the town had just faded off into dusk and been reborn by daylight.  It kept wracking my brain trying to discover if anything I’d ever heard in my life could make this make sense.  Unsurprisingly nothing came.

            I gained more than one odd look as I made my way around town, still ogling the mundane, normal view I was afforded.  In truth I think I might have looked like a madman, hair all askew, clothes rumpled and probably filthy, and looking around like I’d just seen a ghost.  Honestly though, it was almost like I had.  My mind was still moving a mile a minute trying to figure out just what had happened. I mean really, how do you process something like that?  It’s like someone turned off the lights and the town just disappeared, and once the light came back, so did the town.

            Eventually I headed into the only place I could find to sit and make sense of what I’d just seen, one of the local taverns.  It’s a place where a few bar flies know me, but everyone just sticks to their own business for the most part.  Small town folk might seem a lot nicer than those in the city, but overall we tend to keep our own business close to the vest so to speak, if only to keep everyone from knowing about it. This wasn’t something I was ready to start screaming to the heavens about, but it was damned close.

            Instead I ordered a beer and sat there, nursing the bottle while I mulled around in my head the idea that if I sat there long enough I might soon disappear with the town.  Does that sound crazy? Well then hell’s bells, took you long enough to get to that point.

            That one bottle was the longest of my life as I sat watching the faded, dusty television that was suspended over the bar, waiting for something, anything, just a word or two about the disappearance of Woodland the night before. The rational part of my brain, the part that insisted it would never come to pass, was rewarded  when, aside from several horrible reports about killings in the city, car accidents on the highway, and even a horrific rape only two towns away, nothing was said.  I wanted to laugh, I wanted to smash my bottle on the bar and cackle like a loon. Hell I wanted to dance on the bar and tell everyone in there, all five people including myself, that we were doomed if we stayed here.  But instead I just sat there and continued to drink my beer. 

            It was going flat by the time I ordered another, dimly realizing that it had not taken me this long to drink a beer since I was fifteen and just getting into the habit. I had wasted more time thinking about how this could be spun to make sense than I had about the drink in my hand, which was extremely out of character for me.  Normally I would have drained the first one and had two or three down me by that time and be reaching for the fourth.

            Something about the way this was all turning out had me wanting to be at least halfway sober though.  My mind had already stalled thanks to the number of questions that had attempted to make themselves be known en masse.  I badly needed a rest, and I needed to get home. At that point the wife and kids would have been worrying about me, though it wouldn’t be the first time I’d ever stayed in Woodland after a walk. That’s quite a hike after all.

            Unfortunately it was the first time I didn’t make the effort to call.  That alone would get

them worried, but they hadn’t called the cops they told me later, mainly because they already knew from experience that a person has to be missing at least 48 hours before they’re considered truly missing.  Ain’t that a bitch?

            You could be dead at the bottom of a ditch, stuffed in some creep’s trunk, or suffering any other horrific fate and in order for the cops to do something you’d need to be absent for at least two whole days.  Meanwhile, your body is undergoing torture or decomposing wherever it might rest.  The legal system is just a divine process of absolute bullshit I tell you.

            I made it back to Kalama that day, and boy did I call it right.  The wife and kids were on me like flies on shit, asking me where I’d gone, what I’d done, and what in the hell I thought I was doing just up and leaving without my phone.  I tried to apologize to my wife and warned the kids to watch their tone, but only the missus refused to back down.  The kids know better at this point in their life. I’ve been drunk around them so many times that they’ve become almost immune to it, but they know too well when I’m sober that I’m to be minded, if only because I will defer to their mother before getting drunk.  Any punishment for stepping out of line that they might incur will be handled by the sober parent who can remember what they said.

            That seemed a little unfair at times, but thus far it had worked.  I felt a little more guilty than usual when I screw up though, mostly because during their tirade I wasn’t thinking of how badly I had scared them.  I was thinking of Woodland, and how those within the town might have felt if they’d known that they and the town itself had disappeared for an entire night.

            I’d been going to Woodland by day and night for years and this had never happened. I’d stayed in the town countless times and never noticed it.  So why was it happening now? Part of me wanted to say that it was because I was getting old, perhaps slipping a cog upstairs or something, but I didn’t want to cop to that. Agreeing that you’re slipping is a step down the path to senility that I don’t want to tread.

            I thought about Woodland all day and night for nearly a week before I’d made the decision to go back, but in truth I’d been thinking about it ever since waking up in the middle of the road.  There was some next level shit going on around, or in, that town, and I wanted to know what was going on.  Call it being nosy, or call it just needing to know.  I wanted to see why the town had disappeared, and why it had never once been noticed.

            Science fiction and fantasy theories abounded in my head, but I couldn’t get around the illogical premises that vied for my attention. I wanted to believe that there was a perfectly logical explanation for what had happened.  It had to be something with me, some hallucination brought on by too much drinking or something.  I’d read up on such things before in the past when my wife had suggested AA. She suggested it, she didn’t demand it.  That’s part of how our marriage works, she doesn’t demand anything and neither do I, unless it’s important of course.

            After all the years I’d been drinking though I didn’t see how it could have been a hallucination, or even the product of a diminished mind.  I know what I saw, and I knew after the next week that I was determined to experience it again.

            This time though I was gonna be smart about it.  To be fair I just kind of stumbled onto the effect the first time. There was no way to be ready for it, and no way I could have possibly expected what came next.  This next time though would be different.  I wasn’t going off to war with some unknowable and evil force, but I was out to settle what was, in my mind, a very serious issue that needed solving.

            I didn’t really expect what I would find.

            I went back, against my wife’s wishes and without even hearing my kids. If that makes me a shitty husband and dad I suppose I have to live with it now.  I don’t have much else to live with.

            I made my way back to Woodland, following the same path, carrying the same items, and expecting the same result.  Part of me was almost frightened that it wouldn’t happen again, that I was a crackpot and was just deluding myself.  But I know what I saw, and unfortunately it had become a compulsion to see it again.  I took off around 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, almost two full hours before sunset this time of year, and I was making damn good and sure to stay where the highway cops couldn’t see me. I didn’t need my trip back to madness being interrupted after all.

            My wife made me take my cell phone this time. I’d conveniently forgotten it the last time, as I’d wanted just a little peace and quiet for a while.  This time though she’d badgered me into taking the damn thing just so she could check in with me now and again.  I had thoughts of chucking it into the woods, but at that point she might have actually called the cops, as she’d given me a good half hour lecture on why I needed to just let this go. Funny, she didn’t seem to think I was crazy at all, she just wanted me to forget about it.  I guess I should have listened a little closer.

            But I’m stubborn. It runs in my family and will no doubt emerge in my kids when they get older.  That simple fact has damned me more times than I can count.

            So I went back, and once I got to the highway signs I’d already started to notice the people in their cars again. They were shaking their heads as though trying to clear them, coming out of a stupor they couldn’t understand, and likely as not wouldn’t remember that they’d seen a town starting to fade away like a Polaroid in reverse.  I thought nothing of it as I made my way into the town, fully expecting to see it fade and shimmer as it had before. 

            Even being prepared for something like that though your mind doesn’t let you just accept it. I was breathing hard and felt my heartbeat going a mile a minute as I began to make my way into the town proper.  I had to wonder what would happen once the sun went down again, and I had to see it.

            This time was no different, it was already starting to shimmer and waver like a heat

vision as the sun was just barely tingeing the tree tops a golden hue.  Every last bit of the town

was fading like a mirage when I saw someone approaching me.  It was a man, and he was

smiling, but I didn’t understand why at first.  When he reached me he stopped only an arm’s

length away.  I still didn’t know why he was smiling, or why he’d approached me like he knew

me.  All I knew was that I was about to witness something that I believed that no man before me

had ever seen before.  Boy did he set me straight.

            “Sonny,” he said, despite the fact that he was obviously several years younger I was, “You just made a big mistake, possibly the last one of your life.”

            I felt my eyes widen as he said this. Obviously I didn’t understand, but it sounded like he was threatening me just then.  He still had that smile on his face, but it was fading just as he was, along with the rest of the town.

            “What do you mean?” I asked.

            He chuckled, “Only a real dipshit would see something like this and come back to see it again.  You might’ve at least learned the rules after that first glimpse.”

            Now I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. I do now, but of course, hindsight is always a bitch, and not a very nice one.

            “What rules?” I asked him.

            He just shook his head, still smiling, “You don’t get to leave now big guy,” he said jovially, “Anyone that knows about this place knows that.  You might as well just settle yourself in for as long as it lasts.  I expect it won’t be too long.”

            I wanted to ask him what he meant again, but at that point the darkness had been coming on quick, and the town was gone before I could voice my question. The wilderness of before had come back, and as I have already found out, it is not a particularly nice place. 

            Did you get that?  The town disappears, poof, gone like that.  But when it comes back, so do I.

            If you don’t get it by now then I’m done explaining. It’s time for a drink, then I’ve got to go.

The Fine Line

The Fine Line

By Tom Foster

 

At some point in everyone’s life they come to realize several things all at once, and it’s moments like these that they begin to question: Am I really where I want to be?  How would I know that? I’ve been there, repeatedly.

Now I know the thoughts that come up in light of such a statement, and I know very well that anyone who reads this, if you get the chance, will think I’m about as nutty as a Payday bar, but hear me out. I’ve said this time and time again, over and over, to people like you who either didn’t want to listen, or couldn’t comprehend and chose instead to call me a kook, a liar, a douchebag even.  I’ve gotten it all, and by God I’ll no doubt get it again and again throughout my life, but guess what, I’ll still keep saying it, at least until the loop finally stops.

If it stops.

You go through life and think you know at least enough to get by, but you really don’t.  I was told this by someone I can’t fully understand, and I believe it to this day, whatever day it might be to those who get to keep on living out their lives, instead of being stuck in one day, in one place or another, for as long as they can imagine.

Now I know you probably think this sounds like a movie, not one of the greats, but one that was memorable enough to warrant a dip into the old junk pile of nostalgia that goes back to only God knows when.  My own is a hodgepodge of crap and other material, but honestly it’s like a briar patch in there any longer. That’s most likely why I don’t tend to venture into the darker recesses any more than I absolutely have to. But yes, it is kind of like a movie, you know, main character is a douche, has a love interest he doesn’t know about yet, an irritating sidekick that’s always there at the wrong time, and a life that, while grand in his mind, is really quite depressing.

Well, I’m two for four I suppose, three if you count the asshole that currently shares this existence with me.  I don’t have a love interest that might help get me out of this current funk, though it would be nice to have someone to warm the sheets every now and then, someone that might remember me and how great I was, or wasn’t.  Let’s be honest, not everyone rings the bell just right on every night, not even me.

But that ship sailed a long time ago, and despite the fun I did have when this all started, that’s kind of dried up now.  Oh, women will still have something to do with me, and I can still get laid whenever I want, but the allure has kind of just, faded, for lack of a better word.  I suppose when you spend a lifetime in different places but in the same day that’s bound to happen.  God I’m depressed.

Oh I suppose you want to know what happened to me, why I am this way, and why I’m talking in this manner, right?  Enough of this pity-party and get to the good stuff, yeah?  Well this is my story, my eulogy in a way, so back the hell off and just listen, or put it down and go away, I don’t care.

So here’s how it is, I don’t work for a news station, I’m not a journalist of any sort, and I don’t have a goofy sidekick and a woman that could possibly turn my life around.  I left that latter part of my life a long time ago, and at that time thought I was all the better for it.

My name is currently Rodriguez Martine, but I was born Henry Adam Dell.  I suppose my initials are a bit ironic at this point, but I digress.

I currently, for this day at least, reside in Puerto Vallarta in good old Me-hi-co, or Mexico to those who might get confused by my attempt at wit.  I’ve been here for all of six hours since I woke up in a dingy little basement apartment next to a local woman who, though pretty, doesn’t have a damned tooth in her head.  It might be meth, it might be coke, or it might just be she’s never heard the word “hygiene” in her entire life, but the woman’s breath is like the inside of a dumpster in the middle of a heat wave.  But hey, she was in a good mood when she woke up, and given that she didn’t mind going ass up and face down, it suited me just fine.

Yesterday I was in Bavaria, and the woman I woke up to then was just, yikes.

That’s how it’s been for me for a while now, I’ve kind of stopped counting how many days have passed, and how many women I’ve woken up to.  From one pole to the other and from east to west I’ve had women that I never knew existed, and only a few times have I had women I’ve recognized.  Don’t get me wrong, the ones I recognized were no prize really, but damn, if I could write a memoir that would actually stick, I’d probably have an instant bestseller on my hands.  Oh if I could only tell you the secrets of some of the current starlets, lord a-mighty.

But enough of that, it’s not just about the sex, but that is a nice part, sometimes it gets me through the day.  The real meat of this current existence however is that I can’t seem to find a way out. In the movie that conforms to my life the most, the guy at least was able to figure out what needed to be done to bring the next day rolling over like the next digit on an odometer, but I’ve yet to find anything that might aid me in the same manner.

I’ve done the altruistic and humanitarian bit, and brother let me tell you, it’s not as easy as Hollywood makes it look.  If you recall that old show, Quantam Leap, with Scott Bakula and his goofy sidekick, that Dean whats-his-name, you’ll also remember that he too was supposed to make things right before “leaping” to another situation, another time, and another life.  At least he got to visit different time periods, hell he even got to be a woman now and then, but I think I’d like to pass on that particular experience.  Being a man is good enough for me.

I’ve done what I can to make things better in each new spot I’ve been placed in, and man it’s a headache sometimes.  Each time I’ve only ever seen my own face in the mirror, and no one has known me, no matter if they knew someone that interacted with me the day before, which is funny, because the day before never happens any longer.

It’s always sunny, a bit balmy, and with a few clouds drifting in from the west that look vaguely like faces when I’m placed in a position to see them clearly.  The date is always March 25th, and the time I wake up, well, that at least varies, but it’s always some time before five o’ clock in the morning.

At one time I woke up in a weather station situated up at the north pole for shit’s sake, snuggled into a  cot meant only for one with a very fetching graduate student.  The mystery of how I’d gotten there was pretty commonplace to the student, her name was Emily I remember, and I was her teacher, but to me it was hard to imagine. How does one just appear somewhere, and how do the people other than myself know that it’s natural?

If I was really paranoid I might call that a cover up, but honestly, I don’t subscribe to the Roswell Literary Group.  I tend to want things to make sense, but I’ve gotten over that now.  The year when I somehow slipped into this weird little crack in time and space was 2012, though I kind of wonder when it might be now, if things have really moved on without me.  I’m not conceited enough to think that they can’t, I can accept that the world still turns, but in all truthfulness my mind is still attempting to wrap around the fact that I’ve been forgotten so many times that not even a hint of me remains in the world once I wake up the next day.

But that’s how it happens.

Part of me would like to believe it’s some vast, unknowable government conspiracy bent on driving me crazy or experimenting in mind control of some sort.  Tell me now just how ridiculous that sounds, go ahead.  I’ve had trouble swallowing it for the past who knows how long, and I’m the one who thought up such a screwball theory.  Throughout this entire time, however long it’s been, there has only remained one constant, and as God is my witness, I sincerely wish this bastard would leave me be.  If I’m going to spend an eternity waking up in a strange place next to a strange woman then dammit I at least want some consistency.  I know, weird thought right?

Anyway, this bastard, his name as he claims is Ralph, has been popping up ever since the beginning, when I first stepped into this strange gap in the time continuum.  That’s my explanation, not an actual one by the way. But anyway, back to Ralph.

He’s not a bad looking fellow, kind of tall, the type that could blend into most crowds and even go unnoticed in a vacant lot, but he’s still a bit creepy.  His words, the few I get, are almost always cryptic, telling me something about this is the day I get, the day I need, or some junk like that.  He usually doesn’t say much of anything else, just that and something else equally as vague.  It’s irritating really, but I’m always glad to see him leave.

I haven’t seen Ralph now for at least three or four cycles, and honestly I’m beginning to wonder if he’s giving up on me.  Strangely enough I don’t know how to feel about that.  In the beginning I would have given anything for the guy to let me be, but now, I think I’ve gotten used to him being there, like an annoying noise you can’t silence but can’t stand.  Ralph’s like my white noise, and he’s just as eerie.

It’s nearing the end of this day, and I’m wondering why I even bothered to write this little piece of nothing. I won’t be able to pick it up tomorrow, as I’ll no doubt be hundreds, even thousands of miles away. There’s always the chance I’ll be only a few minutes away, but it’s not as likely.  I mean come on, I can give you at least the last ten days of where I woke up, the rest is swiftly becoming a not so fond memory, other than the physical gratification of course, but let’s not get into that, I’d be writing until I finally fell asleep, and that would be an even worse waste of time.

Ten days ago, my days mind you, I woke up in one of the higher rent districts in Tokyo, and brother let me tell you, the woman I woke up next to was a freak with a capital F.  It was interesting, as was the rest of the day, I went from resting in a penthouse apartment on the top of a skyscraper to jet-setting from noon to midnight with ladies who thought I was simply the hottest thing around. Going to sleep that night had been more of a passing out moment, as I’d been downing enough alcohol to put and Irishman to shame.  But waking up hadn’t been that great.

The next day I woke up in a low-rent tenement in Hackensack, New Jersey.  I was slapped awake that time, a full five-finger salute to the side of my head following one of the roughest sexual escapades I’ve ever been in.  I swear to you now I must have gone the rest of the day with a press-on nail stuck to my ass, and a hickey the size of a tomato on the left side of my neck.  It’s always sex when I wake up, no matter if it’s following a fight I don’t understand or a restful night that leads into a very good morning. My current sackmate, Mariah, made up for her rotten breath with her enthusiasm, but hells no I wouldn’t kiss her afterwards.

After Hackensack was Vancouver, Washington, a full two thousand plus miles from where I’d been born.  I’m a Midwest boy born and bred, but I’ve always felt the pull of the city, which was what took me away from farm country when I was still seventeen.  My parents, may they both rot in the bottles they kept themselves in, didn’t even fight it when I got myself emancipated.  There’s a reason I’m so cynical, and if you really look you can see it in the bottom of each bottle my besotted sire and mother ever drank out from.

Anyway, Vancouver, right?

The woman I woke up to that day was, in my opinion, a part of the Prozac nation.  Twitchy, amped up, nervous all the time, a true member of the better living through chemistry association.  This woman must have had a pill for every last aspect of her day.  Even in bed it seemed like she needed a pill.  If that was why she was a bit, l don’t know, off, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

After that, oh hold on, my memory is getting a bit fuzzy these days, I want to say it was some no name little burg in Poland, but that could have been just a few days ago for all I’ve been paying attention.  I really don’t want to remember the Polish woman, eesh.  Can you say cellulite city?  She was one hell of a good cook though.

I do recall Los Angeles though, God what a tense place.  The bed I woke up in was only slightly removed from Watts, and believe me I know the feeling of a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.  That time I woke up in a dominantly black neighborhood, and while a great deal of it was made up of hard-working, decent folk, we were still on the fringe of gangland, and apparently I was boffing the main ho of a notoriously violent drive-by artist.

I am white, not lily-white, I can tan within a half hour in the sun, but I am white enough that a person of mulatto persuasion can make me look pale.  And I woke up in a black neighborhood.  It doesn’t help to say I’m not racist, which I’m not, but in that place, I felt my heart pounding a mile a minute each second I walked around the ‘hood.  With a nine millimeter thrust in the front of my pants, a backwards cap denoting the Raiders, whom I can’t stand, and a heavy jacket that would have been ridiculous even in colder weather, I spent that single day wondering just where the fatal bullet was coming from.  But obviously I’m here, and nothing happened, other than the main ho, her name was Taneesha, yeah I know, bitching me out for this and that, mostly about cigarettes, her hair, her nails, and all the other beauty regimens she felt I should pay for.  Needless to say I was actually glad when that day was over.

Next up was one of the strangest days I’ve experienced in some time.  My eyes opened to see a small child lying between me and the woman I’d apparently appeared by, a younger blonde I found out was named Millicent, an odd name, but still kind of nice. The child, Nathan, was apparently my son.

Yeah, believe me, I know how that sounds.

Ralph had been showing up intermittently throughout all these days, and he was in full force this day as “Uncle Ralph”, which only compounded the strangeness.  Millicent treated him as though we’d both known him for a lifetime, and Nathan had cooed and burbled at Ralph as though he was the most trustworthy person on the face of the earth.  It jarred me to say the least, that I had a son.  A part of me almost didn’t want to give it up, but the rest of me knew I wouldn’t have a choice.  That day was hard to leave, especially when I was able to see just how much Millicent loved me, or thought she did.

You know, I’ve tried to figure out if these people still exist the next day?  That’s really when Ralph steps in, he lets me know that this is not allowed.  That leads me to believe that they do, since he doesn’t seem like he’d be interested in keeping me from harm.  He seems more like he’s there to keep me on the straight and narrow, nothing more.  I do wonder though what might happen if I pushed my limits.  I’m a little nervous putting this all down, thinking like maybe he might just decide to pop in for a surprise visit or something, mash my fingers into the keyboard perhaps to prevent this from going any further.

It’s not a nice thought, but I can’t help it.

Anyway, the next one I woke up to was in Nepal, and she was fourteen God help me.  It was considered natural in that part of the world I guess, but to me it was just flat out creepy.  That was a long, long day, and not just because of my own inner issues with being married to a child.  God it still gives me the creeps just thinking about it.

But moving on, right?

Next was some little mud and straw shack out in the wilds of Ghana, and another black woman, but one that didn’t worry so much about her appearance.  I suppose that goes both ways, but this woman was actually not too bad.  Oh, did I mention that each place I appear in, I somehow speak the language of their indigenous peoples?  In Tokyo I understood and spoke everything from Japanese to Russian, and given that I was apparently something of a businessman, I guess it was fortunate. But speaking Swahili, boy that was, ah, interesting.

Going down the top ten once again I was in Austria just the other day, and hoo boy, I’d like to go back.  I woke beneath a mammoth pair of, ah, well, hell I’ll just say it, I woke up under a rack that would have made Anna Nicole Smith weep with envy, and a body that would have been accepted without reservation by any modeling agency on the planet.  And not only had Inga been a smoking hot fox, but she’d been a good cook, an insatiable lover, and by and large, someone I could really talk to.

I didn’t want that day to end, and despite doing everything right, being nice to people, being charitable, running around with Inga to do every last NICE thing I could, it still ended.  Shit, even Bill Murray eventually got to settle down with his dream girl.  I don’t even get a second chance with mine.

But like I already said, yesterday I was in Bavaria, and the nearly toothless hooker I woke to was a nightmare, a kind of payback that I don’t even know what I did to deserve.  They say that karma, or fate, is a bitch, and I’d like to amend that. She is a vengeful, hung-over, that time of the month, break it off and stick it in, conniving, man-hating bitch.  I’ve done everything right so many times that I can feel a perma-smile trying to etch itself onto my face at times, and still I can’t catch a break.  I’ve waited patiently, longingly, never asking for anything and taking all the shit life and fate can both dish out, and still I’m stuck in this cosmic schtick for no better reason I can see than to torment me until I break.  Well guess what? It’s going to take more than life can give.

This woman’s breath was worse I think than today’s woman, but at least she had a couple of teeth in her head, I mean when she opened her mouth it didn’t look like a black hole staring back at me.  I’ve kind of wondered today how this woman, Mariah, eats anything that’s not a liquid or a soup.  Trust me, you don’t want to watch her gumming a chicken leg, it brings to mind some images I’d rather not share.  She’s a good lay, but that’s about it.  Her cooking sucks next to Inga’s, and the physical part of it, well, let’s just say I’m glad she doesn’t try to talk much and keeps to herself for the most part.  If I had to kiss that mouth, ugh.

Today I didn’t do anything NICE, I didn’t do anything BAD either, I just kind of went about my business, I’m a chicken farmer by the way, and avoided pissing anyone off too much.  Honestly I used to see Puerto Vallarta as a nice, happening place where Spring Break was king and the liquor flowed like water for anyone with the cash and the lack of shame to enjoy.  I’ve been here more than once and never seen where I live now, but then I was always more interested in the night life and the tourist attractions, namely the women that did have teeth and were kissable.  I’ve never seen this place, and up until now I can say I’m glad.

You wouldn’t believe how boring the life of a chicken farmer is, walking around feeding the little clucking, pecking, shitting things.  Personally I prefer my chickens dead and crispy fried, original or barbecue style.  But here, with feathers, beaks, and an overall nasty attitude, I’d just as soon punt one of the little bastards as look at it.  Well, it won’t last much longer I suppose, and then, well, I’ll move onto the next woman and the next life.  Maybe I’ll luck out again like I did with Inga, or maybe it’ll just get worse.  Who knows?

I’m starting to get a little tired, probably going to head off to sleep and whatever comes next soon enough.  I hope this plan I came up with today works, otherwise I’ll just keep writing for no reason and getting more and more pissed off that I can’t break this moronic cycle.  I’m going to take this memoir with me to bed tonight, and hopefully it will be there with me in the morning.  If nothing else, if it does remain behind when I’m gone, it might just confuse the hell out of Mariah and whomever she’s left with.  You see, I get the feeling that one of two things happens when I go to sleep.

Obviously I move around, though given the choice I would have stayed with either Inga or Mllicent.  What I can’t figure though is who I’m replacing, or if I’m replacing anyone at all.  What if, now just follow me for a moment on this, what if the worlds I’m bouncing into every night are either non-existent and void until I arrive, and then gone once I’m taken away, or, even wilder, there are others like me, switching out night after night, but with no real knowledge of how or why?  Ralph of course wouldn’t be the only person out there keeping tabs on us, there are more if my theory is correct, but just think about it.  The slate has to be wiped clean for each woman I sleep with, and then something written into their lives that let’s them recognize me as their own husband, boyfriend, or whatever.  And my son of a few days back, Nathan?  I have to admit, if my theory has any merit that bothers me more than a little.  He was a cute kid.

Moving on though.  If I’m right, and this memoir stays with me, then I will be, well, um,  I’ll be right to start with, but, I’ll also, ah, I’ll be scared shitless.  Because it means there is no real control in the universe.  If this is true and what’s happening to me is real, it means that anything and everything is up for grabs, and no one is safe from this happening.  I mean think about it, think about all you do in a day, all the people you interact with even on the most minute level.  Everything changes with the most unsuspecting deviance to the routine, and in that one instant, that one defining moment, the fine line between order and utter anarchy is breached, and to be dead honest, true to the soul and bone and whatever else honest, it scares me to think what might happen if that line is crossed by more than one person at a time.  It terrifies me to think that such a line might be treated with such indignity, with all that’s riding on it.

I digress again, because I’m starting to scare myself, and Mariah is calling me to bed in her broken, garbled, toothless language.  But if this comes with me,  I will add to it, and I will continue to catalogue what I’ve done and seen.  Trust me on this, the fine line between chaos and order won’t be broken by me, at least not willingly.  Someone’s got to keep this place in check.

And it might as well be me.

 

Good Night, pray for me,

Rodriguez Martine

Janichiro Kurisawa

Vincent Copeland

Muriel Lander

Teshann Burdwell

Bradley Gunn

Kopu Garr

Dijmon Koat

Bjorn Seynvka

Dmitri Sovenaya

(Henry Adam Dell)

 

*                             *                             *

 

Munich, Germany

4:32 am

 

I’ve been awake for an hour and a half now.  The woman next to me is someone I don’t know, but she is at least very pretty, a little heavy, but I can get over that.  What I can’t get over is the simple truth: I failed.

The memoirs of yesterday didn’t make it along for the trip, even though my memories did.  I wonder what might happen if I try telling my story aloud? Would Ralph come out and stop me?  I don’t know, but it’s tempting.

Damn it.

Reset

Reset

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

 

Did you ever get the feeling that it’s all been done before? I don’t mean those words in any allegorical, almost nostalgic way, but really, truthfully, with a heaping sense realism tossed in for more than just taste and color. Follow me on this thought now, if you can, and I hope you will, that the world as we know it is not a blank slate, not really, but more like a blank notepad. Have you ever noticed how when you write on a notepad, applying either a lot of force or just enough to get the pen to write, how an impression is made on the other side?

Now mind it’s not a perfect match or anything, not even really legible at times, but it’s there nonetheless. What if our world is like that? Note I said “is” not “was”. This is a belief that isn’t new at the core of the matter, but is a different spin on things as we know it regardless. But likely it’s not all that popular, as I’ve already found out.

Ah me, where are my manners?

My name is Jonah Silvers, and I’m an author/scientist/family man. I’ve been at this sort of thing for so many years now it seems like I’ve done nothing else in my life, other than my three wonderful kids and my adoring wife. Without them I wouldn’t be much of anything, but without them I’d also be a dead man I think.

Anyway back to the world theory, right?  I’ve been working so long on the assumption that mankind has been through many different incarnations, some which are lasting and some that, like that barely pressured piece of note paper, don’t take at all.  It depends on how many people are left, what belief system is set into place, and how strong the idea is after those who follow it are no more.  There are a large number of technical terms and mumbo-jumbo that I could and have tried to bury this study in to get it both published and away from those who might take offense, but still I’m hounded occasionally by those who don’t think my work has any merit.

 Consider this if you will, from the creationist standpoint.  The act of creating a world is an epic masterstroke by the universe or some unseen force such as God.  That force is able to generate an entire world, a universe in truth, and can create life on any planet it wishes.  So then why not roll the dice and create life on other worlds? Why stop at earth?  Why bother to only create life on a single planet instead of utilizing the other bits and pieces that were left over from the cataclysmic reaction that created a solar system?

Everyone from astronomists to mathematicians have threatened me with bodily harm for even bothering to bring such theories to the table, and I’ve noted black suburbans and sedans rolling around my neighborhood on several occasions since I decided to pursue this issue, but I’ve persisted.  Science is all about discovery and risk, and my family supports me as much as they can.  Their safety is important to me, and several times I’ve decided to send them away for a while so that I can keep them removed from the madness that my research seems to elicit.  Plus, if fed or anyone else ever do come to the door I don’t want my kids to be here. 

What if Adam and Eve weren’t the first human beings on this world? What if apes weren’t just the next step in evolution? What if human beings had been here for far longer than anyone ever realized?  The evidence I know exists has been debunked more times than I can recall by so-called experts and professionals that know little more than what they’ve been taught and are forced to parrot back in their high-priced college courses and peer-infested groups. My own experience has taught me to question everything, and sometimes don’t let statistics and facts bog you down.  Needless to say I’m one of the few scientists that stretches the boundaries of science in order to get the answers I want, not just the ones that can be read out of a textbook.

Of course that hasn’t always proven to be the safest option available. Believe it or not some people take their theories and the realities they accept rather seriously.  I know, duh, right? But I’m not simply talking about opinionated arguments and heated discussions. I’m talking full-on bricks through windows, car tires slashed, death threats in the mail, and even a stern talking to by those I’m not supposed to be mentioning. Anyone else might have thrown in the towel by now, particularly when an agent of their own government stated that I’m getting “too close for comfort” with the goals of my research.

This used to the stuff I believed was all born out of paranoia, the black helicopter kind of crap and cloak and dagger scheme that frightens the average public so badly. But the essence of it is real, Big Brother is indeed watching and listening it would seem.  It’s aptly named I suppose since if you’ve ever had a big brother you’d know very well what it means to tell that individual that they’re wrong and you’re right.  In most cases it would mean the continual escalation to an ass-kicking followed by years of resentment and then, perhaps in the right situation, a royal ass-kicking later on by the abused.  A large part of me is waiting for the latter, but I get the feeling I might not be around to see it.

You see, I found something. 

It’s not much, and the thought of taking it before any fellow scholars to announce its presence is all too horrifying as I’m certain they’ll debunk it before the idea that goes with it can gain any traction.  I’ve been checking the item out with every single person I can think of and in every pertinent discipline, but so far to date it is genuine, no matter that it seems impossible. For such a simple object the item is still important as it’s a cornerstone of so many different cultures at this point, a mainstay from one country to another that has gained ground upon every competitor in its field since arriving on the scene nearly two decades before.

You see, I found a USB drive.

I can see you rolling your eyes at me now, believing that I’ve been jobbed and now so have you.  Well if there’s no belief in me a least believe in the reality of this: my dig site, mine alone and no one else’s, was supposedly barren and therefore left alone after the last dig visited the north part of Montana near Choteau.  As a scientist, with a minor interest in paleontology, I still have some clout in many areas I visit, though many people who know my work, or me, roll their eyes when they see me coming. This is why I don’t get many interns.

My last one, Emile, a transfer student from the south of France, didn’t last more than a few weeks before insulting me and heading onto work with Thomas Vacan, a noted scientist and expert paleontologist that had once attempted to have me thrown off a dig site.  The guy’s an asshat in my opinion, but professionally he’s quite astute.  As far as Emile was concerned I was, and still am, a kook.  But despite all that I think the lot of them are going to be eating their words when I begin to extrapolate what I can from my little find.

Flash drives were invented back in 1999, making them less than twenty years old.  The find that I managed to dig up without breaking it was dated as being old as 2 to3 million years old.  My friend that did the carbon-dating laughed as thought I’d just told a funny joke when we figured this out, but when he authenticated it he immediately thought to ask me if I was going to go public with it.  I’ve really thought about the matter since then, as well as the implications, but I haven’t done anything to date.  In truth I’m scared to even try and plug it into a computer to see what might happen.  Would it fry the system? Would it destroy the drive? There’s no doubt of what it is, but what it might do is both exhilarating and terrifying all the same time. 

I might tell you that I was sorely tempted but didn’t dare. But again, I am a scientist, and needed to know. 

Keep in mind that these events I’m relaying to you have already happened, and are still happening in fact.  I started something that no one can seem to reverse, and in all honesty I’m not certain if I would want them to.  My family is far removed from me now after all that has happened, and no matter what becomes of them they are better off. 

It all started with me buying another computer to test out the flash drive I’d found. It still feels so strange to state that I found the damned thing, and more than this, that it works.  I bought a cheapo computer at a local pawn shop, a refurbished hunk of junk that would run and probably function well enough to be a glorified typewriter and calculator, but little else. The memory on it was minimal and its functions took nearly five minutes apiece just to get running. But it had power and the capability I needed, so I took it.

My wife and kids were out doing something else that day so they had no basis for what happened, and it needs to stay that way.  What they know already is enough to get them locked away for good, and what I know could possibly get me killed if the wrong people show up on what’s left of my doorstep before…..

I’m getting ahead of myself here.

I bought the computer and took it home, plugged it in, got it all set up, and in the moment of truth I plugged the flash drive into the required slot.  For a few seconds nothing happened, and I almost felt kind of stupid to think that something buried so long in the dirt might actually stand a chance in hell of operating to peak performance. But then the cursor on the blank screen disappeared and a single message scrolled across the dark, convex surface. I told you the PC was refurbished, I suppose I should have said it was old too.

Anyway, the message read: Do you wish to reset? Y/N

It was a simple prompt, one that I didn’t think much of at first, but upon thinking about it I took the most un-scientific step I’ve ever done in my life. I just hit the Y and let whatever happened, happen.  I guess it wasn’t too un-scientific as the best science as I’ve found is always in the doing and not in the theorizing.  But if I’d had even an inkling of what was about to happen I think that second thought would have been my first instead, a precautionary measure I would have been grateful for.  It might have saved us all a lot of trouble.

As soon as I hit the Y the PC began to shudder and shake all over, as though it was a finely tuned engine that someone had just thrown a wrench into.  I backed away quickly from the monitor most of all, as it was one of those old models that could break and send chunks of glass rocketing towards anyone foolish enough to be in its path.  But as I backed away I watched in stupefied amazement, not horror mind you, as the entire PC began to fold in on itself, breaking and buckling in a way I’d never imagined, as though some giant fist were crushing it slowly, methodically, and so completely that it took me a moment to recall that I had left the flash drive in the port.

I dove for the drive, one hand in front of my face as the screen continued to fracture and crack apart. Not a single piece shot out however, every last shard of glass, plastic, metal, and silicon remained glued together as though held by some type of magnetic force.  I had to yank on it a bit but the drive came free with a small hiss and sizzle of sparks that had me retreating again, the drive still in hand and the effect still ongoing as after only another minute or so the entire PC was gone, replaced, or reduced I’ll say, to its core components, which I know sounds crazy but is one hundred percent what happened. I tested the materials myself and found each and every bit and piece to be the basis for many if not all of the components that had until just a few minutes before been a functioning, integrated system.

A lot of other people might have been mystified, horrified, even stupefied by this, but being the scientist that I am I just dove right in.  After all, nothing had been damaged but the computer, and even that hadn’t so much been damaged as it had been, well…

Reset.

            Yep, I said it. The entire thing had been reset to the point of being set back to its initial components and then broken down and reduced to its core components, before anyone had ever looked at a pile of rock and wondered that they could get out of it.  You would’ve never thought the pile of inorganic material on my desk had been a functional computer just a short time before the event, though if you’d seen it you would understand a little better the implications of the device I held in my hand.

            Being curious I couldn’t help but keep going from there, and I think that was my problem. I just couldn’t stop.  If a small little device such as this had the capacity to reconstitute a computer all the way back to its original components, what could it do to other feats of creation?

            Of course the initial thought that crossed my mind was that a flash drive was quite useless away from any type of port that could make use of its data, but I had to try, didn’t I?  I had to ask all the question I could think of, make all the moral decisions that I knew were necessary, and in the end it didn’t really matter.

            I’ll get to that.

             After the computer I had to try it on something else. When the kids and my wife asked where the new computer was I told them the truth when I said that it had been a refurbished system and likely to break down, what I didn’t tell them was what had really happened. So I was truthful for part of it at least.  They didn’t need to know the rest, and probably wouldn’t have believed me anyway. They believe me now though no doubt, though I wonder if I’ll ever get the chance to show them anything again.

            Anyway, after the computer I went on to other objects and attempts.  Now recall that I’ve already said that I had to wonder if the drive would work on anything other than the port and systems it was designed for?  Well scratch that noise, it works on anything.  The subject that it’s used upon doesn’t even need a port, just a point of contact. 

            After the computer I decided to try something just a little sturdier, like a solid brick wall. I know what you’re thinking and no, I did not use a wall in my home. That would have been hard to explain to my family at the time, and would have seriously compromised the integrity of our home.  Instead I tried it out on the brick wall of a derelict building, though in retrospect I suppose I should have checked to make sure it was abandoned.  Those screams….

            Moving along. I used the drive next on a brick wall as I’ve said, somewhere out in the old industrial sector where I knew that buildings were so old they collapsed every so often anyway and wouldn’t be investigated. Despite the lack of security and surveillance cameras out that way there was still the inescapable fear that someone would come along and see, and then rumors would begin.  While the rumors might have started, they likely would have come from a very shaky and unreliable source, the type that drank their breakfast and puffed away on used cigarette butts to feed a pointless nicotine addiction.

            Still, I couldn’t help being nervous as I found a big enough wall that was out of sight from the main street to attempt my experiment.  With nerves jangling and my stomach tightening I placed the drive against a flat section of brick, and was almost thrown back from the force of the contact. 

            My back still hurts from the memory of landing so hard that my teeth shook.  I held onto the drive thankfully, but as my eyes opened wider I saw what was happening and couldn’t help but scramble backwards, scraping both hands and my knuckles in the process. I didn’t even notice I was bleeding until I’d returned home.

            The wall imploded, or rather, it folded in upon itself again and again, but even that isn’t the truth. Instead all I can really say to make you understand is that the wall, rippled somehow.  It kept rippling as though it was liquid surface that I’d dropped a stone into, those ripples effecting a startling change that my mind was unable to fully process as the effect kept going, taking in everything touched as the first screams reached my ears.  I didn’t want to look, but again, being a scientist, I couldn’t help it.

            I’ve told you that the effect of the drive broke the computer down into its roughest, most raw parts. Well now keep in mind that human beings are essentially walking conglomerations of elements as well, and try to accept this as I tell you what happened.

            I only saw it happen to one of the many transients that were sleeping in the building thankfully, but one was enough.  The effect started on the wall had rippled and gone on to affect the floors, the ceilings, and everything touching them at that given moment. This meant those who had taken up residence within the building as well.  One of those unfortunate people was bunked up against one of the inner walls that I had the dubious chance to witness as it was reduced to its core components, just as the individual behind the wall was.

            In my life I have heard a number of things scream in their death throes, but a human being eking out the last breath they’ll ever take is one of the eeriest damn things I have ever heard.  I’m certain the sound of the transient’s bloodcurdling scream will haunt me to the day of my death, but I still couldn’t look away at first.

            As I said, humans are a conglomeration of elements, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. Every one of those elements is essential for a human being to survive, and every one of those elements was released and brought back to their core form, or so I’m assuming after what I saw.  Despite the very reality of their existence, those transients within that old warehouse, and the warehouse itself, just ceased to exist after I used the drive. 

            Maybe I should have checked to see if the warehouse was inhabited, maybe I should have used a smaller structure that I knew was unpopulated, but the choice I made stuck.  I became a murderer on that day, and I’ve become a mass murderer as a result.  My decisions didn’t drive me to become another Bundy, Gacey, or Manson, but all the same I’ve managed to cause more deaths in one lifetime than even Hitler, Mao, or Stalin could have boasted. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

            In theory I had my answer for the groundbreaking hypothesis that I’d been working on for so long. Something had come before, and this drive was the proof.  The validation of that proof was the pile of shale and clay, as well as other select elements, that were all that remained of a once condemned warehouse.  But was I able to tell anyone? Nope.

            Even had I wanted to, which I did with all my heart, the very reality of it drew too much attention in the interim.  I wanted to go to friends, colleagues, people I’d known for years, and just demonstrate the ability of the flash drive, to tell them where I’d found it, and how long it had been there. But the laughter and then the derision to come would have been far too real, and worse than that, if I’d bothered to show them the attention it would have received would not have

been the sheer revelation that I wanted, but instead suspicion and perhaps outright terror that I’d

devised some brand new weapon of mass destruction that didn’t come with the downfall of nuclear winter and massive radiation.  I knew that as soon as any government official got hold of the device that I’d either be eliminated or turned into a lab rat as I’m the only one that’s been in contact with it. Given that I’m a mid-level scientist I’m quite certain the former scenario would have been more likely.

            For a short time, a few days in truth, I didn’t do anything with the flash drive. I still had to process what had happened back at the warehouse. I had to drown out the screams, and I had to figure out just what I would think of next.  I mean, the power to unmake something?  How do you think about something like that without slipping into the abuse column? 

            So to keep it simple, I waited. 

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            It’s getting worse around here, and the pressure is even worse now.  The world has begun a continual state of renewal that I didn’t figure on, not even after what happened when I first found this damned thing.  Looking at it now I probably wouldn’t have taken a different course, as I needed to know what it could do, and just how it could be applied. But it’s definitely one of those moments that if I’d known then what I know now…..well, you know.

            After the warehouse and the days that followed I did a lot of thinking, and in truth couldn’t come up with any other ideas. So I think you can guess what I did.

            It didn’t start big, but I had to find another venue that wouldn’t be as noticeable or as catastrophic.  So I picked a spot out along an old hiking trail that wouldn’t be noticed by anyone that might show any interest in what I was doing.  The heat from the government and local authorities had never come down on me thankfully, and the interest in my theories had waned as those in charge had finally deemed me to be non-threatening.  In short I was still on their radar, but was considered a loon and not a mad scientist bent on mass destruction.

            I had to be careful, and mostly because the warehouse incident had made the news. Not just local, but statewide and national as well. If it went further than that I didn’t find out because I refused to keep watching. My wife thought it was a hoax of some sort and my kids weren’t even interested as it wasn’t about blood, guts and gore.  As for me, I’d seen it firsthand, up close and personal, and didn’t need the reminder. One would have thought I’d learned my lesson, right?  That’s a lesson that hardcore scientists don’t really consider at times.

            I looked at that warehouse and figured that next time I’d just have to watch myself and be more careful.  Honestly, that was my first thought.

            So like I said, I went off to a nature trail not too far from my home, thinking to go off the radar for a time to experiment.  It went alright at first, as I had to find a suitable place to be away from people and to place the drive so as to have the maximum effect.  I didn’t want it to be too small or too big, as the blowback from the last effect had been a bruising effect I didn’t want to experience again. The damned impact alone had knocked the wind from my lungs and left a deep bruise on my lower back when I collided with the edge of a dumpster.

            This time I wanted to be sure that I didn’t get knocked on my ass.  Even as I was walking though I was thinking again and again upon what could go wrong, why the flash drive worked as it did, and what implications that would have for my connecting it to a wider area.  Would it simply do its job and then diffuse after stretching so far? Or would it continue on and on?

            I had to wonder what had happened to the world of before, and why we were still allowed to find remnants now and again of “civilized societies” that were still considered quite savage by today’s standards.  Had this flash drive erased them just as it had erased everything I’d used it on thus far?  If so I had to wonder what it might do the world each time it was used, if it was used all that often.  The image of each era being peeled away like the layers of an onion came to mind, but it wasn’t accurate.  It was more like the continual churning of the earth to prepare a field for its next harvest. It was a reset on a global level that I was thinking about, and it was terrifying.

             And I was considering doing it again.

            It might have been unrealistic, after all I had no reason to believe that the effect would be as lasting as the warehouse had been, but then stupidity often comes from thinking the lesser of all evils.  I think it’s a built in failsafe to keep people from exercising caution in the face of the unknown, though it seems a bit faulty in some regards as I’ve heard so often in my life that caution is what comes naturally.  The unknown is to be feared on an instinctual level by most, but I suppose that part of me was broken a long time ago. 

            I’m stalling, aren’t I?

            You want to hear what I did on that nature hike, and why I’m writing this as quickly as I can before the reset hits my area.  It didn’t spread the way I thought it would, meaning that it didn’t cause that ripple effect I saw at the warehouse.  Instead it did something far different and yet infinitely more terrifying.

            So I walked for a while, nothing but my pack and my thoughts about what might happen, not a soul in sight and not a worry other than those in my head.  It should have been just a routine test, another hypothesis being checked out by one more scientist in a world full of them.  It should have been a lot of things, but this is what it was.

            I stopped after about a half hour of walking, finding a nice little clearing beyond the trees and bushes that lined the main path.  It had obviously been a well-used campsite judging by the circle of rocks with the long-dead ashes in the center and the fact that so many branches had been hacked away to clear a space.  In that small place only the bugs and whatever forest critters were watching could observe me doing the single dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Before that moment I would have thought that working up the nerve to ask Bonnie Radcliffe to my senior prom would have been my biggest mistake, but it doesn’t even come close.

            Why was Bonnie such a big mistake? Well for starters Bonnie’s supposedly ex-boyfriend, jock and future psychopath Mitchell Burns, wasn’t so ex as I’d thought, and had caught wind that I was asking his girl to prom.  The beating I got after that sent me to the hospital with a broken arm and a need to blame the injury on doing something so stupid I can’t even recall what it was.  After that though came the real humiliation and unending torture.  Bonnie had agreed to go to the prom with me, but upon reaching her front door I was greeted not by the stunning prom date I’d been expecting, but by my good friend Mitch, who’d laid another beating on me. 

            That one I hadn’t been able to explain, and my parents had filed a lawsuit against Mitchell’s parents quicker than a cast could be slapped on my next broken bone.  You would have thought that would have ended it, but that would have been too simple.  For the years to follow, when Mitch, Bonnie and I somehow managed to attend the same college, yes, Mitch really got in, my parents’ legal troubles with the Burns’, the constant torture, both physical and psychological, had become such a problem that I’d made a new friend named Xanax. 

            Throughout all that bullshit and endless strife I had to all but rebuild and reinvent myself to become a stable individual.  Even now I see Mitch and Bonnie in my dreams and wonder what might have happened if I’d kept my big mouth shut. Despite it all, that one bad decision still paled in comparison to the one I made in that clearing.

            Why, you ask?  Well, hold onto what you consider reality because this is where the story finally comes to a head. I can hear the rumbling in the distance and know that time is short.  It’s been nearly a week since I finally lost the flash drive, and initiated a reset unlike anything that’s been seen by anyone since the flash drive was made I would bet.  I wonder if it survived and is waiting to be dug up again, but I’ll get to that again, if I have time.

             The rumbling’s getting a little louder, so if my typing gets any more erratic just know that I’m out of time, and I’m sorry. 

            I meant to put the flash drive against a rock, something big enough to witness the same effect that had happened at the warehouse.  That’s all I meant to do, I swear. But curiosity overcame me, and stupidity I guess.

            Damn, that last boom sounded close. I’d guess I only have a few seconds left if I’m lucky, so I’ll make this even quicker.  I put the flash drive to the ground.

            That’s right, I put it to the ground and then, just like the warehouse it rippled for further than I could see, that pulse taking in everything as the flash drive adhered to the dirt.  I tried to pull it out, even then I was thinking that this was a bad, piss poor idea. But of course I couldn’t otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.

            My house just shuddered. I can only hope and pray that my family is okay. If they are and they somehow get to read this, just know I’m sorry. It’s about all I can think of to say right now, and the only words other than expletives that will come easily.

            I’m so-

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            Stillness lay over the barren earth, a hushed whisper the only sound emerging as the final few shifts and grinding movements settled.  Amidst the ruin of a once burgeoning civilization, monitors once prized for their plethora of information went blank, with only one line of script rolling across them.  The cursor at its terminus blinked expectantly, highlighting one of the two bold, capital letters divided by a leaning backslash.

 

Do you wish to reset? Y/N

Santa’s Revelation

Santa’s Revelation

By Tom Foster

 

            Most people don’t know why the first Santa Claus really moved to the North Pole, and to be honest, I’m not sure many of them care.  It’s all about gifts, all about so many different things any longer. Really, this holiday has kind of gotten out of control in my opinion.  I’m not a miser, I’m not a Scrooge or anything like that, but when I see the belief that still exists in people, and the disbelief that stains other’s thoughts, I have to wonder sometimes if anyone really gets it any longer.

            I’m not the first Santa to ever take on this position, after all the guys before me were just as fallible, they all had their shortcomings just like I do.  One Santa, as I’ve heard, had a red nose for a different reason than just being jolly, but I won’t go into that.  If a kid reads this and hears someone badmouthing Santa Claus then who knows what could happen?  I’ll just leave it at this, he did his job no matter that he wasn’t the jolliest Santa to ever wear the coat.  Others were flawed in their own ways, but like everyone before them, they got the job done as well.  Me, well, I’m hoping that my term will go at least marginally as well.  So far it’s not looking all that good.

            Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a great position, possibly one of the best in the world!  I get to supervise the making of toys that are both wholesome and educational, I get to take three months off after the season, and even better, my position is rent free!  There’s no costs here at the North Pole, even our electricity is taken from a source that no power company could possibly detect.  I know, I know, magic is a thing best left to fantasy tales and stories for little kids and the hopelessly nerdy, but it’s real.

            I mean take this, how do you think I possibly get all the way around the world in one night?  There’re armies of physicists and scientists who would argue that it can’t be done, that one person couldn’t possibly make it from Rochester, New York, to Los Angeles, California, in less than two days, let alone one night! But magic is something greater than any science fiction tale, it’s what makes all of what I do and what I am possible.  It binds this entire place, and the power that makes Santa Claus, so that the whole shebang can exist.  But like everything else, it’s fallible.

            It sounds ridiculous to say something like magic has a failing, but it’s true.  Even though it can do everything imaginable, it still has limits. For instance, it couldn’t stop people from realizing that the North Pole wasn’t just a frozen wasteland at the top of the world. Curiosity seems like a greater magic at times than anything that exists here, especially since it can come in just as many forms.  To be honest I’ve found myself wondering if that’s a human trait, or just something that every living creature has within them when they’re born.

            You know the elves that are so famed for being Santa’s helpers? They exist, in fact they’ve been on this world for longer than mankind truthfully as I’ve found out.  They came up for the same reason I did eventually, the seclusion.  Up here there’s little to no way that people can survive without a lot of aid and a lot of ingenuity, which, unfortunately some humans have in spades.  The elves came from the world you all know about, they used to call it their home just like you do.  But like happens with all beings when they’re different and in the minority, eventually the blank spaces of the map they could go to and call their own were taken over.  They lived in peace for a long, long time before mankind came around, living up to the legends that our kind has about them. But like with so many things in the world, those who can take over usually do.

            They came up to the North Pole as a last resort, taking their magic with them and finding a new home among the frozen wasteland, making it into their own.  And even more than that, they did it without anyone knowing, till now at least.  I’d actually like to take the blame for that, but they won’t let me.  It’s not my fault they say, sooner or later people were bound to get curious, they were bound to start searching the unseen corners of the map and wonder just what was under all that ice.  And wouldn’t you know it, they found out.

            Humans aren’t content to leave well enough alone. They, or I should say we, since I’m still one of the race after all, like to believe that we can take things on faith, but in reality we have that burning need to know what’s going on in our world.  We have to know how it works, or it doesn’t make sense.  And what doesn’t make sense normally is an oddity.  If it can be measured, we sure as all by golly try, but if it can’t then it’s too often deemed as something we can’t have around us. 

            When we’re kids, a lot of us are taught to believe in Santa Claus, we believe in the magic, we know it can do things that the world won’t let others do.  But then we grow up, and we stop believing because of life experience, because of too many disappointments, times in our lives when we question everything we once believed in so easily.  Sadly some kids have that taken away from them at an early age, no matter how wrong it is.  And what happens then?  A little piece of the overall magic dies, and the legends we were raised with start to die off.

            As long as someone believes, they’re still able to survive. And the elves?  They’re part of this world, no matter that people don’t believe in them.  But me?  If kids stop believing, if the adults give in to their own selfish thoughts, I’m history.  The magic of being Santa Claus is a great thing, it’s like knowing that you can do anything, even if it’s just bringing a smile to a kid’s face because you’ve affirmed that they can find something to believe in.  That alone makes my day.

            But lately, it’s gotten harder.

            Christmas, as you know, was begun without Santa Claus. It’s scandalous to think of this holiday without jolly old Saint Nick, but it’s true.  If you read the bible and cling to Christianity, then you’ll know this holiday has more to do with baby Jesus than it does with me. Hey, I’m humble enough to admit this, I’m not the progenitor of Christmas after all, I’m just the guy who gets to promote it over and over every year.  If you want the truth my title is only measured in centuries, while baby Jesus, his birthday, you know, this holiday and all, has been celebrated for millennia now. 

            The magic of Saint Nicholas, the man who was the origin of Santa Claus, was purely the magic of belief, one of the most intangible sources possible.  He was so loved and revered that in his time spent on this world he managed to become the basis for a tradition that has to this day been kept and upheld. But I sometimes wonder what he’d think if he knew what had become of his name.  The magic of the elves plays a large role in this of course, without their inherent abilities and talents the role of Santa Claus might have remained rooted in belief and faith more than actual magic.  Those little dears, I love every one of them really, are a godsend sometimes.  I mean it, you try and make all those toys and figure out a way to get them delivered!  FedEx and UPS might be prompt and professional, but even they would have a hard time with my job!

            But enough rambling, let me get to the heart of the matter since I’m sure you don’t want to hear me go on and on about the pressures of keeping so many children happy.  The truth is, I’m getting old, and even the magic can’t help that.  It’s a human condition, one that every Santa Claus has had to deal with, and one that, in all honesty, I still find appealing. We aren’t meant to stay here forever, even the elves will expire after a while, though of course their lives are measured in centuries and not decades like us.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live for almost a thousand years before fading off to your final resting place.  Brrr, that gives me the chills just thinking about it.  Anyway, once again I’ll cut to the chase, I’m getting up in years, I have no children, though it’s not for lack of my wife and I trying, ho ho and stuff.

            Someone needs to take my place, and to be honest, I can think of no one in this world of the North Pole or back in the real world that humans like to find themselves grounded in that can fit the bill.  That’s why I’m writing this, in hopes that someone will find it and believe.  That’s all it takes you know, the belief that there is a North Pole, and not just an icy, barren wasteland, but a real place where joy and fun are still very much alive.  An elf can’t be Santa Claus as I’ve learned over the years, or my bases would have been covered already.  Their magic allows this place to continue, and it keeps me here until I find a replacement, but I feel like my time is already getting short.  Mrs. Claus, bless and keep her, knows this too, but she’s being brave for both of us, always reminding me to keep my eye on what’s needed to get the holiday underway and this and that.  She’s lovely, in fact she’s my greatest inspiration, and sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s me that’s prevented us from having children.  Ah well though, that’s a lot of spilled milk, and around here that’s nothing to take lightly!

            Back to my proposition, if you want to call it that.  I need someone to be Santa, to take over the reins of my sleigh so to speak, and reader, if you believe, I’d like this to be you. It’s a great job, as long as you don’t mind working about nine months out of the year, can relocate with some ease at least, and don’t mind the fact that you will have to abide by certain rules.  Of course you have to get married, of course you have to possess exceptional organizational skills and be a team player, but a lot of them comes with experience.  So if this reaches the right person, and I hope it does since I’m making so many copies, I tell you that ten cents per copy adds up after awhile, then I really do hope that someone will take me up on the offer.  If not, just think of what might happen to the holiday, and how many kids all over the world will be disappointed.  If that doesn’t jerk a tear from your eye,  then crumple this up and keep moving.  But if you do believe in magic, and want a chance to be something great, then by all means, come step into my workshop.

            Oh, and one last thing, you have to like animals, reindeer in particular.

Don’t Stop

Don’t Stop

By Tom Foster

 

“You need to get off the computer, right, now.”

The seriousness in the speaker’s tone was hard to miss, but at that moment Brad Caldell couldn’t really comply, no matter how much he wanted to.  Why didn’t they see what he did?

“I, I can’t, I mean, I..”

A sudden flashing on the computer screen in front of him caught Brad’s attention as he focused in on it, seeing one of the file folders, one marked INTRO TO PROD, flashing as though it was being clicked on and off repeatedly.  He couldn’t explain this, couldn’t even begin to understand how it was possible, but as he saw the heading beneath the yellow colored desktop folder suddenly go blank, his heart continued to race as it had been for the past hour.

What now?

*                      *                      *

Three hours earlier…

Sounds of people shrugging into their loose-fitting body suits reached his ears much as it did every morning, the mild groans and grunts of those who weren’t yet awake a common occurrence in the chilly gowning room.  Separate racks for the rows of suits adorned two of the four walls in the rectangular space, offering only enough room to walk around the three long, stainless steel benches that had been bolted into the floor.  Between the wall mounted containers for gloves, hair nets, and the cubbies for shoes and the like, it was hard to believe that this room had been almost completely empty only a year and a half ago.

God, had he been here that long now, that he could recall when things had been different?

Shrugging into his own suit he sighed as he tried to mentally prepare himself for the day ahead.  It wasn’t going to be easy, that much was for certain, especially considering that in three months of looking he had yet to find a suitable job to leave this place for.  He’d been trying, lord knew he’d been trying, but half the jobs he’d looked into had either been scams or Ponzi schemes, and the other half had been part-time and not worth the second look he’d given them.  Some days he just figured that this was penance for something he’d done in the past.  Now if only he could find out what the hell that was and apologize, things might get better.

“Just one more day, then the weekend.”

The soft, quiet voice behind him was that of his wife of two years, the only woman he wanted and the only woman that could possibly understand just how he felt about this place.  She’d been through a lot with him thus far, and didn’t seem inclined to step away yet, so perhaps she had a point when she said such things.  After all, they were looking at another four-day weekend, which was almost like a vacation in itself.  Of course they always had to come back. With two children already and a baby on the way they couldn’t afford to do anything else.

“Yeah,” he said, let’s get it over with.”

With that said he shrugged into his suit fully, sliding the zipper up until the front was closed. Grabbing hold of a thin, see-through hair net he then slipped it on his head as he made his way into the fab, reminding himself just how much he hated this place yet again.  Oh well, it was like his wife had said, one more day.  Even as the noise of the vast, tool-filled room beyond overwhelmed him for a moment however, he found it difficult to move forward.

“Hoo-ah.”

*                      *                      *

Brad grimaced in distaste as a wad of gummy, silvery paste fell from the screen above him, landing squarely on his chest as he continued to look for the hole in the blue field that held two wafers at a time to be printed.  The catcher at the end of the line had called out a hole on the backside print only a few minutes ago, but the person checking station two hadn’t been able to find anything.  He wasn’t having any more luck.

“Find it yet?” asked a female voice from directly in front of him.  He looked down his body, seeing the withered, craggy face of one of his co-workers, a chain-smoking divorcee by the name of Hannah Faibles.  She might have been pretty if not for the deep lines in her face and her perpetually foul breath. The woman smelled like an ashtray that had never been cleaned, or even emptied for that matter.

“Nope,” he said, offering his traditional one-word answer as he continued to look for the pinprick in the blue field, cursing the day he’d ever come to this place.  As jobs went, DayStar wasn’t the worst in the bunch, but it was far from the best.  If not for the fact that he needed a steady paycheck, and that he’d already been told by his wife and her father that if all he needed was to chill out, he might have been gone already.  Hell, he’d tried a few times, but every opportunity he’d thought shone with gold had turned out to be a sham.

“It should be somewhere like, right, here.” Hannah reached her hand in, coming far too close to him for his liking as he could smell the fruity wafting of her breath as it washed over him in a sickening, cloying wave of scent.  She’d taken to chewing fruit gum after smoking only a few months back, and every time she did it smelled as though she’d had to chew an entire pack just to partially mask the smell of smoke.  What had once gagged him for smelling so foul now did the same for smelling so horribly sweet.  He endured however, just as he had for the past three and a half years, he endured because this was what he needed.  Right now though he felt like he needed a couple beers far more.

*                      *                      *

Two hours later…

Time spent on the company computer usually came at a high premium, and a mild risk if one spent too much of their working hours seated in front of the flat screen monitor.  The internet capability had been added and taken away multiple times on the current system, and was a bit of a detractor at times from what needed to be done, so long as the leads and the supervisor didn’t notice.  On days like today however, when the work was few and far between, Brad managed to find time to park his butt in front of the computer and catch up on entertainment news and the burning questions that only seemed to enter his mind during the lulls in the day.  Like the current one, when one of his new favorite series was coming out with the next season.  It wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things, but it was a distraction, and it was a great deal better than staring at an empty tool all day or bs-ing with the other workers.

His lead was sitting to his right, a grizzled old man named Jamal Kerney, crunching numbers and looking up pertinent information concerning just when they would be getting more work through the line.  The graphs, flowcharts, and messages that Jamal had to look at each day were tiring to even think of, and were one of the many aspects that had decided Brad against ever trying to become a lead.  Someone else could have that particular headache.

Clicking on the mouse he navigated away from the current site, yet another data-filled location he’d accessed through Google, when he noticed a sudden line of static that stretched from one side of the computer screen to the other.  It didn’t last long, but he’d seen it, that much he was certain of.

“What the hell was that?”

Jamal didn’t even acknowledge his words, but that was pretty natural.  The aging lead usually didn’t budge except when he happened to notice that someone was speaking directly to him.  For a moment Brad debated telling his lead what had just happened, but as he looked back to the screen, it appeared just as it had before, the lines of the website clear, clean, and as they should have been.  Shaking his head slightly he continued to navigate from one page to another, accessing his email account next as he quickly clicked on the icon that would open his inbox.

Seeing a virtual plethora of junk mail wasn’t unusual, and as he saw the normal bric a brac of garbage such as ads, so-called important news and personal ads that led only either to dating or porn sites, he prepared to delete them all, exhaling through his nostrils as he manipulated the mouse with his right hand.  As he began to highlight each piece of mail his eyes finally fell on a single line, one that should have gone as unnoticed as the rest of the junk.  Something about this one however, something that he read in the heading and the title just made him pause.

It wasn’t all that creative, simply saying: YOU MUST READ THIS, with nothing else behind it.  The sender was listed only as noreply@gmail.com, as unoriginal as could be.  Normally he wouldn’t have thought twice about deleting the strange bit of mail, but he couldn’t help but stare at it for several moments, debating as to whether or not he would just get rid of it out of hand.  Without knowing why, he clicked on it instead, negating the highlighting he had done to the other emails as the one he’d selected opened.  The tiny circle of lines that flashed in sequence as the computer “thought” about opening the file flashed for several seconds as he waited patiently, wondering just what he might find inside.

He had no doubt it was another scheme to get his attention, something like an ad for a porn site, or a weight loss program, or something equally as ridiculous.  Blinking slowly he leaned back, his hand ready on the mouse to hit the DELETE button.  But as the email opened, he saw no highlighted website, no html images, not even an ad of any sort.  It looked, for all intents and purposes, like a regular email. It read:

 

Mr. Caldell,

There is no time to waste here, and you are not worth the time so I’ll be brief and blunt.  We have your children, their sitters, and are en route to gather up you and your wife’s respective families.  You are currently being monitored as we speak, and will decide the fate of your and your wife’s kin if you so much as lift an ass cheek from your chair.

It’s time to play a game Brad, and one that we are very well versed in.  You see, your name was selected, and the way you are going to die is going to be, well, quite unique.  But it won’t be quick, and it won’t be alone.  If you move from your chair, you die, if you attempt to tell any of this to anyone, you AND your family will die.  Well, you’re all going to die anyway, but the manner in which it occurs is up to you.

You will access your bank account, and your wife’s, and make a request.  We know very well how much you and your wife have in Chase and Bank of America, and will not hesitate to move quickly once the transaction is ended.  In case you’ve not understood me, you are giving oral and written permission for us to clear out your accounts. Now we do understand that this is not possible without your signature and some other form of verification, which you will give.  You let us worry about the rest.

Keep in mind your family, and that of your wife.  The more you stall, the less you work

with us, the worse it will be for all of you.  If you don’t believe me, attempt to log off now.  You

will find it much more difficult than you believe, and the results will not be pleasant.

Get to work Brad, and remember that we have the control, not you.

To be honest it was very difficult to know whether or not he was being put on, but looking around only afforded him the same view he always saw. To the front were the back end unloaders for each of the print lines, the paste-coated wafers slipping out along their tracks into the collection bins for the catcher at the end of the line to sort through and place in their Styrofoam boxes behind them. To the left were the banks of control panels that were responsible for feeding power and the programming necessary to run the massive, hundred-yard long tools that he and several others were responsible for running.  To the right the metal flooring stretched away for nearly as long as the tools that stood upon it, the expanse broken up only by the outdated tool used to cut the rubber squeegees that were so important for the print line’s operation.

Behind him the fab stretched on towards the far wall, offering him only a partial view as it was largely blocked by two print lines, a CTS tool, and the ASYS print line on the other side of the fab.  No one was standing there watching him, no mysterious figure was paying too much attention to his actions at that moment, and in truth he couldn’t think of who in this place would even give him a second thought apart from his wife.

“Alright Brad, you should probably think about getting off the computer for a while,” Jamal said, “Even if we aren’t that busy we’ve got to look like it if one of the suits comes walking in.”

Jamal uttered a small chuckle as he said this, obviously expecting Brad to do the same and perhaps even agree.  Instead he only nodded, thinking that someone was playing a damned nasty prank, and that it wasn’t in the least bit funny.   Jamal got to his feet and moved away as he went to log off, presumably to check on the lines or perhaps go find someone to bullshit with. That was a large part of the job on days like this, the act of seeking out a way to simply wile away the hours until quitting time.  It wasn’t how Brad liked to do things, he preferred to stay busy, but that was just how this job was. If you had enough to do you could spend all day without looking at the clock. But if there was no work and you’d done all the odd jobs that were always cropping up, then you were just stuck doing absolutely nothing.

As he went to log off though the screen flashed again, and a black and white dialogue box he recognized popped up, letters scrolling across the white field with such rapidity that he could only imagine the frantic energy of the person on the other end.

Don’t leave this terminal Brad, I’m warning you for the last time.

He sat down firmly again, his arms hanging at his sides as he watched the cursor blink next to the words, almost expecting another vehement outburst from the unseen typist. Instead the words glared at him from the monitor, as though accusing him of daring to follow the advice of his lead.  After another moment and a brief chance to look around Brad scooted a little closer to the computer, his palms resting upon the table for just a moment before his fingers started typing.

Who are you?

The cursor flashed for several seconds before an answer came.

The last person you want to screw with Mr. Caldell. Now get working.

Or what?

He felt somewhat foolish daring someone who he couldn’t see and didn’t believe was really capable of their empty threats, but he also couldn’t take his eyes off of the screen at that moment either.

Pay close attention to the fast fire Brad.

He didn’t know what to think until the sudden WHUMP of something imploding, or exploding, from deep within the print line behind him sounded. The sound was so deep and impactful that he felt it in his teeth. It actually set his ears to ringing as he looked over to find that the metal surrounding the final stage of the print line, the fast fire as it was known, had bowed out and was now belching forth black smoke that poured in thick, curling ribbons from within the metal casing.

That was when the alarms started, and Brad felt his pulse quicken ever so slightly.

Now you’ll have to hide for a moment Brad.

He barely had time to process this as the words came racing across the screen.  There was motion behind and all around him as he tried to sort out what had just happened.

Do it Brad, or another machine goes up in smoke. I promise this one will be much, much louder.

Still he didn’t move, and as the overhead sprinkler system began to react to the thick smoke he felt the moisture raining down on him as people began to emerge from the print lines, hollering at him to move, to get up and get going.  Brad was about to do just that when the screen flashed again, and new words rolled across the white field.

Boom Brad, watch your ears.

He had just barely put his hands over his ears when a horrible explosion, far louder than the first one, nearly blew apart the fast fire just across the walkway from the first tool.  The screams of those caught within range of the blast were just as horrid as the infernal heat itself that now boiled from across the way, and still the words came up on the screen, as though the typist was somehow pleased with themselves.

Now go hide. Once they are all gone you will return and finish what we’ve started.  If not, I will continue the hit parade until your entire workplace is slag.

He couldn’t think straight he was so scared, but on instinct perhaps he got up, still soaked, and made his way quickly to the only hiding place he could think of, against the far corner of the wall just straight and left. There was a large wash basin located there that he could hide in as he quickly stepped in, feeling it shift slightly beneath him as the metal tub accommodated his weight. He was effectively hidden from view by a large duct that rose from the floor and rose all the way to the ceiling before creating an L that ran almost the length of the fab before it was split by several smaller pipes and ducts.

The sprinklers were still on full bore, but as he peeked around the edge of the silver duct he could see people filing out as they should have, making for the gowning room without hesitating.  Their escape routes in case of fire or chemical spill were well mapped out and were followed without question, but he also knew that the EMT’s, men and women selected to serve in the capacity of making certain everyone was out, would be on the prowl soon.  They would find him here without much trouble, they were trained to be thorough.  He needed another spot, but he also need to get back to the computer he felt.

Or had the mystery person thought of this? More and more as he thought about this matter it seemed as though the individual behind this knew far too much.  Was it someone inside doing this, another employee that knew the ins and outs of the fab?  That seemed a stretch, but then this entire situation seemed damned crazy.

As he stole another peek around the duct he saw that the EMT’s had started roaming, and would no doubt be headed this way next.  He needed a way out, a place to hide, and he could think of only one spot that might afford him any chance of success. The problem was that he needed a key.

“Get that fire out!” he heard a voice yell, “Don’t move them, don’t move them! The fire department’s on its way!”

There were two EMT’s that he could hear at that moment, though he knew there at least a half dozen in this area of the fab that would be out searching for any stragglers.  He wondered in the mystery typist would be getting impatient now or had figured on what would happen.  It seemed that he was taking a terrible gamble after everything that had already happened, but Brad couldn’t think past the threat against his family and his wife’s, and the fact that  the typist had in fact predicted each explosion perfectly.  The fact that the typist had caused these explosions was beyond reproach, but the why, how, and when whatever devices they’d used had been placed

were still looming on the far horizon of his mind, patiently waiting to take their turn in the mental queue.

Even as he was trying to think his left hip pocket started buzzing, starling him in such a way that he almost banged his right knee against the hollow metal duct next to him. If nothing else had done it that surely would have alerted the EMT’s to where he was. Even mild glance upon the duct  could send a dull bonging sound resonating through the back half of the fab.

His reaction was immediate as he unzipped his suit and pulled his phone out, reading quickly on the front display the single word RESTRICTED. Whoever was calling, and his mind had already made its own deduction, didn’t want to be known.   He hesitated for only a half second before swiping the green arrow that would take the call, placing it to his ear as he spoke.

“Who is this?”

“The one holding your life and your family’s in his hand,” said a robotic voice on the other end. There was no doubt that it was modulated somehow, much as was done in cinema to hide a person’s identity.  “I’m also someone who knows how much you’re worth Mr. Caldell, and can make life very difficult for you unless you decide to play by my rules. Now, the EMT’s should be finishing up shortly, which means you have almost no time to find a suitable hiding place and evade them until they arrive on the outside of the building. At this time the fire department will already be en route and you will have only a handful of minutes to do as I ask.

“If you continue to play games with me Mr. Caldell I will bring the entire fab down around your ears and leave you alive to contemplate what will become of your family and all those you care for. And I assure you I will still get what I want.”

“I don’t understand,” he whispered harshly into the phone, wary of the EMT’s drawing ever closer. He couldn’t even dart from cover any longer as he could hear their footsteps squishing this way. There was at least one of them, that was for certain, and they would be checking everywhere to insure that no one had been left behind.  Few people would ever bother staying in a situation such as this, but it was still their job to be thorough.

“That’s not my problem,” the voice said in its flat monotone, emotionless and without remorse, “Your responsibility is to be back on your  terminal in the next five minutes or another machine will join the first two in metal heaven, and I will continue to detonate each one until you have concluded the transaction or you are no longer able, in which case I will move on to the next participant.”

Right now his stomach felt like a lead ball in his body and his balls felt as though they had shrunk to the size of peas.  He knew what the stranger was talking about, but five minutes wasn’t nearly long enough.  After only a few weeks of relatively good luck he finally found it necessary to curse his brother in law again for a moment that might have gone largely unnoticed if not for James’ need to open his damned mouth all the time.

He had bigger problems at the moment though as he heard the EMT stomping his or her way closer, closer, until they were right on top of his hiding place as he pressed himself into the corner as much as possible.  The phone went dark in his hand, and Brad expected at any moment to be caught, and after that it was anyone’s guess as to what would happen.  As he stood shaking in the wash basin, his only company the few bits and pieces of this or that tool that had been dismantled to figure out why it was not working properly, he could just imagine how loud it would soon get in here.

But then the footsteps receded, and he was left staring in shock at the empty space in front of him that held no one looking at him strangely, ready to yank him down for disobeying the fire alarm.  The EMT had not even looked in this direction, hadn’t even bothered to come around the duct and see if anyone was in the corner.  It was a breach of protocol, but one he was glad for as the footsteps continued to recede.

“Anyone over there?” called a voice from near the door leading into the gowning room.

“Nope, everyone’s out,” came the answer, and then the faint sound of the door opening, and then closing. He was alone, all by himself as the sprinklers continued to spray for a few seconds more before shutting off, their sensors finally having recognized that the job was done.

Brad looked down at his phone, half-expecting it to buzz again and to see RESTRICTED flashing across the screen again. Instead, as he thumbed the screen to life he saw that he had a text, again from the restricted number.

You have 1 minute to get back online, it read, Get going.

Brad took the time to look just once to see if anyone had stayed behind, knowing full well that EMT’s were expected to remain on the scene until the fire department arrived. No one was in his sight line though, meaning that he had full access to the computer and would hopefully not be bothered for a few minutes. He couldn’t even fathom how the caller wanted him to transfer so much in so little time however, but he would do his damndest to find out.

He almost slipped getting to the computer he went so fast, finding the seat and planting his butt without hesitation as he dragged and clicked to get to where he needed to go.

*                      *                      *

Now….

“You need to get off that thing, now!” came the shout from behind him as strong arms took hold of Brad from behind, all but yanking him out of his seat as he stubbornly refused, somehow finding the strength to resist as he held onto the table with one hand.  The fab was swiftly coming down around them, one machine blowing for every minute that he failed to transfer the needed funds. The last message had come in the form of an account number typed into the heading of a file folder, and he had done what he could to get the transfer moving, but then the inevitable had happened. The fire crew had arrived, and as he had thought the bank would not transfer the funds as it was too much to move without a signature and photo ID.

The first explosion had come from the CTS tools only a short distance away as one and then another had gone in succession, each tool shaking and bucking against their moorings. One explosion had been forceful enough to warp and even bow the metal flooring beneath it.  And still the explosions were going, causing the sprinkler system to continue pouring down upon them all as Brad held on for dear life and the firefighters finally had to pry his fingers from the tabletop.  He was yelling out his denials even as the last fast fire blew, effectively erasing every sense he had as he and those around him were engulfed in noise and smoke, the concussion from the blast sending them all crashing to the floor.

*                      *                      *

Outside

His mouth was dry as he allowed his phone to hang by his side, his heart hammering away in his chest as he looked to the entrance. Black smoke was billowing out from the front doors with such frequency that soon enough the white exterior of the building around and above the doors had been stained with several layers of dark soot.  He’d had a chance to stop this, somehow, and had done nothing. He’d thought it was a prank, just a joke in extremely poor taste that he could ignore.  As he allowed his phone to dangle in his hand still he looked down, still able to read the last message he’d received, the bold black letters mocking him as he cast his gaze back towards the front doors.

Too late Jamal. You should have made him stop.

Eden

Eden

by Tom Foster

 

 

 

Spokane, WA

July 1st, 2012

3:22 pm

 

            We were given paradise in the dawn of our existence, a place where we could be free, where we could be loved, and a place in this world that was gifted to the father of mankind and his wife, the mother of us all in a way.  Our race was given this wonderful treasure, this undeniable utopia where want and desire were paltry worries that were small things to contemplate.  In the tales told by those who can see beyond the veil of the world as it is now, even in the scripture in a way, it was a paradise of sorts that goes unrivaled by anything the human mind can comprehend, though I’m sure that imagination can at least paint a vivid picture of what it might be like.

            Growing up in the world as we know it now, most people would at least give a passing second to understand that fleeting glimpse of something better, the undeniable urge that exists in all humans to want something beyond what they currently have. We all strive for something better, something beyond, but so few of us ever reach it.  Life is said to be kind and cruel all at once, a sort of balancing act that has existed since even before the fabled garden we were so ceremoniously kicked out of before the majority of us even drew breath.  Whether you worship one god or many, pay homage to the winds and the earth or nothing at all, every human being realizes that there is something better out there, just waiting to be realized, though always staying just beyond our perceptions, like a whisper that remains too fragile to be heard directly.

            It is a dream, one that is too delicate to look upon, lest it shatter and fall to the ground like so much slivered glass, dashed upon the harsh reality that we wake up to each and every day.  This world isn’t kind; that is the harsh and unrelenting truth we all come to realize sooner or later.  Whether or not it has always been this way is uncertain, though I’m sure that many would tell you that this is so.  It is a hard world in many regards, but it is also a place that knows tranquility as well as madness, peace as well as war.  The trick of it is to find out how to remind our people, and by that I mean all people, that once, long ago, we were no different.

            Time, imagination, effort, and the natural tendency we as humans seem to have to exclude one another are all factors that drive us apart. We all think differently, we all have our own desires, our own push towards something that no matter what, aim towards many of the same goals.  We want peace in a manner that we desire, be it a violent sort, or one that is much less confrontational.  Each person follows their own path towards that same star, and sometimes the lanes become crossed, and as result, conflict too often follows.

            Within the utopia that was Eden, some would like to believe that there was no such conflict, and in truth, it might well have been.  Lions might have lain beside the lambs, while wolves might have as well lain beside fawns, both content in the knowledge that one day they would be required to play their roles, but for one fleeting moment, they could be something else.  It is a utopian society, one in which there is no strife, no worry, and no cares to trouble the minds of any.

            Ah, to live in such a place. I’d rather cut my own throat and let the jackals feed on my testicles while I’m still kicking.

            This is not the world we live in, though it is certainly one I would have liked to have seen.  For the past thirty years I’ve lived in the same world as you, the one who is no doubt reading this even now.  In that time I’ve seen things, just as you no doubt have, unless of course this relapse into something akin to a failed manuscript finds itself in the hands of some future where humans have learned, finally, how to live with one another.  That’s a poor joke that I can hardly fathom, though, like Eden, it’s something I can at least hope for.  Sometimes hope is all you can cling to, though it’s a perilous and uncertain grip at that.

            Eden, it means so many things in so many different languages, and when religion is added to the uncertain soup that is humanity, things tend to get more than a little skewed.  It’s like poking a hornet’s nest with a stick only the length of your finger.  Run as fast as you can, but there’s a good bet those stinger-laden little bastards are going to sting the hell out of you, and with religion, those stingers are often barbed and not easily removed.

            I know that sounds like a lot of analogical hooey, but to be honest, I’ve come to a point in life where I feel like saying what I want to say, and I’m more than entitled.  I’ve seen Eden, and in doing so, I’ve earned the right to not make sense at all points and times. 

            You just read that part, that I’ve seen Eden, right?

            Yeah, I figured so, so in order to better explain, so that you might comprehend, I’ll elaborate.  Just be glad I’m not an overly intellectual person, so that you can understand what I’ll be saying henceforth.  Too many people with their big, fancy words and existential thoughts and diatribes would have you wondering just what the hell they were saying when it could be expressed through such simple words, rather than lord over the reader in a manner that makes them feel like a simpleton trying to understand the thoughts and recordings of someone who thinks MENSA stands for Mean Egomaniacs Nagging Stupid Airheads.  Or something like that.  Acronyms were never my strong point, among several other things.

            Anyway, about seeing Eden.

            I could say it was illuminating, exciting, I could even say it changed my life. In a way it did, but maybe it’s because I’m so jaded that anything most people would say “wow!” to doesn’t hold as much appeal to me.  Maybe I’m just dead inside, but I don’t believe that.

            It happened only a short while ago, but it seems long enough now that it might have happened in another time entirely. I’ve heard it said that perceptions can deceive a person just as readily as anything, and I’ve come to believe it.  I know I’m dissembling, stalling in other words, but what you’ve got to understand, I mean really understand, is that talking about it isn’t enough, it just isn’t the right medium for describing something like this, but at this moment, it’s all I’ve got.

            So bear with me, okay?

            I was sleeping believe it or not.  Sometimes it would seem that best way to find paradise, or any other elusive, off the wall place or idea that people think of, is when you’re not in complete control of your own faculties.  I suppose this means that letting go is the key to finding happiness, but like so many things in the world, it’s easier said than done.  For instance, looking upon greatness, finding out that you are actually a go-getter, and not just a follower, and even such mundane ideas as where you left your car keys the night before.  A lot of things just come to you during sleep because your conscious mind is finally ON BREAK, or OUT TO LUNCH so to speak.  That’s when the subconscious, which misses so very little, decides to step in and fill in the details that your waking mind didn’t bother to see right away. It’s the rare person that can actively pull from either side of their mind, though I’ve heard it happens.

            Imagination though, or something deeper, some primal desire to realize something we as a people have left behind, tends to invoke even deeper exploration into our so-called, “hidden” minds.  This is where we dream, where we envision that we are kings and queens, where we know, on an instinctual level, that at one time we had everything, and somehow let it slip from our grasp.

            This is where I found Eden.

            I find it just a little saddening now, as I write this, that I can’t go back as many times as I please, that a fleeting glimpse in dreams is all I get, but I suppose we should be happy with what we do receive, no matter how minimal it might be.  That’s what a lot of people would have you believe, what with the billions of souls in this world and the constant need they all have.  Some would say take what you want, let others fend for themselves, while others would say the entire world deserves to share in this experience.  But quite honestly, as grand and wondrous as it is, I believe Eden is for each one of us something different.

            It’s not always the gardens that the good book would have you believe, the utopian society where everyone is cared for, every need is fulfilled, and no one ever goes wanting.  I can tell you quite honestly the Eden I saw was breathtakingly beautiful, surreal even in a way, but it was not perfect.  The lions did not lie down with the lambs, and the wolves still hunted and killed their prey when they hungered.  There within my vision of Eden, life did what it always does, and death stalked the shadows and the light alike, as was its wont.  In this Eden, things did not conform to my wishes, but to their natural order, as should occur in nature.  And yet, the peace therein, the absolute rightness of this place, was undeniable.

            It was the clear, crisp taste of evergreen on the tongue, the rushing falls that burble and churn so pleasantly to the ear.  The cry of a loon, the sound of small animals rustling through bush and brush, these things carried with them an inherent beauty and danger all their own.  In this Eden, there was balance, and in this paradise, there was a harmony that needed no guiding hand, nor even meddlesome, fumbling touch to make it work.

            This was how the world had been before mankind had come along and done what we do best, defile our way through history.  Oh we’re not all that bad I must say, some of us do care enough about our world to at least try and take care of it, but overall, we’ve made a rather large mess of the home we were given.  Some would argue, of course, that we have done the best we could, that we’ve made our own paradise, built our own utopia, and I cannot in good conscience claim that they are dead wrong.  We’ve tried, and sometimes succeeded, but we’ve failed a great deal as well.

            No society is perfect, such a thing is nearly impossible for imperfect beings to attain, and when it is reached, such a goal crumbles at the mere mention.  There is hope for Eden, for balance, and for our race, but some days it is slim, almost transparent.  I tend to wonder if it will ever be more so than this.

            I know, it’s not quite what you were looking for, is it?  Sad to say, few things hardly ever are as perfect as people wish them to be. This is part of what it is to be human though, we often want something that is so far beyond our grasp of understanding that we don’t even realize we’ve most likely seen it or experienced it, if only for a fleeting moment.  Think to the happiest times in your life, and the saddest, and you might just catch a glimpse of something, a passing fancy, a barely remembered moment of euphoria.  Therein might lay your Eden.

            It is different for each individual as I’ve alluded to, an experience that is unique from one person to the next, and thereby it is something that cannot possibly be measured by any scale we as humans have devised.  What Eden is, what it represents, can be described best only by those who have seen it, and possibly recognized its grandeur, its undeniable pull.  And yet for all that, it is often too difficult to admit, to even mention that the mere brush with something so sublime, so tantalizingly close, has ever happened.

            Perhaps it is the shame of having been cast out so long ago, or maybe it is the unease that comes from realizing that no matter how much we desire such a place, we are not worthy.  We are all essentially born from the sins of those who came before, tainted before we draw our first breath by the iniquities of our race, and therefore perhaps not able to fully understand what we have lost so very long ago.  Perhaps only in the innocence of childhood do we even begin to grasp what it is that we have squandered without ever knowing what might be sacrificed.

            Eden is a magical place, and rightfully so, for it holds the best of us, the ideals that so many long for and yet so many find it difficult to live up, being human.  It is the place where we are what we have always wanted to be, the people that we strive for, and the dreams that often go unrealized without our ever knowing.  Success, fame, wealth, notoriety, all pale in comparison to the wonder that such a stunning vista such as Eden represents, they become mere figments of a life that is, compared to a life that could be.

            Ah but hear me talk, nattering on like an old man spinning yarns.  You came to find out just what Eden is, didn’t you?  Sadly, I have told you as much as I can, and yet I know, I have said nothing truly that will guide you any further.  This is just, and without fault or recourse.  You see, it is not my place to guide you to paradise, nor anywhere else. 

            Eden, that lost garden of wonders, is a myth, and imaginary place that may or may not have existed at one point and time.  But the ethos, the idea that is Eden, is very real, stronger than the mountains that weather the ages, and more fragile than the finest, gossamer thread.  It lies to the individual to decide, and to believe.

            I have seen Eden, and in seeing, I have believed.

            It’s your turn.

           

Strength and Honor (an excerpt)

Prologue

 

 

 

The showers began around midday and lasted well into the night, threatening to scour away anything that was not firmly rooted to the ground.  The thatch huts of the small village had become damp and then increasingly sodden as the hours had gone by without a reprieve from the torrential downpour.  Many of the occupants of the shoddy huts worried whether their homes would remain standing by the dawn of the next day as they huddled near their fires for warmth and to remain in the few dry spots that were left.

Had they looked outside they might have been inclined to cock their heads in confusion at the figure that dared to walk about in this deluge.  Some might have found the kindness to offer what meager shelter they had, while others would have most likely hurried back inside, their curiosity quickly sated in the face of the storm.  A peal of thunder ripped across the sky as the figure entered the hamlet, her slight form seeming quite small when compared to the storm that raged within the heavens.

Through the muddy streets that had reached ankle depth hours ago and were nearly as slick as an ice flow, the figure’s step remained as sure as though she were walking upon dry, well-placed flagstones.  Neither the biting wind that tore at her clothing nor the numbing cold, brought on by the constant rain seemed to faze her in the least.  Her gaze never wavered for an instant as she passed among the small huts, her purpose unknown to all save herself.

There was a reason she had come to this place, a reason known only to her and a few others.  Her purpose had long ago become moot, for she was bound by only by honor and a horrifying vengeance to act as she must, and nothing short of an army would stop her.  So firm was her resolve that even such a force would be hard pressed to stand between her and the goal she now traveled toward.

Despite this she could still feel deep inside her being, past her training, past her beliefs, past even the damaged presence that was her soul, a stirring that had been growing for some time now.  This feeling gnawed at her day by day, threatening to escape the bonds she was constantly forced to place upon it.  If allowed to run free it would no doubt spread throughout her entire being like wildfire, burning all that lay before it until she was no more than an empty shell who knew nothing more than the heat of battle.

Despite the tempting desire to succumb to her own inner darkness, she had kept it idle, forcing it back time and again in favor of what she had been taught to believe.  Her training, both mental and physical, had allowed her to not only keep the wilder feelings of her heart at bay, but to begin to understand them as well.  As understanding had come so had curiosity, and eventually a mild desire to test her limits of self-control.

Such tests had come with a high price each time as she was quick to realize that in

order to understand the intensity of such feelings she was required to give up a certain portion of herself in the process.  Such occurrences had left her drained both mentally and

spiritually.  The last time she had seen fit to test the limits of her control she had nearly lost herself to the urges that had come unbidden to her heart and had been forced to end the test prematurely in order to retain her honor.  What had been stripped away however, or rather replaced, was the price of her curiosity.

The event had taken place no more than four months prior and was still rather fresh in her mind.  Her transition had been brought on by the knowledge of a betrayal so vile that the mere thought of the act ignited a spark of rage that she would not dare to show upon her face.  Yet her eyes, what some called the windows to the soul, could not and would perhaps never be able to contain such a hideous secret, as it ignited a fire that burned with a ferocity that threatened to consume all that she was, her honor not the least of these things.

With these thoughts in mind she hardly noticed the furious squall that vented its rage upon the small village, threatening to wash it away towards the cliffs that lay a few miles off.  The fat, stinging raindrops had been replaced by a storm of hailstones the size of skipping rocks.  Despite this uncomfortable fact she did not flinch as they pelted her small frame, leaving small red welts where they struck her exposed skin.

The silver scarf that was tied around her neck had ceased flapping in the harsh winds and was now plastered against her slender throat like a second skin.  It was a mild irritant, though she didn’t bother to peel it off.  The sash that was knotted around her waist, normally rather nondescript and adept at hiding things, was now revealed for the storage space it was as the outlines of several vials and small objects could be seen.

The shirt she wore was a simple garment of woven fibers and had long ago turned a dark brown, allowing her to keep a certain if not quite adequate amount of modesty.  The garment hung on her small frame not unlike a horse blanket with small openings cut for her arms and head.  The wind and rain had conspired to press the front of the shirt against her body snug enough to show off her trim build, while the back of the overly large garment was left to flap in the fierce winds like some humble banner, proclaiming her apparent lack of station.

She wore simple cloth breeches that had been quickly saturated by the downpour and were pressed tightly to her legs, showing twists and cords of muscle that would have made a fully grown stallion blanche.  Her boots were of simple make, crafted for one such as herself who was destined to wander both long roads and longer days.  Though they had no grip to their soles she walked with a sure and steady stride, never once faltering in her determined gait.

Her objective was no more than a few hundred feet away now, an elaborate stone building which seemed far out of place amongst its poorly constructed surroundings.  A feral light gleamed within the depths of her eyes, her normally docile gaze burning brightly as she gazed upon the building.  Many would have cringed or stared in fascination at the eyes this woman possessed, some would even perhaps make the signs to ward away evil.  Broken chips of ice blue were shot through with bright golden veins that seemed to alight in the darkness, making her gaze all the more unusual.  Hardened warriors had been easily unnerved by a mere glance from her eyes, finding that intensity

within her gaze was far too much to stand.

Hair the color of a raven’s feathers lay coiled against the back of her head and

upper back, the single long braid having been looped three times in the fashion she had enjoyed since girlhood.  The remainder of the braid was extended out far enough to hang in the center of the loops, dripping water down her back as it too absorbed much of the rain.  When left unbound her hair would extend all the way to her ankles, the result of growing it long since she was nine years old, the age at which her life had changed.

The huts surrounding the temple, which were still standing through the worst of the storm, began to decline in number as she neared the building that was now identifiable as a place of worship.  The temple had been built by the order she had been raised to revere since the tender age of nine, and was now one of the places she would rather not enter.  It was only a three story structure, though in town such as this it easily towered above the huts that were set a respectful distance from its walls.  Its exterior was covered from corner to corner with carvings which depicted great warriors and benevolent priests, and the common folk who had been so graciously saved by both.  Looking upon the scenes set into the stone she could barely suppress a snort of disgust at the hypocrisy she knew to be buried within each carving.  Coming closer she could make out the temple’s most prominent feature, the symbol of the order’s patron.  A fiercely burning sun sat above a long sword crafted from pure silver had been set roughly ten feet above the massive double doors for all to see.  It was sign of nobility, courage, honor and justice.  For one such as her, the gleaming polish of the symbol had long ago failed to inspire.

As she traversed the three wide steps that were carved deeply into the slight hillside that led up to the front doors she lowered her hand to her right hip.  Hanging beneath a sodden cloth shroud was an item that she knew would be most useful before the night was through, hidden from the elements and any curious eyes for the time being.  Its weight at her side had become one of the only comforts she felt these days, as though it was a constant reminder of her own resolve and indomitable sense of honor.  It would never leave her, never betray her, and would always be ready to defend her.

With her right hand she managed to shift the item from her hip to behind her left leg, where it nestled quite well.  The act was familiar after so long, both weapon and wielder so completely bonded that it at times it felt as little more than an extension of her body.  Its presence when behind her not only gave her heart a warming sensation, but also served as a firm reminder of the path she had chosen to walk.

As she arrived at the large oaken doors she noticed a pale yellow light spilling from beneath the gap between door and stoop.  It was a soft light, much like that cast by a candle, indicating that there was someone still awake within the temple halls.  Had she possessed any faith in the patron she’d once followed she might well have thanked him for such luck.  If the priests were still in the process of offering their nightly prayers her task would be all that much easier.

The doors were of simple make as opposed to their adornments.  A knocker cast from pure silver and shaped in the same holy symbol as that which hung above the doors, though the long sword that hung beneath the sun was used as the knocker.  A silver plate lay beneath the door handle, allowing whoever wished entry to knock without marring the precious wood.  Wide iron bands ran north to south on both doors, a flourish to the

temple that supposedly a penitent order, devoted only to its patron and the common folk.

Instead of first reaching up to knock upon the doors she made one more

adjustment to the item against the back of her leg, placing both hands in her armpits shortly after.  To complete the effect she hunched over slightly to indicate a deep chill.  She began to shiver, which was not terribly difficult considering her current location and allowed her jaw to loosen so that her teeth would chatter, further adding to her pathetic appearance.  Allowing her eyes to reflect how truly cold she was became the final addition so as to insure that whoever opened the door to observe her from a safe distance.

The chill she feigned had become real by the time she heard a pair of slipper-clad feet from the other side of the door.  There was the sound of a bolt being slowly drawn back, and then the creak of the door as it was eventually pulled open wide enough for a small, mouse-looking man to poke his head through.

His appearance was that of a person who’d just been roused from a deep slumber, the drowsiness still apparent in his eyes and the remaining wisps of his hair floating about his head like a halo.  His face was deeply lined with age yet his eyes held none of the years that had so ravaged his face, remaining bright and energetic.

He was only a few inches shorter than she, making him just a hair over five feet tall, which made it necessary for him to peer up at her.  Thankfully the light from the candle inside was not enough to penetrate the shadows that clung to her person, leaving her eyes in deep pools of darkness.  Had he seen the broken appearance of her eyes she might well have been denied and even set upon by whatever guard might be stationed here.  Priests were nothing if not cautious.

“Na na my child!  But what are ye doin’ out in this cursed gale?  Not right, not right I say fer a young lass such as yerself t’be sufferin’ so, na na!”  The man pushed the door wider to admit her, grinning as he did so.

“But come in, come in my child!  Come in and warm yer bones by th’ hearth.  Ah me, I should need t’ light it first eh?  Come, come child have seat by the hearth and I shall go and fetch some kindling so we can get the chill out of yer bones eh?  Yar, ye set here a spell and I shall go and fetch ye some fresh clothes and a blanket, and then p’rhaps  something t’ warm yer bones eh?”

She did not speak once as the old man prattled on, leading her to a large fireplace that sat ten feet to the left from the front doors.  It was a large fireplace indeed, spanning a good ten feet across and six high, large enough to fit at least four or five grown men comfortably.  He guided her gently towards a large, velvet lined cushion that had been set near the hearth, instructing her to sit there and wait for him to return.  She did as he bade without comment, sitting carefully upon the cushion so that she wouldn’t disturb the item that lay behind her leg.  If the old man noticed he said nothing, going on his way to obtain the items of which he’d spoken.

As soon as he left she let her gaze roam about the rest of the temple, taking in each and every detail.  The depictions carved upon the outer walls were tame when compared to the epic battles and scenes of worship that were so vividly displayed inside.  Upon the eastern most wall, behind the pulpit, were two such visions that had been commissioned by the church.  On the left side an eternal war raged between a serpentine

creature of colossal proportions and the three founding knights of the order, each of them depicted in all their glory, their blades made of silver set into the stone and their patron deity set on high, watching over and seemingly guarding his followers.  To the right the

scene displayed a single priest sitting amongst a circle of worshipers that ran too many heads deep to easily count, the stonemason’s rendering so lifelike that he’d caught each individual within the stone as though he’d known each person intimately.  A silver sun was portrayed above the priest’s head, the representation of their patron as the priest’s voice was augmented to reach the masses.

What truly drew her attention to this wall however was not either scene, but rather the engraving that lay above each of them, set between the two so as to encompass each.  A wooden pulpit stood between the main floor upon which sat double rows of pews, each having been painstakingly carved from stone.  The words carved into the eastern wall were an inscription that could be found at each and every temple within the many lands they’d built upon, every single syllable having been burned into her mind years ago.

Aryaeion us Solyndae, Jiswaet sa Svrevet: Honor Above All, Justice Be Served.  These were the founding words that had spawned the order and had been a part of her being since the age of fourteen, when she had taken the vows of knighthood.  Thunder rolled across the sky outside as she closed her eyes, willing herself to remain still despite the lack of heat.

The words still sent a slight shudder down her spine as they reminded her not only of the duty, but of the reason she had seen fit to betray in kind those who still adhered to the code.  Once, when she had faithfully served those who raised her, she had known pride, a sense of purpose, and had looked to her superiors as a child looks to a parent.  Now looking upon the visages of those who had laid the foundation for the order she likened them instead to snakes who posed as men, heartless and ultimately uncaring.  Their promises were akin to treachery laced with golden honey, sweet at first and souring quickly as the price of their kindness was swiftly revealed.

Looking from the wall she shifted her gaze to the source of light within the chamber, a large wax candle that was nearly as wide around as her body.  Set upon an ornate iron stand it was placed relatively close to the hearth, its light easily reaching the front doors.  She could see that its three wicks were set equidistant from each other and had burned down enough that only the flames were visible, melting the wax so that it ran down the iron stand.

Her musings were interrupted as she heard the rush of slippers coming swiftly down a staircase that lay behind and to the left of the altar.  She could easily guess that the steps led up to the living quarters and other rooms of the temple, which if this temple was like others would house two dozen or more priests, half as many initiates, and half again that many warriors.  No temple was ever left undefended, be it a single soldier or more.

While the warrior sect was a mixture of men and women from around the continent, all priests were strictly male.  No woman in history had ever managed to attain the title of priest in the order and most likely never would.  Men of different ethnicities were allowed only if sponsored by an existing priest in good standing, but women were

only allowed to become servants, aides, or knights, never to preach to the masses.  Thinking back upon her life she would not have had it any other way.  She saw the pulpit

as a place for those who liked to talk and for those who craved politics and men, at least in her estimation, were a perfect mix of both.

She locked her thoughts away as the old man approached her, arms laden with clean clothes and a large woolen blanket.  He had changed from a cotton nightshirt into a simple brown robe and tucked several tinder twigs and what looked like a well-used flint into the rough length of rope that secured his garment.  His head was barely visible above the linen and clothing as he was forced to crane his neck to see where he was going.  How he managed to find his way down the stairs without falling was amazing, but then most likely he had not resided anywhere but the temple for some time, and most likely knew every step from one corner to the next.

“Na na my young lass here we are now.  The robes and breeches might be a wee big, but if’n that be th’ case then I have here a length o’ rope that’ll remedy that fer right sure!  If ye’ll just go ahead and relieve me o’ these things then I shall attempt t’get a fire burning in yon chasm.”

Doing once again as he asked she carefully took the clothing and the blanket from his grasp, allowing him to walk over to the fireplace with tinder and flint in hand.  He then knelt slowly by the edge of the hearth where he began the attempt to start a blaze.

She looked very carefully at the clothing he’d brought.  The breeches and robe were indeed a few sizes too large, leading her to believe this place housed far more men and women, if it had any of the latter at all.  If so then they were very large and robust maidens indeed.  The rope he’d brought would encircle her waist at least twice before being tied off and upon closer inspection the blanket smelled of dust long since settled and ground into the fabric.  She cast the whole lot to the floor, gently, without even bothering to look at the shirt and instead fixed her stare upon the elder man’s back.

He was nearly sweating with exertion from trying to strike an adequate spark, the flint almost dropping from his fingers several times as she watched.  Finally however, perhaps thanks to some benevolent force, a small spark struck the tinder and began to smoke.  Giving a content and very much out of breath sigh he rose to his feet, brushing dust and soot from his knees before tucking the flint in between his rope belt and his body once more.  Upon turning to face her he frowned slightly after noticing the pile of clothing at her feet.

“My child, they canna be that big now can they?”  The old man cocked his eyebrows in apparent disbelief, clearly not understanding her desire to remain in her sopping wet clothes.

“No, they are fine.”  As she replied her voice was barely above a whisper, making the old man lean in so that he heard her correctly.

“Then change dear child, afore ye catch yer death.  I’ll turn me back whilst ye do, no need t’ fret about me none.”

“Do you have tea?”  Her cultured accent was still light as she inflected a hint of weakness into it, keeping the act of the pathetic wandering waif quite easily.

“Tea?  Oh aye lass we have plenty o’ tea, we also have warm cider and ah, if it serves ye, we’ve still a bit o’ the old vintage left in yon cellar if ye ken.  It’d do the body a bit o’ good so it would.”  He kept his voice low and added an almost comical note of conspiracy to it that she found utterly ridiculous.

“Tea please.”  She placed just a hint of iron in her voice, alerting the old man to

the fact that she was not amused.  Obviously hearing the slight change in her tone the old man opted to scuttle off once more, his footsteps padding lightly lest he wake one of his

brethren.  She lowered her eyes to her hands as he left to find the refreshment, taking note of the calluses and scars that had accumulated throughout the years.  Her fingers were both dexterous and strong, never having been meant to live the life of a noble or even a farmer.  Life had ever deigned to offer her the hardest of trials, the most arduous of tasks.  The years of her life while not evidenced by any other part of her body could be mapped out in the deeply tanned and worn lines that crossed her hands from palms to fingertips.

“Ah here we are, a soothing eckleberry tea fer you m’young lass and ah, if’n ye don’t mind none, a wee dram fer me’self, just a wee bit t’ warm me old bones if ye ken.”  She eyed the wooden mug that he cradled in one hand, the strong smell of spirits wafting from it depths.

She nodded, a grin that did not reach her eyes spreading across her delicate lips so as to allow him to think that she did not mind his indulgence at all.  The revelation had donned upon her before he’d returned that this man was a servant, not a priest, but a peasant who’d been made caretaker of the temple.  His rough speech had been the first giveaway and the late night libation had only confirmed her suspicion.  Nonetheless her revulsion was almost too great to hide as she quickly took the warmed cup from his other hand, savoring the sweet fragrance the steam brought to her chilled nostrils.

Inhaling deeply of the tea’s spiced scent she allowed herself to relish the enticing tartness of the berries that had been mulled to produce the beverage.  Obviously he’d thought her worthy of the trouble it took to prepare such a luxury, which was all the better for her purpose.  Luxuries usually meant a lack of appropriate respect for the unknown that could and did occur from time to time, such as now.

“So do ye have a name t’ ye lass or shall I simply call ye young maid and have done with it?”  A slight grin spread across his weathered lips as he asked this, only a few shades shy of a leer.

She said nothing at first, simply stirring her tea with one finger, feeling the warmth spread from the one digit downward into her hand and then further into her arm.  She could feel the heat reviving muscles that had been chilled by the trek she’d made to this place, the feeling of pins and needles easily repressed.  After taking a polite sip she swiveled her eyes, which were now lit by the warm flames that had been kindled, towards the servant, curling her upper lip into the ghost of a smile.

Upon seeing her strange gaze the servant sat back a little as though unnerved, not quite sure if he had seen what he thought he’d seen.  For if it were the drink, well then come the morrow he was laying the cup aside in favor something that didn’t cause one to see things.  If not the drink however then perhaps it was time to tell the young lass that if she had regained at least a small measure of warmth then it was best that she be on her way.  Maybe though, just maybe, he’d been mistaken.

“And what would you do with my name good sir?”  Her tone became stronger as

she spoke, though still little more than a strained whisper.  The servant appeared to have nothing with which to respond at first, pondering this strange young woman who had shown up of nowhere on the back of such a horrendous storm.  After a few moments however he shrugged to himself, thinking that maybe she was simply a lost child, trying

her best to seem mysterious by keeping others at bay.  It was a rather common attitude among young people these days.  He saw no harm in indulging her just a little.

“Why young lass, I simply ask the honor o’ whom I am sharing a cup with this night ‘tis all.  There be nothin’ sinister within these walls, for ye walk under the roof of a god whose very name is sacred among the many lands.  Yes lass, nothin’ ill shall befall ye here, for all within this place would rather flog themselves afore they’d allow an innocent t’ come t’ any harm.”  The old man waved his mug about emphatically as he spoke, keeping his words soft enough so that he would not wake those who slumbered upstairs.

She grinned again as she took another sip of her tea, taking her eyes from the servant to gaze yet again into the fire.  The flames licked at the remains of the tinder that had been nearly consumed and were in danger of extinguishing.  Apparently seeing this, the old man stood despite the creaks and protests of his body, clucking his tongue at the smoldering fire.

“Ah but that isn’t any good at’all now.  Here now girl, let me fetch us some more wood that we might continue our conversation eh?  Don’t go movin’ now, I’ll be back.”

With that he quickly toddled off once more to find some more tinder, or perhaps a log or two in the rear of the temple.  Once again looking to her hands she remembered each lesson that had been taught to her throughout her life, the training, the schooling and the wisdom of ages that she had been deemed worthy of receiving.  Closing her eyes she reached behind her left leg, procuring the item she had hidden there.  Carefully unwrapping it from the sopping rags she brought it to rest in her lap.  Once revealed in the rapidly fading firelight it proved to be a weapon unique in design as well as construction.  The core of the weapon was the body of a longsword, its leather wrapped hilt and silver pommel standard among the knighthood.  The cross guard was of silver as well, painstakingly carved along both faces with the same words that were carved into the eastern wall.  The blade and the four individual flanges that were placed into both edges and both flats of the blade were the unique portions of her weapon, carrying the blessing of several high priests within the order.

The special properties carried upon the blade and the crescent flanges were such that not a single one of their edges would ever chip, break, or dull.  No matter how much she used the blade, and she had used it extensively in her life as of late, it would never once need the touch of a whetstone.  All four flanges were crescent moons in design, placed halfway along the three foot blade and made of pure silver.  The points of the moons were faced outward, enabling her to catch any opponent who let their guard down in a vicious hooking motion that would tear through flesh to bone like a hot knife through a haunch of meat.  Running one hand lovely over the blade she remembered the face of the one who had presented it to her, the pride he’d shown in her abilities and the tasks they had laid before her once she had come of age.

She made no attempt to hide the weapon again as she heard the old man returning,

his arms undoubtedly full of kindling as his shuffling, unsure gait revealed.  He blundered by her toward the fireplace, oblivious to the instrument that now lay upon her lap as he proceeded forward to stoke the flames.

“Here we are now.  This should last us well onto an hour at the least.  Then we’ll

perhaps be ready to turn in eh?”  The old man shoved one fistful of kindling into the fire, pursing his feeble old lips as he tried to make the flame catch.  When she still made no

reply he frowned slightly as though she were an impertinent child.

“Come come lass, ‘tis rude to not introduce oneself after having received sanctuary as ye have.  My own name is Ceouvus, and I am the caretaker here at this temple.  Now that I’ve introduced myself, what is your name?”  He arched his snow-white eyebrows at her to emphasize the question, looking at her over his shoulder, somehow still missing the weapon in her lap.

“I apologize for my rudeness.”  She laid one hand upon the hilt of her blade as she swiveled her eyes back to the servant, the appearance of a pathetic waif slowly melting into the stony visage of the warrior she was.

“My name, if it would please you to know, is Sanu’te’.”

At the mere utterance of that name Ceouvus recoiled as though she had suddenly transformed into some venomous reptile, ill-tempered and poised to strike.  She made no move towards him, simply sitting where she was with one hand upon the grip of her sword, her eyes never leaving the old man’s.

“You have heard of me then.” Her voice was still maddeningly soft in the quiet of the temple, further unnerving the old man as he slowly backed away.

“You, you are the sacker of temples, the heretic, the one who was once one of the greatest among us and then turned on the order like a mongrel dog.”   At the end of his sentence her gaze intensified tenfold.  Rising quickly from her seated position she allowed her head to turn in the direction of her eyes, her rapt attention now toward the old man.  The smaller man paled visibly as she shuffled a few meager steps backward, as though thinking he could possibly escape this witch who when done with him would no doubt seek the higher levels.  If she were allowed to do this he knew in his heart that she would slaughter anyone and everyone in her path.  Thinking it was better to die a hero than a coward Ceouvus opened his mouth wide and inhaled deeply to let forth as tremendous a shout as he could.  It was at that moment that Sanu’te’ struck.

Expecting to be gutted from groin to sternum with the strange blade she now brandished he did his best to shift his hips backward, wind-milling his arms so as to keep his balance.  Unfortunately luck was not with him as he found to remain upright he was forced to bow his head forward, exposing his throat even further as he recognized his mistake.  Realization hit home as he felt the sharpened point of a flange pierce not only the soft underside of his chin, but his tongue as well.  So hard was the traitorous knight’s stroke that the upper half of the flange with which she had struck was instantly pinned to the roof of his mouth.  He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain he felt his tongue flop madly about in his mouth like a fish upon a gaff, blood running freely down his throat and chin as he struggled madly to escape.

As quickly as she’d struck Sanu’te’ withdrew her blade, taking care to drag the

sharpened edge of the flange across his throat, neatly severing his vocal chords along with the tendons, arteries and muscles that lay beneath his aged flesh.  Gasping anew Ceouvus fell to his knees, watching in terror as his own lifeblood began to pool around him.  Desperately, he attempted to stem the flow of blood within the hem of his robe, succeeding only in soiling the rough garment.

Sauntering by the wounded servant Sanu’te’ let her gaze roam once again to the staircase behind the altar where she knew the priests and warriors of the temple slept.

She flicked her blade lightly, shaking droplets of the old man’s blood upon the floor near him as her eyes found his.

“You shall meet your false god soon, as shall the rest of your order.”  She still kept her voice to a whisper, her words sharp and condemning in the stillness of the temple.

Ceouvus never saw the blade descend, never felt as it parted his flesh once more.  The last thing the old servant would ever see were those eyes, feral and filled with a hatred that promised he would not be the last of his order to die this night.

*                      *                      *

 

The storm had not abated in the short time it had taken for the unknown traveler to enter the temple, but nonetheless sounds could be heard above the squall, sounds that brought to mind to the mind scenes of mayhem and carnage so vile that the mind quailed to think of them.  Folk who heard these sounds dared not venture from their sodden huts no matter how overwhelming their curiosity.  Not so much as a single head poked out of an opening in the huts of the small village as over the rain and through the hail the horror- filled sounds of pain could be heard to pierce the night.  The screams coming from the temple were undoubtedly human, yet as they rose together they formed a cacophony so great that it seemed as though a multitude of injured and dying animals were being systematically slaughtered.  When at last the first rays of sunlight peeked through the darkened clouds the screams within the temple had gone silent.  One last mournful cry dogged the heels of the single figure that made her way out of the village, a lament to whatever horrors that had been committed within the temple.  The tears that stained her cheeks had begun to dry as she’d left the temple, making her way back into the wilds.  The silence that fell upon her departure was, at least in the minds of the villagers, a decided blessing.