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Sledgehammer 2010 Contestants

Thanks so much to all our Sledgehammer 2010 contestants. Please take some time to read the stories and vote for your favorite three by September 30. These votes will select the winner of the Readers’ Choice Award.

“Untitled” by Kim Crow

“Human” by Angela Davis

“The Mule” by Clay and Kay Derochie

“Varney’s Revenge” by Disciples of Ba’alat

“Riff Raff” by Bob Ferguson

“Creatures of Découpage” Hunter and Bettina Gregg

“Toothpaste and Bumper Stickers” by Josh Gross

“Master” by Daniel Keppol

“To Squash a Fairy” by Kassy Keppol

“Swing” by Adrienne Krey

“Possibilities…” by Jacqui Pitt

“Migrating Crows” by Nick Powell

“The-Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunter” by Erica Somes

“A Nice Package” by Team Knipper

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Twins & Twins & Twins

“Convenience” by Vantucky Derby

And watch for these prompts they had to work into their stories:

character: a delivery person
action: climbing a tree
prop: sunscreen
dialogue: “What you need is a nice…”

Human

Human

by Angela Carlie

The boy chomps into a sandwich. Flecks of oat and seed crumble from the bread, showering the picnic table. Cora would trade her good pair of gloves, the red ones without holes, for those precious pieces of nourishment forgotten by the boy. She ate her last full meal two days ago at the Share House in Vancouver. If she hadn’t hitched a ride with Dumb-head Jude, she’d probably be there now enjoying mashed potatoes or hot soup, instead of drooling over crumbs in Portland.

“I’ll take care of you, Cora,” Jude had said. “I’ve got a place lined up and everything.” Jerk. He ditched her at this park for some skank willing to put out, which Cora would have, too, if not for her little Blueberry. She can’t risk the diseases Jude most likely has. Not now.

A kick to the lungs. Cora gasps. Blueberry must be hungry.

Cora plows through the open garbage can, keeping one eye on the boy at the picnic table. He sets the sandwich on a napkin and then gulps liquid from a paper cup. Heat whiffs from the lidded container like smoke from a chimney on Christmas morning.

Her stomach rumbles. Dirty napkins, greasy paper plate, cracked water bottle, broken eye glasses, half-full tube of sunscreen, paper bag with soggy French fries inside. Cora stuffs a fry into her mouth—cold potato turns to mush between her teeth. She forces the remainder of grease-sticks down her throat, and then scrapes starchy film from her tongue with her three good teeth.

Pain zaps her lower back, another kick. Blueberry must be happy.

Cora lifts her duffle bag, her entire world, from the wet cement and waddles to a bench across from the picnic table. She tries to pull her coat tight around her mid-section, too large for the zipper to do any good. A one inch gap of Blueberry covered only by t-shirt remains exposed to the cold air.

Dozens of pigeons bobble on the sidewalk in front of the bench. Silly birds. If they knew anything, they’d be begging Sandwich Boy for his crumbs. Not a girl like Cora. She would love to share with them, but she has nothing to give. Besides, all her sharing has been with Blueberry lately. She can’t afford a single crumb for the birds, even if she had one.

A grey squirrel dashes through the orange and brown leaves clinging to the ground. It climbs a tree holding on to as many memories of summer as it can. But summer is over, and rain has stolen most the evidence of its existence.

Cora used to climb trees, a time ago, when her family had a home, and when she had a family. That was before the fire; Dad lost his job, Mom killed herself, and before Blueberry. Cora scaled giant trees along the creek with her sister. Mom called them her little monkeys.

They spent hours hanging from sturdy branches, talking gossip. Her sister was rumor central back then. If ever you needed the latest dirt on someone, she could give it to you. Cora loved her sister. She still does, if only she could find her.

Sprinkles from the sky create muffled music on the trees looming over the park bench.

Sandwich Boy jumps to his feet.

“Hey! Wait a sec.” Cora waddles across the marshy ground to the picnic table. “You gonna eat that?” She points with grubby hands to the crusts of bread the boy tossed aside after eating the important soft portion of his sandwich.

***

“No.” Finn pulls a hood over his head to keep his hair as dry as possible. Wet hair is bad. Especially with the amount of gel and time it takes to create such a masterpiece.

The girl with tattered clothes and a rotten stench snatches the remains of his sandwich from the table. She ravishes the bits of bread like a starving dog would a steak. Finn can’t help but notice her belly protruding from her open coat and remembers his brother they buried last year. His mom had no business trying to have another kid at her age. Heat rises under his collar.

Finn opens an umbrella before lugging a messenger bag over his shoulder.

“Thank you.” Rain drips over Dirty Girl’s grin and she shuffles back the way she came.

Finn turns to leave, he’s got to get to class, but stops. He wishes he had some spare change, some extra food, something to give to her. What good would that do, though? She’d probably buy cigarettes or drugs with any handout. She needs to get a job. Most likely, she’s in the park looking for an easy way out, for people to feel sorry for her so she doesn’t have to work. Well, Finn works. He works and goes to school. Nobody gives him money.

Finn bolts across the street. With the amount he pays for tuition, he can’t afford to be late again, not unless he wants to fork out another wheel barrel full of cash to retake the class. A truck whizzes by, creating a wall of flying water that hits Finn’s backside. Great.

She should go home to her parents. Teens run away for the dumbest reasons. Sure, he hates living with his parents and abiding by their rules, but he has to if he wants a roof over his head. Give and take. Give some freedom for shelter, food and a warm bed.

Finn steps off the curb at NW Davis and 11th. His foot descends into a puddle, soaking his canvas Brewshoes. “Damn it.” They really should clear the leaves from the gutters.

Late by two minutes, Finn sneaks into the back row of the auditorium. The chair squeaks from his weight.

“Welcome, Finn.” Mr. Shaw throws a dramatic wave of his hand toward the back row. All heads turn. Nice.

Maybe she should go to a shelter. Portland has to have a place to house pregnant teens. All big cities have services like that. She needs to take the initiative to find a place for that baby. It’s not like she’s going to be able to pop it out in the middle of the park.

The class ends before Finn realizes it began. Well, that was lame.

Clouds share the sky with the sun. It sometimes does that here, usually just before sunset, like now. Water evaporates from the sidewalks, creating a fog that clings to the ground. An eerie energy fills the streets.

Adoption. That’s what she should do. Give the baby up for adoption. There are plenty of rich couples who would fork out a ton of cash to house and feed her until the baby comes. Then she repays them with the baby. Perfect.

Finn strolls through the glass doors of Pizza Country. He hates delivering pizza, especially in the winter time. At least they give him a dorky hat to wear so his hair doesn’t get wet.

Garlic, oregano, cheese, spices. Warm air wraps around Finn, comforting him. He wishes he didn’t have to go back out into the cold. He would live in the pizza restaurant if they’d let him.

Two orders wait for him under the heat lamp. He stuffs the boxes of pizza into insulated bags, ladles steaming chili into a large paper to-go cup, and then wraps several hot breadsticks in foil.

A giant plastic bag in the basket protects all the food from rain which has decided to dump all over Finn. He pedals faster and hits green lights on his deliveries.

Dirty Girl shivers on a park bench sheltered from the rain. The glow from a street lamp illuminates a make-shift bed. Finn steers toward her and stops once he reaches the bench. Her gaze doesn’t shift from the ground.

Finn climbs off the bike and opens the plastic bag containing bundles of nourishment. “Excuse me, Miss?”

Dirty Girl sits up with a start. She wipes her eye with a red gloved hand.

“What you need is a nice hot meal.” Finn gives her a cup of steaming chili and foil full of bread sticks.

The rain suddenly stops. Breath billows from their noses. Crickets chirp in the distance. Traffic buzzes by the park, splashing through puddles.

Dirty Girl smiles. She pops off the lid to the chili and slurps it into her mouth. One hand holds her belly. She laughs.

Baby must be happy.

© 2010 Angela Carlie

Varney’s Revenge

Varney’s Revenge

by The Disciples of Ba’alat

The moon shimmered through the sparse clouds that blanketed the Santa Monica Mountains. Its light glistened off the freshly fallen rain that wetted Hollywood Boulevard.  A mild wind swooped from the ocean to the west, adding just a hint of chill to the summer night.  But a little brisk air never kept Lisa and her friends from looking their best.

Four tan and fit women strutted confidently down the boulevard, their high heels clicking in unison.  Shapely legs protruded underneath close-fitting dresses of various shades and colors.   They were newly employed, a year or two out of college, and shared a small two-bedroom apartment in nearby Glendale.  Rent was cheap, and it seemed as if they had more time and money than they knew what to do with.  Now they were partying in Hollywood four or even five nights a week, occasionally rubbing elbows with the stars.  Like the guy who played the cigar store owner on “Suddenly Susan.”  OK, maybe he wasn’t exactly a star, but he did get to spend some time working with Brooke Shields.  You couldn’t exactly say he was a nobody.

As they approached the King King Club, Lisa noticed a dark, mysterious figure leaning casually against a Wells Fargo ATM.  He looked as if he was ready to attend a mid 19th century masquerade ball.  His pointy black boots had almost no heel, but looked as if they were freshly polished.  Some blend between pants and tights were tucked into the boots, black as well.  A long paisley overcoat of various dark earth tones with billowy sleeves hid most of a thigh-length purple velvet tunic.  A black waistcoat and top hat completed the unlikely ensemble.

“Good evening, ladies.”  There was just a trace of an accent in his voice that Lisa could not identify.  Irish?  Scottish?  Either way, Lisa liked it.  “Are you unchaperoned this evening?  If so it would do me great honor to accompany you.”

Lisa eyed the club only a half-block away.  She was anxious to get inside and see if any celebrities were there today.  But this overly formal man intrigued her.  She heard her friends giggle behind her.

“But where are my manners,” the man continued.  “Please allow me introduce myself.  I am Sir Francis Varney, traveler of the world, liaison of nobility, and admirer of beautiful young ladies such as yourself.”  He paused as he realized that his eloquent words were not having their desired effect.  “I am also a vampire.”

“You’re a vampire?” said Lisa.  “I guess that would explain why you’re so pale.”

“Ah, my dear, I am but a humble servant of the night.  Do you know about the sun’s damaging effects on the skin?  We could discuss this at great length tonight, as I believe I can save you a lifetime of wrinkles and concern from skin cancer.”

Just then a stretch limo with vanity plates that read ‘SCK BLD’ pulled up beside the implausible quintet.  The vampire was upset to see all four girls stare admiringly at the vehicle.  As the back window powered down, the sounds of Lady Gaga escaped into the streetscape.  A familiar looking face emerged into the night air.  He wore a cloak.

“Lisa, darling, vat on earth are you doing here?”

“Dracula!”  The girl practically beamed.  “It’s so good to see you.”

“I certainly hope you vern’t thinking of attending King King tonight.  Za DJ is just terrible.  He does not know how to mix his bass.  You vould be much better served accompanying me to Les Deux. Vaht you need is a fashionable ride.”  He seemed to notice the other vampire, almost as an afterthought.  “Varney, my neighbor.  Good to see you as vell.”  He opened the limo door and gestured for the four young women to enter.  “I vant to thank you for looking after my lovely companions tonight. Please consider me in your debt.”

As Lisa entered the limo, she turned to smile at Varney.  It was only then that Varney noticed the two almost-healed puncture wounds on the side of her neck.

**************

The sun was just cresting over the mountains to the east and bathing the Hollywood Hills neighborhood in a soft light as Varney pulled his 1995 Acura Legend into his driveway.  He sat for a moment and stared through his tinted windows at Dracula’s house.  Perhaps palace was a better word describe it.  A dozen men in tidy brown uniforms swarmed across his yard.  Some were mowing grass, others pruning shrubs or pulling weeds.  Yet another was polishing a bronze statue of Dracula, placed less than discreetly in the middle of the turnaround.

Varney pivoted his head and observed his own unkempt yard.  Crabgrass poked through in several patches that were not shaded from the southern sun.  A Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can protruded from his shrubbery, likely a memento from Dracula’s last party left by a drunken guest.  All things considered, his smaller yard needed those twelve men’s attention much more than Dracula’s.

Varney knew he should spend the morning working on his lawn, but the sun was already getting too high for comfort.

He emerged from his car with speed and purpose, moving as a blur until he found solace in the shade of his awning.  He tapped a button on his keyless remote, activating his car alarm.  A neighbor in a silk bathrobe waved from across the street, morning paper in her other hand.

“Morning Varney!”

“Good morning Michelle.  I prefer ‘Sir Francis’ if you don’t mind.”

The middle-aged woman look perplexed.  She shrugged her shoulders.  “Varney is so much easier.  Warmer too.  You should stick with Varney.”  And with that she scurried back into her air-conditioned house.

Varney.  He had been known to everyone in the neighborhood as Sir Francis until he moved in next door.  It was a calculated attempt to undermine his influence.  And it had worked.  Dracula had swooped into the neighborhood five years ago like a bat out of hell, and Varney had been paying the price ever since.   His Memorial Day neighborhood barbeque was upstaged by the release of Dracula’s latest biography-  Bloody Fangs: How a humble vampire from Romania conquered Hollywood. All the attention he used to glean from his neighbors was now fully thrust upon that cape-wearing wannabe.  He was not longer Sir Francis, even in his own mind.

Varney sank into his Lay-Z-Boy and grabbed the remote control for his TV.  News- floods in Pakistan.  Something about the Kardashians.  Live cricket from England, maybe I’ll come back to this.

A vampire movie?

It was obvious before he even hit the information button on the remote that this was yet another film about Dracula.  Black cape, formal wear, slicked-back hair.  The look had become such an archetype for vampires that any vampire who wore a top hat was no longer taken seriously.  The picture shrunk into the corner of the screen as the information on the movie was presented.  Dracula AD 1972.  Varney had never heard of this movie.  But was that Saruman from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy playing Dracula?

Varney stared at the wet bar he kept stocked for his human guests.  It was times like these when he wished he could drink.  He glanced over at the coffee table  by his leather recliner and decided to open his mail from the day before.   He picked it up and looked through it casually.  Phone bill, a bank statement, advertised specials for the supermarket, and an official looking letter from the State of California.  Curious, he tore it open with the fingernail of his pinkie in one fluid motion.  As he unfolded the papers he felt a pang of frustration as he remembered an incident a few weeks ago, hurrying to get home before dawn.  He had to go hunting in Arcadia, about twenty miles east, and there had been an accident on Highway 210 on his return drive.  By the time he reached town he was blasting around blind corners and running stoplights to beat the rising sun.  Now he was looking at a photo of his’95 Legend, license plate DGT526Y, in the middle of the intersection of Fairfax and Fountain Ave.  In the drivers seat where Varney should have been a pair of RayBans seemed to be suspended in the air above the filled-out form of a white shirt and black overcoat.  Stamped in bold red letters at the bottom of the citation the words “CERTIFIED VAMPIRE” glared at him.   A legal substitute for a positive photo ID.  Varney resisted the urge to tear the paper to shreds, but he knew that wouldn’t make the expensive ticket go away.  Instead he set it back down on the coffee table and sank into his comfortable chair and lamented his situation.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago even, Varney had money.  Lots of it.  Centuries and centuries of preying upon the wealthy, stealing inheritances from mostly deserving offspring, making prudent investments, interest compounding upon interest and so on and so forth.  And then… Enron.  Varney ignored his instincts with Enron.  He had ridden the Microsoft train and his financial adviser was convinced this was another big ride in the making.  “If you didn’t have that sinful conservative streak in you, Varney, I’d throw all your eggs in that basket,” Tacker had said, ”trust me, Varney, that basket’s gonna be big enough they’ll each have their own silk pillow to rest on till you need ‘em.”

Against his better judgment he let Tacker put seventy five percent of his stocks in Enron, and the day it atrophied to a dollar all Tacker could say was,” It’s never a sure thing, Varney, it’s all a gamble.  And you can’t win if you don’t play.  Speaking of getting back in the game, I’ve got a bead on this company called Amazon, I really think this could be their year, Var-” but Varney hung up on him and never talked to him again.  He liquified his remaining assets and put them into an interest bearing checking account in the Hills of Hollywood Community Credit Union, where it has remained since, earning a modest but consistent 4.5 percent interest.  Plus now he gets his ATM fees reversed, up to ten a month.

Varney then turned to the advertising flier.  He skimmed through it, noting nothing of interest, but then he froze.  The back page supermarket advertisement had a picture of Dracula in the upper right hand corner smiling his big, toothy grin, with the caption” Sparkle, don’t Sizzle, even when it Drizzles!” splashed across the page.  A few squeeze bottles lined the bottom of the ad, some on their side, some standing up on their tops.  “Twilight Delight, SPF 30” the bottles read.   Human sunscreen infused with glittery highlights.   “That capitalistic parasite!”  Varney yelled to the walls.   Something needed to be done.  His instincts told him Dracula would only get more popular, more wealthy, more absolutely annoying.  He could move, but he was there first!  A childish thought, Varney knew, but didn’t care.  He liked his little house, and he shouldn’t have to be forced to move because his neighbor is a  party crazed blood sucker.  The wheels of revenge began to turn.

**************

There is a dedicated cadre of “blood brothers” bound together, not just by their thirst for the red nectar, but a mutual hatred for Dracula that runs deep and ancient as the Mariana Trench.

Through the centuries they utilized many forms of communication to coordinate plots against their common enemy-horseback messengers, bird couriers , Pony Express, the US Postal Service-each new incarnation seemingly slower than the previous.  With the advent of the internet, however, and online social networking, the heightened speed of collaboration on dastardly schemes invigorated their desire and capability for revenge.  Varney needed to vent his frustrations about the insidious Twilight Delight ad.  He knew misery loved company, and what better vehicle to commiserate than Facebook.  He logged on and began pounding on the keyboard, steam still blasting from his ears in hot rage.

My old friends, he typed, I cannot take it any longer.  I have decided to take action against Dracula.  It has come to my attention he is capitalizing on the ‘Twilight’ saga, selling his own brand of glittery sun block, so teenage girls everywhere can sparkle in the sun like their favorite pansy vampire from those horrid tales.  To make a mockery, much less a disgustingly huge profit, of an event that would destroy us forever should not be tolerated.  A vampire should know better.  It seems to rest on me, as his neighbor, to be the one to teach him. He sent his message.  Lord Ruthven replied almost immediately.  “Must be playing his X-box 360 live,” Varney thought as he opened Ruthven’s response.

I commend your dedication to the old ways, Varney.  I will be with you in mind, wishing I could be there in body as well.  Oh, by the way, I heard from his publicist that Dickula’s getting paid big bucks to make a personal appearance on Larry King Live.  Not to cause undue pressure on you, friend, but it would be a true joy to see him rendered unable to attend.  Best wishes on your endeavors,

Lord Ruthven.

Varney typed another message:  I have an idea that might make his life a little less glamorous. Keep checking your messages for the latest updates.  I’ll be in touch. He clicked send.

**************

After returning from another night of unsuccessful hunting, Varney hung his overcoat in the closet, and tossed his top hat on the antique coat rack by the door.  He walked into his living room to finish the nights as he always did – watching television. He plopped down in his brown cracked leather Laz-y-Boy, and started up a DVD he enjoyed watching from time to time:  Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Gary, who lived on the other side of Dracula’s obscene residence,  was the only remaining neighbor who still addressed him by his proper title, Sir Francis Varney.  He suspected it was Oldman’s incessant thespian nature and British heritage that compelled him to such formalities.  But he tolerated him nonetheless, and when Oldman stopped by to get some advice on playing Dracula’s part in the movie, Varney obliged, as Dracula himself was too busy running lines with that hack Keanu Reeves. “Hah,” Varney thought, “they should’ve called it Dracula and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”  He then selected the last scene from the start up menu and watched as Van Helsing crushed Dracula to dust.

Varney cringed as he heard a familiar sound – the thump, thump, thumping bass of Dracula’s stretch limo pulling up after a night at the club, filled with hangers-on and party-goers.  Probably went to that pretentious vampire lover’s club, Pure, Varney thought.  Dracula thinks he is so much better than the rest of us, only feeding on organically sustained high-brow blood. He seems to have forgotten his days prowling around behind the YMCA.  I’ll remind him of those less ‘pure’ times. He reached for his iPhone and used his restaurant finder app to locate the nearest Pizza Hut. “Good evening.  Do you still make that Garlic Lover’s pizza?” he asked.

Right on time, thirty minutes later, Varney looked out his living room window and saw a beat up teal Chevrolet Cavalier with a Pizza Hut cabbie topper pull into Dracula’s driveway.  A teenage boy staggered up the walkway to the door,  struggling to carry 10 large pizza boxes.  Dracula  emerged from within his house and approached the boy, just as a sudden breeze wafted a blast of garlic, assaulting his olfactory senses.

“Vat is dees? I did not order anything this evening,” he said, holding back the urge to vomit.

The boy looked past Dracula and saw the crowd of party-goers. “Maybe one of your guests ordered the pizzas,” the boy replied, looking nervous.

Dracula was about to angrily turn the boy away when a drunken raver came up behind him, noticing the stack of pizza boxes.  “Hey, C. Drak!  Nice work on the pizzas, man!” The partier brushed past Dracula and relieved the delivery boy of his burden and returned back into the house.  Dracula expelled a sigh of contempt and turned to the boy and said,” Very vell, young man.  It seems I owe you some money.  Come in, come in, enjoy the party while I retrieve my checkbook.  Do you accept checks?”

The boy followed Dracula inside as the party-goers cheered Dracula for the pizzas being devoured.  From the perch in his living room Varney chuckled, “Hah, no blood sucking from your Pure groupies tonight mother fucker, huh? Not after all of that garlic seeps into their bloodstreams.”

After re-watching the last scene again, Varney clicked off the television and turned to head upstairs to retire for the evening.  As he passed the stairwell window a flash of teal caught his eye. The delivery boy’s car was still parked in the entry to Dracula’s turnabout. He had delivered the pizzas nearly two hours ago.  A sinking feeling flooded his consciousness.  Varney realized his mistake.

When Dracula hosted a party, the blood of all guests would be sampled, providing enough blood to satiate him.  He had intended for the pizzas to taint the blood of Dracula’s guests, but he had unknowingly delivered an alternative meal.  Varney had taken away Dracula’s sample platter only to give him a young, tender main course.

**************

The music thumped.  It shook his walls, rattled the glasses in his kitchen pantry, and pressed against his windows in rhythmic vibration.  Damn that Dracula!  Did he ever get tired of throwing these obnoxious parties?  Only two evenings after the pizza delivery instance Dracula was at it yet again.

How could the other neighbors tolerate that music shaking their walls through all hours of the night.

But Varney knew why they tolerated it.  They were hangers-on, every last one of them.  Even Gary Oldman would bend over backwards before he would dare complain about the noise.

Varney lay in bed as the music pummeled the air around him.  He did not need to sleep, vampires don’t really need rest.  But he had always liked the idea of it.  He was one of the few vampires he knew who actually had bothered to buy a bed.  At first he thought he would use it to seduce the ladies.

Not every woman was keen on getting busy on the couch or the living room floor.  But with time he grew to enjoy the idea of lying in bed.   It made him feel like he was in pulse with the rest of the neighborhood.   They were all in their beds, and so was he.  It was communal.  Granted, all the humans were happily dreaming away, whereas Varney stared at the ceiling and lost himself in thought.  But at least it was similar to what the neighbors were doing.  And there was never anything worthwhile on TV late at night anyway.

A drunken party goer ran screaming with glee within a foot or two of his bedroom window.  Varney bolted upright and stared at the darkened shape as it sprinted along his house.  The screaming stopped.  Through the thicket of music Varney could make out the faint sounds of urine watering his azaleas.

“Vera, look at me!” screamed the muffled voice through the double-paned glass.  “I’m urinating on a vampire’s garden!”

Varney stared at his black Sanyo alarm clock.  The red numbers and letters screamed back at him.  4:47 A.M. For some reason he did not turn away.  He knew if he stared at the clock long enough it would eventually turn to 4:48.  He shifted his position in bed, moving his feet to one corner and his head to the opposite corner so that he would not have to strain his neck to view the clock.

4:47 A.M.

Fuck it.  Varney threw off the covers and paddled over to his nightstand, where he pulled his cell phone from the charger.  He cycled through his extensive list of contacts until he found the number he was looking for.  He knew Larry would not be up yet, but drastic times called for drastic measures.

“Hello?” queried a sleepy voice.

“Larry it’s me, Sir Francis Varney.”

There was a pause on the line.  “Who?”

Varney.  The vampire.”

“Oh, Varney!  What time is it?”

Varney ignored the question.  “I need you to accompany me to the grocery store.”

Another pause.  “Why?”

“I assure you Larry; I would not ask were it not of the utmost importance.  Shall I pick you up in ten minutes?”

There was yet another pause.  “I’ve got work in three hours.  I still need to shower…”

“Your employment in the field of security brokering is both commendable and imperative.  I will have you home from the Safeway in plenty of time to return to your morning routine.  And if you do prove to be tardy I will be more than willing to make a phone call to your employer on your behalf.”

“But-“

“Excellent.  I will be there in ten minutes.  Be ready.”  Varney hung up before Larry could refuse.

Nine minutes later Varney pulled his 1995 Acura Legend into Larry’s driveway.  He waited two minutes with the engine idling, and was about to storm the door when he saw Larry stumble outside.

Larry dropped his keys as he attempted to lock the door behind him.  As he bent over to retrieve them, Varney noticed that Larry’s formerly desirable ass had added a few pounds recently.  Varney thought about humans.  The years were rarely kind to them.  They gained weight, acquired wrinkles and stress like they were collectibles.  Fifteen years ago Varney would have slept with Larry.  He used to go to the gym three times a week.  He was never the most charming person, but for a human his personality had always proved palatable to Varney.  Now the vampire wondered if maintaining his “friendship” with the security broker was still worthwhile.   He thought of the task at hand and the help needed to accomplish it, and decided it was.

“Larry, so good to see you.  It’s been too long.”

“Uh, yeah,” mumbled, wiping sleep from his eyes.

Varney pulled out of the driveway and proceeded to double the speed limit down the residential street.  He reached over and turned up his stereo.

“Do you mind if I turn this Bauhaus down?”

Varney stared at Larry as if he had just grown a third arm.  “You don’t like Peter Murphy?”

“It’s not that…“  He paused.  “It’s just a little dark for me.”

“But I am a vampire.  Vampyr.  A creature of the night.  I, too, am ‘a little dark.’ “  He made air quotes with his fingers as he spoke.

“The last time I was in Dracula’s car he was playing Modest Mouse.  And he’s a vampire too.”

“Count Dracula does not have the extensive history that I possess.  My formidable years took place long before his existence, in a time of great peril and turmoil.”

Larry looked uncertain and sounded skeptical.   “Are you trying to tell me you’re older than Dracula?”

Varney slapped his forehead with his palm, causing his carefully coiffed hair to frazzle.  His eyes burned with intensity.  “I am Sir Francis Varney!  Traveler of lands!  Confidant of kings!  Sieghton! Mortimer!  Vampire of Legends!  I was in full glory before Dracula’s father was even born.  It’s all there in Wikipedia!  Look it up dammit!  Look it up!”

**************

Varney shielded his eyes from the fluorescent lighting of the produce isle.  Why these imbeciles insisted on flooding their fruits and vegetables with such intensive lighting was a mystery to him. In front of him the cilantro glistened from manufactured mist while the sprinkler above the green bell peppers dripped with condensation.  Larry leaned tiredly against the romaine lettuce bin.

“Excuse me Miss?  Is this all the garlic you have to sell?”

The Safeway clerk eyed Varney’s black trench coat and gloves suspiciously.  Who would wear such a thing in the middle of summer?  She seemed to reach the decision that Varney’s presence posed her no immediate danger.

“There’s the organic bin over there,” she pointed warily.

“But that’s $5.99 a pound!”

The clerk shrugged her shoulders and took a slow, half-step back, hoping Varney would not notice.

“Is there another Safeway nearby?” asked Varney.

“There’s one a few miles down Del Coro Road,” she offered.

“No way,” interjected Larry.  “I don’t have time to drive all over town looking for garlic.”

Varney narrowed his eyes at the security broker, also causing him to take a step back and avert his gaze.  The vampire thrust the shopping basket in his gut.

“Fine.  Fill this with all the garlic they have.  Conventional and organic.  I’ll meet you in the checkout.”

“Wait, is this why you dragged me out of bed, to shop?  What the hell, Varney!  You want me to grab a few frozen dinners and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, too?   I got to be at work in less than three hours!”

Varney took a step towards Larry and intensified his stare.

“Would you rather I fed on a warmer source, Larry?”  Varney grabbed the side of his neck firmly, rubbing his thumb over Larry’s jugular.   Larry trembled.  “No, I didn’t think so.  Now go, fetch me the garlic.”

**************

The checkout clerk stared with uncertainty at the shopping basket before him.  The plastic blue basket was overstuffed with a heaping mound of garlic.  More than a family of 12 would need in a year.  On top sat three precariously positioned pairs of latex dishwashing gloves.

“Sir,” the clerk asked sleepily.  “Did you mix the organic garlic with the conventional?

Varney narrowed his eyes at the clerk.  He glanced at the sliver nametag fastened above the left breast pocket of his uniform.  Larry looked off in the distance, hoping to remain out of this conversation.

“Listen Armando,” snapped Varney.  “I cannot be expected to organize my purchases as such. It is incumbent upon you as an assistant  to the proprietor of this operation to know your merchandise and charge me accordingly”

Armando stared down at the mass of garlic before him as he dissected the customer’s words.

He carefully removed the latex gloves and slid them over the scanner.  “But some of the stickers have fallen off,” he stated.

Varney smiled and leaned forward.  “I assure you that any garlic without a sticker is conventional.”  He gave Armando a conspiratorial wink as he swiped his debit card.

Armando sighed as he separated out the garlic.  The store had opened twelve minutes ago and it was shaping up to be one of his worst days on the job in months.  “Do you have a Safeway Club card?”

“I believe I do.”

**************

Varney cringed as he ran the last of the garlic though this Kitchen Aid 700 Watt food processor.  The stench of nine and a half pounds of puréed garlic was causing his eyes to water and his stomach to churn.  He leaned his head back, hoping to avoid the noxious fumes.

Larry had served his purpose.  Without him Varney couldn’t have possibly handled the large quantity of garlic by himself without repulsion.  That is, of course, without the large latex gloves he had also purchased.  The old security broker helped Varney unload the sack of garlic onto the kitchen counter before Varney sped him back home.

The microwave clock told him it was 10:27 A.M.  Perfect.  Dracula would be doing his call-in radio program until noon, and usually got home at least an hour after.  Most of the other neighbors would be at work, except for that nosy Gary Oldman.  You would think he would be able to land another role by now, rather than reading porn wrapped inside the morning paper by his pool in his bathrobe all day.

Varney dumped the last of the garlic into the bucket.  He then pulled out the T-shirt cannon he had bought that morning.  Varney had been to five shops before he finally found someone who both had the cannon in stock and was willing to sell it to him.  Who knew buying a T-shirt cannon would prove so difficult?

The vampire pulled open a kitchen drawer and removed a new bottle of Count Dracula’s Sunscreen for Vampires: SPF 190.  He was loathe to admit it, but the Draculotion was the only sunscreen that kept him safe from the sun for more than ten minutes after a dose.  He slathered the white lotion on his face and neck, digging deep below his collar just to be safe.

Minutes later Varney was in Dracula’s back yard.  He studied the surroundings.  The ash tree would be his best bet.  The vampire carefully inserted eye-bolts from the top of the awning to the corner of the house where nearest the tree.  He used his Leatherman to puncture a small hole in the awning.  He then painstakingly threaded his fishing line through the eye-bolts, and attached one end to the screen door.  Finally he climbed the tree, where he fastened the other end of the fishing line to the T-shirt cannon stuffed with puréed garlic.  He selected his brown duct tape from his tool kit, as the color nearly matched the shade of the tree, and wrapped in several times around the limb.

Varney flashed a huge smile as he surveyed his work.  The trap was set, now it was just a matter of waiting.

Waiting sucks, thought Varney.  He checked his digital watch.  11:31 p.m. He had been hiding in Dracula’s shrubs with his Sony digital camcorder for nearly an hour, waiting for him to emerge though his sliding patio door.  Against his better instincts, the vampire selected a small pebble and threw it against the patio door.  He missed badly, and the pebble bounced nearly silently off the stucco exterior.

“Blast!”

He glanced around in the dark.  There were no other small pebbles in Dracula’s well manicured back yard.  He picked up a decorative cobble the size of his fist.  It was all he could find.

The rock hit the patio door with a thunderous boom.  A spider web crack sprang to life on the glass, causing Varney to convulse with silent laughter.

Dracula came roaring out into the night.  “Who threw this?  Do you know who I am?”

Varney stared in dismay at the limb of the ash tree holding his hidden T-shirt cannon, still loaded and charged.    The branch hung from the weight of the gun, flaccid and useless.  Varney silent cursed and shook his head.  The vampire was unscathed, and certainly not covered in garlic.  Why had the cannon not detonated?  He waited until Dracula angrily stormed back into his house before leaving.  He dare not check on the cannon tonight.  Perhaps tomorrow he would try it again.

**************

Varney stared out of his living room window.  He was absolutely drenched in that torrid Draculotion after having spent two hours mowing his lawn.  He knew he should shower off the sunscreen, but for some reason he felt compelled to rest for a moment first.  It was what humans would do.

He spotted something through the dirty glass. Dracula was on his back patio, inspecting the damage to his sliding glass door from the previous night.  It appeared he had forgone his namesake sunscreen in favor of a black-out vampire umbrella.  Would he find the T-shirt cannon?  Sure enough, something glistening in the sun caught the count’s eye.  Varney watched in dismay as he discovered the fishing wire, and began to trace its course back up the ash tree to the limb that held the garlic-loaded weapon.

Perhaps the fool will fall out of the tree and hurt himself.  Varney hurriedly ran to his closet and grabbed his camcorder.  Most likely nothing would happen to the count, but Varney would curse himself if he missed an opportunity.  “What you need is a nice, embarrassing video old friend,” he said to the window.

Pressed against the ground next to the shrubs Varney felt like a hooligan.  Was the small chance that Dracula might climb the tree and hurt himself really worth this ordeal?  What if one of the neighbors saw him?  He glanced behind him and observed that Gary Oldman’s house was clearly visible from his current position.  Hopefully Gary was sleeping in this morning.

Varney watched through the viewfinder as Dracula discovered the T-shirt cannon.  He cautiously tested a foot against a crevice in the trunk, then seemed to think better of the idea.  Instead the vampire grabbed a long branch from the ground and circled around to the front of the cannon where it was closest to the ground.  He poked cautiously at the machination, apparently unsure of its purpose.

Suddenly the branch gave way with the extra weight.  The cannon fell to the ground, and the world exploded in garlic.  The impact must have jolted the trigger.  Even from 30 yards away, Varney could smell the toxic herb.  Dracula must have taken a direct hit, as his face and chest were covered in the purée.

The vampire dropped his umbrella and fell to the ground, belly-up and spread eagle, wailing like a child.  Smoke gushed from his exposed skin.  He attempted to rise but there was no strength in his limbs.  The sunlight burned through his meager robe, leaving it singed against his smoldering skin.

The count tried in vain to reach for his umbrella, but a breeze swooped in through the valley and carried it just out of reach.

Varney watch in a mixture of curiosity and horror and Dracula shrunk into a pile of dust.  So this is what it looks like when a vampire dies.  All these decades of existence, and Varney had never witnessed such an event.  He looked down at the skin on his own hands.  A faint wisp of smoke was beginning to circle around the skin.  His realized his sunscreen was wearing off, and scampered back inside his house.

After washing off the remainder of the sunscreen, Varney booted up his laptop.  He posted his newly filmed snuff video to an anonymous account on YouTube, and then posted a link to the video on his Facebook account.  Within the next few minutes there were already five thousand views of the video on You-Tube, and his vampire cohorts from around the world gave his Facebook link a thumbs up.  For the first time in five years, Varney was feeling optimistic about his life at 324 S. San Rafael Dr.

For a little while.

**************

It wasn’t long before the world descended upon Dracula’s estate.  TV vans, cable news reporters, helicopters buzzing overhead twenty four hours a day.  On the third day after Dracula perished in the sun, Gary Oldman was set to give a poignant press conference on the front steps of Dracula’s home in tribute to the fallen media darling.  A news van, apparently late for the speech, screeched down the street in total disregard of the neighborhood speed limit.  Varney watched through his window in dismay as the eighteen foot van attempted to squeeze into a sixteen feet of asphalt in front of his lawn.  After running over his sunflower, the van knocked over Varney’s mailbox.  The driver stopped and looked out of his window to see what he had hit.  The newsman shrugged and proceeded to back further over the mailbox, rendering it completely inaccessible.

Something had to be done with this media circus. Since Dracula’s death there were nothing but reruns of Bram Stoker’s damn Dracula movie, commercials for Dracula memorabilia, and even the one station he had come to rely on for balanced thoughtful news the one place he could hear of the world carnage and not Dracula – NPR – was playing, no LOOPING,  Dracula’s interviews with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

In a bold move Varney walked across the driveway to where a teary eyed Gary was standing and clasped him in a one armed embrace.  This had to come to an end, all of it.

He leaned over the sea of microphones ready to tell the world that he was older than Dracula, taught the damned child what it was like to be a vampire. To tell the world that while they wept for Dracula that they could instead embrace him, he is the Original Vampire, he was here first!!

Yet Gary collected himself quickly and spoke first.

Gary’s watery snort echoed through the mics, and he smiled at Varney and said, “Dracula’s best friend, people!”  Cheers from the crowd.  “Here he is braving the sun to be here.” another watery snort, “Amazing the love you have for him to be here, God bless you. This here, people,” Gary said addressing the crowd of onlookers that Varney now realized took up the entire street and neighboring lawns, “is Dracula’s best friend and protégée.   Dracula taught him everything he knows, he taught him so well that I consulted with him on the movie when Dracula couldn’t.” Turning back to Varney, but talking loud enough for the world to hear, “I know how much Dracula meant to you so I’m glad you are here for this.” Gary said, voice warbling.

Varney couldn’t believe his ears, this was not happening. He was too stunned to interrupt.

“The president of the United States called me this morning and  wanted me to tell the nation on his behalf that the day Dracula died will live on forever and in our hearts as well as our calendars. That day will now be known as Dracula Day. “  An eruption of applause and hoots.  “I have a surprise my self, people.  I bought this property from escrow and will transform Dracula’s house into a museum so that all his fans can take a pilgrimage here, so his legacy can be witnesses by the masses!!” he said triumphantly.

Varney felt the world tilt, it could not get worse.  How could it have gone so badly?  The merchandise, the 24/7 media coverage, a holiday, and now a house that his degenerate fans to flock to!?

“That damn You-Tube!” he growled under his breath.

“And -” Gary said and turned, biting his fist trying to stem the tide of emotion, “And, Dracula’s statue, a glorious monument even in life, will now be illuminated all hours of the night to pay homage to one of the world’s most beloved icons.”

**************

Varney’s cell phone rang.  Again.  Varney stared in dismay at the caller ID.  Another unlisted number.  Ever since Dracula’s death Sir Francis had been hounded by calls from the media.  What was Dracula really like?  How wild were his parties?  Is it true about Dracula and Sandra Bullock?

Against his better judgment, Varney answered the call.  After all, he was a gentleman.

“Good evening, you have reached the phone of Sir Francis Varney.  How may I be of assistance?”

“Um, is this Varney?  Varney the Vampire?”

“My surname is Varney young man.  And whom might you be?”

There was a pause on the line while the caller seemed to collect his thoughts.  “Mr. Varney-“

Sir Varney.”

Another pause.  “Yes, this is Harold Miller from the Larry King Show.  I know this is awkward timing with the death of your friend Count Dracula and all.  But we need a replacement for his spot on the show and we feel if we approach the interview in a dignified man-“

“I’ll do it.”

The only things worse than the glare of the studio lighting was the up-close and personal view of Larry King’s skin.  My God, is this what he really looks like in person?  Wrinkled, saggy skin hung loosely from his jowls, seemingly attempting to reach his suspenders for some unknown reason.

Caked-on TV makeup muted the atrocities of his damnable pores somewhat, but this was offset by the stench and unsightliness of his hair gel attempting to keep his unruly mane from revealing the liver spots plastered across his head.

At last the producer motioned for the beginning of the show.  Some lights dimmed while others seemed to intensify.  The director counted down with his fingers, and the venerable Larry King turned towards his guest.

“We have with us tonight, Barney the Vampire-”

“Varney.  Sir Francis Varney.  I’m in Wikipedia.  Look it up.”

© 2010 Bobbi Shadel, Chris Lytsell, Adam Stonewall, Rebecca Banks, Karen Owen

“Varney’s Revenge” won the 2010 First Place Team prize.

To Squash a Fairy

To Squash a Fairy

By Kassy Keppol

She lay with her back to the wall, concentrating on breathing evenly. Staring at the wasp on the pillow in front of her, she refused  to turn over to watch the army crawling up the wall. Tory normally would have liked the distraction of witnessing the yellow and black bodies march across the chipped pansy wallpaper; instead she puffed her breath out and ruffled the wings of the small creature in front of her.

“Yesterday I imagined you were an encampment of fairies instead of bees. I dreamt of  you building rooms inside my walls and held one hand on the  torn paper to feel the low hum you made. Singing you were. I put my other hand between the folds of my night gown on my heart and hummed along. The beat of my heart and the racket you were making almost matched.  But you are not fairies. You are bugs and I am too sad to turn over and marvel at your ingenuity in getting out of the wall. “

Flopping onto her back she tangled the creature in her long hair as she rolled. It crawled out and flew away. “If only I hadn’t squashed the fairy. Then I would not have grown up” she mumbled closing her eyes to remember.

Yesterday she had been carefree as she climbed the tree by the road leading to town. It was the perfect tree for climbing and held the most fairy branches. You know the kind that droop down and shade places that you are sure fairies can hide. She had climbed up to the top of the tree and was upside down letting the leaves wave at her.  Blossoms fell in a shower of pink catching in her hair and coloring the ground. She was happily giggling and swaying in the air.

She had known if she let go of the branch she wouldn’t fall but would soar through the clouds as she flapped her arms and flew. She didn’t try it though. Flying isn’t a skill to show off, but she knew she could fly.  She knew that there were fairies, and possibly dragons, hiding in the tree with her.

Yesterday she heard Joey, the delivery boy, run across the road and she got distracted almost falling from her high-up perch. She had been noticing him more lately and liked to watch him deliver his goods. Catching a branch as she had turned to watch him go by she saw a fairy. The fairy was on a limb beyond Tory’s fingertips.  It was laughing as the branches danced in the wind, moving lazily back and forth, giving it a ride.

Tory had frozen, stared while holding her breath, and then slowly tried to scoot inchworm style closer. That is when Joey saw her and began to scold. “Tory, get down! We are too old for climbing.”  His yelling startled the fairy and it flew out of the branches behind Joey’s head. Tory dove out of the tree almost landing on top of Joey as she fell. “Tory, what are you doing!” he scolded giving her a shake. She didn’t answer,  but started to follow the faint glimmer of wings as they flew across the street.

“Wait a minute!” Joey yelled grabbing her arm. Joey was in the same grade in school as Tory but he was so grown up. He already had a job delivering groceries for the local market, and he looked really nice in his uniform. A blush rose on Tory’s face as he began pulling blossoms out of her hair and setting her hair to rights. She looked over her shoulder and watched the fairy fly into the grocery store’s open door.

“I’ve got to go.” she whispered and ran after it. Joey followed her, easily keeping up. She saw the fairy by a crate of oranges in the corner of the store.  As she moved forward for a closer look, Joey stepped in front of her. As Tory moved forward, Joey moved back a step. That is when the unthinkable happened. Joey stepped on the fairy.

Tory watched as the tiny wings crumbled and white goo spread out on the linoleum from under his shoe.  The fairy bled  just like when you step on a bug. Tory freaked and began to yell.  confusing Joey  and causing him to grind his heal on the struggling fairy. Tory watched it’s eyes roll back and knew it was gone. She sobbed and threw her hands over her face. “You have killed it,  it is smashed!” she sobbed.

Joey looked down at his shoe perplexed and grabbed Tory’s hands. “Tory, I only smashed a tube of sunscreen. I will pay for it honest. You don’t need to be this upset. I will pay for it.” As Tory continued to hiccup he patted her back. ” What you need is a nice milkshake, we’ll go get one after I pay for this. “ It was at that moment that Tory knew that she didn’t want to remember that Joey has squashed a fairy, she wanted to go out with him and could only do that if she truly believed he had stepped on a tube of sunscreen.  So that is what she did, believed the unbelievable.

Everyone who has ever read Peter Pan knows that if you don’t believe in fairies they die. Tory’s fairy was already dead leaving a faint smear of sunscreen on the floor where gossamer wings had briefly fluttered.  Tory had decided to grow up on the spot. When she looked, instead of seeing a smashed fairy, she saw a tube of sunscreen. And her life could never be the same.

© 2010 Kassy Keppol

The Mule

The Mule

by Clay and Kay Derochie

Ron hated this alley more than any other drop point. As he moved into its night shadowed depths, he felt the rot around him at a cellular level. Foul smelling moisture dripped off the walls and formed greasy puddles where broken bricks met cracked concrete. The piles of rubbish to either side stirred with life that was best left undisturbed.

His past seemed to crowd around him here. His father laughed and told him again he wouldn’t amount to boil on a real man’s ass. “Why can’t you be more like Charlie?” “Screw Charlie,” he muttered. “He thinks being sober is some magic fix. He doesn’t know shit about my problems. He needs to…” Fear gripped his guts as his mind snapped back to the alley and the metal door at its end. Christ! Quit acting like a twerp. Now focus before you get your dumb ass killed here.

The bricks around it may have been crumbling, but the door was solid and set in a steel frame with security cameras and a light above it—a fitting tribute to the owner’s paranoia. It opened before he could knock and a large heavy-set man peered closely at his face.

“Jesus, Ernie. Don’t you recognize me by now?”

Ernie closed and barred the door behind him and patted Ron down. “I don’t get paid to recognize you quickly. Mr. Monty’s waiting for you.”

Ron’s guts gave another twitch as Ernie pointed to same door as always. The routine was a reassuring dance they both went through to prove their lives were somehow normal. Ron nodded, crossed to the other door. He knocked, and waited for Monty to call him in. OK, relax. You’re moving product for Salazar and no one’s going to mess with you. The Fat Man’s got your back.

Where Ernie had been large and phlegmatic, Monty was small, nervous, and far more dangerous. He did not like variations in his world and stood beside his desk exactly where he always did. Ron placed the package on the desk and stepped back three paces and waited. The ritual continued while Monty examined the product and asked seemingly irrelevant questions about Salazar and his business. Ron’s answer never varied, “I don’t know sir. I’m just the delivery man.” Finally, Monty signed the receipt, and gave the dismissal, “Everything appears to be in order. You can go now, but remember I got eyes on you in my alley.”

The alley always left him feeling dirty, and the certainty that Monty was watching filled him with the dread a rat must feel in the presence of a cobra. He wondered how many times he could kiss that snake before it bit him. Hoping his tremors weren’t visible to whoever was watching, he dialed Salazar on his cell. Check in before you go in, check in when you come out, follow the rules and everyone stays happy. Some days it was hard to remember that his life was getting better and better. God, the uppers he had taken earlier were making him jumpy. He needed a little taste to mellow out, but couldn’t risk it before returning to Salazar’s. The Fat Man did not like his couriers using smack on the job. The voice of the Man’s dispatcher clicked in his ear, “So, Ronald, everything is all right, yes?” The question was code and so was his answer. “No.” “Bueno. Come on in.”

Salazar’s home was nestled in an Old Town neighborhood that had seen much better days. The legitimately rich and powerful had long since left the area, and many of the old Victorian mansions were now micro tenements filled with the refuse of failed human lives. Ron sat still in his car while the gate guard checked the trunk. This was new and Ron wondered what the hell was up now. Ricardo Salazar ruled a small empire from his estate in old town and had the power to enforce his every whim. It was never comforting when the boss felt a need for increased security.

Ron drove slowly up a drive that curved around trees that no longer existed. The elms had disappeared recently to clear a field of vision around the house. After parking in the usual spot, he climbed the steps and followed Luis, the doorman, inside. The disrepair of the exterior didn’t hint at the quiet luxury of the interior. Ron found the deep carpets, soft lights and rich décor soothing. Now this is what it’s all about. This is why you kiss the damn snakes.

His momentary peace was shattered upon entering the study. Salazar’s entire 280-pound bulk lurched around his desk, and his red-rimmed eyes gave him the appearance of a huge maddened boar charging out of the underbrush. Ron would have backed out of the room if the doorman hadn’t given him a slight shove and closed the door behind him. Instead, he approached Salazar close enough to place the night’s receipts directly in his hand. The man’s appearance was frightening. He had an odd odor that suddenly reminded Ron of the alley he had just left. His sallow skin dripped oily sweat, and his eyes twitched back and forth without settling on anything. Rapid, shallow breath punctuated his speech. “ So, Ronald!   Tell me   about the   deliveries. Tell me   everything!”

Oh, Jesus. He’s tweaked out of his fucking mind. If I looked like that, he’d kill me. Ron knew he looked terrified, and he knew that his fear could trigger the predator that hovered in front of him.

“Ronald! Tell me!”

A part of him that his father had beaten into a cage broke free. Ron felt himself and his fears pushed back, as this other being demanded absolute self-control. He felt his body straighten as he stepped further into the Fat Man’s space. “The deliveries went very well.” Salazar’s eyes finally focused on him. “Everyone received their product on time. All of the receipts are accounted for… Sir.”

Salazar moved behind his desk and sat down. Ron moved to stand in front of the desk and waited. His feigned patience was rewarded as Salazar seemed to pull himself together and come to a decision. “Ronald, you surprise me. You have a lot more balls than I thought.” Reaching into a desk drawer, he exposed a large pistol and an envelope. His hand passed over the pistol, picked up the envelope, and tossed it on the desk. Ron’s beast retreated.“Thank you, Sir.”

“You’re welcome. Ronald, come early tomorrow. We have an important new buyer and need to expand. I think you may ready for your own crew. Luis will show you out.” A spot between his shoulder blades itched as he left the room; he shook it off, tucking the envelope with his cut into his shirt. What the hell. I’m going to make some real money now, maybe send Chris to camp.

As Ron turned onto his street, he sighed. The house he shared with his seven-year-old son, Chris, and Terri, the live-in babysitter, was far shabbier than the outside of Salazar’s. As he coasted into his driveway, he lifted the center consul and pulled three small plastic bags from a hidden compartment. Two were filled with a light brownish powder and the third, twenty-four red and blue capsules. The caps and one of the other bags went into a zippered jacket pocket and he put the last into his breast pocket.

Payday for Terri. A smile crossed his face. Shit, maybe now I can afford to get a real baby sitter—not one who works for food, a bed, and smack. Maybe I can afford to move out of this hellhole entirely.

His son was asleep as he expected, but Terri met him at the door just like he imagined a good “wife” would, if you didn’t look at her gaunt face and the filthy mess behind her. She stared hungrily into his eyes. “What did daddy bring me?” Ron’s skin crawled, but he smiled and tapped his shirt pocket. “What you need is a nice piece of candy.” She reached greedily in and pulled out the packet, eyes glowing. “Let me go freshen up and then we can play.”

Ron watched her disappear into her room and wasn’t too worried about having to “play” later. Funny, at one time he had truly loved a woman, Sandy, Chris’s mom; but she had left him, like his own mom had left his dad. Screw them all. At least Sandy hadn’t take his son, the only thing that mattered in this rat-shit existence.

Ron slipped into the converted storage room where Chris slept. Gazing down at his son, he felt the disquiet that comes when two conflicting thoughts seem equally true. He knew this life sucked for Chris; and, equally true, he knew he wasn’t capable of giving him anything better. Ron tucked the covers around his child and kissed him gently.

“Good night, Tiger.”

Better check on Terri. Terri was just fine. She was sprawled on her bed, breathing, with a thin line of drool running down her chin. “Now there’s my sleeping beauty! Don’t think I’ll kiss you and wake you up,” he whispered to her. He put the needle and drugs away where Chris wouldn’t be likely to find them. That had happened—once.

Back in his own room, Ron pulled up a floor board in his closet to stash most of his take for the evening. He had a very tidy sum squirreled away, and it helped fuel the dream that someday things would be different. He could hear his father snort, “When pigs fly.”

Screw him again; the only thing he brought home was a bottle and a bad temper. His mind continued to spin trying to balance a life that was becoming increasingly more complicated with the ever-mounting fear that things were spinning out of control. With a coke spoon, Ron took a small pinch from his own bag and placed it under his tongue. Just to quiet my mind, he promised himself. As he drifted off, he silently chided, Great dope fiend you are; afraid of needles. Oh well, Salazar doesn’t like tracks.

Nightmares stalked his sleep and he was powerless to move while his father shook his screaming son. The screams became more and more insistent, and he awoke with his heart pounding. The screams were coming from the back yard. The beast came snarling out, and he tore through the house and out the back door.

He could not make sense of what he saw. Chris was climbing a tree screaming, and Terri was squirting some white stuff at him. He shot across the dirt yard, grabbed Terri, and shook her, sending a bottle of sunscreen flying. “What the fuck are you doing?” Terri tried to cower away. Her fear enraged him. He pulled his fist back to strike and was stopped by his son’s voice.

“Daddy! No! We were playing, Daddy. I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.” The shock and fear on Chris’s face drained him. Terri broke free and ran sobbing to the house. “Chris, I’m sorry. I was frightened. I thought Terri was trying to hurt you.” The look on Chris’s face changed from fear to confusion and fear. “Oh, Chris-boy, Daddy’s sorry. I didn’t mean it.” Ron reached up to lift Chris from the tree and watched his son flinch and pull away from him.

“Don’t do that!”

Chris froze and allowed himself to be lifted down. Ron set him on the ground. “Go play in your room.” He watched his son run to the house and disappear inside, then followed slowly, exhausted beyond words. Inside, he paused and opened the door to Terri’s room. She was curled on the bed shaking and looked up in fear at the sound of the door. Ron closed his eyes. “Terri, I’m sorry; I’ll make it up to you.” When he opened his eyes, she was staring at him in disbelief. Hell, he thought, I don’t believe me either. “We’ll talk later.” She nodded enough to allow himself to believe he had made a difference.

When he checked, Chris was in his room, sitting on his bed, and holding an old comic in his hands. Ron’s heart shrank when he realized the comic was the last one he brought home, almost six months ago. Why did he keep that? “Are you okay, Tiger?” Chris started to shake his head then nodded, as he watched his father’s face. “That’s cool. Daddy’s got to get some sleep before work tonight. You be a good boy. Okay?”

Back in his room and lying on his bed, Ron heard his father again. “Nice going, asshole! How are you going to fix this?” Ron had no idea.

Small hands were shaking him. “Daddy, wake up! It’s supper time.” Ron’s eyes opened slowly, and he growled playfully at Chris. Chris laughed and jumped away. Ron could pretend he hadn’t seen that slight shadow of residual fear in his son’s eyes.

“Tell Terri I’ll be there in a bit. I got to clean up a bit first.”

“Okay!” Chris shouted as he ran toward the kitchen.

Ron popped a couple of uppers and headed for the bathroom. Well at least Terri’s still here. That’s some consolation. It would have been tough to find someone on short notice to watch Chris. He showered, shaved, and shined while the uppers brought him wide awake. God, he felt Good! The world was okay and Ron was good in it; he just needed to make up with Terri.

His good mood and intentions almost vanished as he entered the kitchen. Terri looked like hell warmed over and couldn’t quite look at him. The old anger started up. Why do I have to spend another day having to deal with someone else’s damned problems? Because you caused them, Asshole. Ron took a deep breath and crossed the room.

“Terri, I am sorry. I thought you were hurting Chris. I just went crazy.”

She looked at him. “Why would you believe that?”

The question startled him. Why in hell would I believe that? She’s been taking care of Chris for almost two years. She’s spent more time with him than I have. “I don’t know. That’s a stupid thing to believe. I was scared. I heard Chris screaming. You were there. I don’t know why. I’m just sorry I frightened you.”

Terri’s eyes looked doubtful, fearful. She had the look of a trapped lamb that needs to believe the lion won’t eat her. “That can’t ever happen again.”

Ron nodded slowly aware that Chris was watching them both. His stomach twitched as he remembered his father making similar promises to his “live-ins.” Dear God, please don’t let me go there!

Dinner tasted like cardboard, and no one seemed able to talk about anything. Afterward, Ron sat alone at the table trying to patch all the cracks that were forming in his world. It looked like he was going to move up in Salazar’s organization. Everything was going to be better, but the pain in his guts kept getting worse. The ghost of his father was everywhere he turned; and, worse, he was doing all the things he swore he would never do. What was next? Beating up Chris so he could feel important? Charlie had asked him that the last time they had talked. What the hell does he know?

His life was beginning to look like Monty’s alley. There was garbage and rot everywhere and a cold iron door at the end. Monty! Christ I’m going to be late to that meeting. I’ll call Salazar and tell him I’m on my way. As he pulled the phone from his pocket, a tug on his sleeve brought him around to face his son.

“Daddy, I love you.”

His son’s face, open and guileless, professed his love from the depth of his little being without reservation. With painful clarity, Ron realized he was loved completely without deserving it. That clarity drew his attention next to Chris’ smile and then to his son’s teeth. Those teeth met in a straight perfectly flat line. Finally, that awful clarity demanded that he acknowledge he had caused the son who loved him totally to grind his teeth flat.

His heart clenched and his throat constricted. “I love you too, Chris”.

While he held his son tightly, his fingers picked out the numbers on the keypad. The phone rang twice and connected.

“Charlie? It’s Ronnie. I got to stop.”

© 2010 Clay and Kay Derochie

Riff Raff

Riff Raff

by Bob Ferguson

I would attack them from a hiding place in plain sight. They would never expect an assault from a pariah of society. I planned to steal enough of their money to skip to Portugal or South America and live comfortably for life. Except—I had no life. They took it when they hooked Jess, my son on drugs—and he overdosed.

Drugs are every parent’s nightmare. At our wits end, we used the tough-love technique espoused by the current psycho-gurus and kicked Jess out of the house the day he turned eighteen. Through teary eyes at his funeral my wife, Jenny said “We drove him straight into their ripping claws.” She was right. The guilt, self-hate was intolerable. Ten days after his service Jenny found the easy way out—sleeping pills.

There was no celebration of life, no service, and no obituary for either of them. I buried each with a simple marker in the family plot where I had expected to be the first to rest. I headed home after the burial. No purpose. No feeling. No reason to live. On the two-lane road back down the hill it would be easy to give the wheel a quick jerk to the left into the path of an on-coming semi-truck. Swift. Quick. Sure. But with every passing second, like an infectious fever, hate began permeating the cells of my numb body. As a driving force, hate seemed more dominant than love. Vile loathing was giving me an insidious purpose for living—to seek retribution. They would pay dearly for what they had taken from me.

Parks had always been a pleasant place to while away a few hours with the family. Birds liked the high canopies of the tall oaks and centuries of adaptation had superbly equipped the squirrels for climbing trees more nimbly than Olga Korbut on the balance beam. I had no one to enjoy it with. I was wretchedly alone. The sounds and sights held no joy.

The park was further degraded, by the scum of humanity scattered about in old quilts, filthy sleeping bags and the rags on their backs like a human garbage dump. They reminded me of the dregs of the second wine bottle I was devouring. As disgusting as these human vermin were, they would be good camouflage for me to carry out my vengeance in the place where I knew Jess first began using drugs—the Park Blocks.

My .38 snub nosed service revolver that I had carried in Vietnam gave me a feeling of protection. It was stuffed into the field jacket that I had picked up at a surplus store. My gray hair was matted and matched my five days of stubble. The black stocking cap made me indistinguishable from the other homeless people who were in various stages of reverie induced by booze or drugs. I had become Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” Life was imitating art.

It always surprised me that buying drugs was so easy. I wondered why a prosecutor simply didn’t grant amnesty to the guy at the lowest level if he ratted on his supplier. Then that supplier gets amnesty if he finks on his source, right on up to the top. I would prove my own theory. I would wait for the mule, the delivery man, the creep that made it possible to get my son hooked. It would be easy to follow him to his connection and follow that link to the next guy in the chain of command. I couldn’t offer amnesty, but a .38 in his face would be even a more convincing argument to become a stoolie. After I killed a few, they would know that Portland is no place for pushers.

“I’m Joe,” I said to a guy on a park bench as I screwed off the top of a fresh bottle of vintage MD 20/20 and handed it to him. “My wife was Jenny, my son was Jess. We called ourselves the “J” family,” I continued trying to be friendly.

“They call me Riff, I used to play the guitar on stage,” he said before he took a deep swig like it was the elixir of youth and he wanted to be a teenager again.

“I’d like to score a little Mary Jane,” I said trying to sound like an entrenched user.

“Haven’t heard that term in a while. If you mean pot, just watch that corner down there and you’ll see a guy who seems to talk to everybody. I’m tapped out or I’d give you some.”

It was a generous offer from a guy who seemed to be on his last legs.

“Keep that bottle of Mad Dog, I appreciate your info,” I said sauntering off toward a bench that had just become available with a better view of the corner.

His pants hung so low I wondered what held them up. A black baseball cap with a flat bill was stuffed sideways on a thick head of black hair. He was, it pained me to admit it, a handsome Latino. Even under his baggy hoodie you could tell he had a powerful build. Long silver chains draped down his sides and seemed to have no purpose other than decoration. He had mastered the art of smoking and talking incessantly on a cell phone at the same time.

It was a week day and he was busy. It was a quick reach into his fanny pack, a simple handshake, hug or short huddle and that was it. Money, pot, and short greetings were exchanged. It surprised me how many people dressed in suits and ties shook his hand. A bank of gray clouds created a sun screen that added an even darker mood to the nefarious activities taking place right in front of me.

He periodically got into a white, souped up Honda with dark tinted windows. He would be gone for a little while and then reappear on the same corner after stepping off the light rail stop just across the street.

The day was getting away from me. The Charles Bronson in me wanted action, but if I was careless it would be dangerous, maybe fatal. I feigned sleeping, reading the newspaper and if a stranger walked by I would even ask for spare change just to blend in with the vagrants.

The mark I had selected for my wrath would not be easy. He appeared to work alone, but there were always a few guys that looked just like him standing nearby. “His homies in hoodies,” I chortled to myself. It had been a long time since I had chortled, but it was not the good kind. I decided those stupid chains must be some sort of Ninja weapon. Even if they weren’t, he might be carrying and getting him alone would take some doing. They were wary, always looking for cops, rival gangs, and whatever other threats druggies face. They looked at me, but only saw the lowest of all life forms sitting on the park bench. Hiding in plain sight was perfect.

After a few hours the white Honda came by and he again got in. I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter to one. In almost exactly a half hour he again hopped off the Max line at the same stop—alone. That was it! I had my first victim in my sights. They had a time schedule for dropping off money and reloading with drugs and it matched the Max train schedule!

In the, invariably out of toilet paper, seedy, and filthy, public restroom, I shaved and washed my face. From my backpack I took out a non-descript jacket. I was ready.

“Riff, I’ll give you five bucks to watch this bundle for me. I’ll give you another ten when I return, is that a deal?” I asked laying the pack next to him.

“You sure you can trust me?” He said.

“Your cap says you’re a Vietnam vet or is that just brag?” I asked.

“No way! I joined the Marines right out of high school,” he said looking me in the eyes seeking a clue for some sense of trust.

“Well, Semper Fi my friend. Once a Marine always a Marine and this ol’ Marine needs your help, if I’m not back by 5:30 this evening, you can have it all,” I said walking away. I knew I had him with the Semper Fi.

Like clockwork, the white Honda came by at 3:45 on their two hour schedule. That meant that my Latino friend would conduct his business with those behind the darkened windshield and according to the Max schedule at his exit stop he would arrive back at almost exactly 4:15 pm., but I had a surprise for him.

I hustled down two blocks where the schedule read the next pickup headed north would be at 4:10 pm. It was in the “Fareless Square” so all I had to do was hop on and take a seat.  The train was deserted. He was easy to spot, sitting in the back of the second car with his feet stretched out taking up an entire seat. I took the seat directly across the aisle from him.

“There’s a whole car man, why you got to be right here in my face?” He said in broken English pronouncing “you” like the first syllable of Ju Ju Bean.

“I thought I knew you from somewhere,” I said.

“Now dat you know you don’t know me, I say you should move,” he said bobbing his head in a smart-alec way. I still wondered why the word “you” was such a tongue twister.

Physically, at 60 years old, I was no match for him, but I wanted to slap his silly face. I stood up like I was going to change seats and in a flash I pulled the .38 from my jacket pointed it at his face and said “Don’t move! My little friend here says I know you from the corner by the park, now put your feet down and your hands on the back of the seat in front of you.”

He stopped smiling. I slid into the seat behind him with the pistol pushed into the middle of his back. I wanted to pull the trigger and just leave him sitting there hunched over, but I had a problem. The gun was loaded with ammunition that was over forty years old and the bullets were green tracers. It was meant to be used as a survival pistol in case the F-4, in which I flew as a navigator on photo reconnaissance missions, was ever shot down. The green tracers were used instead of flares to notify the rescue choppers that I was a friendly force. A snub nose is not as accurate as a longer barrel, but there was a chance it could go clean through and ricochet hurting a bystander. I had never fired the pistol. Not even in Vietnam and I wasn’t sure what it would do.

“You, you are a dead man,” he said in anger making the “Y” sound even more like a “J.”

“So are you, if you don’t do exactly as I say.”  It was a bluff. “With your left hand, unbuckle that fanny pack and hand it back to me.”

For emphasis, I cocked the gun and pushed it harder into his back.

“It’s got a hair trigger,” I lied.

I took the fanny pack while moving the gun to the back of his head.

“Your buddies will be looking for you as we pass the park and what you need to do to stay alive is to wave to them as we go by.”

As we passed the park he was waving and I was holding up the fanny pack and flipping them the bird. Cute, but it was immensely stupid on my part. He knocked the gun from my hand, grabbed it and pulled the trigger—thank God the ammo was manufactured by the lowest bidder.  It didn’t fire. I had a second chance and pulled a lock-back knife with a 5” blade from my pants pocket. He was unimpressed and pulled out a 15” bayonet.

The train jerked to a stop, the doors opened and a passenger jumped on and quickly clubbed my nemesis from behind with a policeman’s night stick.

“Semper Fi,” said Riff. “I saw his amigos scattering when they thought they’d catch hell for losing the money and the pot. Then I saw him knock the gun out of your hand so I ran to the next stop. Lucky for you I always carry this souvenir night-stick for protection. A cop lost in a park scrum a while back.”

The dealer was stirring as we hopped off, ran back to the park, grabbed our gear and hailed a cab. It felt great to strike a blow for the good guys.

We gave the money to a homeless shelter, and the dealer resembled a body that was fished out of the Willamette River a few days later. The police speculated he had stolen some money and drugs from a local gang. Go figure.

Riff needed a place to live. I needed company. He’ll be living with me for a while.  He’s a pretty good guitarist. He plays and sings on open mic nights at a few blues joints. We’ve gotten involved in some veteran’s causes and my problems seem no worse than many others who are putting their lives back together.

I suppose life can imitate art, but it’s better to leave the vigilante stuff to the trained professionals. And what became of the pot? We’re Marines, not saints for cryin’ out loud.

© 2010 Bob Ferguson

“Riff Raff” won the 2010 Readers’ Choice Award.

Swing

Swing

by Anonymous

Sarah was not ready for morning. She sat in the bathroom, leaning on her elbows, willing herself not to fall asleep on the toilet. She lifted her head and stared at the monkey shower curtain in front of her, moving her eyes from one monkey to the next as they swung across the green vinyl. Eventually, her eyes faced the window and its banana colored curtains, and she winced at the sunshine outside.

The whole bathroom had a jungle theme, as did Nateʼs bedroom, all greens and browns, with an actual tree climbing from the floor to the leaf-covered ceiling. She didnʼt know whether Nate really wanted his room this way or if her sister had planted the idea in his head. He always seemed a little sad, Sarah thought, sitting on his leopard skin rug playing with his trucks or stuffed animals, trying to ignore the wild jungle around him. Or maybe that was just what Sarah was trying to do.

She had decided to sleep in his room last night, after vetoing the couch and its sweaty, sticky faux leather. Karen probably expected her to sleep in her room, with the California King and skylights and wall to wall carpeting, all the things Karen thought of as luxurious. She probably had set it up for her, with the bed turned down like a hotel, but Sarah hadnʼt even bothered going in there.

“What you need is a nice rest,” Karen had said to her on the phone last week. “Think of it as a vacation for you. Watch some cable, take a nice bath….”

Sarah got uncomfortable and cut her off, asking for feeding instructions and the vetʼs phone number, even though she knew everything would be written out for her in detail, waiting for her in the kitchen next to the color-coded calendar that took up an entire wall. Sometimes she wondered if her sister was managing a family or a political campaign.

“You know we really appreciate it, but I also think this will be good for you, Sarah,” she could hear the breath catch in her sisterʼs throat, the quiet tic of worry.

“Please,” Karen said, “Enjoy yourself.”

She thought about Karenʼs advice when she wandered into Nateʼs room last night, fingering the canopy of plastic leaves coming down from the ceiling. In the dark, it seemed like an almost plausible vacation spot, not somewhere real, but maybe a hotel room in Vegas or Disneyland. The twin bed was surprisingly comfortable, but still she couldnʼt sleep. The room smelled vaguely of plastic and when she tried to imagine herself on vacation all she could think of were the vacations she spent as a child. She kept trying to remember the details, the sagging cots she would share with Karen, the hours in the pool inventing new worlds. She couldnʼt invent anything any more. Her brain felt like quicksand, thoughts would come to her and then slowly sink till she could no longer reach them.

The doorbell rang and she jumped up, her thighs and elbows numb from sitting on the toilet for so long. She shook the tingles out of her leg as she rushed out of the bathroom, and ended up stubbing her toe on the box in the hallway. Karen and her sunscreen, she thought. Karen had bought a whole pharmacy worth of sunscreen to prepare for their trip, only to get rid of most of it after reading an article about some ingredient in sunscreen that is linked to skin cancer. All of the offending bottles were sitting in a box in the hallway, where, knowing Karen, they would sit for quite some time while she waffled back and forth between the guilt of throwing away brand new bottles and the possibility of giving someone cancer by putting them back out into the world.

Sarah slumped down in the hallway, clutching her toe. She thought about ignoring the doorbell, wasnʼt she supposed to be on vacation too? But Snowball was already up and barking and throwing himself with abandon against the window and she knew the only way to get him to calm down was to open the door.

Once she got to the entrance way, she had no choice. The top of the door was all window, and as she was pulling up her pajama pants, she saw the tall, blond man waiting on the porch. The minute she opened the door, Snowball nosed past her legs to greet him, all jumping and excitement, and then within seconds lost interest and started sniffing the potted plants.

“I have a delivery for you,” the man said. “Well, not really, it was already sitting here on the doorstep.” He handed Karen a package addressed to Nate and decorated with balloons.

“Who needs presents when youʼre at the beach, huh?”

Sarah nodded absentmindedly, still staring at the big loopy handwriting on the box.

“I apologize, Iʼm Ken from down the street. You must be Karenʼs sister,” he smiled and extended his hand to her.  She avoided it by bending down and dragging Snowball back inside. She threw the package into the entryway before closing the door, almost hitting Snowball in the face.

“Sorry. Sorry about the dog.” she stuttered.

“Oh, no problem. I just wanted to give you a heads up on this afternoon. Or did Karen already tell you?”

Sarah grimaced. She hoped it wasnʼt some kind of social gathering.

“Well, no problem. My daughters and I have been shooting a little movie, and today weʼre doing a scene in that tree out front,” he turned and pointed at the old oak in the front yard. “Itʼs a little strange because weʼll be putting our cat up there for a while, but donʼt worry, weʼll get her back down.”

“Youʼre putting a cat in a tree on purpose?”

“Yeah, I know. Whatʼs a movie without some action, right? Actually, Karen was the one who gave us the idea.”

Sarah found this hard to believe, since most of Karenʼs ideas lately involved worrying about things going wrong.

“And she didnʼt want you to sign a legal waiver or something?” Sarah said.

Ken laughed. “Wouldnʼt that be funny. Well, thanks, weʼll be out there in an hour or so, shouldnʼt take too long.”

He turned to go, stopping by the tree on his way down the path. He put his hands on his hips and arched his head up towards the sky. “Itʼs a beautiful tree,” he said before waving goodbye.

Sarah sat on the porch swing and let her eyes adjust to the sun. It was warmer outside than she thought it would be. She rested her bare feet along the smooth wood railing. The heat felt good.

Two women in t-shirts and striped workout pants walked by the house. One of them saw Sarah and waved. She lifted her hand back in acknowledgment. They probably found it strange for her to be sitting on the front porch like this, wearing wrinkled pajamas, her hair still dreadlocked from a bad nights sleep. So intimate, she thought, for a neighborhood that preferred staying on the surface of things.

Sarah remembered when Karen first moved into the house, just before Nate was born. Karen raved about the front porch. She had always dreamed of one with a swing and an old, shady tree rustling in the wind. Sarah helped her repaint the living room, and afterward, they sat out on the porch in the dark, drinking too much wine and giggling like school girls. Karen kept shushing Sarah, afraid of waking the neighbors. Eventually, Sarah curled up with her head on Karenʼs lap and they just rocked back and forth, listening to the creaking of the wood and the nighttime hum of sleep and electricity.

“I canʼt believe this is my house,” Karen whispered.

“I guess youʼre an adult now,” Sarah said as she fell asleep, Karen slowly smoothing the hair from her face.

Sarah doubted that Karen still used the front porch. Every time she came over now, after Nate was put to bed, all Karen wanted to do was clean the kitchen and curl up on the couch and watch a movie. Sarah didnʼt mind though, thatʼs usually all she was up for too. Most often, Karen would fall asleep halfway through the night and Sarah would cover her with a blanket and let herself out.

Sarah stretched her legs one more time against the railing and went back inside. Snowball saw her and immediately ran to the cabinet in the kitchen where his food was kept. He moved his head impatiently back and forth between Sarah and the cabinet door. She had missed his breakfast time by a few hours.

“Ok, I get it, buddy,” Sarah said, picking up his food bowl. She gave him a few extra scoops out of guilt and then sat at the kitchen table and watched him inhale his food. She couldnʼt imagine ever being that hungry.

Bits of cardboard were scattered across the floor by her chair. She picked one up. It was damp with ripped edges. She looked up and saw the package for Nate on Snowballʼs bed. The damage wasnʼt too bad, it was just the shipping box that had been ripped at one corner. Sarah tore off the rest of the cardboard box, hoping the contents were gift wrapped. They werenʼt. Inside was a card in a bright blue envelope and a box of jungle themed legos. Poor Nate, Sarah thought. She looked at the picture on the front of the box. There were hippos drinking from a plastic pond with an alligator lurching out of the water. In the background, monkeys played in the branches of plastic lego trees.

Snowball was done with his breakfast and was now whining at something out the window. Sarah could hear a light, twinkling sound coming from outside. She stood next to Snowball and watched as two girls in sundresses skipped across the lawn, giggling hysterically. Ken was a few houses behind, carrying a ladder and bags filled with camera equipment and props. They were early.

“Girls! Wait!” Ken shouted.

They seemed oblivious. One of the girls, the taller one with wispy blond hair, was cradling a small cat in her arms, trying to lift its face to the other girls ear, as if to share a secret. The other girl screamed with laughter at whatever the cat said and started running in circles around the base of the tree.

Ken asked the older girl to come help with the bags and she reluctantly walked towards him, still whispering to the cat and rocking it back and forth in her arms. He surveyed the tree again, and carried the ladder up to the south side, near the house. For a second, Sarah was afraid he would catch sight of her in the window, but his attention was on the ladder and before she knew it, his back was turned to her. Both girls ran up to him asking a question. He nodded and knelt down to talk to them, his hands on each of their shoulders pushing them together.  Slowly, each girl gave the cat a kiss on the top of the head, the blond girl bending down to rub her face along his fur before releasing him.

Ken tucked the cat under his arm and started climbing the ladder to the first branch of the tree, about ten feet off the ground. The girls ran to the prop bag and put on bright red plastic firemen hats. Sarah laughed as they proceeded to run around the lawn, making siren sounds and holding their arms in front of them like superman, unaware that filming had not yet begun.

The phone rang from the kitchen behind her. She watched Ken try to shake the cat from his arms onto the branch, and waited for the answering machine to kick on.

“Sarah? Are you there?” It was Karen, her voice crackling with a bad connection. “Sarah?”

Sarah sighed and went to pick up the phone, bringing it back with her to the window.

“Hi,” Sarah said, trying her best to sound perky.

“Oh good. Hi. How are you?”

“Fine, fine. Howʼs your vacation going?”

“Good. Weʼve been exploring a lot.” Karen sounded exhausted.

“Iʼm watching a fake cat rescue in your front yard right now.”

“What?”

“Your neighborʼs movie. Iʼm surprised you okayʼd this operation.”

“Oh right. Well, it seemed harmless. Except for the cat, I guess. Besides, I canʼt resist those little girls. Theyʼre so sweet.”

“Yeah, they are.”

“What are they doing right now?”

“They seem to have forgotten about the cat in the tree and are performing some sort of dance play instead.”

Karen laughed, a short staccato bark, but Sarah could tell she was distracted.

“What are you doing now?” Sarah asked.

“Trying to the leave the hotel room,” she sighed. “Itʼs gorgeous here.”

Sarah looked outside. The girls were holding on to the porch railing, pretending to be in a ballet studio.

“Hey K, do you still use your porch swing?”

“Why? is there a problem with it?

“No, no, relax, I was just wondering if you still go out there.”

Karen held her breath, the way she normally did when she was thinking. “Not as much as Iʼd like, but, yeah, I go out there. What a weird question.”

“I was just wondering.”

“No, no, I know,” Karen said, her voice softening. “Sometimes if I canʼt sleep in the middle of the night I go out there for a little bit. The air feels good…I bet it would feel even nicer up in that tree.”

Sarah smiled, “Yeah, it would.”

She heard commotion in the background, muffled cries of protest.

“I gotta go, Nateʼs being unbearable. He got a bad sunburn on his legs.”

“Uh oh.”

“I know,” Karen sighed. “Well, I was just checking in.”

“Yup, Iʼm fine.”

“Good. All right. Hey,” Karen said, “Have fun, remember?”

Sarah smiled and lifted her eyebrows. “You too.”

“Goodbye, Sarah.”

“Bye, K.”

Sarah heard Ken dismantling the ladder outside. This time he saw her through the window. He waved and shrugged, and she responded with the thumbs up sign. She watched the girls skipping back to their house, their fireman hats bobbing on their heads like apples.

Sarah sat at the kitchen table and considered eating something, though she still wasnʼt hungry. She picked up Nateʼs jungle lego box and read the instructions on the back. Maybe she would take the parts out and set them up for Nate in his room, one less mess for Karen to worry about. She unwrapped everything and stuffed the plastic wrappers back into the box.

Slowly, she put all the pieces together, snapping the leaves and branches into place, arranging the tall grasses by the base of the trunk and around the pond. She put the alligator on top of the water, the hippos gossiping to the side, like in the picture. She picked up the monkeys, one in each hand, and before clicking them onto the branches, she played with them for a brief moment. She let them groom each other. She let them sleep. She watched as they climbed from tree to tree, their limbs loose and eager, swinging with the recklessness that comes easy to the loved.

© 2010 Anonymous