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The Ravens Shall Feed You And Other Stories

 

The Ravens Shall Feed You

And Other Stories

The Ravens Shall Feed You And Other Stories copyright c 2016 Stroble Family Trust. All rights reserved.

Cover artwork by Elizabeth Sullivan.

This book is a work of fiction. All people, places, events, and situations are the product of the writer’s imagination. Any resemblance of them to actual persons, living or dead, places, events, and situations is purely coincidental.

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright c 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved. The “NIV” and “New International Version” trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society. Use of either trademark requires the permission of International Bible Society.

The Return

Hilda ran to the mailbox to see if the long-awaited letter had arrived.

Five steps from the oblong metal container, she tripped and her head smashed against a large rock. Tiny stars danced about her eyes, which filled with tears from the pain of the blow. She closed them, trying to dispel the dizziness that consumed her.

All went black.

Her unconscious state produced a series of vivid episodes that she later concluded had been sent to help her understand past, present, and future and to begin her life anew. But unlike her other dreams, recalled only in fragments, this one she would long remember from start to finish.

At first she found herself transported to a distant land, a strange place where all spoke the German of her grandparents and parents. She could understand the foreign tongue much better than speak it. A fourth generation American, she had concluded there was little need to be fluent in it and used her knowledge of it more to eavesdrop than to communicate with those who preferred it over English. That is why she made little attempt to speak with the phantoms.

And what strange phantoms they were. Judging by their manner of dress she thought them to be from centuries past, perhaps the 1500s. One ruffian in particular dominated their conversation:

“Tomorrow we march again!” he shouted.

Well, that explains the dreadful scar across his face, Hilda thought. He must be a soldier.

“Yah!” answered one seated nearby. “To our deaths no doubt.”

“What do we care if we die?” The scarred one lifted his shield from the ground and held it aloft. “Fight to protect us from the invaders!”

Hilda gasped at the design on the shield. It resembled the family crest that hung above her grandparents’ mantelpiece in every detail. This caused her to study the scarred warrior more closely. His eyes, nose, mouth, and hair did indeed bear a resemblance to a portrait of a distant forebear that also hung in her grandparents’ home.

“What am I doing in the land of my ancestors? Why am I among you?” She tried to draw their attention but all ignored her. No, it was more than being shunned. They did not know of her presence. So it is I who am the ghost and not they.

Then, as so often happens in dreams, the scene changed. A large battle raged, one fought with bow, lance, spear, and sword. In its midst she spotted the shield of the man who had sworn himself to victory or death the day prior. She cheered him on as he carried her family crest, the shield protecting him from many a deadly blow.

At first it appeared his army would win the day. Then the enemy launched their cavalry. Knights protected by suits of armor urged their steeds into the enemy lines. Their lances impaled any in their way, including the warrior she knew must be her ancestor.

He died with only a short cry of pain as the lance penetrated his breast. As his blood stained the ground she cried and turned her head away. When she looked back she saw a different scene in a different land.

These soldiers did not seem from so long ago. Their brown uniforms and the muskets they carried belonged in the previous century. When she noticed that all the officers wore white wigs she took them to be British. But just what battle were they marching off to? Against Napoleon perhaps? Her question was answered in part when she saw a sign posted at a fork in the road. It read: Philadelphia 27 miles.

But am I a witness to the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812? She searched the ranks of marching soldiers for one who might bear a family resemblance. After all, had not the first dream shown her the family crest carried into battle? Surely another ancestor must be somewhere in this one.

Not until the army stopped to rest did she focus on individual faces more clearly. She halted in mid-step upon hearing one group speaking German. All the rest had spoken English with a distinct British accent.

These then, must be Hessians. She stepped among them. None paid her heed. Hessians! Perhaps the most hated of all the troops sent to end the American colonists’ revolt against England. They were Germans hired as mercenaries. Did not they know that the majority of American colonials came from Germany as well?

Once again she witnessed a battle. A group of Hessians were cut off from the main force. Out of ammunition, they surrendered. Hilda followed as the American troops marched them off to a place of confinement. At long last she spied him – one of them looked much like her own father. She moved closer to listen to him speak in German.

“I guess this is the end for us,” he said.

“Oh, stop your complaining. You are always one to worry, Frederick.”

At the sound of his name, she awoke. Her mother’s face smiled down on her. “Oh, Hilda. Thank the good Lord you have at last awoken. The doctor feared that perhaps you would not.”

“What…what happened, Mother?”

“In your haste to retrieve the mail, you fell and hit your head. You have slept for two days and nights. Lie still while I fetch you some broth. You must be famished.”

“Two days?”

“Yes.”

Another day passed before she was able to summon back enough strength to visit her grandparents. Both her mother and father had proven evasive when told of her strange dream. Perhaps her grandparents would prove more forthcoming. She brought along a large wooden pail of her father’s freshly made beer to loosen their tongues and waited until half of the beer had passed down their throats to begin her story.

“So, still no letter?”

“Not yet, Grandmother.”

“Patience, dear. It will arrive.”

“While I lay in a stupor, I had the strangest dream.” She related it. When she mentioned the shield bearing the family crest, her grandmother paled and made the sign of the cross.

“Poltergeist! You were beset by the devil!” She sought refuge in her kitchen.

“Forgive her, Hilda. She still clings to the old ways. Look at us. She and I speak only German at home and at church. In your home, some English is spoken. By the time of your children, they will speak only English.” He used the ladle to fill his stein. “So his shield bore our crest?” He pointed at his most prized possession that hung above the roaring fire.

“Yes, Grandfather.”

He tugged at his long gray beard. “I seem to remember my father speaking of an ancestor who died in battle during the 100-Years War.”

“He looked so much like him. Grandfather, why is so little spoken of your father?”

He gagged and spit some of the beer back into his stein. “Some things are best left unsaid, child.”

Hilda then related her dream of the Hessians and their capture. “His name was Frederick and he looked like father,” she said. “That is your father’s name. Was he a Hessian?”

Grandfather made the sign of the cross. Grandmother worked the heads of cabbage faster up and down on the oblong wooden box with blades at the bottom. Her furious motions produced shreds of cabbage to be drowned in a vat of salt brine until it fermented and then canned in jars to be enjoyed throughout the long winter months.

Hilda sat and stared at the fire, trying to conjure up the phantoms of her dreams so that Grandpa would not dismiss her as silly or insane. Not one emanated. Waiting for what seemed an eternity, she flinched as Grandpa cleared his throat.

“Yes, my father Frederick was a Hessian. I only tell you this because I believe it is God in heaven and not some poltergeist that gave you your dreams.” Once again he made the sign of the cross and bowed his head. “You must understand the times in Germany back then. It was very tempting for a young man to fight for the British, save his pay as a soldier, and then return home with enough money to buy a farm or start a business. Those were my father’s plans. He was told that he would be fighting Indians. They lied to him. Some of his fellow soldiers were kidnapped and forced to be soldiers, like those the British would force to serve on crews of their ships.”

“Did he never go back to Germany?”

“No. Once the war ended he was freed and decided to stay here. A kindly German couple hired him to work on their farm. He met my mother and—”

She frowned. “But what does it mean?”

He reached over and patted her hand. “It’s quite clear. The dream told you that the fate of your husband to be is that of either my father or that of the more ancient ancestor of ours who carried the shield into battle.”

Tears coursed down her cheeks, as she at last knew the fate of her beloved. They were tears of relief and not grief. Grandfather smiled.

“Go home, little treasure. Maybe the letter awaits you.”

All the battles had ended – Shiloh, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Cold Harbor, Sherman’s march across Georgia. Lee had surrendered to Grant. The only detail that remained for Hilda was the whereabouts of her dear Samuel and whether he yet breathed. She strove not to run the distance back home. No more accidents and dreams, she resolved. When she reached the mailbox, two letters awaited her. One looked official and bore on the return address: Department of the Army.

She tore it open and read that Samuel was not one of those who had died at Andersonville or some other Southern prisoner of war camp. Nor was he one of those buried in one of the graves where other Union casualties lay near Richmond, where he had been reported as missing. No, dear Samuel was coming home! She fainted at the news but this time did not strike her head on the rounded rock or any other.

Dear, dear Samuel was coming home in a coffin.

Ode to Spouses of Nomads

Only a few get to have their epiphany, that “aha” moment, in such an innocent, mundane way. For Fred Lasert, it came while he was flipping through the 250 channels that the plastic dish atop his roof pulled from the sky. Later he would say it was Professor Horace Higgentower’s fiery eyes that made him stop punching the remote, sit down, and watch the Science of Tomorrow Today program on the Science That You Can Use Daily Network.

“Honey, come in here and look at this.” Fred leaned toward the screen. He was hooked after the first minute of watching, a very unusual event in his average five hours a day of television. Having his wife join him in the mummification of his mind was even rarer.

Amanda stopped stirring her prize winning vegetable beef stew, checked her baking bread, and walked from the kitchen to the den of their 1,312 square-foot home. She had often told Fred that she got more exercise by answering his numerous summonses than he did on any given day.

Of late, she had concluded that the smiling young man she had married twenty-six years ago had morphed into a genetically modified couch potato whose eyes were sprouting tendrils just as the potatoes she left in her pantry for too long always did. The only part of her husband’s body that seemed to be in shape was his right hand from working their 147-inch television’s remote control. She bought him a new one every Christmas and birthday because they wore out from his constant punching, squeezing, pounding, and occasional throwing. For some weird reason, he always blamed the remote control whenever he decided “There’s nothing good on!”

Amanda parked herself beside Fred’s tattered easy chair.

“You took me away from fixing dinner for some lame infomercial?” She shook her head and retraced her steps to the kitchen.

“It’s way too cool to just be an infomercial.” In Fred’s mind, Amanda’s actions proved what Professor Higgentower had been saying:

“Remember, the first law of human dynamics is…” He paused the same way Fred’s grade school teachers had as they waited for the brightest or at least the least bored sitting in the classroom to bleat out the desired response.

“Opposites attract!” Fred read the words that had materialized below the professor’s plastic lectern. The support for Higgentower’s reams of notes looked much like a miniature pulpit, which only served to heighten Fred’s self-revelation of himself, his motives, and resulting actions.

Intrigued, he did not touch the remote during the half hour program’s eight commercial breaks, all of which touted Professor Higgentower’s books, CDs, and DVDs. Each one was specially priced, “If you call within the next thirty minutes.”

Fred grabbed the phone as the professor intoned, “Until next week when we meet again, may all of your human dynamics all prove to be ever more dynamic with each passing day.”

  • * *

Fred’s order of the eight CD series entitled The Laws of Attraction arrived via Fed Ex the next day. He chose CDs so he could listen to them during his one-hour commute to and from work and while he stared at the computer screen that fed him memos and emails containing his work assignments.

It took him a day and sleepless night of soul searching before he had worked up sufficient courage to obey the teachings of the CDs by confronting his wife.

“Amanda, I have something I need to tell you.”

Oh, oh. He hasn’t been this serious since he proposed to me, Amanda thought. She tried to clear her constricted throat with a cough and a crooked smile. “Yes, Fred. What is it?”

“I…I…I’m a nomad.” Fred’s chin touched his sternum as his shoulders sagged. He retracted his upper eyelids, revealing large white orbs with hazel centers as he studied his wife’s expression for his hoped for reaction.

Amanda tried to remember the book she had read a year ago about motorcycle gangs. The names Hells Angels, Mongols, Galloping Gooses, Outlaws, and Vagos surfaced in her memory. She bit her lower lip as she struggled to recall if any of the book’s chapters had detailed a gang called the Nomads. Finally, her tension exploded.

“You’re a biker? But you don’t even own a motorcycle…do you?” She stared at her husband, looking for the tics or other mannerisms that always signaled that he was lying. “Well, do you have a bike? Have you been parking it in a storage unit somewhere or at your gang’s clubhouse or at one of your fellow rider’s homes?” She sat down. “Have you got yourself one of those motorcycle mamas and now you want to leave me for her? Is that what this is all about?”

Fred grabbed Amanda’s shoulders and squeezed her in the kind of bear hug he reserved for special occasions, such as her birthday, their anniversary, or when one of her friends or relatives died. “No, I’m afraid it’s way more bad than any of that could ever be. I’m a nomad, with a small n. That’s why I’ve always dragged you around on so many moves all these years.” He fell on his knees. “Please forgive me. I can’t help myself. I guess I was just born to wander.”

Amanda could not decide which scenario might be worse, learning that her husband was a secret motorcycle gang member complete with a hot little mama or watching him implode in front of her. This was the first time that Fred had asked for her forgiveness. Whatever was ailing him, it was serious. Maybe even terminal.

  • * *

An hour of detailed explanation from Fred later, Amanda thought she understood at least part of what Fred had been confessing to her nonstop as they ate. Misinterpreting Fred always had proven disastrous. She shuddered as she weighed the ramifications. She tried to summarize it out loud just to be certain.

“Let me get this straight. This Professor Higgentower has you pegged as what he claims is a nomad.”

“Yeah.” Fred nodded. “He even says that the latest research shows that it might be genetically transmitted, at least partially. I wonder if he has come up with a test for it yet. I hope it doesn’t cost too much. You think our medical insurance might pay for it? I sure hope so.”

The knowledge implanted during years of reading textbooks as thick as a Los Angeles’ phonebook and passing exams to earn her degree in biological science activated Amanda’s Distant Early Warning System, which was embedded in the intuitive part of her soul. The words, “fraud, pseudo-science, huckster, baloney, snake oil salesman, magic bullet” pounded against her skull seeking exit from her head through her tongue. Instead, she smiled as she clutched the sides of her chair.

I guess it could be worse. At least he’s not running around on me with some biker babe hanging onto his fat belly as they roar on down the highway with the rest of the gang.

“Well, what do you think? Is there any hope for me? I got this disease pretty bad. I need your help to get over it. Professor Higgentower runs a special retreat for hardcore cases. You think I should go?”

She reached across their empty plates and patted his hand. “I’m here for you no matter what it is that ails you, Fred.”

  • * *

Part of “being here for you” became wife agreeing to watch husband’s newly discovered favorite weekly program, Science of Tomorrow Today. That proved to be a strain because Amanda had hated TV ever since Fred had begun spending more hours with it than her during their sometimes rocky marriage. She preferred books, music (either listening to it or playing guitar, cello, piano, or bongos) or walks instead of watching any of the programs from Fred’s 250 channels. They had invaded their home long ago and turned him into some variety of space vegetable. Amanda often wondered how many homes resembled hers.

But by her second viewing she had to admit that the program at least managed to occupy the rare territory somewhere between that offered by drama, comedy, or entertainment series and genuine full blown flashy infomercials that hawked everything she could imagine from A to Z. After watching their third show together, Fred stood to accentuate his plan of action. “I think I’m ready to order Professor Higgentower’s advanced DVD course.”

“Ah, maybe…” Amanda remembered the $97 charge for the first order of CDs, plus $47 for next day delivery and handling. “Maybe you should join one of those twelve-step groups instead. I read somewhere that ongoing contact with others is crucial when someone like you is trying to lick a problem.” She managed to convert her intended next sentence into thought. I wonder if there’s a Dummies Anonymous that you can join. That professor is just fleecing you. What a scam.

“Nomads Anonymous? I don’t know.” Fred began pacing. Admitting his problem to Amanda was one thing, but complete strangers? “You really think I should?”

“Without a doubt.”

  • * *

The first meeting he attended was somewhat less painful because four other newcomers besides Fred introduced themselves as the meeting began. A wise looking facilitator led the group, which had gathered at a church social hall.

“Welcome to Nomads Anonymous. It’s great to see so many of you first timers in our midst tonight.” He began to clap and continued until those familiar with the expected protocol had joined in his rhythmic beat. “Our goal is to help each other out.” He paused and his icy gray eyes twinkled at each newcomer. “Just remember that whatever is said here tonight never ever goes beyond that door.” He jabbed his finger toward the exit that Fred now craved.

Confessing to Amanda was one thing, but to total strangers? He shifted in his chair as his sweat glands under his armpits and elsewhere activated on his trembling body. Being a “newbie” was scarier than he had imagined it would be.

“I’ll go first,” the group’s leader said. “My name is Tim and I’m a nomad. You notice that I did not say recovering nomad. That’s because there is no known cure yet for nomadism. Once a nomad, always a nomad.”

Other group members nodded. “Amen!” one said.

“My dad was a carpenter. Because his work was seasonal there wasn’t much work for him to do during the winter months when the weather got bad. So my mom got into some kind of multi-level companies.”

A newbie raised her hand. “What’s multi-level mean?”

The leader smiled. “Good question…” He strained to see the newbie’s name tag. “…Judy. Multi-level is where you recruit people to sell products or services for the company. Then you get a percentage of the commissions for what they sell and a smaller percentage of what the people that they recruit sell, down to however many levels each company decides on.”

“Oh, I get it now. Like a pyramid. Say, someone recruited me to come to this meeting. So is this Nomads Anonymous multi-level too?”

“Not exactly.” This newbie is going to be a handful, the leader thought. “Anyway, once Mom had mined the town we lived in for prospects she always wanted to move to a bigger place which had more people for her to recruit. Dad didn’t object too much because he figured that maybe the new place would have more construction going on and he could get more steady work. Long story short, we moved nine times after I was born. Even now that all us kids have moved out, Mom still wants to move around. She says there aren’t enough prospects in Dallas and Ft. Worth anymore because she’s lived there for four years now. That’s where us kids tried to get them to retire at. Dad’s body wore out after over thirty years of doing construction. It’s hard work. Now he says he just wants to go fishing and hunting. He says if Mom moves again she will have to do it all by herself.”

“So did you settle down here to get away from their wandering lifestyle then?” Judy asked.

The leader sighed. “I wish it had been that easy. As soon as I got out of high school, I enlisted in the air force. I put my twenty years in and finally retired about three years ago.”

“But you look so young and…” Judy leaned forward to see if he wore a wedding ring.

“I’m forty-one. The problem now is that I feel the itch to move again already. But my wife has put her foot down. She says that after enduring all of our transfers when I was in the air force she will never move again. I think she means it.”

After hearing the words, “my wife,” Judy slumped back into her chair. She hoped that one of the other nomads from the group would be willing to share her habit of moving every three years, a lifestyle that had ended all of her other attempts at a relationship.

One by one, the tales spilled forth from those seated in a circle. First, a potato chip and snack food salesman told of how having to travel an eight state territory left him rootless. Another spoke of how “maybe moving all of the time is just my way of trying to find adventure.” Then it was Fred’s turn. He felt dehydrated after pumping so much sweat into his clothes.

“Ah, this is my first time here at Nomads Anonymous. I found out that I was a nomad after I watched Professor Higgentower’s show on TV.” He paused but no one affirmed him by sharing a positive experience with Fred’s digital mentor or at least recognizing the name that he hoped would impress them.

“Go on,” the leader said.

“Well, I wanted to order his advanced DVD series on the laws of human dynamics but my wife Amanda thought this group would help me out more. She’s still sore about how much I spent on the first set that I ordered. So here I am.”

“Can you tell us why you think that you are a nomad?” the leader asked.

“Well, from what Professor Higgentower says, I think maybe I became one because Dad was in the military just like you were. Before he got drafted into the army to go and fight in Korea, he married my mom.”

“A military brat.” The leader bowed his head as he nodded. “Wow, you poor guy.”

“That’s what I am? But I thought I was a nomad. Am I in the wrong group?” Fred started to stand but the leader’s gesture returned him to the metal folding chair.

Fred’s sweat glands reactivated as thirty-one eyes focused on him until he felt like a cadaver being sliced open in an anatomy class at a medical school. The man who sat directly across from Fred wore a black eye patch over his left eye, which further unnerved him.

“We’ll explain after you finish talking,” the leader said. “So where were you born?”

“In Nebraska. After the war Dad did not want to go back to working on a farm so he stayed in the army and made it a career.”

“Can you remember all of the places you had to move to?”

“Yeah. First we went to New Jersey. After that it was Germany, Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia. When Dad went to fight over in Vietnam for two tours, we always moved back to Nebraska and lived with my mom’s parents to save money. Grandpa always said that military life was too hard on families. I didn’t believe him then but I do now.”

The leader opened a four-inch thick manual as he took notes. When Fred’s story sputtered to an end, the questions began.

“What years was your dad in the army?”

“From 1950 to 1980. He said he needed thirty years before he retired to get a good enough pension to take care of Mom into her old age.”

“When did you leave home?”

Fred scratched his head, unsure of what that had to with his affliction of itchy feet. “In 1968 to go off to college. Dad said he wanted all of us kids to have a better life than he had had.”

The leader continued taking notes. “So you were eighteen when you left home?”

“Yeah. Just like that song by Alice Cooper. Uh, why are you writing down what I tell you? I thought what we say in these meetings is supposed to be confidential. You aren’t going to write a book about me, are you?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll shred all of what I’m writing as soon as I finish your classification.” He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder at a small portable shredder that sat atop a plastic rectangular wastebasket. “I even have Doris burn the shreds.” He nodded at the one seated on his right.

Doris flashed her teeth, whitened earlier that week by her dentist. She flicked her disposable lighter until a small orange flame sprouted from its top and then seemed to vanish, leaving behind the smell of lighter fluid.

At least they seem to be pretty thorough. Fred’s sweat glands returned to a normal rate of production.

For the next few minutes, the leader flipped the manual’s pages as he wrote faster than anyone Fred had ever seen. Tension permeated the room as all waited for his diagnosis.

Was it fatal? Or curable? The tension did not ease until the leader again spoke when he shut the manual as a preacher might close his Bible to conclude a long sermon.

“Normally, we listen to everyone’s story before we talk about them with each other. But since Fred’s case of Nomadic Fever is so severe, one of the worst I’ve ever come across, I think it’s best to address it before we hear the rest of your stories.”

Relief or dread filled the remaining five who had yet to speak. Three were relieved that they would finally be able to vent at least a part of the anxieties caused by their rambling lifestyles. The other two members at their first meeting wondered if the leader would use the manual again to dissect what they said before giving his detailed analysis in front of so many strangers. They silently decided to shorten and tone down their tales into what they hoped would be innocuous versions.

“Sorry that it took me so long but here’s what the Manual on Nomads and Their Behaviors, Sixth Edition, told me about Fred and his disease.”

Fred gulped and closed his eyes. Why did I ever let Amanda talk me into coming here?

“Fred belongs to the group Nomad just like all of us here tonight do. But his subgroups are pretty unique, at least as far as all of the people who have come to our chapter since I’ve been coming here.” His eyebrows arched until they became as two wooly caterpillars bumping heads.

“And he’s been coming to meetings for five years now,” Doris said. “Longer than anyone else I know of. I started coming here a month after he did. It changed my life.”

The leader blushed. “Okay. I’ll run down this list as quick as I can so we can get out of here on time. Fred is a nomad, main subgroup is military brat. His next subgroup is army dependent. His next subgroup is 1950 to 1968. His next subgroup is parent fought in two wars. Wait just one minute. I almost forgot about something else.”

He spun on his seat and faced Fred. “This is real important. Was your dad ever wounded in either Korea or Vietnam?”

“Yeah. He got two purple heart medals in Vietnam.”

“Okay. Last subgroup is parent wounded in battle.”

Fred’s eyes widened as the leader stood and paced the room. He continued his monologue as he walked.

“The only worse set of groupings for nomads that I’ve ever seen was a woman whose dad was a musician who toured over 200 days a year. Can you imagine being on the road that much as a kid?”

Gasps and shaking heads responded to his question.

“His wife went along on the tours to make sure he didn’t have sex with any of the groupies who came to all of her husband’s concerts. They took their daughter along for the ride for ten years before the dad’s band had a fight and then broke up. The last that I heard their daughter is now a singer and on the road more of the time than she’s off of it. You said that you are married, Fred. How many times have you moved since you got married?”

Fred felt like he imagined the suspect being interrogated by police officers must when asked a question that demanded an honest answer.

“So far, only thirteen times. I know because Amanda keeps count. As a matter of fact, we are trying to sell our house right now. Amanda even told our real estate agent that I won’t ever be happy until I die and move to heaven.”

“Oh, how awful,” Doris said. “Look at how much you’ve made your poor wife suffer. She really needs to join the Spouses of Nomads Support Group. They meet on Friday’s right here at 7 p.m.”

“I’m afraid Doris is right.” The leader leaned toward Fred. “Remember how you just said, ‘We are trying to sell our house?’ Is it really both of you trying to sell it or just you caving in to your nomadic desires and urges? You can be honest with us, Fred. Don’t forget that you are among friends.”

Fred blinked and stared back at those who were staring at him.

The leader stopped pacing. “Good thing that you came here when you did, Fred. You’re obviously in a crisis situation. But all of us are here for you and Amanda. Right, folks?”

The man seated next to Fred patted him on his back.

Fred could not focus on what the last five attendees said as they related their sagas of rootlessness, of not belonging, of being from everywhere instead of one locale. Anxious to tell Amanda about the support group for her, he rehearsed how best to bring it up as soon as he got home.

As Fred drove home after the meeting, he reflected on what he considered the most important insight he had gleaned that evening. He now had confirmation that Amanda was definitely a home towner. That was what Professor Higgentower called those who often married nomads.

During the refreshment time after the meeting, Doris had agreed with the term. “Sounds just like my husband,” she had said. “He was a real home towner through and through. Until he met me and I balanced him out, that is. I really believe that some of our moves have helped out our marriage.”

Amanda had been born and raised until age twenty in the same town. Only because she had ventured off to the “big city” had she met Fred. Now she was prisoner to his malady of itchy feet.

Well, at least we both now have support groups to back us up. Fred smiled as he realized how providential it had been for Amanda to get him to attend Nomads Anonymous.

Providential? That meant God was now involved. With that threshold conquered, Fred felt a new meaning, a new purpose for his life.

As Fred pulled into his driveway, he repeated a prayer Doris had taught him.

“God bless the spouses of nomads, who have to endure never-ending moves to where the grass is always greener. Lord, help me to gather enough moss for my spouse’s sake. Amen.”

Not

“Man, and I thought that the Sixties were bad news.” Clyde Farnsworth swallowed the last of his coffee and set the stained cup down on the Formica table top with a thud.

That was his signal to Samantha that he needed a refill.

The waitress first had to deliver a plate of eggs sunny side up, bacon, and hash browned potatoes; another plate with a short stack of buttermilk pancakes and wad of whipped butter the size of a tennis ball; and a platter of steak and eggs to the booth next to the one where Clyde drummed his fingers as he waited for another jolt of caffeine. He grunted his thanks after Samantha refilled his cup with coffee black and scalding, made from beans so pungent that just smelling them helped her wake up as she had begun her shift at 4 a.m.

She worked the busiest shift, filled with customers hungry, demanding, and sometimes hung over. But enough of them tipped well to keep her going. Even Clyde would let her “keep the change.”

He claimed the coffee tasted the same as battery acid. So he added four packets of artificial sweetener and a container of imitation cream to neutralize its bitter taste.

“So, now what is so wrong with the present day we find ourselves living in? You know, it’s not like we get to pick the times we are born into.” Tom Burnel cocked his head. He and his best friend were holding court at their morning coffee klatch, a half hour ritual they attended five days a week. There they solved the world’s problems real and imagined, before going off to work to confront more mundane issues that required their attention.

“What’s wrong? It’s the youngsters of today, I tell you. They just have no respect at all for their elders anymore.”

Tom chuckled as he choked on the crumb of peach pie that his laughter had sucked into his windpipe. “Now you’re sounding like our parents did when we were teenagers. Or have you forgotten all of that in your old age?”

“That was different. Back in the 1960s the war in Vietnam was going on, there were lots of hippies and yippies. We were bound to go a little crazy, right? It wasn’t our fault that we came of age when we did.”

Tom thought of some of what he and Clyde had done thirty years earlier. “Yeah, those were some crazy times, all right.”

“Well, they are even worse now, I tell you.”

“What happened to get you so ticked off? I haven’t seen you this mad since the Cubs blew the season again.”

“It’s my son.”

“Which one?”

“Justin.”

“What did he do now?” Of all of Clyde’s five children, he lamented about Justin the most, at least to Tom, who felt obligated to listen. Clyde always became too grumpy if he did not vent his frustrations of being a husband and father, especially his “other duties as required” at least twice a week.

On good days, they could talk about sports or the stock market. Family matters always seemed to surface after Clyde’s third cup of coffee.

“Remember how I took him and Bill camping last month up in the forest?”

“Yeah. Didn’t you go up to your friend’s place in the mountains?”

“Yeah, we camped out on his twenty acres. Anyway, Justin and Bill got really bored so we went into town. My friend’s church was having a bazaar at the park. So Justin plays one of the games, you know, three tickets for a dollar, fundraiser kind of thing.”

“Did he win any prizes?”

“Did he win? That’s the whole problem. They gave him this life size plastic sword. Now Justin walks around swinging it through the air all the time. He says it’s his sword of the Lord for him to use to slay the wicked.”

“Sounds spiritual enough to me. Does he slay dragons or Philistines with it?”

“I wish. I was his latest target.”

“What?” Tom tried to picture his friend’s ten year old son stabbing his dad with a fake sword. “I don’t believe it. Why would Justin do a thing like that? I never saw him act like that before.”

Clyde shrugged. “I was just joking around with him and then–”

Tom wagged his finger. “No wonder. I bet you were teasing him again, right?”

Clyde’s cheeks turned red. “Well, I …”

“Uh, huh. Remember how I told you to tone it down some? He’s a sensitive kid, you know.”

“Look, I’m a team player. When Justin got this action figure toy called Snake Face for his birthday, I thought what the heck? But Dorothy, you know what she did?”

“Nope.” Tom remembered the last time he and his wife had enjoyed dinner at Clyde and Dorothy’s home. She didn’t take it away from him, did she?”

“No. She held a ‘Come to Jesus revival’ and had Snake Face ask Jesus into his heart so that he wouldn’t act like he does on that cartoon show that Justin likes so much.”

“You mean Super Villains in Space? My kids watch it all the time.”

“That’s the one. Anyway, I was joking around with Justin that Snake Face was going to backslide and bite his head off while he was asleep. Justin got mad and ran off to his room. He came tearing back into the living room with his sword of the Lord. He jumps up so both his feet are off the ground and swings that damn sword right at me.”

“Did it hit you?”

“Almost. Came about an inch from my nose. I couldn’t believe it. It was like Justin was an acrobat or some clown from the circus. While he’s hovering in the air and slashing away at me, he yells, ‘I ought to slice your face off!’ Then his feet hit the floor and he smirks and stomps off to his room singing something about getting the victory over dad.”

“At least he didn’t say that he wanted to cut your head off. It could’ve been worse, you know. You can live without a face, but without a head…Maybe he really just wanted to do plastic surgery on you, probably would have been a big improvement.” Tom grabbed the check and hurried off for the safety that came with paying for it at the cash register.

  • * *

A decade passed during which Justin completed his schooling. His love of sports grew until he could rattle off statistics for most professional teams in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. His vocabulary also grew.

Or decreased, according to his father.

As a teenager, Justin had grown increasingly skeptical of Clyde’s stories. Mom called them “tall tales,” her euphemism for what her friend Rosa called “caca del toro.” No matter which language such stories are told in, wives recognize the bragging and exaggerations of males everywhere on planet Earth.

After growing weary of his dad’s retelling of the tall tales, Justin decided that the shorter his rebuttals to Dad’s musings, the more authority they would carry. After all, Dad still brought up “the sword of the Lord that you used to slice my face off” incident when Justin proved to be too disbelieving. So he worked up a one-word response when Dad’s stories grew too long or incredible:

“Not.”

Never, “Really, Dad?” or “wow,” or “cool,” no matter how much preparation Clyde gave to his story. Desperate, Clyde decided to get a critique of one of his tales before he told it to Justin. Tom seemed to be the best option as sounding board. Their coffee klatch had been replaced by a forty minute walk five days a week. Both of their doctors had said that their bulging mid sections were at least partly to blame for high blood pressure and triglyceride levels and something called bad cholesterol.

Clyde waited until they had completed the first lap of their route before speaking. “I need to run a story by you.”

“Run it by me? You going to become an author or screenwriter? Your wife is right. You are having a midlife crisis.”

“No, you dope. I need you to help me tweak it enough so Justin will like it. It’s no fun telling him stories when he doesn’t believe them.”

“Oh? Okay, as long as it’s not too long.”

The story did not end until they reached Tom’s car. He slid behind the steering wheel and rolled down the window.

“I liked your story. But what do I know? I’m just an old fart who leaves behind a bad smell when I go to the bathroom. I’m the wrong age to figure out what the heck the kids of today want.” He put the Chevy Nova into drive. “Maybe run it by one of your other kids before you tell it to Justin. Got to run or I’ll be late for work.”

Clyde spent the rest of the day trying to decide which of his other four children to use to critique it. On his way home from work, he flipped a coin to choose between the final two contenders. None of the bus’ other passengers thought his behavior was strange. They had all seen worse. After eating dinner, Clyde holed up in the den and dialed his daughter’s cell phone number.

“Hi, this is Francine.”

“Hey, Fran, what’s kicking?”

“Hi, Dad. What’s up? We’re almost done with our homework.”

Clyde filed her “what’s up” phrase in his memory for future use. “I need your help with something.”

“Yes?”

Clyde spun the story in fifteen minutes. His daughter needed less than ten seconds to evaluate it.

“It sounded sort of retro, Dad.”

“Retro? Is that good or bad?”

“You know, old school, old fashioned.”

Any description with “old” in it rattled Clyde. Past the half century mark, he needed no reminder that he had lived more years than he had left to live. He remembered how two girls on the bus who looked two or three years younger than Francine had been raving about someone called Hannah Montana.

“Hey, that Hannah Montana is pretty cool, huh?” A long silence made Clyde wonder if he had lost their connection. “Hello, Fran? You still there?”

“Hannah Montana? I don’t think so. That’s for kids, Dad.”

Thirty-six Points and You Can Go Home

Sergeant Jason Dalrumple disliked his promotion because now he was responsible for a squad of soldiers instead of only ensuring his own survival. Its number varied from five to ten, depending on members killed or wounded and available replacements. Three raw recruits had reported to him for duty during a lull in combat.

“Welcome to Korea, boys,” Sgt. Dalrumple said. “My job is to keep you alive. Your job is to keep yourselves alive. Your number one question is probably ‘when do I go home?’ I bet.”

Two of them nodded as the third fiddled with his M-1 carbine.

“I thought so. You’re lucky. They just dropped the number of points you need to leave this stinking war in this God forsaken place and go home from forty-three to thirty-six. You get four points for each month of close combat, two points for duty in the rear echelon, and one point for duty in the Far East, such as Japan, Taiwan, or the Philippines. Once you hit your thirty-six points you are eligible to rotate back to the States. But sometimes some guys end up waiting longer for rotation. Any questions?”

“Is it always this cold?”

“Only in the winter. Thank you for that question, Private. I almost forgot what else I wanted to say to you guys. When you wake up at night, shake your hands and stomp your feet to keep the blood flowing so you don’t get frostbite. If you get frostbite you might get gangrene and the docs will have to chop it off. Sure, you get to go home early but Mom and Dad and your honey pies might flinch when they see you. Now you don’t want to do that, right?”

The three new men settled into a defensive line, a series of hills and trenches facing two brigades of Chinese and one of North Korean troops. Sgt. Dalrumple had stationed each of the raw troops next to more seasoned soldiers before positioning himself on his squad’s right flank. The frozen earth was higher there and gave him a view of his seven men.

He wondered if his squad would ever reach the ten it had numbered when it had landed in Korea two months ago. He thought of home, especially his wife and son.

This war was different. Even the officers said so. He had heard a colonel telling his battalion’s commanding officer, Major Crowley, how America was taking the lead “on this sorry peninsula. From what I’ve been told, we have about six times as many troops here as all of the other twenty nations combined that are trying to save the South Korean’s bacon.”

If a colonel said that, it must be true. At least this colonel. He was one of the few officers that Sgt. Dalrumple liked as well as respected because of his rank. Respecting those up the chain of command was required and necessary; liking them had to be earned, according to his private and personal code of military conduct.

Sgt. Dalrumple patted his web belt and pockets and counted the number of clips that he would have to feed his M-1 once the battle started. Twelve clips. God help us if they keep coming at us after I’ve fired that many bullets. We’ll probably all be dead if that happens.

Sgt. Dalrumple had served in the Pacific during World War II, moving from one island to another until they and the dead Japanese and American troops all began to look the same. That war had made sense. After all, the Japs had started it by attacking Pearl Harbor. But this one? He still had not made up his mind.

Especially troubling had been a letter from a friend from his home town of Madisin who now flew in the skies above Korea.

Tech Sgt. John Chacon had stayed in the U.S. Army Air Force Reserve after V-E Day and V-J Day and the United Nations had supposedly made the world safe from tyranny. He watched his branch of service divide as the air force became a separate entity. When North Korean troops invaded South Korea, Sgt. Chacon’s unit was one of the first sent to Japan.

From there, he flew on B-29s to bomb enemy positions. Two things bothered Chacon about this war. Instead of German Me-109s or other propeller driven fighters coming at his bomber as had happened in World War II, now Russian MIG-15s were attacking American aircraft. The enemy jets were deadly against the much slower bombers. Hearing some of the MIG pilots speak in Russian when his aircraft picked up their radio transmissions further rattled him.

“Those damn Russians aren’t just supplying equipment to the North Koreans,” Chacon told his commanding officer back at base.

“Tell me something I didn’t know, Sergeant. Word is that the Chinese are funneling troops into North Korea. Looks like this war is going to last a while.”

The other irritant for Chacon was that his reserve unit seemed to be flying most of the missions while the active duty air force crews remained back at base. Fed up, Chacon had contacted his congressman, who contacted the Pentagon, which contacted General Douglas MacArthur, who….

“At least the chain of command worked for once,” Chacon had written Sgt. Dalrumple.

Being a grunt had not allowed such distinctions for Sgt. Dalrumple. It seemed that there were never enough troops to do the job required, whether they came from active duty, reserves, or those drafted away from civilian life.

As the cold, gray afternoon wore on, one of the new men became anxious.

“Is this all you ever do? Just sit around and wait?” he asked the corporal crouched beside him in the trench.

“Yup. What do you want to do? Charge the enemy in broad daylight? They’d pick us off before we got anywhere near them. Just wait until dark. That’s when they like to attack.”

The commander of the enemy troops ordered an assault at 2000 hours.

Soldiers of the first wave fell about one hundred yards from the Americans’ line and those from the second wave about thirty yards away. By the fourth wave of the seemingly infinite enemy, a few were reaching their trenches.

One of the new men panicked when his weapon jammed and he rose from his kneeling position. A bullet ripped into his shoulder and knocked him to the icy ground. An hour passed before the enemy retreated. When daylight came, Sgt. Dalrumple examined the wound as a medic removed the blood-soaked bandage and applied a fresh one.

“Went in and out.” He patted the shaking soldier’s helmet. “Worth a Purple Heart though. You’ll be back in a couple weeks.”

Aerial recon of the enemy’s new position discovered reinforcements snaking toward their forward lines. Unable to respond in kind, the American commanders ordered their troops to regroup 1,000 yards to the south. By dusk Sgt. Dalrumple’s squad had joined the rest of their company in a hilltop bunker abandoned by their battalion’s commanding officer and his staff.

“Just like the Ritz. At least we got a view,” the company’s commanding officer, a lieutenant six months out of West Point, said. “The enemy’s going to have to climb this hill to get to us now.”

“They got so many guys it doesn’t matter, sir.” Sgt. Dalrumple said what the other noncoms were thinking.

“I just got off the radio with battalion headquarters,” the lieutenant said. “Enemy artillery blew up part of our ammo dump. The soonest they can bring us any ammo is tomorrow. They’re having to truck some fresh supplies in from further south.”

“My men are down to only about four clips each, sir.”

The lieutenant turned toward the other sergeants.

“About three.”

“Maybe five each.”

“Six at most.”

“How many BARs do we have?”

“Two.”

“Put one on each end of the bunker. Tell the BAR gunners that no matter what happens they can’t let the enemy outflank us.”

“Yes, sir.”

The officer paused, thankful that their defensive line included two Browning Automatic Rifles. Without them…He shuddered before returning to his last minute inventory.

“Is the trip wire set up?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How much fuel does the flame thrower have left?”

“Half a tank.”

“Put him in the middle.” He took off his helmet and pounded it on a wooden plank until some of the dried mud dropped from it. “I have three flares left. When I fire off the last one order your men to fall back down the hill toward the rear lines. Our orders are to hold this hill as long as possible. Dismissed.”

The four sergeants went to their squads to pass along the orders as their commanding officer hunkered down next to the three mortars set up twenty feet from the bunker. He offered their crews gum and cigarettes.

“Fix your coordinates on the trip wire. Wait for my order to fire.”

“Yes, sir.”

The two-man teams set the short metal cylinders for a pattern that would saturate the area on both sides of the 100-foot wire with the thirty-one remaining shells. Not enough to stop the thousands of troops waiting to climb the hill, only slow their ascent. Then they waited.

[ * ]

Hoping the imperialists would be numbed by cold and darkness into slumber or drowsiness, the Chinese commander of the battalions assigned to take the hill waited until 2300 hours to whisper the order to attack. His troops ran toward their destiny. Most were convinced it had to be a glorious one. Had not the Western imperialists invaded Asia?

A young North Korean rifleman’s boot clipped the trip wire, which rang the bells attached to it. The clangs jolted the American commander from his half sleep. He cupped his hands around his mouth to amplify his order.

“Fire at will!”

The first rounds from the mortars hit the bottom of the hill thirty seconds later. The small shells exploded into dozens of fragments upon impact, taking down some soldiers forever, their bodies dotting the sea of mud that the troops in front of them had created during their headlong rush up the hill. Wounded troops rolled in pain and screamed for medics or mothers.

Two minutes later, the last mortar rained down on them.

“That’s our last shell, sir,” the one in charge of the mortar squad yelled in his lieutenant’s ear.

He fired the first flare. After reaching its maximum height, the flare drifted slowly downward, its tiny parachute granting maximum illumination as it burned. Sgt. Dalrumple groaned as the sweating private next to him stated the obvious.

“Good God, Sarge. They look like ants.” He jabbed the barrel of his M-1 toward the shadowy figures climbing toward them.

“They’re going to be crawling all over us if you don’t keep on firing, troop!”

The bullets from the eighty-four carbines dropped the closest fifty enemies to the ground but their lifeless bodies served as traction for the comrades who followed. As they sank into the mud the corpses proved less slippery than the gooey earth that half buried them. The BARs raked the flanks of the hill until their belts of ammunition were spent. By then the second flare had drifted to within twenty feet of the ground.

“Report!” The lieutenant ran from sergeant to sergeant.

“Ammo gone.”

“Down to our last clips.”

He scrambled to the middle of the line and pounded the helmet of the one with the flame thrower.

Its forty foot burps of flame ignited the enemy closest to the bunker. Those with burning skin and uniforms rolled down the hill, taking down fellow soldiers as if they were bowling pins. The lieutenant fired the last flare through the two-foot gap between frozen earth and the hundreds of sand bags that formed the roof. One by one, the sergeants ordered their men to retreat down the back side of the hill. Some of them slid. Others tumbled as they tripped.

Nothing like an unorderly retreat. The lieutenant watched most of his men outrun him to the bottom of the hill.

Sgt. Dalrumple clutched the ankles of a bleeding man as a medic supported his shoulders. Halfway down the hill, Jason turned to watch the first shells from an artillery battalion two miles away hit the bunker, showering mud, sand, wood, and body parts onto the fleeing Americans.

At last the bullets stopped whizzing by him.

  • * *

Seven months later, Sgt. Dalrumple’s tally hit thirty-six points. By then the war had descended into what Major Crowley called “a stalemate.”

War, stalemate, who cares? When do I get to go home?

That thought echoed in Sgt. Dalrumple’s head, night and day, seven days a week. By September, the sergeant had grown weary of the chain of command, the Army, the war in Korea, and life in general. He decided to go as far up the chain of command as he dared.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Major Crowley turned and returned Sgt. Dalrumple’s salute. “Yes, troop? What is it?”

“Sir, I’ve been here in Korea way past my thirty-six points. When do I get to rotate out?”

“I have no idea, Sergeant. Take it up with your lieutenant. Dismissed.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sgt. Dalrumple waited until the major had turned before frowning. No sense in muddying the waters any worse than they already were, he thought. He found his lieutenant in the tent that served as battalion headquarters.

“Lt. Katz, may I speak to you in private, sir?”

The officer stopped studying the maps that detailed the trenches of the enemy troops to the north and of his battalion’s positions south of them. What appeared to be an adequate “no man’s land” separated the two armies.

“Yes, Sgt. Dalrumple, what is it?” He walked outside far enough from the tent and those entering and leaving it so that no one could hear their conversation. Any of his other noncommissioned officers would have had to wait. But because Sgt. Dalrumple’s advice had saved so many lives during their time together, the lieutenant always made time for him.

“Sir, I just talked to Major Crowley about me having forty-four points come next month.”

“You went straight to the old man? Tell me you talked to Captain Williams first.”

“No, sir. Afraid not. Anyway, the major told me to talk to you.”

“I’ll see what the holdup is.” He saluted and returned to the tent.

  • * *

Turned out that the paperwork that would send Sgt. Dalrumple home had gone missing at division headquarters. After wrangling a jeep and driver and fabricating an excuse that sounded official enough, Lt. Katz found it there buried in an in basket. He hand carried it through channels.

In two weeks, Sgt. Dalrumple was in Japan. After two more days, he was on a C-47 that flew into Alaska and after refueling, on to McChord Air Force Base in Washington.

The train ride from Seattle to his Midwestern town seemed to take forever.

“You just back from over there, son?” a passenger seated across from him asked.

“Yeah.”

“What’s it really like? I don’t think the papers or radio announcers are getting it right.”

“What are they saying?”

“I can’t really tell you. It sometimes sounds like they are using the army’s press releases word for word for their stories. Other times it sounds or reads like a load of BS.”

Sgt. Dalrumple stifled a laugh. “Were you in World War II by any chance?”

“No, I served during World War I. They wouldn’t take me for World War II because they said I was too old.”

“Well, old timer, it’s good to meet someone who will at least understand. Some of the civilians who I have talked to since getting back just ignore me when they see this.” He grabbed his uniform. “What gives anyway? At least after World War II we got some kind of welcome home.”

“Guess they just don’t understand what war is like. Sort of hard to unless you’ve fought in one.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. But seems to me that this war is like some kind of turning point. It really pissed off some of our officers after President Truman fired General MacArthur. They said that from here on out, we won’t be fighting wars to win them. In fact, the colonel said we’ll probably lose the next one.”

For the rest of the train ride that they shared, the two veterans traded war stories. They did not solve the current stalemate in Korea.

But former Sgt. Dalrumple felt better, the best he had felt since leaving his home for Korea.

The Phantom of the Choir Loft

Most church choirs meet during the middle of the week for practice – Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. But that tradition was about to be broken for the choir of the Madison Community Church. Its choir director, Leroy Tubunch, had experimented with mid-week practices but too many of his choir members would forget what he had so diligently drilled into their heads by the time of their performance at the next Sunday morning worship service.

Even the pastor had noticed.

“Sounded like your bass section came in at the wrong time during the offertory hymn,” Pastor Kingston had said six weeks ago.

So Leroy had decided to move practice to Fridays, 6 p.m. He hoped the early starting time would allow him the necessary two to three hours to go over that week’s lineup of songs to the Lord. Moving the practice would cost him a member, one of the tenors who thought his voice was the best not just of all 137 members of Madison Community Church but the best in all of Madison, maybe even in the entire state.

“What do you mean, you’re changing choir practice to Friday nights? Friday is my bowling night with the boys,” the tenor said.

When Leroy refused to back down, the tenor walked out of practice, vowing never to return. As soon as the choir members found phones after the practice ended, rumors sprouted that the departed tenor would probably take up residence with St. Paul’s choir, which practiced every Wednesday at 7 p.m. for an hour or perhaps Madison Evangelical, whose choir practiced on Tuesdays.

At first, Leroy fretted over the loss because now his choir consisted of one bass, two baritones, one tenor, six altos, and four sopranos. Pastor Kingston tried to reassure him.

“The Lord will provide you with what you need, Leroy. Besides, Charlie was a real tightwad when it came to offerings. Sure, he always dropped a check into every offering. But do you know how much the check was for every single time?”

“No. I don’t count the offerings.”

“A buck. He was one dollar Charlie.”

“Why would he go to all the trouble of writing a check instead of just dropping a dollar bill into the offering?”

“He wanted a paper trail for his taxes so he could write off his donations. Every January he would be hounding our bookkeeper for the statement of all of his donations for the previous year. For last year, his total came to $112. I’ll give Charlie this much, though. He attended every service come hell or high water.”

The first Friday practice followed the last midweek practice by only a day, which left some choir members scratching their heads.

You aren’t going to start having two practices a week are you, Leroy?” The lone bass singer asked.

“No,” Leroy said. “I just wanted to go back over every song one more time. Easter only comes around once a year, you know. Last Easter was the best attended service all year long. Pastor Kingston is counting on us to pull out all the stops on Sunday.”

A half hour later Leroy said good night to his faithful band of singers as he locked the twelve-foot tall front doors of the church. He was satisfied with their rendition of selections from Handel’s Messiah. The offertory hymn still needed some work but they could run through it a couple of times during warm-up a half hour before the 9:30 service on Easter Sunday.

  • * *

Pastor Kingston was in top form for the Easter service. Wearing his best three piece blue suit, complete with white handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket, he hoped to exude the confidence he did not feel. He arrived at the church at 7 a.m. so he could first pray and then revise and practice his sermon one final time.

This was a day when the pews would be packed as the C and E Christians showed up for their semi-annual pilgrimage. Somewhat faithful, they graced churches with their presence every Christmas and Easter. The only other times Pastor Kingston could recall seeing them were at weddings, funerals, memorial services, or around town. When you live in a community of 43,960, it can prove difficult avoiding the pastor who is always inviting you to attend his church more than the bare minimum practiced by those with long lists of reasons of why they do so.

By 8 a.m., the kitchen crew had arrived and gone to work in the church social hall, which was 237 square feet larger than the sanctuary. The aromas of ten pots of coffee brewing and bacon, ham, and sausages frying an hour later let Reverend Kingston know that the Easter brunch to be held right after the one-hour worship service would be as delicious as last year’s.

The kitchen crew would leave the cooked meat on racks in a warming cart and attend the first forty-five minutes of worship before slipping out of the church and back into the kitchen to begin cooking the scrambled eggs, pancakes, and waffles, and mixing the apple, orange, and papaya/pomegranate/mango juices. The latter exotic blend had been added to this year’s feast by Mildred Petrie, who insisted that “we have to appeal to the tastes of today’s younger church goers if we expect them to ever become members here.”

Something about special worship days was enjoyable, Pastor Kingston thought as he left his study at 9:25. Maybe it was how well his flock pulled together to welcome and feed all of their guests.

As was his habit, he laid his sermon notes on the oak pulpit next to a well-worn Bible given to him by his parents when he had graduated from seminary eighteen years earlier. Madison Community Church was his third pastorate. He, his wife Janice, and three children all hoped it would be his last one. His children enjoyed their friends and schools; Janice loved leading the women’s Bible study and visiting church members who had become confined to homes or care facilities. She had begun saying, “This would be a nice place for us to retire, honey,” to her husband of twenty years. “It’s about halfway between where our parents live.”

On the tail end of a midlife crisis, Pastor Kingston had begun to let go of his ambitions to shepherd the kind of mega church that seemed to be an outward sign of ministers’ faithfulness to their calling, churches with members numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. A painful step at a time, he was learning to be content with what he and his peers called “just an average church, not too big, not too small, but full of people who love the Lord.”

He glanced at his watch, which read 9:30, and adjusted the pulpit’s microphone.

“Welcome to Madison Community Church on the Resurrection Sunday of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” His voice echoed from the eight speaker cabinets mounted in the four corners of the rectangular shaped church. “Please rise as our choir leads us in our first hymn on this beautiful Easter morning, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.

Two hundred and thirty-one worshippers stood, hymn books open, waiting for the organist’s introduction of the hymn. But instead of the opening notes to the announced hymn, the unmistakable piercing strains of Bach’s Toccata in D-minor filled the church with such volume that the youngest and oldest of those gathered dropped their hymnals and plugged their ears with palms or fingers.

Most of the congregation turned toward the choir loft to see the source of the toccata that had been immortalized in the movie The Phantom of the Opera. Their line of sight was blocked by the high railing of painted plywood at the edge of the choir loft and the 183 pipes that released the notes produced on three keyboards, two octaves of bass pedals, and rows of drawbars and tabs above the keyboards that allowed for hundreds of combinations of music.

Because the altar that supported the pulpit was four feet higher than the pews, Pastor Kingston alone had a good view of the choir loft after he left his seat in the front pew and returned to the pulpit.

His mouth opened in silent wonder. From his vantage point, the pastor could see seven of the choir members dressed in white robes. But their mouths did not move, nor any other part of their stiff bodies. At last the organ solo ended. But he could not see its player because the place where the keyboardist sat was blocked from his view by stacks of hymnals that had been placed on the top of the organ.

“Forgive us for a slight technical difficulty, folks,” Pastor Kingston spoke into the pulpit microphone. “Will an usher please check on the choir? Meantime, my lovely wife will lead us in our first hymn.”

Janice left her pew and moved to the upright piano that sat ten feet to the right and below the pulpit. It had endured thousands of hymns played by eighteen keyboardists over the decades and had two keys in need of repair. Because they were a C and an F-sharp in the same octave, Janice compensated by sliding to the left end of the piano bench and playing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today an octave lower than the notes in the hymnal.

Hearing the deep bass notes roused the males whose voices were created to sing bass or baritone.

Visitor Rodney Ming, a member of a barbershop quartet whose voice was so low that some swore the notes he reached could not be duplicated by those on a grand piano, became the de facto choir director, leading his over 200-voice improvised choir with his booming voice. By the end of the first verse, everyone had joined in, those who could not yet read hummed instead. By the end of the second verse, the mixture of voices had raised goose bumps on Pastor Kingston’s arms.

As the hymn ended, tears were rolling down his cheeks. He wiped them away with the handkerchief that had served as a decoration since he had bought the suit five years earlier.

“Please be seated. I’ve led hundreds of services but this is the first one where I wished we could just spend the whole hour praising the Lord.”

The congregation answered with “Amen” and clapping hands.

  • * *

The head usher and his number two man from the four-usher team used on Easter still pounded on the only door that led to the choir loft. The choir director’s habit of locking it to ensure no distractions interfered with the choir was well known, a sort of in-house joke.

Until now.

That habit now had the head usher sweating and bordering on cursing where he should not no matter what occurred.

“We’re going to have to break it down.” He ran to the fire extinguisher that hung next to the entrance to the sanctuary. Using the red metal cylinder as a battering ram, he smashed the door’s lock through the wood frame in two blows. What he saw barreling down the stairs caused him to drop the fire extinguisher on his right foot. The intense pain started him to hopping on his left foot as he clutched the injured foot with both hands.

His assistant paled when a black caped figure hit the bottom step and burst into the lobby.

Whoever had played the Bach toccata wore a lifelike mask of the Phantom who had haunted Paris in books, movies, and on stage for over a century. This one did not copy the smooth white mask that had become so fashionable. Instead, this intruder of the Madison Community Church choir loft wore a rubber mask as hideous as the makeup that Lon Chaney had worn in the 1925 silent movie: face scarred beyond repair, grotesque teeth, and bulging eyes surrounded by dark circles.

The assistant usher reached for the fleeing phantom but was knocked to the floor when the trespasser folded both arms as if carrying a football toward the goal line. An elbow to the assistant usher’s ribs left him in as much pain as the head usher.

  • * *

Detective John Bateman’s nose twitched when his cellphone vibrated, a habit he displayed whenever such interruptions intruded on anything he was enjoying. He fumbled for the phone with his left hand as he continued to move the diced cantaloupe from his plate to his mouth.

“Bateman.” His frown grew as he listened to the caller.

“Is anyone dead? Anyone there hurt?” He started to stand. “Two of the ushers? I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He grabbed his plate of fried eggs, bacon, and toast and ate from it as he walked to the parking lot.

“Is it serious?” His wife asked as she caught up to him.

“Not sure yet.” He turned and planted a kiss on her cheek.

Five steps later he dumped the remaining eggs onto one slice of toast before topping it with the other slightly burnt piece of wheat bread. He let the paper plate and plastic fork drop into the last trash can on the path to his car. “Can you catch a ride home with someone? I’m not sure how long this will take. You would think people could at least behave on Easter.”

  • * *

The police officer on scene’s description over the hands free phone left Detective Bateman wondering if maybe his wife had been right for the past seven years and he should retire. Whoever had heard of an unconscious choir, two injured ushers, and a frantic call to dispatch that the Phantom of the Opera had tried to hijack an Easter morning worship service?

As he parked in one of the few remaining spaces at Madison Community Church, Officer Hernandez met him. He led him to the shade of a weeping willow at the side of the church. The two ushers sat on a bench in its shade, nursing their wounds.

“I think it might be best for you to get it straight from them, Detective. I need to get back on patrol.”

“Of course. Thank you, Officer Hernandez.” Detective Bateman sat on a bench opposite the two ushers. “What happened?” He pointed at their wounds.

“It was crazy,” said the head usher. “In all of my forty-two years of ushering I’ve never seen anything like it.”

After listening to the blow by blow description, Detective Bateman closed his notepad. “That is crazy, all right. In my fifty years of police work I’ve never heard anything like this one. Excuse me.”

Pastor Kingston introduced the closing hymn as Detective Bateman climbed the last step and entered the choir loft. The boisterous singing below let him call for help unnoticed by the worshippers praising their Lord below him.

  • * *

Jane Starless wished she had left her phone in the bedroom in a drawer and turned off. Its insistent ringing raised her golden lab’s head from her lap and sent her Siamese cat off of her legs and onto the floor.

They sense when a call means that I’ll be leaving them.

Jane tossed the unread sections of The Madison Daily Sentinel onto the coffee table next to her imitation leather couch. She groaned when her phone’s caller ID told her who was bothering her on a Sunday morning.

“Hello, Detective Bateman. Please don’t tell me that there’s been a homicide on Easter of all days.”

“Hate to disappoint you.” Her boss’ calm voice tried to placate her. “Need you to get over here to Madison Community Church pronto. Bring your kit with you.”

By the time Jane pulled into the church’s parking lot, plenty of spaces were available, vacated by those whose tastes ran in favor of Easter dinner at home instead of Easter brunch in the church social hall. She was surprised to see the yellow tape that read “Police Line, Do Not Cross” stretched across the choir loft’s entryway. She stooped under the tape and joined Detective Bateman and the confused choir members in the loft.

“What’s up, Detective?”

“It appears that a single perp used whatever was in there to knock out the choir.” He pointed at a vent near the floor that delivered hot and cold air to the choir loft. A large metal container had been exposed inside the duct work after he had removed the metal grill.

Jane stood on one of the loft’s two pews. “Who’s in charge of the choir?”

Its director raised his hand.

“Did your choir drink anything this morning?”

“Just coffee. It helps to warm our vocal cords up.”

“”Where’s the pot?” Jane jumped down from the pew.

“They took it over to the kitchen to use for the Easter brunch.”

Jane grabbed the remaining roll of yellow police tape and took the stairs from the choir loft three at a time. When she bolted into the social hall’s kitchen, she grabbed the first person wearing an apron. “Where are the coffee pots?”

“Over there. Do you need a cup?”

Jane tied the loose end of the tape to the coffee urn on one end and wrapped it around all ten pots. Then she hopped onto a folding metal chair. “Folks, we believe there may be a foreign substance in these pots. Please don’t drink anything you got from them.” She pointed at the shiny silver colored pots.

“Of course there is, young lady.” The church’s biggest jokester hollered. Last time I checked, they don’t grow coffee beans in the U.S. Since we have to import them, they are about as foreign as they come.” He raised his cup and took a drink.

“She means a harmful substance like poison, you ninny,” the woman seated across from the jokester said. The black spray from the mouth of the one she had warned splattered her blouse and plate.

The most conspiracy minded eaters rose and bolted for the hall’s exits. “I told you that pastor reminded me of Reverend Jim Jones, Myra. Let’s get out of here before he poisons all of us.” The couple stumbled over the door’s metal sill into the safety of the parking lot.

But most of those feasting on a free meal shrugged off the interruption and returned to the feast laid out for them. After filling one pitcher with samples of coffee from each of the pots, Jane instructed the kitchen staff to dump the rest of the hot brew down the sink. “I’ll return this pitcher after I analyze the coffee at the lab.” She waved the pitcher as her goodbye.

She deposited the evidence in her Toyota Corolla’s trunk and then walked over to the two injured ushers. They looked like church mice to her as they nibbled on the plates of food that had been delivered to them.

“You two were the ones who saw the perp come down out of the choir loft?”

“What’s a perp?”

“Perpetrator, you dope. Don’t you watch any of those CSI shows on TV?” the usher with the bruised ribs said. “Yeah, we’re the ones. He ran straight down the walkway over there and then turned left and took off for the street. The last I saw of him, he turned onto Maple Avenue and disappeared around the corner.”

“Thank you.” Jane pulled a pair of thick glasses that magnified her vision tenfold from her kit and put them over her green eyes. Starting at the base of the choir loft’s stairs, she walked the path taken by the phantom. She methodically scanned from left to right in ten-foot wide swathes.

At the gutter by the street, she spotted a small circular clothing tag with the letter C on it. She picked it up with a pair of tweezers and placed it in a plastic baggie. Nothing else that she thought of as potential evidence caught her gaze during her twenty-minute search.

Detective Bateman met her in the parking lot with the metal canister from the choir loft held by his gloved hand. “I’ll put this in your car and get going. Find anything?”

“Just this.” The perp might just have a name that begins with a C.”

“Okay. Good work. Call me if you find anything else back up in the choir loft. All of the choir members tell the same story. The last thing that they remember is practicing before the service before nodding off to sleep.”

  • * *

Detective Bateman arrived at his office an hour early on Monday. But Jane’s written report on his desk contained nothing that he had not expected. Hoping to pry another clue from her, he visited her cramped lab at the end of the hall.

“Looks like the perp used chloroform in the canister that he put in the vent. I’m still running tests on the coffee from the coffee pots, though. Whatever it was had a high enough concentration to knock the choir out for about twenty to thirty minutes, based on the timeline that they gave you,” Jane said.

Detective Bateman flipped open his notepad. Jane thought he must be the only police officer on the planet who still used pen and paper to take notes. “The first choir member who woke up said that Pastor Kingston had just begun his sermon when she snapped out of it. She said it took her at least ten minutes to wake up the rest of the members.”

“I tried to pull some DNA from the canister and that tag with a letter C on it but so far no luck. The coffee pots were all touched by so many people that it was hopeless trying to pull the perp’s DNA from any of them.”

“Well, I’m still working on that string of burglaries out on the north end of town. You want to run with The Phantom of the Choir Loft case? That’s what the newspaper is calling it.” He tossed her the front section of Monday’s Daily Sentinel onto her lap.

Jane read the headline and laughed at the inferred speculation that the reporter had managed to squeeze into it.

Madison’s police department could only afford one detective and one crime scene investigator. They were opposites. He had become a cop straight out of high school; she had a degree in criminal forensics from the state college. He was within a few months or years of retirement, depending on who was passing on the rumor; she had been working full time for seven years. He liked hunting and shooting animals; she donated her time at the local animal shelter.

After several heated discussions, neither one any longer brought up their opinions on politics or religion with each other. For the most part, mutual respect preserved their working relationship.

So far, they had proved to be a team that had solved 84 percent of the cases assigned to them.

Jane relished working cases as an unofficial “assistant detective” when her boss was too busy with ones he considered a higher priority. She poured a cup of her favorite coffee and spread the front page over her cluttered desk and read the day’s top story:

Phantom Terrorizes Local Church

By Karla Watson, staff writer

Easter services were anything but normal at Madison Community Church yesterday morning as an unwelcome visitor terrorized church goers.

According to police reports, a masked and caped individual drugged the choir before commandeering the church’s pipe organ. Then he made his escape by knocking down two ushers who had been sent to rescue the choir members.

“Whoever it was wore the ugliest, scariest mask I’ve ever seen in my life,” said head usher Ed Franklin. “It looked just like the Phantom of the Opera from the movies. I had nightmares about it last night. My wife said I screamed in my sleep. I hope they catch whoever it was before he strikes another church.”

Franklin sustained a broken foot and fellow usher Steve Hartley badly bruised ribs as they tried to apprehend the first known criminal to disrupt a worship service in Madison’s history. The ushers described the phantom as between five foot six inches and six feet tall and weighing between 140 and 190 pounds. They were uncertain of his race because every part of skin was covered by gloves, clothing, and the hideous mask.

Rev. Kingston said his church is instituting new procedures to guard against any future attacks.

Jane tossed the paper into her overflowing trash can and then checked her phone for messages. With no calls to return, she left for her 9:30 meeting with choir director Leroy Tubunch.

  • * *

“Find any leads yet?” Leroy asked as he closed the door to his office at the Madison First National Savings and Loan.

“A few.” Jane pulled her small recorder from her pocket and punched its record button. “Interview with choir director Leroy Tubunch. Monday, April twenty-first. Do you have any former choir members whose names begin with the letter C?”

“We’re a pretty steady group for the most part. Most of our members stick with the choir until they either die or they can’t walk up the stairs to the loft any more. The only one who recently left is Charles Untley. Why?”

“Do you know where I can reach Charles?”

  • * *

To keep costs down, the police chief had not yet sent Jane to the academy to qualify to carry a weapon. If he did, her salary would increase and break his already stretched budget. So Jane requested backup when she went to visit Charles at his home. She was not concerned that Charles was violent, just that he might be a little bit crazy and who knew how he might react when confronted. He answered his front door in his robe and slippers.

“Yeah? You better not be selling anything, lady. See my sign?”

Jane glanced at the “No Trespassing” sign next to the doorbell. She opened her police identification card carrier a foot from Charles’ frown. “I’m Jane Starless, investigator with Madison Police Department. Can I come in? I have a few questions. It won’t take very long.”

Charles yawned. “And I’m Charlie Untley and I work the swing shift starting at 3 p.m.”

“Where were you yesterday morning at 9:30?”

“Eating breakfast at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. We sang at the sunrise service and then had breakfast before singing again at the 10 o’clock service. Can I go back to bed now? I’m worn out from yesterday.”

“Yes. Sorry to have bothered you, Mr. Untley.”

The slammed door pushed Jane back half a step.

  • * *

After confirming Charles’ story with two of the staff members at St. Paul’s, Jane drove to Madison Community Church. She caught Pastor Kingston as he was leaving to visit a sick member at the local hospital.

“Do you have a few moments, Pastor?”

He glanced at his watch. “Only two. I have to visit Berta in the hospital and then head home for an early supper because there is a board of deacons meeting tonight at 6:30.”

“I need to know if there is anyone who would want to damage your reputation, to get even with you because of some real or imagined wrong.”

“I’ve been wondering the same thing myself but so far don’t have any idea. I’ve only been here in Madison for two years. I hope I haven’t made too many enemies in that short time. I really have to go now. You can talk to Mary, our church secretary. She’s been here forever and can answer any of your questions.”

Jane nodded her goodbye and walked to the side of the church. Inside of the office, Mary was typing an email thanking all of those who had made the Easter service “One to remember.”

“May I help you?” She looked up from her steno pad. “You’re with the P.D.?”

“Yes. Pastor Kingston told me that you’ve attended the church for quite a while.”

“Fifty-eight years next month.”

“Is there anyone you can think of who might have a grudge against the church? Especially someone whose name begins with a C?”

“You’re trying to figure out who that poor demented soul with the Halloween mask was, aren’t you, dear? Well, I think it was just some tortured young person seeking attention. How sad.” Mary shook her head.

“So no one specific comes to your mind?”

“Oh, there have been those who have left our church over the years. But most of them found homes in other churches.” A tiny clock’s alarm buzzed. “Oh, dear. That’s my alarm telling me that I have to leave in five minutes. If you like, you can look over the church membership rolls as long as you promise to lock the door when you are done.”

After two hours of scanning the ledgers looking for members with names that began with a C, Jane thought she was going cross eyed. She next opened the book labelled Visitors but then decided that such ones probably lacked sufficient motive to pull off the stunt that the Phantom had. She placed the volume back on the shelf by Mary’s computer and then noticed a thin one labelled Church Staff.

Its first pages recorded the years of the pastor who had pioneered the church during previous century. Under his name were those of a secretary, organist, and maintenance worker. Based on the descriptions given by the ushers who had tried to stop the Phantom, Jane had calculated his age to be no more than fifty. She skipped ahead to the section marked 1960s.

You never know. Maybe he was baptized here. Maybe his mom was the organist or secretary or his dad the maintenance worker. Maybe…

Worried about her pets, who had been alone for ten hours, and hungry because she had not eaten since breakfast, Jane wrote a note that she had borrowed the Church Staff volume. Then she went home, fed her pets, ate a bowl of noodle soup, and collapsed into bed.

Jane only had questions about three former staff members the next morning when she returned to the church office. Mary fortified her visitor with strong coffee and sugary donuts so fresh that they left oily residue on the eaters’ hands.

“This guy Ralph Tinnerman was fired?”

“Oh, yes. A deacon caught him stealing toilet paper from the supply room and siphoning gas out of the church’s riding mower.”

“Do you know where he is now?” Images of four of the prisons Jane had visited flashed through her mind.

“He moved away.”

“What about this former organist, Timothy Scarsdale? It looks like he didn’t last very long, less than a year.”

“Oh, he was the dickens, all right. He played the hymns faster than Pastor liked them to be played. So he was fired.”

“Fired?” Jane looked up from the electronic hand held device on which she had begun recording her notes at six that morning. “Where is he now?”

“I hope that he’s in heaven, bless his heart. He died just last year. Pastor Thompson fretted that Timothy had harbored a spirit of unforgiveness all these years.”

Jane sighed. “That only leaves one other person, Judith Dempster. But I know she does not fit the usher’s description. Whoever it was had to be a man.”

“Judith? She was the organist for twelve years but had to give it up to care for her elderly aunt. It’s a good thing that Judith lifted weights and ran every day. That way she was already strong enough to lift her Aunt Paula in and out of bed, the tub, and the car when they went places.”

  • * *

Although she was forty-two, Judith Dempster looked to be in her early thirties, Jane thought. A background check on her had yielded two traffic tickets and nothing more. She now owned the two-bedroom brick house that her Aunt Paula had left to her in her will. She smiled as she gestured for Jane to sit down in the living room furnished with antiques.

“I heard that you’re the one working the Phantom of the Choir Loft case,” Judith said. “I must have gotten at least six phone calls from people who were there. Probably the most excitement Madison has had in the last fifty years, huh?”

“So do you miss being the organist there?”

“Sometimes. But I had to give it up to take care of my aunt.”

Jane probed for ten minutes but Judith’s calm answers and expressions betrayed nothing. Her suspect even let her end the visit, unusual courtesy for the social norms of Madisonites. At the front door, Jane handed Judith her business card.

“Please be sure to call me if you think of anything that might help me find the Phantom. I think he is really hurting and just needs someone to talk to.” Jane extended her hand and winced as Judith squeezed it until her fingers ached. Her gaze travelled up her powerful sinewy forearm and stopped at Judith’s elbow. “That’s quite a nasty bruise. How did you get it?”

  • * *

Judge Allen had presided over hundreds of trials during her thirty-four years on the bench, everything from burglary to rape to murder. She welcomed the novelty of the one beginning that morning. Decorum ruled in her courtroom. She raised her voice and fondled her gavel to make sure all present understood that.

“I’ve allowed the press to sit in on this trial and see that as a result the local paper, two radio stations and one TV channel are all represented here. Just remember that I will not hesitate to reduce your numbers to just one reporter at a time in my courtroom if this case turns into a media circus. Understood?”

The four members of the media nodded. Judge Allen thought they resembled the bobble head figures her grandsons collected and pictured the reporters as new additions to their collections. She turned toward the defendant.

“Ms. Dempster, I understand that you have told the assistant district attorney that you wish to waive your right to a jury trial and the use of a public defender. Is that correct?”

“Yes, your honor.”

Judith’s pantsuit matched her fiery red hair, the judge thought. She turned to the court’s twelve jurors and two alternates, on hand in case the defendant might change her mind at the last moment, a tactic the judge had seen at least a dozen times during her career.

“The jury is dismissed. Please report back to the jury selection room for further instructions. And thank you for your service.”

“What? But I was hoping to get to watch this trial in person.” The oldest juror grumbled as he followed the other thirteen back to the boredom of waiting to be called for another trial.

“Let the record show that the defendant will be representing herself as counsel and that she has waived her right to a trial by jury. Is the prosecution ready to present its case?”

“I am, your honor.” The assistant district attorney stood and out of habit faced the jury box. The judge’s clearing of her throat redirected him. “Your honor, the people will prove that the defendant willingly and intentionally committed acts of terror on the choir members and two ushers from Madison Community Church during its last Easter service. We are seeking the maximum sentence allowed by law, no less than one year in the state correctional facility.” He sat down, hoping his brevity would score points with the judge known as the Gray Fox to defense and prosecuting attorneys.

Judge Allen’s cheeks puffed out as she stifled a groan. Ever since the recent enactment of laws aimed at terrorism, this attorney had used them as a catch all against defendants. Regaining her composure, she decided not to lecture him on what she thought was his misinterpretation of the laws’ intent.

“Does the defense wish to make an opening statement?”

Judith Dempster stood. “I do, your honor.”

“Please proceed.”

“I have thoroughly reviewed the alleged evidence that the prosecution intends to present and have concluded that I am the victim of circumstantial evidence applied to the wrong suspect. I ask that all charges made against me be dropped immediately and this case be dismissed.” She sat down.

Judge Allen studied the two seated ten feet in front of her. They look like a brother and sister trying to get their mom to believe the other one is guilty. What a way to start a Monday. She shuffled the papers stacked before her. “Will counsels please meet with me in my chambers?”

The defendant and her prosecutor followed the judge to the small office behind the court room. They sat when she gestured at the chairs beside her desk.

“I did not want the press to hear what I have to say to you. Our court rooms are so small that they can eavesdrop even if we whisper in there. In the interest of justice, I think a plea bargain would save the both of you a lot of unnecessary effort. How about dropping the charges down to reckless endangerment with no intent to cause bodily harm and in lieu of a sentence that the defendant be required to seek psychiatric treatment?”

“But your honor, we are only prosecuting her based on our interpretation of current laws on the books in regards to acts of terror. Those laws are quite inclusive and what went on a couple of weeks ago at Madison Community Church’s Easter service falls within those broad definitions.”

“I did not terrorize anyone. I only…that is, I mean I am not guilty. Case closed.”

After five minutes of discussion among judge and counsels, during which the members of the media made bets on whether a plea bargain would allow them to return to their offices sooner than expected, the three returned to the court room. Each one now was more convinced that their stance had to be the correct one.

The first witness called was usher Ed Franklin. The prosecutor had him describe how the “so-called Phantom of the Choir Loft caused you to suffer a broken foot and recurring terrifying nightmares of the horrific incident.”

Boy, is he ever primed for his run for mayor, Judge Allen thought. He sure knows how to lay it on really thick.

“Do you see the one who caused your broken foot and nightmares in this court room?”

Ed stared at Judith. Her smile made him blush. “I…I’m just not sure. Judith over there is about the same size as the one who came tearing down the choir loft stairs. But you have to understand that that mask hid the face of whoever it was. I just can’t say for sure.”

The second witness, fellow usher Steve Hartley, also provided inconclusive testimony. As he testified, he made a mental note to somehow connect with Judith after the trial ended. Anyone who could knock him off of his feet like the Phantom had was his kind of woman, one he was willing to wait for, even if she has to serve jail time for her crime. He tried to use the last of his words to lessen its possible length.

“I just want to clarify a few things. Ed only got a broken foot because he dropped the fire extinguisher that he used to break down the door to the loft on it before the Phantom was anywhere near him. And the only reason that I went down is because I was wearing a brand new pair of dress shoes because it was Easter. The soles were still really slick, especially on the tile floor in the lobby. The janitor waxed the heck out of them the day before Easter.” His nods set the cadence of his words.

Judith smiled and winked at Steve as he exited the witness box. He pretended not to notice her as he stifled a smile that turned into a grin when he emerged into the hallway. Ignoring Ed’s tugs on his sleeve, Steve pulled out his smart phone and began searching for a service that would run a background check.

Within fifty seconds, he discovered that for less than $5 he could get Judith’s address, phone number, and approximate age. As the amount of information to be sold increased, the price tag for it rose. Before he had opened his car door in the parking lot, Steve had ordered the most expensive package, which promised a search of thousands of public records.

To him, it was worth every penny. No sense in asking around town about Judith. Word of that would get back to the D.A.’s office or maybe even to Judge Allen. And if that happened he might be implicated as an accessory after the fact or held in contempt of court for not obeying the judge’s admonition for witnesses not to investigate the case. Steve had watched every episode of Perry Mason, some of them more than once. Head usher Ed was beginning to remind him of all the guilty witnesses on the show who would always shift all blame away from themselves.

“Why did you make it sound like it was my fault that I got my foot broken?” Ed pointed at the boot that immobilized the bones of his left foot as they mended.

“Because it was the truth, that’s why. Why should the accused go off to the state pen just because her mask scared you so bad that you almost wet your pants?”

“But –“

“Besides, Judith Dempster might not even be the Phantom. You said you weren’t sure she was back there in court. Well, I’m not sure either.”

“Then why did you just order a background check on her?”

“What are you talking about?” Steve feigned bewilderment, a useless tactic when confronted by a head usher.

“You thought I was just holding on to your coat sleeve to get you to answer my questions, didn’t you? I really did it to see just what it was you were up to on that fancy pants phone of yours. You know what I think? I think you’ve got a guilty conscience and are conducting your own investigation on Judith. That proves she’s guilty.” Ed turned toward the courtroom. “Whatever you find out, you darn well better tell the D.A. Don’t forget that you swore an oath back there in court. You’re still on the hook.”

  • * *

When Ed Franklin re-entered the courtroom after a stop at the cafeteria for a piece of apple pie topped with a slice of cheddar cheese, the prosecuting attorney had ended his examination of crime scene investigator Jane Starless. Judith stood and began her cross examination.

“Detective Starless, how did you obtain your position on the Madison Police Department?”

The prosecutor hopped to his feet. “Your honor, I object. Defense counsel’s question is immaterial, incompetent, irrelevant, and inconsequential. It has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on this case.”

Judge Allen arched her eyebrows. “Objection overruled as long as defense counsel has a reason to pursue her line of questioning.”

“Indeed, I do, your honor. I am only trying to establish this witness’ qualifications to determine the reliability of her testimony against my client, uh…against me…no, against my client.”

The prosecutor scribbled on his yellow legal pad, tore off the page and motioned to an intern seated behind him. He whispered into his assistant’s ear as he handed her the paper. A reporter followed her into the hallway and tailed her all the way to her office but she answered none of his nonstop questions.

Back inside the courtroom, Jane Starless did her best to be truthful as she endured the most hostile attorney she had yet encountered during her career.

“How long have you been a detective, Jane?” Judith Dempster stopped pacing in front of the witness box and waited as her right foot tapped out a 5/4th time rhythm.

“I’m not a detective; I’m a crime scene investigator.”

Judith turned and leaned over the paneled box’s top molding. Jane thought her smile looked like her cat’s when it had cornered a mouse. She clutched the veneer of the molding, faded by the sweat from the palms of hundreds of witnesses who had clutched it. The catlike smile faded.

“Then why did you investigate me? Were you ordered to do so or are you a loose cannon in the Madison P. D. who runs amok over its innocent citizens such as my client?”

“Objection, your honor.” The prosecutor thumped the table in front of him with his fist. “That question impugns the professionalism and integrity of the witness and is totally uncalled for.”

Judge Allen pursed her lips. “Overruled. But defense counsel will confine herself to establishing the witness’s qualifications without any more nasty insinuations.”

“Yes, your honor. My intent is only to try and verify why Jane did what she did. Please answer my question, Crime Scene Investigator Starless.” She emphasized each word of the title as if they were thrusts from a knife sharpened to kill.

“Detective Bateman was tied up working on other cases so he let me handle the Phantom of the Choir Loft case. I have no agendas, hidden or otherwise.”

“I see. What field is your training in?”

“I have a bachelor of science degree in criminal forensics.”

“Do you have any training in detective techniques for investigating suspects of crimes?”

“No formal training but Detective Bateman has taught me everything that he knows.”

“So Detective Bateman did not have time to investigate the Phantom case, but he does have time to train you to be a detective?” Judith ended her question with a smirk.

Jane sighed and turned to the only one she thought capable of rescuing her. “Your honor, I…”

“Please answer the question.”

“It’s on the job training, I guess. I don’t want to work CSI my whole life. Someday I hope to advance to police officer and then detective.”

“At my expense?” Judith grabbed the top of the witness box and pulled on it. “I mean at my client’s expense. I mean…I…” She spun around and waited for the prosecutor to object. But he had returned to scribbling on his yellow legal pad. He was so intent that he did not notice when Judith leaned over the table and stared down at his notes. “No further questions. You may cross examine.” She winked at the one who most opposed her innocence and courtroom skill as a defense counsel.

“I have no further questions of this witness, your honor. The people would now like to call the defendant Judith Dempster to the stand.”

“Do you wish to testify in your own defense, Ms. Dempster?” Judge Allen asked. “Under the Fifth Amendment you are not required to give any testimony which might possibly prove to be self-incriminating.”

Judith strode to the front of the witness box. “In the interest of justice my client needs to clarify a few things, your honor. She will gladly testify.” She was amazed that anyone would test her combined skills as defense counsel and the accused.

After swearing to “Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” Judith settled her rump onto the oak chair in the box. She was surprised that it held none of the last witness’s urine.

And I was sure I had scared the piss out of her. Oh, well.

The first question refocused her train of thought. “Did you enter Madison Community Church on Easter, then drug the choir into unconsciousness, interrupt the service by wildly playing the theme from the Phantom of the Opera movie, and finally injure two ushers during your escape down the choir loft stairs and through the parking lot?”

“My client refuses to answer any of your questions on the grounds that it might incriminate me… I mean her…I mean…” She turned to the judge for help.

“Who is in the witness box as we speak, Judith? The defendant or the defendant’s lawyer?”

Judith’s jaw trembled. “Stop trying to trick me… I saw what you were writing down about me! Your honor, I demand that he be held in contempt of court!”

The prosecutor returned to his table and sat. “No further questions, your honor.”

Judge Allen ordered a thirty-minute recess. When court reconvened at 11:05 a.m., she tried to wrap up the proceedings so everyone could exit for an early lunch.

“If there are no other witnesses, will defense and prosecution please proceed with their closing arguments?”

“The people wish to call one final expert witness, your honor; Dr. Justin Hedland.”

“I object, your honor. Defense has had no time to prepare by reading the prosecution’s deposition of this witness.” Judith extended her lower lip.

“Your honor, we did not depose this witness. He was summoned just this morning based on the course that this trial has taken.”

Judge Allen drummed her fingers and stared at the light stand that hung from the windowless courtroom’s ceiling and illumined it more than the two who she was contending with, she thought. “Call your witness.”

The prosecutor established the witness’ expertise: licensed psychiatrist with the state, twenty-nine years of clinical experience with private patients followed by three years of work at a state prison for those who had been declared criminally insane or in need of psychiatric treatment. Hoping to score points with the judge by wrapping up his case before lunch, the prosecutor tried to condense his questions into one:

“After reading the testimony of the accused, do you have any opinion concerning her condition?”

“Yes. It appears that she may be suffering from multiple personality disorder. Of course, further examination by a psychiatrist is necessary to make a definitive diagnosis.”

“You need to examine him while you’re at it.” Judith pointed at the prosecutor she thought hated her.

Judge Allen pounded her gavel. “Please keep your opinions to yourself, Ms. Dempster. One more outburst like that one and I will hold you in contempt of court.”

Judith bowed her head.

Sensing the kill, he continued. “In layman’s terms, can you describe multiple personality disorder?”

“Perhaps the easiest way would be two examples, one from the field of literature and the other from cinema. The book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic rendering of a person with two distinct personalities, one good and the other one evil. Then there is the movie Chinatown. It features Faye Dunaway in a role in which she is questioned by a private detective played by Jack Nicolson. Unknown to the private detective, the person who he is trying to understand in an eccentric family is a child who is the result of incest. In his frustration, the private detective slaps the child’s mother while asking who the girl really is. She answers, ‘my sister…my daughter…my sister…’ It is a classic scene that illustrates the conflict of her trying to be both mother and sister to the same person. Having to assume both of those roles seemed to have split her into two distinct personalities, a conflict that would torture and fragment even the strongest soul.”

Judith leapt to her feet so fast that her chair crashed to the floor. “I am not the product of incest, your honor.” She pounded the table. “For the prosecution to insinuate such is nothing short of slander.” She spun and faced the press gallery. “And if you print any of it, I’ll sue you to kingdom come for libel!”

Before the judge could summon the bailiff, Judith picked up her chair and sat back down.

“I’m afraid that you did not believe my earlier warning.” Judge Allen glared at Judith. “You are in contempt of court. Fine is $25.”

When Judith opened her purse and pulled out her wallet, Judge Allen groaned. Pity replaced her anger.

“You can take care of the fine later, Judith.”

Being called by her first name in a gentle tone placated Judith. “Thank you, your honor. May I question this witness now?”

“No further questions by the prosecution, your honor.”

“Proceed, Judith.”

Hearing her first name again from the judge convinced Judith that the trial’s outcome had been decided in her favor by the one who also served as jury. All that remained was to dismantle the “expert” who sat before her.

“So you think my client has multiple personalities, doctor?”

“Perhaps. As I said earlier, I recommend further examination of her.”

“Name my client’s personalities. All six of them!” She was certain that his failure to do so would remove the adjective “expert” from his classification.

He blinked. “So far, based on my observation, I see two: Judith the defense attorney and Judith who is convinced that she is the persecuted victim of the legal system. But until the court rules on this case, I must withhold any other speculation.”

“Ha! There’s also Judith the caretaker for Aunt Paula, Judith the good little girl who always, always does the right thing for everybody else, Judith the greatest organist ever to live in Madison or this whole state for that matter, and Judith the Phantom of the Choir Loft who returned to perform solely because of popular demand. You don’t know how many people told me over the years how much they missed my music, my virtuoso abilities on the organ.”

She took three steps to her left and faced the judge. “Your honor, this so-called expert witness has failed miserably. He was able to only name two of my client’s six personalities. That’s a meager 33%, an F-minus in anybody’s grading scheme. For my closing argument, I ask that all charges against my client be dropped and that the district attorney’s office be ordered by you to issue a public apology to her.”

  • * *

Usher Steve Hartley parked his 2012 Ford Fiesta in the state hospital’s parking lot. He fumbled as he tied the knot of his new orange silk tie, bought to cheer up Judith, whom he had not seen since the trial. After emptying his pockets and walking through the metal detector, he entered the room set aside for visitors to meet with the facility’s patients. Judith looked normal except for the sterile surroundings in which she had placed herself.

“Which Judith did you come to see, Steve? The bad Judiths did not like your letters to the good Judith and got so mad that they went away. The doctor says that pretty soon there will only be one of me left and then I can go home again.”

“Uh, how many Judiths are left now?”

“Just two. Judith the Phantom of the Choir Loft and the one talking to you. The Phantom Judith is really bad. I didn’t understand that until the doctor explained it all to me.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you wish I could just click my heels and say, ‘there’s no place like home’ enough times to make me go back home?”

He reached across the table and squeezed her hand, which brought a stare and shaking of head from a guard, one of two stationed in the large room to enforce the hospital’s policies and procedures. She walked to where Judith and Steve sat.

“No physical contact, sir.”

“I’m sorry.”

The guard’s smile seemed to say, “There will be time enough for that once Judith goes home.”

“So which Judith do you like best?” She brushed her hair from her forehead and smiled as she had when Steve had testified on the witness stand.

“Plain old Judith suits me very well. We’re going to have a homecoming for you that you’ll never forget.”

The Internet Ate My Homework

Georgia Kippers sometimes wondered why she had bothered to become a teacher, especially when having to endure the tales her students dreamed up to excuse their laziness:

“I had to babysit my brother and sister last night. They were brats as usual and wouldn’t let me do my homework.”

“I lost the essay on the bus.”

“My mom made me help make dinner and then I had to wash the dishes. I didn’t have enough time left over for homework.”

“We had football practice. By the time I got home I was so tired that I fell asleep while I was writing it.”

At other times of the year, it was “volleyball, track, basketball, cross country, softball, or baseball practice” that had derailed students’ assignments from completion.

As the years had passed, Georgia thought that the excuses became more pathetic. She now regretted allowing her class to send their written assignments to her by email. That had allowed a whole new genre of excuses:

“Our internet service went down.”

“My computer broke.”

“Our cat jumped up on top of the keyboard. His paw hit the delete key. And I was on the last paragraph.” This excuse was accompanied by tears so sincere that the English teacher suggested the student take the drama class next semester.

Nevermind that Georgia taught honors English, intended for those wanting to attend college. The way her students behaved, they would be lucky to pass the SAT or ACT. She thought that her students in the bonehead English class had more motivation. When she had fretted about such matters in the teachers’ lounge, the oldest instructor had tried to console her.

“You can’t make up for what goes on at their homes. If the parents don’t provide an environment to nurture their kids’ minds, what are we supposed to do, brain transplants? I bet if you visited your students’ homes they would have more TV channels and radio stations available for the kids than they have books in the house.”

Georgia felt duty bound to defend her students, if only a little bit. “But these days, most people just download books off the internet onto to their handheld readers.”

The skin on her mentor’s face seemed to shrink as his cheekbones, chin, and forehead stretched it. Spittle flew from his mouth. “Don’t get me started! My students spend more time fiddling with their…their…what are they called?”

“Smart phones?”

“Smart phones? They ought to call them dumb phones. Too many of my students play with them instead of listening to me. You know how they have a metal detector to check kids for guns and knives before they come on campus?”

“Yes.”

“They ought to have a detector to check for dumb phones and every other kind of electronic gizmo that the kids bring to school. That would teach them a lesson after we confiscated enough of them.”

Because it was Monday, Georgia’s twenty-five pupils in the English class that met after lunch had had an extra two days to complete their 1,000-word essays. But two assignments had not been placed on her desk or sent to her computer. Before, Georgia would have shrugged it off by thinking, ninety-two per cent isn’t bad; maybe someday 100 per cent of them will finally turn in their homework on time.

But something about what history teacher Roger McClatchy had said during lunch angered her enough to confront the two offenders.

“Julie, do you have your essay?”

“No. My period gave me cramps all weekend and –”

Her classmates’ snickers and hoots made her blush.

“And what about you, Barney? Where is yours?”

“I sent it in to you last night, Ms. Kippers. Honest.”

She clicked on the laptop that she carried to class and scanned the inbox reserved for her students’ assignments. “I just checked again and it’s still not here. Let me guess, your email provider is slow or something of the sort? Maybe you should have sent it by pony express instead of by email?”

Barney scratched his head. “It should be to you by now. Maybe the internet ate my homework. I read that there’s this new virus that intercepts emails and eats them before they ever get delivered to where you send them.”

“The internet ate your homework?”

“I think so.” He looked for an ally. “You’re a computer geek, Pete. Tell her about that virus that’s going around.”

“Actually…” Pete’s contribution to the discussion faded when he saw his teacher’s frown.

Thirty-two years of teaching English to often bored, ungrateful students boiled inside of Georgia. Why had she abandoned her dream of being a writer for the security of a steady paycheck, benefits, and a pension if these ingrates didn’t make her die a premature death first? Eating noodle soup three times a day as she queried literary agents about her manuscripts from the confines of a studio apartment in the poor side of the city would be preferable to listening to any more excuses, she thought.

She opened her mouth, ready to pummel Barney with her frustrations but only a tiny squeak escaped through her lips.

A mouse. I sound exactly like a scared little mouse trying to escape from Barney the cat. That’s what I am. A mouse.

She cleared her throat as she decided to speak to the class as a unit. Venting on a single student could be risky. During her career, sensitive students had complained to parents, some of whom had scheduled appointments with the principal who had…

Besides, zeroing in on Barney did not seem adequate.

“The last time I checked, this is Senior English Composition for those planning on going off to college. Am I in the wrong classroom? Maybe one of those time warps that some of you like to write about has carried me off to an alternate universe and you are zombies who plan to eat me before class ends?”

A few students blinked. They could not remember their teacher ever compromising her high standards the way she did now. She had never mentioned alternative universes, much less zombies.

“I know that I am not cool. I was not cool when I was your age, am not cool now, and most likely never will be. So be it. I’m much older than you, old enough to be your grandmother. I’m, ‘what do you call it?’”

“Old school?” A girl in the front row asked. It was the first time that she had said anything in her classroom, Georgia thought.

“Yes, that’s the descriptive phrase I was trying to recall. Some of you have used it in your essays, right?”

Several students nodded.

“I’m from the baby boomer generation. You are all millennials; I guess that’s the label someone somewhere attached to your generation. Back in my day, we would lie to our teachers and say, ‘the dog ate my homework.’ Now, if Barney is correct, there are electronic dogs running amok throughout the internet devouring poor innocent students’ homework.”

“But…” Barney raised his hand.

“Please save what you have to say for later, Barney. We can talk after class is over. We have only half of a school year left. It is my responsibility to somehow equip all of you for four or more years of college or university. Don’t you realize that you will need writing skills for just about every course you will take there?”

“But I’m going to major in math.”

“What if you need to write a thesis if you get a master’s degree or a PhD?”

“Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

“That’s the problem. Many of you don’t think of the consequences of slacking off now in high school so you can have a good time. So for the rest of the year you will have to turn in your assignments on paper. No more of any of you telling me, ‘the internet ate my homework’ or ‘our internet service went down.’ Any questions?”

“What if our printer runs out of ink or breaks?”

She walked down an aisle and leaned over the one who had provided the other twenty-four students with new excuses to use to circumvent her new requirements.

“Then you will write out your assignment in ink. And it will be legible, even if you have to print it.” She returned to the front of the classroom. “Understood?”

A few students nodded. One yawned. Four others continued to read their iPads or smart phones. Seeing his teacher’s serious expression, one student pulled out one of the ear buds that was sending his electronic device’s favorite music to his mind. He pulled out the other ear bud when Georgia dropped her laptop computer into the plastic waste basket by her desk.

It landed with a thud that raised the students’ eyes from the screens that mesmerized them, that had distracted them from every subject.

“If you do send your homework to me by email ever again, guess what? I no longer have anything on which to read it.”

Leroy, Stanley, and the Devil

After supper, Stanley Dalrumple stared at the ceiling from his bed and pondered his father’s oft-repeated saying to “either fish or cut bait.”

An hour later, Stanley decided it was time to fish. As soon as he heard his father’s snores, he dressed and crawled through his bedroom window. Because Pastor Trueblood often preached on “saving souls from the clutches of the devil,” maybe his parents would understand their son’s stealth after he rescued the most bound soul he had met during his eight years.

It took ten minutes to walk to the last house along the two-lane highway where fields and woods replaced civilization. The small home was 200 feet from the road, its long dirt driveway overgrown with weeds. Stanley wondered why the owner had extended the highway’s drainage ditch through the driveway.

Must be to make it harder for people in cars to turn off and help the devil’s prisoner. Well, I don’t care about that ditch or even a witch. He remembered the one with a green face from The Wizard of Oz and shuddered.

As long as it’s not the Wicked Witch of the West, anyway.

Stanley had met the chained-up boy only once. About his age, the boy had screamed whenever he saw someone walking by along the road’s shoulder in front of his house. Out scavenging for soda bottles with his wagon a week before, Stanley had heard the faint screams and investigated.

He had promised to return with help.

That help was a file borrowed from his father’s toolbox. Jason Dalrumple had so many hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, and files that Stanley thought one missing tool would go unnoticed.

Stanley knew the file would be of little use if the devil appeared. He had caught a glimpse of the huge cursing figure as he had crept from the property after his first visit. The devil had carried a pitchfork in one hand and blood red eyes in his head.

When one of his hell hounds started yapping, the devil had hurled the pitchfork toward the direction the dog pointed. It had landed two feet from Stanley, who wet his pants when its handle quivered as if it were pointing at him because he had dared to enter Satan’s property.

If not for the ten-gallon hat on the devil’s head, Stanley was certain he would have spied his two horns. But those blood red eyes and pitchfork were proof enough; he was the devil and the boy was his captive waiting to be set free by the servant of the Lord, Stanley Dalrumple, who had returned because of the boy’s tearful pleas.

Stanley waited until he was under the windowsill before calling the prisoner’s name. “Hey Leroy, are you awake? It’s me. I came back to set you free.”

“I knew you all would come on back and fetch me. Hurry on up before my pappy comes back.”

His pappy? Wow! The devil must’ve put a spell on him. Stanley climbed through the window and landed on the wooden floor with his hands and head.

“Oh, thank the Lord you came on back. How you gonna get me free like you promised you would?” He rattled his chain.

“With this.”

Stanley pulled the twelve-inch file from his pocket and started to etch a groove on a link of chain fastened to the leg of a rusty woodstove. He filed nonstop until a blister formed on each hand.

“I got to go before the devil comes back and chains me up too. You’re going to have to finish cutting through where I started. Once you get free go out to the road and go left. Run on over to my house. It’s the green one. My mom will figure out what to do next. She’s real smart.” He covered up the partially cut link with a log. “Just don’t let him see where you’re cutting. I figure it’s gonna take you a while to finish cutting it all the way through.”

“Okay. You be the onliest friend I gots in this whole big world. I be obliged to you forever and ever. I been praying you all would come along for years.”

“I’m going to skedaddle before the devil gets back and puts his pitchfork in me. He almost did the last time I was here. Don’t forget. The green house is the one where I live.”

“Good bye.” He went to work rubbing the file on the partially cut link.

A day later, Stanley walked the road again in search of soda bottles. In front of the devil’s house, he parked his wagon and jumped down into the drainage ditch. He tarried as he retrieved three bottles. Distracted by the playing of his role of passerby, he did not notice an approaching figure until it was thirty feet from him.

“What you doing on my property? You look just like that kid that was trespassing here before.” Gone was the pitchfork, replaced by a shotgun filled with rock salt.

“Just picking up pop bottles, Mister. Honest.” Stanley held two of them above his head.

The devil jabbed his gun at the intruder. “You better git right now. And don’t come back no more. We don’t cotton none to trespassers out here in the country, son.”

Stanley scrambled out of the ditch and grabbed his red wagon’s handle. Several bottles spilled out of it as the wagon bounced on four wheels, then three at a time, but he did not stop running until he was home.

*****

Five nights later, Jason Dalrumple heard someone pounding on the front door. He switched on the porch light and peered through a window at the small boy who kept glancing over his shoulder. Jason lowered his head to the brass mail slot. “What do you want this time of night, son? Why aren’t you home in bed?”

“Help me, Mister. Stanley said to come over here.”

Jason opened the unlocked the door and stepped back from the ten-foot length of rusty chain that dragged after the boy into his living room.

“What the heck?” Jason’s yells soon brought his wife and Stanley to the frightened escapee.

It took a police officer fifteen minutes to arrive and almost that long to piece together the story told by Leroy and Stanley.

“What happens now?” Jason handed the cop another cup of coffee.

“I’m calling for backup. Then we’ll go pay his father a visit. You think you can watch Leroy until we get the social worker over here first thing in the morning?”

“Sure.”

*****

The devil, alias Monroe O. Lithington, was certain that the police had arrived to shut down the still that he operated in the woods on the backside of his property. He sighed when the two lawmen explained their visit at 2:34 a.m.

Leastways they ain’t here after my moonshine.

He spent the night in jail and said little until he appeared before a judge the next afternoon. The Dalrumples and a reporter from the Madisin News were the only spectators. Leroy sat at a table with a social worker fifteen feet from his father. Judge Bellow read from the court docket.

“This is a preliminary hearing of Monroe O. Lithington on the charge of child neglect. In the interest of time, I would like the defendant to give his side of the story. Then we’ll listen to his son. Any objections?”

The public defender turned to the social worker, who shook her head.

“No objections, your honor.” She spoke for both. With her caseload always seeming to increase, she had learned that cooperating with judges produced better results for her young clients.

“Good. Mr. Lithington, is it true that you chained your son to a woodstove and if so, why?”

The accused coughed and his voice quavered. “Your honor, I had no choice. I was fearing that Leroy’s mama would come on back home and take him away once and for all.”

“Where is his mother?”

“I don’t rightly know. About six years back she runs off with some piano player. From what I been told he plays down around the Chitlin’ Circuit.”

“The what?”

“Chitlin’ Circuit. That be all the dance halls and juke joints that be spread out all over everywhere in the South. They are the devil’s dens of iniquity. But I reckon I ain’t too surprised my wife now is going into them. If she be letting some other man be poking her then I guess anything is possible.” His head bowed.

“Did she take the boy with her when she first left home?”

“At first. Then one day about five years back, she dropped him off. She said she’d be back for him but I ain’t seen her no more since.” He turned and pointed at Leroy. “I didn’t mean him no harm. I just wanted to keep her from snatching him when I wasn’t at home is all. I love my boy. He’s all I got left in this world.”

“I see.” The judge turned toward Leroy. “Now it’s Leroy’s turn. Do you remember your mother at all?”

“Yes, sir. But just a little bit. Mostly I just remember one day she hugged me and told me to be good and she would come on back to get me some day. I figured I must not have been good enough because she never came back for me.”

“How long has your father chained you up?”

“He only does it when he be gone a spell. Like when he goes on off to town or out to work on the fields. He takes the chain back off when he be in the house.”

“I meant how many years has he been chaining you up?”

Leroy shrugged. “Long as I remember for.”

The judge sighed and stared at the gavel he had wielded thousands of times to maintain his sense of order. “Will you two please approach the bench?”

When the social worker and attorney were two feet from him he lowered his voice. “Any deal you two can work out between you?”

“I’d like to keep Leroy at the children’s home until we can investigate his home and their stories further, your honor.” The social worker tapped her crimson nails on the oak top of the bench, reminders of the blood she had drawn in other court battles.

“Meantime I request the accused be released on his own recognizance, your honor.” The lawyer placed both his hands by the gavel and wondered if he would ever get to pound one.

“Very well.”

The judge waited until the two had returned to their clients. “Leroy Lithington is hereby remanded to the children’s home. Monroe Lithington is released pending investigation of the living conditions at his home and verification can made of the mother’s whereabouts so that custody can be granted to the appropriate parent. Court adjourned.”

*****

The lone detective from the Madisin Police Department stared at the teletype message from Mobile, Alabama. He tore off the sheet and walked across the street to the public defender’s cramped office. The balding attorney stared at him over stacks of dusty folders. “What’s up, Vic?”

“Remember the guy who kept his kid chained up?”

“Monroe Lithington?”

“Turns out his wife died in a car wreck about four and a half years back. The only ID on her listed a Georgia address so they never found out about her husband and kid.”

  • * *

Spring had replaced the long winter. At first, going to school had been difficult for Leroy. But with Stanley’s mother tutoring him, Leroy had quickly learned to read and write. He especially enjoyed listening to Stanley’s parents talk about what went on far from their small community.

“Looks like Ike will be elected again,” Jason folded the paper he had been reading. “Sure hope he keeps us out of any more wars. Since I already fought in two of them, there’s no sense in Leroy or Stanley ever having to fight in another one.”

Thelma Dalrumple glanced at her son and his friend. Talk of war is unnecessary, she thought.

“Did you hear that those 1955 pennies that the mint made a mistake on are worth a lot of money? If I get some rolls of pennies from the bank do you boys want to search for some of them?”

Leroy looked up from his homework. “Sure would, Mrs. Dalrumple. “I can use the money to pay for my schooling when I get bigger.”

“What do you want to be?” Stanley asked.

“A writer, so I can write about how you set me free.”

The Ravens Shall Feed You

The smell was always the worst reminder.

For days, the charred flesh that stuck to the idols caused Zebulun to walk as far from the temple as possible. But if the wind shifted, the odor found his nose. He thought of how the infants’ agonizing screams lasted less than a minute as the fire consumed them.

But the odors from the sacrifices to Baal lingered long after their pain ceased.

Expressing how human sacrifice infuriated him would be foolish. Any willing to listen might just pretend to agree. Then they could report his rebellion. Being posted to a dangerous location might result. Or if the queen caught wind of his beliefs, she could get that eunuch of a husband of hers to order a worse fate for Zebulun.

So the soldier kept his faith in the Lord God hidden from others. But his silence offered little peace. Instead it fanned his turmoil.

Ritual? Ha! It’s as if they think they are sacrificing a lamb or heifer. It’s the murder of helpless children, their days cut short by parents too ignorant or too frightened to care as their sons and daughters die.

“Zebulun. Wake up.”

“What? I’m not asleep. I…I am meditating.”

“On what? I know better. Your eyes were open but you were standing as still as a rock does.”

“Isn’t that what a guard is supposed to do?”

“Bah. Show at least a little movement so I don’t have to climb up to the top of this wall to check on you again.”

“Yes, Captain.”

The weary guard walked the length of the wall, turned and repeated his movements.

This will keep the city safe? Israel is not plagued by enemies from without but from within. Why did King Ahab have to marry Jezebel?

Pale moonlight revealed a figure, seventy yards away, approaching the city’s main gate. Zebulun scanned the hilltops.

Nothing.

Then he squinted at the space to either side of the slow moving shape. Nothing. A spy perhaps? From Judah? More likely from one of the heathen nations that surround Israel.

The sentry laughed at his thoughts. Israel was as pagan as any other nation, nearby or far away.

“You, there. Why do you approach Samaria at this time of night?”

Silence.

“Answer me.”

Silence.

The figure stretched out and became another one of the sleeping humans and animals waiting outside of the gate until it would open in the morning. The fire blazing near him revealed what his lips did not. He wore some kind of hairy animal skin and hair and beard that gave him a wild kind of look.

He is probably just another apostate who has come to worship the false gods of Queen Jezebel. Zebulun resumed his pacing of the wall. I think the Lord God has abandoned Israel. We are doomed.

  • * *

“Zebulun, I’m here to relieve you.”

“Good.” He handed the spear he had carried for ten hours to his replacement.

“Long night for you?”

He yawned. “They are all long. Guard duty is probably the worst part of being a soldier.”

“And I always thought that killing and being killed in battle was.”

The sleepy soldier descended the flight of stone steps to the courtyard. After taking a single step toward his barracks, he felt a presence float by him. Although the man had not touched Zebulun, something about the stranger roused the soldier’s instincts.

Whoever it was wore no sword or knife. As his long wooden staff hit the stone pavement it seemed to send forth an urgency, that he was on some sort of mission. Dust and sweat clung to his bare arms and legs, his face and thick beard.

Looks like he has come from a long journey, Zebulun thought as he followed him. Then his sleep deprived mind remembered the silent one who had descended from the dark hills.

“It’s you,” Zebulun said. “I’m the sentry from last night who called down to you from the wall, remember?”

When no response came, Zebulun ran to the man’s side. “No need to be unfriendly. Are you silent because you do not speak Hebrew?”

His reply was a small grunt, as if that was all this bothersome conversation needed to end it. Zebulun wondered if that was the way this man’s tribe communicated with outsiders.

His father was a merchant; his mother had grown up as a shepherdess tending her family’s flocks. But neither of them had ever grunted except when lifting something heavy. Nor had they spoken of strange people who used such noises to communicate. Maybe Hebrew was a foreign tongue for this stranger?

Because his parents had taught him that the Lord God expected Israelites to treat others fairly, even aliens who dwelt among them, Zebulun continued his friendliness. “My name is Zebulun. What is yours?”

His pace did not slow down as the man turned his head. “Elijah.”

“And where are you from, Elijah?”

“Is that the palace over there?”

“Yes.”

Elijah doubled the length and pace of his stride. He ignored all whom he passed. As Elijah’s foot touched the bottom step to the palace, Zebulun ran after him. Tired from a night of serving as a sentry, he could not catch up to stop the foolish actions.

“Wait!” Zebulun cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted after him. “You cannot enter the palace unannounced. Wait for me and…”

Because Elijah was near the top of the steps and showed no intent of slowing his pace, Zebulun stopped calling after him. His mouth fell open when the guards at the entrance to the palace did not stop Elijah. They continued to stare straight ahead as if they did not see him pass. Zebulun summoned the last of his strength and ran up the steps. When he neared the entrance to the throne room, he heard the stranger’s voice.

Zebulun leaned against a pillar as the words echoed off of the marble and granite walls.

“As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”

Zebulun tensed and waited for Elijah’s scream as a spear or sword or perhaps both would end his lack of obedience to protocol. Instead, he watched him stride by. Once again, Zebulun jogged to keep up with him.

“You are a prophet of the one true God. My prayers have been answered.”

Zebulun’s panting forced air down his dry throat. The warm atmosphere burned his lungs, leaving him unable to speak and keep pace with the prophet he had thought he would not live long enough to see. When they reached the gate, Zebulun tried once again to learn about the one he had first glimpsed seven hours earlier.

“Please, Elijah. I know you are a prophet. Tell me where you are going?”

Elijah stopped. He smiled as his hand patted Zebulun’s shoulder.

“To where the ravens will feed me.”

  • * *

If days seem long because of living in a decadent society whose corruption has invited God’s judgment, the sleepless nights grow even longer. Abandoning the God of Abraham, David, and Elijah for gods fashioned from stone and wood had not been merely foolish, Zebulun thought.

It was suicidal.

More than two years had passed since Elijah’s ultimatum to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. For Zebulun, they had been blessed because he had been promoted from guarding the walls to guarding the palace and cursed because that meant instead of hearing the continuing screams of the children offered in fire to Baal, he had now to endure the rants and tantrums of Queen Jezebel, the source of Israel’s human sacrifices.

“I told my father it was a mistake to ally himself with Israel by making me marry you.”

King Ahab recoiled from the words of his queen.

“You act as if what I say to you is some sort of secret. But all Israel knows that the great King Ahab is little better than a eunuch. Has there ever been a kingdom as powerless, as impotent as yours?”

On and on the harangue continued.

“Phoenicia, ruled by my father King Ethbaal, is superior to Israel in every way. Phoenicians rule the seas, Israelites cower in the desert. My people are great merchants, bringing goods and treasure from distant lands; your people are nothing but a lazy bunch of shepherds and farmers. Don’t bother telling me again about what you claim was Israel’s golden age, when David united the twelve tribes of Israel into such a great nation that when the Queen of Sheeba paid David’s son Solomon a visit, she was breathless. I have yet to be breathless since leaving my home in Phoenicia…”

Noticing her husband’s downcast gaze, Queen Jezebel paused. She stopped pacing in front of his throne and laid her head on his lap.

“Forgive me, my king. It is not you to blame for Israel’s suffering. It is Elijah who is to blame. Let me consult my prophets. They will know what you must do.”

Zebulun walked to a hallway next to the throne room and stared at the royal city through a latticed window. What breeze filtered through the window was hot. As Zebulun silently prayed for his nation, the words of Elijah from long ago pulsed in his mind:

“As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”

If only the king would lead his people in repentance, then surely the Lord God would have Elijah speak again, this time a blessing. Zebulun wished he were in a position to voice that thought to King Ahab. If dew and rain did not return soon, how many would die?

When he heard Queen Jezebel return to the throne room, Zebulun scurried to the gold trimmed door that led to it. He lingered outside the door as he pretended to inspect the two guards stationed there. One guard nodded his head at the pretender as the other grinned. The queen’s voice was now gentle.

“My prophets have agreed with me. They said that he should be brought here to the palace. If Elijah does not cooperate, then he can face the same punishment that was given to those other prophets like him.”

Zebulun shuddered as he hurried down the long corridor to the room assigned to him as commander of the day time guards. He remembered how Queen Jezebel had ordered that dozens of prophets who remained loyal to the Lord God be executed. After he had shut the door to his tiny chamber, he fell on his knees and cried out quietly to his God to spare Elijah from the wicked queen who ruled Israel more than her husband.

A knock on his door ended his prayer.

“The queen wants to see you.”

“Why, Obadiah?”

“The one who told me to find you did not say what she wants. Keep your head and maintain your bearing or you may lose your life.”

Zebulun straightened his robe. The 197 steps to the throne room became the longest walk of his career of serving the royal couple. Endless nights of guard duty now seemed welcome. Obadiah whispered as they walked side by side.

“You know where my loyalties lie?”

“I have heard rumors that you worship the Lord God.”

“Good. Believe them but do not repeat them.”

Having Obadiah at his side steadied Zebulun’s gait as they appeared before Jezebel’s throne and bowed.

“You are Zebulun?” The queen pointed at the one she acknowledged only out of desperation.

“Yes, my Queen.”

“I’ve been told that you spoke with Elijah when he came here two years ago to speak his lies.”

He gulped. Already he felt the steel of a guard’s sword severing his head at the queen’s command. But if his death kept others from dying, so be it.

“Only once as he departed from Samaria.” His voice quivered.

“Then you must tell everything you know to the king and Obadiah to help them find Elijah.”

“Yes, my Queen.” Zebulun took a step backward and bumped into Obadiah. He turned to beg forgiveness for his clumsiness. When he turned around to bow again, Jezebel was gone, having slipped into the room hidden by the crimson curtains near her throne.

“Come.” Obadiah grabbed Zebulun’s arm and led him toward the guardroom. “The sooner I am away from Samaria, the better.”

As he changed, Obadiah had Zebulun retell all he knew. Obadiah sighed when he learned of Elijah’s destination.

“Where the ravens will feed him? But that could be anywhere.”

“I know. But when I asked Elijah where he was going that was all he would tell me. Then he smiled and walked out the gate toward the wilderness. I have not seen him since.”

“At least you had enough sense not to lie to the queen. If she suspected that you had she would have told King Ahab you were a conspirator against his throne with Elijah and you would be dead by now. She knows how to use the king’s fears to get what she wants. It sickens me to even be near them.”

“As chief servant in the palace, then you must be sick most of your waking hours. Is it really true that you hid some of the Lord’s prophets when Queen Jezebel began to have them killed?”

Obadiah bowed his head. “If I had not done that then Elijah alone would be left from among the Lord’s prophets here in Israel.” He fastened a belt around his waist. “Sometimes I think that soldiers such as you face less danger than true prophets of the Lord. And while Israelites face famine, the queen continues to feed her false prophets at her table.”

An hour later, King Ahab stumbled to the stable and met Obadiah. They led a small contingent of soldiers into the wilderness. Those who followed muttered about serving in an army whose real leader wore gowns and sat in the palace as her husband obeyed her commands.

The search party had not travelled far before Ahab raised his arm and reined his horse to a stop. “You soldiers return to Samaria.” He watched as they trudged back toward the city that now appeared as large as his fist.

“What do you require now, my king?” Obadiah asked.

“Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals.” King Ahab turned his horse westward and urged it into a trot.

At least he’s joining in this foolish quest. No grass can survive this long without rain. Obadiah turned eastward. He preferred walking to the sore rump that riding horses inflicted.

As the miles passed, he relaxed. The kind of peace that only solitude in the midst of God’s creation can bring flooded his soul. I am beginning to like this, he thought. I bet the king likes his search just as much because it gives him time away from Queen Jezebel.

An approaching figure startled him. When he was certain, Obadiah fell on his knees and bowed until his forehead touched sand and rocks.

“Is it really you, my lord Elijah?”

“Yes. Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here.’”

“What have I done wrong, that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? As surely as the Lord your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. But now you tell me to go to my master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth. Haven’t you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. And now you tell me to go to master and say, ‘Elijah is here.’ He will kill me!”

“As the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today.”

  • * *

The meeting between prophet and king was better than Obadiah expected. Ahab tried to make up with bluster what he lacked in courage as he projected his sins onto the one he hated.

“Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” Ahab did not dismount from his exhausted horse as he used it as if it were a throne.

“I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

  • * *

Zebulun stared from the top of the palace steps as his fellow Israelites filed into the temple of Baal.

All the people do is copulate with the temple prostitutes. What is wrong with you? Is not your husband good enough for you? Is not your wife good enough for you? How much do you pay the temple prostitutes for your idolatry? What you call worship is nothing but lust.

He thought of those who dwelt in small villages and had Asherah poles set into hillsides where they could worship the goddess of their desires. For years he had considered fleeing Israel for Judah and the rule of its king, Asa, who had cleansed Judah of temple prostitutes and idols. True, he had not removed the high places on hills where idolatrous Judeans still gathered, but he was known for a heart “fully committed to the Lord.”

Asa’s son Jehosophat now ruled Judah and had followed his father’s ways. So it was still tempting for all in Israel who had not bowed in worship to Asherah or Baal to flee to Judah.

But for Zebulun to do so would mean desertion from Israel’s army.

Nothing worse than a deserter, no matter how noble his excuse, Zebulun thought. Besides, what would there be for him in Judah if its army would not have him because of his running away?

Such reverie is most often banished when reality interrupts, such as the return from a long journey of the one whose shared secrets made him a most trusted friend. For Zebulun, that friend was the bravest in all of Israel, except for Elijah.

“Obadiah! How did your search go? The soldiers who returned said that you and King Ahab searched for pasture.”

“Never mind that.” Obadiah strode past him. “Elijah found me.”

“Elijah? After all this time?”

“Yes. And when I brought Ahab to meet him do you know what the king called God’s prophet?”

“No.”

“The troubler of Israel.”

As Obadiah entered the room reserved for him to bathe, Zebulun sat on a bench outside of it. He spoke through the open door. “What happened?”

“Elijah has challenged the prophets of Jezebel to meet him at Mount Carmel.”

“How many of her prophets?”

“All of them. The hundreds who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

“But there are almost 1,000 of them.”

“Samson slew 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, remember?”

“Yes.”

One by one, Zebulun recalled the tales about the Judges of Israel told to him by his mother: Deborah, Gideon, Samson, and others called forth by God when no king ruled over Israel. He remembered how the Lord God raised up judge after judge to deliver faithless Israel and their mighty deeds to defeat the enemies who surrounded the twelve tribes grown into a mighty nation in which “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Then his mind wandered down Israel’s long list of kings, beginning with Saul, then David, next Solomon, followed by the split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, each one with a monarch, most of whom had prostrated themselves to the gods of the nations instead of the one true God who created the heavens and earth. If only…

“Follow me.” Obadiah seemed a new man in a fresh robe and days of filth of the desert removed from his body. “Ahab said he is going to send word through the entire nation to assemble Jezebel’s prophets at Mount Carmel.” He lowered his voice to ensure only Zebulun heard it. “The day we have prayed so long for is upon us.”

Obadiah did not speak again until they reached the stable. His intense stare caused sweat to form on Zebulun’s brow. “Do you swear by the Lord God of Israel to help me?”

“To do what? I am just a lowly soldier. You are chief servant for the palace. There is nothing…” Zebulun’s excuse wavered. He admired Obadiah but feared what he might request.

“First you must swear an oath.”

“I swear by the Lord God Israel to help you.”

“Good. I have hidden 100 of the Lord’s prophets in two caves and supply them with food and water. If Queen Jezebel ever finds this out, you know she will have me executed. You are to continue to care for the Lord’s prophets if I am found out and killed.”

Zebulun gulped and wished he had known what he had agreed to before he swore his vow. “That many? I thought maybe you had hidden a dozen at most.” He wondered how one so close to the throne could be so bold and not be found out. “But what has Elijah been doing all of this time? Where has he been hiding?”

“When he met me in the wilderness, he told me that after he prophesied of the drought, he hid east of the Jordan River in the Kerith Ravine.”

“No wonder no one has been able to find him.”

“He said that ravens brought meat and bread to him to eat. He stayed there long enough that one of my old purple robes that made its way to him from the prophets wore out. Surely you have heard about what happened after the brook dried up and he left the ravine.”

“No.”

“That is another reason I must introduce you to the prophets who I have been hiding in the caves. They are the ones who tell me what Elijah does not. The Lord commanded Elijah to go to Zarephath. A widow there fed him. When the widow’s son died, Elijah prayed to the Lord and the boy rose from the dead.”

“Yes. I remember a story about a boy rising from the dead but…”

“But what?”

Zebulun bowed his head. “I did not believe it. I thought it was just a tale dreamed up by our desperate people who live in a land that has had no rain for more than two years now.”

“No matter. I will ride to the north and you to the south to summon the people. The king is sending out other messengers throughout Israel as well to gather all of the people to Mount Carmel.”

  • * *

Zebulun had never been to Mount Carmel. But its raw beauty would have to be enjoyed another day, he thought. When he arrived there, thousands of Israelites who had answered King Ahab’s summons covered its slopes to see the prophet who had announced God’s judgment challenge the hundreds of prophets who had led them to worship idols and sacrifice their infants in fire.

“How long will you waver between two opinions?” Elijah asked as he stood near a long unused, broken down altar of stones that once had held sacrifices to the Lord. “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

Zebulun wanted to shout his loyalty to the God of Israel but fear replaced zeal as none of the thousands who surrounded Elijah answered his ultimatum.

Elijah stared at the sea of bowed heads. Only a few returned his gaze with anxious expressions. When he turned to the contingent of hundreds of Jezebel’s prophets, Elijah was greeted with sneers and the hatred that radiated from their inner beings. Sacrificing infants to Baal was routine, just part of their duties. Killing Elijah would be joyful. How their queen would reward them.

“I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire – he is God.”

Relieved that so little was expected of them, the people obeyed.

A small group from the crowd led two bulls up the mount. The pair sensed their fates and let their hooves plod mechanically toward Elijah. He laid a hand on each of their heads and whispered how they were more courageous than any of those assembled. Then he turned to those whose knives and swords had been sharpened to murder him.

“Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god but do not light the fire.”

Four prophets of Baal held one of the bulls while a fifth slit its throat. All of them shivered with excitement as the red blood gushed to the ground. Before the dying animal had drawn its last breath, a dozen other prophets hacked and sawed with swords until dozens of pieces of raw meat lay piled on the altar of stones they had built. Their chants were hypnotic.

“O Baal, answer us!”

Some of them chanted in their native Phoenician tongue. Others used the language of the Israelites. Never waste an opportunity to proselytize these backward Israelites, Queen Jezebel had told them many times as they ate at her table.

Their frantic pleas were repeated hundreds of times as the morning sun moved westward over the assembly. By noon the frenzied prophets began to dance around their altar and the sacrifice covered with flies.

“Shout louder!” Elijah’s mocking increased into what they considered blasphemy against Baal. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

The oldest of the prophets grabbed a sword and slashed his legs and arms until blood ran from his self-inflicted wounds. His fellow prophets followed his lead, using swords and spears to mutilate their flesh. Soon, the dirt on which they danced turned from brown to red, then to a sticky mud. Their cries to Baal reached a din. Then it slowly subsided.

By the time of the evening sacrifice, many of them lay gasping for breath around the altar. Even the youngest of them no longer danced but sat dazed, wondering why Baal had not answered their long hours of worship. Hot sunlight had baked their spilled blood into a clay like substance that continued to draw swarms of flies. Those watching the spectacle backed away from the stench of the prophets’ sweat and the bull’s decaying meat.

The gathered crowd murmured as Elijah built an altar of twelve stones. Then he scraped a trench around its base. After arranging the wood on top of the altar, he placed the pieces of the second slaughtered bull onto the wood. He turned to the people.

“Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and wood.”

After the first soaking of the altar, he repeated his order twice more until the drenched pieces of meat and wood shed the excess water and filled the trench around the altar. Elijah lifted his eyes and arms to heaven and prayed.

“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

A child first saw the fire falling from the cloudless sky. She pointed as it ignited the bull, wood, stones, and evaporated the water in the trench. Dropping onto their faces, the people began to chant a long unused refrain.

“The Lord, he is God! The Lord he is God!”

Zebulun fell to his knees and joined in chanting the cry as King Ahab turned and shook his head before gazing again at the ashes, the only reminder of the altar, wood, and bull. Part of him wanted to join his subjects in repentance. But another part feared Queen Jezebel more than the Lord God the people cried out to.

“The Lord, he is God! The Lord he is God!”

The king’s contingent watched mutely as Elijah had the people lead the exhausted prophets of Baal to the valley below Mount Carmel. There he slaughtered them with one of the same swords used during their bloodletting hours earlier.

King Ahab fretted to those nearest his chariot.

“What will I tell Jezebel? She said that her prophets would silence Elijah forever today. When they don’t return to her…”

He waited, hoping that Elijah would also attack him so that at least he could return to the palace with news of “the troubler of Israel’s” death. Only his horses listened to his grumbling. A half hour passed before Elijah’s servant ran up to the king.

“My master Elijah said for you to hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.”

“Rain?” Ahab rolled his eyes. “Because of your master no rain has fallen for years. He is to blame for all of our nation’s troubles.”

“Look, Sire.” An advisor pointed at the clouds rolling eastward from the Mediterranean Sea.

Ahab shrugged. “Let us go down to Jezreel then. Perhaps if it does rain it will take longer for me to return to the queen?” He studied the darkening sky that had blotted out the sun’s rays.

As Zebulun rode behind the king, rain driven by winds from the nearby sea pelted him. He slowed his horse to a trot as the horses pulling Ahab snorted their fears. Another from the king’s contingent yelled at Zebulun.

“Look who approaches us. I don’t believe it.”

Zebulun spun around atop his mount and saw Elijah’s legs moving with a rhythm he had seen displayed by rowers of boats on the Sea of Kinnereth.

Up, down, up, down.

It seemed as if his feet did not touch the trail, even as it turned slick from the raindrops that bounced upward from it. As Elijah pulled alongside of his horse, Zebulun shouted at the one sent to turn Israel from its sinful ways.

“The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!” Zebulun’s voice thundered above the howling wind.

Elijah nodded and quickened his pace. Zebulun urged his horse to a gallop but relented as his mount neighed its reluctance to try and overtake the sprinting human. He shielded his eyes and caught sight of the prophet passing the king’s chariot. Goose flesh rose on Zebulun’s arms as the hairs at the nape of his neck tingled.

It took them hours to travel the twenty-five miles from Mount Carmel to Jezreel.

Elijah was waiting for them there.

  • * *

“Dead? What do you mean, they are dead?” Queen Jezebel stared at her husband.

Never had she heard such nonsense, not even from a fool like him. “How could you let that animal Elijah slay my prophets? When my father hears about this, he won’t send any new prophets to me. It’s all your fault! Bring me a messenger. Bring me that soldier who talked to Elijah when he first came to the palace.”

“Zebulun?” Ahab sighed. Better for her to spew her venom on others instead of me, he thought.

Five minutes later, Zebulun entered the throne room and bowed.

Uncertain why he had been summoned, Zebulun stared at the space between king and queen. He thought an invisible wall separated them. Only a shared hatred united king and queen.

“Because of what he did to my prophets, you are to find Elijah and tell him, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.’ Go and tell him.”

Zebulun bowed again and walked at his fastest pace to the stables. After choosing the best rested horse, he urged it to a gallop through Samaria’s front gate.

  • * *

For the first time, Zebulun saw an emotion he thought Elijah incapable of, fear. After hearing the message about Jezebel’s threats, the prophet said nothing. But within a minute, Elijah and his servant had taken the road south toward Judah.

As he returned to Samaria, Zebulun tried to reason why his hero had fled in what seemed to him a panic.

Perhaps the Lord has called him to now prophesy to Judah. Perhaps…he is no different than I am. Judah is where I would go if I were not a soldier in the army of Israel. At least their king is not wicked like Ahab and Jezebel. Yes, Elijah will be safe as long as he remains there.

  • * *

Weeks passed as Zebulun performed his unofficial duties; ones that he believed glorified his God. When not overseeing the guards at the palace, he made trips to one of the caves where Obadiah had hidden the prophets who continued to learn the ways of the Lord and hoped to someday emulate Elijah.

Zebulun always brought them food. In return, the prophets told him what they knew. They said that Elijah had travelled deep into the wilderness and hidden in a cave on Mount Horeb, where he was confronted by the Lord God. Told that there were 7,000 left in Israel who had not bowed their knees to or kissed images of Baal, Elijah had anointed his successor.

“He’s a farmer named Elisha,” the most disappointed prophet said. “We were certain that the Lord would choose one of us to take Elijah’s place. All of us sense that Elijah’s time on Earth is coming to an end. Elisha will take his place.”

Soon, invading armies from surrounding kingdoms replaced drought as most in Israel returned to wavering between serving Baal or the Lord God. Zebulun marched with the army of Israel to face Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, and the thirty-two kings who had joined him as allies. When Zebulun saw the enemy’s much larger army, he wished he had written a last letter to his parents. Greatly outnumbered, Israel’s army was doomed, he thought. Any letter written now would not have one left alive to deliver it.

But somehow Israel won the battle, which left the enemy alliance broken as their kings retreated to their kingdoms. The following spring the Aramean army returned. This time, 100,000 of its soldiers fell in battle. Those two victories must surely convince King Ahab of the Lord God’s merciful deliverance of Israel, Zebulun thought.

Instead, the evil increased.

When the king lusted for a vineyard of a subject, he offered its owner a better vineyard or a more than fair amount of money for it. But the owner refused to give up the inheritance passed down for generations in his family. Tired of Ahab’s moping about the palace, Jezebel conceived and carried out a plot to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy and treason.

She smiled at the news of the innocent Naboth’s death and told Ahab to take possession of what he had envied. As Ahab walked through the vineyard he planned to convert into a vegetable garden, a familiar voice startled him.

“This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property? In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood,” Elijah said.

Ahab clenched his fists.

“So you have found me, my enemy!”

“Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel. Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country.”

Ahab returned to his palace with his robes torn and donned sackcloth and acted more humbly than anyone who served him could remember. Zebulun and all who saw his repentance wondered if it would last.

  • * *

For three years battles had ceased between Israel and Aram. But prior defeats and losses of territory from his kingdom ate away at King Ahab’s soul. First, he complained to his officials.

“Don’t you know that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us and yet we are doing nothing to retake it from the king of Aram?”

Unwilling to face the Arameans alone, he waited until he could seek an alliance with King Jehosophat of neighboring Judah. Surely, having one who feared God as an ally would bring victory, Ahab thought. Jezebel had sighed to signal her agreement.

When Jehosophat paid Ahab a visit, Ahab used wiles learned from his wife to negotiate with the one he considered useful.

After the expected formalities that royalty bestow on one another, Ahab turned to Jehosophat. “Will you go with me to fight against Ramoth Gilead?”

“I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses,” Jehosophat said.

Ahab stroked his beard. Convincing the King of Judah had proven much easier than he had thought. He had expected him to ask for some kind of payment.

“First seek the counsel of the Lord.” King Jehosophat added his sole condition.

For every ounce of wickedness that Ahab possessed, King Jehosophat carried godliness in his being. That quality ensured wisdom, which had borne cautiousness, especially when dealing with idolaters.

Upset by the unexpected delay, Ahab somehow held his temper. “As you wish.”

The hastily assembled tense prophets numbered about 400 and filled the courtyard. They relaxed when they saw that Elijah was not present, only the king of Israel and king of Judah sat on thrones above them. The prophets murmured their speculations to one another.

“Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?” Ahab asked them.

The boldest of the prophets answered as one. “Go, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”

Jehosophat studied the hundreds who stood before him. “Is there not a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?”

Many of the prophets grumbled their displeasure that a mere king would reject their prophecies.

At least he did not ask me to find that troubler Elijah. Ahab shifted on his throne. “There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.”

“The king should not say that,” Jehosophat said.

The lengthening delay now troubled Ahab. He turned to a trusted aide. “Bring Micaiah son of Imlah here at once.”

Because the assembled throng could not fit inside the palace, the kings sat on thrones near the main gate into Samaria as they waited. Unwilling to concede defeat, the prophets continued to prophesy.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘With these you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.’” The boldest one had made iron horns and hopped about with them decorating his head.

His cohorts joined in. “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”

As the messenger sent to find Micaiah brought the prophet to the chanting throng, he warned him. “Look, as one man the other prophets are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably.”

“As surely as the Lord lives, I can tell him only what the Lord tells me,” Micaiah answered.

The messenger gulped as he worked his way through the crowd whose prophesying had reached its peak. He signaled an official who stood by the thrones. Informed of the arrival of the prophet he hated, Ahab raised his hand to silence the hundreds of prophets who shouted that his success had been preordained by the Lord. He scowled at the one whose words he despised.

“Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?”

“Attack and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”

A murmur of affirmation buzzed through the other prophets.

“How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” Ahab stood.

Those closest to Micaiah shrunk back from him, unwilling to stand near the object of their king’s wrath.

Micaiah’s body stiffened. “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’”

Ahab sank onto his throne and his hands clenched the sides of his throne as he turned to Jehosophat. “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?” But Jehosophat ignored him and leaned forward as Micaiah spoke again.

“Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’

‘By what means?’ the Lord asked. “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.

“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’

“So now the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”

The one who had danced with iron horns threw them to the ground. Clouds of dust rose off of his sandals as he stomped to Micaiah. His wrath surpassed Ahab’s. “Which way did the spirit from the Lord go when he went from me to speak to you?”

“You will find out on the day you go to hide in an inner room,” Micaiah said.

Enraged by the prophecy, King Ahab shouted a command that would send Micaiah to prison. Unsatisfied with that degree of punishment, he ended the command with “…give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.”

“If you ever return safely, the Lord has not spoken through me. Mark my words, all you people!”

Two soldiers led Micaiah away.

  • * *

Marching into battle with the army of Judah as an ally now seemed inadequate to King Ahab as they and his army approached Ramoth Gilead. Ahab pulled Jehosophat aside.

“I will enter the battle in disguise, but you wear your royal robes.”

King Jehosophat tilted his head in response. He considered reminding Ahab of Micaiah’s prophecy of doom and death but remained silent.

While Jehosophat rode into battle still wearing his colorful robes, Ahab’s disguise transformed him into what appeared to be a soldier of little importance. Armor added to his protection.

When the battle began, Jehosophat’s royal garb almost brought him death while Ahab’s cowardice seemed to ensure his survival. Then an Aramean launched an arrow from his bow that slid through the narrow gaps between the sections of Ahab’s protective armor. During his last day on Earth, he watched the battle he had instigated as his blood flowed through the disguise onto his chariot.

His death at sunset panicked his army.

Their cry, “Every man to his town; everyone to his land!” announced King Ahab’s passing as the panicked troops retreated.

Ahab’s final ride to Samaria began and ended as a corpse. As servants washed his blood from the royal chariot, dogs lapped up the gore, to fulfill what Elijah had prophesied years before.

  • * *

Ahab’s son Ahaziah succeeded him as king of Israel. Most royalty are remembered by descriptions, some long, others short. This one would immortalize Ahaziah as a monarch who: “walked in the ways of his father and mother…He served and worshipped Baal and provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger just as his father had done.”

After years of faithful service to human royalty and God, Zebulun was promoted to captain in Israel’s army. At times, the added responsibilities caused him to wonder why he had longed for such a promotion. He groaned because of King Ahaziah’s idolatry.

But when Ahaziah injured himself from a fall, Zebulun’s hopes revived. Maybe now he will at last repent, Zebulun thought. Instead, the king sent messengers to inquire of Baal-Zebub, his most trusted god.

Sent by God, Elijah intercepted the messengers and sent them back to the royal palace with a prophecy.

“Why have you come back?” Ahaziah knew they could not have made the roundtrip to the prophets of Baal-Zebub in so little time.

“A man came to meet us. And he said to us, ‘Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, “This is what the Lord says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’”

The messengers’ description of who had cut their journey short angered their sovereign.

“That was Elijah the Tishbite.” Ahaziah shook his fist. “Summon me a captain of the army.”

Zebulun had to run to catch his fellow captain when he saw him riding to the city’s gate. “Where are you going with so many men? Have enemy scouts crossed our borders?”

The one who had mentored Zebulun into his rank as captain reined his horse to a stop.

“Ahaziah has ordered us find Elijah…”

His friend’s anxiety troubled Zebulun. “I will pray for you.”

“Do you think Elijah will cooperate?”

Zebulun’s gaze fell from the captain’s face to his horse’s midsection before resting on his own sandals. “I don’t know. He remains a mystery to me. I know he is a prophet of the Lord but…”

“We must go. The Queen Mother is meddling in all of this as usual.”

Fifty soldiers on foot followed their captain through Samaria’s main gate. Zebulun climbed the stairs to the top of the walls that surrounded the city and watched as they headed to the location where Elijah had met the messengers. The wilderness seemed to swallow them.

After enough time had passed for their return but the watchman on the wall reported no sighting of their approach, a second captain and his fifty men rode through the gate. This time, Zebulun did not halt the contingent.

Zebulun did not sleep well that night or the next. Summoned the following morning to the palace, he knew silence would best serve him. When he was fifteen feet from their thrones, he bowed before King Ahaziah and Queen Mother Jezebel.

“What is wrong with you soldiers?” Ahaziah fiddled with the royal scepter. “How many of you does it take to bring one man to my palace?”

Unwilling to betray his fellow soldiers in any way, Zebulun stared at the multi-colored tapestry that hung behind the two thrones.

“Surely, he will succeed,” Jezebel said. “I remember this one. He is the soldier who talked to Elijah when he first came to Samaria.”

Ahaziah smiled. “Is that so? No more delays. Captain, take your fifty men and return to me with Elijah.”

  • * *

As they drew closer to the hill Elijah sat on, the soldiers who marched behind Zebulun began to murmur and point at the vultures that flew above them. Their captain halted his company and dismounted.

“Stay here. I will talk to Elijah alone. You may rest.”

The fifty men plopped their rumps on stones or bare earth and drank water from the animal skins strapped around their shoulders. All of their heads faced the direction their commander walked.

The two horses that Zebulun had seen the captains leave Samaria on met him when he was a hundred yards from the base of the hill. One of them nuzzled him. The other whinnied and shook her head at Zebulun and then the prophet who watched the meeting.

When the wind shifted, Zebulun smelled what he thought was the remains of a campfire that either the prophet or soldiers had used to ward off the coolness of the desert nights. Fifty yards from the base of the hill he spotted what appeared to be fused metal. Closer inspection revealed fragments of armor, swords and spear tips joined together into random objects that seemed to mock him. The bits of charred flesh that surrounded him explained the birds that continued to circle overhead. Were they descending or was it his imagination? He recalled watching the fire of the Lord consume Elijah’s sacrifice and altar on Mount Carmel.

Trembling, he fell onto his knees at the bottom of the hill.

“Man of God, please have respect for my life and the lives of these fifty men, your servants. See, fire has fallen from heaven and consumed the first two captains and all their men. But now have respect for my life!” Zebulun’s mouth went dry as Elijah arose. Shadows of the circling buzzards danced around Zebulun and made his trembling rattle his armor.

Elijah cocked his head as if he waited for an inner voice to speak. On the way back to Samaria, the prophet told Zebulun why he and his fifty men had been spared.

“You should be glad of what the angel of the Lord told me as I sat on the hill back there.”

“What did the angel tell…” Zebulun gulped, unable to finish his question.

“Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.”

  • * *

The prophet’s message for the injured king was as severe as those for his father had been.

“This is what the Lord says.” Elijah’s stare unnerved Ahaziah. No wonder Mother hates him, he thought. “Is it because there is no God in Israel for you to consult that you have sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Because you have done this you will never leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!”

His task complete, Elijah left the palace.

For days, Zebulun watched the second king he had served waste away. He began to wonder how many of them he would outlive before his own time to die came. Now he was certain that Elijah’s prophecy about Queen Mother Jezebel’s death would stalk her until it came to pass.

After being introduced by Obadiah to the company of the prophets that he had hidden during Jezebel’s reign of terror, Zebulun had befriended one of their number, a young man named Abel. He never tired of hearing of Elijah’s exploits because Abel and his family recalled them with a fervor born of genuine admiration that required no additions to the tales. Whenever his duties took him within ten miles of Abel’s childhood home, Zebulun made excuses to his commanding officer.

“I think I should check the conditions at Shiloh, Commander.”

“Very well, Zebulun. Report to me as soon as you return from there.”

Zebulun smiled when he found Abel was visiting his parents at their home in Shiloh. Better to hear about Elijah through a witness instead of secondhand from his parents, Zebulun thought. As Abel’s mother prepared a simple meal of bread for their guest, his father poured wine for the three men. The first cup of the dark sweet purple liquid refreshed Zebulun. The second loosened his tongue. The alcohol unleashed what he dared not say elsewhere.

“King Joram has proven himself to be just as wicked as his father Ahab and brother Ahaziah were when they ruled Israel. As long as Jezebel remains alive…”

Abel’s father raised his left hand. “Not so loud, Zebulun. There are many still loyal to her and Joram. What you say could be taken as treason, you know.”

“I know, I know.” Zebulun lowered his voice. “Forgive me for possibly endangering all of you.” He turned from father to son. “What has become of Elijah? Some say he has disappeared.”

Abel smiled. “The Lord has taken him.”

“What? He died?”

“No. I was with the company of prophets at Jericho when Elijah and his servant Elisha went to the Jordan River. We watched as Elijah struck the river with his cloak. The flowing waters dried up where he had struck it and they walked to the other side on dry ground.”

“I wish I had been there.” Zebulun recalled seeing Elijah on Mount Carmel and years later on a hill that became the final resting place for 102 of his fellow soldiers.

“Wait until you hear what took place next.” Abel’s father smiled at his son.

“A chariot and horses that were made of fire came down from heaven and took Elijah away.”

“Maybe they took him out to the wilderness?”

“No, that is what we thought also. But we searched for Elijah for three days and found no trace of him anywhere. He is gone.”

Zebulun bowed his head and sighed. “Then Israel has lost its greatest prophet.”

Abel and his father looked at each other and smiled.

“Before the chariot took Elijah away, Elisha asked for and now carries a double portion of the spirit that Elijah did,” Abel said. “Now Israel will see even more mighty works of the Lord God.”

“But will Israel heed them?” Zebulun asked.

Of Cats and Neighbors

Being a cat is not easy, Cleo thought as she searched for a place to nap for a few hours before her nightly prowl. Humans were the main problem. If only they could act more like cats do.

When she wanted to sleep, they would turn on the big box that made moving pictures and too much noise or one of the small boxes in the bedrooms or kitchen that played something they called “music.” Cleo thought some of it sounded like the tomcats that serenaded her when she was in heat.

That was the other odd thing about humans. They “ohed” and “ahed” after her six kittens had been born last summer. But as soon as they could drink milk from a bowl, her litter had been given away to other humans. Worse yet, total strangers had walked away with her four sons and two daughters. If such behavior was acceptable, why didn’t her humans give away that baby that the masters of the house had brought home a month ago?

But all in all, Cleo thought her family did their best. Oh, there had been many changes since that new human that lived in the crib moved into her territory. Cleo could no longer enter the smallest bedroom, a place the humans had renamed “the nursery.”

It was located at the back of the house. Besides being quiet and perfect for catnaps, its big bay window gave a nice view of the backyard. That window’s foot wide sill had been Cleo’s favorite vantage point to monitor the squirrels, birds, and other cats that trespassed on her domain.

Didn’t those other creatures know the backyard was hers, her jungle? Oh, a few foolish birds might build nests in the oak or cherry trees. And the neighborhood cats that could scale the six-foot fence liked to use it as a thoroughfare during their daily circuits. The nastiest ones left behind their feces and urine, which perturbed Cleo and her humans. What do they think my jungle is, just a giant litter box for them to use as they are passing through, Cleo often wondered.

If any marauding feline dared to enter Cleo’s sanctuary when she was outside, she always faced off with them. Her low growls would escalate as her fur stood on end, followed by hisses. If those warnings failed to evict the four-legged trespasser, Cleo attacked. Her claws were always sharp because she groomed them by scratching her humans’ furniture and carpets.

Only once had she sustained worse injuries than those she had inflicted on a fat tomcat named Tiger. He lived two doors down the street and thought he owned the neighborhood. After that fight, it took a week of Cleo’s humans throwing whatever was handy at Tiger and squirting him with the hose before he stopped climbing into her backyard.

The bill from the vet for treating Cleo’s bleeding wounds and bruises had angered the man of her house. Only the arrival of the new baby had stopped him from complaining about it. Now, he fretted over the money spent for doctor’s visits, baby food, clothes, and furniture for the nursery.

Yes, being a cat would always be less complicated than doing what humans do, Cleo concluded as she watched mother nurse her baby. The sight reminded her of six hungry kittens kneading her breasts with their tiny paws as they sucked milk from them.

  • * *

Sometimes even a cat does not realize how blessed she is until her predictable lifestyle of sleep, eat, sleep, roam, sleep is interrupted. For Cleo, the one who stole it from her was Mr. Withington, the neighborhood grouch. Even Cleo’s masters did not like him.

Not only did Mr. Withington not like the children whose play and antics distracted him from his mission in life to impose his cheerless disposition on all who came in contact with him, he especially did not like the cats that left their turds and pee around the basins of his beloved roses. After months of listening to his complaints, a co-worker had offered a solution.

“Get yourself one of those cages that people use to trap raccoons and possums in. Put some cat food in it.”

“But I don’t think I can kill them after I catch them,” Mr. Withington refilled his paper cup at his office’s water cooler. “And their dead bodies would stink so bad in the trash can that neighbors would call the authorities and turn me in. Especially that nosey Mrs. Gaffer. She’s an old crow.”

“You don’t need to kill them at your house. They might make too much noise and you’d get busted. Just take them in the cage down to the river.”

“And drown them?”

“No. Set them free there. Cats want to be free anyway, just like their big cousins. Don’t you ever watch those animal shows on TV about lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, and mountain lions? They –”

A glare from their boss sent the dawdlers scurrying to their cubicles and computers.

  • * *

The co-worker’s suggestion was a rare opportunity that seemed to be a win-win situation to Mr. Withington. He stopped at a hardware store on the way home from work that evening. The clerk showed him how to set the trap and safely release “any wild critter who’s been trespassing on your property. Unless you like to eat them, of course. Squirrel pie makes for mighty fine eating. I have a recipe if you need one.”

Noticing his customer’s frown, the clerk added, “main thing is to season them right.” He took Mr. Withington’s $100 bill and made change.

“Thank you, my good man.” He reserved such monikers for those who irritated him, in hopes they would shut up. Not using his credit card deprived him of bonus points that he could have used toward next year’s vacation in England to search for rare rootstock to expand his collection of rose bushes. But by using cash, no one could trace the transaction of recent trap purchases to him once neighborhood cats started to disappear.

He drove his black Saab into his garage and closed its door. After a quick dinner, he set up the metal cage next to one of his nine rose beds in his spacious back yard. Lastly, he set an opened can of tuna fish in the cage. He left his bedroom window ajar so that any capture could awaken him.

Must not have any trapped cat’s caterwauling awakening the neighbors, he thought as he turned off his bedroom’s light.

  • * *

Cleo climbed through the six-inch wide pet door that led to her back yard a few minutes past 11 p.m. Her inspection of her jungle complete, she trotted to the back fence and gazed at the top two-inch by four-inch by eight-foot cedar rail that supported the tops of a section of the dog-eared redwood fence boards. She crouched and propelled herself high enough for her front paws’ claws to dig into the rail.

After swinging her body onto the rail, she walked its length to the corner of the backyard and leapt onto Mrs. Mendon’s soft fescue grass. Her schnauzer’s frantic barking through Mrs. Mendon’s sliding glass door caused a light to illumine the porch.

Cleo bolted across the wet grass to the fence that kept a fragile peace between Mrs. Mendon and Mr. Withington. Whenever her dog’s barking had grated his nerves, he would spray it with his hose, night or day.

Cleo pulled a loose board’s bottom and squeezed through the opening into her favorite potty stop during her nightly rounds, rows of sweet smelling roses that masked her foul smelling excrement. She dug a tiny hole in the recently laid peat moss, squatted, and deposited a slimy mess into it. Then she carefully covered the hole and its contents. She was proud that her species were so much more sanitary than canines.

Just as she turned to retrace her steps home, Cleo caught the scent wafting from the can of tuna. She followed it to the strange looking metal contraption that held the unexpected snack. When its door slid into a locked position, Cleo ignored it.

Not until after she had eaten most of the fish did she begin to feel confined. No matter how hard she pressed against the door or the cage’s sides or top, freedom escaped her. A grinning Mr. Withington answered her mournful cries with his flashlight dilating her black pupils.

“Why, hello there, kitty, kitty, kitty. How nice of you to visit. Why don’t you come on inside where it’s nice and warm? We wouldn’t want you catching cold out here.”

He carried the cage to the garage and placed it on the back seat of his Saab. At the doorway into the kitchen, Mr. Withington paused. “See you in the morning flea bag. Bet you can’t wait to see your new home. He switched off the garage’s fluorescent lights and shut the door.

The darkness made Cleo’s cries grow louder. They ceased three hours later as she drifted off into a series of nightmares.

  • * *

Waking an hour early, Mr. Withington drove his car to the river that bordered the south end of the city where he had spent his lonely life. On the way he inserted a CD of the soundtrack from the movie Rocky and played the theme song over and over. From the blares of triumphant trumpets to the repeated words that described new strength, the song fed his sense of triumph, of solving what irritated him most about his neighborhood.

Cleo paced inside of her two-foot by one-foot by one and a half foot prison. Dehydrated after a long night of no water, she panted and no longer cried. Of the hundreds of humans she had met during her seven years of life, Mr. Withington had seemed the most evil. His soothing words did nothing to calm her.

“Well, here we are, cat. Your brand new home.” He placed the transmission in park and left the engine running. After opening the passenger side door, he gently placed the cage on the asphalt parking lot next to the river and slid the wire door upward.

Cleo waited until he stepped away from the cage before she bolted from it. Her head rotated as she searched for a familiar sight or odor by which to get her bearings to point her to the safety of home. Mr. Withington cackled as he threw the trap into the trunk of his car.

“Happy hunting, fur face.” He slammed the driver’s side door and gunned the engine. The tires spun and left acrid smoke that assaulted Cleo’s nose as she crouched behind a row of thorny bushes. Her soft meows went unanswered.

Enough daylight had risen with the sun to allow her to view the strange area. Famished by not having eaten her normal breakfast, Cleo padded toward the odors coming from a trash can. Ignoring the ants that covered the meat left on smoked pork ribs and fried chicken bones, she pulled some of them from the can and ate the worst meal she could remember. Then she sought a place to hide.

Because a maintenance shed was perched on concrete blocks, the space between its plywood floor and the ground was adequate for her to crawl into. She curled up into a ball and slept until strange cars began to fill the parking lot. Saturday morning always brought out the fishermen to the river. Cleo watched as a group of them exited their vehicles and trudged to the muddy banks of the slowly flowing river. The friendly tone of their conversations tempted Cleo to follow them.

“You think we can catch our limit?” asked one of them.

“Sure. The guy on the radio said that they are running pretty thick up through the Delta. Nothing tastes better a freshly smoked salmon. I can’t wait.”

Waiting was Cleo’s strategy for the next four hours as she crouched in a thicket of oak trees. She thought these humans acted strangely. Whenever they caught a fish they measured it and sometimes threw the smaller ones back into the water. She hoped they would toss at least one into the stand of trees so she could finally eat a decent meal. Or maybe they would clean the fish and at least leave behind the heads, tails, and internal organs in the trash can as she had seen her master do after his fishing expeditions.

But instead, the four anglers took their catch home intact in chests filled with ice. So the lost cat waited until the last of the hikers, picnickers, and bike riders left the park at dusk. Then she scavenged the picnic tables and adjacent trash cans for what the humans had tossed away.

After a week of no milk and barely enough food to keep her alive, Cleo decided to risk contact with humans. She had grown weary of running from the raccoons, skunks, and occasional fox that treated her as a trespasser. A bird unlike any she had seen before proved especially bothersome. The tufts on its head and huge yellow eyes seemed evil to Cleo. Its talons had almost snatched her into the air twice as its three-foot wing span propelled the bird of prey nightly. The owl’s ability to rotate its head 180 degrees especially unnerved the cat.

On her eighth morning at the river, she walked up to a group of picnickers and meowed her introduction.

“Oh, look Daddy.” The youngest one at the table pointed. “What a skinny cat. Can we keep it, please? It looks so sad and hungry.”

The father cut a piece of the steak he had bar-b-queued and tossed it by Cleo’s feet. She chewed it and swallowed it in chunks and then begged for more. Within five minutes she had edged next to the young girl and purred and rubbed her cheeks and whiskers against her ankles.

“It likes me, Mommy. It’s purring.”

“Does it have a collar or any tags?”

“No. Can we keep her, please? I always wanted a cat.”

The mother studied the cat’s matted fur and mournful expression. “Well, she needs a bath before she can come inside the house. Will you promise to take care of her, Debbie?”

“Yes. I think we should name it Tiger because of its stripes.”

  • * *

Cleo’s new owners proved to be kind. But after two weeks of resting and regaining her strength, she began to feel restless as she sensed that her former owners must miss her. So on a Friday while Debbie was away at school, Cleo ran through the open gate that connected back and front yards and set out to find her real home. A day later, hunger caused her to follow her nose to an open can of cat food placed in a cage. This time Cleo did not try to escape but ate the food and groomed herself as the other feral cats gathered around it and watched.

  • * *

“Looks like we got one.” Sally Crashaw said as she lifted the cage in which Cleo lay. Kindness accompanied her words, which the cat welcomed.

“Is its ear clipped?” A boy helped Sally position the cage on the back seat of her minivan.

“No. Off to the vet with this one. Time to get fixed before we bring you back here.” She rubbed her face next to Cleo’s.

The interior of the veterinarian’s office was unfamiliar to Cleo, but the sounds of yapping dogs and meowing cats reminded her of the place that her masters had taken her about once a year. There, someone who always wore a long white coat would poke and inspect Cleo’s body, shine a light into her ears, stare at her eyes and mouth, and then poke long thin sharp metal spikes into her.

She crouched in the cage’s corner as a gloved technician pulled her from it. He ran a device Cleo had never seen before over her back.

“No chip inside of this one. Looks like you’ll be getting…” He pulled up Cleo’s tail. “…spayed today. No more litters of wild cats from you.”

Twenty minutes later a woman who looked the same age as Cleo’s master came into the room. She frowned as she read the chart.

“You sure look tame, kitty. Are you sure there’s no microchip in her, Daniel?”

“Yeah.” He grabbed the microchip detector and ran it over Cleo’s tense body, this time slower. “Oops. Guess I missed it the first time I scanned her, boss.”

The vet shook her head. “Copy down the information and call the owners.” She hugged Cleo. “You still have at least some of your nine lives left to live. What’s her name?”

“Cleo.”

“Your lucky day, Cleo. You’re going home to where you belong instead of back out into the wild.”

  • * *

All four of Cleo’s masters arrived at the vet’s office. She meowed and purred as she wondered why it had taken them weeks to find her. Eight year old Charlotte was the happiest.

“Why did you run away from home, Cleo? Mommy says you are going to stay inside from now on.” She clutched her pet as they walked to the car. “That way you can never ever get into trouble again.”

Cleo yawned and stretched out on the back seat in between Charlotte and the baby strapped into his car seat. She slept during the half hour ride home and dreamed of Mr. Withington’s rose garden. But next time she would ignore his open can of tuna.

Gold Fever

“Eat up, boys. You both will need lots of energy for your gold prospecting trip.”

“Thanks, Grandma,” Tom said. “No one makes food like you do.”

“What about your friend there? He acts like he’s still asleep.”

Tom shook the one who was nodding off in the chair next to him. “Mike always needs lots of coffee to get going every morning. Sometimes it takes him four or five cups just to wake up.”

“Why didn’t you say so? I’ll brew up another pot and make it twice as strong this time.”

Three cups of black coffee brought Mike into the conversation. After he ate twice as much cheese omelet, toast, and fruit salad as Tom had, Grandma considered breakfast a success. “You were right, Tom. Coffee not only got his tongue to working but his appetite, too.”

Tom waited until after they had waved goodbye from the safety of Mike’s Ford F-150 pickup truck before chastising his fellow “miner.”

“You pig. First you sleep at the breakfast table. Then you eat like a wild boar that’s putting on fat for the winter. What’s wrong with you? You want to blow our cover or what?”

Mike pulled his San Francisco Giants cap’s brim down over his eyes. “It’s not my fault. If you would have just let me smoke my usual joint to help me go to sleep last night, I would have been okay this morning.”

“Yeah, right. And stink up Grandma’s guest bedroom so she could smell it. She’s no fool, you know. Why are you so spaced out anyway? I thought you were going to stay straight for our trip.”

“When you wouldn’t let me smoke my joint I went ahead and ate my stash.”

“Ate it? How much?”

“Must have been an eighth of an ounce, I guess. Sure took it a long time to put me to sleep. Must work slower when you eat it, I guess.”

“Not as long as it took me to wake you up this morning. No wonder.”

“Sorry I didn’t save enough so we could at least smoke one for the road.”

“You idiot. You want us to get pulled over for driving under the influence? That’s still illegal or have you forgotten?”

“Whatever. Wake me up when we get there, man.”

  • * *

During the 330-mile drive to their destination, Tom wondered how he had become part of Mike’s plan to “make some easy money.”

“Nothing to it,” Mike had said a year earlier. “All we have to do is plant the seeds, set up the watering system, harvest the plants, take them home to cure them, and then sell our product, el numero uno marijuana. Best of all, we get to smoke up all the profits.”

The first phases of the illegal operation had gone well. Now that fall had arrived the weather had cooled in the national forest where their quarter-acre plantation lay hidden by surrounding foliage and trees. To Tom, this was the most dangerous part of their enterprise. They could not afford to hire anyone to guard their crop. Besides, he had heard tales of how the most ruthless growers would pick up some illegal off of the streets of L.A., Fresno, or Phoenix, take him to their plantation, give him a supply of food and water, and arm him with a rifle.

Then, instead of paying the poor fool, they would kill him after the harvest. Tom shook his head. He fiddled with the radio’s dial until music that calmed him came through the truck’s two speakers. The songs and DJ’s patter only partially drowned out Mike’s snores.

  • * *

The ranger at the entrance to the national forest was pretty, so much so that Tom could not resist turning on his charm to try and win hers.

“Hello, beautiful. What’s a wonderful girl like you doing in a place like this? Hope you aren’t Smoky the Bear’s girlfriend because you’re making me hot enough that anything I touch just might start a forest fire.”

Her smile offset the stern green pants, gray shirt, and Smoky Bear hat that covered her brown curly hair. “Just trying to make a living.” She glanced at the still sleeping passenger. “Your friend sleeping off too much partying?”

Tom shrugged. “He’s been working too hard. Needs a vacation.”

She took his $10 bills and made change. “Your camping permit is good for two days. Leave it on your dashboard. If you decide to stay longer –”

“Yes, yes?” Tom imagined a come-on from the most beautiful ranger he had yet met.

“Be sure to renew your permit at one of our ranger stations. And please be careful. Fire season is still going on. Only you can prevent wildfires. My boyfriend said so.” She winked.

“I know the drill. But with such beautiful women like you running around here, you’re going to light my fire.” He started to sing The Doors’ Light My Fire.

She listened to the first verse. “You write that song? Sounds pretty good. Why don’t you record it? Maybe you could even be on American Idol.”

Tom started to explain how the song had climbed the charts forty-seven years earlier but a honk from a car that had pulled up behind him ended his flirtations with a woman from another generation.

“Sorry, but I have to help out the next customer. Enjoy your stay here.” She waved him through the gate.

Tom watched her in the rear view mirror. Grandma’s right. Maybe it really is time for me to finally settle down. With a sweet little honey like that ranger I…

His reverie ended as he tried to picture a law enforcement officer for the feds married to an outlaw who grew pot. He laughed as he shook Mike’s shoulder.

“Wake up, Dufus. We’re almost there.”

They left the truck in a parking lot and hiked six miles into the forest before bedding down for the night. The part of the forest they had chosen was rarely used because the hills became steeper and trees denser as they travelled east on an unmarked trail they had blazed last spring. After breakfast the next morning, they hiked another twelve miles to their plantation.

Mike began dancing when the four-foot to six-foot tall plants came into view. He spread his arms and pretended to hug the entire quarter acre.

“Whoa, baby. Look at all that grass. We are two rich dudes.”

The rest of that day they pulled up the dozens of plants from the soft soil, snapped off their roots and stuffed the leafy tops into the large plastic bags they had brought with them. By dusk, they had twenty-six black garbage bags bulging with their illegal harvest. Tom counted the bags twice and sat down next to them.

“I thought you said we would be able to carry it all out in just one trip. There’s way too much for just one trip.”

“No problemo, senor. I got us covered.” Mike took a hatchet and chopped away at a slender sapling.

“Great. Now we’re guilty of chopping down a tree on federal land. You know that you’re only allowed to cut up dead wood in this forest and you need a permit to do it.”

Mike wiped the sweat from his face with a shirt sleeve flecked with parts of the green leaves and buds from the harvest. “You worry way too much.” After he had stripped the branches from the fifteen-foot sapling, he held it as if it were a spear as he danced and grunted. When Tom did not react, Mike thrust it at his belly.

“What now? That’s your weapon for when the rangers bust us on our fifth trip out of here to carry out all of these bags? I figure if we each carry two bags…” He recalculated. “Damn! I divided wrong the first time. That many trips will only get twenty bags back to the truck. It’s going to take us seven trips unless you also carry a bag in your teeth each time.”

“Oh, you of little faith. Didn’t you ever watch those Tarzan flicks when you were little?”

“What’s he got to do with this?”

“Remember how the natives carried the dead lions that the hunters shot?” He placed one end of the sapling on Tom’s shoulder and balanced the other end on his.

Tom recalled scenes from movies he had seen as a boy. “So what? Sure, they tied his feet above the pole and two of them carried it around. What’s that go to do…Wait a minute.” He pictured the bags of pot dangling from the sapling and he and Mike at either end of it. “But it’s not long enough to hold all twenty-six bags. No way.”

“Relax. We just cut the rope I brought along and tie two bags together. Then we support the ropes on the tree, put the ends of the tree on our shoulders and away we go. Good thing I bought those extra heavy duty kinds of trash bags, huh? They should last until we get back home. Planning is everything, especially in covert top secret operations like this one.”

“I don’t know. It’s almost twenty miles back to the truck. All this time I thought we were just going to harvest the tops of the plants, you, know, the buds. That’s where most of the THC is concentrated.”

“And let all the rest go to waste? No way. We’re in this to get rich, remember. Let’s get some sleep.”

  • * *

The next morning they destroyed the primitive irrigation system that had fed water from a spring to their rows of marijuana plants. Soon, every trench was filled with dirt and rocks. Tom thought the action was wasteful.

“Why don’t we just leave it in place for next year?”

“Never return to the scene of your crime,” Mike said. “We’ll find a different forest next year to plant in. Otherwise those rangers will get suspicious if we show up here again in the spring. That reminds me. Did you leave your cell phone in the truck like I told you to?”

Tom patted his shirt and pants’ pockets. “Yeah, boss. Did you?”

“Of course. Do you think I want the rangers tracking us down here because of the GPS systems that they put in phones nowadays? I heard all about in on a talk show on the radio. They…” For the next ten minutes Tom endured a detailed account. He was glad when the thirteenth pair of bags had been tied together, the bags lined up in a row, and the long sapling slid under the six inches of rope that dangled between each of the joined bags. He grunted as he lifted his end of the makeshift pole.

“Man, this is really heavy. It weights a ton.”

“That’s because of all the resin. I bet it probably only weighs about half of a full-sized lion, bwana. Just be glad you’re here instead of in Africa. Us porters can make bigger bucks here than over there.”

They set the load down. Then Tom grabbed one of the remaining empty bags and began throwing every piece of litter from their camp into it.

“What are you doing that for?”

“You know the rules. You’re supposed to pack out everything you packed in.”

”Who cares? Besides, it’s extra weight that will just slow us down.”

“What if they find this place and pull our DNA off of something we left?”

Mike shrugged. “Never thought of that. Good thing you did.”

Mike said they could finish the hike to the truck by nightfall. But by dusk they had only travelled thirteen miles. Carrying twenty-six bags of high grade genetically modified cannabis was testing both men, their “easy money” becoming the hardest they had ever earned.

“We better stop for the night.” Mike halted in a clearing.

Tom dropped his end of the pole and fell to the ground. He stared up at the gathering stars. Normally a lover of nature, he ignored their twinkling beauty because of the ache in his stomach.

“Let’s eat. I’m starving.”

Mike undid the straps of the backpack that he carried. It was much lighter than when they had hiked in two days before. After rummaging through the pack, he sighed.

“Afraid that we’re down to our last meal.” He tossed a high energy bar packed with 765 calories to Tom.

Tom bit off half of the bar. Its salty dry texture increased his thirst. “Give me some water, bro.”

Mike shook the canteen he had filled at the spring nine hours ago. “Sorry, but it’s empty, man.”

“No water? One stinking bar for dinner?” Visions of his last real meal at his grandmother’s house danced inside of his head. “You got to be kidding me.”

“I didn’t think it would take this long to hike back out. I didn’t count on us on being out here in the boonies for three nights and two days. If it makes you feel any better, you’re eating our last food.”

Tom stopped mid-bite on the last quarter piece of bar. He rubbed the end that had been in his mouth on his shirt and then tossed it to Mike. “You finish it. Otherwise you’ll probably pass out tomorrow before we get back to the parking lot.”

Out of fear of attracting anyone to their campsite, they lit no fire to ward off the chilly air. Instead, each unpacked the thermal blankets that fit into their rear jeans pockets. Despite their mattress of soft meadow grass, small rocks pressed against their flesh no matter how much they turned to reposition their aching bodies. But exhaustion won out over comfort and within minutes their snores joined the sounds of night creatures on the prowl.

The first to enter their camp was a raccoon. She sniffed the black plastic bags and decided their contents were not worth further examination. Next, a fox trotted by the sleeping pair. He wondered why these strange creatures had invaded his territory. Around midnight, a large owl roosted in a Douglas fir high above the campsite. She hooted her song before descending to lower elevations in search of mice, rabbits, or squirrels so she could feed her young back in their nest.

Morning came too early for Tom, 3:30 a.m., as Mike shook him.

“Time to boogie, man. We have to hit the trail.”

Tom glanced at the fluorescent dial of his watch. “But it’s way too early. I need some more sleep.”

“If we leave right now we can make the truck by 5:30, maybe 6:30 at the latest. We want to get there before too many people show up at the parking lot.”

Tom grumbled as he stood and tried to shake some warmth into his aching body. He started to ask for breakfast before remembering that there was none. Only a trickle exited him when he urinated.

“Let’s get going. I’m so dehydrated that I barely could pee.”

“We’re rounding third base and almost home. Hang in there.”

“Yeah, right.”

  • * *

They covered the last five miles in a little over three hours because of rest breaks taken every fifteen minutes. Mike halted 300 yards from the parking lot and glanced at his watch, a cheap survival knock off he had found on the internet.

“It’s already 6:40. I wonder who’s down there in the parking lot.”

“Who cares? Let’s get back to the truck and get moving. I’m starving. We got to find us a place to eat. On me.” Tom hoped his offer would convince his partner in crime.

“Not so fast, Kemo Sabe.” Mike pulled a tiny pair of binoculars from his pocket and scanned the parking lot. “Oh, oh. There’s a ranger truck parked down there. Just our luck.”

“We’ll just have to wait until he drives off. He’s probably making his rounds.”

“That’s too risky. Someone up here for a day hike or something else might spot us if we hang around up here for too long.” Mike sat on the remnants of a pine that had fallen because of disease. “Let me think for a minute.”

He studied the bags that held tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of potent pot and the one containing the garbage. “I know…hand me that bag.”

Fifteen minutes later Mike sauntered into the parking lot. At his truck, he pulled back the canvas tarp and gently lifted a plastic bag into the eight-foot long bed. He smiled when he heard the door of the ranger’s truck open and shut and the voice directed his way.

“You there, what’s in that bag?” The ranger stopped ten feet from Mike and rested his left hand on the semi-automatic pistol that was holstered to thick black belt.

“Just everything we brought into our campsite, sir. We always play by the rules. Everything that we packed in is getting packed back out. In fact, my friend has been picking up litter the whole time we were camping out. He’s still picking up stuff along the trail. The closer we got to this parking lot the more stuff he’s been finding. He has all kinds of bags full of junk. I was just getting ready to go back and help him.”

“Well, I still need to see what’s in the bag.” He pointed.

“But why, ranger? You don’t think I’m a poacher trying to sneak out of here with some choice cuts of deer meat, do you?”

“No. Just let me inspect it in case you have more than your limit of fish in that bag. Stop playing games with me. I have other stops to make.” His right hand fondled a small tape measure hooked to his belt. “Even if you just caught your limit, maybe some of them aren’t the legal size. You have nothing to hide, do you? Please take the bag out of your truck and bring it over here.”

Mike tapped his chest. “Me? No way, ranger. I would never ever break the fish and game laws. No, sir. Not me. No way.”

He lifted the bag from the pickup and undid the plastic twist tie that had sealed its top. He took two steps toward the ranger before pretending to trip. As he fell, he opened the bag and let its contents land on the ranger’s pants. Most of the objects bounced harmlessly off of the creased uniform. But part of the foul-smelling excrement Mike had deposited in the bag by squatting over it ten minutes earlier splattered both pants legs and shiny black boots.

The ranger cursed and danced backwards. “What the…?” He pointed at the filth that was already drawing flies closer to him.

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s my friend. For days, he’s been making me poop into bags. When we ran out of toilet paper, he even made me put the leaves I used to wipe myself into the bags. You want to see them, too?”

Mike walked on his knees with the open bag held at arms’ length in front of him. The ranger felt bile and that morning’s breakfast catch in his throat. He held out his left hand to signal for Mike to stop as his right hand covered his nose and mouth.

“Back up, you fool. Now I have to go clean up and change my uniform because of you.”

Mike scooped up the cans and paper that had spilled from the bag but avoided the pieces of his turds. He tossed the bag into a metal dumpster and waved as the ranger’s vehicle sped away from the parking lot.

Tom shook his head when Mike returned to him on the hill above the lot. “I couldn’t believe it.” He handed the binoculars to Mike. “I thought he was going to bust you for sure.”

Mike grinned. “For what? You’re the one with all the dope, bad boy.” He began singing the theme song to his favorite TV show, Cops.

  • * *

As they neared the park’s entrance, Mike ordered Tom to pretend he was asleep. His voice was low and nervous.

“Why?”

“I heard you hitting on that ranger when we got here a couple days ago. You’ll probably say or do something stupid and get us busted, that’s why.”

Tom pouted but obeyed as Mike slowed the truck at the gate. He handed the ranger their camping permit. “Uh, we didn’t have time to pay for the extra night we spent. How much we owe you?”

She studied the permit and calculated the extra fees. As Mike handed her the money, she poked her head through the window.

“You guys take turns sleeping? When you came in the other day, he was driving and you were asleep.”

“Actually, I just pretended to be asleep because I knew my friend wanted to hit on you. He’s a real jerk.”

The ranger giggled. “You two ought to be a comedy duo. Well, have a good trip home. Come back again.”

“Sure thing. Be seeing you.”

Tom waited until the truck had rounded the first curve. “All I wanted to do was get her name and number. What’s so wrong with that?”

“You dirty old man. You’re old enough to be her grandfather.”

“Want to bet? How old you think she is? Twelve?”

“She’s probably about twenty-five. How old are you?”

“I’m only fifty-three.”

“Ha! I win, as usual. When you were thirteen you got Ranger Honey back there’s grandma pregnant. Then yours and grandma’s son turns out to be just like you, always thinking with the smaller of the two heads that God equipped you with. Your son gets his girlfriend pregnant when he’s fifteen.”

“Huh?”

“Add it up. You said Ranger Honey is twenty-five. So twenty-five plus thirteen plus fifteen is…” He waited for Tom to prove his theory.

“Fifty-three.”

“Exactly, you dirty old goat.”

The rhythmic swaying of the pickup on the winding road lulled Tom into a real slumber. He did not wake up until he heard loud curses. Because Mike was glaring at the rearview mirror, Tom spun his head around as the sixth bag of marijuana flew from the pickup bed and landed in front of a Harley Davidson chopper.

Its driver had dodged the first five bags as he braked but the sixth one sixth one became enmeshed in the spokes of his front wheel and sent bike and rider flying over the shoulder into a stand of trees. As the pickup shuddered to a halt, driver and passenger jumped out of the cab. Both want-to-be drug kingpins stared at the loose tarp.

Mike grabbed an end of the rope. “What kind of knot did you tie?”

“I can’t remember. I was real tired.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, it’s right over left and then left over right?” Mike held up the rope and demonstrated a square knot that tightened the tarp over the remaining bags.

“Are we going back to check on the motorcycle rider?”

Mike slid into the cab behind the steering wheel. “No way. Those guys carry guns. He’s probably so pissed off, he might shoot us both.”

Neither one said anything until they were inside a small café fifty miles farther down the road. Mike broke their silence by trying to cheer up his glum companion.

“Pretty good, huh? Eggs, sausage, hot cakes, butter, and maple syrup all washed down by lots of coffee.” As if on cue, a waitress appeared and refilled his cup. “Thank you, darling. And thank you, Tom, for breakfast.” He slid the check across the table. “As I recall, you said you were buying.”

Mike’s grin faded when he saw the small crowd gathered around his truck. All seven of the frowning men wore dirty blue jeans and leather vests that displayed the colors of their motorcycle club. Mike recalled that much. Always refer to any such group as a club. Being called a gang would likely result in a confrontation.

“Morning, boys.” Mike glanced at the seven customized Harley Davidson cycles parked next to his truck. “Beautiful day for a ride. Well, I have to hit the road. Be seeing you.”

“Maybe.” The smallest of the bunch stepped toward Mike. “You mind pulling back that tarp? One of our members got plastered by a bag that he said flew out of a pickup truck. He’s at the hospital with a concussion and some broken bones. His bike is totaled.”

Maybe if you dummies would wear decent helmets instead of the kind the Germans wore in World War II, he would be all right. It figures that the smallest one of you is the leader. You must have a Napoleon complex. Mike hesitated.

Mike was tempted to hit the button on his cell phone that would dial 911 and bring help. But then any law enforcement that showed up would want to look under the tarp also. He calculated how much time he would serve for growing and transporting marijuana with the intent to sell it. Depending on the judge and jury, he reckoned it would be anywhere from two to ten years. Slow to decide on how to answer, Mike groaned as Tom spoke.

“It was my fault, guys.”

The leader shuffled to Tom and leaned into his face. “Why’s that? Were you driving?”

“No. I tied the wrong knot.” Tom tugged on the tarp. “It came loose and six bags flew out before we could stop. I’m real sorry about your friend getting hurt like he did. But if you’re going to beat the hell out of someone, it might as well be me. My friend is completely innocent.”

“Innocent?” As the leader guffawed, his six followers joined in the ridicule. “Most of the grass in the bags scattered when they broke open. But there was enough that we found to see what you two have been up to. The way I figure it, you two bozos just give us what’s left in the truck and we call it even. We’ll sell it and use the bread for Max’s doctor bill, lost wages while he recovers and compensation for the emotional pain and suffering you are causing the rest of us by depriving us of Max’s companionship. Now pull back the tarp.”

Tom undid the rope and rolled back the tarp. Some of the bikers’ eyes widened as they counted the bags. The happiest one hopped until he was next to his leader.

“Twenty bags, Dave. Wow, dude.”

“How many times have I told you not to use our names around strangers?”

“Uh, sorry man. I guess I forgot again.”

“Okay, cover it back up. There’s a house down the road where we can unload it.” Dave nodded at the one who had uttered his name. “You drive the truck.”

“But then my bike will still be here, Dave.”

“We’ll bring you back later on. Don’t worry.”

After tying blindfolds on Tom and Mike, Dave led his pack and the truck with its precious cargo fifteen miles south on the highway. The blindfolds were not removed until Tom and Mike were left back by the side of the highway with their empty truck.

At first, Mike wanted to verbally beat up Tom. But his friend’s sullen mood kept his mouth shut. Instead, he spun the dial of his truck’s radio until a station that played “songs from the 1960s and 1970s” cackled to life through the speakers.

“Don’t worry, Tom. There’s always next year.”

Make That Sale (Go Away)

The doorbell rang just as Frank Ringo sat down on the toilet. Cursing, he pulled up his pants as he ordered his bowels to tighten up to keep their contents from escaping. He opened the front door with one hand as he fumbled with the hook for his pants with the other.

“Good evening, sir. We are visiting your neighborhood with a fantastic deal for subscribing to magazines at huge discounts. As you can see…” The solicitor held up pages of thumb-sized covers of every magazine on the planet, Frank thought, as the youngster continued her spiel. “…we offer all of the popular periodicals. Are you a sports fan, sir?” She pointed at a recent cover of Sports Digest.

“I am a fan of my privacy, young lady. Since you peddle literature, I assume that you can also read.”

“Uh, of course. That’s why I’m doing this, so I can help pay for my college tuition. If I turn in the most subscriptions I can also win a scholarship.” Her pleading expression reminded Frank of a girl who had asked him to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance forty years ago during his high school days.

“Prove to me that you can read. What does that sign say?”

“No Solicitors.”

“Marvelous.” Frank patted the notice he had had the neighborhood woodworker carve for him.

“That should do the trick,” old Sam had said as he handed the sign to Frank. But so far it had failed. Frank had counted fifty-four “door to door people from hell” as he called them since hanging the sign.

“Now I’ll test your vocabulary. You can’t be going off to college if you aren’t ready yet.”

“What is the meaning of solicitor?”

“It’s someone who sells things.”

“Good. Now notice how the sign is positioned directly below the doorbell?”

She bit her lip. ‘But they told us –”

“Who are you going to listen to, your anonymous ‘they’ or me? Now if you’ll excuse me, I was in the middle of some important business and if I don’t get back to it immediately, I’m going to crap in my pants!” He slammed the door so hard that the sales representative’s literature flew out of her hand as she staggered back from the porch to the driveway where her mentor waited out of view.

“That was old man Ringo. Don’t worry about it. I always start new reps like you out on this block to break you in right. Mr. Ringo is the tightest penny pincher in town, maybe the whole county. So far, he’s turned down every salesman who’s come to his door in the last thirty-two years. The story is that his wife bought a vacuum cleaner when they first moved in here. Old man Ringo blew a gasket because the vacuum cost so much. Ever since then, he’s been taking it out on anyone who comes to his door. He even turns down free samples. What a grouch. Let’s get going so you can make your quota.”

  • * *

For decades when advertisers had used the radio waves, Frank Ringo would punch a button for another station. If commercials interrupted his TV show, Frank pushed the “Mute” command on his remote.

But because of technology, sellers of everything from autos to insurance to marriage minded women from foreign countries to weight loss products to passes to the zoo to libido enhancers now sought out Frank. He banished all email ads to his Spam folder. Soon he was receiving forty to fifty spam emails for every email that he wanted to read. After one too many phone calls asking, “Is Wanda there?” he concluded that someone had scribbled Wanda’s name next to his phone number in a public restroom.

“I bet it was probably one of those phone solicitors trying to get even with me for not buying their junk,” Frank had told his wife Molina. “Your personal information is completely confidential.” He mocked the words he had heard and read dozens of times. “All except for your phone number, they love giving that out.”

He decided to fight back.

First, he kept a log book of every phone call received at home. A month later he announced the tally to Molina.

“We had 267 calls last month.”

“That many? I had no idea.”

“And that’s just the ones that I answered, not including the ones on the answering machine. Anyway, fifty-eight calls were from telemarketers, thirty-one were automated recorded calls, forty-one were wrong numbers…” He paused to let the statistics sink in.

“That’s what happens when your phone number has only one different number than the phone number for the pizza place.”

“No. That’s what happens when some idiot writes our number on some bathroom wall. Sixty-five calls were from your friend Mildred, twenty-nine were surveys, and the rest were miscellaneous. You know what that means don’t you?”

“No.” Molina feared that her husband of thirty-five years was going to demand that have the phone disconnected. He would probably justify it with his favorite saying: “Think of all the money that we’ll be saving.”

“It means that almost all of the calls we got were totally unnecessary. And don’t say that my survey wasn’t scientific. If I did it again, I bet the results would be even worse because even more companies would have our number by then.”

“But we have to have a phone, dear.”

“I know, I know. I don’t live in the Dark Ages, you know. Let’s get us one of those cell phones and have the phone company cancel our land line phone number. I’ll even let you take the cell phone with you whenever you go somewhere.”

Taking the place of the answering machine seems like a small price to pay, Molina thought. Besides, she could always turn the phone off or ignore the call if the phone number that appeared on the cell phone’s screen did not look familiar.

“Sounds like a good idea. Maybe I can get one of our kids to teach me how to text with it.”

“Just don’t give out our new number to the wrong person.”

The new cell phone service cost more than their old land line phone had but it was worth it to Frank as the total number of calls made to them dropped by over half. It took time but after a few months, Frank had learned how to use the new phone without accidentally ending a call. He bragged to Sam about his victory.

“I should have switched to a cell phone years ago. It’s great.”

“But your number isn’t in the directory now. How can your friends and family look you up? Don’t you want to keep in touch with them?”

“That’s the beauty of it. I only let the ones I want to know have our new number. What’s that you’re working on?”

Sam stopped carving the three-foot long piece of oak. “A cane for Walter down the street. His arthritis is flared up pretty bad. Who’s that coming up the walk?”

Frank turned and saw a boy who looked to be sixteen or seventeen approaching them. His jaw tightened as his molars ground together.

Another one. He swore he could smell a sales pitch from 1,000 feet away. Something about the way that the door to door irritators walked always gave them away.

“Where’s your sign?” Frank asked.

“I gave it to Mrs. Maloney.”

Frank groaned. Without Sam’s “No Solicitors, Please” sign, he felt defenseless, almost naked.

“Good evening, gentlemen. We’re passing out literature about God.” The young man pointed at the one on the other side of the street. Frank thought they must be twins or clones because they were dressed the same: white shirt, black pants, black tie, and closely trimmed hair.

At least they look decent, Frank thought. He shook his head when the literature was six inches from his face. “I don’t need none of that. I already know God,” he said. “You might as well go bother someone else besides us.”

The boy handed it to Sam, who placed it under his chair. “Thank you, son.”

“You’re a Christian then?” The boy stared at Frank.

No, I’m a Hindu, dummie. Frank cleared his throat. “Let’s just say I’ve got my fire insurance all paid up, okay? You know, I ain’t going to hell, okay?”

“Well, we’re having a special series at our church on the end times starting next weekend.”

Frank jumped to his feet so rapidly that the lawn chair he sat in fell backward onto Sam’s sleeping golden retriever. She yelped and sought refuge behind her master’s chair. Arms waving and head bobbing like those in his bobble head collection of five-inch tall replicas of his favorite athletes, Frank raised his voice in hopes that the clone across the street could also hear it.

“I don’t need your stinking meetings, boy. I’m saved, if it’s any of your business. My eternal life insurance is all paid up in full so I sure as hell am not going to pay any more premiums to your church. Why don’t you take your handouts somewhere else and just leave me and Sam alone?”

He grabbed four of the tracts from the boy’s shaking hand and threw them into the air. The evening breeze caught them and they scattered into the bushes in front of Sam’s house, where they flapped as if trying to find a more appreciative readership.

The boy backed away. “Nice to have met both of you. If we can be of any further…” His words trailed off as he trotted to the house next to Sam’s.

“Young punks! There ought to be some kind of law to keep them from bugging people like us.” Frank squatted where he thought his chair still stood but tumbled on top of it instead.

His weight bent its aluminum frame beyond repair.

  • * *

Having to pay to replace Sam’s chair galvanized Frank to take the offensive. He found an ally in Roberta Laval, who had more persuasion in their small city than the city council and mayor combined.

After decades of neighbors’ cats trespassing in her yard, Roberta had begun a one-woman campaign against them. Frist, she harangued the publisher of the local semi-weekly paper. He finally sent a reporter to her house who took photos of the wilted flowers that Roberta swore had been killed by the cats’ urine.

But when the story accompanying the photo of the wilted flowers did not result in any new ordinance to corral the free roaming cats, Roberta confronted the city council directly. She waved a copy of the newspaper article as she spoke during the council’s monthly meeting.

“It’s outrageous. Even after our fine newspaper published the terrible conditions of feral cats terrorizing our citizens’ property, the city council has yet to do anything about it.”

“But our animal control department has always picked up any cat or dog that is roaming loose. If the owners can be located, the animals are only returned to them after they pay any fines.” Mayor Angela Derwood looked to her left and right for support from the four council members.

“Ah, what else would you have us do, Roberta?” asked Ed Turner. “If we euthanize them without contacting the owners first like you demanded during the last meeting, we’ll have every animal rights group on the planet coming after us. They’ll sue us into kingdom come.”

“Then pass a regulation that outlaws owners letting their cats outdoors.”

One of the two cat owners on the city council spoke up. “But that’s inhumane. Sure, some cats are content to stay indoors all of the time. But most of them need time outside for exercise and exploring. It’s their nature. It’s only natural.”

“I knew you would defend reckless owners and their cats.” Roberta wadded up the article. “Just because you own a cat does not mean you have to automatically take their side on this issue. If you don’t vote to pass a regulation then I’ll start a recall campaign against all of you.”

The debate raged for an hour, with other audience members taking turns at the lectern reserved for public comment. Not wanting the city’s budget to be strained by having to bear the expense of a recall election, the mayor finally made a motion.

“I move that cats be banned from being allowed outside within the city limits.”

Further debate led to an amendment that allowed cat owners to construct “secure outside enclosures in which their cats may roam.”

The motion carried three to two.

It had been Roberta’s greatest triumph to date, earning her another front page story in the paper, this time with her photo above the fold. Impressed by her ability to get her own way, Frank approached her with as desperate of a story as he could muster.

“It’s gotten to the point that I have no peace at all any more, Roberta.”

“I don’t know, Frank. Hardly any salesmen knock on my door.”

“That’s because they know better. They fear you. You have the kind of reputation that I have yet to achieve.”

Flattered, Roberta agreed to accompany Frank to the next council meeting, on the condition that he petition its members. Not much of a public speaker, Frank tried to condense his pleas into one sentence.

“Roberta and I think we need a regulation to ban all solicitors from operating within the city limits.” He turned to Roberta, who frowned. She thought Frank had understood that she had accompanied him only to offer moral support. When asked by the mayor if she wanted to add anything, Roberta declined.

Twenty minutes later, the council voted to “take further public input before acting on Frank’s request.” Then, the council adjourned for closed door items, such as personnel issues, which were always conducted in private.

“You think it’s even constitutional to ban solicitors?” asked the mayor once the council had been seated in an office behind the city hall’s auditorium.

“I don’t know,” said Fred Turner. “If I recollect right, the right to solicit is covered by the Bill of Rights. That’s why the courts let anybody set up a table out in front of places like Wal-Mart, right?”

  • * *

By the next council meeting, a mighty coalition had formed to voice opposition to Frank’s proposal. The Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, elementary and high schools, churches, and other nonprofit organizations banded together and said that many of their fund raisers were conducted door to door. Two motels and six restaurants that hosted traveling sales contingents sent representatives to the meeting.

Especially vocal were those who had endured Frank Ringo’s wrath on his doorstep.

“He wants to take away our First Amendment rights of free speech,” one said. “Vote NO.”

“If we let Frank Ringo have his way, pretty soon no one will even be able to walk or drive by his house,” said another.

But it was the waif who had tried to sell Frank magazine subscriptions three months ago who had the greatest impact. In between tears, she recounted her frightening encounter with him.

“I think Mr. Ringo needs help.” She dabbed her eyes with a damp white lace hanky. “He was so angry when I knocked on his door. I think he has a phobia against anyone who rings his doorbell just to offer him a product or service. Maybe his parents took him door to door as a child and tried to sell him or give him away for free.”

“That’s a lie!” Frank jumped to his feet. “I will not be slandered like this any longer.”

The mayor banged her gavel. “Please sit back down, Frank. According to our agenda, you get to speak after we hear from those opposed to your suggested ordinance.”

An hour later, Frank approached the lectern set up for those giving testimony. He was dressed in a three-piece brown suit, white shirt, black tie, and brown loafers. What little hair remained on the top of his head had been trimmed so short by his wife that his bald spots shone like a 150-watt light bulb as the sweat on it reflected the fluorescent lights two feet above him. He removed his notes from a briefcase.

“Honorable mayor, members of the council, and your staff.” He glanced at the city attorney, summoned to the meeting to clarify any legal issues. “I understand the needs of those who spoke before me. I am not the unreasonable ogre, the troll under the bridge, the monster that some of them have made me out to be. I am just someone who minds his own business and wants to be left alone. I am more than willing to compromise for the good of the community. I propose that the council pass an ordinance that any citizen of our fine community can apply for an official decal from the city that will identify homes exempt from solicitors. Of course, anyone who ignores the decal affixed on or near the front door would be subject to a fine.”

The mayor and four council members turned toward the city attorney. “If an ordinance such as that proposed by Mr. Ringo is enacted, then there would have to be a fee imposed to implement the decal program.”

“But I already pay property taxes and sales taxes,” Frank said.

The mayor covered the microphone in front of her with her hand and spoke to the council members as they leaned toward her. Then she tapped her microphone to make sure it had not shorted out again.

“Because of the concerns raised here tonight, I and the council are in agreement that this matter be left to the voters. Do I hear such a motion?”

“I move that the proposed decal to ban solicitors on a home by home basis be placed before the voters,” said Councilwoman Elaine Underward.

“Do I hear a second?” asked the mayor.

“I second the motion.”

“All in favor?”

Five hands went up.

“Motion carries five in favor, none opposed.”

  • * *

The proposed City Decal to Prohibit Solicitors from Approaching Doors on Which It Is Affixed Ordinance campaign was long and nasty. Frank cried foul when he found campaign literature against the proposed ordinance wedged between his front door knob and door frame and when some of it was mailed to him. The city attorney offered him no recourse.

“As long as postage is attached to any campaign literature it can be delivered to your mailbox, Frank,” he said. “And merely putting such flyers on your doorstep is legal, too. Sorry.”

“We’ll see about that.” Frank yelled over his shoulder as he left City Hall.

But not one of his elected representatives from the state capital or Washington D.C. was willing to intervene either. So Frank resorted to dirty tricks. He prowled neighborhoods in his car, looking for the opposition. Then he waited until they left a street before running from house to house removing the flyers they had left on their doorsteps. By election day he was exhausted and had lost eighteen pounds.

The next morning he was more depressed than worn out.

His proposal had been defeated 84 per cent to 16 per cent. He blamed the loss on “low voter turnout.”

  • * *

A month later, a knock on his door introduced Frank to a world he knew little about – digital surveillance. Ordinarily he would have slammed the door in the face of the sales rep. But something about this one made Frank hesitate. Within two minutes, he had invited the salesman into his home and poured him a cup of coffee.

“You say that your cameras can zoom in on anyone approaching my front door from any angle?”

“Oh yes. As long as enough of them are installed correctly. We even have technicians to install them for you.”

“Is there a way they can hook up some kind of alarm to let me know when the cameras have picked up someone heading to my door?”

The salesman pursed his lips. “You know, you’re the very first one ever to ask me that question. Let me call our technical department.”

Five minutes later he said, “Thank you very much,” as he ended his call. “You are in luck, Mr. Ringo. Our technician said he can rig up such an alarm for you. Of course there will a slight additional charge.” He dropped the pamphlet of his company’s modest surveillance systems back into his worn tan imitation leather briefcase. “I assume you’ll want our most advanced unit. It comes complete with eight cameras and a memory of one week. At the end of each week, you can download what has been filmed onto our mainframe computer at national headquarters if you so desire.”

“That’s okay. Your system is going to be strictly a preventative measure.”

  • * *

It took the technician two hours to install the surveillance system: eight small cameras attached to eaves at the east, west, and south ends of the house, all connected to a central unit complete with monitor to let Frank see who might dare to approach his door. He liked the split screen feature that let him view the images of all of the cameras at once.

“Flip this switch to activate the alarm.” The technician pointed.

Frank obeyed. “Could you go outside and wave to a camera so I can hear what the alarm sounds like?”

The technician walked through the front door and waved at the nearest camera. Inside the house, a shrill “woo, woo, woo” sounded.

“Excellent.” Frank trotted out to the installer to shake his hand.

Frank hired a landscaper to complete his defense system. The specs for the job baffled the contractor.

“I still don’t understand why you want the sprinklers to face away from the lawn,” he said as he handed Frank the invoice. “You’re going to be watering the sidewalk, front porch, and driveway more than any of your grass. Doesn’t make sense.”

“Nevermind.” Frank handed him a check and waited until the landscaper was safely in his truck before testing the sprinklers again.

  • * *

From that day on, whenever someone walked toward Frank’s doorstep, the alarm sounded. He would run to the monitor to zoom the cameras on the possible interloper. If it was a person he did not know, Frank hit the “on” button of the timer connected to the sprinklers.

The most unfortunate victims ran toward the door instead of away from it. Even on the porch, they found no shelter from the water that seemed to rain down as thick as a sudden summer thunderstorm. The lucky ones escaped with dampened clothes if they immediately turned around and dashed for the safety of the street.

After two months of electronically monitoring all who approached his house and soaking those he considered trespassers, Frank grew listless. Then he noticed a shipment of cheap umbrellas at the Nothing More Than a Buck store. He bought all four dozen umbrellas and positioned them in the garage next to its door.

The next solicitor who walked up his driveway not only got soaked by the sprinklers, she also received a sales pitch after the garage door swung open. Out of the garage leaped Frank dressed in a poncho and waving an umbrella in each hand.

“Get your umbrella, only $1.50, today only.” He pointed both of them at the saleswoman. “How about you, young lady? This pink one matches your dress. It is pink, isn’t it? It’s sort of hard to tell when it’s so wet.”

He ended his pitch with howls of laughter.

“You’re…you’re crazy.” She ran until she was out of the range of the sprinklers. “You’re just an evil old man.”

Frank bowed and thanked her.

But after three weeks of hawking the umbrellas without a single sale, Frank again grew bored. At the hardware store he searched until he found an attachment that would propel the maximum amount of water through his new one-inch hose. Shaped like a stubby handgun, it seemed adequate for eliminating miscreants. This was his weapon to vanquish every trespasser from his quarter-acre kingdom.

Until now, the police had ignored solicitors’ complaints of getting soaked when they set foot on Frank’s property. But after two complained of a “high powered hose” drenching them, a police officer visited Frank. Other than Frank’s wife Molina, he was the first one in two months who had remained dry after walking onto the kingdom of Frank Ringo.

“Good morning, officer. What can I do for you?” Frank met him on the doorstep after the alarm had alerted him of someone approaching.

“Mr. Ringo, we’ve had two complaints of you soaking people with your hose.”

“Did they happen to tell you that they were trespassing?” His eyelids retracted until his eyeballs looked ready to roll out of their sockets. “They were guilty and received a just punishment for their crimes.”

The officer’s warning did not deter Frank. Instead, he had a plumber install a two-inch fitting to the water faucet in the front yard. Then he searched the internet until he found and ordered a hose that fit it. It came with a nozzle that delivered three times the amount of water as his old one had.

The first time Frank used it, his target, a thin salesman who sold cutlery, lost his balance. His case of kitchen knives flew open, sending a half dozen of them flying onto Frank’s lawn. As the salesman tried to retrieve his knives, Frank continued to spray him. The farther that he ventured into the yard, the closer Frank hopped toward him.

“Take that! And that!” Frank yelled.

The salesman ran from knife to knife, scooping them up, and then dashed for the sidewalk. There he slipped and hit his head on the concrete. A nurse practitioner sealed the salesman’s gash with twelve stitches.

The injured party sued. When Frank became loud and abusive during the trial, the judge found him in contempt of court and fined him $100. Not a vengeful sort, the injured salesman settled for the cost of his medical care on the condition that Frank “receives help before he hurts someone else.”

  • * *

Frank thought his court ordered attendance at an anger management group was worse punishment than the $100 fine and payment of the injured party’s medical expenses had been. Only one in the eight-member group seemed to understand Frank and his problems.

For Gerald, behind every action, great and small, a conspiracy, always vast and complicated, was lurking.

“It was like I was telling you at the last meeting, Frank. All of those people coming to your door are part of the Illuminati.” Gerald shoved his iPad under Frank’s nose. “Go ahead and read it for yourself if you still don’t believe me yet.”

After reading three paragraphs, Frank paused. “But why would they want to target someone like me?”

“The same reason they’ve been coming after me ever since I was a kid.” Gerald looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was eavesdropping. “They know that I know too much. Did any of the people who came to your house look strange?”

“Only after they got wet.”

“Did any of them wear all black?”

“Some of them.”

“Men in black. Man, you’re in bigger trouble than I thought. Did any of them have funny looking eyes and no eyebrows?”

Frank thought for a moment. “There was one woman who looked like she used makeup for her eyebrows. It ran down her cheeks after I soaked her with water.”

“A hybrid. No wonder the men in black are checking you out.”

“Hybrid?”

“You know, half human and half alien. Bet you’re glad you met me before it’s too late, huh? I’ve been thinking about that security system you told me about. Doesn’t it tape those people who came to your house?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“How about letting me come over and take a look at the tapes. That way I can tell you for sure who’s spying on you.”

The Hogs from Hell

Henry Pankow noticed it first. And he was not even a farmer.

How many times had he told his wife Teri that? At least five or six thousand, he thought as he trudged back to their house through ankle deep mud. But here he was, trying to frame his discovery in such a way that Teri could not blame him or worse yet, have a nervous breakdown.

Maybe I should start off with ‘I’m just the messenger, dear…’ No, that won’t do.

Then he remembered a sermon he had heard two months ago. The preacher had said, “If your spouse has a favorite pet and it dies while they are away on a trip, don’t tell them the bad news all at once. Instead, the first time you talk to them on the phone, say, ‘Sandy looks sick.’ The second time they call, say, ‘I took Sandy to the vet.’ During the third call, say, ‘The vet said there was nothing she could do for poor Sandy.’ In other words, break the bad news slowly, not all at once.”

Even though Henry was only eight feet from the porch, he did an about face and trudged back to the barn. He opened its rickety wooden door and walked to where the piglet lay motionless on the straw. After a quick search, he found the darkest corner in which he laid the tiny body. Then he dragged an empty trough and positioned it so that it hid the dead pig. Satisfied, Henry retraced his route to the house.

“No wonder it died.” Henry shook his body as he tried to remove some of the chill from it. He found it amazing that the barn always seemed colder during the winter and hotter during the summer than the air that surrounded it. Its only protection seemed to be from the rain, except where missing shingles allowed some of it to travel to the barn’s dirt floor.

Plenty of rain fell every spring, which guaranteed mud. Henry swore that the farm was little more than a sea of mud this time of year, when “the snow finally melts and then the frozen tundra slowly thaws out.” How he missed the concrete and asphalt of Chicago. Oh, they might be littered with garbage or dead bodies but at least pedestrians could dodge them by crossing the street. Avoiding mud, flies, and mosquitos “down on the farm” had proven impossible.

Henry had resisted Teri’s dream for a decade. In the end he relented, and her dream of owning a farm became his nightmare. As much as Teri relished country life, Henry hated it. But here it was, five years after the move, half a decade of her living out her fantasy, as Henry called it.

At the porch, Henry sat on the swinging chair that hung from two chains. He kicked off his boots, their soles padded by an inch of mud. Dialog practiced, Henry burst through the door in socks and hollered.

“Hey, Teri.”

“In here.” She called from the kitchen. “Breakfast is almost ready.”

Henry skipped his usual good morning kiss on her cheek. Somehow, it did not seem to fit the news he carried. “I got some bad news. I think some of your pigs might be sick. I was just out in the…”

Teri dropped the pancake she was flipping onto the floor and grabbed the down-filled coat hanging on a peg by the refrigerator. “My babies! Oh, no. I have to go and check on them.”

Hoping he had broken the news in enough of a piecemeal fashion, Henry finished flipping the pancakes still in the frying pan. He wondered if Teri’s scream would travel from the barn to the house.

  • * *

When her cell phone rang, Dr. Cindy Schmidt was helping a heifer whose legs had been injured after she had run from a bull in rut. A farmer and his two sons held the thrashing cow as the vet gently pulled barbed wire from the bleeding wounds. With the last of the painful barbs out of her flesh and the tranquilizer that Dr. Schmidt had given her beginning to calm her, the grateful cow mooed her thanks and rested its head on the farmer’s knees as it drifted off to sleep.

“That was interesting.” Dr. Schmidt stood and wiped some of the mud and blood from her denim jeans and jacket. “Where did my hat go?” She searched for the Kansas City Chiefs cap that had gone missing during the action.

“I think Flossie is lying on top of it,” the son closest to the veterinarian’s age said. “After she wakes up I’ll get it and bring it on over to your office.”

It’s not just bulls that get horny every spring. I’ll probably have to give Romeo here a shot to keep his hormones from making him act too stupid. She smiled. “Why, thank you, Dave. I’d appreciate that.”

She reached into her bag and handed the owner of the injured cow a bottle of antibiotics. “Some of the cuts are fairly deep. Give her three of these four times a day to help keep them from getting infected. And keep the wounds clean. Call me if any of her wounds start to fester.”

“Thanks, Doc. What do I owe you?”

“My bookkeeper will send you the bill.” She started to walk to her truck as she pulled her cell phone from her jacket’s breast pocket. She winced when the voice mail ended. “Got to run. Sounds like Teri Pankow has hog troubles again.”

  • * *

Teri met the vet at the pig sty by the barn.

“Thank God you got here so fast, Cindy.”

“So what’s this you were saying on the phone about dead pigs?”

“So far it’s just one. But I think the rest of the litter is sick, too. They’re just lying down and not moving much.” She led Dr. Schmidt to where she had found the deceased. “Poor little thing crawled over into this corner trying to stay warm, I guess.”

The vet pulled two latex gloves over her calloused hands and examined the lifeless body. “There have been some bad strains hitting pigs lately. Hundreds of thousands of them have been dying, especially the little ones. Let’s take a look at the other piglets.”

  • * *

Despite her diagnosis and treatments, Dr. Schmidt could only save two of the litter. Teri buried their twelve brothers and sisters in a mass grave where the back forty of her property began. Grief stricken, she did not notice when Henry set flowers on the fresh grave. But when a sapling seemed to magically appear by the gravesite one morning, she ran after his pickup truck until Henry noticed her and stopped. She gasped for breath as he rolled down the window.

“Everything all right?” He glanced at his watch. “I’m going to be late for work if I don’t hurry up.”

“Did you plant that tree?” Teri’s arm trembled as she pointed back at her animals’ final resting place.

“Hope you like it. Thought it might be nice to have some shade for you over there for when it gets hot in the summertime.”

She reached through the window and hugged him until his head and left shoulder leaned over the window frame. Her tears moistened his cheek. “Thank you, Henry. You’re the most wonderful person I know.”

He slowly pried her interlocked fingers from the side of his neck. “Love you, too, darling. Sorry, but I have to get going.”

Henry whistled during his twenty-six mile drive to the company where he worked as an accountant. Planting the tree had not been his idea. A secretary at work had suggested putting a weeping willow at the grave after hearing the sad saga of “the dead litter that broke my wife’s heart” three times.

He wondered if the shade tree would be enough to end Teri’s moratorium on any affection beyond a peck on the cheek. Henry hoped so.

  • * *

Before trying to rebuild her business, Teri brought in a consultant. She first reviewed everything Teri had tried on the farm.

“So, first you tried raising chickens?” Dee Bacerra asked.

“Yeah. I took the eggs into town but none of the grocery stores wanted to buy them. So I sold them at the farmer’s market but always ended up bringing too many back home. We wound up throwing a lot of them away when they went bad. It’s only me and Henry that live here and you can only fix eggs so many ways.”

Dee looked up from the green ledger book in which Teri had recorded every expense and income since they had bought the farm. “Your husband works?”

“Yes. He said he would move here only if he first found a job nearby whatever we bought first. He’s an accountant at the meat packing plant in town.”

“I see. According to your records, next you raised bees for the honey?”

“Yeah. But some kind of disease kept killing them off.”

“Okay. Then you started raising organic vegetables.”

Teri sighed. “I was sure there would be a market for them. All the upscale restaurants back in Chicago wanted organic produce for the meals they cooked. But here no one seems to care much about whether pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides have been sprayed on what they eat.”

Dee flipped a page in the ledger. “Which brings us to your latest enterprise of raising hogs.”

Teri shrugged. “You would think that would have been successful. Iowa is the hog capital of the world, isn’t it?”

Dee removed her heavy framed glasses and pulled her black bangs away from her forehead, a nervous habit developed from years of dealing with customers who did not have a clue about what they were doing. “Unfortunately, the hog industry is suffering pretty badly because of the disease that’s killing off so many of them. Girl, you just had the misfortune to pick the wrong thing to raise at the wrong time. I’ve seen it happen more than once in all the years I’ve been doing my consulting work.”

“So what do I do now?” Teri’s blush turned her cheeks a shade of red that matched her strawberry blonde hair. Her thin body and bony arms looked out of place for a farmer, Dee thought.

“How’s mama pig doing?”

“She’s fine. But before I breed her again or sell her like Henry wants me to, I need to get your advice. You’re my last hope.”

“Okay. Let’s go take a look at your operation.”

Enough days without rain had passed that the May sunshine had been able to partially harden the sea of mud stretching between the house and barn. The earth now felt as if a giant dry sponge squeezed underneath Dee’s black leather cowgirl boots and Teri’s tennis shoes. Dee’s neck swiveled left to right as she studied what she could see of the farm.

“How many acres you got here?” Dee asked.

“Forty. It’s huge.”

Typical city slicker. Move out to the country, buy a few acres and think that’s enough to make you a farmer. This is farm country. Forty acres is nothing, just enough for a big garden.

“Do you like it?” Teri asked.

“Sure. What are you raising out in your fields? Looks like they aren’t even ready for planting yet.”

“Nothing. The people we bought it from raised corn and soy beans. But because of their nonorganic practices, I have to let the land lay fallow for a while longer before I can get certified that I run an organic farm.”

“But I thought you said you were growing organic vegetables for a while.”

“I was. But to be certified is a long process. I was hoping you could suggest some kind of organic crop for me to raise.”

“Uh huh.”

Dee winced when she saw the barn. She estimated its age at between seventy to eighty years. After walking around it, she stepped inside. Shafts of sunlight through the roof where rain and snow, ice and hail, and summer sun had destroyed shingles and the two-inch by twelve-inch planks beneath them revealed an interior not fit for crops or animals, Dee thought. She said nothing as her fingers pecked away on her handheld electronic device. By the time they sat down again at the kitchen table, Dee had a plan she hoped would be acceptable.

“I can do this one of two ways, Teri. One, give you a written report with all of my findings, or two, just tell you what I think.”

“Which one is cheaper? Since most of my pigs died, I really have to watch every penny.” Teri picked up the ledger and held it to her chest.

“It’s less if I just talk.”

Teri forced a small smile. “Go ahead then.”

Dee read her notes from her device’s screen. “First, you need to lease out all of your fields to some farmer who already has the equipment and knowledge of how to plant, grow, and harvest what will grow in these parts.”

“But I wanted to farm it.”

Dee reached across the white lace tablecloth and squeezed Teri’s forearm. Neither of her hands was available as she continued to use the ledger as armor to shield her soul from painful words.

“I know that it’s hard for you, Teri. But I’ve counseled a lot of city people like you over the years. Most of the time, they just don’t understand how much capital it takes to run a farm, even a small one like yours. The machinery you would need to buy would set you back hundreds of thousands of dollars, unless you bought it used. Then it would most likely break down a lot.”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry. But I have an obligation to let you know what you are up against. Do you still want to raise hogs?”

Teri nodded.

“Okay. I think you might be able to make it work.”

“But how can I keep them from dying like my last ones did?”

“First, you need to give them better shelter. If their immune systems are going to protect them from disease, then they need to have a warm, dry barn for shelter when it’s too cold or wet outside and a place to cool off when it gets too hot.”

“But won’t that cost a lot?”

“Not if you downsize the barn. I think that you can still raise an organic product, organic pork.”

“I like that idea.”

Dee smiled. “Your organic pork will fetch top dollar so you will be able to raise fewer of them, which means you need a smaller barn. The best part is that you can sell off a lot of the lumber from the old barn.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. The lumber that they used back in those days when your barn was built is sought after by house remodelers and people who make crafts from old wood. They pay top dollar for it.”

  • * *

Henry grunted while listening to Teri’s summary of Dee’s plan. Resigned to dying a premature death because of country living, he no longer objected to his wife’s dreams. Maybe if he became a “team player,” Teri’s dreams would cease being his nightmare during his time awake, he hoped. He tossed his newspaper from the supper table to the kitchen counter. Most unusual behavior, Teri thought.

“So how much money you figure you can get for the lumber from the barn?”

“Teri pulled her ledger from a kitchen drawer and opened it to the latest entries. “Let’s see, so far I’ve taken in…” She added the figures in her head. “…at least $2,193. Quite a little nest egg, huh?”

Nest egg for pigs. Now I’ve heard everything, Henry thought. “So how big a barn you putting up to replace the one that you tore down?”

“This is the best part. Dee’s husband is a general contractor. He can put up a brand new barn for only $40,000.”

Henry gagged on the piece of chocolate cake that had just entered his throat. “Forty thou…What’s he going to build it out of? Mahogany with stained glass windows? The old barn was only sixty feet by eighty feet. What’s he going to do? Make the new one twice as big?” Henry pictured a split level barn complete with weathervane.

“No, silly. The new one is only going to be 3,000 square feet.”

Henry thought of saying that at least it wouldn’t cost as much to heat but decided to keep his mockery at a minimum. Anything further that he said might be taken as a suggestion that Teri and Dee could build into their business plan. Then the final price would probably hit at least $100,000, he estimated. So much for being a team player.

  • * *

The Monday that construction was to begin coincided with a long planned trip for Henry to travel out of state to audit the books at his company’s other site. While he was absent, an accountant from the out of state location would be auditing the accounting records that Henry maintained.

“Just in case there’s been any monkey business going on,” the company’s president had informed the two accountants.

By the time Henry returned on Friday, he expected to see at least the wall’s framing and roof’s trusses erected for the new barn. Instead, as he drove down the long gravel driveway to the farmhouse, all he saw was what looked like a large hole in the ground. A 200-foot long trench ran from the hole to a smaller excavated area the shape of a dry pond.

When Henry saw that a four-inch plastic pipe ran along the bottom of the trench, he concluded that the animals would enjoy flush toilets in their new barn.

He parked his truck near the yellow plastic tape that was attached to four metal posts at the corners of where the old barn had stood. The words, “Caution, do not enter” were printed every five feet on the tape. Henry leaned over it.

“What the…”

The hole was eight feet deep, twenty feet wide, and fifty feet long. Along its perimeter were concrete walls four inches thick reinforced with rebar. Concrete that looked as if it had just been poured that morning cured on the hole’s bottom.

“Whoever heard of a barn with a basement?” Henry kicked a dirt clod. It splattered onto the still drying floor. He wondered if Teri had decided to alter the plans and have a giant root cellar underneath the barn. That meant she had somehow talked Dee into planting the forty acres with some sort of organic non-genetically modified crops.

New price tags of $150,000 or even $200,000 floated through Henry’s mind. Friends in Chicago had told him how contractors liked to keep jacking up the cost of a job. Teri had said how she needed “to get closer to her work if it’s ever going to succeed.” Maybe working the fields herself on top of an air-conditioned tractor complete with GPS was how she now intended to do it?

A familiar voice ended his speculation. “Isn’t it just wonderful?” Teri called out as she walked from the house. “That’s why the new barn only has to be half as high as the old one. The pigs get to live in the basement when the weather gets bad. It’s only one-third the size of the rest of the barn.”

  • * *

Two weeks later, the last shingle had been installed and Teri held a “barn warming.” She invited Dee, the construction crew, and veterinarian Cindy Schmidt.

“It’s good to finally get a chance to talk to you.” Henry sat next to Dee’s husband John and balanced his paper plate filled with roast chicken, baked beans, and potato salad on his knee.

“How do you like it?” John nodded at his latest project before tossing a chicken bone over his shoulder.

“The outside looks nice.” For $40,000, you could have built it out of ivory with gold trim, you crook. I wonder how much your fixed costs are, what your overhead is. I sure would like to take a look at your books, that is, if you even bother to keep any.

“Man, this job came along at just the right time. I had to get an extension on my taxes this year. Government sure takes me to the cleaners. Most of what I made on this job is all going to the IRS to cover last year’s tax bill.”

Henry blinked. “So what’s the inside look like?”

“You haven’t seen it yet?”

“Nope. Teri said no one can even have a peek until she dedicates it first. Whoever heard of dedicating a barn?”

“Guess that is sort of rare. But lots of folks around here like to get their priest to dedicate their houses after I build them.”

“Whatever.” Henry frowned when the chicken breast he bit into oozed blood. I knew I should have thawed the meat out longer before I cooked it. He threw the rare chicken meat into the pen that housed Teri’s remaining pig herd. They scrambled for the unexpected treat, with the sow shoving her two offspring aside with her snout and devouring the breast, bones and all. She grunted as she searched for more.

John drained the last of the beer from his glass. “Hey, Billy. How about a refill?”

His seventeen year old son ran over and snatched the glass before heading to the metal keg.

“So it’s just you and your son that built the barn?” Henry asked.

“Yeah. Of course on houses I have to sub out the electrical and plumbing and the HVAC. But we do the rest. I’m glad Dee talked me into moving down here from Detroit and getting into construction.”

Except for their ages both being around sixty, Henry thought they shared nothing else in common. But here was another poor soul taken captive by the “Let’s Move to the Country Cult.”

“Yeah, once all the car assembly plants started to lay off people, she kept bugging me about moving down here because this is where she’s from originally. Her family still farms over 1,000 acres. It’s been in her family four generations now.” John thanked his son for the fresh beer. “Oh, I almost forgot. Teri said that you’re always complaining about your house being too drafty. Maybe my son and I could…” He stopped talking as Henry jumped out of his chair so fast that his plate of food landed face down by his feet.

Build us a new one. “Uh, excuse me. I’ll be right back.” Henry jogged to the house and sat down at the computer desk. For once he was glad to see that Teri had left it on. He clicked the mouse until he was connected to a website that did background checks.

Into the blank fields he typed “John, Bacerra, and Iowa.” A list of fourteen names appeared. Henry scrolled down them and found two that listed ages that seemed close to the John Bacerra who sat outside. Only one of the two had “Detroit” listed as a former residence.

Caught you, you sneaky little weasel. Now we’ll find out what kind of mischief you’ve been up to. Wouldn’t surprise me one bit if one of your uncles helped to knock off Jimmy Hoffa.

For $79.99, Henry soon received the results of a search “through millions of public records”: for information on the one who had already forced him to co-sign on a loan with Teri. Well, John Bacerra had not forced him back into debt. It was that tight-fisted banker in town who had refused to give Teri the money to build the new barn unless Henry signed his life away. Now, Teri probably had already asked for bids from John Bacerra and Son Construction to build a brand new farmhouse.

No way, Jose, Henry thought as he scrolled through the electronic data looking for dirt. But after scanning the mostly mundane information, he found only one negative item. John Bacerra had been convicted of driving under the influence.

Henry slammed the mouse against its pad. “That’s all?”

The phone that hung in the kitchen rang and pulled him away from the computer. “Hello.”

“Hurry up, Henry.” It was Teri. “We’re all waiting for you in the barn.”

“Be right there.”

As he walked to the barn, Henry wondered if a DUI conviction would be enough to keep Teri from insisting that John build a new farmhouse. He turned the handle on the door to the barn. His right foot hit the top step of the stairs leading to its basement. But when his left foot hit the next step sooner than expected, Henry tumbled down the staircase. He landed with a thud on the floor.

Teri let out a small shriek as she helped him roll onto his back. “You went down the wrong stairs.”

“Huh?” Henry rubbed his throbbing head.

“Those stairs are only for the pigs.” She pointed at the steps that were only six inches apart and five inches deep. “The ones over there are for people, Henry.” She nodded at the staircase on the other end of the room, which was proportioned with the same measurements as the steps that led to the front porch of the farmhouse.

“That way Henry and I will already be used to them and won’t ever fall,” Teri had said when designing the barn with Dee.

“I’m only licensed to treat animals but let’s take a look at you.” Cindy Schmidt stared at his pupils and smiled when she saw they were the same size. Then she checked each ear and his nose to see if any blood or spinal fluid flowed from them. “How do you feel?”

“Like someone just hit my head with a two by four.” Henry sat up and groaned.

“Does it feel like you broke or sprained anything?” She began touching his joints one at a time with both of her hands.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, it looks like you’ll live.” The vet stood. “If your headache gets worse or any bad pain shows up anywhere, get into the urgent care clinic in town.”

Henry accepted the glass of beer that John Bacerra had fetched for him. “It’ll help take the pain away.”

For the next twenty minutes, Teri detailed her business plan for her guests. She wanted to raise organic pigs and market their meat to health food stores. Dee had introduced her to a small meat packing company willing to service her business.

“My brand is called Whole Hog because it’s wholesome. The pigs will be fed only non-genetically modified corn and garbage from the farmhouse,” Teri said. “That means that everything we buy at the grocery store from now on has to be non GMO only, right, Henry?”

Henry swallowed the last of his beer. Already its alcohol dulled his senses, rendering him even more fuzzy headed than the fall had. “Whatever you say, dear. How about a refill?” He lifted his empty glass toward his guests.

Four more beers later, the only pain Henry still felt was psychic. As the alcohol continued to destroy his brain cells, he began to imagine that a conspiracy had formed between Teri and Dee and John Bacerra, one that would force him to work until age eighty-seven as he paid off the loan they would saddle him with to build a new farmhouse.

For all I know, that pig staircase was just your way of offing me to get your greedy little hands on the money from my life insurance policy. Henry stared at the laughing trio who sat thirty feet from him. I still think John’s uncles knocked off Jimmy Hoffa up there in Detroit. I bet old Johnny boy has connections with the Detroit mafia. Only one way to stop them now.

He grabbed an empty pot and banged a large spoon against it.

“Hey, everybody.” When everyone had turned his way, Henry raised his sixth glass of beer. “A toast to Teri and her hogs.”

Those with glasses raised them.

“It’s only because of her that we’re all here. It took her years to talk me into coming down here to Iowa. You know what? We sold our house up in Chicago at the peak of the last real estate bubble and walked away with so much cash that we were able to buy this farm without taking out a loan. Sure, it was what the real estate agent called a ‘fixer upper’ because it had run down for the two years it took the bank to foreclose on it. But now that I’ll have to spend the rest of my days paying off that state of the art pig barn, there is no way in hell I will ever agree to build a new farmhouse just because the one we live in is so cold and drafty.”

He threw his glass of beer at the barn. When it shattered against the side of it, only Billy spoke. “Wow. He’s christening it just like they do when they smash bottles of booze on brand new ships. Cool.” He pulled out his cell phone and took photos of the beer-stained barn.

Henry staggered backward and then forward. “The only way I’ll ever agree to having a new farmhouse built is if someone kills me and uses the insurance money to do it with.”

As he spun around and glared at Teri, his knees buckled and chunks of the two pieces of rare chicken that he had eaten after enough beer had deadened his senses came back up his throat and splattered onto his guests’ shoes. John pulled him into a folding chair.

“New farmhouse? Your wife just wants me and Billy to insulate the one you already live in. The money you eventually save on your heating bill will pay for the job.”

  • * *

The next morning, Henry ached most of all in his feet as gout turned them red and puffy. His usual alcohol intake was half a glass of wine at New Years, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Any more than that and gout attacked him. Reduced to hobbling around the house, he called his boss.

“Hello, Pankow? Where are you? We have payroll to get out.”

“I know, Mr. Hender. I’m sorry but my gout is acting up and I fell down some stairs in the barn and I ache all over.”

“You didn’t break anything, did you? We can’t afford to have you off more than one day, tops. See you tomorrow. Goodbye.”

Henry hung up the phone and wandered outside to see what was causing a ruckus.

From the porch, Henry watched Roscoe being unloaded from a trailer. Weighing over 1,000 pounds, he looked more monster than hog to Henry. But he was a neighbor’s prize breeder. He made loud squealing noises as he strutted into the wooden pen next to the barn. Rosie positioned herself against the fence but Roscoe cornered her so that his owner could eventually claim the pick of the litter as payment for his hog’s stud services.

  • * *

Three years had passed since the new barn’s construction. After Teri had invested in two more sows, her herd grew steadily until its average number ran about eighty-five porkers. She had designed a company logo, a smiling hog. The grinning face was part of the label on every can of Whole Hog Ham that she shipped. The label’s blurb promised:

[_ Whole Hog hams consist of free ranging pigs raised in a 100% organic, natural environment in Iowa, the heartland of America. They are fed a diet of non-GMO corn and table scraps of the non-GMO, organic diet that Whole Hog’s employees consume. “We may be small but we’re the best.” _]

Henry had come up with the last line as part of his extended penance. This fourth year looked to be the first when income would exceed expenses.

Then disaster struck.

“I just don’t understand it, Dr. Schmidt.” Teri wiped away the tears from her cheeks. “All of the other litters were so healthy after we built the new barn.”

The vet took a blood sample from one of the eight surviving piglets and placed the tiny tube in her bag. “It would help if I could send the dead ones over to the university.”

  • * *

Graduate student Jack Prince opened the box packed with dry ice and three dead baby pigs. The research lab at the University of Iowa in Ames had become his home, unraveling causes of death for farm animals his passion. He took tissue samples from the pigs’ various organs and sent them to the room next door. There, a technician would analyze them and type her findings as part of a two-page report.

Jack thought the pigs had been victims to a mutation of the virus that had wiped out over a million piglets a few years earlier. He turned off the lights to his office, locked its door, and hurried to the nearby stadium that already held 40,000 fans.

Nothing like football on a fall day, he thought.

  • * *

The lab report baffled Jack so he visited the technician’s cramped cubicle.

“You sure there were no traces of a virus or bacteria?”

“None. You did read my report, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Jack talked over the case with his advisor, the one who was steering him through this two-year marathon of work and study, work, study to earn a PhD in Animal Pathology.

“Beats me. Maybe you should visit the farm where the pigs died. Could be something environmental that killed them.”

“But it’s an organic farm.”

His advisor spun his finger in the air and arched his eyebrows. “So?”

When Jack called Teri, she seemed too eager to have him visit Whole Hog Farms. Maybe that was because he was so hesitant to make the 200-mile round trip. Jack laughed when the mural of a herd of contented looking pigs painted on the side of the barn came into view. His knocks at the farmhouse were answered by Henry.

“You must be Jack. Teri had to run into town to pick up some of what she feeds her herd.” He wiped his hands on his trousers. “You have any kind of super disinfectant in your car I could use? Touching anything around here is starting to give me the willies.”

“Hot water and soap should work. Can you show me the herd?”

Henry felt important showing the graduate student Whole Hogs’ “state of the art barn.” His opinion of Jack lessened when he could not pinpoint what had killed the pigs.

“I thought you guys spend millions of our tax dollars there at the university. There must be some way you can figure out what’s killing them. Maybe you want to see where the pigs’ crap ends up so you can test it?”

Henry led the way from the barn to where its sewer line emptied into a holding pond.

Jack Prince spent the two-hour drive back to Ames trying to isolate any factor he might have overlooked. Frustrated, he sought refuge at a retired professor’s house. When he arrived there, two students from the university and Dr. Chang were preparing a four-course Mandarin dinner. Jack smiled as he ate with five students and their ex-professor. Now a widow, Dr. Chang had continued her practice of serving as an unofficial “mom” for those far from home.

When conversation shifted to the mystery Jack could not solve, a chemistry major asked where Whole Hogs Farms was located. She found its location on a map application on her cell phone. When she compared the farm’s location to a map of radon gas concentrations in Iowa, she whistled.

“Check this out. Whole Hog Farms is right above one of the highest radon gas concentrations in the state.” She handed Jack her phone.

“But I thought radon gas causes problems like lung cancer,” Jack said.

“Perhaps the radon gas is just one of the factors killing the pigs? Dr. Chang asked. “Levels of that gas can become extremely concentrated in basements. Didn’t your say the pigs live in the basement much of the time?”

  • * *

After hours of research on the internet, Jack Prince installed equipment to measure the radon gas levels in the barn’s basement. The results mystified him. Although the radon gas levels in the basement were extremely high, an epidemiologist who Jack consulted merely shrugged.

“Even at those levels it would take years for the pigs to be affected by the radon gas exposure. The pigs that are dying are still young. I don’t see any connection.”

So Jack set up a time lapse camera to record the pigs when they were in the basement. The video tapes showed nothing unusual until two weeks after the next litter was born. As the pigs slept, Jack noticed that their mother struggled for breath and kept running to the top of the stairs. There, she shoved her snout under the door for minutes at a time.

During the night when that incident was recorded, three of her piglets died.

“They suffocated from lack of oxygen.” He tapped the screen that displayed what the camera had captured.

“But why does it only happen when they’re little?” Teri asked.

Jack frowned. “I don’t know yet.”

With Teri’s help, he constructed a chart to try and single out variables that only occurred when the pigs died. Two days later, the two-foot by three-foot piece of poster board was crammed with dozens of variables: hours of sleep, food eaten, amount of time spent inside and outside of the barn, weather conditions, length of daylight, temperatures.

But the factors only perplexed them. On the fourth day, Henry added one more to their list.

“Don’t know if it means anything but have you noticed that the pigs only die when they’re sucking on mama pig’s teats for milk?”

“But Jack had the lab check a sample of her milk,” Teri said.

“Well, whenever mama is nursing them is when you give her your super-duper mix of vitamins, minerals, bone meal, and Lord only knows what else. Between that and the radon, I’m surprised that your hogs don’t glow in the dark.”

“She needs it to keep her strength up. How would you like to nurse so many babies at once?”

“But whenever she eats that special mix of yours is when the septic pond for the barn smells the worst. Matter of fact, instead of the pig crap being all runny and loose like it usually is, it gets sort of solid then, even what comes out from the babies because whatever their mother eats goes into her milk. It even plugs up the sewer pipe from the barn to the septic pond sometimes. Unplugging that pipe has got to be the nastiest part of pig farming.”

A new hypothesis gelled in Jack’s mind.

It took a dose of PCP before mama pig let Jack remain in the basement with her piglets that night. Two hours later he emerged with glass flasks that contained their flatulence.

He couldn’t wait to return to the lab to test his newest theory: While the high levels of radon had not yet caused cancer, they were weakening the pigs’ lungs enough that they were susceptible to whatever kind of gas the flasks contained.

When he heard the theory, Henry said, “The hogs from hell are gassing themselves to death.”

Acknowledgments and Afterword

Thank you to Elizabeth Sullivan for the painting that appears on the cover.

Thank you to the beta readers, my copyeditor, Donna Rich, and proofreaders, Carol and Jean Stroble.

Any errors that remain in these pages are mine.

The story I wrestled with the longest was The Ravens Shall Feed You. I wrote the first version of it thirty-three years ago but was unable to find a publisher. After reading and rereading the biblical account of Elijah, I decided to pull some of the dialog used in the story directly from the New International Version of the Bible.

I did this because the dialog found in the Old Testament account is concise and an accurate rendering. Trying to paraphrase it seemed unworkable. However, the other parts of the dialog and narrative were products of my imagination, inserted to try and flesh out the story.

For a more detailed account of Elijah, I suggest that you read the account from 1 Kings 17:1 to 2 Kings 2:18.

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The Ravens Shall Feed You And Other Stories

A collection of short stories: "The Return" --Longsuffering woman awaits word of her soldier. "Ode to Spouses of Nomads" --Husband joins 12-step group to battle his nomad malady. "Not" --Frustrated Baby Boomer tries to relate to his kids. "Thirty-six Points and You Can Go Home" --If you earn 36 points you can go home, unless you're killed or wounded first. "Phantom of the Choir Loft" --A phantom bent on revenge commandeers a church choir loft during Easter worship. "The Internet Ate My Homework" --Students' excuses for not turning in homework unhinge their teacher. "Leroy, Stanley, and the Devil" --Rescuing the boy down the street from the devil is not as easy as Stanley thought it would be. "The Ravens Shall Feed You" --Parents burn their children alive in fire to Baal. Only the prophet Elijah challenges them to a showdown. "Of Cats and Neighbors" --Cleo is trapped and turned lose in the wild by a disgruntled neighbor. "Gold Fever" --Two pot growers go for a big payday. "Make That Sale (Go Away)" --Fed up homeowner battles door to door solicitors "The Hogs from Hell" --Living in the country for a city slicker includes trying to raise hogs who keep mysteriously dying.

  • ISBN: 9781370713226
  • Author: Steve Stroble
  • Published: 2016-10-10 17:05:14
  • Words: 51357
The Ravens Shall Feed You And Other Stories The Ravens Shall Feed You And Other Stories