Story #47 – Jimbo’s Dilemma

Jimbo Jankovich had no idea what was going on.

Stepping in Larry Sharpstein’s office was like walking into a time capsule that hadn’t been dug up yet. Nothing in the room spoke of the current era save his cell phone and Starbucks mug. Even the sunlight struggled to permeate the windows they were so crudded over with years of lip service and snapped judgements.

Books populated the shelves along every wall. Not only were they packed in vertically, but stacks of books were stuffed in every available nook. Many were leather-bound. Most were hardcover. A minority were paperback, but they lobbied for space with just as much dusty enthusiasm.

Presiding over this sprawling library was Larry Sharpstein, Esq., their oafish and decaying Lord. There was no way of telling just how old he was, and so it was conceivable that he might never die. He gave the impression that some of these were indeed the first books and he was there to witness them bound. He was timeless, an institution, fermenting in this realm of paper and leather, hardwood and oily carpet. His grizzled little finger tapped at a paragraph in a court document centered on his desk. It was faded and yellow as his skin, perhaps also from another time and another dimension.

“It says here, plain as day, you failed to fulfill your responsibilities to my client,” His voice was a scratchy whistle, something you would hear from a cartoon beaver who had smoked too many Cuban cigars. His dull eyes rolled from the document to Jimbo Jankovich who stood before him holding his hat.

“He is filing a grievance for damages amounting to but not limited to any and all such provisions garnered, gathered and earned by you and anyone you have had decidedly professional contact with in all days since your conception and first breath of oxygen.”

Jimbo Jankovich took deep breaths through his nose as he puzzled over the words.

Mr. Sharpstein took the opportunity to elucidate, “You have been found to be delinquent in your duties, Mr. Jankovich. And I as a duly sworn representative of my client have been dispensed to ensure you absorb the gravity of the allegations levied against you and to also ensure that you intend to fulfill your end of the bargain which you engaged with my Client once upon a time and so forth and such with.”

“I still don’t understand what’s going on,” said Jimbo Jankovich feeling tense as a coffin rod. “None of what you’re saying makes any sense.”

Mr Sharpstein’s tongue emerged from between his papery lips like a little pink slug checking the air temperature. It wiggled back and forth before disappearing back into the man’s darkness.

“I’m speaking as clearly as I can, Mr. Jankovich! I am merely conveying to you the complexities of your circumstance. I have simplified them to the best of my abilities as required of me by the laws of the great state of Kansas.”

“But what agreement?” Asked Jimbo. “And who is your client?”

“I’m afraid that information is confidential and protected by the Client’s privilege to remain anonymous so as to avoid any undue scrutiny and harassment from you or any associated parties.

“What you need to know is what I have told you and that is all that you need to know,” Sharpstein’s voice rustled out of him like a snake escaping its own dead skin.

“So what? I owe this person I don’t know, like, pretty much everything I have for something I didn’t do and can never be sure that I had to do or not?”

“Precisely,” said Sharpstein, who imminently sipped from his Starbucks mug.

Jimbo realized he was strangling his own hat and loosened his grip. He took another deep breath and searched the little sarcophagus’ eyes for any remaining sprinkles of humanity.

“This is bullshit,” said Jimbo Jankovich.

Unperturbed, Sharpstein replied, “This is the law.”

“And what if I don’t pay? What if I turn around and walk out that door and never look back?”

“Then we will contact the banks and take what we are owed.”

“But I don’t think I actually owe you anything!” Jimbo was losing his patience.

“If you would just read this para–”

Jimbo grabbed the document and shook it in Jankovich’s face.

“Just because you threw a bunch of abstract language on a paper doesn’t make it true!”

“I assure you the language is quite concrete.”

“I don’t even know who you are!”

“But we know who you are. Just sign here to indicate you acknowledge your fault and indicate your intention to ameliorate.

“I didn’t do anything,” said Jimbo.

“And so we will take everything,” said Larry.

Jimbo crumpled up the document and threw it into the rolling mountains of books.

“I AIN’T SIGNING SHIT!”

Tut tut tut, said Sharpstein. “It doesn’t matter. It’s already done.”

Feeling a draft, Jimbo looked down and realized his shoes were suddenly gone.

“You have a lot to learn about the legal system,” said Larry Sharpstein.

Jimbo wanted to respond, but realized he no longer had the words.

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Story #46 – She would live.

“GET A JOB!”

Joana looked up and watched the man walk away down the block. He didn’t look back. He didn’t have to. His words hung over her like a cloud. The square of his black jacket a dismissing punctuation.

She took a deep breath of the blue morning and returned to the task at hand–digging in a trash can. The warm sour smell of stale beer was thick. She pulled out a couple beer bottles. She shook out the remaining drops and put them into the main bin of her shopping cart. Using her elbow, she carefully wiped at the sweat gathered at her temples.

This is her job. Every day she leaves her small shared apartment at 1am. She pushes her shopping cart up and down the blocks of Brooklyn brownstones and row houses til 7am gathering bottles and cans for 5 cents a piece. It wasn’t her dream to come to the USA to dig in garbage cans, but this was a way to make money without too many questions asked. There was no paperwork and no boss with big eyes and sweaty palms.

She pushed her cart to the next building and wiped her big latex gloves down the front of her apron. A few little green bags of dog poop moldered on the top of the recycling bin. At least these were tied. If she got shit on her gloves, the smell would follow her home. She had been lucky today so far.

A squad of blue translucent recycling bags, plump with beer bottles and cans, were huddled around the bins. Someone had had a party last night! This would be a nice bonus to her take. She sorted these into her own bags separating the bottles and cans, glass, plastic and aluminum. Brooklyn was bountiful terrain for her. She always got lots of PBR and Bud Light cans, as well as the colorful craft beer cans and bottles. She re-tied the bags when she was done with them, knowing that if she left things neat she would be less likely to receive any trouble from the tenants.

Then she kicked the actual trash cans to scare away any rats that might be hiding inside. The rats were the worst part of the job. They terrified her. She had almost been bitten several times. She kicked the can again and waited for the telltale rustle. They were the beasts of her mythology, far more real and terrible than Medusa or a Minotaur, trolls or ogres. To her relief there were none hiding in this corner of her labyrinth.

Inside the bin she found some empty Prosecco and Champagne bottles. This was more than just a hipster soirée. They had been celebrating something. Was it a wedding or a baby? A graduation? It was nice to be in a place where people could celebrate life, even if it was just her job to sort out their refuse.

She had come to the USA as a refugee. Her old country was at war. There was no food, no education, no jobs, no future for her there. She remembered waking up there feeling desperate and useless. She left everything and everyone she knew behind and nearly died of dehydration passing through six countries to get here. In her country getting killed by a stray bullet was an everyday concern and the soldiers were more likely to rape and rob you than save you. Here every day was an opportunity. It wasn’t easy, but every morning she woke up there was a little less fear and a little more hope.

It wasn’t the happy ending she had dreamed of yet, but it was a start.

She groped farther into the darkness to see if there were more big bottles hiding. A jab of pain caused her to withdraw her hand quickly. Bright red seeped from a slice in the powder blue of her glove. She looked into the can and saw the glinting shrapnel of a shattered bottle and cursed herself for being so careless.

Cursing softly, she took off her glove to inspect the wound. As she did, the door of the house opened and a young woman her age stepped out. She was dressed in a nice dark suit and her blonde hair was done up perfect. The woman looked up and down the block seeing everything but Joana. Her partner stepped out a minute later and they came down the steps together.

The man actually met Joana’s eyes for a second. She braced herself for another reprimand, maybe this time for bleeding on his property. Instead, a weak smile fluttered across his lips like a dying butterfly. Then they strode off together, the woman’s high heels clicking down the sidewalk.

Joana watched them disappear around the corner, then pulled out a clean rag and dabbed at her bleeding hand. She would need to clean it or it would get infected, but first she had to finish her job. She would live.

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Story #45 – A little birdy told me

The backyard looked like another planet.  A heavy blanket of snow magnified the cold and reflected the ineffectual winter sun.  Ben squinted at the cold vista out his kitchen window while he scoured the burnt cheese from the bottom of an enchilada pan.  A bluebird, blue and luminous as the heart of an iceberg, alighted on the metal and glass feeder strung from a nearby birch branch and nibbled at some seed.  He watched it flit between the two main perches and the base.  Every time it landed it glanced around as if it feared it had fallen for a deadly trap. 

Ben had taken special pains to secure this bird feeder.  The previous one had been dragged into the forest and demolished by some bastard raccoon.  He hated raccoons.  They were thieves who crept through the night and stole without any concern for the order of the world.  He ran to the hardware store that same day lest the birds migrate to another feeder in someone else’s yard.  The birds brought color and levity to his life.  His mother had been an avid birder and he inherited her enthusiasm.  His wife and daughter preferred their cat.

After a few pecks the bluebird flew off and was replaced by a pair of finches.  Their brown and white feathers were a micro version of the snow and wood menagerie surrounding them.  They eyed the seed briefly before plunging their tittering beaks into the holes and emerging with a spray of shell and crumb.  Ben couldn’t say that he ever saw one actually consume any of the seeds from the shells they snapped open.  But their beaks, like petrified lips and teeth and nose combined into one awkward instrument clapped frantically at the shells, somehow managing to separate some morsels from the shrapnel.  It was amazing to watch.

“Daddy!” Megan sang, her small voice flying up from behind him as she came padding into the kitchen. She held their tubby tabby like a small sack of potatoes.  “Charles is hungry!”

Ben looked over to the cat dishes in the corner, still half-full of the morning scoop of kibble.

“How do you know?” He asked her, putting down the finally clean pan and drying his hands on a towel.

“Because he told me.”

“Oh yeah?” Ben asked, kneeling and addressing the bewildered feline.  “What are you in the mood for Chucky-boy?”

Charles flicked his tail and wriggled in Megan’s faltering grip.

“He wants cookies!” Megan said when the cat finally succeeded in escaping her tiny hands.  He fled the room, the tiny bell on his collar tinkling down the hallway.

“He does?” Ben exclaimed with wide eyes, retrieving a cookie from the jar atop the fridge, “Well, how about you bring this one to him?”

“Thanks Daddy,” Megan said heading into the living room, away from the cookie-craving cat.

Ben returned his attention to the birds.  A lone thrush, lemon yellow with little black wings eyed him from the feeder.  A bright yellow spot in the monochrome yard, it could have been a photograph.  He was about to grab his binoculars when it flew toward him, landed on the window sill, and pecked at the glass.  He thought it was an accident until it did it again.  Was there something on the window?

Expecting the bird to flee, he reached to where it had pecked and scratched the spot, as if he might be able to discern whatever was on the outside by scratching the interior.  The bird held its ground.

“Bold little sucker, aren’t you?”  Ben said, leaning in until his nose was practically against the glass.  They stared at each other closely for a second, its tiny black eye locked with his brown.  Its little bird chest inflated and deflated quick tiny breaths, iridescent feathers puffed out for warmth.  Then it pecked again causing him to jerk back.  And then it pecked again.  And again. 

In the living room a cartoon voice began singing about the letter “B.”  B is for balloons, big bubbles and balmy afternoons.  Ben slowly reached out and unlocked the window and lifted it open.  The yellow bird hopped inside and perched on the sink faucet, again eyeing him.

“What’s your deal?”  He asked the bird.  It looked at him and then around the kitchen and then back at him.  A cold draft blew in the cracked window.

“No more seed out there?” 

The bird, still breathing quickly and jerking its gaze around the room, didn’t make a sound.  Ben retrieved a plastic container from the cabinet behind him, expecting the bird to flee at any moment, but resolved to play out the scenario as far as it would go.  It was such a beautiful yellow.  The jagged white stripes on its wings reminded him of the cresting waves on a midnight ocean.

He shook out a small pile of seeds onto a saucer and watched the bird.  It hardly hesitated before fluttering over to the plate and pecking at the various bits.  It craned its head up at him as it ate, as if expecting a floor show, so Ben mimed a short tap routine in his socks.  The bird stopped eating for this, but made no move to applaud.

“Tough crowd,” Ben mumbled.

“Tweating!”  the bird chirped.

Ben stopped breathing and froze.  The bird tittered and pecked some more seeds.  Ben released his breath and ran his finger through his receding hair.

“That was weird,” he said.

The bird stopped eating and looked at him again.  From the end of the hallway came the jingling of the cat’s bell.

“Your wife’s cheating on you,” the bird peeped and flew out the window just before Charles came trotting around the corner with an expectant “Mewl.”

“What the fuck?”  Ben said.  Chuck jumped up onto the counter and smelled the bird seed.  Ben shut the window, cutting off the draft.  In the living room, a cartoon voice sang, “F is for Forks, Farms, and Flags.  F is for your Favorite Figs and Frogs.”

When Shelly came home that night, Ben was working on a puzzle with Megan.  A Charles Mingus record filled the room with soft horn flutters as his daughter’s tiny fingers fiddled with the oversized jigsaw pieces. He smiled at her blissful indifference to the clear patterns of lines and colors.

Shelly threw her coat over the blue easy chair and dropped her purse in the seat.

“Ooh! A puzzle?”  She asked, walking over and giving each of them pecks on their heads.  She took off her heels and squatted, helping guide Megan’s piece into its proper place across the board.  “You’re doing great!”

“How was your day?” Ben asked, taking a sip from his beer.

“Drinking already?” She asked, eyebrow raised.

He responded with his most casual shrug.

“Oh fine,” she yawned, grabbing her heels and standing.

“Daddy ordered pizza!” Megan announced through a blushing smile.

“I guess it’s movie night.” Shelly said.  “I’ll get into some PJs!”  She smiled at Ben and walked down the hall towards their room.  “Open some wine for me?”  She called back.

“Sure,” he said, getting up and walking over to her purse and jacket.

Megan picked up another puzzle piece and again attempted to mash it into the absolute wrong place.  Ben lifted the jacket and sniffed it.  Her familiar perfume, soft and powdery, nothing more.  Dropping it over his arm, he picked up her purse and pulled out her phone.  After a quick glance down the hallway, he checked her texts.  Nothing weird.  She texted him she would be late, and he had replied.  Her mother sent her pictures of curtains for their new living room.  Friends he recognized.  Nothing.  He checked her recent calls and saw a number with no name.  Thumbing over to Messages, there was one from that number.  His thumb hovered over the Listen button.

Charles rubbed up against his leg and he almost dropped the phone.  Quickly replacing it in the purse, he rode out this fresh rush of adrenaline to the closet where he hung her coat.

“Oh, thanks hon,” Shelly said, entering the room in her pink-striped pajamas and plopping next to Megan.  The record needle looped a faint popping.  Ben took a deep breath as he walked over and with shaky hands flipped the record.

“Are you okay?” Shelly asked.

“Yeah!” Ben said, grabbing his beer and shaking it, “Just hungry.”

Shelly helped his daughter place another piece of the puzzle, and he took a big swig.

That night while Shelly snored softly, hugging a pillow, her back to him, the way she had slept for as long as he could remember, Ben stared at the ceiling.  The bird had pecked on the window.  It pecked repeatedly.  Like knocking on a door.  It had knocked so he let it in.  And then he fed it.  And it kept looking at him.  And it said Cheating?  In a very-human voice, Your wife is cheating on you.  But Ben knew she would never do that to him.  There was no way.

Watching Shawshank earlier, Megan asleep on the floor in front of them, they cuddled and laughed softly together at the same parts.  The bird must be misinformed.

Snorting, Shelly rolled over and threw an arm over him.  Its warm weight calmed him down, reassured him that neither her fidelity nor his sanity were in question.  As her hot breath swam around his neck, he slowly succumbed to sleep.

The next morning, he woke up late and Shelly had already gone to work and dropped Megan at daycare.  This was the regular Wednesday routine so he could focus on his novel.  As he made his coffee in the morning, he kept looking out at the bird feeder.  This morning, a giant red-headed woodpecker kept flying over and scaring the little finches, sparrows and bluebirds away.  Just like a redhead to be a bully!  The little yellow thrush did not make an appearance.

Ben had some breakfast and watched some TV, checked his emails and online profile, instagram feed, pinterest, reddit, and twitter feed.  He couldn’t focus.  Not even on the micro-blogs and memes.  He scrolled down Shelly’s profile searching for any strange posts and found nothing out of sorts.  Exasperated, he decided to go for a run.

He took his regular route out the backyard and through the woods.  The snow had melted enough that the trail was passable, but he was still careful to watch for puddles and ice.  As he ran, he let himself get lost in the music of the forest.  Bird calls echoed sporadically high above his head.  The woodpecker interjected its manic tapping.  His running shoes crunched on the dirt and gravel.  The cold air flushed his cheeks and cleared his head.  He was writing about a dogcatcher who was had chased a dog into the woods and gotten lost.  The sun had set, and the guy had left his phone in the truck, and he was now being pursued by a wolf.  It was a dumb premise, but he believed that even a dumb premise could be won over by clever characters, so he was resolute to uncover this poor dogcatcher’s redeeming resourcefulness.  As he ran, he looked around the woods and put himself into the mind of the dogcatcher.  He ran faster as if he were being pursued by a ferocious wolf.  Sprinting now, exhaling giant clouds of steam, he became the wolf, hunting the dogcatcher.  A hunger grew inside him and tears streamed from his eyes.  He bared his teeth, fighting the urge to give up, pushing himself harder, leaping over branches and sharp stones and murky puddles.  He imagined catching the dogcatcher and ripping out his throat and then gorging himself on the guy’s guts. 

Then he tripped.

His daydream was immediately replaced with a blur of frozen forest as his body pitched forward and bounced and scraped itself to a halt. Moans escaped him as he pushed himself onto his back and watched the plume of steam gasp out of him. After a bitter minute reflecting on his stupidity he pushed himself up and began checking himself out. His arms were a little scraped and definitely bruised beneath his winter jogging jacket. His left leg had scraped on a big rock and had suffered a fair gash. Nothing broken, thankfully.

“Fuck me,” he grumbled.

With a little extra effort, he stood up and realized he was a few steps from the river, which was where he usually took a break and then turned around.

He looked down at the slow meandering river and finished catching his breath.  The wolf had caught him and torn him up.  But he had survived.  Maybe the dog he was pursuing would save his protagonist from the wolf. Domestication defeats primal. The dog would die, of course, sacrificing himself for the man, and the man would then have to re-think his career and life’s work.

Ben looked down at his bloody knee and decided to begin the long limp home.

When he got home, he wrapped a towel around his wound and sat at his desk and began hammering at the keys.  A few pages in, once the dog had gotten between the dogcatcher and the hungry wolf, the chill of Ben’s cooling sweat overcame him and he headed to the shower.  Writing about a dog fighting a wolf would be a challenge and he needed to be focused.

In the hot stream of the shower, he scrubbed the dirt from his wound.  It was no easy feat.  To distract himself from the feeling of needles chewing at his leg, he stared into the gathering steam and conjured images of the snarling beasts, the terrified and exhausted dog catcher, the steam of the animals’ breath as they lunged at each other and tumbled in the dark underbrush.  A peck at the small shower window overlooking the yard broke his concentration.  The yellow thrush had returned.  It pecked again.

Ben rinsed the soap from his hands and body and gingerly opened the bathroom window.  Cold air flew in with the small bird.

“Steamy in here,” it said, high voice reverberating strangely on the tiles.  Ben stared at it, unable to come to terms.  It continued, “Sorry to jet yesterday, but you gotta do something about that cat.  It’s not safe for us.”

By us Ben was unsure whether it was referring to birds in general or just talking birds.

“What?”  Dumb was never a more appropriate word for a person unable to speak.

“Your fucking pet cat,” the bird continued, “is a fucking menace.  Do you have any idea what a contradiction it is to both have a pet cat AND keep a bird feeder?  Are you a sadist?  You get off on dead little birdies?”

Ben breathed shallowly.  “It’s got a bell,” he said.

“Oh!  A fucking bell!  You think it doesn’t know that?!”  The bird exclaimed hopping forward and fluttering its wings, “It can sneak its way within pouncing distance without so much as a faint dingle!”

“Fuck,” Ben said genuinely, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Bird said, regaining its composure, “Just keep in mind, it’s a frightful conundrum which should be addressed.” The bird looked at his wound dripping red down the drain. “Took a tumble, huh?”

Ben looked down at the red ooze. “Yeah.”

“Must be a bitch not to be able to fly,” The bird said, turning, about to fly out.

“Wait!” Ben said, moving the colder parts of his body into the spray of the hot water, “Did you say my wife was cheating on me?”

“Oh shit!  Yeah!  Sorry.” Bird said, “Cat just gets me agitated.  Yeah.  She’s banging an old high school friend she reconnected with on facebook.”

“What?”  Ben’s heart froze in his chest and dropped like a fishing weight into his stomach.

“Yeah, sorry man.  I know this isn’t probably how you wanted to hear.”

You mean from a bird? 

“I followed her one day,” Bird continued, “I was bored and there’s a nice birdbath at the library across from the school.  So I was over there trying to peck through the damn ice when I see this redhead chick walk up and put a note on her windshield.”  Bird pecked at a drop of water by its feet.  “At first I thought it was nothing, just like a substitute or something, but then when she comes and checks the note she calls you and says she’s gonna be late.”

A chick?!  Ben shifted his body again.  Goosebumps ran up his arms as the hot water warmed him.

“You okay?”  The bird asked.

“Go on, please.”

“Cool.  Sorry.  Um.  Yeah, so I followed her and they end up at her place and they, well, they did the dirty.”

“My wife slept with another woman?”

“There was no sleeping as far as I know.”

“How do you know?”

The bird laughed a high-pitched tweety laugh.

“Just say I got a ‘bird’s eye view’” it said, it was hard to tell, but it might have winked.

Ben’s head swam.  His eyes wouldn’t focus.  He turned off the water and wrapped himself in a green towel. “No. It’s not possible. She would never–“

He was cut short by a flash of feathers inches from his face. He flailed and stepped backward, bumping up against the sink. “What the–?”

The bird settled on the lip of the tub and eyed Ben coolly.

“Listen, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you can’t actually say that this is a surprise to you. Think about it. The late nights. The lack of a sex life. I mean, forget about poking the hole, she won’t even look you in the eyes for longer than a blink.”

“Poking the–?”

“Listen!” The bird screeched. “If you were standing on the corner and saw two trucks about to hit each other, what would you do? You’d try and stop them right? You’d do whatever you could to prevent an accident that would mangle two people’s, if not more, lives. This is what we do, even animals. We don’t avoid the truth. We dash at it and seize the moment. You stupid humans, however, spend so much time dancing around and avoiding the obvious. You waste your lives asleep at the wheel on a freeway full of drunk drivers. It’s stupid.

“Now I know you’re still grappling with the whole talking bird thing, and that’s what it is,” the bird continued, “but don’t let my interruption into your peaceful ambivalence prevent you from taking this very real moment and realizing that your life has taken a very wrong turn and it’s about time you wake the fuck up. If you don’t, it may be more than your own life that gets fucked.”

“Megan?” Ben asked the space between him and the finch.

The bird stared at him with his tiny black eyes. Ben held the gaze for as long as he could, then sighed and looked down at his wound. He had been daydreaming when he fell and gashed himself. How many of the bad things in his life had happened because we wasn’t paying attention?

“Think about it,” Bird said and flew out the window. 

Instead of returning to his writing, he dressed his wound and sat on the living room couch and turned on the TV. Mindlessly scrolling through the channels, he considered the bird’s proclamation.  He and his wife had drifted apart in the past year.  She was working more and he was always stepping out to write, so they spent little time together aside from meals and sleeping.  She had always been faithful before as far as he could tell.  They were high school sweethearts.  Their sex had been amazing, when they had it, but maybe had gotten a little formulaic. 

She joked about finding women attractive, had even made flimsy suggestions that they attempt a menage et trois, but nothing ever came of it.  He always thought that if he had supported the idea she would think him coquettish, like it must be some kind of trap, but now he felt foolish.  Maybe a threesome could have saved their marriage?

How could she do this to him?  He dug his hand into a nearby throw pillow and bit back tears.  Charles, like most cats, intuited Ben’s despair and climbed into his lap and purred, rolling onto his side and extending his front legs.  Ben released the pillow and stroked his cat.  The TV flashed ads for cereal and underwear at him.  His breathing regulated.

What has he doing?  He was envisioning the end of his marriage because of an apparent talking bird!  He laughed and looked at this cat, “You ever seen a talking bird?”

Charles purred and tugged at an old blanket Ben was half-sitting on.

“Maybe I have a brain tumor.”

At two o’clock he picked Megan up from daycare and brought her home.  He gave her a yogurt treat and worked on his story.  The wolf and the dog went at it, tearing at each other, but, despite the wolf’s size advantage, the dog’s speed and litheness allowed for a few decisive strikes and the wolf bolted away, whimpering.  Now the man faced the dog, his prey-turned-savior, scraped and bleeding, panting, maintaining its distance.  He had chased down dogs like this one for years and put them to their deaths.  His horrible profession clearer than it had ever been.  He put out his hand.  Here boy!   And the dog growled at him and ran away.  In the dark winter forest, the dog catcher was once again alone.

“Daddy?”  Megan appeared next to his writing desk.

“Yes Lumpkin.”

“I’m not a lumpkin!”

“What do you need, Megan?”

“Can we go see Donald Duck again?”  They vacationed at Disney the summer prior and Megan had lost her noggin for Donald Duck.

“Sure thing, Hambone!”

“When?”  She was a smart hambone.

“Let me talk about it with your mother and we’ll see.  Now go play so Daddy can finish his story.”

“I’m not a Hambone!”

“I know Princess.”

At six Ben went into the kitchen to cook dinner and the yellow bird was already on the sill over the sink.  He pecked twice.  Ben walked over and tried to shoo him away.  He pecked again.  “Open up,” it said through the glass, “it’s cold out here.”

So Ben opened the window and let the talking fucking bird back into his kitchen.

“You’re messing with my head,” he said to the bird.

“I could go,” it said alighting on the faucet again.  “You could just pretend I was a delusion.”

Ben thought this over for a second.

“Could you pour me a saucer of water?”  The bird asked.

“How do I know you’re not?” Ben said retrieving a saucer from the cabinet, adding water, and placing it on the counter, “a delusion?”

“Thanks,” said the bird, hopping over and pecking a sip.  “Well, I guess that’s the tricky part.”

“Do you have proof?”  Ben asked, looking over his shoulder, worried that Megan might walk in.

“Well,” Bird mused, “I could stake out the dame’s house in a rusty Chrysler and snap some photos.”

Ben stared non-plussed.  The bird pecked another sip of water.

“Oh wait,” the bird piped, “I don’t have fingers.”

“You’re sarcastic for a bird.”

“Oh we’re all like this.  It comes with the Godly ability to shit on whatever you like.”

“Right.”  Ben eyed the knife block.  “Can’t you just give me her address?”

“Nope.  Can’t read.  Talking’s more natural.”

Ben sighed and looked at the kitchen clock.  It was six thirty.  Shelly would be home by seven or call soon.  As if reading his mind the bird hopped up on the window sill.

“Leave the window open,” he said, “if she calls, grab the kid and we’ll take a drive.  I’ll be at the feeder.  Thanks for the water.”  And he flitted over to the feeder and started munching some seed.

Ben sighed again and walked over to the fridge.  He had been too preoccupied to think about dinner today so he hadn’t defrosted anything.  Now he faced the dilemma of either making some falafel or ordering pizza again.

“Megan?” he called, closing the fridge.  He heard Chuck’s bell jingle down the hall probably coming to get his own dinner.  “You want samosa’s tonight?”  Indian food was a better bet.

On the counter his phone buzzed to life.  Shelly was calling.  He looked out to the bird feeder where the yellow bird was still munching seeds.  He waved, but the bird wasn’t looking.  He accepted the call.

“Hello?”

“Hi!  Are you okay?  You sound funny.”  Her voice was calm as ever.  He attempted to slow his racing heart.

“Fine.  What’s up?”

“Okay.  I’m sorry.  Fucking Jerry has me working late on a PTA meeting.  I probably won’t be home til ten.”

“Oh”, he said changing the phone to his other ear and looking back out to the bird feeder.  The bird had disappeared.  “That’s okay.  We were going to order Indian food anyway.  I’ll just see you when you get home.”

“Okay.  Bye.”  She hung up.  He banged on the window.  Behind him Charles’ bell jingled again.

“Just a second, Chucky,” He said, still scanning the backyard, the trees and bushes, for the yellow.  Then a giggle behind him caused him to spin on his heels.

Megan was standing there with Charles’ collar in her hand.  She shook it gleefully.

“Fooled you, Hambone!”  She squealed, “I’m not Charley!”  And she erupted in an explosion of laughter.  Ben put down his phone and looked back to the yard.  Still nothing. 

Suddenly, the laughter turned to screams.

“AAAAAAaaahhhh!” Megan screamed and ran from the kitchen.

Ben turned.  Charles had entered from the cat door, stealthy and silent without his bell.  In his jaws was the shivering, bloody body of the yellow bird.  He dropped it and pawed it playfully. 

“No!”  Ben yelled, reaching down and swatting the cat on its nose.  It hissed and fled the room.  Ben lifted the frail bird in his palms and carried it to the counter.  “Shit!  Shit!”

He stared at the little thing, red blood splotchy in the ruffled yellow feathers.

“Hold on! What do you need?” He shouted at the bird as its eyes flitted about manic with terror.

It stopped breathing then.  Ben stood there in the darkening kitchen, alone again, unsure of what to do.

Shelly walked in then.

“Who are you talking to?” And upon seeing the dead bird in Ben’s hands, “Oh fuck!”

Ben looked at her and sighed, still holding the bird.

“We should talk,” he said.

Outside, the redheaded woodpecker ravaged the feeder.

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Story #44 – Flying in his Dreams

Before he goes to bed, David must do his stretches. He must do the exercises which will prepare him for a night sleep which is proper and good. He is not the young man he once was, and sometimes Sleep has a harder time finding him.

So David touches his toes. When he does this he remembers when his Mom always told him as a kid that he should touch his toes three times every morning. He would do it with her and giggle when she grunted. Now he too grunts while staring at his own funny knees.

And he swings his arms across his chest and back out, like his arms are wings and he’s preparing for flight. This stretches his chest and back which is supposed to be helpful. He used to fly in his dreams but no longer. He must have pulled that muscle long ago and it has never really healed.

As David does these stretches, his wife walks past him. She is smiling and drying her hair. She does not need to stretch before bed, she is ten years younger and vibrant. Sleep still finds her easily. He hears her climb into bed where the dog, Nori, is already snoring.

Then he lifts up his knees one at a time. He pulls them to his chest which stretches out his butt. These days he leans forward a bit, which is technically cheating. If he did not do this, though, it would be a pointless motion altogether. Either that or he would tear his butt to ribbons and that just wouldn’t do.

As he does his squats, David’s two cats meander by and into the bedroom where his wife’s gentle snoring has joined Nori’s more guttural snout sounds. Squats are important as you get older because they keep the muscles which allow you to both sit on and rise from the commode hale and functional. David would like to maintain the dignity of private bathroom time for as long as he can. The bathroom is where he plays games on his phone.

As David rotates has shoulders in slow circles, his wife’s pet bunny hops by. As he stretches his neck, their two ducks quietly waddle past. When he leans into the wall to stretch his calves, a pot bellied pig trots into the bedroom and springs onto the bed.

Now it’s time for David to go to sleep. He walks into the bedroom and the bed covered with little sleeping animals. His wife is sprawled out and the animals are spread across the mattress in their own little zones. They have left a small space by David’s pillow where he can lift the cover and climb in and under some of the beasts and then curl into a tiny little ball. He can do this because he has stretched and can coax his body into the smallest tightest clump possible.

And when Sleep comes, there are so many other animals on the bed that sometimes, Sleep walks right by without even noticing David there staring at the ceiling, remembering the days when he could sleep with his legs straight and his arms extended like he was flying in his dreams.

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Story #43 – The Ride Of Your Life / Staying in line

The voice is strangely metallic, androgynous. It’s oscillating cadence is almost hypnotic.

“You’re in for the ride of your life! You’ve never seen anything like it. You’ll never be the same!”

When you hear it, you can imagine a young man or woman in a small office somewhere smiling, dressed in a perfect blue suit with perfect skin and perfect hair talking into an old fashioned microphone, maybe waving their fist for emphasis.

The little speakers are on every street corner in this part of the city. They are hung so that no matter where you are in line, you can hear the regular motivational announcements. The little speakers are loud enough, but the voices still feel very far away.

The line ahead and behind me is composed of humans of all sizes and ages and colors. Some look excited. Some look bored. The line snakes around and hugs the walls of every building so there is no telling where it starts or ends. It moves so slowly, maybe a few steps a day. It’s like we are waiting for a parade that doesn’t even come. Of course, we are the parade, watching each other move slowly around the buildings toward the front of the line and its glorious promise.

“Just a little longer! Are you excited? You better be! You’re almost there.” Squawks the speaker.

I recognize many of the people around me. We all have been in this line for a long time. I helped a woman in line give birth several years ago and her child now calls me uncle. Her name is Tina and she is very excited to be in the line. She got in line when she was seven and her enthusiasm has never lagged. I’m not sure how she even got pregnant, there are no boys near her age around us, but I don’t dare ask. She’s always smiling and so nice and I like her boy very much.

Every now and then someone new wanders up and tries to find the end of the line. When they also can’t find it, they try to cut in. Sometimes they are let in easy. Other times there are fights. Everybody gets in line eventually. It’s hard to not let people in when it moves so slowly anyway.

“Don’t even think about stepping out! If you give up now, you’ll never know what you could have missed!”

Did they mean ‘what you could have experienced?’ Maybe I heard it wrong. No one else seems bothered. I look at Tina and she is sitting with her son, putting together a puzzle. They are about halfway done but there aren’t many pieces left. I’m sure it will be frustrating when they run out of pieces and still can’t make out the picture.

I envy her ability to sit down. Most of us never do that. We sleep standing up so that we can readily move when the line starts to go. I am a little sleepy so I lean forward a little against the man in front of me, I think his name is Earl, and fall asleep.

When I wake up, Earl is asleep on the woman in front of him. I lift my head and yawn and see someone get out of line and walk away. I don’t think I have ever seen someone get out of line before. And I can’t imagine where they are going.

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Story #42 – Strays

1

The cats who live in the vacant lot behind the gas station were already trotting out from behind the various scraggly bushes and shrubs.  Angela rolled down the window of her beat-up Chevy as she pulled up and inhaled a deep breath of the humid ocean air.  

“Selena!  Bentley!  Honk!” Angela squealed in a pitch reserved solely for cat-culling.

Selena pranced alongside the car, barely avoiding the tires as Angela pulled into her familiar spot.  Angela loved her especially, for the cute little crook in her tail and because she was always the first out and mewling when she arrived every day at five.  Bentley waddled out and plopped himself on a patch of grass just out of reach and regarded them all with feigned disinterest.  Honk, padded up to him and nuzzled him for a moment before getting swatted away.

Angela pitched her voice to yet a higher octave, “Summer!  Vamp!  Gramps!” 

The other cats also kept their distance.  Angela was used to this.  They never really let her pet them, but their familiarity was enough encouragement.  Poor little guys.  If she didn’t come out and feed them every day, who knows what would happen to them?  She was a sixty-five year old retired school teacher and single, so she welcomed the daily ritual of feeding these neighborhood strays.

Retrieving a plastic food container from her backseat, she sprinkled dry kibbles in several piles.  A few of the cats converged immediately.  The veterans patiently waited; they knew what was coming.  After replacing the dry food container in the car, Angela returned with several cans of wet food which she shook out on top of the dry piles bringing all the cats to the trough.

“Hi guys.  Is that good?  Numnumnum!  Honk, you are hungry today!”

She stood back and hugged herself and looked over her little friends. 

“Where’s Vamp?”

As if acknowledging her concern, First Gramps and then Selena both looked up at her and blinked.

Vamp was another of her favorites, the runt with a beautiful gray coat and sharp yellow eyes.

“Vamp!  Vampy!?”  She called, “Ps-ps-ps-ps-ps!” 

Angela scanned the overgrown lot.  Weeds and grass sprouted from the cracks in the faded concrete.  A line palm trees stood like prison bars against a passing hot breeze.  At the far edge of the lot three raccoons, scratching and crunching, fussed over something.

Oh no, Angela thought taking a breath and stepping around the jumble of feasting felines cautiously making for the raccoons.

2

The low sun glinted off the polished jaguar on Brent’s hood as he waited to turn into the shabby gas station.  The Hindemith Sonata he was listening to reached one of its crescendos and he turned it up to properly feel the pulsation of the harmonics.  He loved the way the music forced him to take slow deep breaths; it was a meditation on sorrow and despair, but also on beauty.

When traffic allowed, he pulled into the gas station and made his way to the back to view the lot he had just purchased.  The gas station was included in the purchase, and the resentful owner inside waved a courteous middle finger at him as he passed by the sooty windows.  So it goes, he thought to himself.  You ran it into the ground, I’m just the guy with the shovel.

He didn’t recognize the rusty old Chevy as he parked beside it.  It certainly wasn’t the owner’s.  On his stereo, the piano was jangling its way up a scale in counterpoint with a lilting viola line and he closed his eyes to savor the tension.  In his mind he pictured the new mini-golf course which would soon be built on his newly acquired land: The pirate ship, the meandering caves, the mini-adventure culminating in the final round over a pond filled with live alligators.  It would be his third, and the grandest of his empire.

Once the sonata had settled itself into the next movement, he opened his eyes and turned down the stereo.  In the softening blue of dusk he could still see the image from his mind and he sighed at its imminent beauty.  He could even see its first customer striding after her first hole-in-one.  Then he realized that he was looking at a real person.  A middle-aged woman with a blaze of orange hair was trespassing on his dream.

He killed the ignition and got out of the car.  Brent was so fixated on Angela in the distance that he didn’t notice four of the five cats streak away into the underbrush.  Gramps, the oldest and most grizzled, trotted away with less fear and stopped just outside a bush to briefly eye the interloper.

“Hey!  Excuse me!”  Brent yelled, waving as he stepped toward the curb.  His fancy leather shoes crunched on an unfamiliar rubble and he leapt back realizing he had stepped one of several piles of stinking cat food.

“What the fuck is this bitch doing?”

Wiping off the scraps as best he could on the grass, he set off after the woman.

3

Angela had deliberately slowed her pace as she neared the trio of raccoons, but when she got within the sweet and sour pungency of what they were eating, she slowed even further.  It smelled of death.  The raccoons had noticed her but were trying to cram the last few bites in before retreating.  She clapped and stomped at them and they reluctantly hurried away, and she braced herself for the inevitable trauma.

But it wasn’t Vamp.  It was a dead cat, but not one she recognized.  The remaining matted and bloody fur was long and white, and the cat had been a lot bigger than little Vamp.

The head was missing.  Instinctively, she scanned the ground around her and found nothing.

“Excuse me!?” a strange voice called from behind her.

She spun around and saw a lanky man in a poorly-tailored gray suit picking his way toward her.

“You can’t be here.  This is private property.”  He said, stopping abruptly.  He must have finally picked up the scent of the dead cat.

“I’m sorry, I was just looking for a missing cat.”  Angela said.

Your missing cat?”  He had pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and was holding it over his mouth.

“Well, not really”

“Are you the one feeding all the strays in the lot?”

She looked him over for a moment before answering. He shifted his weight to an alternate loafer and fixed his hair. “I am.”  She said.

“You can’t do that.  You’re trespassing on private property.”  He turned to walk away expecting her to follow.

“You own this lot?” 

“I do,”  He said half-turned, “So come one, or I’ll be forced to call the police.”

“What about the dead cat?”

“You said it wasn’t yours.  Leave it.  Come on.  Let’s go!”  He clapped his hands.  Angela wasn’t sure if she was surprised by the fact that he did it or that she actually responded.  Forgetting momentarily about the headless carcass, she followed him.

“You shouldn’t feed stray cats on someone else’s property,” He continued, “It encourages them to stay.  And then they breed, and then I have a huge mess on my hands when it’s time to bulldoze.”

They were approaching the center of the lot which hosted a menagerie of assorted detritus: a dismantled baby carriage, some empty milk jugs, a dirty condom like a dried up slug.  Brent gave all these items a wide berth as if they were radioactive.  He stopped so suddenly that she bumped into him.  His cologne smelled worse than the dead cat.

“What do you want?”  He said, still looking forward.  “Shoo!!”

Looking around him, Angela saw Gramps sitting directly in their path.

“Just keep walking toward him and he’ll run away.”  She said.

“I don’t like cats.”  As he said this, he turned to walk around Gramps and tripped.  As Angela reached forward to steady him there was a creak and then a loud CRACK as his foot broke through a rotten sheet of wood.  As he fell forward, he grabbed at her to keep from falling and ended up pulling her on top of him.  There was another crash and then they were both tumbling down a steep embankment into a thick darkness full of rocks and roots.

4

Angela awoke to the sound of Brent’s moaning.  It was pitch black and the air was moist.  She felt pretty bruised up, but seemed to be able to move all her limbs. 

“Are you okay?” She asked in the direction of the moaning.

“No.”  He grunted.  “I’m pretty sure my leg is broken.”

“How long was I out?”

“Shit if I know.  I feel like I’m in a sensory deprivation chamber.  What the fuck happened?”

“You fell,” Angela said.  “And you decided to take me along for the ride.”

He started moaning again and she crawled slowly in his direction, feeling along the walls and ground.  The earth was moist, but not mud, and there was air flow, but she couldn’t tell from where.  She finally felt a scrap of his clothes and sidled up to him.  When she accidentally bumped his leg she could tell by his sharp yelp that it was indeed broken.

She found she could stand up with a little headroom but still couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.  “Sorry.  Can you stand?” she asked.

He tried, and screamed, so she got his arm over her shoulder and helped him up, bumping his head in the process.

“Fuck!  Watch it.”

She swallowed the impulse to curse him out.  “Now what?”

“This way!” A new voice whispered.  It sounded like a child.

“Was that you?”  Angela asked.

“Hell no it wasn’t me.”

“Hello?  Who is that?”  She asked the darkness.

“This way.  Follow my voice.”  The whisper said.

“Where are we?”  Angela asked.

“The passage.”  The whisper responded.

“What passage?  What the fuck?”  Brent said.  He was sweating and dreaded any movement, especially at the urging of some ethereal child.

“Can’t we just go back up the hill?”  Angela asked, starting to feel Brent’s weight on her shoulder.

“It’s completely blocked with debris, and by now the raccoons have started to cover it up.  Please, trust me, we have to hurry.  I know this passage well.  Just follow me and we’ll try to get you out of here safely.”  Try?  Raccoons?!  There was something ominous about the whisper.  There was a faint lisp, like a hair lip, and it was impossible to tell how far away it was coming from.  But there really wasn’t another option.

“Okay,”  Angela said, “You ready?”

“I guess.” Brent replied.

“Come on.”  The whisper insisted.

And so Angela, with one hand on the cool earth of the wall and the other around the waist of the tall suit, started lurching forward into the darkness.

“What’s your name?”  She asked, as much out of curiosity as to distract him from his evident pain.

“Brent.  Witherstein.”  He said between drags.

“I’m Angela.”

“Great.”  He gasped.

“Come on.”  The whisper hissed.

5

For Brent, each step was agony.  Little red-headed Angela seemed to be deliberately jostling him and with every lurch forward a hundred nails were simultaneously hammered into his screaming appendage.  To distract himself from the pain he attempted to hum the theme from the Hindemith sonata.  It took concentration, and that helped.

“Shhh!”  The whisper commanded, cutting Brent off.  “Try to be quiet.  We aren’t safe yet.”

“Where does this passage go?”  Angela asked, “Is it far?”

“There are lots of tunnels down here.  They are meant to be confusing.  He built them to trap outsiders as well as to conceal the inner chamber.”

Angela had too many questions.  “And you are leading us out?”

“Yes.  Unfortunately we will have to pass through the chamber, but I think it will be empty for awhile still.  But we should hurry.  Keep moving this way.  I’ll be right back.”

There wasn’t any sound, but he could feel the whisper’s absence.  They moved along for a few steps and Brent tried to escape to a painless place in his mind. He thought about his Father teaching him to golf when he was young.  It’s all about the short game, son, he always said.  And so Brent became a great putter, but his drive never quite landed where he intended.

“Grab the wall,” Angela said, breaking his meditation.

“What?  Why?”

“Because you’re heavy and I need a break.”

Brent did as he was told and he could sense her bending down to straighten her spine and then twisting her hips.

“He said we should hurry,”  He huffed, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“And then he left us here.  In the dark.  So we’re taking a break.”  Her voice had a soft musical quality to it, like a cello; a little gritty but full and soft.  “Maybe you’re less scrupulous than me, but I’m a little freaked out right now.”  She said softly.

“I’m the one with the broken leg”

“And maybe you’re in shock or something.  That voice could be anyone.  It could be leading us anywhere.  It said that raccoons were preventing our escape.”  It sounded like she was chewing her fingers.  Then she spit.  “Doesn’t any of this bother you?” She asked.

“We don’t have much of a choice right now, do we?”

“Quiet!”  The whisper commanded suddenly.  In the distance there was a clanking sound, like someone opening a door, followed by some soft moaning.  Angela held her breath.  Brent did the same.  Then the jingling and clank came again followed by the thick familiar silence.

The three of them remained there listening for a good fifteen minutes. A cold sweat clung Brent’s clothes to his shivering body.

The whisper again broke the silence, “Okay—“

Angela broke him off, “Now wait.  Before we go any further, you need to tell us who you are and why you’re helping us.”  She paused, feeling out of breath,  “And how you even knew we were down here.”

The question hung in the air for a long moment.  Brent attempted to shift his weight and again felt the electric hammer of pain ricochet up his body.

“I saw you fall.  And I ran down another route to find you.” The whisper said calmly.

“You saw us in the lot?” Angela asked.

“Your friend looked right at me before he broke through the door.”

The answer was staring them in their face, but in the darkness it was impossible to accept the implication.

“All I saw was a stupid cat.”  Brent grunted.

“I’m not the one who fell down the hole.”  The cat whispered.

6

“Gramps?”  Angela asked, “You’re a talking cat?”

“If you don’t mind calling me Griff, I’d be much obliged.  You’ve been so kind to come and feed me and my family every day this past year, I didn’t give a second thought to coming down here to help you.  Lean down and put out your hand”

Angela was at a loss for words, but she did as she was told—for the third time today, she noted silently.  In the complete darkness she suddenly felt the soft fur of a cat brush her hand, it was the same kind of greeting her own cats would give her when she came home and when she fed them.  “Holy shit,” she said.

“Really?  We’re being led through a dark passage by a talking cat?”  Brent was still leaning against the wall attempting to move as little as possible.  “Maybe I am in shock.”

The cat chimed in, still speaking very softly, “This is a very dangerous place.  We’re about to get into some light, so whether you believe me or not will soon be a moot point.”

“And how did you know my name?” Angela asked.

“I’ll get into that later.  Right now, we should move.  Are you ready?”

Angela felt for Brent’s arm and gently shifted his weight onto her shoulder before lunging forward again with heavy steps.

“Be careful,” Griff said, “There’s a sharp turn up ahead.  You’ll see the light to your left.”

And indeed after a few more steps she could see a faint yellow glow on the wall ahead and on the edge of the corner.  The light was gradual so their eyes had time to adjust.  After turning the corner, about twenty feet ahead was a chamber lit with soft yellow light, and trotting ahead of them was Gramps, the talking cat who evidently preferred to be called ‘Griff.”

“No shit,” Brent grunted.

7

I wish there was some way I could have warned them, Griff thought to himself as they moved toward the chamber.  But I couldn’t have anticipated Brent’s trip.

He stopped and looked back at the two clumsy humans.  Brent’s injury was slowing them down significantly, but there were some things in the chamber that might work well for a splint. 

Angela was staring at him as he knew she would.  Human’s didn’t take well to animals adopting there language.  He wasn’t enjoying it so much himself; it made his mouth feel funny.  A necessary sacrifice.

When they got to the chamber, Angela sat Brent down on a wood bench along the nearest wall and they both stared around the subterranean chamber.  The dirt walls and ceiling were supported by a criss-cross of ancient two by fours.  The light was generated by two hanging Edison bulbs connected to a wind-up generator.  Dark tunnels led off in four directions.  In the middle of the room was a steel operating table like what would be seen at a vet’s office. An adjacent rolling table had a set of operating blades, sutures, needles, etc.  In the corner stood a large cabinet with glass panes revealing an assortment of bottles and jars inside.  Lining the opposite wall was an array of six medium-sized cages.  In one of the cages was a very large sleeping raccoon.

“She’s pregnant.”  Griff said noticing Angela’s stare.  “He has her sedated to keep her from trying to escape.  Some instincts are impossible to subdue.”

“Who?” Angela asked.

“William.  The gas station owner.”

This brought Brent back to attention.  “Willy?  What are you talking about?  This hole belongs to him?”

Griff nodded.  “William was a prominent biologist in Nigeria.  But when he moved here with his wife, none of his credentials were accepted.  His uncle passed away and left him this gas station, and he built this lab so he could continue his experiments.”

“Like teaching cats to talk?”  Brent growled.

Griff hopped up on the operating table and looked Brent in the eyes.  “His wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about ten years ago and has slowly developed a form of dementia which convolutes her speech.  Out of desperation William built this lab and began experimenting on our vocal chords and lingual muscles.  He also stimulated an enzyme production in what he identified as the speech centers our brains.  I was the first.  Selena and Vamp can speak as well.”

“Where is Vamp?”  Angela asked, remembering the missing kitten.

“I don’t know,” Griff said.  “She disappeared sometime last night.”

Angela considered this and looked around the makeshift lab.  “What’s with the Raccoons?”

Griff looked towards a pile of rubble in the corner.  “There’s a broken chair over there.  You can use that and some of the medical supplies to make a splint for Brent.  I would like to be able to move faster if we can.”

Brent had his eyes closed, apparently trying to conserve his strength and control the pain.  Angela walked over to the corner and began to sift through the refuse.  “You didn’t answer my question.”  She found an intact chair leg and then walked over to the cabinet and began searching the drawers for a binding material.

Griff was watching one of the tunnels anxiously. “The raccoons were a mistake.  They were the first round of experiments, and William accidentally over-stimulated them and triggered a sort of psychosis.  He has them trained, but they are prone to aggressive fits and lingual tics.  They are very territorial about this lab.  They see themselves as having been reborn here and the doctor is their god.  They’ll be after us soon enough.”

Angela had found some bandages and was fixing the table leg to Brent’s broken fibula.  He whimpered in as manly a way as he could.  Angela stood up and looked at Griff.

“Okay, so we’ve got some rabid raccoons after us.  Is that all?” 

“That’s enough for now.  Are you ready, Brent?  We may need to move faster in this next portion.”

“How do you even know my name?”  Brent asked.  “I never told you.  Angela never said it.”

Griff sighed.  Angela had never seen a cat sigh before and wondered what it meant that this one could sigh.

The cat again looked directly at Brent, “Cats are naturally telepathic.  Some more and some less.  I am quite adept at reading humans’ minds, and combined with my acquired predilection towards your language, it makes me quite special indeed.”

They all looked around at each other for a moment.  Griff admired how well the humans were taking it.

“Just get me out of here.” Brent said, reaching out so Angela could help him up.

Griff looked down the passage that would lead them out and strained to hear the telltale scratching and cursing that would forewarn the raccoons’ approach.  For the time being there was only Brent’s raspy breathing.

8

Brent appropriated a thick wood dowel from the refuse pile as a cane and was hobbling along unaided.  Angela walked closer to Griff whose tail was low and ears back.

“Are the raccoons really dangerous?”  Angela asked.

“It’s amazing what happens to an animal’s brain when it is suddenly thrust into the field of language.  It learns and develops words for things it hasn’t had the proper time to consider and understand.  With this frustrating advancement comes an awareness of inferiority, and, for the feisty brutes Nature engineered raccoons to be, one hell of a Napoleon complex.”

The passage had gone completely dark again and Angela slowed to help Brent avoid knocking into the walls.  She grabbed his free hand to lead him.  It was cold and clammy and, though she felt bad for him, she couldn’t wait to let it go.

“But you and the other cats don’t have that?”  She asked.

“We were spared the psychosis after William adjusted the experiment, and, as I have indicated, we’re quite different from raccoons.”  Griff flicked his ears around and sniffed the air.  “Someone’s coming,” He hissed.  Quick, there are two rooms just ahead.  We’ll duck into the one on the right.”

She pulled Brent along and felt for the handle on the the right.  Up ahead and around a curve a light was approaching.

“Easy!  Easy!”  Brent wheezed.

Finding the handle, she pushed open the door into what seemed to be an even deeper darkness.  For the second time that day the scent of death filled her lungs and she fought the urge to wretch.

“Get in!  Get in and close the door!”  Griff said.  “Softly!”

They rushed into the darkness and Angela closed the door, holding her breath against the effluvium hanging in the air.  Moments later, the light emanated under the crack of the door.  Angela covered her mouth with her shirt and tried to take a few deep breaths to calm down.

Outside the door they heard keys jangle and a door opening and then the light got dimmer.  There was a deep muffled voice mumbling and cooing unintelligibly.  Angela held her breath and tried to make out some words to no avail.  Then for a moment it fell completely silent.  They all watched the light at the bottom of the door for movement but everything was completely still.

Then a loud moan, a clearly feminine howl, broke through the silence.  It was a wretched sound, like a dog with a broken leg being trampled on.  The voice murmured something encouraging, but the howl again overtook it.Goosebumps sprang down Angela’s back. In the darkness, Brent sounded like he was crying softly.  Griff padded over and pushed his body against Brent’s good leg to comfort him. 

The alternating murmurs and howls continued for another ten minutes before silence again took hold.  The light got brighter outside their door and they heard the door across the passage close and lock, and then the light began to fade into the distance.

“What the fuck was that?”  Angela whispered.

“William’s wife.”  Griff replied.

9

They waited for a few minutes in silence before quietly exiting the room they had holed up in.  Both Brent and Angela gasped at the clean air.  Griff sniffed at the darkness.

“Come on.  He’ll be back soon,”  Griff said.

“And just leave her here?  She sounded like she was in pain.”  Angela was already feeling for the knob on the opposite door.

“You can’t help her.  Not here.  Not now,” Griff said attempting to sound like a rational cat.  “Once we get you and Brent to safety you can decide what of this ordeal you wish to share with the authorities.”

“He’s right,”  Brent grunted.  “I can’t help you.  We can’t even see.  We should just get the hell out of this nightmare.”

“No.”  Angela said, trying her shoulder on the door.  Behind it a fait yelp was heard.  “I’m not leaving her down here.  She can follow us out too.”

“It’s not a good idea,” Griff said.

“Everyone said that about feeding you guys, too.”  She shouldered the door again a little harder, “But here you are saving my life.”  Not making much progress with her shoulder she took a step back and felt for the knob with her shoe.  Bracing herself against the other door, she gave a good kick just below the knob and the door swung open.  Inside, there was more soft orange light from a single Edison bulb.  Angela stepped inside.  Brent hobbled in reluctantly behind her.

The room was a paradox:  Bright flowery sheets were rumpled and filthy on the bed.  A beautiful wood dresser had been jostled away from one wall and beautiful dresses were spilled across the dirt floor.  On the ground near it a broken mirror reflected the jaundiced light.  There was an untouched plate of nachos and hot dogs on the floor by the bed.  Facing the far corner, a woman huddled shivering in the shadows.  Her shaved head revealed fresh stitches along the base of her skull.

“Be careful,” Griff said from the door.  “Her treatment is ongoing, and she still suffers psychosis from the first round of experiments.  William is still trying to fix her.”

Fix her?  Angela slowly approached the poor woman.  “Miss?  Are you okay?  We can help you leave here.”  She inched forward until she was in arm’s length of her.  “Miss?”

The woman violently whipped around and grabbed Angela forcing her back a few paces knocking into Brent.  Brent yelped and caught himself on the bed. The woman screamed a garbled incantation and clawed at Angela’s face with black fingernails, her eyes were rolled upward as if she were trying to peer into the garbled mechanics of her brain. Angela put her arms up but ended up falling back with William’s wife on top of her,.

“Help me!” Angela screamed.

Griff maintained his distance, but Brent managed to right himself and hobble over to them.  Bracing himself, he raised his makeshift cane and brought it down hard on William’s wife’s head.  She collapsed immediately and Angela pushed her away and got up shakily.

“Can we go now?” Griff asked from the doorway.

10

The door was broken but Angela closed it as best she could.  Brent admired her courage; he would have left the mystery of the woman behind, partially because he was wounded, but also because he was still crippled by a cowardice that he had only recently begun to grudgingly acknowledge.

“There are stairs up here,” Griff said.  “Be careful.”

Angela and Brent found them and Angela very carefully helped Brent with the painstaking ascent.  They reached a landing and, coming around to the second flight, could make out a crack of bright light at the top.

“Where does this lead?”  Angela asked.

“The back room of the gas station.”  Griff said.  He was sitting at the top step now sniffing at the bottom of the door.  “We’re not safe yet.  He’s fed her, but he could come back any moment.”

When they made it up the second flight, Angela pushed open the door and helped Brent up into the fluorescent light of the gas station’s back room.  The buzzing of refrigerators greeted them as well as the smell of dirty mop water.

There were two doors.  One led to the main room of the station, the other led out back to the dumpsters.  Angela and Brent went for the back door.  Griff snuck to the interior door and peeked inside.  William was at the counter helping a customer.  With a sigh of relief he joined Brent and Angela as they stepped outside.

The short alley was framed by the back wall of the station and the chain-link dumpster enclosure.  A door-size gate hung open at the far end.  It was night now and eerie green gas station light emphasized the grime splattered on every surface.  Brent could see their cars just across the lot and felt a frantic sense of relief fluttering up inside him.  He caught Angela looking at him and they shared a smile.  She looked like hell, but he couldn’t imagine he looked any better.

They had only gone a few steps down the alley when three high-pitched scratchy voices froze them in their tracks.

“Fuckin’!  Kill.  Bitch!”  Master Bastard Faster!  “Shutup.ShutUP.SHUTSHUTup.”

Three raccoons came around the corner and blocked the path to the car.  The smallest one stepped in front of the other two who hissed and started running around in looping circles.

“FUCKin right!  Gotcha knew you’d SHIT be showin’!”

The two behind him tittered like comic book cronies as they continued to lope over and around each other like fuzzy electrons around a cursing nucleus.

Angela stepped forward and stomped and clapped as she had earlier in the day, but they made no move to flee.  Instead, one of the cronies leaped at her and sliced her on the forearm.  She hadn’t noticed they were all carrying razorblades cushioned on one side with duct tape, like prison weapons.  She retreated to her friends and the raccoons took a step further into the alley.

“I probably should have warned you about that,”  Griff muttered as they withdrew slightly.

“They’re just three stupid raccoons.  Take this stick,” Brent said, handing her his cane.

“Big stick JERKoff.” The small one said and the other two instantly stopped their frenetic scampering.  They all stared at the advancing Angela for a second before tittering and retreating outside the gate and disappearing.

Angela lowered the cane she had been brandishing and looked back at her comrades.

“That was easy,” she said.

A loud BANG from behind her caused her to jump and spin.  The leader raccoon had leapt on the gate and swung it closed.  His little hand then clamped shut a padlock that had been hanging loosely on it.

“ShitFuckers!”

Behind the small raccoon, who seemed to be giving them the finger, the other two raccoons had reared up and were flinging sharp rocks over the gate at them.  Suddenly Angela felt like she had been punched with a small hammer.  She reached up to her cheek and her hand came away slick with warm blood.  The leader raccoon leapt down and joined his thrashing brothers.

Angela grabbed Brent and they all hurried back inside and locked the door behind them.  Outside a slew of muffled curses could be heard as well as scratching and scraping on the door.

William just happened to be in the back room when they entered.  He tilted his head slightly, taking in the scene: a dirty man with a broken leg and a dirty bleeding woman.

“What are you doing back here?” He demanded.

11

From behind a shelving unit Gramps watched to see what would happen.  He knew he could sneak out later if they could somehow talk their way out of it.  The raccoons had ceased their noise at the sound of William’s voice and it was unclear if he had heard them.

“Brent?  Are you okay?”  William asked, suddenly recognizing the man who had bought his property.  “What happened to you?  Who is this woman?”

“I’m fine,” Brent said quickly.  “We, uhm, had an accident in the lot out back.”

“In the lot?  Oh My Goodness.  What were you doing out there?”  William asked, pulling out a chair for him.  “Here, sit down.  Miss?  Are you okay?  Your cheek is bleeding!”

“I’m fine,” she said, but William was already grabbing a roll of paper towels for her to press on her wound.

“Please,” he said.  “Do you want a proper bandage?”

“I’m fine,” she repeated, not knowing what else to say, but William darted from the back room to get some bandage for them.  She looked at Brent.  “What should we do?!” she said.

Before Brent could respond, William was back waiving an array of first aid materials from his gas station shelves.

“What happened to you two?” he asked with true concern.  “Have you called the police?”

Brent shot a look at Angela indicating that he would do the talking, but before he could begin, from the hidden door to the passage came a faint moan and a shuffling sound.  William’s eyes got wide as cue balls and he slowly turned his head toward the false cabinet that hid the stairs to his secret chamber.  They all froze.

The door to the cabinet blew open and William’s wife tumbled out emitting a shrieking moan that would haunt Brent and Angela for years to come.  She flailed at William who began pleading her name, “Lucy!  Lucy, no!”

Griff darted to the main store breaking the temporary trance that had frozen Angela and Brent in place and they got up to quickly follow him.

As they exited,William was wrestling for control of his frantic wife, cradling her and cooing her name.  As the door shut, Angela looked back and caught him giving her the most evil look she had received in her life.

12

The main room of the gas station was quiet and empty as they scrambled to the front door.  Griff took the lead as Angela helped Brent along. He zig-zagged through the candy aisle past rows of colorful snacks and was swinging around the counter when he suddenly stopped.

Sitting just inside the door were the three raccoons.  The leader was standing on the two others shoulders and had just hung a “Closed” sign in the window.  He slid the deadbolt in the glass door into place.

“Bitches TRAPped.  Pray to God!  GOD!”  The raccoon screeched.

He leapt down and the two lesser raccoons began their manic scramble around him again.  It was a swirl of gnashing, tittering fur, accented by the intermittent clicking of razor blades on the tile floor.

Angela and Brent stepped out of the aisle and emitted a few curses themselves.  In the back room a loud BANG made their hearts jump and the raccoons titter louder.  Griff darted behind the counter.

William’s voice erupted from behind them.  “Be careful,” he said, stepping into the main room of the store.  “They’ll slice you up good.  They know about the Achille’s tendon.  They also know where your largest arteries run.  They are smarter than they appear, I’m afraid.”

Behind the counter, Griff found Vamp in a cat carrier held closed with a piece of twine.  Vamp blinked his eyes slowly in a greeting thinking, I knew you’d find me.

And just in the nick of time, Griff replied silently before setting to work gnawing through the twine.

13

Brent backed up to the counter and Angela stepped back to join him.  She was scanning every surface for a potential weapon.

“You should let us go,” she said.  “This can only get worse for you.”

“Worse for me?!”  William laughed, flailing his hands in the air above him, one of which gripped a small revolver.  “Everything I have experienced in this country has been worse for me!  You two cannot fathom the horrendous turns my life has taken since I immigrated here.”

He walked toward them slowly through the far aisle.  Behind him hung giant ads for beer and cigarettes.

“In Nigeria I was a doctor!”  He shouted, eyes wide and nostrils flared.  They could make out the glistening lines of tears running down his cheeks.  “But here,” he continued, “I work in a gas station.”

Brent tried to interject, “William—”

“Don’t say my name!”  William screamed as he stepped out of the aisle and pointed the gun at Brent.  “Because of you I don’t even have this shitty store.”  He took a deep breath and wiped his face with the back of his arm.  “Because of you,” his voice broke, “I don’t even have my beautiful Lucy.”

As William advanced on them from one side, so too did the raccoons from the other.  Brent and Angela had nowhere to go.

William shook his head, “When you hit the bottom you think that ‘worse’ becomes an invalid word.  You stare at the mud floor and the dirt walls, you speak to your silent wife and hear only animal noises, you breathe gas fumes every day and sell crap food to ignorant people who treat you like a fool, and you think you have already arrived at ‘worse.’  But it seems the journey never ends.”

Griff jumped up on the counter.  “It wasn’t their fault, William,” he said.  “The fell down a hole in the lot.  I was trying to lead them out when they heard you wife and wanted to help her.”

“No one can help my wife,” he said, lowering his gun.  “I see that now.  But I had to try.  Even with my pathetic third-world degree I could have still done something with my life.”

“You did something for us.”  Griff said with a swish of his tail. 

William stopped walking as if struck by this.  The raccoons also paused, panting.  Suddenly, Vamp lept from behind a snack aisle onto William’s head, clawing at his face and eyes.  William dropped his gun and punched at the cat.  Griff hissed and bounded to help Vamp.

Seizing the opportunity, Angela grabbed Brent’s cane again and swung it at the dumbstruck raccoons knocking the leader across the floor like a furry tumbleweed.  The other two converged on her.  She swung at one of them and missed.  The other one went for her heel with a blade, but Brent pushed a cooler off the counter hitting him and sending him scrambling.  Angela’s second swing at the other raccoon connected and sent him rolling up an adjacent aisle squealing and cursing.

“Come on!” She said, reaching for Brent and hauling him towards the door.  As he unlocked it, she turned to ward off the one remaining raccoon.  In the back, the cats’ tag team assault had left William’s body a web of scratches and tears and his face a bloody mess.  He was fumbling blindly for the gun as the cats together pounced on the remaining raccoon.  They screeched and squealed in a tumble of fur and claws as Brent and Angela finally stumbled out into the front lot.

As they hobbled across the parking lot to hail some help, a second shot rang out behind them.

Angela ducked and sent Brent sprawling.  When his broken leg connected hard with the concrete his wail was as animal as any of the sounds they had heard that day.  Angela looked over her shoulder expecting to see William shooting at them.  Instead saw the Griff and Vamp bounding toward them.

“He’s dead.”  Griff said.

“Are you okay?”  Vamp asked, looking them over.

14

Hours later, when the ambulance and the police arrived, Brent and Angela were told that William had shot his wife and then himself.  Brent and Angela recounted their story of falling down the hole in the lot and the ensuing nightmare.  It wasn’t difficult to leave out the part of the talking cats and their aid.

As Angela was getting checked out in the back of one of the two ambulances, a detective from the police precinct stuck his head in.

“Hey.  Can I ask you one more question?”  He asked, brows raised.

“Go ahead.”

“What’s the deal with the three dead raccoons?”

Angela took a deep breath and shrugged.

“Ask Brent,” she said.

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Story #41 – Woke Pissing Contest /or/ More Woke Than Most

Let me start this off by saying that we were both drunk, but he was waaaaay drunker than me. We were going back and forth, me and Trevon, for over an hour:

“I NEVER let any of my white friends get away with saying the N-Bomb,” he said.

“I’ve read all of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books and essays,” I said.

“I have a hand painted BLM sign in my window!” he said.

“I don’t listen Kanye West anymore!” I said.

But let me not get ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

We were at a poetry reading and neither of us were poets. I’m pretty sure the dude didn’t even write poetry, not that I did. But he was definitely there for the chicks. Though how he expected to pick up poetry chicks without being a poet kind of escapes me. I was there because I used to date the bartender and she still gave me free drinks.

Anyway, we were both in the back at the bar, respectfully listening to the poets. It was a rough night. I don’t know if they were all bad or if I just wasn’t connecting with any of them. Blah blah blah my heart hurts blah blah blah she was exquisite as a solar system blah blah blah apples and oranges and penguins. Really some stinkers!

This young woman of color got up on the mic. She was pretty hot and the featured poet of the night and I was confident those two details were not mutually exclusive. The crowd fell quiet and once they settled to a perfect iceberg of silence, she launched into this poem about being black in America and systematic racism and white privilege.

As she continued to deconstruct the state of the Nation, I glanced around at the other white folks in the room. Even though they were all smiling and googly-eyed I knew that each and every one of them was so uncomfortable they couldn’t even appreciate her words for the subtext and symbolism.

For every admonishment she bestowed upon White America, their brains were uttering a silent refrain: But not me, right? The irony of all these privileged white folk dying to be not only accepted by the diaspora, but excused from their role in society as it inarguably exists, sure tickled my ribs.

I was uncomfortable with some of what she said too, but I’m more woke than most. I know how to respond to my discomfort. I know that it is my role in situations like this to allow myself to wallow in it, to accept the sins of my ancestors and acknowledge the extent to which I benefit from a society built upon racial segregation and persecution.

So when the Poet looks into the crowd and sees me not smiling, she knows I’m more down that the rest of the cheesing geeks. She knows I don’t resent her for shoving my face into the jagged facts of my privileged existence. I used to, but I’ve done the work. I accept the fact that I will never fully understand what it is like to live in America as a POC, but it is my duty to continually check myself so that I am at least not contributing to the crisis.

When she was done and the staticky roar of snaps subsided, I turned to the white dude next to me at the bar.

“That was pretty dope,” I said.

He gave me a sickly sardonic smile and took a sip from his beer. “You shouldn’t say ‘dope,’ bro.”

“Oh yeah, brother? Why is that?”

“Blaccents are a form of cultural appropriation. It’s not your culture. Did your parents talk like that?”

“I’ve been a rapper for over ten years. I think that grants me access to some of the linguistic tropes of my peers.”

“You can do what you want, man. I’m just letting you know that your use of it could be construed by some as a form of appropriation and oppression.” He finished off his beer and flagged my ex for another. She caught my eye and I nodded that I’d take another too.

When she came over, I said, “I’ll get his.” This earned me an eye roll from her which I don’t think the dude noticed. “What’s your name, brother?” I asked.

“Trevon,” He said. My eyebrows raised instinctively and he slapped me with that smirk again. “My parents tried to name me Trevor, but the nurse at the hospital read the R as an N. My parents were too lazy to get it changed back, so yeah, I have a ‘black name.'”

“As ridiculous a concept as that is!”

“Yeah. I got teased a lot for it growing up, by both my black friends and my white friends, but I made it through okay.” He smiled more genially.

“I’m Bhakti.” I said. Now it was his turn to raise his eyebrows. “My Jewish parents were part of a hippie commune in Colorado. All the kids had names from Eastern spirituality. ‘Bhakti’ essentially means ‘balance’ with reference to Vishnu.”

“Jewish hippies, huh?”

I nodded and, “Cheers?”

We clinked bottles and stared out at the sea of mostly white college kids. There was a cluster of them around the featured poet, fawning. I realized that to perceive that as a novel situation was a racist thought. I silently congratulated myself on doing the work.

“You ever hear this poet before?” I asked.

“Limón? Yeah, of course. I have her first book of poetry. I bought it last time she came through. She really has a way of reaching into your guts and dragging something out of you that you didn’t know was there before.”

“I feel that! Even tonight, she had that line, ‘When you come, bring your brownness so we can be sure to please the funders.’ She’s really brilliant.”

“Poets have it easy. They’ve been supporting the race conversation for years, carrying it on their shoulders, shoving it in people’s faces from tiny stages in coffee houses. Now that the race conversation has gone mainstream, I wonder if they feel like their work doesn’t have as much bite as it did when it was something no one talked about.”

I nodded in agreement, yet countered, “But it’s still a topic most white people aren’t really comfortable with.”

“Funny, right? Like even now, here we are, two white dudes talking about race, but how much progress can we make without the perspective of a person of color?”

“Yeah. I feel that, but that shouldn’t prohibit us from asking questions. It should just caution us against rushing to any conclusions.”

We kept drinking and talking like this, Trevon and I, for an hour or so. He bought a couple rounds and I got us a couple more. We waxed about the frustrations we had talking about race with our parents; apparently his hippie parents still claimed they “didn’t see color.”

I told him that my father still used words like “scoby” and “poof.” “He’s a little racist,” I said. I thought about it for a minute then added, “Well, we’re all a little racist.”

And we both nodded gravely.

When the poet, Limón, walked by and left, neither of us noticed. We were too busy celebrating how Woke we were.

Funny thing about alcohol is that it’s way easier to forget yourself, to lose your footing on your climb to whatever peak you set your sights on. You think you’re still climbing when really your just sloshing around in a mud puddle.

“I was at a Polish-run grocery store the other day and my cashier was this nice Asian woman. All the other cashiers were actively shunning her. She ran out of paper for her receipt roll and was asking one of the other girls for help and the girl just made generic “Ching Chong” noises at one of her white co-workers. So I chimed in and got them to stop being such jerks to her. She said they do it all the time,” He told me.

“That’s cool, brother. Most people just talk the talk.”

“Armchair activists, man. I can’t stand them!”

“Me neither. It’s like MLK said – if there’s injustice anywhere–”

“There’s injustice everywhere!” He chimed in. We both laughed a little and pulled at our drinks.

“I’m impressed, brother,” I said. “You’re way more Woke than I would have given you credit for.”

Trevon slammed down his bottle, “Bro! I am the wokest person you know!”

This would imply that he was more Woke than me. I wasn’t having it.

“I don’t think so, brother. You’re doin’ pretty good though.”

Trevon turned to me. “Dude! You don’t even know. I go door to door in my neighborhood getting people to support bills fighting gentrification and in favor of public housing!”

I put down my beer and turned to face him as well.

“Every time I see someone in a MAGA Hat, I invite them to dinner to try to remind them that colonialism was actually a violent form of theft.”

“I NEVER let any of my white friends get away with saying the N-Bomb,” said he.

“I’ve read all of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books and essays,” said I.

“I have a hand painted BLM sign in my window!” said he.

“I don’t listen to Kanye West anymore!” said I.

“I host an annual Juneteenth party!”

“I only support Black-owned businesses!”

“I’ve seen every episode of Atlanta and Black-ish.”

“I have Frederick Douglass wrestling a lion tattooed on my chest.”

“I don’t like white people.”

“I fucking hate white people.”

And that was when we stopped talking.

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Story #40 – grace

They jumped the fence and ducked behind the wall, catching their breath. Grace looked at Tim and smiled. Tim looked like he might throw up.

“You okay, tiger?” she asked him, punching him lightly on his arm.

He nodded and swallowed. “Yeah,” he said. “Just…out…of breath.”

They sat there in the cool grass, their backs against the stone wall. The headlights of a few cars swept over the fence vaguely illuminating the army of headstones arrayed before them. It was a moonless night and the way the light played across them made it look like the grave stones were jumping and scrambling, trading places to confuse the ghosts who slept beneath them.

She looked back over at him and he looked slightly less pale, still sweaty though. His dark wavy hair hung in his eyes in a way that always made her go soft. He was wearing all black, like she told him to. He looked like one of those goth boys who read Kafka and drank black coffee while hand rolling their cigarettes. She wanted to jump his bones already.

“How’s the wine?” she asked.

He checked his shoulder bag and nodded. “Still in the bottle!”

“Grand!” She said and, after another set of headlights passed by giving the graves another chance to scrabble about, she peeked over the wall behind them. The coast clear, she hopped into a crouch and set off into the maze of stones.

“Follow me!” She shouted, maybe a little too loud for the dead, knowing he had little other choice anyway but to follow close or else lose her in the shadows. Her voice echoed back to her off the tombstones a second later than it should have. It wasn’t enough to make her stop and turn around, but it sent a chill up her spine.

“Where are we going?” She heard Tim ask. He was a few paces behind her and panting again. Maybe he actually did smoke hand-rolled filterless cigarettes.

“The tree is just over the hill this way,” said Grace as she bobbed and wove her way forward.

She knew the graveyard well. As a kid, she was friends with the caretaker’s daughter. They had a small playground in their back yard which was directly connected to the graveyard. When she and her friend would swing or slide, they would risk tumbling into the graves at any minute. It was weird and scary, but no one else really played with the girl. Grace originally began playing with the girl out of pity, but slowly realized she also had a minor infatuation with Death.

The deal was sealed when the girl collapsed one day when they were playing. Grace thought she was playing and poked at her with her foot laughing for a moment before realizing something was wrong. Her screams brought out the caretaker who rushed her to the hospital, leaving Grace behind standing between a playground and a cemetery.

The girl died of an aneurism. Grace never forgot the word. How could a seven year old forget a word that described an invisible threat that didn’t even spare children? Aneurism! It could come at any time for anyone. It scared her still.

What she couldn’t remember was her friend’s name. She was blonde and had strange eyes. That’s all that remained of her strange friend who died as a very young child.

They came around a large crypt with an angel sitting on top looking bored and a Grace saw what they were looking for.

“There it is! You see?”

“Wow. It is effin’ huge,” he said. “What’s it called again? A y–”

“Yew Tree!” Grace said, reminding him. “It’s a tree that’s native to England. You can find them at most of the old cemeteries over there.”

“What’s so special about it? Aside from it being effin’ humongalous.”

“Kiss me and I might tell ya,” Grace replied, widening her eyes and staring into his.

“Oh yeah? Is that how this works? Some sort of barter system?”

He was a dork, but a cute one. She couldn’t figure half the shit that came out his mouth.

“You’re wasting precious smooching time, buddy,” she said.

She stopped under the branches of the giant tree and waited for him to approach her which he finally was doing. He stepped up and she slowly took his hand and placed it on her cheek. He stared her in her eyes and she inched up a bit on her toes, tilting up her chin.

“Hey! How about we open this wine?” He said, breaking away and reaching into his satchel.

What the eff was his problem?? She had been sending him no shortage of signals for the past week. She kept putting her hand on him and laughing every time he said anything remotely funny. She really hated making the first move. She could lead a horse to water, hell, she could spray water all over the horse’s face, but she would not force the horse to drink. If this stud didn’t warm up tonight, she would probably move on to a different stable.

“Shit!” he said. “I forgot a wine key.”

Of course he did.

“Gimme the bottle, doofus, and take off one of your shoes,” Grace told him.

“One of my–”

“Just do it!”

He did as he was told and she tore off the wrapper at the mouth of the bottle. “I learned this on YouTube!” She said, tossing the wrapper into the darkness that seemed even deeper and thicker under the eaves of the immense Yew tree.

She placed the bottle on the ground and held the tip of his shoe with both hands. She positioned the heel over the top of the wine bottle and took a few slow practice swings before finally bringing down the heel like a hammer on the mouth of the bottle. She banged it a few times and the sound was like gunshots ricocheting around the graveyard. Then she handed him back his shoe and took a swig of the wine.

“You gotta be carful of the cork. It will block the neck if you’re not careful,” Grace told him with a sardonic smile. She took another illustrative swig and then handed him the bottle. He examined it as best he could in the dark before venturing his own first sip.

Then she just looked at him. She stood still and smiled and let the dark gather around her. He finally took the bait. What was it with guys and alcohol? One swig and all of a sudden he’s got balls. Whatevs, she might finally get to taste those lips.

He stepped up to her and wrapped his spare hand in her hair and pulled her face to his. For a second he stopped, their mouths an inch apart, their breath hot on each other’s faces. Then he closed the gap and she let herself get lost in the wonderful feeling of their tongues and lips wrestling.

She pressed her body into his and ran her hands down his chest. They tilted their heads back and forth, switching sides, heaving breath in and out of their flared nostrils unwilling to separate the necessary ritual.

Years may have flashed by, the world spinning around them held under the dark canopy of the Yew Tree. When they came up for air, panting and smiling, nothing much had changed aside from a freshly kindled desire they knew they would continue shortly.

“So why this tree?” He asked, stepping back and leaning against the trunk and sipping from the bottle.

“Well,” said Grace as she stepped over and swiped the bottle from his grip, “In old England, the trees were there first. Old Pagan shaman realized the tree had the power to give them visions. It was decided that the tree was spiritually significant, so people started to bury their dead there.”

“Spiritually significant?” He asked, looking up into the web of branches and leaves above them. “What kind of visions?”

Grace took another sip.

“Well, they saw the spirits of the dead when they were in the presence of the tree.”

“No shit?”

“Can I have another kiss yet?”

He nodded with a smirk and this time she stepped up to him and grabbed his face. Again she let herself plunge into him, her tongue searching his for the secrets of language and sweetness and lust. He disengaged from her mouth and worked his way down her neck and she whispered to him as he did.

“What scientists have discovered is that the Yew tree actually emits a toxin at night that causes hallucinations. So the old Celtic shamans weren’t seeing ghosts so much as they were tripping balls.”

He stopped kissing her and she giggled.

“This is that tree?”

“I thought it might be cool for us to make out here, like it might enhance the experience.”

She looked at him and it looked like the dark of the night was starting to smear his features, as if the night were eating away at any light that might still be lingering to give her eyes any glimpse of detail. He must have been seeing something similar because he stopped talking then and grabbed for the wine bottle.

She handed it to him and he took a heavy chug.

“I can’t see,” he said.

The darkness had swallowed up almost his whole face now. All she could see were his eyes, wide and a little wild. How would she even be able to find his mouth to kiss him again? Then she realized that the eyes she was looking at weren’t his any more. They were too small, and different, a little weird. They were the eyes of the girl she had played with so many years ago who had died of the aneurism.

“You came back to play with me?” came a voice she had not heard for many years.

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Story #39 – Dead Endy

The afternoon was warm and sunny.  The sleek glass skin of the buildings reflected the sparse cumulus clouds grazing like fluffy white buffalo in the azure.  Along the thin seam where one building would meet the sky, clouds pulled apart like a Rorschach cotton kaleidoscope.  It is easy to become lost in the simple elegance of this modern architecture.  You forget where you are, and all the little people buzzing around the corridors of these colossal mirrors become diminished by the sheer weight and power of the sky.

Transfixed by this majestic ballet, Enderton barely noticed the huffs of disgruntled power suits scurrying about their lunch breaks.  The music in his headphones both complemented the power of the scene above and drowned out the rumbling street noise. The buses and limousines, the taxis and motorcycles, powerful men yelling at their cell phones and homeless beggars with outstretched coffee cups; all were defeated by the sonorous swells and triumphant clashes of the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Hector Berlioz was Endy’s favorite Classical composer.  A music appreciation class in college had only glossed over his work, but Endy was drawn to Berlioz.  The unorthodox method of composing which drew criticism from his peers was a unique gift that allowed Berlioz to create music with an unprecedented voice.  A self-taught musician, he drew inspiration for his symphonies and cantatas from life and art, from passion and heartbreak.  His themes and movements were manifestations of raw emotion rather than harmonic solubility.  He was a rebel—the James Dean of nineteenth century Paris.  Endy dug his style.

Listening to music and walking slowly around these midtown blocks was a meditation for Endy.  An hour away from his cubicle and the repetitive number crunching was a necessary respite.  It was the closest ritual he had to Church, and looking up at the sky’s gentle movements was the closest thing to praying he knew.  Endy had given up on organized religions some time ago.  He had seen too many good, hard-working people—people who went to church or synagogue or mosque regularly—struggle and suffer repeatedly in spite of their faith and sacrifice.  He had witnessed his father’s loneliness draw him back to crippling alcoholism.  He had seen his sister, struggling as a single mother, switch religions continuously in a desperate quest for answers and meaning.  And he had heard the doubt manifest in his brother’s voice as he attempted to reinforce his own faith in the tumult of a divorce and bankruptcy.

In effect, Heaven and Hell, reduced to abstract poetics, became words used merely to evoke symbolic images.  A fluffy cloud Paradise, dark caves rimmed with fire, angels and demons, were only personifications to playfully associate with his daily routine and casual encounters.  Right now, eyes angled upward, the idée fixe of the Fantastique pushing into the fourth movement, he was in Heaven, and completely oblivious to the Hell churning around him.

Hands fidgeting in his jacket pockets, he pulled out some small wads of paper: receipts from daily expenses, a small pink bank deposit slip, an obsolete grocery note.  Folding them and tearing them up into small pieces, he released a puff of confetti into the space above an overflowing corner trash can.  It was time to go back to work—a job he despised yet was grateful for.  His debt was no small monster: student loans compounded with an addiction to Nike dunk basketball shoes, plus a habit for dining just slightly out of his price range, had him trapped at the mercy of a fearsome beast.

His temp job as a tax consultant offered him a modest weapon with which to battle this hobgoblin of servitude.  Paycheck by paycheck, the monster was being hacked down, smaller and smaller.  But the process was not a quick one.  Endy would be trapped in this tepid dead-end job for awhile yet; and every morning at 7:15 a.m. the monster, wearing a necklace of fresh kicks and spouting a convolution of sushi-scented Philosophical and Scientific chatter, would bound up from under his bed to taunt him into one of his collection of second-hand suits and ties.

It was the purgatory of his lunch breaks in the canyons between the buildings that kept him sane.

Eyes upward in quixotic repose, ears pricked by the march driving the fourth movement of Fantastique, he turned a corner and crossed the street.  Closing his eyes for a moment, he let himself be taken completely by the thunder of the timpani and the crashing of the cymbals, his favorite part of the symphony.  He lifted his arms and conducted the symphony.  To the outside world he appeared to play puppet master to the whirling crowds.  He opened his eyes just in time to avoid a collision with a smart looking woman in a pant-suit, and skirted around her nonchalantly.

People seemed to be rushing past him with more fervor than usual, but before he could think to turn and see what the fuss was about, his attention was caught by an old mongrel of a woman feeding a flock of puffy pigeons.  She was garbed in black from top hat to bootstrap and wore, over her long dress, a flowing cloak far too thick for this warm time of day.  Her eyes sparkled like emeralds as she glared at him through the rushing crowds.  Absentmindedly, she continued to strew hotdog bun crumbles to the pulsating soup of dirty feathers mooring her in place.  They almost looked like they were flooding out from under her robes; as if, were she to move from her spot, they would surge and slurp along with her.

She started talking as he drew closer to her, but his headphones protected him from whatever scratchy incantation she was attempting to bewitch him with.  She rotated her head to maintain eye contact and raised her arm wearily gesturing back the way he had come.  He neither looked back nor removed his headphones as he passed her.  He distrusted homeless people.  There were too many crooks in the city making more money than him by masquerading as the poor and indigent.  And there was always the possibility of falling under a gypsy curse.

He was two blocks from his office building.  The fifth movement of Symphonie Fantastique was beginning to build in his headphones, sharp horns and skittering strings.  Passing a café where there were always pretty girls sitting outside eating their lunches, he craned his neck to see if a particular brunette was working the counter.  She was not.  But in the reflection of the glass he saw a giant shadow sweep across the far side of the street.  He would have dismissed it for a plane passing overhead except that it jolted to a stop and held its position, dousing the other side of the street in shadow.  Instinctively he looked up to see if something was hovering overhead, but above him was only more blue and white ink blot clouds.

He stopped dead in his tracks and turned to look directly across the street.  The once-broad shadow was drawing into itself and darkening.

Like a giant puddle being sucked down a drain, the edges of the immense shadow quickly congealed into a two-foot wide slop of glistening black.  Endy looked around, but no one seemed to be noticing; The girls sitting at the café were laughing and swallowing bites of panini, a man polishing a chrome railing sneezed, but otherwise continued his tedious polishing.  Endy turned his attention back to the puddle across the street; a delivery boy in a white apron swinging several plastic bags of lunch from each hand was heading straight towards it.

“Hey!!  Don’t yo—” He stopped mid-sentence.  The puddle slid silently out of the delivery boy’s way, and held its new position.  It looked like it was shivering.  A city bus blew by and, after it passed, the puddle moved into the street and was gliding towards Endy.  No one was paying attention.  Unnerved now, he began to walk a little faster down the sidewalk advising an elderly couple of French-speaking tourists he passed, “I wouldn’t go that way!”  They looked excited.  The woman raised her camera and took a picture of an ambulance and a fire truck fording the whitewater scuffle of the interchange.

Running now, he yanked his work ID out of his suit jacket pocket and pushed through the revolving door to the MegaChomp Multinational Building.  The lobby was empty aside from the security guard, not much more than a lump himself, sitting behind a large black-granite-topped desk adjacent to a mechanical turnstile.  He must have been busy with a Sudoku puzzle; he didn’t even look up as Endy lurched into the lobby, shouting.

“Call the cops!  There’s a—” Glancing back at the revolving door, the Slick had maneuvered its way in and was bubbling upwards from the floor taking the form of a slick baby-like creature.  Its sleek skin oozed and dribbled as it rose to the size of a small child.  When it opened three red eyes with pupils the size of pin-pricks, Endy shrieked and leapt over the turnstile heading for an open elevator.  The guard looked up and made a face as if a mouse had farted.  The empty lobby gaped back at him and he returned back to his puzzle; disconnected, unconcerned.

In the elevator, Endy found himself tapping the “46” button with the frantic vigor of a cartoon character; the symphony in his headphones matched his rhythm, pounding brass swells and timpani rumbled toward a crescendo.  The sloppy steps of the gurgling demon were just outside the doors as they slid shut.

Heart pounding, sweat dripping, knees and hands shaking, Endy slid to the floor gasping.

What the fuck is going on?  What was that thing?  Am I dreaming?  Is this some sort of experiment?

His thoughts were as much a muck as the creature had been before it took form.  No one else had taken any notice of it like it was some sort of hallucination.  Had he eaten something rotten?  His streetcart halaal chicken schwarma had never done him wrong before.  His heart hammered nails through his bloodstream.

The floors counted upwards slowly (12), (13), (14), and Endy closed his eyes to try to focus his frantic thoughts.  That thing was disgusting looking.  Short and stocky, slick and shiny, and those eyes.  It seemed like its breath was steaming!  …  But he was safe now.  Wasn’t he?  Safe in the elevator and getting closer to the office he usually hated, but right now was overjoyed to be able to escape into.

Suddenly something didn’t feel right.  The air had gotten moist and thick.  The elevator took on the climate of a tropical rainforest.  As his own breathing calmed down he noticed a secondary panting become audible.

Opening his eyes, first he noticed the numbers still climbing, (38), (39), (40), almost to 42.  But in the elevator, standing catty corner to him, was the heaving, three-foot, oily creature.  Aside from its heavy breathing, it didn’t move, and neither could Endy.  He was frozen in terror.  The thing could easily have jumped onto him at any second.  As far as he could see it didn’t have a mouth though, so there was no threat of being bitten.  But its large flared nostrils were definitely emitting little wisps of steam.

They regarded each other for a frozen second.  Its strange red eyes locked and focused on his baby browns.  The thing’s entire body shifted as it slowly cocked it head.  And, again, it shivered.

At this point Endy stopped breathing entirely.  He might have suffocated himself if the elevator doors didn’t sweep open with a bing!  Trance broken, he leapt from his crouched position and rushed out the elevator door simultaneously taking in a giant gasp of fresh copy-tinged office air, and found himself immediately bounding through empty hallways.  The cubicles of “Schitter and Loufa Tax Consulting” were as silent and still as a graveyard.  Row after row of desks, in various states of disarray, blurred past him as he ran frantically in search of hiding.

He didn’t know where he was going.  He didn’t even have time to wonder why, all of a sudden, no one was here typing, filing, or otherwise attempting to seem proactively occupied.  He ran, for no other reason than a desperate search for authority, to the boss’s office.  Driven faster by the squishy thumps of his pint-sized pursuers trot, he was screaming, “Help!  Anyone!  Debra!  Scotty!  Uva!  Mommmmmmyyyyyy!!” when he entered the tragically vacant sanctum of Franko P. Davenport IV, the C.E.O.

Two giant walls of windows washed the office in warm mid-afternoon light.  The desk, aside from the open laptop angled toward the empty leather chair, was reminiscent of a mighty wooden altar.  Potted trees glowered in the farthest corners of this vast room.  Endy tossed off his headphones and went straight for the phone.  He dialed the front desk and started counting the rings.

One, – He had left the door open.  Too late now.  Please pick up.

Two, – Turning around he looked up at the sky.  The same sky that held him safe and warm only minutes ago was no closer and offered him no comfort.

Three, – Maybe he had time to run and bar the door with something; anything to keep that thing out.

Four, – Now he looked out behind him and down to the street and saw the firetrucks and ambulances.  The same ones that screamed past him on the street, that the French tourists seized as a photo-op.  There was a crowd of people milling around trying to get a better look.

Five, – Someone has been hit by a car while crossing the street.  A stretcher is being carried to the ambulance.

Six, – The pigeon woman was facing his direction and seemed to be looking up at him and pointing to the stretcher.

Seven, – He drops the phone and turns around backing up to the window.

The tar-monster stands in the doorway heaving lightly.

“Oh no!  Please!  What are you?  What do you want!?”  Endy’s legs give out and he slides down, cowering as the demonoid begins advancing on him slow and steady.  A mouth opens up from nowhere splitting the sleek skin under its eyes to reveal several rows of razor-like teeth.

The last thing Endy heard was the faint climax on his discarded headphones across the room, and the goblin’s queer voice, like a rough-edged squeal, repeating what sounded like, “Yum. Yum. Yum. Yum. Yum.”

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Story # 38 – The Weird Thing

Uncle Gene was just coming back from the bar with a fresh round of beers. he was wearing a blue shirt with red flowers on it that I had gotten him when I went to Hawaii to study the medicinal herbs of the island. I had gotten him the gift more as a joke, it was definitely more loud than his usual wardrobe, so I found it very sweet that he wore it out, especially to a college bar in Cleveland.

The bar was crowded, full of my fellow students doing Jager bombs and bouncing their asses to a song I should probably know. To avoid the crowd he took the route by the pool table where some denim-clad bikers appeared to be having a very serious game of billiards.

I didn’t like the bikers. They were prone to picking fights with students for no reason. I had been “accidentally” bumped by them several times, which they then took as an excuse to accost whatever male I was with. The last guy I had come here with had even ended up leaving with a black eye!

Uncle Gene put down the drinks and slid onto the booth bench across from me and I thought I saw a flicker of worry streak across his features. His hands were shaking a little more than usual. Uncle Al, next to me and oblivious as usual, grabbed his beer and slurped sloppily, getting some beer suds in his gray beard.

“You okay, Uncle Gene?” I asked above the din of the bar.

“Uh? Oh! Fine, Anna. Fine. Got you a lager!” He said, pushing a pint glass in my direction.

Uncle Gene and Uncle Al weren’t really my uncles. They were my neighbors growing up. They didn’t have kids, but were always kind to me when I wandered over onto their porch bask in the tobacco smoke billowing from their pipes as the sun went down. My parents divorced when I was nine. Meanwhile Gene and Al were passing through Ithaca on their way to Niagra Falls for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Uncle Al, the more gregarious of the two, launched back into the story he was telling about the time he had to brush the teeth of an entire flock of pigs. Gene and I knew the story well, but we also knew how much Al liked telling it, so we let him ramble on.

“Did any of them bite you?” I asked. I have asked this so many times that it’s pretty much part of the story now.

“Every damn one of them!” He blurted comically.

One question I had never asked was why he had to brush all their teeth anyway. I was pretty sure that porcine dental health wasn’t a priority at many mills. Also, I knew him to be a podiatrist, so there’s that. I didn’t want to ruin his rhythm though, so I tucked that question away for later.

Uncle Gene got up and seemed to wander toward the bathroom. This was weird because I thought he had gone to the bathroom on the way to get our beers.

“I had one arm wrapped around the bugger’s head and was reaching around with the other, but the damn toothpaste kept slipping off the brush. Did I mention it was a hair brush?”

“Yes you did, Uncle Al.”

“It was a small hair brush! Anyway, this sheep in particular was known to be grumpy.”

The bar churned around us. High pitched giggles erupted from across the room. Shot glasses were emptied and slammed down on the bar. Heavy bass thumped beneath the clamor carrying it on its shoulders like a train of squealing children.

“And the teeth came out in my hand!” Al exclaimed. “Did you know sheep could have dentures?? I was damn flabbergasted!”

He guzzled some more of his beer and leaned back beaming, his mind still relishing the memory. I stared off in the direction of the bathrooms, hoping to see Gene emerge plodding toward us. He did not. Then I noticed that the bikers had abandoned the pool table area.

“Hey! Where did Genie go?” Al said.

I was already getting up from the booth. “I’ll go check,” I said.

The bathroom was empty. And very smelly. It’s like boys just pee everywhere.

Instinctively I followed the dark hallway into the bar’s secret areas. My heart was clawing it’s way up my throat as I moved farther from the circus of the bar. The water-stained drywall and peeling-paint guts closed in on me.

I had my hand on the back door when a sound from somewhere below froze me. To my right I made out the shape of a door hidden in a small alcove and stepped softly toward it. The deepwater rumblings intensified somewhat. I placed my hand on the nob and turned it carefully. I pulled the door open a crack and the voices came into focus.

“I have to get back to my table!” Uncle Gene warbled.

“Not until you pay,” came another voice, deeper and hoarse, a little scuffle and a soft bang of what sounded like utensils being rattled from a shelf.

My stomach felt like it was being squeezed by a bag of hair ties. I could feel my hands shaking with my thudding heart. I took a deep breath and clomped down the stairs with as heavy steps as I could muster with my tiny frame.

“HEY!” I shouted even before I could see what was going on.

The basement looked like what you would expect for a shitty college bar. There were kegs stacked to one side and some old neon signs crusted with years of dust. There were some shelves stacked with cardboard boxes and office supplies, papers and random bric a brac. A lone 60-watt bulb hung from the ceiling.

The three bikers had Gene pushed up on a desk. His eyes were large and glassy and his skin was as pale as his gray hair. They all turned to me as I stomped down the stairs.

“What the fuck is going on down here?” I yelled in my bassiest butchest voice.

“Anna,” Gene said. My name sounding as foreign in this subterranean world as I felt.

The biggest biker dude, the one with the shaved head and the tattoo of a roach on his neck, let go of Gene and turned to me slowly.

“Go back upstairs, little girl,” he said, “before these big bad wolves add you to the menu.”

One of his goons snickered. The other one spat. It was quite a routine.

“I’m not going anywhere without my uncle,” I said. Somehow my voice remained strong despite the imminent feeling that I might piss myself.

“Your uncle?” Snickered the snickerer.

Cockroach beamed a sick smile. “Your uncle here owes me money. He’s racked up quite a tab.”

The basement was getting smaller, the walls pressing in on me. I was also getting smaller, shrinking before these strange wolves and their koans. The riddle just presented to me could have been scrawled in the clouds in hieroglyphics.

“It’s okay,” Gene stammered, still jammed against the desk. “Go back upstairs. I’ll be along shortly.”

I didn’t break eye contact with cockroach. “How much does he owe you?”

“Three fif–” the spitter tried to say but Cockroach slapped him in the chest.

“Four hundo” said Cockroach.

I looked at Gene. Four hundred dollars was a lot of money to me. Apparently it was a lot of money for him and Al too. His bloody nose dripped on the shirt I bought him forming a flower of a different shade red.

“I’ll get it for you, but you can’t hit him again.”

“Don’t you want to know what it’s for?”

I looked at Gene and suddenly my friend who I had known most of my life wouldn’t meet my eyes. Gene was always the loud laugher in the room, but just as quick to zero in on whoever might be feeling uncomfortable and offer a comforting word or smile. On any given day I could have picked him out of a crowd of any size anywhere on the planet, but at this moment I could barely recognize him. His body was contorted in a strange way, like a doll that had been stepped on too many times to regain its proper shape. His hands were shaking and he was exhaling a little too heavily as if he were deflating.

“There’s an ATM upstairs. I’ll be right back,” I said turning from the whole unpleasant spectacle. The bikers had a good laugh as I climbed the stairs. Behind me, back in that strange dimension, I heard one of them say, “G! Does your niecey know you shoot H?”

It was difficult not to lose my shit, to break down and weep on the way to the ATM. When I got there I couldn’t remember my pin. When I did finally remember my pin, I could only pull out $200. I couldn’t call the cops. I looked across the room at Al who appeared to be sleeping in our booth. Did he know? Was he a junky too?

I did the only thing I could do. I took my $200 back down into that fucked up basement to see if I could haggle my poor battered old friend out of any more punishment. After all, When the wolves huff and puff and try to blow down my house, I’m the type of little pig who bites back.

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