Where Foxes Run

Where Foxes Run

A short story by Linda June

with MaryAnne Tebedo

Copyright: 2018 The Letterista, LLC

 

The man slogged through the ankle-deep water with his heavy burden dragging at his neck. The half-moon illumined his way just enough to avoid the larger obstacles, but still, his laborious progress seemed perilously slow.

*  ****  *

The concrete pathway along the creek stretched before Brian as he set his feet down in long strides. He was on his return leg back to his apartment overlooking a stream and greenway trail. Miles away to the west, the Rocky Mountains of Denver imposed themselves like guardians of a harem. Seldom passed a day in which Brian did not take his exercise along the banks of Fox Run Creek.

As a moderately successful writer of men’s romance novels—otherwise known as stories wherein the heroic cop/detective/soldier/spy always got the beautiful girl—Brian enjoyed his time outside and away from the computer. His Germanic ancestry had bequeathed him a tall, athletic build which demanded regular exertion. Without it, he could easily sink back into depression and, possibly, the bottle.

*  ****  *

The boy hesitated, hand on the doorknob, and gazed back at the hedgerow once again. That Biscuit failed to materialize from under the bushes today was troubling. His little caramel-colored cat hardly ever missed greeting him in the yard when he returned from school. Maybe she was upstairs, asleep on his bed.

With his father gone on business quite often, the seven-year-old had only the mother and the animal for companionship in the narrow, clapboard house. Biscuit brought him comfort, something to love. Twisting the knob, the boy pushed through the door.

In the kitchen at the back of the house, the boy quietly placed his lunchbox on the gray and white mottled Formica counter top next to the sink. “Hello, Darling,” spoke the mother from the counter between the sink and the stove. She was hacking a whole chicken into pieces with decisive whacks of a small cleaver. Chicken blood spattered her white chef’s apron and, below it, her yellow slacks and white canvass sneakers.

*  ****  *

On the trail, Brian often spotted tracks in the snow or mud of the local wildlife. Those prints he couldn’t identify, he’d photograph and later research on the internet. In his eight years at his current apartment village, he had identified the traces of dogs, cats, deer, racoons, mice, rabbits, fox, coyote, clouds of ordinary and exotic birds and once, even those of a cougar.

The idea of big cats prowling nearby intrigued him after the fashion of vampires and werewolves. Cougars were nearly as elusive and no less dangerous. It surprised him that they haunted the prairie environs this far from the foothills, although, in arid Colorado, wherever water trickled or flowed, so too did an abundance of wildlife.

Today, Brian noticed two elongated, serpentine sets of tracks in the drying mud, one superimposing in places on the other. They marked a foot chase between a rabbit and a fox. At the brow of the embankment, the prints vanished. Peering over, Brian could not determine the outcome of the match. It seemed both hunter and hunted had flown over the edge and landed in the sandy-bottomed creek below. No traces ascended the far shore some twenty feet away.

*  ****  *

“Have you seen Biscuit?” the boy asked.

“What, no kiss for your mom first?” Dutifully, the boy raised his face towards her, crooked slightly away. The mother bowed down and made to peck his cheek, but at the last second, slid to his lips. The boy hated it when she did that. It didn’t seem right. The kiss lasted too long and made him feel—he wasn’t sure how it made him feel. Not right, that was for sure. They were like thunder from invisible lightning, and he hated them. Those kisses were like how she kissed his father; and when Father was home, she only kissed the boy properly on the cheek.

“I’m sure Biscuit’s around here somewhere,” the mother said. With bloody fingers, she handed him a wicker basket with a long loop of a handle. “Here, go pick some raspberries for your mom, would you? I feel like making a cobbler for desert.”

The boy badly ached to search for his cat, but he took the basket and stepped out the back door. This was not a day to cross the mother.

Near the back fence composed of tall, wooden slats, stood a lanky, garden tool shed, a convert from an old outhouse. Behind it, running the length of the fence, sprawled the thicket of raspberry vines. The boy began to pluck ripened fruit until he noticed, in his peripheral sight, an unsupported spade standing upright. Its blade had been forcefully imbedded in the soil between the shed and raspberries, and between the body and head of Biscuit.

*  ****  *

Yesterday, the cops had visited again. Her remains had turned up, finally, after all these years. At the news, Brian grabbed an elbow, fell against the door frame, buried his face in one large hand and let a shudder pass through him. He was sorry to hear it, he said, wiping down his face, thumb and fingers on either side. But not really surprised. They refused to give him details.

Brian had invited them to sit at his dining room table. He made a pot of coffee, for himself, as it turned out. They commanded him to again recount the last time he had seen Elaine. They had been over it so many times five years ago, and it wearied him to repeat himself again now.

One of the cops this day had also been on the case half a decade past when Elaine had disappeared. He had made Homicide since the first interrogation. Detective Eckert was pushing fifty. Shaped like an anti-tank stanchion only taller, he probably had played the defensive line on his college football team. His short, cop-styled hair — long enough to part, short enough to look neat under a pork-pie hat — was dyed a dark brown except at his gray temples.

His partner, Williams, a muscular, medium-sized woman of near forty, was new. She wore her curly brown hair shoulder-length and clasped in back with a black barrette. Apparently, one parent was white and the other probably half white, half black. They both wore professional suits. Eckert pursued most of the questioning. Williams gazed around the apartment when she wasn’t pinning Brian to the chair with her trenchant, silent scrutiny.

*  ****  *

Once safely distant from the edges of the last housing development, the man unbound her right knee from his left. He let the body fall to the ground and massaged his aching arms.

*  ****  *

Nothing had changed in five years except that he had moved from his garden level one-bedroom unit to a bright, airy three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of the same building. Here, he had formulated one extra room as his office and surrendered another for the complete enjoyment of his gray tabby, Mr. Rogers.

As expected, Elaine had not received his desire to split up with any kind of equanimity.

While she had concealed her obsession at first, still, he should have recognized the early signs. The overly-frequent calls and texts; showing up at his door out of the blue between scheduled dates; “accidentally” running into him at the grocery store a few minutes after his arrival; hints of fast-creeping jealousy.

But he had muffled his growing disquiet in favor of her deep brunette beauty; her tall, lithe frame and charmingly spiked hair; her intelligence and graceful movements. The fact that one so exotic would find him attractive enough to drag to bed in a squall of passion after their second dinner together shrouded his misgivings like chocolate over a rotten peanut.

Then the stalking began openly and in frightening earnest. Next came the irrational suspicion. Visits alone to his parents and little sister earned him cold shoulders and scathing accusations of infidelity. She professed an allergy to Mr. Rogers and strongly suggested his removal on behalf of her comfort. She became snippy, then enraged at him whenever he doted on his cat.

*  ****  *

Finding a flat stone about the size and shape of a thin book, the man dug at the soft bank, widening what appeared to have been an animal den of some sort.

*  ****  *

The relationship had barely aged three months when he realized he must escape. His very life depended on it. Elaine kept him in a constant state of agitation and distress. She couldn’t stand to be apart from him and afflicted him with her insecurities whenever they were together. Often, she accused him with his own words, insinuating a hardness of heart he’d never before noticed about himself.

He had begun dreaming of the oblivion of whiskey. It beckoned seductively from the depths of a decade past, but he knew well how the succubus of vodka would ensnare him, render him powerless to flee the crypt of his soul that was Elaine. He sensed that if he tumbled into that muddy pit once more, he could never claw his way out again.

Envisioning grievous rage and pitiable supplications that could last hours and possibly succeed in dragging him back into her lair, Brian had determined to break the news to Elaine from a distance. He leaned on the balcony rail and called her office late in the workday, hoping she had not yet departed from her job in downtown Denver. Gazing across the greenway, he traced the silhouette of the distant peaks, now magnified and veiled in an ethereal afternoon haze.

Her office line and cell phone went unanswered, and he had dared to leave a diffident message on both. Moments later, he caught sight of her car speeding across the bridge spanning Fox Run Creek, heading west, away from Brian’s home. Either she had recently arrived or had been sitting in his parking lot for God only knew how long. Brian had heaved a martyr’s sigh and retreated to his living room.

*  ****  *

At last, the man had excavated a hole in the bank large and deep enough to curl up the body deep under the sleeping prairie sod. Removing the small revolver from his jacket pocket, he carefully wiped its entire surface with the woman’s cotton skirt. Then he clasped first her left hand, then her right hand around the pistol. By now, her hands were ice cold and stiffening. No matter, thought the man. He was almost done.

*  ****  *

“Did you try to call her again?” Queried the homicide detective, pen poised over a small notepad. He did not look up at Brian. He knew his partner wouldn’t miss a flinch or a feint.

“No. I’d already left the message. I expected her to call me or come back at any time after that.”

“And did she?”

“Yeah. She knocked on my door later that night.”

After a couple of beats, the detective asked, “And you let her in?”

Brian had gone over this with them a hundred times already, but he knew they would keep asking until they thought they had caught him changing his story. But they wouldn’t. Sighing, Brian replied, “No.”

“No? Why not?”

“Honestly, I was afraid of what she might do. I didn’t know what I would do if she decided to attack me. Or try to kill herself in front of me.”

*  ****  *

The boy stood trembling over the corpse of his beloved cat, too shocked to cry, his fingers white around the basket handle. It reminded him of something else, something he couldn’t quite remember. It had something to do with the mother, though. That she had done this to Biscuit, he had no doubt. Why didn’t he doubt that? What if some mean neighbor had done it? No. No neighbor had done this. He wished he could remember the thing tickling the back of his mind.

*  ****  *

“You think she would have?”

“Killed herself in front of me? Yeah. Maybe. Yes. She’d already threatened to do that if I ever broke up with her. She was crazy. You can’t predict crazy people. I had no idea what she was capable of and had no desire to find out.”

“You think she would have attacked you?”

“Yes.”

*  ****  *

The mother was calling his name. The boy did not respond. “What have you done?” the mother gasped, hand flying to her cleavage. “Why did you kill Biscuit? What did that poor cat ever do to you?” she demanded. The boy knew he hadn’t chopped Biscuit in two. But the mother kept pounding him with hysterical questions as though it were a certainty that he had. Her panicky, feverish interrogation began to confuse him. She was on her knees, gripping his delicate shoulders and shaking him. Back and forth. Back and forth. “Are you nuts? Why did you DO this?” Maybe he did do it. Maybe he just couldn’t remember. No. Maybe. “Don’t you know this is what little boys do when they realize they love their cats more than their moms?”

*  ****  *

“What would you have done if she did?”

“I really don’t know. Tried to restrain her, of course, but I think she would have fought like a badger. I didn’t want to hurt her. Or get hurt, for that matter.”

“So, what happened then?”

*  ****  *

Now, he remembered what he couldn’t earlier. Curled up on his bed, the memory seeped back into his mind like blood through a bandage. She had let him buy a hamster once. He named it Peanut and took very good care of it. Then one day, he came home from playing with the neighbor kids and found Peanut’s cage open and the hamster gone. He looked everywhere upstairs and down. The mother then suggested that maybe Peanut was exploring the cellar. Oddly, she made no mention of his careless attention that had allowed Peanut to escape his cage. Pressing the old button switch that controlled the single bulb hanging from the floor joists above, the boy tromped down to the dank space where lived the furnace. There, in the spot where they said there used to be a coal bin, was Peanut. Someone had drawn a star inside a circle in the dirt floor. In the center of the star lay Peanut, impaled to the ground with a large knitting needle.

*  ****  *

“She yelled and screamed at me through the door. I’m sure the neighbors corroborated that five years ago. It was past ten and this is a pretty quiet complex. People don’t generally air their domestic issues out loud here.”

“Hm. So you just let her stand out there and raise hell?”

“Yes.”

“Weren’t you afraid someone would call the cops?”

“I was hoping they would.”

“Huh. And then?”

*  ****  *

She stood outside his door, head bent down, face obscured through the peephole. The man saw only the crown of her head. She had pommeled the door thirty seconds earlier, and he had crept silently across the carpet, trying to still his ragged breathing. Suddenly, he heard a key slipping into the deadbolt. His heart skipped a beat. She had a key. Where the hell had she gotten his key? A clay mold while he showered? A photograph and website? How many other keys had she duplicated? How many times had she snuck into his apartment when he wasn’t there? What did she do while alone inside his home?

Angry now, he yanked the door open before she could finish her sly entry. Startled, she gasped, whipping her hands back as though under arrest. Recovering quickly, she screeched, “What the hell was that phone call, man? What are you trying to do? I told you I’d kill myself if you ever left me. You must want me to die! Well, YOU should die, you bastard. I thought you loved me like I love you! Tell me! You want me to die, huh?” she bellowed, too furious to weep. She tried to push past him, but he blocked the door, bracing one leg behind himself.

“Calm down, already. You’ll wake my neighbors.”

“Calm down like hell! You dump me over the phone?” The last word was shrieked an octave higher. “What the hell, you coward! Let me in!”

*  ****  *

“She just suddenly calmed down. It was eerie, you know? I didn’t expect her to just stop yelling and go away like that. But she did.” Brian clasped his coffee mug in both hands, leaning over the table, viewing the scene on the liquid screen in the mug.

“She just turned and walked away? Just like that.”

“Yes. I was surprised. I wanted to think that it was all over, but I figured she just had a brilliant Plan B pop into her head, so, she left. Then I had to worry about Plan B.”

“Huh. What did you do then?”

*  ****  *

The boy heard the mother clomping down the wooden stairs. As she passed under the dangling bulb, her shadow oozed over the lifeless body of his hamster. “What have you done?” She hissed.

*  ****  *

“I made coffee and sat down to read. I didn’t want to sleep until I was sure she wasn’t coming back with a bazooka or something.”

“You could’ve left the apartment and gone somewhere else, you know.”

“Right. I thought about it, but what if she’d thought of that, too, and was waiting for me in the parking lot or in back, if I left by the patio door? I didn’t want to risk it.”

“You could’ve called the cops yourself, you know,” the detective said, still absorbed in his notepad.

“Uh-huh,” Brian smirked derisively. A brief, faint smile flit across Eckert’s face.

*  ****  *

The lower half of the man’s body poked from the cavity in the embankment. It was completely black inside, and he had to work by feel through his leather gloves. Holding her hands around the gun, the man positioned the barrel against the soft spot on the side of the woman’s head. Squeezing his eyes shut and counting to three, he pulled the trigger. Though it was a small, .22 caliber pistol, the hot explosion flashed like heat lightning on the other side of his eyelids. He thought his ears might start bleeding.

Quickly, the man backed out of the cavern and began refilling it. He judged he had about two more hours before dawn would dilute the blackness around him. He had to work fast now. He had to hike up the path and get closer to home before the sun rose.

*  ****  *

“Did she come back?” Detective Williams, apparently, could talk.

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“She came to the patio door. When I heard the gate, I turned on the light and looked out. She was drunk and stumbling around. She had a bourbon bottle in one hand and a prescription bottle in the other. She held them up for me to see.”

“What time was it?” Williams wanted to know.

*  ****  *

“All right. Come in,” the man said, stepping aside. Once inside, he quietly shut the door. The woman dug something out of her purse and spun to face him with a sneer, her loose skirt twisting around her legs. Backing away from him, she leveled a small, black hand gun at his forehead. He froze.

“This is what happens when you throw me out like used kitty litter,” the woman said. Then she swung her arm sideways and drew down on Mr. Rogers who had taken refuge on the man’s desk chair.

*  ****  *

“I’m not sure exactly. I think it was in the neighborhood of midnight.”

“Okay. Then what?”

“I wasn’t going to open the door, but then she stumbled, fell and hit her head on the railing. She hit the patio concrete and passed out. I panicked. Thought she might be dead, or, if not, then she might die for sure if she had really taken a bunch of her Xanax pills with the bourbon. I went to her and checked her pulse, listened for breath. She was alive.”

“Did you really care? After all, that would have solved all your problems, right?” Williams said. Brian lifted his face and regarded her sadly.

“Of course, I cared. I never wanted her to kill herself. Hell, that’s why I endured her crap for too long. But I also knew I couldn’t let her destroy my life, which she was trying her best to do. It was a Catch 22.”

Williams scoffed. “Anyway….”

“Anyway, I was afraid she would die if I left her lying there unconscious. I heard that if you could keep people who O-D on booze and drugs awake…” he trailed off. “So, I pulled her up and tried to put her in a patio chair. I kept pinching her face and squeezing her wrist to wake her up. But the chair was too flimsy. She kept flopping over and almost fell out of the chair. So, I pulled her to her feet and kind of ragdolled her around, trying to get her to wake up.”

*  ****  *

Without thinking and in one quick, coordinated motion, the man rushed forward, seized the woman’s wrist and drove his fist like a hammer into the side of her head. She collapsed, the gun falling to the carpet with a soft thud. He released her wrist and let her arm flop across her waist. He stood over her, glaring down at her motionless figure, breathing as though he’d just come in from a jog.

*  ****  *

“Ragdolled?” Said Eckert.

“Yeah, you know, walked her around with her arm over my shoulders and my other arm around her waist. She started to come to, thank God. I took her out on the lawn where the air was cooler. I thought that might help. It seemed to. She started moaning and waking up. She was beginning to walk on her own then.

“I took her a few paces up and down the path behind the apartment complex. It was even cooler the closer we got to the creek. Then she started to, uh, erk, you know? Like she was going to puke, which was good. I helped her down to the creek so she could barf there.”

“Why was that?” Eckert asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I didn’t want her puking on the sidewalk where people would come across it, maybe step in it.”

“How thoughtful of you,” sneered Williams.

“Yeah, regular Boy Scout,” confirmed Eckert.

“Whatever. It made sense at the time.”

“Did you call for an ambulance or anything?” Williams asked.

“No.”

“Why the hell not? You knew she was O-D-ing.”

Brian stared at his empty coffee mug, summoning another wave of patience. They’d been over this so many times five years ago. Now he had to lay it all out again for Detective Williams.

“Yes, maybe. It was possible that she had only drunk too much and the pill bottle was just a decoy, to scare me. Know what I mean?”

“Do tell.”

*  ****  *

The man found himself gawking at the woman on the floor. He was half-seated on the back of the couch that faced the sliding glass door to the patio. Wracking his brain, he simply had no recollection of how she had ended up lying there so still like that. Then, he knelt and checked her pulse. None. He declined an ear close to her staring face. No breath, either. How long she had been like that, he couldn’t say.

*  ****  *

“Well, right or wrong, I didn’t call. My phone was still in my apartment and she was coming to. Honestly, I still didn’t want to let her into my apartment where she might get too comfortable and make it harder to finish breaking up. I figured she was probably manipulating me. I wanted her to sober up enough to just go away.”

“Uh. Huh.”

*  ****  *

The man sat on his couch, considering what to do. Absently, he scrubbed his mouth as though washing it. A couple of hours later, he rose.

He went to the bedroom and retrieved a thin belt. Returning, he repositioned the woman until she was lying on her back, legs straightened. He stuffed the gun into his left pocket and placed her purse on the back of the couch. Next, he lowered himself to the carpet beside the woman and strapped her right knee to his left.

*  ****  *

“Look. I know it makes me look bad, but I thought at the time that she was sobering up, and because she was that she hadn’t really taken a bottle of Xanax. And that being the case, there was no reason I couldn’t just let her off with a warning, so to speak.”

“Meaning what, exactly?” Eckert wanted to know.

“She did barf in the creek. It was too dark to see what all was in it,” he said, turning his head as though reliving the moment. “Thankfully.  I have a hard time not puking myself when I see other people’s puke.” He stared at the carpet a moment. “She got steadier on her feet after that, so I figured she hadn’t really taken pills, after all. We walked across the stream to the other side and went downstream for a while. There’s more sand and fewer rocks along that side. We just walked up and down the creek for a while until she was sober.”

“How long did that take?” Eckert again.

“I don’t know. A couple of hours. More, maybe. Once she started begging me to not break up, I figured it was time to take her back to her car and send her on her way.”

“Did you?”

“I took her back to her car, anyway.”

“Did you go through your apartment to get to the parking lot?” Eckert wanted to know.

“No. We were on the south end of the complex and it was faster to go straight to her car from that direction. Anyway, I escorted her back to her car and made her get in. She was lucid enough by that time. I told her that she should just go away and forget about me, and if she tried to follow me or bug me anymore, I was going to call the cops. I told her that her behavior was crazy enough to get her committed, and the neighbors would probably agree, so she should just drive away and never look back.”

“Did she?”

*  ****  *

The man stood up, dragging the woman up with him. He wrapped her right arm around his shoulders and tested the binding around their legs. The belt was holding, but her skirt was hitched up on that side. Nevertheless, it still hid the belt well enough if they were seen in the dark. When he moved his left leg, her right one moved, too, simulating the appearance that she was using him as a drunk’s crutch.

The man curled the fingers of the woman’s right hand around her purse strap and the strap around the fist a couple of times. The purse flopped against his chest as he moved her around. Using his finger, he lowered the woman’s eyelids to about half-mast. Finally, he grabbed his keys and ragdolled the woman out the patio door.

Avoiding the pools of light from the landscape spotlights, he dragged the woman around the grass for a few minutes, leaning enough to the right to stay balanced. He softly murmured in consideration of the windows open to the sweet summer night’s air, “Deep breaths. That’s it. Big breaths. Good, good. You’ll feel better soon.” Presently, he said with notable alarm, “Hold it in, hold it in. Can you wait until we get down the bank?”

*  ****  *

“I don’t know. Apparently not, unless she did, then came back again later. All I know is that I went back to my apartment and fell asleep on the couch. She never came back to the patio door, as far as I know, and never knocked on the front door, either.”

“Didn’t you think it strange that her car was still in the lot the next day?”

“I didn’t leave the apartment for the next three days, except to take my walks. When I’m hot on a book, I often spend upwards of sixteen hours a day cranking it out. I may not come up for air for several days. I didn’t know that her car was still there.”

“Hmf,” was all Eckert had to say. Williams muttered something under her breath. Eckert already knew the whole story, but it was still new to Williams.

“What happened next?” Williams continued, aloud this time.

“Nothing. Well, you guys paid me a visit — what, four days later? Otherwise, that’s all I can tell you. I wish I knew what happened to her as much as you do.”

“I’m sure you do,” mumbled Williams. Eckert closed his notepad, neatly capped his pen and deposited both in his jacket’s inside breast pocket. Finally, he raised his eyes to Brian and said, “That was some rain we had Tuesday, wasn’t it?”

“Boy, I’ll say. Made me glad I moved upstairs. I watched the creek rise and start overflowing the banks. It was kind of frightening. It was moving a hell of a lot of water. I hear it flooded out a bridge south of here.”

“Flooded out more than that,” Williams said, rising to her feet. She shared a long look with Eckert, who dipped his head in a nearly imperceptible nod. “By the way, we talked to your mom yesterday.” Slapping both palms flat to the oak table, and craning towards Brian’s face, she continued. “She said you confessed to her that you killed Elaine five years ago and buried her body in the creek bed.”

Brian couldn’t prevent the guffaw before it escaped his throat. Williams’ accusation was so absurd that it told him everything he needed to know, namely that they desperately wanted to pin Elaine’s death on him but had not a shred of viable evidence and no contradicting witnesses.

“Really?” he chuckled. “You paid her a visit at the Wickerwood mental hospital?”

“We did. We’ve got it all, Brian.”

“Huh. Did she tell you that before or after she told you how the demons come and rape her every week? Did she also tell you I killed my pets when I was a little kid? I hear that one a lot. She killed my hamster and my cat herself while I was at school or at a friend’s house. Detective Williams, my mom’s been disturbed for a long time. Hardly any place better than Wickerwood for her. But, hey. I understand. A lead’s a lead.”

&&&

Descending the stairs to the parking lot, Eckert said, “Well. What’d you think?”

“He’s one very cool cucumber. Almost think he’s not good for it. The case file says some neighbors saw him that night pretty much as he described it, walking her around near the creek. He could be telling the truth, but you know, last person to see her alive, car left in the lot and all that.”

“Plus, a guy whose mother has sex with demons probably has a few issues himself.” Eckert laughed.

“Yep. Guess we’ll have to see what forensics can find.”

“Five years. The body was feeding worms for a long time. They’re not going to find much, my guess. Flood water that exposed the body didn’t help much, either.”

“Right. Hole in the head doesn’t line up, though. Looked like her head was caved in then someone put a bullet in it besides. Is he known to have guns?”

“Not that we’ve been able to determine, but that means nothing in Colorado.”

“How ‘bout her?”

“She bought a .22 eight years ago. Had a concealed carry permit.”

“Suicide?”

“Which came first, the bullet or the divot? I doubt tipping over on his patio did that much damage.”

“Hmm. Tox report might possibly turn something up.”

“We know she took anti-depressants already. Alcohol will be long gone, if it was ever there in the first place.”

“Guess you’re right. I kind of felt sorry for him, though. Lovers like that are about as easy to shake off as boogers on a finger. Sometimes, you just have to wipe them on your jeans.”

Eckert laughed. “You got a way with words, Williams. Anyone ever tell you that?”

&

Brian leaned against the door, sobbing quietly, grieving for Elaine at long last.

What have I done?

If Only It Were About the Cake

 

If homosexual activists were smart, they’d hope to God the nine Supreme Jurors rule in Mr. Phillip’s favor. Because it’s not about the cake.

I reference the case of the Denver baker and cake artist, Jack Phillips, who refused to decorate a wedding cake for a pair of homosexuals. The outraged couple, ignoring the 67 other cake shops begging for their order, instantly tattled on him, like children, to the state functionaries who allegedly keep a wary eye peeled for social crimes. The baker received a weighty fine, and ever since, he’s trudged up the cold stone stairs of appeals to the height of the Supreme Court, seeking relief and a Constitutional ruling.

Everyone admits this is not about cake. Or flowers and photos, in the case of other professional artisans snapped like kindling over the knees of activist bureaucrats of late. In fact, it’s not even about religious liberty, protected status, same-sex marriage or free speech, if you define free speech as the right to actively speak your mind even though it offends.

This is about transferring that last vestige of power from the people to the rulers. And while homosexuals may be enjoying the upper hand at this moment in time, they’d be fools to think the tables won’t eventually turn back on them. Certainly, the Christians of a century ago never saw the demise of conscience coming.

You see, if the homosexuals win, then the so-called government gives itself (again) the illegitimate power to compel anyone to do anything. This self-derived license won’t remain limited to forcing Christians to create art depicting something the artist finds reprehensible. Nor, when the day comes, will it hold itself to forcing nuns to peddle pornography if they also sell Christmas cards. Even though, at length, it could force Planned Parenthood to fund anti-abortion literature for distribution in the schools, or its staff to pray rosaries outside their own doors, that won’t be the end of the wrong ruling, either.

After the pendulum swings wildly according to the political flavor of whomever pulls the levers of civil power, when the fog of indignation clears, this case will determine whether the agents of secular authority can compel any activity by any person for any reason.

For example, as socialized medicine impoverishes the dreams of would-be medical professionals, what would stop the so-called government from forcing certain intelligent students to become doctors and nurses to fill hospital vacancies? Why wouldn’t they conscript propaganda writers after free speech becomes criminal acts against the state and authors flee the vocation? What would prevent the state from compelling men and women to become mercenary killers should the youth of the land balk at our endless wars?

With the ground already broken by mandatory insurance decrees, a decision that denies Mr. Phillips his natural rights would push us all out of the process of voluntary governance and into the deep, reeking pit of straight-up servitude. It may take decades before the effects become as evident and egregious as described, but a ruling against a humble baker today will stretch far beyond its current dotted line in the sand. Honest historians, if such exist in our future, may find this case the turning point in our history, the moment when the American experiment in liberty got its throat slashed.

If you think this is little more than alarmism, I must ask: Did you sleep through all of your history classes? Have you never heard of the Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, Chairman Mao’s China, just to name the more notorious brutes of autocratic states? Did the fact of continued slavery in the south after Lincoln’s successful war slip your mind? What makes you think rulers on our continent have cleaner hearts than those on the rest of the land masses? If it’s profitable for the elite to call your tune for you, don’t you think they’ll do anything to make you dance?

In America, oppressions builds slowly, election by election, case by Supreme Court case. In our country, it’s more effective to sneak servitude in through the back door than by smashing windows with flash-bang grenades.

Whether you are a committed Christian or dedicated anti-Christian “social justice warrior,” pray to whatever you worship that Mr. Phillips wins his day in court

Death by Hot Flash: or What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know

We women have all heard how backing out of puberty in middle age is as delightful as a picnic shared with ants, flies and wasps. However, if you take your life stages as the wild adventures that they are, then surely you can find upsides to mental pause — besides saving a ton of money, time and hassle every month. I’m here to shed some positive light on this event more feared by women than the scalding agony of childbirth only because it means the advent of crepe paper faces. That cheerful incandescence of optimism will radiate from deep within the magma of your hot flashes.

Female Anatomy They Don’t Teach in School

Those health classes in public school told us all about how to get ourselves pregnant before we were old enough to legally get ourselves a husband, but they never bothered to tell us what was barreling down the pike in another forty years, give or take. That particular secret we had to learn in darkened back kitchens from our mothers, aunts and grandmothers when the men weren’t around. Because men despise knowing how women work even as they writhe in mental agony, protesting that they “just don’t understand women!”

Anyway, we two-legged estrogenic units need that hormone so we that we can extrude little miniatures of ourselves and our beloved. Which is all good when you’re practically a baby yourself with the commensurate amount vigor in your heart, muscles and connective tissues.

But one day, we discover that gym work never stops aching. Then we pull, stretch or tear something, and our bodies wake up and say, “Dang, if we made a baby today, we could easily die in three or four years. Got to put a stop to that and soon!” Therefore, to preserve us from death by toddler chase, that little pituitary gland in the brain starts slacking off in its requisition for the girly juice.

Unfortunately, the rest of our body says, “Hey, I need that girly juice to keep the pump primed, the framework solid and to remain nominally rational.” Mr. Pituitary doesn’t care, though. He’s a classic bureaucrat, except that you can’t bribe him with forty dollars and a bottle of brandy.

So, the bones get together and convince our fat cells to store all the estrogen they can, for heaven’s sake. Hence the weight gain, by the way. Fat cells are just pumping up with estrogen to slide under the table to our skeletons. But what the heck, being svelte is only about upping your chances to create your retirement plan and name it Junior, anyway. Once you’ve nailed that, with a few backups, it’s good to keep those stores of girly juice stashed away from Mr. P.’s prying eyes, even if it means shopping at Abdul the Tentmaker’s shop instead of The Gap. What do you want: skinny jeans and broken hips, or enough padding to bounce back to your feet when you fall over?

The thing is, though, Mr. P. can sense a fraud on the system, and that makes him a little testy. Hot under the collar, even.

Anatomy of a Hot Flash

Being situated in your brain, Mr. P.’s fit pitching naturally raises the heat level in your head. At first, you think you’re just embarrassed about some trifling thing which you bungled big time when you were twelve. But then the heat goes from mildly-annoyed-with-yourself to metal-smelting, and soon you’re raining on your nice silk oversized blouse. Strangely, while the rest of your body poaches you, too, no other part can melt rocks quite like your head.

You wonder where all the energy comes from to feed Mr. P’s ire. The answer, of course, is from your hands and feet. Just ask your mate.

Let’s do the math. Let’s say we have a normal body temperature of 98 degrees evenly spread. Your head starts at 98, but it’s about to go thermal nuclear, so it sucks 98 degrees out of each hand and foot. That’s 98 already in the head plus 98 times 4 which, all total, equals 490 degrees. 392 degrees get sucked into your skull so rapidly that the friction in your limbs generates its own heat. At nearly 500 degrees, if you had a mouth as big as a celebrity gossip’s, you could bake pizzas in it.

Besides cooking dinner sans an appliance, what other good things can come of killer hot flashes?

The Most Perfect Solution for Near-Fatal Hot Flashes

Radiating heat has its distinct advantages. You can de-ice your windshield with it. Or stand near the thermostat at work to make the air conditioner kick in, sunbathe in a Midwest January and attract cats faster than your keyboard. But what do you do when your cranium makes the surface of the sun feel like a cool dip in Lake Michigan? Well, here’s a trick, scientifically proven in my own home laboratory, to derive the most pleasure possible from your best hot flashes.

At the onset, snatch up a bottle of vodka, scotch, bourbon or whatever. Kick off your shoes and plop down on the floor to wrap your feet and hands around the glass. In no time, you’ll have a nice slushy ready for instant enjoyment. Ten minutes hence, you’ll think pouring the remainder of your slushy over your head would be the best decision you ever made in life. I know it was for me. In eleven minutes, you won’t give a rip about the coke oven in your skull or how outer space got wrapped around your extremities. Tomorrow, you won’t even remember. Problem solved.

And there you have it. Going through “The Change” is everything it’s cracked up to be and more!

Britain Lets Its Gard Down, Exposes Its Shame for Americans to See

Charlie Gard, RIP: Was he an exceptional case? Probably. Could you or a cherished family member become an exceptional case? Absolutely. Could Charlie’s plight happen to you here in the U.S.? Once your government successfully clamps its gnarled paws entirely around the neck of health care, you better believe it.

Remember Terri Schiavo, Property of Her Husband?

She was that unfortunate woman whose husband (probably) tried to murder her but failed. Instead, he (probably) caused her such trauma, during and after his (probable) homicide attempt, that she could no longer function as a self-guided, autonomous person, at least not until she received grievously belated therapy. They claimed she was a vegetable, unconscious and unable to live without some life support. “They” were some medical experts, with perplexingly queer motivations, and the courts. They wanted her dead. No joke. They didn’t just want her off their hands, they wanted her off the planet.

Although the internet only disgorges other telling videos now, I’m wondering, did you ever see the video footage of Terri responding to a visit from her mother? According to those who actually loved her, her visible joy, her open eyes, her jerky movements, her grunts of excitement at the sight of her mom was typical. That’s why they recorded it for the world to see.

If only it would. Terri was severely incapacitated, but she was no vegetable. No longer would she be able to cook a meal, drive a car or earn a paycheck, but she was alive and responsive to the best of her body’s ability. When you see her react to her mother, the human heart breaks knowing what they did to her.

The courts decided, per Mr. Schiavo’s insistent plea, that the state and its functionaries in the care facility (I use that term quite loosely) should accomplish in 2005 what Mr. Schiavo (probably) tried to do in 1990. Refusing to release her to the private care of her parents — who desperately wanted to take her home and truly care for her — instead, they commanded that she be starved and dehydrated to an agonizing death so that Mr. Schiavo could get on with his life.

Charlie Gard, Property of the Queen of England

Fast forward to 2017. With decades of similar exercise under their belt, British administrators and practitioners of single-payer healthcare recently Schiavoed little Charlie Gard. Absent a government by, for and of the people, they probably had a legal right (but certainly not lawful). Long have the inhabitants of Great Britain been subjects (read property) of the reigning king or queen. Long have they agreed to be used and disposed of as such.

Poor Charlie’s DNA went haywire with a very rare and fatal disease. In all of England, no effective treatment was known. In all of England, little, if any, money is spent attempting to further the noble science of medicine when so much is already spent bandaging boo-boos without charge to the wounded. However, in the U.S.A., an experimental treatment has been researched, and those medical scientists, blessed with the rapidly-vanishing vestiges of a free-market — and a heart — yearned to see if their work could help Charlie Gard.

But in a country where the people belong to the Queen and her various bureacracies, not to themselves or, as children, to their parents, permission to take Charlie to America was needed and formally denied. Utilizing the godsend of the internet, Charlie’s parents had even raised enough money to essentially buy him from the state and take him off their budget-strapped hands. If treated soon enough, maybe Charlie stood a chance.

Rather than acknowledge the sense and humanity of it, the medical “experts” vehemently rejected all efforts to save Charlie. Forcing his parents to sue for his release, the months it took for the state to vanquish them were enough for little Charlie’s disease to advance past the point of no return. This was no accident.

Why in the world wouldn’t the British system allow the parents to take him to New York at their own expense? Why? Could it have anything to do with the fact that universal healthcare establishments could hardly care less if he lived or died? Yes, there’s that, but there must be more to it.

If mere indifference were the true root of their barbaric decision, why refuse to release Charlie? What would they care? They could simply have given his parents the boot at the airport, saying, “Get out, and never bring him back.”

Once you take off your rose-colored glasses, it looks clearly as though government healthcare apparatchiks, those who don’t practice medicine but apportion the public funds for it, want you to know who’s boss. You Brits aren’t the boss, and don’t you forget it. Perhaps the British overlords felt the Gards were encouraging a tiny but intolerable bit of social amnesia.

Didn’t they deny Charlie a shot at life for no other reason than to discourage future supplicants of medical freedom? Or any kind of freedom? Did they not want to broadcast that chattel have no rights, neither over themselves or their calves? Did they not also proclaim that human life is disposable according to the tastes of other, more worthy human life forms? Sure looks that way to me. If there’s another explanation, please enlighten me.

Now that enough people in this once-great country west of the Atlantic want the same type of top-down medical rationing here, you can expect many more Terri Schiavo and Charlie Gard decisions to sprout like demonic mushroomss all over the land.

Moreover, you can expect all advancements in scientific understanding of diseases and how to treat them to peter out, too. Why allow expensive research to lead to expensive treatments for which the cows will surely clamor? Such things belong only to the ranchers and their cattle dogs, not the meat/milk herd or, least of all, to children whom the state already pays to eradicate before they’re even born.

Rather than retreating to free-markets where you’d at least have a shot of true and compassionate care from specialists, even if you’re just another working stiff and not one of the annointed, your government wants to take title to you and your children through the healthcare system for which so many of their subjects whine.

Somehow, the moaning ones really think under-paid staff with overwhelmed schedules, directed by government bean counters, will result in their receiving adequate treatment when they truly need it. When facing a terrible disease, or their daughters accidentally survive their husbands’ (probable) attempts to kill them, they’ll think to themselves, “Surely, the good doctors will do their best for me and mine.” But they deceive themselves.

When the true, underlying sentiment, if they would speak honestly, is, “Woo-hoo! I don’t have to pay for this!” they’ll get exactly the compassion and care that Terri and Charlie got.

Felix and The Antichrist

When I was all of eleven, I had a paper route. If I could have delivered papers that actually paid pretty good money like the Colorado Springs Sun or Gazette Telegraph, I would have been a regular paperboy. But in those days, you had to be at least twelve to deliver the real papers. And a boy.

Rather, this gold mine was a little weekly rag of about a dozen pages with more advertisements than anything worth reading, like comics. The paper was called The Eastside Mailer. Subscribers paid a whopping $1.25 per month. The publisher got a dollar, carriers got twenty-five cents.

My two older brothers got me the gig. So, I followed them to The Eastside Mailer office, which was in the basement of a strip mall, under an ice cream shop. The place was almost large enough to house a printing press, a desk, counter and the publisher. The man was huge, bald and as pleasant as a dingo. If he’d had any more affection for children, he’d have tossed them into traffic. But he controlled his urge feed us to truck grilles so he wouldn’t have to deliver his papers himself. Who knew what his name was? I just called him The Ogre, but only because I was taught to be nice.

With his press pounding in a disco rhythm behind him, he leaned over the counter and demanded to know why I wanted a route. “B-b-because, I want to make some money,” came my bold reply.

“Come back tomorrow, and I’ll see if I have a route open, you little s–t.” He said, turning back to his thumping, clacking, hissing machine.

“Okay!” I imagined a route bursting at the seams with at least a hundred subscribers. At a quarter each per month, it would be a nice haul for an eleven-year-old, and not a whole lot of work. Easy cheesy as a pie of pizzey, as they say. Or would, if they had the poetic gift, too.

The next day, I got my subscription book, instructions on how the papers would come to me on Tuesday afternoon for an evening delivery and when and how to collect each month. Nothing to it.

Really. Nothing to it. I had a whopping twelve subscribers over a ten-block route. Well, whoever said you could make a living in journalism, anyway? It would do for allowance augmentation, if nothing else.

So, week after week, I trudged up hills, dropping one paper on a porch per block. Then, turning left at the corner, I’d trudge up hill again, drop a paper, turn left at the next corner and trudge up hill some more, turn left again and continue up hill. It was like finding yourself trapped in an Escher sketch.

I heard once that great minds had tried to crack the paradox of how a paper route in Colorado Springs could be all uphill coming and going. Nikola Tesla was the first, but he ended up fleeing to the east coast and going mad. Then Einstein, who used to have suave, black hair, took a swing at it. After years of frenzied equation chalking, erasing, re-calculating and scalp pulling, he is said to have exclaimed, “Ach, du lieber! Mein kopf can take no more!” So Stephen Hawking, that virile giant of a man, swaggered up to the challenge. After expending every last firing synapses on the conundrum while getting no closer to the answer, it left him deflated like a day-old party balloon.

At any rate, collection time finally rolled around. Woo-hoo! I was going to earn a year’s worth of allowance money in one month!

Who knew that $1.25 was such a princely sum that people couldn’t come up with the money? At the first of the month.

When EVERYONE ON EARTH GETS PAID.

After several nights of effort, I scored about a 90 percent collection rate. And my number of subscribers dropped by that final 10 percent. The only upshot was that my cat, Felix, tagged along, skulking from foundation shrub to foundation shrub as if I couldn’t see him. My big, golden tomcat pretended to be my guardian angel. It was adorable, I thought.

Disappointed with the job as I was, I kept at it, even when The Ogre dropped off a hundred papers, ordering me to deliver to every house on the route. Would I get paid for the extra deliveries? Oh, heck no. “But,” The Ogre snarled, “you might get some more subscribers.” There’s nothing like hope to crush a young girl’s spirit.

There was a house on the route guarded by the ugliest dog in the galaxy. This animal was the size of a plucked turkey,  had bulgy, red-rimmed eyes; stiff, curly gray hair on its back; patchy, smooth black hair on its sides; brown spots like chewing tobacco spats; and ears that bent backwards with pieces missing. Its muzzle was gray and locked in a dreadful grimace.

The first time I passed the house, the monster waited around the corner until I began to cross in front. Then it charged like a bat out of a black mass, muzzle blazing with explosive canine profanities unsuitable to repeat here. Leaping and barking, sneezing and grinding, the possessed creature made rabid badgers look like St. Francis of Assisi.

Shocked, I slapped at its head with a paper as it vaulted to the height of the fence hoping to clear it. My instinctive defense only increased its rage. On one whirling bounce, it snatched the paper and proceeded noisily to make confetti of it, never taking its protruding eyes off of me as I ran away.

Fortunately, the owner of The Antichrist wasn’t a subscriber. Every time I passed by the house, the beast would track me down the fence line while contorting in every unnatural way, trying to pierce the chain-link and reduce me to a pile of sausage. Its evil, raspy bark and howl sent chills down my spine. Because it was apparently too stupid to climb the fence, nobody had shot it yet. For subsequent deliveries, I made a point of passing that house in the street. Bringing holy water would have been a good idea, too.

I called it The Antichrist.

The third time The Ogre dropped a mountain of papers on me, it was a freezing, breezy afternoon in November. Alas, my shoes and coat were inadequate for the amount of time it would take to make every delivery. My feet quickly became icebergs, and since my collection success rate had decreased in proportion to my efforts to get paid, I was in one foul mood.

As I approached the house of The Antichrist, a warming light bulb blinked on over my head as I realized what I must do.

As usual, the demonic brute burst from his hiding place on cue as I neared his lair. Taking aim, I pitched the strapped bundle of papers over the fence where they landed squarely on the monster’s head. Briefly stunned, I thought I’d gotten the best of the creature. But it quickly recovered and commenced shredding the papers with the zeal of a Cuisinart. By the time I reached the other end of the fence line, a regular blizzard of newsprint swirled about its dusty yard. The Antichrist was happily occupied shredding me in effigy and I was rid of my extra burden.

Collection time rolled around again. I set out to do my duty, hoping I might collect from at least half the subscribers I had left. Discouraged, I shuffled along, cold, depressed and not noticing that I had come upon The Lair until it was too late. The Antichrist jumped into action. Misplacing a paw, the atrocity got himself stuck in the fence. In its ferocious struggle to free itself, it managed to work its way, butt first, to the top of the fence whence it tumbled over backwards and hit the sidewalk.

I froze to the concrete as The Antichrist sprang to his feet, dazed. As calm as I’d ever seen him, he peered about, blinking, astonished to see himself on the outside for perhaps the first time in his miserable, degenerate life. Then, lowering his head, I swear, he pulled his lips back in an evil, sly grin, and locked eyes with me. I crossed myself and almost wet my pants.

In the next instant, the devil launched himself like a missile. I screamed like a banshee, certain I would die that day. But, out of nowhere, a streak of golden brown lightning collided with The Antichrist and body-slammed him into the fence. Felix!

They rolled away from each other as they landed. Once back on their feet, though, they squared off. The Antichrist sniffed the air, and Felix rotated his ears. The Antichrist nodded and chuffed a snide greeting as if to say, “So, we meet again.” Felix whipped his tail in response. Clearly the furcoats knew each other. And this appeared to be a grudge match.

They crouched and circled, waiting to see who would strike first. I slowly backed away, afraid The Antichrist would make kibble out of my precious kitty, but unwilling to come between them. Breaking the Mexican standoff, they attacked simultaneously and became a blurred ball of screeching, hissing, snarling biting, scratching fury.

I couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t stop it and I felt this couldn’t possibly end well for Felix. I fled the carnage and ran home. Breathlessly, I pantomimed to my parents about the conflagration. Dad and I jumped in the car and returned to the battlefield, but all that remained was tufts of hair and copious amounts of blood and spit drying on the sidewalk. Felix and the Antichrist were nowhere to be found.

Later that evening, after shoving my dinner around my plate, listening to my siblings chatter about what could have become of Felix, I abandoned the food altogether. Taking my plate to the kitchen, I heard a scratching at the back door. I slung my plate on the counter and ripped open the door.

There sat Felix with a self-satisfied smirk on his whiskered face. Covered in spit-slicked fur, missing a few patches, and a little bloody, he sauntered into the kitchen and made for his food bowl like it were just another evening. Boy, was I happy to see my feline champion!

Since I hadn’t finished my collection rounds, I set out again the next day. As I prepared to dodge into the street around The Antichrist’s house, I noticed that he was sitting quietly in the middle of his yard. His inverted ears appeared more tattered and he certainly had less fur all over. Once he spotted me, he struggled to his feet with a meek yelp and limped sheepishly around the corner of his house and out of sight.

I’d had enough of the paper route and quit the next day. Babysitting was the new gig. I saw neither the Antichrist nor The Ogre ever again. And that was fine by all of us.

 

Vindication For a Donkey

A short story by Linda June
Copyright 2016, The Letterista, LLC, and Linda June

 

The donkeys, oxen, goats and sheep observed the Birth. It was a quiet affair with none of the usual shrieking and weeping. The Woman strained, of course. All females strain to deliver their offspring. That was nature. Without the need to strain, the issue may not have remained securely ensconced in the womb until it was time to come forth. But this Woman’s labor lacked the common travail. The man had withdrawn, assuring his wife that he would return with fresh water heated over the fire he had built outside.

Noting the singular event of a woman, a human, giving birth in their modest enclosure, the animals marveled at the scene and wondered. Normally, the presence of any human, with the exception of the rare child, filled them with a certain unease. Even the most gentle of humans, except this Woman, harbored an essence, however slight or pronounced, of violence. It was the way of it. It had been the way of it since the day the first humans had defied The Creator. All animals knew this, as their ancestral memories carried forward with each new generation. None knew it better than the snakes.

In that first moment when the humans, encouraged by the serpent, had furtively sought to acquire knowledge not meant for them, everything had changed. All creatures felt it at the exact same moment in time whether they had been present with the humans or far afield.

At that moment, each living thing had suddenly paused in its peaceful activity. Food in mid-chew was left unswallowed, water dripped out of maws, fins and wings stilled, and all became suddenly alert, abruptly experiencing an entirely new, unforeseen sensation within their respective bellies. Horror, fear, dread. What had happened? they had each wondered. Where did our happiness go?

Then, they each spied the others anew. The eyes of some slowly filled with predatory hunger. No longer would the florae suffice as sustenance. For some, vegetation would continue to sustain their vigor, but even the plants themselves had been altered in this startling, tragic, invisible shift in Creation.

Instinctively, they knew it was the man and his wife who had committed a terrible deed. No other creature had the capacity to choose such a thing. No other animal had been admonished by The Creator to choose innocence over the awareness of its opposite. As intelligent as some were, none had been gifted the lights to understand or even to desire knowledge not already knitted within their being.

But the man had been different. Before this moment in time, he had been a delight to them. They had watched his formation and witnessed The Creator breathe a special life into him. They stood mesmerized as The Creator hand-crafted a woman from the flesh of the man while the man slumbered, oblivious.

He and the woman resembled The Creator, and every creature adored The Creator, reveling as they did in the existence He had given them. To exist was to know The Creator, and to know Him was to know complete happiness.

Because the humans resembled The Creator, the animals took a special pleasure in their existence. While they enjoyed each other, too, no other creature compelled them to seek its presence as did the humans. The humans loved the beasts and each other much as The Creator did. It was this love, this enchantment the humans harbored for the animals that drew them near. When the man had named each of their species, the animals accepted their designations with joy. Life for the other living things had been completed by the creation of man.

But that terrible moment changed everything. Now, the animals perceived danger all around and rightfully so. Soon, they began to pursue and kill each other for food. Killing skills, heretofore unimagined, became practiced and honed. None could trust the others any longer. Death had entered. Peace had fled. A dark, ethereal cold settled heavily over the world.

And man could not set it right.

As the Child emerged into their little byre nestled in a hollow within the rocky hillside, the goat bleated. “Is this The One?” she wondered aloud.

One ox replied, “I daresay, it is.”

The ewe expressed what they all experienced. “Do you see the light around him? He is Peace. There is no fear of this little child. Oh, who could have thought we might see His coming?”

“How did we merit this astonishing benediction?” the ram added. “Why is this not taking place in the humans’ habitations?”

“I heard the other humans tell the Woman’s husband that their houses were all full,” explained the donkey who had borne the Woman from so far away to this place. “None would attempt to take them in and disturb their other guests.” The ass shook his head and snorted. “Can you imagine?”

“Why, here He is, the God-man, the Long Awaited, the object of all our yearnings, both man and beast, and yet they refused to allow them into their houses when He was so clearly anxious to be revealed?” questioned the dog who had followed the man from the well to his campfire. Sensing something momentous happening in the stable, he had slipped unnoticed into their midst. “Even I receive better treatment from humans!”

“Of all creatures unable to see, humans can be the most blind,” opined the gentle ewe.

“Yes. At least they allowed them to camp here with us,” remarked a wise old ox. “Let’s give them thanks for this. We have the privilege to witness Salvation emerging. For that, we owe the cold-hearted people a debt of gratitude.”

The others acknowledged this truth. Though the humans knew not what they had wrought, just as the first humans had fallen to their own ignorance, the gathered animals were grateful that the men’s niggardly rejection had become their extraordinary bounty.

Now, the Child had fully entered the world. The man returned carrying a pail of warm water for the Woman. The animals remarked amongst themselves how this was a special man, this husband of the Woman. He was not the Child’s father, they knew, but he was like those uncommon children who sparked no trepidation in them. Somehow, that defect was missing in this adult man.

At the sight of the Child, the man halted, and slowly his knees collapsed, unable to support his weight. Weeping, he worshipped the Child until the Woman murmured to him. Carefully, he rose and brought her the water. Cradling her cheek in his palm, he silently loved her, his eyes searching hers for any sign of damaged health. She gazed lovingly up at him and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, before returning her attention to the baby.

Smiling, she very gently cleansed the Child with the warm water and a small, homespun cloth. The man handed her a larger linen cloth, and she wrapped her baby tightly against the chill night air.

The straw on the ground seemed inadequate to cushion a place to lay the Child, the ewe noticed. So, she nudged her manger, still full of her ration of hay, towards the human family. The man caught sight of her offering, patted her atop her head and toted the manger over to the Woman. She had not beckoned for a cradle, but an interior prompting moved her to lay her baby in the sweetly scented hay.

“Finally,” said the ram, “we will know happiness again. Man will no longer be our terror and task master. We will return to perfect harmony once again.”

“Yes,” replied an ox, “but for a time, our burdens will remain, for us and for men.”

“This Child is no burden,” crooned the donkey. “As I carried the Mother, so I hope my daughter or granddaughter may carry this New Man into His glory. It will be the recompense to expunge the shame my ancestor endured for carrying that Balaam who had embarked on a journey to curse the Jews, and who took three beatings from him because he would not port the fool to his death by an angel’s sword.”

“May it be so,” agreed all the other animals.

“Now that He has come, man and The Creator can resume their first friendship, and we can one day know again that primeval joy with man before he sinned. We will all return to that beautiful garden,” observed the goat.

The wise old ox considered this. Then he replied, “We will have that again, yes, but man will receive something even more.”

“What do you mean?” asked the dog.

“When The Creator fashioned man from the dirt of the Earth, man was not The Creator. He was just man. A special creation, to be sure, yet they were only dirt and water. But this Child is both a man and The Creator. Can’t you tell?”

“Yes,” they all answered as one. At this, the man and the Woman glanced around the byre, wondering at the animals’ lowing and bleating, woofing, neighing and baaing briefly and all at once. They smiled to themselves. Even the beasts sensed the divinity in the Child.

“So,” continued the wise old ox, “it stands to reason that as the first man was created in His likeness, so, too, will the new men to come be re-created into the likeness of this Child, the first New Man.”

As the animals pondered the insight of the wise old ox, some shepherds approached, breathless and flushed. A glorious angel had appeared to them, they reported. He had announced to them that the messiah had arrived at last, they said as they, too, fell upon their knees at the sight of the bundled Child in the manger.

With the Mother, the lowly beasts listened to the shepherds’ jubilant declaration and treasured all of these things in their hearts.

The Hobo’s Rainbow: a story by Linda June

Bill could tell it was noon by the low-pitched reverberations emanating from his stomach like the far-away rumble of distant thunderheads. Right on time. When you eat lunch at exactly the same time every day, your stomach comes to depend on this routine and acts accordingly. This was one part of the mold Bill was not quite ready to break out of yet, so he began scouting for a shady spot in which to sit and eat one of his sandwiches.

A scraggly bush here and there and a few large rocks near the tracks were all he could see for some distance ahead. His prospects of finding a tree with enough leaves to provide a little respite from the sizzling sun looked pretty grim at the moment.

He trudged on for another fifteen minutes before the old deserted train station came into view, like a tiny wart on the horizon where the twin rails became one line. As he approached it, he could see that the derelict building jutted out from the underbelly of another of those sleepy towns that dot the countryside, much like the one he had left a few hours ago. One lone tree proudly struggled for existence just north of the depot, standing off from it as though it wished not to be associated with the building or its squalid decay. A leaning roof covered half the platform and offered the most shade Bill had seen all morning.

As he came within spitting distance of the platform, an old man staggered around the far corner of the building dragging a tattered garbage bag. He sat down hard on the concrete, leaned halfway to the cement from the momentum then regained his balance and sat back against the weather-beaten wall of the station house. He extracted a big green bottle from deep within his coat pocket, carefully unscrewed the cap and gulped down some of its contents.

The rim of the bottle swayed below his lower lip when he caught sight of Bill. He watched silently as Bill hoisted himself onto the platform and settled against the wall just inside the perimeter of the shade, several feet away from the old man.

The man looked to be a hundred years old with his thin, yellow-white, disheveled hair and watery gray eyes that might have been blue some very long time ago. His stubble-covered face was the same color as the planks of the depot and equally as lined. He tipped the bottle up and sucked down some more of its fluid. Then he wiped his mouth on his sleeve from the crook of his elbow down to his wrist.

“Hi,” Bill said, quickly glancing at the man. His moth-eaten overcoat was covered with grease and dirt and crusted stuff that might otherwise have only seen the inside of a street sweeper. In fact, it looked as though the man himself might have seen the inside of a street sweeper once or twice. Bill supposed the old man and his coat had been having a close, personal relationship for quite some time now and that both had seen better days.

“Howdy, son,” the old man said. Then, “Shoor, it’s hokay wif me if you hunker here for a while.”

Bill’s face burned with the sarcasm. Okay, the man had been there first and maybe he should have asked first if he could share his shade, but what the hell, it was the only shade for miles and Bill was damned if he was going to sit out in the sun to eat his lunch. He almost apologized for his breach of etiquette but, hells bells, the man was just an old wino. Instead, he simply said, “Thanks,” and pulled a PB&J out of his knapsack.

Bill peeled back the plastic wrap and prepared to sink his teeth when suddenly the wino appeared directly beside him and, closely eyeballing the sandwich, said, “Plenny fine wif me.”

The putrid, rotten stench rising off the old coot stopped Bill’s appetite in mid-grumble and the sandwich halfway to his gaping maw. His jaws snapped shut and his stomach simultaneously closed up shop for the day and went fishing.

Drool pooled up in the wino’s slackened lower lip as he peered at the half-naked sandwich as though the peanut butter and jelly were a girl’s secret place, now exposed, between two milk-white thighs.

“Uh, here,” Bill said, holding out his meager lunch. “I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought.”

“Tanks, son!” The old man snatched the sandwich out of Bill’s hand and made a good quarter of it disappear in one bite, hardly chewing it with the blackened stumps that were his remaining teeth. Bill risked another social blunder and moved away from the man in order to take deep breaths of fresh air, but the wino didn’t seem to notice, so engrossed was he in the sandwich. How the old fart could stand to wear his raunchy coat in late June when it was hotter than a pimple on the devil’s ass was beyond Bill.

Perhaps as a gesture of gratitude—or payment for the food—the man thrust the green bottle towards Bill as he polished off the sandwich. Looking at the label, Bill could see that it was the kind of wine that’s so cheap it’s almost free. His older brother, seventeen now, had told him about it. When Bill had asked his brother how he had liked the wine, he had said that elk piss would have tasted better and that elk piss probably wouldn’t make you feel like an over-used crash-test dummy the next day, to boot.

“No, thanks,” Bill said. “I’ll just have some of my water.” He removed the lid of his canteen and took a swig.

“Water? Eeyick! How can you drink dat stuff?” the wino asked. Bill wasn’t really sure if he was serious or what.

“I can only drink it when I’m thirsty,” he replied, looking the wino straight in the eye, not really sure if he was serious or what.

The man regarded Bill suspiciously for a moment then suddenly his gnarled face scrunched up on itself and his loose-fitting lips curled back in a hideous grimace, exposing his nearly barren gums. Looking inside his mouth was like looking at mountain ridges after a forest fire. For a moment, Bill thought the geezer was having a heart attack and prayed that he was just passing gas, but then the man’s shoulders began jumping up and down and his breath wheezed out in rapid-fire bursts: he was laughing.

Bill started to chuckle which caused the old man to laugh even harder which caused Bill to start giggling which caused the old man to start slapping his knee which caused Bill to hold his sides which caused the old man to fart and then they were both rolling all over the platform in desperate hysterics.

After a while, they were too deflated to move so they lay there a moment trying to stifle the aftershocks. When they were able, they sat up in silence. The wino returned to his bottle and Bill to his canteen.

Presently, the old man poked his hand into his bedraggled trash bag, rummaged around, then pulled out an old whiskey bottle, long since empty, with clods of dirt clinging to its dusty sides. He held it up and examined it, turning it this way and that to view it from every angle as though it were a fine jewel. After a thorough examination, he chucked it out to the far edge of the platform where it hit the cement with a gratifying crash. He took another tug on his live bottle and began to dig in his bag again.

“Where you headed, son?” he asked, his back to Bill.

Bill craned around the man to see into the bag. It was full of glass bottles and jars of every size, shape and color. They were heaped in the bag like a pile of fingers and fists. “Oh, I don’t know yet,” Bill replied. “A big city. Denver first then maybe Los Angeles. I guess I’ll know when I get there.”

The old man nodded knowingly. He had pulled out a brown beer bottle and was sizing it up. He tossed it. It shattered, and now brown shards lay mingled with the clear glass of the whiskey bottle in a rough sunburst pattern. The wino gave a satisfied chuckle. Bottle breaking was obviously his second most favorite pastime. He guzzled some more wine and wiped his entire face with his sleeve, taking off the trickle of wine and clots of snot but leaving the grin. He prepared to launch another bottle, a blue-green rum container.

“Are you a hobo?” Bill asked.

“Hobo my ass!” he snorted. “Doan you read da papers, boy? I’m part a da growin’ nashnull kee-rye-sees of da ‘Merican homeless!” At this the wino hee-hawed, but Bill didn’t get it. To Bill, the old man looked like a plain old hobo.

“You read the papers?” Bill asked doubtfully.

“Why shoor I do,” he replied gleefully. “Right afore I goes ta sleep unner em.” Judging from his horse-laughter, you would have thought the wino had just uttered about the wittiest dang thing ever uttered in all his copious born days, but Bill did not appreciate the old fart making fun of him. He had seen cartoons of bums sleeping under newspapers on park benches before but never really thought anyone actually did that. Otherwise, he had never really given it any thought at all. Bill wondered why anyone would live like that, and his eyes fell on the half-full bottle in the old man’s hand. At that moment, the wino pitched a pickle jar.

“So, how come you don’t get a job and a place to live?” Bill inquired.

“Used ta do dat,” he replied. “Bin some twenny years since I punched summun’s clock. Had a wife, too, an’ a coupla kids. But I swear dey was a chokin da life outta me! Ever’body tellin’ ya what to do, when ta do it, how ta do it, why ta do it an’ where ta do it. Got soze a man coon’t even turn aroun’ less summun tol’ him ta first. So I took off an’ bin ridin’ aroun’ seein’ da country ever since. Ain’ nobody tellin’ me what ta do now ‘cept maybe a cop or trainman ever now an’ agin.” He sucked on his wine and tossed out a peanut butter jar.

His was a story to which Bill could certainly relate: Between parents, big brothers, teachers and Mr. Olsen—at whose farm Bill worked in the summer for chump change—there was no shortage of people giving him directions, corrections and grief. It was part of the reason why he had decided to allow the ninth grade class to start up that fall in his absence. Another part of the reason was that he figured no one would really give a rat’s ruby red lips whether he stayed or went, lived or died. He felt like he was just another mouth to feed in an already over-crowded family, another head to stuff in an unruly classroom and another set of fingers to work to the bone for a stingy pittance.

Plus, Bill wanted excitement and adventure. He wanted to see the cities with their skyscrapers and amusement parks and glitzy restaurants and airports with behemoth jets taking off and landing every minute. He wanted to see men in tuxedos and women in sparkling gowns. He wanted to be where long-haired blondes drove snazzy red sports cars. In short, he wanted to be where the action was, not in some boring, podunk town in the sticks, dying of cerebral atrophy.

“Why you runnin’ away from home, son? Dad whoop up on you one time too menny?”

“What? My dad never hits me!” And it was true; Bill’s dad never took to beatings for punishment with the exception of lightweight spankings on the smaller ones when they defiantly misbehaved. The old man’s question took him by surprise. His dad wasn’t anything like his friend Eddy’s dad who, Bill had once witnessed, clipped Eddy a good one on the chin for the minor infraction of having opened the refrigerator door once time too often on a sweltering summer afternoon. Poor Eddy had stoically walked away, holding back the tears until they were safely inside the tool shed where he then cut loose with a torrent of hurt and anger so intense that it scared Bill pretty badly. Eddy had promised that one day he was going to kill “that fat-assed, drunk son-of-a-bitch who has the balls to call himself my father.” They had been ten at the time, and the incident had disturbed Bill a great deal. Though Bill’s family was not exactly lovey-dovey, they were at least close and halfway respectable. Bill felt sorry for Eddy who had to endure that kind of treatment as often as Bill had to endure Sunday school.

“I’m just looking for some adventure,” Bill added, seeking the truth of it in his hands.

“Oh, you’ll find advenshur, all right, but jes’ keep yer guard up at all times, son. S’all I gotta say. Doan trus’ no one, ya hear? Some people kin be real ugly sometimes.” He smashed another bottle for emphasis.

“Then why do you do it, be a hobo, I mean?”

“Oh, nobuddy pays no tenshun to a ole man like me. Sometimes dey tries ta roll me fer my change, but dis here,” he held up the nearly empty wine bottle, “is about all da change I ever got, so nobody bodders me much.”

Bill’s mind went to the fifty-seven hard-earned dollars in his buttoned shirt pocket. It was all the money he had in the world.

“But you, boy, all young an’ pretty like dat, why, dey’ll be a-bodderin’ you day an’ night!” he said, giving Bill a deep, meaningful sidelong stare to see if he was catching his drift. He lobbed a ketchup bottle onto the growing heap of broken glass. Bill watched stupidly as he struggled to grasp the meaning of the hobo’s words. Then it hit him all at once, and his eyes bugged out in unabashed horror.

“Oh, gross! Really?”

“Jes’ as shoor as I’m a-sittin’ here,” he said. “Mosta da bums likes wimmin well nuff, but dis here lifestyle ain’ zackly cuhndoosive ta tractin’ da lady folk, ya know. An’ affer a man does wiffout fer a long time, well ….” He shrugged and slung out a miniature whiskey bottle which landed on top of the bed of glass and remained intact. “Damn! Go fetch dat fer me, will ya, boy? I’ll try agin.”

Bill did as he was asked, shaken with the man’s revelation. His mind began conjuring up all manner of revolting scenarios: men cat-calling him as if he were a girl; overt flirtations; men in boxcars sidling up to him and putting their hands on his legs, looks of expectation smitten upon their grizzled, toothless faces; rape. In spite of the heat, Bill couldn’t subdue a violent shudder. It boiled up from somewhere deep within him and he shook like a wet dog.

The old bum swallowed most of his remaining wine and tossed the little whiskey bottle high in the air. It fell short of the pile and broke once and for all.

“Why do you do that?” Bill asked indicating the mound of splintered glass.

“Why, I’m makin’ me a rainbow, son,” he answered.

Bill did think it was rather pretty to see all those bits of color all jumbled up and sparkling like a kaleidoscope.

“Woan yer folks be a-missin’ ya, boy?”

“Shoot, it’ll be six months before they even notice I’m gone, what with all my brothers and sisters keeping them occupied,” Bill said, perhaps a tad more bitterly than he had intended.

“How menny ya got?”

“Four brothers and two sisters.”

“Shee-eez! Dat ain’ nuttin. I got twelve brudders an’ sisters. Tirteen. Unlucky number, ya know. An’ I was da tirteent, too. Seven, now, dere’s a lucky number if ever I saw one.”

Lucky or not, it still seemed like too many to Bill. And yet, if he were given the power to return some of them to the place from which they had come, he guessed he would have been hard-pressed to choose which ones would go. He harbored no ill will against any of his siblings, it was just that sooner or later you simply wanted to be more than just another potato in the stew.

The old man flang a couple more hues to his rainbow, polished off his wine and added that bottle, as well. He had slipped down the wall—just as the wine had slipped into his blood—until he was nearly prone. He lay there gazing at his handiwork through heavy, bleary eyes, his hands laced complacently over his stomach. The sun was westering now, eating up the remaining shade on the platform.

Bill sat in silence, arms around his knees, thinking of his family. In a few hours, they would be getting worried. A few hours after that, the worry would fade into fear; fear into panic.

So, why wasn’t he relishing these thoughts? How come his chest felt all bruised inside and his stomach full of dirty river rocks? Remorse had not been part of his plan.

He could see his mother’s face, anxiety pulling it taut, while she called around to his friends’ houses, then the hospital, then the police. He could see his dad dispatching his brothers and assorted neighbors on search parties while he and the remaining neighbors formed their own. When he failed to turn up after a while, Bill could see them all huddled about the living room, waiting for the phone to ring, knowing with growing certainty that when the call came, the news would not be good.

How crushed they would be when they found out that his disappearance was not accidental at all, that he had not been kidnapped, shot or pureed by a train. How devastated they would be when they discovered he had instead run away, abandoned them, deliberately caused them great worry over his welfare and whereabouts. That knowledge was going to damage them far worse than if something had happened to him which had been beyond his control.

Tears puddled up in his eyes and he dared not breathe or surely he would start blubbering. His mind seemed awfully twisted up. He didn’t know why he had felt so lonely all the time or why his mom and dad just didn’t seem the same anymore. He couldn’t remember whatever it was that had led him to believe that no one cared about him anymore or why he had felt the terrible need to run away as if he could really take good care of himself in a city. What was he going to do for money, be a stockbroker? At age fourteen, what kind of job was he going to get? Now the whole idea seemed stupid, stupid, stupid.

Had he been thinking to punish his family for not making him the center of everyone’s attention? That seemed pretty damned arrogant. What made him think he deserved a disproportionate share of his parent’s affection and interest? If he had it, would he really want it? They loved him and, when you shaved off all the fur, that was really the cold, naked truth of the matter, wasn’t it? And he loved them, too, all of them, from his dad on down to the baby.

What was worse than all this mush Bill was feeling was the fact that, deep down, he still needed them, as well. Oh, he could probably survive out in the wilds of the world one way or another, but his innards were beginning to inform him that sneaking off into the underbrush without so much as a parting handshake had been about as intelligent as having yourself lobotomized. He found himself in want of their nightly dinners, their Christmas mornings, their summer vacations, even the sibling turf wars that often degenerated into impetuous wrestling matches when diplomatic name-calling failed.

Unlike the tramp, who seemed to have found family responsibility unbearable, he still ached for the structure and solid support of his family’s routineness. When you tabulated all the benefits minus all the deficiencies, it simply was not a bad way to live. How unfortunate that it had required a trip up the tracks to discover this, Bill thought.

With his head on his knees encircled by his arms, he thought of the hobo. Over the bum’s face Bill’s father’s face superimposed itself. Perhaps at one time or another his father had felt strung between the two ideals of family or complete freedom. If so, he had chosen to stay. He could have run away, too, but had not. Suddenly, shame closed about Bill like odor from a cesspool. Whereas that morning he had felt brave and manly, now he felt only like a sniveling coward who had been feeling very sorry for himself.

A sound like a garbage disposal working over a chicken bone arose from the wino. Looking at him, Bill wished him sweet dreams.

What a life.

Bill sighed and stood up. After stretching like a cat, he noticed that the line of the sun had crept up and was now at the old man’s tattered, mismatched shoes. For a moment, he watched him sleeping soundly, drunkenly, and vaguely wondered what the bum dreamt about, if anything.

Jumping off the platform, Bill rooted around the depot until he came up with a few bottles the bum had missed. He put them in the trash bag. Then gingerly, with thumb and forefinger, he lifted the lapels of the wino’s coat in order to stuff inside of it the rest of his sandwiches, twenty-five dollars and a pair of his clean underwear. The corner of a snapshot poked irresistibly out of the bum’s shirt pocket. Putting the sandwiches down, Bill withdrew it.

It was an old black and white photo of two little blonde girls, about four and five years old, in matching sun dresses. The younger one was clutching a stuffed dog with floppy ears and was smiling up at the camera. Bill smiled back at the adorable little girls.

Scrawled in ink on the back of the photo was this simple statement: “Daddy’s little rainbows.” Staring at the inscription, Bill was filled with an indescribable sorrow for the old wino, for the girls he had left behind and who were, no doubt, grown women now with children of their own. Blinking rapidly, he carefully replaced the picture and finished loading the coat with his donations. He prayed no one would roll the bum while he was asleep.

Hitching on his knapsack, Bill walked out to the end of the platform. He stirred the broken glass with the toe of his boot. The old sot had built himself a mighty fine rainbow, indeed.

He jumped down to the tracks, adjusted his canteen and pack, then started off. He stopped after a few paces and turned to look at the motionless hobo and his shimmering rainbow. He almost went back to leave the canteen for him, too, but thought better of it. He might be needing it on the long trek back.