Category Archives: Fiction

Elephant in my Pocket

THE CLAUSTROPHOBIC ALLEY reached a long way back and brick walls on either side towered many stories, dimming the bright shaft of sunlight a few feet away. Squinting, I tried to discern “Fred,” the guy my friend Brian said would meet me. Brian had many contacts. I’d told him what I wanted and he raised an eyebrow, but said he could make it happen. He asked how much money I wanted to spend and I told him. A few days later he told me what I must do.

I thought of Brian as worldly, more social, not like me, the bookworm. He paced his way through college with me, but he didn’t have the drive to excel, not like I did. Good that it didn’t affect our friendship.

As I peered into the darkness of the alley I made out a shadowed form and gulped with the sudden thought, what if it’s not him? Things happened in alleys. I steeled my nerves and stepped in.

“Fred?” I called softly.

The man said nothing, but I felt intent eyes on me. He nodded. He appeared the epitome of average, not dirty or rumpled, but nondescript, with a forgettable face. He didn’t smile. Here goes. I tried to be ready…for what, I didn’t know.

“You have it?”

Another nod.

“Can I see it?”

From a pants pocket he produced a minuscule clear plastic envelope  and dangled it in front of me beyond arms reach. It looked like it. Trying not to breathe hard, I handed him an envelope. He opened it and peeked inside, closed it and passed over the little prize I wanted. He made no move to leave. I inspected the little package more closely.

Yes! I smiled and put it in my pocket. It felt strange doing something I’d never done before.

Somehow, the thrill of fear that gripped me heightened this first time adventure. Taking my cue from the silent man in front of me, I nodded, turned and headed for the street, but I have to admit, little tremors went up and down my back. At the end of the building, I glanced back into an empty alley. He’d disappeared. I reached into my right pocket, grasped the plastic, felt the outline of what I’d paid so much money for and held it protectively. As I walked, it seemed to swell in my hand.

I needed this. Four years of college behind me and already I had a good job offer. I earned it with hard work and personal dedication. This item in my pocket would cap the experience.

On leaving the alley, I became fearful. Suppose someone saw me duck into that narrow space between the buildings. What would a curious person think? Would he or she flag down a cop and point at me. Would I hear, “Stop, mister…!

Furtively I searched the crowded sidewalk. Had anyone noticed? I couldn’t tell. Sidewalks filled with shoppers went this way and that, intent on their own missions. I breathed a sigh.

Still, my body tingled. My emotions; too tight. It wouldn’t do.  I tried to relax and become one with the crowded scene, but kept my hand in my pocket, fingering the plastic. If I could get the rest of my body to cooperate, I’d look jaunty at worst, anonymous at best. Be part of the scene, raise no stir, blend in. That’s what I had to do.

Twenty-one years old today, not that Mom or Dad cared. Dad left Mom after a loud argument…it hit me, a year today! My twentieth birthday. A disappointing time. I hardly expected presents that late in life, but hearing “Happy Birthday, son,” from either might have been nice. No, the crack in their marriage overcame any thoughts of their son that day.

The memory crawled back. I saw me in my bedroom with the door closed, working on an outline for my Psyc essay. I needed to ace it.  I needed to stay focused entirely on my schoolwork. I didn’t want to be here with them, but we lived too close to the Cornell campus to justify staying at a dorm. Regardless, long-term money problems made it impossible.

Dad threw up his hands. He’d done it so often I pictured it as though I’d seen it, and I heard him yell, “That’s the last time, May.” Behind my closed door, I suffered in silence as the minutes stretched.

Finally, the door slammed; Dad’s final solution and not a word from him since. I stayed with Mom thinking only of my need to acquire my final solution, to get the hell out.

We lived in a big house on a tree-shaded lane on Linden Street, except in winter snowstorms an easy walk to the campus. After he left, to his credit Dad paid the bills, but he divorced himself from any contact with his wife and son. Total concentration almost to obsession on my studies insulated me from my parents’ adult mess.

I’m not saying Mom needed me. She had her own spate of problems, her drug dependency generated by a bad fall three years before from which she recovered physically, but with too many pain pills and an associated weight gain, her self-image plummeted. She became sloppy, ineffectual and quarrelsome. Dad had it “Up to here!” words I’d heard him say that echoed in my brain even today. I didn’t blame him when he gave up. I blamed Mom.

After he’d gone, I never felt right about telling Mom to stop wallowing in self-pity, so I said nothing. She’d put herself there and I believed she could have gotten help. She didn’t and I didn’t give her any support. Dad brought me up to believe that you make your own way in life. If you had a problem you couldn’t handle, suck it up. Unable to see Mom’s side of it, we became strangers in the same house and she faded into the background.

Then, in the beginning of my senior year, I met Gail, a theater student on campus. I fell for her hard. Her magnetism took some of the edge off my studies, but I had to graduate well. I had to be in the top tenth percentile in my class. When scouts descended on Cornell in the final semester, they had to notice me.

Gail’s and my chemistry was awful and beautiful and sensible and crazy and we wallowed in it. Mom sunk further into the background. A few months into the relationship, Gail and I had a serious conversation. Evidently, she had it as bad for me as I did for her, so mutual devotion, tied up in common sense and acceptance of the greater goal made it workable.

I graduated in the fifth percentile of my class. The scouts noticed. I had ached for Microbiology as my chosen field. I wanted a job in a top lab with all the tools and funding where I could prove myself and eventually indulge in working up original ideas I’d kept close to my chest for years.

Now I walked stiffly, looking from side to side with my eyes, trying not to appear an outsider to the moving crowd. I fingered the plastic and squeezed it gently, thinking of the near future and the job offer I’d wanted and successfully won.

I massaged this elephant in my pocket, my piece de resistance.

Gail rehearsed her small part in a popular local play today. I wanted her to see what I held so firmly. At Ithaca Downtown College Theater, I mounted the stairs, stopped before the main entrance door, took out the plastic envelope, opened it and beheld its contents. I inhaled and exhaled several times and squared my shoulders. This is for the two of us, I thought. Pleasure beyond measure. The thought made me giddy.

Now on the surest footing I’d ever been, I walked into the darkened theater, resolutely strode down the main aisle and onto the brightly lit, crowded stage, my face hot but my will strong.

In front of Gail, to the horror of the director whose rehearsal I had interrupted, I dropped to one knee, held out the brilliant one-carat diamond ring to her and said, “I love you, Gail. Will you marry me?”

Cobwebbed Memories

SHE DIED ON July 14th. Gram lived ninety-nine years, Adele Phylura Rampitz in life, most of her years were good ones; I mean robust and healthy ones, not good in the sense most people think about it.

Toward the end, the last five years, she suffered from old-timers disease and a couple of things changed. The razor sharp mind, having sawed away at life and all she came in contact with for nearly a century dulled. As her surviving heir, I found that reasonable, as I knew from my reading that not many old brains remain unclouded past seventy.

During that time Gram mellowed. She began to see life through “rose-colored glasses,” as the expression goes. I did a double-take a number of times when she stared at things I couldn’t see and affected the tone of a blushing nineteen-year-old.

Before the change, her razor-sharp mind attached directly to a razor-sharp tongue. She made the Wicked Witch of the West seem friendly and caring to those who knew her, and she got away with it by dominating everyone.

I’m Harry, grandson, single and last of the line, may it stop here!

At the end I couldn’t tell her what a bitch she had been to her late husband. I’m convinced she drove him to his death. When Mom died in the car crash with Gramps driving and him coming away from it without a scratch, the tongue lashings rose to a higher level.

He cashed out weeks after the tragedy, a broken man, a bullet to the temple. Dad, ill in the hospital and the reason for the trip Mom and Gramps took that day took the news unsmiling. Once home he became distant and uncommunicative. I could see his pain, but I had pain to deal with. I’d loved Gramps, too. As a twelve year old boy, what could I do?

We lived close by, but with Gramps gone, Dad sold his house and he and I moved back in with Gram out of duty. He fell under Gram’s inflexible eye and gradually her presence beat him down. I’m convinced almost anyone living within a two-mile radius of her felt her uncompromising personality to some degree.

Three years later Dad finally quit trying and hanged himself in the garage. I still try to force out the memory of it. I know he’d cared for Gram and me as best he could, but Dad could never free himself from Gram’s inquisitor’s aura. It finally broke him as it had his father.

Right after my father died, I knew I couldn’t stay. I feared being alone in the big house under Gram’s glistening dark and all seeing eyes. At night, lying in my third floor bed, I thought about Dad and I thought about Gramp. Perhaps too young to know all the facts, I believed Gram was purely evil.

One day, a week after Dad’s funeral when my body hummed with nervous dread, I packed what I could in an old suitcase and emptied my savings from the hidden coffee can in my room into my pockets. Very quietly that night I slipped out of the house while she slept and ran away to Minneapolis.

I guess associating with Gram aged me somehow, that and desperation, because I got a job almost immediately at an Exxon gas station pumping gas, cleaning toilets and general stuff. I slept in an abandoned car for the first two weeks and I think the boss got suspicious seeing me wear the same clothes every day, but he just rolled that big cigar around in his mouth and didn’t say anything.

After I had some real money in my pocket, I found a rooming house in the low rent district. A good-looking lad, hat in hand, I told the landlady my story and she took pity on me. I got room and board for fifteen dollars a week. I had to clean up the place and keep things neat. I told her the truth; all except for my age¾I said eighteen.

I struggled to make good in Minneapolis and I did hang tough, learned the gas trade and eventually bought the station from Lou Green, who’d taken sick and couldn’t run it anymore. In the meantime, my section of town deteriorated and prices went up and I never really liked the work.

I returned five years before Gram died. Adele¾she wouldn’t like it but I’ll call her that¾lived in Pipestone, Minnesota, a little town of three thousand, southwest of Minneapolis near the corner of the state where it meets South Dakota. She lived in a big old Victorian house on a low hill up on Spenser Street, pretty near town center that dated back to the early nineteen hundreds.

I’d been away for twenty-five years and memories of the iron will and acid tongue I’d learned to hate in Adele had dimmed, so when the call came to go back and take care of the old place and the old woman, with my fortunes at low ebb in the big city, I agreed. I sold the station off at a loss and good riddance and left town.

The neighbor who tracked me down about Adele’s mental state lived in Pipestone a few houses down in a small but neat white clapboarded Cape, and had for thirty years worked for Adele doing laundry and general housekeeping, most likely as much a friend as Gram would ever accept into her inner circle. Hilda I sort of remembered when I got the letter that came to the gas station.

Once back in Pipestone I saw the house needed more than paint so I did the repairs and spent all next year sprucing it up. A place grows on you when you put work into it and I became comfortable there.

Adele’s condition worsened so gradually I hardly noticed, but early on she made the transition from foggy evil Gram to good Gram and I could handle her just fine. The trust fund that supported her took care of the property, the taxes and also paid for round the clock nursing help, but not much remained of it. She’d made me promise I’d keep her in the old house until she died. I honored that even though I’d begun to worry how I would keep the old place going.

One warm evening in mid-July, Nurse Nancy tiptoed down the long, carpeted staircase and knocked gently on the doorframe to the living room where I sat reading the weekly Pipestone Chronicle.

“I believe she’s going, sir.”

“I’d better go up.”

Nancy followed me back upstairs. Gram looked small and gray against the white sheets. A huge feather pillow billowed around her. Her breath labored and I’d swear she’d finally decided to give up, because no way would death claim that woman unless she agreed to it. She saw me and gestured me to come near. With a weak flutter of her hand, she waved the nurse away. Nancy left the room.

“Harry,” she said in a voice near a whisper, “I’m going to die now. In the wall safe is a locked box with a letter in it. The key is taped under the nightstand here in my bedroom.”

I had access to the safe for years, but not to that box and I’d asked her about it. She’d say, “When I die.”

Now she said, “Read the letter. It has instructions in it for you to follow.”

I remained silent.

In a diminishing voice, she said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The saying seemed hauntingly familiar.

She let out a final, long breath and no more followed. Like that she died.

⇔⇔⇔

Some endings are also beginnings. The letter instructed me to find a small black box with a gold leaf emblem on its top. I’m in the attic now. Cobwebs attach to everything and dust outlines them. The spiders have long since left. My five cell flashlight searches here and there in the overfilled, cramped surroundings. It’s a wonder the floors can hold this weight.

I search through cobwebbed memories that go back more than a hundred years. The letter says I must find it and that when I do, I will understand. Mysteries irritate me, but they also beckon.

Adele didn’t hint where I might find this box, except that it is somewhere in the house. It’s not downstairs. I’ve been in the attic two days now and I’m tired. One more aisle to go and it’s back downstairs for me until tomorrow.

I crawl to the east wall. Light enough from the small, dirty, four-light end window shows a narrow passage. Before I look into it I peek out. Pipestone has beauty and it spreads before me. It’s a view I’ve never seen before. I like it, but in a moment I turn and shine my light into the passage, and there, near the angle of the roof, sitting on top of a pile of cardboard boxes is a small, dust-covered box.

Trying not to hope, I move carefully into the space and pick it up. After rubbing the top with a hand, I blow away the dust. It makes me sneeze, which is somehow funny and I laugh and that causes more sneezes.

Yes, gold leaf, a beautiful box with Chinese pictographs on its top. It’s locked. The key is in the study on the big mahogany desk, where I’d retrieved it from Gram’s nightstand. With the box under my arm I close up the attic and make my way to the study.

The key opens it readily. Inside are some papers and a ring. The ring has a diamond in an ancient setting that must be fifteen carats if it’s a single one. It sparkles in the light over the desk. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I’m blown away. After a few minutes I put the ring down and look through the papers.

They’re dated twenty-five years ago, title and deed to the house in my name. I open the letter at the bottom. It says:

Dear Harry,

I hired a detective to locate you and left a letter with Hilda on where to find you at the right time. If you are reading this, I have been successful. I am who I am, but I am not evil, only driven. I hope by now you have forgiven me, but if not, I understand. Sell the ring. It will set you up for life. I miss my husband and my son, but that you read this now proves you had the enduring strength of the Rampitz clan. Besides this house and property, you are the only thing in this world that truly mattered to me.

Love,  Gram Adele

That memorable phrase comes back to me. She’d said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I’ll be damned! All manner of things are well indeed. And as important, clear to me. Finally!

East Wind

THE WIND CAME from the east channeled by mountains either side of their protected valley. Six times out of seven a stiff breeze coming through Widders Notch foretold a hurricane.

She and Pa had to come back from severe damage a good number of times and since Pa died Grandma Jo had trouble keeping up the place. Her lumbago kept her to the sitting porch more and more and while looking at the beautiful, deep valley and the mountains and by dozing a good bit, she’d think about chores more often than doing them.

She lowered the moistened finger she’d held to the wind and wiped it on her stained overalls. She squinted toward the pine grove on her hill. Eyesight going right along with everything else, she thought. Maybe she saw needles waving, maybe not. Finger said east, so east then, and it feared her.

She sat back in her creaking rocker. At eighty-six she couldn’t see the end of her life, but it couldn’t be far off. Being resigned to it fit her thinking well enough. Jake, Hank Grover’s great grandson wouldn’t have to come up here anymore. He’d probably take it as a blessing.

Hank lived a half mile further down near the valley’s out road and Jo knew he carried a torch for her in Normal School back when Buchanan got to be president in1857 before the Rebellion. But she’d married Pa after the war and that was that. Sixty years later after Pa died, Widower Hank came up and tried to court her, but she told him they were friends and she wouldn’t upset that apple-cart.

“You need a man around, Jo,” he said.

“You can’t do nothing Hank, “she said, “and I can’t neither, so you want to help out, ask that strapping boy lives with you come up, split wood, maybe make a few repairs. I can pay him.”

“No need for that. I’ll set him to it. You know he’s soft in the head.”

“’Course I do. He won’t be a bother.”

Hank left, been five years back and he didn’t come again what with his farm and all his own chores and maybe disappointed, but the boy did and what help he gave paid attention to the woodpile for the most part. Not being quite right, she didn’t want him on her roof anyway, so the place ran down, right along with her. Now and then she’d wonder which would collapse first.

Now this wind’s a coming. She pulled her body painfully off the chair and went inside. The screen door creaked open and slammed on rusted hinges. She went about taking everything off shelves that could fall if the house shook too much and put it on the floor near as she could to the closest wall. Her earthenware had suffered many decades of use and had chips, but she couldn’t abide them breaking altogether.

She recalled the last big wind. It found Pa high on the side hill tilling the two back to back fields for what he hoped would be a second corn crop. He stopped midway on the second field, turned the horses around and came back as fast as the old plodders would come and shouted for her to batten down while he put the horses into the paddock for safety ‘cause he didn’t trust the barn. They worked together like soldiers and rode out that big blow sitting in the house listening to it creak and groan.

She couldn’t help but smile at those days working together. She had her memories. They’d have to do. The light began to dim as the first high clouds worked themselves between her and the sun. It reminded her, the storm shutters needed closing. She went after them as soon as she satisfied her view on the kitchen. She’d latched the upstairs shutters when it got too painful to climb the stairs several years ago and moved downstairs for sleeping. They closed from the inside; glad Pa did it that way when he built the house.  At ground level they fastened from the outside. By the time she finished, the leaden sky pushed at her with little gusts. She could feel the storm gathering strength.

About to go back inside and sit in the one stuffed chair Pa had bought for her forty years before, she’d mounted the porch steps and got a hand on the screen door when she heard a hail from down the hill. It startled her, not being alone. With a wave, Hank puffed up the dirt road toward her. He had to stop and lean against a post for a few moments, and then he doggedly continued.

Jo, pleased to see her old friend again, but puzzled as to why he’d appeared just then, made her way down the three steps off the porch and went to meet him. A strong gust hit her and she fell with a short cry.

“Jo!”

Hank came to her as fast as he could manage. The old man had little strength left, but bent down and helped her up. She leaned on him and he leaned back. Together they inched their way back to the porch and grasping the rail, pulled them both onto it.

“What are you doing here?” Jo gasped.

“Runner came up from town. Said big blow coming. Jake’s took sick bad. Doc Hall says he can’t be moved. Thought of you up here alone and started up the hill on Daisy, but she threw a shoe about a quarter mile back and went lame. I left her there and started walking. You need a man, Jo.”

The old woman couldn’t believe it, but it was so. “Guess I do, Hank. I’ll thank you for coming.”

“Catch my breath and I’ll give you a hand.”

“No need. What’d got to be done I did.”

“We’ll ride it out together then.”

“Glad for your company, Hank.”

The east wind grew and the turbulent gray sky lowered as the storm came on. The first big drops of rain slanted in and forced the couple off the porch. Inside they took to the kitchen chairs, looking at each other across the table and glancing up now and then when the old farmhouse shook. Upstairs something crashed and Hank struggled to get up.

“No, Hank, stay with me.” Jo took Hank’s hand across the table and held it and it made her feel better. The fear she held under the surface calmed.

She knew in that moment that she should not have turned Hank away after Pa died. What would be the harm? Farming took her and Pa’s strength and energy, but their marriage succeeded and they had sixty good years. Pa rested under the soil in the family plot. God gave them the land from which they wrested their living. They had done His will and she knew he worked in mysterious ways. He’d brought Hank to her when she most feared being alone, didn’t He?

The wind outside howled like fury. Another crash and then monstrous sounds, rending, tearing, splitting noises grew and the house seemed to twist. Ceiling beams sagged and big pieces of plaster dropped around them.

Hank’s grip increased in Jo’s hand and she knew he knew their end had come and she pressed his hand back.

“Pa,” she called amidst the thunderous din, “I’m coming to you, and I’m bringing a friend.”

Requiem for America

I REMOVE MY glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash outlines my little cellar window. I’m on the edge of my seat watching TV in my basement. My wife is upstairs, probably sleeping. Did I care?

The dazzling light comes through the sunken window-well from outside through bars I welded onto the metal frame to discourage burglars. They outline the other side of the room with surreal, distorted shadows. What the hell?

As I begin to panic my mind reviews why I put the bars in. My area of town hasn’t had a problem in years, but an ounce of prevention never hurts.

This picture of Marge blows into my face and I hear her say, “Cover it with a privacy curtain. I don’t want to look at bars.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it,” I grumble, but I only finished the room two weeks before and I by God want a break. So I don’t get around to it. She goes away fuming.

By reflex, I dive for the floor while my brain is still in its blame scenario. You want it done quicker; I think at her maliciously, I’ll show you where I keep the screwdriver and the screws. Put it up yourself.

She’s been pissing me off lately. I know I have an old rod that’d work in that spot in the workroom someplace. Damned if I want to spend any more money on this project and I don’t feel appreciated, so she wants me to do it, she can wait!

The incredibly brilliant flash twists my reason around. I wish I’d done what she asked.

Lately I go down cellar to watch TV at the end of my shift.  Better than sitting upstairs to stony silence. Tonight I sit in my recliner all antsy watching bad news on TV get worse, my third vodka martini all but forgotten.

Bad news, lousy political climate, fear abounding, but no warning? Could our government be that lax? I listen to TV politicians, our “intelligent” representatives on their soapboxes scream at each other, half for war, half for appeasement. Overload lights and doubts crash through my brain.

Then this brilliant flash and I know in my soul this is it. It’s here. My God, Armageddon!

What should I expect, maybe a high-pitched whistle like the one the phones made when a B-52 bomber penetrated the Soviet air defenses and annihilated Moscow in the movie “Fail Safe?” Maybe a low, ground-shaking wave like an earthquake? Will the house above me disappear in a tornado of manmade destruction seconds from now? Will I look up and see a starry sky above me, a huge gaping hole with me at the bottom, hands over my head, my house, my wife, my children atomized above me? Will I start to glow?

It didn’t happen.

I struggle to get to my feet and then I guess I woke up, because my eyes open and I am sitting where I’d been since I got home, slouched on my easy chair. Must have dosed off. Only a dream? Liquor befuddled my brain again. I do a self-assessment.

Gotta drink less in the evening after work. Yeah, my stinking job, hated it. The thought comes with that acid, pit of the stomach feeling. My corporate job evaporated. Downsized; nice word. I’d like to upsize them! Good money gone, no prospects, played the job market for months; nothing. Finally I took this job I got.

Nobody in his right mind would deliver pizza for a living; maybe a high school kid who needed some jingle to impress the chicks, maybe that, but not me, forty-eight years old with one foot on a financial banana peel.

“So you could stop buying the booze, right, Frank?” she said during one of our recent heated arguments.

Uh-uh, not that. Gotta have something. Oh, jeez, twelve-thirty. In that moment the local TV station, WGJD went off the air. The color bar came up and audio went to hiss. Marge didn’t wake me up for bed again.

Tonight I can relate. I lost a really good job and if people don’t think losing your level of living based on a big paycheck doesn’t cause strain in the family, I can tell you, it does.

Feeling contrite after my dream I move slowly to the stairs. We have an extended ranch style house. I like living all on one floor except for the room downstairs I just cobbled together, but there’s a cellar stair that creaks pretty good. With the bedroom close to the cellar stairs the sound could wake Marge. Have to fix that, one day. Anyway, I avoid the squeak by stepping on the outside edge of the stair and climb carefully the rest of the way and tiptoe into the bedroom.

The state of our relationship is evident. Marge left me plenty of room in our king-sized bed. She’s asleep over near the edge, like she could fall off if she moved wrong. I get the message and it brings me back totally sober.

I have to do something soon or this marriage will dissolve like my job and deep down I don’t want that. I love her. The strain worked its nasty magic on us. I knew it in my more lucid moments, but delivering pizza? My God, how far down I’d come!

I look at her sleeping form, the mound of her hip and the gentle slope of her legs under the covers, the slight bulge made by her small feet. Our sex life went down the toilet a couple of months ago after I announced that I had to take something, anything, that we couldn’t survive on nothing and my unemployment checks were about to stop. I tried to make working for Pizza Hut sound like an opportunity, but she saw through it as quick as I did.

I crawl in, trying not to shake the bed and resolving that I would somehow get better work. I need it for me, too. I’d married late. We still had two at home, Justin, the fifteen year old and Mark, our late love child, only nine. I owe it to them, and yeah, I owe it to Marge, too. She stuck by me through thick and thin. We had some rough shoals to cross, but we crossed them together. I warm the hollow I made under the covers and go to sleep.

We live in the nice suburb of Alington outside of Cliffside Park in New Jersey, a river and a stone’s throw across from that fat target, Manhattan Island.

I don’t live far from work and in the morning I have nothing to do. Marge makes breakfast quietly and avoids any more blowups. I sit at the table and just as quietly thank her for it. Work doesn’t start until eleven.

I turn on the TV in the living room and the events that caused my dream the night before come crowding back. I hear Senator Pacifier and Congressman Inflamer’s words being rehashed over the news. The professional newscaster reporting the news doesn’t look nervous. I have to admire that, but I’d bet the two nickels in my pocket that behind his eyes he fears like I do, like most of us.

From the news and the stuff coming out of Nigeragua-the corrupt African country that announced a year ago it had the bomb and a nice delivery system, thanks to some fifty surplus ICBM’s the Russians willingly sold them thinking they’d never be able to use them and no skin off their nose, anyway-it sounded like the hawk had the upper hand.

The Africans had a lot of support in America for obvious reasons. Thinking about it, I also detected a bit of black pride on the streets lately, too, more than usual. Most African Americans didn’t get that if push came to shove and Nigeragua shoved first, they’d suffer right along with the rest of us.

The world seemed to be heading into another mess, with the U. S. bullying and threatening and posturing. This time the Nigeraguans wouldn’t back down. Matter of fact, the announcer just said something new. I concentrated on his words; Washington had received an ultimatum and the Executive and Pentagon were studying it in closed session. He said an announcement from Fred Dingle; the President’s press secretary would be forthcoming.

A chill crawls down my back.  A dream’s a dream, but this sounds too real. I’ll fight if I have to. I’ll fight to the last for my kids and for Marge, but the TV brought possibilities into my home I never thought I’d have to face, right here, right now.

How do you fight an atomic bomb? How do you do that? I wouldn’t think for a minute that if a hydrogen bomb exploded over the Empire State Building we wouldn’t be seriously affected across the Hudson. Are you kidding? We’d be devastated. I mean, for years I enjoyed looking across the river at the bustle of humanity, usually being glad I didn’t have to live so tightly packed, that I had space. Suddenly Manhattan’s way too close.

I go into work and work the day, even get fifty in tips-it helps-and when I get home at eleven, I go right downstairs to watch the night news staff rehash the day’s events. The news, if anything had gotten worse and America’s military had gone on Def-Con 1, which frightened me. The fear I’d held earlier came back. We’re all in a big pickle!

A thought comes to me and I slam my forehead with my palm. I didn’t kiss Marge when I came in. Funny, as I thought about it, I hadn’t done that in a long time. With the internal upset in our lives, I’d stopped. I couldn’t remember when it happened. It comes to me as a revelation. I realize I need her desperately.

I run back upstairs and into the bedroom where she sits up reading, her pillow behind her supported by the headboard.

“Marge?”

She looks up. I feel anguish come into my voice and I have trouble starting. She gazes at me curiously.

“I love you, Marge.”

She stares at me and in a little hurt voice, she says, “What brought that on?”

“America’s going to hell, Marge. I just realized I’ve been responsible for all the crap we’ve been going through I the past few months. I’m so sorry.” Tears leak from the corners of my eyes. I remove my glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash…

Soldier’s Return

I STOOD OFF to the side out of the jumble of people. Dangling from my hand on the Government Issue breakaway chains they gave us, my dog tags jingled flatly. Cheap metal, I thought. I stared at the train.

It stopped to let me off with a few other people and now began to move again, its job done. Now I had to do mine. I had to get a place and find a job. How would I do that? I knew how to kill, but that’s not very useful in civilian life, on the right side of the law, anyway.

Though the only soldier who got off, my GI drabs failed to call me to the attention of others on the platform. People, probably family, greeted those others, threw their arms about them and lead them happily away.

I’d taken my long coat off in the train for comfort and didn’t need it now. It draped from the crook of my left arm. Pretty warm day for two days before Christmas. My duffle bag sat by my feet. I looked down at the hand that held a nine by twelve manila envelope. In it fourteen pages of material, my DD Form 214, discharge papers, voucher stubs for transportation and the familiar “Misc.” reflected the sum total of the past eight years of my life, courtesy of the U. S. Government. The few other papers in the miscellaneous category, all military, all-important to them but not to me had mustered me out of the Army. The doctor told me to forget about “Nam.” Oh, sure.

Eight years getting shot at, saving lives, saving my own on numerous “fronts” distilled down to fourteen pages. Didn’t seem like much. A few hours ago some freshly shaved company clerk who still had a job said “Good luck,” but it sounded like “Sayonara, baby!” Twenty-six years old, back in the city of my birth, and for what?

A feeling of dread, the sense of choking on something I couldn’t dislodge lived in me for most of the day. They’d made me into a killing machine. They’d made me very efficient. I had physical scars and more in my head. Four months ago I caught a little shrapnel from a land mine my best buddy took. Superficial for me, killed him.

Charlie, a good man, sharp-eyed and careful…except this time. All it took. Now he’s in Heaven or wherever, in the ground anyway. They pieced him back together and shipped him home so his relatives could cry over him. I cried when it happened, but not for long. Not in a fire fight. No time.

I remember the lieutenant yelling, “Medic!”

After that, a blur. Suddenly someone hit me hard on the shoulder and pushed me to the ground, “Matt, what the hell…?”

I came to my senses and the blur cleared. “I just saw Charlie go up.”

“Yeah,” he said, “We all did. Pull it together!”

I made a conscious effort. After a few moments of lying in the dirt, it came back. Charlie’s gone, gotta go on. Made killing those bastards out ahead of the platoon personal.

I refocused back to the train station, but I couldn’t get the vivid images out of my mind. My release said “CCD. Chronic Clinical Depression.” I knew every word. Medical discharge. What the hell! No use to the government and no use to myself, no use to anybody. I tried to smile but it failed before it reached my lips.

What would I do, now that Uncle Sammy didn’t want his trained killer anymore? I’d gone in right out of high school to avoid the Draft. Thought it would make a difference. It didn’t. I’d make some rank…whoopee! Didn’t help.

If I’d learned anything in high school I’d forgotten it. What would I do? Security guard? Work in a bowling alley? Bet I could wash cars. Only not many places around used people to wash cars anymore. Spray tires, maybe. The thought made me want to retch. I’d tried that a couple of weeks during the summer before I enlisted. The mindless work matched the people around me. No thanks.

Getting a job with the problems I’d brought home would be hard. Mom used to say, “It’ll all work out, Matt. Just put your best face forward.”

Mom died three years ago in the car accident with Dad. No sisters or brothers. Yeah, right, things’ll work out. Sorry, Mom…can’t see it. I hadn’t seen any evidence since I got back in the States that anybody cared about anybody. Couldn’t even figure why I’d come back to my hometown. Any city would do. Got no relatives, no in-laws, no friends, got nothing.

The train station cleared out. A porter loaded his cart with the last of the bags left on the platform, chatting amiably with a young woman dressed in business attire. I saw her glance in my direction. I could have thought her beautiful; certain I would except for my black mood. That took the color out of everything.

I couldn’t seem to move from my spot. I didn’t feel comfortable standing there, but moving seemed a less comfortable alternative. What would I do? I couldn’t stay on the platform. Pretty soon someone would come out of the terminal and ask me to move along or ask me why I stood alone, unmoving. How would I answer?

Finally I dragged my duffle bag to one of those wrought iron and plank chairs that seem to be a permanent fixture in train stations. I sat down, not exhausted, but dejected, done, the end of my road and no clue what next. My brain turned off.

Lost in blackness, I started when a voice spoke softly near my ear.

“Soldier?”

I looked up. The woman who’d glanced at me peered as if trying to read me. I didn’t smile. I couldn’t, but I said, “Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m sorry to bother you. Are you waiting for someone?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Just arrive?”

“Yes.”

She looked at me astutely. “You have no place to go.”

“No.”

After a few moments of deliberation, she said, “It’s going to get cold again tonight. You could use a good meal and some pleasant conversation.”

I left the ball in her court.

Undeterred, she said, “Do you have a place to stay?”

“I’ll find a rooming house somewhere in town.”

“And you have no job waiting, either.” The woman read my thoughts.

“Just discharged.”

“My name is Pat Birch. I am part-time pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church in town. What’s yours?”

Some of the past began to return. “I remember it. Matt Billingsly.”

“Hello, Matt. This evening the congregation is having a potluck sit-down dinner at the church. Would you like to come as my guest? I can’t think of a better way to reintroduce one of America’s soldiers back into society. You might be able to network a little while you’re there, too.”

Who said hope springs eternal. My black mood melted and I began to hope for the first time in so long I couldn’t remember.

“I’d be honored, ma’am. I’d love to,” I said.

Pat hesitated, looked me over again as if seeing me for the first time, and maybe it was like that. Evidently she decided that she liked what she saw, because she said, “There is a rooming house not far from the church. I know that it has at least one room available. Can I offer you a ride there?”

Finally I could smile. Weight came off my shoulders. “Yes, you can. And thank you, more than you can imagine.”

“Follow me, Matt. Merry Christmas, soldier.”

Bubbles

I LEAVE NORFOLK, VA on U.S 13 in an Army truck and head for Cape Charles. In my mind I see the three bridges and two tunnels connecting this magnificent twenty-three-mile feat of highway engineering over and under the Chesapeake Bay ahead of me, scary miles, not for the distance, but because of my mission.

I’m carrying U. S. Government Issue ADY. It’s ten times more explosive than dynamite. I’m talking high grade, kid glove, super volatile stuff.

Every part of the route has been checked out by the Secret Service. Now, I know no commercial truck can carry explosives or other hazardous materials through any tunnel in America. Government says it’s an invitation to terrorists.

I can, though. I’m in the middle of an Army convoy, one cog in a larger wheel. Ahead and behind me serious minded military personnel escort me. They don’t appear scared, but they should be.

Bizarre? Yeah. You read history and you’re going to know that strange things happen, but people mostly forget in the crush of trying to get through their own lives. If it doesn’t touch them or family, it’s not important. Sure, something hits the front page; they’re interested. Who wouldn’t be, but for the most part, it’s business as usual and somebody else can figure it out, put it out or fight it. Know what I mean?

I’m driving a twenty-four foot straight truck, no markings except for the olive drab camouflage paint the Army likes so much. It sure as hell doesn’t say “Explosives” on it, but it’s heavy duty rigged and specially sprung so’s not to catch a pothole hard. I’m to avoid them. Humpty-Dumpty…all the King’s horses…you know?

You’ve seen the movies. Fill a truck like mine up with dynamite and plan out a scene with cameras at different angles and they can use the same scene over and over. The Director says “Action!” and off they go. Some daredevil stuntman starts the truck and at the right moment bails onto a soft air-filled pillow out of camera range and the truck goes on and suddenly there’s this tremendous explosion and the truck disintegrates and there’s fire and commotion and the leading lady faints-you know-and then you hear, “Cut! Print!” and that’s that.

It’s fun for moviegoers-what, they spill their popcorn-but in this convoy you got to know the soldier I can see behind me in my side mirror hanging back as far as his lieutenant will let him.  He doesn’t know anything, but he thinks he knows something.

As for me, Uncle Sam is persuasive. I’m the inventor, the explosives expert who knows this particular nastiness my company sold to the Army. It’s why I got this gig.

We’re going thirty. Colonel tells me it is regulation speed.

Regulation! Good God! All you can think of?

He’s the boss. He’s thinking, GD civilian…are you a MAN! I see it in his eyes.

All they tell me is it’s my job to get the stuff to the new hush-hush site twelve miles over the line south of Oyster today. It has to be today, not tomorrow when I say it’ll be safer, but today.

After that I guess they’ll wipe my memory or something. National Security…? What the hell are they up to?

I’m to cross the bridge, shoot up Lankford Memorial Highway, pick up Seaside Road off Plantation and turn off when the Army tells me. Side roads mostly. Keep the public safe…or in the dark. One of those.

The plan’s easy, but I gotta get there first and I’m sweating it. Here’s why. I told the Army brass that ADY goes through an unstable period forty-eight hours after it’s manufactured. I explained that the mix settles down in about an hour, but that during that hour it heats up and it doesn’t take much to set it off. I say it’s a delayed chemical reconfiguration and once that’s done it’s as good as C-4 until you fire it off. The Colonel doesn’t want to hear it. He looks at me with disdain.

I cough up his words; I hear him say, “We have a schedule. You will drive at thirty miles per hour. You will not deviate. Nothing will happen.”

Thinks he knows more than I do. Well, Colonel Smart-ass, I made this stuff two days ago and guess what? Two days is the same as 48 hours. You knew that. What the hell’s your rush?

Anyway, what’s he care? He’s riding way up front. If the truck goes up, I stop worrying. I stop everything. I sure won’t give a damn about how the Colonel tries to explain it to his superiors. Those silver leafs must suck brain matter from your head.

The first segment of the long complex is fine. We get to South Thimble Island, pass the fishing pier and dive just after the Chesapeake Grill. This part I dread. I don’t like the idea of millions of gallons of water over my head. I keep it at thirty as we head down the ramp. The lights seem dim, but I accommodate quickly. After some eternal moments we’re heading up the ramp and back into the sun.

The second segment is like the first and the three vehicles ahead and behind me seem part of a dream because I’m concentrating and I’m listening and I’m sniffing the air. So far okay. I see the second tunnel ahead. More water over my head coming, but you don’t do explosives if you’re a wimp, so I keep it shut and drive.

I glance at my watch for the fortieth time. Sweat’s pouring off me now. When the long ramp levels out I’m a hundred feet under the damn ocean. I’m trying to think of something pleasant when a hot chemical smell wafts in through the window grate behind me. It’s starting to cook. I want to stop but I don’t dare. First, I’m in the tunnel and second the military has no sense of humor.

I key my radio. Nothing. I try again. Nothing. With a curse I throw the radio on the seat. The road is smooth, but I slow down. Anything could set it off now. Horns begin to blare. The message is keep going. Bastards!

I ease back up to thirty. The up ramp is gradual. I watch for any ripple in the road. I play the wheel gently, like a musician, anima delicato. I’m in third and I don’t care what they say, I’m not going to jolt the truck by changing gears. Let the transmission whine.

Steady…steady… I keep going and see light ahead. Maybe I’ll make it…maybe I will. The smell gets acrid. It’s going critical. There’s one sound I haven’t heard yet. Maybe…

With a sigh of relief, my truck clears the tunnel and I’m in bright sunlight again. Then I hear the hiss. It grows and I know I have ten seconds to live.

To hell with it! I’m Reserve. I have a family. They can keep this chicken Army. I ease to a stop as fast as I can, drop it in neutral, open the door and bolt toward the opposite rail. I dive over it and head for the dark blue water below.

As my feet leave the ground I yell, “It’s gonna BLOW!” I imagine I see open-mouthed soldiers just beginning to grasp the idea that something’s gone as wrong as it can get.

Just as I clear the roadbed heading down, a huge explosion arches over my head. I feel the heat, but I’m not going to incinerate. I’m falling, falling, end for end, trying to remember how skydivers right themselves. I’m fifty, forty…ten feet above the cold water and I’ve got my feet under me. I slam into it and it feels like cement. I go under, deep.

I’ve knocked most of the breath out of me, but I open my eyes and I can see bubbles rising toward the light. In the bubbles I see fish-eye glimpses of my life.

In my moment of panic, I forgot I can’t swim.

Images of Terror

IMAGES COME AT me like shrapnel from an exploding shell. A tremendous force holds me stock-still, pushed against my seat, rooted there. I look into the leering face of the Grim Reaper.

God, oh God! This fire in my brain!

Flight 1185 from London, JKF minutes away. Passengers screaming. I might be screaming, too. I get a momentary out of body feeling as my cold, logical self watches my feet push stupidly against the floor.

Death happens to others, not to me. I look downward and see the cockpit below me as flashes of my life parade in front of my terrified eyes. I shouldn’t be looking downward at the cockpit. It’s not right!

I feel the beginning moments of insanity curl the edges of my mind. I think of aerodynamics and how in free-fall we should be hanging slackly from our seat belts. But we are under power. I have no time to consider how ludicrous the thought.

Through the skin of the 747 I hear the engines scream. The pilots are dead. We passengers saw it happen through the open cockpit door. With horror we watched the leader of the terrorist group put his pistol to the back of the heads of the pilot and co-pilot and shoot them without mercy. We heard the shots. In what seemed slow motion one terrorist reached over the slumping bodies, disengaged the autopilot, pushed the throttles above one hundred percent and put the huge craft into a death dive!

Four other terrorists sat in the passenger-filled compartment, two in the front, two at the rear. From behind expressionless faces peered hard, dark brown eyes. Their short, muscular bodies sat in a living pose that implied absolute belief in their cause.

If the largely uncaring world could see into the eyes of those men, they would see fanatic passion. They would see five heroes of their revolution. They did this monstrous thing calmly. They wanted the world to see a cause worth more than life. They held their short, ugly weapons casually now, muzzles down, butts leaning against their knees, their purpose done; misguided men, martyrs to their cause.

With a smile any of the terrorists might have handed a weapon to any passenger. It made no difference now. Their deaths didn’t matter. Only the message mattered, a message of hatred for America. Did a horrified world watch on their television sets at this moment? Did they think of the frightened innocents, women, children and family men on their way to death?

Did they think of the terrorists who gave murder to hundreds of people, of their part in a holy venture, their part in Jihad? In these moments they offered a mute statement to our free democratic government. This falling aircraft represented punctuation. They’d made no demands, but the real message stood clear; you can’t bully people who are willing to die for what they believe in.

Stills! Movies, all uncut, all stark and real, rip across my eyes. If I hadn’t been petrified, I could have laughed. But when push came to shove, one didn’t laugh in the face of death.

Many interesting years ago I put forth my life credo, an exceedingly simple one. No need to be happy all the time. Not necessary to be challenged, in pain or long-suffering. It just had to be interesting. What an interesting ending!

How I wish I could appreciate it.

My life continues to roll back. The trip I’d made to London to sell my first book to an overseas publisher, now my worst possible choice. My wife liked to accompany me on trips and I loved to have her, but she had stayed home this time. How lucky for her.

She swam into my vision. I saw her sitting in our living room. The knitted poncho she’d promised to have ready for our granddaughter before I returned would be nearly done. She’d finished multiple rows on the pink, peach and cream poncho on the night I left. Such a steady, wonderful wife! I’d told her I would bring her back something really neat from London. The beautiful crystal gift lay carefully packed away in my carry-on.

In my home I could see that cold weather had set in. She had a fire going in our seldom-used brick fireplace. The cheery, bright yellow-orange light made merry, moving shadow figures on the living room walls. She’d lit a log earlier and closed the glass doors. A single four-hour fireplace log burned with good cheer while her fingers deftly worked on that pretty little article of love.

Holiday trimmings we hadn’t had the heart to remove after our happy, fun-filled Christmas season were still up, along with tinsel and multi-colored balls made of modern day materials imported from China. Global village, huh!

Christmas bells surrounded by plastic ivy hung from the mantle. My whizzing kaleidoscope reviewed how I’d had to adjust them perfectly within the ivy every year so they’d chime merrily. With that memory came the remembered clunk of an ill-adjusted bell striking badly when first played. The bells graced the pleasant size of the room once a year before Christmas and for however long we cared to let them stay. We had a big living room, but not so big as to lose its intimacy, warmth and humanity.

Gray vertical blinds, drawn to the sides of the big picture window, let her look out and see an occasional car pass in front of the house. Blackness ruled the night. She and I had always felt very safe where we live.

Living room furniture of reasonably dark neutral gray, a cloth sofa and a double recliner love seat, provided her a place for relaxation while she worked in the light of our huge pottery lamp. Under the lamp an elegant brass and glass end table. On the loveseat with my wife lay Tigger. Our cat always enjoyed sitting in my seat. He’d almost always snooze next to his mistress when I vacated it. His tail would occasionally twitch in response to some kitty dream, but his presence kept her in quiet company. If she listened closely, a faint purr rose from the sleeping animal.

Before sitting down to knit, she’d turned on the satellite music channel and tuned into Atmospheres, her favorite. Then her fingers flew. The new apparel gradually took shape while music gently filled her soul and time winged by. At some later point she would hold the poncho at arms-length and count rows one last time. She would decide enough was enough for the evening, turn off the music and walk down the long hallway to our recently renovated bedroom, to what she called her beautiful, restful place.

There wouldn’t be time to finish her knitting for this evening, not in the time we passengers had left. I’d checked my watch only a few minutes before the terrorists made their move. No, when we drove catastrophically into the ground at the end of Long Island at eight hundred miles an hour, it would only be a minute or so after eight p.m.

She couldn’t know. I wondered if she would feel a psychic connection at the point of my death. Would she look up suddenly, horror on her face? Would she go to the phone, indecisive, wondering whom to call? Would she turn on the news? The face I knew so well floated out in front of me. Her features gentled my mind for a singular, picture moment! Then she faded into the background. She remained, a distant, gossamer presence, while other images rushed to the fore.

All the rooms in the home I love marched across my eyes. The kitchen in blue and white and the cabinets, wiped clean by this wife of mine who had a problem with dirt. The white slate floor. She hadn’t had that type of floor installed without full knowledge that it would require more than average care. Did it bother her to spend more time on it? No. My lady is compulsive in matters of cleaning. They are matters of example, too. Her daughters, now that they are on their own, are as neatnik as she. The care she takes with our home is measured and constant and it shows. I will miss that.

Little, stuffed rabbits pass before me. They sit carefully amongst the cobalt-blue dinnerware high on a shelf, just for show. She made them to sell at craft shows for fun. My flitting view focuses on a high three-legged stool I made years ago to hold the ivy plant that grows lushly in that spot, courtesy of this wife and her expert green thumb. The sink and cabinets and our dogs, Maxxy and Sassy, our cats Tigger, and Coo-Coo-Callie pass in review. They are looking right at me, mute, serious. Do they know? I have no time to wonder.

I see the library, the bathroom, the guestroom, all showing my signature and that of my wife, cooperative efforts that made just a house into a loving home. The images move away.

My crystal vision reviews my short-lived retirement, the job I left in the Auto business to write full time and care for our home the rest of the time. I’d worked in a business I did not like. My writing, all those short stories and my novel, my big break. Regret. I won’t see it published after all. Kinda hoped I could bask in limelight that all too soon moves on to another author, another story. I kinda hoped success would let me help my five children, hers and mine, and let my wife retire. How nice that would have been.

Then my second marriage performed on our back deck by a Superior Court Judge and friend, my wife in that blue dress with the small polka-dots looking lovely, and I gussied up in black pants and a white dinner jacket taking our vows in front of many relatives and friends passes in review.

I see my children make their way in life. I see a previous business and an earlier one. There are rallies, star conventions, camping trips, pleasures I’d experienced, contributions I’d made. A lifetime of happiness mixed with sadness, anger, disappointment and regret intertwined as bright and then strange and somber colors that move across my mind like coruscating pigments thrown onto a canvass by a wildly extravagant abstract painter.

Back and back. I watch with happiness my first marriage grow from small beginnings into a family of five, and then with great sadness I watch it go wrong and turn bad and disappear. It wrenches my heart. I watch my life cycle dip and turn, relive for a moment the bad times, watch good times come and go, a roller-coaster ride, a moving portrait of a life!

I pass my years in insurance. I relive for the tiniest morsel of time my career as it grew and swelled and provided, and then watched it disappear. Such insanity! So much hurt.

I watch my Air Force career unfold, stations in Texas, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, that neat year in Iceland, kernels in a back tracing picture book.

My high school swam out, old Miss Spaulding owlishly running a class of young adults from her raised platform, presiding over sixteen and seventeen-year-olds. Such power she had. The reel continues back, each time with more classmates, young and younger.

Oh Lord, Ginny, my first love. We met at a youth fellowship group. Dean Hirshon and Canon Jones flash by. They, too, played a part in my early life. The imposing old brownstone church with the tall cathedral spire flashes by, a magnificent edifice dwarfed by high-rise buildings that surrounded it.

I broke up with Ginny the night before I joined the Air Force. I still wrote her letters and I still cared, but I never saw her again.

I see all of the growing up years buckled in my seat, my face an unmoving mask as images strike and flash, pelting all reason aside. At last I see my childhood and just the briefest glimpse of me as the baby that would grow through that long, strangely serpentine life of twists and turns.

So that I could be available for this moment of terror and final destruction?

Time becomes a point and disappears into itself. There is a moment that suggests that the essence of my life has run back as far as it goes, and it’s time for the finale. With a rush it comes!

I see all the elements like an x-ray, the home I had come to love, that I had devoted so much time and energy to. I saw the rewards that came with it, the love of a good woman, a good place to be. The plunge from thirty-eight thousand feet isn’t taking long, not nearly long enough!

My view expands and I get a last glimpse of my woman, my place, the children that I love and hers, too, that I love. And the friends! I had no idea there were so many.

Perhaps this is a parting gift from a God who won’t prevent the process of our destruction for his own reasons but is offering me a last glimpse of all of me. There is no time to wonder what that God might be offering to the other innocent passengers on this ill-fated flight. Is there time to wonder if we are fulfilling some cosmic design?

“I love you all.” The thought is a blossom in my mind, like the sweetest, most delicate flower. I know in the furthest depths of my soul that this is it, that we are moments from the ground, from death, from oblivion. There is no time to wish for more, to wish things were different, to want the life that is a hairs-breadth from being snatched away from me, from all of us.

There is no time to wonder why me, why us, why this plane, why the anger in some and the evil in others that leads them to commit acts of violence that kill the innocents of the world.

There is a horrible rending sound. Just the very beginning of it comes to my conscious awareness. Then there is brilliant whiteness, a final image of everything coming undone. There is no pain.

Last Day

THEY’D EVACUATED THE office building in Kabul and called Al and me in to disarm the IED. Business as usual, except for the sixty second timer Al accidentally started when he jostled the bomb. Taliban sense of humor. I had to go to work fast at that point.

I’d grabbed my bomb kit and headed out with Al. He’s my second. He drove and could hold a flashlight, but I got the fun job. I assumed my kit had all the issue I’d need. Never assume anything.  I discovered on the scene that I had no tongue depressors left, not the kind of mistake a bomb man’s supposed to make. Sure they told us to hot-foot it out here, but…

Sixty seconds! Sweat ran into my eyes. I had no time to blink. Removing the first three screws took too much time, so I put my screwdriver under the lid and pried up the access door and bent the thin metal up and out of the way.

With seconds left, I grabbed my alternate non-conductor, a ceramic tea cup I’d found nearby. Using pure adrenaline, I jammed it into the cramped space with hysterical force. The bomb’s clock read two seconds.

Zero!

The trigger mechanism clicked. The spring-loaded firing pin snapped toward the bomb’s hot contact. The cup shattered in its own small explosion. For a second I waited for oblivion, but debris from the broken cup stopped the onrushing pin. Now that pieces of my ceramic cup jammed the firing device, I began to hope.

The Taliban had started to distribute these deadly mechanical bombs in the last few months. They looked primitive and we guessed they needed electronics and couldn’t get them from their sources. Earlier the bomb boys captured a similar one that didn’t go off and I’d had a chance to study it or I wouldn’t have gotten close to the one in front of me.

Already my hands sought the inside of the IED to make sure the non-conducting cup’s substance stayed in place to prevent contact. The situation remained deadly dangerous, but maybe we had a chance.

“Quick, Al!” I called to my partner, “Can’t see. Wipe my eyes.”

Al reached up with a cloth and took a nervous but adequate swipe. His flashlight wavered. I didn’t look at him but I visualized his face a ghostly white. I didn’t need a mirror to know about mine. His life and mine were up for grabs and I didn’t figure with my history that we’d be meeting in the same place if we ended up dead.

I gave up on pearly gates long ago, but Al had a good-looking wife and two small tow-headed twin boys and went to church and he didn’t fool around. Couldn’t say the same for me, but we both wanted to live.

Peering into the mickey-mouse ramble of wires and C-4 explosive, I could see how precariously we all hung onto life. The cup had mostly crushed into small, razor sharp shards. Less than a quarter inch thick, the earthenware cup had a glass-like interior and exterior glaze, impervious to wear and dishwasher safe, as the ads say.

I couldn’t work with gloves, too sensitive. Now I needed them. This stuff could cut me and blood conducted electricity. It’s the salt. Bleeding all over the contact could make the bomb go off. Al and I’d be leaving the area in different directions on this side, and we’d never stop on the other.

I could see a flaw in the debris pattern and already the mess had started to compress under the pressure of the firing spring. Our nightmare wasn’t over. I had no time to do anything else, so I reached for a large, sharp piece that ended up in a corner of the box and gingerly felt for its flat surfaces. Got ‘em. Now to force it into the flaw before the firing devise powdered more of the shard that held the two contacts apart. Jabbing downward with force, the piece in my hand slipped and sliced my thumb.

“Oww!”

More frightened than me, Al yelled “What?”

I yanked my hand out. Blood poured freely from the gash. “Give me that rag.”

Al handed it to me. I had to use the bloody hand because of the awkward position. I wrapped the rag around my thumb and two fingers with my left, and then stuck my hand back into the opening to finish the job. There! Better. Life is choices and my brain told me I’d made a good one. Our training included getting the job done the best way possible. Let pain slow me? No option.

The ridiculous thing appeared stable. Now to work out the wiring and make sure the Taliban hadn’t left any more surprises. I knew we couldn’t pull out the detonators in the blocks of C-4. We’d discovered the month before that those clever bearded men would put a contact switch into the plastic mass of the explosive. It would go off if I removed the detonator, no matter how carefully.

We learn the hard way, as we Americans seem to for everything, and learning that particular lesson cost us a couple of good men, friends of mine. We do learn, though and I wouldn’t pull the plug on those babies. There had to be a way. Bomb makers always had a fail-safe, some way they could arm their bombs, but transport them without worry before they laid them out for our soldiers to find.

The wires were multi-colored, just like you see in the movies. However, our Army bomb squad had already discovered that their bomb makers would switch the wire colors to fool us. I played chess. I studied it for a moment and grabbed my wire cutters. I laid out a diagram in my mind, traced it and when the pattern completed itself, reached past two tempting wires and snipped the one below it.

“Okay, Al, let’s get this thing out of here.”

“Good going, Mack,” he said, “I thought…” He stopped.

No point. I knew. “Yeah.”

We hefted the forty-pound object and carried it to our military truck. My mind went to the ravaged land, the fear surrounding every dark place, and how these people who couldn’t go anywhere else could live like they had to.

I sensed darkness in the minds of these war torn peoples. We didn’t belong here. We came at the invitation of the Afghan government, however legitimate that makes it, but we’re invaders just the same. It made sense we’d be hated by most of the population, despite the spin the U. S. Government put on it.

Al got behind the wheel. He started the engine, switched the lights on and headed back toward camp, twenty dangerous miles to go.

“Nicely done, Mack.”

“Keep a sharp eye, Al. War has a way of reaching out, you know?”

“You worry too much.”

“Taliban don’t stay in those little lines we draw.”

“True, but…”

⇔⇔⇔

In a ball of light and fire the IED some nameless insurgent buried in the dark, desolate sandy road exploded. Their truck lifted five feet off the road. Mack and Al were dead before it came down.

War is hell!

The Decision

SHOULD I HELP her or should I move on?

On the spur of the moment, I make the decision. As a human being she doesn’t impress me. Disheveled and dirty, her clothes torn and her face haunted, she lies in the middle of the street, kind of bunched up and folded, like a dirty rag negligently thrown on the ground. She’s moaning and seems in pain.

I look down the dusty city street, if you can call this crummy mud-hut-cement-block-sun-baked place a city. Nothing moves. I can’t rely on that. Snipers live in rubble and I won’t live if I don’t stay sharp-eyed and alert. I squint against the brightness of the noonday sun. Dirt, trash, broken things, bad smells all over, not a nice place to be. I keep my M-16 at ready.

My immediate guess puts her on the short side of the angry mob we’ve been chasing. I’ve seen it before. War is lousy business! Maybe the ghosts of this ancient place are invisibly tugging at her, tugging at us all, playing their serious and silly games. I wonder briefly if she has family, how hurt she is. I wonder how much time I dare take away from the cover of the buildings.

I don’t think much of myself, either, just at this moment, but that’s another story. I might tell it if I come out of this with all parts attached. Being in the Middle East with a company of Army buddies has its comforts. We have each other’s backs. Even though we’re not Marines, it’s Semper Fi all the way.

Yeah, we act and react the same way. It’s something that happens when men are thrown together and have to face an enemy. They get close or they get dead. Some of us get dead anyway and that’s the luck of the draw. God’s will, if you’re a believer. Plain bad luck if you’re not. Doesn’t change a thing. You still get mashed, smashed, hashed, mutilated and rendered like so much meat, or like I say, plain dead! I think death’s a relief, after some of the partial people I’ve seen leave here on the light side of a body bag.

I, like, go away for a moment. I picture me arriving home minus a limb. Suddenly I’m home.

Little Bobby, my kid brother is looking me over and I hear him saying, “What happened, Mike?” and I reply, “Land mine.” And my lip begins to quiver and I feel like I’m going to lose it again, and I turn my head, and I know everyone is watching and I can’t help it and oh damn, why didn’t I die? How can I live, a piece of a person?

 And I lose it and everybody is embarrassed and Dad says, not unkindly, “Son, get through it. Life is worth it, all the same. We’ve got you back and you’ve got your family and you always will…” and he stops because he can see it’s not helping and everyone is wishing they were someplace else, especially me.

 And all the family who were just congratulating me for returning home from Walter-Reed, they start to leave the room because they can’t take it either. My sister Jenn’s got a big heart, but she goes away cursing the government and the enemy and my bad luck and I don’t want to be here. Why can’t I go away? This is so hard!

 I snap back. I’m in Tikrit and I’m in the middle of a dirty street, grid point alpha, and I’ve got to help this woman, this poor casualty of a lousy, stinking war! My company has been ordered to retake it from the insurgents.

Where the hell did these people come from? Don’t they understand? We liberated them from a bad man, a bad ruler, a dictator who built palaces on the backs of its citizens. Yeah, you people out there who are giving us all the trouble, I’m talking to you! Don’t you understand? All we want to do is to go home! Why don’t you be nice and let us go home?

I call back to my corporal, “Get a couple of men and give me a hand with this one. Let’s get her off the street.”

“Okay Sarge. Murphy, Smitty, give us a hand. The rest of you men, stay down!”

We gather around the woman and bend down to help. She looks up at us with hate-filled eyes. Her hand moves under the dirty rag she’s wearing and she does something…

ÛÛÛ

April 24, 2009. An impeccably dressed Major, stiff and erect, rings the doorbell at 560 Whilley Street, New Preston, New York. In a few moments, through the lace-covered oval glass of the door, he sees a curtain draw briefly and fall back. The door unlatches and opens, ever so slowly. Without preamble, the Major says in a modulated but businesslike voice, “Mrs. Emily Granger?”

The Assassin

THE MAN IN the dark coat stood in silence. In the darkness his black brimmed hat pulled low and collar arranged high around his neck, they shrouded angular features and ice-cold eyes. Those eyes glinted in a nearby hooded streetlight as they turned to check out a faint sound close by.

Tense but immobile he waited. The sound did not repeat. In the distance, he heard a truck approach. He waited. A searchlight flashed against the close-set buildings and into the narrow alley in which he waited and passed without stopping. The sound faded.

He relaxed and resumed his vigil with a surface thought of disdain for an enemy clearly going through the motions.

Intelligence identified Professor Bergdorf’s location. The man must die tonight. His orders: Kill Burgdorf. Get the plans. Get out of hostile territory. He could do it. He’d already bet his life on it.

He entertained a momentary thought about the link in the chain he represented. A simple act of wartime murder involved countless faceless men and women, each of whose actions within the Allied High Command had brought him to the little town where he must play his part, a part he would play gladly.

Black-gloved hands cupped carefully above his mouth shrouded his watcher’s breath and plumed it safely downward into the neck of his coat to dissipate. It would not produce a telltale cloud in the night chill; Clandestine Operations Manual, Chapter Four.

He stepped from one foot to the other. The motion kept him ready to move in an instant, but to be one with his surroundings he contained all motion within the looseness of his clothing. No local citizen, scurrying home to beat the curfew who might peer into his dark corner would see movement.

The few elite members of his cell knew him only as Red 24. He knew them also by names not their own. In the nature of what they did, they seldom spoke, but when they did, others might hear a comment on his ability to disappear without a sound from within their midst.

They would see him. There would be a distraction. He would be gone. If any humor existed within this macabre group, it would rest on his remarkable talent.

The gabled house across from him held his attention, its roofs and extensions heavy with slate and gray with age. Its diamond shaped leaded glass panes eerily reflected the streetlight. The fitted stone of its walls appeared held together with vines that snaked across its surfaces. No window, save one, gave off a soft light, and he focused on the curtained rectangle.

Quickness, cunning, and an expert twist of the knife would be important later, but patience he needed now. He stood, a waiting statute.

The light in the window went out. Senses heightened, the assassin adjusted his mindset in the blackness.

A door at the end of the building opened slowly. The assassin stopped breathing. The white hair of an elderly man and then his face appeared in the darkness for a long moment. It looked left and right. It searched dark areas. Evidently, the man saw nothing. He came out, locked the door behind him and proceeded onto the narrow laid stone sidewalk. He put his right hand in his coat pocket. In his left hand he held a thin, black leather attaché case. A chain looped loosely from the case and disappeared into the coat’s long sleeve.

Manacled! And the man held a gun. The assassin altered his attack plan.

Burgdorf looked up and down the street and then at his feet for a second as he stepped off the high curb to cross the rough cobblestone.

The assassin used this distraction to pull from his hiding place. He raced forward, soundless, a six-inch blade of razor sharp steel now in his hand. Only feet away, intent on his victim, he didn’t see a spot of oil on the road. His right foot slipped and threw him off balance. A raised cobblestone caught his foot hard, and pain lanced up his leg. His unintended grunt warned the Professor.

Suddenly frightened, Burgdorf spun toward the sound. From his right hand pocket, he yanked out a Luger, swung the gun toward his attacker and fired blindly.

As pain from his ankle exploded into his brain, the assassin desperately twisted to the side. The thunderous report from Burgdorf’s gun reverberated on the walls amidst the tightly packed houses. The bullet whined past his ear.

The assassin regained his balance on his good leg and drove forward, now desperate to prevent a second shot.

As his momentum carried him past, he grabbed the man’s coat collar, and with a violent twist, landed a fist into Bergdorf’s temple. The older man crumpled to the ground. His gun skittered many feet away.

Efficiently, the assassin slit the man’s throat, and then, with no time to search for a key, stomped hard on Bergdorf’s left wrist to break the bones. It took precious seconds to cut through muscle and tendons and to work the sharp American steel past the radius and ulna bones. The man’s hand parted his body and the assassin slipped the metal band from the mangled stump.

Ignoring his shooting pain and with the attaché case in hand, he retrieved the dead man’s gun from the middle of the street and sped away. Landmarks were difficult in the darkness, but the map he’d memorized brought him to the correct alley.

With no time to spare, his eyes still seeing spots from the gun’s flash, he bolted down the narrow cleft between two buildings, trusting that no one had moved a thing since he planned his escape two days before.

Now, with the plans for the new Nazi swept wing bomber in his hands, he became the hunted.

How quickly our positions change, he thought.

The noise of the gunshot brought many awake. The assassin pictured people coming to their darkened windows to look out. The gunshot would soon bring the police and no doubt, the SS. If he could not disappear and return to his side, it would be for nothing.

Recall said he’d reached the fence. He stopped and felt for it. His injured ankle throbbed. There! He touched it. Up and over. Again, he put down pain that arched redly into his brain.

He searched his memory map. Now to go through a park-like area and from there, woods and to the river. A fading quarter moon gave weak light to his surroundings. He did not want light and took advantage of every pool of darkness.

Limping as he ran, but with his imperative clear and his need great, he recalled his first day of training. He’d learned that day that assassins forfeited their lives the day they joined Covert Operations.

“Consider you are dead now,” his trainer said.

The assassin knew. He loved the rush. Them or him. What could be better? A natural killer, he’d found his place in life. Using his consuming hatred for the enemy as his banner, he would hurt the Nazi war machine and keep on hurting it until he met someone faster or smarter.

God, how he loved to gamble!