Thursday, December 4, 2008

Almost Christmas

Hello, skinny moon.

I'm supposed to be in bed.

It's almost Christmas in two weeks, I think. Maybe three weeks. I don't remember. I'll ask mommy in the morning.

Tomorrow we're going to the store to meet Jenny and Jenny's mom. Mommy has to buy Christmas presents. Daddy said people gave presents to baby Jesus and we give presents to show how much we like Jesus when he was a baby.

Mommy and Daddy are in the kitchen being loud. They're laughing about something. I don't know what they're laughing about.

Trees are scary when they don't have leaves, but I like them because they look like fingers.

My baby brother is looking at me. He's a cutie pie. That's what mom always says. She always says that. He's in a crib so he can't fall out. Daddy put it together with tools. Sometimes he cries and I tell him, "Don't cry. It's okay." That's what you're supposed to do with babies.

I'm going to stay at grandma's for Christmas. We're making cookies! She doesn't know how to play robots and aliens, though, but I can show her. It's probably the funnest game. You roll the dice and move the robot and the alien the same number that you roll until they finish the race and then you see who comes in second.

Mommy made me sit in the time out chair today because Cody put my dress up clothes on and I told him he couldn't be a fairy because he was a boy. He's a baby, so he doesn't know that.

Tonight, Daddy read us the story about Bobby the Badger building a house and how the mice laughed at him. But when it was cold, he let the mice eat cake and stay warm. He made them little beds and they didn't laugh at him because he made the baby mouse stop being sick.

I'm hungry, but I brushed my teeth already. Daddy likes jelly on his biscuits. I like cheese! It's my recipe I made up. Do you like cheese on biscuits?

I'm sleepy. Goodnight, Cody. I love you.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Doubting You, Doubting Me.

They walked along the dirt path under the stars. Shelly could feel Adam's eyes searching her face in the darkness. She could make out his shrug against the blue-black sky.

"I don't know why you ask me. I like every picture you do."

She blew the cold air out, watching it mist across the stars overhead. "Maybe it's what I need to hear."

"But you already know I like it."

She didn't answer. He knew it didn't matter if she already knew. She could feel what was coming and it annoyed her. He was going to make this about him.

"Come here." They stopped walking as he put his arm around her shoulder, drawing her close. She pushed her hands into the front pocket of his sweatshirt. He always found a million tiny ways to remind her of how wonderful he was.

Adam kissed the top of her head. Shelly smiled, laying her head against his shoulder. He smelled like a wood fire and rosemary. He drew in a deep breath. She looked up at his face and saw he was crying.

"What's wrong?"

He shook his head. "Nothing."

"Tell me." She was mad again. She always felt like he was against her when he shut her out, like they weren't really part of something together.

"I don't know. I just never get anything right with you."

"What are you talking about?"

Adam took her hand. Their eyes had adjusted to the dim light of the night sky. "Can we walk?"

"If you tell me what's wrong."

Adam breathed in and they started again, up the trail. "You always doubt little things. I mean, you wonder if I like what you cook or what you paint or whatever, but I get worried about stuff that makes things really hard for both of us."

He was going to make this about him.

Shelly could feel her stomach turn. She could almost fill in the words. He was going to tell her he'd done something bad or that he wanted to break up. Her voice was weak in the cold air. "Like what?"

Adam stared at the ground as they kept walking. The grass was a tangle of gray, black, and blue beneath his feet. "I just fuck things up. I'm not smart or successful. I mean, I just don't know how to be one of those guys." He wiped his nose off on the sleeve of his free hand. "I just always feel like you're about to get tired and go find somebody else, you know?"

Shelly was quiet. She couldn't argue against his characterization of the situation, as self-defeating and pathetic as it was. She could still smell the wood fire smoke on him. She pulled at his arm and stopped him again. "I don't love you for all the things you're not. I love you for the things you are." She could feel everything inside him as though it was carried through their touch.

He looked at her with empty eyes. He didn't believe her.

She put her hand behind his head, pulling him down into a kiss. It was her own way of reminding him of how wonderful she was and erasing the hurt. She looked in his eyes again, starting to cry a little herself.

"Hey. Come back to me."

Adam breathed out and tried to smile as a whisper trailed off his lips, "Sorry."

Her voice was soft. "It's okay."

His eyes were tired as he let go of her hand. "It's cold. Do you want to go back?"

Shelly put her arms around him, burying her face against his sweatshirt. She needed his comfort again. She wanted to hold him until he knew how much she loved him. He wrapped his arms around her as she kissed him on the side of the mouth. "Not yet."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

President Jack Bauer and The McRib: Episode 2

The Secretary of State walked into the Oval Office to find President Bauer doing one-handed push-ups on the presidential seal.

"Excuse me, Mr. President. I can wait outside, but it's actually kind of urgent."

"Two-hundred and fifty." Jack stood up, dripping sweat on the carpet. "No. It's fine. Just punishing myself for drizzling cheese on my broccoli." Jack wiped his face on a dirty shirt and frowned. "How many times do I have to tell you? Call me Jack."

"Yes sir, Mr. Bauer. Jack."

Bauer pulled on his shirt and stared into the face of the Secretary. "What is it? It better not be paperwork. President Bauer doesn't do paperwork."

"We've got a couple situations sir. It seems a warlord in northern Liberia, named Cameron Jabuti, has taken several American students hostage and is demanding the release of seven of his friends awaiting trial for war crimes."

"Cameron Jabuti. Hmm. Sounds like a made up name."

"Yes sir."

"I thought this job was going to be a lot of speeches and kissing babies."


"It's Jack, remember."

"Oh, yes. Right. Jack." The Secretary of State collected himself and continued. "We've mobilized Special Ops forces in the area and prepared a statement. The White House press corp is waiting for you to address the nation."

"Get Air Force One here on the double and have the press move to the south lawn. I'll give them a statement on my way out."

"I'm not sure I understand."

Jack scowled. "I'm going to get those kids back."

"You can't be serious."

"Where's the Vice President?"

The Secretary scowled. "That's the other situation. He was in route to Liberia for a summit when this all started. His assistant has been in contact and the Vice President is refusing to reroute his trip."

Jack smiled. "Son of a bitch is getting a head start."


Five minutes later, Jack hurried down the hallway, escorted by the Secret Service. He pulled his own pistol, checking the rounds before sliding the clip back in place.

"Are you guys following me? Seriously. I've got this. Why don't you go shoot some counterfeiters or something?"

The agents shrugged and watched Bauer walk out of the White House. He was a determined man. In the short time they'd provided protection to him, they had learned that Jack Bauer wasn't someone who took "no" for an answer. The prime minister of Germany had learned that the hard way.

Her collarbone was still healing.

Bauer kept his pistol drawn as he approached the podium on the south lawn. The press kept a safe distance away. He gave a nod to the NBC camera guy, the one who always kept an eye on his LCD display while twittering updates on developing political situations.

The press secretary approached him with a forced smile. "Is the gun really necessary?"

Bauer stared him down. "Better safe than sorry. Who are you?"

Bauer ignored the college boy's stammering as he stepped up to the podium.

"My fellow Americans, as I'm sure you're all aware, some crazy Liberian has taken American students hostage. I have a message for this so-called, Cameron Jabuti." Jack shot an intense glare at the cameras and spit on the ground. "I'm coming after you, you yellow-bellied son of a bitch. No one takes our sons and daughters and gets away with it. I'll be seeing you in the next 24 hours."

And with that, President Bauer marched toward Air Force One. The stewardess smiled as the President boarded. "Welcome aboard, Mr. President."

"I'm traveling light. Get off."

She swallowed and descended the ladder. Jack made his way to the cockpit. "I'll fly."

The pilot shrugged. "Why not?"


Fourteen hours later, sand whipped against the side of Air Force One. Jack zipped up his jacket, filled the pockets with extra rounds, and drank a fifth of whiskey. He adjusted his crotch and frowned. "I should've worn the ones with the cock spikes."

The pilot gave a bewildered look. "What?"

"They help me think through difficult situations." Jack stopped at the door, turning back to the pilot. "If I'm not back in ten hours, have the air force carpet bomb the whole country."

"I don't think I'm authorized to..."

...but Jack was already gone.


Cameron Jabuti was a shrewd man, albeit, bat shit crazy. He wore human teeth on a necklace and occasionally burst out laughing just before pointing his cane toward ground and saying "Good one, Satan."

He turned to Lieutenant Fang, with a gleam in his eyes. "Make the boys put on dresses."


"Not our men. The American boys. I want to see them in dresses."

The lieutenant nodded reluctantly. "As you wish, General Jabuti."

Jabuti grabbed the lieutenant's arm, his eyes moving around in Cookie Monster directions. "Do you smell barbecue sauce?"

The lieutenant shrugged, unsure of the correct answer. "Maybe."

Jabuti nodded and smiled. "Yes. He's here."

Fang walked off, shaking his head. He muttered to himself after he turned the corner. "Fucking insane."


Outside, twelve Army Rangers huddled just behind a ground swell. They looked out at the sand storm blowing gusts against a desolate three story building. Sergeant Smith rolled over and grinned at his men. "Must me the tallest building in the whole country. Who's got a smoke?"

One of the other rangers pointed out towards the building. "Look, sir!"

Smith looked back out at the building. "Holy shit. Is that President Bauer?"

Bauer was staying low, skirting past a rusted out truck, moving fast as he closed in on the building. He crept along the rattling tin siding and was almost to the door when it opened. A young soldier with a scar running down the length of his face stepped out.

The soldier dropped his weapon and his eyes grew wide. "I surrender! I surrender!"

Bauer shot him in both knee caps. He looked down at the soldier and scowled. "That's a chance I just can't take." Bauer ran in through the door into a large room where six other soldiers sat on a busted up couch, passing a joint. "So much for the element of surprise."


Gun shots echoed from inside the building as Sergeant Smith threw up hand signals.

His second in command gave a confused look. "Breaking ball, low and to the inside?"

Smith frowned. "We're moving."

"Yes, sir."


The pothead soldiers groaned and rolled around on the floor, clutching their knees. Bauer threw down his pistol and screamed. "Go ahead, you maniacs. Tie me up. Beat me. I won't tell you anything."

At just that moment, Jabuti and Lieutenant Fang walked into the room.

"What's going on here?" Jabuti's eyes lit up. "Ah! President Bauer. What an unexpected surprise." Jabuti motioned to Lieutenant Fang. "Seize him!"

Fang pushed Bauer to the ground and tied his wrists with twine. Fang kicked him in the ribs and spit on the American president. "Get up, you dog."

Bauer stood on shaky legs and glared at Fang. "You're going to regret that."

Jabuti struck his cane against the floor. "Enough talk. Bring him. We'll put him with the others."

Fang prodded Bauer with his rifle as they walked up the rickety metal stairs leading to the second floor. They came to the doorway of a room, dark behind it's beaded curtain. Inside, eight students huddled in the corner, the girls in jeans and the boys in dresses.

Jabuti laughed. "Say hello to your countrymen."

Bauer grimaced. "Hello ladies. Don't worry. We're going to get out of here."

One of the students whispered to her boyfriend. "Oh my god. Is that President Bauer?"

Jabuti hit his can against the ground. "Tie him to a chair."

Two guards stepped out from the shadows and wrestled Bauer against a metal chair, binding him in heavy ropes.

Bauer stared at Jabuti with a defiant look. "Who's mother do I have to defame to get this process started?"

Jabuti hit the insolent American president across the face with his cane.

"I love it! Is that the best you've got?"

Jabuti smiled at the president. "You're a spirited man, President Bauer, but you're spirit will soon be broken." Jabuti turned to one of his men. "Bring the phone." He turned to the other guard. "You. Show the President our best hospitality."

The guard smiled and cracked his knuckles.


Outside, the rangers moved stealthily around the perimeter of the building. The second in command approached Smith and whispered. "The windows are too high. I don't know what kind of building code they have in this country, but it looks like the only way in or out is through the front door."

Something dripped on the ground between them. The second in command looked shocked. "You're bleeding!"

Smith put a finger on the ground and then touched it to his tongue. "It's sweet and tangy sauce." The soldiers looked up at the roof of the building. A rope came over the top and slapped against the tin siding. "I'll be damned."

"Is that?"

"Mr. Vice President. The McRib."


Jabuti put his cane under Bauer's chin and raised his head. "You will call Washington and give the order that a helicopter is to be sent with one hundred million dollars in unmarked bills and my friends released from their unjust imprisonment."

"I'll see you in hell."

Jabuti punched Bauer in the gut, causing the President to cough up blood. "Stay on the subject." A wild look came into Jabuti's eyes. He turned to the guards. "Is someone making hot pockets?"

It was all Bauer needed.

He swiftly kicked Jabuti in the groin and shook off his bonds. He leaped from the chair and sank his teeth into the madman's neck, mumbling as his teeth clenched on the tight flesh. "Tel thm to dop thr wupons."

Jabuti's face filled with fear. "Do as he says! Drop your weapons."

"A ltl hlp hr."

The students looked at each other. "What did he say?"

Jabuti's eyes made crazy circles. "A little help here. He said he needed a little help."

One of the students rushed over and untied Bauer's hands. Bauer pulled Jabuti's neck down with him toward the floor. He picked up a discarded rifle and stuck it under Jabuti's neck as he released his hold on the maniac's jugular.

"That's better." He glanced at the student, a med student named Todd. "Thanks, sugar." Bauer glared at Jabuti's men. "Now, if you don't mind, tie those boys together and try to do a better job than they did with me."

"Yes sir."

Bauer shot a confused look at the boy, but gave him a gentlemanly pat on the ass all the same. "You can call me Jack."


Moments later, the students emerged from the building. Bauer followed with the rifle stuck in Jabuti's back.

The rangers grabbed Jabuti and ushered the students away to safety. Smith smiled at the Commander in Chief. "Thank God you're alright."

Bauer shook his head. "Thank the McRib." Bauer frowned. "You better send a couple men in there. I left more trash upstairs."

Smith nodded and gestured for his troops to head inside.

Bauer rubbed his sore neck. "What time is it?"

"Oh-eight-hundred on the nose."

"Good. I've got at least four minutes to spare. Do you have a phone with you?"

"Yeah. Our communications officer has one that'll work."

"Good. I need to call off an air strike."

Smith turned around as two of his soldiers repelled down the side of the building, one holding the Vice President. Smith slapped them on the back. "Great work, guys. Come on, let's get something to eat and something for these kids."

The soldier holding the McRib looked down, fatigue and hunger in his eyes. Bauer stepped toward him. "Don't even think about it."

"I'm sorry, sir. Sometimes I forget the Vice President is a sandwich."

Bauer took the McRib from the soldier and smiled. "The McRib's no sandwich, son. The McRib's a hero."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Goodbye. Goodnight. Good morning. Goodbye.

She watched him, stuck between wanting to scream and cry; and wanting to just walk away. It had happened before, but she could feel the difference this time. For a moment, she was angry, pissed off that she was expected to hold things together when he wasn't sure of his own heart. She let it go with a sigh and sat--not next to him, but two chairs down.

He stared at the cigarette he had taken from her pack, pushing it around in a jar lid. "You okay?"

She started crying again, but nodded. "Yeah."

This was the "real" breakup, the one they had dodged half a dozen times before, through bad fights and jealousy. This was the one they wouldn't come back from. She took a cigarette and lit it. He pushed the jar lid across the table, halfway between them.

It was a meaningless gesture, but it made her cry harder. She looked up at him, feeling herself getting sick. "Why is it so hard to stay together?"

He was quiet. Then he whispered out, looking down at the table. "I don't know." He couldn't cry. He was always closed off. She never knew how to get next to him, to touch him closer than skin. She never knew how to hold the part of him that was fighting to breathe inside.

She wondered what went through his mind, what he felt when they kissed and made love. She could feel it all the way through her. It was like a million tiny drops of cold water came alive on her skin and moved through her like lightning. Then she would look in his eyes and everything would go calm and warm again.

She took a drag off the cigarette and looked across the table. His face was tired. His eyes were a million miles away. She wanted to kiss him. More tears streaked down her face. She stubbed out the cigarette, not half-finished with it.

He finished his and pushed it into the jar lid. "I'm going to go, okay?" His face filled with worry and something else, something she couldn't read, fighting against himself. "Are you going to be alright?"

"Can you stay tonight?" He frowned. She shook her head, trying to hold back more tears. "No, don't."

He looked at her, wanting to hold her, wanting to make it easier. "I don't think I should."

"Just for a little while?"

He looked at her, feeling sick and ashamed. He knew he should have gone somewhere else, slept in his car or something. "Okay."

They went to the bedroom and undressed by the glow of the desk lamp. They climbed in bed carefully, afraid to touch each other. He turned off the lamp and rolled back over on his side. She curled up with her back to him, still crying into her pillow.

He watched her in silence until she rolled back toward him. "Can you hold me?"

He put his arms around her and they lie still in the dark. She cried into his shirt, soaking it. He picked up some tissues from the desk and handed them to her. She laughed as she wiped her face. She dropped the tissues by the bed and nestled against him again. Her body was warm and it made him uncomfortable, but he kept his arms around her.

"I love you." He looked down at her. "I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't say that."

He squeezed her harder. They lay awake until the sun came up, not saying another word for the rest of the night.

She got dressed for work and he walked her out to the parking lot. She wanted to call in sick, but knew she couldn't miss a day. They said "goodbye" and got in their cars. He drove across town, to the park where they used to take long walks. He parked near the rec center and leaned his seat back. The morning was hot and he needed a shower. He closed his eyes and fell into restless sleep, too disconnected to cry.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Buck's Shop

I entered the shop with one guard. Inmate "48592-A" reached his hand out, giving a big grin when I took it. He didn't get to shake hands very often. "I'm Buck Grant. Welcome to my shop." His hair was short, curly, and white; his eyes dark, but full of sparkle. "I guess it's the warden's, but you ask anyone around here, they'll tell you it's Buck's."

The warden informed me Buck had been disappointed the shop would be closed for the interview, but that he was easy to get along with. Having been here longer than most of the inmates, he'd earned the respect of those who understood the pecking order. I glanced down at my tape recorder. "This alright?"

Buck smiled. "Do your thing. If you think you gonna get something good, keep it rolling." He looked around, trying to decide where to begin. "I don't know what to show you. Most of this stuff we don't ever use. You ever see one of these?"

He gestured toward a large frame with a large crank handle and smooth metal cylinders. I shook my head.

"It's a metal roller. Flattens out pieces of flashing and sheet metal. I can't tell you when it's been used for anything like that. They're particular about anything we can cut down and sharpen." He paused, absently patting the roller with his left hand. "It's not that they think somebody's gonna sneak something out. We got metal detectors. It's mostly they don't want nothing to happen in here."

He took me around the room, showing me the grinders. He told a story about an inmate making a shiv from a five inch bolt and repeatedly punching it into another prisoner's skull. He shook his head, smiling and telling how "the one who done the punching wasn't wearing gloves." Buck said the bolt had been so hot coming off the grinder, it burned right through part of the hand. "I guess he was pretty mad, you know. Grabbed it and didn't even feel it burn." The injury and a shattered thumb from the impact of the punches resulted in a partial amputation. The other inmate survived with brain damage. Buck said it was the most serious thing that ever happened in the shop.

He showed me the welders and cutting torches. He laughed and told how one inmate would turn the oxygen tank on and stick the torch tip in his mouth to get high. He said he didn't know if it worked, but he'd heard about guys "doing this thing where they make themselves pass out and when they come back to, they get sort of a head rush and a high like that." Buck turned serious. "But I ain't never touched nothing. Sixty-one years and I've never used drugs, never had a drink." The grin came back as he gestured toward the young guard. "Not like Mr. Wilson here. He can barely stand up."

The young guard smiled a little.

Buck nodded, looking over his shop with pride. "I've spent a lot of years here. We used to make license plates." He laughed. "Most of what we do now doesn't have much practical use to nobody. The tasks performed are for job training and helping inmates develop skills for when they transition back into the workforce." It sounded like it was lifted from a Department of Corrections press release. Buck frowned. "The frustrating thing is these skills is not enough if you know anything about what's going on in the economy. Computers, office work, and service sector training are what's needed. We don't get much of that here."

I reexamined this white-haired economist in his blue coveralls. If I had not been told, I would never have guessed he was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He had not spoken with an attorney in over three decades. His life and world would never again extend further than the concrete walls surrounding him, but he still cared what happened to the other prisoners who would get a second chance on the outside.

We sat down on a work bench, since there were no chairs in the shop. He told me about starting out in the wood shop just to be doing something different and how he stopped going because the white boys considered it their own territory. He said the population was still pretty divided, but the metal shop was usually neutral. "Sometimes young guys walk in with attitude, but I tell them, 'You got beef, it'll keep. All you do is cool it.'"

The conversation turned back to his earliest days in prison. "I got transferred almost right off to Leavenworth, over in Kansas, about six hundred miles from home. I never saw no visitors. That place was bad then, you know what I mean? Everywhere is bad now, but that place was a special kind of bad. I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for my initiation there." He told about guards not breaking up fights when inmates were killing each other. He talked about prisoners spending six months in solitary for their own protection.

He pointed to his lower back and spaced his fingers out, about 10 inches. "I've got a scar runs all the way around my side. A white boy found a wood strip in the binding of one of those old books in the library. He went around me like a can opener 'cause he thought I bumped into him on purpose. Did it with book binding, man. You believe that?" Buck broke into a grin. "He thought I was supposed to tell him I was sorry." Buck laughed and made the bench shake.

The wound wasn't treated until after Buck had spent the night in solitary confinement. He'd passed out from blood loss, but said it never bothered him after he was stitched up.

I had planned on a certain line of questioning, but sometimes you follow where the interview leads. He sat there, smiling and waiting while I tried to get the words right in my mind. "Can we talk a little about how you ended up in prison?"

He breathed deep, taking in the last of the room's heavy air. He sighed and rubbed his hands against his knees. Most inmates won't talk about what they did, especially those serving a life sentence. He glanced away, still grinning. "They probably told you, already."

He was right, but I didn't answer. I waited, not really expecting he'd go on. He turned back towards me and I felt myself go sick. His eyes were wet around the edges.

"I was 23. Jordan's number." The smile disappeared. "I'd done a few break ins, mostly stealing from warehouses and selling what I got at the flea market. I had a 22 calibre pop gun for all that." He looked down at his hands. He put them together and then placed them on his knees. "I come home on September 19th. I had my own place and had been seeing this girl for about a month." A small line made its way down one cheek. He smiled, pressing the tear between his lips, burying the feeling that was trying to come up. "She was sixteen."

He had lived with the facts for a long time, trying to match the events to numbers that didn't mean as much as emotions he couldn't touch. He breathed in. His voice trembled for a moment as he started again. "I come into the bedroom and she started screaming as soon as she saw me. He got on the edge of the bed and started putting on his pants. I wish he would have just run. I didn't have the gun then. I crossed the room and took the gun from the bottom of the night stand. You do things real close with a 22. I shot him under the left ear. Pop. And he fell over. I didn't say anything to her. She stopped screaming and I shot her three times."

The girl had been shot at point blank range in the face. Buck was arrested a week later, sleeping in a pile of tires behind a gas station. The murder weapon was never recovered. At the trial, Buck denied ever owning a pistol.

He was shaking a little. He stared at the floor. "I wished I'd done it to myself." I waited in the silence. "You don't expect to learn about things in a place like this, but even a life like mine is precious. All life is precious. It's hard to understand that. You don't even know it for yourself. You have to trust in it because it's what God knows is true."

I turned off the tape recorder.

The tears dried on his cheeks. He glanced down at the recorder, frowning. "You ain't got nothing more to ask?"

"I thought we'd take a break."

He looked around the shop. "You don't change who people are with these kind of programs, but you open up a lot of opportunities they never had before."

I nodded.

Buck turned the smile back on. Had I not been in the room a minute before, I would have never known he had been crying. He pointed to the rolling machine. "There was this one guy who wrote a letter to the warden wanting to run pennies through that thing. You know, to flatten them out and sell them like souvenirs, the way people flatten pennies on train tracks." He laughed. "Now, tell me. Who would want to buy something like that? Peoples' minds get like that, though. This becomes the real world and you don't think about the other one you came from. All that other stuff becomes memories of things that never happened and dreams of what can't ever exist."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pies and Cowboys Falling In Love

Ann knelt beside the bed and kissed the cross on her night stand. She wrapped up in a worn housecoat and walked barefoot across the cold floor. The walls were still gray as the sun had not yet crept above the trees.

She opened the cabinets and took down flour, salt, and shortening. She sprinkled flour on the counter and smiled as the birds sang to each another outside. She'd throw something to them in a little bit.

She scooped out shortening with one hand and flour with the other. Ann squeezed them together and added handfuls of flour and more shortening until a large, soft ball was formed. She sprinkled a little salt and kept working at the dough. Her hands ached in the morning, but were strong from years of practice. The dough was soon as soft and smooth as baby's skin.

She rinsed her hands in the sink. The sun was bright and came in strong through the windows. Ann closed the blinds and took her rolling pin from the top drawer. She kept it in the bottom drawer for a long time, but as she got older, she baked more and more. She turned on the oven, allowing it time to heat up.

Two blue pie plates came down from beside the regular plates and were placed to the side. The rolling pin pushed into the dough. She sprinkled flour on the roller and turned the dough to spread it as far as she could. She took a knife from the dish drain and cut a large circle before delicately lifting it and placing it into a pie plate. She formed a ball from the remaining dough and went through the process again, until there was enough to fill the second dish.

From the refrigerator, she took out a large bowl of apples and pears. She waved off a pair of fruit flies and turned back to roll out another circle of dough. When it was thin enough, she cut it into perfect strips. Ann weaved them carefully atop each pie before neatly trimming the outside edges.

The oven was not quite ready. She collected the loose dough and carried it across the kitchen. She tossed the dough out the screen door, into the driveway. Two cardinals lighted down and made a quick breakfast of the tiny bits.

She ran water through the coffee maker and put two tea bags in a tall mug. The hot water steamed as she poured it on top of the tea. The gurgling of the coffee maker stopped and the house was quiet again. The birds still chattered outside, making their pretty songs.

Ann sat at the breakfast table. Most of it was covered with bins of buttons, old newspapers, and rinsed out bottles she had forgotten to put with the other recycling. She tried to be good at it, but could never remember what could be recycled and what couldn't. Her nephew, Jim, had shown her the symbols she could look for on the bottom of the bottles, but she never remembered to look.

It was Jim's birthday. He was coming home from college and her sister, Kathy, had invited everyone over. Jim liked pies better than cake. Kathy had never been much of a cook, so Ann made him two pies every year on his birthday. She always looked forward to it. Sometimes she made them for no reason at all. She loved making pies for people.

When she was younger, Ann was a quiet girl. She waited patiently, hoping a man would come along and ask her to marry. There had been a couple who had, but when they did, she was afraid she wouldn't make a good wife. She told them she couldn't marry them. She worked quietly at the furniture plant for twenty years, until it shut down. She never spent a penny more than what she needed to live on and what she could spare for the collection plate.

After the furniture factory closed, the church helped place her with a program for helping older members of the community with cooking, cleaning, and home assistance. She'd never been a big reader, but Mrs. Owens said she had a beautiful voice. Ann never thought her voice was beautiful, but she discovered she loved reading Mrs. Owens' books to her. They were mostly romance stories disguised as westerns. Zane Grey had been Mrs. Owen's favorite. She missed Mrs. Owens.

Ann's thoughts drifted back to the present. She got up and picked up one of the plates with a towel. Hot air billowed out as she opened the oven. She put in the first pie, then the second, and closed the door quickly. Her forehead beaded with sweat as she sat back down to her tea. She took a small sip and put it down. She was never good at drinking hot drinks. She always waited until there was no steam trailing off.

The smell of cinnamon and brown sugar filled the kitchen as the sun climbed higher in the sky. It would be good to see the family. Maybe she'd make a couple extra pies for Jim to take back to school.

Ann brushed away a wisp of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. The birds darted in and out of the bushes outside. Ann let out a sigh and blew on the tea to cool it down. She was lonely, but would always have people to make pies for and books to read about cowboys falling in love.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Secret Ingredient

I came in behind Michael. He screamed his head off, ran for his mom, and buried his face in her dress. Sara stroked his hair and looked at me with those beautiful, blue, accusing eyes.

"What happened?"

I shrugged and tossed my glove on the counter, failing to notice she'd just cleaned everything in the kitchen. "He wasn't looking and stepped into a pitch. I think he's more scared than anything."

She bent down and felt around Mikey's forehead. "Oh. You've got a bad knot, honey. Why don't you get a bath cloth and wash your face. I'll fix you some ice."

Mikey ran past me while she rummaged through the freezer. I could feel the cold from across the room.

"What?" It didn't matter that it had been an accident. Her little boy was hurt and I was the bad guy. I changed tactics, putting my arms around her from behind. She pulled away.

"I've got to help Mikey." She stopped and looked at the glove on the counter. "I just wiped that off."

"Sorry." But she was gone. I picked up the glove and wiped the counter down, trying to get all the imaginary dirt she hated so much.

Sara and Mike came back from the bathroom. He had stopped crying. "You can put in one of your movies. What do you want to eat?"

"Chicken sandwich."


She walked back in the kitchen and wiped off the counter again, dissatisfied with the job I'd done. I smiled at her. "I want a chicken sammich, too."

She tried to keep her frowny face focused on what she was doing. "You haven't been good enough for a chicken sandwich."

"What I gotta do? You want to throw a baseball at me?"

She looked up, pointing her knife at me. "I might."

She tried to get the lid off the mayonnaise jar. I watched her struggle, knowing she'd break the jar before asking for my help. I took it from her and twisted it...well I thought it would twist right off. I strained against the lid for a minute, until it came loose, then handed it back.

"Thanks, puny."

I smiled at her and she couldn't help smiling back. I put my arms around her again and messed with the chicken sandwich she was making. "Here. I'll help."

"Stop it." She smiled as I wiped the mayonnaise knife on her hand. "I'm going to hurt you."

I reached up and stuck a finger in her nose. "Ah! I found the secret ingredient!" She wriggled away and stomped my foot. "Oww!"

She smiled. "I told you I was going to hurt you."

I turned to see Mikey standing in the doorway. "What are you doing?"

She put the sandwich in the microwave and smiled at Mikey. "Your dad thinks he's being funny. Do you think he's funny?" Mikey shook his head.

I gave them my smuggest expression. "My comedy is for sophisticated audiences."

"Is daddy a weirdo?"

Mikey nodded. The microwave beeped and Sara handed the plate to him. "It's hot. Be careful."

Mikey looked up at her. "I can't make the TV work."

Sara looked at me. "I don't know how it's set up. I'll bet dad can fix it."

I winked at her as I walked with Mikey from the kitchen. "Hilarious and handy."

She smacked me on the butt and smiled. "I'll bring you a chicken sandwich with the secret ingredient."

Sunday, August 17, 2008


She parked outside, underneath the street light. The house was completely dark. She rolled down the window and debated over another cigarette. The smoke trailed up as the windshield fogged up.

She looked at herself in the rear view mirror. Her mascara was ruined, but it wasn't messy the way she thought it would be. She took a napkin from the dash and wetted the corner with her tongue. She rubbed hard against her eyelids, wincing a little before looking back in the mirror. It was better.

Wyatt's door opened. He stepped out in jeans and a t-shirt, staring at the car, deciding something before walking down the drive. She stubbed out the cigarette and practiced her smile as he came to the passenger side. He tapped on the door and she waved him into the car.

He got in beside her, looking worried. "I heard you pull up."

She wanted him to touch her, to touch her face. The tears were coming now, but she smiled at him. Wyatt never did things like that, even when they had been together. He waited as long as he could, watching and figuring everything out. She couldn't remember a single impulsive move. He was always steady, never jumping into anything head first.

"What's wrong?"

Her smile broke for a moment. She looked down and smiled up at him again. "You were right about me." He frowned. She was ruining this, too. A million times, he'd told her it didn't matter who was right. "I'm going into a program tomorrow."

She waited.

God. Why didn't he say something? She tried to read his face in the shadows and the glow of the streetlight. He looked down at his hands. "That's good. You'll do great."

She nodded. "Yeah. I think so."

What did she expect? Silent tears kept coming. She felt them rolling down her cheeks, but couldn't feel anything inside. He wouldn't take her back just because she was getting cleaned up. That's what she wanted, wasn't it? She wanted him to ask her in, to make love to her, to hold her until morning. She looked out the window at the pools of yellow light on the sidewalk.

"A residential program?"

She turned back to him. "Yeah."

"That's good." He moved his hands and she felt herself about to break. "How long?"

"It's open-ended. I had one evaluation already. After three months they'll do another one."

He swallowed and held his hands together. He wouldn't let himself touch her. She wanted out of her dirty skin, to be clean. Not for herself, but clean in his eyes. He had forgiven her too many times.

She almost choked on the words. "Are you seeing someone?" She knew he could see her heart breaking.


Somehow, the answer made her more sick. Hopelessness was easier than knowing he was free to love her and wouldn't. She exhaled the breath she didn't realize she had held in and wiped her nose on the napkin.

"Can you hold me?"

"I don't know." He closed his eyes. She was hurting him. She moved her head out of the light, wishing she could hide forever. He opened his eyes again and slid his arms around her. She put her head against his shoulder and kissed his neck. They stayed that way, quiet for a while.

"I love you."

She listened to him breathe. He didn't answer back.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Richard Diamond, Mr. Director.

"For the love of Christmas! CUT!"

Richard walked in front of the lens, shaking his head as I hit the red button.

"What's wrong? You look like you're going to cry. Can I get a little more Sylvia Saint and a little less Sylvia Plath? Come on, Mandie. This goes for everybody. Leave your personal lives at home." He turned back toward Mandie. "If you can't look sexy, look scared. Look like he's going to break you in half with that thing." Richard clapped his hands a couple times. "Alright, everybody. Let's take a breather. Erika, do some rails. No booze. You're sloppy. You okay, Tom?"

Tom nodded.

"Great. Grab a Red Bull." Richard turned to me and motioned toward Alice. "Alice, why don't you take Citizen Kane in one of the rooms for a quick one."

"That's alright."

Richard frowned. "Sorry. Forgot you've got a girlfriend." He muttered to himself as he popped a couple tic-tacs. "I don't understand anything, anymore."

He was Richard Diamond. The Legendary Dick Diamond of more than 200 adult films, from "Yakuza's Daughters" to the epic "Squirticus." A man who could still grease up female robots when the right sci-fi scene called for it.

He unzipped and buried Alice's face in his crotch while he looked over the shot list. "How was it for camera?"

I was still uncomfortable talking to the guy during these breaks. "It was good. Everything looked good. No boom in the shot."

Richard laughed and glanced down at Alice. "You hear that? No boom in the shot." He took a joint out of his breast pocket and lit it. Smoke trailed from his mouth and nostrils as he lowered his shades. He leaned his head back, letting the sun hit his over-tanned skin. He took another drag, pushed Alice's head away, and handed her the joint. "See if you can do any better with this."

He zipped up and walked towards the camera, pushing his sunglasses back on top of his head. "So what's the story, Hollywood? What kind of movies you want to make?" He called me Citizen Kane or Hollywood because I'd been to film school, unlike most of the guys he'd worked with on these shoots. I took the job because I figured it was a step up from working at the video store.

"I don't know. Comedies."

Richard smiled. "Jesus. See what you can do with Mandie. You'd think we were doing a scene of the grieving widow here." He sized me up. "I'm sorry I give you crap." He dug around in his pocket and pulled out another joint. "A lot of us, we work together so much, we're kind of like family. Five years ago, I did a scene just like this with Mandie's aunt."

He took a drag and passed it to me. I hated the way I felt operating camera while high, missing little things in the frame. I took a hit and passed it back. He smiled at me, proud of Citizen Kane.

"New people just take getting used to. If you don't want to give Alice a throw, it's cool. I respect that." He pulled the smoke in deep. It trailed out again as he spoke. "I just want you to know, I'm glad you're working on this. It's nice to have somebody around who takes this stuff seriously." He laughed. "I mean, Christ, try explaining three-point lighting to these guys."

Erika stumbled back out of the house with a bloody nose and a drink in her hand. Richard hurried over, taking the drink away. "What did I say? What did I say? Your problem is you don't listen." Richard yelled over to Alice. "Get a paper towel." He turned back to Erika. "You're sloppy. Nobody wants to watch that." Alice handed him a damp cloth. "Here, clean that off. You think white boys want to download that?"

Mandie came out of the house, looking fresh and reinvigorated. Richard gave her a pat on the ass. "That's my girl. How you feelin'? You good? You look beautiful." Richard smiled at all of us and yelled into the house. "Tom! I got a couple girls out here that need your help."

Erika and Mandie laughed.

Tom walked out, smiling. "Sorry."

Richard grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. "No, you're great. You feelin' good? You ready for these wildcats?"

Tom smiled and nodded.

"Great. That's what I love to hear." Richard dropped his sunglasses down and clapped his hands two times. He walked over beside the camera as his voice boomed out. "Alright. Places everybody. We're gonna take this from where Mandie is upside down with Erika down low. Tom, you're behind Erika." Richard paused for a second, glancing over at me. "Is that going to match?"

I gave a half shrug. "We'll make it work with a cut-away."

Richard laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. "Make it work with a cut-away. I love it. Citizen Kane does it again." He stared out through the sunglasses at all the sweat and hard bodies. "Everybody ready? Sound?" Alice pressed the button the way I'd showed her that morning and held the mic pointed at the actors. "Camera?"

I hit the red button. "Rolling."

A smile spread across the face of Richard Diamond, Mr. Director. "Action."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wine, Women, and Psalms

He dropped his matches and stumbled off the stool to pick them up.

Mariana beat him to it. She put them on the bar top as he sat down again. "Everything alright, Mr. Angel?"

"Why not?" He lit his cigarette and glanced back up at her. He didn't know anybody else who hated their last name. "How many times do I have to tell you to call me George?"

Mariana looked away embarrassed. On some guys, the name George made them seem older. Somehow, it made him seem younger--like he was a little boy dressed up in a wrinkled Oxford shirt and olive green slacks. She pretended to wipe down the bar while he fidgeted with his collection of napkins and tray of half-finished cigarettes. "Can I get you another drink?"

George shook his head and swished around the last of the whiskey he was making last. As a general rule, he tried to get belligerent on no more than four drinks in an afternoon. He felt it would be fiscally irresponsible to go through more than that, since his generous advance was paying for every drop. Especially since he'd not yet told his editor he was starting the book over entirely. "You're a pretty lady."

Mariana smiled. "Thanks."

George nodded. Mariana had a kid. That's why she worked during the day, when bad tippers came in and business was slow. "Sit down for a bit."

Mariana looked back at her only table--an old man and a young lady in a power suit. She took the stool beside George and took out her own cigarettes.

"Parliaments." He slid his matches over.

She lit one and smiled. "I'm trying to quit."

George smiled that self-defeating smile of his and toasted her with his half-swallow of whiskey. "Aren't we all?"

Mariana blew smoke at the ceiling. "You celebrating something?"

George had downed a few more than usual. "I've decided on the title for my new book."

Robbie brought him another, then walked around the bar. Mariana glanced up, but Robbie motioned for her to stay put as he went to check on her table.

George noticed their exchange and smiled, embarrassed. "Robbie's a good guy."

Mariana nodded. "Yeah, he is." She studied George. "What's the book called? Or what's it going to be called?"

"Wine, Women, and Psalms."

Mariana smiled.

"What? Is it too cheesy?"

"No, I like it."

"Me too."

"What's it about?"

"I don't know. It was about a bad man doing something that matters because of love. Now, I think it's about him losing everything important to him while pursuing dreams he'll never achieve." George laughed at himself. "I guess it's really just about murder and politics. That's what the readers buy them for. No one ever reads them for the reasons I write them."

"How much have you finished?"

"All of it."

"And you can't decide what it's about?"

George smiled. "I'm rewriting the whole thing. I didn't like my first go at it."

Robbie came back and placed a few glasses and plates in the sink. He glanced over at George and Mariana before washing the glasses and lighting a cigarette of his own. It was one of those bars where everyone smokes.

Mariana tried to smile reassuringly. "I guess that can be frustrating."

George shook his head. "No. That's not why I'm celebrating." He glanced over at her, wishing he wasn't talking so much. "Celebrating" had taken on a new meaning.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know. Maybe I'm just tired." He took a pull from his drink and laid it down, the hard glass connecting with the bar top. He never took ice in his drinks. "This girl told me she couldn't help wanting to change me and thought we should stop seeing each other. She said she'd never be happy until I wanted to change."

Mariana wished she knew what to say. "I don't think people who go through life trying to change other people ever find the happiness they're looking for."

George finished his drink. "You said it, there."

She couldn't help but smile. His cynical resignation came from a real place, but he always made a little show of it, trying so hard to be amusing, even when he was sad. She glanced back at her table. They were still laughing. The young lady trying to show her boss a good time, earning a raise in her own friendly way.

She turned back to George. He looked at her with hopeful eyes, glancing over her shoulder at the neglected customers. She smiled. "They're alright."

George nodded, gratefully. "You've got a kid, right? Boy or girl?"

Mariana frowned. It wasn't the time or place for getting that personal. "A boy, Alexander."

"Alexander. That's a good name." George swallowed hard. Why had he brought up her kid? She didn't want him asking about her kid.

"John Alexander, after his father. I started calling him Alex after his father left."

George nodded. "Is he an Orioles fan?"

Mariana nodded.

"Good. It's important kids learn to root for the local team. Unless, of course, they live in New York."

She laughed. He was so quiet when he drank alone and so animated when he showed up with friends. She'd never seen him there with a woman. She wasn't sure why it mattered, besides all the reasons she watched him and talked to Robbie about him when he left each afternoon.

He stood up, stubbing out another cigarette. "I guess I'd better get back to the office." He frowned. "That's the problem with working from home. Even when you're asleep, you're stuck at the office."

"It must get lonely." She hadn't meant it that way. He hoped he wouldn't take it that way. She turned a little red.

He put a couple bills on the bar. "Sometimes." He shrugged it off. "Some people are lonely no matter where they are."

She put a hand on his arm and took it away, surprised at herself. "You're a good writer."

He winced at the compliment. He'd never gotten used to hearing that sort of thing from people who'd never read his books. He never quite knew what to say to empty compliments. "Thanks."

"I read 'High Court Indecision.' I liked it."

George sobered up for a moment and looked her over again. He'd always hated that title. It had been his editor's idea. It wasn't one of his better books. "You read it?"

She nodded.

He'd have to reconsider it. "That's nice of you. Thank you." What's her name had never read anything he'd ever written. Mariana looked at him, trying to figure out how to say something.

"Would you like to go out sometime?" She closed her eyes. Where the hell had that come from. "Sorry."

"I'd like that."

Oh god. "Yeah?"



He laughed. "Okay."

She watched him walk out and turned around. Robbie looked up as he cleared off the bar. Robbie laughed. "So you finally did it. Nice work, playa." He dumped out the ashtray.

"How'd he know I had a kid?"

Robbie shrugged. "He always asks about you. I must've told him. Sorry."

"No, it's okay." Mariana smiled. "He asks about me?"

Robbie laughed, shaking his head. "Go take care of those guys."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bauer and the McRib: An Unbeatable Ticket

Jack Bauer pounded his fist and yelled into the darkness, "Tie me to a chair, hook electricity to my testicles, and threaten my family! I can't think under these conditions!"

The closest Arab with an AK prodded him with a menacing gleam in his eye. "You're already tied up, but not in knots you can possibly escape. If it helps, your daughter is tied to a table under a laser that's going to cut her in half if you're unable to give us your decision within ten minutes." The Arab looked around the warehouse with savage delight. "Can we get some electricity over here?"

"Damn you!" Jack squinted through American blood and sweat as he swallowed against the tears he wouldn't let fall.

As if on cue, the Arab slapped him.

Jack gave as much of a smile as he could manage. "Just what I needed. Now, I have the upper hand." Perplexed, the Arab stared at the Cars fan who held his nation's future in his hands. A thousand images of pain and suffering flooded through Bauer's mind. Nader would never play second fiddle. Colin Powell was finished. He looked out at the sea of red eyes behind brownish skin. "I choose..."

Baited breath could not even describe such a room.

"...the McRib."

A cough here and there. The Arabs exchanged incredulous glances. Their leader leaned in close to the greatest American hero since MacGyver. "You can't be serious!?"

Bauer gritted his teeth, trying to make his assertions credible. "It's a hell of a sandwich. Vegetable protein, a little pork, and sweet, sweet barbecue sauce on a sesame seed bun. The most American thing since the hamburger--without all the German baggage."

The Arab frowned, as if he were capable of another expression.

"Hamburg, camel jockey."

The Arab nodded. "Untie him." The room full of red eyes looked to their leader with wavering loyalty and skepticism.. "I said, UNTIE HIM!!!"

Jack bit down on his tongue to taste a little more blood. He looked up at the fundamentalists who gave religious conviction a bad name. "Why are you doing this?"

The Arab gave a smug, and particularly Western smirk. "Jack Bauer and the McRib are an unbeatable ticket. You think your American White House is as secure and indomitable as our White Castles, but you're wrong. You'll hear more from us when there's more on the line than the daughter of Bauer."

Jack smiled. "You can try, can try, but you'll fail. My blood may be red, but it's also white and blue."

"I cannot even begin to comprehend your concept of biology." The red-eyed underlings of the stereotypical Arab leader loosened Bauer's knots. He shook off his wrists with a gleam in his eyes, as though he'd released himself.

The Arab leader saluted Bauer. "You may have won this day, but once you and the McRib have been installed in the White House, do you really think you will be able to protect your nation and family from the terror of Allah's hand?"

"For my country, I'd be proud to die--as long as I'm tortured first. But don't underestimate the McRib. Do you see the sun?" The Arab glanced toward the darkening glow of the warehouse's windows as Bauer connected dizzying logic. "The sun is setting on your brand of idealism. There is only one God." A gleam flashed across Jack's eyes. "And I've got news for you--his name's not Allah."

Bauer stood, the ropes falling to his feet. The Arab stereotypes moved in closer until their leader held up an authoritative hand. "Where do you think you're going?"

Bauer spit American blood on the concrete floor, giving his best John Wayne. "I'm going to save my daughter and talk to the McRib."

The shifty Arab nodded with a frown on his face. "You'll be hearing from us, Bauer."

Bauer looked back with defiance and his own special brand of American arrogance. "I know." He walked toward the doors of the warehouse before pausing to face his antagonists again. "I look forward to it."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tony Starks's Cold War (fan fiction...eww!)

The corporate culture here is so backwards. There's no inter-departmental cooperation and the red tape you go through to get information from upper management is never worth the trouble. I can deal with the non-competes and security precautions, but it's hard to design guidance systems and meet deadlines on the military contracts when our hands are tied on every project. I requested specs over a month ago for the electro-magnetic system from the Iron Man armor and today I receive an email with web links to videos featuring Iron Man magnetizing opponents to immobilize them.

That's it. That's all I got. No schematics, no models, not even a "sorry, that's classified." Bullshit links to web videos I could have googled myself.

The pay is good and our kids are in a great school, but the problems start at the top and get worse the lower on the totem pole you are. Mr. Stark doesn't give a damn about the work we do. He's too busy posing for magazine covers, attending fund raisers, and presenting checks to orphanages to bother with such tedious matters as the future of the company, national security, or performing quality work that keeps us ahead of today's technologically sophisticated enemies of freedom.

And here's where things get sticky...

The other day, I got a call from a Russian military sub-contractor working on a new defense project based on an old design for the Crimson Dynamo's armor. They want to create a scaled-down version that can be replicated for an elite squad of soldiers who can defend Russia against splinter groups from Georgia and unstable, non-EU nations who are increasingly falling under the influence of terrorist groups.

I know a lot gets made of modern Russia's connections to it's authoritarian past and the shady relationship those in charge have to ex-agents of the KGB, but it seems more and more like the Russians are just trying to protect the progress they've made in recovering from a rocky transition to democracy and capitalism. How is America's interest in installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe any different than what Khrushchev pulled during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

If we're on the brink of a new cold war, how can we blame anyone but ourselves? Our aggressive foreign policies have escalated tensions and created a world where America's allies stand with us because they fear us. Our unilateral military actions, dismissal of UN leadership, and the voices of dissension among our "friends" in the developed world have made us no better than the communist threats we used to stand firmly against.

I'm not saying I agree with all the things the Russians stand for, but I understand their concerns about the reach and influence of the West. Would we respond any differently to military installations so close to our borders? I know posting a blog like this is as good as getting fired, but I don't care anymore. Tony Stark puts on a good face for the media, but everything about the internal operations of Stark Enterprises breeds mistrust among colleagues and apathy toward the noble goals military defense should aspire to achieve.

I love my country. I love the life I've had here, but it's just too hard living in the shadow of a lie. Stark Enterprises doesn't stand for the highest principles our nation was founded on and neither does the administration they serve. I probably won't bother going in tomorrow. I think the wife and I will head out to buy parkas for the kids. The Russians assure me the non-compete won't be a problem.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. No copyright infringement is intended.

MARVEL and all related characters: ™ & © Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vodka, Milkshakes, and Temporary Tattoos.

We drove for hours with Damone blaring from the speakers; then checked into a cheap hotel, a block from the beach. I had a couple hundred bucks and nothing to worry about. I bought us some vodka and we got drunk in front of the AC. We couldn't stop our hands and didn't want to.

It was a perfect summer weekend.

She told me all the sweet words that made everything feel like it would stay just the way it was. She believed in it as much as I wanted to. We tried telling each other dirty jokes in Spanish, but couldn't remember the funny things we'd learned in high school.

After taking a shower together, we drank a little more and headed out of the room. We held each other back, laughing our heads off as traffic went by. It seemed like we waited forever before we were sure we could cross the street without getting hit by the old people, frowning as they passed.

We took off our shoes and ran into the surf. I didn't want to kiss her in front of the kids playing on the beach, but we went out in the deeper water and I held her close. The warm surges pulled us toward the shore and back out again. The waves were like an energy surrounding us, bringing us back to life after the sleepy afternoon of drinking.

When our fingers and toes began to wrinkle, we walked back out of the water, holding hands and feeling the hot sand under our feet. I pulled my wallet and the room key from my shoes, stuffing them into the wet pockets of my trunks. The sun was sinking behind the buildings.

She kissed me and pulled me back towards the road. We walked for a while and found a place to get burgers and shakes. I got a peanut butter banana shake while she ordered a cherry pineapple. She said vodka would be so good in hers, but she finished it there.

We talked about going to the movies. I threw out half a dozen other ideas to try and hide it, but we both knew there wasn't anything we wanted more than to get back to the room and out of our clothes.

So we did.

The next morning, I tried to walk down and get us some breakfast, but she woke up before I could make it out the door. I tossed the note I'd written in the trash while she got ready. She smiled up at me with her eyes closed, making one of her beautiful morning faces. I kissed her on the forehead and then the lips. Her hair was messy, but perfect. She put on her big sunglasses and wrapped her arms around me as I figured out the lock on the door.

It was already eleven. There was a taco truck open down the street, so we grabbed a couple burritos and walked to a strip mall arcade. I shot pinball while she played whack-a-mole. She bought us some temporary tattoos from a machine: a rainbow, a unicorn, and a Bratz character. She made me put the unicorn on my arm and couldn't stop laughing while I tried to preserve my dignity.

We found a picnic table in front of a closed restaurant and sat beside each other, quiet for a while. I kissed her on the forehead and she started crying. She cuddled up to me and told me she was so happy. I never knew what to say in moments like that. I pulled her close to me and told her I loved her. I should have said more.

Summer ended and the sweet words didn't come true.

She didn't come back to school in the fall. I graduated the next spring, wanting to hide away for the rest of my life. I went back to the beach a couple years later, just to walk around. It makes me crazy to think about it again. Now I know, but it's not like you get another chance. You learn to live with it and try to forget as much as you can.

I should have asked her to marry me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Good morning, Tokyo.

Masuka turned off the alarm with the laser and rolled over to face the window. The kid in the apartment below had parked his mech in front of the balconies again, obscuring the best view of the local skyline. Masuka sat up, shaking off sleep as the sounds of pterodactyls and helicopters faded from overhead, into the mechanical pulse of the city.

Masuka shuffled to the kitchen. He took the "hatcher" off the counter and tossed it to the floor. An inch before impact, the hatcher froze into glowing ball of light and released a "yubikin," a cyber-genetic hybrid looking something like a chipmunk crossed with a squid. Masuka set out a water dish and the yubikin scampered over to drop it's tentacles in the bowl.

Taking a canned orange juice from the fridge, Masuka looked at the yubikin. "We're late. You better jump in the bag."

Masuka left the building, pausing only to feed the magnetized aluminum into the recycle tube. He marveled at the brilliance of whoever figured out how to magnetize aluminum for mass production. In another five years, everyone would think it had always existed.

Yubikin squirmed in the messenger bag as Masuka's scooter hummed to life. He dodged a couple old ladies, took the alleyway shortcut, then pulled out into the nightmare river of machines. Mini jets, mechs, hydro-cycles, rocket cars, and bike messengers all dived for every open space as they raced to long days in front of their glow boxes.

Musuka hated wearing a helmet, but listened to his email as he rode. He used to soak in the city, but like everything else in his lonely life, that had grown too familiar. It became part of the chaos that he constantly struggled to tune out.

Masuka took his seat beside Tiko Timiko in their shared office. Tiko was a pretty girl behind her glasses. She designed electrical systems for tall buildings and the Downtown Renovations Initiative, a project that promised to keep the company busy for the next fifty years. They could turn to each other any time they wanted, but Masuka and Tiko had not spoken to each other in months--not without communicating through their consoles.

Masuka's glow box came to life and brought up a rendering of a city block. "Run rigidity and fire test, sealant six, existing architecture."

The screen shook. Masuka felt the vibrations in his seat. He glanced over at Tiko. She didn't even pause. She kept tracing circuits on the screen like a cyber doc going over capillaries of a "dead" robot. The dampeners blocked out everything.

Masuka stared at the rendered city as the earthquake subsided. A wind blew through the street and everything went completely quiet. Then, the world broke apart as a huge wave rushed through the streets, carrying digital people and tiny cars away in it's fury. Chunks of concrete flew out from one of the buildings at the end of the block. A hand curled around the edge of the building--a hideous, green hand, covered in scales.


The monster stepped into the street, drawing to its full height, its eyes glowing with rage. Even when awakened as part of a computer simulation, Zilla-X was not a "morning person."

Gunshots sounded from one of the windows, which only succeeded in angering the creature more. Masuka tapped his fingers impatiently. The kids who wrote these things always built unnecessary theatrics into the sims. A mini jet flew overhead and was batted down by Zilla-X.

The monster turned his attention to the buildings. He roared and breathed blue fire at the windows. He swung his head, wrapping three buildings in the inferno of his bad breath. Concrete crumbled and windows melted. Towers atop the buildings turned into molten puddles and dripped onto the tsunami-soaked streets.

Steam rose from each drop. Masuka could hear screams from the people trampling over each other to escape the terrible monster. So unnecessary. He shook his head. "Reset all."

Masuka leaned back in his chair, staring at the sunny morning that bathed frame one of the rendered block. He rubbed his face in frustration. He'd told the bosses the new formula wouldn't stand up to rigidity and flame tests. In trying to cheap out on the budget, renovations were being compromised. The higher-ups would rather use weak, alternative sealant than do a proper job of monster-proofing small buildings in older sections. After all, only poor people worked in buildings smaller than twenty stories.

"This is so stupid!"


Masuka turned to Tiko. "Sorry. Nothing."

"You want to get a snack?"

The question was funny, but not. Masuka looked into her pretty eyes, behind the glasses. Nobody wore glasses except to dress up. She was trying to be cute, but no one ever noticed. Masuka smiled and nodded. "Yeah. Let's get a snack." He turned back to the glow box, "Build formula and render Old Tokyo for sealant seven rigidity and new gen monster flame test."

They waved off their glow boxes and Masuka put on his messenger bag. Tiko looked surprised when it moved. "Oooh! You've got a yubikin!!!" He fished it out and handed it to her. She kissed it on the top if it's tenticles and smiled. "I love it!"

Masuka looked at his feet, embarrassed as they boarded the lift tube. He glanced back up at her, trying to think of something to say. "I like your glasses."

Tiko smiled. "Thanks."

The rest of the way down, they couldn't stop blushing. The lift was silent except for the friendly purring of the yubikin as it lie curled up in Tiko's arms.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Turning Addicts Into Experts

I could see the tears welling up and the lips trembled as he spoke.

"I'm dying..."

I turned my head away for a moment, then met his eyes again. I completed the thought for him, "...of boredom."

My reflection vanished along with the melodrama as I opened the medicine cabinet. I grabbed fistfuls of everything and dumped them on the counter. Band-aids, a thermometer, antacid, breath strips, a bent comb, contacts, peroxide, condoms, niacin, antacid, multivitamins, aspirin...ugh. I had a lot of antacid, but nothing to get me sharp and full of pep.

...unless rails of niacin would do the trick...I tried to remember what niacin was for...normally, I mean. Part of the B-vitamin group, one that dehydrates while increasing blood flow, supposed to help with cholesterol. Something like that. Same stuff that's in pasta. I needed something I knew would do the trick. No guesswork, this time. I made a mental note to snort some angel hair on my next trip to Olive Garden.

I marched into the kitchen. Vinegar by the spices and bleach under the sink. I could make ammonia, but it would just make me dizzy and I'd probably fall asleep. Ginger was supposed to do something, but I couldn't remember what. Nutmeg was a hallucinogen in the right amounts. Or was it poisonous? Was I thinking of hemlock? Why had I not been a more attentive student in school?

That question would keep. Maybe indefinitely.

I wiggled the mouse, but everything was still spinning in circles. Nothing would connect. My ISP had sent something in the mail about switching over to fiber optic lines and some areas having temporary outages. It was a hell of a time for the internet to be down. Anyone could be a genius with Google at their fingertips. Turning addicts into experts is what the internet was built for--after porn, of course. I fired up the laptop to see if I could locate an unprotected wireless network. Maybe one of my neighbors had a different provider...


...but no dice.

I'd seen something on t.v. about getting high from cooking dog urine and snorting what was left after evaporation. Was it on "Mythbusters"? Maybe it was "Jackass." I probably didn't have enough dog piss in the freezer, anyway.

Mentos, Pop Rocks, and Mountain Dew? I could get plenty of crap for blowing up my stomach at the corner store. Maybe they'd have caffeine pills...but they wouldn't have anything industrial strength. Not the kind of shit that helps Nick Nolte get upright in the morning. In another hour, I'd be groggy again, sitting like a zombie in front of the computer, trying to will myself back into "productive mode."

I opened the fridge, wondering what mold and spores I might find lurking. Without Google to guide me, it would be a crap shoot. My stomach growled it's discontent.

I'd not eaten all day.

I dug out a carrot and crunched into it's sweet deliciousness. My stomach thanked me in it's own quiet way as I finished the carrot and bit into another. I poured myself a tall glass of water and stretched myself out on the couch.

My mind drifted and imagined all kinds of possibilities. The t.v. was off, but I could see the reflection staring back at me. He smiled. "I'll bet if you lay there another ten hours, you'll wake up sharp and full of pep."

I smiled back. "I'll bet you're right."

Then, I slept.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Who's there?

It's worse in a small house. If it was a big house like in the movies, I don't think it would bother me so much, but it's hard feeling the vibrations through my mattress from hollow footsteps in the next room.

I stare at the black wall and hear a book being pulled from my shelf. Someone sits in my chair, opening to the first page. The quiet breathing comes from a few feet away.

When I can't take it any longer, I switch on the desk lamp, get up, and turn on all the other lights. I look through my books, but can't tell if anything is out of place. I pass my hand over the chair. Is it my imagination? Does it feel cooler than the rest of the room? Sometimes, in the morning, things on my desk are not quite the way I remember them. My mind is playing tricks on me.

After a while, I turn off the lights and try to sleep again. Cold air touches my back. I close my eyes, frozen. A moth flutters against my skin and I can't brush it away. A sound comes from the kitchen.

A mouse? The thought of something real gives me courage. I roll over quickly to face the empty darkness.

"Who's there?" I call out as loud as I can.

What would I do if someone answered?

I fill a cup with water and go outside. The darkness has its own sounds. I lean against my car, taking comfort in the stars and the lights on the horizon.

I can't remember the last time I had a good night's sleep. The things I fear the most are the things I haven't heard, the voices of the dead. I can handle them sitting in the darkness, but I'm afraid of their words. It can't be real. I know I'm not crazy. It doesn't make sense, but still...

The dead have been accumulating almost as long as the living. If they're here, they're all around us, passing through us, passing through each other. Do souls end? Where do they go?

I finish my water and go back inside. The emptiness should be a relief, but I keep thinking of all the things filling the space. Something's got to be there--things I can't see. I choke on the air. It's hard to breathe, when your mind multiplies worms filling up the darkness.

I walk through the dead, putting my cup beside the sink. I turn off the lights one by one. The sheets are damp from my sweat. I push everything away except the pillows. I take deep breaths, trying to drown out the sounds from the darkness. I think about girls who used to put their arms around me. For a moment, it feels nice. Then, my thoughts drift back to the dead.

I stare at the ceiling until I'm swallowed by the darkness. I'm glad I don't remember my dreams. I don't think I'd want to.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Andy, Sandy, and Charlie Bob

"So they come in the room and Andy's just jawin' and twitchin', drunk as shit. She keeps holding his head down and being loud. I thought the manager was gonna call the cops or some shit." Charlie Bob took a long swallow from his can of Bud before continuing. "She finally let's Andy up for air and tells him he can do whatever he wants to her, but he's just saying 'oh fuck,' over and over. Me and Sandy were still in the bathroom trying not to bust a fucking gut. The girl didn't realize Andy's got Tourette's. She thought he was just drunk, so she keeps answering back, 'okay, okay, okay,' over and over. Sounded like Little John. Oh, man. It was fucking great."

Everybody laughed while Charlie Bob slapped Andy on the back. Andy grinned and followed Charlie Bob back to the cooler. Charlie Bob ran his hand through the ice, grabbing himself a fresh one and handing one to Andy: Andrew Michael Coolidge...Charles Robert Coolidge's baby brother.

Andy popped open the can and swallowed the air a couple times before speaking. "I like the way you tell it."

Charlie Bob let out a belch. "You done good with that girl. That was a hell of a night."

The night in question was a Saturday night in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee about a month prior, when Steve Williams married Amanda Lester, a dyed blonde who loved talking about how much Malibu she could drink and had made her way through most of the guys in the fire department at least twice. Charlie Bob told Steve one time, "I'll bet she'd fuck a petrified turd if there was a ten minute wait for dick." He never thought Steve would marry her knowing what everyone else did. Charlie Bob meant everything he'd ever said about Amanda, but was glad Steve didn't hold it against him.

"Hey!" Charlie Bob turned just as Sandy wrapped her arms around him and planted a sweet tea kiss underneath his beer soaked handle bars. She gave Andy a hug and laughed at both her men. "Ya'll drinkin' already?"

Charlie Bob nodded. "Hell yes. Fish fry's over."

Sandy grabbed herself a beer. "How'd it go?" She smiled at Andy. "Did he run everybody off, bullshitting?"

"They--there were a lot of people earlier." Andy swallowed the beer, trying to hide behind the cold can.

"I told them we ought to do barbecue. How was work?"

Sandy shrugged. "Busy." She searched through her purse and pulled out a pack of 100's. "Eddie dropped a load of dishes and Meredith was yelling at him out front while customers were waiting at the register."

Sandy lit a cigarette while Andy watched the smoke trail up. He could feel himself turn red. He'd probably do something like dropping a load of dishes.

When Charlie Bob joined the fire department, Andy kept hanging out at the station. One day, he told Charlie Bob that he wanted to help out and be a fireman. Charlie Bob could say "hell no" to about anybody in the world. Anybody, except Andy.

Charlie Bob talked to Derrick Angel, the fire chief, about taking Andy on to sweep or wash the trucks or something. Derrick turned Charlie Bob down flat, which would've been the end of it, except Charlie Bob said he'd pay Andy out of his own pocket if Derrick would just let him hang around and do a little bit. Derrick agreed under the condition that if Andy ever fucked anything up, he was gone.

Charlie Bob had more than a few things to say about Derrick after that, but everything worked out. Andy lived with Charlie Bob and Sandy, so all the money Charlie Bob was secretly paying Andy ended up going back into Charlie Bob and Sandy's bills, anyway. After a while, Derrick moved out of state and Steve Williams took over as chief. Andy had become something like the station's mascot.

Sandy never blinked about Andy living with them and Charlie Bob loved her for it, though he told her it was because of her tits. Sandy stomped out her cigarette and finished her beer.

"Ya'll ready to head?"

Andy looked at Charlie Bob. Charlie Bob grabbed another beer from the cooler. "Yeah. Just a sec." He shotgunned his last beer and tossed the can in the trash. He grinned at Todd Evans. "Ya'll better recycle that shit."

Sandy smiled, putting an arm around Charlie Bob. "Let's get out of here before you can't get it up."

Charlie Bob laughed. "Short Bob's never seen the day." He kissed her on top of the head, put his arm around Andy's shoulder, and helped them both to his truck.

Monday, May 26, 2008

George Is Alright.

The door opened to a dark room filled with the smell of stale smoke and liquor. George sat there, his head against the back of a recliner with his eyes wide open. He looked like he hadn't slept in months.

"George? The door was open."

His head dropped and he smiled. "Come in."

"How's it going?"

He chuckled. "Tommy."

I walked over and sat on the bed. His eyes half-followed me. It made my head hurt, just being there. "You been alright?"

George nodded. "I've got great friends and more money and pussy than I know what to do with." He laughed again.

George hadn't been alright in a long time. He had driven most of his friends away, lost a half dozen jobs over the last four years, and hadn't been laid in about as long, unless he'd paid for it. He motioned towards the mini-fridge

"There's some beers if you want some." He knew I wouldn't.


His head hovered over an almost lifeless body. His fingers stretched out and then curled back again. It was painful to look at him, the remains of a friend who'd been a mentor and told me a million lies over the years to help me stop being a coward and shape me into the kind of man he'd stopped trying to be.

"You want one?"

He shook his head. "Nah. They'll keep."

The unwelcome sunlight slipped between the blinds, falling against his dark blue shirt. I couldn't think of anything to say. It had taken a long time for him to become like this. Those of us who whispered behind his back couldn't pin it on a single event.

He'd gone through a bad breakup with a nice girl. He'd helped put down a half dozen sick animals on his grandparent's farm. He didn't talk about the time he lived in Tennessee, except to remind everyone that Memphis was as bad a shit hole as any place he'd ever been.

He'd gone through a ton of coke and weed back then. A lot of people wrote him off. When he finally got it out of his system, we thought he'd come back around. I guess it wasn't the kind of thing anyone gets over. He was clean except for the booze, but everything he'd lost was gone forever.

He stood up and shuffled over to his computer. He clicked around until sleepy music came on.

"You been writing?"

He glanced at me. "I guess."

"I've been working on a few things. Nothing very good."

He nodded. "Send them to me." He took a slice of cheese out of the fridge and ate it. "Did you work today?"

"Yeah." It was hard to tell if he was making conversation or if he cared.

"How was it?"

I shrugged.

He stretched and looked at the clock. "I guess the mail's come. You want to go out for a bit?"


We walked to the mailbox. He stuffed an ad for a car lot in his back pocket and rolled a cigarette. "I hate smoking inside. It makes everything smell like shit." He watched the smoke trail off. "I'm glad you don't smoke."

"What have you been writing?"

"My memoirs." He cut a fart and laughed.

I laughed too, until everything was quiet again. Being around George made me uneasy. He was like a caged animal, made tame by years of nothing changing. You never questioned the totality of his defeat, but always wondered how deeply buried the natural instincts were.

We walked back inside, into the darkness.

He grabbed a beer before taking a seat in front of the computer and I sat on the bed again. The glow from the screen made him look sick. He rummaged around in the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle of vitamins. He took one and washed it down with the beer.

He clicked around on the computer again, and scrolled through a document. "I really have been writing my memoirs." He took another pull off the bottle. "It's all bullshit, though. All ego. If I even remembered the truth, I don't think it would amount to much." It wasn't something either of us wanted to talk about, so he changed the subject. "How's Amy?"

"She's alright. We had a fight the other night. Well, actually, she just yelled at me while we ate a thirty dollar meal."

He nodded. "That's why I eat at home."

We talked about nothing for a little while longer, then he put on some old movie by a German director he loved. We watched it for a bit, until I decided it wasn't as good as he remembered or maybe he wasn't in the mood for it.

We went out again and leaned against his car. He smoked as the sun dropped behind the trees and the mosquitos began their quiet night flights. The gray blue sky turned his face to ash behind the bright red cherry.

"I hate the city, but sometimes I miss living there."

"Why don't you move?"

He shook his head. "I've got a good life here. I'll probably just stay here until I die."

He hated the sound of it as much as I hated listening to it. We both knew it was true.

Living in the city had been hard on him. He'd spent too much time there. He'd poured himself into the fast paced life and spent every minute of every day laughing at asshole's jokes. He'd networked and been the life of the party. Everyone loved him as much as he'd hated himself. Out here, he didn't have to face any of that. He felt like he was better off empty than living in the city.

It was getting late.

"I'd better go."

He nodded. "Send me that stuff you been writing."

"I will." He took another long drag off the cigarette and looked out into the night, into the distance of all that dark nothing. "I had a good time."

He smiled. "Me too."

He watched me drive away and I kept the radio off for the whole drive home. I could picture him going back in for another beer, sitting in front of the computer, hacking away at the keyboard for a few hours, until stopping for a bit and falling asleep in his chair.

George hates for people to see him like this. He prefers the loneliness, because he doesn't know any other way to face each day. He knows he's not alright and probably won't ever be again. Everything he writes is a memoir and it's all bullshit. He'd never tell it as a sad story. He changes the names, talks about raising hell, and laughs off how the characters should have known better.

George laughs a lot when there's nothing to laugh about and I don't ever feel like there's anything I can do about it.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Dress Money

“You going to wear that dress?”

“Yeah, why? Something wrong with it?”

Robin smiled and pushed the brim of his hat back with his index finger. “You going out?”

Lisa brushed her curls. “No. I’m staying in.”

Robin gave a grin. “Then why are you wearing that dress?”

“I like it. Don't you think it looks good on me?”

“I think it hides the real you. You look better without it,” Robin chuckled and tossed his hat in a chair.

“You’ve got a dirty mind.”

“And a dirty mouth, but it never stops you from kissing me.” Robin put his arms around her and studied her beautiful face. “You get it with the money I gave you?”


“The dress. I want to see the one you bought.”

Lisa frowned and pulled away. “No. I didn’t get it. My brother was in trouble. He’s going to pay me back.”

Robin was annoyed, but tried to look bored. “That's what he told you? I hope you gave it straight to his bookie.”

“You don’t understand. He’s in a tight spot right now.”

“From what I hear, it's tight and getting tighter.”

Lisa looked up, her face filling with concern. “What have you heard? From who?”

Robin blew air through his lips, fluttering his fingers like a breeze. "Just whispers. I wouldn't get yourself worked up, though. He's too small a fry for anyone to do much about. Still, you shouldn't be covering his debts.”

Lisa frowned. “Ain't you ever been in trouble?”

“Sure. I'm probably in trouble right now. But a man’s debts are his own. Sooner or later, everybody's got to face that.”

“Like you're facing up to this?”

Robin looked down at her swollen belly. He shook his head. “I never meant for nothing like that to happen.”

“You haven’t asked me to marry. Sounds like you're passing the buck.”

Robin's face went hard. “You think I owe you something?”

Lisa's head dropped. “You don’t owe nobody. You write your own ticket and expect the world to let you get away with whatever you want to do because you’re so god damned honest.” She looked up again. "But you're not honest. You're smug. You're self-righteous. But you're not honest."

“Is that right?” Robin picked up his hat again. “I changed my mind. You look better in the dress." He started out the door in time to avoid a pair of heels aimed at the back of his head.

“Go to hell, you god damned...” Her voice trailed off as she slumped back onto her bed.

Robin lit a cigarette on the stairs. "Who could marry a girl like that?"

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Salt Miner's Walk

The skins over Umar's shoulders tapped lightly against his chest and back as he walked through the blowing sands. While riding, the wind never bothered him, but on this long walk, it's sound robbed the naked desert of it's tranquility. His sandals scratched at the ground and and each footstep was quickly erased behind him.

Rain had fallen the night before. The men set up camp when it started and in the morning, unwrapped the salt blocks to dry. The blocks would crumble if they weren't give time to dry. Unfortunately, the waiting meant there would not be enough water for the two days remaining in their journey. Karaji gathered the skins and a short-handled shovel before laughing and sending Umar off to chase his shadow.

After walking nearly a kilometer, Umar crested a tall dune and watched the sand slip away in front of him as he descended down the other side. Below, dry scrub and hard ground marked the location of the well. The wind swept by overhead, but left the hollow bottom untouched.

He stepped across the hard ground and slipped off the skins before untying the shovel from his waist. He poked around at the lowest point, the hard packed sand was still slightly damp from the night's rain. He bent over and scooped out for a little while witht he shovel, then dropped his knees and trading off between the shovel and his hands.

The earth broke apart in his hands, but as he went deeper, each scoop held together a little better than the last. As the sun moved slowly across the sky, he dug with regular precision, gradually excavating several feet down. The sand began to crumble again, but was wetter in his hands.

As the sun shone brightly into the well, he could feel the heat coming up from the earth. And then, he noticed in the bottom a tiny pool of mud. He worked faster, until his hands were splashing around, pulling out silt and broadening the pool.

He climbed back above the well, pulling the skins and a plastic cup back down with him. He scooped the water, filling each of the skins, digging a bit more when the water got too shallow. When the skins were filled, he tied a rope around them and climbed up again before hoisting them out of the well.

He sat for a while, eating the dried fruit Sonji had sent with him. He was tired, but the sooner he returned, the sooner they could ride again. Finally, he pushed himself up, tied off the shovel, and crouched to slide the skins over his shoulders. He stood slowly, adjusting his burden to balance the weight.

Taking the most gentle slope part of the dune, Umar trudged back up into the wind. It was beginning to pick up. The sand beat against the skins and his robes as he navigated back by position of the sun.

Umar frowned as the horizon blurred and sand began swirling higher into the air. To the north, he could see it pitching like waves on a violent sea. It began to sting his eyes when he squinted to find the sun. He kept on, worried the growing storm would get worse, but even more worried to stop.

He leaned into the wind and looked for the sun less and less. His shadow was swallowed up in the brown air. The bright day faded into a dark cloud until his only guide was his internal compass. He began to doubt his sense of direction.

He looked up again, but the sky was as dark above as the ground was below. Umar knelt, huddling against the heavy skins. He would wait a little while. The camp was not so far from the well, but he could no longer guess how much distance he'd covered. He shut his eyes and thought about Sonji.

He could see her soaking reeds and thought about the way she sat up, trying to stay awake until he came to bed. He could see her as she soaked salt from his clothes and the care she took in wrapping the sores on his hands and feet. He could almost hear her voice, like a whisper when she knelt to pray.

Umar's eyes opened, slightly. He really could hear a voice. He shouldered the skins again and stood up. The shrill wind drowned out the voice, but between it's furious gusts, he could make out the midday prayer.

He could barely trust his ears in the storm, but it was better to follow slim hope than be buried alive. He again leaned into the blowing sand and trudged toward the sound. The voice came in and faded out, over and over. The sun hid away in the darkened sky. Umar stumbled and scrambled, feeling his way over dunes that slid out from beneath his feet with every step.

And then, the voice was gone.

Umar stopped in his tracks and felt his stomach tighten. In the swarming sands, he might easily pass right by the camp and never know it. He knelt again, huddling against the skins.

Slipping off his sandals, he thought to himself it was a foolish thing to do. He said his midday prayer, honoring the Prophet and Allah. He surrendered himself.

Huddled there, his thoughts returned to Sonji. He thought about her hard, worn hands. Hands that looked so much older than her gentle, dark eyes. They had always talked about making the pilgrimage when the children were older. He thought of the way she laughed and then would stop herself, going quiet with a smile still on her face. She never wanted anything for herself among the list of things he was to bring back from the market. Every time, he wanted to bring something back to her, but never knew what to get.

He drove the thoughts from his head. No. He did know. He shouldered the skins again and marched against the unrelenting fury of the sandstorm.

All at once, the shrill wind changed. The grains began to fall like rain and the swirling cloud settled on the smooth desert like a thick fog. In another moment, the sky was bright and the air turned warm.

Umar squinted as the horizon began taking shape again. In another moment, the sun shone on his shoulders and the sands blew off to the south. He shook himself off and walked up a tall dune as wisps of sand scattered, like little children trying to catch up to their mother, the tempest who had left them behind.

He crested the dune and saw below him the other merchants huddled by the camels. Karaji waved and hurried up the slope. Karaji took the skins from his shoulders and laughed. "A good thing you took your shadow to lead the way."

The others had already wrapped up the salt blocks. They loaded the camels, each giving Umar a pat on his sore shoulders. His camel lifted him into the air and each of the merchants fell in line behind Karaji.

All Sonji ever hoped for was his safe return. He could do that much. And perhaps he'd pick her up some silk, too.