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Burning at Both Ends

Burning at Both Ends

 

By Thomas Biehl

 

Copyright 2016 Thomas Biehl

 

Shakespir Edition

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

 

Waking Up

Under the Influence

Lunch on the Contrary

Desolace

The Trial of Michael

My Tattoo

A Midlife Night’s Dream

Waking Up

Shane tried to open his eyes, but they refused. The dull ache of his head and the foul taste in his mouth confirmed it; he was hung over. He willed himself to pass back out, so he could sleep it off. No such relief came to him, though. He laid there drifting on the edge of consciousness. Images faded in and out teasing him with dreams that he could not sleep to see. He struggled to make coherent thoughts in his painful head. Was he still drunk? Perhaps, but either way Shane felt like shit. As if to confirm this, a queasy feeling rose in his stomach. He rolled over to quiet his midsection. Then, his hand hit something, something soft, supple… skin!

This time Shane’s eyes shot open. His hand touched a naked leg protruding from under the sheets. His eyes followed the lightly tan, shaven, female leg from the small foot up to the thigh where it disappeared under the covers. The white sheets outlined the form beneath them, subtle curved hips narrowing a bit, then giving way to a smaller midsection. Then, her chest made two little mountains of snowy cotton. Finally the sheets gave way to a shoulder, then a neck, and then an attractive woman’s face that was surrounded by long soft black hair. A low whimper escaped her crimson lips as she rolled onto her side, away from Shane.

Now completely awake, thoughts flooded Shane’s already aching head. Who was this woman? Did they… Shane realized for the first time that he himself was naked, it seemed they had. What did he do last night? Images of a house with lots of people drinking and loud music blaring came to him. Yesterday had been like any other Friday; he had gone to a party on campus. He looked at the sheeted body in front of him, again following the curves that showed through the sheets. How had he ended up with this black haired beauty? In his head he saw himself handing her, jean and deep purple t-shirt clothed, a drink and trying to yell at her over the loud music. Then, he saw them sitting outside the party talking and eventually walking. Finally, his head filled with flashes of naked bodies moving against one another.

Shane shook his head and looked around the bedroom taking in the scene. Sun showed through the window onto the messy desk off to one corner, dirty clothes piled in front of the closet. It was definitely his bedroom in his apartment. One look to the floor next to the bed confirmed that those jeans and t-shirt along with a black bra and panties were muddled with his own clothes. At the edge of the tattered pile was a teal blue wrapper. At least they’d used protection. He could hardly believe it. He had slept with a woman he just met, albeit a quite attractive one. Was this a one night stand? No, this is his place he could not just slip out the window. He was not sure he would if he could. He sat up too quickly and the pain in his head doubled.

Slipping out of bed as quietly as he could, Shane put on his boxers and then his jeans. Focusing his scattered vision, he looked in the door mirror. Messy wheat brown hair sat atop a muscular but lanky body. Pale blue eyes examined his rugged good looks. Decidedly satisfied with his half naked reflection, he walked to the kitchen and pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge. The cold liquid felt good trickling down his throat and flowing through his body shocking his insides awake. He downed half the bottle hoping it would make him feel a little better. He stood there for a moment trying to decide what to do. Should he wake the girl up? No, he thought he should let her sleep. His stomach took that moment to remind him it was queasy. Breakfast, that’s what Shane needed. Then, he would figure out what to do about the naked girl in his bed.

An examination of the fridge turned up what little there was in it. The eggs and sausage links had to be his roommate’s, but right now Shane did not care. After gathering other requirements, he scrambled some of the eggs and threw a few sausages in a pan to fry. As he went to pour the eggs in another pan the woman walked into kitchen. He couldn’t help but notice how sexy she looked wearing his dress shirt from night before. Her jade green eyes stared unwaveringly into his. Tension grew in the air, and though she was hung over herself, her embarrassment at the situation showed on her cheeks.

“Morning,” Shane managed to say.

“Good… morning,” She said. A slight smile came to her face when she realized what he was doing.

“Breakfast,” He asked. Of course, he had meant to make her breakfast, or at least that’s how he played it off.

“Yes, thank you,” she said as she sat down at the counter that separated the kitchen from the rest of the apartment.

Shane went to the fridge and pulled out another bottle of water. After handing it to the girl, he went back to cooking. He scrambled more eggs, got out more sausages, and even put some bread in the toaster. The black haired woman watched him cook, neither of them knowing what to say further. Shane could feel the woman’s eyes on him. His mind raced at what he should say, but nothing came to him. The silence lasted until he was finished and had set the plate of food in front of her.

“It looks great…” she started but trailed off, searching for his name.

“Shane,” he said sitting down next to her. There was a pause. Shane realized he didn’t know her name either.

“Amy,”

“Nice to meet you,” Shane said.

Under the Influence

There was no answer when Jenny tapped on the bedroom door. She was supposed to have been spending the weekend back home at her parents’ house. When her father had been called away on business, she had decided to return to school. She couldn’t resist the temptation to drive back to campus first thing in the morning, so she could surprise her boyfriend. The whole way there she had thought about how much he must have missed her. She had even imagined the look on his face when she showed up. Upon arrival, she checked her makeup and highlight blond hair in the car mirror. As she walked up to the house, beneath her jeans and hooded sweatshirt she could feel the lacey red lingerie tight against her skin. This was going to be a good surprise, she thought. She made her way through the house to his room. When she did not receive an answer, she knocked on the door again. This time when there was no answer, she pushed the door open.

“Rick, I…” Jenny began. She anticipated that he might still be asleep. She had even anticipated that he might be hung over. What she had not anticipated though, was that he was not there at all. The sheets and cover of the bed were disheveled, but empty. Besides that, the room was as pristine as ever. The desk was neatly arranged. Beneath the flat screen, the DVDs sat organized alphabetically. The door to the bathroom was open. Jenny did not hear the shower going but she checked anyway. Finding it empty, she returned to the bedroom. She pulled her phone out to call Rick. A few moments later she heard rock music and the lyrics “Drink, Drink, Drink you under the table.” That was Rick’s ringtone. Jenny found his phone on the night stand next to his wallet and keys. She hung up her phone. At least he could not have gotten very far, she realized.

There were several of his frat brothers Jenny could call to find out Rick’s whereabouts. As she sat on the bed, another thought occurred to her. She could go through his phone to find clues as to his whereabouts. Was she allowed to do that? After a moment’s pause the thought in her head became, sure she was; she was his girlfriend. Besides, all she would be doing is confirming that she had every reason to trust Rick. Having decided, she picked up the phone. The first logical thing to check was the call history. The last outgoing call was the one he had made to her the previous night. That brought a smile to her lips. In the incoming calls she found a call from Danny Boy that was received at 9:30 this morning. That settled it; she would call Rick’s friend Dan.

Might as well check his texts, the thought hung there for a moment. Why not, was the decisive notion. She sifted through the “hey man” texts that occurred last night, until she came to a series of texts from a Cindy. As she read the texted conversation line by line her brow began to furrow. Her grip on the cell phone tightened. Tears began to well up in her eyes. The pedestal of perfection and trust she had placed Rick on was beginning to crumble. At the end of the conversation were words set off by brackets, Picture Message Sent. She selected the words and waited for the picture to load. The pedestal shattered when the picture was revealed to be of Rick’s penis. She almost threw the phone but decided against it. There was one more thing she could check.

The picture gallery had a section that was marked with yesterday’s date. There were the usual pictures of partying and alcohol. Then, there was the penile photograph. The very next picture was of a pretty brunet with a beer in her hand. It was followed by a series of photographs that ended with the brunet naked in Rick’s bed and not alone. Jenny immediately got off the bed out of revulsion. This time she did throw the phone. It shattered upon impact with the wall. The sound reverberated through the room as remnants of plastic and metal fell to the carpet. The tears rolled down her cheeks in a mix of anger and sadness. How could he do this? He had said he loved her. And she had loved him. Didn’t she? At that moment she was so confused. What should she do? She could confront Rick, slap him across the face, and tell him it was over. Somehow that did not seem like enough.

The internal struggle and debate went on for what seemed like an eternity. It only made Jenny more sad and especially more angry. Then, she realized something. Rick’s wallet was right there on the night stand. His credit cards are in that wallet. She opened the folded black leather. Sure enough, she pulled out his VISA and then his American Express. As Jenny held the plastic money, she considered what she was about to do. Was this stealing? No, this was pay back. He deserved to pay even if it was in the literal sense of the word. But she was committing credit card fraud? He had let her buy things with his cards before. Besides she had her eyes on that pair of shoes from Hendale’s. Yeah, screw him. She was going to take him to the cleaners. With that thought she put the cards in her pocket and replaced the wallet to the night stand. She walked back through the house as quietly as she had come in.

The front door of the Sigma Omega Lambda fraternity opened, and out walked Jenny. She strode to her car with a righteous determination. The foreboding female did not squeal her tires. She simply got in her car, punched up the nearest mall on her GPS, and drove off. From the door of the frat a figure watched her drive away with just the hint of a smirk on his face. His dress was business casual with dark grey wrinkle free khakis and a crisp deep green shirt. Long black hair was slicked back in strait lines. Piercing green eyes followed the car until it rounded a corner and was out of sight. The figure, Kael, took a moment to reflect on his accomplishment.

Though he was noticed by no one, Kael had been at the party last night. He had moved through the crowd of drinkers looking. After a while, he came to Rick sitting at the bar. Rick was drinking and talking but not really having any fun. Kael listened to the words and thoughts of Rick and those around him, looking for something to use. At first, the figure’s involvement was subtle, almost negligible. He found a thought in back of Rick’s mind. Then, he merely suggested that the person he was drinking with confirm it.

“Rick, that girl, Cindy, from Psych 102 is hot as hell,” Nathan said.

“Yeah, she is,” Rick said.

“Where’s Jenny tonight,” Nathan asked. Kael did not even prompt that one.

“She’s at her parents for the weekend.”

“Cool, wanna do a shot?”

Kael had been there when Rick realized he actually had Cindy’s number. The decision to text her had needed little to no assistance from Kael. In fact, he was a relative spectator for most of the texted conversation. His biggest influence had been merely contributing his own opinion into Rick’s thought process during the picture debate. His suggestion was that texting a picture of your genitalia was not only normal but would turn the girl on. When she arrived partially inebriated, they flirted enough on their own. Kael just gave a little push here and a shove there. The alcohol and hormones did most of the work. The figure from the doorway had just put on the finishing touches, really. Kael was delicate, like planting the idea in Cindy’s head to grab Rick’s phone and take a picture during their romp.

In the morning, Cindy having taken a barely awake Rick out for coffee, Kael was about to leave. Then, Jenny had arrived. Kael had followed this unsuspected treat back to the room. He was there when she found the room empty. He was there when she debated whether or not to check Rick’s phone. His first actual contribution to her dilemma had been, sure you are; you are his girlfriend. After a few more influences, minimal poking and prodding really, she left the house ready to steal from the man she had come to ‘surprise’. His work here done, Kael began walking down the sidewalk. Being assigned to an area with a college town made his job so much easier. So much so he might even be up for a promotion.

Lunch on the Contrary

Mark was running late. Mark hated being late. The closest parking spot he could find was three blocks away. His business ready appearance clashed with the lazy college traffic on the midday sidewalk. The pressed dress pants, striped blue shirt, and accompanying tie, not to mention his clean shaven face and recently cut light brown hair, where out of place among the rock band shirts and sandals. Those days of parties followed by 10 AM classes were for Mark a distant memory. Now, he spent most of his time in an office either staring at a computer screen or directing mindless people about as if they were animals. Almost there, Mark comforted himself with the fact that Ben was never anywhere on time. Mark could think of little reason to assume he would not still be the first one there.

Entering the Irish pub filled Mark with more college memories. Now in the light of day, things were different. There were no smokers standing outside puffing away, deep in pseudo-intellectual conversation. There was no large man in the entry way checking identification. The loud music, boisterous drinking, and overall rampant determination to have a good time were missing. Mark scanned the room. An attractive brunet in a tight shirt stood behind the bar stocking a cooler with beer. A few customers sat at the bar drinking, eating lunch, or just watching the TV that hung from the ceiling. Checking the high backed booths required that Mark make a circuit of the establishment.

Sure enough, Ben was nowhere to be found. Relieved, Mark sat at a table by the window. Within minutes the brunet from behind the bar appeared. She gave him a much used smile and menu. She said, “welcome to Maggie’s, can I start you off with something to drink?”

“I’m waiting for someone,” Mark replied, “but I’ll have a diet coke,”

“Sure thing,” she said and was gone. Looking over the menu, Mark realized he had never actually eaten there. Within seconds he had decided what he wanted. The walls were decorated with pictures of old pubs, images of Ireland’s beautiful landscapes, and tin signs that indicated life was better after the consumption of alcohol. The scene outside the window also failed to distract Mark for long. His drink came, and his thoughts began to wander. He had everything he once thought he wanted. The managerial position, the four bedroom house, and even playing golf on the weekends had all been part of the plan. That was the life he had gone to college for. So he could live more comfortably than his parents had. It had all made perfect sense. Somewhere along the line Mark had realized, he didn’t actually like golf.

“Marky Mark,” said a man walking up to the table. Though in his late twenties, Ben had the look of someone barely out of his teens. He was unmistakable in his faded jeans and drunken stick figure T-shirt. The mop of dark hair and baggy eyes gave him that just out of bed appearance. The nick name was one Ben had bestowed himself. Mark could not rap, nor did he think he looked anything like the celebrity.

“Benjamin,” was Mark’s greeting to his old roommate. Ben shuddered at the use of his full name.

“I’m sorry, I must have the wrong table,” Ben replied, remaining standing.

“Yes, I’m afraid the play dough and crayons are at one of the back tables.”

“Well, if this table requires a suit and tie, I’d rather sit there,” said Ben before taking the chair opposite his old friend. The pair gave one another an acknowledging smirk. The bartender returned. Before she could greet her new customer, he said, “Hey Katie, how has your beautiful self been?”

“Hey,” Katie hesitated, and then said, “I’m good.” After a moment of awkward silence she followed up with, “would you like something to drink?”

“Sure, I’ll have a Bud Light,” Ben replied. The flustered bartender seemed thankful to walk away from table.

“Did you…” Mark asked in a hushed voice.

“Yes, yes I did,” was Ben’s reply as he watched Katie’s figure move with her walk.

“You didn’t let me finish. Did you welcome that poor girl into the wide world of STDs?”

“Hey, I got checked out.”

“And…”

“I was clean.”

“How many women have you slept with since then?”

Ben attempted a mental calculation, but giving up replied, “Touché.”

Mark rolled his eyes, and then pretended to be looking over the menu. Ben glanced at his own menu. He started to say something but was interrupted by the arrival of his drink. Katie asked, “Are you guys ready to order?”

Both of them nodded. She turned towards Mark first. He ordered with, “I’ll have the turkey club.”

“The bacon double cheese burger,” Ben replied when it was his turn. After he had ordered and Katie had written it down she glanced up again. She maintained eye contact for an uncomfortable minute or two. Then, she simply walked away from the table. Ben said, “So, how’s the wife?”

“She’s good.”

“What’s new with insurance these days?”

“People pay us when they don’t die; they pay us when they don’t wreck their car, and when nothing is wrong with their house,” Mark replied, “Then when tragedy strikes we pay them. We’re like money angels who only come if you pay your premiums.”

“O, so that’s how it works,” said Ben sarcastically. “What is it you actually do again?”

“I’m a Technology Systems Consultant,” Mark said. The blank stare he usually received registered on Ben’s face, so he continued, “basically, I and the people that work for me translate the data that the tech people give us into things that the business people can understand.”

“Sounds exciting, how do you keep from killing yourself?”

“I have a wall where I hang copies of my paychecks. Speaking of, what is the going rate for a college drop out?”

“Enough to pay my rent and still have a good time.”

“How is the alcohol business?”

“I still serve drinks.”

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“How so.”

“Would you consider bartending somewhere besides Hank’s?”

“The thought has crossed my mind. What’s this about,” Ben said. Before Mark could reply, an electronic jingle caught his attention. Ben pulled a sleek cell phone from his pocket. After checking the caller, his other hand produced a single finger that was meant to tell Mark he needed a minute. When Ben answered the call, his voice noticeably changed. The tone was lowered and everything he said had an added intensity. Despite his obvious faults, Mark thought, this is where Ben excelled. The man could sell anything, most notably himself. From the excited sounds coming out of the phone, the girl had bought it hook, line, and sinker. After some time, Ben hung up the phone and said, “Sorry about that. My mom says hi.”

“Your mother whom you’re meeting out for drinks tonight.”

“What can I say the woman likes to party.”

“Where were we?”

“Insurance.”

“After that.”

“Bartending.”

“Right, I have a business proposition for you.”

“English…”

“I want to start a bar.”

“Really, what kind of bar?”

“One that isn’t a college bar with the music so loud you can’t hear yourself think, and one that isn’t townie bar where you can take bets on whose married to their cousin. I want to start a bar where a family man can have a drink while watching sports or taking his kids to dinner.”

“And you want me to work for you.”

“I want you to be my partner.”

“You know there has always been an attraction between us, but I just don’t feel that way about you.”

“Ben, I’m serious.”

“Me too; the way you used to strut around the apartment in a towel trying to get me to notice.”

“At least I wore a towel.”

“What can I say, I like freedom.”

The verbal sparring was interrupted by the arrival of their lunch. The food was delivered by a middle aged man in an apron. He said nothing, sat the plates on the table, and then, he left. Each man began to eat his sandwich and accompanying fries. Mark enjoyed the taste of fresh turkey and crisp bacon on toasted bread. After a few minutes of biting and chewing, Mark said, “so, what do you think?”

“Don’t they need you to be the Technology Systems thingy and earn all that money?”

“Truthfully, I’d rather own my own business and be my own boss.”

“I don’t have anywhere near enough money to put up half of the startup costs for a bar,” Ben replied.

“I have some money saved up and I talked to a loan officer at my bank about the rest.”

“You’re serious about this.”

“I told you.”

“And Heather is going along with this plan?”

Mark took a moment to consider his next words before saying, “I’m leaving Heather.”

“You’re what? Why?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Mark, there’s something I need to tell you,” Ben said. Mark gave him a questioning look. After a moment, Ben continued, “Back in college, Heather and I slept together.”

Mark studied his lunch companion. Then, he said, “No, you didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t. But, if I had you’d be pissed right now. Because… You love your wife.”

“Of course, I love her. That’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

“Look, that’s the last thing I’m going to take advice from you on. I have had rental movies longer than you’ve had relationships.”

“True, but you’re the boring moral monogamist, and I’m the alcoholic man whore. I tell girls I’ll call them back, and you get to go antiquing. That is how it’s been since day one.”

“You’re the one who was telling me, at the altar I might add, that getting married was a mistake.”

“So you’re proving me right. You’re saying it was a mistake.”

“No, I…”

“Heather’s smart, funny, hot… I’m beginning to wish I had slept with her. Then again, I suppose she’ll be available soon,” Ben said. Mark slammed his fist on the table. The dull sound reverberated through the bar. This gained the attention of Katie the bartender. Ben waved her off and then proceeded to stare at his friend.

Mark’s shoulders fell as he began, “Every day I used to wake up with a sense of adventure. There were so many different paths the day could take. So many different places I could end up. Without even knowing it those paths started disappearing one by one. Until one day, I woke up and there was only one path to follow. I get up, go to work, come home, we have dinner, and then we just sit there and watch TV or some other monotonous activity because we’re simply trying to stave off repeating the whole cycle over again for as long as possible.”

“Are you having some kind of premature midlife crisis or something?”

“I guess. Heather’s not the problem. It’s just that those moments where we genuinely connect have gotten so few and far between because we’re both just trying to make it through the day.”

“So you’re leaving her, because you don’t genuinely connect anymore.”

“I thought you’d be happy. After all these years, I’m finally coming over to the dark side,” Mark said. Getting no reaction from his lunch companion, Mark paused for a moment. He finally replied, “Heather wants kids.”

“You’ve always talked about having kids.”

“I know, but now I see kids as more responsibility and more monotony.”

“And you want to go the other direction. That’s what this whole bar thing is about.”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“For years you’ve been preaching morality and trying to get me to change my life style. It’s almost like you thought some kind of switch was going to go off and I was going to realize that I don’t actually like drinking and sleeping with all kinds of women. You know, that I was trying to fill some kind of hole inside of myself, blah, blah, blah.”

“Maybe, I was merely trying to validate my own life choices.”

“Probably, but behind all the verbal shots there has always been a quiet envy between us.”

“Really, you envied me.”

“Not so much as in the idea that I wanted to be you, but that I recognized in you that which I could never be.”

“You could be a decent human being.”

“Not by your definition, I can’t.”

“So, because you can’t be a decent human being, I can’t be a douchebag.”

“You don’t want to be me, anymore than I want to be you.”

“No, I suppose I don’t.”

“Besides, I can’t start a bar with you.”

“Why not?”

“I’m joining the peace corps.”

“You’re what.”

“I’m going to Africa to help those less privileged.”

“Is there no one left for you to have sex with on this continent.”

“Depends, are you getting divorced?”

“I…I don’t know. What should I do?”

“The opposite of what I would do, talk to her. And if you hate your job, quit.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It never is. You used to have adventure and options and all that bull, because you used to create them.”

Mark took a moment to consider Ben’s last comment. His entire sandwich and half of his fries were gone. Ben’s plate was empty. Mark checked his watch. He said, “I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Go ahead; I got this,” Ben said, “So, what’s the verdict.”

“I’ll let you know. If you really are going to Africa, be careful. Penicillin doesn’t cure AIDS.”

“And starting a bar doesn’t cure a premature midlife crisis.”

Mark stood to leave, “See you later.”

“Later,” Ben said and nodded to his friend. Mark made his way through the still sparsely populated pub. It wasn’t until he got outside that he pulled out his cell phone. He hit a number on his speed dial and waited for the voice on the other end.

Mark said, “Hey babe…”

Back in the pub, Ben sat at the table. He stared off and let his mind wander. After a few minutes, Katie came to the table. She silently gathered the dishes. As she placed the bill on the table, they made eye contact. A genuine smile crept across her lips. Her face lit up like one of the beer signs over the bar. Ben couldn’t help but return the expression with a smirk of his own. When she walked away, he looked at the bill. Below the drinks, meals, and prices was something handwritten. It was a phone number and a simple message that said, call me this time.

Desolace

The students having just disappeared at the sound of the bell, Kallen Roddeck stared at his empty classroom. The room in front of him was thoroughly unremarkable with its lack of windows, white walls, and outdated computer inlaid desks. Kallen couldn’t decide whom he felt more remorse for, his students who had been labeled genetically imperfect or himself, a teacher of such students marooned with them on a colony dug into an out of the way planet. He let the odd mix of exhaustion and euphoria that the end of the day brought wash over him, and he continued to debate this topic. Though genetically primed, arguably his students were more pitiable with their vagrant lack of maturity, not to mention that stubborn sense of immorality, which always seemed to take him by surprise. Some of them were rather intelligent when they wanted to be; others were painstakingly dim-witted. The majority it seemed had simply lost the ability, and infinitely worse the desire, to think for themselves. To the most disturbing few he was a symbol of authority, and that sense of being controlled was what they had been fighting against for as long as they could remember.

On the other hand, Kallen’s students had infinitely more freedom than he did. The discipline problems, the apathetic sleepers, and even the worst of the lost causes had not yet become the people they were going to be. This alone gave them a chance to prove they could be something better. The problems that had cluttered their past were the mistakes of a child, and could be excused as such; more so if they would learn from them and take that pivotal step down the proverbial right path. Otherwise, one day they would be haunted by their mistakes. The past would loom over their every possible happiness, seeking to destroy its flicker before it ignited into a despicable bonfire of joy. All of their waking moments would be a search in every corner and crevice of life for forgiveness, as his were.

“Mr. Roddeck,” the voice that broke him from his thoughts belonged to one of these students. Claret Jettern was a shining example of what genetic priming had done for, or rather to, these adolescents. The long flowing blond hair, delicately innocent face, and slender yet shapely form had always reminded Kallen more of a doll than a person. She was a testament to the vanity of her parents’ perceived beauty. It was a beauty they had paid to ensure would not only live on in their daughter but even be amplified if possible. Despite being still tinged with a hint of creepiness, he had to admit her smile lit up the room as she walked towards the teacher’s desk. Not a book to be judged by its cover, Claret’s altered genetic code had come into question when she had nearly beaten another girl to death.

“Yes, Claret, what can I do for you,” Kallen said while remaining seated behind the desk.

“Can I see my grade,” Claret replied. With monotonous boredom, Kallen cleared off the touch screen built into his desk and began to tap at it. Seconds later the wall behind him came to life displaying a picture of Claret along with all the assignments she had completed. The overall grade was barely passing. The sight brought a pout of resignation to the young girl’s face.

“I need to bring my grades up if I’m going to get a position in the company,” Claret said.

“That is entirely up to you,” Kallen said sardonically.

“What can I do?”

“The final research project we began talking about today, you could choose to do the extra credit option of focusing on an ancient Earth culture such as the Romans or one of the early Chinese dynasties.”

“What grade will that bring me up to,” she asked, a little displeasure in her voice. Kallen paused for a second to consider his dislike of performing students’ mathematical calculations for them, but in the end resolved to make an exception. He tapped the touch screen a few more times.

“That will give you almost eight percentage points.”

“But that’s not even a higher letter grade.”

“I’m afraid that’s the position you’ve put yourself in. Perhaps if you had been more concerned with your grades all semester, a higher letter grade would still be in reach,” Kallen said. That was because before she thought her status guaranteed her a higher profile job. Now that she knew better, she was trying to do some damage control. Mr. Roddeck’s class was her worst grade. Claret took a moment to consider what she was about to do. Mr. Roddeck was attractive for a teacher, and when on a rare occasion his guarded expression broke he had those sad puppy dog eyes. Besides he was only ten, maybe twelve years older than her. Having decided, she leaned forward placing her elbows on his desk and giving him an ample view down the front of her low cut shirt.

“Are you sure there isn’t anything we can do,” she said with eager eyes and a softer tone. Before he could stop himself, Kallen glanced down at the girl’s cleavage. After a split second that he thought was pardonable but left Claret wondering if she was going to have to make good on her bluff, Kallen’s eyes fell to the computer screen. The thoughts that swam in Kallen’s head ranged between how to best handle this situation without being fired to wondering whether the girl’s breast size was natural or a product of her genetic priming. When his eyes met Claret’s gaze, he had regained his composure.

“If you want a better grade, you will have to retake this class next semester,” Kallen replied. Standing up straight once again, Claret was noticeably relieved. Then, her thoughts went to a darker place. Failure she did not deal well with. Rejection, even that of her ill conceived sexual advances, was unfathomably infuriating. In the past year she had learned to hide, if not control, some of her stronger emotions. What would have caused her to lash out physically or simply brought tears of anger to her eyes, now only registered on her face as a look of disappointment tinged with a hint of contempt. Kallen’s rough and indifferent teacher persona had been developed over the years to keep him from becoming too emotionally involved in the successes and failures of his students; he decided to let it crack a little. Clichéd as it was, he said in a fatherly tone, “and when you show me the effort that I know you are capable of, you will reach your true potential.”

“I guess…,” Claret said. She had been debating on going over Mr. Roddeck’s head and even possibly accusing him of sexual harassment. The words had caught her off guard. She now felt some entirely different sensations. Unsure how to process the mixed emotions welling up inside her, she decided it was time to leave. She ended the conversation with, “I guess I’ll see you next semester then.”

As she walked out of the classroom, Kallen wondered how close he had come to either being fired or having one of his students attempt to beat him to death. Either way, he concluded he was better off than he would have been if that conversation had taken a different turn. The screen on his computer returned to the default black background with the rotating grey and white NG logo. Staring at the NewGen company symbol, he couldn’t help but think it was somehow responsible for his current situation.

 

Kallen first remembered staring at the symbol when he and Rane, his wife, were in the lobby at the NewGen offices. The furniture was stylish; in fact everything there was clean and polished. There was the stinging smell of sanitizer in the air. The light green summer dress that his wife had on made her look even more beautiful. Her brown hair had been cut to just above her shoulders and was streaked with a desert tan color. Those pale blue eyes of hers looked almost turquoise in the florescent light and were barely concealing an almost childlike eager anticipation. A clean-cut man in a black suit approached them, introduced himself as Jacen Werstern Senior Sales Rep., and asked them to follow him.

“So, you are interested in our Prime Genetics program,” Mr. Werstern said when they entered his office. The small space was rather plain with chairs similar to the ones in the lobby, a shiny unremarkable desk, and a window that looked onto the building across the street. The man himself had slick black hair and impeccably groomed features. The salesman and the entire environment had been created no doubt to assure the customers that the company ran like they appeared; clean, efficient, and unintentionally a bit unsettling.

“Yes we are,” Rane responded as they took their seats opposite the man.

“As a NewGen employee, Mrs. Roddeck, I’m sure you are familiar with the program.”

“I’m somewhat familiar with it. yes,” Rane said. She had already made her decision. The woman Kallen married was smart, funny, and attractive. Coming from a family where those traits weren’t exactly prevalent made her feel lucky, and on occasion even made her wonder if she was adopted. Unsure of her own genetics, Rane wanted to ensure that her children did not have to rely on luck. She gave Kallen a look that he knew by now meant she wanted him to take part in the conversation.

“I am not as familiar with the program and would like the full picture before we come to a decision,” Kallen said.

“Certainly,” Mr. Werstern responded. “Well, as you no doubt know genetic engineering went from being science fiction to reality sometime in the last century. It wasn’t until many years later that the process became available to the general public. As with anything new, it caused a big stir. People went up in arms about all kinds of things. One of the biggest concerns was class divisions creating real human subspecies of genetic haves and have-nots. Another was the possibility of radical geneticists creating inhuman mutants. Three decades ago, to quell these and other concerns, the government passed the Genetic Potential Acts. These are long and boring, but what they boil down to is that no person can have a genetic code that is modified outside the realm of their original genetic material.”

“Meaning…,” Kallen said. This teacher had already done the research, but he wanted the full NewGen sales experience because he was still on the fence about the whole thing.

“For instance, you’re about six feet tall and Mrs. Roddeck is 5’ 8”, 5’ 9”. Before these laws were put in place you could have your child’s genetic code altered to produce a person with a height well over seven feet. If you went the natural route, your child’s genetic potential for height would top out with them having a five percent chance at being 6’ 2”, 6’ 3”. Under the law the most we can do is take the genetic material from the two of you and turn that five percent into a hundred percent.”

“And this prevents there being a genetic division between the upper and lower classes,” Kallen asked.

“It does because before people were allowed to essentially buy better genes for their children that over generations would develop the upper class into a subspecies of smarter, stronger, and faster human beings. Now, as with natural conception, a baby’s genetic potential is dependent upon the two people contributing the genetic material. We simply give people a better chance to achieve their baby’s genetic potential without unfairly modifying the entire gene pool.”

“And,” Rane interjected. “When people go to a government hospital, NewGen handles the screening for and removal of genes that cause genetic diseases for free.”

“That’s right,” Mr. Werstern continued, “and not all of the services provided by our program are out of reach for those of limited means. The price depends on the traits that the parents want to be in their prime embryo. Physical traits like height are affected by fewer genes and are therefore easier to manipulate. Less physical traits like intelligence or creativity are the product of more complex gene combinations. Those cost a little bit more to have perfected. Most people pick and choose the genes they want their children to have primed based on what they think will give the child the best chance for success. It is true that only our more resourceful clients can afford a priming of an entire embryo in all traits and abilities.”

“Since I’m a NewGen employee we get a discount,” Rane said.

“That’s correct,” Mr. Werstern responded.

“All you are guaranteeing is the genetic code,” Kallen said. “Success and happiness are still a matter of chance.”

“Precisely,” Mr. Werstern said. “In the historic sport of basketball, it was easier to shoot from the free throw line than from half court. Those thirty two feet made a lot of difference. If we impose on that distance the genetic ability spectrum most children naturally end up with a trait that puts them somewhere in the middle. The unlucky ones are stuck behind that half court line. Some get to shoot from the three point line, and the genetically gifted are given the advantage of being at the free throw line. We can put them as close to that free throw line as potential of genetic material we receive from the parents allows, but as with anywhere on the court whether they make a basket or not is entirely up to them.”

Kallen could still remember that look; the one that told him if he agreed to this it would make Rane the happiest wife in the world. If only he had known then how untrue that was. But he didn’t. After some further discussion he agreed to give their children the best genetic chance they could. Over the coming days there were forms to fill out, genetic material to be collected, and papers to sign. Looking back, Kallen remembered there were lots of papers to sign. At the time, he and Rane had simply listened to Mr. Werstern’s explanation of this legal issue or that certifying non-coercion and then signed on the dotted line.

Perhaps, if he had paid more attention to what he was signing, even scanned through the entire thick dossier of papers, he would have come across the Genetic Imperfection Clause. Had he read this, he would have learned that a person’s DNA contains tens of thousands of genes. The geneticists at NewGen strove to bring every embryo to its genetic potential and scanned every single one; nonetheless, in all those lines of genetic code inevitably sometimes mistakes were made. Not the kind of mistakes that would cause genetic defects or mutations, which NewGen would never allow, these mistakes were simply areas in which the embryo was supposed to have been perfected and turned out to be normal genetically speaking.

If before the age of sixteen, a parent suspected an imperfection in their child’s genetic coding they could bring in a sample, be it a hair or used drinking glass, to be tested. If the genetic code was found to be sufficiently imperfect, that is by hundreds of genes, the parents would receive a full refund. Also, NewGen would assume legal responsibility for the child. The child would be taken care of and educated at a NewGen facility. When it reaches maturity and has completed the program, the child will be guaranteed a job with the NewGen Corporation or one of its many affiliates.

What that piece of paper didn’t say was that one of these facilities, a school satirically named Chances Are, was on a barren planet called Desolace, a planet that when first discovered was showing promising signs of life on a habitable sphere. Rather than nurture the nature that was already developing there, several companies coaxed the government into mining the out of the way planet for its resources. To satisfy more humanitarian concerns, the first step had been to take samples of every form of plant and animal life on the emerging planet. A few of the more desirable specimens were even exported and now call an alien world their home.

Then the strip mining began, and within a few cycles of the planet around its glowing sun the environment began to change. The atmosphere that had been breathable started to deteriorate, the plants and animals that had not been taken away for food or fancy began to die, and the lakes and oceans already diminished for want of fresh water were drying up. After the initial phase, the longer process of mining the minerals and other resources below the surface of the planet required the establishment of colonies. One of these colonies, Crelysus, was where the main educational facility for NewGen’s genetic rejects was located. Also, the affiliate that all but the top graduates of this school were guaranteed a job with was the company that performed the mining.

Kallen did not read that clause in the contract he was signing. At the time, he did know what happens to genetically altered boys and girls who misbehave to the point that parents questioned their creation. He also didn’t know that one day he would be their teacher and come to call the planet Desolace home.

 

When Kallen closed the door to his room, he could hear the hurried footfalls of someone coming down the hallway. Perhaps they were not for him; his day would be done, and he could begin the process of putting off the next day for as long as possible. As Kallen turned, he realized this would not be the case. The sound belonged to a young woman with caramel colored skin and dark hair that he had had as a student a few semesters back. His concern turned from himself when he saw the look of worry on what he remembered as being a normally bright and cheerful face. Before she closed the distance he tried to bring forth details about her from his mind. Her name was Urien, and she had been a decent student. That was all he got before she said, “Why is your com off? I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“It died,” Kallen said.

“Draken Reager stole an AGB almost two hours ago, and has not come back through any of the airlocks,” Urien said. At first, Roddeck wondered why he was being informed of theft of an Antigravity Bike. Then he realized that Draken had been gone from class today. Attendance was a chronic issue, so absences were generally no cause for concern. Kallen would be lying, however, if he said this particular absence had not made him a little uneasy. The previous day in class he had noticed Draken was staring at his desk blankly rather than doing any work. This being a student that required a little push sometimes to get going, Kallen thought nothing of it. This time, when he asked Draken if he was going to start the assignment there was no response, not even an acknowledgment that he had heard the teacher’s voice.

With a sigh he reserved for doling out easily unavoidable discipline, Kallen told Draken to have a talk with him in the hall. Once in the hall, the student’s eyes focused on the floor, unwilling to meet the teacher’s gaze. The athletically built young man stood a few inches above Draken, and his chiseled features remained hard and unreadable. Kallen said, “Alright, Draken what’s going on with you today?”

“I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” Draken said. Before Kallen could muster up a pseudo encouraging diatribe, he noticed the tears forming at the corners of the young man’s eyes. Then, Kallen was no longer sure he was talking about school. Draken continued, “What’s the point of even getting out of bed in the morning anymore? I think I am just going to end it.”

At a loss for what to say, the full force of the situation hit Kallen. The young man definitely needed someone to talk to, and the ensuing conversation would no doubt be a long one. As much as he wanted to help, his students were not the kind to be left alone for long. Kallen could already hear the conversation in the classroom rising from a murmur. Inevitably they would end up yelling to compete for the most loud and obnoxious. Before long they would be swinging from the ceiling, perhaps even throwing their feces at one another.

The distraught face in front of Kallen was staring blindly, looking for answers. The answers did not even need to come from Kallen. They could come from the wall behind him. The air itself could have given him some reason not to take his own life. Kallen pulled a small rectangular communication device from his pocket. One of the many buttons always on the screen during school hours was counselor; he pushed it. After a moment, Kallen said, “Draken right now I have to get back to class, but…”

“Mr. Roddeck,” the voice belonged to a gray haired gentleman who had walked up behind Kallen. He was a little overweight and had a questioning look.

“Mr. Grant,” Kallen said, “this young man needs someone to talk to.”

“Alright, come with me,” Mr. Grant had said to Draken. With that the pair walked off, and Kallen returned to his class. Now, he stood in the same spot wondering if he had made the right decision. Urien was waiting for a reaction to her pointed statement.

“Has he sent a distress signal,” Kallen asked.

“No.”

“Have the authorities gone after him?”

“No,” Urien said. Her eyes fell to the floor. These were not the responses she had been hoping for. Despite her job at the AGB rental, she was here because she knew Draken and had come to the same conclusion that Kallen had. She said, “And they won’t.”

“Why not?”

“I haven’t reported it, but even if I did, they’ll figure they don’t need to.”

“Because…”

“Because they think he will either bring it back or in a few more hours they can just reclaim it and the body.”

“Do you think he is really going to do it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe he’s just trying to get attention.”

“If you knew him at all, you’d know that’s not the case.”

“He is a bit of a quiet one.”

“And determined. If he’s out there it is because he has made up his mind.”

“I see; why don’t you go after him?”

“We used to date, and I don’t think he’d want to talk to me. Will you go after him?”

“Why did you come to me with this?”

“Draken had you listed as his emergency contact,” Urien said. With those words any lingering thoughts that Kallen might not go after the wayward student evaporated. Draken had been gone two hours, which meant the charge on his AGB might already be gone. In another hour or two his oxygen would run out. Once that happened, in a matter of minutes he would asphyxiate, trying to draw the last ounces of life from Desolace’s disappearing atmosphere. If in those final moments the natural urge to live caused Draken to finally signal for help, it wouldn’t matter. Any assistance would arrive too late. Perhaps that was all part of the plan.

“Where would he go?”

“The locater on the AGB puts it a few hundred miles to the southeast.”

“Acridia Lake.”

“Right, there is a cave on the west side of Acid…I mean Acridia Lake. Sometimes students go there.”

“Alright, I’m going to go after him, but I need you to do something for me.”

“What?”

“Don’t tell anyone that I’m going.”

“Okay,” Urien said. She was hopeful and some brightness returned to her features. Now that he was committed, Kallen would do everything he could to bring Draken back alive, including knocking the youth unconscious and dragging him back if necessary. In case he somehow failed, he wanted to keep a lid on the whole situation. The last thing he needed in his file was another body.

 

“Airlock Depressurization in sixty seconds,” the voice said. Kallen stood there in his same clothes, plain khakis and solid red dress shirt. Beside him, taking up a large portion of the airlock was the AGB he had rented from Urien. It slightly resembled the motorcycles of old except it was flat on the bottom, and there were no wheels. A grey color but still sleek and shiny, it looked a little more like a miniature jet engine with a seat. In standby mode it hovered a few inches off the ground. When he mounted the bike, it sank a little until the antigravity drive countered his weight.

The goggles hanging around his neck were meant to cover and protect his eyes, but the more important feature was the tube that extended down to fit in the openings of his nose. Connected by a line that ran down his back to the oxygen supply hanging from his waist, this would keep him alive. The cartridge was no larger than his fist but could keep him breathing for hours. Once these were in place Kallen breathed in deeply to make sure it was functioning properly. Satisfied, he stared through the goggles at the wasteland before him.

The tan colored ground looked so dry that it might crack open. Some distant hills broke up the horizon, but there was little else to add variety to the scene. The sky was a subtle greenish blue and dotted with the stars that shown through what was left of the atmosphere. That sky would always remind him of Rane’s eyes, the way she used to look at him. Like she might consider pinching herself to make sure it was all real; she could actually be that happy. Kallen had not allowed himself to think about her for awhile. For whatever reason, on this occasion he indulged himself. He thought about how she liked to sleep in one of his old shirts, about the playfully repugnant face she made whenever he corrected a person who had misquoted someone, and the cute and innocent act that she put on whenever she wanted something. Not to mention how when she would get nervous she used to…

“Depressurization in five, four, three, two, one,” the voice said. The clear outer doors opened to a light desert wind that filled the air lock. Kallen touched a few buttons and took the AGB out of standby mode. The engine hummed in anticipation. Having allowed himself this last hesitation, he put the bike in its lowest gear and rotated the accelerator with his left hand. The AGB glided out of the airlock, slowly at first. The tan surrounding wall to the colony rose up behind him. The tops of buildings emerged behind that. A great percentage of the Crelysus colony was underground, so most of its structure was hidden.

What could be seen of the buildings was unremarkable. They were rather utilitarian either being painted in a neutral brown or olive; some were simply left the dull gray color of their concrete. Finally, Kallen could make out the protective bubble that surrounded the colony. Just as unremarkable as the buildings, the thick clear bubble grew out of the twenty foot high surrounding wall and kept Desolace from reclaiming the habitable environment it protected.

Kallen rotated the throttle further and went through the gears. Within seconds Crelysus was fading into the distance. The desert flew by as the bike reached the recommended speed for optimal performance, which would make anyone’s mother a little nervous. Even at that speed the distance to the Acridia Lake took the better part of half an hour to cross.

During that time Kallen let his mind wander back and forth through his memories of the past. Eventually, he got around to thinking about what he was going to say to Draken when he got there. What could he say to him? Nothing came to Kallen. Possibly, a corny speech about the richness and fullness of a life well lived could do the trick. Kallen was unsure he could deliver such a speech with the sincerity needed to back it up. Another route to go would be trying to get him to visualize all of the people who would cry at his funeral. That could backfire as well, because Kallen had no idea if any people would show up or even if the funeral would be held by his family or NewGen. Truth be told, he started thinking about why he shouldn’t join the young man. Kallen could think of only one reason.

Those thoughts were interrupted by the quickly approaching hills that had been in the distance. Kallen slowed the AGB to better be able to navigate them. Veering off to the right sent him down a valley through the rough and rocky lumps of earth. After a few minutes of twists and turns, the valley opened up onto what appeared to be a crater. The lake once full enough to be even with the ground had shrunk until it filled up roughly half of the basin. Despite Urien’s comments, the water was not highly acidic; however, swimming in it could probably still kill you. The comment she had made probably more described the activities that usually took place in the cave Kallen could see halfway around the lake. After following the edge of the crater, the mouth of it loomed in front of him.

Over twenty feet high and almost twice as long, it appeared to be cut out of the very rock that surrounded it. The atmosphere inside was little different from outside, but it took a second or two for Kallen’s eyes to adjust to the low level of light. Far from eerie the jagged stone walls and ceiling had remained unchanged by the planet’s recent history and seemed marginally more inviting than the harsh environment outside. The cave narrowed for the first hundred feet or so, and then opened up into a wide chamber hundreds of feet in diameter. Light filtered in from a hole somewhere in the ceiling. A little less than halfway across the chamber, the ground fell away forming a ridge that ran its width. Sure enough, an AGB was parked along the ridge and as Kallen approached he could see a figure sitting on the edge.

Draken did not turn his attention from the abyss before him when a second AGB slowed to a stop beside his own. As the new AGB powered down, it descended slowly until it rested on the ground. Kallen removed his goggles but was sure to leave the oxygen tube in place. Upon visual examination Draken seemed to be healthy and unharmed. His own oxygen tube was in place; he was still breathing normally. He wore his usual jeans and a plain black T-shirt. When Kallen walked along the ridge to where the youth was sitting, he noticed that the cliff dropped some fifty feet before there was water. It was possible that this water was connected the lake outside or that the cave had worked as an overflow chamber in the past. Neither of these was really all that fascinating, so when he sat next to Draken he asked, “Mind if I sit here.”

“Nope,” Draken said. After sitting, Kallen was at a loss for how to proceed. He decided to drop the uncaring teacher façade. Without that, what was he left with?

“I was told there were students doing drugs out here,” Kallen said with a serious face. For the first time Draken looked at his teacher. Before he could stop it, a smile crept onto his face. Draken smiled as well; maybe Kallen could do this.

“No, Mr. Roddeck,” Draken said. “I don’t do drugs.”

“You mean I came all the way out here for nothing,” Kallen said.

“Possibly.”

“What are you doing here, Draken?”

“Thinking about which would be less painful – asphyxiation or a fifty foot drop.”

“Well, if the drop doesn’t kill you, you just might get to experience both.”

“Is that supposed to scare me?”

“Depends, did it?”

“A little bit.”

“Good. Look, we didn’t get the chance to talk yesterday and it seemed like you had something you wanted to say.”

“I did and you sent me to the counselor.”

“What did he tell you?”

“That suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem, blah, blah, blah.”

“You disagree?”

“My genes aren’t temporary and my shitty life that has been going downhill since I can remember sure as hell isn’t temporary.”

“What’s so bad about your life?”

“Everything.”

“Care to be a little more specific.”

“There is nothing in my life that makes it worth living.”

“No friends, family.”

“Family, do you know why I’m at Chances Are?”

“If memory serves, your file says your genetics were questioned when you fell behind in school, and despite your potential showed little motivation.”

“My mother told me it was because they were worried about me being able to find a good paying job when I got out of school. She said this program would guarantee that I get a place in one of the top companies in the galaxy. She didn’t know that I would be sent here, that I would most likely end up working in the mines. Even later when she found out, she still tried to tell me it was the best thing for me. My father, he didn’t even try to hide that they did it for the money. He had lost his high paying job and the only one he could get barely paid the bills. We were struggling. There was a lot of fighting.

“Mostly, they did it was because they were disappointed in me. I could see it in their eyes. I could hear it when my mother cried. If the genetic test came back positive for defaults then they could just blame it on my genes. The way I turned out wouldn’t be their fault. I could be shipped off, out of sight and out of mind. Until recently I thought that despite all of this they still considered me their son. A couple of weeks ago, I called to ask them if I failed out of the program, could I come home. My father replied that I was on my own now. He didn’t say it but I could hear it loud and clear; he no longer had a son, at least one he wanted anything to do with.”

“Well, that’s one man’s opinion. I’m sure you’ve got someone who cares about you.”

“My girlfriend must have agreed with my father, because she dumped me.”

“Urien dumped you,” Kallen said, thinking that would explain the girl’s concern.

“No, we dated when I first got here. Claret Jettern told me she needed to find someone who was more ambitious. She didn’t think that I was ever going to leave here. Her exact words were that she thought I would die on this planet,” Draken said. Kallen couldn’t help but think that Draken was better off somehow. However, if Urien didn’t feel responsible then her reason for seeking his assistance could have been that she still cared for Draken. After a moment, Draken continued, “Looks like she was right.”

“You never know, there might be someone out there who cares about you.”

“Like who.”

“A teacher that came all the way out here perhaps.”

“Are you going to fix my life, Mr. Roddeck?”

“Look, I don’t have all of the answers, but I know that if you let it your life can have all kinds of good possibilities.”

“No offense, Mr. Roddeck, but you teach at a school for genetic rejects on a barren planet. What would you know about life’s possibilities,” Draken said. Kallen sighed as the apparent hopelessness of the situation overtook him. After a moment’s consideration, Kallen undid the top two buttons of his shirt and pulled it over to reveal his left shoulder. There was a circular scar just below the collar bone.

“Do you know what that is,” Kallen asked. Draken gave a puzzled look and shook his head. Another sigh escaped Kallen’s lips as he prepared to give voice to a story he knew by heart, even though he had never told it to anyone.

“When my wife and I applied to the Prime Genetics Program, we just wanted the best chance for our child,” Kallen began. “She wanted the baby to have my sense of humor and my calm, cool demeanor. I wanted it to have her voracious intelligence and the kind nature that she showed to absolutely everyone. She was so excited when they implanted the embryo, like a kid who just opened a Christmas present but had to wait nine months to play with it. Originally, we opted for the gender of the child to be random. But, neither of us could take the suspense. When we found out, we got the nursery ready for a girl and began planning for her future. It wasn’t really until Rane’s tummy started to get big that the reality of the situation set in; I was going to be a father.

“Then, at about the end of the second trimester, Rane had to be raced to the hospital. By the time I arrived, she was already in surgery. There had been complications. She lost the baby.” at this point Kallen paused. He was fighting back the tears welling up in his eyes. He said, “After the post-op evaluation NewGen discovered that the baby’s genetic code despite their rigorous standards had been slightly imperfect; however, they claimed the data showed that the imperfection in no way caused or resulted in the miscarriage. According to NewGen, the code while not exactly what we ordered should have produced a healthy fetus. The hospital determined only that the cause of my wife’s miscarriage was inconclusive.”

“Inconclusive,” Draken questioned.

“Regardless, NewGen offered to implant a new embryo with additional priming. Unready to commit to a new pregnancy we asked them to hold our material for the time being. It took a long time for us to get over what happened… a long time. Despite the company’s assurances, when we were finally ready to try again we opted for the natural route this time. And try we did. For six months we tried and nothing happened. Neither one of us really wanted to get tested to see if anything was wrong. If we found out we couldn’t have kids, it would have just crushed her. We had spent so long being sad that we were afraid. Then one day we just stopped trying.

“We stopped talking. We barely even looked at one another anymore. Then depression and self loathing came. It was like we had given up on life. Not just given up on the life we had thought we were going to have together; any life the future had to offer where we could be happy seemed out of reach. No longer able to satisfy our yearning for actual happiness, it wasn’t long until we turned to the bits of momentary happiness that life has to offer. I began drinking heavily. On weekends at first and then I would go straight to the bar after work. Eventually, I began to consider having an affair. Not to play the victim, I was actually about to go through with it; then I discovered Rane had beaten me to it.

“When I found the messages, I wasn’t even that mad. I confronted her. We screamed and yelled. She cried and told me to leave. I almost left, but I couldn’t do it. She was my life. Good or bad, right or wrong, I still loved her. Through the tears there was still that look in her eyes. I knew she still loved me. There was more fighting, but it faded into talking and finally embracing. After what seemed like hours, we spoke about forgiveness, mine for abandoning her in her time of need and hers for seeking comfort in the arms of another. It was decided that we could start down that road on one condition. She had to promise me and I had to promise her that each of us would never give up on each other, but more importantly on life, again. Far from delusional, we knew it would take time and a lot of work to be whole again; nevertheless, this time around I was hopeful.

“Unfortunately, the gentleman she had been seeing behind my back had fallen in love with her. His mind was full of images of them running away together to start a new life. When she told him that it was over and we were going to reconcile, he was destroyed. Later that night, I got up to go to the bathroom. On my way back to bed, I heard a series of loud bangs. I raced to our room. When I turned on the light, I saw him standing there. He was dressed all in black as if playing cat burglar. There was nothing fake about the look of pain mixed with shock on his face, or the gun in his hand. That was when I noticed the red dots in the blanket covering my wife. They were slowly growing.

“Reacting on instinct, I charged at the man. He raised the gun and fired. The sound rang in my ears. It was a second before I realized, the bullet had caught me in the shoulder. I paused; I had never been shot before. Surprisingly unfazed, I lunged at him. Catching him off guard, we struggled for the gun. It went off again. He let it go. I searched my body to see if I had been hit again. I hadn’t. I looked up to see that the bullet had entered under his chin and left the top of his head. Blood dribbled down his neck as he stared at me in disbelief. Then his body crumpled lifelessly to the floor. I turned to the body on the bed. Her pulse could still be going; I didn’t want to check. Slowly, I walked over to the bed. I put my fingers to her neck. She was gone.”

At this point Kallen stopped talking. Draken wasn’t sure if he should say something. When he saw the tears stream down Mr. Roddeck’s cheeks, he remained silent. After what seemed like an eternity, the teacher was still staring glassy-eyed off into the distance. Unsure whether he was finished with the story, Draken spoke, “Is that why you’re here on Desolace?”

“What,” said Kallen, roused from his grief. “Sort of, originally the police thought that I had been the one to lose it. They theorized that I had come home to find my wife having an affair. That somehow I committed a double homicide, and when it came time to kill myself I hadn’t had the nerve. After a few weeks, I was cleared of all charges. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. The sponsors of the government school where I worked wanted nothing to do with someone accused of murder. I was asked to resign. After that, I couldn’t find a teaching job anywhere. When an old friend of Rane’s told me about this place, I decided to apply. Whether out of pity or some unspoken sense of responsibility, they gave me the job.”

“This,” Kallen said, tapping the scar on his shoulder through his shirt, “is a reminder of a promise I once made not to give up on life.”

“Mr. Roddeck, how exactly are you keeping that promise?”

“What do you mean?”

“You give an all new meaning to the word melancholy. Half the time you walk around like a zombie. It’s as if you don’t care about anyone or anything.”

Kallen hadn’t considered that the cold hard teacher persona he emulated might have some element of truth in it. In his private moments he had tried to find hope, faith in something, anything. Truth be told those moments had become few and far between. Kallen said, “Perhaps I have been sitting on the sidelines for longer than I should have, but I’m not the one thinking about throwing myself off a cliff, am I?

“No, that would be me. But you tell me Mr. Roddeck. Why keep going? Why not give up?”

“Hours after my wife promised me she was going to try to live a better life. That chance was taken from her. I, on the other hand, still have that chance. To throw it away would be an insult to her memory. It would be an insult to every person who wanted the chance to live a life of genuine happiness and died before they could enjoy it.”

“But… what about my genes?”

“Your genes aren’t defective; they just mean you’re not flawless. Just like everyone else. No one, with or without NewGen’s stamp of approval, is perfect. Your genes don’t control the person you are going to become. The choices you make do.”

“Mr. Roddeck, I… I don’t think my life can have happiness, not really.”

“Bullshit. There will always be people who put you down to build themselves up, people who aren’t satisfied with what life has to offer. Don’t listen to them. Only if you take life for what it is and not what you think it should be can real joy be possible.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

“I’ve been trying but I guess I haven’t been trying very hard. What about you? Are you done, or are you coming back with me?”

“I think I will come back.”

“Good, now I don’t have to knock you out and drag you back.”

“Were you really gonna do that?”

“It was on the table,” said Kallen, standing up. He began walking to his AGB. Whule considering what his teacher would have done for him, Draken stood as well. When he took a step, the ground beneath his feet gave away. The chunk of cliff Draken had been standing on disappeared down the gully. The top half of his body flopped onto the remaining ground. Then it too began to slide away. Kallen dove after the young man. He managed to catch one of his arms before it was gone.

“Draken,” Kallen shouted. The cry went unheard as Kallen realized his student was unconscious. The body dangled perilously in his grasp. Using all his strength Kallen tried to lift the dead weight. At first nothing happened, but then Draken began to rise. Slowly, cautiously Kallen dragged him onto solid ground. Having nearly collapsed himself from the effort, Kallen surveyed the damage. The young man’s breathing was shallow, but he was breathing. The cause of his unresponsiveness seemed to be a bleeding gash on the side of his head just below the temple. Other than that he seemed to be okay. Kallen took off his dress shirt, leaving him in a white undershirt. He tore one of the sleeves off and wrapped it around Draken’s head. When he got that close to him, something about his breathing didn’t sound quite right.

Kallen looked to the oxygen cartridge at Draken’s waist. Some scratches and dents revealed that it had been damaged in the fall. Kallen removed the tube from Draken’s nose and tried to breath in its oxygen, nothing. What should he do? He could use the distress signal on his AGB or go and get help. No, either way Draken would asphyxiate before help arrived. Maybe he could leave the student his oxygen and go back to Crelysus for more. What if he didn’t make it before he passed out? There was no telling how long Draken would be out with that head injury. He could hit the distress button and then race back to Crelysus. What if the team came here instead of following his locator?

The only way was if he put the unconscious young man on the AGB. Then he could try to make it back, but if he failed he would hit the distress signal and hope for the best. It wasn’t the best plan, but he had to try. Kallen took off his oxygen cartridge and tube; he placed them on Draken. Dragging the body proved difficult with his already taxed muscles and newly distraught lungs breathing what oxygen Desolace’s atmosphere had left to offer. After closing the distance, he slumped the body over the middle of the bike. From a compartment he pulled the rarely used safety straps and secured Draken. After replacing his goggles, Kallen turned on the AGB. The charge left was just under three quarters of full. The bike gradually began to hover off the ground. With the extra weight the antigravity would have to work twice as hard.

As Kallen drove out of the cave and around the lake, he tried to work through the math in his head. At the atmosphere’s current density a person could survive for fifteen to twenty minutes without assistance. The AGB’s top speed could potentially cut the time it took him to get there in half. But, that along with the additional weight might deplete the charge before he got there. Which would give out first, him or the bike? He had to push that distress button on the instrument panel right before either one happened. The valley entrance way sped by as quickly as Kallen could safely navigate it. He already noticed his breathing was becoming more labored. When he got out onto the open desert, he turned to full throttle. The hovering bike shot across the landscape at a speed that blurred everything around it.

Whether because his course was set or he was starting to feel the lack of oxygen, Kallen’s mind began to wander. He thought about what Desolace might have been like before the mining of it resources. The land before him was probably a beautifully green prairie, filled with alien grasses. The grass could have stood as tall as him and been an awesome place to play hide and go seek for hours. The plain would eventually give way to forests with trees that had seen the passing of millennia. In the shadow of which, untold scores of weird unearthly animals had lived and died. Then, there would come mountains, oceans, and all the parts that make a planet oddly beautiful in their own right, existing in a balance that asked for no more than it was given. Untouched by intelligent beings it would have no past, no history, and no reason for being except just being. The kind of place you could get lost in, lose yourself and find yourself, if you looked hard enough. But then again, every place could be like that, couldn’t it?

Kallen became aware of a dull ache in his brain as it began to take notice of the situation. Despite Kallen’s now heavy breathing, its oxygen supply was being depleted. A check showed that he had a quarter charge left and had gone half the distance back to Crelysus. Maybe he should push the distress signal now. No, the closer he got the more of a chance there was that they both would live. Kallen imagined what his students would say if he didn’t make it back, probably something like, “Mr. Roddeck died… does that mean we don’t have to do the final project?” Maybe some of them would be sad. It was possible that despite everything a few of them were still good people.

The lids of Kallen’s eyes started to fall. His breath came in the quick labored rasps. He shook his head violently; must stay awake. If he could stay awake and save someone’s life Rane would be proud of him. He would be proud of himself. What if he didn’t make it? If he died, would he be able to say that he had lived the best life he could the past couple of years? No, he had wallowed in grief, in self pity for too long. Perhaps Draken was right; it was time for a change, if he lived. That questioning thought became a reality as a warning light flashed on the bike’s instrument panel. The charge was almost gone.

Kallen looked up to see the walls of Crelysus rising in the distance, still miles away. The AGB slowed rapidly as it ran out of power. Barely able to focus his oxygen starved thoughts, Kallen’s mind was awash with options. He felt his world start to go black. Almost out of instinct, his hand hit the distress button. The signal drained the remaining power. The antigravity drive shut down. The bike collapsed to the ground. Kallen felt his body get launched into the air. His eyes opened to the ground rushing up at them. After bouncing and rolling in the dry dirt, he came to a stop. He had time for a moment’s reflection on how he might now have forgiveness. Then, he finally succumbed to unconsciousness.

 

Light pierced Kallen’s sight. Unsure whether he was dead or alive, he was relieved when his eyes focused, and he saw the florescent light of a ceiling tile. He looked around to find he was in a hospital room. The bed was surprisingly comfy and out the window he could see the sun just about to dip below the mountains of Desolace in the distance. Sitting in a chair on his other side was Draken. There was a bandage over the injury to his head. They made eye contact. It was a moment before Draken spoke, “You’re awake.”

“I’m not dead,” Kallen said. When he sat up pain shot through random places in his body where the ground had left bruises.

“The crash woke me up. I gave you the oxygen until help arrived.”

“Thanks, going without was risky with your head injury.”

“I figured I owed you one.”

“So, you think we’re even now?”

“Something like that,” Draken said. The door to the room slid out of the way and Urien walked through it. The brightness Kallen remembered had returned to her features. After handing Draken a drink she looked at Kallen, with a look of gratitude that touched him deeply.

“How long was I out,” Kallen asked.

“A couple of hours,” Draken replied.

“How’s the AGB. Should I have gotten the extra coverage?”

“A few scratches and dents,” Urien said. “I’m sure the company will take it out of your paycheck.”

“What about the other AGB I rented? Did they find it?”

“You rented,” asked Draken, puzzled.

“That’s the way I remember it,” Kallen said.

“They recovered it,” Urien said.

“I was deeply concerned,” Kallen said sarcastically. That settled, the two young people turned to the other matter at hand. They looked at each other, both wanting to move forward but both unsure how to do so. Kallen decide to give them a push, “Why don’t you two crazy kids get out of here and have some fun?”

“You want to,” Draken offered.

“Okay,” Urien replied. Draken stood and started to follow Urien out the door. Then he stopped as if he remembered something.

“Mr. Roddeck, when this heals,” Draken said point to the bandage on the side of his head, “they said the scar should be small, so I am not going to have it removed.”

“Why is that,” Kallen asked.

“I’m going to leave it there as a reminder.”

“Good, see you in class tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there,” Draken said. With that the two young people left the room. Before the door closed a nurse walked in. Her hair was wheat blond with soft red streaks. Those eyes were a pretty green that reminded Kallen of untouched wilderness and conveyed the sense that she genuinely liked helping people. The scrubs she had on were a drab company issue gray. Her name tag said Lisian.

“How are we feeling, Mr. Roddeck,” Lisian asked. She checked the machines attached to Kallen by tubes and cords and wrote things down on her chart.

“A little sore, but better than I have been in a long time,” Kallen said.

“That was a brave thing you did,” Lisian said, meeting Kallen eyes.

“Finding a student stranded and injured, it would be a cold person who would have left him there.”

“The AGB locator had you in that cave for over half an hour.”

“Like I said, only a cold person would have left him there.”

“Still, it was brave.”

“I have my moments,” Kallen said. Lisian stopped writing for a moment and smiled at Kallen. That smile, it was the same way Rane used to smile at him. Now, maybe, it was time to stop thinking about things that way, to move on. Kallen asked, “Would you want to get a drink sometime?”

After a moment’s consideration, Lisian replied, “Sure, why not?”

The Trial of Michael

The life of Robert Heraldson had always been measured by the amount of time in between events. The time it took from leaving for work until he actually arrived there, the minutes that ticked away between when a meeting began and finally ended, even the seconds that separated the desire for caffeine and that wonderful first sip of coffee; had always served to break Mr. Heraldson’s life into sections of enjoyable, tedious, or in most cases simply uneventful moments. Now, the moments of his life were measured by a machine that made a beeping sound every time his heartbeat. Though he was in a coma like state, it was believed by some that he retained the ability to hear.

They were right. What Mr. Heraldson’s unconscious mind made of the beeping sound, however, they will never know. One thing was for sure; the plain beige-colored hospital room was empty save his bed and a few various pieces of medical equipment, so he was the only one who could have heard when the time in between each beep began to grow. The interval grew slowly at first. Then, it got so long it became questionable if the next beep would come at all. The final beep sounded. The machine produced a continuous noise in alarm. Mr. Heraldson was gone.

Mr. Heraldson had been watching an old football game on television in which for some reason there had been an awful lot of whistles blown by the referees. Just when the game was getting good, his television shut off, leaving him in darkness. He tried to turn it back on but couldn’t seem to find the remote. Instead, he sat there for a moment in the dark waiting, trying to decide what he should do. A pin prick of light appeared in the distance. Perhaps his wife had left the kitchen light on. Mr. Heraldson got up and began walking towards the glow. At first, he was alarmed because the light grew very slowly and had to have been further away than the distance between his living room and kitchen.

As the brightness got closer and grew into a rectangular shape, all of Mr. Heraldson’s concerns and worries seemed to fade away. He felt oddly at peace, as though he did not have a care in the world. The light became sunshine filling the shape of a doorway. On the other side of the doorway, he could see a clear blue sky above a field of green grass flowing softly in a gentle breeze, just the kind of place he would want to have a picnic and laze away an afternoon. As he walked out of the darkness and into the sun’s warm light, the years faded from his appearance. Gone were the wrinkles, sun spots, and other signs of old age. He stood there on the grass looking like a man in his early twenties instead of his late eighties.

Mr. Heraldson looked at the smooth pinkish skin of his arms and hands for what seemed like an eternity. His fingers and wrists moved flowingly without the insecurity of weak muscles or the pain of arthritis. The clothes he was wearing had become the kind that he spent the majority of his life in, simple khakis and a solid blue polo shirt. When he looked behind him, there was no doorway of darkness from which he had come. Turning in a circle, he discovered that on all sides he was now surrounded by a grassy plain, seemingly endless in every direction. Just when he was beginning to think about what he should do, Mr. Heraldson saw a figure in the distance. The person appeared to be walking toward him. With nothing better to do, he started off in that direction.

The figure grew with each step and became that of a man who was about Mr. Heraldson’s height. This person seemed oddly familiar to Mr. Heraldson. The square jaw, the dark but jovial eyes, the slow purposeful gait, were all sticking out in his mind. They all reminded him of… No, it couldn’t be; this man was decades younger. Then again, so was he. Mr. Heraldson took a long, hard look. There was no denying it; this person walking towards him was a younger version of his father. But, his father was dead. That means… Then, it all came back to him, the fall outside of his home, and the hospital bed where he had laid and told his wife not to worry; he would be fine.

“Bobby,” Mr. Heraldson’s father said when he was within feet of him. The senior Heraldson wore a colorful Hawaiian shirt and loose fitting jeans.

“Dad,” Bobby replied, “I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“Yeah,” the father said. He embraced his son for the longest time. Then, the elder Heraldson continued, “It’s not that bad. You get used to it.”

“How’s Mom?”

“She’s good. She wanted to come but only one of us could.”

“I understand,” Bobby replied. The father started walking again, and Bobby fell in step beside him. They talked about things that had happened since his dad had passed: the birth of great grandchildren and sale of the old family business by his uncle’s descendants who had no interest in being plumbers. As Bobby walked and talked with his father, he realized he was oddly okay with being dead. He had led a nice, long life. Of course, his wife would be upset, and he would miss her. Soon enough, though, he had no doubt she would be joining him.

After some time, they came to a tall well-groomed hedge which the father and son began walking along. Ahead, Bobby could make out a break in the hedge with a large, shining white gate in it. There was a line of people at the gate that led off into the distance as if they were giving something away. A thought struck him. He interrupted his father’s questions about his favorite baseball team when he said, “Dad, am I in heaven?”

After considering how best to respond, the elder Heraldson said, “Not yet.”

Bobby’s calmness receded some. He said, “What do you mean not yet?”

“I wasn’t asked to bring you to the gates like most new arrivals, but to bring you to a room for… shall we say, a random security check.”

“They’re going to check me. For what?”

“That’s all I know,” the father replied. They walked in silence for some moments. When the pearly gates were within yards, a door in the hedge that Bobby had not noticed opened. Inside Bobby could make out a small office. He took a step towards it, but then hesitated when he realized his father was standing still.

“Son… best of luck,” said the elder Heraldson. That confirmed it; he was going in there alone. His father’s eyes startled Bobby further. The look of sad reservation told him that if this didn’t go well, they would never see one another again. Bobby hugged his father and without saying another word, he entered the office.

The room resembled his boss’s old office with its vine-covered wallpaper, huge antique mahogany desk, and comfortable looking coffee-colored chairs. In fact, he was sure it was almost an exact replica of that office. Only there were no windows, and there was nothing on the desk save a simple plaque that read Simon Peter. The well-dressed man behind the desk, on the other hand, looked nothing like his old boss. This man was thinner, had a full brown beard that he wore well, and a very stern expression. Bobby felt as if he were a young boy again who had been called into the principal’s office. The door closed behind him as he walked into the room. Bobby stood there for a second, unsure of what to say.

“Please take a seat, Robert,” the bearded man said. Robert sat in one of the comfortable chairs.

“Sir, I…” Robert began.

“Call me Simon.”

“Simon, am I going to be read a list of everything I did wrong in my life?”

“No, Robert. I am not interested in the fact that in third grade you spit candy into Sara Carbeth’s hair on class picture day. Nor is it relevant that just a week before your accident you took the neighbor’s dog, which usually defecated in your yard, fed little Max a powerful laxative and then sent him home. Some people at the end of their lives have done evil things and some are clearly good. Then there are those who have incidences in their lives which, depending on the outcome and the feelings of the individual, could land them on either side of the fence. You are one such individual, and I am going to ask you questions about such occurrences in your life.”

“So, if I don’t answer these questions right, I’m going to hell.”

“Your answers will determine more than you know; however, we are here merely to review your case. The final decision on who is welcome in the house of the Lord is as always up to Him.”

“Okay… fire away.”

“Why did you join the Marines?”

“To defend my country.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“I wanted to rid the world of evil.”

“Robert, God sees all and knows all. There is nothing you can keep from him, so the only person you are fooling here is yourself.”

Robert considered the man’s words for a second. Then, he said, “I was angry.”

“Because…”

“Because my brother, Henry, had joined the Navy and was serving on the U.S.S. Arizona, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He died. The attack was unprovoked, and his death unnecessary. So, I was angry. I hated the Japanese. Enlisting was the only thing that made sense.”

“Do you still hate the Japanese?”

“No, they did what they thought they had to do.”

“Is your decision to join the Marines something you regret?”

“No.”

“Did you kill anyone during your service in the Pacific during World War II?”

“Yes.”

“Were any of those deaths a result of your anger?”

“No, no it was a time of war. They were shooting at me, and I was shooting at them.”

“Their deaths were a product of war? Not through any fault of yours.”

“Right.”

“And of those people none of them were murdered by you.”

“No.”

“What about this,” Simon said, and then he placed a small photograph on the desk in front of Robert. It was a black and white picture of a pretty Japanese lady in a kimono and a young Japanese boy dressed in a white shirt, both were smiling. Robert stared at the picture for the longest time. As he studied the eyes of the mother and her son, he felt as if they bore into his very soul.

“That was an accident,” Robert said finally.

“Was it? Why don’t you tell me about it?”

Robert took a deep breath and then began, “We were supposed to take this island. I don’t even remember the name of it. When we got there the Japanese were already entrenched. The battle lasted all day and just when the sun was starting to set, the fighting stopped because we had won. We thought all the Japanese were either dead or had retreated. Still some of the guys in my unit and I were ordered to do a sweep of the island. We came upon five Japanese soldiers. We raised our rifles at them and expected them to do the same, but they tossed down their weapons and threw their arms in surrender. I remember feeling a little shaky as I trained my gun on the Japanese soldier in front of me.

“One of the guys in my unit, Jonesy, fired and a Japanese soldier fell dead to the ground. The remaining four soldiers got on their knees and kept their hands raised in surrender. They were all screaming something in Japanese, but we had no idea what they were saying. Whether accident or not, some of the other men decided to follow Jonesy’s example. Two more of the Japanese soldiers fell. Then the rest of the guys were calling on us to follow suit. Another soldier fell, and my prisoner was the only one left alive. I hesitated. Then, the soldier went to grab something out of his coat. I figured he was going for a gun, so I shot him.

“As he laid there dying, he pulled what looked like a small rectangular piece of paper out of his pocket and gazed at it until his eyes glazed over. When he was dead, I grabbed the paper from his hand. It was that photograph. I didn’t know he was grabbing that. I swear, I thought he was going for a gun.”

“When you hesitated, what were you thinking?”

“I was debating if I should listen to the cheers made by my buddies. Remember Pearl Harbor, they said. That same anger welled up in my heart, but there was still some part of me that couldn’t kill someone in cold blood.”

“Were you frightened when you thought the soldier was reaching for a gun?”

“No, I… I was relieved.”

“How so?”

“When he reached into his coat and I thought he was going for a gun, I gave way to my anger. I was relieved because I thought I could do so without anyone blaming me for it. Then, I saw that picture.”

“Were you without blame?”

“No, I killed that man,” Robert said. He paused. A tear rolled down each of his cheeks. Robert continued, “who just wanted to show me a picture of his family, so I might spare his life.”

“Did you receive any reprimand for this action?”

“Not officially, no.”

“Did you ask God’s forgiveness?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Did this experience change you?”

“I think so.”

“How?”

“After I got over what happened, my attitude changed; my attitude towards war, people, everything. Before I had been a bit of a hot head, but now I was slow to anger. I couldn’t let that feeling bubble up inside of me unchecked anymore because I now knew what could happen if I let it run free. Even in my buddies, I started to notice their misdirected rage. Weeks later, some fella was drunk and tried to goad me into a fight. I could have pummeled him. Instead, I tried to reason with him. When he swung at me, I pinned him to the ground until the MP’s came.”

“Is this change why you chose to leave the Marines?”

“Kind of. During the war I got an award or two for valor. I even moved up in rank once or twice. But after that, fighting was something I only wanted to do when I absolutely had to. My CO told me I had the kind of levelheadedness they needed. He said I was a great leader and could have even become a general someday.”

Simon let Robert’s last statement hang there in the air for some time. Robert looked at the desk to take another glance at the photograph, but it was gone. Simon too glanced at the desk before he asked, “What did you do after the war?”

“I went to college on the GI Bill, and got my degree in business administration.”

“Why business administration?”

“Growing up we didn’t have much; no one did. I wanted to be able to give my children the kinds of things and chances that weren’t available to me, a better life.”

“So, you chose this major for the potential income, the money.”

“More or less.”

“What profession did you choose?”

“I went into insurance.”

“What reasons did you have for choosing insurance?”

“There was an insurance company in the area that was growing rapidly and seemed like a safe bet.”

“What did you do at this company?”

“At first, I did a number of jobs, but then I ended up in underwriting for a lot of years…”

“What does an underwriter do?”

“They evaluate the risk involved in taking on certain customers in order to determine how much they should pay for coverage.”

“Did you enjoy doing this?”

“Not really, but it was one of the areas that they usually pulled managers from.”

“And you wanted to be a manager, why?”

“Because,” Robert hesitated before saying, “they make more money.”

“So, you were greedy.”

“No, I just wanted to provide for my family.”

“Provide what, exactly?”

“I don’t know, a nice house, a good education. I just wanted them to be happy.”

“Did you have a nice house?”

“Yes.”

“Were they receiving a good education?”

“I think so.”

“Did you and they have all kinds of other possessions?”

“We may have been well off, at least more so than some other people, but that doesn’t mean I was greedy.”

“No Robert, the possession of wealth is not what makes one greedy. It is the person who desires for wealth and worldly possessions above all else that commits that sin.”

“I…”

“Was your family happy?”

Robert momentarily glanced at the floor before he said, “no.”

“Why not?”

“Over the years, I had been putting in a lot of overtime so that when the time came there was a promotion available I would be the one they thought of. Even when I wasn’t at work, that’s where my mind was. During dinner, I would be thinking about files I had read and whether or not I had gotten the figures right on this or that report. My wife, Beverly, understood, or at least I thought she did. We fought from time to time. It’s just that I was so focused on my goal.”

“But, greed was not your motivator.”

“I didn’t think so at the time. I just wanted to get to a place where we wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again.”

“Did you get to that place?”

“No, things came to a head one afternoon. I had time off built up and my boss suggested I take a day or two. When I tried to turn the offer down, he insisted. The next day when I didn’t go to work I was lost. It had been so long since I had any free time. I just sat there on the couch and stared blankly at my living room for I don’t know how long. When I suggested to my wife that I could accompany her into town to go shopping and do some errands, she told me that I should stay at home and relax. I had no idea how to relax. By the second day, I was beginning to feel out of place in my own life. When I went to pick my children up from school that afternoon, the car was silent all the way home. We had nothing to say to one another. After the kids went inside, I went for a walk. It was nice to be outside in the fresh air and the bright sunlight. Eventually, I found my way to a park, where I sat and watched some kids play baseball.

“Those kids reminded me of when my brothers and I used to play ball with our friends from the neighborhood. Sitting there, I realized that I didn’t know who I was outside of work anymore. The roles of husband and father seemed awfully alien to me. It was as if I had been playing those parts when it was required of me without really committing to the role. I had thought it was my first duty to provide for my children. Sure, I was enjoying the lifestyle we had grown accustomed to, but I didn’t know we had grown so apart. My parents might not have had much money growing up, but my father and I always had something to talk about. We never just sat there quietly like we were strangers. At that point in my life, I knew something was wrong.”

“What did you do about it?”

“I talked with my wife and I prayed about it.”

“Did God answer your prayers?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Well, what happened after that?”

“When the management position finally came up, I was among the candidates who interviewed for it. I didn’t get it, however. My boss could see there had been a change in my work habits. I hadn’t been working so much overtime anymore. When I asked him why I didn’t get the job, he told me that he hadn’t thought I really wanted it. On some level he was right. Sometime later, my department was downsizing, and I was given a number of options as to where I could be relocated in the company. There was a position open in claims adjusting and that sounded similar to the work I was familiar with.”

“Was it?”

“The job itself was somewhat different; I was evaluating insurance claims and making sure whether the customer received the right amount of compensation or in some cases detecting insurance fraud. Instead of sitting behind a desk, this job involved a lot more work outside the office, traveling to accident sites and such. In my old job I worked mainly with numbers, but now I got to work more with people. To my surprise I was really good at it and enjoyed it. Somehow, I could always tell whether someone was trying to deceive the company or being genuinely honest. It felt good to help those who deserved it. I even tried to get the ones committing fraud to withdraw their claim before I had to report them to the authorities. The job was a bit of a pay decrease, but the hours varied. I got to spend a lot more time with my family.”

“And did your material wealth decrease?”

“Somewhat.”

“What about your spiritual wealth?”

“My wife and I got closer again. My children and I actually talked to one another about more than just their day at school. Eventually, the kids felt like they had a father again and my wife a husband. Now that we were more of a family and my main focus wasn’t on material wealth, as you say, we did things together, got involved in our community, and even… My youngest, Katie, asked if she could volunteer at the local shelter and we all went down there to help out.”

“So I repeat my question, did God answer your prayers?”

“Yeah, I guess he did.”

“Did you and your children remain close?”

“For the most part, with one exception.”

“And that exception was…”

“My other daughter, Moira, was daddy’s little girl when she was younger. Her little face used to light up when I came home from work; she would run up and wrap her little arms around me. When my job changed and our family grew stronger again, I thought we were moving back to that kind of a relationship. For a time we were, but then as she got older we started growing apart again. Unfortunately, our relationship took a turn for the worse when she came of age during the hippie movement. At first, there were just little things I noticed. She had changed the way she dressed and was growing her hair out long. It wasn’t until she tried to call me Bobby instead of Dad that I realized this counter culture thing was having a big effect on her. We began to butt heads. My wife told me it was just a trend she would grow out of. I wanted to believe that.

“One day, I asked her about her plans after high school. Would she be going to college? It turned out that the plan Moira had in mind was to join a commune which had formed upstate. This led to a big fight where we both said hurtful things; she called me old and closed-minded, and I said she just wanted to experiment with drugs and free love. This was my own daughter that I had raised the best way I knew how. All I could think about was her sitting there in her head band, smoking marijuana, and being traded around like a common wh…” Robert stopped as he remembered where he was, “pardon me, having lots of sexual experiences.”

Simon Peter nodded his head but seemed unconcerned with Robert’s turn of phrase. He said, “Go on.”

“We didn’t speak for days. My wife and I discussed it. She seemed just as concerned as I was, but Beverly told me that Moira would be an adult soon and would be free to make her own decisions. I think that is what scared me the most. Things were quiet for a while, but then she brought home her boyfriend, Coriander. Well, he was born Kenneth, but decided to change his name to Coriander. Without being able to stop myself, I said, “Isn’t that cilantro?” I can still remember the way Moira lit up and I cringed when he nonchalantly told me it meant romance. Coriander and I didn’t hit it off to say the least. The young man didn’t even shake my hand.

“Following her boyfriend’s example, Moira later declared that we should now call her Rain. Several other similar occurrences showed my wife and I that our little girl was slipping though our fingers. I was irritated to say the least.”

“Why were you irritated?”

“Here was a child that I had raised, provided for, and looked after for nearly eighteen years. How could she just up an abandon everything that her mother and I taught her about the correct way to act. Her brother had gone to college and was on his way to becoming a doctor. But, she all of the sudden had no respect for her parents and what they wanted for her.”

“She hurt your pride?”

“Yeah, I just felt that somehow I could say or do something to steer her back to the right course. If I could only figure out what that was. Then, she came home and told us that she and Coriander were going to get married. He didn’t even ask for my blessing before he asked for my daughter’s hand in marriage. That was my breaking point; I forbade the marriage. My daughter was a part of my life that I felt I should have been able to control to some extent and that was the only recourse I had left.”

“Because of your pride, you felt you should have the ability to control her life.”

“Not so much to control her life as my own. I… I felt like such a failure as a father; like somehow this was all my fault.”

“Did you have that ability?”

“No, after Moira graduated, she ran away from home and got married anyway.”

“How did you react to that?”

“I cut her out of my life. My other children and my wife still had contact with her, but I refused to talk to her after that,” Robert said. He waited for Peter’s next question, but it never came. Instead, he got a look that he interpreted to mean he should know the routine by now. Robert continued, “Then, one night my wife was crying while on the phone with Moira.”

“After she had gotten off the phone, I asked her what was wrong. Beverly said, ‘Are you sure you want to know?’ When I consented, she told me that Kenneth had been drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. My son-in-law, after debating on draft dodging by fleeing to Canada, had chosen to do the honorable thing and fight for his country. The reason my wife was crying was because Moira said on the phone she had just learned she was pregnant. My daughter was faced with the terrible decision between telling Kenneth and him undoubtedly choosing to become a fugitive or keeping it a secret and having to raise the baby by herself for at least a few years, possibly forever.

“In that moment, I realized that life was beyond my abilities of control. The choice that I had before me was to stay the course and let my daughter face this alone or to let go of my pride and accept that there are some things in life I could not control. Who was I to question what God had decided? My wife and I talked things over and after getting Moira’s current address, I drove there. Apparently, she and Kenneth had decided that living in a commune wasn’t for them. She was home alone when I got to their little apartment on the outskirts of Chicago. We sat awkwardly there in her dingy living room with the plaster falling down in places for some time.

“I started by apologizing to her for being so stubborn. Then, I told her that her mother and I would be delighted if she came back home and lived with us when Kenneth was away. She broke down crying and said, ‘Daddy, I’m so sorry.’ We forgave each other and hugged. Moira felt it was important that I know she and Kenneth never took drugs or participated in ‘free love’ during their time as hippies. My daughter and I talked things over until Kenneth got home from work. She told him the news about the baby and our invitation. He was overjoyed; he even shook my hand.

“Ken left for Vietnam, and Moira came to live with us again. Robert Kenneth Jacobson, my first grandchild, was born some months later. We helped Moira with the baby and prayed with her for her husband’s safe return from the war. By the grace of God, Ken came home after surviving his tour of duty. We actually grew a lot closer because he talked to me as a fellow veteran to help him deal with all he had seen and done.”

“Robert,” Simon said with finality, “these are the sins you committed in your life that by human judgment deserve the most repentance. Do you now seek the forgiveness of God for these and all of the other sins that you brought to pass?”

“I do,” said Robert. A doorway opened up behind the desk at which Simon was sitting. His part finished, with a hand gesture Simon invited Robert to leave through the doorway. Robert’s whole body tingled with anxiety. He stood and took a deep breath. When he walked to the doorway, he might as well have been floating because he couldn’t feel his legs. Beyond the doorway was a huge room that looked like a museum. The floor was impeccable soft brown marble and the walls were beautifully painted with frescos depicting biblical scenes. The roof domed into a sky light that shone bright with a midday sun.

Walking into the room, Robert saw a few steps on the opposite side that led up to another doorway. This doorway was filled with fluffy whiteness as if it led directly into a cloud. Robert approached the steps. Something inside of him stirred. Somehow he knew he was now in the presence of the Lord. Not knowing what to do, he knelt down on one knee in front of the steps and bowed his head. Robert said, “Lord, please forgive me for my sins and allow me to enter into heaven.”

“Michael,” a flowing voice from within the cloud said. Before Robert had time to be confused, images flooded his head. Images of the creation of the world, the battle for heaven, the first humans, and millennia of other visions flashed before his eyes. An existence that he had once known was again being shown to him. He had been the archangel Michael, Michael who led the angels of God against the fallen and Lucifer. Michael, who sought to guide mankind in their avoidance of sin, that was him. How could he have been Michael?

Upon searching his restored memory, he discovered the answer. The archangels had been called to discuss something with the Lord. After mankind learned nothing from its first global conflict and was heading inevitably towards its second, God was losing faith in humanity and contemplating their destruction. The almighty thought it was getting harder and harder for a human being to lead a good life and come out of it a faithful person. One day soon, he argued it might be impossible. Three of the archangels, Gabriel, Michael, and Uriel, had pleaded with God to give mankind another chance. When God challenged their faith in mankind, Michael told God that he would lead a human life, and without all of his heavenly knowledge he would undergo the trials of sin and temptation. So great was his conviction that Gabriel and Uriel had volunteered to join him in this undertaking.

God had cautioned the trio that if they committed sins as men, they might no longer be welcome in the heaven. All three had accepted this risk. That was one of the last things Michael remembered before becoming human. Now here he was before God awaiting the judgment of his human life. Michael couldn’t help but feel a little bit of disgust at the life he had led. Surely an archangel should have been better able to whether the trials and tribulations of being human without so many missteps and failures. Leading a life on Earth had proven to be harder than he had anticipated. Bereft of his eons of knowledge and understanding, Michael had been left to navigate that world like a blind child searching in the dark for a light.

“Rise, Michael,” the voice said. Michael obeyed. The powdery mist started to dissipate. A man who appeared to be on the upper edge of middle age emerged. The features of his face were gentle and his eyes spoke of knowledge that was beyond understanding. A white beard with tinges of grey hung down to his chest. He was clothed in a simple white robe. Michael knew this was God. Then the mist revealed a figure standing behind the Lord to his left. The figure looked like a man in the prime of his youth with long, flowing auburn hair. He was smiling at Michael with bright blue eyes. Out of his back sprung two brilliantly white and powerful wings. Michael smiled when he recognized Gabriel. The mist disappeared completely and the two figures were all that stood in the doorway.

“Where is Uriel,” Michael blurted out. The smile on Gabriel’s face disappeared.

“Leading a human life was too much for Uriel,” said the Lord with a twinge of disappointment. “He no longer has a place by my side. Uriel is among the fallen.”

The full force of this declaration hit Michael. Three of the archangels had chosen to become human. One had retained his place in heaven; one had not. He would possibly be the deciding vote on the fate of humanity. Billons of souls lie in the balance. The life of Robert Heraldson’s wife… of his wife, his children, and grandchildren could be at stake. What would he do? What could he do? Michael waited to be addressed by God. Finally, the Lord said, “Do you feel that you led a good life, Michael?”

“The life I led wasn’t perfect, but no human is,” Michael replied, “I stumbled along the way and mistakes were made. Living in human form was more challenging than I had originally thought possible. It was so… confusing. The desires of my animalistic flesh, the thoughts in my underutilized brain, and feelings buried within my soul clashed on a regular basis. The inner struggle between my own malevolence and virtue consumed me at times. On the occasions I did sin, I repented and tried to atone as best I could. Every day I tried to be one step closer to you and to the person I wanted to become rather than one step further away.”

“Having been among humans and lived as one of them, do you still think there is hope left for mankind?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why, when so many of them have become vain, selfish creatures?”

“While that is true, Lord, even the worst of the lost causes among them can still choose to step into the light and follow the path of righteousness. Every soul that does helps to stem the tide of all that is evil and wicked in the world. They do all have the ability to embrace depravity, and many indulge in that. But, each one of them still has the potential to achieve greatness if they repent and mend their ways. You gave them that chance, Lord, and they still deserve the opportunity to prove themselves. If they choose not to save their own soul, surrender to the temptations of darkness, and give up on themselves, at least we did not give up on them. We did not doom them.”

“What would you do to save them from this fate?”

“If it is required of me Lord, I would sacrifice my place in heaven; never bask in your almighty presence again, to spend eternity among mankind attempting to guide them to salvation in your name.”

There was a pause as God considered the words of his angel. Gabriel looked from Michael to the Lord and back again. Finally, God spoke, “Michael, you have done well. Without your divine understanding, you have braved a human existence and returned to me not only as a faithful follower but also with a belief in mankind that I had lost. The future of the human race would be better served, I think, if you rejoined heaven and we once again campaign for the souls of men together.”

Upon hearing these words a slight pain emerged in Michael’s back. He bent forward. The blue polo shirt parted and two magnificent wings grew out of his shoulder blades. Standing upright again, he extended his wings to their full length. They fell to rest upon his back, and Michael smiled. Once again an archangel, Michael ascended the steps and was gone.

My Tattoo

My name, it is unimportant. My story while unique enough in the details is sadly like so many others out there. I teach English at a program for those in high school who for one reason or another need a second chance, a place to start over. Naturally, my students are curious about my personal life and past, what makes me for lack of a better word me. They ask a lot of questions, and for the most part I try to be an open book. The answers I give are honest, at least as honest as I can be and still keep my job as a teacher. The working theory is that most of these students have already seen the many gray areas between the black and the white of life, so I don’t try to be the best version of myself possible, a role model image that I shed when I walk out the door at the end of the day.

Instead, I attempt to show them that I am not perfect, not all knowing, and especially not better than them. Despite all of this, there is still one question I don’t answer. It usually only comes in the early fall or late spring, but sometimes there will be a student or two who even in the winter months knows that beneath my shirt sleeve artfully curved and pointed ink is wrapped around the upper portion of my left arm. Perhaps they heard about it from a classmate or they are a student I’ve already had who thought they would try their luck, today would be different; so they ask, “What does your tattoo mean.”

Generally before I can even answer, a veteran of my classroom with questionable manners will say, “He ain’t gonna tell you. He don’t tell anybody.” There have been multiple theories posed of course, that I was a UFC fighter or even that I had gotten the tattoo in prison. Once, I even put on my best serious face and told them it was a tattoo that a friend of mine had and that nobody would ever find the body. The truth behind it I have always told them was personal. Recently though, it has been brought to my attention that it might be just the kind of story that some of my students need to hear. After some consideration, I have come to agree with this. It is actually a long story that needs all of its points, sub plots, and accompanying smaller stories to be understood, so I have decided to write it down. Before I begin, let me remind you dear reader of something I tell my students sometimes; I wasn’t always a teacher.

 

Twelve

 

Memory is a funny thing sometimes. For instance, it’s odd how a person can remember a singular event clearly, as if it happened only moments ago, and yet be unable to place it nicely in a time line between what happened before and after. I can see the little twelve year old boy that I was lying there on the couch in the back room, his head buried in the cushions, tears falling uncontrollably as for the first time I can remember he cries himself to sleep. I know that I was there in that emotionally overloaded state because I had realized something. The actual event that caused this scene remains a mystery to me. I suppose in the broad scheme of things it had many causes, and had I not been enclosed in the ignorant bliss that was childhood, I might have noticed some warning signs.

I might have realized when I was two years old that my family lived in a house which was so poorly constructed it would later be condemned. The second floor was little more than an attic made into a room. It was under insulated and unfortunately where my brother and I slept. One winter, I am told I caught pneumonia, which must have been severe because I lost feeling in my legs and almost died. I don’t actually remember any of this, but it explains why every time I get a cold or flu there’s muscle pain in my legs much worse than anywhere else.

Although I do remember sitting outside of our new house at five years old waiting for the bus to take me to Head Start, how could I have understood then that it was a program for underprivileged kids who hadn’t learned the things they needed to know to start school from their parents? All I knew was that I got to ride a bus into the city, and there was a little blond girl that chased me around the plastic play room equipment at recess. When we graduated from the program, she met me at the middle of the stage and gave me my first kiss on the lips. What I didn’t comprehend then was that why despite this program I still had to repeat kindergarten.

Not that I was always an unobservant child, sometimes it was quite the opposite. Like the time I learned that despite the fact when you throw a fit your parents cave, the world doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to and there is nothing you can do about it. Every summer of my youth my brother, we’ll call him Sam, my sister, let’s say Janette, and I went to visit my grandparents in Colorado for a few weeks. During that visit for a week or two we would attend day camp. One summer, I discovered capture the flag. I thought it was the greatest thing ever invented. The whole year that followed I dreamt of playing the game again.

Finally summer returned, and we went to camp. Capture the flag was on the schedule my group of campers got for the week; I could barely contain my excitement. The day came, and I patiently waited until after lunch when the game was supposed to start. Then it was decided that some of the campers didn’t want to hike the little way to the field we were supposed to play at. There was a vote, and it was decided we would not be playing capture the flag. My world collapsed; I couldn’t believe it. At the time, the idea that I would not get to play capture the flag was incomprehensible. How could such a future exist? I wailed and cried in the hopes that someone, anyone would right this horrible injustice. Instead I got looks of scorn and disdain. I even overheard one of the counselors even remarked to another, “What a brat.” I stopped crying.

The relationship I had with my parents had never been exactly perfect. Many times in my youth, I tried to bond with my father. When he watched wrestling I would sit next to him and attempt to share the experience with him. This ultimately failed because of the inquisitive nature I had then. Inevitably I asked too many questions, which resulted in my father angrily telling me to shut up. Then there were the times I would attempt to assist my dad when he worked on the car. Silently I would observe him, and the only time he acknowledged my existence was when he needed a different tool. He would tell me what it was, what it looked like. I would race inside to the tool box and search every drawer. Unable to find it, the panic would set in. If I couldn’t find the tool he wouldn’t praise me, thank me, care if I existed at all. Then he would come stomping in, find the tool in a matter of seconds, and comment on how useless I was.

My mother on the other hand had a habit of coming home from work in a bad mood, so when I got home from school often times I would try to clean the house, do the dishes, or some other chore. All in the vain hope that she wouldn’t yell at me when she got home, she would be in a good mood, be happy. A few times that worked, but mostly it failed.

Normally, having an older brother would be a benefit in these types of situations, someone who has been through it before and can give guidance and support. Not in my case. Sam seemed to be maturing at half the speed of what anyone could normally expect. So much so that when we kids were left alone I, the middle child, was left in charge over my two siblings. No help there either.

All of these things put dents in the wall which held in my innocence and that naive sense that everything somehow was going to be alright. The wall did not come crashing down until that night when I was twelve years old. When somehow I knew that my parents would no longer be able to guide me emotionally or at all; I was alone. The event that finally did it still remains a mystery to me now. In all likelihood it was probably one of my parents’ fights. Those were pretty regular by that point. Perhaps it was the one where it got so bad my mother was going to leave, but my father removed the distributer from her car so she couldn’t go.

They had been to counseling, and we had even been to counseling as a family. I can still remember the look of frustration and hopelessness in the counselor’s eyes as my family tried to get her to validate their side of whatever particular argument was going on that week. My parents usually fought over money, but not in the way you would think. They struggled financially, lived paycheck to paycheck so my grandfather on my mother’s side made them a deal. If they created and stuck to a budget, he would give them a certain amount of money each month. Enter my father’s OCD aided by a budgeting computer program and my mother’s mathematical inability to keep track of exact amounts of money and where she spent them. Needless to say it was recipe for disaster. When they fought Sam sided with my mom and Janette was daddy’s little girl so she sided with him, and I as usual was stuck in the middle.

Whatever the catalyst that boy laid there crying, knowing that his parents couldn’t reasonably be expected to be there for him, he couldn’t bring them his problems, he had to begin his journey to being an adult whether he wanted to or not.

 

Thirteen

 

My parents separated; meaning that my father moved back to the farm house he grew up in for a week. Then for some reason my young brain couldn’t fathom, he moved in with a woman he knew from his weekly bowling league. We didn’t see much of him, once he took us to the movies, which I remember being awkward and weird because we were pretending nothing was wrong. When he had left he took some stuff but a lot he left behind. One of the items was an old hunting knife. It was rusted and dull; there was duct tape over a tear in the sheath. I spent hours cleaning all of the rust off, sharpening the blade, and getting all of the tape goo off the leather of its sheath. It became his birthday gift, but when I gave it to him he just scoffed and said, “Thanks for something that was already mine.”

The first rule that parents are supposed to follow when they separate or divorce is to not talk badly about the other parent in front of the children. My mother did not follow that rule. In her anger she made up all kinds of names for my father and told us anything and everything she could think of to make him less in our eyes. The most surprising and damaging thing that crossed her lips was that my father was adopted. Worlds changed once again; my grandparents and all of my relatives on that side of my family I was not in fact related to by blood. The next bomb shell came when we asked the inevitable question of who our real grandparents were. Mom said she didn’t know because my father’s records were sealed.

What did that mean, his records were sealed? She told us it meant that he was taken from his real parents by the state because they physically abused him. Not just a bruise here or there, when my father was younger he had had his nose broken multiple times and developed trauma induced epilepsy. That’s right my father’s real parents beat the crap out of him so much that anytime his brain got over excited he had seizures. Once when I was little and we were playing Nintendo he had one, and he fell on the floor, started convulsing uncontrollably and drooling. How could anyone do that to their child?

What my mother failed to realize was the psychological impact learning that some of your genetic material comes from such people could have on a thirteen year old. My father had always had a temper. We had received a spanking here or there, but it was never excessive or unnecessary. Though he had never hit us out of anger, there was always the hint that if he ever lost it you wouldn’t want to be there. There were holes in our wall that could attest to that. Somehow I knew that inside of me I had the potential to do horrible things, cause pain and hurt, in a word be violent. I knew that I didn’t want to hurt people. Instead, I began a long history of internalizing anger and everything else along with it.

If we had been bordering on poor before; now we had fallen off the edge into the abyss. The indications had all been there: cars that broke down all of the time, all of our clothes from Wal-Mart or even Goodwill, off brand school supplies such as crayons that were glaringly not Crayola. My parents’ separation not yet having any settled legal side to it meant, as my mother so eloquently put it, “Dumbo’s not paying his child support.” As a result we were on food stamps. This was before the advent of the link card. Back then food stamps came in dollar like colored pieces of paper that more resembled monopoly money.

Once again, my mother’s inferior math skills came into play. Almost every time we went shopping for groceries she would exceed the amount of rainbow welfare money she had. The resulting event was that she would review the items that had been rung up with the cashier removing items and totaling the order until it matched the amount of food stamps in her hand. This process as you can imagine took several minutes. The people behind us in line’s reactions were always the same. Some would pretend not to notice; others would openly glare in frustration at being made to wait; but everyone saw the scene being made. We were those people. I hated being those people.

 

Fourteen

 

My parent’s divorce was finalized. Some short time after that my father married the woman he was living with, Ree Ann, a woman I had met only once; and I wasn’t even present for the ceremony. As far as custody and child support were concerned, there were things still left to be decided by the courts. A very particular wrench was thrown into that process. Remember I said when my parents had fought my brother took my mom’s side and my sister, my father’s. With my father out of the picture it was two against one. That more than anything I theorize resulted in the following.

The truth, I’m not sure I want to know the truth. The fact is that my sister went to a youth group meeting at the church down the street one Wednesday night and told the pastor that my brother had touched her inappropriately. This brought the Department of Child and Family Services into my life. They investigated. My brother denied anything happened. My mother told them my sister was lying. I merely said that I had never witnessed anything like that happen, but had to agree there were times my siblings were not supervised. In what I thought was the end of this ordeal, my sister went to live with my father.

Ironically watching my parents’ marriage crash and burn like a suicide bomber trying to take everybody possible down with him, didn’t dissuade me from entering into my first real relationship. I say my first real one, because the ones before it were really just being able to say I had a girlfriend without actually know what that meant. When I was ten, I stayed at friend’s house one weekend and during a game of truth or dare I was dared to kiss his sister. Every time I even got close we both burst into laughter, so we became boyfriend and girlfriend instead. Then there were the three times I dated Teresa in fifth and sixth grade. During the last one we were walking home from school one day, and she told me to close my eyes. I did, but nothing happened. The next day I told her to close her eyes, and I kissed her. We twelve years olds made out. Of course she told someone, it got around the school, and meant the end of our relationship.

A year or two later as fourteen years olds, we ended up giving it a fourth go. This was a real relationship for a few reasons, the most important of which were the feelings involved this time, and the talk about the future we would have together. The physical aspect of the relationship was also more advanced as well. Nothing is as clumsy, weird, and nervous as two inexperienced teens trying to discover one another in that way. We got about as close as you can get without going all the way. That scared me at the time, but the talk about the future didn’t. At a time in my life when everything was uncertain, having something set was comforting.

The emotions ran high, and we did all of those things that cutesy young couples do: spend hours on the phone and then spend even more time hanging up, find excuses to see one another every chance we got, and get irritated when adults told us it was just puppy love. I thought that’s what relationships were, so that’s what I did. For a while, everything was going good. It wasn’t until I went to Colorado for a few weeks in the summer like I always did, that it changed. The trip was relatively standard; I saw my grandparents, went to camp, and had a lot of fun. When I got home and Teresa handed me the sixteen multipage letters she had written me, I realized I hadn’t thought about her that much really.

Like any sensible fourteen year old who knows he’s in a relationship where the other person cares more about him than he does her, I made up a reason to have a fight and broke up with her. What I thought at the time was that I simply hadn’t loved Teresa; I had just though I did. Without her in front of me day after day the illusion must have somehow evaporated. Sometime after that I was sitting outside at night and saw a shooting star. What I decided I wanted was the real thing. Not only that, somewhere in my head it clicked that life and the world owed me that. For what I had been through in life the perfect woman was going to be my restitution. If only I had known what I’d been through so far was only going to be the first few sad notes in the requiem of my life.

 

Fifteen

 

Sometimes just when you think you’ve got a grasp on something, life has an odd way of changing the game, rigging it against you until you think there is no way to win. Such was the case when I had settled into the idea of my parents’ divorce and how my life was going to be now. One day, I had a bit of cold, and like most enterprising young people I took the opportunity to have my mom call me in to school. She had a court date to go to, so I came along. My father was there, so I assumed it was just another meaningless detail of the divorce to get wrapped up like who gets to claim which kids on their taxes for what years.

There I sat outside the court room getting bored when a man, a DCFS caseworker I had met a time or two, walked out of the court room. He knelt down in front of me in the way that some adults think is comforting but usually just comes off as creepy. Then he told me I could not go home with my mother. He explained that because my mother had thought my sister was lying about her accusation, the judge had declared her unfit. My brother had been likewise been declared a danger to me. I thought about telling them I had already punched my brother in the face and given him a cut below his eye that he told people at school came from walking into a door, but I didn’t think that was going to help.

It was decided that I would go and live with my father for the time being. The only other option was foster care; believe me it was tempting. The caseworker was to drive me to my mother’s to pack up my stuff and then take me to my father’s. On the way there, I can still remember the caseworker steadied the steering wheel with his knee while reaching into the back seat to get something. My life as I knew it was falling apart. but my sense of irony was still intact. This man had been entrusted with my safety, and here he was with most of his torso in the back of the car, not to mention his eyes nowhere near the road.

At my mom’s I packed up some clothes and other things while she yelled at the caseworker. When I went to leave, she broke down crying. I gave her a hug and told her everything was going to be alright. In the back of my head somewhere, it registered how unfair that was; she was supposed to be the adult and me the child. One of the hardest moments in my life, when I was leaving the only home and existence I had ever known, and I had to be the strong one. Fair never really came into it. That’s just how it was, and at the moment, I had no choice but to accept it and move on.

So I did. I walked to the car, and the caseworker drove me to my father’s house in a small town only marginally larger than that one. My father and his new wife’s house was one level and had originally been built with two bed rooms. Since then three porches had been enclosed to add extra space, but it still felt as cramped as a cheap rock concert. In this still small house were to live me, my father, his wife, my sister, my stepbrother, my two stepsisters, and my new little half-sister born that morning actually.

Despite the amount of people in that house, there were other concerns. It was the kind of house upon entering that a wall of noxious smell hit the nose that couldn’t be pinpointed exactly, but that had been there so long whatever it was had to be curling the wallpaper and staining the carpet, the kind of place that when a person gets out of the shower they feel dirtier than when they got in. The carpets were threadbare, and the furniture looked like it had all been picked up off of someone’s curb after they threw it out. There was useless junk piled everywhere from old electronics to stacks of newspapers.

My sister and I were to share one of the bedrooms that used to be a porch. By share I mean we were to keep our clothes and things in there and one of us would sleep on the water bed in that room and the other on the pull out couch in the living room. Both of which were horribly uncomfortable. That first night there I slept on the water bed. In the dark lying in that unfamiliar existence, the trying to stay strong dissipated as if it were cool clean water in a hot dry desert. Dark emotions consumed the light of my soul, and for the second time I can concretely remember I cried myself to sleep.

My little half-sister, Kerrie, just being born, Ree Ann was out of the house for a few days. I had only met her once before and at the time had yet to form an opinion. When she came home, however, my opinion about her was cemented with amazing speed. First off, she was the ugliest woman I have ever met inside and out. Her face looked like someone tried very convincingly to make her into a witch for Halloween and the green color faded but everything else stayed. Physically she was just disgusting. She liked to wear these skin tight bicycle shorts that made me and probably every other guy who saw her think, if only for a second, that being homosexual might not be all that bad.

Ree Ann wasn’t one of those ugly people who had a sparkling personality or that were really nice. She was selfish, immature, and unintelligent. Needless to say we did not get along; especially when she thought she was my stepmother and attempted to tell me what to do. There were a lot of those times, but the worst occurred sometime later when I was leaving to go somewhere. Ree Ann told me I couldn’t leave, which I ignored. She proceeded to tell me that she could take my truck, which I had bought myself, from me. I stared her down and told her to try it. I could see it in her eyes: she wanted to smack me. She must have seen my eyes too though, the ones that said if you smack me, I will knock you out. She didn’t smack me. I left.

The relationship between my father and I didn’t improve with us living together again either. He was always playing on his computer or doing something equally as meaningless. One day that summer he decided out of nowhere that he was going to try to be all buddy buddy. He wanted to wrestle like we used to do when I was little. I wasn’t in the mood. In fact, I was pissed because he had been ignoring me all this time and suddenly decided he wanted to bond. He egged me on, so I lazily threw a punch which he grabbed. I threw my other fist; he grabbed that one too. Then my father chose that moment to be cocky. He said, “I got both your arms. What are you gonna do now?” I don’t like cockiness. I jumped up and kneed him in the ribs. Instantly he fell to the floor in pain. Weeks later when he finally went to the hospital, he found out that I had broken two of his ribs.

The pair of the them made horrible parents, especially when it came to the new baby in the house. Most of the time they just left her in a play pen in front of the TV. I can still remember one night that summer I was sleeping on the pull out couch when Kerrie’s infant cry pierced the night. The baby kept crying for what seemed like a long time, and no one did anything, not her parents in the next room, not even her sisters in the same room. They were all awake; they had to be. Someone had to be a decent human being, so I got up. I wasn’t sure what to do. I just picked her up and swayed back and forth until she fell asleep again.

I wasn’t living there long before I had to get out of that house. I only knew one person who lived in Colfax, so I went to her house. Vikki was friends with Jen, a girl from Arrowsmith were I had lived before. When I got to V’s house both the girls were there along with three guys in various stages of drag. Rick, Bob, and Timothy had intended to get on the girls’ good side by letting them put makeup on them; Rick was even wearing a dress. In the following weeks these guys would become my friends and one of them my best friend.

Rick lived across from V, and his parents were very laid back people, so it was where a lot of teens hung out. I came to spend a lot of time over there playing video games, talking with people, and just wasting time; so I didn’t have to be at my dad’s house. Rick and I became good friends because we helped each other deal with the respective anger we felt towards each of our parents in some constructive but mostly destructive ways. We used to sit and watch TV and trade shots. Not verbal insults, though we did that on occasion too, these times we would take turns hitting one another. We knew the hit was coming from the side, be it in the shoulder, the knee cap, the ribs, or even the kidney. The physical pain that resulted we laughed at, something we couldn’t do with the emotional pain it was meant to distract us from.

These friendships also began my various forays into juvenile delinquency. One time in particular, Bob and I were going to stay at Rick’s house for the night. Bob decided that he was going to buy a bottle of wine from a resourceful young man who was stealing it from his parents’ collection. I had a back pack with clothes and stuff in it, so we put the bottle in there as we rode our bikes around town. Bob was riding a little too close to the street, and a car’s side mirror hit his handle bar. The bike collapsed into the car with Bob’s leg in between the two. The car drove off. Bob cried out in pain, and someone called 911. It was suggested that his leg should be elevated, and without thinking I place my back pack beneath it.

By the time I realized my mistake there were paramedics and police surrounding Bob. All of them were looking at his leg, and below that I knew was my back pack with an alcoholic substance in it. I drew Rick to the side, but there was nothing we could do. Grabbing the bag out from under Bob’s leg and running for it would look crazy, not to mention suspicious. They had no reason to search the bag, but still scenarios played in my head that had me going to jail. Each second ticked by with the speed of an iceberg, until finally they loaded Bob in the ambulance. The policeman who had been asking him questions picked up the bag. My heart stopped beating. Without even knowing what I was doing I walked over to him. I simply told him that it was my back pack like it was the most normal thing in the world. He handed me the back pack without a second thought and wordlessly went about his business.

 

Sixteen

 

Despite the gripes that getting my license would make their insurance go up, I took the test on the day of my birth day. I passed. The next step was getting a job, did that too. It was a little family owned fish restaurant. The deal became that I could use their, my dad and Ree Ann’s, car if I got the rest of my siblings ready for school in the morning and watched them after school until one of the adults got home. Seemed simple enough on paper, but babysitting kids who have been given free reign their entire lives was anything but.

The worst was when one of my stepsisters declared one morning that she was not going to school. It was time to use my superior intelligence. I told her to get ready. The girl screamed at me that she wasn’t going. I said calmly, like I was making a deal with her, to just get ready. She got ready and then proceeded to throw her book bag on the floor and declare again that she wasn’t going to school. I told my stepbrother to get the door. Then I picked her up and carried her outside. When the rest of the kids were out I locked the door. She once again screamed that she wasn’t going to school. I told her I didn’t care and left her there.

She did in fact not go to school. The girl spent the day walking around the small town we lived in. Of course they tried to pin this little stunt on me. To which I replied that I had done the two things that were required of me in the morning, getting the kids ready for school and locking the door. Before long, I had saved up enough money to buy my own vehicle, and I stopped playing before and after school babysitter. Within months of my starting working there the fish restaurant closed down. My father suggested that I come work at the hospital’s food service department, where he worked. I got the job. It was on the night shift, so with the exception of one day every other weekend when I had to work a day shift, my father and I saw as little of each other at work as we did at home.

That was my life for a while. I walked through it checked out half the time, a zombie searching for brains in a land devoid of intelligent life. Then one of the girls I worked with, Mary, started giving me crap all of the time. I was so out of it, I didn’t even realize she was hitting on me until one of my friends pointed that out to me. We started dating, which was a surreal experience for me. Her parents were the nicest people I had ever met, and they had enough money to have nice things. Despite all of this, Mary never wanted to be home. She scoffed at me when I talked about her parents’ great qualities. If anyone had something to rebel against, I did; but all she wanted to do was drive around and smoke cigarettes.

I even managed to make another good friend. Jack moved to our school from New York, and at first everyone thought he was gay because he always wore dress shirts to school. He just said he thought that’s what people did. We were really only acquaintances until the incident at his house. Jack was having a bunch of people over to stay the night. There were too many people on his trampoline. My chin on its way down collided with the top of Jack’s head on its way up. Blood poured from both. I couldn’t remember where I put my shoes. After I yelled at my friends, they pointed out that my shoes were in my hand. That was when I realized the scariest part, my memory started lapsing. We were driven to the hospital, but I had to wait for hours while they got ahold of my parents for permission to admit me.

It was discovered that I had a mild concussion and the swelling was affecting my short term memory. I got five stiches; Jack got eight staples. All most all of the memories from those hours at the hospital and even some after it were gone moments after they happened. It wasn’t until later that night some things managed to find their way into my long term memory. I came to without knowing where I was, how I got there, or why there were stiches in my chin. After calming down I began to assess what I knew; I’d been to the hospital, my head hurt like hell. Then the frantic questions began, was I in a car accident, where was my girlfriend, was she okay. The worst part, my brain blanked again after ten to fifteen minutes, and the whole process started over.

That night I still stayed at Jack’s, but both having head injuries we had to be awakened every hour or so to make sure we hadn’t slipped into a coma. It was a weird way to start a friendship. The next day, though I still had the worst headache of my life, my memory had stopped lapsing. They still wouldn’t let me drive home, so my friends took me. When I got home my father was at his computer. Here I had been through one of the most traumatic experiences of my life; he hadn’t come to the hospital, and he didn’t even look up from his computer when he said, “Are you going to cover the charge for the emergency room.” I had to keep my friends from beating him up.

 

Seventeen

 

Early in the school year there was another court date. My argument for moving back to my mother’s was simple; I was seventeen, had a job, a car, was doing good in school, and my brother had left her house. I needed to make myself heard, but I wasn’t allowed in the court room, let alone did I get to talk to the judge. A lawyer conveyed my feelings however, and the ruling was that it would be left up to my parents and me. I didn’t even ask my father; I just left.

It was good to be back at my mom’s and have my own room again. Not long after I came back my mother’s boyfriend moved in. Harry wasn’t a bad guy, bit of a burn out, not much ambition; but he never tried to be my father or anything. The one thing he did have was some amount of wit, so most of the time we would just verbally spare, insulting one another and then complimenting each other on the good ones. That coupled with the fact that my mom didn’t give me any rules, she literally told me to be home by dawn once, meant my life was looking up for the time being.

Then, a little after four months into our relationship, in my parked car, Mary explained to me that we were too different people and we should just be friends. I don’t remember being all that hurt, because we hadn’t really had that deep of feelings for each other; I was just confused by the whole thing. At the time I just chalked it up to girls being nuts and moved on. The one thing my relationship with Mary did do was remind me that life owed me something. It wasn’t her, but that girl had to be out there. So, I started looking. Every attractive female face became the potential woman of my dreams. None of them seemed to want the job though. After sometime I stopped looking and figured, hoped that eventually she would come to me.

That year I hung out with Jack a lot, and towards the end of the school year, I realized I hadn’t seen Rick in a while. When I found him, he told me it just happened to be his birthday. I apologized for not getting him anything. To which he replied by asking me if I could give him a ride to his girlfriend’s house. How could I refuse the guy on his birthday? Plus he’d never had a girlfriend before; I had to meet this girl. That’s when I met Courtney. She had long blond hair, a nice smile, and giggled a lot when she laughed. Her brother challenged Rick to a game of basketball on their drive way hoop. He played basketball, while I sat and talked with Courtney and her younger sister.

It took a few more times of me taking Rick over there before I realized that Courtney was flirting with me. To tell the truth I was interested in her as well. It wasn’t long until I resolved to do the right thing and tell Rick I could no longer take him over there. That day I gave Rick a ride home from school. Before I got out what I needed to say, Rick said that he and Courtney had broken up. Now somewhere in the back of my head I had to have known about all of the red flags, she was now one of my best friend’s ex-girlfriends, she had been flirting with me while dating him. The only things going on in the front of my head however were that she was attractive and she might be the one, so what came out of my mouth was me asking Rick if he minded if I dated her.

After a moment’s thought, Rick said he didn’t care, but he had to tell me something that was to stay just between the two of us. I agreed; then he told me the reason he had broken up with Courtney. She had confided in him that she had been raped by her father and stepbrother. Of course I was shocked, but for some reason not deterred. Perhaps I thought that meant she was damaged, like I thought I was; we could be each other’s saviors like some touchy wrong side of the tracks teen movie. Having gotten the okay from Rick, that afternoon I went to Courtney’s house, and we started dating. I didn’t tell her I knew, because I wanted to wait until she was ready to tell me.

Like the beginning of any relationship we spent a lot of time together because we couldn’t get enough of each other. In those first few weeks and months everything was so new, exciting, and of course seemed perfect. The first time we kissed, we were in her parents’ garage and Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile” was playing on the radio. We chose it as our song because of the line “but I can still remember just the way you taste.” At the time it escaped me that it was essentially a sad song about regret.

The first time we went further than kissing, Courtney broke down crying. Through the tears she told me the same thing I had learned from Rick. We talked; she said she was okay but the tears still fell. When I asked her why was she crying then, Courtney said she was afraid I was going to dump her because she had said she wasn’t ready. I told her that right then the only thing I was worried about was her. After that she got more comfortable with me, we said our three little words to each other, our physical relationship progressed, and weird things started happening.

One afternoon that summer for example, I called Courtney to let her know that I was coming over to see her. When I got there she was all scared and shaken. She said after I called, the phone had rung again. This time it had been a rough male voice, and whoever it was threatened to hurt her. There was a guy who lived in the same small town as her and had had a crush on her. From what she had told me he wasn’t too happy about us dating. Like any irrational and angry teenager, I went out looking for this guy, so we could have a little chat. Luckily, I didn’t find him. When I got back to her house the police were there because her parents had called them.

They told the office about their suspicions, and he promised to follow up on them. Then he asked to speak to me in private. The officer asked me a lot of odd questions, like did I have a problem with this guy. I said that I did now. Then he asked me questions about my relationship with Courtney. Finally, I asked him what this was all about. The officer with an even tone told me that according to the phone records I had been the last one to call Courtney’s house. I was shocked. There must have been something wrong at the phone company. It then occurred to me that the police officer thought I made the call. He had been watching for my reaction and thankfully must have been convinced of my innocence. The whole thing was very confusing to me at the time.

 

Eighteen

 

Courtney talked in her sleep, which at first was nothing special. A lot of people talk in their sleep. Then it became more. Her parents had borrowed my car to go get groceries, because they were white trash. Her brother and sister were elsewhere, so it was just us alone at her house. We ended up watching a movie on TV, during which she fell asleep. At one point I thought I heard her say something, but again she was asleep. Moments later I knew I heard her say something. I muted the TV and asked her what was going on. With closed eyes and a soft sleepy voice she told me that she had to go check on the laundry.

My immediate thought was that she was going to sleep walk. I said I would go with her. What came out of her mouth was that I couldn’t. I asked why not. The reply was he won’t let you. Somewhat startled I told her that I didn’t care; if she was going to check the laundry I was going with her. That seemed to settle our strange little conversation as she stopped talking. I went back to watching TV. A few moments later I heard a scratching sound, so I turned back to her. That sound was coming out of her mouth because her hand was on her chest and her index finger was pressing on her throat. She was choking herself in her sleep.

Reacting on instinct, I grabbed her hand away from her throat. Almost as if in slow motion her other hand went to her chest and that index finger went in her throat. I grabbed that hand too and proceeded to freak out. There were two possibilities; she was either messing with me or actually completely out of her mind. Of course I assumed it was the former; she couldn’t be that nuts. The problem was that she had a straight face. In the past anytime she had tried to play around Courtney had been unable to keep from giggling. While I was debating just how screwed I was, she opened her eyes.

With a conviction that only the best actors would have been able to fake she grew scared when she saw the look on my face. She asked why I seemed so worried. To which I responded by asking her if she honestly had no idea why I was freaking out. In the genuine voice of a frightened little animal she said no. In that moment I couldn’t tell her; how do you tell someone they are that crazy? When her parents got home, I told them what happened. I said that I didn’t know if I could do this anymore.

Courtney, her parents, and I went to see a counselor. Turns out I was dating some who was schizophrenic, delusional, and a pathological liar. These all kind of fitted together to explain what was wrong with her; basically she saw or heard things that weren’t real but couldn’t distinguish between those and the real events. The reason she was such a convincing liar was because in her mind she wasn’t lying; she actually believed the things she was lying about. A polygraph couldn’t even tell the difference, how was I supposed to. Despite all of these things I stayed with her. What kind of hopeless romantic who thinks the world owes him something would I have been if I left a girl because she had a few major psychological disorders.

The counselor got Courtney on some antipsychotic medication. Things quieted down; however, she was still the kind of girlfriend that when she went to sleep I stayed awake. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we decided to go on a double date. Both of us brought along a friend we thought needed someone. My choice odd as it may sound was Rick. I probably felt bad, because it seemed like I had essentially stolen his girlfriend. That plus I understandably hadn’t seen the guy in a while. The four of us went out to eat; then we just hung out at Rick’s house. Courtney passed out early in the night, so I took her home.

After that Courtney said she wanted to spend more time with her friends. I just figured she had the same idea that I had; she hadn’t seen them in a while. That eighth month of our relationship, we spent more time apart than together. I hung out with Jack some, but most of the time I just stayed home. Something was wrong. I didn’t know what, but I didn’t like it. Then one day Courtney broke up with me because I was too nice. She wanted to be friends. Trying to regain what had been lost, I came back the next day to begin being friends. After a day of attempting to hang out with her and even showing up at her job, Courtney told me the real reason she broke up with me. For the last month, she had been seeing Rick behind my back. I would later find out that she had been telling him I was beating her, so he wouldn’t feel bad about betraying me.

After that, I fell back into a depression. I had been in love or at least I had thought I was in love; it was hard to tell the difference back then. The world had not only not gone the way I had wanted it too, but also had seemed to decide to go the exact opposite way as if I was being punished for something. To add to these negative thoughts I went to a party at Jack’s house one night. Mary was there, which I didn’t think much of at the time. She downed half a bottle of alcohol, and then stopped the party. In front of everyone there she pointed at me and screamed that I was the reason she was in therapy. Then she ran out of the room crying. All of those eyes were on me wondering the exact same thing I was; what the hell did I do to put her in therapy. One of my friends urged me with, “Dude, go after her.”

To which I replied, “Fuck that you go after her.” Eventually of course I did go outside to talk to her. She broke down and told me that she had been cheating on me when we dated. The guilt had been what put her in therapy. The messed up thing was that I knew who the guy was before she told me. All the signs had been there: I had just either not seen them or had refused to do so. I realized the same was probably true with Courtney. The explanations and rationalizations had clouded my eyes and reinforced the feelings I wanted to feel.

Now, I knew that both of my previous girlfriends had cheated on me. On the other hand I had to put my depression on hold, because a friend needed me. The first time I had gone to Jack’s house he had shown me his mom’s drawer full of the pills she had to take to stay alive each day. That spring she finally died from the cancer. Jack had been noticeably distancing himself from her the entire time I had known him, so he seemed creepily okay when it happened. He wasn’t though. Apparently the only person he had confided his true feelings in was his girlfriend at the time. Which must have been a lot, because about two weeks after the funeral she dumped him. She said it was all too much for her to handle. Naturally all of his friends, including me, said horrible things about her.

Being two guys betrayed by the women we loved served as a bonding point for Jack and me, for a while anyway. The following weeks were not good to Jack. His truck stopped working, and then his family’s sad little beagle was hit by a car. One weekend Jack asked me to stay with him at his house because everyone else was out of town, and he didn’t want to be alone. Determined to have a good time and get his mind off things, we set out for a wild and crazy Saturday night. Jack was borrowing his stepfather father’s sports car, so he drove. As we backed out, there was a bump. Turns out he backed over his sixteen year old cat.

Instead of having a fun time, I was helping my best friend bury his dead cat, while he was crying and talking about how everything he loved died. Jack sounded like he had nothing left to live for; I knew I had to say something to him, but I no idea what to say to someone like that. Finally I just asked him if he was going to give up. It took a long moment, but he said that he wasn’t going to give up. After the cat was under the ground, we left in my car to attempt to salvage the night. Jack wanted drive to the school parking lot; because he knew that his ex would be back from a basketball game soon.

After the bus pulled in, they met at her car. The pair talked for some time before Jack came to tell me he was leaving with her. I remember asking him if he was sure that was what he wanted to do. He said that it was. Of course they got back together. Whether Jack spent a lot of time with her because he thought she was the key to his salvation or he just dropped all of the friends who had talked badly about her, we never really hung out again.

To this day I’m not sure why I did it. Perhaps I was lonely or simply wanted to avoid wallowing in the deep dark pool of depression. Maybe I was the one person who knew how convincing Courtney’s lies could be, or I felt I should share at least some of the guilt because of the way my relationship with her started. Either way one day, I went to find Rick. Tension was high; each of us was waiting for the other to swing first. Two guys asked us to play a game of basketball on the school’s black top court. We played on opposing teams. I have never before or since participated in a game of two on two that had so many intentional fouls. By the time the game was over Rick and I both were cut and bleeding. He apologized, I accepted, and like guys do we were friends once more and the incident was never spoken of again.

Rick and I had always dabbled in drugs and alcohol as two teenagers who are exploring what life has to offer sometimes do. Now, however, Rick had graduated to those vices being part of his life style. Gradually, I began to join him in those illicit escapes from the bad dream that had become my life. I managed to graduate high school and get enrolled in community college that spring, but the summer was when it really hit me. For two weeks that summer, Rick, a guy named DJ, and I were drunk, stoned, or looking for the means to be one of the two. The only reason I went home was to shower and change clothes. I slept on couches, in cars, and during one instance sprawled on the floor of a moldy camper.

 

Nineteen

 

After I sobered up from that escapade, I realized how easy it would be to fall into that life and never come back out, which scared me. Instead, I decided to commit to my studies at community college. I even picked up extra shifts at work to complete the picture of bettering myself. The problem was my goal of being an Aerospace Engineer, the answer I had come up with in high school when everyone was telling me to pick a future. In my first college English class we were supposed to write about our chosen profession. A lot of the things I found out I didn’t like. For instance the goal of almost every person who becomes an Aerospace Engineer is to work for NASA, which only about five percent of people actually get to do. They spent a lot of time in front of a computer, and sometimes aren’t even privileged enough to know the whole project, just the bit they were working on. The biggest thing that put me off being one was that they had a high suicide rate.

The thing about avoiding your problems by working towards a goal is you have to have a goal. After my first semester, I had decided I no longer wanted to be an Aerospace Engineer, and my studies started to suffer. Then one night at work, some of my fellow coworkers asked me to talk to our department head about the new night manager. The hospital was adding a new wing and had been cracking down all over the place. This new manager was mean and snippy, had already yelled at me for no good reason. My coworkers figured since I had been there three years, I had some level of respect, so did I. When I brought up the topic with our department manager, she snapped at me. The words she chose to end her tirade with were an ultimatum, if I did like it there was the door. Like any proud and mad at the world teenager I turned in my two weeks’ notice that night.

The depression that I had been having bouts of but for the most part had been holding back came flooding in now that I had nothing to distract myself with. All the cards that life had dealt me felt like knives to my soul: my parents who were never there for me, my girlfriends who had cheated on me, my friends who I had lost to a selfish girl and drugs, all the people who had ever looked at me with pity, scorn, or something other than the warmth of humanity. I spent my nights in a swirl of self-loathing, hatred of everyone and everything, and most of all questioning why me. In the mornings, I would wake up and long for the nothingness of sleep once again. There were times I would just start crying and others that I punched harmless inanimate objects, which on some level somewhere probably had it coming.

It wasn’t long before I began contemplating suicide. Lots of planning and thought went into it every time the idea came into my head. How would I do it? Who would find me? What would they say about me? Who would be at my funeral? This went on for quite some time, until I realized I was too stubborn to actually kill myself. Instead I wallowed in depression that I thought there was no escape from. After weeks and months of this, one day, I decided I was just so tired of it all: tired of feeling like crap, tired of being down on myself, tired of spending every waking minute thinking I deserved to be punished and in turn being the instrument of that punishment.

I never wanted to be like that again, so I made a promise to myself. I promised I would never again give up on life, and essentially myself. If this world wanted me I was going to go down fighting. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but anything had to be better than the way my life was at that point. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and at the time my faith in myself was lacking to say the least; so I decided I needed a reminder of that promise. I needed something that would always be there to stare at me, telling me not to go to that dark place again. The idea that I came up with was to get a tattoo.

When I went to the shop there were a lot of things to choose from. On one of the walls there was a design that looked like a tribal version of barbed wire. I liked it. When I had weight lifted for football freshman year there was a guy who had a barbwire tattoo. He was quiet and serious, but most of all had seemed like he had everything together. That was what I wanted, to get everything together, plus I like that it was a smooth center surrounded by a pointy exterior. I must have thought it was a good metaphorical piece because I wanted to believe I was getting through the sharp and painful part of life so I could get to the softer and gentler ones. The tattoo seemed really long on the wall but when it was around my arm there was a couple inch gap on the backside. When the artist asked me if I wanted him to fill it in, I said no.

 

It has been a long road and anything but easy. I have had a lot of good experiences I can point to and think yeah I did those things. The idea that life owed me anything especially the perfect woman died hard; that’s a whole nother story. I went back to college and proved to myself that I can achieve what I set out to do. The woman I never thought I would meet came into my life and probably did more to change it than anything or anyone else ever has. We had an amazing little boy and have another child on the way. For a job I teach teenagers who have lost their way. Some chose the proverbial right path, others do not. The choice as it was up to me back then is up to them now.

I always say there are two types of students at my school, the ones who have chosen to better their lives and the ones who haven’t. The difference is so visible not only in their work or attitudes, but even in the little things like not thinking every second of their lives is going to suck. Hopefully sharing the story of my tattoo with some of them will at least get them thinking about that choice. Last year on my twenty ninth birthday, I got my tattoo touched up and the gap on the inside of my arm filled in. I feel like I have achieved goals I never knew I even had and kept my promise. It’s good to be whole. If I could tell that twelve year old crying himself to sleep or that nineteen year old contemplating suicide that one day they would feel this way, I would. I can’t, but just maybe it’s a message I can get to some of my students.

A Midlife Night’s Dream

Thomas rose from the old, comfortable recliner to being his nightly routine before bed routine. Minutes later, dressed in pajama bottoms and a plain white undershirt, he laid next to his sleeping wife in their bed. The sound of her shallow breathing confirmed he had not woken her. His daughter’s gentle snore came from the crib in the next room, and Thomas had already paused at the top of the stairs to listen for the sounds of his son sleeping. Knowing his family slept peacefully brought him a small measure of contentment; Thomas did his best to empty his mind of the day’s thoughts and join them.

The whole scene reminded Thomas of somewhere he had been, but he couldn’t place it. Given the intricate flower patterned carpet, the textured off white walls, and the odd absence of a scent in the air, Thomas knew the hallway in which he now walked had to be part of a hotel. But, what hotel, where? He didn’t know. Before long the hallway ended at two open double doors. Inside the doors stood a conference room laid out with multiple circular tables surrounded by chairs. Next to the doors under a sign that read ‘The Feynman Room,’ an attractive woman in a pants suit with her hair pulled pack into a ponytail wore a much practiced smile. She stood behind a table with a banner hanging on the front that had ‘Thomas Biehl Multidimensional Conference’ printed on it in large blue-green letters.

“Welcome,” she said. The woman quietly studied Thomas for a second. Having made her assessment, she searched the table full of folded place cards with table and seat assignments. When Thomas looked down, he found it alarmingly curious that every single one of the cards had his name on them,.

“Ah, here you are,” the woman selected a card from the left side of the table and handed it to him. Unsurprisingly, above the words ‘Table 8, Seat C’ his name glared back at him. Thomas thought about questioning how the woman knew this was his card when all the rest of them had his name on them as well, but thought better of it. He merely gave her an eye narrowed questioning stare before entering the conference room. At first glance, Thomas noticed a handful of other people already sitting at the tables. When he took a second to really look at one of them, Thomas stopped dead in his tracks.

The man had the same pale blue eyes Thomas saw in the mirror every morning, the same blank, unreadable expression. He was looking at himself, or at least a different version of himself. Small difference set the face apart. The man had a short, neatly trimmed beard, while Thomas was clean shaven. The man had grown his hair out to conceal the fact that it was thinning. Thomas’s hair had been trimmed recently, showing only the smallest bits of scalp here and there. Loose fitting jeans and a plain black T-shirt hung off the man’s slender frame. Thomas noticed for the first time that he was dressed in his typical work clothes, a pair of dark grey khakis and a blue polo.

The man’s eyes darted around the room at the rest of its occupants. Thomas realized he had been so focused, he hadn’t taken the time to look around the rest of the room. On examination he found that the other people in the room were similarly him, but not him. Dumbfounded and at a loss to explain the situation, Thomas decided to simply locate Table 8, Seat C. At first the tables seemed to stretch on forever, but then Thomas realized the walls must all be mirrored, creating the optical illusion that the conference room stretched off into infinity every direction. Assuming the illusion to be false made finding his table somewhat easier. Table 8, when he got there, proved to be empty. The circular table had eight chairs with small letter stickers atop the backing surrounding it and was covered in a white tablecloth and nothing else, save a plain placard proclaiming the table’s number. Taking his seat, Thomas counted the number of tables in the room and estimated there to be enough chairs for close to a hundred people.

As other versions of himself filed into the room, Thomas took notice of the minute differences that separated them from himself. The clothing, the appearance, sure; but he began to notice the changes in the way the Thomases carried themselves. Some stood up tall, looked straight ahead. Others appeared downcast and stared at the floor. A few came off as nervous, skittish even. Thomas waited to see that same look of surprise appear on their faces he himself had when they realized who the other people in the conference room were.

Before long, another Thomas sat in one of the chairs at Table 8. This one had a decent tan going, shaggy hair that had been made blonder by the sun, along with a casual dress and demeanor. The new addition looked at Thomas and said, “Olá, isso é muito louco.”

“Excuse me,” Thomas said.

“Sorry,” his table mate replied, “It’s ah… been awhile since I have spoken English in a social setting.”

“Was that Spanish?”

“Portuguese,” he said, his voice giving off the slightest hint of irritation, “they speak Portuguese in Brazil.”

“Brazil?”

“Yes.”

“You live in Brazil?”

“Right.”

“So, that means you took Enrico up on his offer of giving you a job and crashing on his couch until you found a place of your own?” Thomas questioned. At one point in his life, Thomas had made a rather pivotal decision. He had decided to take a year off college and three years later was working at Super-Mart on the bottom rung of the management track. Uncertain that he wanted to be in retail for the rest of his life, Thomas had considered his other options. When discussing this very issue with a friend he had made from another country, that friend had offered to get him a job and an initial place to live if he had the money for the plane ticket, which he had. After careful consideration of the rather enticing offer, Thomas had instead decided to return to college.

“I did,” said the Brazilian.

“And then what happened?” Thomas asked, eager to hear this other version of his life.

“I worked at the Sao Paulo Hyatt with Enrico for a few years, taking various jobs in the tourism industry and eventually working my way up to being a concierge for English speaking guests,” the Brazilian Thomas began. “Then after a couple of years, Enrico took a job in Florianopolis on the coast. Eventually, I got a position in the little resort town of Itajai just north of him. I started teaching English as a second language on the weekends to the year around residents. One night, this amazing local girl walked into my class, and I fell in love. We got married, got a little villa on the coast, and sometime later along came little Milena. She’s my little docinho.”

“What’s that?”

“Sweetheart,” the Brazilian said with a reminiscent smile on his face that Thomas knew all too well, then coming back to the moment asked, “What do you do?”

“I teach English at an alternative school. After having decided to stay in Illinois, the next logical choice seemed to be going back to college with the idea of getting an English degree. I stepped down from being a manager to focus on my studies, but continued to work at Super-Mart all throughout college. Shortly after deciding to return to school, I met the woman who would become my wife at work one day. She was in the process of becoming a teacher, and more than likely steered me in that direction. We got married, got a house in her home town of Lexington, and we now have two kids, Gabriel and Charlotte. Life is… life’s good.”

“Bem, muito bem,” the Brazilian said, and then correcting himself added, “Sorry. Good, very good.” Neither of them sure of what to say next, awkward silence grew between them. Thomas tried to gauge his own life against the life of the counterpart before him. Rather than Brazilian Thomas’s life being better or worse, what struck Thomas the most was that it seemed to be neither. From the sound of it, they both had made out pretty decently in life. Something still didn’t sit right with Thomas; wasn’t one of them supposed to be living the proverbial right life and the other the wrong one? That was certainly what he had thought when faced with that decision in his early twenties. He could distinctly remember how serious of a choice it had been because he had believed that one of the options had been the ‘correct’ one to choose. He wondered how he would have approached that problem differently if he had known that in either scenario he would have ended being, for lack of better word, okay.

And, what about his wife? Thomas loved his wife and there were many things about her that he felt made her the perfect woman for him, but he hadn’t really ever been sure he believed in the whole one true love for everyone idea. But, if he had, if that was true, then how could this other version of himself be in love with his Brazilian wife if Thomas was in love with his own wife, a different person entirely? Accepting that both feelings existed destroyed the entire theory. Maybe there was no such thing as a one true love, or a right life for that matter. Another version approached, and Thomas needed to take a breath before he started this whole process over again. He decided to take an out when he noticed the bar at the back of the room.

“Excuse me, won’t you?” Thomas said getting up from the table. He walked up to the bar, making eye contact with a few other Thomases on the way. The bartender was a few inches shorter than him and had dark clean cut hair. Relieved to see a face that was not his own, Thomas ordered a Guinness. Another Thomas approached from the opposite direction and ordered a Bud Light. As the two waited for their drinks, they couldn’t help but size up one another. This Thomas had on non-relaxed fit jeans, a short sleeve hunter green button down shirt, actually wore his glasses instead of contacts, and seemed to be a little slimmer, almost lanky. Glancing at his left arm, a larger discrepancy caught Thomas’s attention.

“You didn’t get the tattoo?” Thomas asked this new version of himself while staring at the blank arm. The other Thomas studied the artfully curved tribal barbwire tattoo wrapped around his counterpart’s left arm just below the sleeve of his polo.

“No, I don’t have any tattoos,” this new Thomas said. “What does your tattoo mean?”

“Ah well… it’s a long story… but, at one point I had given up on life, and I never wanted to be like that again. So, I ah… I got a tattoo to remind myself.” It felt horribly odd explaining such a significant part of his life to a version of himself that had never been through it.

“Oh… I’m sorry. No I never, um… did that.”

“What do you do?” said Thomas, obviously trying to change the subject.

“I’m an aerospace engineer.”

“Really! Do you work for NASA?”

“No,” the other Thomas said with a smirk that Thomas knew all too well. “After the Air Force Academy and my term of service…

“You went to the Air Force Academy?”

“Yeah,” Aerospace Engineer Thomas said. Then, this new Thomas gave him a squinted look. The thing about talking to other versions of yourself that Thomas was quickly realizing was that he could see right through and correctly interpret all of their gestures and mannerisms. That look meant, ‘Yeah, I went to the Air Force. Why? Didn’t you?’ Realizing he had given himself away but seeing no way to amend the situation, the new Thomas continued, “After the Air Force, I worked for Boeing for a number of years. Now, I’m part of a group designs commercial space craft. Last year, we tested our first prototype in the uppermost layers of Earth’s atmosphere before…”

“You went to space?”

“Well, we left Earth’s atmosphere for a matter of seconds, but…”

“You’re an astronaut,” Thomas said in astonishment.

“Technically, yeah,” Astronaut Thomas said. Thomas stared at him, at a loss for what to say. Finally the Astronaut spoke, “We hope to be ready for commercial space flight to the moon in the next couple of years. Then, I can get back to the Mars project that I was originally hired to be a part of before…”

Thomas still stared at the Astronaut dumbfoundedly. Realizing this, Astronaut Thomas said, “Sorry, here I am droning on and on. What do you do?”

“I teach English.”

“You’re a teacher?”

“Yeah.”

“Really.”

“Yes.”

“Well, good for you. I’m sure that must be very fulfilling,” the Astronaut said rather euphemistically, which Thomas automatically knew meant he thought it sounded like a waste of time.

“It has its moments… do you write at all?”

“Write… what like stories? No. Do you?”

“Yeah, I write shorts stories mainly, but I just recently finished and self-published my first novel.”

“Congratulations,” the Astronaut said, seeming genuinely impressed. “I could never do that.”

Thomas was unsure how to respond to this version of himself that had been to outer space applauding his own personal success. Before he had time to dwell on it any further, the Astronaut changed the subject abruptly.

“Is dad still alive? Your dad, I mean.”

“No, he ah… he died some years back.”

“What was he like?”

“Why don’t you know?”

“My dad died in a car accident when I was about five years old,” the Astronaut said. Suddenly, the picture that was this other person’s life became clearer for Thomas. Growing up, Thomas had two major father figures, his actual father and his grandfather on his mother’s side. Without the one in the picture, it would make sense that the other would take over the principle role, and his grandfather had been an engineer. Thomas had considered aerospace engineering as a career for a section of his life, but he could see how this particular anomaly could have caused that goal to be a much greater part of his life.

Not to mention, Thomas still wondered from time to time whether his dad would have been proud of him had he not died some six years ago. He could only wonder how much those feelings, that yearning for a recognition that could never be given, would be multiplied if his father had been taken from him that long ago, at such a young age. While he pondered what it must be like inside Astronaut Thomas’s head, he realized the guy was still staring at him, waiting for an answer to his question. Thomas debated how much he should tell him about how little of a father his dad had been throughout his life, how ironically enough in his darkest times he had debated whether or not he would have been better off without a father at all.

“I’m sure he would have been very proud of your accomplishments,” Thomas said diplomatically. Then leaving the Astronaut, he returned to his seat. Table 8 had become rather populated in his absence. Brazilian Thomas was engaged in conversation, so Thomas introduced himself to one of the versions sitting next to him.

This Thomas had an unruly mop of hair on his head, a short beard on his face, and was slouched in his chair. Before long it became apparent that the sloucher had chosen to become a snowboarding bum. Thomas had spent an entire season working at Vail in Colorado and had snowboarded almost every day. The thrill-seeking yet lazy lifestyle had appealed to him, and he had almost gotten lost in it. Snowboarding Bum Thomas had allowed himself to be enamored by the life choices of his Argentinian roommate at the time who spent the American winter here and their winter there, snowboarding the majority of the year, while spending the short off seasons surfing in various places around the world. The term bum defiantly applied, because this person did little else of note and didn’t seemed to have had an introspective thought enter his head in years.

The influx of Thomases entering the room subsided, and all of the chairs at Table 8 had been taken save one. Thomas noticed there were still a few other empty seats among the tables. He wondered if this was all the versions of himself that were to be in attendance. Almost in answer to his question, the woman who had been handing out seat placements closed the double doors and made her way across the room. Thomas stopped her as she walked by his table. Indicating the empty seat, he said, “Excuse me, ma’am, but were there some ‘persons’ who couldn’t make it here.”

“In a manner of speaking,” she replied politely. “The empty seats are for those who are no longer with us.”

With that, she went to stand beside the bartender, and left Thomas staring at the empty seat two chairs over from him with newfound reverence. Scanning the room he wondered how the seating arrangement had been decided upon. Was he sitting with those Thomases whose lives most closely resembled his own? Attempting to listen to the conversation at other tables, he thought he overheard a Thomas talk of being a substitute teacher, which left him a lot of time to work on his writing. Feeling his theory invalidated, Thomas continued to scan the room. Catching a glimpse of other Thomases in the reflective surface of the nearest wall, he tried to search for his reflection multiplied several times. Thomas grew dumbfounded when he couldn’t find his own reflection anywhere. He performed the classic hand wave to himself, but no Thomas waved back.

“I guess we should start by going around and introducing ourselves,” said a rather stern-looking other Thomas from Table 8, interrupting Thomas’s thoughts. This Thomas had a closely cropped haircut and looked uncomfortable in his cargo shorts and T-shirt. No Thomas spoke, so the stern one said, “I’ll start. When my first year of college floundered, I joined the military…” 1st Sargent Biehl went on to describe the training he underwent in both basic and then Army Ranger school, his two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his now rather comfortable position at camp such-and-such in North Carolina. He was divorced, but had just recently started dating again.

Thomas gave his own account of his life; his wife, kids, teaching, and writing. After him, the Brazilian took his turn. Then, the snowboarder looked as if he was going to talk, but then he was interrupted by a Thomas who clearly thought highly of himself. This Thomas, the philosopher, started off with a quote from Aristotle about knowing yourself which simultaneously came off as pompous and ridiculously out of place given his current circumstances. The philosopher, to hear him tell it, had fallen in love with thinking about thinking and had decided to devote his life to the ideal. Currently he was working at a coffee shop to pay off student loans from his graduate degree, while constantly searching for a position teaching Philosophy somewhere, anywhere.

After the Snowboarder gave a relatively short summary of his simple life, the two remaining Thomases seemed reluctant to share. They eyeballed each other until one of them finally broke the silence. The one who spoke wore a faded ball cap and looked tired; mind, body, and soul tired. He said, “My senior year of high school I got a girl pregnant…”

“Courtney?” Sgt. Biehl asked. Teen Parent Thomas nodded, and the rest of the table stared at him, giving him their silent condolences. Thomas flashed back to the time he spent with that girl. Man, she was nuts. Not like ‘she was kind of kooky but in a cute way’ nuts; no, she was ‘she went to sleep he stayed awake because she might kill him in sleep’ nuts. Thomas could concretely remember a time when her period had been late, and he had purchased her a home pregnancy test. The results had come back negative; well, in his version they had anyway.

“I offered to marry her,” Teen Parent Thomas continued. “She accepted and a number of months after I got my diploma, little Terence was born. She had dropped out of school and apparently was using all of that extra time to cheat on me. We ended up getting a divorce. I was still working in the food service department at the hospital, but she didn’t have a steady job or a place of her own to live, so I managed to get full custody. Long story short, being a single parent really is as hard as they say it is, but I’ve tried my best.

“I moved up to day shift manager and still didn’t make a ton of money, but I stuck to a budget. I’ve kept a roof over his head, clothes on his back, and food in his stomach. I made sure Terence had a good, well-rounded childhood, and tried to keep him focused on his studies and making something of himself. He’s just recently become a little teenager; I can hardly believe it,” Teen Parent Thomas paused for a moment.

“Do you ah…,” Philosopher Thomas asked, “Do you regret it?”

“Being a teen parent?”

“Yeah.”

“Not for a second,” Teen Parent Thomas said calmly, staring at the Philosopher with an expression full of pride that couldn’t be misunderstood. “I’ve been dating this nurse I met at the hospital for some time now. She’s a good woman; I’m going to ask her to move in with us soon. Next year, the food service department manager is going to retire and I think I’ve got a fair shot at her job. I may not be a philosopher, a teacher, or even a snowboarder, but my life is good and I wouldn’t trade any of it.”

Teen Parent Thomas gave his monologue with such emotion that any feelings of sympathy the others had initially felt for him had been quickly replaced with admiration and even a measure of respect. Then, all eyes fell on the remaining Thomas. This person’s appearance gave off contradictory impressions. His jaw was set and his hard expression unreadable, even by those other Thomases at the table, but his eyes spoke of calm and maybe even hope. He said simply, “I killed a man.”

The statement had its intended effect; the table silently stared at him unsure what to make of his declaration. He continued, “I went to his party at a town house. The couple that was hosting it had been fighting, so the girl had started cheating on him. The guy she was seeing on the side had been invited. She was a coworker and friend of mine who knew how she got when she drank, so she asked me if I would make sure nothing happened between the two of them at the party. At one point in the evening I was sitting in the vicinity of the stairway and this guy told me I was in his way. To which I replied, ‘And?’ He asked if I wanted to fight about it; I told him, ‘Maybe later.’

“Later in the evening, I did a mental head count and realized there were two people who weren’t either on the first floor or in the basement. Man of my word, I went up the stairs to the second floor. The very two people I was supposed to be keeping apart were standing in the hallway flirting and giggling. When they noticed someone coming up the stairs, the girl dashed into the bathroom. The guy, upset that I had ruined his chances, said, ‘Let’s fight now’ and charged at me. I thought he was coming straight at me, so I decided to knee him in the stomach and pin him against the wall until he calmed down.

“But, I miscalculated. Rather than coming straight at me, he came down at me as if to do a wrestling move. I didn’t knee him in the stomach; I kneed him right in the face. One of his front two teeth went through his bottom lip and then broke off. The tooth next to it fractured all the way to the gum line. When he stood up straight again, the lower half of his face was covered in blood. Pulling his hand back from his face, he saw the blood on it and then looked at me first in utter shock and then anger. I knew he was going to charge at me again.”

For Thomas, that is where the story climaxed. The girl came out of the bathroom, screamed, and managed to diffuse the situation. Apologies all around, an emergency room trip, and the end of a relationship rounded out the story. This other Thomas’s version didn’t end like that, though. He said, “This time when he charged at me, I decided to hit him in the throat with the space in between the thumb and forefinger of my hand, so he would struggle to breathe and have no choice but to calm down. The forces involved, however, were enough to break his larynx. He died from complications before we could get him to the hospital.

“I was charged with involuntary manslaughter and put on probation. Unfortunately, I turned to drugs when I couldn’t cope with the idea that I had taken a human life. Inevitably, I got busted, and had to serve three years in prison. My cellmate was a born-again Christian; he talked a lot about redemption. Somewhere along the way the things he kept saying started making a lot of sense to me. I ended up devoting myself to my faith. When I got out, I joined a local church, attended prayer meetings, went on several mission trips to the poorest parts of this world, and now, I work with fellow ex-cons.

“I have admonished to myself and to God that that night I was angry, not with that man in particular, but I had recently in my life been cheated on myself, twice. This person who was now seeing someone else’s girlfriend behind their back became the focus of my misdirected anger. Self-defense or not, chance or fate, that anger played a role. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t ask God for forgiveness.”

Thomas still had lingering doubts about his own take on religion, so he couldn’t help but admire the way this version of himself spoke with such conviction about his own faith, despite the road it had taken him to get there. Thomas asked, “What would you have to say to people who are struggling with their faith?”

“Redemption,” the other Thomas said. “No matter what is in our past, it is a road we must all go down sooner or later.”

No one at Table 8 had anything to say to follow that story, so they were relieved when another bum-ish looking Thomas interrupted them to ask the Snowboarder a question. He said, “Hey man, did you ever board Las Leñas?”

“For a week or two…” The snowboarder replied, and the two began an in-depth conversation filled with a lot of Yeahs, Mans, and Whoas. Thomas realized that the other tables had familiarized themselves with each other and then left to find their most similar counterparts. Thomas got up from the table with the same goal. Minutes later, he found himself at the bar refilling his drink. The bartender and the woman Thomas had met in the hall were deep in conversation about something, and Thomas considered that the two might be a couple.

He found himself staring at the enigma that was wall in front of him, which appeared to be a mirror but he still couldn’t find his own reflection. Searching for the reflections of those around him and failing in that endeavor, Thomas was beginning to think the walls weren’t mirrors at all. Then, he caught sight of the bartender and the woman being repeated in the multiple images. Before he could ponder the meaning of this anomaly any longer, Thomas caught sight of a version that looked rather similar to himself. The man had on plain stone khakis, a grey polo that Thomas recognized, and his hair was buzzed rather short like Thomas kept it sometimes.

Walking towards this individual, the other man did an evaluation of Thomas and must have made a similar deduction. When Thomas stood next to him, he asked, “Teacher?”

“Yep,” the man replied, “Writer?”

“Yeah, married to Miranda, two kids?”

“Who’s Miranda?”

“My wife.”

“Oh, no, I never married,” the other Thomas said. Two out of three wasn’t that bad, but it seemed to Thomas that this guy was missing the most important category. The unmarried Thomas continued, “Two kids, huh?”

“Right, a boy who will be four soon and a girl that is a year and a half.”

“Man, with all the crazy women I have dated, I’m not sure I even want to have children.”

“Yeah, I felt the same way before I met Miranda.”

“Good for you,” the unmarried and childless Thomas said genuinely. Then waving his hand to indicate the room, he asked, “What do you make of all of this?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was just wondering if the whole thing might all be taking place in a completely different Thomas’s imagination like some bizarre introspective thought experiment.”

“Could be,” Thomas said. After that, he made his way around the room, striking up conversations here and there with similarly dressed and groomed versions of himself. What struck him was not how different they all were from him, but how similar. Some had other passions than he did, some had made wrong turns, some had been more lucky in life, some seemed like completely different people on the surface. Beneath the differences in appearance, life choices, and even personality, they all had something in common with Thomas.

Whatever challenges life had thrown at them, they had managed to overcome them not so much through courage or perseverance, but more accurately stubbornness… a stubborn determination to not settle for anything short of living their life, whatever that life may be. When asked, anyone who knew Thomas would describe him as a calm person. In explanation of this trait, he would always respond that he had confidence enough in himself that he would be able to handle whatever happened, even the worst case scenario. But now, Thomas began to wonder if he was calm because he didn’t see decisions as matters of the correct and incorrect choice. Every choice would lead him down a different path in life, and he knew that whichever path he took he would somehow end up being alright in the end. Now, when Thomas looked at these other versions of himself, he began to feel like he was seeing into his very own soul.

“If everyone would please find their seats,” the bartender said from a podium that Thomas was sure hadn’t been there a moment ago. All the Thomases returned to their chairs and then the strangest thing happened. There was a loud clank, and then the walls began to slide apart toward the corners. Thomas realized they had in fact been glass, not mirrors, because as they slid away the Thomases behind them became completely visible. The glass walls slid into the corners, and then the corners themselves disappeared. Now tables of Thomases stretched off in every direction as far as the eye could see.

Each section that had been a room had a podium with the very same bartender at it. Now, when the bartender spoke the vast space echoed. The bartender said, “My name is Martin Orin. I was born in 1783 in a little town on coast in Maine. After a good, long life in the shipping industry, I died on warm summer day in 1846. At first, I waited for my lovely wife to join me in the afterlife.” Here he paused to wink at the woman who had been handing out seat assignments and was now at the bar in his absence. She regarded him with a warm smile. “Then the two of us watched our children and grandchildren grow up, have lives of their own, and eventually pass on themselves.

“Now that all who remember us are gone, my beloved has expressed a wish to do it all over again, be reborn. I have been reluctant to join her in that endeavor. ‘What if we don’t end up together?’ I asked. She replied by saying that we were simply two people who were lucky enough to find each other once and fall in love. If we did so again that would be a blessing, but if we found other people to love there would be nothing wrong with that outcome, either. Still, I wasn’t sure, so I organized this conference.” There was a pause, and every single Thomas was at a loss for what the man meant.

“You see, if I choose live a human life once more, my day of birth will, rather fittingly, be two hundred years to the day after I was first born, August 10th, 1983. If I decide to do so, my name on that day will be Thomas Biehl,” he said. The bartender let that sink in for a moment. “You see, all of you are the people I could possibly become. Watching you, listening to you interact with each other has definitely been a learning experience. In the end, I have decided that no matter which one of you I will eventually become, it will be a life that I am glad I took a chance on. I have decided to be reborn.”

One of the Thomases slowly raised his hand, unsure if he was allowed to ask questions. The bartender acknowledged him with a nod, and he said, “Do you know what name your wife is going to have?”

The bartender began to say something, but then the whole scene dissolved when Thomas abruptly woke up. Knowing he had just had a rather weird dream but not being able to recall any significant details other than that he had been at some weird conference, Thomas rolled over and went back to sleep.

###

About the Author

Thomas Biehl teaches English at an alternative school to teens who for one reason or another need a second chance and likes to consider himself a writer in his spare time. He grew up in a small town in central Illinois, left, came back, and now lives near there in Lexington with his wife, who is also a teacher and his much appreciated editor, and his two children, Gabriel and Charlotte. Despite his love of reading and creating stories, Thomas still finds it odd talking about himself in the third person.


Burning at Both Ends

  • ISBN: 9781370356782
  • Author: Thomas Biehl
  • Published: 2016-10-19 15:35:15
  • Words: 37570
Burning at Both Ends Burning at Both Ends