The Press

“It takes nerves of steel to be a newspaper reporter.” Mr. Lambert said.

It didn’t seem like it took nerves of steel to talk Mrs. Delaney’s cat out of the old maple tree on Pidgeon Street; but that was my first assignment for The Picayune Press .

My senior high English teacher, Olivia Gardener, informed Mr. Lambert that I would make a good candidate to fill the junior reporter job when Buddy Richards left for college. Mr. Lambert was a real horn-dog, and Olivia was a real looker, so I got the job. Just for the summer. Of course sometimes you wish for summers that never end.

My first bit of reporting was not glamorous or inspiring. It began with the line; Augusta Delaney’s cat, Whiskey, was plucked from a tree today, by the hands of the new junior reporter Todd Golder. Accompanied by a photograph of Whiskey, clutching my shoulders, and I grimacing in pain. My mom still has that photo. Thinks it’s cute.

That was how my career began. Whiskey made the papers more than once in his lifetime, the last time was in memoriam. He got hit by a school bus full of kindergarteners, while chasing a classy calico across Hines Street. Mrs. Delaney was heart broken. Whiskey had been a gift from her deceased husband.

My career grew more bizarre and disturbing as time went on. I still remember the day Mr. Lambert called me into his office. The day I stood up to him. By doing that, I opened a door. I didn’t know it then, but I do now.

I entered his office, and sat in a wooden chair he kept for reporters, because it was uncomfortable. The blinds on the window between his office and the press room brushed my neck. I felt a dead fly fall down my back. Mr. Lambert was in his chair, smoking a cigar the size of my wrist. He spun the chair around to face me.

“Close the door kid.” He said through a cloud of heavy smoke.

I pushed the door shut, sat down once again.

“Go out to Arnie Spevak’s, and get the scoop on how the births are coming along. Take Smith with you.” Mr. Lambert growled around the enormous cigar, ash falling onto his busy desk, a stale donut absorbing the smoky fallout.

Arnie Spevak owned a cow, Delilah, who was giving birth in a big way. There was a betting pool on whether she was birthing two or three calves. Lambert had money on three calves, and had me driving to Spevak’s farm to update him on Delilah’s condition every time the wind shifted, or so it seemed. Junior reporter seemed to be Mr. Lambert’s term for gopher, I hadn’t been given a scoop since I began working on the paper. That was a month previous.

I weighed up Mr. Lambert’s request, and almost went willingly to do the paltry deed of being nursemaid to the birth of a cow. But something made me confront him, I was there to learn how to be a reporter, not to be an attendant to Mr. Lambert.

“Mr. Lambert, can I be honest with you?” I asked in a concerned tone.

“Shoot kid.”

“I really want to cover an important story. Something with meat to it. If you know what I mean.”

“Sure kid. Sure you do. They all do. Every reporter that wants to make a name for himself wants a story with meat to it. Even you kid. I understand. You feel you’re being used to further my financial gain. Trust me kid. You’ll get your story. Stories seem to have a way of falling into your lap after awhile.” He paused. A cloud of smoke swelled from his mouth. “I like your spunk kid. You been doing a good job. Don’t think it goes unnoticed. Something you’ll find on the street, one hand washes another. Remember that kid , and remember, it takes nerves of steel to be a newspaper reporter. ” Another puff of smoke escaped. “Do me a favor kid, cover this for me, then we can talk about a scoop.”

I agreed, and left Mr. Lambert in his smoky office. I found Smith, the staff photographer, hitting on Nancy Reyes, our gossip columnist. He was miffed that I was dragging him off to “the farm,” as he lovingly dubbed it. I’m sure he would have rather kept hitting on Nancy Reyes, but Mr. Lambert signed the checks, and Smith couldn’t argue with that.

When Smith and I arrived, Burt the veterinarian, was arm deep in Delilah. He grinned, knowing we had been sentinels for Mr. Lambert all week. “Today is the day fellas.”

Burt was right, Smith and I pulled up milk pails and sat awaiting the big event. Smith lit a cigarette, and the vet made him smoke it outside the barn. Smith walked out muttering, “it’s only a cow…”

Twenty minutes later things were heating up. Burt began to coax Delilah in a soothing voice, I took notes, it wasn’t ‘oh baby,’ or anything like that. He just made her feel at ease. I suppose if I was arm deep in a pregnant cow I would probably coax also.

A short while later a calf was flopping in a pile of placenta, Smith was snapping photographs and I was writing the exact time of birth, average description of the calf, and the look on Arnie Spevak’s face as another addition to his farm was brought into the world. Burt reached into Delilah once again, and after more coaxing, and caressing, another calf emerged. Smith snapped enough flash to blind all attending. Smith used film, faster than the scene was unfolding. I told Smith, “save a shot,” but he ignored me. I was only a junior reporter.

Burt reached into Delilah once more, fishing around in the pregnant cow, and after some wrestling with his unseen hands, a third head appeared. And something really amazing – a fourth head connected to the neck of the third head. Smith clicked the shutter button to find he was out of film. I heard him curse, as I pulled my camera phone out and took a photo of the two headed calf.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A two headed calf. “Does that mean Delilah had triplets, or quadruplets?” I asked Burt and Arnie. They came to the consensus that it depended on if the extra head was fully functional. They wouldn’t know right away. So the bet was on standby. I called Mr. Lambert, and told him what had happened. He congratulated me on my first scoop. Guess I never gave it a thought. It was my first real story, a story with meat to it, and it made front page – with the photo. Smith got over it, congratulated me.

Since then I have been reporting full time for The Picayune Press . I’ve witnessed stories I wish I could forget; house fires consuming lives, children brought back in coffins from foreign wars, so much death over twenty years. Murders, rapes, theft, corruption, suicides, the meat of the story . And I wish for days of a cow giving birth, or a cat in a tree, being the most serious story to cover. The days of my first summer, as junior reporter.  

 

 
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Captain Imagine

1

    Cecil looked in the mirror, trying to see his back. Felt them. Tiny nubs, protruding between his shoulder blades. Couldn’t quite see them yet. Soon. He kept telling himself. Soon, they would grow. He wouldn’t have to take elevators, or rusted fire escape stairs, when the nubs grew into wings. He could fly out a window; land without a scratch. Someday soon, he knew, his wings would sprout. Until then, the cape would have to do. Very small leaps. Last year, he broke a leg, while chasing a purse snatcher on the subway stairs. Cecil landed on the criminals back. He had to limp away from the scene, in agony, so his secret identity would not be revealed. Then he went to the doctors, and had his leg set in a cast for the summer. He had to stay inside and watch Crime T.V., local news, and re-runs of Superman movies. He vowed to heal himself. A new villain was out there . The news had been covering the story. The villain abducted victims, killing them in perverse ways. The killer always left a mark at the crime scene. Through Cecil’s painful summer in a cast, the villain killed. Cecil stewed in the cast, itching to get out. And now the cast was finally off. Cecil was determined to find this deranged serial killer. At last count, the lives of eight women were erased.

    At the first crime scene the killer’s mark was not noticed by the police. Later the mark was found in photographs. At every crime scene thereafter, the mark was found. The seventh victim was killed using this distinct mark. The mark was a claw laceration, like that of a bear, or a large cat. It was embedded deeply enough to leave splintered lines in whatever the killer chose to claw the mark into. A car was used in murder number five. The police called the killer, “The Claw of Death,” Cecil called the killer “Dagger.” as far as Cecil was concerned, he would not rest until he stopped this madman from killing.

    Cecil dressed in his superhero identity. A pair of black bicyclist tights with lightening bolts streaking down the sides of the legs. A pair of black and white Nikes, (the ones that pump up) and a black shirt with a capital I on the front, in silver, surrounded by a shield of honor in dark grey. The shield was Kevlar reinforced. The cape was black with silver streaks of lightening. His accessory belt, full of small compartments, full of smaller gadgets, each had a purpose only superhero’s could fathom. Unless you were James Bond. Last was his facial disguise, comprised of a pair of shop goggles tinted with a mirror coating.

    Cecil looked at Captain Imagine in the mirror, soon the wings would replace the cape. And as the gypsy woman down on Seventh Avenue told him five years ago, he would, “fly above humanity, as his own entity.” If she only knew about his tender budding wings. Until the wings grew, he decided to keep flying to a minimum. He couldn’t afford anymore broken legs.

    He walked to his apartments front door, shut the light off, locked his door. Unknown to him, for the last time as Captain Imagine. He put the apartment key around his neck on a lanyard, shoving it beneath his shirt. The chain felt alive against his skin, almost supernatural. He rounded the bend in the corridor, passed an old man stooped over a walker.

    “Morning Hershel.” Captain Imagine said to the old man.

    “Mornin’ Cap’n,” Hershel chuckled, “how’s the leg?”

    “Fine, Hershel. I’m going to fight crime.”

    “You get ‘em boy! Kick shum ass.” Hershel said, almost losing his dentures in the process.

    A tall blonde was in the elevator. Long legs, beautiful skin. “Good morning Captain Imagine. Ooh, look, I have a run in my stocking.” She pointed down her long leg to a small run, down near her shapely calf.

    “Why yes, Mary, you do. Hmmm, well, you look very nice anyhow.”

    “Ooh, thank you Captain. Good luck fighting crime today.” She tittered.

    “Thanks Mary. Good luck being a secretary today.”

    The doors opened to the first floor lobby. Strangers passed by on the street, pointing through the lobby’s glass, laughing at him. All the regulars knew his name. knew he was a good fellow at heart, just a little…different.

 

    He headed down the street at a jog. Herbert said he had some information that could help to catch Dagger, as Cecil called the serial killer. The police called the killer the claw of death. Herbert was Captain Imagine’s sole support in a crusade against crime. The police could only do so much, they were outnumbered, had their hands full. Captain Imagine caught the crumbs that slipped through the system. The system didn’t mind. He even had a commendation for his bravery, hanging on his wall at home. He wanted Dagger. He would do his best to put the killer behind bars. No more crumbs, if cake was available.

    Just thinking of someone killing women for sport made Captain Imagine’s blood boil. It wasn’t right. There were so many freaks out on the streets, it was almost impossible to tell who was who, he thought as he brushed his cape over his shoulder and began to speed walk. At his age, jogging was taking a toll, plus he had too much pizza last night.

 

2

 

    Herbert opened the automatic garage door. His laboratory.

    “Morning Herbert.”

    “Morning Cap.”

    “What have you got for me? Do you know where he’s planning on striking next? An address, a name, what?”

    “Easy Cap.” Herbert said, and walked to the office at the back of his garage/laboratory.

He sat in front of a bank of monitors, ham radios, printers, a computer, various tangled wires connected everything. A crammed note board covered a wall, with graphs and charts. A map full of tacks hung nearby, eight tacks to be precise.

    “Cap, I have clues, gossip, hints, at where this lunatic is going to hunt next. But who really knows.” Herbert took a breath, filling his frail sun depleted body. “I have, however – based on graphs and charts, and a map full of tacks, and a psychological profile of this… ‘Claw of Death,’ – found a pattern. One that should have been obvious to the police. Which is why it’s a weak long shot. But I haven’t heard anyone else mention it, so it may be a vital key. Just maybe, he will be caught red handed. Or red clawed.”

    “What’s your theory? What have you figured out, Herbert? Whatever it is, it’s worth investigating. No one else has the answers.” Captain Imagine was curious to find out what Herbert knew, based on maps, graphs, and charts.

    “Based on the sites of the murders, Cap, there’s nothing in common, or so it would seem. It looks like a random pattern, as you can see by the placement of the tacks.” Herbert pointed at the tacks using a laser pointer. The tacks were not equidistant to one another. “There are no comparisons to street names, numbers, the victims are all women. That’s the only noticeable constant. The murders are on foggy evenings, right at dusk. The police know that. The clue I managed to utilize, is one the police don’t know yet.”

    “What is it, Herbert?” Captain Imagine interrupted.

    “If you look at the map you wont see it. It’s not on the map. Each murder has been committed within a half mile radius of a zoo. Not the same zoos, different zoos, always at least within a half mile radius. Cap, you have no idea how much research I invested to figure that out. And that’s not all.”

    “Well, hurry up, what else?”

    “I thought about what the killer may have in common with the zoo, or what the victims have in common. And what the claw represents. None of it made any sense. I began typing in signs of the zodiac, to see if they were significant in any way. Nothing worked out, so I thought, maybe that odd pattern has something to do with the stars. So I checked the computer for matching Zodiac patterns. Guess what I found?”

    “Stop teasing me Herbert, and tell me what you found.”

    “The pattern matches a constellation. The constellation of the Lioness. Cap, if I’m correct about this, Dagger, I think I may know who it is.”

    “How can you possibly know that? Why didn’t you tell me?”

    “I called as soon as the hunch presented itself. I put two and two together this morning, and it adds up. Tonight will be a foggy night. A night where the Lioness cannot be seen. The last star on the constellation, the last tack in the map, is to occur tonight. We need to stop it.”

    “Lets try again, shall we Herbert? You know where, when, and I’m sure you told me who. So who ?”

    “There’s a woman who works for the zoo, with the lions. Donna Platt. Six years ago, she was attacked by one of the zoo’s lioness, while tending to an injured cub. It took her arm, mangled her face and chest also. They amputated what was left of the arm. They couldn’t help the rest of her disfigurement. I think she feels cheated, bet she owns a brace with a five fingered claw. A custom built job. I assume she’s jealous of the looks of other women, and she imagines that if she kills the nine stars of the Lioness Constellation, she will have fulfilled her revenge. This will be her last killing.”

    “What if your wrong Herbert?”

    “At least we tried. At least, we tried to save an innocent life. There’s only one sure way to find out. Within a half mile radius, she could kill without our ever catching her. Especially in the fog. That’s where the real detective work pays off. I know exactly where she will kill tonight. You’ll be there before she is.”

    “How do you know where she’ll be?”

    “Because, you’ll be there first, Miss Imagine.”

    “Miss…what?”

    “Yes Cap. We dress you up as a woman. Boom! Instant victim.”

    “She’ll know I’m a guy. I’m a guy Herbert.” Captain Imagine looked down to where it was obvious that he was a guy.

    “Remember, it will be foggy.”

    “Are you sure about this?”

    “Ninety nine percent Cap.”

 

3

 

    Captain Imagine brushed his long red hair around his face, to help conceal his mannish square jaw. The pumps were killing him, he missed his pump up Nike’s. He didn’t feel very agile, not with heels, or the dress Herbert filched from his mothers closet.

    Now he knew how out of place Mary felt in the elevator this morning, due to a slight run in her stocking. Here he was, in a dress, stockings, heels, a purse, a wig, and about a pound of makeup on his face. Mary had such good looks, a run would never be noticed. Imagine was butt ugly, would have no problem walking to Latham Street park without being mugged.

    The park was six tenths of a mile from Sherburne Zoo, and was where Herbert said the next tack would be placed. Captain Imagine worked his way – painfully – to the park. Herbert had explained that Donna Platt was a redhead, she would associate with Imagine’s red wig, and would make her…him…the last victim.

    Captain Imagine reached down to scratch his groin through the soft yellow fabric of the dress. Stopped himself in mid scratch. He noticed a child with a handful of balloons looking at him with a mean look. Imagine waved to the child. The child shook his head and said, “your ugly lady.”

    The child’s mother slapped his hand and scolded him. “Milton! You apologize to the nice la…” She stopped short, saw Imagine’s face, “apologize Milton. M-maam I’m sorry for Milton.’

    They scrambled off. The woman clutching Milton’s hand.

    Imagine walked to the place where Herbert told him to lurk. He sat on a park bench. He adjusted himself to look like a woman, after he realized his legs were spread like a mans. He brushed the wig down a little with his hands, to lure the killer in. It was getting near primetime, Imagine calculated, as he saw the fog begin to rise in places near the fields and trees. He looked around – to ensure no one was watching – then touched his left breast. The left one was softer than the right one. They both looked similar.

 

    At a distance he saw a bum wobbling his way. The bum waltzed past, dragging behind him a pervasive odor, and clutching a brown bag that resembled a bottle. He staggered into the fog, and it swallowed him and his smell.

    The park lights began to come on, with darkness on the verge. Imagine wished he had his web belt, full of little surprises in the pockets. Herbert said it wouldn’t look good over a bright yellow dress. So he filled the bra cups, his wig, his purse and his right shoe, with weapons. Not ordinary weapons.

    Less than ten minutes after the park lights came on, Captain Imagine thought he heard a scratching noise behind him. Then it was quiet. He turned around, only fog. He waited for another sound. None were heard.

    Then he heard a metallic tink. Instinctively, he reached into his left bra cup with his right hand. He stood up and turned. Looked into the fog. Nothing. No, wait. It looked like a shadow in the fog. Probably nothing. Maybe the stumbling bum.

    Then the form cut through the fog, launched itself over the park bench, knocked Captain Imagine backwards over his high heels. Both bodies rolled across the sidewalk and onto the grass. His attacker hissed at him, freaked him out. He swung upward and caught the attackers chin with a glancing blow, as the figure rolled atop him. The punch knocked the attacker back, but caused no damage. A cold claw of steel came down at his face. He moved his head quickly, but not quick enough. The claw smashed down into the ground, slicing a gash in his cheek on the way. Blood gushed from the lacerations. The claw was stuck in the hard soil.

    The attacker reached over with her free hand, to loose her claw from the earth. While she was doing so, Imagine reached into his left breast. He punctured the balloon with his fingertips, and sifted up a hand of Imagine Dust from the pile on his chest. He threw a handful into the assailants face. He heard a screech of pain, as the woman was blinded. She yanked her hand free of the ground and rolled off of Imagine.

    Imagine rolled also. He got tangled in his purse and dress, and couldn’t get up in time. The killer got to her knees, to her feet, steel claw swinging blind, crimson mud dripping from it. Her other hand rubbed at the salt, cayenne, and sand mixture from her half closed streaming eyes. She saw that Imagine was having it tough getting untangled from the dress. She booted him in the nose with a solid grunt for emphasis. She watched him flop over onto his back, hands clutching his ruptured nose. Blood leaked copiously. She stumbled closer. Kicked him in the ribs repeatedly. He rolled into fetal position, as the killer regained strength, kicking him harder.

    Imagine sucked it up, took the pain, rolled over and over, far enough away for the killer not to reach him. He saw the killers eyes were red in the foggy haze. He reached into his right bra-cup and pulled out the Derringer, ripping the tape from his chest, pulling out hair in the process.

    He spun as she charged him. A growl showed her teeth. Her face a chainsaw mess of welts and valleys. A claw slashed at him. He fired. She howled in pain, fell hard onto the concrete sidewalk. Her hands went to her face. To her red screaming eyes. That was her mistake. She forgot about her claw, lanced her cheek and right eye. Unworldly shrieks of pain punctured the fog. Her body jerked wildly, as the pine scented furniture cleaner bit in, blinding her in even more agony.

    Captain Imagine leaped to his feet, shrugged off his heels, located his purse. He pulled out the walkie-talkie. “Herbert! Herbert, are you there? I got her. I got her. Quick, call the cops. You were right.”

    “I knew it.” Herbert said proudly.

    “The cops will be there soon. And so will I.”

 

4

 

    By the time the police arrived, Imagine removed the claw from Donna Platt’s wrist. He Chinese handcuffed her to his left thumb. With his right hand he administered first aid to her punctured right eye.

    They took her away in an ambulance. They took Captain Imagine in his wig and dress for questioning. Captain Rodrigues sat across the interrogation table from Captain Imagine.

    “Those boob’s you got, Cecil, one’s leaking sand all over the place. Are you wearing women’s underwear?”

    “Boxers, Rodrigues. Give me a break.” Captain Imagine answered.

    “Look, uh, Cecil. You and your buddy Herbert. Your gonna get a lot of attention for this. And uh, well, were all proud of you. In fact, remember when you tried out for the force, got disqualified? A technicality?”

    “Because I’m an inch short of meeting the requirements.”

    “So, stand up, over here, against the tape on the wall.”

    Captain Imagine went to the wall, turned his back to the tape. Rodrigues looked, squinted, shook his head. “Okay. Go ahead, sit back down, Cecil.” Rodrigues invited.

    “Your tall enough now Cecil. You should re-apply. Like right now, I’ll vouch for your height. It’s a lot of hard work – being a cop – but I believe you can do it.

    “Are you serious Rodrigues?”

    “ Captain Rodrigues. And we always need people for undercover work. And you fit the bill.”

    Cecil smiled. Clicked his heels on the floor. Maybe he wouldn’t need wings after all.

 

Get With The Plot

  Fifty pages ago, I died. Fell into a well, broke my leg, went into hypothermia, shock, and died. Twenty five pages later they dig me up, those grave robbing hooligans, looking for a fresh corpse to sell to dissection labs at upscale colleges. The next chapter sees me not in a dissection class, but in a desolate room on a cold metal gurney, awaiting who knows what, because I’m still dead at that point. All I know is, I’m there. That’s what I feel. That’s all I know. I can’t move. I feel tensed up. I have no way to blink my eyes. All I see is open space around me. Cold open space.

Mid-chapter, I hear a nurses voice, cooing to me, sweet and frightening, because I’m dead, and wouldn’t that make her deranged? What am I here for? To stare at the tiles on the ceiling? Why didn’t they leave me alone in the last chapter? Everything was fine there. I met a nice girl, one who helped me understand myself. One who listened. I was really getting to like her. And zap. I walk into a goddamn well. Poetic justice. Always in the hole. Never seem to get out. No matter which chapter, which page, or which profession.

The nurse is some harbinger of Satan, no doubt. She picks me up. In the interim of my death and my new life I have been transferred into the body of a newborn. I squiggle in her arms and try to ask her how this could be. Last time I checked I was a thirty eight year old construction worker named Scott. Obviously the author didn’t like the way the story was headed, so he used creative license to change me once again. Great! Now I’m a baby. I hate diapers. So I tell the nurse, “hey babe, please don’t make me wear a humiliating diaper. I’m thirty eight years old for the love of donuts.”

All that comes out is this indecipherable google goggle. Is that my voice? Ah crap! Why couldn’t I have been born in someone else’s book? This guy don’t know squat about keeping tension within the plot. He utilizes characters in all the wrong ways. Hell…I have been here before . I knew I recognized the nurses face, her nurses hat. So, how has she managed to stay the same? And I get to die umpteen million times. What am I? A floater character? And why can’t this idjit write me into sex scenes. It gets boring not getting laid. Tends to make me uptight. Grouchy even.

The nurse puts me into a little cradle scale, and I weigh the same as I did the last time. So I tell her, “six pounds, four ounces, and not a penny more.” What she hears is goonie-goo-goo and a dollop of drool. She touches my cheek, and tells me what a sweet girl I am. And I instantly lose it. A girl. What the hell? And I stop goo-gooing and start to cry. What the hell. If I ever get out of this book, I will murder the author. He must be a sadistic bastard to treat his main characters this way, the hack!

The nurse wipes the drool away, and I go for her finger. If I had teeth I would have bitten it off. How does she get to play the same part, and I get killed, only to come back as a girl? This is gonna scar me for life. Well, this life anyhow. Who knows what I’ll be next. Probably a dung beetle, or a cockroach.

Hopefully he gets writers block again, soon , or gets a cramp in his wrist because of writing everything out in pen first, (what a dinosaur; hello, ever heard of a keyboard?) or maybe he loses his mind and can’t write anymore. Which will be fine by me, as long as he doesn’t leave me as a girl in his next story, while he’s away at the funny farm. In a diaper! Just like his last story.

The Bottler

A man walks into a bar. But it isn’t a bar. Not by conventional standards. A bar usually has…well…a bar. A bar usually has stools. Tables. The sounds of clinking bottles and clouds of cigarette smoke. Sometimes a dance floor. Usually a jukebox pumping music. And a bar serves alcohol; and peanuts and pretzels in a sticky wooden bowl purchased from a local dollar store. A bar has the smell of old cheese and moldy wet shoes. But not this bar. This bar promises to transform the muddy soul into a solid entity. A sign on the wall to the mans right says so.

    He walks into the dimly lit shell of a room, and stands in a line. A young woman is in front of him, a blonde bob style haircut sways at shoulder length, sunglasses dangle from her hand. No rings adorn her fingers. A tall man is ahead of her. The line of people is varied. Old, young, slim, fat, tall and short people. The patrons all dissimilar to one another. But they all came for the same reason. The ad in the paper said to come to the bar. Anyone who comes to the bar for a grand opening will get a free bottle. ( The word free is a magnet to those in life who feel they must get what they can before someone else does.) So the man came to the bar, near the ocean, and stood in line to get his free bottle.

    The line moved ahead one space. Two more got in line behind him. He half turned; and nodded over his shoulder to them. They nodded back, politely, a middle aged couple. A strange bongo beat pulses from unseen speakers, resonating in a dance of dust motes in a patch of sunlight. The line moves ahead a person. The man bumps into the blonde ahead of him. She turns and gives him a ‘ watch it buster’ look, her eyebrows raised.

    “I’m sorry,” the man says, “I wasn’t looking. I was thinking.”

    The woman smiled, “it’s okay.”

    “Have you ever seen a bar like this? Empty, with a line that moves through a room, through a door on the other side, single file.” The man asked.

    “Mmmm, no. I don’t believe so.” She answered, a smile on her lips and in her eyes.

    “Me neither. Maybe there’s a bigger room – with a bar – behind the door.” The man said wryly.

    “Maybe.” The woman agreed.

    The line moved ahead another patron. There were only four people ahead of him. Seven more people came in the door to stand in the line behind him. When the man turned around, the woman was facing the other way. Her perfume haunted his nose with a lingering scent of roses. It was her turn. She went through the door. She turned around and looked at the man. “Nice talking to you. See you on the other side.”

    “I’ll look for you.” The man said.

     Finally, it was the mans turn. He was ushered through the door by a short man on the other side. His skin had the bluish tint of a Hindu. “Good fortune,” the bluish man said.

    “Thank you,” the man returned.

    “Go down the hall to the door at the end. Your free bottle is there.”

    The man walked down the dimly lit hall. His ears listened for music, laughter, the clink of bottles, but heard nothing, only the slow tic of his shoes on the wooden floor. He reached out and turned the silver doorknob, and entered another room. A large man resembling a Samoan wrestler sat behind a desk. A placard on the desk stated this was Mongo. The man approached the desk. Mongo looked at him, and smiled. “Peace be with you.”

    “Forgive me, but didn’t the ad say I would get a free bottle, if I came to the grand opening of the bar on this day?” The man inquired.

    “Yes. It did.” Mongo confirmed.

    “Well, where’s the bar? Where’s the blonde that was ahead of me in line?” The man asked, “and where’s the alcohol?”

    “She already got her bottle.” Mongo answered. “She will be very satisfied. And there is no alcohol here; only… spirits.”

    “We call it booze, here in the States, Mongo. And what kind of gag is this?” the man asked, annoyed at having to wait in line for so long, for this. “Is this a cult?”

    “No. No gag. No cult. Here is your bottle.” Mongo produced a bottle from the crate on his left. There was no lid on the bottle. It was empty.

    “I hope you will enjoy it.”

    “What kind of gag is this?” The man asked, very angry with this scam, he grabbed the bottle from Mongo and waved it around before his eyes, tipped it upside down, nothing dripped out. “It’s empty.”

    “The ad in the paper said nothing about it being full,” said Mongo, “it said, ‘free bottle’. Look into the bottle through it’s top – you will see it’s not so empty after all.”

    The man looked into the bottle. A tingle passed through his entire body. Sure enough, at the bottom of the bottle there was an inscription; Thea nomattis tulli sforee. the man read it, and was immediately ensconced by a peace he had never felt before. Mongo caught the bottle before it hit the desk. He placed it into the crate to his right. Next to a bottle that smelled of rose perfume.

    His sausage finger found the button on the desk drawer and depressed it. The bluish man ushered the next patron through the door and Mongo gave them the free bottle. And so the rest of the day and night went.

    Upon closing time, Mongo collected the cases and carried them through the back door of the bar, to the beach. He and the bluish man corked all of the bottles to keep the ocean water out. He began dumping the cases in the sea when the tide sucked to an endless horizon. He went back and forth between the piles of cases and the sea, releasing each and every spirit. Free bottles.

The Box

The ferns were as tall as I. Slapping at my face, their green leaves filtered the sunlight, as it peeked through the trees overhead. I couldn’t see my feet, or what lie ahead of me, through the vast expanse of foliage. All I could do was push the bushy leaves away, as I parted them like a green Red Sea. There were no deer paths where I was. The deer had a well worn trail near a deep flowing stream, which was now a hundred yards to my right. I pushed on, knowing at any moment I could step on a large snake, and scare the hell out of myself. Or run into a spiders web, with a huge arachnid in the center of it. Both were possibilities. I felt the adrenaline pumping in my veins, at the thought of such a confrontation.

The ground became marshy. I hopped clods of grass between water pockets. I could see the marsh reeds ahead, they were seven to eight feet tall and made the giant ferns I was among seem like upstarts. I made a beeline for them, hoping I didn’t see any bees on the way, or anything else that can bite. The ground was soft, it felt like walking on marshmallows. The mosquitoes were large and obnoxious, each one vying for my arteries. I mashed them against my arms and my neck, depriving the unlucky ones of a luxury such as my blood. The lucky ones drilled me, then got crushed before they could escape. How lucky is that? I could feel welts on my skin. Nasty little buggars, buzzing in my ears, swarming me. How did she manage to make it through this jungle? I had never seen as much as a scratch on her body. Here I was, mosquito welts measling my hide, scratches from briars connecting those mounded mosquito dots, burdocks and stick tites clinging to my clothes, sweating profusely. Using will power, she persevered, and so would I.

The marsh reeds were true to their name, growing in leach and snake infested marsh. I hesitated at this thought, unsure of how to proceed past this predicament. They say, to face your fears head on, is the sure fire way to conquer them. Can’t say that I believe what they say.

I began oozing my way through the thick muck, sucking mud, lying beneath a carpet of floating ground cover. The mosquitoes were destroying my concentration, as I wondered, were there any leaches on my legs? I couldn’t tell through the mud. The water was sickening warm, the enormous marsh reeds a curtain I had to constantly push through. All I could see was green and golden brown, as I shoved them out of my way. Damned weeds! They tried to tangle my legs, twice I almost fell face first into the soupy goo. I was five feet into the marsh, surrounded by reeds, when I heard a rustling on either side of me. This is how it must have been for her, add the crushing weight of knowing what came next. I knew this rustling sound. Had heard it before. When you have fears, you get to know those fears. Sometimes you know those fears better than you know yourself. I stood still, the rustling stopped. My heart hammered, as I told myself that it was too late to turn back now. I had made a promise, that whatever it took, I would do this for her. Whatever she asked. I had sworn an oath. I intended to fulfill it.

I froze.

The next step brought back my fear, as a swirling black torpedo shot away from me, through the floating weeds. I saw it’s scaly skin, as it weaved between the tall marsh reeds. Shuddering, I pressed on, telling myself it wouldn’t bother me, if I didn’t bother it. Fifteen more feet of this abuse, and I came to a clearing. A large box was at this island’s center. Around the center of this marsh reed forest, sunning on the edge of the clearing, on a small circle of land, were an enormous amount of snakes.

I froze, debated what to do next. Not wanting to bother any of them, wondering, how did she manage to do this? How ? How did she have the guts to go through with this? How did she get the box here? Were we both crazy? The smell of gasoline hung heavy, in the still circle, between the tall marsh reed fencing, and the large wooden box.

hate snakes.

fear snakes.

I was surrounded by snakes, very large snakes. I knew – they knew – I hated snakes.

I approached the little island. The snakes did not move. I forced myself to take another step, expecting them to strike at me at any time. One more step…

…and like a watch spring being freed, they scattered all around me into the water. I leaped onto the dry plateau of land, looking nervously behind me. They sunk into the murky water, to be stepped on later. My heart pummeled my rib cage. Should have brought a walking stick along with me! I exhaled a nervous breath, pushed my hair back from my forehead. I looked to the sky overhead. A beautiful blue, framed by golden wheat heads of marsh reeds. A breeze stirred, and swayed them gently back and forth. Maybe it was the loss of blood I was suffering from the mosquito bites, but I suddenly felt a peace there, seeing the blue and gold and green colors, it was a beautiful secluded spot, where no man may ever walk again.

So this was it. This was where it happened. This was where her world fell apart, where her heaven began, where all the pain left at once, forever.

I took the photo of the rose from my pocket, slipped it through a crack in the box, leaving the edge exposed. Without much ceremony, I said my goodbye to her, forever, lit a match to the edge of the photo, and pushed it into the large box. As the flames consumed wood, I stumbled through the steamy muck, under a smoky cloud, as I cursed snakes that writhed in brackish filth.

She had a lot of guts –  more than most – to come here alone. And die. I forgave her for the snakes, as I swatted a rogue mosquito, who had not got his fill. And said a prayer for her, under my breath. The box crackled, and I knew she was better off.

 

 

The Shark

 “You did well on the test, Jennifer.” Mr. Freeman praised. “It shows that you studied.”

“It wasn’t that.”

“What was it then?”

“I been eating a lot of tuna fish sammidges.”

“That’s the secret?”

“Mom says, ‘tuna makes you smart.’”

“Your mom must be correct. Great job. Have a nice weekend.”

“Thanks Mr. Freeman, you too.”

 

Abe pulled into Valley Diner’s lot, got out of the Subaru, and went into the diner. Jimmy, the diners owner, swished the toothpick around in his mouth, “the usual, Abe?”

“No. Not today. You got any tuna sandwiches?”

“Sure.”

Jimmy scribbled on a scrap of paper. “You want lettuce? Tomato? Mayo? Pickles?”

“What do people usually get on tuna sandwiches?”

“You never have a tuna sandwich? Tuna makes you smart – fish makes you smart.”

“My dad was eaten by a shark.”

Jimmy smirked, twisting the toothpick wildly.

“Fish was taboo in our household.”

The smirk disappeared.

“So, what’s good on tuna?”

“I’ll have Linda fix you up a classic tuna sandwich. We’ll start you off slow.”

 

The tuna sandwich arrived; along with a side if potato chips, and a mug of root beer. Abe poked at the tuna, as if it would jump off his plate and eat him.

“You know Jimmy, I been a teacher for sixteen years, and I did not know that fish made you smart. That’s how fish-proof my mother made my life.”

“You’ve lived a sheltered life, Abe.”

Abe sipped his root beer, turned the plate and ate a few of the chips. He suspiciously avoided the tuna sandwich.

“You gonna’ eat that?” Jimmy asked sarcastically.

“Huh?”

“Are you gonna eat the sandwich?”

“Yeah, yeah, just easing into it. I never had fish before. My mom told my brother and I that fish were poison.”

“Because your dad was devoured by a shark?”

“Yeah. The way she carried on about that man. They don’t make love as strong as that anymore. No pun. I mean, even after death, she was faithful to my father. Relationships today are not like that. They leave the chapel married, but how many grooms bang the bridesmaids in the rectory, while awaiting the wedding march?”

“I know what you mean. values have changed over the last few generations. My kids got a Mohawk and a nose ring. He looks like a bull with a bad haircut.”

“Whew, okay Jimmy, be my witness, I’m eating tuna.”

 Abe clamped the sandwich between his hands, and brought it to his open mouth. He bit into it and chewed. Jimmy watched, toothpick ticking from side to side like a pendulum.

“Mmmmm, mmmmm.”

“What? What? You gonna be sick?” Jimmy went for a bucket beneath the counter. 

Mmmm , no, mmmm , Jimmy, this is incredible.”

Linda poked her head over the order board.

“Linda, this is great. What have I missed.”

“It’s the pickles, they give it pizzazz.” Linda gushed proudly, her chin in the air.

“Maybe you should try shark.” Jimmy suggested.

“What?” Abe asked between chews.

“You know, shark steaks. To get even for your father.”

“They eat shark?”

“Some do. It’s not bad, I’ve tried it.”

“And you think I should try it?”

“It would close the circle for you. So to speak.”

“Maybe I will.”

He ate the rest of the sandwich, chips, and drained the root beer. He paid, left a tip on the counter, and left the diner.