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By Tom Foster

 

 

 

 

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

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

Ah me, where are my manners?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see, I found something. 

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

You see, I found a USB drive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m getting ahead of myself here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reset.

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

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

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

            I’ll get to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            So to keep it simple, I waited. 

                                                *                      *                      *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

             And I was considering doing it again.

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

            I’m stalling, aren’t I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I’m so-

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

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

 

Do you wish to reset? Y/N

Santa’s Revelation

Santa’s Revelation

By Tom Foster

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            But lately, it’s gotten harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Stop

Don’t Stop

By Tom Foster

 

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

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

“I, I can’t, I mean, I..”

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

What now?

*                      *                      *

Three hours earlier…

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

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

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

“Just one more day, then the weekend.”

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

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

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

“Hoo-ah.”

*                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

*                      *                      *

Two hours later…

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

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

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

“What the hell was that?”

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

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

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

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

 

Mr. Caldell,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are you?

The cursor flashed for several seconds before an answer came.

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

Or what?

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

Pay close attention to the fast fire Brad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom Brad, watch your ears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*                      *                      *

Now….

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

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

*                      *                      *

Outside

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

Too late Jamal. You should have made him stop.

Eden

Eden

by Tom Foster

 

 

 

Spokane, WA

July 1st, 2012

3:22 pm

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Anyway, about seeing Eden.

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

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

            So bear with me, okay?

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

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

            This is where I found Eden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            It’s your turn.

           

Strength and Honor (an excerpt)

Prologue

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

within her gaze was far too much to stand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*                      *                      *

 

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

A Night at The Dead Rabbit

ndr

A Night at The Dead Rabbit

 

    “Honey?”

    “Hmm?”

    “Honey?”

    This time there was no response, save for the sudden eruption of a grating, grinding snore as he opened his mouth wide, his head tilting back as she could see up his nose and smell his breath.  Instantly the last glass of punch she’d downed was there in the back of her throat, attempting to abandon ship as she moved away just in time. Clapping one hand over her mouth she collapsed next to her husband on the padded sofa in the private room, doing her absolute best to not vomit all over the sofa, the plush carpet beneath her feet, or the dress that had cost her way, way too much for a singe date night.

    It took some doing, but she kept it down, gasping as she took her hand away from her mouth, looking around desperately for a way out, or something that she could use to her advantage.  It was no use though, there was nothing in sight that she might use as a weapon and anything she might have thought about throwing was either bolted to the floor or too heavy for her to lift.  They were going to die and her husband, God love him, was too drunk to even notice.

    A loud snort, followed by an eye-watering explosion of gas that wafted up cheerily from the cushions, caused her to retch again as she was forced to stand up.

    “Well I’m glad you’re so concerned,” she muttered, still looking around the room. Wringing her hands she couldn’t help but smile at her husband as she tried to look back and envision just how things had gone so horribly wrong tonight.  Only a few hours ago they’d been on a lovely date, laughing and enjoying themselves and all but forgetting the rut they’d sunk into over the years.  It seemed almost too tragic to believe that they were about to end it here, in a pub named after a dead mammal and run by a bunch of thugs.  Of course they hadn’t know that coming in, they’d just wanted a night out on the town, a chance to be free and wild without their three children. 

    Her husband shifted in his seat, the cushions shaking again as he farted loudly once more.  Shaking her head she held her nose as she attempted to find another way out of this mess.

                                                         *                        *                       *

 

Earlier that day….

 

    “Mom! I can’t find my socks!”

    “They’re in your drawer,” she called out from downstairs, “Where I put them!”

    “Why did you put them there?” called her eldest child, Miranda, sounding put out that her mother would actually do something right.  Instead of replying out loud again she muttered, “Because I’m a mom, and how dare I do anything that makes sense.”

    Hair disheveled, wearing clothes that hung on her like rags, Mackenzie Morris was the stereotypical house mom, or at least appeared to be.  In truth she was continually busy each day, from the moment she and her husband, James, woke their three wonderful, caring children-

    “Mom where did you put my books?!”

    “Mom I need my shirt ironed!”

     -to the moment they came home, when she began to imagine strangling them one by one.  She loved her family dearly, but living with three teenagers and a husband that was at times more like a stranger passing in the night had begun to wear on her only two years ago.  She hadn’t said anything for so long that it felt like she too was beginning to fade into the background. Her own business, a freelance writing site that she’d begun just three years prior, had taken off and become a lucrative idea that she no longer had to run on her own, which was one of the few upsides to her life. It was run primarily by those she had hired, placed in charge, and instructed not to screw up her business. They were people she could trust and easily monitor as she did each day.

      Her family, on the other hand, was not so easily handled.

     “Your books are on the living room table where you left them Jarred, and you know how the iron works Jamie.”

     “But mom,” came the answering reply, which was eerily close to sounding like a chorus of the damned as she closed her eyes, standing near the staircase of their two-story home and raising her voice just enough to be heard by all.

     “So help me children if I have to repeat all that verbatim I will be forced to go Full Goonie on all of you! Do you want the Full Goonie??”

     For several seconds, blessed silence reigned. Then the front door opened, and her husband, short, dark, and pleasingly handsome, walked in with a gentle smile as he stepped close, going hip to hip with her as she smiled in return, giving him a small kiss as he gently swayed back and forth, their rhythm calming her just enough that she felt harmony for that brief moment.

    “Full Goonie?” he asked, to which she nodded.  “Must have been a good day then, the kids aren’t hanging from the ceiling yet.”

    She closed her eyes. “Yet” she mouthed silently. “Full Goonie” was a term that they had developed when the kids were still little.  What it meant was kind of goofy, but as it had developed over the years it had come to mean that mom and dad were about to blow their stack and take drastic, over the top measures to insure that their home didn’t become the madhouse it usually threatened to be.  Only once in the past few years had she been forced to go Full Goonie, and that had been highly satisfying, but a lot of work.  She had in effect taken a page out of the 1985 film, “The Goonies” for which their family threat was named, and concocted a brilliant scheme to wake the kids up without having to be in the room to shout at them over and over.

     It had been complicated, but effective. Now whenever  the term “Full Goonie” was uttered, the kids fell into step without question.  Unfortunately, that had been the high point of their lives for quite a while, as she and James hadn’t been away from their kids for more than a single night in three years.  They attended social functions, birthday parties, and even family functions, but it wasn’t the same. She hadn’t gotten him alone and to herself for so long she was beginning to forget what dating was even like. 

     “Hey honey can I see you in the kitchen?” James called out, causing her to frown in confusion. Normally when he came home from work he would grab a beer, head for the couch, and only move again if she needed something or when dinner was ready. Intrigued, she made her way into the kitchen, but almost stopped when Miranda called down.

     “Hey dad?”

     “Full Goonie!” James thundered from the kitchen, startling Mackenzie even as she smiled. Miranda, predictably, did not call out again.  As she walked into the kitchen she discovered that her heartbeat was elevating just a bit, though she couldn’t figure out why.  James was there, beer in hand, but in the other hand…

      He was holding out a glass of wine. This was so mundane and so out of the blue that she couldn’t help but gape at him as he offered her the glass. He was smiling at her as he raised his eyebrows up and down in a suggestive manner.  It was still early evening, neither of them was drunk, and he was making a move?  Mackenzie quickly took the glass and clinked it against his bottle, raising her own eyebrows as she moved closer to him.

      “What’s the occasion handsome? You know I can’t resist alcohol and eyebrows.”

      He grinned at her as he took a swig of his beer, “We, my dear, are going on a date.”

      She didn’t know how to respond at first, it had been so long, but as he wrapped one arm around her Mackenzie didn’t fight it, grinning warmly as she put her free arm around him. 

     “Mmm, how nice.  Where is my husband and what have you done with him?”

    James grinned wide, “Well, for tonight Missus Morris, your husband is away, and Mr. McManus wants to play.”

     She stopped, only an inch from kissing him as she frowned, still smiling, “Come again?”

     James’s grin widened as he pulled back just enough to view her fully as he said, “I got this great idea from Josh at work-“

     “Josh, the I’m-a-pervert-and-proud-of-it Josh?” she asked sarcastically.

     “Yeah him,” James said, going on despite the look she gave him. “He gave me the idea that we could spice up our marriage a bit by playing out these different roles,” he was still grinning, “We meet as strangers in a bar somewhere and just start talking and see where it goes.”

     “Spice up our marriage?” she asked incredulously, “Are you serious? You took advice from a guy who thinks monogamy is a type of wood?”

     James looked just a bit crestfallen, though she wasn’t buying into it. A tiny spark of something, an idea, or maybe hope that she could go along with this, was pulsing in the back of her mind, but she couldn’t commit quite yet.  It was almost offensive to think that James would feel the need to be someone else with her.  But then, they hadn’t been the same people for a number of years now. So why not?

     James was trying not to look dejected as he continued, “I just wanted a night out, a night where we don’t have to be ourselves.  I wanted to do something, a little different.”

    “What’s wrong with being ourselves?” she asked, though she was quickly trying to see the upside of this. It might even be a little fun.  But making him work for it was fun too.

    “I dunno,” he said, now looking fully dejected, “I just thought, you know, it might be fun to play a role. Just to see how it goes and all.”

   She sighed, shaking her head as she looked away. On one hand her husband was being spontaneous, something she loved and did not get nearly enough of, but on the other, it almost seemed insulting that they couldn’t just love each other the way they were.  But if she was going to be honest, who they really were had been kind of dulled down around the edges ever since the kids had been born.  James had tried, but over the years their sex life had kind of, fizzled, for lack of a better word. So really, what could be the harm?

                                                         *               *                *

 

    They were out the door only a few hours later, the children being given explicit instructions on how to behave, where the food was at, and that they were not to call unless someone was near death or otherwise in mortal danger.  The threat of “Full Goonie” had been firmly laid down, and the kids knew better than to challenge this. 

    The trip into the city took only a short ride from their home, and before they knew it they were there.  Despite being a pub, The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog Shop was quite an attractive site from outside, and once inside Mackenzie could definitely see the allure of the place. It was old-fashioned and hearkened back to simpler days when New York had been much different, but the atmosphere of the place was quite lively.  It would appear that this place was a favorite hangout of Wall Street brokers as the place was teeming with them. 

    James disappeared as they had planned, making his way to the upper room that he’d discovered online, presumably to wait for “Ms. O’Toole” who was supposed to be joining him shortly.  Dressed now in a slinky evening gown that accentuated her figure, earned after years of constant jogging and fitness routines, Mackenzie was getting appraising stares from many of the younger men in the crowd, which she didn’t mind to be honest. She and James had prided  themselves on staying in shape throughout the years, and it obviously agreed with them.

     More than one younger man attempted to buy her a drink, but she politely declined as she made her way upstairs, feeling positively sexy now that so many men were paying attention to her.  Mackenzie felt a flush rise to her cheeks as she wondered just how far James was willing to play this, discovering that she felt almost sure that she might be up for anything, or at least, whatever her husband was comfortable with. As she neared the bar she could see James, no, Mr. McManus, appear as though he was waiting on someone. Time to make her big entrance then.

    “Mr. McManus?” she purred, going so far as to allow her fingers to drift seductively along the back of his hand.  The man of her dreams turned with a gentle grin upon his grizzled features, one eyebrow rising slightly as he replied, “Yes. And you are?”

     “Bethany O’Toole,” she said softly, her eyes alight with excitement. So invested in her role was she that Mackenzie did not take note of the bartender’s slight frown, nor his silent signal to someone in the near distance. “Care to buy a lady a drink?”

    “Barkeep,” he said without looking, “a Scotch for the lady, neat.” He held up two fingers, still grinning as he continued to face her.

    “Oh my,” she managed to blush, “How did you know?”

    “I have a way with people,” he said in a seductive tone, “Women especially.”

    She managed a girlish giggle as she turned away demurely for a second. Oh yes, this was so much fun! But then she gasped as she looked at his ring finger, deciding to up the ante just a bit to see what he would do.

     “Oh, it’s too bad,” she said, pouting slightly, “I didn’t know you were married.  Perhaps I should wander along now…”

     “Nonsense,” he said, picking up immediately as he winked.  She had him, and it was good. “What my wife doesn’t know won’t hurt us.” 

    She made a shocked O with her lips, though her eyes still sparkled. Any other woman might have belted him across the mouth just then, but deep down she was thrilled.  His wink had already alleviated any concerns over whether or not he was playing the role, and at that moment she felt an electric jolt of excitement that demanded they continue.

     “Mr. McManus,” she crooned, “You are a naughty, naughty boy!”  She moved closer, licking her lips as she could see that he was getting good and excited.  It was just then that the bartender cleared his throat to gain their attention, a development that caused them both to turn towards him, faces still pressed in close. 

     “Did I forget to tip?” Mr. McManus asked, looking absolutely perturbed.

    “No sir, not at all,” the bartender smiled warmly, “I just thought that you and your companion might be better served to visit one of our private rooms, with our compliments to you Mr. McManus.”

    James’s mood changed swiftly to one of gratitude, though Mackenzie felt just a mild stab of uncertainty.  Before she could voice a concern however the bartender spoke again.

    “Don’t worry over your drinks. We’ll have them brought right up, along with a complimentary treat reserved for esteemed guests.”

    “Well,” James, Mr. McManus said with a smile, “I thank you my good man. I believe a tip is in order.”

   “Not necessary sir,” the bartender smiled, “It’s a pleasure to serve men such as you Mr. McManus.”

    Perhaps it was just part of being a parent, but alarm bells were ringing in her head as Mackenzie followed her husband without another word as they were led from the bar by a tall, dour-looking younger man.  She wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to ruin the evening either.  So, following behind, she hoped and prayed that her misgivings were completely off kilter at that moment.

                                                         *                      *                        *

 

    There were moments she really hated being right.  They’d been shown to a private room as the bartender had said, which was quite lavish in design and comforts.  The large, sectional sofa that dominated the wall to the left of the door was very nice, and the open bar across the room was stocked full of vintage alcohols that their guide had informed them were there for their pleasure.  

     When their drinks had arrived, they had also been given a medium-sized punch bowl of some colorful, fruity concoction that Mr. McManus had thoroughly enjoyed. In fact he had enjoyed it so much he had promptly passed out after his second glass.  Finally dropping the Ms. O’Toole persona, Mackenzie had attempted to make herself feel better by curling up beside James, who had been fast asleep, sacked out on the couch much as he might have done at home.  A faint smile had creased her lips as she lay against her husband, feeling his warmth and reminding herself that no matter what, the roles they played and the reality they shared were what she wanted the most. 

    Of course, much as it happened in the movies, such tender moments spent in a strange place with one of the characters already experiencing feelings of unease were meant to be shattered.  Just as she had been about to fall asleep on her gently snoring husband, the door had crashed open and no less than six hardened, very dangerous-looking thugs had filed into the room, one of them, obviously the leader, staring down at them with obvious disdain.

    “This is McManus?” he asked the others, one of whom happened to be the bartender, “This weak puke? And who is she?”

    “Some broad he was meeting,” said the bartender, glaring openly at her, and the dozing McManus. 

    It was absurd, but Mackenzie was suddenly rooting around in her small purse, opening the clasp and searching for her wallet. “I knew we should have tipped you,” she said quietly.

   “Keep your money whore,” the lead man said, forcing a shocked O to form on Mackenzie’s lips again as she frowned in displeasure.

    “I am not a-!”

    “Just shut it!” the lead man said, looking as though he might soon smack her.

    “You shut yer…zzz…filthy…zz..pie-lickin’…”  James jerked slightly where he lay, but did not wake as snorted and then went back to snoring.

     “He’s three sheets to the wind,” the leader said in disgust, turning on the bartender, “I told you to keep him subdued, not plowed!”

     “It’s not my fault!” the bartender cried, “Normally people only take one glass of punch. Most people think it’s too sweet and don’t bother with more! How was I going to know they’d drain the whole thing?”

     “Rugger’s not gonna be pleased,” the leader said, “He wanted McManus awake and alive to see what he was gonna do.”

     Mackenzie seemed to have been forgotten, but as she spoke up she did her best to keep her voice from quavering.

     “Sir, I don’t know who you think we are, but I-“

     “Oh shut it,” he said with a growl, “We know too well who this lump of nothing is,” he pointed at James, “He’s the bookie that cost our boss a whole ten grand on last month’s race, and the boss wants to make an example of him.”

     Her mouth formed a shocked O again, but this time it was terror that stained her gaze, not anger.

     “Nothing to do for it,” the leader said, shrugging with disgust, “We’re going to have to wait until he comes to.” With that he motioned for the others to leave, following after with a snort of disgust at Mackenzie and James before slamming and locking the door behind him. 

       And with that, they had come to this present moment, stuck in a room with armed thugs who would eventually return with their boss in tow. 

       James snorted, coming awake suddenly as he tried to sit up and groaned from the headache he was no doubt suffering at that second. 

      “Ooooh.  I’m sorry honey, that last one really put me out.”

      “James we’ve got to get out of here,” she said hurriedly, “We need to leave, now.”

      “Well Ms. O’Toole,” he began with a sordid chuckle.

      She pursed her lips, “Honey I appreciate the gesture and everything, but Ms. O’Toole has gone off to soil herself for the moment and Mrs. Morris is desperately in need of her husband.”

       He frowned, not understanding, but as she told him what had just transpired only minutes before his eyes went wide, and his jaw dropped as the implications quickly set in.  His eyes scanned the room, doing the same she had done when she had been debating what to use as a weapon.  The bar was the obvious answer, as the bottles could be used as ranged and up close weapons if pressed, but she was certain that the thugs had guns, and so would their boss.  Still, it was better than nothing.

       “Get behind the bar,” he said quickly, joining her as he grabbed two heavy-looking bottles. She did the same, looking at him then as he looked back at her.

       “Honey, whatever happens, I love you,” she said, her voice strong even as tears threatened to spill down her cheeks.

       “I love you too,” he said, “And I’m sorry I got us into this.”

      She smiled, shaking her head as she said, “Oh Mr. McManus. You certainly know how to show a girl a good time.”

       Just at that moment they could hear the lock being disengaged on the door, and as it opened a single figure entered, followed by the six same thugs that had been there earlier.  The newcomer though was about as imposing as a teddy bear, his height seeming to be the only part about him that might seem capable of making him a threat. Otherwise he had a great big belly, a walrus-like moustache, and eyes that sparkled with mirth as he looked around the room.  He saw James and Mackenzie instantly, and frowned as he spoke.

     “You idjits,” he fumed, “That isn’t McManus.”  The leader of the group quailed a bit as he backed away. The older man, Ruggers presumably, looked back to Mackenzie and James. “Folks, if you’d please lower the bottles I believe we might be able to sort this out.”

      “We just want to leave, peacefully,” James said quickly, still tensed to throw if it came down to it. 

      Ruggers held up both hands, “And I’d like to let you, preferably with that 30-year old bottle of Balvenie unharmed. It’s rather expensive you know.”

       James, who hadn’t known, placed the bottle gently on the bar with wide eyes and as much care as he might have shown while setting down a bottle of nitroglycerin. He mouthed the word “wow” as he let go of the bottle. 

       “Yes wow, on many accounts,” Ruggers said as he aimed a cross look at his small group, who were now filing out of the room in response to his glare. As he turned back around however he offered the couple a disarming smile as he crossed the room.  “Now, if I might implore you to grab us three glasses miss? I believe we can sort this out over a nice bit of that drink.”

                                                         *                    *                   *

 

       As it turned out being McManus wasn’t the wisest idea, but Ruggers had let them off with a friendly warning, and a promise that if they came into his pub again that they would be treated like royalty, with one request.  They could never, ever, ever, repeat anything they’d seen, which was very little, to anyone.  So far as anyone knew, The Dead Rabbit was and had always been a legitimate place of business, and would remain so.  It was an agreement that James and Mackenzie had made quite readily.

       “So,” Mackenzie asked as they walked along the waterfront, having decided to take a nice, relaxing stroll, “Do you think it’s a good idea to befriend a mobster?”

       “It’s better than telling him no,” James said, inhaling heavily through his nose as he continued to pay attention to his steps. They were walking by a large park that was draped heavily in shadows, the playground equipment swaying gently in the mild breezes that came off the water.  

       “He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” she said, using her best impression of Marlon Brando, which was truly horrible. It made James laugh though, and that was worth it. 

       “It’s too bad they came crashing in though,” she said ruefully, “I was almost there.”

      “Would you have really?” he asked, knowing full well that she knew what he was talking about.

      “Oh honey, you act like I never have!”

      “So that’s how the kids were conceived…” he said, earning a laugh and a playful punch on his arm.  He looked around as they kept walking, “You know, no one’s around now, and I’m wide awake…”

      She stopped, frowning as she clucked her tongue at him, “Honey, we’re in public.”

      “So?” he said, “There’s no one around, and ah, I do owe you a pleasant end to a messed up evening.”

      Instead of continuing to argue against it she did a quick sweep of the area with her eyes. There was indeed no one in their immediate vicinity, and to be honest, there was a nice big play structure with plenty of room for two….

      “I suggest then, Mr. Morris, that you stretch first, because it might be a tight fit…” she said suggestively, starting to walk off towards the structure, swaying just enough to be enticing.  James grinned as he watched her go, undoing the buttons of his shirt as he began walking towards her.  After a few more steps she broke into a run, at which point it became a race to see who could make it to the structure first.  Giggling all the way, Mackenzie found that she couldn’t have asked for a better end to

 

Star Wars Opinion

Star Wars: What is Canon?

 

There have been a great number of arguments over what is official canon in the always popular Star Wars franchise ever since the prequels were released into theaters.  Those dedicated fans who have been faithful to the franchise since its inception have stuck by the original films, citing them as the true history of the franchise. Many would agree that George Lucas’s vision should in fact be kept as the basis behind the Star Wars universe, no matter how expansive it might be.

However, there are those who have transcended the movie by reading the books, the comics, and the graphic novels, absorbing what many upon many authors and artists have added to the story. The prequels did a fairly reasonable job of explaining a number of questions that were presented in the original trilogy, but the schism thrust between fans who are loyal to the original trilogy and those who were awaiting a new spin on the Star Wars universe was made noticeable after “The Phantom Menace”.

From that point on the rift between fans only grew wider as the prequels continually changed the universe and answered more questions than had originally been asked.  As the Star Wars universe continued to expand, the ideals and expectations of Lucas’ creation began to shift.  The books that were written after the initial trilogy, masterfully written and detailing a story for the original characters that was compelling and even pleasing to the readers, became moot.  Even a galaxy-wide invasion by a marauding alien species that could not be stopped by the vaunted and revived Jedi Order was scrapped when Lucas sold his creation to Disney. From that point on, the canon of Star Wars shifted for good.

While it can be said that the direction the franchise has taken is in fact quite interesting and engaging, it is also a very hard slap in the face to the literary fans of the story.  Just imagine if Disney had picked up a series of books that came after the original trilogy, just to see what readers had become enamored of, they might have had a far easier time moving forward. Just imagine if the story in the books had been unveiled, such facts as these would have garnered far more films than have already been conceived.  Here are just a few bits of information from the books:

 

1) Han and Lei married and had three children. Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin Solo all became powerful Jedi, and eventually would reshape the Order.

2) Luke Skywalker married an assassin, Mara Jade, formerly the Hand of the Emperor. They had a son named Ben Skywalker.

3) Chewbacca died saving Anakin Solo’s life. He was crushed, along with the planet he was on, by a falling moon.

4) The entire Yuuzhan Vong invasion could have spanned another trilogy if not more, as these fierce, warrior-aliens were more than adept at destroying planets. They could even fight the Jedi to a standstill.

5) The Jedi Order is renewed under Jedi Grandmaster Luke Skywalker, and includes many talented Jedi of all species.

The Darkness

You Make the Darkness

By Tom Foster

 

 

Woke up, fed up, so sick of this scene                       Woke up fed up can’t do this anymore

Wandering two steps forward, fallin’ back three       Just waiting for the end

Finding there’s no time to sit between.                      No longer need to settle the score

-The darkness rises-                                                     -The darkness is here-

Livin’ day to day with the sickness deep inside         You’ve fallen prey to rage

Goin’ crazy wanting to know                                     You’ll never be the same

Is there somewhere safe that I can hide                     I’ve locked you in my cage

 Before you slip and I just blow.                                The darkness knows your name.

 

You let the dark roll out of me                                   You made the dark come out of me

You make it boil inside                                               It swallowed up my mind

You break the bonds and set it free                            Now you will have to see

Your ignorance I won’t abide.                                    And then be left behind.

 

Through the days I walk

And the nights I crawl

Going out of my mind as the thoughts I stalk

Just to withstand it all.

-My darkness is straining-

The hatred seeks its mark

You stand in the path alone

It will see you in the dark

Go on admit you’re gone.

 

You make the dark rise out of me

You make it strain and pull

It’s out for all to see

It’s filling up my skull.

 

-Let it go-

Don’t wanna feel no more

-Give it back-

And even up the score.

Writers Are Crazy

   Writers are a step above many individuals when it comes to being disturbed, mentally unstable, and even the dreaded “C” word, crazy.  On the outside many writers seem quite normal, even friendly and outgoing. It is on the inside that many upon many writers, particularly freelancers and fiction writers, are absolutely unhinged. While there are many reasons why, there are several listed here that can better explain the disturbing inner workings of a writer’s mind.

1) We destroy whatever we create.  Admittedly every writer pulls their main characters from the ether just to send them back to whatever oblivion they came from.  The purpose of creating a character is rarely ever to keep them alive and around indefinitely. Readers would eventually get bored and ask when the next big thing is expected to come along.  In order to save our creations we must eventually destroy them.

2) We are essentially insane.  No matter if a writer is a “nice person” on the outside and even boisterous and friendly at most times, on the inside our minds are typically as chaotic as the stories that make it to the page.  The controlled madness that is given to the readers to peruse and judge is only the dried out portion of what awaits within the tortured hallways of our minds, while the juicy stuff continues to replenish itself.

3) We have to write. It’s not a mild yearning, nor even a wistful longing. It is a COMPULSION. If you have ever spent hour upon hour staring at a lit screen with small type attempting to discover the ins and outs of your own insanity you have likely come to realize that writing is no longer just a hobby. It is a burning need that pulls at the heart strings and cramps the guts until the idea that is almost physically stuck in your body is finally allowed its freedom. There is no halfway point between not wanting to write and having to at this point, you must write or descend into your own madness.

4) Caffeine and alcohol become your best buddies.  It’s true, so true.  If you don’t prefer the hard stuff then you will likely turn to the go-juice that has sustained so many college students and writers alike throughout the years.  The lifeblood of a strung-out, manic writer is the same nectar that millions cannot start their morning without. 

5) There is little if any easy, REAL money in writing.  Forget what you see in the advertisements about stay at home moms making thousands of dollars a week, and especially forget the idea that you might be that one in a million writer who gets a lucky break and becomes an overnight millionaire. It takes roughly twenty years to become an overnight success, and even then nothing is assured. You will work for pennies on the dollar and find new ways to live on what seems only enough to purchase a kids meal at the local drive-thru.  Why will you do it?  Because you have crossed the threshold and no longer recognize the term “sanity”.

      There are a great many reasons why writers are perhaps some of the most insanely unbalanced individuals walking the world today, but these are just a few.  Remember though, if you happen to know a writer, just assume that the inside of their head is a dark and twisted place you would pay to avoid. It’s better that way.

Being Human

It’s a bit of statement, right? Being human, it can mean so many different things, from being kind to one person and being a complete and utter prick because necessity demands it.  Being human is being as complex and simple as could possibly be at any given moment. It’s loving your neighbor and wanting to stab them in the back should the situation call for it.  Being human is different and adaptable for each individual.

We’re made up of the same things, we operate the same on the most basic levels, but once you get past that, once you reach the surface and start looking around, we are very different. There are cultures, races, ethnicities, habits, politics, religions, and any other number of differences that we use to separate one another. We seem to excel at listing our differences and keeping apart from one another in our little cliques and groups that celebrate our differences without taking into account how alike we really are.

But there’s a silver lining, like there always is. Human beings aren’t wholly evil, and we’re not wholly good.  As was said above, we’re complex in our simplicity.  We love, we hate, we stand to the side and we go on personal crusades in an attempt to make lives better.  So then what does it all mean?

We’re imperfect beings in an imperfect world, that’s what it means.