Wish I Was There

Another wild, wintery night at the Oldman farm.

Emily shuffled along the main corridor of the mall. Her lowered eyes traced a path through the tiles at her feet.

Why won’t Derek even look at me?

An undereducated, underpaid waitress, and already in her mid-30s, Emily had considered a husband one of the few attainable goals in her life. A goal that now seemed preposterous.

She jerked her head up and jab-stepped to one side; she’d almost collided with someone. In the sudden commotion, her eyes caught something dazzling: a tiny, secluded shop filled with items of gold and glass. She flashed back to those times as a child when she’d been held captive by the glow of Christmas bulbs in the candlelight. But her childhood in the country had been swallowed up by this monster of a city, which even now reminded her of the husband she’d never have.

She turned to move on, but a certain item snagged her attention. It reached out, lulled her in; moments later she was standing by it, then holding it, looking into it.

* * *

Mrs. Oldman sat at her kitchen table in the glow of an oil lamp on a snowy December night. Just then the door opened, and Mr. Oldman came out of the cold darkness and into the warmth of the apple-scented kitchen.

“Brrrh!” he said, latching the door behind him and shaking snow off himself. “It’s a wild one out there, thick as fog.”

“Oh, let me get you a cup of coffee, dear,” said Mrs. Oldman as she rose from her chair and hustled over to the stove at the other end of the kitchen, opposite the door. “Just throw your things on the floor, dear, and have a seat; I’ll take care of them in a bit.”

“Thank you, sweetie,” said the gray-haired farmer. He removed his hat, gloves, coat and scarf, dropping them one at a time onto the hardwood floor, then sat at the table just as his wife returned with his coffee.

“There you go, dear.”

“Thank you,” he said, taking hold of the warm mug. His cold hands began to thaw the moment he touched it, and his eyes closed in relief. Ohh, thank you, Lord.

“Is everything under cover?” said Mrs. Oldman as she gathered his things from the floor and hung them on a rack next to the stove.

“Yup. Wagon’s in the barn, an’ the horses are in their stalls with plenty of fresh hay. Got it done just in time.” He put the mug to his lips and closed his eyes again, the coffee’s aroma filling his nose even as the first mouthful washed his tongue with its strong flavor. Warmth began to fill his insides with the first swallow, then emanated through his body in wave after wave with each one thereafter. He felt like going to sleep then and there. “Haaah. That’s good.”

Mrs. Oldman returned to her seat; she poked back the half-open curtain and leaned towards the window for a closer look: The soft glow of the lamp illuminated flakes that cascaded down through the darkness, threatening to add many inches to the already-ample supply from previous storms.

“My,” she said, “would you just look at all that snow.”

“She’s a doozey, alright,” said Mr. Oldman as he, too, leaned towards the window. “It’s really pilin’ up out there. Almost hip-deep as it was.”

They sat in contented silence for several minutes, enjoying the piece of heaven outside their window. When Mr. Oldman finished his coffee, he set the cup down and stared at his bride of 50 years. The lamplight reflected the satisfaction in her eyes.

Mr. Oldman rose from the table. “Whaddaya say we turn in.”

She stood, and he took her in his arm. He then picked up the lamp and led the way out of the kitchen.

* * *

“Miss? … Miss?”

Emily snapped to; a middle-aged man behind the counter was trying to get her attention. “Can I help you, miss?”

“Oh … um, yes. How much is this?” She held up the object.

“Forty-nine ninety-five, plus tax.”

“Oh … well … maybe next time.”

With a sinking heart she set the gold-plated decoration down, said “Thank you,” and walked out into the bustling mall.

And on the shelf, white flakes still floating down onto it, the old farmhouse in the snow globe settled into another wintery night.

The Krueller and the Camel

today I stared a camel in the face

Stop being difficult and let me carry you! ... (Photo credit: Adam Foster | Codefor)

For Dan Brown

The desert is no place for a krueller, yet there it was, plain as day. You, like me, are probably thinking, “What the heck’s a krueller doing in the desert?”

I think it’s because of Paradise. Paradise Island, that is. You see, on this side of the desert is an okay garden – it has plenty of good spots, but some rough ones as well. But on the other side of the desert is a better garden, a perfect place – Paradise Island. It’s not actually an island, but the only way you can get there is by crossing the desert, so it’s an island of sorts.

Anyway, I think the krueller wanted to get to Paradise Island, and that’s why it was crossing the desert. I don’t blame it; I want to get to Paradise Island too. But anyone – including a krueller – ought to know that a krueller can’t cross a desert by itself. The desert’s hot. A krueller’s covered in glaze. Any questions?

I wish the krueller had stopped to ask questions, though it apparently did ask one of itself: “Can I get there on my own?” It thought it could.

Silly krueller.

Good thing for the krueller that a camel came along. Yeah, that’s right – a camel, that amazing animal that’s perfectly designed to withstand and survive – nay, thrive in – the harsh desert climate. You see, the krueller was a studious sort, so he could tell you all about the desert, explain it right down to the very last detail, but the krueller couldn’t deal with the desert, couldn’t cross it on its own, wasn’t made to. It needed help to get to Paradise.

Enter the camel. That big old Institute of the Desert, around since ancient times but fresh and ready to go every morning, came plodding along and almost stepped on the krueller. It’s no wonder. The camel had never expected to see a krueller in the desert. Not by its lonesome, anyway. But the camel was a kind creature, so he stopped to offer help.

“Could I give you a lift?” he said.

The krueller was startled – by the camel’s imposing size, by its offer of help, by its sudden appearance (like it didn’t expect to see a camel in the desert!).

“Umm.” The krueller knew now that it would never make it on its own, but still it said, “I … . No. No, I’ll be alright. Thank you.”

The camel looked at the krueller’s twisted little body, at its glaze that was melting and peppered with sand.

“Are you sure, my friend?” said the camel. “It’s really not a bother.”

You see, although the camel knew how to deal with the desert, had an instinctive understanding of it, was made for it, he also knew that a bit of company would make his journey more enjoyable. So he was determined to take the little guy with him.

“Well,” said the krueller, looking at its dripping glaze and feeling most uncomfortable from all the sand. “I … I guess I could use a bit of help.”

“And I would enjoy your company.”

So the camel knelt down, and the krueller climbed into the shade between the camel’s two humps. Then they were on their way, and soon the krueller’s glaze stopped dripping. The camel also knew – unlike the krueller – where the oases were, so the krueller was able to get all the water it needed to survive. In return, the krueller carried on a good conversation with the camel, telling his hardy friend all the amazing things he’d learned during his study of the desert, things even the camel did not know and which enhanced the camel’s awe and understanding of the desert.

In cooperation they carried on until, at last, after many miles, they reached Paradise Island. Their eyes opened wide to behold all that was before them: lush, green, abundant life, a place teeming with mirth and vitality.

“Thank you, friend,” said the krueller. “I couldn’t have made it without you.”

“And I thank you,” said the camel. “For you made the journey a richer one.”

Idiot Light

New porch light

What lurks around the porch light? ... (Photo credit: broken thoughts)

The light flared in the blackness, and Prince was after it without thinking. Through darkness he sped, a fluttering sensation welling inside him. He didn’t know what the feeling was – only that it felt good, and made him quiver – or what the light was, or what he was heading into; he was young, and he’d never been in this kind of situation before.

When he reached the source of the glow, he realized that he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Looking around for help at some of the others who had also just arrived, he was met only with confusion: The elders flitted around without any apparent direction, and his fellow youngsters sat still as rocks.

Should we follow the lead of the elders, or are we supposed to remain still?

Prince couldn’t figure out what all the movement was about, so he decided to stay put. With that decision made, he turned his eyes and thoughts back to the glow, and soon fell into a dumb stupor; everything else – food, drink, sleep, his questions about the fluttering feeling and the light, even time – was forgotten. Prince stared, taking in every part of the glow, memorizing every beautiful detail, wrapping himself in what seemed like a neverending dream.

And then it was gone. Prince looked and saw that morning had come, so he and his fellow bugs wandered aimlessly away, like lovers rejected, from the now-extinguished porch light.

Unveiling a New Universe

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

The Unveiling: A whole new universe. ... Image via Wikipedia

Today I posted a short story called Lonely Boy, about a young loner who’s faced personal tragedy and professional roadblocks but unexpectedly gets plopped into the middle of a dream situation without leaving the comfort of his own small cocoon. You can read it here.

You may also have read some or all of my serialized novel A Thing Greatly Feared, which I’ve been posting one chapter at a time on Jason Drexler Writes. If you’ve read that, as well as Lonely Boy, and were paying close attention, you may have noticed a connection between the two: the Friday Nite Diner. Yes, that’s right, both stories take place in the same small town of Foster’s Glen, Maine, and together they serve as the introduction to a whole new universe—more specifically, my literary metaverse.

For several years now I’ve been working on a series of novels that aren’t an official “series,” per se, like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, but they nonetheless all take place in the same fictional universe, and though at first glance many of the stories seem mostly if not entirely unrelated—worlds apart, even—they are quite related, and are all driving towards a unified climax. I’m calling the series The Unveiling.

Several of the stories take place in Maine, my native land, but some are set in my new home state of California. There’s adventure, drama, mystery and intrigue—as a whole, I’d describe the series as a supernatural cryptothriller, sort of an Indiana-Jones-meets-Lost, with a lot of questions and clandestine activity to puzzle out. Over time (probably quite a long time), I’ll be rolling out different portions of this series.

So, welcome to The Unveiling. I hope you enjoy it. =)

Lonely Boy

Some farmland in Windsor, Maine where the Malt...

The old farmhouse, where strange things be happening. ... Image via Wikipedia

Marvel crumpled the letter in his hands. He drew in a slow, deep breath and exhaled hard. It was another Friday at the mailbox – the mail came only once a week in this town of 200 – and as with every other Friday for the last 19 months, Marvel was forced to wait at least another seven days for the realization of his dream.

Marvel walked across his dirt driveway and into his empty house, the silence hollow like a vacuum, and into his room at the far end. He took the letter, not bothering to read all of it, and impaled it on a nail in the wall with 73 of its unfortunate relatives.

74 down. Lord only knows how many left to go.

* * *

Clik-clikclikclik.

“Dear editor,

Thank you for sending me a copy of your submission guidelines.    Unfortunately, due to the large number of submissions I must make in order to have even a snowball’s chance in Texas of getting published, I don’t have the         time or energy to tailor my submission to your exact specifications, especially        when jumping through so many hoops is likely to result in nothing more than a form rejection letter. Thank you for understanding.

Sincerely,

Marvel Madsen”

Marvel pulled the sheet from his electric typewriter and stared at it.

There. A fine piece of work. Too bad none of them is likely to appreciate my sense of humor.

He pinned the sheet on his bulletin board, next to a photo and a bloc of quotes of his favorite author, Gil Guthrie, and not far from framed pictures of his family. Marvel used the quotes for entertainment and inspiration, and he was feeling in need of both at the moment.

He put another sheet in the typewriter, then set himself to staring at the blank page for several minutes. Any observer might have guessed he was suffering writer’s block, but he was lamenting the fact the he couldn’t afford a computer and Internet service. Northern Maine was not an economic hotbed, and his job at the sawmill – where about ninety percent of his town worked – paid just enough to keep himself fed, clothed and sheltered. It had taken him six months to save up for the top-of-the-line electric typewriter.

At last he turned his attention to work, and then he really did experience writer’s block. After fifteen minutes of fruitless staring, he decided to take a walk.

One of the great things about his job at the sawmill was that they were done at three o’clock, which left half the afternoon free. Many an afternoon found Marvel wandering down one country road and across another, or through any of the many fields and wooded trails that filled his town. Wherever he found himself at any particular time during one of these treks, he was within sight of at least one favorite spot, probably more than one, likely including the very spot on which he was standing. Of all his favorites, however, an old farm a few miles from his house topped them all. The farm was shabby – no one had lived there for years – but someone kept the fields hayed, and the place had never been posted against trespassing, so Marvel availed himself of it often. It was a peaceful place, where few vehicles passed by and where cricket, breeze and birdsong could be heard with stark clarity, and for Marvel it was a symbol of the ideal life – quiet country, good honest labor, simple and straightforward, a place where flowers graced your path and the summer breeze whispered nonstop. On this day, he decided to head there. But he never made it.

He walked the faded pavement – right down the middle of the road, there was such little traffic in his neck of the woods – and when he neared a certain intersection, he saw a Jeep parked off to the side of the road, smoke rolling out from under its open hood. He saw no one around, though.

When he got close, he found the driver – sitting in the shade of a nearby maple.

“Hello,” said Marvel. “Can I give you a hand?”

The man looked up at Marvel. And Marvel stopped dead.

Gil Guthrie!

“I sure hope so,” said Guthrie, beads of sweat resting above his salt-and-pepper beard.

Marvel’s thoughts ran ablaze: Gil Guthrie lives in New York, born in Illinois; what’s he doing in Maine, especially the sticks of northern Maine?! Oh my word – this could be my chance! What do I say? What do I do? Then he remembered that Gil Guthrie was sitting beside the road, his vehicle dead. Marvel fought to collect himself and act normal.

“What, uh … what happened?” he said.

“I don’t know,” said Gil. “Just driving along and I heard something explode, and she started belching smoke like a dragon.”

“Any idea what the problem is?”

Gil pursed his lips and shook his head. “Nah. I, uh, I’m not mechanically inclined.” He blushed a bit, which surprised Marvel.

“Well I ain’t much in that area, either, but tell you what: I live back up the road just a quarter of a mile, and it’s all downhill from here to there, so if you want to hop in and steer, I’ll give her a push. Then when we get to my house, I’ll call the local grease monkey for you.”

“That’s more than I hoped for. Thanks.”

So Gil got in, put it in neutral, and Marvel strained to get it moving.

I can’t believe this! I’m pushing Gil Guthrie’s car to my house!

It was the happiest moment of his life.

* * *

“So what’s your name?” said Gil as they coasted along.

“Marvel Madsen.”

“Marvel? Really?” Marvel nodded. “That’s cool. I’ve never heard that before. Unless you count Captain Marvel, but that was his superhero name, not his real name.”

“Well, I’m no superhero.”

“You are to me. I’d been sitting there for a good little while before you came along. Might’ve been there a good while longer if you hadn’t’ve shown up.”

The strangeness of rolling along in a quiet, coasting vehicle was enhanced by the floating sensation in Marvel’s chest. He started to blush. “So, uh, you don’t have a cell phone, obviously.”

“Nah. Never had much use for them – before today, anyway.”

“Here’s my place,” said Marvel, pointing. “Take her right up next to the front door. Soon as I call the mechanic, you can use my phone to call whoever you need to.”

They glided into Marvel’s driveway and went into the house. Two minutes later, Marvel had bad news.

“Big Jim — Jimmy – that’s the mechanic – says he’s backed up and couldn’t get to it til tomorrow afternoon at least, maybe longer.”

Gil nodded, lips pursed, as though measuring his anger. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Well, there’s nothing to it, then, is there? If you’re stuck in the mud, enjoy the cool.” He smiled, then looked startled. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that this town is mud.”

“No problem. I know what you meant.”

“Good. I ain’t so smooth with my words sometimes, you know?” Marvel considered the fluid prose Gil wrote, then realized that some of Gil’s spoken words to him had, in fact, been stumbling; this surprised him. “But if you point me to the nearest hotel, I’ll get out of your hair; I’ve bothered you enough.”

Bothered? No bother here. “Actually, we, uh, we don’t have any hotels. We hardly ever get any visitors, and when we do, it’s usually only because they made a wrong turn.”

“Ah.”

“So what brings you to our town?”

“Give you one guess.”

They chuckled, and Marvel’s nerves were almost drowned in adrenaline with the next thought that passed into his mind; he couldn’t believe he dared to say it, but he found himself doing just that: “Well I’ve got a spare bedroom; it ain’t the Ritz, but it’s yours if you want it, no charge.”

“Oh – I couldn’t do that. Not for free, at least.”

“It’s no problem. I wouldn’t want you to, you know, have to sleep in your car or something.”

They laughed. Then Gil hemmed and hawed for a few seconds; Marvel didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t care, for when Gil said –

“Okay. I’ll stay here. But you’ve got to let me pay you something.”

– Marvel’s dream-hopes of literary success blossomed further.

* * *

Marvel sat on his bed, thinking. Gil was in the bathroom cleaning up, but all Marvel could do at the moment was stare at the wide-open door of opportunity in front of him. He imagined himself approaching that door, then stepping through it, the glorious light of publication and validation falling on him and clinging to him like a wet towel. He started to take another blissful step forward, but a thorny thought out of nowhere jabbed his conscience, and the image burst. He was in his room again, seeing the same things he’d seen every day now for who knows how long, his heart and mind saddled with one thing: You can’t take advantage of him.

While Marvel was still processing this horrible thought, his heart constricting with the apparent death of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the bathroom door opened, jolting him. Like a good host, he went out to check on Gil, yet his guest now seemed not like a walking opportunity but a taunting reminder of what he might never have, the fading echo of a dying star-dream.

Gil had already made one phone call, before he went into the bathroom to shower, but Marvel offered his phone again.

“Thanks, but I’m alright for now,” said Gil. “I don’t like too many people knowing where I am – one of ’em’s liable to come and find me, and I hate being found.” He grinned. “So, I guess it’s about suppertime; any good restaurants in town?”

“You like diners?”

“You mean, like, a real diner? All the grease you can eat, and for one low price?”

“The very same.”

Twenty minutes later, down at the Friday Nite, Marvel was watching Gil demolish a deluxe burger and fries like he hadn’t eaten in days.

“Aw, man,” said Gil through a mouthful. “This stuff is … fantastic.” Marvel was surprised when Gil then actually stopped for a few moments. “Where I grew up in Illinois, we had lots of these places. But in the Big City? Forget it. You can’t find food like this. There are some places that try, but it ain’t the same. I used to think it was, but my taste buds are now telling me otherwise.”

Then he dove into his food again. One deluxe burger and fries, strawberry shake, and pie a la mode after he started, Gil at last pronounced himself full.

This guy could rival Big Jim, thought Marvel.

After leaving the diner, they returned to Marvel’s home and were surprised to find Gil’s Jeep gone. A note in Marvel’s door read: “Things cleared out faster than I thought. Your car should be ready by late morning tomorrow.”

“Well, that’s good news,” said Gil.

“Yeah,” said Marvel. The sooner my shattered dream leaves, the better.

Marvel opened the door, shocked by his own thoughts. “Come on in and have a seat, or have a look around if you want. I just gotta run downstairs for a sec.”

Marvel went down to his basement and conferenced with himself.

What are you doing? Don’t treat him like he’s done something wrong!

I know, I know. I just … can’t believe the absurdity of this! For almost two years now I’ve been trying – so hard – and when the door finally opens, it’s booby-trapped!

But still, you don’t really want this guy to leave.

No, of course not.

Because there’s still a chance.

Yeah, there’s still–  Is there? No, there can’t be! Any chance I have involves me pushing myself onto him, me taking advantage of his state of need. I can’t do that!

Of course you can’t, but there’s still–

NO! There’s no chance! Put it out of your mind right now! Just enjoy this for what it is: A chance to hang out with your favorite author and then–  he heaved a great sigh –he’ll go his way and you’ll go yours.

Figuring it was time to get back upstairs, Marvel cast around for an excuse to explain his trip to the basement. He picked up a broom and swept a small patch of floor – he hated to lie. A minute later he was back upstairs.

“Sorry to leave you,” he said to Gil, who was sitting on the couch in the livingroom. “Had a small mess from earlier I had to sweep up.”

“Not a problem.”

“Did you get a chance to look around?”

“Yeah, you, uh, have a nice place here. You must be a bit of a carpenter.”

“Yeah. Not because I really want to be, but when the purse strings are tight, you gotta do some things yourself. How’d you guess?”

“Most houses today are cookie-cutter – sheetrock painted white, basic clamshell trim; pretty basic stuff. Postmodern, I think they call it. Bunch of garbage, if you ask me. But you’ve got some fancy trim, nice scrollwork on the railing on the front steps, some solid but decorative shelves in the spare bedroom – you don’t see much of that these days.”

“Thank you.” Marvel was feeling a bit embarrassed again. “I, uh, was out for my afternoon walk when I found you; I usually go further, so I was going to go out now and finish what I started – you up for it?”

“Sure,” said Gil, who stumbled a bit as he got up from the couch, his enthusiasm getting the better of him. “Oops. Sorry.”

As they left Marvel’s driveway and started down the road, Gil said, “So how far do you usually go?”

“Oh, five or six miles round-trip, sometimes more.”

Gil seemed to quail a bit. “Well, I don’t know if my legs will like it – they prefer subway trains – but I’m willing to give it a go.” He grinned.

They made small talk for a while, mostly about the area, the history of the town, but then Gil came around to the question that Marvel had been dreading ever since he knew that he and Gil would be spending some time together.

“Do you have any family around?”

“Um,” said Marvel as the despairing thought reel played in his mind, “no. They, uh, they all died, killed in a car accident; my Mom, Dad, two brothers and a sister. They were traveling to a family reunion; I was supposed to be with them.”

“How come you weren’t?”

Marvel’s insides winced; he was sure that Gil had not meant the question as an accusation, but Marvel’s mind refused to hear it any other way.

“I had to work, couldn’t get out of it. I cursed my boss at the time, but I guess I should be thankful.” Marvel didn’t sound convinced of that, though.

“I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to open any wounds.”

“It’s alright. Someone told me I should talk about it sometimes, said it would help.” Marvel didn’t sound convinced of that, either.

“So what do you do for work, anyway?” said Gil.

Oh, great, thought Marvel. This was his second-most-dreaded question, for politeness required that Marvel reciprocate and ask Gil about his work, which of course was writing, which on one hand Marvel wanted to hear about – firsthand comments from a successful author are a rare privilege – but which on the other hand he didn’t want to hear about, for it only reminded him of his once-in-a-lifetime nonopportunity and made those 74 rejections seem like just the beginning of what was sure to be a lifelong string of literary failures. He also knew that he couldn’t mention his own writing – the temptation to grovel for help at Gil’s feet would be too strong.

“I work at the sawmill.” Marvel was surprised at how happy he sounded.

“Oh yeah? Cool. You, uh, operate the equipment there, or … what do you do?” Gil knew as much about sawmills as he did about mechanic work.

“I drive forklift mostly, hauling stacks of lumber around the yard. Pay’s okay, and they’re the only company around that offers full benefits; that’s quite a perk these days.”

“That’s forty hours a week, I imagine.”

“Yeah, sometimes a bit more.”

“You do anything on the side?”

Oh no, thought Marvel, and before he knew it, his brain was screaming, “Tell him! Tell him!

“Ahh, no. No.” Marvel didn’t consider it a lie; he presumed that Gil meant any paid work on the side, and Marvel had not yet earned a single penny from writing.

“So what do you do for work?” said Marvel.

Marvel thought there was the slightest pause before Gil answered. “I’m a writer.”

“That … sounds like fun.”

“It is, it is.”

Marvel didn’t know what else to say, but he also didn’t want to say anything else. The tug of war he felt inside him was making his nerves quake and stretching his willpower almost to the breaking point; he had to get out of this territory soon or else he’d be reduced to a shameless self-promoter.

“So what do you do when you’re not writing?”

“Nothing mechanical, believe it or not.”

They laughed, and Gil gave a somewhat-stumbling, half-embarrassed account of his hobbies and interests, innocent though they were. Marvel breathed an internal sigh of relief, glad that his diversion had worked.

They had gone only a couple miles when Marvel thought about turning around; he didn’t want to overwork Gil, yet he didn’t want to offend him either, so he decided on using the impending nightfall as his excuse.

“Well, it’ll be getting dark pretty soon …”

And then an idea struck him.

“… but I think we’ve got time to go a bit further if you want; I’d like to show you one of my favorite haunts.”

“Yeah, let’s check it out.”

Ten minutes later found them climbing a short rise in the road; Gil was astonished that they’d gone this far on an actual road and not met a single vehicle.

“If you think that’s cool,” said Marvel, “wait’ll you see this place.”

Gil took note of the excitement in Marvel’s voice; it was like that of a kid telling his parents about some great amusement-park ride he’d just been on, and it made Gil excited to see what was coming.

“I know it’s a bit dusky out now, so it won’t be quite as good as seeing it in broad daylight,” said Marvel, “but I still think you’ll appreciate it.”

They topped the rise and started down the other side. Then, as they rounded a gentle corner, the trees fell away and there, on a low ridge surrounded by several fields, stood the old farmhouse.

Gil stopped cold. After several moments, he managed to squeeze a few words through his gaping mouth. “Can we go up to it?”

“Yeah,” said Marvel, and two minutes later they were standing in the upper part of the driveway atop the ridge.

As he’d walked up the sloping lower half of the driveway, Gil felt like a long-exiled king ascending to his throne once more. Standing now at the top of the drive, which served as a sort of courtyard between the house, the barn, and a couple of small outbuildings, he recognized with fondness many long-unthought-of details of his kingdom.

“Clapboards, a weathervane, real shutters.” A half-laugh escaped him. “It’s just like my home – back in Illinois, where I grew up,” he said to Marvel. Then, under his breath to himself, “Where I came from.”

They investigated a bit more, peering into the windows of the house (all the doors were locked) and walking around all four of the buildings; nary a word pierced the cooling air the whole time.

“You know,” said Gil, “I told you that a wrong turn was what led me to your town, but it was actually several.” He looked back up at the farmhouse, for they were now down behind it in one of the fields. “And several more before that brought me far from home.”

The sound of metal banging against metal called out behind them, spinning them around.

“What was that?” said Gil.

“I don’t know,” said Marvel as he gazed across the downward-sloping field before them and into the wooded hills beyond. “There’s nothing back there except wild country, and an old shed that’s been out of use since the farm went under. Could be an animal poking around in there, knocking old tools over.” He turned to Gil. “I know it’s almost dark, but do you mind taking a look?”

“No, not at all.”

They jogged down across the stubbly field, which had been hayed just the week before, and climbed up a bush-covered knoll that stood by the edge of the forest. As they neared the top, they heard clanging; they crouched and peered over to the backside of the knoll: There was the shed, almost overrun by young trees, and a low light was on inside.

“That ain’t no animal,” said Gil.

“Not necessarily.”

Gil gave Marvel a funny look.

“Some of the guys in this town would qualify as less than human,” said Marvel with a smirk. “I’m gonna go down and have a look. Care to join me?”

It could’ve been the light reflecting, but Marvel swore he saw flames flicker in Gil’s eyes, flames that Marvel had seen kindled when Gil first spotted the farmhouse.

“You bet. Lead on.”

Marvel inched his way down the backside of the knoll, zigzagging through a maze of junipers, low bushes, and pine saplings, and Gil was right behind. The stiff junipers sometimes prickled their hands, and soft pine branches brushed against their faces, dragging their sweet scent near; Marvel and Gil remained quiet, however, and undistracted, their eyes fixed on the shed. As they got closer, they saw shadows moving inside, and they could hear things loud and clear.

“The sounds of industry, I think,” said Marvel.

“Yeah,” said Gil, whose heart rate had picked up with the ever-increasing intensity of his nerves.

They came to a stop at the base of the knoll – a mere 10 feet from the back corner of the shed; dim light spilled out through two dusty windows in the side wall, and a lot of soft clanging and shuffling was now evident from inside.

“Can you see anything?” said Gil from just behind Marvel’s shoulder.

“Not really. We’re at a bad angle, and these alders are in the way, too.”

“Wanna risk a closer view?”

Marvel smiled. “You bet.” And then he was off on all fours, creeping through tall grass and between trees. Gil crawled after Marvel, and soon they were at the first window. Staying low and moving with tedious precision, Marvel peered through the corner of the window – and his brow furrowed with confusion.

“You’re not gonna believe this,” said Marvel.

“What – who’s in there?”

“It’s … Big Jim, and some other guy.”

“You mean Jimmy? The mechanic?” Marvel nodded. “What’s he doing in there?”

“Well, that’s why I said, ‘You’re not gonna believe this’ – he’s got your Jeep in there.”

“What?!” said Gil, shuffling closer to the window.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Marvel, thrusting out an arm to hold Gil back. “We’ve gotta be careful: He’s twice our size, and he’s got another guy in there with him.”

“Well … what’s he doing with my Jeep? … And why are you smiling?”

“I was thrown at first, but then I remembered my high school days.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jimmy’s a good guy, and he does good work. I’ve never had a problem with him, and neither has anyone else, as far as I know. But he still has the same weakness a lot of us guys never outgrow.”

Gil’s face was a question mark.

“He likes to take joy rides.”

Marvel enjoyed the look on Gil’s face for a few moments, then said, “I’d forgotten that there’s an old wood road not far from here, with an old, out-of-use, very large gravel pit at the end of it – the ideal place to take a vehicle like that Jeep of yours for a fun little spin. It all came back to me when I saw what they’re doing in there – taking off the regular tires and putting on some big-treads.”

“For better traction, right?”

“Yeah. And judging by all the tires and tools in there, yours isn’t the first vehicle they’ve worked out. I figure they must’ve cut a trail from the wood road to set up shop in this shed, then they bring every vehicle here for a tire change before and after.”

“So everything’s out of sight, out of mind – the whole operation.”

“Right. I imagine there’s a few people who can hear them when they’re tearing around the pit, but they probably just pass it off as high school kids playing around. And the sheriff doesn’t work nights, so these guys don’t have to worry about him.”

“He doesn’t do rounds?”

Marvel shrugged. “Not much to patrol in a town of two hundred.”

Gil chuckled and shook his head.

“This ain’t the Big City is it?” said Marvel with a grin.

“No, it’s not.”

“Come on,” said Marvel. “They’re still putting the big-treads on, and Jimmy’d be hard-pressed to beat a turtle in a foot race, if you know what I mean; we’ll go wake the sheriff and have him down at the pit before they get a single speck of dust on your Jeep.”

The sheriff’s house was a mile in the other direction, opposite the way they’d come; they hurried there and then rapped on his front door, and about a minute later he flung it open, his tousled hair and untucked uniform making him look like he’d just passed through a hurricane.

“Phew,” said the sheriff after Marvel explained everything. “I usually don’t get stirred this time of the evening unless it’s something serious. Oh – no offense meant by that, mister.”

“None taken,” said Gil.

They sped to the wood road in the sheriff’s car, and so it was that when Jimmy and his friend showed up at the pit in Gil’s Jeep, the sheriff had them dead to rights. Jimmy, sheepish, confessed on the spot to numerous such joy rides, but before the sheriff put him into a 24-hour lockup (the punishment being small because Jimmy had never caused any real damage, and in fact had polished each car after every joy ride, sending it back to the owner looking better than before), he made Jimmy give Gil a free oil change as well as a freebie on the repairs.

“Well,” said Gil as he shook Marvel’s hand the next morning in Marvel’s driveway, “that’s twice you saved me. Thanks.”

And twice I’ve passed on the bargaining chip of a lifetime. “Not a problem. It was the most fun I’ve had in quite a while, actually.”

“Me, too.” Gil sighed after getting in his Jeep. “I think I’m gonna miss this place.”

“Come back anytime. I’m sure I’ll still be here.” Doing the same old thing.

Gil smiled, looked for a moment like he was going to say something, then just gave a quick nod and said, “I’ll see you later, Marvel.”

“Yeah.” I wish. “See you later.”

“Quick! Quick! Quick!” screamed his brain. “This is your last chance! Say something NOW!”

Marvel made a slight movement towards Gil, the most tantalizing of literary thoughts rocketing through his mind, but then it was cut off – No, I can’t do it.

Marvel watched Gil back into the road and start to pull away, then turned to go inside; he’d neglected his typewriter while Gil had been there, and felt the need to punch its keys once more, even if they never did lead him anywhere but to the byways of his own imagination and the cold road of rejection letters.

He heard a car come to a hard stop. Turning around, he saw the Jeep at a standstill in the road, Gil leaning out the window.

“I forgot to tell you,” Gil called across the distance. “I read some of your writing when I was giving myself a tour of your house – I hope you don’t mind; it was sitting right on your desk, and I couldn’t help but look.” Gil looked a bit embarrassed, but Marvel was motionless, unblinking, not daring to believe what he was hearing, or might be about to hear. “Anyway, I told you I’d pay you, so I left my agent’s address on the kitchen table; send him some of your stuff soon – he’ll be expecting it.”

Marvel gave a slight nod and barely got out an “Okay.”

“And one more thing: Um, that picture of me is kind of old; I’ll send you a new one.”

Table for Two

Tip left for good service at my local Coco's. ...

A good meal, but less-than-hoped-for service. ... Image via Wikipedia

I sat waiting at a table in the corner, watching the Caleña sisters flit amongst the other customers, the work of their hive neverending. I had nothing else to do; my order had been placed, and I had nothing to read except a menu half written in Spanish.

The Caleña sisters glided. Maria and Salina – which was which, don’t ask me to remember – two brown-skinned flowers stagnating in a garden of grease, begged to be taken away. Their eyes, listless, avoided those of the customers; their petal-like fingers danced wearily across the cash register, and held menus like they couldn’t wait to let go of them.

One of the sisters – don’t ask me which, but her face was more tired than the other’s – at last brought me my meal, after many hungry minutes. But it was busy, and theirs were only two sets of hands – beautiful hands, but only two sets nonetheless – so I had waited, and watched, with patience. I watched the two sisters; I watched them glide, their movement smooth but their gait tired. I watched the other men who were eating in the diner, each one a possible ticket out of stagnation. I watched the Caleña sisters watch the men when the men weren’t looking, how they sized up the tickets, hoping with forlorn hope that an open seat would show itself, but each time being met with a shut door.

Ah, but the Caleña sisters were young; plenty more tickets would pass through – surely a seat would open up someday.

Ah, but the Caleña sisters had already been here for an age, gliding through their youth ’til they had reached premature weariness, wanderers who had never gotten to wander.

I poured ketchup on my meat and salted my fritas. The bubbles in my soda-drink reflected the dimness of the diner, and I gazed at them as I ate, until something dark moved into them, something brown and red. I looked up.

It was the other Caleña – the one with the less-tired face, and a red shirt with the word “oasis” on it – and she was looking at me – not talking, not smiling, just looking. Though I thought I saw a flicker of light pass through one of her olive eyes.

I glanced at my food and then back at her. She was still looking at me. At last she spoke.

“Everything okay?”

My heart leapt at the sound of her silky voice.

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Okay.”

She glided away to another spot in the hive, and I was left to myself again.

I finished my meal, left a tip, then gathered myself and went to stand in line at the register. The lady in front of me paid, then I stepped up and handed my bill to the first Caleña sister. Our eyes never met. I waited.

Moments later, when I held out my hand to receive the change, I kept my eyes on hers. She said “thank you” and at last looked at me.

And I saw no open seat.

I pocketed my change and left. The bell over the door clanged, and the Caleña sisters went back to their weary gliding.

Emptied

Red Hot Sun

The Smiling Ellipse, Giver of Life. ... Image via Wikipedia

He didn’t know where he was or how he got there. He didn’t even remember his name.

The sand under his bare feet was warm, and he could see nothing through the fog around him.

Ow!

The sand’s heat was biting his soles. He walked forward a few steps, and this brought a bit of relief. As soon as he stopped, however, the heat again became unbearable.

He walked again, and the heat began to subside – not to the point of total comfort, but enough to be tolerable.

So walking helps, but where do I go?

There was nothing else to be seen – no signpost to guide him, no dwelling to take shelter in; he couldn’t even sit down to rest, for there was nothing but hot sand and he was naked.

Michael.

He stopped, looked around.

“Who’s there?”

Nothing but fog.

“Hello?”

Then the heat stung his feet again. He edged ahead to ease the pain, but feared where he might end up, feared what he’d heard – and that he’d heard something that wasn’t there.

He gazed around, peering into the fog. Still he saw nothing.

Michael.

He froze, confident now that he at least wasn’t hearing things. And what was said – a name; he wasn’t sure the first time, but now he knew that’s what it was.

Is that my name?

Yes.

He wheeled around.

“Who’s there? … Please, show yourself.”

Nothing.

He was hurting from the heat again, so he turned around to continue on.

And there it was.

An ellipse of flaming yellow tinged with orange, suspended in the fog like a sun hanging low in the sky. Except there was no sky.

The flaming ellipse was ringed with several halos of diminishing thickness, and it seemed far away, like an object on the horizon, yet near enough to reach out and touch.

Michael.

“Yes?”

He winced at the heat again and moved forward, never taking his eyes off the ellipse, which showed clearly through the fog. This time he went on for what seemed like hours, without stopping, without removing his eyes from that bright magnet drawing him on … and without another word from that voice.

Did it leave me?

He called out to it in a feeble half-whisper a few times, but every attempt went unrequited. At times it seemed that he was getting closer to the bright thing in front of him, at others like it was pulling away. It generally appeared, however, that he was getting closer by slow degrees, and this gave him a small measure of encouragement.

After he’d gone on like this for a time, the sensation in the bottoms of his feet started to change, becoming less like pain and more like a mild, soothing electrical current that somehow drove him on. But where was he driving on to? Towards the bright thing in front of him, was all he knew; he didn’t know where it was, or where he was, only that as long as he kept moving towards it, he was fine.

Or was he? The thought struck like lightning: You don’t know who you’re following. You don’t know.

His eyes began to drift as he mulled the thought.

It’s true; I don’t know. But the heat’s tolerable when I’m moving. And my feet are actually beginning to feel good now.

He hadn’t noticed, but he was slowing down.

But you’re in a desert, and you can’t see a thing – how good can this person be?

As that thought rattled through his mind, a shard of loneliness thrust deep inside him, cutting him almost to the point of despair. A sense of abandonment gnawed at his soul; he wanted to die, in one sense already felt dead. And then an image flared in his memory: The burning object in the nonsky.

He showed himself to me … and he gave me a name. … Ow!

He realized that he’d stopped.

But think of all this heat! The pain! the hot sand! And no water to drink! That’s not love!

Other thoughts fought back.

He showed himself to me.

He gave me a name.

He’s helping me through the heat, guiding me through the fog.

The unpleasant thoughts returned the volley, besieged him, pounding time after time against the door of his mind, sometimes to no avail, sometimes with moderate success … and sometimes with terrible effect.

“Aaaah!”

Michael dropped to the ground. He had stopped to gain control of the shouting chaos inside his head – the good thoughts and the unpleasant, fighting each other – but he had stood still too long. Far too long.

Now on all fours, his feet were finding relief but his hands and knees were having their turn at discovering pain. Michael clawed at the sand, gouged it, shredded it between his fingers as a look of pain seared his face. He wanted to give up; everything was pointless. So many times his feet had hurt, and now his hands and knees – and his mind and heart were being ripped from their sockets. The good thoughts were there, yes, but they were drowning, overwhelmed, and it had been so long, so long, since he’d heard the voice. And though it was true that he’d been getting ever closer to that glorious thing before him, the pace was excruciating, like that of a slug traversing the ocean floor.

How long?

Too long.

“How long?” he whimpered.

Too long.

Michael couldn’t hear the good thoughts anymore. He collapsed onto his side.

More pain, scorching. He rolled onto his back to escape the pain in his side.

More pain.

He rolled onto his other side.

Still more pain, hammer!hammer!hammer! against his soul. He grimaced, ground his teeth, moaned, rolling back and forth, back and forth.

How long?

Too long.

“How long?”

Too long.

He screamed. “How long!?!”

Then he stopped, lying motionless, nothing left.

He cried, surprised that his body still had enough moisture to form tears. Soon, however, he ran out of those, too.

His skin sizzled. His body ached with dryness, his soul with barrenness. Torment rode the tidal wave of despair that now crested within him. He wanted to say those words one more time, but he couldn’t manage it, couldn’t remember them. They were only two words, one simple question – that much he remembered – but he wasn’t able to form it again, not even in his mind. Even worse, his cries had gone unanswered.

He stopped struggling and closed his eyes.

* * *

His eyes popped open. Fog swirled overhead.

What?

He raised himself onto his elbows; he lay in the same place he had fallen.

I’m still alive?

He shot to his feet, studying himself, surprised at his energy. There were red areas all over him, but they didn’t burn. He touched them, pressed them – no pain. And the heat under his feet – it felt comfortable, like the warmth of a woodstove on a cold winter’s night.

How–?

I called you by name.

Michael’s head snapped up. The ellipse was still there, burning bright. Nervousness raced through his body.

Yes. Yes you did.

Michael stared into the blaze before him. It was soft, inviting. The heat, the burning, the unpleasant thoughts, the pain – all those evil things were gone. No – not gone; still there but washed new, their composition rearranged into something … good.

You didn’t leave me.

No, I did not.

“Why?”

Michael’s attention was drawn down. There on the ground beside him was a large black spot in the middle of where he had lain. It seemed foul.

“What is that?”

It is what I did not want.

“It came from me?”

Yes.

Michael stared at the spot. He began to tremble with fear.

“And … what am I?”

You?

Sweat trickled onto Michael’s nose.

You are what I do want.

Michael swore he saw a smile pass over the edge of the ellipse. Then he felt a pull, towards it – nothing forceful, more like the attraction a child feels for an amusement-park ride he’s eager to try. He began to walk forward again, towards the warm blaze. He glanced back once at the black spot and produced a soft smile of his own. He then set his face to what was before him and walked ever towards it, ever with it.

Ever thankful.

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