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“Smart Pups Support” by Erica Korer

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Smart Pups Support

By Erica Korer

Whenever a call pops into my queue, the first thing I say is “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew.” That isn’t my real name, though, and where I am it isn’t morning; but none of that is important. “How may I help you?” I say.

My first customer today is Suzanne Thomas from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. I know this place. I look at my American map beside my monitor and place my finger there. Steelers, I think. Super Bowl champions 2009. Suzanne Thomas has a complaint. Her Smart Pup is having problems with his navigation capabilities, she says. “I was in New York last weekend and told my dog to lead me to Madame Tussaud’s, but we ended up in the Lincoln Tunnel! I thought that couldn’t be right, but I trusted my Smart Pup. I was nearly flattened by a commuter bus before I figured we’d better turn around.”

I ask her to read me the numbers on her Smart Pup’s e-collar, and she does. “Hold down the reset button,” I say. I tell her to repeat loudly after me: “Madame Tussaud’s New York,” I say. “234 West 42nd Street.” When she’s finished repeating, I tell her to release the button and to give her Smart Pup an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat. “Tell him ‘good boy’”, I say. I ask her if there’s anything else I can help her with, and she says no. “Well then,” I say, “have a good day.” Remembering my Entertainment Culture training, I add, “and please do enjoy the News Room’s wax figures of award winning journalists Anderson Cooper and Barbara Walters.”

“Well I’m actually home now…,” she begins, but I’ve already ended the call. I realize my mistake and sit for a minute with my face in my hands. These calls are recorded for quality purposes, and if Mr. Khan listens later I’m going to get a note in my Employee File if not a stern talking-to about Professionalism and Conscientiousness as well as a reminder of all the people outside who would kill to have my position; and this isn’t an exaggeration. Last September a young, quiet agent who used the name Jason was found tied up and floating face down in the river, and before the body was even identified a cousin had showed up to take his place.

For the rest of the night I guzzle tea and answer calls, determined to deliver customer service beyond reproach. I resolve all of my customers’ issues without having to escalate them to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor. I make all the right jokes and laugh at the right moments. I even manage to sell five Upgrade Packages (for just 4 extra dollars per month), which is well above the average of two Upgrade Packages per day. At 6 a.m. my shift officially ends, and I can finally clock out. I shut down my station and start to leave, but before I reach the door I’m intercepted by the mustached head of Mr. Khan, sticking out of his office, calling my name. “Come in here for a moment,” he says.

I take a deep breath and do as he says. I’m going to act cheerful and innocent. I’m going to pretend not to know what he wants to talk about. “Hello, Mr. K!” I say. “How’s it going? How is the family?” There’s a picture on his desk of his sons, two fat boys in their school uniforms. “Ah,” I say. “Are their studies going well?”

“Huh?” Mr. Khan says, distractedly putting papers in his briefcase. “Oh. Yes, yes.” To my surprise, he pulls a crystal goblet out from his desk along with two brandy snifters. “Please,” he says, “have a drink with me.” My confusion is obvious, and before I have the chance to respond, he says “Fine, fine. You don’t drink. That’s okay. Here.” He pushes a flimsy box across his desk. “At least have a doughnut.”

“Oh,” I say. “Okay, thank you.” The doughnut, though, is hardly a special treat. The boxes have long been a fixture in the employee break room. It’s part of our Culture Training, they told us. Americans eat doughnuts, so we should also eat doughnuts, and then we can develop a rapport with our customers over doughnuts. I don’t particularly care for these doughnuts. However, I dutifully select one with black and white icing and sink my teeth in. “Mmm,” I say, suppressing a shudder.

“So I wanted to bring you in here,” Mr Khan begins, and the bite of doughnut sits like a lump on my tongue, “to make sure you know you’re invited to come out with us guys after work.” I manage to swallow. It’s not what I expected him to say. “You’re so quiet. Man!” he says, “You should get out more and socialize. That is, of course, unless you don’t like us. We aren’t going to force you to spend time with us and be a team player if you don’t like us.”

I assure him that I like him, them, very much. Today, though, I tell him, I have dinner plans with my girlfriend, Meena, and her parents, so I really must go rest up beforehand. Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll go out and be social. I tell him I can’t wait and thank him. And then I make a beeline for the door.

My workday normally ends just before the sun has a chance to rise, and the walk to the edge of the Smart Pups campus is usually quiet, save for the singing of birds and the last hoots of a few owls. The guard opens the gate for me, and I’m spit out into the city. Outside the gate there are five regular beggars in various states of dismemberment. One man is missing a leg. Another’s missing both legs. A woman has somehow lost half of her face. They immediately swoop in with their hands out. They tell me they’re starving, that their children are starving, that anything will help. As usual I keep walking, feeling humiliated, feeling unreasonably angry. “What do you think I owe you?” I think but don’t say.

The gated community where I live, where a lot of the Smart Pups employees live, isn’t far away. I scan my key card at the gate and then at the door of my building and take the elevator up to my apartment on the 16th floor. I shut the blinds to block the rays that have just begun peeking through. In a few hours, the city will be roasting, but fortunately I have an air conditioner. I flip it on and collapse onto my bed without taking off my clothes.

I wake some time later to my shirt being unbuttoned. Despite the closed blinds, it’s bright in the room. I squint and see Meena naked next to me. “What time is it?” I ask. I hazily remember we have plans with her parents at some point, but I’m disoriented.

Meena kisses my chest. “It’s noon,” she says. “This is my lunch break. We have an hour.” I’m quite groggy, but I rise to the occasion, and afterward we lie breathless underneath the AC unit. “Our new lab assistant started today,” she says. “I don’t think he’s going to last a week.”

“Shhh,” I say into her hair and pull her in close. Since I started at Smart Pups on an American schedule, it hasn’t been easy for Meena and me. We’ve made many sacrifices, but on the plus side, we realized, we can make love in the middle of the day and sleep together in my bed, something that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, with her living in her parents’ house. I’m already drifting back to sleep, but I can tell Meena’s restless. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m just not very tired.” I tell her it’s okay, that I should get up and try do get some things done before dinner. She dresses, and we kiss goodbye. I then begin my weekly process of transferring funds- some for my parents, some for my younger siblings’ educations. Some for my older siblings and their children’s educations. Some for the nurse who looks after my grandmother.  Some for my sisters’ weddings.

By the time I arrive at Meena’s parents’ house for dinner, which is really my breakfast, I’m tired again and a bit cranky. “Hello Mrs. P. Hello Dr  P, I say, and then we sit down to eat an admittedly delicious meal. Though we used to see each other often, that hasn’t been the case lately.  They want to know if I’m still at “that place.” They want to know if I’ve had any promotions. When I say no, they look at each other and ask if I think I might have a promotion soon. I quickly lose my appetite and push food around my plate. Meena fills the silence. She talks about the latest political news, she talks about fashions, she talks about the incompetent lab assistant she started speaking of earlier. “I swear. I really don’t think he’ll last a week.”

Back at work, I throw back several cups of tea and for an extra sugar buzz even eat a doughnut. “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew. How may I help you?”

“Yes, hello, Matthew” an older man says on the other end of the line. “This is Arnold Franks.” I recognize the caller. We’ve talked before. I pull up his record in my system. The last couple weeks, it appears that his Smart Pup has been standing in his house, barking at absolutely nothing. I ask if it’s the same issue, and he says yes. I tell him we’re going to try something new.

“Press the control button on her e-collar” I say, “and when the tracking beams appear in her eyes, let me know.” When he does, I ask where the beams land. They’re landing on the bookshelf this time, he tells me, but her gaze is weird, he says. She doesn’t really seem to be looking at the bookshelf.

“Okay,” I say. “I want you to press the blue and green buttons on her e-collar simultaneously and then go and lightly touch the part of the bookshelf where she’s looking.” He tells me Okay, that he’ll be right back. It seems he’s calling from a landline rather than a cell phone. I wait. When he’s back on the phone I tell him to press the green and yellow buttons now and then go back to the bookshelf and call her. In the background I can hear him calling his Smart Pup. He calls her “Lucy.” “Here Lucy,” he says. In a moment he’s back on the line. “Did she come when you called her?” I ask. She did. “Feed her an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat,” I say. “Tell her good girl.” I ask him to please call back if he has any other questions or concerns. I give him his case number. I tell him to have a good day.”

The rest of the night drags. I have to escalate two cases to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor, I sell zero Upgrade Packages, and I have a lady tell me she can’t understand my accent and insist on being transferred to someone else. This is something that hasn’t happened in months. I had been relieved and had begun to assume it wouldn’t happen again, so I’m disheartened now.  When 6 a.m. rolls around, I just want to go home and crash, but in a flash Mr. Khan appears beside my desk and asks if I’m ready to go. I say yes and force a smile, and we walk together out of the building.

Outside an auto rickshaw is waiting. Two other Smart Pups Agents, Raj and Haroon, are in the vehicle. We all say hello and I shyly take a seat across from them. “Curry Club,” Mr. Khan tells the driver. I’ve never heard of this place, but nobody else asks any questions so I don’t either. We drive to the campus gate, and when it opens we speed past the beggars and rip through the city streets. The wind makes it too noisy to talk, which I don’t mind at all. Mr. Khan passes a flask around. What the hell, I think, and I take a sip.

We pull up to Curry Club as the sun starts coming up. From the outside it looks like a foreigner bar, and I quickly realize I’m right. However, since it’s now morning there are only a few straggling ,wrecked -looking foreigners, and the place is mostly empty. Mr. Khan says he assumes I’ve never been here. I nod, and he tells me not to worry. It may be quiet now, but in a while it will be Smart Pups Central, he says. That’s why they stay open all the time. They make their money off the night owls, and then they make money off the day owls. He laughs at his own non-joke.

Three very young foreign girls are sitting at the bar. Haroon orders a round of six drinks, three whiskeys and three cocktails with fruit and umbrellas, and motions for Raj and me to follow as he carries the drinks to the girls. I dumbly trail behind, and when the girls see us they look at each other and laugh. Haroon sets the drink tray down. “Hello Ladies,” he says, and again they laugh. The blonde asks if the drinks are for them, and when it’s confirmed, she says thank you and lifts one of the cocktails to her mouth. “Wait! Don’t drink that!” one of the other girls, a short brunette, says, and her friend nearly drops the glass on the floor.

You’re not supposed to accept drinks from strange men, the girl instructs all of us. It could be roofied. If a guy wants to buy you a drink, she says, the bartender should make it and then hand it right to you. Her friend pouts and picks the fruit garnish out of her glass. “Don’t eat that!” the same friend yells, and this time everyone laughs.

The tall brunette tells us, fine, they’ll come have drinks with us if they drink the whiskey and we drink the fruity drinks. “Yeah, okay,” Raj and Haroon say, and we join Mr. Khan at a large table.

Mr. Khan says he has a surprise for us and winks. He walks across the room, grabs a microphone from its stand, and music begins to play. Club Curry, after all, is a karaoke bar. The song is an old one by The Carpenters. I vaguely recognize it. “What the world needs now,” Mr. Khan sings, “is love, sweet love.” It’s bad, and he’s making things awkward by gesturing at our table.

“Where are you from?” Raj asks the girls. They look at each other and smirk. They appear to be having a very hard time drinking their whiskey. “Chicago,” they say. Chicago Bulls, I think. Lake Michigan. Windy City.

 

Lord we don’t need another mountain. There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.

The Chicago girls have set their drinks down and are exchanging glances. They’re trying to communicate, I would guess, that they should make an excuse to leave. Haroon elbows me. “Say something,” he whispers loudly.

Lord we don’t need another meadow. There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, and I’m in a karaoke bar, nursing a tropical drink. I just want to go home. I look at Haroon and Raj and shrug, lost for words, and then I think of something: “Do you eat a lot of doughnuts?”

For a moment, everyone looks at me in shock. Haroon guffaws while Raj covers his face with his hands, and the girls collectively get up and storm out, but not before the blonde picks up her whiskey and dumps it in my lap.

There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen lord, if you want to know. What the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now. Is love, sweet love. No not just for some, oh but just for every every everyone.

© 2013 Erica Korer

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“Don’t Mistake Tenderness for Weakness” by Kate Gray

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Don’t Mistake Tenderness for Weakness

By Kate Gray

If you really want to tell your story, you shouldn’t teach, honest to God, and besides, students don’t want to hear a middle-aged professor drone on and on about his sad sack of a life. You may think that by telling them, you’ll spare them something awful because you’re that kind of guy, but when it comes right down to it, keep it to yourself.

That’s what you should’ve done, but you didn’t.

At Clark Kent Community College, no kidding, a college named after a man whose parents were obsessed with Superman, when midterms happened every quarter, you got sick of everyone’s grandmothers supposedly dying and them skipping class for the funeral or elk season and their uncles taking them to eastern Oregon to bag this year’s meat, their saying, will I miss anything important? and you knew you couldn’t keep them from the thing that fed their families, and you thought, what are you, an animal trainer or something? Do you need to stand up there with a whip and a chair and make them write about an event that changed their life, like marriage or a hunting accident or yet another childbirth? No. You were not that kind of teacher.

You should have known from the start of class that the day was going to tank. You’re the type of teacher that puts students in small groups, kneels beside them when reviewing their thesis statements, actually gives a shit. At least according to what students write on Rate Your Professor sometimes. Other times they write about late papers and preferential grading. Never a chili pepper. Your students think you’re too geeky since your glasses are round like John Lennon’s and your hair’s parted in the middle. Blue button-down cotton shirts tucked into jeans and a belt don’t yell sexy, you guess. Who rates a professor according to hotness anyway?

So, when you were passing out blank sticky notes for students to write their thesis statements on, one note slapped on to each rough draft, 4 rough drafts to a table, and the third sticky had DickButt printed in pencil on it, and everyone at the table read it before you crumpled it in your sun-spotted hand, the day could do nothing but go to hell.

DickButt could have been meant for you, could have been some Holden Caulfield moment, but you’d taken the yellow sticky notes from the supply cabinet in the department workroom, and you had meant to take it home with you along with some pens and a whole ream of copy paper, and since you do so much work at home, you’re not really stealing school supplies from the college. But since you left them in your bookbag and today you spontaneously decided to collect the thesis statements from the lame paragraphs your students were writing and post them on the whiteboard, you pulled them out. Someone in some other class must have written DickButt four stickies in and returned the pad back to the instructor, and that instructor had returned the notes to the cabinet. Lucky you.

The three girls at the table, all twenty-somethings with their blond hair in ponytails, jerked their heads back from the table and, you swear, took in their breath collectively, like three elephants sucking in water from a trough. The fourth person at the table was more thirty-something and had tattoos down both arms, the swirly kind with reds and teal, and he was doodling on his paper that had one sentence and no paragraph. His pencil carved into the paper a big rose, since you’re outside the Rose City. Your eyes went from DickButt to that rose in no time. The rose had raindrops between the petals, little ones, and with the collective gasp of the three ponytail-girls and your hand crumpling the note, you leaned toward the drawing, and that’s, sure enough, when you saw the scream in each drop, Edvard Munch’s scream-face in each little drop.

“Just write your thesis statement on the sticky,” you said, not anything else. And whoever named those notes sticky must not have been a man. A man would have named them something understated and staccato, the sound of the word so damn young and effeminate, and a man with tattoos who drew roses with screaming drops doesn’t question the words he uses and probably, you think, says sticky without questioning himself.

You put a clean sticky on James’s paper and knelt beside him.

“Good save,” James said. He gave you a wink like the two of you knew each other from the gym or something.

“Nice drawing,” you said and pointed at the rose, “How about a thesis statement?”

He shrugged.

“Come to my office hour after class,” you said and got up despite your knees. Then you worried about what else might be written in the stickies when you stuck them on the rest of the papers.

But James did come to your office hour. When he entered your office, you thought a whole bookshelf had walked in. His leather smell mixed with tobacco told something truer than Moby Dick, the book you couldn’t bring yourself to read again, but your mother had bound for you when you finished your PhD. You didn’t do your PhD on Moby Dick, but it was her favorite book, which meant something. You’re that kind of son.

James had written a total of ten sentences since the beginning of WR 95, a developmental writing course that was supposed to help students connect sentences into paragraphs. For each of the five assignments, he turned in two sentences. The two-sentence paragraphs generally had to do with baking. Waking up for class after the graveyard shift at what used to be Kettleman’s, then Einsteins, now Spielman’s Coffee Roasters with some of the only boiled bagels in Portland, he stretched out in the undersized chairs, plastic and cheap, the kind of furniture that the college bought in the 90s, orange chairs and tables, furniture you hoped would reveal another identity and supersize themselves, but they didn’t. James stretched his legs out and rested his massive arms on the table, his forearms all muscle and tattoo, showing the way he rolled and shaped dough and turned doughnuts into perfect boiled bagels, crisp on the outside and malty and chewy on the inside. Chewy is another one of those words.

“Getting enough sleep?” you said.

“Plenty,” he said.

Why you expected more than one word from him was a lot like chasing a whale in a sailing ship.

“Sorry about the sticky note.”

“It sucks, doesn’t it?” he said. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and the smile he gave you made the dark part of his cheeks move, a little like wheat when the wind is blowing.

“Oh God, not at all.”

“My writing sucks. I know.”

“No, really,” you said.

“No, really,” he said.

It did suck, but that wasn’t the point. You asked him about baking, and what he wanted to do with college. And he told you about his grandfather baking bread in Nebraska and getting to work someplace besides in the cornfields, and later, his grandfather raising him in Eagle Creek where he milled his own timber, and the two of them were all they had. And he told you about his girlfriend, how she wants to write, but he’s the one taking a writing class. She reads everything, especially dark novels by crazy writers, like Plath and Joyce Carol Something. And he asked you why you write since he knew you wrote poetry because his girlfriend wants to write something she calls savage, something so harsh and violent that people will know what they’ll get out of life.

“She’s been through a lot,” he said. “Tried to kill herself once with a shotgun blast through the gut. But she woke up. Spent months in rehab. Can’t digest right.”

“Ouch,” you said. And nothing you could say would be the right thing to say.

“Maybe she could talk with you.”

And nothing you could say would make her life right. You said, “Sure.”

“I got this for her,” he said, and he stood up so quickly in your little office, you had to lean back in your chair. James turned around and lifted up the back of his tee shirt exposing his skin. One big tattoo covered his back with writing like what you saw on bald men with beards who rode Harleys. It said, Don’t Mistake Tenderness For Weakness. The lettering on his skin was thick and script and intricate. “She’s been with a lot of bad guys, you know. Beat the crap out of her. She takes meds because her chemistry’s screwed up, but for now, she’s off them, trying to make her head right. She wants me strong, not wrong.”

With that slogan you couldn’t help but think of all the students who came to your office and rattled off the Big Book: it works if you work it, keep coming back, one day at a time. At Clark Kent Community College students showed up for class with cellophane between who they were in front of you and everything they were outside of class, the things inside them that threatened to burst through. You could see the strain and bubbles of the transparent film barely holding them together, and for James, he was trying to hold together two people. You knew that he had two people’s pain carved into his skin. And even more painful was knowing he was an artist, someone who could take on what other people felt, not just take that on, but feel it himself so deeply he could mix it inside himself and make it beautiful. He was someone who turned loneliness and terror into raindrops between rose petals. When he put his shirt back down, you thought, easy does it.

Maybe your eyes were cellophane. They filled and stretched to spilling. Something about a man trying to make up for the wrongs done to a woman stuck a plug in your throat. Your breathing got fast and shallow.

“iProf, you OK?” All the students called you that since your last name was Apple. James looked at you like he was trying to decide whether to call 9-1-1.

“Fine,” you said. “It’s that sticky note and how badly I feel about it.” And when you got flustered, you started talking, and pretty soon you told James about each of your wives, how both of them had been students, the way they looked at you like you were the first novel they had ever read, how proud they were of the story they finished, how you waited till they graduated, and for a few years, you shared words and sinks and rides to the grocery store. You were that kind of husband. But when it was over and you lost the houses and gardens, they said they never felt equal even though you put their names on everything, paid for their BAs, hyphenated your last names. They said you used your power over them. They left you for men their own age, both of them, and they didn’t keep in touch. You heard from colleagues about their marriages and children and advanced degrees, how happy they were that they weren’t with you. And you drank and drank until the pain was in the resistance to pain. And it wasn’t until you told James about your cat, his way of sitting at the window like a great horned owl, which is why you named him Archimedes after Merlin’s talking owl in The Sword in the Stone, the very first novel you finished as a kid, and he’s the only thing that talks to you in your condo, that you realized you’d been talking.

“Damn, iProf, sorry,” he said, and what you should tattoo on your back came clear to you with James filling up the office: Don’t Mistake Talking for Teaching in thick cursive, lots of ink. Teachers at a community college aren’t supposed to show students the cellophane holding their insides in.

For the second time you apologized to him, and you figured you ought to do something nice.

“How about the three of us have coffee?”

“Really?” James said. “You would?” He stroked the beard growing on his cheek.

“Sure.”

“How about Trails Inn at 3 tomorrow? My girl waits tables and gets off her shift then, and we could meet you.”

“In Estacada?” On Thursdays your last class ended at 2:00, and the drive was only 45 minutes to the small timber town.

“We live on my Opa’s land a few miles out, for now. We’ll meet you then.”

On the drive the next day to the Trails Inn Café and Timber Room in Estacada, the curves came too fast in your old Honda Civic. The cedars along the river crowded out the light, and even though you knew Ray Carver didn’t grow up there, you could see him scaling trees, using words like ballhooter and choker hooks. Teaching students who lost their jobs when the timber industry tanked meant reading paragraphs filled with longing for work, for ways that men used to use their arms, for things they did together that made a difference to their wives. James and his opa from Nebraska used to take down these trees. Driving to Estacada, honest to God, was like driving into another century, one with homesteaders and feuding cousins and old women in rocking chairs on the front porch with shotguns in their laps. Everyone in Estacada knew guns and lumber grades and pickup trucks.

The Trails Inn Café and Timber Room wasn’t hard to find, and before walking in, your nose plugged with smoke, and your gait slowed so you could catch your breath. Maybe restaurants in Estacada didn’t have to be non-smoking like those in the rest of Oregon. You didn’t mind so much since every AA meeting started with smoke from everybody nervous and lighting up outside before they walked in.

James stood up from a small table in the back to shake your hand.

“iProf, thanks for coming. This’ll mean a lot to her.”

“My pleasure,” you said. “Where’s your girlfriend?”

“Marian just texted. She had to pick something up. She’ll be here in a minute.”

The waitress in jeans and a cutoff top that showed her white belly came to ask what drinks we wanted, and not bothering to ask if they made lattes, you figured spending $4 on some Starbucks wouldn’t happen here, so you ordered coffee black, and so did James.

“Have you been drawing a long time?” you said after the mug of coffee arrived and coffee splashed on the table, and the waitress didn’t wipe it up. James said you should try the maple bars because everyone knew the ones made here were the best in the world, and he wouldn’t let you refuse.

And then he said, “I’ve been doodling as long as I can remember.”

“You’re really good,” you said and tried to look him in the eye so he’d know you weren’t saying something you’d apologize for later. “You should take art classes.”

“What for?” he said. “Can’t make a living by doodling.” He looked at the mug between his hands.

Neither of you saw Marian until she was standing by the table. She was skinny, swear to God, like a tree limb is skinny when it’s dead on the tree, all twisted and gnarled, and even from a few feet away, the cut marks on the inside of her arms made stripes. Women in my classes who wrote about cutting said they cut themselves where nobody could see the marks, and you knew what James told you was understated and true. Marian had it rough. Even James might not know how very rough Marian had it.

“Hey,” James said to Marian, “you made it.”

“Fuck,” Marian said, and she didn’t sit down. Her legs in tight jeans looked like they could snap at any minute, and she shifted between one white running shoe and the other.

“What’s the matter?” James said. He stood up and reached toward her shoulder.

She jumped away from his touch. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said, and both her hands shot up to her forehead, and she spun around, and that made her elbows go out, and she looked like a beater blade of a blender turning round and round. “I can’t believe he’s here.”

Beyond the truth that you were no chili pepper, you didn’t know how to take this. When you stood up, the chair pressed against your calves. In the back of the café, you had no room to back up.

Before you, in the flesh, was the scream that the raindrops contained. Here was the rose that only James could turn into more blossom than thorn. His reason for drawing, for going back to school, for two-sentence paragraphs was twitching in front of you.

“Glad to meet you,” you said, and you weren’t, but that wasn’t the point. James wanted something from you, and his tenderness was worth a drive to Estacada, a talk with a twitchy girl. Marian looked at the hand you extended until you put it down.

“How about we sit,” James said. And the three of you sat, but Marian looked at the coffee mugs, the window, the other tables, the walls. Her legs jumped like jackhammers. The waitress returned with two maple bars, said hello to Marian who didn’t look at her when she said hello back.

The smell of the maple bar was so sweet that, honestly, it was almost crunchy. When you picked up the maple bar, it was moist between your fingers. You had it almost to your mouth when Marian yelled, “Don’t eat that!” and her hand slapped the maple bar across the room.

“Marian!” James said.

The Trails Inn Café went silent, and the other customers stared at the maple bar on the wood floor and then at Marian and then at you.

“Fuck it,” she said, and she stuck her hand in the pocket of her raincoat and leaned across the table. “I want you to listen to me, Dickbutt, listen close. We’re going to walk out of here and get into James’s truck, and you’re not going to make a sound.” From the hand in the pocket, from the bulge of it, she gestured the direction you were to take.

“What the fuck?” James said.

“Shut up, James.”

You swear to God you thought you were in a movie. Cameras and lights must have been behind the walls or outside the door, but you didn’t see them. And since you were that kind of customer, the kind that doesn’t stiff a waitress, you reached for your wallet. Marian spun toward you with her hand pointing the thing in her pocket, but then she saw you, and she said, “OK.” So, you left your only cash, a 20, and the three of you walked out of the Trails Inn Café in a line, you first, then James, then Marian. James took the lead to the truck, and Marian said, “Get in James. iProf in the middle, don’t try anything.” And you did what she wanted you to do. “Drive the old reservoir road, James.” He started the truck, backed out of the lot, and pulled on to the road.

“What the fuck are you doing, Marian?” He pulled himself toward the windshield and tried to look two places at once. Sitting in the middle over the engine, you blocked most of what he could see of her. She leaned against the door a little to keep an eye on both of you.

“You’ll see,” she said. And she drew her hand out of her raincoat, and in it was a .38 Special, something you had seen only in movies, but up close, honestly, it was something beautiful and animal and so awful it clogged up your throat. There it was, the black barrel and the wood handle and the curve that fit her hand. You didn’t know enough about guns to see a safety, whether it was on or not, or anything except how the revolver seemed muscular like a shark, and more deadly. Your breath got short.

“Calm down, iProf,” James said.

“Can’t,” you said, “breathe.”

James pulled over. On the old reservoir road the pavement was all ruts and cracks, and, you know, ever since the highway bypass went in, nobody went there anymore.

“Not here,” Marian said.

“We have to,” James said. “iProf can’t breathe.” He opened the door and slid off the bench seat. Before he took another step, Marian opened her door and faced you with the gun.

“Get out, DickButt.” You realized she meant you, and you slid toward her to get out the door. Your hands were in the air in case she thought you might do something. There was nothing you could think of doing, your mind running through the last day, through colleagues who might live out this far in the woods, through stories with bad endings. As soon as your feet hit the ground, you doubled over like somebody who finished a run and tried to catch their breath except your knees were too bad to run.

“Hands up,” she said and pushed the gun closer to your chest. “That’ll help you breathe.” And when you raised your hands, your lungs cleared, and you really could, believe it or not, breathe better.

“What’s going on, Marian?” James said. He was on your left, the two of you facing her.

“Fuck, James, fuck,” she said. “How could he do that to you?”

“Do what?”

“How could he call your writing something so bad?”

“What’re you talking about?” James said. She pointed the gun at him. His hands shot in the air, and he backed away. “Easy,” he said.

“He wrote it on the post-it note and stuck it to your writing. Your writing. Your writing. Something you created. How could he?” Any time she said the word he, she jabbed the revolver at you.

“That’s not what he meant.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No,” you said, “mistake.” Each word took one whole breath.

“Shut up,” she said and aimed the gun higher, at your face. Her hands were shaking, and she leaned on one foot, then the other.

“Tell me this, Mr. Professor Apple. Do you believe that all writers must suffer something savage in order to write something lasting?”

“Not necessarily,” you said.

“Wrong answer,” she said. And the gun popped, and a bullet hit a tree 50 feet away with a thud. “Think before you answer.” The gun had recoiled, but she handled it. With nothing to her arms but bone, nothing to her face but flesh, she knew guns the way someone without a watch knows what time it is: by living out of doors, by doing whatever you have to do to live, by defending your life with your life. All you could see was the black barrel, the shine of it, the curve. Honest to God, the eye of the gun was looking into your eyes, and what it saw was nothing. You were that kind of scared.

“Marian, listen to me,” James said, “iProf didn’t mean it. A kid wrote that note and stuck it back, and iProf didn’t know it was there.”

“How do you know?”

“He told me.”

“And you believed him,” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t you listen to me? You can’t believe what people say, James.” And she spread her feet, took the gun in both hands. “Next question.”

“Cut it out, Marian,” James said. “Stop.” He stepped toward her.

“Back off,” she said. And she aimed the gun at his chest. The revolver was in both her hands, which were steady for the first time since you met her.

And James kept coming.

And she fired the gun, and the pop sounded fake, but James spun, and he fell, and blood poured out of his chest.

“Oh my god,” she said, “Oh my god. James.” And she ran to him, and stood over him, and both of his hands were on his chest, and the blood was pumping between his fingers, and when she kneeled down beside him, she put her hand on his chest and said, “James? James?” And he tried to pick his head up, and she leaned a little toward him, and she said so softly, “Don’t.”

And she said so softly, “I’m sorry.”

And when she lifted the gun to her mouth, stuck it in, and pulled the trigger, I said, “Wait,” but it happened so fast.

You’ve read about moments after moments like these, that there’s some weird quiet, some way that the cedar branches sway, and peace fills the gap left by violence. But that’s not this story. In this story there was no silence. James yelled, and his chest made sucking sounds, and 9-1-1 kept you talking, and you rolled your shirt into a ball and pressed it into the hole in James’s chest, and sirens filled up the reservoir, and men in uniforms made you move out of the way. The gurney clicked when they raised it, and the doors to the ambulance slammed, and the sirens echoed through the hills when they took James away.

You’ve wanted to tell this story, but if you did, you’d start missing the students who couldn’t connect sentences into paragraphs, the ones who couldn’t figure out how to hide parts of themselves, wrap them up in cellophane and keep those parts out of class. No kidding, you’re the kind of sad sack that could keep some things secret if you had to. Lucky for you you don’t have to.

© 2013 Kate Gray

“Cornfields” by Pace Rubadeau

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Cornfields

By Pace Rubadeau

An animal trainer walks into a bar.

“Sit anywhere you like,” says the bartender, huffing breath onto a smudged pint glass. He wipes it clean as his new customer pulls up a worn stool.

“Looks like I’m just in time for happy hour,” she says with a smile. The bartender nods his head and slides a menu across the bar.

“Indeed. Got about ten minutes left. Can I see some ID?” He drums the countertop as the animal trainer hands over her license. “Thanks,” he continues, as he flips the card over. “Huh. That’s an interesting last name. How do you pronounce it?”

“Just like it looks,” she says with a shrug. “Owls. Becca Owls.”

“Sounds like a private eye or somethin’. My name’s Mark. Mark Fields. But everyone round here calls me Cornfields.”

“And you think my name is interesting,” Becca scoffs. “What’s your story?” Mark emits a quiet laugh before answering.

“Well I used to own a food-cart across the street called ‘Get Shucked.’ Sold corn-on-the-cob. Just corn-on-the-cob. Like that Whole Bowl place. But with corn-on-the-cob. Thought it would be a good business venture with a low overhead and all, since that was all we sold.” He sighed and stared at the ground for a moment. “Long story short, my wife and I split up. She was the main financial backer of the business, so I had to throw in the towel and close it down.”

“Sorry to hear that. But why the name?”

“I just really like corn,” he replied flatly. “Anybody who knows me knows that. Shucked. Creamed. Straight off the cob. I miss the place, but…things have a way of working out.”

“Cheers to that,” Becca said, offering up a solid high-five. “Now you’re working at one of the coolest dive bars this side of the Willamette. And I’ll have you know, I have high standards.”

“Thanks Becca, that’s nice to hear. I’d like to say that it’s all because of-” he stops short as Becca moves to grab a fistful of pretzels from an adjacent bowl. “Don’t eat that!” Mark interjects.

“Sorry,” she says with a jumping blush. “I thought they were for the customers.”

“No worries,” he replied with a dismissive hand. “Those are just my special pretzels. I should really keep them somewhere else. Can I get you something to drink?”

Becca furrows her brow and takes in the menu. “Well, I’m not sure what kind of mood I’m in.”

“How you mean?”

“Whether it’s a spending four dollars on happy hour food kind of day, or spending eight dollars on a cocktail kind of day.”

“Why not both? Go for the cocktail. I’ll make you up something special to eat. On the house.”

“Well thank you kindly, Cornfields. But what’s the catch?”

“No catch,” Mark said. “Just like surprising people. I also like puppies and long walks on the beach. And doughnuts.”

“Well wouldn’t you know it,” Becca replies with a smile. “Those three mean the world to me. I’m sure we have more in common than that even. Favorite food?”

“Pizza,” he stated, with no hesitation. “It’s my go-to, be it breakfast, lunch, or late-night dinner.”

“Nice. Music?”

“Old school rap. Ska. And Justin Timberlake on occasion.”

“Brilliant,” she replied with a light laugh. “That’s two for two. But this is too easy. Let’s try something more obscure to find out how much we’re meant to be. Hmm. Favorite television show from say…the eighties. On three.”

“One.”

“Two.”

“Sledge Hammer!” They both yelled together.

And scene.

© 2013 Pace Rubadeau

“Born to the Legion” by Curtis C. Chen

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Born to the Legion

By Curtis C. Chen

Karin met the hawk before the war began. A noise had summoned Karin outside, into the cornfields behind her mother’s house, at half past two in the morning. She ventured into the humid night with a light-stone in one hand and a shock-rifle in the other. She found the hawk in the third field she searched, perched atop a ragged scarecrow.

“Hey!” the hawk said when Karin swung her light onto him. “Watch it, lady, you’ll ruin my night vision!”

Karin dimmed the stone. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“I’m on patrol.” The hawk lifted a wing. Karin saw the time-worn imprint of a Legion sigil.

“This is private property,” Karin said. “And unless there’s a war I don’t know about, Legion doesn’t have authority to trespass.”

The hawk snapped its beak. “I don’t have time to explain. Also, you’re giving away my position.”

Karin folded her arms. “Right. Our corn is obviously of key strategic importance to the Republic. What, exactly, are you patrolling for?”

The hawk glared at her with unblinking eyes. “Fine. I’m watching for owls. Seen any?”

Karin frowned. “This isn’t owl country. They live in the forest, or the foothills.” She pointed south with her rifle.

“Careful where you point that!” The hawk bristled, then smoothed its feathers. “Okay, fine, you’ve clearly got things under control around here. Just keep an eye out for nocturnal birds of prey, and notify your local Legion post if you see anything unusual.”

“The nearest post is twenty miles away,” Karin said.

“You can report by wireless.”

“We don’t have a wireless.”

The hawk stared at her. “I’m sorry, what century is this, again?”

“This is a farm,” Karin said, doing her best to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “The Republic doesn’t want its farmers distracted by modern conveniences. Might interfere with production, you know. And we can’t have that.”

“Okay, we’re pretty far outside my area of expertise, now,” the hawk said, shifting its weight on the scarecrow’s shoulder. “Tell you what, lady–”

“My name is Karin.”

“Miss Karin,” the hawk said. “I need to finish my patrol, but I’ll talk to my commander about getting you a wireless.”

“We don’t need a wireless.”

“I wasn’t asking.”

Karin counted to ten. “May I ask your name and rank, Legionary?”

“Saul Haliatus, Lance Corporal, Seventh Force Reconnaissance Company,” the hawk recited. He flapped his wings and ascended into the night. “Until we meet again, Miss Karin!”

“Good fucking riddance,” Karin muttered, and went back inside.

#

The war began on a Wednesday. Karin didn’t hear about it until two days later, when Saul returned with his entire Force Recon company and a new wireless set. While Karin’s mother prepared food for the Marines, and three of them installed the wireless next to the chimney, Karin led Saul outside.

“Is there some reason you couldn’t just mail the damn thing?” she asked the hawk. “Or send a civilian contractor to deliver it?”

“Hey, the good news is, your mother’s getting a free wireless,” Saul said. “And this one is top of the line. It gets over two hundred signals.”

“Wait a minute. ‘Good news’? What’s the bad news?”

“Yeah, that.” Saul lowered his head. “You may have heard there’s a war on.”

“Sure, a thousand miles away,” Karin said.

“Well, still,” Saul said. “You may also have heard there’s a draft.”

Karin counted to ten. “My mother can’t run the farm by herself.”

“Yeah,” Saul said slowly. “That’s the other thing. There’s a–how do I put this. Are you familiar with the concept of ’eminent domain’?”

Karin felt her hands curling into fists. “Why, yes, I am, Saul. That’s where the Republic screws you over and doesn’t have to give you a single red cent as compensation.”

A burst of noise, then laughter and clapping, came from inside the house. Saul hopped toward the door. “Maybe we should discuss this later. Sounds like they’ve got the wireless working. You should come take a look. It’s pretty darned magical.”

Karin stomped in front of him, blocking the door. “Saul, you tell me what the hell is going on here, or so help me, we’re having hawk soup tonight.”

“First of all,” Saul said, “it’s Lance Corporal Haliatus. Second, we are in a shooting war, and those Marines inside will hang you if you so much as smudge my sigil. And your mother will still lose her farm.”

Karin fumed for a moment, staring into Saul’s unblinking eyes. “So I don’t have any choice here. Is that what you’re saying?”

“You’ve got plenty of choices,” Saul said. “You can make a lot of trouble for everyone, or you can make the best of a bad situation. Totally up to you. All I’m saying is, if you cause trouble for the Republic, they have more than one way to screw over you and your family.”

“Like you would know,” Karin spat. “You ram-headed volunteers are all alike–”

“Are you kidding me here?” Saul said. “I was raised in captivity, lady. Born to the Legion.” He raised one talon, showing the metal challenge ring fused to his right ankle. “Nobody ever offered me any choices.”

Karin blinked. “I thought–I mean, I just thought–”

“Forget it,” Saul said. “Look. All I know is, for some reason, Legion believes this land is of strategic importance to the Republic. And they’re going to protect it the only way they know how.”

“My family has lived here for five generations,” Karin said. The sound of music drifted through the open doorway. “Wait. If they’re just going to relocate us, why go to the trouble of installing that wireless?”

Saul made a clicking noise. “I never said they were relocating your mother.”

“You know, keep talking like that, eventually I’m not going to care if they hang me.”

“Scuttlebutt says she’s the finest cook in three counties,” Saul said. “And an army marches on its stomach.”

Karin shook her head. “Let me get this straight. Legion’s going to seize our land and turn it into some kind of military base, but my mother gets to stay in the house and cook for all the grunts, while I get shipped off to fight this stupid war?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“This doesn’t make any sense!”

Saul raised his wings in a shrug. “Welcome to the Legion.”

#

“What is it?” Karin asked. The circular pastry in her hands had come out of a vat of bubbling oil, then been rolled in a mixture of powdered sugar and some local spice. It smelled wonderful. Karin hadn’t tasted her mother’s cooking for months, and no amount of seasoning could make combat rations palatable.

“We call it dough-nut,” the vendor said, pulling another of the deep-fried delicacies from the vat in his cart. “Four dollar only. Very delicious!”

“Sold,” Karin said, fumbling four coins onto the baker’s cart with sugary fingers. She thanked him, then stepped back out into the street, holding the dough-nut close so its fragrance would block out the other, less attractive odors of the street market.

“Don’t eat that!” came a familiar and unwelcome voice behind her.

Karin grumbled and stopped next to a statue of the local deity. Saul alighted on the statue’s bronze head and glared down at Karin.

“Come on, Lance Corporal,” Karin said. “I’m starving.”

“Do you know what kind of oil that was cooked in?” Saul asked. “Do you know what the ingredients are? Whether that brown powdery stuff is something you might be allergic to?”

“It’s a pastry,” Karin said. “It’s grains, water, sugar, and fat.” Even the words made her mouth water. “We’ve been eating the local plants for days. If something around here was going to kill me, it would have happened already.”

Saul fluttered his wingtips. “As your superior, Private First Class Tenrie, I must insist on testing that food item for safety first.”

“Seriously?” Karin broke off a piece of dough-nut and held it out for Saul to peck at. “You could have just asked.”

“Holy shit, that’s good,” Saul said, snatching the last bit from between Karin’s fingers and gulping it down.

“Okay, thank you, it’s safe,” Karin said. “You want more, go buy your own.”

“Private First Class Tenrie, as your superior, I order you to–”

“Please fuck off, Lance Corporal,” Karin said, continuing down the street.

Saul flapped after her. “This is gross insubordination!”

“It may be insubordination,” Karin said around a mouthful of dough-hut, “but it is not gross.”

“Okay, I’m asking as a friend now,” Saul said. “Can you lend me some money?”

“No,” Karin said. She polished off the dough-nut and licked her fingers clean. “Mmm. Mmmmm. Oh, that’s good.”

“Now you’re just being cruel.”

“You don’t need to follow me around, Lance Corporal.”

Saul clicked his beak. “I don’t keep an eye on you, I get an earful from your mother. I don’t need more aggravation right now.”

Karin’s stomach lurched at the mention of her mother. “She worries too much.”

“You don’t worry enough,” Saul said. “Speaking of mothers, how are your falcons doing?”

Karin grumbled. “They’re remedial. I told Legion I wasn’t qualified for this. We raised chickens on the farm. I don’t know how to work with raptors.”

“You seem to do all right with me.”

“You’re not a complete idiot. Half the time these bird-brains just stare up at me like there’s–”

“Hold on,” Saul said. “Did you say ‘stare up’?”

“Yeah. The camp gymnasium floor is the only space big enough for all of them.”

Saul shook his head. “They’re not stupid. They’re uncomfortable. You need to put them higher.”

“We don’t have the equipment,” Karin said. “Perches are reserved for officers and non-coms.”

“They don’t need perches,” Saul said. “Use boxes, crates, chairs, whatever you’ve got lying around. Look, these aren’t chickens. Raptors don’t like being grounded. We want to be at your eye level or above. We need to be able to see what’s around us. Otherwise you’re just breeding neuroses.”

Karin nodded, annoyed that she hadn’t thought of that herself. “Thank you, Lance Corporal. I’ll try that.”

“Good.” Saul cocked his head. “Now, let’s revisit that dough-nut issue.”

“Kindly go fuck yourself, Lance Corporal.”

“That’s what I thought.”

#

She refused to believe it was the dough-nut, but something she ate that day irritated Karin’s bowels and provoked what the camp medic, Young, unhelpfully referred to as “bi-directional evacuations.” Young ordered bed rest and fluids, and Karin spent the next three days in and out of consciousness, stumbling between her cot and the toilet, while another trainer took over care of her falcons.

On the fourth day, she woke up with renewed appetite and staggered into a mostly empty mess hall.

“Has there been a deployment?” she asked the cook as she ladled something foodlike onto Karin’s tray.

“Where the hell have you been?” the cook said. “Scout birds raised the alarm two days ago. FORECON rolled out with their raptors, and two infantry platoons followed.”

“What did they find? What are they fighting?” Karin asked.

The cook grumbled. “Do I look I care? I just cook the food.”

Karin wolfed down her meal, then went looking for anyone who might know how the battle was going. She ran into Young first.

“How are you feeling, Tenrie? You still look a little pale,” she said, putting one hand on Karin’s chin and turning her head, as if examining her. Karin slapped Young’s hand away.

“I’m fine now, thanks,” Karin said. “Do you know what’s happening out there?”

“No messages yet. But the scouts saw owls, so.” Young shrugged.

Karin suppressed a shiver. Engineers continued to work on making wireless sets more compact, but they were a long way from being portable. Birds remained the fastest way to send messages in the field. And the enemy used owls the same way Legion used hawks and falcons: to intercept and kill smaller messenger birds. Owls were also built for stealth, able to fly nearly silent, almost hovering over unsuspecting prey.

“I need to get out there,” Karin said. “Put me back on active duty.”

Young shook her head. “You just got over a nasty bout of gastroenteritis. Rest some more, drink lots of water–”

“Those falcons need me.” Karin resisted the urge to grab Young’s collar and shake her. “They all imprinted on me at birth.”

“Look, even if I were to let you go–which I’m not–we don’t know where the company is now,” Young said. “You won’t do anyone any good wandering in the forest by yourself. Just stay put, they’ll be back soon enough.”

Karin groused, but Young wasn’t interested, and neither was any of the senior officers Karin could locate around camp. Everyone was busy trying to figure out why the enemy had so many owls here. They were clearly guarding something, but the scouts had patrolled out to a distance of fifty miles and seen no structures or vehicles from the air. The alarm they raised two days ago had been non-specific, and the company had ventured into the forest to see what the canopy of trees might be hiding.

After an entire morning of fruitless entreaties and arguments, Karin ate lunch in sullen silence and began gathering supplies for a clandestine outing. Carrying weapons and body armor back to her tent without attracting undue attention required several trips, and proved to be quite tiring. She decided to lay down for a quick rest, which turned into a long nap.

#

Karin awoke in the dark to the sound of shouting. She rolled out of bed and was nearly to the front of the tent when the first explosion hit.

She saw the light first, an orange bloom glowing behind her followed half a second later by a loud boom and a shockwave which collapsed the back half of her tent. Karin threw herself flat on the ground and found her uniform and body armor, cursing at how long it took to put everything on. More explosions made the ground shudder. An alert siren started wailing and didn’t stop.

After three minutes which felt like years, Karin scrambled to her feet, armored from head to toe and carrying a gas-action repeater. She raced toward the nearest voices and found Young treating a screaming, charred, bloody thing that might once have been a man.

“What the hell’s happening?” Karin shouted, crouching down next to Young and scanning the perimeter for attackers.

“The fuck do you think? Shit’s exploding!” Young replied.

“Where are they?” Karin asked. “Are they using grenades? Did they plant charges?”

“They’re in the air!”

“What?”

Young pointed skyward with a bloody hand. “Fucking owls!”

A building exploded on the far side of the camp. Karin saw another Marine sweeping a spotlight across the night sky and ran over to him. He jumped when she approached, then saw her rank insignia and gave a clumsy salute.

“Do you have a target, Marine?” Karin asked, flicking off the safety on her repeater.

“Can’t find ’em,” the Marine said, swinging the spotlight wildly from side to side.

“Stop that.” Karin put a hand over his. “Slow arcs. Aim toward the treeline. Sweep left to right, slowly, then back again. Count to ten each time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t call me sir. And don’t let the explosions distract you. Stick to the pattern.”

There were two more blasts before one of the owls passed through the light beam. Karin shouted and pointed, and the Marine pulled the spot to follow the owl. Karin raised her repeater and took a moment to peer through the scope before firing. She couldn’t tell exactly how big the owl was, but it was clutching something in its talons, a dull metal cylinder with a dome on the forward end and protruding fins on the back.

“Fuck me,” Karin muttered. “They’re bombing us.”

She squeezed off a short burst from the repeater, and a puff of feathers exploded from the owl’s tail. It veered off course and lost its grip on the bomb, which landed in the woods and started a fire. The flickering orange light bounced off the smoke rising from the devastated camp.

“We can’t defend this position,” Karin said. “Did someone sound the evacuation already?”

“How the hell would I know?” the Marine said. “There! Owl!”

Karin looked up, drew a bead on the new owl, and fired. The bird made a noise, released its bomb, and spiraled into the side of the mess hall. The explosive landed at the edge of the forest, throwing dirt over the camp fencing.

“We’re leaving,” Karin said. “Go get Young, then follow me.”

“Who’s Young?” the Marine asked.

“The medic!” Karin pointed.

“I don’t see anyone!”

Karin looked back at where Young had been. The burned body was still there, no longer moving or screaming, but there was no sign of Young.

“Goddammit. Just follow me,” Karin said, and made her way to the mess hall.

The owl which had crashed there was dead, three puncture wounds in its chest leaking blood onto a pile of debris. The animal was huge. Karin estimated that the top of its head would have reached her chest, if it were standing upright on the ground.

“Boy, that’s a big bird,” the Marine said.

Karin knelt down to examine the owl’s legs, but found no metal or other identification there. Then she saw a glint of reflected firelight under its beak, and reached her hand up to push back the feathers around its neck. There, encircling the bottom of the owl’s head, was the largest challenge ring Karin had ever seen, with strange markings etched into the surface.

“What is that? Some kind of collar?” the Marine standing behind her asked.

“I don’t know,” Karin said, leaning closer to study the markings. “This isn’t just a challenge ring. These symbols look like spell signs.”

“Magic?” the Marine said. “Is that how they grew it so big?”

Karin shook her head. “There are bigger raptors than this in the wild. They wouldn’t need magic for that. Or to enable this attack.”

Before she could speculate, the owl’s metal collar began emitting a vibrating tone, like a showman playing wine glasses with moistened fingers. Karin stood up and took a step backward. The singing sound grew louder, and then the owl’s body shimmered and disappeared.

“I guess that’s what the collar was for,” the Marine said.

“Fuck,” Karin said. “We need to get out–”

The earth exploded beside them, and she lost consciousness.

#

Something cold and wet splashed onto Karin’s face and up her nose. She coughed, spewed, and sat up to see Saul perched on a blackened stump next to her. He dropped an open canteen onto her belly, and she picked it up and gulped down more water.

It was daytime, and they were maybe twenty feet from the edge of a clearing which had been made by last night’s forest fire. Many of the charred trees were still smoldering. The long shadows told Karin it was early morning.

She looked back at Saul. His left wing was singed along its leading edge, and small patches of dried blood matted the feathers on the side of his head.

Karin moved her arms and legs, and found that they were bruised but not broken. “What happened, Lance Corporal?”

“You tell me.”

Karin gave a quick report of the previous night’s attack, ending with the owl disappearing and the blast that had knocked her out.

“Well,” Saul said when she was done, “That tracks with all these little trinkets we collected.”

He shrugged his backpack off onto the ground. Karin picked up the satchel, hearing metal clink inside, and opened it to find several dozen small metal rings with markings like those on the owl’s collar.

“Teleport charms,” Karin said. “Legion’s been trying to make these work for decades. How did the enemy do it?”

“I’m going to tell you what we know,” Saul said, “but only because we’re in a desperate situation, and if I don’t make it back, you need to make a full report.”

“With all due respect, Lance Corporal, fuck that noise,” Karin said. “I’m not leaving anyone else behind. And you’re going to tell me everything because I need to know how these bastards killed our entire company.”

Saul clicked his beak. “Okay. You know what ley lines are?”

“Meridians of magical force which can affect natural phenomena,” Karin recited. “Lots of farmers are superstitious about lining up their planted fields for better harvests, but it’s never been proven to work.”

“Yeah, that’s because you need specially made focus objects to collect and redirect the energy.”

Karin held up a handful of rings. “Like these?”

“Apparently,” Saul said. “And they only work in specific locations. Legion’s research has all been directed toward making artifacts, not studying the geography. It’s the interaction of the two that enables teleportation. The enemy got ahead of us there. They know where the hot spots are, and they made these rings to open portals between them.”

“So our camp–”

“Was built on a minor intersection of ley lines,” Saul said. “We had no way of knowing that. And the enemy’s protecting a major intersection on top of that ridge to the west. They’re dug into the rock–that’s why we couldn’t see their base from above. We trailed their owls there, and they ambushed us.”

“How many of us survived?” Karin asked.

“I don’t know. The Major gave me these artifacts to protect, and I raced back to camp just in time to see the end of their attack.” Saul flicked his head to one side in a gesture of disgust. “At least I took out a couple of those big-eyed freaks before they could vanish.”

Karin closed the satchel and moved to put it back on Saul’s shoulders. He waved her off.

“You carry it,” he said. “I’ll move better if I travel light.”

She stuffed the satchel into her own backpack. “You want me to look at that wing?”

“When did you pick up a medical degree?”

Karin made a face. “No need to be unpleasant, Lance Corporal. What do we do now?”

“We take another run at the ridge,” Saul said.

Karin felt her pulse quicken and her stomach turn at the same time. She could still see the burned man’s face, and hear the sounds of her comrades dying around her. She wouldn’t say no to vengeance, but she also didn’t want to commit suicide. She studied Saul’s eyes, looking for any sign that he was concussed or otherwise mentally unstable.

“Do we have a plan that doesn’t involve us dying on the mountain?” she asked.

Saul tilted his head up and clacked his beak in amusement. “We’re going to have the element of surprise.”

#

“Are you sure you’re reading it right?” Saul asked.

“I have no fucking idea what I’m doing,” Karin said. “I’m just going down the list here.”

They were kneeling in the dirt near the remains of the camp. They had searched the rubble for equipment and weapons, and Karin was now loaded down with two repeaters, a pistol, spare ammunition for all three firearms, a belt full of grenades, and food and water.

Her left hand held one of the enemy teleport rings, which Saul also gripped with one of his claws. Karin’s right hand held open a spellbook recovered from the base library. She was nearly halfway through the standard incantations, but so far, nothing had produced any response in the ring.

“Let’s go over the plan again,” Saul said.

“You worry too much.”

“You don’t worry enough.”

“Fine,” Karin said. “We teleport in–if this incantation ever works–and run around their base, killing dudes and looking for the prototype of a larger teleportation artifact.”

“It’ll be circular,” Saul said. “It might be a ring like this, or a disk or even a dome. But it will be big enough to enclose at least one squad of soldiers.”

“And that’s their invasion plan.” Karin stared at Saul. “To teleport directly into our country, wherever they can target these ley line intersections, and then fight their way through civilian populations?”

“Act of terror,” Saul said. “If they can threaten any of our citizens, in their homes, at any time, we live in fear forever.”

“Are you sure this information is reliable?” Karin asked.

Saul stared at her with an unreadable expression. “I was there when the Major interrogated the owl. The intel’s good.”

Karin looked back at the spellbook. “Well, it won’t make any difference if we can’t activate this ring.”

“Keep trying.”

It took five more pages of strange pronunciations and weird vowel inflections, but just when Karin thought her tongue would crack from drying out, the metal ring began singing. She dropped the spellbook and closed her right hand around a loaded repeater.

“Here we go,” she said. “Good hunting, Lance Corporal.”

“Try to shoot straight, Private First Class.”

The world shimmered, and Karin felt lightheaded. For a moment, everything dissolved to nothing–the ground beneath her boots, the smoky air, the hot sun on her helmet. Then she was in a new place, and the air pressed in around her, pushing the smell of antiseptic into her nostrils.

She let go of the ring, grasped the repeater with both hands, and got her bearings. Saul had already taken flight, flapping up toward the ceiling of what looked like an infirmary. Of course. Wounded soldiers would get teleported directly back to the medics.

Saul keened and dove, and Karin heard a scream and a thud. She looked over to see a man bent impossibly backwards over a metal cabinet, his spine undoubtedly broken. She had forgotten how powerful a full-grown raptor was–she had even seen hawks take out snow wolves with a single blow from above. The baby falcons she had been training were nothing compared to an angry Saul Haliatus.

Someone shouted to her left, and Karin turned and saw a medic reaching for something hanging on the wall–a fire axe. She sprayed the entire area with bullets, then stepped forward and swept the room, shooting anything that wasn’t Saul and didn’t look like it was already dead or dying.

When her repeater clicked empty, Karin reloaded with shaking hands and looked around again. Saul was on top of an operating table, his weight pressing down on the owl who had been strapped down there for surgery, and he was pecking out the owl’s eyes.

“Lance Corporal!” Karin called over the owl’s shrieks. “We need to move!”

Saul stabbed his beak into the owl’s head one last time, then lifted off and sailed out of the infirmary. “This way.”

No, Karin thought, as she put a bullet through the blind owl’s brain, not that way.

It became clear, as they fought their way through the base, that Saul was out for blood. He wasn’t interrogating anyone, or checking for maps or other information that would lead them to the prototype he’d made such a fuss about. Karin had to run to keep up with his dive-bomb attacks, and it took her some time to build a mental map of the facility and guess at the most likely location for a secret engineering project.

They had taken the enemy by surprise, so resistance was scattered and slow. But Karin couldn’t physically push Saul in the direction she wanted to go. She had to yell, cajole, and threaten to guide him toward the center of the base. At one point, she even used a grenade to seal off a stairwell. If he made it out into the open air, she’d never get him back.

She discarded one repeater after it jammed, and the second one was down to half a clip of ammunition when they found the prototype chamber. Karin emptied the clip into the two soldiers guarding the large, upright metal circle, which stood over twenty feet tall. She tossed aside the empty repeater and put two bullets from her pistol into one of the two engineers working on the artifact. Saul drove the remaining engineer into a wall, then tore out his neck.

“You okay, Private First Class?” Saul asked, landing next to Karin on the stone floor. She had fallen to her knees and was leaning forward on both arms, doing her best to stop trembling. Too much blood. There’s too much blood.

“I don’t see any markings or controls,” Karin said, nodding at the giant metal ring. It appeared to be made of gold, and had been polished so that it reflected its surroundings in misshapen clarity. “Did the prisoner have any idea how this thing is supposed to work?”

“Yes. It’s touch-activated.” Saul fluttered upward, then settled on a metal cylinder which stood next to the ring. It was about five feet tall, a foot across the top in diameter, and it began singing as soon as Saul touched it. Within seconds, the metal ring started resonating as well. “On your feet, Marine.”

The empty space inside the ring shimmered, and Karin smelled corn.

“No,” Karin said. “No! We go together, or I don’t go at all.”

“I’m giving you a direct order, Private First Class Tenrie,” Saul said. “Take those artifacts back to Legion Command. Figure out how to stop these cowards from invading our homeland.” He twitched his tail. “Then you come back and give me a proper funeral.”

Karin struggled to her feet. The smell of corn grew stronger, and she thought she could hear her mother’s voice. “I can’t do this, Saul.”

“That’s Lance Corporal Haliatus, and you will do this, Marine!” Saul squawked. “You think I can’t convene a court martial in the afterlife? I will make it my mission in death to render your eternity completely miserable! And you know how fucking unpleasant I can be!”

Karin felt herself shaking again, and this time it wasn’t from exhaustion or fear. She wiped wetness from her eyes. “Affirmative, Lance Corporal. You can be a real fucking pain in the ass.”

“Leave the grenades,” Saul said.

She unstrapped her equipment belt and let it fall to the floor. She took a step toward the circle and felt a gentle pressure, as if it were trying to pull her in. She looked at Saul, but he had his eyes trained on the doorway.

“They’re coming,” he said. “Go.”

Karin stood straight up and raised her hand to her temple in one last salute. “It’s been an honor serving with you, Lance Corporal.”

“My friends call me Saul.” The hawk turned his eyes to look at her. “Good-bye, Karin.”

“Saul.” She had more to say, but she couldn’t find the words. “You still have a choice. You always had a choice.”

“I was born to the Legion.” He snapped his head around to face her. “GO!”

She stumbled, surprised by his outburst, and fell through the circle. That same feeling of lightheadedness washed over her, and then a sensation of falling, as if she had leapt off a cliff. Then the rush of air again, filling the space around her, pushing her down.

Karin couldn’t keep her balance. She fell forward. Her helmet smacked against wet grass and hard dirt, and the impact knocked loose the tears she had been holding back.

She heard footsteps and voices, and rough hands pulled her to her feet. She opened her eyes to see a squad of MPs guarding her. Behind them were new barracks, an old farmhouse, a chimney puffing smoke, and a cloudless blue sky.

“They’re coming,” she said. “War is coming, mother.”

In the distance, a raven squalled.

© 2013 Curtis C. Chen

“Calpurnia” by Corey Fawcett

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Calpurnia

By Corey Fawcett

I may not have been very smart but I knew what rock bottom was, and this was it.

I was wearing a beige custodial uniform and orthopedic shoes and watching trails of soapy water dry up behind my mop at the Des Moines Zoo. It was eleven on a Friday night, and a year ago I would’ve been doing tequila shots at Sampson’s with Vicki and Carla. Last time I spoke to them they told me they were sick of watching me steal and I told them to go to hell and smashed my bottle of B & J on the table. I saw Eddie at Walgreens a few months later and he told me I was welcome back any time. “I know things have been rough since your mom passed,” he said, putting a stiff hand on my shoulder. I thanked him but left the store without getting what I came for.

Tonight I was cleaning the octopus exhibit, but the cleaning part was mostly to pass time. I was really there to watch the tank. The octopus, a California two-spot, was named Calpurnia by a Shakespeare-loving biologist; something with which I sympathized as my name was Julieta. (“I just knew I would love saying it. Julieta, Julieta,” my mother Jolene would say. “Yeah, you would love saying it,” I’d snap back.) The light above Calpurnia’s tank kept short-circuiting and nobody new why. Someone would come in and fix it and like clockwork it wouldn’t work the next morning. When my boss Vince asked the custodians if any of us would be willing to do the late night once-over a little later than usual and keep an eye on the tank, I volunteered. Jolene had an octopus toe ring, and as it was nearly the anniversary of her death I was starting to take everything as a sign from her. And my usual routine of going home after work to watch cable and drink beer until I passed out on the couch was getting easier and easier to shirk.

Although I was beginning to take pride in my cleaning abilities, I still lied to people about my job. No one thinks they’re meant to be a zoo custodian, but I really wasn’t. I was pretty. Not just normal pretty, but the kind where you can make money from it. I’d been photographed by a few semi-professional photographers in the past: lying on a Mercedes in a bikini, straddling a motorcycle in cut off shorts and a bra, wearing just a tool belt while holding wrenches strategically over my nipples. Every time the photos were bought (mostly by auto magazines), Jolene took me out to Red Lobster where she would feed my dreams of hauling my perfectly teardrop-shaped ass to Hollywood. But I gained forty pounds after she died, cut my hair into uneven wisps, and rid the Airstream of my glamour shots. Walter, the zoo’s in house animal trainer, once told me I could be a model if I started exercising. “We can exercise together, you and me,” he’d say with a grin. That night I went home and ate an entire box of frosted sugar cookies.

I took a swig out of the flask nestled between my breasts and worked my mop over to Calpurnia’s tank, where she was weaving in and out of rocks and plants. Over the past few months she’d been caught out of her tank twice. The first time, she crawled right over the top of it and landed at the feet of a pair of zoogoers during opening hours. The second time, after the zoo was closed, an intern found her creeping up the side of a nearby fish tank. After the second incident she was given a new tank with higher walls and a cover over the top.

Octopus bimaculoidus,” it said on the plaque next to her tank.

Diet: mollusks, crustaceans, abalone and small fish

Calpurnia is a California two-spot octopus that was born on March 2nd, 1982. The two-spot gets its name from the pair of deep blue marks located below its eyes. It comes from the waters of central California to northern Baja California, and can grow up to three and a half feet long. Although the two-spot is usually brown, grey or yellow, it can change its color and texture to match its surroundings in milliseconds. If encountered by a predator, the two-spot confuses it by ejecting a cloud of ink in its direction and shooting out a jet of water to propel its escape. It kills its prey by squeezing it with its tentacles and smothering it in toxic saliva.

The two-spot typically passes its time looking for food on the seafloor or hiding from predators. It’s nocturnal, making it skilled at seeing in the dark. One interesting fact about the two-spot is that the female stops eating after laying its eggs and dies once they hatch.

I picked up my mop after reading the plaque and when I looked back at Calpurnia’s tank my breath caught in my throat. She wasn’t gliding around the tank floor anymore. She was suspended in the water with her tentacles fanned out, completely still with her eyes fixed upon me. I stepped closer to her tank, touching my nose to the glass. She had changed color from a mottled brown to a powder pink, the shade of my fingernail polish and the heart shaped stone that hung around my neck.

“Jesus!” I yelled. Calpurnia jetted to the front the tank and began to paw softly at me with her tentacles. I put my hand up and her tentacles migrated to it, stroking the glass underneath my palm. We stayed like that for a while until she turned back to brown and resumed moving around the bottom of her tank.

With trembling hands I pulled the flask out of my shirt again and shook the remaining drops onto my tongue. I stood there for a while watching the tank, not sure if the pulsing sound I heard was from the water that surrounded me or my own ears. I finished dragging the mop around the remainder of the room and left to put it and rolling bucket in the supply closet. When I came back Calpurnia was at the water’s surface staring directly into the light above her cage. I stopped in my tracks at the doorway and held my breath, afraid the slightest movement would make her go into hiding. She leaned her head back and shot continuous jets of water at the light through the small feeding hole in the cover of her tank. The light buzzed and then went out entirely. “That’s too bright for you, huh, Calpurnia?” I reached out to inspect the fixture and when I did, she unfurled a lone tentacle and reached through the cover hole to tap my hand. That was when my plan started forming.

Jolene taught me to steal when I was so young that I have no memory of our first conversations about it. Under her counsel I stole anything she wanted me to: food, jewelry, shoes, silverware, Christmas presents for relatives, friends, and myself. (“Nice,” I would mutter to the mall Santa Claus. “Not naughty.”) I even shoplifted my own communion dress. She spent four dollars on a pair of platform flip flops while I smuggled the sixty dollar dress out of the store under my jumper. My second grade class was scheduled to go to confession the next day. “Ms. Thatcher says it’s to give us a clean slate before we let the body of Christ into our own,” I told her. Jolene shuddered at the innuendo, squatted down to my height, and grabbed my chin. “Remember not to tell Father Bernie about our treasure hunting,” she said. “Because if you do, I’ll find out, and I will be very upset with you. You hear me?”

Oftentimes, she had me steal out of necessity: if she was unemployed and we needed a new microwave, if she got a speeding ticket and we needed to pawn a gold watch to pay it off faster, etc. But she wasn’t very discerning. I shoplifted whatever she wanted. “We’re no worse than everyone else,” she would tell herself in moments of drunken insecurity. “Everybody has something they do.” Well, I wanted Calpurnia, and I was going to do something.

Home was Evergreen Estates for mobile homes in an Airstream Trailer stuffed to the brim with stolen contraband. Jolene didn’t mean for the Airstream to be stationary; after I graduated high school we moved out of a little rambler on the north side of town and bought the trailer with the intention to road trip across the U.S. in it. “Then we’re gonna get you to Hollywood,” she said. “I hear they have great trailer parks there. And you can live with your old mom until you find something. And then you can buy her a five story mansion for her to put her feet up in. With a pool too,” she would tell me. But then she got sick: stage three neuroblastoma. I offered to work all the jobs I could to cover the medical bills, to steal cars, anything. Even though she refused I would find myself wide awake at four in the morning obsessing over inane, elaborate plans to rob the Tiffany’s at the mall. But she told me not steal a penny more for her. She had gotten in touch with her estranged parents for the first time in ten years and they agreed to finance the medical bills. I used all the money I had saved up for traveling to buy an above ground swimming pool for her to float around in in the backyard.

The next day I called Vince and told him what I saw at the zoo. “She shoots out water at the light. I think it’s too bright for her,” I told him. “Aha,” he said. “That damn thing’s more trouble than it’s worth.” I let out a high pitched giggle despite the banality of his comment. “Well, I’ll see your pretty face tomorrow,” he said to me, his voice changing. I could practically hear him wink. Perfect.

After hanging up I made a few stops downtown for rocks, sand, seaweed, clams, mussels, crayfish, little crabs, and a water thermometer. When I got back home I waited for it to get dark out and snuck into my neighbor Georgia’s yard to drag her hose into the swimming pool, careful not to knock over her plastic flamingos or Ten Commandments tablet. While I waited for the pool to fill up, I rifled through a box of Jolene’s things and got my hands on a big burgundy purse that still had the security tag on it. I didn’t have much to pick from as my grandparents had put most of her things in a storage unit, not sure what else to do with it. They chose to ignore the fact that she left behind hardly any money but a mountain of expensive clothes, accessories, and appliances with the price tags attached. They gave me access to her storage unit under the impression I was going to put more stuff in there, not take things out and pawn them. But Jolene would understand. Everybody has something they do, after all.

I slung the purse over my shoulder, drove to the zoo, and used my key to enter through the Employees Only door. When I turned the light on at the octopus exhibit, Calpurnia darted to the front of her tank and turned powder pink again. I was planning on standing on a chair, removing the cover of the tank, and scooping her out with my bag, but she had already started doing the work for me. She’d positioned herself underneath the hole in the tank’s cover and begun pushing her tentacles through it. “Not your noodle, girl. You’re gonna squish your brains!” I yelled at her as she wiggled her bulbous head through the hole. When I realized she was going to succeed I ran to the bathroom and filled my purse with water, returning just in time to catch her as she rolled off the top of the tank.

I stared into the purse. Calpurnia looked like a little organ that grew limbs. I imagined a cop pulling me over on the way home and me telling him I was transporting a kidney to an ill friend. “Don’t eat that!” I yelled at Calpurnia, horrified I forgot about the second half of the Twix bar I threw in the purse on the drive over. She released the chocolate from her clutches but sprayed a jet of water in my face. “You little goob,” I whispered to her as I slunk to my car at the edge of the parking lot. Once I started the engine I headed straight for the zoo gates. “Sit tight, Cal.” I set the purse in my lap and snapped the button at the top. I stepped on the gas and rammed the car into the zoo gates, which swung open easier than I thought they would. Calpurnia and I sped off to the sound of alarms.

I parked in the yard and headed straight for the swimming pool. Calpurnia looked jaunty as she swirled around in her new surroundings, so I left her alone to explore. I made myself a Greyhound and turned on the news, half listening. Although I couldn’t see the inside of the pool from my window, I kept staring out of it to make sure Calpurnia wasn’t climbing over the sides. Jolene’s owl figurines cluttered the window sill from end to end, all watching me watch the octopus with bulging eyes. Sometimes when we came home from a loot Jolene would turn all of the figurines around to direct their gazes elsewhere. “Breaking news,” said the newscaster on TV, “It appears that someone has broken into the Des Moines Zoo. Law enforcement is currently sweeping the area for suspicious activity. Stay tuned for more information.” I turned around the owls one by one and made sure their eyes were pointing toward the pool.

That night I rolled over onto my stomach in my sleep and woke up to the feeling of something cold and slick on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to a powder pink blur but after I blinked again I didn’t see anything. I closed my eyes, feeling the room spin. I’d drunk too much before bed.

Vince cornered me in the locker room the next day. “The octopus is gone,” he said. “That’s it. They’ve looked for her in the drainage system and all the other tanks. Whoever broke in stole her and hauled ass. Got in and got out. Why the fuck would someone do that?” He gestured at me to grab a powdered mini doughnut from the box he was holding. “It’s funny. The car in the security tapes kind of looked like the same model as yours. You’re not starting Noah’s Ark or something, are you?” Shit, I thought. The security camera. I shoved half the doughnut into my mouth and slowly licked the powder from around my lips, making eye contact with Vince who opened his mouth ever so slightly. “You’re funny, Vince,” I said, slapping his shoulder. “Besides, I got a key. I can waltz right into the zoo without messing up my car.” He smiled and brushed some powder off my chest before going back to his closet-sized office.

It didn’t take long for them to find me out. Just two days later the police knocked on my door while I was half-watching Magnum P.I. and half-watching the pool. I didn’t put up a fight and led them straight to the back yard, but the pool was empty. “She should be in there. I been watching her!” I said to the officers as they handcuffed me against the car. They searched the Airstream and the surrounding area but gave up after fifteen minutes. “It’s probably dead somewhere,” the tall mustached officer said, scanning the lot one more time before getting into the driver’s seat. “Those things aren’t even worth that much anyway.”

My jail cell roommate was a twitchy evangelical Christian named Emma. I made the mistake of telling her my entire story, even about the night I woke up to the pink blur in my bed. “Sounds to me like that octopus was possessed. The devil contaminated that animal, and that animal contaminated you. Be gone, devil!” she shrieked at me with her hands placed upon my head. I let her continue while I stared through our barred window at the cornfields, hypnotized by a thin trail currently being blazed through the sandy stalks toward the jail. Emma finished exorcising me and stared down at me, panting. “Oh, I think it worked,” I said. “I don’t feel evil no more.” She raised an eyebrow at me and went back to reading her Jodi Picoult novel. I gave my nails a new coat of bubblegum polish.

I awoke in the middle of the night to my cot drenched in sweat. In my dream I was trying to pull Jolene’s body out of the pool while Walter and Vince watched me bend over its edge, laughing and making kissy noises. Disoriented, I staggered to the toilet so I could sit on the cool steel and catch my breath. But something caught my eye first. A mottled brown tentacle was worming its way out of the toilet drain. I reached out to touch it and it coiled around my finger, turning a glowing shade of powder pink. Softly, I began to weep. As soon as I was out, Calpurnia and I were going to Hollywood in our Airstream trailer.

© 2013 Corey Fawcett

“Secrets to Change Life” by Ian Drew Forsyth

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Secrets to Change Life

By Ian Drew Forsyth

“Next to his gorgeous sleeping body, how many hours I used to spend awake at night, wondering why he wanted to escape from reality so badly. No man ever had such a wish. I realized—without any fear for him—that he could be a serious threat to society.—Maybe he’s got secrets to change life?

 

~Arthur Rimbaud (translated by Bertrand Mathieu)

 

Are you saying, you hypnotize each one of these cats?” says the tourist.

“Madame, this is beyond mere hypnotism—I am a medium to the feline world.”

“Just give her some money, sugar.”

“Do you take American dollars?”

“If you must.”

The tourist hands off a wad of money hot off a squishy airline seat over the Atlantic.

“Merci! Now if you’ll direct your attention to our three extraordinary felines!”

The three cats perk up at the beckoning of Isabella’s voice, and right on cue, all begin to purr. “Art, my ribbons.”

Her son Arthur, who she’d dressed to resemble a riffraff twelve year old poet-genius, bestows her three purple ribbons. With a dramatic swish-swoosh of her arm, the ribbons float down to the cobbles.

She spins out a litany of commands in singsong French almost matching the pitch of mews, meows, and trills of cat tongue, and then winks at her two onlookers: “They’re French cats of course or I would speak to them in English.”

They nod with polite awe. They obviously don’t speak French.

The cats each pick up a ribbon in their mouths and with a sophisticated twist drape them over their necks. Then, still purring, with dainty flecks of their jaws they assist each other in tying each ribbon into a bow. As Scotty’s bow is made perfect by Oliver and Yohan, the tourists with their own non-bow tying mouths agape, begin to clap.

“And there you have it, three now dapper cats in bow ties. There are many more feats they could marvel you with, but we really must be leaving.”

“How did you get them to do that?”

“We had a long discussion about it—enjoy Paris! We’re off to dinner.”

“Here let me give you more money.” The woman digs in her purse for her fresh airport envelope of euros.

Isabella grins at Arthur. “We will eat well tonight my little poet!”

“Oh, is he a poet?” the woman says plucking out twenty euros.

“But of course, he will be one of the greatest poets in the world one day.”

“Is this true child, do you write poems?”

“I do, but I will not be a great poet—I will be a great musician.”

Isabella sighs. “It’s a phase, kids right? If we had more time we’d have him compose you an amazing poem in under fifteen minutes that would tug on the very tethers of your soul.”

“So artistic! What instrument do you play?”

“The accordion ma’am.”

“Although he doesn’t even own one yet.”

“Ah, I’m sure, you’ll be great at it.” The American woman hands Arthur the twenty euros. “But tell me, your accent is American—but your mother, she is French?”

“She—”

“But we cannot reveal too many secrets, or what type of performers would we be Art?”

“Dull performers, mother.”

“If we chance meet you again, he will compose you a poem that will shake the cobwebs from your head and give you the clear infinite of the sea. Bonne nuit, Scotty, onward!” The three cats pad off in front as Isabella and Arthur flash their toothy grins at their patrons and take off at a brisk walk up the slow curve of the Seine.

“Now what will we eat—the options are open!”

“Our favorite,” Arthur says.

Sitting on the stony ledge of the Seine in the Latin Quarter they break into the flesh of their baguette, smear it with butter, and coat it with melted Brie. Then not forgetting to give the cats some fish heads and a toss of catnip, they devour the warm, fatty crunch with much savory sighs and dairy-overloaded palates. For dessert, chocolate covered strawberries are dipped in Chantilly cream.

Then filled with simple pleasures, they laugh themselves silly on the antics of their dear cat pack, whom high on the nip, battle along the edge of the river—Oliver, one misplaced paw from being underwater.

Arthur had asked his mother how she’d trained her cats many times before and decides to yet again.

Isabella shakes her long sable mane over her face. “What will it take for you to trust me? They talk to me—I answer. How are you going to be the great poet I want you to be if you don’t believe in the impossible. Remember: poets are the real visionaries, scientists are secondary.”

“Nobody cares about poets anymore mom.”

“Blasphemy! I demand you read Illuminations once more before bedtime for adequate penance.”

“But rock stars, pop stars, rappers: that’s who everybody listens to.”

“And they’re all idiots.”

Arthur frowns and picks up Scotty and begins to pet him. “They’re just people. And I feel like you’re calling me an idiot.” He shoots her a glare.

Isabella peals out a cackle of mad laughter and gives Art a joking punch in the arm. “That is so beautiful and compassionate of you to say and I cherish that quality in you, but don’t trust the idiots of the world to listen to your art and properly hear it. And you’ll never be an idiot! Even if you listen to that forsaken sugared gibberish.”

“Whatever, child-beater, just tell me when the cats will talk to me?”

“Oh come on, I barely touched you.” She chuckles and winks. “They’ll talk to you, when you get a couple French girlfriends—it’s a puberty thing. O, the hearts you’ll break!” She ruffles his hair much to his chagrin as he bats away her suffocating mother hands which grip him to her too tight. As tight as a lover might, but twice as gentle, and of a motherly desperation, as the sun sinks on Paris like an old battered pirate ship and the City of Lights dumps it halcyon halogen into the river—streaking stained glass candy across the poetic eyes of the still-left flâneurs—all mere spectacle to the badauds, those frauds, out to repetitively rediscover the Disney heart of this city—the city where revolution, modernity, and the bohemian were born and continue even if in the faint afterglow of once what was.

*

My mother kidnapped me from my father’s flat in London when I was ten. She arrived like a spy: frenzied, mad, eyes ablaze with hatred. She was screaming he was an ogre and that she’d whisk me away to enchanted lands where money didn’t matter, and human connection wasn’t a business transaction.

I was happy to leave, dad was never there and when he came home, he brought strange gaudy women and/or drank too much. Mom says he was even snorting coke right under my nose. “Well under his nose if you want to get technical about it,” she said.

My mother swears she was young and dumb when she met my father but that I was not a mistake and that I was the best thing that ever happened to her. “Many artists will say that their children ruined their potential careers—but you enrich mine. When we get to Paris, I’ll show you my Parentage painting series—it’s the best thing I’ve ever done!”

Mom says that in college in New York, father promised her that he was going to be an environmental lawyer. “What environment are you going to save there—Central Park?” But in law school when he got some of the highest grades in his class and corporate firms offered him astounding salaries—he folded to the money. “But I couldn’t leave you—I held onto to you as long as I could.”

After a few years we moved to London, because dad had accepted a position at a bank. “That’s when he really got evil and I know you don’t even want to hear this—but he cheated on me a lot, and he didn’t care about us anymore. You know it as well as I, he’s become a monster—he’s not human, oh, Goddess, I said I wasn’t going to bash your father, but it’s so easy—forgive me, and give me a hug—I need one.”

When I was nine, my mother disappeared. One morning, she wasn’t there. My father didn’t even flinch, and, although it felt ominous, we didn’t talk about it for three days. On the fourth, I asked him where she’d gone, and he said he didn’t know, but that she’d be back.

She’d had: “An existential crisis—I felt worse than a stifled housewife might—I felt like I was a concubine to the Attila the Hun of finance—cold, calculating warlord with money and stock as his deadly weapons of choice.” She’d decided to walk the road to Santiago in the upper region of Spain after reading of another woman’s experience in a book. It’s traditionally an ancient Catholic pilgrimage but my mother says: “It’s become more secularized, and open to anyone with a spiritual quandary or even just a fancy for change—we’re all a series of similar desires that lead towards transcendence.” It usually takes about two months if you start where most people do, in the south of France near the Spanish border, but because many paths link to El Camino all across Europe, my mother walked from London, taking the ferry over to France from Dover after stopping by Canterbury, another pilgrim’s destination totaling some six months of walking. When you walk El Camino, you walk with a significant spiritual question in mind. Her question was how she was going to change her life: to escape my father, and save me from a life like his.

So she showed up screaming he was an ogre one night because she still had the keys to the flat. By then, my dad pretended my mother had never existed, and if anyone asked about her he didn’t respond, and because he had so much money, no one was asking him personal questions anymore.

After the screaming, she hugged me and cried and I began to cry and she apologized profusely for leaving without me until she was on her knees begging for forgiveness and our eyes were puffy by the time I got a chance to accept her apology. I’d never been more overwhelmed with emotion—from that day on, I’ve felt emotions never more tender: I understand their depth, their flux, they’re amazing and I revel in them.

“Pack everything you want to take—we’re leaving before the ogre returns to his castle. I’m going to take you to the rumbling heart of the revolution, then we’re going to the stars, and then we will settle in a history not our own. All paths are open and we are not we: we are the force that moves mountains and churns rivers upside down.”

She was very poetic those first new nights together as if she’d become a female prophet and she was magically chanting us away from father. She did actually magically chant us out of the apartment—laying a shard of obsidian on father’s pillow, and cutting the cable to his television. She also hid several of his suits around the flat and threw out the entire contents of his fridge—keeping what we wanted to eat.

As we boarded the tube, I felt full of adrenaline, like a wild runaway fugitive might. I didn’t know where we were going—I hardly imagined it’d be in gray London, but we got off at St. Paul’s and walked up to the cathedral where at the steps of it spread tent after tent of the homeless and young and some middle aged. They were all furiously talking or calmly laying back—reading or cooking or planning.

“Welcome to the Revolution, Art.”

I’d heard the term Occupy, but had no idea what it was. At first, I’d thought it had something to do with Guy Fawkes Day because of the masks, which we’d gone to in Lewes one November 5th: 80,000 people packed in an old village to watch fire barrels race through the narrow lanes and the effigy of the Pope go kaboom in fireworks.

We stayed in our own tent at first, but then a squat opened up: an old bank building, and all you had to do to stay there was one chore. One chore: that’s all it took to keep the real crazies out. At 10 o’ clock, we’d lock it down, barricade the doors and windows, and say a magic chant the police wouldn’t raid us in the night. We had rotating guards through the dark, ready to evacuate everyone if it got violent.

I began to enjoy making banners with their large bold statements. I overheard a lot of things—of course, not everything I heard, I understood, but mom attempted to explain everything to me from Marxism vs. Communism, Socialism vs. Liberalism, Neoliberalism vs. Neoconservatism and whatever else.

One night, I created a banner with the phrase: Death to Mediocrity which I’d overheard in conversation and had to look the word up in an online dictionary and make sure I was spelling it right. From the moment my mother saw it, she declared me a poet, even though it’s not my phrase, and then she began telling me all about poetry: the Romantics, Dickinson, Symbolism, Surrealism, the Beats, Plath, and Slam Poetry.

I was the youngest person at Occupy so a lot of people talked to me: some like I was a child, and these were the rules I need to learn or that if I got scared I’d know who to go to; while others talked to me like I was the newest, freshest generation and I needed to lead everyone my age.

Being now branded as a poet by my mother, everyone in the squat and encampment expected me to write poems. First I started shyly writing poems of 3 to 5 lines, just combinations or elaborations of the bold statements of the banners:

WAR IS NOT LOVE

LOVE IS NOT MONEY
MONEY IS NOT HEAVEN

But soon it multiplied into longer form poems. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s chapbook: A Coney Island of the Mind, gave me the true inspiration to find my own voice, and it was immensely amplified by the camp and the ambition of everyone. There was much to write about: I was creating my first chapbook.

We were living right under the nose of my father; I was afraid he’d sniff us out, and gobble us up. My mother’s ogre metaphor was haunting me in my dreams, my father always had a sacrificial dagger in his hand and he was into stalking after us like a serial killer might. I wondered if he was even searching for us, because he was just as detached from me as from mother. I can’t lie, it hurt that he didn’t look for me. “We’ll find you a better father, or you can be your own father—the universe will work it out for us.”

I thought of that idea—being my own father. I felt my mind was ready for it, it was maturing faster than my physical body could catch up, so that in the five months we lived at Occupy, I’d lived five years and I was seventeen mentally speaking. My mother claimed I’d be just like Rimbaud all the time, but with the Latin American fury for physical revolt in my blood, and we’d lead a revolution of life and art.

A week before the bobbies finally forced us all out of the squat and the encampment, an accordion player appeared. He always stood on the cathedral steps belting out one long continuous ballad, day and night, only pausing for catnaps and quick meals. He still performed in the muffled background when the stereos pumped music and the bullhorns roared instructions. His ongoing music became in that week to me, the song of Occupy—gorgeous, haunting, and unyielding if not playful, a bit disheveled, and longing. From that week forth, I wanted to be a musician more than a poet.

*

My son was born a saint. I call him Art as in great art, and Arturo as in his Spanish blood. His father wanted him to be called Arthur, so I never call him that. He is technically American, as am I, but I tell him to let go of that, for we are people of the world.

My little poet and I had just ended our stint as revolutionaries and we were fired up, inferno spilled through us, he’d finished his first collection of poems called: Poems that Explode.

We didn’t fail!

We will return!

We never left!

While I’d given him Lorca and duende and revolt, now I wanted him to know the roots of his father, deep waters his father would never paddle, Celtic fire he’d long since abandoned as mere superstition. Thus the English countryside was calling.

We strolled the bootstrapped paths of the Lake District where Wordsworth and Coleridge walked verse to verse through the dales and glens, the weald and the shores.

I returned to Canterbury with him and we basked in the full cathedral glories minus the sullen conformities.

And we ended up in Avebury, lightning rod of the Neolithic stone circle, and the circles in the grain. We waited for little balls of light to come down and etch ancient geometric patterns of the Celts in hyperreal four-dimensional hypercubes for us hyper-humans approaching the gnosis of cosmic consciousness with hopeful non-vague exactitudes to exalt and spread: in short, we sought contact with the extraterrestrials.

I’ll remember that night for the rest of my life. Art and I had entered a cornfield a near ten miles from Stonehenge and dusk rolled out a blanket of gold and pearl and the air shook with electric potential. Art was curious about the corn and ripped off an ear to taste.

“Don’t eat that!”

“Why?”

“It’s a Franken food. There’s little pesticides reproducing in each one of its cells making it a hundred times more potent, as it continues to reproduce in your intestines.”

Art bit it anyway and gagged, spitting it out.

“Well my little Icarus have you learned?”

“It’s wretched—it tastes like dish soap.”

“The only good thing it’ll be for is the message from above.” I pointed out all the star clusters at that point, where it was presumed life was and whom we thought they were, but that me and him wouldn’t really know, until we met them.

We sat in half-lotus position in a field I’d intuited would be a target, although Art couldn’t quite get into half-lotus and I made a mental note to train him. He’d have to be good at meditation to undertake all the journeys before us. He was doing beautifully. Don’t fill a kid’s head with school: fill it with travel, with concepts beyond his years!

He sat there and I taught him Celtic chants. We sat there and the stars bled. We sat there and heaven fell. I kept waking Art up as the night wore us down and told him all the lore of the fields I could: what it could mean for us to meet more intelligent life, how they’d enlighten us from our repetitive destructive patterns that they’d already unlearned.

I must’ve tired myself out explaining everything to him, because I slumped over into dream…

And in the morning, the glorious morning—I kid you not! My kid and I were standing inside one of the most complex and fourteenth largest crop circle to date! Can you believe it? We danced ring-around-the-rosey—I could tell Art was astounded—the air buzzed with raw potential—someone had visited us in the night—someone wise beyond our comprehension.

We waited until the researchers came and shared our story, and they theirs, and I felt I’d expanded my boy’s consciousness. Next we’d be off to Paris to make artists of us both.

*

When Isabella brought Art to Belleville, she bespoke its wonders as the stronghold of the working class, the home of anarchists, the birthing place of the autonomous commune. Although it’d been challenged by gentrification and multiculturalism was attempting to balance it out. “Where there’s gentrification, there is artistic money to be made off the talentless, tasteless upper classes—scam them for all they’re worth Art—scam the high heels right off their feet.

“And then if it gets so bourgeoisie we can’t breathe and the rent skyrockets, it’s time to rocket from the posh wastes and head to the capitals of the next visionaries.”

She lectured him extensively on the ethics of art until he had to politely tell her to shut up or else he wouldn’t absorb everything she was babbling to him. They were living in a large building that was an artist collective, where the rent was low and the oddballs abundant. Art was not denying that his mother was one of these oddballs.

She was working on a busking gimmick that could keep them fed. She thought of street singing, but then she didn’t have a good voice. She thought of starting a flea circus, but it seemed too detailed and archaic. She thought of having Art on the avenues hawking spontaneously made poems to passerby for donations, but then thought that would put too much pressure on him, and that she was in fact the provider. Finally she came across an obscure book about communicating with animals by a French author who’d been a practicing witch as well.

Two weeks later after obsessively reading it three times, she went out and got three cats and locked herself in her attic room for two more weeks, before she claimed she had met them in the dreamworld and worked out a deal with them, and they five would never go hungry again.

To add to the list of oddballs: there were of course the trust funders that Isabella said of to Art: “Never trust a trust funder. They’ve rarely suffered and even if they do, they still won’t get it. Money makes one weak and inhuman, especially if you’re born in a great sticky pile of it.”

Art attempted to avoid all the trust funders by his mother’s wishes, but he couldn’t sense their inhumanity. And it did seem they suffered.

There was ‘el depresso’, the film director from somewhere in the United States, although he wouldn’t reveal where. He was always depressed of course, and took long dead pan shots of the Parisian public hoping to start a New Wave esque movement called ‘Drowning Wave’ related to the overpopulation of the world and the elevation of bland and addictive patterns. “His art is good, his soul has gone sour,” Isabella said.

The hacker as she was known was only known as the hacker and no one called her by her name, which had been forgotten, even likely by her. “One day she will make us all moderately well-off and then we can all travel as much as we want, minus the trust funders, and cheaply of course, and do our part in sinking capitalism, kicking and screaming into a shallow grave.”

And then there was Art’s favorite: the troubadour. Art had of course taken a shining to him because he was a musician and played the accordion, as well as the banjo, flute, sitar, guitar, bass, trumpet, and drums which is why Isabella first thought Art wanted to be a musician, but Art had never told her about the accordion player that she’d obviously overlooked in the last hectic week of Occupy. Some secrets she cannot have, he thought, for how would I then change life.

The troubadour was from Argentina but had traveled extensively through South and North America: looking or buscar in Spanish, where the term busk originates, for not just fame and fortune, but for “Luck’s loving arms and charity’s gracious gifts” as he explained it. He was a roamer, but he’d settled somewhat in Belleville for longer than he’d thought he would, and now he couldn’t imagine leaving yet. Art secretly wanted him to never leave and spent as much time as he could with him.

*

On Sunday morning, Art hops out of bed, exits his tiny attic loft room and runs down a flight of stairs to the large kitchen where the early risers are and those who haven’t gone to bed yet from Saturday’s festivities.

Isabella sulking like a drugged dragon over her coffee looks up at his Cheshire grin. “Where are you off to little poet at such an early hour?”

“Drink up your coffee Izzy, you look as sleepy as an old willow.” He calls her Izzy when he’s feeling most affectionate to her, which has lately tended to be when he gets free from under her exacting eye. “I’m off with the troubadour to Notre Dame, we plan to wow those who’re not captured in ecclesiastic rapture.”

“How bouncy and spunky of you my little punk of frankincense—tell Jason to have you back by a reasonable hour. Tell him your best friend cannot be robbed of her Sunday night with her little poet.”

“Izzy, moms can’t be best friends. Besides how can I tell this imaginary girlfriend you want me to have: at the top of my glorious list of contacts stands my mother?”

Isabella raises her coffee mug as if to salute herself. “Am I not a glorious mother?”

“Ah yes, and all the stars and moons. Have you seen Jason?”

“He’s probably tuning his lyre in the courtyard.”

“Don’t be a liar Izzy.”

“Are you going to walk the cats before you leave?”

“I’m sure Jason would love them to go,” Art says chewing down a croissant.

“As I said before, they won’t obey him and some secrets—”

“I know—remain secret.”

“Then be gone my poet, but don’t be accursedly late to our walk.”

“Perhaps we’ll have no smother fest tonight and I will shock you a bit like we do the tourists.”

“Ah-hah—rebellion I hear, but will it bray vigorous enough?”
“We will see, dear Izzy, bye!”

Art dashes down to the courtyard to find Jason with his troupe: two dancers and three other musicians.

“Arturo, have you escaped her?”
“Oh yes!”

“And the cats?”

“No, as usual.”

“Then off with us, the crowds will be swarming on the cathedral.”

They all stride off, Art and Jason at the back. Jason is dressed as a slap dash vagabond minstrel which compliments the tattered poet fare his mother had chosen him, although he is adding his own psychedelic tinges to it now.

“Remind me how old you are again Arturo.”

“I just turned thirteen this November.”

“Ah what an auspicious number—what a life you’re living, when I was thirteen I was still trapped behind a desk in Buenos Aires.”

“But then you escaped and were better for it.”

“Of course I was! I’m never returning to those hoops laid out for us. I’m still moderately young at 29, but how many 18 year olds I’ve had to say with a grimace on my face: ‘What hoops will they have you jump through next?’ Like we were dogs, but with the weight of money over our heads.”

“Or like cats who can tie their own bow ties.”

“No—that’s amazing, how does your mother do it?! She’s such a mystic woman, tell me again, how old is she?”

Art playfully pushes Jason. “You’re always forgetting ages, but this is a secret I’m sworn to protect.”

“She’s got to be in her early thirties.”

“She might be.”

“Okay we’ll leave it a secret—she seems to have a lot of them.”

“She’ll tell them to you slowly. But first, you have to like her paintings.”

Jason raises his eyebrows. “Like her paintings? I love her work! What type of advice are you giving me?” Jason asks and grins. He has a lucky French gap between his two front teeth.

“The type you want.”

“You rascal. Have I ever told you my four dollar story—to return to the topic of money?”

“No, I’m all ears.”

“You better be eyes and nose as well. So, it basically goes like this. I was just about to break loose of Buenos Aires and because of this I’d been wild and careless with my money. Maybe it was this unconscious part of me putting up another impediment I thought, when I realized I was down to 12 pesos, that was about four American dollars at the time because this was right after the economic collapse of 2001.

“And I thought, dios mios, what have I done—I’m poorer than poor in a time of great poverty for Argentina and now I need a job and it’s hard to get one and what do I do?

“Well, I thought the best thing to do was to actually use this as the impetus for traveling. I returned to my parent’s house, I gave them my last four dollars ritualistically, and I hit the road with my instrument, which at the time was a trumpet.

“And the people I met! Oh, out in the Andes, you’ll find many a wild hippie rebel—dreadlocks wrapped around their toes, living off the land, spreading the word of small farming, small markets, you would’ve never thought Argentina was in dire straights out there.

“And that is the wisdom of 12 pesos, four dollars, going to zero: you’re free—you’re a sharp lad, I know you understand.”

*

After they played to the cathedral goers, and Art got another accordion lesson from Jason, and they all made a chunk of change—they spend it on a meal and lounge in the gardens and Art thinks about stranding his mother from their walk and wandering off to survey Paris by night alone. But with a certain reluctance, he bid goodbye to the troubadour and his troupe and headed back to Belleville.

Isabella waits in a crimson and ultramarine shawl looking like a flag of some victorious triumph, with the three patient cats by her side. Without a word, they begin sauntering and in the silence they are swallowed in their thoughts.

The silence gets broken by Isabella’s gurgling stomach.

“You haven’t eaten much, have you Izzy?”

“Oh don’t mother me now. Look there’s a bakery.”

“Our favorite?”

“But of course.”

The baker doesn’t mind the three cats following them in, and even when they leap up on the counter and stare at her, she doesn’t flinch.

“What will it be?” the baker says.

Izzy orders cream for the cats. Art sees a beignet au miel for a euro. “Is that a doughnut?”

“Oh Goddess, the doughnuts are vile in Paris! If they were not already—I will not have you eat such slime.”

“But I’m curious,” he says with a wry smile.

“This is like the corn—perhaps worse.”

That dampens his appetite and they leave to find a bench on the Seine to eat.

“Izzy, I think Jason likes you.”

You like Jason.”

“Yes, but do you too?”

She frowns and bites into her slice of the triple b’s as they call it. She watches the lights refract and wiggle like serpents on the river.

“He’s too…he’s always moving.”

“He hasn’t moved in six months.”

“That’s not very long, even in poetic time—oh can I tell you the splendid idea I had today?!”

“If you want to avoid the subject.”

“Did you tell him my age?”

“No.”

“Good. So the idea was: a poemonomy.” She smirks, perhaps partially at her idea and also that Jason doesn’t know her age.

“A what?”

“Let’s imagine a world or far off land you could say, or even an alternate plane, where everyone chose their unit of currency to be the poem. For example, if you ordered a meal at a restaurant, the waiter would return after you’d finished and ask for two to three poems of medium length and quality, more if the food was exceptional.”

“About what?”

“Whatever the restaurant wanted, or your choice. And say you wanted to purchase a warehouse to make into an artists’ collective, it would only take three great chapbooks of poetry or one or two if they were transcendently made.”

“Couldn’t any type of art be accepted?”

“Surely! Paintings, stories, music scores, crafts, performances, any act that is creative: an artonomy. So that the foundation of the creation of wealth is based on art and not the abstraction of money, but of expression and its reflections.”

“Sounds lovely and impossible—it would take great magic.”

“Oh it would, but it starts in places like where we live, but then sadly money can kill it, fame strip it, and history distort it, if not discard it.” She looks as if she might weep and while Art doesn’t mind if she does, he doesn’t feel like she wants to.

But then, marvelously, he sees a parliament of owls descend to the ledge of a bridge close by. “Oh, that’s odd! Look at those owls!”

Isabella looks over to the bridge to see five owls blinking their saucer yellow eyes at them. “I’ve never seen one, let alone five in the city!” Art continues.

His mother blinks her big eyes back at the owls and then after a distant gaze over Paris and back to Art says: “They’re telling us it’s possible.”

The cats all nod knowingly, and leap up to the warm laps waiting for them. As the silent rolling of the Seine goes on, Isabella leads Art in a magical chant to seal the portent.

© 2013 Ian Drew Forsyth

“Whose Owl?” by The Colossus

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Whose Owl?

A Sheriff Walter Wheatley and Deputy Tuscadero Caper

by The Colossus

Charlie had 100 feet of rope, a wood plank, and a schedule to keep, when he pulled out of the driveway 25 minutes to midnight. He was going low tech, because he was that good.

In the cab with him, Neil and Donald were too excited. It made Charlie nervous. He wondered what he had been thinking, bringing them along.

“It’s a secret, what we’re doing,” Charlie said. “We’re straight up screwed if we get caught. You understand?”

“We can do it,” Neil said. He was an eager, though understated guy, who had seen a lot of mobster movies, and loved baseball. He could stand in one spot for literally hours, looking down, roughly at his right nipple. It was hard for Charlie to look at Neil straight on. It made him try to guess when was the last time Neil had brushed his teeth. Neil had filthy glasses, and his pants seemed to stay up only because they had accidentally snagged on a broken shirt button.

Donald was strong. All his crazy was bound up in his muscles, and he was always ready to go. He was 50 years old, and had been in institutions since he was fifteen, and tried to break through a brick wall, wearing nothing but pillows for padding.

They are on their meds. They are stable. Charlie thought.

“Breaking the law. Breaking the law.

Breaking the law. Breaking the law,” Neil and Donald were singing.

These clowns both know the same Judas Priest lyrics? Charlie asked himself. No shit.

“Shut up, guys,” Charlie pleaded.

“Breaking the law. Breaking the law.” They looked at each other, egging each other on.

“I’ll leave you by the side of the road,” Charlie threatened.

Then, he jerked the truck to a stop. Reached over them reluctantly–lice, opened their door, and started pushing them out of the truck into the dark with his feet. Donald fell out and Charlie hit the gas trying to shake Neil loose as Neil clung to the doorframe. Then he waited for Donald to climb back in. That quieted them down. They still giggled some, but quietly.

It took ten minutes to get off the sprawling campus of the Angelfields Farm for Mental Rest, where Charlie worked, and where Neil and Donald were on retreat. Once on the highway, it was another 20 minutes to the edge of town. To drive through town took less than one minute. Seconds, really. There were six businesses on either side of the road. The municipality timed the streetlight to go off at midnight. Charlie was in sight of the light when it went out. Perfect timing.

Charlie didn’t know what the businesses were. They didn’t have anything he was in the market for. He came into town one time before. That was to make plans for what they were about to do. His buddy had flown him over in a Cessna coming out of Newark. Charlie had seen it all from above, the town, the farm. They only got one shot. It was all or nothing.

Charlie was not living in the boondocks; he was doing this job, caretaking the farm. He looked after the chickens. Took care of the llamas and alpacas. Fixed things in the chalet where the dorms and rec room were. He took care of the garden in between the members coming up. Talked big about how he’d shoot up the deer if he caught them. “I’ll be eating venison,” he boasted.

Angelfields was an extension of the Clubhouse for Psychosocial Rehabilitation in Philadelphia. “Members” would visit the farm periodically. The members’ disposition was supposed to be helped by farming activities. They traveled with social workers. The social workers said, “Let’s go pull some weeds. Now, won’t that be fun?” It was like herding cats. The members wandered and circled and ended up back in the rec room watching videos on the television. The social workers pulled weeds. Some of them did. Social workers lasted maybe three years. Tops. Charlie’d seen a lot of them come and go.

The girl social workers liked Charlie. What else was there to do a hundred and fifty miles from the city? If he liked the girls, he helped them some, looking after the morons, the human refuse. Charlie felt for them. These were the lucky ones, the ones that got caught in the last net before oblivion. Most of them had no family, nothing.

When the loonies left, he could do whatever he wanted, play cowboy. He sheared alpaca. Patrolled for deer with his gun. Split wood. Drove around the farm.

In the truck, Donald got his transistor radio out. It was taped round and round with masking tape. At the farm there was nothing but static. He’d listen anyway, sometimes rocking back and forth in the doorway between the rec room and the bathroom. Everybody was afraid to ask him to move, and some of them pissed themselves; the alternative being the outhouse. It had spiders. Members are often anxious people.

Charlie was not afraid of Donald.

“Turn it off, Donald,” Charlie said. “Quiet.”

Donald grunted.

A mile before the location, Charlie cut the engine and glided silently into the hiding place in the bramble.

“I’ll kill you guys. Don’t make a sound. I mean it,” Charlie said.

Neil and Donald carried the plank. Charlie threw the rope over his shoulder. They walked up the highway, the pavement guiding their steps. In twenty minutes their eyes had adjusted to the dark, and they reached the turnoff. They stepped into the tram tracks, leaving no footprints. They came out the same way.

Everything was timed, choreographed like a ballet. 45 minutes before sunrise, they were back in the truck, then gone.

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

The sound of the phone surprised Darlene.  “Why does that have to be so loud?” she asked herself.

That particular phone hadn’t rung in quite some time. Not since the squirrels had nested in the Nordwell’s chimney–that time they went on vacation. Chester Nordwell called and said there were hooligans on his premises. But it was just squirrels. The sheriff had been very disappointed. It had been so long since he had done anything but a traffic stop.

“Sheriff’s Department,” Darlene intoned with the seriousness of her station. A manicured finger with a press-on nail brushed a too frivolous hair off her cheek, and tucked it into place.

“Sheriff Walter Wheatley is not in.  Yes, sir…I see…” Darlene’s eyes opened wide.  “Really?…Yes.  I’m calling him…I am calling him right now…I can’t say that Harry.  I will make sure he knows it is urgent.  Please don’t yell at me.”

A case like this, experience told Darlene, would require a sheriff, and a deputy. She took a moment to put on a face before she made the call. She changed her everyday bra for her dressup. She winked at herself in the mirror, and pointed a flirtatious finger at her own reflection. She felt vindicated about spending $4 more for that bra.

“Sheriff, sir, this is Darlene. There has been a disturbance,” she said.  She stayed on the line when the sheriff called the deputy, and broke in on the call when it sounded like they would go directly to the crime scene.

“Sheriff, I am urging you to come over here for a briefing. I have not been able to share all the details of the call. I have some information that you might call confidential.” She said confidential quietly, pulling him to her through the phone. She knew the deputy would come with him.

“Darlene, I am confident that we can gather the relevant facts,” the sheriff said, and hung up.

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

“Stay inside, Gunderson. This is police work,” the Sheriff shouted to Harry Gunderson. Gunderson had been about to step off the porch to meet the sheriff and his perplexing, foreigner deputy.

“Walter, I’ve been walking out there all morning. It is not dangerous. It’s infuriating. I want to nail the sons of bitches that did this to the lamppost as a warning. Hang ‘em high.” Harry said.

“You think maybe some of the kids got up in here last night?” the sheriff asked Gunderson, without wanting an answer, or even listening for one.

“Don’t try telling me this is teenagers doing doughnuts. That is pure crap, Walter. Don’t you think I would have heard that? I sleep about as sound as a high strung llama. This here is organized crime,” Gunderson said.

For once Tuscadero was in agreement with the codger.  Where they diverged was probably on the definition of “organized crime”.

“Now, now, Harry.  Let the professionals make that determination,” the Sheriff said. “At this time, all we can say is that it may be organized crime.”

“So, tell me then, Sherlock, if it’s not organized, then how did they know?” Gunderson asked.

“Know what?” the sheriff said.

“They’ve been spying on me. It’s systematic psychological… what do you call that… it’s where they make you think you’re going insane, and then, you go insane. It’s that.”

“What are you talking about Gunderson? Understandably, you are upset about your cornfields. Rightly so. And we are going to figure this out. You know we will. But this talk about psychological, well… it kind of sounds…” The sheriff shook his head.

Gunderson couldn’t take anymore. He stormed inside. Grinding his teeth, he climbed the stairs and eventually emerged on the widow’s walk along the roof. Looking down on the crime scene, he couldn’t help yelling, “How the hell did they know about the owls?”

“Captain Fart Stain and Toto are not going to be able to figure this out,” Gunderson mumbled to himself. “I’m calling the damn FBI.”

He wasn’t calling the FBI. He was missing his wife Odetta. Odetta was on the road. She got herself one of those pink cadillacs selling Mary Kay Cosmetics. She did a lot of road trips, and Harry had suspicions that it wasn’t all business.

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

I am a criminal,” Neil said to his “girlfriend” matter of factly, in his halting, guttural monotone. The same way he said absolutely everything.

“My name is Neil,” he reminded her, in exactly the same tone.

Neil’s girlfriend was crosseyed, had buck teeth, and scabs on her legs from bedbugs. Otherwise, she was cute, pixie-like.

“I’m not supposed to tell,” Neil said, in his halting monotone. “It’s a secret.”

“Last night.

Like a movie.

Charlie made us do it.

Charlie’s bad.

It’s a secret.

It’s a big, big, secret.

Don’t tell anyone,” he finished.

There were 20 members in the rec room at that very moment listening to Neil and nodding. Some of them got distracted by a chicken that came in the door clucking. The television was playing a videotape of On Golden Pond.

Suzie, the current social worker, heard Neil from the kitchen. She really didn’t care. Then, Donald came flying in.

“My radio. My radio. My radio. My radio. My radio.” Donald repeated over and over again. And Suzie wanted him to shut the hell up.

“I’ll kill ‘em. I’ll slit their damn throats. My radio.” Donald’s eyes were burning.

“When was the last time you saw it?” Suzie asked.

“Charlie took it,” Donald shrieked, rocking fast, forward and back from one foot to the other.

“Ah, Donald. Charlie wouldn’t take your radio,” Suzie reassured.

She left the chalet and walked across the parking lot to Charlie’s house. Half an hour later she was sitting on the edge of his bed barefoot. She was looking at his art, which was hanging on every wall. The drawings were in various states of completion. They were in various states of decay. None of them were framed.

“I’m going to frame them for you,” Suzie said.

Charlie was in bed smoking a cigarette. He was that guy who seemed to be able to live without food. His body got all its nourishment from tobacco, morning mud, and booze.

“No honey. I’m in a different place. They’re my sand paintings. I’m a monk.”

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

Sheriff Walter Wheatley was sitting in a rocking chair on Gunderson’s porch, staring out at the cornfield.  Tuscadero stood, ramrod straight, sipping a cup of cowboy coffee from a mug emblazoned with the words ‘Farmers do it in the Field’.

“So, any thoughts deputy?” the sheriff asked.

“Not really,” Tuscadero said.  He assumed that the sheriff meant a thought other than, ‘wow nice work kids.’

The owl crop circle was large.  Tuscadero was certain it had taken a great deal of planning to execute.  Not to mention the fact that it had been accomplished in such a short period of time.  The best view of the mischief maker’s handiwork was from the widow’s walk on the roof.

The second the sheriff and Tuscadero had stepped out on that walk and looked out at the cornfields, they had 2 large, round eyes looking right back at them.

“Nothing?”

Tuscadero sighed.  “I’m stumped.”  He wasn’t really, but no sense in ruining it for everyone.  He surveyed the cornfield with an impassive look.

His calm demeanor in the wake of such nonsensical violence irritated the Sheriff.

“Sweet fancy Moses Tuscadero, why do I bring you along?  You are more useless than a jackrabbit with an animal trainer.” he said.  Pounding the rubber tip of his cane down.

“I wouldn’t know about that sir,” Tuscadero said.

“Of course you wouldn’t.  You city folk don’t know hide nor tail of common sense,” he said rising to his feet.

He walked to the steps and then stared at Tuscadero.  He finally threw a hand up.  “Well at least help me to my truck.”

“Yes sir.”

At the last porch step, the lumbering old man lost his footing.  “Bullfrogs and barn swallows,” he bellowed.

Tuscadero caught him and helped steady him before he fell.  The Sheriff smoothed his chambray shirt.  “I’ll meet you at the station,” he said, and stalked to his truck.

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

“Now what this reminds me of is that time…” the sheriff drifted off. Lost in thought.

Tuscadero stared at him. This could not possibly remind the old man of anything. “What time?”

“How am I supposed to deduce what happened in that field, and make parallel realizations, with your constant yammering?” the sheriff thumped his cane on the wood floor for effect.

Tuscadero took his hat off and placed it on his desk. Inwardly he smiled. Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes had been some of his favorites too.

When he was 12.

“As I was saying, this reminds me of that time those hippie hoodlums destroyed Earl Bradley’s International.”

Ahh yes, there it was, as Tuscadero had expected. The inevitable linking of an owl shaped crop circle to a decade old vandalism case.

“They marked up the tractor some, if I’m familiar with the case. I guess I see the similarity,” Tuscadero said.  He did not see the similarity. Other than the fact that it was mild vandalism.  Every little thing in that town that happened was reminiscent to the sheriff of that fateful day.

The day that Earl Bradley’s shiny candy apple red, 1962 B414 International Harvester, tractor had a very crude drawing spray-painted on it.

“Damn hippies,” the Sheriff mumbled.

“It was a naked…um… individual.  Yes?” Tuscadero said.  Holding back his laughter.

The sheriff nodded.  “Yes.  Disgusting what they did to that fine machine,” he said.  He threw a narrow-eyed glance at his deputy.  “I suppose that means nothing to you city folk.”

“On the contrary.  Respect of private property is an assertion against madness.”

“I think we should go talk to Earl.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“It’s the only lead we have.”

The deputy looked down.  He could not keep the grin off of his face.  The audacity of trying to link the two crimes was more than he could bear.

“I suppose you think this is pretty funny.”

“No sir.  A crime has been committed,” Tuscadero said tightening his jaw.

“You’re damn right,” the sheriff said with a thump of his cane.

As they walked down Main Street, the townsfolk were clearly restless.  There were whispers.  Tuscadero was used to them.  He still, even after 3 years, was only tolerated by the people in town.  This time, however, the whispers were not about him.

The deputy matched the leaning, hobbled pace of his boss.  The old man was stubborn as a closet door off the track, and there was no way he was letting go of his job.  Hobbled or not.  Which suited Tuscadero fine; he didn’t want to be the boss.

After 15 years of being a cop in Philly, he was done with excitement.  All he wanted to do was sit around handing out speeding tickets, be a judge at the pie bake off, and maybe fix a stop sign or two when they fell down. He had accomplished all but the pie bake off, but he remained ever hopeful.

The sheriff, well he was a different story.  He craved the excitement.

What was puzzling Tuscadero at the moment, was that the sheriff had not once asked ‘why.’  The whys were what drove Tuscadero mental.  He chased the why with every case he had.  Trying to come up with reasons why people did what they did.  The hurt, the pain, the destruction.  No answer to the question, ‘Why did you do this?’ was ever satisfying.

He couldn’t escape the question in the city.  So he fled from it, and wound up here.  Where nothing happens.  He felt the question creep into his mind.

Why would anyone make a crop circle here?

“Sheriff.  Sheriff,” called a tiny lady from down the street.

“Yes Mrs. Ainsworth,” the sheriff said with a wide smile.

“Sheriff, I heard that someone was,” she lowered her voice, “killing cows at the Gunderson place.  Should I bring Gertrude into the barn?”

The sheriff took her withered hand in his.  “No, no, darlin’.  There’s no need for any of that.”

“Should I get a new padlock for the barn?” she said excitedly.

“No.  That’s not necessary,” he reassured.

“Earl said he’d sell me one for 6 dollars.” She made a face.  As if the idea of a 6 dollar lock itself was rancid.  “Can you even imagine spending that for a padlock?” she said, directing her question at Tuscadero.

“No ma’am I can’t,” he replied.

“Now Evelyn, please don’t fret.  We’ve got the situation handled,” the sheriff said as he ambled on.

Once inside Earl’s Hardware, the sheriff took a deep breath.  Tuscadero was mildly concerned about the old man’s heart.  This was a lot of excitement for an 82 year old.

“Sheriff, what can I do you for?” Earl said.  “Is it about the Gunderson place?”

“Earl, for the safety of everyone involved, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” the sheriff said, straightening his back.  “Suffice to say it shares a lot of similarities to the incident not too long ago.”

Earl nodded gravely.  “The International.”

The Sheriff shot an ‘I-told-you-so’ look at Tuscadero.  “Yes.”

“Damn shame.” Earl shook his head and stared at the floor, grief stricken.

“Yes, yes it is.  Smartest tractor I ever did see.  Now you always suspected the Davis boys.”

Earl nodded vigorously.  “Yes.  My wife said,” he leaned in close to the sheriff, “they caught them defacing books at the library.”

“You don’t say,” Sheriff said, nodding.

“Unsavory drawings, if you follow my meaning.”

“Indeed,” the sheriff said.  Rubbing his chin, deep in thought.

“The boys said they were at the grove all night.  But I never believed them,” Earl said.

“Was there any evidence?” Tuscadero asked.

Four eyes shot to his.  He was not welcome in this exchange.  Tuscadero leaned against the counter and stared out the front window.  Didn’t bother him any.  The fact that he was the only person in about a 25 mile radius that had ever seen a real crime, let alone solved one, didn’t matter.

Sheriff straightened.  “I think we should pay Robbie Lee Davis a visit at the Wagon Wheel.”

Tuscadero nodded.  “A fine plan Sheriff.”

“Of course it is.” The sheriff grabbed his cane.  “You know, you keep that sass-mouth in check, and you just may learn a thing or two.”

“I look forward to it sir,” Tuscadero said.

“Earl.” the sheriff slightly nodded.

“Sheriff.”

Tuscadero had meant it.  He hoped he did learn something.  He admired the old man.  His energy, his persistence, his naive outlook on crime.  All of it.

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

The Wagon Wheel had been, at one time, an establishment that sold wheels for wagons, oddly enough. And now, it was in “transition.” It was closed.

The sheriff gestured for his deputy to handle the lesser business of knocking on the door, while he composed himself for the interrogation. He cleared his throat.

A youngster opened the door.

Tuscadero wondered how many kids the Davises had. He was guessing fourteen with this little one included.

“Young man, are your parents home?” the sheriff asked.

That little Davis fellow pushed the door open so hard it bounced back and slammed shut. His mama came and lead them through the storefront full of defunct wagon parts. They crossed over to the living quarters at the back of the store.

“Ma’am, do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” the sheriff asked.

“Well, it’s lunch time Sheriff. Why don’t you just sit down and we’ll talk over lunch.”

The sheriff sat awkwardly side saddle, and took a piece of fried chicken off a plate in the middle of the table. “This is just delicious, Carolyn.”

There was no chair for Tuscadero, nor was he offered chicken, so he stood at attention, and observed. Mother and children watched attentively as the sheriff got down to the bone.

“Is Robbie here?” the sheriff asked.

“Well, what on earth? Did he do something?” Carolyn said.

“Now, Carolyn. You know that he did,” the sheriff said.

“This can’t be about those books?”

“Indeed, it can.”

“Well, I think he’s out messing with the car.” She moved to the back door, pushed it open to an extensive scene of fallow fields. “Robbie,” she shouted, louder than you would have thought.

A young man sauntered in shirtless in blue jeans, with oil streaked across some noteworthy rectus abdominus muscles.

“Make yourself presentable,” his mother said.

He put on a shirt, but did not button it, and slouched at the table, not making eye contact with the sheriff. That book incident had made him the town’s bad boy. Oh how he loved that.

“Sheriff,” Robbie said, in begrudging acknowledgment of his presence.

Tuscadero straightened as an example to this young rebel of proper demeanor in the presence of the law.

Robbie swung his long bangs out of his eyes, revealing a laceration across his forehead.

“What’s that on your forehead, son?” Sheriff Wheatley was prematurely closing in on his suspect. “You didn’t get that last night, did you? On the Gunderson’s farm, maybe? Cutting corn perhaps? In the shape of an owl?” the sheriff said, in triumph.

“Maybe.” Robbie wished that he had. And he very much hoped that he was about to be arrested, adding to his reputation.

Tuscadero looked at Mrs. Davis, who was shaking her head.

“Well, I don’t know how he could have Sheriff. We were all here together last night, treating the ringworm. We wouldn’t want that to get spread around you know. Neighbors say such nasty things. We all slept with the medicine on us all night long. Robbie, too. We washed it off this morning.”

Tuscadero gave Mrs. Davis a reassuring look, which she missed, because she was looking at the sheriff.

Robbie wished he could die right then, on the spot.  He slunk out lower than an earthworm’s belly.

“Would it be alright, Mrs. Davis, if I left my card with you? That is my personal number. I’d like you to call me, if you have any additional memories about what happened last night,” the sheriff said.

“That woman is hiding something,” the sheriff told Tuscadero, as soon as they were in the privacy of their Blazer.

“I’m sure she is, sir.” Tuscadero replied. He was sure she wasn’t. He was sure that ringworm was about all there was to reveal.

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

“I think we should go back and see Earl.  I have some questions,” Tuscadero said, first thing the next morning.

Sheriff Walter Wheatley beamed.  “I’m so glad you’re finally getting with the program.  It’s about damn time.”

Tuscadero nodded solemnly.  “Yes sir.”

The two drove in silence to Earl’s Hardware.  Tuscadero drove, the sheriff dozing next to him.  It was a 5 minute ride, at best, but this was a lot of work for the old timer.  Typically the sheriff just sat in his chair sleeping, his basset hound Beauford, snoring at his side.

Tuscadero put the Blazer in park, and cleared his throat.  “Here,” he announced.

“Took you long enough,” the sheriff said, shaking his head.

“Yes sir.  There were a few cars at the intersection.” Tuscadero said getting out of the Blazer.  “Like all of the 4 cars in town, at once,” he muttered.

“What was that?” the sheriff asked, struggling to get out of the truck.

“I said it’s a busy day in town,” Tuscadero said.

“Of course it is, it’s Wednesday.” Sheriff Wheatley said with a thump of his cane.

Deputy Tuscadero held the door open for the sheriff.  This earned him a glare.  Tuscadero nodded, reminding himself that Sheriff Walter Wheatley was neither a lady, nor an old man.  At least not in the Sheriff’s way of thinking.

“Earl.”

“Sheriff Wheatley, Deputy Tuscadero,” Earl said, nodding slightly.

“The boy here, he has some questions for you,” Sheriff said.

“Of course, whatever you need,” Earl said.  To the sheriff.

Tuscadero reigned in his annoyance.  “Have you seen anything out of the ordinary the past few days?”

Earl pondered that for a moment.  Head tilted up to the ceiling.  “Now that you mention it, Gordy Smith came in here wanting a whole truck of chicken feed.”

The sheriff perked up.  “Now that is interesting.”

“How’s that?” Tuscadero said.

Earl shared an annoyed look with the sheriff.  “Gordy Smith doesn’t own any chickens.”

Sheriff nodded sagely.  As far as he was concerned they had their next lead.

“I was thinking more like, unusual like… maybe someone buying a large quantity of rope, or maybe some wood planking,” Tuscadero said.

The Sheriff harrumphed.

“Now what in the blazes would be unusual about that?” Earl muttered.

“Earl, you’ve been mighty helpful,” Sheriff said, taking Tuscadero by the arm.

Once out in the street, the sheriff looked up at Tuscadero.  “You’re in the country now, son.  People buying rope and wood at a hardware store is about as unusual as ladies flashing bloomers at a square dance.”

Tuscadero nodded.

“Chicken feed for a chicken-less farmer, however, is as unusual…” The Sheriff tapped his cane on the pavement, pausing for effect.  “As someone buying a truck full of chicken feed when they don’t have chickens,” he said loud and slow.

“Got it,” Tuscadero said staring into the street.  He knew if he looked at the old man’s scrunched up face and mannerisms, he would lose it completely.

“To the Smith farm,” the sheriff said, pointing his cane towards the truck.

“Yes sir,” Tuscadero said.

He let the older man walk ahead of him, so he could chuckle quietly in private.

The sheriff showed restraint, and did not use the siren on the way to the Smith place. He did drive fast, though. The sheriff’s cataracts being considerable, Tuscadero did at times feel some concern for his own safety.

The first thing they both noticed as they approached the farm was the chickens.

“Well played, Smith!”  Sheriff Wheatley said. “He outmaneuvered us, Tuscadero! You see? He got chickens! He had to, you see?” The sheriff was disappointed that Tuscadero could not make even the simplest observations about the criminal mind. He had often lamented the day that Tuscadero’s Grand Aunt–the wife of the local State Master of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry–had politely suggested that he needed a deputy.

Gordy Smith was walking in their direction.

“Hold it right there,” the sheriff commanded. Smith stopped, and Tuscadero circled around the Blazer, but stopped short of opening the sheriff’s door this time.

“It’s a pleasure to see you Sheriff,” Smith said, chickens clucking his feet. “The Mrs. and I have been hearing strange news about the Gunderson’s silo. We heard a family of owls nested in there and ruined three years of grain. How’d they get in there?”

“We will be asking the questions, Smith. Since you seem to know so much about Gunderson and owls, would you like to tell us any more on that subject?” the sheriff asked.

“Sheriff, I don’t know anything that the whole town doesn’t know. All I know is, one summer night an owl flew in the driver side window of his Lincoln, and scared him so bad he drove over his wife’s dahlias. She chased Harry out, and he had to sleep outside. He couldn’t get near that Lincoln.  The owl was nested in, but good,” Gordy paused.

“Remember, he tried to sell the Lincoln, owl and all, to Pete. Harry always did think that owl was taunting him,” Gordy said.

“I am not an imbecile, of course I remember.  Are you being coy with me, Smith?” The sheriff believed he sounded like Lionel Barrymore.

“No sir.”

“Good! I wouldn’t advise it,” the sheriff said. “What’s the business with all the chicken feed?”

Smith was struck dumb by the question. All he could do was look around him at the chickens.

Tuscadero felt the sheriff needed a nudge, and he thought he saw his chance.   “Sheriff, may I?”

“Help yourself,” the sheriff said.

“We know you’ve been making deliveries for Earl Bradley.  Can you tell us about your most recent deliveries?” Tuscadero asked.

“The only recent thing, was I took a load full of rope and plank up to Angelfields,” Smith said.

Tuscadero waited for the effect.

“Rope and a plank. What did I tell you, Tuscadero? It’s as normal as blueberry pie,” the sheriff said to his deputy.

“Who did you deliver those to?” Tuscadero asked Smith.

“Charlie,” Smith said.

The sheriff waved Tuscadero back to the Blazer. Nevertheless,Tuscadero could see the sheriff was introspective as they got back into the truck.

The sheriff ground the dirt driveway back to the pavement. Then, “Hold on Tuscadero. There’s something you didn’t think of.” There was no restraint. The light blazed, the siren screamed, and the sheriff sped toward Angelfields Farm.

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

The sheriff and his deputy would have burned rubber peeling into the Angelfields parking lot, if it hadn’t been a dirt road. Instead, there was just a lot of dust.

The flashing light got the attention of all the club members, and they circled the Blazer. It looked like the zombie apocalypse.

The sheriff pulled his gun before he got out of the Blazer, creating an awkward moment during which Tuscadero believed he would be shot. The deputy put a hand up to redirect the pistol, which the sheriff took personally. He made a face. Tuscadero smiled to himself. They got out of the Blazer.

“Which one of you characters is Charlie?” The sheriff asked, gun ready.

Silence.

Suzie was watching from the kitchen window. The silence lasted long enough for Suzie to think the members were going to protect Charlie.  Stand up to the law. It was exciting.

“Charlie lives there,” Donald yelled, pointing. “He took my radio. I want my radio. Radio. My radio. He took my radio. Radio. I want my radio. I hate cops.” Donald did hate cops. He glared. He made a chopping gesture with his arms. He might have been thinking kung fu. It was hard to be sure.

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

“Alright.  I’m ready to question this hoodlum.  Where did you put the criminal?” the sheriff asked puffing out his chest.

“In the supply closet,” Tuscadero said, leaning against his desk.

The sheriff nodded in approval.  “Nice and cozy.  Cozy throws the guilty off balance.”

Tuscadero nodded as if this was sage information.

The old man threw open the door of the supply closet with a big sweeping motion of his arms.

“So…Charlie, is it?” Sheriff Walter Wheatley said clearing his throat.  He flipped through some random pieces of paper he had brought in with him.

“Yeah.”

“What brings you into town?”

“I work at the Angelfields Farm.”

The sheriff nodded as if that was very important information.  “Do you do a lot of gardening there?”

Charlie tilted his head upwards slightly.  “Not so much.”

“Really?  I would think that kind of job would need you to be well versed in crop maintenance.”

Charlie shook his head.  “Not really.  I’m more of an animal guy.”

Sheriff Walter Wheatley nodded thoughtfully.  He had this crook right where he wanted him.  “Like owls?” he asked innocently.

Charlie’s expression didn’t change.  “We don’t keep any owls on the farm.”

The sheriff leaned forward.  “Are you sure?  No big, giant owls you’ve been tending to over there at Angelfields?”

“Not that I’m aware of.  Alpacas, llamas, chickens, we used to have a cow.”

The old man was losing his patience.  “I’m talking about owls, boy.  Owls.”

Charlie said nothing.

The sheriff abruptly got up, and left the closet.

“Well?” Tuscadero said.

“He’s a tough nut to crack,” the sheriff said sighing.  “Maybe you should take a shot at him.”

Tuscadero put down his coffee.  “Are you sure?”

He nodded.  “Absolutely.  It’s about time you got your feet wet around here.  Now remember, lure him in by being friendly, and then when he’s at ease, you get him to confess.”

“Yes sir.  I’ll do my best,” Tuscadero said, hand on the door knob.

Charlie looked up as the new guy entered the closet and sat down.  They stared at each other for a few moments, sharing silence.

“Did you make the crop circle?” Tuscadero asked, placing Donald’s transistor radio on the desk with care.

“We made it,” Charlie confirmed. “Did you like it?”

“How did you do it?” Tuscadero said.

Charlie smiled remembering Donald’s energy set full in motion, running like hell wherever Charlie directed, breaking cornstalks with that big rope. Neil was the anchor and Donald ran. They laid down the plank and Neil stood on it. Again and again. The lunatics under the new moon, smiling and proud. Madman as medium, Charlie thought.

“Just a little elbow grease.” Charlie said nonchalantly.

Tuscadero nodded.  “Did you have any knowledge of Gunderson’s feelings about owls?”

“No.  Does he like them?” Charlie’s voice went up at the end. Curious.

“Not especially.” Tuscadero said leaving the closet.

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

“Open and shut.  Excellent work deputy.  You’ll make a fine sheriff one day,” Sheriff Wheatley said smiling.  “The way you tricked him into just giving it up.  That was a thing of genius.”

Tuscadero felt proud.  Although he didn’t know why.  It wasn’t difficult or crafty what he did.  Charlie had wanted to tell him.

The sheriff walked over to a small sideboard where there was a box of doughnuts.  He struggled to get the lid open.  He threw down his cane.  “Great Ceasar,” he slammed a fist onto the table.  “Darlene.  Darlene,” he shouted.  “I’m not trying to break into a damn bank vault here.”

“Don’t eat those.” Tuscadero said before he could stop himself.

The old man whirled on him.  “That’s sweet, are you worried about my cholesterol?  Christ almighty man, I’m 82.  If I want a doughnut I’m going to eat it.” he turned back to the table.  “If I can get into.  The stupid.  No good.  Horse huckey.  Box,” he said, continuing to tear at the box.  “Darlene.” he boomed again.

“Hold your horses old man.” Darlene said, snapping her gum.

“Put a lid on it Darlene, and open this box.  You know you could’ve opened this earlier.  It’s not as if this happens every single seed spittin’ time.”

Darlene put a hand on her hip, slipped a press-on nail under the flap, and in one smooth motion, opened the box.

“There.  Are we all warm and fuzzy now?” she said, turning to leave.  Not waiting to hear the answer.

“That woman could drive even the great Harry S. Truman to the booby hatch,”  the sheriff said plucking a powdered doughnut from the box.

Sheriff Walter Wheatley walked to his desk.  Just a little slower than he had been the past few days.  He sat down in his chair with a thud and sighed.

It took him several moments to realize that Tuscadero was staring at him.  Waiting patiently.

“Something on your mind?” Sheriff said.

Tuscadero sat down across from him.  “Is that it sir?”

Sheriff laughed.  “What else do you want?  Enjoy your triumph.  Justice will be served.  The violent hoodlum has been caught.”

“Yes sir.”

“You want more than that?”

“Well, I was just thinking…doesn’t it bother you?”

He leaned back in his chair.  “Doesn’t what bother me?”

Tuscadero sighed, impatience creeping in.  “Don’t you want to know why?”

The sheriff scratched stubble on his chin and smiled slightly.  “And what would come from that?”

Tuscadero was puzzled by the question.  “Sir?”

“What could possibly be gained from knowing why?  It’s a fools errand, Roger,” he said.

The sheriff’s use of Tuscadero’s first name, which he never used, zeroed the deputy’s focus.

“The how is a much more helpful question.  Why, well that sticky wicket, that will drive you to madness.” He leaned forward towards Tuscadero.  “Folks are quirky, troubled, amazing animals.  No sense in trying to figure out the nonsensical.”

Sheriff picked up the Gazette.  “Now enjoy your triumph.  Tomorrow I believe Mrs. Ainsworth needs help getting those rogue cattle, from Louis Tinsley’s farm, out of her back 40.  You’ll supervise.”

***********

The next day Deputy Tuscadero stood in the middle of a field, supervising the removal of the “rogue” cattle.  Meaning he was standing around, watching rugged men do work, and wiping sweat from his forehead.

Mrs. Ainsworth appeared  from behind him and smiled.  Tuscadero was taken aback.  “Good afternoon Deputy Tuscadero.  I’m so grateful for your help,” she said handing him a glass of iced tea.  “It’s hard work out here, I thought you’d enjoy some refreshment.”

“Thank you ma’am.  I appreciate it,” he said bewildered by the friendliness.

Mrs. Ainsworth patted his forearm.  “Wasn’t any trouble at all, and please call me Evelyn.”

“Yes ma’am,” Tuscadero said, knowing that while it was a friendly gesture, politeness dictated he call her ma’am.

“There’s talk all over town about how you stopped that awful criminal from killing more cows,” Mrs. Ainsworth said.  She leaned into him slightly.  “I just knew my Gertrude would be next,” she whispered.

“Well it’s my duty ma’am,” he said.  There was no point in correcting her.  She would forget the truth of the situation almost as soon as it left his mouth.

“As a thank you, we’d love to have you judge our pie contest.  When I called Nelda Swanson, and told her about your bravery, she insisted that you judge.  You do know about our local chapter of the League of Lady Quilters?”

“Yes ma’am I do.  High quality work you ladies do.”

Tuscadero wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw Mrs. Ainsworth blush.

“Well,” she began shaking off what she was certain was flirtatious flattery,  “we also don’t take no for an answer.”

Tuscadero straightened.  “I would be honored.”

Mrs. Ainsworth smiled.  “Now you get on outta here.  You’ve earned a break.”

“I really should wait until they’re done,” he said hesitating.

“We’ll be fine.  You scoot now,” she said, slapping his arm.

“Yes ma’am.”

As Deputy Roger Tuscadero wandered away from the cattle and to his truck, a broad grin spread across his face.

On his lips only one solitary word.  “Pie.”

© 2013 Jennifer Rose, Laura Bromley