Young Goodman Brown (Hawthorne)

YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN came forth at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap, while she called to Goodman Brown.

“Dearest heart,” whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, “pr’y thee, put off your journey until sunrise, and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts, that she’s afeard of herself, sometimes. Pray, tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year!”

“My love and my Faith,” replied young Goodman Brown, “of all nights in the year, this one night must I tarry away from thee. My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done ‘twixt now and sunrise. What, my sweet, pretty wife, dost thou doubt me already, and we but three months married!”

“Then God bless you!” said Faith, with the pink ribbons, “and may you find all well, when you come back.”

“Amen!” cried Goodman Brown. “Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.”

So they parted; and the young man pursued his way, until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him, with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons.

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night. But, no, no! ‘twould kill her to think it. Well; she’s a blessed angel on earth; and after this one night, I’ll cling to her skirts and follow her to Heaven.”

With this excellent resolve for the future, Goodman Brown felt himself justified in making more haste on his present evil purpose. He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that, with lonely footsteps, he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

“There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,” said Goodman Brown to himself; and he glanced fearfully behind him, as he added, “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

His head being turned back, he passed a crook of the road, and looking forward again, beheld the figure of a man, in grave and decent attire, seated at the foot of an old tree. He arose, at Goodman Brown’s approach, and walked onward, side by side with him.

“You are late, Goodman Brown,” said he. “The clock of the Old South was striking, as I came through Boston; and that is full fifteen minutes agone.”

“Faith kept me back awhile,” replied the young man, with a tremor in his voice, caused by the sudden appearance of his companion, though not wholly unexpected.

It was now deep dusk in the forest, and deepest in that part of it where these two were journeying. As nearly as could be discerned, the second traveller was about fifty years old, apparently in the same rank of life as Goodman Brown, and bearing a considerable resemblance to him, though perhaps more in expression than features. Still, they might have been taken for father and son. And yet, though the elder person was as simply clad as the younger, and as simple in manner too, he had an indescribable air of one who knew the world, and would not have felt abashed at the governor’s dinner-table, or in King William’s court, were it possible that his affairs should call him thither. But the only thing about him, that could be fixed upon as remarkable, was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.

“Come, Goodman Brown!” cried his fellow-traveller, “this is a dull pace for the beginning of a journey. Take my staff, if you are so soon weary.”

“Friend,” said the other, exchanging his slow pace for a full stop, “having kept covenant by meeting thee here, it is my purpose now to return whence I came. I have scruples, touching the matter thou wot’st of.”

“Sayest thou so?” replied he of the serpent, smiling apart. “Let us walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go, and if I convince thee not, thou shalt turn back. We are but a little way in the forest, yet.”

“Too far, too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept–“

“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interrupting his pause. “Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake.”

“If it be as thou sayest,” replied Goodman Brown, “I marvel they never spoke of these matters. Or, verily, I marvel not, seeing that the least rumor of the sort would have driven them from New England. We are a people of prayer, and good works to boot, and abide no such wickedness.”

“Wickedness or not,” said the traveller with the twisted staff, “I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen, of divers towns, make me their chairman; and a majority of the Great and General Court are firm supporters of my interest. The governor and I, too–but these are state-secrets.”

“Can this be so!” cried Goodman Brown, with a stare of amazement at his undisturbed companion. “Howbeit, I have nothing to do with the governor and council; they have their own ways, and are no rule for a simple husbandman like me. But, were I to go on with thee, how should I meet the eye of that good old man, our minister, at Salem village? Oh, his voice would make me tremble, both Sabbath-day and lecture-day!”

Thus far, the elder traveller had listened with due gravity, but now burst into a fit of irrepressible mirth, shaking himself so violently that his snake-like staff actually seemed to wriggle in sympathy.

“Ha! ha! ha!” shouted he, again and again; then composing himself, “Well, go on, Goodman Brown, go on; but, pr’y thee, don’t kill me with laughing!”

“Well, then, to end the matter at once,” said Goodman Brown, considerably nettled, “there is my wife, Faith. It would break her dear little heart; and I’d rather break my own!”

“Nay, if that be the case,” answered the other, “e’en go thy ways, Goodman Brown. I would not, for twenty old women like the one hobbling before us, that Faith should come to any harm.”

As he spoke, he pointed his staff at a female figure on the path, in whom Goodman Brown recognized a very pious and exemplary dame, who had taught him his catechism in youth, and was still his moral and spiritual adviser, jointly with the minister and Deacon Gookin.

“A marvel, truly, that Goody Cloyse should be so far in the wilderness, at night-fall!” said he. “But, with your leave, friend, I shall take a cut through the woods, until we have left this Christian woman behind. Being a stranger to you, she might ask whom I was consorting with, and whither I was going.”

“Be it so,” said his fellow-traveller. “Betake you to the woods, and let me keep the path.”

Accordingly, the young man turned aside, but took care to watch his companion, who advanced softly along the road, until he had come within a staff’s length of the old dame. She, meanwhile, was making the best of her way, with singular speed for so aged a woman, and mumbling some indistinct words, a prayer, doubtless, as she went. The traveller put forth his staff, and touched her withered neck with what seemed the serpent’s tail.

“The devil!” screamed the pious old lady.

“Then Goody Cloyse knows her old friend?” observed the traveller, confronting her, and leaning on his writhing stick.

“Ah, forsooth, and is it your worship, indeed?” cried the good dame. “Yea, truly is it, and in the very image of my old gossip, Goodman Brown, the grandfather of the silly fellow that now is. But–would your worship believe it?–my broomstick hath strangely disappeared, stolen, as I suspect, by that unhanged witch, Goody Cory, and that, too, when I was all anointed with the juice of smallage and cinque-foil and wolf’s-bane–“

“Mingled with fine wheat and the fat of a new-born babe,” said the shape of old Goodman Brown.

“Ah, your worship knows the recipe,” cried the old lady, cackling aloud. “So, as I was saying, being all ready for the meeting, and no horse to ride on, I made up my mind to foot it; for they tell me, there is a nice young man to be taken into communion to-night. But now your good worship will lend me your arm, and we shall be there in a twinkling.”

“That can hardly be,” answered her friend. “I may not spare you my arm, Goody Cloyse, but here is my staff, if you will.”

So saying, he threw it down at her feet, where, perhaps, it assumed life, being one of the rods which its owner had formerly lent to Egyptian Magi. Of this fact, however, Goodman Brown could not take cognizance. He had cast up his eyes in astonishment, and looking down again, beheld neither Goody Cloyse nor the serpentine staff, but his fellow-traveller alone, who waited for him as calmly as if nothing had happened.

“That old woman taught me my catechism!” said the young man; and there was a world of meaning in this simple comment.

They continued to walk onward, while the elder traveller exhorted his companion to make good speed and persevere in the path, discoursing so aptly, that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor, than to be suggested by himself. As they went, he plucked a branch of maple, to serve for a walking-stick, and began to strip it of the twigs and little boughs, which were wet with evening dew. The moment his fingers touched them, they became strangely withered and dried up, as with a week’s sunshine. Thus the pair proceeded, at a good free pace, until suddenly, in a gloomy hollow of the road, Goodman Brown sat himself down on the stump of a tree, and refused to go any farther.

“Friend,” said he, stubbornly, “my mind is made up. Not another step will I budge on this errand. What if a wretched old woman do choose to go to the devil, when I thought she was going to Heaven! Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith, and go after her?”

“You will think better of this by-and-by,” said his acquaintance, composedly. “Sit here and rest yourself awhile; and when you feel like moving again, there is my staff to help you along.”

Without more words, he threw his companion the maple stick, and was as speedily out of sight, as if he had vanished into the deepening gloom. The young man sat a few moments by the road-side, applauding himself greatly, and thinking with how clear a conscience he should meet the minister, in his morning-walk, nor shrink from the eye of good old Deacon Gookin. And what calm sleep would be his, that very night, which was to have been spent so wickedly, but purely and sweetly now, in the arms of Faith! Amidst these pleasant and praiseworthy meditations, Goodman Brown heard the tramp of horses along the road, and deemed it advisable to conceal himself within the verge of the forest, conscious of the guilty purpose that had brought him thither, though now so happily turned from it.

On came the hoof-tramps and the voices of the riders, two grave old voices, conversing soberly as they drew near. These mingled sounds appeared to pass along the road, within a few yards of the young man’s hiding-place; but owing, doubtless, to the depth of the gloom, at that particular spot, neither the travellers nor their steeds were visible. Though their figures brushed the small boughs by the way-side, it could not be seen that they intercepted, even for a moment, the faint gleam from the strip of bright sky, athwart which they must have passed. Goodman Brown alternately crouched and stood on tip-toe, pulling aside the branches, and thrusting forth his head as far as he durst, without discerning so much as a shadow. It vexed him the more, because he could have sworn, were such a thing possible, that he recognized the voices of the minister and Deacon Gookin, jogging along quietly, as they were wont to do, when bound to some ordination or ecclesiastical council. While yet within hearing, one of the riders stopped to pluck a switch.

“Of the two, reverend Sir,” said the voice like the deacon’s, I had rather miss an ordination-dinner than tonight’s meeting. They tell me that some of our community are to be here from Falmouth and beyond, and others from Connecticut and Rhode-Island; besides several of the Indian powows, who, after their fashion, know almost as much deviltry as the best of us. Moreover, there is a goodly young woman to be taken into communion.”

“Mighty well, Deacon Gookin!” replied the solemn old tones of the minister. “Spur up, or we shall be late. Nothing can be done, you know, until I get on the ground.”

The hoofs clattered again, and the voices, talking so strangely in the empty air, passed on through the forest, where no church had ever been gathered, nor solitary Christian prayed. Whither, then, could these holy men be journeying, so deep into the heathen wilderness? Young Goodman Brown caught hold of a tree, for support, being ready to sink down on the ground, faint and overburthened with the heavy sickness of his heart. He looked up to the sky, doubting whether there really was a Heaven above him. Yet, there was the blue arch, and the stars brightening in it.

“With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” cried Goodman Brown.

While he still gazed upward, into the deep arch of the firmament, and had lifted his hands to pray, a cloud, though no wind was stirring, hurried across the zenith, and hid the brightening stars. The blue sky was still visible, except directly overhead, where this black mass of cloud was sweeping swiftly northward. Aloft in the air, as if from the depths of the cloud, came a confused and doubtful sound of voices. Once, the listener fancied that he could distinguish the accent of town’s-people of his own, men and women, both pious and ungodly, many of whom he had met at the communion-table, and had seen others rioting at the tavern. The next moment, so indistinct were the sounds, he doubted whether he had heard aught but the murmur of the old forest, whispering without a wind. Then came a stronger swell of those familiar tones, heard daily in the sunshine, at Salem village, but never, until now, from a cloud of night. There was one voice, of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain. And all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward.

“Faith!” shouted Goodman Brown, in a voice of agony and desperation; and the echoes of the forest mocked him, crying –“Faith! Faith!” as if bewildered wretches were seeking her, all through the wilderness.

The cry of grief, rage, and terror, was yet piercing the night, when the unhappy husband held his breath for a response. There was a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept away, leaving the clear and silent sky above Goodman Brown. But something fluttered lightly down through the air, and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.

“My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.”

And maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate, that he seemed to fly along the forest-path, rather than to walk or run. The road grew wilder and drearier, and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while, sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.

“Ha! ha! ha!” roared Goodman Brown, when the wind laughed at him. “Let us hear which will laugh loudest! Think not to frighten me with your deviltry! Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powow, come devil himself! and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you!”

In truth, all through the haunted forest, there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew, among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter, as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous, than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course, until, quivering among the trees, he saw a red light before him, as when the felled trunks and branches of a clearing have been set on fire, and throw up their lurid blaze against the sky, at the hour of midnight. He paused, in a lull of the tempest that had driven him onward, and heard the swell of what seemed a hymn, rolling solemnly from a distance, with the weight of many voices. He knew the tune; it was a familiar one in the choir of the village meeting-house. The verse died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness, pealing in awful harmony together. Goodman Brown cried out; and his cry was lost to his own ear, by its unison with the cry of the desert.

In the interval of silence, he stole forward, until the light glared full upon his eyes. At one extremity of an open space, hemmed in by the dark wall of the forest, arose a rock, bearing some rude, natural resemblance either to an altar or a pulpit, and surrounded by four blazing pines, their tops aflame, their stems untouched, like candles at an evening meeting. The mass of foliage, that had overgrown the summit of the rock, was all on fire, blazing high into the night, and fitfully illuminating the whole field. Each pendent twig and leafy festoon was in a blaze. As the red light arose and fell, a numerous congregation alternately shone forth, then disappeared in shadow, and again grew, as it were, out of the darkness, peopling the heart of the solitary woods at once.

“A grave and dark-clad company!” quoth Goodman Brown.

In truth, they were such. Among them, quivering to-and-fro, between gloom and splendor, appeared faces that would be seen, next day, at the council-board of the province, and others which, Sabbath after Sabbath, looked devoutly heavenward, and benignantly over the crowded pews, from the holiest pulpits in the land. Some affirm, that the lady of the governor was there. At least, there were high dames well known to her, and wives of honored husbands, and widows, a great multitude, and ancient maidens, all of excellent repute, and fair young girls, who trembled lest their mothers should espy them. Either the sudden gleams of light, flashing over the obscure field, bedazzled Goodman Brown, or he recognized a score of the church-members of Salem village, famous for their especial sanctity. Good old Deacon Gookin had arrived, and waited at the skirts of that venerable saint, his reverend pastor. But, irreverently consorting with these grave, reputable, and pious people, these elders of the church, these chaste dames and dewy virgins, there were men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame, wretches given over to all mean and filthy vice, and suspected even of horrid crimes. It was strange to see, that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints. Scattered, also, among their palefaced enemies, were the Indian priests, or powows, who had often scared their native forest with more hideous incantations than any known to English witchcraft.

“But, where is Faith?” thought Goodman Brown; and, as hope came into his heart, he trembled.

Another verse of the hymn arose, a slow and mournful strain, such as the pious love, but joined to words which expressed all that our nature can conceive of sin, and darkly hinted at far more. Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends. Verse after verse was sung, and still the chorus of the desert swelled between, like the deepest tone of a mighty organ. And, with the final peal of that dreadful anthem, there came a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice of the unconverted wilderness, were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man, in homage to the prince of all. The four blazing pines threw up a loftier flame, and obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke-wreaths, above the impious assembly. At the same moment, the fire on the rock shot redly forth, and formed a glowing arch above its base, where now appeared a figure. With reverence be it spoken, the figure bore no slight similitude, both in garb and manner, to some grave divine of the New-England churches.

“Bring forth the converts!” cried a voice, that echoed through the field and rolled into the forest.

At the word, Goodman Brown stepped forth from the shadow of the trees, and approached the congregation, with whom he felt a loathful brotherhood, by the sympathy of all that was wicked in his heart. He could have well nigh sworn, that the shape of his own dead father beckoned him to advance, looking downward from a smoke-wreath, while a woman, with dim features of despair, threw out her hand to warn him back. Was it his mother? But he had no power to retreat one step, nor to resist, even in thought, when the minister and good old Deacon Gookin seized his arms, and led him to the blazing rock. Thither came also the slender form of a veiled female, led between Goody Cloyse, that pious teacher of the catechism, and Martha Carrier, who had received the devil’s promise to be queen of hell. A rampant hag was she! And there stood the proselytes, beneath the canopy of fire.

“Welcome, my children,” said the dark figure, “to the communion of your race! Ye have found, thus young, your nature and your destiny. My children, look behind you!”

They turned; and flashing forth, as it were, in a sheet of flame, the fiend-worshippers were seen; the smile of welcome gleamed darkly on every visage.

“There,” resumed the sable form, “are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet, here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youth have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels–blush not, sweet ones–have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin, ye shall scent out all the places–whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest–where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot. Far more than this! It shall be yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin, the fountain of all wicked arts, and which inexhaustibly supplies more evil impulses than human power–than my power at its utmost!–can make manifest in deeds. And now, my children, look upon each other.”

They did so; and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.

“Lo! there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad, with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream! Now are ye undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome, again, my children, to the communion of your race!”

“Welcome!” repeated the fiend-worshippers, in one cry of despair and triumph.

And there they stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness, in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame? Herein did the Shape of Evil dip his hand, and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. The husband cast one look at his pale wife, and Faith at him. What polluted wretches would the next glance show them to each other, shuddering alike at what they disclosed and what they saw!

“Faith! Faith!” cried the husband. “Look up to Heaven, and resist the Wicked One!”

Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not. Hardly had he spoken, when he found himself amid calm night and solitude, listening to a roar of the wind, which died heavily away through the forest. He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp, while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.

The next morning, young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man. The good old minister was taking a walk along the graveyard, to get an appetite for breakfast and meditate his sermon, and bestowed a blessing, as he passed, on Goodman Brown. He shrank from the venerable saint, as if to avoid an anathema. Old Deacon Gookin was at domestic worship, and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the open window. “What God doth the wizard pray to?” quoth Goodman Brown. Goody Cloyse, that excellent old Christian, stood in the early sunshine, at her own lattice, catechising a little girl, who had brought her a pint of morning’s milk. Goodman Brown snatched away the child, as from the grasp of the fiend himself. Turning the corner by the meeting-house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him, that she skipt along the street, and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so, if you will. But, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath-day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen, because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear, and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit, with power and fervid eloquence, and with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith, and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled, and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grand-children, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.

 

Unbridled Fire

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Unbridled Fire
a short story by
Robert Lampros

Jacob sat slightly higher at the table than his friend, Sunny, with whom he was speaking.  Sunny’s hands were placed flat on either side of the cloudy orange tabletop as he listened intently to the dream being recounted.

“She was waiting for me in the back of a small restaurant, kind of like this one, at a table, opposite an empty chair, and her friend Barbara sat to her left.  She was smiling a hidden kind of smile as I walked up to her.”

“You could walk, in the dream?”

“Yes,” nodded Jacob, “and when I sat down Claire leaned back and crossed her arms, like this.”  He folded his arms against his chest and tilted his head back, peering at Sunny through distrustful eyes.  “I don’t remember how it got started, but I had a book in front of me, uh…”

 After ten seconds or so, Sunny said, “A textbook?  A paperback?”

Jacob raised his eyes to meet his friend’s.  “No.  A schedule book, you know, a—what do you call those things?”

“A day planner?”

“Yeah, one of those, all filled with events and plans.  Every day had a box filled with notes, the entire year was mapped out for us with dates, vacations, parties, family visits and stuff, even big celebrations like New Year’s Eve in Times Square.  I kept flipping through the book for the best days, and reading the day’s events to her, trying to convince her, but she didn’t smile or move really.”

“Convince her of what?”

“I don’t know,” he laughed.  “Impress her, maybe.  To make her fall in love with me.”

“What was Barbara doing?”

“She might have been helping me look for days.”  Jacob stared down at his plate, at the half-eaten pile of french fries and swirl of ketchup.  “I woke up before Claire gave me an answer.”

Sunny followed him past the counter and register, then helped push his electric wheelchair over the ridge in the doorway.  They listened to the Classic Rock station on the ride home while Jacob nodded to the music, throwing punches at the air and shouting, “Alright,” when the songs got good.

“God bless you, brother,” Sunny waved out the window and sped away, the taillights blinking on in the blue evening haze.  Jacob watched the grey Chevy shrink and blur into the stream of humming vehicles, then spun and motored up the walkway toward the ramp and front door.

 All he had to do for the rest of the day was shower, get dressed, eat dinner, and go to sleep before ten o’clock.  His job at Makermart required him to be there at six sharp so he could scan the boxes after the flow team unloaded the morning deliveries.  After work he had basketball practice on Wednesdays and Fridays, and if he didn’t get enough sleep he’d be drowsy and lagging on the court.

The simple task of showering and putting on clothes took Jacob approximately three to four times longer than an able-bodied person.  Once he completed this process, he checked his phone, and seeing no new messages or calls, wheeled over to his desk, removed a bottle of tequila and plastic lime from the drawer, and commenced watching an episode of Attack on Titan on his laptop.  A team of warriors flew through the trees raining hell on a malevolent giant who had the power to regenerate his limbs and organs.  Jacob poured another shot, threw it back, and squirted some lime juice in his mouth.  His thoughts drifted to Claire and the dream again.  There may be some truth to it, he thought.  Sometimes he felt like he was trying too hard, and if she wasn’t into it, so what, there’s plenty of fish in the sea.  Then the green of her eyes washed over him, melted his indifference into a renewed determination to win her.  “I love her,” he’d say to himself, “but she better know I’m liquid metal.”

The boxes dropped onto the conveyor and slid over the silver bars, the worn cylinders roaring, then faintly whistling, as the cardboard rolled past, and Jacob’s coworkers loaded the pallets on either side of the line.  He used his manual chair there since it was easier to maneuver in close quarters.  Once a pallet was ready to go out to the floor, the worker would raise a hand and he’d shoot over and scan the barcodes on each of the boxes.  Not the most awesome job in his opinion, but at least he could listen to music, and the people weren’t all unbearable.

“But it don’t make no difference,” he sang under his breath, “Cause I ain’t gonna be easy, easy.  The only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m, killed by death…”

“What you listenin’ to today, Jake?” his friend Shane asked, but he just kept singing and scanning the boxes.

When ten-thirty came around he grabbed his lunch and rolled outside to the employee smoking area on the south side of the building.  Early December in Milwaukee, the clouds of vapor billowed out from Jacob’s lungs as the turkey sandwich on his lap began to freeze.  He watched the cars gliding past beyond the creek encircling the hill on which the Makermart sat, and let his eyes drift down to the icy water.  The edges were frozen, jagged white borders constricting the dark green current, winding through the dense woods before the highway.  He didn’t move for a while, only sat, listening.  Then, at ten fifty-five, he quickly ate the frosty sandwich and wheeled back in to help stock and zone items on the lower shelves.

The Dial n’ Go shuttle picked him up at two and took him straight to basketball, and his mother’s friend, Susan, the woman he lived with, picked him up from there.  “How was practice?” she asked, folding the wheelchair and preparing to stow it in back of the van.  “You look exhausted, did you eat your lunch?”  Jacob hoisted his right leg inside and reached out to close the passenger door, pausing a moment to consider answering her question.  “Never mind, then,” she said when the door slammed shut.

“I got you those elbow sleeves you asked for, the kind with the pad.  They’re on your bed,” she called from the kitchen.

His head bowed, almost dropping on the empty plate.  “How many times have I told you—politely—to stay out of my room?”

“Oh, I know…”  Her attention focused on the task at hand, cracking and straining the yolks out of five large eggs for Jacob’s dinner omelet, part of a high-protein, low-calorie diet he’d started for basketball, and to help him get “insanely ripped” by New Year’s.  “I thought it’d be easier than having to carry them yourself.  Couldn’t help seeing those empty bottles in the trash.  I wish you’d quit drinking so much, young man.”

He raised his head, stared wide-eyed at the ceiling.  “Nine years, I’ve been old enough to drink.  I’ll be—”

“Thirty years-old in March,” she finished the sentence with him, rounding the counter with a plate of turkey bacon and a glass of milk.  “Please take it under advisement,” she smiled gently, “you drink enough tequila to drown a mariachi band each week.”

“And she’s racist, too.”

“Winters are rough sometimes,” she said, returning to the kitchen.  “The soul tends to weep and yearn for light.  Spring will be a time of waxing joy and renewal.”

“I’m happy to hear that, Susan.”

He deliberately waited until 8:05pm to call Claire.  She picked up the phone after one ring.  “Hey, Jacob!”

“Claire, how’s it going?  How was—”

“Not bad, you know—sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.  I’m in the middle of inking the next SkyWench issue and it’s stressing me out.”

Jacob paused a second.  “I saw the sample pages on your blog the other day.  It looks amazing.”

“Well, thank you, sir.  Should be one of the best ones yet.  Now all I need is some readers.”

“Hey, Claire.”

“Yeah?  Present.”

“Would you want to have dinner with me Saturday, at my place, maybe watch a movie after?”  He almost added, “I can cook a mean roasted chicken with sauvignon blanc,” but kept his mouth shut.

A few hours passed, and Claire said, “Sure.  I’d love to.  What time should I be there?”

“Eight, eight-thirty.  I’ll start cooking around eight.”

“Sounds great, Jake,” she said, possibly smiling.  “I’ll see you, Saturday night.”

After work the next day he hit the gym, but not too hard since he had practice the day after that.  He wondered if Claire might want to go to his game Sunday.  Depending on how their date went, asking her to the basketball game could be a smart move, but if he came on too strong she might brush him off like a charity case who got too clingy.  “Cute little Jacob,” he groaned, pulling himself up into a seated position on the workout bench.  “He thinks Claire’s gonna be his girlfriend.”  Opposite the incline and decline presses, a woman in dark grey spandex pants and a sports bra was doing alternating curls and watching herself in the mirror.  He eyed her for a moment, checking out her body.  Curvy and muscular, a large chest but not huge, a moderately pretty face, and straight black hair.  She caught a glimpse of him, glanced at his shoulders and arms, and smiled.  He smiled back, then her eyes moved to the wheelchair parked beside his bench, she flashed a confused expression, stole a glance at his legs, and turned back to her own reflection.  Jacob lied down and started his next set.

Tired, tired, tired.  So tired of this…  Waking up to pitch black alarm, smelling filth in a soiled diaper, dragging self out of bed, washing, grooming, dressing, for another day like every other God-damned day.  Another day of crawling.  Susan loves, cares, and toils for him.  Sunny loves him like a brother.  Claire laughs and gazes at him from time to time, soft beaming starlight in her eyes, soon to fade, or fall, displaced by cloud or shadow, unknown amusement shaping lips into a grin.

“Hold up, let me scan those,” he barked at Richard, who’d started jacking up a pallet near the back of the truck.

“Sorry, Jake.  Kind of want to get these done in a hurry.  They should let us scan our own boxes, it’d be way faster.”

“Management wants it this way,” he said quickly.

“You’d be out of a job though, huh?”

“And what a tragedy that would be.  Kay, you’re good to go, Dick.”

Half of practice was drills, exercise, and strategy, while the second half was a scrimmage game.  His team went all out during practice games unless they had an important real game in the next few days.  Sunday afternoon they were playing the West Allis Porcupines, so no one on Jacob’s team was very worried.  The scrimmage began as usual in a fun, even brotherly spirit of good-natured competition.

“Once in a while it’s the right play to pass the ball, lame legs.”

“I’ll make sure to tell your mom that later.”

“At least Jake actually makes a shot sometimes, Danny.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” his teammates laughed.

Jacob spun and launched down the left side of the court, hoping to snag a rebound and sail the ball to Nick or Max for a shot.  He locked chairs with Elliot at the three-point line and fought to break free, but by then his team had possession, storming up the court where Max lobbed one in from under the basket.

Susan waited in the parking lot at four, folded his chair, stowed it in back, climbed into the driver’s seat, and started the van.  “Your friend dropped by today,” she said quietly.  “She left you a comic book.  Said you’re cooking her dinner tomorrow night?”

He rolled down the window, spat on the pavement, and rolled it up again.  “Is that alright?”

They already had the soy sauce, vinegar, and carrots at home, but they still needed soy beans, soba noodles, and salmon filets, so they stopped at the EarthWay grocery by their house.  He had found the Ginger Salmon recipe on a gourmet cooking site, he told her, and thought a Japanese meal would go well with the film they were watching, plus Claire liked anime, sushi, and some Shibuya-kei music.  He appreciated Susan taking him to buy the groceries.  He also appreciated her finding someplace else to be tomorrow night from seven o’clock onward, so he and Claire could have the privacy they’re entitled to as responsible, non-threatening adults.

The comic she’d given him, the latest issue of SkyWench, wasn’t her best work, although Jacob respected what she was trying to do.  Previous issues focused more on the clashes between Mina’s skyborn clan of sister warriors and the rock-dwelling Scorporanths that fed on human beings, often indulging a nigh unquenchable thirst for human spinal fluid.  In this one all she did was fly from mountain to mountain on her Sordes, with a few of her warriors, on a quest to locate a floating island where the land was fertile and the Scorporanths couldn’t reach them.  Mina ends up finding it, then changes her mind, saying life there would be, “A thunderless dream, and hence a virago’s nightmare.”  Claire’s other readers might enjoy it, either way he intended to keep any negative opinions to himself.

She showed up just after eight while he was grating the carrots.  On his way to the door he hit play on the stereo.  He had considered listening to an album that he knew Claire liked, Stereo * Type A or This Will Destroy You, but before he started cooking went with Use Your Illusion I, not wanting to look overeager to make her happy.  She stood on the doorstep, smiling, for a couple seconds, and he said, “Hey, Claire.  You look…  Hazardous.”

Black sweater unbuttoned down the front, white v-neck t-shirt, faded jeans, frayed at the bottom, over a new pair of sambas.  No purse in her hands, gently resting at her sides, and a calm, radiant, almost sarcastic look in her emerald green eyes.  Dark brown hair streaked with blonde fell over one side of her face, curled slightly beneath her chin, and flowed in a crescent to the back of her neck.  Pale rose lips, round above with softly dimpled corners, delicate, ivory cheeks, and the faintest freckles on a nose sloping bravely from the quiet shadows round her eyes.

“Invite me in at your own risk,” she said impatiently.

He poured her a glass of the Merlot that Susan drank, set it on the counter in front of her, and resumed prepping the ingredients.  Most of the tables and counters were about half a foot lower than usual, part of the renovation done after Susan bought the house.  In spite of this, and the feature of Jacob’s electric wheelchair allowing him to elevate or lower himself somewhat, he couldn’t shake a nagging embarrassment as Claire watched him cook and talked about her friends, the work they were doing, their plans for the future, and hers, which were more like vague wishes really because she still didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she’d rather live overseas and teach English than keep slanging shirts and keychains at the mall, and listening to the same fake-azz pop songs all day.

“Don’t you have to speak a foreign language to be able to teach overseas?”

“Not really.  Besides, I could always learn.”

“Where would you want to live?”

“Europe, China, South America…”

“Why not Japan?”

“I think most people already have a working knowledge of English there.  If not they probably don’t need more teachers.”

“Wouldn’t you miss this place?  Milwaukee isn’t the best city in the world, but it’s way better than Chicago, or St. Louis.”

Claire laughed a single, ecstatic, “Ha,” and let her head fall on her forearms, lifted it again, and finished her wine.  “I just know my life here has been a tragedy.”

They ate quickly, laughing now and then at each other’s jokes.  The salmon was delicious, perfectly cooked according to him, though Claire thought it was too well done.  “I agree,” she told him, “couldn’t be better.”  The tv in the living room emitted an obnoxious buzzing sound when the previews started.  He nearly fell out of his chair trying to get to the entertainment center to adjust the wires.  Unplugging and plugging them back in fixed the problem, and the film began.  The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki.  He’d almost chosen Ninja Scroll, but after some deliberation ordered this one, not wanting to risk Claire getting freaked out—uncomfortable, rather—due to the abundant violence.  The movie amazed her right away, she slid over next to Jacob, who’d moved from his wheelchair to the couch, and put his arm around her.

“Farewell, Mina,” he called from the doorway, instantly regretting it until she turned, laughing, and blew him a kiss.  Later, as he was falling asleep, he assured himself that it was better not to have asked her to go to his game on Sunday, better still not to have made any plans at all.  Their date was good.  Maybe in a few days he’d call her again.

The game was a blowout, as expected.  His team, the Badgers, dominated the West Allis Porcupines for a 43 to 17-point win, then Jacob and a few of the guys drove to a nearby sports bar for burgers and beers.

“I’ll buy the drinks today, boys,” he said as they rolled up to their table.

“Why you gonna do that, Jake?” asked Nick.

“I feel like being nice, since when do I need a reason?”

Danny eyed him for a second.

“In that case I want the most expensive whiskey they’ve got,” laughed Tyler.

“Did you get lucky last night, bro?” asked Danny.

Everyone at the table stopped talking, and looked at him.

“I told your mom to keep quiet about tha—”

“Yeah, yeah, just answer the question.”

He stared back at Danny and looked around at everyone.  “None of your business, but yeah, I had a date last night.”

All the guys said, “Oooooh,” and started making dumb jokes, when the server walked over.

“You sound like a bunch of tween-age girls,” he yelled.  “Look, the waitress is here.”

They ate, talked, and laughed for almost two hours, watching the Admirals and some other games on tv.  Jacob and Danny drank shots of Jack until Danny threw up a little on his plate and disqualified himself.  At home later, Susan asked how the date had gone.  He declined to answer, only said, “Thank you,” and wheeled into his room.

It had surprised him that she’d consented to the date so quickly.  Susan treated him like a baby when it came to normal adult activities, like going out to have a few beers with his friends, crashing at someone else’s house for a night, and spending time alone with a woman.  He almost never did these things, but could remember a strange paralysis coming over her, a glassy-eyed intractability, when he wanted to do basic stuff like this in the past.  Last night was no problem for her, for some reason.  Maybe she finally realized he’s a real, live, grown-up human being.  Or was it something different?  Jacob double-checked the alarm time on his cell phone.  It’s possible she sensed the truth about him and Claire, that they were meant to be together, and she didn’t want to mess with fate.  Like playing with fire, he mused, dreaming off to sleep.

To the right of the black marble steps, the ramp led up to the revolving doors in three parallel segments, with a couple feet of space between them.  Pushing hard up the first section of the ramp, Jacob’s arms began to tire, shoulders and triceps aching before turning to ascend the second, which he climbed more slowly, gasping at the start of each new push.  Halfway up the third segment and less than twenty feet from the top, his right arm gave out, and the chair swung back to the left, and struck the metal railing with a low, percussive ring, a sound that tensed and uncoiled, sweeping out through his surroundings and permeating the ground, walls, and buildings as if they were merely air.

The front entrance had a single automatic door by the top of the ramp, yet it didn’t open when he pressed the button.  Jacob clumsily wheeled in using his elbow to prevent the door from closing on him, rolled weakly past the vacant front desk, and continued across the spacious, warmly furnished lobby toward the row of elevators at the far wall.  The effort required to convey his chair across the floor seemed to increase with each rotation of the wheels, his muscles felt like dead weight, his lungs began to choke on the sour air, and his head, sweating, nauseous, clouded by exhaustion and despair, sank forward and hung limply on his chest.  He kept pushing.  One arm, both arms, one again, both again…  The lamplight in the room grew dim, and in the oaken darkness Jacob sensed the presence of his family and friends, pale, luminous figures, like spectators on either side of him, faces growing clearer, his sister and brother-in-law, with their kids, his physical therapist, his bro Sunny, Mom, Dad, Claire…  They were smiling, and crying, some of them, watching him push.  He raised his head.  The elevators appeared, blurry and quivering, just a few yards away.  The wheels squeaked on the cold tiles as he inched his way forward.  Susan stood to his left, quiet like the rest, silently cheering him on.  He looked at her and smiled, faced forward again, and propelled the chair onward with a final, broken cry.

The elevator doors slid open.  In a moment he was strong again, and wheeled inside with ease.  Four vertical rows of square buttons, twenty-five in each row and numbered one to a hundred, with several for the lower levels below, shone with amber light in front of him.  He pressed the button for floor eighty-two.  The car jolted and rattled into motion, swaying slightly as it rose, while the grid of lights over Jacob’s head cast bright floating circles on him and the elevator floor.

The car stopped and the doors opened.  He rolled into a dim, high hallway where a woman sat at a desk in a cutout to his left.  Her hair was sandy blonde, straight with dark roots, and she glanced up from her computer and smiled as he passed her.  A conference room at the end of the hall, illumined by floor-to-ceiling windows, drew him to its glass wall and door, which he pulled open, awkwardly entering, and wheeling past the empty table and chairs, he parked before the center window and stared out at the city and sunset.

Above the staggered buildings, the clouds swept down in orange, pink, and purple waves, like the break of a cosmic surf, static, though imperceptibly flowing, crashing to the earth from a separate encompassing world.  Within his heart, the softest change, a watered seed first parting, then peace, eternal dreams—

Knock, knock, knock.

Jacob turned as the conference room door swung open, and a man in his forties, eyes brown and steady, stepped in and walked over.  “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.  My name is Buddy.”

“I’m Jacob,” he answered, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Do you mind if I sit down?  I’d like to speak with you for a few minutes, if that’s alright.”

“Your office, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” said Buddy, pulling out a chair and spinning it around to face the windows.  “This is a sort of common space, for people who work in various capacities for the one who owns the building.”

Jacob leaned forward to peer down at the avenues and minuscule vehicles not quite a thousand feet below.  “He must be… rather comfortable, if he owns this place.”

“Well, yes and no,” he said thoughtfully.  “Sometimes I think he’s in worse shape than the rest of us combined.”  Buddy took a second to gaze up at the clouds.  “You could call it a tragedy, and I tend to think of it that way, then, almost as quickly, I realize there was no tragedy, and nothing that happens was ever really tragic at all.”

After a long, unburdensome silence, during which the sunset breathed perhaps its finest breath, Jacob asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The man looked at him as though irritated, but not by the question, nor by Jacob himself.  “We only have a little time here.  I’m not sure you’re going to remember this when you wake up.  If you don’t mind telling me, when you were younger, did you have many dreams about running, or flying?”

“Running, yeah.  I still do once in a while.”

“And did those dreams feel very real?”

“Sure, probably the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had.”

On hearing this Buddy turned away, pretending to survey the rooftops, level and angled surfaces to the right of their towering room.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything.  And that’s exactly why you and I are here right now.  You have a terribly important job to do,” he said, meeting Jacob’s eyes.  “There’s an infinity of ways to accomplish this work, but I’m afraid you alone are qualified.  You’re the lucky one who is able to do it.”

“Because I’m special.”

“Yes,” he nodded eagerly.

“Because I’m the bravest boy in the whole world, and God loves me so much and He’s so damn proud of me?  I’ve heard that one before, Buddy.  The lady who said it ditched me to take care of someone else’s kids.  I don’t need to hear that from you, and you know what?  I never needed her, either.  What’s the quickest way to get out of this fake-ass building?”

He didn’t respond, merely watched him for a moment with the same unfocused irritation, before fading away into blackness with the building, the city, and the evening sky.  Jacob awoke to the shrill chirping of birds in the dark outside his window.

The early shift at Makermart was painful on Mondays.  The majority of the flow team, and the entirety of the management, moped through the store on autopilot, performing their duties with alternating vexation and stoic misery.  Jacob didn’t feel too bad on this particular morning, in part because Sunny would be picking him up at two and driving him across the river to Pointer Arena to see the MMA fights that night.  He’d been looking forward to this for weeks, and so had Sunny, who’d studied Jiu-Jitsu and fought in some amateur bouts himself.

It was almost two-thirty by the time he arrived, as Jacob sat in the cold debating whether or not to call Susan.  “I am so sorry, man,” he said, jumping out of the driver’s seat and jogging back to open the hatch of his Sonic LS.

“I was about to give up on you,” he laughed, “thought we were gonna miss the fights.”

“No way.”  He removed a narrow aluminum ramp from the back of the car, anchored one end on the pavement, and did the same with another identical piece.  “My nephew had to go to the hospital, he got food poisoning at school, toxic bologna or something.”

“Is he okay?”

“Now he is, now that he puked his guts out.”

“Thank God…  Beware the poison lunchmeat.”

As they approached the Kilbourn Street Bridge, they decided to park and grab a cup of coffee and some food, and kill an hour or two along the river.  “Sorry I’m such a pain in the ass,” he called back as Sunny unloaded his electric chair in the parking garage.

“You’d be worth the trouble if you bought the food more often.”

Stopping at a Ringman’s not far from the bridge, Jacob paid for their coffee and scones and they strolled down the riverwalk as they ate.  Two young women passed them going the opposite way, walking a black Pit Bull mix.  The taller one smiled at Jacob, who grinned and said, “Hello, ladies,” forgetting he had a mouthful of blueberry scone.

“Real smooth, bro,” said Sunny, and they veered to the right, parked and sat by the railing.  The river wasn’t icy at all, even though he was pretty sure it was below freezing.  The two of them sat quietly for a minute, finishing their coffee.

“I had a date the other night.”

Sunny turned.  “With Claire?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“How’d it go?”

“How do you think it went?  I swept her off her feet.  She’s in love with me.”

“Where’d you guys go?”

“Stayed in, watched a movie.  I cooked dinner while she told me her life story.”

“What about the Sub?”

“She agreed to spend the night elsewhere, believe it or not.”  He glanced to his right.  “Shut up,” he said, shaking his head.

“Tell me you at least kissed her.”

“No—”

“Awww.”

“That would have been nice, though.  No, we just watched the movie, talked a little, and then she left.  She had a good time, though, I know that.”

Sunny peered down at the dark green water.  “And you were worried about that stupid dream you had.  I knew you’d be alright.  When are you hanging out again?”

“We didn’t make plans.  I don’t know, sometimes…”  Jacob’s eyes seemed to darken as he stared down through the bars of the railing.  “I think sometimes it’d be better if I lived alone.  I mean stayed alone, forever.”  He glanced at Sunny again.  “I’m not sure I could make her happy, especially someone like Claire.”

“You said your equipment worked just fine.”

“I hate you, bro.  I’m talking about long term, everyday life.  Do you remember, The Death of Superman?”

“The comic book?”

“Yes, the comic book.  It starts with a spiked fist beating the hell out of this thick iron door.  A big dude in a green jumpsuit busts out, and starts tearing through the forest.  Well, the Justice League hears about the damage he’s doing, and they come to bring him in, but he starts pummeling those guys.  Later Superman shows up, and Doomsday punches him in the stomach, then turns around and kicks him through a house, clean through a house.  Superman.”

“What’s this got to do with Claire and you?”

A flash of anger reddened Jacob’s face.  “Because no matter how they try to crush him, the dude keeps getting stronger.  Even Superman can’t stop him, unless he dies too.”  He searched Sunny’s eyes again.  “I feel like that some days, like Superman in that story.  Or maybe like Doomsday.  I don’t know…”

He watched the current a second longer, reached over and squeezed Jacob’s bicep.  “You might be like Supergirl in that story.  Come on, let’s go.”

Less than half the seats in Pointer Arena had filled up by the starting bell of the first fight.  Their tickets had only cost thirty-two dollars a piece, which bought them a view from about three hundred feet away from the ring—worse than most of the people there, but neither Jacob nor Sunny was too disappointed.  The first bout ended quickly, the favorite, whose reach gave him a dominating advantage, kept his stronger opponent out of range with his jab, and when he began getting tired hammered his head and face with hooks and crosses.  The next few bouts lasted longer, the fighters more evenly matched, and the last fight they saw raged for all five rounds.  One of the guys could draw and dodge punches with blinding speed, then he’d either counter or take his opponent down to the mat, but the guy kept breaking free, landing elbows or kicks while he got away, and the process would start over again.  Both fighters were swollen, bloody, and barely conscious by the end of the fifth, when the faster guy won by decision.  Sunny admitted on the ride home he probably couldn’t have beaten either one of them.  As Jacob rolled in the house at just past nine, Susan asked if it was a fun trip to the art museum.  “Sure was,” he nodded.  “You’d be amazed how exciting flower paintings can be.”

His morning routine the following day took an extra twenty minutes, since he slipped off the seat in his shower as he was reaching for the conditioner, and in his efforts to pull himself back up, his foot got caught in the plastic suspension bands, and he fell onto the shower floor again trying to free his leg.  Once he had, Susan knocked on the bathroom door in a panic, asking if he was okay.  Jacob inhaled and exhaled five deep breaths before answering, “Yes, I’m fine.  A minor accident, that’s all.”  He lay still a while on the floor of the shower, until he was reasonably sure that she’d gone away, then resumed the attempt to climb onto his shower seat.  By the time he’d finished getting ready for work, and wheeled out to the kitchen, Susan had prepared a fresh, hot breakfast of steak and egg whites, scalloped potatoes, and avocado salad.

“This looks delicious,” he said, surprised.  “I haven’t lifted for a few days, I don’t need that much protein.  Thanks, though, I appreciate it.”

“Figured I might as well,” she smiled from the sink, “having awoken to a loud, mysterious thud in the direction of your bathroom.”

“Yeah, I slipped off the seat trying to reach my conditioner.  No permanent damage.”

Turning off the water, she placed the last pan in the dishwasher and came to the table to sit with him.  “Why don’t you keep it where it’s supposed to be?”

“I do, usually.  I was…  Never mind, please.”

Susan gazed out the window, through the open blinds at a sparrow perched on the bird feeder hanging from a lower limb of the pear tree in their backyard.  A female cardinal soon alighted upon the opposite side and frightened the sparrow away, and a minute or two later a round grey dove appeared and scared the cardinal away.  She let her eyes drift down to Jacob beside her, dividing the last of the egg whites with his fork.  Her left hand flew out to brush the damp yellow waves of hair back over his ear.  His arm shot up to block hers and force it away.

Please don’t touch me.”  Swallowing the food in his mouth and setting the plate and utensils aside, he looked down at the table, turned to her and said, “Will you help me pack my stuff this week?  I need to move out.”

Susan flinched, almost invisibly, and sat up straighter in her chair.  Regarding, briefly, the kind certainty in his face, and focusing on the bird feeder again, vacant now, the seeds reduced to dotted, uneven sand between the glass, she covered his look with her own, replying, “Only if you take me with you.”

The rest of the week passed quietly and slowly.  He spent his free time at home, packing in boxes the things he needed to take with him, looking for apartments online, drinking, reading comics, and watching anime.  On Wednesday night, after basketball and a mildly bitter argument with Susan, Claire called to complain about not hearing back from him after their date.

“Hey, Claire.”

“Jacob.  How are you doing this fine evening?”

“I’m having a bit of a crisis, actually.  I’m having serious doubts about the existence of vampires in animated films and tv series.  They just aren’t scary, and vampire slaying isn’t nearly as cool as ninja warfare, cyborg-tech related espionage, supernatural kung fu battles—I’m doubting whether vampires should have a place in anime at all.”

“Sounds like you don’t understand the significance of vampires in folklore and modern literature.  Were you going to call me again after our date Saturday night?”

“I was.  Of course I was…  You think vampire legends are important enough to make all these boring movies and tv shows?”

“Which ones are you referring to?”

Jacob thought for a few seconds.  “Pretty much every vampire story ever told.”

Dracula is universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written.”

“Never read it.  Are you sure about that?”

Nosferatu, Interview with the Vampire, Blade, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, all spectacular films.”

Bloodlust was okay.  I just don’t see the draw for all these fans.”

Claire shouted something incomprehensible, then checked herself and asked, in a calmer voice, “What is it you don’t like about vampire stories?”

“Good question…  I think the bad guys get on my nerves a little bit, in a way they’re not meant to.  Villains are evil, threatening, destructive characters, that’s what makes them villains, but vampires have this weird fog around them, like they’re supposed to be, uh…”

She heard him snapping his fingers.  “Seductive?”

“No, not seductive.  Intriguing.  There’s always some mysterious cloud surrounding them, and we’re expected to be so intrigued by them.  I couldn’t care less what they do in the catacombs of their shadowy old mansions, in Transylvania or wherever.  The main characters seem drawn to them, mesmerized somehow, I don’t get it.”

“You’re not suspending your disbelief.”

“I shouldn’t have to.”

“They can fly, sometimes, turn invisible, run super-fast, they’re incredibly smart and strong, not to mention immortal—”

“Not impressed.  Give Spiderman a few thousand stakes, he’d exterminate every last one in less than a year.”

“To each his own, Jacob.  When are we hanging out again?”

They decided Friday night would be good since he planned to start moving his stuff out the day after.  Because of Claire’s artwork, he thought she’d enjoy a visit to the Art Museum, but the suggestion made her laugh and say she’d seen enough portraits and naked goddess statues in grade school.  In her opinion the Potawatomi Casino was a better place to go.  She got paid on Friday and she’d been working extra shifts to have enough to buy Christmas presents for her family and some of her friends.  Jacob inquired as to whether or not it might be wiser to postpone their trip to the casino until after she had bought the presents, to which she replied by saying she’d be outside his house at eight, and if he wanted to come with, then he shouldn’t be so critical.

The apartment he chose was in King Park, about a twenty-minute drive from Susan’s on the Lower East Side.  The fastest way to get there from her house was probably to take State Street across the river, past the highway, then cut over 14th to Juneau Avenue, and South a couple blocks to the Warsteiner Meadows apartment complex.  He spoke to the manager on the phone for a solid half hour on Thursday afternoon, listening to the myriad reasons why Warsteiner Meadows was an ideal place of residence for an individual with “special needs,” who may require “additional support,” and “extra assistance,” while “settling in to his first independent home.”  The guy sounded nice enough, but thoroughly demolished Jacob’s long-since-exceeded tolerance level for condescending, self-satisfied disability jargon.  Before hanging up the phone, and without using profanity, or even raising his voice, he asked if the manager would personally be willing to help him in the bathroom when the need arose.  He hesitated for a moment, and politely declined, before Jacob admitted this was merely a formality and he could easily make do on his own.

On Friday morning, as a result of an especially bad hangover, he took a full hour for lunch, sitting outside at the top of the slope overlooking the winding creek, bare woods, and highway.  He drew some puffs from his e-cig.  The echoing rush of broken air rolled up through the trees from the cars and trucks speeding by about a quarter-mile away down the hillside.  There had been times like this before, at different, crucial points in his life, when he’d had to follow through on a decision that would change everything, yet the more he searched his memory for those times, the harder he looked at his past, the more rapidly they slipped away, their roots dissolving into soft, cloudy pools of vague recognition.  The only thing for him to do was move forward.  Behind him lay nothing.  All he had or could hope to have depended on his doing what the tremulous flame in his heart kept telling him.  Be strong.  Stand up.  Get on with your life.

A light green Toyota Highlander pulled up to the curb outside Susan’s house at 7:15pm.  The pulsing dance of the music’s bass line flooded in through Jacob’s windows.  Wheeling over to the closest one, he split the blinds and peered out at the car in the streetlight, the beams from other traffic flashing silver off its hood and windshield.  “Who the hell…” he wondered, while also thinking Claire may have borrowed someone else’s car.

Coasting down the walkway toward the street, he saw the passenger window open and heard Claire’s voice yell, “Sorry, I’m early,” over the fading music.  As they left for the casino he learned that she’d traded with her brother, her Volvo in exchange for his SUV, for the next few months, or until one of them wanted to trade back.

“Hope you didn’t do this just so you could haul me and my chair around.”

“Not really.  That may have been part of it.  So what if I want to drive you around, you don’t want to hang out with me?”

He glanced over to gauge the seriousness of the question.  “Maybe I do.  I just don’t want you going out of your way to, uh…”  He looked down at his knees and uncreased brown boots.  “To accommodate me.  I could have fit the chair in your own car anyway.”

“I thought you were taking your electric one.  Someone’s pissy tonight.”

They drove in silence for most of the way.  After ten or fifteen minutes he asked what she was listening to when she pulled up to the house.  She didn’t tell him, just turned the stereo back on and let the album play.  As they swung into the parking lot she asked if he wanted her to drop him off at the front entrance, but he said no, they should find a spot and walk in together.

Inside the place was loud, chaotic, and aglow with hazy neon brightness, fluorescent webs of tubes and screens and flashing, melting shapes among the rows of slot machines and above on the walls and ceiling.  Kaleidoscopic patterns breathing in and out their various spectrums of electric light.  He felt dizzy at first, and failed to hear Claire when she asked what he wanted to play.  She gently squeezed his shoulder and asked him again.

“I’m gonna hit the Blackjack tables, clean this place out.  What about you?”

“I like the slots mostly.  I play 3-card poker sometimes, though, want me to come with you?”

“No, do what you want.  Let’s meet back here in an hour.”

A depressed-looking Asian lady slid a chair out of the way for him, and one of the supervisors carried it behind the row of tables.  He changed three hundreds for green chips and started betting twenty-five dollars a hand, bumping it up to fifty almost immediately, and at the end of the shoe he had only three greens left.  “Thanks, buddy,” he said, tossing one to the dealer, and wheeling to the ATM by the nearest cage.  He found Claire at a hexagon of gigantic slots to the left of the bar and told her he was headed for the poker room.  An arch-shaped, pulsating banner featuring the angry face of a black bull weaving side-to-side, expelling smoke from its nostrils, loomed at the top of the machine she was playing.  She’d meet him there in a while, she said, and wished him luck, then stretched over to kiss him on the cheek.

The 2-5 No Limit table he joined had just lost four players to a tournament starting at eight-thirty, leaving six players plus himself.  He played aggressively for the first twenty minutes, calling and raising a number of forty and sixty-dollar bets, and before long he’d increased his five hundred dollars to twelve hundred.  As soon as he decided to slow down and employ a more conservative strategy, the dealer gave him a 9-10 of clubs on the button, with three players having called the big blind.  He knew enough about Hold ‘em to know he had better raise here, and that it should be a big enough raise to scare away some of the players only trying to see the flop.

“Thirty-five,” he said, pushing the chips across the line.  The small blind folded, the big blind called, the next two players folded, and the guy in the 5-seat called.

“Three players in the hand,” said the dealer, a young woman with short red hair.  She burnt a card and turned over J, 10, 3, rainbow.  The big blind checked, the 5-seat bet seventy-five, and Jacob thought for a moment.

“Call,” he said quietly, dropping the chips in the middle.

The big blind folded, and the dealer dealt the turn card, the 10 of diamonds.  The 5-seat checked.

Jacob glanced at him from the 7-seat.  He had a headphone in his right ear and was reading, or pretending to read, on his phone.  About twenty-two hundred sat in straight, uneven stacks in front of him.  “One-forty,” Jacob said, pushing the chips across the line.

Although the 5-seat kept scrolling on his phone for a few seconds, Jacob noticed a change once he’d made the bet, like the guy relaxed slightly.  He took the earphone out of his ear and eyed Jacob’s chips.  “What you got there?”

“About nine, nine and change.”

“All in.”

Yep, he said to himself, checking his cards again.  Trip 10’s with a 9 kicker didn’t look too good anymore.  He shook his head, smiled at the 5-seat, and threw his cards to the dealer.

Outside the poker room an old man with his head bowed and hair down over his eyes sat on a bench, smoking a cigarette.  He didn’t speak when Jacob asked for one, just held out the pack and flipped up the lid.  The two of them smoked silently for a minute with their backs to the wall and tall glass windows.

“I’ve been coming here since the place opened,” he said.  “You start to learn things after a while.  You hear things, if you know how to listen.”

“I hear enough right now.  Thousands of dollars going down the drain.  What do you hear?”

Smiling faintly, he said, “The system’s rigged against us.  But ever so often, you know it’s a winner, and you can bet accordingly.  Bet everything you got.”  With that the man smiled again, stood up, and walked away, and Jacob returned to the table.

Not much happened for the next hour.  He saw some flops, bounced around the thousand-dollar mark.  The seats filled up to make it a ten player game.  Around eleven o’clock a fidgety bald guy at the opposite end took a run at the pot, when Jacob flopped the nut flush draw with top pair and a decent kicker.  He turned the flush and tripled up to just below three thousand.  At eleven-thirty he looked up and saw Claire through the glass, waving to get his attention.  Pointing to his wrist, he mouthed the word, “midnight,” and pointed out toward the bar.

The last hand he played was a K-J of hearts.  There was a raise of twenty pre-flop, which he called, then a re-raise to seventy, and he thought why not, I’ve had a good night.  The flop came Q, 4, 10, with two spades on the board.  The original raiser bet out, two-fifty, about the size of the pot.  Jacob called, the other guy folded.  The turn came, 9 of clubs.  His opponent, a guy about his age, blue hooded sweatshirt, detached, steady eyes, looked at him and said, “All in.”

“I call,” he said back, and showed him the straight.

The guy shot up out of his seat and covered his face with his hands, forced them down, and flipped his pocket queens over.  The river came, 3 of hearts, and Jacob left the table with almost seven thousand dollars.

On the way to the car, Claire asked what he would do with the money.

“I don’t know.  I’ll need some new furniture for my apartment.  Might buy Susan a necklace.”

Her face shone white and peaceful in the light from above the frozen parking lot.  “That’d be sweet.  What about me, where’s my necklace?”

They stopped behind the car, and he spun left to face her.  “I was thinking about buying you a ring.”

At the entrance to the casino a scream was heard, deafening in spite of the distance of its source, and just as suddenly, the night was quiet again.

 

Oliver Stone Quotes

“The past assumes the nature of the present.”

“I would vote for the man who’s lived life, who’s done different occupations, who’s been out in the real world and struggled to make a living, struggled to raise a family, struggled with life as it exists. So I’d vote for experience, honest experience.”

“I think experience will teach you a combination of liberalism and conservatism. We have to be progressive and at the same time we have to retain values. We have to hold onto the past as we explore the future.”

“Every day that you get up, it’s some kind of victory if you’re making a good product, or working on a project that can only help mankind.”

“I think you can maintain two tracks. I think you have to. That’s what this kind of filmmaking is about. If you’re not aware of the limitations of what you’re up against… it’s like a general: you have to know your artillery and you have to know your infantry. You have to know what you have. You have to marshal your forces and use them well. It comes down to the personal and the intimate, but at the same time you have to have the big picture.”

“When you look at a movie, you look at a director’s thought process.”

“I think our life is a series of adventures.”

“JFK was leading the world, leading the United States into a new position with the Soviet Union. He was calling for the end of the Cold War. He would have been reelected in 1964 because he was vastly popular.”

“I may have disparaged the idea that people are looking at films on smaller and smaller screens… it’s a shame that people have to watch DVDs with the lights on in a television-type situation where people are wandering in and out of the room. Movies are different from television, and you cannot watch movies like television. It distorts it.”

“Forget the grand plan. Forget the master scheme. Forget control. That is the bleak but true basis of independent cinema. Inch by motherflooging inch we must, because we have no other choice.”

“If you make the movie from your heart and it stands over time, that’s what matters to me.”

“Everyone in the world is impacted by the United States’ Big Brother attitude toward the world. We need countries to say no to the United States. The United States is the dominant power in the universe, with its eavesdropping abilities, cyber abilities. And the world is in danger with our tyranny.”

“You can never judge how the film will be taken; you can only make your best effort, and put out what you feel. How it’s read, you never can tell. Or remembered for that matter.”

“Never underestimate the power of jealousy and the power of envy to destroy. Never underestimate that.”

“I love films. I love fiction films, too. I do. I love making them, but it has to be the right one. Hopefully, I’ll never become a director for hire. It’s horrible to make a film that you’re not really interested in.”

“Hell is the impossibility of reason.”

“I knew that one day I would come to this point that I would make something so outrageous and so ambitious that… it’d be that Don Quixote feeling, that I’d have to tilt at a windmill. Sometimes you’ve got to do it. That’s the only way you can do things.”

“Football is mesmerizing, because it’s a figurative war. You go in one direction till you get there, but you get there as a team, not as an individual. Players bond whether they’re black or white, much as soldiers do.”

“I went to Vietnam, and I was there for a long time. [Using marijuana] made the difference between staying human or, as Michael Douglas said, becoming a beast.”

“We all know what we know. We experience with our minds and breath.”

“Coming Home had been made before and Apocalypse Now and Deer Hunter, different kinds of movies.”

“I’m a dramatist. Dramatists have a right to look at history and interpret it the way they see it.”

“I would vote for the man who’s lived life, who’s done different occupations, who’s been out in the real world and struggled to make a living, struggled to raise a family, struggled with life as it exists. So I’d vote for experience, honest experience.”

 

Unbridled Fire (Buddy Glass scene)

Jacob turned as the conference room door swung open, and a man in his forties, eyes brown and steady, stepped in and walked over.  “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.  My name is Buddy.”

“I’m Jacob,” he answered, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Do you mind if I sit down?  I’d like to speak with you for a few minutes, if that’s alright.”

“Your office, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not,” said Buddy, pulling out a chair and spinning it around to face the windows.  “This is a sort of common space, for people who work in various capacities for the one who owns the building.”

Jacob leaned forward to peer down at the avenues and minuscule vehicles not quite a thousand feet below.  “He must be… rather comfortable, if he owns this place.”

“Well, yes and no,” he said thoughtfully.  “Sometimes I think he’s in worse shape than the rest of us combined.”  Buddy took a second to gaze up at the clouds.  “You could call it a tragedy, and I tend to think of it that way, then, almost as quickly, I realize there was no tragedy, and nothing that happens was ever really tragic at all.”

After a long, unburdensome silence, during which the sunset breathed perhaps its finest breath, Jacob asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The man looked at him as though irritated, but not by the question, nor by Jacob himself.  “We only have a little time here.  I’m not sure you’re going to remember this when you wake up.  If you don’t mind telling me, when you were younger, did you have many dreams about running, or flying?”

“Running, yeah.  I still do once in a while.”

“And did those dreams feel very real?”

“Sure, probably the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had.”

On hearing this Buddy turned away, pretending to survey the rooftops, level and angled surfaces to the right of their towering room.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Everything.  And that’s exactly why you and I are here right now.  You have a terribly important job to do,” he said, meeting Jacob’s eyes.  “There’s an infinity of ways to accomplish this work, but I’m afraid you alone are qualified.  You’re the lucky one who is able to do it.”

“Because I’m special.”

“Yes,” he nodded eagerly.

“Because I’m the bravest boy in the whole world, and God loves me so much and He’s so damn proud of me?  I’ve heard that one before, Buddy.  The lady who said it ditched me to take care of someone else’s kids.  I don’t need to hear that from you, and you know what?  I never needed her, either.  What’s the quickest way to get out of this fake-ass building?”

He didn’t respond, merely watched him for a moment with the same unfocused irritation, before fading away into blackness with the building, the city, and the evening sky.  Jacob awoke to the shrill chirping of birds in the dark outside his window.

 

Kind of Blue (Miles Davis)

Kind of Blue (youtube/complete-album)

Jazz originated in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, evolving to produce some of the most creative and varied music the world has ever heard.  Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue holds the honor of being one of the most highly valued jazz albums, and one of the most influential records of any musical genre in history.  Recorded in New York in 1959 and released that year, the album features Bill Evans on piano, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, John Coltrane and Julian Adderley on saxophones, Miles Davis on trumpet, and pianist Wynton Kelly on one track.

The use of improvisation makes jazz unique, gives the music life and power, and carries an emotional energy through the sound waves like currents of electricity.  The solos on Kind of Blue feel like echoes of an invisible music more real and powerful than the notes we hear from the trumpet and saxophones.  The drums, bass, and piano maintain a gentle structure for the horns to dance over, trancelike, then more upbeat, alternately crying and singing, sadness, weeping, fusing into mellow joy.

A departure from the style of his earlier work, Davis shifted from hard bop to modal jazz with Milestones in 1958, furthering his experimentations with modality on Kind of Blue.  At a time when American music, culture, values, and society were rapidly changing, artists like Davis cleared new paths for others by simply doing what they loved.  The Sixties saw wave after wave of brilliant, unprecedented, soulful music flooding out of the United States and Great Britain, a creative movement founded on the bold work of fearless artists of the 40’s and 50’s.  Popular music contributed a uniquely powerful voice to the national community, a vitality which healed and bonded people when bitter disagreements kept trying to make our nation split.

People talk about jazz’s quality of incorporating “wrong” notes into the music, pressing on through failed attempts and using the rhythm as a platform to speak hints of some far greater truth, so that really there are no mistakes in jazz, no “wrong” notes, because it’s all one big try anyway.  The musicians get together and give it their best shot to reach the unreachable, maybe they come close and maybe they don’t, but at least they gave it a shot.  Miles probably wouldn’t care too much that the Library of Congress selected his album for the National Recording Registry, or that Rolling Stone ranks it among the top 20 albums of all time, but he definitely does care that his music speaks truth to people, revealing the eternal.

America has a lot of music playing today, jumbled, broken music, jagged signals flying around and scattered voices trying to sing along.  The invisible music of truth gets drowned out by all that noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still playing.  Another thing people say about jazz is the most important notes are the ones you don’t hear—not that those notes aren’t being played, only, silently.  Miles teaches us the best thing one can do in life is miss.

From Intended Consequences:
Available at Amazon.com

 

Fits of Tranquility (poems)

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble

“A great sense of connection with human nature and the human condition which I found refreshing…  A delightful read.  5 stars.”  – Lauren, LivingABookLife.com

“This book made me feel overwhelmingly good.  As a religious person myself, I felt like there were some lines that really resonated with me.  Even if you’re not religious, a lot of the poems deal with nature and the spiritual experiences that being outside can bring…  I definitely recommend.”  – Ashley, What’s She Reading?

“Each poem offers the reader something to reflect on that will lead to other meditative thoughts.  If you enjoy poetry, you will enjoy Fits of Tranquility.”  – Terry Delaney, Christian Book Notes

“Containing over 20 unique poems and short stories, this book ranges in topic from inspiring images of nature to thought-provoking stories filled with charming dialogue and everything in between…  I would recommend giving Fits of Tranquility a try.”  – Prairie Sky Book Reviews

“Ideas of hope, healing, joy, and faith mirrored in poems about family, lightening, life, and wilderness, the second part is comprised of prose about falling in love…  A book for avid poetry readers.”  – Jen Pen, Savurbks.com

“I enjoyed many things about this book, foremost is the author’s tone.  It is understated, but capable of conveying some deep thoughts quite effectively…  There is a religious perspective in this book, expressed with artistry, understatement, that avoids sentimentality.”  – Arthur Turfa, author of Places and Times

“One of my favorites is ‘Family,’ it describes the value in a heartfelt and touching way.  I also really liked ‘Invisible Arms,’ a vivid picture of how God protects us from physical and emotional harm.  I am a hopeless romantic so I appreciated the sweet moments described in the short stories.  I would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading smooth thought-provoking poetry.”  – Ivory M, Beautyful Word

Fits of Tranquility contains a variety of styles and structures which makes this collection immediately more appealing to the poetry connoisseur.  Lampros’s poetry contains a sensitivity and emotional eloquence which flows gently through his work…  Fits is a superior collection and I recommend it to those readers who want to read beautiful, family-safe poetry.”  – Karen Jones, The Poetry Bookshop

 

Soft on the Devil, Chapter 3

Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

From Soft on the Devil:

Chapter 3

     September turned into October and St. Henry got cold.  If you’ve never lived in the Midwest, our summers are super-hot and our winters are super-cold, and the temperate seasons of Spring and Fall don’t seem to last more than a few weeks.  I try to make the most of Fall by doing outdoor stuff like hiking or walking around one of the parks in town, chilling with a book on the patio of the coffee shop by my work, or going to one of my old high school’s football games.  Soccer’s my favorite sport but I like those games, it feels good to support their team, and I get to see my teachers and occasionally my old friends.
     A week into October, I went to see Meremac South vs. Concordia Academy, a team we usually beat pretty bad.  I sat next to my history teacher, Mr. Samuelson.  “What’s up, sir?  How are classes this year?”
     He squinted at me beneath his bushy caterpillar eyebrows.  “Ian Phillips.  Nice to see you again, young man.  Classes are fine.  The students… don’t change very much.”
     “Is that good or bad?”
     “Neither.  Both,” he laughed.  “I don’t know.  I have just as many slackers as I had when you were enrolled here.  I can’t remember, were you a good student?”
     “You gave me a B-.  I think you were being generous.”
     “What was your term paper on?”
     “The Civil Rights Movement, tied to the necessity for compassionate politics in present day America.”
     “There’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one,” he laughed.  “You might as well extol the benefits of waging peaceful wars.”
     “Speaking of politics, what’s going on with those fraud charges?” I asked.  “I saw something about it on the news back in June, but haven’t heard anything since.”
     “Hey, I just work here,” he said, turning up his palms.  “I’m happy to have this job.  Plenty of teachers like me have gotten the boot to make room for kids like you.”
     “Twenty-four isn’t a kid.  I wish it was, my parents might still give me gas money.”
     “How are they doing?”
     “You’ll have to ask them.  See you later, Mr. Samuelson.”
     Standing in line at the concession stand to get a pretzel before kickoff, I recognized the girl beside me from back in the day.  She’d gone to one of the other Meremac schools, North or East, I couldn’t remember.  I thought her name was Amy.  “Hey, it’s Amy, right?”
     She turned quickly, her reddish-brown hair whipping the front of her face.  “Yes!  Hi, and you are?”
     “Ian.  I used to go here, I graduated in 2011, the same year as you.  We had some friends in common I think.”
     “Sorry, I don’t know you.”
     “Like I said, we had some friends in common.  You went to Meremac North, right?”
     “How’d you know that?” she asked suspiciously.
     “We saw each other at parties and stuff.  We even talked a few times.  Ian Phillips.  You honestly don’t remember me?”
     “No, I honestly don’t, and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t bother me again.”
     “Sorry, Amy, I had no idea I was bothering you.  I was just trying to be nice.  I won’t speak to you again.”
     We waited in line for another two minutes or so, side by side, extremely awkward.  She stepped up to the counter and ordered a hotdog and Diet Sprite, which was a relief since I half-expected her to ask the concessions guy to call security.  I stepped up to the counter as she was getting her change, and started to order a Diet Sprite too, because that’s what I always drink, but stopped in the middle of the word “diet” for fear she’d accuse me of being some kind of soda-order-mimicking-stalker or some bizarre thing.  “Di… et Pepsi,” I said, “and a pretzel with light butter, please.”  Amy walked away with her food.  After getting mine I went to sit on the upper bleachers where it wasn’t too crowded.
     The game was closer than I’d expected, with Concor-dia coming back strong in the second half.  A field goal in the final minute put them in tying range with thirty-four points to Meremac’s forty-one.  Our defensive line held like a brick wall, though, and my alma mater brought home the win.  On the way to my car I saw one of my old friends, Claire Hendel, talking to Amy as they walked toward the parking lot.  “Hey, Claire,” I yelled, running up and giving her a big bear hug, picking her up and spinning her around.  “It’s so good to see you!”
     “Ian,” she laughed, “put me down, you lunatic!  How are you?  Why don’t you come to The Haus anymore?”
    “Why, so I can get wasted and crash my car?  I just wanted to say hello,” I looked at Amy behind her, “since we were such good friends back in the day.  It’s great to know we all still love and respect each other, isn’t it?”
     “Let’s get coffee sometime, the three of us.  You know Amy, right?”
     “I do know Amy.  Hi, Amy,” I waved.
     She nodded silently.
     “Take care you guys.”
     “Bye, Ian.”
     About this time last year I started noticing symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder creeping into my daily routine.  When I woke up each day I felt obligated to perform my morning activities in the same specific order.  I’d wake up, use the bathroom, wash my hands, brew my cup of coffee, fix breakfast, take a shower, brush my teeth, apply deodorant, and get dressed.  If I started brewing coffee before going to the bathroom, or putting on deodorant before brushing my teeth, I’d be forced by an irresistible compulsion to stop what I was doing and return to the normal order.  One day I forgot to brush my teeth and apply deodorant before heading to work.  I didn’t realize it until after I’d arrived and clocked in, and all of a sudden it was like a door slammed shut, locking me in an airtight room.  I couldn’t breathe or talk or think straight.  Walking out from behind the café counter and back out of the store, I got in my car and started driving home to brush my teeth and put on deodorant, but made a U-turn around the circle and parked again, realizing they might fire me for bailing on them like that.
     Other weird stuff started happening at about this time, not only psychological stuff but also strange occurrences involving people I knew, and events in the world.  I had more bad dreams about Cindy showing up at my apartment and jumping out of shadows.  Some-times I’d think I saw her from a distance while I was awake, catch a glimpse of her rounding a corner, or looking out a window, or leaning against a building far away.  The people in my apartment complex gave me weirder vibes than usual, too.  That guy, Gary, who I chatted with on occasion, started saying scary stuff about the people he called, “the powers.”  He meant the government, the rich, the people on tv and in the news, and he’d talk like they were the enemy, saying things like, “America won’t last much longer,” or, “Someone better stand up to the powers real soon.”  It might not sound scary when I say it, but the way Gary said it felt like something horrible was going to happen.  And he wasn’t the only one, I sensed a dark, lurking anger all over town.
     This was around Thanksgiving of last year, ironically.  I remember thinking, if every city is feeling like St. Henry’s been feeling, maybe America really isn’t going to last much longer.  I kept on waking up, driving to work, and reading the Bible at night, which helped me to not worry so much.  I knew that the only true power is God power.  The devil can lead people astray from time to time and cause a fair amount of trouble, but at the end of the day it’s still the Lord’s world, and Christ alone is sovereign here.  I switched from reading Jeremiah and the Prophets at night to reading the Gospels, to coincide with the holidays coming up.  Having Christmas around the corner helped also, not just me but everyone.
     I saw the dark-haired lady, Mrs. Romero-Newstead, parked outside my work a few more times, just sitting and staring.  I didn’t go up and talk to her again in case she’d tell her husband a man at EarthWay was hassling her, and then I might have two groups of thugs to be paranoid about.  With the amount of money Mr. Newstead had you’d be able to order any kind of malevolent treatment you could imagine—not that he would, necessarily.  He may have been a perfectly nice and gentle person, I’m just saying what he could have done. 
     I saw Amy again around Thanksgiving, the week after in fact.  My old buddy, Scott, showed up at EarthWay to meet Claire for lunch one day.  Almost a year had passed since the last time I’d seen him, and he looked healthier than I remembered him, brighter, like an actor in the final shot of one of those prescription drug commercials.  Vera let me have a five-minute break to catch up with him.  I told him he looked good, like he was doing well and all that, and he said he’d given up booze and smoking and had started doing yoga, which had helped his aura considerably.  He said he’d been working for his uncle’s real estate company and had scored big on a couple good sales over the summer, and he’d leased a condo for the following year out here in the county, in Marine Echoes, a pretty affluent part of town.  He asked if I wanted to stop by that Friday for a dinner party he was hosting, with a few people from school and some other friends of his.  I said sure.
     The wine section of my store was having a sale on Cabernet Sauvignon, so I picked up a bottle to bring to the party.  It was between that and the Pinot Grigio, but the description on the label swayed me.  I have a bottle of the same wine right here.  “This selection offers a quintessential incarnation, complex in character with an inky hue, flavors of cherry, eucalyptus, and black plum.”  The condo Scott was leasing turned out to be right next to the lake, less than a hundred yards from the water.  Most of the leaves had fallen off the trees by then so you could see the reflection of the distant windows and passing headlights on the surface of the water.  The humming of voices and deep rhythm of a jazz record escaped through the windows and walls as I climbed the steps.  No one answered when I knocked so I turned the knob and entered.  Crowded room, twenty or so, a few of them looked to see who I was.  I made my way into the kitchen with the bottle of Cabernet.
     “You made it,” Scott greeted me.  “Thanks for the wine, looks nice.  Make yourself at home, bro.  We’ve got apps on the table, beers in the fridge, mixed drinks at the bar.  You know most of the people here, right?”
     “Yeah,” I nodded without looking around.
     “Sweet, man!  Glad you could come.”
     A second later he was gone.  I grabbed a can of Blue Moon out of the fridge and stood near four people by the front door.  A tall blonde woman without any makeup was talking passionately, saying, “It’s get what you can as fast as you can, legally if possible, or a way you won’t get caught.  We’ve actually gone back in time a hundred and twenty years with regard to regulations, and the majority actually thinks it’s a good thing.”
     “What do you think should be done about it?” asked a guy with a Jaxon hat and Elvis-style sideburns.
     “Honestly, we need people to step up and hold the frenzy feeders accountable for their actions.”
     As she was talking someone to my right called my name.  I turned and it was Amy.  “I was very rude at the game that day.  I’m sorry,” she said, almost shouting over the music.
     “Yeah, you were kind of rude,” I said, walking over.  “No big deal though, it’s not like we were best friends back then.”
     “I’d be highly offended if you had treated me like that.”
     “Really, it’s okay.”  Noticing the absence of a drink in her hand, I asked if she wanted a glass of wine.
     “Sure,” she smiled.
     Using a corkscrew on the counter I opened the bottle and poured a glass right away.  I know you’re supposed to let red wine breathe for a few minutes but that wasn’t really an option given the potential awkwardness of the time we’d spend waiting.  She took the glass and sipped the wine.  Over her shoulder some guys I didn’t recognize were staring at us from the opposite corner of the room.  The music was loud, dark, slow jazz, sax and trumpets moaning in ever-rising platforms of rigid sound.  “Do you want to take a walk?” I asked.
     “Yeah,” she nodded.
     We got our coats, walked down the steps, and down the drive toward the lake, the gravel crunching beneath our feet.  “I like the cold,” I said.  “I used to hate the winter.  Now it seems quieter, more peaceful.  You?”
     “No,” she shook her head.  “I’ll take a sunny day at the beach over a cold peaceful day anytime.”
     “The closest beach is a thousand miles away.”
     “That’s probably why,” she said.
     The shore was mostly sand and gravel, with fallen trees here and there, farther back from the water.  Amy and I sat on one of the fallen tree trunks.  I breathed a giant cloud of steam into the air.  She breathed a smaller cloud.  “Just sad,” she said.  The lighted windows of the houses on the other side of the lake bobbed and swelled faintly on the black surface of the water.  I sidestepped toward her, sat next to her on the tree.  I looked at her cheek, the reddish-brown waves of her hair, pure black in the night, she looked at her hands, then up at me, I leaned over, and kissed her.

 

Film Review: Romance, Deception, and Destiny in My Cousin Rachel

As the title of the film suggests, the plot of My Cousin Rachel centers on the character of Rachel Ashley, the recently widowed wife of a man whose cousin, Philip (Sam Claflin), suspects her of poisoning him.  His estate in Cornwall, England, passes entirely to him on his twenty-fifth birthday, by which time Rachel, played with soldering torch intensity by Rachel Weiss, has endeared herself to him, having come to live in Cornwall after Philip’s cousin dies.  Intriguing performances, masterful direction, and evocative cinematography enrich this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel.

Among Du Maurier’s other works adapted for the screen are Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Hungry Hill, Don’t Look Now, and The Birds, all films conveying a powerful current of suspense.  My Cousin Rachel begins by introducing the protagonist, and then his cousin’s mysterious wife whom he hears about through a series of increasingly ominous letters from Ambrose, accusing his new bride of murderous intentions.  Once Ambrose has departed, the presumed result of a brain tumor, and Rachel settles in at the estate in Cornwall, Philip can’t believe such a spirited, captivating woman could be guilty of so diabolical a crime.

Set in the late seventeenth century, the story was inspired by a portrait Du Maurier saw of a lady named Rachel Carew, and while the mystery unfolds eerily, almost dreamily, it also sustains an air of historical fiction.  Philip’s experience of falling for, then later suspecting, and finally, perhaps, despising his cousin’s widow, feels like a true story, vividly recounted by Philip himself with faintly dreadful undertones.  He strives for freedom and fulfillment, but his pursuit is obstructed by a cloud of impatience, youthful boldness, and lurking fear.

Award-worthy performances from Weiss and Claflin in the leading roles, as well as fusion zone supporting work from Holliday Grainger as Philip’s longtime friend and would-be fiancée, Iain Glen as his quietly protective godfather, and Pierfrancesco Favino as Rachel’s companion, Rinaldi, exalt this film to the realm of true greatness.  The question of whether or not Rachel poisoned her husband, Ambrose, remains unanswered throughout the time of her stay with Philip, leaving him, and the audience, torn between the elegant vitality of her character, and the possibility of a lethal darkness at work behind her eyes.

The question of Philip’s destiny plays a significant role, in his moments with Louise (Grainger), prompting us to wonder if she isn’t the one he should be pursuing.  Her love for him is unwavering and evidently more true than the hesitant affection of his cousin Rachel.  At the film’s conclusion, we have to ask not only what really happened when no one was looking, but also what might have happened if Philip had looked beyond his more compelling desires to find a more complete truth.

 

Mere Christianity: The Three-Personal God

From Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis

Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity

2.  The Three-Personal God

The last chapter was about the difference between begetting and making.  A man begets a child, but he only makes a statue. God begets Christ but He only makes men. But by saying that, I have illustrated only one point about God, namely, that what God the Father begets is God, something of the same kind as Himself. In that way it is like a human father begetting a human son. But not quite like it. So I must try to explain a little more.

A good many people nowadays say, “I believe in a God, but not in a personal God.” They feel that the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person. Now the Christians quite agree. But the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like. All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal: that is, as something less than personal. If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas. The Christian idea is the only one on the market.

Again, some people think that after this life, or perhaps after several lives, human souls will be “absorbed” into God. But when they try to explain what they mean, they seem to be thinking of our being absorbed into God as one material thing is absorbed into another. They say it is like a drop of water slipping into the sea. But of course that is the end of the drop. If that is what happens to us, then being absorbed is the same as ceasing to exist. It is only the Christians who have any idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves — in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before.

I warned you that Theology is practical. The whole purpose for which we exist is to be thus taken into the life of God. Wrong ideas about what that life is, will make it harder. And now, for a few minutes, I must ask you to follow rather carefully.

You know that in space you can move in three ways — to left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down. Every direction is either one of these three or a compromise between them. They are called the three Dimensions. Now notice this. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw only a straight line. If you are using two, you could draw a figure: say, a square. And a square is made up of four straight lines. Now a step further. If you have three dimensions, you can then build what we call a solid body, say, a cube — a thing like a dice or a lump of sugar. And a cube is made up of six squares.

Do you see the point? A world of one dimension would be a straight line.  In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three-dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body. In other words, as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways — in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.

Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings — just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it. And when we do, we are then, for the first time in our lives, getting some positive idea, however faint, of something super-personal — something more than a person. It is something we could never have guessed, and yet, once we have been told, one almost feels one ought to have been able to guess it because it fits in so well with all the things we know already.

You may ask, “If we cannot imagine a three-personal Being, what is the good of talking about Him?” Well, there isn’t any good talking about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life, and that may begin any time — tonight, if you like.

What I mean is this. An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God — that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying — the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kind of life — what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.

And that is how Theology started. People already knew about God in a vague way. Then came a man who claimed to be God; and yet he was not the sort of man you could dismiss as a lunatic. He made them believe Him. They met Him again after they had seen Him killed. And then, after they had been formed into a little society or community, they found God somehow inside them as well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before. And when they worked it all out they found they had arrived at the Christian definition of the three-personal God.

This definition is not something we have made up; Theology is, in a sense, experimental knowledge. It is the simple religions that are the made-up ones.  When I say it is an experimental science “in a sense,” I mean that it is like the other experimental sciences in some ways, but not in all. If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks. They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away. The initiative lies all on your side. They cannot either help or hinder. But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts. That is a bit different from studying rocks. The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you. Unless you keep very quiet, they will. There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.

Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person. If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him. You have to win his confidence. In this case the initiative is equally divided — it takes two to make a friendship.

When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as a clean one.

You can put this another way by saying that while in other sciences the instruments you use are things external to yourself (things like microscopes and telescopes), the instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred — like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope. That is why horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens.

God can show Himself as He really is only to real men. And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another. For that is what God meant humanity to be like; like players in one band, or organs in one body.

Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God, is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together. Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science — the laboratory outfit. That is why all these people who turn up every few years with some patent simplified religion of their own as a substitute for the Christian tradition are really wasting time. Like a man who has no instrument but an old pair of field glasses setting out to put all the real astronomers right. He may be a clever chap — he may be cleverer than some of the real astronomers, but he is not giving himself a chance. And two years later everyone has forgotten all about him, but the real science is still going on.

If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.

 

Reconstitution (Full Screenplay)

Hoped for/ideal cast:
Jean Connelly:  Bryce Dallas Howard
Stanley Balto:  Denzel Washington
Wolfram Smidgen:  James McAvoy
Vera:  Kate McKinnon
President Lang:  Bryan Cranston

 

 

Reconstitution

A Screenplay by
Robert Lampros

 

View from the back of the White House Press Room, the platform is empty except for the podium and two flags, the chairs are filled, journalists making last minute notes and talking to each other.  In the left corner by the platform stands a Secret Service Agent, while the right wall is lined with cameramen holding shoulder-mounted news cameras.

Jean sits in the second to last row of chairs, holding a digital tablet, preparing to record audio and take notes.  View of podium from her perspective, over the heads of the journalists in the dozen or so rows in front of her.  She turns and looks back at the line of reporters standing behind the last row of chairs, they wait quietly for the President to appear.  Jean faces forward and sits up straighter, looking over the heads at Deborah, a woman in the first row of chairs talking quickly to the man sitting next to her.

The President enters the room and steps up to the podium.

PRESIDENT LANG    
January twenty-fifth, two thousand eighteen, will be remembered, not merely as a tragic day, but more significantly as a day when truth prevailed over falsehood.  The people who died in Dubthach Stadium yesterday, the fathers, caring patriarchs of bright, beautiful families.  The mothers, loving protectors and nurturers of vibrant, happy children.  The sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, who all gathered to celebrate life together peacefully…  They came to watch a basketball game in the company of those they know and value most, their closest family and friends.

Jean thinks of something and writes a few notes on her tablet.

PRESIDENT LANG
The moment the shots began, and terror wrenched the peace of that atmosphere apart, evil struck a blow against the very fabric of our society—that which makes us one nation, one America.  Our freedom to assemble and enjoy ourselves without fear of oppression or violent attack constitutes the essence of what makes it such a blessing to be American.  Without this freedom the principles our forebears labored, fought, and died for, don’t shine through and illuminate this land.  But those principles did shine through yesterday, in the midst and aftermath of the violence, our better angels showed up and went to work.  The Koreston Police, Fire Department, the stadium’s security officers, employees, the shellshocked players and spectators at the game, and indeed the victims themselves, responded to the emergency with courage, strength, and a real concern for the safety and well-being of others at the scene.  A greater love prevailed yesterday, a selfless love, far truer than hate, doubt, or terror.  And no matter how they might try to destroy our love, the terrorists can not and shall not win, because the war’s already won.  Thank you.

Wolfram stands up in front of the platform.

WOLFRAM                
We’re only answering a few questions today.  This isn’t the time to discuss the attack’s implications for security, gun rights, or foreign policy, so please limit your questions to the shooting itself.

He steps aside.

PRESIDENT LANG                
Nods to a journalist in the third row.
Mr. Gregson.

GREGSON                 
Thank you, Mr. President.  Can you tell us more about Mizreb’s connections to KESG (pronounced key-sig), or other organized terror groups?

PRESIDENT LANG    
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are working with the Koreston Police and the suspect’s family to know more about his motives and possible involvement with active terror groups.  Mrs. Chambet.

CHAMBET                 
Have the authorities discovered evidence of Adnan planning the attack with anyone?  A student from the University, friend or family member?

PRESIDENT LANG
So far there has not been any indication of Adnan Mizreb having planned the shooting with a partner or partners.  His parents are hardworking American citizens.  His father is a pharmaceutical chemist, his mother sells dresses in a shopping mall.  These are typical Americans like you and me.  As the investigation continues, all pertinent facts will be released.  Deborah, why don’t you close the meeting today.

DEBORAH
Mr. President, considering this marks the fourth mass murder involving an assault weapon in the last twelve months, do you regret your failure to compromise on gun control during your first term?

PRESIDENT LANG
Looks at Deborah for a moment, then down at podium.

WOLFRAM
Surprised and angered, almost walks over to conclude the meeting, but hesitates.

PRESIDENT LANG    
Judging from what we know at present the suspect obtained the gun illegally.  While this particular type of rifle is available to purchase in a majority of States, I do not believe gun control restrictions would have played a significant role in preventing this attack.  That’s it for today, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you for your time.

He walks off the platform with Wolfram following.  Jean stands up as the room ignites with voices, texting, and phone calls.  She looks once more at Deborah and starts edging her way out of the row of chairs.

President Lang and Wolfram walk down a West Wing hallway toward the Roosevelt Room.

PRESIDENT LANG                
Straight for the jugular.

WOLFRAM
My fault, Mr. President.  I should have closed the meeting immediately after your statement.

PRESIDENT LANG
You’d think twenty-two bodies in the morgue would prompt a bit of respect from that woman.

WOLFRAM
All’s fair in war, sir.

They turn a corner.

WOLFRAM
Should we run the interview with Mizreb’s family, sir?

PRESIDENT LANG
Yeah, go ahead.

They enter the Roosevelt Room, where a Secret Service agent stands near the door, and two men and a woman sit at the table with laptops and papers in front of them.

PRESIDENT LANG
Where are we?

MAN 1            
Adnan’s closest friend at the University’s been talking.  He says they went target shooting a few times about an hour south of town, mostly corn fields and woods there.  He claims, and I quote, “Addie wouldn’t take the M4, only the .38 Special.  It was like the rifle was sacred or something.”

PRESIDENT LANG
What about the motive?

WOMAN                    
Sounds more like a Columbine than a religion or politically motivated attack.  These guys were angry, at their peers, at themselves, the faces they saw on tv.  Mizreb joked about making an RPG where the shooter could walk into the world of television and “shred the stars of his favorite shows.”

WOLFRAM
That’s cute.

MAN 1
The friend didn’t quite share his desire for carnage.  Jonathan tried to calm him down when he took it too far, change the subject to girls or video games.

PRESIDENT LANG
Where are they on the source of the weapon?

MAN 2
We think he bought the M4A1 from a dealer in Chicago.  Mainly sells narcotics, but acquires a stray bag of firearms on occasion.  The thirty-eight we don’t know yet.

PRESIDENT LANG
Find out, please.

MAN 2            
Yes, Mr. President.

*       *       *

Jean drives on a street in Washington D.C., talking to Vera on speaker phone.

JEAN
Can you grab lunch today?

VERA
I can’t leave work, but if you stop by I’ll have André fix you something.  How’d the press thing go?

JEAN
President Lang made a beautiful statement about the shooting, then Deborah Elm burned him on gun control.

VERA
You didn’t ask a question?

JEAN
No, they ended the session after that.  I’ll see you at eleven, okay?

She walks into a busy news studio, past several side offices, through the main room, and past a news desk where two reporters are broadcasting.  Jean stands watching for a minute.

TODD
If your ride is bumpier than usual in to work today, you might blame potholes.

SHEILA
Seen them all over, turns out you may drive over fewer than normal right now.  CDN’s Monique Green has been checkin’ out the roads, and has more on why that is.  Hey, Monique.

MONIQUE
Via monitor.
Hey, guys, you know our warm weather has been really good for the D.C. Department of Transportation.  We’re driving along now on Brewster Rd. in northwest D.C., and we’ve got some potholes here on this stretch.  There are a couple of trucks in front of us—you know, the extreme freezing and then the thawing, that’s what makes the craters in the road.  Here we go, oh yeah, we got some, and then on the other side of the street here…

Jean’s boss, Stanley, stands beside her behind the cameras, and they talk quietly.

STANLEY
Smidgen sent an email, reproving the “shameful conduct” of Mrs. Elm this morning.

JEAN
Smiles faintly.

STANLEY
“In the wake of a national tragedy there is expected a modest level of dignified restraint, and reverence for the Office of President of the United States.”

JEAN
Did she respond?

STANLEY
Not yet.  Knowing her she will, though.

JEAN
May I have a word with you in your office?

STANLEY
Always.

They enter Stanley’s office and he closes the door behind her.  He pulls out the chair, walks around the desk, and they sit facing each other.

STANLEY
What’s up, Jean?

JEAN
I want to have a sit down with the President, one-on-one, to discuss his stance on gun control.

STANLEY
Stares at her a moment.
You want to have a televised conversation with President Thomas Lang about the one issue he’s refused to talk about for six years?

JEAN
Yeah.

STANLEY
You.

JEAN
Thanks a lot, Stanley.

STANLEY
You aren’t the most logical choice for an interviewer.

JEAN
I’m a D.C. journalist with a successful nightly program.  Whether he knows it yet or not he’s going to need to give America a thorough answer for his intractability on this issue, more than reciting the Second Amendment.

STANLEY
Probably so, but why would he sit down with you?

Medium closeup on Jean’s face as she looks at him, thinking.

Adnan Mizreb’s burial, a priest, a few government officials, police officers, and two groundskeepers stand around the closed casket in a cemetery on a quiet hillside.  Medium closeup on small headstone reading:

RESTING PEACEFULLY
IN THE ARMS OF GOD
A.M.
1999-2018

Also engraved on the headstone, a thin bouquet of flowers growing up the left side, curling slightly over the letters.

PRIEST
Reading from a prayer book.
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.  The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned…

View of Mizreb’s parents’ house from outside where a number of vehicles, reporters, and angry protesters line the street.  Inside the sunlit living room, Mr. Mizreb sits on a couch with luminous window blinds behind him.  We see through the lens of one of the cameras being used to film the interview.

INTERVIEWER                      
Can you tell us something about what Adnan was like growing up?

MIZREB
Adnan was a playful child.  He spent hours running with the other children in our neighborhood, in the streets and fields around our home.  They’d make up different games, cops and robbers, king of the mountain, and he would never want to come inside for dinner. 
Laughs weakly, tears in his eyes.
He just wanted to keep running around outside.

INTERVIEWER
How about when he got older, in middle school and high school, what did he like to do?

MIZREB
Normal things, you know.  Athletics, video games…  He did not like to study, but, uh…
Shrugs his shoulders, stares blankly.

INTERVIEWER                      
What teenager does?

MIZREB
Smiles.
Right.  Adnan, he did have frequent tantrums in his older years.  If his mom or I told him to work harder for a test or term paper, he’d occasionally lose his temper and yell, or go into his room and slam the door, and we’d hear him cussing.  He did not like being told what to do, my son.  He was, oh, what is the word?  Bullheaded.

INTERVIEWER
Smiles warmly.
Thank you, sir.  Can you tell us more about your whole family?  How did you and your wife meet?

Jean sits at a small table near the front window in the restaurant Vera manages.  She looks out the window at cars passing on the street.  Vera falls into the chair across from her and freezes her face in a goofy smile.

JEAN
Laughs.
What’d you order?

VERA
Are you ready?

JEAN
Just tell me what I’m eating.

VERA
Are… you… ready?

JEAN
Yes, I’m ready.

VERA
André is preparing for you our smoked trout BLT—

JEAN
Ooooh…

VERA
And on the side flash-fried Brussels sprouts with garlic and lime.

JEAN
More intensely.
Ooooooh…

VERA
And for dessert…

JEAN
Yeah?

VERA
Are you ready?

JEAN
Anger.

VERA
Warm banana and ale bread pudding.

JEAN
Oh!
Drops head on tabletop.

VERA
A la mooode.

JEAN
You’re too good to me, Vera. 
Glances around the semi-crowded restaurant.
How’s business?

VERA
Not great.  We’re working on a Spring menu that’ll have people crawling on the ceiling.

JEAN
What?

VERA
Points up and raises eyebrows.

JEAN
That’s, a little terrifying.

VERA
What’s up with you?

JEAN
Preparing for an interview.

VERA
Interview, what interview?  You never…  You never said anything about an interview.  With whom is this interview taking place?

JEAN
Mouths silently.
The President.

VERA
Mouths silently.
The who?

JEAN
Glances covertly side to side, whispers.
The President of the United States.

VERA
Exaggerated surprise and realization.
Wait, I thought you’re a local news person.

JEAN
I am, and that’s exactly why he’ll grant the interview.  I’m gonna call him and say, “President Lang, this is Jean Connelly with CDN News.  You’ve been neglecting the local press.  It’s high time you gave me an hour to sit down and talk about gun control.”

VERA
You think he will?

JEAN
Probably not.

VERA
Yeah, no way in hell.

Mizreb’s parents’ living room, interview being concluded.

INTERVIEWER
Mr. Mizreb, given the horrific nature of your son’s crime, is there anything you want America to know about Adnan?

MIZREB
I know that certain people are afraid of people like me.  I was born in Iran, I have brown skin, and there are those from my birthplace who despise this country.  However, this is not who I am, nor my wife, Ranim.  We are true Americans.  Our son…
Starts crying.
His hate… 

Breaks down into heavy weeping.

INTERVIEWER
Okay, that’s enough.  Turn the camera off, please.

*       *       *

Wolfram Smidgen on a bench near a fountain in a park (preferably a fountain with mermaids).  He’s eating a sandwich and talking on his phone.

WOLFRAM
Did you get enough for the full half hour? 
Waits while interviewer responds.
Great, send it over and we’ll take a look.

President Lang sits at his desk in the Oval Office, reading some papers.  The phone beeps, and his assistant speaks over the intercom.

ASSISTANT
Mr. President?

PRESIDENT LANG
Yes, ma’am?

ASSISTANT
Stanley Balto, the head of CDN News, left a message for you to please call him at your convenience.  He said he has something important to discuss regarding the shooting.

PRESIDENT LANG
Looks up from papers and thinks for a second.

Stanley and Jean wait in his office, Jean in a chair and Stanley pacing behind his desk.

STANLEY      
Stops pacing.
What makes you think he won’t laugh and tell us to go cover the St. Albans Walk-a-Thon?

JEAN
Steve’s already covering the St. Albans Walk-a-Thon.

Phone rings.  Stanley looks at Jean, and picks it up.

STANLEY
CDN News, this is Mr. Balto.

Oval Office, President Lang on the phone.

PRESIDENT LANG
Hello, Mr. Balto, I just received your message.  What information do you have about the attack?

Stanley’s office.

STANLEY
No information, Mr. President.  A journalist of mine has a proposal she believes to be of the utmost importance to our country, uh, in light of recent events.

Oval Office.

PRESIDENT LANG
Okay, let’s hear it.

Stanley holds phone out to Jean.  She walks to the desk and starts talking.

JEAN
Hello, Mr. President.  I’m sorry to trouble you right now, I know you’re very busy.  My name is Jean Connelly and I’m a nightly anchor for CDN.

PRESIDENT LANG
Through phone.
I know you, Jean, I watch your show on occasion.

JEAN
Well, as you also know, this latest tragedy has got people as serious as ever about gun control regulations.  Contrary to what you said at the meeting today, a near majority of the American people believe a ban on assault rifles could’ve helped to prevent the massacre in Koreston and the losses of many other lives over the past year.  I think—and I don’t want to overstep any boundaries here—it would be a very good idea for you to talk with someone politically neutral about your stance on this issue, and how you plan to address the problem during your remaining two years in office.

PRESIDENT LANG
Someone like you, perhaps?

JEAN
I’d be a new face for the public.  There’d be no grounds for personal bias among the viewership, sir.

PRESIDENT LANG
Silent for a few seconds.
This is a good idea, Ms. Connelly.  Let me run it by some folks and get back to you.  We may prefer a more familiar and established interviewer for this particular job.

JEAN
I understand, sir.  Thank you for your time.
She hangs up the phone, and she and Stanley stand quietly for a moment.

Interrogation room, Adnan’s friend, Jonathan, talks to an interrogator.

JONATHAN
No, it wasn’t like he was planning some jihad, holy war attack or something.  Addie didn’t even pray.

INTERVIEWER
You didn’t know about the shooting ahead of time?

JONATHAN
No way.  I told you this already, ten times already.  I knew he was gonna do something, I didn’t think he’d actually pull the trigger.  It’s like I said, it was…
Searches for the word.
Fantasy.

INTERVIEWER
You had no knowledge of when or where this attack would take place?

JONATHAN
No.

INTERVIEWER
Are you willing to take a polygraph to confirm that?

JONATHAN
Vehemently.
Yes.

Aerial view of Washington D.C., fast forward through late afternoon and beautiful sunset.

President Lang and Wolfram sit in Air Force One with some other officials and Secret Service agents as the plane prepares to take off.

WOLFRAM                
It can’t be McFeely or they’ll accuse us of lobbing you easy pitches.  It’s got to be someone from LQVN, or someone else, someone new.

PRESIDENT LANG
Not Connelly?

WOLFRAM
Laughs.
No, sir.

PRESIDENT LANG
Looks out window at lights passing along runway.
Keep the press about this trip to a minimum, will you?  I don’t want it to look like a PR exhibition.

WOLFRAM
With all due respect, sir, we need to bolster your image concerning this issue.  As long as you’re visiting the wounded and bereaved, we might as well—

PRESIDENT LANG
The public knows about this trip, they don’t need to see it.  Request a minimum of coverage please, Mr. Smidgen.

Reaction shot of Wolfram looking irritated, then subduing his anger.

Jean alone in her house that evening, laying on the couch, reading a book.  Quiet music from the stereo.  The title of the book is A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays, by Mary McCarthy.  She finishes reading a chapter and sets the book aside, walks over to the window, and looks outside at the quiet street.

Jean walks down the suburban street at night, past one-story houses and under the occasional streetlight.  It’s cold and she has her hands in her coat pockets, she tilts her head back and looks up as she walks, looks up at the softly twinkling stars beyond the treetops.

Jean back in her house after the walk.  She checks her phone and sees that Vera called while she was out, and calls her back.  Their conversation cuts back and forth from Jean’s house to Vera’s house, while some of their lines are heard through the phone without a cut.

VERA
Hey, Jean, how’s it goin’, babe?

JEAN
I’m bored but I don’t feel like working.  Why’d you call?

VERA
Just checkin’ on my babes.  Seein’ how my Jeanie’s doin’.

JEAN
I could use another bread pudding, actually.

VERA
Oh, next time you gotta try the Warm Apple Crostada with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Caramel Sauce.  It’s part of our dinner menu.

JEAN
How’s Alex doing?

VERA
Who?

JEAN
Your husband.

VERA
Oh, he’s around.  On the roof, probably, with his telescope.  Did you see the news?  About the President?

JEAN
Yeah, he’s in Koreston.

VERA
Yep, and he’s doing the interview.

JEAN
What?

VERA
They announced it just now, he’s gonna discuss his position on gun control with Charles Stockton, and air it this Sunday evening.

JEAN
Silent, medium closeup on her face.

VERA
That’s good, right?

JEAN
Silent.

VERA
You didn’t think he’d do the interview with you, did you?  For reals?

JEAN
Not really, no.  Thanks for telling me, Vera.  See ya later.

VERA
Wait, waaaaiii—
Jean hangs up the phone.

The next morning in Jean’s office, she sits at her desk reading over the notes for her show that day.  Close-up on the sheet of paper and slow pan down over the typed headlines and stories.
–     Sixteen year-old girl missing from Alexandria, Virginia.

(brief story follows)
–     Russian spy ship spotted off the coast of Delaware.
(brief story follows)
–     Congress moves to strike down D.C.’s assisted suicide law.
(brief story follows)
–     Police search for suspects after ATM theft.
(brief story follows)
–     Man killed by vehicle in Md. identified.
(brief story follows)

Stanley walks up and knocks on the open door.

STANLEY
Hello, Ms. Connelly.

JEAN
Don’t even say it.

STANLEY
If it makes you feel better—

JEAN
Ah…  Yeah?

STANLEY
Reveals heart-shaped box of chocolates from behind his back, smiles, then walks over and sets them on her desk.

JEAN
Smiles.
Chocolates?  Valentine’s Day isn’t for two weeks.

STANLEY
Sits down in a chair across from her.

JEAN
Oh, no.  Here we go.

STANLEY
You know the first week you started working here, the first day—the Monday after I hired you…

JEAN
Waits impatiently.

STANLEY
You walked in with your bag slung crooked around your shoulder, venti chai latte in your hand, ready to save the world.

JEAN
Please, spare me this talk.

STANLEY
I thought you’d drop out after a couple months, work for higher pay somewhere, and fewer hours, but no.  You stuck with us.

JEAN
Smiles artificially, nods.

STANLEY
Since then you’ve been the motor of this operation.

JEAN
The motor?

STANLEY
Ferrari, Formula 1, all cylinders firing, engine of this place.  One of the best decisions I’ve made.
Looks down for a second.  
This town…  It’s the lion’s den.  We have to keep our arms out, wide.  And trust we don’t get eaten alive.  
Stands up, walks over, and kisses the top of her head, then walks to the door, and pauses.
All set for today’s broadcast?

JEAN
Nods lightly, tears in her eyes.

STANLEY
Okay.
Walks away.

*       *       *

A woman lays in a hospital bed with her leg slightly elevated in a cast, and her left shoulder bandaged due to a bullet wound.  She flips through channels on the television with the remote in her right hand.  A nurse enters.

NURSE
Hi, Savannah.  How’s it going today?

SAVANNAH
Oh, not bad.  These soaps are terrible.

NURSE
Looks at tv.
I thought you loved Nightdreams Exposed.

SAVANNAH
I did, until Manuel started an affair with Persephone’s step daughter.  Is it time for meds again? 

NURSE
Actually, you have a visitor, all the way from Washington D.C.  President Lang?

He enters the hospital room, waves, and stands at the foot of Savannah’s bed, and smiles at her.

Wolfram stands near a window in a quiet area on the same floor of the hospital, talking on his cell phone.

WOLFRAM
Listens for a few seconds, looking out the window.
We have to give them something…  Half our country’s screaming for blood, if we don’t—

Looks out window, listens.
If we don’t throw them a bone, at least tightening restrictions, we’re going to have a million anti-gun activists loading up on weapons.

Hospital room, President Lang sits beside Savannah’s bed.

PRESIDENT LANG
Middle school or high school?

SAVANNAH
Ninth grade.  She just started going to “ragers.”

PRESIDENT LANG
Smiles.
Most kids are more responsible than they let on.  I think they exaggerate their wildness sometimes to scare us, make us care more.  Jeremy likes to brag about his close calls on the road, when he’s angry at me, at least.

SAVANNAH
Aren’t they the worst?  My mama would have whooped me senseless if I’d said some of these words.

Wolfram at the window.

WOLFRAM
Okay.  Okay, yes, sir.  I will pass that along to the President.
Listens for a second, stares out coldly at the horizon.
We’ll see how this plays out next week.

Hospital room.

PRESIDENT LANG
What was your favorite movie when you were a kid?

SAVANNAH
It’s a Wonderful Life.  Watching Jimmy Stewart around the holidays just made me feel… safer.  What was yours?

PRESIDENT LANG
The French Connection.  Well, Savannah, we’re certainly working to make you feel safer now.  God bless you.

CDN News Studio, Stanley sits at a news desk preparing to speak live on television.  We see him on the screen of a news camera, then on a monitor, then straight ahead, centered in the frame.

STANLEY
Good evening, Washington.  I’m Stanley Balto.  I run the newsroom here at CDN.  I’ve lived and worked in the D.C. area for most of my life, and I can proudly say, in spite of its many flaws, this city is my home.  In a couple of days the President is going to give an interview about one of the major issues dividing our nation.  We don’t often discuss these kinds of issues here, we mostly report on things like weather, traffic, and local news of a more idiosyncratic character, but I wanted to say a few words tonight about what has become a foreboding subject in the minds of many Americans.  When news comes in of another shooting, whether it’s a murder/robbery in the street or a mass shooting in a different city, part of me wishes that firearms just didn’t exist.

Wolfram rushes into the living room of his apartment, picks up the remote from the table, clicks on the television, and turns to channel five.

STANLEY
On Wolfram’s tv.
And I agree, we live in a problematic world.  My question for you, and for the leaders here in Washington, and for gun rights advocates all over the world, is how far are we willing to stretch our ideals in order to combat the world’s problems?

Center frame in newsroom.
I don’t have any answers.  It’s challenging enough for me to keep my studio operating at a halfway functional level.  But I do know this.  Something has to change, today.  We need new laws, new restrictions, and new programs regarding gun control that more closely line up with the America we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in.  Above all, we need courage here in Washington.  I hope we see some of that overdue courage in the President’s interview this Sunday.  Thank you for listening.  Stay tuned for Jean Connelly and our nightly news.

*       *       *

Jean sits alone in an all but empty bar, stirring a whiskey with a straw. Close-up on her face as she watches the ice cubes revolve in the glass. Flashback to her loading a bag into a packed car in the lot of a condo complex. A man stands behind the car, talking quickly, the sound is muffled and the words unintelligible.

ROB
Suddenly the words are clear.
It wasn’t you, Jean, it wasn’t you or me. Don’t waste this.
Extends hands, steps toward her.

JEAN
Stay—away from me.

ROB
You don’t know what you’re doing.

JEAN
Turns from organizing the bags in her car.
I’m jumping ship. I’m leaving a bad situation… before we both drown.

She closes the door, walks around the back of the car, through his outstretched arms, and gets in the driver’s seat.

Back in the bar, she keeps stirring the whiskey. Two young women sit a few seats down, talking and laughing.

WOMAN 1
Can we have three more Apple Jacks, please?
Looks over at Jean.
Do a shot with us.

JEAN
No, thanks, I’ve had more than enough.

WOMAN 1
You might as well. We’re in the vortex.

JEAN
The vortex?

WOMAN 2
Yeah, the place where good men go to fall.

JEAN
Keeps looking, thinks for a second.

President Lang and an assistant stand in a side room of the White House as he finishes preparing for his interview.

PRESIDENT LANG
The amendment clearly states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I understand the necessity to adapt this nation’s laws to better help us govern this land, but this is the Constitution, established to “provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liverty.” The blessings of Lib—of Liberty.

ASSISTANT
Sounds great, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT LANG
Don’t flatter me, Ms. Baker. I sound like a malfunctioning robot.

ASSISTANT
“What do you say to those who hold the view that the Second Amendment is completely obsolete in today’s America?”

PRESIDENT LANG
I sympathize with the desire to see stricter gun regulations, however I would strongly caution anyone who’d dare to label any part of this document obsolete, especially of the Bill of Rights.

ASSISTANT
“Do you have any firearms, President Lang?”

Wolfram stands on the balcony of his high-rise apartment, staring out toward the Capitol Building. Storm clouds, lightning, and thunder on the horizon.

Jean sits in her office at CDN, watching footage of Jonathan’s (Adnan’s friend’s) interview on a news website.

INTERVIEWER
We know that Mizreb purchased the rifle from a drug dealer in Chicago, but we haven’t been able to trace the source of the other gun, the .38, not used in the attack. Can you tell us where he got that one?

JONATHAN
Looks down quickly and shakes his head.
I don’t know for sure where he got the revolver.

She reverses the video and watches Jonathan’s response again.

JONATHAN
Looks down quickly and shakes his head.
I don’t know for sure where he got the revolver.

President Lang and Charles Stockton in the Blue Room of the White House, cameras rolling.

PRESIDENT LANG
I sympathize with the desire to see stricter gun regulations, however I would strongly caution anyone who’d dare to label any part of this document obsolete, especially of the Bill of Rights.

STOCKTON
Do you have any firearms, President Lang?

PRESIDENT LANG
I do not own any guns, no. I do have several friends, some old college buddies, whom I go hunting with on occasion. Deer, turkey, quail, a couple times a year, but I don’t have guns of my own.

Jean in her office, searching through old news articles online, comes across an article in The Columbus Observer from two thousand and ten. “Driver, Pygmy Goat Wounded at Fair.” She starts reading.

Blue Room, interview.

STOCKTON
What do you have to say to people who claim your intractable position on gun control is the result of billions of dollars from the gun lobby, and has nothing to do with our civil liberties?

PRESIDENT LANG
I’d recommend that they take a look at my record. My years in office have demonstrated a profound respect for the Constitution of the United States.

Jean’s office. She continues reading the article. Close-up on screen:
Both the demolition derby driver and the goat were shot by a .38 caliber revolver, however the shooter could not be identified. Acer said, “He darted out from behind the trees by the changing tents and fired four quick shots.”

Blue room, interview.

PRESIDENT LANG
To be completely honest, Mr. Stockton, I don’t like guns. When I get news of yet another mass shooting, or of one more gun-related death in the streets of this or any city across our nation, there’s a part of me that wishes firearms just didn’t exist. The tragedy in Koreston has solidified the necessity for regulations on the sale and distribution of certain types of guns in every State in America. I pray the time it takes to implement those restrictions doesn’t give opportunity for the loss of more innocent lives.

*       *       *

Jean, Vera, and two children, a three year-old girl and five year-old boy, walk up to the edge of the Red Panda exhibit at the D.C. Zoo.

VERA
Look, Squibbles, look at the pandas.

MARY
Those not pandas.

JEAN
They’re red pandas, see? Right there on the sign.

MATTHEW
Red Pandas?

VERA
They’re kind of like sloths. They just sit there in the tree all day. Don’t they remind you of your Uncle Alex?

The four of them walk slowly over a bridge spanning the elephant exhibit.

JEAN
This could mean a big shift in Lang’s approval ratings in the next two years.

VERA
Can he even make a change like this in that amount of time?

JEAN
He’s going to try. He wouldn’t say what he said unless he was planning to follow through immediately.

VERA
What’d your boss say?

JEAN
Freaked. Last thing he expected to hear.

They approach the fence of the alligator pond, where half a dozen gators swim and lay 5-10 yards away from them.

VERA
Extends arms like jaws and closes them on Matthew’s face and head.
Chomp, chomp, chomp.

MATTHEW
Shrieks and darts away.

JEAN
You’re probably the worst grownup at the Zoo today.

Jean and Vera sitting at the bar in her restaurant, not very crowded, the large window on the opposite side of the room bright with sunlight.

VERA
Takes a sip of her drink.
Your hair looks delicious in this lighting.

JEAN
Looks at her, surprised and alluring.

VERA
Golden-strawberry angel hair pasta.

JEAN
Brushes it back over her shoulder.

VERA
With olive oil and cinnamon.

JEAN
Be careful. I might steal you away from your husband.

VERA
Pshhh. He’d pay you to take me.

JEAN
I used to think we could actually change. All of us, you know, wake up and live… without chains on.

VERA
Squints thoughtfully.

JEAN
I thought I could help the people here stop pushing and pulling and just believe in ideals again.

VERA
You do.

JEAN
Huh?

VERA
You help me believe.

JEAN
In the traffic report? The weather? The propped-up scandal of the week?

VERA
In God. And in truth. Because you report on the little stuff, it helps me believe in everything. And be careful what you say, I feed people food for a living, and they just turn around and poop it out.

JEAN
Ugh.

VERA
Fart sound from mouth.
You give people info, stuff that matters. Some of it really does make a difference.

JEAN
This country needs to know… We’re not alone.

*       *       *

Classroom of the University in Koreston. A female professor stands at the whiteboard in a small lecture hall, half-full of students.

PROFESSOR
Writes on board:
Muscogee
Seminole
Chickasaw
Choctaw
Cherokee
Turns and speaks.
Thousands of Native Americans from each of these tribes were forced to leave their homes and walk westward.
Turns and draws arched lines from right to left.
Starting in 1830, and by 1837 about twenty-five million acres of land had been made available for the settlers. Can anyone tell me from the reading, approximately how many Native Americans died on their journey?

After class, a female student, Melissa, stops at the desk on her way out.

MELISSA
Do you have the essay I turned in last week? On the Boston Tea Party and civil rights?

PROFESSOR
Hi, Melissa. I think so…
Flips through a binder on the table.
I don’t see it here, I must have left it at home. How are you holding up?

MELISSA
I’m fine.
Smiles.

She walks down a hallway of the building, checks emails on her cell phone. One email has the subject line, “Coffee Tonight?” and is from dhasselhoff@hotmail.com. Melissa looks confused for a moment, and keeps walking.

Wolfram sits alone in his apartment, a laptop on the table in front of him. The screen shows a photo of the President and Stockton during the interview. The headline reads: “No More Innocent Lives,” says President. Wolfram stands up, irritated, and walks back and forth behind the couch. He laughs incredulously. A thought occurs to him, and he stops walking.

Jean works out on an elliptical machine at the gym, sweating, and reading a book on her tablet. On her way to her car, her phone rings.

STANLEY
Through phone.
Not coming in today?

JEAN
I’m polishing my report on the eagle sanctuary. Joe will record it tonight.

STANLEY
In his office.
Alright, alright.

JEAN
Getting into her car.
There’s something else, about the shooting in Koreston. Mizreb’s friend has been hiding something.

STANLEY
Thinks for a moment.
Careful what you search for, Jeanie. Quite a few snakes in the grass today.

Jonathan sits at a table in a coffee shop similar to Starbuck’s, scrolling through messages on his phone. Melissa sits down across from him.

JONATHAN
Sets phone aside.
Thanks for meeting me. I know it’s been crazy recently.

MELISSA
What do you want to talk about?

JONATHAN
Who contacted you? The police? The Feds?

MELISSA
Confused.
Nobody. No one at all.

JONATHAN
Leans forward.
Don’t lie to me. There are… a lot of things I can do, to make your life… difficult.

MELISSA
Threatening me now? You think that’s smart?

JONATHAN
More calmly.
No. You’re right. Don’t think I won’t know about it. If you do start talking, I’ll know.
Looks around the coffee shop.
Addie would want us to stick together.

MELISSA
Laughs.
Try to understand, you’re not my boss. You’re not my boyfriend. Jonathan, you… Please don’t contact me again.
Stands up, walks away.

A U.S. General, General Albertson, walks down a hallway in the Pentagon, and enters his office. On the desk beside his keyboard is a paper coffee cup. He picks it up, removes the lid, and dumps a small amount of liquid into the trash can beside his desk, then turns the cup upside down and slides a circular paper disc off the bottom. He turns the disc over, and reads the typed message. Close-up on the words:

The field only reveals to man
his own folly and despair,
and victory is an illusion
of philosophers and fools.

The General places the paper disc between his palms, and rubs his hands quickly back and forth for about ten seconds. He turns it over and reads:
                                                             s         o   l          d
                                                                  v          s
                                                                      s                      o   s

He walks into the bathroom, drops the disc in the toilet, and flushes.

*       *       *

Through a handheld news camera, Jean walks down a gravel road, past large cages with various kinds of eagles inside.

JEAN
Holding microphone.
Some of these majestic birds are free to leave their cages and take to the sky, however there are a number of injured eagles which must remain in captivity until they have healed and can safely fly and hunt in the wild.

She slows and approaches a sign on the front of a cage holding two bald eagles, one perched on an artificial tree limb and another standing on the ground facing the camera.

JEAN
Points at the sign with the eagles’ names.
Here we have Ahab and Archer. They must have grouped them together because they have similar sounding names. It looks like the one on the ground might have an injured talon, he’s kind of bowlegged on one side. As you can see, the one on the branch looks healthy.

The eagle on the limb spreads and flaps its wings.

JEAN
Hello, wow! Powerful wings indeed.

Wolfram Smidgen sits alone at a café table in a shopping mall, drinking espresso from a tiny mug, and glancing around nervously. On the table is a newspaper, open and folded back in quarters. He sees Stanley enter the café area, and stands up to greet him.

STANLEY
Good to see you, Mr. Smidgen. I hope you haven’t been waiting very long.

WOLFRAM
Not at all. It’s nice to see you too, Mr. Balto. Thanks for sitting down with me.

STANLEY
Of course. How can I help you?

WOLFRAM
Well, I’m sorry. I’m sorry Ms. Connelly wasn’t able to host the interview she’d suggested. Charles seemed like a better choice to present such a pivotal moment.

STANLEY
I think Jean understood that. She’s grateful you took her advice.

WOLFRAM
Slides newspaper around so Stanley can read it. Headline: Lang Calls Committee On Gun Regs.
The President is moving quickly on this. We need qualified journalists to help with the PR. If yourself and Ms. Connelly would be willing, we’d like you to do a special on recent gun violence in the U.S., to be aired on LQVN.

STANLEY
Laughs, nods slowly.
Mr. Smidgen, I’ve lived in this city for about as many years as you’ve been alive, but even before that I learned you never get something for nothing. You either have to buy it, steal it, or spend a lifetime earning it. I’d say thanks for the offer but that wouldn’t be too honest, seeing as it’s likely some kind of shark bait. Why don’t we just part ways?

WAITER
Approaches.
Can I get you something to drink, sir?

STANLEY
No, thank you.
Stands up to leave.

WOLFRAM
It’s a legitimate offer, Mr. Balto. Your experience could be useful in bringing the President, and our government, through a critical situation.

STANLEY
Extends right hand.
Please tell him I’m sorry.

They shake hands, and Stanley walks away.

Jean stands facing the news camera, speaking into a microphone. Behind her the row of eagle cages extends down the gravel road into the background.

JEAN
As we’ve observed today, the Washington D.C. Eagle Sanctuary is both home and hospital to some of the most exquisite birds of prey in the world. From the relatively small Booted eagle, to the much larger Steller’s sea eagle, the variety of species here is astounding, and includes, of course, the national emblem of our country, the American Bald Eagle.

A man with a bald eagle perched on his forearm walks into the frame, and transfers the bird onto Jean’s left shoulder. She winces slightly and tilts sideways under its weight.

JEAN
Struggling as the eagle grapples for a better hold on her shoulder.
You might not know this, but one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, wanted to make the turkey our national bird. Right now I kind of wish they would have.

Pan right from Jean and eagle on a screen in the studio, to Jean seated at her news desk watching the last few seconds of her report. She turns to face the camera.

JEAN
Thank you for watching, everyone. I hope you enjoyed that report as much as I did. This has been the CDN Evening News. Our Capital, Your City.

*       *       *

White House Press Room, the seats are filled, journalists, cameras, the podium stands alone on the platform.  Wolfram steps into the frame and rests his hands on the podium, looking out over the crowded room.

WOLFRAM
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  I’d like to give a brief statement in order to clarify to some extent the truth, regarding the allegations surrounding the President’s decision to pass laws restricting the sale and distribution of certain firearms.  The notion that anyone in this administration has worked in conjunction with KESG (pronounced key-sig), accepted funding from any terrorist organization, or granted them any measure of influence in shaping our domestic or foreign policy, is outrageous.  The Koreston shooting was the last straw, and while he has been quiet about this issue until now, President Lang intends to complete the work of implementing responsible gun regulations by the end of next year—in spite of the swarming cloud of unfounded theories obstructing that work right now.  Whether or not members of KESG or other terror groups would benefit from such laws being passed in the United States is simply irrelevant.  The questions we should be asking are, “Will this legislation be good for Americans?”  “How likely is it that this legislation will contribute to a safer more peaceful homeland?”  “What should we do to facilitate tranquility, prosperity, and wellness for future generations?”
Looks down at notes.
We need to focus on goals that align with the true values of this nation, and not on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.  Thank you for your time.

He walks off the platform and exits the room to an uproar of questions and flashing cameras.

Inside a gun/army surplus/survival store, the camera moves past a wall with hunting rifles, assault rifles, and shotguns mounted and leaning against it, then curves left and down, moving over a long glass counter and a row of dozens of handguns, then turns left and up, passing boxes of ammunition, kevlar vests, various targets, and other supplies, then curves left again, completing a spiral, and settling on Jean, a cameraman, and an employee who is speaking.

KEVIN
I take it shooting maybe two, three times a month.  She’s a beautiful weapon, the ACR.

JEAN
Do you ever use it for hunting?

KEVIN
Hunting with automatic weapons is illegal in the State of Alabama.  No, I fire that gun at the rifle range, strictly at the rifle range.

JEAN
How many guns do you have, total, if you don’t mind saying?

KEVIN
Including pistols?

JEAN
Yes, everything.

KEVIN
Thinks for a few seconds.
Twenty-five—no, there’s the five-shot Remington, the cross bow…  Do cross bows count?

JEAN
No, just firearms.

KEVIN
Twenty-six, then.

JEAN
What would you say to people who want to make selling certain types of firearms illegal?

KEVIN
Looks silently at her for a moment.
I’d tell ‘em I’ve got a Constitutional right to keep and bear arms, and that’s a right our Forefathers guaranteed to protect us from tyrannous governments.  It’s a right I hold near and dear.

Medium close-up on Jean nodding.

Jean and two crew members driving down a street in an SUV, through a residential area of Alabama, past houses and cars and people every so often, working in their yards or walking on the sidewalk.  Silence inside the car.  They pull up to a hotel in a fairly nice area of the town, and Jean gets out at the front entrance, while the other two drive off to park.

She enters her hotel room, sets her backpack on a chair by the door, and walks over to the mini-fridge.  She takes a bar of chocolate and small bottle of brandy out, and sits in a chair by the glass door.  Medium-close shot of her leaning back in her chair, tipping the front chair legs off the floor, eating the chocolate, and staring out the window.

Jean jogs along streets and paths in Tuscaloosa, while listening to Modest Mouse’s, “Missed the Boat,” on headphones.  We see different scenic views of the town in the early evening.  She returns to the hotel and meets her crew in the lobby.

JEAN
You two look handsome.  Where ya off to?

CAMERAMAN
Remy wants to check out the karaoke bar up the street.  You want to go?

JEAN
No, I’m kind of tired.

REMY
Sings.
Somewhere, beyond the sea…  Somewhere, waiting for me…  My lover stands—

JEAN
Starts walking away.
Hate to miss that.

Television screen showing Adnan as a child, swinging a plastic bat as his dad pitches tennis balls to him in a small backyard.  The video camera bounces and drifts slightly, and his mother says, “Good hit, Addie!” when he hits a ball and starts to run the imaginary bases.  Next on the screen, the camera approaches his mother in the kitchen of their home, as she prepares Chicken Shawarma Kabobs and rice, and we hear Adnan’s voice:

ADNAN
And here is my beautiful mother, making my favorite dinner, chicken shawarma.
He zooms in on the line of kabobs on the stovetop, then back out at his mom.
Pose for the camera, Mama.

RANIM
Go away, Adnan, I am busy.
She pushes the camera away.

Next on the screen, an indoor skating rink where middle schoolers are playing roller hockey.

MIZREB
From behind the camera in the stands, as Adnan steals the puck and breaks away toward the goal.
Go, Son, go!

He takes a shot and misses wide, the fans jump in their seats and settle down again.

Mr. Mizreb pays for the stack of DVD’s at the front counter, takes his credit card and receipt, and leaves with the stack in his hands.  It is morning.  As he approaches the corner of a gray brick building, a man on the other side of the street starts crossing towards him.  We see Mr. Mizreb walking down the sidewalk, beyond the shooter’s back, about forty feet away.  He sees him and keeps walking, the shooter draws a black handgun, Mr. Mizreb sees it and drops the DVD’s and raises his hands.  The shooter fires a bullet into his heart, but Mr. Mizreb manages to turn and start running.  The shooter fires a bullet into his right shoulder blade, and he falls forward and sideways against the gray brick wall.  He looks up, dazed, at the shooter.  Close-up of the gun in profile as it fires one more bullet.  Slow fade to black.

Jean and her crew load their bags into the SUV in front of the hotel.  Her phone rings.  She checks the name.

JEAN
Hey, Stanley.

STANLEY
Hello, Ms. Connelly.  Did you all leave yet?

JEAN
Packing the car right now.

STANLEY
I need you back in D.C.  Adnan’s father’s just been killed.

She closes the car door, looks up in disbelief.

*       *       *

Wolfram sits across the table from a beautiful woman in an elegant, dimly lit restaurant.  As they silently finish eating their lunch entrées, he glances up at her and sips his wine.  The door to his apartment opens and they enter, Wolfram first, then he closes and locks it behind her.

WOLFRAM
Would you like some more wine, I have—

The woman pushes him back against the door and kisses him.  He lets her, but doesn’t reciprocate her enthusiasm.

WOLFRAM
Just a moment.

WOMAN
Stops kissing his neck.
Huh?

WOLFRAM
Just… one second.
He places his keys and wallet in a bowl on the kitchen table, removes his jacket, and hangs it on the back of a chair.
Are you sure you don’t want another glass?

She walks slowly towards him, takes his tie in her hand, turns, and leads him through the living room and down the hall.

In his bedroom (still daytime), he sits propped up in bed with his laptop in front of him, while the woman sleeps naked beside him.  On the screen is an article and photo of the corner where Mr. Mizreb was shot, a perimeter of yellow tape, crowded with police, journalists, and civilians.

In the Roosevelt Room, President Lang, Wolfram, two men in military uniforms, and a few others sit quietly at the table, while two Secret Service Agents stand beside the doors.  Lang stands up and paces back and forth behind his chair, then stops and leans forward on the chair back, looking around at each person seated at the table.  They continue waiting for a few seconds.  A voice speaks from one of the laptops, which shows a mountain range in the desert.

SOLDIER
The target has entered the red zone, sir.

GENERAL
Thank you, Captain.
He turns to look at the President.

PRESIDENT LANG
Bows his head, closes his eyes for a moment, looks at the General, and nods.

GENERAL
Fire when ready, Captain.

A missile launches from a U.S. Military base in the desert, flies low through the air as the land rushes by below.  The rocket accelerates over the low plain leading toward the mountain range several miles ahead, toward a cave-like opening at the foot of one of the mountains, a few vehicles and crates outside the entrance.  The missile enters and detonates, fire erupts from the opening, followed by dust and falling boulders from above, sealing the cave shut.  Silence, and the view of the mountain becomes the same image on the General’s laptop in the Roosevelt Room.  He turns and nods to the President.

On his way out the door, Wolfram is accompanied by Lang, and they walk out through the White House together.

PRESIDENT LANG
Thanks for your help today, Secretary Smidgen.

WOLFRAM
My pleasure, sir.  I’ll have a statement drawn up for the evening report.

PRESIDENT LANG
“Our battle is more full of names than yours,
 Our men more perfect in the use of arms,
 Our armour all as strong, our cause the best;
 Then reason will our hearts should be as good.”

WOLFRAM
You think we should let Shakespeare handle our PR from now on?

PRESIDENT LANG
I’m sure he’d refuse.

WOLFRAM
Smiles.
What should we do about Mosul?

PRESIDENT LANG
Looks at him sternly for a second.
Tell the truth.

Jean and Vera on exercise bikes, sweating, in the back row of a crowded Spin class, and talking over the music (If possible, “You Shook Me All Night Long/Good Girl” Remix), with occasional interruptions from the instructor.

VERA
Two more months of this, my buns are gonna be rock hard.

JEAN
You already have a great body.  It’s me who needs to get in shape.

INSTRUCTOR
Okay, Ladies, let’s take it up out of the saddle.
She stands up on her bicycle, and the rest of the class does likewise.
Still on a flat road, we’re approaching our first hill.

JEAN
Did you hear about Adnan Mizreb’s father?

VERA
Course.  I haven’t isolated myself completely.

JEAN
They’re saying it was a lone gunman, a guy who went crazy, and hates Muslims.

VERA
Well, his son was a terrorist.

INSTRUCTOR
Two, three, here we go.  Find those glutes, wake ‘em up!
She dials up the resistance on her bike and starts pedaling faster.

JEAN
I don’t think his dad had anything to do with the attack.  I think it was all him, and his buddy, Jonathan.

VERA
That smokin’ little frat boy?  They cleared him already.

JEAN
Yes, they did.

INSTRUCTOR
Back in the saddle.  We’re headin’ back to our jumps.
Sits down again.
Take it down, keep it here.

The rest of the class sits down and dials down the resistance on their bikes.

VERA
What about your big special report?

JEAN
We have some more footage to get, but so far we’re on schedule.

INSTRUCTOR
Two, three, here we go.  Up…
Stands up riding, class follows.
Down…

Sits down, class follows.
Up…

Stands up again, class follows.

*       *       *

Wolfram Smidgen in a park with the dome of the Capitol Building in the background.  He’s talking on his cell phone.

WOLFRAM
Listening, composedly distressed.
Do you understand what’s happening?  …The truth is coming to light.  Lang’s accounts are being investigated by three different committees, as we speak…  I hope to God they find no ties between them…

Listens, settling his eyes on the Capitol Building.
I’m telling you to wait.

Jean introduces the evening news from her desk in the studio.

JEAN
To camera.
Tonight on CDN Evening News, a bus carrying nineteen children and three adults, including the driver, overturned yesterday on a Maryland interstate, on its way to Washington D.C. for a field trip.  Four students and one teacher have been hospitalized, and the teacher, Terry Isaacs, is in critical condition.  Also, The Sound of Music heads to the Kennedy Center this week.  Nathaniel Waterloo, who plays Captain Georg von Trapp, stopped by CDN to talk about the upcoming production.  But first…

Footage of a staggered line of brown and yellow ducklings waddling up a “duck ramp” at the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

JEAN-VO
Ducklings are in luck!  Two new ramps have been installed at the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool to provide easier water access to families of ducks—and the ducklings have already figured out how to use the new amenity.

The ducklings turn and waddle toward the water, starting down the declined plank over the ledge.  They slip and fall, sliding and splashing into the pool, as Jean talks.

JEAN-VO
Warmer weather has allowed for an increase in the pool’s duckling population, but its slanted edge was making it difficult for them to get back into the water.

Stanley approaches Jean as she’s removing her microphone after the broadcast.

STANLEY
Good show, lady.

JEAN
Thank you, kind sir.

STANLEY
Cup of coffee, ten minutes?

They stand between two stone lions on the front steps of the CDN News studio.

STANLEY
Will the special be done in time to meet the new deadline?

JEAN
Saturday’s the day.

STANLEY
Can Joe finish editing without you?

JEAN
I trust him with it.  Whether or not Smidgen’s people approve it is a different story.

STANLEY
Don’t worry about that.  Listen, we need everything ready by the time that special airs.  Mizreb’s death may be the start.  We have to act before the earthquake gets worse.

JEAN
You want me to go to Koreston?

STANLEY
Go, get what you need, and be back by Sunday.  Who knows, your work might be what saved the world after all.

*       *       *

An underground warehouse in the Middle East, four guards armed with assault rifles stand on opposite walls near the steps at the front of a large room full of crates and various containers of weapons, ammunition, and chemicals.  The sound of the metal door at the top of the steps (out of frame), clanking and swinging open.  A voice shouts (in Arabic), “Hurry up, lock it in!”  The sound of a metal case dropping on metal rails, and the voice yells (in Arabic), “Careful!”  The sound of the case sliding down the rails on either side of the steps, and the backs of two men, side by side, walking backwards down the steps with the case in front of them (about the size of a refrigerator), come into view at the bottom of the steps, and slide the case onto two pallets on the floor in front of the steps.  The guards don’t move as the five men transporting the case center it on the pallets and prepare to store it among the other crates of weapons.

In the small bedroom of a house in an unspecified Middle Eastern city, a white man (soldier) in plain clothes sits at a table with a laptop in front of him.  On the screen, bank account information showing a recent transfer of $75,000,000.  He opens a new window on the screen, a blank message box, and types, “The beans have been planted.  Say hello to the farmer.” and clicks send.

General Albertson sits at the desk in his office, reading an email on his computer.  The phone beeps and his secretary’s voice speaks.

SECRETARY
General Albertson, President Lang for you, sir.

He stops reading and looks from the screen to the telephone, thinks for a moment.

GENERAL ALBERTSON
Thank you, Sarah.
Picks up phone.
Hello, Mr. President…  I’m doing well, how about yourself?

Obligatory smile.
Of course, not the fairest weather…

Listens for fifteen seconds as Lang speaks.
Yes, sir.  I will be there.  Eight o’clock…  You too, Mr. President.  Mm-hm, God bless.

Hangs up phone, sits back and stares blankly at screen for a moment.

In the classroom at the University in Koreston, Melissa sits among students spaced every other chair, taking an exam.  Close-up on page, multiple choice question:  “A prominent leader and medicine man of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, he both raided and resisted U.S. and Mexican forces in southwestern American territories and northern Mexican states, following the end of the war with Mexico in 1848.

a) Chief Touch the Clouds
b) Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant)
c) Tisquantum (Squanto)
d) Geronimo
e) Sacagawea

She reads over the answers, and circles “d.”  She exits the class and sees Jean standing across the hall waiting for her, but Melissa doesn’t seem to recognize her.

JEAN
Walks after her.
Melissa.  Can we talk for a minute?

MELISSA
Keeps walking.

JEAN
Catches up to her, walks alongside.
I can help you, if you talk to me.

Jean and Melissa sit at a table in a study room of the University library.  The front wall of the room is glass, and we see them speaking for a few seconds but don’t hear what they are saying.

MELISSA
We weren’t even officially “together.”  I went over to his place once or twice a week, and we’d watch tv and hang out.  Neither of us wanted a relationship.

JEAN
Why didn’t you tell the police?

MELISSA
Adnan and I stopped seeing each other almost half a year ago.  What could I have told them?

JEAN
It was serious enough for his mother to know about you.

MELISSA
He exaggerates.  He probably told her so she’d think he was normal.

JEAN
Melissa, I know there’s nothing I can say to make sense of what happened—the shooting.  And I know you know more than you’re letting on.  I’m trying to help us to be more protected from this type of violence in the future.

MELISSA
Glances up at her, then back down at the table.

JEAN
When you were with him, did you ever see or hear anything that might indicate his being connected to a terrorist network?

*       *       *

Wolfram Smidgen stands behind a row of desks in a room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.  A large flat-screen tv almost covers the wall in front of them, and is divided into twelve equal sections, each one showing a different news channel, some from foreign countries.  Most of the sections are muted, while a few have people speaking and footage playing simultaneously.  Headlines: 

  1. Dutch Lawmakers Approve U.K. Trade Deal with Ukraine
  2. KESG Blast Kills Dozens at Family Gathering in Iraq
  3. More Than 150 Pot Shops Busted in Detroit
  4. South Korea Leader Orders Investigation into Unreported U.S. Launches
  5. Bangladesh Cyclone Wreaks Havoc in Rohingya Refugee Camps

He walks down a hallway, past several doorways, and stops at one to lean in and talk to his assistant.

WOLFRAM
I’m going out to grab some lunch.

ASSISTANT
Okay, Mr. Secretary.

He walks through the hall toward the front entrance of the building.  View of doors from outside, one door opens and Wolfram emerges, starts down steps and down the walkway to the street.  As he walks toward Pennsylvania Avenue, the camera zooms out at a medium-fast pace to reveal the entirety of the Eisenhower Building, the front courtyard, and then the White House and front lawn next door, continuing to zoom out until all of downtown D.C. is visible in the frame.

On a restaurant patio overlooking a lake, college students stand and sit around tables, drinking beer and eating appetizers.  Jean stands inside the glass doors, looking out at the students.  She sees Jonathan sitting with a few other kids, talking and laughing.  Jonathan slides three empty glasses onto the outside bar.

JONATHAN
Three more Heineken’s, please.

BARTENDER
Coming right up.

JEAN
Finally getting back to normal around here, huh?

JONATHAN
Looks quickly at her.
You’re that reporter.  Don’t you have a show coming up in a few days?

JEAN
That’s the plan.  I’m hoping you can answer a question for me first.

JONATHAN
One question?

JEAN
What do you think they’re going to do when they find out you pushed Adnan into killing all those people?

JONATHAN
Laughs.
I don’t know what you heard, but—

JEAN
God knows.  And the authorities know about Fairfield.

JONATHAN
So what?  I didn’t shoot those people, Addie did.  You get the hell away from me.

JEAN
What you did as a child, plus giving Addie the .38, your life’s over.  Good luck finding a job.

JONATHAN
Angry.
I don’t need a—

Looks away, then back at her.
This is harassment.  You have no right to be here.

Leaves a twenty on the bar, takes the beers, and walks away.

Smidgen walks along a street, turns into a park, and continues on a path while fixing a thin black adhesive strip to a black zip drive.  Near the center of the park is a fountain (different fountain than the earlier scene), light crowd in the surrounding area.  He enters the square and walks past the fountain, bending quickly to hide the zip drive underneath its outer edge.  He glances around rapidly as he keeps walking and exits the square on the other side.

Deborah Elm rides in the passenger seat of a golf cart, beside a man with gray hair, and they stop on a fairway a few hundred feet from the green.  She removes her phone from her pocket and checks the message:  Private Number: “Keating Park.  Center fountain.  Southeast side, under the outer edge.”

Early evening, as the sun is setting, she walks toward the fountain, a little nervous, and kneels down to look under the edge.  Seeing the zip drive, she stands up and walks a few paces, removes it, puts it in her pocket and keeps walking.

*       *       *

Stanley and Joe in the editing room at CDN, watching Jean’s gun violence special on the center screen.  She is walking down the sidewalk in a quiet, sunny neighborhood, and talking into a microphone.

JEAN
Some believe having the right to carry a concealed firearm serves to promote peace, by discouraging would-be attackers from preying on others.
She stops walking.
But what’s keeping the people who lawfully carry guns from misusing them in public—with potentially fatal consequences?

The special cuts to Jean interviewing a man in the front yard of his house.

JEAN
Have you ever drawn a weapon on a human being?

MAN
Few times.  Never had to shoot nobody.

Monique knocks on the door to the editing room, and opens it.

MONIQUE
Mr. Balto, you might want to see this.

They walk into the main studio, where a few large screens are showing a national news channel with Deborah Elm speaking to the camera.

DEBORAH
We can clearly hear President Lang’s voice on this recording.  There is no question that this is the President of the United States.
The screen splits to show a man at another desk.
In your opinion, is there any way to tell when this conversation took place?

He starts replying, as Stanley reacts.

STANLEY
No, no, no…  What is this?

EXPERT
So we know the file was saved onto the drive approximately forty-eight hours ago, but we can’t as yet determine when the President spoke these words.

DEBORAH
Can we hear the recording again, please?

PRESIDENT LANG
Slight static.
The next one gets cleared by me…  Make sure they know that…

Angry.
Now they can trace those weapons to us.

DEBORAH
An investigation into the specific types, quantities, and locations of the weapons is currently underway.  Neither President Lang, nor any member of his administration, has made a statement.

JOE
Could it be fake?  Can they fabricate someone’s voice like that?

STANLEY
They can and they did.
He looks at the screen a moment longer, then turns and starts to leave.

JOE
What about the show, are we gonna—

STANLEY
On his way out.
Still on, tomorrow night.

Jean sitting near the back of an airplane, dark outside.

FLIGHT ATTENDANT
Bell rings.
Good evening, passengers, please fasten your seatbelts and return your seat backs to their upright and locked positions.  We will be landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport in about fifteen minutes.  I repeat, we will be landing in Washington D.C. in about fifteen minutes.

Aerial view of D.C. at night, followed by a time-lapse shot of the sun rising over the downtown area.

A conference room in the Capitol Building, twenty or so of the President’s Advisors, Generals, and Chiefs-of-Staff, (including Wolfram and General Albertson), sit quietly around a long rectangular table.  President Lang enters, walks to the head of the table, pulls out the chair, sits down, and looks up at them.

PRESIDENT LANG
Thank you all for being here this morning.  I don’t intend to bore you with any stale anecdotes about the time before I came to Washington, the years when the thought of my becoming President would have been pretty funny.  I should say that I’ve always loved this nation.  It’s not our freedom that I love, or our ideals, our values, or our history.  I love it cause it’s mine.  And yours, and the bums who sleep outside on benches, or in the woods, it’s theirs too.  The United States is everyone’s.

When I took office I swore to faithfully execute my duties, and to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.  In the course of carrying out that promise I’ve made some enemies, some of whom are right here at this table.  Some have devoted themselves to undermining my work with blatant lies, vindictive accusations, and treasonous plots to cast my presidency in the most sinister shades of darkness.  Don’t think for one instant that either your actions, or your intentions, have gone unobserved.

A number of you might cringe upon hearing this again, but my grandfather fought and died for this country in the first World War.  He took a stand for this place, marched off to hell, and died there, in part so we could serve here, free from the threat of hell overtaking our own shores.  If you disagree with my agenda to increase regulations on certain firearms, that’s fine, you’re free to oppose me.  But if you’re operating under the assumption that you have any chance of getting away with treachery…
He looks around at them again.
You’d better take a step back, and find a different way to go.

He stands up, walks out of the silent room.

*       *       *

Stanley in the control room of CDN, watching a national news channel as Jean and their crew prepare for the broadcast.  On the screen, four people sit behind a desk talking fervently about the audio recording.

ANCHOR
We have to be real, here.  How much evidence do you need?  There are at least two offshore bank accounts holding a combined five hundred and thirty million dollars, which have been linked to known business associates of men in Lang’s administration, and now we have undeniable proof that he oversaw an illegal arms trade.  What could convince you at this point?

GUEST
Hold on, can we back up a second?  The accounts being linked to President Lang’s administration, hasn’t been proven yet—

ANCHOR
Rolls his eyes.
Hasn’t been—okay, I guess it hasn’t been proven that you’ve appeared as a guest on this program, either.

Stanley watches, dismayed, then looks out at Jean behind the desk in the studio.  A crew member in the control room starts calling his name, but he keeps looking at her as she reads over her notes, then looks back at him through the glass, and smiles.

CREW MEMBER
Speaks into headset microphone.
Yes, sir, Mr. Stockton, he’s ready.
Switches microphone off.
Stanley, you in there?  They’re ready to roll at LQVN.

STANLEY
Puts on headset.
All set, Ms. Connelly?

JEAN
Takes a breath, and nods.

The intro to LQVN’s Thursday night program begins on two of the monitors in the CDN control room, while Jean stays on the other screens.  Charles Stockton appears facing the camera, from his desk at LQVN.

STOCKTON
Good evening, ladies and gentleman.  Tonight we have a special report from a journalist you may not know.  She’s a local D.C. reporter named Jean Connelly, and she hosts the CDN nightly news on weekdays at six p.m.  Jean’s been traveling the country for the last few weeks, interviewing and doing research on the subject of gun violence in America.  Here she is to introduce the piece, live from Washington.  Hello, Jean.

JEAN
Hi, Mr. Stockton.  Thanks for letting me be a part of your show.  It’s an honor to be here.  Before we air the special, I’d like to address a couple issues that are of the utmost importance to the American people.  The shooting last month in Koreston was, as we all know, a senseless tragedy.

Wolfram sits staring at the tv in his apartment, half-empty whiskey bottle on the table in front of him.

JEAN
Adnan Mizreb was a severely disturbed young man, isolated, depressed, and therefore vulnerable to hatred and evil.  However despite what most of the media, and the authorities have stated, he was not the only one responsible for the attack.

Vera lays stretched out on the couch in her house, a glass of wine and a bowl of Funyuns on the table.

VERA
Alex, get in here, Jeanie’s thing is on tv.

JEAN
Adnan’s friend, Jonathan Rand, who’s now in custody, both helped him to plan and pressured him into committing the murders, as well as supplying Adnan with the thirty-eight caliber revolver as a backup weapon.  Jonathan acquired the gun at least eight years ago, and possibly used it in two thousand ten to wound a driver at a demolition derby in Fairfield, Ohio, where his older brother was competing.

Wolfram watches tv, anxious and perplexed.

JEAN
An anonymous source who was close to Adnan has claimed and is willing to testify that Jonathan, quote, “offered her money to help him go through with it.”
She pauses a moment, looks down at her notes.
The last point I’d like to address concerns the recent accusations directed at President Lang and his administration.  After the Koreston shooting I spoke with the President about interviewing him on the topic of gun control, but later Secretary Smidgen informed us of their decision to go with a more experienced journalist.
Flashback to Wolfram and Stanley at the café as Jean continues talking.
Soon after the interview, my boss received an offer to begin work on a special to be aired nationally, the program we’ll be showing tonight.
Flashback to Stanley and Lang talking (new scene), then investigators searching files on computers, and monitoring Smidgen’s communications).
When Stanley saw the Secretary’s change of heart about our competence, he could tell something was wrong, and went to talk with President Lang, who discovered not only Smidgen’s connections to certain members of KESG, but also his efforts to spread the lies we’ve been hearing.

Wolfram watches Jean on tv, realizes what’s happening and becomes enraged, then back to Jean in the studio.

JEAN
As for the audio that’s just been released, it’s easy enough to replicate a person’s voice now.  We managed to do more than that in less than twenty-four hours.

She turns to look at the large screen beside the news desk, where an image of the White House Press Room appears, the empty platform, podium, two flags, cameramen, and chairs full of journalists.  Wolfram enters the room and steps up to the podium.

WOLFRAM
Hello, America.  I falsified evidence in order to frame Thomas Lang.
Smiles, and walks out of the frame.

Wolfram in his apartment, bows his head for a second, then grips the edge of the glass table and flips it over, shattering it against the tv and wall.

WOLFRAM
Points at Jean’s face on the cracked screen.
I’m gonna kill you.

He walks down the hall toward his bedroom, and we see Jean and hear fragments of her words through the broken tv.  Wolfram walks out of the dark hallway with a small black handgun, over the shattered glass on the carpet, and to the front door, opens it, and walks out into the hallway of his apartment building.  He slams the door and starts left toward the elevators, about one hundred feet away, where a Secret Service Agent steps into view.  Wolfram sees him, keeps walking, and starts to raise the gun.  The Agent draws his gun and shoots Wolfram in the right shoulder, his arm falls to his side, but he does not drop the gun.  Staggering a little, he keeps walking, reaching over with his left hand to take the gun from his right.

SECRET SERVICE AGENT
Aiming at him.
Don’t do this, sir.

Wolfram grips the gun in his left hand, walking slowly, about forty feet from the Agent, and raises it quickly to shoulder level, and the Agent fires a bullet through Wolfram’s heart.  He falls forward and sideways against the wall, similar to Mr. Mizreb, and lies dead with his upper back and head against the wall.  The Agent approaches slowly and kicks the gun away. 

*       *       *

Upper and Lower Senate Garden, bright, sunny, early Spring, the sound of the fountain and a few people sitting and walking nearby.  Jean sits on a bench with the Capitol Building in the background.  Vera approaches, and she smiles.

VERA
Hey, hot stuff.  Want to have a drink?

JEAN
With you?  Anytime.

VERA
How do I know you won’t run away, to New York or something, and leave me stranded here?

JEAN
Looks down at her feet, up again.
To be honest, there’s a good chance I’ll do that.  I’ll come back and visit.
She stands up, and they start walking along the row of trees.

The camera rises above the fountain as they walk away, their conversation slowly fading out.

VERA
Can I come with you?

JEAN
Come with me?  I don’t even know your name, lady.

VERA
Mi nombre es Antonella.  Cómo te llamas, Rojita?

JEAN
This… isn’t fun anymore.

VERA
No, please…  Let’s do the whole day like this.

JEAN
Shut up, Vera.

VERA

 

 

~  Music and Credits  ~