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Strange Tales for Cozy Nights 1

STRANGE TALES

 

FOR COZY NIGHTS – 1

 

by Brian Bakos

 

 

cover: Othoniel Ortiz photos: Brian Bakos

 

Copyright 2017, Brian Bakos

Shakespir Edition

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given away to anyone else. If you want to share this book, please buy 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, please return to Shakespir.com and obtain your own copy. Thanks for respecting the author’s hard work.

 

Table of Contents

Thing in the Lake

Voyage

The Man Who Loved Winter

Haunted Woods Excursion

Healer

Bear Country

The White River Terror

Personnel Enhancement Service

Rifle King

Connect with the Author

Brian’s Other Books

[][] Thing in the Lake

The Lake it is said, never gives up her dead … The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

 

1. The thing finds me

Something bumps against the bow, jarring me out of my contemplations.

“What the hell?” I say with disgust.

I’ve been drifting slowly through the darkness, and my canoe barely shudders from the impact, yet I am angered by the affront. I drop to my knees in the center of the boat and switch on my flashlight, expecting to discover a small log or a beer cooler floating in the water. You never know what some drunk will lose over the edge of a party barge.

I ready my paddle to shove aside whatever the obstruction might be. I am not prepared for what I find.

“Ahhh!”

I tumble back along the floor; the narrow canoe rocks dangerously, threatening to capsize. Fear immobilizes me as I sprawl like a baby inside a galloping cradle, staring at the moon as it tries to stab its light through the cloud cover.

God help me!

But God is nowhere around in the funereal night. It’s just me, alone and unprotected.

The canoe ceases its dangerous pitching. The thing in the water scrapes along the fiberglass hull with the scratching hands of death; I dare not look upon it again. Reaching from my position on the floor, I turn on the electric motor which is clamped to the stern. Thank God, it obeys my summons.

I grip the drive handle and bring the canoe gently around. Somewhere in the far regions of the lake, a loon begins its insane shrieking.

My craft bears me away though the darkness. Twisting my head around from my prone position, I can see the patio light drawing closer. I resume my place on the seat and open the motor to full speed, not looking back to see if the horror pursues, unconcerned about any obstructions ahead.

When I get to dry land, I leap ashore – that much I recall. The next thing I remember is standing in the shower under a hot blast of water, with no idea of how I got there – my clothes are piled on the bathroom floor.

I collapse into bed.

***

When I awake, it’s still dark. The clock is lying face down on the carpet where I must have knocked it, though I have no recollection of doing that. Jodie is not in bed with me, but I did not expect her. I roll onto my back.

Did any of this really happen? I wonder.

A second, more disturbing thought occurs: Am I still out on the lake, and is this comfortable bedroom only an illusion?

Something has gone crazy with the world; I have no idea what or who. Things have come unstuck. And so I remain, suspended between two uncertain realities, until well after day break.

Then I drag myself out of bed and go downstairs to the kitchen. I pop open one of those wine coolers that Jodie is so fond of; there’s a six-pack of them in the fridge. They represent the sole blemish in her otherwise impeccable taste.

I dislike the faux fruit flavor, but it’s the only alcohol in the house. I slug it down quick, then open another one. I head out the sliding glass doors, across the patio, and down to the lake.

The neighboring houses are distant and are probably empty as well. Mid week interlopers like myself are relatively uncommon in this gentrified part of the shoreline.

My motorized canoe sits innocently on the shore, pulled up into its customary place. Impossible to tell when it was last used – maybe some hours ago, maybe last week. I give it a complete walk around. Everything seems in order . . .

That little smear alongside the port hull – was it there before?

I can’t say. It’s a mystery beyond solution, at least for now. I slug down half the wine cooler and gaze out over the vast lake. In other countries, this would be called a ‘sea,’ but here in Michigan, it’s just one of several massive lakes gouged out by glaciers and augmented by dams.

I’ve been coming here my whole life, year round, since Mom & Dad owned the place, when it was still just a ‘cottage.’ Back before the second floor got built and Jodie’s designer furnishings took over.

Carried off by the huge body of water, my mind returns to a winter day a quarter century ago when I was 12. The lake had frozen through with surprising clarity, and there was little by way of snow cover on the surface. This side of the Lower Peninsula is like that – the western side gets the lake effect snow, but the winds are pretty dried out by the time they reach us.

You could look a fair ways down into the frozen water, and that’s where I saw it, in good detail. No one else could see it though, especially not my friend, Rex, who proclaimed his studied opinion that I’d “gone wacko.” But I knew what I saw, and everyone else knew it too, eventually.

I return to the house and make a call, using the landline. My cell phone is for my other life downstate.

2. Struggle to comprehend

I push open the glass front door of the Kawfee Cup café and enter; the waitress looks up from pouring coffee and smiles my direction. Rex is waiting for me in a booth near the back where we can have some privacy. Good. A few other locals are scattered around the tables and counter, nobody I know. Rex is the only local I associate with.

“Man, you look like crap!” is the first thing out of his mouth when he sees me.

“Thanks,” I say.

I’ve known Rex a long time. We had many adventures together as boys, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s a good guy, if not on the educational and professional level that I have attained. When I come up here for a break, he’s part of the shedding process – I ditch my more developed, complicated self to take on the simpler aspect of this small town.

“So, what’s the big deal?” Rex inquires.

The waitress arrives before I can tell him what the ‘big deal’ is. I order a coffee and the mini-breakfast; it’s about all I can deal with in my addled state. The waitress is very nice, and I hope I haven’t been too blunt with her. I don’t want to come across as some insensitive jerk from downstate.

Rex is a blunt guy, too; that’s another reason I like him. He seems devoid of the political hackery and double talk I must deal with in the working world, back home in the bustling city. He’s not one to stick a knife in anybody’s back, especially not a pal’s.

So, I get directly to the point, after a bit of preliminary: “Remember when we were kids, and I saw that car in the lake ice? You said I was crazy.”

Rex grins, good-natured though a bit apprehensive.

“Yeah,” he says, “how could I forget? ‘Old Ben’s gone off his rocker,’ I told myself.”

“But I was right, as subsequent events proved.”

Rex nods, but he doesn’t say anything right off.

“I’ll grant you that,” he finally says with a tip of his coffee cup.

I’m not sure how to continue. The waitress temporarily takes me off the hook by bringing my mini breakfast. I dig in, hoping to gain some time for collecting my thoughts.

I discover that I’m actually famished and regret not ordering something more substantial. Rex has a calming effect on me – that’s another reason I like him, and the waitress’ friendly attitude also gives me some grounding. My numbed sensibilities are beginning to thaw.

Rex has turned reflective. This is the point where he’d yank a cigarette out of that checked shirt pocket of his and light up, if such things were still allowed in restaurants.

“That was quite a day, all right,” he says.

I wait for him to say more, but it is not forthcoming.

Well, you can only expect so much from a hick, I think uncharitably.

I take a drink of coffee before continuing, holding the warm mug in my hands like a comfort blanket. Then I place it down decisively.

“Something similar happened last night,” I say.

Rex’s eyes flash and he gulps hard. His face turns grim.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” I say, “on the lake. I took my boat out on a ‘loony cruise’ as you call it. I saw something in the water.”

I pick up the mug for another slurp of coffee, wishing that it was a powerful cocktail, instead.

“What was it, man?” Rex asks in a virtual whisper.

“A body.”

I’m surprised at the calmness in my voice. The color drains from Rex’s face.

“Did you tell the sheriff?”

I shake my head. “No need for that.”

“No need?” Rex says. “If there’s a body in the water, the sheriff’s gotta know! I mean, this ain’t Lake Superior – it’s gonna wash up somewhere.”

Rex’s voice has gotten louder. He glances around and lowers it again.

“Do you know who it was?” he asks.

I nod.

“Who?” Rex’s voice is nearly inaudible now.

“It was me,” I say.

Time hangs suspended in the little restaurant. Rex looks like he’s been slugged in the gut.

“More coffee?” the waitress asks.

“Please,” I say, “and more for my friend, too.”

She smiles warmly at me, but pretty much ignores Rex. He could be having a coronary and she probably wouldn’t notice. Rex is only the familiar truck hauler / handy man, while I’m the exotic ‘rich guy’ from down south taking a break from the cocktail circuit to slum with the locals.

The fact that I can think in such terms attests to the relaxation of tension I have experienced. My more ‘sophisticated,’ or at least cynical self is reemerging. It really does help to get things off your chest – especially when it’s a vision of yourself floating dead in the water, glassy eyes staring into a flashlight beam.

The waitress tops up our coffee and leaves, swaying her hips more than necessary. She’s clearly trying to attract my attention – the big city ‘success story’ with the power to take her out of this isolated fragment of the world. She’s very cute, maybe a year or two out of high school, and life must be looking rather dead end-ish here.

Rex has recovered a bit from his shock.

“Hey, don’t do that to me, man,” he says. “I mean, a joke’s a joke – ”

“This isn’t a joke,” I say. “Not any more than that car was.”

“Damn,” Rex says. “Damn … ”

He’s got the most peculiar look on his face. He’s staring at me like I’m a ghost. I can’t resist the temptation of reaching across the table and gripping his forearm. He jerks back; I grin wickedly.

“Did you tell Jodie?” he asks.

I shake my head. “She’s back home now. Our schedules don’t match this week.”

“Right … right,” Rex says.

A vacuum descends on the conversation. I take a final slug of coffee.

“Well, it was good talking to you, pal,” I say. “I figured you’d be as likely to understand as anyone. Sorry if you’re upset.”

“No, it’s all right,” Rex says.

For a moment all the social strata b. s. falls away. I’m suddenly fed up with what and who I am, with the people I place value upon. I see Rex as the true friend that he is, unvarnished but real. He seems almost an object of pity now, sitting there baffled, shrunken to less that his usual size.

I stand and drop a fat tip for the waitress onto the table.

“I’ve got some stuff to think over,” I say. “Thanks for listening to me.”

“Right … ” Rex says again.

I pay our bill at the register.

“Come back soon,” the waitress says as she hands me the change.

I check out her name tag.

“Sure thing, Carla,” I say.

I can feel her eyes on me as I head for the door. Sure enough, when I get there, I see her watching me in the glass. Our eyes meet for an instant within the reflection, then I’m outside walking to my BMW.

I look back toward the restaurant and catch a glimpse of Rex still sitting at the table, his head bowed over his cup of coffee like he’s saying a prayer. Carla’s obvious interest has given me a lift. I’m not in the market for a girlfriend, though. The womanizing thing is in the past – been there, done that. I’ve got the real deal now, and would never do anything to spoil it.

***

I drive out to the old public boat access point on the south shore, about a half mile from my house. This is the spot where that summer renter, Keith Anderson, drove his car into the water with his wife beside him and two children in the backseat, drowning the whole family. It was rated a murder suicide; the guy just cracked up for some reason and decided to end it all, for everybody.

I was the first to notice the Blue Chevy resting on the bottom with its U of M banner on the radio antenna frozen in mid wave. Mom and Dad went to Michigan State and didn’t like U o M, so that particular detail really stuck in my mind.

Thing was, Anderson drove his car into the lake during early June, four months after I spotted it there in the ice.

3. Departures

I leave for home soon afterwards. I was supposed to stay overnight and then drive directly to work Wednesday morning, but another evening with my personal bogey man is not an attractive option. I badly need to see Jodie.

This coming weekend is my corporate retreat, a pseudo-social annual event during which – while partaking of the manufactured bonhomie – we discuss the coming year’s business ventures. It can be sort of fun, but the knives are still out, just as they are during the regular work week. You can’t let the ‘informal’ atmosphere lower your guard.

Many of us take off a day or two to prepare for the ordeal. That’s what I was doing at the lake – working on my presentation, contemplating my career path in peaceful surroundings. And so they were peaceful, until the unannounced visitor showed up last night. I’d been “chasing the loons,” as Rex puts it, just cruising a bit from shore to enjoy the night ambiance. I was feeling pressured from my work on the PowerPoint and needed a break. I got a lot more break than I bargained for.

It had to have been an illusion, some bizarre waking nightmare … but I know what I saw.

For someone who spends much of his working day on the phone, I have a peculiar shyness about calling my wife. It seems almost like a lack of trust. I have the feeling that if I call, it’s because I’m checking up on her – and Jodie is an independent woman who does not like being checked up on. She’s with a high-powered law firm and has lots of her own pressures.

I take the scenic route home, enjoying the Lake Huron views and the slower pace of secondary roads. I pause for a leisurely lunch at a bar / restaurant type place and read the Free Press on a park bench. But, try as I might, I cannot shake the feeling of a haunted presence sharing my trip – riding in the back seat, sitting beside me on the bench hidden by the newspaper.

I can almost see it, almost smell its damp odor; but, of course, it isn’t there. At one point, I drive onto the gravel shoulder while craning my neck to look at the back seat. So, I resist the temptation to take my eyes off the road and limit myself to occasional glances in the rear view mirror which I have tilted down to improve the view of the BMW’s interior. Music pouring from the sound system helps to occupy my mind.

It isn’t until I’m in the northern suburbs, late afternoon, that I call Jodie.

“I thought you weren’t coming home until after work tomorrow,” she says. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” I lie, “I just got to missing you.”

A pause, then:

“That’s sweet, Ben.”

“Can you join me for dinner?” I ask.

“I can’t,” Jodie says. “I’m still at the office for quite a while.”

It’s past 9:00 when Jodie comes in through the door, exhausted. After a quick welcome-home kiss, she heads into a hot shower. When she comes out, I have a warm oil massage ready for her. She purrs with delight under my fingers and is quickly asleep.

***

Wednesday and Thursday pass in similar fashion. I get home from work first, then Jodie later. Both of us are hauling big loads of stress.

The usual political crap is going on at my office, worsened by the approaching retreat. Profits are down for the third quarter in a row, and the finger pointing is getting worse. Factions are forming up, and it doesn’t seem possible to remain ‘above it all.’ I’ve apparently been identified with the anti-CEO crowd. I’m not exactly sure how that happened, only that certain people are friendlier these days and others more stand-offish. Rumors abound like poisonous insects.

Jodie is working on a “monster case” that is absorbing much of her law firm’s resources. It’s a big hassle for her, but also a major opportunity. Whatever else happens, though, she’s getting away for the weekend, she vows. She’s bugging out early on Friday and heading direct to the lake for two days of R&R while I endure the corporate retreat at another lake farther south.

I’m not entirely pleased with the prospect of Jodie’s trip. I think of the long, dark drive, the deserted forest area around the house, the distant neighbors, the howling of dogs and loons. Then I think of the shotguns secured in their safe. Jodie knows how to use them; she’s a better skeet shooter than I am, actually. And there’s the little 9mm automatic she totes in her purse like a fashion accessory – just thinking of it makes me feel better about her solo journey.

But there’s that horrid apparition out in the water. A shotgun wouldn’t be of much use against that.

It’s my personal bogey man, though. It can’t harm her … I’m certain. I want to tell her about it but can’t. It’s another barrier between us. There are way too many barriers now – jobs, schedules, the children I want and she doesn’t, personal tastes, politics. I don’t care about politics, why have they become part of our relationship?

Things are drifting away from right under my nose. I’ve been too wrapped up in nonessentials to grasp this. That specter in the lake has really opened my eye to the important things in life … maybe I should be grateful to it.

I feel a desperate burst of love for Jodie as she sleeps beside me, the moonlight dappling on her nude body through the curtains.

I must reach out to her – as soon as this terrible weekend is over, when she’s more relaxed and I’ve finally got the corporate retreat albatross off my neck. Sunday night we’ll drink martinis together, or wine coolers is she prefers; we’ll talk about us and what we mean to each other. We’ll rekindle our love. Maybe a professional counselor after that – whatever it takes.

Jodie is the most important thing in my world. I can’t bear the thought of losing her. I’ve already slid down into the divorce swamp once before; it won’t happen again!

At night, the thing in the lake tries to barge into my dreams, but the warm presence of Jodie at my side keeps it at bay.

***

The bombshell explodes Friday morning.

Things start out benignly enough. I see Jodie off early morning; she’s got a bag packed and intends to drive up North direct from work. She seems more relaxed and happy now, and I’m glad for that.

But the atmosphere is tense when I walk into the office. People avert their eyes. I instinctively know what’s coming.

I’m called in for a ‘conference’ during which I get the standard termination bromides. I’ve done well in my job, but the company is “moving in a new direction” and cannot retain people who “are not a good fit.” So, everyone “needs to move on.” Translation: the pro-CEO faction is pulling a coup and getting rid of people who are less than enthusiastic about the company’s “new direction.”

I tell my inquisitors that I see through their game and that I can identify a political hatchet job when it’s performed so blatantly. This raises a few eyebrows. Then I leave – no need to clear out my desk since everything of importance is already inside by briefcase. They can keep the ‘Team Member of the Month’ awards hanging on the walls.

The security guard who escorts me out isn’t a bad sort, and he’s obviously embarrassed. I wish him luck, then head to my car and drive to the nearest watering hole.

I’m halfway through my martini when it hits me full bore – I’m 37 and out of work. My career had seemed to be humming along onward and upward. Now I’m out. Knowing that the disaster was politically motivated makes it no less painful.

Tradero and Cooper both call me. They, too, have been fired, as they were prominent members of the anti-CEO faction, ‘my’ faction. Tradero fumes and blusters. Cooper says he’s freed up now to pursue his dream of founding his own business. Right. Cooper always was a big talker.

I make the conversations brief. I don’t want company for my anguish; I need to be left alone for a while.

I need the comfort of a woman – I want Jodie.

Yet, how can I approach her now? We’re not equals any longer. I’m unemployed, while she’s an up and coming attorney. Whatever ‘equality of the sexes’ spin you might try to put on things, a man needs to be a breadwinner at least as capable as his spouse.

I’ve never had to think in such terms before. Everything had always gone well in our professional lives; both of us had been on the upward track … until today. But Jodie’s my wife! It’s her role to support and sympathize with me – though thick and thin, for richer or poorer. Right?

For the first time I can identify with guys like Rex. I remember when he lost his well-paying factory job downstate. Monday mornings he’d been driving for hours to get to the job site. He’d stay in a cheap room until Friday evening when he’d drive back up North to be with his wife and kids.

The job was a huge step up for him. He and his wife were shopping for a house downstate and talking of a better future for their family when the layoff notice came. It was “nothing personal” the company spokesman said, and “everyone has done a great job,” but the company felt that it could do better by outsourcing the work overseas.

My situation is nothing as bad as Rex’s, though. Is it? I have marketable skills and money in the bank; I own the lake house in the clear. And Cooper might be onto something about founding a new company; maybe I could go that route.

Yet the whole thing has struck my sense of manhood a tremendous blow. I try to tell myself that things will work out, but deep inside, I can’t believe it.

4. Final solutions

I resist the temptation to drown my sorrows. I leave the bar and go home – shower, eat, try to nap, watch TV. All the while I’m hoping that Jodie will walk through the door; maybe she’s forgotten to pack something. I’ll reach out to her then and …

But by late afternoon, it’s obvious she’s not coming. I think of the weekend stretching before me like a vast wasteland. How can I navigate through it alone? I prepare to leave.

***

More than once as I roar along North I-75, I’m tempted to swerve into an overpass abutment. I imagine the brief, violent event, then peaceful eternity.

Keep perspective! an inner voice cautions. It’s not the end of the world.

Only it feels like the end of the world. I’m 37 and starting over. My whole life has been a gigantic waste! Self pity is choking me.

At least my personal bogey man isn’t along for the trip. He’s been replaced by other phantoms arising from my memory like toxic vapors. Every bitter experience I’ve ever had is riding with me in the BMW, blown up to monster proportions. The humiliating episode of this morning keeps playing through my mind like a bad movie. Why wasn’t I more forceful? Why didn’t I slug one of those self-righteous jerks?

I get to the little town about 8:45. I haven’t phoned Jodie to say I’m coming, as I’m still not sure if I’m coming or not. Maybe I’ll turn around and head back home, or go someplace else. Or go die. Anxiety and longing struggle in my mind. On one hand, I desperately want comfort from my wife, on the other, I dread what her reaction might be.

A beer can help me decide, or at least help stall for time. I head to the Pine Knot bar and park amid the rows of battered pickup trucks. As I walk through the door, it occurs to me that I’m nursing a lot of pain these days with alcohol.

It’s a country type place with twangy music blaring through wall speakers. In the far corner is a band set up. I’m grateful that Rex isn’t here as it would be exhausting to meet him. Carla, who is working behind the bar, is the only person I recognize. I’m grateful to see a friendly face, and the belt of tension around my head lessens a tiny bit.

A few customers are drinking long-necked beers which she serves from a little refrigerator near the lottery game console. I take a stool at the empty end of the bar.

“What time does the band start?” I call over to her.

She looks up, and her face brightens. She starts walking toward me.

“Oh, hi … ”

“Ben,” I say.

As she gets close, her smile fades. I know what she’s thinking but is too polite to state:

Man, you look like crap!”

She quickly recovers, and the smile returns.

“Hi, Ben,” she says. “You’ve found me at my ‘second career.’”

I’m surprised to hear myself chuckle. I thought I’d forgotten how.

“Well, it pays to keep busy,” I say.

“The band starts at 9:30,” she says. “You going to stick around for it?”

I glance at my watch. “Oh … probably not. I just came in for a quick one.”

“What’ll you have?” she asks.

“Beer.”

“We’ve got – ”

“Tell you what,” I say, “just put your hand into that fridge, and whatever you touch first, that’s what I’m drinking.”

Carla laughs. “Okay, you’re the boss.”

She saunters back toward the fridge. She is an eyeful, no question about that. The locals at the other end of the bar express their appreciation.

“Ain’t you a little young to be working here?” one asks.

“What time you get off, Beautiful?” another one says.

Carla handles the situation artfully; she’s had a lot of practice, no doubt. She comes back with my beer.

“I’m 24,” she says.

“Really?”

She nods toward the guys at the other end of the bar.

“Everybody says I look younger than that. Don’t I wish!”

“I thought you were fresh out of high school,” I say.

“No, I’ve been through it all,” Carla says. “Married, divorced … working at the Pine Knot.”

“Kids?”

She shakes her head.

“Some day. I’m glad I didn’t have any with my ex, though.”

“Are you from around here?”

I feel better asking these mundane questions. It’s true that focusing on others can divert you from your own catastrophes.

“No,” Carla says. “My ex was a local, until he took off. Who knows where he is now?”

She glances around the Pine Knot; she seems to be suppressing a shudder.

“I got to keep the trailer, so here I am.”

She turns toward me and fixes her eyes directly into mine. I feel an almost physical contact.

“So, tell me about yourself, Ben,” she says.

I detect a lot behind this simple statement – curiosity, interest, concern for somebody who ‘looks like crap.’

“Well, I … ”

But before I can pour out my tale of woe, customers at one of the tables require attention, and Carla has to go take care of them. I’m grateful for the interruption. Who knows what kind of bore I’d turn into if I started blabbing?

I take a swig from my beer. It’s ok, whatever brand it is. I’m beginning to feel more like a human being and less like a discarded automobile battery.

Carla is sending our her vibe again, and what male wouldn’t be pleased with that? But it’s a slippery slope; being human, one thing can easily lead to another. I decide to call it a night. I down the rest of the beer and leave some cash next to the empty bottle. Carla is still busy with the customers and doesn’t notice me leave.

***

A glorious vision of Jodie accompanies me out the door, seeming to hover in the air before me. But once I’m in the parking lot, it begins to fade. Deep anxiety replaces it. I look back toward the Pine Knot, but the sight of an uncouth crowd heading toward the place repels me.

“Look at that damn thing,” somebody gestures toward my car. “Must be a millionaire here.”

“Yeah, let’s go in and kick his ass,” another one says.

The group of idiots guffaws; I get into my BMW and drive out of town.

Turn back, you damn fool, says a cautionary voice in my head. You’re a loser; Jodie doesn’t want a loser!

“Shut up!” I cry.

My headlights poke a tiny distance ahead into the gloom. I flick on the high beams, but the illumination scarcely improves. It’s as if life itself is being sucked away. The turnoff appears before I know it, and I drive right past.

Good move, the voice says, now keep going.

I back up instead; a vehicle coming behind me honks its horn and swerves. I make the turn.

A terrible sense of foreboding grips me as I drive along the narrow dirt road. I try to call Jodie but am immediately sent to her voice mail. She’s clearly switched of her cell. I think of trying the land line.

What if she’s asleep, though? The jangling of the old-fashioned wall phone would be guaranteed to put her in a foul mood. I toss my cell onto the passenger seat. I already have enough bad news for her as it is.

Then a real terror thought strikes me – what if somebody is in the house with her? What if some local whack job has broken in and caught her unawares – the shotguns still in lockdown and her weaponized purse out of reach? What if those cruds from the parking lot are there, aching to brutalize the uppity woman from downstate?

Again, I sense a presence in the darkened back seat. I can smell cold death.

“Get out, you bastard!” I shout.

I’m approaching the turnoff to the house. Ordinarily, I’d plow through this final 100 yards and park by the garage, but I’m not willing to do that now for some reason. I pull off into the underbrush and kill the motor. As I get out of the BMW, silence presses in like a coffin lid.

Don’t go up there, you idiot! The voice in my head shouts.

Then it is abruptly silent, as if a cord has been cut. I know it won’t bother me again.

I start walking. The familiar stretch of woods seems full of threats now; anything could leap out of the shadows and carry me off to hell. I sense a presence walking behind me, then beside me, but I dare not look over.

You’re late, Ben Osterman,” it says. “That country band is starting to play already, and you’ve only just got here.”

Jodie’s car is parked outside the little garage, which strikes me as peculiar. Usually, she’s very careful to protect it from the elements. I pause. Why the hell am I acting like this?

As if in a trance, I walk the final yards to the house and peer in through the kitchen window.

I see them sitting close together on the living room couch, drinks in their hands and smiles on their faces. Jodie scarcely resembles the ball of nerves I’ve had to deal with in recent days – she looks younger, happier, radiant almost. He is generic handsome, obviously successful. He’s got his arm over Jodie’s shoulder; he whispers something in her ear, and she laughs . . .

 

Then I am at the shore; I do not recall how I got there. I wade into knee-deep water; it’s very warm and soothing. It invites me to swim out to the middle where the lake turns rough and return is impossible. The eerie wail of a loon beckons me, and beneath it rumbles something deep and seductive:

Do it! Join us!

It’s the voice of Keith Anderson. Beneath it are the wails of his family and the other dead things in the lake. I wade farther out until the water tops my hips; I prepare to dive and reunite with the glassy-eyed corpse floating in the darkness.

I take a last look back at the house. The bedroom light upstairs flicks on.

Damn you both!

Then I look beyond the house, through the dark woods, toward my BMW parked in the underbrush. And beyond that to the little country bar with a woman aching for …

And I know in that moment, on the cusp of extinction, that the final choice is up to me.

[]Voyage

My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death. , Franz Kafka

The man always sensed that he was not alone on the voyage, that some other presence inhabited the ship with him, lurking within the sails, the rigging, and the dead hold which he dared not explore.

On, perhaps, the third day out, as he stood at the rail viewing the diseased ocean, a figure approached him. The man averted his eyes from its rigid, colorless face and inquired:

“What do you want?”

His voice scarcely masked the dread he felt. The form stood very close to him now, rocking slowly – a great pendulum in cadence with the ship’s motion.

Come with me,” He felt it say.

He followed it to the helm. At a gesture from his frightful companion, he grasped the wheel in trembling hands.

Then he was alone again. The ship moved fast, an unholy wind filling the sails. As it raced ahead, snippets of memory appeared to him – all of them bespeaking an evil life which was now over.

[]The Man Who Loved Winter

The old man stood on the rest home lawn watching the cars spray wakes of dirty water behind them as they hissed by; their headlights pierced the foggy evening air. Cold drizzle penetrated his robe. He looked up toward the leaden, claustrophobic sky.

“Middle of December and it ain’t snowed once,” he said. “Some damned winter!”

He puffed on his cigar; the luxurious smoke soothed him a little.

“Mr. McKinney! Stanley!” an authoritative female voice called.

He turned to see a nurses’ aide advancing toward him under an umbrella.

“How did you get out here?” she demanded.

Stanley held his ground, refusing to answer. The aide gripped his arm and brought him under the umbrella’s protection.

“You must come back in right now.” She indicated the cigar. “You’d better give me that, too. You know the doctor says you can’t smoke.”

Feeling deeply humiliated and unmanned, Stanley handed over the cigar. It still had plenty of good tobacco.

Godammit, he thought, I’m 87, what the hell difference can a cigar make now?

Slowly they made their way back to the building entrance. Moisture from the sodden grass penetrated Stanley’s slippers adding to his misery. Light rain pummeled the umbrella. He resented being corralled, but didn’t really mind walking with the aide as she was one of the more attractive ones. She moved ahead up the front step, her white pants stretching over her rear.

Nice ass, he thought.

He wanted to grab a handful. That would be the act of a dotard; however, and he was not going to be regarded as an old fool. Also, it would ungentlemanly, and he’d always prided himself as being a gentleman.

They entered the building, and the stink of the place attacked him. The home was clean and well maintained, but it stank nonetheless – a hopeless, beaten down odor that identified the place as the last stop before the graveyard. It cancelled out whatever cheer the occasional Christmas decoration tried to project.

The aide led him to a sofa in the patient lounge before the nurses’ station. Stanley groaned inwardly. This was the ‘Goner Lounge’ where the most demented and severely disabled patients were placed. The more able bodied ones, like Stanley, avoided the place if they possibly could.

“Just sit here and watch TV, Stanley,” the aide said. “The nurse will be along soon with your medication.”

She bustled off.

“Medication,” Stanley scoffed.

He knew that tonight his tranquilizer dosage would be increased, due to his escapade with the cigar. What was so bad about going out for a little walk? Certainly he was old enough to decide such a simple matter for himself.

He narrowed his attention to the TV screen, blanking out the Goners around him as best he could. The weather report was on.

“Looks like that storm will be moving south of us tonight, dumping 5 to 7 inches of snow in northern Ohio,” the weatherman was saying as he pointed at swirling cloud patterns on his map. “Our viewing area can expect continued warm temperatures with light rain.”

“Isn’t that great!” said the bubble headed girl standing next to the weatherman.

Stanley grunted. He wanted to hurl something through the TV screen. The woman sitting to his left suddenly cried out:

“My boy’s coming to see me tonight!”

Stanley flinched.

“Shut up!” another woman spat, “I’m sick of hearing about your boy. He ain’t coming tonight any more’n he did last week.”

“Well I’ll be . . . ” the first woman muttered, wringing her gnarled hands. “I’ll be.”

The other lounge occupants remained flopped on sofas or lined up in wheelchairs like a battery of worn-out artillery pieces. They cared little about the altercation or about what might be blaring from the television.

A young man pushing a broom hurried down the hallway past the lounge. It was Tom, one of the clean up men. He gave Stanley a thumbs-up. Stanley felt a rush of pleasure.

Tom was the one person he could really talk to; the only one who seemed to listen. Actually, they talked very little, but Stanley felt they had much in common, a certain understanding – even though there had to be more than 60 years difference in age. Tom had been laid off from his regular job a couple of months ago and had been working here part-time ever since.

Stanley glanced at the wall clock. Tom might be taking his break soon at the small lounge area down by the cafeteria, the only place in the building where smoking was permitted. If Stanley could just get there somehow! Escape from the Goners; talk to somebody young and alive.

He looked toward the nurses’ station and caught the RN’s eye. She smiled professionally – pleasant but firm. She wouldn’t let him get away, he knew. He resented the power she had over him and despised himself for being unable to do anything about it. He tried to stare her down, but she merely returned to her paper work.

She wasn’t bad looking, though. Forty years ago he might have asked her out, if he’d been single that is. But this line of thought only brought back aching memories of Leni, his deceased wife.

This was such a terrible place for her memory to reside. Yet, increasingly these days, he felt her presence. Sometimes it seemed as if she were sitting right beside him.

But not in the Goner lounge, please!

He glanced to his right. A woman stared back at him vacuously from her wheelchair. Her twisted hands lay in her lap, in front of her plastic bib. Stanley turned away with a shudder toward the TV. A quiz show was now playing, and he tried to get interested in it. He’d not be able to get away to the smoking lounge, and the thought depressed him deeply.

But then an opportunity for escape miraculously appeared.

One of the patients, a huge and ancient man, was filling a paper cup from the nearby drinking fountain. Some water slopped onto the floor. When he tried to walk away, he slipped on the little puddle. He fell stiffly and slowly, like some great tree in the north woods crashing to the ground. He knocked over a waste basket as he hit the floor. The RN and two aides rushed over to him.

Stanley rose from the couch and walked off, covered by the mayhem. He wanted to go quickly but could not surpass a leisurely shuffle. Every arthritic joint ached as he passed the group around the fallen man. Nobody noticed him.

Helluva a lousy getaway! he thought miserably.

Of all the deterioration he’d suffered in recent years, the inability to walk properly was the worst. He realized that soon he, too, would be sitting in a wheelchair staring at the TV screen in the Goner lounge, along with those others.

He finally made it to the smoking area, hobbled to a sofa, and plopped down next to a worn looking middle-aged woman. He took her to be a visitor taking a break from a depressing call on some relative. A few other patients idled about, including Stanley’s new roommate ‘Senator’ who was sitting in his wheelchair beside the sofa. Stanley did not bother to say hello; the poor guy wouldn’t have noticed anyway.

Stanley’s previous roommate, Red, had suddenly died a week ago, and Senator had been unceremoniously shoved in as a replacement. These events had devastated Stanley’s morale. He’d liked Red. They were both avid Pinochle players, and together they had battled the other rest home card sharps. Stanley had no children, and Red’s didn’t care much about their dad, so the two old men had made a sort of family for each other.

Now Red was gone, and Stanley had to put up with this new man who was quite senile and talked incessant nonsense.

“We held committee hearings about that,” Senator spouted off in a loud voice, “back when Williams was governor. Good man, Williams, miserable taste in ties, though!”

The middle-aged woman nodded her head wearily, her eyes unfocused.

“Pay no attention to him,” Stanley said. “He just rattles on. You know, he tells everybody that he used to be a state senator!”

He chuckled sarcastically.

The woman gave him a sharp look. “Well, I’m his daughter, and he was a state senator.”

“Oh …” Stanley said.

He felt like an idiot. To cover his embarrassment, he made a big project of adjusting his robe, flicking off bits of lint, tightening the belt. To his immense relief, the woman soon rose and wheeled Senator away.

“That’s my roommate back there!” Senator said.

“How nice,” the daughter replied.

Stanley had the whole side of the lounge to himself now. Attached to the wall above, a big air filter hummed its purifying tune. Stanley liked the sound because it obscured the cheerless noises of the rest home. He could focus on the machine’s low rumble and pretend not to hear the babbling patients, the shuffling feet, the whisk of wheelchairs being pushed along.

He could narrow his eyes and imagine himself someplace else, in another time. Glancing through his slit eyes, he could pretend to be a young man again.

Tom appeared.

Stanley voiced his standard greeting: “Hello, Boss! Getting caught up?”

Tom smiled; he had such a kind face. He was not a big guy, but powerfully built like a wrestler or gymnast. The arms bulging from his T-shirt looked strong enough to snap the broom handle like a match stick. Stanley’s arms had once been like that, back in the days when he still had hair and teeth. Tom walked with a slight limp, but that only seemed to enhance his masculinity – like an eye patch or a facial scar.

“Afraid not, Stan,” Tom said, “the other clean up guy didn’t come in, so I’m doing his work, too.”

Stanley gestured to the sofa. “In that case, you’ll need an extra long break.”

“You talked me into it, Stan.”

Tom leaned his broom against the wall and sat down on the sofa next to Stanley. His broad shoulders took up plenty of room; his whole body radiated vitality.

“That’s a lot of floor to clean, eh?” Stanley said.

“Sure is,” Tom said. “I’ll probably be here til midnight.”

Tom lit a cigarette. The smoke curled elegantly up before disappearing into the air filter. Stanley watched it hungrily. He’d surely like a puff, to hell with what the doctor said. Tom glanced at him from the corner of his eye and grinned conspiratorially. He handed Stanley a fresh cigarette.

“Be careful with this,” he said, firing up a match. “Give it to me if anybody comes.”

“Thanks, Boss.”

Stanley savored a lengthy drag. He was a cigar man, usually, but a cigarette did just fine in a pinch.

“What do you think of this weather?” he asked.

“Can’t say as I like it much,” Tom replied, “especially not with all these visitors tracking in mud.”

“Mmm, bad weather for the skiers. Do you ski, Tom?”

“My girlfriend wants me to go sometime.”

Stanley instantly warmed to the topic. “Girlfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“Like … serious girlfriend?”

Tom grinned and puffed his cigarette. “You might say things are tending that way.”

Stanley chuckled.

Probably best not to pursue this topic further, he thought.

Still, he felt like taking the young man’s arm and telling him urgently: “Grab this girl, if she’s special, and marry her quick. Have lots of children with her!”

Stanley had never really missed having his own children, not while Leni was alive, anyhow. Their love was so powerful and exclusive that there scarcely seemed room for anybody else. But now that she was gone, his lack of offspring pained him severely.

“I used to ski a lot when I was younger, at my cottage up north,” Stanley said. “Hell, what else could you do? Wasn’t none of them snowmobiles back then.”

Stanley visualized the snowy woods around his little cottage. He could almost feel the invigorating breeze in his face as he glided on his cross-country skis, Leni at his side.

“Must have been nice,” Tom said quietly, as if he, too, could see Stanley’s vision.

Leni was a true northern girl, of Scandinavian heritage. She knew skiing well and had taught Stanley. The happiest hours of his life were spent on skis with her touring the woods around their little love nest. In honor of her memory, winter had become his favorite season.

“Sold the place a while back,” Stanley said, “couldn’t afford to keep it.”

What did it matter? The soul had gone out of the cottage twelve years ago when Leni had died.

Tom was looking at him, an odd, melancholy expression on his face. Stanley tried to push away his own sadness with chatter.

“Lots of people don’t like snow,” he said, “They save all their lives to retire in Florida. Then they have a stroke, or something, and end up in this place.”

He cackled derisively.

Tom said nothing, only listened quietly with that same little pensive expression on his face. Stanley felt a bond with him, a silent handclasp across the generations.

Such is the way of men, he thought, you just know certain things without having to say a lot of crap.

Tom blew a large smoke ring, then shot a small one through the middle. Both of them rose to the air filter and disappeared.

“Must be kind of depressing for a young fella like yourself to work here, eh?” Stanley asked.

“Sometimes,” Tom said. “I won’t have to do it much longer, though. Did I tell you I’ve been called back at the plant?”

“No . . . no you didn’t,” Stanley said.

“Yeah, right after new year’s,” Tom said. “Me and my girl are taking a trip to San Diego to celebrate.”

“So, you’ll be quitting here soon?” Stanley asked.

Tom nodded. “This is my last night, and it’s bound to be a long one.”

Stanley puffed his cigarette silently, trying to absorb this latest terrible news. The smoke had lost all flavor. Tom snatched the cigarette away from him just as the nurse rounded the corner with her medicine cart.

“I’ve been looking for you, Mr. McKinney,” the nurse scolded.

“Been here all along.” Stanley tried to sound hearty, failed miserably.

“That’s right,” Tom said. “I’ve been keeping watch.”

“Really?” She eyed the cigarettes in Tom’s hands with obvious disapproval. She handed Stanley a little paper cup.

“All right, Mr. McKinney, please take your pill now. Then it’s bed time.”

Stanley quaffed the tranquilizer, carefully lodging it in a back corner of his mouth. Then he swallowed the cup of water the nurse gave him.

“There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” the nurse said.

Stanley got up to leave,

“See you later, Tom,” he said.

“Take it easy, Stan.”

As he walked along, Stanley coughed into his hand and blew the pill out. He then slipped it into his robe pocket. A bit of pleasure washed over him at this tiny victory.

Back in his room, he searched the night stand drawer for his extra cigar; felt degraded when he couldn’t find it. No doubt it had been confiscated. Cursing quietly, but with great passion, he climbed into bed. The cigars had been a gift from Red.

Across the room, Senator was sleeping with his toothless mouth agape. Stanley wondered what the man had been like years ago when he was a state legislator. He must have been an interesting guy before he’d become the human wreckage he was now, like they all were in this awful place.

Although tired out from the night’s exertions, Stanley could not sleep for some time. He lay awake listening to the night sounds of the rest home, feeling the dead weight of the place press down upon him like a tomb lid; his nose wrinkled at the stink that never went away. Finally he drifted off. The standard dream began playing once more:

He was a young man again, skiing on a gently sloping wooded hillside. He zoomed along, dodging the trees. The snow fell so heavily that it made an almost solid sheet in front of him. Big, ragged flakes stung his face; the air had an almost unbearably clean scent.

It was night time, but the snow radiated a wonderful brightness. His muscular arms dug in the poles, pushing him on to greater speed. A warm presence radiated out in the trees, unseen through the dense snowfall.

Then . . . a whirring sound filled the air, getting louder.

Stanley awoke back into the dreary reality of his room.

He glanced at the night stand clock. A red 11:18 p.m. glared back at him, casting an eerie glow over his pillow. He stroked his forehead, saddened by his abrupt removal from the dream. His eyes drifted over to the window with its half opened drapes.

Snow!

He got out of bed and moved to the window with more alacrity than he’d had in years. Huge snowflakes were coming down in a furious deluge. A couple of inches had already accumulated.

So, that damned weather man was wrong after all!

Stanley shaded his eyes against the brightness and peered out into the storm. Somebody was out there. She was out there!

He grabbed his robe and rushed to the door. Trembling with excitement, he poked his head outside the room and cased the hallway. The nurses’ station at the far end was empty. Closer by, Tom was operating a buffing machine, his eyes fixed to the floor. The machine’s low whir resounded softly off the walls.

Stanley crept across the hall to the exit door and pushed his slight weight against the handle. It didn’t budge. He tried again, throwing himself into the task. The door banged ajar.

Tom jerked his head up. Surprise shot across his face, then a frown. He opened his mouth to speak, but Stanley silenced him with a fierce stare. The buffing machine ran on, polishing the same spot of floor.

“Let me go, son,” Stanley said.

His words were covered by the machine noise, but he knew that Tom understood. Stanley raised his hand and waved gravely. Tom lifted one hand from the machine and waved back.

Stanley forced the door fully open and the alarm sounded. No matter, he was free! He passed over the patio and out onto the wooded grounds. Leni waited for him there, young and lovely, her laughter sparkling amidst the snow flakes. He moved faster toward her, his arms swinging invisible ski poles. The flying snow forced his eyes into a squint.

He had the proper rhythm now. He was far out into the grounds. When he looked over his shoulder, the rest home prison was no longer visible.

Adios all!

Unable to continue any farther, he sank to the ground and onto his back. He looked straight into the sky at the snow flakes coming for him. They gathered on his face with enticing coolness. He rose to join them. Nothing would ever hold him down again.

[]Haunted Woods Excursion

Stu Parish couldn’t see properly through the rubber skull mask. No matter what adjustments he made, blind spots still remained. He felt rather foolish in the mask and black robe, standing amid the drizzle in front of the nature center. He sneezed ferociously.

Ugh! What am I doing out here?

He took off the mask and wiped out the inside. The air felt even chillier on skin that had been sweltering under the rubber.

“Sounds bad.” A man in a ghoul costume said. “You should’ve stayed home.”

“That’s what I’m beginning to think,” Stu replied.

If another lodge member hadn’t begged off at the last minute, Stu would have been home nursing his cold. Instead, he’d been coaxed into working the second annual Haunted Woods Excursion – the lodge’s Halloween Eve fund raiser for youth athletics.

Stu had been a prime mover in the first tour, but this year he’d been largely inactive in Lodge affairs. He ran his own real estate office now and just didn’t’ have the time he used to. And there were the health issues, as well – the angina, the admonitions from his doctor to “slow down,” his occasional shortness of breath.

Jim Burton, the lodge president, walked up. He wore a mad scientist costume, complete with bloodstains on his lab coat.

“Good to see you, Stu.” He shook hands. “I really appreciate your coming out on such short notice.”

“Just remember this when you’re ready to sell your house,” Stu said.

“You’ve on!” Burton grinned broadly.

Stu forgot his misery for a moment and basked in the president’s good will. Jim certainly was an adept politician. No wonder he’d been able to oust the former president in the last election.

Burton unfolded a map and handed it to Stu.

“I’ve marked out the whole route for you.”

Stu examined the map in the dim light. “Sure hope we don’t get lost.”

“Not much chance of that,” Jim said. “You’ll be sticking to the main nature trails. Besides, weren’t you a guide last year?”

“Yeah, but that was at the little county park, this place is huge.”

Stu gestured to the darkened woods around the nature center.

“It’s not that big,” Jim said. “Besides, even if you did make a wrong turn, you’d still end up back here.”

“Sometime next month,” the ghoul added reassuringly.

A group of people was coming toward them from the parking lot. Some boys ran on before them.

“Hey, bonehead,” one of them called out to Stu. “Is that a mask, or are you really that ugly?”

Stu ignored the brat and walked into the nature center.

After glancing about the displays for a few minutes, he entered the little auditorium where Hank Duda was orienting a group for their trek in the woods. Hank was showing slides of witches, werewolves, and other abominations and giving brief histories of each. The audience seemed to enjoy the show, laughing at Hank’s jokes and outrageous puns.

The lights came back on.

“And now you’ll have a chance to meet some of these creatures in person,” Hank said. “Good luck! I think you’ll need it.”

The group exited through a side door.

Burton approached Stu.

“That’s your bunch,” he said. “If you’re still concerned about the route, I’ll have Hank tag along part way.”

“Only part way?”

“Yeah, I’ll need him back here,” Burton said.

“Okay, thanks,” Stu said.

Stu’s party was waiting for him outside. There were fifteen people in all; family groups, with one young couple by themselves. Many carried flashlights. Stu noticed with dismay that the kid he’d encountered earlier was among them.

“Why don’t we get going?” the boy demanded loudly.

Stu looked to the boy’s parents, hoping to see them assert some discipline. They didn’t seem to care, though.

Hank came out from the building and took up an unobtrusive position in back.

Well, let’s get this over with, Stu thought sourly.

He flicked on his big metal flashlight and led the way onto the nature trail. He was in no mood for banter. His clammy mask increased the discomfort of his cold, and his eyes watered. Having that obnoxious brat along – Dougie the parents called him – was an added irritant.

Stu walked along glumly, not even noticing the phony coffin lying alongside the trail. He’d already passed it when the vampire leapt out.

“Blaaa!” the vampire howled. “Where’re you going? I vant to talk to you.”

Several people jumped back. Then, feeling rather foolish, they crowded up in a semi-circle.

“I see you have nice red faces.” The vampire said in a fake Hungarian accent.

He advanced, baring plastic fangs.

“Why don’t you come closer, my friends? I’m not such a bad guy.”

Most of the people stepped back. Except for Dougie.

“You don’t scare me,” he said.

As if intimidated by the defiance, the vampire crept slowly backward.

“I’m going home now,” he said. “I need a ‘coffin break.’ Then I’ll turn into a bat.”

He moved behind the box and crouched down out of sight. A moment later, a little baseball bat was tossed over. The crowd groaned.

“Whew, that stunk!” Dougie commented.

The boy’s father seemed impressed with such wit. Chuckling indulgently, he placed a hand on Dougie’s shoulder. The man was big and blubbery, like an old football player gone to seed.

Stu resumed the journey. He heard people moving in the woods alongside the path. They flicked on red lanterns and swung them wildly.

Woooo! the lantern bearers howled, startling everyone and bringing delighted screams from the children.

Stu judged that two other groups were on the trail, one ahead and the other behind them. Laughter, howls, and screams filled the air. The clouds had vanished revealing a clear sky with a sliver of moonlight. Magnificent oaks towered above them, rustling in the breeze.

They arrived at a pond. Stu played his light along the surface until it picked out a figure standing waist deep in the water.

“Hey, get that light off me!” the water demon bellowed.

He waded toward shore, jabbing angrily with his trident.

“Some guy in a rubber suit,” Dougie remarked derisively.

The outfit was pretty fake, as were those of the other ‘monsters’ they encountered. The routines were fun, though, and very entertaining to the children. Stu was impressed with the job his lodge brothers were doing. Despite himself, he started getting into the spirit of things.

***

The appearances took place in fairly rapid succession – the vampire, water demon, skeleton, mummy. But now there was a lull. Stu began to wonder if he’d taken a wrong turn. He’d not paid close attention to the route, assuming that Hank would advise him.

He looked toward his lodge brother at the back of the group. Hank flashed a reassuring thumbs up, and Stu continued on with renewed confidence.

Without all the buffoonery of the various ‘monsters’ jumping out of the forest, the night became eerie. The group of visitors drew closer together, their flashlight beams pooling on the wood chip surfaced trail.

Stu heard movement in the forest again, stealthy steps paralleling his progress. He expected another outburst of howling or the frenetic waving of lights, but nothing came. The suspense became annoying.

“Our ‘friends’ are making themselves scarce,” he said, turning toward the group.

He was surprised to find everyone crowded closely around him, like a bunch of kindergarteners clinging to their teacher. The cheeriness seemed to have left their faces. Even Dougie was keeping his mouth shut.

Stu consulted his monster list. “Well, before long, we should be encountering – ”

Suddenly, a werewolf leaped out of the woods, roaring and flailing his claws about. Everyone jumped back in alarm, including Stu. A number actually fled back down the trail several yards before coming sheepishly back.

“They call me … wolf man,” the monster rasped.

He stepped forward menacingly. Everyone, Dougie included, shrank away.

“I’ve been around for a long time,” the wolf man said.

He was very tall and dressed in an incredibly realistic costume. Stu tried to identify the actor, but couldn’t recognize who it was under the mass of hair.

The werewolf paced agitatedly through the dry leaves, jerking his clawed hands in spasmodic gestures.

“Only three things can stop me,” he said, “wolf bane, the mountain ash, and . . .”

He looked wildly at the people, as if seeing them for the first time. His breath rumbled with the suggestion of a growl. Seconds passed. Someone giggled nervously in the back of the crowd and was silent. Stu glanced over the visitors’ faces and saw tension in them, genuine fear, even.

These people are really afraid!

Stu was getting a bit rattled himself. He cleared his throat.

“Perhaps you can tell us what the third thing is, uh, Mr. Wolf Man?” he said.

The monster ignored the question.

“Once, not long ago, some people chased after me,” he said, breaking his long silence. “They were never seen again!”

He let out a piercing howl and dashed off right through the crowd, knocking Dougie’s father aside.

“You sunovabitch!” the dad cried.

He was furious, and more than a little scared. Stu tried to smooth things out.

“Please try to understand, sir,” he said. “It’s dark, and it’s hard to see from under all that make up.”

“Well, somebody’s going to hear about this,” the man said. He looked to the others for support. “This is one hell of a lousy show if you ask me!”

There were murmurs of assent.

Jackass! Stu thought angrily.

The earlier enjoyment he’d begun to experience vanished into the chill air. He turned and stalked off in disgust. The group followed, but he outpaced them. Hank caught up.

“Take it easy, Stu,” he said. “Slow down a little.”

“Why do I get all the yo-yo’s?”

Hank shrugged helplessly.

“And who was that guy in the wolf man suit?” Stu demanded. “He scared everybody half to death.”

“I don’t know.” Hank shrugged again.

“You don’t know?” Stu was getting angry. “Weren’t you on the planning committee?”

“Yeah, but – well, there’s some new members I’m not too familiar with,” Hank said. “To tell the truth, I was too busy to make most of the committee meetings.”

“Uh huh,” Stu said “Just get back there and keep them quiet, will you?”

“Okay, okay – I’ll do that,” Hank said.

There was surprised indignation in his voice. He drifted back and resumed his place in the rear of the crowd.

Stu walked on silently until reaching a trail crossing. He halted. A right turn seemed most logical, but he wanted to consult with Hank first.

Also, a little conference would enable him to retract his angry remarks. That had been a terrible way to speak to a senior lodge member. The evening had exhausted his patience – his cold, the ill-fitting mask, Dougie and his dad.

He turned just in time to see a dark figure step out of the woods, grab Hank, and disappear with him. A horrified gasp shot through the crowd. They came rushing toward him en masse.

***

Cripe, of all the times for him to leave! Stu thought irritably.

It was a novel way for him to go, however. Stu wondered if it had been planned that way, or if one of the guys hanging around in the woods just decided to get cute.

Despite his annoyance, he was impressed with the gimmick. The others felt differently, though. A young girl pulled his robe.

“M-mister,” she said. “Some . . . thing grabbed him back there.”

Stu reached down and patted her shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “it was just a little game.”

But it was obvious that others were shaken as well. Grim faces looked toward him from out of the gloom.

“Hold on a minute, folks,” Stu said. “Don’t let the special effects get to you. I remember hearing complaints a while ago that things were too fake!”

“Of course it’s fake,” Dougie said in a pugnacious, though trembling, voice.

He confronted the girl.

“What did you think it was, the Boogie Man?” he said.

“Why don’t you shut up already?” a woman cried shrilly from within the crowd.

Stu feared a reaction from Dougie’s father, but the man said nothing. He merely stood silently, his mouth shut tight, the lower lip clamped in his teeth. He looked scared in the pale illumination.

Stu pulled off his skull mask.

“Whew, I’m glad to get this thing off!” he said. “See, I’m not as handsome as you thought I was!”

Nobody laughed at the joke.

“Now, we’ve only got a short way to go before we reach the nature center,” Stu said, trying to sound jovial. “Let’s hope they saved some hot cider for us.”

He looked to the little girl. “Do you like cider?”

She’d retreated to her parents.

“Let’s get out of here!” she cried.

Stu realized that the tour organizers had gone too far. This was supposed to be a fun event, but these people were really shaken. Nothing like this had happened last year when he’d had a major role in the planning.

“Well, folks,” he said, “this has certainly been quite an evening.”

He led the group toward the right hand path. Then he paused and consulted his map. He found the little bridge over the nearby creek. Yes, this was the correct path, all right. The troll was coming up next, then two other monsters.

He studied the map further under his flashlight beam. Actually, there was short cut after the troll that would allow them to bypass the remaining creatures.

The sooner we get back, the better!

“We’ve seen a lot of interesting things,” he said cheerily. “I’m sure this is a night to remember for all of us.”

He led the way down the right hand path. He was warming to his charges again; felt protective of them – even Dougie and his moron father.

“In just a little bit, we’ll be coming to the bridge and see the troll,” Stu said. “He’s the last gentleman we’ll meet tonight.”

He’d directed this remark at the little girl, but she did not seem reassured.

“You’ve heard of the 3 Billy Goats Gruff?” he asked.

The girl said nothing.

“Well, that old troll never learns,” Stu said, “and he’s still living under that bridge.”

He shined his light ahead and picked out a foot bridge.

“That’s his house right over there! Let me go on ahead and find him. Maybe he’ll come up and say a few words.”

The group waited as Stu walked alone onto the bridge. The members were a rueful sight; clustered together in their pool of flashlight beams, the gigantic oaks hovering over them like the ceiling of some haunted cathedral.

Stu felt terrible. He hoped fervently that some fool wasn’t planning another shock for them. They’d clearly had enough.

“Come on up, Mr. Troll!” he called over the bridge railing, “You’ve got visitors!”

He leaned over the railing and shined his flashlight into the little stream below. Nobody was there. He flashed his light over the other side. Still no one.

Damn, he thought bitterly, we must have gone the wrong way.

He silently cursed Burton and his whole crew. They’d certainly botched things royally this year.

“Looks like we may have to backtrack a little,” he said, trying to sound light-hearted. “Maybe that troll decided to move without notice.”

He unfolded his map and aimed his light down on it. The group advanced onto the bridge and crowded around. The girl’s father looked over Stu’s shoulder.

“Maybe the bridge we want is back the other way,” he said.

“Could be,” Stu said, “unless there’s another one farther on.”

He trained his beam down the trail ahead.

From the darkness behind them came a violent sound of cracking branches, followed by a heavy thud. Stu whipped his light over.

A hideously mangled body – Hank – lay face up on the pathway.

***

A shock wave of horror crashed into Stu; pain stabbed through his chest. He couldn’t move his beam from the ghastly sight. Blood was seeping from Hank’s lacerated throat. His head lolled over, and glassy, terror-stricken eyes gaped at them.

A horrified moan went through the crowd. They drew back slowly, inexorably; their mass crushed Stu against the railing.

“Oh God,” somebody whimpered.

Stu trembled violently; his breath came in painful gasps. He felt a hand at his throat. He dimly recognized the face of Dougie’s father, frenzied with terror, thrust into his.

“What’s going on!” the man shouted.

Somebody ran off down the path, others followed. A stampede ensued.

“What’s happening!” Dougie’s father screamed, his voice shooting up an octave.

The iron fingers tightened on Stu’s throat, jerking his head back and forth. Consciousness began to fade.

Barely aware of what he was doing, Stu swung his flashlight around and struck the man hard in the face. The flashlight shattered, but the iron grip on his throat relaxed.

Stu gaped in horrified fascination as the dark silhouette of the man lurched away, a choked, gurgling noise issuing from its throat. The man stumbled backwards like some dreadful marionette, then disappeared into the darkness.

Stu was alone now, shaking with absolute terror. His knees gave out; he couldn’t stop himself from sinking to the bridge planks. The night closed in to suffocate him. His slow-motion descent continued as he slipped through the railing and hit the stream be below.

He lay on his back staring up into the sky. He didn’t even notice the chill water penetrating his robe. An airplane passed overhead, its red light flashing. With each flash, the light grew bigger, dominating more of the sky and filling it with lewd color. A scream pulsed within it, becoming louder with each beat.

Stu was on hands and knees scrambling up the embankment. A single terrified thought raged through his brain.

Must get back . . . must get back . . . must get back!

Heavy brush blocked the route. He detoured into the woods, stumbling along through the trees. The pain in his chest stuck viciously again. He ran on, feeling nothing under his feet. The darkness was filled with unhuman pandemonium – screams, grunts, and footsteps getting very near.

The pain struck again. He crashed forward, tripping on a tree root. As he sprawled in the underbrush, unable to move, Stu’s snotty nose began to run over lips and into his mouth.

“I must take care of this cold,” he murmured, listening and waiting.

[]Healer

Richard had barely struggled to sleep when the alarm inside his head jarred him awake.

“Ohhh,” he groaned.

The young man stretched until his knuckles banged up against the wall. He yawned repeatedly, the yawns blending into a cry of distress.

Ah . . . Ahhh . . . AhhHHH*HH*HHH!!

That entire night he’d writhed under the strain of his terrible dream. He’d seen Father standing in the bedroom doorway pointing a dead finger at him – demanding, cajoling. He’d felt the old terror grab hold of his innards with an icy fist.

Fear and exhaustion lay with him in bed. The Power was taking control again.

He reached for the empty wine bottle which served for an ashtray and dumped in out onto copy of Metro Times, the leftist rag which served him as a newspaper since he’d gotten fired from his last job. At least the thing was free.

He sifted through the butts and selected one not too burned nor soaked with wine. After a moment’s hesitation, he lit up. The tobacco, supercharged with noxious gases, made his thumping headache worse.

It was pointless to keep resisting.

Richard flung aside the covers and got out of bed. He was only mildly surprised to discover that he was fully dressed, including boots. The doorbell rang.

“What now?”

He stomped to the door and yanked it open, surprising a paper boy out on the porch.

“G-good morning … sir,” the boy said in a barely audible voice. “Would you like to re-subscribe to the Free Press?”

Richard did not answer. His bizarre looks – wild hair, clothes twisted on his body, blanket fuzz clinging to his beard – clearly frightened the kid.

“You can get the first month for only …”

The boy’s voice trailed off all together. He thrust a complementary newspaper into Richard’s hands and retreated down the steps.

“The people on this route!” he muttered.

Richard tossed the paper onto the sofa. Terrible luck, that boy coming by. Because of him, Richard had had to open the door, admitting that it was possible for him to leave the apartment. He didn’t want to leave, but now he must.

On his mission.

But even as he entertained these bitter thoughts, Richard knew they were false. Of course he would leave today, paper boy notwithstanding, as he had left on other occasions – chasing his ruinous fate.

Can’t I refuse, just this once? he thought desperately. Why doesn’t somebody stop me?

There had to be more to life than this stinking misery. How much longer could he go on? But there was something deep at his core that compelled him, made him put on his tattered coat, push open his door and stumble down the stairs into a late winter morning.

I’ll go downtown like I did the last time.

A short walk in the freezing wind got him to the bus stop in time to catch the 9:35. He waved vigorously when the bus appeared. Even so, the driver applied the brakes too late and shot past the sign, as if he were reluctant to pick him up.

When Richard entered the bus, the driver shrank away as if from a pestilence. The bus was almost empty; Richard spoke to no one.

 

Two miserable hours downtown failed to reveal any prospects. The wind seemed to have depopulated the streets; even the busiest areas were mostly deserted. He retreated to a cafeteria where down-at-heel, elderly men sipped coffee – nobody suitable. Richard seemed alone in a world without hope.

You see, I tried. It just won’t work today, he pleaded. It’s not my fault. Leave me alone, please!

The dominating urge gripping him ignored his appeals. It became stronger, growing impatient with his failure. He continued the search until the fierce weather finally drove him off the streets. He was half frozen when he boarded another bus for a return to the southern suburbs.

The bus had just paused at the traffic light by a community college when Richard spotted his quarry. She was exiting the main building via the parking lot door, walking slowly with a cane. Even from this distance, it was easy to see that her body was twisted from some affliction; she leaned back grotesquely into the wind as she walked.

That’s the one!

Richard scanned the area. Nobody else in sight.

“Let me off here,” he ordered the bus driver.

The driver was about to protest that this wasn’t a regular stop, but he thought better of it and opened the door. He was glad to get the creep off his bus.

The didn’t notice Richard coming up from behind. He was quite near her when he caught sight of the couple looking out from the building’s glass doors.

Damn!

They seemed in no hurry to leave their post, but stayed put gazing out into the slushy parking lot. Why the hell were they doing that? Richard tried to appear natural, as if he were simply waiting for a ride.

A blast of wind blew the notebook out of the disabled girl’s hand. She stooped slowly to retrieve it; a bit of sun poking through the clouds gleamed on her auburn hair.

Then she noticed Richard standing next to her.

“Hi,” she said.

Richard didn’t answer.

A trace of alarm flickered in her eyes. She stood up again, as straight as her deformed body would allow, and turned back to watching the entrance road at the far end of the parking lot.

The couple finally left the door, but now a car was stopped at the entrance road waiting for the traffic to clear. Richard was in grave danger of discovery now, but the power was incinerating him, bursting out on its own.

He grabbed the girl’s shoulders and shook them violently.

“I’m here!” he shouted.

The girl’s cane and notebook fell from her hands. A scream failed to make it out of her throat.

“Please . . . oh, God!” she whimpered.

But Richard continued the manhandling. The girl’s head snapped back with each jolt. Richard reached an arm under her crooked legs and lifted her completely off the ground. He was laughing maniacally now, tossing her repeatedly like a big rag doll.

A car pulled up.

“Hey you!” the driver shouted.

A man charged out of the car. Richard dumped the girl onto a shrub and took off for the athletic field beyond the parking lot. He was not much of a runner, and capture seemed imminent. But then his pursuer slipped in the slush and crashed down against the curb.

“Ahhh!”

The man lay temporarily paralyzed from the blow to his rib cage. The girl remained in the bush sobbing, snow and blood mingled with the tears on her scratched face.

When his pain subsided a little, the man stood up and limped over to her.

“Don’t worry, Sis,” he said. “I got a good look at him. We’ll find the bastard.”

He helped her out of the shrub. The pain in his bruised ribs was so intense the he didn’t comprehend the truth at first. Then it hit him a sledgehammer blow.

Sharon, the disabled little sister he’d been looking out for her entire life, was standing before him straight and normal. Her deformities had totally vanished!

“M-my God . . .” he gasped. “My God!”

He wrapped her in his arms. She was burning hot, almost too hot to touch. Looking over her head, he saw the healer reach the end of the field and jump over a fence.

***

Richard didn’t want to get up from before his TV when the doorbell rang.

Is it the cops? he wondered.

The bell rang again. He waited for whoever it was to give up. But then knocks came, and the bell rang once more.

He quaffed a final drop from the bottle of cheap wine and got out of his chair. He expected somebody unpleasant at the door, the apartment manager demanding over-due rent, perhaps.

But it was only a young woman standing in the early spring sunshine. She drew back when he opened the door.

“Hi,” she said.

She held a rolled newspaper in her hands and was wringing it like a dish rag. Richard stared at her, the bright sunshine making him squint. The girl stared back into the darkened apartment. Confusion and awe attended her eyes.

“Well?” Richard said.

“Well, I … uh …”

“Whoever you want to see, you’ve got the wrong address,” Richard snapped.

A profound silence enveloped the porch. Spring sunshine and apartment gloom contended for dominance.

“You’re Richard Knox?” the girl finally asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then I came to see you.”

She held up the newspaper.

“This was on your porch,” she said.

Richard snatched the Free Press from her hand; the paper was damp with perspiration.

“I lied,” the girl said. “I bought it myself … sort of a calling card.”

Richard wanted to order her away, but she was too vulnerable and pretty for that. Some remote male yearning he’d almost forgotten was rising within him, keeping angry words from exiting his mouth.

Besides, she looked vaguely familiar, and this made him curious.

The best he could muster was an irritated frown. This made the young woman shrink back another step before she spoke again.

“May I come in … just for a few minutes?” she asked. “I thought we could talk.”

Richard found himself stepping aside and allowing her to enter.

I know her, somehow.

She stood in the middle of the living room, gazing around the shabby apartment with something approaching awe, as if she’d entered a holy temple. She was trembling slightly and biting her lip. Richard recognized her at last.

“Okay.” He plopped wearily into his upholstered chair. “How did you find me?”

Sharon looked back towards him, her eyes wide with reverence.

“It wasn’t hard; I got a good look at you that day,” she said. “I wanted to come sooner, but something held me back … ”

She reached out warm and comforting hands. Before Richard could flinch away, she took his face into them.

“You’re the Healer,” she said. “You’re a true man of God.”

Richard twisted his head out of her hands.

“No I’m not!”

“Yes you are,” Sharon said. “Bless you!”

She began to weep.

“Hey, don’t cry,” Richard said. “I don’t like that.”

He rose and stalked into the kitchen, as far away as he could get. Then he turned back and shouted through the doorway.

“It just happens! I have no control. It’s … hereditary.”

She rushed to him and embraced him tightly. Richard nearly lost his footing on the tile floor.

“You gave me my life,” she said. “I love you so much.”

Richard felt leaden, stunned. Things were on a track he couldn’t begin to understand.

“Look, I’ve got things to do,” he protested. “I have to leave.”

But she wouldn’t let go. Her auburn hair was soft and sweet smelling. He found himself stroking it.

“Please don’t turn me away,” she murmured.

Richard never made it to wherever he claimed to be going.

 

At first, he refused to talk to Sharon, so she busied herself with tidying the apartment and doing the laundry. He remained planted in his chair, ignoring her presence as best he could.

But eventually she goaded him out of his taciturn shell, or at least got him to listen to her. She put aside the cleaning implements and sat down on a footstool beside Richard’s chair. She told him about her drab and melancholy life, until the events of last month had revived her spirit.

“For some reason, I didn’t want anyone to know,” she told him. “I quit school and moved away; I cut off all my old friends. I’m taking online classes now, so nobody recognizes me.”

Richard nodded.

“That’s how it is,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to know, either.”

Sharon’s ears perked up. She waited eagerly to hear more about his miraculous powers, but Richard changed the subject.

“What about the rest of the family?” he asked.

“Oh … Mom’s gone and Dad’s off drunk someplace,” Sharon said. “He never got over her death.”

She paused and looked down at her hands. Again, Richard was taken by her beautiful hair, the hair that had beckoned to him on that fateful day.

“That’s not true,” she said. “Dad never really cared about her or anybody else. It’s always been just me and my brother, ever since we were little.”

“We’ve got a lot in common,” Richard said, “except for the brother part … I wish I had one.”

“Yes, he’s wonderful,” she said. “He’s always looked out for me, but I’ve decided not to pay attention any longer.”

“How so?”

Sharon again studied the hands folded in her lap; she addressed her reply to them.

“My brother warned me not to look for you … he said it would be very unwise. ‘Things are going on here we can’t understand,’ he told me.”

“Maybe he’s right,” Richard said.

Sharon’s face turned up toward him. Richard recoiled from its suddenly fierce expression.

“I don’t care if he’s right or not!” she snapped.

Then she, too, appeared astonished at her outburst. She smiled; beautiful dimples appeared in her cheeks.

“I told my brother not to worry about me. ‘Get a life,’ I said, ‘find a girlfriend.’”

“Did he?” Richard asked.

“I hope so. Anyway, I’m giving him some breathing room – just send an occasional e-mail to say I’m okay.”

 

Things settled down then, and the conversation continued along more placid lines punctuated by long, though not awkward, silences. Mostly it was Sharon talking with Richard limiting himself to brief, cryptic remarks about himself, his past life, and his strange “gift.”

Lunch time arrived, and Sharon went out to pick up some food. Richard took advantage of her absence to shower, groom his beard, and dress himself in clean clothing. When he gazed into the bathroom mirror, he saw a genuine smile looking back at him for the first time in years.

“Well …. hello again!” Sharon said approvingly when she returned.

She carried enough Chinese take-out for lunch as well as dinner. She also hefted a grocery bag containing eggs and other breakfast items.

“That’s quite a load,” Richard said.

He relieved her of the Chinese take-out. Sharon placed the grocery bag on the side table and pulled out two bottles of wine.

“I didn’t know what kind you prefer,” she said, “so I got a white and a red.”

To his amazement, Richard found himself wrapping an arm around her waist and drawing her close.

“As long as you come with it,” he said, “I don’t care what color the wine is.”

***

Sharon stretched herself luxuriously between the newly laundered sheets and cuddled up against her first, only, lover.

“So, how many others have there been?” she asked.

Richard felt an embarrassed blush entering his face.

“Uh … girls?” he said. “W-well, I … ”

“No, silly, I don’t care about that!”

She gave him a playful nudge.

“I mean, people like me, people you’ve helped.”

“Oh,” Richard said.

Sharon felt him go rigid and pull away from her.

“I didn’t mean to upset you, honey,” she said. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want.”

A damp shroud of silence fell upon the once cozy scene. Sharon began to wonder if an exit might be advisable. Finally, Richard spoke.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I try not to remember. Could be ten or twelve by now.”

“Did any of them ever visit you?” Sharon asked.

“Never!”

Or almost never. Richard recalled a near confrontation with a person he’d healed – maybe two years ago. It was another young woman, and she’d almost come up to him on the sidewalk when she seemed to lose her nerve and hurried across the street instead.

“I’m glad,” Sharon said.

A few minutes of uneasy silence passed before the warm glow started to return. They drew together under the covers. Sharon picked up the wine glass from the nightstand and sipped.

“I’m going to have your baby,” she said.

“What!”

“Oh.” Sharon blushed. “I was just dreaming out loud. Sorry.”

Richard did not reply.

“I didn’t intend to shock you,” Sharon said. “I mean … it’s only natural to think in such terms, right?”

“Can I have some of that?” he asked curtly.

“Sure, honey.”

She raised the glass to his lips and tipped it for him. The final contents went down his throat.

“Is there more?”

“No,” Sharon said, “but I can rush out and get another bottle … just the way I am!”

She flung off the covers to reveal her beautiful nakedness. Despite himself, Richard burst out laughing. Tension exited the room.

“I think you should stay put,” he said. “It’s a bit cold out for the Lady Godiva routine.”

He stroked her back, and she moaned with contentment. She’d seemed such a child this morning when she’d stood on his porch. Not any longer.

“You must be so lonely in this place,” Sharon said.

“Yeah.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, you know.” She nestled closer. “It shouldn’t be, ever again.”

They pulled the covers up over themselves. Under the bedside lamp’s subdued light, the tacky room looked appealing and cozy. Richard enjoyed the warm glow of the wine and of Sharon’s company. The grim realities of his life seemed to fade into the distance.

Sharon wanted the moment to last forever, but even more strongly, she felt the need for answers. She decided to risk shattering the atmosphere.

“Richard … ”

“Yes?”

“Why are you so defensive about your wonderful gift?”

He was prepared for her inquiry this time and offered a blunt reply:

“Because my ‘gift,’ as you call it, is killing me.”

Sharon sat upright. “Really?”

“Every time I use it, there’s less of me remaining,” he said.

“Well … maybe we can stop it, the two of us together,” Sharon said.

Hope began to push aside the alarm in her face.

“There has to be a deeper reason why you found me instead of somebody else,” she said. “I can help you get over it.”

Richard smiled.

“I sure hope that’s true,” he said. “I don’t want to end up like Dad – the ‘gift’ killed him, no question about that.”

“He must have been a fine man,” Sharon said. “Tell me more about him.”

Richard felt himself stiffening again.

Why’d she have to say that? Why did I have to shoot my mouth off about him in the first place?

He saw again the pale and sunken face of his father – just like him, father and son, both in possession of the awful power.

Before his death, he’d left his son with a chilling admonition: “The healer must heal, whether he wants to or not.”

“What’s the matter?” Sharon asked.

Richard forced himself to relax.

She’s right, he thought, I need to bring the whole thing into the open.

His voice came out dead, toneless:

“Father was a cruel and unreasonable man, at odds with the world,” Richard said. “He was total son of a bitch, actually – a frustrated serial killer.”

Sharon felt the hairs on her neck prickle.

Stop! her mind screamed. I don’t want to know any more!

Richard gave her a hard, questioning look.

“Go on … please,” she forced herself to say.

He seized the wine glass and poured a final drop down his throat. The delicate stem seemed about to shatter in his grip.

“Dad was a war veteran,” Richard continued. “He said the combat terrified him, but that he loved the killing part … he was always dreaming about it and wondering how he could start killing again without getting caught.”

Sharon’s eyes were wide and frightened in the dim light. She delicately removed the wine glass from Richard’s hand.

“What about your mother?” she asked.

“She left … she was terrified. I wonder if Dad killed her, somehow.”

The little circle of love around the bed seemed threated by terrible forces of darkness. Sharon held onto Richard as if to save him from tumbling into it.

“Then Dad started having these seizures,” Richard said. “He found that he possessed an awesome healing power. He projected it onto random sick and disabled people – people he wanted to kill – but he cured them instead.”

“How did he feel about that?” Sharon asked in a tiny, scared voice.

“He said that he’d been cursed, that some ‘higher power’ was punishing him,” Richard said. “He hit the bottle hard – crashed the car into a bridge abutment one night. Suicide, probably.”

Sharon’s breath came in tight little gasps. She wanted to flee the room and never return, charge naked through the streets screaming. But then a powerful surge of love overwhelmed her, and she held Richard even more tightly in her protective grasp.

“I was in foster care for a while,” Richard said, “then a few years after getting out, I started having the seizures, too.”

“Do you think it’s a punishment?” Sharon asked.

“No,” Richard said without hesitation. “It’s more like a judgement passed on me by some authority I can’t understand. Like you’re born into a crime family – it’s not your fault, but you have to pay for somebody else’s sins.”

“I love you,” Sharon said. “I’ll be here, whatever happens.”

Hot tears came into her eyes, soon Richard’s own tears mixed with them. They clung together for a long time.

Finally, Richard pulled away and turned over to lay on his back. Sharon moved her head to his shoulder, and the last of her tears dried on his chest.

“I think I’m all wrung out,” he said.

Sharon’s head nodded against his chest. “Me, too.”

She was on the verge of sleep, but Richard felt energized by his catharsis. He wanted to jump out of bed and run out of the apartment shouting with joy. Instead, he opted for a trip to the bathroom.

“I need to wash up,” he said.

“Mmm.”

Carefully sliding himself from under Sharon’s head, Richard got up and made for the bathroom where he rinsed his face in cascades of luxurious warm water.

He could barely recognize himself in the mirror. The dour, gaunt features had softened remarkably. Color had begun to return.

“Handsome devil,” he chortled.

He breathed deeply, and additional years of premature age dropped away. He felt a new power, vitality and life, taking over from the old one. He felt human. Even his gangly hands looked different.

Then, another face suddenly appeared in the mirror – the insane visage of his father with its burning eyes and crooked mouth. Its skin was ghastly pale. Richard could almost smell the liquor on its breath.

You have to be sick in order to heal others,” his father said. “Didn’t you know that?”

The face that had once terrified him held no power now. It was only absurd, cruel, dead. Richard barked a scornful laugh.

“I’m whole now,” he said defiantly. “Don’t bother me again, you bastard!”

If I’m a bastard, what does that make you, son?” the image asked.

“Better than you were, for certain,” Richard said.

He rapped his knuckles on the glass. His father’s visage exploded like a soap bubble.

Richard was staring at his own reflection again. It, too, looked a bit absurd, and he laughed again.

 

Sharon was asleep when he returned to bed with the newspaper. He was wide awake and hoped that a little reading would help wind him down.

It didn’t take long. By the time he reached the sports scores he was beginning to nod. An attempt at the crossword puzzle proved too demanding. At last he gave up the effort.

He dropped the pages on the carpet and flicked the lamp switch. The parking lot’s floodlight provided the only illumination now. Richard shut his eyes to blot it out and rolled over to cuddle with his woman.

He felt something horrible in his arms.

NO!!

A scream exploded in his brain. His body lurched out of bed and thumped on the floor. The covers came with him.

“Mmm.” Sharon moaned and turned over, but did not awaken.

She lay on her side facing him, twisted and deformed in the dim light – just like the first time he’d seen her.

It can’t be! It can’t be!

Richard flicked on the table lamp again. Sharon turned away from the light but did still not awaken. Richard rubbed his eyes, refusing to believe the terrible image. He ran his hands over the misshapen body to verify the horrid truth. He clamped his eyes shut.

Change her back! he commanded desperately. I’ll go away … anything, just change her back!

Minutes of terror passed before he gained the courage to look at her. Sharon was prone now, snoring slightly. Her body was restored and healthy again.

Richard sagged with relief, then bitter tears welled in his eyes

“Damn you,” he muttered. “Why did you have to come here?”

All the others had understood the necessity of staying away from him, but not her. Love had carried her beyond all doubt and reason … and now this!

He heard his father’s laughter echoing throughout the apartment. He understood then, with the clarity of a lightning flash, that love was not for him. That anything he embraced would turn ugly and distorted.

He dressed quickly and threw together a few possessions. He was not quiet, but Sharon slept on in the grip of powerful forces that were determining her fate.

Richard paused at the bedroom door. An overwhelming urge to remain with Sharon came over him; he took a step back towards her. A wavering distortion hovered in the the air above her; she began to twist back into a crippled state.

All right! I’m going! Richard’s mind screamed in agony.

With a final glance at Sharon, he left the apartment. She was still whole; she would remain whole. She was the great mother now.

Dawn was beginning as he strode across the parking lot to his battered car. All the birds were awake and screeching; their cacophony thundered in his ears with the old command:

The Healer must heal! the Healer must heal!”

He drove away. Sharon, the keeper of the line, was already a fast-fading memory. From father to son.

[]Bear Country

Tom, the son-in-law, looked out the kitchen window at little Susie playing in the snow. She didn’t notice him and would have continued to build her miniature snowman had she not seen her father coming up the path.

She smiled and stood up. There was a weave to his walk, however, and this frightened the child. Instead of running to greet him, she dashed back into the cottage.

Her mother saw the little girl’s agitation and said: “Your father’s home?”

The other two children stiffened in their seats, and Tom crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray.

A moment later, the door banged open and a big, enormously fat man – 350 pounds at least – entered the kitchen and shook snow from his shoulders and boots.

“Little snip ran from me like I was the Boogey Man,” he laughed. “Susie, it’s me! No abominable snowman tonight!”

The group around the kitchen table relaxed a bit.

The big man picked up the child in his beefy arms. She detected the booze on his breath and wrinkled her nose.

The wife ventured, “We’re having the left-over roast beef, Bill. Coffee’s ready too.”

“Sounds good, Janet,” Billy replied.

He kicked off his boots and rubbed his hands together for warmth.

“Looks like that warm spell is over,” he said. “We’ll be out ice fishing again soon.”

Richard’s face brightened at the mention of ice fishing, but it quickly grew solemn again.

“I got the insulation in the back bedroom done,” Tom said. “We can start the paneling tomorrow.”

Billy glanced at the young man; a flash of exasperation appeared in his eyes.

“Glad to hear that,” he replied. “Hope we’ve got enough nails for the job.”

He slipped his liberated feet into a pair of loafers and took his place at the table.

Tom felt strong, rooted to his chair, one rolled up hand atop the table.

I’d like to hammer you to the wall, he thought, flexing his hand.

“Seems to be plenty of nails,” he said.

“Salt please,” Richard said.

He and Pam sat on their side of the table; the early teens looked almost like twins, although they weren’t. Only the eldest sister Joyce, Tom’s wife, was absent from the family gathering.

Joyce had been the one to suggest this “fence-mending” mission – spend the long weekend getting on her parents’ good side by helping them remodel their north woods cottage. They were still upset about her and Tom’s elopement, after all, and they needed some currying.

Conveniently enough, she’d gotten sick at the last minute leaving Tom to appear alone. Funny how she so often got sick or suddenly busy when it was time to see her parents.

“Go on without me, I’ll be alright,” she’d said. “It’s just a little touch of flu.”

So Tom had come. He could never refuse her anything. He’d quit smoking for no other reason than that she’d wanted him to. It was only since he’d been pushed into this tense situation that he’d lit up again.

Billy’s eyes narrowed and regarded Tom over their coffee cup rim.

“Uh, Bill,” Janet said, “have they salted the road down at the South Shore yet?”

“Don’t know. Didn’t come that way.”

“What way did you come?”

It was an absurd question, since there was only one other route he could have taken from town. Billy acknowledged it with a snort. The meal passed in silence, and Tom excused himself as soon as possible.

He took his coffee cup to the adjoining living room and spread out in front of the TV. His leg was really bothering him. These days his old injury seldom caused much problem, but now the aching was fierce. He fought the urge to light up another cigarette.

Talk began in the kitchen. Tom turned the TV volume louder to cover the chatter. Still, he could just barely hear the conversation if he strained his ears a little. He couldn’t help but strain now and then.

“I saw Florin in town today,” Billy was saying.

“Are they still coming over Saturday night?” Janet asked.

“Yeah,” Billy replied, “He told me he’d like to remodel his place, too, but couldn’t afford it. Where’s all this money he’s supposed to have?”

“You know they have two boys in college,” Janet said. “There must be a lot of expenses.”

“Right.” Billy lowered his voice, almost too low for Tom to hear. “And either would have made a good catch for Joyce. So who does she pick? A factory hand from DEE-troit.”

Tom flinched. Nobody had to tell him that his assembly line job was tough and demeaning, despite the good pay. He wanted more, though, and was beginning classes spring term in Electrical Engineering. He’d have to work midnights to free up time for study, but he knew could do it. The Navy had taught him discipline, as well as providing training that could be credited toward the college degree.

He and Joyce were to have sprung the happy news this weekend, but now Tom did not feel motivated to confide in his in-laws.

Heat from the nearby fireplace caused him to strip to his T shirt, revealing powerful arms and chest. Tom was not a large man, but quite strong. He’d been a wrestler in high school and a boxer in the Navy; he’d maintained his physique well. Once in a while some jerk at the assembly plant would misread Tom’s compact size and slight handicap and would try to hassle him. Nobody ever made that mistake twice.

Suddenly a door banged open down the hall, and Sam came bounding through, tail thumping on the floor. The little mongrel approached the table, glad to be out of its confinement in the bedroom. The youngsters froze in horror and their mother’s face recoiled, as if in anticipation of a slap.

Billy gaped at the animal, his eyes bulging out of a reddening face.

“What’s it doing in here?” he bellowed, “I said that dirty thing should never be in the house!”

“But Dad, it’s cold outside,” Richard protested.

“Enough from you!”

Billy grabbed him by the shirt and jammed his fist into the boy’s throat hard enough to make him gag.

“I told you not to bring in these strays around here,” he said. “I’m not fixing up this place so it can be a dog pound!”

“Dear, they just thought he’d freeze out there,” Janet pleaded. “I was going to tell you.”

“That’s right Daddy,” Pam added in a trembling voice.

Billy released his grip on Richard. The boy pushed his chair away from the table and coughed from the blow he’d received. Susie fled to the bedroom from which the puppy had just come and slammed the door. These ignoble expressions of defeat from the family seemed to calm Billy.

He spoke in a quieter tone: “Get it out of here before I dump it in the lake.”

Janet quickly obeyed, opening the door and motioning to Sam. The puppy hesitated, yipping and wagging its tail. Billy shot out his leg and, with agility surprising for a man of his bulk, sent the dog flying with a kick.

Things settled down again. Billy looked out toward Tom who was still seated before the fireplace. A slight, taunting smile came over Tom’s face; he broadened his shoulders in a slow stretch.

Just you and me, fat man, he thought, two minutes is all I want.

***

The next day went a lot easier on Tom’s nerves. No flare-ups occurred; they even managed to do a lot of work on the renovations. Billy seemed to have exhausted his reserve of meanness and was staying sober.

The guy had a rough sort of charm that was actually quite engaging. He would have made a good foreman at the plant, Tom thought, somebody the men would have liked and respected – as long as he kept off the bottle.

Tom resisted getting sucked in, maintaining a cool and polite exterior. As much as he desired good relations with his in-laws, he could not get the previous night’s scene out of his mind. The crass brutality of it offended him at the core. What kind of upbringing had Joyce gotten from this family – the dictator father, the timid and frightened mother?

The elopement had been Joyce’s idea. They’d been driving to San Diego for a vacation when she’d suggested they stop off at Las Vegas to get married. Tom had agreed, but he couldn’t help wondering why she would cut their families out of the event. Now he knew why. He also thought he knew why she often slept so fitfully and had nightmares.

His in-laws were upgrading their cottage into a real second home – a remote lakeside retreat, yet not too far from their main house in Bay City. They’d bought the place from an elderly man who’d had to sell quickly without driving too hard a bargain. Tom wondered if the previous owner had been Stanley, a resident at the rest home where he’d worked during his layoff.

More snow came. Pam and Richard began to agitate for a sledding trip to Rocker Hill, and Tom agreed to take them Saturday night for some moonlight runs. The two youngsters were delighted to get outdoors and avoid a boring evening at home with the Florins.

Tom resisted their calls to join the fun and contented himself with watching them hurtle down the steep hill. Sometimes they sat together on the long wooden sled; other times Richard went solo, lying prone and howling all the way.

The world seemed pleasantly serene under the moon and the area lights strung along the trees. Tomorrow would be the last day of this trial. If only things stayed on an even keel until then! Tom planned to work hard until mid afternoon, then make a quick getaway. He’d hardly known his in-laws before this weekend, and he felt that he knew them far better than he wanted to now. Except for the kids – they were great!

Even if it weren’t for his screwy in-laws, Tom would be anxious to leave. He was a city guy, and the quiet solitude of this northern area got on his nerves. The blank, semi-wilderness seemed to lack things that were necessary to sustain life, the same way the family lacked human warmth. This was Bear Country to him. He hoped that he would never have to return.

He stamped his feet against the cold and wrapped his long scarf more tightly around his neck. He was just getting ready to change his mind and venture a ride when the fun ended in a crash against a tree.

Tom trotted down the hill to the two young people sprawled in the snow.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I think so,” Richard said.

He got up and brushed himself off. Tom assisted Pam to her feet; she was equally unhurt.

“That was quite a show!” Tom said. “Is there an admission charge?”

His attempt at levity fell flat. The two siblings merely stared grimly at the sled and its broken runner.

“Dad’s really going to be pissed,” Pam said. “He just bought that.”

“Yeah … ” Richard agreed.

The boy seemed to be shaking in the dim light, and not from the cold.

“Let’s go,” Tom said.

Sometime later, they pulled up to the cottage. The kids jumped out and started a snowball fight with each other, their good cheer fully restored. Tom lifted the sled from the back of his pickup. Fortunately, the little general store had still been open, and he’d managed to purchase a new sled identical to the old one. Billy would have no reason to go ballistic now.

 

Pam and Richard burst into the house, breathless and red faced.

“On the back porch!” Janet called, frowning at the sight of their wet clothes.

Her children retreated to the screened-in porch to strip down.

Tom had already doffed his jacket and boots before entering and had hung his scarf on a wall hook. It was a long and rugged scarf, knitted for him by Joyce; it radiated love.

He advanced alone into the house, limping slightly. Billy, with Susie sitting on his lap, was at the kitchen table playing Rummy with Jack Florin. Florin was a large, bald-headed man with an equally big cigar in his mouth. The kitchen exhaust fan was running, sucking the smoke out into the piney woods.

The women were off in the living room chatting over coffee.

“This is our son-in-law, Tom,” Janet introduced.

She glanced at his holey socks with disapproval.

“Thought I’d dress for the occasion,” Tom quipped.

Florin deemed this to be greatly entertaining, and he broke out in chuckles.

“Hey, I can still laugh with cards like these!” he said.

Tom took an instant liking to the man. Jack Florin seemed like a very good-humored and friendly person, somebody you’d feel comfortable around. So why was he pals with a slug like Billy?

He’s been sucked in by the charm, Tom thought.

Then there were his two sons in college that Billy had targeted as potential mates for Joyce. Well, maybe the charm offensive would be coming to an end now.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need a shower,” Tom said. “Those kids put me through quite a workout.”

“Wait a minute, young man,” Florin said, “can you play Rummy?”

“Sure.”

“Grab a chair then,” Florin said. “Billy’s been kicking my tail. Maybe my luck will improve if we play cut throat.”

Tom hesitated. Pam and Richard dashed noisily toward the bathroom, jockeying for first rights.

“See, you’ll have to wait for that shower anyway,” Florin laughed.

He turned toward Billy.

“I’m not going to let you use her next time,” he said, indicating Susie. “She knows more about this game than either of us.”

Billy chuckled and held out a sausage-like finger to the child. Her tiny hand wrapped around it.

“Yeah, deal in,” Billy invited with a wave of his beer can.

He actually sounded friendly. Maybe the past couple of days working together on the renovations had paid off. Maybe Tom was ‘one of the boys’ now.

Again, he resisted getting sucked in by the charm. Tom vividly recalled the fear on Richard’s face when the sled broke, the immense relief he and Pam displayed when they’d obtained a replacement.

Against his better judgement, Tom sat down at the table.

Billy’s luck, which had been running hot, cooled in the new 3-way game. Tom quickly assumed control with Billy in a fading second place. Florin did as poorly as ever.

“I knew you’d bring me luck, Tom,” he said, “and so you did. All of it bad!”

Tom liked to win as much as anybody, but he didn’t like the way this game was going now – the way his father-in-law grew quiet and moody each time Tom scored a good hand. Billy made more trips to the refrigerator for beer, which was also a bad omen. A slight weave was entering his gait, and Janet looked over occasionally with apprehension in her eyes.

Tom tried to ease up, but something inside prevented him from throwing the game. The same spirit which had carried him through tough wrestling bouts and boxing matches came to the fore. Besides, he was drinking now, too, and it was bringing out his reckless streak.

But he wasn’t so reckless as to not realize that he needed a tactful exit from the game. Florin just wouldn’t give him a chance. The man was doing badly but didn’t seem to care. He kept up a constant stream of banter that left little opening for Tom to slip away.

“You know, I’ve lived around here all my life,” Florin observed at one point, “but I still can’t stand the winters. Weather like this makes me wish I was back in the Philippines.”

“Oh, Jack, nobody wants to hear your old military stories,” Mrs. Florin objected from the living room.

“Lovely place, the Philippines,” Florin continued, ignoring his wife’s objection. “Always warm and friendly.”

“It certainly is nice,” Tom said.

“You’ve been there?”

“Yeah, when I was in the Navy.”

“Really?” Florin’s eyes took on a devilish flare. “Great women there, eh? I know that’s one thing that couldn’t have changed any!”

A loud throat clearing from Mrs. Florin made him change the subject quickly.

“So, how long were you in the Navy, Tom?” he asked.

“Just two years,” Tom said. “I got banged up in a shipboard accident. They gave me a partial disability because of my leg.”

“Oh.” Florin attended to his cigar. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s not too bad, just slowed me down a little.”

“Yeah, he’s in great shape,” Billy said, draining his can of beer. “He just won’t be running in any Memorial Day races.”

Tom did not try to conceal the contempt in his eyes, although he said nothing. Billy pretended not to notice and busied himself with Susie. The humming exhaust fan tried to fill the tense silence.

“Well,” Florin said, attempting to sound jocular, “I’d say some of us aren’t in the greatest shape either!”

He reached over and patted Billy’s enormous gut. “Deal the cards Big Guy.”

This remark also flopped. Although Florin remained sportive, his opponents had turned sullen. Tom cut loose on Billy and used every trick to do him in, even going so far as to feed important cards to Florin.

“Off Daddy’s lap,” Billy said midway into the next game.

“Can’t I watch?” Susie protested.

“No, go visit in the living room.”

Susie jumped down and went to her mother. Billy moved to the refrigerator for a fresh supply of beer.

“Billy, I’m floating already!” Florin protested, but he took a can anyway.

Tom was starting to float too, and he began to play with greater abandon. In every face card he saw Richard’s terrified visage, Pam and Susie’s fear, Joyce’s contorted face when she swam up from a nightmare. He laughed and banged his fist on the table every time he won a hand. Florin enjoyed the sport and joined in.

Only Billy didn’t like it. He hated losing, as Tom well knew, and he detested even more having it rubbed in.

Beer cans ringed the table when Mrs. Florin finally intervened: “Let’s get going, Jack,” she said. “We have to get an early start tomorrow to see the boys at State.”

Billy glowered at the mention of the college boys. He shot a covetous glance at Florin which the latter didn’t notice. Tom noticed, though, and it gave him perverse satisfaction.

The visitors took their leave. Florin was in no condition to drive, and his wife had some difficulty maneuvering their big Lincoln out of its parking space. She finally made it, coached by Billy from his position in the doorway. Then she was off with wheels spinning in the snow.

“Hope you get stuck,” Billy muttered.

He had barely reentered the house when Janet called out: “Oh, Bill, we’re low on firewood, could you bring some in?”

“Yeah, just a minute,” Billy said irritably. “Let me get my boots on.”

Billy brought in his heavy boots and plopped onto a kitchen chair. He kicked his loafers into a corner with precise, violent motions.

Since he was too fat to reach down very far, Billy used a long pliers type wrench to grip the boot tops. Tom observed the effort from his own chair across the table. He was amused and just drunk enough not to care whether Billy noticed his smirk.

“What’s so funny?” Billy demanded.

“Oh nothing,” Tom said, “you just kind of remind me of the Tin Man with that wrench.”

“That’s real clever.”

“I thought so too,” Tom said.

Billy reddened and gave a final mighty tug with the wrench. The boot slid fully into place.

“If you’re so damn clever, how come you’re still an assembly line stiff?” he said.

“Well forgive me sir.” Tom stood up. “You don’t impress me as any great genius either.”

“I’m smart enough to see that my daughter doesn’t know much about picking men. The little dope.”

Tom was too furious to reply; he ached to knock the fat man right out of his chair.

Don’t hassle with him, an internal voice warned. The bastard isn’t worth it.

Tom managed to suppress his raging emotions. He made a deep, mocking bow and stalked off to his room.

In a few minutes, he’d thrown his things together and was ready to go. It was an easy chore; his duffle bag was only partially unpacked in anticipation of just such a hasty departure.

 

He was just coming out the bedroom when Billy re-entered the house with a load of firewood in his arms.

Billy pushed the door shut with his foot. The nudge wasn’t enough to close it, though. Sam was quick to take advantage of this, and he wriggled his way in. Before anyone noticed, the little mongrel was at the fireplace, shaking and trying to warm itself from the coals.

“Goddammit!” Billy exploded.

He threw the wood down and aimed a kick at the dog. This time Sam was too quick and managed to dash out of the way. The foot sailed past and slammed into the fireplace bricks instead.

“I broke my foot!” Billy howled.

He plopped to the floor.

“Goddam dog!”

He would have nursed his foot if he could have reached it. The family raced in from their various hiding places and gathered round. Janet advanced to help.

“Keep away, leave me alone!” Billy roared.

The children cowered against a wall. Susie motioned to the dog, but it was hiding under a chair and refused to budge. This was an opportune moment for Tom to slip out unnoticed, but he couldn’t help gaping open-mouthed at the grotesque scene.

Billy was standing again, gingerly testing his injured foot. Janet shrank before him, leaving him master of the situation.

“I said,” he intoned slowly, “that this animal was to stay outside.”

He snatched Sam from his hiding place. With a couple of long, hobbling strides he had the whimpering dog in the kitchen where he rummaged a burlap sack from under the sink.

“What are you doing?” Janet cried.

“What do you think? This mutt’s going for a swim.”

The kids erupted into howls of protest.

“Daddy, you can’t! It’s not his fault!”

Oblivious to the entreaties, Billy tossed the puppy into the sack, added his boot wrench for weight, and tied it shut. Then he bulled his way out through the door.

Susie threw herself on the couch and thrashed about crying, completely out of control. Richard and Pam wept more quietly while their mother sat in a chair, a look of stunned exhaustion on her face.

Tom pulled the drape aside on the picture window. He could see Billy striding in the moonlight, heading across the frozen lake toward the fishing shanties.

My God, he’s really going to do it!

Tom dashed onto the porch. He grabbed for his coat and scarf hanging on their hook. The coat fell away and disappeared behind some boxes. With only the scarf for protection against the cold, Tom flung himself through the door.

 

As he charged through the biting wind out onto the lake, Tom was trembling – not with the cold, but in anticipation of the blows he’d strike to Billy’s face, spraying blood all over the ice.

He was nauseated at the terror this evil man was creating. My God, what must Joyce’s childhood have been like with this psychotic time bomb ready to go off any moment? And what of the things she refused to talk about. What had been done to her over the years?

This last thought stoked his rage to a fever pitch. Come what may, he was going to pound the bastard to within and inch of his life.

“Stop!” he yelled.

Billy turned to face him. Tom began to run, but his loafers gave little traction. Several paces short he fell, slamming his knee against a jagged outcrop. Pain shot through his entire body as he writhed on the ice.

“Umph!” Billy grunted disdainfully at his now helpless pursuer.

He turned and continued walking toward the fishing shanties.

“Sunovabitch!” Tom called weakly, his voice lost in the wind.

A loud Crack! reverberated through the ice like a shout from the devil. Billy froze in his tracks … too late.

The ice, not yet recovered from the warm spell, caved in beneath him. The bag he carried flew from his hands and skidded to a halt several feet away.

“Help!” Billy screamed as he fought to scramble up the edge of a gaping hole.

Tom managed to stand, then immediately flattened himself as another Crack! shot through the ice. He crawled toward the hole. Billy was obviously losing his battle and would soon slip below the surface weighed down by his water-filled boots and parka.

Tom pulled the scarf off his neck and prepared to throw one end toward the struggling man. Billy reached desperately toward the lifeline.

Tom hesitated …

 

Back at the cottage, Susie had calmed a bit and was sobbing quietly into the sofa cushions. The other two kids hung onto their mother’s hands. Janet looked utterly crushed and many years older than she really was.

Tom observed them through the window. He was nearly frozen, and his knee throbbed painfully. The dog in his arms was fine, though, wrapped in the scarf all warm and dry.

After a brief hesitation, Tom opened the door.

[]The White River Terror

When I was a kid, I was a reader of horror stories, a fan of mysterious abominations that creep up in the night and grab you from behind. I never thought I’d meet one in person, however. The concept was simply too outlandish.

Fast forward a few decades and change the scene from the comfortable suburbs to a camp fire in the Ontario woods. The evening meal is finished, and the junk talk is beginning. As usual, it’s about women, getting drunk, and being a generalized prick.

But there’s something else this time – the story of the ‘White River Terror,’ an urban legend of the northern woods. The idiot I have to share my canoe with is doing the talking.

The Terror is something of a serial killer and cannibal, he says. It stalks the wilderness in search of unsuspecting sportsmen and carries them off. I’m usually still up for a good thriller story, and this one sounds interesting. It’s the lousy company I can’t stand.

A word of advice for anyone considering an organized wilderness expedition: Don’t just sign up blindly like I did; make sure you know something about the people you’ll be going with. There are some real yo-yo’s out here.

I decide to avoid this batch.

But just as I’ve nearly completed an unnoticed departure from the camp area, I have to trip over a tent line and crash over a pile of cooking utensils. Startled faces whip around. Their expressions become sneering and sarcastic.

“Hey, Bob,” one of them yells. “Where you off to now?”

“Probably looking for some tail!” another says.

“Well let me tell you, buddy,” says the first scholar. “This is Nowhere-ville, and you sure ain’t gonna find no action around here!”

All five of them laugh now – louts, drinkers of cheap beer.

It’s difficult to avoid people when you’re all stuck in ‘Nowhere-ville’ together with nothing but aluminum canoes to take you out again. The closest I can come to getting these jerks out of my hair is by taking an after-dinner walk. I’m not on cleanup detail tonight, so I’ve got some time to myself.

The theme of this evening’s stroll is the pleasant thought that in just one more day the trip will be over and the outfitter will come to pick us up. I can already feel myself inside my car, speeding away from the presence of these morons.

I plan to return to my tent before dark, but I don’t notice how late it is until night is rapidly advancing. I’m too wrapped up in contemplations of escape to maintain my situational awareness.

Well … I never claimed to be Mr. Outdoors.

I have a fair idea of where the campsite lies, but stumbling around in the dark – without a flashlight, of course – could not fail to tangle me up to such an extent that I’d never find the place.

In the distance, I can hear the occasional guffaws of my ‘companions,’ but this seems an unreliable beacon with which to retrace my steps. I think of calling out, but the thought of their sarcastic response deters me.

So, Bob, I think, it looks like we’re on our own tonight.

Actually, I don’t mind the idea of sleeping under the stars. It’s been warm lately, and a sleeping bag isn’t really necessary. As an added bonus, there won’t be an uncouth slob sharing my tent.

I park myself under a large tree. The mosquitoes are out, but I have on my rain parka and thick pants, so they can’t inflict too much damage. Besides, I actually remembered to bring a bottle of repellent!

I light my pipe, blow out some smoke to clear the air of insects, and settle in …

 

A while later, I discover the pipe lying on the ground beside me with its coals spilled out. If the layer of needles hadn’t been damp from the recent rain, I’d probably be burning like a roman candle.

Did I say that I’m not Mr. Outdoors?

The racket from the camp has ceased, and a ¾ moon is out. I come to the brilliant conclusion that I’d dropped off to sleep. I have just refilled and relit my pipe when I sense a presence.

As clearly as anything I might be able to see in daylight, I am aware of its exact location. It waits a dozen feet away near a big rock, behind my tree. I don’t need to look, I feel it to be there!

Things remain stalemated for some seconds, with neither of us making a move. I remain still as long as I can; its eyes pierce right through the tree trunk and into my back. Finally, without voluntary effort, I discover myself rising and beginning to walk.

I’m like a grotesque marionette with my spastic movements, but somehow my feet discover a path. It begins to follow.

I know it’s in pursuit, can almost hear the ground cry out from the touch of its polluted steps. The urge to fling myself down the path in a headlong rush almost overcomes me, but I manage to beat it down.

I realize that any sign of panic will be my doom, that my only hope lies in appearing calm and strong while I find my way back to camp. Somehow, I disguise my fear and am able to tromp along with measured steps.

The Terror has come considerably closer and seems to be only a few steps behind me when I arrive at a clearing. I remember a clearing – is this it? If so, then the camp is not far. A dank and cold draft, like the breath of some foul being, hits my neck. That entire side of my body convulses and I bite hard on the pipe to keep from screaming.

I suck furiously on my calabash and try to think only of its smoke. I fill my mind with its flavor, welcome it as my only friend and ally. In my terrified brain the camp rises to the status of a holy city and the ruffians in it to the rank of divine saviors. It has to be close now, just a few yards up the path and to the right.

As the spot draws nearer, my feet begin to drag like lead weights. With each painful step, my tormentor draws nearer as well. He is almost upon me when I stagger onto the turn off …

The moonlight reveals another stretch of empty path. I’ve gone the wrong way! With ghastly finality, my pipe flickers out.

I know the chase is over now. A last spark of resistance flares up in me; I bite down on the dead pipe, steel my muscles, and turn to face my pursuer.

“Would you care for a light?” It asks in the mildest of tones.

“W-why, yes,” I manage to say, “… thanks.”

A long, shadowy arm extends my direction. The being behind it is huge and terrible, but I sense that it intends me no harm. An unspoken communication vibrates between us. We seem to have a lot in common, both of us adrift in a hostile environment we do not cherish, despised by those around us.

As I suck the offered flame into my pipe, I think that my new friend will enjoy meeting the guys back at the camp.

[]Personnel Enhancement Service

Harry Beamon watched the staff members file out of the conference room. Jerry McConville, his assistant director, led the procession wearing his fresh little smile.

Beamon followed them to the doorway and paused. He rubbed his bald head. Today he felt each of his 55 years and every one of the excess pounds hanging from his midriff.

Hell! he realized with a jolt. I never adjourned the meeting.

McConville had just decided on his own that it was over and had led everyone out. A flush of outrage moved across Beamon’s face, then subsided.

He’d fire that McConville s.o.b. tomorrow, but he knew the higher ups would never go for that. The guy was angling to be the next director, everybody knew that, and he was catching influential eyes. But what else could he do? He began walking toward his office through the rabbit warren of walled cubicles.

Thirty years at this damned company, and they’re going for some young buck!

Everything was quiet around Beamon’s office, as if the major events of the Department were taking place elsewhere – like at Jerry McConville’s office on the other side of the floor.

Only Vince’s rapid tapping on the secretary station keyboard disturbed the serenity. Vice was the temporary replacement for the regular executive secretary who was out on maternity leave.

Imagine, Beamon thought sourly, she’s pushing 40 and is out having another baby!

What the hell was the world coming to?

Beamon entered his office and rolled his chair up to his own computer. A dusty glare was coming through the window, making him squint. The window washers hadn’t cleaned this side of the building for quite a while. This resulted in a less than pristine ambiance – unlike in McConville’s office where everything was spic and span, including the windows.

Beamon tried bringing up his e-mail, but it would not appear despite the agitated tapping of his fingers. The monitor flashed the infuriating message:

NETWORK ERROR. CALL FOR SERVICE

“Damn!”

Beamon smacked his fist on the keyboard.

“Mr. Beamon?”

Harry jerked his head around. Vince was standing in the doorway.

“What is it?” Beamon snapped.

In the distorted light, Vince looked even more ethereal than he usually did.

“I’ve finished the report,” Vince said.

“Already?” Beamon said with genuine surprise.

He took the document from Vince’s bony hand. The sheets of paper felt strangely cold, but there was nothing wrong with their content: page after page of meticulous text, tables, and flowcharts – all well formatted and pleasing to the eye.

“This is beautiful!”

Beamon reddened slightly, not being used to praising people, especially not temporary workers.

“Thank you, sir,” Vince said.

Beamon scrutinized the young man. He was over six feet tall, but couldn’t weigh more than 140 pounds. He was like some pale, gangly insect, a praying mantis or something. And the way his hair was brushed back. Stalin had worn his hair like that.

Vince was a hard worker, though, much better than the absent Doris. Since he’d come from the temporary help agency a week before, he’d completely straightened out the chaos that Beamon had come to regard as a given.

Why not just replace Doris for good – send her over to McConville?

“How’d you like to work for me permanently?” Beamon asked.

“Thank you, sir, but I currently have other priorities,” Vince said.

Beamon nodded.

“If everybody here worked as hard you, things would be a lot different,” he muttered.

Vince gazed out the dusty window for several seconds, utterly still and expressionless. Beamon began to fear that the man had suffered some kind of cataleptic seizure.

At last Vince spoke: “If you will forgive my frankness, sir, I have noticed a certain laxity among your employees – an absence of respect for your authority.

Beamon felt himself reddening at the impertinence, but he stifled the angry retort ready to burst from his lips. Hell, why get angry at the guy when every word was true?

He knew that people regarded him as ‘over the hill,’ a bungler stuck in the past. The department was slipping out of his hands and would soon be controlled by others. The staff barely tolerated him, and he often caught the undertones of sarcastic conversations.

But things hadn’t always been this way. Once a younger and more vigorous Beamon had commanded real authority. When he walked through the office people sat up at attention. They called him ‘Sir’ and meant it.

Times change, though, and Beamon, “. . . had not grown with the organization,” as his most recent job review had stated.

He grunted agreement with Vince’s statement. The latter directed his eyes back toward Beamon.

“Perhaps my agency can help you,” he said.

“How so?” Beamon asked.

“Our Personnel Enhancement division has helped corporate management resolve many staffing difficulties.”

Beamon leaned forward in his chair.

“Personnel enhancement?”

“Yes, sir,” Vince replied. “Employees are assisted in locating areas where attitudinal adjustment is desirable. They are then aided in making the necessary improvements.”

Beamon’s eyes narrowed.

“There must be more to it than that,” he said, not trying to disguise the suspicion in his voice.

“It is really a quite simple and effective process,” Vince said. “I must inform you beforehand that discretion is required of those who contract these services, a willingness to accept matters in the proper spirit.”

A willingness to keep their mouths shut, you mean? Beamon thought, but he said nothing.

Vince handed over a business card. It, too, felt cold in Beamon’s hand.

Personnel Adjustment Service, the card read, We put the power back in your hands

Only s single phone number graced the card.

“Have they got a website, an email?” Beamon asked. “What about a business address?”

“They prefer to handle things word of mouth only,” Vince replied. “Experience has shown that personal contact is best kept to a minimum.”

Beamon flipped the card over, nothing on the back. It had been in his hand for some seconds now but still felt cold.

“Should you choose to call, an unofficial phone would be best,” Vince said. “Simplicity and discretion are key concepts.”

“Thanks,” Beamon said, “I’ll keep this in mind.”

Vince made a slight nod, turned, and left the office. From the back, he gave a rather robotic impression. Beamon half expected to see wheels attached to the guy’s feet.

“Odd duck,” Beamon mumbled.

He returned to his computer screen. The bash must have done some good. At least the thing was back at the main pick menu:

windows

email

access mainframe

logout

How about none of the above? he thought sourly.

He swiveled to face the cork-plated wall beside his desk. The papers tacked to it blurred before his unfocused eyes.

Preposterous!

Things just couldn’t be turned around by ‘personality enhancement’ or whatever the term was. He looked at the car again; it had finally warmed up in his hand.

Personnel Enhancement Service,” he corrected himself.

Sure, lots of outfits these days offered ‘training development’ and ‘employee counseling,’ but what could they do for Harry Beamon?

Things had not been too bad before the merger, but now, with the new upper management team in place, things were sliding inexorably downhill – and Jerry McConville was the new rising star. People were hot for change.

McConville was not particularly competent, Beamon knew; the guy was more of a back-stabbing politician type. But sooner than later, he’d be the man in charge of the department.

What the hell do I have to lose? Beamon thought abruptly.

He reached for his private cell phone and punched in the number. His call was answered on the first ring.

“Hello, this is Harry Beamon. You were recommended by – ”

“We know who you are,” a cold female voice replied.

“Yes ….” Beamon said, rather taken aback. “I might be interested in – ”

“We know what your interests are, Mr. Beamon,” the voice replied. “Please be assured that we will handle all details.”

***

Beamon never actually saw the Personnel Enhancement team in action; they did bring results, though, just as promised. Two days after the phone call, a new secretary was seated at the workstation outside Beamon’s office when he arrived for work.

It was past 10:00 a.m. already. Beamon had been told during the phone call that it would be “advisable” if he showed up a bit late the rest of the week.

The new man looked up from his computer monitor. His fingers ceased their rapid pounding on the keyboard.

“Good morning, sir,” he said.

He got to his feet. The guy was very much in the Vince mold – tall, thin, impassive. He had blond hair, though, which made him look rather boyish.

“Where’s Vince?” Beamon asked.

“He’s been assigned other duties,” the secretary replied. “My name is Max, sir. I hope you’ll find my performance to be satisfactory.”

Beamon pondered the unexpected turn of events. Vince hadn’t said anything about leaving his post, and Beamon felt oddly violated. He should have received at least a day’s notice. Then Max worsened the situation.

“You have a visitor in your office,” he said.

“What?” Beamon cried. “Nobody’s allowed in there without my permission.”

“I am aware of that, sir,” Max replied, “but it seemed … advisable to make an exception.”

“Advisable?”

“Please forgive me if I have made an error,” Max said. “He has only been there a few moments, though. He came just before your arrival.”

Beamon looked apprehensively toward the closed door. Who the hell could be inside his office – some big shot from the 40th floor bearing a hatchet? Was this the day Beamon would finally get his walking papers? All the anger drained out of him, replaced by cold dread.

“Very well, Max,” he mumbled, “carry on.”

“Yes sir.”

Max resumed his seat and began typing rapidly again. The staccato noise accompanied Beamon as he approached his office. How many thousands of times had he walked through this heavy wooden door? Always his office had seemed a refuge, a private space where he could gather his wits. Now it beckoned to him like a torture chamber.

He turned the knob and stepped inside. Jerry McConville looked from the desk.

“Jerry!” Beamon cried, “what the … ”

The expression on McConville’s face silenced him – it was a combination of hate, loathing, and terror. McConville had been writing something. He threw his pen down and rose from the chair like a grotesque genii ascending from its lamp.

Beamon stepped back as McConville rushed toward him, fearful of getting knocked over. But the younger man only brushed his shoulder on his headlong retreat from the office.

Max appeared and politely closed the door, leaving Beamon alone with his astonishment. Beamon crossed the room to his desk. Upon it lay a hand-written note:

I quit.

Jerry McConville

Beamon sank into his big leather chair, too stunned to comprehend what was happening. Then a bright ray of sunshine made its way through the grimy window and illuminated his world.

He remained in this pose for nearly two hours, turning over in his mind the glorious prospect of life without Jerry McConville. No more disrespect, no more wondering when the next blow would fall. No more knot in the stomach when he encountered the guy

Those Personnel Enhancement folks certainly know their stuff! he gloated.

Exactly what had prompted that mixture of extreme emotions on McConville’s face was another matter – one that Beamon did not wish to contemplate over much. He’d paid good money, and he was getting good service; that’s all that counted.

By noon, he felt the urge for a beer. Ordinarily, he didn’t drink and seldom went out for lunch, preferring to wolf down food at his desk. But today called for celebrating.

He exited his office to find Max still working intently at his computer.

“Not taking a lunch break?” Beamon asked.

Max swiveled his direction.

“I’m just straightening out a few issues, sir,” he said. “Perhaps I can take a break later this afternoon?”

“Certainly,” Beamon said.

He headed toward the elevator bank and pressed the Down button. An elevator began rising from the lobby while, simultaneously, another one started wending its way down from the 40th floor – the ‘Brass Hat’ floor where the CEO and the other mucky mucks had their suites.

They must be headed for the club, he thought rancorously, big ass three martini lunch!

He shied away from the descending elevator door, unwilling to take the chance of meeting somebody from the upper echelon. But there was little possibility of that. Those guys had special keys that allowed them express trips to the lobby, avoiding the underling floors.

So, it was with considerable surprise that Beamon observed the descending elevator stop, and even greater surprise when he saw Vince emerge from it alone.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Beamon,” Vince said. “I trust things are going well for you?”

“Uh … yeah, quite well,” Beamon said.

A second elevator door popped open, and Beamon retreated inside.

***

In another week, Beamon could scarcely recognize his department. More resignations had followed McConville’s exit, and certain other pesky subordinates had transferred out. Their replacements were bright, energetic types eager to work. Those of the old guard still remaining at their posts now displayed proper decorum.

Beamon felt like a new man. He moved down the rows of diligently working people with a new spring in his walk. Productivity was up, absenteeism down, and everybody spoke to him with respect.

“Hello, Mr. Beamon. Yes, sir, Mr. Beamon,” they said. “Have a nice day, Mr. Beamon.”

Vince and Max had both disappeared without notice, which suited him just fine, even though he’d had to do without a secretary for a couple of days. Those guys were creepy, and they belonged in the past with all that other ‘personnel enhancement’ unpleasantness.

Amid his joy, a single question continued to bother him: Why had Vince gone up to the 40th floor?

He finally pushed the question out of his mind. Who knew what was going on behind the scenes to accomplish the transformation of his department? Forget the guy. This was a new day!

Doris, his regular secretary, reappeared from her maternity leave. Her first morning back, she approached Beamon in his office, leaving the door open behind her as was her custom.

“Mr. Beamon,” she said, “my computer is all different.”

“Yes,” Beamon replied, “there have been a lot of changes since you’ve been away.”

Doris looked nervously over her shoulder toward her work station, then gathered up her courage.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Yes,” Doris said. “There’s a new executive secretary opening in Accounts Payable, and I was wondering if … well, I was thinking of, maybe, a transfer?”

Beamon smiled broadly.

“Certainly,” he said.

“You mean, it’s all right?” Doris asked.

“Of course,” Beamon said. “It’s only natural to want change – new baby, new job, new surroundings. I’ll be happy to provide a reference for you.”

A great weight seemed to lift from Doris’s shoulders. She returned Beamon’s smile.

“Thank you,” she said.

Beamon consulted his watch. He was in a magnanimous mood. Getting rid of Doris would fit in nicely with the new order of things. He’d like to see a fresh, younger face posted outside his office.

“Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you go put in for that transfer? Then take the rest of the day off. First thing tomorrow, we’ll finalize things.”

“Okay, I really appreciate this!” Doris said.

“Sure thing,” Beamon said. “Now, don’t keep that baby waiting.”

“Thanks again, sir.”

Doris retreated to her workstation and gathered her belongings. After a final, uneasy, glance at her computer monitor, she was gone.

 

By 6:00 pm, everyone was gone. Only Harry Beamon remained, master of the realm. He stretched back in his chair and looked out the recently cleaned window. For the first time in quite a while, he was reluctant to leave.

Ah well, he thought, just one more glance at the emails and I’m out of here.

He flicked on his computer. The machine wound through its preliminaries and displayed the password screen. Beamon entered his password, and the pick menu appeared. It was not the normal menu.

“What the hell?” Beamon exclaimed.

He leaned closer. In place of the usual choices, the monitor displayed:

window

gun

knife

permanent logout

No! It can’t be … my mind’s playing tricks!

Or was this some parting gift from the Jerry McConville crew? Tomorrow, there’d be hell to pay!

The machine beeped to hurry him along.

Cautiously, Beamon snaked his hand to the power switch on the machine tower. A violent shock ran up his arm, throwing him back in his chair. His heart stopped, then raced wildly. His breath returned in shallow gasps.

The monitor flashed red:

MAKE A CHOICE! MAKE A CHOICE! MAKE A CHOICE!

A shattering noise came from outside, followed by an equally shattering scream. A man hurtled past the window.

Beamon stumbled to the glass pane and looked down at the sidewalk. Even from this height, he recognized the trademark gray suit and bright, wide necktie of the CEO. The man was lying spread-eagled on his back staring up at him with dead eyes.

“My God!”

On the edge of madness and unconsciousness, Beamon heard a whirring noise coming up behind him. An iron hand gripped his shoulder.

 

Sometime later, after the police had finished their investigations and the place had been remodeled, Vince entered the office. He glanced approvingly at the updated furnishings and new carpet. Then he moved to the fresh pane of window glass and looked out at the crowd bustling along below. Interesting how they still avoided a certain area of sidewalk.

He sat down at the computer and got to work.

[]Rifle King

 

1. A hopeful future

The rifle possessed a heavy masculinity. When Frank Kough presented it to his son that morning, a true changing of the guard took place.

Now, at the shooting range, Kough relaxed in his fold-up chair and watched his son at work. Hot June sunshine reduced his eyes to slits through which he observed the dedication and respect – love really – with which Bobber handled his new firearm. Kough’s hands were clasped behind his head, and his lips drawn back in a smile of fatherly pride.

His son appeared to enjoy the hearty slam of the rifle as it recoiled against his shoulder. The boy was obviously unprepared for the shock, though, because the first bullet went high and missed all the inner rings on the target.

This powerful new .30 caliber would take some getting used to. It was worlds apart from the tame little .22 Bobber had been shooting. A smooth movement of the bolt sent the brass shell casing flying.

Bobber continued firing. Soon, his hits were grouping together with greater accuracy and compactness. Kough watched intently through his binoculars. The last three hits clustered quite near to the bull’s eye.

The Hatchel’s barrel was hot now, and Bobber’s shoulder was hurting – time for a rest. He withdrew the finely machined bolt and sat twirling it in his hand with his characteristic expression of deep thought.

Such intensity in a kid of only fourteen! This type of concentration and skill was rare, something you saw only in the most dedicated pros. You’d have to be an utter fool not to see the boy’s potential.

Kough’s mind turned over great hopes and dreams: Work up through the lower tournaments, on to the National competition with its huge purse. Rake in additional millions from celebrity endorsements. Be the next Rifle King!

Follow the path that he, himself, had trod as a young man – and floundered upon.

Kough’s expression soured as he recalled the destruction of his own dreams decades earlier. He simply lacked the talent to become a Rifle King. He understood that now, but as a young man the realization had come as a shattering disappointment. His son was different, though. Bobber had the true genius.

Kough’s face darkened further as he recalled the many arguments he’d had with his wife on the subject.

“He’s not cut out to be a shooter, he’s a sensitive boy!” she’d said. “Besides, he’s only fourteen.”

A lot of hogwash. Anyone could see that Bobber was a natural with guns, that he had an intimate relationship with them going far beyond the simple mechanics of aim and shoot. And why would anyone think that being youngest persons in competition was a disadvantage? The media would eat it up!

But all the arguments they’d had so far would pale compared with the one they’d surely have today when he dropped his bombshell – the news that Bobber had been accepted at the government shooting school. Kough pushed the unpleasant thought as far as possible out of his head.

Cross that bridge when you get to it, he told himself.

Bobber resumed shooting again, rapid fire. His hits were grouping beautifully now, edging into the bullseye.

Good work, son!

Then the ammo was used up. Bobber ejected the final shell casing with an authoritative, almost violent, yank of the bolt. He turned to look at his father.

“Dad, can we get more ammunition?”

Kough couldn’t answer for a moment, so startled was he by the expression on his son’s face – cold, feral, like a big hunting cat.

“Uh … no, Bobber,” Kough said. “I think that’s enough for today.”

Disappointment entered the boy’s eyes, and perhaps a flash of anger?

“Give that shoulder a break,” Kough said. “And by that, I don’t mean a broken bone!”

Bobber did not respond to the lame attempt at humor.

“You can practice some more with the .22 if you like,” Kough said.

The boy glanced over at the case containing the smaller rifle and sighed. His demeanor softened.

“That’s okay, Dad.” He set his new rifle down on the shooting stand. “Guess we’d better get going, huh?”

“Sure, son.”

Kough left his chair to help pick up the spent shell casings. Ammunition was expensive, and you couldn’t afford not to reload the empties.

But before he could retrieve any of the gleaming objects lying on the ground, sharp pain jolted through his back, halting him in mid bend. Kough stifled a cry of agony. He attempted to straighten up but couldn’t.

Concern shot across his son’s face.

“Dad?”

Bobber rushed to help.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of things.”

He gripped Kough’s arm and gently eased him upright. Then he assisted his father back to the chair.

“Just take it easy a minute, Dad.”

“T-thanks, son.”

Bobber trotted back to the shooting station and began picking up the casings, stooping effortlessly to the task.

Kough twisted about in the chair, trying to locate a less uncomfortable position. The pain in his back receded, leaving room for toxic feelings of humiliation and powerlessness.

He chided himself for his impulsiveness. Since his workplace accident two years ago, even the simple act of bending down could present an impossible situation.

Things will be different soon! he assured himself obstinately.

The day would come when he would not have to worry about pinching pennies, when avid fans would, themselves, stoop to retrieve souvenir casings from the rifle of the great Robert W. Kough – son of Frank Kough.

***

The two drove off in the battered family sedan. With his rifles packed safely away, Bobber resumed his buoyant and chatty persona. Such a change always came over him whenever he was away from his guns.

“My fountain pen wasn’t working,” he said, “so I was shaking it to get the ink out. I didn’t expect old Cox to be walking by my desk just in time to get ink all over the back of her skirt!”

Kough chuckled. “I’m sure it was totally accidental, right?”

Bobber smiled mischievously.

“Anyway,” he said, “good thing she didn’t know what was going on. She was really pissed the next day, though. Nobody told on me, which is . . . ”

His voice trailed off as he spied the Texas-style steak house coming up on the right. Kough knew that Bobber wanted to stop, and he certainly wanted to take him into the restaurant, as well. After such a fine day of shooting, the boy deserved a reward.

Kough imagined the two them sauntering in through the swinging doors like a couple of wild west desperadoes. They’d stand before the big wall menu with hands on hips, oblivious to the backlog of customers piling up behind them waiting to go through the serving line.

But he continued driving and tried not to notice his son’s head turning to follow the receding restaurant. Kough gripped the steering wheel hard in growing resentment at his own impotence.

“Sorry Bobber,” he said, “I’m afraid that new rifle pretty much cleaned us out for a while.”

Again, he pondered with dismay on just how long it would take to pay off the firearm. But, damn, it was a premium Hatchel bolt action! Almost every top pro used the identical model. According to the brochure, it had “finely machined components throughout” crafted from “only the best materials” and a straight, rigid barrel guaranteed to be “sniper accurate.”

Bobber looked away from the window and began another of his Cox stories; part of the ongoing saga of his least favorite teacher.

“There were visitors in our class last week,” he said. “Cox couldn’t be her usual bitchy self, of course, and had to put on an act for them. Well, as it turned out . . . ”

2. The elusive dream

Ann Kough gave an icy welcome to Frank and Bobber upon their return home.

“Change your clothes, Bobber,” she said. “I can smell gunpowder on them.”

“Okay, Mom.”

Without another word, she turned and disappeared into the kitchen. Bobber headed for his room.

Kough intercepted him and spoke in a confidential voice: “Just stay out of sight for a while, okay, son?”

“Sure, Dad. I understand.”

Kough drew a deep breath and followed his wife into the kitchen.

He hung around there a while drinking cola and trying to make small talk. Nothing he said seemed capable of engendering a response, though. His best efforts failed to create an opening into which he could break the news.

As it turned out, he didn’t need one.

“I read the letter you got from the shooting school,” Ann said through tightened lips.

“Oh . . .” Frank was too off his guard to say anything more.

“Yes, and you should be proud that the boy’s going to do exactly what you want.”

“But Ann,” Kough protested, “he wants it, too. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

He almost added: “I wish I’d gotten a chance like this,” but he kept the thought to himself.

“He wants it because you tell him so,” Ann said.

“That’s not true!”

“Believe me, Frank, whatever he manages to do or not do, it isn’t going to make you any more of a man than you are now.”

Kough flinched at this brutal reference to his disabilities.

Damn you! he thought with a rancor born of helplessness.

She didn’t talk to him like this two years ago when he was a construction foreman bringing home fat paychecks. Everything was hunky dory then – before the fall which had left him incapacitated and unemployable.

“That’s not how it is!” he blurted.

“Send him to that school if you must,” Ann said. “It looks like I can’t do anything to stop you.”

She began jamming plates into the dishwasher with enough force to nearly shatter them.

“And put him in those tournaments, too,” she said. “Just don’t expect me to be around to watch all this.”

The harsh words from the usually soft-spoken woman rattled Kough badly. He could make no reply. Ann finished with the plates and stalked out of the kitchen.

Kough sat by himself for several minutes, drinking from his bottle. The cola had gone flat.

***

Bobber stayed at a friend’s house the night prior to his departure for the government shooting school. The friend’s parents dropped him off at the bus station the following morning. Back at home, his mother claimed to be ill and kept to her bed, but his father made sure to be at the station to see the boy off.

He spotted Bobber standing amid a group of admiring friends, including some girls.

“Hey Dad!” Bobber called.

Kough made his way slowly across the waiting room with his cane, being careful to avoid a misstep on the grimy tile floor. The crowd of kids made way for him.

“Good luck, son,” Kough said.

He gripped Bobber’s hand in a manly shake.

“Thanks, Dad,” Bobber said. “Where’s Mom?”

“Uh … she’s feeling a bit poorly,” Kough said. “She sends her love.”

This last statement was a lie, they both knew.

“I see,” Bobber said.

A light seemed to go out in his eyes; he lowered them to the floor. An awkward silence commenced, but a girl in the crowd soon filled it.

“This is so cool!” she said. “When are you coming home for midterm break?”

Bobber looked toward her; some of his amiability returned.

“First of September,” he said.

“That’s just in time for our ‘welcome back’ dance at school,” the girl said. “You’ll come, won’t you?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Bobber said.

He turned toward his father. Sadness still edged his eyes, but he assumed a light-hearted tone.

“I won’t be seeing Mrs. Cox anymore,” he said. “Who’s going to keep you informed about her?”

Frank smiled. “I’ll manage, somehow.”

The bus left promptly, piloted by a smiling and courteous driver. This seemed an auspicious start, and Frank Kough returned home brimming with confidence. After two years of frustration and gloom, he felt optimistic again. He scarcely noticed the angry silence radiating from his wife.

 

Frank’s optimism faltered when the second weekly report arrived from the school. By the time a month had passed, the optimism was gone entirely. The reports spoke, in the empirical language of scores and ratings, that Bobber was having major difficulties with his studies.

Ann had taken to opening Frank’s private mail quite freely now and was so thrilled with the news that her entire demeanor brightened. Frank had become too preoccupied to pay her much attention, though. Finally, a note from the school director arrived:

. . . and since Robert’s performance in the qualifying tests show him to have considerable potential, I do not feel it would be justified to remove him from the school at the present time.

However, I believe that his marginal performance of late serves to disqualify him from receiving tuition and board at government expense. As such, I regret to inform you that, as of the first of the month, he will no longer receive financial assistance from public funds . . .

Kough wanted to phone his son immediately and demand an explanation. He decided to wait until Bobber came home for mid-term break, however. This was a problem requiring face time.

Meanwhile, Frank had his hands full with the dreadful problem of trying to find money.

***

He chose a time when both of them were in their customary positions – Kough sitting in the stuffed chair near the TV and Bobber on the floor looking over one of his airplane books. Kough held the TV directory near his face and pretended to read it over the blare of the set. Actually, he was observing Bobber from the corner of his eye.

The boy didn’t seem particularly concerned about anything as he flipped through the pages of Famous Fighter Planes, Hunters of the Sky. His nonchalance seemed so complete that Kough wondered if he cared at all about what was happening. Since Bobber returned home, the upcoming ‘welcome home’ dance occupied his conversation more than anything about the school did.

Is Ann right, after all? Kough thought. Is Bobber going to that school just to please me?

“Bobber,” he said.

“Yeah, Dad?” The boy flashed one of his engaging smiles.

“I got a letter from the school director last week. He said you haven’t been doing very well.”

“I know, Mom told me.”

Bobber returned to his reading.

Kough was unsettled by this off-hand reply. He was about to hide behind the TV book again when Bobber suddenly looked straight at him. The boy’s face wore a totally different expression now, disturbing in its intensity.

“I just haven’t got the right vibes lately,” he said.

Frank nodded; then he forced himself to ask the question tormenting him.

“Do you want to continue, Bobber?”

His son paused for a long moment before answering.

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s up to you, Dad.”

So, the decision had landed in the one place Frank Kough dreaded most – his own lap. He felt an enormous burden settle upon his shoulders, pushing him down into the chair.

What the hell should I do – pull the plug on the whole thing?

Yet, hadn’t Bobber expressed a desire to continue … sort of? At least he claimed to feel such a desire occasionally: “sometimes yes, sometimes no.”

All great artists, and Bobber was certainly an artist, must feel like throwing in the towel now and then, Kough reasoned. Especially if they haven’t received any return on their work yet – especially if one parent is opposing them every step of the way.

Perhaps the lack of a push at the critical moment was responsible for a great many failures in this world. Bobber could be crying out for such a push in order to get back “the right vibes.” Kough took a deep breath and made the plunge.

“Well then,” he said, “if it’s up to me, I say that we continue!”

“Okay, Dad.”

Bobber returned to his book. Neither of them noticed Ann Kough standing the kitchen doorway staring daggers at them.

3. Desperation

Frank Kough had endured many indignities over the two years since his accident – loss of income and status, the humiliation of accepting disability payments, the growing contempt from his wife – but none of them were as bad as this mission to secure a loan from his brother, Joey.

The two men had not seen each other in years, which suited them fine.

They’d never cared for each other much, even as kids. They’d seemed to exist in different worlds. Frank had been the vigorous, outgoing one, popular and good at sports, while Joey, five years older, had left little wake behind him as he moved through the public schools far ahead of Frank. He’d gone on to financial success while Frank had taken the blue-collar route, after the demise of his Rifle King dream.

But Frank was in desperate straits now. He fully understood his tenuous position as he sat in the large stuffed chair and endured the reunion.

He’d tried to present his dire situation as a sort of business opportunity – get in on the ground floor of a promising and lucrative career, make a big return on the investment. But, hell, he was no salesman

“I figured there was more behind your visit than just socializing,” Joey said. “It’s been a long time, Frank.”

Thanks, you old-maid faggot, Frank thought bitterly. Nice of you to put me at ease.

A jolt of pain in his back accompanied these angry thoughts.

“So, Bobber needs financial help, eh?” Joey said. “How’s the boy getting along? Does he still have that weight problem?”

“No.”

Frank wanted to add that Joey hadn’t taken off any baggage himself. But he said nothing.

The heat inside the house was oppressive, although it did give Frank satisfaction to watch Joey suffering along with him. The central air conditioning his brother had installed with such fanfare years earlier was out of order. The repair guys would be coming “any time,” according to Joey.

“Don’t think I’m not sympathetic,” Joey said, “but I just can’t see the boy amounting to anything special. How about putting him in a trade school?”

Frank kept his gaze fixed to the floor.

“I can’t afford to waste money on something that’s not going to pay off,” Joey added. “I didn’t get to where I am today by taking foolish risks, you know.”

The condescending tone stabbed Frank’s pride. He felt like a bug pinioned to the chair.

“Well … that’s very responsible!” he said.

Joey nodded, apparently unaware of the sarcasm.

Frank leaned forward. The pain in his back pain worsened – it complemented the headache starting to grip his skull.

“First time I’ve heard you’re low on cash, Joey,” he said. “At least you’re not blowing it out your ass about how much money you’ve got and what you’re going to buy with it next.”

Joey’s eyebrows shot up. He toyed angrily with his beer can as he considered a reply.

Frank didn’t give him the chance. He struggled up from his chair and seized his cane. For a panicky moment, Joey feared that his brother might strike him with it.

“Why don’t you wire that air conditioner to your nuts and see if it works then?” Frank said, hefting the cane ominously. “It’ll be the biggest thrill you’ve had in twenty years!”

He turned and exited the house as quickly as he could.

Joey moved to the front door to watch his brother hobbling to his car.

“Sure you can make it back, Grandpa?” he yelled.

He slammed the door.

***

Frank Kough had just gone over his pitiful list of salable items again and was pondering the grim prospect of visiting a loan shark when the check from his brother arrived. His amazement upon opening the envelope almost knocked him over.

Had some dormant chord of sympathy been struck in his brother’s heart? A note dispelled the idea:

You’ve got until December 15 to pay this back.

Just in time for Christmas. A legal document accompanied the check. Not until Frank committed to the repayment terms would Joey’s bank release the funds.

“Prick!” Frank sneered. “We’ll show you!”

Then he chuckled. He couldn’t help but congratulate himself for bruising Joey’s vanity in such a profitable fashion. He filled out the form, nearly punching his ballpoint through the paper.

***

The loan pumped new life into the effort. Not only did it stop the dunning letters, but it seemed to trigger a major improvement in Bobber’s performance. With each weekly report, he rose higher in his class standings. The painful knot in Frank’s stomach began to loosen.

It disappeared altogether when the invitation to the graduating ceremony came. He breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

We did it, son!

Nobody at the ceremony was prouder than Frank Kough; Ann, of course, did not attend. He sat in the front watching the line of young men advance to receive their certificates from the school director. Not a one of them was under 19.

Bobber came last, smaller than the others but towering above them in ability. Even from a distance, Kough could tell that his son had changed a great deal. He seemed much older than his 14 years now, grave and dignified – almost a mature man.

This impression was reinforced after the ceremony when they attended the brief reception together. His son’s continuous chatter of prankish exploits had stopped; in its place was the quiet reserve he’d hitherto displayed only on the shooting range.

Of course, the boy was growing up and couldn’t be expected to keep his childish behavior forever, Kough reasoned. Still, he missed the old banter.

“Are you sorry it’s all over, Bob?” he asked on the drive home.

Somehow, it seemed inappropriate to call his son “Bobber” any more.

“No, I’m not sorry,” Bob replied.

He turned his face toward the side window.

“Well, that’s good,” Kough said. “I hope things aren’t too dull for you at home – now that you’ve seen the wider world.”

Bob wasn’t listening, though he nodded his head.

***

Kough settled into an isolated existence, a virtual stranger in his own home. Ann, who had barely spoken to him in months, became even more silent. Bob was absorbed in a demanding schedule of classes and shooting activities which left no room for the old father / son camaraderie.

Family meals were a thing of the past; everyone now ate alone and at different times. They no longer seemed a family, just a trio of strangers living under the same roof.

When he wasn’t out shooting or attending classes, Bob stayed in his room with music playing to cover any sound of his presence. He didn’t seem to have school friends any longer, as if he’d outgrown his peers.

Ann kept to her own quarters as well, having moved out of the shared bedroom sometime before. Kough had almost gotten used to his isolation from her, but Bob’s aloofness caused him genuine pain.

Just hang on, Frank, he told himself, things will get better soon.

He tried to keep his mind fixed on the successes to come – the great infusion of prize money and endorsement cash, the fame, the respect.

Most of the money would go into a trust fund for Bob, of course, but there’d be plenty left over to put the family back on its feet. The first thing Frank intended to do was shove the loan payment into Joey’s smug face. Then a new car, a better house, an elite school for Bob.

And a new woman?

This previously unthinkable idea was gaining more traction these days. Frank had always embraced traditional morality, but how much disrespect could he take? Sure, he might not be much to look at now, but with lots of money and advanced therapies from high-priced specialists, who could say?

He put the subject out of his mind as being another ‘bridge to cross’ when the time came.

Though he’d never said as much, Bob didn’t appear to want his father coming with him to the shooting range any longer. With this tacit admonition in mind, Frank limited his trips there to picking up and dropping off his son.

When the district tournament try outs came, Kough’s eager desire to see Bob perform was similarly discouraged. He had to wait anxiously at home to find out the results second hand.

Everything hinged on this tournament. The winner, besides receiving a good amount of cash, would move up to the far more lucrative regional contest. Then came the National Championship with its huge purse and vast potential for advertising and endorsement income. A new Rifle King would be crowned at the National – why not Robert Kough?

If, on the other hand, Bob failed to place high in this first tournament, it would be at least another year before he could participate in another one. That meant another year of emotional and financial stress. Of course, if Bob did place among the top four at the district tournament and subsequently failed to go on and win – Kough preferred not to dwell on such melancholy possibilities.

He began to take counsel of his fears: He’ll never make it. Ann was right, he’s just a boy!

Then, with at violent mental wrench, he’d force himself back to an optimistic view. He was riding an emotional roller coaster of hope and dread; the trip was exhausting him . . .

 

Bob returned from the trials and dropped a manila envelop into his father’s lap. Without comment, he headed to his room and shut himself in. Music issued through his door.

Frank Kough fortified himself with a slug of beer and opened the envelop with trembling fingers . . . Bob had qualified!

The sun abruptly came out again. A bright ray seemed to punch through the ceiling and illuminate him in his chair.

Thank God! Thank God!

Ann walked out that same day. With little to pack and nothing to say, her departure was swift. She was gone a few hours before Frank realized what had happened.

Bob understood, though. Frank heard the boy crying in his bedroom that night, loud enough to overcome the music noise. He wanted to knock on the door, comfort his son, but he could think of absolutely nothing to say.

He slumped down in his easy chair and took stock of the new situation.

She’ll come around after the tournament, he told himself. It’s not easy to ignore success.

But maybe she wouldn’t come back. Would it make any difference? Kough shrugged and flicked on the TV.

4. Thrust for glory

It was a bright, crisp day with winter not far off – prefect for shooting. The fair grounds still looked familiar. Frank glanced about them with pride, nostalgia, and concern.

The whole place had been turned into a shooting gallery for the district tournament. One large section was given over to the stationary range with its targets set from fifty to three hundred meters. The mobile range, with its contraptions for moving targets about, took up another side of the grounds.

In the center, where the amusement park had been, stood the obstacle range. Judging by the number of audience seats positioned around it, anyone could see that it was the main attraction. Frank Kough sighed deeply.

Twenty-five years earlier, he’d been among the eager young men vying for fortune and glory here at the tournament. His dreams had died that day as it became obvious that his skills – so impressive in the lower ranks – were simply not adequate to compete on a professional level. He’d actually been booed!

The terrible noise still echoed in his ears. He glanced suspiciously at some older members of the crowd. Had any of them been present that day – had they joined in the catcalls?

Another side of the grounds was given over to refreshment and souvenir stands. The big item being hawked was the SHOOT EM UP! sweatshirt, available in various colors. The white with red splotches seemed the most popular. For an extra charge, you could have your initials stitched into the garment.

A crowd milled around these stands now. The morning events on the stationary and mobile ranges were finished and an hour remained before the big events on the obstacle range.

Frank had missed the earlier competitions due to an appalling series of delays. First, his alarm had failed to ring. He wondered if Bob might have switched it off. It seemed a not implausible explanation, considering how withdrawn and peculiar his son was acting lately.

Then the damned car wouldn’t start … again. Frank had been in a near panic. After an unconscionable delay, the guy from the garage finally showed up with a tow truck. The sunovabitch gave Frank all kinds of hell before he agreed to provide a loaner – a gasping wreck scarcely better than Frank’s vehicle.

Now he was here in the milling crowd, uncertain of the situation and afraid to ask. He screwed up his courage and approached a man in a SHOOT EM UP! sweatshirt. The guy looked too young to have attended the tournament 25 years ago.

“Excuse me,” Frank said, “I just got here. Can you tell me who the final qualifiers are?”

“It’s Bert Daniels all the way,” the man answered. “He took Stationary and Mobile hands down at most ranges.”

A second man in a sweatshirt and clutching a beer cup joined the conversation.

“The other three guys did pretty good, too,” he said, “but it’s just Bert’s day. Ain’t nobody going to catch him.”

“Well … who are the other three?” Frank asked.

“Couple guys named Riga and Kemp,” the first man replied, “and this kid, Bob Kough.”

Frank trembled at this news. He gripped his cane hard, lest he topple over.

“How did the Kough boy do?” he asked.

“Pretty good,” the first man replied. “He even out pointed Daniels once or twice. Don’t look like the kid’s got the right stuff to beat him at Obstacles, though.”

“Too bad he had to draw a hotshot like Daniels, being his first tournament, and all,” the man with the beer said.

“Okay, thanks,” Kough said.

He moved off so that the men could not see the powerful emotions playing across his face.

Somehow, he’d never envisioned the mechanics of the contest; he’d only thought of getting the prize money once everything was over. But now came news that his son had made it into the top four while the defeated mass of contestants were packing up their rifles and heading into oblivion! The washouts from the district tourneys seldom made successful comebacks, as Frank knew from experience.

The strangers’ words had rattled him momentarily, but what value did they have? If those guys had any brains, they wouldn’t be wearing those jackass sweatshirts.

Bob had the ‘right stuff’ to win, and anyone who didn’t agree with that was in for a surprise! Frank hurried to the obstacle range and got a front seat, right up against the thick Plexiglas shield.

***

The Riga-Kemp shoot off came first, and it was a dreary affair. Frank suffered along with the rest of the crowd as the contestants moved cautiously from the 300 meter range down to shorter and shorter distances. The action was slow, boring, indecisive. Frank pulled his shabby overcoat closer around himself to ward off the chill.

“Man, this sucks!” somebody behind Frank muttered.

“Where do they dig up these clowns,” another spectator complained.

Frank smiled inwardly. Neither of these contenders looked like major threats for Bob. They simply weren’t geared for competition on the Obstacles. That could change in an instant, though. Over the years, he’d watched some amazing scenarios in the TV coverage – a contestant looks really awful, then BAM! a victory from out of nowhere. All it took was one good shot.

“Send the bums home!” somebody yelled.

Others took up the chant: “Send the bums home!”

A rising chorus of catcalls and boos issued from the crowd. Frank cowered under the verbal lash; his mind reeled back 25 years when he had received similar condemnation.

Then he joined in the shouts: “Send the bums home!”

The officials were not supposed to give much weight to ‘fan input,’ but how could they ignore such a rebellion? The fans sounded like a mob at an ancient Roman gladiatorial contest. They stamped their feet and roared in a single voice:

SEND THE BUMS HOME!

Finally, a harsh, whistling noise came over the loudspeakers. The crowd fell silent. The loudspeaker began to talk:

By unanimous decisions of the judges, both contestants are disqualified for exceeding the allowed time limit.

The crowd broke into cheers. After the racket died down a bit, Frank raised his binoculars and observed the two disgraced ‘warriors’ exiting the obstacle course, following the earlier contestants into lives of oblivion.

Poor bastards! he thought.

He could afford to be sympathetic, neither man stood in the way of his dream any longer.

Ground crew rushed onto the obstacles course to prepare it for the next match – Daniels vs. “that Kough kid,” in the crowd parlance.

A man near Frank stood up to leave.

“Where’re you going?” the man’s friend asked.

“I’ve seen enough crap for one day,” the man replied. “I’ll watch Daniels at the regional tourney where he’ll have some real competition.”

“I hear you,” the friend said, also getting up.

Frank wanted to slug the guys; if he were fit, he just might have done so.

“You’ll be sorry,” he muttered.

Daniels and Bob appeared on the course along with the referee. Frank zeroed in with his binoculars. Daniels was a big, mean-looking guy. He appeared relaxed, confident – cocky even. Bob kept his eyes fixed to the ground.

Hang in there, son!

*And now for the final event,_ the loudspeaker boomed. [[*The obstacle course face off between Bert Daniels and Robert Kough!]_]

A polite ripple of applause greeted the announcement.

Bob lost the coin toss, so Daniels was allowed his choice of opening position as well as the first chance to shoot.

“Poor kid,” somebody near Frank said, “ain’t nothing going his way.”

“Kind of hate to see a mismatch like this,” somebody else said.

Frank shot a barbed stare at the two offenders, but they didn’t notice.

“Yeah, but you’ve got to give the kid credit,” the first man said. “I never thought he’d get this far.”

These and similar comments beat on Frank’s skull like jungle tom-toms. He’d not consumed any alcohol, but his head was starting to spin.

“We’d better get going to the car,” someone said. “Going to be one hell of a traffic jam getting out of here.”

Another man rose and led his family away – others started to leave as well. Frank uttered a silent curse at each one of them.

We’ll show you! he seethed, but he was losing confidence. The brazen look on Daniels’ face had scared him badly.

He felt tears starting to well up; he donned sunglasses to hide his anger and fear . . .

Open sights at 300 meters. The match began with a shriek of the referee’s whistle.

Good luck, son!

This was the boring early round, the part that seldom yielded any results and which had dragged on so interminably in the previous match. The clock started running; Bob had fifteen seconds to make his first move between home position and one of three obstacles.

He chose the one to his left and was almost there when Daniel’s shot caught him. The bullet struck the Hatchel’s stock with a resounding Crack! and sent Bobber sprawling behind the protection of the concrete barrier.

A hammer blow struck Frank’s chest; he struggled to breathe. A collective gasp shot through the crowd. Then a mighty ovation thundered. The parking lot exodus reversed itself.

Kough signals he’s fit to go on, the loudspeaker announced.

Another roar from the crowd, like a savage beast awakening from slumber.

“Get him Daniels!” someone shouted.

“Raise the white flag!” another fan yelled.

The mob divided into two unequal factions. Most roared for blood, while others urged the officials to stop the mismatch. The majority soon prevailed:

Get him Daniels! Shoot em up! Shoot em up!

Frank Kough felt the world slipping away from him. He tumbled forward and would have fallen out of his seat had the barrier not stopped him. His face squashed against the Plexiglas.

Please, son … please, God!

It was Bobber’s turn now. A hush came over the crowd; Frank Kough forced himself to open his eyes and watch.

Daniels made a feinting move toward one obstacle before hurtling back to a different one. He was a big man, a big target . . .

Bob, the damaged rifle stock pressed firmly to his shoulder, wasn’t fooled and never varied his aim from the spot he knew to be the correct one. His bullet passed cleanly through both of Daniels’ temples. Spectators observing with binoculars saw Daniels fly wildly in the air and crash back down.

Silence greeted this incredible victory. Many seconds passed before cheers and thundering applause erupted. Frank was crying freely and unable to participate.

***

Frank and Robert Kough, the successful team, sat in the Texas-style steak house eating dinner. The older man grinned broadly, taking pleasure at the number of people who were looking their way. Bob remained impervious to the attention.

“Is Mom coming back?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Frank said.

“Maybe I’ll go look for her,” Bob said.

Frank adjusted the napkin spread across his new designer jeans. Not long ago, this restaurant had seemed the height of luxury, now it was just another lower class place that needed to be left behind.

“She’s not at your grandparents’ house,” he said, “and she quit her job at the grocery store. Nobody knows where she went.”

Bob nodded gravely and returned to his steak, bloody and rare.

“I don’t think she wants to see us anymore, son,” Frank said.

Bob glanced across the table toward his father, the man who had made him what he was, and his trigger finger itched.

 

END of the stories

 

 

Thanks for reading! You must have liked the stories if you got this far, so why not write a review? Just a few words, either at the online bookstore where you obtained this book or in any other medium you wish. May numerous blessings come your way.

[]Connect with the Author

Please visit my website and blog at: “The B2”

Also, my Shakespir author page and Goodreads author profile

[]Brian’s Other Books

Here are brief descriptions of my other adult books. They are available at all major online retailers in ebook format. To find the relevant links, please visit my website at “The B2”

 

Return to Mech City

The end of the world as you’ve never seen it before. Life goes on in Mech City, but it is no longer human.

As mankind succumbs to its follies and exits the stage, scholar model robot, Winston Horvath, makes a perilous journey to Mech City, the place of his manufacture.

But Mech City is in a downward spiral. The robotic inhabitants, are turning to suicide or brigandage. Winston meets Star Power – the world’s only functional female robot. She and Winston “click,” but Winston cannot satisfy Star’s robust desires. She is on a whole new level of creation from him.

Things unravel when a despised test bed robot morphs into Fascista Ultimo and establishes a Roboto Fascist dictatorship. He has designs on Star. Winston flees with her to gather forces for a counter-coup and, perhaps, get himself upgraded so as to bring Star true satisfaction.

Science Fiction / Humor / Dystopian

Expedition Westward

Sequel to Return to Mech City

What is the cost of rediscovering true love in a shattered world? Whatever it might be, Star is willing to pay, or not survive the outcome. A trek along dangerous roads provides the answer. The dystopian adventure continues.

Science Fiction / Humor / Dystopian

Raptor Aces

The terrifying Zone of Destruction – ZOD, the absence of God. It has taken over the lives of the Raptor Aces, an elite Youth League air squadron and its commander, Dytran. They must overcome its toxic influence or face annihilation.

Dytran is the cream of his nation – proud, dynamic, convinced of his inherent superiority. Although a supporter and beneficiary of his totalitarian society, he lacks the brutal heart of the true fanatic. His world unravels when a poor decision goes horribly wrong, resulting in death and destruction. When his fighter ace brother is reported killed in the great Eastern war, the bottom goes out of his life.

An encounter with the Magleiter, leader of the nation, bucks him up. He grabs at a chance to volunteer for support aviation service in the war. At the front, he and his comrades encounter an enemy who is not the degenerate race of the propaganda broadcasts but a tough, resourceful foe. They are scattered to fend for themselves in a landscape so ravaged by war that normal reality has become unhinged. Dytran becomes swept up in violence and revenge until escape seems beyond reach.

New Adult / Action-Adventure / War

DAS ROAD

A road novel with fascinating turns through exotic Asia, workaday America, and Iran caught up in revolution. Travel realms where anything is possible, wonderful, or horrible. And always on the road ahead, the mythical figure of Jon Glass who haunts the entire journey. A story imbued with meaning just below the level of articulating. A siren call to your wanderlust.

Travel / Mystery

Career Moves for Burnt Out Personifications

Santa, the Grim Reaper, and others scramble to find new careers and identities. Outrageous political and social satire. “A smorgasbord of paranoid ramblings ideally suited to today’s sensibilities.”

Humor / Political Satire


Strange Tales for Cozy Nights 1

Nine offbeat tales guaranteed to disturb your cozy nights. From strange voyages and baffling powers to dystopian athletic competitions, these stories are for you if you enjoy burning the midnight oil with a good yarn. Happy reading!

  • Author: Brian Bakos
  • Published: 2017-05-25 02:50:17
  • Words: 32375
Strange Tales for Cozy Nights 1 Strange Tales for Cozy Nights 1