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Where is the Evidence

Captain Jamison, nicknamed ‘Grizzly’ because of his gruff manner, was an imposing man, both physically and metaphorically. He had to be. Growing up in Detroit was tough in the sixties, and for decades after the 1967 riots, anyone who wanted to be somebody had to fight for a place to thrive. He was one of the lucky ones. His father had owned a profitable business in Black Bottom. He was used to community support, and in all his time as a street cop, he never forgot that support. He returned it to his community then, and now to his officers, but still his mannerisms intimidated most of them. Not Maureen Thompson, she had fought her way to the top as well, and loved him as one loves a dear, favorite uncle who has led the way to success.

She knocked on his door before she opened it.

“Come in,” he growled.

He sat slumped over a stack of reports on his desk, disheveled and pale, as if he held the world upon his shoulders, and as such, it was a fight he couldn’t win.

“You okay, Cap?” she said.

He sat up and attempted to smile at her. “Fine. Just fine.”

He could say that, but she was under no obligation to believe him.

Jack stepped into the office after her. Jamison placed both hands on his desk as if by doing so he could gather strength from it. He sighed and said, “What do you two want?”

“We wanted to talk to you about the cases we are working on,” said Maureen.

“I’ve just finished your reports. What I want to know,” he glared at Jack, “is why I have a report from an officer who is supposed to be on medical leave.”

Maureen said, “My fault. I called him last night. Got a call while on scene at a murder.”

“This one.” He picked up a file. “Says here, there was a body dump at the river.”

“That’s where the evidence points. A Taiwanese boy, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, maybe nineteen, stabbed and left there for us to find. While there, I received a second call about another boy. He didn’t make it home last night.”

Jack spoke. “Evan Fischer, nineteen. He’s been missing nearly twenty hours now.”

“I called Jack because I was working with rookies last night, Cap. Didn’t want to send them on a missing child case.”

“Why do I get the feeling you two think these cases are connected?”

Jack looked at Maureen. She took a deep breath when she caught his eye, and said, “Well, we have two witnesses down the hall that seem suspiciously connected to both of them. One is a cashier from the same Walgreens where Evan Fischer works. I pulled her in because she lied about picking up a prescription for Percocet for the boy. It’s a heavy painkiller. It suggests that Jack’s suspicion that he’s been in a fight is correct.”

“That weird second sight thing?”

“Yes,” said Jack.

“But no direct visual evidence.”

“None, Sir,” said Jack. He added, “The second witness is the manager for that same Walgreens.”

“What’s his story?” said Jamison, rubbing his jaw.

“He recognizes the tattoos on Maureen’s Taiwanese boy.”

“He told you that?” said Jamison.

“No, but it is very obvious he recognizes the tats.”

“So this manager knows both Evan Fischer, who you believe has injuries, and the dead Taiwanese boy, who also, according to these photos, was in quite a fight. And in your minds, without any evidence to corroborate this collaboration, these two cases are linked because….” Captain Jamison pursed his lips.

Jack stuttered, “J-j-just let us continue.”

Jamison waved him on.

“During my interview with Heathe, he confirmed a tip that Maureen got from him earlier in the day when she interviewed him at the store. Evan has a girlfriend named Bree. Coincidentally, a girl named Sobrina Morelli –.”

“Let me interrupt you. The Morelli gang?”

“Not confirmed, but possible. She quit Walgreens before Christmas, which is why Evan now has a full time position there. The manager says she was pregnant and looked beat up, but he wouldn’t confirm it. Says she might have fallen.”

“Which is it, beat up or injured falling?” said Jamison.

Maureen said, “We have yet to confirm, Sir.”

“Seems that a lot still needs to be confirmed. Well, Balmario’s team has been following the Morellis. His report says there was a possible retaliatory event last night that may have included one or two of their members. Did either of your witnesses bring that up?”

Maureen said, “No.”

“How long have they been in the hold?” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Almost two hours now.”

“Hold the cashier for obstruction.”

Maureen said, “Captain, I’d like to release her and put a tail on her. If Evan Fischer is really the one taking the Percocet, she may lead us back to him.”

“Done. We have three undercovers on the street. I will let them know.”

“Thank you.”

“I think we can put some pressure on Heathe, the other witness, Sir,” said Jack.

Jamison stared at Jack, waiting for him to continue.

“He frequently makes purchases to indulge in, in the back offices of Walgreens.” Jack made a semi-obscene pumping gesture with his hand.

Jamison scowled. “He told you this?”

Maureen said, “No, Emilia Rodriguez, the cashier, indicated as much.”

“That’s hearsay,” said Jamison.

Jack said, “Yes, but she says everyone knows. We can corroborate.”

Jamison looked at Jack, but pointed to Maureen. “She can corroborate. You can take advantage of your sick leave. You’re outta here.”

“Sir,” said Jack, squirming. “I’m just trying to help.”

“And I appreciate it, but I need you at your best. If you are seeing this with your mojo, I need your head clear, and your partner, bless his heart, is not in any shape to be helping you with this. Take care of him first.”

Maureen looked at Jack and shrugged her shoulders.

Jamison told her, “Let the cashier go, but put the fear of God into her. Hold Heathe. Let Vice work him. If they can prove his indiscretions, we can hold him; otherwise, we have to let him go. In the meantime maybe someone should find Sobrina Morelli.”

“Yes Captain. We’ll get right on it,” said Maureen.

“You’ll get right on it. He’s outta here.”

As Jack stood to leave, someone knocked on Captain Jamison’s door.

“What now,” he said. “Come in.”

An officer from Dispatch stepped into the office waving a piece of paper. “Just in, a BOLO from the FBI in Stockton, California, CARD division.” CARD was an acronym for Child Abduction Rapid Deployment. He handed it to Jamison.

“Wonderful,” Jamison said, sarcastically. “We have another missing boy. Have either of you seen this one?” He showed them the picture.

Jack fell into his chair. Maureen grabbed his forearm and took the flyer. “Yes, Captain. This is one of our own. Jonathan Tyler is Jack’s son.”

Captain looked at Jack with a laser-focused stare that pinned him to the chair. “Your plate is full. Get outta here.”

“Yessir,” said Jack who attempted to stand. It was clear he was in shock. Maureen held onto his arm as he shuffled toward the door.

“Get him out of here, and don’t let him come back,” said Jamison.

“Got it,” said Maureen as she hauled Jack out the door.

He leaned against the outer wall.

“You okay?” said Maureen.

He scrubbed his face and then grabbed his hair. “Gotta see Tomi,” he said.

“Go, Jack. Get out of here. We’ll find your boy, Jack. You know we will.”

She clapped him on the shoulder and left him glued to the wall where he stood, trying to regain some strength to move again.

She couldn’t imagine what Jack was feeling right now. All she could see was her own little one, waving goodbye this morning at the window. She would do everything in her power to save her little Michael from such a fate.

She had no doubt that Jack would do the same. 

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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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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.

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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!