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Deadline

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The court-appointed psychiatrist sat down next to her patient and quietly asked, “Jim, do you know what day it is today?”

He nodded and answered, “Sure. It’s Tuesday the 24th, Doc.”

“Good. Okay, how about who the President is?” she asked, smiling.

“That’s easy. Trump,” he answered unhesitatingly.

She then asked, “Now, do you know why you’re here with me?”

“Of course. I told my neighbor that he was going to die on November 24th. He got scared, called the cops, and I got arrested for making a terroristic threat,” he responded. “So, the court sent me to you to find out if I’m nuts, right?”

She scooted her office chair over to get a bit closer to him and asked, “Let’s focus on what you told your neighbor, okay. Why did you tell him he was going to die? Was that a threat because you were having a dispute with him about a tree on your property?”

Jim hesitated before answering, and then responded, “It had nothing to do with that tree thing. That’s completely different. I told him he was going to die on November 24th because that’s what’s going to happen. I just know it. I might even know when you’re going to die, Doc?”

She moved her head slightly upon hearing his last remark, but then caught herself so as not to encourage this kind of response. “You are saying that you somehow know what day your neighbor is going to die, correct? How do you know?”

Jim shook his head slightly, then answered, “I’m not sure. These dates have just come to me ever since I hit my head in the garage last summer.” He let that sink in, then added, “But I don’t make a habit of telling people, you know. My neighbor was the first person I’ve told. He pissed me off, so I just told him.”

“So you didn’t intend to kill your neighbor on November 24th. You’re just passing on information from some unknown source, is that it?” she asked.

“Yeah. I have a list of people and death dates that have come to me since my injury. I didn’t give it to the police, but here it is,” he said, reaching into his pants pocket and handing a crumpled piece of paper over to the psychiatrist.

She spread it out on her lap and read for a moment. Then, looking up, she asked, “Some of this is a little hard to read, but it looks like a list of penciled names and dates, with check marks. Can you elaborate a bit more, Jim?”

“Sure. When a name and date comes to me, I write it on the list, and when that person dies on that date, I put a check mark next to it. Pretty simple,” he commented.

“Well, Jim, how is one to know that you didn’t just come up with this list after you were arrested? You know, as a way of fabricating a diminished capacity defense,” she pointedly asked.

“Not all the names and dates are checked. That’s because they’re still alive. Did you see the name at the bottom? I know it’s a little hard to read,” he replied.

She flattened out the paper a bit more and held it close to her face. “Why, that’s my name and tomorrow’s date?” Just then her mobile phone vibrated, and she saw that it was a text from Detective Martin. It was short and to the point, “Your patient’s next door neighbor died an hour ago, just like he said he would. Heart attack. I thought this might be important.”

She quickly sent “Thanks” and calmly placed her phone down, but she could feel her heart beating faster and her anxiety level rising quickly. Looking at Jim, she could hear him saying matter of factly, “That’s about my neighbor, right? I need to make another check mark, I guess.”

She quickly got ahold of her emotions and asked, “But, Jim, you only told your neighbor because he made you mad. But now you’ve told me by giving me this list. Why? Did I make you mad?”

Jim smiled and replied, “Good point, Doc. Maybe if you tell the court I’m not responsible for what happened, I might just take you off the list!” He paused to see her reaction, and then added, “Whatta you say, Doc? Can I erase your name and date, or do you want to wait and find out? Your call.”

End

Indications

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His doctor washed his hands in the examination room sink as George quietly got dressed. Drying his hands, the physician commented, “Well, George, you have to start losing weight. Your blood pressure and blood sugar levels alone are worrisome enough, but I’m also concerned about your heart.”

George had heard this all before and replied, “I’ve tried dieting, Doctor. Believe me. But you know the results.”

The doctors smiled and took something from a nearby cabinet. “Okay, but today we’re going to try something different, George. It’s the latest in wearable medical devices. Here, let me show you how this works.”

What George was shown was a remarkable device. It slipped on like a sock and was worn all the time for a month except when bathing or swimming. It collected a mass of biomedical information from its wearer and transmitted this data to a smartphone app. What was of special interest to George was that it continuously and accurately monitored his weight. And this was exactly what George needed. Something to help him corral his impulses and keep him on track.

He took home the free sample, watched the CD that accompanied it  and activated his new ‘sock.’ It was truly amazing. When he ate breakfast that morning, his weight changed. As he went through the day, his weight changed. If he drank a cup of coffee, his weight changed. If he put on his jacket or took it off, his weight didn’t change. How did it know?

And it tracked dozens of other key health factors and graphed them all on his phone. It was truly a medical breakthrough, but one that was so complex that George knew he would never fully understand it. After the first month, George was hooked, and purchased a year’s supply of ‘socks’, and he joined a Support Group of other patients of his doctor who were also wearing the ‘sock’.

The Support Group was a bunch of older, obese patients who had a lot of serious medical problems. The ‘sock’ was a life preserver to them and they all knew it. They grasped its power to help them heal themselves and they flung themselves full-force into learning how to use the app. They met each week on Friday night and discussed in depth their experiences with the device. George could feel the enthusiasm rise each week as the Support Group more thoroughly understood the device’s capabilities.

On the fifth meeting, someone asked about the series of red lights that were appearing at the bottom of her app. “See,” she said, passing her smartphone around the group, “there are three little red lights at the very bottom of my app. Dim. Hard to see. Anybody else have these?”

Nobody else had any red lights, which standing alone meant nothing to the group. They discussed what the red lights might mean but came to no clear conclusion. George was curious by nature, and he rewatched the CD when he got home that night but saw nothing that explained the row of red lights on the app. On Thursday, he was called by the leader of the Support Group and was informed that Linda, the woman who first brought up the red light issue, had died that morning. She was found by another member of the group, her smartphone was in her hand, and it showed five little red lights at the very bottom of her app. The leader of the group suggested that they convene an emergency meeting for that night, Thursday, to discuss this new information.

The mood of the group was solemn that night. Everyone had their phones out and were hunched down in their chairs staring at them. Martin was the first to hold up his phone and say, “I just got a red light. Anybody else?” Everyone shook their heads slowly. George was the first to respond when he stated, “I think our doctor has to be asked what this red light thing is and fast!” The group agreed and appointed George as the point man to make the contact with their doctor, which he did early the next morning.

His doctor was calm and reassuring the next day. “I can assure you, George, that the red lights had absolutely nothing to do with Linda’s death. She had a heart attack. It could have happened at any time given the state of her health. Regarding the red lights, the device developer indicates to me that it is just a diagnostic tool in ‘beta testing’ at this time and only useful to the developers. It’s a techie thing. Not to worry.”

George passed this information on to the group leader, who thanked him, but also informed him that Martin now had three small red lights on his app. And further, Martin’s previously scheduled knee replacement surgery was postponed by the HMO that morning. He’ll now have to wait another month for the surgery. Coincidence? Or something more significant?

George was bothered by the accumulating ‘coincidences’. His brother-in-law was a tech nerd of sorts and he knew he had some equipment that could look at the code written into the chip on the ‘sock’. His brother-in-law was fascinated by the challenge and took a day and a half before he got back to George with his ideas.

“Okay, I read the source code. Sophisticated. But the red lights are driven by a subroutine titled ‘LSI’. That’s it. It looks like ‘LSI’ accumulates all the incoming medical data the device is getting and feeds it into a large algorithm whose outgoing data drives the number of red lights. All I can tell you is that the most you get is five red lights,” his brother-in-law reported. “I don’t know what ‘LSI’ stands for or what the algorithm calculates. Hope this helps you, George. Oh, and George, they have gone to great lengths to conceal what ‘LSI’ does. But I can tell you that what your doctor was told was total bullshit.”

George pondered telling the group about what he had just discovered. But he hesitated, knowing that it would just further confuse an already disturbed and confused group of people. What really bothered him was that the developer had probably lied to the doctor. And that the number of red lights might have something to do with Linda’s death and the postponement of Martin’s knee surgery. His phone rang and it was the group leader. “Martin is in the ICU. His wife is with him. Doesn’t look good. She said his app had five red lights showing.” George thanked him, told him nothing of what he knew about ‘LSI’, and closed the connection. But he now knew there was a definite connection between five red lights on an app and the death or imminent death of a patient.

He took a quick look at his app and was horrified to see two red lights. His app also showed that his blood pressure and heart rate were quite elevated and that his heart function was slightly impaired. He quickly called his doctor and  set up an emergency appointment and headed for the clinic with his smartphone on the car seat beside him. Halfway to the clinic, the third red light popped up, and as he pulled into the clinic parking lot, the fourth red light appeared.

George staggered into the reception area with his phone in his hand. His doctor and assistant helped take George to the examination room where the doctor quickly determined that George was in cardiac arrest. Before any further assistance could be rendered, George passed away on the examination table and was declared dead by his physician.

An hour later, after completing his report on George’s death, the doctor brought up George’s app on his office computer. The five red lights were clearly showing on the doctor’s screen under the label, ‘Life Span Indicator’. He made sure the data was forwarded to the developers and then erased the ‘LSI’ input from George’s file. The doctor wasn’t sure how the developers could so accurately predict the death of a ‘sock’ wearer, but he knew that it was saving the HMO millions. Postponement of surgery savings  were probably going to top five million dollars this month alone.

End

Barrel Aged

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He never entered a saloon without first looking over the swinging doors.  It was a lesson learned the hard way in Tascosa ten years earlier and he was lucky to have survived the experience. The shoulder wound still bothered him and probably always would. He wasn’t too bothered about the man he killed that day, though. He just hoped that today would turn out better.

As he entered the saloon, he saw the Sheriff seated at a table near the bar. The deputy was at another table nearby guarding the prisoner who was manacled to a post. The Sheriff blew the dust from two shot glasses, poured two whiskeys and motioned for him to sit down next to him. The bar was empty except for the two lawmen, the prisoner, and the bartender. And the dog in the corner.

 “You got my telegram?” the Sheriff asked him.

“Yep,” he answered. “I got some questions, though.” He slowly sat down across from the Sheriff and put his boots up on the table. He faced the door; it was just a habit.

 “I figured you would,” the Sheriff responded as he quickly downed his whiskey and poured another one.

“Why not just put him on the 3:10 to Yuma? Why go to all the trouble of having me escort him to Ruidoso?” he asked the Sheriff.

“Well, we tried that with another prisoner last year. Didn’t work out too well, as you might recall,” the Sheriff answered.

“Yeah. So I take your prisoner to Ruidoso and theygive him a fair trial, followed by a first-class hanging!" he said. “That sound about right?”

The sheriff looked over at the prisoner who was listening to everything closely. “That’s about right, Yancey,” he answered. “There’s three hundred in gold in it for you if you finish the job. What do you say?”

“What about his horse and rig? I want them, too,” Yancey demanded.

The Sheriff slowly poured himself another whiskey and drank half of it before answering. “You drive a hard bargain. But, okay, you get the horse and rig, too.”

“And the rights to the story, too. I don’t want you or that deputy of yours selling my story out from underneath me, you understand? Could be worth a lot of money someday. I’ll need a written release,” Yancey added, his eyes squinting hard as he looked directly at the Sheriff.

The Sheriff indicated to the bartender to bring another bottle and to go get the town lawyer and be quick about it. “Anything else, Yancey?”

“Yeah, I’ll need medical coverage in case I get hurt. Can you handle that? No deductible, no co-pays. Gold plated. Understand?” Yancey demanded.

“Sure, no problem,” the Sheriff responded. “How about disability insurance? You want that thrown in, too?”

“Sounds about right. And my agent’s commission. Don’t forget that. Ten percent. Will that be a problem?” Yancey asked.

The Sheriff shook his head. “Anything else?”

Yancey thought for a moment and then added, “I’m going to need an indemnification agreement. You know, in case something happens to dipshit over there on the way to Ruidoso. I got sued once by some lawyer in Nevada for ‘negligence’ in handling a prisoner. Cost me plenty.”

The Sheriff chuckled and said, “I heard about that. Okay, no problem.”

Yancey swung his boots off the chair and onto the floor. He slowly stood up, his tall lanky torso casting a shadow onto the Sheriff still seated at the table. He put both hands on his six guns and said menacingly, “One more thing, Sheriff. You or that idiot deputy of yours get any ideas of trailing me to learn how I do my job, better think again. I’ll have you in court so fast for ‘Invasion of Privacy’ it’ll make your head spin.” He leaned forward, put both hands on the table and said, “You got that, Sheriff!”

The Sheriff nodded and looked at his deputy who nodded, too. This was not their first rodeo.

End

 

Cliche

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It had been a very long night and the press secretary hadn’t had a chance to shave as he approached the podium to address an emboldened media. He pulled a sheaf of papers from his jacket pocket, adjusted the microphone, looked out over the assembled correspondents and in a tired voice, stated, “Okay, I’ll take some questions. Mabel, you go first.”

“Sir, how do you explain the numbers? This recent election must have come as a huge disappointment to your boss, right?”

“They wanted it more than we did,” he answered flatly. He pointed to a young man in the rear, said, “John? You’re up.” John nervously asked, “Does this mean your boss won’t run for reelection?”

He paused as if to think about his answer, then responded, “He won't retire until he gets that ring”. He pointed to an older woman in the third row. “Gina? Your question?”

“Some say this is the sunsetting of the GOP. Any comment?”

“We've still got plenty of game left,” he answered coldly.

An older man in the front row yelled out his question without being acknowledged, “You were expecting a tie, weren’t you? What do you say to your base about this devastating one-sided loss?

“A tie is like kissing your sister,” he answered quickly. “But, let’s be honest, we're still missing a few pieces to the puzzle.”

A sea of frantic hands shot up. He pointed to someone whose name he didn’t know. “You, state your paper and ask your question?”

“Rose Martin, Nevada Star. Some have speculated that your boss is very disappointed in his Vice-President. Do you foresee any changes in that area?”

“We need someone who can take us to the next level. Everyone has to be held accountable. We're going to right the ship. We're going to get things turned around. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The hands all lowered as the journalists all looked around in frustration. Finally, one of their senior correspondents yelled out, “What are your plans now?”

The press secretary quickly answered, “I plan to spend some time with my family. Any more questions?” No hands went up and with that, the press secretary ended the press conference.

Two of the younger correspondents turned to a grizzled veteran as the group shuffled towards the exits. “What did that guy do before he was press secretary?”

The old reporter lit another cigarette, looked up through the smoke and answered, “ESPN.”    

End

 

Shelter in Place

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Joyce toyed with her glass of wine as she gazed out the restaurant’s window. She was somewhat lost in thought as Linda, her dinner companion, asked, “A penny for your thoughts.”

Sighing, Joyce turned back from the window and replied, “I’m not going to the Stephenson’s party on Friday!”

“Babe, why not? It’s going to be a blast. C’mon, what’s the problem?” Linda asked in a worried tone.

“It’s the politics of it all, Linda. God, I can’t stomach their political rants. It’s too much, and when you try to fight back with reason, they just dig in more, you know,” Joyce responded dejectedly 

“Look, I get it. Bill and I don’t socialize much anymore for the same reason. Jesus, the battle lines are drawn, and the swords are out everywhere. We haven’t partied with anybody in months. But the Stephenson’s, really?” Linda remarked.

“Yeah, I know. They were always a pillar of rationalism. But they’ve gone to the dark side, too. Mark and I don’t know who to trust anymore. We’re pulling out socially, too. Retreating to the safety of isolation. God, remember when it was fun?” Joyce lamented.

Linda continued, “Even at work, you have to be very careful what you say. And forget church gatherings or book clubs. The slightest remark can send people over the top.”

Joyce motioned to the waiter for the check as she added, “Our kids came home from college last week, and none of us have had a civil conversation since. You can’t believe some of the things that they are being taught. Mark and I have agreed just to keep it very superficial until they leave. You know, ‘how’s your day going’ and stuff like that.”

“Yeah, I get it. My daughter didn’t even bother to come home this year. Something about ‘what’s the point?’”, Linda added.

“You know, I was at the grocery store yesterday buying some Oregon Pinot, and some woman who I don’t know called me on it. Can you imagine? She called me a ‘Pinko Bitch’ under her breath. And the checkout person just laughed. I’m going to start ordering groceries online from now one,” Joyce angrily announced.

The waiter arrived and asked if they wanted anything else. They said ‘No’ and he gave them the bill. When Joyce got the credit card receipt to sign, she noticed that it had been annotated ‘Libs’ by the server.

Not coming back here again, she muttered under her breath.

 

Pain and Suffering

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The surgeon, still in his operating gown, strode proudly to the podium, adjusted the microphone, looked out over the assembled press gathering and confidently announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have good news. Rama Baj Babba is out of surgery, in the recovery room, and is expected to make a full and rapid recovery. Questions?” 

The senior correspondent from CNN asked, “Is it true, Doctor, that no anesthesia and, in fact, no pain killers were used during his surgery? There were rumors.”

The physician smiled broadly and responded, “Normally, I would not comment on the details of a surgery, but RBB has agreed to let the press in on such details. To answer your question, yes, neither anesthesia nor painkillers were used today. And none in recovery, either. Next question?”

“A follow-up question, sir. If RBB required no pain killers, why did he need knee surgery in the first place?” the reporter inquired.

“Well,” the physician replied, “he kept falling down due to the deterioration of his knee. It was getting to be a problem, particularly with his worldwide spiritual activities. Next question, please?”

A young reporter from the Times asked, “In a nutshell, Doctor, how was RBB able to do this? I mean, the physical pain must have been incredible during the operation, right?”

“All I can tell you,” the physician answered, “was what RBB told me himself. He is able to separate his pain from his observance of the pain. It is in this latter aspect, his relationship with the pain, that RBB is different from the rest of us. His mindfulness practice has removed pain’s power over him. The pain is still there, but he has been able to reduce his suffering to almost nothing. It’s really quite amazing. Next and last question, please?”

“Doctor, we’re only a short distance from RBB’s recovery room, and, well, pardon my frankness, but it seems like he’s yelling quite a bit. We all can hear it. How do you relate what we’re hearing with what you just stated?”

The physician paused for a moment as if pondering his next comment, and then leaned forward, and spoke slowly into the microphone, “Some things are more difficult to conquer, I’m afraid. We’ve had to tell RBB he can’t have any Starbucks for a few days. It’s become a bit on any issue, as you can obviously hear.”

End

Night Visitors

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The phone on his bedside table chirped softly. On the seventh ring, he groaned, rolled over, looked at the clock, and answered, “Yes, what is it?”

“Sir, it’s Filburt at the front desk. Sorry to wake you at this hour, but I have a situation here that needs your guidance.”

“Very well, Filburt, give it to me, but please be quick about it!”

“Well, sir, I have a middle-aged couple who are seeking shelter, and . . . .”

“For God’s sake, Filburt, that’s what we do. We provide shelter as long as our customers can pay and are married. Now, unless there’s more, I need to go back to sleep?”

“Well, yes, sir. There’s more. They are frightfully filthy, their clothes are ragged, and they smell very bad. You can see why I . . .”

“Filburt! Give them a room with a bath and I’m sure they’ll look and smell much better. Really, Filburt, is there anything else?”

“Uh, sir, they have no luggage, and while they are married, they don’t actually want a room. They have no money, and just want to stay out back by the pool, under the pavillion, out of the weather.”

“Good Lord, Filburt. We’re not a crash pad, you know! Send them along their way and don’t bother me again, you hear!”

“But, sir, the woman. She’s quite pregnant and she’s exhausted. Isn’t there something we can do, sir?”

There was a moment of silence on the phone, and then the manager spoke forcefully, “Filburt, I bet you were going to tell me they came in on a donkey, too, right?”

“Well, sir, now that you mention it, yes, there is an animal involved, too.”

“Filburt, can’t you see what’s going on. It’s so obvious. It’s Christmas eve, and some media outlet like TMZ or some atheist organization is trying to pull a prank on our little hotel. If we fall for this, we’ll be on the front page tomorrow and the laughing stock of the industry. Stay on the phone, send them packing, and then let me know when they’re gone.”

The manager could hear muffled discussion over the phone, and after a minute or so,  Filburt’s voice came back on. “Sir, they are leaving now. She’s on the donkey and he’s leading them down the street. The night is quite clear and the starlight overhead is remarkably bright. I’m sure they’re gone for good. Sorry to bother you, sir.”

The manager hung up and lay face-up in bed for a few moments. As he started to drift off, the phone rang again. He picked it up and gruffly said, “What now?”

“Sorry to bother you sir, but there are three older gentlemen here now who are inquiring about the couple on the donkey.”

“Filburt, didn’t we just discuss this. This is all part of the same prank. I bet they are all bearded, bearing gifts, and dressed in ornate robes, right?”

“Well, yes, sir. I just wanted to . . . “

“For Christ’s sake, Filburt. Send them packing now! And don’t call me again tonight. I have to get up for the early Christmas service tomorrow, and I don’t want to be exhausted. Do you understand me, Filburt! No more calls!”

End

Taking Roll

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It was the children’s first day in First Grade in Mrs. Olsen’s classroom. Like the western Georgia county in which they lived, this group of kids was diverse and about equally split between girls and boys. And they were lucky because Mrs. Olsen had taught school for over thirty years and she was a kind, fair, and compassionate teacher. And most of all, she was patient and even-keeled. Everyone knew that Mrs. Olsen was a rock.

“Welcome, children. I’m Mrs. Olsen, your new teacher. This is First Grade, and you are all assigned to your seats for this entire year, 2025. I will now take the roll so please listen closely and respond with ‘Here, Mrs. Olsen’ when you hear your name,” she patiently explained to her brood.

“Janey Arnesson?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“Lionel Belchick, Jr.?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“LaKeisha Bremmer?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“MAGA Christiansen?’

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“HopeyChangey Clark?”

There was a titter from the group, with several students looking around and some stifling laughter.

‘“Now, students. Be respectful. Hopeychangey Clark?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“Lockherup Drummond?”

Again, the class laughed.

“Class, I won’t tolerate this anymore. A person’s name is his or her name. We must respect that. Now, Lockherup Drummond?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

“Lance Erickson?”

“Here, Mrs. Olsen.”

The rest of the process was uneventful until Mrs. Olsen got to the last name. She did a double-take at the name and started to chuckle. She quickly caught herself, placed her hand over her mouth, and prepared to continue, but was quickly overcome by an uncontrollable fit of  laughter.

The students didn’t know what to make of their teacher’s behavior. Their mentor, their role model, was doubled-over in front of the class in complete and uncontrollable hysterics. They looked at each other and then around the room until their eyes settled on the only student whose name had not been called. She was seated calmly, her hands firmly on her desk, looking straight ahead with no expression on her face.

The boy in back of her tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “What’s your name, anyway?” 

Without changing her expression, and still looking straight ahead, she proudly announced, “I’m Buildthatwall Wilson.” 

End

A Brief History of Chores

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He stuck his head into the next room, saw his son playing with his slide rule on the sofa, and asked, "Can you give me a hand in the yard, son? We've got a lot of work to do, right?"

The son, without looking up from his slide rule, casually asked, "Dad, do you know how old the universe is?"

His father, taken aback a bit by his son's response, decided to enter the room. Instead of insisting on the son getting up and doing his chores, he answered patiently, "Well, I think they've settled on about 14.35 billion years, give or take. Why?"

His son, still not looking up, continued, "Oh, nothing, Dad. And during all that time, stars were created and exploded, creating 'stardust', the stuff we're made of, correct?"

"Yes. The very elements thrown-off by exploding stars became the building blocks of our earth and all living things in it," his father answered, getting a bit perturbed. "Is there a point to all this? We've got a lot of work to do?"

"And the earth. How long has it been in existence, Dad?" his son asked.

"About 4 billion years. And life began on earth about 3 billion years ago. And two plus two still equals four, so get your bum off the couch now! Enough of this 'Twenty Questions'," his exasperated father answered, his voice a bit louder than before.

"Just one more question, Dad. How much longer will the Universe continue to exist? When will it probably end?" the son asked, finally looking up at this father.

"Well, the best guess is that it will end just about the time our own sun dies. But that's billions and billions of years away. We still have to rake the leaves in the yard! Let's go," his father responded, holding the front door open and motioning with his hand.

As the son put down his slide rule and got up off the sofa, he muttered to himself, "There must be some way the Universe gets reborn. There must be."

His father stood in the doorway, his hands on his hips, impatiently waiting for his son. "Stephen, you're just going to find yourself in a 'black hole' of nothingness with all these open-ended questions."

The little six-year old, lost in thought, continued to mutter to himself, "Dad, that's interesting what you just said. 'Black hole,' yes, interesting."

"Well, Stephen, let's get to those leaves," Mr. Hawking said, his arm on his son's shoulder. "They're not going to rake themselves!"

"Ah," his son answered thoughtfully, "probably not, but what if time were to . . . "

"Stephen," his father barked, "just grab the rake! Please."

End

 

Pickled Beets

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"Have you heard the story about your grandpa and his pickled beets?" the boy’s father asked as the two sat on the porch looking out on the front pasture. The boy shook his head even though he’d heard the story many times before. He knew his Dad just wanted to tell the story again to somebody. It was his turn tonight. Again.

"Well, there’s an old root cellar under the tool room, "his father continued. "You know, in the back of the farmhouse," his father said, indicating with a flick of his head. "You’ve seen the double doors that are part of the floor back there. They lead down to the root cellar. We don’t go down there anymore. Rats."

The boy feigned interest as his father continued. "So, your grandma used to can every summer. She’d can just about everything they grew . . .  beans, corn, cucumbers, the works. And of course, beets. She pickled them and the cucumbers." His father stood up and stretched, then said, "I remember her slaving away over that old wood stove back in there many a morning. But those canned goods kept us in vegetables throughout the winter. That’s the way it was back then."

Sitting down again, the boy’s father lit his pipe and puffed for a while. The boy knew the story word for word and understood just what was coming next. He looked at his watch, sighed to himself, and waited. His father turned to him and started the rest of the story, "Grandpa and grandma would take the cooled canned goods down to the root cellar and put them on shelves. By the time they were finished, those shelves were jammed with jars, each one dated and labeled."

Here it comes, the boy said to himself. The surprise, the part of the story that Dad loved the most. The boy knew this part by heart and understood just when to smile and express amazement, even though he had to fake it. No use in spoiling his father’s fun.

"Okay, so grandma’s part was done, but my Dad, his part was just beginning," his father chuckled. "Now, you won’t believe this, but he’d take his fiddle down there every day and play for an hour, sometimes more. He swore it sped-up the pickling process, especially for the beets!" his father laughed. His son brought his hands to his mouth and exclaimed, "No, really?"

"Yes, really. And grandma and me would be in the kitchen with the double doors closed and we could just barely make out the muffled music coming from down there. Fiddlin’ and picklin’, she’d say," his father concluded, a faraway look coming over his face.

The boy knew this was the end of the story but that he should stay seated for a few minutes until his father snapped-out of his reverie. He speculated that his Dad was listening to a distant memory of fiddle music in his head and holding on to that as long as he could. It was creepy watching his Dad’s reaction the first few times he’d heard the story. But now it was routine, and he just sat patiently until the strange look on his Dad’s face faded away.

As his father relit his pipe, the boy knew he could leave the porch now and go into the farmhouse. Story time for him was over for tonight. He carefully got out of his chair and headed for the screen door, but not before taking a look back at his father. Just then, the screen door opened, and his sister walked out onto the porch.

"How is he tonight? The same?" she asked her brother.

The boy nodded and then whispered in her ear, "You know what to do. Just sit down and wait for him to tell you the story. Just like always. I know it’s hard, but . . . "

The girl nodded knowingly and quietly moved towards her father and the empty chair next to him. As she sat down, her father looked over to her, smiled, and said, "Have you heard the story about your grandpa and his pickled beets?" She shook her head, looked at her watch, and waited. It was her turn.

She remembered vividly what her grandma had told her before she died. "It was the fiddlin’.  It pickled our brains!"

End

Family Night

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“You’re not going out tonight in that get-up, young lady,” her mother announced angrily.

“It’s not a get-up, mom, it’s a costume. And c’mon, it’s Halloween, everybody is dressing up”, the daughter pleaded.

Her mother paused for a moment before saying, “Alright, but you can’t be showing so much . . . skin. It’s just dangerous out there with all the perverts and such. Tone it down some, okay. Don’t encourage the weird ones. Believe me, I’ve known a few in my time!”

“Okay, mom. I’ll wear a t-shirt without all the rips in it, and I’ll wear jeans instead of these short-shorts. Is my makeup too much, or can I keep that?” her daughter answered in a tone she thought her mother would appreciate.

Her mother moved nearer to her and looked closely at her makeup. She held her daughter’s chin in her hand as she moved her daughter’s head from side to side. “No, your makeup is probably fine with one slight change. I’m a little worried about the fangs. They tend to show up against your white makeup. Do you think you could maybe tone down the whiteness a bit? Hmmm?”

The daughter laughed and said, “If I could see myself in a mirror maybe I’d know what you’re talking about, yah know?” She hugged her mom and headed up to her room to make the necessary wardrobe and makeup changes.

Just then her husband returned from the basement where he’d been resting. “What’s up, I heard voices?” he asked.

His wife sat down and indicated that he should sit next to her. As he sat down, he looked at her and said, “Is there something wrong? What’s going on?”

She reached out, held his cold hand and said, “How many Halloween’s has it been, Bob? Two Hundred and some? Hmm?”

Her husband thought for a moment and answered, “Well, we met in 1803 in New Orleans, so it must be about two hundred and fifteen. And each one a delight, I must say, my dear. Is there something about this Halloween that’s different than all the others? And who were you talking to, anyhow?”

His wife spoke frankly and directly as she said, “I’m quite worried about the current political climate. In the past, when a few kids went missing on Halloween, no big deal. But now, what if they find out about us, Bob? Do you really want to go through that pitch fork and burning torch thing that happened in Hungary again? Really. I think we have to just ride this Halloween out, Bob. No dead kids, no bite marks, no blood, nothing. It’s just too dangerous. Bob, I mean they’re shooting people for just crossing the border. Can you imagine if . . .” She trailed off and started to cry quietly.

Bob smiled and patted her hand knowingly. “You were talking with our daughter, weren’t you? It’s her first real Halloween on her own and you’re worried she might make a mistake that leads back to us,” he said before continuing. “I’ve felt the same way for a while. You’re right about the political situation. Until the Democrats get back in, it’s just too dangerous for us out there.” 

He stood up and paced the room for a while before turning back to address his wife. “I’ll talk to the guys down at the Blood Bank. I think I can convince them to tide us over for a few months until after the election. Then, well, . . . the gloves can come off.” His wife smiled as their daughter walked into the room.

“How do I look, you guys?” she asked confidently. “Do I pass inspection?”

They all laughed as she pirouetted in front of them. Her mother smiled at her and said, “You are just perfect. Now, your father has something to tell you about tonight, okay?”

Bob wrapped his arm around his daughter’s shoulder and spoke softly to her, saying, “You know we said you could actually draw blood tonight. Remember? Well that’s all changed. No blood tonight, no flying, no nothing. We have to lay low for reasons you don’t need to understand.”

“For how long, daddy? The urge is powerful.”

Her father looked his wife and then back to his daughter, finally saying, “I know about the urge, believe me. Okay, look, I’ll bend a little, but not much. You can take the kid on the next block, you know, the one who taunts you. But don’t drain him. Just take a couple of pints. Okay? Are we clear?”

His daughter nodded, smiled, kissed him on the cheek and answered, “Crystal, daddy. Crystal.”

End

 

 

Marquee

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He handed the cabby a twenty and asked for change. There was a time when he would have given the cabby a C-note and never looked back. But these days things were different. He slid across the back seat of the cab and slowly got out. Evening had just fallen, the street lights were on, and the sidewalks were starting to get crowded. He looked at his watch. Two hours until showtime. Time for a couple of drinks.

As the cab drove away, he looked across the street at the marquee on the small theater. His name was fifth in a list of five and in much smaller letters than the other four. He didn’t even recognize two of the acts, but he did know the headliner. She was the one who got him this gig even though most of the industry had turned against him because of his . . .  irregularities. He reminded himself to thank her after the show, if he was still sober. Even with his career in near collapse, he still couldn’t face up to his problem. The Amy Winehouse thing had scared him for a couple of days, but then he fell right back into it. She really had problems, anyway. He wasn’t that bad.

He was smart about his drinking before a show. Rule Number One, don’t drink near the venue where fans or critics can see you. Find a little dive far enough away and crummy enough to avoid unexpected recognition. He was lucky he was a one man act. Nobody else would put up with his drinking, especially before a show. So, Rule Number Two, never drink with other musicians. And Rule Number Three, uh . . . he told himself he’d get back to that one when he remembered it.

The bar was appropriately named ‘The Drop Off’. One of the swinging doors was open to the street as he looked in. Typical, dark, dirty, shit music on the jukebox, and smoky. The bar was lined with the typical denizens, hunched over their drinks, looking down at nothing in particular, some muttering to themselves. Nobody noticed when he walked in and slid into a booth in the rear with his back to the door. A good start, he said to himself.

He held up a twenty and, looking at the bartender over his shoulder, ordered a double whiskey. He slid over all the way to the wall, leaned back with one arm on the table and one leg up on the bench and waited for his drink. He felt at home in dumps like this. Which was exactly when the song hit him.

He sat bolt upright and scrambled for his ball point pen and a napkin. His drink came, and the bartender grabbed the twenty, but he didn’t even notice as he furiously wrote the lyrics on the napkin, all the while humming the melody. By the time he was finished, he had five napkins covered with his scrawl and an untouched drink on the table. He looked at his watch and was amazed that forty minutes had passed, just like that.

For the first time in years, he felt some of his old stuff coming back. And the song, man, the song was good! No, not just good, it was killer! Tonight, with him sober, with his voice strong, and with this new song, it could start his career again! He collected the napkins, waved to the bartender, and left with the song going through his mind, bar by bar. By the time he got to the theater, he had it down. He didn’t need the napkins anymore he told himself as he tossed them into the garbage. His whole being was now possessed by this new song. There was an energy about him that was unmistakable. He was back.

In the green room, he adjusted his guitar strap and tuned his instrument as he listened to the acts on the speaker. He strummed the new tune over and over again, singing softly to himself, recognizing a renewed vitality. He looked up as the door opened and the theater manager entered and said, “Sorry, Johnny, we ran over tonight. We had to cancel your act. You’ll get paid, but no stage for you tonight. Maybe next time.”

He sat down, disappointed. But he still had the song and there would definitely be a next time, somewhere, and soon. He picked up his guitar and started to strum, but somehow he had lost the beginning of the new song. Try as he might, he couldn’t get it out. It was right there on his fingertips, but he couldn’t get it out. And he couldn’t quite recall the lyrics, either. Things were kind of a jumble.

He reached into his jacket pocket for his flask. Maybe that would help. For the next ten minutes, he drank and tried to play the tune. It just wouldn’t come. Then he remembered the bar napkins in his pocket. He reached for them.

End

Me Too

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The old playhouse had a majesty that could not be duplicated at any cost today. Directors and producers vied for time on its stage, using every trick they knew to capture a hint of its legendary past in their productions. When a play worked in this theater, it was like magic. Critics came from around the country to watch, to wonder, and to praise. Actors dropped everything to work for just a week or two on its stage. It was an experience that few would have, and it was special.

Rehearsals were scheduled to begin in two weeks which is why the director, the lead actor, the producer, and the casting agent were together to discuss casting the play. The four of them sat at a large table at the rear of the stage and were prepared to go over each part, one by one, to determine who would be the best actor for each role. 

They all knew each other and had worked together many times before. George, the lead actor, and Grant, the director, had known each other at Yale and had worked together over the years both in America and in Europe. Mary was respected in the industry for her skill in casting talent. And Doug, the producer, was the best money could buy.

The Director spoke first, “Okay, Mary and I have preliminarily determined who we think would be best for each part. But, George, as lead actor, you have final approval, so here we go. Are you ready, Mary?”

George was an easy-going actor. He was successful and completely committed to his craft. Single, he had many partners in the past, but when he took on a role he left everything personal behind. He became the character, and everyone knew it. It was why they loved to work with him.

Mary stood and went over a large display board. “Can everybody see this o.k.?” she asked. The others nodded as she then proceeded to put character names on the board, and began addressing the issue, “Alright. Each character in the play is now on the board, and beginning with the least important, I am going to put up the picture of an actor Grant and I have determined to be the best fit for the part. Got that? Then we’ll go to you, George, and get your approval. Does that sound like an appropriate process?”

Mary and Grant really didn’t think that George would contest any of their choices. They had all worked together like this in the past and George was always quite malleable about who he would work with in the plays. It wasn’t a ‘done-deal’ by any stretch, but Mary thought this wouldn’t take too long.

George nodded, and as he looked as his watch, Mary put the first head shot up under the character name of ‘the Butler’. George immediately agreed. “I’ve worked with him before. Excellent choice. Who’s next?”

George had worked with hundreds of actors throughout his career. He was generous to a fault about who he would work with on a play. Remembering his earlier days in acting, he made every effort to assist those actors struggling to make their way in the business. The actor he had just approved for the role of ‘the Butler’ was one of them. George felt good about what he had just done, not just because he had chosen a fine actor for he part, but because the actor he chose was in dire need of a good part.

Mary continued the process, each time putting up a new head shot. If George did not recognize the actor, Mary would give him the actor’s resume. She was even prepared to show video clips if George was hesitant. But the process went quickly. George knew most of the actors, and for those he wasn’t familiar with, he accepted Grant and Mary’s opinion. Until they got to the part of ‘the Sister,” that is. 

George reacted quickly as soon as the head shot was pinned to the board. “Uh, no. Definitely not! Won’t work for me. Sorry. Got another actor? I can’t work with that one,” George said adamantly. He crossed his arms as he looked over to Grant.

Grant looked at Mary and raised his eyebrows. Mary looked down at the resume of the actor George had just rejected and pushed it over to Grant. Nothing was said as Grant appeared to read the actor’s resume. But in reality, Grant was confused by George’s response. It was uncharacteristic, to say the least. He thought for a moment before reacting.

Grant decided to take a stand by this actor and looking back to George said, “She had the part on the London stage for two years to critical acclaim. She is box office, George, and she’s a true professional. I’ve worked with her before, and she’s an absolute delight. Won’t you reconsider?” 

George shook his head and refused.

Grant was about to make another try when Mary interrupted and asked a question. ”George, is it personal with her? Did you have a relationship with her that went bad? Care to share?” 

George slowly rose from his chair and paced a bit before answering Mary. “We knew each other at Yale. We went together for three years and were engaged. Then, out of nowhere, she dumped me and went off to Europe with some other guy. I almost didn’t recover,” he confessed. “I just don’t know how I would react if she suddenly came back into my life. Why take the chance?”

Grant stood up and got closer to George. “I have something to admit, George. It was me she ran off with to Europe. I’ve never told you, but there it is,” he said with a quiver in his voice. “I didn’t know about you. Honest. If I did, I would never have taken up with her.” 

George stood very still while he absorbed what Grant had just related. Then, quietly, he said, “Okay, that makes sense. But I still haven’t forgiven her. It still might affect the production. By the way, what happened between you two anyway?” 

Grant just shrugged and sheepishly admitted that she had run off with some woman while they were living together in Paris. He added that he had lost touch with her, but that he had no lingering problems with her being in the production.

Mary coughed and told the group that she had something to say. “It was me in Paris with her. We met one night after a play and we never looked back. I didn’t know about either of you guys in her past. It just happened,” she confessed. “Our past together has nothing at all to do with me wanting her in this play. She is the right actor for the part, believe me!” 

Grant looked at Mary and with a slightly pleading voice, asked, “What happened between you two?” 

Shrugging, Mary just said that she had just disappeared one weekend and she thought it was with a man, but she wasn’t sure and frankly, she didn’t really care. 

The producer was the only one still sitting at the table. As one, the three of them turned to look at the producer. He stared back, took a deep breath, and slowly said, “What are the odds, huh? Four people with the same woman.” He put his hands palms-down on the table and gradually got up. “I haven’t seen her for years. But you’ve got to admit she must be a hell of an actress, right? She had us all fooled!” 

They all laughed, and George went to the board and put her picture back under the role of “the Sister”.

End

Honey Do List

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It was still dark outside as he lay in bed. His wife was already up and out of the house, on her way to work. He sighed, knowing that she had left him a list of things to do on the side of the refrigerator. She was determined to give his life some structure, some aim, some meaning so that his long hours alone would not be wasted in idle activity. At least that was the plan. He preferred idleness but got out of bed anyway and prepared for a day of carefully planned activity. It was the least he could do to maintain marital stability.

By the time he finished showering and dressing, the sun was nearly up, and he could safely navigate downstairs without turning on too many lights. She had strategically placed the list of things to do so he would have to pass it on his way to get his morning coffee. No missing it, each task clearly spelled-out in magic marker in the recommended order of performance:

  1. Put out garbage. Sort!
  2. Vacuum your car. Don’t forget the trunk.
  3. Feed the alien. Use the food from last night.
  4. Sweep the patio.
  5. Call Ginny about the party Saturday.

When she came home for lunch, she would update the list and would expect the morning activities to be completed. He figured he could finish today’s list in about an hour and still have plenty of free time. As he sat down over his morning coffee, he amused himself with the idea of training the alien to do some of the simpler tasks. He had been thinking about doing something with the damned thing for months, but it was only recently that the idea of using it for something purposeful had become realistic. For one, they could talk to it now. They understood it and it understood them. But, God, if his wife ever found out he used the alien to do household chores, there would be hell to pay. But, still, if she never knew?

He used the hand vac to clean the car without opening the garage. The regular vacuum bothered the alien a lot. Something about the pitch of the motor. So he used the smaller vacuum which didn’t seem to bother their ‘guest’ much. It just curled up in its cage and went back to sleep. He often wondered if it dreamed. His wife seemed disinterested in having anything to do with it and left the day to day maintenance of the alien up to him. So, for most days, it was just him and it. As he finished up with the car, he called over to it and indicated that breakfast was on its way. The alien, still curled up in its bed, raised one hand as if to indicate it understood and would be ready when the food arrived.

Figuring out what to feed it had been a hit and miss affair. Pet food didn’t interest it at all, nor did table scraps. But yogurt worked. So did anything made of tofu. Cold soy noodles drenched in sesame oil were its special treat, but they made him gassy, so they served this only occasionally. It was when it passed gas that they first started to communicate with it. One day after a large plate of noodles, it farted as they watched. Then it said a word and what looked like a smile came across its face. They looked at each other, laughed, and said, “fart”. It looked back at them and repeated the word. From then on, it was one word at a time. They figured it had a vocabulary of maybe a hundred or so English words by now. Probably enough to train him how to sweep the patio.

He picked up the breakfast dishes from the cage and left the cage door open, as well as the door into the house. From the kitchen, he could hear it enter the house and move into the living room. It liked to sit and look out the window onto the patio as the sun warmed the day. He poked his head around the corner and shouted, “Warm enough?” The reply he got was, “Warm enough”. First time it had ever used the word ‘enough’. Interesting, he thought. Maybe if he played his cards right, sweeping the patio would be a thing of the past for him. He grabbed the broom and the dustpan and headed for the living room. As he entered, it was still sitting, staring out onto the patio.

It turned to look at him. He held the broom out in front of him and said, “Broom”. It repeated the word and then pointed to the dustpan. He said, “Dustpan”, and it repeated the word. Then he went about sweeping the living room floor slowly and using the dustpan, all the time watching the alien. It turned away from the window, came over to him and held out its arms. He handed the broom to it and watched it tentatively sweep the floor. It didn’t come naturally to it, but within a minute, it was sweeping up a storm. And using the dustpan!

He opened the patio door, went out and determined that none of the neighbors were watching. He signaled for the alien to come out and asked it to sweep the deck, which it did, expertly. He sat in the chaise lounge, observing, and realized that things around the house were about to change for the better.

After coaxing it back into its cage, he called Ginny about the party on Saturday. As he finished his phone conversation, he heard the garage door open and realized his wife was home for lunch. Right on time! He had learned to say nothing until she had a chance to look around and update the list on the refrigerator. Seemingly satisfied with his progress on the morning list, she added five new tasks for the afternoon before leaving: 

  1. Clean upstairs bathroom.
  2. Hand-wipe wood stairs.
  3. Feed alien. No noodles today!
  4. Clean your workbench.
  5. Organize storage in laundry room.

As the garage door closed and she drove off, he pondered the list. If the alien could do the bathroom and the wood stairs, he could do the workbench and the storage, and they could be done in no time. He went to the garage and opened the cage and returned to the kitchen, where he sat down at the kitchen nook. He watched the alien enter the kitchen as he patted the seat next to him and indicated for it to sit, which it did. He opened the pack and took out its contents as the alien watched closely.

“Okay, we have some free time before we have to go to work,” he explained slowly. The alien indicated he understood.

“So, I’m going to show you a card game. It’s called Poker,” he said, slowly shuffling the new deck.

The alien smiled. He had waited a long time for this.

End

 

 

Writer's Cramp

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The desktop was arranged in the same manner as yesterday and the day before. The small Tiffany lamp was to the left, the phone on the right, his name plate in the center, and a single blank sheet of white paper lay on the ink pad, with a pen nearby. He sat with his hands folded in his lap, patiently staring at the paper, just as he had done for days in a row, waiting for inspiration.

This was a new experience for him, having to wait for the words to come. They had always come easily to him, almost as if the paragraphs were already created in his head, and all he had to do was transcribe the words to paper. But, again today, his frustration continued with no indication when it would end.

It began last week during his brief daily conversation with his wife. She was demanding that he write something unique, something she had never asked for in all their years together. She had somewhat forcibly mentioned that he should get busy now and complete the whole damn thing in a single sitting. He knew that arguing with her about it would only end with more arguing, so he begrudgingly agreed. It was the sort of thing you only write once, so he had never given it much thought until now. He agreed with himself to start first thing the next day and complete it in one sitting. He flirted with the idea of looking at the local paper for examples but decided that was kind of a weird form of plagiarism, particularly given the personal nature of the subject matter. At any rate, he didn’t give it much more thought until the next morning.

He slept well, arose refreshed and committed himself to the task at hand. As usual, he and his wife didn’t speak during breakfast, but he could tell she was somehow going to make sure he followed through on his promise. As he got up from the table, he muttered to himself something about getting down to business in the study, glanced very briefly at his wife, and realized that she was satisfied for the moment. As he walked towards the study, he whistled softly to himself (something he hardly ever did), thinking that this also would placate her. The idea being that a happy man is not a reticent man, so she wouldn't have to check in on her happy man.

As he closed the study door, he almost locked it, but didn’t. He turned and looked at his large desk, located near the high study window. The morning sun was starting to shed into the room. He took a deep breath knowing that this was going to be his home for a while. The well-padded chair was still pushed in against the desk, just the way he left it last Friday. He pulled it out, swiveled it towards himself, and sat down. He was committed now, no turning back. He reached into the lower left drawer, extracted a piece of paper, set it in front of him, and took out his pen she had given him for their anniversary years ago. Resting his hands with the pen on the paper, he waited for the words to come, just as had always done in years of successful writing. But nothing came to him. Not today, and not for endless days of sitting and staring.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have ideas. He did, and some were credible. But he was having trouble with the opening line or lines. Once these were accomplished, he felt certain the rest would flow quickly. But at lunch with his wife, after a fruitless wordless first morning, he could only shake his head when she asked about his progress. Disgusted, she left the table, and this same charade went on at each meal for days. He had never felt so impotent in his life, even given his recent health challenges. And she was unable to give him any suggestions, given her own mental limitations. All he could tell her was that he was trying, really trying. And she kept reminding him that time was running out, fast.

He wasn’t angry, just frustrated. He felt like a sculptor who could see the potential in a piece of stone, but who couldn’t chip off the first piece. There were so much to say, so many important areas to investigate, so much context to develop, but no words came to him. He gave himself one more hour, and if nothing happened, he decided to use some boilerplate language he had seen years ago in the paper. It was anathema for him to use stock phrasing after having avoided it successfully for so many years in his own writings. But the hour came and went, and he was left with no choice. He picked up his pen and slowly wrote the first lines.

“Herbert William Rose and his wife, Ethel Campbell Rose, died suddenly together at their home on April 15, 2018. Family and friends will remember them for their valiant struggle against unrelenting disease, and request that donations be made in lieu of flowers to The National Euthanasia Association.”

The rest of the words came quickly. He knew she would be proud of the result. He put the pages into a large envelope and left it on the ink pad, propped up by his name plate. As he left the study, he turned to look at it for the last time. He smiled and slowly took the long walk upstairs, where his wife was waiting for him in the bedroom, where she had the pillows already arranged.

End

 

The Bell Is Tolling

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He sat alone in the doctor’s waiting room, nervously playing with his phone and watching the receptionist from time to time. The irony was not lost on him that he sat in this same waiting room forty years ago awaiting his own father’s final diagnosis. The place had changed dramatically since then, but now here he was, waiting for his own dreaded news. 

The doctor had requested that his wife accompany him in case the news was bad. It often helped if a loved one was near, the doctor had explained, as the impact could be devastating. She said she couldn’t cope. You have to do this alone, she said. I can’t be there with you for this. He understood, even though it hurt. 

At 10:12, the receptionist looked up and said, ”The doctor will see you now, sir.” 

He breathed deeply and slowly walked towards the door held open by the receptionist. In her hands were his medical records, and her eyes betrayed nothing about what was in them. A slight smile was all he got as he entered the doctor’s office. 

“Please be seated, sir. The doctor will be with you shortly. Do you care for some water or perhaps a nutrient beverage?” she asked matter-of-factly. 

He shook his head as she placed his records on the doctor’s desk. For some reason, as she turned and walked towards the door, she placed her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her face and could tell. It was going to be bad. God, he would give anything to be somewhere else. 

The doctor’s side door opened, and he entered quickly, holding files and a coffee cup. He sat down behind the desk and did not make eye contact for several moments as he arranged the files, the cup, and a picture of his family. Finally, he looked up and asked, “Is your wife with you?”

He shook his head. 

“Okay then, I have rerun the tests performed by Dr. Orlasky and we have the results. I have read Dr. Orlasky’s diagnosis, and I concur with his conclusions. Your condition is terminal, Mr. Weingate.” 

His shoulders slumped, and he stopped breathing momentarily, his eyes staring at nothing in particular as his mind was flooded with the echo of the doctor’s words. For some reason, he remembered his father’s reaction when he heard his bad news. The slight gasp of disbelief, the big arm wrapping around his shoulders and pulling him close, and then the pat on the back as acceptance set in. 

He finally took a deep breath and started talking. “Well, my wife somehow knew this was going to happen and she just couldn’t face it. All I have to ask is why me? I’m one hundred and four years old, I feel and look great. Why am I the one?” 

The doctor closed his file and answered, “The advances in longevity that have taken place since your birth have been nothing less than spectacular. Your wife, for instance, can look forward to a lifespan of somewhere around seven hundred years. And your children, perhaps twice that! But for some, a very few, the advances don’t work as well. At best, you have probably eighty years left, maybe one hundred at the outside. I’m sorry, but the test results are incontrovertible, Mr. Weingate.” 

He sat a little straighter in his chair as the doctor continued, “I would suggest you start to get your affairs in order, and soon. Don’t procrastinate, it will only make things worse.”

He nodded his understanding. 

“And don’t fall into the old traps like drugs, alcohol, religion, or even suicide,” the doctor continued. “Stay focused and take it one day at a time. You’ll be surprised at how your life will become more vibrant, more immediate, more real as a result of this diagnosis. Don’t waste these eighty years. They can be the best of your life!” 

The doctor got up and came out from behind his desk. They hugged, and he was shown to the office door. The receptionist avoided his look as she escorted him out of the office. The last thing he heard was her saying, “We’ll bill you, Mr. Weingate.” 

Alone in the outer hallway, he collected his thoughts. He had not contemplated death since he was sixty-four at his father’s funeral. As all the older people around him died, the concept of death nearly disappeared as the advances in medicine saved the younger generations from its specter. Nobody talked about death anymore. It just didn’t happen. And now this! He dialed his wife on his phone. 

“Oh, God, no!” she cried. “How long did he say?” 

“Eighty, maybe a hundred at the outside.” 

She could be heard breathing heavily as she finally responded, “First, you can’t tell the kids. They won’t understand. You got that! Don’t tell the kids.” He said he agreed. 

“Now, you’re going to have to go someplace to deal with this, okay? We’ll come up with a story about why you’re not around anymore, right? If the word got out about this, it would ruin me and the children. You got that?” she said forcefully. 

“Yes.” 

“I’ll always remember you. But you know how it is. We just don’t deal with this anymore! I have to start over,” she said. He said nothing. 

“Okay, goodbye and good luck. I’ll take care of everything on this end. You’re on your own.” 

As she hung up, he realized for the first time that he was between two worlds. One that was spoken of, and the other that wasn't. A never-never land that few occupied, a land he knew little about. He wiped a tear from his eye, opened the door to the outside, and stepped out. He had no idea what to do next. 

End

Shoal Waters

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The cargo area of the SUV was almost full as the daughter handed the remaining box to her mother. 


“Mom, why does Dad make us do this? I mean, c’mon. Over and over again? Nobody else does it. Why?” the daughter asked with exasperation.

Her mother pushed the box into the vehicle and answered, “He wants us to maintain some semblance of normalcy, some sense of place. He’s explained that to you and your brother, hasn’t he? He doesn’t just want to give up and quit.”

Just then, the son emerged from the house and announced, “Dad says everything that’s staying is on the shelves and he’s sealing the doors and windows. He’ll be out in a minute with the dog.”

The mother closed the rear hatch to the SUV and looked at her watch. She mumbled something about the traffic heading uphill this time of the day, but her daughter couldn’t quite make it out. Just Mom being pissy again, she thought. The boy slid into the back seat and buckled himself in as his sister leaned in and asked, “What do you think about this? I mean, twice a day? Does it make any sense?” The boy just shrugged and played with his phone and hummed to himself.

The mother told the daughter to get in the back seat and then honked the horn twice. It was time to go, but as usual her husband was pushing it to the limit. She could just make out his movements inside the house as she grumbled something about normalcy being overrated. The car radio was tuned to the Emergency frequency and the announcer was saying something about the water already entering downtown and rising quickly.

She honked the horn three more times and was almost ready to go back to the house when her husband emerged with the dog in tow. He was smiling as he sprayed Flex Seal around the front door and headed for the car. The mother slid into the passenger seat and closed her door. She looked back at the kids and satisfied herself that they were safe before she checked herself out in the rear-view mirror. God, she thought, I look like shit!

He gave the dog to his son through the side window and looked back towards the house before getting into the car.

“Okay, all set. Sorry I’m running late. I slipped on a wet spot in the kitchen, but I’ll be alright,” he said. He looked at his wife and asked, “Where’s the water now?”

She looked straight ahead and coldly answered, “If we don’t leave right this second, we won’t make it through the intersection.” The daughter put her head in her hands in the back seat and shook her head side to side. Without looking up from his phone, the boy leaned forward and tapped his father on the shoulder and indicated with his finger to get going.

The father chuckled and remarked, "Portland at high tide with climate change. What are you gonna do?" He slowly backed the car out of the driveway and turned to head towards the main road and the intersection.

As he turned onto the main road he checked out the house through the mirror one last time. He could just make out the water mark of the earlier high tide on the side of the house. Damn, he thought to himself, almost up to the porch light! When it hits the roof vents, we're screwed.

End

Branson Bound

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“Come on, honey, the taxi is waiting!"

“Okay, two secs,” she answered breathlessly.

The taxi driver put the last suitcase in the trunk, crossing his arms, and shot a look at the husband.

“Just a minute. She’s always like this,” the husband said, apologetically.

The driver got in the taxi, closed the door and started the car. He could see the wife shutting and locking the front door of the house. The husband held the back door of the taxi open for his wife as she hurried down the walk.

The husband, closing the taxi door as his wife slid into the back seat, said, “We can just make it if we hurry, driver.” He looked nervously at his wife.

“I wouldn’t mind a bit if we missed this flight, you know,” she said sarcastically.

“Honey, we’ve discussed this for weeks. Come on, let’s just enjoy the trip, okay?” the husband said. 

She didn’t waste any time in responding, “Ever since the election, all you said you wanted was to visit the center of ‘fly over country’, remember?”

He didn’t say anything. The taxi driver looked in the rear view mirror and caught his gaze.

“Look, the country is changing. It’s time we learn about what’s happening in the midland, right? We’ll have a great time. You’ll love it,” the husband answered.

She didn’t hesitate. “Give me a break, will you? We don’t belong with those people. They just don’t get it, okay. I’m sorry, honey, but you just don’t get it, too.”

He said nothing for a few minutes. Finally, he leaned forward in his seat and said to the driver, “Let’s go back to where you picked us up”.

The driver looked in his rear-view mirror and responded, “No problem. Maybe next time."

Generation Gap

The three of them sat on the front porch of the old farmhouse in the coolness of the late summer evening. The corn crop out front rustled in the light breeze as the boys focused on their smartphones and Grandpa fussed with his pipe. 

Finally getting the pipe started again, the old man puffed away for a bit as he watched his two grandsons lost in their digital worlds. He thought for a moment, put down his pipe, and spoke slowly to them for the first time since supper.

“You know, boys, there’s a big world out there. And what seems like a well-controlled, orderly state of things is actually something quite different. Things are much more random and dangerous than you might think!” he mused. The boys seemed to hear him but did not respond.

“Take that cornfield out there. Looks pretty orderly, right? Everything in neat rows, ready for harvest. Nature pretty well under control, huh?” he added. The boys continued tapping on their phones.

“Well, let me tell you a story about what really goes on in those cornfields. And it’s not at all what it seems,” Grandpa continued. “I was just a kid, out in the corn with my two dogs, Buck and Jenny, one summer. They were up ahead while I was walking along one of the corn levees between two wet checks. Your great grandfather had just finished irrigating the field, and there was a lot of deep mud out there, mind you!”

“Anyway, I had a hoe to deal with any morning glory I found, and I was just as happy as could be when I heard the dogs barking wildly up ahead,” he said. “They were into something, but I didn’t know what until I see this skunk headed down the levee towards me just as sure as you’re sitting here, boys.”

“Well, if that skunk ran up against me I just knew what would happen, so I jumped out of the way into the muck, and sunk up to me knees in that stuff,” Grandpa said, chuckling to himself. “Damn, I struggled for quite a while trying to get out, and nearly got bit by one of those big snakes they got out there in the corn. And rats, too, the size of cats! That hoe probably saved my life. I’ll tell you, boys, by the time I got back home, I was a real mess. And that gave everybody a real laugh for days.”

He looked over at the boys who were still engrossed in their phones, and he continued, “And that’s why I say that things are not always as they seem. No sir, not under control at all. Not safe at all. Just seems that way.”

The boys were seemingly disinterested in what their Grandpa had related. There was no indication that they had heard or understood what had been said. Grandpa thought about this for a moment, and then added as a footnote, “And I remembered that situation every day of my life, even that day in Dallas when I shot the President.” He closely watched the boys for any response.

The boys looked up, and one of them off-handedly asked, “What’s morning glory, Grandpa?”
"It's a scourge that has to be ripped up by its roots or it will ruin everything, and the earlier the better," Grandpa answered, coldly recalling a distant past.

"Okay, Grandpa, great talking with you. Fun story. You'll have to tell us again, though. We were sort of distracted and didn’t hear everything."

As the two boys got up and entered the farmhouse, Grandpa rose from his rocking chair slowly, his clear steely-blue eyes slightly squinting as he stared at a point on the edge of the corn field. He muttered to himself, "Badger, two-hundred and ninety meters give or take a meter, wind west at 5, humid . . . piece of cake." With that, he reached for his hand-crafted rifle and started to slow his breathing.

Source Material

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The Writer bent down and collected the morning mail that had just come through the slot in the door. He slowly straightened up, being careful not to strain his lower back, and sorted the mail as he walked towards the kitchen. One letter caught his attention.

It was hand-addressed, not local, and from someone whose name he didn’t recognize. It had been a long time since he had received any fan mail, a long time! He put the rest of the mail aside, sat down, and opened the letter. Fan mail was always a good way to start the day.

"Mr. Lewis, 
Years ago, when I was a college student, I was up against a deadline in my English Composition course. I needed a short
story or I would flunk the class. I saw one of your stories, "Love Me Last", posted on social media, and I stole it. I made enough changes so that it looked like something I would write. I got a C+ on the story and passed the class. But, I’ve felt guilty for years, so I am writing this to you as an apology. I am an alcoholic in recovery, and as part of my treatment, I am contacting the people in my life who I have wronged. I hope you accept my apology.

Gary Spaulding”


The Writer recalled that short story well. It was the reason the New York agent had called him and asked if he would be interested in professional representation. It was the reason he won numerous awards, made a fortune, and was adored by millions of readers. It was also the story that he himself had stolen from another author.

The Writer was living in Albuquerque at that time, working part-time in a shabby little bookstore. Most of his time was spent sorting used books and magazines, pricing them, and placing them in the shelves. From time to time, he would read something that caught his attention.

He recalls the moment he read "Western Waters", a short story by Wilbur Roblett. It had been written in 1910 and published in an obscure, now-defunct literary magazine. He read and reread the story. The impact it had on him was profound. He took the magazine home with him that night and wrote "Love Me Last" in one sitting, confident that no one would ever connect his story to Roblett's story. And he had been right, but it always bothered him.

Not expecting Roblett to still be alive, the Writer checked him out on Wikipedia and discovered that he died in 1976, had a middling career as a writer, but that his daughter was still alive and lived nearby. He sighed, but decided it was time for him to confront his literary theft and confess to Roblett's daughter. Nobody would care, but it would be the right thing to do. He picked up his phone.

"Of course, Mr. Lewis, I know who you are," Rhonda Roblett responded. "So nice of you to call and inquire about my father's work."

"Well, I've struggled with what I am about to tell you for years. But, do you recall a story your father wrote titled "Western Waters"?" the Writer asked hesitantly.

"Oh, yes. He wrote that when he was very young, and it started his career. Not many people know about that story today, though. What was it about that story that interests you, Mr. Lewis?"

"Well, the story was remarkable, especially for such a young writer, wouldn't you agree?" the Writer asked, hesitating to come out and just tell her the real purpose of his phone call.

"Mr. Lewis, we're both adults here. I think we both know what's going on here, don't we?" she responded pointedly.

"Yes," said the Writer, cautiously.

"Okay, well, Dad stole that story. You have obviously figured that out by now, or otherwise why would you be calling, right? He's dead now, so there's no reason to hide the truth anymore," she continued, sounding relieved. "I feel better now that it's out in the open. He stole it from a story titled "Bitter Water", written in 1876. What do you intend to do with this information, Mr. Lewis?" she asked tentatively.

"Oh, nothing, I was just checking some details from the past, and it came up sort of unexpectedly," the Writer added, relieved.

Ms. Roblett came back on the phone and added, "But Dad didn't really feel so bad about what he did, Mr. Lewis."

The Writer was puzzled and asked, "And why was that, Ms. Roblett?"

She chuckled as she responded, "Well, he did some checking and found that the author who wrote "Bitter Water" stole it from somebody who wrote a story titled "Everybody Wins" in 1834! Can you believe that, Mr. Lewis? Unbelievable!" 

Suspicious Activity Report

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The evening light was dim, but she could still make out what they were doing. There were at least three of them, young, playing by the big tree at the corner. One was a lookout, while the others silently went through the motions of some long-forgotten game. It only lasted for a few moments, but it was enough time for the old lady to recognize the boys. 

She closed the narrow opening in the draperies and sat down in the one chair she still owned. It only took her a few seconds to send in The Report on her phone; she’d done it many times before. 

Her report was queued with the others sent in at about the same time. The program prioritized the incoming reports and the most important were dispatched immediately with instructions to mobile units. Her report, categorized as “Priority 1-Prohibited Group Activity”, resulted in five mobile units converging on the big tree within minutes of receipt of her report. 

The boys were rounded-up and processed for reprogramming, while the old woman received fifty bonus points credited towards her Community Penalty File, which lowered her total to two-hundred points. 

The old woman went back to her draperies and continued to peer out into the darkness. Maybe someone would try to walk their dog tonight. That was worth twenty points. 

End 

The Piano Lesson

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The father stood on the second-floor stoop, knocked on the door again, and waited with his son for the teacher to come to the door. The Viennese weather was clear and brisk, typical for this time of year, and the boy shivered slightly as the door opened. 

“Herr teacher, good morning and thank you for agreeing to interview my son for piano lessons. May we come in?” the father asked.

“Of course, please enter. Forgive the clutter. I have been busy composing. But I look forward to listening to your son this morning. We will soon see if he has the talent to proceed with his training,” the teacher said.

The cramped second-story apartment was dominated by the piano, and shabby even by lower-class standards. The father helped the son remove his coat and draped it over a nearby chair, being careful to avoid the food scraps and wine bottles left on the chair. Had this instructor not come so highly recommended, the father would have left immediately with his son, given what he was now seeing. But, it was rumored that the teacher was a genius, and any student of his would surely benefit greatly.

The teacher explained, "Today, I will listen to your son, and afterwards, I will discuss with you his talent level and whether I agree to continue with lessons. Is that still agreed?"

"Yes, of course. I will return in, say, half an hour or so," the father answered. He turned to his son and looking down, said, "Pay full attention to Herr teacher, do as he says, and perform at your best. Your future depends upon it!" With that, the father left, and the son stood alone in the middle of the apartment.

"Come, sit. We will begin," the teacher stated, patting the piano bench. The boy nervously slid in next to the teacher, his hands to his side.

"Now you will warm-up for a few minutes. Perform the following just as I am doing," the teacher said, playing C-D-E-F-G and then G-F-E-D-C using 1-2-3-4-5 and 5-4-3-2-1 fingering beginning at middle C, one hand at a time. As the boy commenced to warm up, the instructor rose from the bench and tapped the floor with his cane.

The teacher closely watched the boy for a few moments. Even now it was clear to him that the child had no talent and could not possibly benefit from further training. But, his mistakes were intriguing. They were not common mistakes of child pianists. Instead, they were almost magical blunders and as the teacher listened closely, he started to compose a piece based upon these very mistakes. By the time the child had finished his first warm-up exercises, the teacher had finished a composition in his mind.

"Fine. Now we proceed to scales," the instructor ordered. He showed the student how to start with the major scale on middle C, focusing on each hand individually and then together. Again, the student was left alone at the piano with his instructions, while the teacher strode about the apartment, tapping the floor with his cane. And again, the child's mistakes were so profoundly different than his other student's mistakes that they sparked a creative response in the teacher. And again, his mind launched into a new composition, exciting, provocative, and difficult.

The child looked at the teacher and said, "I have finished, sir. What do you want me to do next?" The teacher was wrenched from his reverie and walked over to the piano, just as there was a knock on the door. It was the father, returning. The teacher quickly jotted down a few bars on a sheet of paper before hurrying to the door to let the father in.

The teacher and the father spoke for a few moments, at the end of which the father paid the teacher and thanked him. He collected his son and left abruptly.

Out on the street, the child looked up at his father and asked innocently, "Will I return for lessons, father?"

"My boy, we will find a more appropriate teacher for you. That swine had the impudence to suggest that you had no talent! Can you imagine that?" the father bellowed.

The child walked in silence, his head down.

"And while he refused to give you lessons, he said he would like to listen to you warm-up for free! Can you imagine the gall of the man! No, son, there will be no more contact with young Herr van Beethoven, that's for sure. What a fool!"

End

Coin of the Realm

He put down his coffee cup and answered the phone. He knew who it was. “Did you serve the search warrant?” he asked.

“Yeah, and we found the computer, just where the informant said it would be. I’m on the way to forensics with it now. We should know more in about an hour.”

He hung up the phone, put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, grinning. This case had been the most challenging in his career as a detective, and seizure of the computer tonight had the potential of breaking the case. The suspect had lawyered-up almost immediately after they started questioning him five months ago, and it looked like he might walk until they got the tip about the computer. He couldn’t wait to tell the assistant district attorney the news.

Almost an hour later, the phone rang again. “Jake, they can’t get into the guy’s files. The computer has been taken over by some hacker who’s demanding a big ransom to release control of the thing. Forensics say they’re stuck. What do you want to do?” His partner’s frustration was obvious, even over the phone.

“What’s the ransom?” he asked.

“The hacker wants $50,000.”

“Jesus. Let me talk to Wilkes, will you?” The detective waited until the forensics technician could be put on the phone.

Wilkes spoke slowly as he laid out the situation, “Jake, sorry about this, but it happens. No way into this guy’s hard drive as of now. By the way, we’ve traced the hacker to a computer in Albania. My guess, he’s connected to organized crime there. I talked to my contact at NSA and he verified it. No tickee, no washee, sorry.”

“Okay, Wilkes, thanks. Put Jerry back on the phone, will you?”

“Yeah, Jake, what do you want me to do?” his partner asked.

“Nothing until I get back. I’m going to make a quick trip to Albania. Maybe I can work a deal with this hacker, who knows?” Jake answered.

There was a momentary silence on the other end of the phone. Then Jerry cautioned him, “Jake, that’s the wild west over there. You’ve got no protection, and you don’t know the situation. Are you sure? It’s dangerous, partner.”

“Don’t worry, Jerry. I learned a little Albanian from my maternal grandmother. I’ll be alright. Give me ten days. If you don’t hear from me after that, send in the cavalry. Fingers crossed, partner,” he said, hanging up the phone gently.

Jake knew more than a little Albanian. And he had relatives there. He picked up the phone and dialed an international number. An older man answered and spoke in Albanian. He agreed that Jake would be picked up at the airport and driven directly to the Albanian’s home. Before hanging up, the old man said in halting English, “Is good you come, Jake. I take good care.”

It was late Thursday night before Jake got his luggage and left the airport, heading towards the old Albanian’s home. He wasn’t followed and to anyone interested, he was just another foreigner visiting the country on pleasure. The car sped through the countryside along narrow roads, only occasionally meeting other cars, until the driver pulled off the road and drove up a steep winding driveway, blinking his headlights twice. He turned his head and told Jake they had arrived, but for him to wait in the car until security had a chance to clear the car.

An efficient team went over the car quickly, presumably looking for explosives or hidden weapons. The door opened, and the old Albanian stood with his arms open and a wide smile on his face. They hugged energetically, and Jake was whisked quickly into the house by the security team.

The old Albanian, named Adrian, directed Jake to a quiet study, where the two hugged again. Jake expressed admiration at the professionalism of Adrian’s organization. “Well, Jake, the country is run by organized crime and we have to be careful,” he said, speaking slowly in Albanian.

“Okay, Adrian, what do you have on my hacker?” Jake asked, getting right to the point.

“Ah, Americans. Always direct, yes. The hacker is freelance, loosely connected to a crime family. He is protected by them, but not a member. If the ransom were to be paid, he would kick-back maybe 20% to the family. We know where he lives, and can get you in, but getting you out could be very dangerous. Are you still interested?

Without hesitation, Jake answered, “Definitely. I just want a few minutes with him. But it has to be a surprise visit. No warning. I won’t be armed, and I won’t threaten him. No rough stuff. I’ve got an idea for a deal, but I won’t know if it will work until I’m in the room with him and have a look around. Just give me ten minutes alone with him, then get me out.”

 

Adrian put his arm around Jake’s shoulder and answered, “Jake, get some rest. We’ll arrange everything for tomorrow night. Don’t worry, ten minutes, no problem.”

The hacker's apartment was on the sixth floor of a run-down apartment house near downtown. Adrian’s men were posted on the ground floor and the sixth floor and verified that the apartment was occupied. Jake tried the door knob; it was locked. He used his tools to pick the lock and quietly entered the hacker’s apartment. A low light emanated from a room at the end of the hall, and Jake could hear the gentle clicking of a computer keyboard. Fast food wrappers, cookie boxes, and an assortment of other food packaging littered the floor as Jake slowly made his way towards the light. He caught the hacker completely by surprise and was out of the apartment in seven minutes flat.

Back in the U.S., Jake settled into his chair for the first time in five days. It felt good, he told Jerry, who was sitting across the desk from him. Jerry was obviously excited, and after offering Jake a cigarette, said, “Okay, partner. We got into the computer and our suspect is toast. Good job. Ready to tell your old partner how you did it? 

Jake shrugged and said, “No big deal. I just figured out what was more important to the guy than money. Made him an offer, and he went for it. You know, in that part of the world, money is easy to come by, but some things are really scarce. Precious, you know what I mean, Jer?”

“Not really, partner. I mean, I checked your expense account for the whole trip. I couldn’t wait to see what the Lieutenant had authorized to buy this guy off. But nothing really stood out. Just some cigarettes, and, oh yeah, four dozen Krispy Kreme donuts FedExed in from Greece. Come on Jake, what was it you gave this guy, really?”

Jake just smiled and leaned back in his chair.

Honeymoon Rebuild

It was 1969, and we were broke and in love, so we decided to do what a lot of people do in that situation. We got married. My mother-in-law loaned us her new Chevy Chevelle for our honeymoon, and off we went, headed for Mexico and our future together. On the way home, with all 250 cubic inches of that little Chevy humming along somewhere between Tijuana and Tehachapi, my new wife looked over at me and said, “Len, let’s buy this from Mom when we get back. Can you imagine having our honeymoon car in the garage for the rest of our lives? What memories!” That was all it took. My mother-in-law agreed, gave us a great deal on the car, and we couldn’t have been happier.

We used that little ‘69 Chevy for years until we could afford to replace it. By then, it had accumulated huge mileage, so we just parked it in the garage, washed it every so often, and only occasionally brought it out for special occasions, like anniversaries or my wife’s infrequent road trips with her friends. The memory of our honeymoon in that little car was renewed every time we drove it, and it was an unhappy day when the car couldn't be driven except for very short trips. For the next fifteen years, it basically just sat there, rusting away, seldom driven, with neither of us knowing what to do about it.

Fortune smiled on us during those years, and one day I suggested to my wife that we should rebuild the little Chevelle to its original condition. It would be expensive, but we could afford it, and what fun it would be having that little car to drive around. And our friends would know it was really a recommitment to our relationship, not just a renovation. Sheila agreed, tearing up a bit as she recalled how her recently departed mother had sold them the car after their honeymoon. We hugged for several minutes in the kitchen and then excitedly started discussing how to go about the rebuild.

She suggested that our friend Charlie do the work because he knew and loved the car, and he was a meticulous guy. We called him, and he readily agreed, as long as his bad back didn’t act up. Charlie also agreed to do the work in our garage, and we roughed out the budget and timeline and his fee. As I hung up the phone, I grinned at my wife and said that we had a deal! She was thrilled and couldn’t stop talking about the car for the next hour or so.

Charlie took over the garage for the rebuild, bringing in his tools and other items he would need. For the next few weeks, Charlie’s radio could be heard all day long, blaring out vintage rock as he worked alone on the car. Each night, he would clean up and take his beer empties home with him, only infrequently talking to me about the small problems that typically came up from time to time. By the end of week three, the engine was out and at the rebuilders, as was the transmission. The doors had been removed, and Charlie had taken out the seats and sent them off to the upholsterer. I caught up with him as he was cleaning up for the weekend. As I approached him, he looked around to see if we were alone and then said, “Len, I found these things under the back seat. Look, it’s none of my business, but I thought you should see them.” He handed me a paper bag, shook his head, turned and left for the weekend. 

I took the bag to the workbench and emptied it. It was obvious why Charlie had been so circumspect. I just stared at the items, knowing full well the implications they presented to my marriage. They were fairly fresh and had obviously not been under the seat for very long. The only question for me was whether I should confront Sheila with them, or whether I should destroy them and live with the knowledge. I knew Charlie would say nothing, but what was happening really made me rethink the whole idea of rebuilding the little Chevy as a tribute to our "enduring" relationship.

That night, after dinner, I retreated to my chair in the front room. Sheila followed me, and as I sat down, she confronted me, saying, “Okay, Len. You’ve been brooding all evening. What is it?”

I said nothing as I reached into my pocket and handed her the contents of the paper bag. She slowly looked at them, then put her arms down to her side and cautiously asked, “Who in the hell gave you these?” Her eyes were welling up with tears.

I looked directly at her and said, “Charlie did. They were under the back seat of the Chevelle. What should I think? Is it true?”

“Would you believe me if I told you it wasn't?”

I didn’t answer. She made a good point.

“Okay, it’s true. I shouldn’t have hidden it from you, but I did. I know how devastating this must be. But see my side of it. You have been taking me for granted for years. I had become just an appendage of you. I needed to be me for once!” As she wiped the tears from her cheek, she haltingly added, "It was only that one time, Len."

As I slowly got out of my chair, I reached out to her and held her closely, and as she sobbed for the first time in years, I comforted her. Then, I gently took the items from her hand and threw them into the roaring fireplace.

“I understand now, honey. I get it. But next time you decide to vote for a Republican for president, please, think about what you’re doing first and don't bring the evidence home, whatever you do.”

End 

 

Class Reunion

The jeweler took out his loop, put the ring on the counter, and politely addressed the customer, “I can give you $3,000 for the ring, but if you’ll let me remove the diamond and take a closer look, I might be able to give you more.”

The customer, an older man, was adamant, “No, I’ll take the $3,000.”

“Very well, sir, just let me get the money together, and prepare the bill of sale,” the jeweler responded. Then, as an aside, he added, “You’re sure you don’t want me to take a closer look for perhaps a significantly higher amount, Mr. . . . , uh, I didn’t catch your name?”

“Cramers the name, and no, and let’s make it snappy, okay.” It was apparent the customer was in a hurry.

After a few minutes, the paperwork was signed, the money was handed over, and the transaction was complete. The jeweler stood behind his counter, carefully watching the customer as he left the shop, and waited until the door closed before angrily muttering under his breath, “You son of a bitch, after all these years. You come in here, push me around, and don’t even acknowledge that I was one of your students.”

It had been twenty-seven years since the jeweler had graduated from high school, but not a day went by that he didn’t remember the years of brutal harassment from his teacher, Mr. Cramer. There were only about a hundred students at his small high school, and only four teachers. But Mr. Cramer had taken a special interest in tormenting him, whether it was in the classroom or on the athletic field, where Mr. Cramer was also a coach. It had got so bad at one point that the young student had even contemplated dropping out. But he stuck to it, took the daily humiliation, and graduated. And while the scars of the brutally unfair treatment at the hands of Mr. Cramer were still with him, he never really contemplated doing anything about it. That was about to change.

He closed the shop early, giving his five employees some excuse. Quickly driving to his expensive penthouse apartment where he lived alone with his cat, he sat down with a stiff drink and his high school yearbook. Slowly, he turned to each dog-eared page, the ones showing pictures of him. A gaunt, lost youth stared back at him from each page. The pictures showed only the one-dimensional results of Cramer’s actions. He wept slowly as the fear and anguish of those days flooded back into his awareness. He knew that Cramer had stolen from him something that couldn’t be replaced. Cramer had stolen his youth and as a result, he never married, never had children, never had friends and devoted his entire existence to his successful jewelry business in downtown Chicago. Closing the yearbook, he wiped his eyes, finished his drink, and got busy planning on how to deal with Mr. Cramer once and for all.

Being in the jewelry business was essentially a sales job. To be successful, a jeweler had to be able to read people. The jeweler prided himself on that skill, and he figured Cramer as an elderly, poor, lonely man, living frugally in a big city without too many years to live. He justified what he planned to do as being no big loss to humanity. His plan was simple, as are most good plans. Cramer would receive a call from him in a few days saying that the jeweler had resold the ring for much more than he had anticipated, and that he wanted to share his windfall with Cramer. Could they meet at some place, say a bar, where he could deliver an additional $2,000? It would set his mind at ease, he would add.

Cramer was cranky on the phone but agreed to meet the jeweler at a dive neighborhood bar around the corner from Cramer’s apartment. The meet was set for 10:00 p.m. next Thursday evening. It was the jeweler’s plan to kill Cramer in the parking lot before he entered the bar, but not before letting Cramer know who was doing the killing.

The jeweler scouted the bar for several nights, making sure there were no cameras, and determining the best place to lay in wait for his prey. For the first time in his adult life, he felt a surge of self-confidence, a powerful feeling he savored as he reviewed his plan over and over again. He made small changes by perfecting his getaway, disposal of the gun, and establishment of an airtight alibi. Finally, Thursday night came, and he was surprised how calm and determined he was, a far cry from the frightened, awkward man of a few weeks ago. Who would suspect a meek downtown jeweler with a trouble-free history of such an act? It was going to be perfect.

The jeweler knew Cramer would be walking from his apartment to the bar. There was only one entrance to the bar and that was from the rear parking lot which was dimly lit, although the jeweler planned to knock out another light just before ten o’clock. He could just barely see a lonely figure approaching the bar way down the street, so he broke the light and carefully hid behind the dumpster in wait. As the figure approached, the jeweler removed his silenced pistol from his jacket, checking it once more. He could hear the footsteps now, but they were getting fainter, not louder. He peered around the dumpster and saw the figure walk past the bar on the sidewalk into the darkness of the street. Just then he felt a gun pressed up against his head.

“Well, Johnson, we meet again. Thought you’d have your little revenge, didn’t you, you sniveling little twerp,” the familiar hated voice announced. “Drop the gun now, dipshit!” The jeweler dropped his pistol and slowly turned around to face Cramer. Shaking almost uncontrollably now, the jeweler could only stare at the pistol Cramer was pointing at him. He was speechless, scared to death.

“I didn’t forget about you, Johnson. I haven’t forgotten about any of my special projects,” Cramer proudly stated. “You were just one of them. I had one for each class for almost fifteen years. Sixty little wimps, just like you.”

“I couldn’t teach forever, but I knew that many of my little projects, like you, would seek revenge someday. It gave me hope that my retirement wouldn’t be without some excitement.”

The jeweler could just make out the gleam in Cramer’s eyes.

“It’s the same with all of you idiots. I show up one day years later, pretending not to remember you. All the memories flood back in, and you start planning my demise. I took immense pleasure watching you over the last several nights casing out this joint. You might even find some solace in that you’re the thirty-seventh. Well, anyway, adios, Johnson.” With that, Cramer shot the jeweler in the head , took his watch and wallet, and slowly walked away.

He always kept a souvenir. He thought he deserved them after years of faithful service as a high school teacher.

 

A Story for the Children

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The old house on the lake was the perfect place to ride out the latest winter storm that was fiercely lashing the southern Oregon coast. It was built with large, hand-hewn timbers and field stone, and as the builder had often said, it was like a plough horse, tall, wide, and strong in all the right places. While the electricity had been out for several hours, the inhabitants were warmed by the fire in the huge fireplace that dominated the living-room, and which sent heat and a low, flickering light throughout the living- room and into the adjacent kitchen.

Grandma sat in her large, comfortable chair, quietly knitting and occasionally sipping cold tea from the large mug on the nearby table. Her two granddaughters played together with their dolls on the plank floor near the hearth, totally unaware of the storm’s fury outside. Their mother toiled in the dimly lit kitchen, almost out of earshot, knowing that grandma was watching her children closely.

Grandma stopped knitting when she heard her daughter say something from the kitchen. She responded, “What was that, honey? I didn’t hear you very well. The rain, you know.”

Her daughter poked her head around the corner and said, “What I said, Mom, was why don’t you tell the girls one of your stories about the old days here. You know, a little local history. We’re going to be here for a while before Mark returns. What do you say?”

Grandma nodded and motioned for the girls to come over by her feet. “Come, girls, grandma is going to tell you a story.” The two girls bundled up their dolls, and crawled over to grandma’s chair, giggling in anticipation.

“Grandma, why do you wear a baseball cap all the time?” one of the girls asked innocently.

“I just love my baseball, dear, and it makes me feel like I’m sitting in the stadium watching the game.”

“Mom says it isn’t very ladylike, grandma,” the other girl remarked with a grin.

“Well, we can talk about that later. But now, grandma wants to tell you the story about the “Donner Party”, girls.”

From the kitchen, she could hear her daughter yelling, “Mother, NO!”

Grandma reacted calmly, saying “Okay, okay, not that one. How about the one about the four local men who got into trouble with giant jellyfish while swimming just beyond the surf line?”

The daughter’s reaction from the kitchen was swift and sharp, “Mom, either tell the girls a suitable story, or they will have to go to bed RIGHT NOW!”

Grandma waited for a moment before continuing, “Well, girls, I guess it’s time you learned how Cream Puffs first arrived in southern Oregon, hundreds of years ago!” She waited to see how the girls and her daughter would react. With no comments coming from the kitchen, and with the girls raptly looking up at her, she decided she had the go-ahead to tell the story.

“A long time ago, there was a big storm like the one tonight. A Russian ship was blown off course and had to anchor near the river mouth to make repairs. They were explorers, sent by the Russian Tsar to find new sources of wealth, like seals and walrus.”

One of the girls asked, “What’s a Tsar, grandma?”

“Well, he was the all-powerful ruler of Russia. And he had sent his grandson along on the voyage as his personal representative in case the explorers needed to negotiate sealing rights. And he sent his personal chef, too, to make sure his grandson ate well on the voyage.”

The girls were nearly motionless as grandma continued, “One day, the Captain, the Tsar’s grandson, the chef, and a landing party went ashore to cut wood for repairs and to scout the area for seals. Instead, they encountered a group of local Indians, and there was a brief, but violent, battle. The grandson and the chef were taken prisoner by the Indians and held hostage for ransom.”

“What’s ransom, grandma?” asked one of the girls.

“It’s like if I took your doll and said you couldn’t have it back unless you gave me something valuable in return,” grandma answered. The child nodded that she understood.

“Anyway, negotiations for the release of the grandson didn’t go well, and the Indians were just about ready to do away with the grandson and the chef when something amazing happened!”

“What, grandma, what?” the girls shouted in unison.

“The chef made Cream Puffs for the Indians, girls. He used what he had when he was taken prisoner, and the Indians had never tasted anything like it before. They decided to spare the grandson and the chef, but they never returned them. The ship went back to Russia without them.” She stopped, smiled and waited for the girl’s response.

Instead, her daughter, who was also listening from around the corner, said, “That was wonderful, grandma. I’m sure the girls loved it. Now, whether it’s true, well . . .”

Just then, the front door opened, and a rush of wind swept through the house as Mark entered and quickly closed the door.

“I’m home, everybody! What a storm! I got dessert.”

“Daddy, daddy, what did you get?” the girls excitedly shouted as they ran to meet their father.

“Cream puffs, of course. We always have cream puffs from Sergie’s Bakery when there’s a big storm, remember?”, he said, putting down the box and shaking the rain off his hat and coat.

Grandma slowly got up from her chair and hugged her son-in-law. “How is old Sergie these days, Mark? Still hard to understand?”

“Oh, yeah, grandma. What a strange mixture he is, part Russian, part Indian. How did that happen?”

Grandma just smiled and returned to her knitting.

Ground Control

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Capt. Rey took a deep breath, adjusted his headset, and spoke slowly and distinctly, “Houston, this is Ranger 3, we have landed on Mars. It is 09:42:33 GMT, 5 March, 2034. New worlds and new hope."

He turned to his co-pilot, smiled, gave him a thumbs-up, and said, “Major, commence routine shutdown procedure.”

“Roger, Captain. By the way, did Houston ever get back to us on the orbital parameters we requested for the return trip?”

“Yes, Major, they’re in the database and ready to use. Anxious to get home?”

The Major laughed as he took off his headset and began the shutdown procedure. Capt. Rey remained at his console, double-checking his fuel numbers 

Without warning, the Major poked the Captain’s shoulder. Rey took off his headset and looked at him.

“Captain, did you just hear what I heard?”

Rey shook his head and answered, “What are you talking about, Major? I didn’t hear anything." Then, with a grin, he added, " You’re not coming apart on me, are you?”

The Major was adamant. “No, wait, Captain. Now, there it is again. A knocking on the hatch. Did you hear it?”

Rey nodded, assumed a serious demeanor, and turned on the video display to the exterior hatch. Both men watched as the figure knocked again on the hatch.

Capt. Rey activated the PA system and hesitantly asked, “Who are you? What do you want?”

The figured looked up at the video camera and responded, “You don’t know me. I’m Jim Ames, 3rd unit director from Studio B. Mr. Spielberg took ill an hour ago, so I’m handling the shoot. We have a major technical problem, so I’m calling an early lunch.”

Rey looked at the Major, shook his head, and chuckled, “It’s getting harder and harder to fake these landings, isn’t it?”

 

 

 

Gun Control

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The loaded pistol sat on the table in front of him next to a half-empty vodka bottle. He had always kept the gun locked away and only brought it out to clean it every so often. It was only for self-protection he had told himself all these years. But now it was going to be used for something different, something he had never contemplated until now.

Nobody in his family had ever taken their own life, much less the life of another. It was something that always happened to others, especially the weak ones. The obituaries always dealt with it in their own way. “So-and-so died unexpectedly at the age of 28.” The actual act was only discussed later in whispers. “Can you imagine the mess? And the shock when they opened the door?” And now it was legal in many states, and the stigma wasn’t quite as harsh as it used to be. But still, he thought, this one was going to shock the community.

The last few months had been horrific. The accusations came suddenly and without warning, and they were detailed and believable. At first, he thought the denials would be enough, especially when they were videotaped and shown on the local news. But police reports were filed, and the follow-up investigations had unearthed additional victims who themselves came forward. Nobody believed the denials anymore, and the town’s blood was up for retribution. There was no mistaking what was coming. A messy trial, salacious press coverage, endless shame, and ultimately prison. Even the lawyers were pessimistic under the circumstances.

He thought about his marriage and his children. He and his wife had always been stalwarts in the community, with children who mirrored their parent’s virtues. His pride ran deep when he reflected upon the years of upright living and the successes of his children as they matured and had children of their own. It was with those grandchildren that the problems emerged. It was inconceivable how such acts could have been perpetrated on those innocents, but they were, and on others. He had no excuse for what happened, nor had he any explanation for the impulses that drove the actions.

The revelations had torn his family apart. His wife, shocked, horrified, and repulsed, had retreated into mind-numbing medication. She sat alone most of the day, looking at family pictures and often sobbing. His daughters could do little except stroke their mother’s hair and talk softly to her. His wife was inconsolable and not likely to recover from the shock. While they cared for his wife, his daughters left him alone. They seldom spoke to him and showed little emotion when they did. It was understandable, given the circumstances.

As the trial date neared, he drew closer to his oldest son. They often talked at length together in the small bedroom upstairs, their frank discussions somehow alleviating the guilt and shame for a while. Blame wasn’t on the table during these conversations, nor was justification. It was just a father and son trying to understand what went wrong.

Most contact with outsiders had ceased by the time the trial had begun. While neighbors had brought food to their door early in the process, that generosity had stopped when full details of the crimes were released by the press. Even taking a walk around the block was risky. People tended to yell things from cars or houses. Their world had become very small, consisting of just the trial and home. Even the family minister had stopped dropping in.

The suicide option was raised in one of the conversations he had with his oldest son. It came up after an unusually difficult day in court. It was becoming clear that the jury would convict, and the judge would sentence to the maximum. They were both concerned about how the family would fare afterwards, given the community’s ire. It seemed to both of them that suicide would somehow bring a more rapid closure for the community than a long prison sentence, and thus allow the family at least a chance of redemption and peace.

It was the day before sentencing, and he was in the small upstairs bedroom with his oldest son. The decision had been made, and only the two of them knew about it. They both were exhausted, but felt sure that they had made the right decision. They held each other, looked into each other’s eyes, and felt a closeness that few knew in this life. As they sat down at the table near the window facing each other, he took the pistol in his right hand, pulled back on the receiver, checked that it was loaded, released the safety catch, and set the weapon back on the table with the butt towards his son.

He pushed the gun across the table and slowly said, “Do it the way I told you, son. You won’t feel a thing. But wait until I’m out of the room and downstairs with your mother and sisters, alright?”

Mind Moves

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The detective’s office was neat, unusually neat for a cop working a hectic schedule. But the psychiatrist was less focused on the detective’s behaviors than he was on those of one of his own patients.

“Now this is the point I want to focus on, Doctor. Please continue what you were saying about the clock, and remember, the suspect has waived his privacy rights,” the detective said as he leaned forward on his desk.

“Yes, the clock is the crux of the case, detective. Anyway, as I was saying, after I diagnosed the suspect’s condition, I decided on a therapeutic program whereby I would cause small changes in his behaviors in an attempt to help alleviate his suffering.” The Doctor riffled through his notes as he continued to speak. “I felt that he had to confront his obsessiveness, but gradually. So, I insinuated small changes in his physical surroundings, and then told him to document how these changes affected his behavior.”

The detective stopped writing for a moment and asked, “Let me see if I understand your thinking. Your plan was to slightly rearrange the suspect’s physical world, and then determine whether his behavioral reaction to these changes was therapeutic, is that correct?”

“You’d make a good therapist, detective. Yes, that’s what I was trying to achieve. I anticipated that when the suspect confronted how he felt and behaved regarding the changes, he would begin to understand how his obsessiveness was undermining his wellbeing.”

The detective asked the next question very earnestly. “So why did you choose the clock as the first physical change? I mean, you could have moved anything. Why move the clock?”

“Time is at the center of many obsessions, detective. I think we know this intuitively. So, my thinking was to alter his relationship with time just a little. As it turned out, it was a huge mistake.” The Doctor retreated into silence as the detective got up from his chair, looked out the window, and contemplated his next question.

“That’s the part that has us stumped, Doctor. All you did was to move the clock in his bedroom from the desk to a nearby table, is that right?” the detective asked.

“Yes, you’ve been to his bedroom. I moved the alarm clock to the right about 3 feet. But as we now know, that was enough to precipitate the series of events we are now dealing with. But, as you can probably guess, I had no reasonable anticipation of any of this happening. Unprecedented, in my experience, detective.”

“Would I then be correct in concluding, Doctor, that the suspect’s worst behaviors were being held in check by the physical arrangement of his world? And that moving the clock somehow unleashed his most sinister impulses?”

The Doctor paused before answering. He adjusted his tie and looked slightly to the left of the detective as he answered, “Yes, that would be a fair conclusion, detective.  You could say moving the clock let the psychological genie out of the bottle.”

The detective probed a bit with the next question. “Is there any doubt that moving the clock caused his reaction? Any doubt at all? Could it have been something completely separate happening in his life at the same time, Doctor?”

“I asked myself the same question, detective. I have done little since those horrible occurrences except to verify that moving the clock was the cause. My other obsessive patients have responded unusually to small physical changes, too. None of them became violent, but their behaviors fundamentally changed. No, there is no doubt that the clock move caused his reactions. I plan to write a paper to document my theory. My understanding of the process is such that I can now accurately predict the type of behavioral change that will occur.”

 

“You know, Doctor, the victims of the suspect will probably try to have your license revoked.” As he spoke, the detective rose from his chair and looked out the window again before turning around and continuing. “And the fact that you continued to “experiment” on your obsessive patients won’t help your case at all. I’ll probably be called at your revocation hearing to testify about what we’ve talked about today. Comments?” 

“Oh, I don’t worry about anything you might testify about, detective. By the way, when you just looked out the window, I took the liberty of moving the picture of you in Iraq about six inches to the left on your desk.” The psychiatrist half smiled as the full impact of that statement took its effect on the detective. 

As the Doctor carefully backed out of the detective’s office, quietly closing the door, he marveled at the ability of the human mind to let go of sanity so effortlessly.

Cats Don't Cry

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The little girl sat quietly in the big chair, her feet not quite touching the floor. The room was dimly lit and shabby, but that didn’t bother the child. She was used to having very little. But she knew her mother loved her very much.

“Mommy, where do you think Fluffy is now?”

The little girl’s mother was used to questions like this. Her daughter was a thoughtful child, often asking questions well beyond her age. She liked talking to her daughter when they were alone. It made her feel there was purpose to her life.

“Fluffy’s time here was over, and her time at some other place is just beginning. It’s the same with all living creatures, even you and me. But we’re not meant to know about the other place. Sometimes it’s hard even to figure out this place.”

The child smiled. “Remember how quiet Fluffy could be? And then something would happen, and she would arch her back, and growl, and hiss, and sometimes scratch.”

“Oh, yes, honey, I remember. Cats are like that.”

“Daddy was like that, too.”

The mother sighed. She had spent years dealing with her husband’s moods and trying to protect her child. She was exhausted. “Fluffy couldn’t help herself, baby. That’s how cats are. But Daddy was like that sometimes just because he could.”

The little girl played with her doll for a few moments before speaking again. “Fluffy would see something and get scared. But we couldn’t see it, only Fluffy could see it. Was Daddy like that?”

“Daddy saw things that we didn’t see, you’re right. Things that came out of a whiskey bottle.”

“Mommy, are the bad things still in the bottles even when they are empty?” the child asked, buttoning up her doll.

“No, baby. The bad things leave the bottle. Remember that when you grow up. You see an empty bottle, you know where the bad things went!”

“Daddy was mean to Fluffy sometimes. I cried when Daddy hurt Fluffy. She never did anything to Daddy, but he still hurt her. Just like he hurt you, Mommy.”

“Remember the night Daddy came to my room and hurt me, Mommy? And Fluffy, she bit me right after he left?”

The mother brushed away a tear as she answered, “Yes, baby, I remember.”

“And remember the next day when Daddy cried? But Fluffy didn’t cry. They both hurt me, Mommy. Why didn’t Fluffy cry?”

“Baby, Daddy was feeling something that Fluffy could never feel. It was kind of a pain he had to deal with.”

“What’s it called, Mommy?”

“It’s called shame, baby.”

“Could Daddy take a pill to make it go away, Mommy?”

“No, baby, there’s no pill for shame.”

They both sat quietly for a few more moments. The mother got up and looked out the window. It was still dark, but the morning light was starting to shed into the eastern hills. She grabbed her hat and coat off the table, walked over to the big chair, and knelt next to her daughter.

“Did you ever see Daddy cry again, Mommy?”

“Just once, one last time.”

“Mommy, where are all the empty bottles?”

“Daddy dug a big hole behind the shed down by the creek. His one goal in life was to fill that hole with bottles. He got a good start.”

“Is that where Fluffy is, Mommy, in the hole with the bottles?”

“Yes, baby.”

“Is Daddy there, too?  Are all the bad things gone from the hole, Mommy?”

“Yes, baby, Daddy is there, too, and the bad thing are all gone. Now you get up and go back to bed. I’ve got a few things I have to do down by the creek before the sun comes up.”                           

 

A Simple Two Bullet Job

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The two had known each other for years. He handled details like who, what, where, and how much. She handled the killing. They worked well together. She never met the clients, never handled the money end, and nobody knew anything about her except she was the best at what she did.

“O.K., those are the details. It’s pretty straight-forward, Pee Bee. In and out, except the client’s paying extra for the face to face.” The man pushed a folder across the table to her.

She opened it and read the single-spaced typed page. “These two, they’re old, right? Usually together at home most of the time. But the client wants them to know who sent me, right? He wants me to say, ‘Jimmy says goodbye,’ then one to the head of each?” She looked back at the man.

“Yeah, that’s it. An extra five grand for three words, Pee Bee.” He never smiled, but she could tell he was visualizing the hit in his mind right now. She never did that.

She killed her first man when she was fifteen. Turned out, she liked it. But she knew she had to not only be good, but careful. She hooked up with the man quite by accident in West Virginia when she was on a job in her early twenties. He was the one who helped her develop her craft and gave her a nickname, Pee Bee. He knew that anonymity was crucial, but so was mystique. Pee Bee, short for Point Blank. Her specialty.

She had a knack for stealth—she could pick almost any lock and was good with alarm. He saw to that. He always said it wasn’t the hit, it was everything before the hit. Each job was meticulously planned by the man. They’d done twenty-four jobs together over the past thirteen years and she still had no criminal record. Proud wasn’t how she’d describe her track record, maybe satisfied was the word. She slept well at night.

“When does the client want it done? I got that out-patient thing, you know.”

“No later than the 10th.”

“Right. You and me, no contact until after it’s done. Then we take a break while I get fixed. Then, back to work.”

“O.K., Pee Bee, see you when it’s done.” The man got up, picked up the folder, and left the motel room. It was always like this. Straight-up business. No nonsense, and it worked.

He arranged a stolen car for her with phony plates for the night of the hit. She never carried the weapon. It was always either in or very near the location of the hit. She typically drove in from about a hundred miles out. No traces like motels or gas stations. He carefully arranged her routes to avoid cameras. She was a ghost for all intents and purposes.

She parked two blocks away and waited. While the man knew the police patrol schedule, she just wanted to double check. As the last patrol car left the area, she started her slow walk towards the location. She walked past the house on the opposite side of the street and noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

She then walked on the same side of the street and quickly slipped through the hedges until she was against the house. No alarms, no cameras, no dogs, just like the man said. The weapon was where it was supposed to be, left there by the gardener. She slowly moved around the house to the side door opposite the garage.

The door opened easily, and she quietly entered the utility room. She could hear some people talking, and she mentally reviewed the house plan the man had sent her. Her weapon was out with the safety off now. The silencer was screwed on. Careful to not cast any shadows, she moved one step at a time towards the living room.

The voices continued as she moved within a few feet of the living room. Two people, older, talking. Nobody else. She made her move.

As she turned the corner, with her gun out and ready, prepared to say the words and shoot, there was no one there. Just a tape recorder. She immediately understood.

The first bullet hit her in the left shoulder. She returned fired and was hit again in her right side. She fired again. Both her wounds were through and throughs. But she hit the shooters, she knew that. She crawled to the back of the couch and listened. The pain was intense, but she was not going to pass out, not yet.

No footsteps, no movement. No shadows. Nothing.

She crawled around the living room and found the shooters. Dead. She managed to get to her feet and hobble out the front door. She half expected another shooter, but there was none. It took her twenty minutes to get to her car.

She picked up her phone and made a call. It went to voice mail, so she made it quick. “It didn’t work. You’re next.”

As she slowly drove off, she swallowed some pain pills her doctor had prescribed. She felt pretty good, considering. And she was going to feel a whole lot better when a certain someone was dead.

Small Town Excitement

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The town was small, and the town budget was smaller. The result was that the town library and museum were housed in the same wood building on Main Street, right next to the small police station. Anyone walking into the building would be immediately impressed by the fine wood paneling adorning the library walls. The books were arrayed in neat shelving all around the single library room, and seven large tables filled its center. The lighting was just right for reading, and it all was neat as a pin.

The museum was on the other side of the entrance. It was a semi-circular room which one entered on the left and exited on the right. The middle housed a diorama from floor to ceiling, so that when you entered, you were in a time tunnel of sorts, surrounded by pictures, artifacts, and memorabilia from the town’s past. People were known to have spent hours in the museum, and would have been locked in were it not for the librarian’s cautious eye.

Cynthia had left the big city seven years earlier after her second husband had died. She sold her publishing business and left it all behind to reconnect with her roots in the town of her youth. The Town Council was thrilled to have someone of Cynthia’s talents and experience take over as manager of the library and the museum. They especially liked that she only required one dollar per year as a stipend. Her foresight and organizational skills had transformed both the museum and the library into fully functioning town centers, and they were in the black for the first time.

There usually was a line at the entrance each morning when Cynthia arrived to open. The library and museum had become social centers and literally teemed with locals all day long. Cynthia didn’t mind the noise. She knew just how important these two places had become in the life of the small town, and in her life as well. Everyone was proud to have her running things. They always said Cynthia knew how to manage things—she knew books, and she knew people, especially men.

And was she ever organized. Not only did everything have its place, but she also knew the budget down to the penny, who the best volunteers were, and where to get money if she needed it for any special projects. And she was punctual, always opening and closing on time. And if anybody left anything behind, it went immediately into the Lost and Found. And if it was expensive, it went next door to the town police officer. Cynthia and Officer Larsen had a deal going. She would pop-in just after library closing with an item, place it on the desk and say something like, “Here’s some more Lost and Found stuff, George. You know what to do,” and walk out.

The only problem Cynthia saw on the horizon was Will Clayton. Will and his wife were wealthy and lived out of town on a hill in a large estate. They frequently threw lavish parties for out-of-towners, and there were rumors about Will’s behavior around women. The Claytons had a hard time keeping help, and everybody who went to work with them had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. So the rumors remained just that. Will wasn’t really a problem for Cynthia yet, but she knew the type. She’d seen enough of them in the city. It was probably just a matter of time.

Usually around mid-afternoon on any weekday, Clayton would ramble into the library. There often was a whiff of alcohol on his breath. He would wave and smile as he made his way around the library tables. He had perfected several moves as far as Cynthia could determine. One was the one-arm hug. Clayton would amble up to a woman, grab her opposite shoulder with his hand, and pull her close to him with a big hug. Another one was the stop and hover. He would stop where a woman was seated at a table, hover for a moment engaging in conversation, and eventually place one hand on her shoulder while he bent over to catch a peek. None of these standing actions alone were concerning to Cynthia, but it was the total behavior set that bothered her. No woman had yet complained, but Cynthia was watching. And he had never done anything to her, yet.

It was near closing time, and Cynthia could see that the library was empty. She loved that she never had to hustle any of the locals out the door. It was small town behavior like that which had brought her back from the city. She moved quickly around the library, picking up books from the tables and placing them back on the shelves. She made a quick check for items that people may have left behind, but found nothing.

Cynthia then crossed the entryway to the left side of the museum. It was her intent to walk through the exhibition and check for any late-stayers. But her eye caught something to her right, on the table at the exit of the museum. It appeared to be an airline bag. As she approached, it was clear that it contained clothing, as the top was partially unzipped. And there was a name tag. She reached out to pick up the bag when she heard a noise to her left.

Turning slightly, she saw Clayton standing about five feet away in the tunnel, wearing nothing but a pair of socks and an obviously excited attitude. He had a slight grin on his face, and his hands were down to his side. Cynthia turned to face him squarely, and smiled broadly. At the same time, she started to unbutton her blouse with her left hand. Clayton’s grin turned into a smile as he backed up slowly, motioning Cynthia to follow him into the recesses of the tunnel. She made a one step in his direction, quickly turned, grabbed the airline bag, and ran out the library door.

Officer Larsen was at the desk as Cynthia rushed in, put the bag down, and said, “Here’s some more Lost and Found stuff, George. You know what to do,” and then walked out, the smile still on her face.

Mashed Potatoes for Thanksgiving

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Grandpa was a huge hulk of a man. Now in his eighties, he had a physique that was envied by men in their fifties. He was a product of decades of hard physical labor, with great wide shoulders, a narrow waist, large forearms, and particularly big hands. And he was a caring, kind man who never raised his voice, even though there were hints of violence in the scars around his eyes and ears. It was this man who every Thanksgiving made his special mashed potatoes for his large family.

It was almost a ceremony the way he went about preparing the potatoes. He insisted that he be left alone at the sink, although small children would be allowed, if quiet, to watch him from the doorway. What they saw was this brooding hulk of a man carefully and lovingly washing and peeling each potato. His sons always said he had a zen-like demeanor while preparing the potatoes. It was like he was washing the bottom of the baby Jesus, they would joke, with each potato disappearing temporarily into his huge hands while being scrubbed and peeled.

After cooking, Grandpa would carefully mash the potatoes and then add his secret ingredients from a small plastic bag he would always bring. No one knew what they were, and no one asked. But whatever was in that bag resulted in the most delicious mashed potatoes anyone had ever tasted. They were the dish that everybody loved at Thanksgiving.

What no one knew, because Grandpa never told anyone, was that he was a Polish Jew from a small town outside Krakow. When the Nazis came to his village, he was out in the fields and could just see his parents and his brothers and sisters being taken away. He hid silently as his home and barn were burned. That night, he fled to the farm of a nearby Christian family, who took him in as one of their own.

He was given papers by the local priest and others who supported the story that he was a Christian child, son of the farmer and his wife. For the duration of the war, he maintained this identity, and he never saw any of his real family again. His most vivid memory of that time was the mashed potatoes the farmer’s wife would make on special occasions. She showed him her secret and vowed him to secrecy, and ever since her death, and after he emigrated to America, he honored her memory by making her mashed potatoes whenever he could.

He continued as a Christian in America, blended in and worked hard at many jobs. He was a logger, a merchant seaman, a carpenter, and finally a superintendent at a lumber mill. Success came with hard work. He stayed out of trouble for the most part, and his calm demeanor served him well. Every so often, however, if someone got out of line about “the Jews”, he would straighten them out in a way that made similar statements unlikely in the future. And he never told anyone about his past. He figured he was just one of millions with a similar story. What difference would it make if one more story was told.

This Thanksgiving was no different. The large family gathered at his son’s home, and Grandpa was the honored guest, and everyone was full of anticipation for his mashed potatoes. As the family mingled in the home, Grandpa noticed that one of his grandsons was sporting a new look. A closely shaved head, piercings, some new tattoos, and a T-shirt with the phrase “White Christian Power” in very small letters on the front. It was clear by the fresh scars on his face and hands that he had been fighting recently.

As Grandpa went about his usual secret preparations in the kitchen, he was particularly somber this year. He was still careful and solemn with the process, but he was feeling something different this time. He was going to have to do something he had been avoiding for over seven decades.

The family gathered around the table and sat down one by one. Grandpa, as usual, was at the head of the table with a huge bowl of mashed potatoes in front of him. His large family was arrayed around the table, with the skin-head grandson near the end, but in full view of Grandpa.

It was a tradition for someone to raise their hand each year and ask the same question. It was a family tradition and kind of a joke, and everybody loved it. His youngest son raised his hand and asked, “Dad, please tell us the secret of your mashed potatoes. We beg you, please.” There was laughter around the table as people started to reach for food and drink, expecting the same time-worn denial Grandpa was so well known for. But this year was different.

“If you please, I have something to say,” Grandpa said in his typical slow and gentle way. “I am going to tell you the story about the mashed potatoes, so please give me your attention for next few minutes.”

He didn’t rise, he didn’t have to. He was heads above everyone else. As he spoke, he looked from person to person. As he told them about his Jewish upbringing on the farm, he noticed his grandson was clenching his jaw and balling his fists at the end of the table. All eyes were on Grandpa as he detailed his family’s destruction, his rearing as a Christian, the story about the mashed potatoes, and his decades in America as an émigré. No one ate or drank. They hardly breathed as he reached the end of his story. Then the crying started, slowly at first, and then the whole table let loose.

Grandpa was not crying. Instead, he was focusing on his grandson at the end of the table. The young man with the skin-head and T-shirt was sobbing, but smiling, his jaw and fists no longer clenched.

After a few moments, his oldest son stood up with his arm around his grandson and quietly said, “Father, we would all be proud to sit Seder with you this year.”

Local Knowledge

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The agent glanced down at the documents in the file and thought about the next question. This was her first interrogation as an FBI agent, and she wanted to be sure she followed Bureau protocol to the letter. “When you arrived at Majuro, who did you first meet and what did you learn?”

Colin adjusted himself in his chair and replied, “Well, I met with a Mr. Adjuri of the Kwajalein Education Committee. He welcomed me and said I had to have a physical examination to insure I could deal with the rigors of my new job.”

“I thought you were just going to be teaching English to school children. What rigors was he talking about?”

“Mr. Adjuri told me I was going to be posted to a small atoll several days by boat from Majuro. This was the first time I knew I wasn’t going to be teaching in the capital. I was a bit surprised, as you might imagine, and had visions of head hunters, cannibals, that sort of thing.” Colin stopped to take a drink of water before continuing. “It turns out that food was scarce on the atoll and I would have to spear fish and climb trees to supplement my diet.”

The agent held a document from Colin’s file in her hands. “I see that you passed the physical examination. It says here that you are 23 years of age, 153 pounds, in good physical shape, with no communicable diseases or limitations on physical activity. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that was correct at the time. Mr. Adjuri then told me I had to board an inter-island boat that would drop me and my supplies at the atoll in two days. He indicated there were fifteen villagers on the island, they had a working radio in case of emergency, and that the boat only visited the island once every six months.”

“But you signed a one-year agreement, correct?”

“Yes, I would get a ride back to Majuro on the third boat to visit the island.”

“Did anything of importance happen on the boat ride?”

“No, other than the boat was a real rust bucket, no beds, and a latrine hanging over the fantail. I got ahold of a tarp and strung it over the back side of the anchor windlass and stayed there for the entire trip. The deck was full of passengers and it was filthy.”

“You arrived at the atoll and disembarked. Who met you and what happened?”

“No one met me at first. The pallet with my supplies was left on the pier and the boat departed. I just waited for several hours until someone walked out to meet me.”

“Who was that person?”

“Turned out to be the Head Man. We managed to roughly communicate. I know three languages, so I was able to determine that I was not welcome to live in the village, but instead was directed to live about half a mile down the beach in a separate hut. Turned out to be just four sticks and a flat roof. For the first week or so, I was on my own for everything.”

“How did you survive?”

“Not well, that’s for sure. I climbed trees for coconuts for the meat and the water. I spear fished for my meals, and ate local pumpkins that grew wild. Of course, I had some food from the boat, but not much. And all the while, almost out of sight, the people of the village watched me and did nothing.”

The agent checked her watch. “How long before you made contact with the rest of the villagers?”

“I’d say about ten days. After that, they became friendly and welcomed me into the village from time to time. It was clear there weren’t fifteen villagers anymore. Just twelve. And no working radio. And they all were very undernourished. It was a sad situation.” He paused before continuing. “I know what you are going to ask. When did I start teaching English to them?  The Head Man showed me where I could leave my teaching supplies, and that was that. The kids came first. They were eager and they loved the picture and word booklets I  brought. Within a few weeks, they had vocabularies of about a hundred English words, and I learned those words in Micronesian. Then the adults started to show interest, and since I knew a little of their language, things went quickly.”

“What about the deaths?” the Agent interjected.

“It turns out when anyone in the village becomes sick or injured, they are brought to the Head Man and left alone with him. He treats the disease or injury, but if a villager dies, the Head Man immediately disposes of the body to avoid spirits endangering the village. The family of the dead person only finds out later what happened.”

“How did the Head Man dispose of the bodies?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe he just rowed out to sea a bit and dropped them over the side, or something like that.”

“And everyone just accepted this process without question.”

“Oh, yes, without question. They really believe that the spirits of the dead are dangerous. Now, only two villagers died within the first six months. But in the last six months I was there, things got much worse. All the villagers died except the Head Man. It was just the two of us at the end.”

The Agent took a few minutes to write down a few notes before continuing the interrogation. “But not two when the boat arrived to pick you up, correct? The Head Man was missing. You were the only person left on the island, correct?”

“Yes, he was alive the night before the boat arrived. We discussed his situation, and he had decided that he would return to Majuro with me on the boat. But when I awoke the next day, he was gone along with one of the canoes. I just assumed he took off during the night. Two days later, I was on Majuro, took a second physical, and now here I am with you in Los Angeles.”

The Agent opened a second file and retrieved a document. She read it to herself slowly before addressing Colin. “Yesterday, the body of the Head Man was found in a canoe about ten miles off the atoll. He was dead, and his right leg was missing. Can you shed any light on how this situation might have come about?”

Colin slowly shook his head. “No, no, it was just as I told you. Maybe he was so depressed over the loss of all his relatives that he took off in the canoe and maybe a shark got ahold of him, or something.”

She was writing as Colin was talking, and then looked at him. “O.K., Colin. That’s all for now. I’ll forward my report to headquarters. I assume you’ll be available for any follow-up questions. Is this address and phone number correct?”

Colin nodded, shook the Agent’s hand, and was directed to the building exit by another Agent.

For seven weeks, the Agent heard nothing from her immediate superior about her report. She assumed she had done a good job, and was busy working on another case when she got a call to meet with her boss that afternoon about the Kwajalein case file.

As she entered her superior’s office, she sensed that something was amiss. In addition to her superior, a ranking member of the Brazilian consulate was also present. She was directed to sit as her superior began speaking. “Turns out that Colin didn’t hang around after you finished interviewing him. Seems he took a job as an English teacher with the Brazilian Department of Education. He’s now teaching Portuguese to primitive natives deep in the Amazon jungle where he can’t be reached for months, if not longer.”

The young Agent responded defensively, “I wasn’t instructed to take his passport, sir. I assumed it was just a courtesy for him to remain in the States.”

Her superior sat back in his chair as he glanced over at the Brazilian official on his right. “Okay, fair enough. But in your “extensive interrogation” of young Colin, did you review the results of the second physical examination he took before he returned home? Did you find anything out of the ordinary, anything that raised a red flag?” he asked in an accusatory manner, his voice slightly raised.

The young Agent was very nervous now. She was sure she missed something important when interrogating Colin. “No, no, I don’t recall anything that . . .”

His booming voice interrupted her in mid-sentence as he waived a document in her face. “You mean the fact that after a year on that god-forsaken atoll, young Colin weighed in at 187 pounds! That didn’t catch your attention, Agent? Really?”

 

 

 

 

The Bamboo Lover

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Like so many long-term relationships, Bruno and Mary’s marriage had seen its ups and downs. But lately, it seemed to Bruno that it was hitting new lows. Sure, the ardor had waned, and the conversations had become mundane and predictable, but Mary seemed to be distant lately, remote. Bruno wasn’t paranoid, but he did have a healthy suspicious side to his nature. He suspected she was seeing someone.

He considered a private detective, but rejected the idea as being too heavy-handed and expensive. All he really wanted to know was the name of the other guy and to get Mary back in the marriage. The other guy was going to pay for their treachery, not Mary. She was a victim, too, Bruno concluded.

Over the next few weeks, Bruno methodically went about monitoring his wife’s activities by reading her text messages, identifying incoming and outgoing phone numbers, where her phone was when she wasn’t at home, and following all her social media. No pattern really emerged until the third week.

While scrolling through Mary’s text threads, he discovered that she was frequently in touch with her best friend, Brenda. This was not particularly unusual, except that her recent texts repeatedly referred to her new “Bamboo Lover”. She gushed repeatedly about her new friend, her Asian gift, her port in a storm. Bruno recalled that Mary had been dating a Japanese fellow before they met, and his suspicions focused there.

But it turned out to be a dead end. The fellow lived in Phoenix with his wife and two kids, and hadn’t been anywhere near Mary for years. Bruno knew, however, that he was on to something with this Asian boyfriend thing. He decided to take his surveillance to the next level. He started following Mary whenever she left the house.

He knew where she habitually went. Tracing her phone location for weeks showed that Mary followed a simple pattern. Shopping on some days, friends on other days, the gym from time to time, and the odd public locale the rest of the time. It was clear to Bruno that she was meeting her lover at one of those locales. It had to be either the public park, the walking paths, or the museum or zoo.

His patient shadowing started to pay off within days. By photographing her every ten minutes or so, Bruno was able to determine that several Asian men were in the photos of her at the museum and the zoo. Bruno struggled to tell them apart physically, so he categorized them by haircut. Two particularly looked promising, “buzz cut” and “Hollywood”. They appeared close to Mary in several shots, and while there was no interaction between either of them and Mary, that didn’t bother Bruno. He knew they were playing it cool. Smart.

Bruno concluded that Mary and her new boyfriend were probably connecting by phone when they were close to each other. It made perfect sense to Bruno. He patiently waited to catch either of the two men on the phone at the same time as Mary was phoning. On Thursday afternoon, at the Zoo, he saw it happening.

Mary was strolling about, stopping from time to time. Then, she pulled out her phone and started taking pictures. As she did, she waved and smiled and said something. Bruno looked around, and sure enough, “Hollywood” was nearby, also on the phone.

That was enough for Bruno. He finally figured out what they were up to. They were disguising their contacts very cleverly. Probably having phone sex, he concluded. But he had his culprit, and today was the day to put a stop to this treachery and get his Mary back.

His focus switched to “Hollywood”. Bruno tailed him for over an hour. The guy was good, Bruno concluded. Hard to spot what he was up to. But Bruno’s plan was clear. He’d get the guy in the parking lot. It would be a hit and run in a place with no cameras and hopefully no witnesses.

Bruno put an end to the treachery with a glancing blow with his sedan to “Hollywood”.. The man rose quickly in the air and came down about ten feet from where he was struck. As Bruno drove off, he looked in his rearview mirror and didn’t see anybody gathering around the body. Good news.

All he had to do now was wait for Mary to discover her loss, deal with it, and return to the marriage. The papers and internet covered the story for a couple of days, complete with the name of the victim and his picture. But Mary went about her life as if nothing had happened. She was still distant, but seemingly happy.

And then Bruno saw her most recent text to Brenda. It was clear that he had got the wrong boyfriend. She was still effusive about her Asian cuddly boy, and even mentioned to Brenda that she was going to visit him again today!

Bruno had no choice. He would have to repeat his attack on “buzzcut” this time. Mary had to be free to return to the marriage. It was the only way. He hid from view as Mary strolled around the Zoo. She stopped and took out her phone and started taking pictures and saying something. Bruno was positive “buzzcut” was nearby, but he didn’t see him anywhere.

As Mary moved on, she was talking on her phone, smiling and laughing. This enraged Bruno as he stalked her closely, knowing that “buzzcut” must be close.

He passed the place where Mary first stopped and took pictures. Looking around for clues, he saw nothing until he looked down at the plaque in front of the display. It read: “The Chinese Panda Bear is found only in northern Chinese mountain forests. This cuddly, loveable creature is a lover of bamboo and . . .”

Bruno stopped reading and slumped against the railing. He wasn’t aware of the two policemen who were approaching him, and the zoo employee who was pointing at him and saying, “That’s him, officers. That’s the guy who was in the parking lot.”

 

 

 

Off Trail

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The last five days had been a living nightmare for Angela Marino. The words of the mysterious man on the phone saying her life was on the line still echoed in her mind. Then there was the huge forest fire that had nearly destroyed the town and terrorized the inhabitants. And finally, Phil’s brother-in-law, a battalion chief with the local fire department, had been grievously burned in the West Canyon fire three days ago. He was expected to live, but the burns covered over half his body.

Angela was stuck for the first time in years. So, she decided to do what usually worked for her in this type of situation. She decided to go for a short hike in East Canyon. It was unaffected by the recent blaze, and she knew the trail well. She could just get in a short hour hike before the sun left the forest.

As she neared the small parking lot at the trail head, she noticed a familiar pick-up truck parked about a quarter of a mile away from the parking lot. At least there would be somebody on the trail she knew and liked, she thought. She parked near the trail head, pulled on her pack, and started up the trail.

The going was easy as the trail had been well maintained all summer. The forest was beginning to change as cooler weather was fast coming in, and Angela enjoyed the fresh, brisk air filling her lungs as she hiked up the gradual slope. She remembered clearly how Phil hated these hikes. Not a real outdoorsman, that Phil.

It was at the half mile mark that she first heard the noise. It was faint, but it was human. She picked up her pace as the noise became a voice and the voice became words. “Help, help, anybody, help!”

Turning a sharp bend in the trail, Angela saw a small bag and flashlight by the trailside. The voice came from down slope to the right. As she looked down, she could barely see Bill but she could hear him clearly. She yelled out, “Bill, it’s Angela. I’ll be down in a minute.”

She took off her pack, but kept her phone in her pocket. Before heading down, she looked into the bag to see if there was anything that might be useful. What she saw startled her. And then came the anger. There was no mistaking what the bag’s contents suggested. She removed a few items from the bag, stood up and slowly but carefully edged her way down the slope to where Bill was trapped.

Bill was on his back, his left leg wedged tightly between a large fir tree and a rock. He clearly was in pain. A hand-held radio was nearby, but smashed to pieces against a rock.

“Angela, thank God! I think I broke my hip when I fell. I’ve been here overnight and all day. You’re the first person to come along. I can’t move and it hurts like hell.”

“Yeah, Bill, I noticed your little goodie bag up on the trail. You’ve been a busy boy, haven’t you, Bill?

Bill said nothing. He just stared at Angela with contempt.

“Well, Bill, it looks like you have three options. Want to hear them?”

Again, Bill was silent, wincing occasionally with pain.

“O.K., I’ll assume that’s a yes. Let’s take option one. You call the search and rescue guys on your phone and when they arrive, you can do some quick explaining about those balloons filled with gasoline and the white phosphorous sticks in the bag. Hmmm?”

Bill held out his hand and Angela gave him his phone.

“Shit, no service.”

“Just as well, Bill. I don’t think the search and rescue guys are in any mood to play around with the likes of you, anyway. They’d probably just drag you up the hill by your left leg. So, ready for option two?”

Bill remained silent.

“O.K., again I’ll assume that’s a yes, too. Well, option two is real easy. I leave, you stay here and I tell no one. One more night with these cold temperatures and exposure and shock should solve your problems. When you are found, the bag will tell the tale. I’ll give you a few moments.”

“I pass.”

“O.K. That leaves us with option three. It’s the most interesting, but as with all interesting things, it does entail some risk. Ready?”

“Just get it over with.”

“Right. I’m going to put one of your little balloons and an igniter right over here next to this tree you have become so attached to. You won’t be able to grab them, but I will give you a stick which is long enough. You starting to catch on, Bill?”

Bill looked puzzled, but then his eyes widened.

“That’s right. Just burst the balloon onto the igniter with the stick, light up the tree, and the firefighters should be here in less than an hour. Could be a long hour for you, Bill. Or a short one, depending upon how the fire goes. Whadda ya say, friend?” Angela stood up and handed Bill a stick.

“Angela, don’t do this. Just go back to your car and phone for help. You don’t need this on your conscience. I have a wife and kids.”

Angela turned and started up the hill. The stick hit her in the back, but she kept climbing. Under her breath, Angela muttered, “Option two it is.”

Bill’s yelling had no effect on her as she reached the trail. Picking up the bag and flashlight, intending to leave them in Bill’s truck, she headed back down the trail towards her car. As she did, the answer she had been seeking about her other problem came to her. She smiled as the voice in the background turned to noise, and then went silent. At the trailhead, Angela connected the chain between two posts. The sign on the chain read “Trail closed until further notice”.

Kindled

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Bill’s wife wouldn’t sleep in the same bed with him whenever he came off the fire line. She said the stink of smoke still hung on him, even after he showered, and would force him to sleep in the spare bedroom. So tonight, after covering a fire for three days, Bill was alone in the spare bed with just his thoughts and a rising wind outside.

He was exhausted, but the wind kept him from falling asleep. It had shifted direction since he returned home, and had freshened considerably. Bill knew what that meant to the men on the line and to the town. Without hesitation, he swung his feet out of bed, sat up and reached for his flashlight.

He was careful not to wake his wife and sons as he quietly padded his way downstairs, guided by the flashlight’s low glare. As he did, Bill was always amazed how much stuff two young boys could leave strewn around a house in just three days. As he slowly maneuvered between plastic trucks and toy baseball bats, Bill started to wake up and think about his situation.

He was the local newspaper reporter embedded with the fire department. His air force training in firefighting was welcomed by the fire chief, and his dispatches from the fire line were recognized as second to none. Throughout the years, he and the department had been involved in numerous tough blazes throughout the county and he was proud of the bond between himself and the crews.

Bill had made a study of fire. He understood fire. He saw it as a nemesis to humanity that, once released, had to be controlled or it would destroy everything in its path. Other civilians didn’t give fire a second thought until it was right on top of them. Bill thought about fire all the time. Other civilians panicked and ran whenever threatened by a blaze. Bill ran towards fire in anticipation of meeting the foe one more time. This fire was no different.

After getting a drink from the refrigerator, Bill walked to the locked door in the hallway that led to his private office. Unlocking the door, he didn’t turn on the light, but instead navigated again by flashlight, finding the soft chair in the middle of the room. Sitting down, he turned on the fire department’s incident radio, tuned it to the operational channel, and sat back to listen.

He set his flashlight so that it shone on a topographical map mounted on an easel in front of his chair. An array of pins showed the status of the fire three days ago, and Bill listened intently to voices coming over the radio giving him the latest fire situation. Over the next hour, he patiently listened and moved pins on the map until he had an updated and clear picture of the current situation. He turned a small weather vane mounted on the map to show the current direction of the wind in the affected area.

Bill put his hands behind his head, and pondered the information the map was telling him. It was clear the shifting wind resulted in a redeployment of personnel and equipment to the west. The situation commander had made an important decision within the last hour and the department was in the process of implementing that decision. It would take hours to make the changes, and Bill definitely thought it was a mistake, a big mistake.

“Bad move, Chief,” Bill muttered to himself. “You left the back door open. East Canyon.”

He pulled his tired body out of the comfort of the stuffed chair and went to the closet. He slowly dressed in a set of clothes he kept inside just for such occasions. After dressing, he reached down for the Go Bag he kept ready on the floor. After checking the contents, he zipped it shut, and went back to the chair. Taking a last look at the map, he turned off the incident radio, put it in his pocket, picked up the flashlight, and slowly left the office.

The house was still quiet as he made his way to the door leading to his truck outside. Being very careful to make as little noise as possible, Bill stepped outside and looked around the neighborhood. A thick smoke lay over the area and made street lights and house lights fuzzy in the distance. Bill listened for a moment before he determined that no one else was moving in the neighborhood.

He quietly climbed up into his truck, put his Go Bag on the driver’s seat next to the radio, and then adjusted the rear view mirror. He put the truck in neutral, let off the parking brake and slowly coasted down the driveway until he reached the street below.

Just before starting the truck, he looked into the rear view mirror again, caught the reflection of his eyes looking back at him, and said quietly to himself, “Time to light up East Canyon, buddy!”

A Walk Down the Beach

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The beach house had been in Ted’s family since the late 1940’s. His grandparents had bought it as a retirement home, and for the first six years of Ted’s life, the beach house was his summer paradise. Filled with grandchildren and bustling with grown-up activity, the beach house was the perfect place for a young man and his grandfather to share a special time.

The house was perched on a low bluff overlooking a long strand of beach. From its front windows, you could view the magnificence of the beach for several miles as the fog lifted each morning. His grandfather would faithfully wait for the clearing before he carefully navigated the rickety staircase that connected the house to the beach to begin his walk. He always walked alone, sometimes with the dog, and always with the gnarled walking stick he kept in the large vase by the door. Ted loved his grandfather dearly, and couldn’t wait for him to return from his daily walk so they could begin their day together.

When circumstances required Ted’s family to move out of state when he was six, he never realized that he had seen the beach house for the last time in his young life. He often asked his Dad about visiting the house again, but for one reason or another the family never got around to it. The beach house and all its memories faded slowly from Ted’s mind as the years went on. The house stayed in the family, but few visited it any more. So, it was even more unusual that a certain memory intruded into his mind when he turned seventy years old.

His health had been failing in recent months, and he spent a lot of time just sitting at home, reading and thinking. Milly was not feeling well, either. He had married her forty years earlier and together had raised three children, and now had seven grandchildren. Milly knew little about the beach house except for the pictures Ted kept on the mantle.

It was right after his birthday party, after everybody had left for the evening, that the two of them were sitting in front of the fireplace. For some reason, Ted’s attention was drawn to the little picture of the beach house, and as he smiled fondly, the old forgotten memory flooded back into his consciousness. He remembered it like it was yesterday. He was six, and still in bed at the beach house, when he was suddenly awoken by his parents rushing about and yelling at each other. The other kids were just getting up, too, and nobody knew what had happened. His Dad was on the phone, anxiously talking with someone. “He never leaves this early! The fog is especially thick today and still hasn’t lifted. He’s never been gone this long! No, he didn’t tell anybody and he didn’t take his walking stick. Yes, he has been quite ill lately. We’re scared. Can you send someone down the beach to check?”

When they found Ted’s grandfather, he was about a mile down the beach. He had probably lain down, as they found him on his side. His hat was nearby, and his feet were wet from the incoming tide. There was no note, but the suspicion was that he knew his life was ending, and he wanted to die on his beloved beach, and away from the grandchildren so as not to disturb them.

Ted knew why he was remembering now. He wasn’t scared, but he knew what he had to do and it comforted him greatly that his grandfather’s memories were guiding him at this moment. He looked at Milly, who knew nothing about his grandfather’s death, and said, “Honey, how about we take a trip to the old beach house? It would be fun, with the kids and the grandkids. One last time. What do you think?”

Milly turned slightly towards Ted. “That’s an odd coincidence, I was thinking the same thing recently. It would mean a lot of work, but I know it would mean so much to you after all these years. Yes, let’s tell the kids and see if they’re up for it!”

Their kids were thrilled with the idea. The whole family pitched in and in just a few days, they found themselves safely moved into the beach house for two weeks of summer fun. The grandchildren played endlessly on the beach, while anxious mothers peered down from the bluff. The men drank beer and scanned the beach constantly with binoculars. Ted and Milly were not allowed to lift a finger. This was their vacation, and the family was set upon them having the time of their life.

Ted mounted all his strength every morning to take a walk down the beach after the fog had lifted. Family members constantly tried to talk him out of it, or else insisted that one of them accompany him. But he was adamant. He walked alone and would be fine. After a while, no one bothered him and that’s just what he wanted. He wanted it to be routine. Millie never asked to go along. She had been taking Ambien at night, so she often was still asleep when he started his walks.

And he checked the weather reports daily. He knew that in three days, the fog would not lift until after noon. That would have to be the day, as his energy was failing fast. One cold, hard last walk, and then it would be over. He spent the next two days comforting Milly during her bouts with the pain in her side. They had been putting off going to the specialist her M.D. had recommended. Ted could tell that whatever was happening to his wife, it was very bad. The sleeping pills gave her some respite, but not enough. Ted was struggling with his decision, as he knew that without him around, Milly would decline rapidly. But he had made his decision, just like his grandfather had done, and he was bound by it.

On the night before the third day, Ted prepared for bed as always, saying goodnight to the family and then retreating to the bedroom with Milly. She had prepared him some warm milk to help him sleep, and they held each other as he dozed off in her arms.

He awoke with a start the next day. Milly was not in bed, and he saw that the clock said 10:48!  He’d overslept, how could he have . . .? Then he saw the empty Ambien capsule next to his cup. He got out of bed as fast as he could, threw on his robe and headed towards the main room. He could hear his kids yelling and one was on the phone. “She’s never done this before. She apparently left early this morning alone. That was three hours ago. We’re scared to death. Can you send someone out to check down the beach in the fog? Please hurry!”

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