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.

Nothing: An Interlude

The news coverage of the terrorist attacks on a hospital in downtown Fort Orange died out after a few months. No suspects were arrested, no groups came forward to claim the attack as their own. Interest eventually moved on to the latest Republican attack on the overly leftist President, a nipple slip at the Oscars by an inebriated septuagenarian, and a school shooting in rural Iowa.

Ulrich Caranado did not forget. He thought about it day and night; it kept him from sleep. In his mind’s eye he could see the hospital collapse, he didn’t need the dozens of Youtube videos to relive the horror. What he needed, in his humble opinion, was a drink.

The Crow’s Nest, luckily for Caranado, opened at 8 am every day. Today, he was going to start off light.

“Kelly,” he called to the bartender, “Beer. Domestic.”

Kelly, a shorter man with long dark hair, and a days growth of beard, placed a stein of amber beer in front of the grizzled, hunched, man at the bar. It was emptied in one gulp, foam sticking to his mustache and beard. He drank like the ancient Norse, and ate like the Romans of old.

At lunch, with two pitchers of beer in his stomach, he enjoyed a hearty meatball sub, an order of mozzarella sticks, and a cup of questionable clam chowder. He cleaned his plate, scraped the bowl, and licked his chops.

When Kelly came back with a new beer, Caranado muttered under his breath. It sounded to Kelly like “I know who blew up the hospital,” and he stopped in his tracks.

“You say something, Caranado?”

He gulped his beer in two swallows. “Nothing. Another beer.”

Falling Short of the Absolute Truth: The Shot

In the history of folks who are difficult to track down, Nicholas Reynolds would go unmentioned. This is not to say that he is an easy man to find, far from it; it’s simply that no one is looking. He has no ex-wives seeking back alimony, no long-lost children looking for a bone marrow match, no friends.
What he did have, was time. All the time in the world, actually. He sat on this stoop or that; sometimes he sat by the fountain of Neptune that marked an entrance to Wilhelm Park, and he watched people rushing this way and that. He had nowhere to be, unless it was Thursday. On Thursdays he had to see Lisa Lisa. If he missed that appointment…well, he didn’t want to be late to see Lisa Lisa.
This day, by coincidence, happened to be Thursday, and Nicholas was making his way across the park. He moved slowly, stopping to be sure a passing squirrel had not made an insulting gesture, then moving on.
He was wearing, in the fashion of Fort Orange’s homeless, multiple layers in spite of the heat. His outer layer was once a fine wool coat, but was now so stiff it served as more of an armor. (If you happen across Nicholas Reynolds in the streets, be sure NOT to ask him how he got his coat so stiff. You’re both better off not breaching that subject.) Beneath the wool coat he wore two hoodies, one arguably red; the other faded from yellow to black as you worked your eyes up to the crown of his natty head. Between his yellow/black hoody and his dry, calloused skin was an Oxford shirt, of unknown pattern and color. His legs bore a pair of long johns under two pairs of holey jeans. His footwear varied depending on the week.
No one approached Nicholas and offered him alms or a friendly face, and he prefered it that way, especially on Thursdays. Lisa Lisa’s home was on the other side of town, and he dared not be late.
The afternoon heat did not penetrate his many layers, and a chill worked its way over his flesh. His teeth chattered, and he shook as he walked. If anyone had cared to notice, they might believe he was terribly ill and try to convince him to seek medical help. But no one cared. And he wouldn’t have heeded their advice, because it didn’t matter. He had made it to Lisa Lisa’s house.
He stood in front of the brownstone, shaking, scratching at his hair. In his mind, a battle raged. Part of him wanted to turn and run away, never to set foot in that building again. The other side knew he would cross that threshold, would succumb to his needs, begging at Lisa Lisa’s feet; but perhaps it would be different this time. Maybe he could gain the upper hand?
He walked up the steps, hesitating with each one, then knocked softly on the door. Maybe she wouldn’t hear. Maybe he could still walk away. But she did hear, and he could never walk away.
The young man greeting Nicholas at the door was new. The old Door Man was a fat, old fool. Now there was a young man, tall and thin. He had dark hair swept dramatically to the side, and a pencil thin moustache. He was dressed like Nicholas’ grandfather and held a bottle of cheap rum in one hand. When he spoke, his voice was deep, wizened. Maybe he was older than he looked.

“Welcome, be you friend or foe?”
“What?” Nicholas’ response was more of an alarmed grunt. There had never been questions before. Nicholas was not good at tests.
“Be you friend or foe? Never mind, it’s a joke.”
“Oh.” Nicholas didn’t get it.
“Are you coming in?” The wise young man took a very long pull off his bottle of rum. “I don’t want to let all the air out.”
Nervous at the thought of being turned away, Nicholas practically jumped into the foyer. The air inside was crisp and cold, and he wrapped his arms around himself and all of his layers to stay warm. They climbed stairs to the second floor, where a bench ran the length of the hallway. They both sat on the bench facing the first door on their left. From the other side of the door came the sounds of sex.
Grunting gave way to moaning, which gave way to a manic giggling. God was thanked numerous times, and there was a loud thud. Robust laughter, deep and throaty, then the door opened. A boy, no older than 19, stepped out into the cold hallway. He was naked to his socks and sweat poured down his body. Four deep scratches ran across his abdomen, beads of blood coming to the surface in places. The boy was strong and well muscled. He made no effort to hide his still erect dick as he walked past Nicholas and the wise young man. He seemed almost proud of it, watching it bob up and down as he moved.
The door remained open and Lisa Lisa’s voice came floating out among the miasma of sex and blood. She called Nicholas’s name, and he reluctantly entered her bedroom. She was laying on the bed, naked as the day she was born. She did not look up at him as he walked up to her footboard. She was instead intently studying her small, pink nipples. She licked her pierced lip with a pierced tongue, flicked at something invisible on the tip of her nipple and spoke to Nicholas.
“Sit.” Her voice was soft, pretty, but commanding. He sat on the floor, his eyes level with her ample hips, her clean-shaven lips just out of view. Sensing his eyes on her, she shifted, giving him a better view. He felt a stirring in his long-johns, but it quickly died down.
“I need my shot.” He averted his eyes from her nakedness, even as she jumped down from the bed and walked past him. He could smell semen and vaginal fluids as she rushed by.
“Sure, your shot,” she threw on a silk robe, tied it tightly around her waifish waist. “Tell me, Nicholas, what are you willing to do to get your shot?” She walked up behind him, he still sitting cross-legged on the floor, and pushed her small breasts into the back of his hoody-covered head. “Because that last young man just fucked. The shit. Out of me. He earned his shot. How are you going to earn your shot?”
Nicholas swallowed hard, turned his head slightly, “I won’t do sex.”
Her laugh was loud in his ear, and he winced, pulling away from her. “I won’t do sex.” Sometimes he found that if he just repeated himself, people understood him better.
“I don’t want sex from you.” She walked over to her nightstand, running a finger across the lid of wooden box. “You know what I want from you, yes?”
“I will kill.” He rose to his feet, lifted his upper layers to expose part of his belly. “Give me the shot, and I will kill.”
With fingers that ended in talons more than nails, she opened the box, pulled out a large syringe. The liquid inside was straw-colored, nearly opaque. “I’ll give you the shot, then you’ll kill?”
Again, that internal struggle. He could refuse the shot. He could remain how he is; or he could take the shot, over-power her, then steal all the shots. He would never need her again. Instead he acquiesced, offering his rough flesh up to her impossibly sharp needle. She plunged the needle into his muscles, and depressed the plunger.
As the change came over him, she whispered in his ear a name: Lana Oliver.

 

Falling Short of the Absolute Truth: Brian Oliver, part 2

Autumn air pushed in through the coffee shop door behind the stranger, carrying with it a few errant leaves and the smell of car exhaust. A too-skinny hipster girl waiting in line for her morning coffee looked over her shoulder and gave him a dirty look. He was dressed in sweatpants and a grey hoodie, his face was smooth, almost too smooth.

He moved past everyone in line, all of them grunting, cursing under their breath, shooting him daggers with bloodshot eyes. The barista called out to him that there was a line, and that he was skipping it, unfairly. He stopped at the counter, and began to do a silent dance, moving lightly from one foot to another, glancing occasionally at his crotch. The barista, with a roll of his eyes, got the message. A key was handed over, accepted by a hand that seemed almost too dainty for the body to which it was attached.

The stranger disappeared into the bathroom, his bag heaved over his shoulder. Then the stranger disappeared out the small window that provided some summertime ventilation, leaving the bag behind.

Nobody investigating the ensuing explosion, which leveled 8 buildings, would connect it with suburban meth-house explosion from 8 hours earlier.

***

Against medical advice, Brian Oliver checked himself out of the hospital. Before leaving he stopped by the ICU, kissing his wife on the forehead and saying goodbye. He hoped it wasn’t forever, but he couldn’t be sure.

The air smelled decidedly not like autumn outside. There was a chemical smell, a charred, bad smell. Off to his right the setting sun was gone. A black cloud rose from the street not even half a mile away. There was already a crowd of emergency vehicles, and police were setting up a barrier too far from the actual fire. Olivia! The name screamed across his brain, aggravating his already severe headache.

He headed off in the opposite direction of the fire, looking over his shoulder to see if she was following him. He burst through the door of an over-sized CVS Pharmacy, banging the door hard against the opposing wall. The resulting bang was loud, but no one seemed to notice. All their attention was focused on the windows, on the chaos down the road. The entire Western skyline seemed to have been swallowed by black smoke. Brian grabbed a cheap, pay as you go phone and a phone card and shouted for the cashier’s attention.

He paid  cash, snatched the receipt from the register himself, and ran back out the door. Down the street he ran, ducking down an alley between two office buildings and hiding behind a dumpster marked with a never-ending circle of white arrows. He tore open the plastic packaging, set up the phone and dialed a number he hadn’t dialed in 12 years.

“Hello?”

“Tom Killian?”

“Yes.” A moment of silence, Brian could almost see the recognition dawning over his face.”Brian?”

“Can we talk?”

Another moment of silence, it almost sounded like he had palmed the phone, blocking the microphone. “Aren’t we talking, now?”

“Not on the phone. She could be listening.”

“Who could be listening?” But Tom Killian knew the answer, and Brian Oliver knew he knew.

“Olivia. I think she’s trying to kill me.”

There was a thump on the other end of the line, and a staccato, sharp striking sound. Tom Killian had dropped the phone, possibly even fainted. “Tom,” he shouted into the phone, hoping to be heard, “Can you hear me?”

Some shuffling, then Tom’s breath in his ear, “Yes, I hear you.”

“Can you get away?”

“Yes. What do we do?”

“First thing, we have to find Nick. Where are you?”

***

The stranger watched from the roof of a modest office building as Brian ran down the street, ducking behind a rent-a-suite office complex. The stranger removed the hoodie and sweatpants, followed by several pounds of padding, and the silicone face mask. Olivia quickly untied her metal stilts, and shook off a layer of sweat. Her dark curls blew in the breeze, the acrid smell of her work bringing a broad smile to her face. Her ear piece beeped to life, and she listened to the sound it picked up.

Tom Killian? Can we talk? Not on the phone. She could be listening… She pulled the ear piece out, she’d heard enough. Brian Oliver knew she was coming, and he was gathering the other targets for her. This was going to be easier than she thought.

Falling Short of the Absolute Truth: Brian Oliver, part 1

With a small stack of books off to one side, away from the entrance of the crawl space, Brian Oliver shimmied feet first into the darkness. Before his shoulders disappeared into the void, he grabbed the top book off the pile, A Guide to Scat: Common Mammals of North America.

“You look ridiculous,” Lana told him, his adoring wife of exactly 8 months. She giggled and he craned his neck to take her in, in all of her upside-down glory. He reached a hand up to switch on the headband light, which elicited another giggle.

“We’ll see what you say when I bag me a critter,” he did his best Southern drawl, which was not bad (if a bit cartoonish) and disappeared beneath the house.

He was surprised to find he had enough space to crouch as he made his way across the dirt floor. His feet disturbed the long dormant particles, sending a cloud into the air, which danced in the beam of his light. He moved forward, cautiously, scanning the ground for animal dung.

He sniffed the air, but all he could identify was dirt, must, and possibly mildew. He made a mental note to take out some library books on mildew and the dangers of mold. It was while he was reordering his mental to-do list that he happened, with the corner of his shoe, upon a small pile of dung. He tore through the pages of his book in that dark space, his small light now a spotlight.

A little more than half-way through he found a reasonable match, North American Opossum. He dog-eared the page and continued. “Hey, Lana,” he called back toward the entrance of the crawlspace, “I think it could be Possums, or O-Possums. How do you say it?”

He thought he heard her begin a reply, one mixed with equal parts disgust, fear, love, and annoyance; but she never got to finish her sentence. She was interrupted by what would be the most talked about event on that quiet suburban street for many months.

The house above him shook; decades of dirt suddenly loosened and rained down upon him, as the neighbor’s house exploded. A fireball reached to the sky and the shockwave managed to knock Lana to her back. Brian saw her hit the ground, her face obscured by blood and hair, and ran to her. He almost made it out of the crawlspace before he knocked his forehead into a floor joist, knocking himself unconscious.

He came to a minute later, dazed, lost. He smelled burning, an acrid, chemical scent that burned his nose. He couldn’t hear much of anything, the distant wail of sirens, something nearer crackling and popping. Then he heard Lana, she was crying, calling out for him; but he couldn’t see her; couldn’t see anything at all.

Something thick and warm ran into his eyes and burned. He wiped the back of his hand across his face, and light flooded into his retina. He blinked his eyes clear, and saw that his hand was now painted a deep crimson. There still was not much light where he was, now that he had adjusted his vision, and he suddenly remembered where he was.

He felt around for the exit and crawled out onto the grass, collapsing next to Lana.

“Help,” she croaked, “We need…call…” And she slipped into silence as a troupe of men came running through their gate, carrying all manner of medical equipment. Brian took up the cause, crying out, “Help her,” then slipping into unconsciousness again.

This time, when he woke up, he was in bed. The room was unfamiliar, there was a television attached to the ceiling, dangling above him. “I’m in the hospital,” he said, then immediately felt self-conscious and looked around his room. He was not alone.

“You always were very astute.” Sitting on the other bed was a familiar, but unmissed face. Her hair, long and dark, draped around the sides of her face. Dark eyes looked over a sharp nose; there was no humor in her face.

“Hello, Lana,” there was no warmth in the greeting for his ex-fiancé. “Why are you here?”

“I saw your name in the list of injured. I saw your wife’s name, too. ‘Lana Oliver’, why does that sound so familiar?” She stood up; a stunted torso plopped upon a pair of long, chubby legs. “I knew you weren’t over me.”

“Is that why you’re here? To be a bitch? How did you even get in my room?”

She pretended to think for a moment, her face screwing itself into what was impossibly an even uglier version of itself; then she reached into her back pocket and pulled out a laminated badge. “Press pass, I’m writing a story about the bomb.”

He laughed, a genuine, throaty laugh, and pain shot through his head. “I thought you were going to be an actress? What do you know about reporting?”

“I know a lot.”

“Well excuse me if I’m unimpressed. You’re already messing it up. The doctor told me, it was a meth house. It exploded. Wait,” he sat up, “Did you go see Lana?”

“You mean Lana number two? No. They wouldn’t let me, she’s in the ICU.”

Brian fought back tears; he would not show weakness to his woman.

“Relax,” she sat down on the edge of his bed, placed a cold, clammy hand on his, “They said she’s going to be fine. Scarred for life, but fine.”

He pulled his hand away, wiped away the thin layer of cold moisture in the shape of her spindly fingers, and glared at her in a way he hoped said, “Go away, bitch.”

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t take your word for it,” he pressed the nurse call button, “But you already told me there was a bomb, but I know that’s not true.”

Lana sighed and hefted her awkward frame off the bed. “It was a bomb, Brian. Your neighbors were an accountant and a travel agent. They were not drug dealers. Someone blew them up, and I don’t think they were even the right targets.”

“Since when are you a reporter?”

“Since when are you married?”

“So who do you think was the real target, Encyclopedia Brown?”

She walked to the doorway, turned to face him, and breathed a deep sigh. One of the things Brian always hated about her was her flair for drama. “I think it was you, Brian.”

Six blocks away, in the back of a white cargo van, the hulking figure of a man gingerly placed a pipe bomb in a gym bag. It was cradled by blankets and half-popped bubble wrap. The man zipped the bag closed, slung it gently over his shoulder and stepped out of the van. The late afternoon air was crisp; a light breeze rustled the autumn leaves. The county hospital was due east, the stranger set off to the West.

An Explanation (And A Pathetic Attempt To Make It Up)

I know, I haven’t posted anything in weeks. I don’t want you to think, even for a second, that it’s because I’ve forgotten about you. Or that I’ve stopped writing. On the contrary, I’m working on a book right now.

Well not right this second, right this second I am writing to you. To apologize. I have neglected my readers for too long, and I will do my best in the future to never let that happen again. I’m not promising that I’ll post something every day, but as often as I can between work, family, writing a book, and keeping a household.

To (sort of) make up my absence to you, I’m offering you this fragment of a story I started writing years ago. It was meant to be a fairly long story about a survivor of a terrorist attack, and his guilt for what he’d done wrong (both real and imagined) on that fateful day. One day I’ll probably finish this story, I really like the idea of jumping back and forth between different times without any warning to the reader. It’s the challenge of keeping the readability that I like. Alright, let me stop stalling, here it is:

 

First, there was the screaming. Just the screaming, no other noise, as if the horrible, blood churning screams of fear and pain existed in a vacuum. It filled my head, bouncing off the walls of my skull, becoming all of existence for a few fractions of a second.
It’s seems counter-intuitive, when I think back on it, but that really was the only sensation I was aware of. There was the piercing, stinging scream of my wife in my left ear. The hairs on my arms and neck stood on end and my head began to spin in every direction at once. The world dropped out from below my khaki shorts and plain, boring sandals. I didn’t know if I’d heard an explosion or not. Just my wife screaming, joining in the with countless hundreds of other people around us, screaming.
My lungs burned and I realized I was screaming, adding my own voice to the cacophony. I reached out with my fingertips, gripping nothing but empty air…
For a sickly, long moment I was suspended in the air, buffeted by heat from below, and from the blazing summer Sun above. Then I was falling, and my stomach churned. I could taste vomit and bile and blood. I could smell sweat, and fire, and burning meat; but I could no longer see anything. The world had gone dark, death moved in swiftly and even the sound of the screaming faded from me. My mouth and throat filled with acrid, stinging smoke, I could no longer put a voice to my fears. My fall ended abruptly, my head bouncing against what I assumed was a slab of shattered concrete. Something very sharp entered my side. A very haggard doctor would later tell me it was a piece of rebar that barely missed my lungs. He told me I was lucky, and he said it without any irony in his voice.
I don’t know how I got there, how many brave men and women risked life and limb to pull me out of the rubble, but I made it to a hospital bed in a room with another man. He lost an arm, an eye, and would require massive reconstructive surgery on his jaw. Again, the doctor told me I was lucky.
Both my legs are broken. Beyond broken, shattered is a better word for it, but I still have my legs. Lucky. Nine of ten of my fingers are broken, but I still have my hands and arms. Lucky bastard. I have a broken rib, but both my lungs are fine. Some guys have all the luck.
I watch the news incessantly. I want to know who did this to us, I want someone to blame. A handsome reporter with a dimpled chin interviews a young woman who’s lost her arms in the attack. She smiles on my television and tells the world that she doesn’t harbor a grudge. She is just glad to be alive. I don’t not share her positive outlook, though I am much better off than her, physically. Updates scroll across the bottom of the screen, and with each new jump in the number of dead, I grow a little angrier. Finally, I can no longer keep my eyes open and I catch the latest toll before I pass out: 257 dead.
That last bit hits me like a sledgehammer to the chest. My Laurie, she is one of those dead. She is going to be forever remembered as victim number seventy-two. I haven’t yet taken the time to grieve for her. Her family is waiting to have a service until I can be released from the hospital, not that it matters. My sister-in-law, Sibyl, feels free to remind me numerous times that there are no remains. Laurie was buried under the concrete. All the bodies under there burned to charcoal. She tells me this, like it’s my fault. As if I was the only one who wanted to be there that afternoon.
Laurie had been looking forward to the Fourth of July for weeks. For the first time in seven years we both had the following day off and could really unwind and enjoy ourselves. She was a teacher, but usually took on a summer job to help pay the bills. This year we had managed to save enough money so she didn’t need to work during the summer. It was nice having her around all the time, never having to miss her.
The festivities for the Fourth of July were always held in the Capitol Plaza, surrounded by the impressive concrete structures that housed the cog-like inner workings of state, county, and city government. It was 100 acres of stone, glass, and modern art that elicited strong reactions in those who laid eyes upon it. There was no middle of the road with the Capitol Plaza. You either loved it or hated it.
Laurie and I arrived relatively early, cooler in tow and picked out a fantastic spot in direct line with the stage. Roman Avenue passed below the Northern edge of the plaza, separating it from our cultural gem, the Performing Arts Coliseum except for a wide set of concrete steps that doubled as bleachers during public concerts. This is where we laid out our blanket and raised our feet up on the cooler’s lid. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, despite the sweltering heat.
The “Party Downtown” as the Fourth of July celebrations were unofficially known always featured a line-up of almost impressive musical acts. This year they kicked things off with a Doobie Brothers cover band who billed themselves as having an actual member of the Doobie Brothers on stage with them. It turned out to be a drum tech who’d performed sound checks for the band in the early 80s. An aging roadie who, it turned out, could play the skins like nobody’s business.
To keep cool, and to keep from getting numb asses, Laurie and I took turns running off to the shade to reapply sunscreen. She was meticulous in her application, and she questioned and searched me to make sure I did the same. It was during a trip back from the shade that I first noticed the girl.
She was sitting, separated by a few feet and miles of life experience, with her parents and younger sibling. They were all two rows back from Laurie and me, off to the left. She had a heart-shaped face, blonde hair, and an air of unaffected youth. The moment I set my eyes upon her, starting with her golden hair and moving down toward her long, lean legs, laid bare by a short, white dress, she seemed to look right into me. Her bright blue eyes flashed, a stunning contrast to her tan skin.
There was an initial glance, that flash of brilliant blue, and something else: a tease of a smile, one corner of her mouth lifting, her full lips beginning to part. Then she turns away. I could still feel her eyes upon me, even as I sat next to Laurie, snaking my arm around her waist.
I awake with a start, unaware that I had even fallen asleep. There is a disconcerting moment where I forget where I am. My vision is blurred by sleep, the hospital in a mid night lull; solitude creeps into the room and washes over me like a cold wave. I close my eyes tight and I see her face burned into my mind. Not Laurie, but the girl. A pang of guilt stabs at my heart and I try to wish away the face, full of youth, and bringing lustful thoughts to my mind. I try to conjure up my Laurie, the woman I loved, and doted on for 9 years, but I fail. The girl stays burned into my retinas.
I took several opportunities to glance over Laurie’s shoulder and take in all of this girl’s features. Her skin was creamy, pale, and freckle-less. Her sun-bleached blonde hair came to just above her shoulder, a few unruly strands reaching down and teasing the bared flesh at the bottom of her graceful neck.

 

Fuck

So this guy comes in, dripping wet,

Like he’d never heard of an umbrella, 

And he says to me, “Where’s the restroom?”

 

This guy looks like something the cat dragged in, 

And he’s got this look in his eyes,

Like he’s a crazy man or something,

But rules are rules, so I tell him, 

“No.”

 

And what does he do,

He takes off his jacket, 

And it is dripping with water,

And he shakes it out, 

And there’s water flying everywhere

And now I got customers lookin’ real upset.

 

So I tell the guy to get out,

But he just won’t go.

 

I signal for the bartender and he comes around the corner.

 

He grabs this guy by the shoulders,

And spins his wiry butt around,

And he throws him out on the street.