David Carpenter writes urban fantasy with a touch of humor. Learn more about him at the end of this section
Dwayne Harris swung the heavy, six-bar bull gate closed behind his truck. As the local game warden, he didn’t need to ask permission. But as a one-time ranch hand, he considered it a distinct privilege to be allowed to pass through another man’s gate. There was a kind of a mystical aspect to it, a recognition that gates mark boundaries, boundaries that should only be crossed with prudence and respect.
That was especially true here on the Tres Colinas Ranch, a high-desert grassland that flowed gently up to rugged, rock-strewn mountains that rose from the desert floor like islands rising from the sea. It looked desolate, but there was all manner of game here: mule deer and antelope, turkey and quail, along with more exotic animals, like bighorn sheep. The terrain could be deceptive—the open, rolling plain concealed a complex network of gullies, dry creeks and arroyos that had been carved by centuries of late-summer rains.
You could hide almost anything in some of those arroyos.
Dwayne slid back into the driver’s seat, his breath condensing in the cold, dry air. It was still dark, but there was a faint line of red on the eastern horizon. This section of the Tres Colinas was one of the more remote areas butting up against the Sierra Diablo: thirty miles off the highway, plus another hundred to the nearest town. Most poachers knew better than to trespass here, but the lure of bagging an exotic sometimes attracted a darker, more dangerous breed.
His quarry would be just ahead, waiting for daylight. It was an odd time of year for hunters, and odder yet that Felipe Mondragon would give anyone permission to hunt his fifty-thousand-acre spread. The old man fiercely guarded his privacy— even the Feds had to get special permission to enter the property. Legend had it that Felipe once chased a Shell Oil geologist off the ranch with a shotgun.
There was, however, one exception to the rule. The local game warden had unfettered access, based on a century-old arrangement between the Mondragon family and the State of Texas. That warden was hand-picked by Colonel Masterson, Director of Law Enforcement for Texas Parks and Wildlife, and personally approved by Felipe Mondragon. It was a one-of-a-kind appointment, complete with lifetime tenure and a whale of a non-disclosure agreement.
There were a lot of tall tales surrounding the Tres Colinas, ghost stories of hunters who went out and never came back. Hunters who weren’t prepared for some of the weirder things that could be found in the foothills of the Sierra Diablo. Bestias Monstruos, the old-timers called them.
Once, back in the 1980’s, some trophy hunter from Boston offered a much younger Felipe Mondragon a suitcase full of money for an unsupervised hunt. They found the trophy hunter’s empty truck a few days later. The game warden, half a dozen ranch hands and a DPS helicopter scoured the area for a week, but the man’s remains were never found.
Dwayne wasn’t about to let something like that happen again.
He put the big Chevy Silverado into gear and eased on down the rocky, unimproved road, driving slow with the headlights off. After about three miles, he stopped in a low spot and shut down the engine. Like all game wardens, Dwayne preferred to maintain an element of surprise. You could tell a lot about a man’s intentions by how he reacted when a lawman popped up out of nowhere.
The three out-of-staters were standing around their rented Nissan crew cab, facing the sunrise, hands shoved in the pockets of their jeans to ward off the cold. None of them were looking his way. He glided silently around a patch of creosote bushes and approached them from behind.
“How you boys doin’ this mornin’?”
Dwayne’s voice was a basso rumble that climbed up to a pleasant East Texas drawl, and the unexpected sound made all three men jump.
The closest exhaled loudly and exclaimed, “What the hell, mate?”
“Crikey, he’s a big un’, ini’ he?”
“Quiet, you twits. That’s him. The one the clerk told us about. Big Dwayne, the game warden.”
Young, fit, and British. That’s how Molly described them. She ran the Day’s Inn in Van Horn, and had tipped Dwayne off about three strange young men who were talking about hunting the Tres Colinas. There was something about these boys—he couldn’t bring himself to think of them as men, despite the muscles bulging beneath the flannel shirts— that set his instincts buzzing. Young bucks, looking to make their mark. He had seen their kind before, but it had been years since any had ventured into his jurisdiction. Old Man Mondragon had a soft spot for the old days, and if Dwayne’s hunch was right, these young men would be about as old-fashioned as you could get. It was the kind of thing that might make it hard for Felipe to say no.
Dwayne kept a professional smile on his face and an easy-going tone in his voice. Nearly everyone in the county referred to him as ‘Big’ Dwayne, although most were too polite to say it to his face. At six foot six, he towered over the trio of young, athletic-looking Brits.
“Texas game warden, gentlemen. Would you mind showing me your licenses and ID’s?”
They shuffled around, rummaging in a leather satchel that contained their money and documents. Molly claimed that all they had were long guns, but Dwayne kept an eye on their hands anyway, using a flashlight in the pale pre-dawn light. They presented passports instead of driver’s licenses, but everything was in order.
“What you boys gunnin’ for today?”
“Scaled quail.” The tallest of the three grinned up at him, trying to look confident. His passport listed him as James McAvoy. His friends were William Butler and Allan Cumming. All three had just turned eighteen years of age.
“Blues, huh? A little off the beaten track, if you don’t mind my sayin’. But you’re likely to find some, down in that arroyo.”
Butler and Cumming exchanged a furtive glance at the word ‘Blues’.
McAvoy flashed a guileless smile. “My thoughts exactly, officer. Would you mind if I asked, sir, how you knew to look for us here? We were under the impression that this is private property.”
“Word gets around, you know how it is. And you’re right about it being private property. I’m going to need to see your letter.”
“Oh, you mean from Mr. Mondragon? Of course.”
McAvoy pulled a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it over.
Dwayne read it briefly and handed it back. “It doesn’t specify quail. In fact, it doesn’t say anything about what you’re huntin’ today.”
“Oh. Is that a problem?”
“No, not if all you’re gonna to do is shoot a few quail. I’m going to need to take a look at your guns. Are they in the truck, there?”
McAvoy moved quickly towards the truck. “No, sir, we’ve got them here, in the bed. I’ll hand them down to you.” He dropped the tailgate, revealing three shotguns. He handled the weapons with care, opening the action before handing each one over, making sure he kept the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Young Mr. McAvoy was no stranger to firearms.
The guns were all brand-new, TriStar Hunter EX’s, a cheap over-under sold by Wal-Mart. None of them were loaded.
“These guns belong to you?”
McAvoy held up a wrinkled receipt. “Yes, sir. We purchased them in Del Rio.”
“Uh-huh. Let’s have a look at your ammunition.”
Mister Cumming hauled out a crate with half a dozen boxes of shotgun shells inside. “Here, sir. Do you want me to open one up?”
Dwayne checked the label and shook his head. “Nope, these are fine.”
There were three lariats lying in big coils near the back of the truck bed. A pretty common sight in ranch country, but these boys weren’t cowhands. And lariats didn’t usually have hooked chains in place of a loop.
“Everything all right, officer?”
“Yup, you’re good to go for your quail hunt. Just one thing, though—I’m gonna need to take a look inside that truck.”
Any doubts Dwayne might have had were instantly banished by the look on McAvoy’s face.
“Ah, inside the truck, sir? Well, ah, I--”
The tow-headed one, the one named Butler, stepped off to the side and pulled a small stick from his sleeve. He pointed it at Dwayne and began muttering in what sounded like Latin.
Dwayne covered the distance in one long, sudden stride and dropped a hand the size of a shovel on Butler’s shoulder. Butler stared up at him in wide-eyed amazement, his weird chant frozen in mid-word.
“Mr. Butler, I’m gonna have to ask you to stop doin’ that.”
He snatched the stick out of the young man’s hand as easily as he might have taken it from a child, tucking it into his belt with one quick, efficient motion. Butler tried to twist away and gasped in pain as the warden clamped down on his shoulder. Dwayne’s other hand moved to the butt of his sidearm. “You boys step over there where I can keep an eye on you. You too, Mister Butler. And keep your hands where I can see them. “
Dwayne had a pretty good idea what he was dealing with now, sure enough to forgo cuffing and frisking them. These young gentlemen weren’t used to being recognized; Butler had assumed he could finesse the situation. But they weren’t likely to try anything serious— Virtue, Chivalry, and Service was their motto. Or soon would be if they managed to pass their test.
McAvoy tried to smooth things over.
“Sir, I apologize for this unfortunate misunderstanding--”
Dwayne cut him off.
“Interferin’ with a law officer is a serious offense, gentlemen. Am I makin’ myself clear?”
They nodded glumly as he opened the door and began rummaging around on the back seat. He grunted and pulled out a sheathed long sword.
“Who does this belong to?”
Allan Cumming raised a hesitant hand.
“Vorpal blades are not allowed in the Sierra Diablo, Mister Cumming. I’m afraid I’m gonna have to confiscate it, along with Mr. Butler’s wand. I’ll write you out a receipt, and you can take it up with Judge DeLeon if you feel like contesting it.” He waved a hand at the truck. “The enchanted crossbow is a gray area, but according to the Scottish Addenda of 1840, that’s at my discretion, and I’m gonna allow it. The rest of it’s fine, although your chain mail is a little on the puny side, if you don’t mind my sayin’.”
McAvoy and his companions gaped at him and then at each other. “You know what a Vorpal Blade is?”
“I guess you could say I know a thing or two about the Order of Saint George. Been a while, though. You boys part of a new crop of Initiates? Uh-huh, thought so. All right, I’m going to need to see your huntin’ license. The other one.”
The three Initiates exchanged glances, then McAvoy fetched the leather satchel. Inside was a small piece of rolled parchment, covered in sigils and signed with a wax seal.
Dwayne examined it carefully, nodded, and handed it back. These boys were green, but they had a valid license, and Felipe had given his permission. And the Order wouldn’t have sent them here if they weren’t ready.
“All right, gentlemen. This license is good for catch-and-release only, and that means no souvenirs, not even a claw or a scale. Just so you know, I’ll be keepin’ an eye on you, and Judge DeLeon goes pretty hard on that sort of thing. Mister Butler—”
“Sir?” Butler was trying to take it like a man, but he couldn’t keep a faint quaver out of his voice.
“I’d be within my rights to arrest you for assault on a law officer. It doesn’t matter one bit that it was just a Spell of Lesser Deceit.”
Butler looked sad. “Yes, sir.”
“But if I arrested every two-bit yahoo who tried to lie to me, Judge DeLeon would run out of space in his jail. So I’m gonna let it go, this time. But you can pretty much kiss that wand of yours goodbye. Are we clear? Good.”
Dwayne tucked the longsword under his arm and wrote them a receipt for their confiscated property, along with a warning citation for William Butler.
“Now listen up. You want to hunt rock dragons, you’ve come to the right place. They’re ambush predators and are well-nigh impossible to spot in some of these stone formations, so keep your eyes open and your wits about you. If you do manage to find one it pays to remember that they have a real short temper. A typical specimen in the Sierra Diablo will weigh in at around twelve hundred pounds, and their scales will turn anything from a longsword to a thirty-ought-six, but they will go down if you can clap ‘em on the back of the head hard enough. You can expect to get roughed up some, there’s a pretty good emergency clinic in Van Horn, if it comes to that. But-- “He pointed his index finger at them “-- if you see something with a blue frill, you turn around and go the other way. You hear me?” The big man chuckled. “You mess with Old Blue and he’ll eat the three of you for breakfast. Chain mail and all.”
He left them gaping open-mouthed as he strode back into the brush, maintaining the illusion that on the Tres Colinas, a Texas Game Warden can appear anywhere, at any time, from any direction.
Especially when that Game Warden happens to be Big Dwayne Harris.
It had been a bad year, a year spent hunkered down while the worst epidemic in a century cut a nasty swath through family and friends.
But I had made myself a promise, all those years ago, so here I was. Again. In a silent, wintery graveyard hundreds of miles from home, shuffling through four inches of snow to a marker I always had to look for.
You'd think I'd remember after visiting the thing 29 times.
The sky was low and gray, a jumbled mass of dark, swollen clouds that seemed to fade into a haze of tiny snow crystals that hung motionless in the air like an icy fog, reducing the grave markers to shadowy lumps of brown, gray, and white. In this light, the dim shapes all looked alike; I had to peer and squint to make out the inscriptions.
I stubbed my toe on something, causing my sciatica to flare, which sent a sharp pain shooting up my leg. I still wasn't used to it—it had been a little over a month since I hurt one of the discs in my back. I had been taking down Christmas decorations when I fell off the stepladder and twisted, trying to protect my knee, which I had hurt the week before. I blamed it on the ladder; my wife thought it was because I was starting to get old and needed to be more careful.
Like I said, it had been a bad year.
But bad year or not, I was here, limping through four inches of crunchy graveyard snow, looking for a particular marker. A small unpolished granite stone, with a simple inscription that was burned into my memory:
Born: September 16, 1970
Died: February 25, 1991
Jeremy was a veteran, but the marker didn't mention it. His mother didn't want any references to the Army on her boy's grave. Can't say that I blame her: the Army was responsible for his death.
I know, because I was there.
He was my squad mate, but we didn't have much in common. Under normal circumstances, I would never have considered him a friend—he was a goofball with crooked teeth and a weird sense of humor. But we deployed together, so I came to know him fairly well.
His death wasn't particularly heroic. Our squad was working a mortar when something went wrong, and the round exploded in the launch tube.
Jeremy went down, riddled with shrapnel. Three or four others went down at the same time, but Jeremy caught most of it.
I was half deafened by the blast, but I did what I could—I got up off the ground, dragged him to the Humvee, and tried to stop the bleeding. I got a medal for it.
Jeremy died, and I got a medal.
Turned out I had been hit, too, but in the heat of the moment, I hadn't noticed.
I wasn't able to make it to the funeral, but I had made the trip to the cemetery every year since.
I spotted the marker and shuffled over to it, being careful not to slip and fall.
A squirrel was sitting on the gutter of a nearby mausoleum, its fluffed-up neck fur covered in a loose collar of snow, peering down on me with hard, beady black eyes.
I recognized it right away: it was my spirit guide, the totem and symbolic guardian of my clan. At least, that's what he said he was. My shrink says he's just a projection of my subconscious. He's probably right—I mean, come on, everyone knows that squirrels can't really talk. But this particular squirrel had given me some pretty good advice, so I was curious about what he was going to say this time.
I gazed up at what was probably a figment of my imagination. "You again."
"Can it wait?" I nodded at the headstone. "There's something I need to do."
"I know. That's why I'm here."
I turned and stared down at the stone, fingering the Commendation Medal in the pocket of my jacket. I hated that medal: most of the time it resided in the big plastic box I kept in the attic. But once a year, come Hell or high water, I got it out, put it in the pocket of my jacket, and drove four and a half hours to this lonely little cemetery.
So I could stand here and remember Jeremy Putts on the anniversary of his death. I never said anything because there was nothing to say. I would just stand there, thinking about Jeremy, the explosion, and its aftermath until my feet got cold. When it reached the point where I couldn't stop shivering, I'd get back in the car, crank up the heater and drive home again.
But today was different: the squirrel was here.
And it was looking at me. I could feel those beady little eyes boring into the back of my skull.
I turned around and glared up at it. "What?"
"You gotta say the words, man."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't give me that. You know exactly what I'm talking about."
The squirrel leaped to the ground and scurried over, paws flinging bits of snow behind it.
It hopped up on the gravestone, whiskers and tail twitching, breaking the gloomy spell that the dark, sullen landscape had cast on me.
Which irritated the hell out of me. Cemeteries are supposed to be sad.
"Look at me."
I met his gaze and found myself staring into two tiny little voids of black.
"Say it." The squirrel hopped to the left side of the stone. "Go on, say it."
I looked down at the inscription and sighed. "I should have done more."
The squirrel hopped on the right side of the stone- "But?"
"You know what. "
I sighed again, reliving memories of my hands, slippery with blood, desperately trying to apply pressure as the light faded from his eyes.
My voice cracked a little as tears welled up.
"I did the best I could."
The squirrel hopped back to the left side and hit me with the stare again.
"Nope. Try again."
I blinked rapidly, the cold stinging my now-wet eyes. I choked a little as I said the words.
"I'm sorry you're dead. I should have done more."
It hopped back to the right, tail twitching.
The squirrel was right—I knew what I needed to say. But it had always seemed too trivial, too trite, too inadequate to mean anything. I gazed down at the stone.
"Forgive me, brother."
The world blurred as the tears poured forth in earnest.
It was weird—until this moment, I hadn't realized just how badly I needed to say that. Jeremy had been torn up inside; the only thing that could have saved him was a full-blown medical team. A medivac was on the way, but it didn't get there in time. Intellectually, I had always known that. But I hadn't believed it. Not really.
Deep down, I had always felt guilty about Jeremy. I failed, and he died, end of story.
I pulled my hands out of my pockets, took a breath, went down on one knee, and gently placed the medal at the foot of the gravestone.
And then I straightened up, staring at what I had done. I'm not sure why, but it felt right. This is where the damn thing belonged: in a graveyard.
I wiped my eyes and heaved a heavy sigh. "Rest in peace, bro."
The tears welled up again. But then, in the middle of the hazy blur, I saw Jeremy nodding at me.
It was just for a split second: I blinked, and he was gone. When I looked up, the squirrel was gone, too.
I glanced around. I was alone, standing all by myself in the middle of a snowy field of cold, silent tombstones.
Which was reassuring, in an odd kind of way.
I took one last look at the inscription. I didn't need to see this anymore: I was never going to forget Jeremy. I would carry the memory of that gap-toothed goofball until I was laid into a grave of my own.
I squared my shoulders, turned around, and started limping back to my car.
My feet weren't cold yet, but I had done what I came here to do. It was time to move on.
"Monica and Jerry are assholes."
It had been two weeks, and I was still muttering about my feud at work when I climbed up the tree with a chainsaw. They were the ones who had screwed up, but I was the one who ended up on the hook for it. It had taken me over twenty hours to clean up their mess. Twenty unpaid, uncredited, working-while-everyone-else-goes-home hours. A whole weekend, shot to hell. The anger welled up, making it made it hard to focus.
And lack of focus was something that a man in my position could not afford.
Because I was eight feet off the ground, gingerly climbing an extension ladder propped against the big oak tree in my front yard. I'm afraid of heights, so for me, the top of a ladder is not a good place to be. But a windstorm had damaged one of the branches, and I didn't feel like paying two hundred bucks for a tree service.
I was perched precariously with one foot on the second-to-last rung, clutching my chain saw and reaching a shaky hand for what I hoped was a sturdy branch, when I looked up to see a squirrel sitting six inches in front of my face.
I froze in shock, standing perfectly still while a battle raged between my fear of heights and my instinct to jump.
Fear of heights won.
"Whoa! Just take it easy, there, fella,” the squirrel said. “I'm here to help.”
An eerie, almost lethargic sense of calm settled over me. “Huh. A squirrel that talks.”
“Hey, I’m not just any squirrel, kid. I'm an extra-special, once-in-a-lifetime magical squirrel."
I squinted at it. It had been thirty or forty years since anyone called me 'kid'. "Magical, huh?"
"That's right. And today's your lucky day, because I'm here to do you a favor."
"Uh-huh." I stepped down to a more secure position and rubbed my forehead with my free hand. I had never had a hallucination before. I wondered if my insurance would cover a psychotic episode. Probably not. Maybe I could claim it was the result of migraines. It was October, that lovely time of year when my head hurts non-stop every time a cold front blows through. I could blame it on the migraines, and maybe get an MRI.
Yeah, I should definitely get an MRI.
"Hey, fat boy! Look at me! Yeah, I'm talking to you, pal."
I shifted my feet on the rungs. The talking rodent was right, I needed to lose some weight. I hadn't been on the ladder five minutes and my feet were already starting to ache. I looked up at the splintered branch. Is it okay to use an electric chainsaw when you're hallucinating?
The squirrel snapped its fingers. "Hey! You're not going to fall off the ladder, are you? Nah, I would know it if you were."
"And how would you know that?"
Wait, it had fingers? I squinted at it again, trying to get a look at its paws. I don't wear glasses, but I probably should, it was a strain to focus on something so close. Why was my hallucination out of focus?
"Never mind, you wouldn't understand. Look, let's cut to the chase. You know that feud you're having at work? The one with Monica and Jerry? You need to let that shit go, man."
"Are you kidding me? After what they did? No way."
"Way. You need to let it go. And get yourself some glasses, you're walking around squinting at the world, not seeing jack." It held up a paw. "How many fingers am I holding up?" It chittered out a laugh. "Just kidding. But seriously, get your ass to an optometrist. And do the right thing, make nice with Monica and Jerry."
"Oh, right. And why should I take advice from a talking squirrel? You don't even exist."
"I'm your totem animal, dimwit, the sacred guardian of your clan and its soul-steering spiritual guide. This feud is eating you up, making you into an even bigger asshole than usual. You're taking it out on everyone around you, including your wife. Honestly, I don't know how she puts up with you."
"Of course you don't. Because you— " I poked a finger in his face " are just— a figment— of my imagination." I found myself swaying on the ladder, and immediately made a panicked grab for the tree.
"I've been trying to go easy on you, pal, but I can see that ‘easy’ isn't going to work."
It cocked its head and glared at me with its flinty black eyes, causing a chill to run up my spine. All the nasty remarks and mean-spirited gestures I had inflicted on the world over the previous two weeks flashed through my mind, an odious Parade of Awfulness that lasted less than a second but left me feeling nauseous and more than a little ashamed.
Monica and Jerry had made a mistake. And I had been a complete asshole about it. To everyone. For two whole weeks.
"About time the light came on. You get it now, right?"
"Then my work here is done. You know, I like you, kid. You're adorably clueless, but never in a boring way. More of a weird and awkward kind of thing."
"It's all good. But I wouldn't turn down some pecans, if you happen to come across some."
And with a flick of its tail it was gone, leaving me with wobbly legs and a lot to think about.
The next day I buried the hatchet with Monica and Jerry, basically by owning up to my bad behavior and asking for their forgiveness, which they willingly gave. They made a big deal of it, actually. Told me how grateful they were for all the extra work I had done. And they made a point of saying that in front of everybody, including the boss. I still blush a little whenever I think about it.
Everything's cool at work now, people don’t look the other way when they see me coming.
I went to a cut-rate optometrist and got a pair of glasses. Bifocals. I never wear them, but they're on the shelf by the TV if I ever need them. I'm still fat and I still get migraines, but the MRI came up clean, and the insurance company paid for it.
The doctor said my 'vision' was probably the result of stress and sleep deprivation. He wrote me a prescription that I didn't bother to fill.
I know what I saw.
What I did do was buy a big bag of unshelled pecans and put them in a bucket underneath the oak tree.
You know, for the squirrels.
Squirrels can't talk. Everyone knows that.
But maybe sometimes they can. There’s an exception to everything, right?
Because there is one in front of me right now, sitting on a branch, nodding his head at a grey, yellow-breasted bird that is chirping away at him.
"Uh-huh. Oh, that's awful."
I recognize the voice. It is the squirrel from the oak tree in my front yard.
Only that isn’t possible. The talking squirrel in the tree had been some kind of hallucination. It had spouted a line of nonsense about being my totem animal, the sacred guardian of my clan, my soul-steering guide to the spirit world. And then it told me to clean up my act. Transference, the shrink called it. Projecting my real-world problems onto an imaginary rodent.
Thing is, it gave me some pretty good advice. Which I took. And my life got noticeably better as a result.
Hence the shrink.
And now my little furry hallucination is back, carrying on a one-sided conversation with a bird.
I try to get closer and discover I can’t move. This is a dream. Just a stupid dream.
The squirrel swivels its head. "About time you figured that out."
It turns its attention back to the bird, nodding and responding with sympathetic noises to a cascading series of whistles and chirps.
I try to wake up. I pinch myself and it hurts. What does it mean if your dream feels real, but you can't wake up?
The bird flutters away, lost in a blur of dusky wings.
The squirrel fixes me with a flinty-eyed stare. "You catch all that, pal?"
"Huh? You mean the bird noise?"
"Bird? Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget you can’t see things as they really are. That was Chat, one of my fellow spirit guides. "
"As in Yellow-Breasted, get it?"
I most certainly do not get it but decide to play along. "So, what did Chat say?"
"You have a problem, pal. A big one."
I sigh. "What is it this time?"
"Unfinished business. From way back. It’s holding up your spiritual growth, so you need to clean it up, pronto. "
"You're going to have to be a little more specific."
It speaks slowly and distinctly, like it’s talking to a moron. "Un.Finished.Business."
"Oh, come on! That could be anything."
"It's your dream, pal. Figure it out."
There is an audible click and my wake-up alarm starts blaring.
Ever had a dream that was so vivid you can't get it out of your head? I spend the rest of the morning trying to forget it, to no avail.
It is bugging me, so I stay at my desk for lunch break, drinking diet Cokes and chugging peanut M&M's while I watch funny cat videos on the Internet. You know, trying to shake myself out of it.
And then, when that doesn’t work, I do a search for 'Yellow-Breasted Chats'.
A whole page of images comes up, showing yellow-chested birds taken from various angles, along with cautions not to confuse them with New World Warblers. I click on the first image. It is a promotional shot for the local library, which is co-hosting the Thirty-First Annual Chat Roundup at a nearby park.
Thirty-one years. A cold, prickly line of goosebumps goes up the back of my neck.
I know that library, it’s in the neighborhood I grew up in. And I have unfinished business there, something I have never told anyone, ever. Something I buried a long time ago.
Something I wanted to forget.
When I go home, I go straight to the garage and climb up into the attic, slithering through a hot, narrow space filled with cardboard boxes, boxes that are bulging with things I no longer want or need. Things I spent good money on, and which therefore cannot be thrown away.
But over there, in the corner, is the big, heavy-duty plastic box, the one that contains old high school yearbooks, a letter jacket from college, and other assorted junk that, for one reason or another, has acquired sentimental value. Stuff that money can’t buy.
I squat over it, shoulders hunched up against the rafters, lungs rasping from the dust. There is a whoosh of air when I unseal the lid. The plastic is dull and faded on the outside, but on the inside, it is still as smooth and shiny as the day it was made. It isn’t much to look at, but there was a time when I kept pretty much everything I owned in it.
There are some old photographs on top, color prints that are hardly faded at all, pictures of a much younger me smiling at the camera. I resist the urge to go through them, plunging my hands down through the layers, down to the dreck that lies at the absolute bottom of every barrel.
There is a book there, with an old, crackly plastic dust cover. I pull it out and squint at it.
The Influence of Sea Power on History, by Alfred Thayer Mahan.
A library book, checked out from my old neighborhood library. Checked out, but never returned.
There is a little piece of paper stuck between the pages, with the due date printed on it. Nothing special about that date, except for the fact it was the same year my dad lost his job, and a few days before we got evicted from our house.
We ended up living in a windowless one-room apartment in the back of an upholstery shop.
I lost the book during the move.
And then, months later, when I found it again, I was too embarrassed to take it back. I had never gone back, to any library in the city. Ever.
But I kept the book. Through senior year in high school, my hitch in the Army, then college, my marriage and career. I kept it.
Buried at the bottom of the big plastic box.
I heft it, feeling the weight of it as sweat trickles down my face.
This has gone on long enough; it is time to pay the piper.
I crawl down out of the attic, get in my car, and return to the scene of the crime.
The place hasn’t changed much. The brickwork is worn in places, and a couple of trees have gone missing, but the layout is the same.
I march solemnly up to the desk, take a deep breath, and place the book in front of the librarian.
"I would like to return an overdue book."
She glances at it, frowns and then flips open the back cover. There is an empty pocket for a signature card, which libraries no longer use. She raises an eyebrow.
"Been a while, has it?"
I look down at my shoes. "Yes, ma'am."
She turns to her keyboard and rattles away for a moment, pauses, and then rattles some more.
There is a bulletin board behind her, with pictures of Yellow Breasted Chats and posters promoting the Audobon's 31st Annual Chat Roundup. It started the exact same year I checked out the book.
One of the pictures includes a squirrel, which is staring straight into the camera, making it seem that he is staring straight at me.
"We no longer show this book in the system."
"Huh? Oh. How much is the fine?"
She shrugs. "It's not in the system."
The bulletin board squirrel’s relentless black-eyed stare makes it hard to think.
"Oh. Well, uh, I guess I really ought to pay something..."
She shakes her head. "Sir, we don't show this book in the system. There's no way to calculate a fine."
"How about a replacement cost?"
She gives me a long, cool look and then rattles around on the keyboard again.
"The current volume is listed at 37 dollars and ninety-one cents."
"I'll pay that."
She doesn’t say a word as I count out the money, but she does give me a receipt.
And she does keep the book. She obviously doesn’t want it, but she keeps it.
Because, being a librarian, she understands. This isn’t about the book. It’s about unfinished business, and I am finally free of it.
Squirrels can't talk. I know it, you know, it, we all know it. That’s not in dispute, okay?
But as I turn to go, I could swear that squirrel on the bulletin board winks at me.
My name is David Carpenter: Writer of stories, adopter of cats, player of games. Graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy with a second degree from the university formerly known as Corpus Christi State. After a stint in the Coast Guard I became a computer programmer, a choice that I enjoyed but would not recommend for normal people. I live in Corpus Christi, Texas and write urban fantasy with a touch of humor
Dennis Denman grew up in a rural setting in the Calallen/Annaville area of Corpus Christi. He has been a veterinarian in the Corpus Christi area since 1974.
I drove west through the small towns of Banquete and Agua Dulce and turned on a Farm-to-Market road and drove another four or five miles. I passed the shop and farm house and turned into the entrance to the ranch headquarters on the opposite side of the road. I drove over the cattle guard, through the front pasture with the windmill, over another cattle guard past a hay lot, and over two low water crossings on the creek and then over another cattle guard. On my right were the cattle pens and to my left the office and ranch house. I went into the office and visited with the rancher for a few minutes, and then he got into his pickup and I got into my van to go check the cow.
I followed the rancher’s pickup as we drove back to the front pasture and then turned off the caliche road and went to the far north end of the pasture. Not too far from the fence on the north side of the pasture lay the heifer I was to examine. The rancher pulled up about thirty feet from her. I stopped my van, and we both got out. The heifer had difficulty calving a month earlier and had damaged the nerves to her rear legs in the process. She had the calf on her own, but could not get up after calving due to the nerve damage. We had examined the heifer after she calved and given appropriate medications to see if she would recover from the nerve damage. The ranch hands had even built a shelter out of T-posts, cattle panels, and tarps to protect her from bad weather, but they had moved her out of the shelter since the weather had been nice for several days. They had fed and watered her daily and moved her and cleaned around her when they checked on her every day... Read the rest in CCW2023 on Amazon or Barnes & Noble
“What if?” Those two words all too easily send Devorah Fox spinning into flights of fancy. She is the author of the best-selling The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam literary fantasy series and many other books. More about Devorah at the end of this section.
I am fine. Maybe even a little excited. Yes, though I am afraid, I am also curious about what lies ahead. There will be doubt, there will be pain, I know. Reluctance, resistance, even rebellion. I expect that. One does not seek to conquer so potent a force as desire without a struggle. Desire is a cruel master that in ruling my life has ruined my life, forcing me to do things and make choices that led me away from perfect peace. But conquer it I will. I must, if I am to live. Here in this cell, devoid of distractions of any kind, I will wrestle with desire, until one of us emerges the victor.
Though I am naked I am not cold. The room is at a temperate constant. Though there are no lamps, it is not completely dark. A sliver of light from the corridor glows in the crack between the floor and the door, which is locked from the outside. With this light, I can assess my surroundings. They are as I requested: bare. There is nothing on the smooth, matte, bone-colored walls. No furniture, so I sit on the floor. The pale vinyl tile is hard and unyielding under my bones, and clammy. It does not absorb my perspiration. But this is a minor discomfort.
He was going to have to kill her. He didn’t know her name, where she came from, what she did, what she was doing in this hotel, or even what she looked like, although he could imagine. A big woman. Puffy face. Piggy eyes. Thin bleached-out hair. Of course, she might not look like that at all. He didn’t know; he hadn’t seen her yet. It didn’t matter. None of it—her appearance, her occupation, her reason for being in the room next to his—had anything to do with why he had to kill her.
He lay on the hotel bed and stared. Room-darkening drapes produced a dense blackness against which he could project the pictures he saw in his mind. He had never killed anyone before—or should he say yet, since it seemed he would have to kill her. But he didn’t doubt he could. He achieved every goal he or anyone else set for him. He had earned his moniker, The Closer.
How would he do it? Shoot her? No, too noisy. And—admit it, he told himself—too quick. Yes, he wanted her to suffer, as he had suffered. So, poison? Too remote, too impersonal. He wanted her to know as she died who was the agent of her death. He wanted to see her pupils widen with comprehension before death turned her eyes to glass. Strangling, then?
The Closer imagined his hands around her throat. A fat woman like her, the neck would be fleshy and thick. He would have to squeeze until his fingertips went white and his wrists ached. Would she make a noise? How would that sound? Like the throttled gurgling she made now, as she lay snoring in the room next door, unaware of his growing fury?
Stab her, then. Or cut her cursed blubbery throat. There’d be no noise that way.
Long into the night, The Closer lay awake entertaining himself with such fantasies, while under the surface his rage festered.
It seemed he had gotten to sleep only minutes ago when the wake-up call roused him. He might as well not have slept for all the good it did him. He hated having to face the day not well-rested. Lack of sleep slowed his reactions and thought processes. It wouldn’t jeopardize his success. He would prevail despite his fatigue but it would make his work harder. Damn her for keeping him awake!
He picked up the attaché case, left his room, and called the elevator. No sooner had a bell chimed to signal its arrival, the door of the room next to his opened. She stepped out, the woman who had robbed him of his sleep, stolen his night.
“Oh, hold that, please,” she called, and hurried to join him in the tall, narrow car.
She was not fat and piggy-faced. Instead, she was petite with sleekly-styled hair. Her pink lips smiled at him, albeit tentatively, and almond-shaped brown eyes, though friendly, betrayed a hint of unease. She gripped the handle of her purse with both hands and he wondered if she had perceived his enmity. It had been strong enough to penetrate the thin wall separating their rooms.
Under other circumstances, he would have made a play for her, although a woman as attractive as she was unlikely to go for someone like him. He bore no illusions about his homeliness: medium build, thin brown hair, brown eyes in an almost soft, clean-shaven face. Nor did he resent it. His unspectacular looks aided him in his work.
He strode to the front desk. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her exit the hotel. The draft from the rotating door fluttered the skirt of her silky dress. He turned to the front desk man and asked, “The lady in 410, is she staying another night?”
The clerk smiled and nodded. “She booked it for a week, Romeo.”
She may have, The Closer thought. Nevertheless, tomorrow someone else would occupy Room 410.
It was late evening when The Closer stepped from the elevator into the fourth-floor corridor. Once again, he had proved he was aptly named, though it had cost him a long day with no time to stop even for meals. He’d been too busy to give the woman in 410 a moment’s thought, but as he passed her door he tensed. His brain flooded with the images he had conjured last night. Before this night was over, he would take action. First, he absolutely had to get some sleep.
The scream was unlike anything he had heard before, the last desperate cry of a helpless animal facing its inescapable extermination. The wailing went on long past the moment it yanked him upright in his bed, continued uninterrupted as he sprinted from his room. Hair standing on end from the sheer terror in the scream, he pounded on the door to Room 410.
“Miss, are you all right?” he called. No response. He rattled the doorknob. Locked! He hurled himself at the wooden panel. It wouldn’t budge and still she screamed. Aiming his shoulder at the door, he rammed it with a strength he didn’t know he possessed. The wood cracked. He flung the shards aside and stepped through. Moonlight from the uncurtained window spotlighted her where she lay in bed, screaming still. He raced to her.
“Miss! Miss!” He clasped her shoulders and shook her.
Her eyes opened. She stared at him unseeing but the scream did stop. Several minutes passed while she gasped for breath and her eyes lost their unfocused look. “Oh, it’s you. I, I—”
“What was it?” The Closer asked. “A nightmare?”
She shook her tousled head. “More like night terrors. I dreamed I was being slashed.”
The Closer felt his face grow warm with embarrassment as he remembered his murderous fantasy from last night. From what dark corner of his soul had those vivid homicidal visions come?
“It went on and on, I was powerless to escape.” She took several deep breaths. “I guess I’m worried about going ‘under the knife.’ I’m having surgery tomorrow. For sleep apnea. It gives me the most awful snoring.” Her eyelids lowered. “Perhaps you heard me. I know it can get very loud.”
“Yes, I heard you,” he replied. “Kept me up all last night. I thought if it continued another night I was going to have to kill you.” He chuckled. “Or at least get you to change rooms. I’m a traveling salesman, I need my sleep.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I will switch rooms if you like. But I hope to be getting better. I’m in town to see an otolaryngologist, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist. He’ll perform an operation that should help.”
“I’m sure everything will go just fine. Don’t worry,” said The Closer.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she replied. “Again, I apologize. I will change rooms. Right now.” She reached for the bedside phone.
He caught her still trembling hand. “Oh no, you don’t. I wouldn’t be able to keep tabs on you that way.”
She dipped her head. When she raised it, her eyes were bright and merry. “You’re an angel. How can I ever repay you?”
“Have dinner with me? As soon as you recuperate? I’ll be in town all week.”
“I’d like nothing better,” she replied.
“You’ve got it, Pretty Lady.” He smiled. Another deal consummated. Yessir, they didn’t call him The Closer for nothing.
If I failed to submit my story on time, I'd never get a chance like this again. The deadline loomed, but I couldn't be more firmly stymied if I were cast in quick-drying cement. I couldn't squeeze out another syllable if my life depended on it. My life didn't, but the opportunity sure did. I'd accepted an invitation to contribute to an anthology. My first publication credit! My writing career would only go up from here. I was nearly done but needed a killer ending, something to resonate with readers. The closing date for submissions hanging over my shoulder cast a shadow on my keyboard. I felt the deadline's hot breath on the back of my neck.
I fired up my work playlist, jazz instrumentals that I find relaxing and freeing, but I did more chair-dancing than writing. I left my living room writing niche and fixed my favorite coffee. The legend on the mug mocked me—Writer's Block: When Your Imaginary Friends Won't Talk To You. I tried all my trusty block-breaking tricks to no avail.
I wiped my brow with the sleeve of my chambray shirt. A light tee shirt would be more comfortable in the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity of a South Texas summer day but the heavier shirt's tight weave made a better barrier against the ferocious mosquitos. It had taken days for the ground to absorb all the standing water from Hurricane Harvey. The pests hatched in droves. Floodwaters flushed rattlesnakes and fire ants from their homes just as Category-4 force winds and twelve feet of storm surge had driven us Port Aransas residents from ours.
Parched, I grabbed my water bottle. As I sipped, I spotted a figure approaching from the end of the street. My pulse quickened. Few who lived in my Beachside subdivision had returned from evacuation. In the motel to which I fled for two weeks, I learned about looters and squatters who descended on our small city to take advantage of empty and unsecured homes. Did this person have bad intent? Should I confront him? Lock myself in the house and call the police?
He drew closer. Through the dust and haze I recognized the figure. I sighed with relief and greeted him. “Hi, Elmore.” Sweat dampened his tee shirt Dirt clung to his boots and jeans. White hair poked out from the stained sweatband of his sun-bleached Dallas Cowboys ball cap.
She unlocked the door to the business office, housed in an old, wood-framed cabin separate from the main resort building. The inn’s owner felt that there was no point in wasting expensive showy real estate on mere staff so no highly polished wood floors, no roaring fireplaces, or sparkling crystal chandeliers for them. Instead, Candy's storm boots squeaked on a worn linoleum floor. A balky fluorescent light sputtered overhead and the steam radiator clanked and wheezed.
That wasn't right. The lights should be off, the heat turned down. Normally Candy was the first one in. She turned everything on. Someone else must have gotten here first. Certainly, it wasn't any other member of the staff. No one but she ever came in early, ever spent a single minute more than necessary here.
The door to her boss's office was ajar. Sleink himself in early? Incredible, Candy thought.
“Good morning, Sir,” Candy called. No response, but that didn't surprise her. It was appropriate for her to greet him but he wouldn't lower himself to return the gesture.
Candy sat at her old desk in the reception area, pulled off her boots, and slipped her heels on. She stuffed her gloves into the pocket of her winter coat and hung it on the back of her chair. There was coffee in the pot by the door. Noticing the lack of aroma, she touched the pot and found it cold. Leftover from last night, she decided. Heaven forbid Sleink should make a fresh pot. After all, that was her job, along with handling the phone, typing, and filing, if that all didn't get in the way of her primary duties, like fetching ink from Greenfield.
“I'm going to get some water for coffee,” Candy called. She took the pot down the hall to the ladies room. As she rinsed it out in the sink, she made a face at herself in the mirror. “You gutless wonder, Candy Wadsen,” she scolded herself. “If you had any spine at all you'd tell Sleink to make his own coffee. Shouldn't be beyond his talents.”
The face in the mirror frowned back at her with anger in its brown eyes. Oh, but it might interfere with his precious work was the retort. Or to be more precise, his precious hobbies. Sleink was a collector. First it was pocket knives. Next it was scissors. Then it was letter openers. Lately, he was into fountain pens. Just yesterday he had almost giggled with something approaching glee when a new catalog had arrived with the office mail.
“Hold my calls,” he had told Candy then retreated into his office to revel in glossy photos of deluxe writing instruments.
“Coffee's on, Mr. Sleink. Can I get you a cup?” Candy poked her head into his office. “Mr. Sleink?”
He was slumped face down on his elegant mahogany desk.
FROM Book One in The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam
Moo? King Bewilliam frowned. What was a cow doing in the throne room?
King Bewilliam no sooner had set his gaze on the Bell Castle’s richly-veined marble floors, the opulent woven tapestries, the straight lines of courtiers resplendent in their gold-braided uniforms than it all vanished.
His heart jolted and he felt a pervasive icy chill.
I’m asleep, the King thought. I’m dreaming. I need to wake up. He opened one eye. He had been dreaming but what vanished was not the cow but the throne room. Instead, the sight that greeted him was another eye: big, brown, and deep.
King Bewilliam opened his other eye and found himself face-to-face with a large Guernsey regarding him with mild curiosity.
"Moo, moo," said the cow although to the king it sounded distinctly like “Who, you?” which, it seemed to him, was an excellent question given the circumstances. Was he not King Bewilliam, ruler of the Chalklands, master of Bell Castle? So what was he doing here staring down a cow? He shook his head to clear the fog of slumber...
copyright Devorah Fox
Read the rest of this chapter in Corpus Christi Writers 2018: An Anthology
“What if?” Those two words all too easily send Devorah Fox spinning into flights of fancy. She is the author of the best-selling The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam literary fantasy series. This includes The Lost King, awarded the All Authors Certificate of Excellence 2016 and The Redoubt, voted #35 of 50 Self-Published Books Worth Reading 2016. She also wrote the mystery minis, Murder by the Book, a Top Book of 2017, One Bad Apple, and the Fantasy/Sci Fi Mini Lady Blackwing, a Top Ten Short Story in the 2017 Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll. She co-authored the contemporary thriller, Naked Came the Sharks with Jed Donellie and contributed to several SciFi/Fantasy anthologies. Her thriller, Detour, finished in the Top Ten Thrillers in the 2016 Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll. The Zen Detective, a mystery, was voted #34 of 50 Best Indie Books of 2017 and was named a finalist for the Golden Book Award Contest 2017. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she now lives on the Texas Gulf Coast with rescued tabby cats ... and a dragon named Inky. Visit the “Dee-Scoveries” blog at http://devorahfox.com.
A graduate of Purdue University and the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago, where she earned her Ph.D., she has a long history of service to the community as a public health nurse and home health and hospice administrator. More about Donna at the end of this section.
“I’m only thirty-four years old,” Marie said. “I’m too young to die.”
That morning, she ran away from her husband, ten-month-old daughter, and four-year-old son. She drove to an emergency room a hundred and fifty miles away, hoping for a different prognosis and then came back home.
I cleaned her bandaged arm, the familiar alcohol lingering from a pad placed by another nurse.
“The other nurse said the Pet Scan would hunt and illuminate my little cancer critters,” Marie said between sobs. “They like sugar.” Then she calmed. “Nurse, I need you to pray with me.” She grabbed my hand. “There were too many of them little critters; I saw them glowing as they munched on me.”
I wasn’t used to praying; I never thought I would be asked to pray—chaplains did that—or nurses of a particular faith. READ THE REST IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITERS 2023
The Chihuahua Desert and the Sierra del Carmen Mountain range straddle the Rio Grande River in Southwest Texas. Surreal scenery abounds. We drove past miles of short palm-looking yucca and agave with their tall plumes dotting the desert as we made our way to the Big Bend National Park and across the river to Boquillas, Mexico. Roadrunners darted across the road. A lone coyote slunk into the vegetation along the side of the road where small-sized white-tailed deer munched on the grass.
On the way there, at an abandoned rest stop on the side of the road, a placard told the story of a pioneer woman, Nina Hannold. She moved to the Texas desert in 1908 to homestead with her husband, Curtis Lloyd. Under the shade of cottonwood trees near a spring that she loved, she read to her stepchildren. Both the cottonwoods and the spring are long gone due to climate change. Nina’s grave remains. She died of uremic poisoning, a blood disorder resulting from kidney failure during pregnancy.
We finally reached the U.S. immigration building. People describe me as adventuresome. I agree. Nevertheless, I’m just over 70 and overweight. My husband is in his late 80’s and at times, wobbly. I asked the ranger on duty. “Do you think the crossing the river is hazardous?”
“No, you should be fine,” he said. “Just read the sign outside the building and follow the instructions. Remember most people don’t speak English.”
We hiked down the short path to the water’s edge. To get to the other side we had three choices: find a narrow part to wade across, swim, or take a rowboat. The day we went, two rowboats were ferrying tourists across the river. We took the rowboat for $5.00 each roundtrip.
Once across the river, more transportation choices awaited us to reach the village. There was a horse, a donkey or burro, or a truck. Walking was not recommended as the road is ungraded, hot and dusty. We picked a 2001 F150 truck with a driver named Omar who charged us $10.00 each, roundtrip and he included a tour of the village. The first place we passed was his home where Veronica his wife was hanging embroidered crafts with themes of roosters and rabbits on their fence. On the way back, we asked him to stop and we purchased five of them for $10.00 each.
In the meantime, my husband, Lee and I shared a traditional Mexican lunch. Mounds of beef tacos, chips and salsa, Spanish rice, and refried beans covered the colorful plates. Topo Chico, sparkling water quenched our thirst and helped wash down the huge servings of food. We ate outside on a covered porch overlooking the canyon at Jose Falcon’s one of the two restaurants in the village. The other restaurant is across the street. Our driver, Omar then took us on a tour of the village and showed us the newly installed solar panels, a gift from the Mexican government. A Catholic chapel, another church, a clinic, and a school were interspersed among colorfully painted adobe-like homes.
After the lunch, the tour, and the stop to purchase Veronica’s embroidery, we bounced in Omar’s truck along the banks of the river before returning to the United States. There was no pier for the boat. This time we went in a different rowboat with a different skipper.
The skipper was an older, wiry man who guided us down the bank; the bank was steeper on this side. My husband and I were unsteady on the rough terrain. The skipper was strong. He helped me step down the dirt embankment, and board the rowboat even though I felt like I might fall face forward. He pointed to the prow of the boat, nodded for me to walk along the bottom of the boat, and then step over the thwart where he would sit to row.
Clumsily, I did just that. “Do you want me to row?” I asked, jokingly. My husband was already seated in the stern.
“Do you want me to give the boat a shove and it will take you to the Gulf?” the man said. He could speak English! He grinned but I was not sure that somewhere underneath, he really meant it.
I looked up into his brown eyes lined with wrinkles. He had one foot one on the bank and the other in the boat. We were about the same age. The resentment was palpable. I could traverse this river so freely and enter both countries unimpeded by immigration. “No, I want you to take us across.” I felt humbled by him and this experience.
On the return to the U.S. and after inserting our passports into a machine for reentry, a four-year-old stood sobbing on the veranda of the immigration building. “What is the matter,” I asked her mother.
“She is crying because her donkey was too slow.” Immediately, pictures of the child riding on a fast donkey, her brown hair flowing behind her, and her heels kicking to go even faster across the desert filled my mind. I wouldn’t mind that; what fun!
When the front door opened, the wind rushed in, blowing the pages in my book. My husband, Lee, swept in with the wind—and collapsed in a heap on the foyer floor.
“Donna, help me,” he said.
As a nurse, I pride myself on knowing what to do in these situations. My first thought was a heart attack known as myocardial infarction, and the second thought was a stroke.
“Do you have chest pains?” I asked as I dialed 911.
He was not exhibiting signs of a stroke—he could speak and move both his arms and both of his legs. He was not unconscious, but his skin was blue. He was going into shock, and I wrapped my blanket around him to keep him warm.
My husband—tall and slim with no risk factors for a heart attack—could die.
“The ambulance is coming,” I told him. “Don’t worry.”
Hopefully, he could not see the anxiety I felt. Him staying calm was imperative. The seconds ticked by and felt like hours. Finally, the siren approached, and I ran out to the yard.
“Hurry,” I begged.
They wouldn’t let me in the ambulance, so I hugged their bumper and pulled into the ER right next to him. Like a wilted flower, the oxygen and intravenous fluids he had received in the ambulance had perked him up. The ER staff whisked him away for various tests, including an endoscopy where they viewed inside his stomach. I waited in an emergency room bay.
A physician told me lab tests revealed he had lost most of his blood. How did that happen? There had been no visible signs of bleeding but causes jumped wildly through my mind. Did he hurt himself outside? No. Had he been shot? Did someone stab him? Even the thoughts of a vampire flickered across my mind. I was beside myself. How did he lose all his blood?
Treatment was straightforward: Lee needed a blood transfusion. He was O positive. The hospital did not have any, and a delay of even a few minutes would be life-threatening. Our adult son was O positive. We had left messages but were unable to reach him.
My husband’s life seemed about to slip away when our son raced in, a panicked expression on his face. We explained what we knew as the phlebotomist hurriedly drew his blood for a type and cross-match. Perfect. Within the next hour, James, our son, donated two pints of blood. The blood was still warm as it infused into Lee’s veins. Soon, the blueness left, and Lee was more like his old self.
A few hours later, Lee was sitting up in the hospital bed when a surgeon entered. “I’m Dr. Charles,” he said. The physician looked young with a full head of dark hair and a white, unbuttoned lab coat. He sat down on a chair at the end of the bed and started talking. I was ready to hear the worst, but he asked mundane questions. Where did we live? What did we do for a living? How many grandchildren did we have?
As a nurse, we know that most doctors are in and out of patient rooms. I squirmed in my chair, wanting a diagnosis before he went to the next patient.
“He has an ulcer in his stomach,” he finally said to me. “Most patients, if they are still bleeding, will be up going to the bathroom multiple times. I don’t see this with you,” he said to Lee. “I believe, when you collapsed at home, shock clamped the stomach ulcer we saw on the tests. It’s not bleeding now. From your tests, we know a bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, caused it.”
H. pylori bacteria invade the stomach lining, and in most people, it’s not harmful. For my husband, it created a bleeding ulcer. He had ignored the warning sign of tarry, black stools for several days before his collapse. Dr. Charles prescribed an antibiotic, Flagyl (metronidazole). It eradicated the H. pylori, and his bleeding ulcer did not return.
Why did it attack my husband? H. pylori is an opportunistic organism found in the gastrointestinal tract of up to fifty percent of the population. It lies dormant until something triggers it to invade the stomach lining. With Lee, the bacteria, after digging around inside his stomach, found a blood vessel.
The fates were kind to us. Lee fully recovered from his bout with H. pylori. He did not have any more episodes of gastrointestinal bleeding. On most Sundays, we reflect on our lived experiences. We are both grateful for the knowledgeable care he received.
Before her retirement, Dr. Donna Huddleston served at Del Mar College as a nurse educator in the Department of Nursing Education. Currently, she is the Lead Nurse Planner at Del Mar College, Department of Continuing Education. A graduate of Purdue University and the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago, where she earned her Ph.D., she has a long history of service to the community as a public health nurse and home health and hospice administrator. She has numerous publications and presentations, including international research works.
D. Weiss is an English major at Texas A&M CC. One of her favorite pastimes is playing D&D. More about D. at the end of this section.
I once had a meeting with the Fae.
Seeking answers to questions long pondered, I wished to settle the matter for good.
Just how accepting is the Fae of a new companion in their vast woods?
Is it really spiriting away if one chooses to leave?
If they prove kind, whether they stand big or small, it would be a joy to dance in their enchanted halls.
Ah, how freeing the notion is to dance without care for the world left behind,
To dance lacking a single treacherous thought in one’s mind.
I once had a meeting with the Fae.
A meek human, unassuming and plain, with more to lose rather than gain.
With a nod and a smile, I was ushered to a toadstool table,
Surrounded by seats of pine, though of course,
I could not allow myself to partake of a morsel or drop of wine.
How easy it would have been in the presence of such beauty to sit and stare,
Yet, I resolved to keep my intentions bare.
My real name I held close to my chest, tales of Fae being those I knew best.
Gods forgive me, a moment of weakness I did have to quell,
For though the Fae were strangers, how they seemed to know me so well.
While the Fae were crafty and a slip of the tongue could seal my fate,
They were perhaps the most honest people I had met to date.
Eyes shining with mischief and allure, I did not shrink under their gaze.
In a clearing among actors, I proved an impostor no longer.
However, soon came the time for our rendezvous to end,
And I was allowed to hop the circle back to my house around the bend.
I once had a meeting with the Fae.
Occasionally, I hear their voices on the wind,
And I am brought back to that day. They call me,
Offering a chance to right the choice they recall as my sole error,
“Return to us and stay.”
If for a moment they had ever doubted the existence of twin telepathy, this squashed that. Right now, the only clear thought that ran through Noelle and Noah’s heads was: “No way in hell!”The imposing building before them practically lay in ruin, years of neglect bore on its every feature, two windows on its second story even sporting large fractures. Testing one of the steps on the porch, Noah jumped back a pace when it answered with a whiny “Creak!”
“Come on Noah, it’s not too late to back out! We can just tell Damian and Fred that something came up” Noelle tugged at his jacket sleeve.
“And have them make fun of us for the rest of the year? No way!” he shook his head. “We can do this! We just go in and once 15 minutes passes, we can come back out and rub it in their stupid faces.”
Noelle glanced behind them, setting her gaze on the small hill up the dirt road. Perched at the top, sat Damian Evans and Frederic Lawrence, the juniors that had dared them to undertake “Hugo Wright High School’s Special Initiation.” From this distance, she swore she could faintly see Damian flashing them a thumbs up. Oh, Noelle wished she could flash him a quick sign of her own...
“Fine, let’s do this” she finally sighed as she unzipped her backpack that hung off her bike handle. “Here, take one of these in case things get sketchy.”
“Hammers? Where did you even get these from?”
“Dad’s toolbox, we’re just borrowing them. I would have brought my baseball bat, but it would have seemed weird for just “going to the movies”” she responded, producing a flashlight as well.
“Right, good thinking sis. I just hope we won’t need them” Noah let out a shaky breath. “Alright, setting the timer, and it’s now or never.”
With a nod from Noelle, the pair switched on their flashlights and ascended the porch steps, the house sounding off every move. The front door required an extra nudge, opening to reveal an interior that showed just as much wear as its exterior. The twins’ noses wrinkled at the smell of age that hit them upon entering, another sign of the home’s state. Noah closed the door gingerly behind them before finally taking a good look around. Most items of any real value seemed to have been cleared out long ago, aside from a few paintings that had been steadily collecting cobwebs. Moving into the next room, it appeared to be the home's living space. Not far from it ran a set of stairs leading up into another group of rooms.
“I bet this place was pretty nice before it was abandoned, it’s a shame” Noah spoke up.
“Yeah, if only the initiation consisted of “go make friends with the nice rich family,” instead of exploring their most likely very haunted house” Noelle said with a hint of apprehension.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen. Your brother’s got your...feet?”
“Feet? What are you talking about?”
“Wait, listen, I thought I heard footsteps. It sounds like they were coming from upstairs” Noah’s eyebrows furrowed.
Huddling a bit closer, the pair strained their ears to listen for movement. They stood silently for what felt like an eternity, their breath on hold. Suddenly, a small bump echoed from the upper floor followed by the sound of multiple footfalls. Quickly turning their lights to the stairwell, Noah and Noelle tried to shuffle back towards the door. Meanwhile, the steps appeared to be growing louder. Eventually, the twins could see multiple lights shining at the top akin to their own. As they moved to descend the steps, the lights coalesced into one beam. Small murmurs could be heard as they drew nearer.
“Wh-Who’s there?! Don’t come any closer, we’re armed!” Noah yelled, brandishing his hammer.
“Yeah, try us and we’ll knock you straight back into the afterlife!” Noelle piped up.
Following their outbursts, a collection of gasps preceded a single voice sounding from behind the blinding lights.
“Woah, calm down! We’re sorry! We didn’t mean to trespass” a girl’s voice called out.
Almost instantly, two other voices spoke up in agreement. Slowly, the strangers descended the stairs, lowering their flashlights enough to allow a better look at them. A girl with sandy hair restrained by a blue hair tie stood beside two boys, one with untamed blond hair, and the other a bespectacled brunette. For a few minutes, they all stared at one another, not sure what to make of this discovery. Finally, it was Noelle who broke the silence.
“Wow, it’s another group of kids. What are you doing here?” she lowered her own light.
“We could ask you guys the same thing; you scared the crap out of us. We thought you were the landowners or something” the other girl placed a hand to her chest.
“No, sorry. You scared us too, we had no idea what was coming down those stairs. This dare is really getting to us” Noah added.
At his words, a flash of recognition seemed to flit across the other teenagers’ faces and they turned to look at one another. Meanwhile, the twins shared a look of puzzlement before the group turned back towards them.
“Hey, by dare, you wouldn’t happen to mean that stupid initiation they make freshmen do at Hugo Wright High School, right?” the girl asked.
“Uh yeah, you guys know about that?” Noelle raised a brow.
“Know about it?! Why else would we be in this god forsaken place?! These morons told us that we had to stay in here for at least 15 minutes or we’d have to be their personal assistants for a month!”
“No way! The guys that have us doing this threatened to ruin our lives if we didn’t! The last thing we need is to start off our first year in this town as complete jokes!” Noah frowned.
“This is wild! What are the chances of all of us running into each other like this? It must be fate or something” the blonde boy thought aloud.
“I guess so, honestly, I’m just glad that we don’t have to do this alone now. I’m Noelle and this is Noah” Noelle offered an introduction.
“Nice to meet you! I’m Lori, this is Mason, and that’s Jeremy” the girl pointed at herself, then the boys, the blonde being the closest.
Upon their introduction, Mason smiled, and Jeremy gave a timid wave. A spark of life returned to the twins’ eyes. Relief didn’t even begin to cover what they were feeling right now. With these new companions, it almost felt as if a weight had been lifted off their chests. Haunted or not, the space no longer seemed like it was waiting to swallow them whole.
“Well, since we still have time to kill, why don’t we get to know each other better?” Mason suggested.
“Yeah, sounds good to us” Noah responded, while Noelle gave a small smile and nod.
Making themselves as comfortable as they could among the time-worn living area, the group began to recall their hobbies, likes, dislikes, and their annoyance with the “initiation.” Noah and Noelle also recalled the tale of how they came to live in the town, moving due to a promotion their father couldn’t turn down. Eventually, the pair even relayed how they got tangled up with Damian and Fred in the first week of classes.
“Ugh, well they sure sound like perfect gentlemen” Lori rolled her eyes.
“Oh, it gets better. We had to lie to our parents that we were heading out to watch the new Andromeda Wars movie. I definitely preferred it to the alternative” Noelle sighed.
“You guys like the Andromeda Warsmovies?!” Jeremy exclaimed. “I didn’t even know there was a new one! I’ve been trying to wrangle these two into watching them with me. Mason is on board, but Lori keeps saying she’ll think about it.”
“I got spoiled about one of the character’s deaths, and now I won’t even get to enjoy him in the movie. All I’m going to see is a big red flag over his head the whole time. It’s a shame, he’s hot too” Lori pouted.
Suddenly, the group started a bit as Noah’s phone went off. He quickly retrieved it from his pocket, shutting off the alarm. The others watched him intently, heaving a collective sigh of relief when it was silenced.
“Well, I guess we can leave now. The time went by a lot faster than I thought” Noah chuckled.
“That’s true, I guess time really does fly when you’re having fun” Noelle smiled.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to get home. My bed is practically yelling my name” Lori replied with a yawn.
“Um, quick pause on that, have you guys seen my house keys? I could have sworn I just had them” Mason dug in his pockets.
“Oh boy, not again Mace. They must have fallen out when we were exploring upstairs” Jeremy sighed.
“We can help you look for them. It will be easier with more people” Noah offered.
“As much as we appreciate it, you two should probably get going. We don’t want you to get in trouble helping us” Lori replied.
“Are you sure? We feel bad just leaving you guys” Noelle stated, her eyebrows creasing.
“I promise, it’s okay. But if you really want to make it up to us, I can give you my number and we can meet up to go see the new Andromeda Wars movie. It will be more fun if we all go together.”
Though she opened her mouth to protest once more, Noelle accepted the proposal, pulling out her phone. Saving the other girl in her phone under “Lori Somerton” per her instruction, she saved the new contact. Bidding the group one last farewell, the twins made their way out of the house. As they did, each one took in the crisp air of the outside, the slight chill of it reviving them for the ride home. Casting a glance to the top of the hill, the outlines of Damian and Fred had completely vanished. Trading an annoyed look, they could only assume that they hadn’t remained long after the pair had entered the beaten-down house.
After much pedaling and the quietest of entrances, Noelle and Noah found themselves back home. Before bed, they resolved to recount their adventure in Noelle’s room, Noah resting on a bean bag while she sat on her bed.
“I wonder if the others got home okay, do you think Lori is still up?” Noelle glanced at her phone.
“Can’t hurt to try, and if she doesn’t answer, just leave her a message” Noah answered, his head half reclined back on the chair.
Pressing the call button, Noelle placed the phone to her ear to wait. However, instead of the usual ringing, she heard a small tone before the phone stated, “The subscriber you have dialed is not in service.” A puzzled expression crossed her face as she looked down at the device before hanging up.
“That’s weird, it said that the number was not in service. I’m pretty sure I put it in my phone right” Noelle huffed.
“Maybe it’s off by a number, that’s usually easy to miss. Or she’s already gone to bed” Noah shrugged. “Her last name was Somerton, right? Maybe I could try looking it up online.”
While her twin got to work searching for the number, Noelle endeavored to try the line once more. Receiving the same message, she sighed and placed her phone aside. Glancing over at Noah, she saw his face suddenly grow pale. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but no sound escaped. His eyes seemed to be stuck to the screen of his phone, widened like those of a deer caught in headlights.
“Noah, what’s wrong? Did you find it?”
“...C-Come here…please tell me I’m just seeing things” he shakily replied.
Even more puzzled by his strange behavior, Noelle hopped off her bed and walked over to him. Bending down, she took the phone from her brother’s jittery hands and scanned the screen. However, much to her surprise, a news article ran across it, the headline reading, “Town Despairs Over the Disappearance of Beloved Students.” Just under it, three familiar portraits smiled back at her. Legs turning to jelly, Noelle could only plop down beside Noah on the floor. Meanwhile, his phone sat loosely in her hand, just barely avoiding meeting the ground with her. After a few minutes, the twins turned and exchanged a knowing look, this one telling of a very long night ahead of them.
D. Weiss was born and raised in Corpus Christi. She is an English major at Texas A&M CC. She has been writing practically since she learned how to read. Here biggest writing influences are James Patterson and Maya Angelou. She's also a traditional and digital artist, and is currently working on a light novel. One of her favorite pastimes is playing D&D.
Dylan Lopez is an English graduate student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. His current research focus is on digital circulation, centered on an anime review site. Give it a visit: https://azura12345678910.wixsite.com/animejudge MORE ON DYLAN AT THE END OF THIS SECTION
A muddled stain of lights struggles past
nebulous pillars, primordial constants
drifting across a stellar stage—
Far expelled from the hunting grounds of Arcadia,
shamed Callisto rolls through her endless night—
like a battered pearl embracing magnetic tempests,
bound to a vicious, lunar circuit.
Cold is the gardener’s land without those tender stars,
beaming flares born in the dust-filled, knotted veils
of Chaos, noble pyres spend to the embers,
furnishing fields and skies with humble glow.
And I, on my cosmic dérive aboard a Catherine wheel,
break from the stellar tides, parsing through wondrous
trails of light and muted fields of slumbering stones,
out into the vast astral scenery, to find myself.
Where the girl can’t shriek her boyfriend alive.”
A thicket of languid weeds choked the front yard
leading into the unremarkable, urban misery.
Cracks riddled the weather-beaten walls, and
hollow colors split through the shattered-glass prisms;
an unquiet, hueless welcome.
We left a half-finished game of chess in the living room
with a paralyzed calendar veiled in timeless obscurity
The strung-up polaroids hanging on the walls are
smudged with indifference; their edges worn,
cheapened by a soft neglect.
The gas stove bellows a black malaise, an overbearing
tone to complete the stagnant coffees and plundered
pill bottles that filled the rusted kitchen sink.
A wash of medicated thoughts rushes on down,
blank, anxious runaways.
We used to live here together, in this damp derelict.
We left in a hurry, saying we’d be back before Fall.
I am the one caught answering,
lost in the evening of Being—
that hears your flat strikes
against the patient timber door
where you ask, with feigned modesty
to stay in the empty guest room.
The latest tenant of a shut-in heart
soaked in scarlet jets, flush with
patchwork-shades of disregard—
a reckless tempest raving, beneath
the bent cries and tilted howls resounding,
grating against my love-scratched corridors...
Against the foreign hour’s demands
I am here with you; a transient tied,
Truant of time.
A steward to the innumerable imagined, the generations
Just as you feel the searing touch of the sun emblazed, so I felt.
Just as any of you have known the shimmering coastal reveries, so I have
The melodies sung symphonic—with buoyant delight.
Just as you reach your hands into the shallow pools pondering their fortunes, I reached yet
Just as you look on the treasure-laden leviathans come to harbor, their harlequin crates
enshrined, I looked.
I too journeyed across the former bridge,
That long-iron lattice, now overtaken—
Its wind-battered braces hurled into the bay,
Replaced by silk-thread suspensions, stained
with the sparkling brilliancies of ocean pearls.
These and all else were bliss to me, as they are to you,
staring across the violet horizon into teal-hued waters
from the bayside balconies.
I loved it well, the city and her motley crowds
We greeted each other with cool tenderness,
a soft-swaying love, caressed by the gentle tide.
There is nothing between us then,
No love undone by the separation of grey years
Whatever time plots, it cannot prevail over us
I too lived here, in the shadow of the washed harbor.
I too drove across the shore of Corpus, baptized in the waters around it.
I too prayed in the mission house, christened by the crystalline skyline.
I too felt the abrupt changes, the widening gyre of my age—
In my solitary hold, among the lush seagrass and wild oxeyes
I came into being, breaking through the surface threshold
I came to know myself, reclaimed from the savage storms
I found myself on the vestal shore, delivered by the gulf sands,
I familiarly recall the nauseating journey from King
High school to the unfamiliar Island University,
With its own ecosystem, staring out into the sea.
Beside me on the unsound bus was a pretty German
Girl who, by the end of the relieving trip, would
Become something more to me than a mere seat partner...
Dylan Lopez is an English graduate student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He is currently the Managing Editor of the Windward Review and President of the Islander Creative Writers. His work has been featured in Trinity University’s High Noon, Island Waves, Corpus Christi Writers, and Open All Night. He is a recipient of the Robb Jackson Poetry Award, in honor of TAMUCC’s Robb and Vanessa Jackson. His writing explores the themes of love, depression, and internal struggles in fantastic, mythical, and sometimes drearily realistic settings.
His current research focus is on digital circulation, centered on an anime review site. Give it a visit: https://azura12345678910.wixsite.com/animejudge