Coming Soon…

I started to post a short story from the archives tonight…

But as I pored over the tale, carefully checking every word, I decided to give it another day or two.

This was the first short that I wrote after I got married, when the paradigm difference between Male and Female first smacked me upside my rock-hard head. That was when I first learned what it meant to truly love another person despite the fact that she didn’t make a LICK of sense to me! (Note to the ladies: That concept works both ways…)

I composed that short by framing my befuddled marital musings within the literary genre that I love best: Horror. Monsters fascinate us because – in an exaggerated form – we inevitably see ourselves buried within their angst-ridden stories.

‘Renewing Forever’ is the working title.

You’ll get the story when it’s polished and ready…

And not a moment before then!

Sam: A Tale

(Author’s note: Some of the original ‘test readers’ of this short bemoaned the misogynous ramblings of its protagonist. Yes, the protagonist is a disturbed individual, and he invites you to share in his twisted worldview. That doesn’t mean I endorse said worldview; rather, I am simply acknowledging that we live in a world that is not always ‘sunshine n’ rainbows’. And above all else, I’m trying to creep you out. Stephen King gets paid the big bucks for doing that, right?)

I fought my restraints, wincing with pain…

I’d mustered far more strength the day before!

My right arm was free; why could I not rip my bonds away? Wasn’t duct tape meant to simply be torn apart?

Not this much duct tape, apparently…

I eyed the pile of empty cardboard spools scattered in a corner of my basement, wondering how long my current situation had taken to plan.  Days? Weeks? Or had all this simply been a matter of impulse, born of a random trip to the hardware store?

Would I ever know?

I eyed my wrist, shaking terribly as my vision went blurry; I needed a drink, and sooner rather than later.  Knowing that I was a mere floor away from my liquor cabinet was driving me slowly insane.

So was the thirst.  And the hunger.  And the stifling, maddening sense of growing claustrophobia; I felt like a fly wrapped a spider’s web.  I held my wrist before my face, sweating bullets as the colors in the room grew brighter, more surreal…

I could eat, if only I possessed the courage; my own arm was within easy reach of my hungry mouth.  My flesh was firm, meaty, strengthened by years of manual labor; it could ease my hunger, and my blood could slake my own thirst. 

But could I withstand the pain?

My stomach lurched with gnawing hunger as my temples throbbed in agony.  I didn’t have a drink available, at least not one with alcohol in it.  But I could feed, if I so dared, and I could also whet the dryness of my parched throat.

Closing my eyes, I buried my eyeteeth into my shaking wrist…

“For the love of Pete,” I snarled, “will you just SHUT UP already?!”

My wife dodged the beer bottle that I flung at her, her green eyes full of fear. 

I didn’t really mean to hit her, mind you; I just didn’t like her nagging me during a football game, you know? And I mean American football, not that lame soccer crap that my wife watches on our ‘telly’ when I’m not around. 

Molly’s a ‘good girl’ and all that, but her favorite sport just bores me to tears.

I think that’s where our marriage stumbles a bit.  Molly’s Irish; she’s got the red hair, freckles, and flat chest to prove it.  So she’s accustomed to useless men, shiftless clowns who spend years on end being ‘laid off’.

She’s not used to a hard-working guy like me; she’s not used to someone who’s earned the right not to be bossed around.

So she tries bossing me around…

And I ain’t having it.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” whimpered Molly, picking the dripping beer bottle up from the carpet.  “I was just reminding you to pay the garbage bill, ‘cos you forgot last month and they stopped service.”

I handle the bills around here!” I snapped.  “You can’t balance a checkbook to save your life, and you know it! So lemme alone already, wouldja?”

“O… Okay,” stammered Molly.  “Would you like another beer?”

Duh!” I snapped, settling into my recliner. 

Molly brought me another beer, already opened; I took a gulp as she disappeared back into the kitchen, watching eagerly as the Redskins and Panthers re-formed their starting lines.

The game was a complete blowout; the score wasn’t even close.  I lost interest well before the end, so I turned off the TV and opened a novel.

I must have dozed off in my chair; I awoke abruptly around midnight, yawning.  I felt little sheepish as I stretched myself awake; I had to work the next morning, and I was still half-drunk. 

I climbed groggily out of my chair, hoping that Molly was in bed; if she wasn’t, she’d grill me like a drill sergeant.  Did I have clean clothes for tomorrow? Did I remember to set my alarm? Did I need my jacket laid out? Did I check the weather for tomorrow…?

The woman treated me like a kindergartner! Her Irish brogue, once so soothing to me, had become nails on a blackboard.  All I ever wanted her to do, these days, was to shut her pretty mouth…

Unfortunately, that wasn’t gonna happen.

I sighed as I opened the bedroom door.  Molly was lying asleep, half-covered by a blanket. 

I tried climbing quietly into bed beside her…

“Did you set your alarm?” asked Molly, her Irish lilt piercing the darkness.  “And lay out your clothes?”

“Will you quit treating me like a kid?” I snarled.  “Lay off already!”

“I’m sorry,” said Molly humbly.  “I just want you to be rested and ready for work.”

“I learned how to get myself off to work well before I met you!” I yelled.  “So shut up already!!!”

“I’m sorry…” whined Molly.

“I know you are…” I said, flopping into bed and leaning over her.  “Are you willing to show me how sorry you are?”

Molly gave me a hesitant kiss…

I didn’t climb out of bed until I was completely finished with her, and I threw her discarded underwear back onto the bed. 

“You wanna beer?” I asked. 

“You know I don’t drink…” said Molly, staring at the ceiling with a blank expression.

“Some Irish girl you are,” I said sarcastically. “Water it is, then”.

I stumbled down the hallway, and clicked on the kitchen light.

Molly was standing at the sink…

I looked back down the hallway; hadn’t I just left her in the bedroom?

Then I looked back at her.

Molly?” I whispered.

She turned to face me, her eyes jaunty, saucy even. 

“Yes, love?” Molly giggled playfully.

“Were… weren’t you just in the bedroom?”

“Maybe,” she winked, giving her rear end a flirty shake.  “I’m allowed to climb out of me own bed, right?”

“Y… Yeah…” I stammered, pulling a beer and a bottled water from the fridge.  “I just… I didn’t see you come in here.”

“Probably ‘cuz you drank too much!” laughed Molly.

I backed slowly away from her, and walked down the hallway.  Molly didn’t follow me; she just stayed in the kitchen, humming to herself as she washed the dishes.

I clicked on the bedroom light…

Molly was lying in bed; she squinted as I turned on the light. 

“Did you get me a water?” she asked sleepily.

“Were you just in the kitchen?” I demanded.

“What?” yawned Molly.  “No, I’ve been here in bed.  Why?”

“I JUST SAW YOU IN THE KITCHEN!!!” I roared, my hair standing up the back of my neck. 

“I wasn’t IN the kitchen!!!” wailed Molly.  “I swear!”

“Quit yelling at me!” I warned.  “I ain’t having that!”

“I’m sorry…” said Molly contritely, looking at the wall.  “Just lay back down with me, huh?”

Shaking like a leaf, I climbed into bed as Molly took her water from my shaking hands.

My mind was racing as I took a gulp of my beer.  Had I blacked out? Drank so much that I’d forgotten some interaction, a passing-by of my wife in the hallway?

Sleep… came hard that night.

Three days later…

I motioned the tow truck into my driveway, guiding the driver backwards as he dropped off my Chevy Lumina. 

As I paid the driver, Molly came outside. 

“What’s goin’ on?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said dismissively.  “Get back inside.”

“But…”

“Shut up, and get back inside!” I ordered.

The tow truck driver gave me a funny look as Molly obeyed my command, but he wrote out his receipt without commentary.

I stormed into the kitchen as the driver pulled away, rudely interrupting Molly’s dinner preparations. 

“What were you doing out there?!” I demanded. 

“I just… I just wanted to know what was goin’ on,” said Molly, adjusting her apron as she looked down at the floor.

“You were questioning me in front of other people?!” I raged.  “Really?”

“Well, me father was a mechanic!” said Molly, showing a rare spark of spunk.  “And I told you the alternator was goin’ out! If you’d fixed it when I’d first mentioned it, you’d have saved us a towin’ bill!”

“What did you say?” I whispered dangerously.

“I… I…” stammered Molly, “you just mighta listened to me, is all…”

“Listen to THIS!!!” I snapped.

I slapped Molly across the side of her pretty face, as hard as I could. 

She fell onto the floor, looking up at me with terror-stricken green eyes…

(I would NEVER hit my wife with a closed fist, you know? That’s only something a guy does to other men.  But sometimes, a woman’s just gotta be put in her place; sometimes, a man’s just gotta show her who’s the boss.  You fellas know what I’m talking about, right?)

Molly rose from the floor, holding her reddening cheek. 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, looking at the floor.  “I’ll let you handle the car issues from now on.  I… I deserved that.”

“Yeah,” I said coldly.  “You did.”

I turned, and walked out to the garage. 

I’d hoped that replacing the alternator would be an easy fix, like it was on my old Impala: Remove two bolts, add the new part, and re-adjust the belt.  I was praying that the repair wouldn’t be as hard as it was on my wife’s long-scrapped Nissan: Un-bolt the entire engine, dismantle the exhaust manifold, and then replace the part…

I lifted the hood of our old Chevy, expecting the worst…

I was distracted by a giggle, coming from a corner of the garage.

I lowered the hood, looking toward the garage door…

Molly was standing in front of it.

“What the hell?” I demanded.  “Weren’t you just in the kitchen? How did you get out here?!”

“What?” smiled Molly, her cheeks glowing as though I’d never hit her.  “I’m not allowed inside the garage?”

“No, you’re fine…” I said, gulping.  “I just didn’t see you come out here, is all.”

“Well,” laughed Molly, “I’ll file a flight plan next time I change rooms! Is spaghetti okay for dinner?”

“Yes…” I said, backing away as Molly walked towards me.

“And would you…” asked Molly, shaking her hips seductively, “like to have a good time with me after dinner?”

“Y… Yes…” I stammered.

“Good!” laughed Molly.  “I’ll see you soon.  Dinner in ten minutes!”

I watched, unnerved, as Molly un-tied her apron and dropped it onto the garage floor.  She hummed an eerie tune as she left the garage, leaving me alone with my uneasy thoughts.

It took all of my will to walk back inside…

Molly was scooping spaghetti onto our plates as I took a seat at the table.  She wore her apron yet, and was chatting away as though I hadn’t just given her a well-earned slap.

Something wasn’t sitting well; something was off.  Molly was acting far too chipper for the occasion…

I needed a momentary escape.

I excused myself from the table, giving Molly a lame excuse about having forgotten to lock the garage door.

My blood ran cold as I entered the garage; I saw Molly’s discarded apron lying on the floor.  Hadn’t she tossed it carelessly away, before heading back to the kitchen?

And yet she’d been wearing the exact same apron when I’d entered the kitchen.  Had my alcoholism finally gotten out of control, I wondered? Were my memories getting all mixed up? Was I suffering from ‘delirium tremens’?

I was careful to avoid touching Molly as I stumbled into bed that night.  My habit was usually to read for a while before trying to sleep, but tonight I was just too drunk.

“Did you set your alarm?” yawned Molly.  “You gotta go in early tomorrow, you know.”

Piss off!” I snarled.

I lay there for a moment, thinking about how unnerved I was…

“I’m sorry,” I murmured contritely.

I woke up in the middle of the night…

After the day I’d had, I would like to say that I’d enjoyed some illuminating dream, or at least a memorable nightmare of some kind. 

But I hadn’t…

I just had to pee.

I stumbled down the hallway, annoyed by the lack of light.  (And also by the knowledge that I’d never find the hallway light switch in the darkness…)

I fell into the bathroom, finding the switch despite my assumption that I wouldn’t.

I moaned as I relieved myself, grateful that I’d awakened before soiling the bed.  (Over-consumption had oft been responsible for the ruination of my sleeping place!) I was so wobbly that my aim was off; I sprayed a few drops into the basket of magazines next to the toilet.

I pulled my boxer shorts back up at last, and turned off the bathroom light before heading back to the bedroom.

The kitchen light was on…

I approached the room warily, blinking as I stepped into the garish glow. 

Molly was standing at the sink, washing the dishes; she turned to face me, smiling as though she hadn’t a care in the world.  Her eyes weren’t blacked anymore; they looked as though my after-dinner discipline had never even happened.

Molly was wearing an attractive pair of printed bikini panties.  (That was strange; I seemed to recall that she’d gone to bed wearing her favorite frumpy pajamas.) Her hair was also stylishly bobbed… but I remembered dully that Molly always wore her fiery hair down to her tiny waist.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” I shouted.

Molly smiled wickedly, shaking the red curls away from her porcelain face.  “Whatever do you mean?” she asked innocently.

“Did you suddenly learn to walk through walls?” I whispered, unnerved.  “Cut your hair in seconds? Who are you, woman?”

“You… you’re scaring me!” whimpered Molly, wide-eyed.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

I was about to relent, about to back off.  I mean, my words were crazy, right? I was about to shrug off my irrational fears, and walk away…

And then I heard a loud snore coming from the bedroom. 

Molly stared at me, wide-eyed, as more snores continued to drift down the hallway.  I could feel my heart pounding in my chest now; my temples were throbbing, and I was shaking with sudden terror.

“Who…” I whispered, trying to sound assertive, “ARE you? And why do you look like my Molly?”

 “Oh!” laughed the now un-masked un-Molly.  “You’re sooooo…”

My guess is that she was about to say ‘paranoid’, but I never gave her the chance; I threw my arm around the back of her neck, and wrapped her hair around my fist.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” wailed Molly.

“Shut up!!!” I growled, slapping her.

She flailed against my assault, but alas… men are simply bigger and stronger than women, which is why I always availed myself the luxury of dismissing the complaints of the Feminist Movement.  I dragged Molly down the hallway by her hair, ignoring her screams of protest as I fumbled for the bedroom light.

I flipped the light switch up, and threw my wife onto the bed.

Panty-clad, bobbed-hair Molly rose slowly to her knees… only to face the pajama-clad, long-haired Molly.

“What…” I grated, “is going on here? Do you two know each other?!”

My wife and her doppelganger stared each other in their identical green eyes, each unsure as to how to answer…

“WELL?!” I shouted.

“I… I don’t know!!!” whimpered pajama-clad Molly.

“What’s your NAME?!” I demanded, giving the panty-clad Molly’s hair a cruel yank. 

“SAM!!!” cried the panty-clad Molly.  “My… my name is Sam.”

“What the hell kinda name is that?” I demanded.  “Is it short for ‘Samantha’?”

“Something like that…” smiled the panty-clad Molly, with eerie calmness.  “Sure, Samantha.”

Please stop!” moaned pajama-clad Molly.

“Oh, quit whining!!!” sneered the panty-clad Molly witheringly.  “You’re such a spineless wimp!!! Seriously, stand up to him already!”

“What did you say?” I whispered, raising my hand.

“You heard me…” replied Sam coolly, as Molly stepped around me.

“Yeah, well,” I snarled, “I’M gonna…”

The ‘kick your ass’ never escaped my lips; my intended threat suffered an interjection from a blow, delivered decisively against the back of my head. 

They left me a notebook.  Or she left me a notebook.  Or maybe no one did, and I’ve just lost my ability to keep my thoughts and memories straight.

I also had a pen, and a free right arm.  (The rest of my body was wrapped in too much duct tape for my right arm to tear away.)

I was always too avid a reader to shy away from the chance to actually write something now.  Was this Molly’s revenge? Enticing to me to author a memoir at which she could laugh for the rest of her life?

I can barely read my words now, I wrote.  My hand is shaking too badly, and my blood is obscuring the pages.  I’m also out of my mind with hunger, which makes my thoughts even loonier. 

I tried to keep my grip on reality; Sam was a hallucination, nothing more, and Molly attacked me out of mere panic…

I turned the notebook page dully, doubting that I could write much longer…

Something slipped from between the leaves, a piece of yellowed paper.

It was a page, I realized dully, torn from the Gaelic-English dictionary that Molly had given to me as a wedding gift.  She’d hoped that I would learn her native Irish tongue (which of course I never did). 

I could barely read the page, but one thing stood out.  A single word was highlighted: Samhnach.

I had to blink a couple of times before I could read the attached definition, and its very simplicity chilled me to the bone…

Anger.

What had that fiery-headed phantasm said? What evil words had my Molly’s hellish doppelganger spoken?

My name is Sam…

God DAMN it all!

What the hell kinda name is that?’ I’d demanded, like a complete oaf.  ‘Is it short for ‘Samantha’?

I will perish haunted by the defiant expression in Angry Samhnach’s eyes, an expression that reflected all the years of suppressed rage that had conjured her to unholy life…

What the hell kinda name is that? Is it short for ‘Samantha’?

How Samhnach must have laughed inside as she answered my question!

Something like that… 

Regarding Dungeons & Dragons…

I eye the cave opening calmly, half-expecting that my heart might start pounding…

But it won’t start pounding, my heart, and it never will. I died decades ago, and I am grateful that my companions waited for nightfall before sallying forth. They need me, as do I them; I am their leader. The Undead make for rather unnerving leaders, to be sure, but on positive side of things…

We don’t go down easily. Men such as I have already survived death; everything else is just a trifle.

One of my fellow adventurers falls into step behind me, visibly trembling. “My lord?” he ventures. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“I am,” I reply calmly, “but only because you three are with me.” I smile, motioning to the heavily-armed Dwarf and Elf archer also following my lead. “And if not for you, my shifty brother-in-arms, the locks would not be picked and the traps would never be sprung. I would never face the Under-Dark without you, my dear friend.”

The mewling thief obviously draws courage from my words. “Let’s DO this, then!” he cries, raising his dagger aloft.

Even I am afraid as we enter the cave, knowing what we face. Before us lie the endless caverns of the Under-Dark – home to the Mind Flayers, and the fanatical warriors who serve the Dark Goddess Lolth. Our quest will be marked with violence, blood, and perhaps even death…

But before we enter, I need more Doritos. And Surge, LOTS of Surge to drink! I mean, hell, we’ve been at this quest for twelve hours already…

Ah, Dungeons and Dragons. The most demonized game of the nineteen-eighties, constantly railed against by legions of hysterical mothers. A game scorned by jocks and cheerleaders as a pastime for ‘nerds’, the favorite hobby of social misfits the world over.

It changed my life.

As someone once pointed out, how to play D&D is difficult to explain but remarkably easy to demonstrate. The iconic fantasy role-playing game is one-third game play, one-third acting, and one-third storytelling. With the simple purchase of the Players Handbook and the Monster Manual, endless numbers of table-top adventurers can imagine their way through endless numbers of breathtaking adventures.

My preferred role was always that of Dungeon Master.

From my throne behind the DM screen, I was ever tasked with the sacred responsibility of creating entire worlds; I was the puppet master for countless monsters and non-player characters. Over time, I learned to read the responses of my players, to ‘bounce off’ of their actions, using their shared input to make my imagined worlds increasingly more vivid.

Some would say that’s a waste of time, but I never saw it that way.

There is a camaraderie shared among role-players that non-players simply do not understand, and never will. Only players can sit down together at McDonald’s and say something like ‘You remember that time you tried to club that red dragon over the head? Didn’t like that, did he? You’re lucky that your stolen armor saved you from his fire breath, so he only bit off your leg. By the way, Stumpy… can you pass the salt? Thanks.”

Role-players bond through collectively exploring a uniquely human vulnerability: Imagination. It takes closeness to engage in a shared fantasy. Only true friends can do it, and every stranger who joins in quickly becomes a friend. There is something cathartic about diving into a group tale with one’s comrades, and thus by delving into fantasy reality becomes easier to bear.

Outsiders see role-players as social misfits, but honestly? I was always of the opposite opinion.

The current world sees organized sports as the premiere way of nurturing ‘social interaction’. But sports can only ever teach conformity, and meek submission to a group mentality. Sports teach people to give unquestioned obedience, to blindly follow the crowd while ignoring their own individual creativity. Sports create sheep, nothing more and nothing less.

Role-playing games, however, teach the same thing that music and theater programs always have: How to engage in a collective enterprise while still maintaining one’s own identity and creative focus. Role-playing games encourage cooperation without ever scrapping the notion of fierce individualism, of devotion to one’s own ideals and preferences.

Within this context, I developed several strengths that serve me well to this day.

The first was my ability as a writer. I would eventually go on from role-playing to publishing novels and composing sermons.  The second was my ability as a speaker; not only could I compose sermons, I could deliver them in an engaging fashion. The third was my ability as a teacher, particularly in a religious setting. I can read the people in my Bible class like an open book, and both prod them into speaking while also learning from them… all in real time. There’s no need for me to hide behind FaceBook comments; I know how to actively spur group discussions on a face-to face level. (Side note: One of the creators of D&D was a Christian as well. Faith is faith and fantasy is fantasy, but a wise man knows how to learn from one in order to influence the other.)

It is extremely gratifying to me that D&D remains alive and well to this day. While I have enjoyed other games such as Hackmaster and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, D&D will forever remain the standard-bearer. When Magic: The Gathering debuted in my teens, I was afraid that it would overshadow and end the reign of D&D. But alas, such has not happened. Card-based games are fun (Munchkin is a favorite of mine), but they lack the drama and the raw originality of book-based gaming.

Dungeons and Dragons was a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky when my friends Eric, Rocky, and Danny first taught me how to play. You know what? D&D is still a lightning bolt to me. We’ve all moved on from the Second Edition, to the Third Edition, and then on from there. The rules have made adjustments over the years, writers and artists have changed, and the books have become more expensive. The dice have become fancier and more varied in appearance. Movies based on the game have been produced and screened, and the D&D mythos originally inspired by Tolkien went on to inspire George R. R. Martin. (At least, I think it did. You’ll have to ask Martin to be sure.)

But at the end of the day? For all its changes and accomplishments, Dungeons and Dragons remains what it has always been: A means for friends to gather around a table for the purpose of sharing a common tale, a tale in which EVERYONE has a voice and a part to play. Perhaps the memories those stories create might be artificial in nature…

Or perhaps they are even more real than the dreary, humdrum ‘lives’ that we live…

And that’s why we keep coming back to the table, again and again.

The Day Punkin Blew Up the Devil: A Tale

‘When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty…’ – Thomas Jefferson

Most North Carolinians would simply have described this day as ‘really, really hot’.

But Gerald liked to read… a lot, and thus he was more articulate than someone who would merely have described this day as ‘hot’.

Gerald would have instead said, ‘today is sultry’. ‘Hot’ didn’t quite describe today’s stifling humidity, or the languid torpor that seemed to drain a body of any trace of vitality. ‘Hot’ didn’t quite do justice to…

Well, today.

Gerald hung his head miserably, wiping a tear from his chubby cheek. Today was Saturday; normally he’d be sitting on his bed, hiding from the sun in his trailer home and reading comic books…

But he wasn’t.

He wasn’t because today, on this sultry, miserable afternoon, old Pappy was being laid to rest.

Gerald closed his eyes, listening to the preacher droning on and on. It didn’t seem right, thought Gerald, that this minister was giving Pappy’s eulogy; it would have seemed more fitting for one of Pappy’s dear friends to have given it.

Pappy hardly even knew this minister, after all, although he would occasionally have a few of the church deacons over. ‘A bit of religion never hurt nobody, boy,” he used to tell Gerald, usually while taking an unhealthy slug from his moonshine crock. “A man’s gotta remember the Almighty once in a while, don’t he? Don’t seem right to go through life without rememberin’ your Maker ever’ now and again.”

Gerald smiled a little as he felt a gentle hand taking his own. At his right stood Kylie McGuinness, his dearest friend in the world. Kylie was pretty, with her sky-blue eyes and blonde ringlets, and popular; she was the polar opposite of chubby, sallow, scorned Gerald.

Pappy wasn’t any relation to Gerald; for all Gerald knew, he wasn’t any relation to anyone.  He was just a nice old man who loved to sit on his front porch, waiting for someone to walk by and chat with him. His ramshackle old house sat smack in the middle of Watsonville; the town had tried to condemn it many times, but the old man had always managed to beat the system. And it was a good thing that he did, too, because Pappy had more than ‘a touch’ of agoraphobia. He never left his wreck of a house, and always bribed local boys to deliver his groceries for him. As for his moonshine and pipe tobacco, well… his local ‘shine’ supplier was more than happy to make house calls, since Pappy was his best customer.

Gerald loved old Pappy…

Gerald’s parents were no kind of parents at all, neither his shrewish, chain-smoking mother nor his beer-swilling, loud-mouthed father. His home life was well-nigh unbearable, but whenever home became too much to bear…

Pappy was always there.

Pappy listened to Gerald; he was kind to Gerald. He always shared his half-burnt meals, and his door was always open. There was something in Gerald that desperately needed a Father Figure, and there was obviously something inside of Pappy that yearned to feel needed, to be seen as something other than a cast-off, dismissible old man.

Death had shattered that bond now; a part of Gerald wanted fiercely to regret that he, at the tender age of ten, had chosen an octogenarian as his mentor…

But he couldn’t; Pappy had meant too much to him.

Gerald watched with blurred vision as Pappy’s casket was lowered into the ground. The town, in the absence of a will, had claimed his house. While the house had been condemned, the property had turned out to be quite valuable; thus, money had been set aside for a decent burial.

Gerald was grateful for that.

Pappy had no actual relatives here, at least as far as Gerald could tell. Had Pappy always been alone? Or had he just outlived his entire family?

Somehow, that didn’t seem to matter. Nearly the whole town was here, all of the friends and neighbors that lovable old Pappy had mingled with throughout the long years that had been his life. He may not have had any living family, but he had a wealth of friends.

The crowd dispersed at last, eager to flee the punishing heat as the gravediggers moved in on the plot. Soon the cemetery employees would back-fill the yawning hole in the ground; soon, Pappy would become one with the earth.

“Young Man?”

Gerald turned, letting go of Kylie’s sweating hand. “Yes, Sir?” he said politely.

The minister knelt before Gerald. (Gerald noticed absently that his hair gel was melting.)

“Pappy left this for you,” said the minister, handing Gerald a small envelope. “It was found on his mantle, next to a note saying to give it to you in the event of his passing.”

Gerald looked away, pushing his glasses up as his eyes flooded anew with tears.

“Son…?”

“Thank you,” murmured Gerald, as Kylie took his hand once more. “Ever so much.”

“You’re welcome, Son,” said the minister, rising and patting Gerald awkwardly on his chubby shoulder. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“What is it?” asked Kylie curiously, swishing her black skirt to fan herself as the minister walked away.

“I don’t know,” said Gerald, opening the envelope.

Whatever was in the envelope would be priceless, this Gerald instinctively knew.

Inside was a plain white card, folded in half.

Gerald opened it with bated breath. Only two words were written inside, in Pappy’s shaky scrawl…

Remember Punkin, it read.

“What does that mean?” asked Kylie, raising a pretty eyebrow.

Gerald suppressed a sob, and lovingly folded up the card.

“It’s a long story…” he quavered.

“My dad’s been belly-aching all morning,” Gerald said sourly, taking a bite of something that was very badly burnt. (Pappy claimed that it was meatloaf, but Gerald was a bit skeptical of the description.) “He didn’t vote for the new mayor, so since his guy lost now the whole town’s gonna fall apart.”

“Well, some men don’t know how to just let be,” said Pappy wisely, chasing his bite of ‘meatloaf’ with a slug from his ever-present moonshine jar.

“I suppose,” said Gerald, drowning his next bite underneath a flood of cheap ketchup (in the hopes that his meal would taste less like used charcoal). “I mean, it’s just the mayor.”

“Did I ever tell you about Watsonville’s first mayor?” said Pappy, taking another bite without bothering with any condiment except liquor.

“You remember the first mayor?!” said Gerald, choking as he swallowed his charred excuse for meatloaf.

“Shore, boy,” said Pappy, taking another slug as he swatted a fly that didn’t seem bothered by the deplorable quality of the food. “When I were born, Watsonville was run by the town council. It weren’t until the railroad came through that we decided we needed a mayor.”

“Who was he?”

“Well…” said Pappy, “he were a strange sort of fella, came from up north. He was short, with spindly little arms and legs, and a fat belly. He kinda looked like a spider. He had these thick glasses that made him look like an owl, too. He had this mustache that stuck way out from his head, and he had a grin like a shark.”

“He sounds kind of weird,” said Gerald.

“He always wore this suit with patched elbows, and tails on the jacket. He always wore this old beat-up top hat, too. Sure, boy… he was kinda weird.”

“So did he have to run for the mayor’s office? You know, like win an election and all?”

“Well, sure. But everyone knew he’d win,” said Pappy, pushing his travesty of a meal aside and reaching for his pipe. “He could talk the bark right off a tree, that fella. Smooth as a baby’s ass, his talkin’ was. Bunyip was his name, and the local children started calling him Uncle Bunyip.”

“That sounds downright ridiculous!” laughed Gerald, following Pappy’s lead and pushing his plate aside. “What kind of name is ‘Bunyip’?”

“Well, his name didn’t sound so ‘ridiculous’ when he won his election by a landslide,” said Pappy, lighting his pipe with a match. “Everybody was happy for the new mayor, except this one young fella.”

“And who was that?” asked Gerald curiously.

“There was this one boy,” said Pappy, blowing out a puff of smoke. “I never knew his name, but everybody called him Punkin.”

“Pumpkin?” said Gerald.

“Yep,” said Pappy. “He were an orphan, but he lived in his Daddy’s old house just outside of town. He musta been about thirteen; he got by doin’ farm labor.”

“They just let him live all alone?” said Gerald. “Being just a kid, and all?”

“Times was different back then, I reckon,” said Pappy, taking a long draw from his pipe. “People was just kinda used to letting well enough alone, you know? So yep, Punkin lived all by hisself.”

“So why didn’t Pumpkin like the mayor?” asked Gerald.

“He said the mayor was a bad man,” said Pappy. “Said he saw him creepin’ around houses, making nice with the ladies when their husbands weren’t home. He said that he saw the Yankees who ran the railroad meeting with Uncle Bunyip out in the woods, where no one could see. He said ol’ Bunyip was selling out our town to outsiders, just to line his own pockets.”

“Was all that true?” asked Gerald.

“I dunno,” shrugged Pappy. “But Punkin believed it, and he made so much ruckus that Uncle Bunyip had to give a speech to explain hisself. Oh, he was in fine form, ol’ Bunyip. He talked all nice and smooth, and did this little jig with his tiny feet as he waved his arms about… It was really something to see.”

“And then what happened?”

“I’ll never forget that night,” said Pappy soberly, blowing another cloud of smoke. “I remember Punkin. He was this skinny red-headed kid, and he always wore this old pair of worn-out denim overalls. He was freckly, and he always had this dirty coon-skin hat that he wore, summer and winter both. Well, when Uncle Bunyip finished his speech, Punkin stepped toward the front of the crowd, all by hisself. Everybody took a step back, waiting for him to speak. Punkin was all alone, the one fella who had the balls to say what no one else would.”

“And what did he say?” asked Gerald, waving the wafting pipe smoke away from his face.

“He pointed straight at Uncle Bunyip, and I’ll never forget his face. He was angry, for shore, but he was also brave. He was gonna say what he was gonna say, and he didn’t care if he had to say it all by hisself or not.”

“But what did he say?!” pressed Gerald.

“He pointed right at ol’ Bunyip,” said Pappy, “and he said this: YOU’RE THE DEVIL!!! I SEEN YOU, AND YOU AIN’T FOOLIN’ ANYONE!!!”

“And what happened then?” asked Gerald.

“Everyone laughed at Punkin,” said Pappy. “Even me. I didn’t know why I was laughin’, mind you. I guess I just figured that everyone else was laughin’, so I should too. I’ve always been ashamed of myself for that night.”

“Why?” asked Gerald.

“’Cuz Punkin was brave, and I wasn’t,” said Pappy. “’Cuz Punkin believed in something, and I just went along with the crowd.”

“But what if Punkin was wrong?” asked Gerald. “About Uncle Bunyip being the Devil?”

“That’s what I told myself,” said Pappy, swatting away a fly. “But that was before Bunyip shut down the church.”

“What?” asked Gerald. “He shut down the church? How do you even do that?”

“He got the town council to pass a motion,” said Pappy. “He said with the railroad coming through, our town was gonna become more ‘diverse’. Hell, boy, most of us had to look that word up in the dictionary. He said a big church might offend Jews, or Muslims, or people who weren’t religious at all. So he said we should shut down the big church, and let Christian folk just meet in houses like they did in the old days. He said that would be best for the town, and he scheduled a big speech on a Saturday afternoon to explain hisself.”

“So were you at his speech?” asked Gerald.

“I was,” said Pappy. “But before I went, I finally found some sand in myself. I went to Punkin the night before, in his shack out in the swamp.”

“What did you tell him?” asked Gerald.

“I said he should skip town,” said Pappy. “I told him that folks were talking, and the word ‘lynch’ was coming up more and more often. Remember, son, this was over seventy years ago… Watsonville still had an active Ku Klux Klan chapter back then. Uncle Bunyip used to talk trash about the Klan being ‘lawless’ and all, but that’s another thing Punkin said… He swore he saw Bunyip and the Grand Wizard meeting in the woods. He said Uncle Bunyip was even makin’ backdoor deals with the same folks he said he hated.”

“Wow…” said Gerald.

“Punkin gave me the saddest look you ever seen when I warned him,” said Pappy. “But he agreed that he should leave town. Said he had one more thing to do first, though.”

“What was that?” asked Gerald.

“Well, I wouldn’t find out until the next day…” said Pappy.

“What happened the next day?” pressed Gerald, pushing his glasses up his chubby nose.

“Well, Uncle Bunyip showed up in front of the whole town to give his speech, explaining why he shut down the church. I seen me some fellas I knew were in the Klan, waiting for Punkin to show up again…”

“And did Pumpkin show up?” asked Gerald.

“Yer damn right he did, boy!” said Pappy, taking a draw from his pipe. “Ol’ Bunyip started his speech, doin’ his little jig…”

“And…?” said Gerald.

“And Punkin walked right through the crowd, holding a whisky bottle. Er’body knew Punkin’s late daddy was a drunk, so he had plenty of bottles layin’ around. And Punkin loved to hunt, with the old black-powder rifle his daddy left him…”

“So?” prodded Gerald.

“So Punkin walked towards Uncle Bunyip, as cool as a cucumber. He was holding a bottle filled with black powder, and a lit toilet-paper wick burning through the neck. I was there.  I seen him, boy; that kid had murder in his eyes!”

“So what happened?” asked Gerald breathlessly.

“Uncle Bunyip tried to sweet-talk Punkin, but Punkin weren’t having it… so as the Klan boys moved in to protect the mayor, Punkin hauled off n’ chucked that bottle!”

“What happened then?!” asked Gerald, moving away from the edge of the porch. It had begun raining heavily, and quite suddenly; southern thunderstorms worked that way, and both Gerald and Pappy were quite used to them.

“Well…” said Pappy, chasing a draw from his pipe with a gulp of moonshine, “Punkin’s bomb went off, boy-howdy!”

“Did he kill the mayor?” whispered Gerald.

“Boy, I’ma tell you something I ain’t never told anyone!” said Pappy firmly. “But this here’s the damn gospel truth. I done seen it with my own two eyes, and I ain’t ever gonna forget it!”

“So what happened?”

“Punkin done blew up Uncle Bunyip, sure as shit!” said Pappy. “His black-powder bomb went off right in his damn face, and no man coulda survived that! Even the Klan boys took a step back…”

“So he killed the mayor, then?”

“No…” said Pappy, shaking the ashes from his pipe onto his plate. “Boy, I ain’t ever told anyone this. But I’ma tell you, on account of I love you more’n Life Itself.”

“So what happened?!” demanded Gerald, anticipating the end of yet another one of Pappy’s tall tales.

“There were an explosion, and a big cloud of smoke,” said Pappy. “We expected to see pieces of Uncle Bunyip scattered all over the town square…”

“So did Punkin kill the mayor?”

“Yes… and no,” said Pappy, taking another drink. “The smoke started to clear, and the townsfolk waited until it did…”

“And what happened to the mayor?!”

“There weren’t no mayor,” said Pappy grimly. “A man rose from the smoke, a tall, strong man. He was standing just where our skinny-ass mayor had been standing. He used to be the mayor, that man… but he weren’t the mayor no more!”

“Who was he?”

“He was tall, that fella,” said Pappy. “He was dressed all in black, and he had this handsome face, a face any girl would love. He had long, black, curly hair, too… but what I’ll remember ‘til I die were his eyes!!! Yellow, they were, and evil as all hell!

“So where did the mayor go?”

“That’s what I’m telling you, boy!” snapped Pappy. “That man was the mayor, in his true form at last! And I knew right then that Punkin was right all along. We’d elected the Devil, for certain sure. I seen it with my own two eyes. I were just a boy, but I seen it and I’ll put my hand on the Bible over it.”

“So where did the yellow-eyed man go?”

“He ran into the smoke, and we never seen him again. But I felt the evil drifting off him, boy. And I knew right then that I did right to warn Punkin. He disappeared that night, Punkin did, and didn’t no one never see him again.”

“So where’s Punkin now?” asked Gerald.

“I dunno,” shrugged Pappy. “No one does, I reckon. But he did right, Punkin. He stood strong even when no one believed him. He had the guts to stand alone, whether other folks stood by him or not. And he was right about everything; Uncle Bunyip was the Devil! He was ol’ Scratch, Satan hisself; I seen him.”

“Is this just another one of your stories?” asked Gerald suspiciously, ducking away from the rain.

“Maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t,” shrugged Pappy, rising. “But remember this, boy: If you wanna get by in this world – if you don’t wanna be a damn weenie – remember Punkin. He fought a lil’ war all by hisself. He told the truth even when no one else believed him. The preachers say that cowards ain’t gonna inherit the good Lord’s kingdom… and Punkin warn’t no coward, not by a damn sight! I’ll never forget his freckly face, or his worn-out coonskin hat. That boy had more sand than any man I’ve ever met before or since, and that’s a fact.”

Gerald wiped a splash of rain from his face, and pushed his chair further into the porch. “I don’t wanna walk home in this,” he said plaintively. “And my dad’s gonna be drunk, and Mom’s gonna chew me out for coming home late…”

“You can have the spare bedroom, boy,” said Pappy kindly. “I’ll call your mammy, and tell her you’re safe with me. I’ll make us breakfast in the morning, okay?”

Most boys wouldn’t have been comforted by the ominous prospect of runny eggs and burnt bacon, but Gerald was not most boys. “Thank you, Pappy,” he said gratefully.

Pappy stumbled towards his front door, fighting to find the doorknob. “Have a good night’s sleep, boy,” he said comfortingly. “And remember Punkin, would you? He was a strong boy. You gotta be strong in this world, boy, or it’s gonna run your ass right over.”

And that… was the last time Gerald ever saw Pappy alive.

Pappy called nine-one-one in the middle of the night, reporting chest pains. The ambulance took him away, without even bothering to check that anyone else might be sleeping in the run-down old house.

But before he went to bed for the last time, Pappy left a note on the mantle.

It was raining again, but Gerald knelt before the gravestone nevertheless.

Here Lies Pappy…, read the opening line of the epitaph.

Pappy’s legal name followed the opening line. No one ever used the name, and thus Gerald didn’t even bother to read it. There was also a ‘born here and dead there’ date after it, and Gerald cared little for that information either. Pappy’s life and death were etched firmly in his young mind, and memory accomplished for him what the calendar never could.

All he could think about were Pappy’s final words to him, lovingly written down on the very night of his demise: Remember Punkin

Punkin had the strength to stand alone, when no one else believed him. Punkin went toe-to-toe with his enemy, despite the knowledge that he was facing the prospect of his own lynching.

Maybe Pappy’s story was fact, and maybe it was fiction. Gerald had known Pappy to tell more than a few tall tales over the years…

But fact or fiction, Punkin’s tale resonated powerfully in Gerald’s young heart.

Gerald rose, and pulled his hood over his head to shield off the pounding rain.

And then he heard something, the sound of someone walking away from the cemetery…

Gerald turned toward the sound, suddenly afraid. Maybe it was the rainstorm that frightened him, or maybe it was just memory. Either way, Gerald ducked behind the trees, watching as a moonlit silhouette tottered slowly away from the graveyard.

It looked, obscured as it was, like the form of a stooped old man…

Shivering from the cold, Gerald re-traced his steps back to Pappy’s grave.

Sitting atop the sodden marble headstone was a threadbare coon-skin cap. It was a small cap, a cap sewn to fit a young boy…

Remember Punkin, would you? Pappy had said. He was a strong boy. You gotta be strong in this world, boy, or it’s gonna run your ass right over.”

SIR!” shouted Gerald. “You left your hat! Sir…?”

But answer there came none.

Gerald hung his head for a moment…

And then he lovingly picked up the sodden hat, and placed it upon his own head.

Maybe Pappy’s story was the gospel truth, or maybe it was just another well-spun piece of fiction; one could never tell with Pappy. But Gerald would never forget Pappy’s final words:

Remember Punkin

Regarding Cats and Critics…

When I first launched this blog, I promised myself that I would no longer stoop to spewing the oh-so-familiar venom that once defined my writings. And thus far, I’ve (more or less) kept that promise. But as the Ecclesiast wrote, there is a time for peace and a time for war…

So lemme tell ya something…

If I EVER meet a career ‘critic’ at a restaurant, I’m going to dump my beer over his head. Then I’m gonna whack him upside his empty skull with the mug. And after he falls down, I’ma snatch up the plate of ‘beer nuts’ from the counter and shove those nuts – one by one – right up his nose.

After that, I’m gonna grab him by the collar and drag him outside, into the nearest alley. NOT so I can actually hurt him, mind you…

I just wanna pee on him.

After I zip my pants back up, I will empty the nearest trash can right on top of that darn critic. I won’t care if he’s a ‘film critic’, a literary critic, a music critic, or even a daggone food critic… the last thing I’ll do before I walk away will be to set him on fire. *foomp!*

And he’ll deserve every ounce of my abusive treatment, too. Trust me. And in case you, my dear reader, haven’t already figured this out…

I… HATE… CRITICS!!!

I saw a movie last night that absolutely blew my mind: The film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic play Cats. Words fail me, honestly; I don’t know where to begin. Even the unfortunate appearance by Taylor Swift didn’t dim the overwhelming grandeur of the film. (The incredible talent of Taylor’s Auto-Tune guy really showed, boy howdy! The poor fella sure had his work cut out for him.)

But guess what? The self-righteous, obnoxious critics claimed that Cats was total garbage; in fact, they’ve been trashing it ever since the initial release of its ‘teaser trailer’. Aaaaaand the dim-witted masses of ‘sheeple’ responded by doing exactly what sheeple always do: They slavishly obeyed their media masters. The end result? Cats cost over a hundred million to produce, and the movie barely walked away with a box office take of less than ten million.

That’s a tragedy, in my book.

Where do these critics get off, anyway? They slammed the latest Star Wars film, which I thought was brilliant. They heaped praise upon Avatar, which I thought was an over-produced load of absolute crap. They also said that the album Black Sabbath was un-listenable, despite the fact that it launched a new musical genre (heavy metal) and went on to become an eternal classic. Let us all come to our own conclusions already, and quit trying to sway public opinion before we’ve even seen/listened to/read/eaten whatever it is that you’re trashing!

I don’t have an intellectual point to make here, honestly; I’m just kinda ranting. These damn critics act like they hold some kind of mystical power; they assume that we’re all under some mandate to arbitrarily listen to their stupid ravings. But they’re speaking upon whose authority? Theirs? Really?

Don’t make me laugh.

Critics unjustly scuttle careers and slanderously tank albums, plays, books, and movies. They fling their opinions around as though they were the gospel truth, and hold their noses in the air while hard-working artists suffer the un-deserved consequences of the critics’ arrogant, hot-air opinions. I have about as much respect for career critics as I do human traffickers, child molesters, rapists, and drug dealers.

*pant pant*

Okay, I’m finished.

For now…

The People of the Lie: A Tale

The sun had not yet shown its face; perhaps it never again would…

Standing ominously against the dreary backdrop of the Chicago skyline was an imposing old building, one that would appear abandoned if not for the gaudy posters plastered across its darkened windows. Each garish printing promised some upcoming concert or play, and every foretelling was a bloodbath of color bled pathetically across the glass.

Only the posters betrayed any hint of perennial life in this run-down palace of an event center; otherwise, this wreck of a building just blended seamlessly into the seedy Chicago city-scape.

Homeless people lounged restlessly beneath the shelter of the front awning, arranging their blankets and cardboard boxes to suit their individual needs. This, it would seem, was the ‘norm’ in this area; the Homeless sleepily arranged their cardboard homeless homes, too outcast to even attract even the notice of the local gang-bangers.

Only one random vagabond rose from his tattered blanket, taking a swig from his pint of cheap liquor as he tottered down the stairs toward the street in front of the event center…

He stopped before a telephone pole, eyeing the cheaply-printed placard nailed to its oaken surface.

Have you seen this man? read the sign.

Upon the printed request was a picture a somewhat corpulent man, balding, and with hair coming out of his ears. Underneath his photo read ‘Last seen at Goldthwaite Center. The bottom of the paper had a printed phone number, posted by the local detective investigating the disappearance.

The homeless man wiped his bearded face, looking up and down the street. Each telephone pole had the same placard stapled to it; this, it seemed, was the Chicago Police Department’s idea of an ‘investigation’.

Maybe the homeless man just wanted some toilet paper. Or maybe he just happened to have some luckily-scored marijuana, but no rolling papers. Or maybe he just needed to cover up some of the tears in his cardboard box.

At the end of the day…

At the end of the day, it was anyone’s guess as to why he went up and down the street, pulling each sign down and stuffing each one into the pockets of his filthy coat.  

At the end of the day, it didn’t matter whether the signs remained posted, or were torn down. The day was still just as bleak, and the theater just as run-down…

And the missing man was still just as missing.

Bobby McGee loved rock n’ roll.

Of course he loved rock music! His mother had named him after Janis Joplin’s iconic song; how much more ‘rock n’ roll’ could a man possibly get? (Granted, Bobby McGee had originally been a woman named ‘Roberta’, since the song had originally been written by the country music icon Roger Miller… but then, Bobby’s mother hadn’t known that at the time of his birth; she was only seventeen at the time, after all.)

Bobby had spent the last twenty years of his life seeking out great concerts wherever he could find them, from Styx to Megadeth, and from Kansas to Godsmack; he was the eternal ‘fan boy’ of all things Raucous and Rebellious. In fact, Bobby might even have been a groupie if not for the fact that he was hairy, short, balding…

And the wrong gender.

Bobby stood in front of his designated seat, straining his neck to watch his new favorite front-man shredding away on his guitar.

Bobby bobbed his head to the music, smiling away as he adjusted his ‘hi-fi’ earplugs. The drummer was pounding the kick drum so hard that Bobby could hardly read the band name printed on it: Death by Volume. This band had sold twenty million albums (or digital downloads thereof) in a mere four years; Bobby mentally recited these numbers with a sense of awe that bordered on reverence. This was the highest-grossing tour of all time, shattering the records set by both Michael Jackson and Guns n’ Roses combined.

Truly, this was an epic evening! He was lucky, Bobby thought, to have scored a ticket.

He pumped his fist vigorously to the savage music, glorying in the sonic hedonism of it all. Above all else, Bobby always looked forward to the next guitar solo; the guitarist/vocalist, Steve Valmer, was his favorite ever! Steve always shredded along at a lightning pace, making it all look so easy as his fingers flew up and down the polished mahogany neck of his ‘axe’. Strobe lights, pyrotechnics, and endless clouds of dry-ice smoke only added to surreal aura of the display

Bobby lowered his fist as the music died for a few minutes.

“HOW’S EVERYBODY DOING TONIGHT?!” roared Steve Valmer into the microphone, pulling his long, blonde hair away from his face. “Y’ALL FEELING ALRIGHT?!”

Bobby roared along with the crowd; his parched throat was aching already, but he didn’t mind.

There was nowhere he’d rather be… than right here!

“I wish my wife was here with me tonight,” said Steve. “But she’s in Brazil right now, shooting a movie. Speaking of which, we’re filming here this evening. So everybody shout with me, ‘HI SADIE’!!!”

Bobby joined the crowd in the deafening greeting, feeling a quiet stirring of envy.

Steve Valmer had married the veteran actress Sadie Lee years before; the couple had two children. Sadie had always been Bobby’s secret crush; redheaded, slender, and beautiful, she’d starred in the Bobby’s favorite film, a psychological thriller called I Have Not Forgotten.

“So…” continued Steve, “our children, Todd and Brielle, are backstage. I asked them if they wanted to come watch Daddy play, and they asked ‘do we have to…?’”

Bobby laughed along with the rest of audience, licking his lips as Steve segued into the band introductions.

Bobby hated to miss any part of the show, but he couldn’t stand his dry throat anymore!

As fast as his chubby legs could carry him, Bobby sprinted up the stadium steps, towards the elevated mezzanine above. It was quieter up here, far removed from the roar of the arena below. The mezzanine consisted of a few merchandise booths, and a lot of bars.

“Tall Budweiser, please…” Bobby panted to the nearest bartender.

Taking the double-deuce can (and paying way too much for it), Bobby turned and half-jogged back towards the steps.

He slowed a bit, ready to begin his downward trek when someone stepped out from behind the nearest merchandise booth.

“I’M sorry!” said Bobby, plowing into the slender woman. “I didn’t see you!”

“It’s okay…” mumbled the woman, adjusting her dark sunglasses and setting her baseball cap back on straight. “I should have watched where I was going.”

Bobby took a step back, eyeing the woman as he clutched his beer can. There was something very, very familiar about her…

“Sadie?” he whispered. “Sadie Lee?”

“Maybe…” said the woman coolly, lowering her glasses and looking back at Bobby with brilliant, bright-blue eyes. “Who’s asking?”

“I… I’m just a fan! gushed Bobby. “I’ll bet I’ve seen I Have Not Forgotten fifty times!”

“I’m flattered,” said Sadie, smiling. “Usually with guys your age it’s The Crow, or Natural Born Killers.”

“May I have an autograph?” asked Bobby.

“You got a pen?”

“Oh… no…” said Bobby sheepishly. “I can get one from the bartender, though.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Sadie. “I’ll tell you what: If you promise not to tell anyone I’m here, you can watch the show with me from my private box. I’m not exactly in the mood to be mobbed, you know?”

“Of course! yelped Bobby stunned. “I… I thought you were in Brazil?”

“So I’m told,” said Sadie evenly, motioning with her head. “C’mon, follow me.”

Bobby followed Sadie up the stairs into the VIP section, trying hard not to stare at her rear end. It was hard not to; Sadie was wearing ‘painted-on’ blue jeans, and besides…

It was Sadie Lee’s behind, after all.

I can’t believe this is happening, thought Bobby as he took a draught of beer en route.

Sadie nodded at the two black-clad security guards flanking the door of her private box, and opened the door.

“After you,” she said affably, holding the door open.

Bobby followed Sadie into the booth as one of the guards pulled the door shut behind them.

“Have a seat,” offered Sadie, motioning to one of the over-stuffed chairs.

Bobby sat down in the daze, no longer interested in the concert… and quite unable to break his gaze away from his teenage crush.

“You look as though you’ve just found Jimmy Hoffa!” teased Sadie, baring her sparkling eyes as she set her glasses on the sideboard.

Bobby watched in amazement as Sadie took off her baseball cap, letting her fiery red locks spill down to her shoulder blades.

He took another gulp of beer, bug-eyed…

“Cat got your tongue?” teased Sadie, reaching for a volume knob mounted on the wall. “That’s a cliché, I know, but it always comes to mind when I meet a tongue-tied fan. Here, let’s turn the noise down so we can talk; I’ve heard this performance a hundred times before, anyway.”

Bobby tried to muster the courage to speak; all he could manage was ‘uh…’

“Oh, you guys are all the same!” giggled Sadie, actually slapping Bobby on the knee. “I’m not Queen Elizabeth, man, and even she poops and pees like everyone else! Here, let’s do this like normal people…”

Sadie held out her slender hand, smiling. “I’m Sadie Claire LeFountain, publicly known as Sadie Lee. And you are…?”

Bobby mustered every ounce of his courage…

“I’m… I’m Robert,” he stuttered. “Robert Evan McGee, but my friends call me Bobby.”

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” said Sadie, quoting Janis Joplin as she shook Bobby’s hand and sat down. “There, was that so hard? So do you live in Chicago, Bobby McGee?”

“No, ma’am,” replied Bobby politely.

“You can drop the ‘ma’am’!” interjected Sadie firmly. “‘Sadie’ will do just fine, thank you.”

“Sorry, uh… Sadie,” amended Bobby. “No, I’m from Georgia originally, but now I live in Montana; I manage a hardware store there. I had to take a road-trip to get here, because the closest show to me was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it sold out before I could get a ticket.”

A ticket?” asked Sadie, raising a pretty, perfectly-groomed eyebrow. “No girlfriend?”

“No…” blushed Bobby. “I… I’m not good with the ladies, I’m afraid.”

“And yet here you are with me!” giggled Sadie. “Score! What makes finding a girlfriend so hard for you, Bobby McGee?”

“I… well, I don’t meet many women in my line of work, at least not single ones,” blushed Bobby. “They all just come in with their husbands.”

“So you don’t meet women at work. Where do you hang out when you’re not working?” quizzed Sadie.

“Well… I spend my weekends at the Comic Shack, playing Magic, the Gathering…” moaned Bobby, hanging his head.

“Wow!” laughed Sadie. “That’s a crying shame, Bobby McGee. If it makes you feel any better, I find you quite charming.”

“Really?!” chirped Bobby, taking a slug of beer.

“Balding head, beer breath, and all!” chirped Sadie. “Do you know what the curse of being a celebrity is?”

“Nope,” said Bobby.

“It’s always wondering…” said Sadie, her brow furrowing, “who really loves you, and who just wants to use you. It gets harder as you get older. I was twenty-five when I shot I have Not Forgotten; now, I’m two decades older. Oh, I work out and my dieticians monitor every bite I eat; I’m aging better than any middle-class girl ever could… but in the end, will I just be put out to pasture for being too old? Not every girl’s a Meryl Streep, you know.”

“Well…” said Bobby, “would it matter? I mean, you’ve made more great movies than most actresses out there, and I’m sure you never have to worry about money. I mean, why worry about your future when you’ve had such a great past?”

“The Celts believed…” mused Sadie, leaning forward and resting her chin in her hand, “that the gods needed belief – and adoration – to continue their existence. Without such, they had no sustenance, no life-force. The Irish who refused to succumb to Christianity came to believe that the gods – and the faerie-folk with them – disappeared from the world of men, unable to survive the slow decline of worship.”

“I don’t follow…” said Bobby, chugging the last of his beer and setting down the empty can.

“I mean…” said Sadie patiently, “that when one’s entire adult life is judged as a success or failure based on the opinions of others, what happens when the limelight fades? Can one really go on living, or would Existence just then become a mockery of Life? I suspect that one’s breath might then become a mere clock, ticking away toward the end.”

“I suppose I don’t know,” said Bobby tactfully. “I’m just a hardware store manager.”

“And so you are,” said Sadie, wiping away a tear. “Would you care for a drink, Bobby McGee? A nightcap with your old crush, as we watch the last of my husband’s concert? I can get anything you like, and I do mean anything!”

“Aged Scotch?” asked Bobby hopefully. (He was oh-so-fond of well-crafted, aged Scotch whisky, but alas… the expense!)

Sadie smiled as she leaned forward and tapped the intercom button on the sideboard. “Two doubles of Clan McCutcheon!” she ordered. “Served neat, please.”

Bobby’s eye bulged out at that; he couldn’t believe that he’d actually heard someone ordering such an insanely-priced beverage so casually. 

Sadie seemed rather contemplative as she waited for the whisky to arrive, so Bobby let her be as he watched the concert winding down. (He did give her the occasional side glance, though, and he was pretty sure that she caught him at it.)

A tuxedo-clad waiter arrived in short order, demurely delivering two tumblers of whisky. Bobby took his with shaking hands, still feeling more than a little dumbstruck by his current situation.

“I told you I could get anything!” said Sadie smugly, raising her glass. “Cheers, my new friend!”

Bobby clinked his glass against Sadie’s, and took an appreciative sip.

“Wow…” he breathed, “I could never afford this!”

“Enjoy your taste of the good life,” said Sadie with a wink. “The spotlight burns out pretty fast, I’m afraid.”

Bobby took another sip as Sadie turned up the volume switch, and rested her chin once more upon her slender hand.

Sadie was obviously intent on enjoying the rest of the concert, so Bobby lapsed into silence. (He was more interested in Sadie than he was the concert, but he tried to be discreet about his staring…)

Sadie’s lingering smirk told him that he wasn’t quite as successful as he wanted to be.

Bobby sipped away at his insanely-priced whisky as the concert rolled towards its spectacular finish.

Steve Valmer played through the finale, exited the stage, and waited as the audience demanded one more song…

Only when the curtain call was finished did the lights finally come back up. Bobby set down his empty tumbler with regret, wishing that he’d asked the waiter to leave the bottle. (Not, of course, that the waiter had actually brought the bottle; Bobby grinned at the ridiculous thought that the bartender probably guarded such beverages with a shotgun.)

“Well, I suppose that’s that…” said Sadie flatly, rising.

She took a few steps back from Bobby, and extended her hand. “It was lovely meeting you, my new friend,” she said brightly.

Bobby rose to shake her hand…

And fell flat onto his face.

“Are you okay?” asked Sadie, with a concerned expression.

Bobby rolled onto his back, eyeing Sadie with slightly-crossed eyes. Her face was blurred now, as grotesque now as it had earlier been beautiful.

“I don’t feel so good…” moaned Bobby.

Sadie knelt over him, brushing her crimson locks away from her porcelain face. “Did you drink too much, honey?” she cooed.

“I don’t think so…” slurred Bobby. “Can you help me up?”

Sadie rose, laughing. “Having trouble walking, are you?”

“Y… Yeah…” moaned Bobby, his head spinning.

“But we had such a lovely time!” giggled Sadie. “You can’t pass out on me, like some random drunk! What kinda date is that?”

“Sorry…” moaned Bobby, his head flopping sideways. “What’s happen… happ… ha…”

Sadie knelt over him, her sky-blue eyes suddenly growing very, very cold.

“You wanna know what’s happening?” she whispered. “Do you really?

“Y… Ye… uhhh…” slurred Bobby.

“I poisoned you,” said Sadie, with no hint of emotion whatsoever.

Huuuhhhh…?” wheezed Bobby.

“Shut the hell up!” ordered Sadie. “You’re dying; you can’t talk anymore. Let me tell you something, my adored fan…”

Bobby stared in comatose horror as Sadie rose again, looking scornfully down at him.

“You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Sadie. “I’m supposed to be shooting a movie in Brazil. That movie’s finished already; it comes out next month. I didn’t like being naked for half the damn thing, but that’s how my world works; you either peddle your ass, or you’re brushed aside. There is very little difference, in the end, between an actress and a prostitute.”

Sadie took a sip of her whisky, and set the tumbler back down.

“In my world…” she continued, “you do as you’re told. I’m supposed to gloriously re-unite with my husband and children in two weeks, and it’ll make headlines; I can’t risk you blowing our fairy-tale reunion scam. People magazine will run a cover story, in which I’ll give an interview about hard it is to balance being both a mother and an actress. My husband will appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, his career pushed forward by the publicity from People. The truth is that I cheat on my husband all the time and nannies are raising my kids, but that’s how it goes; it’s all a game, nothing more. Do you see?”

Uhhhhh….” gurgled Bobby.

“The truth,” smiled Sadie, “is that I don’t give a rip about my ‘husband’, nor does he about me. We do what we want, whenever we want, and we answer to no one except our own. The only sin we could ever commit is disappointing our handlers, our producers and financiers. As long as we toe that line, we can do whatever else we want. We’re above social expectations, above accountability… even above the law.”

Thpb…” drooled Bobby.

“We are what everyone longs to be, the New Gods and Goddesses,” intoned Sadie. “Our handlers raise us up, the media heaps praise upon us, and thus we are worshipped. It’s all a charade, a grotesque masquerade; we are the modern Iscariots, the People of the Lie.”

Bobby burped, only dimly noticing that he’d wet his pants.

“It’s all right in front of you,” whispered Sadie, kneeling again. “We’re a complete farce, right out in the open, and hidden in plain sight. We speak in code, and laugh at your kind because you can’t figure out that code.”

Bobby’s vision began to narrow…

“For instance,” smirked Sadie, “‘Served neat’ is code for ‘add a dash of cyanide’. Wanna know another code phrase?”

Bobby puked a little as Sadie rose, and began choking on his vomit as she tapped the intercom button on the sideboard.

“Hello?” she said calmly. “I need a custodian, please. Could you send up Todd?”

Letting the intercom button go, Sadie turned to Bobby.

“‘Tod’ is the German word for ‘death’,” explained Sadie affably. “Get it? It means I just killed someone – again – and I need the body carted off. The custodian will arrive with a covered trash can, stuff your carcass into it, and no one will ever know what became of you. Isn’t that oh so clever?”

Bobby felt his breath slowing down, and his heart beginning to falter…

Sadie knelt over him one last time, and kissed his forehead gently.

“Thank you for watching my movies,” she whispered. “It was truly lovely meeting you, my much-appreciated fan. May there be many more just like you.”

Bobby’s eyes rolled back in his head as Sadie rose; he never saw the door open, or the janitor coming in…

He didn’t feel his neck breaking as the custodian forced him into the narrow trash can, and he felt no trace of shame as his urine was unceremoniously mopped off the floor.

When the mess was finally tidied up, all that had once been Bobby McGee was pushed downstairs with the rest of the refuse.

The sun not yet shown its face; perhaps it never would.

The nameless vagrant finished rolling up his pinch of marijuana, and raised it to his withered mouth. He took an appreciative puff as he lit up his treat, and held his breath to let the much-appreciated drug take effect.

The transient choked a little as he finally released the first cloud of rancid smoke; he leaned against the cold brick wall, already feeling his senses going numb.

As the vagrant took yet another puff, one of his impromptu rolling-papers blew away, idly snatched up by a passing breeze. Only the wind knew what the cheaply-printed placard read, and the wind would never betray the answer to its question…

Have you seen this man?

Paramour: A Tale

The girl sat up in bed, stretching her arms wide as she yawned herself awake.

This, she thought as she lay back down with a smile, was a good way to spend her nineteenth birthday. Holed up in her lover’s tiny lakeside cabin nestled deep in the woods of the Adirondack Mountains.

It was a welcome respite from the last few days’ turmoil…

Her affair with the old man had begun as soon as they’d met, at his daughter’s graduation ceremony where his future paramour was also graduating. While the girl had been appalled by the old man’s advances, she was also drawn to him…

Or at least, to his money.

But the old man had been unwilling to leave his wife, and insisted on maintaining his relationship with the girl as what it had begun: An affair. He made her send him a video of herself taking her birth control pills, every single morning.

But the girl was an ambitious thing, and deeply embittered by having no power over the old man, no angle from which she could manipulate him. And so she finally pulled the trigger, and told his wife about her affair.

She had hoped for a monetary settlement, some ‘hush money’ to keep her from talking to the press. That, she assumed, would have been the end of it. She would have preferred to go on as a newly-minted trophy wife, an undeserving heiress… but alas, such was not to be.

Somehow the old man had seemed strangely ambivalent about the girl’s tattling to his wife. He’d brushed off her explanations, her self-righteous declarations that she had ‘wanted to be honest’, and invited her here for the weekend. He’d made sure that the girl had her birth-control tablets and he his erectile dysfunction pills, and thus they were off.

The girl sat up, adjusting the top on her gauzy nightgown as she finally began to perk up. It suddenly struck her that something in the room smelled very, very enticing…

She smiled as she finally saw the spread laid out for her on the nightstand. Fresh pancakes, with cinnamon, whipped cream, and sliced bananas – her favorite breakfast. There were crisp bacon slices laid out to balance the sweet pancakes with their salty, savory goodness, and a tall glass of ice-cold milk.

The girl ate her breakfast with a will, enjoying the repast. The day would come, she knew, when she’d have to count calories, when she couldn’t just eat whatever she wanted. But for now, she was still a teenager. The whipped cream and bacon would have no affect whatsoever on her long, lean legs and taut stomach.

As she finished up, she could hear the old man puttering around the kitchen. Dishes clinked here and there, and the faucet ran every once in a while. Smiling, the girl gathered up her dishes and climbed out of bed, padding down the hallway toward the tiny kitchen.

“Hello, love!” she chirped.

Nothing.

There was no one here.

The girl set her dishes in the sink, looking curiously around. Where had the old man gone? He’d just been here, of this she was certain. Hadn’t she just heard him loading the dishwasher?

The girl opened the dishwasher; it was empty, and dry as a bone.

The cabinets were still full of dishes, and the sink wasn’t even wet.

Had she drifted off from the carbohydrate-heavy pancakes, and begun dreaming again? Perhaps the old man had left her breakfast, and gone into town for a while.

The girl looked out the kitchen window. No, the old man hadn’t left; his luxury sedan was still parked in the gravel driveway.

The girl began to feel nervous, restless.

Then she laughed at herself, as the hallway toilet flushed. She smiled, and headed back down the short hallway.

“Hello?” she whispered, tapping on the bathroom door. “Love?”

She waited a moment, and then opened the bathroom door.

There was no one here.

Surely she should have seen him exiting the bathroom door, yes? The girl frowned, feeling a strange sense of nervousness again.

Then she heard a dresser drawer shutting in the bedroom.

Internally laughing at herself, the girl headed for the bedroom.

“Hello? Love?”

Nothing.

But the girl took a fearful step backwards nonetheless.

The bedroom trash can lay overturned on the floor. Scattered upon the bed were dozens of empty pill packages, which the girl recognized as once containing the old man’s erectile dysfunction medicine.

And scattered all through-out the torn packages were birth-control pills, intact, un-eaten, as they always had been during the girl’s affair with the old man. She’d been popping aspirin in the videos she’d always sent to him, calming his fears while ever hoping that he’d get her pregnant, that he’d give her some means of wreaking a campaign of extortion upon his estate.

The girl trembled as she heard the riding lawn-mower starting up in the garage.

She ran into the garage, suddenly frightened. The old man knew about her attempts at getting pregnant, this she knew now. Was he angry with her? Had he brought her up here to threaten her, or even worse?

She threw open the door to the attached garage, and jumped over the steps.

“HELLO? LOVE?”

Nothing.

The lawnmower sat idle, covered with spider webs. The garage didn’t even smell of exhaust, as it should have if the lawnmower had been started within its plywood walls.

Terrified, the girl yanked open the garage’s door and ran outside in her racy nightgown.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!” she screamed at the trees. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

The trees, resplendent in their autumn glory, hung as still as the dead. There should have been a breeze, causing their leaves to rattle merrily. The morning shadows should have been dancing on the forest floor, while the birds sang merrily.

Nothing.

The trees were frozen in time, and there was no sound to be heard. Even the clouds above were immobile, and the shadows looked like grotesquely-painted smears, unmoving and more than a little menacing.

The girl ran back inside as she felt the skies closing in on her, and began to fancy that the trees were creeping ever closer to her.

She ran through the front door and slammed it beside her. She turned to face the door, gasping for breath as she screamed at it.

“QUIT PLAYING WITH ME!!!” she wailed.

The girl took a step backwards, her eyes widening in horror.

The lock on the doorknob turned, all by itself. Then the security chain lifted, and slid itself home. Then the dead-bolt slammed into the place, and the switch to the door alarm clicked on.

The girl ran screaming to the window, and tried to open the lock…

It wouldn’t turn.

Terrified, she punched the window with all her strength…

It wouldn’t break.

She threw herself against the wall, sliding down it in a fit of sobbing hysteria.

“What do you want?” she moaned. “What’s happening?”

The stereo cackled to life, and the girl turned her weeping gaze towards it as it hissed and hummed through the stations.

She heard the beginning of a news report; it began with a name, a name she knew.

“The millionaire philanthropist,” read the anchorwoman, “called emergency services himself in the middle of last night, complaining of chest pains. He was taken by ambulance from his lake cabin, to the hospital, where…”

“DON’T say it!” moaned the girl

“… where he was pronounced dead upon arrival. He is survived by his wife and daughter, who will inherit his estate.”

The girl burst into hysterics, looking fearfully into the open kitchen from whence her breakfast had come.

The voice on the radio changed, from that of the demure anchorwoman into a voice that the girl knew all too well.

“You came from nothing,” wheezed the old man, in a deadpan tone. “You had nothing to offer the world, except what every person has to give when they have no morals…”

The girl screamed as a butcher knife slid slowly from its wooden countertop sheath.

“And that’s all you are…”

After a few moments, there was no further sound to be heard from the hysterical girl. The house was a sun-lit tomb now, silent, and still.

And that’s all you are, repeated the rising breeze outside…

Nothing.