Phantoms of the Military Brat

Ghosts of my past, they lurk here.

This place that used to feel like home.

This place where I laughed, cried, prayed.

I took the same route to school every day,

Through the same entrance gate,

Saw the same friends,

Practiced on the same courts,

Swam in the same pools.

I built a life.

Then, sounds of packing tape and cardboard.

A last day in this life, the gloom of the last day hanging over my head.

Meaningless goodbyes and a night unfulfilled in a once-fulfilling life.

That life fades into the rearview.

Ghosts remain, but only of my memories.

Curse of the Wanderer

Trees are strong and firm creatures.

Fed by streams of water, they have stabilizing roots and they flourish.

I am not a tree.

I will be like chaff in the wind, cursed with the inability to settle.

Fate had dealt me no home, no place to run for belonging.

I must find my own way to flourish.

Therefore, I will run and find strength in the journey.

I will find belonging in strange places and new people.

The blessings of the trees may haunt me, but

I will touch the corners of the earth.

I may not have stabilizing roots, but

I will find the triumph of climbing mountains, feel the life of cities.

My heart will beat as I explore.

My soul will be filled as I find the courage to keep moving.

Doomed to wander the earth in search of everything and nothing.

Until one day I find the serenity of the trees.

The Hunt

He’s going to catch her. He’s probably watching her right now. Stalking. Waiting for his perfect moment. Patient. She’d seen him, crouched down in the sage about a half-mile back. He disappeared immediately after she spotted him, but she could still feel his presence, the wildlife had scattered, and every hair on her body was standing up, as if a thousand tiny needles were jabbing into her, keeping her hyper-aware of her surroundings. Aili picked up her pace as she walked down the dusty backroad snaking through the woods of northern Wyoming. Looking behind her, into the trees at her sides, at the branches above her head, she could hear everything. Her breathing, the wind through the trees, her curly mess of blond locks brushing her ears, her tennis shoes crunching the gravel beneath her feet. She started to run. The running wouldn’t help. It only made the hunt more enjoyable. Aili had been told as much; she’d been warned.

Why couldn’t she be back at the ranch? she asked herself. Why didn’t she listen? Why was she so stubborn? This was a vacation for the love of God. Why did she insist on running before dawn? She could’ve taken the week off from training for her upcoming half marathon, and made up for it by running twice as much when she got back to Denver. Why didn’t she tell anyone where she was going? They’d never find her corpse. Her flesh would rot into the sand-like dirt between the sagebrush. Perhaps a group of geologists would find her bones, or a family out fossil hunting.

She’d hunted for fossils with her family in these very same woods as a child. It seemed fitting, in a way that she would die here amongst the many memories of what she once had. If she could die among the many wonderful memories she had made with her loved ones; like if the memories were here, maybe her people were with her too. Maybe her mother was walking behind her, telling her to watch where she stepped, because the snakes like to warm themselves on this road in the summer sun. Maybe her younger sister was yammering on about something she’d learned in kindergarten the year before, talking only to annoy her and get the attention of her parents. Maybe her dad was singing some old Neil Young song off key softly in the background. Those were her fondest memories, the ones worth remembering, the ones she wanted to be among at a time like this. The ones that would give her peace as she took her dying breaths. She thought back to the last time she’d seen them, at dinner the previous evening. She had been reluctant to leave her cabin for a meal, reluctant to wake up in the morning to head out on the first trail ride of the day, reluctant to even be here, on vacation with her parents.

She continued to run, watching the sun come up over the ridge, dancing through the trees and onto the road. The light filling the canyon tried to trick her into thinking she was safe now. It tried to tell her that terrible things like this didn’t happen in the light of day. Things like this didn’t happen in scenes this breathtaking. Things like this didn’t happen to girls like her. The sun tried to trick her; she knew the sun was a liar. He didn’t care about the sun, or the light, or the family she had to get back to. He only cared about the chase, about the hunt. He didn’t live inside the fairytale confines of day and night. He only stalked. Waited. Killed.

She should’ve been back in Denver, packing for the Bahamas trip she and some of her sisters had planned for this summer. She was so frustrated! She would’ve given anything to go on that trip with her sorority last night. Now she would give anything just to be able to share another meal with her family, in the ranch dining hall, to look at the faces around her, in that room that smelled faintly of lemon floor cleaner, surrounded by log walls covered in Native American artifacts, under wagon wheel chandeliers. Right now she would give anything to go back and truly enjoy that meal. They were probably still sleeping. They wouldn’t even know where to look. Why didn’t she bring a cell phone? Why was she so reckless?

Aili had always felt so prepared for a situation like this, to be stuck in the wilderness fighting for her life. If she was lucky, she could crawl into some kind of crevice in the rocks, where he couldn’t reach her, and wait for him to get bored. She had a survival kit fully stocked with fire starters, protein bars, a flashlight, a compass, a whistle to scare away wildlife, extra socks, a personal survival blanket, a water purifier etc… She was built for being stranded in the woods for days. That pack accompanied her on an innumerable amount of treks, faithfully waiting to save her should she need a night in shining armor. It could save her from hunger, hypothermia, dehydration and getting lost. It could not save her from her own stupidity, but she could spend a few days out here if it were necessary.

She had to do something. If she knew where he was… If she knew what his plans were… if she could evade him long enough to summit the ridge to her right and escape back into the canyon that held her safe haven. If she could just get back to the wonderful place where the old fashioned men with the ridiculous rifles would take him out; if she could only get back to her cabin where she could lock the door and hide in the closet until he lost track of her. She couldn’t run further into his trap. The canyon was going to begin to narrow. I need some time, she thought I just need to catch my breath, and get a plan together. Aili got her wish. She saw her opportunity to buy some time, and took it. There was a group of large rocks about twenty yards ahead, she escaped into them. Luckily for her there was a spot on the edge facing the hillside that she could just squeeze her five-foot-one, one-hundred-fifteen pound frame into.

All of those times I couldn’t reach the top shelf, and had to put a pillow on the seat to see over the steering wheel are really paying off now. Aili chuckled, reveling in her small victory, assesing her options, she opened her green Nalgene water bottle, and looked inside. Damn it. It was mostly emptied, about eight ounces left sloshing around the bottom. She definitely couldn’t stay there in the rocks long, the temperatures were supposed to get in the nineties today, there was no way she could survive on such a small amount of water until noon, let alone the amount of time it would take him to get bored of having her trapped in these rocks. It’s just what he wanted. She wasn’t going to give him that. He wouldn’t get his way. She had to get up the hillside, but there was no good way up. I’ll just have to be direct, she thought, straight up, no looking back, last chance power drive. She sat there in the rocks, listening for any disturbance in the brush around her hiding place, watching for shadows on the ground where the light showed through the rocks, to see if he was waiting on top of them to continue his pursuit, she listened for his heavy breathing as the edges of the boulder from her hiding place dug into her back, and the musty smell of dirt mixed with the sweat pouring off of every part of her body. If she was going to die; she was going to go out swinging. He wanted a game, she would give him one.

She darted out of the rocks, there was no trail now. No sure place for her feet to land. Aili could barely feel the sage and cacti digging into the skin on her ankles and calves, jutting through the soles of her shoes and in to her feet. She didn’t feel the blood dripping down her nimble legs as she flew across the prarie. Aili was aware of nothing other than the haunting sound of him screaming at her in the distance. This could be the last voice she would hear. He screamed again, she picked up the pace. The top of the ridge was in sight. just a few hundred more yards. If she could get to the top, surely he would accept defeat. He had to be sensible that way, right? Why risk his life for this one hunt? Women ran on that road all of the time. A half a dozen or more of them had probably run past his home by this time. Why did it have to be her? What was special? Why couldn’t he have woken up twenty minutes later, hell, even ten? He would catch up. He was stronger. He was faster. He was smarter.

He watched her from the bottom of the hill. Wondering why they always run. He would catch them. He was built for this. He lived for this. That frantic idiot would only make this more enjoyable. He started to run up the hill, he was relaxed. He could smell her blood mixing with the dust and sage. This was his favorite part. She thinks she’s safe. She thinks I’ll leave her alone. She’s wrong.

Aili had reached the top. She could see the ranch, her cabin, some folks walking to and from the dining room. She saw her family’s car, and the horses hitched to the posts in the corral. She would make it! She picked her way down the steep slope leading to her the haven at the bottom of that hill. She was careful. She wouldn’t fail so close to safety. She just had to make it to the bottom of the hill.

Aili vowed to herself never to be so reckless again, she’d listen to the old groundskeeper at dinner, telling her to be careful where she runs and to watch out for predators on the trails in the mornings, and evenings, she’d always tell someone where she was going, she’d make safety a priority. She made a silent promise to love her family more, to start volunteering, to truly stop and enjoy the beauty in life. She promised these things almost as a bargain to God, that if she could live just another ten minutes, she would make it count. She was going to do better, she was going to stop avoiding going home to visit her family when she was away at school; she was going to make more time for her school work, and stop drinking so much; she was going to kick that asshole to the curb, the one who only “saw a future with her” when he was undressing her. She was going to turn over a new leaf. She was going to do better. She was going to–

He was sprinting now, twenty feet behind her at most. She didn’t know he was there. He watched it happen. She tripped. Her tiny blonde head smashed against the rock. Blood sprayed the dirt, the sage. She didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. It was over. She was dead, or as good as dead anyway.  Soon the maggots would invade her body. She would be nothing but a pile of bones within months.They would never have any idea what happened. The cougar turned around, and stalked off.

Aili listened for footsteps, waited for hot breath in her ear to begin the no doubt torturous end to her life. It never came. Hesitantly she turned her head to see the big cat headed up over the ridge. It was nearing eight, she assumed, as the sun started to climb higher in the sky, it was getting hotter by the minute. Great, she thought the hotter it gets, the faster the I’ll lose blood. She was close to the red trail, she deducted from the height of the hill she had crested, and the distance from her to the green grass where the ranch lawn sat. The morning ride would be headed up that trail any minute, if she could make it over there before they did, someone could bring her to a hospital, to her family, she could get a second chance.

Aili tried to stand, and immediately hit the ground again, vomiting, and losing consciousness for what she assumed was several minutes. She wanted so badly to sleep, the sun was so warm, and her head was swimming. She dropped her head, only to be broken from her near slumber by the pool of blood beneath her wetting her face.  As she lie there, her head fuzzy, losing blood too rapidly, she realized the importance of making it to the trail in time.

She clawed rapidly through the dirt, dragging her body behind her. If she couldn’t walk to the trail, she’d crawl. She looked down at the corral, checking to see how much time she had. The other guests were mounting their horses, it would be just minutes now before they began the ascent to the top of the red trail, Aili had to pick up her pace. She stood again, this time making it several yards before collapsing. They were leaving the corral now, the horses moseying their way up the trail, and through the gate. She would never make it. Within the next five minutes they’d be to her elevation. The cuts on her hands, and legs were starting to catch fire with pain, her skull throbbed from the deep wound on her forehead now caked with clay. The adrenaline was beginning to wear off, it wouldn’t be long until her body would give up. She came to terms with the fact that she physically could not move another inch. The pain consuming the entirety of her small body lying there in the vast expanse of sage, and cacti, and dirt was taking over. She finally relaxed, and let herself start to drift off. Her mind took her back to a scene with her little sister from only months before, after Aili had reluctantly picked her up from school when her mother called her frantically, having been tied up at work, and couldn’t. Funny, she couldn’t even remember what they were fighting about now.

“Thank God I’m never going to be like you,” Ruthie said with enough venom in her voice to kill a small elephant. “All you care about is that stupid sorority, and keeping your perfect figure, and perfect boyfriend, and perfect life void of your family. You haven’t been home in months, and you live right down the road. You know I saw mom crying the other day, looking at old pictures of you. Even she knows what a piece of trash you’ve become.”

Little did her sister know, her life was far from perfect. She’d been basically flunking out of her classes, her ‘perfect boyfriend’ had been cheating on her with one of her ‘stupid sorority’ sisters for months, and her ‘perfect figure’ was the only thing she really had going for her at this point. She couldn’t face her parents after the failure she had become, Aili was a lot of things, but she wasn’t a liar. She couldn’t go home, and tell her parents everything was fine, and sit around a dinner table talking about the weather, and what a darling blouse the pianist at church wore the previous Sunday. She had no life among her family. Her experience of clawing through the dirt to survive began long before she made the decision to go running that morning against plenty of warning, without telling anyone where she was going.

Now, thinking of Ruthie, she was haunted by the thoughts of her little sister never having looked up to her. Is that the legacy I’m going to leave? She couldn’t go out like this, there had to be a way to fix things with her family, with her baby sister. When she finally did die, the least she could want out of life was for that little girl to admire her. How was she supposed to get through high school, pick out a dress for her first prom, go through her first break up, go off to college, without Aili there? Whether Ruthie thought her older sister was a piece of trash or not, damn it, she still had to be there for her. She had to do this one thing right.

Gathering all of the strength she had left, she let out a blood curdling scream of her own, easily matching the ferocity of the cougar’s. She looked up to see horses spooking off the trail in all directions. They had heard her! Spencer, the wrangler on that ride, looked in her direction, and dismounted his horse.

“What the hell?’ he asked, and started her way.

She screamed again, the sound of another person’s voice fueling her desperate cries for help.

“Here!! I’m over here!’ she yelled, as she tried again to stand, gritting her teeth from the pain.

“Someone get over here and sit with her while I ride down for help!” Spencer yelled as he ran over to catch Aili from falling back to the blood soaked earth beneath her. “It’s okay now, I’ve got ya.”

She collapsed onto him, finally letting the agony overtake her will to stay conscious.

She woke up days later in the hospital to see her little sister sitting in the chair next to the bed holding her hand.

“Hey there,” ruthie said, turning to gesture to her parents, who were out in the hallway talking to the doctor. “I’ve been right here, I never left.” she said, tears falling from her eyes. “Let me just get mom and dad, they’ve been worried sick.”

“H-hold on, they’ll be back soon enough. Could you just sit with me for a second? I don’t want to have to explain what happened just yet.”

“Uhh, okay.” Ruthie said, “they made me promise to get them right away though! Dad’s gonna be pissed if he knows you’ve been awake and I didn’t alert him immediately.”

“You remember that day in the car a few months back, when I was picking you up from school, and you said you never wanted to be anything like me?” Aili began.

“Oh my God.. Aili, you know I didn’t mean it! I was just so mad, and I missed you so much. I was so jealous of you, you always get to do whatever you want. I want to be exactly like you! You’re so fearless, always doing something exciting–”

“Don’t you dare, ever, be like me.” said Aili through a flood of tears, and an aching, tight throat. “All I do is make mistakes, you’re going to make your life so much better than mine, you’ve just got to give it some time, don’t be in such a rush to grow up. Just promise you’ll let me make it all up to you, kay? I’ll be around more, I swear! Every Sunday for pancakes, no matter how old they get.”

“Okay.. jeez, you must have hit your head REAL hard. If I knew all it would take to get you to be nice to me was falling down a mountain, I’d have followed you on one of your dumb hikes, and pushed you down a long time ago.”

Aili’s parents soon entered the room, scolding Ruthie for not retrieving them immediately. Ruthie smirked at Aili with an ever-smug ‘I told you so’ look. She explained the situation to her parents, and they responded with the to be expected speech about her being more careful, but them being thankful she was okay. Briefly forgetting about Aili’s frail condition, they all sat in her hospital room, eating Jell-o and laughing about memories from the ranch in year’s passed. Aili shared her hospital bed with her baby sister, and they felt like a family again.  No looking back, last chance power drive. she thought with a smile. Changing her life was now or never, and she’d be damned if she didn’t choose now.

She Watched Her

There wasn’t any wind or rain. Just the sun beating down on Drew’s shoulders. It was clear. Not a cloud in sight. The mountains stood tall against the blue sky cupping Drew and her sister Cara in a valley. The mountains looked soft, the blankets of yellow grass covered every square inch along with the speckles of sagebrush. Further up, the mountains were purple from the clumps of douglas fir. Drew looked around and analyzed the land as sweat dripped from the brim of her hat down to her cheeks. The salt in her sweat stung her oily sunburned skin. She reached up to adjust her hat and wipe the sweat that had pooled beneath her eyelids.

“I thought you said it was gonna be rainy today?” Cara muttered as she adjusted her seat in the saddle.

“I guess not,” Drew said as she pulled her bay horse to a steady stop. The pack horse rested her muzzle on the bay horses rump. Drew stood in her stirrups and twisted her little body to look at Cara.

“Where we goin’ now sis?” Cara said as she stopped and re-tied her pack horses lead. Cara looked drained from the past few days of ridding. Her red curly hair was matted into a ponytail that was squashed beneath her ball cap. Her skin looked oily and tan from the dirt and sweat that she collected. They had been camping for the past two days checking the far ends of Drew’s property.

“Uh, lemme see. We already checked the cows in the far field and in Sun Valley. I think all we have left is to find that bull that broke through the fence near the Big Hole.”

“Alright.” Cara rode up beside Drew and stopped at her knee. “It’s a bummer I have to leave on Friday. Your lucky this is your job.”

“It ain’t really a job,” Drew said as she giggled and looked over at Cara. They shared a smile and continued on.

Drew was a married woman. She married Brewster when she was 21. Her and Brewster bought a little log cabin on a chunk of land. Soon after they bought the land, they bought cattle. She was out on their property everyday with Brewster at her side and a grin on her face. It was her dream since she was young to raise cattle. Nine years later they were still on that property. Cara on the other hand was her opposite. She was four years younger than Drew. Cara worked in an office job and had a little cookie cutter house in a concrete jungle. Her boots were never muddy. Drew was still stumped on why Cara offered to help so quickly while her husband was away. Cara never seemed to like Drew’s line of work. Let alone put herself in the heart of it.

Drew knew every creek and every mountain on her property by heart. I’ve just gotta get over the peak to my left, and we’ll be at the top of the Big Hole, she thought to herself. She looked back to make sure her little paint mare was still trucking on. She brought the little horse from a filly. As far as the bay horse goes, Drew was training him. Drew turned back to look at the rocky trail ahead when she noticed that Cara seemed to be staring off into the clouds. Drew smirked as she spurred her horse into a gallop. Both of the horses transitioned easily and paced each other.

“Seriously?” Cara yelled as she smiled. She booted her horses into a canter. Cara knew how to ride, but was still rough in the saddle. She bounced and flopped along with the horses. She tended to hang onto the horn of the saddle more often than not. As Drew rounded the side of the Mountain she looked back to see Cara yell and kick with all her might. She almost looked like she was sitting sideways. Drew laughed and faced forward.

“Shit,” Drew sat down hard in the seat and hauled back on the reins. “Cara stop your horses! Cliff!” Drew turned around to see if Cara heard her. Soon after, she saw Cara ease up on her horses and bring them to a settle stop behind her. “I can’t believe I didn’t remember that dropped off like that,” Drew said as she peered down the cliff.

“Well. Good thing you stopped in time,” Cara replied as she sat up to look down.

Drew shivered and continued riding along side of the Big Hole. Everything was still. No birds chirped, no wind blew, just silence.

“Do you see that bull anywhere down in the big hole?” Drew asked as she looked down again. The Big Hole was a funnel made up of jagged rocks that poked from the earth. There was a sage bush shoved between rocks here and there on the sides of the cliff. At the bottom there was a pile of trees that looked to be miniature from where Drew was. It didn’t look like the sun reached the bottom. It was just black.

After the long pause Cara replied “Naw, nothin’.”

“Well.” Drew paused to think about the plan of escape. “We’ll ride the length of the Big Hole then we’ll make our way down on the other side of that peak,” Drew said as she pointed to her right. Cara nodded at her as they continued along the cliff.

Drew kept looking down through the funnel. Each time she looked she felt like she was being sucked in. The Big Hole never felt this ominous to her. Drew looked back up at the pencil thin trail. There was a wall of red dirt to her other side. One wrong step and I’m gone. The only way out is either forward or down. She listened closely to each step of her horses hooves. The rocks crumbled as her horses carried her. Every once and awhile she glanced back and noticed Cara looking into the same depths that Drew had grown scared of. Neither of them talked in fear their voices would cause the rocks to fall out of place.

“Only a few more strides,” Drew said trying to make her little sister feel better. Cara nodded. As Drew turned back around she heard the dirt give way. As she looked down she watched the bay horses hoof give way underneath rocks. Her cheeks flushed with panic as her stomach dropped. Her horse lost his footing and went nose first into the rocks. Drew flipped over the top of the horse with its body and smashed Drew’s legs into the jagged rocks. The little paint mare hauled back smashing herself into the red wall to avoid being drug down with them. The lead snapped allowing the little paint mare to stand along side of the cliff. The bay horse continued rolling down the funnel squealing. His voice became raspy and heavy as he neared the bottom. Drew rolled and clawed the rocks desperately to keep from falling deeper into the funnel. Cara watched in horror as her sister fell down the hill.

“Drew! Drew!” Cara screeched. She kept yelling but her voice was cracking in fear. She knew all she could do was watch. Cara looked down the red trail that lead to Drew’s tumbling. That was when Cara noticed there was a sage bush in Drew’s path. “Drew! Sage bush! Look!” Cara screamed flinging her hands in the direction of the sage bush. Drew heard her at the last second and reached to grab at the sage bush. Her hand latched to a branch and slid down painting it red. Her grip was strong on the sage as she hung there. She smiled and laughed with relief as she looked up at Cara, who was standing up in the saddle crying but smiling.

Drew looked down into darkness. A cave? A pit? There was actually a hole down there? She heard a crackling noise and looked up at the sage bush. The branch was splitting under her weight. She looked up at Cara who seemed to have no clue what Drew saw.

“Cara listen to me. I’m GOING to fall. I want you to ride back the way we came and call 911. Then call Brewster,” Drew spoke loud and clear trying to keep her nerves down.

“I’m not leav-”

“You won’t be any use to me standing there staring at me stupidly!” Drew yelled trying to sound angry, but she knew her fear was seeping through her words. She felt hopeless. The branch cracked again showing the fleshy center of the sage bush. Cara stared blankly at her. “Leave! Now!” Drew screamed. Cara shuttered and turned her horse to run in the other direction. The paint horse stood at the edge unwavering. Cara stopped at the trailhead and looked back at Drew, but Drew was focused on the paint horse looking down at her. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks stinging all the skinless cuts. The paint horse screamed and paced when the branch broke. Cara watched her sister slam against rocks as she fell into darkness. With tears welled up in her eyes and her body shaking with panic, Cara kicked her horse into a sprint and headed toward the cabin.

*          *          *          *          *

The surging pain woke Drew from her unconsciousness. Her clothes felt matted and wet. It took her a second to realize why she was in so much pain, why she was lying in darkness. Her legs were thumping and felt bare. Her back was throbbing. Her head and arms were heavy. She tried to sit up, but she screamed from the pain as it shot through every nerve in her body. She was weak. How am I supposed to do this? She thought to herself trying to push the pain away. She remembered that she had matches inside the zipper pouch on the pack that went through her belt loop. Grimacing at the pain, she shoved her hand down the length of her torso to reach into the zipper pouch. Her fingers acted as her eyes at this point. A piece of paper, a pocket knife, a Luna bar, and finally the matches. She grinded her teeth as she opened the box of matches and lit one with her other hand.

The match light wasn’t bright, but it was enough to show Drew her surroundings and the damage to her little body. Her jeans were almost non existent. Her skin and flesh took forms on her legs that Drew didn’t even know was possible. Raising in peaks and jetting deep in other places. She wasn’t wet with water, she was matted in blood. There was dirt and rocks imbedded in her skin and clotting the blood. Her arms were hardly covered in skin, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as her legs. She looked at her tummy and chest and noticed in several places the skin was peeled back and exposed multiple layers of muscle that rocks inserted themselves into. It’s a wonder she didn’t bleed to death.

She lit another match and noticed the three walls around her, along with the continual black side. The bay horse laid in front of her. Cold, quiet, a blackened red. Drew leaned over and puked at the sight of the horse. The once energetic bay horse was lifeless, still, dead. She laid back down carefully in the darkness. She focused on the ceiling and tried not to let the images and pain trigger her tears. Staring long enough at what she thought was the cave ceiling, she noticed tiny white dots. They glinted and shimmered. Stars? Are those really stars? Hope creeped into her brain knowing that there was a way out. It didn’t last long. The pain swept away the hope and Drew was smashed back into the surging pain.

“Helpppp, somebody pleaseee,” Drew whined as she began to cry again. She was alone. Entirely alone. Her thoughts kept her company that night. She thought about Brewster, the incredible life they built together. She thought about her sister and where she grew up. She thought about that paint mare that she watched scream and stare as she tumbled down that cliff. She thought about her choices, and how she should’ve never gone near the Big Hole.

*          *          *          *          *

“Why the heck did I agree to this?” Cara muttered as she looked around. She was suppose to go back to the cabin to get help for Drew, but she had no idea where she was. Drew had called Cara in a panic about a week ago. Brewster had to stay in town for a few nights to visit his brother in the hospital who had just gotten surgery. Drew still had to go through the property, but she needed another set of hands. Cara half heartedly agreed to help her sister. Now, Drew’s life depended on it. Cara’s mind raced crazily. Every mountain looked the same, every little trail seemed to veer off in a direction she didn’t think was right. There were no sounds, no street signs, no markers to guide her. She was lost.

“Shit.” Cara started to cry. She could feel her heart beat faster as she watched the sun hide behind the mountains. Is Drew even still alive? What’s Brewster going to say? I’m going to be the one that kills Drew. I’m going to be blamed for her dying. Cara sobbed and looked around her. The clouds were painted pink and orange, and the sky was getting darker and darker the longer she stared. The purple tops of the mountains soon blended in with the rest of the sky, leaving Cara and her thoughts in the dark.

As the night furthered, the moon rose from its hiding place casting a shadow of Cara and her two horses. Okay. Think harder Cara. How could I possibly see this god damn cabin? Cara looked around through the sagebrush and tall grass. She still couldn’t see much. Even with the moonlight. That’s it! Cara turned and rode towards the top of the mountain at her back. The horses had been tired from running, they dragged their feet as they trotted, but Cara was intent on getting to the top. Maybe she could see the cabin from the top of the mountain. Then she would be able to get her sense of direction back.

As she reached the top of the mountain she began to look at the valley below her. The moon light wasn’t bright enough for her to see down into it. The mountains proudly stood in the moonlight. Their purple tops poking into the sky, but their shadows cast down to where Cara needed to see. This is my only hope. I can’t risk anything more. She debated whether or not to ride through the dark or wait till sunrise. The sun was the only thing that could show her where to go. This was the first time in Cara’s life where she wasn’t in control of the situation. In the city, the night was still day. A late night still meant you could drive home in the comfort of your headlines guiding you along. Out here, night just meant darkness. No street lamp could show her the way, no cell phone could reach the outside world.

Cara woke up just before daylight. She had grabbed a blanket off her pack horse and balled up on the ground to sleep. If she would’ve known that she was going to be covered in bug bites and ants in the morning, she would of stayed on her horse. She looked at her surroundings. Both of the horses stood quietly tied to a sagebrush behind her, and down the mountain that she had rode up last night, the valley. The sun creeped over the valley like a warm blanket. It wasn’t fast like Cara had imagined it. It was slow, like a mother tucking her kids in for bed. Drew. Cara remembered why she was there and quickly got on her horse. She tied the pack horse tight and looked at the valley below her. She saw the pasture and the tiny black dots huddled together. There was a black rectangle a ways from them. The cows? The cabin? There she would ride down the mountain, faster than she’s ever ridden. There she would call 911, there she would call Brewster. There she would save Drew.

*          *          *          *          *

It had been two days. She wanted to die but couldn’t give up. The maggots in the cave had began to weave through Drew’s flesh like butter. She tried to pick them off at first, but she gave up once there were too many to keep track of. Drew noticed a rushing sound late in the night, the kind that a stream or creek would make. She came up with a plan. She was going to drag herself to the source of the rushing noise. Maybe that was a way out. What if they come back and I’m not here? What if they find a way to reach me? I should stay. No, I need to go.

She couldn’t take the pain any longer. She waited until daylight when the little glint of light made it to the cave floor. Particles of dust illuminated and floated around the cave. She looked over at the horse. She had to do something first though. She scooted herself to the rotting horse the few feet away. She stroked his gaping cheeks and attempted to close his ripped eyelids. She pressed her lips to his forehead like she always did. And whispered him goodbye. It was time. She rolled over onto her mountainous leg wounds, grunted, then grimaced in pain. You can do this. She thought to herself as she sat there recollecting the breath that had been taken from her. She lifted her face and rested her chin on the cave floor looking towards the darkness. With each pull, dirt collected in her wounds and stung. She found herself screaming every time she’d dig her fingertips into the ground and yank her dead weight forward. No matter the breaths she took, it was never enough oxygen to fill her lungs. It was pitch black. She kept on pulling herself forward until she reached what seemed to be another cliff. She pulled herself to the edge and reached down. Nothing. She pushed herself just a little bit further to try and reach what was below her. Still nothing. As she gave herself one more scooch the dirt crumbled and gave way. She fell through the air until she hit water.

*          *          *          *          *

“What do you mean you can’t find it?” Cara screamed into the phone.

“Ma’am, calm down. You need to describe to us where you’re at.”

“How can you expect me to calm down when my sister is probably already dead? Her name is Drew McCoy! Track her address! Something!”

“Ma’am, I can’t get there off the information given.”

“So much frickin’ help!” Cara screamed as she hung up. I’m no use. I don’t know where to go or how to explain to get here. Such help 911 was. She sat there drumming her fingers on the old wooden dinning table. Brewster made that table for Drew on their anniversary two years ago. Brewster! She picked up the phone and dialed his number. She waited. One ring, two ring, three ring-

“Hey there! How’s the Ranch trea-” Brewster was barely able to speak before Cara interrupted him.

“Drew. She fell in the Big Hole. I just got back. I don’t know what to do. Calling 911 didn’t help a damn bit and she’s still down there.”

“Shit,” there was a long pause. Everything was silent. She questioned if he was still on the line.

“Hello-” Cara muttered. Brewster was suddenly snapped back to life and interrupted her.

“I’m on my way,” Brewster sounded dry when he hung up the phone. Cara paced by the door for about a minute. I can’t do this. I need to do something. Might as well make myself useful. Cara ran outside and changed the saddles on the horses. She filled the saddle bags with just about everything she thought they’d need. Now, I wait.

*          *          *          *          *

Rocks spat out from underneath Brewster’s tires as he drove down the gravel road. His heart was racing as his tires slid around each corner spraying a wave of dirt onto the sagebrush and grass that lined the road. The cloud of dust behind him grew with each curve. The dash board that was once cluttered with mail and tools had been spilled in the passenger seat and on the floor. He slammed his palm on the wheel as if to try and make the truck go faster. But his foot was already crammed to the floor. He already called 911 and described the location. He had to do this once before when Drew broke her leg falling off the colt she was training at the time. He swore she was a magnet to trouble. As soon as he reached the house he saw Cara in the driveway with a horse in each hand. Tacked up and ready to go.

“You got a rope?” Brewster said as he slammed the door shut and ran over to her.

“Everything I thought we’d need,” Cara said as she mounted. Brewster jumped on and they kicked off into a sprint. Brewster watched the sage and grass whip his horse’s legs as they ran down the trail. His heart pounded in his throat. The sweat was dripping off his nose to his jaw line. His hat had already blown off his head, but the stampede straps kept it slapping on his back with every stride. His neck was turning red from the straps rubbing. The dirt stuck instantly to the sweat and powdered his face. He tried to wipe his eyes away from the dirt when he spotted something. There was a little brown and white dot ahead of them on the trail. Drew’s paint mare? The little mare was running at them. Full speed ahead, she seemed panicked. What the hell? Brewster slowed his horse down to a walk and twisted to look back at Cara.

“Did you not grab the paint when you rode back?” Brewster said as he looked back.

“No, I figured she’d just follow me back,” Cara stuttered as she realized she completely forgot about the mare.

“Did Drew ever teach you anything?” Brewster yelled. Cara put her head down and started to cry again.

“Quit your crying! I need you thinking! Drew’s out here and we need to find her!” He yelled at her. He was getting irritated with Cara. Drew could be dead by now. Cara should’ve known where to go. She just rode the trails. Doesn’t she ever think ahead? Brewster pulled his horse to a stop and waited for the paint mare to reach him. He had to get that mare. If Drew was gone, this is what he had left of her. The little mare slowed and walked up to Brewster’s horse. She bumped at his side and sighed.

“Come here lil’ girl,” Brewster said as he leaned over to grab the lead, but she pulled her face just far enough so he couldn’t reach her. “Brat,” he muttered under his breath. He got off and grabbed the little mare’s lead when he heard a muffled yelp. He walked over closer to the sagebrush. He saw bits of the river through the sage.

“Where did that come from? Did you hear that?” Brewster said as he looked over towards Cara.

*          *          *          *          *

The water was smoother than the ground. Comforting almost. The the cold blanket engulfed Drew and sucked her under. She flailed her skinless arms trying to keep herself above the water. Sucking in as much air as she could every time her lips felt air. She felt the dirt rinse from her wounds and the rocks loosen over every rapid. She was still in darkness floating along the underground river. The river flung Drew’s body around. Smashing her into the walls and sucking her under. I’m going to die. She thought to herself. This is it. Drew let her body relax. This is what it feels like to let go. To die. She stopped fighting. She let the current suck her under and push her to the surface. She closed her eyes and let the pain take over. Every open wound burned. Every broken bone throbbed. Images passed through her head. She remembered throwing the football with her dad on the weekends. She felt the summer breeze and smelled the fresh cut grass. She remembered the day she got married to Brewster. Smiling and looking at each other, their hands clasped together. She remembered their Sunday mornings, the smell of coffee and hot maple syrup. How they shared sleepy kisses giggling in the mornings and that his brown hair was always sticking in every direction. She remembered saying goodbye to her sister when she first moved to the ranch. The tears and warm hugs. She remembered her sisters first high school volleyball tournament. The smell of sweat and old gym mats seemed to drift into her nose through memory. She could hear herself yelling for Cara in the stands, she could see her sister waving back. Her cheeks pink with embarrassment. Tears welled up in Drew’s eyes, but they just soaked into the river, along with the blood. She was melting into the river with her memories. She let herself get drug under again. When she surfaced she heard birds chirping and cows mooing. Is this in my head? She didn’t know if she was going crazy. If she was just losing herself completely. She felt her body slid across the ground as water filled her mouth. Her eyelids lit up when she surfaced again. She opened her eyes to a blue sky. Not a cloud in sight. She noticed the trail that ran along the river. The trail she took to go to the Big Hole. This was where the river came out of! She started to fight again. The adrenaline pumping through her veins allowed her to struggle against the current and flail her way to the river beach. She tried to grip every stone with her hands, but she slid by them one by one. Just grab something! She gave it one last effort, this time using every last bit of energy to grip and pull herself against the current and to shore. She grabbed the biggest rock and latched onto it. She let the current swing the rest of her body behind her, letting it surface amongst the rocks. She pulled herself along the bank and flopped down. She heard a man yelling.

“Help me! Somebody! I’m in the river!” Drew screamed with every ounce of energy she had left. Her wounds were bleeding again. The dirt wasn’t there to clog it. The maggots had been washed out and drowned. The voices got closer.

“Where did that come from? Can you hear that?” It sounded like Brewster.

“I think it came from this way.” Was that Cara?

Drew screamed again. This time, no words. Just noises hoping that they’d hear her.

“Right below us behind the sage!” Brewster yelled. Drew watched the sage bush shake as Brewster appeared. “Drew baby!” He ran up to her and collapsed beside her. He picked Drew up and held her in his arms. Cara followed close behind him and watched them.

“We were just heading to the big hole. How the hell did you get down here?” Tears welled up in his eyes as his voice popped. Drew watched him glance around trying to figure out her path. It was unusual seeing the large man cry and in such a panic.

Drew smiled and muttered gibberish. She looked into his worried green gaze. His cheeks were rose colored, his dark brown hair was matted in sweat and hung over his forehead. He had bags under his eyelids and his normally flush smile was pencil thin. She watched his eyes scan her injuries and his face became pale. The rocks were red beneath her.

“Did you bring an emergency kit or somethin’? I need it now!” Brewster screamed at Cara as he pressed down on some of the bigger wounds. Drew screamed as the pain magnified with each push.

“I got it, I got it,” Cara fiddled about the sacks on her horse. She pulled out an emergency kit and ran over to them. She kneeled beside Brewster as he fumbled through the emergency kit and grabbed the cotton balls. He began stuffing the bigger wounds putting the cotton balls in Drew’s legs.

“You’re gonna be okay babe, you’ll be just fine. Hang with me okay?” Brewster spoke dryly. Drew could tell that he was trying to hide his worry, but she knew him well. He was panicking. He was shaking.

“These aren’t gonna hold. The ambulance should be at the house soon. I called them as I was driving. We’ll have to get her back to the house,” he said again, this time taking his eyes off Drew and looking to Cara. Cara got up quickly and lead the paint mare down to where Drew laid. Brewster wrapped Drew in the wool blanket and picked her up setting her neatly on the little mare. Her legs faced towards him and her body leaned over the saddle. Brewster walked along side the little paint mare, matching her quick pace.

Drew looked down at Brewster and stifled a smile. She listened for sirens, she listened for cars, she listened for anything that would give her hope. Brewster started to jog alongside the mare when she started to trot. Drew grunted with each bounce. The pain was becoming more and more apparent as the adrenaline wore off. Thankfully she didn’t have to keep herself up because Brewster was holding her on. Drew looked up to see the cabin in front of her. Her blonde hair was sticking to her face and her clothes were soaked with diluted blood. She heard sirens. She saw red and blue lights flash against the windows of the cabin. She felt herself slip from the saddle as Brewster carried her to the ambulance pulling up the the driveway. A cloud of dust chased the vehicle as it came to a stop. The EMT’s jumped out and rushed to meet them. Brewster carried Drew into the ambulance and laid her on the stretcher. Cara jumped off her horse and ran up beside the ambulance.

“Watch over the ranch. I’ll call you later tonight to give you an update. But I need someone here,” Brewster talked quickly.

“I’ll be here. Take care of her,” Cara said starting to cry again. Drew looked up at Cara and smiled wearily.

“I love you sis’. Thank you,” Drew forced the words out of her mouth. With each word she lost a little breath. Cara looked at her as tears filled her eyes again.

“I love you too. Relax now. Don’t do anymore talkin’,” Cara said as she forced a smile.

“Thank you,” Brewster looked over at Cara as tears started to stream down his face.

“Okay! Let’s go!” the EMT’s shouted as they closed the doors. Drew watched her sister stand by the little log cabin as the EMT’s hooked IV’s into her arm. She looked over at Brewster who was watching the EMT’s temporarily dress her wounds. He looked panicked and weary. She slowly moved her hand over to his trying not to tangle herself in all the cords. He gently grabbed her hand and looked down at her. She stifled a smile as he ran his other hand through her blonde hair. I’m okay now. I’m going to live.

Adler’s Game

The rich aroma of black coffee fills the California air in a trendy Silicon Valley apartment. I’ve just made my second pot and it’s not quite 7 A.M. Adler and Natasha will be awake soon. I turn to the very last page of my newspaper, clutching the final precious moments of peace and quiet. It’s a shame that nobody reads news the old-fashioned way anymore. There’s something reassuring about being able to feel the stories in your hands. It gives off this impression that yesterday’s events- the conquests, the sufferings, the mysteries- can all be neatly packaged onto pages, stamped in bold black ink, kept under control.

The muffled sound of an alarm clock goes off down the hall. It’s followed by another clock from a different room that’s shut off too immediately. At least one of my roommates has taken advantage of the snooze button. The other one, Natasha, has successfully made it out of dreamland. She emerges from her room, fidgeting with her black hair.

“Ellie, how do you drink that stuff?” Natasha asks as she stumbles towards the fridge. Her nose is scrunched up, twisting her face into a peculiar expression at the visual evidence of my coffee addiction. I know her disgust is exaggerated. Tasha is somewhat of a purist when it comes to beverages. Nothing carbonated or dehydrating is ever allowed to enter her system, less it should endanger the flawless, glowing skin that is Natasha Evans’ complexion.

“It keeps me alive,” I reply flatly without putting down my paper. I pretend that I haven’t already finished reading the entire page. If I admit that I have completed my morning ritual, there is nothing left standing between myself and Tasha’s untamable desire to put makeup on other people.

Tasha is the makeup artist among us although she’s also a decently talented actress. She’s always reminding me that about 70 percent of a convincing act is getting the visual aspect right. I think that Adler, the snoozing roommate, told her that at one point. Adler’s words tend to stick in a person’s mind like something profound to live by. I notice others quoting her a lot. I probably do it too without realizing it.

Natasha has retrieved a tall bottle of some fancy diet breakfast shake from the fridge. She walks to the table and sits across from me. Her annoyingly polite smile bores through my newspaper. It’s time to surrender my alone time. I lay my newspaper down flat and glare at the blinding white flash, hoping it will disappear.

Tasha is oblivious. “You’re in a perfect mood for today,” she says. “Have you been getting into character?” she sips her drink slowly, waiting for a response. I can’t, or at least I shouldn’t, tell her that I’m not acting and I simply don’t want to go to work today.

Work. I call it going to work. It’s not the typical 9 to 5 job but my roommates and I have the same detached view of our occupation as a cashier or a waiter so I call it that. Natasha jokingly calls what we do gold-digging. The term sounds out of place coming from her, like an innocent teenager’s attempt to be edgy. Adler is much more professional. She refers to it as psychology work, which it largely is to her.   Whatever you call the task, sweet-talking money away from dirty businessmen has a high starting pay.

Adler Williams is the mastermind behind the curtain. Tasha and I are merely the worker bees, which I’m happy to accept for a generous share in the profits. It would have taken me a long time to make the same kind of money working as an undiscovered actress in Los Angeles as I make with a bat of my eyelashes here.

Before I met Adler, I’d been living in a rundown Los Angeles shack with six roommates. Each and every one of them was convinced that they were the next big thing. “

All it takes is one lucky break!” they repeated over and over. “All you need is one movie or TV episode with your name on it”. I bet they’re all still living in that rat’s nest eating leftovers from waitressing jobs to stay alive. My break came in a different form.

Adler put on an actual casting call. It was very elaborate. She had written an entire script about a girl who discovered her boyfriend was cheating. A hoard of theater school dropouts and hopefuls turned out to read. Actors in Los Angeles will fight for a paying job like dogs fight over table scraps. That’s just what most of the candidates did. They sprayed irritants under their eyes to cry more believably. They choked their lines out. Their characters where dramatic and pathetic.

I had shown up to the casting call with every intention of reading the script off like a heartbroken sob. That was what the lines seemed to call for. Watching other girls throw themselves into their readings, I changed my mind. When it was my turn, I walked in with mascara smeared down my face and read in a steady, calm voice. Adler smiled. “She’s composed. That’s what I need.”

I later learned the casting call was a fake front for a different kind of business. It does pay (as well as providing an apartment in Silicon Valley and a beautiful car that’s mine to borrow) and acting is involved so I can’t say that Adler lied. Adler never technically lies.

Adler developed the little system we use at work in her undergraduate days. It was originally an experiment on the psychology of cheating. Adler’s college boyfriend, Connor, became the first unknowing participant on the day that Adler sat down next to Natasha in a lecture class. The two girls soon discovered that their loving, loyal boyfriends where actually the same cheating guy. Poor, unfortunate, clueless Connor. He had no idea that Adler and Natasha had even met until he’d spent half his trust fund keeping them satisfied.

Adler finally strides into the kitchen. Her perfect auburn waves are pinned back into a sophisticated bun at the base of her neck. Looking at it, I realize that I was wrong about the snooze button. She must have woken up long before her alarm went off. She carries a cobalt blue folder that matches her striking eyes.

“Who’s ready for breakup day, ladies?” Adler asks in her rhythmic voice. Everything that Adler says sounds like free verse being recited. She does have two of her bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts but I can’t help believing that Adler was born with silver speech. She could rattle off a grocery list and make it sound poetic.

“That’s not today already… is it?” I say with mock sorrow. “I was getting oh so attached to my beloved Benny boy.”

Adler doesn’t play along with my sarcasm. “He’s boring and he snores,” she reminds me. As though I need reminding. I’ve been sleeping next to the divorced executive every few nights for the last six months. His apartment was clearly decorated by ex-wife number two. It’s easy to judge from the taste of the decorations that she was getting older; too old for his liking. I’m surprised that the apartment didn’t get updated when Ben decided to update his significant other.

Even with a 26 year old, he’s been unsatisfied. Adler sent Natasha in to see if Ben was the cheating kind. One week later he was cancelling our dinner plans to sneak off with Natasha.  It is a little bit of a sting to my ego every time my fake boyfriends commit their first infidelity. I can’t blame Tasha for that. Ben is the one who decided he’d rather pay for two girlfriends than stay loyal to one, which makes me smile even more convincingly when I order the seafood at a 5 star restaurant.

Adler lays the blue folder’s contents out on the table. “This is going to be a piece of cake,” she assures us. “He’ll take you to breakfast today, Ellie. Pull these out of your purse only after he gives you the tennis bracelet.” She hands me a pair of luxurious silk undies with a small N embroidered on the front. They’re Natasha’s. I’ll pretend that I found them at his house. I’ll cry for dramatic affect and tell him how betrayed I feel. Then I’ll tell him it’s over and storm away wearing the nice diamond bracelet I’m getting for our anniversary. Just the usual breakup day.

Natasha’s hands in my hair draw me back to the present. She undoes the messy braid I slept in, tugging the knots out mercilessly. “This again?” I mutter.

“She does need to get started. Your breakfast date is at 9,” Adler says.

Natasha chimes in. “I don’t understand why he always takes you out to breakfast.”

“It’s because you told him that you’re never out of bed before ten,” I tell Tasha. “It’s a safe time. He can take woman number one out without having to cross his slimy fingers that woman two won’t stumble upon anything suspicious. He also likes flaunting the fact that he’s important enough to take a break to go out for breakfast.”

Adler laughs. “I have a new prospective beau for you,” she says. “I’m off to the bank to investigate him this morning.” Adler works three days a week at the largest bank in Silicon Valley. She peruses the account balances of the area’s wealthiest men to find out who’s worth going after. “Best of luck today, ladies.”

 

Two hours later, I pay my taxi fare and walk towards Coupa café. Venezuelan music drifts out of the establishment. I catch my reflection in a window just long enough to note that Tasha hasn’t just done my makeup. I look so little like myself that she’s essentially painted a mask on me.

A man in an unflattering tan suit holds the café’ door open for me. He avoids eye contact.

I spot Ben at a corner table. His eyes are so transfixed on his phone that he doesn’t notice me until I sit down. He hands me a colorful coffee cup with steam rising out of it.

“You ordered?” I ask

“Elephant white chai lattes.”

“Exotic”

“You’ll like it.” Now I have to act like I love whatever is in the cup. The great Ben has spoken. To my relief, it actually is delicious. Ben is usually awful at ordering for me because he gets my tastes mixed up with Natasha’s.

We don’t speak for a full minute. It seems wrong to interrupt the festiveness of the Venezuelan music. Ben taps his fingers on the edge of the table.

“This place reminds me of my own rise to the top,” Ben says. “Just look around at all the young genius one building can hold. I would bet money that at least one of the kids bent over at their laptop in here will make Forbe’s list before they hit thirty.”

I nod my head and smile in agreement. Ben likes to be the one running the conversation so I’ve learned not to interject too much.

“It’s amazing how quickly you find yourself going from working in a coffee shop to having a corner office,” he continues. “It doesn’t seem fast at the time but looking back it happened in seconds. One stroke of brilliance can catapult you to the top. I keep hoping that the saying easy come easy go has no truth behind it. I’m afraid it does though. That’s why I like to hold on to the things I do have very tightly.”

I reach for Ben’s hand, pretending that he’s just said the sweetest thing. Ben leans down and unzips a briefcase he’s stowed under the table. I wait for the tennis bracelet that is about to materialize. I’d seen the filled out order form for it when I was glancing through that briefcase one day. I’d also found tax paperwork showing that Ben made a very handsome salary last year. He would easily be able to afford one gorgeous piece of jewelry.

Instead of a jewelry box, Ben slaps a thick manila envelope down on the table. I cock my head to one side and stare at him in confusion. I reach for the envelope but Ben keeps it firmly pinned under his fist. Before I can ask any questions, he gestures to the man in the tan suit who appears to be waiting for his cue. Ben pulls an unused third chair around to our table for the lurking stranger to sit in.

“I’d like you to meet Paul Dekker,” Ben says. “He’s a private investigator.”

My thoughts spin. A P.I. is obviously the last person I wanted to be introduced to. I can feel my hands beginning to tremble; and not from the overload of caffeine. I will myself to stay in character.

“Hello. It’s a pleasure, Mr. Dekker,” I manage.

“Oh quit acting innocent, Ellie,” Ben snaps. “The joke’s over.” There’s a triumphant sneer on his face. He opens the envelope, dumping a pile of documents out.

Ben hands me a photo from the top of the heap. My own oblivious face stares up at me. Natasha is standing next to me in the picture. We both have our phones in our hands. We must have been comparing notes on Ben when this was taken.

“We know about both of you,” Dekker says. “I’ve tracked you for the last two months, gathering evidence of your involvement with Natasha Evans. I’m sure both of you are aware that stealing is a crime and you have collectively stolen a lot from my client.”      

“You two think you can just play me for a fool and get away with it,” Ben says. His temper is boiling up in his eyes. “I will get my money back out of you two bitches if I have to squeeze it out myself but I’m not stopping there. Did you think I wouldn’t notice anything missing? What’s a few dollars missing from an empire, right? Well, I noticed. I know where every single dime is. At first I thought it was a bank error. Maybe some teller had gotten greedy. Now I know it was you and your friend.”

As Ben’s face twists into strange, unhuman scowls, I realize that he’s been using the word, “two,” a lot. His P.I. must not know about Adler’s involvement.

“I’ll see you in court.” Ben zips the briefcase shut and storms out. Dekker follows dutifully at his heels.

For a long moment, I’m unable to move. I sit at the table stunned. Eventually, I regain my senses enough to dial Natasha’s number. There’s no answer. I try her four more times. Only the last call goes straight to voicemail, which means she’s rejected it. I scan the screen, trying to process everything that’s just happened. Only then do I realize that it’s 10 on a Friday morning. Tasha must still be in her yoga class.

I race outside and grab the first taxi I see. My hands are gripped so tightly around my phone that my knuckles are losing color. Tying Tasha’s number again won’t do any good but I can’t force myself to sit there doing nothing. I settle on calling Adler.

Adler answers on the third ring. “How was brunch?” she asks.

“Adler, it was horrible” I whisper. “Ben knows about me. He knows about Tasha too. He thinks that we’ve been stealing from him so the old scrooge is going to sue us.”

“What?” Adler asks. “Ben can’t possibly know everything. He’s a book-smart idiot.”

“He hired a private investigator,” I say. “They have all of these pictures of Tasha and me going over plans together.”

I realize that I’m deseeding into paranoia but I don’t want the cab driver to overhear any details so I ask Adler to continue the conversation over text. “No.” She says. “The P.I. probably has your phone hacked. Stop using it. We’ll talk soon.”

Adler hangs up just as the cab arrives at a manicured park. I can see a group of women sprawled out on yoga mats, their limbs stretched in unusual directions. Natasha’s hot pink spandex stands out in the lines of black yoga pants. I tiptoe between the mats and crouch down next to her.

“We need to talk in private,” I whisper. Natasha hasn’t noticed me up until this point and she jumps, falling out of her contorted yoga pose.

“Oh, Ellie, it’s just you,” she says. “I’m done with this in ten minutes.”

“Tasha, we need to talk now,” I say. The instructor, who is trying to give an inspirational pep talk, glares at us. My whispers seem to be ruining her concentration. Not wanting to make a scene, I crawl away from the yoga participants and take a seat on a nearby bench.

Ten minutes tick by in agonizing slow motion. I pass the time by watching a woman in a navy blue business suit read the San Francisco Chronicle. She adjusts her glasses regularly as she skims the pages. I imagine what the coverage of my own court case will look like in the papers. ‘Gold diggers brought to justice,’ the headlines will say. A printing press will spit out thousands of copies of my demise. The woman in the blue suit will probably skim the Chronicle from the freedom of her park bench while I lose every penny I have. To her, it will still be just a page in the paper.

Natasha finally rolls up her yoga mat. I leap up from the bench and dart over to her. She meets my eyes with a timid look.

“What’s going on?” she asks

I glance around to double check that no one is listening. “Ben didn’t give me a tennis bracelet at brunch,” I say. “He gave me a war decree. He’s had a private investigator trailing us. They know that we were playing him.”

Tasha’s eyes widen with worry. “We have to tell Adler.”

“I already did. I called her. She actually answered her phone.” I hail a taxi while we continue talking.

“What did Adler want us to do?” Natasha whispers.

“She didn’t want to say a word over the phone after I told her Dekker has been tracking you and me.”

“Does Dekker know who Adler is?”

“If he does, he didn’t say anything about her.”

“That must mean Dekker didn’t track us far enough to find out Adler even exists.”

“It means that we’re the ones in trouble. This really isn’t Adler’s problem.”

Natasha and I glance at each other nervously every few seconds until we’re back at our apartment. We find Adler sitting at the kitchen table with a vodka martini and a man I’ve never seen.  His short cropped brown hair has the slightest auburn tint.

“Ladies, this is my brother, Dean,” Adler says. “Dean is by far the most capable lawyer in Palo Alto.”

Dean puts on a cordial smile and reaches out to shake our hands. His eyes remain cool and stoic. They are identical to Adler’s. “I understand you’re in a bit of a sticky situation,” he says. He glances between Tasha and me, waiting for one of us to speak.

Tiny tears slip out of Natasha’s brown eyes, carrying eyeliner with them down her cheeks. “I noticed that Ben’s laptop was open one day when I stayed at his house,” she admits. “He left it logged in to his online banking account so I transferred some money into mine.”

“How much?” Dean asks.

“It was just a few thousand the first time,” Natasha says.

“The first time?”

“He never noticed. Two weeks went by and he never said anything so I transferred some more. After that I transferred money quite a few times. It was so much faster than waiting for him to give us things.”

A flash of anger appears on Adler’s face.  “Accepting gifts is perfectly legal,” she says. “Out-right stealing is not. This is exactly why we wait for the targets to give things to us. It would be incredibly easy for me to just embezzle from the bank but I don’t because then there’s something to sue over. ”

“Ben is claiming you stole over a hundred thousand dollars from him,” Dean says. “He hired me to represent his case.”

“You’re his lawyer?” Tasha asks.

“Adler, why would you bring him in here?” I hiss. “Did you know he’s working for them?

“I’m aware of that, Ellie,” Adler replies. “I asked Dean to take Mr. Dekker’s case.” Natasha and I both stare at her, stunned. For the most gut-wrenching moments of my life, I think Adler has betrayed us. Then she continues. “Dean will insure that Ben and Mr. Dekker do not win their case. He can do that more effectively acting as their lawyer than he could acting as ours.”

“You do have a fairly solid case stacked against you,” Dean says. “At this point your best two options are to strike a plea bargain or convince the jury that the money was a gift. Ben seemed a little too focused on the righteous judgement of the law to settle for money as a plea bargain. He doesn’t simply want his hard earned cash back in the bank. He wants both of you punished for taking it.”

“I never stole anything,” I tell Dean.

“But where your fingerprints on the keyboard?”

“Maye,” I stammer. “I do check reservations on his laptop.”

“Then you can see how Mr. Dekker came across your fingerprints on the keys when he started investigating the disappearing money.”

“There has to be another way out of this,” I say, looking to Dean and Adler.

“I can erase the records at the bank,” Adler says. “I hate to do that but it’s necessary just this once. That won’t take care of the copies that this P.I. has though. His evidence will need to be dealt with separately.”

“I can’t condone any of this,” Dean says. “But off the record, Adler’s plan does give you the best chances of spending your days outside of a prison. That is as long as no one gets caught.”

“Caught doing what?” Natasha asks

Dean ignores her question “If you ladies will excuse me, I need to get back to my practice,” he says. The door slamming behind him reminds me of a jail cell door closing.

“Get caught doing what?” Tasha repeats

Adler finishes the last sip of her martini and stirs the olives around her empty glass. “Ellie, Natasha. You are going to pay Mr. Dekker’s office a visit afterhours. Don’t raise suspicion but make sure all of the evidence he has against you is gone.”

That night, Natasha and I locate Dekker’s office on the east side of Palo Alto. Taking Adler’s advice, we’ve dressed in dark toned regular street clothes. There is nothing more suspicious than wearing all black at night. Natasha carries a massive designer bag over her shoulder. Ironically, it was a gift from Ben.

All glass double doors lead into Dekker’s office. Tasha hands me a sledgehammer from her bag. A large spider web crack spreads across the door when the hammer hits it. I cross my fingers, hoping that Dekker is too cheap to have an alarm. Silence. I take several more rapid swings. Soon there is a gaping hole where the door used to be.

We step inside. My ballet flats slip silently across the hardwood floor. Tasha sets about shredding every document she can find while I unplug all of the computers. My hands are shaking so violently that I can barely grip the computer chords. Finally, the last computer has no electricity running to it.

Tasha pulls two large vials of a chemical solution out of her bag and hands one to me. A foul smell jumps out when I unscrew the lid. We glance at each other in silence. I step up to a computer tentatively and pour the liquid across it. After a moment, it begins to sizzle. Holes appear on surface of the computer as the chemicals melt into it. Ben and Dekker’s chance of putting Natasha and I in prison melts with the computers.

The first shards of daylight are just seeping through the sky scrapers as Natasha and I walk home. We pass the rows of bakeries and coffee shops that are just opening up, hoping to draw in early bird customers. It’s easy to sell me on coffee at any time of day but an entire night of criminal activity has made me especially susceptible.

I’m finally unable to resist when I see a sign offering free refills before 7 a.m. I grab Tasha’s arm, dragging her inside. Today’s newspaper already sits on the counter. I give the barista my order, smiling with the knowledge that none of the headlines are about me.

Author’s note: I got to write about a central character who is unlike me in every way in this story. It was a stretch for me but exploring the girls’ characters has been an adventure.

New People

The People I live with now are no longer

 The people I would’ve lived with back then.

False reputation has become stronger,

The ability to fit in is now just a trend.

Tribal headdresses were earned, not given,

Peace pipes were for peace, not a brief high.

Horses, like useful tools, were ridden,

There were no words for goodbye, only “hi.”

Genocide or evolution is for us to decide.

Embrace the newly found culture,

Only we can decide whether we ride or die.

Reinforce our new ways or live as vultures.

To my surprise, I lived my whole life as a vulture in disguise,

With newly found eyes, I now see a new prize.

So This Is Home

So this is home,

Where the sounds of angry voices echo through the walls.

They fill her head again till she can’t take it anymore.

The voices getting louder and angrier.

They are yelling at each other.

She can hear a high-pitched voice and a deeper voice.

The girl cracks, screams “stop!”

The voices are quiet and the only sounds left behind are the slam of the front door,

And footsteps leading up the stairs to the girl’s room.

So this is home.

The Green Flash

The season only comes once a year,

Yet the Green Flash is always clear.

Racquets drop, and tempers fly,

All while the Green Flash passes by.

Golden lights over Washoe Park,

Some nights the flash would make its mark,

Faults are called, and lines are drawn,

Nets come down at the break of dawn.

Blood erupts as strings meet flesh,

The Green Flash falls in a mountain of mesh,

The match was enough to get me in,

The best of the best was set to begin.

I channel the greatness of Agassi and McEnroe,

I couldn’t be “just that Average Joe.”

The colorful glimmer of the Polson sky,

Had a Flathead glare as the Green Flash went by.

I could feel my dreams come to a close,

With defeat comes heartbreak, that’s how it goes.

One final sight I see of the Green Flash,

It all came to die in the Smelter City ash.

His Father Controls Him

His Father controls him.

Expecting a perfect athlete,

Forcing him into sports he doesn’t enjoy.

When he says he doesn’t want to go to practice,

His father gets angry.

The mom tries to help.

Then dad starts to yell.

He is only a boy.

He is supposed to find what he likes on his own,

Not to be forced into it.

Whether it be sports or not.

But, he doesn’t want to make his father angry,

Mother can’t take this anymore,

They leave.

If only dad could see what he was doing to them,

They would all be family.

Holocaust Museum

Do not visit the Holocaust museum on vacation.  I hope none of you hearing this are misunderstanding me.  I think every man, woman, and child on this planet should see it, but don’t do it on vacation.

When you walk into the Holocaust museum as a 17 year old kid, you are expecting the same story you have heard your entire academic career—the Holocaust was bad.  Millions died.  I remember thinking this was going to be a great day.  I was in DC with my buddies, there was only one chaperone, and I had money in my pocket.  Wrong.  We walked in as a group of ten, splitting into our own factions.  Luke, Jerrad (my best friends), Austin (my girlfriend), and I started through the museum.  Before we reached the first exhibit, I looked over my shoulder and was overcome with excitement.

“Holy shit, that’s Ben Stein!” I whispered to Luke.  “We gotta get a pic.”  Our group nervously inched towards him and asked for a picture.  He said Ok with a solemn look on his face.  As we lined up for the picture, everyone but Mr. Stein was giggling, with the occasional “Beuhler…Beuhler…” being playfully spoken.  Regrettable.  The smiles would soon be gone, replaced with tears, frowns, and silence.

It has been so long now, that I cannot remember the order of the exhibits or exactly how many we saw, but the overall picture of the day has not left my mind, nor will it.  I do remember, though, the first thing we saw was a short Nazi propaganda film, setting the tone for what was about to happen.  I came out of the small theater with no change.  Yeah, Hitler was a dickhead.  I know that.  As we moved through the museum, my demeanor worsened with every exhibit.  I remember standing in a replica railcar used to transport Jews to camps.  For effect, the museum operator put as many people on as possible.  It was nauseating.  I was crammed in with a bunch of strangers, everyone touching and breathing.  I had to get out.

“This is how Jewish people were shipped,” the guide said.  “Like cattle.  Most of the time, the prisoners hadn’t bathed in weeks and were given scraps of clothing.”  I felt like puking.  How could a person ride like this for any amount of time?  After that, we walked by a recreation of the gas chambers, disguised as showers.  The guide explained that, to a prisoner, a shower was the last shred of humanity they held onto, so must jumped at the opportunity.  Once inside, the doors were locked and all were executed.  I started to feel angry.  I could not fathom how this could ever happen.  Anger turned to heartbreak as we went through the children’s section.  It was dedicated to the children of the Holocaust.  It showed pictures of children being ripped from their parents’ arms and shared the stories of children in the Holocaust.  That was the first time I cried in public during adolescence.  I did not feel it coming; it just started.  I wasn’t sobbing, mind you, but a steady flow of tears ran down my face.

While touring through this museum of hell, a common theme arose—this could never happen today.  No one will ever go through this again.  Wrong.  The final exhibit was titled “Genocide in the World Today,” or something like that.  It had two or three rooms dedicated solely to genocide happening now.  There were five or six instances, but the only one I recall is in the Sudan, due to media coverage.

“Jesus Christ,” I said to Luke as we were walking out, “that was heavy.”  He only nodded.  Our group gathered back together and everyone was in the same state—exhausted, disgusted, and, above all, sad.  We headed for the door and a big, framed picture caught my eye.  I walked over to it to look closer.  It was a memorial to a security guard who worked there.  He was shot while on duty at the Holocaust museum.  It mentioned his wife and young children.  Who the hell brings a gun here?!  One last gut punch on my way out the door.