Beats All You Ever Saw

A little after 11 p.m. the dingy brown steel door of The Rainbow Room exploded outward. It slapped the yellow concrete block wall behind it as Jesse Rickman came through head first and air borne.

He landed on his face just short of where that little tar strip was oozed up. You know, between that big square concrete slab in front of the door and the asphalt of the parking lot. Then he bounced a little, like on wrestling on TV. Only in wrestling they ain’t landing on concrete, though they do wince like they are.

Well, the light above the door stopped about halfway out that concrete square. Jesse finally came to rest in the dark just past that. And his head was just shy of where the red light from the neon Rainbow Room sign lit the asphalt.

Anyway, an instant after Jesse hit the pavement, Ray Dickie came stomping through the door on his own two feet. He looked pretty imposing with his Bull Durham ball cap, his brown hair stringing down over his shoulders and his full, bushy beard.

His shoulders and chest bulged under the regular white t-shirt that was tucked into his greasy jeans. His cheeks were rounded and red up under his eyes like he’d seen a little exertion. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, and he was cussing a blue streak a mile wide and thicker than Texas.

Only he stopped for a second with the light of the door behind him, and he about blocked it. I mean, Ray ain’t no little guy. Rumor had it, back in the day he tried out to play defensive tackle for the Rams, only he was too big.

‘Course Jesse ain’t no little guy either at around 6’2” and north of 200 pounds, but he ain’t measuring up to Ray Dickie. Not in any good kind of way.

Well, with Jesse kind’a hidden in the dark down there on the asphalt, when Ray stopped he jerked his head right, then left. Like maybe he thought Jesse found his feet and run off.

But no such luck. You know, on Jesse’s part.

Still, all Ray could catch a glimpse of at first was me and Jackson. And then there were several others to the left and right of Ray himself. They came out when he followed Jesse’s hurled body through the door. Now they were bunched up on either side of it, six in one group and five in the other.

Me and Jackson were out front of Jesse. That’s on account of we’d just got out of Jackson’s ’48 F150 pickup and were heading in for a drink when that door blew open.

I figure Ray prob’ly saw us first, though prob’ly through an alcohol haze. But first or last, I was glad he saw us at all and counted us as no threat, ‘cause we weren’t.

Anyway, after he looked right and left, Ray finally looked down and caught sight of Jesse.

Jesse was just pushing himself up from the asphalt and shaking his head, hard, like he was clearing cobwebs. Now they got time for stuff like that on wrestling, on account of it’s all put on and the cobwebs are all fake anyway. But even with real cobwebs, Jesse should’a been in a bigger hurry than that. I know I would’a been. He could clear out the cobwebs some other day.

Anyway, as he pushed himself up I got a good look at his face, only I had to stoop over a little.

The right side of his face was scratched and raked, and his whole forehead was one big cherry from sliding along the concrete before he got to the asphalt. There was some blood mixed into the front of his pretty long blond hair too, like he’d been scalped. There were a few black tarry pebbles stuck in his right cheek, and two above his right eyebrow.

Anyway, he got his elbows under him, with his forearms still on the ground from there up to his wrists. So he was leaning kind’a up from the waist with his shoulders and head in the air and pointed in a particular direction. So kind’a like one’a them lizards doing pushups on a rock out in the desert, if you’ve ever seen that.

Now right there, see, if I was Jesse, that’s when I’d’a been digging the toes of my work boots into that concrete, getting me some leverage to sprint myself outta there. I’d’a made good time, too. Bet on it.

But not Jesse. Right there he paused again to shake his head. That was like on wrestling too, come to think of it, only on wrestling it’s all fake like I said.

Anyway that was probably his second mistake. You know, the first being whatever he’d done or said that caused Ray to use him as a battering ram.

Anyway, when he caught sight of Jesse, Ray stretched his lips wide open side to side in the evilest grin I ever saw. “Heh,” he said, and then he lumbered forward, only like he was in a hurry. He went back to cussing, too, only there were a lot of “c’meres” and “I’m’a gonna kill yews” mixed in.

Well, when he drew up along Jesse’s left side, he crooked his right elbow up like those wrestlers do on TV. Then he did a little leap, turned his butt toward Jesse and crashed down on him.

Jesse had just enough air to grunt, and that’s about all the noise we heard on the other side of Ray’s cussing. That and a few “oohs” from the crowd on either side of the door.

About the time Ray’s butt hit Jesse’s back, his elbow took Jesse in the back of the head and reacquainted his face with the asphalt. Only on the left side of his face this time. At least the two side’s’d match, if you could call that a good thing.

Well, about the time that grunt squished out of Jesse, Ray got off him and crabbed around in front. He grabbed Jesse’s hair on both sides and reared up on his knees.

That pulled Jesse’s head up about where it was before Ray landed on him, only now Jesse’s arms were just kind’a hanging there.

I believe Jesse was out cold.

That’s about the time through the top of my eyes I saw a little short shadow slip out through the door with an attachment sticking up and to the right.

2

For a second, I guess the shadow and its attachment was more interesting than what was about to happen to Jesse, so I looked up.

The shadow was Miguel “Mickey” Muñoz, the guy who runs the place. The attachment was his sawed-off Remington 870 shotgun.

Which he wasted no time in cocking.

Now racking a shell into a magazine-fed Remington shotgun makes a particular sound that’s hard to ignore. And plus, just as Muñoz pumped a shell into the chamber, he yelled, “Ray!”

Ray stopped, only Jesse’s hair was still twisted up in his fists just above Jesse’s ears on both sides. But Ray looked up at Muñoz and said, “Huh?”

Now I couldn’t see his face, but I’m betting Aunt Hattie’s gold teeth he was frowning.

So then Muñoz said, “Whatchu doing, Ray?” He dipped the barrel of that shotgun toward the ground a couple’a times. “Put that guy’s head down and come over here.”

Ray looked down at Jesse’s head like he’d just noticed it was there. Then he looked up at Muñoz again. Then he shrugged, straightened up on his knees and kind’a shoved Jesse’s head away from him.

It hit the asphalt with a dulled thwack, then rolled onto its left cheek.

Ray looked at Muñoz again and his ears raised a little, like maybe he was grinning. “Like that?”

Muñoz nodded. “That’ll do. Now come on over here.”

Ray looked down at Jesse again, then pursed his lips and squeezed out some spit. Prob’ly he was trying to get it to land in Jesse’s right ear. I couldn’t quite see if he hit the mark, but I did see that a lot of it was still stringing across Ray’s beard.

Anyway, Ray pulled his right foot up under him, then grabbed his right knee with both hands and pushed himself up. He overbalanced and teetered a little, and me and Jackson took a couple steps backward. Trust me, you don’t want Ray Dickie landing on you.

Then Ray kind’a leaned to the front and off he went to see what Muñoz wanted. Six shuffling steps into it, he stopped and said, “Whut?”

Muñoz pointed toward Jesse with the shotgun. “Wha’d he do? Run off on a tab?”

Ray looked back toward Jesse, then shook his head. “Nuh uh.”

Muñoz frowned. “Did he ask your girl to dance? Rosemary ain’t here tonight, is she?”

“Nuh uh.”

“So what then?”

Behind Ray, Jesse had his head up again, though only half as far as the first time. He shook it again.

Ray frowned at Muñoz. “You said.”

Even in the dim red light reflecting from a distance off the asphalt on Muñoz’ face, I saw his forehead wrinkle. “What? Whaddya mean, I said? I said what?”

Meanwhile, Jesse slowly pulled himself up to his knees. The top of his khaki button-down shirt was hanging open down to his belly and the top four buttons were gone. He only had one shirt pocket, on the left breast, and it was hanging by half of itself. Only the back of the tail was still tucked into his jeans. His black belt and the silver pass-through buckle were both scarred by the concrete.

He shook his head again. Then, before I got a chance to look him over good, he sucked in some breath and jerked his head around to look over his shoulder right quick. Like he’d stuck a fork in an outlet, or maybe like he could feel Ray’s breath or something.

Only Ray was still back there with Muñoz.

Jesse turned to us again and raised one hand to wipe something off his head. I guess Ray got him after all. He looked at his palm, wiped whatever was there on the back pocket of his jeans, then looked up at me and Jackson.

The left side of his face was covered in generally the same manner as the right, plus there were a few pebbles stuck to the side of his neck. That must’a happened when Ray landed on his back. Otherwise he wouldn’a been that flat.

Still looking at Jesse, both me and Jackson, like we were synchronized or something, jerked our heads to the left a little bit. You know, telling Jesse to git while the gitting was good. I mean, we didn’t say anything out loud—not with Ray standing right over there—but Jesse got it.

Moving real easy, he put his fingertips on the ground and pushed himself up to his feet. Then he looked back at Ray again and started tiptoeing off to his right.

Meanwhile, Ray focused his full attention on Muñoz and that Remington. He slipped his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans, then shifted his weight from his right foot to his left. I swear I thought he was gonna say, “Aw shucks” or something like that.

But real quiet, and kind’a whining—me and Jackson could still hear him, but just barely—he said, “You know, Mickey. What you said.”

And just then me and Jackson heard cars pulling into the parking lot behind us. At first we twisted our necks around to look, but then we turned on around.

Not that we’d lost interest in Ray and Muñoz, but there are things you don’t turn your back on.

It was those two homicide dicks, Valentino and Galecki. Cops.

Only they came in different cars. That was different.

Valentino swung his car into a spot first, and then Galecki pulled his in on the passenger side of Valentino’s.

For a second I thought it was just really good timing, what with Jesse and Ray and then Muñoz with that shotgun.

Except Valentino and Galecki work homicide and there wasn’t anybody dead here. Or any dead body here. You know.

Then I remembered on the other side of The Rainbow Room was Mickey’s Place, the cops’ hangout. So they were probably off duty. Probably they were glad there weren’t any bodies anywhere.

3

When he first got out of his car, Valentino put his left hand on the roof and glanced over at Jesse, who was halfway across the parking lot by then and still limping away.

The left side of Valentino’s grey, off-the-rack suit hung open. His heater dangled upside down in its holster at his left side. He watched Jesse for a minute, then closed his door and turned toward us.

Galecki did the same thing, complete with watching for a moment as Jesse limped along, only at his car.

His suit was a copy of Valentino’s. Only the fedoras were different. Galecki’s was dark brown and Valentino’s was grey. Trust an Italian to match his hat to his clothes. Still, they were both fedoras.

The cars were the same too.

Both Ford Crown Vics, both in a plain white wrapper.

Both unmarked, like that made a difference. Hey, if it’s a Crown Vic, chances are the filling is a cop.

As they walked toward me and Jackson, I nodded amicably. “Detectives.”

Bigs Valentino glanced past me for a second, checking out Muñoz and Ray, then directly at me. The guy’s got the most intense eyes I’ve ever seen. There’s never any doubt who he’s talking to. The only mystery is how deep he’s going into your brain. “Pilfer,” he said. “What’s going on?”

He calls me Pilfer on account of I could generally lay hands on whatever you might need whenever you might need it. Even information. You know, back in the day. In exchange for monetary consideration.

Me and Bigs kind’a used to be partners that way, him needing and me providing. I don’t know Galecki, though I’ve seen him around. I heard he’s a good guy though. And he’s hanging with Bigs, so he can’t be all bad. Maybe.

I shrugged. “Oh, nothing, Bigs. Nothing. Me and Jackson, we were just taking some night air before we go inside.”

Galecki said, “So you haven’t been inside yet?”

While I was busy with Galecki, Bigs glanced past me again. He seemed to be sizing things up.

Jackson said, “Wull, yeah, but—”

I looked at Galecki. “No, not here.” I looked at Jackson. “He means here, man.” Then I looked at Galecki again. “We just got here a few minutes ahead of you guys. You gotta forgive Jackson. He gets nervous.”

Galecki looked at Jackson, then at me. Prob’ly trying to decide what to believe. Then, like he really didn’t want to be involved, he shrugged and looked around, kind’a stretching his neck. Only he avoided looking straight at Muñoz and Ray. Finally he said, “Yeah, well, you know—nice night for it.”

Bigs apparently decided Muñoz was in control of whatever was happening behind us. He grinned that direction once and tipped his head just the slightest bit. Then he glanced at me. “Hey, you boys have a good night.”

Then the two dicks stepped around us and started toward the front corner of the place over on the right. The front entrance for Mickey’s Place was around that corner, about twenty feet down.

I turned around to see what Muñoz and Ray were doing.

Only they weren’t there. They and their entourage had gone inside. The entourage itself prob’ly disappeared when me and Jackson first turned around to face the cops. I tugged on Jackson’s sleeve and started toward the door of The Rainbow Room. “C’mon,” I said. “I wanna see what Muñoz told Ray that caused him to beat the crap outta Jesse.”

Jackson wagged one hand. “As if. By now it’s all history, I’m sure.”

We got to the door about the time Bigs and Galecki reached the front corner of the building.

4

I reached down, worked the brass latch with my thumb and pulled on the big door handle, then swung it open.

Even before we went in, the pounding beat, beat, beat of some kind’a progressive rock stomped through the door at us. Some would-be singer was yelping at the top of his lungs over and between the beats. And that was on a sound system or a radio or something. Maybe we could get them to turn it down.

There’d be a live band on Friday and Saturday nights, maybe. If someone wanted to play, and if Muñoz wanted to hire them.

The sound was accompanied by a mixture of smells—mostly alcohol, vague body odor and smoke—maybe with a little hint of perfume swirled in.

Inside, the smells were stronger. The place was dimly lighted, too, and hazy with the grey stench of cigarette smoke. And maybe there was some other smoke too. Seemed to be a little eau de marijuana mixed into it here and there.

As for the lighting, other than the few lights above the bar, there were maybe ten lights in the ceiling, and they were recessed. Plus some were kind of an orange yellow and some were red.

There was a slightly raised bandstand in the far corner on the left. It was Tuesday, so there was a set of drums and a couple’a empty mike stands on it, but nothing else. And it was dark. It had its own lights, I guess, when there was a band.

There was a dance floor on the near side of the bandstand, then thirty or so cheap wooden tables with their chairs. Most of the tables had at least a couple’a people seated at them, all tainted by the orange-yellow and red lights. They were all talking among themselves, leaning toward each other to be heard underneath the music.

And then the bar stretched the length of the wall to the right. Like I say, it was the only part of the place that was pretty well lighted. And then there were a couple’a short fluorescents over the whiskey and wine bottles on the shelf under the mirror behind the bar. There were several people at the bar. Most were on barstools, most minding their own business, their elbows on the bar and their shoulders hunched around their own problems.

To the right of the door, a new bouncer had taken Ray’s place.

It was Blay Mercer—the Blay is short for Blaylock, I’m not jokin’—in all his camouflage glory. He was never in the military, but he wanted to be I guess. He was perched up on a barstool he’d dragged over from the end of the bar. The heels of his worn black combat boots were hooked over the chrome rail that ran around the base of it about a foot off the floor.

His blue eyes filled his coke-bottle glasses as he peered at us from beneath a camouflage boonie hat. His kinky dark brown hair supported it with tight curls. “Hey guys,” he said, his head bopping to the beats of the music.

“Hey,” Jackson said as we moved past. No live band, no cover, no need to stop.

We headed for a couple barstools at the near end of the bar, one on each side of the corner where it turned to run back to the wall.

Jackson took the barstool at the corner on the long side of the bar.

I moved past the corner and aimed my butt at the first barstool on that side. There were only two barstools behind me, and both were vacant. Beyond that was the door that connected The Rainbow Room to the more conservative Mickey’s Place.

I liked that barstool. I could see most of the room from there. I looked forward to maybe spotting Muñoz and asking him about what happened earlier.

As I sat down and swiveled the barstool to face the tables, I looked at Jackson. “So, you gonna get your usual?”

He nodded.

I thought Muñoz would be behind the bar, but he wasn’t.

The bartender on duty was Josh Dermin, an old guy who was basically a chunk of conservative flesh.

He wore a white t-shirt over khaki trousers and black oxfords. The guy was bald, save for a quarter-inch stubble of white hair in the center of the top of his head. The rest of his hair was also a quarter-inch long. It formed a white horseshoe from his left temple around the back of his head to his right temple. It also extended down the back of his neck.

He’s one of those guys who shaved down to the neckline of his t-shirt. When he bent and moved his shoulders just right over the rinsing sinks, the front or back of his t-shirt would bulge open a bit to expose some of the hair he didn’t bother shaving. That was on his chest and back. And probably his shoulders.

I rapped on the bar with my knuckles just as a man about halfway along the bar said, “See you next time, Josh.”

The man slipped off his barstool as Dermin raised his left hand toward me to let me know he’d heard me.

Dermin watched, wiping his hands on his bar towel from force of habit, as the man leaned down to look at the ticket containing his tab. Then he leaned forward and said something to the guy, but I couldn’t hear it.

The guy laughed and said, “Good one.” Then he straightened, fished several bills out of his pocket and laid them on top of the ticket. “Keep it.”

Dermin grinned and raised a hand as the man turned away. “Thanks, Bob.” Then he picked up the ticket and the bills, turned and opened the cash register.

My mouth watered. Soon after Dermin got the money put away and dropped his tip into his pocket, I’d get my first taste of the day of a Beam and Coke.

I always ordered Beam and Coke for the first one. After that I just took whatever was in the well with Coke. I’m a good friend to Jim Beam, but after the first one it all tastes about the same anyway.

And I might as well order for Jackson too. A salty dog in an old-fashioned glass.

Dermin straightened and shoved the register closed as he flopped his bar towel over his left shoulder. The ding of the register sounded just as Ray Dickie came around the far end of the bar.

Behind him was Mickey Muñoz.

5

 I focused on Josh Dermin.

As he turned away from the cash register, I raised my right hand and smiled. “Hey, Josh. Just bring me a—”

“Hey, you can’t bring that in here!” It was Blay Mercer.

“You can’t stop me! Where is he?”

Mercer again, yelling. “Hey! I said—”

Then noise of a struggle came from behind me. Somebody hitting the floor.

Me and Jackson both twisted around at the same time.

Blay Mercer was lying on top of someone on the floor, struggling, and four hands were extended toward me.

No, four fists. And something else. Like a small pipe.

Mercer shifted and there was a flash of blond hair.

With blood in it.

As he was getting up, Jackson pointed and yelled, “Jesse! That’s Jesse Rickman! And he’s got a—”

The explosion was tremendous in the enclosed space.

Behind me people were screaming, chairs were falling over, tables were scraping on the floor.

I seemed glued to the barstool. I swiveled back around to look at the tables.

The bartender had disappeared.

I felt myself frown. What’s all the screaming about?

As I was turning back to see where Jackson had gone—

How did he get off his barstool? Mine seemed stuck.

He had taken a step and stopped. He turned his head to look at me. “Jim?”

His face looked weird.

“What?” I said. Then I looked down.

Both hands were over his gut. Blood was pumping out through his fingers.

He frowned at me, then bent double and fell.

It took all my effort to turn my head back toward the bar.

Where’s Mickey and his shotgun?

Mickey was right behind Ray Dickie, being shoved along by Dickie’s backward progress.

Dickie was backing up, his hands up in front of his chest like a shield.

So he was okay. He was going the right way.

I twisted, agonizingly slowly, to look back at Mercer and Rickman, still tangled up on the floor. Just like wrestling on TV. Only that’s all fake.

Behind me, the door exploded open and slapped the wall.

A thunderous, “Where’s the gun?” came from a million miles away and right behind my left shoulder.

Bigs! That was Jimmy Bigs Valentino!

I started raising my right hand to point. “Over th—”

Another explosion, and I watched as a flame shot out directly toward me.

Why me?

But something zinged off something. The seat on Jackson’s barstool spun like it was gonna take off. Somewhere behind me somebody grunted hard. Somebody fell down.

Then another explosion right inside my left ear and a red spot formed on top of Rickman’s head. His back kind of bulged and the hole started pouring blood.

Mercer jerked his arms back and screamed, his arms still flailing as he seemed to levitate up off Jesse Rickman. He landed on his feet and backpedaled ‘til his butt hit his barstool. His glasses flew up and off as he and the barstool went down together. He was on his back on the other side of it, still screaming.

There was something long and dark next to my left eye.

I turned my eyes, then my head.

It was Valentino’s arm. His right arm. His left was on the other side of it, both extended, his pistol out front in his hand.

It must be his right hand. The holster was on the left earlier. He must be right handed.

He moved past me, swung around the corner of the bar.

A hand on my left shoulder, squeezing. “You okay?”

I looked up and to the left. “Huh?”

It was the other guy. Galecki.

“You hit or are you all right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.”

He moved past me and past the corner of the bar.

Valentino yelled to somebody to call for an ambulance.

Galecki was saying nobody could leave until things were sorted out.

I finally managed to get turned around.

People were picking up chairs, straightening tables, sitting, talking.

I leaned forward, my elbows on the bar, my fingers gripping the inside edge of it.

Dermin was there, standing by the cash register, the phone in his hand.

Was he there all along? Maybe he blended into the cash register.

Valentino was on one knee, saying to Ray Dickie everything was going to be fine.

Galecki was talking quietly to the folks at the nearest table.

The music wasn’t playing. It had stopped sometime or other.

Where was Mickey? I really wanted to talk with Mickey Muñoz but he was gone.

Maybe back in his office. I’d really like to see him, talk to him. I’d like to ask him, you know.

Hey Mickey, what’d you say to set Ray Dickie off?

* * * * * * *

 

The Source

Jonathan Kirski worked hard all day in sub-zero weather to mine the bodies—the source of the calcium extract—from his claim in the Siberian burial field.

The reality of the claim was very different from what was depicted in the training films.

In the films, there were no mouths frozen open, no severely discolored and ice-burned skin. There were no extra body parts stuck to the outside of the wrong body when the one next to it had been torn away. In the films it was all very neat.

But here—here was a naked woman, lying face up. And two children—they looked to be a boy and a girl, around three to five years old—lying atop her. The boy’s head was nestled beneath her jaw in the curve of her throat. The girl’s head and shoulders lay to the near side of the boy’s right leg.

The boy’s left leg was missing, torn away from the hip socket.

Probably it had been transported to a cooler, still frozen to whatever “source” had lain this side of it.

The girl was intact, save the left side of her skirt. No doubt it had accompanied her brother’s left leg to the acid as part of the other body.

But apparently there had been an inadvertent trade.

Just as the body that had lain to the near side of the children took part of them, so the body that had lain to the near side of the woman left a part behind.

Someone’s blackened bottom jaw, complete with the lower lip, the shriveled chin and most of the teeth, was frozen to the naked left hip of the woman. The skin and the viscera behind it—from where the bottom lip had originally met the top lip all the way back to where the jaw had come unhinged beneath the ears—was no longer thick and pliable but thin and dried out. And the top edge was ragged.

Thank god he hadn’t seen it torn when this was still a human being.

His breath ever before him in puffs and clouds, and with a chisel, mallet and prybar in hand, he took the girl. When she was in the sled, he took the boy, then the woman. Almost three hours passed in that endeavor.

He would have to speed the process along.

He shifted his attention to a different column.

An older gentleman in a grey tweed suit, still clutching his cane in his left hand.

Another, younger man, dressed more casually in a white button-down shirt and slacks that appeared to have been yellow at one time. They were faded to an off-white, at least along the outside of the right leg. The shoes were wingtips. The right one had three small cleats toward the outer toe. Golf shoes, maybe?

Another man dressed in only the remnants of an undershirt and long undershorts. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. Beneath him were two smaller people, obviously very young children. Both boys.

And beneath them, his hands bent at the wrists over the shoulders of the boys, a man he presumed to be their father.

He took the older man, then the one beneath him, then the children, one boy then the next. Then their father.

He took them, deposited them in the sled, and transported them back to his cabin for processing. Nine was enough for the first day.

He unloaded the sled, standing the sources unceremoniously in the storage bin in the corner of the cooler, then looked at them for a moment. Here they were.

Here he was.

Jonathan suddenly felt his overclothes were too bulky.

He walked back into the main part of the cabin and slipped them off. In his bedroom, he pulled on a coat that fit more snugly and would protect him from the worst of the cold. He also pulled on a pair of glove liners, and then a thinner pair of gloves.

He walked back into the cooler and forced himself to approach the bin. That’s where he would have to begin the procedure anyway. And he would perform the procedure, no matter how long it took him to start.

He gripped the top edge of the bin and stared, without focusing, at the chest of the source in the tweed coat.

Should he process the children first? Should he work on them first to get them out of the way? They were smaller so they should go more quickly than the larger ones.

But he didn’t want to practice on the children. He wanted to practice on someone else. One of the other sources.

He wanted to be practiced enough, relatively speaking, to know what he was doing before he attempted the children. Maybe it was irrational, but he wanted to treat them as gently and respectfully as he could.

Then again, all of today would be a learning process. Even if he processed all five adults, he wouldn’t know much more after the fifth one than he knew as he started the first. All nine sources would be practice. If there was any way they could know him, they would know he meant no disrespect to any of them.

But they couldn’t know him or even anyone like him. They couldn’t even know there had been a second purge of their people. They couldn’t know he’d been saved by that purge when his parents had given him away. They couldn’t know he was here to do penance.

Judging from their clothing, they had lived probably in the mid-to late twentieth century. Maybe the early twenty-first century.

And the children— They were not children, not really. Even had they lived full lives, they would have been dead and gone for well over a hundred years.

His wish had been granted, his hopes realized. He had been assigned a claim that was rich in much older deposits. He should be grateful for that.

At least he wouldn’t stumble across his parents or his friends.

The children in the bin, they were only ore deposits. Smaller than most, but still only ore deposits.

It would take him less time to process each of them than it would take to process any of the adul— any of the larger sources.

And he would learn as much processing one of them as he would learn processing the others.

They were ore.

Processing them was a job, nothing more.

And it was his job.

He took a deep breath, let it out, then took a long moment to run the processing procedure through his mind.

Okay.

He moved over in front of the stainless steel sinks, then crouched slightly. He reached under the cabinet on the left. There he retrieved the sink stoppers and a box of the mild lye solution. He shook some of it into the bottom of the first sink, the larger one, then ran it full of hot water.

After he turned the water off, he stoppered the bottom of the small sink and ran it full of cold water.

Finally he opened the shallow drawer next to the smaller sink. He picked up a drying pad and a couple of small towels. He positioned the drying pad carefully, then lay the towels near the far end of it.

Then he went back to the storage bin.

He reached down into the bin and brought up one of the smaller sources. He turned it so it was facing away, then turned around and laid it on the initial slab.

It slid to the right and bumped its head— No. The top of the source bumped against the wall. It was only a source. No harm, no foul. Still, it annoyed him that he had allowed that to happen. Even if they were only the sources of the calcium extract, they should be treated with a modicum of dignity.

Again he thought about the procedure. First, if there were any garments and if they hadn’t become an integral part of the source, he was to remove them. If they had become part of the source, he could ignore them. The acid would do the rest.

Well, he could forget that. He was in Siberia. Any garments that were on the source had become an integral part of it. There was also no doubt in his mind that he wasn’t going to waste any further time checking.

He started to open the left drawer—the one that contained the knives and saws—then glanced at the source.

He closed the drawer. He wouldn’t have to cut this one up.

Instead he opened the bottom drawer and retrieved the larger set of tongs.

He would pick up the small source by one leg and dip it, top first, into the acid bath. Then he would grasp it with the tongs and lower it carefully so as not to splash the acid.

That should work fine.

He reached over gingerly with his left hand and picked up the small source. He moved it carefully to suspend it over the bath, then dipped it, top first.

Okay, so far, so—

And the stench hit him.

His instinctive reaction was to reel away backward, but he didn’t. If he dropped the source, the acid would claim the entire thing and the bones would be gone.

He fought through the revulsion and lifted the source from the acid, then laid what was left on the slab again. He quickly turned away, gagging, worked the latch on the door and ran outside.

The wind was howling and felt as if it were blowing through the center of a block of ice.

By the time he’d taken his second deep breath his lungs had begun to ache. Inside his gloves, his fingers felt stiff and fat almost immediately. Even through the jacket, his forearms and chest felt as if the skin was becoming brittle.

He turned around, opened the door again and all but fell back into the cooler.

He leaned back against the door to close it, then walked the length of the cooler and shoved the heavy plastic sheeting aside.

The main room of the cabin was almost hot in contrast.

He propped his right elbow on the mantel of the fireplace and shook his head. A long moment later, his breathing almost under control again, he muttered, “Damn, Jon. I think maybe you’d better not forget the mask again.”

He leaned down a bit to look into the fireplace and considered starting a fire. But no. He wanted to get through the first set of stiffs. Sources. Then he would reward himself with a night off. And food. He would find something to eat.

He moved the sheeting aside and strode into the cooler. At the far end, he opened the bottom drawer and took out a mask. He positioned it appropriately over his mouth and nose, then reached for the source again.

But it had moved.

Without thinking, he looked to his right.

The flash image was of a child, naked, lying face down.

There were two small legs, no larger than two inches in diameter. The right leg and hip were intact and perfect, albeit a ghostly, pallid white. The left leg was the same, but only halfway up the thigh.

The arms, torso, neck and head were skeletal, though small bits of viscera clung here and there.

He had seen photos in the Academy, but—

What he had seen in the photos were not his doing.

He stared, unable to turn away, certain he would hear an audible pop any second as his mind snapped. He strived to reason with himself. He had to set his mind right.

Is this how he was to spend the balance of his life? Was this his penance for not being good enough? Tom had spoken about the horror of the faces, but could that be any worse? If they were, he couldn’t allow himself to see them. He had reached his limit.

While trying to process the first source of his first dig on his first day, he had reached his limit. Had he reached his limit?

As part of his mind addressed the horror, another part registered that the bones were unscathed.

The acid had taken the flesh, but only the flesh. What in the few bits of flesh that remained kept them from being consumed by the acid?

Did they talk about this at the Academy? He couldn’t remember. And even if they had, did it matter?

Well, he had signed on.

He had taken the tests, applied and was accepted at the Academy. He had endured two long years there, and through it all he had sensed he would end up here. Not only in Siberia, but here at this counter in this cabin with a child—a small source—his first victim.

No, that wasn’t right. He wouldn’t accept responsibility for what had brought this child—this source—to be in his cabin at this moment. It was someone else’s victim. It was humanity’s victim. It was his livelihood until he said it wasn’t anymore.

So should it be his livelihood? Was he right for this job? Or for this place?

He was on probation. He could catch any drone anytime during the first six months and fly out. He could request any assignment in any field anywhere and never have to see a face. Or another frozen, pallid bit of flesh again.

As if in a daze, he continued to work through whether he could or even should continue. And if he chose to continue, where? And in what capacity?

But his left arm moved, seemingly of its own volition.

He didn’t even have to be a miner. With his class standing, probably he could wrangle something else.

Without conscious direction from his mind, his arm stretched in the direction of the tongs.

He could take off the rest of the week and catch the next drone. There was one every week. No questions asked.

The thumb and fingers on his left hand closed around the tongs, lifted them.

He could simply walk past Tom and Rolf and nod. He didn’t even have to speak to them. Just get on the drone and fly out. Just leave. There would be plenty of penance elsewhere.

His left arm guided the end of the tongs to the bare left hip of the source.

Did he even really have to do penance? If he did, maybe he’d done enough.

The tongs closed.

A lot of people had done a lot less penance for a lot worse crimes than simply not being good enough.

The arm raised and Jonathan felt the weight.

He looked around just as the source, caught in the grip of the tongs and not resisting at all, lifted off the slab.

He frowned. What was he doing? And why?

He watched as the source passively allowed itself to be moved, positioned over the acid.

Why didn’t it resist? Why would it allow me to—

The arm lowered. And the source slipped effortlessly into the acid.

Jonathan looked.

He watched as the arm raised, brought the tongs out of the acid.

The source was bare. Nothing but bones.

Nothing but the source of the calcium extract.

His mind back on the task at hand, he took over again. As he stepped to the left, he manipulated the tongs, twisting them so the source curled almost into a ball. Then he dipped it into the larger of the two stainless steel sinks.

He moved it back and forth gently and watched as most of the bits of flesh separated from the skeleton. Amazing. The stuff really worked.

Still, could he do this? And hidden or not, he was a Jew. So should he do it? Before he came here, he was so certain. He was still a young man. Would he be throwing away that much if he negated the last two years and went in another direction?

After all, it would be no trouble at all to just pack it in. He could catch the next drone out.

He lifted the source from the lye water, dipped it in the clear rinse water, and laid it on the drying pad. It covered less than half of it.

He reached for a towel and started to lay the tongs down.

But while this source was drying, he could run the next one. That would give him plenty of time to decide what he wanted to do next.

He turned and walked back to the end of the counter.

* * *

The second small source went more easily.

He lowered it whole into the acid, then opened the tongs. A long moment later, he found purchase on what was left—he came to think of what he withdrew from the acid as “pure source”—and pulled it out.

After he deposited the second small source into the lye bath, he left the tongs and used the towels to pat dry the first source.

Then he got a second pad from the drawer and laid it next to the first.

He moved the first source to the second pad to await polishing while he went back to retrieve and rinse the second. He laid that one on the first drying pad.

While it was drying, he decided to work on the first again.

The bones had to be separated. It was the most arduous part of the process after the initial shock of the stench from the acid tank almost an hour earlier.

After he had separated the bones of the first source and grouped them roughly according to size, he had an idea. He wrapped them in two of the clean hand towels and set them in the corner at the back of the cabinet.

He could polish them later. Even in the cabin, perhaps, while he was doing other things. After all, polishing wouldn’t require all his attention.

He draped another hand towel—the same one he had used to pat down the first source—over the second, then turned to go back to the storage bin.

On his way by, he stopped at the acid bath.

It was still all right. Probably fine to process one large source. He would have to change the acid with every second or third large source, but he knew what to watch for. It was like watching the weather.

Clear was good. Partly cloudy was all right. But when it was cloudy to the point that he couldn’t see through it hardly at all, it had to be drained and changed.

He turned to the bin. He would take the man in the underwear next. Just in case he had been the father of these chil— these sources.

 

29

 

He lifted his first large source from the storage bin and laid it face down on the preparation slab, with the top toward the back door. The first order of business would be to separate the small appendage from his lower back. From the lower back of the source.

The official reason, if anyone had asked, was so he wouldn’t inadvertently lose the bones in that hand, wrist and partial forearm in the bottom of the acid bath.

He did that with the fine-toothed bone saw.

Then he used the tongs to lower the little appendage to the bottom of the acid tank.

He released the tongs for a moment, waited, then retrieved the appendage and looked it over. It would require another moment. He lay in on the slab, re-gripped it with the tongs around the bit of protruding ulna, and dipped it again.

He left it submerged for only a few seconds before withdrawing it and carrying it to the lye bath. Then he rinsed it and reunited it with its original owner on the drying mat.

He looked at the small, curled phalanges for a moment—almost too long—then turned back to attend to the larger source.

When he got back to the far end of the counter, he laid the tongs on the slab. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his time piece. He noted the time, then slipped it back into his pocket. He opened the drawer on the left and picked up the bone saw with the coarser blade. He also took out a long, slender knife. He laid it to one side.

Jonathan glanced at the  acid bath again.

The tank was four-feet wide. This particular source was perhaps five and a half feet long. Like probably ninety-plus percent of the sources, this one was thin too, even on the verge of emaciation. It would fit easily into the acid bath in only two pieces.

However, the lye tank was only three feet by three feet.

This one would have to go legs together, arms together, torso and head. So four pieces.

Jonathan picked up his saw and bent to the task, cutting at an angle from above the left hip to the center of the pelvis.

With the right side, he knew more about what he was doing, what to watch and feel for through the saw blade, and in about fifteen minutes the source was in two pieces.

He couldn’t use the tongs. The lower section of the source was too heavy.

So he took that section by its lower extremities with his gloved hands and carefully lowered it into the acid bath, large end first. When most of it was beneath the surface, he let go. Of course, it had gone into the tank in one piece, but it might come out in two. That was all right. It was only something of which he needed to be mindful.

There was a quiet clunk as it hit the bottom of the tank.

Jonathan turned back to take the upper extremities.

Those came off much more easily and quickly, and again he used his gloved hands to lower each into the acid. He positioned them so they would lean against the back corners of the vat.

He turned back to the source for a moment. It was still lying face down. A quick approximation of the remaining length told him he had misjudged this one. The head and torso could go in as one piece.

He would prefer to send the top in first, but he decided the bottom should go first as it was the wider, more stable part. He would be very careful not to allow himself to see the face.

For the time being, though, the final bit would have to wait. He picked up the tongs and moved to the acid vat. There he reached into the back corner, made contact, and withdrew one extremity. It was clean.

He manipulated the tongs so the thing folded at the elbow, and carried it to the lye bath. After he deposited it there, he returned to the acid bath and retrieved the second piece. He placed it in the lye bath and removed the first one, then remembered he hadn’t laid out a new drying mat. He put the first arm in the rinse water, then put down the tongs.

He pushed the other drying mat to the left, and laid a new one in its place. Then he withdrew the rinsed source and laid in on the mat. He moved the second one from the lye bath to the rinse and then to the mat.

Then he went back to the acid bath.

Removing the legs from the vat was almost routine. He handled both of them the same way he had handled the arms. He carefully lifted one, then very carefully manipulated the tongs so the leg would fold at the knee without splashing him with acid.

He carried the first to the lye bath and immersed it. Then he moved the drying mat with the arm bones on it to the left and laid out a clean drying mat. He moved the folded leg to the rinse tank, then went back for the other leg and repeated the process.

When both legs were on the drying mat, he went back to the preparation slab.

He reached for the shoulders of the source and started to lift it.

But his left hand slipped.

The source rolled over.

It looked at him.

Jonathan caught his breath. He jerked his right hand away and stepped back, expecting the man to scream. A chill shuddered up along his spine and he shoved both hands into his coat pockets. He squeezed them into tight fists and looked at the floor for a moment, unsure what to do.

“I’m sorry,” he yelled. “God, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

But it did no good to apologize to the floor. He hadn’t treated the floor with disrespect. He wasn’t disturbing the final resting place—inadequate and inappropriate as it was—of the floor. His father had taught him always to look the other person in the eyes. Enemy or friend. One who insulted him or one whom he insulted.

Even ore.

He raised his head, looked at the left eye. It was open wide. It would give the man away if—

If he started to move? But he couldn’t move.

The man couldn’t move, but Jonathan continued to watch. “I’m sorry,” he said again, more calmly. I’m so very sorry.”

Suddenly the cooler was very large and very dark, and vengeful spirits were waiting in every corner.

He glanced quickly over his right shoulder at the bin.

All of them—all of the sources—were where he left them.

A sound.

He jerked his head around.

But the man still lay there.

No. The source. The source still lay there.

Right where he dropped it.

And of course. Where else would it be?

It just slipped, that’s all.

No, it didn’t do anything. He allowed it to slip.

He lost his grip and the thing slipped free for a moment.

Jonathan stepped closer, the fear past.

“All right,” he said. “All right.”

And for an instant, quietly as the echo of a thought, he could’ve sworn he heard, “All right.”

He looked at the man again. At the source. He looked at the source again.

He thought of escaping gasses, the sounds those could make. But all the gasses had escaped this man—this source—probably a hundred years ago.

He looked at the lips. They were stiff. They couldn’t move. And the tongue and the vocal cords. They were all stiff. None of them could move. None of them could create sound.

Curiosity took over. What was the big thing about the faces? As long as you remember it’s only a source, what resembled a human face wasn’t really a face, except in the broadest sense. It was one facet of the source, that’s all. The back of the top part also was a facet.

Which part was the face at the moment depended completely on your angle of view. Nothing more.

He leaned forward a bit, his hands still in his coat pockets.

The man’s left eye was open wide, though a bit sunken. The right upper eyelid was partially closed.

With accusation?

Jonathan shifted to one side.

The eyes didn’t follow him.

But he had known they wouldn’t. There was no life in them.

There was no accusation.

As it should be.

And this was only a source.

He looked more closely.

The nose was aquiline, the eyebrows full but light brown, despite the much darker full head of hair.

The ears were fine and lay close to the sides of the head. The chin and jawline might have been chiseled out of granite. There was a few days’ growth of whiskers. The lips were pressed tightly together, as if holding back something he really wanted to say.

It. Something it really wanted to say.

It hadn’t been a man for probably a hundred years. Maybe longer.

Suddenly feeling foolish, Jonathan reached for the shoulders again and picked up the source. He turned it so it was facing him, and he watched the eyes as he lowered it into the acid bath.

Nothing. As it should be.

He muttered, “Well, two birds with one stone, Jon.”

The source was only a source, nothing more.

And the faces would be no big deal.

He allowed the source to settle gently on the bottom of the vat. This one would take awhile.

He moved to the other end of the counter, patted dry the other bones there, and separated them. He sorted them according to size and wrapped them in towels.

Then he realized what the shelves were for. Or at least how he was going to use them.

It would be impractical to process one source completely from dismembering to dipping to cleaning, rinsing, drying, separating and polishing. Doing so would add a great deal of time to the overall process.

Yet the way he was doing it now, he was rapidly running out of counter space.

He carefully picked up each bundle of bones and placed it beneath the counter on the top shelf. That would work.

Then he went back to the acid bath to check on the latest source. There had been considerably more mass to that one than any he had done before. Considerably more viscera. It would make sense that the acid would take longer to dissolve it.

He picked up the tongs and soon found a grip on the upper part of the spine. He slowly lifted the source so as not to splash himself.

The eyes were gone.

The face. The face was gone. The skull was clean.

He lifted the source farther up. There was very little non-bone material left on it. Not enough to leave it longer in the acid.

He put both hands on the tongs and carried the source to the lye bath.

It fit almost perfectly for width.

But it was close.

He looked at the rinse sink.

It would fit, but only barely. Probably only because the ribs would squeeze in a bit. And he might have to turn the head sideways. If it rocked back or forward, it would catch.

Another lesson. From now on, for sources that were full sized, he would separate the top from the torso.

After he finished rinsing the source, he stayed to pat the bones dry, then separate them, gathered them and folded them in towels.

It was a way to rest without wasting the time completely.

But when he was through, again he went to the storage bin to begin processing the next source.

* * *

A little over four hours later, he patted the bones dry from the last bit of the last source for the day. He separated them, sorted them, wrapped each group in a towel, and stored them beneath the counter to await polishing.

Then he stepped back and took it all in.

And made another decision.

Initially, he had expected to clear six bits of source during a two-hour stint at the claim.

He had cleared seven—but two of those were small—in eight hours.

He thought transport to and from the claim would take one hour per day. That would encompass two round trips.

But the average trip took twenty minutes. So one trip per day would cost him two-thirds of an hour. Two would cost him an hour and a third.

He had expected processing each deposit would take about one hour. It had taken him seven hours to process seven deposits, albeit two of those were small ones.

Probably that time would hold true, at least until repeated practice enabled him to streamline his procedure. But even if not, one hour seemed about right. He just had to remember that didn’t include the final step of the process, polishing.

He realized too, that he would need more than three hours of sleep per night, at least until he worked into a routine. As it turned out, the overall experience was tiring, both physically and emotionally. And he would have to eat too. If nothing else, eating was necessary to keeping his energy up.

So he made a rational decision.

Until he got used to things, he would make only one trip per day to the claim.

Tom said he could work into a routine.

He would eat something first thing every morning.

Then he would go to the claim. He would clear six to eight sources from the ice, depending on how easily they came.

So six to eight hours at the claim.

Then he would transport them back to the cabin and store them in the bin.

Then he would take a break. Maybe eat something.

Then he would spend six to eight hours in the cooler, processing them.

So if he rounded his transport time up to one hour, that totaled thirteen to seventeen hours per day mining, transporting and processing. If he had time at the end of the day, he would polish some of the product. But he thought that probably wouldn’t happen.

And if it didn’t that was okay.

He had already decided to take one day off each week. During that day he would polish the product until he felt he had done enough. The rest of the day he would devote to learning about the camp, inventorying and ordering supplies and so on.

Satisfied, he turned, pushed the plastic sheeting aside, and walked into the main cabin.

He looked at the fireplace as he stripped off his coat and gloves.

He walked to the wood box and stood there for a moment, trying to remember what he had planned to do. Then he turned around, walked into his bedroom, stripped off his clothing and went to bed.

He was asleep almost immediately.

* * * * * * *

 

The Popper

Folks, this will be the last regular short story of the week. In the future, when I write one I’ll post it here, but those won’t be every week. You can always find the latest by clicking A Free Short Story in the menu. Thanks, Harvey

The first one popped the day before the Sturgis Metal Run. Me and Ronny and a few others were revvin’ the dream, hittin’ 90 in a 75. In the fast lane, of course, northbound.

It was a cool morning, with temps probably in the mid-fifties. Not cool enough for any fog, really, or wet enough. Though I did see a little dew sparkling now and then off the side of the road as we passed.

There were a few clouds around too, but up high, like a painting, and the sun was out

And poppo! There it was. The thing appeared right in front of Ronny, and what passed for its arm extended toward him just like it would do any good.

I’ve seen Ronny swerve to miss ants on the road, so it isn’t like he’d intentionally run down something. But this was too close, too immediate, and Ronny ran through it like nobody’s business. I did too, in his wake a split second later.

Jerry, Barlow and Rex missed the thing, but only because they were slightly left (Jerry) and right (Barlow and Rex) pushing the edges of the lane.

It was like running through a quick fog bank that popped up out of nowhere, an’ that’s what we thought it was at first.

Only it didn’t play like a fog bank.

I didn’t realize that until later. It first dawned on me maybe five or ten seconds later. But at 90 miles per hour, five or ten seconds is a long time.

I mean, in the instant when Ronny hit it, it didn’t swirl and follow along in the vacuum created by his passing.

“Wh—” started to cross my mind then, but by the time “—at?” got there I was through it. And I wasn’t thinking about whether it was swirling and following along and all that.

I was too busy wondering why Ronny dumped his bike.

And my eyes were glued to the road—well, as glued as they could be at 90 miles per hour—between the back of Ronny’s Softail Harley and my Indian Chief. You know how fast your brain works. As my law prof would’a said, “It would be immeasurably better for your health, young man, to avoid whatever bit of detritus side-bored your buddy.”

Okay, the “side-bored your buddy” was my substitution for what Ms. Gramley would’a said, but you get the drift.

Only there wasn’t nothin’. The road was clean. Maybe a pebble here and there, and that one little slip of a shredded tire. I flashed my front tire past it maybe a half-inch to the left. But it was a sliver anyway, maybe three or four inches long and a tread wide, so nothin’ that would’a flipped Ronny like that.

And I had time to look. I mean, I got off the throttle some when Ronny’s back end shivered hard left. I probably wasn’t doin’ 85 when Ronny swiveled the front end to the right and laid it down. And I got on my brakes as I passed.

But I looked back just in time to see that Softail starting to flip. I figure his right peg caught pavement.

Me and the others tried for two years to talk Ronny into trading out those steel pegs for aluminum, but he was sure the steel would skip along the top of the road and save his leg.

As if.

“Besides,” he said the last time we talked about it, “I ain’t gonna lay it down, man. It’s all a choice.”

Yeah. But not always.

Sometimes other stuff chooses for you. And sometimes, as it turns out, the other stuff is a Popper.

Now we didn’t know anything about Poppers before that. I guess maybe the one that popped in front of Ronny was the first one on the planet. At least it was the first one we’d ever seen, if “seen” is the right word. Like I said, we thought it was a fog bank. Only with an arm and a something like a hand. I saw that much.

Anyway, even with my fast brain showing me Ronny was flipping, I squeezed the brakes on my Vic and skidded to the far right shoulder. The plan, I guess, was to kickstand it and run back to help Ronny.

But as I twisted left in the saddle and started to get up, he passed me, about eight feet in the air, about twenty feet behind me. In one’a those snapshots your brain takes at such times, the lines that divide the lanes split his Softail in half.

Ronny and the bike were laying sideways and he was still on the seat. Only his head was pointing down the road and the bottom of his bike was pointing back the way we came. His arms were stretched to the handlebars, his fingers clenched and his mouth in a big O.

Then his face disappeared as he rolled on over.

His left shoulder probably hit first, then his head, then the bike.

That was the first time I really noticed a sound. I mean there was a general jumble of noises, but when his helmet hit the pavement it was a sharp crack. Either that or when his neck broke.

Then everything went back to regular speed. Ronny and the Softail smudged along the centerline, tires up and spinning. Jerry flashed by in a smeared shadow on the distant left of my vision as Barlow and Rex crashed through the scene right in front of me in two big roars just off the back of my bike.

I don’t remember getting off my Chief but I was running down the road, my heavy boots clomping in time to the squeal of brakes. I think that was Barlow.

And everybody was a hundred feet away.

Ronny and the Softail were in a pile in the middle of the road beyond a streak of something glistening. Nothing was moving from what I could tell, but I didn’t have the best look with my head bobbing as I ran. I just kept thinking of what might happen if a semi topped that low rise behind us.

Jerry was stopped in the dip of the soft median, his jeans making an inverted U as he got off his bike. A fourth of his front tire was sunk in mud. Not sure why he stopped there. Gravity maybe.

Barlow and Rex parked side by side. The noses of their bikes were at the edge of the rough asphalt shoulder, pointing toward a four-strand barbed wire fence on the other side of a grassy right of way. On the other side of the fence was grassland, a windmill and a caliche-rock stock tank.

They dismounted and turned at the same time like it was choreographed.

Jerry got to Ronny’s pileup just ahead of Barlow and Rex.

I was still around fifty feet away, huffing and wondering why I didn’t just start my bike, nose her back to the road and drive up.

Jerry crouched down on one knee on the other side of that Softail, then glanced at Barlow and Rex and extended his right hand. Like he was telling them to wait. He studied to be a doctor for a couple years and his brother’s a cop, so.

As Jerry leaned forward over Ronny and extended that same right hand, Barlow said something I couldn’t hear.

They were all in the middle of the road and not paying the slightest bit of attention.

I yelled, “Trucks!” and pointed past them. I wanted Barlow and Rex to go farther up the road and ward off any approaching trucks. But we were in the northbound lane, so any trucks would be coming from behind me.

As I yelled, Barlow and Rex looked at me. Barlow put his hands on his hips. He yelled, “What?” and I just shook my head and kept running.

Barlow glanced at Jerry, then started jogging toward me. As we passed, he said quietly, “I’ll watch for trucks.” I guess he heard me after all.

But trucks were the least of our problems.

We’d forgotten all about the fog bank Ronny and I drove through.

* * *

I finally got there, stomping to a heavy stop just short of Ronny’s bike. I bent forward, my hands on my hips, breathing hard. That’s when I caught that glistening smeared stuff in my periphery and realized what it was. Then I glanced at Ronny’s muddled form, then looked at Jerry. “Oh Jesus! Is he okay?”

Well, I knew he wasn’t okay. I’d seen him in the air, and I’d seen and heard him hit. A miracle couldn’t make him okay.

Jerry didn’t even look up. He pulled his hand back from the side of what was left of Ronny’s throat, his index and middle finger still extended together, and shook his head. Quietly, he said, “Naw. He’s gone, man.”

Rex leaned forward over the twisted front wheel of the Softail. Softly, he said,  “Damn, man.”  Then he pointed. “What’s that?”

I looked where he was pointing. “What?”

He wagged his extended index finger. “That!”

I looked again just as Jerry sat back. He pointed too, “Oh man!” as he overbalanced and sat hard on both cheeks. “Damn!” He worked his heels, kicking against the asphalt to back himself away.

Something milky purplish, kind of a spot, lay on Ronny’s skin. Or maybe it was part of his skin. A misshapen, ragged oval from where his black t-shirt hit on his neck up to where it disappeared under the hair beneath the bottom of his helmet. Probably it ran up behind his left ear.

“A birthmark?” I said, but I knew better. I’d known Ronny since third grade. He didn’t have any birthmarks.

As we watched, the thing pulsed.

Jerry was finally on his feet near the shoulder next to the median and turning toward his bike.

“Hey,” I said. “Where you goin’?”

He shook his head as he sank sole-deep in the damp median. His voice trembled. He mumbled, “Gonna get help.” But it sounded like it was just something to say.

I frowned. “Jerry?”

He kept walking.

“Where?”

“Me too.”

That voice came from my right. I looked back.

Rex was halfway to his bike too.

I looked at Jerry’s back again. He was getting on his bike. I looked back toward Rex. He was almost to his bike. I held my arms out at my sides and yelled, “Hey, we gotta move him or something. Right?”

Jerry didn’t answer. He started his bike and gave it some gas, urging it up onto the south-bound lanes, but he turned north. Probably going to the next clear cross-over.

I dropped my arms and looked back at Rex. “Rex? Hey, c’mon, man. Help me move Ronny so—”

He shook his head. “Sorry, man.” He started his bike and leaned it over, spinning the back tire in the mud and soft gravel along the edge of the shoulder, and drove away north. Fast. Catching gears. Nothing left but that annoying Yamaha whine and that tire arc off the shoulder.

What the hell?

I looked up at Jerry, just crossing the median a couple hundred feet north. Barlow already was a receding spot far beyond him. What the hell?

I put my hands on my hips. How was I going to move Ronny off the damn road? I couldn’t leave him here to get run over like a dead bird. And his bike. I’d have to move his bike too.

Jerry said Ronny was dead. So why was he going for help? Help for who?

I looked down at Ronny again. How was I gonna move his bike without dragging him along with it? Underneath it all I wasn’t even sure where the bike left off and Ronny began.

I focused on his neck again. That and his helmet and his left shoulder and arm and side were intact.

The purplish spot was larger, but it was also less purple. Well, it was more milky than purple. As I watched, the purple pulsed and faded to milky white.

I could grab his left wrist and forearm maybe and pull what was left of him away from the bike. Pull him over to the soft median. Probably he was ground off beneath the bike.

But I didn’t want to do that. He was my friend, not just some road-killed coyote. He deserved better. I didn’t move, other than shifting my feet. I thought back about some of the stuff we’d done together over the past thirty years or so. Probably putting off the inevitable. I mean, gross as it was, I had to move him, right? Either that or stand there and wave traffic around him. If any traffic came.

The whole time I watched that splotch on his neck. It seemed to be growing, but maybe that was a trick of the light or something.

I shifted my feet again and put my hands on my hips. If the situation were reversed, what would Ronny do?

He’d move me, that’s what he’d do.

But what if it was catching, whatever that was on his neck? And where’d it come from? It wasn’t from the road. I mean, the skin was there, and all his stuff on the left side was there. Even his helmet wasn’t scratched on that side.

The splotch continued to pulse. I felt like I was watching something intimate that was none of my business. It pulsed and seemed to expand a little, then again, and again.

I shifted my feet again, looked away and shook my head. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me or something.

And when I looked back at him again, they did.

I swear, the guy started to evaporate.

Maybe. Whatever that splotch was on his neck, it’s like he was becoming it. Or it was becoming him. Or something.

It was like the splotch was external to him, but part of him too. A new part of him.

The fog thing? Is that what caused it?

But I’d run through it too, and I didn’t wreck. And I didn’t have any purple-milk splotches on me as far as I knew. I reached up and ran my palm over my neck.

Why’d Jerry and Rex have to split like that?

But they were both looking at Ronny when they decided to leave. They weren’t looking at me.

I watched the splotch more closely, but I backed up a step too. It was surreal. My friend was lying dead in the road beneath his bike. And the bike was pretty much flat on the road, so….

I glanced back along the road.

Ronny’s right leg and foot, still in the boot, lay back along the way. How had I missed seeing that before?

I shifted again, faced away from Ronny, back along the road. I looked past his leg too, and his boot. I think I knew I was delaying the inevitable. Delaying looking directly at him. And the splotch.

But I was trying to piece the wreck together in my mind. It was a horrific wreck. Had the fog thing caused it?

The fog thing. It was back there somewhere, right? I mean, that’s the way we came. About a hundred feet back. Maybe a hundred and fifty.

I decided maybe the fog thing did it. It made sense, sort of.

It almost looked like the thing held up a hand and arm, like it was warding him off just before he plowed through it. But not really, now that I had time to think about it.

It wasn’t like it was trying to defend itself so much as to touch him. It reached for him and touched him as he passed through it.

And it wasn’t really fog either, come to think of it. It was thicker, sort of. More substantive than microbial water droplets suspended in air. And it was—almost creamy. Milky.

Maybe that’s what the splotch was.

I focused, looked for the spot of fog.

And as I looked, I tried to think it through. We’d run through that little spot of fog, s0 probably it dissipated. That would make sense, right?

But it hadn’t folded in on itself, whipped through the vacuum created by his passing. That much I knew. And that’s when it finally came home to me.

I got to thinking, maybe it touched him. Maybe it wasn’t reaching to make him stop. Maybe it was reaching to touch him. Maybe it left part of itself on him. And maybe it didn’t have time to reload before I passed through it an instant later. Maybe I was just lucky.

While I was thinking about all that, it was almost like my vision was getting cloudy. Then I realized there was fog back there. There wasn’t before, except the bit Ronny and I drove through. But it was there now, and it was growing.

Only it still wasn’t a bank, like a cloud on the ground. It was more like a series of smaller bits of fog. Like several steam guysers all lined up across and deep, the ones in the back a little offset, peering past the others’ shoulders.

Maybe it—

“Hey.”

I almost came out of my skin.

The voice came out of the fog, but a lot closer. And separate.

It was Barlow. I mean, it was Barlow’s face. Barlow’s tall, lanky body, but as if he was draped in fog. He was moving smoothly toward me, not thirty feet away. But I hadn’t noticed him before. Maybe he was faded into all stuff behind him at first. Or probably I was focusing too hard on where I thought the earlier fog thing was, the one we drove through. Or maybe I was caught up in thinking about the wreck or—

I frowned. This wasn’t quite right. He was moving without that jerky, ditty-bopping gait he usually had when he walked. Like he was on wheels or something. “Barlow?”

He nodded, slowly, smoothly. “Okay,” he said.

Okay? What’s that mean? But I decided to cling to normalcy. “Traffic,” I said, and gestured past him. “You were gonna watch for traffic and—”

“Where did your people go?”

What? My people? I looked past him. The fog—or fogs—were getting closer. I said, “You mean Jerry and Rex?” Then I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. Weakly, I said, “They, uh—they went for help.” Bearing in mind where Ronny’s bike was, I took a step back and to the left.

Barlow stopped maybe five feet from me. “Help?” He nodded, slowly, smoothly. His right arm came up, slowly. “Help.”

I took another step back. “You, uh—” I pointed back down the road. Quietly, as if sharing a secret, I said, “Barlow, you one’a them poppers?”

His face rippled. “Pop-purse?”

“Doesn’t matter.” I took another step back, then gestured past him again toward my beautiful Victory Indian Chief. The front of it was visible beyond the left-most bit of fog stuff. Me and that bike had been through a lot together. “Hey, man,” I said. “Let’s get our bikes and go find Jerry and Rex. I’m sure we can find them.”

“Okay,” he said.

I pointed past him again at my Vic. “Your bike’s back there. Go get it. I’ll wait here with Ronny.”

He glanced back. “Okay.”

Then he reversed. Understand? He didn’t turn around. The guy reversed.

One second I was looking at his face and lowering my hand from pointing past him, and the next I was looking at the back of his head. It’s like he passed through himself. He reversed direction without turning around.

And he moved away. Slowly. Smoothly.

When he’d gone maybe ten feet and I was sure he wasn’t going to reverse again, I raced across the slow lane to his bike. He always left the key in the ignition, and today was no exception.

I braced it, then glanced back toward Barlow. Or whatever he is now. He was a little over halfway to the Vic.

I started the Goldwing, and I’ll bet I left a bigger tire arc than Rex did.

* * * * * * *

 

The Fading of Jill Montgomery

Soon Jill Montgomery fell into an easy rhythm on the trail through City Park. Her arms and legs pumped, her shoulders and hips rolled. It seemed easier than ever before. She felt light as a feather, could barely feel her footfalls on the gravel path crunching beneath her.

The furrows on her brow smoothed away, as if slipping from her forehead on beads of sweat. They trickled down her cheeks and off her jawline.

Running every morning was routine. The run, pushing herself, was always relaxing. It stretched her muscles. Hell, it stretched her soul, set her up for the rest of the day.

She listened to her faint footfalls on the path. The gravel, starkly white in the pre-dawn shadows, crunched, crunched, crunched beneath her Nikes. Her arms pumped, her hands clenched into loose fists. Her breath came easily, rhythmically, in through her nose and out through her slightly open mouth.

The cool, humid air, a ghostly mist, defined the pines. It draped across the thistle-laden brush, the muted red berries of the holly.

They were white pines, her father said. Yellow said the guy across the street.

Tufts of Johnson grass along the path bowed gracefully beneath the weight of dew.

The air collected scents—damp bark, fallen needles, old leaves—a thousand things gone back into the earth. The heady taste of it mixed well with the salt she licked from her lips.

After a good run and a hot shower, everything would be better. Easier.

Everything was easier after a run. Putting up with mid-town traffic, going to court, even smiling and nodding as clients endlessly lied was easier.

It was the run. The run made it all better.

The run drained the stress of the previous day and eased her into the present.

But today—she closed her eyes, tried to calm herself, opened them—today the run was necessary.

Today she was running with the past.

Bob’s past. Letting it peel away, layer by filthy layer.

Bob’s stupid, selfish admission of his guilt.

Bob’s audacity in making her the judge.

She shook her head slightly as she ran. Her pony tail passed her for a second. A flash of blond spritzed her own dark sweat across her light-grey shirt.

Just like that, in a single, greedy second, Bob lifted the load from his shoulders and slammed it firmly down on hers.

The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be some other way.

And then? Then he walked out. Right? He just walked out.

Fine specimen of a man.

There was no way. No way in hell she’d deal with this today.

She had the Barringer arraignment at 9 a.m. Then meetings from 10 ‘til 1, no lunch again. The old man was a stickler when it came to work. Didn’t he dock Barry Jackson’s check for that client lunch three weeks ago? No matter that Barry landed the account.

And when the day was over, there would be Bob. Stupid, stingy, selfish Bob.

She didn’t want to think about it.

But what the hell?

They’d only been married for three years. So it couldn’t be the seven year itch, whatever that was.

And he was only thirty-two. Not ready for a ‘Vette and gold chains. A rope, maybe, stretched up over a rafter.

Why did she hate him so? Men left their wives every day, didn’t they?

She clenched her fists, pumped her arms harder, watched her shoes crunching on the gravel. She dug in harder with her toes, raced hard toward the little stand of aspens that marked the final turn.

To hell with Bob. She’d shower at the gym.

She had a suit in her locker at the gym, didn’t she? Then she’d fight the boss, the court, the lying clients. Anything but Bob.

Stupid Bob.

She remembered to breathe.

Stupid Bob. That’s what the run was for. Drain the stress. Ease her into the day.

And thankfully, it was almost over. It was a great run. She’d drained a bit more of Bob, and now it was all new.

First there would be the gym, then the day.

The gym. The day. That’s all that mattered now.

She ran past the stand of quaking aspens—­she sensed them on her left more than saw them—and flashed through the turn, her fists still clenched, her arms pumping hard.

Her shoulder hurt, as if she hit it on an unseen object.

A tenth of a mile to go. It was almost over. She raised her head to spot the parking lot—

And stopped.

Still breathing hard, she frowned. She uncurled her hands and put them on her hips. She breathed deeply, frowned, breathed deeply.

What the hell?

She turned to look back along the trail.

There were the aspens. On the right as she started out each day, on the left as she raced for home.

She turned around again. So where was the parking lot? Where was her Mercedes?

She turned again, looked back.

The aspens. The trail. It was the same trail she ran every morning. The same one she’d run every morning for the past four years. The same one where she’d first met that idiot Bob.

She bent at the waist, put her hands on her knees, took a long breath.

She’d figure it out.

* * *

She was pumping her arms hard that day too, stretching her legs, reaching with her heels. Every fiber in every muscle stretched in rhythm as she climbed the long incline that passed for a hill not quite halfway through the run.

And she was focused. Tightly focused.

She probably wouldn’t have noticed a gunshot. Seriously. When she was focused on the run or free floating with the euphoria of it, even a gunshot would be a minor noise in her distant periphery.

So she was more than a little surprised when she realized there was a man beside her.

That he’d said just said “Hello” for the third time.

That he was looking at her and grinning even as he ran alongside her.

She started, and moved a half-step to the right. “Oh,” she said through her rhythmic breathing. “Hi.”

He kept looking at her. “How far?”

She didn’t look around, but frowned lightly as the self-generated breeze redistributed his words somewhere behind them. “Huh?”

“How far you going today?”

“Oh. Seven miles. Medium day.” She cast a quick glance at him. He seemed all right. Nice smile. Nothing bad in his eyes. “You?”

“I can try for seven.”

What? Why? Did he mean to run with her? Was he trying to pick her up?

He said, “You start at the parking lot?”

She nodded, trying to return her concentration to the rhythm in her shoulders, her arms, her legs.

Her legs. Is that what interested him? What was she wearing today?

But she didn’t want to look down. Men take that the wrong way.

Her breath formed before her in a series of puffs and she ran through them.

Sweats. It’s cold, so sweats on the bottom.

She visualized pulling on her sweatpants in the locker room. Red sweatpants. Then her sports bra. Then an old t-shirt. Then her shirt. Her jersey.

She was wearing red sweatpants with a mid-weight Guinness jersey her dad bought her for her last birthday.

She wanted to keep her legs warm, even if a little too warm. But she didn’t care for the weight of thick fabric up top. And being cooler reminded her to pump her arms, feel her shoulders.

She pumped her arms, monitored the muscle fibers in her shoulders and reached a little farther with her heels. Inadvertently she sped up.

He laughed lightly. “You trying to get away?”

She glanced at him, then back at the trail. “You someone I should get away from?”

He grinned broadly. “Nope. Not if I’m lucky.”

Goodfellas came to mind. The scene with Tommy DeVito and Henry Hill. Where Tommy was jerking Henry’s chain. Lucky? Lucky how? Ha-ha lucky? Serious lucky? How exactly are you hoping to get— But she said, “I’m an attorney.” That usually sent men packing.

Again he laughed. “Good match. I’m in pest control too. I’m a US Marshal.”

Really? She’d never met a US Marshal. But she said, “I’m a defense attorney.”

“Yep.”

Yep? What’s that supposed to mean? She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Look, I’m really not out here looking for a date, so—”

“Oh. Good. I’ll make a note of it in case I decide to ask.” He grinned, then gestured toward the trail. “So you go out and back or do a circuit or what?””

She canted her head slightly, then turned half-right and started running again.

He fell in beside her, matching her stride for stride.

She said, “Out and back. With a circuit in the middle today. It’s right at seven miles.”

“That’s what you said. Mind if I tag along?”

She shrugged as she fell back into an easy rhythm. “Free country.”

“Bob Trask.”

“Huh?”

“My name. Bob Trask.”

“Ah.” She nodded.

And he stayed up with her through the course. He talked pretty much continually until they’d rounded the circuit and rejoined the main trail to head back toward the stand of aspens and the parking lot.

Before they got back, she knew all about where he was born and reared, which schools he had attended, and the horrifying event that had called him to work in law enforcement. The murder of his parents when he was 16.

Despite her curiosity about some of what he said, she limited her own responses to as few words as possible. He was easy on the eyes and seemed to have an even demeanor, but probably he was either just lonely and wanting to talk—he’d moved to Cremer a little less than a month earlier—or he was looking to “get lucky.” And in that regard, she wasn’t interested.

As they passed the aspens she slowed to a walk, then pointed to her black Mercedes, an AMG GT. “That’s my car. I guess this is where we part company.”

He grinned. “Really?” Then he pointed at the white Ford F-250 parked next to her car. The nearest other vehicles were several spaces away. “That’s my ride. I guess the universe isn’t finished with us yet.”

How did he know where she was parked? Was he stalking her?

But before she could comment, he said, “I always park as close to the trailhead as I can.” Then he grinned again. “Great minds, I guess.”

She only nodded.

“Do you stretch after you run?” He put his left foot up on the thick steel back bumper of his pickup, then walked the other foot back.

“Not always. I know I should but I’m usually in a hurry.”

He gestured toward the other end of the bumper. “Feel free. Nothing better than a good stretch after a run.”

But instead of putting her foot on the bumper, she reached high over her head and interlocked her thumbs, then bent at the waist to lay her palms on the ground. She glanced at him out of her periphery. He didn’t seem to be watching.

After he’d held the position for a long moment, he took his left foot down, put the right one up, then grinned. “Interesting run. But how do you remember where to turn?”

She continued to stretch, leaning back and then to either side, then forward to touch the ground again. “What do you mean?”

He straightened and gestured toward the trail. “There are at least what, five, six trails off to either side? And three or four off the one you turned on for the circuit. How do you keep them straight?”

“Oh. Just habit, I guess. I’ve been running out here close to a year.”

“Ah. Well, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Maybe,” she said, then slipped into her car and headed for the gym.

Not quite an hour later, she walked into her downtown office and closed the door. She went to her computer and typed US Marshals Service Ohio into the address bar. After accessing a government page and entering a special passcode, a regional list of Marshals appeared, each with an official photo alongside it.

And there he was. Robert Trask. He’d been with the US Marshals Service a little over three years. Apparently he was one of the good guys. At least so far.

Well, good for him.

She went about her day, which was relatively light. She had one interview with a new client and would spend the balance of the day researching his case unless something else came up.

She pulled his file to familiarize herself with it before the interview.

He was charged with grand-larceny auto, driving while under the influence of a controlled substance and manslaughter.

The guy had lost control of a stolen car and rammed it through the front of a convenience store.

She removed several photos from the file and looked at them.

The first few photos were outside of the convenience store. The only tire marks at the scene were where the tires hit the curb. Nothing on the street. Nothing on the sidewalk. He hadn’t been aware enough even to hit the brakes.

The next several photos were graphic. They showed the twenty-two year old cashier from six angles. She was obviously dead, smashed like a bug between the front of the car and the counter. According to the officer’s report, he shifted the car out of gear and turned off the engine after he arrived on the scene.

She returned to the report. Six other people—an assistant manager and five shoppers—were injured, two grievously. They had been removed from the scene before the photographer got there. But the two with life-threatening injuries were still in the hospital. And this happened—she flipped to back to the arresting officer’s report—one day short of two weeks ago.

She closed the folder. Probably a slam dunk. For the DA.

But the guy surprised her, at first, with a full confession.

When she walked into the interview room, he was already seated at the other end of the table. Before she even sat down, he raised his cuffed hands and said, “Okay, I just wanna say, you know, I done what they said I done. Okay?”

She could hardly believe her ears. “You know you’re charged with grand larceny, DUI and manslaughter, right?”

He nodded, and the beginning of a sneer curled one corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I was there.”

“And you admit to all counts?”

“Right. I admit to it.”

She smiled as she seated herself. “All right. Let me just get your file and we’ll go over some things.” She set her valise on the table and opened it, then pulled out a stack of papers roughly a quarter-inch thick.

For a moment she thought she might have a cause on her hands. If the guy was willing to make an appropriate show of remorse, maybe she could get the judge to hand down a combined sentence. Maybe a shorter prison term and some sort of drug rehabilitation program.

She ran through a battery of basic questions. Did he understand each of the charges against him?

He did.

Had he been appropriately advised of his Miranda rights by the arresting officer?

He had.

Had he been abused in any way since the arrest?

He hadn’t.

And what about his treatment in jail? Was he adequately comfortable, given his situation?

“Yeah, yeah. I wish they’d allow conjugal visits though,” he said, a broad grin on his face.

Heat rose in her cheeks. But probably he was just talking off some nerves.

“Could I bring you anything or maybe get a message to your family?”

The man actually smiled at her across the table. “Nah, nothin’ like that. But me sayin’ I done it, that’s between us, right? I mean, you’re my lawyer.”

She frowned. “Well, yes. Attorney-client conversations are privileged, but—”

“An’ me sayin’ I done it, that gets me somethin’, right? You can get me off?”

She was stunned. “Off? I don’t understand.” But she did understand. She understood all too well, although she wished she didn’t.

He nodded. “Off. You know, like with time served or whatever. I been in jail for almost two weeks now.” He shook his head as if with regret. “I tell you what, chica, that ain’t no kinda life.” He laughed, then slouched back in his chair and interlaced the fingers of his cuffed hands on the table.

A sigh escaped her. She felt it go, and it was almost audible. Her hand was trembling as she scooped the short stack of papers from the table. As she inserted the papers into her valise, she looked at her lap so he wouldn’t see the contempt in her eyes. “Mr. Ramirez, you should get used to the idea that you’re going to have to do some time.” She looked up at him. “Now maybe I can mitigate some of that for you if you show a proper amount of remorse, but—”

“Remorse? Like bein’ sorry an’ all that? That’s all I gotta do? Hey, I got remorse comin’ out my ass, homes.” He laughed. “Hey, mostly I’m sorry that cop was so quick to get there. He’d’a give me another few minutes, we wouldn’t be talkin’.”

“No. I mean real remorse. Remorse for the victims.”

He leaned forward. “I am the victim, chica.” Then he sat back again. “Hey, I’m a victim of society, man. I got a drug problem, right? So it ain’t like I can do without the stuff. I gotta have it. An’ I ain’t got no car to go get it. So that’s why I hadda take that other car.” He grinned. “But it was a nice one though, huh? Least ‘til the accident.”

She closed her eyes, opened them. “I mean the cashier, Mr. Ramirez. And the other people in the store. Were you aware— I mean, did you see the cashier?”

“Oh, I get you. Yeah, I seen her. Hey, she was smashed, man. Sucks to be her, am I right?”

She stood almost too quickly and turned away. “Well, I think I have all I need for now.”

“Hey. Hey, where you goin’?”

But she was already reaching for the door knob. “I’ll talk with you again before the arraignment.”

And the door closed behind her. She was able to breathe again.

Maybe she was on the wrong side of this thing. Everyone deserved representation during their day in court. But did she deserve to subject herself to these people?

Maybe she’d put out feelers about working for the district attorney. She could still serve those she believed to be innocent. If she ever encountered any. And she would actually be more in control of making the punishment fit the crime, taking into account things like mitigating circumstances and remorse. Authentic remorse.

In the meantime, she was still here. And she was Mr. Ramirez’ attorney of record. She had to at least try to come up with a viable defense.

Back at the office, she wrestled with that problem for most of the day. When she finally gave up a little after 4:30, she could hardly wait for her run tomorrow morning. Pounding the trail made everything better.

She locked her office, walked down the hallway, and was almost to the front door of the lobby when Marian, the front office secretary, called to her. “Jill, it seems you have a secret admirer.”

Jill stopped and turned around. She wasn’t in the mood. “I’m sorry, a what?”

Marian was smiling. She gestured toward a single daisy in a small bud vase toward the front edge of her desk. A narrow red ribbon was tied around the top of the vase, and there was a small card attached. “A secret admirer. This came addressed to you.” She reached to pick up the vase. “There’s a card.”

Jill approached the desk and took the proffered vase. She bent to set her valise on the floor, then flipped open the card.

Not a date. McClaren’s. Supper. 6 p.m. Hope you can make it.

Her gaze still on the note, she shook her head. “He must be out of his mind.”

Marian beamed. “Who is it?”

“Just some guy I met on the trail while I was running this morning.” She reached the vase back toward Marian with the note still attached. “Here, you keep it. It looks good on your desk.”

“Oh, but I can’t—”

“But for goodness’ sake, get rid of that stupid card.” Jill forced a smile, then picked up her valise and turned away. “See you in the morning.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

“Oh. Well, see you on Monday then.”

As the door closed behind her, Marian said, “Have a nice evening.” Her voice carried the tone of a smile.

* * *

The faded red brick wall of the building passed by on her left as she made her way toward the parking garage.

Weird. What in the world was the guy thinking? Did he just assume he could ask her out when they’d only met this morning?

But he hadn’t really asked her out. In the note, he even said it wasn’t a date.

Still, it was pretty forward of him, sending her a flower.

Did he somehow know the daisy was her favorite flower? Or had he sent it because it was unassuming? After all, it wasn’t as if he’d sent a rose. Probably the unassuming thing. A nice gesture to get her attention without going overboard.

But McClaren’s was her favorite restaurant too. It wasn’t especially romantic, but it was slightly upscale and quiet.

Did he know that somehow? That it was her favorite restaurant?

But how could he? And really, other than the country club it was the only nice restaurant in town. So if a man was out to impress a woman, he would invite her to one or the other.

Still, she wasn’t available to be impressed. She’d told him as much this morning and—

She realized she had inadvertently walked a few steps past the entrance to the parking garage. She turned around, went back to the entrance, and handed her slip to the valet as she snapped her purse closed. “It’s a black Mercedes,” she said.

The young man grinned and nodded. “Yes, Miss Montgomery. I know.”

She looked up. It was the same young man who had been parking and retrieving her car for the past year. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s all right. I know you have a lot on your mind.”

How in the world did he know? She frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Bein’ a lawyer an’ all.”

“Oh. Yes. I suppose.”

He tipped his cap, then turned and trotted away to get her car.

But supper. Should she go?

How couldn’t possibly know whether she had plans. And apparently he didn’t care. What she ought to do is go home and curl up with a good book. That would teach him to assume she didn’t have a life.

Then again, he hadn’t really assumed anything. Had he? The last part of the note read, “Hope you can make it,” not “Be there or else.”

As the young man—Roger, was it?—drove up with her car, she muttered, “Stop second guessing everything, Jill. Just do what you want to do.”

And actually, she didn’t have any plans.

And it had been a long time since she’d treated herself.

She would go to supper tonight at McClaren’s. If Mr. Trask happened to be there, fine. She would dine with him over some light conversation. And if he wasn’t—well, then she would still have a nice evening away from her apartment. And she could sleep-in tomorrow morning.

Besides, maybe a nice supper and a few glasses of wine would wipe Mr. Martinez and his self-righteous, entitled smirk from her mind.

That’s what she’d do. She’d go to supper at McClaren’s on her own terms, as she often did. Well, as she had done twice in the past year.

But she would be going more often from here on out. Once a month, maybe. At least once every other month. Or maybe once a quarter. A few times a year wouldn’t kill her.

So it was settled. She would go.

With any luck at all, he would show up late. Maybe even after she’d already started eating. That would show him she was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.

* * *

And she wasn’t.

She was neither intimidated by him nor dependent on him.

But she became infatuated with him through that first dinner.

She arrived right on time to find him waiting quietly. The maitre d’ was expecting her and showed her to the table. He also seated her, but Bob rose and waited until she was seated before he regained his chair. He did so in an unassuming manner, without flourish, as if it were simply a nice habit he’d developed.

It wasn’t what she expected. At all.

She expected him to be smug about her showing up.

But he apologized for asking her at the last moment and seemed genuinely glad she was able to make it.

She expected him to talk about himself through the evening too. After all, he was the main topic of conversation during their entire run earlier in the day.

But he asked questions about her. And when she tried to reciprocate, he turned the topic back to her.

At one point he even laughed. “After this morning, you know pretty much everything there is to know about me.”

And the rest of the evening went the same way. He was a gentleman in every respect, and an attentive listener.

When the evening was over, he accompanied her to her car, then grinned. “So, would it be all right now if I asked you for a date?”

She almost laughed. “I suppose so. Given my apparent inability to run you off.”

“Great. How about next Friday? Same place, same time?”

She agreed.

They dated almost constantly from then for the next several months.

Then they were married.

* * *

She stared again at where the her Mercedes should be.

Did Bob have a hand in this?

Well no. She wouldn’t put it past him to have her car towed, but the parking lot itself was gone. Just disappeared. That was beyond even Bob’s abilities.

Again she turned and looked back up the trail.

Definitely the same trail.

She looked at the stand of quaking aspens.

Same grove of trees she saw every morning as she started her run.

She turned around again.

Still no Mercedes. Still no parking lot. What the hell was going on?

This wasn’t right.

What the hell?

But there must be a logical explanation.

Her breathing started to calm, and she relaxed. Her focus on the run began to fade. The euphoria drifted up to meet it. Bob no longer mattered. The day no longer mattered. She had a new problem to play with.

She put her hands on her hips and shook her head.

It doesn’t make any sense. It just doesn’t make any sen—

Then she heard the gunshot. Plain as if it had just happened.

And Bob. It had something to do with Bob.

But a gunshot?

She frowned.

Okay, let’s go over it again.

He came in nonchalantly from the bedroom.

He was still tying his tie, still trying for the perfect Windsor knot, and he told her. Just like that.

Matter of factly, no big deal, he laid it all out.

There was another woman. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but there was a timetable. Their timetable. Their flight to Barbados that afternoon.

The decision was already made, he said. Oh, and he wished it could be another way.

Okay, so? Then he just walked out. Didn’t he?

No.

No, he didn’t leave.

She paled with the memory.

He said the decision was already made.

He slipped his hand under the lapel of his jacket.

He said he wished there was another way.

He pulled his pistol.

And she turned away, her toes digging in, her eyes wide, and raced across the living room. The carpet was mottled, like white gravel. Past the painting, on her left, of a grove of aspens.

She turned down the hallway, glanced her right shoulder off the wall, raced headlong into the bedroom.

The gunshot.

The lamp on the dresser in front of her exploded.

Another gunshot.

She slammed forward, her life blood pumping, rhythmically, rhythmically into the mottled gravel. Into the mottled carpet. The carpet.

* * *

That’s what it was.

That’s all it was.

She looked again back along the trail. She would miss it.

And she faded into the mist defining the trees.

* * * * * * *

 

The Dawning of Dexter

This is for my granddaughter Amber, who has known Dexter for a very long time.

* * *

When Dexter Murfee Nettleson approached the cash register at the front of the Morning Store, he had everything he needed to create a wonderful day.

He’d found smiles on Aisles 5 and 7, giggles on 3 and 8, and belly laughs on 10. The ones with the hands attached to the sides of the belly were toward the far end of that aisle, but he didn’t mind walking the extra several steps.

A belly laugh wouldn’t carry the same weight if it wasn’t flanked by a pair of hands. And that the hands were in white gloves reminiscent of those worn by Mickey Mouse made them even better.

Perchance Golightly, the lovely young cashier, shared an extra wide smile of her own. “How are you today, Dexter?”

He was so pleased to receive it, he tossed her a giggle.

“Fine, fine,” he said, then flashed his teeth at her as befitting common courtesy.

She juggled the giggle for a moment, but she finally pulled it under control and set it on the front of the conveyor belt.

“No, no, that one is for you, Miss Golightly. A tip for the dealer, so to speak.”

She retrieved it at once and slipped it into the left pocket of her smock. The left pocket was special. She reserved it for candy kisses, Horatio Hornblower Bubblegum, and the occasional slice of slapstick.

She glanced up at him, the faded edges of her smile still in place. “Find everything all right today?”

“Oh yes, everything looked perfectly fine to me.”

Both leaned back, each pointed at the other, and together they yelled, “B’dumpbump, tsh!” Then they both giggled, each issuing one giggle out of their private stock.

“No, no,” he said. “I found everything I was looking for. A place for everything and everything in its place, as they say.

“But really, everything was fine too. And shouldn’t it be, on such a glorious morning as this? After all, in a few short hours we begin the Transition.” He flung his hands wide as if announcing a major new development in the processing of cheese and very nearly dropped a belly laugh and two giggles.

Perchance pretended not to notice, suddenly finding the fingernails of her left hand extremely interesting.

In the interim, Dexter managed to corral his purchases. He arranged them on the conveyor belt. “There,” he said. “All better.”

Perchance said, “As compared with what?” Then she reached for the first item he’d placed on the conveyor belt. “But you’re right. The Transition begins soon. And not a moment too soon, in my estimation.”

“I can’t say I disagree with that, but let’s remain positive, shall we? After all, the Transition is a joyous occasion.”

“As with all Transitions since the dawn of time, n’est-ce pas? But you’re as right as you always are, and who can argue with that?” A mischievous twinkle came to her eyes. “Positivity is the watch word of the day.”

“Of the week,” he said.

“Of the fortnight,” she said.

“Of the month,” he said.

“Of the millennium,” they both said together to stave off the march through years and decades and centuries, then bumped a pair of belly laughs between them.

His had hands on the sides of it, but hers was more demure. As a cashier, she had to maintain a certain decorum, after all.

Besides, her hands were busy raking in his good graces as she verbalized a running oral inventory. “One belly laugh with hands,” she said, “and another, and let’s see, one, two, three—a dozen more. You want these in bags? It’ll save time if you don’t want them in bags.”

“You know better, Perchance Golightly. No, I’ll ingest them here, as I always do.” He raised one finger in the air. “For ‘tis better in all things to be prepared than to wish for things unrealized.”

From long practice, Perchance ignored him. She turned back to the conveyor belt. “And how many giggles you got there? Two, four, six, seven. Ah, eight—that one was jiggling. Nine, so… twenty-three. That it?”

“And the smiles.” He put one finger in the air again. “Don’t forget the smiles. For ‘tis a lazy practice to—”

“I’ll get to them.” She frowned. “But no grins? Dexter, what if you someone is beyond the help a simple smile can give, but not quite ready for a giggle?”

“Oh dear. I knew I’d forgotten something. Getting old, you know.” He turned to glance back toward the aisles. “Where are the grins?”

“I asked you first.” She bared her teeth in a flash and pointed at him. “Gotcha! But seriously—well, not seriously, but you know what I mean—they’re on Aisles 2, 6 and 8, small, medium and fanatic.” She put the back of her hand alongside her mouth and faux-whispered, “The fanatics are on sale.”

He swept one hand along the conveyor belt. “Can you hold these items for me?”

She huffed. “I’ll count slowly. Go, man! Go!”

And Dexter turned as quickly as his massive shoes would allow and flapped back across the store to Aisle 2. There he stopped and turned around to cast a glance, askance, at Perchance. He put his hands out to his sides, raised his eyebrows several notches and shrugged.

Perchance gestured.

Without bothering to face the aisles again, he shuffled sideways to Aisle 3, then 4, then 5. His eyebrows remained ratcheted up.

Finally she huffed again, then gestured and yelled, “Aisle 8, my dear Mr. Nettleson, if you want the fanatics.”

He raced into Aisle 8 and came out a long moment later all but staggering under the weight of the grins he’d picked up.

Perchance never was one to wait for the conveyor belt to deliver affectations. There was too much chance one might ride over the edge and fall into oblivion somewhere beneath the belt. Nobody knew what was under there, and she certainly wasn’t going to be the first to find out.

As she waited for Dexter, she tapped the fingernails of her right hand on the chrome strip in front of the conveyor belt. A rhythm developed. A pleasing rhythm.

Her left hand grew envious. Soon it crept unnoticed from its position near her hip, joined the right on the wide chrome stage, and those fingernails began tapping too.

Within seconds the two sets of fingernails joined in a rapid-fire, staccato flurry of unchoreographed dance steps, the likes of which still never have been seen again.

But as Dexter exited Aisle 8 and moved toward the register again, she came to her senses. She quickly relegated her left hand to the left pocket of her smock. Unlike the candy kisses, bubblegum barrels, and slapsticks, it wasn’t there for storage. It was in time-out to think about what it had done. Oh, it would be remorseful. That much was certain.

In the meantime, in keeping with her promise to count slowly, she allowed her right hand to walk on two fingers toward the first giggle on the belt.

It looked odd, that hand, walking in that limp-step. But the second finger beyond her thumb was longer than the other by almost a half-inch, so the limp-step was necessary. Either that or she’d have to take one step with the shorter index finger, then drag the other along like a weak cousin.

She’d remedied that last year in preparation for the solstice by growing the fingernail on her index finger especially long and cutting the one on the next finger over almost to the quick. But she was repaid for her efforts to eliminate the limp with one fingernail broken—or maybe severely sprained—and the other painfully in-grown. That, she was certain, was a direct result of embarrassment at the jagged edge she’d left on the nail.

And that’s when she realized surgery, or practicing medicine in any form, wasn’t for her. She was a cashier, plain and simple.

Ever since then, when she had reason to tarry while awaiting the return of a forgetful shopper, she had employed either the limp-step or the step-drag-step technique. The latter looked sillier than the former, but it did enjoy the singular benefit of keeping the fingernail polished as it dragged along the conveyor belt.

On the other hand—well, on either hand—she couldn’t wear colors because they, too, would wear off that one nail on the conveyor belt, and that would just look silly. And she liked wearing colors on her nails, so most often she used the limp-step.

An Nee Way, the way Dexter spaced out the items on the belt, she didn’t have to worry about going too fast. Everything had to be spaced just so, according to Dexter. Six inches from one item to the next and so on. It was practically a forced march for her poor right hand from one giggle to the next.

And never mind the extra time it took get from here to there. Dexter was a doll, but he was never mindful of customers waiting in line behind him.

Of which currently there were none, but there might easily have been if there were any other customers around like Dexter. But the only other customer that came in with any regularity didn’t hit the store until the late afternoon. So overcrowding was never really an issue.

Still, Perchance often dreamed of seeing the aisles were as packed with shoppers as with affectations, greetings and the occasional fine comestible. Like shrooms. Shrooms were a delectable comestible, and they often contributed smiles all their own. Or grins and even giggles, sometimes, if a customer selected shrooms from the wrong bin. So why offer the magical shrooms at all? Well, customers do have a right to choose, now don’t they?

Her right hand had walked almost all the way to the last giggle by the time Dexter came huffing up to the register again.

“There!” he said, and lowered his arms into a kind of chute, spilling grins all over the belt. Then he set about spacing them.

Perchance slapped at his hand, lightly so he would know she was joking. “No time for all that, now. Leave ‘em be. I’ll take ‘em where they are. We have to get you out on the street.” And she abandoned the limp-step finger-walk and began raking the grins toward her an armload at a time. “Let’s see four, eight, sixteen, and eight more make twenty-four. So fifty-three all told.” She reached beneath the counter and slapped another grin on the belt. “There. We’ll round it out at fifty-four for you.”

“But I only—”

“Don’t have a hissy, Dex. You’re only paying for twelve. They’re on sale, remember? And this one’s a freebie from me to you. But don’t hang onto it on my account. Use it as you see fit.”

“Thanks, Perchance.”

“Now then, it looks like your total comes to three guffaws, two slapsticks and a hug.”

“Three guffaws? Are you sure? Maybe I ought to put back—”

Perchance rocked back away from the belt, put her hands on her hips and laughed loudly. “There’s one guffaw. I’ll carry the rest. You know your credit’s good with me.”

Dexter flashed his teeth at her again. “Thanks, Perchance.” For a third time, he raised one finger into the air. “The Transition awaits!”

“So it does. Go on, y’old piker. Hit the sidewalk. See you tomorrow.”

And hit the sidewalk he did.

He exited the Morning Store with only a long moment to spare, but fortunately it was the very last building on the very east end of the very first town, locationally speaking, on Earth.

It would be a glorious Transition, a glorious Transition indeed. He looked to the east for a moment and stretched his arms wide to loosen himself up for the day ahead.

He turned around, prepared to dispense smiles, grins and giggles. Among those he would scatter a few chortles left over from the day before, and the ever-popular but less-often induced belly laughs.

Then with the prep work completed for another Transition, he put on the largest, broadest, happiest smile he had, and beamed over the face of the earth.

* * * * * * *

 

Ice Scream

Warning: This is a psychological-suspense horror story. It contains strong mental images.

Susan Jice-scream-180ordan jerked awake, naked and frantic and chilled. Her eyes were wide, her breath caught in her throat. But she was dizzy. Groggy. Like dreaming of being in a dream.

She found her breath, and in it, relief. A nightmare. It was a nightmare. Only a nightmare.

And it was vibrant. As she left the IGA, she looked over her shoulder. She smiled and said “I will” to Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

There were only the two registers out front, but Mr. Minister, the new manager, called the paper-fed calculator in his office Register 1. An odd man, Mr. Minister, at least according to whispered gossip from Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

“Transferred in three weeks ago,” she said, “from somewhere down south. Omaha maybe, or Oskalusa—something like that. I seem to be here all the time,” she said, and laughed. Then she said, “But I’ve seen him only once myself.” She shook her head. “Very odd.”

Mrs. Johnson was sweet, everybody’s mother. With her husband “lifted up by God” a year ago and her own kids grown and gone long before—a daughter to New York and a son to LA—she adopted everyone in town who was younger than she.

At the register, she scooped up the box of ice cream the way she scooped up everything and peered at it over her reading glasses. Then she looked at Susan. “Y’know, they say this stuff is bad for you, but I just don’t believe it. Anything this good for your soul has to be good for your body.” She laughed, rang it up and bagged it, then spun the carousel of plastic bags so Susan’s was right up front.

Susan smiled and nodded. To make conversation, she said, “That’s how I figure it.”

But it wasn’t how she figured it. Not really.

She was tired after a full day of work, and she was just a bit on the grouchy side. She only wanted to get home and put her feet up for awhile.

She’d been home once already. She put together a quick supper, then served Stanley in his usual position on the couch. But afterward, as she reached to mute one of the seemingly endless streams of “side effects” that contraindicated whatever drug they were selling on TV at the time, Stanley went into the kitchen.

A moment later the freezer door slammed. “Well damn,” he said and stomped back into the living room. “We don’t have any ice cream? Are we out?”

Susan didn’t bother saying yes. He had eaten the last of it two days earlier. He even put the container in the trash afterward instead of leaving it on the counter as usual.

She also didn’t bother asking why he hadn’t stopped at the IGA on his way home from work. He would mutter something about that being her responsibility. Only one thing mattered. He wanted ice cream, and they were out.

So Susan glanced at him as he slumped back into his place on the couch. She patted his thigh and said, “I’ll go.”

Then she got up, donned her warm slippers and her heavy coat and drove to the IGA. It was better than listening to his snide comments or putting up with his pouting and icy silences the rest of the evening.

But Mrs. Johnson liked to gossip, especially in the evening when few people came into the store. So after the ice cream passed Mrs. Johnson’s inspection and she bagged it, Susan turned away before she could get started.

Still, Mrs. Johnson always had a kind word for everyone, even if they didn’t hang around to chat. She watched silently as Susan quickly gathered her bag. But as she approached the door, Mrs. Johnson raised one hand. “Now you say hello to Stanley for me,” she said.

And Susan looked back, smiled and said, “I will,” then pushed the door open.

It was dark outside already, and mid-November chilly. The smell of ice was on the air and the wind was just that cold. But no matter. She’d be home in fifteen minutes. Ten or twelve if she hit all the lights. And tomorrow was Saturday. Stanley would be up and off to the golf course early, and she could sleep in. Still, she relished the thought of sitting on the couch for a couple of hours, letting brain-dead sitcoms and forced laugh tracks wash away the day.

As she crossed the parking lot, she wasn’t paying attention.

She opened her car door and leaned in to set the bag in the passenger seat.

And something hit her from behind.

How she got home, through an evening of TV and into bed, she had no idea.

But here she was. Her mind was cloudy but otherwise she was fine. Too much ice cream, maybe. Sometimes it had that effect if she overdid it. Had she eaten ice cream?

She closed her eyes, opened them, tried to see. But everything was black.

She was still locked in the nightmare outside the store. It was dark in the parking lot. Something hit her from behind.

She closed her eyes, drew a long breath through her nose, tried to scream herself awake.

But only a muffled sound came out. Her lips were thick. Or something.

She instantly regretted making the noise. It might wake up Stanley.

She lay very still, waiting. But he didn’t wake up. The bed didn’t move.

Well, that proved it. It was only a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare.

Maybe she was dreaming of dreaming of waking up from a nightmare.

She rocked her head side to side, tried to wake herself up.

It didn’t work. Maybe she should wake up Stanley. Then he would wake her up. In her dream she grinned.

She tried to fling her mouth open, draw a breath, scream louder.

But something stretchy-sticky sealed her lips, muffled the sound again. She frowned. Something warm—snot? blood?—leaked from her nose and down across her lip.

As her nostrils flared, she found her nose was sore. When had that happened? And there was something crusty on her upper right cheek. Dried blood?

Was she in the hospital? Had she been in an accident or something? Maybe she was in the hospital and they’d put something in her mouth to help her breathe.

And both her hands were numb too. Somewhere. Like they were disconnected.

She tugged to find them and fire raced through her shoulders.

What was that?

Panic began to well up inside her.

But it’s a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare. Isn’t it? Or I’m in a hospital. Yes. A nightmare. It has to be a nightmare, and I’ll wake up any second. The clouds will clear and I’ll wake up. Probably it’s time to get up anyway.

She smirked. This is ridiculous.

She tried to sit up, reach for the edge of the bed. She would sit up and reach for the chest of drawers. That would steady her even if she was dizzy. She’d grab the chest of drawers and—

But where were her hands?

She was dizzier than she thought.

Her shoulders burned. But why?

She nudged hard right, tried to nudge Stanley. If she could touch him, wake him up—

But he wouldn’t be in her nightmare. Would he?

Okay. I have to find my hands. She followed her chest to her shoulders. They were aching. Check. Good. So she was waking up. Aches don’t happen in nightmares, do they?

She followed her arms down along her sides to where her elbows were bent. They were aching a bit too. Well good. Serves them right. Then along her forearms, wedged behind her back and—

Behind her back? Her hands were behind her back?

She checked. They were tingling. Her hands? Something was tingling. They were there, maybe, lumped behind her back. That would explain them being asleep.

But how are they behind my back? How in the world did I manage that?

She tried to move them, but something tugged, pulled at the fine hair above her wrists.

Taped. They were taped. Are they taped? That doesn’t make sense.

And my eyes. She shook her head. I thought my eyes were open but they must still be closed. Probably. Everything is black. There would be some light, at least, if I wasn’t still in the nightmare. But why are my wrists taped in the nightmare? Unless I’m in the hospital. Maybe they’re actually beside me. Maybe they had to restrain me.

Either way, it’s a nightmare.

Breathe. I have to breathe. Wherever I am, I have to wake up.

She closed her eyes, calmed herself with thoughts of waking up, and opened them.

Still nothing but black.

She wanted to reach up with her fingers, make sure her eyelids were open. But she couldn’t find them.

Okay. Okay. There has to be light here somewhere.

She took another breath, then another. Turned her head left. Still black.

Turned her head right. Still black. But closer? Stanley?

No. It didn’t feel like Stanley in her mind.

Maybe he already got up. A wall?

But the wall wasn’t that close in the bedroom. There was Stanley, then the wall. Not close enough to sense it in the dark. Wow. A really bizarre dream.

I need something real. She looked back to the left. The chest of drawers. Right over there. The light—moonlight, starlight—would show her the edges of the chest of drawers. She polished it only a few days ago.

But there was nothing.

Only black.

Her perfume. The bottle leaked a little around the spritzer. She hadn’t mentioned it to Stanley. He’d want to fix it or throw it out. She liked the smell of it when she first woke up. It set on the chest of drawers next to the eyeglass cleaner and the microfiber cloths.

She took another breath. The scent of the perfume would direct her. It would bring her out.

She breathed deeply.

Onions. Old onions.

What?

She took another breath, deep, searching for the perfume. It had to be there.

No perfume. Old onions. And damp-earth. Muggy.

She frowned. Where am I?

The basement? With onions? Why are there onions in my nightmare? What am I doing in a basement with onions?

Okay. Okay. Breathe.

She could turn. Roll onto her left side and turn. Put her feet on the cold tile floor. The cold tile would wake her up.

She twisted, tried to reach for the edge of the bed with her left ankle, but the right one came with it.

Her ankles were bound.

Panic rose again. No! That can’t be!

She calmed herself.

No. No, it’s only in the nightmare. I’ll wake up.

She reached again, this time with both feet together.

The sharp grating of the links of a chain fired fear up along her spine and cleared away some of the confusion in her mind.

She was awake. She was awake the whole time.

But she couldn’t be awake. What happened at the store. What happened in the parking lot. It’s a nightmare! It has to be a nightmare! I’m home in bed! Or I’m in the hospital. I have to be!

But grating? Chains wouldn’t grate against the soft edge of the mattress, would they? Her mind was making up the chains, that’s all. After all, chains wouldn’t grate against the covers and—

Only she was bare. There were no covers.

And there was no mattress beneath her.

No! She rolled her head hard left, pushed down, and her cheek contacted cold steel.

Hospital steel. A gurney? A gurney. I’m in a hospital. But with onions?

I must be in a hospital. That’s it. The icy roads. Black ice. I was in an accident and I’m on a gurney in a hospital. And they taped something to my mouth. Something to help me breathe or something. The onions are my mind playing tricks with scents.

But they put a mattress on a gurney, don’t they? Or some sort of a pad? Or a sheet? Or something.

She pushed her cheek against the surface again. Still cold. Still steel. But maybe a gurney.

She listened. The wheels would turn against the floor. They’d clack. And the nurses would talk, but quietly.

Listen. Listen closely.

But there was only the sound of empty black.

She closed her eyes again, hard, then opened them wide. Wake up!

Still black. Still black.

A sharp click, and light flooded over her.

She slapped her eyes closed against the light. Stanley playing a trick. She should have known. Her eyes still closed, she tried to sit up.

The chains grated.

A man’s voice, husky, jovial. “Ah, I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”

Not Stanley! She tensed, naked, no covers. She opened her eyes, tried to lean up to cover herself.

“No. Lie back.”

She lay back, closed her eyes, opened them. The light illuminated a dirt and timber ceiling.

In a hospital?

A face came into view above her face, but upside down. Probably the gas passer. She was in the OR. Had to be.

The face was round, almost a unibrow. Close-cropped hair. No white paper hat? Jowls, pink, smooth round cheeks.

She frowned. He shaved too close. But who is he?

Small black, close-set eyes, a pug nose, hair in his nostrils. A slight smile.

“I’m Jonah. It’s good to meet you. And you are—” He held her clutch purse up where she could see it. He took out a card. Her driver’s license. He looked at it, flipped it away and it slapped lightly to the floor. “Ah, Susan.” He drew out the first syllable as if it had three U’s in it. “Yes, Susan.” He clapped his hands lightly beneath his double chin and turned away. “Just relax, Susan, all right? And probably I’ll let you go.” He turned away, moved off toward the other side of the room.

She wanted to ask who he was, why she was there, but the thing was still on her mouth.

The nightmare continues. She frowned, rolled her head left, followed his progress.

A table. A bench. A stool. In front of a dirt wall. That can’t be right.

She strained her neck, pressed her cheek against the cold steel to bring her back to the hospital.

Up close, inches away, the raised rounded edge of a steel table. Farther, the dull silver of a concrete floor. A red onion net bag on the floor near the table. Onions!

She remembered what he said, frowned at his back. Let me go? Home? Is he a doctor? Maybe she’d already been through the surgery. Maybe he was talking about discharging her and—

Finally her mind released the nightmare defense.

Her eyes grew wide and she stared at him. Oh god. Oh god! It’s not a nightmare! I’m awake! And I’m naked! But it made no sense. Am I in hell? But what did I do? What did I do?

He turned around and smiled, a small half-moon blade in one hand at the end of a short silver handle. Calmly, he said, “You aren’t trained in medicine, are you?”

She frowned, trembled, and shook her head. Why would he ask me that?

He held the tool up near his smile. “This, my dear, is a scalpel. It’s good to learn new things, isn’t it? Of course it is.”

He started toward her, still smiling, his elbow bent, the scalpel raised to shoulder height. “For instance, I feel a particular bent to learn human anatomy.”

Again she frowned. Why is he telling me?

He gestured toward her with the scalpel. “Your anatomy, specifically. So I’m going to have to cut you a bit, you see.”

Her eyes wide, she rocked her head hard, side to side, tried to say No. But only the same muffled sound came out.

He stopped next to her. “I wish I had some sort of anesthesia. I used to be quite fond of whiskey, but the doctors finally convinced me it was bad for my health.” He laughed and shrugged. “And it’s difficult to get the real stuff without a license. The anesthesia, I mean. If I were you, I would prefer ropivacaine. But you know how the government is with their regulations.”

He leaned forward, looked at her closely. “But we’ll get along without it. We’re going to have a good time, you and I.”

Outside the IGA, she’d opened her car door and leaned in to put the bag with the ice cream in the passenger seat. And something hit her from behind.

He did it. He hit her from behind. He shoved her hard across the car. She hit her nose on the inside of the passenger door just below the window. Her eyes watered and she was dizzy.

He lifted her legs and dropped them in the passenger side floorboard. There were a few goat heads in the floorboard. Stanley never scraped his shoes on the driveway before he got into her car. And a few of them stuck in her left knee.

Then someone—this man—grabbed the back of her hair, tugged hard on her head and slammed her face against the door again. And everything went dark.

That’s what was wrong with her nose. That’s what was wrong.

It wasn’t a nightmare. It happened.

He studied her eyes, watched as the fear crept into them, and smiled. “Ah, you remember something. Was it good for you? I do hope it was good for you, Susan.”

She forgot about the tape on her mouth, tried to ask, “Where am I?” but again only the muffled sound came out.

He held up one hand, his index finger to his mouth. “Shh. Shh. I thought you might be a talker, you see.” He gestured toward her mouth with the scalpel. “Hence the tape.” His voice quieted to a sinister whisper. “Now then, let’s get down to business, shall we? The sooner we begin, and all that.”

He leaned forward and reached with the fingers of his left hand, smoothed some hair from her forehead and wrapped it behind her left ear, then looked at her eyes. “I only want to make one incision, Susan. Just one.” He held up his left index finger. Then he touched the base of the scalpel to the front of her left underarm. “I’ll start here, you see.” He traced the path as he said, “And I’ll draw a little red line back up over your shoulder.” He smiled again. “Okay?”

She shook her head vehemently.

“Tut tut, none of that. As we’ve already established, it’s important to learn new things. Now, if you don’t move during the procedure, we’ll call it done and I’ll let you go.  All right?”

She stared at him.

He frowned. “You aren’t being very polite, Susan. I said all right?”

A hesitation, then she nodded quickly.

“That’s better. There’s a good girl. It’s like a little game. You don’t move, you don’t attempt to say anything, and I’ll let you go. And you’ll have a nice scar from the bad man to show your grandchildren someday.”

Grandchildren? She didn’t even have children yet. Stanley hadn’t decided they were ready. And at 24, she still had plenty of time. At 24 she was still a young—

He pressed the tip of the scalpel into the soft flesh of her underarm.

“Mmmfff!”

He jerked the scalpel back. Straightened. Looked at her. His lips were pressed together in a tight, thin line.

After a moment, during which he took three long breaths and seemed to be trying to decide something, he said, “All right. Well, that was probably the first time you’ve been touched with a scalpel, eh Susan? So we’ll let that one go, all right? We won’t count that one.”

He wagged his left forefinger at her and canted his head. “But any more like that, young lady, and— Well, I might not be able to let you go.” He laughed lightly, then leaned over her again. “Now, are you ready?”

She nodded frantically and pressed her teeth and her eyelids tight together.

He inserted the tip of the scalpel again.

She remained rigid against the searing pain as it sliced upward through the muscle of her left shoulder.

But when he’d moved it a little less than an inch, she had a mental image of herself walking into a hospital with her left arm in her right hand. The image caused her to shudder.

Again he straightened, but quickly, angrily. His voice was controlled, but only barely. “You just don’t listen, do you, Susan? Like all the rest, you never—you never listen!”

“Mmmfff!” she said, her eyes pleading. In that sound she tried to transmit that she would be good. She wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t make a sound. She wouldn’t do anything. She swore she wouldn’t. Just please let her go. Please.

But he was beyond listening for intent. “Oh, I see. Talking is what’s important to you. More important than anything, eh Susan? You want to talk?” He quickly raised the scalpel as he yelled, “Here! Let me remove the tape!”

He slashed down with the scalpel from near her nose to her jawline on the left side, slicing cleanly through her cheek and the tape.

She jerked her head to one side, and as he slashed again the scalpel hit just below her right nostril and sliced cleanly through the tape and both lips on right side.

She screamed, and this time the sound came out through her left cheek and through her gashed lips. Blood flowed in two streams down past her ear on the left and her jawline on the right and onto the table.

“And now you want to scream? Susan, you are untenable! But if you don’t want to play fair, here! Scream!”

He raised the scalpel, brought it down, slashed her left breast from the top to the areola. “Scream, Susan!”

She screamed and arched her back against the agonizing pain. More blood spattered out from her cheek and lips. Blood from her left breast ran down over her abdomen and side.

He held the scalpel aloft. “Be still!”

But she screamed again, then twisted hard to the left.

He slashed her right breast. “I said be still!”

She screamed and struggled hard to the right.

He slashed at her chest below her breasts repeatedly, but missed as she moved, laying bare her rib cage with three or four gashes on either side. The flesh hung in quivering red strips. “Be still, Susan! You’re spoiling it! You’re spoiling it!”

He stopped for a moment, and she looked at him, her eyes wide, pleading. She shook her head hard side to side, then nodded. She tried her best to lie still beneath the fire running all over her body.

He sighed and leaned over her. He gazed closely into her eyes, then smiled. Without warning he brought the scalpel forward and plunged it hard into her abdomen, then twisted it and held it tightly as she squirmed. “Do you understand, Susan? I wanted you to lie still!”

Still looking at him, she tried to draw her legs up, but the chains tugged at her ankles. Blood gushed from the rips in her cheeks and lips and torso.

Could she still escape? Maybe she could still escape. Slowly, she released the muscles in her thighs, allowed her legs to settle gently to the table again.

He raised the scalpel and glared at her.

She lay still, staring at him. At his eyes. Hatred. Such hatred. What did I do?

Again without warning, the scalpel descended and he slashed wildly at her hips and her thighs.

But she didn’t move other than with the force of the blade.

She kept her eyes trained on him.

It was too late. It wasn’t a nightmare. It had never been a nightmare.

I’m going to die. I’m going to die. But what did I do? What did I do?

Something about the fetal position. Shouldn’t she be in the fetal position?

He stopped for a moment, the scalpel hanging at his side as if he was tired.

The fetal position. She tried to tense her muscles and they all screamed. She tried to roll onto her left side quietly, without upsetting him further.

But the chains tugged at her again.

Oh. Oh yes. The chains. He put the chains on me. They must be necessary. But what did I do?

She relaxed in her original position, stared up at him, her eyes glassed over with acceptance.

Quietly, he said, “I only wanted you to lie still, Susan. That’s all I wanted, you see.” He took a heavy breath, hesitated, then said, “So shall I end it?”

Her cheeks, her face, her breasts were on fire. Her hips, her thighs, her abdomen. I’m going to die. Please, no more. No more. Yes. Yes sir, you should end it. Please. Please end it.

But if she told him, if she even nodded, he would torture her further.

He raised his voice slightly. “I said should I end it, Susan? I think you have learned your lesson, so you may answer.”

She stared at him.

I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.

Gently, she shook her head side to side. For added defiance, she risked a sound, tried to say No.

His face wrinkled into a rage. “Well it isn’t up to you, is it, Susan? It isn’t up to you! Understand?”

Behind the tape, she managed a slight smile.

In a single motion he stepped forward and plunged the scalpel between her ribs just to the left of her sternum.

Her body lurched. “Unh!”

He glared at the wound, the blood pumping out in a pulsing stream, then stabbed her again. Then again. Then again.

When he finally looked up, Susan Jordan’s eyes were vacant.

A broad grin burst across his lips and he began swinging the scalpel side to side, in rhythm, as if conducting an unseen choir. Quietly, as if taking care not to wake his victim, he sang, “And on into the ground we go, as into the town we go.”

He dropped the scalpel on the table next to her left calf, turned and walked toward the exit.

* * * * * * *

Note: This story is also the first chapter of my new psychological suspense crime thriller novel, Jonah.

The Spring

the-spring-180In jeans and an olive-drab t-shirt, Mark Smith sat on his front porch in the late evening hours of November first.

His M-14 rifle—well, the civilian version, a reasonable facsimile still in 7.62 millimeter—lay across his lap. Over the past half-hour, he’d disassembled, cleaned and reassembled the rifle. It was a weekly chore, and it kept him connected.

The sounds of some inane sitcom filtered out through the door, complete with the laugh track.

He shook his head. Half the time the laugh track didn’t even make sense. Or at least where they inserted it didn’t make sense. Overall the stupid show was about as funny as a turd in a punch bowl of frothy lemonade. He grinned. Mmm. Enticing.

He took off his cap—an olive-drab with the Marine Corps emblem embroidered on the front—and ran the palm of his hand over his head. The cool night air felt good on his scalp. His hair hadn’t been cut that short for years. He’d done it himself, mostly to see whether he still could.

He put his cap back on and tilted it back slightly on his head. The poor cap was about as faded as he felt, but unlike him, at least it still fit.

He reached toward the small table next to his chair and took his corojo wrapped toro cigar from a makeshift ashtray he’d cut into an old soda can. He looked at it. Almost half was still left. He took a long, satisfying pull on the cigar, then leaned over and carefully positioned it back on the ashtray as he released the smoke and watched it waft away. On the other side of the ashtray lay his cleaning kit—already closed—and a rag.

He didn’t fit anywhere. Hadn’t for years. It was as if the whole world had turned upside down.

He picked up the rifle. The grip felt good in his right hand as his fingers flexed around it. The weight of it felt good as it caused the muscles in his right forearm to tense.

He set the butt plate it in his shoulder and lay his cheek along the stock. Then he sighted along the barrel at the street lamp on the corner. The sights looked good. He curled his right index finger into the trigger well and squeezed lightly as he concentrated on the front sight blade. His breathing automatically smoothed out.

He grinned. Quietly, he said, “Y’still got it, Smitty. Some things y’never lose.”

The spring on the screen door complained with a long squeal behind him to the right. Marcy must be coming out.

Beneath the sound of the spring were the strains of a commercial. Some actor pretending to be an old guy repeating all the things he “accepts” because some moron told him to. All to sell some drug or other.

Whoever wrote that ad was an idiot. Just the sound of it made him want to growl. When the rule of three worked well, the listener wouldn’t even notice it. But an old guy who had done significant things in his life repeating three times he “accepts” that he can’t do them anymore was just annoying.

He made a mental note to never buy that particular product. And under no circumstances would he take the actor’s advice to “consult with your doctor” about whatever the drug was. He’d rather “accept” the risk of dying from whatever the medicine proposed to cure. Probably the same drug company had dreamed up the problem their medicine supposedly alleviated.

Ah good. Here comes the list of “possible side effects” the medicine might cause on its way to depleting your bank account.

Marcy said, “You coming in soon, Mark? It’s late. Put away your things and let’s get some sleep.” She hesitated. “I wish you wouldn’t do this. You always overreact. It’s just politics after all.”

He took the rifle from his shoulder and put his rifle on his lap. “What are you talking about?”

“You, sitting out here dreaming of shooting someone with that thing.”

“I ain’t dreamin’ of shootin’ anybody, Marcy. If I wanted somebody shot, he’d be layin’ out there bleedin’ somewhere right now. Two to five hundred yards out, dependin’ on the field of fire.”

“Whatever,” she said derisively. Then the sing-song started. “This happens every time you hear a politician. Every single time, you overreact. You pull out that stupid gun and….”

She droned on as he took another puff on his cigar, then held it a few inches from his face and looked at it as he released the smoke.

Could the enemy see the glow off the tip of a cigar from seven miles away? That’s what they always said about cigarettes. When he went on patrol back in the day, he left his cigarettes back in the hooch and carried a couple bags of Redman. Never did care for the plugs.

And if he’d bothered carrying the cigarettes, chances were they’d be smashed or broken anyway. Besides, if things were calm and he wanted a smoke, he could always get one out of his C-rats.

Probably not, though, on the cigar thing. Cigarettes glowed more brightly. No ash hanging in front. Wouldn’t matter anyway. He wouldn’t have risked carrying a two- or three- or five dollar cigar on a hump either. They broke easier than cigarettes did.

He was vaguely aware Marcy had stopped talking.

She punctuated the fact with, “Well?”

He carefully positioned the cigar back on the ashtray and shook his head. “No. See, that’s what you don’t understand, Marcy. You’ve never understood.”

She crossed her arms. “What? What have I never understood?”

“It’s never been about politics, Marcy. At least not the kind of politics you’re talking about.”

He looked away for a moment and shook his head. There was no way to make her understand. Still, for some stupid reason he felt compelled to try.

He looked at her again. “What I mean, it isn’t about what people like you call ‘politics as usual.’”

She frowned and crossed her arms, a smirk suddenly on her face. “But it is politics as usual. And people like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You wanna pull up a chair? This might take awhile. Besides, I’m not through with my cigar yet.”

“I’ll stand, thanks. And I wish you’d get rid of those filthy things. It’s a nasty habit.”

“Oh? How many have you smoked?”

“I wouldn’t touch those filthy things!”

“My point exactly. Hard to criticize something you know nothin’ about.” He grinned. “Besides, I’m gettin’ rid of ‘em quick as I can. About time to order more.”

“That isn’t funny, Mark.”

He shrugged, then picked up the cigar and took another puff, though he didn’t really want one at the moment. But a blatant exhibition of a man exercising personal choice wasn’t entirely uncalled for either.

He released the smoke in a bilious cloud. As it wafted away, he put the cigar back in the ashtray. “See, this isn’t some cutesy giggly thing where it’s all my guys against your guys and everybody gets a participation trophy and then we all go get pizza. That’s what you don’t understand.

“It isn’t even that either my guys win and the constitution is upheld or your guys win and you get four more years to push the country down the toilet.” He paused, then picked up the rag. More quietly, he said, “All the while safe in knowing someone like me will pull you back from the edge just in time.”

He’d already wiped the stock down with linseed oil, but another swipe or two wouldn’t hurt it.

“Oh Mark, that’s complete and utter bullshi—”

He raised the hand with the rag in it and pointed at her. “No! No, it isn’t bullshit. It’s always been this way. I’m just sorry our generation was the first to push it this close. I’m ashamed of us for that. You people don’t seem to realize, there comes a point of no return. You get past a certain point on the slope and nobody can pull you back. You get beyond a certain critical mass and—”

“What? What ‘critical mass’?”

He sighed. “The critical mass. That point where the timid little people who vote for whoever says what they want to hear those of us who have to do the dirty work of pulling them back.”

Marcy’s hand went to her mouth and she gasped. Under arched eyebrows, she said, “Timid little people?”

He stifled a grin and nodded. “They come in two varieties. In the first group are those who can’t say what they mean because they’re scared to death of ‘offending’ someone. The second are those who vote on soundbites because it’s the fashionable thing to do. They know who they are.”

“Is that right? And who exactly does the ‘dirty work’?”

“Ah.” He nodded again. “Now that’s easy enough to explain, as if you didn’t know. Guys like me. The ones who make it possible for everyone else to spout off and contribute nothing but their uninformed, soundbite-in-an-onion-skin-wrapper opinions. Everybody enjoys the milk and honey, but guys like me queue up and carry the buckets.” He laughed.

“We’re the ones who understand there are certain things out there that are bigger and more important than they are. Like the freedom to make the most out of your own life or the freedom to say what’s on your mind or the freedom to defend your own life by whatever means necessary.

“We’re the ones who understand that what matters is what somebody says, not what somebody else turns it into. We understand that living on handouts is just another form of slavery. We understand that one guy’s rights stop where the next guy’s rights begin.”

“You preach a good game, given that you’re sitting there getting a weapon ready to use on ‘people like me.’”

He scowled and color rose in his cheeks. “You’re damn right I do. And yes, I have a rifle and I know how to use it. But the difference between me and people like you is that I’ll use it to defend what’s mine, not to force someone else to believe the way I want them to.”

Marcy stared at him, wide eyed.

He paused and took a calming breath.

“Look, Marcy, I’m just saying, when people think that way, one day they’re gonna look up and wonder what happened.”

“When they think what way?”

“Like I said, when they’re afraid to speak their mind for fear of offending someone. Or when they vote for a particular person just to be fashionable.”

“People don’t do that.”

“Really? Are you gonna stand there and tell me people didn’t vote for the last guy just because of the color of his skin? How is that not racist? And are you gonna tell me people didn’t vote for that woman just because she’s allegedly a female? How is that not sexist?”

“Well of course I can’t say that nobody—”

“You sure as hell can’t. Tell me this. Faced with what this nation’s become over the past eight years—we’re more racially divided, more people are unemployed, and we’ve lost our status all over the world, even to the point that our enemies are flaunting their power and our allies no longer trust us—how can anyone say the guy did a good job? Of course, he did fix it so men could go into women’s bathrooms as long as they say they ‘self-identify’ as women. Now seriously, how does any of that make sense?

“Look for once, Marcy. Just look. In this country today, if one biological male decides he wants to ‘self-identify’ as a woman, suddenly everyone else in the country—every business, every public venue, and every individual—is required to allow him to use the women’s bathroom. How do you not see how crazy and backward that is?”

“How is it ‘crazy and backward’ to allow a transgender person to assert her right to privacy?”

He laughed. “Okay, first, how can you call that person a ‘her’ when it has a penis? You’re a woman, aren’t you? Do you have a penis?”

“Oh, you’re just confusing the issue.”

“Okay, drop that part. Just tell me this. Why is it all right to stop all the other actual females in the country from asserting their right to privacy just so that one guy can assert his? You seriously wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the women’s restroom in a bar or a restaurant or a ball park?”

“Like I said, for you it’s all just politics as usual.”

“Right. Got it. So answer the question, Marcy. You really wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the ladies’ room? Or what about in a department store where they have a section of changing rooms for women and a separate section of changing rooms for men? You wouldn’t mind if a man who ‘identifies as a woman’ follows you into the women’s section?”

“I don’t have to answer your stupid question. It isn’t about me. It’s about the transgender person.”

“I guess that answers it then. See? That one man’s right to privacy is more important to you than everyone else’s.”

“That isn’t what I said!”

“Fine. Then put it in your own words. Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

“I’m just saying the transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person does.”

Mark nodded. “Oh. Well good. Then we agree. The transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person—not more. So it follows that the non-transgender person has as much right to privacy as the transgender person does too, right? And each person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin.”

“You’re impossible! You’re twisting everything around. A person has the right to do anything he or she wants.”

“Again, I agree. As long as one person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin. Nobody has the right to force anything on anyone else. Anything. Himself, his ideas, his philosophy.”

“Okay. So? What’s that have to do with a transgender person wanting to use the appropriate bathroom for the gender he or she identifies with?”

“The transgender person has the right to pee wherever it wants to pee. But it doesn’t have the right to force others to put up with it. It doesn’t have the right to make others uncomfortable.” He hefted his rifle. “For example, I have the right to own this, and to fire it. But that doesn’t trump someone else’s right to continue breathing, right?”

“But the president must have done some good. After all, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for—”

Mark wagged one hand. “So now we’re back to participation trophies, right? What did he actually do to get that award handed to him? Nothing. All he did was show up.

“And that woman, if she actually is a woman. What did she do that qualifies her to be the president of the United States? Let’s see.” He held up his left hand, the fingers extended. “She used an unsecured server to send and receive classified state secrets, she and her worthless husband gutted the American military when he was in office, and she took millions of dollars from regimes around the world whose motto is Death to America and who call us The Great Satan. But worst of all, she abandoned men in the field.

“Hell, Marcy, she even watched on TV as the administration’s own ambassador was raped and  tortured to death in the streets with cattle prods. And all of that after those men begged for months for an increase in security! Now how in the hell can anyone vote for that woman? And then she turned around and blamed the whole thing on a ‘spontaneous’ uprising over some film somebody made. The woman is despicable. And you want her as the commander in chief?”

“Mark, watch your blood pressure.”

“Know what? Screw my blood pressure. That’s my whole point, don’t you see? I don’t matter. You don’t matter. And those men who call themselves women to gain access to women’s bathrooms and those snowflakes in colleges who are always being ‘offended’ and crying for a ‘safe space’ and those spoiled millionaires who play games for a living and refuse to stand for the National Anthem definitely don’t matter. What matters is the Constitution and this once-great nation. Damn it, that’s what matters!”

“Well, I’m going in to bed. I hope you’ll come along soon.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because I love you, Mark.”

He looked at the street lamp again. Finally he shrugged. “Yeah. Well, I love you too. You go ahead if you want to. I’m gonna sit out here for awhile. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and some of those ICE police will come up in their black uniforms to confiscate my rifle. ‘Course they generally only travel in pairs. That wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

“Hey, I know! Maybe they’ll bring a passel of those UN guys with them. A squad, maybe. If they even know what a squad is. Or maybe they’ll bring a whole damn platoon. At least that way it’d be a fair fight. I’ll bet I could take half of ‘em with me.”

He laughed. “I can just see the headlines the mainstream media would slap on it tomorrow: Crazed Man With Rifle Murders Innocent UN Troops In His Front Yard.” He laughed again and gripped his rifle in his lap. “Hey Marcy, did’ja hear that? Whaddya think? That’d be the headline, wouldn’t it?”

He turned to look up at Marcy. “Marcy?”

But she had already gone inside.

He frowned. “Now how in the world did she do that without that spring makin’ a racket?”

Maybe it was stretched too far.

* * * * * * *

 

 

Harold Cranston’s Final Trip

When the missiles are launched, who among us will know?

cranston-cover-180Harold Cranston whistled a  familiar old tune as he set the suitcases on the floor in the entry way of his home just outside Huntsville, Alabama. He stopped whistling for a moment and looked over his shoulder. “Helen, I’m going to put the suitcases in the car.”

“All right, dear. Did you remember our pillows?”

Pillows. She always insisted on taking their pillows. He could sleep with his head on a log if he needed to, but she had to have her pillow. And his along to match. He grinned. One of the things he loved about her.

“No, but I’ll get them in a minute.”

“All right. I shouldn’t be but a few more minutes. I suppose I can bring my overnight bag and my purse. Did you get the hanging bag? And then there’s that silly little duffel you always bring.”

“No. I’ll get the hanging bag when I get the pillows.” He paused for a moment, wondering whether it was packed. He didn’t remember seeing it on the bed when he grabbed the suitcases. “Is it packed? I didn’t see it on the bed.”

She always put his things, whether freshly folded clothing from the laundry or bags when they packed, on his side of the bed. Her things, likewise, she put on her side of the bed. And anything that wasn’t considered strictly his, like the hanging bag, was considered hers.

Five-foot three, petite Helen poked her head around the corner of the bedroom door and grinned at him down the hallway. “Well of course it’s packed, Harold. It’s hanging behind the door. It’s a hanging bag.” She withdrew her head and went back to what she was doing.

Quietly mimicking her, he said, “Of course it’s packed. It’s a hanging bag.” He smiled and shook his head, opened the door, and hefted the two suitcases.

He was long and lanky, at about five-feet nine, or maybe eight and a half, given the compaction of the spine with age, and around a hundred and sixty pounds. He was dressed in dark grey slacks, black shoes, a black belt and a white shirt with a maroon tie.

The tie was a bit loose, but looked more so because of the gap between his collar and his neck. Shirts weren’t made right anymore. His fedora was tipped back slightly on his head. The hat was an affectation to which he’d taken wholeheartedly when his silver hair finally began thinning on top and around his crown.

Dangling alongside him, the suitcases made his well-muscled arms look longer, thinner, like a door-to-door salesman with sample cases, nearing the end of a long day.

From the hallway came, “Did you say something, dear?”

Again he looked over his shoulder. “I’ll get my duffel last.”

“Oh. All right.”

He stepped out onto the wooden porch.

To his right was his chair, a straight ladder-back that he often leaned back against the front of the house, to Helen’s chagrin. Next to it was a small table for drinks. It also held an ashtray for his cigars. On the other side of that was Helen’s wooden rocker. More distant were two other long, low tables that held her plants, mostly geraniums in three shades and a couple she called mums.

He set one suitcase on his chair and closed the door, then retrieved the suitcase with a small grunt. Eschewing the two wooden steps that led from the center of the porch to the imbedded rock walk that dissected the lawn, he crossed the porch to the left and stepped off the side. No need to take a roundabout approach to get to the driveway and the car.

As he neared the new car—it was a Plymouth Crispus four-door sedan, almost a year old, but they’d gotten a great deal on it—he set the suitcases down again and reached into his left pocket for the keys.

He pulled them out and looked at them for a moment, then remembered the car didn’t have proper key locks. Helen had wanted the “smooth look,” she called it, parroting the dealer, of the keyless entry. He studied the small black device in his hand for a long moment, then pressed the tiny button beside the tiny icon of an open padlock.

The door locks clicked.

He frowned and looked down. Ah, there was also an icon of an open trunk. He pressed that one too and the trunk sprang open. He shook his head and slipped the keys back into his pocket, then hefted the suitcases again. “Too much new stuff. Why make it so difficult?”

At least the trunk had ample room for what they were taking. He’d never been a fan of loading things like suitcases into the passenger compartment of a luxury vehicle.

By his definition, anything that didn’t have a bed on the back was a luxury vehicle. As long as it wasn’t one of those silly little cars that looked as if it had been pre-shrunk at the factory. That or one of those little half-car things. “Silliness,” he said. “It’s all silliness.”

He put the suitcases in the trunk, positioning them carefully side by side. He laid them flat, toward the front with the handles facing the rear, then raised one hand to grasp the lid. But he released it. “No, not yet. You have more to load yet, Harold.”

He turned back toward the house, consciously putting a smile on his face.

Despite everything, or anything, it was going to be a wonderful weekend. He and Helen would embark within the hour. He raised his left wrist and glanced at his father’s Bulova wristwatch. At least he hoped they would depart within the hour. They were driving to Littlemon, Colorado to visit their son for Harold’s eighty-seventh birthday on Saturday.

The boy had planned to come visit them—after all, it’s generally easier for the young to travel such distances—but he wasn’t able to take leave right now. Some silly base commander’s prerogative thing. Worried about Middle East tensions or terrorist threats or some such thing.

Anyway, the boy had only a weekend, so if he came to Alabama he’d spend a lot more time on the road than he would get to spend visiting.

Besides, Harold rather liked the idea of a final road trip—and this definitely would be his last—with his favorite girl.

Speaking of which, where in the world was she?

As he crossed the porch and reached for the door, it opened.

He looked up. “Helen, you look radiant as ever.”

She grinned. “Oh hush, you old scoundrel. Here, take these pillows. And put them in the back seat, please. I know how you are about cramming everything in the trunk.”

He smiled. “Yes dear. How’s about a little smooch?”

“After the car’s loaded. Maybe. Really, Harold, we’re never going to make your 4 p.m. departure deadline if we don’t get the car loaded.”

He turned away. “I’m loading, I’m loading.”

* * *

Behind him, Helen peered through the partially open door.

He looked so fragile moving across the lawn. Thin and fragile. And he almost shuffled. If he could hear her thoughts, he’d say he was “wiry and still strong as a bull.”

Between his aortic valve replacement almost thirty years earlier and his age—he would be eighty-seven in a few days, and she was almost fifteen years younger—this probably would be his last trip. But there had never been a moment during their fifty-two years of marriage when she hadn’t felt loved and doted after. She smiled wanly and closed the door.

She turned and walked back down the hallway into the bedroom. Only her purse, the hanging bag and his twenty-two inch duffel remained.

She shook her head. There was plenty of room in her second suitcase for his things. Men packed so lightly for trips. And he always insisted on packing his own clothing and other items in his own bag. And it had always been a duffel. She laughed. He called it his “go” bag. Though where and why he might “go” she had no idea.

* * *

He opened and closed the door so softly Helen didn’t hear it. He trod quietly down the hallway, and when he reached the open bedroom door he looked at her for a long moment before speaking. “So my go bag’s ready to go?”

Her back turned to the bedroom door as she searched the closet for a particular outfit, she started, then turned around and put her hand to her chest. “Harold, don’t do that!”

He grinned. “Do what?”

“I didn’t hear you come in.”

The grin still on his face, he wiggled both eyebrows in that charming way. “And yet here we both are, in our love nest.” He laughed lightly. “I still know how to sneak up on a pretty woman, don’t I?”

She wagged one hand at him. “Oh, now stop it. You’ve been shooting pool with a rope for almost ten years.”

The grin remained. “Maybe so, but I still have a few moves left.” Again he wiggled both eyebrows. “Besides, who wouldn’t be tempted when faced with a hot little model like you?”

A bit of pink climbed through her neck into her cheeks. “Harold, you’re going to make us late with all this silliness.”

“Doing my best,” he said.

She ignored the comment and pointed to the bed. “Now your go bag is right there.” She turned back to the closet. “And don’t forget the hanging bag behind the door.”

“Yes dear,” he said, still grinning. She was nothing if not persistent.

He walked around the corner of the queen-sized bed and picked up his bag, then set it back on the bed. “Guess I’ll get the hanging bag first.” He turned back to the door and closed it part way, then used both hands to retrieve the hanging bag. “Good lord, woman! What did you pack in this thing?”

She was still moving clothes aside in the closet. “Not much. Just a few dresses. And my wool coat. We’re going to Colorado, aren’t we?”

“Yes, but—”

“I’ve heard storms come up suddenly out there. And you never know when you might need a suit. I added your dark grey pinstripe and also the darker heavy wool navy in case of cold weather. And your good shoes are in the compartment in the bottom. That’s all.”

“No concrete blocks for good measure?”

“Oh, don’t be silly.” She turned around, a pantsuit still on the hanger she was holding. “What do you think of this one?” She held it up against herself.

He frowned. “For what?”

“Why for the trip, of course. I think I’ll change.” She tugged at the dress she was wearing. “This old thing is frumpy.”

“You look fine as you are, Helen.” He grinned and leered at her. “I thought we’d already covered that.”

She turned away to hang the pantsuit back in the closet. “Oh, all right. Well, get those things packed and I’ll be out in a minute.”

“All right. I’d like to be on the road in—”

“I know. By four p.m. We will be. Just get those things loaded. And please take care that the hanging bag lies flat. We don’t want to rumple the dresses and suits.”

He nodded, having anticipated her request. That’s why he’d put the suitcases in first and laid them flat.

He shifted the hanging bag to his left hand. It was the stronger, and in eighty-seven years he hadn’t figured out why. He was right handed, after all.

He moved back around the bed and retrieved his duffel with his right hand, then exited the bedroom and walked down the hallway to the front door.

When he got there, he stopped and looked at it for a moment. He couldn’t open it while holding both bags, so he bent and set his duffel on the floor. He was careful to keep his left hand elevated. If she looked down the hall and saw the hanging bag bent to the floor—well, it wouldn’t be pretty.

Finally he turned the door knob and opened the door, then picked up his duffel again and stepped out onto the porch.

It was a beautiful day. Almost every day of his life he’d witnessed both the sunrise and the sunset, the bookends required to make it a good day. And on this day, he would steer his car into the setting sun. Fitting for what would undoubtedly be the final journey—well, the final long journey—of his life.

He set the duffel down again on his chair, again with his left arm extended straight up to maintain the integrity of the hanging bag, then straightened and closed the door. Again he lifted the duffel.

But as he straightened and turned, a wave of something that resembled vertigo washed through him. The duffel felt heavy in his right hand. Without realizing it, he lowered his left hand. The bottom third of the hanging bag lay flatter and wide against the boards of the porch.

He wavered for a moment, then shook his head slightly to clear it. To make the scenery stop swimming, he blinked his eyes, twice. Three times.

There. That was better.

But a bit of nausea started in his stomach.

He grinned. What in the world did his head have to do with nausea?

Nausea, of all things. Well, nausea wasn’t going to mess up this day. When he got the bags safely in the car, he would lean into the front and get a couple of Tums out of the bottle he kept stashed in the console.

He started to turn to the left and the toe of his shoe contacted the scrunched-up bottom of the hanging bag. He frowned. When had that happened?

He lifted the bag high, then stopped. He thought about the light jarring that awaited him if he stepped off the side of the porch as usual. That wouldn’t help the nausea. Besides, Helen didn’t like him to do that and she’d be along any moment. He decided to use the steps instead. It was only a few more paces to the car to go that route, and if Helen came out she’d be pleased.

He turned back to the front and carefully put his left foot on the first step below level of the porch, taking care to raise the hanging bag. He moved his right foot down alongside it.

The vertigo came again, accompanied again by nausea.

A sharp, shooting pain fired across his back and his shoulders twitched hard. His left arm and hand went numb, and the hanging bag fell from his grip. The base of it accordioned against the bottom step. In slow motion, the rest of it crumpled, the hanger hooks leading away from him, and lay itself across the first two rocks in the walking path.

The pain subsided as he stared at the hanging bag. He frowned. “What in the world?”

Slowly, he turned away.

He would put the duffel on his chair, then get Helen. She would understand. She would know what needed to be done.

As he lifted his left foot to step up onto the porch, something hit him hard in the center of the chest. “Oh!” Again a wave of dizziness washed through his brain and his vision blurred and became wavy. “Oh,” he said, more quietly. “Oh no.”

He reached to set his duffel on the porch, but another shooting pain fired across his shoulder blades.

He dropped the duffel, looked at the front door and frowned. Quietly, he said, “Helen?”

He fell straight back onto the hanging bag and lay still.

* * *

In the bedroom, still facing the closet, Helen shifted another hanger to one side and looked over the outfit behind it. Then another. Then another. Harold was so insistent on leaving at a particular time. Silly. What difference would it make if they left at 4:15 or 4:30 instead of by 4 p.m.?

Still, maybe he was right.

One hand still in the closet on the sleeve of yet another blouse, she glanced down at her dress. “I do look good in this dress.” At least Harold seemed to really like it. And after all, it was only for the trip itself. Soon after they arrived she would shower and change clothes anyway. And the outfit she put on would be the one that really mattered. It was a special occasion.

Harold’s birthday.

She tugged on the blouse in the closet, straightening it a bit on the hanger. Harold had bought her that blouse. Said it looked “sexy” on her.

“I’d look sexy to that old man in a gunny sack,” she said, then laughed lightly and released the blouse. She folded the closet doors closed. “Still, it’s nice to be appreciated.”

She turned and pushed the bedroom door toward the jamb so she could take advantage of the full-length mirror that hung on the back.

As she smoothed her hands down over her hips, she grinned at the mirror and shook her head. Harold never thought he’d see forty, then fifty, and then sixty. He hadn’t even bothered making a doomsday prediction about seventy or eighty, and lo and behold, tomorrow he would be eighty-seven.

Again she grinned at her reflection, checking her lipstick. “You know he’ll probably outlive us all, don’t you?”

She frowned. Was that a light spot beneath her left eye?

She turned her head slightly.

No, it was the light.

She tilted her head back slightly, then forward.

If only she could keep him on his heart medication. If she could do that, he probably really would outlive them all. She frowned again, and her reflection frowned back at her. “At least I hope so.”

After another moment, she grasped the edge of the door, stepped back, and pulled it open.

He got the hanging bag, and he took that bothersome duffel. And the pillows. And the suitcases before that.

She glanced around the room a final time, and her gaze raked across the bed.

Harold’s heart medication—a bottle of carvedilol—lay on the comforter next to where his duffel had been. Probably he’d dropped it into that silly open net-looking thing at the end. She didn’t know why he would put anything important in there. He never remembered to tighten the drawstring.

She shook her head, then reached for the bottle and picked it up. She glanced around the room again, then turned and walked down the hall.

She opened the front door and looked up. “Harold, you forgot your—”

Her eyes grew wide, and her eyebrows arched. “Harold!”

As if running in mud, she tried hard to get across the porch. By the time she got there he would sit up and grin. He’d yell, “Got you! How’s about that smooch now?”

And she would sit on his lap, laughing, and put her arms around his neck and kiss him until he begged her to stop.

She reached the edge of the porch, stretched her foot toward the first step down.

He’d wait until he heard her footsteps on the porch. But he would sit up, that silly grin on that tired face. He’d yell, “Got you!” He’d point at her probably, and laugh. God she loved that silly old laugh.

And by all that was holy, she’d run to him like a new bride and plop herself down on his lap. She’d drape her arms around his neck, grab her own wrists so he couldn’t dislodge her. And probably he’d stand with her clinging to him, lifting her along with himself, laughing the whole time.

She stepped on the first step, reached with her other foot for the next one.

Laughing the whole time, and she’d yell at him for fooling her like this. Yell at him for scaring the bejeezus out of her. And he’d laugh even harder because when she said “bejeezus” it always sounded so foreign. Like he’d laughed at her that time she yelled, “Damn it!” at a mouse that scurried under the cabinet out of the way of her broom. She was far too cute to use such words to any effect, he said. So he laughed at her.

She stepped on the bottom step, reached with her other foot for the lawn, the soft, soft grass he was going to wait to mow until they got back so it would go to seed and replenish a few bare spots near the rock path. The soft, tall grass that disappeared beneath her flattened hanging bag full of dresses and suits, all the air gone out of it.

He’ll stir now. He heard my shoes on the porch, on the steps. I’m close enough now he knows he can really get me. He’ll sit up and grin. He will. He’ll sit up and grin and I’ll plop myself into his lap and—

But he didn’t.

He was actually in trouble. He’d fallen. The one time he used the stupid steps and he’d fallen.

She knelt next to him, leaned forward, reached for his shoulders. “Harold?”

He was so handsome. The scent of his aftershave wafted lightly up to her. Even freshly shaven, he was so handsome. Why didn’t the skin on men sag when they lay on their backs?

She leaned back a bit, then forward and shook him again, a little harder. More loudly she said, “Harold?”

She leaned back, stared at his clean-shaven cheeks and chin, those grouchy turned-down lips. She leaned forward again, hesitated, both hands hovered over him with indecision. She turned her right hand into a spear point and slipped that wrist under his neck. She scooted closer, pushed harder, her forearm under his neck, then the elbow. She tugged, tried to lift him.

He’d carried it too far. This was too far, and anger boiled up inside her. “Harold!” She shook him again, moving her entire body to do so. “Oh Harold, stop this now!” She shoved against him with her right knee, careful not to shove too hard. “Harold, damn it, get up!”

He was going to sit up now. And he’d laugh at her over that “Damn it.” And he was right. It did sound foreign and fake coming from her.

A kiss. He wanted a kiss. That’s what this whole silliness was all about.

She leaned down and kissed his lips, almost frantically, then leaned back again and looked at him.

There was no difference in his expression.

Panic began to rise through her. “Harold!” The panic rose and caused her shoulders to tremble. She let it flow into him, shook him hard. “Harold, get up now!” She shook him again, harder. “Harold, this isn’t funny! Do you hear me?”

But the skin on the back of his neck was lifeless on her wrist. “Harold, do you?” And it was already cooling to the touch. “Harold, do you hear me? Please say you hear me.”

She leaned back again, slightly, and for the first time she realized his eyes were open.

Had they been open the whole time?

No! She would have noticed that. Wouldn’t she?

But he was lying on his back. When she came out of the house he was lying on his back. So of course his eyes would be closed. How could he pretend if his eyes weren’t closed? How could he pretend if—

She jerked her arm from beneath his neck and leaned over him.

He was staring past her.

Her eyes grew even wider. She put her hands to her mouth, shuffled on her knees. She screeched, “Harold! Harold, get up!” She began to cry, then stopped. She slapped at her eyes, dragged the heels of her hands over her cheeks. Sat back.

Her voice fell off flat.

He would get up. He would get up. He would get up, and he would laugh at her.

When she spoke again, she was under control, her voice quiet. “Baby, please get up.” She leaned slightly forward, hovered a hand over his left shoulder, shook him lightly. The way she woke him each morning. “Baby? Harold, please get up.”

She sat for a moment, her hand on his shoulder, then leaned farther forward.

She looked hard into his eyes. “Baby, please?”

Finally she bent over him, shifted her knees back, and lay her head on his chest.

He would wrap one arm around her, tell her he was sorry for frightening her.

But he didn’t.

The panic trembled up through her again. She shivered as if cold, screamed quietly and sobbed. And this time the trembling remained within her.

 

4

Some time or other, someone came by on the sidewalk in front of the Cranston house.

They looked, frowned, and stepped off the sidewalk. They walked across the grass, something Harold would never allow.

There were two sets of steps, close enough to hear but far away, as if in some other world.

Helen opened her eyes. Her right cheek was cool against her husband’s shirt.

The sun was still up. Or maybe it was up again. Was it Harold’s birthday? Already?

No. No, the day was still warm. Besides the heat came from low in the wrong part of the sky for it to be morning.

Voices joined the footsteps, overrode them. Still, the voices were hushed, as if whispered behind hands or in a vacuum.

A woman said, “Oh my god. Is that Harold? Is that Helen?”

A man said, “Go to the house, call someone. Oh, call the ambulance. Call the 911.”

Helen wanted to lift her head, say no, there was no need for an ambulance. But she lay still. Listening for a heartbeat, maybe. Listening for a resumption. Without a heartbeat, what other sounds mattered?

Neither was there any need to add to the noise. No need to say anything. The quiet was good.

It was almost like lying in bed, listening to him breath softly after he’d awakened her with his snoring.  The quiet was good. Peaceful.

Had they come into her bedroom?

But beneath her cheek was fabric. His shirt. And it was cool.

She remembered where she was.

The shirt wasn’t cool. It was cold. And the cold didn’t come from the shirt. It came through the shirt.

It didn’t matter now.

She moved her left hand from his side up to his shoulder. That would show them she was alive if it mattered.

She squeezed lightly, followed it with a caress, a pat. His shoulders were so strong. Even at eighty-seven minus one, his shoulders were so strong.

Where had he gone? And without saying goodbye? Why so suddenly? Why without the kiss he always gave her before he left?

Was this why he wanted a kiss earlier? Did he know?

No. No, that was silly. If he knew, he’d have called out to her. He’d have said something. He’d have moved his lips and said something.

And he always started with her name. To get her attention, he said. It was a proven fact, he said, science. If you said the name of the person you were talking to before you said anything else they would hear you more plainly.

She patted his shoulder again. He was a good man. A good husband.

It was science. If he’d known he would have called out. He would have said her name.

An interminable time passed in seconds.

Then sirens began. They came on, distant, then nearer.

No need for all the noise. Couldn’t they tell? Couldn’t they tell there was no need?

The man said to call for an ambulance. Probably that was the sirens. Probably for an unnecessary ambulance.

Harold should have had his last big trip. It shouldn’t be a short trip in an ambulance for no reason. He would call that wasteful.

His son. Their son. He should have seen his son. He should have spent his birthday with his son.

Oh. His son! Their son!

Oh god! She would have to call their son. She would have to let him know. He would have to come home after all.

The sirens were closer, louder. She would have to get up. They would make her get up.

But it was all right. It was time, maybe. It was all right.

She should be up when they arrive.

Helen lifted her head, turned it to look at Harold.

He was still looking past her, somewhere above the top of her head.

She moved to make eye contact. Quietly, privately, she said, “Are you all right, Harold? Are you finally all right?”

In the gentlest breeze she’d ever felt, the eyelash on his right eyelid fluttered. Just the tiniest bit.

“Okay, baby. I— I have phone calls to make now, Harold. I guess you know the trip’s off. I have to make phone calls. But I’ll wait. Some men are coming to— They’re going to take you to the hospital. For your heart, you know. I have to make some phone calls, but I’ll see you again soon.”

She gently stroked his head, and realized his hat was not there.

It lay a few feet away, above his right shoulder. There were shoes beyond it, spindly white legs above them. George Mastroani from two houses down. Harold often joked about those sparrow legs.

Words filtered in. A man’s uncertain words. George. George Mastroani. “Helen?” Quietly, as if invading a privacy. Something he had to do. It was in the tone.

“Helen? Uh, Marcie called some people, so— They, uh— They’re on their way. You know.” He paused as if casting about for better words. Failure to find the right words came out as a sigh. Defeat seeped through. “I’m, uh— I’m awful sorry, Helen. You know.”

It was a heavy New York accent.

She looked up, past the skinny legs, the tan Bermuda shorts, the blue-barber shirt-clad torso.

Ah, it was George.

She often thought maybe George was mafia. He had that look, and Mastroani was definitely Italian or Sicilian or something, wasn’t it?

Maybe witness protection or something. But didn’t they usually go to the desert? She’d always meant to talk with Harold about it, get his take. But Harold’s take was usually based on face value. He would shake his head, say there would be a lot fewer problems in the world if people took other people at face value. After all, he would ask, how much did any of the neighbors know about each other? Better not to spread gossip, he would say.

He was a good man, her Harold.

She patted his shoulder again, lightly, then nodded at George and pointed. “Could you get his hat, please? He wouldn’t want them to see him without his hat.”

Too quickly, he said, “Sure. Sure,” and retrieved the hat. He held it, hesitated, then finally stepped closer and stooped. “Uh, here you go.” Another hesitation. “You want I should close his eyes?”

She looked at Harold for a moment. He wouldn’t want the back brim flattened.

She laid the hat on his chest, then lifted his left hand and placed it on the brim. She drew her knees up under her, and for the first time realized the grass was cool and damp. It would stain the bottom of her peach dress where her knees pressed her weight against it. The hip was already probably stained. She leaned forward and move his right hand to the other side of his hat. “There.”

Then she heard George’s nervous question about closing Harold’s eyes. Still looking at Harold, she nodded quickly and breathed, “Would you, please? Close them for me?”

George hesitated again, wanting to be sure she meant him. Finally he took another step, knelt and moved his right hand slowly, his thumb and forefinger spread—with practiced ease, she thought—toward Harold’s forehead.

Helen didn’t say anything. She just continued looking at her husband.

George used his thumb and forefinger to close Harold’s eyes. Quietly he said, “Only if they ask, they were already closed, those eyes. I don’t know if they—well, you know.”

She nodded again, still looking down at Harold, that handsome face. Finally she patted her husband’s left hand. Quietly, she said, “Safe journey, my love.” She drew her hand back and stood. She smoothed her dress, then glanced at George. “Will you wait with him for a moment, please? I have calls to make.”

He forgot to nod until Helen had already turned away.

She went up the steps, crossed the porch, and went inside. She left the front door standing open and went to sit at the desk in the corner of the living room. Harold had insisted on keeping a regular telephone. It was on the desk.

As she sat and then looked down to adjust the chair, she saw that she was right. On the front of her dress just above the hem were two green and brown splotches, damp, with some peach showing through. She adjusted the chair and reached for the phone.

The sirens grew closer, then closer still. The ambulance bumped over the sloped curb and stopped in the yard with a light squeal of the brakes. Oddly, more sirens blared in the distance. The police maybe? But they seemed louder than that. And more distant, maybe. They were more distant but louder, like a storm warning.

She twisted in the chair and glanced out the window.

The doors of the ambulance burst open and two EMTs quickly walked up.

As they brushed past George, one on either side, one of them knelt next to Harold and put his fingers to the side of the man’s throat. He shook his head.

The other EMT glanced up at George. “Hey, pal. You know what happened?”

Helen lay the phone receiver on the desk. She’d get back to her calls in a moment.

She walked through the living room, then turned toward the open front door. The sirens were so loud. From the entry hall, she could see George’s lips moving as he responded to the EMT, but she barely made out “heart attack maybe” and “trip” before she got through the door.

George shrugged at the EMT, then turned to look at Helen as she stepped out onto the porch.

Strange. Even with the ambulance in the yard, the sirens were still wailing. From force of habit, she  put one hand above her brow and looked east toward Huntsville.

Long, thin, white clouds appeared in the sky. Dozens of them. In the late afternoon twilight, they practically glowed against the dark blue sky.

She frowned. How odd that so many planes were up at once. And all going in the same direction.

The EMTs had stood, and they and George were looking too. George frowned. “What the hell?”

But the planes were of little concern to Helen. She cleared her throat to be heard over the sirens. “Gentlemen?”

They looked around.

She gestured through the sirens with her right hand, it barely leaving her side, toward the figure on the ground. “That is my husband, Harold Cranston. He, uh—he’s had a heart problem for some years.” She cleared her throat. “He was packing the car. We were going to see our son in Colorado. Tomorrow is Harold’s birthday. Please be gentle with him.”

One EMT, looking contrite, said, “Uh, yes ma’am. Do you know—”

The sirens continued. Her attention was drawn to the sky again. Something was wrong. And the long white clouds were thicker.

As she watched, three of the clouds bent south, grew thicker still.

The sirens wailed as if trying to escape. From inside the house, an odd, three-note tone piggybacked on them, contrasted by a friendly, disembodied voice: Please hang up and try your call again.

The sirens. The phone. It was all a warning of some kind.

Helen frowned at the EMTs, then back at the sky. “I— I have some calls. I have to make some calls.”

She turned to cross the porch.

As she reached for the door jamb, the first two missiles slammed into Redstone Arsenal, a few miles to the east. She started and looked around.

The third missile veered as if Harold himself had called to it. The roaring was incredibly loud. It drowned out even the sirens. Even the phone.

Ahead of the cloud, something long and white. The fingernail of an angry god.

She paled. Her eyebrows arched. Her mouth formed an O.

As in slow motion, the long white thing bent again, its cloud following, and nosed toward the street. She clenched her fists hard, screamed, “Harold!”

The flash seared silhouettes of the ambulance, the EMTs, George and Helen into the white clapboards above the porch.

The explosion blew them through the silhouettes.

* * * * * * *

 

Being Martha Ramis

being-martha-ramis-180At Bible Mission Church in Springer, South Dakota, the church secretary, Martha Ramis, lay yesterday’s mail on the corner of the pastor’s desk as usual, then turned away.

Was that a draft?

She turned back to glance toward the window.

No, the blinds were down and the window closed. Probably just her imagination from having recently come in from the cold.

She reached up to clasp her heavy brown coat near the collar as she turned to move through the door, then pulled it closed behind her.

Back in her own office—the pastor’s outer office—she removed her coat hung it on the free-standing coat rack next to the pastor’s door. She took off her matching hat and hung it over the hook that held the coat, then crossed to the chair behind her double-pedestal cherrywood desk.

Once she sat down, she swiveled the chair to face at right angles to her desk and leaned forward slightly over her laptop. It was balanced on a pull-out typing platform. Above it, at eye level if she were standing up, a print of Christ on the crucifix gazed balefully down at her. The bulk of her ancient desk lay to her left.

She glanced up and smiled pleasantly. Quietly, she said, “Now Lord, at least you’re already in Heaven. Why the stare?”

The print was canted slightly, not hanging straight as it should. Well, she would remember to straighten it the next time she got up. She nodded at the figure on the cross. “I’ll fix it next time I get up.”

Then she leaned forward again, her index fingers poised over the keyboard as she read to refresh her memory.

Ah yes. She’d left off right after the paragraph about the Ladies’ Auxiliary breakfast. She still had to add the introduction about the Bazaar and then the sections about the bake sale and the silent auction. And then, of course, the very special keynote address.

She frowned at the keyboard.

The hardest thing to learn about this newfangled machine was not to hit the Return key. She glanced at it and scowled. Well, the Enter key, when she reached the end of a line of type. The pastor had reminded her to hit that only when she reached the end of a paragraph.

Using this thing was a little like magic, but it wasn’t good magic. When she used a typewriter, the little ding at the end of each line and paragraph seemed like a reward. This thing was silent, even when the sound was turned on, even when she hit the Return—no, Enter—key at the end of a paragraph.

And the whole process resembled typing only in that it managed, somehow, to put letters and words on the fake page on the screen. There was no paper to touch or feed, no ink to smell, and no ding. No clacking of the risers striking paper. The whole thing was cold and impersonal. How did anyone ever put part of themselves into what they wrote on one of these things?

She thought again of the canted print on the wall above her and smiled. “Well,” she muttered, “we all have our crosses to bear.”

She leaned forward slightly, put her index fingers in the appropriate position on the keyboard, and typed the heading: Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar.

She leaned back in her chair again.

Oh, it would be quite the spectacle this year. Between Mrs. Ramis’ own special apple-tort, peach-premium and pineapple-upside-down pancakes and the other possibly less-desirable items the other ladies pitched in, it would be quite a breakfast.

And the Bazaar itself would be truly spectacular this year too.

There would be the usual smattering of baked goods. Of course, most of them would be a bit disappointing after Mrs. Ramis’ secret-recipe pancakes from the morning. But they would be adequate. And the silent auction probably would go at least as well as it had the past several years.

But this year—this year, the reverend himself would deliver a keystone speech.

She leaned forward again and, with renewed vigor, went back to tapping out the draft of the church newsletter.

After a few minutes she finished the introduction to the Bazaar section.

Next?

The bake sale and the silent auction would run concurrently. Which to type first?

Food leads to food. She could bridge the Bazaar introduction by going from the pancake breakfast before it to the bake sale afterward.

After all, the silent auction would lead to a veritable climax, a culmination during which winners were announced. And then what would surely be a heavenly keynote. Was there any possibility the pastor might bomb? None.

But no time now to get sidetracked with all that.

Food leads to food. Yes, that was the way to do it. That’s what she would do.

Again she poised her index fingers just so, then hunted, pecked and tapped until she got through the segment on the bake sale. Finally she sat back to read over it.

There was one paragraph reminding likely contributors which items were perennial best sellers. Cookies packaged three to a bag sold best. Cake was a close second when it was pre-sliced and when small paper plates and plastic forks were provided.

A second paragraph discussed best practices in pricing. The lower the price, the lesser the implied quality. Especially if the prices were lower than the customer might pay at the IGA for a similar product. Even though those mass-produced cakes and cookies were little more than poison repositories and collections of preservatives.

A third paragraph suggested what to do with the inevitable leftovers. There were always leftovers, most notably at the far end of the table. But the Food Pantry was only a few blocks down the street. Not that she’d ever seen the inside of it. All of her baked goods always went quickly.

She sat back and looked at the screen with a sense of satisfaction. There. Less than two hours after she’d begun, two thirds of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar segment of the newsletter was behind her.

She looked to the left to glance at the clock on the wall. Almost 9 a.m. She stood an excellent chance of finishing the entire segment before the pastor arrived for the day.

She leaned over the laptop again, index fingers poised for action.

But when she was only a few lines into the first paragraph about the silent auction, the front door to the rectory blew opened. A blast of chilly air swirled in past it.

Mrs. Ramis started at the sound, then spun left in her chair.

Just as the door slammed behind the Reverend Joseph McGinty.

He strode across the room and past the opposite end of her desk on his way into his office.

She turned farther in her chair, following him with her gaze, and smiled. “Morning, Reverend.”

But he held up his left hand like a running back stiff-arming an astute free safety. “Not now, Mrs. Ramis.”

And he flashed past her.

In the next instant, his right shoulder flexed beneath his coat as he turned door knob to his office. Then that door slammed behind him too.

The smile still on her face, Mrs. Ramis shrugged, then turned back around in her chair to face her laptop.

She quietly hummed the tune to “Bringing in the Sheaves” as she redirected her attention to the newsletter. She had to finish at least the current paragraph. This was an important issue.

The Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar was a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It was also the focal point of the church membership drive. And this year, the membership drive was even more important than supporting the Ladies’ Auxiliary.

Everyone who attended the breakfast, everyone who bought a baked good, and everyone who bid on the items in the silent auction would be asked their name, email address and telephone number. They would be entered in a special drawing to win an as-yet unspecified prize. And that list would form the basis of the church recruitment roll.

Membership had flagged in recent months. Well, membership growth had flagged. They hadn’t lost members, except the three who had gone on to their heavenly reward. A few of the elders had tied the seeming decline to the good reverend himself. All because growth had been more or less steady at a rate of one new member or two every month before he had accepted the call of the Springer Bible Mission Church.

But really, was it his fault three people had grown old and died? There was simply no excuse for it. Certainly it wasn’t owing to any disrespect or dislike in the community of the reverend himself. Nor was he to blame in any other way for the decline in new membership. He certainly wasn’t off putting. Not with those looks and that voice.

Though she couldn’t say the same about that wife of his.

Oh, she looked fine in that superficially pretty way all young women do. And her voice was pleasant enough, if curt the few times Mrs. Ramis heard it. But Marianne McGinty rode into town on a high horse, it seemed, and thus far she had refused to climb down. If she would only help her poor husband more, probably the church wouldn’t be in this bind.

Marianne McGinty seemed stand-offish, especially for a pastor’s wife. She was in church every Sunday of course, but she most often came in late and took a seat in a back pew. Not up front, as would a more supportive wife.

At first, Mrs. Ramis thought maybe she was remaining at the back so she could more easily take her place alongside her husband near the exit after the service to speak with the members of the congregation on their way out. That was one of the usual roles of a pastor’s wife. But more often than not, when services let out she was nowhere to be seen.

Not that Mrs. Ramis would ever make a point of checking up on the pastor’s wife. That was neither her business nor her proper place. But on more than one occasion, strictly by coincidence as she glanced around from her own seat in the front pew, she had noticed that Marianne McGinty was up and gone long before the final Amen had a chance to echo.

And outside of church, the other ladies seldom even saw her, much less had a chance to speak with her.

Mrs. Weatherby had spotted her once in her front yard, or so she said, tending to flowers. The story was subject to suspicion, of course, because Mrs. Weatherby was getting along in years. Besides, Mrs. Ramis could hardly imagine Marianne McGinty tending to anything other than her own image in a mirror. And Heaven itself knows looks aren’t everything.

In any case, before Mrs. Weatherby had been able to make a u-turn at the end of the block and drive back to the pastor’s house to say hello, Marianne McGinty already had ducked into the house.

Even setting aside Mrs. Weatherby’s age and probable lack of mental acuity, that certainly sounded par for the course for Marianne McGinty. Why, Mrs. Ramis herself had run into the pastor’s wife on one occasion at the local IGA. Being the friendly, outgoing person she was, even aside from the fact she was the church secretary and doubled as the reverend’s personal secretary, she made a point to smile and say hello. Strictly as an act of friendship, of course.

But Marianne McGinty had visibly straightened as if startled. Then she nodded stiffly and muttered “Hello” in response without the faintest hint of a smile before hurriedly—and pointedly—turning away to inspect a bin of Idaho russet potatoes. And anyone with any sense could plainly see those potatoes were fresh and all but perfect. There was nothing to inspect.

No, Marianne McGinty wasn’t friendly at all. Nor supportive of her husband in his role as pastor.

And that was part of the role of any wife—to be supportive. Wasn’t it? Even the bible itself said as much.

Not that Mrs. Ramis always agreed with biblical precepts, especially that bit about men being the heads of everything and the women filling less-important roles. She had a mind of her own, after all.

But she had spent a great deal of time in prayer on the matter and she was comforted to learn that God had His reasons. He had even seen fit to divulge them to her, at least enough to ease her social conscience.

Eventually He led her to understand that gender roles make perfect sense. After all, it was a given that it was the women’s task to blend one generation into the next and ensure the continuation of God’s plan. There was absolutely no arguing that point, and who would want to? Women were the link to the future from the past.

Men were more useful in dealing with the immediate, more utilitarian matters of the present, whether fighting wars or delivering sermons or protecting and safeguarding their women. Which is to say, their future. So again, it all came back to the women.

Likewise, men were tasked with both letting go of the past and not looking too closely at the future. Privately, Mrs. Ramis thought they probably couldn’t handle it, but she didn’t ask about that in her prayers.

And besides, those gender roles seemed perfectly natural to Martha. They were everywhere repeated in nature in the lesser creatures of the earth too, weren’t they?

So women’s lib or no women’s lib, women couldn’t realistically bridge the past to the future and dabble in the bland, day to day matters of the present, could they? Of course not.

But they could be supportive of their men. They could provide comfort and ease of mind. As surely as women bridged one generation to the next, so could they smooth the rough spots their men encountered in their day to day struggles as they dealt with matters of the present.

And that’s where Marianne McGinty fell down. Hard. It all fit together very snugly in God’s plan, but that was a plan Marianne McGinty apparently didn’t know much about. The same plan her husband, the Reverend McGinty, was following as if he were on rails. It was all very sad.

Why, the Reverend McGinty himself was a perfect example of the man fulfilling his role in dealing with the more mundane life things. His task, his immediate life calling and utility role, was to spread the Word of God.

Not that spreading the Word of the Lord was a mundane thing, but compared with ensuring the continuation of the species—well.

And the reverend not only served his role, he did so with aplomb. He was an excellent messenger in both form and deed.

In form, at a strapping six feet three inches and probably around two hundred very trim pounds, he was an impressive man. Not that looks counted for a lot. But his flock was composed of human beings, and human beings are an impressionable lot.

He was trim from his size-eleven feet—they must be at least size eleven—all the way up. He had broad shoulders, practically no hips to speak of and a flat profile from the lower part of his torso all the way down past—well, all the way down.

And the way he walked! His confident, center-of-attention stride forced all eyes to him when he entered a room. And there, those eyes would encounter a feast.

With dark, conservatively cut hair, those Pacific Ocean blue eyes and that chiseled, strong jawline and chin—a chin that even had a little dimple in the center of it—he inspired confidence in everyone around him. And of course it was all topped off with a smile that could easily land him a job doing commercials for dental services.

She stared for a moment at the screen of her laptop. What was she doing again?

Oh yes. The newsletter. This one was important. Second only in importance to the newsletter for next month. That one would announce the Christmas program. But she would get it done. In her long tenure as the church secretary, never once had she missed turning out a newsletter on time.

She sat back in her chair and imagined the pastor’s long strides. How he would look as he came through the double doors at the front of the auditorium to present the keynote address.

The way he walked, with insistent perfection.

The heel of the first shoe that struck the floor would announce his arrival. Then, with that perfect form, he would weave his way through the press of sinners and past the myriad tables to the podium at the front of the room.

But his form was only the appetizer.

And the man really was perfect in form and deed. The pastor. As a pastor, he was perfect in form and deed.

In deed—well, simply put, he would deliver the perfect keynote address. He would say the perfect words in the perfect order to grow their membership.

And how could he fail? His throbbing, smooth, deep baritone carried the Word of the Lord every Sunday with undeniable authority. And with a timbre that—well, as if it were being delivered by the archangel Gabriel himself.

She shifted in her chair.

When the multitude of heathens at the Bazaar heard him speak, most of them probably would sign up for a church membership on the spot. If for no other reason than to guarantee a place in the pews come the following Sunday.

There you have it. The man could as easily be a model, appearance or voice. He would undoubtedly be in high demand even at the top agencies. Yet he was humbled—and with just the right amount of humility—by his calling to spread the word of the Lord. Oh, the Reverend Joe McGinty was a man to be reckoned with. One who commanded the attention of others.

And a man like that should have a more supportive woman at his side.

One who cooked and served his supper.

One who commiserated and strived to allay his problems, not add to them.

One who rubbed his tired size-eleven feet and gladly did whatever else she could to soothe his journey.

But instead, he had Marianne. More’s the pity.

The woman couldn’t even be counted on to support him by so small an inconvenience as arriving a little early for a church service and sitting in the front pew. Even when her own husband was delivering the message! There was no telling how she treated him in private.

Mrs. Ramis sighed as she considered her poor pastor.

His must truly be a heroic struggle, and even more so at home than out in the world. Very sad.

And today, of all days, he obviously had something far out of the ordinary on his mind. Today, with the Ladies’ Auxiliary Breakfast and Annual Fall Bazaar and Membership Drive—she hastily retitled the lead story for the newsletter—a scant two weeks away, he was troubled with some terrible external matters.

But far be it from Mrs. Ramis to poke her nose in where it didn’t belong. She had quite enough to deal with in getting this newsletter out early enough to have a positive effect.

She straightened in her chair and poised her index fingers over the keyboard.

Whatever it was must be an external matter, for everything within the church ran like a well-oiled clockwork with a tightly wound spring. Besides, if it was something to do with the church, he would have talked with her about it.

Wouldn’t he?

Again, she sat back in her chair.

And whatever it was must be terrible because he always had a moment or two to chat on his way into his office. Occasionally she thought he might be a bit taken with her. Even a pastor is only a man first, after all. And he was well aware Mrs. Ramis was a young widow at only 42, which made her only seven years his senior.

Why, often he would stop to say hello even when he could plainly see Mrs. Ramis was busy. Of course, she always allowed the interruption. That was her job as the church secretary and her role as a woman. But this was the first time he’d ever simply flashed past with hardly a nod.

There definitely was something going on. Something external, and very probably something terrible.

And as usual his wife was nowhere to be seen.

Still, she had her duties.

She straightened again in the chair, then reached up to touch her hair.

But when she finished the newsletter, perhaps she would tap on the door and see whether he might want to release part of his burden. It was the least she could do.

A mental image flashed through her mind. She flushed pink and raised the fingertips of her right hand to her mouth. Quietly, she said, “Oh!” She shook her head slightly, then blinked and giggled.

Listening. Listening, of course, was what she meant. Allowing him to release part of his burden through the simple act of listening. That was the least she could do.

But not until she finished the newsletter. First things first.

She leaned forward again and put her fingers on the keyboard.

Now, where was she?

The door to the pastor’s office clicked and swung open. “Uh, Mrs. Ramis, do you have a moment?”

She swiveled around in her chair, her eyebrows arched. She was flush for some reason. “What? Oh, I mean, yes.” She touched her hair. “Yes, of course.” She put the heels of her hands on the seat of her chair and started to rise.

He held up one hand. “No, that’s fine. I just wanted to say, about the door.” He jerked one thumb over his shoulder. “The uh—the wind. It came in through my window and slammed it.” He forced his best smile. “Just wanted you to know nothing’s wrong.”

Her shoulders sagged the tiniest bit. “Oh. All right.” Then she smiled, raised one hand and giggled. “Well, the Lord be praised.”

He canted his head slightly, then nodded. “All right.” He closed the door. Gently.

She turned back to the keyboard.

Definitely something external to the church. And definitely something terrible.

Probably that Marianne McGinty.

* * * * * * *