Monday, December 6, 2010

Saint Nick

This is a special guest post by Amy Gunn

There has always been a Rose in my family, for as far back as any of us can remember. It’s one of those family names that keeps cropping up, and it’s almost like we don’t even have a choice in the matter anymore. The firstborn daughter is always named Rose.

My life had always been completely ordinary before Nick. It had been early December when we met; I was just finishing up my first semester as a freshman in college. I hadn’t dated a lot through high school, so when Nick came along and swept me off my feet I was positive that it was true love.

We met at a party. It wasn’t one of those cool parties that you see in movies or anything; it was actually pretty boring. People were sitting around, some of them holding hands, and everyone was listening to loud music. Okay, now that description just made it sound even cooler than it was. The loud music was classical music, since it was a symphony Christmas party. Yeah, I was the embodiment of the phrase “band geek.” Anyway, Nick introduced himself to me with Bolero blaring in the background, and it was love at first sight, at least for my part. I had never seen him around before, but I was in the woodwinds and he told me he was in percussion, so that sort of made sense to me.

Nick was a looker, so I couldn’t believe he was even talking to me. He was over six feet tall with glossy blond hair that had just the right amount of wave in it, and his eyes were a piercing color of electric blue. He was like the Ken doll of college sophomores.

I left the party with him that night and never looked back. I don’t remember where we went – which is weird I guess – but we went someplace and talked until it was almost getting light outside. The knowledge that I had been picked up by this totally amazing guy sort of filtered down to everything else in my life to make it all seep pretty great.

We saw a lot of each other over the next couple of weeks. I’m sure my dorm roommate wondered where I was spending all of my spare time, but we were all pretty stressed about finals so maybe she didn’t even notice. I’m not sure what Nick and I did those nights; more talking, I guess. But suddenly I had my happy thought to get me through finals, of which I’d been terrified since I started school that fall.

Nick was always giving me presents. Every morning when I woke up I’d find things resting on the foot of my bed. I wondered how much he had paid my roommate to put them there, but somehow I never got around to asking her. Once there was a nice pair of earrings that I swear had real diamonds in them, but it was mostly little things, like candy and a note that said “sweets for the sweet” or something equally corny. I loved corny, so it made me fall for him even more.

I’m not sure exactly when or how it happened, but sometime after Nick found out I was going home for Christmas at the end of finals week, we were suddenly planning to make the trip together. I had never brought a guy home with me before, so this was a big step for me. I decided to keep him as a surprise for my family, although I wasn’t sure why. Nick was like the best thing to ever happen to me, but I didn’t want to share him just yet.

The last day of finals was just a few days before Christmas. Somehow I survived everything, and then it was finally time to get off campus and head for home. My parents lived a couple hundred miles away from the school. It was close enough that I could visit them without breaking the bank, but also far enough away that I felt like I could have a little space.

We both crammed into my ancient Volkswagon Rabbit. I had family Christmas gifts packed into the hatchback next to my dirty laundry and suitcase. Nick had packed pretty light; I couldn’t even see any of his stuff under the mountain of my own. He was great company. I don’t remember much about the trip home except that I was enjoying spending the time with him.

The trip seemed to take no time at all, but then there we were, suddenly driving down the street I had grown up on and I could see the familiar white house with the swing on the front porch. I was getting a little anxious, but in an excited sort of way. I parked a couple houses down, because I wanted our arrival to be a surprise to my family, who weren’t actually expecting me – let alone Nick – until late that night or the next day.

Nick was helping me pull my luggage out of the back of the car. There was a dizzying instant where I blinked and the tiniest fraction of a moment passed before I reopened my eyes, and when I looked at him again there was another gift perched on top of my duffel bag.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Open it,” Nick replied, smiling. He was closing the top of the one bag he always seemed to have with him. I wondered for a moment if this was the only piece of luggage he had brought with him, but then I got distracted by the gift under my nose. I opened it and was shocked to see a necklace that matched the diamond earrings he had given me before (which I was wearing, of course). “Nick,” I argued, shaking my head, “I can’t believe you got this for me. It’s too much!” But my fingers were itching to pull it out of its box and put it on.

Nick’s teeth still gleamed behind his smile, “It’s just a little something to remind you of me,” he shrugged, “do you want me to put it on for you?”

There was weight and some deeper meaning to his question that I didn’t quite catch, but my feeling of guilt disappeared and I just nodded. Something flashed in Nick’s eyes as I watched him pull the necklace out of the box. Triumph? I figured he was just pleased I was accepting his gift after all.

I had to hold my breath to keep from squealing when he put it around my neck. It felt heavier than it had looked in the box, and somehow when I looked into Nick’s eyes again I knew that something had changed in our relationship forever. I couldn’t help but wonder if a diamond ring might someday follow this gift.

The rest of the day went by in a blur. Nick was a huge hit – especially with my mom – and things couldn’t have been better. My little brother Trevor didn’t seem to care much for Nick at first, but then Nick went to his little magic bag and suddenly there was a gift there for Trevor as well. Nick was like that – always thinking about others. Things went better with Trevor after that.

The next day was Christmas Eve – the day my extended family got together for a huge dinner. I was excited they were all going to meet my new boyfriend. I helped my mom get ready for the dinner – even though I was a terrible cook – partly because I wanted to impress Nick by doing something all homey, but also because I wanted everything to turn out perfect this year. Nick stayed out of the way but was always there just within sight when I started to wonder where he had disappeared to. Then it was time for people to start showing up. I didn’t want Nick to feel
overwhelmed by my large family, so I took him back onto the covered porch in the back
of the house, and the place started to fill up.

He stood there staring into the trees in the backyard, and I thought he seemed tense. “Hey,” I greeted him, walking over to put my hand in his.

“Hey,” he said, grinning when I took his hand. “Sorry, I don’t really do crowds,” he confessed. “I thought this was just going to be you and your family.”

Okay, now I felt really guilty. “Sorry,” I apologized, “but this sort of is my family.” I gestured weakly toward the back door. I realized just then that I had no idea what sort of family background Nick was coming from. He had never been interested in talking about himself and it hadn’t seemed odd to me before that moment. I heard the knob turn as someone on the inside of the house was coming out, and I felt Nick stiffen next to me. I looked over at him curiously, squeezing his hand just in case that weird look on his face was discomfort at being subjected to my extended family. I turned back to the house to find my grandmother standing in the open doorway staring at the two of us with her mouth hanging open.

“Hi grandma,” I said, thinking she was just overreacting at seeing our clasped hands. She didn’t look at me; just continued to stare at Nick.

“You!” she finally said after a quick moment, pointing a long, gnarled finger at him. “You are not welcome here.”

I sucked in a deep breath, nearly swallowing my own tongue. “Grandma!” I choked in disbelief. I turned to Nick, hoping that my muddled brain could come up with an acceptable apology, but I realized he was still smiling.

“Hello, Rose,” he said, calling her by her first name. I was confused, thinking at first that he was talking to me, but he was still watching her. Neither one of them was paying me any attention.

“You are NOT welcome here, Nicholas,” she said again. How did she know his name? This was getting weirder all the time. Nick was still grinning, not troubled by her rudeness.

“Rose, Rose, Rose,” he said again, still sounding pleasant, “I said I would be back; you just hoped I would forget. But you should know I never forget to call in a debt.” His words sounded cruel, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

“What?” I finally said out loud, flabbergasted. “What’s going on, Grandma?” I looked back over at her, pleading. Somehow even though Nick was talking to my gran like she was an old rival, it didn’t occur to me to wonder about him. Looking back, I realize this was pretty ridiculous, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. Grandma was the only part of the equation that didn’t make any sense at the time.

“No, Nicholas,” she said bitterly, spitting his name out, “You’re wrong.” She ignored my question completely. “I knew you’d be back, though I must admit I thought it would be sooner.” I thought she chuckled, but it was so soft I wondered in the next instant if I had imagined it.

Nick flinched a little, but I had no idea why her words had bothered him. “I’m here now, Rose – dear one –” he smiled cruelly as the pet name rolled off his tongue, “and you’re too late to save this one.”

And then I realized he was pointing at me. I started to feel weird; the world was swimming, everything covered in a haze. Then the necklace Nick had given me earlier felt like it was burning into the sensitive skin of my throat.

“Take it off,” I begged, reaching out towards Nick, but when I fell to my knees he didn’t reach to help me. My hands were clawing at the necklace, but I couldn’t find a clasp to open and remove it. I heard an awful rasping noise but I was so distracted by trying to take off the necklace I
didn’t realize at first that I was hearing my own breathing.

Grandma yelled something indistinguishable beneath all the noise I was making and her hand flew up to the skin above her own collar. In an instant that lasted for an eternity, I remembered the pale burn scar I had often noticed around her neck when I was little, and I wondered again why she had always refused to tell me where it had come from. As I watched, suddenly the scar lit up to the hot orange of glowing lava.

My grandma laughed again, and it was exultant. She was ignoring the glowing ring around her neck completely. “I’ve felt you getting close for years and I knew you’d return soon. That was why I brought this with me.” For a split second she held something out in front of her that I couldn’t quite see, and then she reached her hand up over her head and threw whatever it was at Nick.

“No!” Nick screamed, and in the middle of the scream his voice changed to something else – a gurgling that was both inhuman and terrifying. “I will be back,” he gurgled before the noises coming from him stopped altogether. I stared in horror as my boyfriend shrank into a shapeless lump on the back porch. The burning slowly faded away as the world around me came back into focus. I was still crumpled on the floor clutching at my neck. I couldn’t feel the chain wrapped
around it anymore, but I could still feel the pain of it. Something heavy was in one of my clenched fists; I opened it to find the diamond pendant that had hung from the necklace. I
was shivering and I thought I was going to start sobbing at any moment. For some reason I tightened my hold on the pendant like it would save my life, even though a part of me just wanted to throw it as far as I could away from me.

Grandma stepped closer to me and I saw that she was limping. “That’s it, honey,” she said. “Pick yourself up and help these old bones get sat down on that chair.” She pointed to a pair of metal patio chairs several feet away and I got to my feet, letting her hook her elbow through mine as we went to sit down. The metal was cool beneath me and I shivered again. I looked around, dazed.

“What happened to Nick?” My overworked brain still couldn’t wrap itself around anything that had just happened; I was half expecting myself to have a complete meltdown. Grandma sighed and reached up to pat my hand.

“Same as always,” she said sadly. “He’s gone for now; don’t you worry.”

My head was spinning. “What do you mean ‘same as always’?” I asked.

She stared into my face, her mouth tense, and then she nodded. “I guess you’re old enough now – he just proved that. You deserve to know.” She leaned back, her usually excellent posture forgotten as she slumped against the metal back of the chair. I wondered for a second if she would ever be able to get up out of the chair, she looked so frail.

“Nicholas has always been there – at least as long as any of us can remember. They say the first Rose in our family made a deal with the devil – eternal beauty for the price of her soul. She tricked him, though, when he came to collect. Rose had fallen in love right after she made the deal, and she regretted selling her soul like that. Somehow she was able to slip past him and run off with the man she loved. She thought she could hide from Nick. She was right, at least at first.

“She got married and they had a couple of kids, and she mostly forgot about the deal she had made. Then one day when her daughter – another Rose – was all grown up she said she had met the man she was going to marry. Her mother realized that the mystery man was none other than Old Nick himself.

“She was almost too late to save her daughter; she showed up at that last moment when Nicholas was the most vulnerable (he had used up most of his power giving the
daughter nice gifts to seduce her) and Rose saved her daughter.

“Nick wasn’t finished, though; he was patient and kept coming back. No matter how often they moved, every woman born into the family was found and seduced one by one.” Grandma looked down at her hands, clenching and unclenching her fingers.

“I was the last one before you, and I never believed the stories either. My mother came to help free me, but not before I got this,” She was fingering the angry red burn at her throat, and I wondered if it was as painful as it looked. My hand went up to my own throat where I was sure I had a matching burn. She saw my gesture.

“Yes, I was almost too late to help you too, my little Rosie.” She shook her head. “No matter how often you try to convince yourself this never happened, you can’t let yourself forget this day,” she paused, “because there’s another part to it that I haven’t told you yet.”

She went silent and I didn’t think she was going to continue, so I asked “What’s that, Grandma?”

My blood ran cold when she looked up at me again and said “The devil always comes back to claim his own, and he knows that one of these days we won’t quite be fast enough.” I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. “Each time he gets a little bit closer. Don’t you ever forget, Rosie,” she said again. She was wagging a finger at me, her face stern. “He’s like the family saint: always coming with a smile on his face and gifts to win everyone over. But we can’t forget that Old Nick and Saint Nicholas are one and the same. He’ll go to no end of trouble to claim what he thinks is his own.”

I’ve shoved my memories of that night ten years ago into the far corners of my mind because they were much too terrifying to be real, but today everything changed with the birth of my daughter. Now my whole life revolves around the fear that someday I might be the one who will get there just a little too late to save my Rose from Old Scratch.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Silent Killer, Part II

It took some money, but they found him. It had not taken long to convince Gennie of the need to find Scott, Gennie's old boyfriend that had been, and still was, a private investigator.

Neither of them had the patience to be content with a simple Google or Facebook search.

Omar was living about a thousand miles away. He had served in a tour in Iraq, one in Afganistan. He had a blog that he had set up, mainly for his family, but Scott couldn't determine if he was doing any other writing worth mentioning.

Reading the blog, let alone finding it, would have been out of the question since it was locked with a password. Getting a hold of that would have cost too much extra to be worth it.

Dust kicked up and clouded behind their car down the long drive to the place they were told was Omar's home. He lived on a peach orchard in the cheerfully hot Sacramento valley.

Michael felt a little tickle of nervousness in his chest the closer they got, tightening his grip on the Jeep's steering wheel. Gennie looked over at him from the passenger seat.

"You going to be okay?"

"I'm not thinking about me."

She looked out the window a long time, watching the trees pass in neatly regimented rows. "I'm going to be okay," she said.

"Omar may be the only person who knows that for sure."

They continued slowly down the drive. Michael would accelerate impatiently only to hear gravel ping the steel plates protecting the undercarriage. Michael slowed down in response, bringing the car down to an agonizing crawl as the farmhouse in the distance grew larger behind the brown fog of dirt and dust.

"Maybe he isn't home," Gennie said.

"He's home. See the car in the driveway?"

"Whatever he knows or doesn't know, honey, it's going to be okay. I'm going to be okay."

No, Michael thought, it wouldn't be. The thought of Gennie's death was like cup of briney olive oil, impossible to swallow and keep down.

"There's a difference between knowledge and power," she muttered, almost to herself. Michael figured he must be giving off a "let's end the conversation" vibe.

A man came out of the house holding a cell phone to his ear. Michael thrilled at the idea that this might be Omar. It was strange, he had learned, to see people he had known after a very long time, even if he had known them well. Somehow there was always something about them foreign, strange, and off-putting at first. After all, he mused, you don't really know the new person they've become. You have to start all over again.

He took a good look at the man. He looked to be about the right age. If it was Omar, his stocky frame had grown a little, mostly in horizontal directions. The man hung up his cell phone and put it in the pocket of his dusty jeans.

Michael parked and made to get out of the car. This close there was no mistaking his old friend. The thrill of seeing him bubbled up in his chest and he felt an overpowering desire to shout and run to him and give him a big hug. He resisted, but still wore a big smile on his face, suddenly forgetting why they were there.

He got out of the car, smiling big, and holding out a hand in eager greeting. But Omar's look slowed him down. Whatever enthusiasm Omar might have shared at seeing an old friend was hidden behind a look of meloncholly that threatened to set panic loose in Michael's chest. His eyes were fixed solidly on Gennie, his mouth slightly agape.

The moustache was a little off-putting too.

It took Michael only a moment to piece together the reason for the look. What he couldn't place was the feeling behind it, staring at her as he was as though he were looking into the face of death itself.

Omar, it's Michael. Do you remember me?"

Omar said nothing, only looked at Gennie, winced, and then rubbed his face. Michael thought he heard the man mutter something to himself, though he couldn't make it out. When his brown face peered out from behind his hands he looked them both over. He smiled politely.

"Michael!" he said. The two men clasped hands and then embraced. They laughed together.

"This is my wife Gennie."

"Of course," said Omar. He shook her hand. At this, Michael's stomach dropped into a bottomless pit in his heart. Everything went quiet.

"You remember," Michael said.

"How could I forget. That was the first time. Come in, both of you. It's hot out. I have some limeade inside. It's too bad Lori isn't here. I'd introduce you."

They followed him into the farm house. It was built small and tight, for a time when smaller mortgages had more value than a few extra square feet.

"What have you been up to these past few years?" Omar asked over his shoulder as he stuck his nose in the fridge.

"Things have been, well, difficult."

"Yes," he said, pulling out a pitcher of lemonade. "Yes. Life kicks you in the ass."

Just then Michael noticed something strange about Omar's arm. It didn't exactly seem to be his, though he used it well enough that he carried the illusion off rather well.

"What happened there?" Michael had to stop himself from mentioning the war or anything they had learned about Omar before coming to visit him.

"Iraq. IED. You know the story." Omar talked about amputation like it was just another item he had seen in the news; something that didn't impact him in any direct way.

Omar sat down accross from Michael at the table, looking him square in the eye for the first time since there arrival. There was something both cool and sad in the man's look that made him seem older. Strange, Michael thought, that I had ever gone to school with this man, old before his time.

"You came here to ask me something," said Omar.

Michael looked at Gennie, nodded, and took a deep breath.

"Gennie has cancer. I hoped . . . We had hoped, you could tell me something about . . ." Was he really going to bring it out, admit the insane theory this entire visit was premised on? Michael reached into his back pocket, pulling out the folded pages of the story Omar had written all those years ago.

He put it out on the table in front of Omar, spreading it out and smoothing the corners. Omar picked it up and furrowed his brow, looking it over it while his guests allowed their limeade to sweat in the summer heat.

"I came, Omar, because I wanted to know how this ends. I have to know why you refused to finish the story. Could you finish it?"

Omar passed the story back accross the table, taking a long drink from his own glass. He nodded. "I could finish it. I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you that you don't really want to know how it ends, that knowing won't help you change the result."

Michael exhaled, realizing that his friend wasn't about to accuse him of being mad, but was nevertheless resistant.

"I won't argue with you Michael. I've spent enough time fighting my enemies. Life's too short to fight my friends. I know how it ends, Michael." He gave Gennie a long, sad, look.

A cold, tight feeling took hold of Michael's chest, taking his breath.

"You will miss him," he said ot her. "You will ache for him. But you should know that he loved you before he had any reason to believe you existed. You will move on after he is gone, and be happy."

Michael tried to stand, but could not. His arm burned with pain. He could hear the sound of sirens moving towards the house, and realized that Omar had been on the phone with 9-1-1 when they arrived.

Omar turned to look him in the eye, and grabbed him affectionately by the neck."This is how it ends, old friend."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Handle Time

Miles had just enough time to register that his friend Jill was suddenly on a call in the middle of their conversation before his headset beeped in his ear, telling him that he had a call of his own to handle.

A moment after the beep, in a well-conditioned pavlovian response, he began:

"ThankyouforcallingRiseWirelessmynameisMiles. How can I help you today?"

"I need to go over my bill. It looks like there were some roaming charges that just don't make sense. I was hoping you could help me clear it up," the woman on the other end answered distractedly.

"Certainly. I'll be happy to help you with that today. Can I get your name and the last four digits of your social?"

"Yeah. Lily Haber. Last four is 9046." A few breaths later she said "Hello? Are you still there?"

"Yes. I'm sorry. Just one moment."

Miles struggled to reorient himself. He rubbed his eyes and nodded.

"Yeah. I'm here. I'm sorry, something just distracted me here. What were those last four digits again?"

She sighed. "9046."

"Right." He swallowed and tried not to shake as he brought up her account information. It was her all right. Right name, right place, right age. He knew quality control could be listening. He knew he was supposed to give this one to a supervisor. But, after all, there was no need to mention how or why he knew this person.

"What can I help you with today Lily? Oh, right, excuse me, the roaming charges. Let me just bring your bill up here."

Five years experience had its advantages. He managed to bring up her latest bill without losing track of what he was doing.

"Do you have your bill out right now?"

"Yes. By the way, you guys have got to do something about the hold times. That was just ridiculous."

"I do apologize, ma'am. We do try to serve you as quickly as possible. Now, uh, can you tell me just where the problem is?"

She walked him through the bill. He followed along. The charge didn't make sense, but it was a problem he had seen once or twice. They had sent out a memo about it last week; a bug in the billing system easily remedied by a credit to the customer. No need to call for a supervisor. No drama. Just a few clicks and he would be done.

"Okay. Ma'am I see what the problem is here," his heart raced as he considered his next words. "Unfortunately it's going to take some time. Can I take a moment to handle this and I'll give you a call right back?"

"Uh, sure. I guess that's fine."

"Should I call your wireless number or do you have another line you'd like me to call?"

"Uh, yeah. I have a dead spot in my apartment, so you better call me back on my landline. It's 503-555-7046."

Miles struggled to keep up with the numbers as he jotted down her home address from the information he was seeing on the screen.

As he closed the call he made a point of skipping the part of the script that dictated that he remind the caller of his name.

"Thanks so much for calling Rise Wireless. You'll be hearing from me soon."

QC would probably not look twice at that since this was an unconventional call. Then again, they would wonder why he didn't simply resolve the issue.

As much as he tried to evade the fact that he was playing roulette with his job, that's precisely what he was doing.

He tucked the small note into his pocket, looking around as though he had just pilfered a candy bar.

The rest of the shift passed in a blur of call after call, and he nearly forgot about Lily. But just the presence of her name and number written down and in his pocket brought back the old feelings, good and bad. On this particular night it turned out that he and Jill got off their shifts at the same time. He trailed her out of the building. Her dark hair brought Lily back to his thoughts and suddenly the tiny piece of paper in his breast pocket glowed and warmed up in his mind's eye.
Driving home in the dark his mind stayed hypnotically fixed on her. A familiar cocktail of feelings and thoughts rushed through his brain and his body like a drug he'd been sober from since high school. She was back in his system.

The heady mix was a blend of the thrill activated by her proximity to him and the sick feeling of desperation and fear that had kept him from talking to her before she moved away and it was too late.

He only knew what city she had moved to from eavesdropping. She was still there, in that city. And now he knew precisely where she was.

He thought of getting rid of the paper. After all, it had been a relief when she had left and he had a chance to move on. She had been a terrifying obsession for him since the sixth grade.

And why shouldn't he have been obsessed? Can't fault me for my taste in women, he thought to himself. She was pretty in such a way that he could almost convince himself he was the only one who thought so, but it was more than looks that he had watched. She chose good friends; nice people he was nevertheless terrified to talk to because of their mere proximity to her. She had many developing talents, doodling beautiful landscapes during bored moments that found full flower in the painting class he had cooincidentally taken with her. She liked to wear flowers in her hair, and her smile made him want to weep. She wore white keds that she had personally decorated with stars and stripes.

When he arrived home and his room mate had not yet returned, he flipped on the television to forget her and had a drink. A few more drinks later, and after the room mate had gone to bed, he pulled the paper out and looked at it. Just a collection of numbers scrawled in his own frenzied hand. He thought of calling her, but realized it was too late.

He thought of moving to her city. He thought of putting himself on her street from time to time, hoping for a glimpse. No, he assured himself, she still had her name, so she was unattached. No boyfriends. No children. No exes. Only her waiting for him.
"Why didn't you say anything?" she would ask him after he worked up the nerve to talk to her.

He would smile and push back her hair and kiss her softly in reply. And she wowuld yield to him. And he would be happy, and get a new job in the new city and take care of someone.

He fished out a lighter from the spare kitchen drawer and went to the back porch. He simply stood there in the dark cold, holding up the lighter and the tiny note in a long hesitation, like a suicidal man contemplaying a long jump from the side of a bridge.

The flame almost surprised him, leaping from the gas vent and licking at the edge of the note. He dropped the flaming thing and Lily burned on his back porch.

He was half way to work the next day when he realized that he had promised to call her back to resolve her issue. He would not and she would grow frustrated and lose confidence in the service provided by Rise Wireless. She would call again, exasperated, and talk to someone else, another stranger, in another call center far away.

She would threaten to break her contract, cancellation fee be-damned, and they would transfer her to retention where they would bribe her and woo her and butter her up. But she would say no and hang up and that would be that.

He had let a customer down and might lose his job, but nothing could be done.

It was much too late.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Giulieta wiped the grease from her cheek with a saturated grease rag and turned to see Ty, the boy she had crushed on for weeks, losing a finger in a fan belt. Later, as she wrapped the tourniquet tight she idly wondered if Ty liked gourmet Italian cooking, and if his girlfriend would be very vengeful for what she was about to do.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Silent Killer, Part I

Michael woke he looked over at his wife. Sleeping. Present. Breathing. Warm. He gently stroked her golden brown hair in an effort not to wake her, and wondered how she would look when it was over, if it would soon be over. He wondered if he would be able to look at all, and if she would look beautiful to him if the worst of what the doctors had said were to come true.

His cousin, a beautiful girl of sixteen, had been killed in a car accident. Her fair features were bloated, somehow set awry in death. Her familiar warm colors had been changed to something startling, like a black-and-white photo with painted-in accent colors. There had been no beauty there any more, only a husk that had once been a person’s body.

He had no tears for Gennie yet: only a wild fear that ran through his blood and made it beat faster. He felt himself go cold, a pale feeling crawling up from the tips of his toes, up the back of his calf, then creeping up his spine like a leak in icy water bed.

He wanted to hold her tight, as though it might save her, but did not want to wake her. He rose, knowing that there was work to be done for the day. An early start, things to do, things to put in order.

Gennie’s mother’s visit brought with it boxloads of junk from their old place, and it had sat like unfamiliar furniture across three Saturdays in which neither of them had had the time to tackle it.

Michael found the folder in among Gennie’s old school papers she had insisted on keeping all these years. He had already dispensed with all of his long ago, or so he thought. Whatever he hadn’t thrown away he thought for sure had been forgotten in his dad’s attic in the decades since he moved out.

He had told himself that he wouldn’t open it--the yellowing manila folder with decayed, photocopies of hand-written pages of college ruled loose leaf. He feared making a mess far bigger than he had the strength or will to clean up before the weekend expired and forced him back to work.

He knew he had some of his old stories in the folder. These had been his means of escape in the hell of junior high school and had, in a way, become a career.

He had to escape now, but this was not a conscious decision on his part--only a whim that he felt he couldn’t resist, and which he never gave himself the time to challenge.

The vaguely familiar handwriting grabbed his curiosity. A few words in, and Michael was hooked.

“Silent Killer” was the title scrawled in precise-yet-awkward cursive letters, and the name of his old friend Omar Jiles.

The name brought up a face which he hadn’t seen since their third year of high school: the year when Michael and his dad had moved away.

This copy had been one of six passed around the room during a session of a weekly writer’s club meeting held after school. Michael had almost been too embarrassed to hear Omar read the story out loud in front of everyone else. He felt that he was being watched--a paranoia that had been shared by all his classmates, he was now sure, but which had been acutely intensified by the fact that this particular story of Omar’s had him, Michael, as the central character.

The story was not long, only a ten to twelve hand-written pages. Omar had been changed, unimaginatively, from Michael to Mike.

The wording was awkward in most places. The characters felt a little bit flat and ordinary. Some of the spelling was horrendous.

What kept Michaelf frozen in place as he sat alone on the living room floor, awash in a sea of cardboard, old paper, and bits of junk, was not the story’s quality, but it’s content.

Michael, in a fit of narcissistic boredom, had asked Omar to write a sci-fi story about him: a story that would take place in the future. “Silent Killer” was the result of that challenge. Parts of it had riveted his attention: the details about his wife in particular. Michael had searched in vain among the girls at school who might fit the name and description of his future wife in the slightest way.

But over all, Michael had been disappointed by the result. It hadn’t described the adolescent fantasies of his future quite the way he had hoped, and now he knew why.

It had accurately described his life in the present day with chilling accuracy: an argument he had had with his editor only yesterday, the color of his wife’s hair, and the heartbreaking news concerning Gennie’s health. He had gotten her name wrong, however, spelling it “Jenny.”

Numbly, Michael read it to the end. Omar had not really finished it--a work in progress, he had said. Michael remembered that he had asked Omar to get on with it, wanting to know what happened next. Omar had said he had lost interest and was working on something new.

When Gennie came home from therapy she found Michael sitting still, holding the story in his hands, a tear staining his face.

She came over and immediately embraced him. She had been crying herself, and had no more tears left. She held her husband as he sobbed silently. Soon his breath slowed and he held her close to him. He whispered into her ear.

“Hey honey.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“That old boyfriend of yours--do you happen to know if he’s still a private investigator?”

To Be Continued

Monday, August 2, 2010

No Name #1

My friend fell. He was on the way out to the playground after lunch. He just laid there while half the school passed him on the way outside.

“Get up! Why don’t you get up?” they said.

Another said. “You’re faking. He’s faking.”

They went out and they never came back. I still remember where he fell. Everything seemed big then, in the way that large important buildings are big in the adult world. You moved down the hall away from the cafeteria, past the vending machines, around the corner. Another left down the stairs--concrete clad in gripping rubber-- and the landing, and then the long flight down into the dark.

You move through the dim hallway that was dim in sickly fluorescent light. It turned black when the people ahead of you opened the door wide in to the bright sunlight facing south.

We had laughed a lot at lunch. We almost ran down the hall, forgetting rules, forgetting everything. His big legs frenzied down the stairs like we had done together a million times. He jumped the last steps. He fell, and didn’t get back up. He shouted and I came back to see what was wrong.

“Can you get up?”

He wasn’t crying. “Just give me a few minutes. It just really hurts right now.”

I looked at him and someone opened the door, letting the light into the long dark hallway. I left and joined them.

I wandered around the playground. I came in on a game of foursquare, then waited in vain to be picked for kickball. I toyed with tether ball alone. I trotted slow and alone from this game to that toy, like a kid in a nickel arcade waiting for his ride home. I thought of my friend again and I went back. Nobody else had.

He still laid there. “I’ve tried to get up and I just can’t,” he said.

I tried to lift him on one side. He was always heavy. On the day of our physicals I watched silently, invisble as I could be as the other kids laughed at him.. One hundred and fifty pounds in third grade was unforgivable. He didn’t look very fat. He was heavy, and fell from my hands when I tried to lift him..

People had stopped coming through. Lunch was over.

He tried to slip his leg under himself and shouted in pain, his voice echoing down the dark hallway.

“I’m getting a teacher,” I said.

The paramedics arrived with flashing lights, parking near the opened door at the end of the hall. Everyone gathered and watched in a circle and pretended they cared about him.

His face was dusty with the tracks from size 8 tennis shoes that had been brand new in September. They had his ankle braced tight and loaded him into the aid car like bread into a truck.

When we were gathered and corralled inside I turned invisible in the back corner of the classroom where my desk was and brushed my fingers along the margins of my text book. I wondered if he was okay. I wondered if he would leave me alone there, and if he would come back and try to do for me what I had done for him.

The next morning I cried and lost control and told my mother that I wouldn’t ever go back to school again.

It was another week before we saw him again, and we all pretended it hadn’t happened in our heartless way.

We didn’t go to the same high school.

Monday, July 26, 2010


-dedicated to Isaac Asimov

John had plenty of trouble with Eric. He himself, of course, had never had any problem rising at that hour. It was just something he was always able to do since he was a kid, rising early with his own dad to help with the landscape business.

All he had ever had to do was set in his mind what time he wanted to rise. He would set his alarm clock dutifully, winding the hands on the face until they lined up just so, and then would settle himself in for a long rest. The time of his rising settled in his mind as a small point of thought fixed in his head,, but shrinking with his consciousness as he fell off to sleep. The next morning he would find he had awakened himself, sometimes seconds before the alarm. It was a trick of concentration he had come to rely on, and he hadn't owned an alarm clock since college.

The work he woke up for had been brutally difficult, but character-building. Still, to this day he had nightmares about shoveling snow or melting under the summer sun while manicuring the lawns of the Ann Arbor aristocracy.

He was tempted to congratulate himself for giving Eric an easier time than that. Sure, it was early enough to still be dark, but it would be worth it, he was sure. The sunrise over the monuments would make them feel as new and magical as when they had first approached them on highway US 6, having passed over the long emptiness that came after Price.

"Come on, let's go."

After a good jostling, he managed to coax a low grumble out of his son.

"Sunrise, remember? Come on, or we'll miss it. I know the perfect place."

The boy's lips shifted and he half-mumbled, half-breathed the word "tomorrow."

"No, come on. We won't be here tomorrow. Let's go."

Reluctantly, the boy seemed to surrender, not willing to fight it. He pushed himself up, his hair a disjointed pile of straw in the light of the electric lantern.


John passed his son another granola bar from his pocket, and tried not to let the dazzling display of stars overhead distract him from making his way.

"Hurry or we'll miss it."

Eric was a good hiker, but at this hour he still managed to drag his feet plenty. He tried to comply, his wiry limbs fumbling with his day pack and maneuvering his feet around rocks and brush.

"How much further?" he asked. John grinned with pride: there was barely a hint of whine in the boy’s voice now, a characteristic that had been much more prominent the previous year when he was still only eleven. His voice had only recently turned. That helped a lot, he was sure, but he liked to think the boy was beginning to get tougher.


They settled in at the selected lookout and John broke out his last pair of granola bars. They had made excellent time. The sun hadn't even begun to rise. In fact, there wasn't even a hint of pale blue or gray in the sky, not even the slightest fading in the spilled-sugar ceiling of stars overhead.


An hour later, Eric was wishing he had snuck his new sports watch into his day pack.

"No electronics," Dad had insisted. "We're looking to get away from the things of man."

All Eric wanted was the time; the video game he had begged his dad to let him bring last year might have been diverting, but all he wanted now was to know the time. Such a simple thing.

The sky was still dark.

"No wonder I'm so tired," Eric said. "Must be the middle of the night."

"This isn't right," his father said, evenly.

"Why didn't you bring an alarm?"

"You know I don't need one. I've done fine without it. I've been up right when I wanted to be every day so far. Remember when we went fishing on Monday?"

Now that Dad mentioned it, Eric realized it was something he hadn't even considered. He still took it for granted that the adults in his life knew better than he did what was next and when it was time to go. He was just in the habit of doing what he was told.

There was something about Dad's voice that he didn't like at all.

"We better head back to camp. This can't be right."

It concerned Eric that Dad seemed so serious, and about such a simple mistake. Lighten up, Dad. You're not a human alarm clock, just a human. We'll get back to camp and it'll be three in the morning. You'll see.

"I'm sure it's just not as late as you think it is," Eric offered out loud.

"Yeah," Dad said absently.


Eric's dad powered up the GPS; something they swore they would only do in an emergency.

Dad was fidgety, impatient to get it powered up. Eric was just glad to be back near his sleeping bag. He figured it wouldn't take long to get it nice and warm again.

He had just settled his head down on his travel pillow and shut off his light, giving himself over to the cocoon of darkness in the tent.

"What?" he heard his father mutter to himself. The man's voice dripped with disbelief. "Eric, please come here."

Eric groaned inwardly and reluctantly left the warmth and darkness behind.

"What's wrong?"

In the light of the lantern Eric's dad looked half way to dead under his ginger beard, his cheeks colorless, his expression haunted.

"These things aren't wrong. Do you understand why? The time can't be wrong. Can you tell me why that is?"

"Um, I don't know. I guess it uh . . . you don't set the time on it, do you? It finds the satellites, and then satellites tell the computer where it is. The computer then comes up with the time based on where we are. Something like that."

"Then why do you suppose, even though it's pitch black out here, that this clock says it's 8:27 AM Mountain Time?"

Eric had no more answers than his father did. They resolved to go back to bed, to forget all this. That would have been Eric's first suggestion if Dad hadn't said it first.

Somehow, the darkness in his tent didn't seem half as inviting, and he found that he had trouble quieting his mind enough to sleep.


Some time later, Eric woke up. Dad's panic was contagious.

"Eric, you see those stars up there, right?"

Poking his head out of the tent, he nodded.

"And this display says it's 10:17 AM. Mountain Time, right?"

Eric looked at the display. There was no mistaking it. The sun was late.


As the pair made their way back to the lookout John had picked out, neither dared to say anything. Eric felt he'd give just about anything to see sunlight. The light of his flashlight now seemed so feeble, even pointless. Neither of them questioned the need for the hike. They just moved, as if somehow they could find the sun if they just moved fast enough and waited at the lookout long enough.

They sat on their rocks once again, looking up at the stars that now seemed menacing and strange.

Light filled the sky. The sun appeared as though in fast-forward.

Together they sucked in their breath, and both felt the unmistakable sensation of falling. The sun grew smaller, smaller. In the smallest moment, a massive noise of rushing air filled the open space of the desert.

The stars tumbled away, the sun joining it as a speck of insignificant light, and were lost.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


The bear's claw made contact and the man fumbled with his jeep keys, wishing in a moment of wild panic that he had opted for keyless entry.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Knife (PG-13)

The knife was not his, but it could have been. He hadn’t been out of the business that long. Four and a half inches long, single-bladed, stainless steel with a graphite handle, covered in dried blood, Kyle’s new wife Sam found it tucked quietly away in the far corner of the closet under the stairs.

There had been a catch in her voice, pregnant with fear and suspicion when she said “Kyle, come over here, please.”

She said nothing, simply shining the icy beam of light from her flashlight on the hiding weapon, the light glinting off the unstained parts of the blade.

“That’s blood,” he said, the voice of an expert. Her stern look and set jaw told him that she wasn’t impressed in the least.

“You can’t think that I had anything to do with this.”

“Can’t I?” she muttered.

Kyle fought the urge to storm away and used his own flashlight to investigate the closet interior itself. There were blood stains here and there, though there were signs that there had been some attempt to clean it up. They had been sloppy--jittery.

Sam looked around the front room in the vast, empty Arts and Crafts home. Finding no place, she slid down a wall to the floor, curling her legs under herself.

“What am I supposed to do, prove it to you?”

She buried her face in her hands.

“You told me you were out of this. You said there would be no more. I really want to believe you, Kyle. I wish that I could.”

“So, what, then?”

Divorce hung in the air like death waiting to take them both at once, and not to a better world.

She sat quiet for a long moment, the house cracking gently around them with the unfamiliar tension their presence on the old floor boards created.

“It doesn’t make sense, you know,” he said. “Of all the places I would have left a used weapon like that--”

She snorted. “That’s great. Where are you hiding your weapons now?”

He shook his head, barely containing his temper now. He walked towards the back of the house. He had seen the door in the rear of the kitchen. He stopped short of the threshold leading onto the old tile.

“If you’re not going to trust me,” he said, “then maybe this isn’t going to work after all.”

“I want to trust you, Kyle. I just thought you were past this, and I want to believe you. I just don’t know if I can trust myself to be able to discern what’s really going on, regardless of what you say about this. Are you absolutely sure you had nothing to do with this?”


“Well, then we need to do something about this. It’s as simple as that. You just don’t come into a house that’s been empty and vacant for years, find a blood-soaked knife on the floor of a closet, and then just not say anything--to authorities or anyone.”

Kyle back towards the door a few steps.

“You know we can’t do that.”

Sam crossed herself and pinched the sides of her nostrils with her fingers, sighing deeply through her mouth.

“I just need to know that this stuff, your old life, isn’t going to effect our new life. Can you understand that?”

Kyle nodded. “I can understand it. I just wish it changed anything. If we’re going to start a new life here, it’s going to be with that knife destroyed, buried, whatever, just so nobody finds it.”

Sam’s arms wrapped down around her stomach as she looked up at him. A strand or two of her black hair fell down and out from her ponytail. She looked at her new husband, her eyes wide with fear.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said, picking it up with a small part of his fingers, holding it like a dead rat and walked out the back door.

He said nothing more about it.

The following weekend, they moved in. Kyle refused help, sweating and grunting and wrestling with furniture dollies. He assured Sam that the weapon was gone. He wouldn’t tell Sam where he’d put it, only that it was gone.

They ate pizza on their new furniture, admiring the lines of the architecture, and the handsome way the dark color of the wood complemented the space. They had ordered a medium with Canadian bacon, their favorite, but they still had several pieces left over.

Sam walked up to bed that night, wincing at the creak of the old stairs. Kyle followed her. They breathed the air of their new home deeply, and only acknowledged each other under the sheets before they slept.

Kyle sat up. Sam was gone. The bed where she had been was cool to the touch. There was a newspaper, folded over.

Kyle read it. Her name was Franchesca, the accompanying story said. Her friends called her Franny. She had been only sixteen years old and she was dead. Police found her body in a search along Occidental Road, not five miles from their new home. She had been dead three days.

Sam was not downstairs. She had gone for a run without him. He looked again at the girl’s picture in the paper. The eyes looked out at him, full of enthusiasm, marked with the kind of beauty that’s borrowed from childhood and carried awkwardly in a new adult-sized body.

He put the paper down and started breakfast. His mind wandered as he went through the steps, cracking eggs, lighting the stove. He stopped suddenly, dropping the pan in the sink, his breakfast aborted.

He grabbed a spade from the shed and ran behind the house to the base of the golden hill behind their new property. He watched frantically for the dry patch of dirt. Finding it, he quickly recovered the knife.

He got in the car, praying he could guess in which direction Sam had run. Left, towards the beach. He knew she’d never be able to run all the way there, but she would like the feeling of heading in that direction.

When it was over the police found the knife on the body of the man who had tried to hurt Sam.

She held him tight, her tears mixing with the sweat of her run. He held her back, and didn’t let go.