Tag Archives: fiction

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.

 

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.

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky Quotes

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― The Brothers Karamazov

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
― Crime and Punishment

“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
― Crime and Punishment

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
― The Brothers Karamazov

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
Crime and Punishment

“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.”
Notes from Underground

“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
Notes from Underground

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms. It’s by talking nonsense that one gets to the truth! I talk nonsense, therefore I’m human”
Notes from Underground

“The soul is healed by being with children.”

“People speak sometimes about the “bestial” cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.”

“We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.”
Crime and Punishment

“I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”
― The Brothers Karamazov

“It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.”
Crime and Punishment

“But how could you live and have no story to tell?”
White Nights

“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
Crime and Punishment

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
The Brothers Karamazov

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”

“Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break something from time to time.”

“I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help re-living such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experienced. I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year. I feel I know you so well that I couldn’t have known you better if we’d been friends for twenty years. You won’t fail me, will you? Only two minutes, and you’ve made me happy forever. Yes, happy. Who knows, perhaps you’ve reconciled me with myself, resolved all my doubts.

When I woke up it seemed to me that some snatch of a tune I had known for a long time, I had heard somewhere before but had forgotten, a melody of great sweetness, was coming back to me now. It seemed to me that it had been trying to emerge from my soul all my life, and only now-

If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don’t need to wish her anything, for she’ll be happy with you. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be for ever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?”
White Nights

“Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery.”

“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”

“Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being.”

“The world says: ‘You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
The Brothers Karamazov

“I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.”
Notes from Underground

“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering…”

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
The Brothers Karamazov

“You can be sincere and still be stupid.”

“If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.”

“I can see the sun, but even if I cannot see the sun, I know that it exists. And to know that the sun is there – that is living.”
The Brothers Karamazov

“It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them — the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas.”

“‘Not one people,’ he began, as though reading it line by line and at the same time continuing to look menacingly at Stavrogin― ‘not one people has yet ordered its life in accordance with the principles of science and reason.  There has never been an instance of it, except only for a moment, out of folly.  Socialism is by its very nature bound to be atheistic because it has proclaimed from the very first that it is an atheistic institution and that it intends to organize itself exclusively on the principles of science and reason.  Reason and science have always, today and from the very beginning of time, played a secondary and subordinate part; and so they will to the end of time.  Peoples are formed and moved by quite a different force, a force that dominates and exercises its authority over them, the origin of which, however, is unknown and inexplicable.  That force is the force of an unquenchable desire to go on to the end and, at the same time, to deny the existence of an end.  It is the force of an incessant and persistent affirmation of its existence and a denial of death.  It is the spirit of life, as the Scripture says, ‘rivers of living water,’ the running dry of which is threatened in Revelation.  It is the aesthetic principle, as the philosophers call it, an ethical principle, with which they identify it, the ‘seeking of God,’ as I call it much more simply.  The purpose of the whole evolution of a nation, in every people and at every period of its existence, is solely the pursuit of God, their God, their very own God, and faith in Him as in the only true one.  God is the synthetic personality of the whole people, taken from its beginning to its end.  It has never happened that all or many peoples should have one common God, but every people has always had its own special one.  The first sign of the decay of nations is when they begin to have common gods.  When gods begin to be common gods, the gods die as well as the faith in them, together with the peoples themselves.  The more powerful a nation, the more individual its god.  There has never yet been a nation without a religion, that is to say, without the conception of good and evil.  Every people has its own conception of good and evil and its own good and evil.  When the conceptions of good and evil become general among many nations, then these nations begin to die out, and the very distinction between good and evil begins to get blurred and to vanish.  Reason has never been able to define good and evil, or even to separate good from evil, not even approximately; on the contrary, it had always mixed them up in a most pitiful and disgraceful fashion; as for science, its solutions have always been based on brute force.  This was particularly true of that half-science, that most terrible scourge of mankind, worse than pestilence, famine, or war, and quite unknown till our present century.  Half-science is a despot such as has never been known before.  A despot that has its own priests and slaves, a despot before whom everybody prostrates himself with love and superstitious dread, such as has been quite inconceivable till now, before whom science itself trembles and surrenders in a shameful way.  These are your own words, Stavrogin, except only what I have said about half-science; that is mine, because I represent only half-science, and that’s why I hate it particularly.  As for your own ideas and even your own words, I haven’t changed anything, not a single word.'”
― Demons

 

The Real Eternal Friday

     They decided to meet at the Chinese restaurant next door to the bowling alley, because the food there was great, and although the bowling alley hosted a league on Thursday nights and got super crowded, almost no one dined in at the restaurant.  Most of the business came from takeout orders, so the four of them could eat and talk in peace.

     Jessica and Sathvik showed up at about the same time and requested the booth in the corner by the window.  “Let me get that for you,” he said, helping remove her coat.  “How’ve you been, Jess?”

     “Oh, not bad.  I have a thousand different things to do by the end of the week, and I haven’t started on any.”

     “Sounds like a typical week, then,” he smiled.

     “Yep, pretty much.  How are you doing, Sathvik?”

     “I’ve got two thousand things to do this week, and I actually have started a few of them.”

     “You overachiever,” she scowled.

     “Really?  You guys want to sit by the window?”  A tall guy with a blonde semi-mohawk stood by the front door.  “Hello, I’m with them,” he waved to the hostess.

     “Stanley, what’s up, broseph?”

     “Sathvik.  Jessica,” he nodded, tossing his jacket on the window ledge.  “Have you guys ordered yet?”

     “What’s wrong with by the window?” asked Jessica.

     “It just feels so… public.”

     “We are in public, restaurants are public places,” said Sathvik.  “No, we haven’t ordered yet.”

     “Let’s get some fried wontons.”

     “Ugh, no thank you.  I’m fat enough as it is.”

     “You’re not fat, Jess.”

     “Yes, I am, Stan.”

     “No, you’re not.”

     “How about spring rolls?  Those are pretty healthy.”

     “Okay.”

     “Sounds good.”  Jessica motioned for the waiter.

     “Are you ready to order?”

     “We’d like some apps, and drinks,” said Stanley.  “Our friend is running a little late.  We’ll wait till he shows up to order our entrées.  Jess, what do you want to drink?”

     “I’ll have wine, please.  Red, merlot, or whatever is cheapest.”

     “Sathvik?”

     “Dr. Pepper, if you have it.”

     “What if they only have Pibb?”

     “We have Dr. Pepper,” said the waiter.  “For you, sir?”

     “I’ll have a Tsingtao.”

     “What if they only have Sapporo?” asked Jessica.

     “Don’t speak,” said Stanley.

     Jake arrived as they were arguing over who should get the last spring roll.  “Sorry, guys, my mom threw a bunch of work at me, like she does every time I go over there.  Hey, is anyone gonna eat that spring roll?”

     As soon as they’d ordered their food they started the meeting.  Sathvik suggested they each take a few minutes to present their work so far, including a brief summary of their sections, their focus, themes, what they’d written, the tone and perspective of their writing, etc., and after everyone had gotten a chance to talk they could address specific concerns and discuss the big picture of the book in light of what they’d heard.

     “My section begins with the last date I had with Laura.”

     “The one when—”

     “Yes, when she broke up with me.”

     “Good call,” said Jessica.

     “I tell it like an action piece, put the reader in my shoes, my mind.  It’s graduation, we’re launching out into the world, no more school, new jobs, high hopes for the future, and then, bam.”

     “Bam.”

     “She drops the H-bomb.”

     “What’s the H-bomb?” asked Stanley.

     “You don’t know what the H-bomb is?”

     “The Hydrogen bomb,” said Sathvik.  “The most destructive weapon known to man.  It’s a metaphor, Stan, she told me she wanted to break up.”

     “She broke his heart,” said Jessica.

     “She crushed my heart.  And that’s how I introduce my life since then.  I talk about my work, the shift from college to career, my social life, my perspective on romance and dating, and go through some of the experiences I’ve had since breaking up with Laura.”

     “It sounds like a journal,” said Stanley.

     “It’s more objective than that.”

     “Do you mention specific people?”

     “I describe a few of the dates I went on.  Where we went, what we discussed, good and bad vibes, how the nights ended.  I changed all the names of course.”

     “How many women have you dated?”

     “Since Laura?  Two, one of whom is… ongoing.”

     “Girlfriend?”

     “Not officially.”

     “Does she know about the book?” asked Jake.

     “Of course.  Alright, who’s next?”  He pointed at Jessica.

     “Why me?”  She rolled her eyes.  “Fine.  I begin with my first kiss.”

     “Aww, how sweet.”

     “Shut up, Stan.  Twelve years-old, my last year at summer camp, spin the bottle with the boys in the pavilion.”

     “What was his name?”

     “None of your business.”

     “Dang, someone’s touchy tonight.”

     “Let her talk, Stan,” Jake grumbled.

     “Thank you.  Start with my first kiss, jump from there to my boyfriends in high school, juxtapose that with the dreams I’d acquired from books, movies, imagination.  I’ve only really outlined the piece so far.  It’s good, but it’s…”

     “Sad.”

     “Miserable.  Quite fitting in fact, for such is my love life.”

     “What about Todd?”

     “I’ll reference that as a transitional period, when I realized not all men are evil.  It’s a work in progress.  I intend to mine a nugget of hope from the dark solitude of my existence.  Okay, who’s next?”

     “Fair enough,” said Sathvik.  “Jake, how about you?”

     “Look at that smile,” laughed Jessica.

     “Y’all already know what my section’s about.”

     “The coolest lady on the planet,” she and Sathvik said in unison.

     “Great, so it’s a love letter,” said Stanley.

     “It’s about love, it isn’t a love letter.”

     “How did you start?”

     “With something my dad told me when I was a kid.  On the way home from junior high one day, he turned to me when we were stopped at a stoplight, and said, ‘Jacob, a man’s got two jobs to do in this world.  Serve the Lord, and love his wife.’  I start with that and go on to talk about Abbie.”

     “What do you focus on?” asked Stanley.

     “Everything.  Her eyes, her hair, her nose, her lips…”

     They all laughed.

     “Do you talk about race at all?” he asked.

     “Here and there.”

     “Why is that important?” asked Jessica.

     “It’s not,” said Stanley, “but it’s interesting.  He’s black, she’s white, it could provide some good material for a book about relationships.”

     “I mention race in my section,” said Sathvik, “the cultural aspect, my parents’ views on dating, establish a background for where I’m at now.”

     “He shouldn’t have to write about race if he doesn’t want to.”

     “I’m not saying he has to, I’m just saying readers might find it interesting.  The conflicts, social stigmas, prejudice, stuff like that.”

     “I get it,” said Jake.  “I considered going that route, but honestly I’d rather make it about Abbie and me, more than about Abbie and me and the world.  We’ve been together for three and a half amazing years, and yeah, the race thing has been a factor, but it’s not what we’re about.”

     The waiter set a large tray holding the group’s entrées on a foldable stand next to the table.  “Moo Shu Pork?  Okay.  Chicken Lo Mein?  Okay.  General Tsao’s Chicken?  Okay.  Mongolian Beef?  Okay.  May I refill your drinks?  Yes.  No.  Yes.  Yes.  Okay, thank you.”

     “This looks uber-delish,” said Jessica.

     “Uber-delish?” said Sathvik.

     “You’re a bunch of uber-dorks,” said Stanley.

     “What are you writing, Stan?” Jake asked as they dug in to their meal.

     “Confessions… of the Studliest Stud in Studderton.”

     “Sounds delightful,” said Jessica.

     “Sounds fictional,” said Sathvik.

     “Very funny, Vik.  No, I’m actually doing a story about the future.  I’m writing about my wife, whoever she is, and how I’d like it to be someday.  We wake up in the morning, eat breakfast together, joke and laugh and kiss each other.  How marriage is supposed to be, you know, through my eyes.”

     “That actually does sound delightful.”

     “What are you going to call it?”

     “The Real Eternal Friday.”

 

The Corner Club Press, Issue 21, Vol. 6

http://thecornerclubpress.weebly.com/issues.html

From Issue 21, Volume 6:

Games
by Robert Lampros

The breath, before the starting whistle,
open air over grass or dust,
teams in formation, crashing forward
in halting visions of their minds,
a stillness captured by the light.

Days when battles stormed the earth
like rumbling torrents of hailing skies,
when shields landed silently
on the dark red ground, survivors
cried to each other, lifting their eyes.

What people do for sport, for glory,
power, money, fame, might haunt them,
cast them in a towering flame,
the victories of yesterday may crumble
into glowing ashes of one’s own shame.

Rising into sight above the field,
does the sun perceive the bodies,
fallen temples of lost and angry souls?
Will the winners sense the shaded eyes,
or feel the warmth that makes us new?

 

The Perfect Day Short Story Contest

The first year of The Perfect Day Short Story Contest is now open and closes for entries December 31, 2017, at 11:59pm CST.

First Prize:  From $0.00 to $25,000 (Depending on contributors)

Word Count:  1500-8000 words

Entry Fee:  Free

Submissions:  Email submissions to rlampros27@yahoo.com by New Year’s Day, 2018.

All stories are welcome, provided they are works of fiction, are previously unpublished, and fall within the designated word count range.  No prize is as yet guaranteed, however the winner will probably get some amount of money (up to $25,000) at some point in time, and the story will probably be published by an established literary journal.  First and second runners-up will probably receive a monetary prize as well, but like I said, nothing is certain.  Entries shall be judged by myself and twelve other qualified, honest, and unbiased readers.  Write from the heart.  All stories are welcome.  Happy writing, and have a blessed 2017.

word, pdf, rtf documents accepted

 

Last Year’s Resolution, Ch. 12

A couple weeks before Solitaire High School’s winter break, Eddie stopped by for a quick talk followed by a question and answer session with the students. The school enrolled about a hundred and fifty kids, who all gathered in the gymnasium with the administration and faculty after lunch.

The principal introduced him as, “Mr. Edmund Stovender, the most talented writer of his generation,” an epithet that embarrassed him but succeeded in rousing the attention of the distracted students. After speaking for half an hour about his childhood in Iowa, his love of books as a teenager, his early career, and the lessons he’d learned from his novels, he concluded on a note of encouragement, stressing the importance of faith and perseverance in one’s quest for achievement in any field. “Does anyone have any questions?”

A young lady in the second to last row raised her hand. “Hi, Mr. Stovender, my name is Margaret, my friends call me Marge. What are you working on now, if you don’t mind telling us?”

“Oh, not at all. It’s a new type of project for me, a medieval science fiction novel about a space knight, Sir Remo Daggenthorp, who travels the galaxy protecting civilizations from attacks by various plagues, predators, invasions, and things. It’s kind of a metaphor for my own spiritual journey. Who’s next? You there in the red hat.”

“How much money you got?”

“Excuse me,” said one of the teachers, “do you mind elaborating on your last statement? How exactly is that a metaphor for your spiritual life?”

“Sure, sure. Well, it’s no secret that there’s a war happening right now, in our country, the world, and the universe, and like any good human I’m trying to do my part to crush the devil. Good vs. evil, Light vs. dark, Love vs. hate, you know how it goes. ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”

“Are the aliens like the locusts from the Book of Revelation?” asked a young man in the first row.

“Not necessarily, although there is a species of mutant condor from the planet Taldrathon which bears certain similarities. No, I think of the alien invaders as evil influences, such as hatred, anger, jealousy, lust, greed, carelessness, unrighteous fear, anything that threatens our peace and safety here… Including the monsters from Revelation, of course.”

“My neighbor saw one on the roof of the Makermart last week. He said it was big, and had giant knife-teeth.” A number of students gasped.

“It’s alright,” he said, “don’t worry about the hell creatures. They can not touch us who have faith. Are there any more questions?”

“How long have you been married to Ms. Altnikov?”

He laughed nervously, “Actually, Marie and I aren’t technically married in the official legal sense of the word, although we do plan to marry soon, at some point. With all the fire and wrath this past summer it’s been difficult to set a date—”

“Christmas,” called Marie, and the students turned and looked.

“Sorry, what?”

“You and me, let’s get married on Christmas.” Shrieks and laughter arose from the crowd.

“Okay, if you wish. Christmas Day. And you’re all invited,” he raised his voice as they broke into cheers and applause. “Everyone in Solitaire is invited!”

“Ed-dee, Ed-dee, Ed-dee, Ed-dee…” They clapped and cheered as he walked over to hug Marie and kiss her cheek on his way out.

“Thank you, students,” he waved from the door. “God bless you all, and God bless America.”

*         *         *

A few days before the wedding she interrupted one of his writing sessions to see if he wanted to go sledding. “Marie, check this out, come here.” On the desk lay an open Bible, an open magazine, and Eddie’s phone with words on the screen.

“What is this, research?”

“Sort of. Not for the book though. Listen to this, Revelation, Chapter 22: ‘In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads.’

“Okay, now listen to this, this is from a story by Vladimir Nabokov they published in The New Yorker a while back: ‘Embracing my shoulders for an instant with his dovelike wings, the angel pronounced a single word, and in his voice I recognized all those beloved, those silenced voices. The word he spoke was so marvelous that, with a sigh, I closed my eyes and bowed my head still lower. The fragrance and the melody of the word spread through my veins, rose like a sun within my brain; the countless cavities within my consciousness caught up and repeated its lustrous edenic song.’

“Now, last one, here are the last two verses of John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’: ‘The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine, but God, who called me here below, will be forever mine. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.’” He took a deep breath and smiled up at her.

“I thought you were working on Nebulaic Stormrider today.”

“I was, I got sidetracked. Did you follow my reading? I think the name of God we receive in the New Jerusalem is going to be like the word in Nabokov’s story, a word of eternal praise to Christ, like John Newton describes, having no boundaries in time or space, and by receiving that name on our foreheads it’s like we merge with Him, and we become eternal too, like divine Light or Spirit.”

“Sure sounds nice,” she nodded.

“It’s better than nice,” he laughed. “It’s… Perfection.”

“Right, perfection. So how about it? You, me, a couple plastic tubs, and a hill full of frozen water. Sound good?”

“You wanna race me?”

“Pshhh, you know I’m gonna race you.”

Eddie stared intensely at her. “You wanna race me?”

She bent down so her face was directly in front of his. “You know I’m gonna race you.”

*         *         *

The days leading up to Christmas were busy and stressful with wedding preparations. Both the ceremony and reception would take place at the highest point in Solitaire, the rooftop of the Makermart Superstore. He paid the tent people and the superstore people an extra twenty-five thousand each and hired the staff of the hardware department to stake an orange safety fence around the roof’s perimeter. He and Marie agreed to spend Christmas Eve apart, so he slept in the guest room of Frank Drummond’s house. Frank was the town sheriff.

 

Happenstance

The arched ceiling lent the public library an air of tranquil liberty, as if it were easier to breathe inside than it was out on the street.  Jerry sat down at one of the large rectangular tables between the rows of bookshelves, removed his notepad, his pocket Thesaurus, and three Bic pens.  This day marked the commencement of a new kind of project for him.  Moderate success as a novelist and short story writer had helped to supplement his VA benefits in recent years, but lately he’d felt like trying something new.  Instead of another suspense novel or historical short fiction collection, he would embark on the creation of an epic poem in the tradition of Homer or Milton, a work to further distinguish him and solidify his literary legacy.

Forests of the Meremac,” he wrote on the top line of his notepad, “Part I.”  While contemplating the first image of the poem he noticed a woman three tables down, staring at him.  A beautiful woman, relatively young, sad-looking, the skin around her eyes slightly puffy as though she had been crying.  Upon making eye contact with him she smiled, awakening a brightness in her face that prompted him to smile back, and kindly nod a greeting.

The woman stood up, passed quietly up the aisle toward him, letting her fingertips graze the cotton fabric on Jerry’s shoulder, then proceeding out the door into the side lot of the library.  After making love to her in his car, he learned that her name was Lana and she worked at the Thai restaurant about a mile away.  She visited the library on her lunch break to enjoy its peace and quiet.  She told him goodbye, she had to get back to work, and maybe she’d see him around sometime.

Returning to the table and unpacking his things, Jerry recommenced the writing of his poem, envisioning the landscapes he’d seen, the oceans, cliffs, rivers, plains, and forests in all the places he’d traveled to throughout the world.  Finding no sufficiently powerful image to begin the piece, he turned to some of the books from which he hoped to draw inspiration.

First, he quoted Homer, the war metaphors of Agamemnon and his soldiers overwhelming the Trojan Army in The Iliad.  “Even as a lion easily crushes the speechless young of a swift deer, coming into its lair, seizing them in its powerful teeth and taking away their tender life—”

Next, he drew from The Odyssey, Circe’s warning to Odysseus to resist the Sirens’ song.  “If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.  There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.”

Third, he recalled the envious cry of Satan upon seeing Adam and Eve for the first time in Paradise Lost.  “Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t/Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps/Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright/Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue/With wonder, and could love, so lively shines/In them Divine resemblance, and such grace/The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.”

Again he tried putting his pen to paper, and again he found no image, nor even one word, to start with.  Opting rather to devote the afternoon to promotional work, he collected his things and drove home to use his office computer.  He lived alone, and that evening he thought of Lana, replaying the details of their encounter outside the library.  He wondered if she might meet him again.  It was possible she’d intended it as a one-time, no strings attached type of connection, although she did say, “See you around,” when they said goodbye.  Jerry scratched the neck of his overfed border collie.  “Same deal tomorrow, Saucer.  We’ll try the poem again tomorrow.”

No sign of her the next day, or the next, or the next, and no matter how he struggled Jerry couldn’t produce a single line of his epic poem.  He’d sit there pondering, for hours some days, mining his intellect for the ideal words, moods, and images to catapult his readers into a grand thrilling adventure.  His fiction had practically written itself in the past, but poetry was different.  With fiction all he had to do was ramble on like he was telling a story to a group of friends around a campfire.  With poems each word had to count, every line had to radiate aesthetic power.

A week of fruitless writing sessions elapsed before he decided to stop by the Thai restaurant where Lana worked.  Worst case scenario, she wouldn’t want to see him and would ask him to leave.  Best case scenario, she’d be happy to see him and would go on a date that very evening.  The restaurant was empty, which wasn’t surprising at two forty-five.  No one at the desk to greet him.  Behind the desk an enormous golden dragon, the length of a small car, sat mounted on a base of elaborately carved jade.  The base rested on a wide cutout in the wall that looked designed to hold an aquarium of exotic fish.  He stood admiring the dragon for a moment, beholding its dynamic posture, intricate features, and shiny gold scales, its blazing yellow eyes fixed on him.

“Can-help you, sir?” a man shouted through the cutout.  One of the cooks, perhaps the only cook, had spotted him from the kitchen.

“Oh, hello.  Is Lana here?  I’m looking for Lana.”

“Lana went home.  She gone today.  Come back, tomorrow.”

“Do you happen to have her phone number?”  Jerry raised his thumb and pinky to his ear.  “Phone number?”

The cook peered over the dragon through the cutout.  “Ah, yes.  Wait a minute.”  A minute later he marched around the wall to hand him a slip of paper.  “Lana house.  You friend.  See you now.  Bye.”

Jerry left, unfolding the paper as he walked down the sidewalk.  It read:  Lana Kendrol, 2103 Sentry St., Apt. 3-D1.  He consulted his phone for directions.

The beige brick building was located in a courtyard with seven other identical buildings.  The buzzer for 3-D1 had a blank plastic strip beside it, and made no sound when Jerry pressed it, so he started up the steps.  Rounding the banister between the second and third floors, the words, “He who does not gather with me scatters,” spray-painted in tall black letters, halted him at the foot of the final set of stairs.  “He who does not gather with me scatters,” he said slowly, lightly wheezing.  The source of the words eluded him.  They reminded him of a bedtime story his grandma used to read.  Scratching his head, he carried on up the stairs and knocked loudly on Lana’s door.  No sound inside, no music or voices, until she appeared.

“Jerry?”

“Hi, Lana,” he smiled.  “I’m sorry to surprise you like this.  You never gave me your number.  The cook at your restaurant, he told me where you live.  I just wanted your phone number, but he—I’m sorry, are you busy right now?”

“Well, it is my day off.  I was trying to relax a bit.  Food service is no joke.  The pay isn’t bad, though.”  Noticing his breathing, she invited him in.

“Nice place,” he said, glancing around the small yet stylishly decorated living room.

“Thank you, sir,” she handed him a beer.  “So what brings you here?”

“Good question,” he laughed.  “I’ve been trying to write this poem, it’s an epic poem, you know, like The Odyssey or Paradise Lost.  That’s what I was doing at the library last week.”

Lana sipped her beer.  “How’s it going so far?”

“Not well.”

“No?”

“No.  For the first time in my career I can’t seem to start the damn thing.  Usually the words just roll out like, like the gears of a clock.”

“Quite the metaphor,” she smiled.

“Simile, actually—not really important.  Look, do you wanna go out sometime?  I had a great time the other day and I’d like to see you again, more formally, hopefully, like a date.”

Lana froze with the glass halfway to her lips.  “Jerry, I have a boyfriend.”

“What?”

“Sorry, yeah, I thought you knew.  What happened last Tuesday was…  I just needed to feel better.”

He sat still for a second as the words sank in.  “You mean your boyfriend doesn’t care if you…”

“It’s not like I tell him about it, but yeah, he knows.  We have an agreement.”

“Huh… Alright.  In that case, I guess I’ll be leaving.”  He set his beer on the table and stood up.

“You’re not upset, are you?”

“Me?  No, why should I be?  I’m sorry to show up like this.”

“Don’t be.  Please.”  Lana’s eyes were kind, sincere.

On his drive home he switched the radio to the Classic Rock station.  He drove slowly, carefully rounding corners, gradually applying the brakes and gas.  One of his all-time favorite songs started playing, and he turned it up until it hurt his ears.  Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better…

 

Fiction, Poems, and Essays

Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

Four novellas, a short story collection, and selected poems and essays comprise this book.  The novellas focus on the lives of protagonists in their teens and twenties who face and overcome impossible, though adventurous, challenges.  The stories and poems reveal aspects of life and nature in unique and inspiring ways, from perspectives centered on Christian faith.  The essays discuss a wide range of topics while blending humor, history, personal observations, and eternal truths of Scripture.

Robert Lampros is an author of Christian poetry, essays, and fiction.  He earned a Bachelor’s in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.  His books include Fits of TranquilityLast Year’s ResolutionUndivided Lines, and Soft on the Devil.