Friday, July 30, 2010

“Chocolate Chip Cookies with Butterscotch Sprinkles” by Matthew Dexter

My mother hates my best friend’s mother with a wicked vitriolic obsession, so our play dates always end with my dad picking me up in the station wagon, honking the horn and waving his hand at the woman who brought genital herpes into our family. Thanks Mrs. Wilson, I say. Mom never lets me invite her--my friend: Heather, to our house--and she never actually says genital herpes, but one night I crawled down the staircase like a spider and that’s what she was singing to Dad while drinking Bloody Mary’s at midnight.

“Herpes, herpes, herpes, mi casa es su casa Fernanda Wilson.”

As it turns out Mom had to have the gynecologist freeze those lesions off of her vagina. She never told me this, but when I was home from school on a snow day playing Tetris I read the clinical laboratory tests and put the pieces together. I’m eleven: so I’m smart enough to figure it out. Mom thinks she’s being discrete when she drinks Cabernet Sauvignon at dinner and brings up the issue with Dad, often interrupting me in mid-sentence after I start talking about Heather and fifth grade.

“That third world witch has cast her spell upon this family for sure.”

Dad’s expression says that he cheated on Mom one Easter when I was seven. I also read this in Mom’s diary that snow day. There was a golden hair dyed like Mom used to have folded over the front page between the withered wine-stained cover and the upper right-hand corner dated 9/7/04. I carefully removed the hair and held it in my hand, reading my Mom’s innermost secrets: Moved into new neighborhood today. Already met nice people. Suzie has a new friend in second grade named Heather. Never met her, though she talks about her every day.

I read the first quarter of the diary, lying on Mom’s bed for hours holding my bladder and the hair growing greasy in my hand in the sweat that rose from the candidness of Mom’s honesty. 4/26/09: Kyle finally admitted he fucked her today. Going to the doctor tomorrow to make sure he didn’t bring me any diseases. Son of a bitch. Guess my vibrator will need more batteries soon.

I nearly pissed myself and put that hair back into place just perfect as a car pulled into the driveway through the slush puddles, crunching against the frozen snow like footsteps in a forest you’ve never known the depth of until you’ve read your mother’s diary. She hates the woman because of the warts. She can feel the woman when she feels the warts. No lasers or cryogenic process can take away the visceral viral sensations of the hated presence of Heather’s mother. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Now I have it. I think of it all the time when I’m in Heather’s kitchen watching her mother bake chocolate chip cookies with butterscotch sprinkles.

I don’t know much about sex or symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, though I’m a smart girl whose only fault is my desire to make loud farts like boys and not say, “Excuse me.” After class I ask my sex-ed lesbian gym teacher about transferring genital warts to children.

“It’s possible but only if the mother has the warts before the child is born, apparently the child must be exposed to the virus. You should talk to your mother about this Suzie.”

All I know about sex is that one night at a super bowl party at Mark Weiner’s house while playing hide-and-go-seek in the dark, me and Sam Johnson kept hiding in the same spot--in the back of this enormous walk-in closet, hugging, his erection growing, warming against my cashmere sweater, pumping blood in the darkness. We did this at least a dozen times, sweating into my sweater; I had seldom felt better in my life. But Sam Johnson moved to a different state that spring and I never saw him again.

Mom bought a new diary after the spine fell off the other one. She’s older now with back problems and genital warts have become nothing more than a sore she will never forget. Next snow day, I’m going to go read her new diary. Her thoughts never go away, blotting the pages with red ink, I think she’ll have the urge to write forever. Spilling ink like blood, it’s become a part of her, a sickness; she’ll have it for the rest of her life, like herpes.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

“Pilgrim Small” by T.R. Healy

Breathing heavily, sounding almost as loud as the freight train rumbling behind him, Birchall staggered out of the river, his arms hanging limply at his sides. Any moment he expected his knees to buckle, he was so exhausted. He felt as if he had swum across the river and back, through flags of white water that battered every muscle in his body. All he did was go around in a circle, though, around and around and around.

"You see him?" a woman on shore asked urgently.

Shaking his head, he dropped to all fours, still breathing heavily.

"You didn't?"

"No," he gasped. "I looked where the guy was last seen but I didn't see a trace of him."

"Where are the people he was with?"

"I don't know if he was with anyone," he replied. "All I heard was someone shout some swimmer was in trouble."

"He'll wash up, eventually," a crotchety man beside the woman predicted. "The drowned always do."

"That's an awful thing to say," the woman scolded him.

"It's the truth, though."

"You think it may have been a prank?" another sunbather wondered.

"No. I saw a young woman and she was beside herself she was so upset."

"Where is she?"

"I don't know."

"I just wonder if someone isn't pulling someone's leg."

Birchall frowned at the suggestion. "No one could be that stupid and cruel."

"I don't think so either," the crotchety man chimed in, staring out at the river. "The screaming I heard was real all right. You could hear the fear in it."

It certainly sounded genuine to him, Birchall thought, as he gathered his strength to go back in the river and search further for the missing swimmer. But it was curious that the woman who cried for help was nowhere to be seen.


Birchall, a bicycle mechanic, bent over the chipped blue Peugeot bike suspended on a metal stand, carefully clamping a brake lever to the left handlebar. Earlier, as its owner requested, he replaced the curled-drop handlebars with a pair of upright ones.

"Damn it!" he complained as the Allen wrench slipped out of his hand for the third time in the past two minutes.

"What's the matter, Hub?" Haas, a frequent customer who also rented space in the shop to work on his bikes, asked. "You're having a hell of a time holding on to anything."

"I can't seem to concentrate this morning."

"You out partying again last night?"

Shaking his wiry brown hair, he stepped back from the Peugeot and told him about his futile search for the missing swimmer.

"Jesus, Hub, you can't blame yourself if you didn't find the guy. You did all you could I'm sure."

"Maybe I did more than I should have."

"I don't understand."

"It might've been nothing more than a prank," he conceded reluctantly. "Some creeps wanted to see what they could stir up and got a few laughs out of watching some gung-ho guy like me searching for someone who didn't exist."

"You really think that's a possibility?"

"I'm afraid I do."

"It takes all kinds of people to make up this sorry ass world."

"I just hate being made a fool of," he grunted, pressing the Allen wrench against the left side of his forehead. "I guess I'm too damn gullible sometimes."

"You weren't the only one looking for the swimmer, were you?"

"No, but I kept at it longer than anyone else. So I guess that makes me the biggest fool of the bunch."

"Who knows, Hub? Maybe there really was someone who was lost in the river. Maybe some fisherman will come across him in another day or two."

Idly he spun the back wheel of the antique bike. "I very much doubt it, Eddie. I mean, I don't want anyone to have drowned, but I suppose I'd feel a little better if a body was recovered from the river. I know that sounds awful but it's the way I feel."


Rising out of the saddle of his Lemond racing bike, Birchall pedaled furiously, determined to get through the busy intersection before the light changed, and he did by a fraction of a second. Then, sitting down, he looked at his watch. He would be late for work but not much later than usual. Again this morning he searched through the paper for any news about someone being fished out of the river but there was not a word. Nor was there any mention of any swimmer being lost the other day.

Someone had definitely played him for a sucker, he realized, as he steered around a grapefruit-sized pothole. So there was no reason to continue to comb through the newspaper for information about a lost swimmer because there wasn't one. Not the other afternoon, anyway.

He hated the thought of some creeps squatting behind a sand dune and laughing at him as he plunged in and out of the river. But not for an instant did he regret that he made the effort. Some people, for whatever reason, cry wolf even when they are not in trouble but he knew from his mother he must not ignore such cries because sometimes they might be genuine. Many years ago, when his mother was a youngster, she ignored the cries of a girl in her neighborhood who was known to cry wolf to seek attention. This time, however, the girl was in serious trouble. She had slipped on her roof and was hanging from an eave, and eventually fell to the ground and fractured her spine. And his mother never forgave herself for not going to help her friend.


"Have you heard anything about your lost swimmer?" Haas inquired as he wheeled a limp mountain bike over to his workstation.

Birchall, patching a tire, shook his head. "No, and I don't think I ever will."

"So you're convinced it was a prank then?"

"Yeah." He brushed away a bead of sweat hanging from the tip of his nose. "Some folks have a weird sense of humor I guess."

"Bastards. That's what they are, all right."

"I can't argue with that."

"You perform a good deed you expect something good to follow. Or at least receive some kind of remuneration for your effort."

Birchall didn't reply as he struggled to slip the mended inner tube back onto the wheel.

"Don't you agree?"

"I didn't jump into the river for money, Eddie."

"No. I'm sure you didn't but you deserved at least a slap on the back instead of across the face."

"Yeah, well, that's the way things go sometimes."

"I don't know if you're interested but I know where you can get some gratification for helping others. And something you can put in your billfold too."

"Where's that?"

"You know that theater group I belong to?"

He smiled. "Oh, no, you're not going to ask me to stand in as 'atmosphere' in another production of Guys and Dolls?"

"No, not that," he chuckled, bracing a boot heel against a leg of his workbench. "We're not rehearsing anything at the moment."

"Thank God. I just couldn't see myself wearing one of those hideous chalk-striped suits again. I felt like a pimp."

"Now don't say no until you hear me out. All right?"

He nodded suspiciously.

"The other day the manager of our company received a letter from the commandant of Fort Defiance inviting anyone who was interested to play roles in a live combat exercise that's scheduled at the end of the month."

"You're putting me on, right? Just like those creeps out at the river."

He raised his hand in a ragged salute. "I'm dead serious."

"So what are you suppose to do, exactly?"

He shrugged. "I guess you find out when you go out to the fort but I assume you play what you are, civilians, caught in some kind of crossfire."

"Collateral damage, in other words?"

"Possibly. I don't really know, Hub."

"Are you going to take part in it?"

"Sure, why not? I like to perform and for me this is another opportunity to do that, except that it's on a much bigger stage than
I'm accustomed to."

"That's for damn sure."

"So do you think you might be interested in playing a role?"

"I don't know, Eddie. I'll have to think about it."

"This time, you do something to help someone out, you get compensated for it."


Furiously the armored car raced through the desert, along a gritty road that was barely wide enough for the camouflaged vehicle. Clouds of sand rose all around it so it was difficult at times to make out the road but the driver, a corporal from Mississippi with an accent as thick as the sand, assured his passengers he didn't need to see a thing to find where he was going. Above the roar of the engine could be heard the distant crackle of gunfire.

In another moment, two planes streaked overhead, flimsy as kites, Birchall thought, as he huddled beside Haas in the back of the vehicle.

"Can you believe it?"

Haas grinned. "It's pretty surreal, all right."

"I feel as if we've wandered onto a movie set."

"Except that all the gunfire we're hearing is real."

Thick plumes of black smoke soared across the sky so that it seemed as if the entire desert were on fire. The heat was frightful. Haas was sure it was hot enough to melt the camouflage paint off the roof of the car.

Abruptly, the corporal turned around. "O.K., gents, get ready to suffer."

"What did he say?"

Birchall shrugged. "Something about suffering."

Half a minute later, the corporal slammed on the brakes, heaved a red smoke canister over to the opposite side of the road, and pointed a finger at Birchall. "Time to get with the program, buddy," he said. "You've just had your day ruined by an IED."

"Should I get out too?" Haas asked, fastening the strap of his camouflaged helmet.

"Nah. You're going to be hit a mile or so up the road."

"That far?"

Nodding, he looked back at Birchall. "You got your blood packet?"

He slapped a pocket of his oversized fatigue shirt. "Right here."

"You're good to go then."

He had barely got out of the car when it started back down the road. And for a moment he stared at it, the red smoke swirling around him, then walked over to some sagebrush where he decided to wait to be treated. Yawning, he took a sip of water from his canteen then screwed the cap back on and stretched out his left leg. From his shirt pocket he took out the packet of fake blood, unzipped it, and as instructed poured it over his leg, which was suppose to be riddled with shrapnel from an improvised explosive device. It was as warm as the water in his canteen.

Bracing his back against the sagebrush, he looked at his watch. The corporal assured him he would receive medical attention within five minutes of his injury being reported. He was skeptical, though, remembering from a cyclist he knew who served a hitch in the Army that one thing a soldier could count on was waiting a long time for anything to happen. So he closed his eyes, hoping to catch up on some sleep he lost last night, but it was just too noisy. Every few seconds there was sporadic gunfire, interrupted occasionally by fierce explosions, which convinced him more than ever that he was an extra in a movie. Maybe The Lost Patrol, he thought, recalling the old John Ford film he watched the other night on television.

Earlier this morning, after the commandant welcomed what he referred to as the "civilian role players" to the fort, he said, "About one thing I have no doubt and it is that you will derive an enormous amount of satisfaction from your participation in our exercise today. You are making a personal sacrifice and doing something positive for your country and I can't think of a better definition of a patriot."

The commandant was right. Already, with his leg drenched in imitation blood, Birchall felt considerable satisfaction but he knew it was not anywhere near as much as he would have felt at the river if he found the lost swimmer. He would have been regarded as a savior then, might even have got his name mentioned in the newspaper.

All of a sudden a tank appeared on a hill over his right shoulder, its turret slowly swiveling until the barrel of its cannon was aimed at the road. It was so faraway it didn't alarm him, seemed as small and innocuous as a lizard.

Pilgrim small, he thought, recalling a term employed by his father whenever he wished to dismiss something as insignificant.

Often his father had described things he had done as "pilgrim small," even referred to him by the curious term. He was certain that was how he would have characterized his behavior at the river. "You're small, son, just like your mother," he would have said. "Always in need of being needed." He would have been right, too, as usual. Out at the river he continued to search for the lost swimmer long after everyone else realized it was a prank. But his desire for recognition and approval were too great for him to admit it because he so desperately wanted to be thought of as someone significant, if only for a short while.

Seconds later, a helicopter swooped over a ridge, the whap-whap sound of its blades as loud as bursts of gunfire, and Birchall looked at his watch. Surprisingly, it arrived almost as soon as the corporal said. He assumed he would be evacuated out of here on it just as soon, with a tourniquet tied around his thigh and a make-believe bottle of saline solution attached to his arm. Straightening his bloody leg, he watched the aircraft hover above the road while the tank crept down the hillside. Certainly he felt a measure of satisfaction for participating in the live combat exercise but deep down he wished he were one of the medics who would be storming off the helicopter to attend to someone pretending to be seriously wounded. And, for a split instant, he was, dodging sniper bullets as if they were pellets of rain.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

“Homeowner’s Association Dues” by Gene Desrochers

Jermaine Johnson hung up the phone and told Brady Cain that the gas company would be out in twenty minutes to check the gas leak he said they smelled from Stephen Jones’ unit. Brady nodded, “Will that give Ford enough time?”

“I hope so,” Jermaine replied with some tension in his voice. He walked back to the group, his champagne flute raised in his hand.

The Pembroke Pines homeowner’s meeting had just begun. Jermaine, the treasurer of the 8-unit condo association, had brought four bottles of Alan Coruthers’ favorite champagne for the group. Jermaine had announced to them that it was to celebrate Alan’s three-year anniversary at Pembroke Pines. Besides Stephen Jones, the extremely troublesome young man in unit 4B, Alan was the newest member of their “family.” Stephen and Ford Carter, the association president, were the only two homeowners who were not present.

“To burying the hatchet,” Jermaine toasted.

“Whatever the hell that means,” Alan said with mock humor. Jermaine kept his smile painted on in full regalia. The meeting had just started and Alan was being difficult already. Alan continued, “I still say I should be Treasurer. Heck, I am the only certified public accountant in this building. Who better for the job?” No one said anything. They all sipped their champagne, staring into the bottom of their flutes like there might be buried treasure down there.

Alan had been one-third through his second glass after fifteen minutes of boring condo discussion, when Ford bolted through the door of Rachel Bartholomew’s unit where the meeting was being held. He snatched Alan’s glass and the bottle that Alan had poured his second glass from, and left again saying only, “I’ll be right back,” as he went out the door.

“Where’d Ford go with my glass?” Alan whined.

The others shrugged in unison.

Alan stood up. “Don’t any of you think it’s strange? Isn’t he supposed to be here? Ford is a homeowner and the president, whatever the hell that means,” Alan said. “Hey, was Ford wearing gloves?” He opened the door and looked in both directions down the warmly lit hallway. It was vacant.

“No, I didn’t see gloves,” Brady, a stocky construction worker, said as Alan shut the door.

“I thought I saw gloves on his hands,” Alan repeated.

“I didn’t see gloves either,” Amanda Chandler intoned.

Rachel came from the kitchen with another bottle and glass. “Here’s your champagne, Alan,” Rachel said. As she walked away, she sprinkled a little bit of white powder on Alan’s shoulder from a tiny envelope as he examined his champagne flute. She then walked back to the kitchen and immediately washed her hands thoroughly after pouring the contents of the envelope down the drain.

“This is another glass,” Alan said.

“Everything’s fine, Alan,” Amanda, who owned the unit beside Alan’s, said quietly. Amanda was a shorthaired real estate agent who acted as association secretary. He glared at her and pushed his glasses up on his nose.

“I wonder why you guys would celebrate my three-year anniversary? At last year’s meeting, Brady accused me of poisoning his mangy mutt. No offense, Brady, but why the hell would I waste the money? I still want to modify the bylaws to say no pets can live here.”

Brady turned red, but smiled and took a swig of champagne. “Yeah,” was all he said in a neutral voice.

“Where is Stephen? He never misses a meeting. I want that bastard out of here too. I was looking forward to chatting with him today. What are we doing about him and his wild ride?” Alan looked at Jermaine for an answer.

“It’s being taken care of as we speak,” Jermaine said, glancing at Rachel’s cat clock for the third time in the last thirty seconds.

“Is that lawyer finally moving his ass?” Alan pulled some sheets of paper out of his pocket and smacked them with the back of his hand. “If I have to make one more phone call to that guy about our Mr. Stephen Jones, I’m gonna start charging the rest of you for my phone bill too. Look at this!” He shoved the bills into Amanda’s face.

“That’s okay, Alan, I believe you’ve called him a lot,” Amanda said, waving her hands in front of her face defensively.

“We’re employing some self-help at this point. Soon the lawyer will have a different job,” Brady said.

Alan grunted. “Sounds like the first right thing this association has done in three years. What a waste of money that lawyer has been! All this time and we can’t kick him out even with the yapping dog and the screaming women. What the hell is that about? I’ll tell you, incompetence. Just like Ford right now not being here. Incompetence. We should have employed self-help a long time ago. That’s what I would have done.” He banged his fist and drank more champagne.

Ford returned looking tired and unhappy. “It’s done,” he said, pulling skin-colored latex gloves off his hands.

“See, he has gloves,” Alan declared triumphantly.

Rachel sighed and gave a weary smile, “Really?” She looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks.

“Really,” Ford said. “Excuse me while I dispose of these.”

“Good, ‘cause they’re on their way. They should be here in less than five minutes. You did leave the gas on, right?” Jermaine said as Ford walked to the kitchen.

“Actually, I see a gas truck outside already,” Rachel said.

“Should we tell him?” Amanda asked.

“According to the resident attorney,” Brady nodded at Rachel, “No, but I can’t resist. Why don’t we take a vote?”

“What are we voting on?” Alan asked.

“Whether to tell you that we’ve just framed you for the death of Stephen Jones,” Jennifer Shakespeare said, speaking for the first time.

Silence, thick as blood, seeped through the room. The whir of the blender coming from the kitchen broke the quiet.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Alan muttered. “The glass…” He looked at the champagne flute then yelled to Ford as the blender stopped. “You are a moron, Ford. You can’t get away with this. I have an alibi.”

“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Rachel asked.

“Well, assuming you just killed him, I was here,” Alan smiled.

“I was here in Rachel’s apartment, when I heard a thump from downstairs and smelled gas,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t see you here, and I was first to arrive.”

“See Alan, we are tied in by mutual guilt and disgust for both you and Stephen. We needed to return our community to peace and prosperity. We needed a way to get rid of the bed bugs in our blankets, so to speak. It’s the beauty of having a singles community of loyal family who will do whatever it takes to keep the peace. After you killed Brady’s dog, he came to me with a proposition. I disseminated it to the rest of our family. They agreed and a plan hatched that day. After nearly six months of careful planning and of letting you build convincing motive with your crazy phone calls to our lawyer and threatening Stephen at every homeowner’s meeting for the last two years, which our brilliant secretary recorded word for word, we carried out that plan today. You made yourself the perfect patsy,” Jermaine said.

“Yup, watching those cop shows sure gives you a good idea of what the police look for in a killer,” Brady said. “Opportunity and motive, both of which you supply in spades my dog-killing friend.”

Ford returned, wearing fresh clothes after a brief shower.

“They won’t buy it. Why would I do it during a meeting?” Alan said.

“You’re right, there were some catches,” Ford said without missing a beat. “We had to solve the problem of your potential alibi and the fact that all of us have motive to kill Stephen as well. Then, we realized, how about a little unscheduled homeowner’s meeting at one of our units? All of us were here, but we had no idea where Stephen and Alan had got to. Innocently, we could all say that perhaps no one told you and since it was unscheduled, it was not in the newsletter either. You must have just forgotten, then remembered after the fact and tried to come in to produce an alibi.”

Just then, they heard the sirens of a police car. Rachel looked out her window.

“Is that for us?” Jennifer asked.

“Yes,” Rachel said.

“How are you all going to explain that I’m here right now?” Alan said smugly.

“Whether you leave or not, makes no big difference to us. We’ve all been here for two full hours and you just arrived less than ten minutes ago. Who told you about the meeting?” Ford said.

“You did,” Alan said, fear rising in his throat. He could smell the sulfurous residue of his dying innocence.

“No, I didn’t,” Ford said.

“At least tell me how I did it,” Alan pleaded.

“A rare white powdered poison that I cannot pronounce. You must have put it in his glass when you drank champagne with him,” Rachel said. “I’m sure the police will know what it is.”

Alan looked around wildly and realized that all traces of their earlier champagne toast had been removed.

“Why are you doing this?” Alan asked.

“Because we don’t like you,” Brady answered. “Because I prayed to God that someone would do something about the way you treat people, but then I realized, and made the rest of us realize, that god is in each of us. It’s up to us to weed the evil out of the world. If you kill little, harmless dogs, who knows what else you are capable of.”

No one else spoke. Alan felt like he was sitting in a courtroom with a jury of six and Brady was the foreman who had swayed them all to vote his way. They heard footsteps in the hallway outside.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“Megalomania by Elliot Andreoulos

Megalomania is a psychopathological condition characterized by delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence. An obsession with grandiose or extravagant things or actions.

Thompson McCarthy sat in the five hundred person lecture hall and waited for a copy of the Statistics final examination to be passed to him. A malodorous stench entered his nose that reminded him of his mother’s arid hospital room where her bedpan went days without being emptied. A test booklet and Scantron were passed to him by the beautiful blonde who sat two seats away from him. Her name was Christa Holt and she lived in the Johnson Dormitory Tower, which he found out by stalking her after every class. He was aware of his problem, but did not want to stop because he was so lonely.

He could not figure why a statistics exam was multiple choice, where a minor mistake could lead to a wrong answer despite every other step being executed correctly. He gazed over the problems and realized he could not answer any of them. Instead of studying, he chose to write a song that ended up sounding like a litter of kittens trying to escape from a sack before they are thrown into a river. He allowed a minute to elapse before he bubbled ‘A’ for every answer. He got out of his seat, which made a loud screech and gave students the opportunity to investigate the racket and have their eyes drift to neighboring exams. He lumbered down the carpeted steps that had years of dirt embedded in them and approached the professor, a sad looking man with gunk tattooed under his eyes making it seem like he was entrenched in perpetual sleep. He handed in the exam with some students applauding his courage for being the spokesperson of their shared misgivings about the unfair questions, but most laughed at how foolish he was for not even trying. He gazed at Christa, who remained concentrated on her exam. Her lack of reaction made him feel incredibly depressed and he went outside into the ravaging cold.

The campus walkways were empty because most of the students were finished with finals and left. He dreamt about his band ‘Rock Lobster’ achieving superstardom as he walked. He relentlessly practiced, however his band mates did not share his work ethic or enthusiasm. But he was going to make it despite them because failure was not an option. He would continue writing and practicing until he achieved the success he dreamed of.

He walked into his dorm room, which had a pungent smell of filth. He wouldn’t be surprised if he came down with a mysterious disease for breathing in the dirty air, but despite this, he made no efforts to clean because every second had to be concentrated on music. If not, he would never make it big. Zander, the drummer, was doing pushups without a shirt, his flab bouncing like a yo-yo with each repetition.

“You ready to practice?” Thompson asked.

“Uh, I don’t know,” Zander replied.

“What do you mean?”

Brandon, the lead guitarist, entered dressed in a polo shirt. He approached Thompson and nearly tripped on a cup of ramen noodles. “We’re going to Happy Hour at Fatties Pub.”

“Why? We got to practice!” Thompson pleaded.

“Why do you want to practice so much?” Brandon argued. He sprayed cologne on himself to show Thompson he was going no matter what.

“To prove all the people who made fun of me throughout my life that I’m better than them!”

“Those people don’t care whether you’re a rock star or a bum.”

“We can wake early and practice,” Zander added.

Thompson sighed deeply to show his aggravation and decided to go as well. He was miserable, just like the assholes made him from nursery to high school. Their abuse was so effective that he overexerted himself at every waking moment so he could rise above them. And if he did not achieve the nearly impossible success he dreamed about, he wouldn’t know what to do because his music pipe dream was all he had. He kicked his bass and slammed his head on his bed to release his rage for another day of not being successful.

Rock Lobster took the stage at the Edinburgh Music Festival with over 200,000 spectators waiting to hear one of the greatest, if not the greatest, contemporary rock band. Their first two albums sold over 20 million copies and earned the respect of countless legends. They were not labeled as the next Beatles, yet, but their third album was being released shortly and Thompson knew with songs like ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ and ‘Hey Jude,’ there would be no doubt of their place in music’s upper hierarchy. Thompson approached the microphone and said, “We are going to open with ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’ I wrote it about my fiancĂ© Christa, who I met during my statistics class in college.”

Brandon strummed his guitar, Zander knocked on the drums and Thompson sang:

"I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you…"

At Fatties, the guy/girl ratio was nearly equal and everyone overindulged on the two-dollar pitchers to either gain confidence or lower standards. Tongues were exchanged, beer spilled and fights broke out as Thompson stood alone in a corner and drank six pitchers continuously, each sip lessening his problems. His mother was dead, he failed statistics, his band was going nowhere and he couldn’t get a girl. One night of practice could be sacrificed for sedating his mounting failures, temporarily.

He double took because Christa was standing in a crowd of people, looking lonely and more beautiful than ever. Seeing her felt like a dream and he knew he would never forgive himself if he let the opportunity slip away. He moved towards her as if an invisible force guided his legs, a surreal feeling because everyone parted from his path.

“You sit next to me in statistics class,” he said.

“I couldn’t believe you just handed in the test like that today!”

“I was going to fail anyway. Might as well go out with style,” he said matter-of-factly to sound cool. She couldn’t see what a loser he was.

“I always thought you were cool,” she said with her drunkenness hindering her from hiding the feelings she harbored for him. “Are you in a band?”

“How did you know?” he said excitedly.

“Wow, that’s so impressive. What instrument do you play?”

“I’m lead singer and bass,” he said.

Her skin was blushing to such a tint that Thompson noticed it through the artificial twilight of the bar. He had never kissed a girl and swayed with indecision, going close to her face and pulling back like a child on a swing. She met him halfway and they kissed. Life was a continuous string of dreams not becoming actualized and to taste her elusive heaven made him content with the terrible times because they brought them together. He did not ask her back to his room because she was so much more than a one night stand. She was the woman he would spend his life with, the woman who would have his children and inspire the number one hits, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Wonderful Tonight” that thrust Rock Lobster into prominence.

The members of Rock Lobster sat at the Grammy’s. Their fourth album was nominated for Album of the Year, with the title track ‘Let It Be’ already winning Song of the Year. They hit the pinnacle of superstardom from awards to astronomical sales to consistently sold out concerts where every spectator knew the lyrics to their songs. Bono was the presenter for Album of the Year. He went through the typical pre-award talk like congratulating the artists and announcing the nominees, which the members of Rock Lobster took as a cue to get ready to accept their award. Bono cleared his throat and opened the envelope. “And the winner is,” he said and paused for dramatic effect. “Rock Lobster! Congratulations! I love ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ from the album, one of the greatest songs of all time.”

Thompson went on the stage and accepted the award. “Thank you Bono. This is our fourth Grammy for Best Album in as many tries and it feels just amazing as the first. We were once college roommates with guitars and dreams, and to be at this point is a dream come true. Thank you!”

The jocks who humiliated him sat in front of their televisions in bewilderment at how the fat boy who was butt of every joke transformed into the most liked man in America. The girls who never paid him the time of day sat in their mobile homes and wondered how much happier their lives would have been if they pursued him.

Brandon and Zander came to the consensus to call it a night because Thompson was catatonically drunk and had to be taken back immediately. They just hoped he wouldn’t have to be rushed to the hospital to get his stomach pumped.

“You know it’s a good night when Thompson is about to die,” Zander said.

“He’s wound too tight with the band, he doesn’t realize that we suck. I think we should disband. None of us, including him, have any talent,” Brandon said.

“You can’t do that to him, he’ll kill himself!”

They took Thompson by the arms and helped him across the sidewalk where he was laughed at by the townspeople that congregated to watch the drunken festivities. His legs dragged on the ground giving the appearance he was a paralyzed soldier being carried off the battlefield. They reached the empty bus stop, which meant they just missed their pickup. Thompson fell to the ground and began puking.

“I can’t see this, I’m going to get a slice of pizza,” Brandon remarked.

“What about Thompson?” Zander asked. “I’m kind of hungry too.”

“You can leave him, nobody is going to kill him.”

Brandon followed Zander as Thompson continued to vomit. He slammed his hand on the rocky cement until it bled, not feeling anything with the alcohol numbing his pain. The bus’ blaring headlights approached and like a lab rat’s reaction to a stimulus, Thompson ran across the street to it. He did not see the sport utility vehicle or feel the wheels running over his head and crushing it like a boot to a grape. A smile presided over his mangled face because he was free. There was no more living to impress eyes that didn’t care, no more suffering, no more depression. No more anything.

Monday, July 26, 2010

“The Last Rites of Horace Tees” by Ricky Hawthorne

He was ordinary, so bloody ordinary. His hair was sandy, and he was of average height and build, and wore a sad pair of brown hush puppies on his feet. They in turn gave support to the ragged ends of a rather shabby pair of tan corduroys that looked as if he’d grated cheese with them. From his waistline sprouted a creased, earthy-coloured chequered shirt embraced by a beige unkempt jacket with the collar turned up. He reminded me of an old art teacher at school, the day after he’d seen James Dean in Giant.

If it was his ordinariness that caught my eye, the piercing glare emanating from his pallid face shred the distance between us both and gave my goose-bumps shingles. I imagined it fuelled by an enormous pocket of aggression located deep within his psyche. I can’t be the thorn in that paw, but his glower undermined my confidence.

He was about 100 yards from me, underneath the shade of a generously leafed ash tree, leaning back against Clair Temnestra. I knew little of Clair except that she’d been born in 1980 and died in 2007, because that’s all I could read of her neglected gravestone.

I was one of a small funeral party of seven, dressed obligatorily. Of the six others three were faceless, dour males in black suits and white shirts, and three women, all heavily veiled, who exuded repugnance through their rigid physicality. The whole scene, including coffin bearers (hired for the occasion) and the vicar in his customary robes, offered little more colour than an early Ingmar Bergman film.

That’s why he stood out I suppose, all those dreary shades of brown resurrected against the monochrome of our cortege. But why stare at me? Perhaps we’ve met before. He’s not unhandsome, despite the awful clothes and I’ve had worse; let’s be honest I hadn’t had anybody since that house party last Christmas - a brief coital wrestle underneath a pile of strangers’ coats. But he was a blonde, surely? Shame about his wife, I suppose.

Yet this certain attractiveness could not dispel a foreboding of personal endangerment and a powerful desire to quit the cemetery, but how? I’d come alone, or it seemed that way, and the idea of begging assistance from any of my fellow mourners filled me with repugnance. Who were they anyway, I pondered? They answered the priest in such a flat and uniform manner that their vocal choreography seemed almost supernaturally precise. And why, for some uncanny reason, did I have the impression that there should be seven of them here besides me. Funnily enough I couldn’t even recall the motivation behind my own presence. I looked down at the pale wooden coffin at my feet. Who was in there and why did I feel so pitiless toward them?

Again, though, my attention was drawn back to the onlooker. Any question that the object of that stare was any other than me dissipated, as a broad, creepy grin broke out on his face as our eyes met again. My heartbeat, which had been steadily rising, began to gallop and skip in disconcerting rhythms and my skin was a visible paradox, sweating through the extreme humidity and shivering with trepidation. Again that rabid urge to flee began to scratch away at my nerves, so I started to snake in and out of the group as discretely as I could, hoping to find a blind spot from his unrelenting glare and an opportunity to slip away.

Then, as I passed from behind the back of the last of the men, I looked for him and was astonished to see he’d disappeared. Relief bubbles rumbled deep in my stomach and the resultant sigh was rather loud and tactless, yet it was casually absorbed amongst the atonal prayers which continued unabated.

My giddy head retrieved some of its weight and I began to shake less severely, returning my attention to proceedings, but I could barely watch the death cot began its descent into the bitter earth. My feet shuffled nervously as I was forced to contemplate that awful day when my own life force concedes to time and the poor quality of human form. Peculiarly the others’ remained steady as if they were rooted to the earth through the leather in their shoes.

Suddenly from behind and to the right a shrill gust blasted across the open ditch, disturbing the blithe serenity of the trees. The wind itself lifted sharply, dragging with it an ominous dark blue cloud that seemed to have manifested from nowhere. Its underbelly sagged like a tarpaulin laden with rainwater, ready to burst. It strolled across the sky like a virus infecting the fickle sun and dissipating its light.

“In nomine Patris, et Fille et Spiritus Sancti”, the vicar chanted, his words assuming a sinister quality as a grey mist seeped in and entangled itself around us. The resultant “Amen” cowered above the pillow of clouded air that bedded itself across the corpse’s crib. But another voice was audible among the incantation; one lacking even less reverence than our own. Abruptly the left hand side of my face went numb as if frozen by novocaine and the hairs on my neck crackled as an electrical charge seemed to rip across my shoulder blades. The drop in temperature was so sharp and rapid I wondered if the mist might be liquid nitrogen. I turned sharply to investigate and came face to face with the art teacher.

The air was vacuumed out of my diaphragm and my knees capitulated as if they were riddled with arthritis. From a semi-kneeling position I peered up at my tormentor and could see in close-up that his complexion had the colour and texture of moulding saffron cake. Whatever appealing quality I thought he possessed from my first sight of him seemed to have been sucked from him like a needle drawing fluid.

In desperation I turned toward the others but they remained unmoved and oblivious to the scene unfolding before them.

“Amen”, he repeated, signalling me for a codicil. His breath was a cacophony of stale cabbage and fertilizer.

“Amen”, I finally choked out in obedience after what seemed an eternity.

“Good”, he rasped, “Good.” The words squeezed themselves out between clenched yellow teeth.

“You don’t know me do you?”

“Who…what are you?” I whimpered. “What do you want with me?” I began to rise and bumped into the woman next to me. “Don’t you see him?” I berated her but she simply motioned toward him momentarily and then, utterly disinterested, resumed her part in the service.

“No”, he rasped, “She cannot see me…yet” he chuckled.

What I did next I can’t explain. Perhaps there’s a basic strand of human DNA that triggers it, a part that is simply reacting to centuries of inherent religious dogma, nevertheless I moved toward the vicar.

“He can’t help you either”, he said with detestation. “He cannot see or hear me, and yet he should”

“Are you a devil?” I asked.

“We’re all devils” he replied curiously.

“Have you come for them” I said, pointing at the coffin and convinced I was now the centre of the kind of supernatural event I used to scoff at.

“There’s nothing there for me, now” he replied.

“But not me surely, shouldn’t I have been given a sign?” I enquired

“Beware the grin, the smile and the chuckle” He advised grimly, “They promise much but they are fey friends”

“But you’re smiling now” I said

“Then it must be time” he avowed.

I was trapped and helpless and fished in and out of my pockets for something, anything to rid me of this terrorist. That was when I found the rosary beads. I was caught between two concepts of madness: the grotesque creature in front of me and the fact that I owned a rosary.

Regardless, and in true Van Helsing style, I thrust out with them and suddenly became aware that the crucifix was upside down and this would be more likely to attract a devil than repel him. I quickly adjusted it and screamed at the malevolent fiend to get away.

In a spontaneous frenzy he clasped his ears and clawed his sides. He began to move further into the cemetery away from the cortege and I followed him ruthlessly stabbing at him mercilessly with the worn rosary cross. His head shook fanatically from side to side and he hopped up and down in violent indiscriminate patterns. I was witnessing a diabolical epileptic fit, I thought, as he staggered away to collapse out of sight behind another gravestone.

“I did it!” I whooped silently, “I sent the daemon back to his hell-hole!” and turned in celebration but the ritual was continuing in complete ignorance of our struggle. I investigated the beads burning in my soaking hands. The heat from them appeared to be evaporating the sweat pouring in my palms, creating columns of steam that issued from between my fingers.

As I stared down into them the face of an old woman materialised. Her face was ashen and her eyes scarlet with the burden of crying. "She's lost her son", I thought, the notion leaping into my conscious but from where I couldn't guess. Then she began to speak but I couldn't hear her voice. It seemed as if she was offering me forgiveness; but what had I done? She had something in her hand and was in the process of reaching out to me when the vision faded as quickly as it had arrived.

My stomach felt so tight as if a gang of sailors had been practising knots with my intestines. I must wake up I said to myself. This has to be a nightmare. That's the only rational explanation to the apparent obliviousness of the other mourners. If this was real they would react, surely. They'd be as afraid as me.

And then another thought threw itself into the mix: "They have nothing to fear now because all of their problems have resolved themselves". It must be the deceased, then; he's dead now and cannot hurt them any more". And I was sure of this and yet possessed no solid proof and was hardly likely to garner any from these stolid statues.

But then they did move; slowly and deliberate, opening up a small corridor between them. At the furthest end I could see the priest was beckoning me toward the grave. The mourners were ringing their hands as if they'd just disposed of something loathsome. As I stepped hesitantly toward the priest I could see chalky earth on their hands and gloves. Why did they come, I asked myself, as they obviously had nothing but contempt for the dearly departed? Nevertheless and with relief I bent down to complete the most ludicrous of human traditions.

I sunk my fist into the cold sticky pile of clay shivering by the graveside. Suddenly an arm shot out of the grave and clasped onto my wrist, followed swiftly by the devil’s face. I shrieked for help and attempted to pull away but his grip was too strong. I looked to the others but they remained unmoved. In desperation I, again, thrust the crucifix at him with my free hand.

“Want me to dance for you again do you? Were you really fooled into thinking I could be destroyed so easily? Besides which, why on earth should I fear my employer?” he scoffed.

“Your employer” I cried, “but surely that would make you an angel?”

“Aye”, he crowed, “an angel of death” and pulled me halfway into the grave so that I was peering directly at the wooden casket now firmly fixed in perpetuity.

I could read the inscription on the coffin:

Clair Temnestra

Born 19/9/80 Died 20/06/07

“But she’s dead” I reasoned, “I saw you leaning on her gravestone”

“She is dead; she just doesn’t know it, do you Clair?”

That was the moment of agnorisis; that sublime sub-second of transition between knowing nothing and knowing it all. I was Clair Temnestra and I was dead. I looked back over my shoulder and suddenly I knew the identities of these other mourners. They were my employees and I was their impatient, inconsiderate and ruthless overseer. Only now did I understand why there were only six when there should have been seven, a young man. Now I could hear the words of the old woman, his mother, and recognized the religious item she was giving me; and finally I knew, too, who the blonde man and his wife were and how I’d come to be in this terrible place.

In a trice the veils slipped from the faces of the women. Laugh, I thought, go on this is your time. But they remained insipid; perhaps there was even a trace of sympathy within their lightless eyes. Slowly they turned to leave taking with them the indifferent coffin bearers. The priest, I could see had already left; useless to the end as death had promised. Death, himself, had stopped grinning and now looked at me earnestly, indicating with his eyes that it was now time.

So I succumbed to death’s tug and fell headlong toward my coffin. As I neared it, it opened slowly revealing eternity to me and the dark embrace of everlasting sleep…

And as quickly woke up. I was back in the cemetery above ground and it was a cloudless, sunny and humid day. There was a funeral taking place and one of the mourners, a blonde-haired man, was staring intently at me. His name was Horace Tees. I knew this because that was the name on the gravestone I was leaning on.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

“Writing In The Dark” by Randy M. Salo

He had not stirred for at least an hour. I knew because I had not written anything for at least that long and spent most of that time watching him. I mean, not much else happened in a coffee house at that early hour in the morning. Either I was genuinely getting tired or the insomnia was making me delirious. I’m not able to write. But it was okay because I had become content, for the time, to just watch him. I wondered what his story was. Why did he come here so late? My excuse was legitimate, if not absurdly self-inflicted. I think the night allows me to express thoughts I would otherwise leave to dreams. It is a cloak of protection, which nurtures my need to create and destroy, to manifest and devour. I could hardly write in the afternoon when the sun is at it’s brightest and the birds are singing. I think it is the isolated feeling of the night. I feel at times wrapped in its embrace. The insomnia is my cover. It comforts me. I have begun to live with it as if I had never needed to see the light of a sunrise again. Besides, I can’t think during the day. I feel weak and lethargic. It’s silly but I think the night gives me strength, now. I’m beginning to feel much of what I envision. It is like being marooned on an uninhabited island for a very long time, alone. You might eventually begin to fabricate in your mind what is happening to the rest of the living planet. You might spend fifty years imagining what happened to old friends and family members. I assume that after such a period of time, if not quite accidentally, you’d lose your mind. Perhaps you would completely create a new and personal reality, which exists only in your own mind and only by the laws that you govern. If you were suddenly rescued, after a lifetime of delusional reality, you might never be able to return to the accepted norms of a collective society; forever trapped on that barren island, which your mind has become...

She had not written anything for at least an hour. I knew because she had been watching me. She watched me as I sat deep in thought, my mind tracking endlessly through the city outside. I wondered if she was a writer by profession or hobby. Her work, if professional, was scribed during late night sessions in this coffee house on her little laptop computer. I had only decided this because I could not imagine her maintaining a day job with her late hour-habits. A freelance writer, journalist, or a novelist, perhaps. Certainly, her writing had a nocturnal flavor. Thrillers or crime novels were my first guess, perhaps a touch of horror. There was sure to be some irony in this.

This wasn’t the first time I saw her. She had started coming here about a week before. She had obviously been looking for a new location to nurture her creativity. Or was she looking for something deeper, darker? It was here where I guess she found it because she came every night since. It was just a little corner coffee shop, one that catered to the nocturnal in us. Those of us who worked and thrived in the hours between sundown and sunrise needed the dark like others need the daylight. It embraced us. She embraced it with a careless naivety, which would cause her to succumb to it. She watched me, but knew not that it was I who had first discovered her. She didn’t see me the first night I came upon her in the metropolitan library. I found her in the ‘True Crime’ section. I concluded right away that she had a taste for violence. I could see it in her eyes as she scanned the first few pages of a novel based on the peculiar death of three prostitutes on the port side of town. I remembered the incident well. It happened nearly six years ago, down on the docks. The women were found hanging from a cargo hook above the water. Their hands and feet were bound together and their bodies were tied by a single red cord, wrapped tightly around them. The police discovered scratches and bite marks on their bodies. They found tiny slits in their neck, wrist, and thigh areas. It had appeared that the bodies were drained of blood, as they hung for three days before being discovered. The blood would have completely diluted in the ocean below by the time the bodies were brought down from their deadly suspension. It was also apparent that they were alive before they were suspended above the cold seawater. Eventually, it was discovered that the bite marks were inflicted by the women themselves. It seems that after several days of hanging there, most likely driven to a certain disparity, the women began to claw and bite at one another. This was concluded after autopsy reports produced the approximate length of time from the initial tying of the red cord to the freshness of the wounds. No evidence produced a suspect, only a witness: an old, drunken ex-seafarer. Claiming to have witnessed the incident, the old fool described a scene in which the devil himself led the women down to the docks, performed unspeakable sins with them, and then began to bind them together. The drunk went on to claim that the women did not even struggle when they were being tied and, almost willingly, allowed themselves to be suspended above the water. The police found the old man the day the bodies were discovered. He was inebriated and unconscious in an alley a few blocks from the dock. They say that once he was revived he went completely mad, shouting and screaming. They wrote him off as a lunatic and dismissed his account. He was sent to an institution, for his mental state, and was never questioned about the murders again. Coincidentally, the poor old fool was found a week later hanging from the bars in his cell window. His wrists were also slit. Due to certain bureaucratic reasons and some liability issues, involving the institution, the incident was written off as a suicide even though no weapon was found. It appeared that the man had also bled most of his life into the defecation drain before tying his neck to the barred window using, not coincidentally, the same red cord as that used in the murder of the prostitutes. Strange indeed... She, obviously, was aware of her darker side and if not deliberately, then passively, satisfied it. Not exactly the most digestible subject matter. It really takes a person of some inclination to the morbid to be interested, even fascinated, in this sort of gruesome folklore. I fell in love with her the moment I saw her.

Every now and then he glanced up at me and I turned away. It may be just a random gesture, but I wondered if he saw me watching him. At first it embarrassed me. Startled, I’d look, quickly, down at my computer and act like I was typing away. Then he would go back into that strange, sedated look again. The more I watched him, the more he interested me. And he wasn’t even doing anything. Did he really come here to just think? Perhaps he’s a philosopher, I thought. Maybe he comes to this coffee shop at late hours to contemplate the existence of self or the reasons people obsess over things and are controlled by their obsessions. I wondered if he obsessed over this. I didn’t know him but I could sense that he was like me. I felt his contemplation around me, on me. How do you see someone and just know that they are like you? Without notice, it is there. Those unseen mental connections are made without any sort of verbal communication. It’s like sensing one of your own is present. I usually didn’t find comfort in people. I didn’t really find comfort in anything, except writing. Those people never understood what it was that I was trying to say. They had always read my work and given me that strange, dishonest nod and smile: “It’s great. You have a real sense for horror”. What did they know? They’d just go around their little self-created worlds and pretend it’s not there. They pretend that it’s not sitting there, watching them all the time; waiting to strike. They pretended that the darkness wasn’t there, that it wasn’t already inside of us, waiting to be released. It is their repression of it that causes their misery; their loathsome, mundane existence spent obsessing over the trivial, petty details of a trip to the local supermarket or shopping mall. What power had they really had over their lives? What choices were really theirs to make? When destiny is right in front of you, you have no choice. There is no screaming, no fighting it. You accept it and succumb to it. You can’t escape what you already are. Soon he would be leaving. And I would follow him. I do not know yet, why. But I feel the need to. I needed his life.

I knew that she would be leaving soon. I knew where she would go. However, that night, she would never make it. It was her time. You don’t choose those moments. They chose you. I wanted her. She thought she wanted me. However, she had no idea what I had in store for her. The others had not known either. They were all seeking something too. They were fed up with their lives. Life brought no fulfillment anymore. They had disconnected with every other living being. No real life permeated there being and they accepted it. Why let them suffer? I knew what they wanted. I provided it. This one was different, however. I wanted her for myself but I knew that it was impossible. It was, I guess you could say, against the rules. I only performed out of being controlled. I only did was I was told to do. I did what I was told to do and I received what I needed. I never asked questions. She packed her things the way she always did. She would watch me and hesitate her movement so as to get my attention. Maybe she fantasized that I would notice her and, out of some sort of common ritual, strike up a meaningless conversation with her. As if frustrated with me, she left quickly. I sat there and pretended to pay no attention. In a second I was behind her. I could smell her. I sensed her desperation. Soon, she would not suffer anymore. I would take that pain away from her. I couldn’t help but think of her so fondly. She was so pleasantly different than most of those people. She became so passionately involved in her work that it would bring her to tears. I had watched her struggle with a passage. I was able to watch, from a distance, the persistence and will that she had fought with. Finally, she would soften and let the darkness speak. When she did this she wrote her best. The truth of self is always the path to contentment. She fell quickly. I do not think her brain was conscious for long enough to receive the pain impulses, before triggering the protection mechanism of fainting. She made no audible sound as she fell to the ground. She was beautiful in that light. The streetlights reflected her well enough. She was now visible to me, up close. For so long I had to enjoy her from a distance. Now she was in front of me and I was, for a second, powerless. The darkness had called me to her. I knew I must satisfy it. It is the regular course of things. But this time I felt defiant. She gave me that strength. How I would defy them. I bound her wrists and ankles together with the red cord which I had grown so accustomed to using and prepared for the next phase. This was where I received what I needed to thrive and, therefore, was rewarded my end of the bargain. For several minutes I sat there, looking down upon her. I folded the razor back and returned it to my pocket. This time I would use my true tools for feeding. I lifted her head; feeling the soft, cool hair in my hands. Her neck, exposed to the streetlights, glowed with such radiance that I felt faint. Of course, it had been sometime since my last feeding. I had forgotten about it completely when I first laid eyes upon her. I bit, deeply, into her jugular and drained her of all possible energy. This act fulfilled me like no other pleasure could stimulate. This time, however, I did not take her life into me. The moment was at hand. That was the night I defied the dark. I was intent on having her for myself. I’d given centuries of victims to them. Never being able to express a sensitivity or intimacy since my rebirth, I rebelled. After all, I was human before I was what I am now. I bit my tongue, deeply. Hours after I mixed my blood with hers, she would awake. But she would awake for the first time in a new life. This new life would bring with it, sacrifice. She would be able to see things, as she always believed them to be. She would see the dark. She would feel it. But she would have to serve it, for it controls our world. She would have to feed off of life in the other world in order to serve the darkness and continue to live in this existence. I would be punished for what I did. That was my choice. I chose her. But it did not matter now. I would suffer because for another.

I imagined that she would some day write about how she came to the darkness. Maybe she would write about me. If she was not aware of my sacrifice she may return to that coffee house each night thinking that she was just more suited to the night. She would not know that it did give her strength and nurtured her, now. I imagined that she would believe that she created it all in her head and that she was just naturally different than others. Soon she will become her true self. She will sit and watch someone, so intently, that she will begin to obsess over him or her. This is what happens when the hunger takes you. She needs the blood to thrive. The poor, helpless victims will not see it coming. She will follow them home and strike when they are most vulnerable. The dark will show them to her. It will provide the pleasure -- her life, for a price.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

“For Cara” by William B. Keller

The aircraft carrier dropped its four anchors, two forward and two aft, into crystal clear waters two miles from Bartoba. A tiny dot on a world map, the island nation was slightly larger than Manhattan, New York, but there any resemblance ended.

Most of the populace was of Hawaiian descent, their ancestors having fled from losing tribal conflicts hundreds of years before. Cruel intentions were their past, and the fact that they were on the losing end of these long ago conflicts did nothing to dull their cruel intentions of the present. The island’s proximity to Hawaii, just over four hundred miles, made it a strategic pawn in the United States defense posture, plus it’s perfect climate and satiny beaches gave generals and admirals the perfect excuse to spend time pretending to prepare for war. A small naval port was maintained in return for exorbitant rents, which were actually a back door method of giving aid to the ruling dictatorship, a brutal fifth generation madman whose cruelty and mindless excesses were legendary. The citizens lived in horrible poverty, working for an average of thirty cents per day in the island’s designer clothing factory, a place with equipment so dangerous and conditions so terrible an average of seven workers died every day. However, and obviously most important, the clothing produced was of superior quality and in great demand worldwide. Those that were not unfortunate enough to be hired on at the factory, and each opening had hundreds of applicants begging for the next opportunity to face the bleak twelve hour days, hustled American sailors who came into port. The small percentage of the population with a decent education, which was a very privileged few, worked for the government or taught school. These were the fortunate few who lived a normal life by most standards and were considered wealthy by Bartoba’s standards. There was no attempt to bring change from the privileged class, a combination of gratefulness to be in their positions and fear of the establishment.

The low rumbling of the anchor chains pulled Bruce Manson from an uneasy slumber, the different sounds of the city sized ship always able to either sing him to sleep or rouse him from his dreams, depending on the sound and how it affected him. He had heard of Bartoba, his fellow shipmates telling him of snow-white beaches, beautiful women, and fabulous nightlife entertainment. After three months at sea, a desert island would have been welcome, and the added promise of a paradise made him even more excited, yet he loved the ship, and to him it was home. He looked at leaving its security as a family leaving for vacation is excited, but before the vacation ended the desire to be home again was stronger.

Bruce was on the first transport to shore, a random luck of the draw of ship personnel giving him the honor. He turned down over twenty offers to sell the spot, the highest being two hundred dollars, because money was not his strongest motivator. He was just ready for a vacation. The confined quarters of the ship, with its tiny sleeping quarters and each bunk shared by two men, one on duty while the other slept sometimes was overwhelming. He could smell the sweat of his bunkmate, feeling the warmth of the other man’s body when he tumbled in minutes after the other had vacated the space, and yet they had never met. He would hurry back, likely before his allowed time expired, but right now he just wanted a break.

He showered, shaved twice to insure the closest cut possible, then dressed in starched Levi’s and a powder blue cotton shirt. A new pair of Nike’s purchased a week ago at the ship’s store finished his ensemble. A spray of Old Spice, yes a clichĂ© but still his favorite fragrance, and a quick inspection in a mirror made him appear as any typical American tourist, except for the white sidewall military cut of his light brown hair, a dead giveaway, but then there was nothing to be done. After a moment’s hesitation he snapped his fingers in decision, opened a padlocked footlocker at the end of his bunk, and removed a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. He pulled it on his head, Chief Wahoo grinning with his yellow face prominently displayed on the front of the hat, and the military cut almost disappeared. Not perfect, but it was the best he could do.

The transport held two hundred sailors, all excited and anxious to begin their leave. Bruce was quiet, never having been one to mix with crowds or join in cliques. Many of the men made plans together concerning which bars and clubs they would visit. Bruce had no intention of spending his leave time drunk and in bed with a prostitute, plus it was against his personal beliefs, so he just kept to himself and intended to enjoy the sights and prowl the tiny island by himself.

There was a brief, superficial customs check when they landed, the bored official not really caring what went in or out of the country, and there were many things that broke both international and military laws leaving with each shipment of sailors returning to their respective ship. Bruce walked from the reception area into an outdoor bazaar consisting of hundreds of booths selling everything from sea shell ash trays to tee shirts with Bartoba Beach Club emblazoned on the back. People were everywhere, some encouraging the sailors to visit a particular booth, some offering coupons for free drinks at various bars, and others selling visits to local houses of prostitution. All were vocal and insistent, but there was no life in their eyes, no joy in their entreaties. They were all insincere, their motives only to survive for another day.

Children darted into the crowd of service men, begging for coins and looking for opportunities to steal a wallet. Brad knew their tactics because all remote island ports are pretty much alike, his first costing him forty dollars in cash and his military I.D. He missed most of his shore leave explaining to the local authorities that he was a victim and not just another foreigner with no money or identification, and then spent two weeks when back on the ship doing extra duty as punishment for losing his credentials. His identification card was now secure in a clear plastic holder attached to a chain around his neck, hiding behind the white issue undershirt that fit almost like a turtleneck. One hundred dollars was in each sock, another hundred was in his buttoned shirt pocket, and eight hundred was in a zippered pouch in his money belt. Only a gun, a gang, or a bang on the head would cause him trouble this time, and even though he was young and corded with sinewy muscle, he did not intend to put himself in a position of danger. He intended to stay at the best hotel and eat in the finest restaurants on the island, as well as buying souvenirs for his mother and two sisters, all which would not be expensive and probably send him back to the ship with over half his money. U.S. currency was valuable on the island, as the Barbota currency was close to useless, and everything was available for less than the asking price.

Two hundred pennies jiggled in his pants pockets, all intended for the children working the crowd. Soft at heart but unwilling to acknowledge it, even to himself, Bruce couldn’t resist the eager children and their joy at receiving even a penny from a kind stranger. It saddened him almost as much as it made him feel good about himself, his meager Navy pay a fortune to these people. He handed a penny to a small boy whose face beamed with excitement and shock, as most sailors brushed them aside in their rush to get to adult entertainment. He jammed the copper coin into his pocket and moved quickly to the next person, hand held out expectantly. Several children saw Bruce give the boy the penny and moved to him like ducks to bread on the water. He handed each a coin and smiled as they rushed away, silently cheering for the smaller ones who would have their prize taken away by the bigger boys if they did not move with catlike speed.

Suddenly he had a swarm of children around him like bees in a field of clover, a sea of grimy little hands reaching and grabbing, their voices shouting in their adolescent shrillness, sounding like screeching gulls in their native tongue. Bruce laughed at the sight, reaching into his pocket and scooping out a handful of pennies. He threw them high into the air, the delightful sound of the children music to his ears. They raced after the treasure with the thrill that children were intended to have as youth, and at least for a few moments they were just kids playing and enjoying the game. He moved quickly into the crowd and kept moving.

Walking along the narrow street where the vendors crowded in on each side, Bruce ignored the waves and encouraging calls from the eager merchants wanting his attention and money. His leave was two days, plenty of time for shopping and buying souvenirs at attempted inflated prices, and decided he wanted to see the island first, not at the dock where the tourism was at its peak, but into the island where real people lived.

He secured a room at the Marriott, a virtual palace of a room for a bargain basement amount, and fell on the queen size bed with a sigh, relishing the act that for two days this bed was his, and no one would use it while he was awake and away from the room. He pushed his face into the clean white sheets, smelling only freshness instead of stale sweat. He ate a buffet lunch that featured fried conch and fist sized shrimp, stopping when he knew eating more could make him sick, and he could not risk his leave being sick. Then, stomach full and spirits high, he was ready to begin his exploring. No real preparation was needed, the island being small enough that he knew there would be no problem finding his way. Hours of exercise on board the ship left him trim and solid, able to walk the width or length of the country with no great difficulty. Bruce found a rutted dirt road as he exited the hotel and headed west for no better reason than the sun would be at his back until late afternoon, when he would reverse his course and again not be concerned with shielding his eyes.

He strolled past fields of pineapple and cane sugar, occasionally waving to a farmer hoeing weeds, smiling at the friendliness these island people displayed despite their meager existence. A small village appeared at a bend in the road, really little more than a flat parcel of land cleared of rocks and tall grass. The poverty was incredible, the poorest families using a combination of cardboard boxes and sticks as a shelter, while the more fortunate people had sheets of tin lashed together with pieces of rope and vines. Just as in the market square, children ran to him, expectant smiles on their faces, hands extended, waiting for a coin. Bruce repeated his earlier action, throwing a large handful of pennies into the air and enjoying their squeals of delight.

One child did not run after the pennies, standing in place like a statue in the middle of Town Square. She was perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, already showing the shapes and curves of a woman yet still very much a child. She was incredibly beautiful, large doe eyes shining softly in a round, gentle face, and blue-black shoulder length hair flared over her shoulders. Her beauty almost made him gasp, despite her youth, so unexpected was her appearance. They stared at each other for a long moment, the sounds of the children’s excited voices as they scrambled for the pennies muted in his brain.

She took several steps toward him, stopping almost five feet away and looking up into his eyes. She was a head shorter than he, and her upturned chin revealed a tiny shell necklace, a crude device consisting of a hole punched through a shell and held on her neck with a piece of what appeared to be kite string. “You have come here from a ship,” she said in a matter of fact tone.

“Yes, I came to your island for the first time today,” he replied. His voice seemed small and far away after hearing her soft alto, and Bruce wondered why he felt so nervous. He swallowed, but his mouth was dry and he heard a click in the back of his throat, almost painful and he blinked his eyes in surprise.

She held out her hand, soft and brown, her fingernails scrubbed clean with sand and water. He automatically reached out and took her offered hand in his own, stifling a shudder as he felt an electric shock run through his body. He nearly dropped her hand before realizing the sensation was mental, not physical.

“I am Cara,” she said.

A woman of few words he thought to himself. Out loud he said, “I am pleased to meet you Cara. My name is Bruce.”

“Why have you come to our village?” she asked, still holding his hand, although he made no effort to pull it away.

“I’m just enjoying the beauty of your island,” he said. “I started walking in this direction by chance and, well, here I am. I am grateful that I choose this path because I got to meet you.” He smiled and blinked hard when she returned a radiant smile with a display of even, pearl white teeth.

“Are you looking for company today?” she asked, moving closer, trying to be alluring and doing quite well despite her youth.

He could smell her hair now, the delicate scent of lilacs reaching like wavy fingers to his nose. Bruce loved the fragrance, and as a boy growing up in Ohio two large lilac bushes flourished under his window. He always opened his window in the spring, ignoring the forty-degree nights and blustery winds, risking colds and flu to allow the gentle, sweet fragrance access to his room. Every night his mother quietly entered the icy room and closed the window after he fell asleep. Sometimes he feigned sleep because he was comforted by her love and caring for his welfare, hence the fragrance always brought back this treasured childhood memory.

Leaning slightly forward, he pulled a deep breath through his nose and smiled. “Are you offering to be my guide?” he asked, arching his eyebrow with interest.

“If that is what you wish,” she said, dropping her eyes and bowing slightly. “My family is very poor and I need to earn money to help them buy food. Unfortunately I am not old enough to work at the factory and I need more education to work for our government. So, if I can in some way be of service to you I would be grateful.”

“How about twenty dollars to show me the sights of the island,” Bruce said, reaching for his shirt pocket and his money.

Her eyes grew large, the surprise showing despite her immediate attempt to mask it, and she swallowed hard before speaking. “Twenty dollars is more money than most of the people in our village make in three months Mr. Bruce. Surely you don’t want just a guide for that much money.”

Bruce smiled and deftly peeled a twenty and a five from his fold of money in his shirt pocket. He held the two wrinkled bills at arms length toward her, the picture of Andrew Jackson and Honest Abe flapping back and forth in the breeze like signal flags. “Let’s make it twenty five. The extra five is yours if you drop the mister and just call me Bruce.”

Her hand was trembling when she reached out for the money, more than she had ever seen in her life, and she touched it tentatively as if afraid she might be burned. She caressed the unique texture of the cloth made to feel like paper for a long moment, and then the money disappeared into a tiny leather bag tied to her waist with the speed and dexterity of a magician. “Thank you M..., I mean Bruce,” she said. Her lips were trembling and tears pooled in her eyes.

“You’re welcome Cara,” he answered; wishing she were a grown woman because he realized this young girl had grasped his heart. He reached out to touch her shoulder but drew his hand away. It was ridiculous to feel this way about a mere child and he didn’t want to be tempted to do anything really stupid. He started walking again, heading in the same direction he had started that morning. Looking over his shoulder he said, “Come on, let’s get started.”

She moved forward with a skip and then a step as if she were jump starting her legs, falling in beside him and walking with a graceful, womanly stride. They moved along at a leisurely pace, stopping now and then to inspect clumps of wild flowers or to watch a beautiful rare bird. The day seemed to fly along, his attention drawn more toward her than the sights of the island.

They stopped to rest at a clear, icy cold stream in the middle of what Bruce perceived as nowhere. Scrub grass and palm trees dotted the sandy soil as far as he could see, the horizon bending over in the illusion of the world ending at that visual line. They sat down on the sandy ground, their backs against a boulder and their feet stuck in the stream, the cold water fed from an underground source and driving some of the heat from their bodies.

Cara lowered her head and studied her hands, moving them from front to back as if she were looking for a hidden flaw. She sighed heavily and spoke in a soft voice. “Would you like to take me here? This is a very remote spot and it is not likely that anyone will come by.”

Bruce sat still for a few seconds, his eyebrows furrowed in question as he registered the meaning of her words, and then with horror he slowly began to understand. He sprang to his feet, water splashing from the stream only to be pulled into the sandy soil. He stood over her, his astonishment bubbling over into excited flapping of his arms. “What in the devil are you talking about,” he barked, much more harshly than he had intended. He was angry, almost as if a third party had offered this child to him. “Do I want to take you? You’re a child for goodness sakes. Why would I do such a thing to a child?”

She raised her head and looked up at him. Tears were pouring down her cheeks like a waterfall, landing in her lap in huge drops. “I know that for twenty five dollars you must want more than just a guide,” she sobbed. “The girls in town only get two dollars and I thought, since I was young and have never been with a man, that you were willing to pay more. I’ve been terrified all day because I’m afraid to be with a man, but I can’t turn that much money away.” She dissolved into shuddering sobs and covered her face with her hands.

His anger melted away with the force of her tears and he flopped down beside her with a sigh. He reached out a hand to her, hesitated, and then pulled it back. Bruce pulled his legs up, wrapped his arms around his knees, and rested his chin between them. He waited until she stopped crying before he spoke, carefully measuring his words. “I am truly sorry Cara. I had no idea that my offer would make you believe something more was necessary. I offered the money because I knew you needed it and, well, you are beautiful. But that doesn’t mean I would ever do something indecent,” he quickly added.

Cara lifted her head and looked at him doubtfully. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying and her lower lip still trembled. She wiped the back of her hand over her cheeks and sniffled. “Most of the sailors who come here and pay our girls money want sex,” she said bluntly. “You are very kind to treat me well, but the time will probably come when I will be forced to give myself to a man anyway.”

Bruce scratched his head in thought, amazed and chagrined at what he had just heard. “Cara, why are you doomed to this. Can’t you just grow up, meet some nice boy, and get married?”

She shook her head, a sad smile playing around the corners of her mouth. A bright yellow butterfly fluttered near her face, drawing her eyes away for a moment. Bruce thought how much more beautiful she was than the butterfly. Cara stretched out her index finger and the delicate creature landed demurely. It moved its wings in finely practiced balancing movements that any of the Flying Lowndes would have admired. “Just as this butterfly is free to fly across our island, we are free as well. But freedom can be an illusion, as fleeting as a moment of forgetting to be cautious.”

Cara cupped her free hand gently over the butterfly, not harming it but still preventing its escape. “You see Bruce, our lives are never as open and perfect as we may think. Traps are everywhere, some more obvious than others.” She lifted her hand and the butterfly leaped into the sky, its wings carrying it away in a drunken pattern that seemed to have no real purpose. “My trap is this is where I was born. This is my life.”

Cara rubbed her thumb over her index finger that moments ago served as a perch, feeling a silky layer of butterfly dust on her skin. “You see, I have a family obligation that is higher than my own needs. If possible, I will find someone to buy me. As the oldest child in my family, this would possibly secure the future of my sisters. My sacrifice would be small to do this for them.”

Bruce lifted his head from his knees, an idea taking form in his mind. “What happens if someone buys you,” he asked.

“Then they own me and can do whatever with me they want. Some of the women who work the streets at the port were bought by sailors and then put to work. Some never see their owner again; others must keep a portion of their earnings and give it to their owner when he again comes to port. Some use the girls while they are here and then sell her to someone else when they leave.”

Bruce felt like banging his head against the rock at his back. The inhumanity of it all was almost more than he could tolerate. He knew at least some of the sailors of whom Cara spoke were Americans, and maybe even some of his shipmates. He made an instant decision. “Tell me how much money your family needs and what it would be used for.”

Cara settled her back against the rock and turned toward him. Her face was flushed from the heat of the day, embarrassment, and the emotion of the story she was telling. A thin line of perspiration beaded her upper lip and she brushed it off with a swipe of her forearm. “Our people may go to school for eight years. Those that complete this course can only get lower paying jobs or no jobs at all. The prettier girls sell their bodies to sailors in port.

“If we want to go to school after the eighth year, we must pay fifty dollars each year. With ten years of schooling we qualify for government office jobs, teaching positions, and other more favorable positions. Nearly all people with ten years of schooling escape the poverty of villages like ours.”

“Now wait a minute,” Bruce interrupted. “You’re telling me that a hundred dollars is all that stands between each person and a decent life?”

She smiled, reached over to him, and patted his knee. “You say only a hundred dollars, but to our people this is a fortune, a king’s ransom.”

“So three hundred dollars is way beyond your family’s ability,” Bruce said.

Cara nodded. “My father, when he is able find work, makes around eighty cents for a day of labor. Out of that he must buy food and clothes for my mother, my sisters, and me. We barely survive without any added expense. School, although the only way to better us, is impossible. It is just the way things are.”

“And there is you and your two sisters,” Bruce said. “No babies, older brothers, nothing like that.”

“No, it is just we three children,” she replied. “My mother had a very difficult time with my youngest sister and the village midwife told her she was damaged and could have no more babies.”

“I see,” Bruce said and jumped to his feet. “Where do you shop for food and supplies, things like that? Does everyone go to the port shops I saw when I came ashore?”

Cara laughed and sprang to her feet to stand beside him. She brushed the sand from the back of her legs and then pointed in the direction they had gone that morning. She seemed relieved now that her employer did not seem to mean her harm. “There is a marketplace on the other side of the island where our people go to shop. Prices are half of the tourist center where you landed and a lot of the items that can’t be purchased anywhere else are found there. You would be cheated badly if you went by yourself, but I can help you shop. Are you looking for souvenirs for your family in the United States?”

“Actually, I do want to send something home,” he said. “My sisters like to know I’m thinking of them.”

“Then come.” Cara took his hand and led him back to the trail. She did not loosen her grip when they were underway and Bruce held onto her hand without comment.

He smelled the market a full fifteen minutes before it was in sight, a mixture of cooking food, body odor, human and animal waste, and spices covering the area like a mushroom cloud of foul smelling fallout. The heart of the explosion was the market itself. Bruce thought perhaps a riot was in progress, then realized it was just people doing business, kind of a hard goods version of the New York Stock Exchange.

“Come this way,” Cara shouted over the din. “The best place for authentic Island souvenirs is over here. The junk they sell at the port is mostly made in China or Taiwan, but the true craftsman sell here.” She pulled him in the direction she wanted to go and he happily followed.

Bruce saw some of the most beautiful artwork he had ever encountered in a small square of area that was not separated in any way from the other vendors. The place looked like a huge flea market with no boundaries, yet each merchant watched over his area like a Dodge City Marshall. Some had long tables like most churches use for socials; others used cement blocks stacked waist high with weathered two by fours between them. Some just placed their merchandise on the ground and left small walkways through, creating a maize of items for sale.

Hundreds, and maybe as many as a thousand people ran about like ants in a fire, offering to buy this or that, always very vocal in their opinion concerning the price of an item. Bruce found a jewelry box and a brush with combs set for his sisters, and then chose an onyx pyramid paperweight for his father. An intricately carved mahogany picture frame caught his eye and he chose it for his mother. He looked for the merchant to make the purchases and the moment his eyes came up the man was there, his face a mixture of eager excitement and greed. “Thirty dollars for everything,” the man screeched, spittle flying from his lips in a thin filmy lather as he pushed his head forward like a turkey. He was thin and wiry, his face wrinkled and eyes sunken like a bloodhound dog. Skin cancer lesions patterned his face like a dot-to-dot picture book, and black rotted teeth caused his feted breath to waft forth in an almost visible presence. When Bruce didn’t immediately respond he roared, “Okay, twenty five, but that’s it. You take it now alright?”

Bruce reached for the button on his shirt pocket, prepared to pay the asked price, but he paused when Cara gently pulled his arm away. She shook her head and looked at the merchant with a pained expression. “Don’t buy here Bruce,” she said. “He offers inferior merchandise and charges the price of a thief and we do not do business with descendents of pirates.” She shook her head in an expression of finality, the gleam in her eyes hidden as best she could.

“But I really like...” he began, but closed his mouth as her eyes flashed him a warning look.

“Perhaps I was a bit hasty,” the vendor exclaimed, clasping his hands at his bosom and appearing to be ready to drop to his knees in supplication. “One of your items is different than I had thought so, like a fool, I gave you the wrong price. Please, forgive a foolish old man his mistake. Could we say maybe twenty?” He looked from Cara to Bruce with a child’s expectation.

“Twelve,” Cara said, walking away to show her lack of interest.

“Fifteen?” the beleaguered vendor begged, not wanting to lose a sale. “Please, my family needs so much and I am selling you these items at a loss.” He patted his hands together softly to emphasize his plight.

“We will reluctantly accept fifteen,” Cara said, turning back to secure the deal.

Bruce shook his head in wonder and paid the man. They walked away with his purchases nestled in an old grocery bag for which he quickly paid a quarter before Cara could argue with the man. “You are a crafty bargainer,” he said, suppressing a smile as he appreciated the smug look on Cara’s face.

She stood a bit taller and thrust out her chin as they walked. “We must be very careful with our money,” she said with pride. “I am the best bargainer in my family.”

“I’m not surprised,” he agreed with a laugh. “By the way, where do they sell food here?”

“Over there on the far side of the market.” She gestured toward an equally loud mob scene across from where they had shopped.

“Let’s check it out,” he said.

They moved into the middle of the arguing and bargaining, the vendors reacting like wounded animals as their customers said no to their first offer. Bruce let Cara do all of the bargaining, knowing when he was in the presence of a master. They bought cans of peaches, pears, corn, beans, and soups. Meat in cans was the most expensive item, Cara explaining that their long shelf life and the value of livestock increased the price.

Bags of grain with the Red Cross insignia and others stamped Gift From The United States of America sat stacked ten feet high as the vendors sold their black market spoils at bargain prices. Bruce refused to buy anything obviously stolen until Cara explained with a bemused smile that most of the items in this market were stolen. He finally realized his stance was equal to pretending an American car had no foreign parts just because it said Chevrolet or Ford on the front bumper.

A few dollars purchased as much food as they both were able to carry and at last Bruce seemed satisfied. He hoisted a twenty-pound sack of Pillsbury flour onto his shoulder, the dough boy’s face pressing against his cheek like he was getting an affectionate kiss. “Let’s be on our way Cara,” he shouted over the noisy market and grabbed several other bags of food.

Cara, equally burdened with more food than she had ever carried at one time, hurried after him as he retraced their steps. “This is enough food to feed a family for three or four months. Where are we taking it Bruce?”

He waited until they were back on the trail before answering. He saw a long stick just off the trail and stopped to pick it up. Sliding the stick through the handles of the bags, he fashioned a carrier that could be put on their shoulders to ease the burden of the load. “We’re taking this to your parents,” he finally answered.

Cara dropped her end of the pole because she stopped walking, the bags sliding along and falling to the ground. Bruce held his end like a pole-vaulter going backwards, looking over his shoulder with a curious look on his face. The look he received in return was astonishment.

“What’s the problem,” he said in an amused tone.

“This is like giving my family a small fortune,” Cara whispered like she was afraid to voice it aloud. “My father will fall to the ground in shock. He will probably offer to sell me to you himself because of your great wealth, or he will at least beat me because he will think I gave myself to you and then shamed him by bringing you to meet him.”

Bruce lowered his flour sack to the ground and bent to stick the bag handles back on the pole. He slapped at a large deer fly biting his neck and then motioned to her with an index finger. “No one is going to beat you. Now, come on, let’s get moving. I want to get back to the other side of the island before dark.” They were momentarily under way again and he said, “What would you think if I told you I wanted to buy you from your father?”

Cara almost dropped the pole again, but steadied her feet and maintained her pace. “I guess if anyone were to buy me I would like that person to be you.” She looked at his broad back, accented by the V of sweat stain from his shoulders to the small of his back. Images of the rat-infested brothels flashed through her mind and increased her pulse rate with fear. She swallowed with a wad of fear stuck deep in her throat and forced her feet to keep pace with him.

The little village looked even less inviting than usual as they walked with their unusual trophy slung between them. The children came at them again; their excited chatter blending with ear piercing shrills. Another handful of pennies sent them scampering away again, clearing the way to Cara’s meager home. Bruce waited outside as she went in to tell her parents about his presence. He stood with the plastic bags full of groceries surrounding him like a fort.

Cara finally waved him in, the dark interior of the little hut taking a few moments to adjust his eyes. The entire living area consisted of one room, four sleeping mats, and a small table with one rusted metal chair. The dirt floor was packed hard and smooth like tile, and from what Bruce could see appeared to be spotless. A woman, bent and frail as an old maid, stood beside a man sitting in the chair. Both were wrinkled like raisins, their leathery skin pulled in odd angles across their skulls, but their eyes were bright and alert, the eyes of survivors.

Cara sat by her father’s feet, her eyes cast down toward Bruce’s feet. He had grabbed the bags as he went in, loaded to the point of having to push the bag of flour with his foot. The dough boy ended up face down on the floor, his cute little smile pressed against the dirt.

The man pushed to his feet, arthritic joints creaking and snapping like muffled gunshots. At the sight of the food his eyes turned to wet pools in his dry face, his expression one of wisdom and yet devoid of hope. He stepped aside, the muscles in his jaw clenching in pain with the movement, but no other emotion showed. He pointed a finger that was missing from the tip to the first knuckle, the long ago result of an accident while digging a drainage ditch, and spoke in a rusty, high pitched voice. “Please do us the honor of sitting in our home. We are humbled to have an American sailor visit us.”

Bruce bowed slightly, not quite sure what the proper showing of respect would be, and said, “Sir, it is I who am honored to be in your home. If I may be so bold, I would say please be seated yourself. I would be most comfortable right here.” He crossed his legs at the ankles and lowered himself to the floor, sitting Indian style.

Apparently his gesture was correct because the man smiled a toothless grin of pleasure and slowly moved back to the chair. He regained his position and looked at his daughter, fondly patting the top of her head. “Cara tells me you wish to discuss her future,” he said, a tear pooling under each eye as he spoke.

“Yes sir, we have discussed some things and I have come to offer you these things as a gift to help us decide.”

With a slight gesture to his wife, she came forward and gathered the bags. Each was emptied and sat on the table, and when it was filled she stacked cans on top of one another, making a second layer. Small sounds of delight escaped her as each item was studied and stacked. Her husband sat still as stone, emotionless and quiet as each treasure came from a bag. “You are most generous,” he finally said when all the food was displayed. “My daughter must have pleased you very much.”

“She did indeed,” Bruce agreed, “But I think perhaps not the way you believe. Cara was my guide today. She showed me the sights around your island and took me shopping, nothing else.”

“I see,” the old man said, his strong face unable to hide his relief. “Then may I ask what other purpose you might have?”

Bruce nodded slowly, thinking through each word in his mind before speaking. He pretended to study the backs of his hands, gaining a few extra moments to insure that he would make himself clear. “I would like to make a purchase from you sir,” he said at last. “Although I know your people’s custom is to bargain over each transaction, I wish to break that tradition by making it very clear that my offer is unconditional and it is firm. Absolutely no bargaining is acceptable. It’s very important to me that you understand this, sir. Have I made myself clear?” His heart pounded, hoping he had not made a fatal error by showing a lack of respect.

Cara’s father studied his guest for a full two minutes before answering. His eyes swam in dark pools that seemed to push into Bruce’s mind in an attempt to discern his true intent. Cara shuffled her legs uneasily on the dirt floor as if she were getting cramps in them and waited as the silent seconds ticked by. Her father never spoke, and at last just gave a slight nod of his head indicating his acceptance.

Bruce stood slowly, making his movements deliberate and calm. When he was on his feet he crossed the short distance to the small table and stood in front of Cara’s father. The old man sat placidly in the chair, showing no outward emotion as he waited for Bruce to speak. His wife, however, was trembling with fear and concern. Her eyes kept darting protectively toward Cara.

“My offer,” Bruce began, looking directly into the tired eyes, “is to pay you six hundred dollars.” He stopped because Cara’s mother cried out and crumpled in a faint to the earthen floor. The old man did not move or even twitch; his eyes locked with Bruce’s like two gunfighters in the street.

“My offer is for all three of your daughters,” Bruce went on when he realized Cara’s mother would not be attended. Even Cara stood frozen in place, her mouth unhinged and hanging down like it was broken. Her mother stirred on the floor, moaning softly but alert and listening to his words.

“You have not seen two of my daughters,” the old man said softly. “Perhaps you will regret your offer when you see them.”

“Their looks are not in consideration with this offer, although I am sure they are beautiful children,” Bruce said, “just as Cara. My motivation is to insure that they are not sold to anyone else and to direct where half of the funds are to go, which brings me to the only other stipulation of my offer. Each child is to be given one hundred dollars of the money to finish her education. That money is absolutely to be used for nothing else. The other three hundred you may use as you wish.” Bruce raised his eyebrows, the only outward sign that he was finished. His eyes remained, unblinking, on his host.

A single tear ran from the corner of each eye and the old man dropped his gaze, his first sign of emotion. In a trembling voice, the emotion threatening to burst forth like a geyser, he said, “Will you require anything of my children if you own them? They will truly be your property.”

“I will require something of each,” Bruce said with a smile. “As their owner I demand that they live their lives as free people as everyone should be, and I want them to make decisions as if they were never bound, except that they may never be sold to anyone else. I want to be sure they are forever free people. That is all I require.”

The old man stood and moved with surprising grace and speed despite his age and infirmities as he moved in front of his guest. “On our island our word is our bond. If I accept your offer all of what you said can never be changed.”

“That’s exactly the way I expect our agreement to work. I can tell you are a man of honor, just as I too live by my honor,” Bruce said. “So, do we have an agreement?”

“We have an agreement,” the old man said and extended his hand.

Bruce heard Cara’s mother weeping as he reached for his hand as well. Glancing her way, he saw that her weeping was tears of joy. He intentionally pulled out the eight hundred dollars from his shirt pocket and placed it on the top of the table. “There you are sir, as we agreed,” he said.

The old man picked up the money, counted it, and with a shaking hand held out the extra two hundred dollars to Bruce. “You miscounted,” he said levelly.

Bruce smiled and nodded his head. “I gave Cara money to be my guide today. Please give your other daughters twenty-five dollars each when they come home so they won’t feel slighted. And the rest of the additional money is for your beautiful wife. I would like her to buy some clothes and more food for the family. She deserves that because I earlier caused her to faint.” He turned and exited the sparse dwelling before the old man could object, missing the smile on the man’s face.

The sun was dropping rapidly behind him as he stepped onto the path. He would have to hurry if he was to reach the hotel before dark. With a feeling of joy in his heart unlike he had ever felt before, Bruce began his journey.

“Bruce.” Her voice caused him to stop and turn as she ran toward him. She stopped at his side and put her hand into his. Tears ran like a small tributary down her face and dripped one by one from her chin. “Do you know what you just did for my family?” she asked.

“I guess I’m not totally sure,” he said truthfully. “I wanted to make sure you and your sisters could get an education and would never be faced with selling your bodies to sailors. I added the extra money to help your mother and father.”

“My father is in very poor health,” she confided. “He works when he physically can, but sometimes he isn’t able to find any work because he can’t do as much as the younger men. The extra money you gave him will allow him to not work any more. He’ll be the wealthiest man in our village and undoubtedly will become our next mayor. Basically, you’ve given my father the world.”

Bruce smiled with pleasure at the thought of Cara’s father running the local government. His children would likely rise in esteem with the little village as well, that mental image pleasing him as well. “I’m glad I had such a major impact Cara. Your family deserves this.”

“But I still don’t understand,” Cara said. “Why did you do this for us? You gave us a fortune and asked for nothing in return.”

“I did it for you, Cara,” he replied. “Look, I’m young, I don’t have a wife and children, and the money I gave you is not that much for me. I just couldn’t stand the thought of you ending up in a brothel. You’re much too special for that. You know, if every sailor would just save one person when they landed on this island, we could help turn this into a true paradise. I can’t save the world, but I can certainly save you.”

Cara pulled him gently to her and kissed him on the cheek. She held him for a moment and then whispered in his ear, “God bless you Bruce.”

“He does every day,” Bruce answered and gave her a hug. She broke away from him and started back to her home. Her mother and father were standing out front, and Bruce waited until she reached them.

Cara and her parents stood together, the setting sun backlighting them with fiery warmth, then as one they each raised an arm in farewell. Bruce lifted his own arm and waved in return, a feeling of peace washing over him like a comforter on a cold day. “Have a good life,” he whispered, then turned and went on his way.