Origins – Chapter 1

For my next project, I’m going to switch genres and dabble with science fiction. This isn’t hardcore science fiction as I will focus more on the characters in the story and much less on the science; although, it will be informed by some research. Think of this as a literary expression with a scientific bent. Here’s the first chapter, which is clearly a draft, but I like to share excerpts here as a way to get feedback and engage the audience in the creation process. As always, feedback is appreciated.

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The angry, red light flashed in the semi-darkness of the cockpit. Jane, the captain of the crew of hardy astronauts, stared at it hopelessly without saying the obvious words that hung between her and her crew. Exhaustion seeped from their eyes. They had reached the point where all the other missions had failed – the same point where the crews had perished in a hail of fire and an obliterated spacecraft. They held their collective breaths waiting for the punch in the face that was sure to come.

The spaceship rumbled and vibrated as the ominous light flashed in a rhythm that mimicked a doomed countdown. Jane could hear it in her head – ten, nine, eight… She tensed up and her head pounded even harder. She had a headache, one that had settled in the back of her skull and had played havoc with her thoughts since they had broken away from earth’s atmosphere. At times, the dull ache lurked in the background, but at other moments, like the one she faced now, it roared in her brain like an angry beast. Every single thought she had funneled through the ache and lost bits of resolution as it appeared in her mind. She felt muddled and lethargic at best like a beast of burden saddled with too much cargo.

Sanjay, the least experienced of the crew who had volunteered for this last-gasp mission because the alternatives were just as awful as his impending fate, watched his captain for any signs of panic. She gave none. She retained her steely gaze and emotionless demeanor, a trait he found off-putting in a woman, but he cast his biases aside and sought comfort in her reaction to their dire situation. He knew the ship needed Jane’s leadership if they were going to survive the entry into Mars’ atmosphere and the hard landing to come. If they made it that far.

Jane had never led a mission to Mars, but she had led many missions into space including an ill-fated one to the moon that had narrowly averted complete disaster thanks to her quick thinking and impeccable calm in the face of certain death. She had been hailed a hero in the Western States of America. Little girls and boys had posters of her, adorned in her crisp astronaut garb, hanging in their bedrooms. She spoke at schools, graduations, and even conferences where hardened businesspeople were reduced to tears when she told the story of how she lost the only man she had ever loved on that doomed mission. She had received many medals and countless accolades for her heroics, and she continued to travel into space as if it were just another job. She could have retired a hero with her picture in the history books and endless articles written about her, but she wanted to push the frontiers of manned space travel.

“What’s going on?” a panicked voice broke into the silence. The four crew members pivoted toward the back of the cockpit and stared wordlessly at Ava Stuart. Jane scowled before she spoke as the ship rumbled and shook as if some giant had discovered it and was attempting to shake them out of it.

“Get back to your seat and strap in!” Jane yelled after a few seconds of blank stares.

“Are we going to make it?”

Sanjay started to express his doubts, but Jane cut him off, “We’ll be fine, but you cannot be out of your seat! It’s too dangerous! Go back now!” She whipped her arm back toward Ava and pointed to the passenger compartment for emphasis.

Ava flinched and stared Jane down for a brief moment. She thought about arguing but decided against it. She pushed herself back grasping the walls along the rattling spacecraft and disappearing from the crew’s sight. She muttered to herself, angry for letting Jane speak to her so harshly. “Bitch,” she thought.

Ava had fought hard to be part of this historic mission. Initially, she had been beaten out for the two civilian slots on the ship by her arrogant and insufferable colleague Mitchell Deerdorff, but Deerdorff couldn’t handle the training and preparation for the trip, so the slot fell the Ava. She knew she was a better linguist than Deerdorff, but she couldn’t help but feel like she had been slighted professionally. The situation cast her as an underdog and sharpened an edge in her that cut the wrong way with many of her shipmates.

For her part, Jane was dismayed that Ava would even consider questioning her authority or the crew’s competence. She had not liked the idea of including two civilians on this trip, but Ava and Wally were deemed necessary if this mission to Mars was to be successful, assuming they actually made it to the surface alive. Wally proved quiet and reserved, usually doing exactly as he was told out of fear of endangering the mission. Jane liked the control she had over him. Ava challenged her, pushed her, and Jane did not like it one bit.

“Maintain position!” Jane commanded.

“We should pull back, Jane! It’s too risky!” Olivia shouted through the din of the groaning ship.

“No! We can make it!” Jane replied forcefully. She glanced at her co-pilot for a moment before she returned her focus to the controls and the flashing red light. The light mesmerized her. She found an odd comfort in its rhythm despite the warning it conveyed. It was like the flicker of a lighthouse in a dense fog.

“Olivia’s right! It’s too dangerous!” Sanjay interjected. “What do you think Frederick?” Sanjay looked to his left at his always-somber colleague. Frederick blinked and stared back as if he had been awakened from a dream only to be plunged into a nightmare.

“We do as Jane says!” he yelled just as the ship throttled forward and shifted violently toward one side like the bottom had fallen out. Olivia yelped and grasped at the wall next to her even though she was securely strapped into her seat.

“Damn it, Jane, we’re not going to make it!” she yelled fueled by the anger of feeling helpless.

Jane turned to Olivia and sucked in air before she steadied herself. “Lieutenant Warner, calm down and focus! We can do this! Remember all the training we went through! Focus on your training! We can do this!”

The rattle and roar of the spaceship became louder and more pronounced as the ship hurtled toward Mars’ atmosphere. Sanjay glanced out the window of the craft and gulped. He had a sinking feeling that he had found his end either in the space above Mars or on its inhospitable surface. He had been prepared to die, but now that he was staring death in the face, he felt less sure. His resolve began to crumble, and he wanted to cry. He looked at Jane, her face placid yet pained. He wouldn’t cry in front of a woman.

“Frederick, give us some more thrust!” Jane commanded. Frederick looked at her as if he was translating her words into his own language, he was European, but English was his first of many languages. He blinked twice before he reached out to the controls and pushed a lever away from him. The ship shook and the entire crew could feel the momentum propel them forward with blunt force like a dull ax striking a firm young tree.

The darkness gave way to a glare outside the ship like a distant fire on the horizon. The colors both fascinated and horrified the astronauts as they looked on with great trepidation. Olivia’s hands shook noticeably as she monitored her bank of controls. Her voice began to waver when she spoke, so she kept her words clipped and efficient when she responded to Jane or the others as they prepared to cut through Mars’ atmosphere. She felt little hope that they would survive. The ship heaved under the stress like a hulking, beached whale taking its last few breaths. The warning light had been flashing since they reached the farthest edge of the red planet. Olivia felt her constricted heart beat in step with the pulse of the light. She feared she couldn’t breathe as panic rose from the darkness to pull her under.

Accepting her imminent death wasn’t something Olivia had thought much about when she had taken on this mission. She had wanted to be on one of Jane’s crews since the beginning of her career as an astronaut. Jane was her hero, someone she looked up to and admired, but she had only met the woman once in her entire time in the Western States space program. Her assignments were always small ones into the outer atmosphere of earth to collect samples and observe the tumultuous weather patterns that had erupted on the planet since the climate began shifting dramatically at the beginning of the century. She had only been to the moon once despite spending more than a decade in the space program. She had been a rookie astronaut when Jane led the doomed mission back from the moon. In Jane she saw the strong woman she wanted to be, and now she was the second in command on what was sure to be the last attempt at a manned mission to Mars.

Frederick looked out the window to his left. The glare from the atmosphere almost blinded him. He blinked repeatedly and thought of his wife and children left behind on earth. He had taken this assignment for them, to ensure his kids would have a future even if it was on a distant planet that seemed harsh and unkind. Earth had once been hospitable, but the changing climate had torn it apart in ways he could have never imagined when he himself was a child. Now his kids, like all other people on the planet, faced almost certain extinction as the havoc wrought by climate change had taken its toll on their home. He breathed in deeply and sighed to himself almost resigned to his fate. The spacecraft shook violently and he braced himself against his seat despite being strapped in tightly.

“Frederick, are the thrusters at full power?” Jane asked.

“Yes. They’re maxed out!” he yelled over the rising noise.

“Brace yourselves! We’re entering the atmosphere in ten, nine, eight…” Jane counted calmly.

The spacecraft shifted violently and for a brief moment Jane thought it had been broken in half. The glaring light that had been on the horizon engulfed the ship and blinded its occupants. The astronauts shielded their eyes with their arms in unison as if they were performing some morbid dance. Jane could hear Ava crying into the internal microphone that linked them all together.

“Hang on! We will make it!” Jane yelled in her bravest voice. She didn’t believe it herself, but she had trained herself to stay outwardly positive no matter the situation. Her demeanor had saved her and most of her crew on that ill-fated trip to the moon. She had been hailed a hero after that mission, but she counted it as one of her greatest failures despite the fact that five of the six people on that disabled craft had miraculously made it back to the surface of the earth safely. Of course, the one who didn’t make it, Lieutenant Bradley Bell, had mattered most to her. She had never forgiven herself for not bringing Brad home. The look on his daughter’s face when she saw her at the hospital afterward would forever be seared in her memory. She had failed the ones she loved most, and to her that was unforgivable.

The roar around the spacecraft increased and the shaking intensified. Besides Ava’s wailing, the others remained quiet – at least on the comm system. Jane turned away from the light to glance at her crew. Olivia tilted her head down with her eyes closed as if in prayer. Frederick blinked into the light before them mesmerized by the glare and the imminent fate that awaited them. Sanjay stared back at her in his foreboding way. She had never liked Sanjay, but her commanders insisted that he be on the mission. He had received very high marks from all that had worked with him. He was considered one of the best by all the men he worked with, but Jane felt he had an issue with women. She sensed it in the way he took orders from her and the way every single request was taken as an affront to his manhood.

Sanjay acknowledged her with a slight nod. Tears puddled in his eyes. Jane was shocked by his display of emotion, something he’d shown no signs of in the years that she’d known and worked with him. He could be charming and engaging, but he was also arrogant and chauvinistic. She felt a perplexing kindred connection with him at that moment in spite of the things she knew he had said about her.

Nothing he had said was really new to her. She’d always been accused of being like a man. “Plain Jane” was the moniker that others, especially men, used behind her back. She knew this because she heard it in the whispers back at the base. Throughout her career, even after the heroic moon mission, many of her colleagues referred to her as Plain Jane as if it were a phrase that completely defined her. None of her male colleagues had to deal with such a dismissive attitude.

When she had first heard this encapsulation of who she was, she became enraged, but there was nothing she could do to stop it. She was who she was. She felt as feminine as any other woman, but she refused to kowtow to outdated expectations for her gender. It was 2099 for goodness’ sake. Hadn’t enough time passed to toss out preconceived notions about women? Hadn’t her gender achieved the pinnacle of success without having to apologize for their differences, without being compared to men?

Despite all the progress, her life was still defined by how others’ perceived her. She resented the Plain Jane nickname. She really hated it, but she resigned herself to ignore it and go about her business in the best way she knew how. Her father had always told her that doing would quiet her detractors more quickly than talking, and she had taken that to heart. “Doing” pervaded her entire career. Her approach, thanks to her beloved father, had driven her success, but the detractors still encircled her like a pack of hungry wolves. All of these thoughts throttled the dull ache in her head and she grimaced.

Sanjay turned away from her as if he was fed up with the battle that raged in the subconscious space between them or maybe he thought she had grimaced because of him. She stared at him for a brief moment before she turned her attention back to the flashing red light. She tried to focus on it hoping that it would distract her from her headache. She braced herself in her seat. The ship jarred left and she heard Wally cry out. The moment of truth had arrived. Either they would perish in the volatile atmosphere above Mars or they would plummet to the surface in a last-gasp effort to preserve the human race. There was no middle ground. The ship rocked and the roar of entry consumed them. Everything went black in a violent whiplash. The angry beast had swallowed them whole.

The Boy in the Rubble

I’m posting the pivotal chapter in my current novel, The Fire Within. I’d appreciate your feedback either through email or in the comments section below. This is the moment where the main character’s life takes a dramatic turn, which sets the stage for all that is to come.

“Stop the Humvee!” Bobby yelled at the driver who crept slowly along the road north of Baghdad.

“What the hell, Flash!? No!” the driver yelled back. “We’re in fucking no-man’s land here. I’m not stopping!” The driver surveyed the area around them quickly, but no one appeared to be lurking in the endless desert that engulfed them.

“There’s something out there in the wreckage! Stop the fucking vehicle now!” Bobby screamed becoming increasingly irritated.

“What is it?” another Ranger asked.

“It looks like a kid and he’s still alive. I can see movement.”

The Ranger, Todd Blevins, also known as Black because of his coal black hair, peered through the window of the Humvee following Bobby’s line of sight. A single wall wavered in the steamy desert heat smoldering among the ruins of the bombed out building. The acrid smell of war mixed with human waste and flesh permeated the air. Black crinkled his nose and squinted at the horizon trying to confirm a visual.

“I can’t see it,” Black said.

“It’s nothing. We can’t stop. Not here,” the driver said impatiently. The driver was Sergeant Sam Baker. Everyone called him Twitch for his preternatural edginess. Bobby wondered how Twitch ever made it through Ranger school.

Twitch’s emphatic nervousness aggravated Bobby. He knew what he saw. They were at war, but they were still human. They had an obligation to preserve human life where possible, especially when it involved children. Bobby thought of his nephews and nieces and how precious they were. He couldn’t imagine leaving a child out in this blazing heat to die alone. No one was around to help him, at least no one that was visible from the Humvee.

“Stop the damn vehicle, Twitch, or I’m fucking jumping out myself!” Bobby yelled.

Black touched his arm as if to hold Bobby back, but the contact was more to calm him down rather than hold him back. Bobby’s threat troubled him, but he trusted the young soldier’s instincts because they’d been right time and again.

“Wait I see it!” Corporal Mike Anderson said as he peered out the passenger window from the front. “Over there next to the wall. You can see his head moving. He watching us.”

Bobby relaxed a little. Mike had been one of his best friends since Ranger school. He always had his back. He trusted Mike, loved him like the brother he never had.

As if on cue, Black caught sight of the young boy at that moment. He pulled rank. “Twitch, stop the vehicle!”

Twitch considered arguing but thought better of it. Instead, he sighed heavily and slowly came to a stop. Black radioed the Humvee behind them to let the men know what was happening. They confirmed that they saw the boy, too.

“Drive to the right so we can get closer. I don’t want to have to walk too far without cover,” Black ordered. Twitch complied but he shook his head slightly and tightened his lips across his face as he did so. Disagreement contorted his face. He slowly guided the vehicle right as it bounced on the broken roadway. The passengers grabbed handles near the doors to maintain their upright positions. Twitch mumbled something unintelligible.

“Eagle 2, we’re going to pull up right here. Mike and Flash are going to get out and assess the situation,” Black talked into his radio. “Stay back and hold your position.”

“We’ll cover, sir,” one of the men in the other Humvee said.

Bobby looked at Black and then to Twitch who shook his head slightly.

“This is fucking crazy. All for some little shit who could be waiting to kill us,” Twitch said. Disdain dripped from his voice. “This could be a fucking trap. They don’t care about life here.”

“It looks like a little boy from here. I doubt he’s dangerous,” Bobby returned.

“You never know. What the hell happened here? Did we bomb this area?” Twitch asked.

“I don’t think so,” Black said. “It may have been some infighting.”

Twitch came to a stop at the closest point along the road to the child who lay about a hundred feet to the right of the Humvee. The tailing vehicle stopped well behind the lead.

Black looked at Bobby. “Alright, Flash, Mike, let’s check it out. Be careful but move as fast as possible. We’re only supposed to be patrolling the area, not conducting humanitarian missions. If I tell you to get back to the vehicle, you get back ASAP.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bobby said as he tapped Mike on the shoulder in the seat in front of him. “You ready?”

“Let’s do this,” Mike replied.

Both men opened the doors to the Humvee and stepped out cautiously. They said nothing but panned the perimeter around them. Other than the burned out building before them, there was nothing but sand, endless and relentless. The smoldering building, or what remained of it, provided the only contrast to the blindingly hot sand against the muted, unhappy blue sky. The pollution made everything appear dingy, and the heat made everything reek like rot, human or otherwise. Bobby could feel the sun searing his helmet. Sweat trickled down his back, but it was too warm to chill him.

Bobby’s heart pounded in his chest. He’d never gotten used to these situations. He was four months into his six-month deployment, but it never got easier for him. The same tense nervousness that filled every nook and cranny of his body now had shook him for much of his deployment. He couldn’t even use the latrine without feeling unease, dread. Something, it seemed, lurked around every corner. Something bad.

“You want me to lead?” Mike asked.

“I got it.” Bobby took one tentative step forward and then another. He could hear the rattle of the weapons from the guys in the other Humvee off in the distance. They stood around the vehicle and surveyed the surroundings carefully. The sun and sand stared back at all of them nonplussed.

Mike and Bobby closed the distance between the Humvee and the boy quickly. Before Bobby even reached the child, he knew the boy was no threat. He couldn’t have been more than four years old. He was scrawny with toothpick legs that were exposed beneath his torn pants. Both legs were scratched and scarred badly, and he could see that the boy’s knees were misaligned in an unnatural way. His shirt was missing and he had a bloody wound near his right shoulder that exposed muscle and bone. His body was covered in scrapes in bruises and he looked dazed beneath a wad of thick, wavy dark hair. He was soaked in the thin black smoke that stifled the air around him. Fear filled his eyes when he caught sight of Bobby coming toward him. He groaned and whined in the same instant as he tried to turn away, but the pain in his shoulder and legs pinned him to the ground like a tiny bear clamped in the throes of a vicious trap.

“It’s okay…it’s okay,” Bobby assured him as he bent down on one knee beside the boy. The boy shrieked meekly, but Bobby held up his hands as if to say he meant no harm. The boy tried to scamper away, but he simply shuffled his feet. He’d lost a lot of blood. Bobby felt a pang of agony rise in his heart. He doubted the boy would make it; they were too late. War had not made death any easier for Bobby. He’d seen plenty is his four months on the ground, but it had simply forced him to stare it in the eyes, not accept it or become numb to it.

He swung his rifle behind him so that only the strap showed across his uniform. He could feel the weight of it on his shoulder, but he hoped the boy would feel less scared if the weapon wasn’t poised between them. He bent down next to the boy to get a closer look, and the boy started when Bobby touched his shoulder. His dark eyes were wide and frightened. They darted between Bobby and Mike. He whimpered ever so slightly as if he were trying to be quiet to avoid being noticed.

“How’s he look?” Mike asked. Mike stood erect behind Bobby panning the area with his gun before him. If this was an ambush, Mike would be prepared. He signaled an okay to the Humvees. Black returned the gesture.

“He’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him to the hospital.”

“You think he’ll make it?”

“I don’t know. He has a deep shoulder laceration and his legs appear broken.”

The boy whimpered again, but he didn’t try to escape.

“We’ll have to put him in Eagle 2. They have the room.”

“I know.” Mike turned his head toward his radio and pressed the button. “Eagle 2 we’re bringing the kid to you.” He let go of the button and the radio cackled as if it resisted the idea.

“Okay, hurry up. There’s an unknown vehicle approaching from the west. We just put visuals on it. It doesn’t look friendly,” Sergeant Matthews replied anxiously. Matthews was a fourth generation Army veteran with sharp instincts and a brusque manner. He was not a man the soldiers ignored.

Bobby surveyed the area around the child. The building or home had collapsed on itself and part of it had burned. He couldn’t see anyone else around. He stood up to get a better look.

“What’s wrong?” Mike asked.

“Where are his parents?”

“They must have been killed or captured when whatever happened here went down.”

“We need to find his mother.”

Mike shook his head. “Didn’t you hear what Matthews said? There’s an enemy vehicle approaching. We need to move.”

“We can’t separate this boy from his mother.”

“She’s not here! If she is, she’s dead.”

“You don’t know that. She could be trapped in there,” Bobby said nodding toward the collapsed building.

“We don’t have time. Get the boy and let’s move!”

Bobby stood up with the boy at his feet. The boy stared at him and closed his eyes slowly as if he was giving in to it all. Bobby watched his chest for a moment to make sure he was still breathing and then he stepped away from him toward the building.

“Where are you going?”

“I have to look for his mother.”

“Flash! She’s fucking dead or otherwise she’d be right her with her kid. Come back here!” Mike shuffled in place and looked back at Black and Twitch. The radio burst to life.

“Mike, Flash! Let’s get the kid back to Eagle 2 now!”

Mike looked at Bobby and then back toward the Humvees as if he didn’t know what to do, but it was too late. Bobby had quickly made his way to the rubble and began looking through the gaps in the fallen walls. The place still smelled like scorched wood. Parts of the building were blackened and smoldering, but no flames burned.

“Flash! Let’s get the boy!”

Bobby ignored him and continued to scour the ruins for the boy’s mother.

The radio cackled and two voices came on at once muffled and intertwined into a confusing babble of words. Mike reached for the button to say something, but then Black’s voice came through loud and clear.

“We have an unknown vehicle approaching from the west about 500 yards away. We need you back to Eagle 1 ASAP. Do you copy?” Black’s voice boomed with anger.

“Flash!” Mike screamed. “Flash! We have to get the fuck out of here.”

Matthews came on the radio and Bobby could hear intermittent words, but they were mostly broken.

“Flash! Let’s go!” Mike yelled again.

Bobby took one more step under an angled wall out of Mike’s sight and then he saw her. The boy’s mother. She had to be his mother. She had the same angular features and piercing black eyes as the boy. Bobby wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t help but stare at her. Her hijab had been torn away from her head and her hair billowed beneath her lifeless body as if she were playfully lying on the ground. A large stone portion of the building had crushed her chest and obscured her from the shoulders down. Blood drained from her pale face and the horror still registered in her wide open eyes. She stared up as if praying for her son. Bobby closed his eyes and shook his head imperceptibly.

“God damn it, Flash!” an agitated Mike yelled. Bobby could no longer see Mike, but he knew the familiar scowl that Mike wore when he was upset.

Bobby mumbled a quick prayer and turned away. Mike stood a few yards behind him, tense and on his toes. He quickly returned to the boy and lifted him up into his arms. The child didn’t resist. He felt as light as the house cat his mother kept back at home.

“His mother’s dead,” Bobby said solemnly.

“I told you.”

“She was crushed.”

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” Mike ignored him as they closed the distance between the building and Eagle 2. The horror of it all was lost on Mike. He’d seen enough tragedy play out in his first few weeks on the ground that he had become numb to it all.

“God damn it, Flash! You’ve put us in a dangerous situation!” yelled Matthews as the two men approached. Another solider took the boy from Bobby and put him in the Humvee.

“I had to look for his mother!” Bobby yelled.

Matthews ignored him. “Let’s move!”

The men in Eagle 2 jumped into their Humvee as Bobby and Mike backed away and then ran to Eagle 1. Black’s greeting was no less enthusiastic.

“What the fuck were you doing out there, Flash!? You put us all in danger! I told you when I said ‘get back,’ you get the fuck back. Was I not clear?”

Before Bobby could respond, the radio interjected.

“Unknown vehicle still positioned about 500 yards to the south. There’s some activity outside the vehicle. Several men are milling around and watching us. They have weapons. Do you want to engage?”

Black paused and looked at Bobby before he looked back to Eagle 2.

“No, do not engage unless you are engaged first.”

The radio fell silent. Bobby imagined Matthews cursing Black and Bobby. Matthews always wanted to engage. He seemed all too happy to kill.

Bobby joined Mike in the Humvee and shut the flimsy door behind him.

“Let’s move!” Black said to Twitch. “Stay right and let’s see if the vehicle follows us.”

Twitch put the Humvee in gear and eased right on the rutted road.

“Eagle 1, where are you going?” Matthews said through the radio.

Black shook his head disdainfully before he pressed the button on his radio. “Let’s head east and circle back around toward the base. I want to see if they follow us. This could be an ambush.”

Bobby looked back at Eagle 1 still parked in the space it had been just moments earlier. Beyond that he could see the other vehicle in the distance. Those men still stood outside as if they were guarding the road to the west.

Mike surveyed the horizon with binoculars. He mumbled something to himself that Bobby didn’t quite understand.

“You see anything?” Black said to Mike.

“Not yet.”

Black was anxious as he swiveled around the backseat of the Humvee looking for potential enemy combatants. They were on patrol trying to keep the area secure. They weren’t authorized to pursue enemies. Two Humvees with marginal weapons weren’t prepared for a full-scale engagement. Black radioed their base and relayed information to the command center.

“Sir, there’s a vehicle now approaching the east,” Mike said abruptly.

Black stopped talking and peered toward the east. He couldn’t see anything yet. “Where?” he asked.

“Over the horizon about a mile out.”

Black and Bobby squinted in that direction as the Humvee moved very slowly over the rutted road. Bobby didn’t see anything. He looked back to Eagle 2, which had just started moving into position behind their vehicle but remained 200 yards behind it.

Twitch turned to Black and said, “We should turn south toward the base.”

Black angled his head toward the radio clipped to his chest and spoke into it. “Matthews. Has that vehicle changed position?”

“No, it’s still there. It looks like the men are sitting on top of it. It appears they aren’t planning to come closer.”

Black sighed. “Turn south up ahead. Let’s get back to base.”

“Eagle 2 we’re heading back to base.”

“Got it. We’ll be right behind you,” Matthews said.

Twitch slowed to a stop at the turn in the road and eased the vehicle onto the smoother surface of the road heading south. Bobby stared out the window toward the west at Eagle 2 as it started moving again. He could see the other vehicle further in the distance. One of the men stood on top of the hood and peered at the convoy through binoculars as if he were studying their movement.

“The vehicle in the east has stopped,” Mike announced.

“Any sign of movement outside the vehicle?” Black asked.

“They’re outside now.”

“Any weapons?”

“Looks like they have only automatic rifles, no RPGs.”

“Let’s just get back to base,” Black mumbled.

Mike put down the binoculars and looked at the road ahead. Twitch hummed absently as he maneuvered the Humvee over a pocked portion of the road. The radio hissed and fumed in the silence as all four men sat tense in their seats trying to interpret what the enemy was doing. The area was supposed to be clear. Iraqi forces had long been pushed out by the ceaseless bombing.

Mike turned completely around in his seat and faced Bobby for the first time since they had returned to the vehicle. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’ve been quiet.”

“Just thinking about the mother.”

The radio came to life suddenly and Matthews’ gargled voice filled the vehicle. “We have sight of vehicles coming from the north. Both have fixed weapons on top.”

“Fuck,” Black mumbled. He looked through the back of the vehicle but he could see nothing through the smudged window.

“Eagle 2 is still a ways back,” Bobby said to no one in particular as he peered out his side window. Mike was still turned toward the back facing Black and Bobby as if he was waiting for instructions. Their vehicle jolted and squeaked on the uneven road as Twitch slowed to navigate around a hole. Bobby started to say something to Mike who had a look of concern on his face.

The words had formed on his lips and his breath had lurched forward to propel them from his mouth, but in the instant he started to speak, a blinding blackness consumed the vehicle. A rush of intense heat surged upward and Bobby could feel the burning pain on his legs and chest. He felt the impact of the sand against his back but all he could see was darkness. His lungs burned and he couldn’t breathe. He felt like he was sucking in smoke. His mind raced as he struggled to find air. He gasped, but the pain was too much. It overwhelmed him and he lost consciousness.

Matthews saw the whole thing clearly from Eagle 2. His vehicle had closed the gap some with Eagle 1 after he saw the enemy combatants approaching from the north. He had just radioed Black and told him about the positions in the north. Matthews had told the driver to get closer and had the road not been so rutted they would have likely been on Eagle 1’s bumper by the time the IED had exploded.

The blast tore through the center of the Humvee ripping it in half in a fireball of an explosion. Matthews saw one of the Rangers fly from the vehicle and land in flames on the sand. The others remained in the burning carcass.

Without thinking, the driver stopped Eagle 2 and the three men bolted from the Humvee with their weapons at their side. Matthews hurriedly looked around to see if any of the other vehicles were approaching. None were.

“Eyes on the ground!” Matthews yelled to the other two soldiers. They didn’t need to step on any other IEDs. They crept toward the vehicle which burned rapidly. Matthews side-stepped it and rushed to the soldier who had been thrown from the vehicle.

He knew it was Flash the moment he approached the scorched body. He was unconscious and the legs of his pants still flickered with flames. Matthews batted the flames until they died away. The force that had flung him from the vehicle had rolled him in the sand extinguishing much of the fire that had consumed him after the explosion.

“Flash! Flash! Can you hear me?” He looked down at Bobby’s blackened face. He felt his neck for a pulse and could faintly feel one. He turned to the other two soldiers to yell for them to help him get Bobby back to their Humvee when he noticed Bobby’s legs.

From the knee down on both of his legs, the bone, muscle, and tissue had been shredded. His feet were completely gone and the dangling, burned flesh made Matthews want to wretch. He’d seen death before, many times, but something about the grotesque injury made feel sick. He winced in phantom pain.

Bobby moaned and his head rolled to the side away from Matthews.

“Flash!” Matthews said. He put his hands on Bobby’s face and pulled it toward him. “Stay with us, man! We’re going to get you out of here!” he yelled over the crackle and seething Humvee behind them. “Barnes! Mack! Get over here and help me get Flash to the vehicle!”

The other two soldiers stared at the burning Humvee helplessly entranced. Only the insistent screams of their commanding officer pulled them from the horror of the other three bodies entombed in the burning vehicle. One of the soldiers looked like he was still screaming as the flames reduced him to blackened bone. The other two were unrecognizable as human figures, blown to bits by a horrific explosion.

Barnes and Mack helped Matthews get Bobby back to the Humvee. Mack expertly guided the hulking vehicle back the way they had come as Barnes vigilantly watched the horizon for any advancing enemy vehicles. None came. They stayed put as if they were satisfied with the haul of their violence, content with three causalities and possibly a fourth if the one thrown from the vehicle didn’t make it.

Back at the base in the makeshift medical tent, the doctors worked frantically to save Bobby. He wavered in and out of consciousness as the chaos of people and machines whirred around him. He only remembered Matthew’s face hovering near his pleading for him to hang on. He felt Matthew’s rough hand around his and it reminded him of his grandfather, the war veteran who had died when he was just seven years old.

His grandfather bent down toward him and smiled his rare, but boisterous smile. His white hair waved in the wind, and he looked as alive as he was months before the heart attack claimed him.

“I’m proud of you, son. You’ve served your country. Now, hang in there. A good soldier never gives up,” his grandfather said.

“Papa…” Bobby muttered. “Papa…”

Bobby’s head lolled to one side and machines beeped in earnest. The tempo of the doctors increased and Matthews was pushed back as more doctors and nurses descended on the soldier.

“Is he going to make it?” Matthews asked fearful of the answer that he’d get.

“We need you to step outside, Sir,” one of the doctors said.

Matthews started to resist, but the doctor ignored him and grabbed the paddles next to the gurney. “Clear!” he yelled.

Bobby’s body jolted upward and Matthews turned away. He stepped outside and took a deep breath. Tears streamed down his face and he hurriedly wiped them away. He sat down on the ground next to the medical tent and prayed for his friend. Only God could save him now.

The Vanishing

My first novel is called The Vanishing.  It’s a heart-breaking story about an older woman who is pushed to the brink of murder-suicide by her husband’s debilitating disease.  The story is told in first person and explores the mental breakdown and recovery of the main character as she struggles with feelings of isolation and desperation when the man she has loved for so many years slowly disappears before her eyes, a victim of frontotemporal dementia.  While the plot is glum, this is not a story of a grisly murder-suicide, it is a love story told from a different angle and a story about choices and the random imperfections that permeate our lives.  Every literary fiction writer hopes to hold a mirror up to the world and show it as it is no matter how grim the reality, but he also hopes to show the humanity of it all and demonstrate the amazing perseverance that exists in all of us.  That is my hope with Vanishing.  Below is the first chapter of the book.  I’m currently working through revisions based on the feedback I’ve received.

***

My father was fond of saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve always hated that trite proverb, but he was a true believer in it. He had to be. He suffered more than most in his life, but that attitude defined him and gave him a surreal sense of strength that both sheltered and propelled me in my own life. But I’m not my father. I have only a fraction of the strength that he had, a strength that seems to be diminishing day by day. Eventually, something does kill you. Eventually.

I never imagined it would come to this. I really didn’t. I’ve been to hell and back, and I thought I had survived, but I really hadn’t. I’ve simply been suspended in a purgatory of sorts ambling my way back from despair only to be pushed back down into the hole of hopelessness once again. It’s unbearable really. I think about my father, long gone from this world, and the twin tragedies he endured. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t think I can go on like this. Not this way. Not without my husband, my real husband, not the one that’s asleep down the hall from me now.

I stand on my tip-toes stretching to reach the tan metal box on the top shelf of the closet. My fingertips barely touch the cold metal as I finger walk the box down to the palms of my hands. I can feel the weight of the box shift abruptly to the thickness of my palms. It feels unexpectedly heavy, maybe more so because of the significance of its contents. My weight shifts back to my heels. My tired, old legs feel overstretched and exhausted after only a few seconds of exertion. That’s the norm for me these days. I feel so old.

I walk gingerly over to a chair and plop my aching body down upon it placing the the box carefully on the desk nearby as I do so. I sit up on the edge of the chair and look forlornly at the box. It’s been a long time since I’ve opened it. I’m fearful of what lies in it. I feel like I’m in a car speeding toward a collision and I can’t find the brakes. Instead, I just watch the impending crash come my way in slow motion. It’s a very disorienting feeling. I wish I could stop it, but I can’t.

I sit back in the chair completely and look away from the box. My senses are attuned to everything around me. A dim strand of sunlight dances across the wall in front of me brightening the dull light of the early morning. The blinds behind me are shut tightly squeezing out the prying eyes of the rising sun save for this lone strand. I stare at it for a bit longer. It’s the only bright spot in an otherwise semi-dark room. The pale blue color of the walls is barely discernible, but the beautiful, white crown molding glistens slightly in the morning light. This bedroom once held my hopes for the future, but it has long since been delegated to functional purposes, mainly as Marty’s office, but he has no use for it anymore. Not in his condition. I frown at this thought.

My legs dangle from the side of the chair protruding from my nightgown. They are pale and splotchy and have the puffy look of someone who is too sedentary for her own good. These legs were once smooth and beautiful, but like everything else they have given in to the ravenous appetite of time. I wince at the thought of considering myself old even though I don’t think that sixty-one is that old. I often look in the mirror and wonder where the younger version of me went. I can’t believe it’s me in that mirror. My smooth skin has given way to wrinkles and skin that sags around my eyes and chin. My long, brown hair barely hangs down to the nape of my neck, not by choice but by acquiescence, and it’s no longer brown but gray. There’s no fullness to it – at least not naturally. It just drapes around my head flat and hapless as if it too has given up on life. I’ve secretly wondered during my solemn fits of despair if my hair is an unconscious expression of how I feel, beaten and lifeless.

I look askew at the box as it seemingly mocks my determination, my doubts. I try to distract myself from these thoughts. I can hear the gurgling coffee maker down the hall finishing up its last ruminations. The aroma of the coffee wafts into this room and greets me, pulls me away from this moment. I love that smell. It’s very comforting and relaxing, feelings that are juxtaposed with the anxiety and despair I feel now. Such contrasts are not so uncommon these days.

The box can wait, at least for a moment. I need some coffee. I need to relax one last time before I take that step off the cliff. I deserve that much. I owe it to myself and Marty to think this through a little more. I’m normally decisive, determined, and strong-willed. I always have been, but today, the attrition of despair has chastened me and ripped away that fickle veneer. I’m just my unvarnished and raw self now, a fraud exposed.

I look down the hall at our bedroom door. It’s only partially open, but I listen for any signs that Marty is stirring. It’s still way too early for him to be awake. He doesn’t get up early anymore – he hasn’t in several years. I don’t hear anything, and I’m relieved. I have time. I can think about this.

I plod down the hallway toward the kitchen sliding my slippered feet along the smooth, shiny surface of the hardwood floor. Trickles of sunlight brighten the wall along my right side as it opens into the main living area. I love this house. This old, beautiful house was new when we moved into it almost thirty years ago, and while it’s not as pristine as it once was, it exudes more comfort than anything else in my life. The warm, muted colors on the walls shine in the morning light and flow so nicely from the hallway into the living room and the kitchen. The crown molding throughout the house gives it an elegant appeal, a sturdiness of craftsmanship that suggests it was built to weather any storm. There have been many storms. I’ve always had an eye for decorating, and I’ve put my heart and soul into this house. I’ve made it our home. It’s clearly an expression of the elusive perfection that I have sought in my life.

At the other end of the hall, our bedroom and the adjoining bathroom take up that entire side of the house. The hallway ends at the feet of the double doors to that great room, my favorite room in the house. Our cavernous bedroom with its light green walls has always relaxed me. An over-sized leather chair with an ottoman sits in one corner near the large window that takes up most of the wall on that side of the room. Like the house, the chair is old, but its large leather maw has often enveloped me in its comfort shielding me from the travails of my life. And the bed. The big, comfortable bed, the centerpiece of my bedroom, sits firmly in the middle of the room with its myriad pillows and brightly-colored, goose down duvet. The other furniture in the room, the chest of drawers and the nightstands, looks meek by comparison, but together they complete the essence of our home. I truly love this house. I love the memories my husband and I have here. The good ones anyway.

I can’t quite shake this melancholy mood. Even the smell of fresh, hot coffee, something I’ve always loved and that’s always energized me, fails to rid me of my dour state of mind even for a brief moment this morning. It’s not unusual for me to be sad nowadays. It permeates everything I do, but this morning the weight of the sadness seems unbearable. I’ve been down this road many times over the last few years. Losing Marty, or at least the Marty I knew, has been tough.

For some reason our wedding vows ring in my head. ‘Til death do us part. What does that mean exactly? I used to think it was so clear and certain, that we’d love and cherish each other until one of us, preferably both of us, stopped breathing, but now I know there are some worse things than the certainty of death. Death is forgiving. It’s exact and tangible. You feel it deep in your soul. You grieve. Life goes on for the survivors. For now, I’m a survivor only in the sense that I haven’t completely given up. But I want to give up. Now. This feeling of wanting the pain to stop just won’t go away.

The coffee doesn’t help and the beautiful sunrise that slowly brightens my entire kitchen and enshrines me in a golden glow does nothing to ease the burden that weighs on my soul. I pour myself a bowl of cereal and sit in front of the television to watch the Today show. I can see Matt Lauer and Ann Curry on the screen, but their words escape me. It’s like I’m under water watching the show and I’m unable to hear them or see them clearly. I chomp my cereal slowly as if my mouth is numb. The waves of the water I’m drowning in whip my body casually side to side. Much like a jelly fish, I can’t control it. I can only go where the waves take me. The waves have been relentless and I’ve endured about all I can take. The drowning sensation seems so real that I’m afraid to take a breath for fear that it will be my last. My breath hitches in between bites of cereal.

I think I hear a bump down the hall in our bedroom. This rouses me from my funk at least temporarily. My ears perk up listening for confirmation that Marty is awake. None comes. I’m not worried that he has silently risen from the bed and is wandering about the house. He’s incapable of such stealth movements. Besides, it’s just after 7 AM, way too early for Marty to wake. Of course, the real Marty would have been up for two hours by now and accomplished more than most people would have during their whole day. Instead, he just sleeps. He sleeps a lot lately, and when he’s not sleeping, he sits in his recliner staring unaware at the TV. I don’t even think he can comprehend the TV anymore. Maybe he just likes the visual ambiance, the flitting movement of colorful objects across a live picture frame. Maybe, somewhere in that deteriorating mind of his, it reminds him of a life he no longer has, one that has slipped away slowly and is now no longer recognizable. This thought does nothing to alleviate my sadness.

I try to ignore the drowning sensation as I drink more coffee and eat another bowl of cereal. I watch more of the Today show. A young couple discusses their wedding day and professes their undying love for each other as Ann smiles and pitches softball questions their way. I’m not sure how this is news, but I guess that’s not the point of the Today show anyway. I wish this couple the best of luck out loud to no one but these walls around me. Out loud is probably an exaggeration. It’s a mumble really.

“Watch out for that ’til death do us part bit. It’s not as definitive as you may think,” I say aloud. No one is there to challenge me or hear my comments. I feel faintly better for having spoken my mind to the ether.

My coffee cup sits empty on the coffee table. The appropriateness of that strikes me as funny, and I smile to no one in particular. I’ve earned this smile, but it quickly fades at the thought of Marty asleep down the hall. The nurse will be here in a little over an hour and my usual routine will commence. Taking care of Marty has become a regular, dreadful chore for me. The nurse makes it easier, but I still feel as if I’m stuck. We never had any kids, but I imagine this is what it feels like to care for an infant except this infant will never grow up and become an adult. And he can hurt me.

I take my cup and bowl to the sink, and just before I turn off the television, Ann cuts to wedding pictures from the young couple she talked to earlier. I stop with my finger poised above the power button and watch the progression of pictures across the screen. The young couple looks so happy. I can’t help but be jealous of the beauty of their youth. They have their whole lives ahead of them. At this moment the possibilities are endless. I wonder how happy they will be in forty years. ‘Til death do us part. I turn off the TV.

I remember my wedding day. I remember the promise of our future and the stunning beauty of our youth from that day. I remember our vows to each other. Yes, we meant them. I know we did, but we had no clue how things would turn out or how we’d respond to the events in our lives. There’s a picture from our wedding that still sits on our chest of drawers in our bedroom. In the picture Marty and I stand next to each other holding hands among the flowers in the garden of the courtyard where we were married. Our bodies are partially turned toward each other but we squarely face the camera with big, bright smiles on our faces. I don’t need to look at the picture to remember how handsome Marty looked in his tuxedo with his dark, wavy hair and chiseled good looks. He always looked good in a tuxedo. I remember how my flowing, white dress enveloped me projecting an image of purity and youth. We were clearly happy when the picture was snapped after the wedding. How could we not be? We simply didn’t know what the future would hold for us. You never do.

Another memory from years ago surges into my consciousness. Marty and I often talked about growing old together and what we’d do after we retired. At the time I was a few weeks pregnant, and we had gotten extra serious about planning our lives. We purchased life insurance and we began to talk about putting together a will. With a child on the way, we wanted to make sure the little one would be taken care of in the event either or both of us died or became incapacitated. It wasn’t the merriest of topics then, but we were determined to be properly prepared for whatever came our way. Marty made it clear that he had no desire to be kept alive artificially or to live in a nursing home. He made me promise that I’d pull the plug for him. It seemed so morbid and unthinkable at the time that I agreed just so we could push the topic out of our conversation, but he was adamant that I honor his wishes. Once our morbid desires were officially documented in our wills, we never discussed them again, mostly due to my reluctance to dwell on the unsavory nature of the topic, but that conversation stuck in the corner of my mind. I’ve been thinking about it a lot these last few days.

Marty loved life. He loved me, and I believe he still does deep down in his heart, but he hasn’t said “I love you” to me in several years. This is not how we envisioned spending our golden years. We often talked about moving into a condo in the city so that we could be closer to the city we loved. Now that can’t happen. There’s no way to tell if Marty even knows where he is now. While his body has not stopped functioning and he’s not on a machine to keep him alive, he’s been robbed of his life by a disease that has eaten away at him from the inside destroying the essence of who he was. In many ways, he’s worse off than if he were being kept alive artificially.

I feel like I’ve broken my promise to him. I’ve had these feelings for a while now, but they’ve become more prominent as his condition has worsened. If he could talk to me, would he say that I have betrayed his wishes and would he wonder aloud how I could do so after the promises I made? I will never know for sure, but I can’t stand the thought that I have disappointed Marty yet again.

The sadness returns in full force. I can physically feel the gloom squeezing my heart, and that drowning sensation strikes again except this time the blurry waves are tears welling up in my eyes. I watch as tears descend my cheeks and fall to the hardwood floor near my feet. As much as I have cried over the years, I’m still amazed at how many tears I can shed. The tears are truly endless, a soggy, slippery documentary of my suffering.

I use the sleeve of my nightgown to wipe away the tears as I regain some semblance of control. I need to think more clearly. The metal box in the office pulls me down the hall like the gravitational force of some heavenly body. I pass by the shelf at the edge of my living room and a picture catches my eye. I stop abruptly and stare more closely. It’s a picture of me and Marty with Bob and Carol, two dear friends of ours. Bob passed away a few years ago after a sudden heart attack. Carol is…was one of my best friends. My only best friend in reality.

In the picture the four of us sit in a booth at a restaurant in downtown San Francisco. We’re all smiling broadly unabashed in our closeness with our arms linking us together. Carol and I sit in the middle bookended by our husbands. I remember how tightly I pulled her next to me that night. I truly loved her like a sister. In many ways she filled the void my own sister had left. Another wave of sadness hits me. Carol and I drifted apart over the years after this picture was taken. Our friendship was tested and then severed by time and circumstances.

We’ve only stayed in touch sporadically as our lives have taken different paths. I can’t remember the last time I talked to her. I know I called her after Bob died, but I can’t remember if we’ve talked since then. We have exchanged emails occasionally since his death, but most of those conversations have been perfunctory and devoid of the tight bond we once shared. I miss her. I wish I had her here right now. Maybe she could help me make sense of this miserable mess. Maybe she could help me see past the cloud of gloom that engulfs me. I need someone.

I linger for a moment hovering above the picture lost in the fog of memories – good ones. I get the sudden urge to call her, but I’m not sure how I would begin the conversation. We’re just not as familiar as we used to be, and since we haven’t talked in a while, it would be awkward to call her suddenly one morning in a fit of despair. Carol has seen me at my worst, so my current state should not be surprising to her. She would understand. I know she would, but I can’t call her now.

I slide walk down the hall dragging my slippers across the floor toward the office and plop back down in the chair by the desk. I feel like my lifeline to world outside has been cut. I’m drifting alone out here. Just Marty and me. The wave of despair returns and I close my eyes to will those feelings away. When I finally open my eyes, the office seems brighter than it was. I look around the room hoping for a sign that will point the way out of this nightmare.

Marty hasn’t used his office in a few years. He used it daily for most of the time we have lived in this house, but once he was fired from his job, his assistant delivered his personal items to our house and he lugged his sad stack of boxes in here and left them in the corner next to the filing cabinet. They still sit here today unaffected by the passage of time or the erosion of his disease. He never made any attempt to sort through them, and I’ve not had the heart to do so myself. After a while, I started using the office mostly to get on the computer and manage the numerous medical bills that have since piled up. I gave up late last year and no longer bother to reconcile the medical bills we have. It’s just too much. I can’t bring myself to think of Marty’s illness in terms of dollars and demands. His life cannot be boiled down so precisely as the gibberish descriptions and large numbers on the bills. It just can’t.

I grab the box from the desk and put it in my lap for a moment before I flip the latch and open it. The tan metal immediately looks fragile in contrast to the black metal of the gun that rests against the belly of the box. I take a deep breath. I can feel the pit in my stomach ache. I don’t know if I can do this, but I must do something. I can’t go on like this. There’s only so much one person can take, and at some point, there’s only one way out of the depths of misery. I’ve reached that point. I really have.

I stare at the gun for a moment. It seems so solid and strong, unlike me. I can remember holding it in my hands so many times and feeling its power reverberate through my bones as I fired it at one target after another. My husband and I used to enjoy our guns. We had many at one point in our lives, but all that remains is this one, yet another cold remnant of our previous lives. I’m not sure why I kept it when I sold the others. Maybe I subconsciously knew this moment would come and I would be forced to put an end to the misery. I shudder to think that I had some morbid premonition about us. I could have never imagined we’d come down to this. Never.

I look away from the gun and sit back in the chair. It creaks as my weight shifts and my body tenses at the loud noise. I look at the door to the office expectantly. I don’t want Marty to know I’m in here. I don’t want to wake him. I need time to think this through. I relax a little and stare vacantly at the wall in front of me. The dim strand of sunlight has brightened considerably and now illuminates the pale blue wall. I realize the light is peeking through a part of the blind that is misaligned. The imperfection bothers me. Normally, I’d get up and try to fix it, but at this point, I just don’t care. I no longer live under the illusion of perfection. It’s just not possible.

The handgun sits there with a small box of ammunition pushed into one corner of the box. The dull black metal of the gun somehow glistens in the broken sunlight that streams through the blinds. Tears suddenly cloud my eyes once again as I feel overcome by sadness. Hopelessness. That’s what I feel. I feel so alone. I also feel like I’ve let Marty down. I didn’t pull the plug like I had promised. Instead, I’ve kept him alive as a shell of his former self. That’s not Marty in the room next door. That’s a demented old man who has taken up residence in Marty’s body torturing me with his presence and mocking my unusual lack of fortitude. I let that happen. I didn’t do what I had promised.

The sobbing subsides and I lean forward to look at the gun more closely. I reach in and grab it by the handle and pull it out slowly as if it is loaded. Marty never kept the gun loaded. He only fired it at the range and most of the time I was with him. He always felt that it was important that I knew how to use it. “You may have to protect yourself one day,” he used to say. It seems like so long ago. Practical, protective Marty. He always looked after me even though I didn’t feel I needed it. I’m sure he never intended for me to use this gun on him.

The weight of the gun in my hand feels just like I remember it. The first time Marty took me to the firing range, I was unsure how I would react. I had never fired a gun in my life at that point. In fact, I had never even touched one until that day he placed it in my hands to show me how to use it. At that moment, I hadn’t imagined I’d become enamored with guns and love the feel of one in my hand. I certainly never thought we’d take it up as a hobby, an activity that we did together in the little free time we had. The gun feels solid, dependable, unlike me. I remove the ammunition from the metal box and open the container. The bullets are not as shiny as they used to be because they’ve been sitting in the box for so long. I pop the clip from the butt of the gun and insert the bullets methodically just like Marty showed me. Now, the gun is loaded. It feels more powerful knowing that it could potentially do some harm or good depending on how I look at it. I lay the gun on the desk and sit back in the chair. Decisive power emanates from it. The gun provokes my confidence, yet I struggle to gain any clarity about what I must do.

‘Til death do us part.

The clock on the wall is not working. The time is stuck near Noon or midnight. I don’t know how long it’s been stuck in the middle of the day or night, but it’s somewhat symbolic of my life these last few years. I’ve been stuck in limbo not knowing if it is day or night with time standing still yet methodically ticking away. The sadness returns in a gush and I bury my face in my hands. The heaving sobs come in waves. I’m not sure how long this episode lasts, but I feel like I know what I must do. It is time. I have a promise to fulfill. He won’t feel a thing. It’s not really him anyway. That’s what I tell myself over and over. I know what I need to do. Him and then me. It’s the only way out of this nightmare. God help me see this through.

A Soldier Goes to Heaven

I posted the first chapter to my current book, The Fire Within, back in May.  I’ve been working on the book sporadically while editing another one in the middle of the distractions of family vacations.  There’s still more vacation to come, but I’m back to working on Fire more consistently and hope to have the rough draft complete by the end of 2014.  Here’s the emotional second chapter of the book that begins to lay the foundation that drives the main character.  How did you feel after reading this?  Did it strike a chord with you emotionally?

“Bobby,” his mother whispered in her softest voice. She rubbed her hand up and down his back trying to wake him in the most pleasing way possible, but even at the age of seven, he could sense something wasn’t right in the way she spoke. Her voice sounded ragged like her vocal cords had been rubbed with sandpaper and blown dry with hot air. “Wake up honey.”

Bobby rolled over slowly and rubbed his eyes before he stretched his hands above his head and kicked his feet out under the covers. The stretch reverberated through his body and made him shake under the silky sheets, which felt cool on his skin in the early morning air. The window across from his bed invited a slight morning breeze into his room relieving it of yesterday’s heat or preparing it for the heat that was sure to come once the sun pulled itself up into the sky.

“What day is it?” Bobby asked in a sleepy voice. He inhaled the crisp morning air and rubbed his eyes again so that he could focus on his mother who sat on the edge of the bed next to him looking forlornly at her young son, her only son. Her caramel-colored hair was pulled back from her face into a ponytail, but strands of hair had escaped the band and fluttered in the air like errant shooting stars. One strand hung over her left eye, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes were red and tired and darted from Bobby to some space above his head.

“Tuesday.” She paused as if she were trying to muster the courage to say something. Bobby blinked slowly but kept his eyes on her. He’d seen this look before, but he struggled to place it. Instead, he wondered if he’d done something wrong, but he could think of nothing. The past week had been rather uneventful even for summer vacation. He’d mostly avoided conflict with his sisters, but he remembered that he had hidden Joanne’s doll from her. He frantically tried to remember where he put it, but he kept silent as his mother looked at him.

“Bobby, I have something to tell you. I need you to sit up.” Her manner was fluttery, unsteady, which was unusual for her. Normally, she was stern and confident; she had to be in a house with six kids.

“What is it?” he asked as he flung his legs free from the top sheet and pushed them over the edge of the bed. He scooted closer to his mother, and they both sat there on the edge of his bed in the early morning light. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a heart-warming snapshot of mother and child.

She paused and looked at him. Salty tears clung to the edges of her eyes, but none fell. She grimaced, and Bobby noticed that even when her face was pained she was remarkably beautiful. The smooth skin on her face had just enough color to complement her hair. Her petite nose perched perfectly between her sparkling green eyes that dazzled even in the midst of the swollen redness that surrounded them. Her face was perfectly proportioned with high cheek bones that made her look elegant and refined. Even at such a young age, her son could clearly see why his father fell in love with her.

“Papa Sims had a heart attack…” She paused and tried to maintain her composure.

“Is he going to be okay?”

“I’m sorry…” Before she could say more, the floodgates opened and she started sobbing. She pulled her son into her arms and hugged him. He could hear the pain through her chest as she sucked in air between the sobs. He thought of pushing away so that he could look at her and get an answer, but he knew it already. He was too stunned to cry. He couldn’t believe it, so he just wrapped his arms around his mother and let her finish. The faint smell of her perfume and her shampoo tickled his nose and the warmth of her embrace made him too hot, but he didn’t complain.

After a moment, her crying subsided and she unlocked Bobby from her embrace. She pushed herself upright and wiped her eyes with a tissue she had in her hand. Bobby hadn’t seen it earlier and wondered where she got the tissue (he had always been prone to focus on the most absurdly tiny things in times of stress). She looked at him and managed a tiny smile through the glassy tears.

“Granny Sims found him on the kitchen floor this morning. It was too late. He had already passed.” More tears rushed down her firm cheeks, but she remained relatively calm. She wiped the tears in vain.

Bobby sat there too stunned to say much. No one he’d ever known had died before. Until that moment it felt foreign like something that happened to other people, not someone in his family. His grandfather had been a big strong man, a military man, who was tall and stiff and always said “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”. He dressed crisply and formally and liked to say “Check” when he accomplished a task. He was disciplined and hard, but he had a soft spot for his only grandson, the third Robert Sims in his proud family.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” Bobby asked still refusing to believe that the man who bought him ice cream after church on Sundays and referred to him as “little buddy” was gone. He couldn’t imagine life without his grandfather. He couldn’t imagine his family without his grandfather. What would Granny Sims do without Papa to take care of her? Would his daddy take care of her now?

“Yes, honey, I’m afraid so. The Good Lord took him home this morning. Heaven has gained a soldier,” she replied. Each word spoken proved more difficult than the last and she started crying again. She pulled her son close to her but didn’t smother him as much as she had earlier. He pulled his left arm free and wrapped it around her back. He still didn’t cry. He simply listened to his mother’s sobs and blinked slowly as he looked at his bare feet dangling from the edge of the bed.

“We have to get moving this morning. We need to go see Granny. Your daddy is already over at her house. I told him we’d get over there as soon as possible.” She wiped her face again with the tissue and stood up leaving her son on the edge of the bed. She suddenly seemed determined and focused, more like the strong woman that Bobby loved so. “Please get dressed and come downstairs for breakfast. Please do this quickly,” she ordered in the manner that he found very familiar.

“Okay, mom,” Bobby said solemnly. He remained on the edge of the bed, a gangly twist of arms and legs protruding from his summer pajamas.

She took a few steps out of his room and turned toward him from the doorway. “Thank you,” she said before she shut the door on her sad smile. Bobby sat there for an instant with a sick feeling in his stomach. He didn’t grasp the enormity of what had happened. He still couldn’t believe it was true. It seemed unreal to him like a bad dream that he couldn’t shake. He popped to his feet and got dressed with a speed usually reserved for when he was late for the family breakfast. He looked at himself in the mirror and patted down his reddish-blond hair, which had grown relatively long since school had let out. His daddy had threatened to cut it, but he’d been so busy of late that he hadn’t. Bobby liked it long. He didn’t want to always wear his hair so short like his daddy. Or his Papa.

***

Bobby’s father followed directly behind the hearse in the family minivan as the procession limped from the funeral home to the old church on the outskirts of town. All was quiet inside the van except for the exasperated air conditioner, which groaned under the weight of the rising summer heat. Bobby leaned into the warm glass of the window next to the third row of seats and watched the world slide by slowly as the van crept along the main street leading out of town. Downtown store fronts gave way to small clapboard houses that eventually morphed into the relentless flat prairie that encircled the tiny town of Patton, Kansas. He sighed into the window, but even his warm breath was not enough to fog the glass in the heat.

Normally, the energy from a family of eight crammed into the small space of the van would create a racket so loud and persistent that Bobby could still hear the conversations going after he left the van, an audio relic that echoed in his mind, but this was not a normal day. They were headed to the family church for his grandfather’s funeral, and the somber event had even squelched the conversational fervor of his excitable sisters, all five of them, who often had to be repeatedly shushed by his parents to the point that his father would become visibly angry. Not today.

Bobby sat wedged into the last row of seats next to his sister Joanne who silently played with the hem of her dress. Joanne, who was the youngest of his sisters yet still two years older than Bobby, often led the lively conversations that inspired the shushing from his parents. Unlike his bookish oldest sister, Barbara, Joanne was outgoing and talkative. She was also the prettiest of his sisters, remarkably so, and was the one that was routinely compared to his mother. Like his mother, she had long, caramel-colored hair with warm, smooth skin that stretched across her high cheekbones. Even at such a young age, everyone who met her knew she was destined to grow into a beautiful woman like her mother.

It’s not that his other sisters were pedestrian. They weren’t. In any other family, they’d be considered beautiful in their own right. They looked more like their father than their mother, and in most cases, this would be the kiss of unkind genes, but their father’s sturdy appearance manifest itself in softer ways in his daughters. They all had blond hair like Joanne, but their faces were less defined, distinct. Their noses were bigger, but not too much so, and their eyes were a little too close-set. This gave them a plain look that made them easy to forget, especially when compared to the stunning Joanne, who may as well have been an exact duplicate of her mother.

Joanne nudged him with her leg. “Scoot over,” she whined, “your pants are making my leg hot.” Her shrill voice punctuated the blown-air silence.

Bobby looked at her but said nothing. He rolled his eyes and edged a little closer to the window making a small space between him and his finicky sister. Of all his sisters, Bobby found himself in conflict with Joanne more often than not. She had never forgiven him for usurping her title as the baby of the family although she could not possibly remember the time before Bobby was born.

Bobby pulled himself away from the window and stared forward into the vehicle past his sisters in the second row to his father who sat behind the wheel of the van, stone-faced and unusually patient with the slow crawl along the road to the church. His father wore his Army dress uniform, which was crisp and clean and authoritative. Admittedly, Bobby loved it when his father wore his dress uniform. He had an aura of strength and might that elicited a strong feeling of pride from both himself and his son when he wore it. The heavy, dark olive jacket draped over his wide shoulders and buttoned in at his chiseled waist. The perfectly-pressed pants with a sharp crease down the middle of each leg broke perfectly over his shiny, black shoes. His shoes were so shined so well that Bobby could see his reflection in them. His heels clicked when he walked moving like a graceful stallion with certainty and confidence that made Bobby feel safe. He loved his father, but he feared him more.

On this hot summer day, his father sat next to his mother in the driver’s seat of their family minivan wearing his military best. He wore a pair of Ray-Bans, like Don Johnson wore on Miami Vice, that clung to his sturdy nose. His jaw was set tight and every feature on his face was tense. If Bobby could have seen his eyes, he would have noticed a redness about them that he’d rarely seen in his father. He drove the van carefully staying back at least two car lengths from the hearse as they followed it to the church.

Although he couldn’t see her from where he sat, his mother sat stiffly in the front passenger seat, somber and weepy. She didn’t make a sound, but she periodically dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief she’d brought with her. She wore a stark, sleeveless black dress that contrasted too much with her honey-brown skin. Black wasn’t her color. Yellow was. Yellow dazzled against her smooth skin and brightened her blond hair. His mother was beautiful no matter what, but the black dress sucked the life out of her. Funerals did that to people.

Before the silence became too much for Bobby, the hearse in front of them slowed, if that was even possible, and turned at an angle to park perpendicular with the entrance to the church. Bobby’s father pulled into a space off to the left of the building under a lumbering oak tree that stood on the edge of the parking lot. The tree hunched over in the morning heat and offered its condolences, its branches spread wide suggesting a hug of sorts. It had seen so many funerals over the decades of its life.

The old church his family attended every Sunday sat alone atop a small hill on an over-crowded two-lane highway on the outskirts of town. In the winter, the white clapboard building almost disappeared in the snow save for its pointed black roof. The other seasons were more lively, and Bobby had seen them all numerous times.

He loved the fields of daffodils that sprouted in the spring around the old church. He and the other kids would run wild among the yellow flowers while their parents socialized after church. Several old oak trees lined the back of the church in addition to the small stand near the edge of the parking lot and offered a respite from the overbearing summer sun. The same kids would often climb up the trees in their Sunday best clothes and cling to the limbs in the shade much to the dismay of their parents. Bobby had been scolded more than once for soiling his good pants. The fall provided plenty of opportunity to kick through the heaps of leaves the big oaks shed. Only in the winter did parents and kids leave the church quickly and rush to their cars without socializing in the small lawn that surrounded the church.

Bobby enjoyed playing with the other kids more than he enjoyed church itself. He often sat slumped next to his father, mind reeling in boredom, as the pastor droned on and on in that familiar deep voice of his. The pastor, Mr. Craig, was a kind man with graying, receding hair who always squatted down and met Bobby eye to eye when he spoke to him. He often reeked of cheap cologne, Santa Fe or something, that made Bobby wrinkle his nose when he got so close, and his Sunday best clothes looked loose and cheap on his skinny frame. His jacket, made of rubbery polyester and at least one size too big for him, swallowed him whole. His pants draped over his short legs and hung to the floor so that the back edges slipped under the heels of his shoes. Bobby would always look at the hems of his pants while the pastor talked to his parents and search for the smudged edges at his heels. Bobby’s father would never tolerate such sloppiness.

Nevertheless, he liked the pastor because he talked to him rather than down to him, unlike his father. As tough and disciplined as his father was, he always met Mr. Craig with kind adoration and respect despite the obvious fact that Mr. Craig wasn’t as sharp as his father would normally demand of his own son. He didn’t keep his shoulders up straight when he walked. His frumpy attire wasn’t as crisp and clean as his father usually required. His cheap, plastic glasses, often smudged, hung crookedly on the bridge of his bulbous nose. All of these things would send his father into a fit of obsessive talk about always looking his best, which he perfectly exemplified when he wore his Army dress uniform.

The family marched into the church in a single-file fashion lumbering well back behind the coffin that was hauled up the steps and wheeled to the front of the pews. Not a word was spoken among them as they took their seats in the front row as family and friends filled the pews behind them.

Bobby’s father sat next to his Granny Sims who was hunched over and drawn into herself. To a young boy Bobby’s age, Granny Sims had always seemed old, but on this day, she looked particularly worn and aged beyond her sixty plus years. His father put his arm around her and hugged her close as she wiped her cheeks with a wad of tissues clutched within her gnarled knuckles, her dark, weathered skin contrasted sharply with the pearl-white tissue. The tears streamed down her wrinkled face and seeped into the deeper lines around her mouth. She talked to his father, but her words were low and inaudible to Bobby who sat at the far end of the pew next to Joanne.

“I hope Granny is okay,” Bobby confided to Joanne.

“Me, too,” Joanne replied without looking at Bobby. She remained fixated on the coffin that sat before them. Bobby followed her eyes to their grandfather’s body even though he didn’t want to look.

“He doesn’t look real,” Bobby whispered to Joanne.

“I can’t believe he’s dead. We saw him last weekend.”

“I know.”

The children gaped at the coffin. Death seemed surreal to them like a fairytale of a faraway land that seemed impossible to exist. They’d never experienced death so close before in their short lives.

Bobby averted his eyes to the large picture of his grandfather next to the coffin. The picture showed a much younger version of his Papa Sims, proud and strong in his Army uniform. The smooth skin of his youth gleamed in the picture and the faint smile gave an aura of confidence that Bobby knew so well. His Papa had always been so proud of his service to his country. Although he rarely spoke of the great war, as he called it, when he was around his World War II buddies, they’d often recall old stories that Bobby rarely understood or cared to hear. To him, these stories were just old people talking.

Bobby looked away and watched people fill in the last remaining spots in the pews around him. Many of the adults looked at him with somber expressions. Some of the women who looked his mom’s age, but not as beautiful, smiled at him with eyes pregnant with tears. Others were already crying and wiped away the tears with tissues and handkerchiefs as they mustered smiles for him and his sisters. He noticed a lot of Army uniforms, too. Many men with the familiar hats walked into the aisle and slipped into the pews removing their hats as a sign of respect for the place and circumstances. Occasionally, one or more of the adults would wander up to the front pew and say a few words to his parents or Granny Sims. They’d hug, cry, and walk away with the same sad expression they had when they arrived.

In the whirl of it all, the comings and goings, Bobby could only think of one thing, his grandfather. The old man lay at the front of the church in his eternal repose, still and lifeless. Bobby had never known his grandfather to sit still even for a brief moment. He was always doing something or moving forward in some fashion whether he was in his workshop building something or under the hood of his beloved Corvette fixing it. Even for a young boy, his Papa Sims was an exhausting dash of activity. Whenever Bobby had spent time with him, there was usually something to do, something to learn. He had, in fact, learned a lot from his grandfather, but it would be years before he realized the significance of those lessons or appreciated them in the way that only time can make one appreciate the gifts passed from one generation to the next.

The funeral began with solemn, ominous organ music and a parade of people from all walks of life followed the pastor at the pulpit all talking fondly of Bobby’s grandfather, the great brother, the war hero, the best friend. There were laughs among the tears especially when an old man Bobby had never met before told a great story about how he met the elder Sims at boot camp before the war had begun. The old man had a booming baritone like Bobby’s grandfather and a congenial tone that invited the audience to laugh with him. He ended his dedication with a few heartfelt words and limped away from the pulpit, hunched and slowed by age but brought to life by fond memories of great times past.

A slew of mutters waved through the crowd as the old man slowly took his seat in the second row of pews closest to the pulpit, but the moment Bobby’s father stood up to say the final farewell to his father, a hush came over the crowd that silenced the small church like a dire warning from the pastor. His father stood up, unfolded really, from the pew and stood tall and straight in his uniform. He marched to the pulpit as if he were on a military drill and stood stiffly behind the lectern with his hands resting on each edge as if he were hugging it. He stared out into the crowd blankly like he was searching for the words to say. All heads in the church were turned to him expectantly. Men nodded slightly. Women smiled their heartfelt condolences.

“You all have heard the stories of my father today. He was a great man, a war hero, beloved by family and friends for his dedication to his country and his love for his family. He came from a modest background, but he pulled himself up and made a name for himself by persevering through the ups and downs of life including the great war, which changed the course of the history we all know today. When I was a young boy, I remember being so proud and in awe of my dad. I remember him telling me stories of his days in the Army, and I remember wanting to be just like him, but I never felt I could measure up to him or his expectations.”

“One day we had a particularly heated discussion because I was considering quitting the Army. I had joined because I wanted to be like him, but over the course of a very challenging period, I had doubts about my decision. I wanted something different, but the truth was, it was hard, very hard, and I was looking for an easier way. When I revealed my intentions to dad, he became visibly upset, and he said, ‘Son, nothing worth having is easy. It takes hard work and dedication. You have to pull yourself through. It may not be fun, but you’ll be damn proud you did it one day.’”

“We argued for a bit more after that, but his words always stuck with me. I ultimately decided to stay in the Army and I’m glad I did. I went on to have a good career in the Army and served my country in Vietnam. It wasn’t easy just like my father had said, but it was worth it. That’s one of the most valuable lessons that my father taught me, one that I hope to pass on to my son. I can’t thank my father enough for all that he’s done for me. I don’t want to spend this day mourning the loss of him. I want to spend it reliving all the great memories of his life. He touched us all in some way, big and small, but he leaves a cherished legacy that I intend to honor for the rest of my own life.”

He paused and scanned the crowd. His usually stoic face crinkled a bit as he forced back the tears. His voice croaked as he tried to speak. He stopped and steadied himself by looking down at the lectern. Bobby had never seen his dad cry. Even over the past few days, he’d only seen a redness in his eyes that suggested he may have cried, so he watched in amazement as his father struggled to regain his composure.

Finally, like a runner finding the inner strength to push across the finish line, his father comported himself and said, “As we lay him to rest today, think about what he meant to you, how he affected your life. Let’s remember the legacy of this great man, my father, and he shall live on forever because of it.”

At that, he stood up stiffly again and walked back to the front center pew and sat next to his wife looking furtively ahead blinking back the tears as he stared at the coffin. The music started again and the blur of the funeral continued. Friends and family paid their last respects in a line that seemed to last forever. Bobby grew bored as old vets shook his hand repeatedly and old women with sweet-smelling perfume hugged him and cried. He watched the same happen to his sisters and his parents. There was something comforting in all of it, but for a seven-year-old, it was a bit much.

Eventually, the coffin was closed for the last time eliciting a visceral wail from Granny Sims who was immediately steadied by her oldest son. The pallbearers emerged from the crowd to guard the coffin as it was wheeled down the aisle to the door and carefully carried down the stairs to the hearse. The hearse made the short drive down the gravel road in the cemetery behind the church where the coffin was placed above its final resting place.

Bobby felt relieved to leave the church after such a long service. The sun, still high in the sky, bore down on him in his black suit with a ferocity that immediately made him sweat. He wanted to remove his jacket to relieve himself of the claustrophobic feeling that almost overwhelmed him. His dress shirt scratched his neck and plied at his skin with a tenaciousness of sandpaper on balsa wood. He shoved his hands into the space between his collar and his neck and tugged at his shirt trying to let in some air. He stopped for a brief moment until he felt a light touch on his back. He looked over his shoulder to see his mother smiling at him weakly through the tears that streamed down her face. She said nothing, but Bobby knew to keep walking as the family led the mourners to his grandfather’s grave.

The short walk took much longer than Bobby expected, but when he sat down in the graveside chairs reserved for his family, he could feel the rivulets of sweat that had trickled down his legs. His discomfort grew as he waited for the crowd to gather around the grave. The coffin, draped in an American flag, looked otherwise nondescript. Bobby wondered if they would open it again so that he could get one last look at his Papa Sims. He had to know that it was him, but his curiosity faded once the Pastor started talking again.

A couple of young Army cadets removed the flag from his grandfather’s coffin and folded it carefully before the crowd. Everyone watched in silence save for a few audible sobs. After the flag was reduced to a triangle, one of the young men cradled the folded flag in his hands and extended it to Granny Sims. The old woman hugged it to her chest and cried silently as she leaned into her son. Bobby caught a glimpse of his father’s tear-soaked face, red and anguished, an image that would never leave his memory.

After a few final words from the pastor, two men from the funeral home appeared from the edge of the crowd and began working the crank that slowly lowered the coffin into the hole below it. Bobby watched as it inched lower slowly disappearing behind the edge of the green carpet that had been placed over the pile of dirt next to the grave. When the lid finally dropped from sight, his grandmother let out a wail of agony and almost fell out of her chair. Bobby’s mother and father both grabbed the woman as she fell forward. His mother took the flag and passed it to Barbara as she held onto the distraught woman. Her cries chilled the eerily silent crowd that fanned out from the grave. Bobby took it all in with the wide-eyed horror of a child at his first funeral, a visceral feeling that seared itself in his memory.

Several friends and family members converged on Granny Sims as the service came to end. Most were concerned for her well-being and expressed their condolences. His grandmother, still distraught, managed to regain her composure and thank those who comforted her. She was a strong woman, but Bobby struggled to imagine her without Papa Sims. To him, they went together like the sun and the sky, and to see one without the other was unimaginable.

A big bear of a man sidled up to Bobby as he stood at the edge of the circle that had formed around his grandmother and his father. The man looked to be his grandfather’s age and wore an old military uniform that looked like the one his grandfather had.

“Your Papa was a great man, son,” he said looking down amiably to Bobby.

Bobby looked at the man and smiled but said nothing.

“He would have taken a bullet for me, and I don’t know many men who would do that. We fought together in Europe. I was there when we pushed the Germans back from that town in France. Your grandfather, he was a great leader, a great military man. He deserved that Medal of Honor. One day you’ll understand what it all means and the significance of it. I hope you’ll make him proud.”

The man patted Bobby’s shoulder and smiled at him faintly. “Take care of your family, son,” he said before he walked away. Bobby turned away momentarily to find his mother in the crowd, and when he turned back to see the old man, he was gone. His eyes followed the crowd strewn along the gravel road leading back to the church, but he couldn’t find the old man. It was like the man was a ghost who had come and gone with the wind. Bobby felt confused, even a little scared, but he convinced himself that he simply couldn’t find the man in the thick mass of people. He turned back to his mother and subconsciously grabbed her hand. The man’s words lingered in his mind. He would never forget them.

Redemption

I first attempted writing a novel back in 1997.  I got about 50 thousand words into it and stopped.  I trashed most of it and started again and this has happened multiple times over the years.  I just couldn’t get the story right.  The protagonist of this story, who is also the narrator, is a complete asshole in the beginning.  He’s profane, misogynistic, crude, and wholly unlikeable.  The opening chapter, which is below, is probably a case study in what not to do to endear your characters to your readers because it pisses off most people, but my point in being so over-the-top with the opening is that I wanted to show that everyone, yes even this guy, has some redemptive qualities, and during the course of this story, the protagonist becomes a more sympathetic character.  The problem with it is that I didn’t pull off the transition to my satisfaction.  One day I plan to go back to this story and smooth out the very rough edges.  I think the story is still a good one, but I need to make the main character less hateful.

Why am I even posting this?  The purpose of this blog is to serve as scratch pad of sorts.  A place to experiment and play with unfinished work.  Sometimes a dialog results that helps me think about things differently, and I think there’s value in that.  Almost all the work I post here is raw and unfinished, and much of it may never see the light of day in terms of publication.  I haven’t seen many blogs that share that side of the writing process so I hope that my blog is somewhat unique in that way.

I will warn you that the following is profane, misogynistic, and crude (as noted above).  Will Burris is a tormented young man with a twisted view of the world he rails against.  He’s returning home for the funeral of his older sister and to a family that is less than welcoming.  It’s a story of love, loss, and race in the small town of Walden, Georgia.  Will’s only reason for returning to his hometown is to say goodbye to his sister, but old friends and adversaries greet him at every turn, and he finds himself forced to reconcile his past with his future.  It’s a story of redemption at the basest level.

BECCA

It’s a beautiful spring day in Atlanta as my plane begins its descent into the city’s bustling airport. The sky is so blue that I can see for miles along the horizon, and I imagine that the crisp, cool air that will greet me on this early spring morning will remind me of growing up here. Spring was always my favorite time of the year when I was a young boy. I loved the way Mother Nature rolled over, stretched, and slowly emerged from her winter slumber and greeted everyone with the sweet smell of honeysuckle. It’s enough to make one sentimental, but I’m not the sentimental type.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the seatbelt sign indicating our initial descent into Atlanta. At this time, please bring your seat backs to the upright position…,” coaxes Darlene, the flight attendant with the annoying southern drawl.

“Damn, I wish she would shut the fuck up,” I mutter to myself. I have spent the greater part of the flight listening to this woman drone on and on in her hee-haw vernacular about approved electronic devices and how to buckle the damn seat belt. If anyone cannot figure out how to buckle the goddamned seat belt, they shouldn’t be flying.

I peer up the aisle at her as she continues her spiel. I’m in row two, so I can see her clearly. She glances my way and notices my irritated stare. She pauses momentarily, smiles weakly, and turns away quickly. For the first time, I examine her closely and I have her pegged right away. The thick make-up, the over-sprayed hair, and the cheap perfume all conspire to define her. She’s one of those gold-digging dim-wits who probably became a flight attendant in hopes of landing a pilot for a husband. She’s probably on husband number three, maybe four. She’s easy, so she always has a man at arm’s length. Over the years, she’s been hardened by reality, but she fancies herself as wise. Given the accent, she likely grew up in a trailer park in Alabama and now thinks she has escaped her white trash roots. “Not a chance, lady. I can see right through you,” I think to myself.

The chatty flight attendant finally takes her seat for the landing and except for the brief welcome to Atlanta, I don’t hear from her again. She is nowhere to be found as I leave the plane and walk up the jet way. Good riddance.

I make my way through the busy concourse and up toward baggage claim. Just as I remember, baggage service is slow and I wait impatiently muttering under my breath about the lazy baggage handlers and their unionized, entitlement mentality. “Goddamned baggage handlers,” I say aloud to myself. The old lady next to me glances back but hurriedly returns her stare to the vacant baggage carousel. I look at her and notice that she has a dog-eared bible under her arm.

“Welcome back to the bible belt,” I think. Every old fuck in the world down here believes in hell and brimstone. Of course they do. They are on their last leg sucking the resources of the country dry and they want to ensure they go to heaven. Rotting in the ground is going to be a huge disappointment for this old bitch.

The carousel buzzer goes off and the belt shimmers to life. A few minutes later, luggage emerges from the cave below and crashes down onto the flimsy aluminum railing that encircles carousel. Luckily for me, my suitcase is one of the first ones to hit the belt. I grab my case, extend the handle, and dart off to the rental car tram.

The ride to the rental car is uneventful and fortunately so. I’m not in the best of moods. In fact, I’m downright cantankerous. The flight from New York felt longer than I remember and despite the first class seat, I couldn’t get comfortable. That damned flight attendant didn’t help matters. Who names their kid Darlene anyway? Sounds like some hooker I might have met in Dallas. The moment she introduced herself to the passengers I knew I was going to hate her.

As I get into my rental car I remember to turn on my cell phone. No messages. Shit, doesn’t anyone call me anymore? You’d think the office would at least need something from me. It is a workday after all. “Fuck ‘em,” I think to myself.

I scan my contact list on my phone. I don’t have many girlfriends in there, but I do have quite a few escorts listed. I don’t have time for dating anyway, and when I meet a woman, I need to get what I want and get back to business. Prostitution should be legal. Hell, both sides get what they want and no one has to get married or divorced and there is not any emotional bullshit. For some people, relationships shouldn’t be necessary.

I flip through the list to the Fs. Foster. Edward Foster. Eddie. Eddie works at my company’s office here in Atlanta. I’ve met him many times when he’s come to New York for business meetings or training. He’s one hell of drinker and knows where to get the best pussy. I think I’ll give him a call, so I punch the call icon next to his name. I’m sure he’s up for lunch.

“May I speak to Eddie, please?” I say politely to his assistant once she answers the phone.

“May I ask who’s calling?” she asks.

“Will Burris from New York,” I reply in my best business voice.

“Thank you, Mr. Burris,” she returns. She sounds hot. I’ll have to ask Eddie about her. He’s probably already fucked her or at least day-dreamed about it. He’ll fuck anything.

“Will! What the fuck are you doing?” Eddie screams as he answers the line. “I haven’t seen you since we went out drinking last year and you left with that hottie in Central Park.”

“That cost me some serious dough,” I reply exaggerating the circumstances quite a bit. I didn’t actually go back to my place with the bitch. I paid her two hundred bucks and she gave me a blowjob in some nearby alley. I was so drunk, I didn’t care. “I’m in Atlanta. Do you have time for lunch?”

“Sure. What’d you have in mind?”

“Is the Platinum Club still over there in Midtown?”

“You bet! They have a free lunch buffet and some of the best pussy in town.”

“Heh, that sounds good. Why don’t I meet you there at Noon?” I say looking at my watch and notice that it’s almost 11:20 AM. I’m sure I can make it there by then.

“Sure thing. I may be a little late, but go ahead and get a table for us. It will be great to catch up with you and see how things are going.”

“Whatever. I just need to see some hot tits. It’s been a while.”

“Lover boy having some problems, huh?” Eddie laughs.

“Fuck you,” I return sarcastically drawing out the “uck” in mock irritation. Eddie and I are always competing on who gets laid the most and in what manner. I lie most of the time, but Eddie doesn’t seem to mind. Hell, I bet he’s lying too. No way has that short, ugly fuck gets half the women he claims. After a few more macho taunts, we say goodbye and I leave the rental car facility to head up to Midtown. I haven’t been there in years, but the Platinum Club, or the “Plat” as it’s known, is an Atlanta institution. I hope it is still as good as it used to be.

Traffic grinds to a halt as I get near downtown. Goddamned city has a fucking fourteen lane freeway through the middle of it and it still gets congested. I try to relax, but my patience fades quickly. Some dumbass in a minivan cuts me off and immediately slams on his brakes. I hit the brakes hard and the tires squeal. My middle finger comes up reflexively as I honk my horn. The minivan driver returns the favor and yells something out his window. I ignore him. I’m not going to get killed by some hell-on-wheels hick in a minivan today.

Despite the traffic, I manage to get to the Plat just in time for my meeting with Eddie. I hand the valet my key and walk quickly to door anxious to get inside and check out the ladies. As I enter the club it all comes back to me. It’s like I had never left. Other than some slight renovations to upgrade the look, the layout is the same as it was when I was here ten years ago. To the left is the hostess stand before the door to the main room that has a large central stage and catwalk and the four satellite stages that circumscribe the room. Straight ahead is the stairway that leads to the VIP rooms on the second level. These rooms encircled the main room from the second floor. Privacy glass encases these rooms so that the VIPs can see the action from above, but it does not allow the crowd to see the action in the VIP rooms.

The last time I was here, Eddie and I went to the VIP rooms with Russell Duncan, the former Senior Vice President of my company. Russ was a hell-raiser in his younger years, but when he hit his mid-thirties he decided it was time to settle down. He married a beautiful model straight from the catwalk in Paris, settled into a posh apartment in Manhattan, and had two equally beautiful kids. But Russ wasn’t much for settling down. His wife kept him on a short leash, and every time we traveled out of town, he wanted to get shit-faced and fuck anything with a heartbeat.

During one of his visits, we ended up at the Plat one night after an incredibly long day in Atlanta negotiating a big deal for the company, and Russ wanted to blow off some steam. I thought we’d just get a table and enjoy the view, but Russ pulled out a wad of cash and had the hostess take us to one of the VIP rooms. Russ always loved to play the money man, and when he was getting wasted he was at his best. He hit the liquor the moment we reached our seats, and after a few hours, we were all drunk and several thousand dollars poorer.

I don’t remember much from that night other than the first hour or so. I do know I spent a lot of money. I think I may have gotten a blow job, but I could have dreamed it for all I know. Unfortunately, that night was the beginning of the end for Russ. He woke up the next morning with two of the strippers in his hotel bed. One of them ended up pregnant with his child, and he ended up with Chlamydia. Six months later, his wife left him and moved back to Paris with his two kids. Russ was devastated and began to drink himself out of a job. He left the company to “pursue other interests” about a year later, and I never heard from him again. A few months later, I had his job. Success is a beautiful thing.

“Will!” Eddie yells behind me interrupting my thoughts. I turn to greet him and he hugs me before I can extend my hand.

“How the fuck are you?” I ask incredulously.

“I’m doing great especially now that I’m having lunch here,” he replies with his best macho swagger and broad smile. “Believe it or not, I haven’t been here in about a year.”

“I don’t believe you,” I retort. Eddie is as hard-up as they come. He couldn’t refrain from pursuing pussy if his life depended on it. Fortunately, our company doesn’t monitor network activity because Eddie routinely takes porn breaks in his office. He brags about it and occasionally sends me links in email. I had to tell him to send that shit to my personal email because no pussy is worth getting fired.

“Believe it,” he says confidently as he sits at the table with me. He unbuttons his jacket and surveys the room with that big toothy grin of his.

Before we can continue this exchange, a waitress interrupts us to take our drink order. “Are you two having lunch with us today,” she asks.

“Are you on the menu?” Eddie asks coyly. Eddie has had a thing for cheesy come-ons. As long as I’ve known him, he’s always made me wince with his cheesy lines. No wonder he has to pay to get laid.   The waitress giggles uncomfortably and informs him that she is in fact not on the menu. He gasps in mock disbelief trying to continue the charade as if he’s making progress.

“We’ll have the buffet,” I interrupt hoping to put an end to this shameless banter. Eddie gazes impatiently at me as the waitress walks away.

“She’s hot!” he says. “I’d pop that.”

“You’d pop anything. Hell, you’d probably pop your sister if you weren’t related.”

“True, but at least I’ll admit it,” Eddie glares insinuating that I’m in the same sorry state. He’s wrong. I spend good money for classy women and I don’t accept just anything.

“Should I remind you about Laurie Baker?” I ask referring to one of his worse encounters with an ugly, and dare I say, fat woman. Laurie was a young intern at one of the companies we acquired in Dallas years ago. Eddie and I had been assigned to do the due diligence, so we met in Dallas to begin our work. From the moment we arrived, Laurie, for whatever godforsaken reason, was smitten with Eddie, and he played it up piling on the cheesy lines and flirting with her shamelessly. He would throw her a bone and turn around and ridicule her to me in the same breath. He likened it to teasing a vicious dog on a short leash. Unfortunately for Eddie, he had a few too many at the close party for the acquisition and ended up sleeping with Laurie in his hotel room. I ragged him for months about that one.

“Please don’t,” he replies sounding mildly irritated and waving his hand at me as if he were shooing a fly.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Why are you in town? I thought you were working on the deal in Chicago,” Eddie asks shifting the subject quickly.

“I’m not here for work. I’m visiting my family,” I respond.

“You…are visiting your family? What the hell happened? Did someone die?” he asks in disbelief.

“No…I just need to visit my sister one last time,” I lie half-heartedly looking for a way to change the subject.

“One last time? Why now?” he asks. Before I can ask him to drop the subject, the waitress shows up with our drinks and Eddie immediately shifts to undressing her with his eyes. He flashes a smile at her and asks her if she dances too. She just giggles and says she doesn’t. As she walks away, she makes sure Eddie gets an eye full of her ass in the tight shorts. Eddie almost falls out of his chair.

“You are so hard-up,” I say teasing Eddie for his not-so-subtle attempt to be cool and not desperate at the same time.

“Fuck you, Will,” he says without looking at me. “I like to appreciate a beautiful woman and I let my appreciation show.”

“You should just take your dick out of your pants and bang it against the table,” I suggest. “You just might be more successful at getting laid if you are more discreet about it.”

Eddie glares over at me, smiles, and let’s out a laugh in disbelief. “You’re one sick fucker, Will.”

“To sick fuckers,” I say raising my glass in a cheer. Our glasses clink and we both take a couple of long swallows of our beers. By the time we finish our first drink, we realize we ordered the buffet and make our way to the buffet line. Our food is stale and overcooked, but we don’t seem to mind as we finish our lunch and enjoy the scenery. We watch the women dance on the main stage and the various stages surrounding the main stage, and we cheer when our favorite dancer for the moment finishes her act. Occasionally, we wander up to the stage and tip the dancers hoping to get close to their large breasts, nice asses, or whatever part of them we are enthralled with at the moment.

About an hour and a half into our lunch, Eddie decides he just has to get a table dance from the stripper known as Candy. As she finishes her act and works her way across the floor, Eddie leaps from his chair and catches up to her. I watch as they agree upon the transaction. She touches his arm, giggles, and makes him feel like the man of the hour. Eddie is smiling and looking confident. Since Eddie is not a good looking or desirable man, this is probably the only time he feels confident around women – when he’s flashing his cash.

Candy takes Eddie’s hand and leads him over to the couches where these “table dances” take place. I can still see Eddie because our table is along the edge of the main room just off the entrance to the couch area. Although they are called table dances, these dances are more like a bump-and-grind. The girls get totally naked and grind on your dick like you are getting laid with your clothes on. The really good ones will let you suck on their tits and grab their ass. The couch area is dark with just a faint hint of purple neon lights. Eddie’s couch is just under one of these purple lights so I can see him relatively well. He and Candy chat as they wait for the next song to begin. You’d think they were a couple the way they are carrying on, but like all transactions, when the money changes hands everyone goes their separate ways.

The song begins and Candy quickly drops her top and teases her way out of her thong as Eddie grabs her like a high school boy getting laid for the first time. He has this goofy look on his face as she grinds on his lap. After a few seconds of this, Eddie grabs her hips and pretends to fuck her hard by pulling her into his lap. She plays along and twists and moans grabbing her breasts and licking her nipples.

It is at this moment that I realize who Eddie reminds me of most of all – Ron Jeremy. Ron Jeremy is that short, fat, ugly porn star who seems to be in every porn flick made in the past 20 years. He’s been in so many porn flicks and fucked so many women – both hot and not – that he’s achieved a cult icon status. There’s even a documentary about his life. Eddie looks just like him except he has neatly-cropped short hair that is greased back with hair gel and a moustache that is well-trimmed to frame his mouth perfectly. He also wears expensive suits that scream money, but when you look like Eddie, you have to advertise that you’re rich if you ever want to get laid.

In the moment that I think about the similarities between Ron and Eddie, Eddie reappears at the table still wearing that goofy grin and smelling of cheap perfume. “That was awesome, man!” he says in his best macho voice.

“Looks like you enjoyed yourself,” I say snidely trying not to bring up the Ron Jeremy comparison. Eddie and I tolerate each other, but we aren’t mean to each other beyond the usual male bravado. “I need to get going if I’m going to get to my friend’s house before it gets too late.”

“Yeah, sure. I need to get back to work anyway. Thanks for meeting me for lunch. It was fun as always,” Eddie says gathering his jacket and following me to the exit. We exchange what little pleasantries we can muster, shake hands, and go our separate ways once the valet brings my car around to me. I get in and head down the street for the freeway. I have a two-hour drive ahead of me.

Luckily, the freeway is no longer congested as the downtown denizens have returned to their offices after lunch to finish their day and await yet another rush hour crunch. I stomp the gas on the rental car as I merge into traffic on I-75/85 north heading out of Atlanta and eventually veer onto I-85 as it takes me further from the city. I can see the skyline in my rearview mirror getting smaller and the traffic getting thinner as I get further from the city. I settle into my seat and begin to relax.

For the first time since I looked out the window of the airplane upon my arrival, I remember that it is a beautiful March day. The sky remains a deep blue and the warm air wraps everything like a light blanket. Just as I had thought, I can smell the honeysuckle in the air, and it brings back memories from many years ago. I remember growing up here. In fact, this was the only place I had known until I went away to college just before I turned 18. At the time, I thought this place was both hell and the most beautiful place on earth, and March was the time of the year when you could finally get outside and enjoy the world as it came to life.

March was Becca’s favorite month too. Rebecca Mae Burris is my older sister. When I was a toddler I couldn’t say “Rebecca”, so I just said “Becca”. Her abbreviated name became such a habit that everyone in the family picked it up. Even her friends called her Becca. Eventually, it became her name and no one except her family and her closest friends even acknowledged that her real name was Rebecca.

The memories almost make me recoil like one would react if a startling image appeared suddenly, so I turn on the radio and scan the FM band for a local radio station. A good song always washes away anything that makes me uncomfortable. After a few seconds, I find an 80s station and hear Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. Yet another memory resurfaces, but this time it’s all good. I lost my virginity to this song.

“Missy Moreland, where are you now?” I think to myself as the song plays on the radio. I glance at the horizon and fade into fond memories of my first time and Missy’s beautiful face. I’m sure I’m smiling at this point, and my day seems to have gotten a lot better. If it weren’t for this two-hour drive, I’d be absolutely chipper. It is such a beautiful day. I haven’t visited my hometown in ten years, and I couldn’t have picked a better day to come back – at least in terms of the weather.

“Too bad I’m coming home for a funeral,” I think forlornly. “Too goddamned bad…”

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.

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.