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Predator

 A boy slung his backpack over one shoulder and reached for his jacket. As he did, a beefy man shoved past him, knocking him face forward onto the bench. He stopped his fall, one hand on the back of the bench, the other on the seat.

“Sorry,” grunted the man.

The boy grabbed his jacket, draped it over his shoulder, and followed him to the front of the Greyhound.

“Better put that on,” the bus driver said to him. “Detroit gets pretty chilly this time of year.”

The man turned on the steps and said, “Better listen to him. Feels like a refrigerator out here.”

He stopped, set his backpack on the seat behind the driver, and put on his letter jacket, blazoned in green and gold, the colors of his high school. No one here would recognize them. He’d sat thirty-five butt-numbing hours to get away.

When he stepped out of the bus, the driver followed him. “Hey, kid. The phone is over there.” He nodded to a lit booth on the west wall of the small depot.

“Yeah, okay. Thanks,” he said, but he had no one to call and nowhere to go. He looked at the lights of Downtown Detroit reflected on the water. “How many miles?” he said.

The driver grimaced. “To the downtown area? About five. Best call someone to pick you up.”

“Uh…okay, thanks.”

The boy walked toward the booth as the driver climbed into a parked vehicle and drove away. As soon as his car was around a corner, the boy set his sights on the lights of Downtown Detroit. He blew on his chilled fingers. Five miles wasn’t that far. He was a fast walker. He blew on his fingers again and stuffed them into his armpits. Walking would warm him.

 

Charlie Marchesi reverently polished the counter in his bar. He’d long since removed every fingerprint and smudge left by the evening patrons, but he needed time to think. One of his studs had worked a rival’s territory today and a brutal beating was his payment. The kid was useless until his face healed. Charlie’s loss amounted to $5,500 with medical bills and lost revenue. He loved this bar with its rich ambiance of masculinity, but it would not cover the loss. What he needed was another experienced stud because the rest of the colts in his stable were too green to make that kind of money.

He tapped the warm wood and glanced around his man cave. It was time to lock up. He glanced at the back wall with pictures of his kids, wayfarers that had stumbled in looking for a way out of whatever they were running from. He flicked off the “Open” light in the big picture window that framed the corner across the street. The rain had stopped and the pavement glistened with diamonds.

A young man stepped into the halo of the street lamp, illuminated as if spotlights had just turned on over center stage. He was tall and stood with strength, even though Charlie could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was shirking from his current situation. His dark hair and arched eyebrows stood out against his pale skin. The scruff of his beard outlined a strong jaw. He looked the part of a young god unsure of where he was, or what he was about.

Had serendipity knocked on his door? “Come this way, mister,” he said. “I have time for one more.”  He flicked the light on again and draped the polishing chamois over his shoulder while walking closer to the window to get a better look at him. “Come on. It’s warm in here. Get out of the cold.”

As if he heard Charlie’s words, he turned and looked at the glowing sign in Charlie’s dark window. His eyes were wide-set, though from this distance Charlie couldn’t read them. He could only read the man’s body movements, and something about the way he adjusted the pack on his shoulders and the garish green and gold jacket said ‘mature teenager’.

Serendipity rose, a questing snake peering over tall grass. The youngster just needed to come in. That’s all. Charlie would wrap him with something beneficial to both of them. “Come on, it’s open. There isn’t anything else. I bet you just got off the bus, didn’t you.”

The young man resettled his pack upon his shoulders, flipped up the collar on his jacket and strolled across the street toward Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.

Charlie moved to the far end of the counter where it was dark, becoming a simple barkeep cleaning up for the evening. The bell over the door tinkled as the young man walked in. Bold as brass he sat at the counter. It was a move calculated to feign maturity and hide the fact that the boy couldn’t be older than fifteen or sixteen.

Charlie’s breath hitched. God, he was beautiful. He could hardly wait to hear the tale this one was going to spin. He approached. “How can I help you?”

 “Something hot,” said the young man, as if he owned the world.

Charlie nodded. He grabbed a white, ceramic mug from shelving under a simple drip coffee maker and filled it. The whole time he did so, he studied the youth.

Perhaps noticing his scrutiny, the boy frowned and hunched his shoulders, turning in on himself.  

“Cream?” said Charlie.

The boy glanced at him. “Sure.” Then, he remembered to say, “Thanks.”

Charlie was generous with the cream. “Kind of late for you to be out and about all alone.”

Guilt flashed across the boy’s beautiful features. “Got off the bus about twenty minutes ago.” His voice had dropped into a full bass rumble, probably because he was tired.

Charlie chuckled. He liked the brassy attitude of this one. “Where’re you from?” he said.

“Stockton. Stockton, California,” said the young man.

Never been,” said Charlie.

“You wouldn’t like it,” said the boy.

“What brings you to Detroit?”

It was just small talk, no need to rush this. If Charlie was reading this right, the boy had nowhere to go, or nowhere he wanted to go. A boy like this could easily end up on the street and be picked up by someone else. Charlie had never lost a gold mine sitting at his counter, and he wouldn’t tonight.

The boy took a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders.

Carefully keeping his voice warm and considerate, Charlie pressed. “You didn’t answer my question. Detroit’s not a place people come to for pleasure. You must have some business here?”

“Just like everybody else,” said the young man. He sipped the coffee, gazing toward the pictures behind the bar. A dip of sadness settled on his mouth for a second.

Charlie said, “Can I help you find someone?”

“No,” said the young man, a little too harshly. He squirmed in his seat. A lie then, there was someone here.

“So you do have a place to go tonight,” said Charlie.

“Not yet,” said the boy, shifting his defiant gaze toward him.

Not willing to give up, Charlie said, “It’s past midnight. It’ll be hard to find a place around here, and folks aren’t going to lease to a minor anyway.”

If looks could kill, the boy’s expression would have dropped him to the ground. Wow. Keeping this one engaged was imperative. Fresh meat like this would attract all kinds of predators.

The young man folded his arms on the counter and leaned into them. He turned to Charlie and said, “Why would you assume I am a minor?” 

Charlie sighed. How many times had he seen this now? He glanced at the pictures on the wall across from them, his stable of young, lost children that grew up under his tutelage, learned the ways of the street, and lived to tell about it. “Seen a lot of runaways come through here. I guess you look the part.”

“There’s a part?” said the boy. His voice raised three notches as he lifted the cooling cup of coffee to warm his hands.

Cold and scared, that’s what Charlie saw. He chuckled and said, “Name’s Charles. Most people call me Charlie. Charlie Marchesi. I have a room in the back. Forty dollars a night.”

“How much for the coffee?” said the boy.

So, he had no money either. Charlie admired the bravado. What did it take to leap into the world with nothing, hoping that it would take care of you? It took a keen mind and a quick wit. Most of these kids didn’t have it. They were scared and lonely, and he took them in and made something out of all that. This kid, though, was different. Charlie pushed a little more. “Coffee is on the house with the let of the room.”

The boy looked him right in the eye. “I don’t have the cash for the room. How much do I owe for this?” He lifted the cup and took another sip.

Tough guy, thought Charlie. He said, “Two-twenty five with a free refill.”

The boy pulled a ten and handed it to Marchesi.

Charlie hesitated. Was he going to let this one walk?

The boy insisted, slapping the ten onto the counter and pushing it toward him.

“Tell you what,” said Charlie. “Put down what you have for the room and you can work for the rest in the morning. It’s a rush here, and I can use someone to bus tables and wash dishes. Beats an alleyway somewhere. Especially this time of year.” He glanced outside.

The kid turned and stared out the window.

Why was he hesitating? Just take it. It’s cold outside, and I am offering a room.

The boy continued to stare.

It was about four miles to Downtown. If the kid walked briskly, he could probably make it in an hour, but there was no guarantee he’d find a warm place to sleep, and he’d run the risk of getting snatched by one of his competitors. Charlie could not have that. He said, “I am offering a room, and a way to pay for it.”

The boy looked down. “I’ll think about it.”

Charlie Marchesi tapped his pointer finger on the counter, twice. “Working the morning kitchen will get you breakfast on the house. For tomorrow, anyway.”

“Okay. Maybe I’ll take it.”

There was no maybe about it. Charlie had found his replacement. He slapped the counter and said, “Smart man.”

He grabbed the coffee and cream. A little refill should cinch the deal. The boy smiled as Charlie poured warm coffee into his mug. Yep, he’d found his replacement.

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Chapter 2 – First Impressions

Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler reached for his trench coat. The floor beneath him lurched, as if he was on a bus as a driver locked the brakes. He then fell forward, as if someone jostled him trying to get off it. He caught himself, hands on the sill of his closet, and froze.

The vision coalesced. He was in a long dark corridor lined with benches and windows.

“God, I’m tired,” he said as he rubbed his eyes.

Again, he reached for his trench coat, but instead, grabbed a green and gold letter jacket, the kind a teenager wore.

“Not real. Not real.” He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his hand was on his trench.

When he turned, he was on a bus.

“What the…is this a school bus? A Greyhound?” Jack shook his head. He didn’t have time for this. A child was missing. Yes, he needed distraction from worrying about Tomi, but not the distraction of a vision.

He put on his coat, grabbed his phone and keys, and stepped into the hall. A frizzle of anxiety clenched his muscles. “Not now, not now, not now,” he chanted as he locked his door.

With his mind partly on the job, partly at the hospital, and partly on the vision, he jogged down five stories of stairs to the foyer of his apartment building. Each step nudged his mind toward reality. A missing child always sent everyone’s heart into their throats, and Jack was no different. Time was paramount. Each minute that ticked by lessened the chance of recovery. He left the building at a run and kept his speed the first two blocks north. He slowed his pace to turn east and to jump two puddles. His heart rate was up, and he felt more grounded to the task in hand.

On the far corner in front of his destination, the light was low, emanating from one source – a yellow bug light over the door of the building. Sleepy residents leaned out of their darkened windows, yelling, “Shut up,” and, “Go home,” at a crowd of punks seemingly unbothered by misty, damp air, who jostled each other in mock martial arts posturing. He counted five males and three females. The youths’ movements were just uncoordinated enough to indicate that it was the end of a revel, not the start.

He stopped about forty yards from them to pull his credentials and check the security strap on the gun hidden under his jacket. Revelers were unpredictable, and it was unclear if he was seeing exhaustion, drunkenness, or a group high on something. Without backup, and with as much bravado as he could muster, he approached them. “Inspector Tyler, Detroit PD.”

One female looked up and ran. Alerted by her reaction, the rest followed like a flock of crows. A ninth person hiding in the shadows stepped into the yellow light. The man, puffed up like a threatening bear, clenched his fists and faced Jack. Jack was tall; this man was taller by at least two inches. His shoulders were broader by half.

“What the fuck do you want, pig?” he said. A momentary gleam flashed in his eyes that said, ‘I know you.’

It seemed like ages since Jack had walked the neighborhood, at least three since he’d played basketball in a nearby gym. Had they had a previous encounter? He zipped through his mental catalog of remembered faces, but could not find this man in it. Rattled, Jack replied with authority, “Excuse me. I need to talk to a lady in that building behind you.”

The kid swaggered closer to Jack. “You ain’t got no business with anyone here,” he growled.

“Look man,” said Jack, flashing his credentials with one hand, while holding his other up in a peace offering as he also closed the distance between them. “I didn’t make the call. There is a distraught mother in there worried about her kid. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

“You see a kid, here?” he snarled.

Just one, thought Jack, close enough to see that the man was barely in his twenties, twenty-five at most. “Look, I have no problem with you; I just want to talk to the worried mom.”

The kid backed down a notch.

“We good?” said Jack.

“Phillip, you let that po-leese by, you hear?” said a woman from the second story.

“Ain’t Phillip no more. Folks ‘round here calls me Rat Snatcher,” he yelled at her.

“Rat Snatcher.” She belly laughed. “I don’t give no nevermind ‘bout that. You let that officer up here, you hear me, Phillip?”

The bear of a kid cut his sleeve and shoved his fist toward Jack. Then he turned and swaggered back into the shadows.

“Your mother too, buddy,” Jack muttered as he ran up the stairs to the door of the building. He could feel Rat Snatcher’s acute stare hot against his back, but did not turn to confirm it.

The distraught caller was waiting at the door for him, coincidentally the same woman who yelled at the bear named Phillip. She had been crying. Her soft, round body trembled, as would anyone’s who was missing a child.

Jack approached her. “Ma’am,” he said. “Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler, Detroit Police Department. I understand you called about a missing child?”

She nodded affirmatively.

“Claudine. Claudine Fischer. Folks around here call me Grandma Fischer.”

“Ms. Fischer,” Jack said, “can we step inside and talk about it?”

She opened her door, and moved to the side to allow him entrance. As Jack entered, she said, “My grandson, Evan. He didn’t come home tonight after work.”

“Sit. Tell me about it.”

When she shuffled toward her easy chair, it was obvious she had bad hips. Jack reached out to help her. Then he sat on a love seat across from her.

She had furnished the living room humbly, but it was tidy. Softly colored crocheted throws hung on the backs of both small couches, and she had draped another over the worn, gray easy chair in which she sat. The table and shelf surfaces looked dusted. There were a few books, which for some reason surprised him, and an open Bible on an oval occasional table near the chair, which didn’t.

To his right, the kitchen dishes had been cleared and washed, and the food put away, except for one covered microwave tray on the clean counter. “You saved dinner for him?”

“Just like I have every night for the past two years.”

Jack made a note of that. “Where does Evan work?”

“He works at Walgreens.”

“The one in this neighborhood?”

“Yes. I called them because he didn’t answer his go-phone. They said he’d left work at the usual time.”

“So, we know he was at work. What are his usual hours?”

“It varies. Tonight he was off by six.”

“Are his hours the same for tomorrow?”

She pulled a piece of paper from the Bible that lay open next to her elbow. “Same.”

“Can I have that a moment?”

She gave Jack the slip of paper.

He used his phone to snap a photo of Evan’s schedule and then handed the paper back to her.

“What is your grandson’s last name?”

“Fischer.”

“Just like yours.”

“Yessir, my daughter’s kid. She’s a drug addict, out there on the streets somewhere. Evan has been in my custody for his whole life.”

“Where is Evan’s father?”

“Ain’t got no father. That scumbag dragged my daughter to the devil and left her with a bun in the oven. I pray that Evan never finds him.”

“I understand, but I still need a name.” In his experience, sometimes kids went missing trying to find an estranged parent.

“Conti,” she spat.

A sliver of disquiet pricked him. The only ‘Conti’ he knew was a street boss that was no longer part of the Mafia scene. Rumor was he was in witness protection. Most cops thought he was probably at the bottom of the river. He wondered if the boy’s father was one and the same. Conti was a man best left alone. He fervently hoped Evan wasn’t looking for him.

“Does he have a girlfriend, any friends he hangs with, friends he could have gone somewhere with?”

“Well, I suppose he does, but he always comes home.”

“Like clockwork,” he said.

When she nodded, her lip trembled slightly.

Jack placed a comforting hand on her arm. “He’s how old?”

“He’ll be twenty next month.”

Jack’s phone buzzed. “Tyler,” he answered.

“Jack, it’s Maureen. I’m sending you a photo.”

He held the phone in his hand as he continued his inquiry. “Ms. Fischer, do you have any photos of your grandson?”

Ms. Fischer pointed to a collection of photos on the counter between the kitchen and living room next to an old-style dial-up telephone. He walked over to the collection. Claudine directed him to the latest photo, which he captured on his cell. His phone buzzed again, a photo from Maureen’s investigation.

Jack enlarged it as best he could. To him, the mangled face didn’t read ‘nineteen-year-old boy,’ but it was hard to tell from the image on his phone. The hair was dark, as was Evan’s, but the texture looked different. The victim’s hair was straight and each strand seemed thick, somewhat like Tomi’s hair, except it was matted close to his head. Evan’s hair curled, less so as he aged in subsequent pictures; nevertheless, a hint of softness was evident. He felt a tiny sliver of hope that Maureen’s victim wasn’t his boy.

“Is everything all right?” Claudine Fischer asked with a hint of fear behind her words.

“Yes. My partner is on another case and sent me some information.”

“Oh, I hope everything is all right,” she said, wringing her hands.

Jack smiled. “Can I see Evan’s room?”

“Of course. It is at the end of the hallway, past the bathroom.”

Small nightlights near the floor lit the hallway and the opened rooms off it. Evan’s room was closed. Jack quietly opened the door and flicked on the light.

His heart fell to the floor.

To the left of the door, amid the typical teenage chaos, was a collection of mixed martial arts magazines.

Was there a link to his and Maureen’s cases after all?

Numbed and heartsick, he snapped pictures. It would take a long time to sift through the flotsam in this room. It was best that he get started. The first thing he stepped on was a red and white school jacket. Not the colors in his vision, but when he picked it up, it looked similar. Perhaps this kid was on a bus.

One could only hope.

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Chapter 1- It Never Ends

Lordy, she hated night calls. It damn near killed her to lose moments with Larry on a night when he was home. Her kids had gone to sleep easily, and they had a stretch to themselves after a long three weeks. The tingle in her limbs slowly and regrettably subsided as she sat behind the wheel of her road-stained Toyota Corolla, peering through the breath-fogged window at the group of four young officers, three men and one woman, who she sent to secure the crime scene at the river’s edge.

They had finished cordoning off the area and now huddled together, a miserable lump of humanity trying to stay warm in the cold of the night. At their feet lay cold death, hidden under a shroud with which they thankfully covered it. As her own warm breath created blossoms on her side window that unfolded then quickly faded with each inhale, they blew into their hands to warm them as they waited for her to set foot on scene.

Maureen Thompson had worked her way through the ranks to become Chief Inspector of Detroit’s 12th Precinct. She wasn’t normally on call at night, but the rest of her senior staff was reeling after the apprehension of a killer dubbed ‘The Vampire.’ Her own partner lay in the hospital, on her way to recovery. Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler sat by the bedside of his partner, Tomio Dubanowski, while he fought for his life. The entire company was mourning the death of one of their own. The killer was now behind bars for the rest of his life, but life out here droned on, and another victim, another criminal’s ruin, lay at the river’s edge. Sweet Jesus, it never ended.

She braced for the blast of cold that would hit her as she opened the door. It did not disappoint. The icy ground crunched beneath her feet as she descended the incline toward the river. Without a doubt, the water’s edge was the worst place to find a body. Thankfully, the blast of frigid air that hit her didn’t reek of dead fish this time of year. Her officers came to attention as she approached.

The body was on top of the rocky shore right at the edge of the water line. Feet poked out from under the shroud, and the river’s waves gently caressed them. It was a weird juxtaposition. The body was face down, unless she was looking at horrendously mangled legs. Markers had been placed next to shoe prints that didn’t belong to her officers, and her people had set down mats of cardboard next to the body as best they could on top of the rocks.

“The scene looks well secured,” she said. It never hurt to pat their backs.

“Yes, sir,” said one of the young men. Another stepped up behind him and laid a comforting hand upon his shoulder. No doubt, the first had upchucked after seeing a murder victim for the first time. What were they looking at here?

Her phone buzzed. “Chief Thompson.”

“Dispatch. Coroner ETA, about two minutes. Over.”

“Thank you. Out.” She stuck the phone back into her coat pocket. Then she squatted next to the body and gently lifted the shroud. The black hair, though short, was long enough to mat against the skull on the back of the head. She used a penlight to check for blood. It appeared to be mud and leaf matter.

“Was this body face-down when you found it?”

“Yes, sir,” said the young woman, who stared at the river when a fish splashed heavily back into it after jumping.

The skeletal build of the body, the short hair and heavy muscling indicated male, but until the coroner flipped him, she wouldn’t know for sure.

The coroner’s van pulled in behind Maureen’s Corolla. A short, older, and gray-haired woman slid out of the bus feet first, wearing muck boots under a business skirt, covered by her white lab coat. Maureen did not recognize her. However, the 12th had an on-call agreement with Precinct Nine. She was probably one of theirs.

The woman stumbled twice as she slid down the hill and fell on her bum. Maureen felt uneasy having to work with someone unfamiliar on a new scene, and watching the woman scramble to her feet did nothing to alleviate that. However, when the woman extended her hand, Maureen warmed to her gentle smile and compassionate eyes.

“Doctor Tamilin,” she said as they shook hands.

“Thanks for coming,” said Maureen. “I just got here myself. Nothing has been moved, the scene is secure.”

At first, the petite doctor seemed feeble and uncoordinated, but then she squatted with the ease of a twenty-something on the precarious rocks next to the body. Immediately all business, she began by temping the body, palpating an apparent knife wound to the back and surveying the brutal bruising on the ribs and over the exposed hips. “Do these look like kick marks to you?” she said.

Maureen squatted next to Dr. Tamilin. “Could be.”

One of the young officers chimed in, “Mixed martial arts.”

“Do you want to elaborate on that?” said Maureen, feeling her left eyebrow arch as she stared up at him.

“Yes, Sir. See that bruise on the forearm and the one behind the knee? Classic strike marks. The victim used a cross-body strike with the arm to push back his opponent, and he took a hit to the back of the knee when his opponent tried to knock him to the mat.”

“Do you fight?”

“Sometimes, Sir. When I can.”

She compartmentalized the information in case she needed it later.

“Am I allowed to direct your team?” Dr. Tamilin quietly asked Maureen.

“Of course.”

Dr. Tamilin seemed taller than she was when she stood and turned to the officers. “Let’s move this person away from the water’s edge. I’d like to roll him over on that tarp.” She pointed to the staging area that her second had set up behind them.

Two officers and her tech lifted the body. They laid it on the canvas and gently rolled it as they set it down. A young boy. He was lean, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, maybe nineteen.

The rocks under the body were clean, except for disturbed river debris. It was obvious he’d been killed elsewhere and dumped. Maureen said, “Was he in the river?”

“No, Sir. That is how we found him.”

Tamilin said, “There is no gross evidence he was ever in the water. I will check his lungs, of course.”

Maureen nodded.

The coroner continued, “From the looks of the wounds, here and here…,” she pointed to marks on the boy’s ankles and forearms, “it looks like he put up a hell of a fight.” Then she lifted each of his arms, one at a time, and examined his wrists. “He was bound, not long enough to form abrasions, but these indentations indicate he was bound.” She checked his ankles. “Yep. Probably rope, but I can’t be sure until I get him under the light.”

“Oh, god. Poor thing,” whispered Maureen. Her keen eyes perused the story on the boy’s face, arms, legs, and bare torso. Angry bruises stained his hands across the knuckles and at the base of his palms. His knees sported fresh bruises, as did his ankles and arches. He had a bent nose and a blackened eye, swollen lips. She wondered if he was missing teeth. There were contact bruises across his ribs. “Looks like he’s been in a martial arts fight to me,” she agreed as she stood.

Why would someone knife him? Was it to put him out of his misery, or had he pissed off someone? If captured and bound, was he held captive before or after the fight? His face was so smashed it was hard to ascertain his nationality, but young Taiwanese boys were smuggled into the country to fight. The color and texture of his hair suggested a tie to that traffic line. Her stomach became queasy as she thought about it.

An officer said, “We broke up a few bouts this week. Two of them licensed, one not.”

“Well, we can count on this bout being unlicensed,” she said in a low voice.

“Sir?”

“Nothing, nothing.” She nodded at the officer and felt her phone buzz again. She walked away to answer. “Chief Thompson.”

“This is Dispatch. We just received a 9948. Family has requested an officer on scene. Over.”

Maureen looked around. They weren’t finished here, and she wasn’t going to desert her people. “Ten four. Send me the information. Over.”

“Will do. Out.” Dispatch hung up. Ten seconds later, she was staring at the call log and an address with a name. Jack’s neighborhood. She wondered if he was home. She dialed.

It rang twice before he answered in an exhausted voice. “Hey Maureen.”

“Did I wake you?”

“No. Just got in.”

Alarmed by his reply, she said, “How is Tom?”

“He’s in the ICU. Had another surgery. They couldn’t control his pain, so they did an ultrasound and found a pocket of blood. Evidently, there was a slow bleeder they didn’t catch the first time.”

“Dammit, Jack. I am so sorry to hear that. I can call someone else.”

“No. I need the distraction. How can I help?”

“Seriously, I can call someone else.”

“Seriously, I am fine. What can I do?”

“I’m at a crime scene on the river, an apparent martial arts fight gone bad. I have rookies working tonight and I don’t want to send them on a missing persons call. It’s in your neighborhood.”

“I gotcha.”

“I’m sending the address. Thank you so much, Jack. I will be praying for Tom. Out.” Maureen clicked off and re-texted the message from dispatch. She owed Jack big time. He and Tom were instrumental in catching the Vampire Killer. What was one more favor?

As she turned back to her team, a news van skidded into a crooked position behind the Coroner’s van. She did not want the press to get hold of this just yet. The illegal fighting clubs were hard enough to break up, their locations found only by chance. Giving them a head start with limited information about this victim was not on her to-do list. With a heavy heart, she trudged up the bank to intercept the cameras and reporters.

It was going to be a long night.

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Broken – Prologue

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I plan to post my new novel, BROKEN, chapter by chapter. This is the first installment. For those of you who follow this blog, this post first appeared as V is for Vagabond. Rewritten and edited, the gist of the story remains the same, Jonathan Tyler meets Sailboat Tim. Again for your perusal…enjoy.)

Prologue

Like Tom Sawyer chafing against the constraints of overprotective parenting and the idiocy of enforced school, Jonathan Tyler was running away again.

Six months ago, Rollo, his best and only true friend, reacted to Jonathan’s angst by offering his closet as a place to stay. It was a life raft. Jon jumped on, or rather in, never once considering the current of distress that would wash away the trusting love of his family. After four days of freedom, Rollo’s father caught him. Phillip had no problem soundly paddling his fourteen-year-old stepson. Then he grounded him, piling on a mountain of chores and a multitude of extracurricular activities as a deterrent for wayward thinking.

Jon was done with that, ready to throw in the towel and take a hike. He was fifteen, now, and old enough to make his own decisions.

He dumped his allowance onto his bedspread and counted it. A ticket to Sacramento would cost him the whole amount. It was stupid to go without extra money, but he could not stand another day trapped like a bird or toiling like a child laborer. Tomorrow he’d be on that bus.

He stuffed the money into the backpack hidden behind his clothes in the closet and leaped onto his bed, bouncing the mattress twice. He stared at the walls around him. It would be the last time he ever saw these things.

Most of the posters on his walls depicted mixed martial arts. On the top of his bookshelf were two trophies. One was for Most-Improved Fighter; the other was a first place team trophy from a state tournament. There were multiple pictures of him sparring in various events, his favorite taken when he and Phillip were sparring in the gym Phillip had assembled in the garage. He sighed. It didn’t matter.

Mind made up, he went to bed.

The next evening, he stood on the corner across from the bus station in Sacramento. The view before him was nothing like he envisioned: a vast parking lot behind him, industrial office buildings on the next block, and a few shops across the street, all closed for the night. On the next corner was a restaurant.

He was homeless now, and free. He could stay by the river, but there was a chilled breeze wafting off it. He could stay in the bus station. He took a step to cross the avenue to do just that, but stopped. That would definitely scream run-away to anyone keeping eyes on a stray kid. He stared at the lit depot, watching people come and go.

He was penniless, dumped into an urban wilderness…maybe, he hadn’t thought this through long enough. Shrugging off regret, he walked west until he came across a police station. He turned abruptly and walked away.

Night fell swiftly and with it the temperature. He put his head down and paced, two blocks, three blocks, four…he lost count. It felt like he’d walked an eternity, but ahead of him, a light signaled hope. A neon sign lit his way to a small apartment complex, like a green affirmation that he would be okay. A three-foot chain link fence surrounded the little group of buildings. Most were curtained and dark, but a soft night light shined in the larger building, which was, no doubt, the main lobby. He tried the doors.

Locked. Why did he expect anything else?

He explored until he found a sheltered wall between the lighted office building and a laundry facility. Hunkering between the two, he spent the first night fitfully shivering in the cold.

As the sun rose and before traffic picked up, he hopped back over the fence and walked south, toward Capital Mall. Along the way, he passed several restaurants before it dawned on him to check the back alleys for garbage bins. He might get lucky and find some fresh pickings.

A small pub across the street was open. People entered and left with regularity. It seemed a likely place to scrounge for leftovers. Furtively aware of his surroundings, he raced across the damp pavement and crept around the building to the alley behind it. Was it illegal to steal garbage? He’d heard it was, but he didn’t know if that law applied here. However, he sure didn’t want someone turning him in because he looked young and truant. To his delight, he found that the pub threw away their leftover food in a separate bin from the trash.

Beyond the street behind the pub, across an expanse of public parking, there was a small park. Had he found his stomping grounds? Maybe. The park would be the perfect place to stake out a bench or, at the very least, the base of a tree.

The back door latch jiggled.

He grabbed a couple of rolls and ran. Heart pounding, he raced across the parking area and sprinted into the park. There he feigned calm, hoping he looked as if he was taking a morning stroll to school.

He spent the morning daydreaming and following the arc of the sun to stay in its warmth. His bones and muscles softened and it felt good to sit and observe, with no responsibility, and no worries. He watched a couple, dressed as if they were homeless, raid the pub’s food dump. After observing that they came back a second time for the lunch hour, he surmised that perhaps the establishment put out food on purpose.

Testing his theory, he crept to the bin and found half of a roast beef sandwich and some carrot sticks. He laughed. This was a better lunch than any he got at school. When he got back to the park, he crept under some bushes.

The pub closed at midnight. There was a final dumping of leftovers in the bin. He ran to get his share, as other homeless people were bound to take advantage of it. He skidded to a stop when a hunched, older man, with very long, very gray hair and beard, wearing multiple layers of soiled clothes, stepped in front of him. He wore athletic socks over his hands and carried a walking stick. With the end of it, he hit the pavement in front of Jon’s toes.

Jon yelped and backed up.

The man glared at him.

“No, of course, you first,” said Jon, bowing slightly.

The man didn’t smile, nor did he stop glaring, but he nodded and reached into the bin. He pulled out a loaf of bread, some browned apple slices, and a couple of thick pieces of ham. He shoved these at Jon, who took them. Then he reached into the bin again and pulled out a half bottle of white wine.

In a whispery voice, he said, “Sometimes they leave it, sometimes they don’t.” Underneath the breathiness was a lilt. “Remember to be thankful.” He winked at Jon. “Now, where are you staying? Let’s go there to eat.” He grabbed the loaf of bread out of Jon’s hands.

A little panicky, Jon said, “Uh, sure. Over there in the park. I made a nest under some bushes.”

“Sounds like a picnic to me,” said the man.

Jon led the man to his shelter of sorts.

They sat down. The man took the rest of the food. He gave a sizable portion of the bread to Jon and evenly split the rest.

Jon said, “Are you sure?”

“I have all I need,” said the man, in his gravelly voice.

They ate in silence. Jon furtively watched the man as he ate. Old and thoughtful, he seemed happy while Jon struggled with his decision to leave a warm home and loving family. What kind of person did that? Could he live like this man?

“Why did you run?” said the man, as if he could read Jon’s mind.

“Who says I’m running?”

“What are you, fourteen, fifteen? You’re runnin’ from somethin’.”

“Maybe I am running toward something.”

The man laughed, a deep belly roar that shook his whole body. “Yeah. Well, I hope you find it. My name’s Tim. Folks call me Sailboat Tim.”

“That’s an odd name.”

“And yours is better?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s Jon, spelled J-O-N.”

“For Jonathan, like the Bible, gift of God. And so it is more important.”

“I-I-I only meant that I was curious about why they added the Sailboat to Tim,” said Jon.

“Guess folks likes to tease. I’ve always wanted a sailboat, talked about it a lot in the early days of this.” He swept his arm wide as if gathering the expanse of the park in his sweep.

Jon asked, “How long have you been doing this?”

“Long enough to know this isn’t a good place to stay the night. Vigilantes come through and run people out of the park. We’re a safety hazard to the good folks that live in those houses and apartment buildings right over there.” He pointed to a beautifully landscaped two-story building with multiple terraces. Then he pointed to a block of well-appointed office buildings. “We might break in. One never knows about vagrant folks.”

“You’re just being facetious now, right?” said Jon.

“No.” Tim grimaced. “Come on. Finish eating. I know where we can sleep safely.”

They huddled together on the porch of an empty Victorian in the Oak Park region. Tim shared the only blanket he carried with him, a ratty, flea-filled wool of tatters and holes. He told Jon heartbreaking stories. Some gang banger knifed a crippled army vet while he slept under a tree in the park. The cops didn’t even investigate. A crazy old coot froze to death just a winter ago on the steps of the library downtown. Word was, he shouldn’t have been sleeping there. Tim, himself, had ended up in jail twice for raiding the garbage behind a Safeway for scraps of food. Who knew it was illegal to take food from a garbage bin behind a Safeway? Sailboat Tim had fond memories of the food he ate while he stayed in jail, though. And, he appreciated the warm cells, with sturdy cots and thick blankets. At least while he was in the slammer, he didn’t have to worry about getting knifed or “froze to death.”

Jon smiled.

Tim’s toothless grin was kind, and his eyes were gentle.

Before dawn, a clatter of footsteps on the porch of the house awakened them.

A helmeted policeman with a bat, grabbed him by the arm. Another grabbed Tim. Together, the policemen hauled them down the steps and hoisted them into the back of a waiting van where several other homeless people cowered on the benches. A young girl at the end was silently sobbing; the rest sat stoically, eyes averted, awaiting the trip to jail.

Jon whispered to Tim. “What now?”

“Now we sit in a cage until a lawyer secures our freedom. It will be okay. The food is great, the cots are firm, and the blankets are clean and warm. Oh, and the commode is clean. That’s a big plus. They gives us coffee if we want it.”

Jon must have looked horrified because Tim bumped his shoulder and said, “It’ll be okay. You’re the lucky one. They will call your parents. Then, you can go home where it’s safe and warm.”

Jon curled up on himself after that and hid his face.

As Tim said, the police sent Jon home. Jail would have been preferable to his parents’ house of strict rules, and scheduled time. Jon had acquired a yen for freedom that no amount of discomfort could alter. Third time’s a charm, he’d always heard.

It was time to plan his next adventure.

 

 

 

 

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X, Y, and Z…

…are common variables denoting points on a system of mutually perpendicular Cartesian axes (pronounced ax-ees) in three-dimensional space. Why is a writer penning this information?

As a teacher, I often hear from a room full of whining students, “Why do we have to learn algebra?”

I hear from disgruntled parents, “My child will never use this.”

Frustrated, I have asked, “Wouldn’t a life-skill math course be more valuable?”

Algebra is a life-skill math course. It is a problem solving game. It is an exercise in creating more information from a set of parameters that may or may not offer a fixed solution. It is a way of thinking about our increasingly complex world.

Last semester, I sent home an assignment concerning measurement. The activity seemed simple. The student’s hands were a unit of measure to determine width and length of a table. Children are literal. If you tell them to measure a table with their hands, they will eagerly look for a table and start measuring. But what if there is no table to measure? He or she has a vision of ‘table’ implanted in the mind. It seems like an easy task until there is no table, and therefore no way he or she can measure one. Assignment aborted.

Was I so literal in my thinking processes as a child? If I had an assignment to measure a table with my hands and had no table, would I suddenly have no direction in which to proceed? Though I was considered gifted, I was also a child, so my answer is…yes, probably. “No table? No can do. I’m supposed to measure a table.”

Fortunately, my father was well versed in mathematics. I can imagine his glee as he jumped up. “We need a table,” he’d exclaim. “Let’s see if we can create one!”

This ability to create, to conceptualize that which isn’t, comes from an ability to generalize. My father had facts. He knew what a table was. He knew the assignment wasn’t about a table, but about measuring a plane by counting hands from edge to edge. I can imagine him patiently explaining a table was nothing more than a flat surface – a rectangular plane that one can measure from side to side. I may not have understood his words, but I would have followed him around as he took on the task of replicating a table for me so I could complete my assigned schoolwork.

How many of us, now parents, were lost when algebra was offered? How many followed the steps in class when a teacher explained the process, but never grasped the reasons behind them? As parents, many of us may not make the conceptual leap to creation because we did not understand the mechanics of x, y, z.  Algebra was a nightmare with no connection to life or its future.

In this particular case, where were the parents in this endeavor? Were they as stymied by the lack of a table as their child was? Some, like my father, came up with alternatives. Others did not. Sometimes, as teachers, we take for granted that parents have the knowledge they need to help their children with schoolwork. Often, that is not the case.

Adults, like children, have a mental picture dictionary of ‘table’, a fixed iconic image of what it looks like. They can probably draw one. However, having that picture does not guarantee they know what a table is, a flat plane with given points in space connected by line segments that form edges. If they knew this, anything with those attributes could become a table. However, this takes a level of thinking that most of them had to learn, an ability to generalize in order to conceptualize alternatives.

We teach algebra not to become math experts, but to learn this way of thinking. We learn to start with unknown and mysterious variables, and experiment to create solutions. We learn to understand the mechanics of the world, with axes x, y, and z so that we can recreate a replacement structure for our kids when they get a silly homework assignment about measuring a table using their hands as a unit of measure. If one cannot conceptualize this way, when there is no table, one uses the only answer available. “We have no table so we can’t do it. Go ask your teacher.”

A basic knowledge of algebraic concepts is the language of our world. It is how we speak of its structure and its function. It is how one creates a table out of a space on…well…anything that is flat.

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W is for Wish…

Turgid clouds grumbled above me, stuffing the September morning sky with angry threats of rain. Ugh. I trudged down a tree-lined street of a new town toward school and ‘tremendous possibilities’. At least that is what my parents kept telling me. As the storm built overhead, I held back the tempest in my mind dreaming of horses. I wanted one, but that possibility was not on the horizon. I walked toward the nebulous future of fifth grade in a new school, and fantasized about riding free on the back of a horse.

It wasn’t that imagining carried me into fantasy land, though one could say that the very act of living in one’s imagining was the definition of that. I was reasonable. I paid attention to my surroundings and fit my dream into them. My dreaming was modest. There was no magnificent destrier to carry me past the dragons of life and into the arms of Prince Charming. Instead, my wish was simple, a friendly, little horse that fit me perfectly, and was a good friend. He would stand in my yard gleaming in the sunlight, even when it was hard to imagine ever seeing the sun again. It didn’t matter. I was a sun child, so that was how I colored the pictures in my mind.

A couple of neighborhood kids who I’d hooked up with over the summer, caught up to me for the last leg of the short walk.

“Got a horse, yet?” said Alvin, in a mocking voice.

“Be quiet. You know I don’t.” He lived right next door.

“Leave her alone,” said Patsy, and added in the same mocking sing-song, “Are you a famous race car driver, yet?” She lived on the corner.

Alvin huffed at us and said, “I’ll see you there, slow pokes.” Then he ran ahead. I guess he wanted to get to school. More power to him.

The rain cancelled outside recesses. I needed to run and snort, to gallop free like a horse. Alvin and Patsy often joined me in the game, racing around the neighborhood, pretending to be herd of wild mustangs. Today I sat alone, in a corner with a book about the different breeds of horses. What would it be like to take care of and ride a horse in the rain? Did horses enjoy squishing their feet into the mud?

Another clap of thunder shook the room and a flash startled everybody. Would the horse be afraid? Did he run when lightning slashed the sky, or was he brave and wise? I hunkered down against the wall, and reread an entry that I’d read three times already, but hadn’t really seen any of the words. That kind of thing happened often. It annoyed me, but, what is there to do when your mind takes off into dreamland?

On the way home, I thought about my little horse. As I turned the final corner to my block, I held my breath hoping to see him in the yard, but then reality proved otherwise. I simply picked up the dream. There he was, grazing some grass. He looked at me sweetly as I approached and nickered, “Well, you’re finally home. Where have you been all day?”

I opened the gate, and walked to the side of the house facing the wide expanse of lawn that my father kept mowed to keep away the snakes. I sat on the side porch to finish my dream. “Oh, you need a brushing,” I said, out loud. Then I imagined brushing his coat, and actually sneezed as if dust flew into my nose. I combed his long tail and mane pulling tangles from the course hairs. When I was done, I ran my hands over the heated glow on his freshly burnished back and smiled.

“You’re so handsome,” I said.

“Ha, ha,” said one of my brothers, squealing to his twin. “She thinks Alvin is handsome.”

Alvin had just walked past.

“Leave me alone,” I said, reluctantly giving up the dream to chase after brothers.

Every day, without fail, I rehearsed the details of life with this horse. It didn’t consume every moment, but I spent enough time to alert my mother that I was dawdling. Finishing my chores, I dreamed. It wasn’t complicated, but real magic never is.

The autumn air began to chill. It would be nice to ride a horse to and from school instead of battling the cold on foot. In my mind, I put a foot in a stirrup while speaking calmly. I swung my leg over the saddle and settled down gently. I could hear the leather squeak, the bridle jingle. While walking home, the ripe leaves cascaded about us in crimson and gold. Interestingly, my imagining of riding ended as I came to the last corner and instead envisioned my horse flicking an errant leaf off his shoulder while munching hay.

Reality was always a harsh rebuff.

Winter came. I galloped home, sailing over puddles painted by the sky. What if my horse had arrived and needed a warm blanket and a bucket of oats?

Spring came, heralded by choruses of tree frogs chirping in the evening. Daffodils opened, reflecting promised sunshine. Birds twittered in the sun kissed trees. My horse loved Spring. The air was sweet and the grass was sweeter.

Summer passed with all its hoopla and star spangled madness. The horse was not really in the field next door, but I saw it there, startled by the loud raucous of summer.

School began again, and the wish faded for a moment until I understood what sixth grade wanted from me. After that, I let the imagining bloom. The air chilled, the trees began to shiver and drop their leaves to warm their roots. The wish warmed me as winter gusted in.

“Want do you want for Christmas,” asked my parents.

I thought, “Don’t you know by now?” However, preferring to be polite I said, “Anything is fine.” Surely, this Christmas, I would find a halter under the tree.

The evening before Christmas Eve, carolers on horseback jingled down the street. The clip clop of hooves sent their bells ringing. I sat on the porch watching them as they clattered past our house. When they stopped to sing, I sang with them. When they turned to go, I imagined my horse stamping his hoof. Did he want a cookie?

On Christmas morning, I threw on my coat and raced to the backyard. There was no horse. I ran into the house. My stocking held a tangerine and little girl cologne, but no promise of a horse. We exchanged gifts. I received a sweater set, which was lovely, two books, and a Barbie doll, which my younger sister immediately grabbed. For once, my mind could not dredge up any imaginings of a horse because my heart was too heavy.

There was one last package under the tree, a shoe-sized box. One of my brothers scrambled for it.

“It’s for her,” he said, and pointed to me.

“Santa must have left one more thing,” exclaimed Mama.

Was this it? The box was big enough for a halter, especially for a small, simple horse that would be a good friend. I held my breath, silently praying as my brother, acting as Santa’s helper, handed it to me. I slowly pulled off the ribbon. Carefully, I slipped open the tape on one end and opened the folds. I tugged the paper off the box.

Inside was a small, plastic, prancing gray with a removable saddle. I looked at my parents, still hoping it was a sign.

“We had to search everywhere for this model. Breyer horses are not easy to come by,” said Mama.

“Do you like it, Honey,” said Papa.

It was pretty, but it would never come to life. I knew how much it meant to them to make me happy. “I love it,” I said. “I can imagine what it might feel like to ride a horse like this.” Then I kissed them both on the cheek.

I played with it that day, and the next, but then I put the gray on a shelf above my desk, to take its place with the other statues that pranced there. I stared out the window, watching my real horse, the one that lived in my imagination, snort at them and their plastic foolishness. His breath frosted the air while he pawed the ground with impatience. “Me too,” I said.

Winter passed, rainy and dreary. The imagination habit continued but sixth grade was demanding. I was becoming a woman.

One day, in early spring, as I scuffled home, a warm breeze sliced the chill with a promise that burst into my heart. I couldn’t say what it was, but something had changed since this morning. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath when another feeling sizzled through me like fireworks exploding in the sky on the Fourth of July. I had to get home. With each step, the peal of change rang louder. My heart pounded and that frightened me. I reached in my mind to look at everyone I loved. Who was hurt, who was sick?

I rounded the last corner. I clamped my hands over my ears as the universe screamed, and at the same time, stared in wonder at my backyard. Munching on a flake of golden hay was a real horse. The dun-colored animal was shaggy with an unloved coat that did not disguise prominent ribs and backbone. The scruffy little horse looked up and snorted. I almost believed she was real when she nickered, “Well, you’re finally home. Where have you been all day?”

I stood at my gate, staring.

“Well, are you just going to stand there?” said Papa from the front porch.

“There’s a horse.”

“Yes,” he said.

I slowly opened the gate, stepped through, and closed it gently.

“Can I touch it?”

He said, “Well, I guess you had better. She’s yours.”

I walked toward the small horse, and reached for it. It nosed my hand. It was like moist velvet, and it tickled my palm. I patted the matted hair on its neck and sneezed as a cloud of actual dust flew off the homely, but friendly, little horse waiting for love. My vision blurred as fat tears zigzagged down my face. “Ooh, you need a brushing,” I said, as she horse leaned against me and bent her head to munch the hay at our feet.

My dream was now reality.

(Author’s Note: Names were changed, but this is a true story.)

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V is for Vagabond…

…which he preferred to the label of run-away. While it was true, he ran not out of malice or injustices done to him, but because he sought adventure, something new, something never tried before. He was his own man.

Jonathan Tyler had not planned to run away the first time he did. Rollo, his best and only true friend suggested his closet as a life raft, reacting to Jonathan’s anxiety over another activity forced upon him by his mother and hovering stepfather, Phillip. Jon jumped on, or rather in, never once considering the current of distress that would wash away the trusting love of his family. After four days of freedom, Rollo’s father caught him.

Phillip had no problem soundly paddling his fourteen-year-old stepson. Then he grounded him, piling on a mountain of chores and more extracurricular activities as a deterrent for wayward thinking.

Jon endured it with grim satisfaction, feeling like a vindicated Tom Sawyer.

That was six months ago.

He dumped his allowance onto his bedspread and counted it. A ticket to Sacramento would cost him the whole thing. He’d been to Sacramento twice, was pretty sure he could find his way around. Tomorrow he’d go to school, but by evening he would be on a bus. He stuffed the money into the backpack he’d hidden behind the clothes in his closet and leaped onto his bed. The mattress bounced twice. It was stupid to go without extra money, but he could not stand another day either cooped up like a trapped bird or toiling like a child laborer. He stared at the walls around him, seeing nothing, but soaking in every detail at the same time.

Most of the posters on his wall depicted mixed martial arts. On the top of his bookshelf were two trophies. One was for most improved fighter; the other was for first place as a team in a tournament. There were multiple pictures of him sparring in various events. One showed the gym in the garage that Phillip had set up. He and Phillip sparred there two or three times a week. Was he willing to give up on all of this?

He sighed. Mind made up, he went to bed.

The next evening, he stood on the corner across from the bus station in Sacramento. The view before him was nothing like he envisioned. Behind him was a parking lot. There were office buildings on the next block and a few shops across the street, all closed for the night. On the next corner was a restaurant, but he had no money for that. He could stay by the river, but there was a chilled breeze wafting off it. He could stay in the bus stop. He took a step to cross the avenue to do just that. Then he stopped. That would definitely scream run-away to anyone keeping eyes on a stray kid. He hadn’t thought this through long enough. What did he expect, arriving penniless, dumped into an urban wilderness? He walked west until he came across a police station. Then, he turned abruptly and walked the other way.

Night fell swiftly, and with it the temperature. He put his head down and paced, two blocks, three blocks, four…he lost count. It felt like he’d walked an eternity, but ahead of him a light signaled hope. A neon sign lit his way to a small apartment complex, like a green affirmation that he would be okay. A three-foot chain link fence surrounded the little group of buildings. Most were curtained and dark, but a soft night light shined in the larger building, which was, no doubt, the main lobby. He tried the doors.

Locked. Why did he expect anything else?

He explored until he found a sheltered wall between the lighted office building and a laundry facility. Hunkering between the two buildings, he spent the first night fitfully shivering in the cold.

As the sun rose and before traffic picked up, he hopped back over the fence and walked south, toward downtown where he hoped to find the Capital Mall. Along the way, he passed several restaurants before it dawned on him to check the back alleys for garbage bins. He might get lucky and find some fresh pickings. A small pub across the street was open. People entered and left with regularity. It seemed a likely place to scrounge for leftovers. He raced across the damp pavement and crept around to alley behind it.  Furtively, he looked over his shoulder. Was it illegal to steal garbage? He’d heard it was, but he didn’t know if that law applied here. However, he sure didn’t want someone turning him in because he looked young and truant.

To his delight, he found that the pub threw away their leftover food in a separate bin from the trash. Beyond the street behind the pub, across an expanse of public parking, there was a small park. Had he found his stomping grounds? Maybe. The park would be the perfect place to stake out a bench or at the very least the base of a tree. The back door latch jiggled. He grabbed a couple of rolls and ran. Heart pounding, he raced across the parking area and sprinted into the park. The he feigned calm, hoping he looked as if he was taking a morning stroll to school.

He spent the morning day dreaming and following the arc of the sun so he was always in the light. His bones started to warm up and it felt good to sit and observe, to have no responsibilities, no worries. He watched a couple, dressed as if they were homeless, raid the pub’s food dump. After observing that they came back a second time for the lunch hour, he surmised that perhaps the establishment put the food there on purpose.

Testing his theory, he crept to the bin and found half of a roast beef sandwich and some carrot sticks. He laughed when he got back to the park. He crept under the bush he’d staked out. He was eating a better lunch on the street than he was at school any day, hands down.

The pub closed at midnight, and he salivated as a final dumping of leftovers was put into the bin. Jon ran to get his share, as other homeless people were bound to take advantage of it. He skidded to a stop because a stooped older man, with very long, very gray hair and beard, wearing multiple layers of soiled clothes, stepped in front of him. The man used a walking stick and wore athletic socks over his hands. He hit the pavement with the end of the stick.

Jon yelped and backed up.

The man glared at him.

“No, of course, you first,” said Jon, bowing slightly.

The man didn’t smile, nor did he stop glaring, but he nodded and reached into the bin. He pulled out a loaf of bread, some browned apple slices, and a couple of thick pieces of ham. These he handed to Jon. Then he reached into the bin again and pulled out a half bottle of white wine. “Sometimes they leave it, sometimes they don’t,” he said. His voice was whispery, but underneath the breathiness was a lilt. “Remember to be thankful.” He winked at Jon. “Now, where are you staying? Let’s go there to eat.”

Jon said, “Uh, sure. Over there in the park. I made a nest under some bushes.”

“Sounds like a picnic to me,” said the man.

They walked across the parking lot to the little park. Jon led the man to his shelter of sorts.

They sat down. The man took the food, and divided it between them.

Jon said, “Are you sure?” The man had given him a sizable portion of the bread.

“I have all I need,” said the man.

They ate in silence. Jon furtively watched the man as he ate. He seemed thoughtful. He seemed happy. Jon was struggling with his decision to leave a warm home, a loving family. What kind of person did that?

“Why did you run?” said the man, as if he could read Jon’s mind.

“Who says I’m running?”

“What are you, fourteen, fifteen? You’re runnin’ from somethin’.”

“Maybe I am running toward something.”

The man laughed, a deep belly roar that shook his whole body. “Yeah. Well, I hope you find it. My name’s Tim. Folks call me Sailboat Tim.”

“That’s an odd name.”

“And yours is better?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s Jon, spelled J-O-N.”

“For Jonathan, like the Bible, gift of God. And so it is more important.”

“I-I-I only meant that I was curious about why they added the Sailboat to Tim,” said Jon.

“Guess folks like to tease. I’ve always wanted a sailboat, talked about it a lot in the early days of…,” he swept his arm wide as if gathering the expanse of the park in his sweep, “…this.”

Jon asked, “How long have you been doing this?”

“Long enough to know this isn’t a good place to stay the night. Vigilantes come through and run people out of the parks. We’re a safety hazard to the good folks that live in those houses and apartment buildings right over there.” He pointed to a beautifully landscaped two story building with multiple terraces. Then he pointed to a block of well-appointed office buildings. “We might break in. One never knows about vagrant folks.”

“You’re just being facetious now, right?”

“No.” Tim grimaced. “Come on. Finish eating. I know where we can sleep safely.”

They huddled together on the porch of an empty Victorian in the Oak Park region. Tim shared the only blanket he carried with him, a ratty, flea-filled wool of tatters and holes. He told Jon heartbreaking stories. Some gang banger knifed a crippled army vet while he slept under a tree in the park. The cops didn’t even investigate. A crazy old coot froze to death just a winter ago on the steps of the library downtown. Word was, he shouldn’t have been sleeping there. Tim, himself, had ended up in jail twice for raiding the garbage behind a Safeway for scraps of food. Who knew it was illegal to take food from a garbage bin behind a Safeway? Sailboat Tim had fond memories of the food he ate while he stayed in jail, though. And, he appreciated the nice blankets on the sturdy cots and the warm cells. At least while he was in the slammer, he didn’t have to worry about getting knifed or “froze to death.”

Jon smiled.

Tim’s toothless grin was kind, and his eyes were gentle.

Before dawn, a clatter of footsteps on the porch of the house awakened them.

A helmeted policeman with a bat, grabbed him by the arm. Another grabbed Tim. Together, the policemen hauled them down the steps and hoisted them into the back of a waiting van, where several other homeless people cowered on the benches. A young girl at the end was silently sobbing, the rest sat stoically, eyes averted, awaiting the trip to jail.

Jon whispered to Tim. “What now?”

“Now we sit in a cage until a lawyer secures our freedom. It will be okay. The food is great, the cots are firm and the blankets are clean and warm. Oh, and the commode is clean. That’s a big plus. They give us coffee if we want it.”

Jon must have looked horrified because Tim bumped his shoulder and said, “It’ll be okay. You’re lucky. They will call your parents. Then, you can go home where it’s safe and warm.”

Jon curled up on himself after that and hid his face.

As Tim said, the police sent Jon home to Stockton. Jail would have been preferable to his parents’ house of strict rules, scheduled time, and proper attitude. Jon had acquired a yen for freedom that no amount of discomfort could alter. Third time’s a charm, he’d always heard.

It was time to plan his next adventure.

Featured

U is for Ululation…

(Author’s Note: …defined as a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound, resembling a howl, usually with a trilling quality. Mournful. Could it be used to describe the wail of a siren? Maybe. With so many fires ravaging California and Australia, along with other parts of the world, I reflect upon how lucky it is to live where I do. Our fire team has the highest rating in response time, training, and effectiveness as a team can earn. This is a story about celebrating with those men and women who tirelessly fight to keep us safe.)

Mercy tilted the cooked vegetables back into the cooking pot and reached for the butter. A siren’s ululation stopped her heart. Jaw clenched, she followed the sound, marking her mental map of the little city. It wasn’t going toward Mother’s house. But, she knew this.

Her mother passed a few years ago. Yet, Mercy’s body responded, like it did each time a siren wailed, preparing to leap into the car and race across town to meet emergency personnel trying to save her life. She supposed that ten years of awakening in the night to be with someone suffering from congestive heart failure set up a pattern.

Was the sound closer? She froze again and listened. Oh god, where was the fire? And at this time of year? What a shame. It seemed like every week another fire broke out in California.

Her thirty-three year old daughter, Jenna, who came weekly to visit and wash clothes, was in the living room folding them. Suddenly she yelled, “Santa!”

Santa? Oh my word. Of course. The ululation grew louder. Underneath it was a familiar Christmas tune blasting from loud speakers.

“Santa is here.” She appeared in the kitchen, then, she was gone.

Mercy followed, carrying the hot pot from the stove. “Oh my gosh! I have to get the butter on the vegetables while they are hot!”

“I can’t see the lights yet,” said Jenna. “I think you have time, Mom.”

She watched Jenna throw on her coat. It was too big, but it was the only coat hanging over a chair in the living room. She slipped her bare feet into her mother’s warm, cozy boots as well. Mercy shook her head. Kids.

“You want a candy cane?” said Jenna.

“Sure,” said Mercy, taking the vegetables back to the kitchen. She could add the butter later and zap it in the microwave.

“I see the lights,” Jenna yelled from the front porch.

The ladder truck was pulling into the neighborhood. As it approached the corner, it slowly edged around the turn, ridiculously decked out with hundreds of lights wrapped around its frame.

Santa sat on top, directing the parade of firemen and women with a “Ho, ho, ho.”

Mercy reached through the open door and grabbed a comforter from the back of a chair to wrap herself with warmth.

Her daughter skipped down the stairs and waltzed to the street, where she met a firefighter following the spectacle that passed right in front of their house. Children following their brave parents waved up at her. Santa waved. Mercy waved a small thank you back to them.

As the woman passing out candy canes and her daughter exchanged friendly words, Jenna nodded. With a huge grin on her face, she came back to the porch, two canes in hand.

Mercy looked around for her neighbors, feeling the spirit, wanting to wave to everyone. Where were they? Why were they ignoring this lovely display of riotous lights? Couldn’t they hear the joyous racket, a blasting siren, Christmas carols echoing off their houses? Didn’t they want to see the children of courageous men and women marching in a Christmas pageant with their parents? She waved at another child who was lagging behind as he waved at her.

Mercy gazed fondly at her daughter who continued to wave at Santa and his crew. She was glad they dropped their tasks and stepped out to enjoy the merriment. The brave firefighters of the city spent a lot of time preparing this conspicuous visual feast. They obviously wanted to share joy instead of terror with the community they so willing served. Mercy felt that to witness it and share a different kind of giving was the least she and her daughter could do.

“Ho, ho, ho,” said Santa as the ladder truck pulled out of sight.

Happy 2020 to all of you.

And…

Thank you to all of the firefighters who battle around the world to save lives and property!

Featured

Rest in Peace, Sweet Jack.

(Author’s Note: This is a personal story.)

November 21, 2019 – 6:27 pm PST

“Blog finished, Jackie.” I hit the enter button to send the notice to my newsletter recipients. “Jackie?”

He stretched out and chuffed. I turned to look at him as he chuffed a second time.

“Hey, buddy. Are you alright?”

There was no response. He’d been sleeping a lot lately, but his eyes were open. Were they unfocused?

“Jackie?” I said, suddenly fearing and realizing the worst. “Jack?”

I called my neighbor. “I think my dog just died.”

He told me to cover him with a blanket, since no one was available in the vet community to help.

I did, but I didn’t cover his nose, because I kept imagining that he was still breathing. After a few minutes of feeling for movement, checking for breath sounds or puffs of air, and imagining that damned blanket moving up and down with a breath, I called my son.

“I think Jack died.”

“What? You think?”

“He’s not moving or responding. I even shook him. Nothing. I can’t tell if he’s breathing or not. I don’t think he is.”

There was shuffling and murmuring in the background and then my son was back on the phone. “I’ll be there in thirty-five minutes, forty tops.”

I watched Jack not breathe for a while. I now know what “deathly quiet” means. I opened the front door to wait for my son. Children were laughing and playing around the corner. Across the street, men discussed man things in gruff, mirthful tones. I stepped out. Behind me, the house was a sudden tomb.

 

November 24, 2019 – 10:46 am PST

As I sit here, contemplating memories of a life shared with an extra-large cream-colored standard poodle, I see my two house cats, a brother and a sister, curled up on the bed in a previously forbidden room. My bedroom was Jack’s sanctuary, no cats allowed. But, there’s a hole in the house, a poodle-sized hole that none of us can fill, so I let them stay there. Somehow it fills my heart a little.

God, I need to be writing “U is for…” today. I don’t think I can. I wonder how everyone will feel if I skip another week?

 

November 27, 8:01 am PST

I stare at the binder paper, covered front and back, with a collection of thoughts that I could use for a blog, but my eyes are swimming in tears and I can’t focus. This is a good idea though – to write down all the random thoughts about eleven years and five months with a witty character who was a best friend when I became a single mom empty nester. Even if I never use it for a blog, it’s helping me cope. Yeah, it’s helping.

I need some more coffee. I need to put ice on my foot. A cat wants in. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I feel empty rather than thankful, and I’m worried my daughter will face her grief here when she comes. So much for writing….

 

December 3, 2019 8:14 pm PST

I received a card from Dr. Matt, Jack’s vet. I made the mistake of opening it at work. Inside was a note about how well I had taken care of Jack, and three cards, one for each of us who loved him. On each, someone had taken the time to make a print of a paw. That means they took him out of the shroud my son so lovingly wrapped him in. I shouldn’t have opened this at work.

When I arrived home, there was a message on my phone machine. “ Jack’s ashes came in today. You can pick them up anytime.” I am not driving yet!

My daughter says, “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.”

I am probably too emotional to write well tonight, but a blog is due tomorrow. This dog lived through so much change in this family. Eleven years, five months is a long time for a dog. Even with all the familial upheavals it was not long enough for the owner.

Five stages of grief do not follow in a specific order. Sometimes all the stages hit me at once, and I dissolve into a puddle of tears until there’s nothing left of me. Like tonight. Again. Surely he’s not gone, yet, here is the card from the vet, and the saved message on the answering machine. Dammit. He didn’t even finish chuffing, before he left. Gone, just gone. Really? Was it something I said? “Jack, do you have to go now?” This house is so empty. Cats are small and so very quiet. Acceptance? Brief glimpses that look more like denial. You were supposed to stay for eighteen years. That was our plan. You didn’t even make it for twelve. Was it something I said? Something I did? Something I didn’t do? There should be six stages. Someone should add guilt to the list.

 

One of my notes says, “I don’t want to remember just the “good things.” I want to remember all the things…good, bad, silly, ridiculous, infuriating, beautiful, ugly…all of it. Jack was arrogant, bossy, and intuitive. He was born to police, a mix of hunters and gatherers. Poodles are a working breed. One side of his pedigree was a line of herding dogs, the other hunting dogs. He was intelligent and curious. he nipped people’s heels when he first met them, trying to teach them where to go. He beat up the male partner of the brother and sister house cat team. He was an alpha dog, which required me to be a boss dog. I am not good at being a boss dog, so our relationship had to be well balanced. My children got the fun dog, the dog that liked to play…and prance…and hike and dance, the dog that jumped in puddles and piles of leaves.

He was a dog that was afraid of things with wheels, a dog that walked ahead, though he learned to match the walker’s speed. He changed directions as if reading the mind of the person handling him. I often thought he’d make a good cart pony. He was big enough. I wonder if he would have found that demeaning?

He wore a red collar. The red warned people with other dogs, “Hey, this dog is an alpha, approach with caution or better yet, don’t approach.” That was true for strangers as well. Poodles are the fiercest of protectors. Even law officers don’t want to enter a house with a standard poodle inside. He wasn’t a mean dog, but he was tall and this intimidated everyone. Taking him places was an ordeal because of it. I hated leaving him at home.

He was sensitive. He didn’t respond to harsh voices or loud noises. He learned hand signals. He was controlling, but when it was imperative that we work as a team, he was quiet, attentive and immediately responsive. He was amazing.

I miss him. I will miss his exuberant, tail high and wagging prance into the house after a jaunt outdoors. I will not miss the muddy trail of paw prints on my blonde floor.

There are a few other things I won’t miss. I won’t miss having to place a brick and a flower pot in front of the gate because we taught him how to do obstacles, which included knowing how to crawl under things. I won’t miss cleaning the yard daily, although he and I worked it into our empty nester routine after the kids moved out. We cleaned every morning before I went off to work. He liked to be clean, though with a white coat he was clean only a few days after his grooming sessions. He hated his nails being touched, and had to be restrained for that chore.

I won’t miss the guilt I felt over leaving him home alone all day in the house, because if I left him outside he barked at other dogs, or people, or leaves, or birds or strange cats, or whatever, and we received a noise ticket. Well, only a warning…it was enough. I don’t have to keep my couch covered with a blanket because he jumped onto it after I left for work. I knew he did it, though he was always off by the time I opened the door. The blanket allowed us to keep our little secret. It kept the peace between us.

I started to worry about him dying in March sometime and asked the vet what I would do. I’m older, he’s a big dog. What are the steps? Where can I get help? I think I was noticing changes even then. He slept more, he didn’t want to play with his toys. He struggled with health after contracting Leptospirosis, but this was different. He was restless at night, his routines became irregular, he ignored commands, and refused to eat. Oh my god, that bothered me the most. How could he expect to stay alive and healthy if he refused to eat? Dr. Matt said I was a pushover. I should just wait him out. It worked for about two weeks, but then he really just wasn’t hungry. It pushed all my buttons. We fought about it daily. “I can’t take this anymore,” I exclaimed, as he walked from the food I had lovingly prepared. He could tell I was at my wit’s end. He turned and ate a few bites, maybe a half cup. An hour later, he was gone. Was it easier for both of us to end the fight this way?

 

Christmas is coming. Jack loved Christmas and always looked for his gift under the tree as soon as we put it up. If it wasn’t there, he hunted for it. We would hurry to wrap up gifts. Once he saw his under the tree, he relaxed. Once he opened his gifts, he’d help the rest of us open ours. He loved his pretties. He needed a new collar. He would have found it under the tree this year with a new yellow rain jacket.

I know I will find his collar adorned with jingle bells and I will fall apart again. It’s probably with the Christmas decorations. I also know I will save it. It will go with the string of bells my childhood friend wore when he was alive, a prancing, arrogant, dancing horse, who also thought he was boss of everything.

This house is too quiet. There is a poodle-sized hole in my heart.

Rest in peace, sweet Jack.

Baker’s Frosted Jack Roddy

b.3/13/2008 d.11/21/2019

Some news: My novel, Blood On His Hands, is live on Amazon. Here is the link: https://www.amazon.com/Blood-His-Hands-AV-Singer-ebook/dp/B081ZK1DGK/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=AV+Singer+BLood+On+His+Hands&qid=1575471844&sr=8-1

 

 

 

 

Featured

T is for Thunderstruck…

(Author’s Note: Excerpt from The Shaman’s Mirror, a novel in progress.)

Jason yelled, “It has to be here.”

Sarah had followed him over boulders, under boulders, and around boulders. They had balanced on precarious dead wood, crunched eons of desert scree, and scattered whistling round-tailed ground squirrels while looking for the opening to the cave, home of the Shaman’s Mirror.

He slapped the monolith next to them, the one he called Red Woman. “We’ve been all over this hill.” A bead of sweat dripped off his nose into his mouth. He sputtered and wiped it away with his sleeve. “It has to be here.”

Sarah didn’t know what to say. Heat rose from the desert floor. Amplified by the megalithic rock, it slowly roasted every brain cell she had. It was hard to breathe, her body dripped with sweat in all the places a woman should never drip, and she felt like slapping her partner upside the head for bringing them to this godforsaken place. She didn’t care if there was a Shaman’s Mirror, she just wanted to be someplace other than here, someplace cool.

A sudden blast of heat ruffled her hair. Behind her Jason groaned and sat at the base of Red Woman. Sarah looked across the impossible expanse of the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona before she joined him, sitting near with enough space between them to avoid the feel of his sweaty clothes.

To the east, long bony-fingered cactuses with bright red, flagged flowers waved as the forced air of the desert forge rushed against them. She’d dreamed these bony looking apparitions with their flaming fingernails. Ocotillo was the name of this cactus. In her dream, they frightened her, but as part of the wonder of the desert, she saw them as gloriously beautiful.

Jason was the first to notice the massive towers of thunderheads surging toward them. “Let’s get off this old rock and fast! Look what’s coming.” He pointed to the south. They were in the very worst place they could be, the top of the highest hill on the plateau. Sarah was at once thunderstruck by the ferocious beauty of the black clouds and terrified at the same time. “Oh my heavens!” She scrambled across the rocks following Jason who grabbed their packs and jumped to the desert floor.

He led her to an overhang on the west side of the hill where they crouched, waiting for the squall to pass over them.

He was calm, but Sarah wasn’t. Jason’s quiet stillness comforted her. A meditative symbiosis with the Earth settled over him, and consequently over her. As they nestled in their shelter, the desert tensed beyond it. Colors faded to a dusky blue. Birds, animals, and in fact all sound…disappeared, as if the Earth held her breath. Suddenly, lightning arched to the heavens, leaping from the ground to the sky. Her senses lasered to a point in time – Now – and, as if she saw a dream, the ancient dance of foreplay between Earth and Sky began.

Earth screamed lust, using her electric fingers to implore Sky’s motives.

Sky roared His answer, a deafening BOOM of thunder that rumbled and echoed across the desert.

The Earth sucked up energy as She prepared for another lightning strike.

Sarah’s womb tightened in response. Jason moved closer and took her hand, a silent reminder that she wasn’t the only human witnessing this dance of power. She pressed deeper under the overhang, back against rock, warmth against cool. Child against Mother.

Again, Earth shot Her hot fingers into Sky’s belly and screeched Her intent.

Sky rumbled and groaned with the strain of excitement.

Earth, not amused, struck Him again, and again, demanding satisfaction.

Again, and again Sky roared at her.

Earth, not placated, drew in a final whistling gasp and poked passionately at Sky once more with a display of electricity more frightening and dazzling than Sarah had ever seen in her life.

Sky bellowed twice, then, granted Earth the release She so greedily sought. Earth and Sky shuddered together, the torrential rain fell, fusing them, bringing life with one magnificent deluge.

With a crack and a flash, Earth screeched “More!”

Sky gifted Her with contented grumbles as He squirted Her fully with His life giving waters. Sky rumbled His finish and Earth moaned an answer.

A cool wind brushed Sarah’s face as Sky heaved away in a northerly direction. He chuckled as Earth’s lightning fingers tickled Him again, and again, begging for another coupling.

Jason stirred next to Sarah. She felt a jolt of energy as he touched her. Frisson built between them, and she gazed at him but he carefully ignored her. What spell would be broken here, if they shared a glance? A scent rose with the refreshing breeze, a spicy pungency that filled her heart, loosened her joints, and made her full. She sighed.

Jason squeezed her hand and said quietly, “It’s a gift from Mother Earth after a summer’s rain. The creosote bush sends tendrils of its scent to every woman within its range.” Jason then caught her eye. “It’s said that it fills the empty space in a woman’s heart and reminds her of her womanhood.” He lowered his eyes and whispered, “And her sexuality.”

Sarah, suddenly drunk with creosote perfume thought, “He is so beautiful.” She longed to reach out and touch his soft, cinnamon colored hair. The energy she felt before crackled between them. A wave of tenderness flooded her. He smiled. His eyes reflected the dramatic love affair they had just witnessed. Perhaps they would be heading for one of their own.

Featured

S is for Skip and Go Naked…

(Author’s note: I apologize for the two-week lapse. As you know, it is my intention to post weekly on Wednesday mornings, but where I live in California, Pacific Gas and Electric created a pre-emptive blackout to avoid firestorms. However disgruntled I am, I am also grateful. As the blackout was progressing, I also had surgery to reconstruct my right foot, and then had adverse reactions to the pain medications. Writing was the last thing on my mind.

For those of you who personally know me and recognize the names of these characters, this story is absolute fiction. Because I cannot remember the real story, I made one up. It could have happened this way….) 

 

Night shadows comforted Margie, unlike so many of her sorority sisters who played a girly game of foolish fears. She enjoyed the walk from the Alpha Phi house to the fraternity across the commons. The air was warm, the walk was straight, and she felt like a million bucks. She looked like it too, and she knew it.

As she approached the house, a man stood in the shadows under the front window, finishing a cigarette. He stamped it into the dirt at his feet and smiled as she breezed past. Though he was short, he was not bad looking, but this was the first party of the season and she had no plans to talk to the very first man she saw. There was a multitude of handsome fish in this sea and she planned to get to know as many as she could.

The party was hopping. Men and women filled the middle of the great room, dancing with no one and everyone. There was an earnest crowd against the back wall engaged in deep conversation, though how they could hear each other was anyone’s guess. The bar was in the kitchen. She headed there for a something she could nurse for a while.

The bartender was an eyeful, tall, muscular, maybe a swimmer. His curly hair was sexy and his eyes flashed with mischief. “What can I do you for?” he said, suggestively. His bedroom eyed “come hither” didn’t go unnoticed, but she had no intention of letting him know that.

A couple stood at the kitchen island sipping from tall glass mugs filled with a strange, slushy green liquid. “What is that?” she said, nodding toward them.

“Oh, that. Old house recipe – we call it a “Skip and Go Naked.” He leaned toward her and winked.

“That’s a strange name. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were leading me astray.”

“I would never do such a thing,” he said, patting his heart as if she had pricked him, but then he winked again.

“Is it as refreshing as it looks?” she said.

“I could make you one.”

She patted the butcher-block counter on the island. “Okay, now you’re talkin’. I’ll try one.”

“Coming up.” He chuckled.

He grabbed a beer stein and scooped crushed ice into it. He dumped it into his hand mixer. He opened the refrigerator and grabbed a small can of frozen lime juice. He popped it open and poured it slowly, letting it sensually ooze over the ice, all the while making goo goo eyes at her. He filled the lime can with vodka and poured that in. Margie was proud of her ability to drink men under the table but that was a lot of vodka.

He added to the vodka the same amount of beer.

Oh, dear.

He tightened the lid on the mixer, then, performed a jiggy little dance just for her, winking from time to time, suggestively.

What a flirt. Margie smiled as he danced, quite enjoying his display. She hoped the drink was worth all the effort he was putting into it. He stopped dancing and looked her squarely in the eye.

“You sure about this?” he said.

“Damn sure,” she exclaimed.

“You could skip it,” he said.

She laughed. “And go naked. I know. I’ll take the drink, please.” She smiled as he handed her the heavy, icy mug.

Margie curtsied, dropped three bucks into his donation jar, and left the kitchen to cruise the party.

He whistled at her.

She canted one hip as she exited, swinging her flirty skirt around her knees. She nodded at people as she cruised the party, danced as she slipped through the crowd, and smiled at every man that glanced her way.

The mug grew heavy in her hand. As she sipped the green drink, she realized how so very thirsty she was. My, oh my, it was certainly a quencher. Many of her fellow partiers also enjoyed the darn thing. As she strolled around the great room watching the antics of men trying to impress women, her sips turned into gulps until she inhaled the last of the slushy delight. It was so smooth going down, and tantalizingly delicious. She wondered who, on earth, named it Skip and Go Naked? Its mouth feel was reminiscent of skinny-dipping in the cold lake back home. Her joints loosened as happiness flooded her body. Whew. So happy. The oozing euphoria loosened her brain, which plopped onto her toes. Oh dear, the room spun and a warm, muzzy flush warmed her cheeks. She wanted another mug of green happiness. She had a few dollars left. She could get another.

Someone grabbed her elbow and in a deep voice, said, “Steady there. Let me help you.”

Her head slowly swiveled, as she followed his voice in her left ear. It was the young man in front of the House smoking a cigarette when she arrived. His eyes were kind and filled with intelligent humor. Damn, he smelled good. What was it, Old Spice?

“Oh, dear,” she said, forgetting about wanting another drink. “I think I should have skipped and gone naked after all.”

He laughed. “I think you need some fresh air. Would you accompany me to the porch? It’s relatively quiet. You could sit and get your bearings.”

“It would be terribly nice of you to accompany me.”

“It would be my pleasure.”

He led her to a bench on the porch that overlooked the commons. There were a few people wandering, taking a break from the party, but it was indeed, quiet.

“Thank you,” she said, as she sat down.

“You’re Alpha Phi, right,” he said.

“Right,” she drawled.

He sat next to her. ”I’ll walk you home in a few minutes. I am sure when we get there, we can find a sister or two to help you into the door.”

“You are so kind,” she said, leaning into him. The Old Spice comforted her. “My name’s Margie,” she said. Then, she hiccoughed. “Oops. Sorry.” She covered her mouth.

He smiled and draped his letter jacket over her shoulders. “Donald. I live here.” He nodded toward the front door.

It was nice to know he was college man.

They sat in companionable silence soaking up the sounds of the party and appreciating the cool of the night. Two couples left, one immediately, another twenty minutes later, reeling from what Margie assumed were healthy doses of the lethal Skip and Go Naked concoction. Donald stood and held out his hand. “Milady,” he said. “Would you accompany me across the commons?”

“Thank you kind sir,” she replied.

At the Alpha Phi House, Donald shook her hand, bowed, and said, “It was very nice meeting you. May I call on you soon?”

“I would like that very much,” said Margie.

Donald called on Margie; they dated, and eventually married. Skip and Go Naked was a favorite party drink in their house. They lived happily ever after.

Featured

R is for Recipe…

(Author’s Note: This story is based on a real event. Names were changed to protect those embarrassed by excessive wine consumption.)

Mid-October twilight dropped a chill over her sister’s backyard after a balmy day of swimming, eating, and enjoying the company of friends and family. Anna’s head was hazy, but her heart was full. “This has been has been a lovely day,” she said to her sister Jean.

“The last pool party of the year,” said Jean. “Glad you could come. You plan to stay the night, right?”

“Well, I hadn’t.”

“You’re going to though. If you feel anything like I do, you shouldn’t be driving.” Jean held up a bottle. “Last Obsession of the year.”

“OMG. You are incorrigible,” said Anna.

“I’m your sissie. You love me.”

“Let’s clean up while we enjoy that.”

While they cleaned, they chatted about childhood memories and made plans for the holidays. When Anna and Jean were children, the holidays were special, but especially exciting was when a large box arrived right after every Thanksgiving that rivaled any Amazon mailer. Grandmother’s Christmas cookies, hand decorated, lovingly packed, and individually preserved in Saran wrap before she placed them into the box. They lasted for weeks. The family favorite was the pillowcase of Pfefferneuse at the bottom, tiny button sized rounds of goodness that had been baked in the early fall, and dried in a dark closet until Thanksgiving. It was tradition to enjoy them floating atop early Christmas morning coffee, hot chocolate or eggnog. They seldom lasted through New Year’s Day.

Jean pulled a folded piece of paper off her refrigerator door, a photocopy of a recipe card, front and back. “The Pfefferneuse recipe you sent me several years ago. I have all the ingredients for it.”

“Really?” said Anna. She had wanted to bake Christmas cookies with her sister for a long time, but life got in the way. When Grandmother had taught her how to make Pfefferneuse, she talked about baking with her own sisters, a bee of women laughing and sharing with dough on their hands while they waited for the wood stove to heat.

Handed down by word of mouth, Grandmother shared the Pfefferneuse recipe with Anna and indulged her need to record every bit of life that happened to her. Step-by-step they built the recipe, and step-by-step Anna scribbled directions. Ingredients went together like a chemistry experiment, ending with the painstaking and muscle wracking effort of kneading eight or more cups of flour into a scant amount of batter, until the dough was stiff and felt like silk. Grandmother demonstrated how to roll marble-sized dollops of it into hundreds of balls that lined the cookie trays. After baking and cooling, they stored the tiny cookies in a pillowcase in a closet. The cookies cured for two months before they were ready. One did not eat them without soaking them in a hot liquid, because only then did the spicy cookie melt in the mouth delighting the palate. Otherwise, they were as hard as rocks.

“Let’s do it tonight,” said Jean. She poured each of them another glass of Obsession.

Anna and Jean faithfully followed the recipe for the batter. Ignoring the fact that Jean had a machine for kneading, they worked the dough by hand, just as Grandmother had, and sipped Obsession, laughing about the silliness of their lives and bragging about their kids.

“So what do you make of this direction?” said Jean. The facsimile of Anna’s wildly scrawled and dough stained recipe card was hard to read, especially with the amount of wine both women had consumed.

“Let me see,” said Anna, peering at her scrawl. “Bake at thirty degrees for…for three-hundred minutes.”

“That doesn’t sound like a thing.”

“A thing?” said Anna.

“I thought you’d made this with Grandmother.”

“I did,” said Anna, but that was a long time ago, before she had kids who were now college age and older.

“Three-hundred minutes,” said Jean. She fiddled with her fingers, counting. “That’s like…five hours!”

“Well, they are supposed to feel like little rocks when they are done,” said Anna, casually forgetting that they were supposed to dry the Pfefferneuse in a warm closet for two months after baking.

Jean frowned and turned on the oven to pre-heat it. “The directions say to hold your hand inside the oven for a slow count of three. I can’t believe you wrote this.”

“I wrote down everything Grandmother said.”

“Did you hold your hand in the oven?”

Anna shrugged. “I might have. I don’t remember. Probably.”

Jean huffed. “I guess it’s one count for every ten degrees?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Anna shrugged again.

“There’s nothing on this dial remotely close to thirty degrees,” said Jean.

“Oh, yeah,” said Anna, sort of remembering how an oven dial looked. “Well, this is an old recipe. We probably turned it to warm.”

“Do we do a fast count or a slow count?”

Anna quit rolling balls and looked at her sister. “I don’t know. A slow count, I guess. It has to be thirty degrees.”

“Geez,” said Jean, but she turned on the oven. “Five hours seems like a long time to bake cookies,” she said, when she came back to the table. She held out her empty wine glass for a refill, which Anna graciously provided.

“I don’t think so. An oven on warm would take at least five hours for them to dry out,” said Anna, wishing she could remember everything she and Grandmother did that day. “Besides, you bake a pot roast on low for hours. Dad used to bake a turkey from dawn to noon.”

“Yeah, that makes sense, I guess,” said Jean.

They rolled out more marble-sized balls of cookie dough as they waited for the oven to warm.

“The oven should be ready any second,” said Jean.

“Go stick your hand into it and count to three.”

“I’m not sticking my hand in there.”

“Grandmother lived a long time, and her hands looked just fine,” said Anna.

“But she cooked with wood,” said Jean.

“So?”

“So, it’s a different kind of heat or something.”

“Pfft,” said Anna.

Jean’s son walked into the kitchen, and looked over his mother’s shoulder at the card. “Whatcha doin’?”

Jean said, “Making Pfefferneuse.”

“I’ve always wanted to try those. Can I help?”

“You can check the temperature of the oven. It should be thirty degrees. Just hold your hand in there for a slow count of three.”

He cocked his head, but wandered over to the oven.

Then, he turned back and said to his mother, “You want your beautiful son to stick his hand in the oven?”

“For a slow count of three.”

“Mom.”

“It has to be thirty degrees, so we can bake them for three-hundred minutes.”

He walked back to the table and grabbed the card. “Mom. Are you sure it isn’t thirty minutes at three-hundred degrees?”

Jean looked at Anna.

Anna stared back.

There was nothing to say. They burst out laughing, and then clinked together their wine glasses.

“Good thing he walked by,” said Anna. “Five hours is a long time. We would have had to go out for more Obsession.”

“Yeah, he’s a good boy,” said Jean.

Jean’s son muttered as he walked away. “I can’t believe you asked me to put my hand in the oven.”

Jean and Anna laughed again.

It took longer than thirty minutes to cook multiple trays, but hundreds of little balls of Pfefferneuse were poured into a pillowcase to cure until Christmas Day when the family would come together to enjoy a beloved childhood tradition. Jean and Anna held their empty glasses high and saluted each other before passing out on the couch.

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Q is for Quidnunc…

and her husband, Jeff, was not the first to sling that word at her. Yes, she was inquisitive, but a gossip? People needed to know what was what, especially if it was important. She wasn’t sure if this was important, not yet anyway. Her husband, Jeff, didn’t think so, and told her to mind her own business. This was her business. She lived here. What went on in her neighborhood affected her. It affected the whole block. What did he know? He was at work all day.

Millie pulled her threadbare, velour housecoat around her while she sat at her dining room table nursing her morning coffee. She watched the house across the street as she had every morning since the young couple moved in last week. In fact, she watched the house all day long as a regular stream of people came and went. People just didn’t have that many visitors unless they were up to no good. She decided two days ago that they were running some kind of “sales operation.”

She couldn’t wait another day. She had to get over there to meet these people. A homemade welcoming gift was the perfect door opener. She leaned back in her chair and peered into her oven. A meatloaf nestled on a bed of seasoned potatoes and carrots was beginning to brown on top. Who could resist that?

The first customer of the day pulled into her new neighbors’ driveway. A well-dressed older man popped out of his shiny black sports car, strode up to the porch and knocked. The door opened, he disappeared inside, and three minutes later, he exited. His tires squealed as he backed onto the street and made a quick get-away.

Oh, she hoped a drug operation hadn’t moved in. It was her biggest worry with all the news about cracking down on drugs in the city. This had always been a quiet, safe as can be, doors always open, friendly neighborhood. If a bad element had moved in…well, she would call the police the minute she knew what was going on. First, she had to confirm her suspicions.

Her lovely meatloaf had another nineteen minutes. She went to the bedroom and put on a dress she hadn’t worn in years. The bodice still fit her, though she struggled with the back zipper. The blue field of flowers set off her eyes and pulled a lovely silver sheen from her mousy brown curls. She found her light blue pumps in a box on the top shelf of her closet. She couldn’t remember the last time she wore them, but surely they hadn’t pinched her toes like this. The pain was worth the picture. The skirt flared around her calves just as she remembered.

As she stroked the last coat of mascara on her top eyelashes, the timer on the oven buzzed.

The meatloaf pan was hot. She put it in a serving basket and covered it with a cheerfully checkered cloth napkin. Satisfied with the presentation, she waltzed out the front door, down her walk and across the street. At her new neighbors’ driveway, she hesitated a moment as a sudden chill of fear paralyzed her. She was an unexpected guest. What would she do if one of them came to the door with a weapon?

She would throw the meatloaf. The weight would catch them off guard giving her time to run around the corner.

What was she thinking? She should turn around right now and abort the mission. No, no. All she had to do was act neighborly. She walked straight to the door, and knocked. From inside, she heard a female voice sing, “Just a minute.”

Footsteps clattered on hardwood flooring. Millie’s heart pounded what if, what if, what if.

The door opened and a very pregnant young woman dressed in a flowery sundress answered the door. “Hello. Can I help you?” she said.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” said Millie. She lifted the basket toward the young woman. “Do you like meatloaf?” As an afterthought she said, “I live across the street. Matilda Whoosits, folks call me Millie.”

The young woman said, “Millie, how lovely. My husband will really appreciate a home cooked meal. I haven’t had the stomach for cooking in so long.” She rolled her eyes and hugged her belly. “My name is Susan.” She held out her hands for the basket. “Would you like to come in?”

“Yes,” said Millie, handing it to her. A feeling of dread fluttered under a wave of giddiness. “You have a lovely home.” Dozens of unopened packing boxes cluttered the middle of the room. There was no furniture except three fold out chairs and a bistro table cluttered with paperwork squashed by an opened, over-sized box on top of it.

Millie looked down the hallway to her left wondering if Susan was unpacking rooms at the back of the house first. She said, “It will be glorious when you are unpacked.”

Susan sighed. “Yes. My husband’s new job keeps him busy, and I am desperate to establish a new client base before the baby comes.”

Millie was shocked at her openness. “Oh?” she said. “A client base?”

“I sell essential oils. Do you use them?”

“No,” said Millie, never having heard of such a thing. Was it a catchword for marijuana or some other drug?

“Let me show you,” said Susan.

Dear god, what had she stepped into. She backed up a few steps toward the door, pretending to look around.

Susan grabbed a brown vial from the box on the table. She said, “This is Wild Orange. Here, hold out your palm. I’ll put a drop on your hand. Rub it in and smell. It’s delightful.”

“Uh…,” said Millie.

“It’s okay. It’s completely natural,” said Susan.

Timidly, Millie held out her hand. The drop didn’t cause any weird tingling. The light in the room didn’t fill with strange lights or colors. She sniffed. Nothing happened. She rubbed her palms together and sniffed again. The heady scent of Wild Orange filled her nose. “You’re right. It is lovely.”

“It’s great for cleaning. I put a few drops in a spray bottle of water and clean counters, the stove top, the refrigerator. It works like a charm and everything smells fresh. Because it’s natural it won’t hurt the baby. Or anyone else. Here.” She grabbed a small mesh bag out of the box and handed it Millie. There was a tiny brown vial inside it, a smaller version of the one in Susan’s hand. “Take that sample home and try it. If you like it, it’s only $13.99 for one this size.” She held up her vial. “And it will last you for months.”

“Thank you,” said Millie, not at all prepared for the charm of Susan’s cheerful delight in her product. Surely there was more going on than this.

There was a knock on the door.

“Oh, my distributor is here.”

A distributor? Millie timidly followed. Susan ushered in a young woman with a baby in her arms. She had a large bag slung over her back, but she was very clean, well dressed and didn’t look at all like Millie imagined a drug dealer would.

Susan introduced them.

Millie was too nervous to catch her name so she muttered, “Well, enjoy your meatloaf, dear. I will leave now and let you attend to business.”

Susan held the door for her, but placed a warm hand on her forearm as Millie stepped onto the porch. “Thank you very much for the meatloaf. It was so nice to meet you. Please come again. Oh, and enjoy the oil.”

She handed Millie a business card. Then she and her distributor disappeared behind the door as she closed it.

Millie stood on the porch, a little stunned. She pulled out the minuscule bottle of essential oil and opened it. She sniffed. Was this the cause of all the comings and goings? It really did smell refreshing.

She stepped off the porch, and wandered down the short sidewalk to the driveway. She drifted across the street, sniffing the Wild Orange in the small sample bottle. This was such a lovely neighborhood. The trees sang with birdsong, flowers waved in the soft breeze. She walked to her front door. The red paint she and Jeff had decided upon was very pretty. She sniffed the Wild Orange again. If she started right away, she had time to vacuum the house, polish the windows, change the sheets, clean the bathroom, and make a second meatloaf. Jeff would love that.

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P is for Pimp…

(Author’s Note: Alternate point of view from BROKEN, a work in progress)

 Charlie Marchesi polished the counter in his bar. He’d long since removed every fingerprint and smudge left by the evening patrons, but he needed time to think. One of his studs had worked a rival’s territory today and a brutal beating was his payment. The kid was useless until his face healed. Charlie’s loss amounted to $5,500 with medical bills and lost revenue. He loved this bar with its rich ambiance of masculinity, but it would not cover the loss. He needed another experienced stud because the rest of the colts in his stable were too green to make that kind of money.

He glanced around his man cave checking that all was in order before he locked up. The back wall had pictures of his kids, wayfarers that had stumbled in looking for a way out of whatever they were running from. He flicked off the front light. The big picture window framed the corner across the street, a bright spot for his eyes to rest. The rain had stopped and the pavement glistened with diamonds.

A man stepped into the halo from the street lamp, illuminated as if the spotlights had just turned on over center stage. He was tall and stood with strength, even though Charlie could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was shirking from his current situation. His dark hair and arched eyebrows stood out against his paler skin. The scruff of his beard outlined a strong jaw. He looked the part of a young god unsure of where he was, or what he was about.
Serendipity had handed Charlie a card. He was looking at his replacement.  “Come this way, mister,” he said. “I have time for one more.”  He flipped the polishing chamois over his shoulder and walked closer to the window to get a better look at the man. “Come on. It’s warm in here. Get out of the cold.”

As if the man heard him, he turned and looked at the glowing sign in Charlie’s dark window. His eyes were wide-set, though from this distance Charlie couldn’t read them. He could only read the man’s body movements, and something about the way he adjusted the pack on his shoulders said ‘mature teenager’.

Serendipity rose, a questing snake peering over tall grass. The youngster just needed to come in. That’s all. Charlie would wrap him with something beneficial to both of them. “Come on, it’s open. There isn’t anything else. I bet you just got off the bus, didn’t you.”

The young man resettled his pack upon his shoulders, flipped up the collar on his jacket and strolled across the street toward Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.

Charlie moved to the far end of the counter where it was dark, becoming a simple barkeep cleaning up for the evening. The bell over the door tinkled as the young man walked in. Bold as brass he sat at the counter. It was a move calculated to feign maturity and hide the fact that the boy couldn’t be older than fifteen or sixteen.

Charlie’s breath hitched. God, he was beautiful. He could hardly wait to hear the tale this one was going to spin. He approached. “How can I help you?”

“Something hot,” said the young man, as if he owned the world.

Charlie nodded. He grabbed a white, ceramic mug from shelving under a simple drip coffee maker and filled it. The whole time he did so, he studied the youth. His scrutiny did not go unnoticed. The boy frowned, and hunched his shoulders turning in on himself.

“Cream?” said Charlie.

The boy glanced at him. “Sure.” As an afterthought, he said, “Thanks.”

Charlie was generous with the cream. “Kind of late for you to be out and about all alone.”

Guilt flashed across the boy’s beautiful features. “Got off the bus about twenty-five minutes ago.” His voice had dropped into a full bass rumble, probably because he was tired.

Charlie chuckled. He liked the brassy attitude of this one. “Where’re you from?” he said.

“Stockton. Stockton, California,” said the young man.

Never been,” said Charlie.

“You wouldn’t like it,” said the boy.

“What brings you to Detroit?”

It was just small talk, no need to rush this. If Charlie was reading this right, the boy had nowhere to go, or nowhere he wanted to go. A boy like this could easily end up on the street and be picked up by someone else. Charlie had never lost a gold mine sitting at his counter and he wouldn’t tonight.

The boy took a deep breath, and relaxed his shoulders.

Carefully keeping his voice warm and considerate, Charlie pressed. “You didn’t answer my question. Detroit’s not a place people come to for pleasure. You must have some business here?”

“Just like everybody else,” said the young man. He sipped the coffee, gazing toward the pictures behind the bar. A dip of sadness settled on his mouth for a second.

Charlie said, “Can I help you find someone?”

“No,” said the young man, a little too harshly. He squirmed in his seat. A lie then, there was someone here.
“So you do have a place to go tonight,” said Charlie.

“Not yet,” said the boy, shifting a defiant gaze toward Charlie.

Not willing to give up, Charlie said, “It’s past midnight. It’ll be hard to find a place around here, and folks aren’t going to lease to a minor anyway.”

If looks could kill, the boy’s expression would have dropped him to the ground. Wow. Keeping this one engaged was imperative. Fresh meat like this would attract all kinds of predators.

The young man folded his arms on the counter and leaned into them He turned to Charlie and said, “Why would you assume I am a minor?”

Charlie sighed. How many times had he seen this now? He glanced at the pictures on the wall across from them, his stable of young, lost children that grew up under his tutelage, learned the ways of the street, and lived to tell about it. “Seen a lot of runaways come through here. I guess you look the part.”

“There’s a part?” said the boy. His voice raised three notches as he lifted the cooling cup of coffee to warm his hands.

Cold and scared, that’s what Charlie saw. He chuckled and said, “Name’s Charles. Most people call me Charlie. Charlie Marchesi. I have a room in the back. Forty dollars a night.”

“How much for the coffee?” said the boy.

So he had no money either. Charlie admired the bravado. What did it take to leap into the world with nothing, hoping that it would take care of you? It took a keen mind and a quick wit. Most of these kids didn’t have it. They were scared and lonely, and he took them in and made something out of all that. This kid, though, was different. Charlie pushed a little more. “Coffee is on the house with the let of the room.”

The boy looked him right in the eye. “I don’t have the cash for the room. How much do I owe for this?” He lifted the cup and took another sip.

Tough guy, thought Charlie. He said, “Two-twenty five with a free refill.”

The boy pulled a ten and handed it to Marchesi.

Charlie hesitated. Was he going to let this one walk?

The boy insisted, slapping the ten onto the counter and pushing it toward him

“Tell you what,” said Charlie. “Put down what you have for the room and you can work for the rest in the morning. It’s a rush here, and I can use someone to bus tables and wash dishes. Beats an alleyway somewhere. Especially this time of year.” He glanced outside.

The kid turned and stared out the window.

Why was he hesitating?  Just take it. It’s cold outside and I am offering a room.

The boy continued to stare.

It was about four miles to Downtown. If he walked briskly, he could probably make it in an hour, but there was no guarantee he’d find a warm place to sleep, and he’d run the risk of getting snatched by one of his competitors. Charlie couldn’t have that. He said, “I am offering a room, and a way to pay for it.”

The boy looked down. “I’ll think about it.”

Charlie Marchesi tapped his pointer finger on the counter, twice. “Working the morning kitchen will get you breakfast on the house. For tomorrow, anyway.”

“Okay. Maybe I’ll take it.”

There was no maybe about it. Charlie had found his replacement. He slapped the counter, and said, “Smart man.”

Whipping the chamois off his shoulder, he grabbed the coffee and cream. A little refill should cinch the deal. The boy smiled as Charlie poured warm coffee into his mug. Yep, he’d found his replacement.

 

O is for Oreos…

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He had no idea what time it was, except that it was time to sleep, but he couldn’t. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw red. Could be it was the light over the head of his bed that the nurses would not turn off. Hospital policy, they said. Could be he saw his own blood coursing through his eyelids. Could be the pain meds they doped him with had a weird, visual, side effect. The point was, there was nothing else to do except sleep and he couldn’t. His shitty, I-am-a-pathetic-gimp attitude brewed in the pit of his stomach.

It was either attitude or hunger brewing there. He thought about food all the time, until they brought his tasteless meals, which consisted of differently colored spoonfuls of puree. He ate them because he knew they were calculated to make him feel better but they didn’t fill his need for real food. His hunger never went away. Hospital staff told him to ignore it, that it was probably gastro-reflux from lying down. They raised the head of his bed and propped pillows under him, so he spent his hours of captivity canted at an unnatural angle. His back ached, his butt ached, but when he tried to squirm away from the discomfort, it felt like he was tearing stitches. Of course, that was ridiculous, but he couldn’t stop worrying about it.

Oreos. Crunchy outside cookie, soft, sugary goodness sandwiched between. He smacked his lips. He could taste the grainy sweetness on his tongue. The machine down the hall offered Oreos, regular ones and some with interesting pink frosted centers. The problems were that the Oreos were not on his approved food list and even if they were, he would have to get out of bed, push the damned walker down the hallway to get them, and then find the strength to get back to his room and back into the bed. The whole business was problematic.

He lay in the hospital bed, a stranded snapping turtle with a yen for Oreos. To Oreo or not to Oreo, that was the question. He swallowed, relishing his imaginary treat. “How long are you goin’ to stare at the ceiling, you ol’ fool,” he said. “Grow some balls and break out of here.”

His pain was under control, why was he so afraid to get up?

He shut his eyes, squeezing his face into a grimace. “Just do it,” he thought.

Carefully, timidly if he was honest with himself, he scooted to the side of the bed, the way the therapist had taught him. He rolled to his side and opened his eyes. It didn’t hurt as badly as he anticipated. Encouraged, he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his legs fall over the edge of the mattress. Again, it wasn’t as painful as he expected.

The walker was a few inches to his right, so he grabbed it and pulled it toward him, centering it in front of his body. Slowly, he slid his butt forward until he could place his feet on the cool tile. He sat there for a few breaths, with his feet caressing the floor, his weight held by the mattress. How much did he want those Oreos?

His belly shouted, “Chocolate.”

Pain was quiet, though. He was on enough medication to tranq a horse.

Why hesitate?

Fear. Fear of causing pain froze him in place. How was he going to get along at home if he couldn’t find the courage to get off the damn bed by himself? He gritted his teeth and slowly shifted his weight onto his feet. As he did, the stretch to reach the floor flared against the stitches below his left ribs. He quickly grabbed the walker exacerbating the situation. The aluminum contraption bucked and banged against the floor. Slowly, he straightened until he, and the walker were upright.

A nurse popped her head through the door. “Need help?” she asked.

“No, I’m good,” he grunted. And as he stood there for a few seconds, he was.

She smiled, patted the door sill, and went back to her station. She returned thirty seconds later with grippy socks, which she cheerfully rolled onto his bony feet.

He watched her leave, moving so easily through the world. Sighing, he pushed the walker forward. Then he carefully scooted one socked foot, and then the other, step by step until he crossed the room. He shuffled down the darkened hall toward the softly lit waiting area and the vending machine. Standing in front of it, he knew he was ready; he could do this. Now if he just had change to buy some Oreos.

He really deserved Oreos.

N is for Necklaces…

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…and why Jack wears them.

Junior Inspector Jackson Tyler survived his first major case with Detroit PD. As cases went, it was a major win for the city. No one had so brutally ravaged Detroit since 1920. He felt good about it, being the new man and  not trusted as it were. It was plain ol’ good luck that his OCD fired up and plunged the thoughts of the barbarian into his mind. The killer’s thoughts were so vicious it nearly broke him.

His senior partner held him together. His gentle reassurance coaxed the details out of Jack’s manic babbling, details about the killer’s next move. Manny’s team waited for the killer and took him down with ease.

The fact that Manny didn’t run screaming from Jack’s obsessive behavior or his weird psychic visions was a miracle. He took the information at face value, and it paid off. Jack was grateful. But now Manny was pressuring him to reward himself, except Jack was not a tattoo man. What if germs crawled under his skin during the process? What if he could feel them? What if, when he looked at the tattoo a couple of days later, he hated it?

Senior Inspector Ramon ‘Manny’ Valdez sat on Jack’s desk, his arms folded, his face stern. Jack hesitated at the door to the bullpen, not wanting to face his wheedling. Manny looked at the floor and shook his head. Reluctantly, Jackson approached.

Manny tsked at him. “Come on, man. It’s what we do here. You solve a major crime; you gotta take credit for it.” He pulled off his shirt and flexed his pecs.

Impressive. The tats danced on firm muscles. Not bad for an old man. He had one over his right nipple, a short sleeve on each arm, and when he turned, his back was adorned with one on each shoulder blade. Jack was sure he had more because his career had been long and successful, but he didn’t want to think about where they were placed.

“It’s not for me, Manny.”

“What you gonna do, huh? Forget about catchin’ that slime ball?”

“I won’t ever forget,” said Jack.

“The point is to remember the good part, the part where you won. You need to give yourself a medal of some kind.”

Jack laughed. “You make it sound like a contest.”

“It is. A contest between good and evil, and good won. Get a tat.”

“I’ll think on it.” It was a lie and they both knew it.

“You let me know tomorrow. I’ll hook you up.”

Jack sighed. He slumped out of the precinct and walked home. Good and evil. It wasn’t like he actually had to battle the monster, he just tracked him. And, really, he didn’t even track him; the monster did that himself. Jack was a receiver, like a radio dialed into the Twilight Zone. Did people get medals for receiving? No. They prayed that the abhorrent thoughts would go away, and when they did, they walked home for a nice glass of something intoxicating, like the chilled vodka mojito in his refrigerator.

After dinner, with his tumbler of vodka next to him, he researched tattoos. Some indicated lineage, some religious beliefs, and others solidified cultural affiliations. Tattoos marked conquests, gang kills, and other gang activities like notches on a stick. He leaned against the back of his cushioned chair and sipped his vodka. The police force was a gang of sorts.

Manny’s voice wormed into his mind, “Get a tat.”

Jack shuddered. It would be easier to get a stick and notch it every time he caught a violent criminal. He would be easy to set it against a wall here or at the precinct. An insistent earworm, Manny laughed his head off over that notion.

He punched in another site. At the bottom of it was a link to another article, “The Cultural Use of Gold Jewelry.” Men had been wearing gold chains as status symbols throughout history. Seventy-five thousand years ago, the earliest records indicated ancient Egyptians wore them for good luck.

A gold chain. He could use more luck. He’d moved across the country to put his divorce behind him, literally. Trying to fit into another police force wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. He liked gold. He could get a fine chain, one that wouldn’t interfere with the job. He could hide it under his tee shirts like a tattoo. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He grabbed his phone to text Manny, but he didn’t punch up his number. He didn’t want to ruin the excitement of his idea or the warmth of the vodka. Manny would most certainly call him a wuss. Nope. First he would get the chain, then he would tell Manny.

Manny was right about one thing. Apprehending a murderer was a victory and he had played a major role in that. It was time to get a medal.

A gold medal.

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L is for Lair…

Excerpt from “Legally, With Good Intent” a chapter from AV Singer’s, Blood on His Hands

Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson placed a photocopy of the enlarged fingerprint on the table for her team to see. She said, “We are trying to get a warrant based on a seven-point match.”

“Not enough to arrest,” said Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler, grabbing it for a closer look.

“Not enough to arrest without further evidence, but enough to raise suspicion,” said Thompson, conspiratorially.

“A chance to get inside a killer’s lair,” said Jack.

She nodded her head, eagerly.

“He lives in the neighborhood like we suspected?” said the Chief’s rookie in tow, Aurelia Gomez.

“Records are sketchy, but it seems as a child he did. Dubanowski, get some prints of his mug shot, take Gomez with you, and start distributing there. Talk to people; find out if anybody remembers seeing him at any time, in any way. Stay together.

“Jack, you and I are going to grab that warrant as soon as it comes in. I want him, Jack.”

Jack did not have words for how much he wanted to see this killer locked down.

The suspect’s last known address was a house located in the East McNichols area. It was one of three that his mother had owned, that passed to her only child when she died. There were back taxes owed on it, but nobody cared about that anymore, not in this part of that district. Most of the buildings in this impoverished area were abandoned and derelict. Detroit could not afford to squander law enforcement to accompany tax collectors. Like most abandoned neighborhoods, looters had littered it with the aftermath of pillaging. Stray animals hunted through scattered garbage, dead foliage, and forgotten household furnishings.

Maureen drove through the neighborhood with the thoughtful attention of someone who ferried small kids, which Jack appreciated. She parked in front of a house that was no less dilapidated than were any of the other tumbled-down buildings around it. At least this one appeared to have an intact roof. The small cottage stood in the middle of the property, farther back than the other houses. At one time, it must have had quite a grand walkway, but now the cement was cracked and in some places broken completely away. Wisps of weeds sprouted through it.

The wood siding, stripped of paint, and probably once white, was weathered gray. The lawn was gone. There were some bushes next to the house, but they were scraggly and mostly dead. This one house exemplified the character of the entire neighborhood and its people: jobless, desperate, and out of luck.

Maureen said, “Got your wooden stake?” It was a weak joke that confirmed her nervousness.

They crossed the yard, carefully skirting broken, rusty machine parts and rotten, disintegrating, cardboard boxes. The simple, attached entry porch sagged to the left, as if by falling off it could escape the fate of the rest of the house. As they stepped on it, it swayed under their weight. They froze, and Jack caught Maureen’s eye. Then it settled.

Maureen released the safety strap on her holstered weapon before she knocked loudly on the door. “Inspectors Thompson and Tyler, Detroit PD. We’d like to speak with you.”

There was no answer.

She knocked again. “This is Chief Inspector Maureen Thompson, Detroit PD. Please come to the door.”

A dog barked in the distance, the only answer to the summons.

Gently, she tested the door knob. It was locked.

Jack hopped off the porch to peek through the hazy glass of the front window. A torn, dirty couch sagged in the left corner under a side window framed with torn drapes. On the far wall was a small fireplace. There was no safety screen, the brick hearth was cracked and falling apart like the sidewalk in front of the house, and inside, there were stacked boxes, perhaps collected for kindling. The rest of the room had no furniture, only more boxes filled to their brims with undeterminable flotsam. They would have to get into the house to see clearly.

He walked toward the driveway on the far side of the house. His footfalls crunched as he stepped onto the gravel to peer through another streaked window into a small, cluttered kitchen. This room looked lived in: dirty dishes filled the sink, a partially eaten meal was on the table, and a small coffee pot on the counter had a small clock face, which at that moment clicked to 1:42. It wasn’t the correct time, but it was obvious the house was still running electricity. Somebody lived here.

His eyes roamed back to the meal on the table. Someone had abandoned it in a hurry, perhaps when he and Maureen arrived. The coffee mug was partially full. There was torn bread on the surface of the table, smeared with a jam of some sort. But, it was the small, delicately flowered plate that held his attention. Someone had cut a large slab of meat into generous bite-sized portions. A fork, dropped upon the tabletop, skewered a chunk that left a puddle of fluid and grease under it. If Jack was right, it was organ meat, maybe a piece of lightly cooked liver.

Every psychic sense he had was screaming, “Get in there.”

He snuck toward the back of the house to look through windows. The first one framed a small, completely empty bedroom. The next window was too high to look through without compromising his stealth. It was probably a bathroom window.

Metal softly clinked against tile.

He froze.

Slowly, he crouched against the wall and pressed an ear against it to listen. He knew it was impossible to hear this way but he had to be sure he had actually heard something. “Come on, come on, come on,” he thought, “Make another noise.”

Maureen was at the kitchen looking through that window when he caught her eye. He stood, pointed to his ear, and then pointed to the window above him. Slowly, he pulled his gun.

She quickly joined him, drawing her own. They decided, like a long-paired team that needed no words, to try an entry at the back door. Together they crept around the house. On the back wall, ripped screening hung from the windows. In the middle of that wall, at the top of cracked and chipped cement steps, the half-opened screen door swung on one hinge.

Jack mouthed, “Cover me.”

Maureen Thompson nodded.

He stepped over another tumble of rotted boxes and crept to the door. Cautiously, he lifted it. As he did, the hinge creaked loudly.

In response, a bang from the front, probably the front door, echoed through the house.

“Damn,” yelled Thompson as she ran up the driveway toward the front of the property.

Jack followed, hot on her heels.

Blood On His Hands will go live in October. Watch for updates on this site or https://avsinger.weebly.com or my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Amorningsong

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M is for Mirage…

(Author’s Note: Sara Myers is a character from a novel I copyrighted twenty years ago, called The Shaman’s Mirror.  I am considering revising it.  Let me know if you are intrigued.)

Sara Myers never did anything like this. For fifty-six years, she had been a “good girl”, seemingly put on this Earth to do what was expected of her. Now, her children were grown. Her divorce finalized a few weeks under a year ago, and her new man had proposed. She was not ready to accept it. The Sonoran Desert surrounded her as she drove toward her best friend and a chance for a little late-in-life adventure. It was a rash decision, so unlike her. This trip punctuated the possibility that she was not firing on all cylinders.

The desert flowed past as she sped south toward Tucson on Interstate-10, a monotonous stretch of nothingness as far as she could see. Her mind dredged up memories of her latest dreams. She had always been psychic, but this last round of dreaming had upset her enough to follow Patrice’s advice to leave her life behind her, at least for a little while.

The specters from the dream would not leave her alone. What did they want? The cave was new. The dead weight of a man lying on top of her was a new twist as well, but the man himself was not. Three times, he had visited her slumber, standing before her naked and glistening, trembling in want with need no less than hers. As he approached her, awe and wonder lit his face. She wanted him, and reached out for him each time, but as she did, he disappeared; replaced by an awful, bony, and weathered old man dressed in shabby deerskins and feathers. Claws and teeth hung from cords around his neck. His hair, most likely bug infested, was long and matted. He seemed to be a mixture of races, representatives of which kaleidoscoped across his features. Interrupting luscious dreams of carnal bliss, he had approached her every time she dreamed of her beautiful lover, waking her at some god-forsaken hour. It was always the same. At the end of the dream, he shook a horrid, rattling staff in her face and croaked, “Now is the time.”

The time for what? She had no business dreaming about beautiful, younger men, that’s what time it was. It was better to keep her mind focused on Carl, and his proposal. She sighed.

Behind her, the sun sank into the Sonoran, the hills behind Tucson shimmered in the heat. She rubbed her sweaty hand on shirt but her clothes were damp with sweat. She was shaky. She took a deep breath and grabbed the wheel so tightly that she drove like an old woman barely in control of her car. Good grief, she needed a rest. A sign to the right said Denny’s – one mile. At the next exit, she pulled off the freeway.

There were only two cars parked in front of the restaurant and none in the lot on the east side where it was shady. She headed for it, turning into a small patch of cool, cast by the building.

He came from nowhere – bam – in front of her car as she pulled into it. She slammed on the brakes as he slapped her fender with both hands.

“Oh no,” she cried.

“Hey,” he yelled. “What the hell?” He slapped the hood of her car again. He flipped his middle finger at her, and then stormed away.

She was tired and shaky, but not so shaky that she would miss seeing a pedestrian in front of her car. She must have blinked or blacked out because for one second, he was there in front of her scowling, and the next he was gone. Panicked, she looked all around. The door of the restaurant was too far for him to have reached it without her seeing him go in. He wasn’t stomping toward one of the other two cars in front of Denny’s.

Maybe he fainted.

She opened the door and jumped out. The Arizona heat rammed her like a blast from a rocket. He wasn’t on the ground. He wasn’t anywhere. She needed to find him to give him contact information.

She honestly had not seen a single soul in the lot when she pulled in. She must be more exhausted than she realized. Sinking heavily back into the seat of her Sentra to grab her purse, she singed her arm on the doorframe. All decorum lost, she licked the burn on her arm and blew across the pain. The landscape around her car was crowding her, hot and sharp, just like her dream. The area was junky and spoke of decay. She couldn’t take a deep breath. Good grief. What had she done?

She grabbed her purse, rolled the windows down, and then decided this was not the side of town to leave windows open. She knew her car would be a bread oven when she got back into it, but she didn’t want to take any chances. People were obviously lurking about.

There was something familiar about the man she’d almost hit. He was tall, and had to bend down to slap her car. His jacket was soft and worn, and matched the soft cinnamon of his hair. His hair struck her as particularly beautiful, but her mind had not registered much else. It happened so fast. He was in front of her one second and gone the next. She lurched to the shelter of the restaurant looking for the man she had hit.

A waiter approached her. “Are you looking for your people,” he asked. He had a friendly smile.

“No,” she replied, then she added, “Yes. Well…he’s not mine, but I almost hit a man out there, and I want to be sure he is okay.” She looked at every seat in the restaurant. He wasn’t in any of them. “He’s about six feet tall, cinnamon colored hair, rumpled, you know?” She pulled at the hair on the top of her head. “I think he was carrying a briefcase.”

“Oh, that sounds like The Professor. No, he hasn’t come in today. Actually, you’re the first new customer we’ve had in here for about,” he looked at his watch, “thirty-six minutes.”

“Thirty-six minutes?” she said, dumbly.

“Here,” he nudged her toward a seat at the counter. “Cool off. People see all kinds of mirages and phantoms in this heat.”

“But he slapped my car. I heard it. I, I…I felt it.”

“Like I said, all kinds of mirages and phantoms. Hey, if there’s no one on the ground out there, you’re good to go. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.” He handed her a menu and poured her a glass of water. “I’ll be right back.”

She sat down. When he returned, she ordered her usual hamburger and fries, then changed her mind and switched to a cool chicken salad and iced tea. She shivered under the air-conditioning. It was more than just air that chilled her. She was tired, and stressed from driving, and she was seriously wondering if she’d made the right decision. Dear God, she had almost hit a man. She could turn around and take the highway back to her safety net. A voice interrupted that thought, an old voice she’d heard too many times; the old man from her dreams croaked, “Now is the time. The desert…where truth cannot shelter itself…” She could actually hear the horrid staff rattling.

Cripes. Turning around was something she absolutely could not do.

The waiter set a doily right in front of her, followed by a full cup of hot water with a slice of lemon floating in it. “You’re dehydrated. Drink up. It’ll help the shakes,” he said.  Then he winked, “It will scare away those phantoms. I’ll bring iced tea with your food.”

She took a sip. Her body was grateful, if not for the water, then for the heat of it. She took another, and then another.

The waiter smiled at her when he walked by.

She kept looking over her shoulder to watch for the cinnamon haired man, but he was definitely gone. She took another sip of the soothing hot lemon water and watched the waiter as he cradled her salad on one arm and brought her iced tea in the other. She would eat, get in her car, and drive to Patrice’s house and forget about this. He was just a phantom, a mirage dredged up by her heat-addled brain.

Somehow, somewhere deep inside, she knew he was more than that. She hoped their first encounter would be better than this one.

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K is for Kink…

(A character sketch from Reluctant Witness – a work in process – occasionally, a witness doesn’t come forward because to do so could result in his or her arrest.)

Monday Ricks. The first syllable stretched, like the word yawn, ‘mawn’-day. What did that say about his parents, that they gave their only child a name that made a person sound as if they were bored out of their minds when they said it?

Thinking about it made his head hollow. He yawned. His large, stained teeth protruded from his mouth as his lips peeled back, and a string of spit connected an upper incisor with its lower mate. His whiskers were rough against his beefy hand as he contemplated whether to shave, or not. Maybe the shock effect would be greater if he was scruffy. Monday didn’t have many kinks, but the kink he contemplated was a doozy.

The kink was born out of a lonely childhood. He was a quiet, chubby boy that looked at the ground when he walked. As a teenager, while the other young men paraded the school with frantic, on fire energy, he watched from the shadows and wondered when his flame would ignite. Teachers called him phlegmatic and dull. He had a mind, a good one, he just didn’t use it much, except to daydream that he was someone else, someone with fire in his heart, fire that drew girls like moths to a flame. Girls. Was there anything else to think about at that age? From the moment he woke until the moment he slept, and even then, his mind was filled with girls, girls, and more girls.

However, the reality of his life was solitary, a solitary male hungry for attention but too awkward and brutish to attract it. Beetle-browed and heavy boned, kids cast epithets at him like “Cave man,” “Neanderthal,” “Loser,” and “Gorilla.” What girl in her right mind would want him around? None of them. That was the living truth. High school passed with none of the glory, none of the conquests, none of the fun. As he aged, he became more brutish, more beetle-browed, more solitary, and more obsessed.

College wasn’t better. He shuffled to his accounting classes, head down, defeated and no more social than he’d ever been. His classes droned on until his junior year when he found a listing about human sexuality in the psychology department. If he couldn’t enjoy firsthand experience, he could at least learn about it, so he signed up.

The professor was a kinky sort of dude, with long hair that he kept brushing back. On the first day of class, he wore tight leather pants, and a sleeveless shirt with a faux sheepskin jacket. Monday was fascinated, and took copious notes about kinks and sexual deviations. The class ended quickly, though an hour and a half had passed. As students hustled out of the room, the prof called him back. The class, listed as advanced credit, had pre-requisites he had not completed.

“I can’t let you into this class unless you pass an entrance exam. Come to my office at 3pm today and you can do that. That is, if you want to continue this.”

“Uh, Yessir, I will be there.” As he left, he wondered if the prof was aware that the only thing Monday saw with his lowered eyes, was the man’s male package outlined by the leather pants he wore. It was humiliating, but, also, he couldn’t help feel an edge of excitement.

He walked out of the classroom and the door shut behind him. He could still see that package in his mind’s eye. He felt shocked and unsteady, but it was a heady feeling, a revelation about the power of a man, a part of himself he had never paid attention to before that day.

The next year, he took gym class, an unfortunate requirement. It was an hour and a half of tortuous overexertion. Showering afterward was mandatory. His beetled brows and lowered head hid the fact that he delighted in peeping at all the nude bodies, but it was paramount that no one saw him undressed. That was not a problem if he could get a private shower stall. His luck lasted most of the semester.  Until Thursday, May 11, a day forever etched in his head. Monday was a slow runner. He was the last person to finish the assigned walk-run assignment, a half-mile, four laps around the track. All of the private stalls were occupied. He sat on the bench surreptitiously watching naked men, waiting his turn for privacy.

Coach Summons, the gym instructor, strode into the locker room and announced, “Fifteen minutes, people. Then this place is locked.” He looked at Monday. “Ricks, what are you waiting for? Hit the shower.”

It was lucky for Monday that his eyes didn’t register every emotion that flitted across his mind. Everyone would have seen abject terror reflected there. He shuffled to the darkest corner he could find and slipped out of his clothes. He padded as quickly as he could to the nearest vacant shower head in the communal shower stall. He lathered quickly, and rinsed quicker. Then he wrapped a towel around his private bits and slunk back to his corner.

He heard a soft, feminine “Oh” behind him, but when he turned to see why a girl was in the locker room his towel fell away exposing his flaccid manhood. He curled over his display and looked up.

She stood stiffly, as if tased. Her shocked eyes were wide with fright. Her round ‘oh’ twisted in dismay and repulsion. She uttered a growl of distress, turned, and ran out of the locker room.

Monday was mortified, but his man parts had a different idea. He stiffened quickly, which made it awkward to dress as fast as he wanted to. When he pulled himself together, he hurried home.

After dinner, while he replayed the episode in his head he drew her picture. It was his way of coming to terms with the humiliation. Happy with the outcome, he put her shocked likeness on the wall across from the only chair at the small table in his minuscule kitchen. Just looking at it brought a titillated rush of excitement, so much so in fact, he had to run to the bathroom to take care of his urge. If he were to pinpoint a reason for his major kink, he would probably pinpoint that exact moment.

He didn’t know of course, but the drawing became his first trophy.

Her picture would remain on the wall as the first of so many shocked and repulsed viewers who unwittingly gave him a satisfying release after two and a half decades of ripping open his heavy coat to flash them.

(I want to thank the lovely beta readers from The Women Writers of the Well and their terrific questions. Gentle souls, I appreciate you so much.)

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J is for Jinked

(Author’s Note: Abridged excerpt from Blood On His Hands. I expect to have Blood published by October 2019. Watch for updates.)

low angle photography of traffic lights
Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

The skanky kid, who hit on him at Michaelson’s Bar, was heavy on his mind as Jack Tyler stood in front of the closed establishment. At the time, he did not know he was fending off the advances of a murder suspect, but it explained a lot. Whether it was because Jack was thinking about that as he stood in front of the ‘Closed Until Further Notice’ sign, or it was just plain good luck, the kid materialized on the corner across the street, a block south of where he stood with his partner Tomio Dubanowski.

The kid wore a long, trench coat that looked like it belonged to a much bigger man. His back was turned but he had black hair the same length and cut of the kid he’d rebuffed at the bar. When he turned, his black hair shadowed half of his face but his tic was unmistakable. It was him. Had to be.

“Tom.” Jack grabbed his partner’s arm. “Corner to the left.”

“What?” said Tom, turning.

“Move casually, look to your left, toward the avenue like you’re upset the bar is closed and don’t know what to do.”

Tom turned as if he were looking for somewhere else to go.

The kid paced the corner. Every time a car went by, he looked into it as if he expected to know the person inside.

Tom said, “Who do you think he is waiting for?”

Jack said, “Who knows. We need to be cool about this.”

“Okay. Here’s a plan. Sling your arm around me and walk as if we’re lovers just out for a stroll. We’ll go over and say ‘Hi’.”

Jack hummed and slung his arm around Tom’s waist, kissed him on the cheek, and pulled him tightly against his side.

Tom turned his head and snuggled against Jack’s shoulder, picking up the charade. He said, in a loud whisper, “If it’s him, our take is we remember him from the bar. We can ask if he knows when it’s reopening.”

Jack replied, “Sounds good.”

Keeping in tune with each other to create consistency, they strolled, arm in arm, beyond Michaelson’s toward the main part of the district. They stopped every few steps to check their phones so they could snap pictures. Once or twice Jack stopped their stroll and stole a kiss. It gave them time to observe the kid’s odd behavior.

The kid moved closer to the avenue, farther from them. Was it an unconscious response as they walked toward him, or a coincidence? He moved further, another block beyond them, still on a corner, still across the street. Animated, he paced the walkway from one intersecting lane to the other, gesticulating as if talking to a companion. His head twitched to the right as if he was ditching buzzing flies or mosquitoes.

“That is the same tic,” said Jack.

“He twitched like that?” said Tom.

“I thought he was tweaking at the time.”

“Something is going on,” said Tom.

“Meth, mental illness…both.”

“Jack, if this kid is responsible for the robberies as well as O’Connell’s murder, it would explain why your,” he waved his hand up and down Jack’s torso, “weird visions escalated before having contact. He was in the neighborhood.” Tom quietly observed the strange kid across the street. “He definitely has some kind of bug in his head.”

“Yeah, we need to get to him, to help if nothing else.”

As they approached, the kid’s mutterings became audible. “Hurry, hurry, you motherfucker. I don’t have all day. Gotta take care of it, gotta take care, take care of it, now. It has to be now. Now, now, now. Hurry, hurry, you mother. Hurry you mother. Fuck her.” His head jerked to the right.

Jack faltered a step and felt Tom’s arm wrap tightly around his waist. He recognized, too keenly, the manic tenor of the chatter, too much like his own. He shuddered when he said, “I’m positive he is the same kid.”

“When has it ever been this easy to find and catch a suspect?” said Tom.

Were they about to arrest Kevin O’Connell’s killer?

Neither one of them wanted him to respond to their presence in any unpredictable ways, so, they waited for the light to cross the street, giving him plenty of time to see them. When the light turned, they stepped into the crosswalk. He stopped pacing to look at them.

Tom waved. “Hey,” he said cheerfully.

The kid’s eyes popped open.

“Hey, man,” said Tom. “You okay?”

Jack said quietly into his ear, “He’s gonna rabbit.”

Like a flash, the kid turned and sprinted up the street away from them.

“Shit,” said Tom as he ran for their vehicle.

Jack ran after the kid.

The kid was fast, but Jack knew he couldn’t sustain the speed; he didn’t look healthy enough. All he had to do was outlast him, and years of swimming had given him that kind of stamina. Unless the kid was tweaking, then it was anyone’s guess as to how long he could run at this speed.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw their unmarked truck flash its lights. Jack trusted that Tom had called for backup.

Tom gunned the engine and peeled past the kid, to drive him back toward Jack.

Instead, the kid ducked into a narrow alleyway. Tom slammed on the brakes, but Jack motioned him on and then sprinted into the alley to follow him. Three steps into the narrow space, he gagged and had to cover his nose, overcome by a wave of piss stench. As he jumped a tumble of cardboard boxes, he heard the tires of the truck squeal as Tom raced around the block to meet them on the other side.

It was clear that that kid was familiar with this alley. He tunneled through with amazing speed to the next block.

Tom rushed toward him, pushing him left toward Michaelson’s Bar. He was visibly tiring and stumbled twice. Jack caught up enough to catch a whiff of rotten fish before the kid jinked to the left, away from the street, and doubled back, squirreling past him. Jack lost his footing and slammed his shoulder against the side of the building. Before he could get his feet under him, the kid ducked back into the alley. “Damn little rodent,” said Jack as he sprinted after him.

At the end of the alley, Jack skidded to a stop. He had no idea which way to turn. Sirens screamed from three directions. Tom passed in front of him, having turned left as he pursued the kid around the block. Another squad pulled up next to Jack. He pointed toward Tom’s car. The squad raced on, and Jack ran after it. As a second squad passed him, he quit running and bent over his knees to catch his breath. It was never easy to catch a suspect, but one way or another, they had him. He straightened and ran.

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I is for Intimidate

Excerpt from Broken, a work in progress.

Senior Inspector Jack Tyler hated receiving calls about missing children, especially in the wee hours of the morning. Half asleep, he jogged down five stories of stairs to the foyer of his apartment building. Each step nudged his mind toward wakefulness. He left the building at a run, and kept his speed the first two blocks north. He slowed his pace to turn east, and to avoid a few puddles. His heart rate was up and he felt a little more grounded in this world.

On the far corner in front of his destination, seemingly unbothered  by the aftermath of a heavy drizzle, a crowd of punks jostled each other in mock martial arts posturing. The light was low, emanating from one source, a yellow bug light over the door of the building. Sleepy residents leaned out of their darkened windows, yelling at them to stop and go home. He counted eight males, and one female. The youths’ movements were just uncoordinated enough to indicate that it was the end of a revel, not the start.

He stopped about forty yards from them to pull his credentials, and check the snap on the security strap for the gun hidden under his jacket. Revelers were unpredictable and it was unclear if he was seeing exhaustion, drunkenness, or a group high on something. With as much bravado as he could muster, he approached them. “Inspector Tyler, Detroit PD.”

The female looked up and ran. Alerted by her reaction, the males followed like a flock of crows. A ninth person hiding in the shadows stepped into the yellow light. The man, who was puffed up like a threatening bear, clenched his fists and faced Jack. Jack was tall; this man was taller by at least two inches. His shoulders were broader by half.

“What the fuck do you want, pig?” he said. A momentary gleam flashed in his eyes that said, ‘I know you.’

Jack supposed his involvement in high profile cases may have given his name a modicum of notoriety, but to his knowledge, his face had never appeared in the media. Had they had a previous encounter? He zipped through his mental catalog of remembered faces, but could not find this man in it. Rattled, he said with authority, “Excuse me. I need to talk to a lady in that building behind you.”

The kid swaggered toward Jack. “You ain’t got no business with anyone here,” he growled.

“Look man,” said Jack, flashing his credentials with one hand, while holding his other up in a peace offering. “I didn’t make the call. There is a distraught mother in there worried about her kid. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

“You see a kid, here?” he snarled.

Just one, thought Jack, close enough to see that the man was barely in his twenties, twenty-five at most. “Look, I have no problem with you; I just want to talk to the worried mom.”

The kid backed down a notch.

“We good?” said Jack.

“Phillip, you let that po-leese by, you hear?” said a woman from the second story.

“Ain’t Phillip no more. Folks ‘round here call me Rat Snatcher,” he yelled at her.

“Rat Snatcher,” she belly laughed. “I don’t give no nevermind about that. You let that officer up here, you hear me Phillip?”

The bear of a kid cut his sleeve and shoved his fist toward Jack. Then he turned and swaggered down the street.

“Your mother too, buddy,” Jack muttered as he ran up the stairs to the door of the building. He could feel Rat Snatcher’s acute stare hot against his back, but he didn’t turn to confirm it. He had his name, Phillip. There was at least one person who knew him. If Rat Snatcher was involved in this missing child case, he knew he would have no trouble finding him again. For now, it was best to leave grumbling bears alone.

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H is for Home…

Possible scene for Broken, a work in progress

All he wanted was some toast. Was that too much to ask? Tom Dubanowski clung to the hospital issued walker as he shuffled across the impossible expanse of Jack’s apartment. His gut twisted. He shook, a quaking leaf helpless in the storm of pain coursing through him. It was a stupid metaphor, but it was all he had to work with.

In the small kitchen, a loaf of Canyon Bakehouse was in easy reach next to the refrigerator. Thank the gods. When he plunged the bread into the toaster, another eddy of pain gripped his side. The walker shook under his grip. He scooted it away from him and grabbed the counter. Every damn move he made, every breath he took, hell, every thought he had, knifed his innards.

“Get it together,” he whispered.

Jack could not find him like this. There would be no reasoning with him, no way of convincing him that he was okay on his own. He wanted to be in his own apartment, miserable with himself, engaged in his own private, pity party.

“Come on,” he said to the pathetic husk he had become. He bent over the sturdy counter until his weight rested upon it. The granite was cool against his swollen cheek; the darkness in the kitchen shrouded him. He could do this. He had to. He could not take his pain medication on an empty stomach.

The front door closed with a gentle snick.

Shit. Jack.

The toast popped with a snap.

Startled, he grabbed his belly. With both arms around the pain, he calculated what it would take to push away from the counter, unfortunately not quick enough to follow through with an actual plan.

“Tomi?” said Jack, stepping softly into the kitchen.

Dammit. Tom’s broken whininess was on full display for Jack to see. One traitorous tear, a beacon of distress, leaked from his unpatched eye, ran over the bridge of his nose, and dripped onto the counter. He sniffed. “Take me home, Jack. I want to go to go home.” A sniveling little baby was what he was.

Jack pressed a warm hand against Tom’s back. “Tomi, Tomi, Tomi,” he said. His voice was soft and comforting.

It threatened Tom’s resolve. “Please, Jack.”

“Uh, huh,” he said, agreeably.

Jack reached into a cupboard above Tom’s head to grab a bowl. When he reached for the toast, he shifted his hands upon Tom’s back. The solid pressure between his shoulder blades became his focus, an anchor against the tide of pain that rolled over him. It took him to a place of calm, a place he could not find on his own. Dammit.

The crisped bread scraped against the basket inside the toaster as Jack pulled the slices from it. He broke them into large pieces and dumped them into the bowl.

He was closer now. The warmth of his body seeped into the back of Tom’s legs and backside.

“You think being on your own is a good idea?” said Jack. His breath caressed Tom’s ear as he wrapped his arms around Tom.

“I don’t want you to see me like this,” said Tom.

“I see. You can watch my blubbering breakdown into insanity, but I can’t take care of you.”

One of Jack’s shoes tickled Tom’s bare right foot.

“You ready?” Jack said into the back of his head.

“I can’t,” he whimpered.

“Yes you can. There’s a chair right behind me.”

“I can’t do this, Jack.”

This. This was relinquishing autonomy. This was molly coddling. This pathetic, mewling kitten act was not him.  

Jack pulled him away from the counter.

Before he could process the wave of pain that flooded him, he was sitting in one of Jack’s comfortable dinette chairs. Jack crouched in front of him, holding his hands against his quaking knees.

“Okay. Here’s what is going to happen next. I’m making hot milk toast with honey. You will eat it. We will get those medications into you. Then I am wrapping you into that bed over there.”

Tom looked across the living room of Jack’s apartment through the open door toward Jack’s bed. He didn’t want to be in Jack’s bed broken and needy. He wanted…he wanted something…he wanted what he didn’t have the energy to accomplish right now. Tom shook his head. “I want my own bed, Jack.”

“What you want and what you’re going to get are two different things now, aren’t they, Tom?” He squeezed Tom’s fingers.

Unable to speak, Tom sniffed and raised his eyes, meeting Jack’s gaze. Determination glittered in a deep, shimmering well of love. Could Jack see how scared he was? Could he see how grateful he was? Could Jack see how much love he felt for him in this moment?

Jack winked. As he rose to warm some milk, he kissed Tom’s cheek, lingering, so his next words ghosted reassurance across his lips. “You’ll get through this, Fly. No worries.”

Tom sighed. Maybe it was his neediness. Maybe the pain dissolved his reticence. Maybe his heart was whispering, “Everything you require is here, right now.”

Why was he trying to run from it?

Jack was his port in this storm.

Jack was his home.

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G is for Grief…

 (Author’s Note: Appearing in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys after significant rainfall, usually during the cooler months, Tule Fog is described as a low fog. What that means is that the heavy, thick cloud is barely higher than the top of a sedan. Seriously. Drivers in big rigs can see over it. Their lights sometimes shine above it. Drivers in cars are blind in it.

When I was in my twenties I drove a junky, but much loved Volkswagen Beetle. The floorboard on the driver’s side was mostly missing. There was enough foot space to drive safely, but I could see the road fly past underneath my feet. Lucky for me. One foggy day, I was driving to San Francisco through the Valley when Tule Fog appeared. It was bad. I was scared, so I turned around and headed home. It got worse. The only way I could see the road was to look straight down through the floorboard as I drove. That’s Tule Fog.)

Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler and his partner, Junior Inspector Tomio Dubanowski had worked together only six weeks, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Tom preferred to drive. He had been a pilot in the Air Force before becoming a cop, and missed having his hands on the controls of a plane. Street driving was pale in comparison, but at least he could feel the power of the machine when he drove, or so he said.

“Tyler, Dubanowski,” said Chief Tyrone Jamison, of Precinct Twelve. “Missing paraphernalia at the Outdoorsman. Get on it.” The Outdoorsman was a shop for all things camping, someplace Jack imagined Tom would enjoy, even if it was for a possible robbery.

Silent as a stone, Tom stood up, gathered his equipment, and handed the keys to the Expedition to Jack.

Jack cocked his head, a silent question, “Why?”

Tom shrugged, and sullenly walked to the garage.  

The drive seemed longer than it really was, because Tom did not talk. Instead, he leaned against the door of the car, pressed his cheek against the windowpane, and watched the city roll past them. One block away from the camping store, he blurted, “Jack. Have you ever wondered what it feels like to die?”

“Uh, why are you asking?” said Jack. There had been no deaths on the force, and the department hadn’t shown any films about handling contentious situations, or what to do if shot or otherwise injured on the job.

“Well, I just think that as police officers we should expect it. I want to know what I am getting into, how it’s going to feel.”

At that moment, Jack drove past the Outdoorsman, turned right, and pulled into the lot behind the store. “Tom, I would love to be there for you, but right now….”

“Yeah, okay,” said Tom, putting on his ‘time to be a cop’ face.

That evening they stopped for burgers and fries. At the table, Tom said quietly, “What do you think it feels like to get mortally shot or stabbed? Do you think the body shuts off the pain centers? I don’t want to know pain.”

“Why are you thinking of this. Did you see something? Did somebody you knew in the Air Force pass?” Jack spoke very softly.

Tom deflated. While he stared at his lap, he said, “I’m sorry. I guess this anniversary has always fallen on a day off.”

“Anniversary?” said Jack, looking at him warily, knowing he was about to hear about something devastating.

“Three years ago, while I was still in the Air Force, my parents celebrated their forty-second wedding anniversary. It was foggy, that horrible Tule fog in the Great Valley – they were heading home to Turlock from San Francisco. The officers at the scene said that my father jerked the wheel and sent the front of his car under…uh…an eighteen-wheeler. It was passing on the left. The front of the car…uh…was crushed….” Tom couldn’t finish the description. “The officer said it was quick.”

He swiped his nose. Then he whispered, “I felt them scream, Jack.”

Jack was horrified. How did he not know this about his new partner?

Tom continued, “I don’t think about it most days, but for the last three years, I’ve thought about it on this day, you know? Their anniversary.”

“And wonder what they went through.”

“Yeah. Sometimes I think about dying. Does it hurt? Will I be afraid? What if I’m not ready? I want to be ready, so if it happens, I’m not caught off guard. How do I do that, Jack? I…I don’t know how to get ready.” He sighed. “I was given a book to read when I joined the Force. It was about dying and what to expect, mostly about what happened after, notifying family, handling effects, but there was some information about how the medics would respond, what the body would do, what they would do to it.” He shivered. “It was supposed to relieve fear, but it just created more for me. I skimmed it, and then planned to live.”

“Maybe that’s what you should do now?” Jack shoved his hand across the table, but then retracted it when he realized Tom didn’t want it.

Tom sighed. “I miss my parents, Jack. I miss my dad. When stuff happens, I reach for my phone to call, and then realize there is no one there.” Tom’s eyes filled with tears, which he quickly wiped away.

Jack’s eyes filled in response. He also wiped them away. “I am so sorry, Tom.”

“I didn’t want to make you feel bad. I…like I said, I think this is the first time I haven’t wallowed in this alone. Every other anniversary has been a day off.”

Jack grabbed his phone, opened his calendar, and set a reminder on yesterday’s date.

“What are you doing?” asked Tom.

“I’m setting a reminder for next year. ‘Remind Tom to call in sick tomorrow. We have plans.’ Does that work for you?”

“Um. Yeah. I think that will work.” Tom accepted his hand this time.

Featured

F is for field strip

Backstory for Blood On His Hands

Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler stepped onto the patio at the back of the precinct. “I have been looking all over for you…why have you field stripped your Glock?” he said.

“It didn’t feel right at the range this morning,” said Tom, a Junior Inspector for Detroit’s 12th precinct, and Jack’s partner.

“Why didn’t you leave it at the armory?”

“I should have, I know, and I will, but I just wanted to see for myself,” said Tom. The truth was, he missed the routine of field stripping a weapon. Each gun had its own peculiarities, its own wear and tear marks, its own patina. Somehow, the character of the gun said something about the character of the man who held it. He wasn’t sure what that said about him and the Gatling guns fitted to the Warthogs he flew.

He shrugged his shoulders, and glared at Jack. Caring for his gun was a form of meditation for him, a chance to reflect on life, and on death. He resented the interruption. He held the empty barrel to the light to look through it. This gun could take a life or save one in a fraction of a second, but only if it functioned properly.

Jack left him to it.  

Since Tom had joined the Inspector Corps for Detroit’s Police Department, there had never been a reason to fire his weapon in the field, but he knew it was there ready to defend him and the people he had sworn to protect. Like all officers, he practiced regularly, cleaned it as recommended, and this was the first time it felt…off. He could not explain it, especially after taking it apart and cleaning it. The barrel was smooth, the pins looked good, he saw no rough patches or scratches anywhere on it. It felt good in his hand. However, when he’d shot it at the range earlier in the day, the recoil just wasn’t right.

He sighed.

He took his time, wiping away excess oil. Sure that his gun was shiny, and clean, he put it back together. He returned to the bullpen and sat at his desk.

Jack came in and sat in the desk across from him. “The armory is taking guns for another hour. You could have it back by morning.”

“Uh, thank you. I didn’t know that’s where you went.”

“Tom, trust your intuition. Turn the damn thing in.”

Tom hugged his gun to his chest. He knew it was just a tool, but he had a personal relationship with an instrument that gave him so much power over life. Calling it a ‘damn’ thing hurt a little, though he knew Jack meant nothing by it. Though he and Jack had never discussed it, he knew Jack was as particular about his Smith and Wesson as Tom was about this gun.  

Tom said, “My place or yours for dinner tonight?”

“Let’s go wild and eat out. My treat.”

“Ooh, is that date?”

“Go turn in your gun,” said Jack, ignoring his jibe.

Tom saluted his partner. On his way out, he whistled “Life’s Lessons” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

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E is for Egregious…

“…shocking, appalling, terrible, shameful; a glaring unpardonable error. I made an egregious error of judgment, okay? What do you want me to say? I’m sorry?” Jon backed up two steps when his stepfather’s face turned hard and angry.

Phillip said, “That’s enough, young man. Get to your room. Your mother will bring you dinner later. And forget about escaping out the window. It’s been screwed shut.”

“You can’t do that,” said Jon. “It’s a fire hazard. I demand egress from my room!”

“Jon, just go to your room,” said his mom.

Jon glared at his stepfather one more time before stomping to his room. He slammed the door.

Phillip said, “I’m torn between taking the door off the hinges, or getting one of those compressors that makes it impossible to slam it.”

Meghan shivered.

“Hey, hey,” said Phillip. His voice warmed as he soothed her. “He’s safe.” He rubbed circles across her shoulders. Phillip was her rock.

“I can’t imagine what gets into his head to run off like that. Sacramento, Phil. He went all the way to Sacramento this time. He lived with a homeless man, on the streets. What are we going to do? What if the police hadn’t picked him up?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Have you called Jack? He deserves to know his son ran away again.”

“Oh my. I forgot.”

“Here.” He took the wooden spoon from her hand. “I’ll stir the sauce. You call the ex.”

Meghan dialed her ex-husband’s number. He worked for Detroit PD, Inspector class, a continent away from Stockton, California. She prayed Jon wasn’t like his dad, mentally tormented with OCD or some other illness. She prayed he was just a boy with wanderlust, like Jack’s father, Hank, had said.

Her eldest, Rick, never did anything like this and he was Jack’s blood too, so…, “Hello?”

“Jackson Tyler.”

“Yes, Jack, it’s me, Meghan.”

“Did you find him?”

“How – how did you know?”

“Hank told me. I can catch a flight this evening.”

“No, no need. We found him. He was rounded up with the rest of the homeless people in Oak Park.”

“Oak Park? Sacramento? Oh, god. Is he all right?”

“He’s angry, Jack. I don’t know what to do with him. This is the second time he’s run away.”

“The second time? Why didn’t I hear about the first time?”

“We knew he was in town, suspected he was at a friend’s house. He was. Sometimes kids do this. I didn’t think much about the first time, but he scared me this time Jack.”

Jack didn’t answer right away.

He was estranged from both of his sons, but especially Jon, who didn’t understand why he left when they divorced. Jon was only three and a half when she’d kicked Jack out of their lives. She hooked up with Phil soon after. Truth be told, Phil was there waiting for her, otherwise she would not have had the courage to ask Jack to leave. Nobody else but the two of them need know that. It certainly didn’t factor in her youngest son’s recent behavior.

“Do you think it would do any good if I talked to him,” said Jack.

“No. He doesn’t really know you anymore.” She knew that had to hurt, but it was true.

“Still,” he said.

“No, Jack. Leave him be. I’ll ask if he wants to call you, but I know he won’t. I just wanted to keep you informed.”

She heard him sigh.

“Jack?”

“Yeah, okay, Meghan. Thank you for calling.” He hung up.

Was Jon’s poor judgment a delayed emotional response to his father’s absence? She didn’t think so. Phil was a lovely man, and a good father.

“Hon?” said Phil. “This sauce is done. Do we let Jon eat alone, or do we invite him to the table?”

She gazed at him. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t want him to have another reason to leave.”

“That’s the answer. Jon,” she said.

“But, I sent him to his room, told him you’d bring him dinner, later.”

“Then, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Gather up the plates and utensils. Let’s join our errant son for a picnic on his rug. I’m sure he has a story to tell.”

(Author’s Note: This is a backstory for one of my working titles, Broken.)

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D is for Desperate

To say that Jackson Tyler was a happy child would be a lie. He wasn’t sullen, he didn’t have a temper, and his pretty, little face didn’t own a scowl, but happy? No. He was thoughtful, and found intimate, personal delight about the world in general, but he didn’t often share that because anxiety was a central part of his being. The world, for Jackson, was titanic: he heard everything, he saw everything, he felt everything, and some tastes and smells were so overwhelming that he had an absolute aversion to them. His favorite place to get away from it was the pantry of canned goods off the kitchen. It was dark, it was quiet and canned goods didn’t smell.

This made life difficult for Martha, his stepmother, who was the only mother he’d ever known. Her greatest joy was feeding her family; she loved being a wife, creating a beautiful home with flowers, candles and potpourris on beautifully set tables, with beautifully prepared foods. But, she didn’t have family often because her husband, Harrison, Hank to his friends, was a foreign correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, so he was travelling most of the time, and when he was home he was hustling for the next story.

So, Jackson was her company, but he wasn’t satisfactory, because he didn’t talk much, and he only liked grilled cheese sandwiches with canned pears, at least at this particular moment in his short, five-year history. Eating for him was particularly troublesome if he was involved in an internal drama of imaginings that sometimes came true and sometimes did not, or if some imaginary irritant was bothering him, then, he didn’t eat at all.

One lovely sunny day, after spending the morning in a frantic state of five-ness, Jackson was winding down, minding his own business, sitting on the floor in the dark pantry. Martha, in her haste to get lunch on the table tripped over one of his outstretched legs and fell. Unfortunately, she skinned and bruised her right knee and tweaked her wrist. It took a moment for her to right herself. When she did, she saw him sitting there, teary-eyed and sniveling, balled into a shell, because it was his leg that tripped her.

She lost it. She yanked him off the floor, shoved him out the back door into the light of the day, into the titanic, swirling world, and said, “Why do you have to be so difficult? You cannot come back into this house until I serve lunch.” Then she locked the door.

He threw himself at it, slapped it with his tiny fragile hands, and cried, “Mom, mom, let me in, let me in.”

 An eternity passed with no results for his efforts – and then, a bird, pounding its head against a pole at the base of the yard, caught his attention.

Tear stained and shaky, he slowly climbed down the steps and walked toward the telephone pole where it was performing this strange and wondrous behavior. When he got to the base of it, he leaned his hands against it and looked up at the little bird. For one heartbeat, the bird’s head was a blur while it pounded its beak into the wood, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

Jackson suddenly knew the world as the bird did, one gigantic, frantic, hunt for food. Hunger was a monster, consuming every one of Jackson’s senses. Together, Jackson and the bird could think of only one thing, “Find an insect, eat.”

In all his five years, he’d never felt so murderous, had never thought of needing food so desperately.

The bird tapped again, and the world blacked out for an instant, and then Jack heard them, he actually heard the insects crawling, chewing, and scratching inside the wooden pole. He cocked an ear when the bird cocked an ear, and listened. His meal was close. The world blackened for an instant as he pounded, trying to reach them. He listened again. There was an insect right under the surface. Crazed with hunger he rapped again.

When he and the bird grabbed an insect, then two, then three, four; Jackson swooned with relief. He awoke when he heard his mother’s voice, “Jacksie. You okay Baby? Mommy’s sorry she lost her temper.”

“I’m okay. I was a bird, Mom. He was hungry. He eats insects.”

“That’s nice, dear. It’s time to come in. I made grilled cheese sandwiches with sliced pears on the side.”

“Okay.” As Jackson followed his stepmother, he felt heavy with sorrow, though somehow, he knew it wasn’t his. How could it be? He was a bird, he’d already eaten lunch. Life couldn’t be better.

He looked at his stepmother, and saw the heavy, woolen shroud of sadness that she wore. He took her hand and smiled. “Don’t worry, Mommy. I’m okay.”

“I know, Jacksie. Mommy’s okay too.”

He wasn’t so sure about that.

Featured

C is for Cowboy…

At seventeen, Tomio Dubanowski was a ‘cool’ guy, and everybody knew that the cool guys rode bulls. What was eight seconds? Nothing. Any fool could hang on that long.

He gathered his savings, forged his parents’ signatures, and sent in an entry fee.

One evening, a week later, around the family dinner table, his sister, Kimi said, “Tell them.”

“Tell us what, Son?” said Josef, his father.

“I sent in my entry for CHSRA.  I plan to join the circuit. Bull riding.”

Josef choked on a sip of wine. His mother set down her fork and folded her hands. Kimi excused herself from the table and began clearing plates.

Josef cleared his throat. “I don’t remember signing any forms for that?”

Tomio looked to his sister. She shrugged and grabbed the platter of roast beef.

“Uh. You must have, I sent it in.”

“Tomio,” said his mother. When she used that tone, the world was going to crash around his ears. “Please excuse yourself and go to your room.”

He lay on his bed in his darkened room, wondering if he could get a refund. He dreaded what his parents were calculating as punishment for forging their signatures. There was a knock on his door, but before he could answer, his father walked in.

Tomio sat up.

Josef sat in the chair at his desk and sighed. “Obviously, your mother and I are appalled about the signatures. You stepped way beyond the line.” He folded his hands together in his lap.

Tomio appreciated his restraint.

“What a knucklehead. Sittin’ on a horse pushing cattle is not the same as bull riding. Roping steers doesn’t make you a bull expert, or even strong enough to handle leading one in a kiddie ring. What the hell were you thinking?”

“All the cool guys are doing it.”

“All the idiots, Son, not the cool guys.”

“You want me to be a cowboy, well here it is, cowboys ride bulls.”

“Aaugh. Cowboys work herd. Idiots ride bulls.” Josef shook his head. “What’s done is done. I called around; there are no refunds. You either forfeit or you ride.”

“I want to ride.”

“Your mother and I expected that.” He hung his head. “There’s only one thing for it, I guess.” He looked Tomio squarely in the eye. “We had better get prepared. I don’t plan to lose my only son to some son-of-a-bitch bull.”

For the next three weeks, Tom spent every afternoon after school working with his father, learning the tricks of the ride. The owner of the ranch where his father worked had a mechanical bull and Josef got permission to use it. The first week, Tom flew off within the first couple of seconds.  By the second week, he could ride a full ten seconds at the middle setting if he used both hands. By the end of the third week, he could hold his form at the highest setting for a full ten seconds.

It was time to try a real animal. The ranch had two young bulls that were not ready for breeding. Tom thought they were magnificent, but he knew that riding the bulls at the ranch would not be the same as mounting a seasoned rodeo bull. Rodeo bulls knew tricks, tricks that could kill a man. He was tough, he knew that, but he wasn’t stupid. Bulls were tougher.

The night before his first competition, Tom’s dad said, “Come.” In the garage, he grabbed a box from the top shelve above his workbench. Inside it was a very beat up, old hockey helmet with an attached face guard.

“What’s that?” said Tomio.

“It’s my old helmet. You can wear it tomorrow.”

“Cowboys don’t wear hockey masks.”

“They do if they’re smart,” said his father.

“Dad, I can’t be seen wearing that thing. It’s not cool.”

“Do you want to be cool, or do you want to survive?”

“Both.”

“Then you’ll wear it.”

Tomio turned away.

“No, Son.” Josef grabbed him. “You wear it, or you don’t ride.”

“You can’t stop me.”

“Try me.” His dad’s eyes were fierce. Tom had no doubt that he could take him out with one swipe of his big hand and should his father decide to use another tactic, it would be hard to sit a bull if his butt was burning, Reluctantly, he took it.

“Good. I’m looking forward to watching you handle that bull, tomorrow, Knucklehead.”

A rattling water truck circled the arena, wetting the turf. The crowd roared when the rodeo clown danced around the truck, especially when the driver shoed him away with an overly large cowboy hat as if swatting an annoying mosquito.

Tom looked down on the bull in the chute. Old Faithful. He was fierce, a lucky draw for any rider that wanted to rack up high points. Tom just wanted to survive. “Well, here we go,” he said, as the bull reared and banged against the wall of the chute.

A horn blasted, signaling the exit of the water truck. The announcer’s voice boomed through the PA system, “Tom Dubanowski, Number Thirty-five on Old Faithful.” The crowd groaned.

Tom gazed toward the top stands, where his family sat.

His father jumped up in alarm.

It was the cowboy hat. What his father couldn’t see, was that he wore the hockey helmet under the borrowed hat. If his father missed it, the cool crowd would, too. 

Old Faithful snorted and bolted in the chute.

The sights of the event, and the roar of the crowd vanished as Tom’s focus narrowed. It was just him and the bull. Out of the silence he heard, “You ready, son?”

Tom sighed. He climbed onto Old Faithful’s back and felt the muscles of the giant beast bunch under him. Eight seconds, that’s all the time they needed to spend together. Just eight.

The voice from the silence said, “Get off the ground as soon as you can. Faithful comes around, every time, to stomp the rider, but he’ll help you get a high score if you can stay the distance.”

“Stay the distance,” Tom whispered. The bull bunched in anticipation. Tom tightened his hand on the bull rope. He prayed to the gods that he had enough rosin on his glove.  

He heard the countdown, “Three, two, one.”

The chute swung open. Old Faithful reared and leaped forward. Tom’s legs flew up and his body flew back, but he held on. Faithful bucked twice, gaining ground in the arena and then started a quick, tight, twirling motion. The cowboy hat flew off. Tom didn’t have time to worry about his image.

Faithful changed directions and kicked out with his hind legs, then twirled some more. The motion caused Tom’s teeth to tear through his tongue, but he held on.

Three more twists and Faithful bucked again. Then he leaped into the air and Tom prepared for the worst. He sunfished, a bizarre leap with a belly roll, all four legs twisting to the right. Tom’s elbow and shoulder wrenched with the motion, but he kept his fingers locked tight on the rope, held his right hand high. He worked hard to keep his legs forward. If they slipped back, he was a goner. He would fly over Faithful’s head and be crushed at the end of this maneuver. His legs stayed up. Faithful hit the ground with the force of a meteor hitting Earth, and Tom’s teeth clashed together. Pain flared up the sides of his head.

 Faithful wasn’t done. He bucked to the left, made a quick right turn and bucked hard. He sunfished once more, and Tom thought “Please buzz me out.”

A clown ran toward them, motioning “Get off, get off now.”

Tom let go, and flew to the left, crashing into the ground on his wrenched arm.

He dimly remembered, “Comes around, every time…stomps the rider.”

He scrambled to his knees, got his feet under him, and ran for the nearest fence. His left arm was useless, but he grabbed the top rail with his right and hauled himself over it. He fell again on the other side, this time twisting his left wrist underneath his body. All he could think of was, “Thank the gods I am right handed.”

That night, in the emergency room, while he and his mother waited for the X-rays, he said, “Do you think I’ll get a cast?”

“Oh, Tomio.”

“I hope so. That would be cool.”

“You don’t need cool. You have this.” She poked his head.

His father walked in and said, “That was some ridin’. Didn’t appreciate the scare with the hat, but guess you had somethin’ to prove.”

“Just wanted to be cool, Dad.”

“Well, thanks for wearing the gear.”

The doctor stepped into the cubicle. “You, young man, have no broken bones.”

“Aw, dang it,” said Tom.

“What you do have is a severely sprained wrist and elbow. Your shoulder could use some rest, too.”

“Do I get a cast?” said Tom.

“No,” said the doctor.

“But I want a cast.”

“Tomio,” said his mother. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“How about if we wrap it and put it into a sling? All the cool guys wear slings.” He winked at Tomio’s parents. “I’ll set up physical therapy for next week.”

Tom sat quietly as the doctor wrapped his arm, and set it into a sling. Then he said, “Sorry I didn’t win, Dad.”

“Who says you didn’t win,” said his father. He winked at his mother.

“I popped off before the buzzer,” said Tom.

“Are you kidding me? You rode two seconds after the buzzer, high score of the day.”

What?” said Tom.

His father pulled a buckle from behind his back. It was huge, glittering with silver and gold. A bull and rider flew above the CHSRA emblem. Tom’s hand shook as he held it. He had never considered winning. He just wanted to be cool.

His father said, “Is this summer from now on?”

Tom shook his head. “No way. I am never doing that again. But I am cool, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, you’re a real cowboy,” said his father.

  1. California High School Rodeo Association; California’s division of the National High School Rodeo Association. In 2004, a few brave riders started to use hockey helmets and face guards in the bull riding event. Now, most youth associations require them. That was not the case when Tom was riding. http://www.chsra.com/
Featured

B is for Battle

(Author’s Note: I first wrote this story in 1968. There was no Jack, just ‘the man’. He was not a police officer, just a Good Samaritan. The accident was a multiple car pile-up on 280 South, San Francisco, not the Marina District. Like Jack, he suffered tremendous guilt about his inability to save the woman in the car ahead of him when looters took advantage of the situation. I probably saw the accident on the news, and then my imagination took over. I tried to write this into the novel, but it works so much better as a backstory. Thank you in advance for reading it. Comments appreciated.)

If you were to ask Jack about his battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he would probably shrug his shoulders, smile, and then walk away. Maybe, before he did so, he would offer, “Have a nice day,” depending on his mood, and what was bugging him, both externally and internally. After spending a lifetime deciphering premonitions or inadvertently reading the minds of others, he is tired.

In the beginning, he didn’t feel anxiety, just wonder. Now, the constant stimulus rips holes in his sanity. The first crisis happened on April 10, 2001, three days before Good Friday. He was twenty-five, cocky, a rookie for San Francisco PD, and eager to impress his superiors. It was his first Easter season as a married man, and his first child was on the way. It seemed especially poignant that year to celebrate. He was half-awake, half dreaming, when his Nokia screamed from the kitchen.

“Jack, what time is it?” said Meghan, starting to look like she’d swallowed a basketball.

“A little after 4:00 am.”

“Can’t you tell them to leave you alone at this hour?”

“Naw. I need to take this. I think there has been a car accident.”

“You can’t know that,” she grumbled.

“I know. Sorry.” He leaned over her and kissed her.

She quickly pecked back, then rolled over and cuddled into her pillow.

By 4:30 am, Jack was on his way to San Francisco’s Marina District not to check out a car accident, but to check out a complaint about altered manifests at Pier 64. It wasn’t something that needed to be checked at this hour. He understood it was a call for the rookie, but he was glad to be out on a fog-free morning before rush hour trapped him behind a snake of cars.

He exited King Street onto Third and as he did so, he glanced in his rearview. An eighteen-wheeler barreled toward him. The two trailers fishtailed across lanes on either side. Jack lightly touched the brake, hoping the driver behind him would take the hint and slow down.

He didn’t.  

As the driver lost control, Jack saw the front of the truck point east while the first trailer skidded forward, jackknifing the cab. The second swung toward him. Jack revved his cruiser, but just at that moment, a small car pulled in front of him, and he had to brake for it. The trailer kept sliding toward him, a groaning avalanche in slow motion. It shoved his cruiser into the small car. Jack saw the woman in the little car reach behind her at the same time that she tried to steer away from the inevitable nightmare crashing into her from behind.

Sandwiched between them, Jack watched in frozen horror as the chassis of the trailer subsumed the rear of his vehicle. The front of his car humped the vehicle in front of him, trapping the three of them in a bizarre ménage a’ trois of vehicles. He chuckled at the inevitability of death, and then the world went black.

He couldn’t have been out for more than a couple of minutes. Consciousness came haltingly, flashing vignettes of sound separated by the roar of silence: the inside of his head buzzed as if he stood next to a very active beehive, the blare of a car horn sounded muffled as if under water, a baby screamed in the distance. The vehicles groaned as they settled after the collision. The air was acrid with the stench of burnt rubber and oil. The sky was very blue. It hurt to look at it.

He tried unrolling his window. It worked.

“Hey,” he yelled. The woman was slumped in the front seat of the car under his. Her hand hung out of the window and blood dripped from her fingers. She wasn’t moving.

“Oh, god, no. No,” he said as he tried to shove open his door. It wouldn’t budge. In the distance, he thought he heard sirens, but the wheels on the big rig were still rotating, so maybe he heard them squealing. He looked around for the truck driver, but there was no sign of movement in or around his overturned cabin.

He wiggled out of the window. It hurt to breathe and he was dizzy but he had to get to the woman in the car under his. He was sure she had a baby.

As he dropped to the pavement, a wave of nausea hit him at the same time that a volley of bullets hit his car. Had he still been in it, he would be dead. He crawled to the car in front of him, but another volley of bullets flew around him. One of them grazed his head and he felt a flame of pain before the world blacked out again.

The next time he woke, he squinted against the brilliant white glare of lights in a room. An annoying beeping noise pummeled the air to his left. The top of his right hand stung as if a giant grasshopper had clamped its chomps into it. He stared. A bandage held a tube in place.  

“Welcome back,” said a deep voice.

“Where?”

“Mission Bay.”

“The lady and the baby,” said Jack as he struggled to get up.

“Hey, hey,” said his partner. “Your wife is on the way. We don’t want you mangled any more than you already are before she gets here.”

“God,” said Jack, as he sank into the pillow. “Did the mother in the car – ?”

“No. She took a bullet.”

“Oh, god,” said Jack. She needed him and he couldn’t get to her.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” said his partner.

“The baby?”

“Social Services until we can locate family. He’ll be fine.”

“Shooters?”

“Didn’t get them all rounded up. Bunch of thugs taking advantage of the situation. The truck was full of computer parts.”

Jack whispered, “Shit.”

“Yeah. The law of the jungle.”

A month later, Jack was still fighting to get out of that car. Every night he woke his poor wife and ruined his own sleep. PTSD was the diagnosis.

Six months later, the nightmares had settled into sporadic stress-induced seizures of anxiety. Visions of death and mayhem hit him like the bullet that grazed his head. He battled them by counting to nine, washing his hands, or tapping a pencil until he drove other people nuts, especially his wife who saw him at his lowest. At least twice a week, she found blood on the sheets under his pillow where he’d cradled his hands, after biting his fingernails to the quick.

On those mornings he’d ask, over and over again, “Are you going to leave me, Meg, are you going to leave me?” until she screamed at him to shut-up.  

By the next year around Easter, the shrink, hired by the precinct to work with him, declared he was suffering with OCD. He had always been open to psychic information, but now the errant thoughts distracted him. His job performance was suffering; his marriage was suffering. Trapped in a constant battle, he was the only one that could fight it. OCD was a demon, driven by its own sick need to exist. There could only be one victor between them. OCD could win and Jack would live a life of torment in Hell, or he could fight with all he was worth.  

Fight or give in.

There was really only one choice. With a son gracing his life, he would battle until he was victor.

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Writing is an act of giving.

We are not alone. There are more realms of life than we see, more ways of knowing than our five senses interpret and experiences more unimaginable than we ever dreamed. AV Singer creates characters that experience paranormal events, alien encounters, past-life regression, and utter silliness. Yet each is someone you or I would like to know, someone that faces life with courage, humor and compassion. You don’t have to live through the things they have lived through, because AV has done that for you in every story.img032