Issue 6.1

April 19th

By Thorn Rosenthal

CHAPTER 1

 

fter registering the horror of the event, the nation debated whether April 19th was in some ways worse than September 11th. That was even before the full story came to light.

 

On the twentieth anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, four teams, each comprised of three Al Qaeda-trained assassins, more or less simultaneously attacked children, parents, and athletic staff attending intramural or interschool junior high or high school sporting events in affluent suburbs of Chicago, Denver, Houston, and Kansas City. The assassins were armed with AK-47 rifles and killed a total of ninety-two children and twenty-two adults. Many more were wounded, with varying degrees of severity.

 

April 19th struck at America’s heartland and quotidian targets. It raised the fear that no one could be safe engaging in any group activity anywhere. Moreover, unlike the September 11th hijackers, the perpetrators of April 19th survived their attacks and, apart from one who was apprehended and three who were killed in the process of apprehension, could strike again. It would not be feasible in the short term to provide heavily armed security for every gathering of people in America, and it would fundamentally degrade American freedom in the long term to make such an attempt. The April 19th date also served as an unwelcome reminder that foreign terrorists are not the only threat.

 

President Jason Loughman of the United States and leaders of other developed countries decried the cowardice and venality of the terrorists in attacking children and unarmed adults. This did not, however, dampen the jubilation over the attacks among the populace of many Arab countries.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

April 19th was conceived and planned to the last detail by Afrah Bishara, who also was the leader for the team that attacked the intramural soccer practice at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. Ms. Bishara was an undercover field operative in the counterterrorism unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

 

Ms. Bishara’s parents immigrated from Saudi Arabia to the United States prior to her birth, and Ms. Bishara grew up speaking both Arabic and English. After obtaining a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School, where she was a member of the Order of the Coif, she underwent intense FBI training at Quantico. Ms. Bishara was assigned to Germany, where her mission was to frequent mosques habituated by radicals and attempt to infiltrate the Al Qaeda network. Her cover story was simple—she was a young and idealistic Muslim who had grown disaffected with her parents, their lifestyle, and the culture in the United States.

 

Ms. Bishara was sent to a Taliban training camp in Afghanistan. When Ms. Bishara was asked to volunteer for a suicide bombing mission in Iraq, she made the pragmatic observation that this would not be the best use of her English language skills and US passport. When asked to explain, she laid out the broad plan for April 19th. Knowing a good idea when they heard it, the camp leaders passed it up the line, and Ms. Bishara was summoned to meet with Gamal Malouf, who was promoted to the number four position in Al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death. Malouf was delighted with Ms. Bishara’s plan, praised her lavishly, and told her that she was destined for a much bigger mission if she could pull off April 19th. He assigned her twenty-five young recruits to draw upon for the attacks. These recruits were being trained at four different camps, and none was told who else even in their own camps would be sent on this mission in order to minimize the likelihood that they could identify one another if they were captured. Eleven of the twenty-five washed out for one reason or another, and three were detained attempting to enter the United States illegally, leaving twelve, including Ms. Bishara, to carry out the attacks. None of the other eleven members of the team was given any information about the nature or the timing of the mission until the day preceding the attacks, so those who were detained were not in a position to disclose anything specific about the mission upon interrogation.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Ms. Bishara was not capable of preparing a plan that was less than excellent. Every aspect was meticulously scripted, including separate escape routes for each of the twelve perpetrators. In fact, the four who did not get away probably would have escaped had they followed her instructions. The one who was apprehended neglected to change the license plate on his stolen car. The three who were killed stuck with each other after the attack instead of splitting up, and tried to escape from Kansas City on I-70, where they were intercepted by a roadblock, instead of taking local roads and lying low for several days.

 

Ms. Bishara, of course, never expected that her plan actually would be implemented. Two days before the attack, she e-mailed the salient details, including times, places, names, and descriptions, to her superior officer at the FBI, Manny Keiser. Exposing herself to some risk of exposure to her putative compatriots in the Winnetka massacre, the day before the attack, she called Mr. Keiser’s assistant and confirmed that her e-mail had been received. Nonetheless, there were no SWAT teams or sharpshooters in place to prevent the slaughter of innocent children and adults at any of the four locations.

 

The moment when it became evident to Ms. Bishara that her team in Winnetka would not be interdicted was the most difficult of her life. She and the other two members of her team had arrived in three separate stolen vehicles at a rendezvous near the Hubbard Woods Metra North railroad station. She selected this location because it presented many possibilities for placement of members of an assault team. When no agents materialized, Ms. Bishara assumed that she and her two team members either would be stopped en route to the attack site or would be met at the site. So she and the other two got into a fourth stolen vehicle, which had been parked at the train station, using their jacket sleeves over their hands to open the doors and putting on latex gloves upon sitting down in the car. She drove as planned to New Trier High School. No one made any effort to stop them. Upon arrival, she illegally parked the car at the curb near the soccer field. They got out of the car, and she went around and opened the trunk to get out the rifles. It was at this point that she got an inkling that something was amiss. At any time prior to this, capturing the team would have been easy. The rifles were safely out of reach in the trunk, and the three otherwise were unarmed. Once she handed the rifles to the other two, however, there was a serious risk that someone could get hurt or killed. Still, she assumed that there were sharpshooters in place or that other precautions had been taken. The rifles were in guitar cases, and she handed two of them to her companions and picked up the third for herself.

 

The three fanned out as planned in a 150-degree arc around the athletic field. This would allow them all to shoot into the center without risking shooting each other. With each step, she waited for reports from snipers’ guns to take down her companions, but nothing happened. When all three were in place, she reluctantly nodded, which was the signal to open the guitar cases, remove the weapons, and start shooting. As she was opening her case, it began to dawn on her that there was no one there to stop them. She was in the middle of the other two and thought about shooting one of them and then trying to shoot the other before he could realize what happened and started shooting at her. But even at this point, she could not believe that her superiors at the FBI would let the attack go forward. Surely agents must have broken into the trunk of the fourth car while it was parked at the station and disabled the rifles or substituted blank ammunition. So she dropped the guitar case, shouldered her weapon, and pointed it in the general direction of the kids on the field.

 

Her companion to her right started shooting first. Children started screaming and falling. Blood was everywhere. Her companion to her left then joined in, targeting the kids, parents, and coaches on the sidelines. Clearly, the rifles were operational, and the ammunition was live. Everyone not hit started to scatter. What was she to do? In what seemed like an eternity, she tried to analyze the situation. It seemed apparent that for whatever warped reason, her superiors at the FBI were content to let the attack occur. If she tried to shoot her companions now, very few, if any, lives would be saved. Many innocent lives already had been lost, and the people who remained uninjured were rapidly dispersing out of range or behind barriers. Further, she could not at this point do anything to stop the three simultaneous attacks at the other locations that presumably were underway.

 

Thus, there was nothing she could do to spare America the horror wrought by her plan. If she were to try to shoot at her companions, she might inadvertently kill innocent people or be killed herself by one of the gunmen shooting back at her. If she were to succeed in killing both of them, this would blow her cover with Al Qaeda because there would be no way that she credibly could explain to Malouf the death of both of her companions at an undefended location. Her mission over the past two years had been to infiltrate Al Qaeda, and whatever good she could accomplish on that score would be lost. So she pulled the trigger on her rifle. She could not bring herself to shoot innocent people, so she fired bursts into the foreground or aimed at trees and other nonhuman targets. There was sufficient mayhem going on that her companions were not able to tell that none of her shots hit anyone.

 

After thirty seconds, no one who was still in range was left standing. The three ran back to the stolen car, piled in, and drove, slowly, back to the train station. As they approached the train station, sirens could be heard in the distance, but no one approached them. They parked the car, left the rifles on the floor of the backseat under a blanket that had been brought along for this purpose, returned to their three separate vehicles, and took off on their prescribed escape routes in three different directions.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

At the trial, Ms. Bishara felt that she was going to be the sacrificial lamb. Her co-defendants were Norman Geller, the former Director of the FBI, and Jason Loughman, former President of the United States. Each of the three had been indicted on over one hundred and twenty felony counts, including ninety-two counts of murder, treason, civil rights violations, and a host of antiterrorism counts. The politically ambitious United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, George Weldon, personally was trying the case and was seeking the death penalty. Loughman had been an unpopular President for reasons unrelated to April 19th, and public sentiment was strongly against the defendants. Nonetheless, they opted for a jury trial. The judge had been appointed by President Obama, had excellent Democratic credentials, and previously worked with Weldon when they were both Assistant United States Attorneys. Loughman was a conservative Republican.

 

The three defendants each had separate counsel, but in a coordinated move they all decided to waive their Fifth Amendment rights and take the stand. On their respective direct examinations, each gave their self-serving version of the events, first Bishara, then Geller, and finally Loughman. Weldon’s cross-examinations were the high points of the trial.

 

Bishara’s cross:

 

Weldon: “You admit that you planned the four coordinated, simultaneous slaughters?”

 

Bishara: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “You were the team leader for the Winnetka assault?”

 

Bishara: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “You drove the car to New Trier?”

 

Bishara: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “You handed the guitar cases with the AK-47s to the other two gunmen.”

 

Bishara: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “And they used those AK-47s to kill eighteen innocent children?”

 

Bishara: “That’s my understanding.”

 

Weldon: “You witnessed this, didn’t you?”

 

Bishara: “I was there, and I saw everything. I could not keep track of the number of people who were shot and could not tell which wounds were fatal.”

 

Weldon: “And they also killed five innocent adults.”

 

Bishara: “That’s my understanding.”

 

Weldon: “And they wounded ten other innocent children?”

 

Bishara: “That’s my understanding.”

 

Weldon: “And they wounded four other innocent adults?”

 

Bishara: “That’s my understanding.”

 

Weldon: “You could have killed the other two gunmen?”

 

Bishara: “Maybe.”

 

Weldon: “But you did not even try.”

 

Bishara: “Correct.”

 

Weldon: “After masterminding this horrible massacre, you were afraid to intercede to prevent or stop it?”

 

Bishara: “I was frightened for my own life, but as I testified on direct examination, that was not the reason for my failure to attempt to kill the other two. I was expecting the FBI to prevent the attack. By the time I realized that this definitely would not happen, most if not all of the harm had been done. I didn’t know why the FBI wasn’t there with a SWAT team, but in the heat of the moment, I assumed that there was a deliberate decision by my superiors to protect my mission—my status as an infiltrator of Al Qaeda. I had to make an instant decision in the midst of all of the carnage, and I was confused to say the least that there was no effort by the Bureau to prevent the attack. With 20/20 hindsight, I very much regret not taking action to stop this horrible attack. But I have reviewed the situation in my mind countless times since then, and based on the knowledge I had at the time, I still don’t know whether what I did or did not do was wrong under the circumstances.”

 

Weldon: “You planned the successful escape of the other two gunmen?”

 

Bishara: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “To this day, they are at large and may commit another attack on innocent Americans?”

 

Bishara: “I suppose so.”

 

Geller’s cross:

 

Weldon: “Ms. Bishara warned the Bureau of the broad outlines of the impending attack over three months before it took place?”

 

Geller: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “This information promptly was brought to your personal attention, correct?”

 

Geller: “Yes. I was closely monitoring the situation, and I learned of the information almost immediately after it was received.”

 

Weldon: “This was hard intelligence from one of your own trusted counterterrorism agents, was it not?”

 

Geller: “Absolutely. We had no doubt that this was solid intel.”

 

Weldon: “In contrast, the intelligence information you had about Al Qaeda acquiring a nuclear device was unconfirmed?”

 

Geller: “That was part of the problem. We had no way to verify the information. Ms. Bishara was our best hope.”

 

Weldon: “As of today, do you believe that Al Qaeda ever had a nuclear weapon?”

 

Geller: “No. I believe that if Al Qaeda had had a nuclear weapon, they would have used it, and Ms. Bishara would have been tapped by Al Qaeda to work on, if not lead, the planning for the attack.”

 

Weldon: “Two days before the April 19th attack, Ms. Bishara contacted the Bureau and furnished detailed information as to the who, what, where, when, and how of the plot?”

 

Geller: “Correct.”

 

Weldon: “And you personally were in the loop regarding this information?”

 

Geller: “I was keenly aware of all aspects of Ms. Bishara’s mission, including the information regarding the imminent April 19 attack.”

 

Weldon: “You had authority to send in four SWAT teams to prevent any innocent Americans from being killed or injured?”

 

Geller: “Absolutely.”

 

Weldon: “And with the information provided by Ms. Bishara, there was little doubt that, had you undertaken to do so, you could have successfully apprehended the attackers before they killed or injured a single person?”

 

Geller: “That was my view at the time and remains my view at present.”

 

Weldon: “And you also knew that if you failed to act, the attack would be successful and that dozens or hundreds of innocent American children, women, and men would be killed or grievously injured.”

 

Geller: “Unfortunately and tragically, yes.”

 

Weldon: “Yet you chose not to send in the SWAT teams and to let the attack take place in four locations?”

 

Geller: “As I testified on direct, that decision was made in consultation with the President as well as my colleagues at the Bureau.”

 

Weldon: “Your ‘colleagues’ at the Bureau all were subordinates of yours who reported to you, correct?”

 

Geller: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “None of them individually or collectively had authority to overrule a decision made by you, isn’t that right?”

 

Geller: “Yes. Insofar as the Bureau was concerned, I was the captain of the ship. But I still took the advice and obtained the support of my senior staff before making an extremely difficult decision.”

 

Weldon: “And in ‘consulting’ the President, you did not inform him of the details of which you were aware of the planned April 19th attack, did you?”

 

Geller: “I was trying to protect the President, but I still sought and obtained his guidance at a conceptual level that it would be a prudent choice to put at risk of serious bodily injury or death a hundred or so innocent Americans to prevent a possible nuclear attack by Al Qaeda on a major U.S. city that could kill or injure millions. The President was well aware of the intelligence we had received that Iran had supplied Al Qaeda with one or two nuclear bombs several times more powerful than the ones which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.”

 

Weldon: “You knew when you spoke with the President, but chose not to share with him, that there was a concrete plan to kill schoolchildren, parents, and athletic staff at four specific locations where the ‘risk’ of death and injury was a near certainty if you did not intervene, right?”

 

Geller: “Yes. Again, I was trying to insulate the President from culpability.”

 

Weldon: “Now you are trying to have your cake and eat it too—you want to have the President ‘insulated,’ but you still want credit for covering your butt by having sought and obtained his direction, right?”

 

Geller: “The situation was very difficult.”

 

Weldon: “Particularly for those that were killed or injured and their loved ones, isn’t it?”

 

Geller: “At all times I was painfully aware of the consequences of both sides of my Hobson’s choice.”

 

Weldon: “Let’s discuss your so-called ‘Hobson’s choice.’ On the one hand, you had a virtual certainty that what we now know did occur would occur, right?”

 

Geller: “Yes. That was our belief.”

 

Weldon: “On the other hand, the prospect of saving millions of Americans from death or injury depended on a number of uncertain steps.”

 

Geller: “I am not sure that I follow your question, sir.”

 

Weldon: “First, the trade-off you made, the sacrifice of ninety-two lives and dozens of serious injuries for the prospect of preventing a nuclear attack, only made sense if Al Qaeda in fact had one or more nuclear weapons, right?”

 

Geller: “Your question assumes that we had perfect information. We didn’t. In the real world, decisions must be made on the information available, fully cognizant of the deficiencies and uncertainties inherent in that information.”

 

Weldon: “And you concede that your intelligence about Al Qaeda’s nuclear weapons was uncorroborated?”

 

Geller: “I wouldn’t exactly say that. We had a seemingly reliable CIA intelligence source based in the Mideast who gave us the specific information about the weapons, and this was corroborated in our view of Malouf’s statement to Ms. Bishara that there was a much bigger mission in store for her should she accomplish the April 19th attack successfully.”

 

Weldon: “Malouf didn’t say anything to Ms. Bishara about a nuclear device or any other weapon of mass destruction, did he?”

 

Geller: “No, not specifically.”

 

Weldon: “Next, in order for your gamble to work out, Ms. Bishara had to escape after the April 19th attack so that she could return to Al Qaeda and continue her covert work, right?”

 

Geller: “Yes.”

 

Weldon: “Had a local police cruiser just happened to stumble on the scene during the attack, Ms. Bishara could have been killed, right?”

 

Geller: “Yes. We considered that risk as well as the risk that one of the parents at the site could have been armed, and we factored that into our decision making.”

 

Weldon: “Or Ms. Bishara could have been captured by local law enforcement, whether at the site or thereafter. This no doubt would have immediately been reported in the media, which would have made her a useless asset to the Bureau from the standpoint of continued undercover work. Isn’t that correct?”

 

Geller: “Yes. That also was a risk which we discussed and took into account.”

 

Weldon: “Alternatively, you did not even know if Ms. Bishara would go through with the attack once she realized that the Bureau was not going to prevent it?”

 

Geller: “We had no way to communicate with her at the time, but we assumed that she would act as she did act. She is a very bright woman. She knew how important it was to maintain her cover and was aware that we were very focused on Malouf’s comment to her about a much bigger mission. We were confident that she would be able to figure out what to do.”

 

Weldon: “But nonetheless this would have been a nightmare scenario. If Ms. Bishara had killed her two companions in Winnetka, she would have been useless to you going forward, and you still would have had all of the deaths and injuries in Denver, Houston, and Kansas City as well as anyone who might have been injured in Winnetka before Ms. Bishara succeeded in killing or disabling her two companions.”

 

Geller: “Is that a question?”

 

Weldon: “That was a risk, right?”

 

Geller: “Anything is possible, but we thought it unlikely.”

 

Weldon: “Even if Ms. Bishara went through with the attack and managed to escape, there was no guarantee that Al Qaeda would use her for or make her privy to the planning of a possible nuclear attack, right?”

 

Geller: “Based on Malouf’s comment and our knowledge of Al Qaeda’s practices, we were very confident that she would be tapped for the next attack if she pulled off the April 19th plan successfully.”

 

Weldon: “In fact, after April 19th, when she returned to Malouf, he had no plan for her and simply told her to go devise another attack. Isn’t that so?”

 

Geller: “Yes, to our surprise and relief. We were surprised in light of his earlier comment about a much bigger planned attack that there was nothing in works. But we were relieved that Al Qaeda seemingly did not have a nuclear device or other weapon of mass destruction at the ready to use on Americans or our allies.”

 

Weldon: “Bottom line, you took a high-stakes gamble and lost, with the price being ninety-two lives and dozens of serious injuries.”

 

Geller: “No. We took a calculated risk, balancing the near certainty that what did occur would occur against the prospect of saving millions of lives and avoiding potential civil and economic chaos in the United States. If there were even only a ten percent chance of preventing such devastation by allowing April 19th to go forward, it made sense to do so. The real world is a dangerous place, and we cannot take for granted the well-being of the United States and its major cities. Those of us responsible for defending the country have to make hard decisions. This was one of the hardest. With 20/20 hindsight, of course I would have given the order to interdict the attack. But faced with the same circumstances and same imperfect information again, I would make the same choice.”

 

Loughman’s cross:

 

Weldon: “Mr. President, you do not dispute that Director Geller consulted you prior to April 19th?”

 

Loughman: “He did, and he has accurately recounted our discussion in his testimony.”

 

Weldon: “At the time, did you think that this was just a theoretical inquiry to satisfy his curiosity?”

 

Loughman: “Director Geller is a serious person, and I did not think that he merely was asking an idle question.”

 

Weldon: “So, you understood that there would be real-world consequences involving deaths or injuries to dozens or more Americans based on your answer to the Director?”

 

Loughman: “No. I assumed that there was a nascent situation out there as to which various scenarios were being explored and that the Director was taking my temperature. I trusted that he would brief me at the appropriate juncture before any actual decisions had to be made. I was completely taken by surprise when April 19th happened.”

 

Weldon: “Did you ask the Director if he had something concrete in mind in framing his question?”

 

Loughman: “No. I did not.”

 

Weldon: “Didn’t it occur to you that he might have been seeking to cover his rear end in getting your sign-off on a difficult situation?”

 

Loughman: “That’s not the way things worked in my administration. My aides, cabinet members, and other high officials in the Executive Branch knew that they were supposed to table for full and frank discussion matters of policy and especially those pertaining to national security. I am surprised and disappointed that the Director did not do so in this instance and proceeded as he did.”

 

Weldon: “What would you have decided had he surfaced the particulars for deliberation?”

 

Loughman: “I have agonized over that question a lot, and I cannot say for certain what I would have done. We would have extensively considered all aspects of this matter with the full national security team and likely reached a consensus. Certainly, the prospect of saving millions of lives and avoiding chaos in the country would have weighed heavily, and under some circumstances, as I told the Director, I could see making the hard choice to sacrifice a much smaller number of innocent lives for the greater good. I do believe, on balance, however, that under these particular facts, with all of the uncertainties here, I would have been inclined to prevent the April 19th attacks and otherwise address the possible threat of a nuclear attack. But I acknowledge that this was a very difficult case, and after hearing all of the points of view, I might have been persuaded to let the April 19th attack go forward as did the Director. While I appreciate that the Director genuinely was trying to protect me, I am firmly of the view that he should have laid out all of the facts for me.”

 

Weldon: “Did it occur to you at the time when you were speaking with the Director that he was trying to insulate you from responsibility for a difficult decision?”

 

Loughman: “I don’t recall that crossing my mind.”

 

Weldon: “With respect, Mr. President, does that mean it didn’t cross your mind?”

 

Loughman: “No. I just don’t recall one way or the other.”

 

Weldon: “But you do recall the discussion with the Director?”

 

Loughman: “Yes, I recall the substance of the discussion, and hearing the Director testify about it helped jog my memory.”

 

Weldon: “Did it occur to you to consult the Attorney General or White House counsel about the legality of ‘sacrificing’—to use your word—innocent Americans for the greater good?”

 

Loughman: “No. First of all, I did not know that we were being presented with a concrete situation. Second, it was obvious, at least in the abstract, that it would be wrong to knowingly sit back and allow the killing of even one innocent American. Third, it was obvious, at least in the abstract, that it would be at least equally wrong and perhaps much more culpable to not take every possible step to prevent the unleashing of a nuclear device on an American city. Fourth, my administration frequently made decisions where human lives hung in the balance, and I did not consult lawyers. Whether or not to attempt to prevent Mideast dictators from killing their own people, deciding on federal financial support for local police in our U.S. cities, determining permissible environmental exposure standards, and many other questions which we addressed daily impacted life and death of people.”

 

Weldon: “Yes, but there comes a point when policy decisions must be constrained by criminal laws, isn’t that so?”

 

Loughman: “Of course, the President and other members of the Executive Branch are not above the law. That’s what this trial is all about. But as President I had to make decisions that I could live with, that I thought were best for this nation. If that entailed some personal risk to me of being found guilty of a crime, then so be it. If I knew for a certainty that killing a hundred innocent Americans was the only way to prevent the deaths of millions, I would have picked up the gun and done the horrible deed myself if I had had to, whatever the legal consequences might be to myself. But in this case, I did not have such certain knowledge, nor did I make the decision to let the April 19th attack proceed.”

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

The jury deliberations:

 

No. 1: “Under the judge’s instructions, I don’t think that we have any choice but to convict Ms. Bishara of the murders. She planned the attacks, handed out the weapons, and stood by while the other two did the shooting without making any effort to stop them.”

 

No. 7: “I don’t care what the instructions say. If this case were so simple, they wouldn’t need a jury. We are here to make decisions, and we should do what is right. I am not necessarily saying that we shouldn’t convict her, just that we ought to discuss the pros and cons instead of following the instructions by rote.”

 

No. 10: “I agree. The instructions sound like they were written for a back alley murder case, not for a case with all of these competing considerations and nuances.”

 

No. 3: “I don’t think we should convict her. She didn’t want to kill or injure any of those people. Her mission was to infiltrate, which she did, and she tried to stop the killings by calling her superiors.”

 

No. 6: “I can buy that reasoning with respect to the Denver, Houston, and Kansas City shootings, but I am very troubled that she did not do anything to prevent the Winnetka killings and then let the other two guys get away. Those guys are still out there and may attack again. At a minimum, she should have killed them.”

 

No. 12: “The whole purpose of letting the attack proceed, which was not her decision but was Geller’s, was to preserve her cover. Killing the other two guys would have jeopardized that mission and meant that all of the deaths would have been for naught. I think she did what she had to under difficult circumstances.”

 

No. 4: “But the mission was a failure. There was no nuclear bomb and no other much bigger planned terrorist attack that she prevented.”

 

No. 3: “We know that now, but none of the defendants knew that then. Bishara was a lower level field operative following orders from the Director of the FBI and possibly the President. If there was something done wrong, it is not her fault.”

 

No. 5: “Following orders did not excuse the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II, and it should not excuse the atrocious attack planned and executed by Ms. Bishara.”

 

No. 12: “This is different. The Nazis killed people for the sake of exterminating them, out of prejudice. On April 19th, the innocent people were allowed to be killed, with great reluctance, in an effort to protect the rest of us. If there had been one or two nuclear bombs, who knows, one of them may have been used on Chicago, and we would all be dead.”

 

No. 4: “Are you saying that the ends justify the means? If laws have any meaning, you can’t just go and kill people, or knowingly let others kill people when you can prevent it, simply because you have some cockamamy theory that it might save lives in the future. There are all kinds of nuts out there who could use such an excuse to start shooting people, and some of those nuts get elected or appointed to high government positions.”

 

No. 3: “But Ms. Bishara didn’t make the decision here. Geller made it. We should discuss his guilt or innocence and then come back to Ms. Bishara.”

 

No. 5: “As far as I am concerned, Geller was a rogue out there acting all alone. He took it upon himself to make a decision, and he should bear the consequences.”

 

No. 12: “He wasn’t exactly acting alone. He consulted senior members of the Bureau and ran the issue by the President.”

 

No. 4: “I don’t think it matters that he consulted his ‘yes men,’ and he admits that he wasn’t forthright with the President. You heard the President testify about what he expected from senior members of his administration.”

 

No. 7: “I voted for Loughman, and I thought he was a reasonably good President. But I didn’t think he was telling the truth about either wanting Geller to lay out the facts or not remembering whether or not he thought Geller was trying to insulate him from responsibility. That was a pretty damn significant conversation—how often does a President get asked about letting innocent Americans die? As far as I am concerned, Loughman made the decision to let April 19th go forward. That may or may not have been the right decision, and we can debate that, but it wasn’t Geller taking a flyer on his own.”

 

No. 4: “Geller admits that he made the decision to protect the President, and that to me means that he should bear the responsibility for his action in letting the attack proceed. The buck has to stop somewhere, and if Geller intentionally prevented it from going up the line, then it stops with him. That’s not to say that the President isn’t also culpable based on what Geller told him.”

 

No. 12: “I agree that Geller can’t have it both ways. If he is going to protect the President, then he can’t deny responsibility for his own actions on the basis that he was just following orders. And I acknowledge that reasonable people can differ on whether or not Geller made the right decision. It is not an easy question. But I think it is unfair for us to judge him in 20/20 hindsight on the basis that there was no real nuclear threat. Imagine for a moment that Geller had sent SWAT teams to prevent the attacks and three months later the terrorists detonated a nuclear bomb in or over New York City. How would we then judge a decision by him to intervene?”

 

No. 5: “That would have been extremely unfortunate. But it still would have been the right decision as far as I am concerned. It is not Geller’s position nor the President’s to make decisions that permit terrorists to kill innocent Americans on American soil. If we need to beef up our defenses against nuclear terrorist attacks, so be it, but that is a separate issue. We have nothing in America if we don’t have the rule of law.”

 

No. 12: “Those are fine sentiments, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. But I can’t agree that we should blithely conduct business as usual when there is a realistic threat that terrorists will detonate a nuclear bomb in or over one of our cities. Before we had airplane hijackings, everyone could board planes without going through security. That was a great freedom. But we had to limit our freedom in view of the realities of the modern world. As the threat level escalates, so must the defensive measures. And getting good intelligence information is both critical and difficult. It is easy to say that we should infiltrate terrorist organizations, but the actuality is bound to be messy and fraught with difficult choices. It is terrible that the world has come to this, and maybe the world will be a better place in the future, but we have to deal with the here and now. Geller and Loughman did that, and the decision they made was a reasonable one in light of the situation. They were trying hard to do the right thing, and I think that we need to respect that decision.”

 

No. 5: “Does that mean that it is all right for an undercover FBI agent to conduct a ‘hit’ to become a ‘made man’ in the mafia? Where do you draw the line?”

 

No. 12: “You raise a legitimate question, but in my judgment that is a different case. The mafia is pernicious, but the mafia does not go around committing mass murders of innocent people. In my view, you can’t justify a murder to infiltrate the mafia. The stakes just aren’t the same, and law enforcement agencies have effective tools to use to pursue the mafia without having to commit crimes in the name of justice.”

 

No. 11: “I have been listening to what everyone has been saying, and I think that these are all good points. But what troubles me is the presupposition that Loughman was motivated to avoid a possible nuclear attack. I read somewhere that a month after the 9/11 attacks, a CIA source code-named ‘Dragonfire’ made a report which was relayed to President George W. Bush that Al Qaeda had a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon purloined from Russia which they smuggled into New York City. Of course, it turned out to be a false alarm. This causes me to wonder whether the supposed nuclear threat to the U.S. before April 19th really was credible or if Loughman is crying ‘wolf’ in order to advance some ulterior motive. At the trial, we did not hear any evidence of the nuclear threat other than conclusory assertions made by Loughman and Geller.”

 

No. 12: “What possible ulterior motive could Loughman have had to let the murders go forth?”

 

No. 11: “Prior to April 19th, his standing in the polls was abysmal, and his domestic legislative agenda was hopelessly stalled. After April 19th, the country rallied around Loughman, his poll numbers improved greatly, and he was able to push through Congress repeal of Obama-care and overhaul of the tax code. I don’t want to be too cynical, but I am certain that Loughman was aware of the boosts that FDR got after Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush got from 9/11, and Loughman may well have anticipated similar invigoration of his presidency when he heard of the impending April 19th attack. I also found Loughman’s testimony not credible, particularly when he professed that he was surprised when April 19th took place.”

 

No. 1: “But there was no evidence introduced of such an ulterior motive. How can we take this into account in our deliberations if it was not raised at the trial?”

 

No. 11: “Geller obviously knew that by failing to take action, he in effect would be killing the April 19th victims. In my view, while Loughman apparently was not privy to the details of the planned massacre, he also knew that it would take place. It strikes me that it is Loughman’s and Geller’s burden, and a heavy one, to justify permitting the murders of ninety-two innocent Americans, and I am not satisfied that they met this burden with their self-serving statements about an unconfirmed nuclear threat. We don’t need proof of an ulterior motive; they need to convince us that there wasn’t one.”

 

No. 1: “What about Geller? What did he stand to gain from April 19th?”

 

No. 11: “I am more prepared to accept that Geller was telling the truth at trial than Loughman. First, Geller seemed like a more truthful witness on the stand. Second, he clearly was aware that he put himself in a bind with his attempt to both insulate Loughman from responsibility but still cover his own ass based on the conversation with Loughman, and Geller did not attempt to spin or sugarcoat the relevant conversation when he testified. Third, while I could speculate that Geller might have seen some upside in April 19th in terms of getting an increased operating budget for the Bureau, I find it difficult to believe that he would consider this a worthwhile trade-off for the damage that was done to the reputation of the Bureau and his own personal reputation by failing to prevent the April 19th attacks. So I give Geller the benefit of the doubt that he truly was taking a calculated risk in order to avert a possible perceived nuclear threat.”

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

The jury unanimously convicted Loughman on all counts, unanimously acquitted Bishara on all counts, and was unable to reach a verdict on any count as respects Geller.

 

 

——————–

I am a senior partner in Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP, a leading law firm in New York City. I have been with the firm since 1975, and I specialize in litigation and trial work.

The Payback

By Kevin Clarkston

t must be over. Their steps made squishy sounds in the wet grass. Phrases like “Yeah, I stuck that nigga,” “Ol’ gay-ass niggas,” and “Fuckin’ faggots” sprang from their lips as they savored their triumph.

 

I lay on my back in someone’s front yard, staring straight up at the sky. I craned my neck to see Casey picking himself up across the street. He stood up and dusted himself off, plucking the bits of dirt and rock. Damn, where were my glasses?

 

The bones in my vertebrae creaked back to life as I sat up. A sharp pain tore through my side. Something warm slid down my nose. A small drop of it fell and landed in the center of my shirt, adding a steadily growing splash of red to the center of my otherwise plain black shirt.

 

Well at least it’s clotted a little.  The blood that gushed from my nostrils like sewer waste had slowed down to a steady drip. The yard appeared fuzzy and out of focus until I yanked my frames out of a nearby ant pile and brushed a few of the creatures off.

 

I saw Casey’s face. He didn’t look good. Along with a purplish bruise, his round face was now home to a busted upper lip that made his thin mustache look like a speed bump. A sleeve on his shirt had been ripped off, exposing one of his stocky shoulder blades to the chilly night air. He extended his arm and helped me up; brushing off the blades of grass and dirt I couldn’t reach.

 

We walked back to his house in silence. The street, comprised of modest one and two-story houses, was quiet as well, oblivious to the horror that had just taken place. Through every punch, kick and stomp inflicted on us, not one porch light or door had been flicked on or opened, despite all the racket we’d caused. There was one other witness however, an acquaintance of the pathetic band who assaulted us. Instead of acting as a peace maker, he chose to play the role of bemused spectator, laughing and proclaiming ‘”That’s fucked up” as the Air Force Ones and Air Jordan sneakers crashed into our backs, faces and stomachs.

 

With each step I took, the adrenaline in my body pumped with smoldering rage. Shock settled into seething anger. Hatred enveloped every inch of my body as I thought how we’d been treated for the last few weeks by them, five teenagers only a few years younger than our nineteen-year-old selves.

 

The harassment always started the same: we’d be walking around the neighborhood in an effort to both relieve boredom and get a little exercise, when somehow we would manage to cross their paths, no matter which route we took. Victor, the ring leader, always repeated the same phrase, “It’s not cool. It’s not cool to be gay.” Then he and the rest of the clan would hurl insults our way, asking who the man was in the relationship, who was the pitcher and who was the catcher, did we have AIDS, and, curiously, solicitations for blow jobs.

 

We’d been taunted, disrespected and demeaned, and now beaten, simply for having the nerve to walk down the street in our own neighborhood, the place where we had grown up. Two of the attackers had been passing acquaintances, visiting both our homes on more than one occasion, which only compounded my fury.

 

Casey and I stayed silent as we walked through the front door and into his living room. A dish towel from the kitchen helped contain the blood leaking out of my nose. My body sank into the frumpy blue sofa directly across from the loveseat Casey occupied. Each us of stewed in our own private agony as we tried to fully grasp what had just happened. My head rested between my knees in an attempt to stop it from spinning, and to slow down the relentless beat of my heart against my chest.

Thankfully Casey’s parents had gone out for the evening. Being wrenched out of the closet and facing the biblical wrath of our deeply religious families would’ve added holy insult to infernal injury. We’d been fending off accusations about the exact nature of our relationship since our high school days, our false assertion that we were only friends falling on deaf ears. Our first semester as college roommates had provided a glorious escape from the speculation, which had continued incessantly the moment we’d come home for Christmas break.

 

“What you wanna do,” Casey asked. I lifted my head. Still sitting in his seat, his dark hazel eyes blazed with enough righteous indignation to bore a hole through my skull.

 

“I don’t know.” I toyed with an old book on the nearby lamp stand with my free hand. But I was lying. Little scenarios involving our antagonists were already playing on a loop in my head. And one look in Casey’s eyes told me we were on the same wavelength. I couldn’t believe it when the words “We could file a report,” came out of my mouth.

 

“That not gonna do anything but bring a shit storm down on our asses Nate.” Casey snapped. “So what you wanna do?” he repeated, bumping his knuckles together and furrowing his thick eyebrows.

 

He was right.  Law enforcement was a dicey proposition in our town. For every good cop there would be two or more who’d take hours to show up to the scene, or lose the paperwork for crimes like ours. Neither of us were in the mood for the mockery and smug smiles of superiority when we confessed the reason behind our bruises, especially from some of the black officers, who’d interject their questioning with soft, fervent prayers their sons didn’t grow up to become like us– black, gay and proud.

 

I didn’t say anything. Instead I stood and headed toward the bathroom. Casey bounced up from where he sat and followed. We remained silent as we wiped and scrubbed ourselves raw with soap-soaked towels to wash away the dirt, and tended to cuts and bruises. A river of red ran down the sink as I wrung out the towel I’d used to stop my bleeding nose. The blood that should’ve been on their hands was instead going down the drain, to be discarded and forgotten. Like us.

 

The person staring back at me in the mirror was unrecognizable. My eyes were bloodshot. My small, angular face was littered with wrinkles, while my hair was a tangled mess of unraveling braids. The image, and that of Casey’s bruised face, sent my whole body into a trembling quake, as if my insides were a Molotov cocktail of deep despair and blind rage ready to explode. Several huge gulps of air filled my lungs, as if the oxygen I took for granted everyday was now being rationed. But I wasn’t alone. Casey was doing the same thing. His eyes had the same look. Our mirror-image gazes met one another first, then we turned and faced each other. In that moment our minds said what our lips did not: Revenge was in order.

 

I grabbed the keys off the bathroom counter and we sprinted out the door and toward my car. As I opened the driver’s side door I stopped to look up once again. I took in the starless night sky and full moon and silently mouthed the sinner’s prayer to myself. God was going to be displeased with many of my ways tonight.

 

***

 

Our telepathic communication continued all the while we were in the store. We swooped through the aisles, not with nervous energy or uncertainty, but with methodical, single-minded purpose. I stepped outside myself as I watched us get pairs of black steel-toe boots, black hoodies, and black gloves. Some button deep down in our psyches had been pressed, releasing a flood of detailed information on everything we needed for our conquest. Our arms already weighed down by our merchandise, I volunteered to stay by the register while Casey got the necessary weaponry.

 

“Ya’ll planning a bank heist or something?” the cashier, a jovial older man with salt and pepper hair asked as he scanned our items.

 

I startled myself when a small chuckle escaped my mouth. I thought I’d forgotten how to laugh.

 

“I guess you could say that,” I said as Casey laid two aluminum bats down on the register belt. The cashier gave us a wary look.

 

“I don’t know what ya’ll youngbloods are up to,” he said, stopping himself from scanning one of the hoodies. “But I know that look you got in your eyes. Whatever it is, or whoever it is, it’s not worth it. Trust me.”

 

He put the ski mask down and lifted his shirt, revealing welts just above his navel where it looked as if more than one knife had once resided there. He rolled up the sleeves on his shirt, unveiling a crude tattoo. The kind that ends up on a man’s skin when ballpoint pens replace tattoo guns and staples and safety pins stood in for needles.

 

“Twenty years,” he said in a mournful tone. “Over some bullshit. Beat my homeboy senseless over some drugs he stole from me. They sent my ass off to the penitentiary. And see,” he said as he stood back and looked us over, “I can tell ya’ll just some pissed off suburban kids. College boys. Ya’ll ain’t made for jail. Minimum, medium, maximum–none of that shit. Don’t do it.”

 

“I didn’t know cashiers were required to do PSAs now,” Casey said, glaring at him. “Would you tell someone buying cigarettes or vodka about the dangers of drugs and alcohol? We just thought we’d hit up the batting cages before bed.”

 

“You expect me to believe that?” the cashier said, laughing to himself. That set Casey off even more.

 

“Naw, I expect you mind yo’ fuckin’ business and ring up our shit,” he sneered, leaning over the counter and looking at the man’s name tag. “Or do I have to call a manager over here, Jimmy?” I didn’t say anything, but simply shot a Jimmy a glance as cold as granite.

 

Jimmy mumbled something under his breath and shook his head, then finished scanning our items. I slammed five crisp twenty dollar bills on the counter, grabbing the change from his hand so fast it sent quarters, nickels and dimes flying all over the floor. The sound of the coins hitting linoleum was the last thing I heard as we bolted out of the store.

 

***

 

“I still don’t see why we need a bag of sugar. Are we bakin’ a cake afterwards,” Casey quipped. He pulled the hoodie down over his head. “And what’s up with these knives? Are we on some Michael Myers shit? I think we could hem they asses up plenty with these bats.”

 

“You’ll see once we get goin’,” I said, lacing up my boots. “We gotta give someone an early Christmas gift first.” I looked down at my watch. Ten-thirty. Late in the evening to be sure, but not too late for them to get in one more round of basketball, or hang outside to celebrate putting two homos in their place.

 

We tossed the baseball bats and the black duffel bag in the back seat of my car and sped off to their likely hangout, a decrepit duplex located in the back of the neighborhood. I floored the accelerator, barely slowing down as we rounded the first corner and returned to the scene of our five-on-two beat down, a small group of houses built around a circular slab of road. Casey gave me a confused look.

 

“I told you. We need to reach out and touch someone else first.” My index finger pointed in the direction of Laughing Boy’s house. He looked at me for a few moments, contemplating if this was a necessary detour. Then his round face broke into a grin. It dawned on him why the extra supplies were necessary.

 

We crept out of the car with the engine running but the headlights turned off, and snuck across a few lawns, careful not to make too much noise with the duffel bug. There it was. His prized black Charger, parked at the bottom of the long driveway. The car he always drove through the neighborhood. The one that blasted music through subwoofers that rattled window seals while he swerved the car wildly from one side of the road to the other, stopping along the way for no other reason than to show off his spinning rims.

 

Casey reached inside the duffel bag, pulled out two knives, and handed one to me. We made quick work of his tires, slashing them deeper than any patch job could ever hope to fix. Then we turned our blades on the paint, carving thick lines on the hood, the roof, the sides and the trunk. Our work was almost impeded by a lock on his gas tank, but a few twists with a screwdriver fixed that. I’d just begun to pour a lot more than a spoonful of sugar down the tank, when the porch light came on.

 

We shot each other panicked looks, and then hid behind the car. We heard the front door open. The screen door followed, torturing our eardrums with a high, piercing noise as the  rusted spring stretched and snapped to life. The top of his braided, peanut-shaped head came into view as he looked around to see if anyone was outside. I nudged Casey, and pointed to a large tree out of Laughing Boy’s line of vision, gesturing for him to run over there as soon as Laughing Boy turned his back. My heartbeat sped up to triple time as we heard his footsteps come closer. Suddenly they stopped. I peeked from behind the car’s trunk to see him looking around again. He was beside a large pickup truck, closer to us but not close enough to see the severe damage done to his prized toy. He took a few long drags from a cigarette, blowing out the smoke in little O’s.

 

“Take your ass back inside,” I said under my breath. The wind must have carried my voice, because I saw his beady eyes and little pug nose scrunch up as he glanced around again. My normal breathing turned into muted, emaciated gasps as I thought he spotted Casey when he peeked from behind the car.

 

“Know I heard somethin’,” he said to himself. A burst of light hit the ground, then was extinguished and turned into ash by a black sneaker. His footsteps soon grew fainter.

 

“Now,” I whispered to Casey. He sprinted towards the tree and hid behind it. I lifted my head to see if I could make a run for it as well, meeting Laughing Boy’s dumbfounded gaze.

 

“I knew it was somebody there,” he shouted, running down the driveway. His short, overweight frame ran toward me. I stood frozen. Everything slowed down for a moment. He was getting closer to me by the second, his face becoming even more misshapen when his eyes caught a glimpse of what we’d done to his ride. Just as he pulled back his fist, a steel-toe boot connected with the right side of his face, sending him flying into the side of the car. He crashed into the driver’s side door, then hit the ground with a titanic smack.

 

He rose up, dazed and confused. He stumbled forward and swung at me. I dodged it and channeled all of my adrenaline into my fist, punching him in the face. His cheek bone cracked under the force of my knuckles, sending a chill up my spine and sending him back on the ground, where he lay in a barely conscious heap.

 

“What do we do with him,” Casey asked in a hushed voice.

 

“Shit, tie him up and put him in the trunk,” I said.

 

“With what,” Casey said.

 

“I think I have a roll of duct tape in the car. Go get that,” I said.

 

I duct-taped his ankles and hands while Casey took care of his mouth, and then we carried him to the car. We sat him in the grass while Casey reached inside the car and popped open the trunk.

 

“Man, how ya’ll gon’ do my baby like that,” he slurred as we lifted him up. “Then got me itchin’ and shit in the grass. That’s–

 

“What? Fucked up!” Casey and I said in unison.

 

“Yeah,” he slurred.

 

“Shut up!” I shouted. Then we threw him inside, causing him to hit his head on the speaker box holding my subwoofers, and then closed the trunk.

 

“Let’s roll,” I said as we hopped back in the car and drove off.

 

I kept the headlights off as we made a left and rounded the curb, slowing down to see if our intended victims were outside. No such luck.

 

“They’re probably on the back road at Victor’s house,” Casey suggested. I nodded and made a sharp right turn, barely missing a parked car and a mailbox before hitting the brakes at a stop sign.

 

“Is that them?” A small group of guys clad in sneakers, fitted caps, muscle shirts and sweats were about halfway down a narrow street of houses that sat across from a corn field.

 

“Hell yeah,” Casey said in a low growl, lowering his hoodie over his face. “That’s them motherfuckers.”

 

I flipped on my bright lights and slammed on the accelerator.

 

“Man look out!” I heard one of them scream as I drove right up the middle of where they stood. “Watch where the fuck you goin’,” another one yelled. I skidded into the gravel on the side of the road before coming to a stop. We jumped out of the car, and heard sneakers scuff the pavement as they walked closer. The single streetlight gave only an outline of their bodies. Victor stepped out of the darkness first.

 

“Aww man,” he laughed, pointing at us. He was a sawed-off, cocky little bastard. “It’s them punks again. Ya’ll must like gettin’ ya’ll asses beat. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised at that!”

 

Just the sound his of voice made my blood boil. All I could see was red. This fool and his pitiful band of suburban goons had to go. There was no other option. He stood under the glow of the street light, smacking his fist into an open palm with a smug-ass smirk on his face

 

“Shit what nigga,” he shouted, throwing his hands up as he moved closer in our direction. “Get ya’ll gay asses on. Ya’ll ain’t gon’ do shit.”

 

Another member of their clique, bigger and taller in frame, strode out of the dark and came to his side. “Man, them dudes not movin’. You want me to handle ’em?”

 

“Naw,” he said, nodding in my direction. “Imma skull drag his ass myself.”

 

He charged towards me, swung wildly and missed. I punched him dead in the jaw, then grabbed his head and brought his face down into my knee. I could almost taste the sweet satisfaction. He stumbled back, blood streaking down his face, and came at me again, swinging his arms like a broken windmill as I dodged and punched him hard in the gut, then landed a few jabs to his face. He stumbled back again. Fear and embarrassment seeped into his eyes. Sensing defeat, he screamed, “Man, get them niggas!”

 

Just the opening we were looking for. A wicked smile crossed my face.

 

Casey and I shuffled back and opened the back doors, grabbing the aluminum bats. Another guy about the same size as Victor tried to run up on me, but met with the business end of my bat to his stomach. He bent over, clutching his stomach. I brought the bat down on his back. He fell to the ground, holding up his hands in a feeble attempt at self-defense.

 

“C’mon on man, don’t,” he yelped. But I didn’t give a fuck. He wasn’t in such a merciful mood when he had pummeled me like a punching bag while one of the big goons held me up. I smashed the bat into in both of his knees as he let loose anguished cries.

 

Victor saw an opening and swung at me again, this time connecting with an uppercut to my gut. I doubled over and tried to catch my breath, expecting a blow to the temple any second. I lifted my head and saw Victor. He had staggered back, his fists haphazardly positioned in front of his face. The previous blows must have left him weak. Enraged, I moved in for the kill, dodged another punch and swung the bat with all the force I could muster, cracking it over his ribcage. He fell beside his partner, wailing like a newborn child. His face was fixed with look of absolute horror, but the screams that erupted from his mouth became inaudible to me as I beat his back like a pinata, then spit on him as he curled up in a fetal position.

 

A loud, snapping sound ripped through the air. One of the big henchmen dropped to the ground, grabbing his side. Casey was about to dish out another body blow to him when the other muscle head swooped in and clocked him on the chin, knocking him back. I ran up from behind and nearly broke the bat across his back. He dropped to his knees. A grand slam across his face finished him off, sending a few of his teeth skidding across the pavement. Casey quickly immobilized the other oaf with a few blows to his face, chest, arms, and legs.

 

Above all of the moaning and cursing, we exchanged perplexed looks.

 

“Where’s the last guy,” I said.

 

Casey looked down the road and cackled. “There his punk-ass go right there,” he said, pointing to a pair of skinny legs sprinting down the street into the darkness.

 

“We can’t let him get away. He’ll run to the police.” I turned away from Casey and surveyed the scene. The enemies I thought of as sub-human entities suddenly transformed into living, breathing people, lying on the street, bleeding and writhing in pain. The oaf I’d clobbered across the dome wasn’t even conscious, while the one Casey clocked was laying face down in a pool of blood. I walked over to him and placed my fingers on his neck, trying to feel a pulse. There was none. The cold air had already begun to snatch the heat from his corpse. The sight of it all shattered my rage-colored blinders, shocking me back into reality.
“Fuck,” I said softly as I dropped the bat from my right hand, the hollow sound of it hitting the concrete barely registering.

 

“Man he’s too scary to tell anybody. He barely even fought when they jumped us,” Casey said, referring to the sole survivor. “All we gotta do is–”

 

I ran back over to him and slapped him across the face. “Do you understand what’s just happened? We have maimed four people, killed at least one, and we have a witness who saw all of it,” I screamed.

 

Casey gazed down at the body and the blood. Then he started hyperventilating. “Oh shit! Fuck! What are we gonna do?” he said, pacing back and forth. He dropped the bat and began pounding his forehead with his fists.

 

I shook him and said “Get it together! Let’s uh, let’s put them in the trunk. Now! Get the duct tape!”

 

We walked over to Victor and his second in command. “Man we sorry man,” the Victor cried, tears pouring down his face. “We won’t tell nobody if you let us go. Fah real man!”

 

“What ya’ll gon’ do to us,” the other one asked calmly, as if he’d accepted whatever fate had in store for him. I turned away from them and looked out at the vast, empty cornfield located across from the row of houses on the street. What had we done? Now we’d become the bullies. No, worse than that. Monsters. These weren’t superhuman hate machines. Just scared little boys. I blinked back the tears I felt forming in the corners of my eyes, then looked over at Casey, who seemed to be fighting the same internal battle.

 

We said nothing to them, but simply duct-taped all their limbs and their mouths, except for the unconscious oaf.  We popped open the trunk, prepared for a full-on struggle with Laughing Boy. But none was needed. His eyes were rolled back, the blood from his head wound now in the first stages of coagulation. And the duct tape covered his nose and mouth. My fingers rested on his neck. No pulse.

 

“What the fuck’s wrong with him.” Casey wiped a bunch of sweat off of his forehead and looked over at me.

 

“He suffocated.” My voice came out like a whimper.

 

“He what?”

 

“He suffocated! Because you were stupid enough to put the duct tape over his mouth and his nose! Who the hell does that?”

 

“Oh, so it’s my fault now because I’m not a criminal mastermind like you? Fuck you Nate! It wasn’t my bright idea to stop over at his house in the first place! But I’ll tell you what; the next time we plan an all attack, I’ll be sure not to gloss over the finer details of storing bodies in a trunk,” he spat.

 

“Alright! I get it, I’m sorry.” My hands rested on his shoulders. I leaned in and gave him a tight hug and kissed his forehead. This had to be the most surreal apology I’d ever had the misfortune to deliver.

 

“It’s alright,” he mumbled, patting me on the back. Then the sight of Laughing Boy seemed to send him reeling again. “What are we gonna do? All of them can’t fit in the trunk! Where can we dump him?”

 

“How am I supposed to know! It’s not like I drive around scouting good places to dump a body.What about there,” I said, pointing to the endless rows of corn in front of us.

 

“Really? A damn cornfield,” Casey snapped.

 

“You wanna leave him in the middle of the street? Why don’t we just dump the others in the field for now and take the dead ones with us. We can always come back for them later.” A new layer of fear came over me. And it was not the dread of being caught. I was terrified of myself. How could I formulate all of this–revenge plots, disposing of dead and living bodies–so quickly and so thoroughly? How could I be so levelheaded through all of this? Who was I?

 

Our gaze turned toward Victor. He unleashed a torrent of muffled screams as we took him deep into the cornfield and tossed him in the thick of it, where he landed with a resounding thud. We repeated the same thing with his second in command

 

The two other bodies lay lifeless in the street. My eyes locked on them for a few moments, then looked back at Casey.

 

“Hell no,” he said pointing at them. “I’m not touching a dead body! Fuck that shit!”

 

“You don’t and you’re gonna be a dead body if we got caught! We don’t have a choice!” After several minutes of grunting, sweating and straining, our now deceased adversaries joined Laughing Boy in the trunk.

 

“What you waiting on! Drive,” Casey roared as the two of us jumped into the car. He might as well have whispered the words, because I barely heard him. I was too preoccupied with my own thoughts. Thoughts about how all of our lives were now irrevocably changed.

 

“Bitch, drive this motherfucka,” he shouted. He dove under the steering wheel and pushed down on the accelerator with both hands. We peeled off down the thin stretch of road, the speedometer hitting 80. I reached under the steering wheel and tried to rip his hands off the gas pedal while the car barreled over speed bumps and careened from one side of the road to the other, dinging mail boxes like a pin ball as I struggled to ignore the sound of bodies slamming against the trunk and maintain my grip on the steering wheel. The blaring horn of another vehicle made me shoot straight up in my seat, bringing us face to face with an enormous SUV. I veered out of its way, then stomped on Casey’s hands and pushed him back into his seat. I slammed on the brakes.

 

Casey was a babbling blur of nerves, talking to himself as he rocked back and forth.

 

“What are we gonna do, dump ’em? I know, we could drop ’em off in front of the hospital? No, that’s stupid! Oh my God, what are we gonna do with ’em! Shit, I think I’m gonna be sick!” The thought became reality as he thrust his head out of the window and blew chunks that splattered onto the road.

 

He dry heaved a few more times, then squirmed back onto his seat and wiped his mouth with his hands. He lunged at me across the gear shift and grabbed my face. His eyes looked crazed.

 

“What are we gonna do!” he screamed, filling my nostrils with the stench of vomit.

“Calm down,” I yelled as I pushed him off me and yanked off my ski mask. “I can’t think with you havin’ a fuckin’ meltdown and tryin’ to kill us! And put on your seat belt!” The request sounded so idiotic in the grand scheme of things.

 

I put the car back in drive and we continued on, breezing past stop signs like they were merely suggestions until I turned out of the neighborhood and came up to a red light.The music pouring from the car speakers provided the only noise.

 

No sooner than I had managed to regain some sort of emotional equilibrium than we saw a flash of blue lights in the rear view mirror. We both whipped around to see a patrol car coming up on us fast. My heart felt like it was about to explode. Casey looked as if he would go into cardiac arrest any moment. We were so busy concentrating on breathing that we didn’t notice the light was now green. The patrol car honked its horn, causing both of us to jump in terror. I began to drive again.

 

We only got a few feet before we were pulled over.

 

“Calm dowwwn. Breathe,” I said in slow, measured tones to both Casey and myself, as the tall, bulky officer approached my side of the car and signaled for me to roll the window down. I caught a glimpse of his thick mustache and shiny, brown bald head, and relaxed for a moment. We knew him. It was Officer White, one of the good cops. But just as my fears of harassment were alleviated, my stomach did a double back hand spring into my feet as I realized his presence was a blessing and a curse. We knew him.

 

“Driver’s license and registration please,” his deep voice boomed. Good. He didn’t recognize either one of us. Casey fumbled with the glove compartment, found the registration and slid it to me as I handed Officer White my license.

 

Did you know your driver’s side brake light was out.” he asked, writing my information down on something that was attached to a large clipboard.

 

“I did not sir,” I said, flashing the most innocent smile I could summon, while shooting Casey an icy look out of the corner of my eye. Damn him and those mailboxes.

 

“Mmhmm,” he said as he shot me a suspicious look. His eyes lingered on us, and, for a moment, I was sure we’d been found out. Goodbye college. Hello three hots and a cot. “I’m gonna go scan your information,” he said, turning away and walking back toward his patrol car.

 

I thought I heard thumping and banging in the trunk. Had one of them resurrected? Impossible.  “Turn up the music,” I said to Casey in a hushed tone.

 

“Why? I didn’t hear anything. You trippin’!”

 

“I could’ve sworn I heard a thump. Just do it!”

 

He complied, pressing down on the volume until the entire car was rattling.

 

“Not that much,” I scolded. Casey pointed at something over my shoulder then snapped back into his former position, looking straight ahead and breathing like he was having an asthma attack. I turned around to see Officer White, a stern look etched on his face.

 

“Do you want me to get you for disturbing the peace as well,” he barked, handing me my license and registration back.

 

“No sir,” I said, looking down at my feet.Thankfully, whatever went bump in the trunk was now quiet.

 

“Don’t understand all of that boomin’ system crap,” he grumbled. “Makes enough noise to wake the dead.” I managed to crack smile, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold out. Panic was pulling me down like quicksand, and I was starting to suffocate.

 

“Your other light is in good condition, so I’ll just let you two off with a warning,” he said, crumbling up the ticket. “But you need to get the light fixed ASAP.”

 

“Thank you Officer White,” I said.

 

“Ya’ll have a good night. Hey wait a minute,” he said, bending down to my level. “Aren’t you Pat and Deena’s son?”

 

“Uh, no, I think you got me confused with somebody else,” I said, my eyes frantically darting left to right as I cursed myself for uttering his name.

 

“Boy, stop playing. You’re a spittin’ image of your Daddy. Nate is it?” I nodded in response.

 

“And is that Casey Watkins riding shotgun,” he said, as he turned his thick neck to get a better view. “How your people doin’ Casey,” he asked.

 

“Fine, uh, fine sir,” Casey said. He threw a glance Officer White’s way, and then resumed staring off into space.

 

“What’s his problem,” Officer White asked me. “Looks like he’s seen a ghost.”

 

“We just finished watching a marathon of The Sopranos, The Godfather and Goodfellas,” I said. “It shook him up pretty bad.”

 

“We’re a helluva long way from the East coast. You don’t have to worry about gettin’ whacked,” Officer White chuckled. Casey elicited a small chortle in response. “You know that brake light bulb is probably just a little loose. I could help you screw it on tight if you pop the trunk, he said.

 

“No, that’s okay. I’ll let my Dad take a look. Besides, you’ve probably got meth labs to raid,” I laughed, working overtime to keep my tone breezy and conversational.

 

“Nonsense. It’s been pretty slow tonight anyway.  Pop the trunk.”

 

I felt myself sinking further into the quicksand as I reached under the steering wheel to press the trunk release button. This is it. It’s all over. My finger was almost about to press down on small blue button when Officer White’s walkie talkie on his hip blared loudly.

 

“Guess I was wrong about it being slow tonight. Tell your folks I said hi,” he said. Turning around after taking a few steps, he walked back, leaned down into my window and said, “Be careful.”

 

“Okay, will do,” I sputtered, thankful the light was once again green as we drove off.

 

We drove around aimlessly, weaving through back alleys and deserted streets, vetoing one another’s suggestions for potential dumping places. We passed through downtown, an area populated with bars and clubs packed with patrons smoking, drinking and indulging in other Friday night pasttimes. People danced in the parking lots, their laughter filling the air as we drove through the crowd of candy colored cars, tricked out trucks and souped up SUVs. They all seemed to belong to another world, a normal, carefree existence that we’d inadvertently exiled ourselves from.

 

“How about we try Barley Lake? You know, by the old bridge,” Casey said, breaking me out of my trance.

 

“We can’t! It’s blocked off for construction,” I said, honking my horn at a Mustang whose owner had decided to hold a conversation in the middle of the street. I banged my head against the steering wheel in frustration.

 

“You got a better idea, Nate?” Casey asked, clearly agitated. “Look, we can park the car by the little recreation area, dump them in the lake, and be out,” he said. His face was stricken with fear. “Hell it’s either that or jail.”

 

“Barley Lake it is.”

 

***

 

We pulled up to the small, dimly lit park by the lake. Wooden picnic tables and a few barbecue pits sat by the concrete staircase that lead down to the lake, which gleamed under the full moon. Save for the occasional passing car, we were alone.

 

“Damn, they don’t have any heavy rocks or concrete around here! I thought this was a construction site,” I said as I stepped over caution signs. Casey, who was down on his knees scavenging through discarded materials like a mad man for anything we could weigh the bodies down with, said nothing.

 

Finally I spotted a patch of broken up road. It was like finding a pot of gold.

 

“Look,” I yelled, pointing to the crumbled up pile of concrete. I ran toward the rubble, ignoring Casey’s warnings. Something thin and sharp sank into the ball of my right foot. It tore through my skin until it nicked the bone.

 

“FUCK!” I screamed out. I sat down on a slab of concrete to examine the source of the injury, a small red metal rod that poked out of the bottom of my boot.

 

Casey tip toed over to where I was, careful not to make the same mistake. When he got near me, he peeled his hoodie off, then took off his T-shirt and ripped it in half.  “What are you doing,” I grunted.

 

“You’re gonna need something to bite down on,” he said. I shot him a horrified glance.

 

“Man, fuck you and the Boy Scouts,” I hollered as he grabbed the metal rod and began to painstakingly work it out of my foot. The whole thing took less than a minute, but that didn’t make each excruciating twist and turn hurt any less. He threw the rod to the side and got my boot off, taking the shirt out of my mouth and wrapping it around my foot to create a crude bandage.

 

“Can you walk,” he asked. One tortured limp by me answered his question with a resounding no. “C’mon man, we gotta hurry.”

 

“What for,” I shouted at him. I plopped back down on the rock. “Who the hell do we think we are? There’s no way we’re gonna get away with this! And why should we,” I said, putting my head in my hands. “What the hell were we thinking?”

 

“Nate don’t you get all soft on me now,” Casey said as he tried to help me up. “Shit, you weren’t feeling any remorse when you went upside their heads.”

 

“And neither were you,” I shot back. “I didn’t hear any second thoughts when you were goin’ off on the cashier! So don’t try to pretend like you’re so innocent. Like I talked you into it or held a gun to your head!”

 

“Dammit let’s just finish this shit and deal with whatever comes later,” he said, glowering at me. He wasn’t making any sense. But then again, neither of us had since we decided to become vigilantes.

 

“Fine,” I said curtly, and made another attempt at standing up and walking. It felt like dozens of tiny serrated knives were being plunged into my foot the first time I put weight on it. But after a few more pained steps, I willed myself to drag my impaired appendage along.

 

“Pop the trunk,” I said.

 

Casey pressed the button on the key fob and unleashed another round of hell with it.

 

“HEELLLLP! These fools are crazy,” a voice rang out. The unconscious oaf had come to his senses. “HELLLP,” he screamed again.

 

“Shut the hell up,” I bellowed, ordering Casey to get the duct tape. We tried to seal his mouth, but only received teeth marks on our hands in return.

 

“Let’s just throw him in the lake,” Casey shouted in a shrill voice. We grabbed his arms and legs and lifted him out of the trunk when we heard a car come to a stop.

 

“What’s goin’ on over there,” a female voice said. We turned around and saw a stout, middle-aged woman looking in our direction. “Do ya’ll need some help?” she asked as she got out of her car. I could see the outline of a small child in the front seat. A young girl’s voice called out “Hurry up Mommy. I wanna go home.”

 

“No,” Casey and I shouted in unison. Casey tried to cover up the big oaf’s mouth. Undeterred, she kept walking toward us.

 

“I just noticed your vehicle sitting by all this construction,” she said, “and thought you might be having car trouble. You know it’s not safe for ya’ll to be out here this time of night. I could call the police or a tow truck if you need me to.”

 

“Everything’s fine,” I barked. “We’re big boys. We can handle it.”

 

“You may think that,” she said in a motherly tone, as she continued across the gravel. “But I have a son your age, and I know better.”

 

“Ma’am, stay back! Everything’s cool,’ Casey said. But it was too late.

 

“Oh my God,’ she said in disbelief, putting a hand to her mouth as her eyes zeroed in on the bodies laying in the trunk like firewood. “What are you–?”

 

Before she could finish her sentence, a large truck came barreling around the corner. Its horn blared and its high beams flashed. It tried and failed to swerve out of the way. It crashed into the woman’s car, sending it hurtling down the road. Millions of shards of glass exploded out of the car’s rear window and scattered across the gravel. The car veered off the road and skidded into a small ditch, then slid out and slammed into a nearby tree.

 

The truck skidded towards us, kicking up gravel and concrete. The driver, somehow still lucid, was jerking the steering wheel, trying to keep the massive vehicle from careening into the three of us. Sparks bounced off the rims as the front tires disintegrated into masses of black rubber. Casey and I dropped the body, grabbed the woman and and tried to jump out of the way. The whole world slowed down again. My heart, tired of pumping at three to four times its regular pace, slowed down. Everything became very clear during those last moments. The fruity scent of the woman’s perfume. The sweaty, slippery feel of Casey arm. The truck’s champagne paint job. Then everything went black.

 

***

 

“Son,” The voice sounded so distant. “Son,” it said again, this time a little louder. “Son.”

 

“What,” I said in a groggy voice. A warm hand touched mine. Dad’s face, flushed with concern and stunned shock, stared down at me. His arm was around my mother, who wiped a tear from her eye. A slow and steady beep invaded my ears. Something small and sharp was lodged into my left hand, covered in bandages. A long tube stuck out from it. The whole room was white and sterile.

 

“Where am I?”

 

“You’re in the hospital, Nathan,” Dad said.

 

“Why? What’s going on?” I sat up in the bed.

 

“Don’t try to get up baby,” Mama said. She was beside herself. “Just don’t try to get up. Please.”

 

“Why not?” I threw off the covers and tried to get out of bed. But my legs wouldn’t move. Come to think of it, I couldn’t even feel them. No. This wasn’t happening. My legs were fine. They were just asleep. “I can’t feel my legs. Why can’t I feel my legs?” Mama wrenched herself from Dad and sobbed, walking over to a chair and falling into it, holding her head in her hands.

 

“Because son,” Dad said, gripping my hand. “The doctors think you may be paralyzed.”

 

“No. NO!” I thrashed my torso back and forth, and willed my legs to move. The whole time, a loud clanging sound kept reverberating off the bed rail. Why was I handcuffed?

 

“Don’t you remember what happened?” Dad asked. “What you did….”

 

“For his sake, he better.” Officer White walked into the room, and shook Dad’s hand. “Sorry to have to meet you like this, Patrick.  Deena, he said, nodding in her direction. Mama ignored him. Instead she sobbed and rocked herself back and forth. “I don’t believe it. Not my son,” she said.

 

“What the hell’s going on? And where’s Casey,” I said.

 

Officer White took off his hat and held it to his chest. “He didn’t make it. Neither did the woman or the little girl. The driver of the truck is in critical condition. Nate, I’m going to have ask you some questions about what we found…in your trunk.”

 

It all came rushing back like a series of snapshots. The attack, the store, the cashier, our retaliation, and the ugly, chaotic aftermath. Five people had died, three of them innocent victims. And on top of it all, Casey was gone. The only person in the world who understood me, who knew all the dark corners and corroded corridors of my life and loved me anyway, was gone.

 

In a way, Casey got the better deal. At least he was spared from facing what lay ahead: The mug shots, the newspaper headlines, and TV reports branding us as homicidal homos. The expressions of shock, sadness, and anger on the rest of my family’s faces as they learned the truth. The faces of our victims’ families in the court room as they glowered at me as though I was a demon who’d escaped the bowels of hell. The jurors, their faces fixed in disgust and morbid fascination as they heard our crimes described in gory detail.

 

Our attackers would probably be hailed as victims and brave survivors, garnering sympathy from the community and going on to live happy, productive lives. The life I–that we–could’ve had had we not chosen to give into our rage and ride it for all it was worth. Instead I’d be trapped in a cell day in and day out for the rest of my life, growing old alone.

 

Sometimes revenge is a dish best left to rot.

 

 

——————–

Kevin Clarkston is an aspiring fiction novelist and short story writer who lives in Louisiana. He has written several op-ed pieces for African Americans For Humanism. He is also the author of K. Clark’s Corner, a blog that covers topics such as black gay culture, LGBT rights, sexuality, race, religion, atheism and entertainment.

Earth Angel

By Douglas Cole

n both sides of the block, on a dead end street, the families all worked with insect precision, planting identical trees.  Desiree, the block watch captain and defacto leader of the neighborhood beautification project, scurried from tree to tree with her measuring stick to make sure they were all in a line and evenly spaced, lest some element be out of order.  She was a lay botanist who, after seeing the movie The Secret Life of Plants, had become a devout Vegan: she ate nothing that didn’t drop to the ground and die on its own.

 

Frank watched from his porch at the end of the block.  He was not part of the project and had never been asked.  True, he already had his own, thin little elm wisps, barely plugged into the parking strip, and he probably would have declined to join their uniform cultivation of the paperbark maple that the city had given them free.  But it was amusing to watch how with the industrious care that only the amateur can muster, they all now seemed to think themselves experts and the only capable gardeners to handle their little trees, people who until now hardly deigned to clip back a rose let alone trim a hedge or a lawn.  Hadn’t most of them hired him to do all of that?  The cutting and the mulching, composting ,limbing, everything to keep their yards individually beautiful, like competing gardens of Eden?  And besides, he knew what Desiree thought of him.  She had said to him directly, in one explosion of completely unexpected vitriol when he asked her if he could do any work on her yard, that she thought he was nothing more than a stinking no good drunk, and that she would rather die than let him touch her plants.  He drank his beer and glared at the neighborhood.

 

They all worked away in synchronous time, looking up occasionally to see how the others were doing, making little comments about how beautiful the neighborhood would be, and there was something beautiful about them in their bumbling way, all exposed as he knew them.  Mary was a lawyer worn down by sadness after the death of her son.  Now even she had a look of joy, though the eternal grief was set deep in her eyes.  And Desiree’s husband, Ed, tagged along behind her from tree to tree, lending a hand, taking over at times.  He was a buffoon of an accountant with meticulous and pointless knowledge of baseball scores and player statistics.  Their daughter was a quiet, timid girl with heavy limbs, and she displayed the grim demeanor of neglect that came because her younger brother had cerebral palsy and so was fragile and needed constant attention.  He was sometimes allowed to ride his bike to the end of the block, but only if he wore elbow pads and a hockey helmet.  Hugh Bates was in real estate and pretended to be kind and talked of Karma in a way that made it sound like all of his actions were merely calculations and investments on the next life; his wife was a potter with burned out acid eyes and a paper voice.  They had a toddler girl named Rain.  Tom and Sharon were teachers, strangely cold with thin fake smiles that seemed to narrowly cover a sneer.  But here they all were, bent over their little plots of land like undertakers full of the joy of their work.

 

Frank couldn’t resist.  He rose up and loped across the street.  Grinning like a serpent, he wedged a foot up on the curb and looked down the slope of his beer can at the hole, at the mound of earth and at Tom, teacher and newest member of the block who was lifting out another wedge of sod with the blade of his shovel.

 

You got any steer manure? Frank asked.

 

No, Tom said, looking up, sweat rolling down along the wire rims of his glasses.  Should I?

 

Well, it helps to lay some down at the bottom of the hole.  It gives the tree additional nutrients.  It’s a good idea when transferring it to new ground.

 

Well, I don’t have any.

 

I’ve got two bags you’re welcome to if you want them.  I mean, you don’t have to.

 

Really?  If you think it’s a good idea.  Tom propped both hands on the handle of his shovel and drew a dirty glove across his forehead.  He puffed and blew and drew in deep breaths like a man on the verge of a heart attack.

 

I’ll bring them.

 

Frank loped across the street with his long Ichobod strides.  He rolled through his yard swinging his gangly limbs like some creaky structure made of pulleys and rope, and bent his weathered face to peer into the ruckus of down spouts and cinder blocks, pots and boards, and plucked up two red bags of manure and threw them over his shoulders and carried them back across the street.  His neighbor unhinged another crescent of sod, and Frank dropped a big hand down and yanked up the tuft, grass gripped like hair in his fingers.  He stood back as Tom dug deeper into the ground.

 

Everything working out in the house for you there?

 

Yeah.  There’s a lot of work to do.

 

Things were in better shape before old Dick died.  He used to keep a pretty nice garden, but after his wife left him, just disappeared out of the blue, he seemed to lose interest.  And the kids let the place go after he died.  You wouldn’t believe what it looked like before you bought it.  The kids fixed it up quite a bit, just to get it ready to sell, but before that…let’s just say people were making suggestions.

 

I still get mail with his name on it.  It’s a little spooky.

 

Mail?

 

Mostly advertisements, credit car offers.  Say, there’s an old white cat that’s been hanging around the back door.  Do you know who it belongs to?

 

Old Tom?  Why that’s Dick’s cat.  The kids abandoned him, I guess.  He’s coming back around, huh?  He must like you.

 

They just left the cat?

 

They weren’t much involved with anything that I could see, Frank said and then cut to a new subject.  So you getting to know the other neighbors?  Hugh tell you yet about his chest injury from a knight’s lance in a previous life?

 

From down the block came a shout, Don’t put fertilizer in!  Desiree appeared with a raised hand, queen of the trees.  She was in charge, the grand mother of the block.  The City told us not to fertilize them, she said, her hands gripped into her hips.

 

The city said!

 

Really? Tom said.  Why not?

 

They’re supposed to just acclimate to whatever ground we put them into.  They said we don’t need to fertilize them.

 

All right, Frank said.  I’ll take these back.  And he picked up his two orphan bags and carried them under his arms back to his yard and dropped them into his stash of supplies, most of which was swiped from yards where he worked.  He went up onto his porch, took one look back, then went inside.  Desiree went back to inspections.  Tom went back to his digging.  Frank reappeared on his porch, popped open a beer can and shook his head at the fanfare of tree planting.

 

Let them, he proclaimed with a monarch wave of his hand, they who know not the true rhythms of the earth.  Ah, except for you, he said, watching the Bates child totter through the mounds of earth, fingers working secret geometry.  Frank polished off his beer and went into his house.  Actually, it was his mother’s house.  He had never owned anything.  His work barely brought in enough money for beer.  The shaded gloom of the living room was internally lit by a television screen.  His twelve year old daughter, Heather, lay crumpled in an old easy chair, her gawky legs folded against her chest like the limbs of a praying mantis.

 

I don’t want you watching television all day, he said.

 

She rolled her eyes, and in that glance did he catch more than a glimpse of Lyla?  He watched her eyes, always in his mind a secret calculation, monitoring.  She was a bright child, no doubt.  She even won the school writing contest and the grand prize of a new computer.  But did she use it?  It was still in its plastic shroud.  She lacked motivation, it seemed to him, a weakness he gauged against the schizophrenia that drove her mother into the asylum.  And did Heather feel his calculating mind worm inch by inch over her growth, her speech, the way she slumped over meals or dragged herself like a wet willow limb through the rooms of the house?

 

Why don’t you go outside? he said.

 

Why don’t you?

 

I do.

 

I know, you’re face is red as an apple.

 

I’m out everyday.  It’s healthy.

 

I know.  I know, she said.  Rolling, rolling eyes.

 

Useless, useless, he thought.  To everyone a single destiny.  He stoop strode through the kitchen, tugged on the handle of the throbbing refrigerator and plucked out another can from the shelf.  His back spider-tingled from the television rays as he went down the hallway to the back door and out.

 

Chance of rain.  Clouds.  Thunder rolled in over the Sound, a deep-bellied sky engine.  But no rain yet.  The neighborhood tree concert played on.  He toed a newly planted palm in a wide umber pot, a left over from an Admiral District estate.  Who plants palms in the Northwest?  It would never last the winter, though perhaps inside the greenhouse it might survive.  For now, live in the false charm of summer, ye who know not the talons of our winters.  He chugged and chuckled and sidled into the greenhouse.

 

Ah, the big bloody Clinkers!  I want roses in my garden bower, dig?  And row on row of spider plants thrust their neurotic tongues towards him.  He dipped his rough chin into their spiny foils, breathed an acrid kiss.  What a thin barrier between this soft warm space and the cold world dream outside, nothing but a white plastic shield on wooden bones to protect the Jonah Babies.  And it struck him that plants always know.  To a plant, no emotion can be completely hidden or feigned.  Plants know.  Plants know there is beauty and sadness.  They are the only true witnesses.

 

The sun swung low, and its rays flowed golden through the little greenhouse.  Frank felt the warm waves of sleep coming on, sitting on his potters stool, shoulders slumped, his mind blur buzzing on the banks of oblivion.  He pulled free and rose and stepped out of the greenhouse, shading his eyes and scanning the rooftops along the alleyway bordering his back yard.  Sun bolts rolled grainy through the maple trees and the fluttering leaves of the cotton wood trees in the gorge at the end of the alleyway.  And all this brought to mind the fact that it was a good time to dump his yard clippings, a tower of moldering grass and shrub bits he hauled back from his various landscaping jobs.

 

He drained his beer can and tossed it light tinking into the heap and flipped over the wheelbarrow and nosed it into the pile.  He raked back a hank and then another until the wheelbarrow was full to tilting, and grabbing up the handles he rolled back down the alleyway, the strain sharpest at the inside of his elbows and upper back.  The gorge was his customary dumping place for yard waste.  Not that he should feel guilty, though the signs were posted on every street end, warning people away:

 

No Dumping

 

This was his place.  He had lived here long before most of the people in the neighborhood had come, long before most of their houses had been built, and certainly long before some city ordinance upon which nobody voted set in place a new regulation and sent some fool city worker out to post these signs of warning.

 

Perched on the brink and changing his grip to up-end the wheelbarrow, Frank glanced down into the gorge and saw, he could not believe at first, what looked like a human foot sticking up out of the ground.  Was it?  And was that too an arm exposed?  And…?  He did not even lower the handles but stood still, rapt, as light strobed through the trees, a golden light that pulsed and faded, pulsed and faded, and with each pulse illuminated a young girl’s face.  It was.

 

He glanced around for who would see.  No one.  He alone beheld her there, and the tree limbs moved in a vagrant breeze as if to fan her in her sleep, though he had no doubt she was dead as he lowered the handles of the wheel barrow and released his grip and stepped down into the soft loam of compost to where she lay on her back, naked, partially covered by earth, still, her legs crossed at the knees and extending down the slope, her left arm down with the hand half turned and lying at her hip, her right hand swept above her head as if in some final flourish.

 

He knelt beside her.  She was maybe fifteen years old, he figured, the same age as his own daughter, and she was beautiful.  A strange tenderness filled his heart for this child whose eyes, half-lidded, displayed no terror as he imagined she must have suffered to have ended here like this.  No, instead, with her lips lightly parted and her light brown hair spiraled like a shell around her head, she seemed to glow.

 

And what should he do?  His second thought was to call the police.  He would definitely call the police.  Then a fly landed on the smooth flesh of her cheek, and he swept his hand at it and drove it away.  Others were honing in, and he fanned and fanned with his open hand, but they never hovered far away and only waited for a break in his web of motion to drift back in.  And it angered him, to see her exposed like this, his mind spinning on the wrongness of it.  So he gathered up handfuls of the surrounding loam.  It came away like loose skin with a fine, white foam of decaying life beneath it, and he began to drape her limbs, bit by bit, with this deep green coat of earth.  He covered the exposed flesh of her stomach and her chest, and when nothing visible was left but her face, he selected a broad maple leaf and laid it carefully over her mouth and eyes.  And rising up, he saw her as though she were wrapped in a rich earth cocoon and knew that this way he could leave her.

 

And so he climbed back up to the alleyway, leaving his wheelbarrow, intent on calling the police.

 

But he did not call the police.  Instead, he walked and thought about this new and dangerous situation.  Or rather, he thought about her.  And he went into a trance as he walked.  The vision of her would not leave him as he entered the green tunnel of trees along Forty Eighth street and thought about her there in the gulley, incorporated in her bower, her hair splayed and her eyes in their fixed gaze looking out through the webwork of the maple leaf veins, as the ivy vines lowered slow python coils that slid along her cheek, her shoulder, down her arm and along her hip, entombing her as he felt her last spark shoot through his blood.

 

So consumed in thought, he emerged onto Seaview Drive and crossed the street into Lowman park.  The grass field flowed down to the beach.  And high above in that vast rotunda of sky, the sun radiated alleles of light that fell in spindles towards the earth.Waves came tidal surging in from the sound, falling on the sand with a rhythmic collapse like heartbeats and then rolled back with a diminishing hiss.  And there embedded in the pearled water surface, black nebulous globs of kelp billowed and breathed.  Life intricately at work, everywhere, and from the water rose the hovering islands and the far Olympic Mountains with their white flame peaks.

 

 

Time’s funny tricks.  What happened only moments before recedes down a long tunnel into the long ago.  What happened far in the past stands as close as now.  Back in his greenhouse, he waded through his pots and pot shards among the furious gladiolas and the fierce geraniums; even the spider plants hissed at him.  He stormed toward his house and balked at the tiny voices inside, the kinetic dark beyond the screen.  He tried to enter but couldn’t..

 

Then they came in their uniforms and their glares, pointing down the alleyway, their questions coming from a quiet distance.  He only smiled.  A strange giddiness rose up in him as the officers cuffed his hands together behind his back and took him by the arm to the patrol car on the street.  One hand on his head, they folded him into the back.  No locks, no handles.  The engine rumbled.  The squad car pulled out.  The masters were done with their creations, and they stood in silent rows and watched.  The newly planted striplings leered at him and flicked their shadows towards him as he cruised down the street, nodding and smiling to every neighbor, blessing them with his eyes.

 

 

——————–

I’ve had work in The Connecticut River Review, Louisiana Literature, Cumberland Poetry Review, and Midwest Quarterly.  I have work available online as well in The Adirondack Review, Salt River Review, and Avatar Review, among others, and I recorded a story for Bound Off.  I have work forthcoming in the Red Rock Review and a novella to be issued as a chapbook in the Overtime series of Workers Write Journal. I won the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry for a selection called, “The Open Ward,” a Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House and First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” poetry contest by Tattoo Highway.  I live in Seattle, Washington and I teach writing and literature at Seattle Central College, where I am also the advisor for the literary journal, Corridors.

Walking Behind

By BJ Yudelson

 went out on my first date when I was 11. For years afterward, my mother laughed whenever she conjured up the sight of scrawny, brainy, bucktoothed Danny Byrd striding six feet ahead of me from my front door to his mother’s car.

 

Decades later, I found myself wondering if my mother would be equally amused at the sight of my husband marching resolutely several feet before me in Saratoga Springs, New York. As we sought out each Victorian house listed in our walking guide, Julian managed to keep a steady two or three steps ahead. Whenever I quickened my pace, hoping to catch up, he quickened his. Julian’s longer stride guaranteed that we never walked abreast. Despite the day’s brilliant sky, I moved under a cloud of frustration bordering on fury. On my 46th anniversary I felt like that little girl on her first date with Danny Byrd.

 

I took Julian’s hand, but, as usual, it didn’t stay in mine long. I’ve found that nothing keeps him close for more than a few seconds when we walk. “What,” I asked myself for the umpteenth time, “would it take to get my man to walk with me?”

 

A month after our Saratoga Springs visit, I got my answer. We were on vacation with my sister at an Adirondack resort we love. Returning from a glorious group hike to a swimming spot along the upper Hudson River, Julian was, as usual, out of sight ahead of me. I slipped on a log, pitched forward, and felt my right wrist collapse against a stone. Cradling my arm, I was too stupefied to cry.

A quick-witted fellow hiker splinted my wrist with a sapling branch. The rest of the hike passed in a throbbing blur. Back in the car, Julian navigated the dirt road gingerly. Even so, every bump reverberated through my arm. With my right elbow resting on the open window frame and my makeshift splint sticking awkwardly out the car window, I contemplated how I would function with only one hand. Through the pain, I thought of my mother, thrust by a stroke into one-sidedness when she was a year younger than my current age.

 

“I always thought that the way Dad flossed Mom’s teeth all those years was an unimaginable act of devotion,” I mused aloud. Silently, I wondered if Julian would be able to muster similar patience on my behalf.

 

From the backseat, my sister responded, “Really? I always saw it as Dad’s need to control her care.”

 

“Maybe. But flossing someone else’s teeth nightly for fifteen years has got to be the epitome of devotion.”

 

We returned home the next day, two days ahead of schedule. Surgery was set for a week after my fall. I discovered I could eat left-handed as long as Julian prepared the meal and cut my meat. We decided against canceling our dinner guests, and Julian pulled together food items from the freezer for our Sabbath dinner. As he headed upstairs to dress, Julian informed me that he had put out the plates and glasses but left the silverware, “So you’ll have something to do.” What gave him the idea that I wanted to do anything? Just lolling in my painkiller-induced haze seemed barely manageable.

 

Through my fog, I recalled how my father, nurses, and visitors had rushed to push Mom’s wheelchair whenever she attempted to maneuver it on her own. Her plaintive words still haunted me: “I could be more independent, you know.”

 

Grateful that my disability was only a temporary inconvenience, I slowly began to do more. I annoyed Julian by filling out a deposit slip with barely legible left-handed printing. He wanted to know why I didn’t just ask him to do it. I struggled to dress myself. I discovered I could put on lipstick, but turned to Julian for help with the earrings without which I feel naked. With my left hand, I sent out embarrassingly error-riddled, no-capital-letters e-mails.

 

Through it all, I thought of Mom. Nine years before, I had obsessed over my then-impending 60th birthday, the landmark decade that had turned my mother into an invalid. In a flash, she had changed from a vibrant 67-year-old into an aphasic old lady in a wheelchair. While still sweet and lovable, she bore little resemblance to the mother of my first three decades.

 

Once I recognized my dread of a similar transformation in my sixties, I was better able to tuck my fear away and enjoy my birthday. This fear was nothing new; I had long identified with Mom physically. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror, Mom’s eyes glanced back at me. She gave birth by Caesarian section, and so did I. Like her, I am short and bottom-heavy. Was I doomed to spend the last years of my life as she did hers?

 

For ages I had insisted that Julian and I take active trips that included hiking or paddling in out-of-the-way places where you can’t maneuver a wheelchair. “We’ll save those trips for when we can’t walk,” I had told him. “For now, mountains will take precedence over museums.” Recognition of the fear underlying my birthday obsession hadn’t eliminated it, but I could ignore it until I got closer to the dreaded 67.

 

Thankfully, I reached the age of 68 fully intact—still chattering, still walking, still fully cognizant, still like my mother “before.” And now two months later, I had a useless right hand. I wondered how many times I would have to brush my teeth left-handed before it would feel comfortable. When Julian found a one-handed flosser at the drugstore, we were both relieved: devotion expressed through technology.

 

Struggling to do things one-handed, I thought about Mom more than ever. I marveled at how she had remained true to herself even after her world turned upside down. She had learned to accept help graciously although she’d previously been used to giving it. But I wondered now how she had really felt when Dad cut her meat, when caregivers planned her days, and when she no longer ran the household. Was this broken wrist to be my version of Mom’s helplessness? I prayed that I would regain the ability to chop an onion, type, knit, and paddle my solo canoe.

 

I heard my neighbors splash in their pool. How I longed to join them! I couldn’t swim, couldn’t exercise, was too drugged to read. I entreated Julian to go for a walk with me. Clasping my good hand firmly, he adjusted his pace to my sluggish one. We circled the block side by side. I pictured myself pushing Mom in her wheelchair. Thank God, I’m still on my own two feet, I thought. Thank God, my husband is beside me when I need him.

 

As we moved lethargically toward home, I squeezed Julian’s hand and wondered: Is this the price of paced companionship? And if so, is it worth it? Wouldn’t I rather walk half a beat behind, pain free and independent? And why should independence and companionship be mutually exclusive?

* * *

A year has passed. Surgery and months of hand therapy are behind me. Julian learned to ask whether I wanted help or whether I preferred to struggle alone. I knit more slowly, type less accurately, and paddle with less agility. I revel in driving my own car, cutting my own meat, and putting on earrings unaided. I have reclaimed the kitchen.

 

But when Julian and I walk, he has resumed his position up front. Sometimes, in Mother’s spirit, I chide him about his “Danny Byrd” approach to walking together. More often, I picture myself leaning forward to talk to Mom on our wheelchair walks. And then gratitude strikes: unlike my mother, I have regained my independence and adulthood.

 

 

——————–

B.J. Yudelson, a former writer for not-for-profit agencies, lives in Rochester, New York.  Since retirement, she has found her voice in creative nonfiction, studying at Rochester’s Writers & Books. Her work has appeared in Colere, Democrat & Chronicle, Eclectica Magazine, The Griffin, Jewish Action, The Jewish Georgian, The Legendary, Tiny Lights, and in the anthology Flashlight Memories. When not writing, she visits nine grandchildren on two coasts, tutors first graders in a city school, and travels with her husband.  Her favorite place to be is in her solo canoe, searching for loons on an Adirondack lake.

How We Play It

By Shelley Stack

e are in a small room in the attic of the church. Most of the time it is used for Bible study, but once a week it’s where the support group meets. We talk, we compare symptoms, we complain about drug reactions, we cry. Like each one of us at this meeting, Sandy has a tumor roosting in her head, tucked in the lining around her brain. She’s been here before, maybe ten or eleven times after her first craniotomy. She’s a mess because she has to have a second. The tumor grew back, bigger than before.

 

Sandy’s whole name is Sandra Dee. She says not too many people remember that there was once a Sandra Dee who was an actor, an ingenue, a movie star. Sandy is from the generation that knows that, not mine. She’s nervous. She rubs her temple. She fingers the bumps on her forehead. She massages the skin that covers titanium screws around the keyhole in her skull. I broke that habit. I tell her it will be okay. After all, she’s still here. She recovered once. She’ll recover again. At least this time, she knows what she is facing. Not like the first time. The first time, nobody knows what’s coming.

 

Most of us get dropped off at the church. Most of us can’t drive now. Some of us are recovering from surgery, and others of us have the seizure issue. It is against the law to drive with a seizure disorder. All of us have to take seizure meds whether we have seizures or not. Tinkering with the brain can set off electrical storms. Meds control or head them off. Madonna’s ride left her off at the door today. She got lost. I found her in the sanctuary. She asked me where she could find the spaghetti sauce. The tumor is screwing with her memory. Madonna is a “watch and wait.” Her doctor isn’t hurrying into surgery, and everyone in the group thinks he should, before it gets bad. One or another of us will stay with her after the meeting to make sure she doesn’t wander off. Madonna is thirty-two, small and dark, with curly, black hair that she keeps in check with tortoiseshell combs. She has twin toddlers at home.

 

Sandy won’t sit next to Madonna. She is afraid her own memory will go, the same way her senses of smell and taste disappeared after her first surgery. It is lousy not to be able to smell good scents, and to no longer taste the flavors of chocolate and strawberries and maple syrup. On the other hand, I no longer mind cleaning the litter box. Many don’t have the watch and wait option. Much depends on the location of the tumor. Sometimes there’s a rush to surgery. A rush to save vision or hearing or speech. A rush to avoid stroke or paralysis.

 

Liz, the group leader, is late. Every so often she can’t get a ride. So we just talk until the hour is up, not much different from when she is here. Her husband used to be a pitcher in the Major League, and her tumor was the exact size of a baseball. Some coincidence.

 

Madonna sits on my other side. She stares at the poster paper tacked to the walls. Someone has written terms and definitions on them in wide, red marker. Canaanite, parable, covenant, prodigal, too many to read. Madonna is intent. She squints. Maybe she is trying to make sense of the words, or maybe she can’t see them clearly either, even though she wears glasses too. That happens when tumors pinch optic nerves.

 

Sandy tugs on my arm. She tells me that she has to pay five hundred dollars up front, every time her doctor orders an MRI now. Insurance is refusing to cover the cost. She is saying how nobody told her this until she showed up for the appointment. The woman at the desk demanded payment before the test was done. Sandy stood there with her insurance card and the scrip for the test in hand. She had twenty-one dollars, loose change, and a gift card for Dunkin’ Donuts in her wallet. She asked the woman how she was supposed to get five hundred dollars when she had not been able to work for over a year, and her disability was barely covering her rent and food, and since when didn’t her insurance cover it anyway?

 

Check your plan, the woman said. Plans change.

 

Don’t we know it. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. I know that song. I try not to dwell on being uninsurable. I push the thought away, but anxiety brings it right back. Every few days, I ask my husband about his work, is it going well, is he closing deals, if he is meeting his quota. I phrase it differently. I try to keep my questions offhanded and conversational. If he keeps his job, I am covered and we can deal with the ever-changing health plan. If he doesn’t, I won’t be. The tumor has made me uninsurable. He loses his job, then what? I don’t know. I’ve heard people have to sacrifice everything because of medical bills. My husband worries, he says he can never retire, that he may have to dye his hair, that his retirement home will be a coffin. I hate that talk.

 

She was married to Bobby Darin, Sandy says. Sandra Dee, she was married to Bobby Darin. McFerrin? No, no, Darren. You ever hear the song “Mack the Knife”? I open my mouth to laugh. Dead nerves in my face make it hard work. I say what’s that, a mob name? Like Paulie Walnuts or Ice Pick Willie? Madonna is looking at us. Sandy leans forward and partly across me and asks her. You know the song? “Mack the Knife”? Madonna shakes her head, then she goes back to staring at the posters on the wall.

 

One of the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling light keeps buzzing and blinking out and on, out and on. I can’t look at it. I wish I couldn’t hear it. It does something to me. I don’t remember if I took the pill in the morning. Concentrate on what’s being said, I tell myself, ignore the light.

 

It didn’t last, says Sandy. The marriage. It didn’t last. Next to me, Madonna speaks. She says she doesn’t think hers will either. Relationships come up at the meetings all the time. Every one around us is affected by what’s wrong. Some of us have good support at home, others don’t.

 

I am okay in that regard. My kids, my husband. They are there for me most of the time. They forget every so often, and maybe on purpose. I understand. Like me, they want life to be normal. When I’m dizzy, when my head hurts, I sit or lie down. I check out of whatever is happening. They respect that, they ask if it is getting better, if I need water. I still have to tell them to pick up after themselves, take the garbage out, and walk the dog, but the difference is, I like it now. I appreciate normal, I value it, I revere it. It is what I want. The ordinary, the everyday.

 

This is the first time we are hearing that Madonna is having trouble at home. What’s going on? I ask her. Sandy leans in again to listen.

 

She says she doesn’t want him the same, she doesn’t feel like it, and he isn’t understanding. The thing that’s growing in her brain is pushing aside her desire, it’s overtaking her thoughts, stealing them, replacing them with worry and forgetfulness. He gets mad at her, he tells her she looks good, that she doesn’t look all that sick, so what’s the big deal? This makes Sandy mad.

 

Oh crap, she says, the “you don’t look sick” thing again. What the hell. That’s what the woman behind the counter in the disability office said to her, when she went to apply. So Sandy yanked off the wide headband she was wearing, the one she ordered from the online place that sells wigs, hats, and bandanas for cancer patients. She asked the woman how she liked the scar that began a long curve at the top of her ear, and meandered along her newly resprouting hairline to the other ear. Did the uneven line of scar tissue, puckered and red and peppered with scabby, tiny holes left by thirty-three stainless steel staples make for a good look, a healthy look? She turned around. She faced the people waiting in line behind her, and invited their opinions. Her first check arrived a week later.

 

Her chutzpah, the way Sandy wears her scar like a badge of defiance, I admire that. When I’m talking to people face-to-face, I see their eyes drift up to the divot in my forehead and then further up to the pale crescent where my hairline used to start. They can ask but they don’t. If they did, I would tell them. Sometimes I want to talk about it. Most of the time, outside of these meetings, I pretend. I pretend that the thing that shadows me simply isn’t there.

 

Talking stops when Liz comes in. We all have to adjust. The surprise of her is always startling, and it takes a minute. Liz is beautiful. Tall, slender, and blond, her clothes are stylish. Her shoes and handbags match. She has dozens. We imagine she has a closet the size of the meeting room, with towers of shallow drawers for her lingerie. We agree that she wears lingerie, while the rest of us wear panties and pajamas. We speculate that her closet has organized cubbies, shelves, and moving racks to display her coordinated clothing. She has uniform features. The dent in her temple is barely noticeable. She moves fluidly and speaks without searching for words. She remembers where the meeting room is. When she smiles, her face muscles move. Her eyelids don’t droop. Liz is what we want to be. Perfect on the outside.

 

Next to me, Sandy inhales audibly. Sandra Dee was a blond too, she says, as she raises a hand to pat her own gray hair. She’s thinking of dyeing hers when it grows back the next time. No matter what they say about hair dyes. Her tumor is already atypical and what the hell, all the rest of her is atypical too. Her weight goes up and down like a yo-yo. She laughs. I can’t.

 

“Atypical” means the tumor will grow rapidly, that it has a higher chance of growing back after treatment. It means multiple craniotomies. Multiple times the keyhole is accessed, and the forehead removed to get to the brain. Multiple chances of edema, infection, and deficits, all due to the surgery. Multiple chances of not surviving it. Atypical is the stage between benign and malignant. One step from malignant. I don’t want to be atypical.

 

A piece of my tumor is still there, nesting in blood vessels, impossible to completely remove. I live with fear, I tamp it down, I stay busy, I work extra, I distract myself from the constant. I dread the once-a-year event, the MRI. I’ve postponed appointments two, sometimes three, times. I despise the machine, I dread it, all of it, the mask that is locked over my face, the demands to stay perfectly still, the thumping as it takes photo-slices of my brain. I look forward to the end of the hour, to silence, to the feeling of birth when the patient table emerges from the cramped space into the brightly lit, chilly room. I relish the brief lull of relief, before a second wave of anxiety hits as I wait for the report. No change. That’s all I want to hear. That means another year of grace.

 

Sandy doesn’t have that. Madonna may not either. Liz has had twelve of them.

 

It’s raining. We’re right under the eaves. We can hear it drumming on the roof. Liz asks if there is any particular topic that we want to talk about today. Sylvie, who used to waitress, before her tumors and her balance issues, announces that her neurosurgeon is moving to Austin. There’s some back and forth, recommendations, and names exchanged. The retired teacher wants to know if headaches that last more than four days are normal. She is six months past surgery. Tilda, a former paramedic, asks everyone to speak up. Her tumor destroyed the hearing in one ear. The vegan, Eloise, complains that giving up soy products is a bitch, which makes Liz deliver a mini-lecture on the danger of plant estrogen. We can’t afford to ingest it. Estrogen drives the growth of meningioma tumors. A nasty trick of womanliness. Sandy adds, don’t forget the cell phone thing.

 

That always gets us worked up. Environmental radiation. According to Sandy, the cell phone giants have suppressed the true results of studies. Her hair goes electric as she scrapes her hands through the short hedge. She raises her voice. How the heck do they decide what levels are safe anyway? Look at Richard Branson, she says, he always uses an earpiece and isn’t afraid to say why. We’ve stopped holding phones to our ears. It is speaker or nothing. Even the earpieces are suspect. We’re susceptible to paranoia. Dental X-rays?  My dentist doesn’t even ask anymore.

 

Madonna fidgets in her chair. Her eyes meet mine. I have to move closer to hear her. She whispers that her husband is always telling her to get off the phone, he’ll say it’s her fault. We dwell on blame, theirs and ours. Maybe we ate the wrong foods, or sat too close to the television, or stood directly in front of the microwave too many times. We keep searching for reasons.

 

I am thinking there’s nothing written on the posters in this room, or in the pile of Bibles on the table in the corner, or that’s said downstairs in the sanctuary on Sunday, that explains why this has happened to us. We haven’t sinned, or transgressed, or done anything to deserve it. It’s a game of chance, the luck of the draw, the hand we’ve been dealt, and how we play it is what matters.

 

I grab her hand, clasp her fingers in mine, and tell her he’s an ass. Be strong, take one day at a time, everyone here is a survivor. Know that, take your strength from that. I have. It may not be the strongest of strengths. It wavers. It’s like I am standing on the rim of the ocean at high tide, with my feet buried in thick, wet sand. The water rushes at me. White froth foams around my ankles. I am pulled and tugged, nearly dislodged. I dig my heels in. The water recedes and I remain rooted in the ebb. I wait for low tide. Sandy, on the other side of me, says that’s right, honey, we’re beat to shit but we are hanging in there.

 

The memory surprises me. My eyes go wet. Though it pricks and stings, I know I am lucky to have it. I’d packed the car. The girls were in the backseat. They’d said their good-byes first. The early morning mist had not quite lifted, and the sun was watery. I hugged my father for the last time at the top of the driveway. I pressed my face to his lean chest, against the thin fabric of his short-sleeved dress shirt. He patted his hands on my back and instead of good-bye, said hang in there. I laughed and replied that the ride wouldn’t be so bad. Throughout our visit, he’d asked me if I was feeling well. I thought I was. He was dead before I learned about the tumor.

 

Just now, I hear him laugh at my shoulder. Sandy is his kind of woman. Direct and to the point.

 

Liz is wrapping up the meeting. It always goes over the scheduled hour. The church secretary never complains. Liz asks us to root for Sandy, to pray for her, to send her positive vibes. The second craniotomy is scheduled for the day before the next meeting. We might not see Sandy for a while, or again, but no one says that last one out loud. I can see by Sandy’s expression that she has the same thought. “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” I remember it’s a song in Grease. Sung by Rizzo. I have to tell Sandy when everyone stops hugging her.

 

We’ll meet next week, those of us who can get a ride. We’ll dig in our heels and we’ll talk.

 

 

——————–

Shelley Stack studied writing in college, earning her bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University, but ultimately pursued a career in music. With encouragement from a mentor, she went on to study music theory at Berklee College of Music. She is currently a music educator with a studio in New Jersey. After having a benign brain tumor removed, she has come full circle by returning to writing. She studies craft at the Writers Studio. Her fiction has appeared in the Short Story America Anthology (2011).

Precipitous Fatherhood

By Lome A Aseron

 was born to be a mom,” Janine said four months after we met. A dream of pit-patting feet, forgotten like a memory box buried in an over-filled closet, fluttered in my chest.

 

The next thing I knew, I was bawling in front of a minister in Hawaii as Janine, who had the build – but not the rigid posture – of a dancer, tenderly wiped my wet cheeks with the fleshy part of her thumbs. We celebrated her pregnancy three months later, before we’d even opened the last wedding gift.

 

At four o’clock on a tranquil early June morning two days beyond the due date, Janine awoke to use the bathroom. Half an hour later, I found her sitting on the toilet, elbows on thighs, hands cradling her chin. Prior to pregnancy, Janine had been a 13-year vegetarian, but weeks of devouring bacon and hamburgers to satisfy the dancing creature inside had rounded her face.

 

“I’ve been trying to poop…but nothing’s coming out.”

 

She grasped the porcelain sink to stand up and left a drop of bloody wax on the lime-green rug that shielded our feet from the ceramic tile.

 

“Oh, it’s just the bloody show,” said our midwife Gaia over the phone. “Sit tight. It’s gonna be at least 12 to 14 hours. Call me if anything changes.”

 

Within an hour, Janine was making a sound I’d never heard before: a half-growl, half-roar that started in her toes and crescendoed as it made its way up her body, hesitating at her diaphragm before exploding in her throat.

 

“Urrghuuuuuhhh…”

 

It rumbled like a centuries-old oak being ripped from the earth by its roots, a swelling groan that crested in a sob.

 

“Gherrrrrrrgghh…”

 

This is nothing like the gentle humming sung by laboring moms in our birthing class videos.

 

My stomach coiled with each yowl.

 

“Can I get you anything, honey?”

 

“A popsicle…uhhhhhhhhhhk…would be wonderful.”

 

“Any particular flavor?”

 

“Nyooooooooooh.”

 

I ambled down the stairway to the kitchen, as if dawdling would slow the pace of labor. The gallons of blood-red pregnancy tea Janine had consumed during the preceding months to strengthen her uterine muscles were hurling us too rapidly toward childbirth. I wondered when the CD that supposedly taught Janine to hypnotize herself into a relaxing labor would start to kick in.

 

Our refrigerator was stocked with supplies: ice cubes hacked into chips by Janine’s mom Tricia, organic iced-fruit treats, and an enormous watermelon that mimicked Janine’s egg-shaped belly.

 

I fumbled through the cardboard box for a purple wrapper. The air from the freezer tickled my nostrils with each inhalation. Mixed berry popsicle (Janine’s favorite) in hand, I shuffled back up the stairs to our bedroom.

 

I don’t think I can take another ten hours of this, I thought, slumping my six-foot frame on the bed next to her with my chin perched on my right hand. I was beginning to appreciate the days when dads sequestered themselves in waiting rooms, unopened cigar boxes on their laps.

I slipped the unwrapped popsicle into Janine’s fist and tried to shrink away from the whole scene. Flip-flops snuggled with lace-up dress shoes under the antique dresser adjacent to the futon where Janine and I had first made love. In the opposite corner, books on Buddhism intermingled with ethnic studies texts on a beechwood shelf. A philodendron so large it seemed to be from another planet occupied one entire wall.

 

Janine crunched icy bites in the pauses between contractions. A violet vein of melted popsicle snaked down her left wrist, culminating at her elbow in a drop that threatened to plummet onto the sheets as she swayed to the rhythm of labor.

 

“I’ll get that,” I said, wiping a warm washcloth over the length of her arm. I grabbed the bare, gooey stick from her hand and flipped it toward the wicker basket next to the bookshelf, missing.

 

My gaze drifted momentarily to the golden Victorian rosebuds creeping up the wallpaper. I recalled a yellowing photo of my father beaming in hospital scrubs while holding me in the crook of his elbow.

 

He made it through my birth, at least. I could do that much.

 

I sat motionless for nearly an hour, watching Janine’s face flush with each blood-curdling scream as she flung her head violently from side to side. I half-expected a jet of green vomit to gush from her mouth with the next groan.

 

“You said to call when things change,” I said to Gaia over the phone.

 

“Maybe you should get your doula involved,” she said before hanging up.

 

“Daphne, Daphne, Daphne,” I mumbled, urging our doula’s phone number to appear as I scrolled through the contacts on my cell phone.

 

“I’ll throw some stuff together and be over in about an hour,” Daphne yawned.

 

Throw some stuff together?! Be over in about an hour?! Doesn’t she know what’s going on?!

 

“Uh, uh, okay,” I said before hanging up. Janine crawled off the futon toward the bathroom.

 

“This is easier than walking, actually,” she muttered.

 

I jammed a red checkered vinyl picnic table cover under the sheets, a flimsy defense to the approaching tide of liquids. Janine toddled back into the room and slithered gingerly onto the futon. The maple bed frame she’d purchased before her freshman year in college creaked beneath her weight.

 

“Should we try the beach visualization we practiced in the birthing class?” I suggested.

 

 

We’d hired Daphne, our doula, to assuage Janine’s hospital phobia. A descendent of a long line of the notably squeamish, Janine had gone pale when confronted by the metal wires, tubes, and mysterious electronic apparatus skulking in every corner of the birthing center covered by our health insurance.

 

At our third appointment, Daphne, Janine, and I sprawled on a blanket laid carefully on the floor of the room Janine and I rented in her mom’s house.

 

“What’s your vision for an ideal birth?” Daphne asked, tucking a dark brown ringlet behind her ear with an elegance that belied her tenacity.

 

“I’d have the baby right here, in this room, on that bed, with just me and Lome,” Janine said. Her moistening eyes flitted from the futon to the tray of diced honeydew melon on the floor between us. “But I’m afraid it’s too expensive, because I know our insurance won’t pay for a midwife.”

 

We did end up deciding to hire a licensed midwife – a California requirement – bringing the total cost of home delivery to more than our monthly income. After consultations with two serviceable yet uninspiring practitioners, we met Gaia, who practically lifted us off our feet in a double-armed bear-hug before we’d said hello.

 

“It’s so nice to meet you both!”

 

Gaia, striding with the confident cadence of a woman who’d birthed seven children and delivered thousands more, walked us to a sun-filled room lined with inspiring quotes and artwork depicting radiant, pregnant women. Her eyes twinkled across an entry on some paperwork we’d filled out.

 

“Amazing,” she said. “My schedule was packed, but then an expectant mom with your exact due date moved out of town all of a sudden.”

 

Janine and I nearly pinched each other. After convening for less than ten seconds on the steps outside Gaia’s building, we marched back to her office and informed her we were done thinking about it, and yes, we wanted her as our midwife.

 

 

“What was that?” Janine asked, frowning.

 

“I said would you like to try the beach visualization we practiced in class?”

 

“Those damn exercises didn’t work for me in class, I don’t think they’re going to do any good now.”

 

I swallowed a chuckle; other than “shoot,” “damn” was the closest thing to a profanity I’d ever heard Janine use.

 

“Okay,” I said, as a far-away rooster cackled.

 

I lay down facing her. We clasped each other’s hands with wrists crossed like apprehensive co-workers performing a trust fall. Opposite Janine’s naked body, I felt over-dressed in the black “I    East Palo Alto” t-shirt and blue-and-orange New York Knicks basketball shorts I’d fallen asleep in the night before. The scent of evaporating dew floated through our half-cracked windows.

 

Her eyes widened as she clenched my fingers.

 

“I think my water just broke.”

 

Warm fluid soaked my shorts and seeped onto my left thigh. The snake in my abdomen wound up my chest to my throat as Janine writhed free from our embrace and gripped the sheets, crinkling the picnic table cover underneath.

 

“Uhhhhhhgggggg…” she screamed.

 

Janine’s mother’s house, built in 1917, was located in a sleepy neighborhood originally populated with summer cottages for well-to-do San Franciscans. Behind the row of Mediterranean-style homes across the street ran a creek boasting an array of fowl with impressive-sounding names: European starlings, rock doves, black phoebes, and Wilson’s warblers. In the evenings, the singing of crickets obscured the occasional passing car.

 

I hope our neighbors don’t call the cops.

 

“I think I’ll get on my hands and knees,” she said.

 

I stroked the black panther tattoo on her left hip, my fingers taut with adrenaline, too engrossed in soothing her to notice the shrinking intervals between contractions.

 

“That felt different. Would you mind checking to see if anything looks funny?” Janine said with an unnerving casualness.

 

Am I the only one freaking out?

 

It was 7:15, just three hours since the onset of labor. Amniotic fluid drenched the sheets and formed puddles on the recently-refinished hardwood floor. Janine crouched on all fours, convulsing with every scream and arching her back like a cat confronted by a dog.

 

I cocked my head to her rear. Her knees were splayed so far apart that the curve of her belly nearly touched the sheets. I dropped my head lower, resting it on the futon between her thighs, and peeked upward.

 

“Nothing looks out of the ordinary,” I said. “You’re doing great.” My voice sounded strange, as if I were hearing it played back to me on a cassette. The room felt suddenly cramped and ominously empty at the same time.

 

What am I supposed to say, “Slow down” or “Take a break until someone with some expertise shows up”?

I didn’t want Janine to hold back. We’d shelled out thousands of dollars for professionals to oversee the logistics of childbirth so that I could hold her hand, stroke her hair, and coo encouraging phrases in her ear. Surely, Gaia or Daphne would burst through the door at any moment, demand something archaic like boiled water, and take over.

 

Lessening labor’s tempo seemed outside the realm of possibility. The pregnancy literature we’d read recommended a plethora of unconventional techniques to induce labor (eat spicy food, walk, bounce gently on a yoga ball, stimulate mom’s nipples), but absolutely none to restrain it. I exhaled in forced relief. Thankfully, we had another eight or nine hours to go, according to Gaia.

 

Only two howls later, Janine flopped onto her back and divulged the sign of imminent parenthood: an almond-shaped patch of fuzz protruded from her vagina like the pit of a halved peach. She was about to give birth, and I was the only other person in the room.

I momentarily considered recruiting Janine’s mother, before realizing there was no time. Maybe Janine herself could help? I recalled tales of women, trapped in outrageously solitary circumstances, catching their own children. The eerie distance in her eyes and spread-legged position of vulnerability provided all the answer I needed. It was happening. Now. Exactly as Janine had described it to Daphne: just me, her, and the futon.

 

I snatched the contact sheet that Gaia had given us to use during labor from the top of the dresser. Pager Code 911 = I can see the head! read the instructions. It was meant to be a joke, but I wasn’t laughing as I frantically punched the numbers on my cell phone keypad.

 

I hung up and stroked the day-old bristles covering my scalp, waiting for Gaia to call back. Dawn streamed red onto the futon where Janine hunched with her knees pointed toward the ceiling in an awkward “M.” The birthing tub she’d used to alleviate the weight of pregnancy stood empty in her sister’s unoccupied bedroom across the hallway, while movie tickets for that evening lay tucked in the top drawer of her lacquer jewelry box.

 

“I can see the head!” I screamed at Gaia, my cell phone sandwiched between my right ear and shoulder so I could have both hands free.

 

“I got your 911 page 30 seconds ago,” Gaia replied over a crackling cell phone connection, “I figured there was something going on.”

 

I cupped my hands beneath the expanding black sphere emerging from Janine. The baby’s head fell into my palms, the rest of the body still inside her.

 

“The head is out!”

 

“Tell Janine to give one more push to get the shoulders out,” Gaia replied calmly.

Sure, it’s easy to be relaxed when you’re 15 miles away and probably still in bed, I thought.

 

As if overhearing Gaia’s directions, Janine grunted and a slippery collection of limbs and torso tumbled into my arms. The clock read 7:28 AM, less than four hours since the onset of labor.

 

I stared at the tiny meditating Buddha, elbows held tightly to flanks, fists pressing on jowls, eyelids shut to beat back the light of the rising sun. I knew the knotty roping connecting baby with mother was still providing oxygen. Ten seconds. Finally a breath, followed by a declaratory scream.

 

Gaia said something through the cell phone as it slid from my shoulder and plunked onto the mattress. I tried to place the baby on Janine’s chest, but the umbilical cord barely stretched long enough, so I settled for her belly.

 

“Maybe…you should…go get…my mom.”

 

I strove to conjure a phrase, something poetic to convey what had just happened.

“Tricia!” I bellowed.

 

Before I inhaled, the door swung open and in glided Daphne, escorted by Janine’s mom, who’d heard the baby’s cry at almost the same moment that our doula had rung the doorbell.

Daphne grabbed my cell phone and started spewing answers to Gaia.

 

“I just got here…the baby is a little blue but pinking up nicely…the placenta is coming…here it is.”

 

Janine grunted again. A translucent membrane filled with maroon-colored flesh slid from between her thighs. Daphne unfolded the placenta and contemplated it like a psychic reading tarot cards.

 

“This is a healthy placenta,” she said to herself. Then into the phone: “Everything seems to be in place. See you soon.”

 

Gaia’s apprentice Melissa arrived wearing a medical scrub top printed with pink begonias. She sauntered into the room and knelt on the floor next to the bed.

 

“Only got a few hours of sleep,” she said, giggling as she rummaged through a Rubbermaid storage container, one hand resting reassuringly on Janine’s elbow. “Up ‘til four with another birth.” She snapped a pair of blue latex gloves over her wrists.

 

“Let’s take another look,” said Melissa as she unwrapped the placenta and tilted it toward Janine, who was nuzzling with the baby on her chest. “It’s the Tree of Life. See how the umbilical cord is the trunk?” she said, running the pinky of her left hand along the swollen, twisted cable still attached to the baby’s belly button.

 

Gaia appeared abruptly at the doorway, her curly chestnut hair pulled back by a muted brown and green striped scarf. She paused, a queen surveying her dominion, then strode over to the bed, dropping a black duffle bag from her shoulder with a thud.

 

“Let’s get momma cleaned up,” she said as she gently wiped blood from Janine’s left inner thigh. “Over three thousand births, and maybe only three or four have been this quick.”

 

The next few hours were a blur of blood pressure readings, attempts to nurse, and an anticlimactic cutting of the umbilical cord. Gaia, Melissa, and Daphne stuffed three garbage bags full with towels soaked in birth fluids. Thick, black meconium poured from the baby’s rectum like play-doh and stuck to everything like tar. Shocked by the meteoric arrival, we didn’t check his gender until more than an hour and a half after the delivery.

 

I reclined on a comforter crumpled on the floor while the midwives gave Janine a much-needed massage, slid my pinky into my baby’s mouth, and chanted a mantra recommended by a Tibetan monk in his ear. Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha. His body loosened as he sucked.

 

“I’ve never seen a newborn baby this beautiful!” said Gaia.

 

I nearly drew blood biting my lip to keep from asking for a refund.

 

“Every homebirth I’ve ever attended has been like this,” Daphne added.

 

It would’ve been nice to know that in advance, I countered silently, thinking “attended” was an overstatement.

 

Baby and new momma’s health confirmed, eventually Janine and I were alone, everything exactly the same as it was before, as if the previous eight hours had never occurred. Well, almost the same.

 

“Did that really just happen?” I asked.

 

My wife and I shot sidelong glances at each other as we scrutinized the salmon, beanie-covered head peeking out of the tightly-swaddled blanket, feeling like parent monkeys looking for fleas. Yes, we agreed, it had. I’d caught my own son; two were now three.

It was my father’s 64th birthday.

 

 

——————–

Lome is a father of two amazing sons and husband to a magnificent wife. In addition to catching his oldest son, he has survived a month of celibate silence while on a Buddhist retreat and a small plane flight during which the pilot asked for volunteers to hold the back door closed (he declined). Lome tries, hopefully with some success, to capture the beauty and joy of being a dad. You can follow him as he navigates the spiritual journey of fatherhood at NewDadforLife.com.

Goodbyes and Google Earth

By Janeen McGuire Nelson

n November 8, 1982, I became a mother.  In a sparse waiting room in the Children’s Home Society Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, I held Abby for the first time.  She was four months old. Brad and I were complete strangers to her.  But I already loved her; I loved her before she was conceived.

 

aˑdopt (ә dopt’), v.t.  1. to choose for or take to oneself; make one’s own by

selection or assent,   2. to take as one’s own child, specifically by a formal legal act.

 

*

 

It’s a cool, gloomy day; July 2008 in Seattle.  Glued to Google Earth, I track Abby’s progress across the continent as if I could keep her from harm, wishing the satellite image was a live-feed.  Chromium oxide pixels snap, pop, and lock into focus.  The asphalt of I-90 Eastbound winds through Snoqualmie Pass, Cle Elem, Ellensburg.  I stare at mysterious dashboard icons.  Navigate east.  She must be near Columbia River Gorge by now.  I’ll wait to call so she doesn’t think I’m bugging her.

 

*

 

She’s been gone five hours; I’ve phoned three times.

 

*

 

“The bank pulled my business note today,” Brad says in the spring of 1985.

 

*

 

“Where are you now?” I ask.

 

“I don’t know.  Somewhere in Idaho.”

 

“Tell her we’re just past Coeur d’Alene,” I hear Brad say.

 

“Oh, are you by the golf course near Potlatch Hill Road?”

 

“I don’t know, but we’re still by the lake.”

 

“Google Earth is the coolest thing.  I’m looking at the tip of Lake Coeur d’Alene now, and you should be seeing that golf course, it’s right on the shore.” I say.

 

“Oh, my God, Mom.  You’re stalking me on Google Earth?”

 

*

 

This July, Abby left home for good.  She got into her ‘92 silver Volvo with her dad as copilot, weighed down with ten Rubbermaid storage bins containing her most precious and practical possessions, and drove five days straight to her new life.

 

Washington, D.C. is the perfect city to study law; of course, it is also as far away from Seattle as one can get without leaving the lower forty-eight.

 

I watch her car disappear down our ground granite driveway and tunnel under the branches of hundred-year-old Western Red Cedars lining the dirt road that has been the bane of her existence for 26 years.

 

As soon as I can no longer hear her tires crunching gravel, I am compelled to enter her empty bedroom.  The walls are the same periwinkle blue I painted when she was 15.  The comforter is the same one I sewed for her when she was 16. The three water colors of purple and yellow and rust pansies are the same ones I did for her 17th birthday.  Her white Ikea dresser top is still adorned with a wire sculpture of hearts holding one forgotten photograph – Abby smiles at me from between her two best friends on her 21st birthday.

 

I peek in the closet, now completely abandoned, where only yesterday her volumes of shirts, skirts, pants, and jackets threatened to collapse the rod.  She even took her shoe rack down and taped the screws to its crossbar. Abby was the child who followed all the rules, who finished her homework on time, who did more than her chores, who gave herself headaches.

 

Nested in her pillow is Little Bear, forlorn, loved threadbare, half of the newest mouth I sewed on him missing.  What was once his nose is now just a dirty spot.

 

I sit on Abby’s bed and cradle him; he is only slightly longer than my hand.  I know if he were real, Little would be crying, for she is no longer ours.

 

*

 

We adopted Ella 18 months after Abby.  Seven months after that I delivered our first bio-daughter; I’ll let you do the math.  In spring of 1987, I am pregnant with our fourth daughter.  Brad comes home at 3:00 a.m. reeking of cigarettes and booze from his stop-gap job at the Gaslamp Tavern.  He brings me a cold French Dip sandwich. The smell makes me gag.

 

*

 

Mother Earth zooms easily into full screen through a black starry sky.  I double click on Montana.  The collage of satellite photos looks like a checkerboard of textiles; brocade, burlap, gabardine, all embroidered with the yellow floss that is I-90.  I click on the compass and navigate east.  Missoula, Deer Lodge, Butte.  Berkeley Pitt; mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, arsenic.  An unmistakable poison hole.

 

“Are you to Butte yet?” I ask Abby.

 

“No, we just went through Missoula.”

 

“Is it pretty?  Most of it looks mountainous.”

 

“Mom, get off Google Earth.”

 

*

 

Bear Woman was an Inuit girl who became lost while playing hide-and-seek with her brothers.  Near death, she was found by a bear, who took her home and raised her as his own.  When she grew up, she and the bear married and had two half-human cubs.

 

One day her brothers found her, killed her father-bear and took her and her cubs back to the human world.  But instead of becoming fully human, Bear Woman transformed into a bear.  Fearful that she would harm her human family, Bear Woman returned to the wild with her cubs.  Under the dancing lights of the aurora borealis, they climbed the mountain.  The trail of human footprints they left behind in the snow slowly became paw prints of bear.

 

*

 

We lose our house.

 

*

 

I walk back to the car where my infant and two toddlers are buckled into their car seats.  Ella and Jordin are probably throwing Tommy Tippy Cups half full of apple juice at each other and awakening the baby.  My feet mash loudly through the crushed aggregate path from Children’s Garden Preschool, but all I can hear is Abby’s screaming.

 

“Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy!”

 

*

 

Ten wooded acres with a corner in the creek on Black Nugget Road sounds romantic, if only one had a choice to live there.  Two miles of dirt road through raw, dense forest.  Maple, alder, cherry, cedar, fir.  Blackberries, salal, Oregon grape.  Ferns that dwarf my children.  White tailed deer, American black bear, raccoon, possum, porcupine, bobcat.  Mice, mice, and more mice.  Potholes, mud, sludge, dust. No water, no electricity, no natural gas.  At least it will be a good place to hide from creditors.

 

*

 

At 4:00 a.m., the screen’s neon glow is a trespasser in my kitchen.

 

Belgrade, Montana, 620 miles from home.  Burnt umber parquet stained with dark virescent squiggly lines to the north, windswept smears to the east.

 

*

 

Six more months unemployed.

 

*

 

When I tell people we live in a mobile home, I see the upside down images reflected in their eyes.  Mangy barking dogs, disembodied doll parts, debris, litter, junk, garbage, broken lattice porches, feral children, obese smoking mothers with dirty acrylic fingernails, scrawny alcoholic fathers with stained and missing teeth.  Yelling, screaming, swearing. Convicts, wife-beaters, illiterates.

 

*

 

Approximately 120,000 adoptions take place in the United States annually. (Flango and Flango, 1994)

 

About 1 million children in the United States live with adoptive parents. (Stolley, 1993)

 

*

 

It is the first day back to kindergarten after Thanksgiving break. By time I have put Ella and Jordin in the stroller and gathered Gracie in my arms, we are late.

 

Mrs. Wexford comes to the classroom door to greet Abby. “You know, Mrs. Nelson,” she says, “she might do better if you dropped her off in front of the school instead of walking her all the way to the classroom.”

 

*

 

Northeast Wyoming.  Vast nothing.  Yarrow, western wallflower, thimbleberry, toadflax, endless miles of double yellow line.  Pewter, puce, dust.  Prairieland scraps that are another time zone away.

 

*

 

We have flown back to California for a family wedding.  La Jolla’s salt air carries scents of my youth; Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus, ice plant, oleander, Fair Ellen geranium, St. Augustine grass, giant kelp washed ashore, Coppertone suntan lotion on sweaty skin.

 

Our daughters are wearing the cornflower blue dresses I sewed, black patent leather Mary Jane’s and white tights.  I think if I dress the four of them alike, people will understand that they are sisters. Brad and I wait until the last minute to take them into the church to minimize their ruckus.

 

I have to redo Gracie’s ponytail, her wild honey-colored curls never stay in place for more than ten minutes.

 

“Ella, don’t climb up there,” Abby says, pulling her sister down from the brick wall lining the walkway.  (As soon as Ella started walking, Abby started keeping order.)

 

A woman in a beige silk suit halts her rush to the door.  “Oh, look at these adorable little girls,” she says.

 

Our daughters put on their best coy smiles.  Ella steps in front and pulls at the sides of her skirt.

 

“Are they all yours?” The woman asks.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I mean, are they all your own?”

 

*

 

New clothes drier from Sears Roebuck: $800. Veterinary bill for the puppy’s broken leg: $1100.  Rebuilt engine for the Isuzu: $3000.

 

*

 

I play with Google Earth’s flight simulator feature; I keep crashing.  It gives me motion sickness.

 

*

 

On Abby’s seventh birthday her best friend Corry comes to our cramped mobile home for a sleep over.  Cinderella and Prince Charming finish their wedding dance to happily-ever-after music and a chorus of ahhhhs.

 

“Now Corry and me get the room with no sisters,” Abby says in her authoritative little voice, in case I’d forgotten my promise.

 

“Okay girls, it’s off to bed with you,” I singsong to her sisters like Cinderella enlisting the help of her rodent friends.

 

They complain, they whine, they dig their heels in.

 

I manage to muscle them to their beds without Brad’s help; he is working at Eagle Hardware in Rainier Valley until he finds a real job in real estate.  The girls whine some more.

 

Abby and Corry burrow into their sleeping bags where they chirp like excited squirrels picking through fallen leaves and twigs for acorns.

 

I read Goodnight Moon to Gracie and kiss her face, a second time, a third time.  Suddenly, Abby erupts from her sleeping bag, her cheeks alizarin crimson.

 

“Corry thinks I’m black!” she laughs loud.

 

Abby is rarely loud.

 

*

 

I post a virtual cyan thumbtack on Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, D.C., my daughter’s new home.

 

*

 

My father has died.

 

*

 

The funeral is over. I am taking the girls back home; two of them are sick.  I don’t know how we will manage without Dad’s financial infusions.  I don’t know how Mom will manage without Dad.

Gracie clings to my leg, Ella clings to the other.  Jordin is asleep, heavy and damp on my shoulder; I rock her back and forth.  Abby’s hand is hooked to my belt, her feverish head against my stomach.

The woman behind us stares at my Korean daughters while we wait to board the plane.

 

“Are you their real mother?”  She asks.

 

Jordin throws up twice on the plane.

 

*

 

Annyeounghi kaseyo means good-bye in Korean when the other person is leaving.

 

*

 

On a moonless onyx night when Abby was in fourth grade, she was monk-quiet on the drive home from gymnastics.

 

“Are you tired, Angel?” I had asked.

 

“No.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, our tires had hit the dirt road and broken the silence.

 

“Mom?”

 

“Yeah,”

 

“Sometimes, um, it’s just that sometimes I wonder about my birthmother.”

 

It was the only time she ever asked.

 

*

 

“We can finally start our house if you want to use your inheritance.” Brad says.

 

*

 

“Hi Angel, where are you now?”

 

“We’re going to spend the night in Kadoka, South Dakota,” Brad answers for her. “Are you looking on Google Earth?”

 

“Tell her to get off,” I hear Abby say over the Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces.

 

*

 

Before Abby can enter 6th grade I take her to the school district immunization clinic.  There are a few other parents and children waiting in chairs around the room.  I approach the check-in table with my daughter.

 

“Do you have her birth certificate?” The woman asks.

 

“No.  It isn’t posted as being required.” I say.

 

“Well, I need to see her birth certificate to prove that you are her mother.”

 

“Mom, it’s okay, we can come back.” Abby whispers.

 

“No, it is not okay.  I haven’t seen her ask anyone else to produce a birth certificate.”

 

“It’s for her own protection, ma’am.” The woman says.

 

“What do you think I’m going to do?  Grab a child off the street and drag her in here for a shot?”  I lean on the table, “This is discriminatory.  The reason you aren’t asking any other parent for a birth certificate is because they are the same race as their children.  This is illegal.”

 

“Mom,” Abby pulls ever-so-slightly on my sleeve.

 

“Who is your superior?  I want to speak to that person NOW.”  I say, shaking.

 

*

 

Kadoka, South Dakota, 1,212 miles away.  Viridian green, neutral brown, one giant pool of brilliant turquoise; I look it up on Google because its color is so unnatural.

 

Kadoka Lake South Dakota Fishing Report; www.fishingnotes.com.

 

Kadoka Junk Car Removal; www.junkmycar.com

 

Kadoka South Dakota Funeral Homes; www.funerals-usa.com

 

*

 

“They decided to close the commercial property sales division,” Brad says.

 

Five more months unemployed.

 

*

 

I have stayed up till 2:30 in the morning decorating the thirty-two airplane cookies I cut out with a paring knife.  My hand shakes from fatigue when I squeeze the frosting bag; I give every cookie a blue outline and friendly-skies smile.  It is Abby’s homecoming anniversary (ten years ago today Brad and I brought her home) and I’ve volunteered to spend the morning in her 5th grade class.  I’m going to read Katie Bo to a rug-full of squirming ten-year-olds and teach them about adoption and Korea, Land of the Morning Calm.

 

I fly Abby’s airplane cookie around Mrs. Mendehlson’s classroom globe to trace our journey between Korea and America. Then I fly it into Abby’s waiting hand and start reading Katie Bo; An Adoption Story. 

 

“Jeanette Merendino still says you aren’t my real mother,” Abby tells me later.

 

*

 

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.

 

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long, time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”  The Velveteen Rabbit.

 

*

 

South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin. Desert saltgrass, curlycup gumweed, prairie coneflower, and another time zone.  She’s so far away.  She doesn’t answer her phone.

 

*

 

In April 1993, we finally moved into the house that took five years to build; it looks like rich people should live in it.

 

Two months later, when I returned home from a class, Abby rushed to the door to meet me.  The house was completely dark.

 

“Mom, some men came to the house this afternoon.  I didn’t go to the door, like you said.  I saw them go around by the garage from my window.  Then the power went out.”

 

*

 

The globe zooms onto my screen, casting blue light on my skin.  I study the immensity of our Earth and wonder what it was like for my father when Brad and I moved to Seattle.  I imagine that a primal pain snagged his navel before worming its way into his marrow and wrapping itself around his spine, but he never said so.  I am much less noble.

 

The sound of Dad’s voice is still fresh in my ears, “Bend your knees, Nee Nee,” he yells from behind as we shoos Mammoth Mountain’s slopes, “Take my jacket and sit closer to the fire,” he says on a frosty November night in the Mojave Desert, our annual Thanksgiving jeep trip, “I’ll carry her,” he tells Mom and hoists me upon his shoulders to hike the Grand Canyon.

 

*

 

Who is her real mother?

 

*

 

Brad comes home in the middle of the morning.  “They fired me.”

 

*

 

Abby lets me take her to get her hair done for Senior Prom, but she gets dressed at her friend’s house with all the other girls in her group.  Brad and I arrive for the pre-prom appetizers and photo opportunity.  She is radiant, sleek, compact, her hair sparkles like obsidian in the sun.  Brad and I take pictures and pretend to share the moment when her date ties a corsage on her wrist.  Then we say goodbye and watch her climb into a black limousine that pales next to her hair.

 

*

 

 

July 23, 6:41 p.m.  Text from Abby:

Hello from Elgin, Il.  We’re here 4 the night. Have a good night, I’ll talk to you tomorrow I’m sure.  Love u.

 

*

 

Elgin, Illinois, 1,992 miles away.  My chum now, Google Earth bowls the French ultramarine blue globe into my screen.  I type in Elgin and fly toward the southern tip of Lake Michigan past squares and stripes and rectangles of burnt sienna, emerald, raw umber, pea-green, Payne’s gray, chalk white.  Cumulus clouds, murky rivers, and acres and acres of crops.  Viewed from sufficient distance, cities become metal tessera – pewter, zinc, steel, lead.  Concrete.

 

*

 

Not flesh of my flesh
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously
My own.
Never forget
For a single minute:
You didn’t grow under my heart
But in it.

© Fleur Conkling Heyliger

 

Sappy, but every adoptive parent knows this poem.

 

*

 

July 24, 7:57 a.m.  Text from Abby:

 

Hi mom, we’re just leaving Chicago.  I hate toll roads.

 

*

 

I wish my dad could have seen her graduate from high school.

 

*

 

Dad’s eyes fill.  “It’s all going to be good, Nee Nee.”  He wraps me in hairy arms that taper down to thick fingers; fingers which are the butt of many family jokes.  He smells like Old Spice.

 

Mom pats me on the back, her Orange Blossom fingernails catch on my sweater. She leaves a Revlon Blasé Apricot kiss on my cheek.

 

Brad and I clutch each others’ hands and board the Seattle-bound plane to our future.  I have miscarried a second time.

 

*

 

The sun rises on this foreign day, topaz, madder, vermilion

we greet it with hopes and dreams

in front, all three.

Opportunity should not be, cannot be, passed

to stretch for thoughts yet unthought

and create a self yet unknown.

But sorrow beckons at the back edge of a time grown too short.

 

Her hair shines as the fan plays with its straight black strands

we stand in the stuffy dorm, all three.

She busies herself affixing posters, hanging clothes, claiming her space

her father busies himself with wire and cords and chargers, claiming his usefulness

and I watch time take her away.

 

We lay baby roses at her nightstand, twenty-five yellow buds

and walk as to our death, all three.

Frozen embrace,

tears, beads of salt,

words silenced in tight throats,

my heart screams out, “Don’t go!  Don’t go!”

 

But time ignores my plea,

and so betrays us,

all three.

 

*

 

“Mom, if you’re on Google Earth again I’m hanging up,” she threatens from somewhere in the Midwest.

 

“I’m not,” I say, and quickly close my laptop.

 

*

 

It was often like pulling teeth to get Abby to invite her friends over when she was little.  I figured she was afraid her sisters would be embarrassing little nuisances, or, after she was older, that she just didn’t want the hostess responsibilities.  So when she recently told me she’d hated having friends over because she was humiliated by living in a mobile home, I was shocked.  I never knew that she knew the difference; I never knew that she felt what I did.

 

Abby was 13 years old when we moved into the house for rich people.

 

She still didn’t want her friends to come over.

 

*

 

My father-in-law finances Brad’s third business venture in 2002; a contractor’s supply store.  The store closes after two years.

 

*

 

In 1982, 6,434 Korean children were adopted internationally. (Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare)

 

Only eight percent of all adoptions include parents and children of different races. (National Health Interview Survey, 1987)

 

An international adoption costs between $7,000 and $30,000.  (adoption.com)

 

*

 

“Hi Angel, are you getting close to Pittsburgh?  It might just be the lighting from the time of year the image was taken, but the mountains around there are so pretty, they look purple.  Maybe they’re the Appalachians, or the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

 

“Mom.”

 

“It’s funny, the mountains are all named Something Hill or Something Knob.”

 

“Bye, Mom.” She hangs up.

 

*

 

I miss my dad.

 

*

 

July 24, 4:58 p.m.  Text from Abby:

 

Update: stopped 4 the night in PE, only about 1.5 hrs from DC!

 

*

 

Breezewood, Pennsylvania, 2,586 miles away.  Great flowing lines radiate for two hundred miles northeast across the landscape like seaweed sweeping the ocean floor.

 

I study the Potomac River, Gettysburg Memorial Military Park, Amish country, and the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93.

 

*

 

“There is nothing to be scared of,” my dad said, and then he turned out the lights.

 

*

 

“Hi Mom, Dad is out of the room for a few minutes so I had to call.  He is really irritating me.  I wanted him to come with me and everything, because I need help setting up when I get there, but he…if he’d just say he doesn’t have the money, it would be fine, I can buy his food or whatever, but the fact that he lies about it is so freakin’ lame.

 

“K, gotta go, he’s back.  Love you Mom”

 

*

 

John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Road plays on continuous loop in my head.

 

*

 

“I want a divorce,” I said.

 

*

 

I don’t need their words to know what they think.  I am clairvoyant.  I know kindly looks, I know curious looks, I know the facial muscles that contract with disapproval, distaste, condemnation.  Levator Labii superioris, alaeque nasi, caput infraorbitalis.

 

The friend of a friend says, “Oh, so you adopted two and then had two of your own,” the Christmas time shopkeeper says, “God bless you,” my aunt says, “It’s too bad you didn’t find out earlier that you were pregnant, then you wouldn’t have had to go through with the adoption,” a neighbor child asks, “Will the baby be Korean too?” a mother with her Aryan–perfect baby in a stroller moves away from my Korean purebred baby in a stroller, not once, not twice, but three times, her facial muscles taught.

 

Well-wishers, curiosity-seekers, nay-sayers.  To tell you the truth, they all torque me.  They all require some qualifier to the terms of motherhood and family.  When my children were small, and the mass of us couldn’t help but be a public spectacle, I used to enjoy giving others an education, an explanation, a shock.  Now their ignorance is just a bore.

 

*

 

July 27, 6:38 p.m.  Email from Abby:

 

You know it’s bad when…

you have to borrow 3 freakin dollars to ride the Metro.

You know you’re ridiculous when…

you try and refuse a $2 lemonade because you “feel bad” I have to buy everything.

I’m ready for dad to be gone.  I’ve had enough of his money problems, lies of omission, and outright lies.  I, of course, am grateful he’s been here to help with getting furniture and everything but he’s pissing me off.

K, just had to vent.  Hope you’re having a good weekend.  Talk to you soon.

Love you,

Abby

 

*

 

“It’s not that I’m so bent on being a lawyer.  I just know that if I don’t get away from my crazy life now, I’ll never do it.” Abby had said to me some months before she left.  At the time, I couldn’t understand what she thought was so crazy about her life.

 

*

 

Washington, D.C., 2,690 miles away.

 

 

——————–

Janeen is an artist, a writer, the mother of four, and she has been a successful Marriage & Family Therapist in the Seattle area for eighteen years specializing in the treatment of adolescent girls and women. She has also saved a marriage or two in her time, “except,” she laughs, “my own.”  Her work has appeared in The Morning News, Seattle’s Child Magazine, The Montreal Review, and various local newspapers. Janeen’s current project is a book honoring the dogged determination of teenage girls to discover, and grow into, who they are.

Piano Lessons

By Stephanie Kaplan Cohen

ne fine day in the beginning of my fifty-first year, a boss I’d never met, a boss from the main office, sent for me.

 

I didn’t even have the brains to be nervous. Another promotion, a possible transfer, perhaps another department.

 

My job in research suited me. The politics of the company, the abrasive encounters that I witnessed or heard about were all absent from my cool silver room.

 

Truly, when I entered that room, with my Mylar space suit, my goggles and hood, I felt I had entered the holy of holies, and my day, although labeled research, was in reality prayer, a worship of truth. Truth that is, and truth that is waiting to announce itself.

 

I have been responsible for the development of more than twenty new products in the course of my career. All of my discoveries have earned me awards, both picturesque and pecuniary.

 

I filled my study with pseudo-gold cups, plaques, diplomas, and other appurtenances of a groundbreaking corporate scientist.

 

I loved every day of my life. An absorbing job. I am an avid reader and a mountain climber. Friends, in their place. In general a life free from interpersonal stress, but involved enough to avoid isolation.

 

I asked if it could wait until I changed out of my sterile garb. At noon, I presented myself to Mr. Carter Braxton. He, the perfect gentleman, rose from his chair, shook my hand, pulled out a chair for me, and told me that he had followed my career with much interest. The company would always be grateful for my breakthroughs. Now, however, because of various technicalities in financial structuring, it was necessary to downsize. They were closing down all departments in my city, except for a skeletal clerical staff.

 

My laboratory, my baby, my husband, my love, was to be dismantled and sent to the main office. My work, and my records, always impeccable, were to be transferred to Chicago.

 

If I would be so kind as to supervise the dismantling, so scrupulous in seeing that all elements were safely delivered, all experiments datafied, codified, and if I would be so kind as to oversee this transfer. And here, my heart leapt.

 

This Mr. Braxton was going to ask me to move to Chicago, and why not? Another city, another apartment, but the same laboratory, the same rock-climbing expeditions, perhaps even more now that I would be geographically closer to some of the most challenging sites in our country.

 

I looked up. Mr. Braxton was still talking. “We think that the move can be accomplished in six or seven weeks, and six weeks to thoroughly orient the laboratory staff, and then you’re a free woman. Congratulations!”

 

My mouth fell open. I felt blood leaving my face, and then I felt it redden. I sat still, silent.

 

Mr. Braxton invited me to a farewell lunch in the President’s Dining Room.

 

“No thanks,” I said. “The company cafeteria has always been perfectly adequate.”

 

Nevertheless, I found myself seated in a room upholstered in leather, walking on an antique Heriz rug to a faded eighteenth-century mahogany table, set with fine china, silver, and crystal. I found myself sipping a tiny cup of consommé and then eating a salad of wild greens. White wine accompanied trout with almonds, asparagus, and tiny roasted potatoes.

 

Over dessert of poached pears and demitasse, Mr. Braxton touched my arm. “You didn’t think we were putting you out in the cold, did you?”

 

I smiled.

 

“Even though you have no contract with us, we’re still going to make you very happy.” He went on to tell me how happy the company was going to make me. All my benefits and salary would continue until time for retirement, at which time all “the benefits” would kick in.

 

“So you see, you’re financially secure, and now you’re going to be free as a bird.” He smiled. “How does that strike you?”

 

“It’ll take getting used to. When do you want me to start dismantling?”

 

“Now. Today. Finish up whatever can’t be shut down. Let’s say by Monday. I’ll send some assistants to help you crate and pack.”

 

I packed, crated, finished up, wrote down experiments in progress, dismantled machines, unplugged fixtures, and finally discarded my Mylar suit, which I carefully packed in a special box.

 

Within three months, the whole thing was over, and I found myself, my good health, my fine mind, my independent thinking paralyzed by a slow, gummy ooze which seemed to drip down from somewhere in my brain, coat my eyes, my ears, my mouth, teeth, tongue, gums, limbs with a paralyzing inertia. I neither read nor climbed. I could barely walk, and that I did only in the most necessary instances, such as bathroom needs and nutriment.

 

And those needs, I observed, were also shrinking. I ate something every day, mostly frozen dinners or, when that was too much trouble, candy bars. I stopped answering the phone. I confess that I also stopped opening my mail.

 

I occupied myself with endless games of solitaire, with observing that which happened outside of my twenty-third-floor window, and with sleep, lots of sleep.

 

At first I told myself that I was catching up with years of chronic sleep deprivation.

 

After some time, I noticed that I no longer had electricity, which didn’t bother me a bit. I switched entirely to candy bars, which I bought by the carton.

 

Until. Until my brother came. He rang the bell and then pounded on the door. “Abby,” he yelled.

 

I opened the door and Hugh came in. “What’s the matter, Hugh? Is something wrong?”

 

Without a word, he took my hand and walked me to a mirror.

I didn’t look wonderful. He led me to the scale. I had lost twenty pounds.

 

“What’s going on here? I didn’t fly in from LA to see this. My God, how could you have let this happen? You have no phone, no electricity, and you’re about to be thrown out of your apartment. Thanks be, the super had my number and called. What’s this all about?”

 

“I don’t know,” I answered, and I didn’t know.

Which is how I went to the doctor for a physical, to the spa for a day of beauty, and finally, to a psychiatrist.

 

Meanwhile, with Hugh’s help, I sorted through, paid up, apologized, deposited, and established normal services.

 

My new doctor, to whom I reported three times a week, looked at me with sharp blue eyes, rimless glasses, and a shirt rolled to the elbows as though he were going to attempt some trying feat of housekeeping.

 

We talked. He too enjoyed hiking, mountain climbing, although he certainly didn’t claim my skill at rock climbing.

 

We talked about books, about science, about my sudden descent into the hell of idleness.

 

We talked about drugs. Drugs that would chase away the blues, the depression, the inertia, the disinterest.

 

I declined. “I’ve lived fifty-one years with little more than aspirins and Band-Aids in my medicine cabinet. I’m a scientist and I know what drugs can do to the various systems of the body.”

 

I agreed that my state of mind was less than desirable, and I pronounced myself willing to correct it, or rather to work with the doctor to correct it, but not to take drugs.

 

My doctor smiled in what I took to be approval. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll tackle this together,” and tackle we did. We discussed my need for structure, for control, for independence. We discussed my need for some consuming new interests.

 

One day, about four months into our investigations, we talked about my childhood dream. I wanted to play the piano. My parents, both scientists, thought this was a reasonable avocation. When they heard me practicing much more than the assigned hour, they sat me down for a logical and reasonable discussion of the opportunities, or rather the lack of them, for a professional pianist, and the brilliant, assured future for a scientist.

 

They dismissed the piano teacher, moved the piano to the basement, and shortly thereafter, donated it to the Henry Street Settlement House Music School.

 

“Why not?” my doctor asked.

 

“Why not what?”

 

“Go for it. Science and music have a lot in common. Mathematicians and musicians work in almost the same milieu.”

 

On WQXR I heard an announcer talk about a fabulous three-day sale of repossessed pianos.

 

I walked into a gigantic warehouse filled with pianos. Uprights, spinets, baby grands, concert grands. A cacophony of music surrounded me, made by people trying out instruments.

 

A salesman approached. After the usual inanities involving a salesman and a customer, he asked which type of instrument might interest me.

 

“Are all these pianos repossessed?”

 

“Yes. Every one of them.”

 

I pointed to a modest spinet. “Can you tell me about that one?”

 

He walked over to the tag and turned it over. “This one came down from 138th Street. It’s only eight months old, and in very fine condition. There’s an eight-hundred-dollar balance, payable monthly, or seven hundred thirty on delivery. Why don’t you try it?”

 

I sat down and played what I remembered of “Für Elise.” My fingers were stiff, but somehow I felt I was not sitting in a strange place, but exactly where I belonged. “I’ll take it,” I said.

 

The salesman looked alarmed. “Don’t you want to try some other instruments? We have some beautiful baby grands here, even a Steinway and a Knabe.”

 

“No,” I said. “This one is mine. I’ll pay for it now.”

 

I am not a person given to clutter, so it was easy for me to find room for the spinet in my living room. In fact, it looked rather handsome in front of my window, but also bare, lacking the usual music sheets, exercise books, lamps, and metronome and practice clock.

 

“I called Henry Street Music School,” I told my doctor. “I’m going to interview teachers. I must say this is getting exciting.”

 

We cut our sessions down to once a week, and I used the free time for twice weekly piano lessons.

 

I practiced. I studied, and I found myself happier than I had been in some time. I asked for no favors. Rather, I insisted that my teacher, a charming young woman, teach me the way she taught beginning children. I played and sang along with nursery rhymes, children’s folk songs, and finally, pieces for two hands.

 

When my teacher handed me “Für Elise,” I laughed out loud.

 

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

 

“I feel like I’ve arrived. I remember that piece from when I was a little girl. I started to play it before I stopped lessons, and then I used to listen to my friends play it.”

 

I practiced “Für Elise.” When I made a mistake, I heard a voice telling me, “No, wrong note.” I felt that all the friends of my youth were hearing and helping. I learned the piece quickly.

 

When I played it for my piano teacher the following week, she congratulated me on my accuracy and interpretation. “I’ve only heard one other pupil play it that way,” she said. “It’s very original and it’s certainly interesting.”

 

My teacher assigned “The Happy Farmer.” It’s a lovely romp, and I played it as such, until the voice returned and told me that the farmer wasn’t always so happy. My playing took on a more plaintive note, with a hint of sadness, along with the happiness of the farmer.

 

I played the piece for my teacher. She shook her head.

 

“No good?” I asked.

 

“Oh, no,” she said. “You played beautifully. It’s just such a coincidence. You’ve given the piece a very unusual interpretation. The pupil who played it that way was the same pupil who played ‘Für Elise’ the way you did.”

 

“Maybe I have an unknown relative.”

 

“I don’t think so. It’s a little girl who lived uptown. She was a very promising pupil, but she had to stop lessons when her mother got sick. We put the child on scholarship. She came down here to practice as often as she could, but she spent most of her free time taking care of her mother. The little thing was only nine when her mother died. There were no relatives, so she went into foster care. I tried to find her, but you know how kids get lost in the foster care system.”

 

“No,” I said. “I don’t know. I’ve been in science and research all my life. Is it possible for you to give me the child’s name and address?”

 

“Lourdes Perry.” My teacher leafed through her book. “She’s ten now. Her last address was 367 West 138th Street.”

 

I called my friend in the mayor’s office. “I have a problem.”

 

“You?” he said. “I’ve never known you to have a problem you didn’t attack. What could possibly make you call me? Parking fine? A speeding ticket?”

 

I laughed. “No tickets. This isn’t science and I don’t have access to the research.” I told him about Lourdes, and how I had no idea of her whereabouts. I told him her last known address.

 

“It will take a little time,” he told me. “I have to get in touch with the Bureau of Child Welfare. I’m pretty sure I can locate the kid, but arranging a meeting is another story. We’ll have to see where she is.”

 

I thanked him and made a lunch date for the following week. I went back to practicing with what I felt was Lourdes’ help.

 

I visited my psychiatrist and told him of my magical piano. “Do you think I’m psychotic? Do you think I constructed an elaborate fantasy? Am I in trouble?”

 

We spoke about paranormal events, about the research at Duke, about ESP. My doctor assured me I was completely rational, and said with a shrug and a smile, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.”

 

I had lunch with my friend from the mayor’s office. “Lourdes is living in Queens. She’s in foster care with a very nice woman who has six or seven girls around the same age. The reports on the kid are all good. She’s very quiet, maybe a little withdrawn. That’s where you come in. They’re looking for a big sister for her.”

 

“A big sister?”

 

“That’s the agency that sends out men and women to be friends, mentors to at-risk children who don’t have enough adults in their lives. They’re pretty careful. You need to go through an interview process, a thorough screening, and a short training period. You’re sure you want to go through all this?”

 

“Yes,” I said. I went through the interview, the screening, the training, and I became a big sister.

 

I wondered what would happen if the plan got bollixed up, and I got assigned another child. However, my friend was more efficient than I gave him credit for. The agency assigned me Lourdes.

 

“Lourdes, this is your big sister, Miss Dunning,” her foster mother said.

 

“Call me Abby,” I said and held out my hand.

 

Lourdes offered me thin brown fingers. I shook hands and didn’t let go, rather turning my palm so that we were loosely holding hands. Lourdes was a little slip of a thing, with skin the color of café au lait and a mop of black curls growing every which way, making her little face even tinier.

 

That first day we stayed at the foster mother’s house. Lourdes showed me her room, walked with me to her backyard, where we sat on swings, and she said, yes, she would like to see me again and maybe go to a museum or a bookstore.

 

We went to the Children’s Museum of Science in Queens. We visited the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. We visited bookstores, where we chose books for Lourdes and the other girls who lived in the house.

 

After two months of weekly visits, I asked Lourdes if she would mind stopping at my apartment for a minute. “I forgot something.”

 

We took the subway and walked a few blocks to my apartment house. When we were at my place, Lourdes looked around and her eyes lit up. “You have a piano,” she said.

 

“Go ahead and play if you like. I’ll only be a minute.”

Lourdes walked over to the piano and stood there. I went into the study. In a few moments I heard single notes being played very softly. They were in a high register, and I thought of a baby bird chirping when it has fallen out of the nest.

 

I came out of the study, carrying a folder.

 

Lourdes stopped playing and said to me, “I used to play the piano.”

 

“Tell me about it.”

 

“When my mommy and me lived on 138th Street. I took lessons. Then Mommy died.”

 

I asked her about relatives.

 

“It was only Mommy and me. My daddy got killed in construction, my mommy told me. And we never had nobody else. Just us two.”

 

I hugged her, and with my arm still around her, we went into the kitchen, where I gave her milk and a plate of chocolate chip cookies I had bought the day before.

 

After that day, all our visits included a stop at my apartment, where Lourdes would play the piano and have a snack. She began to gain a little weight, and her face looked less pinched. At our scheduled conference, the social worker told me Lourdes’ foster mother reported progress. The child was more outgoing and seemed less sad.

 

This emboldened me. I asked for and received permission from the social worker to see if Lourdes would be interested in restarting piano lessons.

 

Lourdes smiled and laughed. “Oh, you know I would. But there’s no piano at my house.”

 

“I know where we can get an electric keyboard so you can practice. Some of the other children in the house might enjoy fooling around with it. And you can play my piano on Saturdays when you’re with me.”

 

I told my teacher I found Lourdes, and we arranged for lessons. I purchased an electronic keyboard. On a Wednesday afternoon I delivered it and picked up Lourdes.

 

“Where am I going for lessons?” she asked.

 

“To the Henry Street Music School.”

 

Her face was a mixture of surprise, sorrow, and joy. “That’s where I used to take lessons.”

 

“I know. I take lessons from your old teacher. She told me about you.”

 

“Is that why you’ve been taking me out?”

 

“I knew we had a lot in common,” I said. “We both love music, and the piano especially. But that’s not the reason. When I heard your name from our teacher, I knew I had to meet you.” I bent down and kissed her.

 

Her eyes got big. She looked at me and held her hand to her cheek, covering the place I kissed.

 

“Is it all right that I kissed you?”

 

Lourdes lowered her head. She nodded, and her color heightened.

 

She and the teacher had a joyful reunion.

 

“I’ll wait downstairs in the practice room,” I said.

 

After an hour Lourdes and the teacher came into the practice room. “It won’t take any time at all for Lourdes to catch up,” her teacher said. “She’s as good a student as ever.”

 

Lourdes beamed. “Now let’s go to your place. I have my music with me, and I want to play it on your piano.”

 

That was the first direct request Lourdes had ever made.

 

We went to my apartment. Lourdes refused a snack. “I’m not hungry.”

 

She walked to the piano, but she didn’t sit down. Rather, she squirmed behind the piano. “Look here, Abby,” she called, her voice muffled by the piano and the curtains.

 

I walked over. There, in the lower right-hand corner of the back of the piano, which was of unfinished wood, were tiny letters, LP. Lourdes sank down on the floor and cried.

 

“How did you find me?”

 

“I was supposed to find you.”

 

Which is how, after some months, joint visits to my psychiatrist, and an investigation, Lourdes came to live with me as my foster child while the adoption petition went through channels.

 

Which is how my study turned into a little girl’s room and came to be furnished with frilly curtains, a canopy bed, and white curvy Formica furniture.

 

Which is how I got to be a mother after all at the advanced age of fifty-one, and how Lourdes and I have frequent company on our expeditions, the doctor, whose name, incidentally, is Max.

 

 

——————–

My poetry has appeared repeatedly in The New York Times, and has appeared or is forthcoming in 96 Inc., Aura/Literary Arts Review, Confluence, CQ (California Quarterly), Folly, Iconoclast, Pearl, Poet’s Page, Ship of Fools, Sierra Nevada College Review, Slant, Spillway, and Talking River Review. My prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Amherst Review, Artful Mind, Art Times, Belletrist Review, Binnacle, The Chrysalis Reader, Contraband, descant, Double-Entendre, Fuel, Grasslands Review, Hardboiled, The Homestead Review, Iconoclast, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, The Legendary, The Long Beach Independent, Lynx Eye, Minotaur, North Dakota Quarterly, Orange Willow Review, Pedestal Magazine, Reader’s Break, Real (RE Arts & Letters), Reed Magazine, Riversedge, The Scarsdale Inquirer, Slow Trains, The Smashing Icons Anthology, Sulphur River Literary Review, The Westchester Review, and Westview. My work has also appeared in the anthologies Lessons in Love: Gifts From Our Grandmothers (Crown, 2000) and Split Verse: Poems To Heal The Heart (Midmarch, 2000). I am the author of a memoir IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE, published by Woodley Books and a poetry book ADDITIONS AND SUBTRACTIONS, published by Plain View Press. My work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I write a column “Ask Stephanie” for the Alzheimer’s Association Quarterly in Westchester and Putnam, New York. I am also an editor of The Westchester Review. I have done many public and private fiction and poetry readings, and my work has been read on NPR.

Kept Woman

By Michele A Hromada

den enters the house and hears her mother talking to her pet cockatoo. The September sun brightens the foyer as she listens to her mother talk to LaLa. The house is neat and tidy; no errant objects are in the way. Snapdragons fill a cobalt pitcher on the coffee table. Eden walks into the kitchen and pours herself iced tea.

 

She walks out to the deck, listening to her mother. Her mother is scolding LaLa for dropping pieces of her uneaten vegetables between the bars of the birdcage. She stops talking and comes outside. May Conrad is wearing a pressed linen dress, a gold watch with diamonds, and good Italian sandals. She looks like a woman returning from work or an important appointment. May has no job or close friends. When she makes the infrequent trip out of her house, LaLa is grafted to her shoulder like an exotic appendage.

 

“How was your day, darling?” May strokes her daughter’s auburn hair.

“Great, Mom. I got an A on my English composition.”

 

“Of course you did. Let me read it.”

 

“Not now, Mom, I have to study for a Spanish test.”

 

“Maybe later, then,” she says.

 

Eden picks up her glass and messenger bag and heads to her bedroom.

 

Eden is sixteen, tall and athletic with a long, lean torso. She is a good student, quiet, willful, and liked by others in an unspectacular way. She opens up her messenger bag and pulls out her first English assignment. It is not really a composition, but a letter. Mr. Spector, her teacher, assigned the class the task of writing a letter to someone—real, dead, or alive. It could be someone from history, popular culture, or even a family member. The author must request something from the recipient. Eden pulls out the letter; comments are scribbled in purple felt tip marker. She studies Mr. Spector’s handwriting for some clues about him; she knows all the comments by heart. The letter is written to Eden’s birth mother, who she has never met. She is requesting a meeting. Having found the information about her mother in her father’s file cabinet along with her Social Security number, she did an online people search and found Renee’s address. Eden knows that Renee lives in the same town. She prints out a second copy of the letter, addresses it to her birth mother, planning to mail it on her way to school tomorrow.

 

* * *

 

Renee sits at a bench behind the counter of her shop, Garden of Eden. It is a woman’s accessory shop that sells fashion jewelry, scarves, belts, bags, and a small inventory of boutique clothing. Her daughter’s letter is open; she has read it dozens of times. She already knows a great deal about the girl’s life and has a photo album tucked away with pictures from Eden’s childhood up to her last birthday. Renee’s affair with Robert, Eden’s father, ended after she gave birth. Robert’s wife was unable to bear a child and had become more and more depressed. Renee did not believe in marriage or want to care for a child, so it was easy for Robert to convince her to go through with the adoption.

 

She knows Eden is now sixteen, not a time for serenity. It is the age for suicidal thoughts one day and impossible hopes the next. Renee remembers when she found out she was pregnant; her tears, dramatics, and the stark despair that culminated in the realization that motherhood would keep her shackled like a dog on a long lead.

 

Several years after the affair, Robert helped her finance her boutique. It was a business arrangement at first, but she became his mistress again. She did not care about his insipid, unbalanced wife. Renee was free to come and go as she pleased. She tended to her busy little shop and viewed her role as the other woman as a highly skilled sport. She had willingly chosen a dubious profession and accepted the crushing predictability of everyday life. Robert would stay with his wife; she would continue running her business. She earned her way; she was not really a kept woman. Renee’s life was compartmentalized: work, friends, taking care of herself, and pleasing Robert. She grew up the daughter of a single mother who had scrimped for everything they needed. Renee felt there was nothing more that she wanted; she had her independence.

 

Eden’s request to meet was inevitable. All these years, they were virtual neighbors, and she had fantasized about the day when they could be best friends. She sends an email to her daughter and attaches a recent photo. Renee suggests they meet on Saturday morning at Starbucks.

 

* * *

 

Eden aspires to be a mime. In front of a full-length mirror, she practices nostril and eyebrow exercises, trying to appear robotic and mechanical. Her eyes are tearing from the sustained effect of not blinking. Renee’s email invitation is open on her laptop. LaLa, the cockatoo, is screeching for attention in the den. The annoying bird needs constant companionship. LaLa and thoughts of meeting her birth mother are breaking Eden’s concentration. She slams the bedroom door; she is getting ready for her performance at the Long Island Fall Festival on Saturday. The fair will have crafts, food, and entertainment provided by local high school theatre clubs. There will be skits, dance routines, and singing. Eden will be working the fair as a dancing mime in white face makeup and performing as her character, Daisy. She will wear a white shirt, bow tie, short black skirt, tights, and dance shoes. Eden will weave in and out of the crowd, dancing up to unsuspecting fair attendees and handing them literature about local businesses and restaurants. An effective mime must be benignly evocative of human behavior while at the same time jarring the viewer with a subtle eeriness of caricature. Eden practices spins and dance moves, maintaining the glass-eyed stare of a doll.

 

May is preparing dinner in the kitchen, listening to her daughter crash into her bedroom walls and furniture. While tidying up Eden’s room, she found the letter to her birth mother. It was bound to happen, but May felt threatened. Young girls crave romance and conflict; Renee getting close to Eden could cause trouble for their ordered life. Of course, May knows her husband still sees Renee, and she knows he will never leave his family to be with her full time. It is an arrangement that suits all parties.

 

* * *

 

On Saturday, Renee sits at a table in the coffee shop facing Main Street. The village is jammed with cars and people heading toward Hecksher Park for the Fall Festival. The weather has cooperated; it is warm and dry with a cool, autumnal breeze. Pots of mums are hung from the lampposts. Pumpkins, gourds, and swags of silken leaves decorate the shop windows. Renee is reading a book and sipping a coffee, waiting for Eden to join her.

 

She looks up from her book and sees Robert on the sidewalk still dressed for summer in Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt. Renee lifts the book upward to obstruct her face. Robert is holding his wife’s hand; they’re talking. May has transitioned to fall clothes and is wearing corduroy pants and a beige cotton sweater. The cockatoo she had heard so much about is perched on her shoulder, amusing people passing them on the sidewalk. An aura of intimacy wraps them both. What do they talk about? Renee wonders. Eden comes into view in her mime costume. In turn, they each give their daughter a gentle embrace. Robert and May glance at each other; she feels the pride they share and senses a level of desire between them. She knows she is witnessing a bond that has eluded her comprehension for years. Eden is well loved, and they have experienced things as a family that she will never know. Renee feels wistful and envious. She longs to know her daughter in a way that is different from her adopted mother. She is determined to never see Robert again.

Eden walks in and looks around. Even in makeup and costume, Renee recognizes her own facial contours and slimness of body in the girl. She waves her over to the table. Up close she sees a slight panic in Eden’s eyes.

 

She stretches her hand across the table and pulls out the chair.

 

“Hi, I’m Renee; please sit down.”

 

 

——————–

I am a special education teacher and educational evaluator. My hobbies include reading, traveling, and listening to rock and jazz music. Short fiction is something I love and have been working on throughout my life. I live on the Lloyd Neck peninsula on the North Shore of Long Island with my husband, son, and our Jack Russell terrier. My work has appeared in Sanskrit.

Bolt

By Ronda Muir

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods.—…”

                “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -”

                —Emily Dickinson

                       

 

e called him “Bolt.” Because of the bolt we put in his muzzle—stainless steel slipped through open flesh that eventually healed all ‘round. A daily reminder of the power of God, like a bolt of lightning come down from the sky, that can raise us up or strike us down, but leastways always shakes us up. Every time we’d call that dog in, every time we’d feed him or tramp the draws and ridges with him or just see him stretched out by the screen door on the “God Is Our Deliverance” mat, all shaggy head and matted fur—that bolt hung in his muzzle like the mark of the Almighty’s piercing power.

 

See, faith is not for sissies. And when God Above tests your faith, He doesn’t mess around with niceties and please. Then’s the time to look fear in the face and stand firm, always believing, like Daniel upright ‘mongst the lions. And if you can’t find your faith when that testing time comes, you might as well lay yourself down in the middle of the road and be done with it. Better to be run over clean than tussle with God’s wrath. Go ask Jonah in the belly of the whale, or Lot’s wife if she can hear through all that salt. They’d tell you—you got to follow Him and never let anything turn you aside, or that same awesome force what can save you can damn well destroy you.

 

***

 

Over a year ago, right after the biggest forest fire these parts had ever seen, we kept hearing strangers was asking about us in town–government people, we figured. The folks living in these mountains already know who we are. Who we serve. Course, that don’t mean we always see eye to eye. Some have come right out and said we was crazy. But crazy or not, they can plainly see, we’re peaceable types, not looking for any trouble, just trying every day to walk His way. Asking questions, lots of questions—that had to be the government wanting to stir up trouble.

 

Sure enough, not long after, the State Attorney General himself charged us with burning down God’s forest, accusing us of leaving the campfire lit that leveled thousands of acres of brush and pine. Even sent us each a bill for $3 million—“Please return check in enclosed envelope,” it said— and then tried to throw us in jail for pretty much the rest of our lives.

 

How could they tell for sure that our campfire was the one what started that forest fire, when there was plenty others camping all over those woods that dry August evening? Of course, the park rangers testified they traced it all back, found a flyer “in the suspect campfire” with the name of God on it. Like what we was handing out.

 

But that still didn’t make it our fire.

 

Our whole worship group had been out in the woods that night: me, my boy Ray, and old Bolt; the Arnolds with their three youngsters; Samuel Marston and Gill Browne from our same side of the mountain; and Jess Bellows and his boy, about Ray’s age, from the other side. All good Christians and good mountain folk too. All knew well enough how to put out a fire, ‘cept maybe the youngest ones, but still enough adults there pouring water on the coals. And several of us did check to see that they was as out as wet coals ever are.

 

None of us could foresee then how the smell of sizzling pine sap, like burnt tires, would stick to everything for months to come. How, for miles ‘round, ashes would float down like dark snowflakes every time the wind rustled, and even the farthest corners of our kitchen shelves would wipe black.

 

God has his mysterious ways. It was Apostle Paul said, “Fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” So, could it have been a little Godly spark that set that forest raging? To clean out the underbrush, move the vermin ‘round, and just shake things up a bit? The way He sometimes does.

 

What I know for sure is that that trial cleaned us out of whatever money we had then and about all our future money too. Plus there was the enmity among our neighbors that those government types whipped up against us. Like, no matter what, they wasn’t planning on losing in the end.

 

Turned out they was more right than any of us could have known.

 

‘Cause winning wasn’t nothing compared to what we lost. When the papers was first served, Arnolds moved out during the night, with not a word from them since. Eventually, I hocked to the gills the little sawmill I had hoped my boy Ray would run someday. Samuel and Gill double-mortgaged their carpentry business building cabins and doing odd jobs. And Jess pretty much lost his whole inheritance that had been supporting him, his boy, and God’s Word.

 

For more than four months we sat at that defense table—Sam, Gill, Jess, and me—our backs to our neighbors, to our customers, to folks we had called friends. Listening to people tell how we had done this thing or that, how we wasn’t like the others, that we was there for sure that awful night. While all our gardens dried up and Gill’s and Samuel’s tools grew rusty and my mill stood useless. Jess’s boy and Ray jotting in workbooks, trying to keep up.

 

When it was over Jess said he had to give up and leave for a job in Boise, what with a child to raise and not a dime to his name anymore. God provides, I believe, but it wasn’t in my pocket to give, so, in the end, I couldn’t tell him to stay.

 

That left Samuel, Gill, me and Ray.

 

***

 

Samuel Marston never let go his shame. He couldn’t look the townspeople in their faces without thinking they was sure he had done it after all. “Gonna be no more work here for us either way,” he kept saying way before the verdict came in. But afterward, he and Gill still every now and again had some little project, almost putting together a living. Gill even tried joking with folks, see how they’d take it—like why on earth would he ever want to do anything’d raise the price of lumber?

 

 

I been more or less staying to myself, not even going to town much anymore. Our little sawmill has occasional odds and ends to do, but we’re just scraping by, Ray and me. And our lives ahead look like just more of the same. I’m glad my wife Effie didn’t live for any of this.

 

At least I got Ray. He’s a mighty good boy. No sass or deviling or sneaking ‘round when my back is turned. Truly a God-fearing boy. And in spite of whatever they think of the rest of us, the folks in town appear to like him.

 

Sheriff Randall seems particularly taken. “Gonna make a deputy out of this boy one day,” he’ll say to whoever’s there, laying his big hand on Ray’s shoulder.

 

“Even though God’s way don’t stand for killing?” I ask.

 

Then Sheriff shuffles his feet a bit, makes his eyes little, and walks away.

 

See, we’re not ‘mongst believers up here—we’ve known that all along. Folks roam God’s woods without knowing their Maker, without ever accepting the salvation what comes from His pain. But that don’t mean we don’t all belong here in these sovereign woods. Jesus Himself was no stranger to sinners—a friend of hookers, hit men, and loan sharks, the Bible says. “You love your neighbor” was His advice. Meaning no matter who your neighbor might happen to be.

 

Besides, none of us could throw the first stone. None of us.

 

So, after the trial, Samuel, Gill, and me took to talking about forgiveness and forgetness and just trying to keep to the straight way.

 

Wasn’t till awhile later that we took to keeping our .22s loaded and locking up our doors at night.

 

One evening Samuel come home to a brush fire near his barn where he stored lumber, a brush fire that smelt too much like gasoline. Wouldn’t a taken but one little gust to have finished off for good what leftover work he and Gill still had.

 

Then not too long after that, there come piercing through the night’s blackness outside Ray’s and my cabin the sound of shots—zing, zing, zing—from a pretty powerful gun too, like a .270 or an 06, and from not that far away. I woke up crazy dithered but figured it had to be some mistake. After a week or so of silence, though, those shots come again, and then another night and again another, ending with us sitting upright, bug-eyed for weeks afterward, waiting for the next shots that never came.

 

The last time I was in town for supplies, I turned ‘round in the feed store to find Johnny Bishop, a barkeep at The Oyster, right behind me, along with three or four of the guys he runs with, none looking very happy to see me.

 

“Hey, Johnny, how’s that lame paint of yours?” I tried.

 

He and his friends started closing in, me stepping back until I hit up against the feed bags, when Carl, the boy who works there during the week, comes over worriedlike, saying he wants no trouble, Sheriff’s on the way.

 

Not too soon Sheriff Randall’s walking Johnny and his friends out the door, them protesting they was there to buy feed, wasn’t their fault they run into vermin.

 

“God be with you, Johnny,” I call out and Sheriff Randall whirls round with “would-you-just-shut-the-fuck-up-when-I’m-trying-to-keep-the-peace-here?”

 

***

 

Lord knows it’s not been easy up in these woods, and particularly since that trial. Nobody’s been willing to give us any benefit, none of us three. They think the acres of char ‘n’ ashes somehow or other justifies whatever happens to us, no matter how bad. They choke down stinking air that churns their guts, burns their eyes, and they don’t care what some judge said, don’t care that the court didn’t quite find us guilty. They see the sawmills down, the farmers and ranchers suffering, the tourist folk way behind, and they think they know better.

 

***

 

It was Samuel out cutting wood who first saw somebody on our part of the mountain last fall, right after the trial ended. Acting stealthylike, he said, a guy in a dark-brown cap, maybe another guy too. Not moving like a hunter or trapper, more like a stalker.

 

Just before the first hard snow Gill found 06 casings up on the east ridge above Ray’s and my cabin, not far from our makeshift shooting range. Casings from nothing we ever fired.

 

Then, not two weeks later, Gill’s waiting at daybreak behind a rock near there for a blue grouse he’s been salivating for, when somebody comes stepping heavy through the trees. Rearing up, Gill scares the wadding out of whoever it was, who took off runnin’, a brown cap on his head, but not before he dropped his gun—a short-barreled 06, one steel-jacketed handload still in the magazine.

 

Just like them shells Gill found.

 

Gill wraps that gun up in newspaper straightaway and gives it to me, ’cause he don’t want trouble if somebody comes looking for it. Under the sink skirt in our cabin it went. Behind the Ajax and sponges. Out of sight and out of mind.

 

***

 

A month later, during the worst cold spell of a winter we’ve had since coming to these mountains, Gill didn’t show up for our Friday-morning prayers. Sheriff said he couldn’t make any case but that Gill’d wandered out drunk and somehow fell in the dark against the corncrib, marking a real nasty knot on his head. Bad enough to knock him out till he froze to death, most likely. No fingerprints in that mess of a cabin he keeps. But drunk or sober, one or th’other, still no motive, no suspect, no case.

 

Now, Samuel and I wasn’t ever going to see it that way, and it sent us to our knees for days. Yes, Gill used to drink before he was converted, we all know that, but not a drop since then, not even during the depths of the trial. That next morning in his cabin, lying right out on the kitchen table, was his King James open to the Book of Job, a full kettle sitting on the burner. This is just not a drinking kind of picture here, we kept saying.

 

And the mess that’s there is not his usual mess, it’s a different one. Sure, stacks of newspapers and cabinet doors half open and dishes piled high. But in his bedroom there was all his drawers sitting on the floor and what clothes he had in the closet swept way back. Covers heaped high in the middle of the bed. A searching kind of mess.

 

Somebody’s after us,” Samuel sighed as we stepped from Gill’s dark cabin out into the bright winter sun, blinking away the cold, the screen door clacking brittle behind.

 

***

 

Just three weeks later, high on the east ridge straight above our cabin, Samuel was likely surveying the black trunks of dying yellow pine, black silhouetted against white drifts that must‘ve been up to his knees. Making his weekly tally of what was ready to cut.

 

The way the sheriff tells it, some trigger-happy kid hunting for what few things are out that time of year either missed bad or mistook Samuel and didn’t miss a’tall. Either way, the bullet went in one ear and clean out the other side, and no one’s been able to find a trace of it. A good-sized exiting hole, they got to admit, obviously too big for a plain rabbit-hunting .22. Most likely steel-jacketed, I’m thinking right away.

 

There’s no talking sense to the sheriff on this one. He’s questioning the Williams boys and the Hayward kid across the mountain and says he put out an inquiry over to McCall ’cause of some hunting death maybe connected, or that might at least give him a lead. I can’t tell if he’s serious or just covering his rear.

 

Ray and I are at the jailhouse nearly all day three days running. “The same one must have done both Gill and Samuel,” I keep saying.

 

“Well, if you’re talking about the Devil, then you are damn right,” Sheriff allows, leaning toward me, smelling strong of snuff, “but other than that, I don’t got no evidence at all.”

 

“Somebody’s missing an aught-six that Gill picked off of him,” I swear, choke-voiced, without volunteering where it is now.

 

Sheriff pulls himself up, sweeps his eyes over Bolt, then says, for no reason, “You ever put hardware in Ray’s lip, or anywhere else, I’ll haul you in so fast, your head ain’t never gonna stop spinning, you hear?”

 

The Apostle Paul says that we are marked for Christ, and, of course, Paul should know, him being the most marked there was. He learned the hard way that He Who raises us up can also bring us down. Thinking he was doing right, not knowing God was gonna set him straight by laying him low, Paul was knocked flat when he took off in the wrong direction—terror like scales sealing off his sight.

 

I send Ray in there by himself to talk to Sheriff Randall, seeing Sheriff’s so partial to him. “Tell him, Ray, that he’s gotta look for some guy packing steel-jacketed bullets.”

 

Ray comes out with a little carrot—if we find something steel-jacketed or anything else not from every kind of gun in these parts, maybe Sheriff’ll check into it.

 

So old Bolt and I start spending early evenings up on the east ridge, where Samuel went down—my heart stopping at every cracking twig—digging frozen hands and paws into the crusty snow. Till it ain’t light enough to do any good. Ray back at the cabin doing his homework, the lamp pulled close to his blond head, puzzling over ciphers.

 

Please, God, not him, I pray. Please, God, rather me.

 

I take to rereading the Book of Job, like Gill done. I can see why he was looking for comfort there—Job, Iyyobh, wrestling with the terrible majesty of the Almighty. The Sabaeans took all his oxen and horses, fire from heaven burned up all his sheep. Chaldaeans carried off his camels. Every one of his sons and daughters died in a wind so strong, it collapsed the whole house down. Still, Job prays, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then comes a whole bodyful of sores.

 

***

 

One afternoon in late winter Sheriff Randall walks right in our front door, his deputy in tow. I jump up from my reading, but Sheriff pushes me back down to the chair, saying he just wants to talk–he’s surveying the room, acting like he’s making little mental notes, sizing up my story.

 

I go straight through it all again. That night Gill died Ray and me was home the whole evening, studying the Bible—working our way through Genesis again. And we was both out, Ray to school, and me over to the mill, the morning Samuel went down.

“A shame Ray’s had to stomach all this dying,” Sheriff says when he finally turns to leave.

 

“The lot of God’s people, suffering,” I answer, and Sheriff starts muttering how most folks’d think Ray about got his belly full already, when he all of a sudden stops and turns, pointing at the single-shot .22 standing in the corner.

 

“Gill and Samuel and me all got the same one,” I tell him. “Bought them all the same day.”

 

“Strange,” he says, smiling back at the deputy and pulling down on his hat brim. “Didn’t find no twenty-two over at Gill’s. We’ll take this one off your hands for the time being.”

 

And the deputy picks up my gun as they walk out.

 

***

 

I wake the next morning feeling so down that I decide to devote the whole day to soup and Genesis, no milling to do anyway. Ray goes off in my parka, his old jacket barely big enough to cover him good anymore, and I watch from the window as he tramps down the gully and up the ridge toward school.

 

I remember one early morning, back during that trial, when we was all getting up from our prayers, readying ourselves to face the courtroom again, Gill says half to himself, as he’s brushing bits of carpet off his shiny pant legs, that he has to believe in his heart all our troubles is from the Lord staying His hand and not from Him raising it. Or he don’t think he could keep going.

 

But in his eyes was a question.

 

The afternoon sun starts to get a little low, and Bolt scratches hard to be let out, then heads up in a snowy shamble to the east ridge to wait for Ray. I eventually stop at the part in Genesis where Abraham binds up his only son, lays him on kindling, and puts a knife to the boy’s throat. Out the window I see Bolt still up there on the ridge, waiting.

 

What on earth is taking that boy so long?

 

Then, as God would have it, way up off from the left comes Ray, all bundled up in my blue parka with the hood pulled up against the cold. Just a boy, I’m always thinking, but with him out there in my jacket, I can see plain as day he’s become a man.

 

Bolt sets to vigorous barking, then turns tail and runs like fury away from Ray, off toward our shell-hunting place, digging for all he’s worth. Ray snowjumps after him, squats down to eyeball whatever Bolt thinks he’s found, stirs the snow a little, cuffs the dog’s head, then they both come marching, two bulky splotches, one twice as tall as the other and blue, from the ridge down toward our cabin.

 

I’m starting to turn back to Genesis, when, among the trees and chokecherries clustered at the bottom of the ridge, I see the setting sun brighten on a brownish cap—on somebody looking up, like me, at the two descending: Ray’s right hand cupped over his eyes to shield against the sun, him and Bolt high-stepping down through the snow.

 

My legs quivering, I am halfway to my knees, gasping, “Not my will but Thine be done,” like our Savior bent double in Gethsemane.

 

Bolt leaps ahead, chasing after some cottontail, veers off, then stops, his nose in the air for an instant, before he turns, slow-galloping back toward Ray.

 

I see the brown cap rising and then, alongside of it, a sun-sparkled barrel, a rabbit-hunting barrel like Gill’s and Samuel’s and mine, pointing at Ray.

 

Bolt suddenly stops, turns toward us below, sniffing into the wind, his nose better than eyes in this glare, and just as the report ricochets ‘round me, he leaps out toward the scent, barking first, then yelping when he catches it in the side, that mark in his muzzle of God Almighty’s awful power flashing in the sunlight as he falls.

 

I know exactly how long it takes to reload that .22, dropping the barrel while you lift the bolt and pull it toward you, the spent cartridge ejecting and the new shell falling in place with a catching metal sound that says it’s ready to go again. About the same time it takes to dive under the sink, scattering the Ajax and sponges, feel for the 06, and, in one long swoop, run out the door, peeling off newspaper, leveling the barrel on your forearm as you go.

 

All the while I’m calculating it’s almost a hundred yards to the brown-capped shooter, then from him to Ray more than 80 yards again. Him with a .22 that’s gonna be pretty slow and not so accurate. Though it got Bolt easy enough. But God willing, I’ve got both accuracy and speed.

 

Ray is standing startled in the snow, Bolt below him in a heap. He knows that, in a hunting situation, if somebody’s shooting at you, you jump round wild, wave your arms. But whether on account of old Bolt or this whole fearsome mess, Ray’s standing stock still, not moving an inch, staring straight out toward the shooter and me.

 

The barrel below is being raised again.

 

Where are the miracles God’s capable of? Where is the great collapse of Jericho, the devastation of evil Sodom? Where is the rising up like Paul from the near dead or Lazarus from the truly dead? Where is that saving Lord?

 

Or is this the Jehovah who stood by during Job’s scourge of sorrows, and again while His only Son was bolted to a cross—hands, feet, and side run through hard, head tilted upward, wearied from all that pleading for the pain to end?

 

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

 

Only one shot in the chamber, and all I can see in my crosshairs, through the thick of the brush and pine, is the .22 barrel, the slightest edge of a brown cap settling on to the sights.

 

Only one shot.

 

Thou shall not kill.

 

I raise my aim up the hill toward Ray, trying for his leg—not so low down as will likely miss, not so high up as will cut him in two. The other bullet will be going 900 feet a second, while mine’s at three times that. Praying to drop Ray down. For at worse a shattered leg, a steel pin for life.

 

The just shall live by faith.

 

Then I pull the trigger.

 

The recoil of the 06 kicks back hard, wallops me fierce against the side of the cabin.

 

Within a breath I hear the report of the .22.

 

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

 

The sun sets in an instant, and the air turns sudden icy gray. The brown cap pops up and pivots ‘round, facing back toward me and the fading light.

 

I pull myself up, my shoulder throbbing, and start moving, searching for the blue spot that is Ray fallen down, hoping for those little clouds of breath. Hugging that 06 in my arms, I lift one trembling leg after the other, wobbling first, then crashing through the icy brush, slipping down into the gully, working my way up the other side, sliding in the slush, my eyes on the ridge.

 

As I get closer I can start to make out what’s on the face of that brown-capped shooter: it’s bald fear on his face—a big, wide fear that makes him throw one arm out as he fast swivels first up toward Ray, then back again toward me, his cap meanwhiles flying off sideways.

 

And even through the dense of the brush and woods, with the gray settling in deep all ‘round and me slow-motion thrashing my way up to Ray, I can make out exactly what kind of fear’s there on Sheriff Randall’s face.

 

The kind I know so well.

 

 

——————–

A graduate of Swarthmore College, I earned my J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, and am currently the founder and principal consultant at Law People Management LLC.  I served as associate editor of Whetstone for several years, and my short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cadillac Cicatrix, The Ledge, Quiddity, The Southampton Review and Willard & Maple. I am also at work on a novel entitled The Evolution of Certainty about a Victorian trial. My non-literary work has garnered several awards and has been featured on LawPeopleBlog.com, a widely respected resource in the legal world.