Seven Secret Trails - By Brian Law 

The old man snored quietly in the corner of the porch, his left arm hanging down past the armrest of his rocking chair. The boy tiptoed close enough to the old man to see the faded tattoo on his grandfather’s left forearm. He wanted to touch it but he was afraid he’d wake his grandfather and get into trouble. So, he just stood there and stared at the part of the tattoo that wasn’t covered by the shirt sleeve. Even at his age, he knew a map when he saw one.  

Just then his mother yanked him away by the arm and back into the house behind the old screen door. Out of the old man’s earshot, she scolded the boy, saying, “Jessie, didn’t your daddy tell you never to bother your grandpa when he was napping on the porch? Didn’t he? And didn’t we tell you never to bother about that tattoo, neither?” 

The boy nodded; his head bent downward. He’d been told, just like all his brothers and sisters had been told. But he was different from them. He wasn’t afraid of the tattoo like they were. He’d risk a whippin’ just to get another look at it. He just needed to see the part under the shirt sleeve, that’s all. The part that showed where he figured something was buried. Something of value. 

Grandpa was sick and everybody in the house knew it. That’s why they let him sleep on the porch all day. But the boy had heard his mother and father talking late at night when they thought everyone else was asleep. They’d sit around the table near the old wood stove and talk about grandpa and his tattoo. He’d heard his dad say things like, “The others will come someday and we have to be ready with our part.” His mom would shake her head and say, “But he’s goin’ to die soon and the tattoo will be buried with him.” And then he’d answer, “Well, I think I got a long term solution for that little problem, dear.” 

And then one day the old man died just sitting out there on his rocking chair. It happened quietly near midday. He was drinking some lemonade and then his glass fell on the ground and he was dead. Both of the boy's parents were home and they gathered the kids together in a back bedroom and told them not to move. Then they both went out on the porch, and he wasn’t afraid and he followed them as far as the old screen door without them knowing it. And he saw them out on the porch looking at the tattoo and talking. 

And then another man drove up and came up on the porch. And the boy heard his dad say to the man, “It has to be an exact copy.”  And he heard the other man reply, “No problem, but it’ll cost you extra ‘cause I’m doin’ it on a kid.” And then his mother came into the house, caught him watching the whole thing, and she dragged him out. And that was the day he got the tattoo on his left forearm. The same tattoo his grandpa had except his was brighter. And his dad told him that he was a brave little boy and to never show the tattoo to nobody. 

And he didn’t until the day his dad took him to his Uncle John’s house where he met six other boys he didn’t know. And his dad and Uncle John brought all the boys in, had them all roll up their sleeves and stand together in a line just so, with their left forearms all held out in front of each of them. 

And his dad and Uncle John were real happy, happier than he’d ever seen either of them. And then the other boys left and his dad told him to forget about those boys. They’d got what they wanted from them, but they were taking him camping with them. Up into the mountains, they said, looking for something of value. 

End

Tasting the Local Tipple - By Brian Law 

“Nice place you got here,” the man said to the bartender. 

“Thanks, we like it. What’ll you have today?” the bartender replied. 

“Well, I’ve heard good things about some of your local brews. What’s local and on tap?” 

The bartender leaned in and asked the man, “What have you heard? Might help me narrow down your selection.” 

“Oh, I’ve been told your local ales, for instance, contain very interesting levels of Chlorostopin-2. Believe me, I couldn’t find those anywhere else. And I’ve really, really looked,” the man confessed. 

Wiping the bar with his rag and putting down a coaster, the bartender wondered, “So, you one of those, eh?” 

The man chuckled and asked, “Is it that obvious?” 

Smiling, and drawing a pint from the nearest tap, the bartender put the man at ease by saying, “Nah, but we know when your planet is closest to Earth. We keep tabs on that sort of thing and adjust our brewing schedule accordingly. See that guy in the corner booth, by the way?” 

The man glanced over his shoulder and could just barely see a small, misshapen creature sitting in the booth, an empty glass in front of it with four empty pitchers on the table. Turning back to the bartender, the man said, “Looks like just another intergalactic drunk to me. What’s so special about that one?” 

The bartender motioned the man closer as he explained, “You mentioned Chlorostopin-2. Well, we just introduced a double-hopped, Chlorostopin-2 infused microbrew in anticipation of you guys showing up. It’s got a hint of spicy deviled egg and nachos and sports a wet potter’s clay, waxy flax, and sesame chocolate candy finish. Oh, and a hint of quince jam and honey toasted spice fruitcake in its aroma. But that one in the corner booth got here about seven hours ago and has been ordering non-stop pitchers of the stuff.” 

“So?” the man asked. 

“Well, he didn’t look like that when he started!” the bartender responded. “He looked just like you! I mean exactly like you.” 

The man took another look at the creature in the corner booth and realized who it must be. “Fruitcake, you say?” the man asked. 

“Yeah, just a hint, though,” the bartender replied. 

The man sighed and lowered his head a bit as he whispered to the bartender, “Look, don’t ever tell anybody this, but we’re allergic to fruitcake, okay? It’s like frigging kryptonite. That’s what it does to us.” 

The bartender took the pint of ale off the bar, poured it out, and asked the man, “So, what’ll it be?” 

“Make it a Budweiser. Better safe than sorry, right?” the man answered, looking over his shoulder at the creature in the corner booth. 

End

The Quilt Shoppe - By Brian Law 

“Yes, sir, may I help you?” the clerk asked. 

“I hope so,” the man replied. “I am looking for a very special quilt.” 

“We have a large inventory of quilts in this shop. Also, we have catalogs, of course, with every description of quilt imaginable. But, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, we can arrange for one of our quilt makers to consult with you on making one,” the clerk responded. “Just what kind of a quilt are you looking for, sir?” she wondered. 

He moved closer to the clerk and lowering his voice a bit, said, “I’m sure you don’t have what I’m looking for. It’s really quite unique and I haven’t been able to find it in any quilting shop or catalog.” Looking around to ensure he wasn’t being overheard, he pulled a document from his jacket pocket and laid it flat on the counter for the clerk to see. “Here, this is what I want it to look like. Any chance you have quilters who might be capable of creating something like this?” 

The clerk put on her glasses and looked closer at the document spread out on the counter. She was immediately caught by the intricacies of the designs and asked, “Just what do these represent? Some of our quilters specialize in flora, some are fauna specialists, and some do their best work with inanimate subjects. It would help me find just the right quilter for this project if you could tell me what I’m looking at here.” She looked up at the man and waited for his answer. 

The man looked back at her, his eyes not betraying what he was thinking or feeling, and replied, “Let’s go with inanimate for now.” 

“Okay, that narrows it down a bit. What I’d like to do is take a picture of this and text it to a quilter who I think could really do a good job for you,” the clerk suggested. “If that’s alright with you, I’m sure I could get an answer from her in just a few minutes.” She took out her phone and waited for the man to decide what to do. 

“Tell me something about this quilter first, will you? Is she older? Does she live alone? Does she live in town or out in the country?” the man asked. 

“Well, she’s in her seventies , retired, and she lives alone about a mile or so out of town. She worked for the County Coroner if that means anything to you. And her quilting skills are superb, absolutely top notch,” the clerk relayed. “Okay if I text her with a picture? I’m sure she’s home. She always is.” 

The man nodded his assent and waited as the clerk snapped the photo and texted it to the quilter. Within minutes, she received a phone call in return. “Hi, this is Kathy. I just finished up a project and would love to try my hand at your proposal. Do you want me to drop by for a chat? I could be there in about thirty minutes.” 

The clerk told the man that the quilter could come into town and meet with him within the hour. He told her he’d rather drop by her home instead if that was agreeable with the quilter . He was headed out of town anyway. The clerk relayed that to Kathy. 

“Well, send him on out, then. Tell him I’ll need a five hundred dollar cash deposit if I decide to take on the project. And tell him I’m very interested and intrigued by what you sent me. There’s just something about those designs that stirs a distant memory, but I just can’t put my finger on it. My memory isn’t what it used to be. Anyway, I’ll be here waiting, love. Thanks for thinking of me. Bye.” 

The clerk relayed this information to the man who thanked her, retrieved his document, and left the shop. As she watched him drive off, she was pleased that she was able to help out another local quilter. She kept a special book just for this purpose with before and after photographs of local quilter’s projects, and she busied herself with printing out a copy of the document the man had shown her earlier as a ‘before’ picture. She couldn’t wait for Kathy to finish the quilt and provide her with the ‘after’ photo. 

She was interrupted by a customer walking into the shop. It was Rick, one of the Sheriff’s deputies who had dropped by to check on a quilt order he’d put in recently. As they chatted, Rick noticed the copy of Kathy’s project laying on the counter and he couldn’t help but comment on it. “Wow,” he exclaimed, as he picked it up and took a closer look. “You know what this looks like, don’t you?” 

The clerk shook her head as she continued to check on the progress of Rick’s order. 

“Each of these blocks looks like a different ‘blood spatter’ pattern. You know, from a crime scene.  Here, this one is what they call ‘cast off’. And this one, that’s ‘low velocity’ or ‘passive spatter’. And these blocks look like the real thing, you know. Not like crime scene photos, but like the actual spatter evidence itself. Where in the hell did you get this, anyway?” Rick asked, an urgency in his voice. 

As the clerk told him about the man and about Kathy,  the deputy relaxed and asked the clerk if she wanted a donut. He had a full box in his cruiser, he had more than enough,  he had some time before he had to get back on patrol, and as he reflected,  "Nothing ever happens around here, anyway." 

End

A Novel Beginning - By Brian Law 

He had been drinking alone at his favorite ale house since the sun had gone down. He was drunk, but not so drunk as to be unaware what his raunchy fellow drunks were saying about his long dead relative’s play that was now at The Globe. Even the strumpets had an opinion. And they all were saying the same thing  . . . his ancestor was a genius! 

He raised his tankard and drained its contents in one swallow. As he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked around the foul-smelling tavern, he knew he might have to accept that he could never match his dead relative’s writing skill. But that would signal a defeat he wasn’t ready to accept. He yelled out for another ale and slumped down dejectedly as he waited for its arrival. And then from some mysterious part of his stupor came a series of ideas. 

It so excited him that didn’t drink any of the next ale placed down in front of him. Instead, on the back of a paper flyer he’d put in his pocket weeks ago, he scratched out a series of book titles. And not just any books, but books of social significance and not about royals or the elites. But books about everyday people and their triumphs and tragedies. And below each title, he wrote a precis of each book, just enough to remind him what it would be about when he sobered up. 

As he finished writing, he held up the scrap of paper and smiled at his accomplishment. In a very small space, he had densely packed a huge amount of information which he assured himself would be sufficient to get him on the road to success beginning tomorrow morning. 

As he picked up his tankard and started drinking ale again, one of his drinking friends sat down next to him and struck up a conversation. “Richard, I’ve been watching you. You’re up to something, you old reprobate. Let me in on the secret, won’t you?” 

Slurring his words a bit, Richard Shakespeare reluctantly revealed the contents of his tomes to his friend. “These are good ideas, Charles. Take this one for instance, ‘A Tale of Four Cities’. It’s a political tale, a love story, and a mystery all wrapped into one.” And with that he laid out in detail the story he planned to start writing the next morning. 

“Oh, and there’s this one, Charles. It’s a great idea and I’m calling it ‘David Twist’. It’s about downtrodden youths and the unscrupulous demons who take advantage of them.” Taking another drink, Richard then added, “And this one will be a great book. I call it ‘Oliver Copperfield’. It’s a story about the coming of age of a young man, and all the triumphs and tragedies he encounters along the way.” 

Charles watched and listened closely. Soon, Richard finished his ale, put his head down on the table and started to snore. Making sure he wasn’t being watched, Charles carefully removed the filthy document from his friend's grip and secreted it in his overcoat. 

Then, signaling for the barmaid, he indicated, “When my friend here wakes up, be sure he has an ale in front of him until you close.” And with that, he handed her several shillings. 

“Right you are, Mr. Dickens, sir. I will sure do as you say, sir,” the barmaid answered. “And I won’t tell him where his good fortune came from neither, Mr. Dickens.” 

Not that he’d ever remember any of what just happened, thought Dickens, a shrewd smile on his face. 

End

The Bent Electrode - By Brian Law 

His car sputtered to a stop just as he cleared the city limits sign. Luckily the car’s momentum was enough to allow him to steer it onto the shoulder. And after trying to get it started for several minutes, he sat back and realized he was going to have to walk back into town and find somebody to fix it. He remembered seeing a gas station somewhere in the middle of the dusty little town. 

“Hi, do you have a mechanic on duty?” he asked the young attendant. He had his suit jacket over his shoulder and his briefcase in his left hand as he asked the question. 

“Yeah, Ben’s out workin’ on a big rig north of town, but he’ll be back around four this afternoon. What’s your problem, mister?” the young man wondered as he looked him up and down. 

“My Land Rover stopped running just outside of town and I’m going to need your mechanic to look at it. Can he work on Land Rovers?” he asked. 

“Sure, but parts might be a problem. How about I drive back to your car and I’ll see if I can get it running. And if not, I’ll tow it back here. How does that sound?” 

“Sounds good. Look, here’s my car keys. Go ahead and try to get it running but tow it if you have to. Whatever happens, I’ll be waiting at that little bar across the street, okay, the ‘Bent Electrode’. Can you handle that?” he suggested. 

“No problem, mister. What’s your name, by the way?” 

“Jones.” 

“Okay, Mister Jones, I’ll probably get back to you in an hour or so. Just tell Jake the bartender that you’re waiting for service from me. I’m Billy.” 

He nodded, turned, and headed across the street. The heat in this remote part of New Mexico was intense as he opened the door to the bar and saw that it was empty, except for the bartender. “Hi, Jake, Billy over at the gas station said I could wait here until Ben can take a look at my car. It broke down just outside of town.” 

“Have a seat mister. We don’t get many visitors here, just locals. What’s your poison?” Jake asked. 

“Smirnoff vodka rocks, Jake,” he said, laying a twenty down on the bar. 

As Jake turned to prepare his drink, he asked, “How’d you come by the name for the bar, anyway, Jake?” 

Jake placed his drink on a napkin on the bar, stuck a plastic stirrer in it, and replied, “Well, now, that’s quite a story, Mr. . . , uh, I didn’t get your name.” 

“Jones, the name is Jones.” 

“Well, Mr. Jones, about forty years ago, me and Ben were in our early twenties. Ben had just started working at the gas station and I had just started here as a bartender. The place was known as “Pecos Lounge” back then. Anyway, this funny looking guy comes in and says his car is broken-down and could Ben take a look at it.” 

“Funny looking, huh? How so?” he pondered. 

“Kinda pointy ears and weird colored skin. But we cater to all kinds way out here, so Ben tows this funny looking guy’s car into the garage and starts working on it. Works on it for seven hours, then comes over and tells the guy he’s fixed it,” Jake recounts. 

“So you were in here with this guy for seven hours? What did you both have to talk about?” he asked. 

“Not much. Said his name was Jones. He drank Smirnoff vodka rocks, too. Just like you. We didn’t really talk much,” Jake continued. 

“So, maybe I’m missing something, but this doesn’t sound like it’s a big deal. Am I missing something, Jake?” 

“Well, Ben comes in and tells the guy he fixed his car and they settle up and the guy leaves. Then Ben sits down and orders a double bourbon. Now Ben never drinks bourbon! So I ask him just what’s going on,” Jake said. 

“And?” 

“Well, Ben says he’d never seen a car like this one before. Real strange. Kind of advanced, you know. Anyway, Ben said all that was wrong was a ‘bent electrode’ in the main power source. And that’s how we came up with the name for the bar.” 

“Ah, I see now. So you two figured that maybe this funny looking fellow and his advanced vehicle might be . . . .” 

“Yep, an alien, Mr. Jones. That’s what we figured. The funny looking fellow was an alien driving around in an alien vehicle out here in no-wheres-ville New Mexico where he figured nobody would think anything about it.” 

“Wow, what a story, Jake! Anybody ever follow-up on this guy? Anybody from the government, for instance?” 

“Nah, we’re not hardly even on the map. But there’s more, Mr. Jones. You want another?” 

“Sure,” he said, looking at his watch. 

As Jake went about mixing another vodka rocks, he recounted, “So, every once in a while, we get more funny looking fellas in here with cars that need work. And they all ask for Ben and stop over here at the bar to wait for him to fix their vehicles. Happens maybe once every two, three years. No shit!” 

Just then Billy stuck his head into the bar and yelled, “Mr. Jones, I couldn’t get your car started, so I towed it across the street. Ben will be here soon. I’m sure he can fix it. We saw one just like it two, maybe three years ago. No problem. Have another drink and I’ll let you know when it’ll be ready.” 

As Billy closed the door, he sighed and toyed with his drink, took a sip, and then looked up at Jake. “So, you knew all along. What gave me away, Jake? We thought we were getting pretty good at this since we first started coming to your little town.” 

Jake put his arms on the bar in front of Mr. Jones, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up revealing a large tattoo on each forearm. He leaned in close so that his face was real close to Mr. Jones' face and said, "Mister, ever since you walked in that door there's been only one song playing on the juke box. And it's been playing over and over again for almost an hour since you came in. It's kind of a test we do whenever a stranger comes in." 

"A test?" 

"Yeah, Mr. Jones. Nobody from around here could ever sit and listen to 'Louie, Louie' played over and over again without saying something. But all you guys, not a peep." 

End

God's Nap - By Brian Law 

“Shouldn’t we do something?” she asked the other angel. “I mean, there’s a lot going on down there and it really needs some special attention! The kind of attention that only God can give.” 

“Orders were to let him nap for an hour, period. And you know how he gets if he’s disturbed. Remember what happened to what’s-her-name?” the other angel replied. 

“You mean the one whose name we’re not supposed to repeat? That one?” 

“Yep, that one. The one who woke him early from his nap back in 'The Dark Ages'. And you heard what happened to her, right? Oh, Lord, they really made an example of her, they did.” 

The first angel said nothing. She’d heard the rumors. Some examples stand the test of time. Finally, looking at her watch, she made a suggestion, “Okay, he’s been napping for about fifty-two minutes. That’s about a hundred years Earth time. How about if I just drop this vase by his closed door? You know, pretend that it was a mistake. Wake him up, but without really having any of us take the blame. You in?” 

The other angel breathed in deeply and let it out slowly. “Whew, I don’t know. It’s risky. But it just might be worth it considering how bad things have gotten down there since he went to bed.” He thought for a minute, and then made his own suggestion, “How about we invite one of the new arrivals up here and make sure the vase is in a place where he or she will bump into it and make it fall? That way we’re in the clear and the new arrival takes the heat? Deal?” 

The first angel smiled and took out the book of new arrivals. As both of them perused the names, one stood out. “This one is perfect! Even God would have trouble blaming this one! Call down and have her sent up while I get the vase ready, okay?” the other angel indicated. 

The first angel immediately agreed and picked-up the golden phone, dialed the gate, and said ,“Pete, Shirley here. Send up Mary Tyler Moore via the staircase, will you, please? We have something we need to ask her.” As Pete made the necessary arrangements, the vase was placed so that as she turned the corner at the top of the staircase, she would without doubt run into the vase and cause it to break close to God’s closed door. The two angels waited, smiling at each other in anticipation. 

As it happened, God was not angry when he was awakened by the noise. He’d been awake anyway for a while, something about arthritis pain in his hip. And, as he peeked out his door and saw Mary Tyler Moore standing there all embarrassed, he smiled and told her not to worry. He even asked her for her autograph before sending her down the staircase. Then he turned his attention to the two attending angels standing nearby. 

“Okay you two, what do you have to report? What’s been going on since I laid down?” God asked, taking a sip from the coffee handed to him by the other angel. 

“Well, Boss, things have deteriorated somewhat. The planet is getting warmer, people are at each other’s throats, and there’s a Pandemic,” the first angel answered. 

“Did you put real cream in this?” God wondered, as he took a second sip of the coffee. 

“Yes, Boss, real cream. Oh, and there was this guy Trump. He was around for a few seconds, and he was a real disrupter. May have been the handiwork of the ‘Anti-Christ”, Boss. We’re still checking,” the other angel responded. 

“Okay, so we got more of the same, huh? You go to take a nap and what happens? Well, I’m on it now. By the way, how’s the market?” God queried. 

“Surprisingly strong, Boss.” 

“Good. Have my broker buy me a million shares of DucoRama. It’s going to be the next big thing.” 

End

Pecking Order - By Brian Law 

His retirement party was a low-key event in keeping with his own personality. Nothing fancy, no punch lines, just solid talk from solid folks, and then it was all over, just like that. They handed him his plaque and the curtain had come down. He looked over to his wife who sat quietly in their car next to him as they drove home, neither of them saying a word, the plaque held firmly in her lap.  

He’d worked with the same agency for almost forty years ever since his graduate school days at Ohio State. His skills as a computer programmer catapulted him into the center of one of the most important projects the agency ever embarked upon. And when he retired, he was the project’s acknowledged expert. It was his baby and leaving it behind was one of the hardest things he’d ever done, especially since he could never, ever talk about it to anyone, not even his wife.  

In its earliest stages, the project was an “After Action Analysis” tool intended by the agency as a method to help determine why some operations went wrong while others were wildly successful. For each operation, all known events along its timeline were entered into the computer program which then identified the most likely ‘event’ that caused either failure or success of the entire operation. The results were eye-opening.  

They found that ‘events’ as seemingly innocuous as whether an operative lit a cigarette at a given time or a minute later were determinative of the operation’s outcome. And even more unusual, when they put in events that surrounded the operation, but were not directly linked to it, such as unrelated nearby automobile accidents or nearby domestic disturbances, these also could play a large part in an operations result.  

For years they struggled to understand how these seemingly small or disconnected events could have such a large impact on the agency’s operations. As they expanded the scope of events they input into the program, they were even more surprised to discover that events that happened at the same time, but in different cities or even different countries, had similar impacts.  

At the time of his retirement, they were working on identifying how outside events that occurred even weeks before their operations began might have an effect. The preliminary results were both exciting and disturbing. He was beginning to believe that ‘everything’ was interconnected, that the agency could control only a small fraction of events that might affect an operation, and that failure or success was perhaps a predetermined conclusion of any operation.  

He got up early the next day and without waking his wife went downstairs to his study. Closing the door, he went to a secret hiding place in the floor and extracted a copy of the current program he’d surreptitiously removed from the vault at work. It was time, he thought, to determine just how his retirement might affect the agency’s next operation. Would a simple change in personnel in the IT Section be a meaningful event going forward? He had mixed feelings, but high hopes.  

The program was huge and took a few minutes to load into his computer. He had the latest version, so it had all the current events loaded into it. All he had to do was code-in his retirement and the name of his replacement. It took a few moments to accomplish this as he sat back and waited.  

His wait was rewarded with the following message:  

Impact of Event 4039-94A: Negligible  

Probability: High-99.9%  

Input Next Event:  

He sighed, half expecting what he’d just read, half expecting the opposite. But he was resigned to the program’s conclusion. As he sat there thinking, he heard the upstairs’ toilet flush and knew that his wife had just arisen.  

On a whim, he typed that event in as ‘Event 4039-95A, Wife Flushes Toilet Upstairs’ and waited. The result came quickly:  

Impact of Event 4039-95A: Critical to Success of Operation  

Probability: Medium/High-75.0%  

Input Next Event:  

He smiled and headed for the downstairs bathroom, leaving the computer program running. ‘Let’s just see,’ he said to himself, ‘ just who’s more important around here.’  

End

The Man From Dixie - By Brian Law 

If you didn’t already know they were there, you’d never find them. Both the old pickup and the shabby little trailer hooked-up to it were so well hidden from the main road that even the County Sheriff’s patrols weren’t aware of them. And that’s just the way Jerry Little wanted it.  

Jerry didn’t own the land where he was camping. It was owned by his brother-in-law. Now, ordinarily, Jerry would have set himself up some place on his brother-in-law’s farm, but Jerry’s sister would have none of that. So she arranged for Jerry to have access to some of her husband’s property down by the creek until Spring. But that would be it, she had told him. He’d have to sponge off somebody else after that.  

The last five years had been rough on Jerry Little. He’d wrecked his other truck after having one too many one Saturday night and that landed him in the hospital with no insurance for seven weeks. When he got out, he was broke and nearly crippled, with only his pickup truck and shabby trailer to his name. That’s when he swung the deal with his brother-in-law and moved in down by the creek.  

It was late one January afternoon and Jerry was inside his little trailer trying to get warm over his kerosene camp stove. Every bone in his body hurt and he’d spent the last of his available cash on a case of local beer, and that was about gone now. As he opened one of the last beers, he heard a commotion outside, and as he wiped the fog off the inside of the trailer’s window, he saw something very unusual outside.  

It was one of those fancy stretch limousines pulling up near his rig, and it looked like a chauffeur had got out of the driver’s seat and was opening one of the rear doors for somebody to get out. Jerry took a long swig of his beer, reached for his jacket and cap, and continued to watch the limo. From the back seat emerged a tall, stately black gentleman, maybe around seventy or so, dressed in an expensive suit and wearing a fancy overcoat and hat. He said something to the chauffeur and then walked to the door of Jerry’s trailer, knocked, and called out, “Jerry Little, you in there?”  

“Yeah, that’s me,” Jerry replied from behind the trailer’s door. “I got every right to be here. Just ask my brother-in-law. I ain’t trespassin’ or nothin’.”  

“Jerry, you’re a hard man to track down. I’ve had people looking for you for years. I’m Jonah West, you know, from your old high school class at Fairview High, back in 1968. You remember me, don’t you, Jerry?” the fellow asked.  

Jerry hadn’t thought about his high school years since he got out of the Army, but that name seemed to ring a bell. “Jonah West? You that black boy in my class. Sure, I remember you. Here, let me open this door and let you inside. You want a beer or something?”  

As he opened the trailer door, the stench from inside hit Jonah West and he recoiled a bit. “Jerry, I don’t have much time. Why don’t you come into my limo for a few minutes. I think I can make it worth your while.”  

“Can I bring my beer?” Jerry asked.  

“Sure, Jerry, my driver will take it over for you. I’ve got a nice California Pinot Gris chilling in the back, if you prefer,” Jonah offered as he headed back towards the limo.  

“I drink whatever’s on the table these days, Jonah,” Jerry quipped as he closed the trailer door and followed the tall black man to the rear of the limo. He slid in facing Jonah as the driver handed him his beer and closed the door, leaving the two men together behind the privacy glass. “So, you’ve been lookin’ for me for quite a while, huh, Jonah? Now that you’ve found me, are you disappointed?” Jerry wondered, looking around the sumptuous interior of the vehicle.  

“Not at all, Jerry, not at all. In fact, I’m glad that I’ve found you in somewhat difficult straits. What I mean is that I think I’m in a position to help you out. And help you out a lot, Jerry!” Jonah announced.  

“Hey, let’s have some of that California stuff you talked about. Just pour some into my empty beer bottle, will ya, Jonah?” Jerry suggested. “Now, what’s all this about helping old Jerry out?”  

Jonah carefully filled Jerry’s beer bottle almost to the top with the Pinot Gris, poured himself about a half of a glass, and then began his story, “So, do you remember one afternoon in high school when I was getting beaten to a pulp behind the football bleachers by three white boys? And you stepped in and ran them off? You recall any of that, Jerry?”  

“Sure, Jonah. No big deal. I loved to fight in high school, but I just hated it when other folks got bullied. So, you’re welcome, Jonah. I’d do it again today, too,” Jerry replied, grinning, and taking a sip from his beer bottle.  

“I know, I know, Jerry. That’s just the kind of man you were and still are. And I’ve always appreciated what you did back then. Those three had been terrorizing me for months, and you put a stop to that for good, Jerry. You made me believe in the goodness of others, Jerry, and that has stuck with me over my lifetime. Have you, by the way, followed my career, Jerry?” Jonah asked.  

Jerry shook his head.  

“Okay, no matter. Just suffice it to say that I’m in a position to pay you back, Jerry Little. For that act of courage you performed towards me all those years ago, I want to grant you one wish, Jerry. I’m rich, my old friend, and I can make your life shine again. It’s the least I can do. So, name your wish, Jerry, and I’ll do my best to see that it gets done,” Jonah said, smiling and rubbing his hands together.  

“You’re not joking, are you, Jonah? You’re about as serious as a heart attack, aren’t you? One wish, huh?” Jerry wondered, looking around again. “One wish, hmm. Okay, I’ve got it!”  

“Just spell it out, Jerry, and I’ll have my people get going on it, as long as it’s reasonable, of course,” Jonah answered. “What’s your wish, Jerry?”  

“What I want is for Donald Trump to continue as President for four more years,” Jerry said excitedly. “Or eight more, if you can swing that.”  

Jonah shook his head and indicated that he couldn’t make that happen. “Sorry, Jerry. We’re going to need something a bit more doable, okay?”  

Jerry didn’t seem too fazed by this as he came up with his second wish, “Well, how about if you put all those Confederate statues back up? You know, the ones that were torn down this Summer. That’s doable, right?”  

“No, Jerry, I don’t think that’s feasible, either. Keep going, though, we’ll find something sooner or later that makes sense,” Jonah said encouragingly.  

Smiling, Jerry excitedly shouted out, “Close all the abortion clinics in the country. Yeah, close ‘em all down. That’s what I want, Jonah!”  

Jonah shook his head again and suggested that Jerry rethink his priorities. “How about something with a nice, fat price tag, Jerry? You know, a new house and truck, or a condo in Florida. Think in that direction, my old friend.”  

“Hmm, “ Jerry mumbled. “I know what I want. Just the ticket! I want forty thousand assault rifles with plenty of ammo, all legal like, okay? I want to give most of ‘em away. I’ll keep a few, of course. That should be doable, Jonah. I mean, it’s got a nice, fat price tag, don’t it?”  

Jonah was getting a bit ruffled by this time. “Jerry, even if I could do that, I wouldn’t. But I’m going to give you one last chance to come up with a wish that I can make happen without violating my conscience, okay. This is it, Jerry! Make it a good one, my old friend.”  

“So,” Jerry asked, “You want me to come up with something with a fat price tag that’s not going to offend your dainty sensibilities, is that it, Jonah?”  

Jonah nodded and checked his watch.  

“Okay, here goes, Jonah. I want you to build me a big old boat. You know, really big. Out of wood, Jonah. And it’s dimensions are gonna have to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. You with me so far, Jonah?  

“Wait, Jerry, let me write this all down?” Jonah answered, hastily scribbling down the measurements.  

“And I want that big old boat to be launched in New Orleans, into the River, Jonah, and then moored there until the right moment,” Jerry continued, a distant look in his eyes.  

“Right, right. Sounds doable so far, my friend,” Jonah said in an encouraging tone, writing furiously.  

“And I want that big old boat to be ready to take on two of every kind of animal there is in the world, Jonah, with a two weeks’ notice. No more than that!” Jerry declared. “Two weeks!”  

Jonah looked up from his notebook and asked “Is that all, Jerry? I think this is doable, I really do. Anything else, Jerry?”  

“Yeah, make sure there’s a two year supply of Lone Star beer aboard, too, Jonah. No, make that a three year supply,” Jerry added. “Oh, and a stateroom for you and one for me, too.”  

“Well, Jerry, I must say, you had me going there for a while. I was worried with all that Trump stuff and all that stuff about statues, clinics, and assault rifles. But it looks like you’ve got your head on straight about this boat idea of yours. Might make a lot of sense, giving the way things are headed,” Jonah remarked, closing his notebook.  

Jerry finished off his Pinot Gris with one swallow and dropped the empty bottle on the floor of the limo. Leaning in towards Jonah, he belched slightly and then said, a good old boy grin on his face, “I was just screwin’ with you about Trump and the other stuff, Jonah. But I had to make sure you’d go along with the whole boat thing. I think we’re on the same page now, though.”  

Jonah smiled and answered, “I could have used a man like you in my organization, Jerry. Anything else before I have my driver let you out?”  

“Yeah, you got any more of this California grape juice? I’m just about out of beer over at my place.”  

End

Wheelbarrowful - By Brian Law 

The wet sand felt good on his toes as he trundled along the shoreline lost in his own thoughts. He’d left his car back about a mile or so, took off his shoes, rolled up his pants legs, and had just started walking. The sun was low in the west and it was starting to get nippy as he hunched his shoulders against the offshore breeze that was creating a few whitecaps. As the shore break washed up around his legs, he didn’t care. He had bigger problems than wet pants, problems he just couldn’t seem to shake off. Maybe a walk on the beach would help.  

It was right about then that the bottle hit his right shin, spun about, and floated inland a few feet, stopping as the water around it receded. He looked down to see if he was bleeding, and he was, a bit. Stooping down to wipe a trace of blood away from the tiny scratch, he caught something in his peripheral vision, something in the bottle that was out of place. He turned and saw what appeared to be a face in the bottle looking out at him, its mouth moving in apparent speech.  

He stood up abruptly, looked around and seeing no one else, approached the bottle with caution. The closer he got, the clearer the face in the bottle was, and the clearer it was that it was trying to say something. Taking a deep breath, he knelt down, picked up the bottle, stared at the face, and then held the bottle up to his ear. Sure enough, he could hear a muffled voice. It was saying something like, ‘Open up the bottle! I will grant you one wish if you do!’  

He looked around again and found that he was still all alone on the beach. It would be so easy to just throw the bottle back into the sea and continue his lonely walk, but something told him that he should take the chance. He carefully removed the cork from the bottle, waited, and then heard a voice, ‘Oh, god, thank you. I wasn’t sure what language you spoke, so I took a chance on English. I think the baseball cap gave you away. I’m Jerome, by the way. Who are you?’  

“Bob. I hear you but I don’t see you. Is this a dream or something?  

“No, Bob. It’s very real. You, my friend, are now in a position to have one wish granted. There are some restrictions, of course, but that’s the deal I made with you. And you held up your end. So, interested?” Jerome explained.  

Bob breathed in deeply and asked, “One wish, huh?”  

“Yep. But before we go any further, let me explain the restrictions. There are four of them. So, you ready, Bob?” Jerome continued.  

“Sure. Do I need to write these down or something?”  

“No, they’re pretty simple, Bob. Here goes. First, once your wish has been granted, you need to be careful about how you live your life going forward. You have to live a good life.”  

“Uh, what happens if I slip up and fall off the wagon, Jerome? I’ve got sort of a track record with that sort of thing going back quite a way. I’m just saying, Jerome. It’s a real possibility,” Bob confessed.  

Jerome wasted no time in answering, “We’ll get back to that question in a few minutes, Bob.”  

“Okay, I understand. What’s the next restriction, Jerome?” Bob wondered, lighting his last cigarette.  

“Your wish can consist of only four words, Bob.”  

“So, if I said, ‘good health for life’, that would work?”  

“That’s right, Bob. That would be just four words and you would get it.”  

“Okay, I understand that restriction, too, Jerome. What’s the next one?”  

“Your wish cannot last beyond your natural life, Bob. So, once you’re gone, whatever you received through your wish disappears also. Got that, Bob?” Jerome inquired.  

“Ah, so what you’re telling me is that I can’t ask to live for more than my allotted time as that apparently is baked into the cake. So if I die lying on a stack of money, that money vanishes and none of my heirs benefit from anything I had during my life. That’s it, Jerome?”  

“Precisely, Bob.”  

“Okay, what’s restriction number four?”  

“You cannot dictate what happens to you after you die, Bob. This sort of blends in with restriction number one. So, you can’t ask to go to Heaven, but if you live a good and moral life, that might happen just as a matter of course, Bob.”  

Bob took a puff on his cigarette, exhaled, and concluded, “So, I got all these restrictions to keep in mind when I’m making my wish and afterwards. Now, here’s my questions again. What if I mess up on any one of these restrictions, Jerome? What happens then?”  

Jerome’s voice changed slightly in tone as he answered, “Then, Bob, you and I change places. I become the old you, walking forlornly on a beach, and you take my place inside this bottle, floating around until somebody picks you up on a lonely beach somewhere.”  

Bob responded with a low grumble as he flicked his cigarette butt into the water’s edge. “Hmmm. Lots to think about, Jerome.”  

“Yes, Bob, lots to think about. I’ll give you a minute to decide. Then, you either tell me your wish or I disappear back into the bottle and you continue your life as if you never met me.”  

Bob checked his watch, nodded his head, and started to think. After about a minute, he said, “Okay, Jerome. I’ve got my wish. You ready?”  

“Yes, Bob, go ahead. I’m listening.”  

“Uh, one question first, Jerome. Is ‘wheelbarrowful’ one,  two, or three words?”  

“‘Wheelbarrowful’ is one word, Bob.”  

“Then my wish is for a ‘wheelbarrow full of love’.” As he waited for his wish to be fulfilled, Bob thought he heard Jerome sigh a few times. “Is there a problem, Jerome?” Bob asked, checking his watch. “It’s starting to get cold out here and I have to get back to feed my dog.”  

“I’m thinking, Bob, I’m thinking, okay. Just give me a minute or two, will you, please?” came back the voice, a bit perturbed.  

“Sure, sure, Jerome, take your time. But look, if it’s too hard a wish to fulfill, I can come up with a simpler one. Really, it’s no big deal,” Bob explained, trying to move things along.  

“A deal’s a deal, Bob. I’m no welcher, okay. It’s just that your wish is so different from any of the others we’ve fulfilled that I’ve had to kick your request upstairs and I’m waiting for their reply. Be patient, please.” Jerome sighed a few more times, then excitedly responded, “Okay, Bob, they’ve approved your wish. Go back to your car and your ‘wheelbarrowful of love’ will be waiting for you.”  

“Gee, Jerome, thanks for all of this. I really appreciate it. Hope this doesn’t cause any problems between you and the guys upstairs.”  

“It’s nothing, Bob. Now, just pop the cork back in the bottle and give it a heave back into the surf, okay? And, Bob, have a great life, will you?”  

“Will do, Jerome,” Bob replied, “You, too.” And with that, he sent the corked bottle flying out into the surf far and headed back towards his car and his ‘wheelbarrowful of love’.  

His back now to the wind, Bob felt his spirits lift as if a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He wasn’t hunched over anymore nor lost in his own thoughts. Instead, he was walking upright, a broad smile on his face and a spring in his step. He didn’t feel trapped by his problems, but instead looked ahead with a newly found freedom.  

As he approached his car, he saw that it was still in the askance position he’d left it, taking up three parking spots. But there weren’t any other cars around, so he didn’t see the problem. There was, of course, no ‘wheelbarrowful of love’ or anything like that, Bob realized, still smiling broadly.  

It always took a long walk on the beach for his meds to kick in, and today was no exception. Perhaps he took one pill too many today. Maybe that would explain Jerome and the rest of it. But anyway, who knew what a 'wheelbarrowful of love' would even look like, Bob mused, as he got into his car.  

But that still didn’t explain the tiny scratch on his shin.  

End

Lost Among All the Others - By Brian Law 

She hadn’t been on a bus since she was a kid when she and her mother went cross-country together. But here she was again, in a window seat. . . except she was alone this time. The buses hadn’t changed much from her point of view. Still crowded with random, mostly poor passengers all facing forward. And somebody you don’t know asleep right next to you.  

Leaning against the window, she turned her head slightly to watch the landscape slide by as the sun rose in the distance. She wiped away the condensation from the window a bit and peered out wondering where they might be, not that it mattered. She figured it would be another fifteen hours before they got to her destination, but it helped pass the time.  

They were still in the Great Plains, that was certain. Mile after mile of fallow winter farmland where every now and then there would be a sign saying they were entering or leaving some county or other. She was about ready to take another nap when she saw the first road sign flash by her.  

“Lost? Alone? Disconnected?” it said in black letters against a bright white background. She was wide awake now. Did she really see that sign or was she just dreaming? She looked quickly at the man next to her. He was still sleeping.  

Quietly, and very slowly, she reared up a bit and looked at the people in the seats ahead of and behind her. They were still asleep. She apparently was the only one who had seen the sign. Or had she? Was it just her subconscious intruding on her waking life? She settled back down and looked out the window at the vast, unending landscape rushing towards her. She knew one thing for certain. There would either be another sign soon or there wouldn’t be. That was just how things worked. She looked out and waited.  

“Looking for a way to make sense of things?” the next sign read as it flashed by. She was wide awake and knew this was no dream anymore. Again she moved quietly and determined that no one else seemed to have seen the signs . . . just her. Were they just meant for her? Could it be some kind of special message just for her? God, she really needed something special to happen in her life now, and she was ready to grasp at anything. But this . . . this was so out-of-the-blue, so odd, so unexpected. And way out here in the middle of nowhere.  

As she slid back into her seat, another sign sped by. It read, “You have a choice”. Not really knowing why she did it, she immediately looked at the other side of the bus and saw another sign disappear quickly to her left. Plopping into her seat, she now realized the signs were on both sides of the highway, reaching travelers in both directions. Did they all say the same thing? And if they did, what was their point? She found her heart was beating faster now in anticipation of the next sign. She really felt alive for the first time in years and she wasn’t entirely sure why.  

The sun continued to rise and the bus was warming up a bit. The passengers were starting to wake up and move around, even the guy next to her. He woke up, sat up straighter, rubbed his eyes and smiled at her. But that was it. Nothing else. She leaned her head back against the cold window and waited.  

“Get off at the next stop and begin afresh” it read, again in stark black lettering against a bright white background. She checked her watch. They were hundreds of miles from her destination, apparently speeding down a straight ribbon of highway with few scheduled stops. She pardoned herself, rose and moved towards the aisle, the man next to her politely adjusting his position to accommodate her. She straightened her dress, checked the buttons on her blouse, pushed her hair back and headed towards the driver.  

“Excuse me but is there a stop coming up soon?” she asked tentatively.  

He turned his head slightly and replied, “Not a scheduled stop, but some folks get off at a crossroads about three miles up the road. I’ll pull over if you want to get off.”  

“So, you often drop passengers off at this crossroads?” she wondered.  

He nodded and added, “Not often. Why don’t you go back to your seat and I’ll announce the stop in plenty of time for you to get your luggage out and get ready to get off.”  

She smiled, thanked him, and moved slowly back towards her seat. The other passengers either acknowledged her or didn’t as she moved back down the aisle and arrived at her seat.  She waited for the man next to her to move to allow her back into her seat, and then settling down, she found herself completely focused on the roadside ahead as another sign swept by.  

“You won’t regret it. Your new life is waiting” it read. She inhaled deeply and then heard the driver yell out, “Stop ahead.” She looked at the man next to her, made her apologies, and rose to move back into the aisle. As she retrieved her luggage from the rack, the bus slowed down, pulled onto the shoulder, and stopped. She moved forward, pulling her luggage on its wheels behind her, and felt the cold air from outside sweep down the aisle as the driver opened the bus door.  

He was holding the door lever as she maneuvered her way down the steps and out onto the barren landscape. Standing there all alone, she looked back at the bus driver. He smiled, pulled on the door lever, and moved the big bus back onto the highway. She wished she’d worn something warmer as the bus moved quickly away from her. But she was strangely elated for reasons still foreign to her.  

For the first time, she looked around and saw that she was really, really in the middle of nowhere. The main highway pushed along in both directions, unimpeded by any landscape, and the crossroads didn’t have a road name or even a mile marker. She saw no other traffic and there was nowhere to sit.  

She reached into her purse for her phone, saw her last dollar bill, and then discovered there was no phone service. Putting on her sunglasses, she sat down on her suitcase and waited.  

It wasn’t long until she saw dust arising about a mile down the crossroads and moving towards her. Standing up and waiting for a moment, she could just make out an old pickup truck headed her way.  

She smiled to herself, checked her dress and the buttons on her blouse, and knew that, for a while at least, she was probably going to miss Starbuck’s.  

End

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