Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Update on My Writing


In case any of my friends have been wondering where I have been lately, I thought I would post a quick explanation. First, the month of October has been extremely busy with several days of work-related travel. In fact, I am currently submitting this post as part of a blogging demonstration presented to a group of business friends while I am out in beautiful Santa Rosa, California.

On another note, I have decided to focus more energy on working through a novel in progress. Back in 2009, as part of NaNoWriMo, I completed my first novel, which has been sitting on the shelves collecting dust. There's a certain amount of fear that comes with writing a novel I suppose—the fear of rejection, primarily—which is why I have never tried to polish it up. I think now, however, I am ready to conquer my fears and take the next step. As such, I will spend less time writing flashes on a weekly basis and more time on editing and revising my novel. My goal is to have this project ready to shop around by the Summer of 2015. The good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, as they say in my part of the world, I should be able to achieve my goal.

You will still see me from time to time, and I will certainly stop by your sites as often as possible to offer feedback, but I won't be submitting as much as I have in the past.

Wish me luck as I do the same for all of you.

Friday, October 10, 2014

#FridayFlash - A Night at the Carnival


Carl stood at the mirror and stared at the old man glaring back. The sign posted above the frame announced in bold, black letters as big as his hand: See Your True Self - 2 Tokens.

He closed his eyes, snorted out a dismissive laugh, and then shook his head. He hated carnivals like this, had said as much to his daughter and granddaughter just earlier this evening, but no, they had to go. It was a tradition, they had said. He asked since when, because he didn't remember taking the family when Sherrie was a child.

His daughter clucked her tongue, said, "Oh please," in that snarky voice she showed him from time to time. "You think I don't know that, daddy?" Still calling him daddy after all these years. "The tradition is with me and Natalie. We're the ones who've been going to the county fair. We just want you to go with us this time."

"Why?"

"Because it's fun. You can grab a corn dog—the real kind, with mustard slathered on top, not that crap they sell at the store—and you can take in the sights. There's always something new." She patted him on the back then. "You never know. You might see something that will amaze even crusty old you."

Standing in front of the mirror, looking at the lines on his face, trenched through years of living on the road, saving every cent possible as if it were his last, Carl glanced up at the wooden sign again.

See Your True Self.

He didn't know what the darn thing would do once it collected its fare, but he could guess. The mirror had probably been constructed out of some sort of pliable metal. It would warp and contort, and the image would grow fat or thin, short or tall, depending upon the option randomly selected by its designed algorithm. In the end it would only show the payee what a fool they had been. Like everything else at the carnival, the primary objective was to take other people's money. He should know. He'd made a living out of showing people what they wanted to see, even if they didn't know what that was at first. He took their money doing it, too.

Still there was something about the sign...

Something about the hardy oak frame...

He reached down, found a small pebble, and chucked it at the mirror. The metallic sound he expected didn't come back at him; instead, he heard a sharp tack! as the pebble hit the mirror and fell to the ground.

Carl frowned. If it was made out of glass, then how could it bend? How could it distort the image? He looked back up at the sign.

2 Tokens.

Carl looked from side to side. He wasn't sure why he was about to do this, but he certainly didn't want Sherrie or Natalie seeing it. No doubt, they would want to stand next to him, watching as the mirror did nothing at all. Then they would laugh and say something like, "There you go, you're an old man, just like you knew you would be."

After making sure his daughter and granddaughter were nowhere to be seen, he fished two tokens out of his pocket. Of course, he didn't exchange his money for the tokens. That would have been stupid. He even felt weird carrying them, which was why he buried them deep in his pocket instead of holding them in his hand like a small child who couldn't wait to spend his money on something. Sherrie insisted he have a few of them after she had handed forty bucks to the cashier. What a waste that was. "In case you find something fun to do," she said.

He dropped one of the tokens into the vending machine, feeling awkward even as he did so. It made a metallic click as the token fell into the collection box. He was committed now. He couldn't walk away, not and waste the money.

He dropped the second token in the machine, and then stared at his reflection: at the white hair, at the protruding eyebrows, at the carousel spinning behind him, the horses swinging up and down, up and down. The glass fogged over, and the reflections fell behind a cloud of smoke, swirling around and around.

Carl's heart raced now. What was happening? What would it show him? Would he see a man who had spent so many years on the road, selling product and crafting stories far better than any fiction writer in order to make the next deal? Or would he see a man surrounded by multiple women, only one of who had been his wife? Maybe he would see a man who had attended weekly mass, who drank the communion wine as the priest passed him by, only his heart wasn't in it.

The cloud stopped swirling. The fog lifted.

Carl stared into the mirror and saw nothing but a spinning carousel, the horses swinging up and down, up and down.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

#FridayFlash - Laws of Nature


With a face like an emu and hair as white as a palomino, Adrien Dupre stepped through a half-circle of men gathered in a warehouse that smelled of fish and brackish water. He walked over to a refrigerator, opened it, and grabbed a beer. Stepping back toward the men, he approached a metal desk, where he sat on the corner and popped open the can with a snick! He swallowed several loud gulps, and then wiped his mouth with the back of a hand.

Before him, the half-circle of men (all of whom had been with him these last ten years and had helped him build the cannery business, among other things) surrounded two other men. One of them lay on the floor, his hands zip-tied behind his back, his throat slit open in a blackened maw of flesh and blood. The man had initially introduced himself as Bill Landrieux; other sources, however had finally identified the pudgy slob with wiry hair and a scrub brush of a beard as Special Agent Edward Chandler. Adrien sniffed at the sight, not at all happy with the way things played out thus far. Not only had Chandler infiltrated their group, but it had taken them more than six months to discover the truth. Someone would have to answer for that. And that someone would probably also have the chore of cleaning up the mess on the floor. Most likely, the concrete would need to be washed with bath of muriatic acid.

But that would wait. At the moment, Adrien was more concerned with the other man, the one still on his knees.

"You know why we have laws?" he said.

The young man glared back with slate grey eyes. His lips formed a hard slash, and Adrien could see the anger seething through every part of him. Along with his partner, this one had fed them a lie for six months, told them his name was Donnie Racine when they now knew him as Special Agent Richie Miller. He was lighter than Chandler, probably weighed in at one-eighty, maybe one-eighty-five, and definitely better looking, even with one eye swelled shut.

After a long enough pause, one of Adrien's men nudged Miller in the back with the butt of a .380 rifle.

"The man asked you a question."

Miller looked over his shoulder for a moment, and then finally turned his attention back to Adrien.

"I imagine you're gonna tell me."

Adrien nodded. "Because in any society we need laws. We need to know where the boundaries are. We need to see the lines, and the problems they present, so we can make choices. Life is nothing but choices." He pointed the beer can toward an opened bay door. Outside, the river slowly worked its way toward the Gulf. "A man goes out there, sooner or later he's gonna run across a ten foot croc, maybe bigger. And when he does, he has to make a decision. Is he gonna respect the croc's position, or is he gonna take a risk, cross the line and see who has the better skill? Of course, if he has enough fire power, there's no battle to be had. All he has to do is just aim and pull the trigger. Still, the man is in the wrong place, you know? Just because he's wearing a pair of crocodile boots, it don't mean he's a crocodile."

Miller blinked his good eye, once, twice. "Is there a point to this?"

Adrien picked up the beer and finished it. The can barked as Adrien crumpled it up. He tossed it on the floor where it landed near the body of Chandler. Whoever cleaned up the mess could pick up the empty as well.

"The point is you don't belong. You never did. And while we didn't know that at first, there's no way it could have slipped your mind, no way you could have just forgot."

"I never did," Miller said.

Adrien nodded. "Uh-huh. So you can imagine why I'm a little pissed off right now. I mean, here I am, a respectable businessman—"

Miller scoffed at that. "You're a gun runner and a drug dealer."

"A respectable businessman, who knows the difference between the good guys and the bad ones. And who also knows they shouldn't mix. There's this unwritten, God ordained law that says so. It's like oil and water, you know what I'm saying?"

Miller smiled. "So that's it—Adrianna—that's what this is about."

Adrien shook his head. "Not all of it. I would like to know, though, why you wouldn't just stick to the role of playing cops and robbers and not soil that which belonged to me."

Miller waited a beat before he spoke again. "Because we love each other."

Adrien snorted. "Is that right? You... in love with my daughter?" He shook his head. "Nah, I don't think so."

He looked at the half-circle of men who stared back, waiting on his lead. In the words of his father, this was a teachable moment. If he didn't hold the line, then it wouldn't be long before one of them decided the rules didn't apply either.

He looked around the warehouse.

"You want to know what's remarkable about running a business like this?"

Miller didn't say anything.

"It's like the Indians, you know? They never wasted anything. And neither do we. We filet the fish, and then we use the rest. Pulverize it, and let it break down. Sell the by-product off as fertilizer. Good stuff, too." Adrien smiled and nodded at one of the men standing. "I'll figure out what to tell my daughter about you. You can bet it won't be flattering."

The man stood forward, and pointed a gun at the back of Miller's head.

After it was over, Adrien looked at his men.

"Okay then... Which one of you made the mess with Chandler?"

Friday, September 12, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Evolution of Man


There's a way of looking at a man, really looking at him, and seeing him for what, not who, he truly is. This was one of the things Nick's father often told him, especially in those moments when Nick had done something wrong, failed in some known or even unknown way, and his father made it a point to place the moral spotlight on the transgression. In his father's eyes, it was as if the failure, left unchecked, could take on a life of its own and metastasize into a cancerous worm that would bore itself through Nick's core, hollow him out piece by piece, and replace his insides with more and more cells until one day there would be no more Nick. There would only be a shell of what once was—a facial doorplate hung out for everyone to see, the optics there to suggest that all remained the same, but the room would now be occupied by a different tenant, cold and lifeless. The key, then, was to avoid the misgivings at all costs.

"Guard your soul," his father often said. "Treat it as if it were more priceless than diamonds. ‘Cause you know… Jesus is coming."

Standing at the water's edge, watching the morning sky bleed through the blackened curtain of night, hearing the waves hiss and claw at the shoreline in a desperate fight against the tidal pull of the sea, Nick gave the memory a dull smile. With all that had happened last night, this was the kind of memory that rooted through his mind like an unwanted weed?

He closed his eyes and shook his head. His father had certainly meant well. The old man only dished out what he himself had faithfully received without question. The thing for Nick to do—what was expected, actually—was to accept and believe. And at first he did. While his friends tucked their heads under school desks, fearing that Brezhnev would someday lose his mind and send the Big One, Nick had cowered down beside his bed, offering prayers and lamentations, worrying more about being left behind than being vaporized by a cloud of radioactive matter. After all, what were a few isotopes to the power of God?

That was then.

Somewhere along the way, through a combination of classes and readings and personal introspections, along with a few years of living on his own, Nick no longer heard the voice of his father. It was one thing to have a proper respect for the Almighty, quite another to live in fear. He didn't weep. He didn't pray. He didn't worry about what the future held.

Until now.

Nick's cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the screen. It was his wife this time. She had probably heard the news by now. He didn't answer, but instead sent her to voice mail. As much as he wanted to talk with her, to hear her voice, he couldn't bring himself to do it. What would he say? Something witty, no doubt. Hey, honey, you'll never believe what happened at the office yesterday. You know all those times I used to joke about going postal? Well, guess what—it's not a punchline anymore. Thinking through it, though, hearing himself say the words, Nick knew it would never work. You just couldn't joke about something like this.

The phone buzzed again, and Nick turned it off.

He knew what some would say. Why not just leave? If he didn't like his job, why didn't he find a new one? It would be easy for them to say. They didn't have the mortgage he did. They didn't have the family with high expectations. No, people who spit out easy solutions probably never had the strings that employers used, cherished even, to keep their employees submissive. Come to think of it, Nick believed his father was on to something about the cancerous worm changing a man. All those days and years at the office had certainly changed him. He had long ago given up his ideas of advancement ("You're doing great, Nick, and we certainly appreciate you, but right now...") or acknowledgement ("That's a great idea, Nick. We'll give it some thought and get back to you."). And for all of the abuse he took ("Nick, really?" "What kind of short-sighted thinking was that?" "Idiot.") there seemed to be no level of self-regulation to deal with the stress, no meditation to help him through the journey. It wasn't like he could redeploy, either, not at his age, not with his lifestyle. He was no longer a child, but once again he had been expected to accept and believe. The company, and the fraternity that it embraced, was all that mattered. The familiar line from Pink Floyd flitted through his brain: What did you dream? It's all right we told you what to dream.

Taking a deep breath, Nick looked out across the water and noticed how the waves sparkled with the colors of red and blue and white. At first, it struck him as odd. Then, he glanced over his shoulder and saw the reasons why. Police cars flanked his own.

It didn't take much to understand how they knew. All the cell phones these days came with a "Find Me" app. In fact, his wife had probably assisted them. So, why the phone call? What had she wanted to say? That he should turn himself in? That he should toss the gun and raise his hands until they told him to lay face down on the pavement?

Two officers approached him now. Both had their guns raised as they shouted out orders. Nick ignored them and looked out at the sea, hearing his father again.

Guard your soul...

He was out of bullets, so there was nothing he could do to hurt anyone else.

Of course... they didn't know that.

Friday, August 29, 2014

#FridayFlash - Wages of Sin


Mark blew on his coffee and stared through the plated glass window, watching as two men made a hit on his car. It had to happen sooner or later, he knew; there were too many reports—about this store, this location—to suggest otherwise. Still, he let it happen, watching as the two men stood on either side of the car, acting as if it belonged to them.

The odd thing, as far as Mark was concerned, was that they didn’t recognize his vehicle from before, when they stole some fairly valuable items—items that were later used to inflict more misery and pain upon his life. Maybe they had seen too many vehicles in their so-called career. What was one red, but old, Honda compared to another? Of course, it was probably that they did in fact recognized his car, but didn’t care. Maybe they thought he was the idiot. Some people never learn, right?

Mark was different, though.

He watched them grab the bags he conspicuously placed in the back seat. In less than a minute they had opened up his car, grabbed the stash, and were walking away. Amazing. And the funny thing, almost poetic when he thought about it, was that they actually locked it up for him. He knew this because the lights winked twice as the punks shut the doors.

Thirty seconds after hitting his car, the men had climbed into their own car, a Cadillac of all things, and were now pulling out of the shopping mall parking lot, acting as if they had just spent an exhausting day walking around.

He gave them a minute, just enough to make sure they were a mile down the road. He set his coffee down on the bookstore table, and then reached into his pocket. With a few quick keystrokes, Mark hit the SEND button. Ten seconds later, the concussion of the car bomb sent ripples through the remainder of his coffee. All around the bookstore, people looked at each other, not sure what they just felt. Was that an earthquake? Out here?

Mark smiled. “The wages of sin,” he said.

Friday, August 22, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Last Dance


"Hey!"

Lonnie's voice startled Juju. She had been sleeping—catching a wink, as her mama used to say—but at the sound of Lonnie's voice she jerked her head up and blinked away the confusion. "What?"

"I said we out of beer. Why is that?"

Juju sighed. If there's a hell, she thought, this has to be it.

Lonnie stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing a stained tee shirt and baggy shorts that hung down below his knees. Two little stick legs poked out from the bottom of the shorts, and even though she was more than fifteen feet away from him, she could still smell a composite of motor oil, grease, and sweat.

Lonnie was always asking why. Why didn't she have dinner ready at five o'clock? Why didn't she pick up some toilet paper at the store while she was out? Couldn't she see that she had used up the last roll? Why didn't she wash his shirts like he asked? Only, when she pointed out that he didn't tell her he was out of shirts, he just asked why he had to tell her. They put their dirty clothes in the same pile, didn't they?

And now here he was, at it again, asking why they were out of beer.

"'Cause you drank it all, that's why."

He looked back at her like she was an idiot child and him her frustrated parent. "Well there you are. Just goes to show you. That GED comes in handy for something more than just waitressing tables and talking to horn-dogs, now don't it?"

She looked away. It wasn't an ideal job, she knew, not even one she talked about. In fact, when some of her friends asked what she did for work, she would just tell them, "Oh, a little of this, a little of that." She would never tell them she waitressed tables at The Palomino. They would think she was lying, that she was really one of those girls who took off her clothes, did little private dances so men could... well be nasty-old-men. But Juju was not one of those girls. She never took off her clothes for anyone other than Lonnie. And even then, she didn't like doing that much these days.

"No, what I'm asking," Lonnie said now, still going on about his needs, "is why you didn't buy any more beer on your way home. You pass right by the store before you get on the bus, right?"

Juju took in a deep breath and let it out. There was the why again. Some days, it was like an annoying cricket.

"You make the money," she said, feeling the anger well up within her. "You even got the car. So why don't you drive on down to the Pit Stop and buy it yourself. It's not like you do anything else around here."

He shook his head. "Girl, you get smart with me one more time, we gonna do the rumble."

The Rumble. In addition to always asking why about everything, Lonnie also had a way of saying things without saying them. Like when he went out with his friends to get drunk, he'd say he was going to help the boys put out the fire. Or when they would all meet up at the public courts to play some basketball, he'd tell her they were going to the dance. As if they were Kobe or Lebron, and the whole world was tuned into their game. And when he threatened to hit her, he always called it doing the rumble. As if the band was about to strike up a tune, and they were going to tango the night away.

Juju gave Lonnie a hard look. Five years she had put up with him. Five years of the yelling. Five years of ordering her around like he was some patron at a strip bar she had to serve with a smile if she wanted a tip. Five years of the occasional beatings when he was drunk, or just plain pissed off. Five years...

Well, that was enough. Even the ladies at the bar had said so over the last year and a half—told her to quit him, just walk through the door and keep on walking, never look back. But what if he got mad about that, and beat her up again? Then you teach him one, they told her. Wait 'till he's asleep or ain't looking, and teach him to never hit you again.

With all the anger that burned in her stomach, Juju said, "I ain't your maid. I'm not here to just wash your linens, fix your dinner, or spread my legs when you want it. And I'm certainly not here to make beer runs. You want something to drink, then—"

Man he was fast. Juju's sentence lodged in her throat like an over-sized bite of cheeseburger. She couldn't finish it—she even felt paralyzed to move—as he jumped at her and flat-handed her across the face, hit her so hard Juju rolled over the armrest of the chair and fell on the floor. Sparks danced across her eyes, and her skull resonated with a high-pitched ring.

A moment later, the taste of blood in her mouth, her face on fire, Juju looked up at Lonnie.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," he said. He turned and walked back to the kitchen. "Now go on. Go on and get me some beer."

Five minutes later, Juju stood at the front door, her purse strung over her shoulder. She didn't know anything about showing Lonnie not to hit her anymore, but she did know how to walk and keep on walking. All that time at the bar, bringing home tips but never turning over everything to the abusive fool, she imagined now was as good of a time as any. She put her hand on the doorknob and turned it.

She never looked back.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Working on the Weekend

Regardless of the Loverboy tune, my weekends are made for working. Today's task: straighten up and finish the walkway In the backyard.


Seeding the grass will be next...

Friday, August 15, 2014

#FridayFlash - Taking Back the Road


Though things were different now, the words still cut like shards of glass. Noel said she lacked fulfillment, that she had been using him like a genie in the bottle. Only, it seemed to him that she needed her little genie more often than not, which was, she supposed, his way of saying she had been co-dependent. Noel never came right out and said directly what was on his mind. Instead, he danced around it, pointing at it like John Travolta in white leisure suit.

In the darkness, the countertop illuminated by the soft digital blue from the microwave clock, Allyson heard the familiar ticking of Barty’s toenails on the tiles. His labored breath kept time with each step. He was Noel’s dog, an ancient Lab with white spots around the nose. He whimpered, and she gave him a light scratch between the ears.

“Hey, big guy. You need to go out?”

Another whimper.

Standing at the back door, Barty outside taking care of his business, Allyson stared through the glass, the sky still an early-morning black. She thought about Monster Hill. How long had it been now, six years? Seven? Somewhere along the way, time had punched its ticket and stepped out, the days slipping by unnoticed like highway mile markers. It was funny how it did that.

Monster Hill, as she had called it, was a mile stretch of road, climbing a six percent grade that could easily dissolve hardened legs, turn them into jelly. Once over the crest, however, the land rolled out flat—a small reward; and from there, like Robert Earl Keen used to sing it, the road went on forever.

Allyson used to ride up Monster Hill on a regular basis. Her father said she was wasting her time, knocking off the same obstacle. Couldn’t she find something else to conquer? But then, he never understood the challenge, or the freedom that came with it. He never peddled his weight along an even surface, let alone a killer wall, so what did he know?

Allyson frowned. In a weird sort of way, she realized again the similarities in her life. Noel also thought she needed a vision. She needed a strategy to realize it, too. Without a plan to make it happen, life would amount to nothing more than a pile of pipe dreams and fantasies, tiny playthings of the mind that left people ultimately something less than human—defeated souls trapped in lifeless prisons, waiting for that last breath to sign their pardon. She didn’t need to be that way, Noel had told her. She needed to figure out what she wanted, and then to take it.

She let Barty back in, gave him one more scratch behind the ears, and headed for the garage. In the corner a grey Trek 520 leaned against the wall. At the time she bought it, Allyson paid for the bike with the cash she had saved. As usual, her father asked why. Wasn’t there anything else she could have spent the money on? Like what? Like maybe a new computer or a new television, or something for God’s sake that she could actually use without getting herself killed.

Noel had said essentially the same thing in so many words. He pointed out all the places she could ride like the trail around the city park or the high school running track. What were they going to need it for at five o’clock in the morning? Noel even showed her a route through their housing development. He personally mapped it out and drove it just so he could measure the distance and gauge the safety. Of course. The Safety. Like she was some child who couldn’t act responsibly.

Looking at the bike now, Allyson smiled, remembering there was a time when she like to take risks. She liked to get dirty, too, work so hard she had to peal her clothes off afterwards. To her, the danger of falling into a ditch or being plowed over by a car was an acceptable risk so long as she had the open country, the fresh air, and the occasional Monster Hill to tackle.

Pushing the Trek out of the garage, Allyson closed her eyes and listened to the click-click-clicking of the rear freewheel. This was her Fantasia, the sights and sounds that collectively composed the riding experience—the brush of wind in her face, the hint of spice from the juniper trees or the waft of sugar from the donut shops as she passed by. These were the constructs that Noel and her father could never piece together. Their idea of living was breathing in filtered air, conditioned to a steady seventy-two degrees; or listening to the clacking of keyboards, the constant din of voices over modular workstations; or watching the minute-by-minute rise and fall of market indices, their monitors and spreadsheet models transcending above simple ones and zeroes into modernized Ouija boards. Well, they could have all of that, if that's what they wanted. This last week, Allyson had finally decided to listen to the other voice, the one that beckoned to her like an old friend wanting to chat over a cup of coffee. This is what she wanted.

She straddled the seat and slotted her left foot into the peddle.

“Just like riding a bike,” she said to the darkness.

Then she pushed off.

Friday, August 8, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Art of War (Conclusion)


Micah controlled his breathing. He relaxed his body and focused on his heart rate. The key to a long range shot was to squeeze the trigger in between beats and to avoid any slight movement. A shudder or a twitch could send the round off course, especially at six hundred yards, missing the mark.

Through the scope, he watched as his father fiddled around at the kitchen counter. He saw a glass, a bottle of vodka. His father held the phone between his head and shoulder as he looked down, working on something. A tablet computer maybe?

Master Sharma had said that hearts could never be wholly mended without tending to the parts first, one piece at a time, and right now—right here—was one of those pieces. In a moment he would start the mending process. In a moment six hundred yards would be reduced to nothing, and all the years, all the pain, would be washed away like grains of sand on a beach. Micah would be the god of his future.

He tensed the muscles in his hand, felt the slight pressure of the trigger, cold and lifeless but ready to breath life into a round of deadly ammunition. In between the beats, he told himself.

One...

Two...

His father's voice bridged the divide.

"You sure you want to do that?"

Micah blinked.

"Do what?"

"Wait around for the next contract." His father continued to work at something on the counter. "In my experience, waiting too long in one place is risky."

Micah pulled his head away from the scope. He felt his heart rate skip. While the questioned seemed to be in line with the rest of the conversation—almost perfect, actually—he couldn't deny the subtlety of his father's ways.

"But if nobody knows where you're at..." Micah said.

"Never assume you're alone. Always, always, always—"

Micah finished it. "Check the back door."

"Exactly."

In spite of the chilled room, Micah felt sweat ooze from his hairline. His heart rate gave up on skipping around and now ran cheetah fast as his father's often repeated mantra screamed inside his head: One way to avoid your enemy is to hide in plain sight. If done properly, one could easily become the hunter instead of the hunted.

"But in a city like Brazil," Micah said, "with so many back doors..." He laid down the rifle and stood. He scanned the room, looking for anything out of place.

His father sighed. "Haven't I taught you anything?"

Micah knew what his father was going to say. Never go anywhere, and never set up any operation, without knowing first all the points of weakness. Any one of those points could be exploited. It would be just like his father to set up his own operation in that apartment, but not doing it before first realizing that someone—someone like Micah, that is—could set up another operation in the hotel six hundred yards away. The mystery though, is how his father would know which hotel room to target. As Micah walked around, he guessed his father had an asset, or maybe more than one, who was paid to keep certain rooms free, and then to send word when anyone specifically asked for one of those rooms. To accomplish that kind of tactic required a large amount of money, an amount like either one of them could easily afford.

At a room vent, Micah found what he was looking for. A small red LED, like a dragon's eye, winked at him from behind the grill. There was a camera, no doubt about it, but most likely the device also included a little something more deadly.

"You're right again," Micah said. "As always."

He smiled and looked down. He shook his head, knowing his father, six hundred yards away, watched as he did so.

On more than one occasion while growing up, and usually during an intense training session involving so much pain and humiliation it drove Micah to the point of retaliation, his father had observed that a smart teacher never revealed all of his experience and secrets. In addition, a wise student would never underestimate his master. With the LED winking back at him, Micah knew he had made a fatal mistake. And it was fatal. Once a scorpion reared its tail, the decision was clear: destroy it. Micah could run, but odds were his father had enough explosive tucked away behind that grill to take out several square feet of the hotel, if not the entire floor. And odds were that his father had started a small timer, just in case Micah had actually squeezed the trigger. He didn't know how much time would be left, but every moment now counted.

"Tell me something," he said.

Silence filled the headset. For a moment, Micah thought his father would not respond at all. He would just wait for the timer to unwind. Then, his father's voice cut across the divide.

"Sure."

"Did you ever think it would be this way?"

There was a slight pause before his father said, "We're not talking in hypotheticals anymore now, huh?"

Micah turned and walked back to the balcony door.

"No. I don't see the point."

"And neither do I."

Micah nodded. He guessed that was as good of a response as he could expect. After all, he already knew what Patton had said about winning a war, right? He was just the other dumb bastard this time.

Sitting down again, legs crossed, arms out at the four and eight o'clock positions, he focused on his breathing.

In...

Out...

In...

Friday, August 1, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Art of War


Micah liked the hotel room chilled down to a nice sixty-eight degrees. It calmed his nerves. It allowed him to quiet his mind, to feel at peace and in control. Facing the balcony door, Micah sat with his legs crossed, his eyes closed, his arms out at the four and eight o'clock positions.

A deep breath in, he told himself, followed by a slow exhale. Clear all thoughts. All except a stalk of wheat, swaying back and forth in a gentle breeze. With the turmoil this world laid at a person's doorstep, meditation was the broom that swept it all away. This he learned from Zen Master Sharma. Sit in peace to find it, as the Zen Master once said.

Micah liked the room dark, too, though not for calm or peace or to be control; for him, the darkness offered something more important. He picked up the field glasses next to his side and zoomed in on the apartment building. Sixteen stories tall, the silver monstrosity stood like a mutant cockroach with a reflective glass shell. On the top floor, Micah found the same windows he had looked at on and off for the last month. He reached down with his other hand and hit the speed dial on his cell phone.

Six hundred yards away, a man stepped out of a bedroom and walked into the dining room. Micah watched as the man picked up a phone and stared at it. After four rings, the phones finally made their connection. With the aid of technology, the voice jumped the distance and hopped from Micah's phone to the bluetooth headset pressed against his ears.

"Yes."

"I finished the job," Micah said.

"Yes, I saw it in the news." As always, his father's voice showed no emotion. "Your payment has already been transmitted."

"Understood."

In the field glasses, Micah watched as his father stepped around the dining room table and into the living room. He sat down on a couch.

"It's early to be calling at this hour, isn't it?"

Micah frowned. "No, I'm still in Brazil."

It was a strange question for his father to ask. Micah could have said Paris, Moscow, or Singapore, and it wouldn't have mattered. Whatever answer he gave, his father would know better. Never accept anything at face value, his father often said. In this line of work, the only truth you ever really know is that the answer you're given is more often than not a lie.

More troubling, however, the question told Micah that his father knew about the house in Melbourne. At two o'clock in the afternoon, New York time, it was four o'clock in the morning in Melbourne. Micah would have to sell the Australian getaway. If his father knew, then who else did?

"And you think that wise?" his father asked, playing along now about Micah being in Brazil.

Micah smirked. As always, even with the years of training—the constant drilling, the incessant commands to do it again—his father still questioned his every move, his every decision.

Micah closed his eyes and took another deep breath. Letting it out, he remembered another of Master Sharma's instructions: If you want to defeat the god of the past, be the god of the future. A simple quote, but powerfully liberating.

He started seeing the Hindu priest two years ago, at a time when life became more than he could bear. With all of the the killing, all the lies and deceit, life became nothing more than a shallow heartbeat of a dying man. While the next beat meant more time, it also meant more time to struggle, more time to dwell on the insignificance and lack of true meaning. Master Sharma changed everything with his kind face, his kind instructions. "To be self-conscious," he said, "is to not accept the self at all." Words like that helped Micah to wade out of his mire and embrace life as it existed.

"One way to avoid your enemy," Micah said, now quoting his father, "is to cloak yourself in plain sight." His father loved it when Micah repeated back the various mantras.

"Yes... yes, it is." Through the glasses, Micah watched his father nod. "Tell me, did he cry?"

"They always cry."

The mark this time was a staff member of a United States senator. He had been down in Rio for a week to negotiate with various dignitaries from Brazil. It seemed the United States government was ready to give up on the whole cotton industry as long as Brazil would be willing to scale back on corn, a crop far more important since the midwest grew it. And with the midwest, Ohio and Michigan especially, two states with significant electoral votes, the senator's party could maintain their control. That's the way it worked, a little here for a little there. In this case, it was one crop for another.

The senator's staff member, an ivy leaguer with a weasel face, had pleaded with Micah. He promised anything that Micah wanted. Just name the price. Micah had stared at him a moment, but then pulled the trigger. There was nothing the man could have said. His fate had been sealed with the contract Micah had accepted. Do the job, and don't ask questions—another of his father's mantras.

Six hundred yards away, his father stood and walked across the living room, back through the dining room and into the kitchen. He would make himself a vodka tonic, Micah knew.

"So, what's next?" his father asked.

Micah put down the field glasses and slid open the balcony door. He picked up the M40 rifle.

"I'll do what I always do," he said. Through the scope, he spotted his father in the kitchen. "Wait for the next contract."

In his head, Micah repeated the lyrics of Peter Gabriel: One doubt. One Voice. One war. One truth. One dream.

(to be continued...)

Friday, July 25, 2014

No Story This Week - 7/25/14

Down in the trenches this week, installing irrigation in the back yard. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Happy Life


As far as Janice was concerned, the devil never showed up as she would have expected—blistering red skin with a goatee, a harpoon tail and a pitchfork that would make even Neptune covet his neighbor. Instead, he wore blue jeans with a faded circle in the back left pocket, the leggings frayed where they met the heels of his Tony Lamas. The devil also wore a t-shirt he found while filling up at a truck stop, the shirt sporting larger than life letters and announcing a profound snippet of philosophy: THE PURPOSE OF LIFE… ME. And though the devil carried the same maniacal laugh as she might have expected, deep and phlegmy, it wasn’t from a sadistic pleasure in torturing poor souls who made wrong choices in life; rather, he laughed at idiot shows on the tube. Like the one tonight, How to Train Your Monkey.

The show was just one more in a recent rash of pseudo-reality programs, this one purporting to shadow trainees during their first day on the job. The job never really existed, though, the trainee the only person kept in the dark. Built more on the contrived, the show focused on awkward moments and facial expressions that told viewers everything. Tonight’s program followed a bright, young man by the name of William, who in turn followed his trainer around The Plaza Hotel. The elevator doors opened, and the two men stepped off, the trainer pushing a cart of food. At one point in the discussion Young William frowned, not quite sure he heard it right. Did his trainer really say to ignore all the screams from Room 704, that it was common for their “special” guest to have under-aged women inside?

Sitting in his recliner, the devil laughed.

Janice’s smart phone buzzed in her lap. She glanced down and read the text.

PMT CONF. WHEN? PLS ADVISE.

Janice thumbed the touchscreen keyboard.

ASAP.

On the television, Young William followed his trainer down to Room 732. The trainer knocked once, but then didn’t wait for a response. He simply opened the door. Once inside, Young William discovered that they had just interrupted the hotel guests, a semi-covered man and woman, who were thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. As if he were a waiter at a luxury restaurant, the trainer proceeded to tell the guest about their dinner, lifting the lids from each steaming plate of food. The guests nodded their approval—the woman even cooed over her pecan-crusted lobster tail—and the camera panned to Young William, whose eyes danced around the room, at anything but the naked guests.

In the recliner, the devil slapped his leg and howled with laughter. Janice frowned and watched as he lifted up his own cell phone and started typing. She imagined the text he was sending to his buddies, probably something about how fine the actress looked with nothing on but a smile. Janice rolled her eyes and looked away.

Back when they stood at the altar, citing their vows before the rent-a-priest, Janice imagined things much differently. She imagined the better, not the worse. She imagined the richer, not the poorer. They were reasonably well off—the devil owned and operated a construction business—but their relationship had been bankrupt for years. Nowhere in those dreams did thoughts of endless fighting ever enter the picture, him screaming that she was a nag, a bore, a drain on his emotional and financial needs. Nowhere did she ever see the countless episodes of adultery, real and electronic, his attempts to escape the reality of their wrecked marriage.

Her phone buzzed again.

IN 2 HRS. CONF.

She typed back.

K.

Clicking the SEND button, Janice felt a brief sense of regret, like maybe she shouldn’t do this. After all, what did it say about her? But it was too late now. The money had already been transferred.

Janice couldn’t take credit for the idea. Her friend at work, Sheree, gave it to her.

“Here,” Sheree had said from the cubicle next door at the office. Janice heard a few clicks from Sheree's keyboard, and a moment later a message appeared on her monitor that a new message had arrived.

"What is it?" Janice asked.

"Something called Craig's List. Check out the Personals. You'll find all sorts of people looking for people. Maybe you can find something. It may cost you, but it'll be worth it. After all, a woman's got to have some living to do as well, right?"

Janice searched and searched, but she could never work up the nerve. Then one day, a personal caught her attention. Without realizing what she had done, she had already grabbed her phone and texted a message. It took only a few minutes for the man to respond. One message after another, and things went from there.

The show on the television continued, Young William now down in the kitchen as the cook picked his nose while working up the next order. William flinched, and the devil laughed some more.

The show finished, and Janice grabbed the remote control. She put the television on mute.

"Do you mind going to the store?" she said.

The devil looked at her, his eyebrows pinched.

"But the next show's about to come on."

"I'll record it for you." When he didn't immediately respond, she added, "Please. We're out of beer, and I forgot to get you some."

He sighed deeply, but grabbed his keys and stood.

She waited for the front door to shut before grabbing her phone.

HUSBAND LEAVING. AM WAITING.

A moment later, her man responded back.

ACCIDENTS HAPPEN. HAVE A HAPPY LIFE.

Janice grabbed the remote and leaned her head back. She flipped over to her home decorating channel, smiling as she did so. No more cheating. No more screaming. No more name calling. It was going to be a happy life indeed.

Friday, July 11, 2014

#FridayFlash - Tucker


Tucker watched as the red-headed man walked to the side wall and, shaking his head and muttering to himself, turned and walked back. Thick, matted hair clung to his scalp like an oil slick, and he held a plastic crucifix in his hand, his thumb nervously rubbing over the suffering Christ as if somehow the act would produce a puff of smoke and a materialized Savior would whisk him away, save him from inevitable.

"Please Jesus." Tears filled the man's eyes. "Please give me the strength."

The man reached the other side of the holding cell and the pleas stopped, but then started up again as he turned and walked back the other way.

Next to Tucker, another inmate groaned. It wasn't a groan of agony, though, something common to most of the inmates here; rather, it was the aching groan of frustration. Tucker learned this one's name was Jackson. Only Jackson. In the holding cell, everyone thought it best to keep things on a last-name basis, clinging to the hope that anonymity would provide some protection. Learning their first names, or even where they were from, could only make it worse. Connections were not a person's best friend.

Jackson shouted at the red-headed man. "Shut up, will ya?" He then leaned into Tucker, and his rancid smell, like old shoes corrupted by months of sweaty, sock-less feet, bit into Tucker's nasal passages. "Jeez. The way he goes on, I don't know why they didn't just kill him on the spot."

"Leave him alone," Tucker said. "He's not hurting anyone."

"He's about to drive me crazy."

Tucker sighed. "With what's waiting for us on the other side of those bars," he said, "I think we can all be a little more tolerable."

It had taken years to reach this point. The Christians were first, which came as no surprise to Tucker. As the saying went, what comes around goes around, and the Christians were certainly overdue for their season of retribution. If the Muslims had to endure the Crusades, the Jews the Holocaust, pain and suffering would eventually make their way back to the Christians. They couldn't realistically think their time of persecution with the lions in the coliseum was a one-off. Never satisfied with just one helping, sooner or later the spirits of the world and of men always came back for more blood.

It didn't stop with the Christians, though. Eventually, the government rounded up everyone it considered a threat, which included anyone who didn't agree or support the ruling class.

"I don't know," Jackson said. "I don't think I can stand his rambling any longer."

"Then don't." Tucker nodded his head toward the back of the cell, which was packed with roughly a hundred men, women, and children. Most of the inmates were asleep; a few just stared forward in shocked silence. "Maybe some of them will make room for you."

For a moment, the only sound in the cell was the red-headed man talking to himself. Tucker didn't know the man's name, and that was probably okay, too. Considering their mutual path, there was no need to even get that close.

"When's your hearing?" Jackson asked.

"Tomorrow, I think."

Jackson nodded. "What are you going to tell them?"

"Maybe nothing at all."

"Well, I'm not going to fight it. I'll just give 'em what they want."

"It won't make a difference."

"What do mean?"

"We're all dead anyway." Tucker looked him in the eyes. "Or haven't you figured that out yet?"

When the government picked him up, the men carrying the guns told Tucker he would be held until a panel of inquiry could look into his case. That was two weeks ago. It was their way of sobering him up, make him reconsider his loyalties. The problem was, though, nobody who ever left the cell came back, and the guards wouldn't talk about any of them. If people had changed their minds, Tucker could see it, but not everyone would change their minds; the percentages were against that. So it was clear that, one way or the other, this government had dealt with its issues the way all governments down through the ages deal with issues. It didn't matter how much governments said or promised. Eventually, they all looked alike.

Jackson stood and looked down. He shook his head and flipped a thumb toward the red-headed man. "You're just as crazy as he is, you know that?"

Tucker looked at the red-headed man, who turned and made another pass. Light from the hallway outside cast long shadows into the holding cell.

"Maybe so."

Jackson turned away, leaning from one side to the other as he stepped in between a few of the inmates. He cursed at one man who didn't move fast enough, and for a moment the air in the cell was filled with the sounds of both Jackson and the red-headed man. Tucker felt sorry for both of them.

As the red-headed man made another pass, Tucker stood up and walked in front of him. The man looked at Tucker as if seeing him for the first time.

"Are you Jesus?"

Tucker shook his head.

"I need to see him. Can you help me?"

Tucker nodded and placed his arm around the man's shoulders. He guided the man toward the wall.

As they sat down, Tucker pointed to the man's hand. "You mind?"

The man looked for a moment at the plastic crucifix in his hand. He then held it out, and Tucker took it.

"Thank you. What's your name?"

"Meade. And yours?"

Tucker nodded. The guards and the inquisition panel would think what they would.

"John Tucker," he said. "From Willow Creek, Iowa."

Friday, July 4, 2014

07/04/2014

I have been extremely busy this week, with no time to write a new story. I will have something by next week.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

#FridayFlash - In The Weeds


Maxwell Waters, or “Mac” as the jarhead buddies used to call him, owned the premiere manor in Hacienda Estates, a pleasantly gated community north of San Antonio. Half stone, half stucco, with archways, semi-circle windows, and a clay tiled roof the color of sunset, the house sat on a full acre tract of carpet quality grass that sloped down to a stand of Bald Cypress trees separating the estate from the Guadalupe River. It was, he believed, the iconic symbol of his life—a standing monument to the relentless pursuit of success over the course of forty years.

Mac would be the first to admit success never came easy. Nothing that took decades to achieve could ever be dubbed as simple. If it were so easy, then why did it take so long? No, Max won his success only through a series of hard fought battles, one right on the heels of another it seemed. That was the way, though, and today proved no different.

On this bright Saturday morning, the sun a lonely orb in the sky, Max walked across his stone backyard patio. He was dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt and a pair of sandals. He took one look at his yard and muttered a deep, drawn-out curse.

“Where’d you all come from?” he added.

Recent rains had not only raised the waters beyond the riverbank and into the stand of trees, they also gave more life to his ongoing battle against the weeds. Crabgrass, Pigweed, and Dandelions were just a few of the little mercenaries. They weren’t the worst of the bunch, though. Mac reserved most of his rage against the two weeds that caused him extreme heartburn: Silverleaf Nightshade and Goatheads. The Nightshade was a particularly miserable plant because it's roots corkscrewed into the dirt, making it difficult to yank out by hand (and if a person did so without gloves, the thorns in the stems would give him a bite he wouldn't soon forget). And as far as Mac was concerned, Goatheads were a creation from hell itself—the devil’s scat soiling the landscape. They looked innocent enough, with foliage like palm leaves, but appearances were only a sleight of hand. These plants could produce a fruit that hardened into tacks sharp enough to bring down any unsuspecting barefooted soul.

When Mac took in the weeds and the assault mounting against him, he poured out his coffee and marched into the garage. He grabbed a hoe, a one-gallon pump sprayer, and a thirty-two-ounce soldier of last resort: glyphosate. Very few weeds could stand up against the golden colored agent.

Weeds were like any other obstacle in his life: enemies to be plucked out, torn out, burned out, or otherwise removed. You had to be decisive about it, too; if you weren’t—if you didn’t fully eradicate the problem—the problem would always find the will to regroup, resurge, and retaliate, causing you more of a headache later. Good God, just look at what was happening right now in his own back yard. The commie bastards.

Mac started with the hoe first, hacking away at this and that, knocking down as many of the smaller weeds as he could. For the larger ones, he poured the glyphosate into the tank and filled it up with water. At the backyard, he gripped the handle and hammered down several times on the pump cylinder to build up pressure. Smiling, he turned to spray the first Nightshade he came to, a beast of a plant already standing a foot high, its regal flower opened up like a harlot.

“Here y’are, you little whore,” Mac muttered.

He squeezed the control valve to release a dose of killer spray. The Nightshade flower snapped shut as the poison jetted out from the nozzle. Not sure what he just saw, Mac released the control valve and watched as the Nightshade shook its serpentine head and then hissed at him.

“What the…?!”

The Nightshade tore itself from the ground and leaped. Mac tried to jump out of its way, but the nasty thing latched onto his leg and drove several spikes into his flesh. He howled in pain and shook his leg, trying to unlatch the demon weed. As he did, a crop of Pigweeds raced toward him like spiders in pursuit of prey. They scaled up his legs, and he dropped the spray tank, his mouth open to scream. No sound came, though; one of the weeds stuffed a spearhead of seeds into his mouth.

In his panic, Mac turned to run. He made it only two feet before he tripped and fell. That’s when the largest Goathead he ever saw whipped back and slung hundreds of spiked nuts at him. They cut through the air like Chinese stars and lodged in his eyes, his cheeks. Mac screamed and tried to rise up on his knees. As he did, he heard the most awful sound. Something was slithering across the grass, getting closer… closer… closer…

__________

“And here is the backyard,” the realtor said. She led Daniel through the gate and across a walkway of decomposed granite and stone. “I know it doesn't look good," she said. "The weeds have kind of overrun the place. With a little imagination, though, you can see the possibilities.”

A young lawyer from San Antonio who liked to investigate everything, Daniel stepped out into the brush and walked toward a lonely topiary tree.

“What happened to the owner?"

“Nobody really knows,” she said. “He just disappeared. After several months without payments, the mortgage company finally foreclosed and here we are.”

Daniel nodded and stared at the topiary tree.

“Such an odd looking thing,” he said. “Almost looks like a man, but not really.”

He looked down, saw a weed, and reached out to grab it. With a firm tug, he pulled it out. The root twitched in the hot air, and that’s when he heard something that sounded like a snake.

Friday, June 20, 2014

#FridayFlash - Mountain of Power (conclusion)


As they moved from the atrium to a small, one level tract home, the old man's sandals made a whispery shsh-shsh sound as he shuffled forward.

"Most men seek strength and power," the old man said. "Few ever seek right kind."

Lucas stared at the man's feet, hypnotized by their sibilance. "Right kind."

"Man want to defeat other man, for gain or prize. But man, and prize, only transitory."

Lucas frowned. "Transitory?"

"Temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow. Most men never seek to defeat greatest enemy."

"What do you mean?"

They entered a living room that smelled like oranges. There Lucas saw plants in pots with Chinese writing on the side. On a table, a figurine of a fat man, legs crossed, held an incense stick. A tendril of smoke snaked into the air from its still-burning tip.

The old man said, "Death is man's greatest enemy."

Lucas nodded. Here was the story, just as Li Huang promised. "Yeah, okay," Lucas said. "But no one can really defeat death."

The old man shot him a look that Lucas had seen before on the faces of many teachers, a look that showed contempt for a lack of knowledge.

"You have never heard of Xu Fu and his quest?"

Lucas shook his head. Li had told him the story, but he didn't want the old man to know.

The old man turned and stared at a portrait on the wall. In it, Lucas saw a man whose appearance was similar to that of the old man. In the crook of his right arm, the man in the portrait carried scrolls; in his left hand, he held a walking stick.

"Many years ago, Xu Fu served as sorcerer for Qin Dynasty. One day, Emperor Qin send for Xu Fu. 'I do not want to die,' he say. 'Tell me. How do I defeat death?'" The old man turned to face Lucas. "Xu Fu tell the emperor about legend of elixir of life. He would need to climb Mount Penglai, the mountain of power, and talk with Angi Sheng, an immortal believed to have already seen one thousand years. Maybe, with enough money, he could convince Angi Sheng to share knowledge."

"And did he?"

The old man closed his eyes while he talked.

"Xu Fu left with three thousand boys and girls, to seek out what the Emperor desired. But that wasn't all. Xu Fu wanted the knowledge for himself, so he could share it with Emperor's daughter. Maybe then they could live together, forever."

"But he never found it," Lucas said, "Did he?"

The old man opened his eyes. "Found it he did. In fact, he killed Angi Sheng to get it. Froze him, and then ate him. That was the way, though it was never permanent." He shuffled over to a bar and opened a cabinet from which he produced several bottles and an empty cup. As he poured and mixed contents, he continued his story. "When Xu Fu returned, he discovered Emperor's daughter already given to another man. So Xu Fu never shared the knowledge. He lied and said he could not find the mountain of power. Years later, the Emperor died."

Finished with his mixture, the old man turned and handed the cup to Lucas. "For the power you seek." He nodded at the drink. "Waste not, want not."

Lucas stared at the cup. "Tell me," he said. "Whatever happened to the children?"

The old man frowned.

"You said Xu Fu left with three thousand boys and girls." Lucas looked the old man in the eyes. "What happened to them?"

"The same for all children. Some grow old and die. Some not."

Lucas stared into the cup again. Li Huang told him not to drink it, but only to have the old man mix it and pay attention as to how it was done.

He shook his head. "Unh-unh. I'm not drinking this."

"So... Li told you, did he?" A dark expression covered the old man's face. "But did he tell you everything?"

The question sent an electric current through Lucas's body. Li had said the old man was smart, but with a little luck they could outsmart him. Now, though, Lucas questioned who was who, and what role would he eventually play. And to think, it was all for a girl.

A smile curled at the corner of the old man's mouth. "Fine," he said. "You not drink, then I take cup."

Before Lucas could react, the old man grabbed his hand—lightning fast, which was confusing because of the way he shuffled earlier. Was that all for show? Lucas felt a sharp prick, and everything turned to ice—his hand, his arm, his chest, even his legs. He couldn't feel or move anything, but he could see and hear everything.

"Come out, Li," the old man said.

From around the corner, Lucas saw the young boy with the elven face enter the room, his hands behind his back. "Master Xu Fu."

"You disappoint me."

The boy looked at Lucas.

"And such a nice boy, too," Xu Fu said. "Such pretty eyes and delicate ears." He reached up and snapped off an ear. Lucas didn't feel it, but he heard the crack. Xu Fu put the ear in his mouth, like he would a potato chip, and chewed.

"It was never in the drink," Xu Fu said. He showed Li a stem with thorns on it.

"I know that now," Li said.

"Tell me. Is the student now to be the master?"

From behind his back, Li produced a gun. The loud crack pulsed through Lucas's frozen body. Xu Fu fell to the floor. He coughed once, twice, and died.

Li Huang walked over and stood in front of Lucas. Sadness filled his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I've been doing this so long, I honestly thought it was the drink." He reached up and snapped off the other ear. "Still... Waste not, want not."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

#FridayFlash - Mountain of Power


As he stepped into the aviary thick with humidity and the sounds of chattering birds, Lucas thought about the words he never spoke to Alyssa. Though never breathed into life, they were the words that compelled him to approach her, the words he wanted to tell her: about how he felt, how his heart raced and he couldn't take his eyes off of her whenever she was near, how he couldn't stop thinking about her whenever she was wasn't, or how his body yearned to catch just one more whiff of her powdery sweet smell. Maybe he wouldn't have shared that last part—she probably would have thought him a weirdo, and even called him a creep, for saying such things—but he felt it nonetheless. He couldn't help it. Weird or not, he liked her smell.

As promised, Lucas found the old man near the back of the building. The man was always there, Lucas had been told; all he needed to do was look around. As Lucas approached from behind, he noticed the man clipping on a bush that looked like roses.

He cleared his throat, and said, "Uh, excuse me."

The man turned around, and Lucas almost gave up right then and there. The Chinese man wasn't just old, he was a relic. Images of horror movies streamed through Lucas's mind: of leathery faced monsters with ghostly white hair, dressed in long robes and sandals, and probably carrying samurai swords. Fleeting thoughts toyed with his motives and questioned his resolve—maybe this wasn't worth it, and maybe he should turn around and run—but the thoughts of Alyssa and the things he wanted to say to her overpowered everything else, so Lucas held fast.

Dark eyes, mostly hidden behind slatted lids, stared down at him. The dusty brown face showed no expression.

"I, uh..." Again, Lucas found himself at a loss for words, and he hated himself for not being able to spit things out. "I was told you could help me."

The lids squeezed tighter. "What is it you want?"

"I need to be strong."

"Then lift weights, do work."

The man started to turn around, and Lucas reached out a hand to stop him.

"No, you don't understand."

"What is there to understand?"

"I need to be strong now. Today."

"You not strong now?"

"No, not strong enough."

The man considered him for a moment, and then said, "Why need you to be stronger?"

This was the part that Lucas dreaded. He suspected he would have to address the question, but suspecting didn't alleviate the fears. It wasn't easy to acknowledge weakness, not for anyone he supposed. He looked down for a moment, again not sure whether it was worth it, but the face of Alyssa tapped into his mind's eye. He saw her again and the mesmerizing way she looked at him before Tommy Moldono showed up and punched him in the face.

His two buddies told him to forget it. Making a play for Alyssa would only go down in flames.

"Dude," Michael had said. "You lost your mind or something? She ain't never gonna go for douche like you."

Lucas ignored the slur. It was just one of many terms that Michael liked to throw around, trying to be cool. He never accomplished his goal.

"Besides," Dillon said. Lucas turned and saw his friend running through a new set of baseball cards he purchased. Unlike Michael, Dillon knew how to restrain his tongue. "Have seen what Tommy can do to guys like us? I mean, he's like notorious for pounding dweebs into pulp. Heck, he even does it to his own friends."

Lucas didn't care. He walked up to Alyssa anyway and started to talk. And things were going quite smoothly, too, until he saw Alyssa's eyes flit to the side, looking past him, over his shoulder. He turned around then to see what he had feared would happen. Standing almost a foot taller than Lucas, and weighing at least twenty pounds more, Tommy didn't have to say anything; his presence alone was enough to intimidate everyone else on the playground.

The look on Lucas's face must have said it all because Tommy cocked his arm, balled up his fist, and slammed it across the bridge of Lucas's nose. Lucas fell on the playground gravel. He was dazed.

"Don't ever let me catch you near her again," Tommy said. And that was that.

Lucas shook off the memory and looked back up at the old man in the aviary.

"You see, there's this girl—who has this boyfriend, and—"

The old man cut him off with a wave of a gnarled hand. "Ah, love then," he said. "And not just love. Young love." Then he shook his head. "I not help you. Go find other girl."

He turned to walk away again, and Lucas blurted out the only thing he could think of.

"Li Huang sent me. He said you could change things."

The old man turned back. He stared so long and deep that Lucas was afraid he had just said the wrong thing. Maybe it was time to leave after all.

The man cocked his head to one side, muttered a "Hmph," and then cocked it to the other side.

"Li sent you, did he?"

Lucas nodded.

After Tommy had leveled him on the playground, Li Huang, a spry asian kid with short clipped hair and an elven face approached. He pulled a rag out of his pocket and handed it to Lucas. "For your nose," he had said.

Lucas took the rag. He dabbed away fresh blood and listened as Li Huang told him about the old man who had helped many boys and girls over the years, and how he might give Lucas some help, too.

The old man muttered again, this time in Chinese, and then nodded.

"Maybe," he said. "Maybe so." He turned. "Come. Follow me."

Lucas smiled.


(to be continued...)
__________

Okay, I did it again. I started on a story, only to get slightly carried away. Along the way, I did some interesting research for this one, which I'll reveal next week as I wrap this up. Stay tuned...

Friday, June 6, 2014

#FridayFlash - What Gladys Wants


Regardless of how he felt about Gladys, Toby had to hand it to her: after all she'd been through—the early pregnancy, an unwanted event resulting from a drunken binge, leading to more binges as a result of an unwanted marriage, the beatings, the midnight cries, the divorce, the pain of raising a colicky child all on her own, and now the looming end from years of one cigarette after another—she still had a lot of fight left inside. Maybe she had been born with it, one clinched fist in a mound of fiery hair, pulling herself through the pelvic gate of life, screaming all the way like a viking goddess marching to the sea for war. Maybe she inherited it from her own nagging mother, or maybe it grew out of the bed of bitterness and hatred that festered from the constant wounds a soulless, grunting father gave her. Whatever it had been, whether just one thing, or, more likely, multiple trespasses upon her heart, Gladys Lynne McCreedy could still hold her own, even at seventy-two with one lung completely gone and the other gasping its way to the finish line.

She squeezed tears from her eyes as the latest blast of coughing racked her tired body. Snatching a tissue from the Kleenex box, she hawked once, spat, and then looked at the gooey mess she had just given life to before wadding it up and tossing it away in the waste can next to the end table.

"Promise me," she said, her voice as thick and deep as a man's. She took a couple short breaths, and the oxygen tank beside her recliner hissed. "Promise me I won't fry."

Toby glanced at her, thinking: Geez, woman, give it a break, will ya? Instead, he said, "Gladys, I already told you once, didn't I?"

He called her Gladys instead of Mother or Ma because she liked it that way. She'd read somewhere that children who grew up too nurtured in old traditions were less likely to think for themselves, less likely to be independent. He didn't know about any of that, but he probably would have use her first name anyway.

Gladys said, "Well, tell me again, then."

He looked away and sighed. She really was going to press him on this.

She had already made him promise not to put her through the crematorium, but that wasn't enough. He had to hear why because she believed he didn't know what happened in there, what it did to people. She did, of course; she'd read up on it. First, the skin boiled up—boiled and sizzled like some hog's backstrap. "Then, they turn up the heat," she said. "Turn it up so high, it literally vaporizes the tissues. Skin. Muscles. Organs. Everything. In fact, the only thing left when they's done with ya is nothing but a dried up skeleton, which they then pulverize. That's what you get in them urns," she added. "Not actual ashes, but powdered bones."

He tried to reason with her once, show her how much it cost to bury a body, and how the body slowly decomposed over time rather than out-and-out destruction in a matter of hours. All his efforts failed to cut through her defenses, though; Gladys only hardened her tone and reminded him that she, not he, had the right to say what happened to her remains.

"Toby?"

Her voice pulled him back to the present. He looked at her and saw that she was still waiting for him to repeat his promise. In fact, if she were still allowed to smoke, she probably would have pointed at him with two fingers, a burning cigarette scissored between them, as if to say: That's right. I'm talking to you.

"Of course, Gladys," he said. "I promise not to put you in the crematorium."

"And the house?"

What he did with her remains wasn't the only thing she made him commit to. Not only did he promise to keep her out of the fire, she also made him promise not to sell the old house.

Toby sighed again. Looking around, there was nothing here he wanted. Not the photo-op pictures. (They were nothing but a load of crap) Not the furniture. (The stuff smelled as bad as her ashtray). Not even the cheesy herons sculptured out of glass. (Those things creeped out everyone else who stopped by to visit. It was no wonder he could never find a girl).

Even the house itself held nothing for him. The old place was just a reminder of his life growing up, living in the high court of retribution, always paying the price for the failures of his father—and all the other men who ran out afterwards.

He opened his mouth to give her what she wanted, but just then another coughing fit racked her body. After she finished, her breaths coming in and out in shallow wheezes, she looked at him, ready to hear the words.

Good God, he thought.

"I promise," he said, and hated her for the words. She always had to be in control. She always had to have her way. "I won't sell the house."

With that, Gladys leaned her head back. She closed her eyes and slept.

An hour later, or maybe it had been more, he noticed that her breathing finally stopped. He looked at her, saw the waxy complexion of her face, and knew it was finally over.

From his pocket, Toby pulled out a pack of Winston Lights, her favorite. After lighting the cigarette, he gently placed it between her cold fingers. It fell in her lap, smoldering on her clothes.

Gladys wasn't allowed to smoke anymore. The doctors had told her as much, but everyone who knew Gladys also knew she did things her way. As Toby left the house, he could smell the faint hint of burning clothes. He smiled. At least he kept his promises.

Friday, May 30, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Way You Do It


Dan knew how to remain calm during the chaos of an operation. He had learned it while serving two tours in Iraq. The primary key was having a plan, which involved the procurement of intelligence—and of course the skills to use it. In the end it took clear-headed thinking, plus an ability to sell one's vision. It almost always involved selling a vision to everyone else.

Through his training in the Corps, Dan had learned that in any plan there were multiple decisions to be addressed, and for every decision there was also an actual process. First, one had to define the problem. Then it was time to assemble the information and develop alternatives. You always had your preferred route, of course, but you never engaged until you knew the potential land mines that could derail your objective.

Sitting next to him in the passenger's side of the car, Mike asked a question.

"What's a seven letter word for 'It's out of here!'?"

Dan closed his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Brilliant, he thought.

He sighed and said, "At a time like this, you want to fill out a cross-word?"

Mike shot him a hard look, but Dan didn't care. A secondary key to staying calm and achieving success, he knew, was having the ability to focus on the task at hand, and to keep those around you focused as well. Dan only bought the paper this morning in order to read the latest developments on a group who executed a botched-up plan down in San Luis Obispo. He had no intention of using the paper for anything else, and certainly not so Mike could test his mental prowess.

Mike looked away for a moment, not saying a thing. Finally, he folded the newspaper and stuffed it in the door panel pocket.

Satisfied, Dan raised the field glasses and watched the next car to arrive. It was the blue Honda with a crinkled rear panel on the driver's side. It pulled into the far parking slot, the same one it did on every workday for the last three weeks.

"There's our girl," Dan said.

He watched as she stepped out of the Honda and closed the door, looking one last time at her reflection in the window before turning toward the building. She walked with her head down, her back bent. Dan looked at his watch and smiled—two more minutes before the front doors opened. It was the same thing every day. She would put in the hours, but don't ask for anything more.

Dan waited another ten minutes. Then he pulled the car into the parking lot, backing it into the slot outside the front doors.

"Here we go," he said. He left the engine running and opened the driver's side door. Mike climbed out as well. "No deviations, just in and out. Two minutes and nothing more."

"Yes sir," Mike said. Dan didn't like Mike's tone, but chose to ignore it.

They walked into the bank, Mike first, who made his way to a walk-up table where he grabbed a template deposit slip. Dan walked over to the teller counter and found the woman he'd watched for the last three weeks.

"Lana," he said, and gave her a warm smile. "I have a problem, and I need your help." He nodded his head back toward Mike at the table. "See my friend over there?"

She looked from Dan to Mike and then back. Confusion filled her eyes. This was a strange conversation.

Dan said, "He and I visited a bank just the other day, over in San Luis. You know, the one that was robbed?"

Her eyes focused on him, and Dan knew she understood now. In truth, Dan and Mike were not the fools who took down that other bank, but the key was that she didn't know it. Perception was reality.

"Yeah, I know, it wasn't very pretty." He kept his smile relaxed. "He tends to be slightly excited, and that's my problem. We don't want anything like that to happen here, right?" He tapped a bulge under his jacket where he kept his gun. Her eyes followed his hand. "I mean, who would pick up your little boy from daycare?"

This was another piece to his preferred route. Find the intelligence, isolate the best alternative, and select the path. Lana shook her head. She didn't want people to die like they had in San Luis.

His smile widened. "Great. Now I'm going to give you this phony check, okay? If you act like you always do—just another day, just another transaction to process—nothing goes wrong."

She did as she was told, and Dan added, "Use a nice big envelope, please, and make sure there're no surprises that might cause me to visit the day care. That would really foul up my plans."

Tears formed in Lana's eyes. She finished the job and slid the envelope over. He nodded.

"Thank you so much. Now don't do anything rash for the next few minutes. My friend and I need to leave quietly." He smiled once more. "And give your boy a nice kiss tonight, okay?"

Dan left the bank. As he reached the car, Mike was walking out behind him. They slid into the car, and Dan pulled out just as nice and easy as a Sunday drive.

"That went well," Mike said.

Dan nodded. He turned the corner two blocks away and stepped on the brakes just behind their other getaway car. Mike reached to open his door, and Dan pulled out his pistol and shot him in the head.

"As Ben Franklin once said..." Dan took out a rag and started wiping down the pistol, the steering wheel, and everything else. "Three may keep a secret if two are dead."

Finished, he grabbed the envelope, stepped out of the vehicle, and walked toward the getaway car.

That's the way you do it, he thought.

Friday, May 23, 2014

This week - May 23, 2014

Unfortunately, I don't have a story this week. With end-of-the-year school activities for my children, my job, and also my latest "sweat equity" improvement project, I have been preoccupied. As far as my project, I thought you might like to see this. Beyond a neighbor's help to install the roof trusses, which I cut and assembled, and then contracting out the concrete, I have done all of the rest. I still need to install shingles on the roof and build the second door, followed by caulking and painting. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I think I've done my job this week :-) 

 





Friday, May 16, 2014

#FridayFlash - What's Real?


The worst part of being alive is being alone. There's no one to talk to, no other voice to drown out the one that keeps pounding my mind with useless details and observations. Like now when it says: I'll bet she used to be a dandy. Who else would wear a mop like that? I reach down, pick up the wig, and try it on. Curious, I look at myself in a nearby mirror. Even through the haze of glass, though, I can see that pink and white stripes definitely clash against the fatigues and boots. They don't sit well against my brown skin, either.

Makes you look like a cheap whore, the voice says.

I toss the starlet wig aside, and the voice laughs.

She was probably a whore. What do you think about that, Jim?

I look around the store, at the racks of clothes that will never be worn, at the glass case of diamond jewelry that will never cast off a sparkle of light at a cocktail party. With the exception of me, the man in the mirror, and the worthless piles of bones scattered across the floor, the place stands empty.

"You're probably right," I mutter.

Of course I'm right. Can't you see it? She used to wear stiletto heals and an audaciously cheap leather skirt? She probably had a tramp stamp, too, there in the small of her back.

See what I mean? Why the woman wore those clothes—assuming it was a woman—was beyond the purview, as the saying went. Certainly beyond mine. And that thing about the tattoo? Pure speculation. How can anyone possibly know something like that just by looking at a broken spinal column? So there you go: worthless details.

There was a time when the prospect of being alone held its own comfort. To read a book from cover to cover, to listen to an hour of music with no kids to disturb me, no wife to demand I talk about God only knows what, well that was my personal definition of heaven. Add a cold beer to the equation, and the rocket ship of bliss took a flyby past the pearly gates and set a course straight for Xanadu. But that was before all the voices ceased to exist, before the sky echoed back with the screams of a thousand perished souls, back before the light of day surrendered to the darkness, the sun blotted out by a cloud of dust that turned everything to bones.

When it happened, I was aboard the USS North Carolina, a Virginia class stationed out of Pearl Harbor. I didn't see it happen. It's hard to see much of anything when you're in a tin can a mile under the surface, deep in the Kamehameha Basin. I heard it, though; everyone aboard did. As soon as the Commander realized what had happened, he played a recorded message from central command. He also played a copy of a report that some poor soul had loaded up in YouTube before the cloud made its way to where ever he had been at the time. We saw it rise up from the horizon, a huge cumulus beast like something out of Hollywood, and we watched as its tentacles of gray death spread out, touching house after house. As soon as the camera's microphone picked up the first screams, the man (clearly panicked and young by high-pitched sound of his voice: "Oh my God... God... oh...") rushed into his house. The sight of his wall, a picture of a surfer riding a killer wave, turned out to be the last image recorded. None of knew exactly what happened to him, how it ended exactly for him, but knowing what the cloud left behind gave us little else to ponder. That was the moment when when everyone aboard realized the situation: life as we knew it had changed. It was like the pink and white wig. One moment, it's you in the mirror; the next moment, what you once recognized as normal now stared back at you as something else.

For a while the guys stayed together, but then one by one the crazies entered their brains, turned them into raving lunatics and I knew I needed to leave. That was six months ago. Or maybe a year. After all this time, I've lost track.

It was two years, Jim.

"Shut up! Shut up, I say!"

I pull my gun from the side pocket of my camo pants. I took it from the ammo store sometime back. I mean what were they going to need it for now? I squeeze my eyes shut and scream, trying to will myself to do it this time, to go ahead and pull the trigger. But I can't, so I lower the pistol. Maybe some day.

I step out of the store and feel the crush of something under the heel of my boot. As always, the street is empty. Oh, how I wish I had someone real to talk with.

What about you?

Are you real?

Friday, May 9, 2014

#FridayFlash - Back The Badge


“You know,” Jameson said, “in the morning I’m going to look back on this night, and think of it as nothing more than a minor setback.”

Jack closed his eyes for a beat. Outside, a storm assaulted the city, throwing in an occasional burst of lightning and a roll of thunder as additional harassment. Rainwater beaded up on the windshield, and then, coalescing under the force of gravity, ran down the glass in rivulets before wiper blades swished it all away with a steady Thuck… Thuck… Thuck. He opened his eyes again and saw the world through the glass as it really was—a place where lines blurred, straightened out, and blurred again.

He took a deep, slow breath. “A minor setback.”

Beside him, Jameson nodded.

“That’s right. In the grand scheme of things, a whole career is not determined by one event.”

“It can certainly be derailed by one, though.”

Jameson continued as if he hadn’t heard Jack’s remark. “It’s kind of like a work of art. You don’t just look at one brush stroke. You take them all in to form a complete image.”

“And that’ll be your defense?”

Jameson met Jack’s eyes. “There’ll be no defense, my friend. Remember, you’re guilty, too.”

Jack heard the threat and shook his head. “Unh-unh. You can’t put this on me. I didn’t kill that girl.”

“But you were there just the same.”

Yes, he was there. They had been on patrol when Jameson spotted a street punk who regularly sold drugs and went by the name of Jell-O. It was on account of how slippery he was, Jameson told Jack. The kid could wiggle and jiggle and get away if you weren't careful. When Jello-O saw the two of them, he took off at a sprint. They pursued.

They lost the kid when he jumped through the back door of a five-story apartment building. On the second floor, Jameson raised his gun. He said, “What do we have here?” and stepped through a cracked-open doorway. Inside they found a fourteen-year-old girl, clearly home alone and dressed only in panties and a t-shirt that sported a picture of mouse wearing a sombrero and a couple of bandoliers. It held a revolver in each hand. A burning cigarette dangled from its mouth. The girl’s hair was still wet from a recent shower. Jameson licked his lips. “Mm-mmm,” he said, and looked at Jack with a stupid grin as he took the girl by the arm. The images of what happened next still burned in Jack’s mind. Her agonizing cries still registered in his ears. When it was over, Jack stared down at the bruised neck and blank eyes—eyes that had just pleaded with him to make it all stop.

“You stood by and did nothing,” Jameson said now. “You haven’t reported it, either.” He cocked his head to the side and grinned. It was the same grin. Jack hated it. “And that, young officer Broward, is what we call accessory.”

Without another word, Jack opened the passenger door. The roar of rain pounding the sidewalk greeted him as he stepped out of the car.

“Remember,” Jameson called out. “Back the badge. And the badge’ll back you.”

Jack shut the door. He ran up the sidewalk to his house, but he wasn’t fast enough. Light blue turned to navy as the rain soaked through his uniform. He fumbled with his keys and, finally finding the right one, reached up to push the key into the door lock.

A loud bang cut through the storm. Jack whirled around and looked back at the patrol car as two more shots pierced the night. The passenger door opened again, and a small figured stepped out. Even as it walked toward his house, Jack saw the stained panties. He saw the mouse with the sombrero and bandoliers. He pulled his own gun and fired. The girl continued toward him. Panic seized him. How was it even possible? He could still see her dead body on the couch. He watched as her skin turned yellow and then blue.

The revolver jumped and jumped again as Jack fired the rest of his rounds. The gun clicked three more times before the girl stopped in front of him. Jack leaned against the front door and slid down to the cement.

“I… I...” Jack shook his head. He started to cry. “I’m sorry.”

Dark, unsympathetic orbs looked down at him. The girl raised the gun—it was Jameson’s service revolver—and stuck it in Jack’s mouth.

Friday, April 25, 2014

#FridayFlash - Home


So, she was cheating on him after all. Jack had always suspected Madison's infidelity, but he could never prove it. Work kept him away too long and too often. She had done it, though, violated their marriage bed during those long stretches while he was gone. Her distant eyes told him so. She couldn't even look at him when he finally came home. He even resorted to using a private investigator to uncover the adultery, spending more than a grand in fees and expenses. The P.I. was either an incompetent boob, a drunk, or a flat-out fraud because he never found anything to substantiate the accusation—or so the man said—but now there it was, in plain sight for God and everyone to see. All it took was him dying.

He was dead, he knew that. Good Lord, most of them knew it right away. A few still held onto their hope and faith that somehow they had made it through, but that was just full-on denial. Anyone in their right mind could look at the wreckage, at the charred things scattered along the Indonesian mountainside, and see that nobody survived.

How long he'd been gone, Jack didn't know. Time seemed to take on a whole different dimension on this side of the dirt. In fact, time wasn't the only irregular sensation. The sun didn't burn. The wind whistled but he felt nothing. Since the crash, everything changed, almost as if the world he knew ceased to exist and was replaced by something entirely new.

There were other things that began anew, as well. It took him a while just to figure out how to move. For a full week, he was planted as hard and stiff as a cedar elm. What a miserable time that had been, stuck in one place listening to the investigators yammer on and on, each of them looking at a piece of wreckage and throwing out wild theories like Mardi Gras beads. Then, there was the wailing of family members who somehow made it to the crash scene, mothers mourning their lost children, husbands and wives grieving their lost spouses, children crying over a mommy or daddy who never came home. Madison and his daughter, Lindsey, never made it, of course.

He finally did move, though, and it was strange how it worked, almost like learning to walk all over again. You're born into one body as a baby, you have to discover how to use it; you die and lose that body, you have to learn how to use your new, spiritual form. Weird.

By the time he finally made it home, Madison had clearly moved on. And like everything else on this side of eternity, she had change as well. She colored her hair. She wore shorter skirts, too—totally on the market. Looking at her, arm in arm with another man, Jack wondered how long it had taken her. A month? Maybe two? Probably not that long, he guessed.

He followed them home, walked up the front porch steps with them, and watched as she invited the man in. Jack didn't want to follow, not sure that he could watch what might happen next, but felt compelled, pulled by a sense that he had to see for himself what he always suspected.

They walked into the living room, which, oddly enough, still looked the same. At least Madison kept some things in place.

She asked the man if he wanted a drink.

He shrugged a shoulder and said, "Sure."

"I have bourbon and beer."

"Bourbon's fine."

"Ice or no?"

"Ice, please."

She left the room to fix their drinks, and Jack stayed behind to watch the man, who now stood at the fireplace mantle. He was staring at a picture of Madison and Jack, a photo taken back when it was just the two of them, a year or so before Lindsey came along.

Jack looked at the man. "So, were you sleeping with her before I left?"

The words came out, but the man didn't hear them. Instead, he scratched at goosebumps that formed on his arm. He rubbed at the back of his neck, too. Jack wanted to scream the question again, but knew it wouldn't do any good. At best, all he would do is make the man's skin tingle. He balled up a fist, ready to see what a ghost punch would do, when her voice stopped him.

"What're you doing?" she said.

Jack turned, thinking that maybe she had spoken to him.

The man answered her.

"I was looking at your pictures. Who're you with in this one?"

She shook her head. "That's my mother—my dad, too—back before I was born."

Jack took a step back. Her mother and father? This was Lindsey? How had he lost so much time?

She stepped forward, handed the man a glass of whiskey, and then stared at the photo.

"They seemed so happy back then. Something happened, though. My mother never knew what, but something had changed between her and my father. I think it was the long separations before he died, the times when he left to go overseas and she didn't know where he was exactly, or who he was with. She died about two years after he did. Went to bed and never woke up. I think her broken heart finally gave out."

Jack closed his eyes, trying to maintain his balance. Everything seemed so out of kilter. Then another voice called out to him.

"Jack?"

He turned toward the entryway, amazed by the similarities he now saw.

"Jack," Madison said. She smiled. "You finally made it home."

Friday, April 18, 2014

#FridayFlash - Hangar 23 (Conclusion)


Bobby felt a sudden longing to be home, back in the arms of Lana, his wife, just the two of them the way it was before the war. Lana begged him not to go, even said it in multiple ways the night before he shipped out, each time just a little different, the aching tone in her voice trying to convince him to see it through her eyes. But he had to. As soon as Roosevelt's speech rang out across the radio, that day of infamy burned into the hearts and minds of every man on Bobby's street. The impact of those words hit like a meteor explosion. They shook the foundational security of each house, and every man had a strong urge to stand up and fight, to protect what was ultimately their existence, their way of life. That's how the President put it, so it had to be true.

Lana cried as he stepped aboard the bus. She walked along the concrete, matching him step for step as he made his way back and took his seat. He opened the window then and called out to her. "I'll be back before you know it. You'll see."

Now those words came back to him as he heard the old man tell it again, only saying it slower in mocking sort of way. At least, that how it came across.

"You say it's Hangar Twenty-three," Bobby said. "The sign says so, too, but there's only one hangar here."

Stanley shrugged a shoulder. "I didn't name it, son. I just work it."

Before Bobby could respond, Amelia spoke up.

"Stanley, you got any coffee?"

Hearing the woman's voice, Bobby almost looked at her. He fought against it, though. He wanted to see her, in a way some part of him needed to, but the thought of staring at a woman who went down in the Pacific years before Honolulu burned struck fear in his heart. It was as if seeing her would only make the dread more real. The longing fire for home that now burned in his heart would suddenly explode and reduce him to an ash heap of regret.

"Coffee's just inside the door," Stanley said. "Pipin' hot as always."

Amelia stepped around the two of them and headed toward the hangar. She called over her shoulder as she walked. "Oh, and my bird needs some fuel, too. Can you take care of it?"

"Sure thing, Miss E." Stanley turned back to Bobby and smiled. "She's a peach, that one."

"I'm sure she is," Bobby said and knew his tone belied his feelings, "but that's not... I mean that's not the real Amelia..."

Beside him, Mickey Carswell snickered, and Bobby suddenly remembered that he wasn't the only one who landed in the Dauntless.

Stanley frowned.

"Oh, I assure you both, she is."

"But how is that possible?" Bobby asked.

"I think you'll find on this journey quite a many things are possible."

"Journey? What're you talking about?"

Stanley's smile returned.

"It's why you're here. Why you're both here. Miss E, she's gonna take you on."

Bobby looked at the twin-engine Lockheed, at the passenger door, a mouth opened and ready to devour. His heart raced. His chest tightened up.

This can't be happening, he thought. Not now. Not when I made a promise to Lana.

Carswell spoke up, and Bobby saw his gunner's face had turned pale with the realization of what the old man said.

"But where is she taking us?"

"Where she takes everyone, I suspect." Stanley nodded his head toward the sky. "Even him."

Bobby turned and looked down the runway. As he stared at the approaching plane, a silver body shaped like a lit cigar, the dread he felt vanished. It was replaced by a rage that compelled every muscle in his body to move. He wanted to run to the Dauntless, strap himself in, and take her up. But there was no time. The tarmac coughed up a cloud of smoke as the Zero touched down and approached the hangar.

"I know what you're thinking," Stanley said. "You want to kill him."

Bobby turned around and glared at the old man.

"Of course. He's the enemy."

"Him?" Stanley shook his head. "Nah, I don't think so."

"What're you saying? They attacked us."

"You don't really think he woke up and decided that, do you?" Stanley's face softened. "He's as much a victim as you are, only you can't see it yet."

The old man walked out and greeted the pilot, bowing and speaking in Japanese. The words rolled off his tongue as smooth as water. As Bobby watched, Stanley pointed the Japanese pilot toward the twin-engine Lockheed. The pilot nodded and walked to the other plane.

"Wait a minute," Bobby said as Stanley returned. "Amelia's taking him, too?"

"Of course. That's how it works."

"How what works?"

Stanley smiled. "You'll figure it out."

Amelia returned then. Steam rose up from her cup.

"We all ready then?"

"Fueled up and ready to go," Stanley said.

"Stanley, how do you do it?"

The old man smiled.

Bobby's head swirled in confusion. Nobody fueled up Amelia's plane, but somehow he knew the tank had been topped off just like the old man said. It was just as amazing as the landing strip that had appeared out of nowhere and wind that bent the grass but he couldn't feel.

"What if I don't go?" he asked.

Stanley pointed to the sky.

"Them clouds are comin' in. Just like always. And I don't think you'll want to be here when they do. It'll be a hell of a storm."

Bobby stared at the clouds, at the dark layers and flashes of lightning, and he knew the old man's warning spoke the truth. He wouldn't want to be here. He nodded, thanked Stanley, and then walked toward the Lockheed. He just wished that Lana could be here to go with him.