The Lights Are Going Out

Alone on the dusty porch, the woman lightly rocks herself back and forth in her creaking chair, eyes fixated on the city lights in the valley beyond, lights competing against the spray of diamonds in the inky sky. Her hair is a brittle white, her brown eyes dim and sunken into a bony face. Layers of knitted blankets guard her from the chill of night. Her breathing is calm this evening; there is no noise on the plateau but the creak of her gentle rocking. The moon above makes silhouette spears of the garden to her right. To her left, the hunting shed slumps with neglect.

 

It is a perfect evening.

 

The woman’s eyes do not shy away from the radiant city. The lights remind her of another city, in another time. Eastern Europe, when the world bled and buckled under the strain of war. She remembers the bright lights of the facility where she brought the children of nearby villages for purification. She remembers the lights of the cities below her plane when she fled, the sporadic orange plumes of explosions marking the departure of more souls, the extinguishing of more of civilization’s luminance.

 

She still recognizes her past, but her present is a mystery.

 

She does not know this foreign land or how she came to be here. She does not know the beautiful young woman who tends to her from dawn until dusk, fussing at her clothes, her hair, ensuring that she is not kept hungry or thirsty. The climate is too hot during the day, too dry. Most days find her angry and confused. She finds escape in her Bible, understanding of its passages burned into her at a young age. She finds solace gazing out at the lights on the clear, cool evenings.

 

The lights keep the darkness at bay.

 

The wicked autumn chill creeps beneath the blankets. The woman stirs, and notices the stranger sitting in the chair next to her, rocking patiently, the groaning of the chairs a matching tempo.

 

“It has taken a long time to find you,” the stranger says. His voice is the slight rustling of sugarcane in a breeze, the warning hiss of a serpent just before striking.

 

The woman hears the words, but they are muffled in her ears. She cannot tell if the stranger is speaking her language, the language of this land, or all languages at once. But she understands. Her knobby hands grip the handles of her chair tightly.

 

“I looked for you at Bełżec,” the stranger continues casually, “but you weren’t there. I looked for you, later, at Nuremberg—”

 

“Geh weg!” the woman snaps.

 

The stranger ceases to rock. He is slender and tall, dressed in a dark suit and top hat, dressed in shadows. His leather shoes are immaculate. He has a cane the color of moonlight, its form a shaft of eerie light in the blackness of the night. He taps it gently against the dry boards of the porch.

 

The woman refuses to look at the stranger. She keeps her focus ahead, on the radiant city and all of the life flowing within it. As a little girl, she was told many stories about this stranger, stories that left her afraid to sleep at night. She has met him many times throughout her life, she is sure, there is something vaguely familiar about the face, the voice, but she can’t remember his name.

 

“Now that I have found you, it is time for us to depart,” the stranger says.

 

“Geh weg!” the woman barks again.

 

There is a shuffling inside the house. A lamp is lit. Footsteps approach.

 

“Mamá?” a younger voice calls out, full of concern.

 

The old woman sighs, closing her eyes to suppress her irritation.

 

A young woman steps out onto the porch, wearing only a white nightdress. She hugs herself to ward off the cold. Her mocha skin and raven locks stand in stark contrast to the pale woman; the only shared feature are their eyes, wide and brown.

 

“Con quién estás hablando?” the young woman asks, her words warm and soft.

 

The woman hates the familiarity with which this girl addresses her. She is the real stranger, the warden of this prison in the mountains. She is not her daughter.

 

The girl cannot see nor hear the stranger sitting before her, but the stranger answers her query anyways.

 

“I have been called by many names. Nergal, Batara Kala, Yama, Mictlantecuhtli, Ogbunabali, Thanatos, Arawn, Baron Samedi. Your people refer to me as—”

 

“Santa Muerta,” the old woman mutters. Saint Death.

 

The stranger inclines his head and tips his hat, though still unseen by the young woman. “I would have come as a woman, but you have always found this form most pleasing in your mind’s eye.”

 

“Mamá? Mamá?” the young woman repeats, seeking answers.

 

The stranger stands up, leaning on his glowing cane and buttoning his suit jacket with his free hand.

 

“Come,” he says to the old woman. “I have business elsewhere tonight.”

 

The old woman shakes her head vigorously.

 

“Come,” the stranger says, his tone betraying a hint of sharpness. “You are too fragile, too exhausted to continue eluding me. Already, you have lived much longer than the rest of the world would have permitted, had Mossad captured you in 1960.” He reaches out his hand and grasps the elderly woman’s bony shoulder.

 

Suddenly, a window opens within the woman’s mind. The fog rolls back, and she sees her husband, Raúl, dead now for three years. She sees back further, narrowly avoiding the Israeli operatives who caught Eichmann in Buenos Aires, the voyage from Genoa to South America, arranged by Bishop Hudal, the perilous flight from the Red Army, the mounds of children burning each night in the facility, the lights of their eyes stolen by death. The same death has caught up to her.

 

She rocks back and forth, agitated, trying to struggle free from the stranger’s grip.

 

“Fool,” the stranger says, striking her across the face with his cane. “Do not think you can fight me.” The woman sags back in the chair, clutching her bruised face. “You are born. You die. The length of time separating those two points is determined by chance, nothing more. All things must end with me. Now, come.” He holds out his hand.

 

The old woman scowls at the stranger and sits up. She turns to the young woman, who is kneeling beside her, sobbing. She remembers now, she remembers everything. “María,” she whispers. A single tear slides down her cheek, a small mark of acknowledgment for all the secrets withheld, the frailty of the human mind, and the judgement to come.

 

The old woman pushes out of her chair, the blankets sinking to her feet. Still glaring at the stranger, she reaches out to his offered hand. “Hoffnung und Reich,” she spits, defiant, and clasps the stranger’s gloved hand.

 

She crumples back into the chair and lays still. The chair rocks three times before slowly freezing. The young woman pulls her hair and wails to the darkling sky. The old woman’s eyes rest on the stars, millions of points of light in the dark, cold nothingness of space. A spark is held within her eyes for a moment, but as the seconds tick by, the spark withers and fades. Her eyes grow dark.

 

Everything dies.

 

The lights are going out.

Emotion

She must have been the fastest runner I’d ever seen. A glimpse of green flashed from her hand as she fled down the tight alleyway. Dark hair and a girlish figure were all I could remember as the driver pulled the squad car over to the side, behind the sirens of the officers already on the scene. “Usually quiet this time of night,” my partner said from the driver’s seat. He and I go out of our cars, drawn and ready, even though the suspect was already long gone. Two officers were already following her.

The lieutenant, a tall, lean, authoritative woman, gave us fresh orders. “We’re stationed on the other side,” she explained. Most likely she’ll be trapped, but she may come back this way. As she explained, she pulled out a holographic map, showing the locations of both the officers and the suspect. Somehow, using odd and awkward back alleys, she avoided without actually being able to escape. “When the next pair get here, I’ll send both of you in.” She saw the next squad car coming in the corner of her eye: she was famed for her peripheral vision in our department. “In fact, they’re here. We’ll stay here in case she doubles back. Go. Be careful.”

My partner, Stilkes, led the way, a dark red orb hovering in between two hands, one under and one above, with the orb floating directly between them. I had my orb drawn as well, a smaller blue orb.

We followed her down the alleyway, stopping at a cross section. “I’m sure she went that way,” he said, and turned the corner. Right before my eyes, I saw Stilkes fly ten feet in the air from a yellow-green blast. I turned and fired a blue bolt at the suspect, but she was gone again. I turned back to Stilkes. Stilkes stood up and leaned against the wall. “I’ll be fine,” he said, “Go after her. Get that bitch.”

I followed down one alleyway, and another, knowing she could appear at any second. I came sprinting around another corner and, sure enough, she was there. She was jumping up, trying to reach a window ledge just out of her reach. “Halt!” I yelled, orb drawn. She stopped and looked, terrified, gaunt, like a wild animal. “Don’t try it! I’ll have no choice but to kill you.” She quickly considered her options, her eyes jumping here to there, terrified. She could have made a desperate move, a last chance, possibly even overtake me and have another chance for escape. She didn’t tremble.

But, alas, she was beaten. Her head drooped with defeat, and she sank to her knees. Still cautious, I approached, not allowing my guard to drop. She was thin, too thin, like a feral animal that had been forced to the outskirts of society.

“According to the law of Social Order,” I stated, “I am legally obligated to take your orb from you. May you have mercy on your soul.” Carefully, slowly, I reached into her pocket, pulling out her orb from her pocket. The green color that had once been so prominent was gone, and in its place was dull yellow. It was the first time in my career that I actually had to confiscate an orb: it was rare in our district. As the orb separated farther from its owner, the color became dull, then, slowly, turned clear, and a look of peace overcame the suspect, and the girl began to look pale, white even, and then light gray. Particles drifted with the turning of her skin and she began to crumble, leaning to one side, and, finally, she slumped over into a pile of gray dust. The once vibrant orb was completely clear and could no longer float, a lifeless crystal ball in my hand.

 

 

A white t-shirt showing her belly ring barely concealed her breasts. It took a lot of effort not to stare at them, or the form of her hips in jeans, as she sat to one side, one arm holding her up and the other resting on the curves of her body. We were both on a blanket, overlooking the small town, and the stars were just about to emerge. “And then I told him to go home, you ruined one birthday cake already.”

She laughed, her whole body heaving. A flip of her dark hair revealed her pouty lips, a few freckles, and eyes, sensual eyes, that seemed to dared me, complete with eyeliner, lipstick, and makeup just for me. Was her laugh a little forced? Perhaps, but that only meant that she was trying, too, that she wanted in my pants just as badly. I moved a little closer.

“So you’ve never been up here before?”

She smiled, looking at me. “No, never. I love the view. And the stars. Do you know any constellations?”

I kept my smile up, even though I knew what was coming. “Not a darn thing. Could you teach me?”

“Of course,” she said, almost shyly. “That one’s…” I heard names and watched her pointing, feigning interest for a while, but then I knew my next move. Right in the middle of her sentence, I moved close. She sensed it, but kept going. She’s waiting. Mid-word, I landed a kiss right on her lips.

It was an awkward angle at first, but I made it work. As we made out, she instinctively put her hand up to my face. I’m not much for having my face touched by people I don’t know, but I let it slip this time, allowing my hand to follow the side of her body, skin against skin, starting at her extra rib and down to her waist, finally holding her waist with one hand and holding myself up with the other. Since her eyes were closed, I stole a peek at her orb, lying next to her. Vibrant pink. She thinks this is love. Fine by me. I grinned: I was getting lucky tonight.

A pair of headlights suddenly blinded both of us, flooding us and our immediate surroundings with light. I tried to cover my eyes and see what was happening; both were in vain until a car door opened and slammed. The lights stayed on. “Margerie, come with me.”

“Dad?” She exclaimed, standing. “Dad, I…”

“Not a word,” he said. “Car. Now.” Her head bent down. “Joey’s a nice guy.”

“Joey’s a nice guy, huh? Notice the color of his orb?” She said nothing. “Didn’t think so. Get in the car.” She moved to obey.

“And you, young man,” he said, challenging me. “I know you’re trying to drain color out of her orb. And I know what else you’re up to. I was your age, once. But you’re not even old enough to support yourself. Leave on your own, youngster. Be glad that’s all you get for now.” With that, he left, and darkness returned.

Well, my night was ruined. I picked up my blanket, floundering in the dark until I realized I could use my phone as a light. Too bad she’s under his thumb. Maybe when she’s older. I packed up, started the car, turned on my headlights, and headed home.

 

 

“Tonight on World Broadcast Network, home to the world’s most trustworthy news.”

“Hey Chad,” I yelled to the upper floor. “Live Programming’s on.” Although much of regular television had all but died out, Chad always appreciated live newsfeed, as though it was more real. I didn’t have much interest, but since Chad was going to change the channel anyway, I left it on. “Crime has statistically skyrocketed in the past six months, a drastic change since the Social Adjustment Measures were enacted. Authorities say this is due to more criminals being caught, while critics argue that these measures aren’t tough enough, citing the need for capital punishment for more offenses. One important aspect of the new Measures is that Authorities have granted the right to Police Officers to confiscate orbs from dangerous criminals immediately on the scene. Authorities believe this will eluviate the public outcry for justice and…”

Click. “How can you do this to me, Marvin? After all we’ve been through?”

“It’s not you, baby, it’s me.”

When my roommate finally came down the stairs, a stern-faced carrot top, he gave me the look. “You were taking forever,” I replied. Click. A very old movie appeared on the screen, black and white, with a giant lizard monster walking across a miniature city.

He joined me on the couch. “Could you at least recount what they talked about?”

“Confiscating more orbs. Oh, and crime is skyrocketing as well.”

He sighed. “Harsher punishments mean more criminals.”

“Or maybe they’re doing their jobs.” Click.

“Part of the system, man.” He pulled out his orb. “All about controlling these. They control our orbs, they control our lives.” Click.

“I’m not being controlled by the Authorities.” Click.

“Whatever. At least decide on a channel you want to watch.” Click.

 

 

He walked into the office, seemingly amazed with everything in it. It was a large room, collected replicas of antiques made to look exactly like their real counterparts. There was an Ivory chess set on the counter: the Boss didn’t know how to actually play the game. No one is brave enough to point that out, though. The visitor, a short, wiry man with thin, blonde hair and a second-hand suit, eyed the room with quick, nervous eyes and then rested them on the Boss. The Boss (god, I hate using that pretentious name) was a thick, bulging man with a charm that took attention off his quick temper. I sat next to him on the uncomfortable couch, striking an even more uncomfortable sensual pose that drew the visitor’s attention every so often, though he tried to hide it. I wore a dress with the silly opening in the leg. To me, that takes away the whole point of a dress, but it wasn’t my idea, I just get paid to look pretty (And yes, I literally get paid to look pretty. Nothing more, thank god). As much as I look like it, I’m not much of a girly girl. In fact, I’m not much for the cliché scene the Boss creates anyway. Cross-legged, I waited patiently for moron #1 to initiate contact with moron #2.

“Charlie Briggs,” the Boss said. “Have a seat.” Charlie saw a chair in-between two men in dark suits, the lackeys, and as uninviting as it looked, Charlie took a seat.

“They call me the Boss. I’ve heard good things, Charlie. So let me give it to you straight. You have talents that I could very well use, and I have something that you need. You follow, Charlie?”

With a gulp, he responded with a barely audible “yes Boss” and a nod.

“Very good. Now quite a few people are in the business of orbs. Color, you get me? And many of them refuse to work with me. I need someone to help me out, kid. Someone who can tell me what the other big boys are doing. And I would pay handsomely for it. So, what do you think?”

Charlie struggled to get his answer out. “We-Well, yes, I would s-s-sure like that.”

The Boss nodded. “Good. This is the big league, kid. And the big league kids get big rewards. Marcie, bring in the Machine, please.” He looked to me, acknowledging me for the first time that day.

I got up to leave, and when I came back, I was rolling out the Machine, a great big box of metal with cables, hoisted on a tall trolley. The breeze in the slit dress annoyed me as I sarcastically waved my hand to the Machine. Fortunately, no one here is smart enough to catch onto my sarcasm; all they see is a nice ass and long legs. Though that can be quite the advantage, sometimes. I sat back down near the Boss. “This Machine,” the Boss explained, “has color from orbs all over the world. The last shipment was from Africa. Warlords would do anything to support their civil wars. Anything with their child soldiers who aren’t good at soldiering.” He took a cable and pulled out his orb, a sickly green. He connected the cable and different colors flooded in, blue and red and white, all swirling together until they morphed into the same sickly green, only more dense than before. “Color is power, my friend. By helping me, you help yourself.” The Boss handed over the cable. “Try it. It feels good. Powerful.”

Charlie took out his own orb, a hysteric, bright purple at first, but as he gained color, the swirls started to turn to a distrustfully dark, ruddy orange. The Boss smiled. “You see? The next shipment isn’t quite as good. The poor and desperate usually pay up the best. This time it’s from a bunch of politicians. They need extra finances here and there, and they pay well. Very well. Eventually, my plan is to own the whole market on color. A monopoly, so to speak. You know why, Charlie?”

Charlie shook his head. “No, sir.”

The Boss grinned. “Because whoever can manipulate color can manipulate the world.”

 

 

My mom collected clear orbs every day. A short, dark, stocky woman who kept to herself, she always wore a heavy, oversized coat with large pockets, though, as I always admired, she was always able to look cute in it. She would stop by the hospital first, visit with some of the nurses and doctors if they had a moment to spare, and take a crate out to the van. Next was the Old Folk’s Home, which she always corrects with “Nursery”. She would go around town, collecting orbs, until she ended up at the local Police Station. Usually she wouldn’t let me come in, but this time I begged her. I was fourteen already. If that’s not old enough, how old do I have to be?

When I asked her for the hundredth time (though it had been a long time since last time I bothered to ask) she looked at me for a moment, weighed it, and nodded, turning to pick up an empty crate. “Finally!” I said, and then a hasty “thank you” before we got in the door.

Two men were in a conversation, and then one left, leaving an older man, gray hair, barrel chest, and a handlebar mustache, who was adjusting a worn-out ball cap. “Just as I was on my way out,” he said, beaming. “Caught me before I left, as usual.”

“How is it this time around, Randy?” My mom replied, eyeing the crate full of orbs on one of the counters.

The man caught on and switched her the full crate for an empty one. “More cocksuckers in jail this time. Too many lawbreakers. But a’least I’ve taken less orbs this week.”

She looked to me and nodded. “Alex, this is Officer Bill.”

He turned his head down toward me, tipping his hat. “Howdy,” he said. I didn’t respond.

Mom sighed and ignored me. “Taking orbs is nasty business.”

“If that were the worst of the whole fuckin’ thing,” he barked, as though his thoughts were a zit that needed popping. “I’ve dealt with quite a few in my career, I ‘ave. But most o’ those are criminals, black and white. They knew they did wrong and got punished for it. Some o’ these, though, somethin’s off. Their orb color, I mean. A’least a criminal’s looks healthy, rational I mean. Now, more and more turn a sickly yellow before they go. You know what that means? They’re sick, confused. Not knowing what to do. No peace in death.” He looked up, his entire demeanor changing in an instant. “But, somebody in this world’s got to keep the peace,” he added, attempting a cheerful smile. “That’s what we’re here for.”
We finally headed home for the night. I helped mom with the crates and brought them into the workshop. She piled them up with many of the others in a waiting line. I don’t think she ever got to the point where she didn’t have at least one crate piled up, and she worked long hours. As soon as the crates were down, she took the next one in line and examined it, finding a few broken parts where the orb was probably smashed. She took a substance from a tube and started to apply it, filling the holes. While she worked, I could see the orb in her coat pocket, glowing a light blue, but very light, and very dull. This meant she was focused on work, and not much else. Just to have a little interaction before I left her workshop and went to my room, I asked a question. “Mom, you said when I was older, I could ask you about the orbs. Why we have them, I mean.”

She stopped filling the cracks, swiveled in her chair, and, for the first time that day, looked at me. “We’re here to let people have peace. That’s what we do with the orbs, we let them rest. We also keep them from being misused by other people. You’ll know more as you age, but orbs can be manipulated for other people. Other people can give your orb vibrant colors, and other times they can drain it. There are good people in the world that try to help other people maintain good color. There are also bad people in the world who try to take color away from other people, use it for their own, even steal their orbs any color in them. That’s why it’s important to remember to keep your orb safe. You don’t have to be distrustful of everyone, but don’t let the colors control you. They’re easy for others to see and manipulate. Now, I have work to get done, and I’m sure you have homework.”

“Okay,” I said, and turned to leave.

“Alex,” she said. “I love you.” For the first time that day, her orb turned a light pink, with swirls of green, forest green, nurturing green. “I love you too.”

Then she went back to work, her orb turning a dull blue again as she worked on someone else’s former orb.

It Came At Night

It came at night.

The air oozed silence, no passing cars or other people. We were far enough outside of town not only to see stars but to enjoy them with peace as well. Dinner was heavy enough to send me to my rocking chair, the one that lures me to sleep, overlooking the Sunrise Valley of green brush and golden grass; the view always threatens to bring comfortable sleep. My eyelids started to cover my eyes by a will of their own, and as I was filled with my last conscious thoughts, I could see only a vision of the stairs leading up to the porch, only slightly crooked, old, leading out into the darkness beyond the light. Sleep came. I closed my eyes.

I hear a howling, snapping, clanking of wind chimes, louder and louder, horrific as nails, chalkboard nails, chiming frozen melodies, compressing my head. The chimes stop. Silence comes: brief silence. I open my eyes. The lights are off, and I see only dimly. Darkness is prevalent. Then I see a shadow, like a man or an ape, not yet visible. Its shoulders were hunched, crooked, one side faintly rising and falling with each step. I began to see its hands, long and spindly, casting their own shadows over the porch like the limbs of trees. Its head bent over until it reached the first step, then arched up towards me. On top of its uneven shoulders was a crooked skull of an antlered buck, glowing dully white, even in the dark of night, its empty eye sockets sucking the air from my lungs. I watched, petrified, as its antlers waved, clopping step after step, creaking and moaning, the specter advancing. Its human ribs were inhumanly bent inward, and the spine was bent to accommodate the unnatural head. The bones softly jangled as it reached the top step, hooves on human legs, echoing, reverberating through empty air. One long arm half curled under the body, half drooping, lifeless, vines growing through the skeleton, a Black-Eyed Susan blooming on its shoulder. It cocked its head at me, knowingly, and raised its other arm, arm and finger bones stretching toward me, palm open, outstretched to grab me.

“Jesus, Marty!” Marge came bustling out of the screen door. “Are you alright?”

As though awakened from a trance, one last shiver traversed through my spine as I realized Marge and I were the only ones on the porch. “My God, you were screaming again.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Let’s get you inside, I should have known better than to leave you to sleep in that damn rocking chair.”

“It helps me sleep.”

Marge, a large woman with high cheekbones and narrow eyes, turned back into the doorway. “It helps give me a heart attack,” she said over her shoulder. She wanted to say, ‘stay away from that rocking chair,’ but truth be told, she was as afraid of it as I was.

 

 

“Alright, Jean, pull me out,” I said, thinking the job was done. Lifting my head slightly from under the sink in an attempt to see my daughter, a tweak in my back tightened as though I hadn’t stretched it for years. I could see just enough of a younger version of my wife’s features in my daughter, high cheekbones, narrow eyes, but her body more closely resembled mine, narrow features, as well as other features I try to ignore as she gets older. I could also see the smartphone she texted on, the texts keeping her focus.

“Jean?”

She sat bolt upright. “Sorry!” she said as she quickly pulled on the flat scooter underneath me in an instant to pull me out. The problem with such a maneuver, however, was that my head was still up, and the pipe was of solid material.

A tonk sound echoed in my head. “Jesus,” I said as my daughter pulled me all the way out.

“Shit!”

“English,” I muttered, as my way of saying ‘watch your language.’ “Help me up.”

This time, she was very careful, slowly pulling me to my feet. My back tightened but not enough to make me squeal. Her hand covered my forehead. I swatted it away, muttering. Jean said no more.

I went out to my chair on the porch. As I sat down to relax, I finally felt a sharp pain in my forehead. Involuntarily, my hand reached up to touch the spot, which hurt more, at which point I cringed and moved my hand away. Voluntarily, I looked at my palm. Blood. It seeped down my forefinger, leaving a crimson trail, to pool in the cracks of my hand. There seemed to be an excessive amount for a small bump, more-than-droplets crisscrossing to heed the call of gravity, eventually dripping over the side and onto the porch. Red dripped, dripped, until it fell one last time, cascading, blending with a small stream underneath, crimson twisting and bending, mixing, swirling until the swirls lost color. I stood on the bank, moonlit, reeds blowing in the wind, trees narrowing my view, tall grass, tall trees. Gurgling from the stream started to rise, faster, louder, but became subtler to my ears, quieter and quieter, jarring against rocks. In its place came footsteps, crackling. I looked. On the other side was a figure, covered in a black robe, walking slowly through the dry bank reeds. As it stalked, the only skin that could be seen was a hand, pale white, lifting up from the robe. The other hand appeared, ghostlike, hovering over an open palm, fingers, fingertips grasping, pulling a few petals straight from the palm I could no longer see and ejecting them, a flowing hand from the wrist to the tips, leaving a shower of petals to float, slowly, down to the water and be carried by the stream. Mesmerizing. I took a step closer, and another, trying to peer into her hand. I leaned over. As her hand went down to take another handful, in her open palm, was red, a red, beating heart, fleshy, blood pouring over the side. Her hand grasped again. Skin, heart skin, stretched, stretched farther, separating, reshaping, become petals in her hand. Plop. My heart jumped. I looked down; my foot was in the water. I looked up. The figure had turned towards me, a shadowy figure of a white face, a specter, taught skin; it opened its mouth, and a long, painful, piercing sound came out, a harrowing scream.

 

The next day, I dropped my pen by the door of my daughter’s bedroom, and as I picked it up, I heard voices. I leaned closer to the door. I could just hear “Marty” and “nightmares.”

So, by accident or by purpose, I overheard their conversation about me:

“You know your father freaks out from time to time.”

“He wasn’t even asleep!”

“It’s not his fault.”

“I’m not saying it is!”

“You have to understand…”

“You’re not even listening to me!” Jean screamed. A pause. “Dad needs help. Serious help. Like a psychiatrist or something.”

“Good heavens, Jean.”

“I’m serious.”

“It’s not that serious.”

“Not that serious? Are you fucking insane?”

I straightened up, pen in hand. All I could hear from then on was too much. The strain was too much. It was time to end this suffering, for my family, and for me.

I went to my rocking chair again, same old heavy, color-drained seat cushion on top. I never noticed it in so much detail before: it used to be just my rocking chair. Like never before, it terrified me: the rocking chair was my portal.

The wood groaned under my weight as I waited for the dreams.

 

Hours seemed to drain by; now that I wanted it to come, it took its sweet time. Light slowly faded. My wife didn’t come out to see what I was doing, as she is used to my outbursts. My daughter came out, but, seeing the expression on my face, was speechless. She also let me be, though certainly not from apathy. After a while, the day began to wear away, and darkness took the place of light.

Sure enough, it came for me.

It appeared on the porch steps ahead of me, its head cocked. I couldn’t open my mouth to speak, but it already knew my question: it reached out its hand and closed each finger, one at a time, starting with the smallest on the end, in a gesture I understood. I stood up and followed the creature.

Its gait was odd, but it walked with purpose. I followed behind, walking around the brush and attempting to keep from tripping in the darkness. My eyes began to adjust, and I could see the creatures around me: the bright eyes of whitetail deer, the cautious walk of a feral housecat, the swoop of an owl. It wasn’t long before the creature found the stump, the halfway point, a landmark to find what I had hidden.

The creature never once turned to make sure I followed, though now and then it would look around as though its memory was as corrupted as its body. I felt an air of familiarity toward the creature, its hideous demeanor notwithstanding. Finally, it stopped, stooping over a place in the ground with a weather-worn shovel stuck in the mound. I knew.

I took the shovel in hand and started to dig. The creature, ominously, crouched next to me as I lifted the first, second, third shovel-fills of dirt. A sliver pricked my hand, piercing, a splinter caught in my palm. I heaved ten, twenty, thirty times and fell into a rhythm. I worked as though a slave, my fate sealed beforehand, working toward my own destruction, the ruin of man. As I sank lower, the creature stood above me, head cocked, staring, unmoving, lifeless. Then, as though choreographed, planned, or scripted, I bent down and moved the dirt with my hands, my fingers, trembling fingers, dirt in my nails. Eventually, I touched it: cautiously, carefully, my hands pulled away small layers, roots, pebbles, flakes, making an outline, starting at first in a semi-circle, more semi-circles, whole circles, liberating pits, small pits, working down, finding lines and curves and patterns and bones, more bones, finally revealing the skeleton of the man I shot and killed one year before.

 

One year before was the third day of hunting season, and I took a couple days off from work to celebrate it. I often went alone, since my daughter never took up interest and my wife annoys me (admittedly because she is a better shot than me). I went alone, my packing my rifle and walking out from the house before the sun had risen. I took no flashlight, as I would allow my eyes to adapt to the darkness, and I took no lunch, since I tend to find a deer before lunchtime even comes around. I followed the same old trail my grandfather used to use, and then my father and uncles, and now it was only me, alone, wandering deeper into the area I thought of as my property, even though there is more land than a man can really control.

I did not stop until evening. I was a hungry, though only a little, but I was very thirsty. I followed the trail home, my stomach leading the way, reminding me that supper would be on the table. My pride was a little hurt, since it was the first time in years I did not find a decent buck by the third day. It had not been a good day.

My eyes followed the trail lazily up a hill, my feet practically dragging. Then, from some primal instinct luring my gaze upward, I finally saw it. Standing on the top of the hill was a four-point buck, staring, immobile. It certainly wouldn’t be the best rack I’ve collected, but at this point, I wanted what I could get. I pulled my rifle from off my back and put the creature in my sight. Adrenaline kicked in, helping me aim. The buck looked as though it was just about to bolt. With the speed of molasses, I pulled the trigger. Crack. I must have gotten excited and missed, but the buck didn’t move. I thought I was lucky. Crack. The buck jumped and bounced away, but my adrenaline began to cease. I must have hit him that time. I slung my rifle and made my way to the top.

There was blood, alright. Enough to follow him by. I stopped for a good half-an-hour, trying to see through the dense trees, one of the few places with anything taller than me growing on the whole property. After a moment of waiting, I unslung my rifle and followed the blood trail, a little tense from the adrenaline.

After meandering through thick brush, I found the carcass. The deer was dead, probably not long before I had reached it. A feeling of relief flooded over me. A clean kill. I started to look at the kill I had made, one of many. It was something I was used to. Just then, a chill vibrated on the back of my neck. Something else was here. I looked up. There was a figure, lifeless, in a small clearing fifty yards away. Everything told me not to go up to it, but my body disobeyed me. I walked toward it.

On the ground was a forty-to-fifty year old man with a speckled gray and brown beard. He wore all camo, no ‘hunter’s orange’ or pack. He lay sprawled against the ground, his eyes staring upward. His throat was covered in red, one hand still over his wound. Though I couldn’t know this, it seemed that he had choked to death on his own blood. He wasn’t supposed to be on the property, but here he was. After seeing his body, I turned back toward the buck, pulling my knife out, prepared to go through the tribal motions of gutting and quartering, ready to…

What was I doing? A man lay dead just behind me. I couldn’t turn to see the man again, the blood still pouring from the wound onto the ground. Something my grandfather had told me came back to me: “Never shoot over a hill, son. You never know where that bullet might go.” I saw the buck again, with new eyes: blood poured from his chest, still pouring, a fresh kill, fresh death, red, blood covered the dirt, soaked up the red blood, red, still bleeding, his hand on his red, red, on his neck, red, red, red…

I couldn’t remember the next part. It was dark, very dark, and there was a hole where the man’s body was. A compactable shovel was in my hand, one I always bring with me. Both of the bodies had gone. I stood and, following the old trail, made my way home.

I stepped up onto the front porch, shovel in hand. The lights in the house were on, and a figure moved back and forth. My tense feet struck the steps with a heavy thump, thump, thump. The wind chimes started acting up, making a ruckus. I heard some commotion from inside the house. Halfway up the steps, the front door opened. My wife took one look at me and screamed, a soul-piercing sound that made me tremble. I froze.

“My god!” she said. “You scared me half to death! You know I was waiting up all night for you…” She didn’t know. A part of me felt relieved. I barely listened to her in my state of mind. “… You’ve never been gone so long. What a heart attack you gave me!”

“I’m sorry, dear,” was all I could mutter.

She gave me an odd look. “Why, you’re all covered in blood. My, men are messy! But at least you get the job done.” She smiled. “I suppose you’ll go back for it in the morning, hmm? Big, strong man couldn’t carry it by himself?” She looked at my shoulder. “Honey, where is your rifle?” I gave her a puzzled look. “Oh, you know, your father’s rifle!”

“Oh,” I managed, “I must have put it down somewhere.”

She made a tisk tisk sound with her mouth. “You know what your father would say. ‘If someone dropped that rifle, then someone had better be dead!’ Now come inside, dinner’s cold enough as it is.”

“That’s alright,” I responded a little too quickly. “I’ll have a moment in my chair.”

Her eyebrow raised. “Suit yourself, but I’m going to bed. Finally.” She left.

Once she was gone, I had another feeling, the same feeling I had when I found the dead man. I turned, slowly, against my will, toward my rocking chair. It was occupied by a slouch-backed man with both hands on the end of the arms of the chair, not rocking, not moving. He wore the same camouflage as before, had the same build as before. I looked at his face. Instead of a man’s head, it was an antlered buck, fleshy, lifeless, staring away, its tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth, its teeth showing. A fly buzzed around from out of nowhere, landing at first just above the eyelash, then crawling, purposefully, onto its eye, searching the surface, until the eye twitched, the fly fled, brown eyes pointed, purposefully, directly, at me.

Ghost of Society

Chapter 1

I saw them standing at a distance while they stared at me. At first, they laughed, often throwing insults and vulgar statements at my general direction but after awhile, they stayed clear of me. By they, I mean the peers that I once called friends. This was a group of ignorant, reputation-based people and quite frankly, I was apart of them. You see, I was disowned from this group because I was different. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to play sports or be part of their stupid little gimmicks but instead I was what they would call insane. Before I get into more detail about the events to follow after my current state, I must explain to you how this came to be.

It was my sophomore year in high school when I started to see a ghost. The first thing I did when this odd event happened in my life was to tell my friends. These friends were indeed a bunch of drunken idiots. At first, they laughed and told it was all in my head. I believed them. Then as time progressed, I started to see the apparition more frequently. My friends then thought this was a prank to scare the others or maybe some kind of mockery towards the gothic and the shady kids below us. But after awhile of this so-called prank, to what they said it was, I was labeled as childish. To wrap up my brief summary of things, I was kicked out of my higher status of friends and was labeled under the same social status as the shady kids, you know the kids that held rough lives and were just a tad bit off. Reputation was everything to me while I was in high school. My parents thought that I was going through a phase of paranoia. They took me to the hospital several times and after many visits, I got put on this medication. I don’t even know the name of the drug for the name was too long to remember. I soon stopped and kept the sightings of the ghost to myself. But enough with the backstory on how things came to be. You’re probably wondering about the ghost. The ghost didn’t appear out of nowhere. It didn’t come out of some form of portal or a random gaping hole. In my view, the sight powered by my eyes, appeared normal. I would find this ghost sitting next to a building or a sign. I didn’t think much of it. Since things are on track, I might as well begin my story.

Chapter 2

I was sitting at my lunch table eating a turkey and cheese sandwich I made for my sack lunch at home. Next to me was Elise, a girl most people would consider gothic due to the heavy amount of black she wore to school every day. On the opposite end of the picnic table was Peter, a kid who had family issues and was gloomy; gloomy to an extent that it just looked like he was an emotionless soul sitting in an empty vessel. I sat with these people because I had nowhere else to go. I was an outcast to the jocks, a disgrace to the middle class kids and widely hated by the religious people who sat in groups talking about loving all people. What a load of crap. If that were true, they would’ve accepted me into their group as one of their own. Anyways, to get back to my current situation and as stated before, I was eating lunch with a group of shady characters I soon called friends. Suddenly out of the blue, Elise asked me about the ghost I’ve been seeing. I don’t know why but she had always been asking me questions about it since I joined the group. It was like she had some kind of sick fetish for the supernatural. I sighed deeply and continued to eat my sandwich. She then asked again the same question but only this time she had a higher tone of voice.

“So what is this ghost like?” Elise asked smiling at me and piercing my eyes with that hauntly stare.

“Why do you wish to know?” I said vaguely.

“Because I’m interested on how you can see ghosts. It’s like you’re some kind of ghost whisperer.” I shake my head.

“Just because I can see one ghost doesn’t mean I can speak to them.”

“That may be true but you must have some connection to it. You’d think after awhile, you’d see some kind of pattern.” Elise was right. How could I have missed such an important sign? There has to be a connection to the sudden appearance of the apparition and especially the fact that the ghost only appeared in front of big corporations, abandoned buildings and signs advertised from the big corporations.

“You’re right Elise. How could I have been so distracted with my current state of affairs that I missed a point as simple as this?” Elise’s eyes lit up and her cheeks began to flood with color.

“You think I’m right?” Elise asked with an excited tone.

“That is what I’m saying.”  She exploded with joy and clang to me like a nail to a magnet. Her body was cold… like chilling cold. My neck and spine shivered.

“I’m so glad you believe me!” Then she gave me a peck on the cheek and skipped off. Oh no! The strange, gothic chick kissed me. Great. I see ghosts and now I get affections from the chick always dressed in black. What more can go wrong? Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peter glaring at me. I get another shiver down my spine. His eyes are terrifying! Just the glare alone is enough to make even the most religious person go insane. I get up from the table and leave the room. Peter’s eyes follow me until I am nowhere in his perpetual vision.

It is late afternoon on a Friday. School is already out and I’m wandering the streets once more searching out my ghost friend. Like always, he is sitting in front of a sign with flyers and articles scattered throughout the board. I take one of the articles off the board and read it to myself.

“Vote Jack Mentiroso for Idaho senator. Please give donations to us so we can do more to help once he is elected.” What a load of crap. Who thinks that giving more money to a guy will help with the situation at hand? He’s already got enough money in the state treasury to give each person in North America ten dollars.”

I sit down because my feet are tired of walking. I inhale through my nose then I exhale through my mouth. A voice suddenly appears in my ears. “Now you see.”

I jumped off the wooden street bench. “What the hell was that?!”

“Do you understand why I am here?” I shift my body to the right. Then to the left.

“Who the hell is speaking?!” The ghost then walks out from behind the tree that stood next to the street bench.

“It is I, the thing you seek most,” the ghost says in a formal tone.

“The ghost finally speaks after two months of self-humiliation. Who are you and why have you waited so long to speak to me?”

“So many questions at once. You are indeed a curious one. Why I have spoken, you may ask? I will tell you under one condition. You must figure out who I am.”

“Oh great. You’re such a big help,” I say with a stretched voicing on the word big. “At least give me hint.”

“The ones who know me but do not act are nebulous in their minds. But to the ones who seek me and wish to know who I am, will know my name.”

“Yay riddles. You’re starting to sound like a scene from Lord of the Rings.”

“In time, you’ll know who I am. The real question still remains. Even after you know who I am, what will you do?” Then the ghost vanishes in thin air. Off to the side, a group of three teenagers that go to my school stare at me blankly. One of the girls whispers in the other’s ear.

“It’s the crazy, ghost guy that goes to our school. Hurry before he notices us.”

The whisper was intentionally louder than a normal one for I could hear it perfectly clear. It didn’t hurt my feelings at all. I went home, did whatever homework I had and headed to bed.

The next morning I slept in ’till around eleven. I went outside to feel the nice, cool November breeze. There across the street in a group of bushes was Elise. She sat in the bushes with a pair of binoculars aimed towards my house. Around this time, she noticed that I was shirtless. I quickly realized that as well and rushed inside the house to go get a shirt. Elise then left the bushes and walked across the street.

“Hey, Drew. Are you still around?” she asked while I was peeking out the front window. I realized thought it was foolish to wait because this was the type of girl who would wait until someone came out that door. Well, that someone being me, sadly.

“I’m here,” I said while sighing deeply.

“I know you were talking to the ghost.” My face turned white like the color of the ground of a fresh snowfall. I slowly turned my head until my eyes met hers perfectly.

“How did you know that I was having a conversation with my ghost?” I asked horrifically.

“Well I knew you’d be up to something when I gave you the idea that there would be a pattern. So I waited when you left school and followed you. You were too focused on finding your friend that you didn’t even notice me lurking behind you.”

“Why do you have to say lurking? That’s too creepy. And why were you watching me from across the street with a pair of binoculars?”

“Binoculars? What are you talking about?” while she tried to tuck the binoculars into her shirt.

“I can clearly see them in your hands. No matter. But seriously, why were you watching   me?”

Elise created a wide grin and stroked my cheek with her chilling hand. “You’ll find out later.” Just the words alone made me blush. This wasn’t because of her looks. It was because the way she said it like she was going to kidnap me or something like that. Although, the more I notice her appearance, the more I started to see her outer beauty.

“Anyways, what do you want to know about my ghostly encounter?”

She giggles at my intended pun. “We can talk more about it at my place. I have a bunch of books on the supernatural. Don’t worry. I won’t try anything… foolish.”

“Can’t we bring Peter along as well?”

“Sure, if it makes you feel any better. But beware of his cold stare.”

“I noticed.”

We arrive at Elise’s house. My first thought I had of her house was that it was going to be dark and mysterious kind of like the type of buildings one would see on investigation and horror films. But apparently, that was not the case. Her house was on the outskirts of town next to one of the local supermarkets the town had. It was three stories, one in the ground and two above. Inside, it appeared well-groomed for the contents of the house were neatly organized. Upstairs was her room. The walls were blue and everything was organized. Even her large collection of books were organized. It was by alphabetical order. First by genre, then by author. Following that was the chronological order of books under that author. I turned my back to take a glance at Peter. He still looked gloomy as always.

“I know you thought I was some kind of shady ass girl but the truth is I chose to be that way. You see, my favorite color is in fact blue. Preferably ocean blue. I chose to clothe myself in black to keep away people who want to be my friend.”

“Why wouldn’t you want to have more friends?”

“Because they only want to be my friend for my financial status. Well, my parents’ financial status. See, my parents are filthy rich and they put in a large amount of money into my bank account, both savings and checking. This is for when they are gone on business trips, usually overseas, for long spans of time. However, my friends’ status wasn’t as bad as yours. Before you began to hang out with Peter and I, you’ve been with the same group of people since seventh grade. Overtime, I realized you weren’t with them because you liked each other, in was because that you wanted to feel accepted. This lead to you personally humiliating yourself. That’s why they hung around you and when you started to see your ghost friend, they left you because you were different. They tried to control you by making you the butt end of their jokes.

“You’re really getting inspirational here. Why the sudden interest in my past?”

“Like I said, you’ll find out. Now let’s get back on the subject of the supernatural. Were there any key points to the conversation?”

I thought long and hard about yesterday. “I can’t remember the overall gist of it but he said some kind of riddle. It was a riddle that made not much sense. He said it was to figure out his name.”

Elise grabbed a book of the shelf and scanned it. Then she set the book down and picked up another book. This kept going for about another five books. “I only found one section, a small one, on the supernatural contacting humans through riddles. Can you tell me the riddle?”

“Those who know me but do not act, they are nebulous in their minds. But for those who don’t know me but wish to act, they will come to know my name. It’s something like that.”

“I can’t help you there. The section only say things on death threats.”

“Well thanks for helping me anyways.” I look at Peter. “Peter, if you’re in there somewhere, I’m sorry that I got you into this mess.” Peter stills looks grim as ever. Elise hugs me again and kisses me on the forehead then on the chin.

“What’s with you and kissing me?” I finally say after getting frustrated with her clingy affection.

“You’ll see.” I sighed deeply once more and said my goodbyes. On my walk home from a very weird afternoon, something from the riddle sparks the answer to the ghost’s name. I burst the answer out loud. “I know his name!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the same girl from the night of my conversation with the ghost but only this time she was alone. She glances at me with a confused look on her face. I shuffle away from the scene.

Chapter 3

It was Sunday afternoon and the senator election for the state of Idaho was being held in the town square. I was old enough to vote for one of two senators running for office. There was a podium in the middle of the town square where a speaker would host the winner of the election. I was actually quite stoked for the election myself. Then I started thinking about the name of the ghost. The riddle made sense and I had to act. Thus I still had the donation flyer folded up in my coat pocket. I had to act. I had to tell these people the true intentions of candidate Jack Monteroso. I mumbled under my breath.

“What can it hurt?” I said with a overwhelming jolt of confidence. There you have it. I made up my mind. I rushed up to the podium and tested the microphone.

“Ahem, ahem. Anyone who has seen this flyer,” I held my copy of the flyer up, “Please stand in the center from where I am positioned.” A large group of people crowded around the podium eager on what I, a senior in high school, had to say.

“Before you vote for Jack, please do note where the donations that you are offering him are going.” One guy raised his hand in the middle of the audience.

“They are going to the fund for benefitting his campaign.” Several heads nodded in approval in the crowd.

“You are wrong, sir. They aren’t going to we, the people’s benefits, they are going into his party’s pockets.

Another person from the crowd lifts their voice. “What proof do you have of this?”

“At first, I thought as all of you did. ‘Oh this guy has a sincere heart’. Then I realized, there is a lot of money that goes into the state treasury house each year. So the question that remained was why does Jack need more money for us after he is elected into office? Think of it, each month, the state received an enormous amount of money from taxes. I followed several of his campaign helpers around and found that all of them visit the bars nightly as well as a few dealers and prostitutes. Now you’re wondering about the money. They use it to buy drugs.” Jack walks up to the podium and removes the microphone from my hands.

“This boy is clearly crazy. My fellow co-workers and I would never use your donation money to buy drugs. I am here to represent the people of this state not to snort coke and waste my life away. Plus aren’t you the crazy kid that sees ghost. Honestly people, who would you believe? An honest man or a ghost whisperer?”

The crowd simultaneously points at Jack. “You don’t believe me. Have a look,” I shoved my right arm down his shirt and pull out a bag of cocaine and pills. Then I pull out his wallet and threw down a wad of one hundred dollar bills. “Now do you believe me?”

The crowd starts to come closer to him. Jack, with his face hotter than a ghost pepper, punches me in the face. I drop. He gets on top of me and starts throwing fist after fist into my face while cursing. The police get on top of him and wrestle to get his wrists in cuffs. They finally manage to arrest him. Peter rushes to me and drags me off to the side.

“Are you okay?” Peter asks me. I immediately forget about all the pain and open my eyes in shock.

“You can speak?!” I say with surprised tone. He doesn’t respond. Of course he doesn’t respond. Elise runs to me and drags me away from Peter. She looks pissed. For once in my life, I can say that I would rather be next to Peter.

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Elise says while she slaps me in the face. It stung like crazy. Not to mention my face was already swollen from Jack’s fists.

“Why are you slapping me?”

She slaps me again in the face but this time harder. “Because you deserve it and-” she raises her and up once more. I tighten my muscles for the impact. “That was really brave of you.” She hugs me tightly and then she presses her lips up against mine. This time she felt warm. My eyes rolled back into my head. It was oddly satisfying. This day is even weirder than the last. Creepy Peter talks and the rich, gothic chick kisses me. I tried to move away from her face now but she kept a good grip on me. The kiss must’ve lasted a minute. She looked up at my face, which was redder than a raspberry.

“I told you. You’ll see.” She giggled and then went back to hugging me. I saw my mother approaching me. She was smiling, which only meant that she was angry. It’s weird how that works.

“Drew. It’s time to go home. We have some things to discuss.” I said my goodbyes to Elise and Peter as usual.

When I got home, my mother slammed the front door and told me to sit down at the kitchen table. She took a seat as well and shakes her head in disapproval.

“What the fuck were you thinking?!” she said in a haughty attitude.

“I was speaking the truth to everyone. They had to figure out sometime before the election was over.”

“They would’ve figured out anyways.”

“Not with that big corporation they were working for behind their backs.”

“And who gave you that information, hmm?”

“The Truth.”

“Don’t tell me that ghost is still there. I shouldn’t have taken you off the meds!”

“The ghost has a name. His name is the Truth.

“The Truth, you say? How come I can’t see the Truth then? Explain that.”

“You want to know why you can’t see him, mother? It’s because you’re too afraid to believe in him! I’ve read the private letters that you’ve kept hidden in your dresser drawer. You’re paying Calvin Skinner, the boss of the big corporation, to keep us in this house. So what are you hiding, Mom? What is so important that you have tell lies and secrets?

My mother sighs in deeply. There is a long moment of silence. A few minutes pass by. “Son. It’s time I told you the truth. That ghost that you claim to keep seeing is just a figure of your imagination. It’s just your mind telling you something.”

“The truth, I assume?”

“Yes Drew. You are correct.”

“Then why did it pop up out of nowhere my sophomore year?”

“Because you started to unveil the truth about my secret and the big corporation. You saw articles of the big corporation doing miraculous things. But for you…you saw through that. Well, it wasn’t right off the bat. You knew that something wasn’t adding up. That’s around the same time your ghost friend began to appear. You depicted an image inside your mind that saw the truth as an apparition, a figure that kept springing up at sights that seemed irrelevant at the time.”

“Mom, are you telling me that you knew about this the whole time?”

“Yes, Drew. Those random buildings and signs you kept spouting about were the buildings that held the coke labs. The big corporation is all behind this. I found this out your freshman year. I confronted Calvin about it but he said if I ever exploited his base of operations to anyone, he would end your life and bulldoze this house. We can’t do anything about it. Calvin would’ve bribed the state’s government in the process. Thus he doesn’t lose any revenue especially to his employees. So in order to keep us safe, I obeyed him. I didn’t tell you because I knew you would act.”

“You lied to me! You knew the truth all along but did nothing about it. Now the riddle does make more sense. Those who know me but do not act are nebulous in their minds. You knew the truth but you were too caught up in fear! It was fear that you would lose me, you would lose the house. I guarantee that this Calvin guy has many more individuals and families under his spell. Think about them, you’ve already lost more people. Don’t you get it, mother? The truth is the ghost of society. It is what the big corporations fear the most. Do you think that most of the ‘big’ corporations out there care about us? The hell they do! They care about the green in their pockets.”

“Drew, even if we were to successfully pull this off by discovering Calvin’s real intentions to the public, we wouldn’t make a dent in the current state of affairs. The big corporations are like a tree and Calvin’s part is only a small branch of the real deal.”

“Empires and monopolies are made up of men and men, quite frankly, don’t live forever. I would rather die trying to free us, trying to free others than die a puppet who did nothing at all.” I walked hastily to the front door and open it. My mother grabs my arm.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To exploit the truth.” I free my arm from my mother’s tight grip and slam the door in her face.

Chapter 4

It is about ten in the afternoon when I left my house. My blood is coursing with anger. I kept thinking to myself about my mother. How could she have lied to me? I understand that she was only trying to protect me, but from what? Something that I already knew? I do admit it was wrong to look at my mother’s private stuff, by private meaning papers and documents she didn’t wanted me to see, but it was so easy to get my hands on them. But then again, my mother wasn’t all great at keeping things hidden. Since it was dark out and the majority of the businesses were closed, I was going to go to Elise’s house to see if I could spend the night over there. I was most certainly sure that I could stay. After all, she was obsessed with me. Thus her parents wouldn’t mind because one, they’re out of town and two, if she was listening in on my arguments with my mother, which is the more likely the case, she would drag me back with her. All of a sudden, she pops out from behind a tree. I scream in terror.

“Aaaah!”

She lets out a large roar of laughter. “Ha-ha! You scaredy cat.”

“Were you following me the whole time?” I asked. She replied.

“I think you already know the answer to the question. Yes. Well, I listened in on the conversation to the point where you told your mother how the ghost’s name is Truth and questioned her about the papers. Then I left because I didn’t want to interfere with family matters. Some things, especially with family, are meant to be a secret to one another.”

“Let me guess, you followed me all the way until this point?”

“Not really. I was at this tree for about ten minutes. I got tired of walking. Then I noticed there was figure following right behind at a distance.”

“A figure?” I pressed my lips together and curled it into a slight grin. “Don’t tell me it was Peter?!”

“Don’t worry, it wasn’t Peter. I know he’s a bit off but not enough to go stalking people.”

“Well that’s good. I’m glad I ran into you.”

“More like got scared by me.” She chuckles. “Here, you can tell why but first, please cuddle with me under the leaves of the oak tree.”

I sighed and sat down. “I wanted to see if I could stay at your place for the night. I was going to confront the big guy but by this time, the corporate building would have been closed.” Elise lets out a big smile and then hugs me even tighter. I admit, it felt nice. But then her eyes widened and she pushed me away.

“Why?!” she screamed at me. “Why do you want to confront him?”

“I have to. It’s for the greater good. Someone has to stop that evil son of a bitch!”

“But you’ll get hurt in the process!”

“If that’s what it takes to foil his plans then so be it. Why are you so concerned for me? I got myself into this mess.”

Elise started to cry. She hugged me and pushed her face into my chest.  “Because I’m sure you’ll die!”

My face got white but only this time I could picture my life flash before me. She was probably right. There was in fact a high probability that I would surely be killed. But I made a commitment. I can’t cower out of this. Even if men don’t live forever, there will be another man to take his throne. This will keep going on until someone puffs up his or her chest and takes action. Elise opened her mouth to speak again.

“I know it’s been a short time you, Peter and I but for the first time in a long time, I’m willing to let another person into my life. To see you disappear so quickly, that would crush me. Believe it or not, Peter would be devastated as well. Peter and I had conversation after you left my place.

 

[Flashback]

 

Drew shut the door to my bedroom. Peter sighed heavily. “You know if he discovers the truth that this ghost, or whatever he is seeing, he will most likely die.”

“I know, Peter. But Drew is stronger than that. Yes, he will probably die trying to foil the big guy’s plans. Even with a bad ratio ten to one, he has courage. He has a chance of stopping this madness.”

“I don’t know, Elise. The police do realize what’s going on with the big guy but they’ll do jack crap to stop it. They’re bathing in the wealth of Calvin. You know the true nature of man. We love money. Most men want something in return.”

“I know.” Peter looks me in the eyes with a single tear rolling down his face.

“But aren’t you scared of losing him? I know you have a strong affection for him.” I look at him, crying at his words. Peter puts his arms around me and cradles me tightly. “I want to tell you something. I didn’t think Drew would ever find his true self. I most certainly didn’t think he was going to join us. I could tell in his little posse of friends, or so he called them, that he was hurting. He was looking for something to fill that void and ever since his ghost friend appeared, he was shining not on the outside but on the inside. This is his calling. He’s with us. He’s with people that truly care about him and he can relate back.”

“How so?”

“Elise, I’m surprised that you of all people, the one person that’s been lusting over him since grade school, hasn’t figured this out. He’s with people that have been hurt by others. You push people out of the friend zone and they laugh at you. I’ve been hurt so many times by Drew’s group of false idols that I didn’t start to care no more. That’s why I look gloom to him. But for some reason, even with his drunken friends, he didn’t dare to join in on their teasing. I could see the sadness in his eyes. He may have said that those are his true friends but on the inside his heart ached, his eyes were the ones of loneliness.”

I didn’t know that Peter, the serious one that seemed to show no emotion, could see the same in Drew. It was strange for him. I’m even more freaked out that he saw my dreaminess for him. I guess Peter is right. I would be devastated if Drew were to leave us.

“I guess so but even with that, Drew has a strong passion to help others despite the point that his life is at stake.”

“I guess I can’t convince you to leave him alone.” I wipe my tears away with one of the blankets I had on my bed.

 

[Back to Present]

 

I was stunned that both Elise and Peter wanted was best for me. Maybe Peter was right. Me joining their group was the peak of their lives. It brought a sort of liveliness to them. It brought a warm feeling to them but as Elise had stated during her conversation with Peter, I want to help others. We got up, Elise still hugging me. Then I fell a slight bit of pain and I was out. [3rd person] Elise saw Drew hit the ground hard. Over him, was Calvin Skinner, the big guy of the corporation, holding a baseball bat with the tip of it bloodied.

“Nooo!” Elise screamed as she ran towards Drew’s body. Calvin swung the bat at her knees causing her to fall down. She screamed in pain and held her legs tightly. He chuckles.

“Stay down you ugly bitch!”

“Why are you doing this? He didn’t do no harm.”

“Oh he did some damage to me and my company. You see, little girl, Jack was my best employee. He hurt my business by cutting into it when he exposed the drugs. Your friend there was wrong on one thing. We didn’t buy drugs, we sold them. Now our business is sinking in the ground because the Feds are on our tail. They exposed our dirty little secret to the public and we’re losing money fast. Now with a probable life sentence to my name, I must put fear back into the people. I must show the people and the Feds that I, Calvin, is not a force to be reckoned with. I will make your friend feel pain.”

“No, don’t. Take me instead,” Elise said as she got down on her knees and begged. Calvin let out a terrifying laugh.

“You’re not my issue. Thus you’re too worthless to kill. Ha-ha!” He punched her in her face. She was out cold.

 

Chapter 5

 

Drew woke up tied to a chair and surrounded by half a dozen armed men. Past those men, he could see that he was in the town square. Surrounding Calvin’s armed men was the state capital military police with riot shields up and rifles aimed towards them. The military police’s captain stepped out of the crowd of police. He had a megaphone.

“Calvin, release the boy and put down your guns. We will shorten your life sentence.”

“You think that I believe your load of bullshit? My company is dead, my money is depleted and my drugs are confiscated. I’m already dead. This boy,” he hit Drew over the head with his pistol, “Is the reason why I am here. I must show you what happens when you mess with me.”

“Don’t do it, Calvin. We will turn this over to the Supreme Court.” Calvin starts to chuckle insanely. He then shot Drew point blank in the head.

“Fire!” The police opened fire at Calvin and his men. At the end of the gunfight, several police were injured and Calvin and his men were dead.

Elise woke up in the hospital. She had a linen band around her head. She remembered that Drew had been kidnapped by Calvin. She got up but kept falling a bunch of times. Peter was in the room at the time and stopped her.

“Peter? Where’s Drew? I have to know where he is.” Peter sat her down in one of the visitor chairs that sat next to the hospital bed.

“He’s gone, Elise.”

“What do you mean he’s gone?” Elise said in a confused tone of voice.

Peter started crying and mumbles a few words. “He’s… He’s…”

“He’s what, Peter?”

“Dead.”

Elise pushes him away in astonishment. “I, I don’t believe you. You’re lying. You’re just trying to play me for a fool.”

“Look at the news.” Elise flips on the television. “It’s already on the news channel.”

The female broadcaster explains the scene. “This afternoon around four o’clock, Boss of Skinner Inc. shot and killed eighteen year old male, Drew Clemons, in the Boise town square. This action lead to Calvin and six of his clients’ deaths.” Elise back away. She is in too much shock to cry.  Elise lays back down on the hospital bed, her face motionless. Her parents came to see their daughter after what the nurse said over the phone. Luckily, they were on their way home from a long business trip. Elise’s parents had her released from the hospital and assured the doctors that she would be okay with her. Elise’s mother led her to her bed that night so she could get some rest. In the morning, they found that she hung herself from one of the ceiling beams. Peter overheard this from a group of students that were sitting at a lunch table. For no reason at all, Peter didn’t feel sadness. It was almost like he knew this would happen.

The next year, Peter graduated from high school. He opened a studio that was funded by Elise’s parents and aired radio talks. It was called The Ghost of Society. His first show got over a million listeners. The first radio show itself wasn’t even that long.

[Peter’s first radio talk]

I saw him standing at a distance bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. This man, who saw our government and acted on their belligerence, died to open up the eyes of the common rubble. We, as the common rubble, were pinned down under an empire built from the traits of hell itself. We saw the truth but didn’t act on it. Why, you may ask? It’s quite simple. Fear. You see, this man saw a ghost. His name was Truth. Many saw the truth but didn’t act on it because of fear. We fear the very existence of it because we don’t want to get hurt. We don’t want to see change. But this man, despite our ridicule and mockery, kept trudging on. He knew the consequences of going against the grain of man’s evil deed.

It’s not that we the people don’t know the truth, it’s the fact that we don’t want to accept or act on it in that case. We clearly recognize the problems that are in front of us but do nothing about it. Most men fear the truth because we don’t want to endeavor the same pain and agony as the Man. We don’t want to be struck down with threats and mockery. We like our reputation. We like our current state even if it’s an ungodly mess. People, we must stand up to the ones who use evil. We must stand up for the truth no matter how ugly or how obvious it may be. So my question here today is: Will you risk everything to see the truth prosper or will you lay back and let the evil consume you?

 

 

 

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.

Clay Jar

In the house on the hill, there lived a man and a woman, newlyweds that loved each other dearly. For many years, they lived, loved, and enjoyed what they had together. After some time, they decided to have a child and were blessed with a baby girl. They were happy.

There was a certain gift given to the couple for their wedding by the pastor who married them: a clay jar. The pastor told them that what was important was not the jar itself, but what lay inside of it. For many years afterward, the couple kept the jar on the shelf as the most precious gift they had received.

However, the man became gravely ill. A doctor in a nearby town gave the man an examination and told the couple that he did not have long to live. Devastated from the news, the woman cried nearly every night when sleeping with the man. Nevertheless, near the man’s time of death, he brought his wife to his side with their daughter in her arms. He said, “Last night, I was visited in a dream by a man standing by the river Jericho. I may be dead soon, but a part of me will always stay with you. When I die, take my heart out of my chest and put it in a clay jar. Don’t be afraid. After I die, my heart will keep beating, and as long as you love me, my heart will still beat for you.”

Not long after, the man died. The wife could not bring herself to take her husband’s heart out herself. Therefore, she called for the doctor and asked a favor of him before a funeral could be planned; she asked for the heart out of her husband’s chest and into the clay jar. The doctor was horrified, but the wife convinced him to take out the heart. Using his expertise and what he had on hand, he took out the heart and put it in the nearby clay jar, not noticing anything out of the ordinary. After the doctor left, the wife took up the clay jar. For a minute, it stayed as lifeless as it had been in the doctor’s hands: but after a few moments, she began to hear the heartbeat, and she cried. Every night since then, she took the jar down from a spot on the shelf and listened to the heart’s beat.

Life was not easy for the mother and the daughter. After many years, the daughter moved away in order to start a fresh life. The mother, on the other hand, eventually became bitter and would blame the death of her husband for her misery.

One day, the daughter came back to visit her mother, realizing that she did not want her mother to feel abandoned. The mother was thankful, and they visited about the daughter’s new life and the joy she created for herself. Unfortunately, when the daughter asked about her mother’s life, the mother talked only bitterly, saying her only comfort was the clay jar. The daughter claimed that her mother should have moved on, and they engaged in a spiteful argument. In anger, the daughter blamed the clay jar itself, and in an instant, took it down and threw it to the ground. The mother gasped and looked down at the jar. It was then that both mother and daughter observed that all there was left from inside of the now-broken jar was lifeless dust.

Invasive

By Jared Probert


There was a bright flash, and then the world went dark. The only sound was an irregular drumbeat pulsing, followed by a steady, repeating drip like soft rain, resounding through the black void. Everything was dark, quiet, empty.

I carefully reach for my towel, moving my outstretched hand in a circle until I can feel the cotton. As I start to dry myself off, messing my hair and smothering my face, I pull the heavy curtain back into place, thankful that my shower ended just before the lights went out. Having lived here for two years aided me from being completely lost in my own apartment. On the other hand, the night light also went out.

Wrapping the towel around my body, I open the bathroom door. All dark. Once outside, I turn toward where the kitchen is, walking carefully. There, as I remember, is my flashlight. Cold tile meets my bare feet. Water still drips. I bump into the counter with my knuckles, and I find the flashlight handle with my first try. I suppose it has a wide handle, though, since it’s more of an electric lantern than a flashlight, some birthday present my father bought from a sporting goods store, complete with a floral pattern on its round top. I remember seeing it on an advertisement on television. I’ve long since forgotten why I wanted it, at least until now. Pressing the on button to the lantern, my apartment fills with light, an eerie, moon’s reflection kind of light. I walk back toward the bathroom. The small puddles I left behind catch my eye, but a little water never hurt anyone.

It’s still warm when I step back in. Light shines across the bathroom counter and on the fogged-up mirror where I can only see a vague reflection of myself. I go one more round of drying my skin off, watching the last bit of steam roll off of my shoulders. At once, I close the door, partly to keep in the warmth, partly because I feel much more comfortable closed off from the rest of my apartment. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the feeling of being closed off usually brings me comfort.

On most days I’d spend time caring about my appearance, even if I have nowhere to go. Today, though, the power outage puts me in a weird mood, and I won’t bother to wipe away the mirror to critique my reflection. I put on some sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I don’t bother with a bra; I’m not going anywhere, and they’re nothing but a nuisance to me. After brushing my teeth and whipping my long, blonde hair in a ponytail, I wander out, in my fuzzy slippers this time. Outside, it’s already getting dark. Even just a few minutes in the shower, and a good chunk of my evening’s slipping away. Of course, by few minutes I mean half an hour, but nobody’s timing me.

My first instinct is to check my laptop on the desk. I press the on button, and I press it a second time. Nothing happens. Sighing, I scold myself for my bad habit of running technology until it runs completely out of battery. Since I had just started charging it before I got into the shower, it is still effectively dead.

Whatever. I have a laptop that fits in my pocket. I pull out my smartphone and press a side button. I look forward to seeing what my friends are up to tonight, but I get the icon for a text message. Robby. It’s from almost two hours ago, his third message in a row. Like every other guy I know, he doesn’t get that he’s being ignored. “No” means “Yes” in guy language. And he’s not even that attractive. Ok, fine, he’s cute, and him hanging around me all the time makes me get so used to him that I start to miss him: the relentless puppy-dog tactic. Right now, though, I want nothing more than to relax, and I always feel guilty using my phone when I’m purposefully ignoring someone. I put it away, deciding it was low on battery anyway.

I resort to the couch. I grab the remote and, oh, I’m a genius. Power outage, no television. I lay back, covering my face in one hand in embarrassment. At least no one was around to see that. With limited options, now is the perfect time to finish that book. I’d been procrastinating it for a while, some long, dry narrative my mother wants me to read so that I can, as she stated it, “be more cultured.” Whatever that means. Swiping it from the coffee table, I flip to the place I was at, marked by a preacher’s calling card. As I stare at the page, I realize I have no idea what’s going on. Might as well start from the beginning.

At times like these, I wish I could go over to a friend’s house and just stay the night. I know I’m supposed to be adult-ish and that nobody does that anymore, but after growing up with my parents, I hold the firm belief that adults are nothing more than overgrown children. Anyway, after getting an apartment to myself and not having the social circles I had in college, it feels like there aren’t many people around anymore.

I read the first line of the prologue, not hooked. I read the first paragraph and beyond, but I know at this point it won’t last. No long into the first chapter, I’m already daydreaming, following the words but not actually reading them. I stop pretending after a while and put the book down, pages closed. “I’ll never read this,” I say to myself. Sighing, I pick up my bookmark, the church card, twirling it around in my fingers. On one side, it has the church’s info; Northern Baptists, a cliché catchy phrase for people who actually read it. On the other side, the preacher’s name, number, and residence. Simple design, from a simple person.

 

I was walking out of the grocery store when the man approached me. He was a short, round man with graying hair, round glasses, and bulging, confessional eyes. I’m not sure what it was about me that he saw, maybe it was just chance, but he came up to me like Jehovah’s Witnesses come onto an Agnostic’s doorbell. The man’s lip trembled a little when he started to speak, almost blocking my shopping cart. “Good afternoon, ma’am. Do you have a moment to talk about your afterlife?”

I felt his eyes judge my cardigan and tights. “Not really. I have to go home to my kids,” I lied.

“It will only take a minute,” he said as though I hadn’t said anything.

“I can tell you how the Lord filled my life with purpose. He can fill you too! All you have to do is ask.”

“Thank you, but no thank you,” I say, turning my head and walking past him.

Bubble man’s face looked like it was about to pop. Priceless. “One minute,” he huffed, catching up to me. “One minute! You’re not ready yet, but when you are, you can come and meet Pastor Norman.” Out of nowhere, a card was held out to my face with pudgy fingers. “Conquering the world for Jesus,” he said, smiling.

Not wanting to have to tell him no, I figure it’s easier to go with it. I take the card without another word and start pushing my cart. “Jesus is watching over you!” He yelled after me.

The way he looked at me. Passionate, creepy, yes, but also desperate, looking to give someone else something he couldn’t find in himself. I held my purse out to put the card in with whatever else was in there. The way he was filled with “the spirit” made him seem so lonely. Lonely and empty.

 

Grrrrmmmm. The sound resonates through the dimly lit apartment. I grab the closest object and hold it tightly. After a few seconds, the groan repeats itself, longer this time. Muscles tense in preparation, breathing becomes fast. In this state, I wait.

After a long while, I realize how ridiculous I must look, holding the closest object there was: the book. What am I going to do to an invader, read them a page and bore them to death? I put the book back down, hopefully for the last time. As I silently laugh at myself, I see the formerly-bookmarking card. I didn’t even realize I had dropped the card. Sighing, I pick it up again and, instead of putting it back into the book, I get up to throw it away. Procrastination has enough of a grip on me. As I walk over and stand above the flipped-open garbage can, a strange guilt comes over me – would you really destroy your chance for eternal life? Don’t you know your soul is doomed?

“You’re annoying enough,” I say, finally letting the card drift down into the abyss.

Shadows dance around me when the deed is done. Light from the lantern can barely reach me all the way over here, in the next room. At the edges of its influence, I feel conflicted: I’m afraid of the encroaching darkness, but I’m squeamish to go back into the all-seeing light.

Instead of going back to the couch, out of boredom, I open the refrigerator. On the left side, I see and snatch the last cheese snack. Time to go to the grocery store tomorrow, if only for the cheese snacks. I stare at the other side of the room while satisfying my boredom cravings. Standing in the kitchen, staring at an awkward lantern. This is my life.

As I stand, thinking about what my day will be like tomorrow, I hear a loud thud, thud, thud. After being startled, it takes me a second to realize that someone’s knocking on the door. A confident knock. I swear, every noise gives me a start tonight. I just hope it isn’t another Jehovah’s Witness. Maybe it’s Rachel, she’s always in the middle of a breakdown. Or Robby found out where I lived. I wouldn’t be particularly thrilled if either of these people came over, but at least I wouldn’t be bored. For some reason, I forget all about the terror of the light and the dark, knowing that someone else is near, and I walk over to answer the door, a little closer to the light.

After brushing my hair behind my ears and straightening my sweatshirt, I open the door. At the threshold between my space and the outside world is a gaunt, sharp-featured man with thick veins and an earnest look on his face, somewhere around my age.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he says charismatically. He’s wearing a nice suit.

“I’m sorry, I’m not interested in bibles,” I say automatically.

He laughs. “I bet not. But I bet you’re interested in something that will help you clean up around the place better?”

Oh, because I’m a woman? Of course! I want to say, though something tells me that’s not his intention at all. “Not particularly,” I say instead as a cue for his big reveal.

“Well, I think everybody is to some extent. I’m here going door-to-door with one of the greatest vacuum cleaners I’ve ever laid hands on. It’s called the Clean Thief, with a price so low it’s a Stainless Steal! In fact, if you don’t believe me, and if you don’t mind me asking, I can come in and give you a show?” As appealing as he was, there was something worn out in his voice, though probably from what he had to do for a living.

“You have to say that at every door?” I ask.

Though trying hard not to show it, he was a bit perplexed at my question, whether he should keep face for his job or let his fake cover go. “Very Punny, I know,” he replies, after a pause. “I’ve tried it myself, though. About as decent as they get, I’d say.”

“Nice night, isn’t it?” I say, looking out and back at him. I can feel how uncomfortable he is.

Shuffling his feet a little, he takes a brief glance at the darkness. “Oh, yes, warm for this time of year.” He turns back, expecting me to say something else.

“I’m not interested in the Clean Thief,” I continue. “What I’m worried about is the power outage.”

“Oh yes, heard about that going door-to-door,” he says, brightening up again. “Talked to one old man who tried to convince me it was the terrorists.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, the whole Obama-the-Muslim planning Martial Law thing. Poor old man, it’s like he doesn’t have a life outside of that T.V., not even another person in the house. Didn’t know what to do without his news channel. Can’t think for himself anymore.” I see his charismatic face return. “Anyway,” he says, changing the tone of the conversation, “thank you for your time. Maybe next time I can get you a Stainless Steal,” he says, winking.

I realize the interaction is over. “Maybe,” I say, making myself smile. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” he replies, tipping an imaginary hat, re-masking himself from newly adult to happy salesman. I close the door slowly behind him.

When I know he’s gone, I sigh. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe it’s just a long, boring night. After that short conversation, there’s an odd feeling of words unsaid, another conversation that could have happened. Not anymore. Empty.

Is this what my life is about now? Follower of so many others’ big ideas, told what I need and want, until I’m like that old man without even my own mind left?

A bright flash. The Television snaps on. “… buy it now, now, now!” a pushy man says from the screen. Well, power’s back. Now I’ll have something to pull me out of this mood.

I rejoin the couch. Rather than looking at the channel guide, I start flipping, remote in hand. The first channel is some football team against another, then fading into a brand new commercial. I’m more entertained by the advertisements. I try the next one. Reality show. Reality. Next, a preacher in black with his five steps to heaven. Then some superhero movie in a well-known fast food restuarant. Fried crab. Political ad campaign. Not-so-subtly biased news. Click. For the first time, I realize something is wrong.

The television, the radio, laptop, phone, buzzing lights; everything is humming with artificial life. It surrounds me, suppresses me, the holographic light infiltrating my mind, images of faces, faces of priests and preachers converting me, politicians and bankers handing me speeches and money interchangeably, voices and images reaching for my body, hands forcing a chastity belt on me, battling with more hands forcing it off, bibles and brochures and dollar bills swarming me, choking and gagging my throat with superficiality until I can no longer tell how much of my own mind was genuinely me and how much was genuinely fake. The television then opens its mouth and laughs, heartily, at me. The radio squeals, the laptop claps open and closed, images, a charismatic face with an all too friendly voice–

I clicked the T.V. off. If that wasn’t the weirdest experience of my life, I don’t know what was. While convincing my heart to stop beating so rapidly, I turn off the radio, the laptop, the lights, and even my phone.

It’s all invasive. Am I allowed to live my own life, think my own thoughts? Or is it possible?

I’m in bed when I set the alarm clock. Thankfully, I have no fear of it; it’s not a radio alarm clock, so I won’t be hearing any propaganda tonight. Though I do have to admit, the red numbers leave me feeling uneasy. I make my usual “mmph” sound into my pillow, my customary goodnight ritual. I close my eyes.

 

 

One Last Cigarette

“The main character is opposite of me in many different ways, the main one being morals. This isn’t the kind of story I would usually write, so I decided to try and branch out a little. I’m hoping that by not using any specific names for my characters, I am helping the reader connect to the story and not taking away from it.”

By Callie Wollenburg


I couldn’t remember his name. It was Andrew or Austin or something equally forgettable. He’d fallen asleep with one arm flung over my waist while I stared at the ceiling. The cell phone next to the bed lit up with a message. The screen had a picture of the boy with his arms wrapped around a beautiful girl. I looked back up at the ceiling. It wasn’t my problem.

I moved his arm and slid out of the tangle of sheets. He snored softly. The floor was cold under my feet as I shuffled to the door. I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from a drawer and stepped outside. The cold air curled around me, it was still dark. A pair of headlights appeared at the far end of the street. They illuminated the spot on the cement stairs where I sat. The car passed and I heard the door behind me open and close again. I didn’t turn around.

“I um… I should get going probably.” He sounded sad.

“Yeah,” I agreed as I flicked ash from the cigarette.

He walked past me then turned around. “I’ll text you?”

I closed my eyes and exhaled, “Yeah.”

I kept them closed until I was sure he was out of sight. If we were lucky we’d never see or hear from each other again. I drug the cigarette across the ground until the embers were dark and then tossed it into the brown lawn. I wrapped my arms around myself against the cold. I stayed that way until the sun began to creep into sight.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the real problem arose. The two red lines on the bathroom counter glared up at me. Mom’s voice on the phone said, “I raised you better than that.”

“Yeah.”

She said “Your dad isn’t gonna talk to you.”

“Yeah.”

She asked what I was going to do with it.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Have you called him?”

“Who?”

“You know who,” she said.

“I don’t.”

“Are you going to?” There was hope in her tone, like maybe I would call him and everything would work out and we’d be a happy little family.

“I don’t know.” I could call him, but then I remembered the girl on the front of his phone. It wasn’t worth ruining a relationship. “No.”

“What happened to you?”

“Everything. Nothing. I don’t know,” I shrugged.

“You could go back to school, it’s not too late.”

“Yeah,” I said. We both knew I wouldn’t.

“I love you,” she said. There was pause as she waited, then “Bye.”

 

I hung up the phone and pushed the test into the trash. The reflection in the mirror looked back at me with disapproving eyes. In the glass they weren’t rimmed in red, they were the sharp eyes I’d had before my life spiraled out of control.

I hadn’t been back to campus since he died. I didn’t want to think about him, but I found myself doing it anyway. I knew what he’d say right now. He had always been the careless kind. The night he died I remember him telling me, “Things always work out the way they’re supposed to.” That’s bullshit.

People like him aren’t supposed to get shot for the money in their wallet, they’re supposed to finish school and save people’s lives. People like the naïve, ambitious girl I had been aren’t supposed to press useless fingers to a bullet hole and watch someone’s life drain away. I should have been able to do something.

I opened the small cabinet next to the mirror and grabbed one of the small orange bottles lining the shelf. I slipped one of the yellow and green pills from the container and let it sit on my tongue for a moment. I don’t think they ever really helped, but it did take the edge off. I picked up the phone. Set it down again. Reached for a cigarette, then stopped.

Months after that conversation with my mom I stood behind the counter of a small coffee shop, the strings of the uniform apron barely tying behind me. The bell above the door rang as a couple slipped through. They brushed snow from each other, their noses red from the cold and faces smiling. The burst of winter air from their entrance met me at the same time I recognized the man.

“Miss? Excuse me miss, are you alright?” A middle-aged woman stood in front of me with soft eyes.

“Sorry ma’am, yes I’m fine. What can I do for you?”

She smiled kindly at my rushed words. “I was just hoping for a cup of hot chocolate please.”

“Of course.” I smiled at her but didn’t meet her eyes. As I poured the steaming drink into a cheerfully decorated mug, I let my eyes wander back toward the couple. They sat at a corner table with hands casually linked across it. He looked happy. Not like the sad, lost man who’d walked past me on the stairs all those months ago.

I wanted to hate them for their happiness, but I couldn’t. I envied them. Those were the kind of people who could raise happy, healthy children. Not me. I couldn’t give anyone that kind of love. Anything I had to offer would be broken in comparison.

I slid the mug across the counter and this time sought the woman’s eyes. “This one is on me,” I smiled.

I found my thoughts drifting back to that moment frequently. Maybe I should have told the man, he did have a right to know. But I couldn’t force myself to take something that didn’t belong to me, and his attention wasn’t mine. I could only hope I made the right choice. God knows I’d already made enough of the wrong ones.

Now, with my fingers looped through a chain-link fence, I’m glad I put the phone down and didn’t light a cigarette. The cool metal of the fence presses into my forehead as I watch her tumble down the yellow plastic slide. Her cheeks are red and a smile lights up her face. She looks over to where I’m standing and sees a stranger watching. Her pudgy little hand waves to me, and I can’t help but smile back at her. She is beauty and innocence and all the things I’ve lost in life.

A woman’s voice behind me asks, “Do you want to meet her?”

Without looking at her I shake my head. “I can’t. I shouldn’t have come.”

“It’s okay,” she whispers, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“She’s beautiful,” I say. I finally look at the woman, hot tears sliding down my face.

“I know,” she says. “We love her more than anything, you know?”

I nod, and as I turn to walk away, I light one last cigarette and hope like hell I never have to see that angel face again.