When You Sow Spoiled Seeds

“Pour me another,” said Paul, “Make it a double.” The old barkeep reached for the half-empty bottle of bourbon from the top shelf. The golden liquid flashed beneath the dim lights as he tipped its contents into a Collins glass. No ice. The man had been drinking them that way all night. For hours now he’d been sitting on the hard barstool, unmoving, save to lift the cool glass to his lips. Cash fell on the glossy, grain-swirled hardwood bar top. Followed but a muttered slur of words that as the day went on the bartender had come to understand as meaning “keep the change”.

Paul wet his lips with the liquor in his glass. The tingling sensation that spread across them was satisfying. He followed it up with a gulp. He let it slide slowly down his throat, immersing himself in every last flare of the biting alcohol. Apart from the request for another drink and incomprehensible statement about tipping, he hadn’t spoken a word. The despair in his heart was worn on his sleeve. No one sat near him, no one spoke to him, no one dared. A cloud of gloom hung over him. You could sense it, feel it, almost see it. His was a broken soul. Damaged beyond repair. The alcohol couldn’t fix what was broken but it could ease the sense of loss, the broken-heartedness, the misery. It helped him forget, or at least dulled the thoughts, faded them out to shadowy silhouettes. They became dreamlike, surreal. They were nightmares. But they were watered down, as though memories from childhood and not the terrors that haunted his adult life. Bourbon wouldn’t solve his problems, but it would make them feel more distant with each drop.

His legs were numb. From his toes up to the small of his back, sensation was lost in his lower body. The alcohol was doing its job. Slowly, but it was working. The green vinyl covering of the stool was torn, the thin layer of padding in tatters. The hard, composite wood, flat and uncomfortable, did little to bother the man. His life was in turmoil, this stool could do nothing that could compare with the hardships he’d endured, especially over the last few months. A routine check-up had revealed his wife to have cancer. It was too late. Her days were numbered. They might be able to try chemotherapy, radiation, but it was likely she would be too weak. Their daughter had just celebrated her fifth birthday. She didn’t understand. She needed her mother. He needed her. Raising a little girl on his own, he could do it, but that’s not what he wanted. They had talked, dreamed, about the things they’d do. Disneyworld, zoo trips, soccer games, school plays. There was so much ahead of them. But it was slipping away.

He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t think about it anymore. He hadn’t wanted to in the first place. That’s why he was here, damn it. The girl was with her grandparents; she been staying with them since Lynn was admitted. Between work and all the time he spent at the hospital, getting Jenna to school, picking her up, taking her to soccer, it was too much. He needed this time now. If he couldn’t drown his sorrows at least he could make it harder for them to affect him. He would keep dumping in the liquor, and they could keep swimming against the current.

He set the highball down on the bar with a dull clatter of glass on wood. A thin amber film coated the bottom. The barkeeper looked at Paul, then at the glass and proceeded to retrieve the top shelf whiskey. He poured the highball full, picked up the bills that were already waiting for him and left the man to his drink. Something needed to be done. There had to be options, means to solving the dilemma. But he could think of none. He took a sip. The burn in his mouth would sear away his problems, that was the only thing of which he could be sure. He would wake up in the morning, head pounding, like it had been split by a mallet. But what would come in the morning would be dealt with then. Right now the alcohol was washing over his brain, eating away at his memory. Those worries and concerns, his young daughter who didn’t understand, his dying wife, they faded away in his mind until all that remained was the here and now. Whiskey, dark oak, smoky air, crackling jukebox speakers, the clatter of pool balls, the subtle thud of darts hitting the board.

Paul opened his eyes. His face was against the bar, drool hung from his lips connecting with a puddle beneath his cheek. He jerked upright, glancing around quickly through tired eyes. The gray haired bartender was nowhere in sight. His glass was full but he was not thirsty. Had he actually fallen asleep? He couldn’t be entirely sure, but they would have probably kicked him out, or at the very least tried to force water and potato chips on him. That hadn’t happened though. He sniffed. The air smelled cleaner than it had. All was quiet. Looking to his left he realized a pair of eyes had been studying him. The man was dressed in a black biker jacket, matching pants and leather boots. He wore a pair of aviators, tinted too darkly to see his eyes through them. Despite that fact that it was evening, or as far as Paul knew night time or even early morning, the sunglasses remained on the man’s face. Is he actually looking at me, Paul wondered. As if the thought had been sounded out loud, the man spoke.

“You look like you’ve seen better days.” The voice was a deep, harmonious sound. Peaceful, almost hypnotic. Paul blinked furiously, shooing away the sleepiness from his eyes. “Better days? Ha. You have no idea.” The man nodded, conceding Paul’s point. The biker ran his fingers through greasy hair. It was black with streaks of white. Though they appeared to be unnatural stripes, the white ran from root to tip. “Everyone has their story my friend. Everyone has a story.” Paul shook his head. He had just forgotten his troubles and now this stranger was bringing them back in violent waves of anguish. “Listen, guy, I’m just trying to forget about those things. You aren’t helping. So thanks, but no thanks. If you would just leave me to my drink, I would much appreciate it.” “Suit yourself,” said the stranger, then adding, “I was only going to make you an offer.”

Paul’s face twisted with a perplexed expression. What could this man offer him? If he wanted to buy him a drink that would be welcomed, but Paul was confident that was not the case. He was just harassing him. Somehow this man knew about his problems. He knew his wife was dying in the hospital. Maybe he was on staff. Maintenance, an orderly, food service? He’d never seen the guy before and with all the time he’d spent at the hospital he was sure he would recognize an employee who had such knowledge of his situation. “How do you know about my wife?” asked Paul. The stranger continued to stare through his dark glasses. “I don’t recall saying such a thing, but since you asked, let’s just say I’m ‘in the know’ about a lot of such things.” Paul gritted his teeth angrily. What did this guy want? “Okay, I’ve had enough. Just spit it out so I can go back to enjoying my drink,” said Paul, banging his fist on the bar. “Very well, I’ve simply stopped in to offer you a proposal. You can take it or leave it, but I’m only going to offer it once. You don’t get to take time to decide. You don’t get to ask how or why. You only accept or decline. Are we clear on the rules?”

Paul shook his head, throwing his arms in the air, but he remained silent. Whether it was the alcohol or the ridiculousness of the man’s prose, he felt as though he was trapped in his own mind, wading through quicksand that presented itself as possibilities. What could he have to offer that mattered so much, or hinged on these insane guidelines as this did? But Paul’s curiosity was piqued. “All right, let’s hear it.” “The terms are agreeable then?” “Yes, yes, fine, whatever, I don’t see what you could possibly offer me, but go for it.”

“My proposition is simple, however, do not forget the rules, don’t ask, not how, not why. I would offer you the life of your wife, her health restored. In exchange I simply require it be traded for another life, nothing for you to be concerned with, I will make the choice and see that it is done accordingly. All you’ll have to do is return to the hospital to see your wife rise from her bed, a picture of health. Then you can go about your life as though nothing ever happened, this whole ordeal will be behind you. Now then, remembering my rules, do you accept or decline?”

Paul’s eyes were widened, by surprise, maybe, more likely from the terror of such a thing being said. His thoughts raced but they were like a mouse on wheel. He couldn’t get off the track, it spun under his feet as he struggled to push forward. He sat in silence, the dark man waiting patiently beside him. He did not speak despite the fact that Paul was dumbstruck and unable to respond. He could have Lynn back, healthy, cancer-free. They could take their daughter on family vacations, watch her cutely act out her role in the school plays, witness her finesse on the soccer field. Maybe even add another child to their little crew. He didn’t have to feel guilty. The stranger was going to take care of everything…

“Deal,” said Paul suddenly as he snatched up his glass from the bar. The man in black was off his stool and in the doorway. Paul looked over his shoulder at the man as he exited the building. His pants and jacketed appeared to be more of a flowing cloak, darker of blackness than the most lightless night. He could no longer see the man’s face, he had pulled a hood over his head, but he noticed a reddish glow, eyes? Demonic spheres appeared to be floating inside the shadowy hood. A flash of silver, a curve of metal caught the light as the man disappeared into the darkness outside. Paul faced forward and tipped his glass up for a drink but nothing came out. It was as if the content had become solid. He turned it upside down but still it stayed. Holding it over his head, he looked at the solidified whiskey. “What the hell…” It fell out into his face, as liquid as water.

Paul gasped as he sat up. He was soaking wet. The bartender stood in front of him with an empty cup in his hand. “What the hell!” exclaimed Paul. “You fell asleep on the bar, was dreamin’ something awful, moanin’ and talkin’. I shook you a bunch, yelled at you, but you wouldn’t wake up. So I had to do somethin’, threw this cup of water on your head.” Paul tasted the liquid that was running down his face. Water? It was. He noticed his highball was still full sitting on the bar at his right hand. A dream. A terrible dream. That’s what the bartender said. He better get home. It was too much. “Sorry about that,” said Paul, standing. He opened his wallet and pulled out a stack of bills. Grabbing a twenty he tossed it on the bar. “Keep it all, sorry again.”

As he walked toward the door stuffing the change back into his wallet a picture fell out and to the floor. He stopped and bent down, picking up the photograph. It was their family portrait from Christmas. God, Lynn had looked so pretty and full of life then. And how happy was Jenna? And even Paul himself looked like a different person. This wasn’t his fault. This wasn’t his wife’s fault. They would get through. One way or another. He needed to go home, get some good sleep. He would pick up his daughter in the morning and go to the hospital. He wasn’t going to let this test ruin his life, his daughter’s life, his wife’s life, even if she didn’t have a lot of time left. He would make that time the best it could be. He’d had his last drink. From now on, he was going to do what was best. He would be the man Lynn expected, the father Jenna deserved. Paul got in his car, started it up and drove home.

****************************************

He had pancakes, with chocolate chips, on the table when Jenna came prancing down the stairs. She smiled when she saw her father standing by the table, when she saw her favorite breakfast treat awaiting her. “Good morning, Daddy,” she said cheerily. The reality of what her mother was going through was not fully grasped by her young mind, all the better for her, thought Paul. “Eat up, hun, then we will go see Mommy.” “Okay,” Jenna chirped as she hopped up onto the chair. Lynn had to pull through. It was impossible but she needed to, she needed to be around to see their baby grow up. Paul swallowed with difficulty, the thought of his wife’s inevitable demise too sickening in his throat. His heart twisted as he watched his, Lynn’s, only child eating her pancakes. She looked like her mother. It would be as difficult a task to face her every day after Lynn’s passing as much as it would be a cherished reminder of the woman he’d lost. The love of his life. But it would be enough. It would have to be. His daughter would be all he had left and he wouldn’t let her down.

At the hospital the nurse greeted Paul with an unexpected smile. “Good morning, Mr. Glenn, Lynn is up waiting for you.” Curious phrasing, thought Paul, ‘Up and waiting’. On a good day Lynn barely managed to sit propped up with pillows. Paul smiled at the nurse and led Jenna to her mother’s room. He opened the door, guiding Jenna in first, to find Lynn sitting upright in the bed, no pillows supporting her. Her skin that had been paling more with each day had a fresh glow of warm color beneath the surface. The darkened circles that had been suffocating her eyes were lightened, nearly vanished. She smiled at him.

“You look…” Paul paused, trying to find the appropriate words, “Well.” “I feel well,” replied Lynn, “I feel very, very well. The doctor was surprised when he stopped in this morning. He is awaiting the final test results but he said,” Lynn raised her hands in the air, showing her crossed fingers, “the cancer has gone into remission.” Now it was Paul who wore the appearance of a ghost. “Remission? How, when?” Lynn could only smile, shaking her head lightly. Paul rushed to her side, his feet free of the quicksand of surprise that had held him in place. He wrapped his daughter and wife in a big, family hug. “This is unbelievable,” he murmured.

Though the doctor had encouraged Lynn to stay one more night, just in case something were to happen, she was all too eager to get home. After weeks in that bed, confined to the small, sterile room, she couldn’t stand one more night if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Reluctantly the doctor wished her well. She would have many, many visits for tests ahead of her but that would be nothing compared to what she had just been through. The darkness of night that had grown around her, enclosing her, trapping her in its increasingly bitter cold clutches had suddenly been lifted. She wanted to run, while there was light to see, she wanted to get as far away as she could, as fast as possible.

As she stepped out the hospital lobby door, into the fresh air and sunlight, she paused breathing deeply, closing her eyes, allowing the glowing heat to wash over her skin. Paul stood beside her, Jenna squeezed her hand. Lynn was alive, but it was more, it was as though she’d been born again. It wasn’t the same life she had returned to, it was a fresh start. “Let’s go home,” she said, a new sense of happiness in her voice. Though everyone may deserve a second chance, very few people are rewarded with one that they are able to capitalize on, and that was not a mistake Lynn would make. Nor Paul. It was as much a second chance for him as it was for his wife; they would start over, together, a family, a whole.

At home, Lynn walked into the house glancing around, “These walls will need painted.” “Whatever you want.” “Can I paint my room, too?” squealed Jenna. “Of course,” said Lynn, “We can change anything we want. It is a clean slate.” Paul smiled, he couldn’t help himself. The relief he felt was more than just a weight lifted from his broken back, it was exactly as Lynn had said. A clean slate. The canvas they’d spent years painting had become dirtied, stained, torn. They’d been given a new, blank piece to work with, and they had a full spectrum of colors at their disposal. It would be more beautiful than before. They’d lived through tragedy, survived, somehow, and now they had clear vision as to what the portrait should look like. It took reaching the ultimate low, and rising from that pit, to find the muse. But find it they did, and now they would get to work.

Lynn was up before the morning light spilled over the horizon. When Paul slipped from under the covers to find her missing, terror seized him. Had it all been but a dream? Was she really healed, home from the hospital, or was she still there, confined to the bed, sick, dying? He stormed down the stairs as fast as his feet would carry him. The kitchen light was on but the room was empty. Surely he hadn’t dreamed the tableau that was yesterday. Surely…

The door to the front porch creaked open. Lynn stepped through the threshold, a gallon of paint in each hand, a plastic bag filled with painting supplies around her wrist. “What the matter?” she questioned of Paul, “You look like you’ve had a nightmare.” “I thought I had,” he replied, walking to her, kissing her forehead as he wrapped her in an embrace. She leaned her head on his shoulder. “It’s okay, I really am home.” “I’ll make breakfast, you go ahead and start painting.” “Bacon and eggs,” smiled Lynn. Paul nodded with a grin.

Normally the smell of paint would be bothersome, but as noxious as the scent was, it was but another sign of the change in their life, the new beginning they were making. When breakfast was ready, Lynn went upstairs to get Jenna while Paul plated the food. He poured two mugs of coffee, no cream or sugar for his wife. She’d always had her coffee bleached and sweetened to the taste of a dessert, but she had insisted this time around she would experience everything for what it was, starting with her coffee. In a plastic cup he mixed up chocolate milk for Jenna. She wasn’t usually allowed such things at breakfast but it seemed a trivial matter at this point. Paul set the plates on the table, steam trailing into the air from the hot bacon and warm scrambled eggs.

“PAUL! Get up here! Now!” The shrill, chilling tone of his wife’s cry sent his pulse racing. He charged up the staircase faster than he had descended it earlier in the morning. “What’s wrong?” he called as he rounded the corner, stepped through the doorway into Jenna’s room. No answer was necessary. The sallow skin of his daughter told him everything he needed to know. Paul dropped to his knees beside his wife. “She’s barely breathing,” screeched Lynn between sobs. “Go start the car, I’ll bring her down.”

The doctor came into the room wearing a telling frown. Lynn’s tear-streaked face was red, puffy. Paul’s skin was pallid. “What’s wrong with her?” asked Paul. The doctor sighed. “It’s hard to say at this point. So far all the tests have been negative, but we have plenty more to run. Just hang in there. Hopefully we will know soon.” He turned away, leaving the sorrowful couple alone in the room. “Why…” said Lynn, rhetorically more than anything else. Paul shook his head. “I’ve just survived cancer, and now our daughter had been stricken. What kind of world is this? How can this happen? She is so young. They cancer should have taken me. Left her in peace to live her life and grow old.”

Paul’s blood froze as it pumped through his body. A pit in his stomach opened, swallowing his heart. The dream he’d had sitting at the bar flashed in his mind with vivid clarity. But it was a dream. Still, he felt faint. Lucky to be sitting, his head became light as his blood flow weakened. He became dizzy, slouched in his chair. Through her tears, Lynn did not notice her husband’s plight. What was his dream? It played before his eyes. Her life would be restored to health. He had only to go see her at the hospital. And it was so. Upon his arrival she was healed. The only stipulation… Her life for the life of another. No. It couldn’t be. Had he traded his wife’s life for that of his daughter? What kind of monster would offer such a deal? It was to be the life of his choosing, but how could he grant Paul the life of his wife, only to turn around and take that of his daughter? Impossible. It was only a dream, a dream, yet it seemed real, now, when faced with the actuality of the circumstance. Still, it was impossible to believe.

Paul rose weakly from his seat. Lynn glance at him, her watery eyes beholding him as a blur. “Stay here. I have to go see something.” “Where are you going?” asked Lynn. “I just have to go, I’ll be back shortly.” “You’re just going to leave me here, leave when your daughter’s life is in danger?” “I have to. I’m sorry.” Paul walked from the room, ignoring the further pleas of his disconsolate wife. He really was sorry. He really had to go.

When Paul pulled into the parking lot, beheld the bar he had spent the evening in only a couple nights before, it seemed more like years since he’d been to the place. He stepped from the car, closing the door with a hollow thud. He walked slowly toward the door of the bar, apprehensive, at best, terrified, more likely. The hinges chirped as he pushed open the door. He glanced around the smoky room, hopeful of seeing the man in black. His shoulders slouched and he hung his head when his quest turned up empty. Foolish. It was foolish of him to think that it was anything more than a dream. Yet, somehow, he felt compelled. It felt as though it had been real. Perhaps it was just the tide of the circumstances that continually washed over him, making his feel as though everything was new, each wave, fresh, when it was all actually from the same vast ocean, the very same water that had been splashing the shore for thousands of years.

He sat down on a stool at the bar. “Double shot of bourbon, no ice,” Paul said when the girl behind the bar walked over to him. It felt like a completely different place than the last time he’d sat here. Despite the smoke, the place seemed lighter, less dreary, less run down. Still, he had to hold out hope… Hope for what, he thought to himself. Hope that my dream was real? Hope that I actually traded the life of my daughter for the life of my wife? He let out a long breath of air as the bartender put the filled glass in front of him. Paul tossed a twenty on the counter, grabbed the glass, tipped his head as he pulled it to his lips. A couple chugs and it was gone. He dropped the glass back to the bar with an empty clang. “Another?” Paul nodded.

Whether it was minutes or hours, Paul sat, drowning his hopes, dreams. Suffocating, smothering his sorrows. It was all he could do. No dream would save him. No genie with wishes would come to his rescue. If it hadn’t been his doing, it was some cruel trick played by nature. To nearly steal his wife from him, only to restore her health and take the vitality from his little girl. It was treacherous. A dirty, deceitful scheme. A cruelty of insidious nature. What had he done to deserve such? What had his wife or daughter done? Nothing. Plain and simple. It was a case of bad things happening to good people. It was foul. Paul drank his bourbon by the glass, cursing god, nature, life, death. It was all the same.

He had been too deep into his glass of alcohol to notice when the older fellow sat next to him. Too lost in his hatred to respond when the man greeted him casually. Too angered, depressed, enraged, saddened to acknowledge his presence. Until the hand touched his arm. The cold chill that it sent shooting through his body was too eerie to ignore, too jolting to go unnoticed. Paul turned his head, following the thin fingers up the arm, to the body, and finally meeting the gentleman’s eyes. Through the haze of smoke, the blur of alcohol, the red of eye, he beheld the man with recognition.

“I hear you are unhappy with our deal?” The man in black. “Our deal…” stammered Paul, “OUR DEAL?” Paul shook his head, attempting to shake the fog from his mind. He blinked, but still the man sat beside him. “It was a simple deal. I would restore the health of your wife, and select another to take her place in sickness and ultimately in death.” “You tricked me.” “I did nothing of the sort. It was clearly stated.” Paul shook his head violently. He slurred, “No, you gave me my wife all right. You gave her back her health. At the expense of my DAUGHTER! How could you, how could you be so deceiving?” The older man smiled. “I have not deceived you in the least. Your expectation was not on point, but that is not my problem. When you make deals with the devil you should always remember that there is fire. You may get burned.” “But you knew. You knew! All along, you knew exactly whose life you would take. You didn’t tell me.” The man in black smiled slightly, cautiously. “Whether I did or did not know, is irrelevant. The deal was laid out plainly and you accepted.”

The bartender brought Paul another bourbon. He breathed deeply through his nose, restoring breath to breathless lungs. He snatched the glass from the bar, sipping at first, stewing angrily. He tossed his head and guzzled it down. “Why?” “My dear friend, Why what?” “Why would you take a little girl like that? Why would you take MY little girl?” “Oh, is it not obvious? I cannot take life from one family to give it to another. How would that be fair in the least? No, I can only take life from a member of the family which I am giving life to.” “Then take mine.” “Take yours? Is that an offer?” “It is.” “But you are clearly drunk,” stated the old man, “You are not of sound mind.” “OH, oh, do I need to be of sound mind? Was I of sound mind when you approached me originally? Do you expect me to be of sound mind, now, as you steal the life from my daughter?” “Very well.” “Deal?” asked Paul. “It is a deal, but it will be immediate. When you sew spoiled seeds you grow rotten fruit.” “Fine.”

“You gotta go, mister,” said the bartender, “I can’t serve you anymore.” Paul glanced around. There was no man in black. There was only him, an empty glass, and the girl behind the bar, chattering at him. What was she saying? “You’re all paid up, but you have to go.” “I’ll go,” said Paul with a hint of irritation, “I’ll go right now.” Where had he gone, the old man? Had it been a dream, did the alcohol affect him so, now, for the second time, that he would have the same hallucinations? Doubtful. He would go. His wife was waiting. Probably. It had been hours. Perhaps she waited for him no more. Perhaps his daughter had passed. If that had happened, and he was here, at the bar, Lynn would never forgive him. He didn’t need or want her forgiveness if that was the case. He deserved nothing more than her hatred.

The parking lot lamp flickered as Paul exited the bar. Walking to his car it flashed then went dark. He scowled, squinting. With wobbling legs, unsteady steps, he shuffled toward his car. He stumbled, but caught himself. When he arrived at his car he fumbled for his keys. Turning out his pockets they fell to the ground. He cursed under his breath as he stooped to pick them up. As he rose a voice hissed behind him. “Gimme yer money and keys. Now!” Paul spun on his heels, clumsily given his condition, and far more slowly than he felt like he was moving. A man stood before him, his hand glinted as the object he held captured a fragment of light coming from the shaded windows of the bar. “Screw off, man. You have no idea what I’ve-” With a flash, the glinting object darted out, striking him in the abdomen. Paul felt a sharp pain but it quickly dissipated. He felt only a warmth spreading across his stomach, down his legs. He fell back against the car, slid down the side until he was sitting on the ground, leaning against the sheet metal. The dark man hunched down, rifled through Paul’s pockets. “I told you man, I told you.” He pulled out Paul’s wallet and took his keys that had fallen to the ground.

The man grabbed Paul, pulled him a short distance from the car and laid his motionless body down on the bare ground. Paul blinked, a warm smile across his lips. There was no pain, only warmth. The man leaned over him. “When you sow spoiled seeds, my friend. Peace be with you.” He jumped into the car, fired it up, and drove off. Paul looked up at the stars. Peace, it was with him.

Anniversary

Her tongue tingles with a faint numbness. Fire burns her throat. The pit of her stomach tightens, the content unsettled. Her soul glows fiery hot; her lips are painted red to match. Her heart is hollow, dead. Black mascara and eye shadow darken her empty orbs. The passion that had once filled her, consumed her, was no more. Her will to live, her belief in love, is gone. Like sand in an hourglass, each memory falls and became as nothing, grain by grain. Days, weeks, months, years; passing by, passing her by. Tonight is their anniversary. She will join him soon.

Dirt

Dirt pattered like a terrestrial rain as it landed. A rich, earthy aroma wafted upward with each scoop. Freshly turned, it was soft, moist, dark. The firm layer protecting the loose soil below had been breached by the pointed spade. The earth was opened, spilling out her heart; it was a wound, a puncture in her skin. Though now what had previously been removed was returned, there was no longer enough space. For within the wound a foreign object resided. An infection beneath the still fresh laceration. He tamped down the loose soil. He hoped the body would remain hidden. Forever.

The Storm in His Eyes

His eyes were dark, cloudy-gray. Lightning flashed in them as they narrowed to angry slits. A rumble of thunder filled his chest. It was only a matter of time before the fury would be unleashed. His eyes were a reflection of the sky and the storm was rolling in.

Why Becky put up with him was anyone’s guess. What he put her through, the things he did to her, no one should have to deal with that. But she loved him. She knew it wasn’t his fault. His childhood had been rough. It was the kind you never wanted to think about, tried to forget. But it always crept into your thoughts, infiltrated your dreams. It was embedded in his subconscious and it dictated his life from the shadowy depths of his mind. Add to that the economy, the hardships at work, it was a recipe for disaster. Between pay cuts and reduced hours, there was simply not enough money for a good life.

She slammed the bedroom door, leaning against it to keep him from bursting into the room. He pounded on the door with fists that had so many times landed on her. The wood thudded, vibrated, shook her, from skin to muscle to bone. But she could not give up, she could not step away. There was no other way into the room so she had to guard the doorway with all the vigilance she could summon.

Becky often found solace in this room. She would curl up on the bed; the sheets and blankets always smelled fresh. Jeff never slept in the bed anymore. If he wasn’t out drinking away his pain, he was lounging on the living room couch, beer in one hand, remote in the other, clicking through the channels, never content with what he saw. The kitchen was a mess. Beer cans overflowed from the garbage can. Tied bags sat in the corner where Jeff had left them. The living room was the same. The lamp stands, coffee table, any usable surface was covered with crushed cans and t.v. dinner trays. The bathroom was covered in filth, the results of Jeff’s frequent over-consumption. A crucifix hung over the bed. Rosary beads dangled around the bedpost. The portrait of Jesus was faded but none-the-less watched over the room. A candle burned, the refreshing scent of a summertime orchard filled the room. This was her sanctuary. Her last refuge in what was a slowly collapsing world.

He tried to sweet talk her, coax her out of the room. Her return of silence only increased his rage. He knocked his head against the door, yelling, an angry snarl of curses and insults. Tears streaked Becky’s face. He just needed to calm down. He’d had too much to drink. It was her fault, really. She had promised dinner would be ready after the news but the old, worn out range wouldn’t light. It’s impossible to make a hot meal with no heat, but she couldn’t blame him for that.

How hard was it to have dinner ready? To have a cold beer waiting? After working a long shift at the shop it was her responsibility to see that his needs were met when he arrived home. He was the one providing for them. He was the one out making the money. Sure, it had been a lot less the last few years, but what could he do? If he wasn’t at work he went out job hunting. There was nothing for a man of his experience, his education. He knew what he knew, and that was a dying field. Becky had once offered to go find a job to help support them, but that didn’t go over well with Jeff. Her place was in the house he had said. His insistence that she stay home showed on her skin for weeks.

All was quiet outside the bedroom door. His footsteps had stomped down the staircase 20 minutes ago but she dared not move. It wouldn’t be long before he fell asleep. He would grab a few beers from the fridge before sitting down. Once in his chair he would resume channel surfing, chugging away, crushing a can and tossing it to the floor. Soon he would fall asleep, and then she could rest.

The dark-purple and yellow spots on her skin told a story of pain and suffering. Minor scars and scabs were scattered about her body. She hadn’t touched make-up in years. There was no point. He didn’t notice her unless she did something wrong. And that was a daily occurrence. The only affection he ever showed her, if you could even call it affection, was when he came home drunk and stumbled his way to the bedroom. He’d force himself on her, usually passing out before getting anywhere.

The taste of blood lingered in her mouth. Her face was red and swollen, her lip was puffed out and cracked. His job hunting had gone poorly. The smell of alcohol on his breath had been the first clue. She didn’t believe he had been looking for a job at all. It was foolish of her to question him though. And she had paid for it. But this would be the last time. She couldn’t blame him, but she couldn’t take any more. She was going to leave, and all was quiet.

Every Sunday she sat in the pew at church, alone but happy. The faded red velvet was a comfort to her. The hymns that hung heavy in the air as sounded by the organ were soothing. The pastor’s long-winded sermons of love, forgiveness, blessing, trust, happiness, were but dreams for Becky, though she cherished every thought that they conjured in her mind. This past Sunday the message had been clear. Though we may love, and we may forgive, we should not keep the company of those who mistreat us. As much as it broke her heart she decided then and there that she had to leave Jeff. She struggled all week with the idea. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair to him. He would be lost without her. He needed her.

She whisked around the room collecting everything she could fit in her small suitcase. She moved swiftly but delicately. Any sound could alert him to her activity. If he burst in and found her packing there was no telling what he would do. She didn’t even want to think about it. The case was overfilled with clothes, shoes, books, her jewelry box. She grabbed the rosary beads, kissed them and put them on top. One last thing. She stepped up onto the bed and took down the crucifix. The faded portrait would have to stay. He would need to watch over the house anyway. She laid the wooden cross in the suitcase but it was too full to close. She sighed. Something would have to be left behind. Hand-carved from maple, it had been passed down from her grandmother’s grandmother. A family heirloom. It was too bad. She took the antique jewelry box out of the suitcase. Now there was room for it to close with the crucifix inside.

They had only one vehicle, a rusted out pick-up truck. The muffler fell off long ago. It was a noisy machine. It hadn’t been inspected or registered, or insured, in years. But the church was just up the dusty dirt road from where they lived so Becky walked. Jeff was always sleeping off his hangover Sunday mornings. How he managed to make it to work and to the bar day in and day out without being caught was a mystery. Maybe it was a blessing. What he would do to her with the added stress of further financial burdens, she didn’t dare wonder. He was an animal. Wild and untamed. Becky’s friends told her he was a monster, but they didn’t understand. They didn’t see him like she did. Often they threatened calling the police, but Becky talked them out of it. How would he punish her for such a betrayal? If they cared for her safety they’d best mind their own business.

The door creaked as she slowly opened it. She peered around the corner. The hallway was dark, empty. She slipped through the small opening knowing that if she pushed the door further it would make a loud, grinding squeal. She padded carefully to the stairs and floated down them, skipping over a step she knew would reveal her presence. The wind howled outside the windows. The light was fading but an eerie green-gray glowed in the sky. She saw the back of his head sticking up over the couch. He wasn’t moving. She slid across the living room and into the kitchen. She peeked out toward the couch. A beer can was in his hand, tipped to the side. A wet spot marked the faded brown fabric of the sofa. His mouth was open, a faint snore now discernible. She grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and a bag of pretzels. It would sustain her for the journey. She had a few dollars in her pocket but she would need it for fuel. Or a bus ticket. Her mother lived more than 200 miles away and there was no telling how far the truck would take her. She opened the door and stepped onto the porch.

Rain was falling as she raced across the lawn to the truck. Wind whipped up, tossing her hair around, wrapping it across her face. Finally at the truck, she opened the door and tossed her suitcase in. The keys. She forgot to grab the keys. She had to return. Back at the house, she stood inside the kitchen, dripping wet. She held the door and eased it shut. The gusting of air threatened to slam it, and that would surely wake him. She checked the table. The keys were not there. She looked on the counter, in the basket of junk, in the drawer full of expired coupons, pencils and miscellaneous odds and ends. Nothing. They had to be somewhere. She tip-toed to the living room. The coffee table. There were the keys, along with his wallet and pocket knife. She dropped down on all-fours and began to crawl cautiously across the floor. At the coffee table she reached a hand up, staying as low to the ground as she could. She found the wallet first and took it. He might have a few dollars stashed away in there, and if not maybe a credit card. He had to be using something to pay for all of his beer. She reached back up and this time found the keys. She backed away slowly. Once back in the kitchen she stood, letting out a silence sigh, and again exited the house.

The rain was heavy. Hail had now been added to the mix. Dark clouds swirled and the wind roared. She dashed across the yard, hail pelting her along the way. Safe in the truck, she noticed the large, red welts left on her skin by the hail. It was nothing compared to some of the things he had done to her. Rain fell furiously. Hail stones clattered on the roof and hood of the truck. She jammed the keys into the ignition. This was it.

With a deafening smash, a crack split across the windshield as giant chunk of hail crashed down on it. She gasped, startled and shocked. She was okay. She was safe. But she had to go. And soon. On the horizon, a cloud wall moved in. Thunder boomed. Lightning crackled. Hail continued to fall. The rain was heavy, making visibility minimal. But she could see the front door. It was open. He was standing in the frame, arm across his forehead, wind ripping at his clothing. No. It couldn’t be. But it was. The noise of the breaking windshield must have woken him. She turned the key. The engine struggled to turn over. It whined and chugged. Then it fired. She grabbed the gearshift. The driver side door swung open and she was dragged from the seat. She landed on the muddy, wet driveway, face down. He stood over her. She looked up at him. The fury of the elements pounded down on them as a faint siren wailed in the distance.

She tried to stand but he struck her down. Glancing at the seat he saw the packed suitcase. How dare she try to leave him. That was unacceptable. That was his decision to make. When he wanted her gone he would say so. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her across the lawn. She kicked her feet and flailed her arms trying to crawl as best she could. But he was too strong. If she wanted to leave him, fine, but it would be on his terms. He looked to the sky. The twisting cloud was stretching toward the ground. The roar in the air told of the impending danger. It was moving straight toward them. If she wanted to be free of him, she would be.

He pushed her to the ground when they reached the shed. Shingles began ripping from the roof of the house. The padlock on the shed door was already open, he never locked it. It would just be more work to get in next time. He forced the door open, fighting against the raging wind. He looked back to check on the funnel cloud. It had touched down. He braced the door open against his leg and reached down and grabbed her. He pulled her to her feet. A wicked gleam in his smile told of his intentions. She begged him. Pleaded with him. Don’t do this. But his mind was made up. He shoved her inside. This time he would use the lock.

The funnel increased in size as it charged toward them. Debris mixed with the swirling cloud. Rain fell mercilessly. He stepped back, blew her a goodbye kiss. A strong wind rushed through, blowing him off balance. He took a step to recover his equilibrium. The door that had been braced open by his leg flapped in the powerful current of air. It blew back, the pointed wooden corner catching him on the temple. He dropped to the ground. Blood trickled from the gash in his skull.

She crawled to him. Shook him. He didn’t move. She looked outside, to the sky. The tornado whirled, bearing down on them with all its fury. She put a hand on his neck, pressed her ear to his back. He was breathing. He was alive, but he wouldn’t wake up. She couldn’t carry him to the basement. He was too heavy and she wasn’t strong enough. She could drag him, but the funnel cloud was close. Too close. There wasn’t time. She had to go.

She ran across the soaked lawn to the bulkhead door. She turned the handle. Pulling with all her might, against the wind and rain and hail, she swung it open. She stepped inside, looking back one last time at the shed and at him. Goodbye. I love you, I forgive you. She pulled the door closed and turned the latch. Backing into a corner, she fell against the wall and collapsed. She folded her hands over the back of her head, curled up, waiting and praying.

The wind howled. The rain and hail pounded. Then all was quiet.

She emerged from the basement through the bulkhead door that she had retreated through hours earlier. The sun was shining. Birds were singing. Far to the east, the darkness of the storm lingered. The house was destroyed, but she had been left unharmed in the cellar. A tree was uprooted and the shed was gone. He was gone. The truck remained intact save for the cracked windshield. She climbed in. Her suitcase was still there and his wallet was on the seat. She opened it. Two-hundred dollars cash. She could get a ticket at the station. The truck was no longer running but she turned the key. To her surprise, it started up. She grabbed the gearshift and put it in drive. She pulled out of the driveway and headed down the road toward town. A rainbow arced across the sky in front of her. Tomorrow would be a new day, a new start, a new life.

Karma and Coke

Ben’s blood froze. His face was pale and his skin was beaded with a cold sweat. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a dead body. As the county coroner dead bodies were his business. But this time was different, this time it was his fault…

Tom had pushed him. One more drink. One more drink he kept saying. Sure he’d have one more. What could it hurt? Fill the glass high, make it a double. It was a celebration. Ben and his brother, Tom, were close. More than just family. They were best friends from the beginning. Not twins, but the eleven months between them hardly mattered. Now, after dreaming and saving for years, they had finally reached a deal and made the down payment. The nightclub they had envisioned in their wildest fantasies was nearly theirs. But now this…

Ben looked down at the mangled body. She was young, twenty, twenty-one? Her hair had been golden blonde but was now streaked and stained with that god-awful crimson. The skin-tight black dress she wore was torn and muddy. There was no question. She was dead on impact. Ben looked around in a panic but there was nothing to see. Take the back road he had thought. It would be safer. Less traffic, no cops. He could go slow, take his time. One hand on the wheel, the other over his left eye. It helped bring his blurry vision to a focus. Or so he had thought…

This wasn’t his fault though, it couldn’t be. Why had she been walking on the road, out here in the middle of nowhere, at this late hour? Why was she dressed in black? Surely she knew it would be hard for anyone to see her. He couldn’t be responsible for her mistakes. She wasn’t even walking on the proper side of the road. She should have been facing the oncoming traffic so she would be able to watch out for danger. By the time his headlights found her it was too late. He couldn’t be expected to react that fast, regardless of the situation. No. Absolutely not. She was to blame for this tragedy…

Ben punched the fender of his old, white Chevy. He screamed into the night air. His voice was hollow and the humid darkness dampened his wail. Stupid girl. Damn stupid girl. Blood was dashed on his bumper. The plastic was cracked on the passenger side corner where that stupid girl had run into it. The headlight was smashed and dark. Ben’s cheeks flushed as the rage began to boil inside him. This piece of junk car was what he had to drive the last five years. He had bought it used and in bad shape as it was. And now it was even worse off. It was a sacrifice he had made. Every penny counted when it came to saving up for the club the brothers were destined to run. But he did the best he could with it. Washed it, took it for routine maintenance check-ups. Then this stupid, foolish girl had to ruin it all…

This can’t be happening. Ben clamped his eyes closed. He shook his head, mouthing the word over and over again: no, no, no. The deal was closed. They would be starting renovations within the month, open the club within the next year. If he could just keep his eyes closed, maybe it would all be gone when he reopened them. The girl. The blood. The cracked bumper. What did he do to deserve this? He had saved, sacrificed. And this is the platter the gods serve him with? No. Just let me have this one. Make it go away. I’d do anything. I’ve done everything. I need this to happen. Just let me wake up in my bed. This is only a terrible nightmare…

Ben slowly opened his eyes. He had expected darkness, but a headlight pierced through the foggy, swirling air. The mist glowed with a reddish hue, tinted by the Chevy’s taillights. He look down. There she was. Dead as when he had first discovered the body after the collision. After he had skidded to a screeching stop. The burned rubber still lingered on the wind. Tears came to Ben’s eyes, he fought against them but was quickly overwhelmed. He fell to his knees beside the girl. He leaned over, wrapping his arms around her in a mournful embrace. Sorry. He was so, so sorry. He tried to speak but the words caught in his tightened throat. His body shook as he wept. The tears flowed freely down his face. There was nothing he could do. There was nothing he wanted to do. Nothing but sit there and cry…

He didn’t know how much time had passed while he sat crying. When he finally had control of himself he realized it was still dark. He had killed a girl. His fault or hers, it didn’t matter. She was dead. He was not. He had a life to live, and dreams to fulfill. He had to move on. He had to continue, and going down for this was not something that was going to work for him. He thought about calling Tom, asking him for help, but decided it would be best not to involve him at any level. Besides, he had stayed at the bar to drink more. Tom had never married, he was a bachelor for life. He had nothing to go home to. No reason to leave. Ben’s wife, however, would be up waiting for him, wondering why he wasn’t home yet. He had to take care of this nasty business. And he had to do it now…

Ben dug out an old sweatshirt from his gym bag he kept in the trunk of his car. He was always ready to get in a much needed workout, however, this was not what he had in mind. He began wiping away the blood. From his hands, his face. He hadn’t been concerned when he hugged the poor girl, but coming home looking like that was going to be a dead giveaway. He polished up the bumper, swabbed the broken headlight. For as much as he could see in the darkness he did what he was able. Ben’s legs were wobbly as he hurried around, half in shock, half intoxicated. He would just drag the girl up to the road. Leave her out in the middle. Maybe someone would drive through while it was still night. Maybe they wouldn’t see her. They would think it was their fault. He didn’t know what else to do. He wasn’t a criminal. He was just looking out for his own well-being…

She was in the ditch but it wasn’t deep. When he had finished doing what he could to make the car look presentable he climbed down and picked up the girl. She was light, thin. But she hadn’t been unhealthy. As he crossed through the glow from the car’s one remaining headlight he glanced at her face. She was young, so young, he thought. And she was pretty. What a tragedy. Having her life snatched away before it even really began. Yet it had happened. And Ben needed to go on with his. He set the body down on the pavement, just off the center line. He frowned, shaking his head. It was too bad. It really was…

Headlights crested the hill not one-hundred feet from where Ben stood, still gazing down at the poor girl. He became aware of the lights but never had time to turn. The car was speeding down the road. Fast. Hurling along like a race car. But if it was racing anything it was only racing time…

Tom hiccuped when his car jerked. His eyes opened, blinked, closed, opened. He fought every second to keep his eyes from closing for good. He just had to get home. Get to his bed. He needed sleep. Wonderful, refreshing sleep. Dreams, sweet dreams would be his. They had become reality, he couldn’t know all that the future had in store for him, but he knew the nightclub he and his brother had dreamed of would be opened soon. He couldn’t know what the immediate future held…

In the morning Tom will wake up with a splitting headache and soiled bed sheets. He will reek of liquor and smoke. After vomiting the entire content of his stomach, the flashing light on his answering machine will prod at his pounding skull. Through blurred, bloodshot eyes he will jab at the play button with a shaky finger. As the message plays, he will hear his mother’s voice. She will be sobbing, trying to talk through heavy tears. He will only understand enough to know that his brother was killed, a hit and run. Tom will sober up fast due to the shocking news. He will head to his car to rush over to his mother’s house. She will need him during this time of grief, and he will need her. As he approaches his car he will see his own headlight. Smashed. His own bumper. Splattered with blood…

Ray Bradbury

I recently read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. It was not what I was expecting. Was it bad? No. Was it good? That’s an opinion. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it. Simply, it was not the book I thought it would be.

I have Zen in the Art of Writing – a collection of Ray Bradbury’s essays. I find the essays to be very insightful. Helpful. Thought-provoking. Perhaps, even, inspirational. They seem to be well written, and, while informative, also entertaining. Clearly, Bradbury was a dreamer, and that is a good thing in the business, and pleasure, of being a writer. It is especially helpful when your work is in genres where the majority of the content is fantasy, make-believe. In writing where almost everything comes from the depths of the mind and not real world objects, the mind is your most essential tool.

The Martian Chronicles was an exciting story. Its presentation was unique, at least compared to the books on my short list of conquered pages. Though compelling, and constantly moving forward, I just didn’t personally connect with the style of his writing. It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t for me. That being said, I read through it quickly and don’t regret the time put in to it one bit. The stream of words flowed smoothly across the page, through my eyes and into my mind. The artistically crafted sentences and paragraphs painted a vivid picture that I still see, even now after some time has passed.

For Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury is no less animated or artful. While I didn’t find his writing for fiction to be a preferred style for my own tastes, when it came to non-fiction I found I was far more enthralled. While it seems that most of the books on the craft of writing that I have read are a bit dry, Ray Bradbury keeps his advice and insight fun and light. Not to mistake that attitude for not being serious where it counts, he challenges you to be the best you can by not giving up, always pushing to keep an open mind and never letting your pen be idle or a new book be off-limits.

In the end, it seemed to me that Bradbury brought his fantastic vision of fantasy and science fiction with him to his non-fiction. For me, that is a winning combination.

That is all. GA

Finding Inspiration

I’m sitting at a bar right now, enjoying a beer that, honestly, isn’t that great. But still, I am enjoying it for the simple fact that I enjoy trying new beers. I dunno what else I should be doing, but I know what else I could be doing.

It got me to thinking: Where can you find inspiration when all you are looking for is contentment? Why seek inspiration to do something more if you feel content with where you’re at? Quite the dilemma, aye?

Well, I’ve realized that even in contentment there is still more to life. You can be happy with what you have, but there will still be more that adds to your happiness. That is, if you are only at content. You could proceed past that; I don’t know what we would call it…overly contented satisfactory syndrome…sure O.C.S.S…sounds good to me. Anyway, you can be fine with your current situation, but how can improving it ever hurt, right?

Now I’ve gone off topic. All I wanted to know was how to be inspired when there seemed to be nothing pushing you to be such. I think the answer lies within the question: What do you need from life? What do you want from life is not a pointed enough question. So many things are there to be desired but not needed. Even in contentment there is uncertainty. What if something happens that knocks you from your current position? Are you prepared? Will you still be able to provide for yourself, your family? Will the life you are living be affected? That takes some thought.

So finding that inspiration? You just gotta remember that nothing in life is certain, nothing is guaranteed. Think about that. Then look.

That is all. GA

Purpose vs Passion

I thought today about the things you can accomplish just having the desire to accomplish it. Then I thought how sometimes desire alone doesn’t really mean all that much. If you need to get something done, but it requires a skill you don’t have, you can, fairly easily, learn to do many different things. Humans are quite a marvelous creature. Full of ability, comprehension, understanding, problem-solving; our minds are highly developed and capable of many things, some you wouldn’t even think about normally.

With that in mind, it also occurred to me that some people are far better at certain things than others. Obviously, some people are smarter than others, some faster, some stronger, but in a general comparison, all people are the same. So why is it that some are better with mechanical systems, like how engines work, or some are better with computers and their programs. It can’t just be that they were born with better skills in those areas, could it? I don’t think so.

I think it has to do with passion. Do I care much about how the hardware or software of this computer work? No. Not really. I find it mildly interesting, but too much about it and I get bored and tired and stop caring at all. Can I learn about it? Sure. If I want to. It has been my purpose to start my website. I did it. It’s not great, but it’s functional. It does what I need it to do. Could it be better? Of course. Will it? No. It won’t really improve much while I’m the one in charge of making improvements. I don’t have passion. Not for the detailed work of making a better webpage.

I have a passion for writing. Is it good now? Ehhhh. Can it be better? Always. It’s something I enjoy and will continually improve upon. That is, as long as I have passion to do it and not just purpose.

That is all. GA