Book Excerpt: The End of the World 2

Emory Steen walked home with Coreen after Math Club. Autumn leaves covered the sidewalks and Emory crunched through them making as much noise as possible. “See you tomorrow,” he said.

Coreen waved a goodbye as her friend slouched down the street.

Goldy waited inside the front door. Her parents had let her get the puppy as a reward for good grades. He trailed at her heels as Coreen followed the sound of voices; the Bible study group had started. Mr. and Mrs. Tennant were decent people, trying to raise their children as Christians. Both of Coreen’s brothers went to meetings. David was almost eighteen, and the eleven-year-old Junior worshipped him. Little Sweetie was only five, and she was bundled off to bed halfway through the evening.

The Siemens family, the Whites, the Bartlets and their two cousins visiting from Holland were in the dining room. The group met Tuesday and Friday evenings at the Tennant home. The adults passed earnest hours in spirited debates, trying to understand what Bible passages signified.

Bibles covered the dining room table. Red silk ribbons marked open pages, but they’d set them aside. Everyone stared at a laptop screen, filled with yellow letters in a blue background. An image of the Earth floated, circled by what looked like the rings of Saturn. The largest ring ended in the letters VOG.

Goldy’s wagging tail thumped against a chair and the group finally noticed Coreen had entered the room.

Her godfather Richard turned from the computer and placed an arm over her shoulder. Richard White was old enough to be her grandparent, and he enjoyed the authority that came with age. “We’ve been waiting for you. Good thing you’re in that Math Club!”

“I told you, Richard. She’ll follow the proof just fine.” Coreen’s father gave her a hug.

Richard pushed a sheet of paper across the table. “Take a look,” he said eagerly.

“What is it?” Coreen picked it up.

“Just, see for yourself.” The gathered members held their breaths as they waited.

Coreen bent her head over a page of proofs, then back up to meet a roomful of expectant eyes. No one spoke, waiting for her to add two and two together.

She looked back at the sheet. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see.”

Richard patted her arm. “It’s okay. It took us a week of prayer before it became clear, and then suddenly it was all wonderfully clear. Look.” Richard took a second piece of paper from Mrs. Siemen. He tapped the page. “A day for God is a thousand years. Christ was crucified on April 1st, 33AD. Five equals ‘atonement’, ten equals ‘completeness’, and seventeen equals ‘heaven’, so the time between Christ’s crucifixion and next year is 1,978 years. Follow so far?”

Coreen’s brow furrowed as she listened.

“It’s right here.” Richard patted the sheets of paper and leaned over the table to point at the computer screen. “It’s clearer than clear, Coreen: the Rapture’s on the way!”

Mommy spoke up. “Honey, God’s lifting two hundred million people directly to Heaven, and then He’ll cover the earth in tsunamis and quakes. It’s very near. In fact, it’s less than a year away. The end’s coming in a series of earthquakes on May 1st. Six p.m. for each time zone.”

“What about everyone else?” Coreen asked in a small voice.

“God’s judgment.” Mommy was a middle-aged woman with an affect as comforting and warm as a meal of pot roast. Tonight, incandescent, her face glowed. “Six months later, November 1st, the final destruction arrives.”

Dad broke in. “Someone’s found the Biblical passages proving the Rapture begins in May. All believers ascend to Heaven. Those left behind will experience the end of the world. Six months of it, before fire consumes whatever’s left. We can be ready for it!”

He leaned across the table and turned up the sound. The voice speaking from the computer terminal was both tinny and gravelly, like metal clanking over heavy rocks. VOG sounded otherworldly. “My friends, now is the time to prepare! The end is on the way. But don’t wait for the Lord to send the first sign. You will feel it in your own lives down here on Earth. Pay attention my friends, little by little He will peel away all that no longer matters. Welcome the changes! Welcome the signals of His arrival! Trust in the Lord!”

Dad turned the sound back down and turned expectant back to his daughter. “Well? What do you think?”

“There’s a paradox,” Coreen began. The End of Days sounded as if the final agonies stretched out, God Himself unsure when to end them. “Does the world end in May, or in November?”

“Which part of Armageddon don’t you understand?” David sneered. Coreen hadn’t noticed her older brother in the corner. He sat, so no one could see how short he was compared to her.

“Yeah, VOG said so!” Junior parroted.

Coreen ignored them, knowing skinny little Junior would go along with anything his brother said.

David recited, “The Bible tells us that exactly one hundred and eighty-four days later God destroys the whole world. The name says it all. The Voice Of God. VOG.” David had learned about the Rapture end date before Coreen. He understood it better, too. For once, he was doing something first.

***

Prepare to meet a hero with dangerous fantasies. A young woman trapped in a cult. A person who dreams other people’s futures. A man drinking glühwein at a Christmas Market as he waits for disaster. And Lynn, the connecting thread, taking a train trip with a seductive stranger. I’ll be posting the first pages to each chapter.

Committing my characters to an appearance on this blog makes them real. As of tonight, they exist beyond my imagination.

Here are the opening pages to my novel (Name being withheld until publication date). This second chapter is titled, The End Of The World.

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Book Excerpt: The End of the World 1

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! —Psalm 8:8

Revelations

Lynn turned off the classical music on the CD player and yawned, pleased. She’d gotten a lot done. Summer session hadn’t begun yet and the campus was quiet. Cars loaded with new graduates and their belongings had left days earlier.

She’d propped her office door and windows open. When she leaned back an afternoon breeze fluttered across her skin. Outside, three crows argued from the top of a Douglas fir as a radio blared. And someone cried. Sobs swelled in waves as the crier gained and lost, regained and relost control.

The crying came from inside the building. Lynn got up and went to the door to listen; it was a woman’s voice. She walked down the hall and came to a stop outside the bathroom. As she hesitated, wondering if she should go in or not, the door opened with a yank.

The young woman in a rumpled blouse over new jeans jumped when she saw Lynn. ‘Ask me about my frontal lobotomy’ suggested a pin on her chest. Her face was blotchy and dripped with tears.

“Aren’t you the Girl Friday who started working here the end of the semester? Coreen, right?” Lynn held out a tissue.

The girl tried to answer, but could only hiccup. Her face grew redder.

When Lynn touched her shoulder she trembled. “I’m Professor McCready. Coreen, are you okay?”

Coreen fell forward into the older woman’s arms.

Lynn propelled her down the hall to the corner armchair in her office. Coreen kept shivering. Lynn returned to the bathroom for a stack of paper towels. When she brought them back, she touched Coreen’s shoulder to get her attention. “Somehow I don’t think regular tissues can handle all the tears you’ve got in you.” She handed them to Coreen and placed a tall glass at the girl’s elbow. She touched the shoulder again, and returned to her desk.

The simple props of a water glass, a comfortable armchair and a large supply of utility paper towels were exactly what Coreen needed. She cried for another fifteen minutes. The hic! hic! staccato slowed as her crying jag spent itself. When it finished she sat damp and exhausted, her body folded tight.

Lynn set down the article proof she was editing. “Come on,” she said, and got to her feet. “I could use something to eat. I bet you could, too. Do you like Vietnamese?”

Over dinner the girl stayed silent, picking at her food and chewing her fingernails. Finally she blurted, “Did you ever think the world was ending?”

“Literally?”

Coreen hesitated and then nodded her head. Yes.

“That it would end, no. That it might break me, once.”

“What happened?”

“I discovered the heart of darkness when I was your age.” She knew Coreen was bracing herself to open up. Quietly Lynn revealed, “I went through an experience I thought would scar me and follow me around forever. Like, it would identify me for life. And then it didn’t. But I know what it feels like when a wave of panic hits. Or a crying jag. If you can, tell me what’s got you so terrified that you hide in the bathroom.”

Coreen put down her fork, took a deep breath, and told her.

***

Prepare to meet a hero with dangerous fantasies. A young woman trapped in a cult. A person who dreams other people’s futures. A man drinking glühwein at a Christmas Market as he waits for disaster. And Lynn, the connecting thread, taking a train trip with a seductive stranger. I’ll be posting the first pages to each chapter.

Committing my characters to an appearance on this blog makes them real. As of tonight, they exist beyond my imagination.

Here are the opening pages to my novel (Name being withheld until publication date). This second chapter is titled, The End Of The World.

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Book Excerpt: TNT 2

They stood at the long service counter. Just a single table in the room had free seats. A dark-haired girl sat at it, and Todd looked her over. She had delicate features in a heart-shaped face and wore the stock student fashion of jeans and short-sleeved sweater. Todd noted embroidery around the sweater’s shiny buttons, and that her long hair was pinned back with a wide silver clip. The girl was simultaneously young and very grown up, poised and alone in the din.

He set down his beer. “Watch the master.”

Donny watched. His buddy claimed the empty captain’s chair beside the stranger. Todd touched her shoulder to get her attention as the musicians returned to the stage for the next set. “I’m Todd Taft.” The band picked up their instruments and began playing, and Donny couldn’t hear the rest.

The girl shook her head as she spoke. Todd’s brow furrowed and he added something. But she laughed as she shook her head again.

The guitarist started to sing.

“Ready?” The man who’d reached the table ignored Todd, eyes only for his date. She got up and they left the bar. She looked great from behind; her escort wore a sports jacket over faded jeans and looked like a preppie out slumming.

Grinning, Donny brought their beers over to the deserted table. “Nice going, cowboy.”

Todd rolled his eyes as he cupped his crotch. “I’m in love!”

Donny laughed and ordered another round. They remained until the bar closed, drinking a few last beers as the band played Eagles cover tunes. Todd drove home with the girl’s brown eyes impressed on the lyrics of Peaceful Easy Feeling.

He kept thinking about her. It was the challenge of being turned down, or maybe it was the boredom when work finished up and he had nowhere to go. Or the way he’d felt inside when she gazed at him. The attraction rolled over him in a gigantic wave, pulling him under with a siren’s lure.

He headed back to Cumberland in the hopes of finding her, the girl who’d refused to tell him her name.

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Book Excerpt: TNT 1

For your reading enjoyment: excerpts from my coming book. I’m writing madly, aiming to finish by December. A pre-Christmas book release sounded like a no brainer. Unfortunately that’s just what I feel like half the time when it comes to promotion. I’m still figuring out the marketing end of self publishing.

Anyway.

Prepare to meet a hero with dangerous fantasies. A young woman trapped in a cult. A person who dreams other people’s futures. A man drinking glühwein at a Christmas Market as he waits for disaster. And Lynn, the connecting thread, taking a train trip with a seductive stranger. I’ll be posting the first pages to each chapter.

Committing my characters to an appearance on this blog makes them real. As of tonight, they exist beyond my imagination.

Here are the opening pages to my novel (Name being withheld until publication date). This first chapter is titled, TNT.

 1976: A History of the Hunt

TNT: Noun, 1. A yellow crystalline compound, CH3C6H2(NO2)3, used mainly as a high explosive. –Dictionary definition

The lot attendant waved his hand and vehicles inched forward. A Camaro was next in line, and he motioned wearily for it to advance.

He was in his late twenties, with short hair and a carefully shaved face. He wore worn-in work boots with metal tips shined to a high buff, jeans, and a nylon jacket over a tee shirt. The jacket flapped open suddenly to reveal a shirt printed with tangled stick figures. Red letters advertised Certified Muff Diver. Demonstrations upon request.

The attendant bared his teeth and closed the jacket as the teens in the car stared. “Five bucks parking, make sure you place the receipt on the dashboard or plan on paying to retrieve your vehicle from the towing company.” He handed over a parking stub and pointed to the farthest corner of the lot. “Over there, champ. You’ll want to keep this nice conveyance safe.”

No one in the car said a word. “Nice shirt,” the teen in the back seat commented once they were out of earshot. “Who’s that?”

“You don’t know? That’s Todd Taft. My sister Janine graduated with him. Todd was a big hero back in the day,” the driver recalled. “They called him TNT. Now he’s just a guy with a bad attitude who works parking cars.”

***

The last sports fan drove off with a wave after the game ended. “So long, pal,” Todd called cheerfully. The driver turned into the street and Todd stopped smiling. “Dim mother fucker,” he added under his breath. The rainbow painted on the side of the microbus faded in the distance. Todd watched until it vanished from his sight. The work keys jangled as he attached the chain link fence across the entryway. He walked back towards his booth, whistling.

The part-time attendant strolled over from the other end of the tarmac. Donny Shoemaker wore a clean pair of jeans, his ponytail tied back with a rubber band.

“Feel like a beer?”

“Well, that depends. Got somewhere in mind?”

“I thought I’d head over to Cumberland. Dante’s has a live band on. It’s Ladies’ Night! And in Cumberland that means college women.”

“I don’t need someone who can debate, Donny. I’d rather get laid.” But Todd reopened the booth where he always kept a clean tee shirt behind his crossword dictionary.

Donny waited impatiently. “It’s quicker if we take the back roads.”

“It’s all back roads, remember? This is upstate,” Todd said dryly.

“Christ, Taft,” Donny remarked when he was finally done. “Don’t you ever buy clothes in the right size?”

Todd looked down at the fresh shirt, tight on his barrel chest. “What are you talking about? My shirt?” he asked innocently. “Oh, it fits. Free advertising, Shoemaker, free advertising.” Todd ran a comb through his short black hair and let out a rebel yell. “It’s Saturday night. Look out, ladies, here we come.”

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Speed Dating – Part 2

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

Maricela took a deliberate slow swallow from her non-alcoholic beer. “I would go out dancing on weekends, with my friends.” She looked away, her gaze on somewhere in the past. “I drank,” she answered quietly. “I went on short term binges. I didn’t really have relationships, or if I did, they sure were fluid ones. All high-percentage based.”

She gave him a wry smile and raised the near beer in a toast. “I had one black out too many. Finally I figured out I could get the smallest of buzzes from a near beer and it tastes just close enough to the real thing. Most people thing women drink these because they’re trying to avoid the calories.”

Maricela laughed softly; Rick thought she sounded sad. “I don’t judge you,” he was prepared to say, wanting to comfort her. He was shocked when she turned her face to him and he saw she was grinning.

“Holy shit! I was such a wild thing. I had fun, that’s for sure! I only regret I can’t remember more of it.”

Maricela’s utter candor and what sounded like a total lack of shame were attractive. She had no idea how sexy it was, the unfolding mystery of her past – her honesty about it – and the acceptance of both who she was now and what she had been like. She had no idea of the affect this had.

They sat in a bar and grill, perhaps an odd place given Maricela’s most recent story. But when he looked across the table at her she seemed at peace, happy to be with him eating lunch. Maricela talked on, unconcerned. “My friends, the women anyway, sit around and do the ‘Woulda coulda shoulda’ game. Where it went wrong, why it might have gone wrong, how they should have been stronger, or more assertive in their careers, or better mommies, or more giving to their ex-husband. Or rather most of the time, how they should have been less giving to the s.o.b.! In the end it’s all the same.

“Not me.” Maricela pierced Rick with a look. “Regretting the past doesn’t make it go away, or erase the mistakes. As nice as that would be… It’s mental masturbation. You root around in old dirt and feel guilty or bad about yourself over, and over, and over again.

“At first there was no way I was going to do a 12 steps program. Who needs to go into critical self-analysis when you can grow up Catholic? The gift that goes on giving: guilt. When I finally decided to stop drinking, I got a year of therapy to help me figure out why I liked drinking so much.”

“And?”

She laughed out loud again and the sound was truly joyous. “Well, it’s the reason I still drink non-alcoholic beer. I like the taste! I like beer! When I drank, I drank too much. There were no big revelations, which might have been the biggest revelation of all. We go hunting for deep answers, if my father had been more affectionate, if my mother only praised me more. I drank because I worked so hard. And since I weigh 130 pounds, it didn’t take much to help me unwind. I don’t have any buried family trauma, and I don’t have tendencies to be drug dependent. I never even smoked cigarettes, so I didn’t like smoking pot. When I tried smoking a joint it just tore out my lungs.

“But now I am sorry, I’m blathering on suddenly about all this! It’s old history, it’s really ancient. I haven’t gotten drunk in over a decade! It’s no big deal, Rick, I’m not a heroine or anything; I just got a little smarter about how I was living my life and what I want from it. One of the major things though, is I decided, if I met someone I wanted to see again, I have to be up front about who I am and who I’m not. And I am definitely not a drinker any more.”

“Yo, I’ve done some drinking in my time too. Not to worry. I think it goes with the territory of being young and getting older and wiser.” Inside he exulted.

They sat silent for a few minutes and Maricela resumed eating her cooling food. The silence wasn’t awkward; she really did seem at peace with herself and with the long speech she’d just given him. Rick waited until she finished eating and her hands were back in her lap before he reached over and, taking her left hand in his, silently raised it to his cheek. It was dated, the gesture: but Rick meant it.

Much later, Rick woke to feel Maricela’s presence in his bed beside him. She lay curled on her left side, the hand he’d held to his cheek earlier at lunch brushing against him.

– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

 

Speed Dating – Part 1

Slowly Rick garnered the pertinent facts about Maricela. She came from a large family where education was a priority. All five of the Howard siblings had at least some graduate school time or professional training under their belts. Maricela was an intellectual prodigy and had gone to college entirely on grants and scholarships. She’d been a natural scholar, the acknowledged golden child of any seminar class. Ironically, his parents moved briefly to Brookville when Maricela had finished up her undergraduate work there; they’d just missed one another.

She worked as a financial advisor with an ethical investments firm, a job she loved since she began there eight years ago. She had been promoted twice and refused the next offer for further advancement, preferring to keep close to her individual clients. Her field of expertise was alternative energies and fair trade. Maricela firmly believed the phrase sustainable and responsible investing was not an oxymoron.

She’d had one, failed, live-in relationship. When she discovered his coke habit she ended the relationship. “It wasn’t just that he lied to me about how much he used,” Maricela explained. “And it wasn’t the way I found out: catching him in the kitchen over the butcher block, for God’s sake. He promised he’d ease up on what he was using, but I know too much about how much fun partying is.

“Speedy drugs weren’t ever my thing. They just made me nauseous and I preferred alcohol anyway, so it wasn’t like I felt holier than thou. It was the way he wasn’t willing to stay clean, and how cagey he was being about the realities of that fact. He kept pretending he was in control of his habit and lied about how much he did. Typical user behavior. It was the set up for more hiding and bullshit stories that eventually made me end it.”

The tone might have made Rick suspicious, because in the voice of the wrong woman it sounded phony. Worse, it sounded like what someone with a martyr complex might say. But Maricela was simply stating the facts. Her ex hadn’t wanted to be honest about needing to snort coke; and Maricela was unwilling to settle for a relationship based on prevarications.

Maricela’s friends held her in affection and quite often in awe. Despite her formidable brainpower her personality was easy and accessible; there was nothing of the intellectual snob about her. She’d cohabitated for the last 3 years with a long time friend named Sarah. Together the two of them had rented the converted loft space.

When Sarah was diagnosed with cancer the prior spring, Maricela put her own social life on hold in order to be there for her friend. That was the reason why she’d been out of the dating pool. It had nothing to do with an unwillingness to engage with other people. On the contrary: a deep commitment to the people she cared about led Maricela to prioritize how she used her time.

Almost every bit of information Chris and Sybil had offered to describe Maricela turned out to be accurate. The only piece of information they’d gotten wrong was her choice of alcohol. Instead of wine, most of the time Maricela drank near beer.

Rick noted all of these things and thought, This woman is someone worth getting to know, no matter where it leads. Surprised, Rick actually asked himself if he’d be willing to just be friends with her if the physical chemistry didn’t pan out. He was even more surprised when the answer to that question was, yes.

“I’m not being coy about bringing you home with me, you know,” she informed him one day; the two were having lunch. “Trust me on this one. In my earlier days we’d already be there! But Sarah’s really sick. She’s going through chemo, and the procedure is quite simply hell. It’s really important right now that we keep the apartment as germ-free and sterile as possible. You understand, right?”

“Sure,” Rick said, and hesitated. “No, actually, I don’t. I doubt if I can even begin to understand. I don’t think I’d know how to handle it if someone I was close to got cancer,” he admitted. “Or if I could be as supportive.”

Maricela turned what he’d said over in her mind and shrugged. “She’s my best friend. I sit with her when she’s awake half the night throwing up because the poisons in the chemotherapy mean she won’t keep anything down for long. The other half the night she can’t stop crying because she knows she’s getting weaker and weaker, and feels sicker and sicker. She’s really terrified that this is it, she’s going to die, and in the end all the chemo and medical attention in the world aren’t going to make a bit of difference. She’s scared maybe she’s putting herself through hell for nothing. And me along with her.

“Next,” continued Maricela relentlessly, “Sarah lost her hair. It was coming out in patches so Sarah had it all shaved off. Then she went through this awful period where her face puffed up. Her skin was reacting to a combination of the drugs, and she couldn’t go out in bright sunlight because of allergic reactions to some of the other meds. And when you’re a friend, all you can really do is just, be there. It’s not your sickness or your pain.

“Trust me. When you see it, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

“The only thing you can do is fetch the bucket, get a cup of herb tea, and offer to do the shopping. Just being there for your friend and not being afraid to do that little extra helps more than anyone imagines. A person with cancer needs you to be normal, because nothing else in their life is any more. Nothing else around them will ever be the same again. I won’t go into the gruesome details about the bouts of depression Sarah endures, but picture your blackest, darkest thoughts. Magnify those by about a thousand and maybe you have some idea of how deep the depression of a person with cancer and on meds is. A cancer patient doesn’t know if it’s her or the heavy-duty medications doing the talking, or thinking, or feeling all those awful things.

“Every day becomes a big surprise, and not one you want to wake up to. Are you going to manifest new symptoms? How’s the old mood going to be, will you feel incapacitated or can you function again? What fun tests, and diagnostics, and medical procedures do you have scheduled this time? What will the news be, and how are you going to be able to bear to hear it? There was a phase where all the test results were bad; every one of them was really horribly grim. Sarah started going in and out of depressions where she couldn’t stand to be around anybody at all. What she was feeling, the agony, the fear, and exhaustion finally overwhelmed her.

“It’s not a question of staying supportive,” Maricela repeated. “Cancer survivors travel to hell and back. All I do is let her know I’ll be waiting there each time she returns.”

Rick listened to Maricela with both admiration and dismay. “I’m not so sure. I’d be scared I’d react the wrong way and make things worse,” he persisted. “Or that I wouldn’t be able to face someone else’s illness. I don’t know if I’d be up to being supportive.”

He looked at Maricela’s face as he admitted that, afraid to see her light brown eyes darken. But he didn’t want to present himself in a false light, especially when compared with the relentless clean light of her frankness. Only honesty was admissible.

He was silent, thinking about all of the relationship games he’d so willingly played over the years. One set of games to get close enough to climb into bed; another set to extricate himself from the mussed up sheets afterwards. When he realized she was waiting patiently for him to talk, or to remain silent, just as he wished, Rick surprised himself for the third time in an hour. He opened his mouth and as if in the third person, Rick heard himself really talk.

“I don’t know what I’d do if someone I loved was ill, much less going to die. I’ve never been in that situation! My mom was always great. She’d make home made chicken soup with egg noodles, nothing fancy, but it was like the great home remedy for anything that ever made a little kid feel bad. I would pretend to have a really, really bad cough, just to get her to make it.

“It’s the only dish I ever make for someone on a regular basis.” Rick was thinking out loud; silent, Maricela listened without judgment as he began to peel away protective layers.

“My mother made soup, but it was about emotional support. When I make it for anyone it’s, soup. The emotional support’s what I get, by recreating the atmosphere of my mom. It’s never about doing something for another person at all.

“Jesus! Why didn’t I ever notice this before? For me,” his voice was almost at a crawl. Maricela actually leaned across the table so she could hear him without having to interrupt to ask him to speak more loudly. “For me, relationships were, are, something to have fun with. It’s all speed dating. I never put much energy into the mutual support aspect of it, beyond being honest and not cheating on a girlfriend as long as we’re together.

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Broken In

An hour later Jeff could no longer see clearly in the increasing gloom of dusk. A thorough search of the grounds hadn’t revealed any gopher activity. Jeff wasn’t reassured; he examined the wire fence line separating his lot from the edge of the forest and found it badly bent in places. The fencing had been rolled out from a long heavy roll of reinforced wire, and twists in one section affected the entire fence line. Jeff repaired it as best he could. Before he was done, he decided he’d check the perimeter each weekend.

A month later his peace of mind hadn’t increased. On the contrary, a deep unease kept growing. There were nights when Colleen didn’t wake him up by barking; he slept badly anyway. Jeff was unused to feeling disquieted, and it took a long time before he was willing to even admit to himself that the feeling existed.

On Saturday afternoon he headed down into the cellar. Ostensibly he wanted to check the heater, but his unease had stubbornly gone on growing unchecked. It was as if the weight of worry was breaking down and into his brain, too, like a growth of cells going rogue, lurking, a cancer of fear and vague suspicions.

The cellar’s double lock and bolt were firmly in place. Relieved, Jeff unlocked them and opened the door leading down into the basement. He felt for the light switch on the right wall. “See there, nothing to worry about,” he told himself aloud. His triumph retreated immediately upon realizing he couldn’t see. Well, bulbs did burn out and it had been months since he’d checked.

Actually, Jeff couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone down in the house cellar; the garage contained a laundry corner and the kitchen had a pantry. The only things in the little basement were packing boxes and old belongings he hadn’t found places for when he’d moved in. Those were all stacked on a long worktable at the back of the cellar in a room originally designed for power tools.

Jeff got a flashlight and extra bulbs from the top shelf of the hallway closet and descended the thirteen cellar steps in the light from the upstairs hallway. At the bottom he switched on the torch and ran the light over the walls and the hanging light cord. He frowned: the cord hung as it always had, but there was no light bulb in it. Jeff thought back but couldn’t remember if the bulb had burned out and he’d removed it and simply hadn’t replaced it; it really had been too long since he’d been down here. But he was holding a bulb now, and he grimaced and screwed it in.

Still no light. “What the..?” Jeff said out loud. The hairs at the back of his neck rose when Colleen barked from the top of the stairs. “Come here, girl!” he ordered. She raced down the steps, tail wagging. Jeff was reassured when the dog didn’t growl once she was in the cellar.

He played the flashlight over the small main cellar room but aside from the kaput light cord nothing looked different. This was troublesome though; he needed an outlet for a light down here. The circuit box was in the other cellar room. Maybe the switch for the main cellar room had gotten tripped somehow.

Jeff thought some more. There was an outlet at the back of the wall behind the stacks of his boxes. If need be, he could run a cord from there. He pushed open the door to the smaller room and gasped.

The room was ever so dimly lit up by a night-light in the cellar wall. The home’s previous tenants had needed it for their toddlers, and Jeff had left the discarded night light down there with his unneeded belongings. Boxes were in the exact same order they had been in when he first stored them, but they were stacked against the opposite wall. Someone had completely cleared the worktable. It was as if mischievous elves had executed a moving exercise in his absence.

Colleen wagged her tail at him but was otherwise unimpressed with the uncanny room. Jeff’s hand trembled as he held it an inch over the ridiculously tiny night light bulb. The little pink light was too hot to touch; it had been burning for days, if not weeks or months.

Jeff used his sleeve to protect his hand and turned off the light. When he got back up to the top of the stairs he double-checked the dead bolt on the cellar door. He was breathing much harder than climbing the simple thirteen steps back up into the house warranted.

He reviewed his actions of the past few weeks, going back for the past few months; the light could well have burned that long. Jeff was seeing someone new, and spent Saturdays over at her place. It had to be when the punks decided to play their practical joke. He’d been on a long project at work and had put in late hours. Perhaps that was when they broke in. But Colleen would have been in the yard, and surely would have barked at the intruders. Jeff recalled the words of his neighbor Jeremy, telling him how the dog barked incessantly all day long.

Jeff didn’t sleep at all that night. For once he allowed Colleen to sleep up on the bed with him. He lay with his arms wrapped around the collie trying to feel secure. Every time he closed his eyes he met the faces of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, x’es carved into their foreheads, eyes staring out in insanity and darkness. Those eyes contained pools as black and drained of light as his cellar. Creepy crawly, Jeff thought. He shivered. Creepy, crawly, creepy, crawly, creepy creepy crawly crawly… Jeff groaned and pulled the dog closer to his body. She whined for him to let her loose, but remained lying where he held her. Creepy, crawly…

The cellar was the only place Jeff found anything rearranged indoors. It didn’t stop him from inspecting the house. Jeff would tour it before leaving for work, trying to convince himself it was secure. He compulsively checked in the evenings both before and after it became dark.

Jeff couldn’t shake the image of the Manson Family. He sensed a family of deranged drug addicts, perverts tossing his house for the fun of it, breaking him in for something. It had to be a gang, a group, a motley crew. Jeff couldn’t decide if it would be worse if they were highly organized, or simply random criminals.

A week later the wire of his fence line was deliberately cut. It had rained since the fence was sabotaged; search though he might, Jeff found no footprints. One weekend he found chewed rubber balls scattered throughout the entire back lot. Were some neighborhood kids throwing balls at his windows, or at his dog? Was that what was going on?

Hulton Archive / Getty

– from my first book Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

 

Hit & Run 2

Joey sat in the school library for hours. He hid there during recess and lunch periods, but the sounds of everyone out on the playground came through the open windows. Hearing the sound of other children shrieking was bad, and as Joey listened he tried to imagine it came from children somewhere far away. When he did see them the distance apparent between what they could do and what he could not was too terrible. He would perch at the dark wood of the windowsill, holding himself upright and steady with one hand as he watched. Children in groups skipped ropes, chased balls, played tag. The teacher with recess duty wore a light jacket and an expression of endless weary patience. He or she sometimes called out across the tarmac, “Hey! That’s enough of that, Loreen!”

Unseen and unimportant, from the high window Joey observed when the teacher rushed to the aid of a fallen child or broke up a playground fight. He hated it. Watching reminded him that no one would ever need to run to prevent him from doing something he shouldn’t; watching only reminded him that he couldn’t run.

Joey moved to a table where he could sit with his back to the windows. Determinedly Joey closed his ears to the cries of his peers playing outside the walls and forever beyond his ken.

Eventually Joey made his way through all of the school magazines. He began to take the bus to the public library. After school Joey sat among the adult publications where he felt less excluded. Around him sat members of his home city’s increasing homeless population, noisily turning pages and keeping a careful eye on their oversized bags of belongings. There were a few students, or grown ups coming in to claim the copies of recent novels they had put on hold, and every so often a class of younger children arrived for reading hour. Otherwise though, Joey could feel like he was simply another library user, ageless and without handicaps.

This was when he discovered adult magazines with their endless advertisements for write-in contests, coupons to win prizes, and teasers to learn more about great deals. Joey flipped pages hunting for things to win, things to present to his parents. Joey wanted, Lou said thoughtfully, to present them with distractions from the nonrefundable item they’d brought home from the hospital: their youngest son and his damaged body.

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my post Hit & Run 1 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.

Death On A Wet Road Between Towns Without Names

Gabe was grateful that in all the years of his travels, no one had ever thought to inquire, “What’s the worst experience you ever had traveling? What’s the worst thing you ever witnessed?” The day he spent being witness outside of Krakow, Poland in the Auschwitz concentration camp was a terrible experience he never wanted to repeat. The atrocities humans committed against one another was beyond comprehension. And it wasn’t ancient history. It had happened in his parents’ lifetimes.

He could never understand the racism that had been involved. What could there possibly be in an identity or religion that would make someone want to wipe out an entire people? It was inconceivable to him, and he sent up a fervent thank you to whatever gods might be listening that this was so. No! There were some things he didn’t ever want to understand. Auschwitz broke his heart. Gabe cried his first adult tears sitting on a cold bench in front of an execution wall.

Sometimes for his month of travel he headed to the heat. He always had a loose theme to the four weeks, and one year it was ancient lost cultures. Mexico96_107He traveled through a region where jungle archaeologists were reclaiming entire cities from the undergrowth.

DS1_1297Gabe got up early and caught the local bus. He spent happy hours at the site, with satisfaction doing what he’d come to call connecting some of the dots. If the world were a large puzzle, a Pointillism painting, Gabe’s slow explorations gave him more of the pieces to the puzzle, more and more of the dots in which a picture was slowly emerging.

That day he made further connections in terms of ancient civilization, art history, and cultural contexts. Gabe was overly pleased with himself. He decided not to wait for the next bus to rumble past the ruins. DS1_1310Mexico96_119Ignoring the rain clouds threatening the skies, he began the long walk back to his hotel in town.

Twenty minutes later Gabe knew he’d miscalculated badly. The rain clouds blew lower and closer in no time. At the halfway point, the storm broke. Gabe would get soaked if he kept on the road and equally as drenched if he tried to turn back to the bus shelter at the entrance road to the ruins. He pulled his rain jacket (a marvel that rolled up upon itself into a small ball with a carrying band) out of his little daypack and went on trudging, shaking his head at his own foolish optimism.

Potholes filled first, creating wet craters. Gabe got closer to town and the traffic increased, the wheels of old cars and carts churning the rest of the street into ruts. In less than ten minutes the single dirt road turned to roiling mud. It rained even harder, hard drops that fell in steady, monotonous sheets. Gabe moved over closer to the shoulder away from the biggest vehicles. He had to share the edge of the muddy street with other people on foot, vendors pushing carts covered with folds of plastic cloths or sheets of cardboard, and bicycles and motorbikes.

The rest of the traffic converged in the center of the street, trying to find spots that hadn’t yet vanished into a river of wet earth. A motorbike with a family on the back passed Gabe. The father drove slowly, trying to keep the bike from tilting over into the stream. His wife sat behind him with her arms around and underneath the clear plastic rain poncho her husband wore; a small boy perched, balanced in the seat behind her. He was wedged between the woman and the sacks of potatoes and peppers lashed to the rear of the motorbike.

There was a blare of arguing horns and out of the storm a jeep appeared. Sheets of rain obscured the view. The jeep driver headed alarmingly fast down the direct center of the road, his horn louder as the jeep got closer. When it was near enough people could see it was a government vehicle, and everyone moved over to the sides of the road to let it by.

Before anyone could grasp the danger the jeep was upon them. The driver kept one hand pressed on the horn as people scrambled in the mud. Gabe watched in horror as the motorbike with the family hit a pothole. The father put out a frantic foot trying to brake, but it was too late. The motorbike went over on its side. His body disappeared under water and the jeep ran over his leg.

People screamed for the jeep to stop but it never even slowed down; the driver now had both hands jammed on the horn and his foot on the gas pedal. He continued determinedly on down through the river of mud. Gabe could reach out and touch the bumper as it rushed by, it was so close.

The jeep was swallowed up in the sheets of rain and only the victims and witnesses remained. The jeep hadn’t carried any license plates and even if he had seen one Gabe was kilometers away from a police station. Who was he going to report to? All he could do was try to help the man who’d been run over. At least it had only been his booted foot, and that had been down in the pothole; maybe the man wasn’t hurt too badly.

Gabe turned back to the sodden street as rain rushed down his face and over his rain slicker. Through the damp he saw the fallen figures. The blare of the jeep horn faded, and a human voice’s wail began to compete with the sound of the waters crashing from the opened skies. Other voices joined the first one.

The traffic swerved around the center where people had gathered in a loose circle. Gabe moved closer and the driver dragged himself away from the fallen motorcycle. The man was limping, but he was up on his feet.

The motorcycle was already half buried by mud washing up over and against the frame in fast moving spurts; the bags lashed to the back of the bike had broken open. Lumps that had to be potatoes lay in the stream, some of them slowly rolling away in the force of the moving rainwater.

But the pair ignored the tubers and didn’t try to gather them back up. They huddled over another one of the sacks in the road as they wailed. Gabe tried futilely to push the water from his eyes. He shook his head to clear it, and then he saw the injured man and his wife were sitting in the mud as they held the body of their son. He lay like a broken toy, like a rag doll, small limp limbs dangling from his parents’ cradling hands.

The circle of people standing around them gently lifted the couple and half carried, half walked them over to the useless safety of the field at the side of the road. Gabe bodily lifted the damaged motorbike and carried it out of the street. Determinedly everyone moved back in the river that had been a road and collected potatoes. They ignored the blares of cars trying to navigate around them. They picked up the last of potatoes and the burst sack and returned them to the hapless parents.

Gabe thought, Where’s the nearest hospital? His next thought was the sad realization that a local hospital was probably located next to the nearest police station: a hundred kilometers away in the next city. A clinic, he thought desperately. But the country had no money for health services, and only Bread for the World and Doctors without Borders had any kind of a presence in the region. Gabe couldn’t speak any of the local languages and he had no training in anything more than the most rudimentary medicine.

Despairing, knowing there was nothing more he could do to help, Gabe resumed the harder trudge back towards the center.

Alone back in his hotel room, he drank to get blind drunk. Whether his eyes were opened or closed he saw the broken doll body of the undernourished child, the grief on the faces of the child’s parents. Worst of all was realizing his own helplessness to do anything whatsoever. There was nothing he could have done that afternoon to change the outcome and nothing he could do now. Gabe cried, for the first time since the visit to Auschwitz years earlier. They were bitter tears that refused to stop coming. Gabe was as unable to halt them as he was to halt the rains still falling outside of his room in the shabby hotel.

No one ever asked him, What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? Gabe knew it was the rainy day, the motorbike with a family riding on the back. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? If asked he wouldn’t have answered, because he carried the pain of that memory too close to his heart. It stayed alive and refused to fade. The worst thing he ever witnessed remained dangerously in real time, on a wet road between towns without names. It created a place of secret despair and awareness that the world was not a place of entirely benevolent forces.

It became his most closely held secret. Despite the sad knowledge, or perhaps because of it, Gabe determined to live as if the opposite might be true. That experience was seminal, one that defined who he was as a human being, in the inner place where his heart really beat.DS1_1367

– from my short story “Waiting” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to my earlier post 2,000,000 Wrinkle-lipped Bats for more of Gabe’s travels.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Mexico and Cambodia, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Despair Is An Exotic Ingredient

Dragon fruit

Dragon fruit, Laos

In a post titled Punctured, we met Jeremy: he works in a food co-op and is bitten by a gigantic Thai centipede. Earlier Jeremy worked in a coolants factory that moved operations; repaired stereo turntables until CDs took over; and serviced video stores where the only genre patrons regularly rented was pornography. Then, with the advent of on-line downloads, those shops closed as well.

He’s tried to involve his wife in some aspect of each new venture. Now Jeremy’s at the co-op, and Abigail’s nervous…

Pomolo, Mekong Delta Vietnam

Pomolo, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Jeremy got a job at the market and the offerings for her continued education went from disks to baskets full of items Abigail couldn’t begin to identify. “Whole foods?” Abigail asked bewildered. “What, have I been cooking halves all this time?” Her culinary repertoire consisted of items like tuna surprise, or flank steak with teriyaki sauce.

Jackfruit, southern Goa, India

Jackfruit, Organic farm, Goa, India

Water buffalo, market Luang Prabang, Laos

Water buffalo, Luang Prabang, Laos

Mekong seaweed, Laos

Mekong seaweed, Laos

As Jeremy introduced new ingredients for her to cook, Abigail despaired. The experiment with pornography had wearied her in more than just her body. The effort to familiarize herself with her husband’s latest employment arena was too much. Abigail couldn’t even begin to cook with broccoli rape, celeriac, rose apples, or salsify

just looking up the latter food and realizing that it was a vegetable also known as oyster plant rendered it too foreign. If she didn’t know where to start with a real oyster, how in the world would she find her way around a dastardly, cleverly named root vegetable you had to wear rubber gloves to prepare?

Abby stood in her kitchen, lost. She resented feeling inadequate, but she felt guilty, too. Nothing says loving like something in the oven. Which part was true, she wondered. Love, for whom? Something in the oven, but what?

43200_V_10_24_13

Preserved eggs, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

IMG_3745

Chin lau, Bagan, Burma

Her husband had assaulted her senses one by one. First it was her sense of touch with the air conditioners. Sound had proved inadequate with the stereo shops. Her senses of sight, sound and touch were simultaneously overwhelmed by pornography. Currently the food store derided her sense of taste. Abigail wondered depressed what would be next for her sense of smell.

Abby leafed through the cookbook he bought her and sighed, looking without success for familiar ingredients. Miracle whip. Devils food cake. Cowboy beans and chili. A slice of American cheese on a burger. Jell-O with fruit cocktail. When she confessed this to Jeremy, he said, “I married a Betty Crocker cliché.”

He had been dismayed when she first cooked for him. After all those great meals in exotic countries of curries, tom yum gum soups, and completely fresh ingredients, Abby’s cooking was like going from Technicolor to a 50’s black and white film clip. She served fish sticks bearing little resemblance to the fish dishes of his recent memory.25200_V_10_18_34

Vietnam

Vietnam

All dishes prepared on boats in Halong Bay, Vietnam

“I made homemade tartar sauce!” she announced proudly.

Jeremy spooned out mayonnaise with pickles cut into it and smiled weakly.

The first time she tried to cook him Indian food Abigail choked almost to death because she had no idea that the whole spices all get taken out or pushed to one side, and are not eaten. Ditto with the hot chilies used for flavor.

Chillies, Hue, Vietnam

Chilies and mini limes, Hue, Vietnam

New ingredients were dangerous. For her, bourbon vanilla meant cheap cooking sherry. Cans of condensed soup were her friends.

Abby loved tuna surprise, and the most exotic dish she could cook was a quiche. “If life is a banquet,” she thought, “I must be cheese Doritos chips. I am flat cherry soda.”

– from my short story “Punctured” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to the post titled Punctured to read more about Jeremy.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

  • Salsify: also called scorzifora and ‘the poor man’s oyster’ (photo from Wikipedia)
  • Pomolo: gigantic relative of grapefruit, can grow to the size of a basketball
  • Dragon fruit: thick red rind is peeled away to reveal citrus fruit with pale flesh flecked with black seeds
  • Mekong seaweed: river weed harvested from Mekong River. Often fried in thin sheets with garlic or sesame seeds. In Luang Prabang, Laos, a specialty eaten with dipping sauce that includes pounded water buffalo skin as an ingredient
  • Chin lau: grows on bushes and tastes like lime