Falling Short of the Absolute Truth: Amateur Hour

This is amateur hour.

This was Freddie Young’s thought as he relieved the commanding officer.

It was his thought as he took an M-16 from a soldier he could not see in the dark.

As he lowered his night-vision goggles.

As he brought the rifle to his shoulder.

As he centered his sight on the shadowy form of Genette Eason, running.

“What is she, 15? You got bested by a kid?” He let her keep running for a moment, then he squeezed the trigger.

In phosphorescent green and deep, dark black he watched as the girl ran. And then her right calf exploded in a green mist, and she fell into the ash.

He whispered an apology. Violence was a part of his job, a tool, both necessary and distasteful. Unlike his compatriots, there were high fives all around, there was no joy in it for Freddie.

“Bring her back.”

A stretcher was unfolded from a rucksack. Freddie walked across the ash with two soldiers, prepared to help lift the injured girl onto the stretcher.

When they reached her, they saw her the green glow of night-vision, and she seemed a pitiful sight. Her legs were dark with blood, her chest heaving, her mouth a grimace of pain.

It was only when they bent to lift her they realized she was not crying, she was growling.

Jesus, this girl is tough, was the thought ringing through his head as he watched her reach up to the closest man and grab him in the one place he was least protected, his face. She growled, then she screamed as she dig her nails into his skin and ripped a chunk of flesh from his cheek.

To his credit, the soldier only screamed a little before driving the butt of his rifle into the girl’s forehead. He was winding up for a second strike when Freddie stopped him.

“We need her to be able to answer questions.”

“Fuck you, I need my cheek back.” The soldier reared back, tried to throw Freddie off balance, and ended up with a punch to the throat. He wheezed and spat, struggled to catch his breath, and collapsed on the ash.

“I’m in command,” he turned to the remaining soldier at this side, but spoke loud enough to be heard by the group still in the distance, weapons hot. “I say who dies and who lives. I say who we question.”

He bent and grabbed one end of the stretcher, nodded toward the other, “She comes back to camp, alive.”

Camp was a single tent, containing a communications array, and a footlocker full of ammunition. The girl was brought inside, her gaping wound attended to by a medic. Her leg was wrapped in a not-yet-on-the-market material which compressed the wound enough to stop any further bleeding. An IV was set up, pushing fluids. Her blood pressure responded nicely, and Freddie felt comfortable waking her up.

Smelling salts did the trick, and she took a great, gasping breath. No painkillers had been administered, they were a bargaining chip. He sat on the edge of the bed and rattled a bottle of pills in front of her face, the carrot dangling from the edge of a stick.

“You must be in a lot of pain.”

Her response was a growl.

“These little pills, the work remarkably fast.”

Another growl, and a pathetic, dry-mouthed attempt at spitting.

“I’ll tell you what,” he placed a hand heavily on her wounded leg, “I’ll give you one, if you tell me what I want to know.”

She tried, remarkably, to leap up and attack him, but he was taking no chances. She was strapped to the stretcher. She gave a defeated whimper, and opened her mouth. Give me the pills.

He opened the bottle, slowly, took his time fishing out a small, orange tablet. “Ten time more effective than OxyContin, a thousand times faster than morphine.” He held the pill just beyond her pale lips. “Just tell me who survived with you.”

He dropped the pill onto her tongue, and she dry swallowed. In addition to killing pain, PK468138 was known to have a very interesting side-effect: it shut down all resistance to interrogation. Enemy combatants who’d been given this drug, which even the pentagon was not aware existed, would let loose a laundry list of criminal infractions, locations of their compatriots’ strongholds, and even names of double agents. Water boarding was for children.

He needed the information quick, there was already a team out searching the area for other survivors.

The girl took a few deep breaths, closed her eyes, and began to speak.

“There were some boys from my school. I don’t know them, not really. One of them is cute,” she blushed. “There was also a man.”

She paused, her mouth was dry. “I don’t like him. He’s crazy. He carries notebooks around town with him and tells everybody about his conspiracy theories.”

“Do you know his name?”

“Kevin Sheehan.”

That name rang a bell with Freddie. Never a good sign. “You said he was crazy? Conspiracy theories?”

“He said the government was doing experiments. Right outside of town, he would tell us.”

“What did Kevin look like?”

“Short with lots of muscles and dark hair. And a tattoo.”

“What kind of tattoo?” Sweat was beading on the back of his neck, despite the cool night air.

“Like daggers crossed over a skull.”

Freddie stood up, backing away from the girl, reaching for a walkie talkie. He picked one out, opened a channel to all frequencies, “Alpha Team, return to camp, immediately”

He waited a moment, no response. They were trained to respond with a double tap on their mouthpieces. There was only silence. He waited a minute, then repeated his call.

This time there was a response. A deep voice, out of breath. “You sound familiar, do I know you?”

“Alpha Team, return to camp, do you copy?”

“Alpha Team is gone, friend.”

Freddie dropped his walkie and stepped out into the darkness. He took deep, steadying breaths before returning to the tent. The girl was passed out. She didn’t see him roll up his sleeve, she didn’t watch him run his fingers over the raised lines in his skin, the fading tattoo of crossed daggers in front of a grinning skull.

The Year in Haiku

Golden hair man child
Brain doctor won’t open his eyes
Tea Party buffoon

We stand with Paris
But forsake the Middle East
White Christians matter

Police go too far
Protesters take it further
No one wins this fight

Sheldon Silver caught
Dean and Adam Skelos too
Cuomo far behind?

Boston has closure
Tsarnaeve sentenced to die
Let the healing start?

Love wins love wins yay
Still some will stand in the way
Hearts closed to true love

Cecil lion dead
Not for food or protection
Sport hunting dentist

Isis new evil
Terror group twists religion
Same as all others

Volkswagen pollutes
Computer fix hides the lie
Hipsters feel betrayed

Too many shootings
Terrorists in many forms
Fools fear the lone wolf

Genette Eason, Age 15

It’s like a bad magic trick. Abracadabra, and everyone you know or love disappears.

Genette Eason, 15, moved through the complete darkness that used to be her cozy hometown with surprising ease. The ground, covered in hot ash, was warm beneath her feet. The air around her was thick with dust. Somewhere in her mind, she knew that dust was made up of her family, her friends, her home; but she pushed those thoughts away.

The world had not ended, and if she just pushed forward, she would find it again. The real world, with green trees and clean, clear water.

She thought of herself as strong, and she knew she was not a cryer; all the same, the dust was sticking to her cheeks in long stripes. She pushed forward, tripping, pulling herself back up, ignoring the burning ash that stuck to her hands and arms. She couldn’t hear the boys anymore, or that weird guy that was friends with Ms. Elliot. Why did grown up women always seem to hang out with such strange guys?

Her own mother was once-divorced, once-widowed, and was dating a strange guy. His name was Lenox Foss, and he ran the only auto body shop in Grunig Lake. Genette disliked him on two counts.

First, he was just another man trying to replace her father. Her father, who had been faultless in her eyes. She had overheard her mother tell tales of abuse, and infidelity, but Genette didn’t buy any of it. Not about the man who bought her expensive presents, and gave her piggyback rides, and who showed to almost all of her school events. At least, when he wasn’t busy with his new wife, and baby.

Lenox’s second offense, in Genette’s eyes, was his bad haircut. It reminded her of a sex predator she had seen on Law & Order, once. She couldn’t prove that Lenox himself was a predator, but she couldn’t get the idea out of her head. Not that it mattered anymore; now he was just so much ash. And so was her mom.

With that, she gave herself permission to cry, but it was too late. She was all dried out. Her eyes burned from the tears and the ash, but she had nothing left. So she marched on, in search of that green world out there.

As she walked, though she did not realize it, the shock of what had happened began to wear off. Her legs ached, her feet burned, her head throbbed, and her right arm had a sudden sharp stabbing pain. She looked down, foolishly, forgetting she was in such complete darkness.

She felt with her left hand and found the source of the pain, beneath a thin layer of ash, was an enormous cut. It ran half the length of her forearm and must have been bleeding bad, the layers of ash felt thicker around it. It must have happened while she and the others were tumbling around inside that fallout shelter. She hadn’t even noticed.

She continued on a bit more, fighting the urge to lay down and give up. She couldn’t keep her arms up any longer, they just hung at her sides. So she had no warning when she walked face first into something solid.

Something solid that grunted.

SHE WAS SAVED! SHE’D FOUND THE WORLD AGAIN! Internally, she celebrated, but she didn’t make a sound outside of the “Oomph” as her butt landed on the ashy ground. She couldn’t see who she had run into, but she could feel that he was wearing a bulletproof vest. She remembered the way it felt when Wilson Charles’ dad, a deputy in the sheriff’s department, brought his in to show the class.

She couldn’t see this person, but she could hear him turning around. There was a faint jingle, a sharp clicking of metal-on-metal, and then a peculiar electronic sound. Then his hand found her arm, and gripped tight. Too tight. It really hurt, his fingers went into her cut and she cried out in pain.

Then she felt something hit her in the mouth. It was small and plastic and it hurt. Her mouth filled with blood. “Shut up,” came a muffled voice in the dark. She shut up, but not til after she spit a mouthful of blood in what she was pretty sure was his direction.

His voice again, louder, calling, “I found a survivor!” The muffled sound of a dozen men running on ash. Now there were two voices, the younger one that had hit her, and an older, raspy voice.

“I got one, sir.”

“Alright, eliminate the target.”

“Sir?”

“You gone deaf, boy. Job one is ensure no survivors. Eliminate the target.”

“But she’s just a kid, can’t we take her somewhere?”

“She IS just a kid. So there’s no way she survived that blast without some adult help. If she’s alive, there are others. Eliminate her, and then we’ll do the same to her friends.”

The younger soldier had half forgotten Gennette. His grip on her arm loosened. She didn’t squirm, though, she just listened. Her mother had taught her how to fight off an adult if a stranger ever tried to kidnap her. Until today, none ever had.

She listened to their voices and to the best of her knowledge, figured out where they were standing. Then she drew a deep breath, as deep as one can when the air is poisoned by ash, and lashed out with a hard right kick.

She was lucky, her kick landed right where she wanted. There was a terrible howl as the younger man’s knee was kicked from it’s rightful place. She heard his body drop, and then she ran.

The men behind her yelled, one of them hooted, and she heard a chorus of metal clicking against metal, followed by the unmistakeable sound of automatic gunfire.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Reduced

I had the apartment to myself. A sprawling, second floor, 3 bedroom with an enclosed porch and more living space than we knew what to do with. I didn’t live alone, normally, by my roommates were out-of-town for Christmas.

I also had the flu, so I was missing a fair bit of work. What was a young, single man to do with all that time?

Masturbate, obviously. So I did that a few times. But you can’t fill all of your time with masturbation, or so I’m told.

I played around with my MySpace page, which dates me, but I’m not ashamed. I moved my top eight friends around a few times. Then I changed it to a top 16. Then back to eight. I picked out the perfect song that summed up how I felt at that point, and I put it on the page. I can’t remember what it was, but I can guarantee it was depressing.

Besides work, and MySpace, and Masturbation, I didn’t have a whole lot going on. I had big talk. I was writing the next Great American Novel. The plot involved aliens; or did it? That was up to the reader to decide. At least until the last page when I would reveal that it had been aliens all along. I had already written one whole chapter! And a killer prologue which would bookend nicely with the epilogue. Eight years later, and that’s still all I’ve written of that book.

Work was certainly no source of inspiration. I was a deli clerk for the third largest grocery chain in the NorthEast United States. Fourth if you counted Wal-Mart. I dealt with idiot people, day in and day out. And the customers were pretty stupid, too. Looking back, I was not actually all that much smarter than my co-workers, I just thought I was because they weren’t writing the next Great American Novel.

There was one bright spot at work. A new employee transferred over from another store. She may have had the brains to go toe-to-toe with me. She certainly had mastered a level of sarcasm that I could only marvel at. Her name was Annie, and she was very pretty.

I had a crush on her almost immediately. Which means, of course, that I tended to act like an absolute ass in her company. I made crude jokes about our co-workers that no one (except me) found funny. I did her dishes for her, to get her attention and paint myself in a positive light. Work became about getting Annie’s attention.

And it worked! She noticed me, and probably noticed me noticing her, as well. But then came the flu.

No work, meant no Annie. So I busied myself, and my right hand, and I passed the time (3 days, to be exact). The one thing I hadn’t done, was shower. I was ripe, and my hair had a miasma of dried, old sweat. I needed to get clean, but my skin burned. The thought of standing under a shower head, and being sprayed with that hot water deterred me. So I put it off as long as I could.

The next day, though, I was going to have to go back to work. I had to shower before I went back to work. I had to smell nice to get Annie’s attention. I was a fool with a crush. So I pushed myself away from my desk, grabbed a towel and a change of clothes, and stepped into the bathroom.

***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***

I needed a drink, I would grab a drink.

Oh, did my shoulder hurt. Ibuprofen, I would need Ibuprofen, too.

Man, did my shoulder hurt.

***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***

I woke up from a dream, one of the most vivid and terrifying dreams I’d ever had. I wanted to drink something, so bad, but I couldn’t get the bottle cap open. And I wanted pills, but the top wouldn’t budge. I tried, and tried, but I couldn’t get them open.

I opened my eyes, and my first thought was: oh man, does my shoulder ever hurt. My left shoulder. I went to move my arm, but it didn’t respond to my mental commands. I thought I had maybe slept on it wrong. I tried to sit up, but the pain that shot through my body was incredible, like a bolt of lightning electrifying all of my nerves at once. A sense of unreality began to wash over me. Maybe I was still dreaming?

I remained in bed for a while, weighing my options. Obviously, I’d have to get up sooner or later. I couldn’t let a sore shoulder keep me from getting up and going to work in…how many hours? What time was it?

I remember going to take a shower at around 8pm. I didn’t remember the shower, but that was nothing strange. Sometimes the body just goes on autopilot, right? But I also didn’t remember getting dressed, or going to bed with my bedroom light on. I must have just dozed off, it couldn’t be any later than 9, 9:30 at the latest. I just needed to check the time, as a reality check, and I’d feel better.

I reached over with my right arm and pressed my hand down on my shoulder, only there wasn’t any shoulder there. The skin was still there, there was no wound, no holes for my fingers to probe, but there was nothing solid beneath the flesh. My skin sunk into an empty socket of skin. Confusion gave way to terror as I felt my way down my left arm with my right hand. The arm was still there, but it didn’t feel right.

HOlding my left shoulder socket with my right hand, I sat up. The pain was excruciating, causing me to howl. I stood up and looked down at my arms. My left arm was pale, almost to the point of translucency, but it matched my right, so there was no cause for concern there. The source of the concern was that my left arm hung limp at my side, and about an inch or two lower than my right.

I checked my computer, to see the time: 3:00 a.m. Five hours?! I’d lost five hours and dislocated my shoulder? What I needed now was my phone, but it wasn’t in my bedroom. I grabbed a t-shirt from my closet and tried to pull it on, but my arm protested strongly. I dropped it on the floor and reached for a buttoned shirt, first slipping my left arm through one sleeve, and then working my right into the other. I didn’t bother trying to button it, appearances were the last of my concern as I stood there in an unbuttoned shirt, gym shorts, and one arm hanging lower than the other.

My phone was in the bathroom, on the floor under the sink. Painfully, I reached for it. My shoulder knocked into the sink, sending shock waves of pain through me. After I caught my breath, I dialed 9-1-1.

“9-1-1 emergency, what is the nature of your emergency?”

“I don’t know. I think I dislocated my shoulder.”

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t know, but I’m pretty damn sure. My one arm is hanging lower than the other.”

“Okay, sir, calm down. I’ll have someone over to your address. They should be there in a few minutes. Are you able to meet me at the front door?”

“Yes.”

Three and a half minutes later, a team of paramedics were at my door. I opened it and let them into my narrow stairwell. The leader among them, a mustachioed fellow with wide shoulders and large, rough hands, met me with a rough grip of my left wrist.

“Ow!”

“What makes you think it’s dislocated?”

I turned my shoulder to him, and he poked at it with his rough hands.

“Yes, that’s definitely dislocated. How did you do this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay, St. Peter’s or Albany Med?”

My apartment was snug in the middle between the two hospitals. I had never been admitted in a hospital before, and had no personal experience with either, but I had visited Albany Med many times when my grandmother would have one of her episodes.

“Albany Med.”

“Okay, can you lower yourself onto the gurney?”

I nodded, and realized that the shock of my injury was wearing off. Suddenly it didn’t just hurt when I moved it. Now it hurt all the time. It’s hard to describe the pain. Imagine a terrible beast is tearing at your arm from below, while a white-hot poker is driven into your shoulder socket from above. Doing my best to ignore the pain, I climbed onto the gurney, and they lifted me into the ambulance.

I was in the emergency department for about 10 minutes before a doctor came to check on me. He diagnosed the dislocated shoulder, and then asked me a follow-up question that surprised me.

“How did you cut your head?”

“Oh that,” I brought my right hand around to the spot on the left side of my head where my little brother had accidentally split my scalp open 12 years before. The scar still bled, occasionally. “That is old, it just leaks sometimes.”

“I understand, but the injury I’m talking about is on the right side of your head.”

“Oh.”

“Do you remember how it happened?”

“No.” I was really beginning to worry now.

“How about the vomit in your beard?”

I ran my fingers through my beard, felt chunks of half-digested carrot sticks and buffalo wings.

“Oh,” I repeated, “No.”

“Okay, you have head trauma and loss of memory, I’m going to have to admit you to the neurology department. I’ll get you something for the pain, just hang tight.”

I didn’t see him again for another hour, but in the meantime a very pretty nurse came and stuck an I.V. line in my arm. There was a rush of warmth, and then I felt as if I was floating on a cloud.

When the doctor did return, he had a team of nurses with him, and another needle full of clear fluid. The pretty nurse was with him, too. “You know,” I told them, with the gravity of a man delivering a death sentence, “I watch ER all the time. And the biggest problem I have with that show is how everyone on it is so damn pretty. It just seems unrealistic, yes?” There were nods of agreement, even from the pretty nurse. “But now here I am in an actual emergency room, and you are all so beautiful. Especially you.”

I pointed at the pretty nurse, or at least, I intended to. By now my limbs were just so much jelly.

The nurses laid me back, and the doctor stood over me, explaining the next step of my treatment.

“I have to reduce this shoulder, Mr. Scully. There are two methods we can use. The first is I wrap this sheet,” he held up a sheet tied in a knot, to demonstrate, “around your wrist and pull as hard as I can. If that doesn’t work, I’ll simply twist your arm in a backwards motion until it pops back into place. Both of these are extremely painful. I’ve seen police officers pass out from the pain of reducing a shoulder. I don’t think you want to be screaming and crying in front of all these pretty nurses, so I’m going to give you something to knock you out, ok?”

I nodded, weakly. He stuck a needle in my arm.

“Ok, now count back from 100.”

I started counting in my head, but I was skeptical. How could one little shot knock a person completely out, it didn’t make any sense. And I was right, it wasn’t working on me. My body was fighting it, even as my eyelids got heavy. My head dropped forward, I nodded off for one moment, but I was strong and I fought it. I lifted my head back up, and the room was empty. I looked up at the clock which had just a moment ago told me it was 4:15 a.m., and saw that the time was now nearly 6 a.m.

I looked down at my shoulder, which was starting to hurt again, and saw that it was right back where it should be. The weight of my arm was supported by a sling. I was mildly impressed.

As I adjusted to the fact that I had lost about six hours all together this night, an orderly entered the room. In a bored monotone he informed me that he was going to be moving me to neurology.

He didn’t speak as he wheeled me to the elevator, then up three floors, and through a long hallway to my room. A nurse entered and gave me a tour of my room; phone, tv control, bed control, nurse call button. I thanked her, and again later that day when she returned to take some of my blood.

I slept for a few hours, but I didn’t dream. When I woke up, I made a few calls.

The first call was to a friend of mine, Scott LaMountain. I told him I was in the hospital, that I was fine, and that he and his wife had been right, I did have a neurological disorder. I should have listened to them, I told him, and I should have called a neurologist a long time ago.

The next call was to my mother. She seemed annoyed that I was calling her at work. It was a dry-cleaner, very important stuff. I told her what had happened, and asked her to grab me a change of clothes, and to lock my front door as she left. She didn’t sound too willing, and I didn’t say thank you.

Finally, I called work. My boss picked up, and when he heard my voice, sounded exasperated. He asked me what I wanted, I told him why I wouldn’t be in to work that day. He sounded doubtful, but he wished me well.

I settled back into the bed and turned on the television. It was early in the day, so nothing good was on. I realized I should have asked my mother to bring me a book. Then the phone rang.

Before I picked it up, I knew who it was. My mother had changed her mind and wouldn’t bring me my things. But the voice on the other end was not my mother’s. The voice was shy, and pretty. It took me a minute to realize it was the new girl at work, Annie.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“I heard you were in the hospital?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. How are you?”

She laughed, quietly, surprised, “I’m fine. Get better.”

“Thanks, have a good day.”

“Thanks.”

She hung up. I laid back and smiled. Despite the pain killers running trough my veins, my heart was racing.

It had turned out to be an alright night.

Work

Start on the first line,
Which makes sense,
Of course.

Last name first,
Middle initial,
First name last.

Date of birth,
Social security number,
You know the drill.

It’s the first step,
Of many.

Next, if memory serves,
Is the waiting,
Waiting,
Waiting,
For the call.

Which comes,
And you’re excited,
And you show up on time,
Early even.

Today it’s fingerprinting,
An interview with a sheriff,
A retinal scan if you’re lucky.

All these hoops,
Jumping loops,
And paper work,
Paper work,
Redo the paper work when they lose it.

So now, finally,
The job is yours.

Now there is the simple matter,
In theory,
Of a trip to Dallas, Texas.

Two weeks of training,
Sitting nights in a strange hotel.
But no,
Now you’re going to,
Beautiful Cleveland, Ohio.
Or your not?

There will be a few weeks of confusion.
Waiting, again,
For a call.

Never mind.
They’ve gone out of business.

Coming Down The Pipeline

Just a tasting. A preview, if you will, of some of the stories to come. They will all be autobiographical, and they will most definitely not be flattering to me.

There will be tales of romance, including the time I started dating my best friend’s ex-fiance mere weeks after they broke up.

There will be stories filled with hope, and caring. I’m thinking of three young men, 2 of whom I didn’t even know, who took me in during a time of need.

You will learn about what an incredibly large asshole I can be, and how unimaginably lucky I have been to have the friends I do.

I would be foolish not to talk about the woman who made me realize that I did, indeed, want to be a grown-up; and who helped me achieve that goal. As a thank you, I married her.

Find out why my baby brother and I no longer speak, and why it’s 100% his call as to when we can recommence communications.

And find out what made me the man I am today (besides crippling hubris).

MRScully

Selfie: A Short Halloween Tale

The selfie-stick had been a good investment, in Natalie’s opinion. Not that she understood much about investments. Nor how to turn a profit. Regardless, she loved it. Wether it be to show off her OOTD (Outfit Of The Day) or take group selfies (itself an irony that was beyond her reach) or just to make sure her actual selfies were “on fleek”, it had been worth the price.

And tonight was going to be an amazing night for selfies, indeed: Halloween! She was nominally dressed as a butterfly this year. At least, she was wearing multicolored wings. The rest of her costume consisted of a black tank top, with a strategic tear in the top center of the shirt, allowing her to show off what little cleavage she had; she wore black stockings on her arms (you know, to keep warm) and a black skirt that would hardly qualify as one any other day of the year. The heels she wore, she borrowed from her older sister, and took 3 days practice to be able to walk in without looking like a complete fool. More practice probably would have helped, but teenagers have no patience for that sort of thing these days. The black stockings on her legs rose to about mid-thigh, which was still nowhere near the hem of her skirt.

Her friends were all similarly costumed; Bethany was a lioness, proofed by the tail hanging from the back of her mini-skirt, Yasmin was a rabbit, or least she was wearing bunny ears, and Zara was a cat, complete with…well she had drawn whiskers on her face, anyway.

The 4 of them met at Zara’s house, since her parents would be away at an office Halloween party, and they wouldn’t have to deal with multiple parents clucking their tongues over how the girls chose to dress this year. Each of them had already had to hear from their mothers that they were growing up too fast, that just last year they were so adorable in their princess/pirate/mouse/ghost costumes. Their father’s had lectured them on the dangers of talking to strangers, and how they should never enter anyone’s house. Yasmin’s father had refused to let her leave the house, but her mother helped to smooth things over long enough for her to make a run for it.

They stood in the foyer of Zara’s parents’ brownstone and gushed over each other’s costumes. Natalie loved Zara’s whiskers, Zara just adored Bethany’s skirt, Bethany was jealous of Yasmin’s over-developed (read: stuffed) bust, and Yasmin thought Natalie was the most beautiful butterfly she’d ever seen. None of them knew it, but Yasmin was a burgeoning young lesbian.

As the Sun set behind the row of trees that marked the border between the nice neighborhoods and the not-so-nice neighborhoods, the girls set out with their matching canvas bags. They were ready for a night of fun, and of collecting candy that most of them never had any intention of actually eating (Bethany would eat it all, but it would just be coming back up her throat right after anyway).

They swept through Zara’s street quickly, then stopped for some selfies. It was riotous good time, with the girls joking and horsing around. Natalie lifted her skirt in one selfie, revealing a pair of underwear with a monarch butterfly pattern. Yasmin made a mental record of this, instantly overcoming a lifelong fear of butterflies. In another they all stuck out their tongues and flipped the bird at the phone. They didn’t stop to review their photographic efforts; if they had, they would have seen a strange figure hanging out in the background. One they hadn’t been able to see with their naked eyes.

The trek to Natalie’s street was short, but by the time they had reached it, Zara was not with them. They noticed, but didn’t give it much thought. Perhaps she had to run home to grab her phone. They didn’t think for a second that she could be hanging from a nearby tree, swinging from a noose made of her own entrails. But, who would think of such a thing?

On Natalie’s street they filled their bags to the half-way point. This was the street where everyone gave out full-sized candy bars. Bethany’s stomach grumbled, and she snuck a few (6) candy bars while her friend’s weren’t looking. At the end of the street, she bent over a bush in front of a house that had no lights on, and emptied the contents of her stomach. At 15 she already so well-practiced she didn’t need to stick her fingers down her throat.

Natalie and Yasmin waited across the street and pretended not to know what Bethany was doing. They stopped for another set of selfies, and this time Yasmin got bold. While re-positioning herself she “accidentally” copped a feel of Natalie’s chest. The word “gay” was thrown around as an insult, and Yasmin laughed it off. Each of the selfie’s taken at this street corner captured her scratching at the patchwork of scars that covered her upper thighs. Again, the figure loomed, but none of the girls saw it.

Bethany’s street was mostly dark, only 4 houses had their lights on, and only two girls dressed as animals walked down the sidewalk. Bethany was back on Natalie’s street, bleeding out from the wounds on her throat and wrists. The figure who had loomed in their pictures fed off her fading life force.

Yasmin’s heart raced, and her scars throbbed. She had fantasized about this very situation many times. Her, alone on a dark street with Natalie. She could feel her cheeks flush as she began to swing her arm gently, hoping to catch Natalie’s hand in her own. Their fingers made contact, but Natalie pulled her hand away, grunting her disgust. She didn’t notice that Bethany was no longer trailing behind them. But someone was.

They didn’t stop at any of these houses, Bethany lived on a very “cheap” street. The goodies here would be hardly worth it.

They didn’t stop for selfies at this corner, either. Natalie was getting annoyed with Yasmin, and Yasmin’s make-up was running along with her tears. She didn’t want her picture taken like this.

She also didn’t want to be snatched up by her hair and carried onto the roof of a house. She definitely did not want to have her body torn open, and her insides feasted upon. But then, we don’t always get what we want.

Alone, and aware that the trouble-makers from school were beginning to appear on the sidewalks, Natalie turned and headed for home. Had she not stopped to take a selfie outside her front door, she may have made it. The sudden pulling feeling from below, as the sidewalk seemed to open up and swallow her, caused her to drop her selfie stick, leaving behind clues to the girls’ disappearances that would only deepen the mystery in the years to come.

The Indecisive Alfred Highland

Three books at once, that is how many Alfred Highland was reading. This did not exactly point to a great intelligence, more of a fear of commitment. A familiar strain that ran through his entire life.

His mother chastised him on a weekly basis for being nearly 40 and unmarried. He took it in stride, and  told her he was just not willing to jump into anything without giving it a lot of thought. The truth is he never went on more than two dates with any given woman (and three or four men). After that, they became monotonous, and he moved on.

He never had any trouble picking up women. He was tall, friendly, funny, and had an athletic body shaped by an inability to stick to one sport/exercise regimen at a time. Women flocked to him and marveled over his golden hair, his perfectly white smile, and his bright-blue eyes. His type of woman was any woman; he was not fussy.

What Alfred did for work varied depending on when you asked him. He never stayed at any one job for more than a year before he got bored and needed to find something else to hold his interest. His current line of work found him traveling around the country, photographing the scenes of grisly highway auto accidents for a major insurance company. When pressed about which one, he was forced to explain that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement, and could not say.

A current assignment found him in a bit of a pickle. He had packed his clothes; he had chosen the pants, shirts, ties, etc. days before. Then he changed his mind. Then he changed it back. Now they were in the suitcase, it was too late to change his mind. Or was it. Yes, it was. The problem was the book.

He was looking at a six-hour flight, during which he would not be able to sleep. He found sleeping on airplanes impossible. It was all about his need to change positions continuously, something that was just not going to work while cramped in the tight space and airplane seat afforded.

He also did not want to make conversation with whoever was seated near him. A six-hour conversation sounded horrifically boring. Music was an option, but creating a playlist to last all six hours would require weeks of decisions, changes, purchases, no…Music was out of the question. His preferred method of passing the time was reading.

The problem was finding the right book. Something too short would leave him with the possibility of having to pass hours just twiddling his thumbs.  Too long and he would never finish;  the book would go back on his bookcase, never to be read again. No, that would drive him nuts in a way that would tickle at his brain, but never actually force him to finish.

Experimentation told him that around 330 pages are perfect. However, there is more to consider. There is always more to consider. Genre, for instance. He enjoyed a good mystery, especially those written by James Patterson. But those books had a hidden trap. As the suspense increased, as the answer neared, he would read faster, turning pages at an accelerated rate. He would finish early and be stuck chatting it up with the boring bastard seated next to him.

There was an entire shelf dedicated to books he had borrowed from friends, and would probably never actually read. Maybe he could take one of these, but what if he lost it five states away. He would have to buy his friend a new copy to replace it. That just seemed silly. What a waste of time and money that would be.

How about non-fiction? Out of the question for air travel. Books containing true stories always led to long sessions with Google or Wikipedia to confirm the information held on the page; or just to help him visualize the “characters” in the work. Wasting all that time (and money) on an airplane, surfing the net, was a ludicrous notion.

This thought process went on for a week,  interrupted here and there by normal life, until he had it narrowed down to three choices. He had started all three already, just to get an idea of what he was in for. The first was a comedy of sorts about a dwarf spy infiltrating an American family. The second was a work of modern day fantasy taking place in the London underground. The third was a saccharine take on teenage lust and imagination. The decision was almost impossible.

He had flipped coins. He had dropped all three books in a box and picked one at random. He did eeny-meeny-miney-moe (three times, each time starting with a different book), all to no avail. He was still not sure when the cab pulled up out front of his apartment building, waiting to take him to the airport.

On his way out the door he grabbed at a random book, and stuffed it in his carry-on bag, determined to be surprised on the flight by his choice.

He started reading it during the cab ride, and was half-finished by the time they called his section to board the plane.

A More Complete Father

For the first 29 years of my life I had a picture of my father in my head. It was not a picture based on memories so much as stories told to me by my mother. That was all, I had one primary source. He died when I was three, and I remember that. Beyond that, it’s been a story.

And the man I knew from her words was a man who was impossible not to love. He was strong, masculine, and brave. He was sensitive and respected life, despite having served in the Army during Vietnam. He was always giving of himself to neighbors and those in need. He was a man a boy could look up to. He was perfect.

It never struck me as truly odd that my aunts, uncles, and cousins would offer nothing more than empty, greeting-card fare.

He was a good man.

You would have loved him.

He loved you.

He was a great man.

According to my mother, he served as a door gunner on a Huey during Vietnam. I had no way to confirm this, as all traces of my father were destroyed by my stepfather. But I took it as gospel my whole life.

But then I got an itch. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know everything, but I had already distanced myself from any family who would have any answers. I am a proud man, even when I am woefully wrong; and I would not go crawling back to those people, begging for answers. So I set out on my own to find some answers.

So I went to archives.gov and requested copies of his military records. Very few things survived my stepfather’s purge. A Zippo lighter. A digital watch. A beaten-up wallet. And a Social Security Card. With just those 9 digits, I was able to receive the information.

When it finally arrived in the mail, it offered me a tantalizing, if not small, glimpse into his life. I was, well, surprised.

After joining the U.S. Army in 1971, he served the majority of his career state-side. North Carolina/Virginia to be exact. He did serve 6 months in Vietnam, though, as part of a helicopter maintenance group. Learning this destroyed my mother’s claims that all his time spent in Vietnam, breathing in Agent Orange, is what caused his lung cancer, and his death.

I also learned that toward the end of his time in the military, he became a bit of a slack-ass. There were several write-ups, almost all of them for disobeying orders to wake up in the morning, or going AWOL for a week or so. A new picture of my father was beginning to form, and it was not the noble hero I grew up with.

But there was a comfort in this. He was slowly becoming more human. I found that the more bad things I learned about him, the more accessible he became.

Enter Ancestry.com, and a slew of high hopes.

I signed up for Ancestry when they offered a free 2 week trial. With his military records spread out across my bed, I began my search. On my mother’s side I found information stretching back to pre-civil war Tennessee, and turn of the century Northern Italy. On my father’s side? Nothing.

Well, almost nothing. I found my older brothers, one of whom I hadn’t spoken to in over two decades. Through them, I learned a little more about my father, and his somewhat severe (but period appropriate) approach to discipline. Other than that, they not much to offer (they were 13 and 6) when he died.

But it was through them that I met their mother, and I learned the most devastating truth about my father.

He had beat her. He was controlling, abusive, and obsessively jealous. He was everything I hated about my step-father(and the men who followed in his footsteps). He was the picture of the type of man I hate most.

I grew up watching my mother get knocked around, bloodied up, and slapped down (but that all is a tale for another day), and I have developed a nose for the type. I can sniff them out with just a few minutes of observing their behavior, or by reading behind the lines of a woman’s words (“He was drunk…”). How had I not known this about my own father? Because the truth was hidden from me. But now I know.

And it changes nothing. He’s still my father, and I still love him. This, now much more complete, picture of the man is exactly what I’ve wanted my whole life. He was a man with flaws, and serious issues, and he died too young.

Let this be a lesson to you, my dear reader. Never fear the truth, no matter how ugly. It may hurt at first, it may sting your heart and steal your breath, but in the end…please forgive me, but I love a good cliche…the truth will set you free.