An Odd Encounter

landscape

“One at a time, one at a time.”

Gabriel beat his drum as he spoke, thumping a musical pace for those who passed by. There was a lively chatter of excitement as everyone shuffled forward, feeling the mounting tension of a deep breath before a plunge.

“One at a time, please. Thank you.”

The line seemed endless. Faces of every size and shape and color dotted the line, emerging from the white robes that covered them. It was a beautiful scene. There were clouds, certainly, but so much more than clouds. It was a funny thing that when people imagine heaven’s gates they think of nothing more than white, fluffy clouds and pleasant boredom. The truth couldn’t be more remote.

There was grass, for one thing, peppered with wildflowers and dotted with boulders. Two stags leaped and redounded, chasing one another and suddenly switching roles in what appeared to be a game of tag. They cut sharply through the line, causing a dashing young man to hop backwards with a startled laugh. Gabriel rolled his eyes.

“Sorry about that,” he called to the man. “Nori and Fifflebum get excited when a new group comes in.”

The man smiled, his thin mustache moving with his lip.

“Oh, they have names! How wonderful!”

Gabriel continued tapping and popping at his drum as one by one, new arrivals reached the base of the mountain, stepped upon a nimbus, and were whisked up the rolling slope toward the pearly gates. Gabriel raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, he has a name; of course he has one. Both of them. Is that strange to you?”

The young man stepped forward another place in line and laughed. He had an excited nervousness about him. Who could blame him? They all did.

“I guess it shouldn’t. People name pets and things back where we came from. Those deer- and those owls, and those lions- well, they just seem more human, if that makes any sense. More lifelike, at any rate.”

The stags crashed through a thicket of berry bushes, twisting and turning as Fifflebum pushed to catch up with Nori. They ran past a sleeping tiger- who was apparently not sleeping, for he leaped up and wrapped the animal in his great paws, bringing both of them to the ground. The handsome young man watching with Gabriel was taken aback for a moment, until he saw that the other stag was not worried. He ran up to his counterpart, tapped him with his hoof, and then he was off again. The tiger released his grip, rolling on the ground and making sounds that sounded not unlike laughter, mixed with more felinity.

“Is that tiger laughing?”

“Oh, yes,” Gabriel answered. Humans always asked the most adorable questions when they arrived. “The animals are a bit more alive here than they are on earth. It’s only fitting, because the same is true of you. How did so many of you come to arrive today, anyway?”

The young man rolled his eyes.

“Iceberg. We were all aboard a ship that was supposed to be indestructible.”

Gabriel chuckled.

“Well, the best laid plans.”

The young man laughed with him, almost up to the front of the line now.

“Will you answer a question for me, angel, sir?”

“It’s Gabriel. And I’ll do my best.”

The handsome young man held out his hands and looked at them.

“Gabriel, then, thank you. I can’t see my face, but I can see the rest of me. I don’t look a day over thirty-five; maybe even less!”

Gabriel began to nod knowingly as the beat went on, popping and ringing like a djimbe. He had heard this one countless times.

“Yes?” Gabriel encouraged him. He was only three people from the front now.

“This morning I was an old man. Eighty-one, if you can believe it. And furthermore, there were lots of us old folks aboard that ship, but there aren’t any old ones here.”

“‘Lay down your burdens and welcome in, Sorrow, sickness, pain and eld, Are not permitted, and won’t begin.’

“What was that?” the young man asked.

“Just a line from a poem. No one is old here. Time itself, actually, isn’t really much of a concept here. Its purpose has been fulfilled.”

Two people from the front now, where a nimbus would come and usher him into the shining gates of the heavenly city, the young man looked as though he was about to ask another question, when Gabriel’s attention was stolen elsewhere.

It was an angry one, that was for certain. Of course, this sort was always angry. Rage seemed to be their defining characteristic. Perhaps hopelessness defined them better, but this one was nearly steaming from the top of his bald, liver-spotted head. Gabriel continued playing his drum, but his attention caught the handsome young man’s attention, and together they both watched as the old one approached.

“I though no one was old here,” the young man started.

“You’ll see,” Gabriel answered him with a sigh.

The stalking, shaking, angry old man twitched as he made his way toward Gabriel and the new arrivals. He avoided proximity to the line with unabashed disgust, attempting to spit on those who waited, but never seeming to hit his mark. Most seemed not to notice him.

As he caught sight of Gabriel, with his eyes afire in rage and enmity, he continued his cursing and muttering, but his course was set for the angel. Gabriel sighed and lifted his eyes briefly heavenward- which was only a few thousand yards away.

“God, give me patience.”

“You!” the old man screamed, physically shaking his fist at Gabriel. He spit to the side and then, somehow, he managed to scrunch up his face even more than it had been previously. “You…”

“Excuse me,” a polite voice spoke up from behind the handsome young man. “It’s your turn.”

“Oh,” the young man exclaimed. He looked to the nimbus, then to Gabriel and the confrontational old man. “I’ll just be a minute, thank you. You can go on ahead.”

She smiled, and did just that, stepping on a nimbus with her arms outstretched. The wind played through her long, curling hair, and her squealing laughter echoed across the plane.

“Can I help you with something?” Gabriel said, clearly trying to be patient. It was not the easiest thing for him, apparently. The old man spit again.

“No, I don’t think you can. And if you could, I wouldn’t want you to, you piece of garbage!”

He swore colorfully for several seconds. The handsome young man leaned into Gabriel’s ear.

“He was with me on the boat. He was much younger, I think- if it’s even him. We became a sort of friends.”

“A lot of people who were on the boat aren’t in this line, I’m afraid.”

“You call that a paradise?” the old man shouted, pointing up to heaven with his broken, splintered cane. His hand bled from gripping it so. “You think I don’t know what it is up there? What you do to people?”

Gabriel sighed, shaking his head.

“Did you have a question, a request, or would you just like to yell?”

“I don’t have to take this!” the old man wheezed, shouting for all he was worth, though it clearly pained his old throat. “It isn’t justice, you know. Taking some and sending the others to Hell? Well there’s no paradise in exclusion, you know? I would know! I’ve studied philosophy for years and years and friggin’ years!”

“Oh have you?” Gabriel said, trying to avoid the conversation as much as possible.

The old man swore some more.

“You think you’re all so righteous, hogging all of the good stuff and leaving crap for the rest of us! You’re the evil ones, not us! Not us, but you…” He narrowed his eyes and leveled a pointing, shaking finger. “There is no paradise in exclusion.”

“Excuse me, sir?” another friendly voice piped up behind the handsome young man. “It’s your turn, I think.”

“You can go ahead of me,” he replied. Then, turning to Gabriel, he whispered. “What is this?”

Gabriel shook his head.

“Someone from Hell. Destined for it, anyway.”

“Oh, so I was destined for Hell?” the shaking old man railed. “Where is the justice in that? The game was stacked against me from the start; but I’ve got a surprise for you! What’s waiting for you up there is not beautiful or good- it’s all a lie! Hahaha, it’s all a lie, you fools. There is no paradise in exclusion. How could He send me to Hell? Is that love? No!”

Interrupting what was a rather emphatic, poisonous string of cursing, Gabriel spoke to the impassioned curmudgeon.

“Well, would you like to come in then?”

The old man spit.

“What, into heaven?”

Gabriel nodded soberly.

This quieted the railing octogenarian for a moment. He eyed the angel with suspicion.

“You lie to me for your own twisted amusement.” He spat the words with disdain.

“I do not,” Gabriel returned in a soft voice. “Take off your filthy rags, wash in the stream, and we will clothe you in a fine robe, like these. Your age will fall away, and you will be welcomed into the presence of God, to rejoice and live in fullness forevermore.”

“It’s going to be great!” the handsome young man assured him. “We’ll get to see Jesus!”

The old man scoffed, and then he coughed furiously, his eyes trying their best to murder the angel and the young man. Somehow, his hands were restrained, else they would have found themselves closed around the necks of those with whom he spoke.

“I don’t want to see God,” he growled. “And I certainly don’t want to see Jesus. You make me sick, you dirty thieves. Liars! Perverted distortioners! There is no heaven in exclusion, don’t you see, you fools?”

The handsome young man looked puzzled. Gabriel only blinked slowly.

“Would you like to come in, or wouldn’t you?”

“Come in!” the young man urged him.

The old man gestured rudely and shouted once more.

“I would rather rot in the hot darkness of Hell before I would set one foot in that abomination called heaven.” He began to curse, then, his voice occasionally rising as he turned and walked away, joining the masses of huddled souls pushing and shoving in the opposite direction as the line of heaven-goers. He eventually faded away, meshing into the wide road filled with men and women who screamed and looked more like fiends then people.

“Excuse me, sir?” another patient voice spoke up behind the handsome young man. “Your nimbus is here.”

“You can take it,” he replied. “I’ll get the next one.”

The handsome young man stood in silence a while, staring off as Gabriel continued playing his drum.

“Would you really have let him in?”

The angel nodded.

The handsome young man pondered some more.

“What happens when people like that take you up on the offer?”

“They never do.”

The young man raised his eyebrow.

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“And yet it’s true,” Gabriel sighed. “Anyone who wishes can enter into paradise, but the decision made on earth never deviates from the decision a person makes here. That man was heading for Hell his entire life, and he knew it. He wanted it. He won’t be happy there, of course. No one will. But it’s what he chose, anyway. That’s part of the reason he’s so angry.”

“But no one is that angry… I’ve never seen it.”

“They’re all like that, I’m afraid.”

“I’ve known many a pleasant man who didn’t have any faith.”

“I’m certain that you have, but ‘pleasant’ can’t withstand the strain of death. In this place, you humans become fully like yourselves- either a new creation, full of life, joy, vigor, worship, and goodness and youth- or a dead, old shell of a person. Angry, bitter, and full of sorrow and pain. More like a demon than a man.”

“So… was he right? Is there a paradise in exclusion?”

Gabriel shrugged.

“We may never know. You can ask God when you get up there. I think whether there is or not doesn’t really matter. There doesn’t need to be exclusion for people to sort themselves out.”

“He could come in, and he doesn’t?”

“That’s right.”

The handsome young man shook his head, letting go of the burden.

“That’s stupid. Can you argue with him? Get him to change his mind?”

“Oh, I’ve tried,” Gabriel replied. “Doesn’t do any good. Same decision on earth, same decision here.”

The handsome young man watched as the stags weaved through an outcropping of boulders, then collided, trumpeting in exultation. The birds sang as they swooped by, and the wind brought with it the scent of primroses. The lively, excited chatter, continued. Gabriel sighed, then gathered a smile for the handsome young man.

“Excuse me, sir,” a voice behind him began. “Your nimbus is here.”

The handsome young man glanced back, and sure enough, a personal little cloud sat at his feet, docked and ready to carry him into bliss.

“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

“I’ll see you up there,” Gabriel offered as the young man stepped onto the nimbus. He nodded at the angel.

And then, as the cloud began to move and the wind caressed the smooth contours of his youthful face, a wide smile, greater than any he had grinned before, began to spread across his face.

How could it not? He was about to see God.

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Not If, But When

whiskey

 

“Jeremy!”

“Hello, Mr. Wallace.”

Jeremy swallowed hard, glancing up at the tall, gray-haired man in front of him. Mr. Wallace wore a tweed suit and an Armani smile, but what was it that Jenny had said? He starts out nice, then he turns vicious. That was what she said.
Great.

Mr. Wallace turned and shouted up the stairs.

“Jenifer! Your suitor is here.”

Jenny’s voice came back muffled.

“Daddy, I told you not to call him that.”

Mr. Wallace turned back at Jeremy with a warm grin and he gave a slight shrug of his shoulders.

“Kids, huh?”

Jeremy raised his eyebrows and nodded. Forget the fact that he was the same age as Jenny. Actually, she was a month older.

“Come on in, son.”

Mr. Wallace led the way, and Jeremy thanked him as he walked inside.

The entryway was beautiful. A tasteful weave lay beneath their feet, and an artful chandelier hung above, drawing the eyes up the spiral stairway, where Jenny’s head appeared for a moment. Her hair was pulled back and she frowned.

“Daddy, be nice to him!”

She smiled then- a real, genuine smile. A smile you could believe in.

“I’ll be down in a minute, Jer.”

Jeremy couldn’t help his heart fluttering a beat as they locked eyes before she vanished. She was way out of his league. She always said the same thing about him. That was what he called an ideal situation.

The fact that he had never seen the inside of his girlfriend’s house in the year and a half they had dated, for the simple reason that she didn’t want him to meet her father, was not.

The things we do for love.

Jeremy was still looking around at the décor when a large, Scottish hand landed on his shoulder, almost making him stumble forward a step.

“Come on, Jeremy! I’ll give you the walking tour.”

The way he said it made it sound like “Walken,” like Christopher Walken, and the thought of the old actor leading him around the house, pointing things out in a New York accent like, “Hey, and over there are some ferns. I do not like the ferns, but the, uh… the manangement. See, they say, “hey, you’ve got to keep the ferns.” Stupid-’ and then a New York blue streak. Jeremy had a vivid imagination, and the mental image made him chuckle.

“Something funny, son?”

Jeremy snapped his head up, suddenly mortified.

“No! No sir, not at all. I don’t think it even makes sense for Christopher Walken to be in here.”

What?

Mr. Wallace raised an eyebrow. Jeremy panicked inwardly. He laughed nervously.

“No, that came out funny. I mean, why would he live here? It’s your house, not some random movie star’s.”

Mr. Wallace frowned.

“You don’t like my house, Jeremy?”

“No! No, I do. It’s very nice.”

Mr. Wallace gave Jeremy a funny look, then continued walking. Jeremy had a vivid imagination. He could see entire scenes as soon as he thought of an idea. He had a vivid imagination, and a bad way of expressing himself. Not a great combination for dinner with the parents.

“Margery! Come meet our daughter’s suitor.”

They headed toward the kitchen, where an older, duller version of Jenny stood, wiping her hands on her apron. She had the same twinkle in her eye as her daughter, and she greeted Jeremy warmly, making him relax a bit.

“Such a pleasure to finally meet you Jeremy. Jenny says such good things.”

“When you can wrangle them out of her!”

Mrs. Wallace gave her husband a look. He seemed immune.

“Margery, according to Jeremy here we need to get a new house. Ours isn’t good enough. He seems to think it’s some sort of a dump.”

“No! No, I never- I don’t think that at all. I wish that I could-”

“That’s enough out of the chatterbox. Come on, Jeremy, I’ll show you the den.”

They left Mrs. Wallace in the kitchen with a confused expression on her face, Jeremy with a horrified one. What else had Jenny said? Jeremy could see her in front of him, right outside of the Monday/Wednesday lecture they had together. The image was crystal clear in his mind as she said, “He has this way of bringing out the worst in people. Don’t let him get to you. Not if it goes badly, but when,” she sighed. “I’ll still love you, okay? Even if the house burns down. Then we never have to go over for anything other than Christmas.”

A warning like that sure puts a guy at ease.

“Have a seat, Jeremy.”

The den was very nice- and if there was one thing Jeremy appreciated it was a good piece of furniture. The couch was plush, covered in real leather, and the cushions had fine impressions of artful designs on the surface. It was cool in the room, and it made him feel a little better. He could hang out with dad for a few minutes, and then he’d have Jenny around to help him out if he stuck his foot in his mouth. The couch received him like a body of water, enveloping him in comfort. All discomfort was banished in such a fine sofa.

“Mind if I call you Steve?”

The discomfort was back.

“What?”

“Steve.” Mr. Wallace repeated the word like it was a natural thing to ask. “I don’t like the name Jeremy so much; mind if I call you Steve instead?”

Jeremy fidgeted in his seat a bit. Suddenly the beautiful, perfect piece of upholstery was a medieval torture device.

“Well, that’s not my name, and I was named Jeremy for a pretty specific and neat reason, so yes. I do mind. I could tell you the back story if you-”

Mr. Wallace sank down heavily into the couch disconcertingly close to Jeremy, and he let his arm flop across Jeremy’s shoulders.

“Whew, that’s a relief, Steve, thank you. It’s a much more sensible name, Steve. I’ll tell Jenifer that you prefer it.”

“No, please don’t.”

It was like he wasn’t even there.

“Say, you a drinking man, Steve?”

Jeremy glanced at the Scotsman’s ruddy face, only an inch or so to his left.

“Well, actually, no. I prefer to avoid it for a lot of reasons. When I was a kid, my neighbor’s-”

Mr. Wallace leaped up from the couch and crossed the room, opening a cabinet covered with etched glass in the likeness of a brown bear.

“That’s what I like to hear, son! A man does a few things, and drinking good, strong liquor is one of them. You take your whiskey neat, Steve?”

“I still would prefer not to. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of-”

“Quit jerking me around, Steve. Ice or no ice?”

Jeremy put his hands out diplomatically.

“Okay, if I had to drink, which I’d really rather not do, I suppose with ice, because it would dilute it some, but I’m very firm on-”

“Neat! That’s a man’s choice, Steve, I’m proud to know you. No ice it is. Straight up.”

Mr. Wallace returned to the couch and crashed into it heavily again, now holding two tumblers and a fifth of highland malt whiskey. He set the tumblers on the coffee table before them and opened the bottle.

“Say when.”

Right away, Jeremy said when. Mr. Wallace kept on pouring.

“When. When. When! That’s good. When. When!”

Mr. Wallace chuckled.

“Well, you can’t accuse me of being heavy handed, Jeremy. It’s your own dang fault if your eyes end up being bigger than your stomach. Of course, you know it’s a fighting offense to accept whiskey from a man, then disdain to finish it.”

The glass was full. Not mostly full, not halfway full. It was up to the brim. Jeremy stole a glance at the bottle. 90 proof.

Mr. Wallace handed the glass to Jeremy, and poured himself a more reasonable dose. He clinked the glasses together and forced the tumbler into his hand.

“Bottoms up, son.”

Jeremy did the calculations in his head. He was not a large man. He was six feet tall, a hundred and forty pounds, and since he didn’t drink he had about a zero tolerance for the liquor. A full glass would either kill him or put him under the table. Or he’d die under the table. He could see exactly how his corpse would look in his mind.

“I’d really rather not, sir. I have a…”

Mr. Wallace’s expression turned sour as he removed his glass from his lips.

“Are you refusing a man’s gracious hospitality, son?”

This was the most frightening sentence Jeremy had ever heard. He looked away from Jenny’s father for a moment, then glanced at the overflowing glass of brown death in his hand. How could such an angel like Jenny come from this man?

He sighed and brought the liquid to his lips. Mr. Wallace tipped the glass as he did, and instead of an easy sip, he ended up downing a mouthful.

“Spit one drop of that stuff on my floor, my couch, or on yourself, and I’ll have your head. This whiskey’s gold.”

Somehow, Jeremy managed to swallow. He felt like he had been struck in the face with a baseball bat, then like someone was pushing in on his ears from both sides. He coughed, and some whiskey went up into his nose.

“There you are, Steve.  Now tell me about your plans for my daughter.”

Jeremy wasn’t sure if the big man was actually crazy or just pretending, but it was an impressive display of bullying, coercion, selective hearing, and outright dominance either way. In the five minutes it took for Jenny and dinner to get ready, he had managed to get him to drink the entire glass of whiskey. He was chewing on an after dinner mint and drilling him with questions that made his head spin when Jenny and her mother mercifully came in to fetch them for dinner. The whiskey and the glasses were mercifully already gone. Mr. Wallace had stowed them a minute before.

Jeremy wasn’t sure how he got to his feet, but he managed somehow. His head was swimming already, and he knew the stuff had barely begun its effect. Already he had only just stopped himself from trying to describe the bizarre scenes that went on in his head. He would have sounded ridiculous doing so sober, and sober he was not.

Jenny smiled at him, and her father put a big arm around his shoulders as they walked into the dining room.

“Jeremy.” So he was back to calling him Jeremy now. “Jeremy, son, you remind me a lot of myself.”

Mrs. Wallace turned around and grinned.

“What a nice thing to say.”

Jeremy’s heart warmed a bit at this- though that may have just been the whiskey. Maybe Mr. Wallace was just a bit of an odd character, but with a heart of gold that would accept anyone who partook with him in the things he loved. Mr. Wallace leaned into his ear and whispered, however, making Jeremy forsake this thought.

“All of the things I hate about myself, that is.”

The color drained from Jeremy’s blushing face. He was glad for Mr. Wallace’s arm around him now, because he was afraid he couldn’t keep his feet alone.

Jenny had said that no matter how much of a disaster tonight was, she would still love him. Not if it went wrong, but when.

Mr. Wallace sniffed at the air as they reached the table and adopted a quizzical expression.

“Jeremy,” he said loudly, incredulously. “Have you been drinking?”

He really hoped Jenny was telling the truth.

 

 

Still Here

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“I’m not a miss. I’m not a shot of potential and a glass of failure. I’m still here, ain’t I?”

Marquez tilted his head and shaved a bit of hair off of Jamie’s chine. The machete was sharp.

“I don’t think that’s the best idea to push on us, vato. You got some people angry. We invested in you.”

Jamie pulled at the zip ties that held him fast to the concrete pillar. Abandoned parking garages were the worst place for this sort of thing. You could practically feel all of the bodies stashed around.

“Then it’d be a big waste to off your investment, don’t you think, Marky? Come on, let me talk to Jefe.”

Marquez leaned back and scratched his chest with the butt of his blade. Flies buzzed around, even in the shade. They were attracted to the sweat.

“I don’t know, guero. He’s pretty busy.”

“He’ll want to talk to me.”

Oye! Ya estan terminado con el hoyo?” Marquez had turned and was yelling to his partners. They raised their shovels and shouted back from the sun-baked earth outside of the protective shade of the dusty parking structure.

Casi ya!

They were just about finished with the grave. Great.

Marquez turned back to Jamie.

“Yeah, I think he won’t want to talk to you, seeing as how you’re a dead man. Dead men is scary, vato. He don’t want to talk to you.”

“Look… I may know something about the diamonds.”

That got his attention. One eyebrow rose.

Esta lista!

Marquez looked over his shoulder and shouted back to his associates.

Espera un momento!

He looked back to Jamie.

“Then why didn’t you turn them in, estupido? At the end of the job like you said?”

Jamie avoided his gaze. His reply was cut off as Marquez continued speaking, jabbing his machete toward his chest.

“You said that the protection showed up and you couldn’t get the diamonds out of the compound. You said you dropped them.”

“I may have dropped them off instead of just dropping them. They’re in a safe place.”

“Where?”

“Not far.”

Marquez looked left, then right. He folded his arms, the machete sticking menacingly out of one side. He stared at Jamie; Jamie stared at him.

“Just take me to Jefe- I can straighten this all out.”

“That was a lot of diamonds, my friend, but Jefe is no puppy mutt criminal, vato. He has experience. He’d rather have fear and trustworthy men than a big score. I take you to him, he slit your throat himself.”

Great. The “stash the stolen goods” part had gone beautifully. The “get away from the cartel that wants to kill you” part, not so much.

“Where are they?” Marquez asked, letting his head roll around like he wasn’t interested, but his eyes betrayed him.

“Close. I told you already.”

“Tell me where they are.”

“So I can make you happy before I die? No thanks.”

Marquez glanced over his shoulder again. His assistants were starting to wonder what the holdup was. Marquez took a step closer to Jamie, his blade raised.

“That’s a shame, vato. I really like to be happy.”

Jamie watched as the blade fell. And his arms were suddenly free. Marquez stooped down and cut away the zip ties from his feet as well.

“I also like to be rich,” he said under his breath. He glanced up at Jamie with an understanding in his eye. There was a tacit accord between them.

Amigos! Yo voy al otro lugar para matarle. Aqui alguien quizas oyera sus gritos. Regresare.

Marquez took Jamie roughly by the crook of his arm, keeping the machete at his throat.

“We’re going to get into the truck, and you will tell me where we go. If you do something stupid, I kill you. Ok?”

“Whatever you say, Marky.”

“Good.”

The walk to the beat up truck was a tense one. Jamie marveled at their vehicle when they finally reached it. For as much money as these guys had, he would have thought they might drive nicer cars. Not on the job, he thought, realizing why. Nice cars were conspicuous. When you drive into the desert to kill somebody, you take the beater.

“Get in.”

Jamie did as he was told. The car door slammed, and the dirt and sand flew up into the air, making Jamie cough. The driver’s side door opened, and Marquez slid in, sheathing his machete.

“Let me see your hands.”

“Why would you want to-”

Tus manos, tonto! Give me your hands!”

Jamie did as he was told. A pair of handcuffs clicked into place around both hands, snaked through a handle on the dash.

“Thanks. These feel great.”

“Just be happy you can feel at all, guero. Your life is in a delicate place, I think. Everyone wants you to die.”

“But not you.”

Marquez hit the gas and the truck tore out onto the dusty, abandoned road, putting new tracks in the sand. He smiled.

“I want you to give me the diamonds. After that, no me importa.”

“Your compassion is touching.” Jamie fidgeted with his cuffs. They were fixed tightly, and the handle they went around was surprisingly strong. Jimmying free did not seem to be an option. “Turn left here.”

It was a quiet ride, just dust, occasional directions, and the beating, blistering heat. As they neared a cave, Jamie sat up suddenly.

“Stop here.”

Marquez gave him a glance, then braked. He shut off the truck.

“The diamonds are here?”

“In that cave there. You walk in about thirty feet, then look around for a stack of three rocks. It’ll be on your left. The diamonds are buried underneath that, only about six inches down.”

Marquez repeated the instructions to himself, then nodded. He opened his door and started to get out.

“Hey!” Jamie said, holding up his cuffed wrists as best as he could. “Aren’t you going to uncuff me?”

Marquez smirked.

“What for? I know where they are now, yes? What do I need you for?”

Marquez slid his machete out of its sheath as he cautiously approached the cave’s entrance. Jamie shouted after him.

“You took me out here to kill me, then? Right after you nabbed the goods?”

Marquez disappeared into the blackness, but his voice carried out.

Si, vato! Que otro? Estupido…”

Then, there was a gunshot, and the sound of a body hitting the ground. Jamie leaned back in his chair. A second later, a dark-skinned, slick-haired hombre in a bulletproof vest and shades stepped out of the cave, heading toward the truck. The vest had the letters “FBI” printed across the front.

“Hey, thanks, Carlos,” Jamie said, sitting up again.

“Don’t mention it. That clown pulled a freakin’ machete on me.”

Carlos took Jamie’s hands and rotated them, trying to see what kind of cuffs held him. He kept talking.

“We thought you were a miss. A shot of potential with your first assignment, and then a big ol’ tumbler full of failure.”

Jamie smirked.

“I’m still here, ain’t I?”

I’m From the Future

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Chris clenched his eyes shut and held his fist against his lips, trying to keep the laughter from busting out of him. His body shook with the effort.

“Shh! Come on, shut up. He’s coming.”

Brady socked Chris in the arm, distracting himself from his own urge to laugh. It was a good plan. This was going to be classic.

Chris fell backwards onto his back, still chuckling. His face was red as Brady prepped the living room. He set the pillows straight, smoothed out his shirt, and sat down uprightly as the footsteps approaching the door grew louder.

“Ah, B, I don’t think I can do this,” Chris managed to utter between spasms of stifled laughs. He was shaking his head as he started to rise. Brady could hear Jimmy’s feet on the front doorstep now. There was no time to waste.

Brady glanced around the darkened room quickly, ensuring that nothing was amiss. He smiled roguishly.

Chris grew suddenly alarmed as he heard the jingling of keys at the door, and Brady mouthed urgent orders for him to get up on the couch and pull himself together. The lock clicked open. The door started to creak inward, spilling luminescence in from the porch light beyond. Chris and Brady silently argued with each other, hurrying to get into place, then suddenly they both froze into their positions on the sofa, looking towards the door.

A thin framed, wire-rimmed glasses-wearing teenager shuffled into the entryway balancing several brown paper bags filled with groceries. He turned back towards the door, not seeing Brady and Chris- who had finally succeeded in pulling it together. This was going to be too good.

As the newcomer turned the lock and shut the door, he turned back toward Brady and Chris, still not seeing them in the darkness. The tension was almost too much for the two of them to bear; only the promise of a good joke kept them in a serious disposition.

The lights flipped on. A startled yelp filled the house. The groceries fell to the floor.

“Hello, Jimmy,” Brady said in a grave, almost exasperated voice.

“Hey, Jimmy,” Chris added with a nod.

The thin teenager had backed into the wall with his arms out, but now, seeing who the intruders were, he clenched his eyes shut and softly banged his head against the wall.

“For crying out loud, guys… What in the world are you doing in my house?”

Brady saw that old, ‘I’m going to make a joke about your mom’ look in Chris’ eye, so he gave him a sharp yet invisible elbow, and Chris remembered the character he had to play.

“A necessity, I’m afraid. It’s been so long,” Brady said, sincerity in his eyes. Chris leaned forward and pensively rubbed his hands together. He was in character now.

“What the heck are you talking about, Brady? I saw you in chemistry fourth period today. And again, why did you break into my house?”

Jimmy bent over and started picking up the groceries. No eggs, from the looks of it, so Brady didn’t feel bad. Not that he would have anyway. This was going to be too good.

“Forget the nourishments, Jimmy, and have a seat. You’re… well, you’re going to want to sit down to hear this, I’m afraid.”

“Come into my house,” Jimmy started muttering, “tell me what to do with groceries I bought for my-”

“PUT THE FREAKIN’ BAGS DOWN, JIMMY!” Chris shouted, rising to his feet. Jimmy stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned to look at his classmates. All the grumbling had gone out of him, it seemed. Brady beamed inwardly. Chris was a convincing actor when he wanted to be. He really looked like he was in a state of urgency.

“Just have a seat, Jimmy. It’s important.”

Cautiously, Jimmy stepped to an over-sized easy chair and sank into it. He held one eyebrow raised as he regarded the intruders. Chris shook his head, covering his forehead with his hand as he took a seat once again.

“You don’t have to yell…” Jimmy began.

“I know,” Chris said quieter, deliberately avoiding eye contact. “I’m sorry, it’s just- there’s just no time for screwing around. This is more important than you could ever imagine.”

“What is this all about?” Jimmy asked, craning his neck backwards, as if repulsed by the strangeness before him. Brady sighed and clasped his hands together.

“We’re from the future, Jimmy.”

Jimmy’s raised eyebrow drew up even higher. Chris nodded in agreement.

“Are you high?” Jimmy asked.

Chris scoffed and shifted in his seat.

“I wish I was. Then I could forget about all this crap. Freakin’ giant robots with their laser eyes destroying everything that was once good and beautiful. People who run around-”

“Christopher!” Brady cut him off. “We have to give him some context. It has to be shocking for him.”

“If this is you guys’ idea of a joke, I’d appreciate-”

“We’re from thirty years in the future, Jimmy, and you’re going to shut up and listen to us.” Brady stood up suddenly and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m tired, and I’ve travelled a long way and a long time to get here. We knew going in that it was a long shot and that you probably wouldn’t believe us, but we had to try. We have to try. For humanity’s sake. We remembered all of those books and comics on time travel you used to read, so we thought maybe you’d realize that this is for real.”

Jimmy had sunk lower into the large chair now, his legs extended too far in front of him and a disgusted, confused look on his face.

“It’s just for fun.”

“Time travel is not fun,” Chris said gravely, looking straight at Jimmy with wide eyes.

“It isn’t,” Brady agreed, “but you have to believe us, because the future of mankind depends on you.”

It was quiet, then. Brady and Chris looked to Jimmy with imploring eyes. Only the tic-tic-tic of the mantle clock made any sound.

Jimmy appeared to debate with himself.

“Why should I believe you?” he finally said softly.

“Jimmy, in twenty-five years you are going to have a breakthrough. See, you work for the company that Christopher and I own, and your research into biomechanical artificial intelligence fields got just a little too good. We saw a business opportunity and started building robots to help people-”

“Model C-7 fifteens,” Chris added.

“Yeah, C-7 fifteens,” Brady agreed. “Everybody bought one. It was like having your own little personal assistant who didn’t get tired, didn’t need to eat. It was great. But then,” Brady’s eyes narrowed and he gesticulated wildly with his hands, “they started getting self-aware. We built them too dang smart…”

“Ok, stop, guys,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. His head was nearly level with his torso now, the way he was slouching. “That’s the plot to Terminator. Or I Robot or something.”

Chris’ jaw steeled and he frowned.

“That’s what we call one ironic piece of-”

“Oh, very clever!” Brady declared loudly, throwing his hands in the air. He looked angry. “You think you’re the first one to notice that very embarrassing fact? That our own storytellers had warned us about this since the twentieth century, but we didn’t listen? No, it’s real- and all life on the planet is almost wiped out now.”

“Almost wiped out?” Jimmy asked, sitting up a bit.

“There’s a small remnant left,” Chris answered. “But not much. You died already.”

Jimmy swallowed hard, unable to hide his reaction.

“It’s too late in the future, Jimmy, the machines are too strong. But here!” Brady clenched his fist and stepped toward the gangly teen. “Here, there is still something the three of us can do to make sure that when this war comes, the humans come out on top.”

“Are… are you guys going to hurt me?”

Chris looked away sharply. That one almost made him break character. As it was, a snort still escaped from him, but Brady kept it together.

“No, we’re not going to kill you so that you never make the invention. I see where your head is at. Somebody else was bound to if not you, and there’s no telling what kind of chaos we’d create by killing somebody in the past. It has been discussed, but no.”

Chris looked back now, rising to his feet and stepping nearer to Jimmy, who was turning his head as he scooted back in the chair, trying to sit up. Skepticism started to wash away.

“We only have one real shot at this, Jimmy,” Brady began. Chris fell to his knees in front of Jimmy, and Brady joined him. “There’s only one way for humanity to survive.” Brady held his trembling, folded hands before him. “Will you help us? Will you save humanity?”

Jimmy looked uncomfortable, but grave. He was shaking. He looked from Chris to Brady as they kneeled like supplicants before him. It was still for several tense moments, and then, his puberty-ridden voice squeaked out a response.

“What do I have to do?”

“PPPBBTTH!!!”

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

The dam had burst, the mission had succeeded. Chris and Brady howled with laughter, rolling on the floor and slapping the ground in delight.

“I told you,” Brady shouted between breaths and guffaws. “I told you he’d believe us.”

“I’m from the future!” Chris declared in a mocking voice.

“Oh, man… oh, this is the best. This is the best freakin’-”

The boys were cut off by the sound of the doorbell. Still laughing, they glanced to the door, and the handle started to turn. The door gently eased open and a man stepped inside, a stern look on his face. He was tall and well-built, and he looked a little bit like Jimmy.

Brady hit Chris in the stomach.

“You said Jimmy lives with his mom!”

“That isn’t my dad…” Jimmy interrupted.

Terror instantly replaced the mirth in the boys as they realized a strange man had just entered the house, and they were alone.

The tall, good-looking intruder glanced down at the fallen groceries and shook his head. He glanced about briefly like he was taking it all in deeply. Then, looking toward the group of boys as if he had momentarily forgotten about them, he descended the small step that led into the sitting area.

“So many memories…” he said wistfully. He shook his head as all of the boys watched, frozen. He cleared his throat, then spoke again. “James,” he said, nodding respectfully at Jimmy. “Just a quick message for you. You grow up to be wealthier than these losers ever dream of. You have a smoking hot wife and a mansion in the Hamptons. This one weighs four hundred pounds, last I checked,” he said, pointing down at the currently very athletic Chris, “and this one can’t seem to hold a job longer than a few weeks, and he’s got some sort of bowel condition too.” The middle-aged man smiled, then, a winning, charming smile. “You boys were right about one thing, though. I do end up inventing something pretty important. It just isn’t robots.”

Hardly believing their eyes, Chris and Brady glanced at one another, scared out of their wits.

“You boys may want to run,” the man said, glancing at his watch. “Chris, your mother is about to come home early and see that you aren’t babysitting like you promised, and Brady- well, I’m not even going to tell you what’s waiting for you at home, but it isn’t pretty, and you better get there before things get worse.”

Nobody moved. Brady’s knees were visibly shaking.

“Did you hear me?” the man demanded. “Go!”

Bumping into each other and staying as far from the well-dressed epiphany as possible, Brady and Chris tore out of Jimmy’s house like a pair of rockets. The man watched them go, shaking his head. Jimmy remained seated in his chair.

“They sure can run, I’ll give that to them though,” the man said.

Jimmy slowly rose from his chair. He inched toward the messenger. Then, glancing upward, he nodded.

“So you heard them talking at school?” the man asked. Jimmy nodded again. The man glanced out the door again, straining to see if he could still catch a sight of them. “I tell you what, if you’re going to bother planning something, you should keep your big mouth shut when somebody might hear you.” Jimmy nodded again.

“Thanks, Uncle Stephen.”

Uncle Stephen reached down and tussled Jimmy’s hair. He’d get his growth spurt soon, he was sure.

“You’re welcome, sport.”

They looked at each other approvingly for a moment.

And then they laughed. They laughed good, hard, and long.

“Who falls for that?” Jimmy asked amidst rolling fits of laughter. He wiped away the mirth from his eyes and held his hands out in pantomime. “I’m from the future!”

What is Coming, and What is Here Already

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“You keep quiet!”

I hit the concrete like a marble hitting glass. Everything hurt. There was a squeak of rusted metal as the iron bars clamped shut and more shouting, this time in an unintelligible tongue. Unintelligible to me, at least.

Such is life in a Japanese prison camp, in the midst of the greatest and most terrible war this world has ever seen.

“Hey! You look here!”

The guard proceeded to untie his pants and urinate on me. It was depressing, and disgusting of course, but I lacked either the strength or the will to move. Probably both. The warm, unwelcome liquid finally quit flowing, and the guard took a walk, laughing to himself all of the way. I didn’t even bother looking up. All I felt was the cold, damp floor beneath me, the warm, damp clothes on my back, and the ache in my flesh. The piss started to soak through my threadbare shirt and get into the lacerations on my shoulders, which made me curl up unconsciously and wince at the horrible, shameful pain.

It wasn’t until I felt someone touch me that I opened my eyes.

He had removed his shirt from his own back and was using it to wipe at the open sores on mine, trying to get the foreign contaminant as dry as possible. He seemed old, but you could never really tell in this place. When a man gets down to about eighty-five pounds, he’s nothing but skin and protruding bones- more skeleton than man. It’s almost impossible to discern age, because everyone looks like they’re already dead. He worked quietly, in an unassuming way. It hurt, what he was doing, but I knew it might prove helpful. As helpful as anything could, at least. A sudden spasm of the terrible cough I’d picked up wracked my body, and the skeleton of a man looked down at me with compassion in his eyes. That was something I’d not seen in quite a while.

“I’m sorry that I’ve already drank my water for the day,” the man said softly. “It would have been better to clean you with, but this will have to do until we get some more.”

He went back to his work, then. The soft scraping of the fabric against my skin was the only sound. I watched him as he completed his task. He had a big nose and his hair was dark, so he couldn’t have been too old. A couple of grays here and there.

He rose to his feet, squinting in pain and supporting his knee with his bandaged hand. He groaned, then shook his head and feebly walked to the corner of the small cell, only two steps away.

“They must have made a mistake,” he wheezed, breathing heavily as he sank back down to the floor. The small amount of effort it took to reach me and scrub at my skin for a minute had exhausted him. Still, I felt that he had more stamina than I. I was fairly certain I could not stand. Starvation has a funny way of taking the fight out of you.

“They don’t usually put prisoners together here,” he continued. The corner of his withered lips inched upward into what almost resembled a smile. “They must not have seen me, or thought me to be already dead!” He chuckled quietly to himself. I did not share his amusement.

“You’re British,” I said, hearing the Queen’s English in his accent. He nodded.

“How the Hell’d you get over here?”

The prisoner reached a trembling hand up to his nose and winked.

“That’s a rather long story,” he said. “But suffice it to say, you Americans are not the only ones fighting in the colonies.”

With effort and a lot of pain, I slid up the wall a little ways so that I could prop myself against it. I gritted my teeth against the sensation.

“How do you know I’m American?”

He pointed at my arm, where a tattoo of Old Glory rested in the folds of extra skin. I suppose that was as good an indicator as any.

The man across from me looked upwards and tilted his head toward the wall.

“It must be a lovely day outside.”

I glanced around. There was no window in the whole of the prison as far as I could tell. I looked at him like he had lost it. He probably had.

The man chuckled.

“I’m sorry- an odd observation in a dark room, I suppose. The air feels lighter today. I guess that it might be a sign of a clear day beyond these walls.”

“The air smells like vomit, rotting flesh, and the stink of these Japs holding us here,” I said. He just sort of avoided my eyes after I said it, like he was embarrassed or something. I couldn’t imagine why. I motioned to the wall with my head, and I immediately regretted the exertion. I tried to say my piece regardless. “The only lovely day I’m looking for is the one where American B-17’s, B-22’s, and whatever the Hell else we’ve got show up to get us out of this place.” I took as deep a breath as I could manage. Speaking felt like choking. “I heard their engines passing over a couple days ago.”

The man nodded solemnly.

“That will be a lovely day, indeed. God be praised for it.”

I narrowed my eyes at my new cellmate.

“What are you, some kind of a chaplain?”

I asked my question and there it was again- a smile. Right there on his face, in the middle of the bowels of wherever the heck we were, was an honest-to-goodness grin.

“I suppose I am. After all, with only me in the cell, I have nearly been press ganged into the position. Who else would have done it for me?” He chuckled then and leaned his head back. He seemed truly amused. “Of course, with your arrival, I suppose that we will have to find a civilized manner of election. When I was alone here, I ran uncontested for whatever duties I wished.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“You can keep the job, thanks.”

He shrugged.

“I’ll treasure it. My name is Peter.”

“John.”

“My, but we have Biblical namesakes.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Delightful.”

I couldn’t handle it any longer, the man was clearly insane, even if he didn’t exactly act like it. He had a strange way about him. It was a different sort of bearing than I had ever seen.

“What the Hell is wrong with you?” I demanded. The growing smile began to fade from his lips. “What reason in the world do you have for smiling? Have you seen what they do to people here? Haven’t you seen the guards make your buddy kill your other buddy because they threatened to kill the whole row if he didn’t? What the Hell reason do you have to smile?”

The man looked like he had been taken aback by what I said, as if I had somehow offended his British sensibilities. There was no place for sensibilities here, only anguish and thoughts of revenge.

“I apologize if I have upset you,” he began in his telling accent. “I only thought that today has been an exceptionally good day, and so my natural response is to grin.”

“A good day?” I wheezed. I laughed a dry and bitter guffaw before coughing again. He raised his chin and looked at me confidently.

“Yes,” he affirmed. “I now have a cellmate, something I never thought to have again. I was beginning to doubt if I would ever get the opportunity to again converse with a living person who speaks English, and here you are. I woke up this morning, and now I have you here as well. These are good things.”

“Buddy, they don’t have good things in here. Good things are only coming if we manage to live long enough for the bombing squads to blast this place to smithereens and get us out. Smile if you want to be an optimist about what’s coming. Me, I gave up the optimists’ approach long ago. But those bombers, they’re coming. I heard ‘em a couple of times. Their engines are real loud.”

Peter scratched his nose and looked off for a moment as he thoughtfully replied. I was resting up from doing so much dang talking. The smell of the cell and my own filthy skin made me want to vomit. I always wanted to vomit in this place.

“Do you do addition, John?” Peter asked calmly.

“Addition?” I whispered. Conversing with a looney tune like this one could be a confusing experience, I thought.

“Two plus two is four, three plus five is eight; that sort of thing.”

“Yeah I do addition. What’s wrong with you?”

He paid my comment no mind.

“When you were a school lad, did your instructor lay a multivariable calculus equation on the desk before you, citing several proofs and theorems connecting space and time from the work of Einstein and Newton and the like? Pages and pages of complexity?”

I raised my eyebrow again.

“Of course not. I started with two and two is four, just like everybody else.”

“So you did,” the prisoner continued. He scratched at his torso absent-mindedly, and I saw his shirt rise as he moved. His flesh was so bitten up by fleas and roaches, and who knows what else, that it hardly even looked like skin any more. “You were presented with something simple first, so that you would get the way of it. No distractions, just one concept. And from there you learn. Maybe, one day if you chose to study higher mathematics, your training to solve simple equations would help you, because you could break down the complexity of calculus into something manageable. You could see the math in it through the muddle, because you’d been trained in simplicity.”

I coughed again, then, and the Brit waited patiently for the fit to subside before he spoke again.

“It is the same with us here. I think that God sometimes allows us to experience lows in life to show us one concept, with no distractions. Here, in the depths of this dungeon and suffering, I have nothing but myself and God. In the absence of distraction, I have learned that this is all that I need. My needs are fulfilled, I am alive, and I am thankful. This is good.”

“What’s that got to do with calculus?” I asked him. He was almost making sense, even if I didn’t buy it. Cleverest lunatic I ever met. His eyes were calm as he focused them on me.

“In the simplicity of having nothing, in realizing that God is all I have need for, now I am equipped to see good elsewhere as well. This morning my few sips of water were cooler than usual. What a treat it was! As I sit on the floor, I experience the sensation of oxygen passing through my lungs and out of my mouth. What a delight! And above all of these small things, I have now been given you for whatever time we may here remain together, and this has been the greatest blessing of them all. My mouth may bleed from dryness, my feet- ha! I don’t want to discuss what is happening with my feet. There is much suffering, it is true, but I have learned from reduction to see also what is good.”

I cocked my head at the man.

“What, so next you going to tell me you don’t hate the Japs who did this to you? That everything is hunky dory?”

I sneered in contempt. He waited, considering for a moment. It wasn’t easy for him to talk again, but he finally did.

“No. No I don’t hate the Japanese. I hate what has been done to me, but how can I hate another of God’s creation? I cannot.”

I scoffed at Peter and went off on a blue rant against the devils who stuck us in this place. He just averted his eyes again, just like the first time I said the word “Jap.” It bothered me. Finally, I didn’t have the breath to speak any longer and I was feeling unbelievably fatigued from the effort. He had the floor by default.

“You would be wise, my friend,” he began, “to examine your own heart first. You are right that wrongs have been done to us. You are right that the American planes will one day come. But listen to me closely,” he said, leaning forward and continuing like he had never heard my outburst at all. “The bombers are coming, and that is good. Good things are coming. But here- even here! Good things are present already. No matter what happens to me now in all that remains of this life, I will relish in its goodness with a depth I have never before known. Because I have seen the essence of good, and that is God Himself.”

He leaned back against the cold wall, then, his eyes shut in satisfaction. I stared at him in disbelief, contrary to him in my heart, but unable to bring my mouth to form any words. I sat there for what must have been hours, just staring at the contented, beaten skeleton of a man who dared to hold onto peace. I saw the corners of his thin lips begin to curl upwards before I ever heard the noise.

In the distance, a fleet of American engines hummed and started to grow louder. They started getting louder than I had ever heard them before.

Regrets

 

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Regret.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. Most people just flat out refuse to do so. Not me though. I know better. I should have known better, at least. That’s where the regret comes in.

Marley was a business partner of mine, selling luxury condos in the Cayman Islands. Sounds more glamorous than it is. Mostly it’s just a bunch of paperwork and wooing rich wives of absent rich executives so that they buy our properties. Not a bad gig, but not too interesting either.

Once a year, though, it’s interesting.

Our property manager down in the Caymans is a company called “Isla Hoy.” I asked somebody what that meant once and they told me “Today Island,” or “Island Today,” or some crap like that. I don’t really get where that comes from, but what do I know? I just sell the land. Once a year I actually get to see it all, because “Isla Hoy” is insistent on an owner review and inspection annually. I’m more than happy to oblige. The condos are beautiful, I stay in a nice hotel, and the sunshine and mai tais aren’t too bad either. Everything was great, or good enough, anyway. That is, until Marley got involved.

I make it a habit to only hire people I trust, and the really important stuff I leave for myself. You ever stab yourself in your own back? It’s difficult, and that’s why I take care of the big things alone. It’s easy for someone else to reach that spot on your back when you least expect it. So I don’t let it happen. Some government seizure on the east side of the island changed all of that. Land was being sold for nothing. It was a feeding frenzy, but I’m the biggest shark. The fastest, anyway. I was first in line. In three weeks the amount of property I owned had tripled. I was going to need some help.

That’s where Marley came in.  I knew that I needed a partner, or at least a dang good assistant, so I started putting the feelers out there. I let it be known that I was looking for somebody interested in the right kind of opportunity. I get a call from my sister telling me that her nephew is right for the job. That should have been my first flag. Nepotism has a nasty way of tearing down a good, strong business. She whined about it until I relented and told her I’d give the kid an interview. What could that hurt? I figured I’d humor her and then hire somebody serious, somebody real. I went ahead and set up a date.

I have to hand it to him, the kid interviews well. Good school, not that I went to one. Good grades, not that I had gotten them. He had an infectious smile and he motioned really big with his hands. He seemed full of ideas and drive for something better. He kept talking about growth and expansion- two things I’d only ever pursued when the opportunity came along. Somehow, all of the things that had never impressed me before- a fancy education, the approval of some professors I’ve never looked in the eye, and big ideas in the grand snake oil style- they impressed me. That was my second mistake.

I took him on, and true to his word, he got right down to business. Sold three properties in two weeks, and that’s nothing to shake a stick at. Rent from one of those properties alone pays my nut, and each additional sale is just money in the bank.  My earlier suspicion aside, I was starting to think I had made the right choice in an assistant.

Time went on. Properties sold. Marley found us some primo property offshore, and before you knew it we were in the private island business. I hadn’t ever thought to sell whole islands to bored millionaires, but the kid was passionate, and he was family, and it brought in some dough, so who was I to judge? I let him do it. I looked over his shoulder and made sure he dotted his t’s and crossed his i’s- and I meant to say that backwards, trust me. It took off. Started earning a positive income in less than a year. Marley made me money, I made him a partner.

My third mistake was easing off. I used to do late nights in the office when there was a lot to finish up. I take care of the important stuff myself, remember? But this kid Marley started offering to stay with me and help. He’d buy coffee, we’d work till late together. Eventually he just offered to stay and do it himself. I might as well have burned the place down the first night I finally agreed. I don’t know if it’s because I got old or tired, but the kid started working when I wasn’t looking, and I had given the okay.

You know the rest of the story. You know about the bodies they found, the missing persons buried in unmarked cemeteries on my islands. You know about the drug safe-houses, the cartel conspiracies, and all of that racket. I hear we even rented out one of my islands off of Nova Scotia to a Canadian forger. Money Launderer. What do you call it? A counterfeiter, that’s right. Anyway, crime being sheltered by my company to an unprecedented degree, enabling the free reign of pushers, murderers, runners, and general crooks for something like six years.

And now I’m in here, talking to you while my great nephew Marlow, or whatever the heck he is to me, is off running his next venture in plain sight up in Eugene, Oregon. The paper trail is squeaky clean for him, and me- it all pointed back to me, and that’s why I’m stuck in this place, rotting inside four walls.

So you ask me if I have regrets? Yeah I have regrets. Three of ‘em that I just told you about.

I should have never let him learn my signature for business deals. That was my fourth mistake.

Madness

Maria Elena

She couldn’t stop wiping her hands on her jacket. It was as if there was some invisible stain, some unseen gunk that she could feel, but it wouldn’t come off no matter how hard she scrubbed. She felt disgusted, and there was nothing she could do about it. She continued nervously rubbing her hands on her jacket, not knowing what else to do.

“Ms. Elena?” a voice called from down the hallway. “They’re ready for you now.”

The girl, no older than seventeen, whipped her head up at the sound. She tried desperately to keep her calm, but she knew that she would never be able. Why was she here? The walls crawled with worms and slime dripped from the ceiling. The lights flickered even as they hung unnaturally, and she was afraid. She could not remember how she got in the sickly hall, but something deep within her knew that she had to get away. She wanted to run, to turn and never come back, but she remained frozen.

“Ms. Elena?” the voice spoke again, closer this time. A hair-covered beast with massive, shaggy arms and drooping jowls poked its head around a corner. Its axe hung ominously from the straps that wrapped around its chest and back. “Ms. Elena, are you coming? You requested this meeting, after all.”
The girl’s teeth began to chatter with fear at the sight of the terrifying monster, but from somewhere outside of her, somewhere further than her own mind, she felt urged to stay. She looked down at her hands and was acutely aware of how dirty her hands were, though they appeared perfectly clean. She scrubbed them on her jacket with renewed vigor, knowing it would do nothing.

“Don’t listen to the creature,” it whispered in her ear. The girl turned to look at the flower-shaped growth that protruded from her shoulder, her constant companion. The flower’s center inclined towards her as if blown by the wind. “There is nothing for you here,” it insisted. “Leave… Choosing to come here was a mistake. They will kill you, they will harm you. There is nothing for you here.”

“Ms. Elena,” the shaggy, massive creature repeated, reaching out a clawed paw. Its bloodshot eyes, though crazed, seemed to implore her. Not entirely sure why, the girl raised a shaking hand and accepted the grip.

The monster grinned and growled low. The girl’s atrophied, shrunken legs shuffled along at the creature’s side.

“Run. Get away. Go. Find a hole and crawl into it. Be anywhere but this accursed place,” the oleander flower on her shoulder whispered. Its pleading was urgent, but for whatever reason, the girl kept walking, trying not to see the blood-red worms as they inched along the walls and called out jeering discouragement. The axe-wielding monster at her side gripped her hand tighter, leading her on through the twisting halls.

“Here we are, Ms. Elena,” the shaggy monster growled from the top of his massive height. “The doctor will be in shortly.”

The hairy creature released her hand then and walked to the doorway, guarding it. The girl panicked at this, thinking that the frightful beast would never allow her to leave, but then she noticed that it faced outward, almost as if it was trying to protect the room from whatever was outside. She felt dirty once again, but she knew that the invisible gunk on her hands could never come off. She scraped them on her denim jacket anyway, desperate to be clean.

“You’ll never be clean,” the oleander hissed. “It’s a lie. False hope.”

The girl was almost convinced by her perennial guide, but she once again noticed how strange it was that the monster who led her to this room faced outward. Trembling, she remained where she was.

There was a change in the room all of the sudden, a shift in the presence. The girl turned to see a figure she could not discern. It seemed to her formless and too bright to perceive. She had to avert her eyes to remain standing.

“Hello, Maria,” it said. “Will you let me help you?”

“NO!” the flower on her shoulder shouted. “No! Never! LEAVE US!” The oleander’s agitation was evident.

The girl, not entirely sure why, gave the slightest nod of her head.

“This will hurt,” the brightness said, “but it is for the best.”

It reached forward and grasped the babbling flower by the base of its stem. The flower screamed, and pain flooded through the girl’s entire being. She could feel the roots in her shoulder tense and pull, and for the first time she perceived that they wrapped all the way around her heart, reaching up into her brain, and all through her. The oleander screeched and roared such that the girl’s ears began to bleed. The roots inside of her pulled where they were planted, threatening to tear out her flesh.

But just when she thought that she would perish, able to bear it no more, the roots were stilled, and in a rush of inner motion, she was freed of them. Her eyes clasped shut and an explosion of light caused her to stumble backwards, striking the wall and slumping down to the floor. Through flickering eyelids, she saw the brightness struggle with the poisonous flower, but as she watched the world as if by strobe light, the brightness became a man, and the flower that had so long lived attached to her flesh became a horn-covered lizard, blazing in a shield of flames. It struggled against the man’s grip, but it did not prevail. The man placed the lizard upon the floor and brought his heel crashing down upon its head. The fiery lizard struggled no more.

Breath filled the girl’s lungs and she felt relieved yet bewildered. Her eyes felt heavy, but they lightened more and more as she struggled to open them.

The man who had been the brightness stood in front of her, being the first thing she saw. He had a well-groomed, chestnut colored beard, and kind eyes. He looked into her with compassion, as he bandaged her wounded shoulder.

This was only the beginning of the changes that had taken place, however. As the girl looked around, she noticed that there were no worms on the walls; the ceiling did not drip with slime. The axe-wielding monster at the door was no more, and in his place stood a vigilant, dark-skinned soldier who guarded the entrance with his assault rifle. He was muscular and fierce, but she felt that she had no reason to fear him.

Then, her eyes strayed to the dead lizard in the corner, still burning with strange fire.

“How do you feel?” the man who had been the brightness asked her.

Unable to grasp the fullness of what had taken place, but aware that something tremendous had happened, the girl shook her head and took a tentative breath.

“I’m not sure,” she began. “My hands still feel filthy, but I guess that wasn’t-” She stopped midsentence suddenly, having lifted up her hands, which had always felt as though they were covered in unseen gunk that she could never get off. Instead of being clean and fresh as they had always appeared, they were instead covered in blood and gore. Horrified, she immediately began trying to rub away the stains on her jacket, but it accomplished nothing. The man who had been the brightness shushed her, and took her hands in his own.

He closed his eyes, and the girl watched in amazement as her red, bloody hands blanched and drained of their disfigurement and damnation. The gore and the guilt passed into the man’s hands, and when he let go, he was the one who was red-handed. He stood up quietly then and walked to the sink, turning the handle, and he began to wash the filth from his hands. When he turned the water off, his hands were clean once again.

The girl could not stop staring at her hands. They appeared clean again, but they felt clean as well- a feeling she had never known. The man who had been the brightness toweled off his hands silently as the girl gawked at her own hands, then poured her gaze over the changes all around her. The room was well-lit and clean, like a doctor’s office should be. Art from various thankful patients lined the walls, and there was a corkboard full of thank-you notes addressed to the man who had been the brightness. A feeling of peace fell over her, and she shook her head in consternation.

“Yes?” the man who had been the brightness asked. “You have a question in your eyes.”

The girl nodded, searching intently for the right words, still shocked from all that had taken place.

“Was I… was I insane before?” she asked. “Or am I insane now?”

The man who had been the brightness finished toweling his hands and he neatly replaced the towel upon its rack.

“You have experienced both worlds,” he said. “You know now which one was madness.”