View Full Version : Week 1: Post entries here (finalists only)

04-03-2005, 06:33 AM
Okay, finalists, here's your first challenge.



Let us meet someone at a crossroad in his/her life, about to make a major decision. Show us the decision.

Length: 2500 words or less.

Can take any form (short fiction/nonfiction/poetry/screenplay/etc.).

Due: Sunday, April 10th at 11:59 p.m. EST. If all entries are in before then, voting will commence as soon as the last entry is in. Otherwise, voting commences on Monday, April 11th (I'll announce when it's time to vote).

Previously unpublished work only, please. It's OK to have the work critiqued (by a writing group, friendly editor, etc.) before you submit it.

Good luck! May the muse be with you!

04-07-2005, 08:51 PM
Title--Copper and Cherries
Word Count--2,361 according to my processor
Notes--Written for Absolute Write Idol theme "Crossroads."

The late afternoon sun cast long, deep shadows on the wide streets and narrow alleys. Workers drifted out of the canning factory and fields, their hands stained with the juice of plump tomatoes, their backs stooped, their shadows reflections of ancient men and women. They called to their children with weak voices, who grumbled as they abandoned their games, and bade them wash their faces. As the valley turned golden beneath the Californian sun, only Carol remained outside, racing her hoop along the dirt, crying out in victory as she won the race the younger children had already forgotten about. Only the echoes of her shouts joined her in celebration, and she looked around confused.

Carol shielded her eyes against the sun and looked up at the darkening sky. Black clouds gathered on the edge of her vision, interrupted by silent flashes of light. The hair on her arms and neck stood on end, and she tasted the current of electricity—a queer blend of copper and cherries. A hot wind blew her hair from her face, and her too-short, hand-me-down skirt whipped around her lanky legs. She tugged at it unconsciously.

“Hello,” she shouted, her hands cupped around her mouth. A door slammed in reply and a chicken cackled from some hidden corner. She took a hesitant step forward, out of the dim shadow and into honeyed light. Instantly, sweat beaded her brow and her skin felt clammy and sticky. She wiped her eyes as the clouds rolled closer.

The unexpected storm was disconcerting. They were in the middle of a dry season that should last until after the harvest. A dry season never interrupted by rain, a dry season that barely experienced clouds. What would this storm do to her parents? She turned her face away from the reddening sun and looked at the long, white canning factory, a menacing building that loomed over their lives, the windows flashing pink and yellow like eyes. Her chest tightened, her breath caught in her throat, as low fear sunk down her body, settling in her stomach.

Icy fingers crawled up her spine and she swallowed hard. She held her hand in front of her face, studying the freckles and lines; against the eerie burgundy and black sky, it didn’t look real. She waved it in front of her eyes and watched the air move. Not even the street vendors and beggars wanted to risk being caught in the storm. The houses across the wide plaza shimmered and danced, bending to the lines of heat, moving to the currents of electricity. Nothing in the familiar, beloved town looked real. There were no signs of life; just a peculiar stillness that reminded her of the graveyard. She picked up her hoop and dashed towards her house, desperate to see her mother’s adored face and hear her father’s jovial laugh. Her feet pounded against the ground, sending up billows of red dust that settled on her brown skin and coated her face.

She didn’t notice the long shadow, and the man attached, until she was nearly on top of both of them. She skidded to a halt to avoid a collision, while her toy continued to roll away unnoticed. The tall stranger leered down at her, his crooked teeth ferocious and hungry. She came up to his chest, and she had to tilt her head back and strain her eyes to see his shadowed face, hid beneath the rim of an antique, leather hat. His dark coat flapped around him like charred wings, and she couldn’t help looking at his boots. Scuffed, brown, patched, ancient. They had seen ten thousand miles of rain, snow, and sand. Her eyes sought for signs of danger, but he stood unarmed.

He looked like he had traveled far to reach this town, and now he stood in the center, waiting.The roads met at his feet. The taste of copper and cherries on her tongue intensified, choking her. Her heart hammered in her ears as thunder boomed around her. The vibrations of both met in her chest and thrummed through her body to the ground , then spread through the earth in mild waves. Her muscles contracted as the waves echoed back into her body and heat seeped down her thighs. Another gust of searing wind swirled the dirt at their feet.

He brushed her face with the tips of his fingers, his nails slightly scraping her skin. His skin was rough and dirty, his nails blunt. She gasped and blood raced up her neck and face, warming her skin and turning it a bright red. Now she didn’t just taste the cherries. She smelled them. Everywhere. On the wind, on his skin, on his clothes. The sky above his head tilted and the color bled away. The black clouds were streaked with the red of the dying sun.

His fingers spread across her burning cheek as he cupped her face. He tilted her head to the right and examined her profile. Now she held her breath and waited for the inspection to end. What was he looking for? Who was he? What did he want from her? Her eyes darted around and were drawn to the long lines stretching from them in four directions, as far as a person could see. All four roads continued until they touched the horizon. No rivers, no dips, no bends, no trees, no mountains interrupted them, and until that moment, she had never really seen them.

He turned her face to the left without warning, and she focused on him again. With as much courage as she could muster, she looked into his eyes and saw the setting sun reflected there. His eyes were colorless; yet, she could clearly see hues of blue, green, and gray. She couldn’t look at him and she couldn’t look away and deep warmth poured over her like thick molasses.She swayed forward, and only put her hand out at the last minute to keep from falling. It connected with his chest. She pulled it away, as if burned.

“Who are you?” She asked, afraid of the answer.

He cupped her face in both hands, as if he were holding a rare and miraculous jewel. She kept her hands clenched at her side, afraid to touch him and somehow strengthen, or reinforce, the bond he was creating between them.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said, and he sounded like the rocks that studded the road.

Carol tried to pull away from him, her eyes wide. She wanted to call out to her brothers, but something stopped her.She knew they would come running to her the second she shouted for them, but something told her they would not be able to help. “I don’t know who you are. Let me go.”

“Look around. What do you see?” He rotated his head, indicating she should see it all.

In the center, she saw him. Crystal eyes and a weathered face of indeterminate age. Beyond him, she saw a town that survived on tomatoes. Small, squat homes that looked like tomatoes—homes that were never clean and were as hot as ovens in the summer. A white factory seared red with smoke and the last rays of the sun—a factory that controlled their time and their lives. An erratic pattern of feet and wheels on the dirt road that bound the town like an old piece of thread—a dirt road that never went anywhere people were brave enough to venture to. And a patchwork of tomato plants stretching beyond the town--beyond it and beyond it and nothing but green against stained earth.

“I see my home,” she said. Her only home and the home of her family; the place of her birth and of her parents’ birth, and their parents before them.

He shook his head. “This is your prison.”

“I don’t know what you want.” Lightning snapped behind her, illuminating his face. “Look, do you need a place to stay? Did you come here to visit somebody? I know everybody in town, if you’re looking for somebody.”

“I found you.”


“Carol, you know who I am. You know my name.”

She shook her head and her panic mounted. She wasn’t afraid he would hurt her. She was afraid of his certainty. He knew she knew, but she just had to take his word for it. She could see patience on his face, heard the soft assurance in his voice. She had never seen him before in her life, how could she know him?

He moved closer to her and closed the distance between them. His nearness suffocated her. Something danced in her mind, something spun behind her eyes, something moved and dipped in her stomach, something raced through her blood, some nameless form and formless emotion. Her knees buckled and the lightning flashed again, putting her in a dream.

A dream she had had before, a dream that had mingled with a memory, or a memory that had mingled with a dream. With a shaking hand, she stroked the side of his face, and the sharp texture of his grizzled cheek, the familiar shape of his face, the small dimple on the corner of his mouth made her entire body quiver.

Her hand flew to her mouth, as if she could keep the damning words trapped in her body, but they flowed out anyway. “You’re Caleb. You’re Caleb.” Thunder rolled around them again and he smiled and it split the clouds above him.

“I am, Carol.”

“I remember you. We’ve never met.”

Caleb shook his head. “No, we’ve met. Dozens of times.”

Now that she had a name and memories that were dreams, dreams that were memories, she felt free to touch him, and her hands fluttered over his body like small birds. He withstood her assault, allowing her skin to be reacquainted with his. The sky roared its warning again; the sun had finally sunk into oblivion, but Carol barely noticed the surrounding night. For the first time, the faces of her family faded, and she could only see one man.

“Who are you?” She asked again. Caleb, Caleb, Caleb, the very rhythm of her body reminded her. But there was more. Beyond her grasp.

“Come with me now, and I’ll tell you everything,” he promised.

Carol could feel the first warning tremor in her body, the beginning of a scheduled rending. “I can’t,” she answered. “This is my home.” The home of her ancestors. She planned to have children there. She planned to be buried there. Her roots were in the earth that sustained their crop and their lives.

“No, Carol, it’s not. Come with me, and I’ll show you.”

“But my parents are here. My brothers. I don’t know anything else,” she protested, but even as she said the words, they didn’t quite make sense. She knew somebody else.

“Carol, you’ll have to trust me. I know you remember me. I know you trust me. I know you’ve been waiting for me to come back to you.” The lightning crackled, and he looked up, his eyes wide. The lightning froze solidly in the sky, hanging from the clouds like an icicle made of silver. He narrowed his eyes, and the clouds swirled above him, parted, and revealed the canopy of stars.

Her body opened with the clouds. He pushed the energy into her flesh, into her blood. She threw her head back and opened her mouth, but she didn’t, couldn’t, make a sound. She tasted cherries, felt them in the back of her throat, smelled them, saw the glistening flesh in her mind, heard each drop of juice hit the dirt. She lifted her arms above her head and turned herself over to the elements, acting as a conduit between the earth and the sky, with Caleb directingit all.

Finally, he lowered his arm, and she fell to the ground, legless and breathless and bemused. She couldn’t remember a single moment of her fourteen years, but details from centuries before sprung to mind. “You’re not an angel or a devil,” she muttered, looking at him from beneath her eyelashes. Her grandmother had never warned Carol of such a creature. Nobody knew he existed but Carol.


“But you’re not a man. And I remember now. You come for me every time I’m new. And I…” She turned her head away from him. “I never follow you.” But before there had always been a single, important reason to deny him and deny his hand. She closed her eyes and experienced memories of tiny hands and tiny faces and grateful, demanding eyes. This time, she wasn’t even old enough to marry, much less have children.

“Come with me now.” Caleb put his hand out and waited for her to take it. “Let me show you why I always find you.”

A beautiful promise and the power of his words radiated in her heart. From that point on, she had no memories to rely on. It would all be new; it would all be unexpected. It would be dangerous. “But what will become of me?”

She took a deep breath. Caleb. An Avenger. God’s Avenger. A being that had once been a man, once had been her lover, once had been her husband. In another, ancient life. She was still nothing but a mortal.

“You’ll be loved.”

She knew Caleb didn’t have the luxury of a fresh start. He remembered everything. Only her body remembered his, her mind knowinga completely different existence. Could she relearn his life? A longing that she had never named, but that she now understood, welled up in her chest and her body was hungry. A hunger that went below her flesh to the center of her bones and threatened to engulf her. It would be too cruel to deny the hunger, and in the dazzling light of the frozen lighting and fiery stars, she couldn’t justify it again.

Carol closed her eyes and took his hand. His fingers folded over hers. He pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her.

04-09-2005, 05:58 AM
Here's my entry for the crossroads theme, at 1485 words.


A Short Story

Darla Paskell

Andie slowed to a walk, and wiped a tear from her jaw. Her shirt was soaked with sweat, tears, maybe a little snot. She didn’t care. Today was the day. She took a tissue from her pocket, wiped her face, and breathed in the sweet morning air. The snow was almost gone, and water flowed down the ditch. Spring had finally cut through the freezing cold. She was going to miss these solitary morning jogs, but it would be worth it. A grin spread across her face. It would be very worth it. Now all she had to do was get Trevor to agree. Of course he would. Pushing her fears aside like remnant teardrops, she opened the door to their home.

Tip toeing into their bedroom, Andie picked up the picture frame. It had been part of a baby gift for Jorja; a set of three. The other two held baby pictures of Jorja and Jeremy. This still-empty frame had taunted her for the last two years, while her heart battled with her mind. Love or logic? She finally had her definite answer.

“You’d better have the same one,” she whispered to her softly snoring husband, and kissed his stubbled cheek.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Early,” she grinned, “the kids won’t be up for a while yet.” She giggled as he grabbed her, and pulled her onto the bed. “I meant we had time to talk.”

Groaning, he shook his head, and tried one of his usual opening caresses. She intercepted his hand, and placed the empty picture frame in it instead.

“That’s not what I was reaching for.” He barely looked at the frame before tossing it aside.

“No, wait,” Andie grabbed it back, “today is the day.”

“What day?” he raised an eyebrow.

“The day. We talked about this. Decision day!” The eyebrow went down, as did the corners of his mouth. “Didn’t we say we’d decide today?” Uncertainty wavered in her voice.

“Yea, I guess we did.” Trevor picked the sleep from his eyes, and rubbed his face awake.

“Why the negativity?”

“You really won’t let yourself see,” he whispered. Trevor took her hand and peeked up at her. His ice blue eyes held such compassion.

Tears blurred her vision, and she thankfully lost focus. How could he look so hurt, when it was her dream that was being ripped apart?

“I thought…” she hesitated, took a deep breath. “I thought you’d agree this time.”

“Honey, we have two amazing, healthy kids. Why do you need to have more?”

“Because they are so amazing, Trevor. They give me so much joy, sometimes I feel like I’m going to pop, I’m so happy with our lives.”

“Then why do you want to change things?” He always asked her that question when they had the talk. Trouble was, how could she explain something to him she didn’t really understand herself? She could just feel it, and she couldn’t stop.

“Because, I just do! Every time I see Jorja with baby Miles, I almost cry! She’s so wonderful with him, and she always wants to go visit them. And Jeremy loves babies as much as she does. Our kids are so gentle, and they love playing with babies. They’d love having one in their family.”

“Yea, until they realize how much time you’ll spend with the baby, and how grouchy you get with no sleep, not to mention how grouchy you are when you’re pregnant.”

“The pregnancy won’t last forever. Remember how much Jorja loved talking to my belly? And they’re old enough now to understand. They play together so well already, sometimes I spend the whole morning alone!”

“Is that what the urgency is all about?” Trevor rolled one of her curls around his finger.

“No. I just… I just don’t want to wonder anymore. I want to decide. We’re not getting any younger, either.”

“Maybe I’m not,” Trevor grinned, “but you look better than you did ten years ago. What’s your secret, Mrs. Laval?”

“It’s called exercise, Mr. Laval. You should try it some time. Don’t change the subject.” Trevor sighed, and propped his head up in his hands. Andie went to her jewelry box, and fished out a small piece of paper. She handed it to him.

“What’s this?” Trevor unfolded the well-creased note.

“I made a list of pros and cons. Everything I always use to convince you, and all the arguments you counter with. I think our choice is plain.”

“Andie, we’re just starting to enjoy some time alone again. You’re finally getting back to the things you used to do, like running, and your work.”

“I know, but I’m willing to postpone that stuff again. Having another member in our family for the rest of our lives is well worth it.”

“Honey, I know you really want this, but we can’t.”

“Yes, we can.” Andie sounded firm, but her eyes were pleading.

“We can’t afford it.” Trevor went back to his old stand-by.

“Everyone always says if you wait until you have the money to do something, you’ll never do it.” Andie tucked her knees under her, and took the list from him. “You can’t put a price on joy, happiness, the love of a child…”

“No,” he interrupted, “but there’s a definite price on diapers, groceries, clothes, music lessons, sports equipment, and university!”


“Andie, no!” Trevor dropped his voice, and gently repeated, “No. I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to have any more kids. We have an amazing family. Let’s focus on enjoying them.” He wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I’m so sorry. Damn, I feel like such a schmuck! Maybe if I had a high paying job that could provide you with…”

“No, no!” now she interrupted him, “You’ve provided everything we’ve ever needed and more! That’s what I’m saying. We made it before, we can do it again. We can find a way, together.”

“Why can’t you focus on Jorja and Jeremy?” Trevor asked kindly, but each word made her shoulders sink a little lower.

“I don’t know. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just be thankful? Some people can’t have any kids, and we have two perfect ones.” Andie shook her hair away from her eyes. She tried to smile. “Maybe that’s why I need us to make a choice. Close the door, either way,” she choked.

“Mommy?” a little nose appeared by the doorknob.

“Morning sweetie,” Andie quickly dried her face, “come here.” She held her arms out to her daughter.

“What’s wrong?” Jorja asked. Before Andie could answer, Jorja ran to the bathroom, and came back with a tissue. “Here Mommy.”

Andie chuckled, “Thanks sweetie. You’re so good to me.” Jorja climbed up between her parents.

“Why are you sad?” the little girl asked.

“Oh, Daddy and I are just talking about how fast you guys are growing up. You’re both so big now. I don’t have any more babies.”

“You could have one of my babies,” Jorja offered, “they never get any bigger.” The two adults laughed out loud, and Jorja joined in. Andie glanced at her husband.

“See how wonderful she is?” How could you not want more, her eyes added silently.

“Well, I don’t know, she’s a bit of a pest.” Trevor teased.

“Dad-dy!” Jorja tackled her Dad, and tried to give him an earful of spit covered finger. Andie cleared off the bed to stay out of the melee, and stood back laughing at the people she loved. Another little voice called to her, and she went to get her son.

“Good morning, angel,” she murmured. Jeremy was still trying to open his eyes. She tucked the auburn curls behind his ear, and kissed his still baby soft cheek. “Did you have a good sleep?” She picked him up, and they went to join the rest of the family. As they cuddled and wrestled and tickled and laughed with their kids, Andie caught Trevor’s eye, and they smiled.

“Laval family soup,” Andie said, “each spice adds something different. Another one will only make it better.”

Trevor shook his head at her, but continued to grin. “Too much salt will spoil it, though.”

“I’m not salty. I have a very positive attitude.” Andie playfully shoved him down. Eye to eye, she whispered, “I’m positive I’ll convince you.” She jumped up before he could reply. “I’m going to take a shower.” She grinned as she closed the bathroom door, but the grin quickly faded once she was alone.

“We’ll figure something out.” She whispered, as tears followed their familiar paths down her cheeks. She slid down to the floor, cradling her tummy.

“Daddy will want you just as much as he wanted your brother and sister, I promise.” She dug the positive test out of the garbage, and carefully wrapped it in toilet paper, concealing it. “Before he knows, I hope.”

04-09-2005, 08:03 AM
2386 words says MS Word.

The Moen Chamber


Kira Connally

Father Doyle hadn’t expected to find the Moen chamber when he came to Galena. He expected to find the footprint of a lighthouse, toppled into the sea by a ferocious hurricane. He expected to find as the last remains of the lighthouse a dingy, cobweb-ridden basement, holding little but the lonely remains of a light-keepers life. He expected to find the perfect spot to build his chapel by the sea.

Instead, Father Doyle found secrets, secrets of the sort the Church had taught him over the past forty years to keep silent.

He didn’t know that two men in each generation of his family were chosen to serve: one as a lighthouse keeper and one in religious service. Doyle only knew he was from a pious family; the Church was mother and home.

Doyle’s unknown father was the last of the light-keepers at Galena’s edge of the sea, and had perished with his stone block tower. No one found his body after the storm, but then, no one had ever found a light-keepers body. It was said that they all threw themselves into the stormy waters they guarded when death was near, believing they too would be protected as they faced the last great darkness.

He began to suspect something truly was awry when he first saw the barren stamp the lighthouse had left on the earth. While the lane that led to the site had been grassy and fresh with bright spring blooms, the lighthouse grounds were bare save for a few sickly weeds, blackening in the shining sun.


04-09-2005, 08:57 AM
Here I go... Rated R. Comes in at 2484 words.



Becky J. Rhush

CLACK! I ripped awake to the smell of scorched gun powder and the sight of Maggie shimmying her bloomers back up around her hips. The Indian woman I knew as Honwea stood over Maggie and the dead man, gun barrel still smoking.

“Grab his guns!” Honwea shouted, sending Maggie into a frantic search of the dead man’s holsters. Surrounded by men shocked awake by the gun blast, Maggie and Honwea charged into a shooting spree, blasting the cave into a hellish thunder of shrieking bullets and screaming girls. Six adolescent girls, their hands tied behind their backs, leaned into the cave wall, hiding their faces from the sparks of exploding dirt and whizzing ricochets.

I stumbled to my feet, adrenalin surging my legs, to realize I was no longer tied up. Confused, and with the storm of gunfire exploding all around me, I dropped back to my knees in the dust, scuttling toward the other girls. Honwea shouted over her shoulder.

“Cut ‘em loose!” She tossed a slender blade into the dirt between us. Sliding my hand out after the knife, the dirt felt sticky between my fingers. With the pistols lighting up the cave like the fourth of July, I caught a flash off the blade. Blood oozed around it in a river of red grit. Grabbing it, I shuffling around each of the girls, cutting their ropes loose one by one. With each severed knot, the nameless girl would bolt to her feet, tears streaming as she stumbled out into the rain. As I cut the last girl free, I caught sight of a burly, bearded man darting up behind Maggie.

“Mags!” I shouted, catching Honwea’s attention instead. The dark haired woman fired past Maggie to burst open the man’s chest into a red and meaty spray. Maggie whirled around to find the bearded man laying in the dirt not a foot from her, a hunting knife still clutched in his hand. He looked up at her with crazy eyes, blood gurgling over his lips even as his eyes shut into death. The cave finally went quite. Gun smoke and blood amalgamated in the shadows to fume up a gritty stink. Honwea and Maggie finally lowered their six shooters, their chests sucking in and out like the throat on a couple of bullfrogs.

“That all of 'em?” Maggie whispered.

“I don’t know….” Honwea said, uncertainty weighing on her words. A shrill whistle howled through the cave, leaving the dead men silent and us last three girls to ponder the massacre at our feet. Like a hawk, Honwea snapped her gaze to the edge of the cave. My eyes followed. The outline of a man crouching in the corner sketched into view. Honwea whipped her pistol back up, clicking the chamber ready.

“Come out.” Her words crawled dark. “Now.” The trader lifted from his crouch, his dingy palms up in surrender.

“Now listen here, engine…” he stammered, “you got no reason to shoot me. I… I never laid a hand on none of you bitches.”

“You tried!” Maggie shouted, red faced. “Big Charlie wouldn’t let ya. I heard what he said… was ‘fraid you give us some crawlin’ bugs or something. Knock our price down-”

“Come all the way out!” Honwea demanded. The scraggly man, whose given name was Billy, scooted out from behind the rock.

“Please…” he begged, his gruff voice shaking, “let me go.” Even from where I stood I could smell the stink of whiskey steaming his breath. He was an older man, slight, drunk and loathsome, and I figured he’d be lucky to leave the cave alive with Honwea’s pistol pinning him. Holding my breath and keeping silent, I noticed Mags counting the dead men. After sizing up the count with her finger, she looked to me with anxious eyes.

“We got one snake missing.” She tossed me one of her pistols. I nodded, drifting my frightened gaze into the bright light of the cave entrance.

“You were planning to sale us!” Honwea glared. “Harlots to the highest bidder!”

“But I… It wasn’t me…” Billy begged, his weathered hands still in the air. “I mean-”

“You know what was you?” Honwea’s words iced the air between them. “That raid on the Cherokee’s that slaughtered half my people. My parents. My sister.”

“We never planned to kill the women.” Billy stuttered, the color draining from his face.

“Go to Hell.” Honwea’s eyes blazed like black fire and she squeezed the trigger, blasting another thunderous CLACK through the cave. Billy flew backward with the blast of smoke, chucking into the dust like a skin and bones rag doll. The charred hole between his wide, blank eyes opened up like a hole in a bucket, spewing out blood.

I stood there shaking and praying. If my Sunday preacher had told me three days ago that I’d be standing in a cave with a gun, I’d have called him a liar.

“You see Lester out there?” Mags flashed her blue eyes at me. Lester? Then I realized. The missing snake. I stood frigid and speechless, staring at Mags and Honwea. “Well go look, church girl!” Mags hissed in a sandpaper whisper. Trying to calm my trembling hands, I squeezed into the pistol’s handle, feeling the unfamiliar curve of the slick metal trigger against my finger tip. I inched toward the entrance. I squinted against the blare of daylight, feeling a sudden cold rush of moist wind breeze over me with a heady scent of spring rain. A moment later, the land of soaked yuccas, mesquite, and red mud came into view under a wash of morning rain. I flitted my eyes side to side, holding my breath. Praying I wouldn’t see Lester. I narrowed my sights on the ridge. No missing snake. Letting out a relieved sigh, I turned back to Maggie and Honwea.

“I don’t see anyone.” I whispered. Maggie nodded, but Honwea looked past me, making certain for herself.

“Let’s get out of here before he does comes back.” She said.

“Are we heading back toady or-”

“Heading back?” The Indian interrupted me. “We aint’ heading back.”

“What?” My stomach dropped. Maggie shook her head, shuffling back into the cave. “But…” I stammered, “I have to go back! My daddy must be worried sick!” Honwea turned her back on me as well, ambling back into the shadows. With tears warming in my chest, I followed. Silence tensed the cave, engulfing all three of us. The pitter patter of rain mixed with the howl of the wind hurt my ears. I could feel my gut twisting, turning sick.

“Look Betty Jo…“ Maggie leaned her back against the wall as if her words bared a heavy burden, “these cowboys were slave traders. Flesh peddlers. They got buyers waiting out there. We don’t show up, they come looking.”

“You go home,” Honwea settled her cold stare on me, “you’re cutting your momma and daddy’s throat.”

“A handful of these bastards were lawmen trading on the side.” Maggie crossed her arms. “We go back, we’ll be hanging from the nearest tree.”

“But… they don’t hang women in West Texas.” I tried to convince myself.

“They do when it’s ‘those harlot bitches that shot up the sheriff’s posse’.” Honwea snorted. “Your not your daddy’s little girl anymore, Betty Jo. Not now.”

“But…” sobs twinged into my words, “there must be some way-”

“Listen,” Maggie softened her words, trying to sound comforting. “Me and Honwea, we been forced to ride with these bastards a lot longer than you. They don’t care if your Mexican, engine, or even a church going daddy’s girl like yourself. Those buyers are coming, traders or no traders.”

I stood dumbfounded, feeling the wet warmth of tears slipping my cheeks. My sixteenth birthday was a week a way. Mags could be no more than my age, and Honwea… maybe eighteen. We should be looking forward to days filled with sowing and baking, drinking fresh lemon-aid, swimming in the in the sunshine. In just three days, every trace of my innocence had been slaughtered like a spring pig. What could be left for me?

“The way I see it,” Honwea cut into my thoughts, “we escape now, or we don’t escape at all. You with us?”


“You got two choices.” Mags put a gentle hand on mine, pulling the six shooter loose of my fingers. Tilting my palm up, she hovered the gun over it. “Be a whore the rest of your life… or become an outlaw today.” She rested the pistol in my hand. A chill wind breezed over me, raising bumps on my skin, gritting the reek of blood and gun powder back into my nostrils.

“Hey!” Came a gruff shout. I swung around to see a man running atop the ridge. Lester. The missing snake.

“This is it.” Honwea said. “You with us or not?” My mouth went dry. I knew exactly what I had to do to prove myself. In the last three days, I’d learned quick. The pretty blond I knew as Mags was a wild thing. Free as the wind. Honwea wielded instincts sharper than a razor. She was cold and fearless. I was none of these things. Not brave. Not courageous. I was a scared and trembling church girl. The apple of my daddy’s eye. I stared through fearful tears, the pistol shaking in my hand. The last slaver sprinted down the hillside… on his way to kill us.

“Shoot, Betty Jo!“ Maggie shouted.

“Now!” Honwea ordered. “Shoot now!” Their voices melted in my ears as if I were dreaming. Lester scampered closer, his boots smeared with red mud as he hurdled patches of yucca. His hand dropped to hover his pistol. Pulling it free, he aimed right at me. With a canyon echoing blast, smoke clouded his barrel. The shot dropped Honwea and Maggie to dirt. My knees buckled.

“Shoot him, Honwea!” Mags begged from below me in the dirt. A couple more seconds, and it would be too late. Would dead be better? Easier in the long run? My heart thrashed inside my chest like it might shatter my bones. Pulling my pistol up, I stiffened my arm and squinted an eye. Fearing the bruising kick of my own gun blast, I swallowed my soul and prayed. God forgive me…and pulled the trigger.

A Couple Months Later

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked the little girl with pig-tails. She stared up at me with frightened, glassy eyes, balling her fists into her momma’s billowy skirt. Her fear shown plain on her flushed pink face and she kept quite, trying to hide in the safety of her momma’s hem. I understood. Even I could smell the cinnamon sweet scent of gingerbread that spiced her momma’s dress. It served as a slight comfort to me, reminding me of my own momma. I didn’t blame the youngin’ for her silence anyhow. Must be hell to be caught up in our mess. Neither me, Mags, nor Honwea ever wanted any youngin’s to get caught in the middle of these predicaments, but it seemed to be happening every where we went.

“All of it!” Mags shouted as the elderly banker shuffled green backs into a burlap sack. “And not one nickel less! Don’t you try swindling ol’ Maggie West cause I got no fear of puttin a hole in yer head!” Sucking on the pinch of salt water taffy between my cheek and gums, I watched Mags clang her rifle barrel between the bars and into the banker’s face. I shifted a skeptical gaze to Honwea, who stood look-out at the door. The Indian woman mirrored my concerns, but stood sturdy, her rifle aimed and ready in her solid grip. I drifted my gaze back to the huddle of strangers that included the little girl with pig tails. It was clear, especially on the painted faces of the proper ladies. They had never stood witness to a bank robbery. Much less one pulled off by two white women and a squaw wearing oversized men’s clothing soured by sweat and day’s old dust. I was particularly struck by the moon eyed little girl, flitting her stare between my guns and Honwea. No doubt her ma and pa had told her some bloody bedtime stories about engines, all of it hogwash.

“Well?” I asked the child again, trying to take her mind off of my two pistols; one deftly aimed at the seven or eight bank customers, the other at the banker himself.

“Um…um….” she mumbled in her high pitched cherub tone. “A mommy?”

“Good kid!” Mags shouted over her shoulder, sending a collective flinch through the customers. “Stick with that. Aint much else they offer a woman these days.”

“Unless you wanna meet with them slave traders.” I snorted.

“Yeah! Hell, them slavers sure picked the wrong three wild gals, didn’t they?” Mags gave a wicked giggle, then flitted her eyes back to the banker. “Come on! How longs’ it take ol’ man!” She pounded her rifle barrel against an indignant palm.

“Honwea!” I shouted, catching sight of the tall man in suspenders sneaking up on the Indian. Like a stone whipped from a slingshot, Honwea snapped her rifle back over her shoulder and fired. Blood splattered into her hair and the tall man dropped like a sack of potatoes. As I gawked his bloody forehead. It reasoned to me that no matter how many times I saw it, I might never be able to stomach a man getting shot. Screams tangled into the air with the now familiar stench of hot blood and scorched gun smoke. Mags slid the first money bag from the counter, tossing it to Honwea, then pulled the second for herself.

“Let’s ride!” She shouted, running past me. I squeezed off a few shots to panic the customers, then took into a sprint, hurdling the dead man blocking the doorway. Pulling onto my horse, I heard Honwea shout those terrible and familiar words.

“Here comes the law!” She swerved, turning her horse in the opposite direction.

“Betty Jo!” I responded to Mags firing three more shots, these aimed at the approaching posse. With that, the three of us shook dust, blazing off into full gallop with up to fifteen lawmen on our heels.

It’s funny what can become of a woman when she has only two evils to choose from. Choosing the lesser of the two, it’s even funnier how good she can become at it, falling into it as natural as the day she was born. As if it were meant for her all along. Like me. I don’t regret a thing I’ve done since that day in the cave. I’m a church girl surviving the best I know how. An outlaw by day. A snake hunter by choice.

04-10-2005, 12:42 AM
Life: A Smorgasbord of Crossroads


Joanne D. Kiggins

Some things are worse than death.

When life dumps a crossroad in front of you at the age of 20, how do you know which direction to take? How do you know if you will make the right decision?

I believe everything happens for a reason; each path we take strengthens us in some way, for some thing. Right or wrong, whatever decisions I’ve made, I’ve learned to forge forward in hope to find the answers. I’m proud I made my decisions by thinking of someone else’s feelings other than my own.

Yes, some things are worse than death. And some things turn out just as they were planned; even when you’ve been placed on death row.

* * *

I watched the fluorescent ceiling lights blur and tried to fight the sedative long enough to ask the doctor if he would keep his promise.

“Please. Remember. Under no circumstances are you to tell them if this surgery confirms a terminal illness.”

“You’re going to be fine,” Dr. Griffith said.

His warm hand touched my shoulder and I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke three days later. Pain surged from my pelvic area to my chest. My nose and throat burned from oxygen and tubes. My wrists and ankles felt raw.

The room was a blur filled with bleeping and swishing sounds. When I tried to speak, a nurse patted my hand and said, “honey, don’t try to talk, you have a tube down your throat.” I twisted my hand in a writing motion beneath the leather straps and wondered why I’d been placed in restraints. “I’ll let the doctors know you’re awake and I’ll get a pad for you to write.” She scurried off.

The clearer my vision became, so too did the horror of the machines and sounds around me. I feared all I felt, heard, and saw meant the worst possible scenario. Scenes, like movie clips, played through my mind. I tried to remember all the events that brought me to this day: constant nausea after eating, tremendous pain in my abdomen, bland diets and baby food for six months, and numerous medications that didn’t subside the pain. Ulcer treatment hadn’t worked.

When all else failed, Drs. Griffith and Liggett recommended exploratory surgery.

“Anything,” I remember saying. “Just find the problem.”

So, there I was hooked up to every machine imaginable, wondering the outcome.

My eyesight had cleared enough to see my mom and dad sitting near my hospital bed. Her eyes were sad, swollen, and bloodshot from crying. His hair seemed a bit grayer than I remembered. Dad scooted his chair closer and folded his arms across his chest; a sign of his stoic stubborn strength. Mom held my strapped hand while tears rolled down her cheeks.

I tried to smile and speak to comfort them, but all the gadgets didn’t allow that. I squeezed her hand and nodded, hoping she’d read my expression as “I’ll be all right.”

Drs. Griffith and Liggett walked in.

“I see our young lady is awake,” Griffith said. His fake smile did nothing for the already hideous atmosphere. “We haven’t spoken to your parents, Joanne, other than to tell them the surgery went well.” The look in his eyes told me it hadn’t.

Dr. Liggett looked at my mom and asked, “Do you know how to sew?”

“My daughter has been in and out of consciousness for three days and you ask me if I know how to sew! What the hell does that have to do with her?”

I squeezed her hand and nodded toward Dr. Griffith, trying to encourage her to listen.

Dr. Griffith took his cue.

“The opening to Joanne’s stomach was obstructed. Dr. Liggett asked if you knew how to sew because that would be the easiest way for us to explain what we did during the surgery. We had to remove half of her stomach and reconstruct the opening with the remaining half. So we used what a seamstress would term as a gusset.”

I had to give Griffith and Liggett credit. They must have been compiling that story during the entire 12-hour operation. I gagged when I chuckled. I wondered how much was true and how much had they left out of their remarkable sewing experience.

“It will be about a week before we can take the tubes out of your throat and abdomen,” Griffith said. “We need to continue to drain and pump to avoid infection while your stomach heals.”

Mom and dad looked satisfied and relieved with their explanation. I was too. For the first time in my life I was happy I was unable to speak for fear I may be forced to answer questions.

Griffith encouraged my parents to go home after their three-day vigil. When they left, he pulled up a chair and sat. Liggett smiled at me and excused himself from the room. Griffith removed the leather straps from my wrists and ankles, explaining they’d been needed to keep me from thrashing.

Then, I wished I were able to speak. A dozen questions formed but I only could write them on a pad of paper.

“OK, What’s the real truth, Doc? How much did you two lie?”

“We didn’t lie,” he answered. “We left a few things out. That’s all. We did exactly what we told your parents. What we didn’t tell them was the obstruction was a malignant tumor the size of a melon.”


“The tumor has been completely removed,” he said. “But the malignant cells in the tissue we used to patch your stomach are still there.”

Before I could scribble another note, he gripped my hand and said, “Joanne, you may have at most six months. Do you want me to tell your parents?”

I scribbled a large “NO” on the note pad and shook my head frantically. Then I wrote, “This would kill them. If they don’t know, they can’t worry or wonder.”

Dr. Griffith wrote something on my chart. His eyes glistened in the fluorescent lighting. He wiped tears from them and said, “I’m sorry, Joanne.”

His compassion touched me. I tried to smile, then wrote, “No worry, Doc, too young to die. You watch, I’ll live. Stubborn as my dad. Treatment?”

“We could try radiation, but if you want honesty rather than hope, I don’t think it will help.” He looked away and rubbed his brow.

“I’m so sorry, Joanne. If this had been diagnosed sooner...”

I clutched the pen and wrote, “Treatment now. The works.”

“You realize it will weaken you?”

“I’m tough.”

“We have to wait until these tubes are out.”

“Why? Will radiation hurt the tubes?”

“No.” He forced a smile.

“Start treatment.”

Griffith jotted another note on my chart. “You are tough, and stubborn, aren’t you?”

His face blurred and exhaustion sent me to darkness.

Two infections, another surgery, and 28 days later I hobbled out of the hospital. I was bandaged from stern to bow with a giant size elastic binder supporting the mid-section of my 72-pound body.

Before the surgery, after a divorce, I’d moved back home with my parents. Within a week of leaving the hospital, against doctor’s orders, I drove myself into town and found an apartment. I stopped at the bank where I worked as a teller to tell my boss I’d be back at work the following Monday.

I had friends move my belongings into my new apartment. I settled in and waited to begin a battle against odds. Up until then I’d been consumed with proving the doctors wrong and living. Now I had to face the fact that hiding the truth from my parents would be just as challenging as fighting the disease. Mom and dad weren’t happy with my decision to move out, but I couldn’t hide my treatment and its possible effects if I didn’t.

Three days a week at noon I left work and drove to the hospital. My lunch hour allowed just enough time for technicians to mark my abdomen with a blue felt tip pen and perform the treatment needed. After three months, thirty-six treatments of radiation, and two different wigs to cover my hair loss, I had some hope.

My dad stopped by the apartment one weekend to make sure I had an ample supply of food. I had to scurry to slip on my wig.

“Why do you wear that damn thing?” he asked. “Your hair is prettier than that piece of straw.”

“I’m having a bad hair day, Dad. Believe me, this straw looks better than my own hair right now.” He had no idea I had to fight back tears to spare suspicion.

Eighteen years later, in 1990 I’d completed my first book, Time Goes On, which I began writing before my surgery. I’d forgotten how much detail I’d gone into about the more serious crossroads that had taken place throughout my life.

One day I let my mom read it. When she’d finished reading, she asked, “How much of this is true?”

Nearly two decades had gone by on my cancer-free body; I finally felt it was safe to speak the secret I’d kept all this time.

“Enough that I need to do a re-write. Mom. There are a few things I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

She burst into tears and hugged me. Arms wrapped around each other and tears flowing, I said, “I’m glad I never told you.”

She barraged me with questions.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I couldn’t bear for you and dad to worry yourselves to death.”

“You never smoked until recently, how’d you get cancer?”

“Genes, Mom. Both your parents died of cancer.”

“I wish you would have told us, we could have supported you.”

“I know, Mom, but it was better this way.” I reminded her that Drs. Griffith and Liggett both died of cancer and I managed to outlive them. I still wonder why I was so fortunate. Everything happens for a reason.

Two years later, in 1992, my dad had a stroke. I quit my job and spent hours helping my mom take care of him. Day after day, I’d massage his left arm and leg and help him walk with a walker. We worked on his speech and his memory. He wouldn’t listen to the home therapist; he listened to me. He told me if anyone could help him to be close to normal again, I could, because I’d been through it myself. I’d had a stroke a year before him, but mine wasn’t nearly as severe.

Within six months he was able to limp to his gardens to work, cane in hand, instead of using a walker.

My dad and I talked a lot while I helped him with his gardens. Every opportunity I had, I told him how much I loved him. He was never one to say the words, but I knew he felt the same.

When I’d say, “I love you, Dad,” he’d joke or change the subject.

“You’re tough, like your old man,” he’d say.

“Yep, Dad. And just as stubborn, too.”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” I’d answer with a smile.

Dementia took over my dad’s brain eventually, but when he was in a state of awareness we talked. I’ll never forget those discussions; they were the best we’d ever had.

“You know how you always say everything happens for a reason?” he asked. “Well I believe that too.”

Before I could respond, he’d say, “You also said that you’ve never figured out why you’re still alive.” He placed his hand on my head, pulled me near, and whispered, “You’re alive to be here, now. And you need to stick around to take care of your mom. You understand?” His awareness soon disappeared. I don’t know if he heard me tell him I understood.

That was the last good talk my dad and I had. He passed away on March 21, 1998. Appropriate that he’d die on the first day of spring. To him, spring symbolized a fresh start, new life.

I think of our talks nearly every day as I take care of my mom, who has the onset of Alzheimer’s. I’m in and out of Mom’s house three and four times a day. I cook her meals and spend hours trying to keep her mind from roaming. She’s not yet to the point that I need to pack up and move back home. But whenever than happens, I will.

Dad was right. And I was, too. Everything does happen for a reason, and my reason for being here was to see my dad through his times of need and to help my mom through hers now.

Life has given me a smorgasbord of crossroads. As each plate fills, I receive another taste of life. There hasn’t been one decision I’ve made that has led me in the wrong direction. I’m glad, 32 years ago I forged forward without telling my parents that I had only six months to live. It made me stronger. It made me realize how precious life is. I miss my dad. And as much as I’m certain I’ll miss my mom when she passes, I know that I was here to help them both through their worst times, as they would have been for me.

Some things are worse than death. For me, the most difficult crossroad has been living to watch death happen.

“I love you, Dad. I understand.”

04-10-2005, 01:29 AM

It’s very hard for me to write this letter. I never thought I would. But I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that it’s good therapy, the thing to do if you truly want to write someone out of your life for good. And let’s see, it’s been twenty-one years now, Jim, so it’s high time you’re gone. Funny how a person can leave an imprint on someone’s heart like a shadow that follows you everywhere and won’t detach.

But what happened to us, what happened to what we had is more like a candle that’s snuffed out before it has a chance to burn down. “Out, out, brief candle…” I wasn’t prepared to deal with the emptiness that hovered for so long in that quiet little apartment after you’d gone. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. I remember flipping the channels on the TV, disgusted by everything I saw. Maybe disgusted isn’t even the right word. It had more to do with apathy. I simply didn’t care. Here was some beautiful actress on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous going on and on about her fancy house, her pool, her car, her stuff. You’re an idiot, I thought. Who cares?

So I turned to music as a possible solace. But wouldn’t you know that most of my music collection consisted of sappy love songs and heartwrenching breakup songs. Not much solace there. In fact, I only ended up flooding the place with tears. Pretty soon there wasn’t a dry spot left in sight. Maybe music wasn’t the way.

But there were other things I could try. I had a bottle of something potent in the fridge that would certainly provide a whole lot of numbness for a while. My memory’s not so sharp at this point, Jim, but I think maybe I did drink the whole bottle--a little pity party for one coming up. I sure didn’t feel anything after that. No pain, no problems, no guilt, nothing. But damn, why did I still not feel better? Wasn’t this supposed to work?

It didn’t work. Nothing did. I had a few choices left. One would be a permanent solution.

Do you remember how we met? I placed that personal ad in the paper with a code number for interested parties to reply. And reply they did. I weeded through a pile of letters saying, no, no, forget it, no, no, no, not if you were the last guy on earth, no, until I got to yours. Such a nice letter. Intelligent-sounding, all the words spelled right, how amazing. But there was more. Witty, charming, likable, with an added bonus—a photo. In retrospect, it didn’t do you justice, but it was a nice photo. I decided I would meet you.

I wanted to meet in a public place, so you let me choose a restaurant fairly close to where I lived. You had to travel pretty far, but you didn’t seem to mind. It was one of those bitter cold winter nights that steams your breath, so I was bundled up in my warmest coat . You were waiting outside when I arrived.

I was always too logical to believe in love at first sight. That’s only a contrivance in romance novels and fairy tales; it doesn’t happen in real life. But you sat there across the table from me talking about your dreams, your goals, your passions with that sparkle in your eyes, that joyful spirit and a contagious sense of humor that hooked me right from the start. We talked in that restaurant for hours, the first time I’d met someone who talked more than I did. But I could have listened to you talk forever. You wanted to be a doctor and told me step by step how you were planning to accomplish that. The only wrinkle in the plan, as far as I was concerned, was where you were planning to attend medical school. You made it very clear that in six months you were leaving your home in Massachusetts to head to Iowa. My heart sank a little hearing that, but held out hope you’d change your mind and stay. I was pretty confident I could make you want to stay.

I fell asleep that night still wearing my furry tan coat with a smile on my lips and the rose you gave me clutched in my hand. A perfect state of bliss, a dream from which I never wanted to awake—this falling in love feeling was everything it was purported to be. All I know is what I felt.

I saw you again the very next day. You took me over to your house to be with you while you studied, even though I’d asked you on the phone, “But how can you study if I’m there?” And you said, “Because I can’t study if you’re not here.” Wow, what a way with words, Jim. You always did know the perfect thing to say.

We saw each other almost every day at first. Friends wondered why I was never home, some angry that I spent so much time with you. An addiction, an obsession maybe, this falling in love condition erases all reason and logic. I neglected everyone else in my life, making you my whole world. Hmm. What would Dr. Phil think about that? I should mention that after you left, I did end up seeing a doctor. Well, a counselor at least. Each session she asked me questions about my relationship with my father. Apparently that’s a very big deal when it comes to screwed-up women. Did I love him? Did I like him? Had I ever really gotten to know him? I couldn’t see the point of these questions; how was this supposed to help? But I answered her questions anyway and kept going back to talk.

But that’s before the big finale, that warm summer night in June when you came over to my apartment to say good-bye. You had the rolled up poster in your hand, the one I gave you with a love poem that sounded so apropos at the time. “I can’t fit this in my truck,” you said, handing it back. I stared at it, not wanting to touch it as if it were poison, holding back tears. Why not just cut out my heart and hand it back to me? Go then if you want to go. Just go!

And so I came to a crossroad that summer in 1984, when, after a six-month relationship, you walked out of my life, pushing me so close to the edge of ending mine. Like a tightrope walker with trembling feet high above the ground without the safety of a net, I hesitated, knowing that if I fell it would be a long way down.

But in the crowd below I saw some familiar faces cheering me on to keep going and reminding me of something really important. There were so many things I hadn’t done yet in my life, so many possibilities that lay ahead, and maybe, just maybe even the chance to find someone else to love as much as I loved you. I looked ahead and saw a glimmer of hope and knew what I had to do. I took those tiny, wobbly steps and made it safely over to the other side to safety.

I chose to live.

William Haskins
04-10-2005, 06:28 AM
Wolves at the Door

by William Haskins

They’re out there, waiting for me. They think they can shrink into the shadows, but every glowing cigarette tip, every glint of gunmetal in passing headlights, every low murmur of conspiracy gives them away. One in the alley, one on the roof, one in the doorway across the street: the men who’ve come to kill me.

They won’t come inside. They know fighting a desperate man on his own terms, on his own turf—like an animal backed into a corner—is messy business. No guarantees you’ll go home after that kind of day at the office. Besides, they’ve come to gun me down in the street, like an animal.

Make an example of me.

I realize now that I was a fool to think I could run from my past, that I could hide in your arms from the world and all the chaos I’ve inflicted on it. Loving you made me want to shed my skin, like a snake; to somehow be reborn, redeemed. But it was too late. I knew I had sown the seeds of my destruction long before I met you. And now, all the dirt’s come back to bury me.

I could claim I don’t deserve this fate, even profess my innocence. But that would be a lie. My sins are too many to count, and there’s no need for me to confess them. They’re etched into the lines on my face, the scars on my body. The flow like the sickness from my soul… like the blood from these wounds.

I allowed myself to get lost in you. I tricked myself into believing the past was but a fading nightmare, that all my transgressions had been forgiven by time. I felt myself begin to breathe again. I caught myself strolling easily down the street, smiling for no reason, immersing myself in the music of strangers’ conversations. I walked with my head held high, and felt the sun on my face.

I got careless.


The flowers spilled out of the shop onto the sidewalk, an explosion of color and natural perfume. The shopkeeper hovered over them, misting as if gently bathing a thousand children, as a young girl pointed and rattled off the endless stream of questions that spring from the minds of the young.

For so long, I had walked through life like a ghost, locked inside the prison my mind had become, governed only by a bitterness that blurred the line between good and evil into a dull and gray existence. But now the gates were thrown open, and I was saturated to the core by the flowers’ delicate beauty, the serenity of the shopkeeper, and the wide-eyed innocence of the child.

They made me think of you.

I smiled at the little girl, waiting for a pause in her curiosity, a breath that would open the door for me to ask the shopkeeper to arrange his floral masterpiece. Instead, without missing a beat, she turned her conversation to me.

“That manner suits you.”

I looked down at her, at once confused and delighted by the grace of her language, the sharpness of her insight. I was intoxicated by a newfound sense of freedom, a capacity to envision a future free of paranoia and despair. She was right. That manner did suit me. But that’s not what she said…

What she really said was: “That man’s gonna shoot you.”

By the time I processed the words, a bullet had burned its way into my side. I spun around to see the gun still leveled at me, guided by eyes I had looked into long before. The past washed back over me like a tidal wave. In an instant, I was feral again.

I pushed the girl out of the way as the second shot rang out. Her screams echoed in my ears as my flesh was seared by another slug. A woman rushed from the shop and quickly pulled the child out of the fray. The shopkeeper wasn’t so lucky. He tried to grab the attacker and was shot dead immediately.

My survival instinct overtook me, and I darted across the street.

The attacker stepped off the curb to follow, raising his gun. I ducked into the alley just in time to see the cab strike him, launching him through the air and to a splattering death on the pavement. Almost immediately, the wails of sirens cut through the air.

I crept deeper into the alley until I saw the boarded-up window, splintered and split by the unstoppable tide of human desperation. I squeezed through and dropped into a dank, moldy basement.

A vagrant scrambled toward a rickety staircase, whimpering. He looked over his shoulder frightened, and found me struggling to breathe, stooped over with my hands on my knees. He stopped and crept back toward me.

“You okay?”

I stood upright, and his eyes widened when he saw my blood-soaked shirt.

“Your jacket,” I said. “I need it.”

He nodded and walked toward me, peeling off his dusty, threadbare denim jacket. He handed it to me and pulled back. I slipped on the jacket to cover the blood and reached into my pocket, retrieving a twenty-dollar bill. I held it out and he took it, timidly, forcing a smile through broken teeth.

“Keep your mouth shut,” I told him—and, then, through sheer force of habit: “or I’ll come back and kill you.”

He went pale, and backed away slowly.


Night fell as I crept through the back door of my building, rounding every corner of the staircase not knowing if I’d make it up another flight. At last, I reached my floor and stepped inside my apartment, locking the door behind me.

My first impulse was to fall into bed, to smell the lingering scent of your hair on my pillow, to lose myself in memories of your breath on my neck, the timbre of your voice, the soft friction of our flesh. But I knew if I lay down, I would go to sleep.

Instead, I doctored my wounds to stem the flow of blood from my shoulder and side. I told myself I could survive this, as I had survived so many times before. But the man who now peers back from the mirror is already dead. His eyes are hollow, his face a sickly white. I don’t have much time.

I could call the police, but what would I tell them? That, after all these years of living by the law of the jungle, I’m now prepared to genuflect before the laws of man? Throw myself on their mercy? That’s a fool’s game. They see no distinction between me and the predators outside—and in the blinded sight of justice, we would surely meet the same fate.

I could take down the box from my closet shelf, the tools of my trade in that former life. With a night-vision scope and rifle, I could clean off the street in a matter of seconds. But they would only send more. They always send more.

I wish I could run to you, take you in my arms and spirit you away before they could discover where we’ve gone. Someplace where I could pay penance for betraying your trust and seek absolution in your heart for all those lies I never spoke, but lived.

Your face haunts me, yet I know I can never see you again. I know that would only condemn you to death alongside me, and I refuse to sacrifice you for my sins. My greatest regret is that I can never ask you for your forgiveness, except in this wretched letter. I never meant to deceive you; I only wanted to deceive myself.

The men outside are the only logical end to my story. I’ve dodged and outrun and sidestepped my fate for too long, and the world never forgets. It tracks you through the guilt, the sorrow and the anger. It eats you from inside, like a disease, until you’re numb to the pain, until the sickness is so long in your bones that you can no longer even recognize it. And then the ground opens beneath your feet and swallows you.

That’s all that’s left to me now. My killers have waited long enough.

And so have I.

04-10-2005, 11:22 PM
Rumor has it that in terrifying situations, your life flashes before your eyes. For Emily McCauley, it was her breasts:

The breasts that had appeared so suddenly she had stretch marks at eight;
The breasts that rested in DD-cup underwires, setting off the metal detectors at JFK;
The breasts that were the cornerstone of her identity as a sexual being.

In one of several waiting areas at the University of Maryland’s Greenebaum Cancer Center, Emily sat in a metal chair, the kind with carpet fabric on the seat and back. She chewed the left corner of her lower lip and tucked a few damp strands of auburn hair behind her right ear. She tightened her hold on the little arrow-shaped pink ticket that bore the number 36. The same age her mother had been when she died. Her aunt had made it to 72 after a double mastectomy and extensive chemo, but their mother, Emily’s grandmother, had been diagnosed at 48 and died within the year. Emily looked at the number again and wondered if she’d drawn 36 for a reason. The sweat of her palm had drawn red ink, marking her as if with stigmata.

These paper tickets weren’t something Emily had expected to find in a hospital. A bakery, sure. A shoe-shine shop, definitely. But an oncology department? It was funny, in a morbid kind of way. She thought of the old cliché: “When your number’s up, it’s up.”

The waiting area was a square of identical chairs with a large white Formica table in the middle. On it was the usual reading material: Cosmo, Elle and People. The glossy magazines, with their articles on gossip, fashion and makeup seemed unbearably trivial to Emily; she was more drawn to a pile of pamphlets fanned in an arc: “Your Genes, Your Choices.”

For those whose fate had already been decided, a number of well-thumbed books were strewn about: The Breast Book, Living with Ovarian Cancer, and a title Emily particularly liked: Just Get Me Through This.

Emily looked around at the eclectic group of women: an early twenties Goth chick, some soccer moms, a few executive-looking types in their forties and fifties and many who looked considerably older. Breast and ovarian cancer – fear, prevention and treatment – were the great equalizers for women. No matter how different their occupations, social and political views or religion, in this room, they were all connected. Emily had never been in a situation where breasts were so desexualized.

A tall man with rich mahogany skin and jet black hair emerged from the treatment room and called out, “Number 20.” A woman who appeared to be in her seventies made her way towards the open door. The nurse took her elbow and guided her into the alcove.

Her gaze came back to a sign by the door: “Patients scheduled for chemotherapy must have blood work done prior to 3:00 p.m.” Emily’s pulse quickened and she took in a short, deep breath.

The genetics counselor had gone over all the details. Regardless of her decision, Emily wouldn’t know if or when she’d develop cancer, and that scared the hell out of her.

A different nurse, a short, pudgy Caucasian woman stood in the doorway. “Number 21.”

BRCA-1. BRCA-2. B-R-C-A. Those were the names of the genes that, if mutated, caused breast and ovarian cancer. The genetics counselor had gone on and on about gene pairs, but to Emily it came down to one thing: knowing or not knowing. Even though BRCA clearly stood for BReast CAncer, Emily pronounced it “Bracca.” It sounded less clinical, less frightening; it was a name, not a diagnosis. It sounded like the affectionate nickname her father had given her mother, Rebecca; he called her “Barecca.”

“Number 22.”

Until now, Emily had always thought of DNA as an abstract concept. On TV shows like CSI, if they ever showed slides of DNA, it looked like columns of lines and dashes, the human body’s Morse code. It didn’t have this personal, dangerous feel, that mutant genes might start feeding off her body’s healthy cells, waging war from within.

Emily was the first of the four McCauley girls to raise the issue of genetic testing. At 24, she’d felt immortal. Knowing, she thought, would give her some peace and a chance to tackle the beast head-on if she was a gene carrier. She only wanted to get the test, however, if her three sisters were all going to do it as well. All or nothing. The Four Breastkateers. Amanda, the middle of the older three, had just given birth to a daughter and felt too vulnerable, so the testing was put on hold.

It was only after a scare this past November – a chickpea-sized lump just in front of her armpit – that Emily again began to think seriously about getting the test.

“Number 23.”

One by one, Emily had called each of her sisters and discussed the pros and cons. Amanda, she was shocked to find out, had done the test anyway; she did not have the mutated gene. Gabby, too, was negative, as was Nat.

One in four daughters of women who have had breast cancer will develop it. Emily had always secretly thought she was the one, until all the sisters had a big e-mail conversation and each confessed that she felt the same way.

“Number 24.”

This wasn’t information you could un-learn. It would affect all of her relationships – with men, with her sisters, with her friends. What if they considered that knowledge a burden? She knew she couldn’t keep it to herself. What if she spiraled into a deep well of depression and couldn’t climb out?

The good news, sort of, was that if she tested positive, there were things she could do to reduce the risk of getting cancer. Some women opted for a preventative mastectomy, but that was out of the question for Emily. I’m 28 years old, she thought. I’m not getting rid of my breasts.

Emily thought of a line she’d heard Bette Midler say once: “If I were a man, I’d have a dick down to my ankles.” She’d never heard of penile cancer, but she was pretty sure that no man would have his penis surgically amputated unless it was one gigantic tumor. Even then, he might hesitate because finally someone used the word “gigantic” to describe his genitals.

“Number 25.”

There were options other than mastectomy. Chemoprevention, or drug therapy with tamoxifen, seemed to lower the risk, but Emily didn’t like to think of her body as a battleground for chemical and biological weapons.

She’d laughed when the genetics counselor mentioned having an oophorectomy, which meant removal of the ovaries. It sounded like somebody would just punch her in the abdomen: ooph! It was one of the most effective options, though, and Emily thought she could live with that. No guy had ever told her how turned on he was by her ovaries.

“Number 26.”

The lives of Emily’s two young nieces were also at stake. If she had the gene, then the girls might, too. She would have potentially altered the course of two young lives without even having given birth.

As long as Emily didn’t get tested, though, she could remain in the “ignorance is bliss” category. She wouldn’t have to scrutinize her breasts every time she was in front of a mirror or in the shower. Her relationships might be f*cked up, but at least she wouldn’t have to carry this extra piece of baggage. Instead, she could finish her PhD, spend a year in Portugal, maybe get married – she could have a normal life.

The statistics lurked in the back of Emily’s mind: if she tested positive, there was only a fifteen percent chance she could live out her life with breasts and ovaries unscathed. Even a negative result was no guarantee. She knew that nine out of ten women who develop cancer have no genetic risk.

“Number 27.”

Emily’s heart began racing so fast she wondered if she was having a heart attack. Well, she thought, if I’m going to have a heart attack, a hospital is the place to have it.

Her mind wandered to her other risk factors: aside from having three first-degree relatives, Emily had gotten her period before the age of 12; her breasts were large; she’d had a biopsy on a cyst; she’d been on the Pill for a while; she was constantly trying to quit smoking; and she’d never been pregnant, a significant risk factor. It seemed as though cancer wanted to punish her personally for not using her womb correctly.

Her sisters always joked that she got breasts enough for all four of them. Amanda had her own scare in her twenties. She’d been doing a self-exam and thought she found a lump the size of an avocado pit. Frantic, she ran to her doctor; he did a thorough exam and said with a deadpan expression – at least, that’s always how Amanda always related the story - “Amanda. That lump you feel is your breast.”

“Number 28.”

The rational part of Emily’s inner voice reminded her that knowledge is power, and it would do her no good to have the gene and not know it. At least if she had the gene, she could do something about it. On the other hand, if she went through with this, it would change her psyche. Forever.

The doctors insisted on having a full family medical history before allowing the test. Amanda, the responsible sister, had tracked down their mother’s and had Xeroxed it, page by page. She cautioned Emily not to look at it. Both Amanda and Natalie had broken down, devastated, reading the clinical, impersonal account of what their mother had endured.

Amanda FedExed a copy of their mother’s records in a sealed envelope to Emily who, in turn, sent the unopened envelope to the oncologist. All Amanda told her were two adjectives used to describe the cancer that had devoured their mother: “virulent” and “occult,” the latter of which sounded to Emily like someone had placed a curse on her mother’s breasts.

“Number 29.”

Had they turned up the heat? Emily pulled Kleenex after Kleenex from the box on the table, wiping her forehead, then her neck. She felt self-conscious about the amount she was sweating. And then it happened. In the space of a few seconds, she felt her throat constrict, her heart stop and start, leaping and racing and stopping again. A feeling of dread cloaked her, and she was dizzy; black dots grew before her eyes, narrowing her vision. She grabbed her handbag and ran towards the exit on rubbery legs, not caring who saw her or what they thought. Once outside, she collapsed onto a bench and deeply inhaled the frosty January air. She still felt her head spinning, but in the cold air, the freedom of being outdoors, her pulse began to return to normal.

When she could begin to think again, the first thought that came was: if I don’t do this, I’m always going to wonder. The second was: I have a responsibility to my nieces.

She debated whether that responsibility was important enough to waive her privacy. The test would become part of her permanent medical history, and there was a chance she would have trouble getting life insurance, health insurance, even a job. The genetic counselor had told her these were mostly urban legends, that insurance companies generally did cover all aspects of the testing and treatment, at least to a point. Insurance usually even covered prosthetic breasts should she decide on a mastectomy, the counselor told her. Prosthetics, she thought, like a wooden leg for my chest. I’m not taking off my boobs at night like an old person takes out their dentures.

Luckily, the she lived in an area that was a hub of medical research. This clinic at the University of Maryland was one of the best; there were also clinical trials at Georgetown, the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins, all within commuting distance; if she qualified for one of those trials, the study would cover the expenses: mammograms, ultrasounds and, if necessary, treatment.

An ambulance pulled up, and Emily watched the paramedics pull out a gurney, on which lay a woman of about 40. Emily felt a chill that didn’t come from the wind; she followed the gurney inside and stood at a respectful distance from where the paramedics had parked it, just far enough inside the sliding doors to avoid the wintery draft. The woman’s face was the color of coal ashes, the kind of grey you only see on the skin of people who are dying. She had shoulder-length hair that had perhaps once been auburn; now it was a dull brown and grey. She wore the basic L.L. Bean outfit of New England natives, the same clothes Emily often wore: jeans, a green sweater and a white turtleneck with some tiny pattern on it. Her knees were pulled up in a fetal position, her hands pressed between them. Every so often, she moaned. Her husband, a heavyish man with a salt-and-pepper beard, stood next to her, helpless.

While the paramedics talked to a doctor under the Oncology Unit sign, Emily looked at the woman and her husband. She wanted to smile at the man, but somehow it seemed like a lame gesture that would be worse than no acknowledgement at all.

Emily imagined this woman collapsing at home, not knowing what was wrong. This woman was probably dying, and two weeks ago, she wouldn’t even have known it. Maybe even this morning she hadn’t known. Ovarian cancer could kill you that quickly. What if she had the gene and had known about it earlier? Could she have prevented, or at least delayed, getting sick? The knowledge might have made her and her husband miserable, but at least they wouldn’t have been blindsided. Maybe they had a seven-year-old daughter, too; she might’ve had her mother for a few more years.

Emily didn’t want to wind up on a gurney. She wanted every possible chance to live. The rush of anxiety in her body had given way to compassion, and now to determination. She walked quickly back to the waiting area, hoping her number hadn’t yet been called.

04-11-2005, 07:57 AM
There was a moment of clarity in that brief instant when his eyes met the eyes of the child. The toddler stood there in front of his table, the front of his pants soaked and dripping around the ankles from wetting himself. His parents, still fumbling with their jackets, still hadn’t noticed. It was a fitting finale to the miserable dining experience during which the waitress had neglected him and the cook had fowled up his food. It was the climax of another miserable day. Something clicked in Ivan’s mind during that brief moment before the parents began roughly dragging the child from the restaurant. He no longer cared that the world seemed out to make him miserable. An idea was slowly taking form in his mind, a response to the subversions and annoyance in his world around him.

If he could he’d walk the streets surrounded at all times by a brick wall, or else he thought he’d like to be entirely invisible. You see, city life demands its residents make contact with one another, whether they wish to or not. It is very difficult to spend even one day without seeing, speaking, or receiving contact from another human being. If the interactions with other people weren’t at least annoying, Ivan felt they might at least be damaging to his individuality somehow. He didn’t want to give anyone directions or tell them the time, he didn’t want to be told what products he should buy, and he didn’t want to be brought into the lives and psychosis of strangers. Animals have the liberty, when annoyed, of biting, head butting, or kicking; but society denies humans such graces and so Ivan had to devise an alternative plan. It was a week or two before he was ready.

At last he went out into the world with his cane. In order to not look too conspicuous he wore his best suit with it. He fancied that he looked like a gentleman. He smiled that morning in the utter delight of feeling that at last he was taking control. He waited for the beginning of his journey on a bus bench, quietly daydreaming of his adventures to come with a bemused smile.

“Screw you!”, she screamed into the pay phone, “You can’t treat me like this! I’ll kill you! I hope you die! Why don’t you just go die!”.

Everyone was sitting nervously on the benches, waiting for the bus and trying to pretend they weren’t hearing her.

“Screeeeew yooooooou!” she screamed. This time she sounded closer and Ivan couldn’t help but turn to look. The phone was dangling from the pay box and she was facing him, screaming directly at him.

“Excuse me?” he asked in shock.

“You can’t treat me like this, I hate you! I hope you die!” she screeched.

He had never seen her in his life. She looked weathered, like one of those women that had been smoking and tanning their whole life and put on too much makeup to look glamorous. He debated quietly dismissing her like everyone else. He thought about passively aggressively pretending not to be aware of her, maybe she would lose interest and begin screaming at someone else if he just ignored her. He couldn’t bring himself to do that, he felt angry to have some stranger screaming obscenities at him. This was his first opportunity to test his invention. This was his first revenge of the day. He nervously looked around him to see if anyone was watching him or her. When he felt quite secure he looked straight at the woman. She seemed somewhat shocked to have him pay attention to her ramblings. He moved his cane a few inches from the bench and let the tip touch her ankle. He pushed the button on the side. All at once she fell to the ground and was silent. It was her silence that brought people to look. A young man jumped from the bench to help her to a seat, asking what was wrong and if she was all right. She didn’t know, none of them did. Ivan fought back the laughter. The feeling of adrenaline and victory was making him feel light-headed.

He saw the bus approaching and was anxious to get on with his day, he didn’t have anything in particular to do or anywhere in particular to go. Today he was simply going to travel about the city, to utilize his first day of “true freedom” from society. As the bus approached it slowed in front of the stop just long enough for everyone to read the “Out of Service” marquee. The small crowd let out a frustrated groan. It would be another fifteen minutes. The sky looked as if it might rain, which made Ivan nervous because he didn’t have an umbrella. Crazy woman had regained her senses and wandered off, “with her tail between her legs” he thought.

Another bus finally came rolling along. Ivan stood up and stepped toward the street, as if being the first one on the bus would somehow speed up his journey. The bus screeched to a halt and splashed mud on his dress pants. The small crowd pushed their way on and he found a side seat by the window. He was using a napkin he had to try to clean the mud off of his pants. After a moment he realized they weren’t moving so looked up. A stocky man in a wheel chair was rolling his way toward the bus. He had a tall orange flag and bumper stickers on the back of his chair. “Why are we waiting? The bus doesn’t wait for anyone else when they’re not at the stop!” he thought. He suddenly, internally, tried to make himself feel bad for being insensitive. It didn’t work, he was always in a damn hurry and none of these people seemed to understand that he wasn’t there for their company.

The beeping of the little lift lowered and after about 10 minutes of fidgeting the passenger rolled on. The driver was trying to buckle the passenger’s chair in but he wouldn’t roll back close enough to the wall. Ivan was silently trying not to go insane.

They were finally moving. About a block down the street the little “stop” bell rang. It was the passenger in the wheel chair. “For all the time it took him to get on the bus he could have wheeled to this stop,” he thought. He was sure thoughts like this would send him to hell but he couldn’t help it. Another bout of fidgeting with the chair straps and fighting with the elevator and the passenger rolled off and out of their lives. As the bus pulled away Ivan watched the man. He watched as the man stood up out of the wheelchair and began pushing it. He was the only one who saw it. “What the?” he muttered aloud. “I’m gonna get that guy if I see him again,” he thought. He was angry that the guy had slipped in and out of his life and commit this heinous act without giving him the opportunity to punish him.

He turned and looked at a girl sitting across from him with a little dog on her lap. She had dressed the little rat in a sweater. He decided to not waste his time with the owner so scowled directly at the dog as it grinned goofily at him .

“Have you been eating garlic?” a strange voice asked. He looked up and saw an overweight woman with a high parrot like voice.

“No,” he replied. He realized she had been asking everyone on the bus this.

“Are you sure?” she asked in a baby talk way. “Someone’s been eating garlic… Maybe pizza?”

“No,” he snapped.

“Maybe spaghetti? I smell garlic…”

The thought occurred to him to strike out at her, but there were too many people in close quarters on the bus. What if someone saw him, what if they heard the crack? He couldn’t risk getting caught, not so soon into his day of freedom. He consented simply to speak his mind in the most hateful tone possible. That would have to suffice for now.

“I told you no, so why don’t you sit down and shut up! What is this, an asylum on wheels? Who cares who’s been eating garlic?!”

She looked shocked and as if she might cry as she walked back down the aisle to her seat. Some older man was giving him a dirty look.

Ivan took notice and snapped at him. “Why ya giving me the crazy look!? I’m sitting here minding my business!” The man looked away.

“Sir,” the bus driver barked, “If you don’t calm down I’m gonna kick ya off my bus.”

Ivan's face felt warm and he clenched his fists and waited in a silent rage for the rest of the trip. “Maybe I should walk up and down the aisle punishing them all,” he thought. He felt like he did as a child, when the older kids pushed him out of the bus seat and into the aisle for a laugh. He wasn’t a child anymore, and he didn't feel helpless. He just needed an opportunity...

The bus station where Ivan got off was rather crowded. He was pushing through the people and so didn’t notice the old woman squatting on the ground in front of him until he was almost on top of her. She was hoisting her skirt and urinating on the sidewalk with a silly toothless grin. “Nasty!” he exclaimed aloud when he noticed her. He didn’t even need to debate it in his mind this time. He let the tip of his cane brush her knee as he passed. With a groan and a heave, she projectile shat on the ground as the cane cracked and she keeled over. The nasty witch wouldn’t appall him today. The passers-by didn’t even notice. They were already trying too hard not to look at her. Ivan was euphoric.

With each new victim Ivan was becoming increasingly pleased with himself. His cane was an ingenious invention, a cattle prod fashioned into the hollow shaft and connected to the metal tip at the bottom of the cane. It wasn’t long before he began an assault upon nearly anyone that dared to talk to him. “Can you spare some change?” Shock! “Do you know what time it is?” Shock! “Watch out queer!” a younger man snapped as he ran into Ivan. Ivan cracked electricity into him twice before he hit the ground.

Everywhere Ivan went people mysteriously collapsed in his presence and any on looking witnesses had no idea as to why. It shocked him that so many people had the temerity to speak to a stranger however they saw fit. “Hasn’t it occurred to any of these *******s,” he thought, “that it might be a madman they’re being rude to?” He felt no remorse. In a way, he justified his actions as potentially teaching them a lesson and saving them from saying the wrong thing to someone in the future that could get them killed. God knew that Ivan would have loved to have shot most of them, but luckily for them he was perfectly sane.

He was exceedingly delighted with himself on the bus ride home. He could punish anyone he pleased and who could possibly suspect? He was daydreaming about the crazy woman who was always talking to herself and standing in the middle of the road near where he lived. He promised himself to drive up beside her the very next day. He would roll down his window and stick his cane out and deliver her such a shock that she’d never slow traffic again. "It would be much better than her getting run over, that was for sure," he reasoned.

It had begun raining as the bus pulled into his stop. He got off the bus and began speed walking up to his apartment. The gutter was a running river when he made it to the front of his building. He crossed through the grass in the little yard to his apartment door. He began slipping in a puddle of mud so thrust his cane down to regain balance.

There was the sound of a crack. It wasn’t pain he felt, it was something he could only describe to himself as horribly uncomfortable, or disturbing. It was a dull jerking within the muscles of his leg. It was as if someone was shaking him from within his own body. He felt numb as he lay on the wet grass with the rain speckling him in the face. He felt dazed and sore and didn’t want to move. He formed an image of himself lying there in his mind. He was lying in the mud in his very best suit with a cane at his side, a cane he had crafted into an instrument of torture. It occurred to him that he must look quite asinine to anyone who might happen to see him. The thought made him chuckle to himself.

There was a moment of clarity in that brief instant when his eyes met the gray sky above him. “Am I crazy?” he thought. “What am I doing? Is this who I am? I’m no better than these crazies I’ve been shocking all day” The realization was disturbing him. “Am I a maniac?” …

“No, no of course not.” He assured himself, “ I’m a superhero!”