Darin ran through the backyard dodging as many leaves as possible, then came to a dead stop where the yard met the woods. He glanced over his shoulder at three larger boys pounding their way toward him. Darin raised his foot, but could not bring himself to step into the deep sea of dead leaves on the forest floor. “I can’t do it again,” he said. “The malice is too much.”
The three boys reached their quarry and surrounded the smaller young man. The new arrivals were noticeably out of shape, taking several moments to catch their breath and regain their bullish composure. “Whatcha running for, wuss?” Patrick asked. Darin remained silent. Patrick lit a cigarette, took a drag and pushed him hard into a tree. “You gotta problem hearing, dork face?”
“No problem hearing on my end,” Darin said. “It’s that garbled mush that trickles out of your fat pie hole that no one can understand.” He knew his statement would bring swift retribution. His one ace in the hole was that these three overweight wastes of space were unable to do anything swiftly.
Knuckles gave way, breaking three fingers, as Patrick’s hand plowed into the tree where Darin’s head used to be. “What’s the matter, big boy,” Darin said, “are you fat because you’re slow or slow because you’re fat?” Patrick cradled his right hand with his left, and moaned.
Patrick’s two cohorts, Ed and a newbie to the area who called himself Rinch, managed to flank Darin as he watched Patrick sway in agony. “Gotcha,” said Ed, grasping Darin’s left arm while Rinch took hold of the right. “Patrick,” Ed screamed, “look what we got.” Patrick slowly raised his head and smiled. He dropped his injured arm to his side and began a slow methodical trek toward Darin.
“That was a pretty good move,” Patrick said, “so good, in fact, I can’t take a shot at you cause my right hand is all busted up.” He reached into his pocket, grabbed a smoke, and brought fire to tobacco. “Give me a minute,” Patrick smiled, “and I’ll be right with you.”
“Huh, huh, huh,” Patrick chuckled while pulling 3 deep drags. He released the smoke slowly. “Hold his head boys.” Patrick put his lips to Darin’s ear. “I’ll not break any bones right now, but let’s just call this an attention-getter.” Patrick pushed his cigarette into the hollow of Darin’s cheek. The tip of the hot object pierced the skin and was moving through the soft tissue underneath. Darin’s protests came in muffled grunts as Ed clamped his mouth shut. Darin took advantage of one boy holding both of his arms. He brought his leg up into Patrick’s groin. “Argh, he done and broke my nards.” Patrick hit the ground writhing in pain. Darin threw his head back breaking Ed’s grip and connecting with Rinch’s nose. He took Ed down with a shoulder, bulldozing his way to freedom and back the way he originally came.
A small mutt joined his master on the bed, licking the face of the downtrodden youth. “Whadda you want, fuzz ball?” Darin asked. He took the terrier’s head in both hands and ruffed up the fur. “You remember what happened last time?”
The dog barked with recognition. “Yeah, me too,” Darin said. He rubbed his pet on top of the head. “We’ve got to find you a new name.” Darin’s face was soon wet with saliva from his best friend’s tongue. “Yep,” he repeated, “a new name is in order.” Darin scratched the terrier’s throat. “Shredder doesn’t fit…let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.” The dog without a name barked his approval.
As Ed wrapped the last piece of tape around Patrick’s broken fingers, his head jerked backward, courtesy of Patrick’s good hand.
“I told you what would happen if you hurt me,” Patrick said.
“If you’d watched what you were doing,” Ed replied, “your fist would’ve never touched that tree.”
Retaliation came as a fist, once again from the hand of Patrick
Ed slowly rolled to a sitting position, shaking his head and rubbing his jaw. “I was just trying to help.”
“I don’t need that kind of help,” Patrick said.
“Can’t say as I understand what you two is doin,” Rinch said.
“Don’t worry yourself,” Patrick said, “Just pay attention and jump in when you’re needed.”
“What is we gonna jump in?” Rinch asked.
“We got a score to settle,” Patrick said, “One that begins with that kid we ran into earlier. Now you two get ready; we’ll be leaving soon.”
Darin left that morning with No-name in tow. “Nice fall day, don’t ya think?” His dog barked affirmatively. They made their way through leaf barren ground until they reached a grassy field the frost had not yet touched. After another quarter mile of travel, they came to a canal. The water was clear and appeared no more than four feet deep. It was twelve feet across, with a tree line on the far side. Darin stopped and knelt to pet his four-legged friend. “Sorry ol’ boy, but I just can’t seem to come up with a name.” Once again the dog barked as if on cue. “Don’t worry, I’ll come up with something soon.” A double bark ensued.
“What’sa matter dork,” Patrick said, “can’t find anybody to talk to but that mangy mutt?”
No-name began to growl. “Quiet boy,” Darin said, “You want to stay away from that one.”
Patrick chuckled loudly. “Good advice,” he said, “it’s a shame you didn’t take that same advice yourself when you had the chance.”
“Somewhere in the translation, from my mouth to your ears, you mistook the statement I made to my four-legged friend,” Darin said.
Patrick glanced left and then right, smiling at his companions. “Then why don’t you clear up the mistake you claim I made.”
Darin knelt, then pretending to talk to his dog, he pointed to each of the three ending with Patrick. He spent more time with his finger aimed at the group’s leader to instill an uncertainty that always brings about a fear of the unknown. Darin rose and motioned toward No-name. “When I spoke to this one it wasn’t motivated from fear of you.”
“Well?” Patrick said.
“It was out of fear of what he may contract, if he were to bite you.” Darin smiled. “Can’t be too careful these days.’’
Patrick held up his injured hand. “You see this boy; you’re already gonna pay and I mean dearly, for what you done to me.” Patrick shook his head slowly. “Seems now, after that last comment to fall out that smart mouth of yours, I don’t think you can afford what you got coming.”
“I guess we won’t know until you make a move,” Darin said.
“You asked for it,” Patrick replied. Patrick huddled briefly with Ed and Rinch. He shifted Ed to the left and Rinch right. The group paused a moment for effect, then moved slowly toward Darin and his small compadre.
Darin and No-name had no choice but to back away, matching the speed of their snail- paced aggressors. “Our retreat is gonna be short-lived,” he said. “We’re getting uncomfortably close to the canal.”
No-name glanced back and then barked.
“I agree, there’s no time like the present.” Both human and small beast shot forward, each taking an opponent to the ground. No-name ripped half of Rinch’s left ear from his head, then began to chew on his nose.
“Off of me, beast,” Rinch screamed. He snatched the canine by its lower legs and slammed him on the ground. No-name whined, attempted to stand, then fell back on his haunches.
Sensing his comrade was in trouble, Darin began to wail on Ed’s body and head until his opponent lay still. “Enough of you,” Darin spat.
He rose to his feet and immediately hit the ground, a perfectly timed rear assault from Patrick knocking him senseless. Patrick peered over smiling. “I just gave you what you asked for.” Patrick’s face began to distort and darken until it was gone and only darkness remained.
A dim light began to fade and then brighten. It followed this scenario until the light surrounded Darin. He brought what he thought were two appendages to cover his eyes from the unbearable glare. The intense light diminished, allowing Darin to lower his hands and open his eyes, blinking until he became used to the sunlight.
“Well now,” Patrick said, “I see you decided to join your buddies.” Darin attempted to sit up when a dull thud, followed by a crackling sound, pushed him back to the ground.
He grabbed his side. “Ahh!”
“What’sa matter,” Patrick said, “Gotta little pain in your side?”
“Bite me!” Darin wheezed.
“Bite me,” Patrick said. “I ain’t so sure I wanna be sinking my teeth into nothing such as you.” He leaned over, bringing his face close to Darin’s. “I’ll show you what I will do.” He stood and again planted his foot into Darin’s side. Patrick’s boot broke three of Darin’s fingers that were covering the wounded area, pushing further into the chest cavity, causing the broken ribs to puncture lung tissue.
Ed and Rinch were having a game of catch with Darin’s dog, purposely dropping it at regular intervals.
“Enough,” Patrick announced. “This one (pointing at Darin) and that mangy ball of fur you two children are tossing around need a good cleaning. Now get to it.”
Rinch dropped No-name. A squeak emanated from the small dog when he hit the ground.
“You get his arms and I’ll get his legs,” Ed said, hoisting Darin into the air. Ed winked at Rinch and Rinch nodded. They released their grip and Darin fell to earth. He began to cough, spewing blood in between gurgling intakes of air.
Patrick began to laugh. “Come on boys, quit playing and get them in the water.”
The cold did little to revive Darin. The water being so shallow, he was able to push his head into the air while the buoyancy supported his body. Darin bobbed softly in the calm water, drifting back and forth, but never crossing the line of unconsciousness.
A splash inches away, pelted his face with water droplets. “No-name.” He tried to vocalize, sending his body into another fit of crimson-filled coughing. No-name attempted to swim, but with all four limbs either broken or missing, he began to sink.
Darin managed to grip the nape of No-name’s neck, slowly moving toward the opposite bank. Staring at the tree line, he began to think: I swore I’d never do it again, but they won’t stop asking for it. When will they ever learn?
Patrick, Ed and Rinch began to pelt the two waterlogged figures with fist-sized stones. They connected with Darin and No-name more often than not.
Darin, more dead than alive, extended a hand, feeling for the tree-lined bank. Nearly blind from the barrage of stones, he touched firm ground and heaved No-name out of the water and into the deep leaves. Darin climbed up the embankment, collapsing beside No-name.
“Looks like we’ll have to cross the water to make sure those two aren’t with us anymore,” Patrick said.
Ed was already in the canal pushing toward the other side. Rinch and Patrick slid into the water, taking Ed’s lead. Reaching the bank first, Ed climbed to the top and slipped over, disappearing from view.
Rinch and Patrick scaled the embankment several minutes later. Standing on the edge, the sight that greeted them could conjure no words. What Patrick assumed was their quarry had undergone a significant change. Both were covered in orange, red and yellow leaves that encircled their bodies like armor plating. Darin stood twelve-feet-tall with eyes that seared like fire. No-name was half of Darin’s height with identical eyes and a muzzle that held roughly hewn wooden spikes.
Darin dropped to a squat position in front of Patrick and Rinch, his arms resting across his legs. His left hand was empty; his right contained their accomplice, Ed. Darin moved his thumb. “Don’t hurt me,” Ed pleaded. “They made me do it.”
Darin stared at the two men standing before him, and then glanced at what used to be his dog. His gaze moved back to Patrick and Rinch. “This here’s my friend.”
Patrick nodded. “That’s No-name, right?”
“Oh, no,” Darin said, “he’s got a name.” Darin took a bite of Ed, removing his head and shoulders. “You can take it for what it’s worth,” he said, finishing off his meal. “I call him Shredder.”
Clancy peered out of the window. “What a beautiful morning,” she said, moving away and letting the curtain drop. Clancy raised her arms and twirled in circles around the room. “The air is cool and the leaves so colorful,” she said, gathering her nightgown together as she plopped down on her bed.
Her mother entered the room. Clancy looked at her in dismay. “Mother, you didn’t knock.”
Her mother sat a tray down on the nightstand beside the bed. “I’m sorry dear,” she said, “but it’s time for your medicine.”
“I don’t want to take it,” Clancy said.
Her mother sat down and wrapped an arm around her. “We’ve talked about this before. You do want to get well, don’t you?”
Clancy swayed back and forth. “I guess.” She opened her mouth. Her mother placed two capsules on her tongue and handed her a glass of water. Clancy took the glass, tipped it and swallowed. Her eyes glowed as she handed the glass back to her mother.
“Did you see the beautiful leaves?” Clancy asked.
“Yes I did,” her mother replied, “and they are indeed beautiful.” She placed the glass on the tray. “Breakfast is almost ready, so hurry down.” Her mother paused. “Your father doesn’t like it when you’re late.” She picked up the tray and left the room.
Clancy sat on the edge of her bed, swung her legs, and begin to sing. “Do you know the Muffin Man, the Muffin Man, the Muffin Man? Do you know the Muffin Man who lives on Drury lane?” She fell back on her bed in a fit of laughter.
* * * *
“How is she today?” Clancy’s father asked.
Her mother sat the tray on the kitchen table. “About the same, still acting like a child.”
He stood abruptly. “I’ll see to this myself.”
“No, George,” she pleaded. “She can’t help it.”
“Help it,” he retorted. “Doris, she’s twenty-three years old.”
“George please, the doctor said it would take time.”
“It’s been over a month, Doris. How long do you suggest we wait?” He stood defiantly with his hands on his hips. She moved close and placed her hands on his cheeks.
“Clancy’s our daughter, dear, as long as it takes.”
A glint of moisture puddled in the corner of his eye. He dropped his arms in defeat and nodded.
“I’ve been reluctant to revisit this,” George said, “but these drugs aren’t doing what we were promised, if anything she’s worse.”
“What are you saying George?” Doris asked. She began to back away. “No, don’t you dare.” She slammed her hands onto the table. “Don’t you dare say that again.”
He grabbed his wife by the shoulders. “You can’t deny it; possession is looking more and more like a reality.”
“Possession by what?” She garbled, her face wet with tears knowing very well what he spoke of.
“I don’t know.” George said. He swallowed hard then pulled himself together. “Something evil and I mean evil with intelligence.”
“What do we do,” she pleaded.
“We pray,” her husband said, “we pray that it’s not too late.”
“As a matter of fact I do,” the voice said.
“Who said that?” Clancy asked. She sat up in her bed, crossed her legs Indian style and wrapped both arms around her pillow, pulling it close to her chest.
“Do not be afraid, dear one. I merely answered your question.”
“I asked nothing,” Clancy said, pulling the covers up around her neck.
“On the contrary,” the voice said, “You most certainly did, and I have answered it.” The voice sighed, “I cannot understand for the life of me…” The voiced paused in a fit of sneezing. Once it subsided the voice continued. “Why you would want to know anything about such a simple character?”
“What do you mean?” Clancy asked, letting the covers drop. Scared she may be, but this intrigued her.
“You asked if I knew the Muffin Man,” the voice said. “We are best friends.”
“You are?” Clancy asked, with child-like innocence. “Tell me about him.”
“Well,” the voice began. “As I stated, he is a simple man. He hovers over his oven baking delicious muffins for people to enjoy.”
“Oh my,” Clancy said. “May I meet him?”
“Of course dear, he lives but a short distance from here.”
“Can we go now?” Clancy asked. She sat up on her knees in anticipation of the answer.
“I don’t know,” the voice said with hesitation. “I think not.”
“Why?” Clancy said. She slapped her legs with both hands and began to pout.
“It’s your parents, my dear, they would not understand.”
“Oh yes they would,” she said, her excitement building once again. “I’ll explain to them how much I want to meet him.”
“No,” the voice cautioned. “You must never mention we have talked. Grownups do not understand these sort of things.”
Clancy thought for a moment. “You’re right, but how will I ever meet him?”
“I will arrange it,” the voice said. “Have breakfast and say nothing of this. When you return I will take you to the one you so desperately desire to meet, the Muffin Man.”
“Here she comes,” Doris said. Clancy’s footsteps on the stairs echoed throughout the house.
“Just act normally.” George nodded.
“Good morning dear,” her mother said as Clancy entered the kitchen.
“Good morning, mother,” Clancy replied and kissed her mother on the cheek.
She skipped around the table. “Good morning father,” she repeated, continuing to her chair and sitting down.
“What’s for breakfast?” Clancy asked.
“Your favorite, dear,” her mother replied, “pancakes.”
“Yummy,” Clancy said excitedly. She clapped her hands together as her mother placed the buckwheat circles on the plate.
“Is there anything special you’d like to do today?” her mother asked.
Clancy’s eyes widened as she swallowed a mouth full of pancake. “Oh yes,” she said. “I have a new acquaintance.”
“What” George stammered, nearly choking on his food “what acquaintance?”
Doris cleared her throat loudly.
He looked at her, sighed, and mumbled to himself. “So, Clancy,” he began again. “Who is this one you’ve met?” George glared at his wife. She nodded in approval.
“I met him in my room this morning,” she said. “He’s so nice and guess what? He’s going to take me to meet the Muffin Man.”
George looked at Doris. A sad smile crossed his face. “That’s very nice dear.”
“He told me not to tell you, but I just knew you would understand.” She giggled and continued eating.
“That’s alright,” her mother said. “I think it’s wonderful that you’re meeting new… people.”
Doris excused herself from the table to conceal the tears that now flowed.
“Father,” Clancy said. “I’m finished, may I be excused?”
“Of course,” he replied.
Clancy quickly left and ran up the stairs.
Doris reentered the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It just hurts to see her like that.” She moved close to her husband and placed a hand on his shoulder.
He covered her hand with his. “You know what we have to do?”
She nodded as the tears began to flow.
“We must always be studious not to give the evil one a foothold, for he will take advantage of the smallest opening we aren’t aware even exists. I should never have asked her to help me in the yard that day. If she hadn’t found that cache of severed fingers she wouldn’t be like this now.” His fist hit the table.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Doris said. “You had no way of knowing.”
He looked into her eyes and afforded himself his own emotional release.
Clancy closed the door to her room. “Hello,” she said. She walked to the window and looked out. Letting the curtain fall, she turned and looked around the room. She dropped her arms in resolve and sat down on her bed. “Where are you?” she pleaded.
“You told them,” the voice said.
Clancy perked at the response. “Yes, but they said it was okay, I told you they would.”
“You broke the rules,” the voice said, “maybe I shouldn’t take you to meet the Muffin Man.”
“Oh no,” she pleaded. “I won’t do it again, I promise.”
“Very well,” the voice said, “but you must remember never to mention me again. After all a friend never betrays another friend.”
Clancy gasped. “You are my friend!”
“Oh yes,” the voice said, “your very best friend.”
“I’ve never had a best friend before,” she said. Her voice rose to an excited crescendo. “When can we leave?”
“The Muffin Man sleeps during the day,” the voice said, “so we must wait until dark.”
“Can mother and father come with us?” she asked. “I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Oh no,” the voice replied. “Grownups do not believe in the Muffin Man.”
“What about the dark?” Clancy asked.
“My dear,” the voice said, “best friends always take care of one another.”
Clancy smiled. “Yes they do,” she said.
Clancy ran to her closet and pulled out a dress holding it close to her body in a proud display. Another attack of sneezing overtook the voice. “Are you all right?” Clancy asked with genuine concern.
“Fine my dear,” the voice said. “Each time the Muffin Man makes a new batch of muffins the special ingredients cause me to sneeze. Nothing to concern yourself with, please continue.”
Clancy nodded. “I’ll dress in my best clothes,” she said, “and wear my beautiful jewelry. The Muffin Man will love my wonderful rings.”
“Yes my dear,” the voice said, “but the Muffin Man will love you more.”
Clancy beamed and danced around the room.
Her mother knocked on the door.
“Remember,” the voice said. “Shh.”
Clancy nodded. “Come in,” she said.
Her mother entered the room. “It’s time for bed.”
“Okay,” Clancy replied, jumping into bed and pulling the covers around her neck.
“You didn’t forget to brush your teeth and say your prayers, did you?”
“Oh no mother, I’ve already done both.”
Her mother smiled and kissed her on the forehead. “You’re going to bed with no argument tonight,” her mother asked. “Why?”
“I’m very tired,” Clancy said, yawning to prove her point.
“Okay,” her mother said. “Sleep tight.” She turned the light off and opened the door to leave.
“Mother,” Clancy said.
“I won’t let the bed bugs bite.”
“I know you won’t,” her mother said. “Good night.”
“Good night mother,” she replied.
The door closed, and the room became dark. As Clancy’s eyes became used to the diminished light, “It is now time,” the voice said.
“Goody, goody,” Clancy said. She slid out of bed and removed her nightgown exposing a pleated red dress concealed underneath. It graced her slender form, much more so than her twelve-year-old mind. She pulled a handful of rings out of her jewelry box and placed one on each finger including her thumbs. Clancy then hung several necklaces around her neck.
“I’m ready,” she proudly announced. “Aren’t I beautiful?”
“Yes you are,” the voice replied. “The Muffin Man will be pleased.”
Clancy froze. “What if we wake father?” she asked.
“I’ll take care of everything,” the voice said.
She relaxed and slid her feet into a pair of slippers. Clancy left her room and exited the house into the cool evening air.
“It’s cold,” she said, wrapping her arms around her torso.
“Let’s hurry,” the voice said. “It’s very warm at the Muffin Man’s house.”
“Yes,” she replied. “Let’s hurry.” She moved through the yard and into the woods. Guided by the voice she soon came to a large wooden door. The door was set into the side of a sheer cliff face that disappeared into the darkness above. On either side of the door were two windows that were illuminated with a warm inviting light. A tantalizing smell filled the air.
“Open the door,” the voice said. “The Muffin Man is expecting you.”
Clancy twisted the knob, and the door creaked open. She stepped inside. A short round man in a white apron worked studiously over a table molding pink balls of dough. He was gray-haired and coated in a fine white powder. He looked up showing a pleasant grandfather like face and smiled. The Muffin Man raised one hand and beckoned Clancy to come toward him.
“Go ahead,” the voice said. “He wants you to help him.”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” she said.
“Yes,” the voice said. “He wants to be your friend.”
Clancy smiled. “Really?”
“Yes,” the voice said. “The Muffin Man seldom says a word.”
She walked closer toward the dusty figure. “Hello Mr. Muffin Man,” she said. “Do you like my dress?”
He smiled, nodded, and went back to his work.
Clancy giggled. “Look at my rings,” she said. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
The Muffin Man looked up. His eyes widened. “Yes,” he whispered.
“He talked,” she said with great excitement. “The Muffin Man talked, and he likes my rings.”
The Muffin Man smiled and moved toward Clancy. In his hands he clutched a large cleaver. His mouth was wide revealing a set of gray pointed teeth.
“No, my dear,” the voice said. “He doesn’t like them.” The voice paused.
“You see,” the voice continued. “When he’s making tasty muffins, that’s the one part he cannot use.” The voice laughed, and then succumbed to an onslaught of sneezing.
Pray For Prey
If I were a bettin man, I’d wager the story I’m about to tell was 150% bologna. However, since this tale is centered on me, I cannot deny it is factual.
I woke up in the back of a B-17 Flying Fortress. We had just dropped our load and were returning to home base. The flack was thick as fleas on a dogs back. Before I could take another breath, our outside starboard engine was hit. The plane shook violently.
The pilot dove to extinguish the fire. We pulled out of the dive and gained altitude. Back into the fray, another round of flack destroyed both port side engines.
The bomber plummeted. Fortunately, we were over an area covered in prairie grass. We held our breath as the landing gear released and locked in the down position. The grass scratched at the bottom of the plane moments before the wheels touched down. All seemed as though a crisis had been averted until the full weight of the plane pressed against the landing gear.
The plane bounced hard against the rocky pock marked ground. Seconds later, the gear collapsed, sending the fuselage into a spin. Its right wing was ripped from its moorings, leaving a trail of fuel in its wake. The bomber came to rest, moments later the left wing tank burst into flames rocking what remained of the aircraft. The men who survived the landing and subsequent fire scrambled to exit the plane.
They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one. I beg to differ. Although I limped away from the burning wreckage, I would replace the word landing in favor of being shot down. I counted 4 survivors from the original 13 crewman.
No sooner had we cleared the flaming wreckage, the sound of German troop carriers rang out in the distance growing louder with each passing second. We moved through the waist high grass looking for cover. The pasture land made an exceptional runway, but left much to be desired as forestation to conceal any survivors.
The group stopped to reconnoiter.
“What do we do?” A young Lieutenant called Stoney yelled, “There’s no cover anywhere.”
“The sun is setting,” I said, “that’ll give us some protection from the Gerry’s if we stay low in the grass and keep moving.”
All four men hit the ground as a spotlight skirted the top of the grass.
“This ain’t gonna cut it, Sarge,” Bill, a draftee from Jersey said. “They’ll locate us in no time.”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” I said, “We may just as well go out in a blaze of glory.”
“Going up in flames at least is fast,” Stoney said, “The krauts get a hold of us and they’ll kill us real slow like.”
For what it’s worth, and you can bet it ain’t much, I was a Captain and the leader of this motley crew. The ground we were standing on began to vibrate and swallowed each of us, leaving not a trace we’d ever been there.
Four men of the United States Air Force found ourselves face down in a cave. Bill and Stoney unable to move until their search for the air which was forced from their bodies on impact, was complete. I was sitting up, but nursing a minor concussion, too wobbly to help anyone including myself.
Sarge was on his feet unaffected by the abrupt landing. It took a while but everyone emerged to a point where we could investigate our new surroundings. The cave was well lit. It appeared as though specks of phosphorous were embedded into the walls and ceilings. This lit the entire area to a bright, but comfortable glow.
“Stoney, you’re with me,” I said. “Bill and Sarge, you pair up and head to the left, down the large straight shaft.” I extended my arm and pointed so there’d be no mistake. “We’ll meet back here in thirty minutes.” Each man placed a finger on the side of his wristwatch. “Synchronize, in three, two, one.” The sound of four clicks as one surrounded the four men. “Thirty minutes,” I said, “No more.”
“Doesn’t look like much, Sir,” Stoney said.
“Agreed,” I said, “Keep those eyes peeled. You never know when—”
An armadillo like creature with wings slammed into Stoney, knocking him to the ground. Here we go again. For the second time, Stoney gasped for breath on the same floor.
I hit the deck, rolled to my back and removed my forty-five side arm.
“Stoney, sing out.”
Nothing but a wheeze filled cough returned.
“Unusual response, but at least you’re alive.”
Another cough but this time stronger.
“I don’t know why I’m asking this question other than for my benefit, but what was that?” I held my pistol in both hands scanning the ceiling and side walls. Without warning, eight six-inch talons pressed into each shoulder and lifted me from the ground.
“Ah!” I screamed. I felt warm fluid running down my back and chest. Each time the beast would change directions, the punctures would widen allowing more crimson liquid to drain. Much more abuse at the hands of this creature and I was done for. I dropped my sidearm and had no other way to fight back.
“I guess this is it.” I muttered.
Chunks of flesh blasted from the creatures head until brain matter oozed from the open wounds in its skull. As I headed toward the ground, I felt the claws release and saw a silhouette lower its arms, smoke trailing from an implement clinched in both hands. A second later, I lie on the cave floor unconscious.
“Well now,” Stoney said, “I was wondering when you would join us again.”
I ran my hand through my hair, causing an explosion of pain. “Did anyone get the serial number off that bomb that connected with my head?”
“Afraid not,” Bill said, “me and Sarge were too far away and Stoney was too busy blasting you out of the sky.”
“What was that thing?” I asked, “The last I remember it had skewered both shoulders and was giving me a tour of the cave from top to bottom.” I sat up and made my way, with Stoney’s help to my feet.
“The puncture wounds in your shoulders aren’t as bad as I thought,” Stoney said, “They’ll be uncomfortable, but tolerable as long as we get out of here before infection sets in.”
We gathered around the dead creature’s body.
“Look at that!” Sarge said, pulling his 45, “It’s still moving.”
“Reckon it’s still alive?” Bill asked.
“Nah,” I said, “it’s just the involuntary muscles kicking up a fuss.”
Both wings flapped violently as if trying to fly.
All four men scrambled. Bill screamed, “It’s alive,” and emptied his clip into the alien body. Stoney and Sarge followed suit leaving the immediate area filled with smoke and empty shell casings.
“Think you got it boys,” I said.
Bill knelt. He scanned the creature before reaching out and raising one wing. He glanced at each one of us. “Would somebody please tell me what in the hell this thing is?” Bill dropped the wing, stood and brushed his hands together.
The creature measured three feet long and half of that in width. Its body was almost identical to an armadillo. The differences being, a hefty set of claws underneath and wings that resembled a bat. Its front legs elongated with a leathery covering stretched from its body to its five digit hand.
“Wish I could help you out there buddy,” I said, “but I’ve seen nothing that resembles that even in a dream.”
The sounds of footfalls were moving down the eastern most corridor. Each man held his sidearm and his breath as the displacement of soil and gravel moved closer.
Bill dropped his sidearm along with four mouths falling agape.
“Can’t be,” Sarge said.
“I’m afraid it can,” I replied.
“The uniforms those four men are wearing plus the muzzleloaders they have slung around their shoulders, say Civil War,” I said.
“And I’d have to say,” Bill said, “if you say Civil War, then I’d say you are 100 percent correct.”
I smiled at the humorous banter. “As you say, well said.”
Four World War II soldiers watched a surreal scene develop as four Confederate troops from eighty years prior marched into their presence and came to a halt. A man dressed in gray bearing lieutenant’s bars, five foot eight in height, spit, wiped the tobacco juice from his lips and spoke.
“I be Lieutenant Ramsey from the South Carolina, 23rd Regiment.” He extended his hand. “Most folks just call me Charlie.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” I said, “I go by Cap.” We exchanged pleasantries then continued to move.
“I got two questions for ya, Cap,” Charlie said.
“Spit‘em out,” I said, “No secrets.”
“How long have you been here?” Charlie asked. He looked left and then right. “And where is here?”
I smiled. “About twenty four hours and I’m not sure, but allow me to ask you: how long have you been here?”
Charlie returned the smile, consulted his pocket watch and spit. He snapped the time case shut and slid it into a small vest pocket.
“About twenty four minutes.”
“Guess that makes us the hosts,” I said.
“Don’t make me no never mind.”
“Shh,” Stoney cautioned, “Listen.”
Echoing through the underground grotto was the sound of multiple voices, barely audible, but there none the less.
“All right boys,” I said, “weapons ready.” I glanced at Charlie, “Might be a good idea for you too.”
“You heard the man,” Charlie said, “Pack them muzzles tight.” I watched in amazement along with Bill, Stoney and Sarge. The four 1860 style soldiers poured powder and packed a huge chunk of lead wrapped in cloth down the barrel with a wooden dowel rod. “Lead the way,” Charlie said.
I nodded. The seven remaining men fell into single file, my three in the lead followed by the four confederates.
As the eight men moved closer to the conversing men, I ordered an all stop.
“Let’s listen in before we make a move.” I said.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to trod, eh cap,” Stoney said.
“Something like that,” I replied.
“They’re all speaking English,” Bill whispered, “at least from what I’ve gleaned so far.”
“Yeah,” I said, “there seems to be different dialects, not enough to make it difficult to understand, but I’m picking up something else.”
“Something else, cap, how so?”
“The different dialects you’re hearing are coming from the UK.”
“The UK?” Stoney questioned.
I put my index finger to my lips asking for quiet. I stepped closer to the noise to get a gander at what we may be facing. There were several distinct groups of men. They were sitting together in assemblies of four. Each unit wore dissimilar uniforms and seemed to be from different times by the appearance of their weapons which ranged from the archaic to the futuristic.
I stepped into the open area where I could see and be seen.
All talk ceased.
“My name is Cap; I’m from the year 1943… WWII to be exact.”
A tall man dressed in desert camo walked my way. He carried unfamiliar explosive devices. His rifle was superior to mine though not as much as one would think given the time difference of our service. He extended his hand.
“Sargent Randall Smith, Special Ops 1990 Desert Storm.” I placed my hand in his.
“Pleasure to meet you, Sargent Smith.”
“My friends call me Smitty.” He smiled. “I suppose you can too.”
“Then Smitty it is,” I returned the smile. “Can anyone tell me what gives around here?”
“Why don’t you and your boys have a seat,” Smitty said, “and we’ll palaver awhile.”
“As you can see,” Smitty began, “there’s a lot of soldiers in groups of four wearing different uniforms and carrying everything from muzzleloaders to M 16s.”
“I’m assuming the M 16 is the next generation combat rifle from this M1 we carry?” I said.
“You’re correct,” Smitty said.
“Looks like representation from quite a few conflicts down through the years,” I said.
“Every war since 1776… perhaps I better rephrase that, every war that American forces were involved since 1776.”
“Any idea why this collective of antiquated to future bits of war machines are gathered in this one place?” I asked.
“No,” Smitty replied, “but I have someone who may shed a little light on this conundrum.” Smitty raised his hand and motioned for a young man dressed in blue and white, carrying and 18th century muzzleloader.
Smitty placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Reginald,” Smitty said, “this is Cap.” Reginald appeared dumbfounded. Smitty, recognizing his confusion intervened. “Cap is short for Captain.”
“I understand the meaning,” Reginald said, “however the acronym seems disrespectful to one of such rank.”
“That may be,” I said, “but can you make sense why we’re here?”
“It would have to be the work of the Almighty,” Reginald said.
“You mean God?” I asked.
“Yes,” Reginald replied, “although I cannot reason why.”
“Smitty,” I asked, “how long have you been here?”
“Not sure, possibly two months.”
“How about you, Reginald?” I asked.
“I can’t remember not being here.”
“It seems the older the army the longer these men have been here.” I said.
A voice whispered, sounding as though it emanated through every surface in the subterranean lair.
“We are many,” it said.
“Did you hear that?” Reginald asked.
“Yes,” I said, “and it appears I’m not the only one.” Each one of the conglomeration of fighting men was standing, collecting their weapons.
“Any ideas?” I asked.
“As I said earlier, the Almighty,” Reginald repeated. Before he could elaborate further the voice sounded again.
“We are many; do not trifle with this faction.”
“Why would the Almighty do this?” Bill asked.
“Not do,” Reginald said, “but allow and you can be assured it is for the greatest good.”
A three foot tall gray leathery creature appeared. It had no scales or fur, just a wrinkly hairless hide. The beast was bipedal with two arms, six fingers, sunken orange eyes and a mouth full of sharp misshaped teeth attached to the end of tentacles. It opened its mouth wide; releasing a sound so horrendous some of the men clamped their hands over their ears.
With a half a dozen explosions the beast disappeared save for numerous chunks of raw flesh and a blood splattered wall.
Six soldiers, two Viet Nam, one Civil War and three Desert Storm warriors lowered their weapons encased in a cloud of smoke.
“Well,” Stoney said, “I guess that rounds out the reason we’re here.”
“I’d say you’re right, but you’re leaving out one detail,” Sarge said, “they’re demons. We are many was legions answer to Jesus before he cast the demons from a man into a herd of pigs.”
“After that first killing,” Smitty said, “I’m sure there’s little time before the deluge… anyone know how many we are many could be?”
No one answered.
“Since everyone was crawling over top one another to answer that last question,” Bill said, “Let me lay this one on you. Any thoughts why we were chosen to engage two thousand year old demons?”
“I don’t claim to know the mind of God,” I said, “He’s not in the habit of asking me to reconcile his words, but simply to believe. He doesn’t need the likes of me defending him or destroying something he could destroy with a thought. As usual I prepare for the worst and hope… no pray for the best.”
“Simple as that, huh?” Stoney said.
“Yep,” I replied, “simple as that.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Charlie said, “anyone else?”
“Maybe it’s a test,” a soldier said. He hesitated, “I’m Dallas… spent two tours in Nam.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Good answer,” I said, “We’ll know as we try to find our way outta here.”
“How so?” Stoney asked.
“If we’re forced to fight, then it may be a test.”
“Good to meet you, Dallas,” I said, “folks call me Cap and thanks for the input.”
Dallas nodded. “Glad to help.”
“Stoney,” I said, “I counted forty-eight men. Near as I can tell most of the soldiers here predate us. They’re all from different times and conflicts. The one thing that ties us together is we’re all in groups of four.”
“Hadn’t noticed,” Stoney said, “though it only takes a moment to show you’re correct.”
“Seems impossible,” I said, “but the rest of the soldiers are almost certainly from the future.” I pointed at several groups. “Their side arms, uniforms and even helmets differ from ours.”
“That I noticed,” Stoney said, “their equipment evolves with each successive unit.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and some mighty fancy equipment it is.”
A narrow whip like appendage extended and with one quick snap removed Charlie’s left arm. The whip which in actuality was a tail moved right and sliced through the cheek and severed the bottom jaw of a man as he stood. The deadly weapon eviscerated a Korean War Captain before a hail of gunfire turned it to pieces as the creature crawled off to die.
“They’re here,” Bill said. He raised his rifle to fire as did most of the troop.
Throughout the vast cavern unholy screams, squalls and growls moved closer to the gathering of men. Unseen wings carried flying demons that cast shadows as they fluttered by.
“Ah, it’s got me!” Someone yelled. Talons having pushed inches into the man’s shoulders lifted the soldier from 1812 off the ground. Before he rose out of reach, his comrades came to his aid.
“Pull,” another exclaimed. The soldier’s feet touched the ground. Bayonets began to pierce the flying creature, unable to release its captive before the multiple stab wounds brought it crashing to the ground.
“Tend to him as best you can,” I said, “Sarge, you seem to be our resident bible scholar, any ideas?”
A multitude of demons began closing in on the group of soldiers.
“I hope you’ve got something,” Smitty said, “cause we’re surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of those nasty little wretches.”
“I always found prayer to be helpful,” Reginald said, “too often we use it as a last resort instead of our first line of defense.”
“Jesus taught us how to pray,” Sarge said, “so I suggest everyone close your eyes and bow your heads, because time is isn’t exactly on our side.”
They could feel the presence and in some cases creatures beginning to crawl upon their backs and dine on exposed flesh when Sarge started.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
A great wail rose from the horde of beasts at the mention of God.
“Hallowed be thy name…”
The demons backed away, some uttering nonsensical babblings and others screaming for the barrage of words to cease.
Sarge continued his verbal assault on the throng of demons.
“Look.” Dallas exclaimed. A small rotating patch of light, growing with each revolution began to develop in midair beside the group of soldiers. Once it reached sufficient size it silently bade them to enter its rest.
The demons were lying prostrate, whimpering incoherently, a few begging for the offensive words to stop.
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” I said, stepping into the comforting light. A steady push of soldiers from behind indicated all were passing through.
The light was warm on my face. As my eyes adjusted I noticed Bill, Sarge and Stoney standing beside me. They were shading their eyes, just as myself. We now wore dress uniforms and a steady crowd roar echoed in our ears. A continuous flow of paper remnants rained on the four of us.
I was finally able to see through the glare and nearly bumped into a photographer taking a picture of a sailor kissing a girl. What a waste of film. I stopped a passing service man.
“What’s all the commotion?” I asked.
“Where have you been man?” The soldier replied. “Did you just get off the boat?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said. “So what gives?”
“The war, you know World War II?”
“Yeah, you could say I’m familiar with it.”
“Well, it’s over!”
“Over,” I whispered, “thank God.”
The young brunette stood in the center of the room, hands on hips. She scanned each wall, nodding her approval.
“Well,” Leah said, “I must admit I was a little apprehensive at first, but ya done good.”
A tall sandy headed man pushed through saloon type double doors. He lifted Leah off the floor.
“So you think your old man did all right this time, is what I’m hearing.” He allowed her to slide through his hands, planting a kiss on the lips as her feet touched the hardwood floor. “I don’t like to purchase property as is, but this one I couldn’t turn down.” He glanced around the room, smiled and faced his wife.
“Proud of yourself, aren’t you?” She asked.
“I’ve been around the real estate game long enough to trust my instincts.”
“As you know,” Leah said, “there’s one more thing that has to pass the muster before I’m sold.” She skittered past David, headed for the kitchen.
The refrigerator door opened.
“It looks as though you’ve done your job, Mr. Case, the ice box is turned on and void of any unidentifiable smelly globs.” Leah opened the crisper drawers and inspected the rest of the refrigerator’s interior. “Nice and clean.”
David wrinkled his forehead and knelt beside her.
“What’s with you and the now extinct icebox?”
“That’s what we called it as kids.” Leah said.
“I knew you were older, but come on, how much?”
Leah pushed her husband over and landed on top of him. She kissed him repeatedly on the forehead leaving a smear of red lip stick.
“Two years older,” she said, “two years.”
“I’ll have to look into that,” David said, “and did you check the freezer.”
“Why would I,” Leah asked, “is that where all the filth is?”
“Maybe,” David said.
“Knowing the way you are.” She stood, reached and opened the smaller of the two side by side doors. In the frozen compartment sat a bottle of champagne, two chilled glasses
and a single rose that had succumbed to the frigid temperatures.
“Nice.” Leah removed the bottle, both glasses and reseated herself beside David. She handed the bottle over. “If you’ll do the honors please.”
David took the bottle.
“With pleasure.” He untwisted the wire cage and pushed on the cork. It left the bottle and rocketed through the upper pane of glass in the window above the sink.
“Nice shootin Tex.” Leah exclaimed, then snatched the bottle from David’s hands. She placed her mouth over the spout to catch the gusher of sparkling wine. Leah swallowed until the pressure became too great to contain.
“Not so bad yourself,” David chuckled, watching a double barrel blast of foam exit Leah’s nose.
He poured two glasses, and they kissed.
“So tell me there Slick,” Leah said, “how’d you manage such a price on a house like this?”
“Kinda strange when you think about it, I guess. A young lady dressed in a gray overcoat and red knitted hat walked into my office. She looked to be in her mid-thirties and spoke with a Russian accent. Having just finished with a client, I invited her in, bypassing my receptionist Martha. She declined any refreshments and got right down to business.”
David glanced at what remained in the wine bottle. He filled both glasses to the halfway point and handed one to Leah.
“Her name was Caveo Lucis, and the house belonged to her parents. She worked and lived in New York City, so traveling to Florida for visits were few and far between. Caveo kept in touch through phone calls, but even these were scarce; claimed her work kept her busy traveling especially in Europe.”
“So what’s the catch?”
“Caveo claimed she could not contact her mom and dad over the phone. It was several weeks before she was able to fly to Florida. When she arrived she found the house immaculate but emptied of all furnishings and her parents gone without a trace.”
“Doesn’t sound right,” Leah said, “you know, like she’s got something to hide.”
David nodded. “I felt the same way, but she gave me three days to decide before she went to another realtor. I spent that time finding everything I could about Caveo Lucis. Even the police corroborated her story.”
“So you purchased our dream home for little or nothing,” Leah said.
David emptied his glass.
“Here’s an interesting little tidbit. During my investigation, I discovered her name is Latin, meaning ‘Beware the Light.’”
“I haven’t a clue what that has to do with anything,” Leah said. She finished her Champaign.
David expressed his unease. “No one seems to be concerned about the parents. I’ve checked with the police and they’re calling the case closed.”
“If there’s no evidence of foul play, then why are you concerned? They might be drinking full bottles of Champaign on a beach in the South Pacific.”
“Guess you’re right,” David said. “Just seems odd.”
“When do we start?” Leah asked.
David’s forehead furrowed into one massive question mark.
Leah frowned and wiped at the lipstick smears.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” David said, “but I guess, anytime.”
“Great,” Leah announced, “tomorrow it is.”
“How was your day?” Leah asked.
David kissed his wife and set his briefcase on the table.
“Not bad, I actually sold one today.” He opened the refrigerator, pulled out a beer and emptied half the bottle, with one hand on the still open door. “How about yours?”
David finished the beer, reached for another and then nudged the door with his foot to close it. Something moved inside the refrigerator, knocking over a quart of milk, just as the door shut and the light went out.
David jerked the door open, knocking several small jars out of the door shelves. He lifted the milk carton to an upright position and grabbed a handful of paper towels to clean up the liquid puddled in the bottom of the refrigerator.
David scanned the interior, shrugged, and closed the door.
“What a slob,” Leah said, “can’t perform a simple task without making a mess.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” David said.
“Hush, it’s my turn. You asked me how my day went; now you’re going to listen.”
“The floor is yours, my dear.”
“It was kind of weird,” Leah said. “I found three of these.” She held out a hand and in her palm were three human teeth.
David moved the teeth around with his index finger.
“Look at these marks.”
“What are they?” Leah asked.
David ran his thumbnail across the grooves cut into the teeth.
“Something’s been trying to eat these teeth and doing a respectable job of it.”
“The movers brought the last of the living room furniture today.” Leah said. “Aside from a few kitchen boxes I’d say we’re through.”
“I can assume the boudoir accoutrements are in place?” David asked.
“Why, Mr. Case,” Leah said, encircling his neck with her arms. “You would not be alluding to activities of a physical nature taking place where I lie in slumber each evening?”
David shook his head, employing an exaggerated movement.
“Nah, I was making sure there was some place besides the floor to sleep tonight.”
Leah stepped back and gave her husband, a shove.
“Go check the rest of the house while I start dinner.”
“Gladly, if for no other reason than to avoid further abuse.”
Leah opened the fridge, removed the bottle of Chardonnay and poured a glass. She set the bottle on the top rack.
“What’s this?” She reached in and removed a half-eaten package of hamburger. She placed the Styrofoam package on the counter and pushed the door closed. Before it shut, Leah felt an excruciating pain just above her right heel and the rattling of jars and containers inside the refrigerator as the magnetic seal snapped together.
“Ah,” she screamed.
When David arrived seconds later, Leah sat on the floor with a wad of blood soaked towels, covering the back of her foot.
“What happened?” He knelt down and placed his hand over hers.
“I don’t know,” she said, fighting back a flood of tears ready to surge.
“Let me see,” he said.
Leah loosened her grip and allowed David to peel back the crimson cover. What appeared to be a semicircular bite mark about the size of half a penny had been neatly removed from her Achilles tendon.
“We need to get you to a hospital,” David said. “Keep pressure on this while I bring the car around.”
The doorbell tolled as he stood.
“Of all the times for visitors,” he rushed to the door to tell the caller they would have to leave before he turned the knob. Once opened, David became silent and backed away from the entrance.
Caveo Lucis stepped into the house and closed the door behind her.
“I trust things go well with you,” Caveo said. “It appears you are settled into your new abode, although I am very disappointed with the greeting I received after the wonderful home I provided you.”
“Sorry,” David said, “you’re the last person I expected to see.”
“Who is it?” Leah yelled, from the kitchen.
“No one,” David replied, “just a solicitor.”
“A solicitor?” Caveo cackled. Her overcoat fell from her shoulders and her rising conical shaped skull toppled her hat, revealing blood red straight hair. Wings deployed from her back and she hovered around the room.
“What are you?” David asked.
Caveo appeared to be wearing a red pointed hat. Her face was white with sunken cheeks and eye sockets sheltering sunburst eyes. A purple robe covered all but her hands and feet, which appeared normal except for the white coloring and long pointed finger and toenails.
“I am the queen.”
David exhibited a look of confusion.
“Queen of what?”
“Of what you would call a Gnome.”
“A gnome? You mean those goofy looking statues people set in their yards?”
“Exactly,” she replied. “It has taken centuries to place these; goofy looking statues as you refer to the elite. It was not until modern day refrigeration we could complete our forces and begin your annihilation and our colonization.”
“You’re talking in circles,” David said. “Do you think a refrigerator would allow you to destroy the human race?”
Caveo laughed. “Jokes have been unwittingly made concerning the existence of a little man who turns the light off when the door is closed.”
David nodded. “I’ve heard’em.”
“Cold is necessary to nurture our young ones along with short spells of warmth to acclimate to all climates. Before the ice box, and then the refrigerator mortality rates were high, flying the brood back and forth to meet their changing temperature needs.”
“I guess now buildings with controlled environments, refrigerators and freezers, you have everything you need to set up shop inside,” David said.
“Commendable,” Caveo said, “you would have made a worthy adversary.”
“What will become of us?”
Caveo ran her tongue over her top teeth.
“Everyone must consume nourishment.”
“I must agree with you,” Leah said.
Caveo’s eyes widened as she hissed a snakelike, “no!”
The little man in Leah’s hands struggled to breathe under her tight grip, a barely audible, “help,” trickle from his mouth.
A single bite removed the cone shaped head. Leah smiled and gladly crunched her way through the rest of the twitching corpse.
Caveo screeched, “now you die!”
As Caveo dove for Leah, David grabbed the screaming banshee by the ankles and swinging her around slammed her head into the wall. He threw her to the ground and drove his knee into her chest crushing her sternum.
“Now, let me tell you a story,” David said. “About a hundred and fifty years ago, when refrigeration was in its infancy, an astute individual who will remain nameless noticed the comings and goings of…” David removed his knee from her chest and planted his foot there instead. “Let’s just say small beings carried by shadows and larger decorative creatures increasing in numbers throughout the town.”
“This individual gathered clues by following suspects as the seasons changed.” Leah said. “After years of surveillance, he discovered your plan and formed a secret society to watch and wait for you to attack.”
“By placing a dormant virus within your decorative statues, when your plan came to fruition, the virus would reanimate and devour its host.”
Leah retrieved two more of the little men from the refrigerator. She handed one to David. They both munched on the humanoid like snacks.
“Care for a bite?” David asked Caveo.
She said nothing.
“Last chance,” David placed his foot on her neck.
David waved the tiny leg back and forth.
“Guess that means no.” He popped the leg into his mouth and with all his mass drove his foot through skin, bone and tendons until it touched the floor.
“So, how’s the new crop coming along?” David asked.
“Not too bad,” Leah replied.
The cold frame in the basement was three feet wide, thirty feet long and full of a special proprietary mixture of soil six inches deep.
“As you can see, the red skulls are just poking through the surface,” Leah said.
David grasped one of the red projections and pulled it from the soil. Under protest of the tiny gnome, David blew the remaining pieces of grit from the underdeveloped body. He smiled and tossed the creature into his mouth.
“You still have that green thumb,” David said, through garbled speech. Leah handed him a glass of red wine.
“Did you ever make that decision?” Leah asked. She was busy removing the cork from a bottle of chardonnay.
David shook his head.
“Can’t decide.” He took a sip of merlot and a sip of the chardonnay. “The flavor is too complex.” He pulled another gnome from the cold bed. David bit the little man in half then followed the bite with a sip of red wine. He raised his eyebrows and nodded, then bit into the second half and filled his mouth with white wine. A disappointed expression crossed his face. David shrugged. “Still don’t know, I guess I’ll figure it out.”
Leah smiled. “We’ll be regular gourmets by the time you do.” They poured another glass of wine and continued to sample the bounty the dead queen had supplied.
On the front lawn a harmless gnome softened and gurgled. The dying creature oozed through the grass being consumed alive by the viral assassin planted so many years ago.
Soon the weathered lawn statue ceased to be, with nothing but a patch of dead grass to mark its eternal resting place.
Conceived for genocide a misconception turned one hundred eighty degrees, genocide still prevailed in the end, but whose end?
A Blast From the Past
Take a pound of coffee, a few drops of water, and cook it several hours until a horseshoe floats on top. What you end up with is a cup of authentic cowboy coffee.
Lester took a sip. “Yep, I think I’ve got it,” he said with a grimace.
Lester Strong had always fancied himself a cowboy at heart. He’d dreamt of riding the range, driving cattle, and sleeping under the stars. His biggest obstacle to living this dream, he was not in the nineteenth century but in the twenty-first.
Probably for the best, he thought. Lester remembered having a tooth pulled. The dentist hadn’t given him enough Novocain, and he shuddered to think of having a procedure like that done with nothing but a bottle of whiskey.
Lester lived in western Montana, in the shadow of Trapper Peak, the tallest point in Montana’s northern Rocky Mountains. There weren’t supposed to be any grizzlies in this area, but with the loss of livestock and six hikers missing speculation was growing.
Lester was hired by the State Parks and Recreation. His job was to find the animal and “deal with it” in whatever way would be in the best interest of the local tourism industry. Such a radical solution to a wildlife problem was almost unheard of and always kept beneath the radar. Pleased with such an opportunity he agreed to take the job on the condition he would be the sole participant.
Could be a big black, Lester thought, but deep down he knew better. Either way he’d know for sure before long.
He stirred the embers in the dying fire. “Let’s get some sleep, Lucy,” he said reaching up to rub her muzzle. She complied by snorting and dropping her head to receive the much-appreciated attention.
Lester nestled into his sleeping bag and processed the information necessary for a successful end to his present employment.
The livestock attacks and missing person reports had taken place within a thirty square mile area; well within the range of a black or brown bear. Bears liked water; so he picked his hunting grounds and established camp close to the Bitterroot River.
He’d scouted the area several weeks earlier and set four motion-activated cameras, one of which was digital, along the most likely game trails. The laptop would allow him to view any images captured by the digital camera (assuming there were any.) “Just don’t seem right, he said, shouldn’t be a place for such things on the trail.” As valuable a tool as it could be, it was just another in the long line of Lester’s love/hate relationships.
He’d placed deer meat in proximity to the cameras. Most of the bait was set high enough to keep it away from blackies but still accessible to their larger cousins.
Lester yawned and closed his eyes. His thoughts drifted. He had always been a loner. He liked people well enough and would lend a hand whenever possible, but what he didn’t like was the way they acted. That’s what led him to the Montana wilderness. He enjoyed living alone as he came to realize in his first year of college.
Roommates would come and go usually due to his insistence they be quiet after ten o’clock. If they wanted to party, they could do it somewhere else. His father had footed the bill for his higher education and he was determined to make the most of it.
Majoring in Biology with a minor in Paleontology, both subjects kept him outside but neither got him any closer to a life outdoors. That didn’t happen until his father passed. Lester, being the sole heir, inherited a large sum of money at a young age. His mother had died when he was young; so young in fact he didn’t remember her.
He invested the money keeping enough aside to live on. After the technology boom in the nineties, his stocks more than tripled. By the time he was thirty he had opened a business as hunting and fishing guide. Eventually, he sold the business to a local and moved into the Montana wilderness. He was close enough to town in case of an emergency but far enough removed to embrace his solitude.
Lester knew more about the local wildlife than anyone else and that’s why he was hired. The next day, he would begin his search, but for now… He began to snore. A faint rustle of leaves could be heard in the distance. Lucy stirred and kept a wide eye on her master.
Lester awoke to a beautiful October morning. The air was crisp, the sky blue, and the leaves were reaching their peak. Bringing the cold fire back to life, he fried a piece of salt cured bacon and heated up the leftover coffee.
“This stuff could break a tooth,” he said, as he bit into a cold hard biscuit. He’d brought a dozen pieces of the pre-cooked bread to avoid having to bake it on the trail. After breakfast he doused the fire, saddled Lucy, and strapped his remaining provisions to her back. Lester slid his rifle into her saddle holster. “I’ll walk for a while,” he said, and patted her shoulder.
He led Lucy into a large stand of Hemlock. They reached the game trail. “Let’s check out the first camera,” he said. Lucy whinnied as if to agree. As Lester neared the spot where he placed the lowest of the four cameras, he stopped, sensing an odd presence. Mentally, the presence knocked him sideways.
Early on Lester knew he was different, when it came to bears. He could feel what they were thinking. It was on a primitive level, but he knew what was in their head. It manifested itself as something as simple as a one word emotional transmission. Hungry, scared, confused, were the most frequently received. This time, however, something was different. There was no bear in sight. Lester sensed the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
He urged Lucy forward. She reluctantly complied. As he neared the spot where the camera was mounted, he saw its mangled remains strewn across the ground. With one glance across the trail, he saw the bait missing. The tree that the camera was strapped to had taken quite a beating.
Lester placed the first camera at a height of eight feet. Two inch-deep gashes in the trunk stretched from camera height to within four feet of the forest floor. Lester knelt down and picked up what remained of the camera. Claw tips pierced the protective cover and parts of the plastic were crushed under the pressure of an enormous bite force.
“Won’t be using this one again,” he said.
Trailing from the remnants was a long ribbon of exposed film. Lester sighed and tossed the tangled mess to the ground. He stood and rubbed Lucy’s cheek. “Come on girl,” he said, “let’s check the next one.”
As they walked, Lester ran the scenario through his head. Why was the camera attacked so violently? The more he debated, the less it made sense. What hung in his mind was the strange feeling he encountered. The creature’s thoughts lingered. It was like its anger embedded itself into the trees themselves. Although this bear was acting like a spoiled brat, Lester was sure it was full grown and nasty.
Could have been a black bear, he thought, but it would have to be a big one to reach that high. Each camera had been placed higher than the one before in four-foot increments. He was sure the next one would tell the tale. “He won’t be able to get at that one,” he said. “Not twelve feet.”
After an hour Lester and Lucy came upon an identical scene. The bait was gone and the camera destroyed. “Gotta be a brown,” he said. He continued on to the third with the same result. This time he slid his rifle out of the saddle holster and looked around. He set that last camera at sixteen feet. How big is this thing?
It was early afternoon and Lester knew this time of year the sun faded by five o’clock. He turned west and headed for the river to make camp. By the time he reached the Bitterroot, his uneasiness subsided. He led Lucy to the water’s edge. When she drank her fill, he led her away from the river to make camp.
Lester unsaddled Lucy, made a fire, put on a pot of coffee, and stretched out his sleeping bag. There was no sign of rain, so he saw no need to set up his tent. He placed a feedbag on Lucy. Lester sat down in front of the fire; he gnawed on a piece of jerky. The next day he would retrieve the last camera. Lester was confident the last one would be intact. No bear can reach that one.
He removed Lucy’s feedbag and sat down to read his Bible by the firelight. He finished the last chapter of Matthew, climbed into his sleeping bag and soon fell asleep.
Lester awoke to a familiar nudge against his back. He sat up and looked at Lucy. “You in a hurry,” he said. He rubbed his face, slipped on his boots, and revived the fire. The uneasy feeling had returned.
As he sat sipping his coffee, he wondered what the day would bring. He ate a biscuit, packed the camp and saddled Lucy. Lester shouldered his rifle, grabbed Lucy’s bridle, and set out for the site of the last camera.
He planned to circle around and come in from the north. The wind was light and blowing from the south. This approach would keep him off the trail and out of the nose of any bear upwind—hopefully, his bear.
Lester questioned his own motives. Am I doing this because I’m afraid, he thought? He hoped not but admitted to himself that for the first time in recent memory he was feeling spooked.
It took several hours to circumnavigate the trail. He turned south and continued his trek. Lester ran into the game trail thirty feet short of his intended target. He turned east up the trail and within a few steps recognized the familiar sight.
This camera was the digital one he had set. It also lay in ruin. Lester fingered through the mass of circuits and wires. To his relief, the flash card had made it unscathed. “Lucy,” he said. “We may have something.”
Lester laid his 30/30 on the ground and searched through Lucy’s saddlebags. He produced a thin electronic notebook, flipped the top and pressed the power button. The computer sprang to life. As the screen illuminated, Lester pushed the flash card into its side. The photo program appeared on the screen. He positioned the arrow on the “run” icon and pressed, “Enter.” The first tiny thumbnails flashed across the screen. There were three that contained an image. The rest were black.
Lester moved the arrow to the first and pressed, “Enter.” The image enlarged. He looked at it, moving his head from side to side. Lester could tell it was a paw by a single claw that shown in a corner of the screen. He hit the “escape” button and enlarged the second image. The camera, now focused on the ground, had snapped a shot of fallen leaves. He again dissolved that picture and enlarged the last thumbnail. The image burst onto the screen. Lester jerked back in surprise. Lucy stirred.
From the angle the picture was positioned Lester could tell that the camera was on the ground. The form in the foreground was a bear; it’s mouth open in a snarl.
The view of the animal was a partial profile. “This can’t be,” Lester protested. “I haven’t seen one of these since college and that was just a conceptual drawing.” He shook his head in disbelief and looked up to the spot on the tree where he had mounted the camera. That would explain how the bear could reach up twenty feet, he thought.
“No,” he said, shaking his head again. “It’s impossible.” Lester looked back at the screen.
“A short faced bear,” he mumbled. “They’ve been extinct for twelve thousand years.”
Lester slammed the laptop shut. “Time to go,” he said reaching out to grab Lucy’s bridle. She jerked and stepped back, whinnying. Lester saw terror in her eyes. He turned and looked up to see a mountain of brown less than thirty feet away. “All four thousand pounds of him,” he whispered.
Lester picked up his rifle and braced it against his shoulder. The bear stood up on his hind legs. He would measure at least eighteen feet to the shoulders; maybe twenty, he thought. He fired twice into its chest. The bear dropped back down onto all fours. It seemed to examine itself, looked at Lester, and then charged.
Lester emptied his rifle into the oncoming beast. It never broke stride and was on him in seconds. The big brown lifted its foreleg and slashed across Lester’s left shoulder, leaving a gaping wound. Blood poured. The bear opened his mouth and growled just inches from his face. Lester grabbed the knife hanging on his side with his right hand. He plunged it deep into the bear’s left eye, pulled it out, and then pushed it as far down the bear’s throat as he could reach.
The bear rolled to his left and stood upright pawing at its throat. Gurgling sounds flowed from its mouth. A deflated eyeball hung dangling against its cheek. It dropped back down and hovered unsteadily over Lester. Crimson drops pelted his face. The bear made one final attempt to growl. Bloody bubbles inflated and popped as they exited its nostrils. The dying bear rolled onto its side and whimpered.
Lester made it to his feet. He leaned against Lucy, clutching his upper arm attempting to close the wound. As he moved to retrieve his rifle, he stumbled into a shallow hole. Lester looked ahead of where he stood; he noticed four more depressions about a foot apart. The depressions descended in size moving away from the one that had tripped him, in a semicircular pattern. Each one had a smaller hole in front of it. They wrapped around one end of a larger depression, the size of a small car. Lester studied the pattern. He had seen this before, but where?
The brown lump that lay at his feet raised its head and howled one last time. At that instant he received a mental signal from the dying bear. It slammed into Lester’s brain. “Mamma,” it said.
Within seconds, Lester felt the ground shake. An ear-shattering roar emanated throughout the forest. Trees thundered to the ground along the trail.
Lester looked once again at the strange depressions. “Bear paw,” he said in recognition. He looked over at the dead bear. His eyes widened.
“Cub,” he shuttered, in disbelief.
The forest floor grew dark in the wake of Mamma’s shadow.
The slender figure leaned into the oncoming wind. The horizontal rain pelted his body. He winced. Feels more like buckshot, than rain, he thought. He tapped the top of the station wagon, and opened the door. “It’s breaking down,” he said. “Let’s get outta here.” Sean Jackson slipped into the passenger side. He reached for a towel in the back seat, and began to wipe his face.
“What’s wrong?” the driver asked. He put the car into gear and slowly pulled away. The car sputtered, hesitated, and then finally began to pick up speed.
Sean was a wannabe storm chaser. His friend behind the wheel was Lucas George. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he enjoyed following Sean around.
“Didn’t happen,” Sean replied. “The circulation didn’t go vertical.” He tossed the towel behind him.
“I wish you’d explain some of this stuff to me,” Luke said.
“Just get us home,” Sean replied.
They pulled into the driveway. “Home again safe and sound,” Luke said.
It was early spring and now dark outside.
“Come on in,” Sean said. “I’ll show you what happened out there, or rather what didn’t happen.”
“Finally,” Luke said. They walked to the side garage door. Sean produced a key, inserted it into the lock, and opened the door. He flicked a switch, and a line of fluorescent lights came to life. They hummed softly as they began to glow.
“Want a drink?” Sean asked. He walked to a small refrigerator and opened the door.
“Sure,” Luke said.
Sean nodded and plucked two six-and-a-half ounce Cokes off the top shelf. He tossed one to his friend.
Luke juggled the bottle, and then caught it. He held it fast in his hand and looked at Sean. “Careful man,” he cautioned. “These things are made of glass ya know.”
Sean snickered, and popped the top from his bottle. He threw the opener to Luke. He snatched it out of the air and did the same.
“I love these things,” Luke said. He turned the bottle upside down empting its contents in one gulp. He smiled, contorted his face, and burped loudly.
Sean took a sip from his and set the bottle down. He walked to a wall that was covered in posters. “Class is now in session,” he announced.
“Teach on brother,” Luke said.
“I’m going to keep this simple,” Sean said.
“Sounds good,” Luke replied.
Sean pointed to a diagram. A white cloud with a flattened top, dark bottom, and different colored arrows arcing, and swirling around, graced the framed area. “This is what we were lookin for today,” he said. “It’s a supercell.”
Luke cocked his head sideways. “Uh huh,” he muttered.
“Thunderstorms form when warm moist air rises,” Sean continued. “The rising warm air collides with high level cool air. The moist air condenses and falls as rain. Lightening and thunder are also a product of these two air masses. In the case of a supercell, updrafts are carried high into the atmosphere, sometimes as high as 60,000 feet. The top flattens and the storm cell starts to circulate. It’s called a mesocyclone. Sean looked at Luke. “You with me?” he asked.
Luke stared, dazed, and nodded.
“Good,” Sean said. “Now with wind shear you can get a horizontal circulation. Sometimes this can be seen in a rotating wall cloud. Updrafts can tip this circulation to the vertical position and a tornado will form.” He picked up his coke and took another sip. “On the other hand,” Sean said, “sometimes”…
“Hold on,” Luke said. “That’s enough.” He rubbed his head, and looked at Sean. “I thought you said a little at a time.”
“I’ve just scratched the surface,” Sean protested.
“Well you’ve scratched all you’re gonna scratch tonight.” Luke said. “Right now all I know is, I drive the car and you look at the sky. If I happen to see something hanging out of a cloud that don’t look quite kosher, I’ll let you know.”
“Agreed,” Sean said. “You want another drink?”
“Sure,” Luke said eagerly. “Just hand it to me this time.”
Sean removed another Coke from the refrigerator and placed it gently into Luke’s hand.
“So what’s the deal for tomorrow?” Luke asked. “Don’t forget it’s Saturday. I’d like to sleep in.”
“Let’s get together midday,” Sean said. “There’s a frontal system moving through and if it starts pushing the advancing dry line, we could end up with some significant development.”
Luke shook his head. “I don’t know what you just said, but I’ll be here around noon.” He raised his nose into the air, and sniffed. “Right now I can smell supper brewing.”
Sean patted him on the back. “See ya then buddy,” he said. He walked with Luke to the door.
Luke stopped. “What happens if we find one?” he said. “A tornado, I mean.”
“Maybe we’ll catch a ride to OZ,” Sean joked.
“Don’t worry,” Sean said. “We’ll be fine.”
Luke smiled, nodded, and disappeared into the darkness.
Sean heard the wagon grind several times, finally start, and pull out of the driveway. He turned off the garage lights, closed the door, and headed toward the house. He paused and looked up at the sky. The stars were out and he could see distant flashes of lightening. “Maybe dinner’s not the only thing that’s brewing,” he said softly.
The next morning dawned clear, but unseasonably warm and muggy. Sean walked outside. “Perfect,” he said. He ran back inside, turned on the weather channel, and fired up his computer to get the latest radar images. His mother and father had left earlier for an overnight at his grandmother’s so he had free run of the house and more importantly his storm chasing. They’d never go along with that, he thought.
He looked at the wall clock. Eleven-thirty. Luke would be there soon. He poured over the Doppler radar on his computer screen, then walked to his bedroom to dress. As he finished tying his shoelaces, the doorbell rang. Good timing, he thought. He walked to the front door and pulled it open. “You’re late,” he said.
“Late,” Luke exclaimed. “It’s twelve o’clock just like you said.”
“Twelve-o-one,” Sean said with a smile. “Get in here.” Sean opened the screen door and let him in.
“I smell food,” Luke said.
“There’re some extra pastries in the microwave,” Sean said. “Help yourself.”
Luke obliged and walked into the kitchen. He pulled two glazed rolls out of the appliance.
“I’ve been monitoring the radar,” Sean said, “and it looks like we might actually have something to chase today.”
Luke mumbled something through a mouth full of food.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Sean said.
Luke swallowed “Sorry, Got anything to drink?”
“Milk’s in the fridge,” Sean replied. He took a glass from the cabinet, and handed it to Luke.
Luke opened the refrigerator, pulled out a jug, and filled his glass. “So we’re ready to go?” he asked.
“Soon as you finish eating,” Sean said.
Luke emptied his glass. “Let’s do it.”
The two boys jumped into the station wagon. “Which way boss?” Luke asked as he turned the key. The old Plymouth moaned, and then quit. He tried again with the same results.
“Is this thing gonna get us out of the driveway?” Sean asked.
Luke grimaced. He slammed the accelerator pedal to the floor and hit the starter. The motor fired to life. “Yep,” he said. “She may be a tank, but she’ll get us there.”
I hope you’re right, Sean thought.
Sean stared at his map. “West,” he said. “Down seventy.”
They merged onto interstate seventy. Once they had passed through Topeka, Sean looked up at the sky. An ominous feeling began to grow inside him. Straight ahead the horizon was a dark gray.
Sean pointed, “See the top of that cloud?” he said.
“I think so,” Luke said. “What of it?”
“Don’t you remember what I told you?” Sean asked.
Luke searched his memory. “Oh yeah,” he said, “the anvil thing.”
“At least you’re learning something,” Sean said.
Luke smiled, feeling rather proud of himself. “Okay, what’s next?”
Sean pulled a small radio out of his bag. “We keep going.” He turned the radio on and tuned to a channel broadcasting local weather conditions.
The first thing Luke heard was a tornado watch for Salina and points north and south of route seventy. “That’s where we are,” he said anxiously.
“Yep,” Sean countered, “it’s where we need to be if we’re gonna see anything.”
Directly ahead lightening danced through the clouds. Luke kept driving but eased off the accelerator.
A light rain began to fall. As it beaded on the windshield, Sean began searching the sky in earnest. “Look’s like we’re going in,” he said.
“Into what,” Luke asked with some foreboding.
Sean looked at him and patted his shoulder.
“No need to worry old man,” Sean said. “You’re as safe as if you were in your momma’s womb.”
“Yeah,” Luke said, “if my momma’s womb is in the middle of a volcano.”
Sean smiled but said nothing. The rain had increased to a steady shower.
“Sean,” Luke said.
“Yeah,” Sean replied.
“Why”…At that instant a loud pop echoed through the interior. Luke ducked to the side. “What was that,” he yelled.
Another thud, and then another slammed into the roof of the station wagon. The rain was falling in sheets as gusts of wind pushed the car sideways.
“Hail,” Sean screamed.
The roaring wind had risen to a deafening crescendo inside the wagon. A baseball size piece of hail turned the windshield into a spider webbed translucent mess. Sean pointed through the shattered glass. “There.”
Luke saw it too and pulled underneath the overpass to wait out the deluge.
Sean and Luke both sighed in unison. Luke looked around the interior of his car. He shook his head without uttering a word. They stepped from the battered station wagon amidst falling shards of glass.
Sean looked around. “We’re not alone.”
Two other vehicles had sought shelter under the highway; an eighteen-wheeler in the eastbound lane and a minivan headed in the opposite direction. The truck driver and the three occupants from the minivan gathered in the median. Sean and Luke joined them.
“Nice weather we’re havin, don’t ya think?” the robust trucker said. He burst into laughter. “The name’s Gus.” He extended his hand toward Luke.
Luke took the huge hand into his. “I guess,” he said nervously.
Sean walked to the edge of the overhead cover. The sky was an eerie olive green. Could mean nothing, he thought, could mean everything. At any rate he didn’t feel qualified to make the call as to whether or not they should stay here or turn tail and run. Sean opted for the latter. He called to Luke.
His friend hurried over. “What, “he said.
“Get the wagon started,” Sean said. “It’s time to go.”
“Are you sure?” Luke asked. “It’s not raining anymore. Maybe it’s over.”
“Just the calm before the storm,” Sean said.
Luke hadn’t seen his friend this concerned before. “You got it,” he said. Luke ran to the wagon. He opened the back hatch, and pulled out a tire iron. Running to the front of the car he pried out enough glass to make a hole big enough to see through. He motioned for Sean to join him. Jumping into the car he turned the key and began to grind the engine. It coughed several times but didn’t start.
The family was huddled together looking shaken as Sean passed by. “You might want to think about leaving,” he called as he continued toward the station wagon.
Luke sat slumped over in the driver’s seat.
“Ready?” Sean asked.
Luke looked up, grimacing, as he shook his head. He turned the key one last time. The engine moaned once, and then fell silent. “The battery’s dead.”
Gus noticed the little boy holding onto his momma, whimpering. “Hey now,” he encouraged. “Taint nothing but a boomer.” He placed his hand on the father’s shoulder, “Nothing to worry about.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth; Gus jerked his head to the side. His eyes widened.
Sean heard it, too. “C’mon,” he said to Luke. “It’s here.”
Luke stepped out of his car and turned to see the funnel touch the ground, and barrel toward the overpass. “Sean,” he screamed. “What do we do?”
Sean grabbed Luke’s arm.
“We’ve got to get low,” he yelled pointing toward a ditch. Before he could turn to run, he saw Gus and the family move up the side of the overpass and settle between the structure’s girders. “No,” he screamed, but they didn’t hear him. His voice couldn’t penetrate the deafening sound of the wind. A freight train, Sean thought. This thing sounds like a thousand freight trains.
The tornado had reached the edge of the overpass.
No time, Sean thought. He threw his body onto Luke and drove him to the ground, lying on top of him.
It seemed an eternity, but finally the wind subsided and Luke dared to open his eyes. He saw the funnel several hundred yards away. It skipped across the ground in retreat and disappeared into the clouds. He no longer felt Sean’s weight on his back. Musta gone to check on the others, he thought.
Luke stood and turned to see Gus and the family crawling from the eaves of the bridge. “We made it,” Luke said. He ran to the haggard group in time to help the wife back onto the asphalt surface.
“Thank you,” she said.
“What a ride,” Gus said as he grabbed Luke’s hand and pulled him close. He gave Luke a bear hug and then pushed him to arm’s length. “Where’s your friend?” he asked.
Luke turned a full circle, “Sean,” he screamed.
Sean opened his eyes and moaned. He was laying face down on a textured surface. He wiped mud from his face and sat upright. He squinted. Why is everything so bright, he thought?
As he became more accustomed to the light, he fully opened his eyes. The vivid colors caused him to squint again. He forced himself to look at his surroundings. He sat on a road made of bricks. Around him were small intricate structures. He stood and once again closed his eyes. He shook his head, and then reopened them. Images were beginning to come into focus. He looked at the road. It was yellow. His eyes widened. Oh no, he thought.
“Maybe I’m not in Kansas anymore,” he said softly. He stared down the path.
A chorus of tiny voices echoed around him. “Follow the yellow brick road.”
Jack In The Box
The white was pierced, and the red oozed forth, but the yellow would not yield. It was the beginning of the never ending, and the yellow knew this. The heat would stop for a brief time when the white encased it, but, oh, it would live again, yes, it would live again.
I awoke. Every time I close my eyes it’s the same, I thought, sometimes embedded in the abstract, and sometimes cloudy, with shaded figures. It was never clear as to the exactness of its nature, or the reason for such frequent visitation. No matter the form it came in, it was always the same. How I sensed this I couldn’t say. I just did. I left the realm of the unreal and entered what I thought…No… what I knew to be real.
Annie had Joey by both hands leading him in my direction. He addled along, with a grin as big as a dinner plate on his face. Joey’s stubby little toes squished deep into the carpet as he fell back on his butt. He was ten months old and already trying to walk. I set up in my recliner, yawned, and then smiled. Jo Joe amazed me with every stage of life he entered into.
That movie, “What a Wonderful Life,” that was me, a beautiful wife, new baby, and a safe job on the streets of downtown America. Quite a change from the, “hope I make it home today in one piece,” shift I was working, pounding the asphalt in the south Bronx. I’m a cop removed from the concrete stares of New York to the down home smiles, and “How ya doins” of Black Falls Virginia. It was a small town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Annie nudged me in the side, “Hey, heat up Joey’s bottle. I’ll run his bath.”
“Ok,” I agreed, ambling toward the kitchen still engrossed in the thought of having survived six years as one of New York’s finest. I filled a pan, placed it on the back burner, reached into the fridge, plucked out a bottle, and nestled it into the already warming water. “Always use the stove to warm a bottle, never the microwave.” That’s the one thing that had worked its way into my head during our parenting classes. Can’t figure why some things stick and some things don’t. I guess if warming milk makes you a good father, then I’m up for “Dad of the Year” honors.
Annie appeared around the corner. “Want to give Joey his bath?”
“Nah, you can do the steeping tonight sweetie. I’m gonna stretch out for a few more minutes, if that’s ok?”
“Sure,” she replied. “I’ll bring him in to say good night when we’re done. Thanks,” I
said, “I knew there was a reason I married you.”
Leaving Annie with a kiss, I headed back to the den. I cranked the stereo, leaned back in the recliner, listening to Rush’s, Spirit of the Radio. “Begin the day with a friendly voice,” Geddy Lee crooned. The song faded as I replaced the melody with thoughts of an earlier time.
Annie was a budding psychiatrist new to the life of the criminal mind, ready to set the world on fire and cure all the ills of the nut jobs I encountered on a regular basis. That’s how we met. I was a cop walking a beat, and she was an intern passing the time working in a community hospital. Where it just so happens I brought future inmates to get patched up for the next day’s arraignment.
Annie’s smile was intoxicating. I’d say we more than hit it off right away. We passed right by the, “let’s date awhile,” and a long engagement to, “I think this church will hold all the guests,” and “what color do you want to paint the kitchen?” The conversation soon turned to children and moving out of the city to raise them, the latter being the most urgent.
A close friend who dabbled in real estate, and had moved to Virginia several years earlier, found the perfect place for our soon to be expanding family; it was small, but ours, if we wanted it. Then as if on cue a job became available on the Black Falls Police Department. I accepted the position, and we closed on the house. A month before the move we found out Annie was pregnant. Life was good.
I felt an unfamiliar weight, and opened my eyes. To my surprise there was a munchkin on my lap gurgling with pleasure, his head covered with foamy bubbles. Annie laughed as I
considered the sight of Jo Joe covered in bubble bath residue. “Hello, there little one,” I said. “Maybe you should have rinsed off before you came to sit on daddy’s lap.” Annie grinned, “I thought you’d love the bubbles as much as he does.”
“Yeah, I grimaced as I pulled up from my recliner and began to examine the soapy water on my jeans. I handed Annie the baby and walked off to the bedroom to change. As I emerged freshly clothed, I noticed Annie leaning into the refrigerator with a look of dismay on her face.
“We’re out of milk sweetie,” she said. “Would you mind going to the store?”
“Sure,” I said, “Anything for ya’ll.”
“Ya’ll,” I thought. I’d been out of New York less than a year, and already speaking like a true southerner. It was late fall, and now dark outside. I grabbed a jacket and the keys to the minivan.
“Do you need anything else while I’m out?” I said.
“No, just the milk,” she replied, and added one of those irresistible seductive smiles.
“Ok, I’ll be back in a flash. Keep a light on for me.” I closed the front door and stepped into the darkness. A freezing drizzle was starting to fall. I don’t remember weatherman Bob calling for this, but then again I hadn’t checked the forecast. I don’t even watch the news, I thought. Not much goes on in a small town like this, which is why we came here in the first place. I hunched the collar of my jacket up around my neck and started for the van. I hit the switch and the radio came to life, “Begin the day with a friendly voice.”
Wow, that’s weird, I thought, Spirit of the Radio. Hadn’t I just heard that song? No matter it was one of my favorites.
I nudged up the volume and began to sing along. I reached under my left arm, and felt the familiar bulge that was my service revolver. Don’t know why, but I couldn’t shake the habit of carrying it wherever I went. I turned my attention back to the road. The ice was falling harder now.
We lived a few miles out of town, on a seldom-traveled back road. I slid to a stop at the end of our driveway, and waited until the oncoming headlights passed. I reached forward to wipe the windshield as my breath, now visible in the cold, replaced the fog I had just removed from the glass. I pulled onto the road behind a slow moving oil delivery truck. This time of year most homeowners were having their tanks filled with number-two oil readying them for the upcoming winter.
There was too much windshield for the defrost to keep clear. I again wiped at the fog with my shirtsleeve, smearing it into a semi-transparent glaze. “This thing must have been built in the equator,” I grumbled. “It sure wasn’t made for mountain life.”
I rounded the last curve, rather slid around the last curve and began the downhill run for the last two miles into town. The oil truck began to pick up speed. Thinking he may have trouble with the glaze, now shimmering off the roads surface, I backed off to a comfortable distance. No need the both of us buy it tonight, I thought.
His brake lights flashed, and the tail end began to fishtail, first slowly, then increasing with each lateral movement. Despite the freezing temperature I could feel beads of sweat breaking free across my forehead. I tightened my grip.
“The words of the profits were written on the studio walls,” Geddy mused, and then screamed, “Concert Halls.” With that, the truck slid sideways onto the shoulder. The loose gravel threw the truck into the ditch. It clipped a huge oak, and flipped onto its side landing back onto the road, sliding down the asphalt, and coming to rest on the driver’s side. I managed to miss the truck, and skidded sideways to a stop.
I reached for the radio to call for help. You’re not in your squad car, I thought. You don’t have a radio. I shook my head. “I just came out for milk, I don’t need this,” I said.
I jumped out of the van and ran to the overturned truck, oblivious to the smell of fuel oil in the air. The windshield had blown completely out of its frame, coming to rest in the middle of the road, freakishly undamaged save for the scratches suffered from its brief slide down the asphalt. I knelt down and peered through the opening where the windshield had been.
“Are you ok?” I screamed.
“Well now, young feller,” a calm voice emanated from the darkness. “No need to yell.” A weathered face appeared from the chasm, small flecks of blood on his chin, and forehead. “I guess I could be better, but under the circumstances, not too bad.”
“Hold on,” I said, as if he were going somewhere. I ran back to the van and positioned it on a diagonal in the road so that the light was focused inside the truck. Geddy was again beginning his serenade, “Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive.” “You guys are working overtime tonight,” I said. “I guess next you’ll be asking me to buy a ticket.”
I made it back to the truck. “How’s it going, buddy, are you hurt?”
“Don’t rightly know young feller,” he said. “I’m still a bit woozy.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll get you out.”
With the light from the van now filling the cabin, he began sizing up his predicament. “Maybe not young feller, it’s lookin like this here dashboard has taken a liken to my legs.” He placed his cap back on his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something. “Haven’t seen my glasses have ya?” he said.
“What’s your name?” I asked. I reached down beside his head, and picked up an intact pair of glasses. I handed them to him, and he slid them over his eyes.
“Jack,” he said. “Least that’s what folks call me.” He extended a calloused hand. I nodded and placed my hand in his. “Good to meet ya,” he said. He looked at me curiously. “You must have a name young feller?”
I glanced at him. “Scott, Scott Butler,” I said.
He thought for a moment, then replied, “Good strong name. So, what’s the plan young fell… I mean Scott?”
Wait a minute, I thought. The air surrounding the truck was filled with the stench of fuel oil. I can’t believe I’m just noticing it. “Jack,” I said, trying to suppress my concern. “It’s time we were getting you back on level ground.”
He smiled and said, “I reckon so.”
“I’ll need help to get you out. We’ll call into town, and get someone to cut you loose from this mess, hang on.” Not that he has any choice in the matter, but I do. Hope I make the right one.
I’d left my cell phone in the charger thinking I wouldn’t need it on such a short trip. I always brought my gun. Why not the phone? “Do you have a radio in this rig?”
“Sure do, but it only reaches dispatch.”
“That’ll have to do,” I said. “Jack, is the key turned off?”
“Yep that’s the first thing you do in a crash, provided you’re able too,” he said.
I could tell Jack wasn’t one to miss a meal. His size would make it more difficult to extract him from the cab. Jack’s round face, now red due to his awkward positioning, still exuded a calm I envied. It was also starting to annoy me.
“Good,” I said. “First we’re gonna find the handset, power up the radio, and turn the key on just long enough to contact dispatch. Do you see it?”
“Nope, but I think I can feel it.” He worked his hand under his rear end and located the handset. “I got it.” Jack pulled it out, but it was severed from the spiral cord.
Great, that’s just what we need, a radio that doesn’t work. I saw the cord and gave it a tug. It slid from under the seat and exposed its mangled end in the light emanating from the van. “Jack,” said. “I’m gonna have to go for help.”
His expression told it all. “You’re not leaving me here alone are you young feller?” he said.
The name is Scott; I almost bellowed then thought better of it. Jack was right. From the smell of oil in the cab if anything sparked…I blocked out the notion.
“No Jack,” I said, “I won’t leave you.” Searching for an answer, I said, “Ok. Let’s try to wire this radio back together. Do you have a knife?”
“Sure do,” he replied. “I never leave home without it;” he grinned and produced a pocket sized lock blade.
“Good,” I said. The cord sheared off a few inches below the hand set. At least it might be possible to repair it. The falling ice had encased the top of my head, becoming glued to my hair. Rivulets of water now streamed down my face. I stripped wires in between wiping water from my eyes
“Tell me about yourself, Jack.” I said.
“Well, ain’t much to tell,” he began. “I grew up around Dallas. Daddy drove a truck, a big rig, not like this tiny thing.” He withdrew for a moment reflecting, and continued, “In those days it was only right to follow in your daddy’s footsteps. I guess in my case it was follow in my daddy’s tire tracks,” Jack chuckled. “Dad always said he wanted better for his kids. I listened to him, but didn’t pay much attention.”
“I started driving when I was seventeen, always did love the open road. You know, a woman in every port, a night here, and there, drinking way too much in sleazy truck stops. Didn’t matter,” he said, “whatever it took.” A wide grin encircled his face.
“Then a sweet little filly finally tamed me. Sally,” he said, with a warm nod of his head. “She was Sal to me. We got married, had a couple kids, Jack, Jr. and Paul, and settled into raising a family. Oh, I still drove, but it was all local, no long hauls.”
As he spoke, he reminded me of my own father, gray haired, ball cap, glasses, and a red-checkered flannel shirt. “Did I tell ya Paul’s a doctor now? A foot doctor.” Jack said beaming with pride. “He’s called a Pod something or other and doing real fine out in California.” Jack paused, “Jack Jr., I don’t know. Ain’t heard from him in a while. I hope he’s ok.” He paused again. “Sure wish I could talk to him. We had this falling out,”… his voice trailed off.
After what seemed an eternity, he continued. “Sal traveled with me for a couple years,” he said. “When time came to retire, we figured we’d move to a small town, and live out our last days there. Two old geezers rocking away on the front porch.” Jack chuckled again.
“Well, you probably guessed it,” he said, “We ended up here. I picked up a part-time job driving an oil truck, to keep busy. You’re always hearing bout somebody retiring and dying early cause they had nothing to do,” he squinted. “Then Sal had that stroke.” A glint of moisture appeared in the corner of one eye. “She’s in the nursing home in town. I see her every day. Sal smiles when she sees me, but I’m not so sure she knows who I am.” He wound his way back to reality. “How’s that cable repair coming young feller?”
Cable repair? I’d gotten so entwined in Jack’s story I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing. “Almost have it,” I lied. I quickly stripped and twisted the connections back together. “It should work, at least I hope so; Jack,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“I’m going to turn the ignition on. As soon as the radio powers up; key the handset and call your dispatcher.” I touched his hand. Our eyes met. “Just make sure you don’t let the bare wires touch,” I cautioned, “our lives may depend on it!”
Jack nodded. “What if… never mind, I’m ready.”
I turned the key. The radio came to life. “Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion.”
“What?” I shrieked.
“What’s the matter young feller? the radio seems to be working fine.”
“Nothing, Jack, just make the call.”
Jack pressed the thumb switch. “Number-two to base, come in base.” There was a lot of static. “Number-two to base, come in base, Marcy, this is Jack, can you hear me? Marcy, I need help. I’m out on 54. There’s been an accident and I’m trapped, Marcy. Trapped.” He looked at me with an expression void of hope then regained his composure. “I don’t know young feller, maybe she heard me, and maybe she didn’t.”
“Jack, try it again,” He nodded and repeated his plea.
“Marcy? This is Jack, I need help,”
More static, but this time a garbled voice underneath the noise. It seemed to reply “Got……… trans…………Hi………54………..assist…………tight,” then nothing. “There’s no use,” he murmured, tossing the handset aside.
“No!” I screamed and watched as the receiver dropped in slow motion toward the small puddle of fuel that had gathered on the driver side window. This puddle wasn’t oil. It was the end of a trail of gasoline streaming from the truck’s fuel tank.
The handset bounced once, as it came to rest a tiny spark, arced between two bare wires. It ignited the gas and began a torturous journey from the pool on the window to its beginning in the stainless steel saddle tank. I winced and covered Jack’s upper torso with my body. Instead of an explosion, there was a “Whoosh” and a steady blaze worked its way around the truck’s oil tank.
“Jack, are you ok!”
With that same calm demeanor, “I reckon so young feller. How bout you?”
Without a word, I ran back to the van looking for something to pry with. As the back hatch hissed open, there it was again emanating from the radio, “Begin the day with a friendly voice,”
“Shut up,” I said. A lug wrench was all I could find. Jack was still smiling when I returned.
“Where’d you get off too?” he said, “I was thinkin you’d left ole Jack.”
At least he didn’t call me young feller, I thought “No,” I replied. “We’re in this together till it’s done.” Jack smiled and nodded. The acrid smell of burning petroleum permeated the cab.
“Jack,” I said, “It’s time to go.”
“I’m ready when you are,” he replied.
I squirmed through the front of the truck where the windshield had been. The interior was thick with smoke and breathing all but impossible. With the light fading in and out, synchronized with the billowing of smoke, I saw that with Jack’s mangled legs entwined in the dashboard. The chances of getting him out, barring amputation was next to impossible.
I resurfaced. The heat had melted any ice residue from the trucks metal surface. Steady drops fell simulating rain within the truck’s cab. The temperature was climbing at an alarming rate, and in some places the drops sizzled, and turned to steam as they made contact with the hot metal. “Jack, lift your arms,” he obliged without question. I grabbed him under his arms, braced my legs against the window frame, and pulled with everything I had. He wouldn’t budge. I heard bones crack, tendons, and flesh give way, and yet he made no sound. I stopped. Muscling Jack out of this steel coffin was only hurting him and I couldn’t stand to cause him any more pain.
“You’re a police officer aren’t you?”
“What?” I said. “How’d you know?”
“Saw the piece in your shoulder holster,” he said with a whisper. “You’ve got a family waitin at home for you, don’t you, young feller?” he said.
I dropped my head onto his chest and began to sob. Jack placed his hand on my shoulder. “You did all you could young feller. Now, we’re just gonna leave it in God’s hands.” Raising my head, I wiped my eyes.
“Doesn’t look like He’s done such a great job with it so far,” I countered.
“Now don’t you be bitter, son. He’ll show us the way out.” Jack clutched my hand. “Son”, he said. “I’m gonna give thanks and offer up a prayer. Will you join me?”
“There’s no time for that,” I started, “we’ve”…He cut me off. “There’s always time” he said. Jack bowed his head.
“Father God,” he began, “it’s Jack here. I know you’re always in control Lord, and sometimes we don’t understand the circumstances, but you do. I want to thank you for the life you’ve given me, and for this young man you’ve sent to spend my last moments with.”
“Jack,” I objected, “what are you saying?”
“Shh,” he hissed. “Lord give us the strength to get through this, and I ask that you wrap your love around Scott, and comfort him Lord. In your precious Son’s name I pray Lord, Amen.”
I regained something akin to composure. “Jack, try the radio again.”
“It’s no use,” he said. “If I got through, there’s no way they’d make it here in time.”
Through the enormity of the situation, and the sheer concentration we afforded each other, Jack and I had pushed the outside world into nonexistence. We failed to notice the sirens in the distance, now barely audible through the deafening roar of the flames.
I burned with rage. “If this God you’re praying to is so full of love, why are you laying here, ready to die like so much roasted meat? Just where is your God anyway?” Jack glared with a ferocity I hadn’t seen before.
“Young man, my God is right here with me,” he said. His demeanor softened, “and he’s with you too. Look,” he said, “You’ve got to be strong. You’re the one who can help me now.” I looked into his eyes. I sensed what he wanted me to do.
“No, Jack, I can’t.”
“Scott,” he said, “I’ve had a good life, no regrets. I know you’re not gonna sit there and watch ole Jack suffer, now are ya?”
“Jack this isn’t,” he stopped me in mid-sentence.
“Scott,” he said, as if talking to disobedient child. “The heat is burning the pants off the back of my legs. It’s working its way up, and before long it’s gonna cook me real slow,” he touched my face. “I don’t want you to be anywhere near here when this thing goes up.”
Jack looked at me and smiled. “I know where I’m going,” he said, “and that’s home to my Lord.” His smile faded to a grimace. “Scott you gotta send me home. I can’t take any more of this.”
I nodded. “Ok, Jack,” I said, “I’m so sorry.” I kissed him on the forehead. My body was no longer mine. I seemed to go outside of myself. I reached for the revolver under my jacket. Its cold caress seemed almost comforting. Didn’t so much matter now anyway, it wasn’t me doing any of this. I pulled the instrument of release from its nest, and placed it inches from the spot I had just kissed. I clinched my eyes. “Rest well, old friend,” I murmured. I eased back on the trigger, the shell jammed into position, the hammer snapped, and the slug exploded toward its waiting target. There was a muffled thud, not as sickening as I had imagined.
My eyes still closed, but my senses ever the more aware. I noticed the heat had subsided. Had I passed through with him? I was afraid to open my eyes and gaze upon the lifeless form of the man I had just sent into oblivion. I dared to open them the slightest bit. To my wonderment there was a strange red pulsating light. I opened further. In front of me was a shapeless form encased in white. A small red dot exuded near the top of the blob. I heard distant voices and strange hissing sounds. I reached for the figure in front of me, pushing through the white covering, “No,” I screamed.
It was foam. The type they use to extinguish a flammable liquid fire. The fire department had made it. They had put out the fire.
“What have I done,” the revolver slipped from my hands and bounced in slow motion off the roof of the truck. “Jaaack!”
“Is that all you do?” Paul asked. “You never swim, use the rope swing or even help us hunt for crawdads.”
Joey flipped the bail on his spinning reel, tossed his lure within inches of the far bank and cranked the handle.
“We just walked better than a mile to get here,” Joey said. “Now, in all that time you had to see me carrying a fishing pole and tackle box.”
“Well, yeah,” Paul replied, “when we weren’t plowing through chest high snake infested grass.”
“You didn’t have to come.” Joey’s spinner bait hit the last eyelet on his rod. He repositioned the bail and cast a second time. As soon as the lure touched the water, “bam” something large, snatched the bait and headed for the bottom.
“This is what it’s all about,” Joey exclaimed.
Paul stepped backward.
“Yeah, and you can have it.”
Joey turned to look at Paul, sensing something amiss.
Paul was white as a ghost, his eyes affixed on the area around Joey’s feet.
Joey glanced down without moving his head. He jumped backward, dropping his rod. It landed on a six foot long, dark colored reptile.
“Watch out!” Paul exclaimed, “It’s a cottonmouth!”
A hand belonging to neither Joey nor Paul grasped the snake by the tail. The newcomer twirled the reptile above his head, and cracked it like a whip, snapping the scaly creature’s spine.
“Don’t know why everyone who sees a snake in the water automatically assumes moccasin.” Sean said. “As many times as I’ve told you two goons they don’t live this far north, you’d think it would have sunk in by now.”
“Not taking any chances,” Paul said.
Sean held the dying creature by the tail, its body limp, yet forked tongue still flickering in and out of its mouth. He brought his arm back and then forward, releasing the reptile. It draped across Paul’s shoulder, causing him to suffer something akin to a grand mal seizure, until the offensive creature fell free. He sat alternating between shuddering, screaming and cursing Sean.
Sean was bent over laughing while Joey saved his equipment from disappearing under the murky water.
Sean moved closer to watch Joey fight his quarry. Soon Paul had recovered sufficiently to show an interest in Joey landing his catch.
“I don’t know what’s on the other end of this line, but it moves slow and pulls like a bulldozer.” After another twenty minutes Joey began to win the battle. As the mystery catch broke the surface the three boys glanced at one another.
“What is it?” Paul asked. The smack of a flat tail plus the hairy back answered the question.
“It’s a beaver,” Sean exclaimed “and it smells like it died last week.”
Joey continued to wind his reel until the slow moving creature was beached. It walked slowly onto the bank and shook, ridding itself of the unwanted droplets of water.
“Looks pretty rough,” Joey said. “It’s all chewed up and Sean’s not far off with his odor description.”
The decrepit creature shook one last time and moved several steps closer to the boys.
“Not a very nice way to greet a stranger, especially after the way you forced him from his home,” The beaver said, with a heavy English accent.
Joey dropped his rod and three young men stood mouths agape staring at the talking rodent.
“What’s the matter,” the beaver said, “The water snake got your tongue?”
“You … You… said words.” Sean pointed a shaking finger in the beaver’s direction.
“Excellent,” The beaver said, “So did you and with a stellar command of the English language.” He reared up on his hind legs and clapped using his two front paws. “I applaud your victory over mastering four difficult words.”
Joey dropped his fishing rod.
“I hope I didn’t hurt your mouth with my hook, Mr. Beaver?”
“No, I often jab metal objects through my lips for the pure pleasure. My name is Oliver, would you kindly remove this barbed torture device from my mouth.”
Joey knelt and touched the offending hook.
“I noticed you speak American English, but with a proper English accent.”
“You do see the rather large choppers I have extending from the top of my mouth; do you not?” Oliver questioned.
“I do,” Joey said, he dare not move for fear of reprisal.
“Then first things first,” Oliver said, “I shall consider your request at a later date.”
“Whatever you say,” Joey replied.
“Magnificent,” Oliver said. “With your friend’s command of the English language and your powers of observation, I feel confident facing any obstacle.” He turned to look at Paul. “And we mustn’t forget your second accomplice, the statue.”
Joey glanced at Paul. He hadn’t moved since Oliver uttered his first word, Joey wasn’t sure that Paul had even blinked.
Joey’s attention moved to Oliver.
“Back to the problem at hand, shall we?” The annoyed beaver said. “If that implement of yours hurts as much when it exits as it did upon entrance, the teeth I speak of are capable of irreparable damage.”
Joey nodded without making a sound.
“I suggest something to remove the barb,” Oliver said, “before attempting to extract the larger wire.”
Joey opened his tackle box and removed a small pair cutting pliers. He carefully snipped off the end of the hook and freed Oliver’s lower lip.
“Marvelous work,” Oliver exclaimed, “now it’s on to other things.”
Paul sighed and slumped, Sean opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“What kind of things?” Joey asked.
Oliver stared at Joey.
“Suffice it to say; I will need you and your companions, assistance, assuming they are capable of more than I have seen so far.”
“The first thing I require,” Oliver said, “is for you two (giving a nod toward Sean and Paul) to compose yourselves and stop acting as though you were lobotomized sticks.” Both boys nodded, not at all sure why, but thought it better to agree than not.
Oliver shook his head and snorted.
“It’s settled, you three follow me, but how about some identification?” Joey, Sean and Paul stood pondering the question. “Certainly you mental giants have names?”
“My name’s Joey, this is Sean.” Sean raised his hand and waved. “And this is Paul.” Paul managed a barely audible “hi.”
“Where are you taking us?” Sean asked.
“I didn’t think it possible,” Oliver said, “it’s able to speak.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Joey said, “but you’re being rude.”
Oliver laughed out loud.
“Right you are my boy, being condescending is where I excel.” He stood on his hind legs and spread his bodily oil along his chest to assure his fur remained waterproof. “In answer to your question, Master Sean, my home or lodge as you bipeds like to call it.”
“Your lodge?” Joey questioned.
“That is correct,” Oliver replied, “and keep up.” He turned and slid into the water. “Now would be the time to follow.” Were his last words before disappearing under the surface.
The three boys hesitated and Joey dove in. As he pushed deeper he could make out Oliver’s tail propelling the beaver along. Sean looked at Paul, shrugged and both boys followed Joey.
Joey’s lungs burned searching for oxygen that wasn’t there. He thought of heading for the surface until he saw Oliver slow and crawl upward into a hole surrounded by wooden limbs. He popped into the hole, breaking into a large dome shaped room. Joey bobbed in the water, breathing stale air with his elbows resting on the side of the entrance.
He felt frantic hands grabbing at his feet. He remembered Paul and Sean and jumped into the shelter, clearing the doorway. Two heads broke through the water gasping for air, their shoulders wedged in the opening, preventing any further movement.
“One of you will have to drop into the water,” Oliver said, “so that both of you can enter one at a time.” The beaver chuckled, “unless you would rather continue to provide comic relief.”
After sufficiently oxygenated, Sean spoke.
“No thanks.” He dropped below the surface allowing Paul to enter first then followed, filling the space with three young humans and one smelly, sarcastic beaver.
“Well, now,” Oliver said, “being we’re all here, can we get down to business.”
“Depends on what, down to business means,” Joey said.
“Allow me to explain my intentions,” Oliver replied.
“We’re waiting,” Sean said.
“Ah, the quiet one has found his tongue.”
“Look,” Paul said, “This place is cramped, hot, and it stinks, no doubt due to your musky fragrance.” He wiped the gathering beads of sweat from his forehead. “That’s enough to open anyone’s mouth.”
“Touché!” Oliver said. “Could I interest anyone in some nourishment?”
“I had forgotten how hungry I was,” Joey said, “I’ll take anything you have.” He thought about his last statement, but could devise no way to take it back.
Sean and Paul acknowledged their desire for something to eat. Oliver produced a small bundle of hickory nuts.
“It’s not much,” he said, “but it has sustained me for quite a few years.” The boys dove into the nuts, picking each shell clean until all edible material had been consumed.
Three sighs escaped as if Joey, Sean and Paul had finished a Thanksgiving dinner.
“So tell us about this plan of yours,” Joey said. He yawned and leaned back against the wall.
“It begins more or less with a hard lesson,” Oliver said. “First, take care with whom you associate, you never know who you are dealing with.”
“That makes sense,” Joey said, “what else?”
“What are your ages?” Oliver asked.
“Me and Paul are fourteen,” Joey said.
“And I’m fifteen,” Sean blurted, “I have my learners permit.” His eyes closed then he jerked himself back to awareness.
“Well done,” Oliver said, “remember driving is a privilege not a right.” He rubbed his eyebrows, moved to his eyelids and then inserted one toe on each front paw into his eyeballs. He extracted a yellow thick fluid and placed a small dot on each of the boys’ foreheads.
“In answer to both of your questions, young Joey,” Oliver said, “the first being what else? Here’s how it goes. I’ve been trapped in this filthy rodent’s body for three hundred seven years and I owe a certain someone three centuries of payback. As for your second question, American, English, it matters not. I have lived long enough to become fluent in any language you may know.” Oliver chuckled. “And many you cannot fathom. I often enjoy mixing and matching, provided the one I am speaking to is not too thick.”
“The unfortunate part of this situation being I could not leave this cursed area to find a surrogate, it would have to come to me. For each century, I was unable to acquire said surrogate another would be added. To clarify, three hundred years made it necessary to gain three predecessors.” He smiled as wide as a beaver could. “Henceforth, you three are my saviors. And with this, I bid you a fond ado.” He paused for a moment. “Much better luck to you than came to me.” Oliver slid through the exit.
Paul was snoring softly, Sean still among the conscious, but not enough to understand anything Oliver was saying. Joey could assimilate bits and pieces until, he too, lost the battle and his eyelids slammed shut.
Several minutes after the beaver retreated, the three boys came to. They looked at each other through a brain fog and each one exited the lodge.
They swam to where Joey’s fishing pole still lay on the bank. Scampering up the incline and into the open field, they saw a tall, naked young man a several hundred feet away.
Joey turned to Sean and then to Paul. He could see but did not understand. Must be still under the influence of whatever Oliver had fed the boys.
Sean gazed at Joey and examined his own body. Paul wobbled around in circles lost in whatever daydream floated through his mind.
Joey could think, but could not communicate to either of his friends. It slammed into his brain like a ton of bricks, a situation already realized by his two companions.
The three slumped and worked their way down the hill to where Joey’s fishing pole still lie. Joey, Sean and Paul glanced at each other and proceeded forward.
Three furry beavers slid into the water and made their way back to what would be their new home.
“It’s perfectly legal,” the dark man said. “Here is the address.” He handed Lou a small folded piece of paper. “Be there by nine o’clock tomorrow night.”
Lou took the paper and shoved it into his pocket. “You’re sure?”
“Mr. Maxwell, I assure you this is not an attempt to jeopardize your parole in any way. My client wishes to remain anonymous. The object which he desires to gain entrance is a family heirloom and it must be done without bringing attention to its contents.”
Lou looked at the dark man. He cocked his head to the side and then nodded.
The dark man smiled, “Very good then.”
Lou extended his hand palm up.
“You ain’t forgot, have ya?”
“Of course not.” The dark man reached into his overcoat pocket, produced a legal sized envelope, and handed it to Lou.
Lou opened the envelope and thumbed through the hundred dollar bills. “I’ll count it later.”
“Certainly,” the dark man said. “The rest will be waiting when the job is complete.”
Lou looked at his benefactor. “Why me?”
The dark man chuckled. “You come highly recommended.”
“By who?” Lou countered.
“That is none of your concern.” He gave Lou a stern gaze “Please know, Mr. Maxwell, my client is very influential in global affairs. In fact, fear should guide your questions, remembering anonymity is of the utmost importance.”
“Let me tell you something,” Lou said. “I’m getting a little tired of this cloak and dagger garbage.”
“Then return the money, and we’ll forget this meeting,”
Lou looked down and rubbed his chin. This was more money than he had seen in years. Maybe even enough to make a new start.
“Nah, I’ll do it.” Lou shoved the envelope into his coat pocket and turned to leave.
“Mr. Maxwell,” the dark man said.
Lou stopped and rounded to face him.
“Yeah, whadda ya want now?”
“I trust there are no thoughts of not fulfilling your end of the agreement? I would hate to engage operatives to seek your whereabouts.”
Lou moved close to the dark man.
“Look Mr., when Lou Maxwell says he’ll be somewhere, he’ll be there.”
The dark man nodded. “Then we have an understanding.”
Lou grunted and turned again to leave.
“One more thing, Mr. Maxwell,” Lou stopped, but made no sound, “You have three hours to complete your task. After that I fear any further payment will no longer be necessary.” He paused, “Remember, Mr. Maxwell. Consequences sometimes far exceed reward as it is perceived in the beginning.”
Lou whirled around, and started to speak, but there was no one to listen. The street lamp poured light over the area where the dark man had stood. It began to drizzle. He shivered, pulled his collar up around his neck, and walked home.
Home was the Silver Star hotel. Thirty years earlier it would have been a flophouse, but now was more of a halfway point between prison and the American dream. Lou fumbled with his keys, found the right one, and inserted it into the lock. He looked both ways down the hall and entered his room.
Once inside he twisted the latch and engaged the chain. Thoughts of the dark man faded from his mind. He removed the envelope from his coat, sat on his bed, and began to count. A smile broke across his weathered face. His eyes widened as he mouthed, “Five-thousand.” Lou lay back on his bed and began to laugh.
“And I’ll get twice this for three hours work.”
Lou sat up, removed his coat, and walked to the kitchenette. Looking through the cabinet he found a can of chicken noodle soup and a half package of saltine crackers.
“This ain’t fit for a man of means.” He looked at the envelope. “Tonight we’ll live it up a bit.” Lou walked to the bed, pulled a hundred dollar bill out of the envelope, and shoved the rest under the mattress. He licked his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve.
“And maybe just a little bit of the drink,” he whispered.
Lou picked up his coat, patted the mattress overtop of where the money lay, and headed out into the night, to what he termed a “taste of the good life.”
A thin stream of daylight pierced through the tattered curtains. Lou stirred, opened one eye, and then moaned. He rolled to the edge of the bed and threw his feet onto the floor. Bracing his elbows on his knees he ran his fingers through his tangled gray hair.
Lou licked his dry lips.
“Gotta get this taste outta my mouth.” He stood, wobbled and then fell back on the bed. He took a deep breath, stood once again, and braced himself against the wall as he made his way to the bathroom. Lou rinsed his mouth with the last drops of mouthwash and held onto the shower curtain rod while empting his bladder. He looked at his wrinkled pants, “Sleepin with your clothes on again, eh Maxwell?”
Lou stumbled from the bathroom. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a five, and two one-dollar bills. He sat down on the bed.
“I hope I had a good time last night.”
Along with the bills came the paper with the address the dark man had given him the previous night.
“Twenty One Twelve West Morris Street. That’s less than a quarter mile from here.” Lou looked at his watch. It read 10 a.m. Eleven hours. I just hope this old ticker is right. He rubbed his head and fell back on the bed. He closed his eyes and began to snore.
When Lou awoke, the sun was setting. It was early winter, and he knew it must be around five, maybe five-thirty. He walked to the kitchenette, pulled a glass out of the cabinet, and filled it twice from the sink drinking greedily with each filling. Catching his breath, he wiped his mouth, pulled a can of soup from the cabinet, opened the tin, and drank noodles and all.
“No time to waste.”
Lou jumped into the shower. A musty smell wafted from the drain, coupling with an odor from the mildew stained grout. He emerged, dressed, and walked back to the bed. Lou lifted the mattress to make sure the envelope containing the money was still there; it was. He sighed, picked up his coat, and hurried from his room.
He looked at his watch as he walked down the hall. “Seven thirty, plenty of time.”
He entered the lobby. As he pushed the exterior door to leave, he glanced at a clock that hung on the wall. He stopped. The clock read eight forty-five.
“Oh no,” he said, and took off down the sidewalk in a run.
Lou came to the corner of Morris and Pine. He leaned over, braced his hands on his knees gasping for breath, and vomited. Remaining in this position until his breathing eased. Lou heaved one last time and turned right, heading down Morris at a fast walk.
He saw 2106 on a brick pillar. “Almost there.”
Next came 2108 and 2110. He stopped in front of the next house. His mouth dropped. The number on the wall illuminated by a porch light was 2114. Lou stood for a moment in disbelief.
“What?” he exclaimed, turning in circles searching for the address, his address.
“Why isn’t it here?” Panic set in, and then he spotted a narrow brick lined path leading between the two houses. He walked to the gate that hung across the path into the alley. Painted across the six-foot high wooden slats in small faded text were the numbers 2112.
Lou looked at his watch, it read eight o’clock sharp.
“By the motel clock I’m an hour and fifteen minutes slow. That means it’s a quarter after nine.” He reset his timepiece to the correct time. Lou pushed against the gate, creaking as it opened. He walked through and moved down the path.
As he cleared the alley and entered into an open area behind the houses, the path took an abrupt turn to the left. Lou continued on. The path narrowed further. He turned sideways to squeeze between two more buildings and after twenty feet of inching along, broke into another open space.
In front of him, a porch light washed over the raised numbers 2112. Lou paused, took a deep breath, climbed the three steps, and stood facing the door.
It was larger than a usual entry door and intricately carved with indefinable lines and swirls. Something on the door caught Lou’s attention. He peered closer. Unable to make sense of the form, he leaned backward. A face with its mouth frozen in some horrendous agony came into focus and then faded back into the wood.
Lou shook his head and turned back to his pre-ordained task. He reached for the knob. Before he could touch it, the door opened.
“I guess you were expecting me.” He walked inside and saw his quarry. Ten feet into the room sat a safe, by his reckoning, an old safe. Lou stepped closer, plastered across the front were the words, Mosler Safe & Lock Cincinnati Ohio.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. I could open this thing with my eyes closed. It’s gotta be over a hundred years old.” Lou moved closer to the safe and knelt down. The light was dim but he recognized the numbers on the dial just fine. An hour at the most, he thought.
Lou spent time in prison because of his safe cracking ability. Now, he was out and on parole, but this brought back memories that both scared and kindled a fire within him.
“Ten-thirty,” he exclaimed. “It couldn’t have taken that long to get here from the street.” No matter, he thought. I’ll finish with plenty of time left.
Lou laced his fingers together pushing them forward. Resounding multiple cracks ensued. He smiled. “Time to get down to business,” he whispered.
Lou placed his left hand on top of the safe. Rubbing the fingers of his right hand together, he wrapped them around the dial. He pushed his ear to the door and listened for the tumblers to click into place. Once he positioned the first tumbler, the rest would go easier. It took forty-five minutes to accomplish this. Lou glanced at his watch. Eleven-fifteen. He could do it, but he’d have to hurry.
As the second tumbler clicked, beads of sweat broke out on Lou’s forehead. His senses heightened. The sound of the second hand pounded in his ears as it traversed around the clock face.
“Eleven-thirty,” he said. “Two more tumblers, fifteen minutes each.” Lou wiped the sweat away from his face. “You can do this.”
The third tumbler clicked into place. Lou smiled. He checked the time. “Only ten minutes.”
That leaves me with twenty. He rubbed his hands together and eased the dial to the left. Lou sensed the last tumbler fall into place. At that instant a church bell tolled, ringing in the new day. In his exuberance, he brushed against the dial knocking it one click further.
Lou’s face froze.
“No,” he screamed, “I’ll have to start over.” He reached for the handle that would unlatch the safe door. It didn’t budge. Lou lowered his head. The clapper struck the bell for the eleventh time. He looked at the dial. Maybe, he thought.
Lou turned the dial ever so slightly to the right. It clicked. He reached for the handle.
The bell tolled for the twelfth and final time. The latch fell under the weight of his hand.
“What’s a few seconds one way or the other? Tall, dark, and ugly will never know the difference.”
Lou pulled the handle; at first it wouldn’t budge, then the seal broke with a hiss and the door opened. The safe was empty. He experienced a frigid presence move past his head. He saw nothing but turned to watch it… moreover, feel it, leave the house. The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention and a nauseating sensation settled in his gut. Lou couldn’t help but wonder what he had released into the world.
He turned back to the safe. Now, there was an envelope and a newspaper neatly folded, lying on the middle shelf. He picked up the envelope stuffed with hundred dollar bills, smiled, and slid the envelope into his pocket. Tucking the paper under his arm, he walked through the door and onto the porch. It was light outside.
Lou looked at his watch.
“Six a.m.,” he exclaimed. “Where did all the time go?” He traced his steps back down the alley and emerged onto Morris Street. Lou began the trek back to the motel.
On his way, he stopped at a small diner to have a cup of coffee.
“Funny, I didn’t notice this place before.” He opened the door and stepped inside.
“What can I getcha?” the waitress behind the counter asked.
“Just coffee,” Lou replied. He was the only one in the joint, so he took a seat at the counter. He removed the paper from under his arm and laid it on the counter. It unfolded exposing the front page. She brought his coffee and sat it down in front of him.
“Thanks,” Lou said.
“You bet,” she replied.
Lou reached for the sugar. The front-page headline caught his attention, Probe Reveals Twofold Nuclear Debacle. He continued to read.
On the ten year anniversary, a fourteen-month investigation revealed that the cause of the worldwide nuclear disaster stemmed from two unrelated incidents. The first being the failed assassination attempt of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Governor Connelly’s wife, who was struck by two bullets from Oswald’s rifle, had not survived the attack.
Kennedy introduced nuclear missile sites in Europe the following year. With relations between the US, and Soviet Union becoming increasingly strained, stolen documents became the deciding factor. The documents had been professionally appropriated from a Soviet spy working as a double agent within the United States.
Papers outlining a U.S. strike were stolen from the operative’s residence on Morris Street in downtown New Jersey. An unknown person or persons removed plans from the operative’s safe and transported the papers to the Soviet Union.
Upon receipt of the documents, Khrushchev launched a preemptive strike, the morning of October 12, 1968, against the U.S. The United States answered immediately. The result was devastation on a global scale. Ten years later the damage is just rectifying itself.
Lou stopped reading at that point. He looked at the name and date on the paper, The New LA Times, October 12, 1978.
“Impossible! When I left a few hours ago, it was 1964 and LBJ was President.” Lou took a sip of coffee. “Somebody’s idea of a sick joke.”
To prove himself right, he questioned the waitress. “It’s been almost a year, whadda ya think?”
She looked puzzled, “About what?”
“You know,” he said, “since Oswald assassinated Kennedy.”
“Are you nuts?” she countered. “The election isn’t for another month and after that, Kennedy’s still in until the inauguration in January.”
“No,” Lou objected. “I mean the assassination.”
“Mr., maybe it’s time for you to leave.”
Lou stared at her, “What year is this?”
“You don’t have to pay for the coffee, just please leave.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Just tell me what year it is.”
She smirked and placed one hand on her hip. “Mr., it’s 1968. October 12, 1968, and I’m calling the police.”
Lou slumped on his stool. “No need,” he said. “It won’t make any difference.”
“No further payment would be necessary,” the dark man, had said. Lou pursed his lips. “That’s what he meant if the safe remained unopened by the deadline.” At that instance, a blinding flash filled the diner and moments later another. Those few seconds made more of a difference than I could have ever imagined.
“They said nothing about thunderstorms today,” the waitress said. She walked to the windows to look outside. Lou turned to see two mushroom clouds rising above the adjacent buildings. He knew enough about nuclear detonations to know that the shock-wave was soon to follow.
One thought entered his head as he stared at the counter. Ten thousand dollars for a cup of coffee I won’t be able to finish. He shook his head, smiled, and raised the cup to his lips.
The small cork disappeared below the surface jerking the cane pole forward. This set into motion a chain of events that culminated in an opposite reaction that set the hook.
“Gotcha,” Eric said. His rod bent double. “Or maybe you’ve got me.” His ancient equipment groaned under the force of what would be the largest fish he’d ever landed.
“You’re mine, now.” Eric sensed the barely audible cracks and pops from the feel of the rod in his hands. He knew the eventual outcome if he didn’t get this fish beached and soon. He did an about-face, laid the pole across his shoulder, and dug his toes into the bank for traction. Eric dragged the six pound catfish onto the shore just as the hook straightened and the fish began a methodical flop back toward the water.
“No, you don’t.” He grabbed the rare purple species under the gills, avoiding the poisonous spikes that protruded from its dorsal fins. “Whether you know it or not, you’re invited to dinner tonight.” He wove a slender piece of rope through its gills and out the mouth to carry his catch. He stood, picked up his cane pole, and reached for the purple cat. “It wouldn’t do to leave the guest of honor behind.”
Eric fished his grandfather’s twelve hundred acre farm pond since he and his dad moved to Iceland from New Phoenix. This was a literal and figurative statement in view of the fact that both had drifted a thousand miles or more north. What remained of Arizona was now a part of the Great North American Barrier Reef. The reef was home to some of the best fishing grounds in the entire United Islands of America.
Eric held the fish draped over his shoulder. He turned his head as if talking to an old friend.
“A few years ago before the glacial melt released the blue algae you’re so fond of snacking on; you’d still be a run-of-the-mill channel cat.” Eric ran his fingers over the dark purple spots laid over a lighter purple background. The purple background faded into a dazzling orange and yellow sunset pattern, beginning at the anal fin and ending at the tip of the tail.
“Just look at you now. A meal fit for a king and an expensive one at that. Did you realize that catching and killing one of your kind carries with it a mandatory manslaughter sentence? Yep, ten years in the slammer, but it’s every bit worth the risk.”
It was a long hike to his grandfather’s house. Just a few years ago this trek would have taken him through a frozen wasteland. Create a scenario, incorporate one or two, well entrenched bureaucrats and you can accomplish just about anything. Not that global warming had no basis in fact; the reality was we had nothing to do with its existence. It was a “cyclical event that politicians used to legally extort money with useless programs to reduce greenhouse gasses.” That was his Dad’s take on the subject; for him the jury was still out.
The welcome sight of his grandfather’s house caused Eric to lengthen his stride. He could see his father scanning the much-awaited supplies as the delivery barge puttered away from the dock.
“Hi, Dad,” Eric said. “Did we get everything?”
His dad turned and smiled, then froze with a septic expression.
“No!” Eric screamed as pieces of his father’s face collapsed in on itself. He ran. The fish slid from his shoulder, passing through the dock. “Not again!”
A malfunctioning diode slammed shut. The program lost; Eric once again found himself alone, suspended in a decaying Talis field.
Unable to move, his body in a temporary state of paralysis, Eric’s mind raced. What had gone wrong? How much time had passed? Why hadn’t the failsafe kicked in to support the program?
Eric Vaughn, a bored computer technician, created the program as a video game twelve years earlier before global warming became a cold wet fact. His work wove him through seven years of failure and disappointment. Then he stumbled upon the answer–a containment field he dubbed, “Talis.”
A developed Talis field would enable him to survive the deluge until his natural death. His demise would take place in a computer-generated world he nicknamed FOR.E.V.E. R (formulated enhanced virtual reality.)
He could move a little now. He could turn his head enough to see his old wall clock.
“The program lasted three minutes,” Eric sighed. “That’s not enough time. The Talis field must be maintained for at least three months real time. That would give me seventy years in my computer-generated world.”
He lay allowing his thoughts to wash over him. With an improved memory chip, I will grow old and die, oblivious to my real fate. Programming my own death will be the most difficult part, but unlike most other beings, I alone control my own destiny, fabricated as it may be.
He struggled to a sitting position.
If the Talis field were to shut down for any reason, it would take nineteen minutes for the paralysis it caused to subside. Eric stumbled to his computer terminal. The small installation where he lived and worked rested on one of the highest habitable places left on earth. Once eleven thousand feet above sea level, the water now lapped at his front door and would cover fifty percent of the building in less than six days.
Eric’s neighbors comprised four other families within proximity; two of which had small children. Each family supported banding together. Eric would hear nothing of the sort.
“They wanted to steal my invention for themselves,” Eric hissed. He furrowed his forehead and squinted until he was looking through two narrow slits. The pressure of the rising water and the lack of medication drove Eric to systematically eliminate every human being he deemed a threat to his survival. As fast as it began, the episode was over. His eyes opened, his forehead relaxed, and all forgotten.
“If nothing else, I’ve become proficient over the years at calculating to the inch the rising water.” He was on the verge of perfecting the program, but with resources running out, he had time for one last attempt and the remote possibility of a second. He would try, but now, utterly exhausted, it would have to wait.
Eric rose before dawn. By noon the faulty diode was replaced and tested perfectly. Water seeped under the exterior doors. Eric sat sipping coffee and watching the wet spots expand across the floor meeting in the middle. If he were going, it would have to be now, as it may allow another attempt if this one failed within the next three days.
He strapped himself into the harness around which the Talis field would be constructed. Eric then started the IV’s and the artificial atmosphere projector that would sustain his life in the FOR.E.V.E.R. world. With everything in place, he restarted the program. Eric was back on the dock helping his father check the recently delivered supplies.
Time passed uneventfully for Eric. He now had a wife and an eight-year-old son, Jason. His marine delivery business was thriving. Sadly, an unfortunate accident claimed the life of his father fourteen years earlier, though somehow he sensed it wasn’t real making it easier to accept.
Eric walked into Jason’s room, leaned over, and shook him.
“Time to get up.”
“Just a few more minutes,” Jason pleaded.
“Son, you know the fish don’t bite in the middle of the day; now get a move on.”
No school, Jason thought, we’re going fishing. He dressed and pounded down two bowls of Mala-flakes and a glass of juice before Eric finished his canned caffeine.
“Give me a minute to finish breakfast,” calmed his Dad.
“You’ve had your minute,” Jason said. “You got me up; now let’s go!”
Eric smiled, “Yeah, I guess I did.”
They arrived at the dock and boarded the skiff. Once Eric and Jason reached what looked like a promising spot, they placed their lines. Before Jason’s line was wet, a violent tug caused him to heave backward to set the hook. He somersaulted over the shallow edge of the skiff and into the water.
“Jason!” Eric screamed, and in a single motion dove in to save his son. Submersed, he opened his eyes. To his horror, he was on his back unable to move. Thru the murky water he could see the old wall clock and his computer terminal. In his haste, he had forgotten to encase the computer in the Talis field to keep it dry. As the last bubbles of carbon dioxide left his lungs, he noticed a small school of hungry minnows swim by. Hmm, wonder if I taste like chicken?