Never Count A Man Out – Unless Your Sure

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August 1885

The sun-scorched the three men as they walked through the Sonoran Desert southwest of Tucson. Their horses were dead and they survived for the first two weeks on their meat.

They were part of a group of men who were ambushed by hostile Indians that lived in the area. The three men had escaped, but ran their horses to death in doing so. Two of the men were from the east and had no survival experience. It was why they joined the group. The third man, Branch Older, was a professional hunter, who at 60 years-old, could still out drink, shoot, and chase whores better than any man…anywhere.

The easterners were brothers from Canton, Ohio. Against their father’s wishes they left the farm to go west in search of adventure. Alvin and George Sherman were husky farm boys and not afraid to work hard. When they joined the group they agreed to do the lowly chores of setting up and taking down camp everyday in return for experience.

They were a loose group of eight men who threw the fortunes together to survive the harsh country. Most had tried mining for silver with little success. Others hunted for pack trains passing through Arizona. The one thing they had in common was they were all getting up in age. The Sherman boys, at 21, and 22-years old, were the babies. Most of the rest were in their sixties. One was seventy-two-years old.

When the Indians hit their camp at sunrise everyone was still asleep but the guard, Pops Fargen. He had time to fire off a couple of shots from his Winchester rifle before being overwhelmed by attackers. Roused, the rest of the group grabbed their rifles and fought back. In the ensuring chaos Branch managed to get the Sherman brothers to jump onto their horses and the three rode off for their lives.

Three weeks later they were out of horsemeat and low on ammunition. Between them they had two rifles (both repeaters), one pistol, and three hunting knives. They each had a canteen with a little water that they found in a hidden spring two days ago.

Branch showed the brothers how to eat prickly pear cactus by using a knife to cut away the stickers. They grew among the giant Saguaro cactus that dotted the desert landscape. The heat stayed in the 100s during the day and dropped at night to freezing because of the altitude. The brutal weather took its toll on the men. Sunburned and blistered, they covered less distance every day.

At night they listened to el lobo, the Mexican gray wolf, howl for its mate. They sighted several cougars that didn’t bother with them. During the day they had to keep their eyes peeled for snakes. The most common were the Western Diamondbacks, with their dark diamond-shaped blotches along the center of their back.

The most venomous snake in the Sonoran desert was the Mojave Rattler, who was active at night. They hid near creosote bushes and bur sage, preferring open areas with grass. One night a Mojave rattler entered the men’s crude camp. While slithering over Branch’s leg he suddenly stirred and the snake was startled and bit him below the knee!

His howl of surprise and pain carried across the desert and a gray wolf joined in. The Sherman brothers panicked when Branch shouted “Snake! The son-of-a-bitch bit me! Quick! Cut it open and suck the venom out, he cried.

Alvin and George looked at each other dumbly. Both waiting for the other to move. George snapped out of it when Branch cursed again. He knelt down by Branch’s leg and cut open his trousers below the knee where Branch was pointing. He then took his knife, cut the wound open, and bent over and pressed his lips against it and sucked hard.

He instantly spit and tried again. After several attempts he noticed Branch was barely moving. He raised his head and tried to speak but only gibberish came out. The brothers hovered over him nervously, unsure of what to do next. Alvin threw a piece of wood onto the fire and they settled down by Branch and waited.

When morning came they couldn’t detect any life left in Branch. The two greenhorns dug a shallow grave and put Branch’s body in it after stripping off his clothes. They piled some rocks on top to discourage scavengers. George took his Winchester, and Alvin took his hunting knife.

They set out sadly. With no guide or experience, they didn’t expect to live much longer. But, as fate would have it, they came upon a road and a while later a stagecoach bound for Tucson stopped and gave them a ride on top with the luggage.

That night a hand thrust out from the desert floor knocking rocks aside. Then another. A head rose under the full moon and coughed. Minutes ticked by as Branch slowly crawled out from his crude burial ground. Despite all odds, he was alive but feeling like hell. He threw up a combination of bile and dirt. Shivering in the cold, he slowly stood up.

He had a fever and was delirious, but some lizard part of his brain made him take a step…then another. He’d survived the many life challenges he faced since he left home at ten-years-old. Six decades qualified him as a true survivor. He took another step and el lobo howled at the moon.

Two weeks passed and Branch was still alive. His face and hands were bloody from the stickers off the prickly pear cactus pads. He also ate kangaroo rats raw when he was lucky enough to catch one. He grimly kept walking and plotted what he was going to do when he found the brothers. They left him for dead. It was unforgivable.

He nearly ran out of strength when he saw a cabin. The old man who lived there was drawing water from a well when he saw Branch fall. He hurried over and dragged Branch inside the cabin. He tried to give him some water but Branch was unconscious. A week passed while the old man nursed him back to health.

During that time Branch told the old man his story and how his partners had deserted  him. The old man outfitted Branch and gave him a six-shot Colt Walker. When Branch protested it was too much, the old man insisted he take it with a box of ammunition.

“Where you’re going, your going to need one,” he said, spitting out a plug of well-chewed tobacco on the ground. “I’d give you my mule, but he’s all I got. Town is about five miles yonder. Shouldn’t take you too long to walk there.”

“Thank you. I’ll repay you some day.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just being neighborly.”

Is was noon when Branch walked into Tucson. The first place he looked for the brothers was the local saloon. They were playing poker at a table and didn’t notice Branch walk in. He came up to the table and pulled his revolver out.

“Remember me boys?” he asked.

As It Stands, as Western fans know, a man was hard to kill back in the Wild West.

A One Way Ride To Lawless

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Criminals in 2068 don’t have to worry about getting the death penalty for committing a capital crime. On the other hand, they’re banished from earth and sent to another planet called Lawless, in the Andromeda Galaxy.

Countries started the practice when they realized it could serve two purposes.

One. They got rid of dangerous criminals without killing them, according to the Worldwide Accord of 2048 that forbid death penalties.

Two. They made a nice profit be exporting the rare and valuable minerals on Lawless without having to do the mining themselves. Criminals had the option of trading the valuable ores for food and other necessary supplies, or they could starve to death. The other option was to attack one another and steal supplies.

The United Earth scheduled every country for a one-year tour of duty on Lawless. The troops job was simple. Protect the compound surrounding the space station and trading center.

The atmosphere and environment in Lawless was very similar to earth’s.

Men and women formed camps that divided up their duties between mining, trading, and providing protection. The nomadic camps seldom exceeded more than twenty or thirty people. The most precious minerals were located in the mountain ranges near where the busy landing station was in the middle of a flat valley.

Camps often attacked other camps because they were all criminals and good at killing. There was no attempt among the banished to make any laws. The nations of Earth had no interest in providing a costly police force. And for what? To keep them from killing each other? No one worried about that.

Individuals and smaller groups of two or three, followed behind the larger camps diggings after they moved on. They managed to scavenge leftover ore by continuing to dig where others left off in a hurry to find richer pockets. This odd assortment of people called themselves The Independents. They were hard and clever. Most didn’t play well with others.

A growing number of Independents learned how to live off the land over the years. There were small mammals that resembled beavers and woodchucks that lived along the river that ran through the valley. Through experimentation, they learned what tubers and berries were safe to eat. Independents often carried news from one camp to another, for a price. These runners, as they called themselves, were paid with food and supplies.

Among the runners was a man whose name was Pecos Pete. He was a computer technician who murdered two of his colleagues when he caught them stealing his notes on a new project. Among his hobbies were mountain climbing and cross-country running. He was an intelligent man who let his emotions get the better of him once, and paid the price with a one-way ticket to Lawless.

Pecos Pete stayed alive by constantly moving. He was a loner by heart and was comfortable with his own company. One night as Pecos Pete drank some local moonshine made from tubers, he noticed a sudden flurry of activity in the compound surrounding the landing and trading center. Red lights were flashing as Pecos Pete watched from his perch on a nearby hill.

The overhead dome opened and two space ships launched into the night! This was highly unusual. Flights were always made during the day. Sensing something big, Pecos Pete slid down the hill and trotted toward the compound. Several quick explosions rocked the trade center and lit up the shattered dome and its contents within. He stopped and waited to see if there would be more. He saw fires inside and a man burning like a torch!

Minutes went by and he saw more figures in flames. They fell, one-by-one, in the landing area. Half of the dome was blown away by the explosions. The exposed interior was smoldering when Pecos Pete entered. He looked around the landing bay and spotted a control room. The windows were shattered, but some of the monitors on the wall were still operational.

He stood in stunned silence as he watched a massive fleet of warships destroy Earth’s defenses. The monitors blinked out until only one screen was left. The picture was blurry but Pecos Pete could see ships landing and opening their cargo doors. Hundreds of aliens were being herded into work groups with mining tools. Their overseers immediately led the crews towards the nearby mountains. Some crews began constructing a space station as Pecos Pete watched.

He stood there for hours watching Earth’s fate unfold until the last screen died. Then he started laughing. The idea that all there was left of mankind was criminals, had to be the funniest thing he ever heard!

As It Stands, irony is a dish best left to humans who appreciate it.

Auggie and the Little People

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Auggie was the eighth child born to Louis and Lois Turner in 1926. He came into the world in the same family farmhouse as his brothers and sisters.

Unlike his siblings, he got an extra copy of chromosome 21 in his cells, causing Down’s syndrome. His parents, and siblings, did all they could to make life normal for Auggie. They all loved his flat face, small mouth, and tiny ears. He had a smile that automatically triggered a return smile, whoever it was.

When Auggie first met the Little People they scared him. He was seven-years-old when he first saw them in the family’s corn field. He was chasing a ball that one of his sisters tossed him that ricocheted off of his stubby little leg, when he encountered a little man who stood no more than four-inches high next to the ball he was looking for!

He was so startled that he broke into tears and ran back to his waiting sister, Alice. She comforted him. She didn’t believe his story, but that didn’t matter. He was her little brother, and she overlooked a lot of things that he said. Alice was actually delighted with Auggie’s imagination. The rest of the family took it in stride.

A year later, Auggie was playing in the cornfield with a toy metal truck his parents bought him for his birthday when he heard a tiny voice.

“Hey boy!” the voice called out. “Over here!”

He was already down on his knees when he looked around and saw two little people waving at him. His first response was fear, but the little woman assured him they wouldn’t harm him. They just wanted to talk. Being a good-natured kid full of curiosity Auggie said, “Hi. I’m Auggie.”

“Pleased to meet you” the little man and woman, both replied.

“We’d like to be friends,” the small coupled explained. “Would you like to be our friend?” they asked.

“Yesss...”Auggie said happily. He loved having friends.

“You can’t tell anyone about us though Auggie. Can you keep a secret?

He pondered the question for a moment. “Can I just tell my sister Alice?” he asked.

“Maybe someday. Just not right now. We don’t trust most humans. We’ve been watching you for a year however, and everyone in the colony agrees your nice and would be a good friend.”

Auggie smiled brightly. “Okay. Let’s play.”

By the time Auggie was sixteen-years-old he was a hard worker; keeping the big barn fresh with new hay, and feeding the donkey and the pigs. He was seemingly tireless, always doing odd jobs around the farm throughout the day, and never complaining.

As his brothers and sisters got older six of them got married and moved on. The only one that stayed was Alice. She couldn’t bear leaving Auggie, or her parents who were getting old and who were forced to hire help to bring the crop in.

The hired help consisted of four men who were allowed to sleep in the barn. Their job was to plant and harvest the corn crop. It wasn’t a year-round job. The men came and went. Many were hobos who only wanted to stay in one place for a short time. Other’s were neighbors whose crops kept failing, and who were desperate for money.

The Turner family farm was blessed with fertile ground. The crops always did well, as the family worked hard maintaining the fields, and rotated each season’s crops on the 140 acre spread.

Auggie never felt lonely because he either had his sister Alice’s company, or the little people who followed him around throughout the day. They would share their lives with him and their adventures. It was a mutual friendship that grew stronger over the years.

One night, one of the little people came into Auggie’s room and woke him up. The woman, whose name was Tina, was frantic and wanted him to follower her. Auggie was groggy until she said his sisters name.

“What about Alice?” he asked, suddenly awake and alarmed.

“She’s in danger!” Tina cried.

Auggie didn’t bother changing his night-clothes or putting his boots on. He picked her up and asked “Which way?

She led him out to the cornfield. It was just weeks before being harvested and was ten-feet tall. The full moon cast fantastic shadows between the thick stalks as Auggie blundered his way through the field.

Then he heard his sister scream out nearby!

Auggie was built solidly. Not tall, but with powerful arms and legs with strength earned by hard work, and the adrenaline that was pumping through his veins as he bulled forward. Then he saw a man sitting on his sister with one hand over her mouth and the other tearing at her night-gown!

He plowed right into the man and knocked him off her. Even in his rage he recognized that it was one of their workers. He hit and kicked him until he didn’t move anymore. The worker’s blood was sprayed onto the nearby corn stalks and was slowly dribbling down to the rich earth when he stopped. The worker’s face was unrecognizable. His body beaten to a pulp.

Alice watched in utter amazement. She never would have guessed Auggie could be capable of that kind of violence. Little Tina had disappeared. She got up off the ground and walked over to Auggie. He was standing still with his arms at his side, and his head hanging down.

“Auggie dear! Are you all right?” she asked and hugged his still trembling body. “How did you know I was in trouble,” she gently asked.

He looked around on the ground and saw Tina with two other little people. They nodded their heads at Auggie and he understood it was okay to tell her about his little friends.

“The little people helped me,” he said, his voice husky with emotion.

Alice didn’t challenge him. “Tell them thank you.

“You tell them. This is Tina,” he said, and picked her up for Alice to see.

Alice’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “Thank you, Tina!

As It Stands, this tale is another version of a myth told by other cultures.

The Senator’s Wake

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They came to pay their last respects to a man they loathed and feared out of political necessity.

Harry R. Watlow knew where all the political skeletons lie. His vast sources unearthed dirt on everyone within his sphere…just in case. His spy net made J. Edgar Hoover’s secret lists look like child’s play. You didn’t mess with Harry in his home state of Georgia. He was more than just a senator. He was THE BOSS.

Then he turned up dead one day. The authorities said it was foul play. The police had their work cut out for them making out a list of suspects. They numbered in the hundreds according to a conservative estimate by the detective in charge of the case, Alan Wu.

Watlow’s body was lying in the State Capital Building in Atlanta where the public could walk through and view the man who once literally ran the state for 29 years. The line wasn’t very long. State politicians showed up long enough for a photo-op and then quickly left.

The wake was held immediately afterward at his Mediterranean Mansion in a gated estate in the prestigious Sandy Springs area.

An invite there was a political coup for any ambitious politician in the great state of Georgia. His family was there to greet quests. Old school mates and friends stood right alongside people who hated Watlow’s guts. Their insincere smiles were plastered on their faces for the sake of their career.

A parlor was set aside for the body. People could pay their respects and then join the rest of the mourners in the massive ballroom that was decorated in black and had old photos of Watlow in his younger years. Caterers discreetly moved about offering hors d’oeuvres to the somber gathering.

Standing near an open bar, Detective Wu surveyed the room carefully, taking mental notes of who was there, and who wasn’t. Prior to that he was at the station working with a dedicated crew of cops gathering all of the information they could on the slain senator. Before he left he briefed his top computer guy, Max, to stay at his computer while he attended the wake. He wanted instant access to photos and information.

Wu had a reputation for quickly solving cases. His street instincts, vast criminal experience, and training in criminal psychology, made him a legend at the precinct. The senator was found in the house’s industrial sized kitchen. He was stabbed twice in the chest. By the time he was discovered in the morning, by the head cook, a dark pool of blood was congealing alongside the body.

It took Wu three hours before he released the body to the coroner. His forensic team tip-toed around the notorious grump. He didn’t like people talking when he went over a crime scene. It was his habit to take on each murder like it was a personal affront to him. When on a case Wu lost his usual sense of humor and replaced it with the determination of a honey-badger feeling threatened.

He spent the last week interviewing every family member and friend he could find. His team carried the search wider and looked up professional contacts, his personal Facebook account, and anyone who was part of his daily routine. The intensive search was at the urging of the Chief-of-Police who was feeling political pressure to solve the case quickly.

The F.B.I. had it’s own team in town. Wu put up with that reality, but he wasn’t happy about it. It was his case. The feds had a way of throwing their weight around that irked Wu. That’s why he didn’t let the them know that he was following up on a lead that he developed.

The lead took him to the wake.

According to his personal secretary (and mistress as it turned out), Amelia, the old reprobate was murdered by his wife when she found out he was cheating on her. No one found the murder weapon and no knives were missing from the kitchen. She wasn’t the most credible character. Wu also suspected there was more to her story.

She claimed she was there when his wife attacked him. The wife was supposed to be at a convention in Virginia, but came home early for some reason. She was in the downstairs bathroom when she heard the wife come in and an argument break out. She was also naked. Her skimpy nightie was on the kitchen table where he threw it after taking it off her minutes before.

She then explained that she opened the bathroom door and peaked out. She heard a scream of rage and it scared her, so she bolted for the front door like a deer. It was a humiliating and terrifying night she’d never forget, she told Wu.

Three things came to Wu after her story.

One. There was no nightie at the crime scene.

Two. There was no sign of any of the girlfriend’s personal belongings. She wore clothes there. Had a purse. A phone.

Three. There was no way he could see the senator’s tiny old wife attacking him with a knife.

There was also something else that bothered him. The senator’s relationship with his personal secretary was a secret. No one apparently knew that. If they did, they didn’t say anything when Wu asked them about her.

He saw Amelia talking with a group of people, and wondered what her motivation was for telling him that story about the senator’s wife. His bullshit meter was registering a ten-out-of-ten on the suspicion scale. What nagged him was the feeling that he was missing something. Motivation. Why would she kill her boss, and secret lover?

Two hours passed and guests were starting to leave. As the crowd thinned out he noticed the senator’s wife and Amelia huddled in a corner of the room. He discreetly watched as the went up the stairs together. He followed at a safe distance and saw them disappear into a room.

He looked around the hallway and determined no one else was there before going up to the door and pressing his ear against it. He was barely able to make out some words. What he did make out confirmed his suspicions. The two women plotted together to kill the senator.

He heard Amelia ask the wife for her money.

“I did my part,” Amelia said. “Do you have the money?” 

As Wu listened it occurred to him that Amelia was playing a dangerous game. She killed the senator for money, and was setting up his wife for the murder. He heard the wife say Amelia could have the murder weapon, which she was holding as insurance, as long as she left the country.

The conversation lasted nearly an hour. When the door opened Wu was standing there shaking his head. Before either woman could react he grabbed Amelia’s purse, opened it, and saw the knife.

“You two ladies have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney…”

As It Stands, the best laid plans of mice and women, often go astray.

Rubber Face

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The first time Brock wore a rubber mask for Halloween was when he was five-years-old. He didn’t want to take it off after trick-or-treating so his patient parents compromised and let him sleep in it.

That’s where it started.

After that he insisted on wanting to wear a rubber mask during the day. He couldn’t during school, but the minute the last bell rang he’d pull his rubber mask out of his backpack and put it on. Needless to say, this caught the attention of a lot of people. Children and adults alike.

It was a good thing Brock was a husky kid, because he constantly faced bullies who tried to take his mask away from him. One day two boys jumped him just outside the school grounds. In the tussle one of the boys peeled off the mask he just put on. He fought so furiously that they backed off and left his rubber mask on the ground.

In school, Brock was a shy guy. He always sat in the rear of the classroom. He knew a few of his fellow students by name, but had no friends. Over his school years he got use to eating alone in the school cafeteria. He was content reading the latest issue of MAD magazine at lunch.

His parents didn’t really know how to cope with his obsession. They sent him to a child psychologist numerous times before he entered high school. He always came across, in those sessions, as perfectly normal…with the exception of his unusual attachment to rubber masks. Various theories were discussed, but no one seemed able to break his odd habit.

When he entered high school he got a job at a local supermarket bagging groceries and helping customers take their purchases out to their vehicle. He used most of his paychecks buying new rubber masks. Scary ones, funny ones, and famous celebrities were his favorites. It was no surprise that most of the student body called him Rubber Face behind his back. Some people said it to his face.

In his mind, as he explained to more than one psych, rubber masks were the height of mask making. The ability to change his appearance was very satisfying. That’s the part no one seemed to understand.

He felt safe in a mask. That it attracted attention was not his purpose for wearing it. He understood, at one level, why people thought he was odd. Personally he didn’t think anyone was odd because they strived to look different. Tattoos, pierced body parts, ear plugs, scarifications. It was all good to Brock. He just wished people would be more tolerant of those who chose to step outside the norms in their appearance.

In his senior year Brock swallowed his shyness and went to a Halloween dance. He didn’t have a date. He hoped that there would be some girls there in the same situation. He never went to any of the other dances and proms, and felt extremely awkward. It was his last chance at going to some social activity before graduating. The senior prom was out of the question. He’d never get a date for that. The fact that he could wear a rubber mask to the Halloween dance tilted the scales in favor of going there.

He wore his favorite vampire mask and a rented tuxedo. The gym was already full of costumed students when he got there. The “Monster Mash” was blaring from two four-foot speakers on the stage.

“I was working in the lab, one night

when my eyes beheld an eerie sight

For my monster on the slab, began to rise

and suddenly to my surprise…he did the Monster Mash!

Brock was filling a plastic cup up with punch when a voice behind him said, “Would you get me a cup?” He turned and saw a female vampire waiting for an answer.

“Oh…yeah! I mean…sure,” he bumbled, and handed her his cup. She stood there silently until he filled another cup for himself.

“I like your costume,” she said in a husky voice.

“Yours too. I mean, I like yours a lot.”

In the background…

“Out from his coffin, Drac’s voice did ring

Seems he was troubled by just one thing

He opened the lid and shook his fist

And said, “Whatever happened to my Transylvania twist?”

They sipped their drinks in an awkward silence before Brock spoke up, “Would you like to dance?” he asked.

“Yes. It would be my pleasure kind sir,” she chuckled playfully.

They stayed on the dance floor throughout the night. When it was time to go Brock asked his new-found vampire friend, if she needed a ride home? He could see her eyes twinkling in the mask’s eye holes.

“How kind of you to ask. I could use a short ride if you don’t mind.

“My pleasure,” he grinned happily under his mask. “Which way?”

He followed her directions to the opposite side of the city to an area he wasn’t familiar with. As he drove by an old cemetery she asked him to stop. Puzzled, he obeyed. She got out of the car and walked around to the driver’s side before he could react.

“This is far enough. I’ll walk from here. Thank you,” she said and leaned over and brought her mask up against his. “Maybe next time we’ll take our masks off. I have to go now. My name is Cecile,” she shared, and blew him a kiss before disappearing in the growing fog.

“”My name is Brock!” he yelled out the window.

“I know…” her husky voice replied. “Rubber face,” she said softly and out of his hearing.”

As he drove home he wondered what her real face looked like. How would she react when she saw his rough features? Would he ever see her again? She blew him a kiss! It took all of his concentration to get home safely that night. There were so many questions going through his head.

He was taking an evening stroll in his neighborhood a week later wearing his Sherlock Holmes mask when she appeared from behind a tree in his neighbor’s yard. She was still wearing her vampire costume and mask. He stopped and spoke in pleasant surprise, “Cecile, I presume!” he said, bowing grandly.

Indeed, sir. At your service,” she said happily.

“Shall we walk, and talk,” Brock asked while holding out his arm. She took it and they walked side-by-side down the tree-lined neighborhood with its antique-looking street lights. In the half moon’s glow they talked about things high and low. No subject was taboo.

In the early morning hours, just before the sun started its slow climb upwards, they took off their masks. He saw she was no classic beauty, but her simple plain features were attractive to him. She already knew what he looked like without a mask. She admired him for years. At a distance.

“I have to go now,” she said, sadness tinting her voice.”

“I’ll drive you!” he offered.

“Not fast enough,” she countered. “Remember what we talked about. Especially the supernatural part,” she urged.

Before he could protest she was gone. It was dawn. He went into the house and wondered what he’d say to his parents who were surely up by now eating breakfast and drinking coffee. They were both early risers.

A week went by. Brock was getting desperate to see Cecile so he drove back to the place where he dropped her off the night of the dance. There had to be some homes near the cemetery that he didn’t see that night. It was foggy and he was focused on her. But as he parked in roughly the same spot, he didn’t see anything but hills dotted with monuments and crosses.

The sun set – a fiery red ball in the west – as he pulled on his vampire mask and waited for darkness to settle over the land. He was prepared to tell her that he loved her. He didn’t have to wait long before she was standing by him in her mask.

“I miss you,” he admitted. “And, I love you.” 

“And I you, dear boy entering manhood,” she replied. “But we can’t pursue this love any more. It’s not fair.”

“It’s not fair to who?”

“You. By now you know what I am. You’ll grow old, but I’ll stay young. I’m already 300 years-old. We cannot take this budding romance any further. I admit to having been enchanted with you ever since you were a little boy wearing those masks. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” he said. “We can still be friends, can’t we?

“Yes!” she cried, and hugged him. Yes, we can Rubber Face,” she smiled under her mask.

As It Stands, a case of finding love in the wrong place, doesn’t always have to be a sad ending.

A Voice In The Dark

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The voice only comes in the night.

I’m not sure why that is. You’ll notice I said “voice,” as in singular, not plural. It’s a woman’s voice. I don’t know if she’s a demon or a guardian angel. Just so we’re clear here; I’m not some wacko hearing voices. Okay?

I started hearing the voice a year ago after my wife died. Don’t jump the gun and assume I murdered her, and it’s her voice that I hear. It’s not. I have nothing to feel guilty about. She died from natural causes. Okay?

Sometimes the voice sounds like famous women actors. I was almost convinced that it was Lucile Ball that I chatted with last night. But after hearing Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Goldie Hawn, and Oprah Winfrey in the same week you get jaded. Most of the time it’s just a female voice that I can’t attach a face too. Okay?

The voice has given me good…and bad advise. It’s about 50-50, I’d say. I have to admit it makes for some interesting scenarios. Seeing as you’re here right now I suppose I could share a couple of examples with you. Okay?

Look, I’m no ladies man. It’s hard for me to talk with strange women, or men to be fair. But the voice told me that I was going to score big time the next night if I went out to some gentlemen’s clubs. So, I went to a strip joint, doing research on the naked female body don’t you know, when one of the dancers finished her number and came over to my table. We talked and went to her place. Okay?

After a wild time, we both fell asleep on her waterbed. I woke up at one point, it was still dark, and the voice insisted I kill her. I’ll tell you flat out. That voice sure can be convincing. I went into her kitchen, found a plastic trash bag, and used it to smother her to death. No big deal. The voice gets a little crazy at times, but there were reasons. Okay?

I get lonely sometimes and miss the touch of a woman. Since my wife died, I’ve dated six women who all ended up like the stripper. It’s kinda discouraging not having a real relationship, but as the voice has pointed out so often…it’s no big deal. Okay?

So there’s your 50-50 example. I’m not a complex guy. You should know that. I accept the good with the bad. Usually, the voice just likes to talk about interesting things. I don’t have to say anything. The voice knows I can hear it. It’s good enough for a relationship based upon mutual boredom and something else I can’t quite put my finger on. Okay?

Lately, the voice has been on a violent streak. It’s hard to say why. There’s a lot of frustrations in this old world. I can relate to the pent-up fury that sometimes needs an outlet. It just makes sense to scratch that itch when it bothers you. It’s understandable. Okay?

During the day I find my own voice and try to engage with people as much as possible. I have the most encounters in coffee shops and waiting in lines. I enjoy talking with strangers. As a mailman, I have a set route every morning greeting the regulars who come out to get their mail. I lead a quiet life. Okay?

I like seeing the regulars at the coffee shop. It’s a little mom and pop café. Not one of those big impersonal chains like Starbucks. People of all ages gather there before getting on with their busy day. I know a couple by name. They call me Jack. Not by my real name. Going by Jack is more comfortable for a few reasons. Okay?

I really never know what to expect from the voice. You might say that’s fine, but sometimes we argue. I’m not saying it happens regularly. Slow down. I’m not some loon ready to go off the deep end here. Every now and then, the voice and I disagree. Haven’t you ever disagreed with someone? Get off of your high horse! Okay?

I’m not sure why I’m writing all of this down. The motivation came out of nowhere. I haven’t sat down and wrote anything since I filled out my job application for the Post Office ten years ago. This sudden desire to write is just a little bit odd. Okay?

I think I know what’s going on now.

Last night the voice came up with a whopper. It told me to get my AR-15 and go to my favorite coffee shop today and slaughter everyone there. So I did. The authorities quickly traced me back to my house and now it looks like an army outside. When that black armored truck that said S.W.A.T., pulled up on my front lawn I knew my time on earth was coming to an end. Okay?

I have nothing to apologize for. That’s why I wrote this. It’s crystal clear now. I won’t be hearing the voice any longer. That’s about it. It’s time to go outside and try to take as many of those cops down with me as possible! Okay?

As It Stands, insanity is invisible.

A Murder On Cloud Nine

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Listen to this story narrated by master storyteller Otis Jiry

“Looks like another sunny day on Cloud Nine folks!” the weatherman said while showing a hologram of the busy city at noon.

Since the gravity-defying technology of 2993, Earth’s cities were built high in the sky to avoid the widespread pollution on the planet’s surface. Only the poor, and cast-offs roamed earth’s filthy highways to nowhere.

The rest of the people lived in Clouded Communities that required vigorous vetting to join. Cloud Nine had the most exclusive lodging and the best food and drink in the United Association of Cloud Communities in America (UACCA). Only the super wealthy and well-connected could afford to live and do business there. There were no violent crimes or murders.

At last count, there were twenty-eight cloud communities in the northern hemisphere.

Cloud Twelve had white-collar workers who were employed by the city as computer techs, accountants, lawyers, and copyeditors at publishing firms. They exported their expertise to other UACCA communities in exchange for their goods.

With the New Science of the age people were able to breathe normally at 10,000 feet in the air. The protective shield around the city was a standard model used by nearly all of the other Clouded Communities.

Cloud Seven was known for being a haven for blue-collar workers who enjoyed assembling machines from Aero Cabs to elevators. The people worked hard on assembly lines during the day, and partied hearty at night watching air hockey games between the Clouded Communities pro teams. They enjoyed being a thriving export/import member of the UACCA.

Down on the ground.

Rogun resented being a cast-off. Going from the luxuries of Cloud Nine to the massively polluted world on the ground was hard. More worrisome however, was the fact that there were no laws on the ground. Roving bands of armed thugs fought one another in the crumbling cities.

Life was boiled down to its simplest element; survival in a hostile world.

He was here because he didn’t follow the rules on Cloud Nine. Now he lived where there were no rules. The irony wasn’t lost on Rogun who now lived for revenge. Physically, he was in the prime of his life at thirty-one years-old. He hoped it would be the difference in surviving while plotting his revenge.

He was sent to “the ground” without any weapons or clothing. It took a full day of patiently waiting in hiding before he was able to take care of his most immediate needs. He set up an ambush inside of an electric station building. It was still functional and there was a chance others knew this.

He found a three-foot long steel pipe to use as a weapon in a small storeroom. He heard voices before he saw the old aero car pull up outside by the charging tower. A man wearing black leather got out of the car when it stopped. He was about the same size as Rogun. Maybe a little heavier.

He watched the man hook up his vehicle and throw a switch. There was no charge for getting the charge. The station was still functioning after one-hundred years. An impressive achievement but not appreciated by Rogun who was circling around the building to get a good angle on the man.

He waited until the man walked a few steps away from his vehicle and was relieving himself, before he ran up behind him and hit him in the head with every ounce of his strength!

There was a sickening thud and the man fell face forward. Rogan watched his body twitch a couple of times before going limp. He quickly went about stripping the body and dressing himself. Feeling a little more confident he walked over to the vehicle. He checked the meter. It read FULL.

The aero car was so simple even a kid could drive one. Inside, Rogun found a laser rifle with a scope. He rustled around the back seat and found some food and water. Famished, he greedily stuffed down the stale bread and drank the cool water. Feeling refreshed, he pushed the start button and pointed the aero car north, the same direction it was heading before he hijacked it.

A day later.

When Rogun saw the city he grinned. It appeared to be thriving with numerous merchants selling goods on the streets. Most of the aero cars he saw were parked near a large casino with a flashing neon sign that proclaimed, “The Star Humper Casino.” He parked and watched people go in and out for a while.

One thing he noticed. Everyone was armed with rifles or hand guns. He checked his laser rifle out and decided to take the scope off. There would be no need of it up close. He rummaged around inside the car until he found a small bundle under the passenger’s side seat. It was the tender used by large organized gangs who took over cities.

He peeled off half of the little bundle and stuck the rest back under the seat. He pocketed the rest. It was time to meet and greet whoever was in charge of the street. He suspected he’d find who he was looking for in the penthouse suite of the casino.

No one seemed to notice him, with his rifle slung across his back, as he stepped into an elevator and hit TOP FLOOR. Surprisingly there were no guards there when the elevator opened and he stepped into the vast penthouse apartment.

He looked around and was surprised at how nice it was. It almost looked like something out of a Cloud Nine room. It even had its own bar. That’s where he saw a tall thin man wearing a golden jacket hold up a bottle in his direction.

“Irish whiskey? the stranger asked conversationally.

“Thank you, I will,” he answered.

“Straight up, or on the rocks?”

“Straight up.”

“And what shall we toast?”

“How about revenge?

“Ohhhh..” the stranger purred. “Tell me about it.

“I shouldn’t be down here. There’s a judge on Cloud Nine who was out to get me. I’d like to personally kill him with my bare hands.”

“But how will you get back on Cloud Nine to do it? You know that planes can’t get past that security shield without authorization.”

“There must be some way to get inside,” Rogan said.

“There might be. What would you say if I were able to get you inside to extract your vengeance?”

“I’d say, why would you help me? You’re a complete stranger, and I don’t see wings on your back.”

The stranger chuckled at the comment. “For good reason, sir,” he grinned.

I need a spy on Cloud Nine. Someone who will eventually help me, and my crew outside, gain access to that privileged community. You seem to fit the bill nicely.” 

“But how will you get me in?” Rogan wondered.

“There’s one product that those wealthy people still want from the ground. Bodies. Apparently they make some – forgive my pun – killer compost for their beloved flowers. We quit burying our dead decades ago because they just dug them up. Now we dump all the bodies at the end of town and they take them away and leave potable water in exchange.

“Are you suggesting I lay among those foul and stinking corpses?” he asked.

“Have you got a better idea?” the stranger challenged.

A day later.

“The two-man crew of the plane from Cloud Nine wore white biohazard suits as they tossed bodies into the rear cargo hold. One of them wheeled out a fifty-gallon plastic container with potable water. It was mind-numbing work, and the men went about their duties daydreaming they were somewhere else. Somehow, Rogun didn’t scream out in horror as the bodies were thrown onto him.

The plane had no trouble re-entering the safety shield. It landed on a runway next to a public warehouse where citizens could come by and get all the rotting flash they needed. When all the bodies were transferred to a waiting area, Rogan saw his chance to slip away when the crew left.

The assembly line was turned off. He cringed when he saw the meat grinders and the massive presses that pulped the bodies. When he left the warehouse, which was located on the east end of town, he walked into the city under cover of night. When he got to the center of town, where the hall of justice was located, he broke into a parked aero car and waited until sunlight.

Rogun woke up in the morning just as the streets were coming alive with traffic. He watched pedestrians walking into the Hall of Justice for a few minutes as he woke up. When he saw his target, Judge Lee, walking up the steps he got out of the car. The judge was getting into an elevator when he came into the large lobby. He watched the floors go by and the red light settle on the sixth floor.

Rogun pushed the DOWN button and waited.

He stepped out into a hallway and looked down the corridor at the signs above the doors. He opened the door that said Honorable Ralph H. Lee. The room had a receptionist’s desk and leather chairs lined up on one-side of the room.

There was no receptionist yet. Apparently it was too early. He opened the door behind the desk and stepped into the room. The judge was sitting behind his desk, reading some paperwork when Rogun entered. Their eyes met. Fear in one. Rage in the other. Then Rogun lunged across the desk and attacked the judge!

Afterwards, he drug the judge’s body into a closet and shut the door. He was looking out the window at the view when he heard a door open. A minute later the door to the judge’s office opened and the stranger with the gold jacket entered…smiling.

“Well, you did it,” he told Rogun. “Your murdering this man has opened the gates of hell to invade Cloud Nine!”

As It Stands, the devil always gets his due.