Night Games

Red. Stop. Watch. Wait. Breathe in and out. Streams of light. Music and laughter inside the Tapas bar. So many pretty faces with red-lipped smiles and strong white teeth. She glances at me and smiles. I smile back. She takes a sip from her second glass of dark crimson wine.

See me sitting by the window. My eyes stare back at me. Hungry.

I swallow black beans and small beef strips. I gnaw at a chicken thigh grilled in green chili sauce. I touch a tart apple foam with my tongue. Not enough. Never enough.

Yellow. Caution. I pay my bill and step out into the steamy night. Too crowded. Many people roam about. Car horns honk. Across the street a boy vomits while his friends cheer. I walk to the alley down the street and pull on a black hoodie.

Green. Go. The restaurant door opens, and she is alone. She walks away from the noise. Four streets up. Two streets over. I am quick, quick. I am a shadow.

She reaches the house  and walks up the steps. She doesn’t fumble with the keys, but I am super fast. I force her through the door. We crash to the floor.

“Ouch,” she says. “This is the last time for this game, George. It’s gotten old.”

She is correct. It’s the last night for games.

I whisper, “Goodbye, Marie.”

Tonight is good.

 

Aftermath

BREAKING NEWS

 

HUNDREDS DEAD AFTER CAPITOL SLAUGHTER

 

 

 

Top Stories                                                                                                May 13, 2023

 

_____________________________  From John Libotti, CNN__________________________

 

·      Source: Captain Dwayne Marks, Capitol Police.

 

·      Witness said the gunmen appeared from nowhere.

 

·      Gunman used assault rifles with high capacity magazines

 

 

Washington, DC–The total body count is not yet final in the slaughter at the U.S. Capitol this morning, but death tolls are expected to rise to over 500. CNN can now confirm that 51 senators are dead, and 25 critically wounded, though names will not be released until family members are notified, and 307 congressional representatives are believed to be dead or wounded, though that number may rise. Over one hundred staff and legislative aids and twenty-five Capitol police officers may also have been killed or wounded in the worst act of terror committed on U.S. soil since 9/11. According to Captain Marks, the gunmen have been neutralized. Six are confirmed dead. Two are in critical condition.

 

Local hospitals have been overwhelmed by the casualties and have reached out to facilities like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the National Naval Hospital in Bethesda Maryland for help.

 

Little is known about the gunmen or how they gained access to the Capitol at this time, but DC Metro Police and FBI sources confirm that the shooters used M-4 carbine assault riffles with high capacity magazines. It is believed that one of the shooters may have been a former Navy Seal, but this has not yet been confirmed.

 

At this time the Army is assisting with the removal of the bodies.

 

The shooting comes on the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Access Bill, which called for the removal of all metal detectors from all public buildings with the exception of the White House and Supreme Court. The bill, which was part of the NRA’s “Don’t give an Inch” Campaign, helped propel a number of new pro-gun legislators into office.

 

President Donald Bartold will address a stunned nation this evening.

 

#

 

 

 

Mrs. Zamora Moves In

The apartment on Pine Street was surprisingly cheap, which worked well for me, considering it was my first apartment, and I didn’t have a lot to spend on rent. My landlady, Mrs. Franklin, lived on the first floor as did little Mr. Fiedler, a nice old gentleman I seldom saw, but who wore large hearing aids and a soft gray felt hat that he always tipped politely to me. A married couple named Jon and Erin Glascott, and a twenty-something woman named Maggie Luzzi, who was never there as far as I could tell except for the occasional Sunday when she breezed in to pick up some clothes and disappeared with her boyfriend, occupied the second floor apartments, and way up on the third floor I lived in a surprisingly spacious place. True, the ceiling sloped in the bathroom, which was tiny, and I needed a window air conditioner to augment the building’s central air that didn’t seem to work above the second floor, but the ceilings were high and the window seats were deep. I lived near the grocery and a bunch of cafes. Since I usually worked from seven to seven, I wasn’t going to be home much, so what could go wrong?

Within two weeks of my arrival, the Glascotts moved out. I didn’t care much that Glascotts were leaving. After all, I had only said hello once to them in the hallway, so it wasn’t like I was loosing best friends, but two days later I came home from work to see a tall woman swathed in what looked to be red scarves and black leggings standing in front of the building directing movers, and I stopped mouth agape.

The woman wore a red satin turban that sparkled with a huge rhinestone pin. I had never seen a modern woman wearing a turban, much less one so gaudy. It matched her four inch red patent leather stilettos. From the back the woman, despite her turban, was in great shape; she had the lithe body of a dancer and long, muscled legs; from the front, she had the face of a gargoyle. Too much plastic surgery left her eyes pulled up and back and her skin stretched unnaturally tight over her skull. Her lips had been enhanced by collagen implants and bloomed around her flashing white teeth. Guessing her age was impossible; she looked like she had been dipped in formaldehyde.

I almost dropped my bag of groceries.

I tried to slip past her, but she swung around to survey me, her right hand on her hip.

“You must be the third floor girl,” she said. “Kelsey? Katie?” She extended her hand palm down as if she expected me to kiss it.

“Alana,” I said. “Alana Carver.” I shook her hand and let go as quickly as possible.

“I knew you had a K in your name. I am Rasha Zamora. I’m moving in today. I don’t like loud rock and roll or rap music,” she said. “Or negative energy. I’m very sensitive.”

“I don’t play rap music,” I said and wondered if I had an escape clause in my rental contract. I didn’t care about the security deposit. “I work.”

I walked past her straight to the landlady’s apartment and saw Mrs. Franklin hovering in the hall in her usual dark blue shift. Her white hair looked a bit disheveled and the corners of her mouth pinched in distress when she saw me.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“Oh, Miss Carver. I had no idea who was moving in. She’s an old friend of Mr. Stinson, and he owns the building. He didn’t say anything.”

“Maybe she’s just eccentric.”

Mrs. Franklin seemed so discombobulated that I felt it was a bad time to say anything about my new neighbor, especially when I was so seldom home.

“She told me she wants me to cleanse the building. I don’t know what that means. It’s very clean.” She held out a bundle of what looked like straw tied together, and I smiled. White sage.

“She wants you to burn it. It’s a ritual. You burn the sage and the smoke is supposed to cleanse the bad spirits.”

Mrs. Franklin handed me the sage. “That sounds like one of those witch things. I’m no witch.” She walked back to her apartment and closed the door with a finality that left no doubt that she wasn’t dealing with the new tenant, the sage, or any witch rituals.

I figured a little sage wouldn’t hurt anything.

As I lay in bed reading that evening I heard the sound of music being played at top volume. “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” warbled the singer in the sort of high, semi-operatic voice I always hated. It seemed like the song was stuck on repeat because it played over and over again until I banged on the floor. Then it paused only to start up again.

I called Mrs. Franklin. “Get her to turn down that damn music,” I said.

Mrs. Franklin sighed loudly. “I think she’s a little deaf.”

“I want to go to sleep.”

At last the music stopped.

At six a.m. I was out the door and off to work. When I returned the damn song was playing. I could hear it as I climbed the stairs, sweating like a pig. I turned on the air conditioner, but I could still hear it. I turned on the television, but that song seeped through the walls.

It was time to take action. I walked down the stairs and knocked on Rasha Zamora’s door. After a moment she answered. The apartment smelled of burned sage, and the song blared in the background. Decorated in red and gold velvet with a big red oriental rug on the floor, the place looked like a bordello from the 1920’s. Giant red lamps trimmed in gold fringe stood on marble topped mahogany tables. It was as outrageous as Rasha Zamora who wore a black catsuit with a fuchsia chiffon skirt and jazz shoes.

“Mrs. Zamora,” I started, “That music.”

“It’s glorious, I know. My favorite song. Beyond the Blue Horizon. Only happy things to look forward to there. Jeanette McDonald sang it in Follow the Boys, you know. It’s the best version.”

“You’ve played it two days in a row.”

“It’s my good luck song,” she said and lifted her leg up in the air until it was almost horizontal. “Not too shabby, eh? Do you know I danced with Clark Gable and Cary Grant when I was younger?”

“That’s very nice for you, but I wonder if you might play the song a little quieter?”

“Quieter?” Rasha Zamora stared at me as if I’d told her the devil was coming for her soul. “I am releasing positive energy into this building,” she said. “You’ll see.”

“That may be, but I can’t sleep.”

“You should download your own copy, or whatever you young people do now. It will bring you luck. And don’t forget to burn white sage to cleanse your apartment. Listen to the lyrics, dear. They’ll make you happy.” She went to a large brass urn and pulled out a bundle of white sage then shooed me to the door. “Take this and burn it. Now I must stretch.”

“But I—“

“Just feel the positive energy.” She closed the door.

I went to my apartment and made brownies for dinner.

The next morning I wrapped the leftovers and on my way to work put them outside of Rasha Zamora’s door thanking her for the sage. When I came home that evening, my empty dish sat in front of my door along with a red crystal and a note of thanks. The crystal, she wrote, would help me find true love.

Our relationship continued this way. Every night I made something for Rasha Zamora, and every day when I returned from work I’d receive a little note with a stone or a healing crystal. Sometimes she would invite me to her apartment and tell me about her days as a dancer. The good days, she called them, when she danced in the movies or on Broadway.

“But eventually you get old,” she said. “You run out of energy. Sometimes when you’re young and beautiful, you’re foolish. You don’t realize how quickly it passes. Then pouf, you’re an old husk.” She smiled when I started to protest. “Oh no. I don’t regret a thing. In life you always go forward.”

After a while I .0

got used to Beyond the Blue Horizon, maybe because it didn’t sound quite as loud or maybe because it just became background noise. It got stuck in my head, and I’d find myself humming it at odd times. Mrs. Zamora would ask if I felt the positive energy. I always said yes, though I’m not sure I felt anything.

One night the apartment was quiet. It felt odd after months of Beyond the Blue Horizon. It was so odd, I couldn’t sleep. The next morning I knocked on Mrs. Zamora’s door, but there was no answer.

When I returned from work, the EMT’s were taking her away in a black plastic bag.

“Poor thing,” Mrs. Franklin said. “Did you know she was eighty-nine?”

“She danced with Gable and Cary Grant,” I said, feeling oddly nostalgic.

“She was a pip,” Mrs. Franklin said. “But I think I’ll miss her all the same. Her and that silly song.”

I watched the ambulance pull away into traffic and thought Mrs. Zamora had flown beyond the blue horizon at last.

 

 

The Hunters (Story A Day Challenge 14)

       

On the edge of a mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.  It is a hunting lodge of sorts, outfitted in the most Spartan way with a lumpy cot, a sleeping bag and several filthy blankets, a moldy pillow. It has no electricity though there is a fireplace, and the shelves are stocked with the necessities: plastic containers of water, cans of coffee, tins of vegetables and Spam. A few plastic bags of beef jerky lie on the rough hewed wood table next to a large lantern. There is one glass window that’s covered with a film of yellowed plastic.

 

            The cottage is not inviting. It’s a lonely place teetering at the precipice of the mountain, but the view of the valley is spectacular. The man busily shoveling doesn’t care about the view today. He has more pressing thoughts on his mind.

 

            In the red-gold light the deer are both intrigued and frightened by the sound of digging. They sense danger, but do not run yet; they remain hidden in the thick trees along the ridge, their breath coming in quick puffs of white.

 

            The snows are coming. Not tonight, but soon.

 

            The man’s voice pierces the quiet.  “What do you think, Oscar, have I dug deep enough? Been working on it long enough.”

 

            A small brown and white dog runs around him barking and pawing at the  burlap sack tied to the back of the bay gelding who stands patiently next to the pile of rocks the man has moved earlier.

 

            “Now, Oscar, be still. We have work to do.” He cuts the rope that binds the sack to the gelding, and the sack falls with a thud to the hard earth.  Grunting, he drags the sack to the deep hole and pushes it in.

 

            “Go to hell,” he says and starts to hum. Twilight is coming, and he contemplates waiting to fill in the hole, but knows it has to be done now. He can’t risk the ground freezing.

 

            The deer move a little closer, watching him shovel layer after layer of earth into the huge hole before he slowly pushes the rocks on top. The area doesn’t look quite the same as before. A buck paws the ground uneasily.

 

            That quickly the man turns and fires the rifle lying on the ground beside him. The buck falls and the rest of the herd scatters. The man smiles.

 

            “Did you see that, Oscar? I could feel ‘em watching. What a shot! Almost dark too.” He pulls at the gelding’s reins. “Come on, Forsooth.” Horse and man walk carefully up the embankment to where the stag lays. He’s a young one, but he’ll do. The man slings him over the horse’s back and heads down the ridge with Oscar.

 

            It’s close to eight when he arrives home. It’s dark and cold now, but there’s a casserole in the oven all warm and bubbly. The table’s set for him, and Sarah places the casserole in front of him. Oscar trots into the kitchen.

 

            “Walter, where were you?” Her voice falters at the sight of the blood on his clothes.

 

            “Got me a young buck up the mountain. Was tracking him for hours,” Walter says. He washes his hands and sits at the table without going upstairs to change. “What’s the matter, Sarah, you look a little pale.”

 

            “You know I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Sarah backs against the stove. She wishes she had the nerve to swing the meat cleaver against Walter’s head, but she has to wait. Soon Edward will come, and she’ll leave everything behind.

 

            They’ve planned so carefully. Edward will pick her up, and they’ll just go. She’s even hidden money away for it.

 

            She dishes out food for Oscar who runs over to slurp it up.

 

            “Yessir, We’ll have some mighty good venison,” Walter says and digs into the casserole. It tastes especially good tonight. “You’re a great cook, Sarah. That’s the best casserole you ever made. What’s in it?”

 

            “Oh, just the usual. Diced tomatoes, cheese, meat, potatoes, onion, all that.”

 

            “Well, you’re a good wife, Sarah. I never want to lose you.”

 

            “I know Walter.”

 

            “Here, Oscar come taste this.” He snaps his fingers and the dog comes running but he just sniffs at the glob of casserole. “What’s the matter? You ate too much already?” Walter stuffs his fingers into his mouth. “Your loss.” He looks at Sarah. “Ain’t you eating?”

 

            “I did earlier. I was saving the casserole. I wanted it to be perfect.”

 

            Walter grunts. “I’m gonna go skin that deer, then I’ll wash up.” He turns and looks at her from the door, his face bland. “By the way, I think that Edward Ames fella up and moved on. I wouldn’t expect to see him around here again.”

 

            Sarah takes a breath before she answers. “Did he?”

 

            Walter nods. “Got to get to that buck.”

 

            She sits down on the kitchen chair trembling when he goes out to take care of the deer and wonders what he did to Edward. She wonders if he’s found her small reserve of cash. She’s afraid to check.

 

            Sarah looks at the casserole. Walter’s eaten almost half. She places the casserole in the refrigerator and washes the dishes. She goes to bed meaning to read, but can’t concentrate. When she hears Walter enter she turns off the light and pretends to be asleep, but she knows it won’t matter. Even after his shower, he still smells of blood when he crawls into bed.

 

            “Sarah, I did it for you,” Walter says. He feels a little dizzy, but he can see the outline of his wife in her white nightgown and is filled with desire. “I do everything for you.”

 

            He grabs her and pushes the nightgown up. He yanks down her underwear  and thrusts himself into her, telling her he loves her, over and over. Sarah doesn’t need to do anything. He squeezes her breasts and comes inside her. She wants to vomit.

 

            In the morning, Walter feels a little off, but he goes out to do his chores. He chops a load of wood and feeds the livestock. A storm is coming. He can smell the snow. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get out in a blizzard, and phone service can go off at anytime. He thinks about driving into town, but decides he’s tired. He’s had too much lifting and hauling the last few days. He finishes the casserole at lunch, but by dinner he feels gut sick. Sarah gives him chicken soup as the flakes begin to fall, but Walter can only swallow a little before the diarrhea strikes.

 

            The weather service announces that this will be a bad storm, maybe two or more feet of snow. Sheriff Joe Allan calls to ask if they need anything, and Sarah says they’re fine for now. Joe Allan says to call if they need anything. He always has been a little sweet on Sarah. She could have married anyone on the mountain, but her father was greedy and practically sold her to Walter Nolan because he needed cash to keep his logging business afloat. Joe Allan thinks it’s a crime in these modern times to be able to sell a daughter for cash.

 

            No wonder Sarah fell a little for that young Edward Ames from Seattle. He’d come through scouting locations for some software business looking to bring jobs to underdeveloped areas. They had big ideas about keeping the area green and growing the economy. Joe Allan isn’t sure a software company is the answer to the job problems in this area, but he has hopes.  Logging is all they have, but he doesn’t want to see his beloved mountain stripped clean, even though he understands that the men need jobs.

 

            It made him happy to see Sarah with the old twinkle in her eyes. Now she sounds tired and beat down again. If she’d even look in his direction, he’d take her away, but for now all he can do is offer to help if they get snowed in.

 

            By midnight the snow is falling hard, and everything seems strangely hushed. Even the wind seems muffled by the falling snow. Joe Allan looks out of his bedroom window and watches some small animal–a fox maybe—dart  around the edge of his house. This is light powdery snow that drifts down and sparkles in the emergency lights around his house. Just for fun he takes a ruler outside. It’s already over ten inches. He thinks about Sarah locked up in that big house on the ridge and lifts his face to the sky. Snow brushes his face like frozen kisses.

 

            Walter lies on the floor huddled near the toilet while Sarah fetches him a fresh ice pack. He can feel the fever building. He must have caught something out in the woods digging. He stayed too late. He should have come back sooner, but what if someone found the burlap sack? He closes his eyes and rests his head against the porcelain rim.

 

            “Okay, Walter,” says Sarah, “put this on the back of your head. It’ll cool you down. You have a fever is all. You must have got the flu.”

 

            Walter is so thirsty, but he can’t keep anything down. He starts to see things like Edward Ames’ bloody face right before he wrapped him in plastic and rolled him in burlap. Edward Ames was going to run off with Sarah. That just wasn’t right.

 

            Walter can hear the stag paw the ground right before he shoots it.

 

            Sarah watches Walter clutch the rim and babble about the deer and the hole in the ground. She listens to the soft whoosh of the snow and leans over. “You just lie here, Walter, you’ll feel better in the morning.”

 

            In the morning Walter is slumped by the toilet covered in vomit. Sarah draws him a bath and helps him into it. She props him in the tub and cleans the mess on the floor.

 

            “What’s . . . wrong . . . with  . . . me?”

 

            Walter’s face is yellow. His eyes are bloodshot from retching so hard. Clearly his liver is failing.

 

            “I don’t know, Walter. We don’t have phone service, and it’s still snowing. But I can take the jeep and try to get to Joe Allan.”

 

            “No, stay here.” Walter tries to rise up, but sinks back into the water.

 

            Sarah wonders how long he can go on without water or food. “I’ll get you some ice. Maybe you can chew on it.”

 

            Outside the snow keeps falling. So fast and hard that she can barely see the outline of the barn, but she needs to go out and feed the chickens and the horse. She needs to check for eggs. Sarah ties a piece of rope to her waist and attaches it to the door before she makes her way to the barn. She puts a blanket on the horse, mucks out his stall, and gives him fresh oats and hay. She feeds the chickens and checks for eggs. Then heads back to the house.

 

            Oscar barks when she returns and sheds her wet things. She feeds him and checks the phone. No dial tone. She checks on Walter. He’s vomited and shit again so she puts him back in the tub when she changes the sheets. She decides to leave him in the bathtub so she can hose him off and covers him with a sheet and blanket. Walter’s eyes look glazed.

 

            “What happened to me?” he says.

 

            Sarah just wipes his face with a damp cloth. “Try to sleep.” She brings him more ice chips.

 

            By evening the snow starts to slow and Joe Allan is out directing the plowing. He glances up at the ridge determined to get up there by tomorrow morning at the latest.

 

            The moon begins to push through the clouds, an almost full moon—either waxing or waning. The silver light casts eerie shadows on the woods. Deer, foxes and bears watch the men with their plows carve out roads through the powdery snow.

 

            “There’s some trees down,” one of the men says. “It’ll take a while.

 

            “Let’s get to it,” says Joe Allan. “There’re people stranded up there.”

 

            Despite his best efforts, Joe Allan and his men don’t get through to Sarah and Walter Nolan’s house until late afternoon of the next day. He finds Sarah trying to coax Walter into sucking on some ice while he floats naked in tepid bathwater.

 

            “Oh thank God, you got through,” Sarah says, and throws her arms around Joe Allan. “Walter’s been so sick for the past day. I don’t know what it is. I tried calling but the phone’s been out.”

 

            Joe Allan looks at Walter. He’s a pathetic specimen right now. Jaundiced, red-eyed, wasting away, he looks like something from a horror movie.

 

            “I don’t think we can wait for an ambulance. We’ll get him out of here now, Sarah.”

 

            They wrap Walter up as best they can and load him into one of the heavy- duty plows.

 

            “Jesus Christ, what happened to him?” someone says.

 

            “Just get him down to County General,” says Joe Allan. “I’ll bring Mrs. Nolan down myself.”

 

            “Can I make some coffee for you and the boys, Joe?” Sarah asks. “I’ve got a big urn.”

 

            “We’d appreciate it, Sarah. What happened?”

 

            Sarah frowns. “I don’t know. He came home a couple nights ago with a buck. We had dinner, and by the time the storm started, he was sick as a dog.” She sighs. “It was awful, Joe. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Talking crazy. He said he saw Ed Ames down a hole way up the mountain near his cabin where he shot that buck. Is that even possible?”

 

            Joe Allan shakes his head. Now it makes sense. Before the storm hit, he’d gotten a call from Edward Ames’s company. The guy hadn’t checked in or called in over four days. If he is buried up that mountain, they won’t find him until spring.

 

            Joe Allan pats Sarah’s hand. “Tell you what. I know you’re worried about Walter, but driving down the mountain tonight is crazy. You should wait till tomorrow. The roads’ll be better then. I’ll find out about Walter then you can take what he needs to the hospital.”

 

            “Joe, that’s just so kind of you. I’m so grateful. Tell the truth I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since he’s been sick.  Here, I’ll make you that coffee.”

 

            After the sheriff and his men have left, Sarah takes the coffee grounds and lays them on a piece of plastic. She goes to the freezer to remove the jar with all the scrapings from the casserole. She triple wraps everything in plastic and puts on her boots and coat. She slides a pair of extra batteries in the pocket then grabs the lantern. The snow is up to her knees, but she makes her way to the barn, clears a space under the hay and begins to dig. She spends a long time at it because the ground is hard. At last the hole is deep enough, and she drops the package into it and shovels the dirt on top. She stamps around the place she was digging until the dirt looks flat and undisturbed then mixes some hay on top of it. She makes her way back to the house and washes her hands.

 

            At the hospital the tests will show that Walter has ingested a massive amount of Amanita phalloides mixed in with Amanita virosa or death angel mushrooms mixed with destroying angel mushrooms. Unfortunately the toxin from the mushrooms has destroyed Walter’s liver and kidneys and his systems are shutting down.  He’s dying in the Intensive Care Unit despite the hospital’s best efforts.

 

            “If only we’d gotten to him earlier,” Dr Kitteridge says, “He might have had a chance. The damn snow.”

 

            “I just don’t understand where Walter would have gotten mushrooms at this time of year,” Joe Allan says to Sarah as they watch Walter struggling to live.

 

            She looks at him with wide blue eyes. Her lips tremble slightly. “I just don’t know, though you know how he always said he could live off the land. He kept all kinds of things in that cabin of his.”

 

            Eventually, she knows they’ll find a glass jar with the residue of those mushrooms and maybe some packets of beef jerky, though she figures that Walter ate the jerky. She knows her fingerprints have long been wiped clean on that jar.

 

            The doctor waves Sarah into the room. “I’ll give you a little privacy,” he says. “He hasn’t got much time.”

 

            Sarah takes Walter’s hand gently and smiles. She leans very close to his ear as if she’s kissing him. “When you die, Walter, I’m going to put you in a hole too,” she says.

 

            Walter’s eyes grow wide and his pulse jumps erratically. He can’t speak because of the tube in his throat.

 

            Sarah lays Walter’s hand on his chest. “Goodbye, Walter.”

 

            She walks out to Joe Allan, and puts her hand on his arm. “You’ve been such a rock for me, Joe. Would you stay a little longer?” She lays her head against his shoulder. She’s always liked Joe; he’s kind and good. She could get used to someone like that.

 

            Joe Allan feels his heart swell. “Anything for you, Sarah. Anything for you.”

 

            Walter lies in his bed dying. He remembers the stillness of the high mountains, the peace. He doesn’t know how Sarah knew about Ed Ames, and he’ll never know. That’s the hell of it. He thinks about the buck hanging in the barn and realizes she got him just like he got that buck.

 

            In Walter’s cabin mice scurry about looking for crumbs of food, but find nothing. Walter has removed anything they could eat. Beef jerky wrappers lie on the floor. Water drips through a hole in the ceiling onto the spot near the fireplace, and great icicles hang from the eaves.

 

            Out on the mountain the deer pick their way though the deep snow foraging for whatever plants they can find. They come to the rocks near the cabin and sniff. Something is different: something dark and decaying lies hidden deep beneath the earth.

 

            A stag lifts its head. The scent of death and danger hangs in the air here, but it dissipates in the biting wind.

 

 

After The Summer (Story A Day 13)

It was eleven o”clock, and she felt like she’d been at work for a month when Sam Chase stood and walk to the window to stare out at the street below. People scurried past, traffic was beginning to grow heavy in anticipation of the noon rush; two police cars wove in and out of the rest of the cars and trucks, sirens blaring. Life in its rawest form existed here.

Sam thought there were city people and suburbanites. She knew she could never live out in suburbs in a house with a manicured green lawn and commute each day to work on the train. She’d miss the grittiness of the city. Here she walked everywhere from her apartment to work, to restaurants and cafes, to the theater. She didn’t need a car. She just loved that.

“Sam?”

She started and turned. “Jim, I’m sorry. You caught me taking a break.”

“That’s a first.” Jim McDonough, the managing partner laughed. “Mind if I come in for a moment?”

“Not at all.” Damn, he would catch me starting out the window, she thought.

He eased himself into one of the leather chairs in front of her desk. “First thing, Sam. Your work on the Mester deal was a work of art. I wanted to personally congratulate you before the official hoopla.”

Sam smiled uncertainly. Jim McDonough seldom, if ever, came down to give personal congratulations to anyone. Good work was its own reward, especially for younger members of the firm. True she’d reaped some hefty bonuses and congratulations in official meetings, but almost never a private audience with Jim McDonough in person. Except after last summer, but that was exceptional in a lot of ways.

“That you,” she said. “I was so grateful to work on a project that important.”

“Well, you proved yourself repeatedly over the last few years, especially last summer. That’s why I wanted to tell you personally that we’ve decided to make you a partner. It’s not official yet, so I’d ask you not to talk about it. We’ll work out the perks and details later. I will say it involves a hefty pay raise.”

Sam felt as if she were being pumped with helium. Partner here in this city she always loved. She thought after last summer she’d be relegated to some rathole, even if she had saved the company from a disaster. Marks and McDonough didn’t like disasters. It was bad for business, even if they had the personnel to make disasters disappear.

Sam was about to answer when Jim said. “There’s more. We’re expanding our operations and looking for people we can trust to step in and get everything up and running.”

“Expanding where?” Sam felt a niggle of concern. Maybe this was the part about the rathole office. She swallowed hard.

“Paris.”

She sat back in her chair. “Paris, France?”

He nodded.

She’d spent a semester in Paris when she was in college and dreamed of going back before life got in the way. She could already picture the narrow streets lined with little shops, the darling cafes, the boulevards, the shopping, the museums.

Jim was talking about the company buying apartments for the senior management, but she was scarcely listening. She was walking along the Seine pretending to Audrey Hepburn, except in her case there was no Cary Grant. Of course, in real life, there were no Cary Grants.

“Who else is going?”

Jim shifted in his seat a little. Uncomfortably, she thought. “Bob Kerrigan, Gordon Albright, Mark Levin, Rebecca Judson, Maya Lee, and you to start. Plus Tom Kestler. I’m sure there’ll be some other additions. Nothing’s final yet. Consider this a promotion with a huge perk.”

“But why us?”

“Well, for one thing, you all speak French.”

He stood, and she shook his hand, knowing the conversation was at an end. When he left she fell back into her chair. She spoke basic French, and it was rusty and Bob Kerrigan spoke Spanish. She didn’t know about the others, except she thought Maya might speak Japanese and maybe some French. Mark Levin was brilliant and probably did speak any number of languages. She didn’t know about Gordon or Rebecca. She didn’t know about Tom Kestler, except that she didn’t like him. The only other thing she knew was they were all involved in the incident last summer. They resolved it. They made it disappear. Were they being rewarded or exiled?

She saw Maya lee pass her office and waved her in, but Maya kept walking. She gripped the files in her arms, her face determinedly neutral.

Later Sam watched Gordon Albright walk to the elevator, his head bent down and his briefcase gripped in his left hand. Mark Levin strolled out ten minutes later, and she was sure they were meeting somewhere for drinks. They had always been close. Bob Kerrigan and Rebecca Judson worked upstairs, and she didn’t get a chance to see them. She didn’t want to see Tom Kestler.

Nobody was celebrating this dream promotion.

Sam took a breath, then another, and reached a point of clarity. She knew deep down this coming. Somebody always had to clean up messes, and then what? She’d been afraid of what she knew, but she wasn’t stupid. She put her affairs in order. She thought she’d been careful. Maybe the others had been careful as well, or maybe they hadn’t anticipated this day.

At seven o’clock Sam closed her computer as usual, though she’d accomplished almost nothing, and placed it in its padded sleeve. It was misting outside. That was good. She slipped into her raincoat, took the express elevator, and checked out.

The rain was light but persistent when Sam caught the T to Faneuil Hall, and she was grateful to grab a seat to herself. Before exiting the train, she left her computer wedged between the side of the car and seat. On a Friday evening in spring she knew the market would be crowded with all kinds of people. She wandered through the outdoor vendor stalls and up the stairs into the inside gallery. Teenagers pushed past her, eager to get to the open-air concert near the Hall itself, and she was able to slip out of her heels and into a pair of flats. Despite the cool air she took off her Burberry raincoat, shook it out, and brought a purple tote with BOSTON stamped on it in red letters. After transferring the contents of her briefcase into the tote she dumped the empty case in a trash can. Her coat was reversible, so she turned it inside out, shivering a little at the dampness.

Sam doubled back and slipped out into the main courtyard of the marketplace where the band was tuning up and managed to work her way through the crowd back toward State Street. In the process she let her cell phone drop to the ground where someone was sure to step on it, kick it about, or maybe even use it. It was conceivable an honest person would turn it in, but she figured it would take a while. She walked briskly to the nearest T-stop. She could walk to her destination, but this would be better.

An apartment in the North End awaited her, but she wasn’t going there to stay. Her bags were already packed and loaded into a Honda Civic. In an hour she would be heading for parts unknown. The thought chilled her. She had always loved the city; she might be leaving it forever.

She wondered if she was the only one making plans to escape or if tomorrow, the other honorees would have disappeared as well. They knew after last summer a price would have to be paid. Mark Levin had even said Kaddish.

He was right. Now Sam Chase was going to die. The person taking her place melted into the city night. She exited the T and made her way through the winding streets of the North End. Rabbits hung from butchers windows, blood staining the fur around their necks. The rabbits always made her uneasy. Sam walked quickly to her the garage where her car was waiting and opened the padlock. She started up the car and backed out. Just the sight of those rabbits made her too uneasy to even go near the apartment. She had enough to get away. Greed made you stupid. She took a last breath of the city she loved and melted into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Affair of the Dress

Alexis stepped into the violet confection of taffeta and pulled it up; she carefully zipped it and watched in horror as the ruffled top sagged down, down into a crumpled mess just above her hips. Her breasts peaked out of the material like two frightened eyes.

 

            “Oh shit,” she said.

 

            Six weeks ago the dressmaker had clucked around her at the final fitting and pronounced her finished. Alexis thought she looked like a weird flower. She hated ruffles and frills and the stupid hats all the attendants had to wear. Worst, as maid of honor, her dress was the brightest, most ruffled dress of all.

 

            “You look beautiful,” Jen said and hugged her.

 

            Alexis knew perfectly well that she look frightful, and Jen only picked the dresses because they were designed by Miranda Palmer, Jen’s sister-in-law to be.

 

            “Did she have to make them so frilly?”

 

            “Oh, Alex, you know you couldn’t show up in a business suit. Anyway your waist looks tiny.” Jen was always diplomatic.

 

            Today, however, diplomacy wasn’t going to help shrink the dress.

 

            Alexis held the dress over her breasts and walked down the hall to Jen’s room where people buzzed about her. She walked in without knocking.

 

            “Jen, I have a problem with the dress,” she said and let it go.

 

            Jen squealed, “Oh my God.”

 

            “Oh my goodness, what happened here?” Jen’s mom Ruth came over to Alexis and surveyed her. “Well, you can’t go up the aisle in that, dear. No good flashing the guests. It would be in bad taste. We have two hours. I’m calling Arnold. He’ll find you something.”

 

            Alexis just nodded. Ruth dragged her out of the room and pulled out her phone. Arnold seemed to be on speed dial.

 

            “Arnold, darling, It’s Ruth. I’ve got a problem. Yes, it’s this damn wedding.” She glanced at Alexis again. “It seems that one of our bridesmaid gowns has come in the wrong size. No, darling, it’s huge. She’s just a little thing. You saw those awful purple gowns. I need something purple. She’s the maid-of-honor. What can you bring me? Coloring? Oh, yes. Green eyes, very dark hair with a touch of red. I’d call it mahogany. No more than five two.” She put her hand over the phone. “What size do you wear, dear?”

 

            Alexis felt her cheeks turn pink. “Six or eight,” she mumbled, feeling hefty.

 

            “She says six or eight, but how about I measure her and text you? Yes, she’ll need shoes to match and some kind of hat. Well, you saw those idiot hats, didn’t you? Just find me something, dearest, and try to be here in a half hour. Kisses.”

 

            Ruth pushed Alexis into her room. “Strip,” she said. “I’ll be back with a tape measure.

 

            Alexis was used to Ruth. She ran the house like she did everything else, as if she were the queen of the universe. No body said no to Ruth Foster Granger. It just wasn’t done. This wedding was scheduled for three, and it would happen at three. The sun would shine; the lawn of the house where the reception was to be held would be perfectly manicured; the imported flowers would be perfectly placed; and the light would sparkle beautifully over the Atlantic Ocean behind the house. All would go as planned. Nothing so petty as a dress would spoil Ruth Foster Granger’s daughter’s very special day. Alexis was surprised that she allowed the purple dresses in the first place.

 

            As they waited for Arnold, Ruth paced the room.

 

            “If you’d rather be with Jen, it’s fine. I don’t mind waiting,” Alexis said. “I’m sure if they send Arnold up here, we can figure it out.”

 

            “You’ve lost quite a lot of weight, Alex,” Ruth said as if Alexis hadn’t spoken. “How did you do that?”

 

            “I didn’t plan it. I just work long hours at Fleming Price. I don’t have much time for long lunches and most nights, it’s tuna and carrots before I fall asleep on the couch.” Alexis smiled. “I love it though. I like being busy. It feels good to pay off those college debts.”

 

            “You always did have a lot of initiative,” Ruth said. “Jen never really knew what she wanted to do.”

 

            “Some people just figure it out faster than others,” Alexis said.

 

            “You mean some people have to figure it out faster than others.”

 

            Alexis shook her head. “No, Jen’s always been great. She’s kind and generous. She could run a charity or work with kids. She’s smart; she could do anything.”

 

            “And she’s my daughter, so she will get the chance,” Ruth said. Her face softened for a moment, and she touched Alexis’s cheek. “You’ve always been Jen’s rock. I don’t know about this idiot she’s marrying except he’s stinking rich with new money. Be there for her, won’t you?”

 

            “Of course.”

 

            “Promise me. Always.” Ruth produced a folder. “Look this over when you get the chance. It’s their pre-nup. I had it drawn up. It’s a good one. I want you to make sure there aren’t any gaps, and if anything goes wrong, you handle it.”

 

            “Ruth, you know that’s not my area of expertise.” Alexis felt as if the envelope weighed a hundred pounds when Ruth handed it to her.

 

            “But you’ll take care of it anyway.”

 

            “Of course, but do you think?”

 

            “I think a woman needs insurance, especially someone as naïve as Jen. Promise.”

 

            Alexis nodded. “I promise.”

 

            A tentative knock on the door sounded.

 

            “Enter,” Ruth shouted.

 

            A thin man in a bright blue suit entered. He wore a white shirt with white stripes and a hot pink tie and carried garment bags and assorted other bags with him.

 

            “Arnold,” Ruth said. “This is Alex. Do your magic. I’ve got to see to my daughter.”

 

            Arnold smiled. “Just so. It will be an honor. Now away with this monstrosity, and I will make you a queen.”

 

            “Give me what you’ve got,” Alexis said”

 

            By three o’clock, Arnold and his team had re-done her hair, pulling it into a soft twist and decorating it with a cascade of purple flowers, and he had dressed her in a Valentino gown of deep violet silk. It was simple and tightly fitted around her body with a small keyhole opening in the top to give a chaste glimpse of her breasts. The purple Jimmy Choos made her four inches taller.

 

            “You’re the maid of honor. You don’t wear a hat,” Arnold said.

 

            Alexis saw the envious glances of the other bridesmaids as she sailed down the stairs and waited for Jenny. Miranda Palmer hissed, “Where’s your real dress?”

 

            “It didn’t fit,” Alexis said. “Ruth got me a new one.”

 

            The mention of Ruth’s name was enough to make Miranda back away, her face screwed in a tight frown.

 

            Jen looked radiant, and squeezed Alexis’s hand. “Thank you for this,” she said.

 

            Alexis grinned. “Hey. What are friends for?”

 

            “We’ll always be friends, won’t we?”

 

            “You’re stuck with me,” Alexis said.

 

            Alexis could hear the music starting, and Jen’s father came over to take her arm. “Look of the pair of you,” he said. “The most beautiful girls here.”

 

            The doors opened and the procession started.

 

            On that Saturday afternoon, the wedding ceremony went without a hitch, the weather was perfect, and the bride and groom danced their first dance to “You Stepped Out of Dream”. Alexis sat back in her chair having slipped out of the Jimmy Choos and sipped on a mimosa and enjoyed the seabreeze wafting over her. It was cool but not too cool. Tomorrow she’d drive home and get back to reality, but tonight she was happy to bask in the glow of the joy of the evening. She didn’t want to think about the manilla envelope sitting in her room. Weddings were about celebrating joy; the ugly aftermath came later. She didn’t want to think about it on this evening. She was wearing her first designer dress and wanted to enjoy the evening.

 

            A man approached her. Parker Howe Blackwood the twenty-second or some such nonsense; he was one of those tall, good-looking rowing gods who never gave her a second glance in high school. Of course, she wasn’t in high school any more.

 

            “Alexis, right?” he said, white teeth flashing against his perfect tan, and she thought it was unfair that he should be rich, athletic, and good looking. No one should have that many aces.

 

            “And you’re Parker.” She watched him carefully. Smart or smarmy?

 

            “That’s right. Jen said you work at Fleming Price, and I’d better pray I don’t come up against you.”

 

            “I’m in property law. I don’t go to court.”

 

            “Thank God. Maybe you’d like to dance?”

 

            Alexis gave him a smile. At least he didn’t seem smarmy. Overall, it had been a good day. “Well, Parker, I would love to dance.”

 

                         

 

Alice Causes A Problem

            The book club met every third Thursday of the month, usually to discuss literary fiction. Suggestions were tossed about and discussed until one book was chosen; it used to be that the whole club came up with choices, but that had ended long ago.

 

            Ellen Grace Sweetbriar held forth on the finer points of the opus for this month’s book club. Ellen Grace appointed herself head of the book club, selector of books, and final arbitrator of membership, though no one could quite remember how that happened. Somehow she just took charge. In the beginning, the book club members were happy to have someone choose the book and moderate the discussions. After all, it saved time and Ellen Grace was so good at ferreting out books, but it was beginning to grow tedious, especially since nobody liked Ellen Grace all that much. It wasn’t that they minded her selections, but she just wouldn’t shut up about them. She talked and lectured until the book club members wanted to lock her in a closet and commence with the important matters of drinking wine and dishing gossip.

 

            Ellen Grace sat now in a red velvet chair that looked like a throne with its gold gilding and ornate wooden carving talking about the theme of this magnificent, outstanding work of art. “It’s a masterpiece,” Ellen Grace said. “The way she weaves together the mystic and natural, the light and dark. She calls upon the chthonic forces in all of us.”

 

            She was positively quivering, and her face glowed as she looked around the room. She pressed her thighs together as if some chthonic forces were having their way with her right then.

 

            “I thought it was a lot of trash,” said Alice Ross. She sat next to Callie on the sofa and picked at the cheese tray. “Porn. I mean, if we’re reading porn, why not read something like Delta of Venus? Anyone remember that goodie from way back when?”

 

            There were plenty of titters all around. Alice said whatever she pleased. This was her house, and she generally hosted book club. Ellen Grace wanted so much to be Alice’s friend, but except for these nights Alice avoided her as if she were a bit of horse manure stuck to her shoe.

 

            Alice rode every day; she hosted charity events; she didn’t have time for hangers on. She only participated in this group because her daughter Lisle had talked her into it. Alice liked to shake up this group of silly hens by making obnoxious comments. The hell with what Ellen Grace thought.

 

            Ellen Grace colored. “Well, of course, it’s not for everyone,” she said. “I know we usually read more intensely literary titles but I thought it would be a nice break. Everyone seemed to agree.”

 

            “Intensely literary. Intensely pretentious, you mean. You don’t need a book club to read. You pick up a book.” Alice looked at Callie Barnes who shrank back in her seat a little. “What about you? Did you like it? Did you want to read it?”

 

            Callie felt her cheeks turn hot. She hated being put on the spot. She had only been allowed to join because she was friendly with Alice’s daughter Lisle. It was all so entangled. Some nights she dreaded book club. She always felt like she had to paste on her best school mom face and put on her best clothes and try to drag out some literate nuggets so she didn’t sound like a complete moron. She loved to read; why did this club feel like such an ordeal?

 

            Everyone was staring at her in anticipation, and Callie could see the relief on their faces. They hadn’t been singled out. Lisle mouthed, “Sorry.”

 

            Callie glanced at Ellen Grace. Her face was pink. Callie knew that her future in the book club might rest on her answer. In or out? She looked at Alice who was oblivious to the whole thing. “I didn’t have time to read it,” she said.

 

            Alice started to laugh. “You didn’t have time, but did you want to make time?”

 

            Callie felt the weight of Ellen Grace’s disapproval, and she took a breath. “No. No, I didn’t. I didn’t think I’d like it, so I didn’t make the time.”

 

            Alice turned red laughing. She thumped Cassie on the back. “Good for you. At least you’re honest. Not like the rest of these frightened cows.”

 

            “Oh, Mother,” Lisle said. “Really.” Secretly Lisle was delighted. She hated Ellen Grace. She hated the prim way she sat with her thick ankles crossed so primly. She was a little nobody who had wormed her way into the club and now ruled it like a dictator. And Judy Reiff, who’d brought her, had long since dropped out because she said she was too busy. Getting drunk, no doubt.

 

            Every woman in the room looked tense.

 

            Alice stood and glared at Ellen Grace who perched on her throne, her face the color of an eggplant. “You’re just a petty dictator over this, a silly book club.” She turned back to Callie. “Do you ride?”

 

            Callie shook her head. “My daughter rides.”

 

            “She rides with my Megan,” Lisle said.

 

            “Come around sometime with your daughter,” Alice said. “I’ve had enough of this crap for tonight. Lisle, dear, you finish up. Let the queen finish her pronouncements. I’m going to bed and reading a good mystery. Nothing pretentious about that!”

 

            Callie listened to Alice’s shuffling footsteps make their way upstairs. Alice was still chuckling. Lisle cleared her throat and said in her most chipper voice, “All right then, does any one else have any thoughts on the book tonight?”

 

            Maya Reiff said, “I think I could use a glass of wine.”

 

            Lisle smiled delighted. “Maya, darling, you read my mind. Let’s drink and talk trash.”

 

            The women got up and went to the buffet table to refill their glasses. Nobody noticed that Ellen Grace had collected her things and slipped out the door.

 

Yellow Shoes (Day Seven of Story a Day Challenge)

 

 

 

            I lie wedged between him and the wall. Sticky and slightly dizzy, I struggle to sit up. A used condom sticks to my thigh, and I peel it off. I want to bathe in Clorox.

 

            Tyler–or is it Taylor–lies on his back, mouth open, and emits snorting sounds. The smell of Doritos and stale beer on his breath gags me.

 

            Last night he seemed like a hot musician in his skinny jeans and funky yellow shoes. This morning he’s just another guy who wanted to get laid, and I barely remember the sex. He said he was going to be bigger than Justin Timberlake. I figure he’ll be lucky if he ends up singing on street corners for spare change. I feel nauseous, but if I hurl, I’ll wake him.

 

            I need to get out before he wakes.

 

            I don’t do the skanky party girl thing. I’m just not into drinking till you puke and getting laid by guys who only see you as a collection of convenient holes. At least I wasn’t until last night when Ashley finally talked me into it.

 

            “Come on, Mad, put down the books and come with me just for once. It’ll be fun.”

 

            And it was fun in the semi dark with pounding music and everyone laughing and drinking, so I let go of shy me and become that other person: the cool girl I always wanted to be. I mixed it up with the frat boys who let us in for free because we were girls, and I flirted with the guys who worked the door. Who knew underneath my average exterior was this whole other person?

 

            Was that me? Or maybe it was just some fun house version of me, distorted with too much black eyeliner, a slut top, and skinny jeans.

 

            Tyler/Taylor gives a snort and shifts enough for me to slide out of bed and retrieve my pile of clothes from the floor. His side of the room is cluttered with guitars, pictures of him, and what appear to be song lyrics: the words of a fifth rate writer trying to put a new spin on old clichés.

 

            Oh, baby, baby need you so bad

            You’re the best girl I ever had . . .

 

 

           I’m betting if I get out now, Tyler/Taylor won’t even remember me.

 

            I dress quickly in the thin gray light, pulling on my bright red sweatshirt. I wish I wore black or gray, something stealthy.

 

            On the floor I see Tyler/Taylor’s shiny yellow loafers lying askew. They’re held together by duct tape and staples and are run down and scuffed. Why did I think they were so retro-cool last night? I wish I’d hung with his roommate at the party. He was the tall, dark-haired guy with the bright blue eyes, but he seemed kind of shy. His side of the room is filled with books, and an Irish flag hangs over his unmade bed. He got me a Coke when I just couldn’t swill down any more beer, and seemed like a nice guy. Guess I blew that one.

 

            I start to leave, then stop and grab the yellow shoes. I tuck them under my sweatshirt and slip out to the elevator. Once outside the crisp morning air revives me a little, and I gulp in deep breaths. I can feel the weight of the yellow shoes against my gut, and for a moment, I’m not sure what to do or why I took those stupid shoes. Then I take a deep breath and head up the road to the bridge the spans the river running along our campus. I cross to the middle of the bridge and look around. No traffic. No cops. Not even any rowers. Six o’clock on Sunday morning is a quiet time in the city.

 

            One by one I let the shoes drop into the swirling gray water. They float for a moment before the current sucks them away.

 

            On the way back to my dorm, the sun breaks through the clouds, and the sky begins to turn blue.

 

Road Trips Can Be Fun! (Story A Day #6)

There’s nothing like a road trip, especially when you’re six feet two and cramped in the middle of the backseat of a Honda Civic with two other people. It’s great to drive over the magnificent interstates, watching cars fly past you, and stopping every hour or so to get coffee or soda at the local rest area. Actually, it’s a good thing we did stop or I’d probably have come home with a broken back.

            The aforementioned road trip sounded like a good idea before the details came out. My girlfriend invited me to go to Charleston, South Carolina for a week to visit her father’s family. I thought why not? Wasn’t Charleston just named the Friendliest City in the U.S. or something like that? I said sure. Charleston’s a beautiful city with lots of theater and music and history.

            What wasn’t to like?

            Well, the first hint came when I reached Megan’s house and saw the Honda parked in the driveway, but I wasn’t alarmed. I figured her dad was going to rent a bigger car. Usually, he drives a big Caddie, but I found out the Caddie was in the shop.

            “He couldn’t wait till the Caddie’s out of the shop?” I asked.

            Megan just shot me a look. It said all kinds of things like “moron”, “forget it”, “we’re doomed”. It’s tough to start a trip when someone gives you that kind of look. I just set down my duffle bag and shut up.

            Her sister Kendall stormed into the family room and flipped on the television. She was still in a tee shirt and pajama pants. She sat on the sofa with her arms folded and a deep scowl on her face. Kendall didn’t want to go to South Carolina.

            Usually, I get along with Kendall pretty well, even though she’s fourteen and is a giant pain in Megan’s ass. It’s funny because they don’t even look like sisters. Megan is dark and curvy while Kendall is thin and blond. She likes to give Megan a hard time her curves. Megan likes to torment her about her minus-A cup bra size. I guess it all works out.

            My brother and I used to beat the crap out of each other then go outside and play pirates or batman or whatever. We used to have pissing contests where we’d stand on the back porch and aim for the holly bushes just to see who could hit them. Tim usually won. Finally, Mom caught us and told us if we wanted to live like stray dogs she’d fix us a nice house outside. Dad backed her up, but I caught him smirking.

            Megan’s parents are divorced. So I guess you could say, her family is going through a tough time of it. Her dad Bill walked out two years ago and took up with Charlene who’s a real piece of work.

            Everyone hates Charlene.

            Charlene is one of those women who views every other woman as the competition. She was once the Tri-County Dairy Princess and got a sash and tiara and all that. It turns out that being the Dairy Princess was not a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Charlene now lives off the income from her late husband’s estate. She used to peddle crap on one of those commercial TV channels, but got axed because she gained a bunch of weight. She said it was from the medication she has to take for her back.

            In any case she needs constant attention because something is always wrong with Charlene. Her back, her feet, her stomach, her bowels—she’s a walking medical disaster according to her, though she looks perfectly healthy and eats like a horse.

             Sometimes I think Bill gets tired of Charlene except she cooks and cleans for him and calls him her “sugar bear”. Every time she does, Megan sticks her finger in her mouth and pretends to gag.

            I don’t usually have strong feelings about people one way or another. Live and let live is my motto, but Charlene has the personality of a sea snake. She constantly makes cracks at Megan and Kendall and Megan’s mom and her new boyfriend. She bitches constantly at Bill. “You don’t do this right; you should have done that.”

            I’m the only person Charlene doesn’t totally attack. Megan says it’s because I’m a guy under forty who’s decent looking and doesn’t hold up a cross when she comes near. I tell Megan that Charlene just hasn’t gotten to know me.

            Anyway, Bill decided that we’ll leave at four in the morning, so Megan’s mom Jan and her boyfriend Tom graciously let everyone camp down in their house. I offered to make a pizza run and she gave me a kiss.

            “Oh, Dan, you are such a love. Take Megan with you.”

            Kendall wanted to come too and put on a pair of shorts. She sat glumly in the back seat. “It’s gonna be a disaster,” she said

            “We haven’t even left yet,” Megan said, but I noticed her kneading her purse. She gave me a shaky smile.

            “It’ll be better once we’re on the road,” I said.

            It wasn’t.

            We overslept. It wasn’t a surprise because when you eat pizza at nine, it’s hard to get yourself in the mood to sleep at ten. I didn’t fall asleep until after one, partly because Megan’s dog Moonie decided to sleep on my chest, and Moonie really needed a bath, and partly because the couch in the family room was not the most comfortable in the world.

            We weren’t up until eight. Then we had to get dressed and eat and finish packing. Bill’s master plan was to leave at four a.m. because he figured we’d get in by four p.m.

            As it turned out we left around noon.

            Traveling to South Carolina is actually pretty easy. You get on I95 and head south. The problem is that you have to get through Baltimore and DC and Richmond traffic.            

              It was hot, already eighty degrees and humid. Charlene put on the air, but after ten minutes she got cold and turned it way down. My back was soaked in ten minutes. Kendall’s head lolled against the window.

            “I can’t breathe back here,” she said.

            I thought, “Oh shit,” because Kendall and Megan both get car sick which is why they had the windows and I was squashed in the middle with my knees pressed against my chest. The front seats were all the way back. I could understand Bill. The guy was taller than me, and outweighed me by at least one hundred pounds, but Charlene was just over five feet.

            “Do you think you could move your seat up, Charlene?” Megan asked. “Dan has no room.”

            “I have a bad back. Sorry, Dan.”

            “No problem,” I said. “I do yoga.”

            “You know, they say that’s very calming. No wonder you’re so laid back,” Charlene said.

            I don’t do yoga, but right then I wished I did.

            We were only in Delaware and I wanted to strangle Charlene with my legs.

            “If I don’t get air, I’m gonna vomit,” Kendall said. I glanced at her. She looked kind of green, so I hit the button for her window. Hot air poured into the car, but at least it was moving.

            “Jesus, Kendall,” Bill said. “You’re letting the hot air in.”

            “Turn your head that way,” I said, pushing Kendall towards the window while Megan frantically looked for a plastic bag. It occurred to me, I’d get hit right in the face by any blow-back chunks.

            “She’s gonna vomit, Dad,” Megan said in her I’m-not-bullshitting voice. When she uses that voice, you know something bad is about to happen.

            “Shit. Goddamn,” Bill said. He glanced in the rearview mirror then pushed the air up to high and closed the window. It began to feel marginally cooler in the back.

            “Oh fine, don’t worry about me,” Charlene said.

            “I’m not,” Megan said. “I’m worried about my sister.”

            “It’s okay, honey. I’ll get you a blanket at the next rest stop,” Bill said.

            “That’s my sugar bear.” Charlene gave him a smacking kiss on the side of his head. Megan looked sick. My knees pressed tighter into my chest.

            “You see, kids, that’s a real man for you,” Charlene said.

            “And you’re a real bitch,” Megan muttered low enough so just I could hear it. I kissed her on the top her head.

            “That’s my sugar bear,” Megan said.

            Five hours later we were on the other side DC, and Bill was cursing. There’d been an accident on 295, and we’d crawled for two hours staring at the bumpers of the cars in front of us. We couldn’t even get off for a coffee break because traffic was so bad, and Charlene wasn’t sure where in DC we’d end up.

            “It’d be okay if we were in a nice part of town like near the White House or the National Mall, but what if we ended up in some bad section? We might be car jacked or robbed and never get home.”

            I wanted to tell her I pay someone to car jack us if they took her and left the rest of us on the corner, but I didn’t. Megan texted me: “DC carjack 🙂”.

            We stopped for dinner someplace past Richmond in a roadside diner. You could tell they catered to the interstate trade by the number of trucks and packed up cars and SUV’s lined up in the parking lot. I didn’t care. I needed real food.

            The swampy air was thick with the aroma of diesel fuel, but I was still hungry. Even Kendall perked up at the sight of the soft serve ice cream machine inside. Charlene immediately pranced off to the bathroom, wiggling her ass as she walked, and followed by Bill.

            “Talk about muffin top,” Megan said as we slid into the booth to scan the menu.

            When they came back, we left and got back in time to see the waitress, a pleasant-looking woman named Betsy, taking orders.

            “Sorry guys, we were so hungry, we thought we’d just get started,” Charlene said in her sweetest voice. “Why don’t you take a second to look over the menu?”

            Megan and I ordered turkey clubs and Cokes, our usual diner fare, but Kendall was shifting in her seat. I glanced at her and thought, Oh shit.
“I want a vanilla milk shake, please,” Kendall said, “and pancakes.”

            “Would you like whipped cream on those pancakes?” Betsy asked.

            “Yes. A ton,” Kendall said. “I can eat whatever I want because the doctor says I need to gain weight.” She shot a poisonous look at Charlene whose aqua shirt gapped enough that you could see her black frilly bra underneath. “I take after my mom.”

            “Well, aren’t you lucky,” said Betsy. She smiled at Charlene. “It’s so nice to have a daughter who thinks so highly of you.”

            “She’s not my mom!” Kendall shouted loud enough that the whole restaurant turned silent for a moment. “She’s My Dad’s Bimbo!”

            I don’t know why, but my first thought was where did she hear the term “bimbo”? It was followed by Betsy saying, “Why don’t I just put in that order for y’all.”

            Charlene’s face was the color of a fire engine; a couple of women in a booth in the corner were trying not to laugh; two big guys at the counter gave Charlene a cursory glance then looked away. Bill didn’t say anything to Kendall; he didn’t say anything at all. He just stared down at the table, and I thought he looked like he’d aged about a hundred years in that moment. Charlene was fuming, but she didn’t say anything either though I guess she gave him an earful later, or maybe she didn’t. There really wasn’t much to say.

            We ate in silence. After dinner, Bill gave Betsy a big tip, and we left. No one spoke all the way to South Carolina. Somewhere between Virginia and North Carolina Kendall fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. At least I thought she was asleep until I felt her uneven breaths and my shoulder began to grow damp. Megan was already hunched against the window, her head against the glass, and it seemed kind of weird to have this little kid huddled into me.

            In my house, I was the kid brother always running to Tim for comfort, such as it was. But here I sat like a big block with my knees pushed up against my chest, while this kid lay against me and cried. I put my arm around her shoulders and started to whisper, not words of comfort, because I knew whatever I said would be useless and pathetic.

            I said, “Did you know that Charleston was named for King Charles the Second of England? Charleston was founded in 1670 and was originally called Charles Towne. It’s known for its art music and cuisine and was voted the ‘Friendliest City in America’ in 2011. They hold the Spoleto Festival every spring, though I think we missed it this year, but it’s a big deal. All kinds of artist and performers come to participate, and it runs for 17 days every spring. Anyway, there’re still lots of things to see, and Charleston is right on the water.”

            I was dredging up every fact I knew about South Carolina, speaking as soft and quiet as I could. I heard her sigh a little as her breathing started to become even.

            “Maybe she’ll fall in the water,” Kendall said sleepily.

            “Maybe, but if not, did you know Charleston has these things called Palmetto bugs. They call them that, but they’re really great, big flying roaches.”

            In the darkness, I could feel Kendall smile.            

           

 

The Patient (Day Five of Story A Day)

                                                        The Patient

Zama Army Hospital, Japan, 1968

    Mark Shapiro could hear the C-141’s rumbling overhead on their way to Yokota to discharge their broken human cargo. Fresh meat from the battlefields of Vietnam, to be triaged and flown continuously to the four Army hospitals in Japan. Here at Zama, you never knew what was coming, but tonight was a slow night.
    He slid his stethoscope around his neck and began to work his way through the ward. When he came to bed seven he took a minute to observe the boy who stared up at the ceiling.
    Mark picked up the chart stuck at the end of the bed. “How are you tonight, Anthony?”
    No answer. Mark flipped through the chart. “Is the pain bad?”
    “No.” Anthony’s lips were white and pinched together, his jaw tense. Mark watched him a little longer then shifted his eyes to the red and blue eagle on the Airborne patch someone had stuck over the bed. He hated those patches, but the higher ups said they boosted morale.
    Mark did the basic checks and made notes on his chart.
    “I’m going to have to roll you on your side a little so I can listen to your lungs,” Mark said, and he signaled for the corpsman. They eased Anthony over as gently as they could, but Mark didn’t miss the way the kid bit into his lip to keep from making a sound.
    “Deep breath. Take another. Okay, one more.”
    The corpsman rolled Anthony onto his back, and Mark began to probe his shoulder. This time Anthony grabbed the side of the bed with his left hand. His eyes filled with tears, and he squeezed them shut.
    “Can you move your fingers?”
    Anthony flexed the fingers on his right hand. They moved slowly, but they moved. Mark considered it a triumph that the kid had an arm at all.
    “Your arm’s doing well,” Mark said. “You should have close to one hundred percent mobility in a few months if you continue physical therapy when you get home.” Anthony said nothing, and Mark sighed. “Someone told me you’re a piano man.”
    For a second Mark saw a flash of emotion in Anthony’s eyes that quickly faded away.
    “You’ll be able to play again.”
    Silence.
    “You made your ten months and five days. You’re going home soon. Does that interest you?”
    “Beats going back on line.”
    It struck him that the kid had beautiful eyes, big and dark with long eyelashes. Mark had to fight the urge to smooth back his hair, and he wondered why this kid haunted him so much. Perhaps it was the vestigial sorrow that clung to him, or maybe it was the terror lurking in his eyes. But aside from that, any patient who fought against taking pain medication evoked curiosity.
    A fine sheen of sweat had broken out on Anthony’s forehead, and Mark saw the pulse pounding in his throat. This boy was in some kind of pain, and he was exhausted. But he was fighting it.
    He pulled back the covers to look at the dressing on Anthony’s left leg.
    “I have to change this,” Mark said. Anthony closed his eyes.
    A fifteen-inch incision ran up the front of Anthony’s thigh to just beneath the groin, but it was healing nicely. Six-and-a-half hours on the table, twelve units of O-negative, but Anthony still had his right arm and left leg. Not a bad day’s work.
    “Looks good,” Mark said and made another note on the chart. “I’m going to put a clean dressing on it. You want to tell me what you have against pain medication?”
    “I don’t need it.”
    “No?” Mark gave him a skeptical smile. “You’re feeling good enough to sit up and get moving? Maybe go take a piss?”
    “What do you want from me?”
    “I want you to answer my question.”
    “Pain builds character.”
    “That’s some bullshit answer. You got a problem you’re trying to beat on your own?” Nothing. “You need sleep, kid. If you don’t give your body a chance to rest, you’re going to screw up all that hard work I put into keeping you in one piece.” Mark sighed. “You want to tell me about it?”
    “Fuck off,” Anthony said, and Mark shook his head.
    “Wrong answer.”
    Mark held his hand in the air, and Anthony stared at him in panic when the corpsman came toward them with a tray. A syringe and little bottle sat on it. Mark filled the syringe and nodded to the corpsman who came to the side of the bed and took hold of Anthony’s left arm. The corpsman was a big guy and held him tight, but he was kind enough to place his big hand on Anthony’s shoulder and squeeze him, like a brother. Mark felt Anthony shudder when the needle slid into his thigh.
    “I’d put this through the IV, but I hear you pulled the tube out last night when Dr. Conroy gave you your meds.”
    “Go to hell.”
    Mark set to work replacing the dressing. He hated seeing the stark terror in Anthony’s eyes because he didn’t understand it. The kids who came through here were glad to sink into the oblivion afforded them by the drugs. Why this particular boy should be afraid he didn’t know.
    Anthony was one more in an endless line of damaged teenagers who rolled off the relentless parade of C-141’s, but this kid troubled him more than most. Mark could patch him, but he couldn’t fix him.
    The medication worked fast. Anthony was fighting to stay conscious, but Mark could see his eyelids weighing down. Anthony rolled his head back to stare at Mark when he finished with the dressing and pulled the covers back up.   
    “I want to help you,” Mark said.
    “Fuck you.” Anthony’s voice was blurry and indistinct. Mark looked away when he saw a tear slide down the boy’s cheek.
    “Get some sleep.”   
                                                                     #
    Mark didn’t know the time when he walked out of the OR. After fourteen hours Mark wanted to get away from the smell of blood and suffering. When he jerked open the door to the stairwell, he heard a movement above him, and he looked up in irritation. He could see someone sitting on the steps, and he hesitated.
    “You aren’t supposed to be here,” he said. Then he felt his breath catch when he realized it was Anthony. The kid hunched over, holding his stomach, and Mark could see he was in a bad way. He walked up the stairs.
    “What’s going on, kid?”
    Anthony looked up at him, his eyes wide and bloodshot. “I didn’t know you had burn cases here,” he said in a shaking voice. His shirt was soaked with sweat. “I thought they all went to Kishine.”
    “We handle everything here. You know someone on the burn ward?”
    Anthony shook his head, and Mark watched the emotions pass over his face. He sat beside Anthony on the stairs.
    Anthony looked gaunt and sallow, and his right arm hung awkwardly at his side. When he could, Mark checked in on him at the medical holding company barracks to see how the physical therapy was going. He knew that Anthony sometimes came up to the hospital to visit with some of the wounded boys on the ward, but he had only seen him in passing. The kid was going home in a week, and while Mark was pleased to see him going back to the States, he felt like he had only done half of a job.
    “Does it hurt a lot?” Anthony’s voice was a shaking whisper. “I mean, I know it hurts to get burned, but does dying of it hurt much?”
    Mark shrugged. “In a major case, like when eighty or ninety percent of the body is burned, your body tends to turn septic. You die from the inside out because the bacteria overwhelms your cells. You generally lapse into unconsciousness.”
    “You go fast?”
    “Generally speaking, yes.”
    Anthony took a deep shuddering breath. “A friend of mine was burned. He died at Kishine.”
    Mark struggled to think of words that would comfort. “I’m not a burn specialist, but I know they deal with the pain. Was he a close friend?”
    Anthony nodded.
    Mark put a tentative hand on Anthony’s shoulder and kept it there when the kid didn’t shake it off. “You want to tell me about him?”
    “He was carrying detonators and got lit up by an AK round.” Anthony put his head in his hands, and Mark realized from his gulping breath he was crying.
    “I’m sorry.”
    “I couldn’t help him! He kept asking me to help him, but there wasn’t anything I could do. Christ, he barely looked human. I was a medic, and I couldn’t save him. I dream about it all the time. I see him burning, and I can’t stop it.”
    “And what were you supposed to do? If he went to Kishine where they specialize in burn cases, and they couldn’t do anything for him there, what were you supposed to do, Anthony?”
    “I don’t know. Something.”
    “You were his friend, and you were with him. I’m sure it was a comfort.”
    “I gave him M and M’s when I ran out of morphine. It wouldn’t have helped anyway, so I gave him M and M’s. I used to do that with the ones who were too far gone. ‘Cause you only have so much morphine. It runs out.”
    Mark said nothing. He ran his hands over the bony vertebrae of Anthony’s back and wondered at the ingeniousness of these kids who marched off to war. He was here stitching up children who were fighting in a war he hated. The casualties were poisonous.       
    Anthony rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “It’s all fucked up now.”
    “What is?”
    “Everything. It’s all gone. It’ll never be the same again. I’ll never have my life back.”
    Mark wanted to find the words that would relieve the boy’s suffering and knew anything he said would be inadequate. He pulled Anthony’s head against his shoulder and let him cry.
    He could hear the C-141’s rumbling overhead. One after another. In the hall below someone was yelling. “We’ve got incoming. It’s gonna be a busy night.”