A Break From Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

I dabble in all sorts of writing.  I have a personal blog that I’ve maintained for over ten years that has mostly personal anecdotes but does have an occasional story buried in the blog roll.  I prefer to write in the literary genre, but I have been working periodically on a science fiction trilogy that chases the idea of cloning gone awry to the point that it changes the entire evolution of the human race and eventually puts it in danger of extinction.  Most of what I have is a bunch of scenes that I’ve written, but I do plan to put it into a coherent series at some point.  I like to have at least two or three things going at once to avoid burnout on any particular work.  Here’s one scene from the series.

cloning

Agent Edwards pressed his back against the wall. The door was to his right. His bulging arms formed a V in front of his body where his hands tightly clasped his gun. If he still sweat, he thought, he’d be sweating profusely right now, but his body felt oddly lukewarm and dry to the touch. He kept his gun below his waist pointed to the floor with his left hand and raised his right hand near his face to give the signal to his team to hold their places. He waited for the signal to make its way around the corner and down the corridor. They couldn’t use any form of electronic communication or the Luddites would know they were coming. They had to move in quickly and in unison to ensure the mission was successful. Operation Exterminate was that big.

He looked across the other side of the door at his second in command, Agent Flynn. Like himself, Flynn was the perfect embodiment of a modern-day law man. His with his angular jaw, close-cropped haircut and piercing stare, Flynn emanated tough. His bulging biceps looked like they were going to rip apart his short-sleeved shirt if he moved too quickly. Flynn was stout, like everyone on the force, but he was also deadly fast. Men like them kept the peace in modern society, and they were about to put an end to a decades long war with the unsuspecting terrorists who were squirreled away in the bunker behind the door.

The signal came back that everyone was ready. Edwards nodded off a three-count as Flynn stood before the door with his gun pointed in front of him. At the third nod, Flynn lifted one powerful leg and thrust it into the door breaking it from its jamb and splintering it from its hinges. The force flowed in behind him with a swiftness that was almost un-humanlike.

The Luddites were caught unaware. In the main room straight in from the entry door, a bunch of them sat in a circle around a candlelight as if in a prayer. Edwards saw them immediately once Flynn had broken through the door. Edwards and Flynn fired off a flurry of shots hitting each of them in the head and killing them instantly. The other agents filed down the halls of the labyrinthine bunker and Edwards could hear the shots ringing out throughout the hallways.

Edwards stayed behind while Flynn flanked one of the other agents and began to sweep the bunker. He looked down at the dead Luddites. Blood had splattered all around the walls of the room. He had to make sure that the brains were adequately destroyed. He approached each of the bodies and fired more rounds into their heads eviscerating their brains. Blood splattered up and speckled his arms and his neck. When he was done, the Luddites’ faces were unrecognizable as human.

“Goddamn,” he thought, “this could be the last of them.”

He could still hear the shots echoing through the bunker, but he suspected that none of the Luddites were still alive. He couldn’t hear any grunts or screams, so he assumed that his agents were ensuring that all of the brains were destroyed. He couldn’t afford the risk of the brains being transplanted. The Luddites had to be exterminated. This forced extinction had to be absolute if the world was ever to be at peace. The President of the United States of America had convinced the United Nations of this and thus set in motion of the order that backed up this mission to exterminate the last remaining Luddites that had been holed up around the world.

Once the secret order was agreed to, the CIA and other agencies around the world identified the locations of all known Luddite cells and planned a simultaneous operation to seek and destroy. All of the terrorists were to be killed except for children under the age of ten. Luddite children were to be detained and shipped to a secret prison in a remote location in northern Canada. The children were more valuable alive than dead, and besides, their minds could be changed.

Flynn walked back into the main room. His arms and chest were speckled with blood. His head swiveled back and forth as he surveyed the massacred Luddites in the main room as if he were looking for some signs of life.

“We have the all-clear, sir,” he said to Edwards.

“Any children?” Edwards asked.

“None, sir. It seems only adults were placed here.”

“Damn it! We need to find the children. I know there were some with this cell. Our surveillance indicates that at least ten children were living with this cell.”

“Sir, the cells interoperate. Maybe they moved them to another cell. If they did, our colleagues in other raids got them. We have all the cells identified, sir. No one will escape.”

“Search the place for any evidence that we can use to track the kids or other cells. I get a little nervous when we’re so confident in our intelligence.”

“Sir, the entire world is monitored. Even the most remote areas have sensors that are tied into our intelligence network. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s impossible to escape us.”

“I still don’t believe that. Back when I started my career as an agent, our intelligence was always imperfect. I can’t believe that technology has filled in all the gaps. Something just doesn’t seem right.”

Flynn laughed and shook his head. “When did you start your career? 2012?”

“Yes. That was my rookie year.”

“That was eighty fucking years ago. A lot has changed. We know everything now. These goddamned Luddites refused to change with the times and look what that got them. Have a little faith in our abilities, will you.”

Edwards bit his tongue. It was no use arguing with Flynn. He was born into an age when all this new-fangled technology was pervasive. He never lived life without it, so he couldn’t imagine what it was like before the network was all-knowing. Still, Edwards could not help but be a little uncomfortable. Peace and the very way of life in the world depended on the Luddites’ extermination. Once they were gone, the world would finally enter a golden era of peace and prosperity just like old George had promised.

“Are we all clear?” Edwards asked aloud to Flynn and the others who had drifted back in the main room.

Flynn looked around and chatted with an agent who had just entered the room. Edwards tried to read his lips, but couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. From behind Edwards, another agent confirmed that all was clear. A few moments later, Flynn confirmed as well.

“Let’s get all agents out and bring in demo,” Edwards demanded.

The agents cleared the bunker as swiftly as they had entered exiting through the broken door frame and down the corridor to the outside. Other than the pounding of their boots on the floor, they left quietly. The demolition team poured in after them and quickly prepared the bunker to be destroyed.

Edwards and Flynn stood outside of the old apartment building that served as the Luddites’ bunker and de-briefed their commanders. Yes, all of the Luddites in the bunker had been killed. No, there were no children in the bunker. No, they didn’t think anyone escaped because all entrances and exits had been covered. No, the Luddites didn’t make any communications before the ambush. It was a total surprise.

The agent crowd had begun to thin by the time the demolition crew was ready to destroy the bunker and burn all of its contents including the bodies of the Luddites. Flynn had already left, but Edwards stayed behind to watch. Thinking back to his rookie year on the force, he could remember the outrage felt around the world about the treatment of terrorists, and now, he was unceremoniously burning the obliterated bodies of terrorists in their own bunker. No one seemed to have second thoughts. The world had changed a lot in eighty years. Fucking George.

I Like to Watch

First, get your mind out of the gutter.  Now, let me get mine out too.  Seriously, I do like to watch.  I’ve always been more of an observer than a talker.  It’s rare that I’ll talk anyone’s ear off.  Just ask my wife.  It drives her mad that I prefer quiet solitude to a rip-roaring conversation any day.  I find I learn so much more if I just listen and watch.  I believe that a person’s actions or behaviors reveal much more about them than anything they say.  Anyone can say what they think you want to hear, and many do.  The question that always lurks in the back of my mind is what would they do if they thought no one was watching.  These thoughts often lead to some interesting story ideas.  You take a simple act and twist it around until you’ve created something entirely fictional from a real life event.

I often pay attention to the most trivial details.  I’m not quiet sure why such things catch my fancy.  One of my favorite places to do this is at a race – not the car racing kind, the foot racing kind.  Runners are an interesting lot with many colorful characters that would pop off the page if given the right amount of care.  I’ll often pass by someone and notice the little details about them and spin them into a story.  Many of the characters in my stories have come about this way.  Whether it’s the way they talk or the sway of their gait, something unique usually catches my eye and I’ll recall these attributes later when I’m writing.  Sometimes, I’ll even go so far as to record my observations in my notes for use later.  They may not fit in the current story I’m working on, but I could use them later.  Every good story requires interesting characters.

Some of my friends may read this and be concerned that they’ll find themselves in my stories.  No need to worry.  It’d be impossible or a mere coincidence to recognize any real person in the characters I create.  Like a lump of clay, I mold them and form them into something wholly unrecognizable.  There’s just enough reality to get started and then the fun part begins.  That’s the great thing about writing fiction.  You can make your characters be anything you want even if their genesis was a real person.

So, like I said.  I like to watch.

Scenes

A lot of times I just write a scene to a potential short story or novel to see what happens.  An idea will come to me and I’ll just write on an impulse.  Once the scene is done, I usually determine if it’s worth moving forward with the story.  I have a lot of these scenes scattered in my files.  Some may get incorporated in other works, but many times, they just sit there waiting to be used.  The following scene is from a story idea I had about a surgeon who works in an urban hospital who takes justice into his own hands leading a double life as an upstanding doctor and vigilante.  This is not my usual genre or my comfort zone, but I wanted to experiment with different story elements.  You can’t grow as a writer if you don’t push yourself into uncomfortable territory.

 

Call me Doctor.  Please.  I insist because I help people.  Really, I do.  Despite what you may think at this moment, I’ve spent my entire life helping people or training to help people.  You don’t know what it’s like to dedicate yourself to such a thing.  It’s horrendous.  Soul sucking.  And then you get to the point when you think you’re going to get some ultimate reward, some sense of satisfaction, where you think it will all be worth it, and…nothing.  Not a damn thing.  It’s like watching some precious piece of fragile art slip from your hands and crash to the floor in millions of tiny pieces while you watch helplessly.  All you can do is cover your eyes and weep uncontrollably.

Don’t scream.  No one can hear you.  Even if I removed the gag, no one would hear you out here.  Oh, that’s right, you don’t know where you are.  Well, you’re very far out.  Trust me when I say it’s going to be a while before they find you.  If they ever do.  Please stop crying.  You don’t want these last few moments to be so sad.  Enjoy them.

Do you like this place?  I’ve always liked old barns.  They smell so earthen, a remnant of a life so simple.  I wonder what it must have been like to live on this farm a century ago and wander these fields bustling with crops and farm animals.  Oh, I bet the smells must have been overwhelming and maybe a bit distasteful, but imagine the freedom you would have had.  Imagine getting up every morning and walking onto the porch of your old farmhouse and seeing the vast fields before you.  It would be all yours.  The fruit of your labor so to speak.  Nice to think about wouldn’t you say?

Look at me!  Why are you holding your head down?  You can’t be sleepy.  You slept the whole way here.  Of course, you had some help.  That shot I gave you made you feel so woozy, huh?  Don’t worry, it will wear off soon.  I want you to be awake.  I want you to see everything.  I’ll be sure of that.

As I was saying, these old barns have a soft place in my heart.  I grew up in the city.  I never had the chance to live the life closer to nature.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much I had missed.  I remember the first time I saw an old barn.  I was mesmerized by it.  The gray wood creaking and cracking under the weight of gravity and age.  The faint smell of animals from long ago mixed with the moldy odor of decomposed hay.  Quite romantic don’t you think?

Ah, yes, nature.  It has a way of balancing out in the end.  This barn was probably sturdy and strong when it was first built.  I imagine it has weathered many a storm and countless seasons.  It sheltered animals, stored food, and served as the focal point of this once proud farm, but look at it now.  It’s broken down with weak joints and holes in the roof.  Listen to the squeaks.  I could probably push this pole from this block and the roof would collapse.  In fact, this pole is likely the only thing holding up this old structure.  It’s amazing that such a single cracked and weathered piece of wood is so critical to this building.

People aren’t much different.  The heart is just like this pole.  Remove it and the whole structure collapses.  That’s amazing isn’t it.

Stop your blathering.  It’s not becoming of you.  Are those straps too tight?  Your wrists are bleeding.  I didn’t mean to tie them so tightly.  I’m usually much more careful.  I’m a surgeon after all.  My work depends on me being careful and precise.  And prepared.  Let’s not forget that.  I’m always prepared.  That’s why I have my little bag here.  It has everything I need.

What are you saying?  I think the drugs have caused you to be incoherent.  Or are you always this way?  You didn’t seem this way when I first met you.  You’re interrupting my thoughts.  Shut up!

Isn’t that sunrise beautiful?  Right there.  You can see it through that opening over there.  Look at it!  You see?  I love the sunrise.  I love it much better than the sunset.  Sunrises are full of the hope of a new day.  Sunsets, yeah, they’re beautiful, but they mean the day has come to an end.  All those hopes of the day are gone, solidified in the past.  I hate the past because you can’t change it.  You can’t cut out the bad parts.  See, that’s one thing I can do as a surgeon.  I can cut out the bad parts.  I do it all the time.

Anyway, I love the sunrise.  The pinks and oranges explode on the horizon as the sun bursts into view.  No matter where you are in the world, sunrises are usually cool and relaxing.  Even in Singapore.  You know that city is just one degree north of the equator.  Yes, it’s practically on the fucking equator, and you’d think it’d be hot as hell all the time, but I’ve found the sunrises there just as cool and refreshing as I find them in New York on a nice spring day.  That’s why I love them.  You get the same experience no matter where you are.

You don’t feel the same way?  Come on, Mr. Vogel, you have to love a good sunrise.  This is your last one.  You better love it.  Look at it!  Do you need me to help you see it?  Let me see if I can find something in my bag.

Lots of sharp objects in here, any one of which would encourage you to look at that beautiful sunrise.  That’s what I thought.  Enjoy it.  Smile for Christ’s sake!  You have an ugly smile, Mr. Vogel.  A smile says a lot about a person.

Were you always this miserable?  I had you pegged as an asshole, but I thought you were a hedonistic asshole.  Always looking out for your own pleasure no matter how shitty you made others feel.

I love the way this scalpel feels in my hand.  These professional grade tools are so well-made.  The weight is substantial, and the craftsmanship is amazing.  I feel I could carve through anything with this blade.  When I was a kid, I used to build balsa wood models and I’d use these old craft store blades to cut the wood, and they were so damn flimsy.  If you pushed too hard for too long, the damn blades would just snap in two, and they’d go dull so quickly.  These blades stay sharp a long time, and I’ve never had one break on me.  You won’t be the first person I’ve cut with this blade.  It’s that sharp.

Why are you screaming?  I told you that no one can hear you out here.  You’re just wasting your breath and that precious energy of yours.  I’m not feeding you again, so save your energy.  I want you to feel it when I cut into you.  I want you to watch the blood pump from your body as I cut out that fucking, no-good heart of yours.  You know what I mean?  Do you get my drift?

Stop screaming!

Do you know that the average person has ten pints of blood in his body?  That’s just over a gallon.  Imagine that!  Years ago, this very barn housed cows that were fed and milked on this very spot.  That milk eventually made it into gallon jugs on the grocery store shelves, and here we are talking about how all your blood can fit into one of those gallon jugs.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Your rambling is not helping your case.

Okay, I’ve had enough.  It’s time.  You’ve wasted enough of the precious oxygen on this planet.  I hope you are at peace with yourself, but honestly, I don’t know how you can be.  You’re despicable.  You’re an awful person.

Yes, I know you.  I know you much better than you think I do.  I know what you’ve done.  I’ve been following you for a long time.  You think you’re some master of the universe, but you’re nothing more than a pathetic little cretin.  I shall remind you of your crimes in the most awful way.

You’re not going to be able to break free.  I’m a surgeon for crying out loud.  I always prepare.  Carefully.

This is for all the women you’ve harmed.  Your “conquests” as you call them.  Look at me!  I want you to watch.  No one’s going to hear you scream.  I’m always amazed at how much blood comes out of there.  You’re losing that gallon pretty quickly.  Such a mess!

You’re heart is really racing.  Would you like to see it?  Of course you would.  You’re not such a big, bad man now are you?  Crying like a fucking baby.  Maybe you should have thought of that when you were forcing yourself on those women who were half your size.  You want me to stop?  Why didn’t you stop?  Tell me!  Why didn’t you stop?  They asked you to do so.  I bet they begged you to stop.  Did you listen?  No!

Ah, that sunrise seems extra glorious this morning, doesn’t it?  The morning’s just getting started.  Let’s see what else I have in my bag.  Look at this.  You know what this is?  It’s the MicroAire ZR-032M.  It’s a sternum saw.  I bet you didn’t know they made these things battery-powered, did you?  Ha, modern medicine is amazing.

Let’s just make a little mark here.  Are you still awake?  I want you to see this.  Be still.  Ha, more surgeon humor.  You’d be surprised some of the shit we say in the operating room.  I’m glad I have my scrubs on.  You are making one hell of a mess.  I guess I should have expected it from a piece of shit like you.

Look at this.  Can you see it?  Oh, don’t lose consciousness on me now.  Damn!  My patients never see my best work.  Hey, wake up!  This is the good part.

I hope you don’t rest in peace, motherfucker.

Musings from a Ferry

The morning mist hung low over the water grazing it like a lazy cat tapping its paw on some unsuspecting mouse.  The still, cool air pampered my exposed skin keeping me in that small space between chilly and warm, a delicate balance sure to be broken once the sun rose above the mountains in the east and chased away the pallor of the early dawn to make way for another bright, summer day.  I stood facing the calm waters looking out into the sound, the hum of activity slowly building behind me, a slammed door, an errant car horn, and the beep of a forklift.  The odor of marine life surrounded me, that fishy taint, a true salt of the earth variety.  I wrinkled my nose and squinted into the horizon.

Perched above the mist in the distance stood one of the small islands that dotted the sound like bread crumbs of the ancient gods from eons ago.  The island seemed to float above the horizon as if some celestial magician were presenting his penultimate trick, an illusion to end all illusions.  I smiled into the face of the creeping mist, breathed in the salty air.  An undercurrent of excitement rose from my stomach and infused my mind with a sense of adventure as I examined the ship, solid and ungainly, squatting on the water at the pier.  The Pequod it was not.

A stray fellow passenger grazed the edge of my shoulder as I walked to board my ship.  I looked at his face, absent-minded and aloof, nothing like Melville’s Elijah.  He ignored me as if I were invisible and moved on quickly determined to board the ship first as if the sparse passenger terminal gave the slightest hint of limited space aboard the vessel.  I slowly walked the plank to board my ship.  The rat-tat-tat of the cheap metal rattled beneath each step I took, and I imagined the wooden steps of Captain Ahab would make quite a racket on this ramp.

Once I boarded the ship, I stood on the aft deck looking back to the pier that would soon disappear into the mist as I floated hastily away toward the barrier island in the distance.  The city behind the old pier still bore the remnants of a night that was slowly fading away.  Lights winked from office buildings that stood like monolithic Moai guarding the harbor as ancient sentinels.  The first wisps of sunlight torched the tallest buildings and gleamed ever so brightly that I almost had to turn away for fear of going blind.

The deep guttural sound of the ship’s horn filled the harbor, an angered sea monster rising from the murky waters to exact revenge on an encroaching population.  I could feel the drift of the boat away from the pier, and I steadied myself before I took refuge in the cabin.  I slid into one of the long, vinyl bench seats that lined the large windows on either side of the ship.  I pushed myself against the window and watched the water slowly glide past.  The cabin was mostly empty save for a few stragglers who wandered by anonymously.  The faint sound of chatter could be heard on the other side of the cabin, but the perpetrators were not to be seen.  A feeling of loneliness overcame me in the vast cabin as the city slowly receded into the horizon engulfed by the mist that thickened the further the ship drifted into the sound.

I sat and listened to the hum of the ship’s engine and inhaled the warmth of the cabin.  A lone passenger passed by my window outside leaning into the cold sea breeze that resisted the ship’s forward push toward the island.  The engine whined in protest as the gray water slid beneath its massive keel, nature versus machine, a never-ending, relentless battle.

Something hard and sharp struck the tile floor behind me.  A baby had thrown his toy from the perch of his stroller in protest of his parents’ inattention.  The sound, at first shocking in the mechanical silence of the cabin, roused my sea-faring musings.  The rhythmic tap of the object on the tile led me back to Ahab and his wooden leg.  I imagined him walking through the cabin grotesque and angry, leering at the few passengers and cursing the ever-elusive whale.  Someone opened the door behind me and the surge of salty sea air thrust me from my musings and back to the present.

Time, like the sea beneath me, glided by quickly and before I knew it the ship’s horn sounded again.  We had emerged from the fog to nose our way into the island’s pier, which shined brightly in the morning sunlight.  The day had arrived while I dreamed in  the fog, nothing new by any account.  I stood and walked slowly forward.  The glaring sun bounced off the huge glass eyes of the ferry terminal and blinded me.  I looked aside as I ducked onto the gangplank and descended the steps onto the island.  The air seemed warmer, fresher.  I looked back over the cloudy water.  The mist scurried away in protest of the summer sun, but the city across the sound was all but invisible.  Only the tops of the tallest buildings glistened in the morning light, but I knew she was still there waiting for my return like a hopeful lover gazing into the empty space I had left behind.  Gone, but not forgotten.

A New Hope

Here’s the draft first chapter from my current project called The Fire Within, which is a story about a young, war veteran who returns home under dramatically different circumstances and tries to pursue a lifelong dream that is seemingly all but dead.  It’s a story of determination to overcome insurmountable odds, one that I hope many will find inspiring.

    The young man sat on the tailgate of his truck looking out at the track that looped in an orange oval before him. He loved the beauty of the track with its smooth, soft surface perfectly cantilevered and the crisp white lines that divided it into even lanes. He imagined himself in one of those lanes, shoulder-to-shoulder with other gifted athletes, waiting for the starting gun to fire. The crack of the pistol propelled him forward with an amazing force that precious few in the world could ever experience at that level. He pumped his arms and thrust this bulging thighs with such force that he left many of his competitors in his wake. His breathing synced with the pounding motion of his fists as he entered the first turn. Sweat formed and glistened on his muscular frame. He could feel his competitors next to him and behind him. Their breathing lapping his, their fists pounding an imaginary table before them as if they were protesting his lead. The chase motivated him, pushed him ahead further from his competitors. They were all there, the track stars from Jamaica, Ethiopia, and China, but they were no match for the farm boy from Kansas. He could feel the sense of pride and joy as he blew through the next few turns and broke the imaginary tape. He could hear the roar of the hometown crowd and feel the envy of his competitors as they stacked across the finish line behind him. He grabbed an American flag and draped it across his body as he did a victory lap and waved to the adoring fans in the crowd. Tears streamed down his face, tears of joy.

Such visualizations helped motivate him, made him keep going despite the incredible odds he faced. He smiled at the thought of realizing these dreams some day. Some day. He shifted his weight on the tailgate of the truck and the shocks on the old truck squeaked in protest. He grabbed the water bottle next to him and took a long swallow of the saccharine-sweet sports drink that left a trail of aftertaste across his tongue. He smacked his lips in displeasure as he put the bottle back on the tailgate. The day had barely begun. Glorious pinks and oranges splashed behind him in the east as the sun peered above the horizon. The cool morning comforted his exposed skin and belied the oncoming hot day that threatened to send everyone indoors. He had to get his training in before the sun got too high or he’d run the risk of dehydration in such perilous summer conditions, but for the moment, he enjoyed the comfortable chill of the morning, the sweet smell of the freshly cut grass in the field, and the pregnant dew that peppered the green strip that ringed the oval.

He took one last swig of water and swallowed it slowly as if he were massaging his dry throat with it. He could feel the anxiety pitted in his stomach. It ached dully. This was the first time he’d been on a track in years, the first time he was going to try to run with his new legs. He looked at the prosthetic legs that sat twisted at the end of the truck bed behind him and a sense of that old despair overwhelmed him. It’d taken him so long to get used to walking in these legs, painfully long. He remembered the first time he put the legs on and how the hard plastic made the stumps of his thighs ache and rubbed the scarred skin raw. He could still feel his old legs, phantoms from a lifetime ago.

The stumps of his legs still shocked him. The smooth skin of his thighs, covered with light reddish hair, seemed normal until it gave way to hairless, chafed skin irritated by the prosthetics. He rubbed his stumps subconsciously with each of his hands, something he’d done so often when he had first returned home from the hospital. He did this to convince himself that his legs were in fact gone. Forever. He winced in pain, more from the thought of what had happened than from any physical pain he actually felt at that moment.

He lay back in his truck bed and reached for his running legs. The “blades” as he called them were curled up on the near the wheel well behind him. He hitched the right one over his head and sat up in one motion. He pushed his right stump into the pocket and attached the leg to his thigh working methodically to attach it correctly and securely. He studied the myriad attachments and gave the leg a slight tug. It clung tightly to his thigh. Satisfied that it was properly attached, he leaned back again to get the other leg and proceeded to attach it just as carefully. Another tug. Another slight smile of satisfaction.

He leaned back and braced himself on his arms to stare at his carbon fiber legs that curled before him. He moved his thighs and the legs dangled over the edge of the tailgate. He took a deep breath. He’d been practicing walking in the new legs during his therapy sessions. He’d even tried running a little on them on a treadmill at therapy, but he’d never run outside in them. That nervous pit in his stomach fired up again.

He looked around the track. He was alone. He’d purposefully woken up early to get out here before anyone else. The summer ensured that most of the high school kids wouldn’t be on the field. Most of them were probably still sleeping. He remembered his lazy summer days as a high school kid staying up well past midnight and sleeping to noon. It didn’t seem that long ago that he was on this track in the spring running laps at speeds that made others stop and stare. Of course, he had his real legs then. Real legs or fake ones, this was the line of demarcation in his relatively short life. He sighed.

The sun rose behind him and glistened off the back of his nearly shaved head. He’d kept the tight haircut ever since he returned home. His red hair had lightened since his high school days, but it still sparkled in the sunlight like a field of wheat, light and golden-red. He heaved himself up onto the spongy legs. He bounced a bit on the tips of the blades, and a dull, throbbing pain tinged the ends of his thighs. He ignored it but braced himself against the tailgate. The hems of his running shorts fell down to the top of the bindings on his thighs. He adjusted his singlet across his torso and tilted his head side to side to stretch out. He summoned the courage to take that first step.

Instead, he stretched his arms above his head and leaned to one side. He’d never been one for warm-up stretches in his track and field days, but it seemed like the thing to do now, anything to delay what he’d come to do. He interlaced his fingers and twisted to each side intermittently. His lean, muscled arms bulged from the loops of his singlet. The shirt hung from his protruding chest like it was desperately trying to contain him. That was another thing that was different from his track and field days. He’d honed his upper body through years of work, but the last 18 months had afforded him much time to focus on his top half, and he’d poured himself into it like he had once dedicated his focus to the 400 meters. The result was impressive, his entire upper half was carved from stone, not body-builder bulbous, but clearly strong and defined. It was the only thing that offset his disappointment about his legs.

With one deep breath, Robert Sims, III took that first tentative step from the edge of the paved lot onto the moist, green grass. Unsteady and unsure, he wavered at the change in the surface, but he soon hit his stride and moved with determination toward the track. His stomach hollered and his mind shouted objections, but he ignored them and stepped onto the rubbery track with a resolve he hadn’t felt since realized what he had to do after 9/11. He had to do this. He had to get himself back to where he was. He had a dream that he didn’t want to die, just like he hadn’t wanted to die on that god-forsaken stretch of desert outside Baghdad.

He perched himself on the blades as if he were balancing on a skateboard. He didn’t trust them enough to feel like they were part of him, and he knew that this would have to change if he was ever going to run again. He had to run again. He bolted from his position in a rickety tick-tack motion that would have been comical had it been any other situation. He felt his balance shift and almost fell before he halted his precarious motion. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply with his hands firmly placed on his hips as he walked back to the starting point. He kept his head down watching the track move below him. Finally, he threw his head back and let out a groan.

He shook his head side to side and bounced on his blades a little trying to loosen himself up. His physical therapist would be angry with him for being out here by himself. She’d told him that he needed to be careful and that he needed to shed his foolish pride and admit that he needed help. The last thing he needed was help. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life as someone who needed help. He’d rather be dead than spend his life tethered to the kindness of those around him. He had too much pride for that. He didn’t give up all he had to fight for his country only to return and depend on it for sustenance. He just didn’t.

He bounced side to side on the blades. The joints crimped his thighs, but he didn’t care. Without another thought he thrust himself forward pumping his arms in that familiar beat. His gait felt uncontrollable like he was on some bumpy ride at the country fair, but he continued forward into the first bend in the track. He kept going straight and tried to shift his momentum into the turn, but he lost his grip on the surface and tumbled to the ground chest first. He placed his hands out in front of him to brace himself for the fall and they scraped across the track stinging like a thousand bees had attacked the heels of his hands. His chin hit the track and rattled his skull. His sunglasses flew in the air from the impact and he rolled into the fall coming to rest just outside the outer white line. He groaned and grunted as he come to a stop.

His head lolled to the side before he let out an exasperated scream. He pushed himself onto his back and lay their staring up at the sky. He screamed again and then realized where he was. He pushed his head up and looked around the track, the field, and the parking lot. No one was around. No one had seen him fall. He felt relieved, but he pounded the track with his fists at his side.

He looked at his thighs with the lifeless blades attached. His prosthetics laid at an angle that would have been grotesque had they been his real legs. He sat up and felt down his legs to the connections. They remained intact but loose. He adjusted the blades to ensure they fit snugly and then he fought his way to his feet. He hated the way he had to struggle to get to his feet in situations like this. He felt helpless, a feeling he despised.

Ignoring the sharp pain in his thighs, he walked back to the starting point bouncing on his blades as if he were trying to stretch them out. The movement wasn’t all that odd considering he often bounced on his toes before big track meets back in his high school and college days. He resumed a starting position frozen in place as he summoned the courage to push forward.

In an instant he bolted forward clumsily again, but this time he navigated the turn and moved into the long stretch of the track gaining speed as he thrust his thighs forward. The blades didn’t feel like a part of him. They were just an aid to get him what he wanted. He pushed harder despite the turn approaching him. He hit the bend in the track and continued with speed unabated. A smile crept into one corner of his mouth as he hit the third turn and didn’t fall. The last long stretch poured out before him and he hefted the blades up and down like pistons fired in an engine. His lungs lagged him and he could feel the exhaustion creeping up on him. He had a long way to go to get back to where he was physically. The obstacles were numerous, but his determination was boundless.

He took the last turn at an uncontrollable speed and tried to halt his forward progress, but he lost his footing again and tumbled onto the edge of the track. The fall wasn’t as unexpected as the first one, nor was it as disappointing. He had done it. He had successfully run one loop around the oval for the first time in over several years. He rolled over on his back and let out a scream, one of joy. He smacked his palms on the track under him and looked up into the blue, cloudless sky. For the first time in a long time, he felt hopeful like the weight of the past few years no longer pressed on him or at least not quiet as oppressively.

He threw his arm over his eyes to shield them from the sunlight. His sunglasses had been thrown from his face on the fall and the bright light was too much, but he didn’t let that dampen his mood. He thought about what he had just done. The possibilities were not just figments of his imagination any longer. They were real. He sat up and adjusted the blades again before he rose to his feet. This time he rose with more confidence although the struggle was the same. He picked up his sunglasses placing them on his face in one smooth motion and returned to his starting point on the track.

For the next hour, he circled the track alternating between a steady, controlled pace and bursts of speed. It was nothing like he had done a lifetime ago, but at least he was moving. At least he was running again.

After a time, the pain in his thighs became too much and he stopped. He ambled over to the grass that ringed the track and dropped himself down onto it. He sat perched on against his arms with the blades strewn out in front of him. He felt the heat of the morning sun upon him and for a moment, before the heat became too much, he basked in the warmth.

No one else had joined him at the track, which surprised him. When he ran in high school and college, the tracks were almost always populated by at least a handful of walkers and runners who ventured out in the morning hours to do their workout. Despite the oncoming heat, it was still a beautiful, comfortable morning conducive to exercise. He spun his head around to see if he had missed someone. He was truly alone. It didn’t matter. He had done what he had come to do, prove to himself that there was still a chance to realize his dream. It wouldn’t be the same as he had originally hoped, but it was still his dream nonetheless. Nothing would stop him. Nothing.