Sunday, July 31, 2016

It's Human Nature

It was a nice morning. It would get hot later, but right now, right now you couldn't ask for anything nicer. Mid 60’s, sun low in the sky, the broken clouds pulling back to the west, a nice breeze. Charles looked toward the horizon over the slightly rolling field of wild grasses and except for an occasional scrub tree rising out of the field, the movements of the grass in the air currents reminded him of the ocean or a big lake on an easy morning. He closed his eyes and heard only the wind gusting past his ears and birds beginning their day and smelled the rich aroma of the dew on this fallow pasture with the sun starting to warm it.

Detective Inspector Charles Suttree looked down at the young woman's pale, motionless body lying in front of him on the crushed grass, as he heard his assistant, Detective Sergeant Teresa Kincaid leading a couple more of the team out to this spot to begin the forensic processing.

The woman's body had been found about an hour and a quarter before, so about 6:25 AM, by a local woman out on a morning walk with her Irish Setter. Actually, the dog found the body and sat next to it until the woman arrived to investigate.

The field was about 10 or 15 feet lower than the road that ran alongside it. When Charley had parked on the road a little while ago and looked out over the field, he had been able to see the hollow of trampled grass where the woman’s body lay. He’d also been able to see the line of a single trail through the grass from the edge, near the road, to the endpoint where the body was. That path was now staked off with yellow crime scene tape at both ends. 

Before he’d approached the scene in the field, he’d made sure that the photographer had adequately documented everything that could be seen from that position on the road. Evidence technicians were going over the road and the bank near the beginning of the trail across the field, looking for anything that might shed light on the situation.

This far from the edge of town, out here in the country, there were no nearby houses to canvass or security cameras to check and very little regular traffic track down.  

Detective Suttree had changed into his crime scene gear, the disposable coveralls, shoe covers, gloves, and so on, from the trunk of his car before entering the field, so that he wouldn’t contaminate the scene with anything he tracked in. Since he was officially in charge of this investigation, he designated another spot along the edge of the field as the starting point for the new path to the place where the body was, so that the original path would be left exactly as it had been before the investigation began.

As far as anyone knew, the only people that had been down that original path had been the victim and the elderly woman who found her and possibly her dog. Standing here beside the body, he believed, now, that he could add the killer to that list. After the team that was searching the road and bank finished there, they would carefully comb that original path looking for evidence.

He stood about three feet away from the body at the edge of the thigh-high grass on the far side of the scene so that looking up from the body, he could see the road rising up about 25 yards away. He shined his powerful LED flashlight around on the body and the surrounding ground looking for anything out of place. He yawned and twisted his neck and pulled his shoulders back to loosen his back. He had had a late night and this was an early call but such was the nature of his job. He needed to focus on method and procedure here. Document everything, you never knew what might make the difference.

The medical examiner had not yet arrived and this was the part of the investigation that mattered most to Suttree. The first examination of the scene. Nothing had been tampered with, nothing trodden upon, nothing obscured. This was almost the way the murderer saw it last. Too many times he'd arrived at the scene after the whole neighborhood had brought their coffees and beers down to look at the body, maybe taken a few pictures. It wasn't unusual to have a scene up on Twitter or Facebook before he even drove up. It was a miracle if anything was left untouched. But this scene was as clean as in an Agatha Christie story, like the first day of forensics class. He wanted to do this the right way and see where it led. He was, after all, a professional.

Terry Kincaid and the others looked carefully around the perimeter, about six feet from the body for anything out of the ordinary, taking pictures with their phones of the scene. When they were sure they weren’t ruining any evidence they began setting up a large folding tent structure to cover the body and surrounding area. 

Suttree was 51 years old and had worked in Robbery/Homicide for 15 years. Over that time, he’d been involved in maybe 30 murders and a couple that might have been but lacked proof. That wouldn’t be a problem here.

He bent over and looked very carefully and methodically at the body. He dictated quietly into a small handheld recorder as he looked the scene over. The woman was lying face down, head slightly to the right, he could see her right eye was halfway open. She was Caucasian and somewhere in her late 20's. She wore a powder-blue sweater without pattern or decoration over a white cotton blouse. He couldn't tell if the blouse was short sleeved, but he could see no cuffs at the wrists. She had on faded blue jeans and dark-blue slip-on canvas deck shoes with pink anklet socks.

Her left upper arm was extended at a right angle at the shoulder and her left elbow was flexed at a right angle and her right leg was flexed at the hip and knee. Her right arm was straight as was her left leg. He could see nothing in either of her hands.

She had dark brown hair that he would describe as a little shorter than medium length. Her build was, as best he could tell from her position, somewhere near the center of the bell-curve. About five foot six-inches tall, maybe 130 to 140 pounds in weight. He could see nothing obvious in the back pockets of her pants, even though the jeans fit her fairly snugly. He would wait for the medical examiner and the preliminary pictures and "bagging the hands," before he moved her.

She had, what looked like, two bullet holes in the back of her sweater, one by the inside margin of her right shoulder blade and one lower, just below her mid-back on the right side of her backbone. A little blood was visible around the edge of the lower hole. Both of the holes looked to be in the .30 to .40 inch range. He couldn't tell by looking from here if they were from a handgun or a rifle until they turned her over to look for exit wounds. But he was sure it was a handgun, the book would say .38 caliber or 9 mm. He could also see evidence of a bullet wound to the back of her head. A little above and behind the right ear. If that was true, then the killer had probably brought her down with the two shots to the back and then walked down here for the insurance of the head shot up close. This is what the scene told him and it was pretty close to correct, he thought, nodding.

He moved his flashlight carefully around the head area looking for a spent brass casing, but he saw none from where he stood. They would check more closely later, including using a metal detector, but for now, the situation favored a .38 caliber revolver, not an automatic that ejected the brass after the shot. If this happened in the night, it would be tough for the killer to police up his brass after the shots in the dark. He noted this on the recorder. It wasn’t definitive, but it was expected as a working hypothesis. There were a lot of .38 caliber revolvers out there, including his and half of the team working this site. Still, detective work was a process of narrowing the field. You seldom found that the killer had dropped his wallet at the scene. It did happen occasionally, but not this time, he was sure of that.

"Good morning, Charley," Dr. Sheila Dayton said smiling, as she emerged from the path through the tall grass on the other side of the body into the crime scene. Sheila was the medical examiner and they had worked together before. She was very good and detail oriented. She was also about the shortest person he worked with. She was very friendly but at four feet six-inches, she had to bend her elbow to keep the case with her tools from dragging on the ground. She certainly didn’t have to duck her head as she passed under the edge of the tent now covering the scene.

"Where are we at?" she looked around and set her case back away from the body in the standing grass.

"Just waiting for you and looking things over. Lady and her dog found her about," he looked at his watch, "one hour forty ago. Called in at 0646. One path in and out when we arrived. Pictures taken, Initial survey done. Body not touched. Maybe sniffed a little by Fido. Otherwise, pristine," Suttree said all this without raising his eyes from the body.

"Wow. You must be living right. You should buy a Lotto ticket," the medical examiner said as she looked over the scene.

A little ways, off to the south, someone pulled a rope and started a portable generator and a moment later, lights hanging from the underside of the tent structure came to life illuminating the area of the crime scene.

"I'm not counting any chickens yet," Suttree said in a deadpan.

"Let's see what we have. You want to help me?" Dayton said as she squatted down while being sure to keep her back straight to minimize the chances of hurting herself.

"Yeah." Charles stepped forward and knelt beside the body. He reached down and ran the gloved fingers of his right hand lightly over the sweater on the left upper back and looked at the moisture on his fingers. 

"Dew," he said and shined his flashlight around the woman's neck and beltline, then around the periphery of her body that he could see.

During this, a technician placed new paper bags over both of the dead woman’s hands to preserve evidence and secured them with yellow masking tape around the wrists. The tech said, “There’s ring with a blue stone, right third finger. No wedding ring seen.”

"OK, toward me?" Charley said. He reached across and took hold of the body while Sheila grabbed it from her side and they turned the woman toward Suttree. The body was completely rigid from rigor mortis and so turned as a single piece. Some grass stuck to the woman's front as the body turned and they rolled her completely onto her back.

Sheila stood back as two of the other team members took a series of pictures with flash showing the ground underneath where the body had lain. Near the center of the imprint where the woman had been was a cell phone. No one reached for it as the rest of the forensic ritual took place. After the pictures, flashlights swept over the piece of ground in a pattern covering every square inch and finally a technician holding a metal detector swept the newly uncovered ground raising a single piercing tone as he moved the detector across the cell phone. As soon as he finished, Terry Kincaid reached from the other side of the body with gloved hands and picked up the cell phone by the sides while the others watched. The metal detector was moved once again over where the phone had been without producing a tone. Kincaid carefully turned the phone around handling it by the edges and checked the screen. 

"It's on but locked," she said holding it up so Suttree could see it. 

"Bag it and we'll deal with it later. Don't turn it off. We'll plug it into a charger after we dust it," Suttree said and turned his attention back to the underside of the woman.

Kincaid dropped the phone it into an evidence bag held open by another technician and others watched as the tech sealed it, wrote a notation on the bag with a Sharpie and placed it into an open plastic carrier behind him.

Sheila Dayton, the M.E., moved around to the top of the woman’s head and knelt there. Several flashlights moved up to the woman’s face removing any shadows and revealing an ugly exit wound that included her left eye. Dayton reached with her hands to cradle both sides of the back of the woman’s head behind the ears and gently twisted and bent the neck to try to flex and turn her head to face upwards. The woman’s head resisted turning, but Dayton persisted and it turned a little. She then slid her hands up to both sides of the woman’s lower jaw and tried to open her mouth.

"Neck’s tight, jaw’s tight, rigor’s complete," Dayton said as more picture were taken of the woman’s chest and abdomen.

Suttree brushed some of the grass and dirt off the front of the unbuttoned sweater and white shirt beneath and then lifted the loose tails of the shirt so that they could see the dead woman’s stomach up to the bottom edge of her white bra.

The stomach was a mottled dark purple from the blood that had pooled there as she lay face down. Aside from a rectangular indentation from the cell phone, there were no exit wounds or blood. Nothing out of the ordinary for a dead body. More pictures were taken.

Dayton pulled a digital thermometer out of the little bag she had carried with her. She opened the thermometer revealing a long thin spike, a bit longer than normally used to check the core temperature of a Thanksgiving turkey. She held it open a moment and then read the temperature aloud, “67.2 degrees Fahrenheit.”

A technician noted the temperature.

Dayton them reached down and pressed the spike into the dead woman’s right upper abdomen and gave it a sharp jab. The slender spike dented the skin and then quickly punctured the woman’s abdominal wall. Dayton advanced the point for another three or four inches into the liver then stopped and watched the digital readout for a few seconds.

When it stopped changing, she announced, “88.6 degrees Fahrenheit,” and once again the tech wrote that down.

She removed the thermometer and rocked back into a sitting position wiping the probe with a baby wipe from her kit.

"Temp is 88.6 degrees Fahrenheit, at 1.5 degrees per hour drop equals about seven and a half hours, so about one o'clock in the morning. It was probably about 64 or 65 degrees last night, she's clothed. She probably ran all the way out here. But she's what? Maybe 65 kilos. Lying on matted grass, clothed, sheltered from the wind. Yeah. I think we can stand with 1:00 AM, for now."

Suttree nodded during this entire recitation as he did the same calculations and thought process in a near parallel. Very close, he thought. Sheila’s very good!

As Dayton was making this determination, Detective Sergeant Kincaid had knelt down and was going through the woman’s front pockets removing a single house key, and a tube of light pink lipstick. Nothing else.

Charles Suttree stood up and saw a dark brown utility van from the county pull up to a stop on the road 100 feet away. It was the van from the medical examiner’s office here to pick up the body, and right on time.

The technician, Richard Anders, who was handling the evidence log walked around to Suttree and handed him a clipboard with a pen stuck through a plastic loop near its top.

“Initial survey, sir.” Suttree unzipped the top of his Tyvek jumpsuit and reached inside for his cheaters so he could check the listing and see where to sign. It was hell getting old. The glasses weren’t in the inside pocket where he kept them. He quickly patted down the front of his chest to see if he’d mistakenly put them in another pocket. Damn, he must have left them in the car or at home.

He grabbed the pen and held the board at arm’s length and squinted.

“You got it all, Richard? I don’t have my glasses,” he said apologetically.

“Yessir. It’s all there.” Anders pointed to the line that needed the signature, halfway down the page and Suttree scribbled his name and handed the clipboard back.

Suttree turned back to the group busy around the body.

“OK. Good start everyone. Keep working the scene until we’ve got it all. Hopefully the cell phone will fill in the blanks and we’ll be in business. This one will be by the book. No holes.” He needed to get back to his office and start getting things moving. Check reports of missing persons. Calls in the night of gunshots. Anything out of the ordinary.

“Inspector!” Suttree turned and saw another technician, what was his name? Everston? Something like that. He was on the side of the preserved path to the scene about 30 feet away and he was holding up an evidence bag. Suttree couldn’t see what was in it.

“Eyeglasses,” Everston said. That was his name. Suttree looked at him with a slightly puzzled frown.

Everston held them higher. “Looks like reading glasses, black.”
“OK!” Suttree said back and waved. This case might go a little faster than he’d thought.


The Men's Room

Three gunshots. Two close together, a pause of maybe three seconds, and then the third shot. 

Vern Abair dropped to the hard, cold floor wondering if this was it. He was so startled by the sounds that he just stopped thinking. Vern looked around and saw that a few more people were getting down on the ground or moving quickly away. There was screaming and some shouting but Vern couldn't tell if those were reactions or from people who'd been shot or maybe even whoever it was that was shooting. 

Some people ran a little down the mall and into open stores, some got up against the walls and storefronts and moved while crouching, away from where the sounds of the shots had come from. 

In immediate hindsight, Vern wished he'd gone a little farther down this side into the clothing store that was just ahead and to the left. It was a women's clothing store with a huge plate glass front filled with manikins and displays of blouses, dresses, hats, accessories like scarves and purses. Not much to shelter behind, but better than the nothing surrounding him here. 

The shots came from directly across the mallway, from the video and game store straight across and maybe 40 feet away. Between himself and the video store were two large potted tropical plants, a couple fancy garbage cans with stone-looking bases and some concrete benches set back to back, facing the storefronts, but that didn't feel like much cover from whoever or whatever was happening in the video store right now. 

Vern looked around to see what exactly was around him here. He was about five feet from the wall at the junction of two stores. There was a strip of commercial drywall that ran to the ceiling and on either side of the strip were frames containing the huge plate glass front walls of the stores. The frames looked like they were extruded aluminum. The floor beneath him was a polished and sealed concrete with some inlays of painted designs. He had a bag in his left hand with a shirt in it that he'd just bought at the The Men's Room store 200 feet back. 

He looked back in the direction he'd come and unbelievably, he could see people still milling about like it was a regular Saturday at the mall. The music was still playing, "Lady Madonna" by the Beatles. He could see people hurrying away from him down there and some people staring down toward him, pointing, puzzled as to what was going on.

Vern quickly turned his head to look farther up the mall, in the direction he had been moving, and saw the same scene reversed. People moving away past people pointing. But right here where he was, nothing was moving, at least not right now.

It had only been about 10 or 15 seconds since he'd heard the gunshots but it felt like he was wasting time. He started slowly crawling forward toward the women's clothing store to his left and then he heard.

"FREEZE, GET DOWN, GET DOWN!" Someone shouting, in a panicked, out-of-breath, voice. Vern dropped flat and tried to sink his bulky stomach beneath the surface of the floor and then he slowly looked up ahead, unsure. There were two policemen, at least he hoped they were policemen and not mall security, running down the sides of the walkway in his direction, guns out in front of them, 80 feet or so away. The cop on his side of the mallway, got to about 40 feet away and slammed on his brakes, skidding to a stop and kneeling between a potted plant and the wall. Vern couldn't see the policeman that had been coming down the other side because of the plants and kiosks in the way.

It was then that Vern heard the crackle of their portable radios as they muttered quickly into them and the staticky, unintelligible bursts of noise that responded. Thank God he was able to make out the "Roger" reply, that was helpful.

He should never have stopped crawling, he needed to get out of this position. He began a slow crawl again for the relative safety of the women's store and he was another two feet along before he stopped once again and held his breath.

"Fuckers! I said, shut up!" This was screamed in a man's voice from the video store. "Shut up!" 

"Please, please! Just let us go! We can't hurt you! We don't know you," a woman's voice pleaded. 

"Shut the fuck up! Now! Just shut up and let me think," the man's voice again, not quite so panicked this time.

Vern kept his face looking straight ahead at the floor. The voices sounded as though they were right at the large opening at the front of the store. He did not want to look at what was happening there for fear that the moment he looked up, that would be the moment when the guy would shoot somebody. Right in front of his eyes. Vern didn't want to see that. He didn't want to see somebody die in front of him. 

This wasn't like a movie. This was too close to him. 

"Let us call the paramedics for that man. Please! He's bleeding a lot. He's gonna die. You don't want that." It was the woman's voice again. Right on the other side of the benches. They must be in front, by the check-out counters. Vern had been in that video store plenty of times. It was called "VidStop," they had movies, video games and DVD players and even TV's. 

"Shut up. Let me think," the man said again, in a lower, calmer voice. 

Vern swiveled his head to see if he could see what was going on in the store. The bench was still in his way. He could see a part of the store front but not where the opening was and he couldn't see any people, but it was close.

Movement caught his eye and he looked ahead to see the policeman moving up to the next plant arrangement. Vern could hear sirens in the distance, and suddenly, like pheasants breaking cover from high grass, a man and woman in their 20's just appeared from amidst the potted plants in front of him and sprinted up the center of the mall toward where the police were hunkered down. Apparently the gunman was startled as well because there was another gunshot, this one deafening, from the front of the video store. Vern watched as the pair made it past the police and disappeared into a store. 

From farther up the mall, he could see additional police moving down the sides of the open space. Some of them were wearing black tactical vests, gloves, helmets and sunglasses and carrying short machine guns held up to their shoulders.

"Oh, Jesus!" Vern thought to himself. He really didn't want to be in the middle of something like this. He wasn't a good runner. He was too fat to hide in a mall. He just wanted to get out of here. He didn't even want the shirt anymore. 

"This is the Hayward County Sheriff's Department. You're surrounded. Throw out your gun and come out and you won't be harmed." This came from somebody at the other end of the mall with a bullhorn. There was a large electronic buzz and the Beatles stopped lamenting the plight of the busy Madonna. 

"Oh, Jesus!" This was going too fast, Vern thought. Couldn't they give him time to get into the clothing store? He had a cell phone in his pocket. He should pull it out and call 9-1-1 and tell them to wait. Why was he just thinking about the phone now? 

"Fuck you!" came the reply from the video store. "I've got hostages. Make a move and I'll shoot ‘em."

"Ah, Jesus! Slow down,” Vern thought. Why are they doing this? He heard the phone in the video store ring. OK, now they were calling him. Why couldn't they have done that first?  

"Answer the phone! We need to talk with you. Nobody else needs to get hurt here. Answer the phone." The guy with the bullhorn again. That was better. They should have started there. 

"I'm not ready to talk. Leave me alone." The guy with the gun yelled. Wait, Vern thought, I should be counting gunshots, maybe he only has six shots or something like that. For some reason, his mind went blank. How many shots had been fired? Vern's mouth was so very dry he couldn't swallow.

He looked back up the mall to see if it looked like the police saw him lying there. Did they know he was even there? Could they see him? They'd know he was just an innocent bystander, right? The police officers that he could see were making weird hand signs and looking at each other and pointing in different directions. Who's in charge here? Vern thought.

Suddenly, there was a piercing siren from somewhere in the video store. Vern saw a picture in his mind of the shelves with video game cartridges at the back of the store. He'd seen them many times when he'd been in there. Next to the shelves on the back wall, there was a door with a red sign that said, "Emergency Exit Only, Alarm Will Sound!" Someone had opened the door. Maybe going out, maybe coming in. 

Instantly, Vern heard another gunshot from the front of the store and the woman screamed. Then more shots, with a different sound to them and a split second later, small cans blew up right in front of him with bright flashes and some kind of white smoke pouring out. Tear gas! He tried to breathe in but could only cough out. His eyes began stinging and burning. He heard running footsteps and commands shouted from both ends of the mall coming toward him and thought, this wasn't good. Should he try to get out of here or just stay here? 

The choking smoke stayed close to the ground by him and he couldn't breathe. Vern Abair had no choice.

He tried to yell but could not take in enough air to make any sound except coughing. So he stood up as quickly as he could and raised his hands high above his head. He tried to open his eyes to see what was happening around him but tears were pouring out of his eyes and snot was running out of his nose so fast he could only cough and try to catch air through his open mouth.

Men's voices shouted, "GET DOWN, GET DOWN!" 

He felt something soft bump against the left side his head as he heard several gunshots near him. He realized he still had the bag with the shirt in his hand. He tried to drop it and felt two strong punches in his chest, knocking him to the ground face first. His face hit the floor hard. 

A moment later, with all the world filled with shouting and noise and choking gas, he felt a knee with a Kevlar knee guard drop onto his upper back and rough hands pull his hands together behind his back and put handcuffs on him. 

What little breath he still had in him blew out of his mouth with mucus and a little bloody foam. 

He kept his eyes shut and thought, "Oh, Jesus! Let this be over."

And it was.

* * *

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Twisted Root Grows a Twisted ___

Mark Fuller looked up into the sky and felt tears come into his eyes. It was obvious to him now that --. How could he have lived like --that? The sky was spread out in front of him, for him, hidden in plain sight all his life. It was beautiful, and he'd finally seen it. Maybe it was a bit late, but, no, at least he'd seen it.

The sun had not yet reached halfway to its zenith and even though he could see a few fluffy white clouds out of the corner of his eye, the sky above him was a deep blue. He remembered suddenly the color was called, cerulean. He smiled, just a little because it hurt to smile. His teeth were broken, maybe his jaw too. "Cerulean." The perfect word for that color. It was kind of a majestic word. 

Why had he never noticed? In the 46 years he'd been, well alive wasn't the right word, considering everything. In existence, was a better term for the way he'd occupied his space here. That term didn't really adequately convey the effect of his life. Maybe this wasn't the best time to be going down memory lane. Then again. 

A small shift in the wind brush against his cheek and then he saw some black, black smoke drift by in front of his view of that cerulean sky. The smoke was pretty high above him. He couldn't smell it, but he knew what a burning car smelled like, so he wasn't missing much.

Exactly how he'd come to have this view wasn’t clear, but he had an idea of what it meant. He could feel blades of grass on his ears. They kind of tickled, a little. He could remember leaving the restaurant after the meeting.

He tried to turn his head a little to see what was around him but stopped when an electric shock jolted through his jaw and sizzled in his teeth. That wasn't good.

He tried to move his hands and feet but he couldn't tell if they were there. OK, then. Mark tried to take a deep breath but only got halfway when a spasm caused him to cough and he saw red foam spray up in the air over his face. Ahhh! Like, Moby Dick. Enough of that, then. 

He listened for the sound of cars and sirens but heard nothing but birds chirping and a far off train whistle. So, no cavalry.

There was a moment of panic when it became clear what was happening and then the trapped feeling passed and he blinked the specks of blood from his eyes. His left eye was lagging a bit behind the right and felt puffy. He thought of the boxer in the movie Rocky asking his manager Mick to "cut me, Mick" so he could see his opponent, and Mark almost laughed and thought better of it.

He didn't need to open his eyes to see his opponent. Things were becoming clear quickly.

Who would miss him? He came up with some names and faces, but those were people who took orders from him, who he paid to follow him around, who provided him with things to make his life more powerful. None of those people would miss him. They might miss his money and his -- no, that was it.

And who he would miss? Nobody came to mind. His mother was dead. Her name was Alice but he'd never heard her called that. Bert, his father only called her "wompie." Mark never knew what that word meant but his father meant it to be cruel and wounding. Mark thought that his father had made up the word because he couldn't think of anything worse to call her. Mark hated Bert because that was what Bert wanted from his son. Mark never asked why. He was a good son.

Bert wanted him to hate Alice too but he didn't hate his mother. He almost loved her. Wait, go back, this is your chance. He did love her. Would he see his mother again? Come on. This wasn't Movie of the Week, he sure wasn't going to suddenly see St. Peter or Clarence the Guardian Angel and be escorted into heaven now, not after the things he'd done, the way he'd treated people. This wasn't going to be a coin flip. But he could spare a moment to think of her, couldn't he? He wasn't too busy right now, was he? She was a good mother. Maybe weak, letting Bertram treat Mark like that, too meek, too frightened. Still, she loved Mark in her own way and never gave up hope for him. Mark just couldn't stand to see that hope crushed over and over by his father. God, it was Movie of the Week!

His father was in a nursing facility, at least his body was. He was as good as dead, better! Bert lived in a private hell of his own construction and Mark thought that was more than fair. Mark visited, once in a while, as a "normal" person would go to see a freak show, to look at some insane murderer on display and wonder how one becomes such an animal. The problem was that Mark understood Bert and that's why he held no hope for how his own ending would turn out. Mark knew he was one of the damned.

But he wouldn’t sing some sad song about never having had a chance. He did not dare to list the ways and reasons that he'd turned into a smaller, more efficient version of his venomous father. Preying on the poor and weak. Taking everything from people who had nothing but hope. He'd given orders to walk away from shipping containers full of real human beings after --. Another cough and another red plume. 

"Thar she blows!" he thought. But this time the cough was weak and he could feel the liquid welling up in the back of his throat, he could hear the gurgle.

"There's something down there," he heard a man's voice in the distance. 

At least he'd landed face up. He thought he should laugh now and squeezed his eyes shut to try to think of some words that would mean something to anyone who might be listening. 

There was some noise to his right. Someone was coming. 

He racked his memory for a prayer or something to say. 

Mark looked up into the sky and saw the color drain from it. That was as close as he was going to get to heaven. 

Everything was black as the people arrived at the spot where he lay, but he could still hear.

The last words he heard were in a woman's voice, in a whisper, as she stood next to him. "Oh God!"

His last thought was, "I wish I'd--"

*  *  *

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Memory Lane

Frank Summers pulled the car over to the shoulder on the two-lane state highway and sat there with the engine idling and the windshield wipers periodically sweeping the view clean of a few rain spatters. What was he doing here? None of this was necessary, was it? It's a hell of a way to spend a day off. Why not go to the Farmers’ Market and walk around with a cup of coffee instead? He could still call up Marian and Ethan and meet them for dinner or a movie or anything, for Christ's sake.

He hadn't been sleeping much lately and when he did his dreams were about her, Kori. So? There wasn't anything new about that. He knew it would happen. The doctor had said it would happen. She said Frank would go through times when Kori's absence would be more real to him, times when he might even feel something like panic. Dr. Ibsen said Frank needed to be prepared for these times and to remember that they would pass. She said those little crises might be minutes, might be hours, might even be a day, but they would pass.

But lately, like last night, he lay there in bed awake, thinking about the life they'd had together. He'd replay the phone call from the police about the accident, the drive to the emergency room, leaning against the wall waiting for someone to come out to talk with him, the scene in the quiet little side room where they'd led him to see her. The anger he'd felt standing there next to her body. The way he'd refused to talk to her, to almost not look at her as she lay there, covered with a clean sheet pulled up to her chin, her hair wet from being hurriedly washed.

Frank jerked and his eyes flew open, looking around, not sure where he was and how he got there. He saw that he was still sitting in his car on the side of the road, the wipers occasionally slipping across the windshield. He wondered how long he had slept. He needed to get moving again.

He blinked a few times and twisted his head a few times to loosen it up, then put on his turn signal and, after looking in the mirror, pulled out onto the road and sped up to continue his journey.

His destination was the cabin on the coast that he'd inherited from his parents, a favorite place for Kori and him to spend long weekends and vacations. It was in a wooded development of vacation cabins that overlooked the rocky Pacific coast of northern Oregon.

Truthfully, as a child, he found the cabin scary every time his family went there. It seemed remote and isolated, surrounded by bear-infested forests and beaten savagely and regularly in the fall and winter by enormous, violent storms as if the mighty Pacific Ocean actually hated that part of the coastline. He was a nervous wreck during his time there with his mother and father. He would only go outside when forced to and, at night, he cowered, shaking in his little bed hoping to somehow be overlooked by both the bloodthirsty animals waiting outside and the hateful fury of the storms that pounded the walls and windows of the insubstantial little cabin.

After meeting and marrying Kori, he'd somehow grown enough to negotiate a truce with the cabin and later, actually fall in love with it. He'd always attributed that miraculous change to her. Something about Kori gave him strength and understanding he'd lacked alone. Looking back, as he had, the time they'd spent there seemed peaceful beyond reason. He longed for the peace and safety that he'd felt there with her.

He had not been to the cabin since they'd gone there for an anniversary weekend together, seven months ago. That seemed to him now as the last perfect time they'd had. The last time that everything seemed to fit together in his life.

So what did he hope to accomplish or gain by going back there? Maybe there was some magic left there that he could glom onto. Some formula for happiness that would be obvious when he saw it. Something he could hold onto and use as a talisman to reassure him that his life was still worth something. He wanted to escape from the churning and fear he felt now and he wanted back the peace she'd brought to him there.

It was almost 3:00 PM and the sky was getting darker, partly because in November it got dark around 5:00 PM here and partly due to the storm moving in off the ocean. He must have slept on the side of the road a lot longer than he thought. Well, that was good, he obviously needed a little catching up on the sleep.

He had another 45 minutes to go before he reached the cabin and, once again, he was beginning to doubt that this was a good idea. He took the next turn off to the west from the highway. The next part would be at 35 miles per hour because it was narrower with almost no shoulders and led through a wind-twisted scrub forest to a small collection of houses and a little mom-and-pop store with the grand name of the Pacific View General Store where you could buy food and gas, but from which you could not "view" the Pacific Ocean. The old couple that ran the store had a contract to watch over the 30 or so cabins in the adjacent park, as the cabins were only occupied periodically during the year. From the store, it was about a 10-minute drive to the cabin or about 11 minutes walking on the less meandering path that cut through the woods. Frank briefly thought, once again, about gassing up at the store and then turning around and going back to the city. He could chalk the day up to a nice drive and some time to think things over. Oh, and a nap.

Frank thought that, but he knew that he was going all the way to the cabin. There was a flash of lightning in the sky in the distance and he flipped the windshield wipers up to a slow continuous mode to deal with an increase in the amount of rain. He had his headlights on since leaving his apartment but he now he really needed them to see the upcoming turns.

When he finally pulled up to the fuel pumps at the Pacific View store, he sat there for a moment thinking about the times he'd been in this exact spot before. Sitting in the back of his parents’ station wagon, waiting for his father to fill the car's tank. He was eight years old and his stomach was aching with anxiety and barely suppressed panic as he contemplated staying at the cabin for the next few days. His parents would already be gearing up their arguments for him getting out into nature and enjoying his time at the coast, while he would be picturing himself as an empty ribcage with a part of a head attached, being batted about the parking area for sport by a grizzly bear with a red-stained muzzle.

Later, as a grown man with a wife and better control of his imagination, he saw himself here at the little store with Kori, gassing up, buying a few provisions for the weekend or walking to the store on the trail in the morning to pick up some orange juice and eggs for romantic breakfast, or in the evening for a bottle of red wine with a screw cap for sitting on the porch and watching the sunset.

He got out and stood under the edge of the high shed roof over the pumps in the bluish fluorescent light while filling up the car's tank with gasoline. There was enough wind that he was getting wet from the rain blown sideways and he hunched his shoulders to try to keep the cold rain off his neck.

The front door of the store opened and an elderly woman looked out at him, squinting, and then smiling in recognition and waving. He waved back, as she retreated into the warm dry store. He finished filling the tank, then got back in the car and started it up. He looked briefly into the brightly lit store through its glass front door that was almost obscured with product stickers and thought, last chance, he could still turn hard right and drive back home.

He flipped his lights on and pulled out in the direction of the cabin.

The road from there twisted through the thick pine forest with only glimpses of the lights from cabins off to the sides. The road was barely wide enough for two cars and snaked as if built without a plan.

After a few minutes, he turned into the short driveway leading from the access road and as he pulled up into the clearing at the back of the cabin, he saw that the sodium vapor light attached to a Douglas fir on the edge of the area was on, illuminating the circular gravel parking and the back porch with a salmon-colored light.

A quick glance as his headlights swept across the back of the cabin reassured him that everything looked intact. He would have been surprised if it weren't, the old couple took their stewardship seriously.

He parked and grabbed his jacket off the passenger seat as he got out and walked up the back steps onto the porch. The yellow motion-sensor light came on well before he reached the coco fiber welcome mat. He stepped up to the door and looked at his reflection in the darkened glass in the door's top half. His faced had a haggard look that wasn't helped by the angle of the yellow light cast from the side and above.

He shook his head, unlocked the door with the keys still in his hand and pushed it open. The stale smell of the empty cabin washed over him like a wave of cold water. Memories came flooding back to him as he stood there with the doorknob still held in his left hand. It still wasn't too late to turn around. He closed the door and flipped on the kitchen lights with his right hand.

The room's details burst into existence, filling his view with a familiar picture. For a moment, his emotions seemed to stay perfectly balanced and he felt nothing. But as he focused on the details caught by his moving eyes, he felt himself being pulled first one way and then another, by scenes from his memory.

He saw the sink and the nearby drain board and remembered Kori washing up dishes while he dried and put them away after their last breakfast here. He saw her hair in a loose bun and her shirtsleeves rolled up. He saw the fine blonde down on her cheek in the morning light as he stood beside her at the sink waiting for her to rinse a plate and hand it to him.

His view shifted to the old kitchen table with turned legs, still covered with an old worn red, blue, and yellow patterned tablecloth and the four chairs pushed up tight against it. In the center of the table was a pottery bowl that was empty now, but his mother used to keep wax fruit in it because she thought it looked cheerful. Wax fruit! As a kid, he used to look at the bowl and its contents as though it were some kind of artifice or trickery. Why would you have wax fruit?

He looked past the kitchen and saw the large front windows that looked out toward the land’s edge and the ocean beyond, near blackness now. He remembered, as a child, only being able to see the distant flashes of lightning that briefly illuminated frozen vignettes of a tempest sent to surely destroy him.

And then he saw the same windows and remembered the storms he’d watched from the large leather couch, cuddled under a blanket next to Kori, cozy in the heat and flickering light from the nearby stone fireplace and feeling safe, absolutely safe. How could he have been entertained by that cataclysm held at bay, on the other side of that piece of tempered glass? How could he explain that?

Then he saw the stairs leading to the open loft that held the old double bed with the chest at the foot containing bedding and quilts. He remembered coming up here for their honeymoon and the feeling of his heart swelling with love at every sight of her. He remembered that he'd never felt anything so wonderful before in his life. He remembered thinking that finally, he was happy, finally, he had what he'd waited for, for so long.

Then he saw the mantelpiece and the single hurricane oil lamp with the red glass base on the far right side. More specifically, he saw the empty space on the far left side of the mantelpiece and he remembered Kori throwing that lamp at him. She had called him a shit, an idiot, a selfish bastard. She said she wanted out of the marriage right away. That she never wanted to see him or hear of him again, ever. She told him that he wasn't even human. He remembered calling Kori a bitch, a liar, a two-faced idiot that only loved herself.

He remembered that fight going on until the sun went down and him sleeping in the car. He remembered driving back to the apartment the next day in silence. He remembered it was another day before they'd made up and said they were sorry.

He stood rooted to that spot just inside the back door, thinking of all this. Frank thought to himself that he needed to turn on the propane and start the furnace, maybe make a fire.

He took two steps and stopped as he saw the bookshelf and remembered picking up books from the floor while holding pressure on a cut on the side of his head. A cut he'd gotten from a book that Kori had thrown at his head while he sat in a chair. He gradually remembered that entire fight and all the ugly things that they'd both said.

When he turned away from the bookshelf and saw the broom standing next to the back door, he winced involuntarily and walked quickly to the door, opened it, flipped off the inside lights and walked out locking the door behind him.

The wind was picking up and the rain was coming down in sheets as he climbed into his car and buckled up.

He turned on his lights and moved the windshield wiper lever up to full speed as he turned the car toward the driveway.

It was definitely too soon to return to the cabin.

* * *

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Mid-Life Crisis

"Is forty middle-aged?" That was the question on Alfred's mind this morning. Al had just left his split-level house in the suburbs and the little breakfast celebration of his 40th birthday by his wife, Ellen, and 12-year-old twins, MaryJo and Betty.

It was 7:35 AM and Alfred Spagone was cruising along Palisades Highway in his two-year-old Prius, heading for work. Traffic was still reasonable and he thought back to the way the morning had started.

It felt like he'd awakened in some 1950's television show like "Father Knows Best" or "Leave it to Beaver." He'd gotten out of the shower and started drying off when he noticed the scent of freshly brewing coffee and when he'd made it to the kitchen, dressed in his suit and tie, ready for his day, he'd found a place set for him at the kitchen table with hot blueberry pancakes, "real" warm, maple syrup, and orange juice.

There was a birthday card propped up near his plate that had a picture of a basset hound wearing a fedora and necktie. The front read "Happy Birthday, You Old Dog!" on the inside it said, "40 is only 5 1/2 in dog years!" His wife and daughters had signed it with exaggerated heart symbols and their names.

On any other morning, he would make toast and jam and mix instant coffee, directly in his commuter mug and be out the door before anyone else began stirring in the house. So he appreciated that they'd taken the trouble to change their schedules for him. He really did appreciate it. It seemed that everyone was in their own worlds these days and spent less and less time together as a family. He'd heard this same complaint from friends and movies and books, but it was different when you felt your own family slipping away. Oh well, it just made times like this morning more precious.

"I want you to know this was the girls' idea. They got things ready last night and when you got in the shower, they got to work on the pancakes," his wife had said smiling at him and nodding to each of the girls.

"Wow! I'm absolutely shocked. You guys really did a nice job. Thank you all for making me a wonderful birthday breakfast." He raised his arms above his head and as if waving to a crowd. "I feel like a king," he said and he meant it. This was special.

Ellen smiled at the fuss he made over the breakfast and pointedly looked at each of the girls, giving each of them a wink. The girls, dressed in sweatpants and long-sleeve sleep shirts, both grinned broadly.

"Eat, Dad. You don't want the pancakes to get cold," MaryJo, the "older" of the twins, said pointing to his plate.

"Yeah. We used real blueberries," Betty said. She was sitting at the breakfast bar on a stool, smiling at him, elbows on the counter, her cheeks cradled in her hands. Al could never look at her without seeing a flash of the three-year-old Betty who had appeared quiet and happy, no matter where she was. It was good to see her smiling again.

Betty had talked her mother into helping her change her hair color. It took a little time and way too much money, in Al's opinion, but now Betty had green hair. She had tried for blue, but after two bleachings, it was clear that her hair was never going to be any lighter than a honey blond without creating serious damage. Al had tried to talk her into stopping at the blond stage, he thought it looked good, but Betty was adamant about going ahead with the blue dye job, Like Ellen said, it would grow out.

The "greening" of Betty had been a week ago and he was glad to see that she was finally cheering up a bit now. The first few days she had been pretty depressed about her new look. Honestly, Al wasn't in favor of any of it, but he failed to see the material difference between blue and green hair when it came to self-esteem. He was at least wise enough to keep his real opinions to himself when it came to anything to do with teenage girls.

Ellen sat next to him at the table with her own cup of coffee flavored with one of a dozen or so exotic additives that she favored. Al preferred his coffee black and strong and freshly ground if he had a choice and the time.

Coffee was just one of the items that they agreed to disagree about. There were a lot of others. But, as far as Al could discern, marriage was a long series of negotiations and compromises, and as long as both parties were equally unhappy or satisfied, the union stood a chance of survival. Inequality or advantage of one party over the other usually signaled imminent trouble. At least that had been Al's working hypothesis over the past few years. His understanding of relationships changed at the same rate as his hairline.

"So do you feel older?" Ellen said to him, smiling. She was two years younger than he was and never let him forget it.

"Every day, Honey. Every day," he said while chewing some of the pancake-syrup mixture.

"Aren't you going to have any of these, Ellen? They're very good. Our girls can really cook." He smiled at his wife and raised a fork with another bite high above his plate in salute to the cooks.

"No thanks. I'm going to be having my whey-fruit smoothie after I finish this coffee," she said with a look of slight discomfort on her face.

"Yum. Sorry I won't be here for that," checking his wristwatch, "which reminds me. I better get going."

He swallowed what was in his mouth with a swig of orange juice as he stood up.

"Thank you all so much for this wonderful breakfast. I really do appreciate it and love you all, so very much. I'm very lucky and I know it. But, I've got to go make the doughnuts. As they say." He looked around at all of them as he said this and noted the rolling eyes and groans at his final pronouncement. He thought to himself, "My job as the corny dad here is done for now."

He'd then grabbed his briefcase and headed out the door to the garage.

Just before the door closed behind him, he heard Ellen say, "Enjoy middle age!" and he'd cringed on the inside.

That had been the way his day'd started. Overall, a great beginning to what would be an interesting day, he thought.

He changed lanes to the right to get into the exit lane for Ustead Boulevard and beat the light at the bottom of the off-ramp. The day was looking up.

Another 12 minutes and he was pulling into a parking structure a couple blocks from his office building. He usually parked a little closer to his work, but today he was doing things a little differently.

Ordinarily, he would be walking into his office about now but today he turned off the car, sat behind the wheel for a moment thinking and then pulled out his cell phone and dialed his office. It rang briefly.

"O'Neill and Bumpstead. This is Cathy. May I help you," the receptionist, a 20-something college student with the summer off, said.

"Cathy. This is Al Spagone. How are you today?" He said brightly.

"Hi, Al. I'm fine. Did your car break down or something. You're usually walking in right now."

"No. Nothing like that. It's my Birthday, I'm 103 years old today." He looked out the passenger window as a car, a black four-door Hyundai Sonata with three occupants pulled into the parking space next to his.

"Congratulations! You've aged well. Is it really your birthday?" Cathy asked.

"Sure is! Listen, let Larry know I'm not coming in today. You can tell him any reason you want, including the truth, if you think he could handle it. OK?" The driver of the Hyundai, a man in his early 30's with a baseball cap and a short beard held up an index finger to Al from behind his closed window and lifted a cell phone to his ear.

"Will do. You have a good day and don't celebrate too much and we'll see you tomorrow," she said.

"Thanks, Cathy. You're a peach," and he punched the red 'x' on the phone's face and put it on airplane mode.

Alfred reached down and pulled the trunk release, got out and looked around. Theirs were the only two cars on the level. He could see that the closed circuit camera near the stairwell had been turned slightly and covered with a lightly frosted plastic bag sometime before so that details from its picture would be obscured.

He heard the doors of the Hyundai open as he walked to the back of his car. He removed his suit coat and put it into the back of the Prius while pulling out and donning a thin, dark-blue ballistic vest and the dark blue windbreaker with a gold insignia on the breast and large letters on the back that read "FBI." He completed the look by adding sunglasses and a dark-blue baseball cap with a yellow badge insignia on the front.

The three men from the Hyundai were standing by its open trunk finishing their own costume change to achieve the same look.

"Are you ready to do this?" Al asked as he approached the men and began shaking hands.

"They'll never know what hit them," the Hyundai's driver said and handed Alfred a 9-mm Beretta handgun and a Remington 12 gauge pump shotgun in matte black.

"Let's go make some doughnuts," Al said, and as they all climbed into the Sonata he thought to himself, "I don't feel middle aged."

* * *

Monday, July 18, 2016

Blind Hamsters

It’s the summer of my 8th year, I’m sitting, cross-legged, on the ground in my worn-out blue-jeans and a white T-shirt, holding a broken compass up close to my eye so I can check it out.

I’m not trying to fix the compass, I want to see the tiny printing near the middle of the face, for no reason. It's around ten on a sunny July morning and the temperature is already 92°F and the heat doesn't matter to me or my friend because there’s a little breeze here in the shade of some tall elm trees and sweating is part of being a kid.

Bruce is lying on his back a few feet away reading a beat-up Superman comic that he found on the playground at the end of school. It has no cover, but it has the cool last pages with the ads for great things like trick pepper gum and a how-to book on ventriloquism. I don't personally know of anyone who ever got one of those things from the back of a comic book, but we can daydream.

We're waiting for Terry who's going to meet up with us after he finishes mowing his folk’s yard. It shouldn’t be much longer but it doesn't matter, Bruce and I are having a good time.

We're on the other side of the alley, behind Bruce's house, on a small city block that's mostly trees and weeds. Behind us there’s a gully with a creek running down the middle. Last fall we found a dead cat in a deep spot in the creek and we checked on it all through the winter and spring. It went from being a dead cat, to being a cat skin on bones, to being a few bones and a cat skull with teeth. You could even see it through the ice that formed over that part during the winter. Pretty cool!

Cars are passing by on the street but we can pick out the whine of approaching bike tires on the pavement. Terry turns from the street into the alley and skids on the gravel raising a little cloud of dust, on purpose. Bruce and I look up, nodding appreciatively, as he pedals toward us and skids to a stop, a couple feet away. He looks serious, and so do we.

"Hey," he says, and we say hey back. He lays his bike down on its side and pulls a folded advertisement out of his back pocket. "Here's that picture of the Moped I told you about." He throws the folded Spiegel flyer down on the ground by my leg.

I set the compass housing down, pick up the flyer and open it up to the page he's marked and circled. It shows a red boy's bike with a small gas motor mounted near the pedals. The picture is of a real bike but it has cartoon "wind" lines rushing past it to show motion. There's a kid with a blue windbreaker jacket riding it and it looks like he's having a blast. The price is in black in a red circle, $79.99.

"Cool." I hand it over to Bruce who looks up from his comic.

Terry's still standing but he's bent at the waist with his hands on his hips while he catches his breath from the ride over. After recovering, Terry stands up and, with great seriousness, says, "If you pick up a hamster by his tail, his eyes will fall out."

Bruce and I both stop and look up at him, considering his words. Sunlight comes through the moving elm branches and leaves high above his head. Bruce speaks first.

"I've heard that. My cousin told me that at Thanksgiving, but I didn't really believe him. He's come up with shit like that before. I figured it was just more of his shit." Bruce said “shit” a lot.

"It's true, though," Terry confirms. "Scott Marshall, my brother, Keith's friend told him last night when he was over. I heard them in the garage. There were goofing around with Keith's motorcycle."

"Huh," I say, thinking back on the hamster my sister used to have. Nice enough animal. It was soft. If you gave it sunflower seeds, it would take them and then stuff them into its cheeks. The more seeds you gave it, the more it would stuff into its cheeks until they bulged way out. It would run on the inside of a little rolling wheel in its cage too. That was about it. It didn't do a lot else. Sometimes I had to help clean the cage. It smelled like sour crap, but not as bad as a turtle.

In a way, the news about the eyes didn't surprise me a lot. When I thought back on it, it had little beady black eyes that stuck way out and they looked a little loose to begin with. It never occurred to me to try picking it up by its tail. I'm glad I didn't. I would have caught hell about that.

I picked up the compass again and turned it over.

* * *

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Auld Lang Syne

Kip sat behind the steering wheel, in the silence and darkness, trying to decide whether he was going into the house or not. A large part of him said to start the car and drive off, no one had seen him pull up and no one would know he'd been there. He could tell them something had come up and he hadn't had time to call, sorry. But Jerome was his brother and Kip had said he'd make it to the party. Besides, maybe someone had seen from a window and were waiting for him to come in. He could still say he'd gotten a call on his cellphone and had to go. But, of course, he didn't own a cellphone and his brother probably knew that. He took a deep breath, opened his door and got out.

As he walked past the other cars parked in front of Jerome's house, Kip glanced up at the brightly lit windows. The curtains were open and people were standing around laughing and talking with drinks in their hands. He could hear music playing, it was "Me and Sarah Jane" from the Genesis ABACAB album, 1981. He'd heard it many years ago and it made him nervous because it reminded him of his parents fighting in the kitchen and his father leaving the house, slamming the front door and driving away.

He took a deep breath and walked up the steps slowly, with each step, he felt closer to something dangerous. He could hear his heart beat in his ears, outpacing his footsteps. But he kept walking, determined to see this through. He stopped in front of the bright yellow square of lighted window in the top of the front door, and twisted his neck from side to side, to loosen up. He’d learned to do that to relax and it helped a little. He shook his head to clear away bad thoughts and took a deep cleansing breath.

He lifted his right hand to knock and the door swung open before his knuckles reached it. The smiling face of a beautiful young woman appeared in the widening gap and it made him stop. It was Patricia, Jerome's wife. He'd forgotten how beautiful she was. He'd only see her at the wedding and that had been nearly four years before. He'd forgotten she had freckles on her face, and such white teeth. She was at least a head shorter than he was, so he bent forward so that he could look directly into her face. Her smile was genuine and had widened even further, in delight, when she saw him.

"Kip! My God. Romey said you might come. I'm so happy to see you. Oh!" She stepped toward him and before he could stop her, she gave him an enthusiastic hug. She smelled like soap and some kind of perfume. He had little contact with women and it surprised him how nice it was to be greeted so warmly. His thoughts scattered and he tried to think of something appropriate to say to her. Should he call her Patricia or Tricia or Pat or Patty? He should have thought about this before coming up to the door.

"Thank you," he said. "It's very good to see you again," Kip smiled as well as he could and looked her in the eyes.

"Come on in. What's wrong with me? Come in," she said stepping back and pulling his arm, still facing him, still smiling that warm, welcoming smile.

As he moved from the dark porch into the tumult of the living room full of animated people, Kip stiffened. It felt as though he were being pulled from the anonymous dark comfort of a movie audience into a technicolor film of a frenetic crowd scene. The lights, volume, temperature and energy levels were all pushed up four or five levels and it almost took his breath away. He felt panic stir deep inside of him and he did his best to ignore it. He fixed a smile on his face that he hoped would be believable and swallowed.

Patricia sensed his hesitation and she looked into his eyes with a touch of concern and understanding. She leaned toward him as if sharing a secret.

"Do you need a second? I'm sorry, it's kind of noisy in here isn't it." She said this in almost a whisper, barely loud enough for him to hear.

Without looking away from her, he reassessed her face and grimaced a little. "Thank you. It's so good to see you again. Patricia," he said and slowly lifted his head to gradually introduce the rest of the vibrating scene into his visual field. The movement only took a few seconds and might have been mistaken for someone taking extra care after a recent neck injury, but Kip had learned over time that slow transitions helped him maintain his "balance."

Kip allowed Patricia to lead him farther into the room and close the door behind him. He slowly panned across the living room, nodding continuously, taking in the full scene, while keeping the smile fixed upon his face. A couple of faces turned toward his as if seeking acknowledgment. Kip did not even try remembering their faces but he noted their positions in the room.

As he turned his gaze back to Patricia, who still held his arm, he heard his brother from the room through the doorway to his left.

"Kip! You made it." Kip turned toward the voice and recoiled at what he saw. At first, he only saw a stranger pushing through the crowd as if to grab him and then he saw it was his brother, Jerome, with a thick beard and glasses. He couldn't keep himself from trying to back up as Jerome rushed toward him. Jerome’s face change at first to puzzlement, then to understanding and he stopped short. He spoke in a lowered voice.

"It's me, Kip. I have a beard now. It still surprises me too, sometimes when I look in the mirror,” he chuckled. “It's still me." Jerome ran his fingers across his own cheek as if to demonstrate and leaned forward to give his brother a hug, but Kip moved back and Jerome stopped and adjusted his stance. Kip was never fond of hugs.

"Yes. I see. You have glasses too. When did you grow a beard, Romey?" Kip relaxed a bit and looked closer at his brother's eyes.

"At least a year now. Right, Trish?" Jerome looked quickly to his wife who was still beaming and still holding onto Kip's arm as if he might bolt.

"Yes. Doesn't it make him look smarter? Like a professor?" Patricia winked at her husband as she said this. Kip looked more closely at Jerome as if appraising him.

"It makes him look older." As Kip said this he looked slightly worried.

"Well, I am older, Kip. It's been a while since I've seen you. I wish we saw more of you. You know you're welcome here anytime."

"Come on in and have a drink and something to eat," Patricia said leading both brothers into the crowded dining room where the table was covered with a variety of party snacks. "There's shrimp and dip and chips and fondue and crackers with different cheeses. You can make a sandwich with ham, or turkey..."

Kip had looked at the table while she was talking and found himself trying to locate every item she spoke of, as quickly as she named it, while peoples’ hands were moving in and out of his view as the guests helped themselves. He closed his eyes and heard a Beatles song playing behind all the conversations. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." from the 1965 "Help" album. He liked the flute solo by John Scott although the vocals made him edgy. It wasn't Lennon's fault, almost all vocals did that.

Kip noticed that Patricia had stopped speaking and he slowly opened his eyes to see that she was looking at him with worry. He didn't mean to make her uncomfortable. He looked quickly at his brother and shrugged, then turned back to Patricia and smiled.

"It all looks delicious, and so colorful. I'll have this for now," Kip said, and without looking he reached down and picked up a banana from the bowl in the middle. "I love these. I have one every morning. Thank you for inviting me." Then he pointed the banana at each of them in turn while being sure to make eye contact with them.

"Would you like a drink, Kip?" Jerome asked, slightly lifting his own bottle of beer.

"No thanks. I'm driving and it bothers my sleep." Patricia smiled at the way he said it. Kip looked at her and said, "I don't sleep when I drive. I meant the two things separately." Then he smiled again.

"Thank goodness, I was worried." She laughed and Jerome nodded in appreciation of Kip's joke.

"Would you like to see the house, Kip? I could give you the tour." Jerome said, and Patricia moved to her husband's side and he put his free arm around her. Kip smiled at that.

"No thanks, Romey. You two go see to your guests. I'll just look around and mingle. I'll be fine. Don't worry." Kip said, smiling and nodding.

Patricia smiled at him while his brother gave him a quizzical look and tilted his head. "Are you sure? In a little while, after a few people leave, we can talk together a little more, OK, Kip?"

"Sure, Romey. Don't worry about me. I'm fine. We'll talk more, later." There was a crash from the kitchen area, and the nearby crowd all said, "Woooooops!" together. Jerome rolled his eyes as Patricia turned and started to make her way through the crowd toward the source of the crash.

"Back soon," Jerome said, and turned to follow his wife.

Kip took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds and then turned the opposite direction and made his way back through the living room to the front door, avoiding all eye contact. Another moment and he had closed the front door behind him and was standing on the dark, cool, front porch where the sound level was a fraction of what it had been.

Kip took a moment to think how much difference a door made and nodded to himself, as he walked carefully down the concrete steps to the sidewalk. He stopped for a moment and turned around. He looked back up the stairs in exactly the same way as he had when he first arrived and began deliberately climbing the stairs again. When he reached the porch, he laid the banana carefully down on the railing that ran along the edge, then turned back around and descended to the sidewalk and headed toward his car.

It was good to see Romey and Patricia. He would have to visit them again, someday. He didn't know if he liked the beard, he'd give that some more thought.

* * *

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Scent Trail of the Soul

"Larry-Boy, are you all right? Do you need some help?" It was Lester Burdick. He said it so that everyone in the office could hear.  Burdick, with his short-sleeved, striped shirt and loose necktie, was standing up at his desk several rows back by the window with a coffee cup in his hand, and now he was laughing. "The way you froze there, I thought maybe you'd had a stroke."

Lawrence had worked at this office for two years and Lester Burdick had picked on him since the first day.

Lawrence walked to his desk at the back of the room, his arms full of file folders, but he kept his eyes on the floor.  As he passed the other desks, most of his co-workers laughed quietly or shook their heads. This had been his fault, by letting himself stop and daydream, like a goof, on his way back from the file room. He knew better than that. Burdick would always notice and say something to make fun of him. Lawrence blamed himself for the way people treated him, he always had, and he scolded himself again that he needed to think ahead more. If he paid more attention, people might not laugh at him.

Two months before, Lawrence had asked his boss, Mr. Thomas, to speak with Burdick and ask him to stop making fun of him. But Mr. Thomas had changed the subject and said that productivity had been down and there might be layoffs soon. Lawrence had given him a confused look, not understanding what one had to do with the other.  The boss then said that he expected his workers to be adults and get along with each other. Then he’d given Lawrence an “eyebrows up” look which Lawrence took to mean that the subject was closed. Later that day, he’d seen Mr. Thomas talking to Burdick in the break room and Lawrence had thought that his troubles were over, until they had both started laughing and clapping each other on the back. Things had gotten worse since then.

No, it was better just to let it pass, the laughter would stop on its own. At every stage of his life, it seemed that Lawrence had had a Burdick assigned to him to make his life miserable. In every grade there was at least one person who looked at Lawrence and saw the target in his soul. Some kids had talents and strengths, Lawrence had a bullseye. He was fodder for bullies, just another assignment for them. They would log in his presence and immediately begin to work on him.

Lawrence didn't have big ears, or long legs, or a pointed head. He had no physical features that made him stand out or attract those seeking to dominate others. He did his best not to attract attention. He learned early to not raise his hand in class, not to make eye contact with others, not to use big words, not to get good grades, all the things that made others mad or jealous. He sat on the sidelines at recess so as not to challenge anybody for a spot on a favored playground game or equipment. He made sure to wear something green on St. Patrick’s day, but he still came home with bruises. He made unsigned Valentines to put in the other children's Valentines envelopes, and the "two-for-flinching" rule was modified whenever he was involved.

In short, he was invisible to everyone except those on the lookout for invisible kids, the bullies. They found him unerringly, efficiently and without exception.

Lawrence also tended to attract the more persistent and virulent bullies. It's commonly held that, like bears, most bullies will tire of prey that does not react, because they're looking for stimulation and sport. But there’s an exception for bears who are hunting for food. Their goal is not stimulation, but sustenance. The same is true for bullies. The worst of them are in need of something to strengthen and maintain them and that something is in the souls of other people.

For some reason Lawrence represented a banquet for those on the hunt. It wasn’t his fault any more than a deer was at fault for attracting the wolf-pack, especially a wounded deer. His soul constantly gave off the scent of wounded and weakened prey. It not only attracted the worst bullies but made other prey, push him away so they wouldn't be added to the menu. That was the only way to explain it.

So now you’re thinking, in this story, he will finally have his day, the worm will turn. Lawrence will stand up to Burdick, and so, to all the others. He’ll smash Burdick's face with a stapler or stab a letter opener deep into Burdick's neck and Lawrence’s frightened, invisible life will bloom and he’ll never, ever be the same again.

But that's not the way the world works. The rabbit will always be the victim and some rabbits will always be less lucky than others. Rabbits are not secretly waiting for the day they will become tigers. Lawrence was not capable of turning on Burdick.

And so the day dragged on. Lawrence kept his head down and focused on getting all of his work done. He postponed even going to the bathroom because he didn't want to get up again and walk across the room, inviting another encounter. He ate lunch at his desk and worked through the time everyone else was taking breaks.  He worked on and soon it was after 5:00 P.M. and everyone was tidying up, closing down their workstations and leaving the office.

The office got quiet and the quieter it got, the more Lawrence's shoulders relaxed. Finally, it was 5:30 and he was alone. He cleaned up his desk and turned off his computer.

He picked up his lunch sack which contained only wrappers and an empty yogurt container and started to walk out of the office. He stopped by the tiny break room to throw the sack in the trash. As Lawrence turned the doorknob and pushed open the door, he saw Burdick stooped at the open refrigerator door, rifling through the items inside. He had a half-unwrapped submarine sandwich in his hand and he twisted his head and looked up to see Lawrence in the doorway.

Lawrence froze, motionless, eyes wide and Burdick stood up, smiling and took a big bite of the sandwich. Lawrence held his hands up defensively and blurted, "I didn't mean, to see you, uh, I was just --" Burdick’s eyes narrowed and he burst out laughing, sending bits of half-chewed sandwich flying from his mouth. Then, he took a deep breath by reflex, and the sounds stopped.

Burdick's expression changed to concern and his eyes flared open. He threw the sandwich down and put a hand up to his throat looking confused. Then he looked directly at Lawrence and waved quickly for him to come over to him.

Lawrence took a step toward him and then stopped. Was this a trap? In fourth grade, Dex Hinshaw had pretended that he'd broken his arm on the jungle-jim and called to Lawrence for help and then, when Lawrence had gone over to him, Dex'd knocked him to the ground and pulled his pants down in front of everyone on the playground. Even Mr. Towns had laughed at first, but then stopped and sent Dex to the Vice Principal. In sixth grade, Marty Harmon had told him to come help a girl with a bleeding nose, then kicked Lawrence in the nuts while two guys tripped him. He'd cut his elbow and had to go to the ER for stitches. His mom yelled at him for bleeding all over his new jeans.

Those were just two times that popped to mind, there were more. No, he wasn't going to walk over there to Burdick. There wasn't anyone else here. Who knows what Burdick might do?

Burdick's face turned red and his expression changed to rage when he saw Lawrence pause, and he started across the break room, with his hands clenched in fists. Lawrence didn't even have to think. He backed up, pulling the door shut.

Lawrence was in a panic, he'd seen the look on Burdick's face and it screamed violence. There was no lock on the door so Lawrence dropped his lunch bag and held onto the doorknob as tightly as he could with both hands, to keep Burdick from turning it. The doorknob felt alive in Lawrence’s hands as Burdick, on the other side of the door, tried to turn it with all his strength. Still, Burdick said nothing.

Suddenly Burdick began pounding on the door with his fists. Lawrence squeezed his eyes shut and started whispering the Lord’s Prayer as quickly as he could, trying hard to mean every single word of it. When he got to the end, he started the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” again, as fast as he could. He hoped the door would hold, because if Burdick got a hold of him now, Lawrence was dead meat.

Suddenly there was kicking on the door, but it wasn't as strong as the hitting had been. Maybe Burdick was choking, and maybe he wasn't. It wasn't possible to tell from this side of the door. Lawrence had no experience with this kind of thing. He had no idea how many times he’d repeated both the prayers, but it seemed to be working.

It got even quieter on the other side of the door and Lawrence stopped the pleas to the Almighty so he could listen more closely. He knew there were no other doors out of the break room. This kind of reminded him of a Three Stooges show he'd seen once, except they had a gorilla trapped in a room instead of Burdick.

"Are you OK? Lester? Mr. Burdick?" Lawrence listened but heard only muffled sounds that could be anything. There was no more kicking or hitting. There might have been something like rubbing at the bottom of the door, but he couldn’t really tell.

"I hope you're OK. You hear me? I hope you're OK." Lawrence was afraid that if he was OK, he would beat him to death tomorrow morning when they both got to work. Maybe it would be a good day to call in sick, he never did that. Lawrence didn't know how to feel about this whole thing. He didn't wish ill on anyone, really. Especially himself.

"I'll see you tomorrow. Mr. Burdick. No hard feelings." He let loose of the doorknob and took a quick step back. Nothing happened. He reached down and picked up his lunch bag and began striding for the front door of the office. As he walked by the reception desk he threw his bag into the trashcan and paused at the light switches for a moment. Then he walked out of the front door.

Burdick would turn off the lights and lock up when he left. Lawrence dreaded the trip home, the bus driver on the 48 route always made fun of his haircut.

* * *