Category Archives: Wolf Tales

Frozen in Dust

8926 C.E., Northeast Texas

They’d found another one.  It was huge.  A drone surveying the area counted 109 figures; its sensors initially identifying them as human.  Rivas and Mugabe had stood in awe upon studying the preliminary data, alongside the rest of the team.  If 109 human bodies did lay in the rubble – remnants of what they believed to be a hotel – it would be the largest collection of human remains the team had discovered in more than a decade of scouring the locale.

The region itself was gigantic; what once had been a placed called Texas.  More specifically, the northeastern stretch; where two of the most heavily-populated metropolises had once thrived.  Until seven millennia ago.  Before the 2019 event simply known now as “The Cataclysm.”

“There have to be thousands, if not millions,” Rivas had told the expeditioners just a day before the drone returned with its stunning data estimate.  “Not just here in this one building.  I mean, across the entire region.  These cities were among the grandest of their time.”

“Right now,” Mugabe interjected, “let’s just concentrate on this one building.  Or what’s left of it.”  He didn’t want the group to get too excited about anything; least of all a site containing so many bodies.

“Yes, of course,” Rivas concurred with a grin.

The crew was already stretched; pushed to the precipice of exhaustion as they continued searching through the unimaginable layers of dirt, rock and dust.  But whenever they did find the remains of someone, they’d also noticed the individual was clutching an object in their hands.  All of them – each and every corpse – held a similar object.  Every single one of them – holding tight to a single item.

The 2019 sunstorm had been massive; the worst on record.  Then and now.  Among the archived records of all the sunstorms hitting Earth before and since, none matched the 2019 event.  That’s why scientists dubbed it “The Cataclysm.”  The word is so bland, so ordinary in a way; yet it said everything.  To the untold numbers of people who studied the event – and the subsequent, wide-scale societal collapses it induced – the term “cataclysm” itself had come to signify that one unimaginable episode.

It was inevitable.  By the start of the 21st century, humanity had come to rely upon technology too much.  People across the globe identified with tangible pieces of metal and plastic more closely, perhaps, than their own families and friends.  In fact, personal interactions seemed routed through the mystical electronic clouds they’d created for their world; a world they claimed was better than any before.  To their descendants of the 90th century C.E., such flippant beliefs were almost laughable.

It remains a miracle – no minor one – that anyone should survive to the present day.  Any human, that is.  When the multitude of satellites cluttering the ionosphere fell silent in the days immediately following “The Cataclysm,” it appeared – from what records remain – a brutal chain-reaction of minor cataclysms exploded across the planet.  Power plants – able to remain operational for a while – eventually died; as did water treatment plants, telecommunication lines.  Everything attached to an actual or virtual wire just…died.

And thus, so did people.  Countless numbers of people; millions of them.  A mass exodus of souls floating from the decaying flesh of their hosts; rising past those same darkened satellites and up into the brighter stars.

Perusing photos of other recently-discovered sites made Rivas and Mugabe think of an even more ancient but equally horrific episode: the destruction of Pompeii.  Pictures from 20th century archaeologists captured the disaster in a manner never seen before.  The city-state’s residents – trapped in the environs of what they surely thought was a safe place – caught off-guard in the worst possible way.  Their bodies and terrified expressions frozen in swarms of scorching lava for future humans to see and study.  There was nothing like it.

Until now.

But this – this was on a much larger scale.  Pompeii was a single prosperous city with the unfortunate coincidence of being situated beneath a ubiquitous volcano.  What the explorers saw in the remains of some nondescript building in the midst of a place once teeming with life was a tiny fraction, a sliver of the human wasteland that stretched across the globe.  The societal collapses had driven many of their ancestors underground into vast caverns constructed for just such an event.  Or something like it.  But surely even those initial survivors couldn’t have foreseen the rolling swathes of brutality that followed the darkening of those wicked satellites; surely even they couldn’t have imagined the blessed sun betraying them in such a vile manner.

Yet, they lived; they survived.  They survived to repopulate and prosper with a greater understanding of their own humanity, their vulnerability, their fragile nature.  They survived to love that sun unlike their immediate ancestors who lived within the confines of those mystical clouds.

Rivas and Mugabe stared at those antiquitous photos of Pompeii’s victims; frozen in lava; terrified and helpless.  And then they looked at the drone photos of the bodies in this building; the 109 discovered so far.  And they realized the vast difference between the two events; a difference apparent in the faces and hands of the dead.  The people of Pompeii had died clutching their loved ones.  The victims of the 2019 event died clutching their cell phones and laptops; waiting for the Internet to come back up.

Rivas smirked.  “Bunch of dumbasses.”

© 2017

Bottom image courtesy: Freaking News.

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Good Carla

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How could it still be so cold less than a month into spring?  Snow flurries had fallen the day before, and they’d made Carla nervous.  It reminded her of the dust cascading down from the blast last week.

Her heels clacked hard against the sidewalk.  They’d told her downtown could be so impersonal, and she was glad.  Hardly anyone noticed her.  She kept her arms wrapped her torso, as tight as she could get them, with the band of her purse intertwined.

A heavy hand suddenly grabbed her left shoulder.  It frightened her like nothing else; the mere thought of someone touching her.  But it also angered her.  She whirled around to see a husky, bearded man with wild eyes looking at her.  How dare you touch me, she screamed silently.  Her father had warned her about people like that.  “What?!” she snapped.

“You almost stepped right into traffic,” the man said.  That heavy hand gestured to the road.  His eyes went from wild to a normal-looking bright.

“Oh…wow,” Carla finally muttered.

“Didn’t mean to grab you like that,” said the man.

“No, no!  That’s okay.”  He wasn’t one of those people from the beige-colored building, but he looked friendly nonetheless.  Still, she remembered what her father had said: unless he knew who they were and had pointed them out to her, don’t trust them!  And say nothing to them, beyond ‘thank you’ or ‘hi.’

She continued walking, growing increasingly leery of fellow pedestrians.  When she strolled passed the federal building, she got the feeling someone was following her.  She always had that feeling.  It had started in grade school, when a gaggle of mean girls tormented her from the moment she arrived every morning until the moment she made it into her front yard.  Then her father taught her how to throw a punch.

“Just roll up your fist like this,” he’d explained one evening after dinner.

Her mother got mad.  “Teaching her to fight like an animal?!”

“No,” her father replied matter-of-factly, “teaching her to stand up for herself.”

One punch, one punch – right to the face.  And that’s what Carla did to one of those girls.  Just swung around and swiped her puny fist across the girl’s upper lip.  Not enough to bruise it or cause it to bleed, but sharp enough to startle her.  Startle both of them.

Yeah, somebody was following her.  But she knew, once she passed the federal building, she was near her next destination.  She slowed her gait and glanced around as much as her stiffened neck would allow.  She came to another intersection and stopped, seeing the traffic well in advance.  She didn’t want anyone grabbing her, or needing to grab her to save her from herself.

Damn this cold!  Spring, spring!  It’s supposed to be spring.  The wind hustled past her.  The cutting edge of it reminded her of the old house where she and her younger sister had grown up.  A breeze would roll through it, if both the front door and back doors were open at the same time.  It created a tunnel effect.  Carla and her sister and other kids from the neighborhood loved to stand in the middle area when sharp winds hurtled over and – with those doors open – through the house.

Her father liked it also and sometimes would stand with them and pretend the wind was too much for him; fake-slamming into the walls and onto the floor, yelling, “Help me!”

But they were the only ones.  Her mother hollered about the electricity bill and yelled about the childishness of it all.

“You’re all acting silly!” her mother groused.

“But, mama, we’re having fun,” Carla would say, trying to rationalize.

“Stop acting so stupid!”

If she only knew how bad that word hurt, Carla snarled into her pillow.  ‘Stupid.’  Her mother never liked to do things just for fun.  But her father was different.  He was whimsical and free-spirited.  He could actually make her mother laugh – at times.

She stopped at Elm and Pacific, the northeast corner, looking south towards the Indian deli – just as she’d been told.  She turned to her left and saw a woman slightly taller than her, wearing a police-style uniform with her hair pulled tightly back into corn rows.

Carla shuddered.  She glanced at the upper left side of woman’s torso and saw the name on the bronze-colored badge: Jamal.  Carla exhaled.

As the woman got closer, Carla began, “Are you – ?”

The woman silenced her with an upraised hand.

Oh yeah, she recalled.  No questions.  She felt embarrassed.

“They’ve found them, Carla,” the Jamal woman muttered.  “The police are there already.  Our man watched them.  You did take the bottles with you – right?”

“Yes – of course.  Into the dumpster on Turtle Creek – beside Cody’s.”

“Good.”  Jamal smiled reassuringly.

Carla grinned, but she was beaming deep inside.  Her father would be so proud.  With each step, she believed more and more her father had been right.  ‘Who says a low IQ means you’re too stupid to do anything?’

“You know where to go now, right?” Jamal asked.

“Yes, to the –”

Another upraised hand.  “As long as you know.”

“Yes.”

“Good.  We’ll see you later,” she added with a smile.  She wheeled around and hopped into the gray SUV – all so effortlessly and in a split second.

These people move and speak so fast, Carla mused with the same degree of wonder she’d had from the beginning.  Entering that beige-colored building two years ago had intimidated her like nothing else.  If her father hadn’t been with her, she would have screamed at the sight of the burly man and small woman with over-sized glasses at the front counter.  They were genuinely scary!  But the folks in the back were much different.  Much kinder and soft-spoken – a lot like her father.

“How long have you known these people, daddy?” she asked, gripping his left forearm.

“A long time,” he quietly replied.  “They’ve been good to us – to our entire family.  They’re good to everyone who’s good to them.  But you have to be good, too, you know.  Understand?”

“Yes, daddy.”

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Carla looked at her watch – 2:54 p.m. – and strolled to the huge electronics store further down on Elm.  She still couldn’t believe the number of people rushing about in downtown Dallas.

The training sessions had tested her ability to remain aloof and constrained in the midst of such human traffic.  The heavy noises had bothered her more than anything.  Enough to make the trainers question their selection.

But that’s when Carla’s mother (of all people) jumped into the mess – inherently jeopardizing the relationship they had with the group – and pulled her away for a few moments.

“Remember what I said about all those people?  Remember?”

“Yes,” Carla replied meekly after a few terrifying seconds.  Her mother – usually loud and intrusive – had vowed to stay in the background throughout the entire training procedure and let Carla’s father serve as liaison with the trainers.

“What was it I said?” her other queried.

“Just don’t talk to anybody.  And don’t stare.”

“Yes, exactly!”  Her mother smiled, which she rarely did.  “Good Carla.”

The second trial run made Carla realize she could truly remain aloof and discreet; allowing her to move unnoticed from point A to point B without interacting with somebody.  A third and fourth run solidified the group’s trust in her.

The snow flurries had stopped falling.  Carla entered the electronics store and ambled to the pre-paid cell phone rack.  Model A42997: it was almost hidden towards the back of the spindle.  Paying with cash, she hurried back outside and found a shadowy overhead.  Sticking her left forefinger into her purse allowed her to see the code embedded in the lavender fingernail polish: 990Y23L17.  She input that reference into the phone’s text box and waited.

“This is Paula,” answered the woman’s voice.

“This Ms. C496233.”  Oddly, remembering all those codes was easier than remembering which way was north and which was south.

“Hi, Carla,” Paula replied.  “How’s your hand?”

She knew she had the right person.  “It’s okay.”

“Good!”

Carla had been nervous about Paula at first.  But her father told her it was just another test.  “It’s just one of those things called a coincidence,” he said.

“A what?”

Paula had been the name of her kindergarten teacher; the one who said she was “too stupid to know day from night.”

“Paula, la pendeja,” her father had said one evening at home.

“¡Callarse!” her mother had shouted back.  (Shut up!)

Carla didn’t speak Spanish – then or now – and she certainly didn’t know why her father felt compelled to silence the teacher with a shotgun blast to the head late one Saturday night.  Sitting in the back seat of their old Buick, Carla became mesmerized by the sight of the brilliant neon lights slathered all over a part of town she’d never seen before.  “Stay down, girls,” her father ordered her and her younger sister, Andrea.

Carla peered above the rim of the window and was startled by the sight of a large group of women stumbling out of a building; all of them wearing very short dresses and skirts and very high-heeled shoes.

“There she is,” the girls heard their father mumble.  “Paula, la pendeja.”  They were parked across the street from the building.  He picked up what Carla later realized was a shotgun and pointed the tip out the window.  “Cover your ears, girls!”

They did as ordered.  But the loud boom still echoed through their heads and made them shriek.

The screaming from the crowd of women overwhelmed them instantly.

Carla’s father slowly pulled out of the parking lot and onto a street in the opposite direction.

“What happened, daddy?” Carla asked.

“Don’t worry about it.  You girls want some ice cream when we get home?”

“Yes!” the screamed in unison.  Carla glanced back and wondered what those words above the doorway to that building meant: B-E-E-R and D-A-N-C-I-N-G.

She still didn’t know what they meant.  But she wasn’t thinking about them now.  Paula on the phone instructed her where to go next.

“The furniture store two blocks down on Elm.  The one with the big clock hanging outside the front door.  Remember?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

The word ‘good’ meant so much to her.  It was actually everything.  It told her she was doing things right.  Outside the furniture store, she again found herself beneath some shade and stuck her right forefinger into her purse.  The code on the fingernail read, 990Y23L18.  Just one number different.  But the text didn’t produce another call on the phone.

Instead a picture displayed.

She recognized it: a large house; different from the other one.  It was the mayor’s house.  The last house had belonged to someone called an attorney.  “He’s a lawyer who works for the city,” her father had told her.  “He’s bad, too.  Like Paula, la pendeja.”

This person, the mayor, was another bad one, the people from the beige building had told her.  Once she got there, they said, her job was done.  Done for now.  If she handled this one right, they’d give her a bigger job.  Bigger jobs – done right – meant more clothes and more music.

She boarded the bus, number 359, at Elm and Akard.  It took her to the Bishop Arts section south of downtown where she found another deli; this one an Italian place.

The young woman in a blue coat met her at the doorway.  “Ms. C?”

“Ms. C496233,” Carla announced.

“Good!  I’m Brittany.  Let’s eat.”

They entered the deli and found a booth off to the side.  Brittany ordered for both of them.  They ate mostly in silence, before Brittany pulled a soft drink can out of her purse.  “Remember what this is?”

“Yes – soda.”

“Good.  Now, on to the house.”  Brittany followed Carla into the bathroom, and then they left the diner.

Carla got onto another bus at Zang and Bennett and arrived at the Arthur Court neighborhood; actually two blocks from it.  The residents of those monster houses didn’t want the buses coming too close to their gated estates, Carla’s father had told her.  She didn’t understand why.  “Everyone takes the bus!”

“Most everyone,” her father had corrected.

She still didn’t know what the problem was, but she couldn’t bother with it at the moment.  Brittany had put the soda can into a box and sealed it up.  Along with the mayor’s name and address, the letters ‘T-O B-E O-P-E-N-E-D B-Y A-D-D-R-E-S-S-E-E O-N-L-Y’ were printed in several spots around the front of the box.  Like so many sets of letters she’d seen, Carla didn’t know what they meant.  But, as instructed, she didn’t ask questions about them.  The drawing beside what her father had told her was the return address piqued her curiosity, though: a blue-tinted dome atop an otherwise flat-roofed building that had what appeared to be several columns lined up in front of it.  She didn’t recognize the name on that return address, Senator somebody.

“A senator is a very important person,” her father had told her.  “Not too important that we can’t get rid of them.”

“Okay,” Carla answered.  Her father always knew what he was talking about.  She barely trusted the people from the beige-colored building.  But, when her father said they were okay, she felt safe with them.  They always had to talk with him first – in private.

Carla arrived at the tiny building in front of a gigantic set of wrought-iron gates and handed the package to the little man wearing a police-type uniform inside.  He studied it for a minute or so and then said, “Oh, okay.”  He grabbed a clipboard from the desk behind him.  “Sign here,” he added, giving her a pen.

She signed the name, ‘M.S. Carl.’

“Say nothing else and do nothing else,” her father had ordered her.  “Absolutely nothing.  Do you understand me?”

“Of course, Daddy.”

“Thank you,” the little man in the little building grumbled.

“Thank you,” Carla responded brightly.  She could say that much – only that much.

That night, after her parents had treated Carla to dinner at her favorite restaurant, she spoke briefly with her sister and the latter’s two young children.

“Say nothing about what you’ve been doing,” her mother warned her – as usual.

Carla’s sister always tried to cull information from her; more than just, ‘How was school?’ or ‘What did you have for lunch today?’

Afterwards, Carla plopped down onto her favorite spot on a couch in the den, the family’s two corgis curling up on the floor nearby.

“Well, would you look at that,” her father muttered at the TV.

The local news was awash with terror.  A frazzled reporter stood outside, her stringy hair whipping uncontrollably in the wind.  Behind her Carla could see a small building and a set of gates that looked familiar.

“I’ve been there!” she suddenly said.

Her parents turned to her.  “Ay, Carla!” her mother scolded.

“What?”

“Don’t say anything!”

She looked at her father.

“No – don’t say anything,” he repeated.

“Oh – okay,” Carla finally said.  She hated when her mother snapped at her like that.  But what could she do?  She turned to the dogs.  They simultaneously rolled over, fighting for her ticklish fingers.

“…the explosion ripped through the house.  Officials say both the mayor and her personal assistant were present and critically injured.”

Carla glanced to the TV for a few seconds.  She recognized the reporter’s voice.  But she became too consumed with the dogs.

“Reports that they were killed have not been substantiated.  We need to emphasize: NOT substantiated.”

She heard her father sigh heavily, before he muttered – loud enough for her to hear – “Good Carla.”

The dogs were too important for anything else now.

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© 2016

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Dig

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“If this rain keeps up,” said Lydia, “I think the garage roof is going to collapse.”

“What’s that?”  Miranda was leaning forward.

“The garage roof!  It’s sagging in one part.  Every time it rains –”

“No.  What’s that?”  She pointed over the dash board.

Lydia peered through the rain and, between the wiper blades, could see a small figure some distance ahead.

A young female, a teenager perhaps, with shoulder-length blonde hair and a purple tee shirt stood off to the right.  As Lydia’s car approached, the girl waved her arms.

Miranda lowered the window halfway and grabbed her cell phone.  Lydia reached towards her pistol she had tucked into the driver’s side door panel.

“Can you help me?” the girl asked.  She propped her tiny frame atop her toes, stretching so she could be heard through the partially-opened window.

“Of course,” replied Miranda.  “What happened?”

“It’s my friend.  She’s in trouble.”

“What happened?”

“Well…”  She looked behind her for a moment.

“Yes?” prodded Miranda.

“She needs help.”

“Who?  Your friend?”

“She’s buried.”

“Excuse me?”

“She’s buried,” the girl repeated.

“Buried?!” blurted Lydia.  “What do you mean buried?”

“Can you just call the police?”

“Yeah, sure,” Miranda answered and dialed 911.

“Buried?” Lydia muttered.  She took a closer look at the girl.  Her light brown eyes appeared empty, her cheeks sunken.  She’s in shock, thought Lydia.  Buried?

Miranda didn’t tell the 911 operator about anyone being buried.  “I don’t know what’s wrong,” she said.  “But I can tell she needs help.  She’s out here on this road alone in the rain.”

A few minutes later a solitary police officer arrived.  By then the blonde girl had retreated closer to a rut alongside the road.  Lydia had edged her SUV as close to the edge as possible, allowing more room for the handful of other vehicles that passed by.  No one else seemed to notice the girl, Lydia thought, except her and Miranda.  The girl had refused Miranda’s offer to jump into the back of the SUV.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” Lydia told the police officer, a tall woman with her hair pulled back into corn rows.  “My sister spotted her first – back up the road.”

“What’s her name?” asked the officer.

“I don’t know.”

“I asked her,” said Miranda.  “But she didn’t say anything.  She just moved off to the side there.  And she didn’t want to get in the back.  You know – to get out of the rain.”

“Right.”  She glanced up to the sky.  “I think it’s starting to let up more.  Now what did she say?  Her friend was what?”

“She said her friend was buried,” Lydia answered.  She looked at Miranda.  “Right?”

“Yeah,” replied Miranda.  “That’s what she said.  I asked her what she meant by that, but she didn’t say anything more.  She just said to call the police.  I’m the one who called,” she added, holding up her phone.

“Okay,” muttered the policewoman, peering at the girl from over the SUV’s hood.  “Dispatch mentioned that, but I wanted to make certain.  I’m Officer Robinson.  I’ll talk to her.  Can you two hang out here for a little while?”

“Of course,” said Lydia.

“Sure,” rejoined her sister.  She whipped her head around as the wail of another police siren bellowed from behind them.

Two more police vehicles arrived.  Robinson talked briefly with the two policemen who joined her, before approaching the blonde girl.  “Excuse me,” she said gently.  “What’s your name?”

The girl finally spun around as Robinson got closer.

“I’m Officer Robinson.  What’s your name?”

“Elizabeth,” the girl muttered after a second or so.

“Elizabeth – what’s wrong, dear?”  She took note of the girl’s haggard appearance.  “What happened?”

“It’s my friend.  She’s in trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“She’s buried.  Way back there.”  She gestured towards the heavily-wooded area behind her.

“What do you mean she’s buried?”

One of the male officers approached.

“She’s buried!  Someone tried to kill her.”  Her voice quivered.

“Who?” asked Robinson.  “Who tried to kill your friend?”

“Can you just help me dig her out?!”

“Where exactly?” asked the policeman.

“Back there!” Elizabeth blurted, haphazardly swinging a hand behind her.  “I’ll have to show you.  Can we just go out there?!”

“Yes, of course,” said Robinson.

Miranda had lowered her window again and tried to hear what the two officers were saying to Elizabeth, but commotion from more law enforcement prevented that.  “Buried?” she muttered.

Lydia took in the bevy of police officers descending upon the area.  “Looks like a freakin’ drug bust.”

“Buried,” Miranda repeated, more to herself.

“You can lead us to your friend?” a supervisor named Zerega asked Elizabeth.

“Yes!” she exclaimed.

“Okay,” replied Zerega.  “Take her in your car,” he told Robinson.  He turned to another female officer, Jackson, and ordered her to accompany them.

“Roger that,” said Robinson.  “Come on, honey,” she said to Elizabeth.  “We’ll go in my car.”

Jackson joined Elizabeth in the back seat.  “Which direction?” she asked the girl.

“Just back down this road,” said Elizabeth, leaning forward.  “I’ll show you where to turn off.”

“Okay,” said Robinson.

“What’s your friend’s name?” Jackson asked, but Elizabeth seemed distracted, as she stared out the window.  Jackson took visual note of the girl’s shaggy appearance: damp clothes; messy hair; mud-stained white casual shoes.  She smelled of grass and dirt, and Jackson wondered if the girl had tried to dig her friend out of…wherever she was, before seeking help.  “What’s your friend’s name?” she asked again.

“Coming up here on the right,” Elizabeth blurted out, leaning forward.  “There’s a dirt path.  It’s easy to miss, so slow down.”

“Okay,” answered Robinson.  She knew of a few uncharted paths off this stretch of blacktop that wound through some miscellaneous farmland and woodlands.

They approached a curve in the road, a long line of police vehicles behind them and a helicopter overhead.

Robinson slowed.

“We’re almost there!” Elizabeth exclaimed.  She strained against the seat belt.

Jackson spotted a news van ahead, coming in their direction.  “And there they are,” she murmured.

“Yep,” noted Robinson.

They slowed even more and came upon a nondescript separation in a thick row of trees.

“Right here!” said Elizabeth.

“Okay.”  Robinson realized she would have missed it, if someone hadn’t pointed it out to her.  She thought for a moment, as the vehicle bounced onto the muddy pathway, and wondered why she’d never noticed this particular road before.

“Just keep going.”

“Okay.”

Once more Jackson asked, “What’s your friend’s name?”

“You’ll have to turn off onto another path,” Elizabeth instructed.

“Okay,” said Robinson.  She reached for the air conditioner knob, noticing how cold it had grown inside the car.  But it was set as low as possible, without being turned off.

“Who did this to your friend?” Jackson asked.

“Someone else,” Elizabeth answered after a minute.  “Up here, off to the right.”

“Okay.”  Robinson glanced into the rear view mirror.

The car rocked in every direction, as the path became more irascible.

“Who is that someone else?” Jackson persisted.

Elizabeth remained silent.

“Elizabeth, please tell me.  What happened to your friend?  We need to know, so we can help her.  And you.”

“Some other girls,” Elizabeth finally said.

“Some other friends?”

“Yeah.  It’s coming up – on the right.”

“Okay.”  Robinson was inclined to turn off the air altogether, as the car had grown unbearably cold.  She started to shiver, but maintained her eyes on the bumpy path ahead.

Another virtually hidden opening loomed off to their right.

Robinson almost knew instinctively this was the next turn.

“Yes,” Elizabeth said.

“Yes what?” asked Jackson.

“It’s coming up on the right.  It’s hard to see.”

“I see it now,” said Robinson.  She drove the car through a thicker cluster of trees that blocked out much of the sun that had finally started coming out.

“Down here, off to the left,” said Elizabeth.

“Okay.”  She slowed and maneuvered the car down a rocky embankment.

Heavy tree branches overhead shrouded them in darkness, until they entered another clearing.

“Down here,” Elizabeth said.  “Right up ahead.  She’s buried down here.”

“Alright.”

The sun managed to poke through an opening in the canopy above and highlighted a mass of overgrown shrubbery and a fallen tree.

“She’s under there.”

Robinson slammed on the brakes.  “Stay here,” she ordered Elizabeth, while jumping out of the car.  A battalion of fellow officers swarmed onto the remote locale, as Robinson pointed to the batch of wild vegetation.  “She’s saying right under there!”

Several men and women rushed forward and began yanking away the branches, gloved hands frantically tossing the mess forward.  Seconds later they reached a mound of dirt and began clawing at it with the same hurried enthusiasm.  Zerega had ordered no one to use a shovel, for fear of hurting the victim, if she wasn’t interred too deep.

Jackson finally stepped out of the car.  “God, I hope she’s still alive.”

“No telling,” said Robinson, still watching the orderly mayhem.

“We have something!” a female voice shouted from a depression in the ground.  “I think this is her!”

“Jesus,” muttered Jackson.  She looked at Elizabeth who remained unmoved; merely staring ahead.  She started to think that Elizabeth might be involved in this, given her reticence about details.  She turned back to the activity several feet ahead.

The other officers had managed to clear away the dirt.

And the horror became clear.

They found a petite female laying on her back, hands crossed over her stomach.  A small girl with shoulder-length blonde hair.

“Ask her to come over here!” Zerega told Jackson.  “She has to identify her!”

Both Robinson and Jackson turned back to the car.

That was empty.

“Where’d she go?!” hollered Robinson.

“I don’t know!” said Jackson.  “She was just here!”  She darted around to the other side and yanked open the door.

No one.

She looked to the floorboard.  It was covered with streaks of dirt and leaves.  The car smelled of mud.  “What the fuck?!  Where is she?!”

“What do you mean where is she?!” yelled Zerega.

“She’s not here!” said Jackson.

Robinson joined her on that same side.  “Where did she go?”

“I don’t know!  She was just here!”

Robinson looked up to see a few police officers approach.

“Where did she go?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know,” answered Robinson.  “I told her to stay here.”

“She was here!” Jackson insisted.

Everyone began scanning the area.  But Elizabeth was nowhere.

“What did she say that girl looked like?” Zerega asked.

Robinson and Jackson fumbled for words.  “I don’t know,” Robinson finally said.  “She didn’t say much.”

“I couldn’t get her to say anything,” Jackson stated.  She was beginning to hyperventilate.  “She just said some friends of theirs did this.  She wouldn’t even tell me the girl’s name!”

The entire group had grown frantic.  Zerega ordered some other officers to begin searching for Elizabeth.  “She couldn’t have gone far!” he said.

Robinson charged forward.  She had to see the dead girl for herself.  “This is too fucking weird,” she said to no one in particular.

Jackson followed her.

They stared into the shallow pit.

And took note of the girl.

With shoulder-length blonde hair.

Wearing a purple tee shirt and blue jeans.

And mud-covered white shoes.

The sun retreated.

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© 2016

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The Alphabet of Me

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A is for adamant.  I have a certain view of how my life should function and I refuse to relinquish it.  It’s how I’ve survived all these years without going crazy and killing myself.  I don’t impose my ideals on others, though.  I’ve had that done to me and sometimes I’d obey; thinking if I did what others thought I should do, they’d like me.  It never worked!  So I stopped doing that shit.  Other people’s rules don’t apply to me.

B is for barrier.  I’ve placed too many barriers in front of me; impediments of my own making; excuses to prevent me from taking unnecessary risks and possibly hurting myself.  I’ve told myself I can’t do X because of Y.  Or worst, because someone else told me I can’t or shouldn’t do it.  So, I’ve finally learned to knock down those barriers.

C is for curious.  I’ve always been curious about the world around me, even if I feared it most of the time.  I’ve wondered why hurricanes form and why dogs move in circles several times before laying down.  I wonder why most people are assholes and refuse to get along, when the alternative is constant yelling and fighting.  When I get curious about human nature, I become frustrated.  So, I start thinking about dogs and hurricanes.  At least they have a reason for being the way they are.

D is for depression.  It’s one of the ugliest words in the English language.  It’s been a constant, demonic companion in my life.  It’s robbed me of life’s simple pleasures more times than I can count.  It’s held me back from taking the chances I needed to move forward.  It’s kept me in bed or drunk, when I should be out doing something good for myself.  It’s almost killed me – several times.  It’s still there; lurking in the back of my psyche like a dormant flu virus.  But I finally stood up to it and beat the fucker back down into the gutter where it belongs.

E is for education.  I feel this is the single most important factor in any civilized society.  Odd, considering I dropped out of college in the late 1980s and didn’t return until almost 20 years later to earn my college degree.  But, I did it.  And, my education didn’t end when I finished that last class.  It continues.  I’m still learning.  I’ll always keep my mind open to new experiences and different things.

F is for fear.  There it is again – fear of the unknown; fear of people; fear of taking chances.  Fear has been the other unwanted companion that just won’t leave me alone.  It’s taken almost my entire life to learn to smack that thing down into oblivion.  Still, on occasion, it extends a grimy finger upwards and points at me.  It still tries to intimidate me.  But now, it’s all been turned upside down.  Fear is scared of me.

G is for glaring.  The truth about people and things is often glaringly obvious to me.  Why don’t others see the various and sundry colors of the world, instead of just the grays?  Some folks look at me like I’m crazy.  But I just have my own unique view of my surroundings and the people who occupy it.  More importantly, I no longer expect people to think and feel exactly as I do.

H is for health.  After seeing an aunt battle with cancer in the late 1980s and a friend ravaged by AIDS just a few years later, my physical and mental health became paramount.  Few other things matter as much.  For years, however, I had a handle on my physical health.  I lifted weights, jogged regularly and did some basic calisthenics almost every weekday morning before heading out to work.  It took a while longer, though, to get a grip on my psychological welfare.  I know my body will grow tired, as I continue to age.  But I refuse to get “old.”  That’s more a state of mind.

I is for introvert.  It used to upset me so much.  I had such a hard time making friends.  I just couldn’t get too many people to like me.  I felt, for so many years, that I was defective.  Something was wrong, I kept telling myself; something wrong with me.  But now, I embrace that attribute.  It’s me; it’s who I am.  I am just quiet and insulated.  I’m a reader and a thinker; not a showman.  I don’t have to make a spectacle of myself anymore to feel important.  That introverted attribute generates a slew of story ideas and compels me to write and to read.

J is for jaded – as in cynical.  You get that way after a half century of experiencing life’s bullshit; enduring years of being shoved around because you won’t conform to others’ expectations.  I’m jaded as in bitter; bitter that it took me so long to realize I’m important and have much to offer this world.  But, at this point in time, that jaded personality has given me a more clear view of life.

K is for kill.  If I killed everybody who pissed me off, I’d be the world’s worst serial murderer.  Then again, who wouldn’t?  Part of being introverted and jaded is that I don’t like people much.  I’ve always said the more I get to know people, the more I like my dog.  Animals are cool; most people are assholes.  But, I couldn’t waste my time killing anyone.  I don’t want to spend that much gas money driving out to secluded locations to bury the bodies.  I have stories to write!

L is for lost.  Growing up so shy and timid I often felt lost in a world of bullies and cool kids.  Now, I feel lost in a world of idiots.  So I get lost in my world of reading, writing, music and good wine.

M is for meticulous.  I’m a very detail-oriented person.  Some people like that about me, especially at work; others find it annoying.  People don’t have a certain place in society, but objects do.

N is for nearby.  I keep the memory of long-gone loved ones close to me.  People who helped raise me and had an impact on my life reside in my heart and my soul.  I won’t let them drift away.  I can’t.  I can’t turn my back on them just because they’re no longer physically present on Earth.  They’ll be the ones to come get me when my own life expires.

O is for ordinary.  As difficult as I am to get to know – this, according to my own parents – I consider myself rather ordinary.  I’m not handsome and I don’t have the perfect physique.  I certainly no a genius, but I’m intelligent and well-educated.  I do consider myself a very good writer, so on that level, I’m somewhat extraordinary.  Writing is the one part about me in which I’m 100% confident.  Otherwise, I’m an ordinary individual trying to live a relatively ordinary life.

P is for past.  I’ve dwelled on it too often.  I always wanted to make things better – things that happened a while back and can’t be altered now.  I’d spend – waste – so much time thinking about the past.  You do that a lot, when you grow up shy.  People always seemed to take advantage of me and get the best of my mind and soul.  So, even though I finally stopped doing that to myself, I occasionally have trouble breaking free of the past.  Pulling my mind away from way back there and keeping it in the here and now.

Q is for quiet.  Teachers and other adults always said I was quiet as a child.  I’m still somewhat quiet.  Now, it depends more on the situation than on my desire to stay out of trouble.  If I’m quiet, that usually means I’m listening; sometimes plotting.  What’s wrong with that?  No one needs to be loud and obnoxious.  Those who feel the need to be that way actually need to be smacked.  As a writer, I relish the quiet; the solitude; the isolation.  I’m quiet because I’m observing the people around me – and trying to figure out how their personas would fit into one of my stories.

R is for rebellious.  Yes, I’ve always been quiet.  But, I’m also rebellious.  Quietly rebellious – as oxymoronic as that sounds.  I don’t like to make a scene, unless I become enraged.  It always startles the crap out of people when that happens.  But I’m generally a silent rebel.  My parents wanted me to study computer science, or anything related to computers.  I wanted to be a writer.  They equated that with being a bum; thus I started studying computer programming in college – just to please them.  But my inner self said no; that’s not who you are.  You’re a writer.  Now, I’m a technical writer by day and a creative writer by night.  Ironically, I’ve had to become a computer aficionado to engage in both tasks.  Either way I’m still a writer.  I rebelled against my parents’ desired plans for my future – quietly.

S is for smart.  I’m smarter than I look.  I like to read, so I know a lot; a lot of different things.  Things like arctic hurricane is the formal name for a blizzard.  Things like Polynesians in the South Pacific sometimes have blond hair, not because some European sailor got shipwrecked on an island 300 years ago and then got lonely, but because there’s a genetic trait among them that produces fair-colored locks.  I’m smart because I understand human nature, even if I don’t like people that much.  I’m smart because I know the environment is worth saving and not from a politically correct standpoint.  I’m smart because I’ve been around and listen and observe more than I talk.

T is for tender.  I have a good heart – physically and emotionally.  My disdain for human beings notwithstanding, I still have compassion for people in general; mainly children and the disabled.  I certainly have a tender spot for animals.  Yes, that’s kind of odd to hear from someone with a leather fetish and a taste for vodka.

U is for underappreciated.  Once more, growing up in a cocoon of timidity, I always felt underappreciated.  It also means underpaid, and the two are usually interconnected.  Showing someone respect is showing your appreciation for them.  For example, I always try to remember people on their birthdays.  To hell with Christmas or Valentine’s Day!  Those are easy to recall.  But, if you really want to show someone you care about them, or at least acknowledge their presence on Earth, wish them a ‘Happy Birthday.’  They’ll appreciate that more than ‘Merry Christmas.’

V is for various.  I like a variety of things.  My blog, as well as my writings, reflect that.  I like different foods, different genres of literature and different styles of music.  I have definite opinions on various subjects; some of which seem contradictory.  I urge people to vote, for example, but I despise most politicians.

W is for weird.  I’m a writer.  I’m just weird.  They’re symbiotic elements – ying and yang.  They just go together.  Only other writers will understand.  But, whereas I once cringed at the mere hint of being dubbed weird, I now celebrate it.  Actually, it’s pretty normal for me.  Other people are the ones who think I’m weird.  They just don’t understand.  And, that’s fine.

X is for X-ray.  Sometimes, I’ll expose my true self to people, so they can see who I really am.  Those who think I’m weak will see the strength deep inside me.  Others who think I’m cold and calculating will see the clown figure that lies beneath the rigid exterior.  That’s not a common occurrence, though.  I rarely let people get inside me like that.

Y is for yes – as in a restrained yes.  I won’t say yes to just anything.  I’m too cautious.  I’ll say yes to saving an injured animal; yes to good vodka; yes to dancing to my favorite music.  I reserve my yeses for the most important elements of life.

Z is for zeal – a zest for reading and writing.  Well, I guess that’s two words for this one letter.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, though, my passion for the written word is boundless.  We writers have to possess such an innate desire to sit down and drop words onto paper or a computer.  It can be exciting and rewarding, but quite often, it’s frustrating and disappointing.

 

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Joy and Jasmine and Everything They Once Were

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“Are you girls okay?”  Giselle propped her arms on her hips and cocked her head.

The girls – Joy and Jasmine – had been acting more peculiar than usual all week long.  Cats were the oddest of creatures, Giselle reminded herself; her Siamese twins being no exception.

Joy and Jasmine often perched their wiry, milky-white frames atop something – the antique dresser, the entertainment center, or the highest shelf in the den where they were now – whenever they wanted to be alone.  Like all the cats she’d had in the past, Giselle knew feline personalities could be as fickle as they could be subdued.

Yet, as she stood in the den, staring up at her adopted children, Giselle noted – once again – that they appeared to be more intellectual than she previously thought was normal, or even possible.  Their eyes, the bluest she’d ever seen on anyone (human or animal), gave the impression they were actually thinking; they seemed to possess some degree of cognitive function.  But she always got the feeling the cats were waiting for something.  Or, someone.

Then it dawned on her.  They missed Robert.  They were his babies, too.  He’d been out of town for three weeks; this being the last phase of a year-long project for the engineering firm.

“Daddy will be home tomorrow night,” said Giselle, her hands clasped in front of her.

The girls remained still on the top shelf of the built-in bookcase, like a pair of porcelain antiques; identical and priceless, stoically beautiful, the perfect accoutrements to the array of chintz pillows and terracotta statuettes Giselle had scattered throughout their newly-purchased home.

But, yes, Giselle thought, they missed Robert.  “Okay then,” she said with a skewered grin.  “I’ll be going to bed in a few minutes.”

She turned off the two lamps in the den and gave Joy and Jasmine one final, loving glance.  Their eyes glowed softly, a quartet of azure orbs.

The house sat at the end of a short road, backing up against a tree-cluttered mound, which tumbled down into a shallow stream and back up towards an old farm-to-market road.  A four-bedroom ranch-style abode with a driveway that snaked around a thick magnolia tree to the garage had stood vacant for almost four years, the realtor, Carlene, had told them; since it was in such an odd location.  The couple who’d owned it previously had suddenly left, and the county had trouble locating them.  “They split up,” Carlene added, “and moved to two different states.  I think the IRS was after them.  They owed back taxes.”

Eventually, authorities found the duo.  Once they’d been set up on a payment plan, a county judge appointed an independent counselor to oversee sale of the house.  Carlene was merely trying to sell it and get it off the county’s hands.  But it was still a gorgeous house.

Giselle and Robert Fernandez ogled at the area, able to hear the stream murmuring in the distance, and found nothing odd about it.  “It’s perfect,” Giselle crooned, as Robert wrapped his beefy arms around her.  They were standing on the walkway; already enchanted with the simple charm of the house and its rustic setting.

Carlene stood nearby, beaming with shared happiness; her petite frame perched atop a pair of shoes with excessively high heels.  “Oh, I’m so glad ya’ two like it!”  Her southern drawl poured over them like honey mixed with syrup and brown sugar.

That’s when Giselle first saw the cats; Siamese cats – almost identical.  They sat alongside the driveway, side-by-side and partially obscured by the magnolia tree.  They seemed to be looking at her, and Giselle’s heart sank.

It had been almost a year since she and Robert had put down their last cat; about eight months after the other one turned up dead at the foot of their bed.  Not a good way to start a Monday morning.  They had already begun their house hunt – and vowed not to get anymore pets for a while.

A while arrived sooner than expected.  The cats kept showing up near the driveway.  Giselle tried several times to entice them to come with her.  But, each time, they’d scamper towards the rear of the house.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, Robert came back from a jog around the neighborhood, and the cats followed him to the front door.  They looked more haggard than before.  With a mild beckoning flip of his hand, Robert got them to go into the house ahead of him.

They managed to give the cats a quick bath – without getting scratched or bitten; an oddity unto itself, Giselle mused, knowing felines and water don’t mix well.  They gave the scrawny duo some milk and sat back to discuss what to do next.  Call the city pound?  A local animal shelter?  Giselle was more ready to give them up than Robert.  They had too much to do with the house, she reiterated.

Then, for no particular reason, he abruptly named them Joy and Jasmine.  From a distance, they truly looked like twins.  But Joy’s ears were darker; the only real way to tell them apart.  Joy was also somewhat more aggressive.  But their quirky, unimposing personalities worked their way into the young couple’s hearts, and – as unexpected as the adoption was – they didn’t mind.  And they decided not to give them up.

Amidst their chaotic schedules with work and refurbishing the house, Giselle and Robert made the time to take the girls to a local veterinarian to get some basic, necessary shots.  A short time later, they had the cats neutered by the same veterinarian.  The doctor noticed one curious thing, though; she couldn’t determine how old the cats were.

“Their teeth make them look to be about 10,” she said.  “But, physiologically, they’re around 5 or 6.  They don’t have any signs of arthritis or heart trouble.”  She just couldn’t understand how they were each about ten years of age, yet “not show it on the inside.”

Joy and Jasmine quickly became fond of Robert, lounging on either side of him the few times he sat on the couch to watch TV, or cuddled up at the foot of the bed – closer to him.  Giselle didn’t feel ignored.  She was glad to get some stray animals off the street and give them a good home.

Occasionally, however, the girls displayed their aloofness by climbing atop something and remaining there for the longest time.  Just like they were doing now.

Giselle carried a glass of water into the bedroom and took a shower.  After smothering her body in lotion, she donned an oversized Dallas Cowboys tee shirt and was leaning over the bathroom sink, trying to pluck a renegade eyelash from her left eye, when the bedroom lights flickered and then, shut off.  They came back on within seconds.

She waited a moment, but nothing happened.  The bedroom lamps had been doing that a lot recently.  At night Giselle would be in the bathroom or the closet – and, on one occasion, sitting up in bed reading – when the lights shuddered and then went out.  But they always came back on immediately afterwards.

She stood poised over the sink, though; wondering if someone had broken into the house.  She searched the bathroom for a makeshift weapon and found it in the form of a heavy shampoo bottle.  Only then did she realize that the bathroom light was still on, while the rest of the house was dark.  She didn’t want to ponder that curiosity any longer, so she turned off the bathroom light and inched her tiny frame into the bedroom; one hand clutching the shampoo bottle.

Something else came to mind.  Then she heard that sound.  Distant – giggling.  She crept to a window behind a nightstand.  She didn’t want to turn off the lamp or stand in front of it.  She could hear them – right outside the house.  Little kids giggling.

She was certain they were the neighbor’s children; a quartet of rug-rats who stormed through the area like rabid squirrels.  Other neighbors had complained about them.

Why they’d be running around outside at night was beyond Giselle’s comprehension.  “Do you hear that?” she asked Robert one night.

He listened.  “Um…no.”

“That laughing.  Little kids laughing.  They’re sneaking around outside.”

“At this time of night?”

“Yes!”

Robert usually had good hearing, but he never heard those kids running around outside in the middle of the night.  Joy and Jasmine could surely hear them, Giselle thought.  They always disappeared somewhere into the house at night; especially when the kids started their nocturnal excursions.  Maybe the kids had found the cats at one point a while back, Giselle surmised, and tortured them.  When her younger brother kicked a neighbor’s dog, Giselle – age 12 and all of 4’0” – smacked his face hard enough to make him cry and bleed at the same time.  Whenever she heard the neighbors’ kids bouncing around outside late at night, she clenched her hands; certain the vermin had harmed Joy and Jasmine at some point.  It’s why the cats had grown desperate to get into the house, Giselle told herself, knowing they’d be safe.

When she saw the neighbors leaving one Saturday afternoon, Giselle – crouched before a flower bed, potting soil spread almost to her elbows – scoured at them.  They didn’t notice her – thankfully; or they’d see the daggers flying from her eyes.  The elderly lady who lived across the street with her invalid husband – the first people in the neighborhood Giselle and Robert came to know – also happened to be in her own front yard, clutching a water hose and gazing at the family of six.  The elderly couple were the only people who conversed with Giselle and Robert for any considerable length.  Other neighbors weren’t so loquacious; nothing beyond a wave, perhaps followed with a ‘hello.’

Giselle turned back to the flower bed she was hoping to resuscitate.  “Little fuckers,” she muttered into the dirt.  She thought of her girls again.  How dare you hurt them!

She began moving towards the bed, when a thick mat of fur scraped against her ankles.  “Oh, God!”  The shampoo bottle fell to the floor.

The bedroom lights suddenly came on again, startling her again.  She returned the shampoo to its place in the shower stall and started looking for the girls.  She called for them.  The house was silent.  As she came to the end of the hallway, something else brushed against her; coming from either side.  She hopped back with a sharp scream.  “Goddammit!”  She retreated to the bedroom, certain someone else was in the house, and crept back into the hall with a baseball bat.

A faint, high-pitched noise made her look down.  Joy and Jasmine stood a few feet away.  “Oh, God!” Giselle moaned, her shoulders dropping as she exhaled.  “Girls.”  She caressed their heads; knowing the cats were still growing accustomed to the house.  She couldn’t get mad at them; she certainly couldn’t blame them for her overreactions.  She laughed, as she dropped the bat back into the closet.

She glanced back down the hall.  They’d disappeared again.  Where was their hiding place?  She grinned.  Anywhere!  She laughed aloud at her own anxiety and returned to bed.

4440

Seeing Robert sitting with the girls in his lap was as pleasant to Giselle as it was curious.  He kept staring into their eyes, and – from what Giselle could tell – they were gazing back.  His lips would move at times.  Giselle couldn’t hear what he was saying, but felt he must be reassuring the girls they were safe in this house.

“That patch of grass is dead,” Robert said.  He and Giselle stood in the back yard late one Sunday afternoon.

She could still smell the wood of the newly-erected, eight-foot-high fence.  For weeks Robert would come out there and stand in this one spot, just staring at the ground.  She’d be busy with the rest of the yard, when she’d catch him towering over that one area.

He was right, though.  Amidst the expanse of vibrant green grass, this one small patch towards the back of the yard stood out because of its beige coloring.  It looked as if some alien beings had descended upon the property and began carving out crop circles, before realizing they wouldn’t have enough room.

Giselle looked at Robert.  He seemed more upset by it.  Not just annoyed, she thought, but…disturbed.

“Well,” he finally said.  “I guess I’ll just have to dig it up and plant some new grass.”  He had just finished mowing the lawn and was tired.

But he was back outside the following evening, again standing over that one brown-grass area.  Just staring at it.  Occasionally picking at it with a hand, or rubbing his toes against it.  Wandering around it, cocking his head in different directions; like a puppy inspecting a new toy.

“Just replace it,” Giselle said one evening, after Robert had come back inside.

“Yeah, I will.”  He took a sip of water and mumbled, “When it’s time.”  He headed towards the bedroom.

“‘When it’s time’?”  Giselle repeated.

“You’re both so pretty,” she heard Robert say.  He sat in the den, the cats in his lap.  Giselle wasn’t really listening, but she suddenly could hear him.  “You’re okay.  You’re safe here with us.”

Giselle grinned.  Just as she suspected.

“You’ll always be safe,” Robert continued.  “No one can ever hurt you again.”

On the following Saturday she stood in the utility room, sorting through laundry, when Robert entered.  She didn’t hear him; the steady hum of the dryer being so abrasively loud.  He’d been fidgeting with his laptop.  “Oh hey, babe,” she said.

He almost bumped into her – as if she wasn’t there – and entered the garage.

It was so unlike him that Giselle couldn’t say anything.  She watched from the doorway as Robert grabbed a ladder and proceeded up into the attic.  It was only accessible through a square opening near the door.  Robert propped the ladder against the wall, again seemingly oblivious to her presence on the other side of the metallic apparatus.  “What – ?” she started to ask.

She could hear him in the attic space just above the utility room; rumbling around with the gracefulness of a giant boar.  “What are you doing?” she asked into the ceiling.  She noticed Joy and Jasmine perched at the opposite end of the utility room, closer to the kitchen.

A few moments later Robert ambled back down the ladder; carefully balancing himself while cradling a beige shoe box under one arm.  He dropped it on the floor and replaced the ladder.  He swept up the box, as he reentered the utility room – again seeming to ignore his wife – and sat down at the kitchen table.

The cats had left.

“What is this?” Giselle asked, pointing to the box.

“I – uh – I don’t know, really,” he replied with a smile.  He had removed the lid and was rummaging through its meager contents.  “I just had an idea to look up there.”

“Why?”

“I – don’t know.  I just did.”

The box bore a few photographs and a handful of papers; the latter yellow and crinkled.

Giselle and Robert sifted through the single stack of photos – all five of them.  One had a group of children gathered on a patio; another displayed the kids on a couch; one featured two little girls wearing identical dresses standing against a fence; one had a blurry image of a smiling young woman, captured as if she was in mid-stride, her over-sized sunglasses creating heavy shadows on her face; and the last showed a man and a woman standing beside a pick-up truck in a driveway.

“Who are these people?” Giselle asked.

“I don’t know,” Robert mumbled.

The handwriting on the papers was too faint and illegible to comprehend.

Robert continued flipping through the pictures – over and over – for several minutes, as if hoping to find some new detail.

His intensity began to annoy Giselle.  “So…what’s this all about?”

He kept perusing the photos and looking at the papers.

“Robert?”

“Yeah.”

She tilted her head forward, closer to his face.  “What is this?”

He sighed.  “I don’t know.”

“How did you know this stuff was here?”

He sighed again; a sound more of empathy than frustration.  “I…I don’t know.  I just had the idea to look up there.  I didn’t – I didn’t know this stuff was there.”  He kept shaking his head, as if uncertain of his own actions.  “Weird,” he finally said, packing everything back into the box.  He dropped a light kiss onto her cheek, before leaving with the box.

Giselle started after him and stopped when she heard the girls scuttle past.  She barely caught a glimpse of their tails, as they took off in the same direction as Robert.  Their sudden presence startled her.  She fidgeted her fingertips together, listening to the dryer hum.

On Sunday night Giselle drove Robert back to the airport for another business trip; this one scheduled to last only three days.  The following evening she busied herself with a few crossword puzzles and finally completed an aging history book that she’d actually first tried to read in college.  She placed the dusty tome back on a shelf and was surprised to see the girls when she turned around.  “Hey, girls!” she said with a smile.  She squatted down to caress their heads.  Their fur felt unusually cool.  “Are you okay?”

They didn’t answer her; they were just enjoying the massage.

Her phone rang.  It was Robert.  “Hey, babe.”

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Good!  How are things there?”

“Eh – kind of gloomy.  It’s been threatening to rain since last night.  But it’s just been cool and windy.”

“Oh, well –”

“Listen, can you do me a favor?  Not right now – it’s too dark outside.”

“Uh – yeah, sure.”

“Can you check out in the back yard and look at the spot where the grass is brown.  You know that one little area closer to the back side of the fence?”

“Uh – yes.  Why?”

“Can you just check and see if there’s anything odd under there?”

Odd?  “Like what?”

He was silent.

“Like what?”

“Um – just – uh – just see if the ground feels funny.”

See if the ground feels funny?  “What do you mean?”

“Um – I don’t know.”

“Okay…I still don’t know what you’re saying.  What – what’s with the ground out there?  What do you mean ‘feels funny’?”

“I don’t know.  Just – uh – just see if there’s like a bump of some kind right underneath that piece of grass.”

“Okay,” she muttered after a second.

“I keep thinking there’s a tree stump buried there.  You know – maybe the previous owners had cut down a tree and didn’t really remove the stump.”

“Oh, okay.”  That actually makes sense, she mused.  “I guess that could be dangerous, huh?”

“Yeah, it could.”

They both relaxed and talked a little more.  He told her he was lounging on the bed in his hotel room, butt naked with a steely erection; thinking about her.  He just wanted to get the “funny ground” issue out of the way first.

She wanted to start up on another book, as she dropped into bed, but decided against it.  She had a meeting at 8:30 the following morning.  But, as she lay in bed, staring at the crown molding and the ceiling fan, she couldn’t help but think of Robert’s curious request.  ‘Feels funny’?  What the hell was that all about?  Joy and Jasmine had curled up at the foot of the bed; an unusual spot for them, considering Robert wasn’t here.

Then she heard a faint giggle pipe through the bedroom window.  “Oh, goddammit!”  She sat up, staring hard at the drapes.  She heard another one and yet another; finally leaping out of bed and turning on the side lamp almost simultaneously.  “Stupid kids!”  She peeked out of through one side of the drapes, enough to see out towards the neighbor’s house, but not enough to be seen.

Nothing.  The neighbor’s bushes languished in a deep shade of blue.

She turned to shut off the light – bypassing the empty bed – and stepped back to the window.  Even with the bedroom darkened, nothing outside the house caught her attention.  She switched the lamp back on, smirked at the empty bed and sauntered into the bathroom.

The lamp shut off.

She dropped her shoulders with an exaggerated sigh.  The lamp had been functioning oddly.  It wasn’t the light bulb: she’d checked that more than once.

The light came back on.

A few moments later, she stood at the sink, patting her hands dry and wondered if the sudden irritation in her left eye was a lash.  She leaned forward, towards the mirror.

The bedroom went dark.

She slowly lowered her hand, keeping her gaze on the mass of darkness behind her; framed only by the bathroom doorway.  She felt a coldness roll up her back and onto her shoulders.  This wasn’t the neighbor kids running around outside acting stupid.  Someone had entered the house, she thought.

Again, she searched for a makeshift weapon and found it in one of her combs.  She crept back into the bedroom and looked down the hall.  She suspected for a moment the power had gone out.  But the bathroom light was still on.  She proceeded to the closet and grabbed a baseball bat; tossing the comb onto the bed.  She would have picked up one of Robert’s shotguns perched in the back of the closet, but she didn’t know if it was loaded and didn’t care to take time to find out.

She moved down the hall and reached for the light switch.  The light wouldn’t come on.  A shuffling noise a few feet away prompted her to search briefly for the cats.  She tried the light switch again, and the hall lamp illuminated.

Enough to catch something dart passed her.

Enough to make her stop blinking and breathing for a few seconds.  The light shut off.  She flicked the switch several more times, but the hall remained dark.

She finally took a deep breath and cocked her head towards the ceiling.  “Damnit!” she muttered, wondering how she must look – standing in a darkened hallway of her own home, wearing an oversized Dallas Cowboys tee shirt and holding a baseball bat.  She moved into the front room, just a few feet from the main entrance.

The hall light re-illuminated.

She glanced over her shoulder; curiosity mixed with frustration.  She turned on a lamp in the den and scanned the quiet area.  When she wheeled back around, Joy and Jasmine sat in the middle of the hall.  “Well…there you two are.”

They cocked their heads, as if they didn’t know why she was surprised.  Or pretending not to know.

Once back in her bedroom, Giselle dropped the baseball bat into the closet.  The girls curled beside one another at the foot of the bed, forming something of a crescent shape.  Giselle slowly climbed back into bed and turned off the side lamp; making only a quick note that the bathroom light had already been turned off.

When Robert returned home, Joy and Jasmine couldn’t stay away from him.

Giselle approached the three of them, as they sat on an easy chair.   “Well, look who’s become daddy’s girls.”  She reached out to tickle the cats’ ears.  They snarled at her, causing Giselle’s entire arm to snap back into her torso, like a measuring tape being recoiled.  She stood up straight, her mouth contorted in both shock and annoyance.  “What the hell!”

Robert – who had been staring at the girls all this time – merely threw an equally irksome glance at his wife.  That evening he hovered around the brownish patch of grass in the back yard for several minutes.  Giselle could only stand at a kitchen window and try to make sense of his behavior.

Then the girls suddenly darted towards him; coming from somewhere near the house.  Their abrupt presence – outside, of all places – startled Giselle.  The cats hadn’t been outside the house since she and Robert had taken them in – at least not by themselves.  They didn’t want to take the chance the girls would become feral again and end up lost or, worse, in the hands of some wicked children.  Like the kids next door.

She started towards the door, but returned to the window.  The girls had trotted up to Robert and started trolling that same patch of brown grass.  He squatted down to caress their heads.  She saw his lips moving.  Although their backs were to her, Giselle could tell the cats were listening to Robert.  He then began running his hands along the brownish grass, before caressing the girls’ heads and talking to them again.  It looked like he was saying more to them than to Giselle in the two days he’d been home.

He finally stood and marched back into the house.  He went directly to the office.  Giselle followed him and was surprised to see him rifling through that dusty shoe box.  “Robert…what’s going on?”

“Something.”

“What?”

“Just something.”  He fiddled through the pictures.  “Here,” he muttered, more to himself.  “Here they are.”

“Who?”

He dropped the pictures and strode back into the garage, almost brushing against Giselle.

“What – ?!  Robert!”  Only when she arrived in the garage did she realize the girls hadn’t followed him into the house.  “Wait a minute.  Where are the – ?  Where are Joy and Jasmine?”

Robert stripped off his tee shirt, grabbed a drain spade shovel and hurried back outside.  Again, Giselle followed him, but she stopped just outside the patio.  He proceeded to that brown patch of grass and began digging.

“What – ?”  She sighed loudly, but it dissipated into a heavy wind.  “Robert!”

He repeatedly slammed the shovel into the grass and, within minutes, had dug it up.  He kept digging, his torso and face already coated in sweat.

Giselle casually approached and began circling him the way she’d done when they first met at that July 4th barbecue.  All the other women had sauntered past him, trying to get his attention, as he talked with two other men.  Robert was the best-looking man at the party, and Giselle immediately became determined to meet him.  Her ploy had worked.  He stopped talking to his friends – one of whom was the host – and smiled awkwardly at her.

This time, though, her circling movements went completely unnoticed.  “Robert,” she said gently.

He kept slamming the spade into the dirt.  A small mound had begun to form to his left; something like a newborn island volcano breaking the ocean’s surface.

“Robert.”

He kept digging.  His gray khaki shorts had darkened with sweat.

“Robert!”

“What?!”  He stopped, still breathing heavily, and looked at her.

“What in God’s name are you doing?!”

“I’m trying to find them!”  He plunged the spade back into the small hole he’d created and pulled up more dirt.

“Find what?”

He kept digging; the mound growing higher; his breathing growing even heavier.

The sun had started to drop below the mass of trees behind the house.  The modest blue of the sky metamorphosed into a deep purple, and the light breezes turned into a steady wind.

Robert continued angrily slamming the shovel into the dirt.  And, just as Giselle was about to speak his name again, they heard a loud crack.  A near-splintering of wood.  The shovel had hit something harder than dirt.  “Oh God,” Robert muttered.  He moved some dirt with the shovel; more cautious now.

Giselle stepped forward, as Robert tossed the spade off to one side and squatted down.  His eyes remain transfixed on the hole.  And what was in it.  Giselle leaned over, as Robert cleared away more dirt.

The shovel had struck an object, and as Robert dug more hurriedly – this time with his hands – she realized it was a box.  A wooden box.

Finally, Robert was able to free the box.  He tried picking it up, but it was either too heavy or it was stuck.  As he strained his arms, the carotid arteries of his neck bulging with aggravation, the top of the box suddenly bolted loose.  Robert tumbled backwards.  The gritty wooden top rolled out of his hands and over the spade.  He crouched back over the hole and paused for a moment; hot breaths spilling from his mouth.

Giselle looked down, her body trembling.  The wind had intensified slightly, and she was getting cold.

The sky was the darkest shade of violet she’d ever seen.

A dirty cloth or sheet was stretched over the box.

Robert gently reached down and pulled it up.

Giselle heard the cats screech and whipped her head around.  She didn’t see them.  “Where are they?” she asked, partly to Robert and partly to the wind.  “Where’d the girls go?”

Robert’s breathing had slowed.  “Here,” he said.

“What?  Where?”

He pointed to the box.

She peered down into it.

“They’re here,” he muttered.  He loosely gestured to the bones in the box, still not looking at Giselle.

She felt colder, as she noticed two tiny human skulls.

“They’re here,” Robert murmured, breathing normally now.  “They’re right here.”

3f53689719bb45718b1991186d9c340a

© 2016

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Why My Dog Is a Tax Deductible Expense

“Come a little closer.  I dare you.”

“Come a little closer. I dare you.”

I decided at the start of this year to use the costs associated with the care of Wolfgang as a tax deduction.  A little background is necessary.  I adopted Wolfgang from a dilapidated former roommate thirteen years ago.  Tom* had gotten him in August 2002 to replace a much-loved dog of the same breed he had to put to sleep.  By the end of that year, however, Tom realized he could no longer care for the new puppy, and I realized I no longer could stop plotting to get rid of Tom by making it look like a game of pool and tequila shots gone wrong.  He’d have to give him up.  I couldn’t bear the thought of it.  I’d already grown too attached to the little furball and feared he’d end up in a home with someone more irresponsible.  Tom left in January, and the puppy stayed.  I renamed him Wolfgang.

He’s supposedly a miniature schnauzer, but I realized almost immediately that he’s an undiscovered species of canid: a miniature wolf.  Neither the Smithsonian nor the National Geographic Society has responded to my requests for a detailed analysis.  At first glance, he looks like any other small dog – cute and adorable.  But that’s part of the inborn ruse.  A closer examination, however, reveals the monster lurking behind the pools of dark chocolate known as his eyes and the fluffy silver and white hairs coating his face.  A serial rabbit killer, Wolfgang has terrorized more squirrels than the German shepherd I had decades ago.  A deep, loud voice resides within his little throat; another coy, inborn trick to make the unsuspecting believe they’re standing just feet from a coyote.  He is 22 pounds of raw, canine angst.

But he has become my savior in so many ways.  As I struggled with my freelance and creative writing careers, I realized the value Wolfgang adds to my professional life.  He is my therapist, focus group and lifestyle consultant.  He is the only one who truly understands why I say and do what I say and do, and therefore, is the only one who reserves the right to criticize me for it all.  He truly comprehends the reasoning behind my deliriously twisted stories.  He sees the genius of my mind; whereas others would see a psychiatric trauma case, a recovering Catholic or a porn star reject.  And, since we’re all bearing our souls here, I fit each of the above descriptions in the worst way.

Wolfgang at 3 months.

Wolfgang at 3 months.

Despite my occasional rapid-fire mood swings, bouts of euphoria mixed in with valleys of despair, Wolfgang has proven to be a constant source of inspiration and reality.  Most dogs are like that anyway.  And, as with most dogs, Wolfgang has his own unique personality.  He doesn’t have an attitude – a nasty trait exhibited by those bipedal cretins known as humans.  Just touching him puts me in a better mood, even if I’m already feeling good.  But it’s his visual responses to my stories that tell me if what I’ve written makes general sense.  In one tale, for example, I wondered if a rather mundane character should have a greater role.  Wolfgang’s empathetic gaze told me yes.  So I expanded the character, and the story benefited.  In another, I thought that a rather cantankerous individual was nevertheless crucial to the moral arc I was trying to convey.  Wolfgang’s snarl told me the bitch had to die.  Again, the story turned out better, after the character accidentally stumbled onto a paper shredder.

Aside from keeping his shots up to date, I had Wolfgang neutered years ago, which prolongs a domesticated animal’s life.  (Many people should have the same thing done, but not because their lives are worth prolonging.)  I bathe him every Sunday night and clean his teeth regularly by spreading a dab of canine toothpaste on a small hand towel.  (Actually trying to brush them turns into a physical battle, with my hands on the losing end.)  When his fur gets long, I brush it the day after his bath.  In this case, “brush” is a subjective term, because he often spirals into an alligator-death-roll maneuver.

I’ve had his health care covered through Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), which is now NationWide.  Because he’s almost 14, the premiums have increased.  But again, he’s worth the cost.  The money I’ve spent on that insurance, along with other veterinary bills and food, could have just as easily bought me a high-powered computer, an I-Phone, the complete Photoshop Suite to create art for my stories, and / or a week at a leather bondage festival.  I suppose I could have churned out some really good stories with all of that.  (Yes, even a bondage festival can be enlightening.  I have the handcuffs and thong underwear to prove it.)  But, without Wolfgang’s presence, I just can’t see any good stories popping out of my head.  What good are all sorts of luxuries if you’re not mentally fit?  I mean, look at the Kardashian girls!  Well… they’re mentally ill; they’re just dumbasses.  Regardless, medical expenses are often genuinely tax-deductible.

My followers surely know by now that I’m a devout animal lover.  I’d rather see a thousand drug addicts or sexually-irresponsible people die of AIDS than see one animal suffer due to human neglect.  A close friend shares my sentiments; he likes cats.  Cats are pretty, but I’m allergic to them.  Besides, when have you ever heard of a rescue cat?

Still, the more I get to know people, the more I love my dog.  I seriously don’t know how the Internal Revenue Service (a.k.a. the “Washington mob”) will respond to this deduction on my 2015 tax return.  And I seriously don’t care.  They can laugh all they want, which I’m sure they’ll do.  I’ve had worse happen to me, such as pretending someone who cuts me off in traffic is just having a bad day and they’re not really an asshole.

For now, though, I have another story to run by Wolfgang.  This one’s kind of mushy, so I have to conjure up a more creative demise than a demonically-possessed paper-shredder.

For real!

For real!

*Name changed.

 

ASPCA.

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Beast Master

34

It was a huge rabbit, but she managed to capture it without much effort. She turned to her green-eyed companion who was still holding the duck in her jaws. This will keep them fed through the night. They exchanged glances with their friend. He had been looking around, as always, surveying the jumble of rusted vehicles, glass, concrete and other detritus. He tossed his head forward; back towards the direction of the red-brick building. They didn’t have to worry, trotting ahead of him; they always felt safe in his presence. Their arrangement had worked out fine. As dogs, they wouldn’t normally have to rely on a horse for physical protection. But they’d all learned not to take anything for granted.

Their loved ones – two-legged “mothers” and “fathers” – had disappeared into the bloody chaos of whatever it was that happened. They couldn’t make sense of the rumbling noises or the bright flashes. They only knew all that commotion pained their ears and their eyes.

They’d quickly learned something else: despite their differences, they could live together. They had no real choice. Not now, not at this time.

The trio ambled past the overgrown lawns of the one-story houses. The stench of rotting flesh had long since dissipated into fresher air and heavy rainfall. The scents of grass, flowers and dirt lingered more prominently.

They trotted alongside the blackened remnants of a row of buildings. And, as they moved through a cluster of trees, they smelled them again. More of the two-legged critters. A gaggle of them staggered from a small structure into the open space.

The dogs stopped and let their companion scamper ahead of them. He recognized what they had in their hands – sticks, large wooden sticks. One of them held a chain. That was a new one. He hadn’t seen any of them holding a chain before. They were kind of small, very short. He realized they were children; a fact that startled him more than the sight of the chain. Where did they come from?

He didn’t have much time to contemplate who they were and how they managed to get here. They started moving forward, shouting; their shrill voices scraping against his ears. They weren’t the sounds he had grown accustomed to hearing way back when. But he didn’t care. He couldn’t. He had to make sure the three of them got back to the red-brick building.

He reared up onto his hind legs and screamed at the group in front of him. His massive hooves slammed onto the hardened ground; generating enough of a dusty cloud to make the children hop back even further.

Then the one with the chain lunged forward; bleating out something, again unintelligible. He swung the chain towards the horse – missing him by a considerable distance. His tiny hand could barely hold onto it.

He began to rear up again, but not so much that the kid could yank the chain away. His left hoof came down directly onto the chain.

The kid stumbled backwards and fell. He was still closer to the horse than the others. He scrambled to get up.

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With one swift movement of his left leg, he propelled the chain behind him. It rolled along the ground, like a snake. He jumped forward and reared up again; bellowing into the sunlight. When he came down, both of his front hooves landed on the kid. The little one’s chest exploded. He reached down, wrapped his teeth around the kid’s neck and hurtled him into the air. The kid’s flattened body cartwheeled several dizzying times before it plowed into a bundle of shrubs.

The horse turned to the other kids who had begun retreating. The dogs moved pass the area, each glaring at the children. The kids stepped further away from the horse. Finally, he joined his comrades.

The trio hurried to the red-brick building. They had to feed their people. They knew plenty of rabbits, squirrels and other small creatures populated the region. But none were ever enough to sustain the families.

The three trotted up the concrete ramp into the building and back down towards the garage area. People were screaming – shrieks and groans that echoed throughout the structure.

The other dogs and horses met them with casual, if yet relieved gazes. These trips for rabbits and things were always dangerous. Children with chains and sticks comprised only a small portion of that peril. More people roamed around out there.

Guarded by more dogs, the two canines crept towards the pit. A scrawny woman with reddish-blonde hair moved towards them. Her “brother” – or whoever he was, a short man with blondish-brown hair – stayed further back. The woman turned to him, and he crawled forward.

The dogs hurtled their kills towards the woman and the man. They began devouring them. These two were different; they were more subdued than the other people had been. Most had been considerably more aggressive; hence the need for the whole pack of dogs and horses to remain together and travel in groups, whenever they left the building.

The dogs moved back. Once the duo had finished the rabbits, they’d feast as well – all of them. Dogs and horses; they’d be set for a few days.

Then they’ll open the water faucets and hope more people would find their way to the building.

leaking overflow pipe

© 2016

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