The Last Messiah & The Eater Of The Sun: Chapter One

The man stood triumphantly over the obsidian pit. Sun at his back, wind in his hair, calloused hands at tapered waist, smile on stolid lips. He cast azure eyes to the excavation site below, where dozens of men, young and old, scurried and strained, muscles and machines, against the ancient mineral striations. Slow yielding its hidden treasures to the burrowers’ strident increase. Mineral flakes flew in sparking showers as heavy, creaking carts of wood and metal were dragged up the rough, winding path from the bottom of the great, stony recess, to be dumped in the sorting house some sixty yards distant. The azure-eyed watcher withdrew a pack of hand-rolled cigarettes, took one of the crisp cylinders in his mouth, struck a match against scuffed leather belt and lit the end. He took a drag as a wiry old man sided up, skin red, lined, raw and smeared with grime.

“Mr. Reiter.”

“What is it Walden?”

“There’s someone asking after ya.”

“Who?”

“Dunno. Mangy fella. Came out of nowhere.”

“What does he want?”

“Says he wants to talk to whoever’s in charge. Said its important.”

The smoker turned to the man, mildly intrigued.

“Where is he?”

Walden pointed behind him to a distant figure who stood the edge of the shanty where the workers put up, starring at a flock of turkey vultures moving to the east. Reiter tapped ash from his cigarette and studied the interloper; the man’s hair was long and untamed, clothes torn and stained, feet bare, coffee colored eyes potent with sadness. Reiter didn’t like the look of him.

“He just showed up alone?”

“Yep. I don’t think he’s well. Keeps muttering to hisself. Might be he came from them folk over the ridge. Could be he was trapping, like Jennings used to.”

“Unlikely.”

“Why’s that?”

“The ridgefolk have a penchant for spearing unwanted guests. They’re primitives. The primitive man doesn’t understand the principle of causality. Doesn’t grasp that the world is governed by rules, and that, to the extent a man may understand them, he may rule in like fashion. So, to them, every natural phenomenon is as an effervescent mystery. Every thunderclap, a warning. Every bird song, a sign. Every outsider, a demon. Well. Suppose I should see what he’s after.” Reiter jerked his head toward the mine. The elder nodded and moved to the edge and started barking orders to the men far below as the smoker strolled toward the distant visitor across the grassless, silt-strewn expanse. Reiter stopped several paces before the interloper and gestured toward him with the cigarette.

“Heard you were looking for me.”

“You are the leader of these men?”

He nodded and extended his left hand, “I’m Wisent Reiter. What can I do for you?”

The stranger ignored the gesture, “You dig for metal?”

Wisent lowered his hand and nodded, “Yes.”

“To what end?”

“Printing presses. I build them. Good to be one’s own supplier.”

“Words fly freely in speech. You cage them in wood and steel. You’re a word trapper.”

“If that’s the way you want to put it.”

“Is that the mine, over there?”

“The excavation site. Yes.”

“May I see it?”

“Certainly, just mind your step, we haven’t gotten around to putting up railing. So what can I do for you? Looking for work, or to buy?”

The two men began walking over the alluvium to the great artificial recess as the wind picked up and tossed their hair about tree-splayed sunbeams.

“I don’t want anything.”

“Everyone wants something.”

“A man like you would say a thing like that.”

“Meaning?”

“You sup the marrow of god.”

Wisent shot the man a look of perplexity and took a long drag on the cigarette before speaking again.

“You’re referring to the mine?”

“I’m referring to everything you do.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I know you.”

“I bought the land.”

“And that gives you a right to desecrate it?”

“Desecrate? Repurposing. I’d say. Improving. Mine’s not so different than a meteor crater. There’s a deep one, fifty miles off. Geologists say its over five hundred thousand years old. Older than our species,” He pointed to the tangled woods to the north-west. The stranger followed his gesticulation and shook his head.

“A stone cannot decide. Cannot claim. Nor replicate its designation. You can claim as much land as you like, in the end, it will claim you.”

“Uh huh. Alright. You have a name?”

“Names are like birds. They come and go.”

“Mine doesn’t.”

“Oh?”

“As you said, I’m a word trapper.”

The stranger smiled sadly.

“I didn’t mean it as a compliment.”

“I’ll take it as one all the same.” Wisent wiped his brow with the back of his hand, “So. No wants, no name. Just traveled all the way out here to chastise me for digging?”

“No. For not walking the path swiftly enough.”

The man moved past Wisent, toward the pit, as if drawn by some power not his own. His mournful eyes widening with queer intensity.

“What path? Hey. Mind where you step. Edge is brittle. Liable to give way you put too much pressure on it.”

The stranger stood the edge of the abyss and watched the men churn the depths.

“When he arrives, your eyes will open.”

“When who arrives?”

“You’ll see.”

Without hesitation, the man flung himself from the edge of precipice. Daniel cursed, impulsively, vainly rushing forward. Wiscent dropped his cigarette. Stunned. Both men stood rooted to shade as a thud emanated from the chasm, swiftly followed by a cacophony of distress, damped by distance and the digression of the clouding sky.

“Dear god.”

“He’s dead.”

“Who is he?”

“Dunno.”

“I can see bone.”

“Lord in heaven.”

“Someone get the boss.”

Wisent straightened, shook his head and moved to the edge of the artificial cavity and peered down to behold the stranger’s mangled form. The man’s skull was splayed like a distended watermelon across the uneven granite rhyolite at the base of the shaft, left arm nearly severed by the impact of the fall, strung on glistening tendons, a monstrous marinette.

“What the hell.” Daniel softly exclaimed, crouching beside his superior, peering into the gray-brown ravine to satisfy himself as to the reality of the situation. “Why would someone do that?”

He shook his head somberly and rose with a sigh.

“Tell them to bring the body up.”

*

The Premier: Chapter 1

A bird cawed in the distance, saurian sound rising above the rutted, frost-wracked plain as the lone traveler moved down the faded raw-heeled road toward the growing smog-shrouded municipality where emanated a clangorous din. The man shouldered a heavy pack and wore a faded formless hat, heavy cloth breeches, scuffed riding boots, thin leather gloves, well abraded, a plain buff coat and a thick cloak which he pulled tight about his throat to gird against the chill, head tilting towards the azure dysphonia, voided by the howling gale which roiled from the jagged mountains that loomed in the east. The peaks went red by the light of variegated fireworks that burst above the slanted, patchy rooftops, like the teeth of a carnivorous god, the cacophony freeing a flock of crows from the tangled masonry that fled to the thermals and vanished into the vacillating brachial maze that scrapped the western sky.

When the wayfarer reached the city gates, he paused before the portal of the wall that ran the length of the settlement, whereat a stocky, wool-garbed man worked methodically, pulling nails from the old welcome sign with a battered hammer. Before stepping onto the ancient, heel-worn cobblestones, the itinerant stomped the snow off his boots as one might before entering a house and turned to the worker, tone polite.

“Pardon me, sir.”

“Hm?”

“Why are you removing that sign?”

The worker sprung the right side of the sign, which read “Kern Township,” turned and ran a hand through a small tuft of shellaced hair that girded a bulbous pate, crumpled cigarette dangling from dry, thin lips which drooped to a dour, shallow crescent.

“Because Kern no longer exists.”

The traveler spread his hands toward the urban sprawl, “What then is this, man?”

“Whatever you make of it.”

The traveler furrowed his brow and slowly left off as the worker returned to his nail prying. Prismatic fireworks continued to burst overhead as the traveler moved down the snowy, thinly populated street, breath steaming to frigid air, blue eyes like hungry spots of sky absorbing all. Snow-prints littering the passage bespoke considerable agitation. After a few minutes he came upon a buzzing crowd of drab-garbed men with jubilant expressions, they swilled bottles of wine and hugged one another. Some cried. One of the cadres number, a fit youth, spotted the traveler and raised his bottle in greetings as a harried boy careened left across the road towards an old watch shop. The traveler stopped the boy and gestured to the crowd.

“What’s going on?”

“The Premier is dead.”

“What happened?”

“You come away from him. Git ere boy. Police are coming. Git ere,” a hoarse voice intruded brusquely. The traveler followed the sound to the door of the shop where a middle aged man stood the doorway, visage lined with concern. A posture which bespoke deep animal fear. The boy’s eyes went wide and he did as bid, dashing across the wide, slushed-shorn cobblestones and vanishing into the store, leaving the mantled rover alone once more. Whereafter the victorious throng parted suddenly with shouts of agitation, making way for a horse-drawn carriage, empty of passengers. The man hailed the vehicle and slowed to a stop; the driver, a thin man with a disdainful air, leaned toward the querious obstructor expectantly.

“What’s the going rate?”

“I’m headed home. Can’t get anywhere swift with this lot. All this damned commotion.”

The rover produced a gold coin and held it up before the cabbie.

“I’m not in a hurry. Take me to Barstow Manor and this is yours.”

He shook his head, “I don’t like it. Not tonight. Too close to the presidential palace. Haven’t you heard?”

“I heard.”

“Then, unless you’ve the brains of one of those plains savages, you can induce the danger.”

The traveler produced another coin, holding them up dexterously between his fingers as might a magician before a trick. A glint came into the driver’s eyes.

“One now. One when you get me there.”

“Aye sir that’ll do it.”

The cabbie gestured for the itinerant to enter. When all was set the thin man took the reins and turned full about and slowly made his way through the jostling throng who swirled about the carriage likes ants before a lion.

For twenty minutes the carriage wound through labyrinthine corridors of stucco and timber, red clay tiles and limestone, some filled with revelers migrating from one building to the next, most vacant. Barstow Manor stood the north-western side of town, a tall, square basalt monstrosity, perched on piers, as if built for a tide that had never come.

“That’s the one,” the traveler called out, pointing toward the imposing black house.

The cabbie halted before the designated facade, whereafter the rider disembarked and flipped the driver the second coin. The former passenger then tipped his cap and turned toward the house but the cabbies voice restrained him.

“Might I know your name, sir?”

The wayfarer turned and smiled slightly, “You’ll hear it soon enough.”

Kryos: Chapter 17

Previous chapter

A storm echoed in the north beyond Consortium Hall. Luminous blue arcs scraping gloaming sky. Inside the structure, harsh ringed ceiling lights illuminated the work-worn face of an officious man seated at a wide kalsomined table. The ring-lights flickered erratically as a immaculate figure entered the room. The obsidian-garbed entrant strode methodically toward the table, regarding its occupant keenly with piercing ichorous eyes.

“Oversecretary Gild.”

Ermin Gild straightened in his chair as rain pelted the thick panes of the conference chamber. He pursed his thin lips as the lights returned and gestured to them queriously with his right hand as his left thrummed rhythmically upon the sleeved-smoothed tabletop.

“Mr. Kryos. That from the, ah… what do you call it again? TeleSomA?”

Kryos nodded nearly imperceptibly.

Gild forced a smile. “Well, I appreciate you meeting me on such short notice. And in person, or a close enough approximation. The Chancellor would have come herself were it not for the forthcoming election.”

Kryos folded his hands behind his back and looked toward the empyrean fulminations visible beyond the thick floor to ceiling window-pane.

“No is my answer.”

Ermin Gild furrowed his brow at the smooth resolved declaration, his left hand tapping more rapidly on polished polymer.

“I’ve yet to ask a question.”

Kryos said nothing and turned his back to the speaker seated at the small circular conference table, observing a carbon sculpture that stood the far right corner, which one of the aids had recently convinced Gild to have installed to “liven up the room.”

“Its quite chintz, don’t you think?”

“In execution, not in concept.”

“I didn’t realize there was a concept.”

“A blind man would say as much of a color.”

Gild frowned, left hand tapping faster. He cleared his throat before speaking again.

“Syzr needs to be brought in. We’re gonna charge him with a minor offense, keep that from the public. Wait for the heat to die down and release him, quietly. Comments need to be made to the press. The Chancellor would like your cooperation. We can set this right, but you or Straker are gonna have to make a statement. An official statement. Tell them it was horrible, you’re taking active measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, that you’re restructuring. Retraining. Say something maudlin about poverty and crime, they like that sort of thing.”

“You want me defame one of my own to placate savages,” Kryos ran his right hand gingerly along the contours of the dark sculpture.

“That’s public relations.”

“I decline.”

“You don’t seem interested in ameliorating this situation.”

“Not in the way The Chancellor desires.”

“The media is firestorming this. They’ll be more protests. Boycotts. Riots. Rumors. Investigations. I know how keen you are to see your Starglaive Freighter launch. Why jeopardize that?”

“Is that the root of your nervousness? Whether or not my ship launches successfully?”

“You may not believe it, but I’m looking forward to it. The first completely self-sustaining spaceship in human history. If anyone ought to be nervous, its you.”

“You tap your fingers when you’re agitated. As an overwrought woman might bite her nails.”

Gild ceased his rapping and folded his digits into a fist.

“Look. It won’t dent your revenues. You can replace Syzr for the duration of his detention, surely. This is good for all of us. Why are you taking such a hard line?”

“Revenue and reputation are paltry currency to the cosmos.”

Gild leaned back in his chair, brows compressed by perplexity. Knuckles clacking on the table.

“If there is nothing more to discuss, I will be going.”

The man’s form began to distort, quivering like the surface of a pond disturbed.

“Wait. Just a moment.”

Kryos observed the man over his shoulder placidly. His form stabilizing. Gild pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and index and sighed, closed his eyes, opened them and turned to the affin module built into the table. He pressed the touchpad below the viewing panel.

“Cynthia, bring me a seltzer when you have moment.”

A small thumbs-up icon appeared in response. He found that strange. She had never used emoticons before. Must be the influence of her kid, he thought flippantly. He drew his hand from the control panel and leaned back in his seat, stifling a heavy sigh.

“What we desire is seldom what is required,” Kryos declared resolutely, still observing the statue intently.

Gild cocked his head as a middle aged woman with short, dark hair entered the room, carrying a drink on a tray. She smiled pleasantly and approached the ring-shaped table, which retracted such that the server could pass to the middle of it, whereafter she set Gild’s drink down before him.

“Your seltzer, Sir.”

“Thanks.”

Gild paused, looked to the drink and back to the bland-faced woman, brows knitting faintly. He’d never seen her before.

“Where’s Cynthia?”

“Wasn’t feeling good. She asked me if I could bring it to you.”

“Oh, I see. How dreadful.”

“Her son must be wearing her out,” Kryos interjected without turning.

The server nodded, smiled, “That must be it, Sir.”

Kryos looked over his shoulder to Gild, whose dark eyes were now severe and full of concern, then to the woman.

“Cynthia doesn’t have a son.”

As Gild opened his mouth to issue a query, the woman withdrew a cutter from beneath her overcoat and discharged the device into him. As Gild tumbled over in his chair, writhing in shock and agony, she whirled upon Kryos, the weapon levelled at his head.

The man turned full around and fixed her in his xanthous gaze, as a entomologist might observe a newly discovered species. His posture confident and relaxed. The woman smirked and tightened her grip on the cutter, which began to hum, prelude to discharge.

“G’night Mr. Kryos.”

The next instant there came a resounding crack as the assailant fired a pulse into Kryos’ left eye. His head jerked backward, a neat, perfectly symmetrical hole through it. The woman’s smile widened. She waited for the body to fall. Her grin dissipated when it didn’t. Kryos inclined his head until his right eye was level with his foe. Left eye replaced by a charred hole which fizzed and slowly closed upon itself. The particulates comprising his vessel regrouping. Kryos took a step forward as the woman mouthed incredulity.

“What is this?”

The woman raised her cutter once more and fired two more charges into Kryos’ chest. The blasts barely slowed him down. He neither bled, winced or cried and continued striding evenly toward the waylayer as she gasped and spun, dashing for the exit. The woman’s egress was obstructed by an emergency shield door which descended from the ceiling over the sole doorway. She whipped round to see Ermin Gild, struggling unsteadily to his feet, a hole through his left shoulder, his right hand upon his desk-bound control module, his eyes filled with rage. The woman raised the cutter at him, prompting a wince, then pointed it towards Kryos, who continued his languid approach.

“Open the door or I fire. You hear me. Stay back.”

“Cutters can fire four times on a single charge. You’ve neither a recharger nor time to use it.”

He took another step forward, the woman’s handheld weapon nearly flush with his chest.

“Put that ridiculous thing away.”

The woman’s body trembled as she lowered the weapon. Knowing neither fight nor flight was afforded her. Kryos leaned toward the woman until his eyes were level with her own, his bloodless face serene.

“You have given me the gift of trust. For that, I am truly grateful.”

The woman tensed and drew away, bumping up against the shield door.

“My gratitude would be bolstered by names.”

“I don’t have any. They contacted me anonymously.”

“Ever since I was a child, I delighted in dissection. Absolute understanding of mundane composition affords the possibility of absolute supersession. Of contemporaneous artificial constraints. Or, the frailties of mammalian biology.”

“I don’t know anything.”

The shield door opened, revealing a troop of red clothed Vekt Corp security men.

“Hands in the air! Now!”

“What shall it be, life in a cell, or the end of it here?” Kryos inquired softly.

The woman tearfully met her target’s gaze and drew a blade from a hidden sheath strapped beneath her coat and rushed the closest guard. He fired his cutter and took off half her face. Rheum spattered the ceiling. The woman’s body dropped to the floor, lifeless, leaking red.

“Damnit Captain,” Gild erupted, “We needed her.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t have a choice. Are you alright?”

“I have a HOLE in my SHOULDER.”

“Does it hurt, sir?”

Gild glared and opened his mouth, a curse poised on his lips, cut off by the Captain.

“I’m sorry, sir. A medic will be up shortly.”

Gild inclined his head in approval and sat down heavily in the chair adjacent his former one which had been overturned in the scuffle as the guards dragged the body out of the room. As the door closed behind the cadaver and the men who carried it, Kryos approached the table. After several seconds of leaden silence Gild, fighting back tears of pain and dread, looked to the projection.

“What’d you mean, she’d given you a gift?”

“The only people outside of my company aware of TeleSomA are you and the members of the board. This facility requires secretary clearance, which means-“

Gild’s eyes went wide.

“It was one of the under secretaries.”

Kryos looked toward the small hole in his companion’s shoulder and then toward the storm breaking in the distance.

“Someone within the Consortium wants me dead. Make sure to keep this matter in-house. Tell no one.”

The injured man ground his teeth and downed his alcohol spiked seltzer, “What? No. We need to tell the board. The Security Commission. Do you want them to try the same trick again?”

“To kill a wolf, do not hunt it down, bury a blade in the snow and salt it with blood.”

Road Story

by Dan Patterson

Wilmington North Carolina and Warner Robbins Georgia are 422 miles apart, and it was that much blacktop and at least two family branches that separated William Reuben Lewis and Kenneth Reuben Wilson. Their shared middle names were from a common ancestor dead and buried in Louisiana in 1867, their mothers chose the name decades apart after looking through Bibles and family albums; they wanted to get away from the Stephens, Kevins, Jameses, and Richards all around them. And because the name had a certain something about it, maybe it was a romance and mystery about the tintypes with expressionless faces from the family archives that appealed to each woman’s sense of adventure. Maybe it was the old fashioned sound of it. Whatever it was neither man ever met another Reuben though William would be only 19 in December, Kenneth was 60 this past June. 

The two had met without knowing at a wedding in Charlotte when Kenneth was not yet 40 and William had yet to take his first step; William couldn’t have remembered anything and Kenneth couldn’t even remember who got married but he did remember the bridesmaid that blushed and smiled when she caught him staring at her. And how hot it was standing around waiting for the photographs, and then more waiting in the heat and tight suits so they could all pretend everyone would be happy for ever after and throw rice at the couple when they ran to the getaway car. Another wedding or two and a couple of funerals over the years brought pieces of the family together here and there, toddlers became school kids and everyone got a little older then a lot older and their paths sort of mingled in those crowds but not so they would remember. 

Warner Robbins 

The time in the morning was the best, alone and quiet. Sandra wasn’t such a sound sleeper so him and the dog Sammy had a good routine worked out, rain or shine. It had gotten so that his body clock woke him up around three every morning and he used to lie there with his eyes closed and pretend to sleep but what was the point of that? And for the past year or better he’d been sleeping in the guest room to keep from disturbing her. “You snore,” she’d said. “Yeah, you do too,” he thought, but didn’t press it. So the guest room it was. Better that way anyhow.

He’d get up quietly and the dog would sneak in to the kitchen with him, they’d go outside and do some business, check the weather, sniff around the yard a little, then go in for breakfast. On days when the mood struck him, the two of them would go to the small shop behind the garage and work on a motorcycle or lawn mower for a neighbor or friend before getting ready for work. The shop started as a place to park his bike when they moved in, what, fifteen years ago now? They had just gotten married a year before and Sandra got full custody of her son just after that so they needed more room. His first wife had a kid, too but that all fell apart before they needed to adjust. When they first started dating, Sandra was all about riding with him on the Road King, she even started wearing biker chick clothes when they rode that showed off her figure and didn’t mind him taking curves a little fast and getting on it pretty good from a stop light. Things slowed down some as her son Jessie got older and they spent time at sports and school events with him but they still made time to take trips, dinners with friends, maybe a trip to the beach or mountains here and there. Then the economy took a dump when the big shots tripped over their scams, of course none of those guys took it in the shorts but it hit people like them hard. He was laid off and took on odd jobs and did mechanic work in his shop for over a year, Sandra went back to work managing a doctor’s office. And all that changed things. Or maybe it was just them getting older but the days all ran together, all they talked about was how to pay bills and what was going to happen next. She got rid of all her fun clothes, he sold the Road King, Jessie’s work went bankrupt and his girlfriend broke up with him so he moved back in with them and that made for a crowd. Sandra would wake up mad and the day usually didn’t improve from there, and she lost interest in most everything. Like all that was his fault.

The world gradually improved and some things got back on track. He got on at a Northrop in the machine shop, Jessie found a job in Savannah and Sandra went to part time at the doctor’s office. The days were not all dreadful and there was some time for fun again, but not like it was. He found a good deal on a BMW road bike but she turned her nose up at it so he sold it for what he paid for it. A buddy had a Moto Guzzi 750 he’d sell so they made a deal on it. Italian Red with black leather and it looked killer, plus it was lighter and easier to handle than the Road King and with getting older that was another plus. A good list of aftermarket pieces let him add some personal touches, a touring seat and small windscreen made it a better road bike. He’d done all the maintenance on it for his friend so he knew the bike inside and out, and it felt great to have a bike of his own in the shop again. He’d tried his best and at this point Sandra could like it or not like it.

“One of the girls at work invited me to do yoga at the Y,” Sandra said while she was rinsing squash in the sink one Friday. “I was thinking about doing some workout stuff, you know,” and she let it trail off.

“Baby that sounds like a good idea,” he said. “Not that you need it or anything.” 
“Oh, you. Go on now,” and she tossed the end of a squash at him. It hit the floor and Sammy snarfed it up. She had been a little playful now and then lately, sort of like the old days.

“I should get with some kind of program myself, eat better, you know? Lift some weights, get back in better shape. I stepped on the scales at work and I’m a few pounds more than I need to be. And you know the babes don’t dig on old men with beer bellies, or do they?”

“No they don’t and you’re more than a few pounds over dearie,” she said but she smiled. 
But she was right. After he’d gotten out of the Army he’d stayed pretty much in shape; they’d both quit smoking long ago and didn’t do anything out of reason, but time does take its toll so some changes were way overdue. So he started a weight routine at a gym, was careful about what he ate, got better definition and added some muscle, and took a notch then two then three in his belt. Sandra did yoga at the Y, workout sessions three or four times a week, spent some time on a tanning bed. And then a new haircut, changed her makeup, bought some new clothes and it was damn, girl.

So things got a little better between them and they didn’t talk about it but it seemed like they were sort of getting back on the same page maybe, more or less. About a year later at work the supervisors called his group together and talked about the coming changes for the industry and how they had to adapt. 
 
The next day he had an email to report to Associate Relations for a meeting and was given the option of separating with a package, or an immediate reduction in pay and benefits. The writing was on the wall for employees his age, the next step would be a reorganization, or outsourcing, or merger, or some back room deal and then he would be patting the streets again. But only after he’d trained his replacement and it was expected he’d smile the whole time. He took the deal. Since he’d gotten out of the Army there had been several of these shuffles and re-stacks at different companies and none of them worked out. So here he was faced with this shit sandwich again, too young to retire and too old to be the new guy with some big company. So instead of stewing about it he decided to take some days off to update his resume and start talking to people out there and see what he could dig up. Rumors were going around a few months ago and he’d brought it up with Sandra but she reacted like she’d stepped on a snake. So he just went about his usual morning routine and didn’t say anything about the meeting at work or taking some time off, not yet. He’d get a plan together first and then they could talk about it. He went on as usual and left like he normally did, but then drove over to Print and Go to make copies on good paper and get some help with making on line applications. All that went well and he made copies and transferred the file to a thumb drive, now he felt better about it, like he was doing the right thing trying to get in front of all of it and be prepared. The folder with copies and cover letters went on the front seat and he was on the way to an independent garage east of town, they had referred each other some work in the past and that seemed like a good place to start.

A news report came blaring on the radio about layoffs at work and budget cuts and how cutbacks were being made immediately across the board. Damned if it didn’t sound a lot worse than the company made it out to be. Some young guy was interviewing people at the plant; he bent over a little to listen better and took his eyes off the road for a half second, but that was enough for the guy in front of him to jam on his brakes at a stop light. He hit the brakes hard enough for the anti-skid to rattle and barely missed eating the rear-end of a box truck. “That’s what not paying attention will get you, dumbass,” he said to himself. The quick stop caused the file folder to hit the floorboard, so he bent over to gather all that together and kept lecturing himself about the near miss. When he raised up a few cars were stacking up at the light in the left lane and a new yellow ‘Vette convertible with the top down rolled by slowly and stopped with the door even with his mirror. Sandra was in the passenger seat talking and laughing with the driver not five feet away but she hadn’t seen him. Before that completely registered the driver leaned over for a kiss with his hand on her neck. A deep passionate moment between the two, a romantic connection and not a new one.

His mouth went dry and his heart stopped for a beat. Just then the light changed and the ‘Vette blasted away so he turned right and pulled into a convenience store parking lot. What did he just see, anyway? A hundred scenes played in his head looking for clues, but it was no use and all he had after twenty minutes was a headache and more questions. And he had to pee and right now. So he walked like he was under water past the gas pumps into the store and made for the men’s room with the weight of what he’d just seen dragging behind him like a sled. 

Wilmington 

“Time to get going or you’re going to be late again,” his mom yelled at him from down the hall. A quick look in the mirror as he rushed by, his hair was just right.

“Yeah, I’m out of here. Bye,” and he hit the door to the carport and walked a few steps to the old Toyota he shared with his older sister. It turned over but barely and caught, blowing a plume of blue oil smoke, and late or not it had to warm up a minute or the transmission would slip. So that forced a little wait before he could go to the first day of his last month at John Hoggard High, not that he was in a hurry. Since Friday afternoon there had been a change in the air at school, it was like everyone was just waiting to go on vacation; the future was out there somewhere but fun came before that, they deserved it. There was more than a little excitement in his stomach this morning, but not about school. Shannon Miles said she’d love to meet for lunch. Finally! They had been flirting and talking on the phone for months, but not able to make a date for one reason or another. Shannon was in the drama club, dance team, orchestra, and debate team and their classes were mostly on different ends of the building but they talked on the phone almost every day. They had been friends since 6th grade and she had gone from regular girl to heart-stopping gorgeous after their sophomore year, and since then he’d been slowly cultivating their friendship building it toward something special.

He’d rather ride his motorcycle but Shannon might want to a skip classes and take a ride over to Wrightsville or Airlie Gardens with him after lunch. He checked the back floorboard for the little gift bag and card he’d stashed; it had a flash drive of some very cool music they’d talked about and pair of blown glass earrings with a bracelet that had some of the same colors. Nothing too personal for the first date but still nice. The card was dark green thick artisan paper, a blank writing sheet was inside and a feather lacquered on a thin diamond shaped piece of black walnut on the front. He’d written “First Date” and signed and dated it and put it carefully in the bag.

He didn’t have trouble finding a parking spot because about half the senior class was missing in action that morning. Shannon’s car wasn’t in the lot so he just left the note he’d written to put under her wiper, “See you at ‘leven,” in his backpack. He talked with the advisors about some of those plans for next year that just couldn’t seem to gel and about getting some ideas together for an alternative of some sort to college. Nothing came of it except best wishes, good luck, etc. so he filed all that in the forget-it folder in his head. What he secretly planned was to ask Shannon one more time, directly and no more dancing around it, what she’d decided on for next year. Then he could get in to a school there, maybe it would take a year at a community college first but it’d be worth it to be close; she had said several times she hadn’t made up her mind but she was always on the honor roll and was in all the college prep classes so she had to have some kind of idea. “I’m just not really sure yet, you know?” she’d say then change the subject. But time was running out so today he’d make a stand and get to the bottom of it. But while he was walking down the hall a thought just dawned on him out of the blue. “Maybe she’s going to stay in town and go to UNC-W. She doesn’t want to talk about it so that group of girls she hangs with can’t look down on her because she stayed home instead of going off on some wild party adventure. Save money and stay close to family and friends. She’s level headed like that and that’s one of the reasons she was just so adorable. Now it makes sense, she probably got accepted early in the year and just kept it to herself. That’s why she doesn’t want to talk about it.” He thought about it for a minute and felt himself relax inside and smiled a little. He’d been bothered that she wouldn’t tell him about her plans but now that he’d figured it out his next steps suddenly became simpler, too.

The rest of the morning was nothing much but he did finish a last paper for English class and then skipped out for the rest of the day. It was a hot and humid morning and sweat came through his good shirt by the time he got to the car, and it had to be over a hundred inside that old thing. “At least the AC works,” he thought and left the door open while the AC did its thing for a few minutes. No message from Shannon so far when he checked his phone and that was good because she had not cancelled this time. So he closed his eyes and let the cool air blow on him as the coming date took shape in his mind. The butterflies came again and he took a breath and held it for a little bit like his mom taught him when he was in first grade. He’d get to Big Robbie’s a little early and get a booth to avoid the crowd, tell the waitress he’s waiting on someone. Water with lemon and a straw for her but she could get something besides water if she wanted. He would sit with his back to the door so he didn’t look anxious, wait for her to see him and play it a little casual, but where he planned to sit you could see the door in the reflection of the menu board above the counter. The gift bag would be either on the floor or beside him, kind of hidden and he would give it to her after she got settled. Don’t want to come across pushy so he’d practiced what he would say as he handed it to her. “You have a birthday coming up,” or “Christmas in May,” something like that but it had to come across smooth and natural so he decided on “I saw this and thought of you.” That was good, thoughtful but not too much.

Big Robbie’s was a little busier than usual this early and the booth he wanted was taken. The next best one put him with his side to the door, not what he pictured but workable. He sat so he could see the cars come in and keep an eye out for her. The waitress brought the water and a little dish of cut lemons, and put two straws down.

“You want to order now or are you gonna wait?” 

“No, I’ll wait. Thanks.” 

“OK hon. I’ll check on you inna few. You want something else to drink or anything?” 

“No I’m good for now. Thanks.”

“Awright.”

It was a little after eleven. He took another deep breath and held it, checked the phone again. Then it was 10 after and then 12 after and the waitress had been by a few times checking on him. Maybe she had changed her mind again, but he tried to put that thought out of his head. A bright red 4Runner drove by and whipped in beside a van, not in a parking spot and too close for the passenger door to open. It backed up a few feet and he went back to his phone to try and calm those butterflies. A gamer he competed against on line had sent a text so he answered that and when he looked up Shannon was standing beside him.

“Heyyyyy. Sorry we’re late! God this place is BUSY today.” She looked like a model. 

“Hey! No we’re not late, we said eleven and I got here in time to get us a booth,” he said and stood and gestured at the booth. Her eyes caught on the gift bag for the briefest of eyeblinks.

“Oh, but we can’t stay.” 

“Oh really? Where are we going?” he started to say but she interrupted. A tall athletic man stepped beside her and she said, “Jarod this is my sweet sweet friend William that I told you about,” and she had the same look on her face you’d have looking at a puppy.

“Hey man. Nice to meet you. Shannon has told me nothing but good things about you,” and he put a big callused hand out like a gentleman does to greet William.

He felt his face get hot and his stomach fall below his feet but he shook hands.

“Hey yeah. Yeah nice to meet you,” he managed to croak out and then his eyes started to sting. Shannon looked at her date, not him, and said, “You remember Jarod from baseball season, don’t you? He went to Coastal Christian and was their pitcher and they always always beat us,” and she looked back at him. “He’s at the University of South Carolina on a baseball scholarship; he’ll be a sophomore next year.”

“Oh. Oh yeah. I think I remember seeing you around, yeah,” he lied. “A Gamecock huh?” His stomach was really hurting and he felt a cramp. “No no, please no not that,” he thought and squeezed as hard as he could. He wanted to just run. His eyes leaked a little and his chin quivered.

“Are you ok? You look pale,” Shannon said and touched his arm. He couldn’t look at her and now he couldn’t get a good breath. He sat down hard and the waitress came by again. 

“Hey. Y’all know what you’re havin’?”

“Oh we can’t stay but thank you”. Shannon said and to her date “We need to get the car out of the way anyway.”

“Yeah we do. Hey, real good to meet you, man. See you around, ok?”

“Yeah, yeah. Same here,” he said but so hoarse it was barely loud enough to hear and they shook hands again. Jarod gave him a quick look; he knew what just happened.

“Well come on now, give me a big hug” Shannon had her arms outstretched and a big pity smile. He stood weakly and his ears started ringing, but he moved toward her and went to get a hug. She stood with her feet together and bent forward at her waist, like she would if she were hugging someone’s granddad. She turned her head and he caught a light scent of her hair, but it was chased away by a hint of Jarod’s after shave. She patted his back and rubbed and said “Awww.” Petting a puppy. He pulled back, all he wanted to do was run, run away as fast and as far as he could.

“I won’t be at school for the rest of the year, see I finished all my credit hours so I’m prepping to go to Carolina with Jarod,” and she looked at Jarod and he grinned. The cramping came back and his eyes leaked a little more. He stifled that but the chin wouldn’t stop.

“Take care of yourself, ok? We’ll see each other some more it will be fine, really. Ok?” 

That was about all he could take. Just then the waitress came back. 

“If y’all ain’t gonna order I’m gonna have to have this booth. People are waiting. I’m sorry.” 

“Yeah, my bad, we’re going now. Come on Shannon; we’ll see you later William. You going to be ok?” 

“Oh sure yeah, sure. Stupid allergies, drives me crazy sometimes.” But his voice shook and he had to clear his throat. 

“Yeah. Well, ok.”

“Okaaay,” from Shannon, with a tilted head and tight lipped pretend smile. Then they hurried out. He watched them leave. Shannon wouldn’t be his first date or his first kiss and it would take a long time at Big Robbie’s sitting on the toilet to stop cramping and crying. He left the bag in the booth. 
 
Nobody was home, thank heaven for that. He stripped and got in the shower and let the cool water run on his head and face for a long time. He soaped and washed every square inch of himself twice, then rubbed his face with a towel and just stood still and let the water drip off him for a few minutes. He dried just his face, combed his hair and looked in the mirror as if he’d never seen himself before. Pale, spindly, too tall for his weight and not much muscle, what little facial hair there was was wispy and light, and his mouth was too big for his face. He looked exactly like a tall child. A kid. He was eighteen years old but he looked nothing like a man, like a young adult; he’d seen pictures of soldiers from the old days, there were characters you could play online too, and he was their age now. And even in the video games they looked like they’d been grown for years already. If he met himself on the sidewalk downtown he would look right past, look straight through like he wasn’t even there and think nothing of it. So what? Another goofy boy, a boy taking up space, a boy getting in the way, wanting something; just a boy always wanting, always needing something from somebody. Somebody like Shannon.

He closed his eyes and stood thinking, retreating in his head. When he was in the first grade they had visited his cousins in Augusta; the boy, Nick, was a year older and his sister was four or five years older than Nick. Nick’s dad had built a tree house with a ladder going up to a trap door in the floor.

“Come on, I’ll show you my fort!”

It was fall and the leaves were clustered on the ground under a big maple in their back yard. Nick ran over to the ladder with him following, rustling through the dry leaves. He could smell them now, the warm fall sun on his face and that earthy scent in the cool air.

“Come on,” Nick was at the top of the ladder pushing the door up. He climbed up and crawled onto the floor. Nick was crouched down so he crouched too.

“Stay down and be quiet so they can’t hear you.” There was a short wall and a roof above that, but open all around. They knelt and put their heads lower and Nick put his finger to his lips. Nick’s sister and his sister, and some girls from the neighborhood were coming around the corner talking.

“He’s weird!” 

“I know. Boys are all weird.” 

“Some boys in my class are cute.” 

“Your brother is weird.” 

“Momma says I’m going to need a training bra.” 

“So what, I already have one and I wear it sometimes.”

They were all talking at once and they walked right below the treehouse then stood in the yard while they talked and giggled. Him and Nick heard every word and watched them through the gaps in the floor, all the secret talk that little girls have and all the gestures they make, and the dancing and maneuvering. “We shoulda made some mud balls and we coulda thrown ‘em at ‘em,” Nick said after they left. They both laughed and played the rest of the afternoon. He remembered the smell of hamburgers on the grill, and the potato chips on paper plates, and cokes in plastic glasses with everyone sitting around a red picnic table. But it was that crow’s nest treehouse that he remembered most, and now he imagined looking on himself from several feet overhead. With his hands on the counter and his head down and water drying on his skin he imagined what he looked like from every possible angle at this frozen instant, how the room appeared and his life within it, and the countless details missed because he saw them daily began to show up in his mind. A long many minutes went under his feet like water under a bridge until he finally took a deep breath and opened his eyes barely a crack, just enough to see a little, put on a pair of shorts and walked slowly to his room, opened the door and took inventory. All this had to go. All of it. 

He started with the bed and took all the sheets, pillows, and everything off, even the mattress cover. The headboard was attached to the bedframe with bolts but it came off with a Crescent wrench and the bare bed got moved to the exact center of the room. The video game console and its stack of fantasy worlds that were used to be a challenge and fascinating were now just childish make-believe, just so much plastic and poison; they could go be a ball and chain around some other prisoner’s ankle. Everything on the walls came down and everything in the closet was in a pile on the floor when his dad came in. 

“Hey. Whoa. What’s going on in here? Anything wrong?” 

“Hey. Nah. Nothing I want to talk about really. I just need to make some changes. I feel like I’m an overdue book at the library, you know?”

“Oh man, yes I do. That’s not unusual for someone your age. And it keeps happening and gets worse as you get older. Sorry to break it to you. Some people don’t ever get used to it.” 

“I was afraid of that.” 

“Yeah. Well, let me know what you need alright?” He closed the door. His dad was pretty good at leaving him to figure things out on his own.

William went about his work; a small pile of clothes along one wall were useable and a much larger stack he could not stomach the sight of along another. He first thought he’d take all the discards and dump them in the first trash pile he came across, but that didn’t taste right. So he’d bag everything up and take it to a collection center downtown, one of the churches or something. Except his notes and all those emails to Shannon, he’d saved everything he’d written and made notes that he could no longer bear to look at much less read. Still, he couldn’t just toss that in a trash can yet.

Over the next week the room became a project and he spent more time on it than at school. He could skate through what few classes he had left so he only went when he felt like it, and getting all worked up over graduation then off to some college someplace just didn’t make sense any more. Plus the thought of being back at that school after all that just made him sick, people looking at him, Shannon’s friends laughing at him. No. He took his dad up on the offer for help, he wanted to repaint his room for a restart and get his head in the present instead of some nonsense make believe world. His dad was going to get the paint and brushes and everything but he said he’d rather do it, “Just make a list,” he said, so his dad showed him how to get started with a brush in the corners, making sure to take it slow and be careful, prep the walls, smaller brush for trim and all that. He’d forgotten how good a teacher his dad was, very patient and thorough. He screwed up several times and had to ask for help, but he finally got the hang of it and before too long the room went from bright blue to the soft color of driftwood, almost nothing on the walls and a simple darker brown curtain on the window. His mom wanted more decoration and accessories but he insisted and she backed away. “I do like that color,” she admitted.

Graduation wasn’t for several more days but he was not going to be a part of any of that. After the last class he’d ever take at high school he left without a word to anyone and rode over to a barber shop, to a place he’d never been on the east side of town, not the usual franchise in a strip mall near the house. He parked his motorcycle out front and went in. The old place was cool and dark and smelled like shoe polish and cologne. The barber was just finishing with a customer so he took a seat in one of the old chairs.

“Alright it looks like you’re next, mister. Just trim it up today?” the barber said pleasantly and he clipped a clean white cotton cloak snugly around his new customer’s neck.

“Uh, nah. I want to get a different look, you know? Simple and easy. How about just short all over, a little bit longer on top?” Why he said that he had no idea, but it seemed like just the thing. 

“Comin’ right up. Like how short? We used to call it a buzz cut if it’s real short and that’s going to look real different, you know.”

“That’s right we did call it that,” from an old guy sitting in a chair in the corner. 

“You wore your hair like that didn’t you Pop? When you had hair, I mean” and the barber laughed at his dad. 

“I sure did, and I cut yours like that, too,” and the two men smiled at the memory. 

“You go to college in town?” he asked as he went to work on his thick hair. 

“No sir, still in high school. Well I was. Today was my last day, supposed to graduate end of the month but I don’t know if I’ll even go.” 

“Oh, yeah. I see.  Going to college in the fall?” 

“Well, I don’t really know any more. I thought I was but those plans kinda fell apart, you know?” 

“You’re lucky you have some options,” the barber’s dad said from his chair. “When I graduated the next step for me was induction at Camp Lejeune and before I knew what hit me I was in a Huey with a damn M-60 in my lap.” 

“Things have a way of working themselves out. It’ll be alright,” They talked back and forth some then a couple of older guys came in and took a seat; they all knew one another. The barber’s dad took a bag from one of them and went to the back of the shop.

“Ox blood on both of these?” he said.

“Yeah and can you put some softer heels on them? Those are like walking on dang concrete.” 

“Sure will, I’ll have ‘em ready in a little if you want to wait.” 

“Nah I got to get on.” 

“Alright. They’ll be here when you come back.” 

“It’ll be Wednesday. The wife wants to go to Beaufort to see the grandkids.” 

“That’ll be fine.” 

The three of them talked and laughed a little, just a few words at a time but it was how they were with one another, the familiar and easy way they all had. No stress, no competition, nobody wanted anything from anybody. They were just men being with each other. Men, not the boys he was used to being around and not the boy like he used to be. The clipper buzzed around his head for a while then the barber carefully shaved the back of his neck with a straight razor stroked on a strop hanging from the cabinet behind them, and shook a few drops of Clubman’s in his palms and rubbed it on. “That’ll tighten that skin up and keep it from getting irritated,” he said. Then a shake of talcum on a whisk brush and that swept the stray hairs from his shoulders.

“There you are young man,” and the cloak came off and a small shower of his hair fell onto the floor, a light scent of hair tonic and talcum trailed in his wake as he raised himself out of the chair. His reflection in the wall mirror would take some getting used to but change is like that. He started toward the cash register but stopped and turned to the barber.

“My name is Rueben. Rueben Lewis; it’s nice to meet you,” and put his hand out like a gentleman does. 
“Yes sir. Charlie Sawyer and that’s my dad Charles Senior.” They shook hands and Charles Senior gave him an up-nod from the shoe counter and went back to his work. He walked out into the sunny afternoon. 
With all that hair gone the helmet didn’t fit ‘til he adjusted the chin strap. He rode by the high school on the way home, it was out of his way a little, and he thought about stopping by and braked for the entrance but changed his mind and geared down instead; the place might as well have been on Mars it seemed so unpleasant and he so out of place now. It would be better for everybody if he just forgot all about it and put all that behind him and thinking that just pissed him off, all that wasted time. He twisted the throttle a little harder than usual, something he had been adamant about not doing, and in the lower gear the bike nearly jumped out from under him. He put too much front brake on it and the bike got squirrely and dumped him on the right side of the street near the curb. A van stopped beside him a minute later. 

“Are you hurt buddy?” said a guy about thirty from the passenger’s seat. “I saw it get loose on you an’ it looked like you ‘bout got it back.” The driver got out and the other fellow went to the bike and stood it up and was looking it over.

“I guess, I can’t really tell yet,” he said, but his elbow stung and the knuckles on his right hand were dripping blood.

“Here lemme see,” and he looked at the arm.

“Yeah, some road rash. Nothing broken? Can you move your arm and wrist? Go like that,” and he motioned with his arm and hand. Everything moved ok so he stood up carefully. 

“You keep a kit on your bike?” 

“No. What kind of kit?” 

“First aid, bandages, antiseptic, that kinda thing. You can’t never tell what might happen.” 

“Ah, I guess not,” he said. 

“Is this the first time you dropped one?” 

“Yeah. First time for everything I guess.” 

“Shoot. First time it happened to me a lady pulled out in front of me on the highway, right in front of a church. It was either hit her or lay it down; the bike went under her van and I slid about a hundred feet on my back. Look here.” He showed his elbow where a scar took away part of a tattoo all the way down his arm. “Good thing I was wearin’ leathers. Ride for the slide, man.”

The driver went to the van and came back with a roll of masking tape and some paper towels. He used the towel as a pad and wrapped the tape around the knuckles and did the same for the scrape on the elbow. While he was doing that the passenger said “It don’t look hurt, some paint on the tank and the grip and foot rest is scraped is all.”

“Well that’s some good news. We both came out about the same, didn’t we?” he said. They both grinned.

“Hey Ronnie, take it down the street for him a little ways, make sure it ain’t hurt.” 

Ronnie said, ”Ok if I ride your bike a minute buddy? Check it out before you get back on it, you know? Ok if I use your helmet?” 

“Oh sure. Yeah, go ahead. Thanks.” He was still shaky. 

Ronnie fired the bike up and listened to it for a second. He checked traffic and went back toward the school but when he turned around he went through the gears hard and whistled back by them for about a hundred yards. He put the kickstand down and got off the bike smiling. 

“Got some vibration from the front at 45 but it goes away above 50, most likely the tire’s just a little out of balance. Brakes are good, she stops smooth, all the lights work, you should be good to go. That thing’ll scoot, boy. Shoot, if I was you I’d ride that thing all over the place. I wouldn’t get it out on the interstate much or nothin’ like that as light as it is, but I’d take that thing about anywhere else I wanted to go. A 250 like that’s a good bike to have, cheap to run and that thing rides real good.” 

“Yeah, I really like it.” 

They hurried back to the van. “Awright then. Let’s get outta here before a cop comes by. Take care of yourself, now.” And they took off before he could thank them. 

Warner Robbins to Wilmington 

Lots of thunder and lightning, denial, tears, threats, and hateful words went between them, then between two law offices. He wasn’t even mad any more, though that did take some hard thinking and talking to himself; his mistakes were lessons learned, sad but learned. Her mistakes were hers by herself and she could deal with those however she chose. The house sold in two weeks, bank accounts were divided and his tools and equipment from the shop were in a trailer in the driveway. Sandra was going to use Thursday through Saturday to get her things out and that made a perfect time for him to get away and get out of this rut. The Moto Guzzi needed to stretch her legs and the time and distance would do him good. He would pick up Sammy when he got back. 

Thursday morning just after dawn he hit the road for a few days. Clothes and some road food in one saddle bag and a one-man tent and bed roll in the other. He took Highway 41 to 129 and put Macon behind him, then took 129 to where it joins 212, then Twin Bridges; it was state roads and light traffic the whole way to the National Park. It was a great ride and the time was over way too soon. He put the Guzzi in a spot and got off to stretch and put his gear together, but when he took the helmet off the soft buzz around him and the serenity, even with a few people near, took a little bit to get used to.

The weather had been just right for sleeping, and you could build a little fire and make coffee in the morning and listen to the birds. And all that was just what the doctor ordered, too, a few days like this really helps put things in perspective. But it was Sunday and getting late, so it was time to get back to reality like it or not. Big trip ahead, new job in a new city, may as well look at it as a new start on a new life. “I do dread that move, though,” he thought but was happy he’d gotten rid of all but the essentials and didn’t have that much to haul around. Except for the shop equipment, “And that will be a chore pulling a trailer full of tools behind a rented truck,” he thought, but that can’t be helped. “Time to get started,” he said out loud, and took a deep breath, looked around at the lake and trees and promised himself that would be the memory of this time instead of the house and its stain he was moving out of. 

The ride back was good, but there was a knot in his stomach the whole way. Sandra said she’d put Sammy in his crate as she left and she sent a text saying she’d locked the doors and turned off all the lights. “Good luck” she’d written, whether she meant it or was being sarcastic he couldn’t tell, but he really didn’t care either way. Going back to that house, now nearly empty, wasn’t going to be pleasant but it had to be done and maybe it would feel like all that was finished. He’d find out in a few minutes. And what he found out was not a surprise as much as it was just sad. The house looked foreign, worn, and cold; the exterior, the driveway, his shop building, the yard. Everything. With the furniture gone and all the rooms stripped of their masks he could see the place as it really was, and it was only a collection of 2 x 4s and drywall; there was no soul and no warmth and any memories he had of that were just pretending. He was all finished with pretending. 

Sammy was scratching at the kennel and jumped out when the door was unlatched and ran in circles barking in the garage. “Good to see you too, buddy boy! Let’s go pee in the yard. Let’s go pee and then we’ll get out of here,” he said as if the dog could understand him. Maybe he did.

One of the neighbors came over to speak for a minute, not prying but sorry to see them go and for all the trouble. They chatted for a minute and said an awkward good bye across the fence. Sammy sat in the cab of the rented truck while he got the trailer ready. The last step was hitching the trailer to the truck, and that took some back and forth but after a few tries she was all connected, lights checked and the hitch locked. Ready to hit the road. Sammy was sitting upright in the seat looking straight ahead.

“That’s the way to do it, buddy. Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you. Let’s go,” he said, and put the truck in gear and eased down the driveway.

The first half of the trip was nearly over and he was happy about that, and Sammy was too. He’d made the drive to his new job in Wilmington twice already and had spent a long weekend finding a house and now all that was signed and sealed. But with the truck and trailer and the slow going he didn’t want to push too hard so he stopped in Columbia to eat and get a good night’s sleep. They made Wilmington by about 11:00 the next morning and by then that skimpy girly breakfast from the hotel was long gone. A detour for construction on the highway took them through town and on the way he spotted what looked like a good local option for lunch. The parking lot in the shopping center next door had plenty of room for the truck so he wheeled it in. Sammy got out to pee and got right back on the seat. “I’ll be right back buddy,” he told him. 

There was a short line waiting just inside the door so he took a look at the menu and saw that this was a good choice. “How is the barbeque here,” he asked two fellows in line ahead of him, just to make conversation. 
“Oh man it’s as good as you can get. We eat here all the time.” 

“So does everybody else, it looks like,” he said and they talked for a minute or two. 

A cute couple was talking with another young man and he was very upset about something, but the girl was smiling and gave him a hug before she and the other man left. The young man got up and hurried to the back. 
A waitress came up. “I’ve good a booth for two,” she said to the fellows ahead, next in line. “Are you by yourself?” she said to him and one of the two men said, “Don’t eat too much,” as they went to get seated. 

“I’m a to-go” he said. 

“Awright, you know watchoo want?” Something for him and something for Sammy, and she wrote it on her pad with a pencil. 

The new house was small and sparse but tidy and there was room to extend the garage on the side, make room for a workshop in the near future but nothing extravagant, a place to maintain the bike and work on some projects now and then. A real plus was the neighbors on either side, one family had twin little girls with an older brother and a red Dachshund, and all of them loved Sammy to pieces. On the other side was a newly married couple, she was expecting and just showing and he was recently out of the Navy, Brian and Kelly. Brian had come over and helped unload a few things from the truck and admired the motorcycle, turns out his dad has one of the big road versions and him and several others road the coast often. “I’ll put you in touch with the old man, he’ll talk your arm off so be warned”, Brian said and they traded phone numbers. 

The new job was going great, he was getting to know his way around, found a couple of good spots to eat, and he could take Sammy on good long walks in any direction. He helped one of the office guys in another department load some pallets in his pickup after work one day.  

“Thanks for the hand, man. I’ll buy you a beer.” 

“Sounds good; ready when you are.” 

It was that kind of place, comfortable and pleasant everybody knew everybody else and knew their business. Sometimes he even forgot he had life somewhere else, it seemed so far away and so long ago it was like someone else had lived it. Days off gave him a chance to get the new house together and even if it didn’t exactly have a women’s touch it didn’t look like a barren bachelor pad either; things were coming together so well he could hardly believe it. “Maybe things do work out for the best,” was often on his mind. 

He got together with Brian’s dad Mark on Friday evening a few days later over a beer to compare bikes and get to know each other. Real good dude, former Army like him and he was one of those guys that didn’t seem to let anything bother him too much. 

“We’re gonna do a run to Fort Macon next Sunday if you wanna go, be a day run back before dark. They’s four of us with Guzzi’s and you’d be the fifth. Five’s good luck” he said smiling. 

“That’d be a good day, let’s do that,” he said. They talked a minute or two and paid the bar tab and chatted about the coming run. 

“We plan these pretty good so I’ll send you a route map and the names and numbers of the other regulars; you’ll fit right it.” 

“Look forward to it. Thanks and its real good meeting you.” 

“Same here Kenneth and we’ll see you Sunday week if not before,” and with that they parted. 

Kenneth walked a few steps toward the parking lot and felt at once elated, like he was a kid and had Christmas coming but in the next step it was like he didn’t belong here at all, like he was not really in his own body but was watching himself like in a movie. Very strange and it gave him goose bumps, but it passed as quickly as it started, like déjà vu. “Probably the beer buzz working on me,” he thought so he let it go. Tomorrow was an open Saturday and the weather was perfect, so a run up the road would be a good day. 

Wilmington 

Tomorrow was Saturday and it had been a good week. He’d had a heart to heart with his mom and dad, a very difficult thing like shedding a skin but very helpful. His sister had come out on the deck and joined them. 

“I knew something was going on with you,” his mom said. “But it looked like there wasn’t anything much I could do to help.” 

They all talked some more about most everything and later there was one of those intense emotional moments where they all hugged, him, his sister, mom and dad, on the back deck with the sunset blazing behind them.  

He wanted to be known by Rueben to anyone he met for the first time and would be Rueben from now on – he felt disconnected from almost everything in his past. There were memories, of course there were, but those seemed to belong to someone else, and big holes in time that he couldn’t say where he’d been or what he’d done they were so bland. Thinking about that made him sad and irritated at the same time so he made a deliberate effort every day to move toward a finish line no matter how insignificant; no more watching from the bleachers, as his dad put it. Start doing a thing and finish it. A simple step was to get organized and keep it that way. Everything now had a place and a purpose, no clutter, no distraction, no unused items. One thing left was the stack of email and notes he’d written to Shannon and it was time to rid himself of that anchor. The stack had to be a half-inch thick and it seemed like so long ago they’d been so important, so intense. He’d printed them and put them in a paper bag tied with twine, some holes in the bag would keep the thing from floating and let it sink to the river bottom where nature would take care of it; that part was easy, it was the piece inside his head that was the challenge and that took a daily effort just like breaking any bad habit. 

He put the package in his backpack, the same one his mom had bought him at the start of his freshman year, and the backpack went on a bookshelf his dad helped him build. They made it last week out of two pallets from his dad’s work and it turned out really well, much better than he expected. After sanding until his arms were rubber the wood was ready for stain and after a coat of Tung oil the grain was warm and buttery. And the smell was clean and new, and was a perfect match to his restart. “That looks so good with the color on the walls,” his mom said. “Now I’m thinking you could paint my bedroom too,” and she wasn’t joking. He said he’d love to do it for them. But painting the bedroom would have to wait because there was a finish line he wanted to cross first.  

Kenneth still got out of bed early but not out of restlessness. A routine was developing and him and Sammy were both getting settled into it; they still did breakfast together and had some free time in the morning to prowl and piddle around. Today they slept in a little while longer and he took his time making breakfast and got the day started. The Guzzi was on the rack in the garage waiting to have an oil change, then her black and red paint job was getting a wax and her chrome polished. All that took the rest of the morning but she looked great sitting in the driveway ready to ride. Sammy was napping in the shade on the back patio and trotted over when he filled the water dish with ice cubes.

“You got it made, you know that?” 

Sammy looked at him and wagged his tail. “You are a good buddy, Sammy dog, you know that?”

The Bridge 

The ride to the river was stop and go from the tourists crowding the roads getting to the beach, and the late day sun felt like it was about two feet from his head; the chin straps wouldn’t stay adjusted and the sweat just made it worse. A new helmet would be smart but that wasn’t in his budget for now, he’d spent that on a good leather jacket, so this one would have to do uncomfortable or not.  And the scrapes on his knuckles and arm were itching with the heat; “All in the price of learning lessons,” he kept telling himself. The bundle in the backpack would soon find a resting place at the bottom of the Cape Fear and that lesson is one he wouldn’t forget. 

 Traffic cleared after he took the road toward the bridge since the beach was in the opposite direction so he opened the little bike up and let the breeze in for a minute. Just before the bridge there was an intersection with a convenience store, so he stopped there and took the pack out of the back pack without getting off the bike. He sat on the package to hold it in place and got readjusted. As he sat in the parking lot he recited a short message silently. “We all make mistakes but we don’t all learn from them. I want to. I hope we can start over and be friends like we used to be someday.” He put the bike in gear, let the cars get a little ahead, then slowed when he was half way across and flung the package high over the railing; he saw it clear the top by three feet and arc toward the river. As soon as he turned his head back to the road he felt like he did as a kid when he’d peddled his bicycle up a slope then coasted down the other side. What a good feeling it was, all he needed now was a popsicle. 

 The way back home was clogged with beach traffic but even so it was his best option, so he turned around at the next street and went back the way he came. Cars were backed up about half way on the bridge and he slowed to a stop just about where he had thrown the package. It still felt like he was coasting downhill. A yellow convertible with four cute girls headed to the beach was stopped ahead, they were talking and laughing in their sun dresses and painted nails. “They’re coasting downhill, too,” he thought and smiled at the sight of them, not a care in the world, having a good time. While the traffic was stopped he took the helmet off to adjust the straps again and unzipped the black leather jacket to cool a little. The girl in the right front seat had turned around and she caught his eye and smiled. She had clear blue eyes and he felt his heart stop for an instant. 

“Hey! Aren’t you hot in that jacket?” she said and laughed. The two girls turned to look, smiling and then their faces changed but that didn’t register with him. 

“Well yeah. But you have to dress for the s-” and he could speak no more. 

Charlie was happy with his ice and his toy, so Kenneth just left well enough alone and went inside to get ready. The plan was to check the route north out of town so he would be familiar with it before the group ride next week, and circle back to get a better look at the lay of the land south of town while he was out and about, maybe get a bite if he came across a place with some local seafood. No trouble at all with the route north, simple roads and intersections, traffic was manageable, and the streets just off the beach were busy but everybody was smiling and happy. Lots of bikes and they all gave the usual biker wave to one another. He turned off the beach and went inland a little and found a concrete block diner with a crowded lot and a faded red and white sign “Fresh Seafood, Burgers, Beer” and put in for a late lunch. 

The girl behind the bar was half his age and cute as a button. “We got a special today, fried oyster Po’ Boy, comes with fries and slaw,” she said after making change for the couple next to him. 

“That sounds good. And a cold beer sounds even better, please. Have one with me” he said but regretted it immediately. But she didn’t say anything right away. 

“Not while I’m working” she said after a beat without looking at him. Dammit. He didn’t want to be that kind of guy and she didn’t need an old dude like him hitting on her. 

“I’m sorry, that slipped out and I shouldn’t have said it,” he told her when she sat the beer down. 

“Oh don’t sweat it,” and she said it like she’d had to say that a lot. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it. We all have to be nice to each other and not be so serious about everything, right? I mean, or what’s the point, right?” she said pleasantly and put her hand on his arm as she left, it felt sort of like a goodbye kiss the way she did it. People can be good when they want to be.  

On the way home a burn that came and went started in his middle; that fried oyster Po’boy trying to get out he guessed. Traffic was getting thicker closer to town so it was stop and go near the river. A gaggle of cars turned off and the road opened for a little bit so when he made the turn to the bridge he goosed it a little for old time’s sake. Traffic was stopped again on the bridge so he up shifted to coast the rest of the way, then the burn in his middle changed and he had to hiccup and cough at the same time. The bike was still doing 40 and did not stop for the line of traffic but none of that was of any concern to him. He saw his body from a vantage somewhere above, his face blue and lifeless, and was curious and surprised but not frightened. He could move in any direction to see better but everything he saw was very confusing. Another fellow was lying nearby, face down in the road and two motorcycles were tangled together behind some cars. There was another man was across from him looking at the scene from the same place but he was very worried and agitated; he tried to get the man’s attention but couldn’t.

“This is she,” Sandra said into her cell phone and the deputy gave her the basic information. But by the time the sheriff’s office sifted through the records to make the phone call some days had passed, enough so that a service had already been conducted. Neighbors brought Sammy, he was confused and worried, and a few co-workers came but there was no family. Three days later two heartbroken parents made the only decision left and Ruben’s life ended as the respirator was disconnected and the monitor traced his last heartbeat at 6:14 pm. The man that had been watching across from Kenneth reappeared and he was no longer agitated and the two could now calmly see one another although neither looked the same as they once had. Time and the earth no longer had meaning and the world they once knew and everything in it and everything about it slowly faded away. 


Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.

Christmas Roof

by Dan Patterson

“Hey.  Hey, you awake?”  Gerald Conner called to me from the hall.  It was before 5 o’clock on Monday and no, I was not.  Me and the blanket had a good thing going on and I was not about to ruin it. 

“Hey.  The heat’s off again.  Get up and help me bleed the line.  Hurry up, man.” 

I made a noise to get him to be quiet and opened my eyes in the dark bedroom.  A little light filtered in under the curtains and I could feel the cold sharp on my nose that my friend the blanket had kept off the rest of me.  Me and Gerald had shared the little house outside of town for nearly three years, rented from his uncle in Richmond.  We’d take care of all the maintenance, yard work, and so on for the old place and his uncle gave us a break on the rent.  It had all the comforts of home for two bachelors in their twenties, two bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs and we had put in another bath in the unfinished basement, but we hadn’t gotten around to getting heat down there yet.  Now there was no heat anywhere. 

“I’m gettin’ up” I said.  “How long has it been off?” I shouted.  I pulled on yesterday’s damp clothes from the chair and immediately wished I had better options. 

“Most of the night I guess.  I don’t know” he said and he sounded none too pleased.  That made two of us.  Gerald has a streak of high-and-mighty in him and he’s a finicky sort but we got along good anyway; I try my best to get along with everybody unless they push too hard.  He sings in the choir at his church and was always trying to get me to go.  I get it, I really do.  But everything isn’t for everybody, I told him, so we just left it at that. 

 
“Well let’s go see what we got” I said as I stepped into the hall.  Gerald was standing in the kitchen with the oven door open, element glowing orange in the dark room like some sort of a monster’s mouth. 
“I’m about to dang freeze” he chattered.  “I am about ready to build a fire in the middle of the bedroom.  Dang!” 

“Alright.  Come on and let’s see what’s going on” I said.  The thermostat read 50 degrees and that’s as low as it went; it had been cold all week, in the 20s at night.  “Grab us a flashlight and I’ll get some tools.” 

 
He went one way and I went the other, turned on the lights and went down to the furnace in the basement, Gerald a few steps behind. 
“Well we know it ain’t out of fuel, we just put 50 gallons in it week before last” he said.  And we had, and that had taken my stash of fun money for the next little bit, not that I had a whole bunch fun or money lately.   We fooled around and found the line plugged with some trash again, drained all that out, bled the line, put it back together and fired the furnace up.  After some gagging and coughing the old thing lit off and was running like a sewing machine in no time. 
“We’re gonna have to do something about that tank, probably drain it and blow the lines.  I don’t want to have to do this no more” I said with my nose dripping.  Gerald agreed.   
“But not this morning, we got to get to work” he said.  It was past 6 and now we’d have to hustle.  I worked as a technician for a cable company and Gerald was at a trucking terminal as a mechanic helper; we’d met in tech school a few years before and both got decent jobs right away, then shared this old house to save on expenses. 

 
I went in to get ready and heard Gerald already in the shower and decided it was too cold to chance using the basement bathroom, so I put some things together for lunch until he got out.  I guess he was too chilled to be in a hurry because he used enough hot water to scald a hog.  By the time I could get in the shower there was no more hot water and it was getting late, so I went on in to work after a quick cold water shave and sink wash up, and my hands still smelling like fuel oil.  And no breakfast. 

Monday started on the wrong foot and never recovered, so by quitting time I was past ready for an attitude adjustment, preferably served by a baby doll that would at least pretend to be glad to see me.   I pulled into the parking lot of “Cue Tease” in a misting December rain and stepped across the puddles to the door.  “No Cover Before 6!” the sign said and that was fine with me.  Some times this place would be a cool spot to hang out but other times, depending on who was working and who was in the place, it was a giant depressing crap hole that just made things worse.  I stepped inside and saw I was in luck; a friendly blonde I knew, Stacie, was bartending and there were only a few regulars inside. 
“Hey Charlie!  Long time.  You doin’ good, baby?”  I felt better already.  Stacie had waitressed at a diner across town where a bunch of us went when we were in tech school, so when I saw her again in here last year it was like seeing an old classmate.  She’d had a kid but they didn’t marry and for all I could tell they weren’t together, but she didn’t let on much either way.  After the baby she’d started working out and she didn’t mind showing off the results, so my dreary Monday got much brighter all of a sudden. 
“Hey.  Yeah it has been a while; how you been doin’ girl?”  And I stuck my hand out. 
“Oh come here” she said, and came around the side of the bar.  A warm hug from a pretty girl does more than anything to cheer a man’s spirits and I was now very well cheered.  She pulled away quickly and dashed back, elbows on the bar and she had to know I was not looking at her eyes. 
“What will you have?” 
“It is half past beer-thirty so something on tap and on special if you have it” I said. 
She took a chilled mug and put it under a tap “Special on Handyman’s Brew, I think you’ll like it” and filled the mug before I could say anything. 

“How come I don’t see you in here much any more?” she asked with a pouty face.  A real cute pouty face. 
“Oh.  Yeah, well.  Uh, I spent way too much time and money on myself having too much fun a little while back and it kind of caught up with me.  You know” I said and threw a look at a slender brunette practicing her pole moves in the mirrored wall on the stage. “So I try to stay out of trouble as much as I can now”.  The details weren’t pretty so I just let that one hang but I could feel my face get hot. 

 
I took a healthy swig of the beer and said “That hits the spot”, and took down about half of the rest without breathing.  Four guys were playing cutthroat on the table behind me and one of them caught her eye and held up an empty bottle.  She got some drinks for them then came over next to me and leaned one arm on the bar, and her already tight blouse got tighter.  The buttons held, but I was hoping.  We chatted a minute and I finished the beer.  There was a big glass jar on the bar with a few bills in it and a handwritten sign “Help a girl out.  Family in need!” so I asked about it. 
“That’s for my family, momma’s sister, my aunt Elaine.  She’s staying with momma while her house is getting painted but the people she got to do the work stole a bunch of stuff from her and never showed back up.  Then when we went in to check on it the roof had started leaking, so that has to be fixed before we can finish the painting.  So, you know, lots to do and one thing leads to another and it’s all just a big ol’ mess”.  She sounded stressed about it. 
“Well what does a good roofer tell you it will take to fix it?”  Me and Gerald had done some side jobs in the past and had been on a roof or two. 
“They all say not fix, but replace” and when she said that she wrinkled her face.  “And we don’t have the money to pay what they’re asking.  Before he died my Uncle Jack got the stuff together to put a new roof on, but he had started having heart trouble and couldn’t do it.  And that’s been ages ago.” 

She picked up the empty mug and filled it without me saying anything.  I looked at her and she said “Oh don’t worry about it, it’s on special anyway so I’ll do a two for one for an old friend”.  Mischievous smile with the tip of her tongue touching her upper lip.  I was further cheered. 

“So.” She said, drawing it out. “If you know someone who can do some work like that and maybe help us out?”  She looked at me like a kid waiting on her allowance. 

“Well yeah.  I’ll ask around, but me and my roommate could maybe take a look at it after work one day, see what it needs, you know…”  I meant maybe we could maybe look at it and see if it was maybe something we could maybe do on the side.  Maybe.  But that’s not how she took it.  Not at all.  She came back around the bar and hooked her arm around my neck and said into my ear “Oh thank you thank you thank you.  Thank you SO MUCH!  That would be GREAT!” 

I was returning the hug and caught one of the pool players in the mirror looking at us with a hard stare.  We released each other and she was kissing close, but the pool player was still staring so I stepped back and said “Glad to help if we can.  Of course I need to talk to Gerald and see if he’ll go with me to look at it.  Jobs like that’ll take two or more you know, and I can’t swear we can even do it.” 

“Oh I know, but you’re so good with things like that.  I bet you could do it with your eyes closed.  It’s a really small place and she’s just not been able to keep up with it like she wanted.  This will mean so much to her.  And to my mom.”  She drew out ‘so much’ again for emphasis. 

“Well ok”, I thought.  Before I could say anything else she said “Give me your phone and I’ll put the address in under my name and number”.  Another killer smile and now I had the address and her number.  Sweet. 
“Don’t call though.  I don’t use the phone much, so text instead ok?” 
“Oh ok, sure” I said and looked at the address.  “Where is this?” 
She gave me the general directions.  It was in an old neighborhood once working class and family, now some vacant houses, lots of rentals, and high crime.  Things had gone the wrong direction for that part of town and this old lady probably had lived there all her grown-up life and the neighborhood just changed around her. 

 
“I’ll go by there on my way home.  Ok to look around?  Nobody will call the cops on me, right?”, and I was only half-kidding. 

“That’s the last thing anybody’ll want to happen around there” and she laughed.  “Good neighbors though, really sweet, and they won’t be any trouble.”  The DJ was making introductions and the entertainers were parading around the stage, all dressed up.  More smiles.  Me and my credit card knew way too much about smiles like that. 

“Oh gosh!  I’ve got to get the VIP room ready for the football game” she said and hurried away.  “Let me know what you think, ok?  As soon as you can.  And thanks again!”  She made a telephone with her fingers and a kissy face as she turned.  More cheer. 

Some Poindexter in a suit coat that didn’t fit, probably the manager-of-the-month, came over with the tab, thrashing his gum with his mouth open.  It was two beers full price.  It was time for me to go and I didn’t want to start anything, but I didn’t leave much tip either. 

It was a good twenty minutes across town to her aunt’s house and I parked by the curb in the dark.  Houses on either side were lived-in but tired with some cars parked in the yards and makeshift fences in the back.  One had an old couch on the front porch, and another had a pile of kitchen appliances in the back yard.  But the place across the street was all lit up with decorations and Christmas lights, a big cartoon snowman held a sign that read “Good Boys and Girls Live Here”.  It was a small mildewed brick house on a small lot just a little higher than the street, a short driveway to a clapboard garage, and some neglected rose bushes all along the side, all of it lit by a street light mounted on the garage gable.  There were a few shingles missing and there was a sag in the middle on the left side.  I got out and walked around the house for a quick look and stepped off the dimensions; flat yard and the eaves were an easy reach with a short extension ladder; we could get a truck right next to the house.  Cake job, really. 

The old garage door was stuck shut but I could squeeze through the side door.  My little flashlight was getting dim but some mice, or rats, or something squeaked and scattered out of sight.  Too cold for snakes, I hoped. 
Stacie’s Uncle Jack had four pallets of shingles in the back of the garage and they had been there for who knows how long.  But they were off the dirt floor and covered with a canvas tarp.  And if I was a snake I know right where I’d put up during in this weather, so I left the tarp alone and played the light along the bottoms of the pallets.  The bottom layers of the first rows were all bent from sitting so long, and some of the paper had been chewed off but nothing real bad.  I tried counting the bundles best I could then saw some rolls of tarpaper sitting on their ends.  Several buckets of roof tar were neatly placed beside them but I picked one up and shook it and it was solid as a rock. 

I went to the car and punched in Stacie’s number and it rang once before I remembered to text, so I disconnected and sent her a short message.  “Hey.  Looks like a simple job.  Found the old shingles. Will talk about it and let you know.  How much?” 

My phone pinged just as I sent the text, her number calling. 
“Hey” 
“Why did you call this number?”  A guy’s voice, aggravated. 
“What?  I was calling for Stacie about a doing a job.  Maybe I got a wrong number.  Sorry to bother you.”  But he didn’t hear that because he ended the call.  Some people, I guess. 
I put the car in gear and thought about going back to see if Stacie put her own number in my phone wrong, but the phone rang again from a number I didn’t recognize. 
“This is Charlie.” 
“Hey sweetie it’s Stacie.  Did you just call my phone?” 
“Yeah, by mistake.  But I just sent a text about the house.  Some dude called back all pissed and asked why I called.  I didn’t know you were seeing somebody.” 
“Oh no no no.  He’s not my boyfriend that’s just a guy that works here.  They make us put our phones up while we’re working and he must’ve heard it”.  The DJ was announcing drink specials for the game in the background.  “I’ve got to go, but let me know what you find out, ok?” 
I started to answer but she hung up. 

I talked about it with Gerald that night, gave him the little I knew about Stacie’s aunt, the house and whatnot.   

“Would be a good way, well might be a good way, to make a few extra bucks” I said not wanting to get over my head. 
“Yeah, but how many bucks and how much trouble?” 
“We need to go look at the place in the daylight, get on the roof, see exactly what we’re dealing with before we get into it”, I said.  “Besides, you’re always talking about doing good works and here at Christmas this might have been put here in front of me for a reason.  Right?” 
“Well.  Could be.  Could be.  In John it says ‘Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment’.  He was quiet for a minute or two with his eyes closed.  “We all ought to do more good.  Everybody.  We don’t none of us do enough of it, Christmas or not.  Let’s go look at it tomorrow; I’ll meet you there after work and we can see what we can do.  Alright?’  And got up and went to his bedroom. 

So we did that.  I borrowed a ladder from work and we got on the roof with flashlights, made measurements, looked it over real good, talked about what it would take, and came up with a few ideas.  We made a sketch of the roof and put the measurements on it, calculated all the materials and made a list.  From what we could tell Uncle Jack had bought enough of most everything.  I sent a text to Stacie with what we came up with and got back a “will talk to momma”.  Later she sent “grate thanks momma says thank” so we had a project in front of us. 
At work the next morning I talked to the boss and he said use the ladder as long as I needed it.  A buddy at work, Raymond, a lot older than me, overheard me and asked about it.   

“Doing some side work?” he said.   

“Well kinda I guess.  Got a little job to do for some family of a friend” I told him. 
“Good for you” he said and nodded.  “What sort of work?” 
“Putting a roof on a lady’s house.  She’s older and needs it done so they can get the inside painted.” 
“Is it leaking?” 
“Yeah, they say it is.  So we’ll get her a roof on at least”. 
“Good, good” he said.  “Whereabouts is it?” 

“French Hills on the East side.  Older neighborhood off Centennial Parkway.” 
“Oh yeah.  Yeah.  Cassion and Verdun and Liberty streets are in there. I know about right where that is.  Well, let me know if you need any tools or anything”, and we went on about our day. 

 
I got to the house just after work and started spreading two big tarps next to the house and used a roofer’s shovel to pry some shingles loose and give us a place to start the tear off.  The old house had three layers of roofing from where it had been replaced over the years.  The old stuff was so brittle it just broke apart when I scooped the tool underneath and I made real good progress.  Gerald came by and not much later we had one of the tarps piled with old junk off the roof.  About an hour into it our muscles were complaining and it was supper time so we tacked the other tarp over the bare place and left the tools in the old garage. 

   
All the next day I had second thoughts about getting us into this.  All it would take is one screw up and this thing could get out of hand fast.  I had talked Gerald into helping and he seemed good with it now, but if he decided to bail out I was on my own.  The power and water to the old place had been turned off so we would have to work without and I had not counted on that problem.  And the weather, and the materials, and I hadn’t even called about a truck yet, and who knows what else could trip us up.  Busy all day at work but I left a service call that took just a minute and instead of going back to the shop went by the house on Marne. 

   
“What in the hell?” I thought.  “Just what in the hell!” I said.  The tarp on the roof was there but the one that had all the scrap we took off was missing.  The tools were still there, all the materials were too but I couldn’t make sense out of it.  I had to call Gerald to let him know what I found, and I told him.  I was probably too excited. 
“Calm down man!  If somebody took the tarp but they also took the trash.  They can have the blame tarp if they got rid of that junk for us.  Dumb butt.” 
I had to admit he was right.  “Well.  Yeah, but still.  Ok.  I’m going to go ahead and get started.” 
“I can be there in a little while.” 

I put the tarp from the roof on the ground next to the house and it wasn’t thirty minutes later that a diesel pickup with a trailer hooked to it squeaked to a stop.  Two boys about 10 and 12 got out of the back and then Raymond stepped out. 
“Hey man.  What are you doing out here?” 
The he got the tarp out of the bed and I saw what had happened. 
“I took a half-day off and thought me and my boys’d come see how you were getting along.” 
“Hey boys.”  They did head nods.  “Well I guess we’re getting a decent start on it but it looks like some kind hearted soul made off with the old junk we took off yesterday.” 
“Yeah well I was sorta out this way taking care of some other stuff and we picked it up for you.” 
“Aw man you didn’t have to do that.  Thank you!” 
“Yeah.  Yeah, no problem at all.  Glad to help.  You boys get them rakes out and clean up this old yard.  Rake it in a pile and put it on the trailer.” 
“Yes sir.”  They said and went right at it.  Raymond pulled the truck around and backed the trailer next to the house, then spread the tarp on the bed.  He got an old mattock out of the truck and climbed on the roof without saying anything else. 

 
I worked one side and he worked the other, but he went back where I had been and yanked the old nails up.  Gerald pulled up, all smiles, and said hello to everybody like he’d known them a long time.  I introduced Raymond and Gerald started piling the old shingles on the trailer, the boys started quarrelling, the younger one not wanting to be bossed around. 
“Hey!  You boys get to work, now, and I mean it” Raymond said.   And they did. 

We had about a quarter of one side of the roof off, nails and all then Raymond got down and unhitched the trailer.  “We got to get back.  I’ll leave the trailer and you let me know when it’s full and I’ll run it over to the landfill.” 
I was on the ground by then.  “Here, let me get you some cash for that and all your trouble.  That was a big help, man.  How much was it?”  I had my wallet out and he was waving it away. 
“Naw, naw now you don’t owe me nothin’, we’re glad to help ain’t we boys?” 
“Yes sir” they said.  “I’ll see you at the shop in the mornin’” and he drove off. 

I didn’t get to see Raymond at the shop, the boss sent me on calls before I left the house and I was all over the place all day.  In the back of my mind I was really looking forward to getting back on that old house.  By the time I got off work Gerald was already there with two other guys and they had more of the old roof off.   One of the guys Gerald brought had made a simple rack to work from and that made the going much easier.  There wasn’t room for me and the yard was picked clean; the rose bushes had been trimmed down by somebody and there was a new layer of clean mulch in the beds.  About then a trio of loud-piped Harleys blasts into the yard, and it maybe 40 degrees outside, right up to where I was standing.  The bike in back had an American flag about the size of a bedsheet and they all shut down at once.  MIA POW patches on their jackets, red sweatshirts underneath.  Big dude with a grey pony tail gets off the lead bike wearing club colors and a do-rag, looked pissed, black semi-auto on his left hip cross-draw. He steps up to me and sticks his hand out, big smile, “Hey I’m CL, you must be Charlie.  Some of us heard about all this and we come out to help” and before I could say anything he yelled at the guys on the roof.  “Hey!  Y’all come on down and get a break, we got you.”  The other two strode over and scooted up the ladder while CL looked the job over, and I just stood there in my shoes. 

 
“Gerald.  Man.  I mean.  Dang man.  What’s going on?” 
“I don’t really know.  I only know the one guy from work and that’s a dude from his neighborhood” gesturing at the two sitting on the trailer.  They looked beat. 
“Where in the world are we going to get the cash to pay these guys?  I mean, look, there’s Raymond and his two boys yesterday, and these two guys, and then these bikers show up!  And I haven’t heard the first word back from the chick that is supposed to be paying us in the first place.  Dadblame it!” 

Gerald didn’t say anything but he had the same thought, I could tell.  I went on working and worrying. 

 
It got too dark to work so we all started moving toward getting things straightened up.  The three bikers were in a huddle, one on his phone.  I stood next to them and called to the two guys Gerald knew. 
“Hey I really appreciate all the help from everybody.  Really.  But look, I can’t pay anybody anything, boys, and I’m sorry as I can be.” 

“No man, no.  No worries.  You’re helping somebody and we’re just helping you.  No worries.”  CL and his biker friends smiled, everybody nodded and I felt like a turd on a birthday cake. 
Gerald was walking to his car and I stopped him. 
“Man this has me feeling bad.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“All these guys pitching in, everybody coming by like this.  I don’t know, man, I just don’t know.  It ain’t right.  It just ain’t.” 
“Aw quit worrying about it” he said.  “It’ll be alright.”  That didn’t help.  It wouldn’t be alright. 
I sat in my car and stewed about it.  No, there was no other option.  Only one way out of this. 
I thumb-typed to Stacie, “We will get the roof on.  You buy supplies if need.  No pay to me” and sent it.  I felt like a fever had broke. 

I called Gerald to talk it over. 
“Hey man, I just don’t feel right taking money for that roof job if all those boys are helping for nothing.  I messaged Stacie and told her not to pay me but I didn’t say anything about you.” 

“If you talk to her or whatever tell her I said the same thing.  It don’t change anything.  I bought my guys lunch today and they were happy with that.  Shoot man, if we keep up this pace we’ll be through in a day or two anyway.”  He didn’t seem as let down as I was about the money, but he was more that way than I was.  I could’ve used the extra money, but the deal was done.  Another message to tell Stacie Gerald agreed, too and she sent back “!!?? r you sure?  thanksyou.” 

It was a while before I got out there the next day, and two of the three bikers were there and the trailer was piled with the old junk.  One of the guys was looking at something on the roof and frowning.  “This ain’t good and I was afraid we’d find it” he told me from on the roof.  “Water has run down in a crack and gathered ‘till it rotted this whole section out”, waving at a big area.  While I thought it over CL said “I got one of mine coming.”  Gerald and his two came in so we all worked on the other side and about a half-hour later the third biker came in leading a one ton truck that had seen better days.  It had a big generator mounted in the bed and when the old guy limped out of the cab CL said “That’s his dad” pointing to the biker.  The two of them laid out a set of cables hooked to several outdoor power outlets and a stand with some work lights.  They talked to the others about running the generator and then got it started.  The biker got back on the Harley and the old guy limped over and hiked a leg over the seat, whacked the biker’s helmet, and off they roared. 

An old lady from next door had been watching us the whole time, I’d bet we were probably more interesting than TV.  Well, she came over walking very slowly taking small careful steps, rocking back and forth, with two big grocery bags one on each arm and all bundled up in her good coat.  When Gerald saw her coming he jogged over and met her.  He took the bags on one arm and her on the other and they came over to the driveway where we all were. 
“I come to bring y’all some food” she said.  “I seen all y’all out here working on my friend Ellie’s house and I wanted to do what I could do for you.”  Her glasses were down on the end of her nose and she would look through them if she was talking to you and over them if not.  We put a piece of plywood on two sawhorses from the truck and set the bags down.  Sandwiches neatly wrapped in paper towels, pimento cheese and baloney, and they looked better than a roasted turkey this far past lunchtime.  Everybody came over and the second biker, I never did get his name, hushed everybody while he talked to the neighbor for a minute.  One of the guys said he was starving and went for a sandwich but he was stopped short. 

 
“Hold it here, now.  First we want to all thank Miz Horton for her kindness, making this fine food for us.”  He put his arm around her as he spoke and she leaned into him like he was her grandson.  He kept his arm tight around her, tall skinny white boy biker and a short black women easily his grandmother’s age.  “And she tells me Miz Ellie is one of her closest friends and looks forward to having her back close by.”   “Honey”, he said looking at her, “we’ll do our part to get her back as soon as we can.”  She strained up and kissed him on the cheek and tried to hug him back. 

 
“We’re going to give thanks, now.  Bow your heads.”  And he made the sort of prayer a biker would, straight talk and to the point, no frills and no nonsense.  Miz Horton raised her arms and swayed back and forth, speaking quietly all the time he said the blessing.  We all made a point to speak to Miz Horton and thank her personally, and tell her how good those sandwiches were.  She talked with us a few minutes then she said she was “’bout wore out”, so Gerald and the biker walked Miz Horton back to her house and got her inside and settled. 

Somebody came up with two power saws and we went to work on the rotten wood.  A sheet of plywood and three 2 x 4s appeared and me and CL cut everything and got all that ready to put in, but before we finished someone from up the street brought over an air compressor and a nail gun, he said his dad used to work with Jake at the plant.  Man, we fired that compressor up and went to town.  While we tore the rest of the old roof off and fixed a few more rotten places they turned on the work lights and it was bright enough to play football.  We didn’t find a stopping place ‘til way late and we had new roofing on about half of the house. 

That went on for another few days, after work and into the night.  Raymond took two more loads to the landfill that week and would leave his boys to help.  One of the bikers and the nail-gun neighbor took the garage doors down and put them back in operation; we moved all the shingles out next to the house and that neighbor, J’Malle I learned, cleaned the garage out and swept the dirt floor clean.  We’d work along, people coming and going as they could, generator going, lights bright on the yard.  Miz Horton next door made some more visits and we got some lawn chairs for everybody to sit in. 

 
We were finished by Friday afternoon.  I felt like I’d graduated from high school again.  Everybody from around the house came by and gathered around and talked in the cold air while we got all our tools and things out of the way, there was a pot of Russian Tea, the biker’s dad saw Miz Horton and found out “they went to different schools together” and knew some of the same people, and they talked about the old times late into that darkening afternoon.  J’Malle wore a Santa cap and brought his two little kids over wearing elf pajamas under their coats, and one of the string of blinking lights from across the street found their way over to decorate Raymond’s trailer. 

 
After a while things settled down and everybody went back to what they’d been doing. Stacie and her mom got her Aunt Ellie got moved back in and I went by to see them while they were all there a month or so later.  The gum chewing dude, ‘he’s not my boyfriend’, was there and Stacie was draped all over him.  He had a toothpick stuck in his mouth and didn’t say the first word to anybody.  That’s the last I saw of any of them. 

 
In the spring, when daffodils were blooming, breezes were warm and after a hard wet winter it seemed like every day was soft, easy, and hopeful, I drove back to have a look at all we had done at Christmas; I had the windows down thinking about it on the drive over and it all seemed like it had been in a different life. 

 
The sign in the yard read For Sale and a layer of straw was spread over where the garage had been.  Every single stick of the roof we’d put on was in the back of a big dump truck in the driveway, it’s ten tires making deep channels in the spot where we all ate pimento cheese and baloney.  And four or five guys were bustling around in and out of the house.  Something had happened but I wasn’t sure what.  Maybe somebody had bought it to renovate and resell, who knows?  I didn’t hang around to ask questions.  Besides, it didn’t change anything. 

Kryos: Chapter 16

Previous chapter

Ryard Vancing adjusted his high collared coat against the chill northern wind which swept through the narrow rightward walkway of the market district, intensifying its feverish clangor, and side-eyed the woman Syzr had assigned to accompany him. He’d missed her name during their hasty introduction and attempted to surreptitiously acquire it from her gleaming monochromatic armor. His gaze alighted upon the left side of her breastplate. No name tag. He looked next to the woman’s left pauldron, observing only Kryos’ distinctive sigil, black against the metallic-polymer carapace. He grimaced and cursed internally, annoyed by the informational dearth, embarrassed by the momentary mental lapse.

“Why’d they remove the name tags from your uniforms?”

The woman’s voice crackled mechanically through her facemask as a group of vendees passed slowly by, peering at the contents of the hastily assembled market stalls, “Its Sirin, Sir. Elyse Sirin.”

“I wasn’t-“

“Names can be a health hazard.” She lowered her voice and leaned slightly toward Vancing. “See how they leer.”

Vancing looked to the vendees passing along the passage before them, their eyes narrow, brows furrowed, mouths disdainfully curled, their garb cheap but garishly worn. One of the men, a lean, mangy souther with boisterous facial tattoos, rammed his shoulder into the CAV-keep’s own, knocking Vancing off balance.

“Watch it,” the souther shouted with a half-suppressed grin, prompting laughter from his rambunctious confederates.

“You’re the one who ran into him,” Sirin declared flatly, looking to the interloper from behind her helmet’s pall.

The souther whirled upon the woman, face contorting with malice. “What’d you say?”

“You ran into him. You should apologize.”

“That so, bootlicker?”

“You should pay more attention to where you’re going.”

“You should pay more attention who you’re talking to,” the man took a firm step toward Sirin, “Bootlicker.”

“Its alright,” Vancing replied with mild trepidation, raising his hands. “No harm done.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, company man,” the souther spat without taking his eyes off Sirin, inches from her face.

“You people think you’re so special. Think you run this city.”

“Not as much as you run your mouth.”

The man spat suddenly, coating Sirin’s helm in effluvia. Ryard flinched, expecting tragedy. Sirin said nothing. Unmoved. The souther’s companions ceased their laughter and tensed.

“What? Nothing? Nothing? That’s what I thought. Bitch.” The man puffed out his chest, chin titled upward, eyes wide, jerking his upper body threateningly toward the woman. She observed the man silently as spittle slid down her helm. When Ryard moved to intervene, a member of the branded upstart’s party nudged him in warning, staring around with concern. “Les git, man.” The tattooed man grimaced, realizing his antics had aroused the displeasure of the surrounding shoppers and vendors, some of whom were armed, and, in degrees subtle to overt, made the fact plain for all.

“I’ll be back for you, bitch. I’ll be back for you.” The man made a rude gesture with his tongue and left off with his friends.

Ryard sighed, turned to the woman and handed her one of the antiseptic wipes he kept in his inner jacket pocket to clean up after machinery maintenance runs. She took the synthetic cloth and cleaned the spit off her helm methodically.

“Charming guy.”

“The facial tattoo marks him a Red Reaver.” She declared, disposing the cloth in a nearby metal waste bin which stood between an automatic food crafter seller and a hand-made jewellery stand officiated by a young girl whose hair was decorated with myriad feathers.

“Guessing that’s not a comic book fan club.”

She nodded focusing her attention to the affin module mounted into her left gauntlet, checking the images of the hooligans captured by her helm’s monitors. “Local gang. Souther upstarts, mostly. Suspected by the Security Commission of three turf dispute homicides on rival gang members in as many months.”

Ryard raised his brow and spread his hands. “Why’s nothing been done?”

“With the continual influx of migrants the security commission has been overwhelmed. Doesn’t have the manpower to investigate. If they did, its doubtful they’d find the will to sustain an investigation into a protected class, regardless of the damage being done for fear of sparking further insurrection. Its one of the reasons why district locals started stocking weapons. Legal and otherwise.”

“Perhaps you should change into something else,” Ryard gestured to the woman’s white armor as he wound through a pack of errant skytechs.

“Is that an order, Sir?”

“A suggestion.”

“I’d prefer not to sneak around like a common criminal in my own district.”

“You live here?”

“Used to. I was born here.”

“I thought all KSRU personnel were sourced from the deep colonies.”

“Used to be. Syzr changed the recruitment policy after the agency transitioned from special operations to general policing. A move intended to win trust with the local communities.”

“Doesn’t seem to have worked out.”

“Not as well as he’d hoped. That’s why you’re here, Sir.”

“Right.”

The duo walked in silence for some time through the busy souk, assailed at regular intervals by tricket hockers, used clothing salesmen, scrap merchants and children asking for donations for “the local church.” Sirin shooed them away, explaining to Vancing that there were no churches in the entire district. Shortly, the pair stopped before a stall in the end of the north-western edge of the bazaar where a mechanically magnified voice echoed from the piazza beyond. Only snippets of the speech were audible. Ryard caught “Plantation of doubt,” and, “We true sons of Aecer.” Sirin ignored the distant orator and turned to Ryard.

“May I attend to a personal errand, Sir? Won’t be more than two minutes.”

“Of course. We’ve got plenty of time.”

Sirin moved through the packed crowd to the old man behind the stall, who smiled and inclined a balding head in greeting.

“Ms. Sirin. Back so soon. And with company. What’s your name, son?”

“Ryard. Pleased to meet you, Sir.”

“Nice to meet you, son.”

“Any fresh eels, Cab?”

“Oh, my dear, we just ran out.”

“Drat.”

“Don’t fret!” The fishmonger smiled and bent, with considerable effort, underneath his wide, hand welded table, withdrawing a culinary cryo-cube, which he set upon the tabletop and patted proudly. “Still have one box of jellied eels. Colony’s finest. Saved them just for you.”

Ryard arched his brow as the woman bent with delight to the large black box before opening up her credit application and hastily swiping her wrist bound module over the old man’s processor.

Ryard folded his arms and jerked his head towards the oratory, “Whose giving the speech?”

“Kriezer Sonderon. Haven’t you heard of him?”

“Heard of him. But not much. Heard he’s running for the Chancellorship.”

The old man bobbed his head. “Moonshot. But I gotta respect his dedication. He’s been giving speeches all across the sector for months now. Always in person. Always on time. Been getting impressive crowds of late.”

“He still drawing venom from the press?” Sirin inquired as Cab took the culinary cube and placed it on a hound-sized courier drone perched upon a pallet which rattled and crawled dutifully towards the customers.

“Sure, sure,” the old man rubbed his jaw, “But he’s popular round here. Not often the big whigs speak directly to the public, specially not here. Chancellor certainly doesn’t. Vis Corp’s headlines play well with the cognoscenti. Less so with the man-in-the-street.”

“I see. Well, we’ve got to be going. Thanks for the eels, Cab. I owe you one.”

“Any time.”

The pair moved off from the market lane, the fishmonger’s transport drone following close behind, clicking over the wind-polished pavement. Ryard searched the southern edge of the throng which had assembled in the spacious plaza beyond the souk. At the center of the mass a small man, unimpressively dressed, spoke from a pedestal ringed by large men with dark body armor, stunners at the ready.

“-no longer will we hang our heads in shame, no longer will we bow before alien masses, no longer will we sit idly by while the Consortium strips us of our birthright. Our guests jeer. Clearly, they disagree. They disagree because they’ve gotten just as fat and complacent as us, the only difference is that we, brothers and sisters, have at least gotten fat and complacent from our own work. From our own blood and sacrifice. It was aecerites that built this city. Not federants. Not southers. Not these others whose origins are opaque even to themselves. Yet they demand access to the full fruit of our labor as a impetuous child would demand sweets from his mother. And like children, they throw tantrums when they do not get what they want. What, I ask you, do our demanding guests themselves build? Certainly they do not build stable societies, otherwise they’d have no reason to pour into ours.”

The southers present jeered and booed, some shouting obscenities, others shaking their fists and chanting in unison, all drowned out by the thunderous cheers of the surrounding aecerite multitude.

“That him? Sonderon?” Ryard inquired, gesturing toward the stern-faced man upon the podium at the center of the plaza. Sirin nodded, her hand moving to rest gingerly on the cutter sheathed upon her hip as a fight broke out between several dissenting southers and Sonderon’s supporters.

“Stay close, Sir.”

“I will. Hey. Its her. Fawnell. There.”

The officer followed the CAV-keep’s gesticulation and discerned, amidst the increasingly raucous crowd, a well-dressed middle aged woman in conversation with a man who wore a ragged chartreuse coat.

“What would you like to do, Sir?”

“Not an opportune time. Too much commotion. And I don’t want to roll up on her with you. Might intimidate her. No, I need to reach her alone. Let’s wait. We can try and talk to her after this circus wraps up.”

“And if she leaves before Sonderon finishes?”

“We’ll follow her.”

Ryard continued to observe Fawnell as the fight between the souther hecklers and Sonderon’s security agents intensified as members of the crowd joined in. Ryard cursed as his view of Fawnell was suddenly blocked by the swelling mass. Bodies pressed against him as the discord grew. Ryard jerked as a firm hand fell upon his shoulder. He turned, expecting Sirin, but was greeted by the man with the chartreuse coat’s smiling face. Sirin whirled, drawing her cutter, lowering it just as swiftly as Ryard held up his hand for peace. The man’s face was familiar.

“Mr. Rehdon.”

“Mr. Vancing.”

“Surprised to see you here.”

“Shouldn’t be. My work takes me to all districts. How’re you fitting in with Syzr’s crew?”

Ryard looked over Illander’s left shoulder to behold Fawnell nervously glancing back and forth between the melee and Sirin.

Illander removed his hand from the CAV-keep’s shoulder as one of the protestors was brought down by a stun-shot from Sonderon’s guards and spasmed upon the ground, screaming in pain. The crowd cleared away from the guards momentarily as they spread out in a wide circle around the orator’s makeshift podium. Fawnell gasped and Sirin tensed, primed to draw her weapon.

“This powder-keg is about to blow, Mr. Vancing. I suggest we take our leave before it does.”

Ryard nodded curtly. “Have you eaten, Mr. Rehdon?”

“Not yet.”

Vancing looked to the courier drone which carried, upon his back, Sirin’s well-stocked culinary cube and then returned his attention to the green coated man.

“Do you like eels?”

“I do. But that’d make a scant meal. I’ve a overstocked pantry and few to share it with.”

“That’s a very kind offer.”

“Is it accepted?”

Ryard looked queriously to Sirin, who stood guard at his side.

“Up to you, Sir.”

“Accepted it is.”

Rehdon clapped his hands together and rubbed them, a wide smile on his wan face. “Splendid. This way.”

Ryard and Sirin followed Rehdon and Fawnell down the pulsating streets of the market district as Consortium klaxons sounded in the distance. Fawnell flinched and drew her collar taunt about her neck, as if to gird herself from the aural onslaught. Rehdon leaned to the woman, put his hand lightly upon her lower back and whispered something in her ear, after which she nodded, smiled sadly and relaxed. The group then passed north beyond the market district where the tessellated crowd thinned and arrived before an ancient theatre surrounded by incongruous tenements, bedecked with motley desaturated recyced plastics and small bands of low-end automated street cleaners and package couriers moving water filters and bandages, errant wide-eyed children and small flocks of birds whose smoky coloration rendered them near-indistinguishable from the housing exteriors upon which they perched and clucked and cooed. Everywhere the scent of decaying batteries, avian fecal matter and fresh sediment, residue of residential tofts and construction plats.

Rehdon halted before the high, decorated glass and wood double-doorway of the antediluvian theatre and turned to his companions with a smile, “Welcome to my humble abode.”

“You live here?” Ryard inquired, craning his neck to the top of the opulent structure, dwarfed and shrouded by the surrounding tenements.

“Yep. Well, partially. Whole place was going to be demolished. Found that to be a shame, given its history. Luckily, used some contacts from The Center to get in touch with the Aecerite Historical Society. After some back and forth I persuaded them to delay the demolition long enough to scramble funds to buy it. Ever since its been a home away from home.”

“And a delight to the community,” Fawnell added as Rehdon opened the rightward door and ushered his guests inside with a dramatic bow.

Once inside the lavish confines of the old theatre, Sirin slowed, waited for Fawnell and Rehdon to pass, turned to Vancing and slowly removed her helmet, revealing a smooth oval face wreathed by pale blonde locks, clipped-down at the left of the head and the base of the skull; her eyes, blue, lips thick, and about her jaw and brow, a series of small irregular scars.

“Sir, I think its a good idea to keep watch at the entrance in the event those reavers from earlier decided to follow us.”

Ryard stared at the striking visage. Lips slightly parted, poised words stunted.

“Sir, are you feeling alright?”

“Hm, yes. Yes. Fine. That’s a good idea.”

“I’ll call you if I see anything.”

“Alright.”

The woman inclined her head curtly and removed a packet of pre-cooked eel from the courier drone and ordered it to follow Ryard, then turned and walked back to the entrance, helmet under her left arm.

“Is your friend always so standoffish?” Fawnell asked from where she stood a few paces ahead of the man.

“And easy on the eyes?” Rehdon interjected slyly.

Fawnell nudged the man in the ribs. He grinned and held up his hands as if in surrender.

“Call me Ryard, ma’am. And, to answer your question, I couldn’t tell you. First time working with her. So, how did you two meet?” Ryard queried suddenly, desperate to change the subject, walking to his remaining companion’s sides, hands in his coat pockets, drone following.

“We met through Astrid Sodabrucke’s campaign.”

“I hear she stands a good chance of winning the election.”

“Mm hm. Better than Sonderon, that’s for sure.”

The woman looked to Ryard. Weighing his response to the jab. When he said nothing she continued.

“I was a staffer during last years election and early on Ms. Sodabrucke asked me to reach out to local organizations. First group I contacted was The Center-“

“I was just a volunteer organizer at the time,” Rehdon added.

“He’s just being modest. He really helped me along.”

A young girl was visible upon the stage of the auditorium, flowers in her hair. Her garb, a patchwork of shoddy materials. The girl smiled and waved to the entrants. Rehdon waved back as he waltzed down the traverse.

“Ah, Mallory. Be a dear and grab three of those prepacked lunches from the pantry, will you.”

The girl beamed, whirled and bounded behind the high scarlet curtain and vanished into the darkness of the stage house, footfalls receding to a muted patter, then, silence.

“Your daughter?”

“Dear Mallory is an orphan. Formerly a sifter. Worked the landfills prior to the Markov Plan. When it was put in place, she had nowhere to go, so I hired her to keep the theatre ship-shape. Make yourselves at home,” Rehdon bid, moving to stand athwart the stage as Ryard took in the strange masks, marbled busts and pieces of scrated and shanty mail arrayed about the stage as Fawnell took a seat in the front leftward row with a sigh of relief.

“I feel as if my legs are gonna fall off.”

“That’d be a shame, they’re quite shapely.”

The woman shook her head as Ryard lowered himself down beside her.

Ryard pranced to the edge of the stage, twirling a cane he’d fetched from the bric-a-brac piled haphazardly about the dais, “A show before our meal?”

“You going to dance for us?”

“Ah ha, a dance, what a splendid idea!”

Rehdon fidgeted with his carpus-wound module, whereupon an ethereal waltz played from the auditorium speaker-system. The stage-borne man swayed to the rhythm, his movements growing progressively more bizarre and exaggerated. Fawnell giggled, turning to Vancing with a raise of brows.

“He’s such a cad.”

“He seems like a real nice guy.”

“He really is.” She cleared her throat, going stiff, “But I take it from the presence of your friend you didn’t come out here so we could talk about the arts over a light brunch.”

“No ma’am.”

“You KSRU?”

“No. I’m just a CAV-keep.”

Ryard remained quiet a moment as the triple meter orchestration swelled ominously and cut out.

“Well, I’m going to go see what’s taking Mallory so long, make yourselves at home,” Rehdon declared over his should as he spun his cane with practiced ease and vanished behind the stage house curtain.

“Alright,” Fawnell replied, raising her voice. She waited for the host to leave before returning her attention to Vancing, “I’m guessing you want me to talk to the press? Put out a statement?”

“That would be helpful.”

“I don’t mind having lunch with you, Mr. Vancing. You seem nice. You really do. But I’m not going to discuss this matter any further.”

“Most of the information blacked out after Markov is maintained by the KSRU.”

“How?”

“Kryos Industries manages the database for the ASC.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I was briefed. Saw danzig’s priors. Next time he decides to slice someone up,” he pointed to the girl who reemerged from behind the stage curtain bearing a covered polymer tray, “It might be someone like her. More his type.”

Sadness and fear shone in the woman’s eyes.

“It’s not that simple.”

Ryard met the woman’s gaze, “Why?”

Fawnell clutched her hands together and exhaled deeply.

“Because of Sodabrucke’s campaign. She maintains me as a consultant.”

“You’re afraid they’ll do to you and her what they did to Syzr.”

“You know how sensitive issues are surrounding aecerite and souther relations. The headline, ‘Sodabrucke connected to anti-souther fanatic.’ I won’t chance it.”

“Who profits by your silence? Danzig, or his next prospective victim?”

Mallory traversed the retractable stair of the newly refurbished stage and proffered the tray, which Fawnell took and placed in her lap. She watched Mallory retreat back up the stairs and turned to Ryard with sudden resolve.

“Fine. I’ll do it. Under one condition.”

“Name it.”

“Security. Until this blows over.”

“Done.”

She nodded and opened the tray. Sliced pomegranate.

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 15

Previous chapter

A cry of animal pain echoed throughout the outer dormitory hall aboard the Progenitor as two boys, one large and muscular, one raw-boned and small, tussled, falling to the floor with grunts of exertion as a rotund youth watched with mounting trepidation from a distance. The pudgy boy cried for the combatants to stop, time and time again, growing more agitated with every subsequent protestation. Shortly, a figure emerged from the high, arched portal at the end of the corridor and quietly advanced upon the trio. The objector’s expression subsided to dumb and totalizing terror as the entrant’s voice, calm and commanding, echoed throughout the vastness of the cavity.

“It only takes one cuckoo to ruin a nest.”

The three boys froze, the larger one looking over his shoulder to behold a pale man of middling height, garbed in form-fitting vestments, obsidian and auric-trimmed, his hair short and neatly back-swept upon his pate, dark as his garb. His face, masklike and keen.

“Do you know this bird, Damin?”

The large youth’s mouth parted, lips quivering. “No, Mr. Kryos.”

The young man that had taken a pummeling rolled to his side with labored breath, grimaced and glared at his foe. Eidos looked to the youth on the ground placidly and gestured to the doughy, terror-stricken boy by the door with a tenebrous, sharkskin gloved hand.

“Help him up.”

The rotund boy’s eyes widened and, momentarily, he jostled forward and hefted the battered youth, Graf, from the ground. The beaten boy fixed his shirt and wiped blood from his lip, wobbling defiantly on unsteady legs.

Kryos looked from face to face. His own visage, statuesque in surveyance. Xanthous eyes alighting on Damin.

“Explain your flapping, little bird.”

Damin gestured to Graf, face contorted with ill-constrained rage, “He said… he insulted my family. Sir.”

“What did he say?”

“Said southers were were lower than apes.”

“Does beating him disprove the assertion?”

The boy said nothing as Kryos stepped forth, leaning toward Damin’s recoiling face.

“Why are you here?”

“Because of my father.”

“And why is he here?”

“Because… he works for you.”

“Do you?”

“No.”

“And so you earn no keep. And if you are party to another such outburst, neither shall he. Do you understand me, little bird?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“It would pain me to clip your wings before you learn to use them.”

The boy said nothing more and cast his eyes to his shoes. Kryos straightened and looked to Graf.

“Return to your quarters. And boy.”

Graf paused and turned to Kryos expectantly as blood trickled down his chin.

“Be more mindful of your manners.”

The boy nodded solemnly and shortly all three began moving off.

“Not you, Duncan. You stay.”

The pudgy youth held-up reluctantly, looking over his shoulder to the pale, pitch-gilt man behind him.

“Walk with me.”

Graf and Damin departed through the portal at the end of the high hall as Duncan moved to stand beside the speaker. Kryos began strolling slowly down the high, vaulted hall, away from the dormitory, Duncan following apprehensively. For a moment all was silence, save the duo’s rhythmic footfalls upon the stainless lacquered floor. A few service drones rolled from distant alcoves to clean up the blood. The boy looked from side to side. The high albescent walls were thick with white statuary, the artifacts shaped in the likeness of men and women of varying ages, all garbed in the standardized sy-chitin of the deep colonies, poised in grave and august variations.

After half a minute of quiet, Kryos spoke.

“Why didn’t you intervene? Break up the fight?”

Duncan shrugged, struggling to put his past emotions into words.

“A man overcharged with violent instincts is as given to vitiation as a man bereft of such impulses.”

Kryos turned to the nearest statue and strode up to it, hands behind his back, his heliodoric eyes widening.

“Do you know this man?”

The boy observed the statue before which Kryos stood for a long moment. The artwork depicted a middle-aged man decked in old-gen KSRU armor, with fine, chiseled features, short hair and a long scar across the left side of his face, gazing stolidly into the distance. The young man shook his head in response to the query, short, auburn locks falling over his left eye.

“His name was Valen Drossian. One of the first of the KSRU. And one of the finest. Nine years ago, when Aestival began their bloody bombing campaign against our topside facilities, I charged him with hunting the malcontents down. Fifteen citizens died before he tracked the leader, Moreno Carduus, to her lair, a formerly abandon warehouse in the exclusion zone. Once he and his men were at the entrance, primed for entry, one of Carduus’ confederates hijacked their affinity modules and informed them that six citizens were currently being held at the facility and if they did not retreat immediately from the district, all of the hostages would be killed. One for every minute of inaction that passed. Video proof was then provided for the claim. So Valen had two choices: Storm the building and risk the slaughter of the hostages; or retreat, allow the insurgents to flee and hope the prisoners were treated mercifully.”

“Which did he choose?”

“The latter. At Valen’s command, they left the area and let Aestival escape. Consequently, every hostage was executed. Three men, two women and a little girl, seven years of age. Their heads were severed and placed at the base of the newly built KSRU tower, looking up at Valen’s office.”

The lad’s face crinkled as he once more grasped clumsily for words. Finding none. Kryos reached his left hand to the statue and caressed its smooth, alabaster cheek.

“Valen died three weeks later in a bombing of my company’s topside headquarters. The charge laid by a plant from Aestival. Thereafter I commissioned this monumental in his honor. That his deeds not be forgotten. A work which was to inspire the rest which you see within this hall. Every man, no matter how virtuous, has his fault. Valen’s was believing in a world which did not exist.”

“Why are you telling me all this, Sir?”

Kryos let his hand fall from the statue and turned to the boy.

“Because you are a Valen in the making.”

The duo’s exchange was interrupted by harried footfalls and labored breath, followed by a well-groomed and elderly man in sy-chitin, who jogged forth and paused some twenty feet from the pair, caught his breath and then strode quickly to Kryos’ side.

“What is it, Gabel?”

“Sir. Over Secretary Gild requests an audience. He gave no details save that the request relates to a matter of utmost importance.”

“He called himself?”

“Aye, Sir.”

“He’d not have called personally without the assent of the Chancellor. Likely concerning the Syzr affair. Tell him I shall conference within the hour, lest that proves inconvenient for him.”

“Very well, Sir.”

The clerk bowed curtly and departed down the hall, whereafter the boy, his face lined with perplexity, stared at the statue.

“What was the world he believed in?”

“One without strife.”

Kryos traced the lines of the scar about the statue’s face.

“He failed to appreciate life’s fulcrum.”

The man let his hand fall from the statue and looked to the vault above it, as if discerning a shuttered form.

“War existed long before we did.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 14

Previous chapter

“Do you think I’ve governed well?” Agna Richter queried, well-lotioned hands tightly clasped before her waist, fingers writhing with agitation as she gazed out the spotless window of the cluttered highrise office, beyond which shimmering Kryos Industries aircrafts drifted along the thermals above the sleek and jagged towers of Central, their comparatively thin forms casting colossal transient shadows; aphotic blades, slow-cleaving the towering brightness.

Ermin Gild paused midway to removing an errant eyelash from his left suit sleeve, right brow arching at the Chancellor’s query; pale mouth crinkling with displeasure and mild apprehension.

“I trust you’re not blaming yourself for the recent perturbations.”

“Spare me the HR obfuscations. I’m not one of your clients.”

“Very well.”

“You didn’t answer.”

“Yes, of course.”

He removed the detritus from his sleeve and straightened his collar, brows crinkling.

“I used to think so,” the woman replied with restrained exasperation, turning slowly from the window, gray-auburn hair glimmering with pane-transmuted luminance, “Now, I’m not so sure. The city has changed. Its nearly unrecognizable from when I first took office.”

“Change is the only constant.”

“You say these things often. Things that belong on postcards. It is the rate which concerns me.”

“A rate we’ve helped bolster. You were the one who signed the Markov Plan.”

“Something to be proud of. Or so I was told at the time.”

Gild gestured to one of the massive aeroplatforms drifting slowly beyond the window, “I remember the old com towers back before Kryos took over the sky. That was, what, twenty five years ago?”

“Yes.”

“My mother believed the towers were giving her cancer, now she thinks the sky-cells are spying on her.”

The Chancellor laughed dryly.

“Why?”

Gild shrugged.

“On balance, negative emotions prevail. Apprehension. Anxiety. Suspicion. Fear. We’d not have survived long as a species were we capable only of merriment and serendipity.”

“I suppose. But. Its not just the buildings. Or the sky-cells. Its the people. I don’t recognize them anymore. My neighbors are foreigners. Their customs are alien. There was a time when I could simply look at a passerby and know their origin. The city. Or elsewhere. I could discern their district by their accent. Their dress. Their gestures. To do as much now I have to query an affinity module. To know one’s origin is to know one’s mind. I find myself wondering: Are they no longer of Aecer, or is it I that have been passed by? Am I out of step? Isolated? Antiquated? I don’t think I am. I suppose that’s how it always goes. The advance of age brings with it golden idylls. But to believe in their verity is foolish. The past is afforded its inordinate luster by the vitality of youthful ignorance,” She wearily removed the brow-bound affin transmitter previously used to give her hastily cobbled speech to the public, and handed it to her confederate. Gild took the device wordlessly, his eyes fixed upon the woman in keen scrutiny; the lines of her face in stark relief by the scant-filtered light. She appeared to have aged ten years in the space of five. Gild returned the transmitter to the desk inlay where the Chancellor was want to keep it and put his hands in his pocket.

“People think times change rapidly once they pass middle age because they’ve half a lifetime of knowledge to refer to. That’s why most people tend to become increasingly recalcitrant in their attitudes the older they get. Having more, they realize more fully why they have it, and all that went into its production, and so understand how easily it could be taken away,” Gild responded matter-of-factly, eyeing up the food crafter on his superior’s desk, “Consequently, solutions become scarcer, as a fixation upon preservation – the fear of change – divert creative energies from reformation.”

The Chancellor smiled sadly.

“That’s a very polite way of calling me a fossil.”

Gild withdrew a piece of candy from the crafter and popped it in his mouth, closing his eyes momentarily as he savored the algorithmically calibrated chemicals.

“Not a fossil. A holy relic.”

“I didn’t say you could have those.”

Gild stopped mid-mastication, “What do you want me to do, put it back?”

“No.”

He pushed the chocolate morsel to one side of his mouth, tapping his foot.

“With all due respect, Chancellor, you need to focus.”

“I do. That answers my question.”

“What question?”

“Nevermind.”

Gild was silent a moment and finished off the candy with a muffled crunch before speaking in measured, forceful tones.

“Did you see the Kleiner interview?”

“Yes. I’d meant to ask for your advice.”

“Well, you must act. The sooner the better.”

The woman ran her hands across her forearms. Mouth creasing.

“What would you recommend?”

“Not another speech. At least not on the topic. Have something arranged to take the public’s mind off of the incident and off of you,” he moved the wrapper theatrically across the table, away from the crafter, “Placate the populace. Draw the energy out of the rabble. Shift everything to externalities. Talk about the Federation. Talk about the global economy. Foreign relations. Sporting events. Keep the messaging positive, but not too positive, otherwise it’ll read as fraudulent. Anything you like that is distant from the volatile matters of the moment. Just don’t talk about Kryos, or you’ll be dragged into talking about Syzr and the Security Commission and why they haven’t moved on him, and what you’re doing about it and how that ties into the unrest. Et cetera. Doesn’t matter how you answer. You’re the figurehead, you get scapegoated. Or rather, we.”

She nodded solemnly and twined her fingers together.

“What do you think of the Colonel?”

“I don’t know much about the man. His record prior to The Rollout is light on details. I hear he’s quite fanatical. One of those until death types. A well-trained hound.”

“A well-trained hound is unlikely to bite without the consent of its master.”

“Yes.”

“In light of this, Vis Corp’s narrative strikes me as improbable.”

“Of course it is. But its plausible, given ignorance of the subject. And plausibly presented. Far as the public is concerned, that’s all that matters.”

“When is it we stopped being ‘the public?'”

“The day you were sworn into office.”

“If we want to move Syzr we have to talk to Kryos.”

“I can speak to him.”

“Five years ago you tried to have him removed from the board.”

“Yes. I’m not entirely sure that was wise.”

“He’ll not have forgotten.”

“Of course not. He never forgets anything. But he’s not the type of man to hold a grudge. At least, I don’t think he is. Even after all these years I haven’t completely figured him out. If you want to send someone else, I’ve no objection.”

“Do you still want it?”

“What?”

“Don’t be coy. His seat. On the board.”

“I don’t know.”

He looked out the window to where smoke roiled like a great phantasmal centipede, thinking on his superior’s words and wondering as to its origin, “So many things I thought were wings five years ago now seem as shackles.”

Next chapter

Taffy

by Dan Patterson

 
“Well.  Hell.”

The 23 year-old driveshaft decided it was finally time to quit. U-joint just gave up and it sounded like a pistol shot when it broke. “And here I sit with a bed full of split white oak,” he thought, and was a little surprised at his self-pity. It rattled in low range the other day when you let off the power, but pulled good in second and high. “But I shouldn’t ‘ve put so much strain on it with it knocking like that, and I knew better,” he thought. “Shoot. I just got what I deserved, I guess. That’s what you get for letting a little thing grow into a big thing, now what’re you gonna do, smarty, stuck down here by yourself?”

It was first week in October but you couldn’t tell it by the temperature. Like an oven and in the stagnant part of the evening with not a breath of air stirring, about two hours before dark, the heat wrapped on your face and head like a towel and it seems like no matter which way you look, that old sun is right in your eyes. It had been cool last month, and nice working and sleeping weather, but then it turned hot and dry for the past three weeks without a drop of rain anywhere. Leaves usually are near their peak color by now but they just turned yellow or brown and dropped straight to the dry ground where they lay and faded away. It was like they just gave up.

“Whoo boy, is it hot! Too hot for me to be out here cutting firewood by myself,” he half thought and half mumbled. Lately he’d been trying to keep from talking to himself so much, keeping his conversations to himself in his head. No one wants to hear an old man chatter on anyway; when he was younger he might listen to one of the old-timers for a few minutes just to be polite, but anything they said went in one ear and out the other.  That’s the last thing he wanted, to be nuisance or a bore. 

“Stay busy doing something”, he thought then said aloud “Yep.  Better to be busy.  Sure is.”

Staying busy had been the thing that helped the most since Teresa died nearly, what, six years ago now? That’s what got him down here in the first place, cutting a lightning-struck oak up into firewood. Staying busy. He didn’t need the wood but it sold well at the flea market on the weekends, and getting it gathered gave him a project and it got him out of the house, too. Kids were grown and gone, the three of them had left home within two years of each other and made the old brick house more of a waiting room than the home they used to know. The field here is half-mile away and used to be a tobacco farm, but there hasn’t been a crop made here for years and years. Fields all grown up, saplings, blackberry, and scrub pines mostly, but a tall line of cedar showed where a long fence used to be. Gives the rabbits a place to run and hawks something to hunt, I guess, but it’s a shame how it’s gone to waste. The family that owned the place gave it to their kids after they died, but they didn’t want anything to do with growing tobacco and started selling lots off of it, leaving the back few acres, too sloped for good building lots, to grow wild. Kids come down through here on their dirt bikes and use it for whatever kids do these days, but there hadn’t been a soul around all day and that suited him fine.  People had been getting on his nerves, another sign of getting older he guessed, and it just gets worse as the seasons pass.

At Teresa’s funeral home visitation the place was full of people, packed with everybody from church and the community, friends of the kids’, pretty much everybody in the area because she had been so good to everybody and all the people loved her. Or said they did. After a few somber minutes most of them started chatting about one thing and another, nothing to do with their dead friend or the sad family standing around like they were lost and everybody just a-havin’ a good old time. “Yeah, I got my beans in this weekend and you know I put in some pole beans with the half-runners this year,” somebody was saying to the preacher. He nodded in agreement and went on about his garden, and how he declared it to have the prettiest sweet potato vines he’d ever seen. Everybody talking up a storm, all happy, like it was a party. With my dead wife and the mother of three children, them there as well, lying open for the whole world to see. Another couple about our age walked up in a hurry and looked at Teresa in her final pose, the woman said, “I would have picked a different outfit for her. And something about her hair don’t look right, does it?” Katherine, the oldest, bit her lip and tears welled in her eyes. “I was with her when she bought that outfit and she was so proud. I think she looks so good, don’t you?” I put my arm around her and she cried into my shoulder like she did when she was little. “You know I never got my cake plate back from her after that Christmas reception at the church over two years ago,” I overheard. That was Beth Bodford, they went to school together and sang in the choir. A few days later I went to the store and bought four different cake plates and a box of chocolate covered cherries, put them in a nice gift bag with a bow and a card that read “I know she wanted you to have these back, but she was so sick. And we were all busy taking care of her that it just got away from all of us. I’m not sure which one is yours but you can have them all and thank you so much.” Damn biddy.

The truck was sitting a little nose-low with the rear wheels on the up heaved roots of the white oak he’d been cutting. The tree had fallen beside a dry creek bed and the truck hung up in some ruts on the way out. Even though he knew what he’d see, his curiosity got the best of him and he took the long step down from the cab, got on his knees and looked into the shadow under the truck at the busted driveshaft. And right there a big black snake was looking straight at him, maybe a foot away, its tongue flicking out and its shiny body contracting like a hose emptying. Surprised that he wasn’t even slightly startled he said, “Well hey Mister Snake. You looking for some cool shade, too buddy?” The snake stared for a heartbeat, then warily moved a few feet away, still under the shade of the old truck.  “Well I won’t bother you sir, you go on about your rat killin’ and don’t mind me even a little bit.”

“Whoo boy; raised up too fast,” and grabbed the outside mirror on the truck as he stood, but it took both hands. Standing uneasily waiting for the light-headed feeling to pass his hands and arms started tingling, all the way up to the elbows; felt like they were asleep. He held to the mirror and leaned against the door to get steady, huffing the hot air trying to catch his breath. “Breathing that ol’ exhaust from the chain saw didn’t do me much good,” he thought, and he could smell it on his shirt, mixing with the sweat and old man scent. Suddenly thirsty he took a deep slow breath to try and clear his head and said, “Got to keep upright, now. Don’t go falling down on top of Mister Snake down there.” And that was the funniest thing he’d ever said, the best joke he’d ever told and it just tickled him to no end, and he laughed so hard he was crying after a minute. “Mister Snake looking at me like ‘Who are you old man and what’er you doin’ down here?’”, he said between laughing to Marshal Thomas, his old friend from work standing straight as a board by the tailgate. A quiet man, a little older, Marshal had retired right before they closed the plant, and got out with some of his retirement; one of the lucky ones. Holding on to the mirror there beside the truck he had tears on his cheeks and his stomach muscles hurt from laughing so hard. He coughed and tried to catch his breath; a good laugh like that had been a long time coming, boy, a long time. He reached to his right back pocket where he always kept a handkerchief to wipe his face – Teresa had always ironed them but he never bothered with that any more.

His arms were feeling heavy and the tingling was worse, stinging now, and his hands were almost numb so he couldn’t feel the handkerchief in his pocket. Still leaning on the truck, he was so tired, he patted his pockets and thought he found it in the left one. He couldn’t get it out though so he took his ball cap off to wipe his forehead with his arm, but dropped the cap and felt that hot sun broiling down on his head making him sweat even more; his breathing quick and shallow now and felt like it was just moving the air around; his arms were throbbing all the way to his armpits.

“Oh Lord it’s so blessed hot!” The cap must’ve gotten kicked under the truck but that was too much work to get down and find it. “Why don’t you just let ol’ Mister Snake wear it?” he heard Marshal say after a minute, talking through his nose like he did, and that started another little laughing spell in spite of him feeling woozy and hurting so. “You think it’d fit him?”, he laughed some more and looked at Marshal but couldn’t see him, but he probably stepped over behind the brush to pee. Sweat was down in his eyes and they stung so he couldn’t make out much of anything, everything was moving and he felt like he was on a boat. “Hey Marshal. Hey! Where’d you go? Marshal! We got to get going, come on out now.” Still holding on to the mirror he moved over to the open door and put his rear against the edge of the seat. “I’m just going to sit here a minute and rest,” he thought, and pushed clumsily up on to the seat. It was about this time of year when the kids were still in school that Teresa went to the Doctor for a checkup and came home with the bad news about “needing to run more tests.” Thinking of that made him feel dark so he pushed it aside and leaned back closing his eyes, resting his head on the rear window of the truck; the door swung shut but he was too weak to push it back open and rested his throbbing arm on the ledge. His shirt was stuck to the back of the truck seat and he could feel the sweat drying and cooling and for just a moment he was still.  Quiet, and resting. Then quick as you could sneeze a sheet of sickness covered him from his crotch to his chin and his ears started ringing, low at first but quickly growing to a loud shrill squeal. Reaching too quickly for the door handle he fumbled it so the baloney sandwich he’d had for lunch went between the door and the seat, the stink making him sick again and he gagged and heaved as he finally got the door open.

His feet didn’t move like they were supposed to and he tumbled onto the dry grass and dirt beside the truck, landing on his side. Gnats had started gathering around where he’d gotten sick and they danced all around his face but his arms just would not move enough to swat them away. The split oak in the truck bed was suddenly a very fragrant wet perfume mixed with the dry dusty smell of the grass, strong in his nose; things got dim and the ringing in his ears stopped. He spit the bile and cleared his throat, still smelling the oak and grass and trying hard to breathe. Then he was pulling on his coat and walking down the kitchen steps to the wood pile to help dad. They were splitting and stacking wood under the shed – with a hard winter coming they were getting ready early, but here it was just before Thanksgiving and a dust of snow and hoarfrost already on the ground and it was low clouds and cold. So cold his nose and ears were numb and when he breathed it stung his lips and lungs. But breathing came really easy now and he was relaxed like when you’re sleeping under a warm blanket.

“If you twist the handle and give it a little jerk the same time you can flip the pieces off the block,” dad was saying.  “Let me show you,” and he took a smooth swing and expertly smacked a log with his sharp axe, the two pieces neatly falling on either side of the chopping block, as he did his left hand came off the handle like a batter swinging for the fence.

“I’ll put this up and you can split us some more,” he said, motioning to the stack of logs. His ten year-old arms were skinny and his hands were too small, but he rocked the red-handled double-bit axe out of the smaller block they used for making kindling and struggled a log up on the block.

“No, boy. Don’t use a double-bit for splitting a big log like that, it’s too light…”

“… light, follow the light, can you follow the light with just your eyes?” a pretty young voice said. But he could not understand her. He could see she was disappointed and she said some more things to him, pointing with the small bright flashlight and her other hand holding his head still. He could make out what she wanted and did it. She wore a white jacket and talked to some other people in white jackets, then they left the room. Some other people were in the room with him, one woman and two young men. The women kept putting her arm around his neck and hugging and that made him very uncomfortable; he never liked strange people touching him. The other two looked at him with somber worry and talked; he guessed they were talking to him but he couldn’t understand any of them. Finally they decided it was time to leave; he was weary of their worry and fret and was glad to be left alone. His shoulder hurt and it was in a tight sling that itched, he couldn’t make a fist with either hand and he had no idea of where he was or how he got there, and he was wearing thin pajamas with a robe over them. And he was hungry enough to eat a rag mop.

Steven, Randall, and Katherine walked down the hall of the Valley Rehabilitation Facility on their way out, Katherine walking in front a few steps with her head down.

“How’s your daddy doing today, honey?” Startled a little, Katherine looked up to see the nurse supervisor; she had given them all a summary of her father’s status when the call came; Katherine was the first to get here and led her brothers in supervising her father’s care. But all that was a temporary measure with no good plan for a next step.

“Oh, hey. His face is healing some, he’s alert but he doesn’t talk and I don’t think he knows us,” she said while the others caught up.

“Well it takes time, honey. It’s in the Lord’s hands and these doctors are all real good. I’ll pray for your daddy,” she said, “And for all y’all, too. We’ll take real good care of him for you.”

“Thank you,” they all said automatically. She went on her way leaving the three of them adrift and wondering what to do next.

An older lady came in the room next while he was fumbling with the slippers he was wearing and said something in a cheerful voice. He just looked at her waiting for her to speak English. “These people seem to know me, but who are they and where am I?” he thought. “And how did I get here,” but he had no answer and no one to ask. Every time he tried to talk some gibberish came out that only he could understand, so he quit trying. “Let’s get you to the dining room so you can have supper before your therapy!” she said to his unhearing ears, and took him dumbly by his elbow, the one that didn’t hurt, and walked very slowly to a room with several people sitting around round tables. She put him in a chair next to two fellows that looked like they’d been dug up out of a grave and a thin wrinkled old woman with long gray hair talking and laughing, and she kept on clapping her hands. A big cart came around and two smiling young men put plates down for everybody and they all ate what was on the plate, like kids in a school cafeteria. Whatever it was had no taste at all but he was glad to have it and finished every bite. After a while someone came for him and they went to a room where he sat on a bench and tried to squeeze a rubber ball, then walked in place on a treadmill for a long while.

All that went on for some days, he could not count how many and those same worried people came and went often, always worrying and fretful. Then after they all ate one day instead of squeezing rubber balls a lady stood in the center of the room and spoke loudly, and she was very pleased about it because she smiled and clapped her hands and the other people did too. Right soon three other people came in to the room, two women and a man and they had guitars, a small keyboard looking thing like a long suitcase and a yellow dog that looked almost like a collie but with shorter legs and shorter hair.  The woman spoke and everyone laughed while the dog sat up and waved its paws. The woman spoke to the dog and it would do something and everyone would laugh and clap; the dog seemed to be enjoying itself too. After a few minutes the two men started strumming the guitar and playing chords on the keyboard while the woman brought three or four people to the middle of the circle, they all sat around and started leading them in a song. The dog sat beside the man playing the keyboard and soon curled up and closed its eyes.

Some of that started to make some sense after a while, not the words but the tones and chords were familiar and he could make those sounds in his head. After a minute he mimicked the keyboard sound very low without opening his mouth, sort of a humming, matching the sounds when they were played long enough to hear well.
 
“He’s got the whole world in his hands” the three sang, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” There were two long notes he could hum and some shorter ones that he could not quite make out. He went on trying like that, trying to make that shorter, higher sounds but it wasn’t right. The next time he heard it he made his sound louder, with his mouth open just a little but it still wasn’t the same sound.

But the dog heard him this time and broke awake with its ears perked, looking around the room, its front legs now stiff and its hind legs quivering ready to spring. The three went on from those sounds to another one, slower and with the sounds not changing as much. The dog had relaxed a little but was still wide awake and looking around the room. 
 
“You are my sun shine, my only sun shine,” went the singers slowly in a language foreign to him but most everyone else was singing too. And badly.  But the sounds were coming more easily and something was familiar about them now. And when the sounds were longer like this he could match them pretty well. “..ha-ppeeee when skies are graaaay…” and when the long sound was made he opened his mouth and made that sound too, hoarse and a little trembly, “…eeee”, then “aaaaay” he sounded. And the dog sprinted from its seat and made a bee-line for where he was sitting. It sat right in front of him at attention and looked at his mouth as he made his sounds.

“Please don’t taaaake my sunnn shine awaaaaaay,” they sang. And he sounded “aaaake” and when he made the “aaaaay” sound the dog did too. “WOOOoooo…RrrrooooOOOO,” it sang and pawed at his knee with its tongue out. That seemed to make everybody happy and faces were turned to him and the yellow dog, some smiling and making sounds. He started to recognize the laughing sounds people were making, like a picture coming in to focus.

“Good girl, good girl! Let’s sing together girl!” Those were just noises to him, but the dog was looking at the young man slowly strumming his guitar.  “You are my…” and he waited for the dog. “Suunnn shiiine,” he sang and strummed, the dog’s mouth trembled. The keyboard made a chord. “Myyyy onnnly… suunn shiiine,” he sang and this time the dog joined with another “ooohhhwwww” and everyone laughed and they all stopped playing. 

“Sing with us Dale. Come on now don’t be bashful, you have a good voice,” his mother said as she scooted on to the piano bench. “No I do not, either,” he thought to himself. Dad has a smooth dark brown baritone, mom a higher women’s sound, more yellow. And older sisters Brenda and Karen could carry a tune without thinking about it in their clear green middle-pitched voices. I had a hard time finding where I fit and it made me feel right much out of place not to be able to sing like they could. I wanted to just go on outside and not be a bother, but they all made me stay. “Here Dale, this is your note” and she played a single, unadorned piano key, bright as a full moon. “Now that is an ‘E’, sing that note while I play it,” and I did, matching the piano sound after two or three tries with my kid voice; sisters behind me both giving me encouragement saying I was a natural and wishing they could sing like that, just to make me feel good. Dad was quiet, but smiling. “This is my note, it’s a ‘G’ and she sang it while she played her note. “Put them together,” she sang her note and played mine while I matched it, “and we get harmony. See how easy that is? Doesn’t it make you feel good?” Then everybody stood close together as mom played our notes one at a time and we all matched it with our voices, I was last and filled in the empty place just like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Mom said it felt good and she was right.

“You make me ha-ppeeee,” he sort-of sang and the dog jumped in his lap. Numb hands could not feel it, but with his face against it’s muzzle he breathed in the dog aroma and dog breath; it licked at his face and they were soon friends, its tail whacking him in the ribs.  “You make me ha-peee,” he sang again as best as he could, trying to make the notes sound right. The woman was trying to tell him something but it didn’t make sense. He looked at her with his face against the dog’s muzzle and she kept making sounds that he could not understand. She kept motioning to dog and saying something, and now she was crying for heaven’s sake. Such a pretty thing to cry like that. The dog stayed on his lap and pawed at her and she stopped crying and laughed a little; he could tell those sounds.

The man playing the keyboard and the woman helped move his instrument to where him and the dog were sitting, the other man brought over his guitar. The woman made some sounds and the man on the keyboard played two notes, alone with no chords, while she made her sounds.

“Taaa-Feee” she sang high to lower. “Taaa-Feee” and petted the dog in his lap. “Taa-Fee” he sang but weakly. “Taaa-Feee”, and the keyboard played the two notes and the man sang with him. The two did that several times, changing the two notes until he got them right, high to low, finally G to E. “Taaa-Feee” they sang several times.

“Taffy” he said hoarsely to his dogbuddy.  “Taffy,” and laughed a little to himself.


Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.

Stand Up, Hook Up

by Dan Patterson

The Charles Cannon Memorial Hospital in Banner Elk was hosting its usual troop of visitors on a pretty late spring morning in 1974. A small hospital serving an Appalachian population largely older and wary of doctors, less prone to complain than the people of more affluent economies and flatter terrains further east. In those days the waiting rooms were sparse: molded plastic chairs in rows, a few out of date magazines neglected on a coffee table, ashtrays, and a pay phone on the entry wall. The doctors and staff were well acquainted with their patients and greeted them with, “How you gettin’ along?”, “I hear you got a new grandbaby!”, and the like, while the group chatted quietly among themselves, waiting their turn. You might hear a discussion of who “got saved” at church and concerns about their gardens or the weather, but nothing very personal and not above a quiet talk.

Except for this old boy sitting next to me. He was silent and rarely moved, but for an occasional adjustment to his stance in the chair every little bit. I made him for a long-time local given his leathery skin and tan; he was gaunt, missing some teeth, and a several day beard sprouted on his weathered face. White shirt and overalls, and if you were to get very close you’d smell Mail Pouch Chew on his breath and his remaining teeth bore that proof. He looked not a speck out of place for that small mountain town but that was about to change.

“Well,” he said to anyone listening, and that was me and an old lady to his left occupied with knitting something out of green yarn. “I know right whir I was right about now, thirty years ago.” I looked at him and he stared straight ahead, then checked his watch; it was just after 9 am. His arms were untouched by the sun above his rolled shirt cuff and starkly contrasted with his hands and face. My granddad was like that.

A few beats went by awkwardly, him not saying anything else and me looking at him with my poor manners.

“Since about suppertime yesterday I been feeling like I was supposed to be somewhir else; hit’uz like that all night an’ I just caint git shed of it,” he half-laughed, directing that at the old women knitting next to him. “Feels worse today, kindly creepy like,” he was prodding her and the knitting lady looked up briefly. “Well,” she said with feigned sympathy. Her mouth changed shape and she went back to her project like we weren’t there. He straightened back in his chair and fidgeted some, then some more and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Where were you, thirty years ago?” I asked after a short pause.

My seatmate turned toward me. “I’uz in a ditch in France with six or eight other men fightin’ the Germans and lookin’ for the rest of my outfit was whir I was.” He said it flatly and quietly, and with no small measure of righteous pride. Looking down at his lap he said, “Yessir. I don’t see how any a’them 82nd boys made it out of there at all,” and looked back up at me as he finished. And with that, he and I were now intimates, the space between us, and the age, bridged by his wanting to talk and my willingness to listen. Spinning the clock back in my head put the date in perspective, and explained this man’s unease in his chair: D-Day and the invasion of Fortress Europe had branded him and the mark had not healed from that day thirty years back. 

There was nothing for me to do but listen, nothing I could say would make a difference anyway and I knew better than to try. The importance of the date had dawned on me just as he had turned toward me, and I suspected his role from the thin hint about the plight of the 82nd, but there was much more to learn: He had been a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne that jumped into occupied France just after midnight, hours before the seaborne invasion; the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st and the 82nd “All American” divisions were the first to engage the enemy and their roles were vital to the mission. Born in 1922, he had enlisted in 1942 after travelling to South Carolina for work since finishing high school in Caldwell County three years before.

(The invasion of Europe had been planned for years, and meticulously so, with divisions of soldiers dedicated to the inevitable task. As is always the case with battle plans, this version, overseen by the politician/bureaucrat Eisenhower rather than by a combat-experienced leader, was on track to fail from the time of its birth. Notable pieces of the plan were successful, the Mulberry Harbor comes to mind, but survival and eventual success in those early days of the invasion was solely due to the bravery, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of small-unit riflemen and had nothing whatever to do with the supercilious oversight and planning from the upper echelon. None of the intricately-timed maneuvering, none of the layered interdependent actions expected by Eisenhower’s war-gaming chess-board whiz kids was effective; the men were hindered by the plan and its failings from the outset and the assault quickly morphed into a disorganized and gory bloodbath. The first to encounter the enemy on his own territory were the parachute troops from the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions, both elements were flown behind enemy lines hours before the landing craft made their way to the beaches with orders and training to disrupt, eliminate, and occupy. Planners expected to surprise the enemy with both the timing of the invasion and its location, but the enemy had put strong defensive works in place long before, and likely drops zones were defended by German troops expecting their arrival. Some men of the 82nd landed generally close to their intended drop zones near the strategically important town of St. Mere-Eglise — the first to land were killed or captured quickly — while the 101st were meant to be dropped a little further east and south, nearer Utah Beach, but both were scattered across the Contenin peninsula, and few were placed where planned. Both divisions faced intense enemy opposition; the unintended dispersal greatly burdened the men and truncated the missions’ success. But the confusion also gave an unintentional assist to the invading troops, the initial chaos offering no massed troops and no unified direction for the enemy to counter-attack.)

“We was moved over to England an’ stayed there for a while training; hit’uz all secret an’ we didn’t know what was going on except that we was gettin’ ready for some big to-do over there,” he continued, now less urgently and more conversational. “We’d got to England in the fall, after travellin’ on a ship all that way and all we wasn’t in as good a shape as we was when we left, so they put us through our paces for quite a while,” he smiled as he talked, a little more relaxed now. I just nodded and made a few noises, and listened.

“Some parts of England reminded me of back home, you know, but we spent all our time in tents out in the wet and rain, on exercises, and on them Gooney Birds.”

(Originally configured as a sleeper coach, the civilian Douglas DC-3 was in use since the mid-30s as an improvement over the earlier, smaller DC-2. At the war’s onset, remaining production transferred to government use, where the twin-engined machines were designated “C-47 Skytrain,” but known to all of that era as the “Gooney Bird.” Among its many uses was troop transport; 15–18 Airborne soldiers, depending on what they had to carry, were on each ship and were referred to as a “stick” of paratroops.)

“We’d gather around the airplanes after orders, sometimes in the morning and sometimes of a’evenin’, checking our gear and getting ready to take a ride and do our jump. We’d joke around some and talk, you know, but we didn’t see no danger in it, it’uz more like a job or a game than anything to us at the time. Well, that didn’t last, let me tell you.” 

“No, I guess it didn’t,” I offered. “Had you ever been on an airplane before you went into the Army?”

“Why no. Up in these hills you didn’t see nothin’ like that, ever. Didn’t hardly ever see a car even. Aw they might’a been one pass overhead once in a while, but that’uz about all. I got into the Airborne ’cause I heard hit’uz a tough outfit and I wasn’t about to go around with no bunch that wasn’t as tough as I was.”

(That reputation was well advertised but yet untested on the 101st, but by spring of 1944 all the pieces were moving around to secure that unit’s place in history. After delays for logistics, delays for indecision, delays for equipment, and delays for weather, the finely tuned and exquisitely timed war room plans were given the go-ahead and Operation Neptune, the code name for the 101st’s part in Overlord or the invasion of Europe, was confirmed with D-Day set as June 6th, 1944. The 101st was to be dropped in three landing zones; A, C, and D. Aircraft from multiple airbases in England would coordinate flights known as “serials” of between 24 and 54 transport aircraft flying in groups of three — 821 ships flew paratroopers from both divisions. Serials of aircraft were planned to arrive at six-minute intervals, the ships slowing to 110 mph over the jump zone to allow safe exit by the paratroopers. In practice jumps the aircraft flew at 90 mph during parachuting operations, but the heavily loaded Gooney Birds required a higher airspeed or they would stall and crash. From 700 feet there is no recovery possible from a stalled C-47 and the 20 mph difference was another very significant hurdle for the troops as they exited the airplane.)

“We got the word to assemble and went out to our airplane around 10 o’clock, 16 of us. They was a big moon in the sky peekin’ through the clouds and it was a cool night. We wasn’t in the same spirits as when we was training ’cause we knowed this here was the real McCoy. We sat there a little bit while the engines was runnin’. Just waitin’, you know. Before long the engines was run up and off we went, and at first it was like sittin’ on your porch, quiet and easy as it was,” he was using his hands as he re-lived the time and talking to me like a neighbor. Or son of a neighbor, and I said as little as possible while he talked.

“We was all pretty nervous, thinkin’ about our orders and what we’uz about to get into, if we’d ever make it back home and all, you know,” he got quiet again, looking at his hands. I tried to imagine sitting in a loud, cramped transport plane in the 1940s preparing to parachute with fifteen other men into the waiting, aimed rifles and cannons of the enemy, but my imagination was not equal to the task.

(The C-47s were assembled in formations near the runway as they would be deployed, doors opened, stepladders against the entry. The troopers would march to the ships in loose discipline and gather around their assigned plane, its number by hand in chalk on the side, and wait to board. Laden with as much as 150 lbs. of equipment, the men required help to board the plane; each man took as much additional ammunition as he deemed necessary, anti-tank mines and mortar rounds were shared among all troops, to be distributed to the crew-served weapons once on the ground. Additional stores were housed in packets beneath the wings to be dropped along with the troops, glider-borne reinforcements and supplies were to follow some hours later. 2,400 horsepower pulled each C-47 to flying speed — 432 “Skytrains” were assembled to move the Screaming Eagles (Mission Albany) and the sound and smell of those radial engines is a stirring iconic symbol of the era. The aircraft departure, routes, and altitudes were carefully scripted, and to avoid German radar, all aircraft descended to 500 feet when over the channel; aircraft were planned to ascend to 700 feet for the drop, then return along a carefully prescribed path to base. Navigation for the trip was dependent on rudimentary radio beacons placed along the English side of the path, blue marking lights fixed to the aircraft to allow following ships to see them, the deductive reasoning (dead reckoning) visual navigation method, and radio and light systems heroically placed by the Pathfinder elements of both battalions who jumped some minutes before.)

“We flew along like that for a pretty good while, the planes was circling around, you know, gathering in formation like a bunch of geese. Some boys wrote notes back home or tried to talk a little, but hit was so noisy in them ol’ things you ‘bout had to shout. But they wasn’t much to do except sit and think, so that’s what we did.” I had a thousand questions but was not primed to ask, so I sat quietly and so did he for a while. The outside doors opened with people coming and going, and the advancing morning was marked by singing birds and a bright warming.

“We was always a’goin’, and in a hurry too, brother, ever whir we went,” he added speaking slowly and carefully. “Hit’uz like they was a fire and we had to get right on to it, you see. Sittin’ on that dadblamed ship goin’ across the ocean, then sittin’ around waitin’ for some somebody to tell you to do something or other. Waitin’ for this and waitin’ for that. Shoot. Sittin’ just makes a man a better target’s what I always told my buddies. Yessir. And they found that out too, just like I said. They’s a lot of ’em still over there in France because of it.” He squeezed his mouth with the palm of his hand and sighed. I looked away. 

(After assembling into diamond formations of three-on-three the aircraft flew in close formation along their prescribed paths, separation between following aircraft was maintained at 1000 feet. Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTO) for a C-47 is 27,900 lbs. but on D-Day the Gooney Birds were 3 tons over that limit approaching 34,000 lbs. and were flying with dangerously amended stall and stability characteristics which further altered the drop-zone performance. 56 miles from the coast of England, at navigation point “Hoboken,” the flights made an abrupt turn southeastward between the Channel Islands of Alderney and Jersey. Anti-aircraft batteries on the Islands, alerted by the Pathfinders several minutes earlier, responded with strong defensive fire. At almost the same time the serials encountered a thick fog bank along the coast of France, creating additional disruption to the formation; flight crews were blind and could no longer rely on visual cues for separation and navigation, and the flight paths and timing of the drops were badly distorted. After emerging from the fog, the aircraft were about 4 minutes from their planned drop zones, but often badly off course and with little time to correct and nearly nothing to navigate to. Multiple unexpected factors were at work against the men, it was as if the fates were conspiring against them; the careful plans of the D-Day invasion were beginning to unravel.)

“I waited for that red light to come on and boy I loved to hear that Jumpmaster start his orders ’cause that meant we was about to get movin’,” and with that his eyes brightened. His voice got noticeably stronger, louder than our quiet conversation, and his Appalachian accent and cadence dropped away. Some of the others waiting looked our way. “‘Stand Up!’ he’d say. ‘Hook Up! Equipment Check! Sound Off!’ and then brother out the door we went and in a hurry too, let me tell you.” The remembered orders were spoken sharply, as single words with a pause between, and with each command he mimicked the hand signals made by the Jumpmaster; he tensed, his legs and feet moving as he talked, still in a disembodied voice. “Stand Up!, Hook Up!, Equipment Check! Sound Off! Boy I can still hear it, too. I hear him in my sleep sometimes.” The excitement of those days was evident and he was reliving his D-Day jump directly in front of me. 

(Two lights at the exit door were red to indicate 5 minutes to jump, and green to show the aircraft was over the designated jump area. The time between lights was used to prepare for the jump; the troops in practice jumps waited for the Jumpmaster to order “Go!” but in combat that formality might have been omitted. Because of the now-tangled formations the speed, altitude, and position of the aircraft had varied, meaning the men were often far out of the expected landing zones, some by 20 miles or more. Some flight crews made multiple passes under fire and with other aircraft maneuvering in the same space at night to locate the drop area. Although several training drops had been made at night, none were in poor weather, none accounted for the dangerous overloading, navigation was unhampered, and the effects of defensive fire were not anticipated by the planners.)

“It was the middle of the night when we got there, but it was so bright you could of read your Bible. All them tracer bullets and shells going off and all, why they ever one looked like they was coming right at me, right between my legs,” he laughed and made a move with both hands between his knees. “I’uz so glad to get on the ground, but they didn’t none of us know where we was, the maps we’d studied weren’t nothin’ like where we landed and when you’uz on the ground you couldn’t tell if the man next to you was a German or not. It’uz ever man for hisself ’til we found one another and got gathered to make a team and all, you know.”

(The men studied carefully scaled papier mache models of the landing zones and surrounding areas. Detailed maps could be referenced, but only after an initial base could be established and a location defined, so the first matter at hand was finding friendly troops and assembling into a small unit, then moving toward an objective. Many units fought the enemy as they discovered them, often by accident, and frequently did so without gunfire to avoid revealing their positions — hand-to-hand combat in the dark against a force of unknown strength.)

A few people passed by on their way to or from the doctor, with one ancient palsied fellow being helped by two others younger by only maybe a handful of years. His head was bowed and he was bent at the waist, thin as a scarecrow with a full head of bright white hair. Each man beside him holding his belt with one hand, with the other on an elbow; we both watched him struggle along and just as the older fellow was alongside, I could hear him, hardly above a whisper, “Oh Lord, oh Lord.” He strained as best he could against his helpers, trying to free himself, and one man of them spoke quietly, “Easy there Robert, let’s get you on in to the doctor, ok? Come on now.”

I stood and told the man nearest me, “Sit him down here and I’ll go get him a chair,” and took a step to find one. “No, now that’s all right young man we got one at home and he won’t use it; we’ll get along alright, but thank you a bushel. Let’s go on now Robert,” and they went along slowly toward the office. I sat back down, feeling empty, useless, and every second of my 18 easy years on this earth.

The knitting lady beside us put her work away as her name was called by a nurse. “Miz Baird, why don’t you come on back and see us honey?” She rose quickly, but then moved with short, shuffling steps, swaying side to side, speaking to the nurse as she approached, “I just caint hardly get along good no more.” She was wearing a pair of thick green knitted socks and bedroom slippers, and was breathing heavily when she made it to the office door.

We both sat in silence for a bit. “Well now,” he said pleasantly, “I believe they’s people here need to see the doctor a whole lot worser’n I do.” And he sprang to his feet and took a long stride toward the hospital entrance, then turned and stuck out his hand. I took it and it felt like the bottom of an old boot. 

“Hart’s my name. It’uz good talkin’ to you young man,” he waved quickly and went off in a hurry.

Airborne All The Way. 


Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.

Kryos: Chapter 13

Previous chapter

White garbed clerks moved in busy cliques beneath the high, vaulted ceiling of the control room of KSRU Central wherein Acelin Syzr loomed over his sparsely furnished alabaster desk, watching the wall-screen with attentive concern from beneath the cover of his sleek, monochrome mask. The flickering mesh of the central screen, which hung before a branching stairwell, displayed, in a locked-down wideshot, a spacious, judiciously decorated news set, in which a large middle-aged man with a scarred face sat facing an aging make-up caked anchor-woman. Tyser Lanning chuckled and swiveled on his padded chair toward his taunt and well-armored superior who stood the center of the floor.

“Broad looks like she fell headfirst into a crayon blender. We can put networks in the sky, cities under the sea, ports in orbit, but convincing cosmetics somehow eludes us.”

“Quiet.”

Lanning screwed up his face and fell silent, adjusted his long orange overcoat and returned to his affinity tablet array; scuffed fingers busily tapping ergonomic keys; cushioned, close-fitting headset humming; eyes taking in the detailed feeds of various Consortium-approved, Kryos-manufactured aerial drones, judiciously scanning the sprawling cityscape for social perturbation.

“This is Tiffany Bardis for New Vision, here with Central Sector’s Danzig Kleiner, the lone survivor of a vicious, seemingly random attack which occurred two days ago on the streets of the entertainment district, where the leader of the KSRU, a one Acelin Syzr, confronted Mr. Kleiner and two of his friends, Darius Culp and Victor Mehan, both southers and first generation district residents; the event, unfortunately, culminated in the deaths of both Mr. Mehan and Mr. Culp. Mr. Syzr, for reasons which remain unclear, was not detained by the Security Commission, and remains at large, prompting protests from local residents outraged at the cruel injustice of the act and, what they view, as the burgeoning tyranny of Kryos Industries, whose KSRU mercenaries now operate, in some capacity, in every single sector of the city. The KSRU has since released a curt statement, in which they declared that the event was prompted by self-defense and suggests a extensive investigation by the Security Commission. Curiously, the Security Commission has not released a statement. We reached out to both Kryos Industries and the Security Commission; unfortunately, neither have responded to our queries.” The woman turned to the greasy, hastily done-up man sitting roughly five feet from her with a mirthless smile, “Mr. Kleiner, thank you so much for being with us today, I know how stressful this must be for you, given all you’ve been through recently.”

The man rocked slightly and nervously rubbed his knees, as if scrapping mud, “Thanks for having me, Tiffany.”

“How are you holding up?”

Syzr’s hands went tight about the corner of his sparsely furnished alabaster desk.

“Its been rough. But I’m doing alright.”

“Given the dearth of footage from the incident, can you start from the beginning and tell us exactly what happened?”

“Sure. Well, I and my friends were just minding our business, took an alleyway shortcut to a club we liked to hang out at, when… this guy just springs out of nowhere and starts attacking us. Like he had it out for us.”

“The short video clip which was leaked shows your friends assaulting Mr. Syzr; can you explain what happened prior to the beginning of the available recording of the event?”

“Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s deceptive, they were fighting back. See, he came in swinging and they pushed him back and I was just stunned, stunned, didn’t know what to do, then they tried to tackle him and that’s when the recording begins. At the time, I didn’t know he was paramilitary, thought he was just some guy.”

“I see…”

Syzr loosed the table and straightened, “This cretin can barely string a sentence together. Its doubtful he came up with this narrative on his own.”

“Think someone has been feeding him lines?” Lanning inquired, removing his headset and rubbing his chin contemplatively, popping a printed biscuit from a culinary crafter on his work-desk.

Syzr nodded near imperceptibly, “Someone coached him.”

“… Mr. Danzig, some have floated the idea that he targeted your friends because of their origins. That he had some pathological grievance against southers. What do you think of that?”

“Could be, Tiffany, could be. There’s a lot of crazy people out there…”

Syzr turned to Lanning, “The bastard’s smiling. Has Fawnell agreed to speak to the press?”

Lanning shook his head and leaned back in his chair, “She refuses to talk to anyone, even the Security Commission. Probably afraid of blow back from the mob, now that Mehan and Culp have been turned into martyrs. I’ve not tried to contact her personally, but Vogel did, told me she shut him down immediately. I put out a missive to see if any of our staffers might know her. All replies negative, so far.”

“I’m surprised Vogel’s still willing to share information with us.”

“So was I. I don’t think the Commissioner is aware of his indiscretion.”

“Still no news on the rest of the drone recording?”

“Nothing.”

Syzr uttered a curse under his breath, the utterance rendered opaque by the mechanical distortion of his full-helm’s respirator. From the far end of the hall, the sound of two pairs of footsteps reverberated. Syzr turned and beheld Jean Raimer, a dark-haired man of middling height and powerful frame, armed and armored in gleaming sy-chitin, his helm tucked under his left arm, his right, curling to a salute which was swiftly returned. Behind him stood a middle aged man with well-combed hair and a high-collared monochrome coat, a Vilar Corp logo upon the right shoulder.

“What is it Corporal?”

“Apologies for the interruption, Colonel. Ryard Vancing is here to see you.”

Vancing stepped forward, his visage uncharacteristically grim and reserved, his eyes fixed upon the colonel.

“Come concerning our request?”

“Yes. Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“You are. But I can multitask.”

The enormous screen cut suddenly away from Kleiner’s interview to a scene of roiling violence backlit by ravenous flames licking up the berth of a tumble-down tenement. A young reporter faced a Vis Corp coverage drone which hovered some six feet above the woman, the machine’s multi-camera array focusing in on the most active zones of conflict. “Chancellor Richter just now called for calm after yet another outbreak of violence in Central.” The woman turned to a middle aged souther whose swarthy face was twisted into a permanent snarl. “Sir, excuse me, can you tell us why you’re out here? What are you hoping to accomplish?” The souther paused and drew up to the woman, seemingly annoyed, followed by a group of compatriots. “They’re out here killing us.” “Who, sir?” “KSRU. Security Commission. Big business. Whole damned government. We’re out here to show them we won’t take it any more. If they’re gonna keep killing us, we’re gonna start killing them.” “They kill us, we kill them,” the crowd began to chant with increasing fervor. The reporter’s face contorted with apprehension. “She’s from the government, she’s from the government!” Someone off-camera shouted. The next instant someone struck the woman in the back of the head; her body ragdolled, prompting her crew to leap vainly to her defense. The crowd swiftly turned upon the journalists with cries of fury, whereafter fists and blood were thrown in a sudden flux of savagery. Screams of deep animal pain blanketed the scene, drowning out the crackling raze and homemade explosives sounding in the distance. As the grotesque cacophony reached its invariable apogee, the feed cut, transitioning back to the Vis Corp interview set where Tiffany Bardis shook her golden head, mouth twitching like a skewered grub. “Gods below…” for a long moment the woman simply starred uncomprehendingly, as if in a trance, “T-that’s the latest from our on-the-ground coverage of the protests currently sweeping Central Sector…”

Syzr muted the monitor and turned to the entrant.

“What have you decided?”

Ryard’s expression waxed solemn.

“This madness must not become our normality.”

“‘This,’ or ‘their.'”

“Who’re you referring to?”

Syzr gestured to a close-up of Danzig Kleiner on the monitor, “Whoever proffered him to the media and coached him. Whoever was behind the seizure of the assurance drone which recorded my encounter with Kleiner’s gang. I suspect the same hand moves behind both curtains.”

“Why do you think he was coached?”

“I heard him speak before we fought. He’s affecting a new speech pattern, new mannerisms. And despite his obvious incompetence, he’s yet to stumble in responding to a question.”

“That’s reasonable,” Ryard asserted with sudden animation. “But right now we should worry about forming a counter-narrative. We don’t have the drone recording of what really happened but as I overheard, the woman who you rescued hasn’t spoken up.”

Syzr nodded.

“Fawnell won’t talk to us,” Lanning replied with exasperation, “She might – just maybe – talk to the colonel, if he came in person; however, if the mob spots him on the street, they’ll be blood.”

Ryard returned his attention to the colonel and smiled confidently, “Send me.”

Next chapter

Kryos: Chapter 12

Previous chapter

Dark clouds massed on the horizon as Ryard Vancing strode the eatery district’s vacated streets, soma sotted by the ruination spawned since his last sojourn. The faint, familiar hum of the main CAV-way’s cargo, crisply audible in the absence of the jostling murmuration of variegated tongues, made the scene disquietingly surreal. The wide, pedestrian thoroughfare was trash strewn; the windows of all surrounding shops, cracked and shattered; the walls, marred by vulgar graffiti; the gentle breeze, bearing the scent of char and sick. A few cheap-garbed itinerants milled about the lane, seemingly perplexed by their selfsame presence; aecerites and southers, federates and those whose origins escaped Vancing’s ken. Several minutes on, a young woman ran up on the sidewalk, several yards before Ryard, and removed a small spray can from her coat and began dousing the wall; visage crooking with prideful cruelty.

“Hey,” Ryard called out, increasing his pace and advancing toward the vandal.

The woman’s face kinked with fright, whereafter she dashed down the street, vanishing into a blighted alley between two dilapidated shops. Ryard halted and observed the vandal’s scrawl: Consortium Kills.

“What were you trying to do to her?”

The brisk male voice prompted Ryard to turn with confusion to behold three middle-aged men progressing toward him from behind a slow-moving detachment of cargo drones that crawled insouciantly across the center of the spacious pedestrian lane.

Ryard gestured to the defacement, “She was marking up the wall.”

“You got a problem with that?”

“Don’t you?”

The men stopped five feet from Vancing, eyes wary, jaws tense.

“Maybe I don’t.”

“Alright.”

Ryard turned his back to the men and removed a cloth from his pocket and began to scrub the wall. As Ryard cleared off the ‘C’ from the cacograph, the speaker, a pudgy man with a high hairline and a round, crinkled face, took in the Vilar Corp logo on Ryard’s jacket with choler and stepped forward, “Think you’d better leave, company man.”

“Will, soon as I’m done.”

“I said clear off.”

Ryard paused and stared at the man over his coat collar, “This is public property.”

“Yeah. And I’m the public.”

“Wager you’d be singing a different tune if this was your house.”

The man spat at Ryard’s feet. The CAV-Keep methodically observed the effluvia and returned to his work.

“Come on, Emmett,” a short, reedy member of the trio appealed softly, “Its not worth it. Let’s go.”

Emmett grimaced and turned abruptly, muttering “whatever” before leaving off, followed closely by his confederates. Ryard watched them tread to the south and continued scouring the wall until every trace of lettering was erased, then folded his cloth, pocketed it and continued along the pedestrian lane as clement rain descended from darkling haze.

When he arrived at the Wyntwurth Automat he sighed and readjusted his collar against the chill downpour. The establishment lay ransacked and boarded, ringed by guard drones of curious, nonstandard extraction.

“Vacate the premises,” the closest of the brassy machines trilled, posturing aggressively toward the entrant. “You have one minute to comply.”

Ryard retreated to the side of the curb, brows knitting with apprehension, ire and dissapointment.

“Appears we’ll have to find a new place to lunch,” a familiar husky voice intoned from behind the wayward CAV-keep. Ryard spun and beheld a old man, elegantly garbed and hairless, save his thin twiggish brows, who sat upon the back of an automated cabriolet at the side of the ill-populated thoroughfare which bordered the cloistered restaurant.

“Salutations, Mr. Salis.”

The old man smiled warmly.

“Hop in, Mr. Vancing. I know a good place.”

Ryard did as he was bid and sat opposite the elderly executive, whereafter the machine’s opaque, oblong canopy secured around them like the mesogleaic bell of a massive sea jelly. After the canopy was secured the craft lumbered forward.

“Isn’t it unwise, Sir? Traveling around by yourself,” Ryard gestured through the diaphanous interior, “Especially in the middle of all of this.”

“I never travel alone.”

Ryard looked over Salis’ shoulder and spied another cabriolet following them. Inside, a lone passenger, barely visible due the distortion of the semi-spherical pane, a dark hat upon his distant head.

“Personal security?”

Salis nodded, “Saif Baumann. Came out of the same class as Acelin Syzr at the academy. Damned shame I even feel I need him. But… well, if the scenery isn’t enough, when I entered the district, I saw a frail, old woman – must have been near seventy years old, maybe a little older – walking across the street. Minding her own business. This young fellow – a souther – came up, pushed her over, hard as he could. Didn’t say a word. Doubt he knew her, given the disparity of their dress. Just pushed her over and ran away, laughing.”

“Was she alright?”

Julian Salis nodded grimly, “Bruised. A little shaken. Had Baumann stop and help her to a med-pod. She’ll be fine. I just can’t fathom why someone would do that.”

“You know those new updates Kryos Industries was debuting for free for recently outdated affin mods?”

“I read about it. But I’ve got the latest model, so I didn’t have to bother with it. I was never very tech savvy.”

“Well, about a week ago, I was in my tenement, trying to make a call on my affin mod. But the release for the patch was set back. Everything was running slow. Kept trying it. Still nothing. All of a sudden, I pulled my module off my wrist, overwhelmed with the desire to throw it across the room.”

The old man nodded and slowly smiled, “But you didn’t,” Salis motioned casually to the outdated module that adorned Ryard’s left wrist, “I’d wager that’s why Kryos had Straker attempt to recruit you.”

“Maybe. I haven’t given them an answer yet.”

“I didn’t figure you had. Which is why I wanted to meet with you,” Ryard straightened, listening attentively, “Whatever you decide, know that you have my full support, as does the KSRU.”

“I appreciate that, Sir. But the substation-“

Salis lifted a hand for silence, “I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to worry about being fired or having your benefits cut, and, more importantly, because the changes we’re seeing,” He nodded out the enclosure to the ravaged exterior of a charging station, “All of this, is bigger than the substation, bigger than the whole line, bigger than Vilar Corp. This vicious revolutionary mood didn’t suddenly just sweep the city, Mr. Vancing, its been building for a long, long time. This is merely its most recent and intense expression. I’ve lived through one revolution. I’ve no desire to see another.”

Ryard pocketed his hands to resist the urge to wring them together in nervous agitation.

“You’re one of the few who understands what its like.”

“What what is like, Sir?”

“To meet those whose only concern is your eradication.”

Ryard looked out the window.

“Forgive me, I know you don’t like talking about it.”

“Its fine,” Ryard observed the bedraggled pedestrians upon the garbage spackled thoroughfare, who glared at the cab with feral and forthright disdain, “I’m not as sensitive as many think.”

“I don’t believe that for a moment. That’s why Baumann or Syzr or I or even Straker couldn’t hope to do what Kryos expects of you.”

“And you? What do you expect of me, Sir?”

“I expect you’ll do what you know to be right.”

Ryard returned his attention to the window where a mother and daughter walked, hand in hand, beneath the high canopy of a hodgepodge market stall, hastily constructed to accomadate a merchant whose store had been razed.

He wondered at the absence of the father.

Next chapter