Page 177 of 179

The Last Tree

The Last Tree                                                                                      Started 10-17-08

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Portland State University

June 2nd, 3021

3:28 pm

 

“Myths and legends, fairy tales and fables line many pages of text that were once thought to be rather important to our species.  Upon these pages were stories of individuals, groups and creatures large and small that were often capable of feats that we know today are simply not possible.  The ink used upon the pages was a co-conspirator in a way to the lie that was told by the authors of such tales to amuse and divert our kind’s attention from the world we knew.  Yet perhaps the greatest crime of all was the material used by each unsung individual to transfer their often hedonistic and sometimes cautionary tales.”

Alyssa paused as she gauged the attention of her audience, raising her eyebrows as though to accentuate the point she was about to make.  There were far too many half-closed eyes that were barely focused upon her, especially given the lack of attendance that had thinned her class to less than half of its original size.  She lamented that many of these absences were due in part to the fact that those who had not chosen to attend this day would not be returning.  She was fast becoming unpopular in this place, just as she had in others.

“Paper, as you all know, has become a highly restricted medium. It was once upon a time something that mankind took for granted because it was there, readily available, and easy to use.  Of course the thought of where it came from never once entered the minds of those who wrote upon it, tore it to shreds, used it for mundane and sometimes vulgar purposes, but that then is the point of this course.  The study of conservation is one that came far too late for our benefit, an idea that was born in the time of our grandparents and yet was somehow not implemented until it was too late.”  Alyssa watched with just a little heartache as two students, a young man and a younger woman, rose from their seats with backpacks in hand, each of them already reaching for the breathers that were stowed so haphazardly in amongst their other school materials.

No one wanted to hear about something that couldn’t be changed any longer, and as a result her course, while barely tolerated at any university, was swiftly becoming like the fabled forests of ages ago. It was dangerously close to becoming extinct.

Another student got up to leave, though he at least gave her a backward glance, perhaps to see if she was going to keep going or not, or maybe just because he had at least something of a heart.  Nonetheless he was up the stairs and out the door into the steadily increasing winds that had scoured the city clean only a few days before.  The weather patterns of the past several centuries had shifted so erratically that at times even the barriers that encircled the great cities had not been enough to keep the worst of the windstorms out.  At times she had to wonder if she was even reaching any of her students. Most of them took this class as something easy to pass, an elective that could allow them to keep their grades up, or in some cases allow them to catch up on their beauty sleep.  In any regard it felt like a bad joke, and she was the punch line.

*                      *                      *

 

6:54 pm

 

She was enjoying a pleasant sip from the glass in her right hand while holding onto her holopad with her left when the doorbell to her office chimed. One of the perks of being a tenured professor at any university was that she had at least rated an office with more than a single room and its own toilet facilities.  As such she had spent many a night in her office either drinking herself into oblivion after a hard day, or studying up on her ongoing research, which was more common.

Inhaling through her nose she set her glass down sans coaster, something that seriously irked one of the only friends she had at this place, keeping the holopad in her left hand as the strap that adorned its back rested snugly against her knuckles. Rolling up from her chair she made her way to the heavy, metal door that had been installed long before she’d ever been born. Everything made of wood had slowly but surely been replaced as the material had slowly been allowed to fade and dwindle away.

The world’s wood supply wasn’t gone, but it might as well have been.

Reaching the door she peered at the viewscreen at the hinge-side of the door, smirking as she saw the goofy-looking woman mugging for the camera outside of her office.  Melodie Amberveldt was anything but a normal person in her estimation, but she was a good friend.  She’d known Melodie since high school, and had kept in touch throughout the years despite the distance that had separated them at times. Pushing the intercom button that would carry her voice to the hallway just outside her door she spoke.

“I’ve had my quota of crazy today. Peddle it somewhere else.”

“Ah but I’ve brought a new and unique brand of psycho bitch that you may not have experienced lately, and are desperately in need of. So open the door o’ favorite love pet of mine.”

Rolling her eyes as she reached for the lock Alyssa wondered idly, for the millionth time perhaps, how she and this wild force of nature had ever stayed friends for so long.  She had heard that opposites attracted one another throughout her entire life, but was always reminded of its absolute truth every time she spent time with Melodie, or “Mel” as she liked to be called. Even before the door was all the way open Mel was pushing her way in, brandishing a bottle that sloshed welcomingly as she clicked her tongue in greeting.

A faint noise drew her attention as she looked back to the hallway, her steadily blurring vision showing her nothing more than the empty, somewhat intimidating hall lined by marble tiles on the floor and drywall along the faded and chipped walls.  This wing of PSU had yet to receive a true upgrade that required actual money, but it was still functional at least.  Shaking her head she decided it had been nothing, perhaps just the janitor making his rounds. He would be the only one still here aside from herself after all, the other professors all had lives or homes they enjoyed returning to.

She had a studio apartment only a short walk away that offered little more than the flat screen television filled with newscasts of how the world was dying a little more each day.  There was a TV in her office too, but was hardly ever turned on save to watch a movie or something else of interest.  Alyssa wasn’t much of one to watch TV, she much preferred the classics, old, ancient movies really that had for some reason been preserved throughout the centuries.  Her favorites were the films and cartoons that featured the very subject of her research.

“So my little dandy throw rug, what’s on the docket for tonight?”

Mel had a way to speaking that normally astounded whomever she talked to, especially her students. She’d had more than one student complain over her use of the English language, thinking that she was being impolite or even degrading at times. To those who really knew her, like Alyssa did, they would have understood that this was how Mel signified that she liked someone. It was a little bit degrading in fact, but the tone she used was almost always with love, and Alyssa had learned how live with her quirky, sometimes off-color friend a long time ago.

“Oh, I was thinking of kicking back with a pleasant, stomach-warming vintage and perhaps switching on some of the oldies.  Care to join?” Alyssa collapsed into her oversized, very comfortable chair as she pointed at the television where it sat upon the wall, the proverbial fly that would only buzz when she desired.  A holo-player sat affixed to the all just below it, a full load of ancient programs loaded and ready to go at her command.

“Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes?” Mel quipped.

“Maybe both, or maybe I’ll feel adventurous and watch The Sandlot just for kicks, or the The Goonies even. Maybe I’ll have an all out oldies orgy.”

“Sounds fun,” Mel said with a smile, “Should we order in?”

In truth she’d been kidding, but as her friend continued that maniacal smile that Alyssa loved so much she had to laugh.  It did sound like a damned fine idea.

*                      *                      *

 

8:59 pm

 

“So are you still on about your research into the world of long ago?” Mel said, stabbing at a wad of greasy noodles in their plastic packaging as she finally managed to wrap a few around the plastic fork that had come with the meal.  Food was never far away in a city such as Portland, and given its ethnic diversity they’d had a wide variety of places to choose from. Despite it all, they’d gone to their favorite, Panda Express.  It had been their favorite as kids and remained so to this day.

“As much as I can be,” Alyssa replied, swallowing her current bite before going on, “Professor Lansden thinks I’m nuts of course.  He tells me that researching something that went extinct over a hundred years ago is like searching for a single rock at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Pacific or Atlantic?” Mel mused.

“Oh shut up,” Alyssa said with an amused smile.

“You have to admit that it’s almost a lost subject,” Mel said as she kept stabbing at her meal, as though expecting it to fight back. “Trees have been dead and gone for a long time now ‘Lys, no matter how people tried to preserve them.”

She nodded, “I know, but I also know that there’s likely a chance that a few still remain.  If I could only-ow!”

The crunch of her tooth upon something solid and unyielding forced her to sit up

in her chair as she quickly set her food and utensil down, reaching two fingers past her lips to retrieve the item she’d just chomped on.  Her jaw ached a little from the unexpected effort, but as she saw what it was that had been hidden in her chow mein she and Mel both raised an eyebrow.

“I didn’t know they were giving out prizes in noodles these days,” Mel quipped, her eyes focused on the object that Alyssa now held in her hand.  A plain platinum band without any decoration lay dormant upon her palm as she and Mel looked down on it, almost innocent in a way despite the ache in her jaw.  It wasn’t much to look at, but Mel pulled back suddenly as her eyes widened. Putting down her box of chow mein she looked hard at Alyssa, her jaw working as though in thought.

“What the hell?” Alyssa asked, still looking at the ring, “Did someone drop their damned jewelry in my dinner?”

“Put it back ‘Lys,” Mel said quietly, not bothering to look at her, “Put it back and pretend you never saw it. Please.”

Alyssa looked at her friend with confusion written plainly on her face, “What? Why? Someone just lost a ring in my food is all. It’s gross and unsanitary but it’s not-“

“Put it back ‘Lyssie, please.” There was no mistaking the urgency in her tone now as Mel leaned forward, “I’ll explain later, but please just put it in the box and throw it out. Believe me, you’ll understand soon enough.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Alyssa asked, palming the ring as she stood to her feet, “It’s just a ring.”

Mel sighed, a sound that was usually reserved for her students when they were being naïve or intentionally stupid. It wasn’t a sound that Alyssa was used to hearing directed at her.

“Give it to me then,” Mel said, “And I’ll show you why it should be tossed in the trash.”

Alyssa wasn’t stupid, she’d seen enough old movies to see where this was heading, or at least where it might be heading in theory.

“Why Mel?” she asked, “That is your name, right?” She was only half-kidding, but the sudden change in Mel’s demeanor and the fact that she’d used a variation of Alyssa’s name, Lyssie, that she hadn’t used in years, had alerted her to the fact that something was very off about this situation.

“Alyssa I’m your friend, and you can trust me. I’ll explain it all once you give me the damned thing.  Just, please.”

Alyssa handed the ring over slowly, watching Mel closely but not wanting to believe that anything untoward might happen. She’d known Mel since they were kids, she didn’t want to believe that anything she’d seen in the old movies could possibly be real.  Despite the fact that the futuristic depictions of the world back then were in some sense coming true, she still didn’t think that the drama of such films could possibly have occurred in the exact manner that she’d viewed them.

“Activate,” Mel said into the center of the ring, her lips almost brushing the metal as the ring suddenly glowed from within.  Alyssa had seen such things before, as most things nowadays had hidden circuitry buried deep within to keep the item in question from appearing as anything other than a mundane object.  The effect was nothing new, but if not for Mel’s action she might have thought it was just another wedding band, or something similar perhaps.

Instead the ring began to glow with a bluish-white tinge, an inner mechanism causing the interior of the ring to shift and spin slowly until a minute click could be heard, and a voice issued forth.  Alyssa felt a slow, methodical frown crease her brow as she could have sworn she recognized the voice, but she listened without interrupting.

“Forty-five point six-two-two-four North, One hundred twenty-two point seven-zero-one-eight West. June 6th, 3021.”

“What is that?” Alyssa asked, looking to her friend. Mel swallowed hard, closing her eyes as she shook her head. As the ring went inert again it gave one final click, but Alyssa didn’t notice. She was too interested in what her friend might be holding back from her.

“Mel, what is it?”

“Those were coordinates,” Mel said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “They were meant to direct the selected individual to a designated location at a certain time.”

Alyssa waited, and waited, but her friend was obviously ready to stop talking.  She wasn’t ready to stop listening though.

With a sigh, Mel said, “This wasn’t an accident ‘Lys.”

She was ready to laugh at the joke, but she saw that Mel wasn’t in the mood.  Instead of smiling Alyssa suddenly felt her stomach turn to ice. Her heartbeat began to quicken slightly, though she still didn’t know why.

“Do you know where those coordinates point to Alyssa? Do you have any idea?”

Alyssa shook her head, “I don’t do latitude and longitude, that’s your forte.”

Mel nodded as she sat down, lacing her fingers over her abdomen as she leaned back. “I know.  That’s why I was hoping this would never happen.”

Alyssa’s frown deepened, “Mel you’re starting to scare me.”

Mel shook her head, “Honey you have no idea. But you will.”

*                      *                      *

 

June 3rd

6:26 am

 

The last tree was reportedly cut down as part of a preservation project in the year 2998, over two decades ago when the Presidential Accords were signed to act in order to preserve what was left of our fading atmosphere. The effect of eliminating the last of the earth’s forested regions had a drastic effect upon the ecosystem, creating vast gaps within the food chain that were necessary to fill with other, artificial means. 

            “What this mean for humanity was that our race soon become the beginning and the ending of the food chain, as we were forced to resort to drastic measures to keep life moving ahead in a manner that would prove beneficial for our race.  Due to new innovations in DNA and technological advances in artificial agriculture it was possible to all but eliminate the risk of our atmosphere failing and our world eventually becoming a poisonous greenhouse that would eliminate all life on earth.”

Alyssa waved her right hand over the holo-control embedded into her chair. She didn’t want to hear anymore, especially after last night. Her head was still whirling from what Mel had told her, though she found herself wanting to believe at least part of it. What had been discussed was so unbelievable that even her own bias towards the subject seemed to be weighing against the decision she felt compelled to make. Mel had of course told her again and again to throw the ring away, and she had almost listened.  What Mel hadn’t told her was why she had never bothered to tell her that she was a part of something so clandestine in the first place.

She wanted to be mad at her friend but it wasn’t as easy as all that. Mel had given her the truth during their little talk, and had even expressed anger that she’d been given the ring at all.  The issue of who had put it in her food and why hadn’t been touched upon as much, but she had at least asked. That part Mel hadn’t been able to decipher, though she had at least made a guess.  What was truly confusing and yet still gave her the smallest glimmer of hope was what Mel had said at the midpoint of her explanation.

There was a tree still living within the world.

It had sounded like a bad joke to be honest, something that she might have seen on a documentary or a movie from the modern age.  Trees had been a disappearing resource since before she’d been born, and had died out finally when she had still been in grade school.  Her teachers had always told her class that absence of trees was why they wore breather masks, and why they would never be safe outside for long periods of time.  When it was needed human beings could go outside for about an hour or two at most before the radiation and poisonous gases that existed in the atmosphere would begin to affect them.

The scrubbers and various windmills that were designed to cleanse the air and keep the earth from being completely overrun by carbon dioxide had been installed worldwide nearly three decades before.  Such a system was reported to have a veritable army of redundancies just in case one section went down, but it was still far from perfect. The coordinates that had been revealed by the voice from the ring were directly in the middle of one such area that had gone down when she was still in high school.  It was officially called the Neutral Zone, like something out of the old Star Trek films, but in truth it was called the “Dead Zone” by anyone living within twenty miles of it.  That was  how close anyone had ever come to the area once known as Hayden Island since the year 2923, when the world had felt the first massive effects of deforestation.

Alyssa and Mel had been born into a world where it was necessary to remain indoors more often than not, and had never known the joys of running in the long, green grass as was depicted in the films she favored. They had never built a tree fort or swung from an old tire swing.  Humanity had  been forced to adapt and change far too quickly for anyone to recall the old memories of a world that had moved on before the next generation could catch their breath.  It was a cruel joke really that the culture and records of such a life would be left to be viewed and remembered by those who had at one time walked barefoot upon a lush, green lawn, or climbed an actual, living tree.  It all seemed so horribly unfair.

There were no classes today, and no one had bothered to check and see if she was still here or not. As a professor she was required to check out of her office every so often just to keep with protocol, but as an individual she often made the decision to use her office as her living space. It was well within the rules after all, but the need to leave every so often was recommended by the council of health that overlooked both students and faculty.  It was to avoid the dangers of isolation and to insure that professors were kept psychologically healthy.  Today though she didn’t feel like going anywhere, and she especially didn’t feel like venturing to the Dead Zone.

That lack of desire though was slowly losing ground to the desire she felt to see whether or not the words Mel had spoken were true.  For almost three decades trees had been relegated to history, a growing myth that the new generations cared for and knew even less about.  An important part of the world had been eradicated and no one seemed to care.  Of course when a person had never experienced something for themselves they didn’t know there was anything to be missed.

The knock that came upon her door was not expected, but it was hardly unexpected either.  Going over to the image that presented itself in the viewscreen she was hardly surprised to see Mel standing there, but her friend wasn’t mugging for the camera any longer. Instead she just gave a sad look into the camera, as though she had come to a very difficult decision.  Sighing to herself she went to open the door, allowing her friend inside before closing and locking it. For some reason she felt the need for privacy and security, as much as she could get.

“Any change in that scotch-soaked sponge you call a brain?” Mel asked, seating herself in one of the office chairs. The attempt at humor was at least mildly comforting, but right now it came off as a bit flat.

“After you dropped that nuclear bomb in my lap? Not really.  My research will likely keep going, but with this in mind now I don’t know as I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror without at least checking the veracity of it.”

“I kind of figured you would say that,” Mel said, shaking her head, “But at the very least the people I talked to last night have agreed that we should move ahead.”

Alyssa frowned, “Move ahead? What are you-? No, no no no.  You can’t mean going out there!”

Mel nodded, “That’s exactly what I mean.  If you’re going to know everything then you need to see everything. People have theorized about this subject for a long time Alyssa, but no one has ever been allowed into the truth in this manner.  Public opinion was formed and fostered a long time ago in order to keep interest from becoming too high on this subject. People were made to believe that trees were no longer important once civilization found other means of keeping itself alive.”

“But the exposure between here and there-“

“Is minimal when considering how you’d be transported. And the methods that have been used to keep it alive are such that the environment it uses are far more suitable to life than in any sterilized, artificial setting. It’s a clean room without peer ‘Lys, one that relies on its own natural ability to cleanse itself.  But it isn’t infinite.”

“This is all coming really, really fast,” Alyssa said, closing her eyes as she held one hand to her face, “Last night I believed that trees were extinct, just like the rest of the world.”

“Ah, but you always suspected I believe.”

“No, I didn’t.” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “I was along for the ride with public opinion. I really thought they were gone.”

“One immutable reality of our world young ‘Lyssie is that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only altered. So in truth, trees are around, but in ways that we no longer recognize.”

“I know that,” she almost snapped, “But, but it’s not the same.”

Mel nodded, gaining momentum now, “You’re right. You can’t scrub carbon

dioxide from the air with a sheet of paper, or with an antique chair covered in untold

layers of stain and lacquer.  But the reality of it is that the trees still exist, just in a

different form. Thus, their DNA still exists as well.”

“No,” Alyssa said, shaking her head, “That isn’t the same thing.”

“No,” Mel said, nodding, “You’re right. But it is still there.”

“What’s your point Mel?” she asked, growing a bit irritated now.

Mel leaned back a bit, interlacing her fingers as she placed them over her stomach. “If the remains of a tree are real, then so must be the tree.”

“Just tell me what is going on and what you want me to do. After last night my head is still spinning.”  Alyssa sat down with a groan as she spoke, pinching the bridge of her nose lightly between thumb and forefinger.

“The people who I’m in contact with want you to see something,” Mel said plainly, “I wanted you kept away from it, as it’s a secret that is more than a little dangerous.  But after your last little lecture they decided to bring you in on the little secret. Well, it’s not really a little secret, but something along the lines of a world-changing conspiracy that might just get us both locked away or killed at any moment.”

Alyssa sat forward, looking at her friend as though she’d gone insane. “What’s that now?”

Mel just grinned.

*                      *                      *

 

June 4th

4:54 pm

 

Her lecture that day came and went without fault.  Alyssa was looking for someone, anyone, who might be paying more attention to her words than the others, but she saw nothing.  Mel’s words were still echoing in her mind as she took to instructing her students by rote, not even hearing her own voice for the strange clanging in her head, alarm signals that she knew were part paranoia and part inborn security systems meant to keep people safe.  The only problem was that she had absolutely no idea which way to look.

Alyssa was gathering up her materials for the day, closing books and turning off the holoprojector in the front of the class when she suddenly noticed that she was no longer alone in the room.  Fashioned after the old-style lecture halls, the stadium seating that this room featured allowed the students to keep line of sight to the front of the class, but could easily obscure anyone from the view of the teacher, if that teacher did not look up.

She felt her breath hitch in her throat as she did look up, noting the individual seated in one of the rows nearest the door. His laid back posture indicated that he had been waiting patiently to be noticed.  The small grin upon his stubbly features told her that he was perfectly at ease, and that he was anything but an interested admirer.  There was something dangerous about that grin, almost predatory.  It was the grin of a man who knew he had his prey cornered.

Deciding to play the authority card she tossed her long, curly brown hair back behind her neck, “Can I help you?”

His eyebrows rose as he leaned back a little further. She could see that he was in excellent physical condition as the dark shirt he wore stretched over a torso she might have been attracted to under normal circumstances.  Alyssa could also see what looked like a gun holstered beneath his right arm.  Now her heart began to pound, and she wondered if she might survive this encounter.

“Yeah, I suppose you can.  If you could just give me the coordinates that you were handed a couple of days ago I’d be on my way and you could go on lecturing about ancient history.”

She was thunderstruck, despite what she already knew.

“What?” she murmured, “Who, who are you?”

“Professor,” he began, leaning back a little more, “I could tell you everything you want to know before I get what I want, but-gah!”

The man attempted to get up, but a light shock from the cattle prod now pressed against the side of his neck stopped him cold.  He jittered madly in his seat for a moment before attempting to pull the pistol from its holster under his arm. Unfortunately for him the wielder of the prod jabbed him again, sending another shock through his body as his teeth clacked together, painfully from the sound.

“If your ass moves from that seat big boy you’ll be shitting sparks for the next few days.”

“Mel?” Alyssa asked, “Where did you-?”

“It’s not the time and we need to go,” Mel said pointedly.  “Dick-lick here beat me to you by just a few minutes it would seem, but at least he’s the type that likes to talk before he takes. Get the stuff you need ‘Lys and let’s scoot.”

“But-“

“Now Alyssa! Please.”  Mel adjusted her tone as she held up her free hand, putting it quickly upon the base of the prod as the faint humming that Alyssa now heard cranked up just a bit. “As for you Mr. Assmunch, I would prefer you not remember a single thing about this meeting, but I’ll settle for you being reduced to a jittery mess of nerves for the next few hours.  That way you won’t be following us where we’re going.”

“Y-you don’t ha-have the b-b-balls,” he managed to stammer. The electric shock was still firing through his body as he tried to regain control, but as she dug the prod a little harder into his neck she smiled.

“You’re right about that,” she said cheerily as she pushed the button. The prod actually sparked as it discharged its deadly current into the seated man, making him jump high and hard enough that he upended his seat, almost knocking into Mel as she leapt backward.

“What the hell?!” Alyssa exclaimed, “Mel?”

“Oh he’ll live,” she said nonchalantly, “Just get your stuff and let’s get going. I get the feeling that he isn’t alone.”

“What, I mean how, I mean-“

Mel started walking down towards her, sneakers squeaking slightly as she approached Alyssa calmly, quietly, turning off the prod as she came.

“Alyssa, I told you all about this,” she said in an even tone, “I told you it would be trouble if you kept that ring.  What we spoke about is something of a secret that has been kept for a long, long time now, since before you or I were born.  My family has kept the secret for many years, and I was initiated when we were still in high school.”

“Let me get my stuff,” she said stiffly, still not daring to believe what was going on was real. Mel stayed with her, following Alyssa from the lecture hall back to her office, making good and sure they weren’t being followed or in any way watched.  So far as she could tell they were in the clear.  Now the only hard part would be reaching their destination without a  hitch.

*                      *                      *

 

June 5th

3:23 am

 

Her world had been turned on its head.   No, scratch that, her world had been turned upside down, inside out, and then broken apart to be pieced back together with components she’d never known existed.  Only a couple of days ago she’d been a tolerated professor at one of the more prominent universities still left in the state. It hadn’t been a glamorous existence, but it had been comfortable. Her life now was anything but torturous, but it was so foreign to her that Alyssa still hadn’t learned to cope yet.

The area known as Hayden Island, or Jantzen Beach from historical records, had for a long time been off-limits to the public, as it was a hot zone of seismic activity and was continually flooding from the various weather patterns that sent the river it rested upon into a frenzy.  At one time it had been a garbage dump, then a water park, and then a shopping center according to records that were accessible to the general public.  She’d overlooked this stretch of land many times largely because of its designation and the fact that twenty miles or more of barren and forgotten landscape surrounded it.

Portland and Vancouver, the two cities that had surrounded Hayden Island, had been walled off and kept away from the continually shifting island for centuries now.  Reports had come in continually throughout the cataclysmic era that Hayden Island was in continual danger of simply dropping into the Columbia River and washing downstream bit by bit, but to date it was still there, a blasted hunk of rock where nothing grew and no one dared to venture.  There was no interest in the place for even the clandestine government agencies that were in charge of keeping people safe and secure behind the walls of ordered society.  It was for all intents and purposes a place that lived up to its name.

She was only now discovering just how wrong they’d been.

“Beautiful aren’t they?” Mel asked, her voice filled with wonder and a strange quality that Alyssa had only heard on a few occasions. It was longing, a desperate cry to the past that might have been had humans ever learned to live with their home rather than destroy it. Alyssa was no activist, but she didn’t need to be to know that human kind had done more damage to the planet they lived on than any natural catastrophe could have ever accomplished.

“They are,” she nodded, still breathless as she knelt before the grandeur, the majesty, of the small grove in front of her. “But how do you keep them safe? How do you keep them from being noticed?”

Mel smiled, “Technology can be a lifesaver, but it can also be a very effective method of keeping secrets.  You see that shimmer in the air?”

Looking up Alyssa squinted as she tried to see through the darkness to whatever Mel was talking about. The heavy-carbon-dioxide-laden cloud cover didn’t allow for star or moonlight, but she could finally see a faint shimmer as an errant breeze rippled across an unseen barrier.

She gasped, and Mel chuckled.

“There is a holographic barrier over this place that was designed specifically to fool every possible scan known to human kind.  People in key places know how important this secret is, and are doing their very best to keep it.”

“But, but how?” Alyssa asked. Words were failing her at every turn just now, refusing to take form in her mind or be delivered to her tongue.  Never before had she felt this type of awe, this type of absolute wonder that could steal away her very breath.

Mel sighed, “Well despite how much you like those old, ancient movies that keep getting recycled for some reason, there is no order, no secret society, and no other clandestine reason for keeping these trees except for the one thing that’s kept my family in this whole mess from the start.”

“How long?” Alyssa asked, “How long has your family been…?”             “In charge of this place?” Mel asked, eyebrows raised. “Oh man, since my great grandfather really.  The dead zone was created a long while ago, and back then most people had figured this place as a lost cause. I mean it still floods, the bedrock is failing, but overall it’s still an ideal place to keep these beauties alive.”

“But the atmosphere,” Alyssa said, now thoroughly confused, “How do they survive?”

“If there were more of them they might thrive on their own and make a difference in this small part of the world. But we have our own scrubbers and filtration systems hidden here and there, all covered by the barrier so as not to draw any unwanted attention.”

“Are they viable?” Alyssa asked, looking back to the trees, “Are they able to produce more trees?”

Mel smiled, “At one point there was only one of them. So what do you think?”

Alyssa turned her head back to the wondrous, leafy sentinels, her jaw hanging open as she began to count each one.

“There are twenty in all,” Mel said, leaning over her shoulder with a smile, “The last tree took root just about twenty years ago.  The first among them, we call her Genni, has been here for roughly three hundred years and counting.”

“Genni?”

“For Genesis,” she said, grinning at her friend as Alyssa grinned back, feeling the contagious emotion as it finally washed over her. There were trees here, and suddenly life had gained a very different aspect.  There was life to be had for their world, if only they protect it for long enough.

“So what is my place in all this?”

To that, Mel could only smile.

The Strange Case of Liam Allsace

The Strange Case of Liam Allsace

By Tom Foster

 

 

Some people have to be careful of the thoughts they allow into their heads.  Take my son for example, good, honest, poor Liam.  He was a bit of a problem child when he was born you know, but we still loved him, no matter what.  I suppose most parents with problem kids see their lives through a daily routine of choices, what to do with them, how to snap the kid out of their current funk or destructive behavior, but when I say that Liam was a problem kid, I don’t mean in that regard.  No, Liam had problems, but they were always, kind of strange.

What’s that? Oh no, no, no no no.  Liam didn’t do drugs, hell he didn’t even drink once he came of age, I should know.  Why?  A mother always knows her child, or at least we like to believe we do.  Liam was, well, he was different from a lot of kids.  I know, I know, it makes so little sense to say a child is different, we’re all different in some way.  But Liam was a bit more than that.

Well, I guess I could explain, but it’s going to sound kind of crazy.

That’s okay ma’am, we’re used to crazy here.”

Yes, yes I suppose you are.  They don’t call it Shady Acres Mental Health Institute for nothing do they?  Ha ha! I suppose that you’re also used to people having things happen around them without having any explanation.  No?  Well, then maybe Liam’s story, which I suppose is now my story, will perhaps be a little beyond what you’re used to.  Do you have your pen and paper handy? Oh, you use a recorder now?  Oh yes, look at that little thing, how wonderful, the marvels of technology are just growing more and more curious.  Don’t you agree?

Well, I suppose I should start, right?  I could tell you that it began when my husband, God bless him and all, started working at that awful textile mill out in Happy Valley.  It was one hell of a commute from that place to our home and back, but Andy did it each and every day.  You see young man, he and I were trying to start our family at that time, we’d only been married two years and were still quite young and very piss poor, as the saying used to go.  He worked his fingers to the bone, doing whatever was asked of him, working overtime and coming home at all hours of the night sometimes.  He was a good man, a good, honest man.

What does a textile mill have to do with Liam? Oh, nothing I suppose.  There’s no mumbo-jumbo going on in a textile mill that would have affected Andy or, by extension, myself.  It’s not a comic book case as some of the other doctors would like to call it.  But something did happen when Liam was born, something that neither Andy or myself were ever able to figure out.  The boy was just, different, from the first day he opened his eyes to the day he closed them finally.

I say he closed them, and I’m not of the mind to become confused or exaggerate.  God didn’t close my boy’s eyes, not unless He has a very cruel sense of humor. No one on this green earth closed my boy’s eyes but himself, and why he would do such a thing, I suppose no one will ever know.  Andy and myself knew that Liam was troubled, and we did whatever we could to make our son happy, to make him, you know, normal.  But that wasn’t enough.

Liam didn’t run around like other children, he didn’t read books, he didn’t like to watch television even when we had one.  He just sat and stared at things for hours on end, even when other kids would tease him and poke at him for doing so.  I can remember days when Liam would come home bloody and bruised because someone had taken it into their head that he was a retard.  Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to use that word, awful word it is, especially for a mother to use about her son. But Liam is gone doctor, and explaining why a thing happened isn’t quite the same as speaking ill of the dead. Wouldn’t you agree?  Well pfah, even if you don’t it’s not like I need to care about your opinion.  Doctors like you are the kind that saw fit to make my Liam’s life even harder when he got older.

We’re not here to judge ma’am, just to get your story.”

Ha!  That’s a good one you damned puppy!  Oh yes, everyone is just interested in getting a story, something to laugh about in the faculty offices and pore over as though the subject was something more akin to an insect, just waiting to be dissected.  It’s a cold profession that allows a person to detach emotion from what they do, but I suppose you’re used to that. Right?

Ma’am please, I don’t-“

Oh pshaw!  Enough of that “ma’am” crap.  I might be old enough to be your grandma boy but I won’t be forced to sit here and listen to some damned kid patronize me.  If you want this little morbid bit of entertainment to show to your colleagues and other interested parties you’ll sit there and just shut your mouth.  I swear, just because you have a degree you think you can make others feel like they’re idiots.  Isn’t that right?  No?  Well you can fool others sonny but you can’t fool me.  I went to school too, back in a day when an education actually meant something, when the money you put in actually went to what it was supposed to.  You damned young’uns today don’t realize just what hard is.

What? Oh fine, fine, I’ll tell the damned story.  Now where was I?

*                             *                             *

 

Portland, OR

October 30th, 1954

 

Liam Allsace was a bit different from other kids, and unfortunately he knew it.  His mother and father had done everything they could in his life to make sure that he was made to feel as though he were just like anyone else, but like so many well-meaning parents, they had either failed or made things worse.  He wasn’t any closer to beginning a life of his own than he’d been when he’d moved out of the house, surviving mainly on the routine, day to day existence that kept him alive, able to eke out a living and not much else.  He wasn’t interested in anything, he wasn’t motivated by anything, and he didn’t really know why.

His father had tried to get him a job with the textile mill that had seen their family through so many years before Liam had even been born, but he’d politely refused, not willing to live his father’s life nor follow in his footsteps in any way.  Andy Allsace hadn’t taken any offense to his son’s refusal, in fact he had been quite proud that Liam had not gone the same route he had.  But he’d still been concerned, and Liam knew that his mother felt the same way.  His parents wanted the best for him, just as any parent would, but they didn’t know enough about why he did and thought the way he did, and they most likely never would.  Even Liam didn’t know, and that was perhaps the most terrible thing.

He was about as average as a person could be, he wasn’t tall and he wasn’t short, he wasn’t fat or skinny.  Liam was just, average.

There were no goals in his life, but he didn’t wander around like a lump waiting to be cared for, he just didn’t have any motivation in the traditional sense.  Liam didn’t know what he wanted to do in his life, he didn’t even know if he really wanted to keep the life he had.  It was a terrible thing to think so, but Liam Allsace found himself wondering sometimes what the real point of living was.

He wasn’t suicidal, and it wasn’t just the fact that he was irish-Catholic.  Suicide was seen as a mortal sin, a punishment for throwing away what God had given a person.  But in his own personal view, Liam had to wonder why anyone would be punished for throwing away a gift.  His father had thrown away gifts before, not out of spite, but out of necessity.  Too much clutter could become a bother later in life, and in doing so would weigh a person down.  Liam could easily think at times that life was all about clutter, that eventually it weighed a person down, no matter how much one tried to even their life out.  It wasn’t the accumulation of things or people, it was just the addition of year after year, of day after day piling up on a person.  Eventually it got cluttered, things got forgotten, and there was just too much clutter to sift through any longer.

Liam was only in his mid-twenties, he’d not yet taken a wife or even considered having children.  Like so many things it wasn’t to spite his parents or because he didn’t feel the desire.  He just didn’t have the motivation to go out and get what other people wanted.  Instead he went to work each day at his job, a relatively peaceful desk job with an insurance company, logged in his eight to ten hours, and then went home, where he sat and just stared until it was time to go to bed.

He had no real friends aside from his co-workers, and even they kept their distance most times, thinking he was weird or perhaps just anti-social.  Liam didn’t really care, what they thought was really of no importance, though he knew they whispered behind his back, perhaps hurtful things or just plain gossip, it made no difference.  He was different, he knew it, and he knew that there was little to nothing he could do about it.

Liam had talked to his parents more than once concerning why he couldn’t seem to fixate upon anything but the empty air, but they’d never understood.  They’d tried of course, but they still hadn’t been able to understand what their son told them.  He didn’t want clutter, that was about all the motivation he could claim.  Each day at work he had to interact with others, but after work, the conversations and information he’d received during the day just went away, disappearing until the next day when he needed it.  But Liam could always realize that the clutter was there, just waiting to come forth to confuse and crowd in upon the nothingness he found normal.  It was always there, just on the edge of his mind, waiting to jump forward like some deranged jackrabbit, stomping all about with its oversized paws, making a mess, letting in the clutter.  Liam didn’t like that thought.

Each year it had seemed to get worse, with the clutter closing in around the perimeter of his thoughts, or rather, the absence of thought.  Liam knew what happened when he thought about things, and he didn’t like it.  The act of thinking was one more bit of clutter that he knew was waiting to overwhelm him, though he could not help it, at least not until he’d become an adult, when his control had grown somewhat.  Liam could do things with his thoughts, though they were hardly ever the things he’d really wanted.  They were dangerous things, unpredictable things, and things that had almost gotten him in trouble more than once.

When the Henderson’s dog had gone missing after enough people had complained about its barking?  That had been Liam, though he hadn’t meant it.  He’d gotten tired of the barking too since the dog’s yard and favorite spot to voice her complaints to the world at large had been not far from his bedroom window.  Too many nights he’d been woken by her bark, though never once had he complained.  Dogs barked, sometimes for no reason at all, that was just how the world was sometimes.  But Liam had wondered what it would be like to not hear Isabelle anymore, and the next day, she’d been gone.

Little Danny Henderson had been more than a little upset over the loss of his dog Isabelle, a Scottish Terrier and a good friend besides her incessant nighttime ritual.  No one had ever really known why Isabelle had barked so much, but it had been enough to get the Henderson’s in hot water with their neighbors more than once.  Isabelle had been gone, and Liam, as well as the rest of the neighborhood, hadn’t had to listen to her anymore.  And why?  He’d wanted to know what it would be like to not hear the terrier anymore.  In truth it had been kind of nice, but the tears on Danny’s face hadn’t been all that nice.  No one had ever found the dog, no matter how hard they looked or how many pictures they’d put up.  Isabelle, and her barking, were just gone.

There had been other times when Liam had harbored such dangerous thoughts, but he’d kept himself in check thankfully more than once.  He’d wondered things about other people and the smaller inconveniences of life that he’d quickly reigned in, fearful of another repeat of the incident with Isabelle.  To do something like that to a dog was bad enough, but to do it to a person would be a damning act he was sure.  Liam had never ascribed to the whole idea of God and the holy trinity as his parents had done, but he had still been young enough to be wary of defying something he could not understand.  Anyway, he’d kept his thoughts light and in check when he had them for many years, with only a few random occurrences taking place and far from any prying eyes.

He’d never had a doubt that he had been the one who had made Isabelle disappear, though he’d never told anyone either.  Liam knew he would have gotten in serious trouble, and that was the type of attention he liked to avoid.  In fact, he liked to avoid attention whenever possible, except when his parents were around.  They were good people, he knew this with all his limited heart, and they wanted the best for him.  But Liam knew in that same location that he was not meant for this life somehow.  He just knew he wasn’t supposed to be here, and for some reason he knew that today was the last day he had.

His parents would be sad of course, it was the way of parents to care about their children. Well, at least the way of good parents.  His would no doubt cry their eyes out and lament his passing, perhaps thinking that they might have been able to help him somehow.  There was nothing to be helped though, he just wasn’t meant to be here.  If he’d been able to find a means to just erase himself from this existence he would have already succeeded, he’d tried.  But it didn’t look as though he would be able to, whatever had given him this strange ability to direct his thoughts upon reality had seemed able to deny him such an escape.  So Liam had come up with another method.

Seated upon his only chair within his small apartment, Liam focused as he always did on nothing, delving into his own mind as he did.  This was not the first time he had done such a thing, but it would most certainly be the last.  He just couldn’t let the clutter get him, not like it had everyone else.  He wasn’t meant to be here, and the clutter of his life wouldn’t be allowed to fall on anyone else, not if he could help it.

Allowing his arms to lay upon the armrests of his chair Liam let his gaze become unfocused, his mind going blank as he began the process he’d been thinking upon for nearly two years.  It was something inventive, something that he was almost sure no one would be able to understand.  It was also something that would erase him from this world almost entirely, if he was successful.  Liam couldn’t possibly erase all that he’d done to influence the lives of others, he’d tried that too.  Somehow though, he felt as though only two people in this world would remember him after a matter of months, and those two would have more right than any to do so.

As Liam Allsace settled himself within his chair, his favorite chair he realized, he began to think the thoughts that he’d practiced for the past several months, hoping against all hope that it would work.  The shock upon his body would be absolute, but at the very least it would erase the clutter, along with everything else.

*                             *                             *

 

That’s, not possible.”

Humph, you science types are all the same, doctors or no.  If someone gives you a case that you can’t understand you just parrot back “That’s not possible.”  Well I’ll tell you something boy, none of us thought it was possible either, back then or even now.  Wishing yourself out of existence, that seems like something in a fantasy story doesn’t it?  Then I guess my Liam must have been a pioneer in that particular field, because he sure as hell enough found a way to do it.

Not possible?  You tell that to the medical examiner that opened my boy up to determine the cause of death.  Liam wasn’t dead when they brought him in, but no one could explain why his body seemed to be just tip top but his reactions and other functions were next to nil.  The body takes a while to die sometimes I suppose, but in Liam’s case, they couldn’t figure out a damned thing wrong with him save for the fact that he’d somehow gone catatonic.

The technology in those days wasn’t as up to snuff as it is now.  The doo-dads and gee-gaws you kids have got now are a damned sight finer and a lot more confusing than anything they had back then.  Maybe now if Liam were still alive you could’ve told just what was wrong with him, without cutting him open that is.

But ma’am, the case report states that your son suffered blow to the head.  There’s no record of-“

Oh be quiet boy.  I know what the report says, I read the damned thing more than once, and I found it so much crap that I laughed and cried and then laughed some more.  It was no blow to the head, no conspiracy to get rid of my Liam and no random mugging like they thought it might be.  Liam, rest his soul, for whatever reason figured that this world wasn’t for him, and he found a way out.

But you’re suggesting that he-“

Punched his own ticket, yes I am.  You damned well bet that I’m saying that.  Liam found this world wanting and he took the only way out he could.  From what the medical examiner told me, that man had balls enough to tell a mother what happened to her boy, Liam’s brain and spinal cord were as smooth and unlined as possible.  There wasn’t so much as a groove in either his noodle or his backbone, as though each one of ‘em were like clay just waiting to be molded.  The examiner, he was a doctor in his own right, claimed that without the proper equipment to either part, the body couldn’t function, and that was why Liam had died.  But he hadn’t ever seen the like, I’m sure no one had to that point, and probably not even now.  You believe what you want kid, but I tend to believe a man who will come straight with a mother when everyone else decides to pull the wool over her eyes.  I didn’t doubt that man, and I don’t doubt him now.

I, I’m sorry, I just can’t-“

Believe?  Back then neither could I, but damned and hell if I don’t believe it to this day.  My son wished himself out of existence young man, and for reasons that no one can possibly understand.  Andy and I never tried for another child after that, we couldn’t bear the heartache of something like that happening again.  But the odds must have been astronomical right?  Who could possibly have a child like my Liam?  Who could possibly have another one like that?  I tell you this boy, my Andy and I didn’t want to take that chance.

Andy passed on only about ten years after Liam, leaving me alone to this day, without children or any sort of legacy to pass on.  And you know what?  I’m just fine with that.  My legacy died with my son, as did my husband’s.  We did our best to bring a child into this world and raise him as best we could, and in part we did just fine.  There was something more to Liam, some part of him that maybe didn’t figure he belonged here, and there was nothing we could do about it, no matter how hard we tried.

I loved my son, just as much as I loved my husband.  As a family we were always close, no matter how far away Liam seemed to be.  He loved us just as we loved him, but it wasn’t enough.  I’ll go to my grave and before God and the angels to tell my story, and I can only hope that He has already accepted my Liam and my Andy.  Maybe they’ll be waiting for me up there at the pearly gates, and maybe then we can all settle down and tell the story of my Liam’s life, without nosy parkers like you trying to get a kick out of it.

Oh don’t give me that look son, I know what you came for.  The story of my son’s life and passing is something of a medical impossibility, along with many others that have occurred over the decades.  You aren’t the first to come my way seeking the odd and the macabre, but damned and hell if I’ll have to listen through one more of you white-coated clowns.  I was born in Albany, New York, and moved out west with my family at a young age.  I’ll die here in Portland, Oregon, most likely in the small room I was given so many years when I was placed here.  And you know what?  I’ll do it my way, with the names of my son and husband on my lips when I go.  As for you and any others that try to spin the story of my Liam, well, I hope the ink runs dry before you get the first word down.

I’ve said my peace, now leave me be.

Unbound

Unbound                                                                                            

By Tom Foster                                                                                               

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

            Darkness receded as he could feel his eyes opening slowly, struggling to break the crusted excretions that had been growing worse as of late.  Wiping lazily at his eyes he winced as his fingernails accidentally struck his lids, gouging only a bit before he pulled his hand away.  The prospect of coming fully awake brought the usual plethora of physical ailments he’d become used to over the years; the creaking of joints worn down by age and hard labor, the fullness of a bladder he couldn’t deny and of course, the burning that seemed to coat the entire inside of his throat, lungs and even stomach.  He could almost taste the coppery flavor in the back of his throat as he rolled over from his right side to his left, feeling his throat clutch as his stomach clenched in reflex.  He was going to vomit.

            With eyes that were just barely open enough for him to see past the crust he’d failed to wipe away Morgan Linton stumbled to his feet, doing his best to hold in the acidic flood that began to swell in the back of his throat.  Feeling his way towards the door he turned his shoulders to fit through the smaller than average doorway, hastily opening the door before he exited the room.  The soft feel of the carpet beneath his feet did nothing to ease a single bit of the pain that now tore with raw fingers at his body as he felt his way along the short hall that would lead to the bathroom.  He tried being quiet, lord knew if he woke his two roommates he would have a hard enough time explaining what he was doing up at this hour on a day off, but it was hard given the current situation.

            He didn’t even bother to flick the light on as he leaned over the sink, keeping his face close enough to the faux marble basin so that he wouldn’t splash the counter and floor with whatever came up.  Morgan’s hands clenched the side and front of the counter as he leaned over, his stomach still clenching and loosening in reflex as he closed his eyes completely, hoping that the force of his regurgitation didn’t cause him to move.  Opening his mouth he could taste as the acidic wash of fluid was almost there, almost about to spew forth.  And then it was there.

            His hands clenched the counter even tighter, causing it to creak as the glue that held it tightly to the wooden cabinet below was strained to its durability and almost beyond, giving just a little as he suddenly realized the fact.  Hunching his shoulders Morgan moved his face a little closer to the basin as the foul-tasting spill of fluid rushed from between his lips, coating his tongue, gums and even the backs of his teeth with its foul stink.  He didn’t bother to open his eyes, he had no desire to see what was coming out of him today, he could already guess what part of it was.  The sickening sweet aroma that was mixed in with the acrid tang of stomach acid was hard for him to miss. 

            The painful torrent lasted for several more seconds before Morgan felt his stomach muscles relax, giving one final, cramping tug before they went loose again.  He

                                                                                                                        Page 2

 

could feel the tension within his body as he began to shake, as though his nerves and muscles were untrusting that the worst was over, that any second another spasm could hit.  Morgan couldn’t help but think that his body knew better than he did what to expect, though in all honesty he didn’t care.  He would still live as he wanted, do as he pleased and damn all the rest.  At thirty-seven years of age he didn’t give a damn any longer, he’d lived what he believed amounted to a full life and had plenty of regrets.  Who didn’t these days?  At least he could say that he was living on his own two feet without need of assistance from anyone.

            It wasn’t entirely fair to think this way about one of his roommates, as the younger man who “owned” the home that he and another friend were staying in had shown a great deal of personal responsibility over the past two years.  He’d even gained the nerve to demand rent money from Morgan and their other roommate and friend, Jerry. The owner of the house, Tim, was the type of man who’d been kept under his parents’ thumb for most of his life, and remained there to the present day.  Tim liked to bluster and claim that he made his own decisions in life, but at the current moment he worked for his father and was on call whenever his parents so much as whistled in his direction.

            Tim wasn’t a weakling by any means, as he’d stood up to Morgan and Jerry more than once.  Morgan had to believe though that Tim had known at the time that neither Morgan or Jerry would throw down with him.  For all that they rode Tim about his weaknesses of character and the many oddities he enjoyed, the younger man was downright scary sometimes.  Morgan had been in more than his share of fights throughout the years, and he knew very well that those who talked and blustered about their fighting prowess were often the ones that crumbled first and hardest.

            Tim didn’t talk much.  When he did talk it meant he was drunk and quite possibly feeling a little squirrely. That hadn’t happened since the last full moon though, which Morgan found oddly disquieting but also coincidental.  Tim was a Cancer on the zodiac calendar, whereas Morgan was a Sagittarius, and Jerry was a Leo. Their personalities fit their signs to a tee, meaning that poor Tim was always one-upped at anything the three of them did just because he wasn’t the forceful personality that he and Jerry were.

            But when it came to fighting him, Morgan had come close once, and he’d seen no give in Tim’s eyes when they had stood nose to nose.  He’d said something that had irked Tim more than anything he’d ever uttered, and the younger man had stood up instantly, which had provoked Morgan, who had gone nose to nose for several minutes before deciding that the coming fight wouldn’t be in his favor.  You just didn’t fight men that had a cause to champion, not unless your own case was stronger.  At that point they’d both been drunk and he’d had no better cause than finding the next beer. Tim had been ready to fight for his beliefs though, and Morgan knew that the other man would have fought tooth and nail had it come to that.

            Jerry had a much simpler philosophy about fighting someone like Tim, and it went “I don’t fuck with quiet people.”

            Morgan knew the sense of this.  It was better not to screw around with people that were too quiet. You never knew what would set them off and how badly they would explode when pushed too far. Tim was like that he believed, and this was part of the reason why he could cut the guy so much slack when it came to how he lived.

            Spitting the last of his morning regurgitation into the sink he turned the tap on low so as not to wake his roommates.  He then began to scrub at his face, taking in large mouthfuls of water to wash away the horrid taste.  After only a minute or so of scrubbing he actually began to feel normal.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            At least it was a day off.  Morgan was in the kitchen brewing coffee, looking out at the long, overgrown back yard that was a part of the property.  The next door neighbors were already up and about, their two little girls laughing and giggling up and down their own driveway as he could hear through the open kitchen window.  It was leaning into late October, but the chill morning breeze had the effect of waking him up just a little more, invigorating him in a way he enjoyed. 

            He’d heard one of his roommates stirring about as he’d exited the bathroom, being careful to clean up his mess before leaving. His friends already worried about him at times, he didn’t need to give them another reason to be concerned.  Morgan didn’t hide much from them, they knew that he was slowly going blind in his left eye, and that his doctor had discovered a black spot on his lung only a month ago that might have been cancerous.  They’d done what friends normally do in such a situation and told him that if he needed anything they’d be there for him. He appreciated that, but in all honesty he didn’t know if they realized that there was little they could do if things got any worse.

            A large part of him insisted that he needed to find a new job, but the rest of him reasoned that he’d never be able to find a job with anywhere near the pay he was getting now.  It was a dirty, nasty job he did, but the benefits and the paychecks were enormous, and after scraping by at so many other part-time jobs and working as a CNA for so many unforgiving years, Morgan was quite tired of making shit money doing shit jobs.  His current take-home pay per week was around seven hundred dollars after taxes, and despite this accomplishment he was only allowed to keep about half of that, if he was lucky.

            Child support, rent, his part of the utilities, and other debts he was still paying off took a large chunk out of his pay.  Thankfully his portion of the rent was low, and the utilities split three different ways made them almost negligible.  It was child support for his son and the court fines he’d collected throughout his life that bent him over and did him dry more often than not.  He was close to paying the fines off, but his bitch of an ex-wife was always careful to gouge him for everything she could.  The worst part about it was that the money that was supposed to go to their son rarely ever got spent on anything he could have used.

            It went for salon visits, spa treatments, cigarettes, alcohol, nights out at the bar, and anything else that she could get away with.  The court had never ordered her to provide receipts that showed that the money was going to Albert, their son, but they had put him through hell year after year.  There was a part of him that wanted to ask again and again why he’d ever stuck his dick in Jessica more than once.  She’d been meant to be a one-night booty call, nothing more. They’d worked together for a short time before their attraction had become enough that she’d made her way over to his place, intent on just one thing.

            After that it should have ended, but obviously he’d been hooked.  She was great in the sack, but that was where the fun ended. Despite having a job, Morgan had found out quickly that Jessica was a user, a leech that sucked the life out of people for as long as they lasted.  She’d grown up in a home that fostered abuse and treated neglect like it was a minor thing, so it was no surprise that she’d been born to manipulate others. He should have seen it coming considering that his own family were little more than manipulators, but he’d been too focused on the physical pleasure.

            The coffee maker burbled in its pleasant way as the aroma wafted towards his nostrils, causing him to close his eyes as he inhaled.  A big, lumbering form moved past the open entry to the kitchen, shuffling slowly as his mop of unruly blonde hair waved and jumped with each movement. Morgan couldn’t suppress a small grin as Tim moved by, grunting a “morning” as he passed.  Morgan repeated the greeting, not leaving the coffee pot as Tim made his way just around the corner and sat down at the small dining room table in the nook just off the kitchen. 

            The house wasn’t all that big really, only nine hundred square feet if it was an inch, and the dining space was barely bigger than the laundry area that jutted off the kitchen. Tim though had unofficially claimed this area as his own when his two friends had asked to move in, keeping it as his writing space, his school space, and anything else he needed it for.  Morgan and Jerry both knew that their younger friend occasionally used it as his space to look at porn, but thankfully Tim hadn’t ever surprised them by engaging in any self-pleasuring ritual that they’d noticed. 

            In fact, Morgan had only ever once caught his friend looking at porn on the old and battered laptop he used, and he’d had to admit that Tim’s taste in women was pretty damned good.  It was just too bad the guy couldn’t talk to them for shit.  He and Jerry had tried again and again to get Tim to find a woman that was worth his time, but lately he’d been pining over some eighteen-year old piece of nothing by the name of Gina. She was a fellow student at Tim’s college who’d fallen for him only about a year ago, and had subsequently asked him if he wanted to attend a concert with her at the Crystal Ballroom in downtown Portland.

            That was how their relationship had started, but how it had ended neither he nor Jerry really knew. All that was known was that Tim had been pining for the kid, as they called her, for nearly two months now since she’d dumped him.  At least Tim had never lied about that part, but he’d been more crushed about it than Morgan and Jerry could understand.

            In a way he could accept why Tim was so heartbroken. He was a much more sensitive person than either of them. He’d come from a good, nurturing family where such values as kindness, honor, and respect held great sway, and had no doubt thought the world was supposed to make sense until it had reached out and slapped him in the face a few times.  Tim wasn’t a novice to life by any means, but he still believed that such things as honor and respect were the currency of the social landscape, while Morgan and Jerry knew too well that it took a special kind of person to still believe in such things. 

            “Oh God,” moaned Jerry as he made his way to the bathroom, managing to poke his head out just for a moment as he called out, “If you need the bathroom for anything speak now or hold your peace for about an hour or two!  I’ve got a shit on deck that could choke an elephant!” Without waiting he shut the door firmly behind himself. The sound of the ceiling fan turning on behind the door could be heard as Morgan rolled his eyes. Same old Jerry.

            “It’s always nice to have some warning I suppose,” Tim said with a yawn.  The

clicking noises that came from his direction alerted Morgan to the fact that the younger man was already online and no doubt beginning or continuing another of his stories.  For all that he didn’t appear to be a scholar or even a capable student, Tim was diligent about his studies and more than that, he was one hell of a good writer.  

            “Screw that,” Morgan said, hating the way his voice croaked, “I’d rather he shove a cork up his ass and use the gas station down the street.”

            Tim laughed as he heartily agreed by saying “Si.”

            Morgan smiled as he growled, “SI!”

            “SIIII!” they both said in unison, laughing at the inside joke as from in the bathroom they could hear Jerry groan.

            “Enough with that shit!” he yelled through the door. He had grown tired of their borrowed phrase a short while ago, which meant they used it as often as they could.

            “Back atcha!” Tim barked, eliciting another chuckle from Morgan, who was feeling better by the moment as he began to laugh.  It was always like this with the three of them, and it was good.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            “Man,” Morgan groaned, “There is absolutely nothing on!”

            “It’s Sunday,” Tim said, still sitting at his computer, “What did you expect?”

            “If it was football season I’d expect your ‘Hawks to be takin’ a big shit on the field by now.”

            “I still say it was pass interference,” Tim said with a raised eyebrow.

            “Get over it man, your team lost,” he said with a grin. ‘They lost the Super Bowl.”

            “Yeah, yeah,” Tim replied.

            “You know, the biggest game of the season.”

            “Shut up,” Tim said in a singsong voice that told Morgan he was done talking about it.

            “As in, they lose and have to start over again next season.”

            “Dude…”

            “What?” Morgan said with a grin, thrusting his chin out at Tim, “Whatcha gonna do, bruther!”

            Tim and Morgan both laughed as Tim strained his voice to emit an “Oooh yeeeah!”

            That broke the tension that might have built, allowing them both to laugh as Jerry came walking into the room, heading for the kitchen as he groaned at both of them.

            “You guys are so gay,” he said as he began searching through the cupboards. “Hey, who ate my goddamned burrito?”

            “It’s in the fridge,” Morgan said, “You tried to put it on the stove last night when we got home you renob.”

            “I was gonna eat it!” protested Jerry as he looked and, with a grunt of satisfaction, found the rolled up, bulky item he’d been looking for on the top shelf.

            “You’re welcome,” Tim said from his seat.

            “Get bent,” Jerry said as he turned to the microwave, “But thanks.”

            Tim just nodded his head, this was how life was with his friends.  Morgan shook his head in turn as he continued to flip channels, looking for something, anything, that might be entertaining enough to just zone out to. None of them had plans to go anywhere

today, and Jessica had already told him that she’d planned to take Albert and her two

older boys to OMSI for the day.  Ever since he’d broken off a three-month fling with his last girlfriend, a strange but lovely young woman named Britta, he’d lost a good deal of drive to do much more than just sit at home and hang around the guys when he wasn’t working.

            “So what’re we up to today?” Jerry asked from the kitchen, his voice sounding like the sickening croak of a bullfrog. 

            “Not much man,” Morgan said, “I’m still kind of hurting from last night. Aren’t you?”

            “Shit yeah,” Jerry said, “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to go out again tonight.”

            Morgan could just barely see as Tim rolled his eyes where he was sitting. He knew very well that Tim had had as good as time as they had despite the fact that he was still pining for Gina, but he could understand as well that going out wasn’t the big prospect for the younger man as it was for Morgan and Jerry.

            They gave Tim a great deal of shit most of the time for his values and morals, but he was in truth a great deal better than the two of them.  He had at least held onto the teachings and lessons of his parents in a way that Morgan could not fully understand.  His own parents had always shown him little more than a fond type of neglect, always telling him that he was loved but never really showing it like he’d seen Tim’s parents do.  They didn’t want to let him go and it showed, but Tim was in the process of shaping himself into his own man despite the fact that he had no chance in hell of stepping away from his parents until he broke from them financially. 

            “Jodie’s again then?” Jerry said with a grin as the microwave chimed, indicating that his burrito was done. 

            “Isn’t there anywhere else we could go?” Morgan asked, reclining on the sofa as he finally found a popular cooking show that he liked. It was rerun, but he didn’t give damn, it was interesting.   If he could do anything other than what he was doing now it would be to go back to school and learn to cook professionally. He was already invested in cooking when he could, and he knew that his friends appreciated it from the way they always commented on his dishes.  Jerry thought he could cook, but in truth was more effective on the grill than in the kitchen. Tim, well, Tim knew how to cook, but didn’t take the full appreciation in his own dishes, preferring comfort food over the more exotic and interesting dishes that Morgan liked to try.

            “There’s The Dolphin, or Jiggles,” Jerry offered as he came to sit on the other end of the sofa.  The living room now had a rather crowded feel, as from the dining nook to the front door there was only twenty feet or more of space, and the sofa and entertainment center that housed the television took up a great deal of it.  Thank God they were friends, otherwise the proximity might be really uncomfortable.

            “I almost just want to stay here and drink tonight.  You know any females that might want to make their way over?”

            Jerry eyeballed him curiously as he continued to eat.  Tim had turned from his computer now, inhaling strongly as he looked at Morgan, “You know the drill,” he said, his voice serious and just a bit authoritative as he raised an eyebrow.

            “Ah shit man, c’mon.”

            Jerry grinned as he shook his head, “His house man, even if it is owned by-“

            “You need to stop when you’re already right,” Tim said sternly, frowning even as

he looked back to Morgan.  “Don’t get me wrong man. I’m all up for it,” This caused Morgan’s eyebrows to lift in surprise, “But this time the rules are gonna stand. If I say someone goes, I expect you guys to back me up.”

            Morgan sat back, rolling his eyes as he remembered just why Tim would say such a thing.  The last time they’d had a party at the house they’d made good and damned sure that Tim’s parents wouldn’t get bent out of shape about, which in his estimation was a mark of respect, and that their neighbors wouldn’t mind. The Privets, who lived on their left, didn’t often mind when they got a little loud, but asked them to at least forewarn them if they were going to have a party, or a get-together as they called it.  On their right, old Mrs. Widdlemore, a widower of nearly seventy years of age, could barely hear them when they were talking directly to her, and had already professed that once she was down for the evening she couldn’t hear a damned thing.  Mrs. Widdlemore was a very cool old lady, and hadn’t even heard the last scuffle that had broken out in their back yard. The Privets had been on vacation thankfully, so there had been no trouble at all since the fight that had taken place had been in the back yard, and gone unseen by anyone else.

            But it had come about thanks to an old friend of Morgan’s, someone he’d known since before he’d met Tim.  Tom McCall, a friend of Morgan’s for nearly twenty years now, was what most people would call a waste of space.  He drank like a fish, he said stupid things without thinking, and more often than not he professed to respect people but talked without pause behind their backs.  He’d been a part of Morgan’s life when he had first started getting into trouble with the law, and continued to be a hanger-on type of friend that couldn’t figure out when the party was over.

            Morgan had grown up a great deal since meeting Tom, but Tom had yet to understand that being in his upper thirties, almost in his forties, meant that partying every night, drinking yourself into a stupor, and expecting to do it all over again the next night wasn’t the way to be a successful adult.  Morgan had learned at least the first part of this, and was working on the success part.  Tom though was the same asshole he’d always been, and was kind of proud of the fact. 

            The last party they’d held here had been going just fine up until Tom had gotten himself soused to the point that his mouth had run away from him.  He wasn’t always a sloppy drunk, but that night had been worse than others since he’d not seemed to care who he was talking about or how.  Many of the partygoers, people that were either acquaintances or good friends, had done their best to ignore him, but it had been when Tom had decided to rag on Tim that the shit had hit the fan.

            Along with their many male friends, Jerry had introduced him to the veritable host of strippers that he’d known for many years, several of whom were knockout gorgeous and had all found Morgan and Tim quite attractive.  That night Tim had been talking with a young woman whose stage name was Whisper, and had been having a damned good time as Morgan had seen.  The two had hooked up with one another almost immediately when Whisper had gone to talk to Tim, and had been inseparable up until Tom’s little faux pas that had almost ruined the entire night.

            In fact, it was safe to say that Whisper might have been the one for Tim had she not moved away shortly before he’d met Gina….

            That aside, the two of them had been all over each other, with Whisper doing her level best to entice Tim to escape to his bedroom for a short time it would seem. Tim though, unlike Morgan or Jerry, had politely but companionably replied that while he was

more than ready for such, he didn’t want to bail on the party.  He’d told Jerry and Morgan

this afterward, which had prompted them both to call him a goddamned fucktard, right up until he’d told them that Whisper had found it absolutely sexy that he cared about his guests so much.  You could label that under weird and unusual, but considering the noises she’d made after the party was long over, neither of them could fault him any longer for letting the moment pass. Whisper had been a regular visitor right up until the day she’d left. In fact, she’d even given Tim a pleasant parting gift…

            They could all still recall how Tom had acted and how embarrassing it had been when he’d really gotten going.  He’d shown up drunk, still chugging on a forty of Big Bear, some truly rotgut shit, the only type he could ever afford, but had been pleasant enough to start with. Tom was the type of drunk that at least started out friendly, laughing and joking with everyone while attempting to be the life of the party, but after a while his antics usually wound up rubbing someone the wrong way.  Eventually this became a problem and could at times cause trouble for whomever he was with. 

            That night he’d shown up without one of his many ‘filthies’ as he called the women he constantly bragged about.  The three of them had met the women that Tom favored, and “filthy” was a kind description in their opinion. Having arrived later than most of the people that had decided to come over, Tom had goggled at the number of beautiful women that had been in attendance, wondering aloud if Tim’s parents had signed off on turning the back yard into a giant strip joint.

            Here was the thing, as Jerry had told them both when they’d started frequenting strip joints. While inside the clubs, women were used to being seen as sex objects, it was the whole point of a strip bar.  They would dance on stage, climb the pole, jiggle their asses and make their tits bounce pleasingly for the men to drool over, and it was good.  But it was also a part of the business. If a stripper decided to get involved with a customer it was their prerogative, but it was oftentimes frowned upon by management.  If they did go ahead and take that risk then it was up to them to make certain that their friend, or lover, or however they defined the lucky guy, didn’t make trouble if they continued to frequent the joint.

            It took a special kind of guy to not mind if their girlfriend, or even wife, was a stripper.  Tim had even stated that he might never be able to date such a woman, but he’d dated Whisper after that night for nearly a year and never said a single damned thing about her profession.  Well, the fact that she worked at PDX in Portland had something to do with it as well. 

            Tom though had seen the party as a means to act like the asshole he usually was, and had given out a hearty “Woo-hoo!” as he’d seen the women, who were dressed in nice, fairly conservative clothing, cavorting here and there.  Between Jerry, Morgan, and Tim there had been a number of people there, all of them trusted and all mature enough to simply have a good time and enjoy themselves. They’d made it a BYOB party and had everyone pitch in for pizza, and had made it known that it was just what it seemed like, a general get-together for friends. 

            But Tom had seen it as a free pass to act like a major douche, as he’d propositioned more than one of the women for a lap dance, and had made the mistake of walking over to Tim and Whisper with his tongue lolling out of his head. He’d even given Tim a leering smile before silently motioning to Whisper, who had wrinkled her full lips in utter disgust as Tom had tried to move behind her.  Tim had known full well

what Tom was trying to get at, and had stomached the other’s antics only long enough to

set his beer down and ask Whisper politely to move aside. When Tom had attempted to move with her he’d held an arm out to block him, to which Tom hadn’t responded well. Morgan could still remember that particular conversation, as it hadn’t ended well for Tom.

            “Hey man!” said Tom, attempting to knock Tim’s arm down, “Don’t go gettin’ stingy on me!  There’s plenty of ass for both of us!”  Tom was laughing as he spoke, chugging from each hand, one after another.  He wasn’t often a double-fisted drinker, but he had been known to pull this stunt now and again when he was really lit.

            “Go on Tom,” Tim said calmly, “She’s not into it, and neither am I.”

            “Oooh, don’t be such a little priss!” Tom chided, “I was just joking! I mean damn man, she is a stripper right?  Give her an extra five and see if she can hook us both up!”

            Morgan had learned through trial and error how to tell when Tim was really fired up, and he knew at that moment, as he hadn’t been the only one observing this scene, that Tim going quiet and still was never a good sign.  The only other sign he could see was the minute set of the younger man’s jaw, a sure signal that he was ready to throw down.  But still, he spoke again before any fists were thrown.

            “Whisper,” Tim had begun.

            “Jill, honey,” Whisper had said from behind him. Tim had nodded, correcting himself as he’d spoke again.

            “Jill, is a lady, and I expect her to be treated as such when she’s in my home.  In fact, I expect every person here to be treated with respect Tom.  If you’re not into that then you can leave please.”

            Before this point Tim had already asked Morgan not to invite Tom, but Morgan had known that if word got out to his other buddies that they were having a party then soon enough Tom would find out.  Tim hadn’t been too happy, neither had Jerry, but they’d at least promised to be nice if Tom showed up. Jerry didn’t care for Tom at all really, but knew how to be civil.  He just ignored him.

            But he wasn’t ignoring him that night.

            “Are you serious man?” roared Tom, still trying to laugh as he looked around, “You’re the one being the prick, not me! I mean shit, everyone around here’s trying to have fun and you’re being all serious,” Tom had pulled a stern face then, acting all stiff and businesslike before becoming his asshole self again, “You need to lighten the fuck up and shit!”

            “If you can show some respect you can stay,” Tim had warned, and Morgan had seen his jaw tighten just a little with each word.  His fists hadn’t balled up yet, but that took only a second. Tom however had remained oblivious.

            “If I call her a stripper it’s because that’s what she is!” Tom roared, “She dances on a pole and grinds on guys’ cocks for money man!  Would you want me to call waitress a goddamned, ah, eh, uh…”

            Morgan had rolled his eyes as Tom had gone into his drunken fugue state as usual, words failing him as he’d attempted to keep insulting Tim and Whisper.  The moment seemed to stretch on for several minutes as Tim stood his ground with Whisper standing resolutely at his back, one hand held lightly upon his right arm as though to hold him back.  He could have told her it wouldn’t matter, but Tom made that point in the next second as, dropping both beers, he decided to worsen the situation all on his own.

            “Answer me man!  You tell me I can’t say shit and then you-!”

            Tom hadn’t managed to speak again after that. In fact the next thing out of his mouth had been the short, anguished grunt of pain that had emerged when Tim had grabbed both of his hands, gripping his fingers in a tight, unforgiving grip. Morgan had actually heard bones break as Tim had then wrenched Tom’s fingers back so far that the other man had been forced to kneel or fall over. 

            He and Jerry had acted then, moving to intercept Tim before he did any real, lasting damage to Tom.  Once they’d reached him though it had taken both of them tugging on Tim’s arms to get him to release Tom. Even then, Tom had been stupid enough to get up and try to sucker punch Tim while Morgan and Jerry had been holding him, though the pain in his hands had to have been bad even in his drunken state.

            Tom had managed to land one hit on Tim, striking him hard in the cheek, but it had been a mistake that he hadn’t gotten to make again. His hit didn’t even faze Tim, and in fact it was like hitting solid rock as Tom yelled out in agony.  Tim though didn’t bother trying to break free, he just rocked back and sent his the ball of his shoe upward to connect with Tom’s chin. The effect was almost comical as Tom went flying from his feet, out cold before he hit the grass.

            It had taken some doing to get Tim to calm down, but eventually Jerry and Morgan had deduced that he was well enough to let go.  In all honesty it had been hard to tell, since Tim’s anger never manifested as others did. He would go quiet and start breathing heavily, but rarely ever did he do anything else.

            Morgan had been the one to drive Tom to the nearest clinic where they’d announced that not only was his blood alcohol level nearly three times over the limit, but he’d broken two teeth and four fingers between his two hands. Tim had also cracked Tom’s right ulna somehow, which had required a splint so it wouldn’t get worse. All in all the visit to the clinic had cost Tom around two hundred dollars give or take, and a deep and aching resentment later on.

            Tom hadn’t come around since then, but he’d been in contact with Morgan more than once.  Tom Always he asked if he was still hanging around Tim, and if he still lived in the same house.  Morgan actually took some satisfaction in telling him yes on both counts.  Tom was, in his opinion, a waste of space that he was better off not hanging around with any longer. 

            “Y’know, it’s not like I set that asshole on you or anything,” Morgan said in his own defense. “He had plenty of women to harass and for some reason he came over and got in your face.”

            They knew why too. Tom and Tim had only ever gotten along because of their mutual friendship with Morgan.  When Tim had taken to taunting and teasing Tom about the prominent scar that ran over the bridge of his nose, and then the fact that he was missing one of his front teeth, Tom hadn’t taken it very well. He’d told Tim a few times that only his older, more trusted friends could talk about things like that.  Unfortunately for Tom this had been after he’d already given Tim shit about his dating habits, his attitude towards women, and of course the fact that his home was owned by his parents.  After that no one had bothered to tell Tom that he’d had it coming. 

            “I can’t stop him from getting wind of a party,” Tim said calmly, “But I promise you this man, if he shows up I’ll be tossing him to the curb.  I won’t be nice enough to drive him to the clinic.”

            “Is that the one he’s on a first-name basis with?” Jerry quipped, causing Morgan and Tim both to snigger and finally laugh as Jerry continued eating, a big grin on his face.  Another thing that Tom was known for, amongst several other disquieting character flaws, was that he would have sex with damn near anything with tits and a pulse.  On his own admission he’d contracted crabs, gonorrhea, and what he had once thought was herpes.  He’d gone so far to try and have Morgan, who had been a CNA at that time, to take a look at his junk to see if he could tell.  Morgan had promptly kicked him out of his apartment that time, and Tom hadn’t been allowed back in for nearly a week.

            “I’m kind of surprised they haven’t had a room or something named after him,” Morgan said between laughs.

            “Shit no,” Tim said with a laugh, “I’d name a procedure after him at best. Like maybe if someone needed to have genital warts removed or something, call it the “McCall Method”.”

            This had the effect of making Jerry choke on his burrito as he spat a bit of meat out, looking over at Tim as he wiped at his lips. “You asshole,” he said, still grinning, “I’m eating over here. Talk about his junk somewhere else, or better yet, don’t talk about it all.”

            “Why not?” Tim asked, “He certainly does.”

            The sound of the doorbell chiming interrupted their mirth just a bit as thanks to the vertical blinds being drawn across the front windows they couldn’t see who’d come calling.

            “I’m eating,” Jerry said as he sat back.

            “Not getting it,” Morgan said, settling back.

            “No really, I’ll get it,” Tim said sarcastically, rising from his seat to make his way over to the front door, shaking his head as he debated looking through the peephole set high into the tan-colored door.  He decided not to as he grasped the knob, turning as the thought that it might be Tom entering his thoughts.  It would have been fitting he supposed, as they were talking about the guy. 

            The person he saw on the other side though had the effect of dropping his jaw as he stood gaping, his eyes wide as beheld the same woman he’d fallen so head over heels with well over a year ago. The same woman he had had to let go when she’d moved away.  The same woman who, now, was standing on his front porch, holding a small bundle that, as he looked closer, cooed ever so gently, bright eyes looking out from the swaddling blanket that was wrapped around him. 

            Tim didn’t know how to react in that moment. Had it just been the woman of his dreams on his front step he would have already let her in, but as he saw the cherubic face of the little boy in her arms, the little infant he noted, he could only shake his head as though to clear it. He didn’t even hear as his friends leaned over to see who it was, nor did he register them speaking her name as he raised his eyes to hers, those wise, luminous green eyes that had captured him so easily before. 

            “Jill,” he said, his voice sounding decidedly meek as she smiled at him in turn. She was as beautiful as the day she’d left, with only a few lines in her angelic face to indicate that any time had passed. 

            “Hello Tim,” she said pleasantly, “Can I come in?”

            Coming back to his senses he shook his head, opening the screen door that stood

between them, stammering that yes, of course she could come in, come right in and find a

seat.  It would appear they had a lot to talk about.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

“His name is Michael,” she said softly, “I named him after my youngest brother.”

Jerry and Morgan had stayed at Jill’s insistence, as she had told them that she wanted them to hear, so they wouldn’t have to pepper Tim with questions later on.  What they’d heard so far was beyond words though, and definitely beyond anything they’d expected.  It was good to see Jill again, they’d both liked her immensely when she and Tim had been an item, but it was common knowledge that Tim’s parents hadn’t thought much of her choices in career. It hadn’t even mattered that she’d had a second job and was thinking of going back to school, being a stripper just hadn’t been good enough for their son.

“He’s, he’s cute,” Morgan said, sitting only a few feet away from Jill and Tim, who was still looking at the burbling little boy with something between shocked surprise and a mild grin that could have been taken in many ways.  After all it wasn’t every day that you were told that you were a father. 

“Isn’t he?” Jill grinned, her mood thankfully not dampened by Tim’s inability to say anything yet.  Jerry was watching Tim silently, as was Morgan, but so far they couldn’t read exactly what was going on in his head, which would have been nice at that moment. He didn’t look displeased, but the shock had yet to wear off, serving as a type of mask that might have been hiding away other, less pleasant emotions. 

“He has your eyes,” she said softly, looking at Tim, “A-and he even, kind of has your spirit I think,” she cooed at the baby for a moment, saying “Strong and silent, just like daddy.”

Morgan almost felt Tim shudder as he seemed to come out of his stupor, shaking himself as he finally drew a breath.  Jill tensed just slightly, her lips pressing together as she waited for him to speak. With only mild amusement Morgan noted that they all were waiting.

Clearing his throat, Tim said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Morgan almost blew out a sigh of relief. There were so many other questions that Tim could have asked that would have made this already awkward situation take a serious nose dive, but that wasn’t one of them. He could have asked “How do you know he’s mine?” or something equally as offensive like, “I want a blood test.”  He felt certain that such words would crushed Jill just then, no matter how strong-willed she’d proven herself to be.  He could remember criticizing his ex on something that didn’t matter at all after she’d given birth, and the tears that had come after, followed swiftly by a box of mac and cheese to the head.

Jill smiled, “You were in school, remember? And you were working full time. I, I didn’t want to, I mean, you had so much going for you.”

Tim did manage to crack an uneasy grin as he raised his hands to indicate the house, “Yeah, you can see how that worked out.”

She looked at him blankly for a moment, as though not certain how to respond, but then she broke out laughing, covering her mouth with one hand as she continued to hold the baby, who frowned as though in confusion.  “Oh my, I’m so sorry,” she said, still laughing.

“I was  just joking,” he said with a genuine smile now, “I’m still in school and

still working full-time, but I manage.”

“Yeah, he manages because we foot two-thirds of the bills,” Jerry said with a smile. He was kidding, but Tim decided to rise to the bait anyway.

“My paycheck’s more than enough to foot it all man.  You could always sleep over at Morgan’s with his folks.”

“Shit, hell with that,” Jerry said as he scratched his ear.

“Seconded,” Morgan said with a laugh, “I’d rather go sleep out in the gutter.”

“We might be anyway seein’ as how things are now,” Jerry said, still grinning.

“Oh no!” Jill said, catching on quickly, “I don’t want you guys to think-!”

“He’s kidding,” Morgan said with a grin, “But if Tim here decides to do the right thing, like I hope he will,” he said, poking Tim lightly in the back, “We’ll expect to be needing to find a place soon.”

“Oh guys no!” she protested, “Just because I chose now to show up I don’t want to kick anyone out!”

“It’s okay,” Jerry said, trying to calm her down as the baby began to squirm and mutter.  “Just calm down, we’re still kidding.  I’d expected to move whenever Tim found someone he wanted to settle down with.  Maybe though we’re taking it too fast.”

“There’s a party going on tonight,” Tim said suddenly, “You feel like staying?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, pulling Michael a little closer as her eyes sparkled at the thought, “He needs his formula, and my brother is expecting me back. I don’t know, I might just need to say-“

“Say yes,” Morgan said, “It’s so much more fun than saying no. And besides, you can invite Chris, he’s way cool.”

It was true, Jill’s younger brother Chris had come around several times when she and Tim had been together, and he’d always been a pleasant person to have around. Plus, he could almost match them all drink for drink when it came down to it, and that was saying something. More than that though, he was a good person, and only two years younger than Jill, which meant he was 23 and a legal adult.  They didn’t really enjoy partying with kids under 21, it kind of took the fun out of the whole thing.

“Can you call him?” Tim asked, “It would a lot of fun to see him again. We kind of fell out of touch after, you know.”

“Tim I’m so sorry,” she almost sobbed, “I didn’t know until, until I…”  A deep, wracking sob forced her stop talking as Tim instinctively reached out and gently took Michael from her, noting that he too was beginning to cry.  He almost expected the infant to begin crying as soon as he left his mother, but to his great surprise the baby boy looked up at him, and smiled.

Upon seeing this all three of them felt their eyes widen as father and son looked at each other, really looked at each other, for the first time.  Jill’s sniffles subsided slowly, but the smile she wore was one of such warmth that her cheeks almost immediately blossomed with color.  Morgan couldn’t fully believe it, though he wasn’t too terribly surprised since his own son had never once cried when Tim had held him. Jerry just grinned as he watched Tim with his son, a son he’d never known about until now. 

“Well hell’s bells,” Jerry said, “I think he knows his daddy.”

As for Tim, he couldn’t even speak, couldn’t even breathe as he held the bundle in his arms close, fully enraptured by the tiny life he had helped to create.  He didn’t even feel the resentment or anger that might have been the mainstay for some fathers who’d never met their children. Instead he felt a sudden weight lift off of his chest, a feeling of being completely unbound, unchained in a way that he had never once experienced in his life. He was a father.  Both Morgan and Jerry, who knew that feeling well, couldn’t help but smile at their friend in that moment.

                                    *                      *                      *

 

“You want me to help with that?” Morgan asked Jerry as the aging, rusted barbecue was lit, a gout of flame erupting out of its back end as Jerry and Morgan both backed up quickly. 

“Nope,” Jerry said, snickering as he tossed away the bottle of lighter fluid he’d been using to liberally douse the coals.

“Shit man,” Morgan said, “How much did you use?”

“Damn near half the can. These briquettes are dry as a bone.  Plus, I just wanted to see a fireball.”

“Next time put a lighter to your ass when you rip one,” Morgan commented, “There should be plenty of gas in there.”

“Shit, I might blow up the garage,” Jerry said with a chuckle.  Morgan joined in as reached for a cold beer from the cooler near the back door of the house, plucking one of many out of the ice as it came free with the clunking sound of cubes hitting one another.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll take one,” Jerry said from where he stood near the grill.

“You hear anyone ask bitch?” Morgan said with a grin, moving to head back into the house. The party hadn’t started yet, but it was only 5 o’ clock, and a few people had already shown up.  They’d decided to set the barbecue up in the driveway along with two large coolers filled to the brim with ice cold beer and a few sodas for any who wanted to stay sober tonight.

“Yeah, I heard myself asking. And just for that you can crack it for me too, bitch.”

Jerry and Morgan shared a laugh as Morgan reached into the cooler near the house for another beer, one he knew Jerry would actually drink.  As he walked it over he shook his head, handing the brew to his friend by the neck as he said, “There’s two things I don’t do in this world, and that’s kiss a man and crack his damned beer for him.”

“That wasn’t the tale last night,” Jerry snickered, his rotted teeth making an appearance as Morgan suddenly planted one hand on his hip, affecting a rather feminine attitude as he widened his eyes at Jerry.

“Thut up you thilly bitch,” Morgan said, causing Jerry to really laugh now as he walked away swaying his hips before he too broke into a short gale of laughter.  This was a running joke between the three of them that had been going on since Tim had introduced Jerry to Morgan several years ago. While none of them were homophobic they enjoyed, now and then, playacting the stereotype that was often shown to represent flamboyantly gay men.  It wasn’t something they would do around just anyone, but friends and family seemed to get a laugh out of it, and understood very well that not a one of them were gay.

“I will thcratch your eyes out mithter!” Jerry said, waving one hand in the air with a limp wrist as too cocked one hip.  At that moment though Jill came striding out of the house, a wide grin on her face as she took in the little act.

“Some things don’t change I see,” she said with a laugh, “Mind handing me a beer handsome?” she asked Morgan.

He reached into the cooler again, this time taking the effort to take the cap off with a deft twist as he handed it to Jill with a pointed look at Jerry. 

“Oh sure!” he exclaimed with a grin, “You’ll do it for her!”

“For a lady,” Morgan said, “Not for a lady who looks like a man.”

“You come over here and I’ll show you a lady that looks like a man….wait, that didn’t sound right.”

Jill and Morgan both busted out laughing as Jerry waved them off, taking a wire brush to the metal grill as the flames went higher for a moment.

“Shit,” he said idly, “What the hell did we have on this thing last time?”

As Jill came outside Morgan went in for a moment, needing to use the restroom as he turned the corner. Tim was just coming out of his room where his young son, which was still processing in Morgan’s head, was now sleeping, closing the door gently as he saw Morgan.  Chris had promised to take Michael after coming over to spend some time at the party that evening, but until then the baby would need to stay at the house.  Chris had professed to his sister that he’d been in the middle of a particularly nasty day at work that should have been his day off, and would be delayed until at least five. 

This news had thrown them all off for only as long as it had taken for Morgan to recall that he had enough baby stuff socked away in Tim’s garage to help out.  He’d managed to locate a barely-used pack n’ play that his own son had been using until his ex had pulled her shit, and had gladly given it to Tim and Jill to use. 

“Little guy down?” he whispered. Tim nodded, standing at the door for several moments with his head bowed as though in deep thought.  Morgan wanted to say that he knew how his friend was feeling, but that wouldn’t have entirely accurate.  His own experience with having children had been spotty thus far, and despite the love he held for his son, he’d at least known that the kid was going to be his, and that the woman he’d gotten pregnant would be sticking around. Tim hadn’t known a goddamned thing.

“Hey,” he whispered, “You okay?” It was all he could think of to say, but it felt right at least.

Tim nodded without speaking, but then whispered “You going to use the bathroom?”

Morgan nodded, “Just take a minute. But meet me out front when I’m done. I want to say something to you.”

Tim looked at him, not nodding or doing anything other than walking off in the next second. Morgan didn’t take it personally, with what Tim was going through at that moment and his normal, slightly off-kilter personality, it was pretty standard behavior.

                                    *                      *                      *

 

“She never told me, not once. Neither did Chris.”

Taking a swig of his beer Morgan swallowed before speaking again, “I’m sure they had their reasons man. Chris and Jill are both good people.  I don’t know why they wouldn’t think you’d want to meet your kid, but I think they had good intentions at least.” He looked carefully at Tim, noting the slightly frown upon his face and the brooding look he sometimes got when he was thinking. “Are you gonna be okay when Chris gets here?”

Tim only nodded.

“Because, well, you know,”

“Because Chris could have come running over here and told me? Yes, I know.”

“Look man.  Jerry and I give you a lot of shit all the time, but the truth is we look up to you, a lot.  We don’t give a shit that your mom and dad bought this place. It was you that fixed it up and made it livable.  Plus, your parents probably would have said no if we’d asked to stay here, wouldn’t they?”

Tim just nodded.

“But you didn’t.  For some insane reason you let us stay.”

“You’re my friends,” he said plainly.

Morgan nodded, thrusting his hands in his pockets as he spoke again, “Yeah but, when I first moved in I’ll admit that I was thinking it might be less rent and more of a free ride.  At least so far as the bills were concerned. You didn’t let that happen though.”

Tim managed a grin, “The only free rides you get are when Jerry is too drunk.”

They both laughed, “Man you won’t let me forget that night will you?”

“Not on your life,” Tim said with a grin.

The night in question had been while Morgan was still living with his ex, her two boys, and their own son not far from this place.  He, Tim, and Jerry had gotten seriously drunk one night and as a gag, Jerry had decided to slip into Morgan’s bed when he’d gone to pass out.  To this day they all still recalled how loud he’d yelled when he’d discovered that it wasn’t his wife that had been snuggling next to him, but one of his friends.

“I still wish I’d had a camera for that,” Tim said, shaking his head. Morgan managed a laugh, thinking that no matter that it had taken them off the subject, it was good to experience such moments.  He felt a small twinge in his guts as he stood there, but he did his best not to show it.  Taking another swig of his beer he looked at his friend as he swallowed, nodding his head as he began to speak again.

“My point, asshole,” he said with a grin, “Is that instead of just letting us walk on you, you actually stood up for yourself and made us man up for once.  I can’t say it was the first time for either of us, but it was needed.”

“You guys have done a lot more in your lives than I have,” Tim replied, “Jerry’s been around the world, you’ve been on your own since you were seventeen. I feel like I’ve been kept under my parents’ thumbs all this time.”

“If that was true we wouldn’t be friends,” Morgan said, feeling the honesty of his words.  “I don’t like little momma’s boy’s man, you know that.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

“If anything we’ve grown just as much as you have.  It’s true we’ve got a few years experience on you and have done a fair amount of shit, but you’re in the middle of doing more than either of us have ever done.  You’re going to school, you’re holding down a full-time job, and now, you have the chance to show what you’re really made of.”

Tim looked at him curiously, though he had to have a sneaking hunch of what Morgan was about to say.

With a grin, Morgan replied this look, saying, “Any man can get a woman pregnant Tim. It takes a father to raise a child.”

Morgan felt the truth of these words so acutely that it almost pained him in a

physical manner to think of how little time he spent with his own son.  He wanted so

badly to be near him, to have him closer all the time, but his bitch ex wasn’t having it. 

He’d done nearly everything short of begging, and still she attempted to dictate the terms of visitation, no matter what the courts said. It didn’t help that her family didn’t like him at all, and would either vouch for her or scrounge up anyone off the street they could find to bear witness to events that never happened, like for instance, he’d apparently just spent a long, four-day weekend with his boy just last week, but in truth she’d promised to leave him at the house only to later on state that she didn’t feel like bringing him over.

That was the kind of shit he dealt with on a constant basis, and it killed him each time she decided to be a bitch like that.  He seriously hoped Jill would never do that to Tim, and in truth he didn’t think it would happen. He’d seen how she looked at Tim before now, and the tears she’d cried when arriving had been genuine. 

“I just don’t want to screw up,” Tim said as they could both see cars coming close to the curb outside the house now, people waving at them as Tim and Morgan waved back.

“None of us do Tim,” he said companionably, “But almost all of us will at least a few times.”

                                    *                      *                      *

 

Only an hour later the party was in full swing, with nearly twenty or more people congregating on the back lawn and through the kitchen and living room.  There was music, there was food, beer and alcohol were abundant, and the general mood was one of absolute enjoyment.  Jerry had managed to come through on his word that he could contact and deliver several stripper friends that were known to work throughout several different clubs in the Portland area. Most of them were hot as all get out, and a few of them were even pleasantly single, as Morgan had discovered when he had began speaking to a woman his own age. Her stage name, as she had told him, was Diamond, and her real name was Bridgett. It went without saying that he preferred her stage name.

Jerry was conversing and cooking at the same time, talking at the moment about NASCAR and what he’d been doing lately with his brother Micah, who was pretty cool but a little odd sometimes. Other mutual friends had shown up as well, and thus far the party had been going damned good.  Tim and Whisper, Jill, he still had to keep in mind she was no longer a stripper, had been back and forth between Tim’s room and the party, checking up on Michael now and again. 

So far the little tyke was still sleeping despite the noise outside, and each time Morgan stole a glance around he saw Tim and Jill constantly together, almost as if no time at all had passed.  He would never admit it to his friend, but he was touched in a way that Tim had seemingly found someone he truly connected with. Jill was his match in every way it would seem, kind and social where Tim could be a bit moody and didn’t enjoy crowds.  He was doing just fine while in her company though, talking to people he’d either just met or had known for some time through Jerry and Morgan. 

It was a perfect evening thus far, but like all such perfect moments, Morgan had almost known that someone was bound to throw a cog into the works.  And lo and behold, that cog’s name was Tom McCall.

How he snuck into the party Morgan would never know, but upon noticing he was there Morgan and Jerry did their absolute best to corner him before Tim managed to notice.  Morgan didn’t doubt for an instant that Tim would simply forgive and forget the last time that Tom had come over for a party.  In fact, considering that Tom had not been back over since that time, it was safe to assume that Tim’s anger towards him had been given a chance to settle.

Morgan and Jerry reached him at about the same time, but it was Morgan who spoke first.

“Dude, you need to get the hell out, right now.”

“Well hello to you too asshole,” Tom said, his lopsided grin showing the gap in his front teeth where he’d supposedly gotten it knocked out during a brawl. Morgan knew better, he’d fallen down after drinking too much and hit a curb outside a bar.

“Don’t give me that shit Tom, just turn around and walk off.”

“Fuck you man!” Tom tried to protest, pushing back against Jerry and Morgan as he did, to no avail of course, “I came to party!”

“You weren’t invited you dipshit!” Jerry replied, “I specifically said ‘no toothless, scar-nosed, homeless, herpes-infested ass bandits!”

Tom looked like he wanted to swing just then, and Jerry saw it. “Go on then motherfucker!  Go on and swing, I fuckin’ dare ya!”

They’d reached the incline of the driveway now and Tom was backing up just enough to keep his balance.  To Morgan he looked like he’d had a few already before coming here. It was probably the only reason he was brave enough to pull this shit.

“Fuck you man!” Tom said again, “Morgan are you gonna put up with this? You and me man, we’ve known each other for years and this is how you treat me?!”

“Just get out of here Tom,” Morgan said, looking away. Tom knew very well was this gesture meant. It meant that he was done talking, he’d grown tired of his bullshit, and was ready to move on.  He was going to look back just then but before he or Jerry knew it a body was pressing between them and was then barreling towards Tom, or rather, into him.

“Tim, no don’t!”

Jill was hot on Tim’s heels but was too late to stop anything as Tim ran right over Tom, knocking him to his back before straddling him, his knees firmly planted on Tom’s arms to keep him from moving.  Disoriented and no doubt wondering just what the hell had hit him, Tom was looking left and right, dazed and obviously confused as Jerry and Morgan were there in the next instant, fully aware that Tim and Tom’s forward momentum had almost taken them into the street. Already they could see a few people up and down either side taking note of this spectacle as they tried to pull their friend off, feeling him fight with everything he had, which was far more considerable than they’d expected.

It was like trying to hold back a two-ton, rampaging bull, and they were having about as much effect. 

“Don’t man!” Morgan said, doing his best not to shout, “Someone’s gonna call the cops and then what? Are you gonna go away for this piece of shit?”

“Fu-, fk, yu, mn.” Tom said from the ground.

“Get out of here Tom,” Tim said coldly, his voice the temperature of a glacier as he gradually calmed down, “Get out of here and don’t come back.”

“An, an’ what, wha-“ Tom tried to say, struggling to get back to his feet. There were a few partygoers meandering around the front porch and the front lawn, and each one of them were looking at the five of them, perhaps wondering what Tom had done, or maybe that they should join in.  Being friends and friends of friends they didn’t seem inclined to start hurling insults or take Tom’s side. That was something at least.

“It’s really important you don’t finish that sentence asshole,” Jerry said, not releasing Tim until their friend had finally taken a step back, allowing Jill to wrap him up in her arms as she began to ask if he was okay, if he had hurt himself. No one gave a shit about Tom in that moment, nor did they particularly care if he wobbled his ass into the street or not. Morgan stood there long enough to make certain that he got up and walked off under his own power, but not a word was spoken between them as Tom walked away.  He’d made his choice of friends some time ago, and this was just the inevitable finally happening.

To be honest, it felt pretty good.

What Do We Leave Behind?

Let’s face it, you’ve done it at least once or twice in your life. You might have even done it today without knowing it.  You’ve looked around at the world and wondered “How did things get to this point?” Or maybe you’ve looked around and thought “When I was younger things were different.” Don’t bother lying, you know it’s happened at least once in your life.

Our parents did it, their parents did it, and our kids will one day do it.  They’ll look back and wonder why the world isn’t the same as it was when they were younger.  Eventually they’ll come to the same realization that the rest of us have to accept at some point: the world stays the same, it’s the people that change. Whether you’re stressing about who’s in charge of the entire sorry mess, or who’s doing what to whom, the only constants in life is that it goes on, and that it will eventually end.  So where does that leave us? What does it mean for those who are left behind?

We strive to make the world a better place for those who are being left in our wake, to make certain that they have the tools they need to get by when we’re gone, but we always worry that it’s not enough.  Those that spend their entire lives doing for others still at the end wonder if there’s something more they could have done.  Believe it or not, at that point they’ve done all they could, and if a person continues to wonder if they could have done more, then they’ve done all they were meant to do. Missed opportunities and chances in life that a person laments later on weren’t meant to happen, or they would have.

Call it fate, chance, luck, or even karma, but human beings do very few things by random chance alone. There have been heated debates throughout the ages concerning what is random, what is purposeful, and where the two meet for the often uneasy compromise that might explain the chaotic fluidity of human nature.  Humans are at times wonderfully simple in their many astounding and often frustrating complexities, but one thing is always certain. We are born to live, and we live to die.  It might seem morbid, even defeatist, but the moment you draw breath your life is measured by the moments that shape who you are from one inhalation to the last exhale.  What matters in between those breaths is that you do everything you can to make certain to live, and live well.

We live to leave behind a legacy for those that come after, to insure that no matter what, no matter how hard it gets, life goes on.  Humans are the species that denies the odds and shouts to the heavens that we will remain, no matter what might come.  We leave behind the promise of hope for those who will come after.

Symbols

Symbols                                                                                             

By Tom Foster                                                                                               

 

 

 

            “I am courage.”

            “I am dependable.”

            “I am responsive.”

            “I am loyal.”

            “I am exuberant.”

            “I conscientiously analyze.”

            “I balance with charm.”

            “I desire an ideal.”

            “I see optimistically.”

            “I use to be steadfast.”

            “I know of friendliness.”

            “I believe in compassion.”

            “This meeting will now come to order.  Ladies and gentlemen of the assembled Zodiac please assume your rightful seats.”  With an imperious gesture the figure that beckoned to those twelve that had each entered the room upon speaking their key phrases.  The room in which the figure stood was quite plain, composed of granite walls that had been painted over in a variety of colors from a deep and passionate red to a gentle aquamarine.  A swatch of color had been painted to denote the color that was known to correspond to each individual sign, each of them easily five feet across and reaching up to the ceiling twenty feet above. 

            Ten feet from the wall, in front of each color, a chair sat facing inward towards the raised platform the figure now stood upon.  Each seat was carved from a solid piece of teak and fashioned in the sign for the one that would sit therein.  From the first seat, that of the Ram, to the last, that of Pisces, each chair was carved to resemble the creature or personage each sign was known by.  Great curving horns adorned the top of the Ram’s seat, while the horns of a massive bull had been carved upon the armrests of the second.  Twin sculptures rode the sides of the third chair, Gemini’s trademark, while the armrests of the fourth chair were carved in the shape of a crabs claws. 

            Hidden by the feminine form that sat in the chair of Leo was the fierce visage of one of nature’s supposedly most noble creatures, the mighty lion.  The back of the chair around the face had been carefully rendered into a flowing mane, the artistry so detailed that it was easy to believe that at any moment it might leap from the chair and attack.  The back of Virgo’s chair was etched deeply with the likeness of a woman that could only be described as heavenly, her face at peace as she cradled to her bosom a staff and a handful of delicate flowers.  As with Virgo, Libra’s symbol, that of the scales, was carved upon the back of the chair, deeply etched with one side just barely higher than the other.

            Scorpio’s chair was unique like the others in that it appeared to be no less than a very large, two tailed scorpion, its bulbous stingers raised in attack position as they curled over the head of the one that sat upon it.  A leaping centaur graced the back of Sagittarius’s chair, while the feet had been designed in the form of hooves.  Horns that curved backward, much like a goat, denoted Capricorn’s chair, while upon the back of Aquarius’s chair was a scantily clad woman gently stroking the feathers of a great bird, perhaps a heron.  Rounding out the group was Pisces, whose chair was verily covered with the images of fish swimming all about, their bodies so finely rendered that they might soon swim from the surface of the chair and seek refuge elsewhere.

            As each person took their seat the figure standing upon the platform appraised them all in turn, enjoying the absolute authority she had over them.  With her cowl and bulky robe none of them would truly know who or even what sex she was.  Her voice was being carefully modulated by a specialized mouthpiece she wore over the lower half of her face, allowing her to remain completely anonymous.  As for the robed and hooded figures that now sat in a half circle before her, she could easily tell the men from the women.  After all, she had selected each of them many years ago.

            Aries, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Sagittarius and Aquarius were all masculine while Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, Scorpio, Capricorn and Pisces were the feminine aspect of the Zodiac.  They were placed from left to right beginning with Aries, each individual facing from their seat towards the Speaker, who commanded the most respect of any in the room.  Standing a good five feet above them all, she could see by observing their supposedly calm demeanors that at least a quarter of them were nervous.  The subtle tics and shakings of their garments betrayed their emotions.  A slow smile spread along her face, hidden by the voice modulator.

            “Dark times have come to our doorsteps my gentlemen and ladies, thus have I called you hear this night to discuss such.  We stand on the precipice to a new age, an age in which those of us and others who are like minded must decide on how best to control what will be left from the ashes.” 

            No one spoke, as they hadn’t been given leave to yet.  She enjoyed this type of power, it was intoxicating in a way, but also liberating.  So long had she been a pawn in the earliest stages of her life that the absolute and total control over others was a balm to those sensibilities that she had felt were abused and taken for granted by those who had looked down upon her for so long. She would show them all what she had become one day, when she and her brood were the last ones standing. They would see-

            Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by the sudden wash of light that came from above, forcing everyone around her to wince as they too were taken by surprise. The magic, if one could call it that, was broken in that moment however, and as she looked in irritation to the portal leading into the realm she was forced to call home, she saw the heavyset and gray-haired form of her sire, holding out a vaguely U-shaped communication device as he refrained from stepping into the lair.

            “Tandy I just got a call from the superintendent of your school.  You and I need to have a talk young lady.”

            She closed her eyes in frustration, pressing her lips tightly together as she looked around. Her sire, her father, looked around as well, his eyebrows rising in expectation as he gave them all the same look.

            “In case you were wondering o’ mysteriously hooded strangers, that means out.  Your leader and I need to have a chat.”

            Murmurs and words of assent reached her ears as Tandy watched her friends, who’d known each other right away of course, get up from their chairs and go shuffling out. Many of them removed their hoods before passing by her father, who nodded at some of them and just shook his head at others. He didn’t approve of all of them, but more often than not minded his own business when they were over.  She could only imagine why he had picked this time to step into her personal life.  With the look he gave her at that moment as the last friend exited she had no doubt that she was about to find out.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            After another hour had passed and her ears had already finished burning from the scathing lecture she was back in the garage, sitting on the single step as she looked out upon the gathering room.  Most times she could just close her eyes and pretend that the scene in front of her was as it should be, with the vibrant colors and magnificent carvings and the grandeur that it was worthy of.  She wished for that everyday instead of the shabby, knockoff appearance she’d worked so hard to make seem authentic.

            She’d started the Zodiac council as a joke to start with. It’s beginnings had been simple and taken place within the confines of a storage room in their high school with the permission of the principal. At first it had just been a chance for the bunch of them to get together and bullshit about their day, but after a while they’d wanted another reason to get together beyond hanging out. A social club could be anything really, from the nerds who enjoyed debating about fantasy novels and television shows to the jocks who often made their way down to the weight room or the local stores where they hung out to talk about their interests. Among their number they had a few of everyone from the hierarchy that so typically ran a school, yet none of them had ever felt the need to judge each other.

            They were friends, best buddies, and more than that they’d been together for so long it was hard to imagine being apart. In another couple years at least a few of them would be gone, off to college and a new life outside of their small town.  But for now they still had each other and were loathe to let each other go. Attempts to get them to break ties with one another had begun once junior high had hit and several of them had started developing new friendships with others.  That hadn’t stopped them from getting together though.  But still, they’d eventually needed something else to do besides just hanging out. 

            The Zodiac council had been her idea, as she was the eminent nerd/popular/jock in the group. Among them all she was one of a kind, and the others knew this. That was why they had come to her with the request that she find something to keep them interested. It wasn’t that they would go on and forget about each other, but they wanted variety in their friendship now, and she could totally understand that.  She’d been wanting a bit of a change as well, and she had found it in the Zodiac.

            Her interests in astrology, which many thought of as a pseudo-science, had always been fairly strong, and with her minor background in astronomy that she’d coddled since the sixth grade she’d come up with a fantastic idea.  At first the Zodiac plan had been a little hard to weather for several of her friends, but after about the second meeting the lot of them had gotten into it, and had even started to make suggestions on how to make it better. From that point ideas had been accepted, evaluated, and either respectively dropped or integrated into the main idea, and the Zodiac council had begun.

            To date they’d kept it going for nearly two years, and in all likelihood they would keep it going until one or more of their members left.  The fantasy of it was something that they all enjoyed, but it had never gotten so crazy that they forgot the real world they had to go back to. Sometimes though, she wished she could.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            “I’m sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friends sweets,” her father said as she stepped back into the house, “But missing school is a serious issue and makes us both look bad.”

            She knew he was right, and that he had a valid point, but her feelings were still slightly hurt.  He’d gone after her like a bull chasing a red flag when her friends had finally left. At least he’d had the decency to give her that much before lighting her up with his latest lecture.

            “I know dad,” she replied. Deep down she knew he meant well and that he cared, but it seemed to be an unspoken rule that no teen would ever dare show their parents that they understood how much they cared. 

            Slipping on a light jacket she made for the front door, her hand closing around the knob as her father spoke again.

            “Where are you going?”

            “I just wanted to take a walk is all. Maybe down to the corner store and back.” The corner store was a good mile away, her father knew this, but she also knew that they lived in a relatively safe neighborhood. 

            “You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked, becoming the doting father once more, the guy she loved dearly and always wanted to appease. She didn’t have a bad life at home, but sometimes she wished for a little more.

            She nodded, “Yeah, I’m okay.  I just wanted to take a walk is all. I’ll be back soon.”

            “Okay,” her father said with a nod, “Just be careful out there, it’s getting dark.”

            “’Kay dad,” she said as she slipped out the door, knowing full well that he would watch her until she was out of sight.  It was kind of irritating, but at least it meant he was a good father, and not just a yelling, swearing tyrant.  Her life was pretty good.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            Forest Grove was the type of place you went to be ignored she believed.  There was plenty of community and enough to do to keep busy, but it wasn’t like other towns she’d visited during her high school years. Some towns, smaller towns and even bigger ones, had a great deal more pride in their schools, their community organizations, and even their school teams.  Forest Grove was proud, but it seemed muted sometimes, almost as though they would only come together under the worst of circumstances.

            Night had fallen as she’d stepped out into the open air, and she was walking largely in shadows as she made her way towards the corner store, fully intending to do just what she’d told her father.  She had walked this way so often that she no longer feared the deep shadows that pooled around and within several of the properties that she passed. Some of them were ringed by high bushes and trees whose branches hung down like tendrils from some huge, ominous beast, but for the most part the rest were clean cut and kept up pretty nice. 

            One such home that hadn’t seen the touch of a gardener in a long time was the old McLowry place. The home itself was still in good condition, but its yard had long ago gone wild, and not even a notice from the city had done any good. The real reason behind this of course was that the McLowry’s hadn’t been seen for nearly a year’s time.  While there were many theories about where they’d gone and what had happened to make them just pick up and leave, the one that seemed to persist more often than not was that they had fallen behind on their house payment and rather than deal with the banks had just up and left. It was a simplistic and unsatisfying rumor, as well as a bit unrealistic if one had known the McLowry’s, but it was the one bit of gossip that had become the norm.

             She’d known the McLowry’s pretty well, and had hung out with their three eldest boys throughout their younger years. The eldest, Eric, had always seemed kind of spacey, but he’d been a nice guy, as had his two younger brothers, Sam and Caleb. Their youngest brother Cole, who had been born only about five years ago, had been in first grade when the family had up and disappeared.  No one had ever given any thought to the rumor that foul play might have been involved, which was fortunate.  To think that anything had happened to any of them would have been horrible.

            Corrin and Leonard, the parents, had been nice people, kind of laid back and prone to being on the go all the time.  This was probably why she’d never bothered to count the McLowry boys as anything other than good neighbors instead of best friends. 

            Now as she stood looking at the empty home with its jungle-like front yard, she couldn’t imagine why she would have stopped. The wide front windows  were devoid of any curtains, allowing for a very clear view into the house.   As she and anyone else could see there wasn’t anything inside, not even a rug left behind for the tile floor of the kitchen area near the back of the house.  Why had she stopped though? Usually she gave a glance at this place and kept on walking. It held only a few better than average memories for her, and was not a place she would have thought would evoke such melancholy.

            Tandy.

            She was about to turn and walk away when she could have sworn she heard her name whispered from somewhere on the grounds, close enough that she should have been able to see the speaker. But all she saw were shadows, and she’d seen enough horror films to know better than to go investigate. If someone was playing a trick it was better to just keep going.

            We’re still here, Tandy.

            Now that was damned spooky.  She was about to walk forward again when she suddenly realized the view of the street had been replaced by the faded and blank view of the garage door at the end of the front drive.  Shaking her head and blinking her eyes did not change the view, or the disorientation she suddenly felt. How had she gotten here?

            Inside, Tandy.

            She blinked again and she was startled to find that she was now at the front door, which was standing wide open, the screen door propped open as she stared into the empty interior of the house.  What in the hell was happening?

            Tandy.

            Again that sounded too close, and she had to be anywhere but in her right mind if she was getting this close to the house. This was becoming way too much like a horror movie, but she got the feeling that if she started trying to resist the result would only be the same, and that she might soon enough be put in front of something that she wouldn’t like.

            Close the door, Tandy.

            She tried to shake it off, but as before she blacked out for what felt like a second, and when she woke next she was standing in the front room, slightly closer to the hallway that would lead towards the three bedrooms that were located at its terminus.  Her throat clenched as something suddenly passed through her peripheral vision to the right, there and gone before she could even register what it had been.  Turning she thankfully found that she could move, but still she could see nothing as she looked along the front window and then to the wall that separated the living room and the garage. 

            There had been something there, and as she looked closer her breath caught as she saw something upon the wide front window.  Upon moving closer she could see it was a small handprint, like that of a child.  The faint lines and patterns of the palm print were so distinct that she could imagine that the young child that had made it might still be nearby, though such a thing was impossible.  Leaning over she noted that the handprint wasn’t fading away as it should, but instead was becoming more distinct as something else was appearing above it. 

            It took her only a moment to realize that what was appearing were the smudge-like letters that were often made by fingers when writing on the condensation that formed on glass.

            Hi Taddy.

            Tandy wanted to back up but couldn’t, her mouth opened wide to scream despite the fact that all she could muster was a choked squeak.  Taddy had been what the young McLowry brother had called her in the past, as his minor speech impediment had not allowed him to pronounce his n’s.  She wanted out of here like now, but as she tried to turn she felt a presence looming behind her, something she could not see but could sense in a way that seemed far more visceral and oppressive held her in place.

            Do not struggle.

            The strange, almost willowy voice could not have belonged to any of the McLowry’s, though as she tried to fight she felt the grip of not one but two separate individuals upon her wrists as they dragged her forcefully forward, not stopping until her palms were flat upon the glass.  She felt the sensation of flesh upon her own, but could see nothing as she struggled to escape the unseen grip of her captors.  Before she could so much as shout however an equally invisible hand covered her mouth, clamping down just hard enough to stifle any sound that might emerge.

            Her heart was racing as she felt the presence loom even closer, ghostly breath seeming to tickle her neck as she suddenly had visions of rape, dismemberment, and a death so grisly she could not fully appreciate its horror.  Surely someone would come by and see what was happening?  Someone out walking late at night like she was would perhaps come by and see a young woman being forced up against a window, against her will?

            But she had conceded at this point that it was Forest Grove, and the town started closing up around 8 o’ clock.  Few if any individuals would be out at this point. She was alone, and would likely not survive this.

            Be still.

            She could not, and even as the sleeves of her light sweater were pulled back she attempted to struggle, but to no avail. The force that had her wasn’t letting go, and as she felt rough hands lightly grasp her forearms she tried again to scream, to kick, to even bite, but nothing worked. She was trapped.

            You will bear these marks, the voice said, these symbols.

            Before she could wonder at the meaning of the words she felt something burning itself into her forearms, hot, aching heat that slipped past her flesh and scoured bone as she tried once again to scream.  The hands did not let go, nor did the burning sensation end as the hands now clamped around her forearms, the same hands that were burning her, slipped down slowly, initiating new points of pain only to move on again and again as her entire arms felt as though they were on fire. She wasn’t allowed to move as tears streamed down her face, her conscious mind not allowing her to pass out as should have been warranted in such a situation.

            You will serve, as you desire. The voice slipped into her ears like venom, muddying her thoughts and creating confusion as the pain continued to rise.

            Finally the unseen hands came to rest just above her budding breasts, eliciting disgust and rage so strong within her that she bucked again, this time finding a small amount of leverage as the hand seemed to withdraw ever so slightly. Sensing that miniscule bit of freedom she attempted to break free, but the hand upon her mouth clamped harder and was suddenly added to as more hands wrapped around her waist and legs, firmly pinning her in place.

            The last marks seared into her chest, causing more tears to flow as the voice spoke to her again.

            You shall be our vessel, it said, our link to this world. Through you, we shall thrive once again.

            The burning within her arms and chest continued to simmer as she stood there, realizing only a moment later that no hands bound her, no one was holding her in place, and she could work her lips once again as the presence had departed.  Tears stained her cheeks as within she could sense another presence, something, or someone, watching from behind her eyes, a simple observer and nothing else. This should have unnerved her greatly, but as Tandy looked up to the window she saw something that truly scared the hell out of her.

            The McLowry’s were there, all of them.  The parents, the four boys, they were all visible within the window in stark detail as though they stood right behind her.  Her pain was forgotten for only a moment as she turned around, half-expecting to see them and half-expecting what she found, which was nothing.  Looking back to the window she saw nothing but the unkempt yard outside and the dark street beyond. 

            Her sleeves had been rolled down again, and the pain she could recall from only moments before was gone, as though nothing had ever happened.  Rolling them up she almost dropped to her knees as she saw the symbols etched into her flesh, each one vibrant and bearing such detail that she almost wept at the sight of them.  Her horror was swiftly replaced with awe as she sank slowly to a knee, unable to breathe as she held her arms to her body.

            “Tandy.”

            This voice was real, and startled her so badly that she slipped as she spun around, landing hard on her backside as the shadow behind her did not advance.  She could see form the ambient light that the stranger was male, and that he appeared to be in his late teens or early twenties. But apart from that she didn’t know him. Something though, some part of her, said that she should have. 

            “Who are you?” she said shakily, fear staining her words once again as she attempted to keep her distance. The figure did not move towards her, but neither did he move away.

            She couldn’t help but feel somehow drawn to the man, no matter that she was instantly afraid of him as well.  He was good-looking, blonde, with a well-kept beard and moustache. There was a lean look to him despite his obvious and impressive musculature, a look that gave her the impression he had done and seen much in his time but had remained unbroken.  This was a man that looked as though he’d walked through hell just to see what it was like and then walked back out under his own power.  It was an odd thought to have, but one that seemed to fit.

            “No one you’d know now, but someone you or yours might come across in the future.  I have one bit of advice for this new life you’re about to embark on.”

            How did he know anything about her?  Who was this guy?  More and more questions began to pile up as the seconds passed, but she couldn’t entertain them all as she licked her lips, focusing instead upon the moment and not what she would have liked, which was getting the hell out of here.

            “What do you mean?”

            The stranger turned as if to go, his ice-blue eyes raking across both Tandy and the house as though evaluating every square inch.  It was a look she did not care for as it made her feel as though her every fault was laid bare, her every lie exposed.  But then the stranger had turned all the way around, and the feeling passed. 

            “Keep one eye on the horizon Tandy. There’s a storm coming.”

            “What do you-?”

            She was about to ask what he meant, but in that instant the darkness took hold again and when she woke she was outside, on the road, her sleeves rolled down again.  Frustration and fear warred within her as she looked back to the McLowry house, seeing that the interior was completely dark and, as far as she could tell, empty.  She looked long enough to satisfy herself, but could not see anything other than the bare flooring and the shadows that played along the walls and ceiling. 

            Had any of it really happened?  As she rolled up her sleeves she had her answer.

            Oh yes, it had really happened.

           

                                   

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.

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.