Interstellar Bait Shop

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Van Taurus examined the planet below as he orbited, trying to determine the best place to land. He knew that through his planet’s research and his extensive personal surgical procedures he would be able to superficially mix with the inhabitants of the planet below – even speak a few rudimentary phrases of their languages. But he had to pick the proper place to land. He didn’t want to set down in a densely populated city – it would create too much attention – or even a panic that would overwhelm him and make his mission of study impossible. Likewise, he didn’t want to settle in an isolated spot – that would make his intention of personally interacting with the natives difficult or impossible.

He knew his predecessors had made a policy of seeking out tracts of small, portable rectangular identical dwellings clustered in rural areas – thinking that such simple folk would be more accepting and malleable – but their missions had all been abject failures, so he rejected that plan.

He noticed the layout of some cities of what looked like more modern construction – a spoke and wheel arrangement. The dense central urban area that had strips of some smooth material radiating out – most connecting with other population centers some distance away. He decided to land somewhere along one of these connections, thinking that would be a spot little noticed but one that would give him eventual access to the population of the planet.

Van Taurus selected a large – but not too huge – urban area, then a spoke radiating out, and finally he found a vacant area next to the smooth strip. During the dark period he maneuvered his ship through the atmosphere and set it down in the center of the vacant area, about five ship-widths from the transportation corridor.

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Location of the landing

He knew from the research on the planet’s electromagnetic communication that the people were very familiar with the shape of his ship – obviously learned from the many failed missions that had preceded him. The circular ship, oval in cross-section – and lined with viewing ports had become a symbol of his planet’s visits – yet the population didn’t seem to take it all that seriously. It was almost treated in their entertainment communications as a subject of strange humor, rather than the momentous discovery it really was.

This was another in a long string of curious mysteries that Van Taurus had intended to solve when he volunteered for the dangerous mission – one that no fellow explorer had ever returned.

So it was with trepidation that Van Taurus peered from his viewports as the planet’s single star rose above the horizon. He expected to see a large, agitated crowd of the planet’s population, possibly afraid, possibly hostile.

Instead, he saw no one. The only activity was a steady stream of transportation modules along the smooth strip of prepared surface. There were a wide variety of metal capsules moving at a high speed, most containing only a single individual. They sped along without any visible means of power or guidance, and Van Taurus used his remote spectrograph to discover that each was spewing a mixture of toxic gasses out the small pipe in their tail. Why? He couldn’t imagine.

Another mystery.

After a few diurnal cycles without anyone paying any attention to his ship, Van Taurus felt confident and bored enough to venture forth, walking along the transportation strip in the direction he knew the distant city to be located.

He didn’t have to travel far before he came upon a small, colorful structure that seemed to offer for trade a selection of foodstuffs and other small items. He entered and moved in front of an individual that stood at the front of the room. He had carefully prepared his statement.

“My name is Van Taurus and I am an alien on your planet. I mean you no harm.”

“An alien? Well hell, what’s one more? Let me tell where the folks around here go for labor”

Van Taurus didn’t know exactly what the word “labor” meant, but the man seemed to understand that he was an alien and didn’t seem too disturbed about the fact. Perhaps this civilization had expected someone like him and prepared a location to communicate with aliens and he was being directed to it. He allowed himself a bit of praise in his choice of landing spot – so close to the alien gathering place.

When he reached the location described to him he found a group standing around. Metal capsules, larger than most, would arrive and the occupant would gesture at a small number of the group, and these individuals would climb into a large open box on the back of the capsule. They would then speed away.

He was confused by this, but one gestured at him from a capsule, and, almost reflexively, he climbed in with the others. He was transported to a spot where the group spent the day picking up blocks of artificial stone and carrying them from one location to another. At the end of the period, they each were handed a small bundle of flexible sheets.

On the return trip, his crude knowledge of at least three of the planet’s languages allowed him to learn from the others in the back of the capsule that these sheets could be exchanged for food and other goods from locations such as the one he had visited earlier.

He stopped on the walk back to the spaceship and the man seemed glad to see him, once he displayed his collection of sheets. He exchanged a few for various foodstuffs. Van Taurus found the food to be palatable though strange, and oddly unfulfilling.

He settled into a routine of walking to the gathering spot, going off to do some strange, meaningless task, often involving killing and removing harmless vegetation, and afterwards purchasing food at the small building.

Some days he would spend in the space around his ship, doing scientific research. He was fascinated by the small, long, wriggling eyeless creatures that lived in the soil where he had landed. He traded for a tool from the building and had dug out a pile of these animals when he was surprised by a capsule stopping and the occupants offering him a small stack of sheets for the creatures.

He asked his fellow laborers about that and they explained about “fishing” and helped him make a sign of cardboard that said, “Van Taurus Bait Shop.” It wasn’t long before he was collecting enough sheets in exchange for the creatures that he didn’t have to go on the trips with the laborers again, though he did miss the companionship.

Van Taurus was alarmed when he began to exhaust the supply of creatures around his ship. But the man in the colorful building explained that he had collected enough of the exchange sheets to move to a location a distance away that had a structure made of some sort of cut and assembled vegetative matter. It was at the intersection of two transportation paths and was thus, as the man explained “A Prime Location.” More importantly, the space behind it had a terrible odor and was always wet with excess water – Van Taurus suspected that is was used for the disposal of waste products from various creatures. However, it did contain the wriggling creatures in a tremendous, virtually endless, supply. They were larger and more vigorous also, and brought in more exchange sheets.

Van Taurus was able to trade these for another, larger flat communication display that said, “Van Taurus Baits – Best Wigglers West of the Mississippi!” The man from the building had recommended that – even though it confused Van Taurus, he was able to exchange more of the creatures than ever before.

Over time, he forgot about his mission and concentrated on activities that accumulated more and increasingly valuable exchange sheets. His spaceship was neglected and eventually vandalized by the younger local inhabitants. Finally, it was reduced to an ignored shell sitting along the transportation corridor.

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Red and White

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The aliens of Altair Six developed an interstellar drive – but it required such immense amounts of energy that the probe sent through the time/space vortex could be no larger than a mote of dust and the temporal rift so unstable that only one blurry image could be sent back.

They had established Earth as a good candidate for life and the high priests had blessed the probe (they had long ago abandoned the difference between science and religion – both relied on faith) and were confident that if life existed on the distant rock, it would show up in the image.

They were right. The single image returned showed an ordered collection of what were undoubtedly life forms. But exactly what were they looking at? Why were the individuals on one side all bedecked in bright white, while the others shone blazing red?

The debate raged on Altair Six. The accepted theory is one of racism – the photo showed a border with the white-lighted denizens restricted on one side, the red on the other. There is obviously no mixing of the two races – the apartheid is complete.

Others believed the dichotomy was age-based. Noting that the white creatures shone brighter than the red, the theory was advanced that the red were larval forms, while the white were full-grown. It was thought that they were separated to keep the developed individuals from eating the fry.

One controversial idea, put forth by Professor Yo’rin Cake of the University of Vultur Volans that the objects in the image aren’t actually life forms, but some sort of dwelling. The color of the lighting, red or white, is merely a marker to help delineate different neighborhoods.

This was dismissed by the learned councils out of hand. It was considered impossible to have that many dwellings in the image without capturing any of the life forms themselves.

Still, the debate between these and many other factions, some completely ridiculous, others more studied and mainstream, continued and only grew in intensity and cacophony. In an attempt to find an answer to this question an enormous portion of Altair Six’s economy was dedicated to building a huge power facility and a corresponding time/space vortex generator. The plans were laid to send a larger probe with a better camera and more sensors to finally answer the mysteries of the rock called Earth.

Unfortunately, their reach exceeded their grasp and the interstellar probe complex broke down and exploded. It was a terrible planet-wide disaster and set the society back by millennia. They were reduced to a level of advancement only slightly higher than ours.

Sunday Snippet – A Thousand Unnatural Shocks

Here’s a little thing I wrote the other day. It’s not very good – I know I won’t use it in my book. So I’ll put it up here for your amusement and ridicule.

The germ of the idea for this came from two places. One, a piece of fiction I read more than thirty years ago – One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson. The story left an impression on me and I always wanted to write something in a similar vein.

The other inspiration came from a book I stumbled across. I won’t mention the name – but it was a popular new-agey book of spirituality and such. I found it stumbling upon a blog written by a person that lived by its tenets. One chapter of the book recommended an experiment. It said that you should give the world forty eight hours to do something wonderful for you. It said that if you opened your mind, within two days the universe would prove to you that it was dominated by a beneficent force that would give you a sign, some unexpected positive event, to prove that it existed.

Well, this isn’t my usual cup of tea – but I was attracted to the scientific aspect. Also, forty eight hours is such a short period of time. I decided to give it a shot. And I did it right, I wrote down a commitment on a piece of paper, I was positive about the whole thing, I was optimistic. I can say I was even excited and curious about what boon the universe was going to deliver to me in the next couple of days.

I think you know what happened next. Almost immediately I had such bad luck – nothing I couldn’t deal with – but again and again unexpected disasters – frustrating, expensive, uncomfortable stuff kept coming at me from every direction. The few good things that occurred over those two days were the inevitable, expected result of hard work that I had done previously – not the unexpected wonder the book promised.

So the book failed for me. You could say that nothing happened that I couldn’t deal with – that things could have been worse… but that’s not what the book promised.

I guess the only good thing that came out of this disastrous two days is the idea for a story… even if it isn’t a very good one.

A Thousand Unnatural Shocks

by Bill Chance

Buford knew it was going to be a bad day but he didn’t think it would be this bad.

When he woke up it was cloudy and he couldn’t tell what time it was. His wife was nowhere to be found and the alarm clock was flashing twelves. By the time he dressed, the thunderstorm that had cut the power while he slept kicked in again and he ran through the rain to find his front left tire flat. Buford had to stretch out in the dirty cold water in the gutter to slip the jack underneath and was soaked by the time he had the tire changed.

At work, his badge didn’t operate the rotary door and he had to stand in the cold drizzle while the security guard called human resources. He knew something especially awful was happening when the HR woman had the guard escort him to an obscure conference room after letting him in. On the table was a cardboard box with all the personal stuff from his cubicle.

Apparently, they had found the irregularities in his petty cash account.

On the way home, someone turned left in front of him and made him swerve. He hit a light pole with his right fender. Buford was able to back out and continue on, but a cop gave him a ticket a block farther for his broken headlight and expired inspection sticker.

Back home, he discovered that the dog had pulled over the trash can and spread garbage throughout the house. The dog also fished out and ate last night’s leftovers and vomited them up on the couch. After cleaning the mess as best he could he put his dirty, wet clothes into the washing machine. On the rinse cycle, the hot water hose burst, flooding the utility room and kitchen and scalding Buford as he had to use a big wrench and wedge his foot against the wall to get the leverage he needed to shut off the balky valve.

Deciding he had better not try and do anything else for the rest of the day, Buford turned on the television and settled in his easy chair to watch television. He was admiring the vase of fresh flowers his wife had placed above the set when the dog chased the cat into the living room. The cat leaped on top of the television, knocking the vase over. The water spilled and trickled into the circuitry. With a sharp spark and a bang, it went dark. A column of rancid smoke rose from the back, a breaker tripped and the room went dark.

Buford did not dare budge; he sat there in the gloom, motionless, until Camille, his wife, came home.

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He heard the keys jangling merrily in the lock.

“Why is it so dark in here?” Camille asked as she walked briskly through the room.

“Blown breaker.”

“Well, I’ll reset it then.” Buford cringed and he heard the click and the lights came on, expecting a fire or explosion. But it was his wife, after all, that threw the switch, so nothing bad happened.

“How was your day, dear?” she asked. “Not too horrible, I hope?”

“Worse than ever,” he replied. “For one thing, I lost my job.”

“No worries.” Camille answered. “I bought a lottery ticket on the way out this morning. Ten grand scratch-off winner.” She tossed a thick envelope on the coffee table. “If we need more, I’ll buy another.”

“So your day was good?” asked Buford.

“Of course it was; you know the drill.”

Camille reached into her pocket and removed a small object. It was a crude statue, made from some mottled mudstone, of a distorted human figure of extreme ugliness. The troll-like character was leering into space and holding a large, crimson, translucent jewel – clutching it with both arms wrapped around the gleaming gem like its life depended on it. Camille carefully placed the sculpture onto a sturdy wooden stand on the mantelpiece. Though diminutive and unattractive, it had a quality about it that commanded attention. Both Buford and Camille, husband and wife, stood for a minute or two, as they did most days when the charm was replaced back in its place, and thought about the day they had acquired it.

They were on the Mayan Coast of Mexico, on a bargain package vacation Camille had won at a company bingo game. Their cut-rate guide had been drinking and became lost; then his rattle-trap jeep broke down in an isolated village. The pair ventured out through the thick air – sweating so much in the tropical heat that it was painful.

“I can’t believe you got us into this,” Buford said to Camille, his voice thick with reproach and misery.

“Hey, all I did was win a contest. You are the one that jumped on it. You’re too cheap to pay for a trip on your own.Don’t blame this on me.”

They continued to snipe at each other as they walked down the muddy street between ragged huts made of crude sticks, reeds, and rusty corrugated steel. The village was strangely devoid of the usual beggars and con-men and they kept walking hoping to find some establishment that looked like it might have clean ice. They were ready to give up anything for something cold to drink when a strange old man approached them and spoke in almost perfect English.

“Ah, we don’t get so many tourists in our little town.”

“Well, you’re a long way off the beaten track,” Buford said to the man as his wife glared.

“That’s true, not so many are as lucky as you.”

“I wouldn’t say we were lucky. Not at all.”

The old man stared at them for a minute, and then continued.

“Well, I have something here for you, and I guarantee that your luck is going to change.”

Now that he thought about it, Buford realized that the old man didn’t say their luck would change for the better, only that it would change. And he had not been lying.

The old man offered up the little statue, the strange charm. Buford wanted to walk away, but Camille took the charm in her hand and stared into its jewel. From that point, they had no choice, she had to have it. The price was not too high and Buford peeled some bills off the roll he kept hidden in a pocket sewn into his waistband.

But the old man wasn’t finished. He talked about the charm and how it would bring good luck to whoever carried it.

“But, there’s a catch,” he said.

“Isn’t there always,” replied Buford. He was doubtful, but there was something about that ugly little statue that commanded interest. “This isn’t some sort of Monkey’s Paw or anything, is it?”

“No not at all.” Buford was surprised the old man knew the reference. “It works, but you have to remember that the amount of luck in the world is finite. The charm gives out good luck, but it takes it from other places, usually nearby.”

And that is how it worked. It didn’t take long to figure out that whichever one of them would carry the charm would have fantastic things happen to them. But it would always be at the expense of the second. The better that one did, the worse the other.

They tried switching every day, but that was too ragged… the bad luck would overtake the good. They had settled on three days. Camille would get it for three days, placing it in the stand on the mantle every night (they were afraid what the charm might do while they slept) and then Buford would get it for the same length of time.

It worked out for a while, but now everything seemed to be spinning out of control. The charm was working better and better, but the downsides were getting worse and worse.

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“Why do you get the charm tomorrow?” asked Buford. “It isn’t fair. It was horrible today.”

“You need to do what I do, dear. When you have the charm, I stay in bed all day. Not too much bad can happen that way.”

“You know I can’t do that. I can’t lie still all day; I have to do something… anything. I’ll go crazy otherwise… what’s the use of the thing if you have to spend half your life in bed…. I think I should have it…. I really need it tomorrow.”

“Now, you know that’s not what we agreed on.”

“But it’s not fair!”

“Come on dear, “ Camille said, ending the discussion, “It’s time for bed. Don’t be so upset, tomorrow’s another day.”

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At three in the morning, after hours of tossing and turning and being awakened from a restless half-sleep by Camille’s incessant snoring, Buford gave up, climbed out of bed and walked into the living room. There he looked at the charm on the mantelpiece and how it seemed to glow with a faint unearthly aura in the moonlight.

“There is no way I can get through another day like today,” Buford said to himself.

He knew he needed all the advantages he could get so he took the charm down and slipped it into his pocket. Then he opened the small metal safe at the bottom of the hall closet and carefully loaded the handgun. Holding it out in front, he returned to the bedroom and the uneven drone of Camille’s snores.

“I’m sorry dear, but this is not going to be your lucky day,” he said to his wife’s sleeping form as he raised the weapon.

Sunday Snippet – Free Breakfast

I have to be careful what I read while I’m writing. The style and feeling of what I’m reading tends to seep into, drown, and dominate what I put on paper.

Last week I plowed through Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. I’ll write about that book… maybe the day after tomorrow. But in the meantime… this is what happened.

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Free Breakfast

Thelma bent and reached under the seat in front of her, pulled out her briefcase, and opened it on the meal-table which folded down from the seat back. Arranged in neat, alphabetical folders was information on a hundred cities that she had visited, either for work or for pleasure alone.

Anchorage, Birmingham, Cairo, Dallas… on and on. She was assiduous about collecting what would be useful on a return trip: lists of restaurants, business cards of important contacts, tourist magazines taken from hotel rooms – and would file these upon her return home. Thelma was especially fond of the compact maps that the rental car agencies would give out – she found these to be carefully designed for maximum help. They were the exact size and scale to get a renter around a city without any superfluous information or ornamentation.

She thumbed through the folders, one by one, allowing the memories of the previous visits to flood over her, hoping to jar loose a recollection of her present destination. She remembered getting a phone call in the middle of the night ordering her to go to the airport before dawn and getting on a flight, but she couldn’t remember where. All she remembered is thinking at the time that not only was that a city she had never been to, she had never even heard of it before that moment. It was odd that there was a city unknown to her (human geography had always been a passion)… but there it was. She couldn’t even remember getting on the plane, but assumed the ticket had been pre-purchased by her company… the way they always were.

Her memory was so bad because she was so tired. She had not had a good night’s sleep in weeks. Her nightmares had become so severe that her doctor said she was suffering the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – caused by the terrible subconscious memories of the nightmares – yet she could actually remember nothing from the dreams except vague impressions of deep, cold water, things moving in darkness, and breaking pipes. Awakened by the nightmares in her bed, she would lie in terror – confused about exactly where she was and even who she was. It was mid-summer but she would shiver with bone-deep cold, rising up from within.

The folders did not succeed in giving her a clue to her destination, so she closed the case and placed it back by her feet. She looked at the man sitting in the seat next to her – perhaps she could ask him their common destination. He was a large man, dressed formally, with an oddly-shaped beard, reading a book. Looking at the pages, all she could make out were squiggly lines in some unfamiliar alphabet. He probably didn’t even speak English – and how could she possibly ask a total stranger a question as stupid as, “Excuse me, do you know where this plane is going?”

Frustrated, she let out a sigh and tried to relax. Quicker that she imagined was possible, she slumped sideways against the reading man and fell asleep. For the first time in weeks she did not have a nightmare. She dreamed she was in a large green meadow, surrounded by steep, granite, rugged mountains capped with bits of snow. The meltwater coursed across the meadow in a hundred swift streams and as she walked up to a watercourse and began to step into it her foot began to rise up and she stepped again and again, higher and higher, as if on a rising stairway of air.

Soon, in her dream, Thelma was floating and then flying, rising and moving. She could see the patterns of the little streams in the meadow far below which, instead of joining into a larger river, meandered in a random pattern, sometimes joining together, sometimes splitting apart, so that the same configuration filled the entire area and it was impossible to determine where the water entered and where it left.

She rose higher and moved closer to the ragged vertical walls of rock until she could clearly see the small remaining nubs of snow and ice which were melting in the summer sun. Still higher, she began to look closer to see what was on the other side of the mountains… some sort of shape was emerging from the haze of distance.

But at this point she woke up. She felt refreshed from her first undisturbed sleep, but had to wipe a bit of spittle that had formed on her lips and she saw that it had stained the sleeve of the man sitting next to her. She turned to apologize but saw that he was still immersed in his reading and was paying no attention to her. She became aware of a noise and realized that the flight crew was making an announcement.

“We are now pulling up to the gate and will turn off the seatbelt sign as soon as the doors open. Will all passengers continuing on to Chicago, Paris, and Tokyo please remain seated while everyone debarking disembarks. We will only be on the ground for a short time. Thank you for your attention.”
Thelma frowned. She had missed the announcement of their location… but she was sure her stop was the first one on the flight, so at the ding of the bell, she collected her briefcase, rose, and retrieved her carryon bag from the overhead bin. She was the only person that left the plane.

The airport was crowded. Thelma could only see a few feet sideways through the surging sea of passengers. They did not seem to be the usual airport denizens – businessmen, families on holiday, students with backpacks – the mob wore tattered, wrinkled, out-of-style clothing – and had a thin, desperate, hungry look about them. Although there were men, women, and children of all ages and races, they did not seem to be in any family groupings – they all seemed to be struggling to get to their various destinations alone. The few that were carrying luggage had crude bags or parcels wrapped in dirty cloth.

Looking up above the crowd, Thelma realized that the airport looked exactly like every other airport – beams of steel or wood arched overhead, supporting a corrugated roof of light blue or cream metal. Large windows let in an orange light of either sunset or sunrise. Signs hung down with directions printed in several languages, none of which Thelma understood, and also included simple iconic drawings of mysterious objects. Finally, she spotted one sign that seemed to sport a sort of crude suitcase and an arrow beneath the puzzling lines of text – so she pushed her way in that location to get her checked luggage. She thought she remembered checking bags.

In complete contrast to the main concourse, the baggage claim area was deserted. A thin layer of dust covered the floor and Thelma could see her footprints as she walked across. A half-dozen huge metal belts emerged from openings in the wall that were covered with finger-shaped strips of rubberized cloth. These were all motionless and festooned with cobwebs. In some corners a hint of rust was beginning to appear on the machinery.

However, in the center of the room, there sat two bags, one large and one a bit smaller. They looked familiar to Thelma and she realized they were the same style and almost the same color as the carryon she held. She tried to check to make sure but the paper ID tags had been torn off.

Still, she collected the bags, attaching her carryon to the top of the smaller, and extending the handles, she lumbered out toward the twilit line of windows and glass doors. The automatic portal hissed open at her approach and she pulled her bags out to the curb. The thick humid air and oppressive heat struck her like a blow as she emerged from the cool air-conditioned terminal.

The orange light from earlier must have been sunset because it was now getting to be quite dark. She was happy to see, right in front of her, a large van parked along the curb. Large red symbols of some unknown language blazed across its side, but beneath, in smaller black block letters, were the welcome words “AIRPORT SHUTTLE”.

A man in a dark blue uniform and a jaunty cap stood beside the door and smiled at her. She stared at him – he looked familiar.

When Thelma was twelve, her parents had taken her on a driving trip across the continent, ending in New York. They had crossed the Mississippi on a huge bridge made up of silver steel beams and then had stopped in a tall Holiday Inn right on the Memphis riverbank. As they were checking in, she kept staring at the family in line in front of her. Outside she had seen the family which had already pulled up in a station wagon that was facing in the opposite direction. The father was untying a large valise from the rack on the roof. Thelma imagined that they were going on the same trip, coast to coast, but the other way, from East to West. There was a young boy about her age and something about him had drawn her to gawk. In her own way, she had fallen instantly in love with this boy.

Her family only stayed there for a day before they continued their journey, but everywhere Thelma went, to eat in the hotel restaurant, to swim in the pool, down the hall to fetch some ice from the machine, she would see the boy, sometimes close… sometimes at a distance, and her heart would ache. She never spoke to him and the boy never seemed to even notice her, but the day and the boy were etched deep into her head and heart forever.

Thelma realized that this man waiting at the Rental Car Van looked exactly like she imagined that boy would now. This could be him grown up. But what could she say? It would be silly to ask if he had been in a Holiday Inn with his parents decades earlier. And what if it was him? They had never spoken to each other.

“May I have your bags please,” he said with a sparkling smile.

She stood mute while he climbed into the van, carefully placing her bags on a tubular rack.

“And your purse, Ma’am?”

Thelma didn’t even think about how odd this request was as she handed him her handbag. Another flash of smile and he turned and climbed into the driver’s seat. She let out a soft sigh and began to follow but as she stepped forward the folding glass door of the van snapped shut an inch in front of her nose.

Shocked, Thelma staggered back a few steps as the van screeched its tires, sped away from the curb, and went careening down the street, disappearing around a concrete wall. Thelma felt panic welling up, she was now stranded in a strange city – she didn’t even know its name – without clothes, without ID, without money, without a credit card. She turned and retreated to the doors that she had emerged from, but found them locked.

At that moment, all the lights in the terminal went out. Thelma realized how late it was and how dark it had become. Still, who ever heard of an airport closing like that? What about the crowds trapped inside? She stood there for a long time, waiting for someone to come along or for something to happen, but no one did, and nothing occurred. The only thing she could do is start walking. In the distance, beyond the wall where the van had sped away, she could see the blue glow of streetlights.

She walked along the sidewalk as the road curved away from the airport. The way was well lighted by the ring-shaped streetlamps suspended high above on metal poles. She felt herself sweating through her clothes but made good time walking along the sidewalk. After a bit the sidewalk split away from the road and became a separate, paved trail. Thelma wasn’t sure about following it, but the road crossed a dark, swampy-looking patch on a bridge that had no walkway, so she had no choice.

The path entered a thick wooded area and curved first to the left, then to the right, and the streetlights were far enough distant so that the only thing visible was the bright concrete between the trees. The path became rougher and then the paving gave out until all that was left was a narrow, sandy lane. Thelma struggled along as best she could in the dark. The branches tore at her clothes and snipped at her face, thorny weeds underfoot sliced at her ankles.

Thelma decided she couldn’t go any farther and turned around to retreat. The path improved slightly but then began to go wild again and she realized she had made a wrong turn. Fighting back panic, she could think of nothing except to sit down in the soft sand along the widest patch of trail she could find.

She sat curled up, hugging her ankles and sobbed. The crying wore her out and she slowly gave up, stretched out in the warm sand, and fell asleep. She found herself in the same dream as she had on the plane, walking through the mountain meadow. As she approached a stream she began floating upward again, and looked ahead eagerly toward the rim of the surrounding mountains, hoping to get farther this time… and she was able to.

As she soared over the snowfields of the mountains she felt herself drifting lower on the other side, moving gently through waves of warm rising air. As she moved downward through the mist a shape began to form on the ground below. She saw long straight stretches of pale pavement, all emerging from a large building made of a complex series of giant halls. As the mist fell away she realized it was an airport and, though she had never seen it, it was the airport she had just left. As she drifted closer she saw the spot where the van had left her and the curving road away.

As Thelma’s dreamself passed high over the airport she saw a huge sign at the spot the largest road came up to the terminal. Though it was in an alphabet strange to her as she looked the symbols began to feel familiar and in her dream she realized the sign spelled out “Nepenthium International Airport.” That was the name of the city, Nepenthium.

The scene dissolved and she woke feeling the hot morning sun on her cheek. Aching, she gathered and pulled herself erect. Thelma was ravenous and thirsty, her clothes were torn and patches of sand stuck to her skin. Still, the peaceful sleep and pleasant dream had done her a world of good and she felt new hope welling up.

Looking around in the light of the rising sun she saw there was a barbed wire fence only a few feet into the woods on one side of the sandy path. There seemed to be light and space on the other side. She pushed her way through the tree branches and began to struggle over the wire. A barb jabbed her thigh. Fabric caught on the wire and she felt her clothing tear, but she pulled her way over. With a final rip as a hefty piece of cloth was left behind she fell clear and found herself on a strip of cool grass. She stood up and realized she had lost a shoe in the exertion to get over the wire. She kicked off the other and started moving barefoot. A trickle of blood ran down one leg.

The grass lined a road and on the other side was a large building. She waited for a gap in the passing cars and crossed the road. The building was undoubtedly a hotel and, although again the symbols on the sign were strange, she recognized a familiar logo of an international chain. Under the sign was a lettering board with black plastic letters lined up on a white glowing background.

The top line was a grouping of symbols, but underneath that was an English translation. It said, “Free Breakfast.”

Beyond the sign was a concrete apron in front of what must be the registration desk. Parked on the apron was the van from the airport. Thelma limped towards it, despite her torn clothing and desperate appearance.

Next to the van was the driver, standing there with the same bright smile. He had her luggage in a neat pile next to him. As she approached his grin expanded even wider and he reached his hand out and handed over her purse.

Tuesday Snippet – The Fatted Calf

Prodigal Son, Thomas Hart Benton, Dallas Museum of Art

Prodigal Son, Thomas Hart Benton, Dallas Museum of Art

The Fatted Calf
(First Scene of a Short Story)

It had been a decade since Sam had rented a car. He always had his assistant arrange for a limousine. Those days were gone – long gone.

At the rental counter the first three credit cards were rejected but the fourth went through and after a short, polite argument he was allowed a subcompact car. Red-faced he took the vehicle out onto the old highway – the one he remembered from his childhood – now gone over to cracked asphalt and weeds creeping over the edges. He blared the radio and tore down the rough road with the windows down – looking across the bright green bristles of spring wheat at the lines of huge trucks on the newer Interstate – parallel – a mile distant.

He remembered his mother driving him to the airport twenty years earlier – his small bag packed. His mother teared and resigned – her wet eyes locked on the road ahead. His father was plowing the east forty. Sam could see the cloud of brown dust raised by the steel blades slicing and turning the dry soil. He watched the distant tractor stop – the dust cloud blowing past and leaving the huge machine alone and tiny in the distance. Sam had to imagine his father watching the pickup flying by on the road clear past the end of the field carrying his son away.

The hamlet was closer to the city than Sam had remembered and he drove down the main street before heading out to the family farm. Everything was so familiar – nothing had changed in the two decades – except it all seemed smaller somehow. Smaller and quieter – the streets deserted and more than a few windows boarded up or taped over with paper.

It was like driving through a miniature model of his childhood memories – perfect in detail, yet missing something essential – a soulless reproduction.
This strange living mutation of what he remembered frightened him. He accelerated, squealing his tires in the dust that leaked in thin waves onto the streets, and turned off the paved highway at the edge of town. He drove down the familiar washboarding sanded country lane – the hedgerows on each mile section taller than he remembered or often taken out altogether, leaving a gap like a missing tooth.

As he approached the farm he felt his heart beating like a fluttering bird – his breath coming with some difficulty.

At first he didn’t recognize the place. The weeds had grown high across the yard – once kept cropped short by a small herd of sheep – now gone riot. The familiar barn to the left of the drive was gone. Sam looked closer and saw the expanse of scorched earth where the wood and stored hay must have burned. The encroaching weeds were greener and taller here – fertilized by the ash.

The house – always a clean white wash – was speckled with a gray peeling – revealing the weathered old wood underneath. The windows, which Sam remembered as bright rectangles showing his mother’s colorful handmade curtains were now bare shadow pits adorned only with crystal scythes – shards of shattered windowglass.

Although it was obvious that the place was uninhabitable, for some reason Sam took his suitcase – no larger than the one he had left with two decades ago – out of the trunk after he climbed out of the tiny car.

For a long time, he stood in the remaining bit of sandy road, trying not to touch the invading weeds, with his hand on his jaw, trying to comprehend. Off to the side, behind a few strands of rusted barbed wire, was the skeleton of a cow, now bleached by the sun to a bright white. He wondered if this was the calf he had left behind –the one he had been getting up before dawn to feed. It wasn’t of course – those onerous chores were twenty years in the past – that calf was hamburger long, long ago.

The skeleton seemed to pull Sam out of his reverie and, looking past the house, he saw a structure still intact. It was the old windmill. Green vines climbed the four metal struts that supported the structure, but the zinc-coated blades were still creaking, spinning in the breeze.

Sam pushed his way through the weeds and found the path that ran from the kitchen to the windmill. The well below was too shallow – the water too contaminated and salty for humans to drink, but the cows and sheep seemed to like it fine. A series of troughs, now twisted and junked, ran from the pump attached to the mill to a half dozen watering stations that the farm animals could use.

It had another use, though. The farm was too far out for city utilities, and potable water was precious. Halfway up the tower was a tank that could be filled by the windmill, and underneath that a compartment, about the size and shape of a phone booth, was constructed of galvanized steel. A big old-fashioned shower head hung below the tank like a drooping sunflower.
Sam had hated going out to the windmill and taking his shower before school – especially in the winter. It was humiliating even when it wasn’t brutally uncomfortable.

Staring at the mechanism now, Sam was oddly drawn to it. He reached out and yanked a few stray vines out of the way and then pulled the familiar lever. Sam jumped back when the pump arm let out a huge metallic groan, but it started to move again and he heard rumbling and the telltale splash of water starting to fill the tank. As if on cue, the breeze picked up and the blades began turning faster.

Sam looked around at the vast expanse of nothing, nobody. It was silent except for the clicks and hissing of insects moving through the weeds. The sun was directly overhead and the day had turned hot – Sam felt the streams of sweat trickling across his face.

As the tank filled, Sam pulled off his suit and hung his clothes on the old hooks that ran up the windmill strut. As he waited for the tank to top off he stood naked, leaning back in the sun. As a child, he was always shy and would dash from the house with a towel held firmly, but now he didn’t care. There was nobody within miles anyway.

He reached out and pulled on the rusty handle that opened the valve to the shower head. At first there was only a hiss, then some lumps of old mud-dauber wasp nest tumbled out, followed by little more than a thin rusty trickle. It did not take long for the pipes to clean themselves and the stream gained in strength and clarity. Soon the water was pure and strong, and Sam stepped into the shower, ducking his head into the cold liquid, sparkling in the sunlight.

Sunday Snippet – New Orleans Writing Marathon

On the morning after Halloween Candy went down to the restaurant in the St. Vincent’s Guest House for breakfast and when I joined her she introduced me to someone she had met at the counter. It was Brant Osborn, an English Teacher from Slidell.

He was at St. Vincent’s for a Writing Marathon organized and sponsored by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project. The idea was that a group of about twenty writers would break into groups, either stay at the guest house or walk around the Lower Garden District for the day, stopping and writing as the mood struck them. Periodically, folks would read what they had written – hopefully providing ideas, inspiration and motivation for each other.

He asked me if I wanted to go.

I ran up to my room and grabbed my Moleskine and Varsity Disposable Fountain Pen.

The entire group (mostly English teachers and a few intruders like myself) started in the common room at the guest house, wrote a little and then we took off. There were five of us in my group, myself, Richard Louth (the organizer of the writing marathons), George, and Roman.

We walked down Magazine street, hitting a coffee shop, then po-boys for lunch, a side trip to a park, and then a beer at a table outside a neighborhood bar. We’d write and read at each stop. At the end we met back at St. Vincent’s for a celebration and reading, until darkness fell completely.

Most folks wrote little essays or short works inspired by St. Vincent’s, the history of New Orleans, or the other folks in the writing group. I, as is my wont, struggled to squeeze out some fiction. I didn’t have any of my writing prompt or idea collections with me. The only things I had was the inspiration of the St. Vincent’s hostel, some bits of story the other guys would tell, and a quote from a singer on Frenchman Street the night before, “Folks from small towns get arrested in the big city, folks from the big city get arrested in small towns.”

So I spent a whole day walking around Magazine Street in New Orleans with a group of like-minded folks, writing and reading. It was, for me, a perfect day. I want to publicly thank Richard Louth for putting together this program and for Brant Osborn for inviting me.

It was so much fun that now I want to do a writing marathon in Dallas. I’ve been thinking about it and am putting together a page on my blog to organize my thoughts. Go over to that page and take a look, feel free to leave comments or suggestions. The more the merrier.

So what did I write? Here it is, copied pretty much verbatim from my Moleskine. It’s about a third of a short story… and I’m working on where to take it from here.

Parasol

Chapter 1 Svetlana (I)

Svetlana dragged her backpack up the rickety wooden stairs through a heavy wrought iron gate. A fat man with an eyepatch sat behind a tall desk with paint peeling off the front.

She worried about her English – she had studied for over a decade and always dreamed of this – but now was the first time she actually spoke a complete sentence. She could feel her accent rolling in her mouth like a hot walnut.

The man with the eyepatch didn’t even look up. He flipped a set of keys in front of Svetlana and handed her a half-sheet of paper – cut unevenly with a set of numbered rules. It was handtyped and xeroxed, with a tattoo of hand-written corrections. The top line said, “Rules are non-negotiable – you will be thrown out of the hostel.

The one-eyed man finally spoke, still without looking up. “Down that hall – men on the left, you are on the right.”

Svetlana dragged her pack down the hall. The thin, worn carpet and painted walls were stained with water leaking from somewhere above. Strangely, the passage was lined with fine bronze sculptures of nude men and women – out of place in the worn and tattered building.

She reached the women’s dormitory and pushed the door open.

A quick feeling of panic rose in her throat as she looked down the center of a double row of bunk beds constructed of two by four beams nailed in a grid. In the Ukraine, she had her own wing with a personal servant. She had never slept in a room shared with strangers.

Chapter 2, Russell (I)

Russell never thought, never in a million years, that he could be thrown in jail for pissing on the side of a building. At home, you can pee wherever you want – it is a God-given right. He was no more than a block down the street from the bar when he realized he had forgotten to use the bathroom before he left. There was an unlit alley and he ducked in. He was admiring the patterns of oblique shadow the streetlights made on the rough brick when he noticed the blue and red flashing lights mixed in with the yellowish streetlight.

Just when he broke out into a grin at the interplay of colors and shapes he felt a rough hand on his shoulder.

Russell jumped a bit at the voice yelling in his ear, “Well, now, look who’s going to jail tonight.”

His arms were pulled back and he felt the cold steel click around his wrists.

“Shit, son, you ain’t even zipped up,” the unseen voice said. “Now, don’t you piss on me or I’ll crack your damn head.”

He felt his hands released and as soon as he brought them forward and fixed his pants he was shoved forward. His hand came up to catch himself from falling, his palms against the uneven wall. Boots pushed his feet apart.

Strong hands moved down his sides and between his legs, and finally slid his wallet out of his back pocket.

Chapter 3 Svetlana (II)

She looked down the room and saw a woman with spiked hair and a piercing through the side of her nose rummaging through a pile of plastic grocery sacks. She looked up. Svetlana thought she saw a tiny colorful flickering on the woman’s face.

“Which bed should I take?” Svetlana asked. The woman looked at her for what seemed like a long time then gestured at a lower bunk three beds down from where she was crouched.

“This one honey, it’s right under mine. Throw your pack on the bunk, but don’t leave it there when you’re gone. They got too many thieves ’round here.”

The woman glanced down at the bags at her feet and Svetlana saw a guilty look flash over her face. It didn’t stay there long. Svetlana threw her pack onto the lower bunk the woman had gestured at and then stood at the foot of the bed, stiffly, waiting to see what would happen next.

For most of her life Svetlana had dreamed of this moment – she had escaped. She was halfway around the world, but this was no dream. She realized, for the first time, that she had not actually thought past this very second, and was at a complete loss of what to do now. The panic rose and settled like a hard knot in her chest. She felt paralyzed – her mind blank. She stared at the woman, afraid the two of them would be standing like that forever.

The woman broke the impasse by moving quickly toward her – almost at a run – turning at the last instant in front of the flinching Svetlana and jumping up onto the top bunk. The woman was so close to Svetlana that she could see that her nose piercing was a tiny skull. Inside, a small LED was blinking – making the skull’s eyes flash bright red.

“You’re not from around here, are ya,” the woman said.

“No, the Ukraine. Is my accent that bad?”

“Nah, everybody’s got an accent here.”

“Your nose piercing?”

“Oh yeah, cool, huh. I make these and sell ’em on the corner. People love ’em. Changing the battery’s a bitch though. You want one? I’ll give you a discount.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have a piercing there.”

“Oh, no problema,” the woman said, fingering a large safety pin laced into a leather bracelet on her wrist. “Don’t have to go through your nose anyway. I’ve got a double skull – red and blue – can put that one through a nipple.”

Svetlana started to shake a little, and the knot under her breastbone grew and hardened.

“Not now, I’m sorry. Just off the plane and I’m still,… what do you say? Still on Ukraine time?”

‘Jetlagged.”

“Jet – Lagged,” Svetlana repeated slowly.

“Shit Ukraine,” the woman said, “I’m Joanna.”

“Svetlana.”

“OK Ukraine, whatever. You look like you need a beer. Grab your bag, let’s go.”

Chapter 4 Russell (II)

The concrete pallet had no mattress and the jailhouse orange coveralls were thin so Russell wasn’t really asleep when the noise outside the cell snapped his eyes open. Two huge deputies were dragging a man down the corridor towards the cell. He was wearing a once-whitish suite, covered in thin blue lines – now stained with blood and at least one other substance. The man looked exhausted and one eye was swollen almost shut but he still heaved and wiggled against the thick arms that restrained him.

The two deputies tossed him against a wall where he gathered himself erect and began the useless task of trying to smooth the countless deep wrinkles out of his suit. One deputy turned and began to work the lock on the cell door while the other kept facing the man in the suit.

“Gentlemen, “ the man in the suit began to talk in a surprisingly clear, steady, and controlled voice. “I do not stand to be treated like this. You should know that, not only am I an attorney, I am a member of the New York bar.”

The guard facing the man did not say a thing but gave a sharp shrug of his shoulder and a heavy telescoping rod shot down from his hand about the length of his forearm. At the end of the rod was a small but mean looking black sphere.

The man in the suit said, “Ahhhh,” but before a complete word could form the guard raised the extended truncheon and began wailing away at the man in the suit. His arm moved like a piston while the rod whistled through the air landing on the man with a sickening wet thud. Russell noticed the man had the presence of mind to cover his good eye with both hands and to turn and curl to present the smallest target. Russell had the feeling that this wasn’t the first time he had been beaten.

Russell guessed than swinging a heavy club like that was hard work and within a minute the guard stopped, bent over with his hands on his knees and breathing hard. He caught his breath and asked his partner, “Do you want a go at him, Hubert?”

“Naw, I got my licks in when we picked him up. I got a bottle in my locker, lets drop him here and grab a quick snort.”

They grabbed the man and attempted to throw him into the cell but somehow, he resisted enough to stand and walk through the cell door on his own volition. It shut with a metal clang and the two guards left without a backwards glance.

“They didn’t put you in a jail jumpsuit,” Russell said.

“No they did not,” the man said with a bit of pride in his voice, “That, my friend, is the source of the disagreement I had with those two apes back there. As you see, I’m still wearing my seersucker, and that I won that argument.”

Russell thought that was a definition of the word, “won,” that he had not ever heard before.

“How did you get here from New York?”

“Oh, I’m not really from New York. I was born and raised less than three miles from this very hoosegow. I only said I was from New York to impress those dimwitted thugs back there.”

“Now,” Russell said, “I’m just a country kid, but if I sat up all night thinking of saying something that would guarantee I got a bad beating in here, I don’t think I could do any better than telling them I was a New York lawyer.”

The man went on as if Russell hadn’t said a thing. “Now friend, I am an attorney… or at least I was. The state bar did not take too kindly… and over-reacted to – a trivial incident involving a real estate loan and the District Attorney’s niece. My present plans, however, do include, when they come to fruition, the reinstatement of my lawyerly license.”

“I don’t see how getting beat up in jail is going to help you get your license back,” Russell said. “Oh, and I’m Russell and I guess I’m pleased to meet you.”

The man seemed to think for a minute before giving up his name. “Jameson P. Samuel, at your service, but you can call me Jim.”

Chapter 5 Svetlana (III)

Joana ordered, “Two beers, whatever IPA you’ve got on tap please, and a coffee.”

“”What coffee you want?” the Bartender/Barista asked.

“I like my coffee like I like my women, dark, bitter, and Nicaraguan.” Joana turned to Svetlana, “No offense intended, Ukraine.”

Svetlana had no idea how to react to this but luckily one of her English lessons had covered what to say when someone said, “No offense.”

“None taken,” she replied.

The two women grabbed their drinks and settled into a booth at the end of the bar. Svetlana noticed everyone staring at someone in the booth across from them. She followed their gaze and saw a man in a stained white suit that looked like it had been slept in for a week. Half his face was swollen terribly. He was sipping a Bloody Mary with the paper umbrella stills ticking out of it and was talking loudly to a young man with ruffled hair – nursing a coffee in a foam cup.

Sunday Snippet – Benjamin

I’m doing more editing now than writing. The worst part of editing is trying to decide if something you wrote some time ago is worth rescuing… or finishing… or should be plopped in the digital dumper.

Here’s a piece of text that I was enthusiastic about when I wrote it… but now, not so much.

I don’t know, there might be something here or there might not.

Benjamin

With a resigned expression and a clumsy attempt at a dramatic flourish, Beauregard Evans slapped a crisp new bill down on the linoleum table. The small motley group that had gathered around leaned over for a good look. There was a collective sigh followed by a sucking in of breath as the implications began to sink in. Sam pushed between Sally Pumpernickel and Joshua Jones to get a better view of the fat aging hairy hippy, Beauregard, leaning over the table so far his belly pushed out under his dirty tie died T-shirt onto the table, almost touching the bill itself.

“Benjamin,” Sam mumbled to himself.

“A brand spankin’ new one hundred dolla bill,” Beauregard began his spiel, “Raught ‘dere. It goes to the first one to try the thing out. I needs ah test pilot. I need someone with the balls to ride da wild horse. Come on ya pussies! Who’s gonna give ‘er a shot.”

“Man, a hundred dollars won’t buy enough beer to wipe the horror of ridin’ that thing out ‘yer brain, that’s for sure,” said Jimbo. He stood off to the side, smelling of grease and ozone, still wearing his thick leather gloves, his welding helmet tipped up on top of his head, like some sort of degenerate knight, resting after a joust that had gone terrible bad.

Sally Pumpernickel said, “Well a hundred dollars will buy something more powerful than a sinkful of that cheap horse piss you call beer… that’s for sure too.” She blurted out a dizzy giggle at the thought of whatever she could plunk the c-note down on. She wriggled a bit as she imagined it hitting her bloodstream.

Sam broke away from the others as they were beginning to get restless, churning and murmuring, and crossed the room to the open porch, feeling the rough floorboards give with an aching creak as he walked. He looked out over the porch to the slopes beyond. Bits of the morning mist was still tumbling down the mountain, giving the park a surreal, blurred look. But the mist couldn’t hide it – there it was, blue as blue could be… right in front of his nose. The bright artificial blue of fresh paint, still giving off the soybean and solvent smell of drying enamel – the brushes tilted up from drying pools of leftover paint at the bottom of the abandoned open cans.

It was basically a huge iron tube, running down the side of the mountain. A sluice gate had been installed at the top, diverting a strong stream of the ice-cold water from the high spring-fed pool they called “The Dragon’s Cave” into the top of the steep metal pipe.

Sam tried to think it through. Really it was only an enclosed water ride, nothing much more. They had a half dozen just like it already. Jimbo and his crew had taught themselves how to weld the surplus plate steel, boiler iron, and ancient drill pipe they had scrapped and salvaged together into twisting and turning water-courses. The drunk, high, and poverty-stricken customers that on hot summer weekends enjoyed the cut-rate aqueous entertainment the park offered would throw themselves with abandon into the dark sewers – the longer, faster, twistier, scarier… the better.

The most popular enclosed slide was a real piece of work called, “The Devil’s Backbone.” It ended right behind the crude cabin that served as a workshop. The crew liked to hang out on the porch, drink, pass the bong and watch the customers tumble into the pool at the end of the ride. A particularly violent and unexpected isosceles twist right at the end tended to yank suit bottoms down and dislodge all but the most tightly secured bikini tops. It was great. Everybody, even the customers… especially the customers… loved it.

It had taken Jimbo a year to get the proper hang of the welding, and a lot of customers had been sent down the mountain to the emergency room while he was learning. He had been showing signs of mellowing… but now, this.

They had not named the new ride, the one that Sam was staring at, the one they were offering all the cash for the first one stupid and desperate enough to leap into. It was so simple. A simple tube running straight down the mountain at a very steep angle for about three hundred feet. It needed the run, it needed the speed, for at the bottom was a simple, elegant, round loop in the tube, shooting up about thirty feet in the air before looping back down and discharging into a generous pool at the bottom.

“Are you thinking about taking that thing?” asked Joshua Jones. He and Sally had followed Sam out on to the porch and leaned on the railing beside him.

“Yup.”

“You know what happened to the test dummies that the ran down there?”

“Yup.”

Jimbo had gone into Trinidad for a salvage sale at the “Platform Fashion Boutique” bankruptcy and bought their entire stock of realistic mannequins to use in testing out new rides. The water would wash them out of the bottom of the looping tube with their arms and legs detached, their necks bent at unnatural angles.

“Not a good test,” Beauregard Evans had said. “Those dummies don’t have no brains, no muscles, no reflexes. A human bean can wiggle through no problema. We’ll grease ’em up with Crisco to get em over the hump and make sure they keep their arms crossed over their chests.”

Now Sam, Joshua, and Sally leaned on the rail, looked at the tube, and thought of the crisp currency on the table and on the pieces of old mannequin stacked up behind some bushes.

“You still thinkin’?” Joshua asked Sam again.

“Yup.”

“You’ll never ride that thing,” Sally Pumpernickel said. “You don’t have the guts.”

Sam let out a sigh. No use thinking any more; now he had no choice. There was no way he could live the rest of his years… no matter how short, with Sally Pumpernickel thinking and saying he was a chicken. He pushed away from the railing, turned and walked briskly into the maintenance shed. He had to push the crowd aside – but he didn’t have to say anything – just reach out onto the table and snatch up the hundred dollar bill.