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Oder de Lilac

I OPEN THE door and smell something that reminds me of lilacs. It’s that perfume she likes.

“Hi honey, home early?” I call into the kitchen.

No answer. I think I hear a tapping on the floor about then, but can’t be sure. The door from the garage enters the kitchen. A moment before, I’d bounded up the three narrow stairs onto the tiny landing the builder thought would suffice for incoming and outgoing traffic.

Too small! I remember having a devil of a time getting our queen-sized mattress up and over the railing that time when my wife decided she just couldn’t sleep another minute on the old thing in the bedroom. And the way our wonderful builder cobbled this little house together required I go through the kitchen

Look, you can’t turn anything at the front door; you know, wall on one side and like two feet of alcove into our minuscule living room. Oh, and the outer door opens opposite the inner door. Thoughtful design.

Recently the refrigerator quit. Can’t leave meat lying around to spoil, so I ordered another delivered right away. Some young kids with scruffy faces and big muscles, high school dropout written on their faces, got it up those stairs and into the kitchen. What a saga. I stand for a minute, remembering.

“Mr. Bengston, we can’t get the new unit up those stairs. You’ll have to take the railing down,” the curly-headed one says.

“Me? Do I look like a carpenter?” I say.

“It won’t fit. I don’t want to break nothin’.” The apparent leader of the two-man team had spoken.

“I can’t do that.”

“Then we’ll have to leave it here.”

Just then my wife comes out of the kitchen on a breath of lilac. “What’s the trouble?” she asks.

“They can’t get the new refrigerator in. They want to leave it right here.”

“That won’t work, fellows,” she says and smiles brightly at them.

My wife’s a knockout, blond, curved in all the right places and with attributes no real man could ever miss. I don’t miss them and I’d be stupid to believe I’m the only one. So here comes the halter-top and bright green shorts.

Suddenly the “boys” straighten up, puff out and flex a little. Maybe they could find a way to get that new fridge up the stairs and put it where the old one had been.

“Ah, Mr. Bengston, Chuck and I will give it another try, okay?”

“Sure. Be my guest.”

Tony and Chuck breath in the ‘oder de lilac’ and it seems to impart massive energy where only a dull flicker of vigor existed moments before. My wife continues to turn on the charm. She backs slowly into the kitchen

With grunts and under breath cursing, they get it done.

“Right in that spot, Mrs. Bengston?” She nods. I take note that they are now dealing with her and seem to have forgotten I’m in the same room.

With the pervasive lilac smell and a little help from good old sex appeal, the boys got the job done. When I thank them, I appear to exist again.

My thoughts return to today.

My greeting gets no answer. It’s my house. I walk in. Imagine my shock when I see my wife tied to a chair, and guess who, yeah, Chuck and Tony motion me in. Tony’s gun is aimed at my stomach.

I can be cool. In an instant I can see that my wife is okay, although with the gag in her mouth, her most mobile feature is currently shut down. Except for the company, her position in all of this is mildly exciting. Tied to a chair…oh my! How often I’d dreamed…well, never mind. Better say something by way of greeting.

“Ah…Tony, when I said, ‘Be my guest’, the other day, I really didn’t expect you to take me up on it. It’s something people say, you know? It’s not a blanket invitation.”

The lilac scent she loves wafts up my nostrils again. Rats! Couldn’t she like use Bergeron or something? I gave her a bottle of that a couple of years ago. Nope, always it’s the freaking lilacs!

“Pipe down, Bengston.” He grinned. “Your wife told us a couple minutes ago that you’d be home soon. We decided to wait for you.”

“What happened to the ‘Mr.’? How about a little respect?”

Tony’s face gets a little rosy. “This is a gun. Wadda you, stupid? You want I should shoot you.”

I could see I had him off balance. I knew what I was doing. My wife didn’t seem to, though. She started mouthing these sounds. Couldn’t make them out with the gag, but her expression said it all.

“No, don’t shoot me. That’s not what I had in mind.”

Chuck pipes up. He has a tenor voice and I believe that he isn’t exactly the dominant one of this duo. “Hey Tony, what you think I slap this guy up side of the head?”

Tony glances at him. I detect disdain. “Chucky, go right ahead. While you’re at it, I think I’ll take a little time with his missus. You don’t mind, do you, MR. Bengston?”

Chucky, huh?

I feign fright. “Wait a minute! You wouldn’t! You couldn’t!”

An evil look comes across Tony’s face. “School didn’t do much for me, Bengston. Had trouble with ‘would’ and ‘could.’”

“Well then, Tony, look, I can help. Would means that you might or are willing to do something. Could means that you feel capable of it. Does that straighten it out? And how about a ‘Mr.’?”

I don’t know why it always bothers me, people who ruin the language, but I have to react. Then there’s the respect thing, but I guess that’s my problem.

Okay, so meantime, Chucky heads my way, intent, no doubt, on proving that he could slap me up side of the head and maybe that might impress Tony.

Party time! Boy, I don’t want to do this, but I feel forced into it. You gotta picture me, a hundred thirty pounds of skinny nerd in a cheap business suit, home from the office, wanting to greet my loving wife of fourteen years and being presented with this TV scenario, you know, the one where a couple of mad killers are about to do vile things to the girl while the guy watches helplessly, angry, but impotent.

Guess what? I’m not impotent. Green beret, yeah! Chucky reaches me and I feign terror. I back up. I egg him on. I know it’s not fair, but these are extreme circumstances, right? He raises his hand to deliver a satisfying blow and all of a sudden he’s between me and Tony and Tony, guess what, yeah, Tony can’t shoot because it never occurs to him that he’d be helping himself by killing Chucky, that I’d be vulnerable as soon as Chucky fell.

Criminals are so stupid. They always make a mistake. That’s why they’re criminals, I guess; can’t make it in the real world. Chucky’s in front of me; right in the line of fire. Guess where Chucky goes?

Yeah, in a maneuver I know but he doesn’t, I toss Chucky at Tony and the would-be murderer suddenly has a hundred and eighty pounds lying on him.

The gun goes off. Damn it! That makes me a little mad. Now I have to patch a hole in the ceiling.

It’s not fair, but life isn’t, either, so I drop on Chucky and Tony and provide the top slice of the sandwich. Chucky’s the meat. Tony’s the bottom slice. Kinda funny, but not for long. Tony still has the gun. I reach down and wrench it from him. He’s surprised and I don’t know if you know it, but surprised people lose hand control.

Item one: Victory!

Chucky turns over to get off his buddy and I nip him with the gun butt. Out he goes! Now it’s Tony’s turn. I grin—after all, I have to get something out of this—and slap him good. Tony finally realizes what a power pack I am and stares up at me.

“Who the hell are you?”

“Nobody you want to know,” I say.

Deflated and beaten, Tony finally relaxes.

“But I have to say,” I continue, “you really ought to take up Dominoes…or Phase Ten…or something that attempts to use your brain instead of…well, you know. I think I can arrange it.”

I get up; gun in hand. “Stay quiet, Tony. You definitely should have stuck with delivering refrigerators.”

I go over and free my wife. The lilacs are strong.

“Darling,” she says, “I never knew.”

“It’s not something I talk about. Call 911, will ya, hon?”

From a High Place

DARK CLOUDS GATHERED above the hills and blotted the sun for a minute. Like a trigger, Bonnie’s mind turned inward and dark clouds swelled within. Don’t go there, she thought. She tried to create a neutral mindset while she sat, kicking her feet idly over open space, and waiting.

Looking past her feet, she squinted to better inspect sixty-foot pines five hundred feet below. Beyond the stand of pines, verdant fields spread out, plunged and disappeared into the dark of a valley. Far away, a tiny ribbon of river glinted back at her.

Directly below but smaller still, in a cleared patch amongst the trees, ant-like people milled in a picnic area discernible only because they moved. Some pointed and some waved and she wondered how they could see her tiny figure atop the huge mountain. Could they see her, really?

The outcrop faced west. She’d wanted to go west all her life and now, literally faced with a pronouncement that would answer her yearning or result in death embarked upon from this very spot, she resolved she would, if…

The terrible if… The letter Brian would have in his hand held the key. She had to know. Hope destroyed or hope renewed. She’d sent him to Yosemite Village to pick it up and he should be back any minute. He’d looked at her oddly when she insisted he go right then, but said nothing. Of course, he would see the return address label and he would wonder, but he would never open her mail.

Three days ago they had flown into Lee Vining Airport, just inside the California border from Nevada, rented a car and driven through the mountains to Yosemite Village. They took a motel room for the week. While Brian went to the store to get mountain food for their packs, she called her doctor at the clinic in Boston. The results weren’t back, but he expected them momentarily. She explained that she needed them as soon as possible, but that she and her boyfriend – she said “fiancée” – were backpacking in the mountains for a few days and please, please, send her a letter with the results. He agreed. Bonnie gave him the address of the motel.

After three days, it had to be there. Today she’d sent Brian to the village to pick up the letter that would save or destroy her.

She’d played her part so well. She had given Brian no sign that the message might cause her to vault silently into space, her face twisted in despair, her life forfeit. She would close her eyes, push off with those idle feet and spread her arms like a wingless bird. She would hear wind whistle past ears that had but moments left to hear it, her eyes squeezed shut, and she would descend with blazing speed. Lips tightly compressed, she would make no sound. She would not scream. Her journey would be only long enough for her to appreciate her irrevocable decision.

No supplication by Brian, no sound, no shout, no entreaty could stop her plunge, nor could they call back or extend those final seconds of life. Bonnie didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want to live, not with that secret. How many times had others been faced with the same choice, she wondered? They must number in the thousands. How many had opted out? How many had gone on? How many had overcome? How many had continued only to fail, only to stretch out the inevitable? What did it take?

Today she would know. Would she suffer oblivion, or would she be transported to some other place and made to recount her sins, to seek absolution and be given peace? Would she fly into God’s arms, a munificent being that would instantly drive away the burden of misery in which she had lived for the past three months, months her fear of a horrible, grinding death that painted a false smile on her face no one could read? Or was her God a child’s tale taught by those with good intentions, but who had perpetrated a hoax on her mind, sullied it, filled it with meaningless fluff so that its direction would never go where its nature intended. Or was it simple madness?

She ached for it to be over, for the weight of her expectation to take control. Life and breath or death and darkness; her two choices. She’d make hers when Brian got back. She fingered the paper edge of the apology she’d slid between the buttons of her blouse, hoping it would not be her last act before the plunge.

Bonnie heard a crashing in the woods. Could be a bear, but Brian wasn’t a quiet woodsman and she thought a bear wouldn’t make so much noise. Must be him. The trail into this magnificent view took fifteen minutes to walk from the parking area and had many rough places. He could have tripped on a log or gotten caught by some of the hardy brush along the trail.

She didn’t turn. She wanted him to see her gazing outward, the slim line of her cheek, her mass of auburn hair, the highlights shining at him, her white blouse and jeans covering the body he knew so well. The body that…

Soon!

“Bonnie,” Brian’s deep baritone bathed her. “I have it.”

She turned now, reached and grasped her future. Brian stood over her.

“Give me some space,” she said.

For this she needed privacy. He loved her, she knew. And she loved him, and that he knew, too. Not understanding, he did as she asked without comment and stepped back, but his eyes held grave concern.

Bonnie tore the envelope open with a finger, read the contents and crumpled the letter in her small hands, her feet no longer kicking freely.

For a long minute she sat, and then, pushing her feet against the rock face, she stood and turned to Brian with tears in her eyes.

“It’s not malignant,” she said, “and I’m pregnant. Will you marry me?”

Brian understood instantly. Relief flooded his face. He reached in his pocket, took out a small box and opened it. The brilliant sparkle of a diamond gave her all the answer she needed.

With a quirky smile, he said, “I thought I’d propose in an unusual place.”

Earthquake

This is a fictional story depicting the horror of what happened six years ago today. The earthquake measured 7.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale. Haiti has never fully recovered.

—–

I am Francis duPreaux. I’m an attorney. I’m just back from the States on business. I’m a day early and it’s 4:30 in the afternoon but I’m anxious to get back and see what’s going on in my practice. I glance at December on my desk calendar. All okay. I tear off the month and see January and I smile at the circled date, Wednesday, January 13, 2010.

My secretary circled my return date. I prefer circling the day I leave. I know she misses me. She knows I appreciate being able to look at the previous month first for loose ends. Just in case.

It’s the 12th and Fanny isn’t due in the office today but she’s already taking care of me. Accumulated mail lay neatly on my desk, three rubber banded stacks, magazines, unimportant and important mail. My lovely Fanny; so organized.

I get a glass of water, take a sip and set it on my desk. I sit in my leather swivel chair, pick up the third stack. I leaf through it. Ah…

I place the stack aside and with delicious anticipation, I thumb open the letter in my hand. It’s addressed to Francis duPreaux, Attorney at Law, 115 Rue de la Montagne, Port au Prince, Haiti. Reaching in carefully, I remove the letter and a check for $40,000. I drop the envelope in the wastebasket. I look at the check for a moment and smile. I read the letter. I feather touch the check with my lips.

This paycheck will help my ailing checking account. The check and confirmation letter means I can keep up the payments on my villa in the hills. It means no change in my life style. I’d been antsy about that. I think anyone thinks lawyers don’t live hand to mouth sometimes, they’re wrong.

I open the large windows in my office to let in the beautiful day. Clean air wafts in gently. Bird sounds drift in with it.

I’m taking it slow, but suddenly I sit stock-still. I get a sense of something not right, not sound, not movement. The thin letter in my hand is forgotten. The trees? No. The birds have become quiet. It feels like hushed breath. 4:52 p.m. Why did I look at the wall clock?

I let the paper droop in my hand. It makes a small crackling sound as it breaks over the spines the straight creases make where someone’s secretary folded it. My attention drifts to the window.

My two transplanted trees, looking almost odd in my nearly treeless country flutter softly. I see two sparrows sitting amongst the leaves, their heads cocked strangely. Are they listening?

What? My brain goes searching, trying to grasp it. Then I feel it and my eye immediately goes to the half full glass of water I put near the edge of my desk when I sat. Did it move? Yes. A little circular pucker appears and moves from center to outside edge in the restricted space like a raindrop eddies out as it strikes the calm surface of a pond.

I connect with the stillness. I watch the glass. The water smooths out, but now I am agitated. My first day of school as a child comes back to me, a day when my queasy gut told me I was scared of being thrust into this new thing called school. Mum-ma had told me it’s okay to be scared and I’d get over it, but I never forgot how it felt. This is different, but it carries the same gut sick feeling.

My gaze goes back to the window; the birds have flown. My eyes return to the glass. Smooth. No, the little puddle moves again. Tremor? They happen. Look where we all live on this island on the edge of a deep ocean trench. Yet this time I get a flutter of fear.

The birds know. Not much brainpower, but they have sensitivity. My eyes go to the finished ceiling and I think about my three-story building right in the heart of things. It’s not quake-proof; I knew it when I bought it, but the price overrode any other caution.

I think I should leave. I push my chair back and start for the door.

Then, big, massive, wrenching, sudden motion, huge!

I come crashing to the floor. Sprawled there my mind reviews a short article I saw months before. We were ripe, it said, and it’s going to happen any time now. What did that mean? Get scared? Leave the island? How does one leave their country and their livelihood? I filed it away, dismissed it, but now I could see every word on that page again.

My office becomes dusty as things begin to detach. A rolling motion, like a wave appears in the floor and my carpeting buckles and the wave passes under me, throwing my body several inches into the air. The desk jumps and my leather swivel chair upends. My file cabinets empty. All this I see in an instant.

Bathed in adrenaline, I yank myself to my feet and dive for the open window, thanking my lucky stars I decided on first floor offices four years ago when I moved in.

Not that I didn’t know. I didn’t believe. How do you forget about business as usual when no one knows when the big quake will come? I ask how do you figure it? I answer, you don’t. You live each day like it’ll never happen and until it does, that’s what you do.

I go out headfirst and roll as I hit the ground. Pain, left shoulder. I ignore it. I visualize tons of cement fragmenting above my head, plummeting toward me, trying to bury me before I can get away. The thought gives me wings. I gain my feet and sprint across the street toward the middle of the little grassy park I glance at and appreciate every day. Now cement blocks rain around me. A small fragment hits me on the head and I start to go black, but I have momentum. My body is on autopilot, terror stricken, beyond thought.

Three stories of cement and glass, furniture, rented offices, my place, my livelihood, my history, my success, destroyed in seconds. No time for tears. I have to preserve my life. I have to survive. A hundred feet away, sobbing from effort, I fall to the ground. In a moment or two I twist enough to watch my building settle into rubble. A dust cloud billows toward me.

From the corner of my eye I see other people streaking into my safe haven.

My head hurts and I feel blood running past my right ear. Words on a case file come to me, something about toxic dust. Mon Dieu! I rip my shirt open, pull my undershirt up over my nose and shout to anyone around me to do the same thing. Everyone’s in shock. A couple of people do what I did, but most are stupefied, arms slack, disoriented.

My hearing expands as I come back to myself. Now I hear crashes and screams. So many dead, so many dying. I have lost my building, but I have saved my life. I look at Port au Prince, my city in rubble. And my Fanny; have I lost her? I must not have lost her.

I bury my head in my hands. Now there is time to cry.

Screaming Death (Can You Hear it)

I attended a Boats, Books and Brushes festival in New London on September 11, 2004. It was a beautiful day. As a member of the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association, I stayed the day. At its conclusion, I wheeled my unsold books back out to my car and left New London. I live in the northwest corner of the state and New London is in the southeast corner and it’s a significant ride home after a long day. Nonetheless, I was pumped up by my sales and the camaraderie of the group of authors who were also there to promote their books.

I exited the City of New London and drove up Route 85, heading northwest and at Salem Four Corners picked up Route 11, a nice stretch of cement, a well-traveled, controlled access highway in excellent shape. I came across plenty of traffic. Everyone traveled about the same speed at or near the legal limit of sixty-five.
Occasionally a slower car resulted in one or more cars passing and in four or five car group I traveled with; we had made passes once or twice along its length.

This road is not quite ten miles long. Twilight had begun to settle in, so the roadway was no longer in brilliant sun and all drivers had their lights on.

Near the town line of Salem where it meets Colchester, I leisurely passed a car and pulled back into the right lane. As is my practice, I glanced in my side view mirror. Far back I noticed a bright speck of light. I looked forward, but within the next five seconds – seemed like three, but action telescopes time – the light materialized into two motorcycles, which whipped by me going, I guessed, at least seventy miles per hour faster than I was.

In the brief seconds I had before they disappeared from sight, I saw them hunched over their gas tanks (the only possible way to attain speeds in excess of one hundred miles per hour without being blown off a bike). In the brief couple of seconds they sped by, I noted that they weren’t Harleys. I thought they might be Japanese bikes similar to the Suzuki Katana, and they were flat out!

Racing on a public highway isn’t a good idea. It’s obviously against the law and any traffic at all on such a roadway creates an extreme danger. I used to ride big bikes in my younger days and I survived to see others who hadn’t. Road rash isn’t pretty. Road pizza can be horrifying.

The incident took perhaps ten to twelve seconds from the time I first saw the spark of light in my mirror to the point where the racers disappeared up ahead; that fast! Soon thereafter I merged with Route 2 north that terminates in East Hartford. All traffic was orderly and maintained a reasonable speed. I could picture other drivers shaking their heads just as I did.

I ran into a traffic slowdown just after Exit 11. Soon I had to stop. I crawled along with hundreds of other drivers for about three quarters of an hour. At Exit 10 the police shunted all traffic off the highway. It turned out I was one of the luckier ones. Cars arriving only minutes later had several hours to wait for the northbound lanes to clear. No one said anything, but I’m sure everyone knew somebody had died. I did.

The Sunday Courant carried a tiny piece buried inside one large section, “Motorcycle accident takes life.” It gave no details. What a small epitaph for a life. How like young people, ones who think themselves invincible.

I am a writer. I wonder who will read this, and who will remember the accident on Route 2 and shake their heads again? I wonder how the other rider fared. I wonder what he is thinking now. And I wonder if the dead man left family behind?

This true story took place long ago, but the need for responsible driving and riding never gets old.

Fifth Reading

All things are available to the imaginative writer. Instead of my books, let me talk about somebody else’s book today. Robert A. Heinlein wrote many wonderful books. His futuristic imagination took his readers to different worlds and different times and his readers gobbled them up unabashedly, like the most delicious cake.

In 1963, he published Glory Road, a terrific book even by today’s standards. His writing is not outdated, excepting facts he used to ground his narrative in that day’s world.

We all lived with the threat of annihilation then. One horrible war had ended, but greed went on. We deny it, but as an observation, we are ruled by the few and always have been.

Remember the Cuban Missile crisis, the Cold War, the hydrogen bomb, flower children, changing attitudes, like when sex came out of the closet (and look at us today), etc. An antsy time in history people today, if they look back at all, will know came out okay. That is, we are still here and still breathing and the world is not rife with mutants caused by atomic radiation.

All we contend with today is worldwide terrorism, bad government, unhappy people gradually being made unhappier under the restrictive weight of rules, regulations, laws and ordinances, all promulgated in our best interests and designed to help and protect the general population. I ask,  can you feel the weight?

Heinlein died in May of 1988 at age 81 and the world lost a brilliant and satisfying author. That he wrote mostly Science Fiction takes nothing away from what he gave to a large segment of the population, and especially to a small one, me.

Glory Road is a story made plausible through his words, his weave, his explanations and attention to detail, and his logic. The story begins on Earth and Heinlein’s flight of fancy carries us away, perhaps never to return. We simply don’t care because he has captivated us from the first printed page.

Here is not the place to recap the story. If you want to read it, get a copy. They are in libraries and old bookstores. I have a copy. I finished reading it on June 1st, 2014 for the fifth time. I knew I had picked up the book to read a second time in the dim past. Why? Because Heinlein made me love going to that far place.

Imagine me pulling out Glory Road in late May 2014. The book had sat on a bookshelf in my home for years. I flipped through it and a piece of paper fell to the floor. I picked up a page torn from a Far Side cartoon calendar from March 30, some year. On my ballpoint chicken scratch below the cartoon, I read, “3rd reading completed March 30, 1993.” Along the vertical edge of the cartoon I saw, “4th reading completed 9/25/99.”

I had to sit back and marvel, not only that I had read the same book four times, but I had actually kept a record on all but the second time I’d read it.

I finished it a fifth time fifty years from my first reading. I reflected on my seventy-six years, my first marriage and its happier sequel. I thought about all the water that had flowed under the many bridges of my life, of dashed hopes and brilliant successes. Memory triggers are everywhere.

Should I thank the author for that? No. I lived a parallel existence with Robert A. Heinlein. He never knew me, nor did I ever meet him, but his stories enchanted me for many hours over many years, and it appears that he is still doing it.

Anticipation

It’s a lovely word, not because it has five syllables and that makes it rather long and to a grammarian complex, but because it calls to the future. It installs nuggets of information gleaned in the past and thrusts them forward, past the instant in which all life exists, and creates an itinerary for pursuing the unknown.

I spend time more often than I probably should thinking of oddments that trek through life alongside the mundane, as on a wave. Most people populating the Earth must have such thoughts, but it is only those who have the time to reflect and associate, who consider them deeply.

I will consider it deeply.

Anticipation is a force. One could anticipate, as I am this moment, beginning an adventure of a lifetime. Today anticipation ends. Today my wife and I leave on a jet plane. Unlike the old song, we do know when we will be back again and I don’t have to miss my love. She will be sitting next to me in a huge, well-appointed sky-borne people carrier.

We went to bed at 9:30 last night after completing the final full day at home. We were tired, but anticipation interferes with sleep, so we were up well before seven.

We knew what we must do. We must shave, shower and dress in clothes laid out days before, make the bed, eat breakfast, empty fridge, and wastebaskets, turn thermostats down and reset the clocks for daylight savings time that would occur before we returned. We would turn off the water heater, unplug anything electrical that didn’t need to stay on, charge up our phones, collect electronics we’d take with us, and run through the itinerary to be sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. If there’s an etcetera here, this would be it.

Prepared and fortified, the moment of angst is past. Checking my watch I see we have three hours before my brother and his wife pick us up, take us to the Waterbury commuter lot across from St. Anthony’s Cemetery, install us and our luggage on our tour bus, wish us well and wave goodbye.

We don’t fear the next step, and we certainly enjoy the anticipation. In three hours we can embrace the fated instant of reality and be carried into our dream of a lifetime. Australia and New Zealand, here we come!

No Easy Way Out

The snow felt great as my Arctic Cat plowed the deep, well settled mountain pack. Here I could make speed through widely separated pine trees. The dual tracks bit into the snow like teeth and devoured it, spitting it behind me. I thought of all that power under me, my sweet s’mobile plying woods and fields and mountain terrain and it brought a happy smile to my lips.

I topped a rise and stopped. Two choices: a long flat stretch and a downhill with a neat upturn. The hill looked smooth beyond it. I picked the second option. Not the best choice. That “neat upturn” fooled me with a five-foot drop-off. At forty-five all I could do was to yell, “Yahoo!” and put my weight back to balance my landing.

I stopped with no problem, but realized instantly I couldn’t get back the way I’d come. From this angle, the ridge went in both directions as far as I could see.

How did I get in this fix? Two reasons come to mind. First, I hit the jump. It dropped me into a long, snow-filled crevasse. I had to find another way out. I’m not going to comment on how stupid I was to assume beyond where I could see.

Well, hell, I’m here, might as well…

I searched down and down looking for an easy way back, but the gorge twisted and rose, dropped, narrowed and enticed me. Before I stopped and got smart, it had led me far astray. By the time I got to a good turnaround, I was miles below my entry point. My watch said a few minutes before noon, not much, but I had hours of daylight left, so what the hell, I kept going, loving all that rugged beauty.

I finally began to worry and maybe get a little sense. I was in mighty big country without a clue how to get out. My terrain map didn’t help. The mountains looked pretty much the same, a mosaic of white and craggy dark. I’d made many twists and turns and taken one fork or another many times. The sun being on top of the sky didn’t help, and I couldn’t be certain of compass directions because of iron in the surrounding mountains. An old sourdough I’d met a couple of years before had entertained me with his stories. He said a good eye was better than a compass because of the iron.

I looked for features, odd-looking black patches on an otherwise white world, the kind I could remember. Dotted throughout I avoided the heavily drooping, snow covered green of the mountain forests. In the last hour I’d called myself an idiot six ways from Sunday for going off by myself with a ten-gallon gas can strapped to the back, outfitted with cold weather gear and no tent.

My bright red down jacket, yellow helmet and black backpack contrasted sharply with the terrain, but what good would that do? Maybe a hunter wouldn’t shoot me? Besides, there weren’t any hunters so far out and if there were, they were lost, too. Colorado is a big state and its share of Dinosaur National Monument with Utah didn’t look big on a map, but believe it, it’s big.

I thought back to my mid-morning conversation with my older brother Jed. We’d done a short morning run and I’d told him that I itched to make one more run for the day. He said the weather forecast for later included a deep freeze and a stiff wind. He told me the wind chill would be brutal and he wasn’t going to chance it.

“I’ll be back in four hours,” I said.

“Don’t do it, Jake. You’re not experienced enough.”

“C’mon, Jed. I can handle it.” I waved him off, fired up my rig and tracked away without looking back. He’d forgive me later. Jed had a soft heart.

I mentioned two reasons. The other one? The wind. It picked up right on schedule, but I didn’t realize it would cover my tracks so completely. I bit my lip as I thought of Mom and Dad. They were in Europe for a couple of months with Dad on business. He took Mom along on holiday. They knew we were going into big country to a lodge we’d all been to before and they trusted Jed to be my brake. Didn’t work.

I’m eighteen and Jed’s six years older and a lot more experienced, even I had to admit. Yeah, so maybe a third reason was stupidity. I should have listened to him. He knew how impulsive I could be. Eighteen is only a number, but it grew pretty big as I began to realize eighteen wasn’t grown up, not grown up at all. Bit of a shock to the system thinking that.

My clothing kept me warm so long as I was on the move and using energy, but I could feel the temperature going down. Jed had said it would be all minus numbers by the time I got back and don’t mess with the wind chill, either. He meant helmet and gloves better stay attached to the rest of the outfit.

All these thoughts didn’t help. I got more nervous as I realized nothing looked familiar. It wasn’t a big mental leap to figure out that perspectives changed all the time, so I couldn’t rely on features as a clue to my way out.

Up ahead the pass opened out and got flat. Had to be a lake, yeah, there! I stopped, got out my terrain map again and tried to place the new feature. The gloves were clumsy and the wind had picked up a notch, making it hard to hold, but I didn’t dare take them off. My hands were already cold and frostbite ain’t fun.

I hunched down near the side of my Cat and spread it out on the snow. The wind tore at the edges, but in a couple of minutes, I’d traced out the lodge and made some guesses about my compass direction.

Right there, Jake. I put a gloved finger on the spot and my heart sank. It had to be…that far away? I didn’t believe it, but no other feature looked like it. I’d run stupid for thirty miles? What fun; I could die. Big country kept on going and my map showed no settlements or mines or ranger stations for way too many miles.

“You were right, Jed,” I breathed. It became important to hear myself.
I didn’t want to admit it, but the truth lay in front of me now. I reached into a side pocket and took out my last energy bar. I’d have to munch slowly, maybe even save some for later. This was serious.

Think, Jake. You got yourself into this, now get out. You’re not as bright as you thought you were, but you’re strong and you’ve got a brother waiting, and a Mom and Dad who aren’t expecting to read about you in the newspapers.

Slow fear crept toward my heart and I shivered.

No, Jake, can’t do this! You want to tell this story to your grandchildren, right? If you can get here, you can get back.

I plotted a course, watching the terrain altitude markers closely. No more lark. Now it’s survival. I checked my watch. Three hours out. Take another three, minimum. Might run out of gas. Better conserve, starting now. Let’s see, I left at ten-thirty. It’s one-thirty. Three hours would put me into twilight. I had to be about two miles out when I jumped that ridge. If I could make it back there, I might have to leave the Cat and hoof it, but two is better than thirty.

Yeah, another thing. At four hours, Jed would be really antsy. By five, he’d have a search party out looking. He saw me take off and I’d bet a dollar he watched me until I disappeared. Somewhere in there he would have waved his hands in disgust, like, I’m washing you off, kill yourself, freeze to death, I don’t care.

But he did care and he wouldn’t do that. I loved my brother and he loved me. He’d be pissed and go into the lodge and have a cool one or three and probably make talk with ladies we always found at upcountry lodges not brave enough to rough it, but hopelessly in love with rugged terrain and mountain spawned daredevils.

They knew what they wanted and we did, too, so they waited in warmth by the big hearth fire. We’d arrive exhilarated from our long runs on our purring Cats and spend an evening with a different kind of cat.

Jed…the Rangers…they’d be looking for me.

Jake, old man, all you have to do is to hold up your end.

I took a deep breath, spun my Cat around and headed back the way I came.

A Christmas Miracle

Kris stood comfortably, his tweed coat warming him in the chill air. No question in his mind who he was. It didn’t hurt him to be standing there denied. He had just looked searchingly at the faces of the two men to whom he had revealed himself.

Typical reaction, he thought, not like I’ve never been denied before. Two men, one on either side of me, one full of doubt, and the other…absolute denial! The big question in my mind is, do I try to convince them or do I just move on? The children believe in me. Isn’t that enough?

Kris started to walk away, but something stopped him, a familiar something. He had especially strong reservations about the younger man.

The older man will take some work, but the other looks so angry! Well, I’ll try, but why I bother, I’ll never know? Yet…

Thoughts silently worked behind the kindly face. He agonized over deciding to interfere with other people’s thoughts and beliefs. He agonized every time before the will to fight for what he believed boiled up, but it always did.

For centuries I have turned my face toward the children of this world. I have done so in every language and remembered every custom. I am called by many different names. I have caused most children’s parents to feel the Joy of Christmas. They apply themselves to giving during this special time. They think they are doing it on their own. I suppose it is reasonable that those same adults would deny that I am the catalyst. No matter. I’m in it for the children.

He had carried his benevolent need for an incredibly long time. Finally, the thought that put his feet to action, the thought that caused him to turn back came to him.

These are ones who have lost the magic. I must help them to find it again. I must…I simply must try.

Decided, he squared his shoulders and prepared to speak to them. He must be the responsible one. Too many parents in the world had forgotten the child they once were. Such a pity!

The tall man stood deep in thought, looking at a house fire in the distance. He had stopped to watch for a few minutes on his way home from work, a sad diversion from his own somber thoughts. The darkness, the cold night and a brisk numbing wind made him put up his collar in a vain attempt to keep the chill from his neck. The man would have helped if he could, but what could he do? Fire trucks surrounded the building. Miniature figures cast long shadows in the flickering glare.

“Too bad,” the tall man, unaware of anyone near him, murmured to the air, “an awful night to have your house burn down.”

Shadowy images of people stood outside the perimeter of the fire, tiny impressions in a night that brightened and dimmed as hoses spraying the building made momentary inroads into the all-consuming fire. Miniature people gazed hypnotically at it. The tall man couldn’t see their faces but he could sense the tragedy written there.

He became momentarily aware of two men near him. A younger man with a battered hat stood a few feet away. Next to him stood a considerably overweight old man. He carried his weight well; didn’t seem bothered by it. Actually, he caught a glint in the man’s eye surrounded by laugh lines. This senior was used to being happy. Now he saw sadness about him, no doubt unhappiness in seeing the fire. He couldn’t guess what it might mean to the old fellow, but for a brief moment, he shared a primal connection.

The sounds of fire crackled across the still night air even from this distance. Suddenly a shower of sparks vaulted into the night air. A section of the roof on the attached garage collapsed. A kind of “Whoosh!” came to them a second or so after the crash. It seemed a signal, because at that moment the old man began to speak to him. As he spoke, the old man glanced at the younger man nearby, including him in his words.

“Such a sadness, to see all the work and time and history in that home going up in smoke and flame. Does it affect you as it does me?”
The tall man knew it did and he sensed that the old man knew he knew.

“Yes, and on Christmas Eve, too.”

Then Kris said, “What they need is a Christmas miracle. Tell me, sir, do you believe in Christmas? Do you believe that perhaps a Christmas miracle could indeed occur, if all of us were to wish hard enough?”

The tall man looked at him for a moment, but only said. “I’m afraid it’s too late for these people. I’ve been alive too long to believe in miracles…” he hesitated briefly and finished, “anymore.”
Kris looked at the fire and back at the two men.

“If I told you I was Kris Kringle and that if we all wish hard enough right now, we could stop this fire, could you believe and help that poor family?”

“I know your intentions are good, sir,” said the tall man, “but I no longer believe in Santa Claus, nor do I believe in any miracle that could stop this raging fire.”

“Sirs,” Kris said, now speaking to both men, “I am Kris Kringle. If you can believe, we can put out that fire as a gift to the unfortunate family.”

“Sorry.” The tall man offered Kris a look of pity. He turned his head away and gazed again at the conflagration.

The young man then raised his head, allowing his chin to jut. He looked down his nose and stared at the fire, hoping the old guy who’d just told him he was Santa Claus would evaporate and disappear. He knew the old man saw his expression before he turned away. Silent insult; ignore the old duffer.

But he couldn’t be silent. The stuff he’d laid on the tall guy ahead of him just now…whew! Crazy as a loon! He relished his blazing return.

“Ha, ha, old man. Who says you lose your imagination when you get old? You must be nutty as a fruitcake. Why don’t you get lost?”

Kris looked at him with infinite patience but no fear. It bothered the man some when the old guy spoke up, a sympathetic expression on his face, and said, “You have two children, don’t you?”

How could he know that?

“What’s it to you?”

“They want their Dad home tonight. It’s a special night. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“Why would I care about that? The old lady is home. She can take care of them. They don’t need me. What do you mean, asking me a bunch of questions? Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“Why,” the bearded man said, “I’m Kris Kringle, just as I told the other man a moment ago.”

That’s when he’d laid the fruitcake thing on the old relic. He hoped it would be enough, but the old fellow just stood there, pondering something.

Oh, damn! More coming, the young man thought.

He squinted out over the field to where the house continued to burn toward the ground. The firemen weren’t having much luck with this one. The wind rose, carrying burning embers out over the small crowd. Every so often they would hear a muffled thud, like an explosion. The young man owned a paint store. He knew the sound of exploding paint cans. Somebody had stored a lot of stuff in that ramshackle old place.

Wonder who lives there? Nah, who cares?

Fascinated by fire since his youth, the young man endured the cold, moving now and then from one foot to the other. He intended before he’d stopped to hit the local pub. A couple of shots would warm up the insides. It could wait for this, though. Why couldn’t he enjoy it in peace?

Still, the old guy wouldn’t go away. He thought, pretty soon I’m going to get this guy out of my face.  As he thought that, the voice of the portly man began again.

“Sir,” it said in a respectful enough tone, “I can see that many bad things have happened in your life, and that your business isn’t doing well.”

Who is this guy? How does he know? It was true, and it worried him sick. That’s why he planned to stop at the pub. A few brews with a couple of shots would take the edge off.

“Sir,” Kris spoke to him again, “with all respect, I don’t want to pry into others lives. I just want you to try to remember back to when you stopped believing.”

“Look, mister! I pulled myself up the hard way. Nobody gave me nothin’! It’s real hard to keep it. What are you bothering me about this for?”

“When was it, sir?”

The guy wasn’t going to be insulted, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I don’t know!” he answered savagely, too loudly, “That stuff’s for kids. When you grow up you find out it’s a lot of hooey. The old lady wants to buy presents for the kids. I got to work late to come up with the dough to pay for all that stuff. I’d be ahead of the game if she didn’t bleed me. ‘You got to do for the kids,’ she says. “What can I do? One step forward, two steps back. Life’s dance! I’d rather watch that house burn down.”

Now the tall man turned away from the fire and stared at the two strangers. The exchange disturbed his despairing thoughts. Why was the little man being so feisty?

Kris noticed the change and while still talking directly to the younger man, began to share his words with both.

“Life is just life. It owes you nothing. It is what you do with it that counts. People and circumstance will pull you away from what you know to be right and good, and away from the magic you knew as a child who believed. Think back to when you were eight, when the world was bigger and full of magic. You can do it. Try.”

Both men stared at Kris. As they did, Kris passed his hand across the air in front of them. Suddenly both men were transported back to their long forgotten childhood.

The firelight made shadow-grams across their faces, but they no longer saw it. They’d returned to the world of big people, of play, of presents and of bright joy. They dwelt there for what seemed a long time. The spell lasted only an instant, but oh my, the change! Their mouths turned up in smiles. A glint came to their eyes.

The young man said. “What did you do, old man? I had forgotten. All that happened so long ago. My parents; they are both dead. They were good people. I forgot.”

The tall man didn’t say anything then, but he smiled. His problems receded. He felt…changed.

Kris answered, “I helped you both pull back the veil, that’s all. Those memories are yours, and they are good. You just needed a helping hand.”

Suddenly the tall man wanted to be home, and the young man forgot his problems and his need to drink them away. He ached to be home, too, to see his children, to see his wife in an older, better, and more loving light.

They began to move away, but Kris stopped them.

“There is one more thing to do tonight,” Kris said. He looked at the fire raging away in the distance. “Will you help me to help them?”
“What can we do?” came from the two men.

“They need a Christmas wish. Grasp my hands, one on either side, close your eyes, and we will wish a mighty wish.”

They did as bid. They faced the fire, closed their eyes, and wished the fire out. A heavy, thick cloud formed above the house, and in spite of the bitter cold, it began to rain. It rained torrents, buckets. The distant bright glow dimmed and went out.

As suddenly as it appeared the smoke cleared and the cloud disappeared. Behind it they discovered a glorious full moon rising above the trees on the horizon. The ill, chill wind that had fanned the fire became a gentle breeze. It carried the piney smells of Christmas and their spirits soared.

Perhaps now the people who lived there could salvage their lives. Perhaps they would raise their eyes to the sky, from whence had come this Christmas Eve miracle. Perhaps the Christmas spirit that had been ripped so awfully out of their lives would find its way back, and would bring them peace.

They turned to Kris to thank him. They were alone. They looked at each other in wonder, shook hands and went home to their families.

Christmas is the Same Everywhere

On a verdant planet circling a G type yellow star in Monoceros, little Harro, a young male slither, moved sinuously into the home-hole dragging a recently caught Wholo. The little tri-ped struggled against the iron tight tentacle holding it. It had no word for fear, but knew it didn’t like being dragged against its will and it did feel caught!

An intelligent creature of the tiny planet, it reasoned that its loss of freedom could ultimately end in a snuff, the cessation of life as it existed on Quarlos. It projected images of dissatisfaction with that style of departure. In a group, Wholo’s were fearsome fighters. Caught alone they were overmatched.

Slither Harro, the only natural enemy of the Wholo on Quarlos gave no thought to the images it sent into his brainpan. Mildly annoyed by its struggles and by image-noise, Harro moved more quickly, thinking only of the fine meal he would shortly have as soon as the precedents of the Thwyd were met.

The home-hole measured three times Harro’s body diameter. The Wholo spread its tri-limbed appendages to the sides of the circular entrance to resist, but could find no purchase. It pushed with its jointed extremities and was either entity equipped to hear sound; it would have come to them as a scratching.

All life on Querlos existed without auditory sense. The character of the world had not lent itself to development of ears, eyes, or smell. The senses of taste and feeling, however, were well developed and served the indigenous populations more than adequately. Beyond that, they possessed mind-link and image projection, which operated like a kind of radar.

The Wholo tried vainly to slow its progress into Harro’s home-hole. The Thwyd’s muscular strength, small and immature as Harro was, more than overcame the strength of the tri-ped.

The little slither stopped near the den widening, projected its presence and formed an image of its victim for the Thwyd family beyond, its one elder and fourteen brother slithers. They all faced the home-hole entrance waiting as Harro glided into the circle with his prize.

Smoothly the elder moved across the entrance, blocking the creatures’ means of escape. Harro released his hold. Immediately, the elder encircled the tri-limbed Wholo and began to send image flashes to the assembled Thwyd. The fifteen fledgling slithers recognized the elder’s teaching mode and became still. The elder then projected.

“Harro, youngest of the Thwyd in this land encompassed, on his first mission into the outer world has brought pride to his family. In his first test he has brought into our den a Wholo. In his success he has shaped a time moment in which I must offer wisdom from the precedents.

“Today is the day of Monmet. The precedent for Monmet is one of freely giving. It is ordained that all Thwyd of our planet should give back during this day those things that we take to sustain ourselves. In the act of giving, we ratify, honor and glorify the great being that made us all. Today we release the Wholo back to its upper existence. All slithers must freely and joyfully project to this Wholo its salvation and our gift of its life.”

Harro experienced sadness that his effort must be brought to nil. The elder caught his darker thought and faced Harro. He lovingly projected a final thought.

“The Wholo are to us a food source, but the precedents rule in all things. What we do this day sets our species above every mindless creature that also inhabits our world.”

The assembled slithers accepted the wisdom of the elders’ important lesson. In one harmonious mind release, accepting that deprivation must follow, they projected their joy at the Wholo’s deliverance.

The elder unwound its long body from the captive creature and allowed it to disappear up the home-hole, back to its upper world. As it left, the Wholo projected its thanks to the gathering of slithers with a message.

“We have our day, too.”

Sensation

Emptiness is a kind of fullness, fullness without substance, like the bloated feeling I get after a huge meal, only right now there is nothing in my stomach. Have I felt emptier? No.

Picture taking a bite out of an apple. Chew it and swallow it. The essence comes through, the smell, the freshness, the satisfying coldness and the crunch. Then the bite is gone. If you spend any time thinking about it, you wonder. Was it ever there? It’s gone, right? It’s past. It’s in the past. You get a lingering sensation and then your taste buds even out and go back to zero.

My total experience, it felt like that, only fainter and more, what’s the word, ethereal. I’m trying hard to hang on. I’m trying not to go mad.

Ethereal! Big word, but it tells it and that’s what I’m trying to say. I’m thinking I’m walking in the world’s biggest field, short, chopped up grass or sparse tufts of whatever it is. Mostly it’s rusty colored dirt. It scuffs up in front of my boots so a light coating stays and the boots aren’t white anymore. It spreads out to the sides with every step I take. It’s really fine dust, like talcum powder. It billows as I trudge and the haze it makes comes up past my knees. I have to watch out for rocks big enough to trip me. They’re that same rusty color, with maybe a little gray here and there. Sunlight doesn’t shine ‘em up much.

The thin air, ethereal, too. Wonder how high up this is? I want to yell to see how far it’ll carry, but why bother? Who’d hear me? Slowly I slog along alone. I don’t feel just alone. It’s too small a word. What I feel is terribly, desperately alone. With every step, my mind bakes with images of the fire.

I try to think other thoughts, to not go there! But it keeps coming back, like my brain is attached to some big rubber band and the farther I get from the horrible picture before my eyes, the harder it is to take the next step.

The fire took Charlie and Matt. It’s all my fault, so why didn’t I die? Neither of them deserved it. I’m hurting so much I wish I was dead.
I’m too far from civilization, way too far. I don’t know if I can make it back but I have to try. Got to face the music. It’s not that I want to, but where on God’s green earth could I go if I didn’t make peace with myself?

We were real friends, not like people who get thrown together, do their thing and go their way. We made it work. Now they’re dead and I want to cry.

What happened? I’d tightened the last screw on the camper fire unit too hard and stripped it. Charlie told me to go easy. I heard him all right. Charlie said best not mess with the fuel burner while it was lighted up, but I said no worries and kept on turning. Matt sat in the back of the enclosure playing Solitaire and said nothing.

Charlie should have insisted. I wish to God he’d insisted! With that last turn I stripped the screw and out came the fuel mix from the reservoir. It hit the small flame in the center and before you could say “Shazam!” the place was an inferno. Flame billowed like the infernal red dust in this place. From instinct I dived for the door and got out. Charlie tried, but he was a mass of fire and I had nothing I could grab to help put him out. Matt screamed inside while the fire ate him up.

Now it’s just me, alone…so alone, and my gut hurts so bad and I’m going to live with this in my head for the rest of my life.

My slow steps bring me to the ship. I take one last look up at the brilliant blue dot in the dark night sky. My longing is overshadowed by guilt and pain. Heavily I climb the steps, strap in and blast off. A red plume of Mars dust vaults into the thin air to hang for a few hours. It will dissipate, but the feeling in my gut, that’s forever.