The fourth round is open for voting. If you are reading this in your email inbox or via an RSS reader, remember that you need to visit the site (by clicking on the title of this post) to be able to vote on the poll.
The competition will be sponsored by WhiteSmoke. It will offer 2 full licenses to the executive edition of its writing software (with a value of $310 each).
Now to the stories.
1. Another day gone by Matt
He balanced the register and turned the door sign.
Am I capable of writing a book or is it a worthless distraction.
A woman had come up to the store and it she wore a pained expression on her face. Her dark hair, tried in vain to reach uniform length despite the growing win d. She wore a dark overcoat, with the collar turned up. Dark jeans.
Stephen turned on the lights and invited her in.
“I’m sorry to bother you.” She had the soft, hypnotic whisper of a gentle breeze.
“Not a bother” he couldn’t turn away from her eyes. “I’m trying to find something that was taken from me a long time ago.”
“Come in. Excuse the mess. I’m closing shop in a couple weeks.” He invited her to sit at the bar. Instead of going to the opposite side of the c ounter Stephen offered an outstretched hand. “Stephen Dunn.”
“Lorraine Carlyle.” She shook Stephen’s hand and took a seat on one of the stools.
“Should I start a pot of coffee? Helps defrost the system on a night like this.”
Now Stephen saw her eyes: crystalline, made from the wells of deepest blue. He lost his next thought, almost forgetting to start the coffee. “So, you said something of yours was stolen?”
“It’s a long story. If you don’t mind I’d like to start at the beginning.”
“Take your time.” Her eyes . . . Stephen thought he could listen to her talk until the sun rose.
* * *
“Please, finish. I really want to know how the story ends.”
The woman seemed to stare at him, to find something in his eyes that would speak of his true intent. When she spoke again, it was with extreme hesitation. “That’s the problem. There is no end. I never saw the charms again. I came back here tonight on a whim because I believed in something that doesn’t exist. You know wishful thinking.”
“Forgive me for asking, but what doesn’t exist?”
“True happiness. Love. Whatever you want to call it.9 D
Love. Of course. Stephen was starting to think that this woman, beautiful as she appeared, had a smidgen of Whacko in that head of hers. Yet, wonderful Margaret Layne was the reason he learned to listen, really listen when complete strangers came in with weird tales.
Love. There were plenty books on the subject, but Stephen suddenly entertained a random thought. My manuscript.
“Listen, I’ve got something here on love, but it has a weird price tag.”
“And that would be how much?” The woman’s voice relayed that money wasn’t an issue.
“I’m a starving writer slash bookstore owner. My first and only effort is upstairs next to the trashcan. It’s not finished but you’re more than welcome to take it if you’d like. The cost will run you one promise, no tax.”
Lorraine stared at him and then back around the store. She looked like a person who had misplaced her house keys and was late for an important meeting. “One promise, no tax?”
“Right. You have to promise me you’ll let me know what you think.”
Stephen handed her the Greatest of These manuscript. “Now it’s my turn to ask for forgiveness.”
“Why?” Lorraine took his stor y and tucked it safely under her arm.
“Well, forgive me for asking, but would you mind letting me know what you think?”
He handed her a business card.
“Thanks for the coffee.” With that said, she walked away into the dark Valley night.
Stephen noticed Lorraine’s purse resting on one of the barstools, grabbed the black bag and went out to catch her before she was gone. He caught sight of her by the corner, apparently reading his words despite the near absence of light.
What Stephen witnessed next was more of a nightmare than reality: an accident which busted a peaceful night into the pieces of a mad person’s puzzle.
As he yelled her name, Lorraine stopped, turned and fell on the ice-covered sidewalk. The macabre scene worsened as her head hit the corner of an iron bench sending her body to the ground in one awkward drop. Sheets of white typing paper floated down . . . some landing on her back, others in the street—like huge grotesque snowflakes mocking the otherwise normal flurries, landing wherever the wind ordered.
“Lorraine!” Stephen dropped the purse and ran the rest of the distance, kneeling at Lorraine’s side. Her eyes were open and he could see them looking up at him. “Are you okay?” Stephen grabbed her hands.
The woman was strong. She felt the side of her head and noticed blood on her fingers. “I got startled when you called my name.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? There’s blood.” Stephen gently pulled the hair from the side of her head and saw a small trickle of blood just above her temple. He felt sick. Minutes earlier they were sharing coffee and the past in the warm safe confines of the shop and now this.
“It hurts.” Lorraine expected a large amount of blood to be flowing from her head. Still, when she felt the cut a second time only a small smear of blood transferred to her fingers.
“Can you sit up?”
“I think so.” With a concentrated effort, Lorraine sat up and eventually got to her feet. She wiped snow from her pants and jacket, unnerved by the growing pain in her head.
“Man, I feel like a hammered nail.”
Stephen admired the woman’s strength but her condition worried him. “Come back and let me get you a warm washcloth for that cut and some Tylenol.”
She offered no argument.
Stephen held her hand on the way back to the bookstore.
The wind brought more than bitter cold. Stephen caught its silent message as he held the door for Lorraine.
Life isn’t fair, but neither is quitting.
2. Drunk on the Metro at 7 am by Kimberly J. Dalferes
Most days, commuting into the District was fairly uneventful, even downright boring. Boring is OK. At 7 am, boring is what you want. Read the paper, check the horoscope, review the to-do list on the blackberry. But, you can also get complacent, so routinized, that from time to time you might miss your stop. You tend to get set on auto-pilot mode.
It started off like any normal commuting day. Parked the car in the garage at the Vienna metro (end of the Orange line) walked to the train, found a seat and waited for the door chime that lets the occupants know, just like Pavlov’s dogs, that we’re moving toward the city. [Sidebar: did you know that the DC metro system door chimes are actually the first two notes of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”? I think that’s kind of cool, don’t you?].
So, I settled in and the first stop at Dunn Loring was pretty uneventful, nice looking guy boarded and sat next to me. Smile and a nod and then I was back to the paper.
Then, at West Falls Church, these two young women stumbled onto the train. And when I say stumbled, I mean tumbled, stumbled, and groped their way through the door. One was a tall blonde, one a short brunette, and both were dressed as young professionals going into work: Ann Taylor suits, hose, sensible pumps. But something was definitely amiss. I looked up just in time to hear the brunette announce:
“Man, this sucks… no seats… this just sucks…”.
What was funny was that there were PLENTY of seats, bright orange bench seats, at least ten open. I thought, “what the hell was she talking about?”
And then I took in, a little more carefully, their appearance and I saw that things were not quite right. The make-up was just a little messy and the mascara was a bit smudged, and not in that cool New York runway model kind of way. The blue button down shirt was untucked on one side and the blonde had definitely not brushed her hair that morning.
And then it hit me: they were both drunk, plowed, completely ripped! It was 7 am… in the morning! On a work day! Are you kidding me? And, it was suburbia: West Falls Church is not exactly the area you go to party all night and do the crawl of shame back home. So you wonder, are they heading home? Where have they been? Did they leave their car somewhere and are they just trying to get back? Is there some wild nightlife in West Falls Church and I’ve just reached that age where I don’t know what hip is (this, I decided, was doubtful…I mean, I HAVE hit that age, but it’s West Falls Church for crying out loud).
The cute guy next to me leaned in and asked, “Do you think they are really drunk or really stupid?”
Well, our brunette friend answered this on cue when she began to pronounce to her blonde friend (and to, of course, the entire occupants of the metro car):
“My head hurts” as hands went to her head.
“My back hurts” as hands went to the small of her back.
“My cooter hurts” as, thankfully she stumbled before showing us all her cash and prizes! I thought we were about to get a view of, as my friend Christy says, “Clear Up to Next Tuesday”…think about it.
“Oh no”, continued my seat companion, “they’re both stupid AND drunk”!!
Everyone in the car was now just transfixed by this spectacle. You couldn’t help but laugh, you wanted to look away, and you couldn’t.
At our next stop at East Falls Church, this poor sap, who had no clue what he was walking into, boarded the train and proceeded to stand in the corner closest to the Budweiser Twins. However, he quickly surmised the situation and attempted to hold the paper up in front of him, intently reading the Style section of the Post (why didn’t he just sit down?). The brunette stumbled over and began to read page C 1.
“Gee, that John Edwards is cute, isn’t he cute? I’d vote for him just because he is so hot! He’s married, right? I’d still date him… he is HOT!”
I was now beginning to get just a little worried because it occurred to me: these gals might be heading in to work! They might actually think they can pull this off…slink in to their offices (or, more likely, their cubicles), undetected, down a pot or two (or ten!) of coffee and maybe sober up a bit before the boss caught on. I began to think: I need to rescue these girls. I need to guide them off the train, find a cab, and send them home to sleep this off. It was my moral obligation to the next generation of working women.
But, alas, I hesitated and at the next stop, Ballston, the girls tumbled, again, out of the metro car. Cute fella next to me announced to all of us “I promise I will go to church for a month if they fall down the escalator”. I must admit, I laughed at that.
And off they went, giggling and holding each other up on the escalator as they moved upward and out of sight and we pulled out of the station.
I often think of those two girls and I wonder what happened. Do you think they were going to work or heading home? Do you think some co-worker took pity on them and sent them home or narc’d them out and got them fired? What do you think happened when they sobered up? Do you think they ever realized that, for a few moments one morning they managed, for three metro stops, to take a whole carload of commuters off of auto-pilot?
3. How the Story Went by Brenda K. Blakely
Woodson worked all week setting up the tent and doing his best to make folks feel comfortable about receiving a little fire and brimstone preaching. Brother Edarach, the revival preacher, was not well known to the community but his resounding radio voice assured them they were in for a change in their way of living.
For nearly six (6) weeks now, the New Derael Tent Revival organizers spread the word among the good folks of New Derael, rumors had been sprouting even longer.
When the train came in bearing Brother Edarach and his baggage the community gave him quite a reception. The ladies of the community worked to impress the “good brother” with both their cooking and the finery of the contents of their wardrobes.
One woman stood out from the rest.
It wasn’t her clothes or her cooking and/or the sight grip of familiarity. It was pure attitude that caught Brother Edarach’s attention as he previewed his intended audience. Her bearing indicated a woman of strong report. Everything about her seemed as hard as the iron her husband hammered each day down at the blacksmith shop. The only hint of her flesh and blood limitation being a slight limp, which occasionally hindered the export of her declared intentions.
Community members who made contact with her since her marriage and subsequent coming into New Derael readily expressed their desire for some retempering and remolding of Mr. Prong’s new bride.
With the arrival of Brother Edarach her strong character came into light once again. Her arrival reception for the preacher indicated in no uncertain terms that his presence was not desired by her and even more, she clearly declared, “Preacher Man, if you place any value upon peaceable living you will return your carcass and belongings to that iron monster and deboard at another location”.
Propelled by the flair of hot temperment, the words from her mouth seemed to singe the very hair on the head of the target of her emotional outburst; Brother Edarach had no hair to spare.
Portions of the nearby population had judged Mrs. Ester Prong and rightly or not decided that New Derael was not a suitable location for the residence of one such as Ester Prong appeared to be. The scene at the railroad yard just confirmed their judgment and some even added to their oft spoken comment, t’weren’t their fault, she had come to New Derael that way. Ester’s coming into the community and the process of fittin’ in had not been a pleasant experience for her nor the members of the community. Folks with Biblical knowledge had even gone so far as to judge her name as unbefitting to her character.
Tent fabric rippled as the wind outside howled.
The New Derael Tent Revival was not an event for the faint of heart. The righteous had gathered often and issued prayers for revival and God’s will prevail, it would come.
Under the canvas covering the demonstration of religious fervor reigned at a high pitch. Spurred by the bounty placed in the plate, Brother Edarach, it seemed, was about the delivery of truth from a worn leather bound word of God; accentuated with the steady beat of his fist upon the handmade pulpit.
One thing of particular note was the presence of one, Mrs. Ester Prong. All things considered, probably the last person you would expect to see at the New Derael Tent Revival and maybe even not a place she expected to find herself.
Blown in, as if by the wind, she wandered to a seat, off in the back corner.
There she sat unnoticed until….
Trancelike she began to move forward toward the fire and brimstone words emanating from the revival preacher’s mouth, moving as if being drawn like a magnet.
Past rows of wooden fold-up chairs filled with pious community members, cane dragging, marking each step as she walked. Heads and minds began to turn away from the thundering message to gaze and ponder upon the state of Mrs. Prong. Her presence made all the more surrealistic by the cloud of dust particles, stirred from the dirt floor; creating an aura around her.
Down to the very front she wandered. Her feet slowed and she claimed title to the empty floor space within quick hearing distance of Brother Edarach’s voice.
Boom, she went down for the count.
She lay still as death on the dirt floor. In one lighting flash it seemed she became redeemed, refined by the fire, washed white as snow so that her sins could become history.
Dumbfounded the congregation sat goggle-eyed as Mrs. Prong raised from the dirt floor, high- fived the preacher, grabbed the evening’s take and pomped out the shuttering canvas door.
“Preacher” Edarach ran pathetically, exposing his charade and partnership in the ill deed.
Descending, deflating canvas issued a warmed breeze into the cool, damp night air; adding insult to injury for those who struggled with the heavy material, deterring their hot pursuit. The prone cane Mrs. “P” left behind in her haste to vacate further restricted passage of the stumbling mass.
Four days later, after having stripped the bushes of every berry they considered not poisonous, and after ominous discussion; it was determined that that this novice pair was really not ready for a wilderness experience.
Revival came as the town received the repentant characters, integrating them into the town’s self-constructed rehabilitation program. Mr. Prong’s blacksmithing skills were redirected to retemper the iron will of Mrs. “P”, setting a new course for his marriage to Ester and neighborly accountability and acumen. Brother Edarach discovered and shared real meaning of the words from his leather bound copy of God’s word delived at the handmade pulpit of the town’s first church.
Years later the whole town remembered the Day Revival Came to New Derael and just how the story was told, wishes granted and God worked in mysterious ways.
4. Tied Up by Jhannet Marantonio
Dana froze, her missing ball forgotten. Mrs. McGreevy was next door yelling, “That’s it! I’ve had it! I’m tying you up in the basement and that is that!” Dana knelt behind her fence, stunned by what she’d heard through the open window.
Her jaw dropped. Dana wondered who Mrs. McGreevy was talking to. Mrs. McGreevy always seemed like such a sweet old lady, the type who enjoyed talking about the “good old days” over a cup of tea. Not some mean old woman who tied you up if you did something wrong.
Dana was supposed to rake Mrs. McGreevy’s yard this afternoon. “No way, I am going there now,” Dana thought, “What if Mrs. McGreevy locks me in the basement?”
Dana ran to her mother. “Mom! Mom! Mrs. McGreevy’s locking someone up in her basement! I heard her say so!”
“Oh, Dana. You and your imagination. I’m sure you misunderstood the whole thing.”
Dana’s mother held up her hand. “That’s enough. You’re eleven years old and I expect you to act your age. Now, you WILL go to Mrs. McGreevy’s. Go on now.”
Dana slammed her bedroom door. Her mother didn’t believe her. Dana buried her face in her pillow and yelled as loud as she could. She yelled until her throat hurt. It didn’t help. Thinking about what she’d overhead, her stomach twisted up into dozens of little knots.
Dana glanced at the tulip clock on her bedside table. One o’clock. She couldn’t put it off any longer. Dana took a deep breath. “If I have to go, I am going to make sure I find out who’s tied up in the basement,” Dana thought as she set off next door.
Mrs. McGreevy was waiting on her porch to let Dana in the gate. “Thank you so much for coming, Dana. At my age, raking yards is a thing of the past,” said Mrs. McGreevy as she sent Dana to the shed for the rake.
Dana wasn’t about to be fooled. She thought about what she’d heard and knew she had to find out what was going on. She tried peering through the basement window, but the caked-on dirt and muck made it impossible to see. She tried the basement door but it was locked.
A short while later, Dana heard the basement door creak open. She held her breath. It was only Mrs. McGreevy. She shuffled out carefully balancing a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and a cup. She pulled the door around behind her.
“Raking is thirsty work. I thought you might like a drink.”
“Thank you, Mrs. McGreevy,” Dana said and then pretended to drink. As soon as Mrs. McGreevy turned to go inside, she spit it in the grass. She wasn’t taking any chances.
Dana saw that the door was cracked open. This was her chance to get inside and find out who was being tied up. Mrs. McGreevy wouldn’t be fast enough to catch her. As she prepared to run inside, the door creaked softly. Dana froze.
“Oh no,” she thought, “they’re going to try to get me.” The door creaked again. A blur of fur and claws came running out.
The next thing Dana knew, she was flat on her back in her pile of leaves. A huge St. Bernard puppy stood on her chest. He licked her face and nuzzled her with his wet nose. Dana hollered with laughter, begging him to stop. Just when Dana thought she was going to pee her pants from laughing so hard, Mrs. McGreevy scooped the puppy up.
“Dana! Oh, my goodness! Did he hurt you?” Mrs. McGreevy cried as she struggled to hold the squirming puppy. “Please excuse Bosco. He hasn’t been to puppy school yet. He is such a handful. I’ve had to resort to tying him up just to keep him under control.”
Dana laughed even harder as relief flooded through her. Mrs. McGreevy looked at her, puzzled. Dana told her, “I feel really silly. I heard you yelling at Bosco this morning. I was afraid you would tie me up if I didn’t rake your leaves right.”
Mrs. McGreevy laughed along with Dana, shaking her head. “At your age, I may have thought the same thing. Now that we’ve cleared that up, how about a snack? I just have to get Bosco back inside.”
Dana followed Mrs. McGreevy inside. After a break of lemonade and sugar cookies, Dana finished raking. As she set off for home, Dana promised to come over and play with Bosco the very next day.
5. Summer Storm by Steve Hodsdon
Today, the rains come at last. First the hint, then the promise. You’ve seen this many times this past August; the breeze is fitful; ripples flit across the calm waters of the cove; the weathervane rotates in confusion. You pause in your play at the water’s edge, adults pause in their conversations. Nothing ever comes of it. The heat doesn’t dissipate. The marigolds, ever thirsty, look as though they came from a mummy’s tomb.
Today, however, it’s different. The breeze becomes more insistent, picking up strength as the day progresses. From the west, cumulus clouds rise to form cumulonimbus as the squall line advances.
Blue skies retreat from aggressive thunder heads. Rumbles in the distance grow louder, more assertive. Trees wave goodbye to the calm, sweltering day, turning their leaves over as if to welcome the oncoming rain. The lake’s choppy waves grow to white caps. The chop penetrates the cove as the wind swings around to face the opening.
Adults call out orders. Stow the lounge chairs; get your toys away from the water’s edge unless you don’t want them anymore; pull that row boat higher up on shore. You scramble about, doing what’s expected of you.
The western hills fade from view as the clouds scud over. Lightning bolts are now visible. How far away? You count the interval from flash to bang. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand . . . .
Close, very close. Better get inside now.
Quickly, your father closes some windows while lowering the others to half mast.
The first rain band passes by, sweeping over the cottage like a giant broom. You scramble for a shirt as the temperature plummets. Lightning gathers strength, increases in frequency. Thunder rattles the windows. A loud crack makes you jump as a branch snaps of the pine in the front yard. Are the marigolds being pelted by . . . hail?
The antique wall mounted telephone, resplendent in black Bakelite, seems to shudder with each flash of lightning, the ringer inside chattering. You fancy that you hear the static on the line even though the handset is hanging on its hook.
And then it happens. A bolt of lightning brighter than all the previous bolts put together. The simultaneous crash of thunder that shakes the entire cottage. The smell of ozone that quickly dissipates.
As the afterglow fades from your sight, you see that the great white pine tree that held one end of the clothes line is now a tall, jagged stump. Forgotten swimsuits and towels, that once hung on the line, lay smoldering on the ground, burned in half by the sheer power of the strike.
And what of the pine tree? Split asunder, pieces of it lay about that range in size from toothpicks to fireplace logs.
The telephone receiver dangles on the floor, blown off its hanger by a blue ball of energy emanating from inside the phone.
As quickly as the storm starts, it stops. Dark clouds still scut about, the trees tremble as if they aren’t sure the storm is over. Lightning flickers in the retreating clouds, quickly disappearing as the darkness lifts. Puddles on the sand are absorbed, leaving outlines of pine needles, leaves, and small sticks. Thunder still rumbles in the distance, bouncing through valleys and over hilltops, sounding spent, exhausted.
A rainbow appears as the sun peaks around a cloud, as if to see if it’s safe to return. You step outside and go over to the remains of the bathing suits. Behind you, your father stumbles out the door, first looks at the tree, then the sky, and shakes his head.
This day will be part of your family’s stories for years to come.
6. Red Light, Green Light by Easton Miller
She faced down a third grade thug who pushed me off a swing when we were five. She sweet-talked my dad into doubling my allowance when we were twelve. At seventeen, sleepovers meant climbing out her bedroom window to meet boys and drag on unfiltered Chesterfields she’d snitched from her Dad’s dresser. “Audrey, we are going to get in such deep trouble if we get caught. We’ll be grounded for eternity.”
“Dad promised Mom he’d quit smoking. I hardly think he’s going to mention any missing cigarettes, do you?” She’d lean against the boy she thought was worth the risk, light up and blow smoke rings at the moon.
Audrey planned my wedding and insisted on driving the get away car she’d festooned with clattering tin cans and fifty or sixty pounds of rice. She drove me to the hospital for the birth of my first child, breaking some kind of land-speed record. She talked the cop, who’d followed us the entire way with his siren blaring, out of the ticket. She drove me to a pit bull lawyer when I divorced, then dragged me back into a world of adventurous living that usually involved men and driving me somewhere I didn’t want to go. It’s always been a given, whatever we do, Audrey drives. She’s going to anyway.
A beautiful spring day motivates us to make a Dairy Queen run. “We deserve ice cream and chocolate,” Audrey says as she expertly fastens me into a seat belt.
We are sitting at a red light, windows rolled down allowing the warm breeze to stir our memories. California Dreaming wafts over the oldies station. I’m singing back up. Audrey belts the lead beating out the rhythm on the dashboard. In front of us an elderly man with a walker steps off the curb into the crosswalk just as a giant monster pick-up, the size and color of the Viet Nam War Memorial — big, long, dark, awesome — pulls up behind us, its deafening boom drowns out California or dreaming. The light turns green.
The fragile old man puts one hesitant foot in front of the other. The sun glints off his aluminum walker, the rubber tips scrape reluctantly across the pavement. He is so slow; I purposely stare without blinking, to make sure he’s really moving. The shadow of the monster truck takes on weight as the driver behind us hits his horn. The light turns red.
“Chill,” Audrey mutters. “You’d think a flock of angry Canadian geese was behind us for all that honking.” Icy impatience has crept into her voice. Uh oh. I’ve heard that tone more than once or twice in the last five decades. I can practically see steam emitting from her nostrils. I’m fearful she might get out of the car and start something right here in the intersection. I’m confident of the outcome. Audrey always emerges a winner, but things could get ugly here real fast. The old man shuffles forward. The light turns green.
We sit, motor idling, waiting for the old fellow to clear the hood. The slam of the pick-up door behind us sways our car like we were caught in an eighty-mile an hour crosswind. The crunch of boots on asphalt is ominously audible.
I haven’t spent my life along side Audrey without learning something. I hit the button to roll up windows and lock doors. The side view mirror reflects a three hundred pound animal with muscles the size of basketballs approaching. His dark glasses wrap around his face like the darkened windshield wraps around his truck. In fact, he looks a lot like his truck. Audrey rolls down her window.
“Are you crazy?” I hiss. I’ve asked her that question at least two million times in the fifty years I’ve known her. She has yet to respond.
A three-foot wide male chest fills the driver’s window. Our elderly pedestrian has advanced to the right front of the hood. The light turns red.
“What a coincidence. I can’t remember the last time I saw you. My how you’ve filled out.” Audrey twinkles into Godzilla’s midriff. “And tell me how’s your dear mother?’
“Why, thank you, ma’am, for asking. She’s doing real well. Did you know she’s been pretty sick?” His voice filters in from somewhere above the sunroof. He sounds surprising light and mellow for a guy built like an aircraft carrier.
“I heard. I called, but the machine picked up. I’m delighted to hear she’s better. How lovely we ran into each other this way.”
I can’t believe she’s having a conversation with this guy.
“Just wanted to see if you needed help, since your car wasn’t moving.”
“What a gentleman you are — a real credit to your mother.” The aircraft carrier shuffles his feet in embarrassed acknowledgement. Audrey reaches out the window and pats his arm. “We’re fine. We wanted to let the gentleman cross safely.” She gestures toward the windshield. Tiny geisha steps take the old man to the left side of the car.
“Oh yeah. I see. Glad to know everything is ok. I’ll tell mom I ran into you.” I shudder to think a few minutes ago he might have meant that literally. The boots pound back to the behemoth of a truck.
Audrey flutters a hand at Godzilla’s retreating back. “Say hello to your mother. Give her my best,” she calls.
“Did he just tip his hat?”
“I believe he did. Oh good, the light is green.”
“Actually it’s yellow, Audrey.”
“Close enough.” She shoots through the intersection leaving the monster truck still sitting at the stoplight. The old man places his walker on the far curb.
“Was that good luck or what?”
“What do you mean?”
“That you knew that guy and his mother.”
“Geeze, Louise. You are so naive.” She flashes me a sly, smile. “I never saw that guy before in my life.”
7. The Bum by Uttara Talapatra
It was a glorious day – warm, bright and sunny. Perfect for spending at the beach, with a pleasant breeze lulling everybody into a languorous stupor. It was afternoon, and most picnic-goers had finished their lunch, and were now dozing on the soft sands.
“Mummy pleeeeeease!” Aryan pleaded with his mother, who was settling down under her sun hat. All of nine years old, he screwed up his face in a familiar expression, inches away from tears.
“Pleeeeeease Mummy, I’ll be good. Pleeeeease!”
His litany of “pleeeeases” melted Aditi’s heart. Smothering a smile, she put on her sternest expression. “All right, but only upto your ankles. I’ll be watching. And you‘ll be in trouble young man, if you disobey me.”
Aryan whooped with pleasure, gave her a hug, and promptly ran towards the water. She settled down on her beach towel with a sigh. Her sweet Aryan! God alone knew how much longer he would hug her in that spontaneous and un-self conscious way. She had heard enough stories from other mothers about how children became cold and distant as soon as they grew up.
He was the apple of her eye, and she doted on him. Her only child, Aryan was loved and petted, but not spoilt. She was far too sensible for that. She settled down contentedly, day-dreaming about their new house. She and her husband had finally managed to buy and furnish a house in the city. It had a separate room for Aryan, and he was thrilled about it. Already, he’d made a whole list of games he planned to play there.
Today was a quiet day for her after very long. She had had a hectic month at work and her husband was away on a business trip. Being a Sunday, she had the whole day to herself – and there was nothing more relaxing than an outing to the beach.
There were clouds above. Funny how she’d not noticed them till now. At first they were soft and fluffy, like cute little bunny rabbits. But, as Aditi looked on, they seemed to be changing shape right before her eyes. She watched, fascinated – the rabbits had just changed into grizzly bears! She suddenly felt an intense constriction in her chest, as if she was being suffocated.
Through a curtain of haze, she could hear screaming; panicked, high pitched screaming. She knew instinctively that it was Aryan. She awoke with a start, and realized that the sunny day had become overcast, with menacing clouds. Already the first drops were coming down. And….her heart leapt to her mouth! Aryan was in deep water, struggling to get free of a ragged looking stranger, who was trying to pin him down!
Aditi was in the water in a flash. She managed to wade in to where Aryan was struggling. Swinging her heavy beach umbrella, she hit the man on the side of his head. He looked at her in surprise before crumpling and releasing Aryan.
She hugged her son fiercely and waded to the beach. Aryan had lost consciousness. There was a small knot of people who’d gathered around to watch, standing at the edge of the water. She could hear them murmuring among themselves as she carried the inert body of her son. She heard phrases like ‘kidnapper’ and ‘child molester’ and felt a chill run down her spine. It had been too close!
She thumped Aryan’s chest and rubbed his feet vigorously in an effort to revive him. Even in his unconscious state, he was shivering violently. Somebody handed her a thick towel, and she wrapped it around him.
After what seemed like an eternity, Aryan finally stopped shivering and opened his eyes. Seeing her panicked face, he burst into tears. Aditi hugged him and smothered him with kisses all over, relieved to have him safe. She gently lifted him up and carried him to where they had been sitting. The crowd began to disperse. The drama was over.
Aditi calmed Aryan down till he finally stopped crying. She could see that he’d undergone a huge trauma. She handed him a bottle of Coke, though normally he was not allowed to drink it. But this was not normal – he’d almost been abducted!
She sat beside him and stroked his hair, too relieved to think straight.
“I’m sorry Mama,” he said in a small voice.
Poor baby, he was blaming himself for what happened. Her heart melted and she hugged him close.
“Don’t worry about it baby, it’s all right. Just relax. Everything is going to be all right. You’re safe now. Mummy is here.” She hugged him close.
Once Aryan realized that he was not going to be scolded, he became a little bold. “I want to say thank you to that uncle who saved me. Do you know where he is?”
Aditi looked at him, puzzled. “What uncle? What are you talking about?”
“I didn’t obey you,” said Aryan in a small voice, squirming and looking down at his toes.
“I’m sorry; I went in too deep. And before I knew it, I was under water. I got really scared and called to you, but you didn’t hear. Then uncle saw me from the beach and came after me to help. After that I don’t know what happened. I really want to thank him.” It all came out in a rush. Aditi looked at Aryan stupidly, as if she could not understand what he was saying.
Then, like a woman possessed, she rushed to the spot where she’d dragged him out of the water. She looked up and down, but the man was nowhere to be seen. She craned her neck to look out over the water.
Far away, floating on the waves, she could make out a speck of green, the jacket that Aryan’s saviour had been wearing. It bobbed up and down while Aditi tried to focus on it, tears streaming down her face. After a while, it was lost to sight.
8. The Small World Above Gomez Pallacio by John Margaritis
I flew out of Houston on one of those small fifty passenger jets that do little to instill confidence. Looking out the window, I knew exactly when we crossed the border into Mexico. The ordered roads and symmetrical plots of Texas farms and ranches were all gone and replaced by a disjointed landscape. An hour later on final approach, I could smell Torreón as soon as the landing gear dropped. Sewer gas filled the cabin while I looked down upon roofless pallet houses and junked vehicles. I had an idea what to expect, but it wasn’t this.
As soon as I cleared customs, two bodyguards from the company escorted me outside to a waiting Suburban. Other than hello, no one said another word on the twenty-minute drive to the office. That was fine with me, I needed the time to stare out the window. I hoped the passing scenes would improve as we left the airport behind, but they did not. In Mexico for a long-term consulting job, it was now time to live and work in this place that screamed danger.
A few weeks later, tired of isolation during the day at the office and living at night in a secured compound, I decided to break out and make peace with my surroundings. I ditched the bodyguards and set out driving with maps and camera to memorize the city. It turns out there are three cities in the valley, and late in the day, I stumbled upon a remarkable area I couldn’t get out of my mind. It felt like the Athens, Greece, landscape I visited when I was 8½ years old, but it was much more than that. The scene through my windshield pulled me deeper into the foothills, further from the safety of the main street. I felt compelled to keep going but instead turned back and promised myself I’d return.
Our best bodyguard is a retired Mexican army commando named Juan Trejo. He is 5’6” tall, built like a fireplug, hard and weathered as a rock, with bulging eyes that search the landscape independently of each other. We affectionately call him the “Iguana”. Together we drove back to that place I discovered, my camera in my lap, Iguana in the passenger seat. I was dressed casually in baggy cargo pants and a tee shirt, Iguana in a suit, armed, and looking the part.
We drove up the same street, but this time I kept going. As the road changed from asphalt to dirt, the scene darkened as the bright sky disappeared from beneath the tree canopy. Eyes turned to stare at us, first with a look of confusion, then fear, and finally anger. The further we ventured into the foothills, the narrower the roadway became and the slower people moved to get out of our way. As my stomach tightened, I instinctively checked my rear view mirror to see if our exit route was closing in behind us. If this road is a dead end, it will be people, not objects, who block our retreat.
My immediate association was to the movie Apocalypse Now. As the boat traveled upstream, the river got narrower, the surroundings more primitive, and the outcome less predictable. Here, we are intruders in these natives’ lives. They don’t understand why we are here, they fear us, and they are angry we make them afraid. Almost out of road, we stumbled upon a narrow dirt path that led out of the darkness and onto a paved street bathed in sunshine. A half mile later, I parked the Suburban; I had to get out, walk around, and feel this place.
Iguana is the perfect bodyguard. When there is no perceived danger, he camouflages into the surroundings. When the situation warrants, he emerges and maintains a distance from me equal to the threat. He was five feet from me now as we walked up a path and a hundred or so stairs with concrete shacks on either side. Colorful fabrics substituted for windows, bootlegged power lines and steel pipes crisscrossed without reason, but here, our presence was the only thing out of order.
As we climbed the stairs, people stopped to stare at us and just like before, I could see the same sequence in each person’s eyes. Up close now, I made a decision. With a genuine smile, my eyes non-judgmental and friendly, I blurted out my best “Buenos Tardes”, and in every case, man or woman, I got a genuine smile in return. They still didn’t know why I was here, although they understood what Iguana was, but now their fear and anger was gone. I wanted to connect and take pictures, but I knew that wouldn’t work without first investing time building dialog and gaining trust. I’m capable of doing both, but doing either was impossible with Iguana looming nearby.
At the top of the steps, I looked down at the rooftops and streets below, and asked myself, “Why am I drawn to this place, where have I seen this scene before?” It occurred to me that I used to be them. Living in New York City in a small world of no more than two city blocks, I remember feeling safe, in control of my streets, and feeling totally frightened of the world beyond. Anyone stepping into my neighborhood was an intruder, as I am to them. I have to plant myself in this very spot until I feel safe and at home. Once I have mastered the most frightening, all the rest will fall easily into place.
I’m going back next week, and not with Iguana. This time, I’ll be the one armed, but with Spanish books, an electronic translator, and the time to make my peace with the natives in the small world above Gomez Pallacio.