Hands

A new story. A fun one, me thinks. Short and sweet.
* * * * * * * * *

Gustavo worked the press on the 20th floor. Cold light slanted into the room from the overhead windows mixing with the dust and the smell of machine oil, and the sound of cars passing on the snow outside. The other machines lay still, the operators home with their families celebrating with lighted trees and fancy dinners.

Gustavo didn’t mind. Without the distractions of their constant chatter he could loose himself in the work. Press here, fold there, cut here, stitch there. It was the mindlessness of it, the way his hands took over and did all the thinking. It was deeply relaxing for him. His hands flew across the machine, pushing and pulling the fabric, sometimes surprising him by their deftness, and surety. Never in a million years could he do this work, his mind was too busy, too unsure, too afraid, but his hands, his hands had no problem. It was one of the things Gustavo liked most about working here, letting his hands go, watching them work the heavy machine creating something out of nothing. It was always a surprise to him., like looking into raw space and suddenly seeing a planet coalesce around a cloud of dust. Pants, shirts, coats, they formed themselves out of flat cloth, and thin thread, changing from raw materials into the something marvelous to wear. To him it was a miracle, every time.

Gustavo’s hands finished up a jacket, and pulled his eyes to the list, forcing him to see what was next on the special holiday rush. A part of his mind was wondering how much his boss made from such an order. Probably thousands of dollars, none of which would come to Gustavo. He didn’t mind though, he had his hands, and a small studio apartment two blocks away. Sure he lived alone, but really what more did he need? He had food, he had a place to sleep, and he had his work. Let the others be distracted by their families and their friends. His was enough.

Then he heard the sound of the workshop door opening, and without turning around knew it was Clarissa who had entered. Clarissa with her long dark hair, and her critical eye, and her stupid little gloves. She was the only one in the shop who did not like his work, the only one who was always critical of him, who could never be satisfied. He had been enjoying himself so much working by himself, but the thought of being trapped all day in the workshop with her made his shoulders slump. They slumped only a little, so little that no one would have noticed. No one, that is, except Clarissa.

“It’s good to see you too, Gustavo,” she said to his back, her biting sarcasm making him slump even more.

He heard the machine behind him start up, the computer opening and closing the valves, letting the steam work it’s way though the system, checking all the tolerances. Clarissa spent the time looking at the order and humming in her off key way. He could hear the sound of her gloves on the keys, the little rasping sound they made with each contact was like a knife to his back.

Gustavo looked to his own sheet, and went to the rack to pull more fabric. The order called for damask so he went through the storage room, his hands gliding over the row after row of draped fabric, sensing their warp and their wave with his finger tips, letting his hands chose the right cloth. They halted on bolt or damask that was light brown in color, and beautiful to the eye. A subtile but lovely pattern worked it’s way thought the weave that was faint to the eye. You had to look hard to see it, but it was there. This particular bolt held very little fabric. Gustavo knew without looking it was expensive. But his hands were insistent, so he pulled it out and carried it to his machine.

Just as he started entering the fabric into the back of his press he heard Clarissa’s voice. “You’re going to use that?”

Without turning, Gustavo shrugged his shoulders. This wasn’t enough of a reply for Clarissa. She stepped around her machine and walked right up to his order, reading the words out loud as if speaking them gave a different meaning. As she read she pointed at the words with her little gloves. The tip of her finger harsh and accusing.

Gustavo continued loading. Truth be told, he didn’t remember what kind of fabric was on the order. He had read it, and his hands had chosen. It was enough for him.

“That stuff is $50 a yard. Are you sure you want to use it?”

Gustavo turned, looking at Clarissa for the first time. She stared at him imperiously, her lips always ready to frown. Gustavo opened his mouth to say yes, his hands had chosen, but caught in her glare his resolve wilted. Wordlessly he waked over to the the front of his machine and read the order for a second time. All it said was damask slacks, with the measurements. Dully he looked at the matching coat he had already created, trying to capture the thoughts that had lead his hands to reach for exactly this type of damask, but under the sharp eye of Clarissa he felt his thoughts fall to pieces, like trying to put on a coat held loosely together with pins but no thread.

Slowly he walked to the back of his machine, and reversed the cloth out of the loading chute. As he carried it back to the storage room he could feel her cold smile. He hated working with Clarissa.

All morning and into the afternoon they worked together. Gustavo sewed, and Clarissa complained. “Are you sure you want to cut it that way?” she said. “Don’t you want a darker thread for that?” she said. “That’s not a good fabric choice,” she said. Nothing his hands did that day pleased her. Every complaint she spoke made his hands a little harder to hear, until finally at 4:00, the order almost complete, his hands gave out. Gustavo found himself standing before his great machine, completely still. He had no idea how long he had been standing there. All he knew is he couldn’t hear his hands. They were mute, they could not speak.

Clarissa came up behind him. He knew because he could hear her soft tread. “If you’re on the clock you need to work,” she said bitterly. Gustavo felt the words sting. There had never been a day where he didn’t work hard for the boss. He loved to work. He loved his hands. No one ever said different.

Then Clarissa placed a hand on his machine, right on top of the fabric he was supposed to be sewing. Gustavo felt the violation to his core. No one put their hands on another’s machine, especially when it was active. A machine could cut a hand to pieces, crush it until it was flat, and sew it into the fabric. All of these things and more. It was a dangerous place for anyone’s hands, even the operator’s. It simply was not done. Gustavo could not have felt more uncomfortable if she had pulled down his pants on a busy street corner, and shouted out loud.

He felt the anger and frustration boil up inside, rising up like the steam in his machine, but just as he was about to speak his eyes looked down. There was something about her hands that drew his eye. Always Clarissa wore her gloves. Always. It was a thing with her. She never touched anything with her hands, claiming they were too delicate. This time, however, he saw her hand was bare, and seeing her bare hand somehow stopped his rising anger like a hammer.

One glance and he could see the problem. Her hands were locked up, controlled, unhappy. No one spoke to them, they weren’t allowed to sing. Her hands were so unhappy they chapped, they bleed.

Without thinking Gustavo let his hands move. They reached out and landed like birds, gently onto the back of her hand. He heard Clarissa let out a gasp at the touch. He heard her inhale preparing to complain, but before she could say the words his fingers moved, they touched, they stroked. They said words to her hand in the unspoken language of caress, they spoke to her hand in the lost language of stroke, they flattered, they teased, they smiled, they loved.

Behind him Gustavo heard Clarissa make a sound. It was a sigh. Not a word, not a comment, just a sigh. It was the nicest thing she had ever said to him.

Then before he could think he had turned and she was in his arms, and his hands were doing things, and her hands were doing things, and he realized she had the most marvelous hands in the world.

After a moment their hands forced them apart. They stood there looking at each other in shock. Gustavo had never known how much his lips were like his hands. He felt a great desire to use them again, on her. To cover her face with his kisses–her face, and everything else.

But his hands, no their hands, were insistent. There was work to do and they were on the clock. They turned to their machines, and worked–she without her gloves, and he without a care. The fabric flew through their machines, the coats and pants came out the other side, perfect and without blemish, their hands doing all the work, their minds completely at ease. Until in very little time the special holiday rush was done and hanging on the rack ready to go out the next morning.

Then with nothing else to do they clocked out. Suddenly they found themselves standing next to each other at the back door, unsure what to do or what to say. Fortunately Gustavo’s hands knew what to do. They always did. Reaching out, they took Clarissa’s poor hands, still naked and uncovered, and guided her to his apartment. There his hands made her a simple dinner, and after both their stomachs were full, they let his lips take over. His lips and her lips. His hands and her hands. And when they were done, when the sun had come up the next morning, his hands fashioned for her hands a set of rings out of thread, one for each finger.

She cried, then he cried, then they went to work. Never again did she wear her gloves, and never again did he live alone. And always, through work, and tears, children, and sickness, their hands were happy.

The Clever Girl

I started this story last year in August. It’s about a girl trapped in her small town; trapped in ways that get deeper and darker as the story progresses. Since it’s a horror story my goal was to finish it in time for Halloween. I finished the story in September, but I wasn’t happy with it. It just didn’t click. My writing partner, Amy, made some very good suggestions, so I went back and rewrote it from scratch, changing the voice from third person to first (because Clara likes to talk), and in the process lengthening it from 8k words to 18.5k.

The second version is better in practically every way, but I’m still not sure about it. Amy thinks I should open it uneven more and involve more characters; stretch it out to the size of a movie or even a novel. I’m not so sure. I wanted this to be short and sweet, or more like short and dark, but the story didn’t lend itself to that size a telling.

Give it a read and tell me what you think.

For those that are family, you might recognize the town where Clara lives. Buzzard’s Roost was the town where George Tolladay was born. The town is long since gone, but the setting was perfect for my needs; what better place is there for a horror story than a ghost town?

 

The Clever Girl

I had gone with some friends to see Pink. Somehow we’d scored tickets right up front, and we were having the best time, laughing and singing along. Then out of the blue she called me up on stage to sing a duet with her, which is weird because everyone knows I can’t sing a note. She didn’t have an extra microphone so she gave me an axe, which was also weird. The axe worked but was kind of awkward because it had this heavy cord attached at the bottom of the handle. I had to hold it with both hands because the cord weighed so much. Every time I took a step I had to drag this cord after me, like I was dragging a heavy chain. We were singing was Just Give Me a Reason. At big part in the end we were standing in the middle of the stage with our backs turned away from the audience. She spun around to sing her part without a problem. When it was my turn I wasn’t so lucky. Somehow the microphone cord from the axe had crossed over my shoulder, so when I turned around the cord cut across my neck. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I opened my mouth, but no air would come out. I tried to pull the cord away but the other end was stuck under a huge speaker. It was so embarrassing. The music kept playing, everyone was looking at me, expecting me to sing, and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk, couldn’t do anything.

That’s when I woke up. Sure enough, pulled tight across my throat was the Beast.

I should probably explain that the Beast is the name I use for my hair. I call it the Beast because it is long; long as in long enough to sit on. But the Beast is thick; thick like a wild thorn bush, thick like string, no thick like spaghetti. We’re talking thick thick. Sometimes I swear it’s so thick that there’s bird’s nests up there, or a bee hive, or something. People call me treetop because I’m tall and skinny, but mostly because I have hair that is closer to foliage than fur. Its like it’s a tree up there or something. It’s weird. Definitely weird.

Anyway Momma is always braiding the Beast. It’s the one thing I can do with it that doesn’t make it worse. It’s so thick that if I leave it unbraided for more than five minutes it will tangle. And the tangles the Beast makes are legendary. They get so large people would pay money to see them, at least that what my big brother Will says. Imagine the Gordian knot–you know that famous knot that Alexander The Great cut instead of untying like he was supposed to–only make the knot red and attach it to the head of a skinny girl. That’s how crazy they get.

I keep asking Momma if I can cut the Beast but she always says the same thing. “But honey, your daddy likes your hair long.” And that’s the end of the argument. Anything Poppa likes, goes. My friends think Momma is that way because Poppa is in a wheelchair, like she’s all guilty or something. But I know Momma. She’s not guilty. She just loves Poppa. Really loves him. Like maybe loves him too much, loves him. My friends all think it’s sweet, but when you see it all the time it starts to look kind of creepy.

So every night before I go to bed, and every morning after I wake up, Momma has to brush out the Beast. When she’s done she carefully braids it until I have two thick hunks of hair hanging from my head. She ties each braid down with three rubber bands–we’re talking the thick rubber bands they put around Sunday newspapers–and two long ribbons. Even then the Beast manages to escape, which is how I wake up every morning. Some strands will pull lose and the next thing I know they’re wrapped around my ear, or my elbow, or sometimes even my throat. Everyone in my family says the Beast has a life of its own. You better believe it.

So my last normal day started out like it always does; Momma called me down after my shower so she can do my hair. “Girl I swear,” she said to me while she’s pulling out a minor tangle. “You better marry a man who’s strong as an ox. No one else will have the strength to pull a brush through this hair.”

Only today was slightly different. “Make sure to eat your breakfast early sweetie,” she said to me while she was tying the last braid. “Your Poppa has a doctor’s appointment in Red Bluff this morning, so I need you to walk your brother to school.”

But Momma,” I said because no sophomore at Buzzards Roost High wants to walk their kid brother to the Junior High school. “Can’t Charles walk on his own?”

Charles is my little brother. He’s nice and all, and whip smart, but he always has his nose in a comic book and when he walks he gets all turned around. Poppa says, “Charles couldn’t find his way out of wet paper bag,” and he probably right.

Momma looked at me. “You do what I say. I got to take your daddy to the doctor, and sick people have priority around here.”

Yes, Momma.”

Now give your daddy a kiss and run along,” she said, handing me my brush.

Poppa was already in his outdoor chair, and he was showered and changed, that meant Momma must have got up extra early to clean him before the rest of us got up. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and he said, “How’s my favorite girl,” which is his favorite joke. “Poppa, I’m your only girl,” I said, and of course he laughed.

This morning he smelled of soap and sweat, but not too badly. At least he had’t started drinking, yet.

He gave me a hug and I went into the kitchen to pour a bowl of cereal. Charles was already sitting at the table eating his sugar cereal and reading Captain Avenger or something. I said, “Hello,” when I came in the door but he didn’t look up.

When we were done eating my older brother Will came down stairs with his hair looking like a short blonde version of mine, only his was splayed out every which way, like he had slept with his head in a blender. He was so groggy he walked right past us to the coffee pot before he thought to say good morning.

Will was like that in the morning. He sometimes wears a shirt that said, “Instant human. Just add coffee.” For him it’s true.

So while Will was still taking his first sip I called out, “Momma, can Will take Charles instead?”

Take him where,” Will said just loud enough that Momma couldn’t hear.

Guess?” I said quietly back.

His eyes glazed over for a moment, then he said, “No way. I have to pick up Eveline.”

Mom called out from the front room where she was putting our backpacks together. “I’m afraid he can’t dear. He has to pick up Eveline this morning.”

See?” Will whispered.

But Momma,” I said. “Eveline lives right next to the middle school. Will could drop of Charles super easy.”

It’s not up for discussion,” Momma called from the other room, which meant your father has decided.

Okay,” I said starting to feel the old anger rise. It was always like this. Once Poppa has decided something, that was it. Case closed. There was no discussion. Unlike, say, a democracy where the people actually have a voice, we live in a dictatorship. I knew if I focused on it would only make me more angry, so instead I decided to do something positive.

I ran up to my room to drop off my brush. My room is a typical teenager room. I have an old four-post bed, a dresser for my clothes, and a small desk (which Momma calls a secretary) to do my school work. I’m a huge fan of Pink, so my desk is surrounded by photos of her. Above my desk running along the wall at eye level is a whole series Shaker pegs, each one about a foot apart from the next. Hanging on these pegs is my ribbon collection. It started with a pair for every day of the week, but grew larger when Momma discovered you could have custom ribbons made that said things like “State Champion: Spelling”. I had two pair of those, plus about a dozen more pair for winning the County and Northern State Regionals. Momma had them made every time I won. Blue for first, gold for second, red for third. There used to be a lot more red and gold ones, but I had to put them in a drawer to make enough room. Now there’s nothing up there but blue ribbons, except for the pair Momma got me when I won the state championship for a second time; that pair is purple. Ribbons aren’t as nice as the trophies they give, but I can’t bring trophies home. Poppa wont allow them in the house. Even when Will set the state record for total passing yards last year Poppa made him leave his trophy at the school. Poppa’s weird that way.

I took a moment to touch my favorite photo of Pink. It was taken at a concert in Frisco when she first started out, and no one knew her from Adam. Whenever I’m angry at Poppa I like to look at it. It reminds me that everyone starts small and has to grow into their greatness. I may just be another girl from a small town, but someday I’m going to be much, much bigger. I also like to rub the photo for luck. So far it’s worked.

I took a few seconds to look at all my ribbons, picking out my favorites, remembering the words I spelled to win them. L-O-G-O-R-R-H-E-A or A-U-T-O-C-H-T-H-O-N-O-U-S. More than anything this helps me calm down. All that victory, all in one place, and all of it earned by me. No one can take that away from me. No matter what. Not even Poppa. It made me happy again to see them. Like walking onto a room full of friends.

I took a deep breath to center myself, like they taught us in gym class, then I picked up my backpack and ran down the stairs. I hustled up my brother Charles, grabbed his things, and we headed out the door. It was a half mile from our front door to the highway, and then another quarter mile beyond it to the school. If we didn’t get moving we’d both be late. When we left Will was still staring stupidly over a mug of coffee and Momma was fussing over Poppa’s hair.

Not much else happened on my last normal day. The only thing that really stood out was after school. I was going though my locker picking out the books for homework when suddenly I noticed Eveline looking over the top of the door.

I looked up and said, “Hey Eve.”

Hey Clara,” she said.

I waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. She didn’t walk away either. She just stood there with her arms across her chest looking really uncomfortable. That’s when I figured something was up.

See Eveline was my brother Will’s girlfriend. They’d been going out since last Easter. She was tall and pretty, and had beautiful short blonde hair. It was all straight without the least trace of a curl, which she often complained to me about when my bother wasn’t around. “I’m so tired of my hair,” she would say. “Its got no body like yours.” I would have traded the Beast with her hair in a heartbeat.

I saw Eveline often as she was always at our home. Poppa liked her, which wasn’t much of a surprise, even grown men like pretty girls. But Momma liked her too, which is more rare. She tended to sniff at Will’s girlfriends like she was looking for rotten meat in the trash. Even Charles liked her, and he hardly talked to anyone. But I liked Eveline because she was from out of town. She grew up in a little town north of Frisco, and went to The City often when she was young. Just hearing her stories let me know there was life outside of Buzzard’s Roost, which had to be the smallest town in the entire planet.

But there was a problem. See she was a Senior and I was a Sophomore, and she was also dating the school’s quarterback, who was practically the most popular guy in town. So while at home we often talked or did our homework together, at school she barely noticed me. Not that I’m complaining, I’m just trying to make things clear. She was used to the rarified air reserved for the pretty and the popular. Girls like that don’t hang out with geeks like me.

So seeing her stand over my open locker with her arms crossed and not saying anything, well it didn’t take a genius to realize something bad had happened on Mt. Olympus.

I closed my locker and stood up with my books. Stepping closer I saw she looked like she was on the verge of tears.

C’mon,” I said pulling her hand, taking her out of the corridor and back behind C building where nobody could see you. When we got out of sight she started to cry. I made encouraging words and patted her back until she eventuality stopped.

When she was done I handed her a tissue, which I keep in my backpack along with everything else I might need. She blew her nose in a way that was truly outstanding, and then wadded up the tissue in her hand. I handed her another one so she could dab her eyes. Crying raises hell on eye make-up unless you buy the good stuff.

When she was done I asked, “Do you want to tell me, or are you good?”

To her credit she took me seriously, and gave the question some thought.

I think I need to talk about it. Do you mind?”

I shook my head, but the hesitation must have shown on my face.

Look if you’re too busy,”

It’s not that Eve. Its just I wanted to get a start on homework, and if you’re going to cheer practice…”

I think,” she said. “I think I’m done with practice for the day, maybe forever. I don’t know.”

Wow. Really?” I said. Eveline wasn’t one to be so dramatic. If she said she was done with something she usually was.

Do you mind if I walk you home?” she asked.

Not at all. C’mon.”

So that was how I learned she had broken up with Will. Now not all of it was a surprise. I mean Eveline was a pretty girl and she got along with the other gods of high school, but underneath all that she was also really smart. I know because she helped me with my homework about as much as I helped her with hers. So while she was pretty sharp my brother just isn’t that way. I mean Will’s nice and all, it’s just he doesn’t go for all that intellectual stuff. Playing football and cutting down trees, these are the things he like to think about, and not much else. I figured Eveline would eventually grow tired of him, and I wasn’t disappointed. But what surprised me is what she told me next.

I’m thinking of moving to Frisco,” she said.

What!”

It turns out Eveline had an older cousin who lived in a rent controlled apartment walking distance from San Francisco City College. The cousin was loosing a roommate so she was looking for someone else to move in. Over the last weekend Eveline had gone down to see the place and had fallen in love with it. She’d come home convinced it was her big chance. “You have to see it, Clara. It’s so pretty, and the school is so close.” It was the most enthusiastic I had ever seen of her. Her eyes glowed as if was suddenly alive. She was electric.

I was so full of excitement for her I almost missed what she said next. “There’s another room.”

Uh huh,” I said nodding my head.

No, Clara, there’s another room.”

Huh? Wait, what?”

She smiled. “There’s another room that’s going to be open, next fall.”

And?”

Well, are you interested? I mean you’re always talking about wanting to move out.”

I stopped. I mean I literally stopped walking. I’m not sure, but I think my head might have exploded for a moment. Maybe it was only a little explosion, but I felt something.

Are you asking me?” I said in total disbelief.

She smiled like she had just won the lottery. “Uh huh.”

Are you positive?”

Uh huh.”

Oh Christ,” I said. “I mean I can, but I can’t. I mean I don’t know. I mean what am I going to tell my mom?”

Whoa,” she said putting up her hands. “I know it’s a lot to take in, and you’ll have to get your GED and such. And you’ll have to convince your parents. But we don’t have to solve all that today. The important question right now is just this: Are you interested?”

Yes!” I said jumping up and down. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The rest of that day was a bit of a blur. Eveline and I agreed we’d keep our idea secret for now. I tried hard not to let my excitement show, but it’s hard to fool your parents. “Is something up?” Momma asked at the dinner table. Will sat staring into his plate and not talking. He’d been real quiet since he came home from practice. I was sitting across from him trying to keep my legs from shaking.

No Momma,” I said. “Why?”

Well, you seem awful pleased with yourself this evening.”

I thought for a moment then gave her an excuse. “Oh, we had a pop quiz in history today. All about politics in the Roman Empire.”

And did you do well?”

One hundred and ten percent,” I said.

So you got the extra credit too.”

Yes,” I said giving her a big smile to make it look like I was excited about my history grade.

Did you hear that dear,” Momma said to Poppa. “Our girl just hit one out of the park in her history class.”

That’s nice,” Poppa said, not looking up from his TV program in the other room.

Oh, you and your TV,” she said shaking a finger at him like she was angry. It was a scene that they played out at the dinner table almost every night.

She turned to me. “Never mind what your Poppa has to say. That’s great, sweetie.”

Later that night after Momma and I finished up dishes I saw Will trudge up the stairs as if the whole world was resting on his shoulders. He was taking this break-up pretty hard. A part of me felt sorry for him, but the other part was secretly thrilled. All I could think about was that apartment in Frisco and the whole wide world around it. Imagine an entire city of people who had never heard of Buzzard’s Roost!

Little did I know that it would be the last time I’d see my brother walk up the stairs.

***

I was woken up the next morning by the Beast. This time it was a clump of hair that had crossed my face and wrapped around my opposite ear. Every time I moved it pulled tight across my eye like a cobweb. Yuck. Then I remembered my conversation the day before with Eveline, and the apartment waiting for me in Frisco, and suddenly the Beast wasn’t so bad.

While Momma was braiding my hair that morning I couldn’t help myself. No one else was around so I said, “Can I ask you something Momma?”

What dear?” she said as she pulled a clump of Beast into a tight wrap.

Would you be upset if I was to move out of town?”

She stopped and leaned back a little as if to get a better look at my face. “What makes you say that dear?”

Nothing,” I said trying to sound casual. “I’m just, you know, wondering. I figure eventually to go to college or something. After I graduate,”

Well, we’d have to see what your dad says.”

I put my hand on her arm. “Just you, Momma, what do you think?”

A flush came over her face. “Well, I…” She looked around the room as if there was an answer there for her. “I… guess I’d have to think on it some.”

Thank you Momma,” I said patting her arm. “You just take your time.”

She looked away for a second, and then real quiet she asked me, “Is there something I should know? A problem with a boy or something?”

I felt a flush come over my face. “Nothing like that Momma,” I said sounding more shocked than I wanted to. How could she think that about me!

Then I saw the relief on her face. “As long as you’re sure.”

I’m sure, Momma. About that I mean. Definitely sure.”

Okay.”

She finished up the last braid and handed me my brush. “Now go on up and get yourself ready,” she said. “And wake your brother again for me. I swear that boy is gonna sleep through his own funeral.”

Okay Momma,” I said. “And thanks.”

Thanks? What for?”

For listening.”

But you didn’t say anything,” she said with an exasperated smile.

Yeah, well, thanks anyway.”

She reached up and rubbed my shoulder like she did when I used to cry. Then she gave me a pat and I went upstairs.

Will’s bedroom is right next to mine, so after I put my brush away I went into his room. He’s decorated it in American Teenaged Male Disaster, which is my term for tossing everything in the room like it was the inside of a clothes dryer. “Hey,” I said giving his arm a shake. “Momma says it’s time to get up.”

He opened his eyes like two slit and looked around the room. “Wh-what?”

Rise and shine, brother mine. You know. School.”

Oh,” he said covered his face with a hand. “God, I don’t know if I can get up.”

He sounded genuinely tired, like he had been up all night partying with his friends again. This was something I had no sympathy for. Self-induced pain is the stupidest kind, and you can quote me on that.

Suit yourself,” I said as I went back to my room.

The last thing I remember from that morning was Momma calling up to him. “You’re going to be late for school William Frederick Barton, if you don’t get your butt down here right now.”

Momma was mad, I could tell, but we were going to be late if we didn’t leave soon. Charles and I grabbed our backpacks and got in the car. Momma yelled up at Will one last time, and then she drove us to school.

I was in math class when I found out something was wrong. Mrs Rolff had been putting some problems on the board when suddenly there was a strange noise in the room, a ringing. Everyone looked up. I don’t think any of us had heard it before. “What is that?” people were asking. Mrs. Rolff started digging under a pile of old papers. After a moment she pulled up an old style phone. I didn’t know the classrooms even had them.

Room 7, Mrs Rolff,” she said with a smile when she put the phone to her ear. Then her smile dropped to a frown. “Uh huh. Yes, okay,” she said. “I’ll send her right away.” Then she hung up.

Everyone was looking at her when she turned around. “Clara,” she said. “They need you in the office.”

I started to get up and head for the door.

Uh, you might want to take your things,” she added.

When I was finished loading my backpack she said, “Don’t worry about homework for tonight, Clara. It’s not that important.” Everyone in the room laughed. I lead the room in completed homework assignments.

It was a Friday afternoon and school was about to let out. There was an excitement in the air, even in the empty halls. You could tell. The game that night was against Whiskey Town, and everyone was gearing up for it.

I walked into the office and there was all this bustle and energy. Everyone was moving and excited, everyone except Mrs. Tomkins, the school secretary. Her face was pale like she had seen a ghost. “Oh you poor thing,” she said by way of a greeting, getting up from her desk and giving me a hug. In my mind I was thinking What in the hell!!! Then she said, “Your momma called. Your brother’s turned sick.” She gave a pause before continuing. “She needs you to pick up Charles on your way home.”

I nodded wondering what all the fuss was about. I didn’t understand what was making Mrs. Tomkins act so funny. Then as I was making my way out the door I overheard Mrs. Tomkins whisper to Mr. Shane, “…that’s the second time, in the same family,” and suddenly it all clicked.

They called Roost Specific Polio, or RSP for short. Some folks said it was caused by a virus, others said it came from a bacteria. When I read that trees communicated to each other via spores in their roots, I thought it might be caused by a fungus. There was even a psychologist in Red Bluff who claimed it was mass hysteria. Doctors were baffled. Specialists searched and searched. The disease seemed to leave no damage to the nerves or to the muscles, but once you caught it you never walked again. Never.

By the time I picked up Charles at the Junior High, everyone in town knew. Sheriff Johnston gave us a ride up the hill, and when we made our way to the top of the bumpy road I saw that our parking area was already full of cars. The grieving had begun.

The next few days went by in a blur for me. Practically everyone in town came by and dropped something off; a few meals here, firewood there, that kind of thing. All of it was very helpful I suppose, but also it wasn’t helpful. I mean all that food wasn’t going to make my brother walk again, and more wood meant more work for me, since I was the one who had to do the splitting. It was all very nice, and very kind, and it just about drove me crazy.

The worst ones were the folks who tried to cheer me up. They’d say the most inane things like, “You know RSP isn’t a death sentence,” or “Your brother will be getting around just like his old self soon enough.” But none of them ever had to live with RSP in their family. They didn’t know the dark side. The times that Poppa was mean to Momma, especially when he started drinking. They way she sucked up to him no matter what he said or how mean he was. All the doctor’s visits and the crying, all the meals you have to cook and the washing. Having someone with RSP in your family was a lot like a having a two year-old. Only one that didn’t grow up.

The other families with RSP were almost as bad. They’d come over all cheery, but pretty soon they’d be comparing notes, almost like they were bragging about who did the most extra work. And there was a whispering among those women, an expectation. Every time a girl would come over to the house their heads would turn, like they were waiting for something to happen. It was like they expected a third arm to grow out of her body. It was weird and also kind of creepy. But the weirdest part was when they talked about Eveline.

I hadn’t seen Eveline since the day before this all happened. Her absence in our house was almost as bad as the well-wishers. Everyone kept asking me about her, wondering when she was going to come by. They’d look at me as I was supposed to know. I guess I could have called her, but I don’t know what I would say. I mean she broke up with my brother. There was no going back on that. What did they expect of her? To come over and visit anyway? Wouldn’t that be a little weird?

And then there was the whole Frisco thing. I kept thinking about that apartment, about getting away. Every time I had to cook another meal or go and split some more wood I fantasied about what it would be like to live in a house where nobody expected me to work for them, and I could cut my hair any length I wanted. I had already looked up on the internet what I needed to get my GED. I met all the other requirements for the College. I might have to get a note from my parents because of my age, but I was pretty sure I could get Momma to sign one. I’d just have to wait for a day when Poppa was at his therapy or something.

But also I was afraid that if I talked to her, if I tried to tell her about what was going on with Will, that it would somehow burst the bubble, and she wouldn’t want me to go with her to Frisco anymore. I just couldn’t face that. So while I didn’t go out of my to avoid Eveline, I also didn’t go looking for her either.

So days went by and she didn’t show up, then weeks. Finally one Saturday morning after about three weeks there was a quite knock on the door. I opened it to find Eveline standing there. She looked terrible, like she hadn’t slept in weeks. She was thin, her eyes were red-rimmed from crying, and she had dark spots under her eyes.

Hey, uh, Eveline,” I said in surprise.

When she saw me her face did this strange dance of emotions; surprise, worry, a twisted smile of guilt, and then a wince of apology. All of this while the rest of her stood frozen to the spot. I understood in that moment all she had been going through. I put my arms around her in a hug, almost crushing the casserole she was holding in her hands, and then led her inside saying, “Hey everyone, look who showed up.”

Momma got up and gave Eveline a big hug while I took her casserole to the deep freeze in the garage. I came back to find her sitting in the living room. My parents were talking softly with her, the television muted in the background. They were trying to sound casual, but I could tell they were tense.

Poppa was saying, “Well, are you going to go up and see him?”

Eveline gave the barest of head shakes, like she couldn’t trust her voice to say no.

That’s okay, dear,” Momma said, patting Eveline on the shoulder. “It’s probably for the best.”

Nonsense,” Poppa said. “The girl came all this way, and it would mean so much to Will.”

But look at her,” Momma said to him. “The poor thing is obviously upset.” Then she turned to Eveline. “Maybe if you come back at a better time.”

This is a perfect time,” Poppa insisted.

But…” Momma started,

Poppa interrupted her with his Do What I Say tone, “I think it’s best if she went up to see him.”

Momma stopped, her mouth still open, then she kind of fell in on herself. “Its probably best if you went up to see him now,” she said. Momma had turned to face Eveline, but her eyes stared down at her hands.

I’d seen Momma switch sides like this hundreds of times, but for some reason this time it seemed especially cruel. I wanted to intervene, but I didn’t know to say. Eveline was obviously in a fragile state, anyone could see that. But I was afraid anything I said would harm my chances for that apartment in Frisco, so I stayed silent. Under the pressure the poor girl finally relented. When she walked up the stairs she looked terrified, like she was going to her own hanging. I wanted to run up to her and tell her she didn’t have to go, but I was too chicken. Then she knocked on his door, and entered, closing the door behind her.

There was a hush in the house, as if everyone was holding their breath, which made me feel sick. After a while I couldn’t stand it, so I went out to split some wood.

After a long time Eveline came back out, only this time she was a different person. Oh she looked the same. Actually she looked better. She was smiling, and happy. But there was something wrong about her too, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

She joined us over supper, just like old times. Momma had baked Will’s favorite casserole, and helped me carry him downstairs so we could all sit around the table. Everyone was acting as if Eveline was now a part of the family. Like she and Will had never broken up. It was weird. Like she had gone up into that room a single girl and come back down Will’s girlfriend.

Near the end of dinner Momma had asked Eveline if she wanted seconds on the casserole. Momma was just being polite, everyone knew Eveline didn’t like the dish. She’d replied “No,” but then a strange look came over Will.

Of course you want some more,” he told her, using the exact same tone of voice Poppa used with Momma. “It’s my favorite.”

I do?” Eveline said sounding confused. Then she looked over at Will like she had no control over her face. Like she was a robot or something.

Momma was saying, “It’s okay honey, I was just kidding,” but Will interrupted her with a “No, Momma. You worked hard over this casserole. Eveline needs to appreciate it.”

Then Eveline suddenly was all smiles again. “I’d love some more casserole,” she said sounding cheery and holding up her plate. “After all, it is Will’s favorite.”

At that moment I think my blood turned to ice.

Over dessert Eveline mentioned renting a house nearby and getting a job. Suddenly it dawned on me what she was saying.

Wait a minute. You’re staying in Buzzard’s Roost?” I blurted out before I could think to stop myself.

Well, sure,” she said like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I wanted to scream, “But what about Frisco and the apartment?” but everything seemed too fragile then, like anything I said would shatter things further.

Around 11:00 it was time for Eveline to go home. Momma was tired and Will wasn’t ever going to drive again, so I volunteered to walk her home. It was cool night, the air brisk, but not too cold. The roots that covered our driveway and pretty much every other place on that mountain, looked like writhing fingers on the road in the light of the bobbing flashlights. Eveline was full of excitement and energy, but also something else. Something I couldn’t understand, so finally at some point I plucked up the courage ask about her cousin’s apartment and ours plans for Frisco.

Well, obviously we’re going to have to give those up,” she said sounding very much like a teacher giving a lecture at school.

Give them up?” I asked, my heart skipping a beat.

Well, yeah. I mean they’re nice dreams and all, but it’s time we lived in the real world, and not some fantasy.”

So everything you talked about, everything you said, sharing an apartment in Frisco, that was fantasy?” I was pretty upset. I wouldn’t be surprised if I squeaked.

We were now stopped outside of her house. The lights were off so we were trying to keep our voices down. The moon was mostly full and it gave everything around us a hazy glow.

Look,” she said with a little bit of sympathy to her voice. “Your brother needs me. You understand that don’t you? I can’t go on like it was before. I have to make new plans. I have to plan with him now.”

What is wrong with you?” I said, “Ever since you came over this morning you’ve been acting weird.”

I had to grow up, Clara. That’s what’s wrong. Maybe you ought to do the same.”

I left her there on her porch, not even waiting to make sure she made it inside. Momma would be mad if she found out, but I didn’t care. Had the whole town gone crazy? I didn’t know what to think.

I remember the walk back home because it seemed like those damn roots were trying to trip me at every step. God I hated Buzzard’s Roost right then. My one good chance of leaving this town had been spoiled by my brother and his stupid disease. I was so angry I think I stomped on every root in the road. I wanted an axe right then so I could chop down every damn tree I could find.

By the time I got home, the anger had burnt itself out of my system. Walking up the drive I was surprised to see the kitchen light was on. Momma likes to turn in early, even on the weekends, so it was a shock to see her sitting up at the kitchen table. She had a cup of tea in front of her, and she had draped an old blanket around her shoulders for warmth, though it wasn’t very cold in the house. She was staring out the window, sitting perfectly still, which isn’t like her. Momma is always up and doing things. Seeing her not moving felt strange, wrong, like she had become a statue or something. I noticed the tea in front of her had grown cold.

I said something to her, but she didn’t respond, so I walked up behind her to see what she was staring at. Looking out I noticed there was nothing to see. The light in the kitchen turned everything outside the window to black. All you could see in the glass was Momma’s reflection.

Gazing at her reflection I noticed for the first time that Momma looked old. It was like the Momma I knew, the one I’d always thought of as young and pretty, had been taken away, only to be replaced by a much older woman; a woman with wrinkles and dark lines under her eyes. Here I had been all worried about myself and my future, and I had totally forgotten how hard these past few weeks must have been on her. To have her husband and then her son become disabled before her eyes, and she the only one doing the work of nursing them.

I laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, soft as a sparrow landing on a branch. “Are you okay Momma?”

She gave a slight start, like I had interrupted her thinking. Slowly she looked up at my reflection in the glass and gave a weak smile. “It’s okay, pumpkin. Just tired, is all. Your father had a hard time going down tonight, carrying on like he does.” Which is what she said every time Poppa drank too much. Then she snuck one of her hands out from under the blanket to pat mine which was resting on her shoulder. “But thank you for thinking of me,” she said before she adjusted the blanket tighter around her shoulders.

Momma, I think you need some time away from here. Don’t you? Get out, get vacation time on your own. You’re always waiting on Poppa hand and foot, and now you’re helping Will. Why don’t you go off with Carol and take that cruise like she’s always talking about? Charles and I can take care of Poppa while your gone. I’m sure we can get Aunt May to help, and Eveline will pitch in.”

Momma shook her head, “You know I can’t do that, Pumpkin. I can’t leave your Poppa with someone else. He’d only carry on worse than he does.”

Yes, Momma, but what about you? What about your needs? You need to carry on to, don’t you think?”

Momma smiled at that. “Thank you, pumpkin, but don’t you worry. I’ll get my time, soon.”

I knew what she was saying was a lie. I could feel it. But it was strange because I could also feel the uselessness of trying to convince her differently. Uncle Bob used to always say, “Things are the way they are.” I never really knew what he meant until just then.

So I bent down and gave Momma a hug because I knew there was nothing else I could do for her. I held her tight and rubbed her back, like she used to do for me when I was small. It felt funny and good at the same time. Like I was trying to squeeze the love I felt for her, and all of my concern, trying to push all the good things into her and maybe drive out the bad. She rested her head on my shoulder, just for a second, and for that tiny moment I felt like I had given her a vacation. It made me wish I could do it all day.

I started to let go of her, slowly like, when suddenly she clamped her hand onto my arm. I was so surprised I automatically tried to jerk back, but she held onto me with an iron grip. All the cleaning, all the times she helped Poppa out of bed, or out of his chair, or even all the times she helped him over the toilet; all of that had made her hands real strong. When she held onto you, she held.

I’d been kneeling over her so we were close already. I looked into her face and all I saw there was a fierceness. It was strange, like Momma had become a wild beast. “Promise me,” she hissed her face all intense, “you’ll leave this town. Leave it and never come back.”

Huh?” I said surprised.

Promise me!” she demanded, tugging on my arm with each word.

Uh, okay Momma,” I said, shocked at her sudden change. I almost never saw Momma mad, let alone angry like this. I didn’t know what had come over her, but it was scary. I was afraid if I didn’t say the right thing she might bite me. “I promise,” I managed to add.

Then just like that she let go. It was like my words had flipped a switch. Suddenly she was back to her same old self. I backed away slowly, not sure what else to expect. She turned to look out the window, staring into the dark as if nothing had happened.

Goodnight pumpkin,” she said sweetly. “Be sure to turn the light off on your way out.”

I turned off the light, leaving her sitting in the dark, and made my way quietly upstairs, making sure to miss the two steps that creaked. Then I climbed into bed and curled into a ball until the sheets got warm. By that point I was so freaked out, after a day full of things to freak out about, that I really didn’t know what to feel. I fell asleep almost instantly, but I did not dream.

***

I got up early the next morning. For once the Beast didn’t wake me, my own worries did. I dressed quietly and put an old scarf around my head. Outside it was so cool you could feel the kiss of the coming winter. The air was crisp, and the ever present roots on the ground were starting to get stiff like they were preparing for the coming blanket of snow.

The Jenkins’ had been kind enough to drop off a cord of wood, when they found out about Will. They’d dumped it up behind the old barn near where the splitting log was. Will used to be our log splitter–Momma not having the time and Poppa not being able to stand–but now that he was sick someone else had to do the work. I’d always liked the feel of swinging an axe. Don’t ask me why. There’s something about the smashing of big logs into fireplace-sized pieces that is deeply satisfying. I know everybody else thinks it’s not a girl thing, but who do you think splits the wood for window Johnston and Martha Fields? As Momma would say, “That wood ain’t gonna split itself.”

Plus splitting wood is a good place to think.

A lot had happened in the past few weeks that I didn’t understand. What had happened to Will? Why had Eveline changed her mind? Why did Momma freak out like she did last night? I felt like I was about to take a midterm test for a class I’d never signed up for, and had never learned its name. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to study. So I put on some gloves, picked up the heavy splitting axe, and started working on the pile.

Momma came and got me around 8:00. That’s when we had our breakfast. I’d made the start on a pretty good pile by then. When we finished eating I did the dishes, and showered off the sweat I’d just earned. Then I started in on my homework. English was boring so I finished it first–some essay on a book we’d just read–but my math homework was giving me fits. The book was looking like it was written in Egyptian or something. The formulas were just not making sense at first. I was used to that. Usually I found if I just kept plugging away at a problem eventually I’d find a way to understand it. That, or I’d look online. Unfortunately our internet connection was buggy that morning, the videos kept taking hours to download.

I was about to go see if Charles was hogging up our connection–he liked to read online comics and that meant huge downloads–when I heard a car drive up. I looked out my window to see two of Will’s friends, Jack and Dan, get out.

Jack was the funny one, always telling jokes and goofing off. In looks he was the exact opposite of Will. He was dark and lean compared to my brother’s fair and thick. He was always ready with a story or another tall tale, and his eyes always shined in the telling. He played wide receiver with the same carefree grace that he told stories, slipping and sliding between defenders effortlessly staying one step ahead.

Will’s other friend, Dan was everything Jack was not. He was short, broad, and fair. If Jack was like a dancer skipping around the tackles, Dan was like a bulldozer crashing through the middle. He was less fast than fearless, and tended to solve problems by plowing into them head first. Will used to say that on running plays he would hand Dan the ball, and hope the other team was smart enough not to get in his way.

Sunday was the only day the team didn’t practice. It was their one day to sit back, relax, and not have to worry about football. So what did they do? They came over to our house to talk about football, because apparently if you can’t do football at least you can talk about it. Boy logic, go figure. The three of them had been doing this little ritual since about forever, sitting in Will’s room watching the Niners on Will’s little TV, and basically talking crap. You know, like boys do.

At least they didn’t let Will’s RSP keep them from a perfectly good male bonding ritual. That was something to appreciate. Jack and Dan may act like hicks, pretty much like everybody else in town, but they were good friends to Will, and I appreciated that.

The sound of their voices rushed into the house long before they did, and it proceeded them up the stairs and past my open door into the mess that Will called his room. Momma had taken Poppa to a new church over in Redding, and Charles was in the living room quietly reading his comics. The house had felt wonderfully alone and peaceful until the boys had come. Now with all their noise and energy it felt both annoying and exciting at the same time.

I set a piece of scratch paper in my math book to mark my place and closed it with a slap of frustration. Outside my window the color of the sky looked cool and tired, like someone had bled all the summer out of the sun, and it needed a vacation in Florida to recover.

It was Will’s voice that I heard first. “Someone at lunch said you were going to The House.” He didn’t have to explain what The House was. Only the old witch house was called The House.

Maybe,” Jack said, “maybe not.”

So you’re not going?” That was from Dan, who tended to view everything in black and white terms.

What I’m doing,” Jack said testily, “is asking around. Getting to know my options.”

Options?” Will said.

Sure. Look we’ve all heard stories about the place. Every Halloween we used to dare each other to run up and knock on its door. Do you remember that?”

Did you ever do that?” Will interrupted.

What?”

Knock on the door.”

I did,” Dan said as if it was an everyday occurrence.

No!” the other boys hooted in reaction. “No way!”

There was quiet for a bit. I could tell Dan was shrugging his shoulders, using his silence to dare you to challenge him.

Will broke the quite first. “Was it scary?” he asked sounding much younger than his 17 years.

There was more silence, then Dan said something just loud enough that I had to strain to hear him, “Maybe.”

Really?” Jack said. I could hear the respect in his tone. “You went up and knocked on the door? What’d you do after? Run right back?”

Maybe,” Dan allowed.

All three of them laughed. Then the room went quiet again. Normally I don’t like to pry, but for some reason I found myself leaning against the wall so I could hear them better.

Again it was Will that broke the silence. “So why are you going?”

I’ve got my reasons,” Jack said.

There were more hoots from the boys then Dan said, “Dude, just ask her out.”

Yeah, well the problem is, she’s got this older brother, see, who guards her like a bank vault.”

Oh.”

Yeah, he’s not the kind of guy one can just run around, or like Dan here, run right though.”

So what are you going to do?”

Punt,” Jack said.

Punt?” Will asked. “Going to The House sounds more like a Hail Mary.”

They all laughed at that. But it was a nervous laugh.

But here’s the funny thing, there are all kinds of stories about the old witch house, I know cause I started asking around, but they all have these a few things in common. In every story the man has to come at midnight, but only on a night with a new moon, which is kind of weird.”

Its darkest,” Will said.

What?”

A new moon means there’s pretty much no moon, so less light.”

What are you, an astrologer?” Dan asked.

Its astronomer, you idiot, and to answer your question, maybe.”

They all laughed at that, and then the room fell silent again. The boys voices had been bright and loud when they had come in the house, but now they were low and private. I had to lean forward to hear better.

So what else?” Dan asked.

Well, if you want your wish granted you have to give her something like a gift.”

A gift?”

Yeah, but it’s a special kind of gift. Every story I’ve heard says the same thing. The gift has got to be rare, it has to be important, and it has to be something you’ve earned.”

What?” Dan said. “Like a car or something?”

That’s stupid,” Jack said. “How would you get it into her room?”

Her?”

The old witch, dummy.”

Oh,” Dan said. “How about your grandpa’s watch?”

It has to be valuable.”

Oh, how about a ring?”

I thought of that. The problem is I don’t have one.”

Hum,” Dan said. Then after a moment added, “So what are you gonna take?”

Dunno.”

A trophy,” Will said softly.

What?” Dan asked.

Nothing,” Will said as if he suddenly wished he hadn’t spoken.

What?” Dan said again, but Jack reacted differently. “Oh,” he said in a knowing way.

What?” Dan asked again, this time sounding exasperated. He uses that word a lot, I thought.

Nothing,” Jack said.

Oh c’mon guys,” Dan pleaded, but neither Will nor Jack said anything.

I heard a large huff of exasperation, and after that uncomfortable silence. Then outside there came the sound of a truck coming up the drive. It was Momma and Poppa back from church. Apparently the boys heard them too. I heard Dan and Jack start to stir. There was talk about lunch and needing to go home. I could hear them pacing by the creak of the floorboards. By the time they were coming down the hall, I sitting back in my seat and had my math book open again.

I heard Jack and Dan start down the stairs, but something about the sound of their feet tugged at me. When I looked out my door I saw the reason. Dan had gone down the stairs, but Jack was standing in my doorway leaning against the frame.

Hey,” he said when he saw me notice him. “How’s it going?”

Good,” I said guardedly, not quite sure what he was doing. I was used to being treated like a little sister, especially by one of Will’s friends. I didn’t know what to say when one of them treated me like a regular human being. It was awkward.

Working on our Algebra homework?” he asked nodding towards the book.

Yes,” I said lifting up the corner so he could see the cover.

Is it hard for you?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Kind of.”

Jack looked down the stairs. We could hear Dan stomping around down below. He must be in a dark mood. “You coming?” Dan called up.

Just a sec,” Jack yelled, then he turned back to the room.

Well, I gotta go,” he said.

Yes,” I said, thinking that was the most obvious thing Jack Parker had ever said. The silence stretched on for a moment and it occurred to me that he might be expecting me to say something else, but I couldn’t figure out what.

I’ll see you at school then?” He said it like it was a question.

I bit down my first thought which was not kind, and chose instead to answer “Yes.”

Dan yelled from the outside, “I’m starting the truck.”

Jack glanced down the stairs and then back up again. “Bye,” he said and gave a little wave like kids do.

I found myself waving back, although I couldn’t say why, then Jack bounded down the stairs fast and light, like he was running an open field under a flying ball. He was out the door and in the truck before the screen door had closed.

I sat looking at the empty doorway and wondered, What the hell was that all about?

I got up and walked to my window. From there I can see…. Well, practically everything.

If you think of Buzzard’s Roost as a giant bowl, then our house sits up on the rim. We’re on the West shoulder of Speckerman Mountain, which is one of three mountains that overlooks the town. Down to the center of the bowl you can see where there used to be a mill pond. South of the pond, where the supermarket sits now, used to be the main building where they rough-cut the logs before shipping them by wagon down to the valley. The pond got smaller and smaller until 10 years ago they finally filled it with dirt for a development. I remember skating there in the winter, back when I was small. Now there’s a few new houses, and a bunch of unfinished concrete slabs to mark the spot. Progress.

The only better view of the town is a little further up Speckerman Mountain on its eastern slope. There’s a pocket up there on a ridge that is protected from the weather yet has a spectacular view on all sides. It was on this site, back when Buzzard’s Roost was just a spot to gather lumber, that the company’s foreman, Christopher Evans, decided to build his home. Unfortunately for him, his fortune was tied to that of the lumber company. When the company went out of business during the great depression Christopher Evans lost it all. He packed up everything he owned, or so rumor goes, and headed south for Sacramento, leaving behind the one thing he could not move, his grand two-story Victorian home. Today we call it the old witch house.

The only other thing of note in our little town is a strange grove of trees endemic to this area. They’re called Squaw pine, or the Squaw-Hair pine, so named because their dark roots–which grow everywhere and are constantly underfoot–were thought to resemble the hair of the Native Americans women. At least that’s what the early lumberjacks liked to think. This particular type of pine tree grows only around this town and nowhere else, which has made for some pretty big fights. The environmentalists want to use the Squaw Pine to declare our little bowl a National park, and the loggers want to continue to pull out as much timber out if it as they can, for as long as possible.

Naturally these things make their way into our culture by the stories we tell. A tree with unusual roots becomes part of an “indian curse,” complete with stories of and ancient indian burial ground and promises of vengeful spirits from the dead. An abandoned house becomes the lair of a witch, who not only has magical powers, but is also acts as a quest for local men to test their bravery. All you need is a sword stuck in a stone or a magical armoire to complete the picture.

Why we humans need to turn ordinary things into fantastical ones I’ll never know. I remember my dad saying he used to be able to see the old witch house from here, back when he was a boy. When I look that direction now all I see are trees and sky. Yet growing up there was always stories about the place. The witch would come down, they’d say, to take away children who are bad. Why do adults make up stories like that? When I was a little girl I was sure the old witch was gonna get me in my sleep. It used to scare me so much that I would go to sleep with a double blanket over my bed, and had Momma tuck it in super tight. I couldn’t sleep if even one part of it was pulled out. Like a tight blanket was going to keep me from her claws. One time when I woke up with the Beast wrapped around my neck, I thought the witch had a hold of me. I screamed so loud Momma said I woke up the neighbors half a mile away. She was so furious I thought for sure she was going to cut my hair after that. But Poppa said no, and that was that.

So when I hear stories like this I just want to scream, “C’mon people! It’s the twenty-first century for god’s sake! We don’t have to believe in children’s stories any more!!!”

But I don’t ever say anything like that. For one thing, no one would listen; I’m just another teenaged girl living in the sticks. But also I have a problem in that I’m way too shy. Momma says I need to work on that, the shyness that is. “How are going to find a nice man if you can’t speak your mind?” she says.

How do you respond to that?

I want to say, “How about if I don’t want a nice man, Momma? What do you think about that? What I want is to get as far away from here as possible. Far, far away. I can find me a nice man, after I go to college.”

Of course I don’t tell her that. I’m far too chicken. But one of these days I’m gonna. I swear. If I ever get out of here, that is.

It was a week later when Jack came by after school. I was sitting at my desk writing a paper for English when I heard him step inside the front door and call out, “Hello Mrs. Barton. How are you?” A few minutes later I heard his footsteps as he ran up the stairs. He stopped outside my door as if he was about to say something. I could see the tips of his cowboy boots out of the corner of my eye, but I forced myself to not look up. Since Will had become sick, Jack’s attempts at conversation with me at school kept starting up and dying like a fire that wouldn’t light. Rather than be bothered by it I started to feel sorry for the boy. Here he was, fearless on the football field, but still couldn’t figure out how to talk to a girl. Ignoring him was easier than showing pity, at least that’s what I told myself. After a brief wordless moment, Jack quietly slipped down the hall to Will’s room where he was finally able to loosen his tongue.

I was so focused on my paper that I lost track of how long the two boys chatted. Finally, when I was sure I had an essay good enough to turn in, I set my pen down and listened. Jack had started by pacing the room, telling football stories no doubt, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Now though he must be perched on the side of Will’s bed. The bed kept creaking every time he shifted his weight. It was a sound I had grown up with as my brother had always been a restless sleeper. Now I sometimes woke up because he didn’t make any noise, if that makes any sense.

I heard a creak and then Jack said softly with a voice used to calling across an open football field, “So you did it, didn’t you? You dog.”

Will said something in reply, but I couldn’t hear it.

Jack spoke again. “Yeah I saw her at school yesterday, all happy and shit.”

Then I realized they were talking Eveline. She had taken to coming over at the house most afternoons. As Jack had said, she was indeed all happy and shit, trading in her talk of tattoos and college for marriage and kids. Everyone in town marveled at her transformation except for me. I liked the other Eveline better; the one who smoked cigarettes and listened to punk rock, the one I was going to share an apartment with in Frisco. The new Eveline bothered me. She didn’t seem real. I think I was the only one in town who missed the old Eveline.

Will mumbled something too soft for me to hear, but I did hear Jack’s reply.

The girl? Well, lets just say the older brother is no longer a threat.”

Faintly I heard Will say, “You gonna finally ask her out? You’ve been talking about her for weeks.”

Naw,” Jack said, “that part hasn’t been going to well, so I’m switching to plan B.”

Will said something, but it was too soft for me to hear. Jack replied, “Well let’s just say it involves a dark night, the old witch house, and a foolish boy.”

You gonna do it?” Will said, both surprised and maybe a little happy.

I’m fixin’ to. Next Friday is the new moon. I figure it’s my best chance.”

That’s not a good idea.”

Why not? It worked for you. It worked for Mr. Hatchins. It worked for them others. Hell, it even worked for your daddy.”

But Eveline and I, we was already together. This girl doesn’t even know you exist.”

Oh she knows me, alright.”

She does?” Will said. Even through the walls I could hear his disbelief. “You gonna finally tell me who she is?”

Well…“ Jack said, then there was a long pause as if he was picking his words carefully. ”Lets just say come next week there’s a good chance you and I are going to be brothers.”

Brothers?”

Well, more like brothers in law.”

Will was silent as he tried to work out Jack’s meaning, but I knew exactly what he meant. The words hit me like an icicle hammered into my heart. Suddenly the small hairs on the back of my neck started to rise, and I could hear the pounding of my heart in my ears.

I heard Jack get up. “Well, I gotta go. The game tomorrow is going to be tough.”

How’s Pete doing?” Will asked. Peter Jennings, a sophomore, was the new quarterback.

Oh Pete’s okay. Not too bad. Not as good as you, though. I have to run a bit more to get under the ball. But otherwise he’s a good, you know, for the team and all.”

Jack opened the door. “Anyway, I’ll talk to you later.”

The rattling of Will’s doorknob sort of clicked in me. It was like I’d been trapped by the horror of what Jack had said, and then suddenly I was free.

Will said goodbye, and Jack started down the hall. Quickly I pulled my chair away from the wall and set it in front of my desk. Then I sat in it leaning over my text book as if I was engrossed in my homework. I heard Jack walk up to my door and stop. I thought he was going to say something but I couldn’t hear too well over the pounding of my heart. I tried very hard not to move. I wanted to scream and then run away so badly. It was hard to sit still. Jack stayed for only a second or two, though it seemed like forever, before he headed down the stairs.

Once he was out the door I started to shake. After a minute I forced myself to get up and see if he had really left or not. From the faint light of the porch I watched him walk down the root covered driveway until he faded into the darkness. Only then did I feel myself start to calm. After a while my heart went back to something like a normal, and my breathing relaxed. Then I sat back down in my chair to think. What was it Jack had said to my brother? “Why not? It worked for you.”

I’d never much given thought to the stories about the old witch house. Small towns carried stories like dogs had fleas. But I was starting to see a pattern, a pattern that wasn’t just a story, but was part of something more.

What if they were true?

Will was easy enough to work out. He’d gone to see the witch for the purpose of keeping Eveline. Judging by her sudden change of behavior I’d say it worked.

Poppa was something else. I knew my parents dated in High School. Over the mantel, centered in the mirror, was a photo of them back when they were the homecoming King and Queen. Momma looked so young and pretty in her cheerleader outfit. Poppa was tall and handsome in the old football gear. I remember my Uncle Ray once saying something about them breaking up. This was back when they were first married, well before Will was born. I don’t know what they had fought about, but I do know Momma had gotten mad enough to move back in with Grandma and Grandpa, and there was talk of a divorce. Obviously something had happened to make her change her mind. I didn’t know what it was, but I was pretty sure it happened right around the same time that Poppa got sick. Coincidence?

Lew Hatchins was another matter. He owned the hardware store downtown. I’d been in his store countless times. It was one of the few stores still open on main street. It seemed like no matter how bad the economy got, people needed things from Hatchins Hardware. Lew’s son, Harvey, did most of the work now but you still saw Lew there in his wheelchair chatting with the customers. I knew Lew had RSP, like Poppa, but I had never connected them or the other victims of RSP together. Had they all gone to the witch house at midnight on the night of a new moon? The idea seemed ridiculous, and yet I remember rumors that Hatchins Hardware was about to close, and that was right before he got sick.

But…what Jack said about being Will’s brother-in-law, well that gave me the chills. I mean I didn’t mind Jack Parker. He’s reasonably good looking, and he is smart, at least smart for a small town. But he was also very much a small town boy, and I wanted more than that, so much more. Did he really think he could get me to change my mind by going to see the witch?

Why not? I thought. It worked for Eveline.

I could feel the chills go down my spine. Was I really going to be trapped here my whole life, forced to love a man I didn’t even like? God! That thought gave me the shakes. Best not to dwell on it.

Instead I looked out through the darkness for the old witch house. Was that a light I saw? No, it was just a distant leaf reflecting our porch light. It was quiet out in the woods. When I stared at the place I swear I could hear a sound, like someone faintly whispering in my ear. It creeped me out, so I got up and closed the window.

Then downstairs I heard Momma called up, “Super’s on the table.” I came down the stairs and took my normal seat. Eveline was finishing up a plate to take up to Will’s room. I hadn’t heard her come up the drive, so she must have been down in the kitchen helping Momma while Jack was here. Sitting with my family, eating chicken straight from the oven, it was easy to forget all about the whispering. I could tell myself I was just being silly. But was I?

After the dishes were done, and everything was put away, I took a quick shower and then lay down on my bed to relax. The photos of Pink I had taped to the ceiling stared back at me. Pink who lives in a distant town with short hair and doesn’t have to worry a crazy witch (which may or may not exist), or a boy who is trying to make her stay in her home town. Looking up I realized Pink was as far from me as Dorothy was from Kansas. I had opened my window again and the cold air on my legs and arms made me shiver. Then as I started drifting off to sleep I heard a faint sound. It was the whispering coming from the woods. I got up and closed the window, but in the dark I could hear the witch speaking and it scared me into stillness.

***

I guess it’s fitting that I woke up the next day with the Beast tangled around my neck. Momma had to spend an extra 10 minutes getting out the knots so she could braid it. I gritted me teeth as she pulled and cursed, pulled and cursed. While she worked I closed my eyes and imagined her like a lion tamer stuck in a room full of lions with only a chair and a whip. “Crack. Get back you Beast or I’ll give you one on the snout. Crack.”

What in earth are you smiling at,” Momma said in real life. She did not sound happy at all.

Nothing, Momma.”

Well, it better not be nothing. Your hair is not a laughing matter.”

Yes, Momma.”

I managed to keep a straight face while she finished the second braid, then head still smarting from all the tugging, not to mention the constant weight of two 10 ton cables hanging from my head, I made my way down the driveway stomping on every stupid root that tried to trip me.

The only good part of the day so far was my ribbons. Momma had picked my purple ones, the ones I got for winning the state spelling bee last year. Normally having them in my hair was enough to make me feel better, but not today. I don’t know if anything could make me feel better after what I heard last night.

Since I hadn’t got much sleep last night, I was having a hard time staying focused in class. Twice I had teachers call on me and I didn’t know answer. That has never happened to me before. One time I didn’t even know what the teacher was talking about. It was like everyone had switched to speaking French in my world history class. In English, my teacher Mrs Franklin asked if I was okay. I could only duck my head and apologize.

Fortunately it was a Friday and a game day, so the last third of school would be taken up with pep rallies and such so we could all show our school spirit. It was while I was waiting in line to go into the gym that it happened.

Carl, Martha, Big Mattie, and a couple of others were standing around. We were waiting for the crowds to go in because we like to be the last ones in the gym. Don’t ask me why, its just kind of a thing we do. We’re like the unofficial geek squad, and besides eating lunch together its about the only thing we do together. Mattie was going on and on about me falling asleep in class today, but I was listening with half an ear, because, hello, I’d fallen asleep in class today. So while everyone else was laughing I was zoning out.

See right next to our gym is the trophy case. It’s full of all kinds of trophies. Big ones from winning state championships, and little ones for individual effort. It’s a familiar place for my family. The Barton name appears often inside. Its nice to look out and read your name, knowing your bother, your Poppa, or a distant cousin had done something extra special. So while they were joking around I stopped to look for the familiar trophies.

That was when I noticed that Will’s trophy was missing. He got it last year. I remember when he won it because it had been such a big deal. It was for the most number of Passing Yards in a single season, or something like that. I remember it was a state record. Now the trophy was missing. I could tell because you could see the little clean square in the middle of the dust from were it used to sit.

Right next to it was a matching trophy for the most number of Received Yards in a single season. That was Jack Parker’s trophy, my brother’s best friend and his favorite receiver. The two were such a matched set, or so the joke went, that they even made their trophies the same. Only Jack’s trophy was missing too.

Way back when Will had first gotten sick I remember him talking with Jack and Dan about the witch. Jack had mentioned that you had to bring something to the witch to get your wish; something valuable, something rare, and something earned. My brother had suggested, “A trophy.”

Now that I was looking at the space where the trophy had been, correction, where both trophies had been, I felt goosebumps go down my back, and the hair on my neck started to rise.

There was a part of me that wanted to go into full on panic mode and start yelling out loud, “I know how they did it! I know how RSP works!!!”

But I didn’t. Instead something weird happened to me. It was like all the stupid petty things of the town, all the dumb things they said to us girls, all the small ways they tried to make you stay; it was like all of that stuff had built up and built up until it was a big ball of disappointment, and frustration, and anger. Most of all anger. All that stuff had built up into this huge ball. So when I noticed the missing trophies, and I knew what they meant–knew that my brother Will had hijacked Eveline’s life for his own selfish ends; knew that my father had done the same to my mother; knew that Jack Parker intended to do the same thing to me–when I understood all of those things, it was like that huge bubble had burst inside of me. And when it burst it left my mind perfectly clean and sharp, like a thousand pieces of glass.

It was weird. I mean I’m the kind of girl that has a hard time speaking up for herself, and it takes me forever to order food at a restaurant, but at that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

And I did it, which was even more surprising.

Hey Carl,” I called out, not even bothering to look around. Carl was one of my geek friends. He was smart, and thin, and most importantly of all, carried with him this huge pocket knife which he kept incredibly sharp. At school everybody knew he had the knife, but no one said anything because they also knew he would never use it. Carl was also a pacifist.

Yeah,” he called back from the line.

You still got that knife?”

He looked around like he was worried we might be overheard. Even though everybody knew he had the knife, he still liked to pretend it was a secret. “Uh, yeah,” he said softly. “Why?”

Can I barrow it for a second?” I asked.

Sure. What for?”

To stop an ancient indian curse.”

Awesome,” Martha Jones said, but the rest of the geeks went silent. Carl looked at me to see if I was kidding. My face was perfectly calm. I know because at that moment I felt absolutely nothing. “Okay,” he said, and he handed me his knife.

As soon as I had the knife in my hand I turned and started walking away.

Hey where are you going?” he asked.

I turned my body around but kept my feet moving, so I was walking backwards when I spoke. “To bargain with the old witch.”

Huh?”

Never mind. I’ll tell you when I get back.”

And that was the last I ever saw of them, at least face to face.

On the way into school that morning I had been working out my odds of leaving this town. The math was starting to look grim. Real grim. Seeing Jack’s missing trophy, knowing that night there was going to be a new moon, and knowing first hand what the old witch was capable of doing, I figured if I didn’t do something for myself then, as in right now, than this time next week I’d be washing the butt crack of a paraplegic boy and mooning over how pretty he was like a lovesick cow. And I would never, never, get out of Buzzard’s Roost.

It was that last part that was totally unacceptable.

So I figured the only way I could save myself was to head the enemy off at the pass. That is to go see the old witch myself, before Jack Parker did. I mean why should the guys get all the fun? Besides I figured if Poppa and Will could ask for unending love, and if Lew Hatchins could keep the customers always coming to his store, then it should be a synch for a witch that powerful to give me a one-way ticket out of this town.

All this I had worked out in my head, but truth me told I was too scared to do anything about it. I’m not one of those girls known for acting out. But seeing the missing trophy did something to me. I don’t know what. Made me angry I think. But it also made everything crystal clear.

Since it was a game day it meant everyone in school was at the rally. I had the halls to myself. Once I passed the corner of the gym the sounds of the band and the cheering started to fade until the loudest thing I heard was the sound of my own shoes echoing down the empty halls.

Just as I was about to leave the school I noticed a huge paper banner put up along the corridor by the pep squad. Our football team, the Buzzards Roost Lumberjacks, were playing the Burney High Tigers that night, so the banners said things like “Cut Down the Tigers,” and “Timber!” But the reason I stopped at this banner was because it had an axe in it. Someone had cleverly attached a full sized axe to the wall in the middle of the banner. I looked around to be sure the hall was empty, and then walked up to it to take a look. Sure enough it was held on with a couple of long wire ties. A few quick twists and it came free in my hands. On the backside was a Hatchins Hardware price tag. Well, it looks like I now owed the school $16.99.

I smiled as I put the axe over my shoulder. I gave it a pat and said, “You my friend are my insurance policy.” I figured I could always bring it back when I was done. I was even hoping I wouldn’t need it, but in the mean time I have to say it felt good to have it in my hands just then, familiar.

The trail up to the top of Speckerman Mountain runs near the school. Before long I left the sounds of the rally and the town behind as I made my way deeper into the woods. I noticed the trail was in fairly decent shape. I could see lots of signs of human life. An old beer bottle here, and broken branch there. There were plenty of foot prints still visible in the dirt. The trail up the hill was a popular place for kids to go when they wanted to drink and get a little bit rowdy. As I climbed higher the trail narrowed and there was less trash and foot prints, until by the time I was near the top it looked almost like a game trail. Then it made a tight turn through some thick brush and emptied into a clearing. I’d never been up here before in broad daylight, so the first thing I noticed was the lawn. At night the clearing had looked like a meadow, but in the day light I noticed there wasn’t any tall weeds, like a typical meadow, nor did I see any sign of a stream or a pond. It was all short grass. Exactly like a lawn. Across from me, right in the middle of the grass, stood a large two-story house.

I looked around. Except for a few scrub jays, which you could hear everywhere in these hills, I was alone.

From a distance the house looked tall and impressive, but as I got closer I began to notice all the details. At one point it must have been surrounded by bushes or small trees. Over the years these trees, most of them Squaw Pines, had grown until they surrounded the house. Perhaps surrounded isn’t the right word. It was more like they invaded the house, and in many areas replaced it. Standing in front you didn’t see most of this as the porch was largely untouched by the trees. Out there all you saw was wood so dark and crusty with age that there was very little sign it had once been painted. But once you stepped through the opening for the front door the trees began to take over.

Creeping past the door, I stepped into darkness. I thought at first the windows were covered by thick shades, until my eyes adjusted and I saw the windows had long ago been smashed. Branches from the trees outside had grown in through the broken glass working their way into the room blocking every window and covering the ceiling above in a fine mesh of branches. On the floor roots had grown in until they covered the old planks in a thick and twisty carpet. It felt weird stepping on the roots. They could support my weight easily enough, but walking on them felt like I was walking on someones fingers.

Outside the woods had been full of noise–the swishing or the wind as it worked its way thought the branches, the harsh call of a scrub jay, or the dry crunching of pine needles underfoot. But inside the house the sound seemed to stop, like the forest was holding its breath. Then softly I heard a noise. It sounded like someone breathing, only it sounded wrong; like rush of a thousand insects inhaling and exhaling, or the sound of a strong wind blowing through a distant pine forest. I couldn’t quite tell, but one thing was for sure: There was nothing about that sound that was the least bit human.

I looked around the room and almost immediately noticed the pattern. There simply was no other way to describe how the roots and branches grew. If you looked up close they twisted around the floor and ceiling in a seemingly random way, but when you stepped back it was obvious they were all growing towards something. It was a simply a matter of seeing where they went. Following this pattern of roots and branches I moved slowly towards the center of the house. There the pattern lead upwards to an opening on the second floor. After a moments hesitation I started up the stairs, marveling at the branch covered photos I passed on the walls. Peering between the wicker lines I saw a photo of the house and how it must have looked 100 years ago. A family was standing in front. There were 7 or 8 people but age and the darkness of the hallway made them almost illegible. I could make out a single child who must have been a girl based upon the two thick braids that came out of her head, but that was about all I could see in the dim light.

At the top of the stairs the house opened to a hall fronted by several rooms. A strange light filtered into the hall from a hole in the roof above. Down the hall I spied the outline of an ancient toilet with roots growing out of the bowl. Good thing I don’t have to pee, I thought to myself as I looked around. Only one of the rooms lay open. The others were covered by a thick pattern of tree limbs and roots. “Well, that makes it easy,” I said as I stepped towards the only open door. “I’ll take what’s behind door number one.” It came out more like a squeak, but at least I was speaking. Just before I entered the room I set the axe down, leaning it up against the wall. I figured there was no sense in trying to bargain with a witch if I was going to start the conversation with a threat.

As I stepped through the door I could tell there was something different about the room. Unlike the rest of the house, there were several pieces of furniture in here. As my eyes adjusted I started to make out details. To my right was a dresser that looked to be hand carved out of pine. To my left was a grand canopy bed, like the kind I always wanted. Thick drapes hung down from the canopy and were decorated with an intricate pattern. They surrounded all of the bed except where they were drawn back for a single opening in its center. The window was full of thin branches that swirled and twisted around each other as if they were fighting to get in. Only tiny cracks of light made it past them, but it was enough to see that the window still had all of its glass. The window was slightly open at both the top and the bottom. This offered just enough room for the slenderest of branches. Even than the branches entered the room in droves as they flowed up the ceiling or down to the floor, merging with the branches that came out of the hall, circling the room in a crazy quilt of wicker. Strangely, in here the branches stayed small and light, keeping themselves right next to the surface. There were no stray branches hanging down, or roots rising up that they might trip an unsuspecting walker. In this room at least they remained in check.

I heard a rustling sound from within the bed’s canopy so I stepped closer for a look. As I approached the bed I noticed the pattern on the thick drapes wasn’t an ancient tapestry of some sort, but the tiny inter-twinings of thousands upon thousands of small branches, all twisted and whirling together until they grew into a pattern that was beautiful and yet decidedly un-human. Tiny flowers of a color that looked to be cornflower blue grew here and there, and were so expertly woven into the fabric of the twigs that you almost couldn’t see them. On the bed I could make out what I had thought to be a rich blanket. It turned out to be woven out of the same tiny branches as the drapes. If I looked closely I could see where the branches for the blanket and the drapes curved up from the twigs on the floor, and down from those on the ceiling.

I heard more rustling from within the bed, when I saw movement I stepped back, suddenly afraid. I had come here expecting to find an ancient woman, but whatever was in that bed wasn’t human.

Then I heard a voice like the rustling of a thousand tree branches rubbing against each other. “Who’s there?” it called from the gloom in a voice that could never come from the throat of a human.

I was at that moment entirely and completely terrified. The rage I had felt that morning seemed a distant memory, and suddenly I was too afraid to move. I’m quite sure I would have stood there mutely forever if it hadn’t been for my mother. She had relentlessly drilled politeness into us kids, and even in my terrified state I found myself automatically saying, “Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but I was hoping to…hoping to….”

And that’s when my brain kicked in. How exactly does one approach a witch when they want to make a deal? It’s not the kind of question one sees in books on manners.

You came here to bargain?” the voice whispered in a thousand tiny swishes.

Ye, yes, ma’am.”

The bed creaked. A shape moved out of the darkness and into the opening of the drapes.

She was a woman, or she looked like one. That much I could make out in the gloom. Her face wasn’t just old, it was ancient. There wasn’t a square inch of her skin on it that wasn’t cracked with age. She was so wrinkled even the creases had creases. She wore what looked like a dress, but could easily have been more of the twig fabric that covered the canopy and the bed. It also was covered in tiny blue flowers. I couldn’t see much of her hands. The sleeves of her dress came down so low, but what I did glimpse looked more like twisted roots instead of fingers. Her eyes shown brightly, but were set so deep into her face that I couldn’t follow their movement. They could have been two colored marbles for all I could tell. But it was her hair that surprised me the most.

Coming from her head where these strange twisted clumps of hair. I’d only seen them on TV, but I knew what they were. They were dreadlocks. Each lock of hair was as thick as a man’s thumb and twisted in dark and light grey threads of hair, except when I looked closely they didn’t appear to he clumps of hair at all, but looked exactly like roots you see from the ever present Squaw Pine. The dreads grew up or down and eventually were lost to me to the dark of the back of the bed. I got the feeling they didn’t just hang there, but were attached to the twig fabric, or maybe I should say the twig fabric was attached to them. Tiny blue flowers were braided into her hair much in the same way Momma braided ribbons into mine.

The old woman leaned forward and looked at me as I was looking at her. “Ah,” she said in that rustling voice, “it’s the clever girl.” It sounded not as much as a surprise, but as an affirmation. I noticed her mouth didn’t open when she spoke. The sound seemed to come from deeper in her chest.

Yes, ma’am,” I said, not feeling all that cleaver at the moment.

Why did you wake me in the middle of the day, child? What is it that a clever girl wants?”

To leave,” I said.

The old woman smiled with a thousand creases. “You can leave any time you want. There’s nothing keeping you in my home.”

Not from here. From the town. From this whole area.” I made a big sweeping gesture with my arms. “I want to leave Buzzard’s Roost, and not have to come back. Not for any reason. Do you understand?”

The skin around her eyes squeezed in as if in thought. “Hum,” she rustled to the sound of branches slithering and sliding, caught up by the meaning of my words. “An unusual request, but this can be done. What have you brought me as payment?”

This,” I said as I pulled out Carl’s knife.

The old witch’s reaction was telling. She didn’t move, nor did her face change expression, but I could hear the branches on the bed behind her move and shift, and I could feel a vibration in the air as if all of the branches in the house, which is to say all of the house, was vibrating.

I pulled outwards on one of my braids with one hand, while bringing the knife up under it with the other, laying the blade close to my head with the sharp edge facing up. Slowly I applied upwards pressure into the hair with the knife, being careful not to cut my ear. The blade was so close to my ear that the knife made a crunching sound as it cut through the hair. Almost as if The Beast was speaking to me like the witch. When the knife cleared the braid, I quickly switched to the other side. Another smooth pull and I soon had both braids in my hands. They were still largely held together by the purple ribbons. They may not be trophies, but they were the next best thing. Will wasn’t the only one in the family who was a state champion.

Here,” I sad tossing them on her lap. “Something rare, something valuable, and something earned.”

I had been so focused on cutting off their braids that I hadn’t paid attention to the old woman. I looked up to see her mouth twisted into an “O” of surprise. Then she let out a keening wail that shook the entire house. “Noooo!”

Only then did I realize that a witch who’s hair grew to cover an entire house might not exactly be a fan of haircuts.

In a flash a thin branch came out from the drapes and slapped my hand holding the Carl’s knife. I heard it clutter to the floor in a dark corner. As I watched, the thin branches of the carpet surrounded the knife and pulled it under. I felt a tickling on my feet and looked down to see tiny tendrils reaching up and wrapping around my shoes. I tried to lift a foot, but it was literally rooted in place. I tried my other foot and almost fell over. The carpet of twigs on the floor was alive now with waiving tendrils. If I fell down I was pretty sure I would never get back up.

The front door slammed closed. I felt the vibrations carry through the twigs as much as I heard it. That crazy breathing sound I heard when I first came in the house became louder now and faster. The old woman looked at me, her eyes glowing with hatred. She appeared like she was about to tell me something, pronounce some grand fate. Somehow in my terror managed to find the strength to tear my feet up from the living carpet, and scramble out of the room, lifting my feet high over the grasping tendrils like I was running on hot coals.

I stopped as soon as I entered the hall. The stairway which had been a large tube surrounded by thick branches was now closed off into a giant tangle of vines. Like they had dropped down from the ceiling into some crazy kind of security system. The hallway on either side of me was the same tangle.

The breathing sound was louder out here. I stood there stunned, too afraid to move, and watched the branches slowly crept towards me from all sides.

I looked back to the room I had come from. The carpet inside was alive with waiving tendrils. I looked down and noticed they stopped right at the doorway. Then I noticed the thin vines holding the tendrils in the bedroom lead out to thicker vines in the hall. The axe still rested where I had leaned it against the wall, so I picked it up and took a hard swing at one of the thicker vines on the floor. When the axe bit into the root the old woman let out a scream.

I quickly cut the remaining vines on the floor, noting that the tendrils in the room they supported drooped and fell soon afterwords. Looking up I saw a couple of similar vines feeding up through the top of the door to the ceiling. I stepped into the room just enough, and by flipping the edge of the axe around was able to awkwardly chop the upper vines. Only then did I fully step into the room.

A few tendrils tried to trip my feet, but now that I knew what to look for I quickly followed up any movement with a quick cut to their roots. Before long the room had become still, and so had the house.

In the quiet I noticed the old witch. She laid on her back on the bed, which now looked like a like a pile of dead vines and not the fancy bed I had first seen. I could hear her labored breathing as she lay there. Her lungs sounded dry and old, like an old leather bellows that leaked with every push and pull. She was breathing so hard her toothless gums, now black with age, had pulled back into a twisted grin revealing the world’s largest overbite. Her chest heaved up and down struggling with the effort, but was obviously not up to the task. I could see the color leaving her face. Her hands lay at her side clenched into fists.

You,” she hissed between gasps. “You!” If she had more to say I never heard it. She looked so pitiful that I was tempted to use the axe to put her out of her misery, but when I raised it up all the small flowers on the bed shot out a jet of pollen that instantly caused me to go into a fit of sneezing.

I left the room again barely able to see between the sneezing and my watery eyes. The hallway had opened some, and I could tell the roots or vines or whatever were no longer under her control. Still clutching my axe I crawled and sneezed my way down the stairs, dripping snot as I moved. I made my way across the living floor room and out the front door, which was now open again if only a crack.

The light outside was blinding when I stepped onto the porch. I almost collapsed right then and there. The adrenaline from my fight with the witch had left my system and I felt tired and listless. Instead I forced myself down the steps, blocking the sun with my free hand, and quickly headed across the meadow towards the relative dark of the woods.

I stopped only after I reached the far end of the clearing, past the meadow that was cut short like a lawn. There at the edge of the woods I took stock. I was covered in tiny branches and pieces of bark, my knees and elbows were scraped and scratched, snot still dripped down my nose from whatever it was the flowers had shot at me, and I was dirty from head to toe. Still I had faced the old witch in her lair, and I had lived to tell about it.

I looked back at the house, which no longer looked menacing, just old and disheveled, and I let out a whoop that echoed through the trees. It felt really good so I let out another, then another. Then I opened my throat and yelled. “Take that you damn witch! You’re not keeping me in this town!”

I gave one last whoop of joy, wondering if this is what my brother felt when he threw a touchdown. I felt like I had just scored a hundred touchdowns, a thousand! This was so much better than winning spelling bees. It made me wonder if I should try out for the football team next year.

Looking away from the house I could just make out the town below laid out before me in its large bowl. I instantly understood why Christopher Evans built his house here. It was a lot like the view from my window. Not quite as nice but pretty darn close. The sun was just starting to drop over the shoulder of Speckerman Mountain and the light from it gave everything a rosy tint. Down below lights were just starting to come on in the town even though up here it was still bathed in light. Silly as this might sound, it was beautiful.

As I started down the trail I kept catching glimpses of Buzzard’s Roost through the trees. At one point I stopped at a stream to wash the worst of the dirt off my face and hands. By then my nose had stopped running and I was feeling pretty good, although very tired.

All down the trail to the town seemed to reveal itself like a child playing peak-a-boo. I’d go through a stretch of woods, round a corner, and there it would lay in all its splendor. Every step that brought me closer made me feel like I was one step closer to home. It was the town I always wanted, the place I always needed. By the time I reached the high school it was fully dark and I couldn’t think of a single reason why I should ever leave Buzzard’s Roost.

It was my home.

The dark got deeper as I slowly climbed the long road to our house. As the light faded so did my energy. Each step away from my town was harder than the last, every time I turned away I felt like I was leaving behind my best friend. The last stretch of our driveway felt torturous. I was leaving my love of my life. I was never going to see it again. I was doomed to be torn away from it, forever alone.

How I finally reached the house I’ll never know. The porch light was on and everyone inside was all excited. Will was on his feet, and everyone was helping Poppa take his first steps in 18 years. It was like the best party ever, only I couldn’t bare to look at them. The love of my life was right behind me and I was walking away from it. All I could do was trudge to the top of the stairs and enter my room. I immediately crossed to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool air. I gazed down upon my love, my life, and felt a deep, deep contentment.

I heard someone enter the room behind me. It was Momma. “Honey, are you okay? Your Poppa is standing!”

Yes, Momma.” I said. I could hear the concern in her voice, it was just, I couldn’t look away.

But….” She took a step closer. “What happened to your hair?”

I cut it Momma.”

But why!”

Finally I turned to look at her. “I beat the witch Momma. I killed her. I think. But I definitely beat her.”

The witch?”

The old witch, at the Evens place.”

But that’s just a story, pumpkin, and besides look at your clothes. Your arms and legs are all scratched. You look like you crawled through a bramble patch.”

I had to smile at Momma’s description. It was a good metaphor for what I had done. “Bramble patch,” I said, “something like that.”

Momma looked back at me with confusion and worry so plain on her face it was as if she had written the words there. I wanted to explain to her about metaphor, but a strange fatigue came over me. A tiredness like I’ve never felt before. It was like all of my bones had suddenly decided they were going to turn to jello.

Are you sure you’re okay, honey? You look pale.”

Just tired,” I said, although it came out sounding like a slur. “Is…all.”

I made my way to my bed, moving backwards because I found I couldn’t bare to look away again from my lovely home town. Momma took my arm and helped me lay down.

Need to sleep,” I slurred as I slowly fell backwards. “Need to….” I was out before my head hit the pillow.

Two thing happened after that: I slept and my hair grew.

The sleeping was caused by “the waisting disease” which is the name they used for whatever it was I got. I spent most of my time in bed, eating just enough to stay alive, but not one bite more. I grew thiner and thiner, while The Beast grew longer and longer. At first Momma tried to brush the Beast and braid it like she used to do, but eventually it got so long and so difficult that even she had to give up. While I was sleeping the only thing that would wake me for sure was to block my view of the town out my window, or to attempt to cut my hair. Even entering the room with a pair of scissors would set me off.

The Beast grew in piles and then in drifts like snow, until it fell off the bed, gathered on the floor, and then slipped through the floorboards into the house itself. While this happened, the house grew darker and darker. It had never been in great shape, and now with only casual care, it fell into disrepair. Our garden became a jungle, the forest reclaimed the barn and then most of the house.

In the beginning I woke up maybe once a day, but after a while the intervals between waking grew longer and longer. Each time I opened my eyes more and more time would have passed. I slept for weeks at a time, then months, and finally even years. I slept though the school year, slept through Eveline moving to her cousin’s apartment in Frisco, I slept through my parent’s divorce and Momma moving out, slept through the worst of my dad’s drinking, and even slept through his funeral. I slept through the day Will moved out, and the day Charles finished high school. I slept through the day he left town to work for a gaming company in Sacramento. I slept though the countless nurses that came and went. Every time I woke it seemed a new one would be there. I got to the point where I could no longer remember their names. When I was awake I learned to quit asking what had happened outside while I slept. Each time I asked the outside world seemed more and more unreal, while my dreams became more and more real.

Eventually the money ran out for the nurses. By then I wasn’t eating at all, and yet continued to go on dreaming.

Through all of this it was my dreams that kept me going. In my dreams I grew until I surrounded the lives of the people of my beloved town. I could see into their houses, look into their rooms. At first it was just a few homes, but slowly, inch by inch, the dream expanded until finally there wasn’t a house in the whole valley I didn’t know. Their worries were my worries. Their joys were my joys. I saw their lives, felt their pain, thrilled when they found new love, cried when someone died. My love became my life, my dreams became filled with their dreams, until there was no point that they and I were not linked.

Then one night, on the night of a new moon, I dreamed of a desperate young man. A girl he loved had left him and he was frantic to get her back. At the darkest part of the night, while everyone else in my town was asleep, I felt him climb my hill, stepping on my many roots, until he entered my house. Then he climbed my stairs, and walked into my room.

Then I woke up.

END

 

A snippet of an idea

He died before he could defuse the bomb of his passing.

I woke up this morning with this snippet of an idea in my head. Its not meant to be directed at any one person or thing, just a piece of language looking for a story to attach itself to. Its birth can probably be traced to the shot of whiskey and the late night conversation I had by chance with a neighbor last night who is a 23 year-old horror movie director.

The problem with the neighbor

Lets say you and your family move to a new town. Its a small town, and prosperous, with a tight community and good schools. The kind of place most parents would like to raise their children.

The house you buy is a nice one. Its on a good street, with lots of other homes of similar value. Most of the neighbors have kids in the same schools your kids will be going to, and they all share similar values, attend the same churches, are at the same socio-economic level, etc. Though you come from a different state your neighbors do a good job of making you feel welcome and at ease. Everyone in your family agrees, they feel like they belong there.

Right next door to your new house is a prosperous family with deep connections to the community. The owner of this home, your neighbor, is the owner of a factory that employs about 20% of the community. He is well liked by everyone you meet. His factory sponsors many of the local sports teams for children, baseball, soccer, football, etc, and he himself often coaches these teams, although he is happy to step-aside if someone else would like to coach instead. His wife keeps a good house and is socially active in the community (she’s on the PTA, is a board member of the church, raises funds for the volunteer fire department, etc.). Their children are polite and well behaved, which you notice every time they visit to play with your kids, or when your kids go to their house to play. Moreover the children are always supervised well, so much so that you always feel your children are safe when around them.

Then one day one of their kids come over to your house and you notice some bruises on his arm. There are four of them, a series of circles going up his arm in a line about a half inch apart, each one the size of an adult’s fingertip. Since you came from a rough part of town, you have a good idea of the cause, this is the classic indication of a grab mark. You ask to see the inside of the child’s arm, and there you find a fifth circular bruise that perfectly matches the placement of a thumb.

About a week later, another one of their children is over playing at your house and you notice a similar pattern of bruising. You don’t want to alarm the child so you don’t point it out, but later that night you talk to your spouse about it. You both agree this might be a worrying trend, but you’d rather be sure before you say anything. After all kids often play rough, and can sometimes bruise themselves like this.

A few weeks later your spouse tells you that your neighbor’s wife showed up at a PTA meeting with a black eye. She’d covered the bruise up with make-up, as good as she could, but it made people uncomfortable in the room. Everyone pretended as if it wasn’t there.

That’s when you start to cautiously talk to your other neighbors about the bruises. At first most people are reticent to talk to you, after all you are an outsider in their community, but after a while they start to open up. You hear stories about when your neighbor was a boy and in high school that are worrying. They seem to indicate a pattern of violence. There are rumors that he was arrested several time for assault, but then let go because his father was the mayor.

Some of the stories you hear are so outlandish that you’re pretty sure they are fiction. They’re the kind of stories that are spread by people who are jealous of another’s power or position. But some of the stories you hear are disturbing in their detail. They sound to your ear much more factual. To make matters more difficult the town is divided about the issue. Some people you talk to readily believe your neighbor is a monster, while others are equally sure the man is innocent and is being framed by outsiders for nefarious purposes. Though you try to remain as neutral and as objective as possible you discover that just bringing up the topic is enough to place you in one camp or the other. Worse still, you hear rumors that the local police, the local schools, and members of your church, have actively harassed the families of anyone who asks too much. So just trying to gather reliable data is enough to see you and your family hounded out of the community.

Meanwhile, your children continue to play with your neighbor’s kids, your spouse continues to work in the community, and you still have a job to do and the ever present need to pay the mortgage. Your family is entrenched in the community, is prospering by all accounts, and has never been harmed by your neighbor. The victims of his actions have never come forward and claimed to be injured. No one you know, including yourself, have witnessed your neighbor committing a violent act since he became an adult, but at the same time you’ve gathered enough evidence to be sure there could be no other source. The bruises not only line up exactly with his hands, they also sometimes show ring marks that are consistent with only him. If you were a prosecutor you would have sufficient evidence to prove a case against your neighbor to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” yet if your also equally aware that if you tried the man in this small tight-nit community you could never find a jury that would convict him.

So what do you do? At what point is the evidence sufficient for you to say something? If you do nothing, people will be harmed. If you do something, you and your family will probably be harmed. What do you do?

Story: In The Root

A little something for your weekend.

I wrote In The Root way back in 2010, did some work on it in 2011, and again in 2012. Then it sat on my computer. At 18k words its pretty long, as in novella length. Too long to even bother trying to sell to a paper magazine.

I read a lot of action adventure stuff, mostly military sci-fi, and this is all that. The basic premise came from a friendship that started on an old forum I used to frequent: A liberal who became good friends with a conservative over their common interest in RC airplanes. But that was just about the relationship between the two main male characters. The idea of growing giant tunnels (as opposed to making them), came from an Alan Dean Foster novel I read many years ago called Sentenced To Prism. Everything else comes from places as obscure as the Aeneid (the protagonist’s name is no accident), to as prosaic as Robert Heinlein’s The Roads Must Roll.  So I guess that means this story’s pedigree is 100% mutt.

The story is pure action adventure with ex-military construction workers caught in the middle of a looming war while being shafted by their idiotic company. It features an ignorant war-seeking President, gratuitous sex, and a reasonably high body count. Basically, if you’ve got a political axe to grind, whether liberal or conservative, I put a target in there for you to root against.

Quite a few of my friends ended up making a cameo in this story, unbeknownst to them. If you see your name in here, all I can say is “surprise.”

Plan on taking 25-40 minutes to read it.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The dream came back to Virgil seven days into his vacation. The very night he got the urgent email from the company, demanding his return.

The dream always started the same. He was working the line with the crew. Forester was in the lead, Whitby behind him. The crack in the wall was long, maybe 20 meters, and wide enough to stick his fist in. The wall around it looked wrong, diseased. The edges crumbling to the touch, the wood discolored for several meters.

Foundme plants, named for their exceptional ability to find the least bit of sea water, had colonized the crack. Their thick leather like leaves designed for an arid desert were bloated from excess water. Their fat roots wedged themselves into the crack, forcing it wider. A chemist on loan from Harrison was supposed to come by, but his jeep broke down near nodule 5.2. They were on their own.

Virgil grabbed the beat-up ultra sound machine, and ran an image of the wall, while Forester ripped the foundme plants out of the crack with his spike. The depth kept coming up short by about 10 meters, the image murky by the inclusion of seawater in the wall itself. The wall, the living breathing plant that made up the tunnel, and the only thing protecting them from the several thousand tons of ice cold sea water around them, was falling apart. Not good. Not good at all.

Then he heard the sound.

The plants around him were swaying their leaves, like a slow motion video of a man flailing their arms. The more mobile plants were actually moving from the crack; picking up their roots, and undulating away. The combined motion was enough make its own sound, a shooshing and a swhishing sound, not unlike a strong wind in a pine forest. Only there was never wind in the tunnel, save the day long slow inhale and exhale of the Root.

“Hey,” he yelled to his crew. “Everybody stop what you’re doing. I need it quiet here.”

The crew stopped moving, and turned to him, wordlessly. Forester was leaning on his spike, panting. His overalls grimy, his hard hat scratched, and gouged like his boots. Whitby sat behind him, his grey hair dirty as he quietly rechecked the readouts on the ultra-sound. The rest were scattered about, mostly standing. Silent.

“Can you hear that,” Virgil asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

The crew looked around, noticing the jungle’s odd behavior. They were all seasoned veterans. Many had taught him how to read the jungle; to pay attention to the plants around them. “The Root knows,” they would say, though often to make fun of their new boss. From the looks on their faces, he could tell they were worried too. This crack was bad. The jungle knew it. They knew it.

“I think its time,” he said over the noise of the plants, “that we got the hell out of here. Like NOW!”

Standard procedure for an imminent breech called for radio warning first, followed by an immediate evacuation. Virgil picked up his radio. “Whisky, whisky two niner. We have a bad situation here. The wall depth is less than 15 meters, and falling. The jungle is acting… its going crazy.” He paused, realizing he sounded panicked. He took a calming breath, and continued, “I believe a breech is imminent. I repeat, I believe a breech is imminent.”

The ground below them shook. The crew looked at each other, dropped their tools, and starting running for the van.

He had just reached the vehicle himself when the wall broke; the crack imploding violently. Water, plants, and pieces of Root — some of them the size of tree trunks — came flying towards the men like an avalanche turned on its side.  Forester was swept up from behind, his hard hat flying ahead of him. Whitby came next, his mouth open, his face a mask or terror.

Virgil had just enough time to grab his resuscitator, and put it in his mouth when the wave engulfed him. In an instant he was under; one second breathing air, the next 20 meters underwater, and all of it ice cold. Dark shapes loomed and swooped around him, tossing him about like the inside of the world’s largest clothes washing machine.

The violent wave front swept passed, suspending them, leaving them floating in a green-grey watery world, like the inside of a snow-globe after it had been violently shaken and then set down. Plants, and broken Root pieces floated by as he slowly drifted with them down to the bottom. He saw the flash of something metal in the murky water — one of his crew, tossed around like a rag doll, his now useless resuscitator still stuck in his back pocket. The larger pieces of Root started to fall, their massive weight made evident only if they settled on you. The snowstorm of jungle and Root, flung about by the breech, was dropping all around him. Burying him in its ceaseless embrace.

The last thing Virgil saw floating in the water was his father. The old admiral’s iconoclastic long grey hair swirling around him; his eyes piercing. He was trying to talk, trying to tell Virgil something. Something urgent. Then a plant covered Virgil’s face, and the old man was lost from his view.

The resuscitator, activated by the pressure of the water, started to squirm and wiggle. Virgil could feel its threads slowly wrap around the back of his neck, covering his face, and squirming their way down his body. Its back end was waving around, seeking one of the EHPS roots which had popped up off the floor like eels on the ocean bottom. The resuscitator slowly forced open his mouth, like a lover spreading his teeth with her tongue. The weight of the detritus pinned him to the floor on his back, one arm stuck uncomfortably under his right hip, the biting cold making him numb; listless. His brain was telling at him to move, to scream, but he was pinned down to the ground, and the relentless cold was sucking his energy. His vision started to grey, turning black at the edges.

He could feel something move in his mouth, something soft, something wet. It was a vine coming from the resuscitator. Just as he was drifting off, he could feel the wet vine drop down into his throat, and start to enter his lungs.

 

He woke up screaming.

Jessie was there already, her warm arms around him, whispering into his ear. As usual the nightmare had left him dripping in sweat, clammy, and shaking. His legs were tied up in the sheets, his hands touching his face, making sure nothing was blocking mouth. He took in several deep breaths, and started to relax. The panic ebbing with each easy breath. In his ear he could here Jessie whisper over and over, “You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay.” She must have been saying this for the last minute, but it was only now that he could hear her.

Jessie smoothed his forehead with her hand, pushing back the longer threads of thinning hair now lightly peppered with grey. She leaned over and kissed him on his brow, her naked breast pressed up against his arm.

“Bad this time?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “I saw dad. In the water. He was trying to tell me something. Something important. Only…” he shrugged his shoulders.

Jessie made a hum of sympathy, and kissed him gently again. Patient as always. “It’s been a while since the last one,” she said.

“Six months,” he said. “Maybe longer.”

“Do you think,” she asked, “if it has something to do with the funeral?”

He shrugged his shoulders. They had buried the admiral yesterday. Practically the whole base, and half of D.C. had come out to pay their last respects. The funeral was typical of his father; plenty of pomp and show, and almost no time for the family. Even in his coffin, the old man seemed to scowl.

“Do you really have to go back already? Back in there?” she asked, hugging him to take any sting out of her words.

On the very first day of his much needed vacation, the day he had come out of the root, they had received the call from the hospital. By the time they arrived there was nothing anyone could do except hold the old man’s hand, and hope for a response. The next morning he was gone. Typical of the company, it offered Virgil bereavement days, but only if they didn’t coincide with vacation days. Five days later, on the day of his father’s funeral, they sent him an urgent email demanding his return.

Unbidden a scrap of a poem he had memorized in High School came to him:

Trojan, Anchises’ son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labour indeed.

“What did you say?” Jessie asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “just a random thought.” He sat up in bed, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Yes,” he said quietly, “I have to go back. You know I do. I can’t think of why. The damn thing’s so close to done that it might as well be, but you never can tell when the company is involved. They seem to be especially talented at out-fooling anything that is foolproof.”

She snuggled up under his arm. “I know,” she said, “Its just…”

“I know,” he said. “I wish it was over too.”

Jessie was used to being a Navy widow, and prided herself on raising their kids on “spirit and spit,” as she liked to say. But what she did not say in public, or even around close family, was that she needed a break from being the sole parent as much as he needed one from his work. It was only when they were alone, the kids asleep in the other room, that she would say anything. And every time it broke his heart, although they both knew there was nothing either one could do.

“Soon” he said.

“Yes,” she replied with a sigh. “Very soon.”

Then she smiled, and lazily traced a line with a finger from his lips down the skin of his chest, and further – her hand coming to a stop on his inner thigh. “In the mean time,” she said. “Captain Virgil Davis Hammond, is hereby sentenced to comfort his poor wife for waking her up in the middle of the night, like some lowly middy.”

“This sounds serious,” he said as he leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips. “I take it, not just any comfort will do.”

“Oh no,” she said as she leaned into his embrace. “I have a very specific comfort in mind.”

“Are you sure?” he said teasingly, “I can call one of my middies if you like.”

“Oh no,” she whispered in his ear. “This comfort is reserved only for officers.”

“Officer? But madam. I appear to be out of my proper uniform.”

“For what I have in mind,” she whispered in his ear, “out of uniform is the proper uniform.”

 

The next morning Virgil found himself on a crowded train platform hurriedly trying to say goodbye to his family. The kids were already bored, and Jessie was tired from the night before. In the mad rush of the morning packing, nobody noticed his hands starting to shake. He made his goodbyes quickly, and got on the 10:30 train. 30 minutes later, hands digging into the arms on his seat and wishing he could have a drink, he watched the dark blur; the smooth bark of the airless high-speed tunnel zoom past his window at 640 kilometers per hour.

The tunnel, or the “Root” as it was called by the men who worked in it, was the longest construction project ever made by man. It stretched from the tip of New York’s Long Island, all the way to Plymouth in the U.K.. Counting the 34 floating seedpods, themselves the size of a small town, the Root spread some 5500 kilometers; the vast majority of which was built well below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

Only not one centimeter of it was built. It was all grown.

The inside of the Root was huge, large enough for several rail lines (including the airless high-speed tunnel Virgil was riding in). It held bike trails, footpaths, campsites, roads, hotels, and even a few massive casinos in three of the pods. The entire length was supposed to be opened to the public next month. By then, it was said, a man could hike or bike in comfort, all the way from the U.S. to England. That is, Virgil thought bitterly, if there was anyone left in the current political situation who wanted to.

What the company brochures rarely mentioned was that the inside of the Root, throughout its entire length, with exception of the inside of the high-speed tunnel, was completely carpeted, from one end to the other, in a lush semi-tropical jungle. All of the plants in the Root, including the Root wall itself, were genetically modified to act as one giant ever adapting highly complex ecosystem. So complex in fact, that no one exactly knew what it was doing at any one time or place. Plants could combine, their DNA replicating, in all kinds of surprising ways, and they often did. It was both a living eden, and a mad hatter’s dream. And the amazing thing was, this is precisely how it was intended to work.

 

After slightly more than 4 hours, the high speed train dropped Virgil off at Pod 16, which was the last completed stretch of the airless track on the American side of the Root. He dropped down to the next level, and caught the cargo train out to Pod 17. The Root connected to the English side of the tunnel was already complete. The last bits of the interior system of tracks and roads on the American side were being installed, the difficult airless high-speed rail being the last. The English had stopped their end at nodule 17.1, just shy of Pod 17, the middle most Seedpod. Ostensibly so the American’s could claim they grew the larger share of the tunnel, even though every one knew Harrison industries was an English company, and the majority of the technology to make the Root systems, including all of the genetically modified plants, were under English copyright law.

When Virgil arrived at the village commissary, he was tired, hungry, and in a foul mood. No one had greeted him at the Pod 17 station, and the light duty electric vehicles were all taken. He had been forced to slog his heavy bag through two miles of mud to the temporary camp where the workers slept and ate. The cool dry air inside the commissary felt great on his skin after his humid hike. By chance he had stepped into the diner line right behind Sibyl, the main secretary for the project. He reached up and gently tapped her on the shoulder. She quickly turned around, her face flashing from neutral to surprise as she recognized his him.

“Hey, Virge,” she said with a smile. “What’s ya doing here?”

Virgil set his bag down with a thump. “Dunno,” he said. “I got an urgent email telling me to catch the next fast train, so I did. I just walked in from the station. Didn’t anyone tell you I’d be coming?”

“Nope,” she said with a frown. “If I’d known I would have sent someone to fetch you. I’m sorry you had to walk, but it sure is nice to have you back.” The last part she said with a smile.

“Thanks,” he said. “I would say its nice to be back…”

“But you’d hate to lie,” Sibyl finished for him. “Yes, we know. How are the kids? Jessica?”

“Good and good.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your father,” she added, putting a hand on his shoulder in support. “That must have been rough.”

“Thanks, Sibyl,” he said gruffly. “It was, but its over now, and I think I have work to do. Do you happen to know where my crew is?”

“Sure,” she said pulling out at her ever present tablet, and manipulating the screen. “It looks like they just finished up the e-hap vine at 17.1, up next to the nodule wall. Right in front of the Brits, or so it looks,” she said as she zoomed in on an image. “Spitting on the enemy do you suppose?”

“Ha. More like swapping out some of that mule piss of ours for some real beer. Besides, you don’t believe all that ‘enemy’ talk to you?”

“Enemy? Hardly,” she said. “You know I did marry me a Brit once.”

“And…”

“And, he’s the best ex husband I ever had.”

They both laughed at this. Sibyl was tough as nails, and sharp as a tack. If half of what she said were true, she also had more ex-husbands than Virgil had dates.

He slung his drop bag over his shoulder and grabbed a food tray. They both loaded up their plates, careful to not slow down the line. They were just getting their drinks from the large refrigerated area further down, when Virgil remember something. “Almost forgot,” he said. “Something’s up with the company network. That, or my tablet. Do you know what that’s about? I can find outside sites no problem, but my tablet won’t pick up anything local.”

“Oh,” she said with a frown. Her first impulse was to reach for her tablet, but between her tray and her drink, her hands were full. “The company redid all the local network passwords yesterday,” she said looking for a place to conveniently set down her tray. “They were all hush-hush about it too. Um, let me see if I can send you yours.”

“That’s okay,” he said. He had just seen Rick Martinez, the man who ran his crew whenever he wasn’t around. “I think I can get it from Rick.”

“Are you sure?” she asked to be polite. She had stopped looking for a place to set down her tray down, and was heading towards her favorite table on the other side of the tent.

“Positive,” he said, walking behind her for a moment. “Hey, how come the password changes? Did they get another hack?”

“Nope,” she said over her shoulder, slowing down as they walked between tables. “There was some big to-do when Rogers showed up. Lots of suits and stuff. Making scary noises after security arrived and looked at our press area.”

“What’d Larry think of that?” he asked. Larry Simmons was their local communications/network expert.

“I don’t know,” Sibyl said. “He’s not here.”

“How about Johnston?” Charlie Johnston was Virgil’s nominal boss, although he tended to leave the captain and his crew to their own devices.

“He’s still on vacation as well,” she said.

“Victor?” Virgil asked, working his way up the company ladder.

“Nope.”

“Cummings?”

“Nope.”

“How about Lakey? He’s always here.”

“Nope. He’s not here either.”

“You mean to tell me, everyone in management is gone?” They had paused in the middle of an intersection of tables, disbelief in his voice. “Who’s in charge then?”

“Me,” she said brightly while stopping to look at him.

“Oh, I knew that,” he said with a smile. “I meant who’s pretending to work while you handle everything.”

She looked around to make sure they wouldn’t be overheard, then stepped closer, lowering her voice. “That would be Rogers. Him and whoever else he brought in from the blue world. Believe it or not, it was Lakey’s idea. He wanted to get the bosses rested up for the ceremony next month, so he put all of you on vacation at the same time. This place runs itself at this point, and he figured it would better for you guys to get your vacation pay before anything happened.”

“Anything?” He asked in a quite voice. “Why do I not like the sound of that?”

“You know a war with England is possible, right?”

He nodded his head.

She continued, “I would even go so far as to say it is likely, if the President has his way.”

“Please,” Virgil said. “Don’t remind me. I got to hear his saber rattling all last week. Funny how 2500 kilometers of tunnel tends to separate one from all that noise.”

“Don’t care for the 24 hour news cycle?” she asked.

“Not when I’m working with the guys the President wants to fight,” he said. “Harrison Industries may be only marginally more efficient then our government, and the limeys do take some time to get used to, but still they’re usually more helpful than our own company when it comes to getting things done. Look how much sooner they finished their end of the tunnel.”

This was a sore spot within the company, and the U.S. government. Harrison Industries had started later, and yet finished months sooner then their American counterpart. The press tried to play up the fact that the American side was longer, and thus took more time, but the crew who actually worked in the Root knew this to be bullshit.

“Now you’re starting to sound like one of those angry Anglophiles,” she teased, as she turned her body.

“Me?” said Virgil. “Not hardly. I just happen to think they brew a better beer. That’s hardly an Anglo trait. In fact I think it’s an Irish one.”

She laughed over her shoulder as she walked away. Virgil turned and headed for Rick, knowing if they weren’t already there, the rest of the crew would soon be.

 

Virgil was just setting his tray down when Rick looked up. “As I live and breathe,” Rick said. “Look what the cat drug in boys.”

There was a chorus of greetings from the crew as Virgil unslung his heavy drop bag, and set it on the empty table.

Hedrick was in the middle of another story, so Virgil ate his diner quietly, enjoying the moment. Dove, Jenkins and the rest of the crew sat in rapt attention, their heads all bent toward Hedrick, their mouths chewing almost in unison. When he finished, they all laughed, and slapped in him the back. Then Jenkins said aloud what most of them were thinking. “So when are you going to share your stories with more then just e-hap?” He asked.

Hedrick suddenly hunkered down, looking more embarrassed than happy.

“I’m serious,” Jenkins continued.

There were several murmurs of assent, then silence. As the quiet grew, the men turned their eyes towards Rick. He in turn looked towards Virgil and raised an eyebrow; clearly an unspoken question. Curious at how Rick would respond, Virgin nodded his head slightly towards Hedrick, as if to say, “go ahead.”

“I think,” said Rick, “that Hedrick will share his stories with the rest of the world, when he is damn good and ready to. And not a moment before.”

Hedrick looked relieved, and the tension at the table died immediately.

Virgil slid his tray aside, and pulled out his tablet. “So,” he said to no one in particular, “How’s the vine going?”

There was an instant chorus of groans and cat-calls. Virgil waited. Jenkins again, was the first to speak what they were all thinking.

“It’s a right dog’s breakfast, that one is,” said the rough spoken Aussie. Several members of the crew nodded their heads.

“So, not the just regular snafu?” Virgil asked.

Jenkins shook his head. “Not by half sir. They got us pulling out the vine, sir. Right after we put the damn thing into the wall.”

Virgil’s eyes must have gone wide as Rick spoke in Jenkin’s defense. “It’s true, Skipper” he said. “They told us to pull out the vine, just after we had finished linking it up. Damnedest thing I ever seen. I double-checked twice, just to be sure it wasn’t some kind of prank. The orders were legit.”

Rick’s voice had been calm, but there was a hint of anger underneath. Something else too, but Virgil couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Rick was usually defensive about their work, and was known to be a real fire-breather when provoked, but right now he seemed calm, almost relaxed. As he was thinking, Virgil noticed the rest of the table was silent; the crew looking at him; expecting. Then it hit him.

“You’re up to something,” he said quietly, pride mingling with fear in his chest. “Aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.

The men at the table waited, tense. Rick looked down, and brought his hand to his mouth to cough.

“Uh, well, sir. I figured Brock and Daniels might have themselves a midnight walk tonight,” Rick spoke to the table, not making eye contact with his boss. “It being such a perfect night for a stroll and all.”

Brock was the fastest fitter on the crew. Everyone knew this. He had a casual way with the jungle that the rest of the crew envied. Sending him out made perfect sense. But Daniels, that was an interesting choice. Virgil had always suspected the quiet and dark man had once done field work for some kind of agency, and not the “nice” kind of field work either. He had very careful hands, and eyes that seemed to hold secrets; dark secrets.

Virgil smiled, “Yes,” he said. “I can see that. The perfect night for it in fact.”

He waited a moment, and then continued in a more serious tone, “Did anyone think to inform Dude? We might not want to surprise our friends on the other side of the nodule.”

The looming war had made regular communications between the English and American sides of the Root all but impossible. Like hundreds of men before them, the e-hap crew had created a way around the blockage. Dude was the nickname the crew used for the e-hap specialist on the English side of the Root. They didn’t know his real name, and it was never offered. Dude liked to effect a Californian delivery whenever he talked with the Americans, and liberally peppered his sentences with “dude”, as if this would cover his rather prominent east-end accent. Virgil could care less how the man spoke, as long as the e-hap system was up and running. The thought of so many people working on the Root without an emergency protection system made him shudder in horror. If he had to break a few rules to ensure the safety of those around him, he would do so. Without a qualm.

Dove, the normally quiet communications specialist spoke up. “Um, it’s all taken care of, sir.”

Virgil raised an eyebrow. “Should I ask?”

Dove looked thoughtful for a moment. “Probably not sir,” he said quietly.

Virgil glanced at Rick. His crew chief gave him a nod. That was all he needed. Some things were better for the boss to not know.

That reminded him of something else. Virgil slid his tablet next to his beer. “I have a problem, Dove,” he said to the networking specialist, “I’m hoping you can solve. Ever since I got back, I can’t get into the company network.”

“Ah,” Dove said. “The new security protocol.”

“Good, then you know,” Virgil said. “Can you fix it?”

Dove shrugged. “We all got new passwords yesterday, but you didn’t get one, right?”

Virgil nodded.

“Well, when they arrived, I thought something about mine looked familiar,” he said with growing animation. “So I ran a few tests on it. Turns out the password was just a simple variation on my login name, after turning it into hex, of course, and rounding up the odd integers to the next highest prime.”

“Uh,” Virgil said. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that again. This time in English?”

Dove gave him the same look he gave to all lesser mortals when talking about the more esoteric aspect of his job. “Let me see if I can say this in a way you’ll understand,” he said without any obvious condescension. The rest of the guys at the table rolled their eyes. It was a common phrase. “The company needed to redo their security, only for some reason they needed to do it quickly, globally, and for everybody. With me so far?”

Virgil nodded.

“So rather than replacing each and every password, they made up a simple fix instead. They remade everybody’s password, based on their login name, and – get this – using the same algorithm, every time.”

“So…” said Virgil, not getting Dove’s meaning.

“So,” said Dove. “This is amateur hour 101. A fix like this leaves a pretty obvious trail. Anyone with half a brain could find the pattern, turn it around, and hack our network. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.” He sat back, managing to look both shocked and smug.

“So,” said Virgil carefully. “Does that mean you can help me to login?”

“Oh, that,” said Dove. “I think so, but I don’t know for sure. Here,” he said doing something on his tablet. A new file appeared on Virgil’s tablet named Charon. “Run that. It should generate a password for you. Just copy it to your net. prefs., and hit return.”

Virgil started the file. “Charon?” he asked, thinking all the while that what Dove had just done, transferring a file to an authorized tablet, was technically not possible.

“Don’t ask,” Dove said. He had a habit of giving his files the most obscure of names.

Virgil ran the app, and entered his name. It returned a long string of random looking number and letters. He pasted them into his network preferences, and suddenly he was in.

“Hot damn,” he said. “Looks like it works. Thanks, Dove. You’re a genius.”

“Just doing my job,” Dove replied with a shy smile. “Just doing my job.”

 

 

That night, the nightmare came to Virgil again, only this time more real, more vivid. Like the night before, he saw his father drift by in the murky water. The old Admiral had the same urgent look on his face, the same long grey hair swirling around him. This time, by carefully reading his lips, Virgil could just make out his father’s words, “the top branch. Take the top branch,” before the swirl of plants and debris obscured him.

Virgil woke up alone in his tent, throat raw from screaming and drenched in sweat. Why the admiral, he wondered? Why now? It just didn’t make any sense. And what in the world did “take the top branch” mean? He supposed it would be nice if he could step down into the dark pit of hell where they kept the old bastard, and ask the man himself. The problem was, even if he could go down that path Virgil wasn’t sure he would know what to say when he got there.

He could feel the dark walls of the Root calling him. The old fear always came back with the dark. He swallowed hard, and looked around his tent for something, anything. Then he laughed at himself and rolled out of bed, knowing sleep was no longer an option, at least for that night. On a hunch he checked Rick’s connection. Sure enough he saw a message sent from Daniels with a 3:30 time-stamp. It contained a single word. “Done”.

At least that went well, he thought. Then pulling out his tablet, he began to look though the network, trying to discover what else had been changed in his absence.

 

 

“Morning, Rick,” Virgil said as he handed the man a cup of coffee. Rick’s eyes were just slits, his hair tousled. The younger man had just managed to get his legs over the side of the bed, when Virgil entered his tent.

“Hey boss,” Rick squeezed out as his stretch turned into a yawn. “What’s up?”

Virgil hand him his tablet. It showed a map for the area around Pod 17. “Do you know anything about this,” he asked, his hand pointing to a flashing part on the tablet?

Rick took a sip of hot coffee, and winced at the strength. “Hum,” he said, holding up the tablet. “That doesn’t look right.” He was looking at a grid of all the various communications lines running through the Root.

Because the Root was grown, and not made, a certain amount of redundancy was built into its systems. This included the hardwiring of the communications. Everything from the internet to telephony were passed through any number of various cables that had been grown into the Root. This insured that communication could continue in the event of an unlikely emergency, or that they would continue after an evolutionary change in a local habitat, which was much more likely. Because the e-hap line had its own specific cable, the crew didn’t usually worry about the rest of communications. The e-hap system was designed to protect humans in the case of an emergency. It happened to tie into the regular communications systems, but only at every Pod. This was considered enough redundancy. Virgil had suggested they tie the e-hap cable into the rest of the communications system at every nodule, but the company had refused his request sighting the extra cost. Theoretically, either system could work on any cable, but that was logistically too difficult to implement in practice.

On Virgil’s map, Rick could trace the whole array of cables, both for communications and for e-hap. Most of the them – maybe 50 or 60 it was hard to count with blurry eyes – were colored red, indicating they were not in use. Only a single cable in Pod 17 was glowing the blue of “in use.” Rick absently scrolled the map, tracing the blue line as he sipped his coffee.

The entire Root was divided into 34 floating seedpods, each about 100 kilometers apart. The sections of the Root between each seedpod were again divided into 19 nodules, each approximately 5 kilometers apart. These nodule breaks acted as a protective barrier, a sort of airlock. They were primarily used during the construction of the Root as a safe wall for the workers to sleep behind while the Root was grown. When the Root was completed up to the next nodule, then the crew would grow new dwellings into the wall, and then move all their belongings forward from the last nodule. Thus the Root was completed 5 kilometers at a time. These nodule breaks not only provided a protective barrier, they also were used as storehouses for the various chemicals and nutrients needed to help the Root grow. Since the company never liked to invest in anything without a return, the left over crew housing at each nodule were later converted into hotels, emergency dwellings, or storage.

As Rick scrolled along the map, he could see that 20 or more blue cables were in use from the Long Island terminus all the way up to nodule 16.19, which was the last nodule before Pod 17. After nodule 16.19 there was just a single blue line running from nodule 16.19 through Pod 17, and up to nodule 17.1. More importantly, the e-hap cable, the very system that provided emergency protection to the hundreds of humans living in Pod 17, also was red after 16.19. Someone or some thing had cut it. Perhaps it was intentional.

Rick handed back the tablet. “I don’t know, skipper,” he said. “I’ve never seen that display before, the communications one.”

“Does your tablet have access to the communications cable array,” Virgil asked?

“Not that I know of. I only see the e-hap array.”

“Hum,” said Virgil. “Maybe it’s only available to directors or higher.” Virgil then pointed to the red e-hap cable running through Pod 17. “Do you suppose this has anything to do with Dove’s little fix?”

Rick shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno. I’d have to ask…”

“Ask who,” a woman’s voice interrupted?

Virgil spun around to see who had interrupted. Rick shot up so fast he spilled hot coffee on his chest.

A woman was standing in the tent entrance. She had long dark hair, a pretty smile, and dressed as if she was going on a safari. A safari with stylish high-heels. She was young, but the way she rested her hands on her hips suggested a confidence rare for her age. Her comfortable stare revealed a shrewd intelligence behind sharp eyes. This was a woman used to getting her way.

“What the…” Rick yelled, ineffectively brushing burning coffee off his bare chest.

“Who in the hell…” Virgil said, taking a second to get over his surprise, “are you?”

“Amanda,” the woman said, holding out her hand. “Amanda Waters. Reuters.”

“Oh” said Rick, as if that explained her presence.

Virgil leaned over and took her hand. “Virgil Hammond,” he said. “A bit early for reporters, isn’t it?”

“Late actually,” she said. “I took the last train out.

Virgil looked at her for a moment thinking. There was something about her accent that bothered him. “Pardon me for asking,” he said, “but why the hell are you here?”

“I’ve been asking that myself,” she said. “Ever since I got to the station, and found no car waiting for me.” She pulled out her notebook. The back and sides were covered with stickers, layer upon layer. Many worn down from use.

“I received this,” she said, turning her notebook around to show Virgil an email, “yesterday. Under the circumstances, I thought it was, uh, interesting. When I got to the camp, the main office was closed, so I went looking for your tent. Since you weren’t there either, someone kindly suggested I check here. So here I am.”

Virgil looked at the email. It was an invitation for one Amanda Waters, of Reuters News Agency, to come to Pod 17 and see the work of the e-hap crew. It mentioned Virgil’s name specifically. To his untrained eye, the email looked legitimate. He just wish he knew who had sent it, because it sure as hell didn’t come from him.

He smiled and held up Amanda’s tablet. ”Do you mind if I have a copy of this,” he asked?

“Go right ahead,” Amanda replied. “First time you’ve seen it then?”

“Something like that,” he said as he sent the email to his own tablet. “I believe,” he continued, handing back her tablet, “there’s been some kind of mistake.”

“I usually get that when I arrive,” Amanda said casually as she put her notebook away.

“You do,” said Rick after tugging on a shirt? “That’s a rather curious response.”

She gazed at both of the men levelly. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

Virgil glanced at Rick, who shrugged his shoulders in response. “Should we,” he asked?

“I’m an investigative reporter,” she said. “A good one. I have a reputation for uncovering things. Big things. Remember the little dust up with the P.M. last year. The one with the girl in the pink dress?”

“Oh, I remember that,” said Rick. “Didn’t he lose his job or something.”

“Or something,” she said, the irony obvious in her tone. The scandal had cost the Prime Minister his job, and had broken his coalition. Even in America it had been big news.

“That was your story,” Risk asked in awe?

“It was,” she said.

Rick let out a low whistle. “Wow,” he said!

“But this,” said Virgil indicating her invitation, “looks more like a fluffy PR piece. That doesn’t make sense. Isn’t that a bit low for you?”

She gave him the half smile she normally reserved for idiots, and newspaper editors. “Put it this way,” she said in a conspiratorial tone. “Even reporters need a holiday every once in a while.”

Something about her fierce gaze made Virgil think this was not just a holiday for her. Then it hit him: Her accent. She spoke with a sort of European flair; a flat toned English with a lot of Americanisms thrown on top. But when she said the word “holiday” he realized she was actually English, as in born in England. He looked at her sharply, wondering how much he could trust her. She must be a shark, he thought. But how much of one? Out loud he asked, “You had breakfast yet, Ms. Waters? Or is it Amanda?”

“Amanda is fine,” she said. “And if that’s an invitation, then no I have not broken my fast.”

“Good,” Virgil said, “because we have a long day ahead of us, and I’m starving. Shall we go?”

They stepped outside, waiting long enough for Rick to put on a company issue coverall. Then they walked to the commissary in silence.

 

*

 

After breakfast, Virgil slipped to Dove the anonymous email that had been sent to Amanda. He asked the networking specialist of he could check out the email, and see if he could discover its origin. On a hunch, he also sent Dove the urgent email that had cut short his vacation.

When the rest of the e-hap business had been concluded, Virgil turned to Rick and asked, “Can you please take our guest up to the uniform tent, and get her some clothes?”

Rick nodded his head, but Amanda had a different reaction. “What’s wrong with the way I’m dressed,” she asked?

“Nothing,” he said, “if you’re safe and in the middle of a city. This place isn’t a city, and it sure as hell isn’t safe.”

“Excuse me,” she said in an acid tone, “but I’ve covered stories in a war zone with machine guns going right over my head, and in the arctic during a blizzard where the snow fall was measured in feet-per-hour, not inches. So I find myself wondering what can be so dangerous about working on the inside of a tunnel that also happens to be the world’s longest park? Are you one of those idiots who thinks I can’t take care of myself because I’m a woman, or do I need to worry about roving hoards of knife-wielding bambis?”

She stared at Virgil without moving, a faint blush on her cheeks. Virgil stared back calmly. After a moment he said, “I’m a bit busy this morning, Ms. Waters, so I don’t have the time to explain to you the depths of your ignorance. If you are going to work with my crew, you will dress like them. Period. You will especially wear any and all safety equipment that I deem necessary. There are no exceptions.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he stopped her with a hand.

“And while you are considering these conditions, did it occur to you that you might be more successful in your investigation if you are dressed like the rest of the us? That is, if you don’t stick out like an idiot from the blue?”

Before she could answer he turned to Rick and said, “Get the crew looking over the network, as we planed. When you’re done with her, both of you can join me at the stage. I have a feeling that Rogers is there already. Maybe we can get some answers on what the hell is going on around here.”

“Aye, aye, skipper,” Rick said. “We’ll get right on it.”

With that, Virgil put his tray away, and headed out into the pod looking for whoever was supposed to be in charge.

 

*

 

“Is he always like that,” Amanda asked?

“Like what,” said Rick? The two of them were walking up hill towards the back of the haphazard chaos of the tent city, searching for the one that held uniforms and safety equipment. The uniform tent had been moved twice. Each time someone had failed to update its location on the network. Hence the search.

“You know, like a total dictator.” She dropped her tone an octave and grunted an impersonation of Virgil, “You will dress how I say. There are no exceptions.”

Rick laughed at her impression, then his face sobered. “I know he seems like a total dick at times, but the man does have his reasons.”

“Like what,” she said, her voice serious? “Why do I need to dress like one of the crew? I don’t understand. And what can possibly be so damned dangerous inside a stupid tunnel?”

“Really,” said Rick? “Do you want to know, or are you being sarcastic?” They had climbed up high enough along the circular walls of the pod that they now had a nice view of the tent city below, and rest of the pod beyond.

“Really,” she said, making it sound like a challenge. “Educate me.”

“Okay. Lets see here,” he said. “First off, its not a tunnel. Its a root. The Root. Only those living under the blue call it a tunnel.”

“Under the blue,” she asked?

“Ha,” he said with a laugh. “Its a pejorative term. It means someone who lives outside, under the blue sky.”

“As opposed to…”

“Rooties. Those of us who live in the Root. And its in the Root, not on it. Got it?”

“Sure,” she said. “But why the distinction? Why do you care if its called a tunnel or a root?”

“Because a tunnel is made. A root is grown. If you assume that this place was made; manufactured, then you’ll start to get comfortable; complacent.

“For instance,” he continued bending over and grabbing a plant with distinctive long green stalks. “Do you see this plant?”

She nodded her head.

“Do know what kind of plant it is?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“I don’t either,” he said inspecting the plant more carefully. “In fact I’ve never seen one like it before.” The Rick grabbed the plant by the base, and in an easy motion, pulled it, roots and all, out of the ground.

Immediately the plant started writhing, its long green stalks swaying back and forth as if caught in a windstorm that no one else could feel. The base of the stalks turned darker in color, and then transformed again to a bright red while leaving the tips still the same distinctive green. Amanda was surprised at it’s reaction. She’d never seen a plant move on its own before.

Rick was still holding the plant up, but was now looking around them. “Take a look at the plants around us. Notice the ones like this one?”

Amanda saw that scattered around them were several plants similar to the one Rick held. “What about them,” she asked?

“Did you notice that they’re getting closer?”

“Huh,” she said. Looking around a second time she suddenly noticed that all the plants with long green stalks were getting closer. “What in the world,” she said as she took an unconscious step nearer to Rick? “They are getting closer.”

Rick tossed the plant in a slow curve that took it to a open spot some 10 feet away. It landed on it’s root, and immediately stopped gyrating. Within a minute its stalks were back to their original green, and the plants around them were moving back to their previous locations.

“Okay,” Amanda said. “That was creepy. Did you know they would do that?”

“Not really,” he said. “We’ve seen plants that look similar. We called them zombie plants. But I haven’t seen one since before Pod 10.”

“Zombie plants? Why do I not like the sound of that?”

“Oh, its nothing like that,” Rick said. “They’ll surround you, but they usually don’t attack anything bigger than a rabbit.”

“Attack,” she asked, surprise in her voice?

“Sure. Its a food source. Plants that move fast need protein. Some more than others. The zombie plant hunts in groups, surrounding their prey and strangling them, but I don’t know what these plants do.”

Amanda could feel a rising tide of horror. She noticed Rick was smiling when he said this, watching the plants with obvious interest. “You like them, don’t you?” It more accusation then question. “Are you a botanist or something?”

“Me,” Rick said? “A botanist? Negative. I’m a sailor. Submarines, or boats as we called them. Nuclear powered. I was a commander hoping to make captain, when they scrapped half the fleet. I had worked under Virgil in the fleet, so when the Navy turned me out, I hooked up with him here.

“You’re a submariner? Why in the world would they hire you in a place like this?”

Rick turned to her, no longer watching the plants. “When they started this damn thing, the suits living under the blue thought us submariners, as you call them, would benefit the project from our years of living in and around high pressure containers.”

“Were they right?”

He shrugged his shoulders “Hard to say. This place is one mother of a pressure container, but that’s just one its many dangers. The company may hire you for your expertise, but then happily ignore that expertise when it suits them.”

“Have they done that before,” she asked?

“Once. Before my time.”

“What happened?”

“A lot of people died, is what happened. We lost a whole section of the Root. Wiped out an entire crew. Set us back three months or more. These walls,” he said stamping his foot for emphasis, “are the only thing between us and several thousand tons per square inch of ice cold sea water. Just like a submarine working at this depth, any flaw in the pressure vessel and Boom, we’re screwed.”

“Oh.”

“Yea, oh”

“So is that why your boss is so uptight about safety.”

“Virgil? I guess you could say that. He lost a lot of friends that day. An accident like that tends to make a man pretty cautious. That or pretty dead. Say what you want, but Virgil’s still not dead. That’s good enough for me.”

Amanda was looking at Rick with new found respect. “Okay,” she said. “I think I see what Virgil meant about the ‘depths of my ignorance’. I take it there’s more that can kill me than a hole in the tunnel, oops root, or a group of predatory plants.”

Rick nodded his head, and then stopped. “I’ll be damned,“ he said, looking off in the distance.

“What?”

“The uniform tent. It’s right over there. Come on.”

Rick started down the hill in the direction he was pointing. Amanda followed, her head still full of questions. “So,” she said. “Why the suit?”

“Oh that’s easy,” he said over his shoulder. “The suit has a special layer that protects you from certain chemicals. It blocks most of the amino acids and such that we use to make the Root grow or change. Some of these things are pretty nasty. Spill them on an unprotected arm, and you’ll have yourself a nice little burn. Or worse.”

“So it’s like a chemical warfare suit?”

“Similar. Not as heavy, because we’re not trying to stop radiation, just carbon compounds.”

“Any thing else?”

“Well it protects you from the jungle, but it also protects the jungle from you.”

“Jungle?”

“That’s what we call the green stuff everywhere in the Root. In the wilds.”

“Okay,” she said. “Jungle. Why does it need protecting from us.”

“You know this whole Root was grown from one plant, right?” He used a hand to indicate the entire Pod and Root.

“Sure.”

“Okay. Well the Root needs to be able to grow without much supervision, otherwise it would be too costly to make. Make sense? But the Root also needs to be easy to modify; to edit if you will. Otherwise we couldn’t add anything to it. With me so far?”

“Sure,” said Amanda. “Grows on it’s own, but also easy to change.”

“Great,” he said as they came up to the uniform tent. He walked inside, grabbed a set of boots, gloves, a coverall in her size, and then added a e-hap stump to the stack. He handed her the stack, and pointed to the changing area. When she had stepped behind the curtain, he asked, “Can you hear me in there?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Okay,” he continued. “So the Root was designed to be sensitive to certain compounds, mostly amino acids, which we use to manipulate it. This sensitivity has a few consequences; uh side effects. For instance, I noticed you’re wearing perfume, right?”

“Well, yes,” Amanda said from behind the curtain as she struggled into her coverall.

“We found out that some perfumes will also effect the Root. Causing it to grow in different ways. Sometimes bad ways. Not just perfumes either. Many antiperspirants and deodorants effect it too.”

“Great,” she said. “So I get to wear an ugly orange outfit, and stink.”

“Well we do have deodorants which don’t effect the Root, so it’s not that bad.”

“I was being sarcastic Rick. I’ve lived with my own stick before. Please ignore me and continue.”

“Um, okay,” he said. “The point is certain chemicals, especially petroleum compounds for some reason, really mess with the Roots structure.”

“Is that why there’s only electric cars around here,” she asked as she came out from behind the curtain? “I thought that was some stupid green thing, or something.”

“Nope,” he said. “Its not about being green, its much more pragmatic than that. Need help with your boots?”

She was lacing up her boots, and was having trouble understanding how they fit with her coverall. He showed her how to lace the boots, and then slip the coverall down over the top of the boots. Two strips of velcro gave the suit a strong seal.

“So,” she said, “the suit protects us from the Root, and the Root from us. Gas and oil makes the walls go wobbly, and half the jungle can eat us if we’re too slow. Did I miss anything?”

“Just this,” Rick said holding up an e-hap stump.

“What’s that do,” she asked?

“If you’re lucky,” he said. “Nothing. If not, then it saves your life.”

She looked at the stump. It looked like a dried out root on a string, somewhat like a small brown carrot with a lot of fringe hanging from the point on it’s bottom. On top of the carrot was a small knob that looked like a brown radish with a tuft of very short hair spiking out the top. “What do I do with it?”

“Simple,” he said. “One, wear it around your neck at all times.” As he said this, he put the string over her head. “And I mean at all times. Two, in case of a breach – if you see a wall of water coming for you – put this knob in your mouth, and keep it there.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” he replied.

“So it’s helps you breathe. Like some kind of respirator?”

“Something like that.”

“Something like that,” she said as she held her up to look at it. “It’s pretty disgusting looking isn’t it? You said wear it at all times. Will it go off in the shower?”

“Good question. No. It requires something more than water to activate. Pressure too, I think. I’m not sure. You could take it swimming with you, and nothing would happen, except it’d get wet.”

“Hum,” she said letting it drop. “How’s it work, anyway?”

He looked at her with a level gaze. “You don’t want to know.”

“I don’t?”

“No.”

“Is it that bad,” she asked?

“Worse.”

“Has it ever been tested?”

“In the field? Once.”

“Once. Did the guy using it survive?”

“Something like that,” he said. “You can ask him yourself if you like, but I doubt he’ll tell you more than he told me.”

“So you know this guy,” she asked?

“Sure. It’s Virgil. My boss.”

 

*

 

Rick and Amanda caught up with Virgil at the site for the stage; an area which had been set aside to host the opening ceremonies celebration in a few months. The stage itself was a simple platform, with a semi-circle of bleachers surrounding it. The entire complex as built into a natural amphitheater slightly upslope on the pod wall. Some of the company staff had erected a large white backdrop behind the stage, and projected old movies on it on the weekends. Otherwise the place was usually deserted; not run-down as much as unfinished.

Rick was just explaining this to Amanda when they rounded a slight hill, and the stage came into view. The area below it was littered with electric cars parked every which way, and on the rim of the amphitheater could be seen dozens of workmen. As they approached they saw a steady stream of workers enter in and out of the complex, many carrying lights and other stage equipment. Amanda pointed out several rack mounted electronic devices that were used for online video editing, and broadcasting. The speed at which the men were working made it clear they expected to finish soon.

At the entrance to the bleachers they found Virgil deep in a conversation with two men in suits. One of the men held a phone to his ear, and looked on distractedly, while Virgil spoke to the other. Amanda noticed that neither man was wearing one of the brown, ugly e-hap stumps. Nor were any of the other workers. She pointed this out to Rick as they approached the group wearily.

“What I’m trying to understand,” said Virgil in a calm voice, “is what you are doing here?”

“I already told you,” said the man in the exasperated tone like the one adults use when speaking to slow children, “we’re finishing up the stage for the opening ceremonies.” The man’s face was round, his tone pale. Pink dots of frustration were starting to show on his cheeks.

“I can see that,” Virgil said calmly, “but what I don’t see is a reason to do this now. Or a reason to use outside people for a job the company can handle. Or a reason why none of the workers seems to be wearing a single piece of safety gear.”

“We’ve already been over this,” said the pale man, “We examined all the relevant safety data, and felt the risk was acceptable.”

“Who examined the data,” said Virgil? “How did they come to these conclusions?”

“The company safety experts, that’s who,” said the pale man.

The other man hung up his phone, and turned to the pale man. “Who is this man, Rogers? And why is he here harassing us? We’ve got work to do.”

The pale man, Rogers, turned to the man with the phone. “He’s Hammond. An on-site director. In charge of a small part of the networking structure; the emergency human protection system.”

The man looked at Virgil as if he were an insect. “So what’s he doing here?”

“I don’t know,” said Rogers. “He was supposed to be on vacation, like the others.”

“So get rid of him,” said the man with the phone. “We’re already behind schedule. We don’t have time to do deal with union crap.”

“Its not union crap, sir,” said Virgil showing anger for the first time. “Company employees are explicitly exempted from union rule. It is safety crap. Crap that directly effects all of our safety.”

As he spoke, some workmen passed pushing with a dolly stacked high with 20 liter drums. One of the men asked Rogers were he wanted the load.

“Take it to the back of the stage,” Rogers said impatiently, pointing towards the entrance under the bleachers. “Leave it there.”

Moving casually, so as to not attract attention, Amanda pulled out her camera, and took a photo of the dolly. The other were to busy to notice the labels on the drums. They read: Enamel Paint: White.

Virgil continued, “I’m afraid you gentlemen have left me no other choice. I’m going to have to shut this site down until it meets the minimal safety standards.”

“You can’t do that,” said the man with the phone. “You’re just a director.”

Rogers interrupted, “Actually he can. Sr. Directors on safety systems do have job oversight authority.”

Virgil crossed his arms and smiled. Rogers looks worried.

“But,” Rogers continued, “he needs to have another Senior Director or higher back him up. On his own, he can’t stop us.”

Virgil’s face turned dark. He was hoping Rogers wouldn’t know that last bit.

The other man picked up his phone. “I think I know how to fix this,” he said as he started to dial. “Get me Samuels, in the Company,” he said into his phone. “And hurry.”

The man with the phone separated from the others, and spoke animatedly. Rick approached Virgil, and asked quietly, “who is that joker?”

Virgil shrugged his shoulders. “Some government bureaucrat,” he said. “I don’t know from where.”

Rogers hissed, “He’s not just any bureaucrat, you idiot. Don’t you know who that is?”

Before Virgil could answer Amanda passed her tablet in front of him. He looked down on the screen and saw a photo of the man with the phone. Under the photo was the caption, “Wallace Oscar. Chief of Staff, President Flintridge.”

“Holy shit, skipper,” Rick whispered. “I think you just pissed off the wrong guy.”

Virgil smiled. “Well, its not the first time,” he said in a whisper. “Probably not the last either.”

 

*

 

One hour later the three met up at the bottom of the ersatz parking lot. Virgil had stayed beside Rogers pestering the man while Rick had taken Amanda around the back and looked into things.

“Well,” Virgil asked?

“They’re definitely ramping up for a show,” Rick said. “Amanda thinks the stage might be ready as soon as tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” said Virgil? “Hum. Why the rush?”

“Amanda’s got a theory,” Rick said, “but I’m not convinced.”

Virgil turned to Amanda giving her a look more fitting for the Captain on the bridge of a fast attack nuclear sub, than a Director on a construction project. “Well,” he said?

“Its the govcam network,” she said. “A wireless camera array the government uses for all press conferences. The networks like it because no one has to lug their own camera equipment, and the government likes it because they can control the camera angles. You just tap into the network with your press credentials password, and take the shot directly from their feed.”

“Go on,” said Virgil.

“Well, I saw one of the White House staffers setting up the govcam gear, so I went over for a chat. He was very careful not tell me anything, but while I was talking to him I noticed the input on his tablet was cycling through all the different camera locations. All the cameras were hooked up, as near as I can tell. Baring any lighting snafus, and sound, the system is ready to go.”

“So the camera network is almost up, you say. Is this the normal lead time for a press conference? Say in,” Virgil glanced at his tablet for the time, “14 hours?”

“Oh they could have it up sooner than that sir. The govcam system it largely automatic. I’ve seen them set the full array up for a campaign stop in less than two hours. 14 hours is more than enough time.”

“Hum,” said Rick, stroking his chin. “So we have a working camera network. What are they using it for?”

“Well I noticed something else while I was poking around back there,” Amanda continued. “Several of the workers looked familiar, so I ran an image match. They’re secret service. I’m sure of it.”

Virgil looked at Amanda, then at Rick. “Well,” he said, “that explains Flintridge’s Chief of Staff, doesn’t it. So the old man is going to come here for a press conference, eh? I guess that explains all the machinations by the company.”

“You really think he’s coming,” asked Rick?

“Well it does add up. Except that technically he’ll be broadcasting only six kilometers away from what he considers enemy soil.”

Rick let out a low whistle. “That sounds like a security nightmare, for whoever is in charge,” he said. “I’d hate to have that job right now.”

“That reminds me,” said Virgil. “When I first got back, Sibyl mentioned a security guy who came by last week, looked at out setup, and had kittens. Now we know why.”

“Do you think that’s why they’ve been ripping out the cables at 17.1,” Rick asked?

“That makes a certain kind of sense,” Virgil said.

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Amanda. “They’re ripping out cables?”

“Yes,” said Rick. “Up at nodule 17.1; where the American side of the Root ends…”

“…and the English side begins,” Amanda continued. “I’m aware of the place. What’s this about the cables?”

“Well,” said Rick, “last week we finished laying all but the very end of the e-hap cable; you know, the vine that these things,” he held up hie e-hap root, “connect to. Then the day before Virgil shows up, we get an order telling us to rip our connection out of the ground. To physically disconnect it.”

Virgil pulled out his tablet while Rick was speaking. He handed it to Amanda. “Last night,” he said. “I was up late doing some checking, and ran across this.”

She looked at the map, figuring the connections out right away. “Well, this looks pretty crazy, but it does make some kind of sense. If I was going to park the President here, then I’d probably want to cut off all communication ties with the English as well.”

Amanda studied the map some more. “But there something I don’t get? Why sever e-hap? I can see why the regular network cables might be cut, but why disconnect your safety net?”

Rick and Virgil’s eyes met. “Because the company is cheap,” said Rick.

“Cheap,” Amanda asked?

Virgil rolled his eyes. “The communications cables, really they’re vines, were supposed to be a completely separate system from the e-hap vine. But some idiot under the sky came up with the brilliant idea of using the same protocol on both. It was one of those ideas that looks good on paper, but fails terribly in practice. We had the hardest time keep the signals independent from each other. It didn’t help that the Root itself tended to mix the vines up at every opportunity.”

Rick sighed, “It was a wonderful cluster-fuck,” he said. “Worst still, we got the blame whenever our vines “commingled” with communications. Anyway, we eventually found a work around, but by then it was too late to go back as re-lay the entire vine, which is what we should have done.”

“What this means,” Virgil added, “is that the e-hap system had to be made flexible enough so that it could use any vine it could find.”

“And the communications system,” said Rick, “can do the same.”

“So,” said Amanda, “the e-hap network will work over the communications vine?”

“And vice-versa,” said Rick.

“Oh,” said Amanda. “That’s why they cut the e-hap vine. It wasn’t secure.”

“Exactly,” said Virgil. “They have sacrificed our safety for their security. Well said.”

“So,” Amanda said. “What do we do now?”

“Good question,” said Virgil. “I know what Rick was going to do, and know what I am going to do, but the big question is, what do you want to do Ms. Waters? I thought you were on vacation.”

“Vacation! Don’t be silly. There’s a story here, I can feel it.”

“This just in,” Rick interrupted. “Private company cuts own network to provide security for head of state. Film at 11:00.”

They all shared a laugh.

“Okay,” she admitted, “So it doesn’t look like much of a story. Sometimes that happens.”

“Well you can always do a piece on a mid level manager loosing his job,” said Virgil.

“Naw,” Amanda said. “That’s all too common. Now if you were to loose your job for uncovering some grand conspiracy… now that would be interesting.”

“Great,” Virgil said. “I’ll start looking for a big fat juicy grand conspiracy, just as soon as I get a spare moment. In the mean time,” he continued, “I think it’s time we did a little divide-and-conquer. What do you think Rick? Are you up for a little travel?”

“Sure thing, skipper,” Rick said. “What do you have in mind?”

“Well,” Virgil said, gathering the two around him, “I think we should…”

 

*

 

An hour later Virgil and Amanda were traveling down a winding service road between Pod 17 and nodule 16.19. The brush and grasses all brilliant colored under the harsh artificial sunlight from the center of the Root. Rick was pointing out various plants over the steering wheel, when suddenly he stopped the truck. “What in the world is that,” he said, pointing to a spiky plant near the side of the road?

“Is something wrong,” Amanda asked?

Virgil got out and walked over for a closer look, leaving the truck door open.

The plant looked a bit like a cactus, its narrow leaves long and straight, coming out of the central root like spikes on a porcupine. Near the base, the leaves were a deep green, but that color slowly faded until it became a silvery grey near the tips. The longer leaves near the top were easily a meter and a half, or longer. “That color,” Virgil said.

“What about it,” Amanda asked, automatically taking pictures?

“It doesn’t look right. The tips look more like metal than cellulose. It doesn’t make any sense.”

She brought the view-finder tablet to bare on one of the leaves. Under its magnification it looked a lot like raw iron. The very tips already showing a faint microscopic dusting of a golden red. Was that rust?

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing about it,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“It gives you great wireless reception.”

“Why do you say that,” Virgil asked?

Amanda held up her tablet. “The border,” she said. “Around the screen. See how green it is?”

“Sure.”

“There’s an app I run for plotting wireless reception. Its handy for when I need to find a better signal, but don’t want to look away from what I’m doing.”

“That’s useful?” he asked, sounding unconvinced.

“Sure. When people are shooting at you, and you want to call for help.”

Virgil smiled. “Okay. I can see that. Go on.”

“So watch this,” she said. Holding her notebook so Virgil could see the screen she slowly moved it towards the plant. From a distance, the edge of the screen stayed grey, but as it got close to the plant, it turned green.

“Hum,” he said. “Do you suppose it’s acting like some sort of antenna?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

Virgil took a knife from his pocket, and cleanly cut off one of the long thin leaves near its base. It was stiff, and almost perfectly straight along its length. He gave the leaf a shake and watched it vibrate.  “Try it now,” he said planting the soft end in the ground, “on just this leaf.”

Amanda held up her tablet to the leaf, but the signal didn’t change. Virgil tried placing the end of the leaf up in the air, and back near the base of the plant, but it still did not improve the reception.

“Well, I don’t know what it is, but its not an antenna,” he said sliding the leaf into the back of the truck, “I guess that’s one more thing to ask the Chemist about.”

“The what,” Amanda asked as she slid onto the seat on the passenger side?

“The Chemist,” Virgil said.

“Who’s that?”

“Someone. Don’t worry. You’ll like him,” he said. “He’s English.”

 

*

 

“What’s that,” Amanda asked?

“What’s what,” said Virgil?

“That thing. That wall in front of us?”

For the past 10 minutes they had been driving slowly, focusing on the “antenna plants” as they called them. Virgil had noticed their spacing seemed weird; they were never next to each other, and somehow always about the same distance apart. The rest of the journey had been spent testing his hypothesis.

“Oh,” said Virgil noticing the wall in front of them that completely blocked the entire Root. “That’s nodule 16.19. Our destination.”

From a distance the nodule wall looked smooth and brown, but when they got closer Amanda could see it was rough like a giant tree trunk. There was a narrow tunnel cut through the nodule wall right at the service road. They traveled through it in the dark a good 10 meters before emerging on the other side.

Like the tents in the Pod 17 village, small houses mushroomed from the Root wall at nodule 16.19 in a haphazard fashion. When Amanda asked Virgil why there were no straight streets, or houses in a clean rows, he told her that the little nodule villages were actually designed to offer the maximum view to each dwelling while keeping a a high level of privacy. “Each one is different too,” he told her. “Some are mountainous with little streams running through them, and some are more flat and spare, like a desert.”

“They put that much effort into employee housing,” she asked?

“No. Oh nooo,” he said with some exaggeration. “This is the company we’re talking about,” he continued. “The nice ones were designed to be motels. That they doubled as employee housing was just a lucky perk.”

Near the back of the village they found a beat-up work truck parked to one side of the road. Virgil pulled up beside the old truck. As the two got out they could hear the sounds of cursing and yelling. They searched around until they found the source of the noise on the other side of the old truck. Standing hip deep in a freshly dug hole was a short dark man who was grabbing at the base of a plant, and pulling on it for all of his life. That the plant didn’t budge only made the man more angry. Not hearing the two over the constant stream of his own curses, Virgil and Amanda approached until they were right behind him. The plant he was pulling finally let go with a resounding pop, sending the him sprawling. That was when Amanda noticed several more of the same plant were pilled up beside the hole.

“Having fun, Ahmed,” Virgil asked?

The man spun around, surprised, then gave a loud cheer when he recognized Virgil. “Well if it ain’t the old sea dog himself,” he said. “How fairs it Captain?”

Virgil reached down and clasped his hand. “About as good as usual you damn limey.”

Both men smiled and slapped each others shoulders.

“I take it you know each other,” Amanda said with a smile.

“Ahmed,” Virgil said. “Allow me to introduce you to my conscious. This is Ms. Amanda Waters, of Reuters News.”

Ahmed lifted his hand, and then hesitated when he noticed how dirty it was. Amanda took his hand in hers, and shook it anyway.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Waters. Its good to see Virgil keeping better company.”

“Thank you, ah Ahmed. And its Amanda. Ms. Waters is my mother’s name.”

“I see,” said Ahmed. “So what brings you to the middle of nowhere, if I may ask, Amanda?”

“Well when I got an invitation I thought at first this would be a nice little working vacation, but the more I hear, the more its sounds like a story is about to break.”

“Really,” said Ahmed, looking towards Virgil with a raised eyebrow?

“We’ve got a bit of a problem with the company at the amphitheater,” Virgil said. “Come on up out of that hole, and I’ll tell you about it.”

Virgil reached down and helped pull Ahmed out of the pit. Seeing him next to Virgil made Ahmed look even shorter and darker. Amanda could see bit of gray in his otherwise jet black hair, and then saw a twinkle in his eyes like a look of mischief. His skin was too dark to be black Irish, so she guessed he was Pakistani, but his accent made him as English as the King. Maybe even more so.

Then she noticed the pile of plants over his shoulder, the ones he had been pulling out of the ground. “Say, aren’t those the same antenna plants we saw before,” she asked?

“What,” said Ahmed? “Antenna plants?”

Virgil walked over to them and examined them more carefully. “They sure look the same,” he said.

“Those things,” Ahmed said? “I found them all over the access box here for the communications cables. I noticed the network was down past this point, so I pulled them out figuring they were some sort of parasite like the green meanies we found at 10.12.”

“You said you found them all together,” Virgil asked?

“Yep. In one big clump. They had roots going down right into the cable node.”

“That’s weird. On our drive over we saw many of these, but they were always individual plants, never in groups, and their spacing was pretty unusual.”

“Unusual,” said Ahmed? “In what way?”

Amanda held up her notebook, and looked for the data table. “They were always 78 meters apart,” she said manipulating the table. “Plus or minus about a meter. Yep. No variation over or under 67 centimeters.”

Ahmed looked over to her. “You’re sure about that?”

“Positive,” Virgil answered for her. “We line-of-sight measured a couple, extrapolated some, and then did random checks. Everything we found was remarkably consistent. I’ll bet if we GPS’d them, we’d find they’re all within 20 centimeters, more or less, of exactly 78 meters.”

“Well that is unusual,” said Ahmed. “But I don’t know if that means anything.”

Just then, Amanda interrupted them. “That’s weird,” she said.

Both men turned to look at her. “The network,” she continued, “the wireless is down.”

“Huh,” said Ahmed? “It was up when I got here.”

Virgil pulled out his own notebook and checked. “Yep. It’s down.” He turned to Ahmed pointing at the hole. “You said that is the node for the communications cables,” he asked?

“Yes, somewhere under there. Why?”

He picked up the last plant Ahmed had pulled. Its root waving weekly in the air. Dropping down into the hole, Virgil dug out a spot until he could see the cables in the bare dirt. He then placed the roots of the antenna plant on top of the cables, and gently cover them all with lose soil. Guessing what he was up to, Amanda held her notebook near the tips of the plant, and watched the border of her screen.

“Grey,” she said. “Grey. Oops, light green. Greener. Green. Looks like we have wireless again.”

Virgil took out his own notebook, and laid it on the edge of the pit. Ahmed look confused. “Can someone tell me what is going on,” he asked?

“When we were driving out,” Virgil said while checking the signal on his own notebook. “Amanda noticed that the antenna plants, as we called them, seemed to increase wireless reception. We thought the plants might act as some kind of antenna, hence the name, but when I cut off an individual leaf, it didn’t work like one; it didn’t help reception at all.”

“So you think this plant acts as a booster or something? Amplifying the signal?”

“Something like that,” said Virgil. “It certainly looks like its working as a wireless router for the cable. Perhaps its also passing the wireless signal from plant to plant as well.”

“Are you suggesting this plant is something like a wireless router, and a network booster,” Ahmed asked? “That is… well that is most unusual. Even for this place.”

Virgil looked down at his notebook. “Agreed,” he said. “Say guys you want to check on the network now? I’m getting stuff from the outside, but I’m not getting any signal from the Pod 17 or beyond.”

Ahmed pulled out his notebook, and pulled up a screen. “I’m getting a signal from outside,” he said, “but nothing past here.”

“Can you pull up the cable diagram,” Virgil asked? “The one that shows which one is in use?”

“Like this?” Ahmed dropped down to one knee so Virgil could see his tablet. The screen showed several lines in blue coming up to the node they were over, but none going past.

“Yep,” Virgil said. “How about you Amanda? Getting anything from the inside?”

Amanda shook her head. “Not a thing passed that wall.”

“Hum, Virgil said looking down at his tablet. “Somehow I got dropped from the network. Let me try logging in again to see if that helps.” After a moment he said, “That’s funny. I can’t log in.”

Virgil tossed his notebook aside, and pulled himself out of the hole. “I think I know what the problem is; the nodule wall must be too thick for reception. That was why there were several plants here, instead of just one. They needed more than one plant to boost the signal. But I think I have a better idea. Why don’t we plant one on either side of the nodule tunnel? Set them up line of sight, and see what that does?”

“Brilliant,” said Ahmed. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you’re a chemist,” Amanda suggested?

Ahmed looked to Virgil then back at Amanda. Then both men started laughing.

“Did I say something funny,” she asked feeling a little hurt.

“No, no,” said Virgil. “Its just… I told you Ahmed is called the Chemist, so you made a good guess. Only..”

“Only…” completed Ahmed, “I’m not actually a chemist. That’s just what they call me.”

“Then what do you do here,” Amanda asked, “if you’re not a chemist.”

“I’m a botanist. Actually the botanist, for this pile of dirt.”

Amanda looked confused.

Seeing her look, Virgil filled in, “What he means is Ahmed is the VP of Botany for the Root. For all of the Root.”

“He’s a VP, huh,” Amanda asked? “Does that make him higher than a Senior Director?”

“You bet your ass it does,” said Virgil.

“Oh, so that’s why you came here,” she said. “You needed Ahmed’s help to shut down the dog-and-pony show over at the amphitheater.”

“Exactly,” Virgil said.

“What,” Ahmed asked? “Dog-and-pony show?”

“Later, Limey. Lets get some plants in the ground. Then I’ll tell you all about it. Or maybe she will. She took the pictures.”

“Pictures? Pictures of what,” said Ahmed?

“You saw that,” Amanda asked? “I thought I was being sly.”

“Later. Lets get our network up first,” Virgil said. “And yes, you were being sly.”

 

*

 

Half an hour later three more of the antenna plants had been transplanted. One near the cable node as a backup, one on the near side of the tunnel entrance, and the last one on the other side of the tunnel. Within seconds of the last one being put in the ground Amanda was reporting a weak by viable signal. Ahmed pulled a few spray bottles out of the vast collection in his truck, and gave each of the plants a quick spritz. The signal grew even stronger after that. Ahmed’s notebook was able to get a signal from Pod 17, but the company network did not show a blue line for the new connection. Amanda was playing around, seeing what she could find off the local network, while Virgil cursed his notebook again and again.

“Still not getting in,” Ahmad asked with some sympathy?

“The damn thing won’t take my password, and I can’t log in to ask Dove for help. Stupid thing.”

“You’re sure you’ve got the new password,” Ahmed asked?

“Sure, I’m sure. I was up this morning. I don’t see why it’s not working now. The damn thing doesn’t even recognize my user name anymore.”

“Well something is different.” Ahmed said. “Networks don’t just drop you because they don’t like you.”

“Yes,” Virgil said looking at him with sudden comprehension, “Networks don’t, but companies do.”

“Companies? Do you think the company purposefully dropped you?”

“After what I did this morning,” said Virgil, “it’s entirely possible.”

Ahmed looked shocked, but before he could respond, Amanda interrupted.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something Ahmed. Instead of pulling those plants out of the ground, why didn’t you use a weed killer or something?”

Both men turned around. “What did you say,” Ahmed said in a tone that was suddenly very cold?

“Use weed killer,” Amanda said. “After all, you must have 20 things that will work in your truck.”

Ahmed’s eyes got large, but before he could speak, Virgil held up his hand to silence him. “Suppose he had,” Virgil said in a calm voice? “What do you suppose it would have done to the communications cables? After all, they’re a plant too.”

“Hum,” said Amanda. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“And what about the Root wall below the cables,” Virgil continued? “What do you suppose weed killer would have done to it? After all, its a living breathing plant as well.”

Amanda’s eye’s got big. “Oh wow. I guess I just assumed that that stuff just went away. I didn’t realize…”

“You didn’t realize?“ Ahmed said? “You didn’t realize! We’re not under the sky here. Everything we do – everything – has an effect on everything else.”

“Wow!” Amanda said. I just was wondering. I mean if its that bad, why are these guys using it?”

“What!” said Ahmed. “What guys?”

“These guys,” Amanda said turning her tablet around.

On the screen they could see a group of men working behind the amphitheater stage. Some were using sprayers on the plants, others were spraying white paint on the Root wall. Still more were on a scaffold above, smoothing something into the cracks that were forming on the wall. It looked like plaster, but they couldn’t be sure.

Ahmed was so shocked, it took him a full minute to grasp what he was seeing.

“What is this?” he asked. “Where are these images coming from?”

“The amphitheater,” Amanda said. “From behind the stage. I thought I might check to see if the govcam network is up and running. Apparently it is. I didn’t realize I could access it from the wireless plant network. Looks like I can.”

“This is going on now!” Ahmed was shouting. “Here! At the amphitheater in Pod 17?”

Amanda nodded her head, shocked by his reaction.

“Virgil!” Ahmed shouted. “Are you seeing this?”

Virgil nodded, not looking up from his tablet. “What,” he asked?

“The amphitheater? Did you see what they are doing? They’re spraying weed killer on the Wall. Weed killer. Of all the bloody stupid Yank things to do? Weed Killer!”

“Uh, yes,” said Virgil softly. His eyes still on his tablet.

“Are you listening to me, you stupid git? They’re poisoning the wall. You can even see the salt water starting to leak.”

“Uh yes,” said Virgil. “I heard, its just… I think we have even bigger problems than that.”

“The walls of Pod 17 are about to breach, because of a bunch of stupid Yanks, we’re about to piss away six months of work, and you think we have bigger problems than that?” Ahmed was yelling at the top of his voice.

“Yes,” said Virgil quietly, “I do.”

“What? What can be worse?”

“The President. Of the US. The first lady. Flintridge’s entire cabinet. All of them. They’re on their way. In fact there almost here.”

Ahmed’s face turned white.

“Here?” said Amanda looking around panicky.

“No,” said Virgil quietly. “Almost to Pod 17.”

“Cor love a duck,” Ahmed went off. “If that doesn’t take the biscuit, I don’t know what does. Of all the god damned stupid idiot things to do, that wart on the bottom of my bullocks had to come here? After practically ensuring a breach? I swear, that stupid pile of shit is as thick as manure, but only half as useful.”

Virgil raised his eyes. “My thoughts exactly,” he said dryly.

“So what do we do,” Amanda asked eagerly?

“We?” Virgil said, moving quickly to the passenger seat of the nearest truck. “Nothing. Ahmed and I will get there as quick as we can. You however, can stay here.”

Ahmed moved hastily to the driver’s seat, and closed the door. Amanda looked furious.

“Stay!” she said. “For a story like this? Are you out of your mind?”

“Possibly,” Virgil said. “Look, it’s a great story, but someone has to be alive to tell it. Dead people being notorious, and all, for not writing. When the Root breaches, this tunnel here is going to pucker up faster then an a frog’s asshole in a rain storm. Everything on this side should remain high and dry. Everything on the other, well it’ll get pretty wet. Now you have all the info. You have the story. And as a plus, if you stay here, you’ll probably live long enough to see it published – which is a hell of a lot better odds than what we face.”

Amanda looked in Virgil’s eye for a split second before moving. “Fuck that shit,” she said! “Move over!”

Virgil slid over to the middle of the seat, as Amanda jumped in. “Hit it!” she yelled, slamming the door. Ahmed had already punched the gas pedal before her door closed. The truck shot off.

“What are you smiling about,” Amanda yelled? It was hard to hear over the road noise as the truck screeched around the first turn, but somehow she had noticed the grin on Virgil’s face.

“Nothing,” Virgil yelled back. “It’s just my wife. She uses that term every time I try to do something macho. Makes me laugh every time.”

“Makes you laugh. She must be special.”

“You have no idea,” he said. “If we ever get out of this mess I’ll introduce you to her. You two’d get a long like two peas in a pod.”

“You mean when we get out of this mess, not if. And she has the balls to curse like a sailor, and to back it up, then hell yes, I’d love to meet her.”

The truck hurtled down the road as fast as the the little electric motor could go, which was considerably faster that Amanda thought was safe. After a short while, Amanda was struck by a thought. “Wait a minute,” she asked? “I thought you were locked out of the network. How’d you get back in?”

“Oh that,” Virgil said. “One of my guys gave me a program that figured out a password based on the log-in name. So when my name didn’t work, I figured I would try it on another name. So I punched in William R. Patterson, just for the heck of it.”

“You mean the President of Harrison Industries,” she asked?

“Ah-hem,” Ahmed said as they rounded a turn. “President of the U.S. affiliate.”

“Quite right old chap,” Virgil said in a fake English accent. “Begging your pardon, old chum. Yes, President of the American affiliate. Everyone knows Archibald Butler is the real CEO of Harrison Industries.”

“Bloody Yank,” Ahmed mumbled.

“So you have his access to account on the network,” Amanda asked?

“Oh yes,” He said. “In fact, I think I’m going to have him send a company wide memo to all the employees working in the Root.”

“Something like, ‘Run away. Run away’?”

“Oh no,” he said. “I have a much better idea.”

 

The next 20 minutes were a bit hectic for the three. Amanda kept track via the video feed of the leak on the wall, while Virgil fired of memo after memo, and Ahmed drove like the proverbial bat out of hell. By the time they arrived at the amphitheater, a crowd had formed to either side of the entrance, and every employee was dressed in their company work suits. More importantly, each employee had their e-hap stump in plain sight around their necks. Someone had found a box full of miniature American flags, and the crowd were practicing waiving them when Ahmed stopped the truck.

Just as they got out, Virgil got an urgent email from the e-hap team near nodule 17.1. “Yes,” it told him, “he could expect 20 cables hard-wired to the English side of 17.1 in 20 minutes.” Virgil wondered what Rick would make of that order, or if he would even guess of it’s true origin, especially as it was supposedly sent by the American CEO. Since Rick had Dove with him, the odds were better than even that he knew exactly what was going on. Virgil wanted to send him a personal note to warn him to get the crew out, but that ship had sailed. It was time now to deal with a larger problem.

The three ran up past the crowd to the entrance. Ahmed was surprised to see all the workers. “What are they doing here,” he hissed? “Don’t they know?”

Virgil looked at Ahmed as they ran. “I knew if I tried to shut things down, it wouldn’t have worked. There wasn’t enough time,” he said as they reached the entrance. There, right next to a smiling Sybil, they found a large box full of extra e-hap stumps.

“So you brought them all here instead,” Amanda asked, clearly puzzled?

Virgil looked at her levelly. “I brought them all here. Along with their stumps. If I told everyone to put theirs on, I know only a handful would comply. But if I told them it was part of a plan to greet the President of the United States, I knew they would follow the order without question.”

Amanda still looked puzzled.

“Bear in mind,” he said. “I’ve been down this road before.” His tone carried the dark knowledge of his past. Amanda could feel a lump of fear in the pit of her stomach. She tried to swallow, but her throat felt constricted.

“Trust me. It’s going to be okay,” he said. “Just pick up your camera, and start to film when the President gets here. If he thinks the whole press core is here, he’ll be less inclined to do something stupid.”

She looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay. Anything more stupid,” he said.

Turning to Sybil he asked, “Did you get stumps for the whole crew,” he asked indicating the people behind the stage?

Sybil smiled. “You know better than to ask.”

“You’re right,” he said. “I do. Was there any trouble?”

“Oh a couple of the guys, especially the secret service ones. They tried to macho their way out if it.”

Virgil was curious. “So how’d you solve that particular problem?”

“Oh it was easy. I had a couple of the girls from accounting – you know the Davis twins?”

“You mean the ones that are, uh well endowed,” he asked delicately?

“Yep. The very ones. I had them show the boys how to properly wear a e-hap stump. It’s amazing what a man will do to get a closer look at a big pair of tits,” she said with a satisfied smile.

“Sybil, you’re a genius,” he said.

“I know,” she replied.

Just then they heard a sound. The President’s motorcade was pulling into view on the road from the train station. Virgil passed out extra stumps, put an extra two in his pockets, and made his way down to the VIP parking.

He turned to Amanda just as the cars came to a stop. “Remember. Make sure they can see you. You need to be the whole press corps today, or they’re not going to play.”

“No problem skipper,” she said firmly as she held up her tablet as a camera.

A door opened up, a leg stuck out, and flashes started going off from all over the crowd. Virgil hadn’t thought of that, but he was pretty sure Sybil had.

A secret service man (wearing a stump Virgil noted) opened the door, and the first lady stepped out. Rushing to greet her, but careful not to get in the way of Amanda and her camera, Virgil stepped around the door, and bowed before the first lady. She smiled, and stopped. Virgil could sense her surprise. She was probably told there would not be a crowd here to great her. She measured the crowd with a practiced eye, and put on her best smile.

“Greetings Mrs. Flintridge,” Virgil spoke loudly to be heard over the crowd. “Welcome to the Root. We have a ceremony we like to perform with every visitor. Those of us who work here, us Rooties, wear these garlands,” he indicated the stump around his neck, “as a symbol of those who have worked so hard under the ocean. I ask that you wear this one,” he held up one of his spares, “and consider yourself an honorary Rooty. Would you do us this honor?”

The first lady stopped and locked eyes with Virgil. He could feel a sense of hatred just below the surface of her smile. Virgil knew from his father that people in power did not like surprises. Well, he thought, you can roast me tomorrow, if you live that long. He could sense she was about to back off when suddenly he heard Amanda say, “Can you look this way, Mrs. Flintridge, while he puts it on?”

The first lady gave the slightest of slumps in her shoulders. It was about as much of an agreement as Virgil expected to get. Before she could change her mind, Virgil slipped the stump over her head, and bowed as the cameras flashed. The First Lady slipped back into her best smile, and strutted up to the entrance on the arm of one of her secret service details.

After that, the crowd rushed in, and soon everyone in the President’s motorcade was wearing an official Rooty stump. He saw Flintridge himself try to ward off a stump until one of the Davis twins worked her magic. After that, he was lead past Virgil with a bemused smile on his face. Virgil wasn’t a fan of the President, but he had to admit the man handled a strange and new situation with more aplomb than most.

It was after the last of the VIPs passed, Virgil noticed Rogers leading some secret service agents. None of them, he noticed, were wearing a stump. As they drew closer, Rogers noticed Virgil, and pointed at him. “That’s the man.” he said to the agents. “He’s the one.”

The two agents sped over to Virgil, and clamped their arms around his, keeping him from moving. “I don’t know what you think you were doing back there,” one of them said between his teeth, “but I promise you, you are going to regret it.”

Virgil smiled, his work was done.

Amanda stepped in front of them and raised her tablet as a camera.

“Give me that,” one of the agents yelled.

Amanda stepped back a few feet looking defiant.

“Go,” Virgil yelled. “Get out of here. Take the truck. Head for 16.19.”

She nodded her head, turned, and sprinted through the crowd.

One of the agents put his wrist to his mouth, and spoke into the hidden microphone. Virgil hoped Amanda had enough time to get away.

The first agent began speaking in his ear. “Okay, funny man. We’re going to move along quietly. You’re going to stay with us. No funny business. Do you understand?”

Virgil could feel the sharp point of a gun muzzle in his ribs. He nodded his head, and let the agents move him into the amphitheater. They seated him off to one side near the front, careful to have an agent on either side of him.

From his vantage point Virgil saw the crowd forming along the first few rows. The President and his party were already in their seats upon the stage. A large podium stood at center stage, the Presidential Seal glowing on its front. The wall behind the President had been painted white. Large cracks, some of them unsuccessfully filled by plaster were starting to weep from the moisture. Virgil could see the cracks slowly expand even as he watched the small stream of water at the base increase in size. The white paint could not quite hide the bruised and purple color of the wall behind.

He felt his hands digging into the arm rests as he watched the wall start to fail.

Someone, Rogers he thought, approached the podium. The crowd dutifully went silent as he waited. A low humming sound, too soft to be heard over the crowd, was now prominent in the relative silence. Rogers tapped the microphone, and got the ever present feedback squeal. “Thank you, everyone,” he said when it died down. The hum suddenly grew louder. “Before we begin…” Rogers started, but was stopped by an increase in humming. Virgil looked to the hills about the amphitheater seats. The plants were swaying and whirling. Those with mobile roots were trying to get away. It was a scene all to familiar to him. One he saw every time he had his nightmare.

The humming grew louder still. Something fell off the stage with a crash. There was a scream. People started to look around in panic. The wall on one side gave a loud pop. Pieces of wood, splinters – some of them large enough to be telephone poles – flew across the crowd. Virgil felt the agent on his right get slammed into his seat, and then slump down. Warm liquid splashed his face. Virgil reached up and felt blood. He looked over, the agent appeared to be fine, just knocked unconscious. Without thinking, Virgil grabbed one of his extra stumps, and shoved the plug end in the sleeping man’s mouth.

“What are you doing,” the other agent said? He was holding a gun, waiving it at Virgil.

Virgil looked at him and said slowly, careful not to let the adrenaline speed up his voice, “Watch carefully. You push this end into the mouth like this,” he said as he shoved the stump into his mouth again, “and you activate it like this,” he said as he pulled out, and then twisted hard the emergency tab. The stump immediately went rigid, the fringe on the bottom swaying as if underwater.

Virgil handed the agent his last stump. “Get him out of here,” he yelled over the increasing noise, desperately trying to be heard!

“What?”

“The President. Get him the hell out of here. The whole place is going to collapse.”

The agent raised his gun. At first Virgil thought he was going to shoot him, but then the agent turned his wrist, and spoke into his microphone.

Men on the stage jumped up, as if shocked, and before anyone could react, grabbed the President and the first lady, and carried them up the aisles at a dead run. They had just reached the entrance when the wall burst.

Like a cannon, the wall collapsed. Millions and millions of liters of frigid salt water rushed in like a hammer. The huge artificial sun overhead gave a loud fizzle, and exploded. The people ran, some of them screaming at the top of their lungs. Virgil slumped down to the ground, and waited. He knew he didn’t have long to wait.

He was right.

 

*

His first thought was it was too bright. He tried opening his eyes, but they hurt too much to open. He heard muddled murky sounds, the buzzing of voices. Then he felt a warm hand in his own. Even with his eyes closed he knew that hand.

“Jessie,” he croaked out. He felt her squeeze his hand. A tear leaked down from his eye.

He tried to get up, leaning on one arm, but was too exhausted to stay, so he fell back.

“How bad,” he croaked, squinting into the light. He could hear the nurse try to calm him, but he ignored her noise, concentrating instead on Jessie’s hand. He forced himself to open just one eye, squinting into the light. He could just make out the shape of Jessie, a dark lump against the white light. “How bad,” he croaked again? “How many did we lose?”

He felt her squeeze his hand then relax. “Twenty,” she said almost in a whisper, “maybe thirty. No one’s sure.”

“The President,” he asked?

“Alive. One of the first recovered.”

“Rick? The crew,” he asked?

“They stayed on the US side to help, but never even got wet. Or so he says.” She gave his hand another squeeze.

“The reporter,” he asked? “Waters?”

A voice from the other side of his bed shot out, “You think I’d let a little thing like a million tons of ice cold sea water stop me, Skipper,” she said?

Rick gave a weak chuckle that turned into a painful cough. He waited to speak until he was sure he wouldn’t cough again. “I see,” he said, and the swallowed hard. “…you two have met.”

“You were right,” the reporter said. “Like peas in a pod.”

Virgil saw Jessie smile, and then the tears started falling. She held his hand and silently cried. No one said a word. When she was done, he gave her hand a slight squeeze. By then he could open both eyes, although the room still seemed painfully bright.

“You’re a hero you know,” Jessie said, wiping her eyes with a tissue.

“I am? What for this time?”

“Well at first everyone thought it was an attack by the English. Everyone in America that is. We all presumed you were dead. The military was on high alert, and crowds were gathering, begging Congress to declare war. But Amanda here got through to an American publisher she knew, and somehow got her story out.”

“I had to twist a few arms,” Amanda said. “But I got the job done.”

Jessie continued, “At first no one believed her, but then the flowers started blooming.”

“The e-hap system,” Virgil asked?

“Yep. And blooming on the English side. The American side was…“

“Damaged,” he said. “I know.”

“While we here in America were clamoring for war,” Jessie continued, “the English were gathering all of their rescue gear, and starting to dig. They found the President the first week. After that, well everybody was so busy falling over themselves in the rescue effort that they kind of forgot about the war.

“Dang,” he said. “Just when I thought I might have a Navy career again, peace broke out.”

Jessie gave him a playful slap on the shoulder. “I think you’re done with the sea for a bit. At least I’m done with you drowning in it.”

There was a moment of awkward silence, then Amanda spoke again. “I hate to interrupt, but the President’s right outside the door. Like everyone else in America, he wants to meet the hero of Pod 17. Think you’re up to it?”

“The hero of Pod 17?”

“Corny,” Amanda said. “I know. It was the best I could do on short notice. I kind of had my hands full writing while Ahmed was driving.”

“So the old limey made it?”

“Barely, but he’ll survive.”

Jessie let out a laugh, “If he can survive being married to the biggest reporter in the business.”

This caught Virgil completely by surprise. “Married! That old bachelor? Who in the world would be stupid enough to… Ouch,” he said as Jessie slugged him. Then he realized what they were saying. “Oh good god. He married you Amanda? Dang. That’s the smartest thing that man has even done.”

They all laughed at this.

“Does that mean you’re ready to face the President,” Amanda asked?

“Well, I guess. If he can stand me, I can stand him.”

Everyone laughed again.

Sound Advice

I wrote this story I back in June of 2011, just after wrapping up my first novel. I really liked working with the novel’s protagonist, Father Juan, and was playing around with ways to use him in short stories. Santa Muerte also makes a guest appearance, but she does that a lot in my work.

The protagonist is a new guy, Mario Cumomo, the most successful Director in Hollywood, at least my fictional version of Hollywood. Only Mario has a problem, one that all his money cannot buy. Fortunately he knows someone who can fix it for him. At a price.

This short (6,600 words) is a bit of a tear jerker. At least its intended to be. It answers the question, “what do you give the man that has everything?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I came to myself holding the handle of a broken coffee mug. The rest of the mug, along with its contents, were splashed or smashed all over the room – along with my water glass, my notes, the two desk monitors, the computer, various dvds and books on the bookshelf, a bad painting on the North wall, and pretty much anything else of value. I must have blacked out again. What was that, the forth time this year? Somehow in my rage I had managed to spare both sets of speakers, the ones on either side of the screen, and the ones on top of the desk. How they had escaped the chair I must have thrown into the ripped screen, I have no idea. Everything else in the windowless sound room was a mess. Everything except the the lowly torchère in the corner providing a dim background light, and the soundman, James.

James sat with his lang pale hands folded, his face holding that same serene look he always wore. Tall, thin, hair greying, in his 40s, he was the calmest man I had ever met, which is why I liked to work with him; nothing fazed him. The contrast of his tranquil face with the tornado like destruction of the room brought an uninvited laugh to my lips.

“Are you through?” he asked when I was done. His face calm, but concern was evident in this voice.

I looked at the mug handle still in my hand. The brown glaze flowed smoothly until it hit the edges where the rest of mug used to be. Past the break the unglazed edges were white and porous, looking like the scale model of a cliff from a bad 60s movie. I could remember standing there holding this handle, but not a damn thing before. Like the other times before, I had no idea what had set had me off, or why. “Bloody hell,” I said.

We were at a boutique sound shop working on a scene; a small backstory element not that important on its own, but crucial to establishing the protagonists motivation in the third act. The problem was, the damn scene just wouldn’t jell. The lighting was all wrong, the dialog was wooden, and the child we used just didn’t have the emotional depth the scene required. Six months ago I had handed it to the second AD, my mind at the time on other things. Unfortunately, he just didn’t have the chops. Even worse, there was nothing I could do about now but try and fix it. You see, I had approved it all. I was the director.

I had worked on the scene all last week at the studio’s main sound room, but we ran out of time; the room being booked too deep to allow for delays. So I had the AD take over the next bit of editing on the big stage, and came out here to attempt some CPR.

Now, after several very long days, I was still dealing with the same problem. No matter what I tried, no matter how many tricks we attempted, that damn scene would not work. Every time that stupid kid opened his mouth, it just made me mad. Mad, but not destructive. I have a reputation in this town for being a bit of a prick, some of it well earned I might add, but I’ve never done anything so unprofessional as to trash a sound room. That is, until this year.

James bent over from his chair, and picked up the phone. He put the hand-piece to her ear then set it down in disgust. Following the cord from the phone, he pulled on it until he found the ripped and twisted end. The connector was not just broken, there were strands of copper wire mixed in as well. I must have jerked it out of the wall. I looked down at my hands wondering where I found the strength to do that.

“Hold on,” he said calmly. “Let me see what I can do.” He got up and walked to the door. He must have found the shop’s owner and the AE cowering in the hallway outside for he stopped just outside the door.

I busied myself looking for my phone, cursing the whole time. I found it in pieces under the overturned couch. I put the couch back to something like level, and tried cramming the battery back in the phone. While I was working I could hear them talking outside. From where I was sitting I could only see part of the hallway thought the door. The bright artificial light spilled into the room, casting everything just outside the door in a harsh glow. The large windows in the offices across the hallway looked out onto the Hollywood hills. At midnight, the city looked peaceful, serene. The many street lights randomly strewn among the houses giving it appearance of a Christmas decoration. All it needed was the snow.

“Are the other rooms booked,” I heard James ask quietly? It was a silly question. This late in the summer every sound room in the town was booked doing last minute touches for the big Christmas releases.

The other two said something, but it was too low for me to hear. James turned around, but was stopped by a question before he made it through the door.

“Is everything okay,” the AE asked? Even from here I could hear the fear in her voice.

“Are you kidding,” James said? When she didn’t respond, he continued, “Look. Just get the techs in here, and have them set everything back up. This room’s done for the night. I know I am, and he’s,” he said indicating myself, “is even worse. If you can get it set up for an early start tomorrow morning – sorry, later this morning,” he said after glancing at his watch – “that would be a help.”

The AE mumbled something I couldn’t hear. The last time I saw her, she had dark rings under her eyes. I remembered she had been here every night just as late as the rest of us, and never once complained. Well, that was the industry for you. There were a lot of jobs that were much less demanding, but they didn’t come with the same paycheck either.

“It’s not that bad,” I heard James say. “I had just saved all the files, and most of the stuff in there can be easily fixed or replaced. Why don’t you call in the techs. I’ll get Mario to his car, and you can go home and get yourself some sleep.”

“Are you sure,” she asked, concern evident in her voice? “What are you going to do with him?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, sounding both confident and unsure. “I have a few ideas. We’ll figure something out.”

“Are you sure, James,” she asked a second time? I could tell from her tone she was more relieved than concerned.

“Sure,” he said. “Like I said, I’ve done this kind of thing before.”

I was curious what he meant by that. What kind of thing had he done before that was like cleaning up after a director throws a fit, and destroys a sound room?

I suppose I should have felt sorry for him, but I didn’t. You see, I am one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, and I’m married to an A list actress. I am the 3000 pound gorilla in the room. In any room. Pissing me off could prove to be a very bad career move in this town. This little sound shop was too small a fish to afford angering the studio, which amounted to pissing off their director; me. They knew it, and I knew it. So while I was wondering what a lowly sound man thought he could pull off with a power hitter like me, at the same time I wasn’t exactly scared. Besides I like James, or Jamie, or whatever his name is.

To be honest, I should also admit I was curious. I have a soft spot when it comes to things about myself. Kate likes to tease me about it. She says I am too narcissistic, too self centered. She may have a point, but at the same time, being this way – being this interested in myself – has gotten me exactly to the place I am today. If acting like a selfish jerk put piles of cash in your lap, what would you do?

See what I mean?

So when James (or is it Jamie) said “Come on,” I knew he was up to something, I just didn’t know what.

“Come on?” I asked. “Where are we going?”

“I have an idea,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.”

“Does it involve the Industry,” I asked? At that moment there was nothing about the industry that made me the least bit happy.

“Not at all,” he said with a smile.

“Good,” I said curiosity getting the best of me as I followed him out the door, and down the hall to the elevator. “A drink then,” I asked? “I could use one right now.”

He touched the down button as we waited. “Nope,” he said, “but we can do that too, if you like.”

Now I was even more curious. “Friend of yours?”

He gave me a funny look, the first one I had seen that disturbed his calm face in a week. “Not exactly,” he said as we stepped into the elevator. “Maybe more like a mentor.”

“A mentor? He’s not some swami or a spiritualist or something like that, is he?”

The sound man laughed as the doors closed. “Not he. She. And no. She’s nothing like that,” he said as we dropped down to the parking level.

My phone rang just as we stepped out. Apparently I had got it working again. It was Jane, my personal assistant. Someone from the house had called wondering when I would be home tonight. I looked over at the James as he talked in rapid Spanish with Chewy my driver. “I don’t know,” I told her. “Tell them I’ll be there when I can.”

As I hung up, James pulled up in front in a small white pickup. “Get in,” he said.

“Where not taking the limo,” I asked, “to where ever this mysterious destination is?”

“I’d rather not,” he said leaning down to see me though the passenger window. “It draws the wrong kind of attention, if you know what I mean.”

Ever since Kate and I got married, the press seemed to follow me where ever I went. I’ve made the tabloid press more times this year than I care to think about. Leaving them behind sounded like a good idea right then. I opened the door and got in.

James put the truck into gear, and took us up the ramp. We came out under the building, and the Hollywood sky seemed to just float over our heads. The night air was just slightly cool, not cold. I rolled down the window, and felt the heat of the day being released by the streets.

I looked out the window, and watched the streets of LA roll past. Somehow, without the tinted windows of the limo, I felt more connected to the buildings, the cars, the little shops going past. Like I was a part of the city, not just passing through it.

“You’re name,” I said, suddenly remembering I was in a car with a man I hardly knew, and could not remember his name. “Is is James, or Jamie?”

The sound man looked over at me, and gave a smile. “Neither,” he said. “Its Jaime,” he said, pronouncing it the Spanish way; hi-me. “Jaime Delgado. James or Jamie is the anglicized version.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I saw it written down somewhere, and assumed…”

Jaime gave a short laugh. “It’s okay,” he said with a wry expression. “Considering what I been called for most of my life, a little confusion over my name is nothing.”

With an opening like that, I had to ask. “What did they used to call you?”

He smiled again as the darkened houses of the sleeping city rolled past the window. “Father Juan,” he said.

“Father, as in a priest? Hail Mary and all that?”

“Yes,” he said flatly. “All that.”

His response made it clear it was not a topic he liked to talk about. My curiosity was piqued, but I understood his need. All of us have skeletons in our closets. Having a team of reporters dedicated to unearthing all of mine and my wife’s, gave me some sympathy for his position. Who cared what he did in the past? Jaime was a first class sound man, his suggestions were good, and his demeanor always professional. At that point, nothing else about him mattered.

Jaime drove in silence, taking his time, driving at a moderate pace. He took us in a circuitous route, forgoing boulevards for backstreets whenever possible. If you wanted to elude a media circus, this was a good way to do it. After a while I noticed we were somewhere near downtown, by the USC campus. The small houses and old apartments has the disheveled look of age and neglect. Most were spanish style, their sharp corners covered with plaster or painted adobe. Their long narrow windows often arched over their tops. We pulled down a side street, and then up into an alley. Jaime parked the truck in an empty spot behind a dilapidated store. The curved spanish roof tiles clung onto the façade above the doorway like a crooked teeth.

“We’ll have to be quiet,” he said as we got out. “My friends, the ones who own this shop, they sleep right above it.”

I could see a staircase to one side of the alley that lead up to a second floor. The living quarters on the second level looked recently redone, with fresh paint, and new windows obvious in the moonlight. LA is like that. A striking contrast of new and old, rich and poor, all crammed next to each other.

“Are you sure they don’t mind?” I whispered as he pulled out a key and stuck it in the back door.

He turned back to look at me as his hand twisted the lock. “Are you kidding?” he asked as he pushed open the door. “They’re the ones who gave me the key.”

I followed him into a small shop that was cluttered with dark shapes. In the soft moonlight I could see all kinds of items, statues and such, on little shelves all around the room. A glass counter to one side held candles and bric-a-brac. I could just make out the writing in the moonlight. Most of it in Spanish. In the dim moonlight, the store looked like a bible bookstore that had been crossed with a head shop.

Near the back I saw a life-sized mannequin. It was a woman in a long white dress. The dress showed an overabundance of lace and frill. From my take on Spanish culture, I pegged it to be a wedding dress. All kinds of candles and statures surrounded the mannequin, making it look less like a store display, and more like a very large altar. The head was covered in a long complex veil. Something about it looked wrong, but I couldn’t see what. When we got closer to it, I noticed is wasn’t a woman at all. It was a skeleton.

“What kind of religion would put a skeleton in a wedding dress,” I asked?

“What? Oh that,” Jaime said, noticing what I was looking at. “That’s… She’s for the regular patrons. Don’t worry about it. Where we want to go is in here,” he said pointing to a nondescript door to the side to the bizarre altar.

I stopped him with my hand on his shoulder. “You sure this isn’t some religious thing?” I was starting to regret my trust in him.

“Positive,” he said evenly.

Jaime opened the door slowly, then stopped. He turned to me and said quietly, “Look. I never quite know what to expect, every time I go in here, and I’ve been here a lot. She is… uh, different. Not what you expect.” I tried to mention that knowing the unexpected was part of my job, but he quieted me with a hand. “Just, try not to be too surprised. Okay? And, well, I don’t want to sound insulting, but try to keep an open mind.”

With that he lead me into the room, and closed the door.

Now I have to stop at this point to tell you that there is probably nothing that pisses me off more then when a screenwriter stops to warn the audience that something “different” is coming. Its a stupid convention that attempts to squeeze more mystery out of a piss-poor story; a cheap and tawdry way to cover up the mistakes of a bad plot. In my experience it almost always fails.

And asking me to keep an open mind – me, a director – a man that makes impossible things happen all the time? This was like asking a fish to be more wet, or asking the Pope, to borrow an old saw, to be more Catholic. In short, it was insulting. Insulting and stupid. All Jaime did with his little warning was to let me know I was in for some kind of a performance, and judging by past experience, it was going to be a bad one.

The room we were in was small, maybe eight feet on a side. A tiny opening in the ceiling let in a soft glow of blue moonlight. The walls had the brown color of aged, unpainted adobe. Instead of a floor there was uneven packed dirt. The doorway was framed in old wood, the few strips of paint remaining were pealing. There were no other openings save the skylight and the door we entered. On the ground against the backside was a small wooden pallet, maybe 5 feet long, and half that wide. On one end of the pallet was an neatly folded indian blanket which looked to be old and well used.

Jaime busied himself lighting a few candles while I stood in the middle of the room thinking dark thoughts. The blue of the moonlight puddled at my feet slowly gave way to the rich reds and golds of the candle light. He shook out the wooden match he was using, and I watched its smoke slowly curl up to the skylight.

“Now what?” I asked, still in a foul mood.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he said. “We wait.”

“For how long?” I was growing impatient.

He shrugged his shoulders again.

I let out a sigh, and put my hands behind my back, wanting to get this performance over with so I could go back home. I should never have trusted Jaime to come out here, I realized. It was late at night, and I was far from home. I didn’t even know where I was at, but my phone did, and there were people at my house who would pick me up when I called them.

It was this last thought that comforted me. Knowing there was someone, somewhere who would come if I called. I know it sounds silly, but sometimes it the little things that help. In this case it helped me to relax enough to start paying attention. A good thing too as no sooner did I have this thought, then I saw the blanket start to move and shiver.

It was an interesting effect, seeing the blanket unfold on its own. I had seen something like it before at a magic show at the Magic Castle, but that was fairly far away and up on a stage. It was much more impressive to see it right up close.

As I watched, the blanket folded all the way out and suddenly started rising up, twisting and tugging as it went. It was filling up, expanding, like someone was crawling up into it from below. I was just starting to look for the trapdoor under the pallet, when I noticed the blanket had stopped moving. With it stopped I could see it was no longer a blanket, but the dress on the body of an old woman. The transformation was so quick that I didn’t even see it. One minute it was a blanket, the next, a dress.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jaime bow down to the woman, but I was still too transfixed by the excellent stage craft.

“That was incredible,” I said. “What a great trick. Can you do it again? I simply have to know how you did that! I know just the scene for it in too.”

Jaime said something to the woman. I don’t know what. It sounded like a formal greeting in Spanish. Like something you say to a visiting studio head while he’s interrupting your work.

The old woman looked at him, then looked at me. Her eyes locked on mine, and I felt a chill going through me. The hair on the back of my neck started to rise.

The woman was short, maybe 5 foot 2. She had a round face with prominent cheek bones, like you see on the indians out of the less civilized parts of Mexico. Her dark skin was wrinkled and crusted with age. Her hair was long, mostly grey. It hung loose around her head like a crown, not braided or tied. Woven into some of the strands were bits of bones and feathers. Though short, she stood in that room with a comfort, a regal bearing, that made her seem taller. And her eyes… They held you with a confidence that said, “I can kick your ass anytime I want.”

Now I’ve met most of the great actresses of our age, I’m even married to one, so I know what it’s like to see a woman project confidence. Even up close. Hell, I’ve directed it. But this. This old woman. She held that confidence. That, and something more. Something primal. Something animal. It was a grand performance. It was wonderful, it was beautiful. I couldn’t wait to use her for something. She was so great, I knew I had to write a screenplay around her.

Only I couldn’t talk to her.

Still lost in her eyes, I asked Jaime, “Where did you find her? She is wonderful. She is perfect. I’m so glad you brought me out here. Does she speak English? Is she SAG?”

Jaime placed a hand on my shoulder. “Please, Mario,” he said. “Please. It’s not like that. She’s not…”

The old woman interrupted him, saying something rapidly in her language. It may have been a question, but from her it sounded more like a demand. I could feel Jaime tense, but he said nothing. She asked again, this time shorter. Her eyes never leaving mine.

Jaime finally spoke at length. I don’t know what he said, but his tone was that of a school boy caught cheating on a test.

When he finished talking, the old women’s eyes grew hard. It was a very small change, but suddenly the room felt very cold.

“What did you tell her,” I asked feeling myself get angry? Clearly something he had said had made pushed her the wrong way.

“Only what you said,” Jaime replied.

“Tell her I want to use her,” I said. “Tell her I want make a movie with her as the star.”

He looked at me as if I was an idiot. “But you don’t understand,” he said.

“Tell her!”

“Okay,” he replied. “If you say so.”

He spoke at some length to her. She asked a few questions in return, which he answered quickly. When he was done she looked at him with astonishment, then back at me. Then she laughed.

She said something else which she translated. “She thinks you are very funny,” he said. “An excellent joker.”

I was shocked. A joker? Me?

Doesn’t she know who I am,” I asked. “Tell her. Tell here I am Mario Cumomo, the director. Surely she’s heard of me. Whistling Bells? Hallowed Ground III? The Churning? I’m one of the best directors in town.”

Jaime translated my words while I waited. She smiled at first, then the humor seemed to peal from her face leaving a stone hard surface underneath. With cold eyes she looked at me and spoke is short sharp sentences.

“It is not that I do not know you, Señor Director,” Jaime translated rapidly. “It is you who doesn’t know me. I am Santa Muerte, the queen of death. And you are a naive fool to think you can offer me anything.”

She leaned forward, and ran one hand past each side of my face, like she was brushing off a fly from either ear. With each motion she made a noise like “foof, foof.”

“That’s better,” she said. “He can understand me now.”

And it was true. She still spoke Spanish, or whatever language it was, but I could understand every word.

“So why did you bring this fool to me. Miho,” she said looking sharply at Jaime?

“Please Abuela,” he pleaded, calling her by the Spanish word for Grandmother. “He may be ignorant, but he is not a fool. He is simply spoiled, like a boy too used to getting his way.”

“What,” I said interrupting? I couldn’t help myself. “Who is ignorant? What are you talking about?”

“You!” they both said in unison.

“Do yourself a favor, Mario,” Jaime said to me in English. “Shut up and listen.”

I opened my mouth, but something held my tongue. Kate liked to joke that it would take a miracle to get me to stop talking. Perhaps she was right.

“See, Abuela,” Jaime said. “He can learn.”

“Okay,” said the old woman her eyes still fierce. “Perhaps he is not a complete fool,” she said without much conviction, “but why did you bring him to me?”

Jaime held her eye for a moment, and then spoke softly, “Because, Abuela, you took something from him. Something he cannot live without.”

“And,” she said like a challenge.

“And,” Jaime said defiantly. “He needs it back.”

She paused for a moment, both looking at me, and Jaime, her eyes grave. “Does he know what you are asking?”

“No Abulea, he doesn’t?”

“Will he pay the price? You know the rules.”

“Yes, Abuela, I know how you work.” He swallowed for a moment then said, “If he doesn’t pay the price, I will.”

She looked at him, her eyes suddenly large with surprise. “Are you sure, Miho?”

“Si,” he said.

“But you hardly know this man. Would you pay that price?”

“I may hardly know him, Abuela, but I have worked with him long enough to see into his heart. There is a decent man underneath all the bravado. I am sure. I will pay the price if I have to, but I don’t think I will.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You trust him that much do you?”

“Yes.”

“Forgive me,” I interrupted because I could not take it any more. “I have no idea what you are talking about, but I gather there is some cost involved. I know you prefer me to stay quiet, but if it involves me, shouldn’t I have some say in this?”

The old woman turned and gave me a look of grudging respect. Jaime said to her, “See, Abuela. He’s not a total idiot.”

Then he turned to me. “I came here to intercede for you. I cannot say what for, or why. That is part of the rules. If I told you in advance, it wouldn’t work.”

“Like some kind of magic, or something,” I asked?

“Something like that,” he said. “Yes.”

“Hum,” I said. “So I can’t know what it is, but I still have to accept. It that what it is?”

“Yes,” he said. “Exactly.”

“What if I say no,” I said.

“Then nothing happens,” he replied. “She might even wipe this memory from you, for all I know.”

The old woman gave a slight nod as if removing a man’s memory was an easy thing. That chilled me more than her words.

“Who are you,” I asked out loud before I could think to stop myself.

“She is Santa Muerte,” Jaime said. “The Saint of Death.”

“The saint of death,” I asked? ”How does that work? I thought all you Catholics…”

Jaime raised up his hand to stop me. “Another time, Mario. We need to decide. You need to decide. I already made my decision.”

I thought for a moment. “You want me to trust you,” I said? “Want me to pay a price for something I don’t know what it is, nor what it is about? Is that about right?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I take it the price is high, is that true?”

“That depends,” said Jaime. “For me, the price would be very high, but for you… Well I cannot say much, but I think you would pay this price. Willingly.”

“You trust me that much?” I asked. I was surprised and touched in a way that was troubling.

“Lets us just say that this retired priest still knows a thing or two about people. If it helps, think of it as a wager I am willing to take.”

“This isn’t some trick to try and get my money is it?”

Jaime laughed at this. “If I had wanted money, Mr. Cumomo, I would have stayed in the drug dealing business like my family. Believe me when I say, dealing with Santa Muerte has cost me more then it could ever give.”

A look of sadness crossed both of their faces. That surprised me. How could sadness connect Jaime to this strange woman? Then again, I reasoned, she was the saint of death. Sadness and death tended to go hand in hand. What surprised me more was the idea that Death could feel sadness too. That was new to me.

Then suddenly, as if the plot had dropped into my lap, I knew exactly how I would chose.

“Lets do it,” I said. “I accept.”

“Are you sure,” she asked? “This is am important decision.”

One of the things about being a good director is knowing when to make a good decision, and sticking with it. Whatever this was about, I was ready. I waived my hand with impatience. “Yes, grandmother,” I said gravely, “I am sure. Lets do this.”

“Okay,” she said. “As you wish.”

I felt a breeze against my skin, a warm one. Suddenly the small room transformed itself into a meadow, the dark midnight giving way to sunny day. We stood in a field of knee high plants, most of them supporting colorful flowers. They surrounded us on every side. Off in the distance I could see rolling hills. The Hollywood hills. Yet these hills were devoid of any trace of man. It was as if all of humanity had been wiped away, all of our sin, all of our anger. In its place was a perfect world. A perfect Spring.

I heard a sound behind me. The soft footstep of a child. Then I heard a little girls voice. A voice I had not heard in a long time. A voice that chilled my heart. “Papa,” she said? “Is that you?”

“Elsa?”

It was nine months since I last heard that voice. I remember the day well. It was the next to the last day of production. Elsa and I had been planing our “Daddy Week” for a while. Each night, before she went to sleep, we would go over the schedule. On Tuesday we would go to the zoo. On Wednesday, the Science Museum, one of her favorite places. Then on Thursday we would go to Travel Town to see the trains. And so on. Al the places a precocious 5 year old liked to go.

A “Daddy Week” or a “Mommy Week” was a little holidays that Kate and I did with Elsa whenever we completed a movie. It was both a celebration, and a way to connect with her, making up for the lost time caused by our busy schedules. I had kissed her goodbye that morning, giving her a hug for Mommy too (Kate was on a shoot in New York). I remember Elsa had been so anxious, saying she just couldn’t wait for tomorrow.

That afternoon she had been in such a hurry that she decided to cross the street without waiting for her nanny. She never saw the car that hit her.

I dropped to my knees, as she ran up and threw her arms around me. I buried my face in her hair, crying. Weeping like a lost soul. She was my love, she was my everything. She was the reason I went to work, and the reason I came home. We shared a thousand songs together, played a hundred games. I would do any thing for her. She was my joy. She was my heart, and she was taken from me completely one afternoon while I was editing the last minute foley.

It was like my life had been cut with a brick. I could not think, I could not act, I could not work. Only I had to work. A director directs. He needs to make the big decisions no matter what. That comes with the job. That and the paycheck. Only the paycheck, the fame, didn’t seem so great compared to the simple joy of holding my daughter, and crying into her hair.

If that was the price the Saint was talking about, I would gladly pay it. A thousand times over I would pay it. What was the use of wealth, if it could not buy a simple thing as this?

I stopped hugging Elsa long enough to hold her out at arms length. Her smile was still the same, her hair the same tangled bird’s nest when not braided. She was wearing the same clothes she the last morning I saw her. She was my little Elsa. Everything exactly like it was nine months ago.

Unbidden, a line came to me from an old college philosophy class. “You can never step twice into the same river.” Good old Heraclitus. That’s when I knew something was up. I could feel the anger in me. The rage starting to build, but I could not be angry in front of my child. Not my dear sweet Elsa.

“I can’t keep her, can I?” A tear unbidden, dropped down my cheek.

“No, mortal,” The Saint said. “Once I have taken a life, it cannot be returned.”

“Can I trade my life for hers then?” I asked as I brushed the hair of of her face.

“That I cannot do either,” she Saint.

I held Elsa close to me, Hugging her fiercely, so great was my need. Then a tiny voice in my ear said, “Its okay papa. It’s okay. I like it here. They treat me nice. There are lots of great toys, and always fun games to play. You’ll see.”

She wiggled out of my arms and walked over the the Saint of Death. She raised her little arm, and placed her hand into the wrinkled claw-like hand of the Saint. “Thank you, Grandma,” she said with a smile, “I liked seeing Papa. Can we do it again?”

The old woman shook her head, and that’s when I knew the price I had to pay. I was not my great wealth she wanted. Not the fame. It was not even my life. It was to never to see my daughter again. Ever.

I started to cry, wondering if I could pay that price. If I could make that choice. My heart felt crushed, ready to break all over again. I had forgotten how much she was a part of me. How much I needed her. Then I felt her little hand on my shoulder again, and a strand of her wild hair touched my cheek. “Its okay Papa,” she said. “Don’t cry. Mommy has a surprise for you. You’ll see.”

I placed my hand on top of hers, and gave it a squeeze. I looked up into the eyes of the Saint of Death, and nodded my consent. Then still holding my little girls hand on my shoulder, I dropped my head and I cried.

I was still had my hand on my shoulder when I found myself back in the little room at the religious store. The moonlight fell down to the earth, and puddled around me on my knees. My face was wet with my tears. I could still smell a trace of wildflowers in the room.

I lifted my hand from my shoulder. There was something in it. Instead of my daughters hand was a small statue of a skeleton in a wedding dress. The likeness of the little figure was perfect. Real. Except for the flesh on her face, it captured everything about her. I put it into my pocket, and we made our way quietly out of the store.

*

The following morning while in the shower, an idea came to me about the scene, the one that had been vexing me. Back in the shop we quickly set up a few simple edits, and by 11:30 I knew I had resolved it.

Jaime never mentioned a thing about the previous night, but he didn’t bat an eye when I put the little statue of Santa Muerte on the desk before we started, and he made sure I had it when we left.

Just after lunch I got a call while we were going over the last little edits. It was my assistant, Jane, telling me Kate had called. She was on set again, this time in Chicago. I dialed her cell, and got her just before they went back to shooting.

“You sitting down,” she said? “I’ve got good news.”

“Yes I know,” I said.

“You know,” she asked sounding crestfallen?

“I know that you have good news,” I said. “Just not what the news is.”

“You do?” she said. “How do you know that?”

“Look, are you going to tell me what it is, or do I have to fly out there and beat it out of you,” I said sarcastically?

“Oh, you’re so sexy when you’re angry,” she whispered. It was a joke we used to share back when Elsa was first born, and we were dealing with the frustration of being first time parents. We hadn’t spoken like that in months. It hit her too, I could tell as she paused and forced herself to keep from crying. I wasn’t wearing makeup for a part, so I could cry for the both of us.

“Okay,” she said. “Something funny came up last week, so I made an appointment with the doctor. I went and saw her this morning.”

My heart skipped a beat. Something funny? Oh God, not again, I thought. I forced myself to keep a light voice. “And what did he say?”

“Not he. She. And she said we are most certainly and definitely pregnant. What do you think of that?”

For the next few minutes all I could do was cry. When I finally could speak I said, “What I think is that I am the happiest man in the world.”

And you know, it was true.

New Story: Take Off

When I was a kid my dad was a fighter pilot at the Fresno Air National Guard. Every once in a while he used to sneak us out to the Guard to look at the airplanes. I still remember the time when I was about 8 that he let me sit in the cockpit of a F-102. The bottom edge of the canopy was well above my head so it was like being dropped into a well where the sides surrounded you with mysterious dials, nobs, and switches. It was an incredible and heady experience.

So knowing this, it’s probably not much of a surpise that I’m a fan of airplanes.

 

As a kid I used to draw airplanes in school. Later I learned to build models of them. First plastic and then stick-and-tissue ones. I even tried my hand at radio controlled planes, although I didn’t really get the hang of them until I met my late father-in-law, who had a massive collection of model airplanes, as well as the experience to fly them without crashing. Even now, I still look up into the sky when a plane or bird passes.

Do you remember, when you were young, reading science fiction stories of boys building rockets and flying into space? Well, Take Off, was my way of trying to distill my excitement of airplanes into that kind of a sci-fi story. Even though the protagonist of this story is an young adult, it was intentionally written as a “boy’s adventure”, with a maximum of excitement, and a minimum of adult themes.  Except for a few curse words in the first paragraph, there is nothing in this story you cannot share with a 10 year old. Young children won’t get parts of the ending, things like a “love interest” are generally beyond them. But every kid knows deep in their bones what it means to belong to a family, and that is what this story sells. In spades. Well, family with a large side of math and engineering, because the future has to be built, not just dreamed.

Take Off is a little over 14,000 words long, so its going to take you a half hour or more to make it through, but it will be a half hour spent inside the mysterious world of the Cloudies; families who roam the Earth like gypsies in giant powered gliders called cloud-ships, that fly for months on end 10 miles or more above the surface, and live in a world where mathematical precision and quality engineering mean the difference between life and death.

So grab your oxygen mask, take a seat, and prepare for an adventure.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Take Off

“That’s a house,” said the girl’s voice in my headset. “That’s a god-damned house! What in the hell is it doing there?”

I was in the nose of the cloud-ship Alice May, on its final approach. One of the rare times these massive gliders actually land. Landing is a tense moment, the whole family was keyed up, especially the patriarch, George, who lay next to me in the cramped observation bubble.

“Paul?” he quietly said over the intercom to the 15 year-old boy who was piloting the massive ship, “Is there any way you can miss that?”

“Unknown,” replied the calm voice in my ear. “Unknowable.” Unlike his 13 year-old sister who was navigating, Paul could remain calm in the direst of conditions.

I glanced at the instrument readouts on my tablet. We were on final approach, 1500 feet and dropping rapidly, about to turn onto our final leg and land. The giant glider, technically a powered sailplane, lumbered and creaked as its great wings flexed and shifted in the turbulent warm air near the planet’s surface caused by the heat island of the city. The excess energy of millions people living cheek-to-jowl, shimmered over the hills just below us. The long graceful wings flexed and shifted, computerized controls making subtle changes to the wing’s shape, keeping the giant glider on course. The computer guidance made going in a straight line fairly easy, but a glider with a 112 meter wingspan wasn’t exactly designed to turn on a dime, especially at its landing speed. Only now it needed to.

“Can you fly around it?” The voice next to me reverberated.

“Negative. The plotter is telling me its too close,” returned the same calm voice.

“Climb over it?”

“Negative. The R-A-S is already hugging a stall. If we try to rise even 100 feet A-G-L we’ll loose another half knot. Then it wont matter what’s below us.”

There was a pause, then Paul spoke again in that same calm voice. “There’s one more thing: Its not an it. There are several of them.”

“Several? But we shot this approach three months ago.”

“Tell me about it,” the boy said sarcastically. He turned to his sister, “Giss?”

“Radar is picking up at least five of the towers,” she replied, “packed too tight for us to slip between. And, they definitely are not on our map.”

“Looks like I’ll have to yell at the airport manager again,” said George beside me.

“Did you try the motors?” I interrupted, fingers tense.

“All thrust is at maximum,” Giselle replied, her tone suddenly frosty. She was right to sound mad. Even after three months on board I was a still visiter, not a family member. I wasn’t supposed to speak on approach. If I had been paying attention I would have noticed the sensors showed all 16 of the motors at full throttle. Then again the sound they made as they reverberated inside the foam and reinforced plastic of the wing was pretty hard to miss. Unfortunately their combined thrust was not all that spectacular, especially with almost half the wing retracted.

“Can you slew around it?” George asked. This is a trick small airplanes often use; banking the wings and using the rudders to keep the plane on course.

“Too draggy,” the boy replied. “I’ve plotted it four different ways, each one says we need either an extra 200 feet A-G-L or a dozen mips more R-A-S. We have neither.”

“Shit,” said the voice next to me. This time not on the intercom. The only reason I heard it is because the eldest male, and family head, George Henderson was laying in the cramped space right next to me.

I locked eyes with him as the plane shifted and shook around us, sounding for all the world like a pile of styrofoam pellets in the world’s largest paint-shaker. Not 12 hours ago Paul had used these very words to describe the sound inside a cloud-ship when it was on final approach. At the time I thought he was being hyperbolic. Now I knew he was telling the truth.

“Are we going to make it?” I mouthed so as to not be picked up by the mic. George looked at me for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders, or tried to at least. Its hard to shrug while lying in a cramped narrow space. His face looked calm, maybe even resigned, but trapped with him in the tiny area I could also smell his fear.

 

###

 

My adventure that summer started with a call the previous spring. It was late May and the warm sunlight streamed though my bedroom window, causing me to squint as I reached over to answer my phone.

“How would you like to spend the summer on a cloud-ship?”

It was my agent, Barney Sanders. “Huh?” I said as I got out of bed and stumbled over to the coffee machine, trying hard not to step on the clothes and other detritus spread all over the floor. The clock read 10:00. Was it really that late?

“How would you like to spend the summer on a cloud-ship?”

“Um,” I said thinking fast, trying hard not to sound excited and looking through the mess in the sink for a clean coffee mug. “It depends…” In truth my mind was going, “Woooo hooo!” but I had learned not to trust everything my mind thinks especially first thing in the morning. Besides there were practical matters to consider, like how was I going to afford it? While I might a times exaggerate to my friends about the glorious life of a freelance writer, the reality was good paying stories were getting hard to find. So the idea was appealing, but my rent was due in three weeks and my bank balance was close to zero.

“Don’t worry, John. Its not some luxury liner. This is the real deal. A small family-owned ship. They want an insider to do a couple of in-depth features, which means you need to live with them a while. You’ll have to put in a few shifts as well, but they claim there’ll be plenty of free time.”

“Don’t give me that, Barney,” I said. “You know how these things go. A few shifts will mean 90 hours a week. Spare time will be the gap between brushing and flossing.”

“It’s non-exclusive,” he replied.

That slowed me down. “I can write other pieces?”

“Their contract is for two, and only two, 10,000 word features. You know the drill–slick, happy, PR pieces. Everything else you write is yours to sell. And get this: I got them to promise full access.”

I couldn’t help myself. “Really?” Any freelance writer worth his salt could crank out a hundred stories on the cloudies. They lived for months or even years (no one knew for sure) in the upper atmosphere, existing on the raw fringes of human civilization. They were practically the dictionary definition of danger and mystery. There was no end to fictional accounts about them; in the past ten years there had been two major movies, four television series, and who knows how many fan blogs. Yet there was practically zero factual information about them in the public record. Cloudies were known to keep tightly to themselves, and they never mixed with outsiders. Even their family names were kept secret. No one got an inside scoop on them. No one. I know, I’d been trying for years. They were a secretive lot, an untapped market. Heck if I could live with them for a week I could probably sell their grocery lists for a couple hundred.

“And that’s not all. Bill Bryson at U.S. & World tells me he has a cover spot opening sometime in late August. That is, if you think you can put together 15k of meaningful feature.”

“A cover?” That was big news. A major feature on the largest news magazine in all the world would mean I could finally say goodbye to ramen noodles and frozen diners at the 99 cent store. It was good deal. Too good.

“Okay, I’m in,” I said. “But what’s the catch?”

 

I should probably stop and tell you now I’m slightly crazy about cloudies. They’ve been a hobby of mine for years. Every book, every rumor, every news story written, I’ve either seen or read. There’s even a model of the Carl Rankin, the first glider-ship ever flown, hanging from my office ceiling. So you would think with all that research there wouldn’t be much for me to learn.

You’d also be wrong. Or at least, I was.

My first lesson came when I showed up at the airport. My bags were packed for a summer in one of most exclusive experiences on the planet. I had everything I needed, my tablet, camera, week’s supply of clothes, a couple of pairs of shoes, toiletries, and other things a modern man needs. What I wasn’t prepared for was the person they sent to greet me. It was a kid. Maybe 10 years old.

The boy took one look at my bags, and shook his head. “You the reporter?” he asked. I nodded. Then he said in a firm voice, “You can’t take all that.”

“But I need it,” I said, feeling somewhat out of place having a conversation about my underwear with a kid.

“All that you don’t,” he said with a surety that belied his years, “not where you’re going, at least.”

I wasn’t used to being told what to do by a child. I knew each glider-ship was based on a family, so I thought I could do an end-run around him. “Look kid. Are your parents around so I can ask them?”

The boy shrugged his shoulders, and slid me a number from his tablet. “Suit yourself,” he said politely.

Ten minutes later, after getting one of the most blistering tongue lashings in my life, I was standing near a table as the boy expertly went though my stuff. Half of the gear I brought, the special high altitude breathing gear, the thick clothes, the leather boots – were sitting in a pile, along with half my clothes and most of my toiletries.

“Are you sure I don’t need this,” I said holding up a bar of soap trying and desperately to hold on to some of my dignity.

“Where’re you going to use it?” he asked. There was no challenge in his voice. It was a rhetorical question. “There’s no shower on the Alice May. There’s not even a bathroom.”

“There’s not?” I said in some surprise.

“Don’t worry,” he said as he gently took the bar of soap out of my hand. “You have enough. Really. You’ll be fine.”

I thought the kid was messing with me, still sore from when I tried to go around him. As it turned out, he was being generous. I didn’t use almost a quarter of the things he let me keep.

That first meeting taught me two important things about Cloudies; they are deadly serious about their weight, and they are kind even generous to strangers. I didn’t know then how important either would be until later. And then it was only because it changed my life.

 

They call themselves the Cloud People, or the Cloud Clan. Sometimes People of The Clouds. Cloudies, for short. They are a funny breed. Fiercely independent, beholden to no man or country, they roam the skies converting small pockets of trace gases into cash, most of which they fold back into their glider-ships. They live in a tight space, under severe conditions, and with very little latitude for error. They live in the margins, forever tweaking their planes, and their processes, always digging for a few more percentage points of efficiency or profit. Most Cloudies fly as a family; the work is too difficult, the price of a mistake too great, to trust to the hands of an outsider.

Imagine living with six other people in a tiny studio apartment day in and day out, 51 weeks a year, and all at eleven miles above the ground where the slightest mistake can mean economic ruin, starvation, or worse. More than one glider-ship had taken off never to land again, at least in one piece.

This is what was going though my mind as the boy, Jared his name turned out to be, lead me and my much reduced gear to his family’s plane. The Alice May sat on the tarmac like some obscene foam whale. The huge wing spanned over 100 meters, and easily thick enough at the spar for a six foot man to stand upright inside. The enormous tail at the back of the plane looked big enough to count as a wing in its own right. Later I found out the horizontal stabilizer, the flat part on the tail which is parallel to the ground, was actually slightly larger in area than one of the wings on the modified 747 that was preparing to tow us into the air.

Walking up to a plane that size was definitely impressive. It didn’t just sit there on the ground, it loomed. From a distance the color appeared a uniform white, but up close I could see slight imperfections in the color of the sheet foam. Tiny numbers, lines, and neat handwriting were etched at every joint and sheet. It was like seeing a model airplane plan written right on top of the plane. When I got up close enough to see the writing I noticed most of it was reversed. I was looking at it from the wrong side.

Seeing me stop to look, a tall man with hard blue eyes in a perpetual squint approached me from one side. I could sense an impatience in him, but he let me look undisturbed. I was just about to ask him why someone had written all over the inside of wing when it came to me. Of course. It was easier to have all the parts labeled right where you were working on them, than to have a plan written somewhere else. The writing was on the inside because while the plane was in the air no one would be working on it from the outside.

“Ingenious,” I said, appreciating the planning behind this approach. More than once I had wished my car was equally labeled.

“What’s that?” the man with cold eyes asked.

“The labeling,” I said turning to notice tan leathery skin and a receding grey hairline. “That’s a smart way to mark things. Are all cloud-ships labeled like this?”

The man smiled at my compliment. “Only the ones that want to keep flying,” he said matter-of-factly. “The name’s George. George Henderson.” He stuck out his hand and we shook. Not ten minutes before this same man had been yelling at me for being a fool. Now he seemed calm and untroubled.

“I see you’ve met Jared,” he said with a wry smile, telling me he hadn’t forgotten, but he also wasn’t going to necessarily hold it against me. “Why don’t you come inside and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew?”

The rest of the crew turned out to be the Henderson family. George, and his wife Bonny (who curiously went by the nick-name Cobra) were the parents. Their children were, in order of age, Lisa (21), Paul (15), Giselle (13), and Jared (10) whom I had already met. They welcomed me to the Alice May like any family might welcome a stranger to their home. Only this family was decidedly different. For instance, Giselle’s room looked like a typical tween room with large photos of boy bands cycling on her wall, but our first conservation jumped rapidly from the latest hair fashions on musicians to the problems of wind-sheer in the upper atmosphere. To her the two topics appeared to be of equal importance, never mind that one usually required about three years of college level math to even understand.

And then there was Paul. I first met Paul as he was holding a carefully constructed piece of foam, carbon-fiber sheet, and plastic. The piece was flat, approximately three feet by one, and maybe 1/2” thick. Looking inside (it was mostly hollow) I could see a complex pattern of inter-weaving struts, each no thicker than a spider web, but together comprising an elegant solution. It weighted only about two ounces, but was so rigid I could not twist it with my bare hands. I know because he had me try. It was about as a nice a piece of engineering as I have ever run across, and belied a level of mathematics which was well over my head.

“So what is it for?” I asked when I handed the piece back to him.

“This is the new and improved FC-13,” he said with some pride.

“What happened to the old one?” I asked.

He frowned. “Its a bit complicated.“

“Try me,“ I said with a smile.

He looked me in the eye for a moment. I could see him measuring if he could trust me. I was tempted to say something to reassure him, but decided not to. After a moment’s thought his shoulders gave a shrug and he continued, his mind apparently made up.

“I’m not sure,” he said, answering my question. “We changed the airflow over some parts of the wing a while back when switching to a different set of airfoils. The changes were largely benign, but for some reason they increased flutter at one spot; FC-13. Part of our flying-flap system.”

Most people wouldn’t know what flutter was on an aircraft. It is hard to believe that tiny up and down fluctuations on only part of a flying surface could be a problem. But flutter is no joke. Such fluctuations if left unchecked have been known to rip an airplane to pieces, or worst, make it impossible to steer. The standard solution for flutter is to make the part stiffer, which explained the piece Paul was holding. This wasn’t the only solution. On some planes counter weights were added instead, like they did on the P-38. Adding stiffness was just the easiest fix.

“Well,” I said. “It looks like you found a good solution. I can’t imagine that piece flexing anytime soon. For as thin as it is, the torsional strength must be off the charts.”

Paul smiled at my compliment. “Well, I did try to make it as strong as I could. After all, its not fun to replace this piece, even on the ground. Its a right pain to fix while at altitude.”

“I can imagine,” I said. “Need any help with installing it?”

“No thanks,” he replied with all the surety of a teen. “I’ve got it handled. I’ve done this before.”

 

For all the rumors about Cloudies being taciturn and secretive, I found the Hendersons to be delightfully open and accepting. The one exception was the eldest daughter, Lisa. Perhaps it was her age, perhaps it was that she had just finished going to a university and was overly tired of living around ground-pounders (as Cloudies humorously liked to call the rest of humanity), but whatever the reason, she made it abundantly clear I was not welcome on board. Oh, she was not openly rude, but she stopped just short of that. I had started my career as a reporter, so I was used to going places I wasn’t always wanted. Still it had been a while since I had been around a person who treated silence not only as a tool but as a weapon. I did my best to get along with everyone, and tried not to let it bug me.

Besides I had a lot on my mind. To work as a crew member in a glider-ship one needed to be an expert on several different subjects. Everything from cooking for six people, keeping yourself clean (which is not so easy without a shower), to advanced fluid dynamics. When I arrived on the Alice May I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what makes an airplane fly. What I discovered was that I had only a cursory knowledge of some of the subjects. I needed to catch up to speed quickly if I was going to be of any help. I also needed to write some stories if I was going to pay my rent.

George and Bonny happily gave me a course of study, and everyone else pitched in to tutor. There were no tests, yet I sensed at every step I was being graded. George and Bonny demanded perfection, and accepted nothing less. They were polite, but firm. It was like a cross between a bizarre liberal arts college where you lived in the dorms with your professors, and a military academy for wayward teens. The combination was like nothing I had ever experienced, and it took me a while to come to terms with. The kindness I could understand, but the rock-hard expectation of perfection was something else. That being said, I never once felt they were too strict. As George liked to point out, “at eleven miles up, any mistake can be a fatal one.”

One day I was working through a practical engineering exercise having to do with calculating the amount of flexibility inherent in a wing structure. For the past three weeks Giselle had been helping me with the math until I was versed enough in it to go over the engineering with Paul. He had been showing me a few tricks he’d picked up for adding torsional stability when George came by to check my progress. George took one look at my structure and said, “This looks like crap.”

I had been working non-stop on that engineering for weeks, and his words hit me like a blow. I must have looked pretty shaken because George’s face softened, and he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look. Don’t take it personal, Bob. Its not about you. When your whole family is riding on the equation–everything you love and own–there is no room for error. None. Remember, there are a thousand ways to get it wrong, but only one way to get it right. Make sure you pick that one.”

As he walked out I turned to Paul. “Is he always like that?”

“Demanding?” he replied with a smile to show he empathized. “Sure. But I think he has a good reason to be. Don’t you?”

I nodded my head reluctantly. Still feeling despondent I said, “I guess some of us were not born to be engineers.”

Paul laughed. “Like him, you mean? You wanna hear something funny? Mom says Pops failed first-year engineering, three times in a row.”

“He did?”

“Sure. Even now he’s always careful to have someone else go over his work.”

“So he uses you to double-check?”

“Oh, no. I’m pretty good, but I’m not that good. He uses Lisa. Even when she was in school he used to send her stuff.”

“Really?” I was surprised. I never heard Lisa speak up about engineering. Then again I had never heard her speak up about anything.

“Yep. Mom says she’s a natural. Pops says he’s never seen anyone so good.”

“Your sister? Well if she’s that good, then why does she never talk about it?”

“Dunno,” he said shrugging his shoulders, but I could tell by his eyes he knew something more.

 

That night I stayed up late outlining a few pieces for some fan blogs. Nothing serious, just day-in-the-life stuff. The big money would come later, but I still had the rent to pay. Besides working on the Alice May was keeping me pretty busy. I was finishing up around 2:00 am when the banging started just outside my room.

That was not a good sign. In a flash I was up, had my pants on, and was heading with my pad towards the wing access panel. Cobra was on duty that night flying solo, so I sent her a message. “Always tell the pilot,” had been drilled into me from my first day aboard. I guess all that training had been good for something.

A rather sleepy looking Paul joined me by the time I got the panel off, and was ready to crawl into the wing. I noticed another beautiful piece of foam and plastic was already in his hand.

“Let me guess, FC-13?” I asked nodding towards the part as the banging continued unabated.

“Sounds like it,” he said looking grim.

“Well,” I said. “Sooner started, sooner finished.”

“You don’t have to do this,” he said to me. “I can handle it.”

“Is it that bad in there?”

He shrugged his shoulders. The universal teen response.

“Look,” I told him. “Its not a big deal. Besides, it might be a good idea to show me, just in case it needs to get fixed again and you’re too busy.” I didn’t add that there was probably nothing on the plane that could keep him too busy to not want to repair it. Paul liked to fix things. It was in his DNA.

He shrugged his shoulders again.

“Okay,” I said. “The truth is I was up anyway, so you might as well give me something to do.”

He stared at me for a moment, then jerked his head. “C’mon. You really should know how to fix this. Just in case.”

Most people would be surprised to know that most of the wing on a plane that large is devoted to storage space. The structure itself was light and thin, with lots of volume in-between. That volume was used to store everything from batteries to razor blades. Even the kid’s rooms were out in the wings. It was only near the back part of the wing, called the trailing edge, that the structure got too narrow for storage. Which also meant it was too narrow to crawl in. Almost.

Working as quickly as safety would allow, Paul and I wormed our way in, and started deconstructing the wing surface. It took us almost 30 minutes to get to the offending part; FC-13. By then it had been banging around so much it had damaged some of the pieces around it. Paul is thin, but fairly short. We discovered that with my long arms I could reach things easier and faster. Never in my life had I been so thankful for being tall and thin. Before long Paul was fetching replacement parts out of the emulsifier, and sliding them out to me while I gently put them in place. It a few hours the job was done.

Climbing back out, hot and dirty, Paul thanked me as dusted ourselves off.

“Hey,” I said to him. “I noticed you showed up with a new FC-13, but the rest of the parts you just extruded. Why not extrude the FC-13 too?”

“The simple answer is it takes too long,” he said.

“And the long answer?”

“It takes too long.” He smiled at his joke and continued. “Simple pieces we can extrude rapidly, but the complex ones take several hours or even days. That’s why I built a couple of replacement parts in advance.”

“Looks like you were right then. Did you build a third?”

“Not yet.”

“Hey maybe you can get your hotshot sister to engineer one.”

Paul looked at me, his eyes suddenly absent of emotion. I had stuck a nerve, I just didn’t know which one.

“Look,” I said, “I didn’t mean…”

“Its okay,” he interrupted. “I know, its just…”

“Not a good subject?” I offered.

“Something like that, yes.”

He looked pained, so I offered some sympathy. “Well if it makes you feel any better, I can’t get a word in edgewise with her either.”

He looked back at me, for a second time his face was unreadable. “Yes,” was all he said.

 

The next morning I decided to confront Lisa and see if I could get to the bottom of this. I didn’t care what she thought of me, or what was going on between her and Paul, but I had a story to write and didn’t have the time to deal with petty issues. To do this I needed a neutral place to meet her, some place she would feel safe, so I decided to face her while she was doing dishes.

“So what did you think of the chicken?” I asked as I entered the small galley. I had cooked a dinner that night for the second time, and I was pretty happy with the results.

She glanced at me and then quickly looked back at the sink. “It was okay,” she said with the absent tone one uses to signal they are busy and do not wish to be disturbed. I crossed my arms and leaned back against the oven/stove.

“How about the broccoli?” I said.

“It was fine,” she replied. This time not even bothering to turn around.

“The rice?”

“Adequate.” I could see her back starting to tense.

“How bout the wine?”

She whirled around, her eyes flashing. “Look are we going to do this all night, because I’m kind of busy right now.”

“It depends,” I said.

“Depends on what?”

“You,” I said quietly so it didn’t sound like a challenge. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I came here to do a job, and I need your help to do it.”

“My help?” she said.

“Yes,”

“With what?”

“I’m doing a piece on your family, and I need to include everyone so it’ll work. To do that I need your help. Your cooperation. To interview you. I’ve already got everyone else. All’s that’s left is you, only every time we talk you don’t say a thing. I don’t know what it is you have against me, and I don’t care. All I ask is that you give me a short interview, and in return I’ll do my best to leave you alone. Okay?

“That’s it?” she said in disbelief. “That’s all you want?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

I nodded my head.

“A interview?” she continued. “For some Cloudy fan-blog, I suppose?”

“Yes. Hyper-Flight.com, in fact,” I said with pride. It was a big step up for me.

She looked me in the eye. Not with anger, but with something else. “Do you even know why you’re here?” she said carefully. “Why they picked you?”

“To write a story. Two really. That’s what I was told.”

She stared at me for a moment, disbelief and anger at war on her face. Anger must have won. “They picked you,” she said enunciating each word slowly, as if speaking to an imbecile, “because you are thin.”

“What?” I asked, not understanding.

“Your weight. They didn’t pick you because you can write, or love airplanes, or can learn slightly faster than the usual brain-dead ground-pounder. They picked you because you were ten pounds lighter the the next guy. That’s it. That’s the reason. Ten pounds!”

“Huh?” I said completely surprised. By then she had stormed out of the room.

Women.

 

I didn’t have the first clue about what to do with Lisa, but I wasn’t lying when I said I had a story to write. And let me tell you, writing pieces for the larger blogs is a headache. For all that they pay well, they suck up a lot of time and resources. Fact-checking alone can eat up days and days of work. Only I didn’t have that luxury. My solution was to fall back on a habit I picked up in college; staying up later. In essence, trading work for sleep. There is a down side to this: After the forth night, the lack of sleep starts getting to you. After the sixth night, well, that’s how I fell asleep sitting at my desk.

And this time I dreamed…

I was standing on a the runners for a dogsled, the snow wooshing by my feet, the team pulling hard, and me yelling at them at the top of my lungs. We were on the last leg of a long race, and the crowd around the finish line could be seen just ahead. Our sled was carefully engineered out of carbon fiber and plastic with all the spiderweb engineering to make it both strong and light. Even after countless miles and horrible abuses, the framework still gleamed like it was brand new. It was by far the slickest sled on the course, and with it we held a commanding lead.

As I watched the finish line approaching I heard a change in the crowd. The cheering suddenly stopped. Without the sound of the crowd I could hear the scratching of the runners sliding across the icy spots in the snow, each imperfection passed up to my hands as a vibration. Bang, bang, bang.

A small bark behind be alerted me to another competitor. I turned around to find the strangest sight I have ever seen. It was a sled built from the flimsiest of thin foam and supported apparently only with long thin drinking straws. The runners were held in place by strips of clear tape, wrapped around and around the frame in big wads. Gaps between the foam and straw supports were covered in plastic food wrap, which hummed and stretched with every jolt. This strange contraption bound over the snow like a crazy funhouse on skis. Every bump and dip, even the slightest of breezes, made the whole thing flex and bend like a palm tree in a hurricane. First one side touching the ground, then the other.

Pulling the sled was a team of miniature poodles; dogs obviously not suited for the snow, let alone a serious race. Each poodle was carefully dyed a bright pink, and encircled in a rhinestone covered harness. The team barked and nipped like they were frolicking at the park instead of pulling a heavy sled. Yet most surprising of all came at the very back of the sled: Running the sled was that most famous of airplane designers, Carl Randkin. He had a crazy smile on his face, and waved a drinking straw like a whip as he encouraged his team to run faster and faster.

While I watched, Carl’s sled slowly caught up, and then started to pass us. The crowd was dumbfounded at first, but soon they began to cheer in earnest as the our two sleds raced for the prize.

The passing sled whipped our own team into a frenzy. They pulled at their harnesses like mad things, their frantic motion jerking the sled this way at that. Worse still, the quality of the snow near the finish line deteriorated from all the passing of the fans. Icy footprints and sled marks turned the once smooth snow into a bumpy mess. Each imperfection in the snow was like running over a rock, with the frame faithfully transmitting the impact to my hands and feet. These bumps also had the effect of slowing us down, transferring our forward momentum into noise and vibration.

Paul dove onto the front of the sled, and desperately tried to smooth the snow in front of the runners with his gloved hands. Lisa sat on the back with a frown on her face, repeating over and over I was ten pounds too light. I ran along at the back, alternating between yelling at the dogs and attempting to steer the sled around the worse of the tracks in the snow. I jumped on the back of the runners for the finish line, feeling them pounding into rut after rut, the impacts shaking the sled and sending tremors up my legs.

Just as we reached the finish line, the crowd started chanting, “Wake. Up. Bob. Wake. Up. Bob. Wake. Up…”

Suddenly I woke up at my desk. There was a pounding sound like someone was banging on my door, and a thin line of drool dripped from my mouth to the surface. “What?” I shouted at the noise, wiping the wet from my mouth. “Hold on already.”

“Bob,” a voice said from my tablet.

“Huh,” I said disoriented. I looked down and saw Paul’s face. He was talking to me from the pilot’s seat.

The banging from the dream continued. Then suddenly it clicked into place. It wasn’t someone knocking at my door. It was FC-13, and it was failing. Badly.

“I’m on it,” I yelled towards the tablet as I got up quickly, banging my head against a bulkhead. “Shit.”

“You okay?” Paul asked.

I didn’t bother to answer. I was already out the door.

Exhaustion does funny things to a person, blurring the lines between the waking world and dreams. As I crawled through the wing access hatch a part of me was also crawling along on top of the sled. When I got to FC-13, I could see there was already a lot of damage to the wing. There wasn’t time to extrude custom parts. That piece had to come out of there. Now.

Working quickly I grabbed parts out of a pile of sheet foam stored in a space nearby, and started cutting. I wasn’t thinking clearly. To be honest I wasn’t thinking at all. I kept seeing our runners pounding away, and the crowd roaring past. I crawled and I cut, I pieced and I pushed. I didn’t even realize what I had been attaching the foam with until I put the last piece in place. That’s when I noticed the roll of clear packing tape in my hands. I don’t even know how it got on the plane. It was about as low tech a solution as I could think of. Like fixing a broken computer with a band aide.

I was thinking of how I was going to explain this to Paul when his face showed up on my tablet.

“Good job, there Bob,” he said with a smile. “The instruments say the wing is stable, and the flutter is gone. At least for now.” His smile slipped for a second as he checked a reading on his board, then he continued. “You had me worried there for a moment when you didn’t wake up at first, but whatever you did it the wing seems to be working fine now.”

I looked back in the tiny bay where I had been working, and swallowed a lump. It looked like a mad scientist had let loose in there with a roll of tape, and a pile of foam. I shuddered to think at what George would say when he saw the sloppiness of my repair.

Paul must have seen the look on my face, but misunderstood the meaning. “You looked pretty beat, Bob. Why don’t you get back to bed. I’ll go over the repair with Pops at the end of my shift.”

That was even worse. “But..” I said.

“I mean it Bob. Get back in bed. I know your worried it might fail again, but don’t. Trust me. If it fails you’ll be the first to know.”

That’s what I’m afraid of, I thought, but at that point I was too tired to argue. I gathered up the few tools I had used, and crawled back out of the wing. I was so tired by then that I don’t remember anything until I woke up the next afternoon, stiff and sore, the bright sunshine coming almost straight down through my window.

 

Paul and George met me as I was sipping hot coffee in the galley.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” George said in his normal stern tone, “about the repair you did last night.”

I took too large a sip and burned my tongue. Ouch. Pain distracted me for a moment, but my mind was racing. I knew I had nothing to lose by being honest, and everything to lose by trying to bluff my way out the situation, so I tried to head him off. “You mean the disaster I did to the top of bay 13?”

George grimaced at the word disaster, but didn’t say anything for a second. He shared a glance with Paul. “Well, that too,” he said with a slight smile, “but what I most want to talk about was your, uh, unorthodox repair methods.”

“You mean the tape?” I asked.

“Not just the tape. The use of sheet foam. The tape. Everything.”

I was cooked, and I knew it. I had blown the gig. I could feel it in my bones. I had taken the Henderson’s clean and orderly plane, and decorated it like a kindergartener on crack.

“I…” I stammered looking down into my coffee. “I really don’t know what to say. I’m sorry? I don’t know. I was tired, and I wasn’t paying much attention…”

“Stop,” George said.

“But I really didn’t mean…” I continued on.

“I mean it, Bob. Stop.”

I looked up expecting to see anger in their eyes. Instead I caught bemused expressions. They were smiling. Both of them. Genuine smiles.

Seeing my confused look George said, “I suppose I should have started this conversation with Paul’s data. You see he was very careful to show me how well your repaired worked..“

“I showed him the data,“ Paul interrupted, “before I let him out in the wing.”

“Before?” I asked still confused.

Paul slid something from his tablet to mine. It was an overlay of two charts. One chart was of his fancy FC-13 fix, the complex one. The other chart was of my foam and tape fix. Both charts measured fluctuations up one axis, and time on the other. It took my tired brain a while to grasp what I was seeing, but there was no denying the numbers. My cheap fix was already holding up much better then the expensive one.

“You showed this to your dad before he saw the repair?” Was all I could think to say.

George managed a smile. “Yep. He even went so far as to turn off the internal camera in the bay.”

I turned to Paul. “You turned off the camera!” I said in surprise. Falsifying information about the ship was against the rules. Turning off a camera was a definite no-no. Paul wisely said nothing, but I could see his cheeks start to turn red.

George continued as if I hadn’t said anything. “It was a good thing too. Had he shown me that repair first I might have tossed you out of the nearest opening. Without the benefit of a parachute, that is.”

George was smiling as he said this so I knew he was only half serious.

I was still trying to process the whole thing. “But it works?”

The smile slipped, and he was back to his usual austere self. “For now. We still need to get in there and refit the whole area, but that can wait until we’re back on the ground.

“On the ground?”

George looked at me in surprise, and then smiled. “Didn’t you know? The Cloudy Jamboree starts next week. Normally we wouldn’t drop in till Wednesday, but this year I’m on a committee and need to be at a meeting on Monday. The schedule’s been on the nav station for a month. Didn’t you see?”

I shook my head. They hadn’t taught me navigation yet so I hadn’t had a chance to look at the screen.

George got up from the table. “I have a shift to run, and you two are going to be busy of the next couple of days. In addition, I expect complete a refit plan for bay 13 on my tablet no later then tomorrow evening. Is that clear?”

We both nodded our heads, and he walked out the door.

 

“Oh I can’t wait,” Paul said his eyes glowing with excitement after his father left.

“What?”

“The Jamboree, ground-pounder,” he said teasingly. “Didn’t you hear?“

“Huh?”

Paul continued, ignoring my grunts. “Its going to be so great. Bonhill’s will be lecturing on fluid dynamics on Thursday. I mean, the Bonhill.”

I made a mental note to look up whoever Bonhill was.

“They’re also doing a new building competition this year, and now that I’m 15 I’ll be in the seniors category.”

“Is that good?” I asked somewhat perplexed.

He laughed. “Good? No, great! I’ll finally have some real competition. Not those stupid kiddy planes. And then there’s the food and the drinks, and the booths, and the latest software gadgets for the emulsifier, and, and the girls,” he blurted out without thought. Suddenly his face turned red again. He shook his head as if to clear it. “Anyway, you just have to see. Why the Jamboree is just the best.”

 

It turns out the Cloudy Jamboree is the best. It is the one time of the year when all of the cloud-ships can come down, and the families can get together and mingle without fear of the ground-pounders. It was also the only airport in the world where the glider-ships could land, taxi, park, and take off with their wings fully extended. It was a time for Cloudies to relax and let their hair down, a time to refit, a time to learn. Even a time to brag. Think of it as a cross between Mardi Gras, and Christmas, only add in about a hundred weddings, and you’ll get pretty close.

So a week after I sent my first story in, I found myself walking between the rows and rows of shops at the largest gathering of Cloudies in the world. It was like a dream come true. There were booths all around, games, and drink. The food was incredible, the lectures amazing, and thanks to the popularity of my article, I found myself for the first time with plenty of coins in my pocket.

There was only one problem. Everybody hated me.

Ever had one of those dreams were you felt like there was a target painted on your back and everyone was shooting at you? Well I can tell you from experience its a lot worse in real life.

The Hendersons had taken me on as part of “Openness”, which was a PR campaign devised by CPACA, one of the larger organizations that most Cloudies loosely followed. The operative word here is “loosely”. It turns out that not all of the Cloudies liked the idea of Openness, or what CPACA as doing on their behalf, and they were pretty comfortable at expressing their opinions. The President of CPACA, and every one on the Openness committee, including George, got their fair share of nasty comments and email. But the majority of the Cloudies seemed to vent their frustration on the one outsider in their midst; me.

Of corse I didn’t know this at the time we landed. It wasn’t until I heard the words “that reporter” for the hundredth time that I learned to duck after hearing it.

To be fair, most of the Cloudies were not angry at me. Most where either neutral, or slightly perturbed. A few even took me aside to thanked me for the article. In secret.

The worst of the abusers were the third hands, which was the loose term a Cloudy would use for a spare helper on a plane. What they used to call a “hired hand” in the old west. They were a rough lot; young men who didn’t fit in, or were saving money for a plane of their own. Some were outsiders like me, which surprised me a bit, and a few were even women. They occupied that strange place; too close to be an employee but too distant for family, and something about that position made them chafe. They assumed my article would increase the number third-hands as public interest in Cloudies grew, and they thought these potential competitors might ruin their good thing.

Not that they generally spoke so eloquently, but one could piece together their opinions between the punches and the kicks. After four days I had managed to receive a black-eye, two lacerations, a sprained wrist, five broken knuckles, and a couple broken ribs. It got to the point that the staff at the infirmary started placing bets on when I would return. At least they did a good job healing me before they sent me back out into the fray.

So as you can imagine I was feeling pretty low the afternoon Lisa found me in a quiet corner behind the tent village. It wouldn’t quite call what I was doing as hiding, but it was next thing to it.

“Hey,” she said walking up to me. “What’ch doing?”

This caught me by surprise. I stood there thinking this was the first time Lisa had initiated a conversation with me, when I realized she was staring.

“Uh, I was supposed to say something, wasn’t I?”

“Generally, that’s how a conversation starts,” she said helpfully. “New at this, are you?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“In fact, I did,” she replied, this time with a smile to show she was only having fun. “You finding the Jamboree a bit overwhelming?”

I nodded my head. “That wouldn’t be the first word I’d choose, but it’ll do.”

“Thought so. The first Jamboree is a bit too much for anyone. Sometimes its nice to step back from the crowd.”

“Now that I can agree with,” I said still puzzled at her new behavior.

Seeing the question in my eyes she said, “Pops sent me over to see how you were doing.”

“So you’re checking up on me now?”

“Well…” she said glancing around, “to be honest I was bored and wanted a drink, but I hate to drink alone. Wanna join me?”

“Well, since we’re being honest,” I replied, “that’s the nicest invitation I’ve had all week.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s right. Your story.”

“Yes.”

“Not everyone liked it, I take it?”

“Um,” I said, “that’s one way of putting it.”

She looked me in the eye, and really looked this time. I could feel her focus, her intelligence, like a white hot light. “C’mon,” she said looking away. “I know just the place.”

She did.

She found us a nice quiet bar, sat me down with a drink, and went to work. It took her a couple of hours, and maybe a few drinks, but she finally got me to talk. Look, I wasn’t trying to not tell her. I just could not. Maybe all those years of interviewing others made me bad at it myself. Maybe it just took me a while to trust her after the way she had been for the last month and a half. Maybe I just don’t like to dump my problems on women, especially after all the nice things her family had done for me.

Did you ever try to not tell something to a smart girl? A pretty one too? See what I mean? And that was the weirdest thing. Sometime in all that conversation I realized she was pretty. And oh my gosh did I clamp down on that thought. Hard. All I needed was to let that feeling show, and I was cooked for sure. So much for the vaunted emotional distance of my journalism training.

So rather than focus on that, I told her about my week. As I talked her face grew harder and harder. Each time I stopped she asked me to continue, her voice calm, smooth, and very much at odds with her eyes. By the time I got to the broken ribs her jaw was set and there was an intense glow in her eyes.

When I finished she stood calmly, took my hand and said, “C’mon.” Not knowing what she had in mind I meekly followed.

We crossed the whole grounds, her leading me like a child. I was too numb to care until we came up to the Third Ward which was a cross between a bar and a meeting hall. It was the place that most third-hands hung out looking for work, or having drinks. It was also the place I received my black-eye. I tried to shy away from the door, but she just pulled me right in. Too late, I noticed she was pretty angry.

As we entered the room, the crowd went suddenly quiet. I had read about this happening a hundred times in books, but this was the first time I had seen it happen in person. Let me tell you, its not so fun when you’re the one everyone is staring at.

Lisa didn’t seem to care. She glared right back at them. Her anger easily  a match for the whole room. After what seemed like hours but was probably a few moments she said quite loudly, “I wish to issue a challenge.”

A large man came out from around the bar and crossed his arms. He looked like a bouncer complete with tattoos and a few stray earrings all over his face. “Yo, Lisa,“ he said.

“Yo, Derek,” she said back.

“You can’t issue a challenge,” he said. “You know the rules. You’re family.”

“Its not for me. Its for him,” she said tugging my arm.

The quiet room was suddenly a buzz with whispers.

“Him? The reporter?” Derek said as if he was talking about a slug.

She didn’t respond. She simply stared at him.

“But he’s only been in a plane, what, a few weeks?”

“The Alice May will vouch for him,” she said.

A shock went though the room at that. The bouncer looked taken aback. He leaned forward and in a quite tone so as not to be heard above the noise he asked, “Are you sure?”

She stared him right in the eye. “We consider it a matter of honor.”

Derek leaned back, staring at her as if he couldn’t believe his ears.

“Pick your best man,” she continued. “We’ll do the test tonight.”

“Tonight? What test?”

“The Spar Test,” she said, and then the next thing I knew she was leading me out the door while the room behind us erupted into noise.

 

Its a funny thing about being brave. Sometimes it comes on at the strangest moments. Leaving that room must have flipped a switch in me because suddenly I was incensed.

“What in the hell was that all about?” I shouted. “What do you mean by a challenge, and what is a Spar Test anyway!”

I looked around and noticed a crown was starting to form. Lisa looked back at me calmly and said, “As I mentioned it is an issue of honor. You are a guest on the Alice May. If someone harms you, it is as if they had harmed our family.”

“What?” I said. “That’s crazy. This isn’t some medieval village. You don’t have to stand up for me like that. I can take care of my own.”

She looked me in the eye, and arched an eye-brow.

“Okay, so maybe I’m not so great a fighter. But you sill don’t have to be involved.”

“Its not like that,” she said. “Its not about you. Its about the Alice May. We can afford a lot of things, but we cannot afford to have someone in our family who does not trust us. Among the people of the cloud this is the worst crime; to lose the trust of a family member. We simply cannot allow it to happen.

“Okay,” I said. “I can see that. So what’s a challenge then.”

“Oh, that is easy. It is sort of like a duel, only a duel of wits.”

“A duel of wits? Like an IQ test with guns?“

“No. No weapons.”

“Okay, then what is the Spar Test?”

She smiled at me and took my hand. “Only the toughest challenge I could make.”

“The toughest? What are you going to do, engineer them to death?”

“Not me. As Derek pointed out, I’m family. I’m not eligible. It will have to be you.”

“Me?” I said, suddenly afraid again.

“C’mon,” she said taking my arm. “You’ll be fine.”

“But some those guys,” I protested, “have been doing this their whole lives.”

“Yes,” she said with a mischievous smile. “I’m counting on it.”

“You are? But…”

“Hush,” she said and put a finger to my lips. “I said you’ll be fine, and I meant it. But, there is one thing.”

“What?” I asked.

“The rules state you can’t use packing tape.”

“Har de har har.”

With that joke she took me for a walk, holding my arm the whole time. Sure we got stares, sure lots of people glowered, but you know what? When there’s a pretty girl on your arm, its really hard to notice.

 

As Lisa explained to me, the Spar Test was pretty simple. Take a complex wing structure like a spar, with all the parts custom engineered to fit together in a particular way, and put the parts all in a bag. Then you shake the parts up, and build. Did I mention there was no labels? It was like a crazy 3D puzzle, only it was done against an opponent. Whoever finished their wing first won. Won what? I asked Lisa. She told me it was a honor thing only, although lots of families used a challenge to solve disagreements. Sort of like the medieval trial-by-fire, only without the fire. So no lives, and no first-born male children were at stake. I could live with that.

But the test still didn’t make sense to me. I mean why have a competition which turns out to be nothing but high speed puzzle building. Lisa laughed at my description, but then explained that there was something about this test called intuitive engineering that the Cloudies valued most of all. “When you’re in an emergency and you have no time to think, but you still have to act, what part of your brain do you use?”

“Huh? I don’t know.”

“We do. We call it the “intuitive engineer.” It is the thinking that only comes out under times of stress. When a person doesn’t have time to think, only react. That is when we are at our best. That is what we prize.”

Which made about as much sense to me as everything else that had happened that day. But what could I say? If she had told me to jump off a cliff, I might very well have.

Women.

 

The test itself was pretty easy. I mean I knew I was going to lose, so much so that I didn’t really care. But I also knew this was important to Lisa, which meant it was important to the whole family. So even though I didn’t care, I still had to try my best. George and Bonny would expect nothing less.

We showed up at the auditorium a few hours later, and it was packed. Every seat was taken, people were standing in the aisles, and crowded out the door. The seats surround two pits, circles really, each maybe 3 feet deep, and each holding a table in the middle. George, Bonny and the whole family had a seat in the front row. They looked a bit harried, but smiled and waved when we came in. Lisa took me to my table, and showed me how to use a shocker, which is an electric device that can glue any two pieces together. Then she left me to sit with her family. That’s when the stage fright hit.

“But what am I going to do? Those guys have been with their ships for years?”

“Don’t worry,” she yelled back from her seat. “Just remember what we taught you, and do the ship proud.”

Before I could protest more a loud horn sounded, and the room descended into silence. I looked around the room at all the intent faces. When my name was announced only the Hendersons cheered. Everyone else just glared. Then when they announced the other guy, Phillip was his name, the crowd went wild. Great. Well I knew going in I wasn’t the home town favorite. This only proved it.

Two judges came in, and handed us our bag of parts. I took mine and set it on the table waiting. The horn sounded again, and I dumped my bag on the table.

The rules said the wing structure could be of any type, but most of the time it was a simple wing cross section. I looked at my pile of parts, and decided to sort them out. Looking over I saw Phillip working feverishly. Already he was sticking parts together. Woops, I better pick up the pace.

I started grabbing parts and seeing how they fit. Before long a kind of structure emerged. The crowd was chanting “Phil-lip, Phil-lip,” but to be honest I sort of tuned them out. It was like working on a story. I entered the “zone” as we called it in school, and tuned everything else out. Before long I had a wing going, an honest to goodness wing. I could see the parts in my mind, see how they went together. My hands sort of worked on automatic. Going where they needed to, picking up the parts they needed without thought. To be honest, I have no idea what I was thinking. I really wasn’t. I guess this was the intuitive engineering thing Lisa was talking about.

I was almost done when something about the wing bothered me, so I stopped. I picked it up and looked at it one way, then the other. Then looking down it I saw the problem. The wing was weak. Too weak. Not a lot, just enough. It was strong enough to hold together under it’s own weight, but if it was ever put to use it would crumble. For some reason this bugged me. I didn’t know if the Spar Test included a pressure test, but if it did this design would fail. The pieces had gone together right, but the wing was wrong.

I looked over at Phillip. He was struggling, but still going hard. He was maybe 80% done. Then I looked back at my own pile and was shocked to see only a few parts left. I could easily glue them on and be done, and no one would know. No one would know but me. I looked over at George. He was staring at me intently, as was the rest of the family. I thought about them, and about all that they had taught me. Then I got out my glue gun and went to work.

It took me a while, but I eventually got the wing right. By then Phillip had finished, so I guess he won. I didn’t care. I wasn’t there for him, and I certainly wasn’t there for the crowd. I was there for the Alice May. And by God I was going to do her proud.

When I finished, I showed the wing to George. I had had to break several trusses and glue them back together at odd angles to make them fit, but the wing was strong, wonderfully strong. If I had built it the way it as given to me, it never would have worked. Someone had tried to sabotaged it. George took one look at it and scowled, handing it to Lisa. She smiled, and pointed out some of my modifications. They huddled together talking, but I was too tired to hear what they were saying, much less care.

Bonny took me by the hand and led me back to my bunk on the Alice May. George didn’t say anything that night, but spent the next day in several hushed meetings. No one said anything to me, but I could tell by his grin he was happy.

By then I was pretty sick of the Jamboree, and couldn’t wait to take off, which we did the very next day. That night over a late dinner at 10,000 feet and climbing George held a toast for the strongest wing he had ever seen. I knew they were proud. That was all that mattered.

 

Two weeks later my temporary fix to FC-13 started to fail. I could hear it flutter every once in a while when every thing else was quiet. A little buzz of vibration, like the sound of a hummingbird flying close by your ear. The tape allowed the part to flex, but it still did not solve the initial problem. Something about the shape of the wing was causing the air flowing over it to become chaotic, and when it did FC-13 would flutter.

When I was a kid a neighbor of ours used to fly radio controlled airplanes. He used to take me to the flying field on Saturdays, so I could watch and learn. It wasn’t long before I had a few planes of my own. I used to love sitting with the old guys on warm afternoons, swapping stories, and learning about planes.

One day I guy came to a field with a plane I had never seen before. The plane itself was fairly typical, but the wing was not. Instead of a teardrop shaped wing, smoothly curved on top and slightly curved on the bottom, this wing was flat on the bottom with steps built into the top. It was constructed of several flat sheets of foam, each about 1/8” thick, and layered one top of each other like a cake with very thin layers. Each successive piece was less wide then the one below it, and all of the pieces met at the front, which was sanded to a nice rounded shape. The overall effect was exactly like a normal airfoil on the front half of the wing, but the back half sported a number of steps instead of a smooth curve. It was exactly as if someone had cut a stairwell into the back side of on an otherwise smooth wing.

I remember all the old men scoffing at this guy when they saw his wing. There was no way that ugly thing would fly, they told him, the design would cause too much drag. So when he tossed into the air we were surprised. Not only did the plane fly, but it flew well.

Thinking about this gave me an idea. The guy had called his airfoil a KF something or other. I didn’t remember. A quick search of the web found the airfoil name; KF-5, and even who it was named after; Misters Kline and Fogleman. The KF airfoil hadn’t originated on a model airplane as I thought, but a paper airplane. One that held the world record. Even then paper airplanes didn’t scale up to glider-ships too well. I was just about to give up when I ran across a paper that described the laminar air flow properties across a KF airfoil.

That’s when I ran to the cockpit to tell Paul.

When I got there I found Lisa instead. She was using the Nav screen to work out some complex problem, glancing between it and the regular instrument read-outs. She was so focused she didn’t even look up when I came in.

“Oh, hey,” I said.

“Hi, Bob,” she said still peering intently at her screen.

“Is Paul around? I’ve got something to show him.”

“Paul?” she replied. “He’s been down for hours.”

“He has?” I looked at the clock. It was 3:00 in the morning. “Oops. I guess It’ll wait till tomorrow. I didn’t realize it was so late.” I turned to leave.

“What ‘cha got?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing.”

“Nothing?” she said. “Normally you don’t come charging into the cockpit over nothing.”

She had me there. “Okay,” I said stepping back into the room, “I was poking around on the web, and I think I found a way to fix FC-13. Permanently that is.”

“You solved the flow problem?”

“Possibly,” I said.

“Possibly is still better than anything we’ve been able to find. Can I take a peek?”

For some reason I suddenly felt shy. “Um…”

“C’mon.”

“Okay. Promise you won’t laugh, though.”

She looked back at me. “Why?”

“Well, it’s a bit eccentric.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Eccentric, huh? Will it work?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“What the heck. Its not like I have anything else to do this shift.”

I slid the data file to the Nav screen. A KF airfoil popped up with all its graphs. Lisa took one look at it and said, “Hoo-kay.”

“Hey, you promised you wouldn’t laugh.”

“Did I? Well I’m not laughing,” she said with a smile. “Yet.”

“Great,” I mumbled as she glanced closely at the figures.

“Well, I’m surprised,” she continued. “That thing is ugly, but it looks like it actually works. At least at a higher AOAs that is. But I don’t see how it could help us with FC-13. Not without adding more parasitic drag.”

“Well,” I said leaning over to touch the screen. “I was looking at the steps, and wondering why they worked. Somehow those steps kept the airflow stuck to the wing.” I pulled up a schematic of the Alice May’s wing. “And that’s when I started thinking about how the wing was working here and here.” As I spoke I pointed to the curved sections around the cowling for motor one. The motor was on the front of the wing, its the cowl wrapped around it, and fitting smoothly into the wing as it made its way back. It also happened to be almost exactly in front of FC-13.

“Go on,” she said.

“Well I thought maybe the chaotic flow we’re getting was caused by the air crossing over the wing, and flowing around the cowl.”

“But it flows like that over every other cowl too,” she said.

“Yes, but not near the fuselage, like motor one, and not with the spiral flow of the working motor.”

“You think it’s caused by the flow from the prop, or the fuselage?”

“No. I think it’s a combo of both.” I showed her the formulas I had used, and how I thought the combined airflow might cause the problem.”

“Hum,” she said, staring at my work. “This is…if not promising, at least interesting. Where did you find this airfoil anyway.”

“Um, I used to build model airplanes. Radio controlled ones, that is.”

Lisa looked at me, a grin slowly spreading on her face, then she tilted back her head and laughed.

“Hey,” I said. “You promised.” For some reason I found myself laughing too.

“I’m sorry,” she said when she could finally control her breathing. “Its just, so weird, and yet so, so, I don’t know. Unusual? Perfect?”

“So you think I’m unusual?” I asked feeling my cheeks start to warm.

She looked at me, searching. Her eyes serious. “Yes,” she said. “I believe so.”

For some reason from her it sounded like a compliment.

We stayed that way, looking into each other’s eyes for I don’t know how long. Then she yawned, and that was that.

“Look, Bob,” she said. “I was… uh, rude to you when you first came aboard.”

“Is that what you call it?” I said playfully.

“What?”

“I was thinking more like impudent. Maybe cheeky,” I said.

“Cheeky?”

“Perhaps churlish. Do you think that’s a better word? Its got a nice ring to it, churlish does.”

“Hum,” she said. “I’m afraid I haven’t given it much thought.”

“There’s also discourteous, and unmannerly. Tactless, is a good word. So is undiplomatic.”

“I see,” she said.

“There’s also brusque. But my personal favorite is insolent.”

“Are you through?”

“No. I have more if you would like?”

“Thank you,” she said in mock seriousness. “But I believe you’ve made your point.”

“Have I?”

“Yes. Only, there’s something, uh I think you should know about us Cloudies. A cultural thing. Uh, something that perhaps you were not aware.” I noticed her cheeks were staring to turn red. “Not that this is an excuse mind you,” she continued. “Its just that…that…”

I waved my hand in a circle. “C’mon. Spit it out. I haven’t got all night.”

She swallowed hard. “Well, on most planes when there is a girl, a girl of… lets say marriageable age…”

“Go on,” I said.

“Her parents often hire on a third-hand, to… you know, try to marry her off.”

This stopped me cold. “You’re serious?” I said.

“Yes.”

“You mean I was hired on, to set you up?”

“Yes,” she said. “You mean you didn’t know?”

I shook my head. “No.” Now it was my turn to be embarrassed. “Oh, my G…. Well that does explain a lot, doesn’t it?”

“Yes it does.” she said. “I can’t believe Paul never told you.”

“Was he supposed to?”

“He said he was.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say to that. He must have known this information would have been helpful, but he never let on. I guess the feeling on my face must have shown.

“You really didn’t know, did you?”

“No. And had I known I… I…” Suddenly realized I didn’t want to finish that sentence. “Uh, look,” I said after a moment’s pause. “Its late, and I have a shift tomorrow. I really should be turning in.”

“Yes,” she said jumping at the change of topic. “Good idea.”

I was just starting to turn around when I remembered why I had come in the first place. “Oh, yes. About that airfoil.”

“What about it?” she asked.

“Well I was hoping to show it to Paul in the morning….”

“And, you don’t want me to tell him first? Is that it?”

“Something like that,” I said.

Suddenly her face took on a mischievous look. “I’ve got a better idea,” she said. “How about if we surprise him instead?”

“Um…” I said, feeling unsure.

“Look, if the ridges work, you’ve got nothing to loose. Right?”

I nodded my head in agreement.

“And if they don’t work, you’re out nothing.”

“Sure,” I said. “But how can I be sure…”

She held up her hand to stop me. “Don’t even go there, ground-pounder. I’m still the best engineer on this ship. If anyone can make it work, it’ll be me.”

She had me there. She was the best engineer.

“Besides,” she continued with an innocent smile. “I think we own my brother a nice little surprise. Don’t you?”

It was the smile that got me. “Yes,” I said feeling the matching smile on my own face. “I think we do. Only on one condition: you have keep me in the loop. Okay?”

She held out her hand and we shook.

“Deal,” she said.

 

True to her word, Lisa kept me informed on her progress. At first we met every couple of days, but soon we were going over her figures almost nightly. She ran the simulations and tweaked the math, and I reconfigured the wing so it could produce the steps as needed. We tested in small sections first, always at night when everyone else was asleep, and always very careful to double-check our work. Within a couple of weeks we rigged a few sensors on the back of the motor cowl, and had a program which popped up the KF steps, or ridges as Lisa called them, every time it sensed a separation in the airflow.

After that, we never had a problem with FC-13 again.

You would think Paul would have noticed, after all it was his project initially. By this point it was fairly late in the Summer, and Paul had his own issues. You see he was about to leave the Alice May for ground-pounder school. The very same university Lisa had just left. Between the books, the girls, the dorms, the girls, and the 10,000 things a college student needs to worry about, airflow separation was rather low on his list of priorities.

Which is why he was slightly preoccupied as we attempted to land that Fall.

 

###

 

“Hold on,” came the voice of Paul over the noisy intercom. “I think I got something. Giss?”

“The one coming up the pass? I’m already on it,” said Giselle. She spoke again a few moments later. “Hum. Its a warm mass, and it looks like its peaking.” Giselle spoke as she was glancing at a thermal imaging array of our flight path. Sensitive cameras all over the ship focused at highlighting tiny differences in air temperature. She was watching the ground for thermals much like a bird of prey might. Thermals are the bubbles of warm air that hawks use to gain elevation without flapping. Only we were about a thousand times bigger than any hawk. “Yes,” she said, her voice excited for the first time. “Its separating… Its clear. We should feel it when we crest the ridge.

“Roger that,” Paul said calmly.

The giant glider hummed and moaned. In front of me I could see the new houses. They were towers really. Tall, thin, made of some kind of clear plastic, carbon fiber, and injected foam. They loomed over the homes below them for hundreds of feet, standing right on the top of the ridge where they would have the maximum view. They were shiny new examples of the high rise homes people were building. Minimalist design, light construction, yet strong enough to handle the Santa Anna gusts that tore though this area annually. If the Alice May hit one of them, the impact might be enough to cause an early morning riser inside to spill their coffee, but it would also dump thousands of pounds of glider-ship on the the roofs of the houses below. And incidentally kill all of the people on-board.

The glider’s speed, the RAS or Relative Air Speed –– that most precious commodity, and most looked at reading –– slowly dipped into the red on my screen. All along the huge hollow wing I heard the tiny servos rapidly push and pull the flying surfaces, trying to eek out a bit more speed to counter act the huge drag of skidding a plane sideways. There was a bump, like we had just drove over an invisible hill, which in point of fact we did. But it wasn’t enough.

Suddenly Lisa spoke formally over the headset. “Pilot. Requesting permission for the controls.” It was the protocol used for passing control of the ship from one person to another.

“Damn it sis,” Paul said, sounding rattled for the first time, “I can handle it.”

“I’m asking,” Lisa said calmly but firmly, “but in three seconds I’ll be telling.”

There was a long pause. No one said anything. By long tradition one could take over piloting from another if you were sure the pilot was not able to handle the situation, or if there was information they were lacking. There was only one caveat; you better have a darn good explanation for your actions, if you ever expected to pilot again.

“Okay. Damn it,” Paul spit out. “Just go. Take it!”

“I have the controls,” Lisa said calmly, completing the protocol.

The plane shifted slightly as she tested the controls, then over the headphones she said, “Hang on everyone. This is going to get interesting.”

Then to her computer she said, “Pop the ridges.” This was the key-word to configure the entire wing for the KF structures. We’d tested this airfoil in small sections, and run hours and hours with it on the simulator, but we’d never actually tried it on the whole wing.

The servos whined and the steps formed up and down the whole length of the wing. The sound level dropped, and some of the vibration vanished. I was looking at the external camera to make sure the steps deployed correctly when I heard Paul’s voice.

“Shit,” he said.

I looked down at the RAS and saw what he meant. Lisa had pulled the nose up to climb, but we were now going uphill which was slowing us down. The needle was slowly creeping down towards the red area of the gauge, indicating a stall. Then it dropped lower. Technically, a stall was when a plane’s wing no longer produces more lift than its weight. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the wing simply stops flying. As does the plane. We watched as the RAS needle dropped 2, 3, and then 4 miles per hour into the red. Any second now we should start to drop. I kept waiting and waiting for that sickening weightless feeling, but it didn’t come. The needle finally stopped 6 miles per hour past a stall, and there it stayed.

In the mean time we were still in the midst of a thermal. The slower speed kept us in the warmer rising air mass for longer. It wasn’t much longer, but it was enough.

The plane tilted to one side as Lisa raised the right wing. The nose pointed off to the left, but I could feel the plane still flying the same direction, the long fuselage was literally flying sideways, like a car skidding on ice – heading down the road in the same direction, but the front turned on the yaw axis. Lisa was using the rudders to keep us on path while the ailerons raised the starboard wing to clear the tower. Yet slewing like this created extra drag which slowed the plane down, which in turn…

Right as we approached the tower the Alice May finally stalled. It wasn’t a typical stall; she didn’t drop a wing, or loose several hundred feet of altitude. Instead, she just sort of mushed along. The whole plane lifted, the wings shuddering, the servos rapidly chattering, and very lightly the starboard wing cleared the tower in front of us, neatly clipping the tiny antenna sticking up on it’s roof. Then we dropped a bit, maybe 10 feet, and were flying again.

While we were passing I looked down below at the tower and saw a woman on her balcony. She was 400 feet above the ground, holding onto a toddler, and waiving at us enthusiastically as we passed, like we were an attraction at the zoo. I could imagine her saying something like, “Look at the pretty airplane, sweet’ums. Isn’t it shiny?” I swallowed the lump of bile that was suddenly in my throat. She had no idea how close we’d come to dying.

Lisa expertly lowered the nose and straightened the plane back to our flight path. With the nose down we quickly picked up speed, and we’re soon back in the groove. Two minutes later the wheels smoothly touched down on the runway 200 feet from the start, and we rolled almost the whole entire length until we came to a stop.

We were alive, and on the ground.

George pulled himself slowly back from the cramped observation bubble and said with some sarcasm, “Well, that was interesting.”

I looked down still too stunned to move and noticed for the first time my nose was only a few inches from the ground. As I slowly wormed my way out of the cramped space, I noticed the huge plane whispered and shifted on the ground almost as much as it did in the air. The wind outside blew past in waves. Each gust echoed by tiny pops and cracks in the structure. Standing up, I glanced out the front canopy as a truck came to tow the plane off the runaway. When I stood, George shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the Couldies,” he said with a smile, but his eyes betrayed his worry for those close enough to read them.

 

Two hours later, the plane was strapped down, the galley cleared, and the whole family ready to leave. It was time for our goodbyes. For me it was time to go back to my apartment, which for some reason no longer held any appeal. For the Hendersons it was time to take Paul to the university, and help him settle into his dorm room.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” George said to me as he shook my hand goodbye. “With Paul gone to school the Alice May could use an extra hand. Would you consider shipping with us a while longer? I can’t promise you a birth once he gets back, but that should give you a good three years to look around for another plane. What do you think?”

I smiled at him, having already expected something like this. “Well,” I said, “it depends.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Depends?”

By then the rest of the family had started to gather around.

“Yes,” I said trying to keep my voice steady. George has that effect on people. “There’s a lot I don’t know yet about flying, so I’ll need a lot of training still.”

“Granted.”

“And, I’ll need a little more time to write. After all, I still have my freelance work, and it’d be too costly to drop it just now.”

George frowned for a second, but I knew he couldn’t refuse a man who wanted to work. “I can see that,” he said starting to realize the conversation wasn’t going quite the way he expected.

“And one more thing,” I added. “I’ll need some kind of income.”

At this both of his eyebrows shot up. “Income?” he asked.

“Income,” I said steadily. “I’m going to be doing some saving, and I need to be able to put away a little bit each month for that purpose.”

George put a hand to his jaw and looked away in silence. It was a trick he used to make the other person feel uncomfortable. It comes in handy when trying to negotiate a price, especially when your whole family is riding on the decision. Fortunately, I had been carefully coached through this part by an expert. I waited it out, both eyes on him.

“C’mon Pops,” Paul said. “You said yourself he’s pretty handy with the tape?”

“I did?” George replied.

“And you know,” Gisselle added, “he picked up the math faster than any of the other hands.”

George nodded. “There is that,” he said begrudgingly. He looked around at is family. “Anything else?” he added sharply.

“Well, he does cook the chicken vindaloo pretty well,” said little Jared in his thin voice.

“Hum,” said George looking around again. “Don’t any you think I don’t know what’s going on here.” he said with a frown.

Just then Bonny put her small arm around him and whispered into his ear. I don’t know what she said, but George’s face flashed anger at first, then quickly resolved to calm acceptance.

“It appears,” he said, “I’ve been outflanked by my own family, the bunch of degenerate mutineers.” He smiled and stuck out his hand to me. “I’ll toss in a slight income as well. It will be slight, mind you…”

Bonny cleared her throat with a loud “Ah, hum.”

George looked her way, and his smile faltered. “Okay, more than a slight income. It appears my wife thinks we can afford it, though I hazard to guess why.”

“Thank you, George,” I said. “I think you’ll find its money well spent.”

“You think so, do you? Mind telling me what you’re planning on saving it for?”

“Well I was thinking…” Suddenly I found myself at a loss for words. I thought to myself, Some kind of writer you turned out to be. Just then Lisa stepped in beside me, slipping her hand in mine. I felt a light squeeze. That was all I needed. “Um,” I muttered, “the thing is, its going to take years and such. And a lot of planning… so don’t think its going to happen over night, or anything. But we, that is Lisa and I. We were thinking of building a plane. Of our own, that is.”

George looked me hard in the eye, a scowl on his face. Then a smile came across his eyes and his hand come out again.

“In that case,” he said as he shook my hand again, “I guess you better call me ‘Pops’.”

Outtake from Angel of Death

Since I’ve been neglecting my blog of late, I thought I would put up a little something. This scene is an outtake from my first novel, Angel of Death. My goal was to put it in the novel somehow, maybe insert it at the beginning, but I couldn’t seem to make it work.

It’s very short, less than 1400 words, so it should only take you a few minutes to read. It also, I think, gets right at the heart of Father Juan’s dilemma. He’s a priest with a curse. Just what kind of curse you’ll find out here.

Later, I’ll put up another outtake from the same novel. One that requires a bit of a description, but is an equally powerful scene all the same.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Father Juan was tired.

The tall priest was traveling on a bus somewhere in the southwest. The high desert landscape, all dusty dry reds and tan sands, drifted past his window. Each bump in the road jostling his seat, making it difficult to sleep. He was not quite 25 and already heading for his third church. Barely suppressed anger at this injustice clouded his thinking, leaving a lingering aftertaste of guilt and shame.

When he got on the bus that morning still wearing his clerics from the morning mass, a mother had spoken to her husband and teen-aged daughter as he passed them in the aisle. “Look,” she had said in Spanish. “We are lucky to be traveling with a priest. Surely God will protect one of his own.” The way the daughter kept calling her father “Apa” told Father Juan they were from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, but their conversation was spiced with Spanglish; Americanized Spanish. It was the sound of a family born in one country, but living in another.

Father Juan had sat in an open seat near the back of the bus, and watched the miles roll past the window. Sometime in the afternoon he dozed off, only to be woken when a man sat roughly next to him. The man’s face was rugged and dried looking, the skin weathered, his hair cropped short and mostly grey. A scar ran down from his forehead to one cheek, crossing one eye which was cloudy with cataracts. The other eye, the good one under his heavy eyebrows, carried a gleam of malevolence like a hard bright star.

“Don’t think I’m afraid of no priest,” he boasted in Spanish by way of a greeting. Then he laughed as the young priest impulsively shrank back against the window, saying nothing.

Father Juan wanted to tell the man he wasn’t afraid, that the fear he felt growing in his belly was not for for the man, but for something far more grim. Instead he remained silent. There was no way the priest could explain this to him, not without making things worst.

The bus lumbered out of the dusty station and headed out onto the highway. The man next to Father Juan said nothing, looking straight ahead, lost in his own thoughts. Already, Father Juan could feel a sense of dread growing within. A chill settling in his belly as he unconsciously pressed himself against the cool metal side of the bus.

Then things turned worse on their own.

“The first one,” the man said in a low voice, almost a whisper, “was when I was twelve. I took the wallet of some rich man in Monterey. When he tried to grab me, I shot him. I didn’t mean to, but I shot him just the same.”

He spoke matter-of-factly, without looking at the priest, so it was a moment before Father Juan realized the man was talking to him.

“The next one,” the man said almost conversationally, “was a girl from Nachez. She twirled her skirts for me, but wouldn’t spread her legs. I used a knife that time.” His lips curled up as he said this, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile.

The mans voice was slowly rising. Emotion becoming more evident with each word. Father Juan shrank back horrified even further into the bus’ side, as if he could make the man stop by pushing himself into the metal.

The passengers around them started to stare.

“The third one,” the man spoke louder, “was a Federale. He tried to take my money, so I shot him with his own gun. I left Mexico after that.”

For the next half hour, the man confessed to every crime he had done in his long and terrible life. Half way thought he started to cry. Tears streamed down his face, his voice a horse rasp of emotion, yet on and on he spoke. He kept staring straight ahead, never looking to either side, as if he was afraid he would stop if he did. The passengers in the back had first looked on with horror. Later they moved to the front, trying to get as far away as possible from that terrible voice. Some even stood in the aisles rather than sit close enough to hear. Eventually the only two left in the back were Father Juan and the criminal. The driver had yelled at the man to shut up, threatening to drop him off at the next freeway exit, but the man ignored these threats like he did everything else.

When the criminal finally reached the end of his confession his face was pale and drawn, his voice a whispered croak. Only then did he turn to look at the priest for the first time. With unmanly tears streaking down his cheeks he pleaded, “I beg you, Padre. Please pray to God for my soul. Pray for my forgiveness.” And with those words, he slumped into the center aisle, dead.

Father Juan leapt from his seat grabbing the well worn Pastoral Care of the Sick from his backpack along with a small vile of holy water. Awkwardly he leaned over the man to administer his last rites. After he finished the Prayer of Commendation he drew the sign of the cross upon the man’s forehead, and sprinkled the body with holy water. Then he closed his booklet with the ribbon bookmark carefully placed back upon the chapter called Prayers for the Dead. Looking up he saw through the dirty windows the last of the twilight being squeezed out of the cold clear indigo sky. Only then did he notice how dark it was, and that every eye on the bus was upon him.

The driver stopped at the next wide spot in the road, a rest-stop. The other passengers quickly exited the bus, but Father Juan elected to stay with the body until the sherif arrived. One gnarled old woman, her hands bent into claws from arthritis, had stared at him when she left, lowering herself painfully with each step. Her piercing eyes showed no fear, buried as they were in her wrinkled face, when she whispered the words, “Ángel de la Muerte.” Angel of Death. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.

When the bus left again three hours later, Father Juan noticed that half passengers had stayed behind, including the old woman and the family from Sinaloa.

He sat alone in the back of the bus, and thought about the past few years. That was the tenth “special” confession he had heard since he left seminary less than three years ago. It was also the tenth man he had seen die right before his eyes. No wonder the seats around him were empty.

What he felt then was not anger. No longer did he suffer the pride of thinking himself a pawn in some larger man’s game. Death had a way of burning through that particular emotion. Instead what he felt was shame. Almost too late he had remembered he was a priest with a mandate from God. Almost too late he had remembered the wounds Jesus bore were for everyone, the criminal and innocent alike.

That night Father Juan made a vow, sitting alone while the moonlit dessert rushed past his window somewhere between where he was and where he was going. He swore to himself that no matter how undeserving the next person might be, if a man was going to confess to him, then he would treat that man with the respect a child of God deserved. It was not anything he was prepared for, or felt himself capable of doing, but apparently it was his calling. And he would do that job as well as he was able.

It was a long time before the sun came up again. When it did, a very tired priest got off at the next stop, and carried his bags to what he hoped would be his last parish.

The Sound of Pieces

As promised here is a new story, one I started way back in February of last year. This one is neither sci-fi or fantasy, but pretty much straight-up fiction, and it features a teacher as a the protagonist, because I think teachers are awesome. Mind you, she’s not necessarily a “nice” teacher, but I think you’ll agree she’s a pretty good person, at least by the end.

My working title for they story was Balance, but I never cottoned to that name much. I settled on The Sound of Pieces (you’ll have to read the story to see why), but I’m not sure if its any better. If you think you might have a better idea for a title, go ahead and post it. 

This story is just shy of 5900 words. Call it about 20 minutes of your time, depending on how fast you read. And every time I read it, it still makes me cry, although you might never guess where.

And with that, I leave you to the story.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

I knew my day was gonna be bad when the coffee machine spit out hot water. Damn. In my usual morning fog I had forgotten to add the grounds. Worst still, I had wasted the last filter in the box.

We have extra coffee filters buried somewhere in the cupboard over the refrigerator. I looked at the clock and saw I had a few minutes to spare before I got in the shower, so I unfolded the stupid step ladder that shakes whenever I stand on it, and started digging through the piles of junk.

I mean, how many half-empty bags of coffee beans does one couple need? Really?

That’s when I found the bill. It was tucked into the corner, next to the liquor bottles covered in dust and cat hair. It was a doctor’s bill. $463.00. From a surgeon I never heard of. Not a lot of money, but still more than we had.

And it was due in three days.

I don’t know why he hides them. Henry swears he’s getting better, and to give the devil his due he does faithfully attend his court ordered D.A. meetings, but each promise just piles up, one on top of another, until they start to feel like a lead weight crushing my lungs and pushing me deeper into the ground.

I steadied myself against the cupboard door, and practiced my deep breathing. Dust from the top of the refrigerator made grey lines in my pajamas. I did what my therapist Carly says will help; I counted backwards from 100, I envisioned Henry a better man, I looked hard for the bright side. None of these things made me feel smart or strong. They just make me mad.

Just once I’d like to not feel mad. Just once I’d like to wake up and not wonder if today is the day I should divorce my husband. Is that too much to ask?

Then I went to school and things got worse.

I was ten minutes late walking into the staff room. Some stupid lady in line at the coffee shop kept changing her order over and over, and when I finally got to the counter the only Americano available was hazelnut. I mean, who in the hell drinks hazelnut coffee?

And then running late to the meeting, I passed Billy in the hallway. “Hello Mrs. Caplestock. Good morning, good morning, good morning,” he said in his sing-songy voice. Like he does, each and every morning, without fail.

I stopped to reply to him like I always do, “It’s Ms. Rodriquez, Billy,” I said, emphasizing the “Ms.” part strongly, like I was taught in school. “Ms. Rodriquez. Not Mrs. Caplestock.”

“Oh,” he said, his face switching from a smile to a frown, like I had just kicked his favorite puppy. Then his smile suddenly came back. “Did I say good morning to you yet, Mrs. Rodriquez? Good morning, good morning, good morning.”

“Good morning, Billy,” I mumbled as I hurried past.

By the time I got to the staff room, the Ice Queen, which is what everyone calls Principal Mendoza, was going over the schedule. She gave me the stink eye as I crept into my seat near the back. A small piece of paper was sitting face down on the desk in front of my chair. As I turned it over I saw Hillary give Jennifer a significant glance. They were the other two forth grade teachers at Grace Boulevard Elementary, and from their conspiratorial smiles, I knew they had looked at the note already.

“See me after Staff,” it read in a huge flowing script. It was signed “Theresa Condolez, Vice-Principal.” As if I needed help remembering her job title. Theresa was a large woman with large hair, large handwriting, and even larger feelings. She was always talking about her feelings and how everybody must feel. She also sucked up to the Ice Queen so hard that Hillary and Jennifer joked that they were connected nose to ass.

The note was a bit of good news. It looks like someone had finally read my complaint. I smiled, knowing it would cause Hillary and Jennifer to wonder. It did.

After the meeting, in which Mendoza described tardiness as unprofessional at least three times, I grabbed my things, and followed Theresa to her office. On the way out Hillary shot me a questioning glance, but I shook my head. I’d see her at prep after third period. She could hold her curiosity until then.

When I got there, I was kept waiting in the outer office while Theresa took care of some minor things. When she called me in I could see my report sitting on her desk, opened to the second page.

“You wanted to talk about my report?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said sitting down. “But first I wanted to ask how you feel?”

“How I feel?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“About what?”

“About teaching here,” she said with a smug smile.

Holy shit!  I thought. About teaching here? That was not good. “Um, fine,” I lied.

“Just fine?” she asked. Her big fat eyes were looking back at me with an emotion I couldn’t read. Pity?

“Fine,” I said.

“Okay,” she said looking down at my report. “I see you have turned in a complaint about William Maxwell.”

“Who?” I said. I’d never heard that name before.

“Billy. The janitor.”

“Oh yeah.”

“It says here that you have problems with him, ‘walking down the hall,’” she said, reading off of my report.

Trust Theresa to take something simple, and screw it up. “Not his walking,” I said. “Its when he pushes his trash can thingy. You know, the round one with all the cleaning stuff hanging off it? That one.”

“Yes.”

“He makes too much noise. Rolling it down the hall after lunch. It disrupts the class. Makes the kids jumpy. I’ve told you this before.”

“Yes,” she said, looking up from the report. “Did you try closing the door, like I suggested?” she asked with an innocent smile. “After all, that would solve the problem wouldn’t it?”

“Did you fix the air conditioner in my room?” I asked with a similar smile. It was an old complaint. We were near the end of the hottest April on record, and my classroom had had no working AC since September. The only way to keep the room from getting so warm that the kids fell asleep was to open the outside windows and the door to the hall.

“No,” she said. Smile gone.

She glanced at the report, reading it for a few more seconds. “And I see here you’re complaining about your name,” she said.

“Not my name,” I corrected. “The name he calls me. Mrs. Caplestock.”

“Oh yes,” Theresa said with a warm smile.

Before I took this job at Grace Boulevard Elementary, there used to be a teacher here named Mrs. Caplestock. From the way everybody gushed about her, she must have been the best forth grade teacher in the entire universe. Ever. Somehow I got stuck with her classroom, and almost every day someone used her name in my hearing. “Mrs. Caplestock used to have the best library,” or “Did you look in the right hand drawer? That’s where Mrs. Caplestock put them,” or “She used to sing so well. Can you sing like Mrs. Caplestock?” Being compared to a woman long retired was galling enough, but when the retarded–sorry, mentally handicapped–janitor starting calling me by her name, it was too much.

“You know,” Theresa said, breaking my reverie, “this is going to sound strange, but you do favor her some.”

“So I’ve been told,” I said trying to keep my tone pleasant. About a thousand times, I wanted to add, but didn’t. Here’s a hint. When you’re in your early thirties, being told you look like someone in their seventies is not a compliment.

“Still,” Theresa continued, “I guess it must make you feel bad. Funny how he would make such a mistake. Mrs. Caplestock was so nice.”

See what I have to put up with?

Theresa went back to the report. “And this last paragraph says something about him looking at you?”

I squirmed in my seat. Talking about sexual stuff always make me feel like a little girl in a room full of adults. “Yes, um…” Theresa raised an eyebrow at my discomfort which just made me more mad. “Its not that he looks at me, it’s the way he looks at me.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” Theresa said demurely, a hint of a smile playing on the corners of her mouth.

On the inside I thought, oh I doubt that very much you silly bitch, but on the outside I said, “You know… Like a woman.”

“But you are a woman, Esther,” Theresa said as if it was evident.

“Yes but…” Oh I hated talking about this. “He looks at me like I’m a woman woman. You know. Like, like he’s attracted to me.”

She slowly looked up from my report, both eyes glancing over the top of the stupid little half glasses she wears that make her look cross-eyed. What is it about diminishing eyesight that makes people suck at fashion?

“He looks at you like you’re attractive?” she repeated. Coming from her, it sounded retarded.

“Yes,” I stammered.

“Surely, you’ve had this experience before, Esther. You are a pretty woman, after all.”

“Yes, but…” I said. My mind was reeling, trying to describe the difference between an attractive man looking at you, and an unattractive one. Only it wasn’t that Billy was unattractive. Well he was, but that wasn’t the thing. When he looked at me, it was like he was leering at me. It was not a happy thing, it was a scary thing.

“I see,” Theresa said, not waiting for me to finish my thoughts. And then predictably she added, “And how does that make you feel?”

I wanted to shout, “It makes my skin crawl!” but by then I knew the direction this meeting was headed, so we sat across from each other while I tried to find a more politically correct way to say the retarded janitor was making eyes at me and it was creeping me out. Alas, my words were failing me.

“Do you suppose it has something to do with the way you dress?” She said innocently, while glancing at my outfit.

I think I went into shock at that point. My mind was reeling. She did not just pull a victim blame on me, did she?

There was a knock at the door, and Marlena, the school secretary, leaned her head inside flashing a stack of papers. Theresa waived her over, and that pretty much concluded the meeting. After being ignored for a few minutes, I got up and left. Still fuming I stopping by my box to see if there was anything important. There wasn’t. By the time I made it to my class I had only a few minutes before they let the kids in, and there was still a lot of work to do.

Ten minutes later my official day began. I didn’t realize I’d left my coffee in Theresa’s office until after the bell rang. Maybe, I said to myself while the kids filed in, she’ll take a sip, and we’ll discover she has an allergy to artificial hazelnut flavor or something. It was a reach, I know, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

That morning the kids were…well, they were kids. Meaning…. Look. Its a charter school in a bad part of town. It was a job that didn’t look too hard at my credentials, in exchange for a guaranteed one year contract. No pension, no medical, and no union. A choice between fifteen years of debt and fifty. In other words, no choice as all. So yeah, the kids were bad. What’s new?

We made it through the flag salute and reading without any major mishaps. Jon Carlos started wandering around the room during math but I was able to corral him, for a change, by sticking him with Evan Dramer–the only kid in class worse at math than he was. Usually those two competed to see who can be the worst at a subject. Today they decided to see who was the best. Thank heaven for small miracles.

After nutrition, which is the break we used to call recess (which offers no actual recess, and features no food item that could even remotely be considered nutritious), we zoomed through social studies, and then off to lunch.

Once the kids were out, I met Hillary and Jennifer in our regular corner of the staff room for prep. Technically the period was supposed to be dedicated to Professional Development, but mostly it was an excuse to gossip, which we did with reckless abandon.

Billy was a favorite topic of ours. Since Hillary and Jennifer had taught here longer, they had better stories. Hilary called him the school’s pet, and Jennifer liked to make fun of the way he talked. You know, harmless fun. So I was surprised at their reaction when I told them both about my complaint.

“You went to Theresa about Billy?” Hillary said in surprise.

“Yeah,” I said suddenly self-conscious. “Why not?”

They glanced at each other then down at their plates. That scared me more than the frosty look I got from Mendoza this morning. When the two biggest gossips in the school take a sudden interest in their food, you know its not good.

“What?” I said. They studiously ignored me.

“Are you two going to tell me, or am I going to have to threaten you?” The last part I said soft enough that no one could overhear.

“You can’t possibly…” Jennifer started, but I interrupted.

“Jon Carlos,” I said. They both stopped. “Everyone knows I have three more students than both of you,” I said hurriedly. “All I have to do is tell the Ice Queen I’m not sure if I can handle the load, what with being in my first year and all, and I’m sure I can get him transferred.” They both sat up straighter at this. “The only question is, which one of you deserves him more?”

They looked at each other and then laughed. “Okay,” said Hillary. “You got us.”

“Well,” I said after a pause.

“Well,” said Jennifer, “Don’t take this too serious. See, we heard a rumor…“

“Yeah, a rumor,” Hillary said.

“…and we didn’t want to tell you…” Jennifer said and the stopped.

“But…” I added.

“But…” Jennifer continued, “The thing is. What we heard, and don’t take this the wrong way, but…”

“Would you two get on with it!” I said loudly. The room went silent.

Jennifer gave me a pained look, but waited until the general hubbub returned before making a sound. “The reason you were hired,” she said softly. “One of the reasons, at any rate, that you were picked over the other candidates…. And you know there were a lot of candidates for your position, right? I don’t have to tell you…”

Hillary silenced her with a chopping motion. “We heard you got hired because Billy likes you,” she said, looking down at her plate.

“What?”

“Be-cause,” Hillary repeated slowly in her teacher voice, like she was speaking to a forth grader, “He. Likes. You.”

“Who told you this?” I demanded. They shrugged their shoulders in unison.

“Does it matter?” Hillary asked.

Outside the window I could hear the rushing of the traffic on Grace Boulevard, the normal yelling and screaming of the kids on the playground, and the murmurs of the other teachers in the staff room droning like hundreds of low pitched mosquitoes. The microwave let out a single ding to let someone know their lunch was finished cooking.

“I suppose not,” I said with a sigh, very much wishing that my friends had been more forthcoming before I wrote the complaint. Or that I’d been smart enough to tell them about it before I turned it in. Or that I hadn’t taken the job in the first place, or that I hadn’t married Henry to begin with…. Or, or, or.

Why is there always a shit storm raging on my sea of regret?

After lunch we were supposed to do health science, but with the hotter weather I had learned it took a good 30 minutes for the kids to settle down. So I had them pull out their library books and read. John Carlos took ten minutes and five reminders before he got out his book, but the rest of the class settled into the routine quietly, with only the occasional twitch or interruption.

It was warm enough in the room that I had the doors and windows open fully, catching the faint cross breeze. Anything to get the kids to settle down. So of course this had to be the time that Billy took out the trash.

Now my classroom sat at the far end of the hall. Just past my door was the small storage space that Billy’s used for an office, and just past that was a back door that lead to the rarely used end of the parking lot. You know, that place where they keep the large trash cans that no one ever goes near. I had been in Billy’s office before. Once. It was full of little knick-knacks, bottles, sticks, chewing gum wrappers, leaves, and small abandoned toys, each one placed carefully next to the other, and organized as if by a blind madman with exquisite taste in junk. The room had accreted so many objects over the years that if you turned quickly while sticking out an elbow, a dozen things were bound to fall. And, as I discovered the hard way, nothing made Billy more angry than knocking over his things. The room gave me nightmares after that.

In between Billy’s door and mine was an old trophy case that was built into the wall. Why they would give trophies to this school was beyond me. The trophy case curved over the top of a rusty drinking fountain. The bottom of the case, dusty and filled with a display from the Eisenhower Era, hung low enough over the fountain that an adult had to duck their head to drink. That’s if the water fountain was working, which it often wasn’t. After one experimental taste, I had learned to always keep a supply of bottled water under my desk.

It was from this back room that Billy started his rounds, cleaning the school as he rolled forwards. He was supposed to start after 2:15 when the students were let out, but he had discovered his own way of doing things and didn’t react well with change. This meant that every afternoon, right when I was trying to get the students to settle down, he would wheel his big trash can down the hall, squeaking and bumping as it went, and noisily dump the refuse from each class. It was precisely this noise that disrupted the student’s quiet time, making them giggle and squirm with every bump and squeak.

Maybe it was me, but he seemed to spend more time on my end of the hall than the rest. More than once I caught him staring at me through the door while I was bent over a child’s desk attempting to help. It was not a good feeling.

Today I decided I would be proactive. So when I first heard the squeak of the trash can rolling out his door, I drifted over to the hall door to close it. Just as I reached the handle I heard Billy’s voice from the hall asking, “Who’re you?” This was unusual. Billy knew the name of every child in the school, and rarely spoke while working. Then his voice changed from question to anger. “You…. You go, you go, you go. Bad man, bad man, badman.”

I grabbed the handle, and instinctively stopped. Through the angle of the opening I could just make out another man in the hall. The bright glare of the open back door made him appear as a dark silhouette. Billy was standing right close, his body in between me and the man. “Bad man, you go, you go,” he was saying. “My kids, you go, you go yougo.” He words started slurring together in as they increased in volume.

The man was struggling with something. Cursing. In the bright light it was difficult to see. “Damn retard! Get out of the way!”

Billy was still yelling, “My kids, my kids mykids,” when the shot went off. In the enclosed hall the sound bounced around massive and harsh. Suddenly the man went flying up against the wall. His head connecting with the top of the trophy case, while his body continued below until it struck the wall over the drinking fountain.

And when he hit, the sound….

When I had first started at Grace Boulevard Elementary, Jennifer had innocently suggested I ask Billy how many items were in the “lost and found” box they keep in the front office. Everyone said Billy was incredible at finding things. Even Hillary remarked on this. So of course, I asked.

Later I would learn that asking about the “lost and found” meant having to talk with Billy, and attempting to communicate with him was usually more effort than searching for the damn lost thing to begin with. But at the time I didn’t know any better.

“Depends,” he had slurred.

“It depends on what, Billy? I asked slowly.

“Pieces, no pieces,” he said.

I looked at him blankly. When he didn’t respond I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean.”

“Pieces, no pieces,” he said again in frustration.

When I didn’t respond, he took my arm and walked me into my room. Grabbing a pencil he held it up. “No pieces,” he said, and then with quick motion he snapped the pencil in two. Snap. “Pieces,” he said holding the two ends up. Then he gently pressed the two halves together again saying, “No pieces”.

That pencil sound–the snapping, breaking–that was what the man’s neck sounded like when he hit the wall.

I let out a small squeak, which echoed in the silence of the hall. Billy’s head slowly turned from the man towards me, his eyes round and open in alarm. He took one look at me and the effect was like a slap to his face.

“Sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” he slurred, then he turned and ran down the hall, slamming open the front door at the other end so hard that it smacked into the stop with a bang, and then chattered like the kid’s teeth on a cold day.

Somehow the back door had closed, so the only light that fell into the back hall came from a small hole in the ceiling. From it I could just make out a strange man laying half under the trophy case. His upper body was twisted, motionless, but his heels drummed into the ground like a morse code operator on crack.

In the dim light I could see next to the body a series of thin bright highlights and long dark shapes that somehow added up to a rifle. Then I smelled that familiar burned-wood-and-sulfur scent I knew from my childhood, and the hair on the back of my neck started to rise.

And right at that moment, the thought that went through my head was, Oh shit. There might be more of them.

Grace Boulevard Elementary may have been short of money, and well short of parental involvement, but the one thing it didn’t lack was plans. There was a plan for regular days, a plan for holidays, a plan for Christmas programs (which seemed to revolve around putting the new teacher in charge), a plan for floods, a plan for fires, and most importantly a plan for roving gunmen.

Back in August when we had practice these plans over and over in the hot sun, I thought Mendoza was a sadistic fascist. Now I clung to them like a life-line. Funny how rapidly one can change their opinion.

I slammed closed the hall door, sliding the lock home in one swift motion. Then I turned to find the kids all staring, mouths open in perfect Os.

“Jon Carlos,” I yelled. The boy jumped from his seat like he’d be shocked out of it with a buzzer. “Close every window, starting on that end,” I said pointing to the back side of the school.

“But…” he protested.

“Now!” I yelled.

Its amazing how fast the kids react when you sound terrified.

“Evan,” I called.

“Yes,” he said.

“When he’s done, you’re to close every curtain. Can you do that?

He looked at me for a second. “Yes,” he said starting to get up.

“When he’s done,” I yelled.

Evan sat back down.

I turned to the rest of the class. “Everyone else, line up quietly at the back of the room, and sit in place. No backpacks, no coats. Nothing. If you make a noise it might be your last, so zip it people. We need to do this right.”

I reached for the phone on my desk while the kids were a blur of terrified silence. I dialed the office. Marlena answered on the second ring. “Marlena this is Ms. Rodriquez in room sixteen. We have a condition three.”

“A what?” she said.

“A three. Condition three,” I repeated.

There was a gasp, and I head the phone drop. Just about the time I thought I would have to send someone down there, the school alarm went off. Seconds later Marlena could be heard over the intercom. “Condition three, Full lock down,” she repeated over and over. It sounded odd coming over the phone and the intercom at the same time.

I dropped the phone and ran to the back door, making sure all of the kids were down low. Then we sat that way and waited. It was the longest hour of my life.

One thing I can say, it was the best I’ve ever seen my class behave. For the first five minutes at least.

Eventually the cops arrived in all their riot gear, looking like extras from a war movie. They quietly hustled us out of the room, and down to the staging area. Because we were the farthest room out, we were the last to be escorted in. By the time we arrived, the parents were already there and the front of the school was a total madhouse. The parents were laughing and crying. The kids were mostly crying and not understanding the fuss. Helicopters circled overhead, and about a million cops roamed all over the school.

Once the kids were accounted for, a cop singled me out and asked me to step into the office to talk to the detectives.

“So, its all over then?” I asked.

Another cop, this one much older, looked over as we approached. He had grey hair, a fuzzy beard, and a wrinkled suit. He squinted at me funny. “You’re the one who called it in? Room 16?” he said checking against a list.

I nodded.

“We’ve got one more,” he said importantly, “hunkered down near your room.”

“You mean the dead one?”

His face suddenly stopped as if his brain had just switched off automatic. “You know about the…”

“I saw it happen,” I said.

A radio came up to his face as if by magic. “Hold one” he said, holding up a finger, then he turned away to speak into the radio. After a few seconds he turned back and said, “We’re going to want to know everything you saw.”

Well, I thought to myself, there goes my diner plans. For the first time I realized just how scary the situation had been. Then quite unexpectedly my knees gave way as if someone had removed my leg bones.

 

I woke up looking into the older cop’s face. Concern mixed with anxiety crossed his features. Glancing around, I realized I was laying on the cot in the nurses office. From those two pieces of data I put together what had happened.

“I’m sorry,” I said trying to sit up, and feeling dizzy. “I don’t…”

“Happens,” the older cop said. “Hang loose for a second. It’ll come back to you.”

I nodded, while I looked around. Stars were floating around my vision in the upper corners. It was beautiful in an abstract way, like the way the wood grain on a coffin can be beautiful.

While I was sitting there I heard something over the radio.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the cop. “What were you saying about the other shooter?”

This time he looked more annoyed. “I wasn’t,” he said. Then pity or something must have taken over his mouth. “He’s holed up near your class. Some kind of store room at the end.”

“Did you get a look at him?” I asked. For some reason this seemed important. Something in the back of my head was bothering me.

“No,” the cop said. “But he keeps on saying something about Mrs. Capelcheck or something.”

“Caplestock?” I asked.

“Something like that.”

I was up and running before I knew it. I could hear the cop yelling at me but I ignored him. Then I heard him behind me yelling into his radio. By the time I got to my room his voice was echoing loudly in the hall from a dozen different sources. “Hold your fire. A civilian’s coming. Hold your fire.”

I didn’t really notice much until I reached the end. The guy who Billy had killed–for he most certainly had killed him–was now covered in a sheet. Cops in battle gear had seemed to be randomly standing all over the hall, but at the end they converged in a semi-circle around Billy’s office. Their guns were drawn, pointing at the closed door.

The sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Cops were shouting at the door, other cops were yelling at me, there were radios blaring, and sirens and helicopters outside. And over all of it I could hear a faint, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry,” over and over.

I made it through most of the cops until I came across an older one who stood in my way. “What are you doing here?” he yelled at me, then he turned to the men around him, “What in the hell is she doing here?” he yelled at no one in particular.

I ignored him, focusing on the sound from the door. I recognized the slur in his voice.

“Mam,” the cop said. “you have to leave this area. There’s a dangerous man in there, and…”

“Did you go in there?” I asked. No one responded so I asked louder, “Did anyone go in this room?” I said pointing. A few heads shook.

“Mam,” the cop said, “You need to leave this place right now…”

“Did anyone get a look at him? See if he’s armed?” I asked.

Silence.

Then the cop started up again, “Mam…”

“Shut up,” I said in my best teacher voice. “I’m trying to think.”

His mouth started moving like the proverbial fish out of water; making lots of motion, but no sound. I’d never seen anyone do that before, outside of the movies.

Through the door I could hear Billy talking, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I thought about Mrs. Caplestock, and what she would sound like. “Billy,” I called in a softer voice. A voice of someone who cares. Who’s nice.

Billy stopped speaking.

The cop started in with, “What are you trying to do…” so I shushed him. “Be quiet,” I whispered. “He’s…. He’s…. He’s mentally handicapped. You’ll scare him.”

“Billy?” I called again.

Through the door I heard, “Mrs. Caplestock?” There was panic in his tone.

“Yes honey, I’m out here. But…” I stopped thinking furiously. If he came out with all these cops… “You need to stay still for a second, Billy. Can you do that for me? Please?”

“Yes, Mrs. Caplestock,” he said sounding more calm.

I thought for a moment. “Billy. There’s a lot of policemen out here.”

“I know. They’re scaring me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Billy,” I said quickly. “Its okay. These are good policemen. They’re not going to hurt you. They’re going to help you. Do you understand me Billy?”

“Yes Mrs. Caplestock.”

“They came to protect the children Billy. That’s good isn’t it?”

“My kids, my kids, my kids.”

“That’s right Billy. They’re your kids. And you protected them today, didn’t you?”

“But… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Billy.”

“Yes. Mrs. Caplestock.”

“You protected the kids. Didn’t you? You protected the school. Didn’t you? You saved my life…”

“Mrs. Caplestock?”

“Yes Billy.”

“Can I come out now?”

“Of course you can sweetie. When you see the cops, do not be scared. Okay? Now, what did I say about the cops?”

“Don’t be scared,” he said.

“Good, Billy.”

The door opened slowly, and Billy shuffled out into the hall. The cops pointed their guns at him, and he shrank back. Over the noise of his feet shuffling and the squeak of leather, you could hear him whispering softly, “don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.” I didn’t know if his words were for himself, or the cops, but either way, they seemed to work.

The cops lowered their guns, and Billy stepped out of the doorway. He walked a few steps to me, and then suddenly he was hugging me fiercely. Crushingly.

Then he stopped just as suddenly, and held me back at arm’s length. “You’re not Mrs. Caplestock,” he said.

“No, Billy.”

“You’re Mrs. Rodriquez.”

“Yes Billy.”

“But? Why?”

I didn’t know how to answer him. Why was I there. I hated this man. He had cost me my job today. Well to be fair, I had cost me my job, but I had no reason to love him, and I certainly had no reason to love Mrs. Capelstock.

Then suddenly it came to me, and in a voice far more calm than I felt I said, “I forgot to say good night, Billy.”

I don’t know, but I might have even smiled.

“Oh,” he said suddenly smiling his old smile. “Good night, good night, goodnight, Mrs. Rodriquez.”

“Can you show these policemen around?” I asked. “They lost some things, and I think you know where to find them?”

“I’m good at finding things,” he said with a huge smile.

“I know you are Billy. Can you show them were the bad man came into the school?”

A shadow crossed his face, but then it was replaced by a smile. “Here,” he said turned towards the end of the hall.

With that, half the cops started following him, asking questions, but before he went out the back door he turned to me.

“Good night Mrs. Rodriquez. Good night, good night, goodnight,” he said.

“Good night, Billy,” I said. “Good night, good night.”

Excerpts from an unfinished novel #5

Back in November 2011 I started working on a novel tentatively titled Ghost Hand. The story is about Marine sniper who returns to Los Angeles to recover from severe injuries only to find that the war for him has just started, and there’s more to the world than he knew.

Part of his story is dealing with his PTSD. As he starts to work out his issues he discovers a whole class of people worse off than he is: The homeless.

After several starts at the novel I had to set it aside. I just was not happy with the story. I needed to sit on it more. But in the process I did write a whole of lot fun pieces in the voice of the protagonist. Several of them were designed to be chapter headers, to show up at the beginning of every third chapter or so. These ones are all about mental illness, and are presented from the point of view of someone who has gone through it, and made it out the other side.

I’m going to put them up once a week, for five weeks. This is number five of five.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

On the Fragility of the Human Mind

You can get the same symptoms of a mental illness from just about anything. Fall off a ladder and hit your head, have a bomb go off nearby, witness a bank robbery, or just live though a natural disaster. All of these things can cause PTSD and have. So if I can startle someone, or just whack them upside the head, and it gives them a mental illness then it begs the question; how stable is this thing called sanity? It turns out, not very much.

Everyone in their life will experience some (if not all) of the same symptoms of a crazy person. The only difference will be for how long, and the severity. Sanity is a delicate balance, like a soap bubble, and is easily disrupted. Most people, when knocked out of balance, are able to inflate their bubble again. Some of us can’t, at least right away. Some of us never had one to begin with. But all of us can have their bubble burst.