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.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Gifts (PG)

“Come in.”

These two words could mean anything to us. It could mean, “I’ve been waiting for weeks for a chance to cast out the demon of Mormonism, and you two look just like ideal candidates to find the real Jesus today.”

It could mean, “I’ve been looking for Jesus’ true church all my life. I’m full of doubts and questions, but I’m willing to listen to what you have to say.”

Between these two extreme possibilities, and even on the fringes of them, lay experiences that recently-retired boy scouts from mountain states, like Elder Murello and I, could never be trained to anticipate. “Elder.” It wasn’t his first name. It wasn’t mine either, but that’s what we called each other; a title we took seriously, but which non-Mormons tended to treat with a mixture of bemusement and contempt. I, for one, didn’t need anyone’s approval.

But I need to back up a little. The middle-aged woman behind the screen door asked us to come in. She was about the age of our mothers, the lines on her face revealing doubt and sadness, and crow’s feet on her eyes that betrayed moments of joy. It had been Elder Murello’s turn for the door approach. I lined myself up at the doorknob in a well-practiced maneuver that made Murello the first face to be seen by whoever answered the door.

“Hi! We’re missionaries from Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We have a wonderful message we’d like to share with you about how God has restored Christ’s true church to the earth. We’d love to come in and share this wonderful message with you. Do you have a few minutes now?”

“I’m a witch,” she said, in a conversation-ending tone.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said in his overly folksy, door approach voice that always made me wince. “You seem nice enough to me.”

Then it dawned on me. He thought he was talking to someone with poor self-esteem, or someone warning us to go away or she would be mean to us. Murello was three months out of the missionary training center. That sounds like a short time to you, but it was long enough for him to have at least heard of Wicca, especially in Humboldt County, California. And after all, like Idaho where I’m from, Utah wasn’t entirely Mormon anymore.

I hung my head a little, simultaneously embarrassed that Murello was living up to a stereotype, and amused that he could be so naïve.

But then a strange thing happened. She said, “Come in.”

Murello looked at me. I looked at him, and gestured to the threshold. He was the one doing all the talking here. He could go first. I resigned myself to let him handle it. I’d been out too long, a year and a half, to worry that some soul would be lost forever if a greenie said the wrong thing. It would at least be entertaining.

Still, I wasn’t sorry she asked us in. I wanted to be there for some reason. It wasn’t until well after we’d left that I would know just why.

The place didn’t look like a witch lived there. Nothing inside or outside could possibly be made of candy. Flying-monkey poop was nowhere to be found. Instead there was distressed green shag carpeting, an old television tucked away into a corner, buried under books with titles like “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner,” “Earth, Air, Fire & Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic,” and “Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle.”

She invited us to sit on the stained beige microfiber couch. We sat on the edge, almost in a squatting position with our elbows resting on our knees. Murello already had out a copy of the Book of Mormon, studiously marked ahead of time for the beginning reader.

Murello’s naivete still had me flabbergasted. “Did you think she said ‘bitch’?” I wanted to ask him. It would wait until later, or until the course of the conversation revealed to him what she had meant in referring to herself as a Witch.

Elder Murello held the slim, but lengthy volume in his hands, sandwiched between them, both withholding it and pushing it towards her; a coy approach to proselytizing.

“Do you believe in God?” he asked her. No pleasantries. A typical greenie blunder. This would be interesting.

“I don’t know if I can answer that question.”

“Why did you invite us in, lady? Can you answer that?” I wanted to say. I was getting impatient after all these months in the field--wary of people wasting our time.

“Well, uh,” I could practically hear the moving parts in Elder Murello’s brain clicking into place to retrieve the memorized presentation. “We believe in God. Most people believe in a supreme being, even though they may call him by different names . . .” and off he went.

I wondered if she would interrupt him at all – stop him with some kind of objection or argument.

She didn’t.

She didn’t ask a question. She didn’t try to get us to follow her down some tangent. She didn’t raise any concerns.

“Building on common beliefs” – that’s what the training manual called it--a shorthand for listening carefully to the beliefs of others, and then capitalizing on similarities to present our own doctrines. That’s what we needed to do here, but I couldn’t imagine how that was supposed to happen. Where would we even begin? That people should be nice to each other? No littering?

Sometimes it was a good thing when they would sit quiet and let us do our spiel. Mostly, it wasn’t.

Elder Murello had reached the end--the time when we would leave the marked book with assigned readings, ideally with the promise that they would pray about what they had read, asking God if it was true.

She took the book when he offered it, and made no explicit promises other than that she would take a look at it. This, in my experience, meant using the book as a coaster or tearing out the pages to roll joints.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

“Of course,” said Murello, sounding a little relieved. I have to admit that I exhaled too.

“Can you give me a blessing?”

This request should have come from a member of our church; someone who wanted us to lay hands on their head and pray for healing or comfort. That’s what it meant to us. Who knows what it meant to her.

Elder Murello and I looked at each other. Before he had the chance to deliver an insufferably pedantic explanation of the ritual, complete with a quotation from the book of James, I said “Of course.”

A hundred reasons for her request entered and left my brain in rapid-fire succession: she was a former member and had seen the light, she’s just crazy, and (the most unnerving possibility) she was expecting something entirely different than what I was about to give her.

I stood up. Elder Murello followed my lead. She stood and grabbed a chair from the kitchen, placed it roughly in the middle of the room, and sat down—the ideal position for us to stand behind her and place our hands on her head. I was about to suggest it myself, but she beat me to it. She knew the routine!

I asked her full name.

“Patricia Fitzgerald.”

I closed my eyes and placed my hands on her head. Elder Murello placed his big hands over mine, and did the same.

I called her by name and began to speak. Her name, I feared, was the only thing I would get right, sounding like an inept tarot card reader rather than a confident messenger from God’s true church. I tried to let go, trusting that I would know what she needed to hear.

As I spoke, a strange magnetic feeling began to rise in my chest. It wasn’t the warm, familiar feeling I expected, but it wasn’t unpleasant or unwelcome. Whatever help I could get.

I finished, saying “amen,” and lifted my hands from her head.

Elder Murello just looked at me, his mouth agape, his already wide, blue, Disney character eyes the size of quarters. His look made me wonder if I had done something patently unthinkable, like closing in the name of Elvis Presley instead of closing in the name of Jesus.

Patricia was in tears. She hugged us both, smiling and gently cupping our cheeks in her hands.

“We’ll come back sometime soon,” I said, not willing to break the spell of the moment by fumbling with my planner to make another appointment.

As we walked down the long gravel drive, Elder Murello and I were silent. Half way to our apartment, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

His hurt tone annoyed me, but I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“My sister served in Ireland. Why didn’t you ever tell me you spoke Celtic?”

“I don’t,” I said. “What are you talking about?”

“The blessing. What did you say, anyway?”

The gift of tongues, we called it, when God gave you the power to speak a foreign language otherwise unknown to you when someone wouldn’t understand your words otherwise, and you were saying something important and sacred. The term had no sense of the “spiritual” babbling embraced by the local Assembly of God.

I had been the gift of tongues, we were sure, and I determined that it was too sacred to share—something too special to be bragged about. At least, this is what I told him. I expected it was too sensational an event for Murello to keep out of his next letter home, or even in a letter to the church magazine.

But we were half wrong. It was a gift, but it had nothing to do with speaking Gaelic without being aware of it.

I understood this the following Monday, our day off, when we hiked with the rest of the zone missionaries in the redwoods over Fern Canyon. I could hear the whisperings of the trees, and could discern ancient forgotten truths spoken in the rustlings of the small animals, and in the high and gentle singing of the birds.