Ring, Part Three

Once the house was out of sight, Millie pulled over to the side of the road. Another truck zipped past her throwing water onto her truck. The rain had finally let up some, but thunder rumbled in the distance. Her hands trembled as she fumbled with her phone and called the police. Fear quavered her voice as she explained the situation, but she felt some sense of relief when the dispatcher promised to send an officer over right away.

She sat back in her seat and exhaled loudly. The light rain dotted her windshield, each drop dribbling down the window in a blurry streak. Another rumble in the distance felt like it vibrated her truck. Her heart thumped in her chest and she breathed in the short gasps of a swimmer who had been under water for too long. A dull ache throbbed in her head.

Millie pulled up the Ring app again and watched the video several times trying to determine if there was anything identifiable about the person who blocked her camera. She couldn’t identify anything that stuck out. The intruder was dressed in a long black overcoat and the ski mask completely covered his head. He moved quickly with only a few seconds between the point he became visible and the moment the camera went black. He appeared to spray something on it like paint.

She switched to the camera on her back porch. It hadn’t been blocked. She could see the live view of her porch, dreary and gray in the storm. Her lone chair stood just as she had left it, or how she thought she had left it. She scanned the recent video history, but other than a bolt of lightning in the distance, there was nothing to see. The intruder did not venture to the back of her house. Was this a robbery?

Another vehicle passed by her and splashed the truck again, startling her. She looked up from her phone as the rain finally relented, but the skies remained gray and threatening. Enough time had passed for the cop to be close to her house, so she carefully nosed the truck into the road and turned around. As she approached her house, she could see the cop had not arrived yet, so she pulled over again at a safe distance. Only an occasional drop of rain fell on her windshield as she waited.

Her cell phone rang filling her screen with a picture of her mother, but at that exact moment, a police cruiser slowed in front of her house and pulled into her driveway. She stared at the screen for a few seconds before she decided to ignore the call and nudged the car out into the road. She pulled into the driveway beside the patrol car just as the officer opened his door.

“Are you the homeowner?” the officer asked as she stepped out.

“I live here, but I rent it. I’m Millie Farquar.”

“You called us, Miss Farquar?”

“Yes.”

“Is anyone in the house right now?”

“I don’t think so, but I haven’t tried to go inside.”

Millie pulled out her phone and pulled up the video of the intruder. The officer asked to watch it again.

“Do you recognize anything about that person?”

Millie shook her head.

“Do you have any reason to believe that someone would want to hurt you? Like an ex-boyfriend or something like that?”

“No. My last boyfriend lives in New Jersey.” An expression of semi-confusion washed across the officer’s face, but it disappeared into the fold of his official demeanor.

“Any strangers come by to visit you recently?”

“No.”

“I’m going to have a look. Is the door locked?”

“I locked it when I left this morning.”

“May I have the key?”

She stepped back toward her truck and fumbled around in her bag. The keys normally sat in a side pocket, but they weren’t there. She rustled through the contents until she found her key ring at the bottom of the bag. She could feel sweat pooling in her armpits. Her hands trembled a little when she handed the officer her keys.

“Please stay here. I’ll take a look.”

He didn’t wait for her to respond. He simply turned and began walking toward the porch. He didn’t bound up the three steps leading to the front door. Instead, he walked around the house as if he were looking for a point of entry. He disappeared around the back of the house for what seemed like an eternity to Millie. She felt a sense of relief when she saw him emerge from the other side.

“Is that camera in back connected to your app?” he asked when he returned to the front of the house.

“Yes. I checked it already. There’s nothing on the video.”

He nodded as if he were disappointed, and then, he went up the steps to the front door. He walked lightly on the wooden planks of the porch but they bowed and squeaked under his weight. He tried to peer into the windows, but Millie had closed the blinds tightly. The door squawked when he opened it. He didn’t draw his gun, but he walked into the house slowly as if he would pull his gun at the slightest provocation.

Millie waited outside next to her truck and listened for any sounds to indicate that the officer had found something or someone. Minutes later, he emerged from the house. He took his time looking at the Ring doorbell and scanning the porch outside. He looked up at the the ceiling of the porch. He seemed to be making mental notes.

“There’s no one in the house,” he said from the porch. He took a few more moments to look around and then he bounded back down the steps toward Millie.

“You can go in and take a look now if you want. I’ve checked everything. Let me know if you think something has been taken. Are there any other cameras besides the one out back and the doorbell?”

“No.”

“Have you noticed any unusual activity on the cameras in the last couple of weeks?”

“No. The only notification I’ve received was for a coyote that ventured onto my back porch one night a while back.”

“I haven’t seen many of those around lately.” He paused as if he wanted some sort of response, but then he said,  “Why don’t you go have a look.” He nodded toward the house.

Millie didn’t want to go inside, even with the officer standing right there. The video had freaked her out to the point that she didn’t even know if she wanted to live there anymore. She tried to calm herself down. She took a deep breath and went into her house. The throbbing in her skull grew more persistent.

As she walked through, everything looked normal. Nothing seemed out of place or disturbed. Her personal laptop sat on the kitchen table clamped shut just as she had left it. The laptop had been an expensive gift from her parents when she had graduated from Princeton. If the person on the video had entered her house, it wasn’t to rob the place, which made her even more uncomfortable because the motive wasn’t clear.

She opened up the tiny pantry as if anyone could hide in its cramped confines. She wandered into her bedroom and slid open the closet door. The bare bulb illuminated her clothes and a few boxes that sat on the floor, but they looked largely undisturbed, just as they had this morning when she dressed for work.

She checked her bathroom, flipping back the shower curtain quickly in case anyone was hiding behind the opaque curtain. The plastic hooks on the shower curtain scraped across the worn rod in the vast quiet of the house. She caught her reflection in the speckled old mirror that covered the medicine cabinet above the sink. She looked tired, worn down, but she ignored that for the moment.

Her hands still trembled when she walked out onto the porch to talk to the officer again. Although nothing seemed out of place or stolen, she felt a distinct unease that she couldn’t shake as if she’d been thrown into a strange world where nothing made sense. The pounding in her head made it hard to think straight.

“Nothing’s been taken,” she said as she walked down the steps toward the officer. He had been talking on his radio from the front seat of his patrol car, but he stopped and looked up to her when she spoke.

He said something into the radio and then stepped up from the front seat to see her eye-to-eye. “Do you have somewhere else you can stay?”

“No, I’m not from here. My family lives in Virginia.”

“The mine bring you to Musk?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any coworkers you can stay with? Someone you trust.”

She thought only of Carl, the one person at the mine who had befriended her in a genuine way, but he was her boss, and he had a family that included six kids. She couldn’t ask him to take her in. She felt uncomfortable just thinking about asking.

“Not really. Why?”

“Ma’am, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if this was just a prank to scare you or not. There’s no sign of entry into your house, but someone made an effort to approach your house and spray some black substance on your doorbell. I can’t even scrape it off with my key. You’re probably going to have to replace the face or maybe the entire doorbell. That’s a serious prank. The person in the video didn’t look like some kid out to scare people, but it’s hard to tell. I can’t guarantee he won’t come back. It’d probably be best if you spent the night or the next several nights at a hotel to be safe.”

“The nearest hotel is 45 minutes away from here.”

“It’s up to you. I’ll file a report and you can always call us if anything happens.”

“Has anything like this happened around here before?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but almost no one around here has one of these doorbells.”

Millie looked toward her door at the blackened face of the doorbell. She wondered if someone was just being outspoken against her use of technology. Musk was odd like that, like some Luddite enclave. It looked like a throwback to the western towns from the old movies her grandfather used to watch.

“I think I will stay. It doesn’t appear the person went into my house. Maybe it was just a prank as you say.”

“Okay. If anything else happens, give us a call. We can get here in about 20 minutes from the police station.”

The officer dropped into the front seat and shut the door to his cruiser. He nodded to her before he backed into the nook in the driveway and then ambled his way across the gravel path to the road. Once the officer pulled back onto the highway, Millie went back into her house.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She checked the lock on her door twice before she walked back to the bathroom. She needed an Advil to ward off the headache that threatened to derail her evening. She also needed something to take the edge off, and Advil would do the trick.

When she pulled open the mirrored door to the medicine cabinet to get the bottle of Advil from the shelf, she saw the writing instantly. She stepped back and stifled a scream. Tears flooded her eyes as she backed away from the sink. She stumbled over the hamper against the wall of her bathroom and almost lost her balance. The words looked like they had been written with one of her lipstick tubes, but they were very distinct and clear: I’m watching you.

Get Back on the Horse

I’ve been a runner almost my entire adult life. I started running midway through my junior year in college. Ironically (because I’d been skinny my entire life), my impetus for ever strapping on running shoes was to lose weight. I’d packed on a bunch of pounds after two and a half years of sedentary studying and working with no workouts to speak of. With the dreaded metabolic slowdown upon me, I needed something to stay in shape, so running it was.

I never intended for it to become an obsession, but I’m sure nobody starts something with that in mind. Nevertheless, I found the runner’s high addictive and have ever since. I started racing and having some moderate success, at least in my age group, and that made it more addictive. Over the years there have been some highs and lows, but generally, mostly highs. I’ve flopped in races and suffered through the occasional injury, but luckily, nothing has stopped me from running yet.

The times I’ve been injured have been the toughest. There’s nothing worse than telling a runner he can’t run. I’ve had some nagging injuries that have put me on ice both figuratively and literally over the years, but I’ve only had three injuries in over 25 years that have kept me down for very long. Each time, I rebounded and got back to where I was before the injury.

As I’ve gotten older, the rebounds take longer and are less successful. It seems the toll of injuries past leaves a mark on me and that’s slowed me down. I used to do training runs at about a 6:20 clip. Now, I’m doing them at a 6:45 clip on a good day, but more likely, I’m slipping into the 6:50 range. For years, I fought this decline, but somewhere along the way, I decided it’s better to go slower and keep running than it is to hurt myself and not run again. It’s a hard thing for an aging runner to accept, but eventually, we all have to come to terms with it.

That’s not to say it’s easy to accept. My mind still thinks I can run like I used to, but my body says otherwise. This past weekend, I had my first marathon of 2020, and to say I flopped would be an understatement. My time was terrible. I simply ran out of gas in the last 10K. Short of the very first road marathon I ran way back in 2001, this was the worst marathon time I’ve had (I’m not including adventure or trail marathons, which have unusual challenges and often take longer than road marathons).

The key is to keep moving forward and not stop no matter how disappointed I am in the results. Later this week, I’ll get back out there and start training for my next marathon in March. It’s more of a trail marathon than a road marathon, so the time may not be much better, but I hope that I’ll get through it with a better result in terms of how I handle the last 10K. Failure is painful, and in this case, it’s physically painful, but I will get back on that horse again and again until I can’t anymore.

I’m Gonna Get My Groove Back

I’ve been in a funk the past two years writing-wise. I’ve started but not finished several projects. After several years of finishing projects reliably in about six months, I find myself falling out of a love with a project, fumbling with it for a few months, and then, abandoning it altogether. I can’t seem to find a reasonable level of satisfaction with anything I’m writing. It’s driving me nuts.

I tried making adjustments. I quit a large chunk of social media, which took away time from writing and distracted me. I reduced my blog posting frequency hoping that if I focused more squarely on the project at hand that I’d get in the groove and finish the complete first draft. Nothing has really worked.

My current project has been on pause for three weeks now. I’ve written about a third of it and I’ve edited that third multiple times. I’m still not happy with it. I’ve considered how to make it better, but every time I think about it, I get discouraged. The story works in my mind. It’s not translating to the page, and by the way, editing is not fun. It’s not my forte for sure.

I’ve been writing since I was nine years old. Six years ago, I decided to get serious about it and work toward the goal of getting published. Out of the gate, I finished my first novel in about six months. It still sits in a virtual drawer on my hard drive. Nevertheless, it felt good to finish that novel and the six others I’ve since completed, but none of them have gone anywhere because I hate editing. Editing is like cleaning up the morning after a great party when you’re hungover. It’s like eating broccoli when everyone else is having ice cream.

My solution is to go back to school. Later this spring, I plan to take a college writing course. My primary resolution this year is to improve my writing. If I can accomplish that this year, then I think I’ll get my groove back. At least that’s my hope.

Ring, Part Two

Millie spent her day pulling samples and gathering data for a field report that she owed the home office. She felt eyes on her everywhere she walked around the mine. When she had first started working there, groups of men, dusty-faced and hard-hatted, would stop their work or conversations as she walked by and watch her. She’d heard enough wolf whistles and “hey darlin’s” in her first few weeks on the job to last a lifetime. At first, the sheer brazenness of the men’s behavior startled her, but she learned to tune it out and go about her work as if the men weren’t there.

Now, they would simply steal glances of her as she walked by, and some even ignored her since they had realized she wasn’t going to engage them. Occasionally, she’d hear a roar of laughter from a group of them, which she knew was probably not good, but it was better than being openly objectified as if she were performing on a stage for them. Musk was a long way from Princeton, and in some ways she missed the sterile academic setting, but she preferred the excitement of the field. She wanted to get her hands dirty in a real world lab.

Millie returned to her truck near the edge of the pit and hopped into the cab. She nosed the truck around the precarious, makeshift track that hugged the circumference of the mine and bounced back down one side to Pit Road. Other vehicles meandered past her as she headed back to the office trailer. Some of the drivers flipped up their hand in a friendly gesture and she’d return the favor trying her best to feel like she belonged.

When she nudged the truck into her parking spot, she saw that Carl was at the office. She felt a sense of relief that Carl was there because he served as a barrier between her and the feral mine. When one of the mine supervisors had made a habit of visiting her desk every single day after she first started working there, Carl had pulled him aside and told him that he was making the new girl uncomfortable. The supervisor backed off and barely even glanced at her during the weekly manager meetings now.

Inside the trailer, Carl stood by his desk. He stared at the laptop in front of him, and it took a moment before he acknowledged her.

“There’s my girl. How’re you doin’ today?”

“Good. Finished gathering all of the data for the monthly report.”

Carl nodded and returned his focus to the laptop.

“I didn’t know if you were in today.”

He gave her a confused look.

“You’re usually here before me,” she explained.

“Oh, I had to take care of some business this morning.”

He seemed distracted, which was out of character. Carl was a gregarious bear of a man with a large mustache and a balding pate. His gut swelled against his dull, gray work shirt, which had a patch with his name on it stenciled in bright red. He reminded Millie of a youngish, grandfather type with his eyeglasses perched low on his nose and his deep, engaging laugh. He had a way of making her feel like she was part of a family, but he made everyone feel that way, even the gruff men at the mine. When Carl stood up at meetings and talked, it wasn’t uncommon for him to elicit laughs and cheers from the same creepy men who leered at her in the mine.

She sat down at her desk and noticed that the red message light glared on her phone. No one ever called her desk phone. Even the chief geologist back at the corporate office preferred email and only spoke to her on the phone when she called him. She could barely recall the pass code to her voicemail since she hadn’t used it after she set it up on her first day. She checked the code on a note app on her phone and dialed into her voicemail.

Millie, sorry to bother you at work, but can you please call me when you get this message. It’s important. I love you. Bye.

A chill ran down Millie’s spine. Her mom’s voice sounded fraught and uncertain. If anything, her mother often downplayed things, so for her to leave such a message, something had to be wrong.

“Carl.”

Carl looked up from his laptop. “Yes?”

“Can I use the phone to call my mom? My cell phone doesn’t have service here, and my mom just left me a message asking me to call her. She said it’s important.”

“Of course. I hope everything’s okay.”

“I’m sure it is, but I want to make sure. Thank you.”

She quickly dialed her mom’s cell phone. It rang several times before it dumped her into voicemail. She left a message. Then, she dialed her dad’s cell phone, but it immediately went into voicemail. She called her brother next but met the same result. Frustrated, she put the handset down a little too hard.

“Everything okay?” Carl asked.

“I can’t get in touch with anyone. Of course that happens after you get an urgent voicemail.”

Carl straightened his back. He hadn’t sat down since she arrived. “I’m sure everything is okay. You know how moms are.” He flashed her a wan smile as if he didn’t believe it himself.

Millie nodded and rested her chin on her hand as she returned her attention to the phone on her desk. In her mind she pleaded for it to ring.

The tension felt beyond bearable, so she tried to focus on the report. She cracked open her laptop and opened the nearly finished document. She filled in the data she had spent the day collecting and checked the flow of her report, but her heart wasn’t really into it. The report was due by the end of the day, and once she was finished she could head home. At least there, she’d have cell service and could text her family to get some sort of response.

She gleaned the report one last time, saved the document, and fired it off the chief geologist in email. She slapped the lid to the laptop shut and tucked it under her arm.

“I’m heading out. See you tomorrow.”

“See ya.”

She had almost let the door shut behind her when she heard Carl say something. She caught the door with her hand. “What?”

“Don’t forget that Gordon is having an early morning meeting tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah. I had forgotten about that, but it’s on my calendar.”

Carl smirked. Millie knew he hated the regional manager meetings because they disrupted the flow of the mine. He had complained about them before, but Millie couldn’t afford to engage him in another rant session, so she let the door shut between them and bounded down the stairs to her truck. She had several miles to go before her cell service would return.

The clouds overhead had thickened and threatened rain. The wind kicked up dust across Pit Road, and Millie’s truck left wisps of dust in its wake as she sped toward home. She didn’t make it a mile before she came up to one of the lumbering mine trucks as it hauled it’s payload toward the rail terminal, but she quickly passed it, accelerating above the speed limit.

The giant truck hadn’t faded from her rear-view mirror when a hard, steady rain started to fall. The initial gush of water had temporarily blocked her view of the road. She slowed down and flipped on her wipers, which scraped and squeaked across the windshield smearing the layer of dust that almost made the glass opaque. She cursed under her breath and tapped her brakes to slow the truck to a crawl.

Once the film of mud cleared from her windshield, Millie saw a traffic jam on both sides of the road up ahead as the truckloads moved out of the mine and empty trucks returned. The giant vehicles crawled through the sheets of rain.

“Damn it,” she said striking her steering wheel with the heel of her hand as she slowly came up behind the last truck in the convoy. She grabbed her phone from her bag and looked at the screen. No service.

She’d been stuck in these lines on occasion when she was on her way home, but she didn’t need this stress today. She needed cell service. She needed to get in touch with her mom. She drummed on the steering wheel as she crawled closer to the outer reaches of her cell service.

The traffic jam almost lulled her into a trance, so when the other side of the road opened up and offered her a chance to pass the trucks in front of her, she did nothing at first, but then, she veered to the left to check the lane and floored it to pass the trucks in front of her. She could feel the tires skittering on the wet road. Her pulse quickened as the engine roared and the rain seemed to fall harder on her windshield. She couldn’t see too far ahead of her, and for a moment she hoped that nothing emerged from the curtain of rain in front of her or she’d be dead.

One of the trucks blared its horn and it scared her. She punched the gas a little harder to get past the nose of the front truck and pulled into the right lane. Just as she did a black SUV roared past her going the opposite direction. She hadn’t seen it in the downpour, and the fact that she just missed colliding with it took her breath away. Her heart thumped in her chest as if it were trying to escape. When she peeled one of her hands off the steering wheel, it shook uncontrollably. It took her a few minutes to regain her composure.

She slowed down and tried to concentrate on the road ahead of her in the endless downpour. She hadn’t experienced a rain storm so violent since she had moved to Musk. Swirls of rain and mud rushed across the roadway forcing her to slow down even more. She exhausted her mental energy just keeping the truck on the road when the rain began to fall even harder.

The sound of the pounding rain filled the cab of the truck, but in a moment it was punctuated by a loud ding. In her intense concentration, it took Millie a second to recognize that a text had reached her phone. She grabbed it from her bag and flipped up the home screen with her thumb. A text notification hovered at the bottom of her screen.

Please call me when you can.

It was a text from her mom earlier in the day probably right before she called Millie’s office phone.

Millie finally had cell service, but she was just on the fringe of her service area. She knew if she tried to call at that moment, she’d likely have problems making a connection. She kept driving and glancing at her phone. The relentless rain forced her to concentrate on the road, but she pushed the gas just a little harder.

When she looked at her phone again, she had two bars of service. She thumbed her mom’s number and let it ring. No answer. She left another impatient message and quickly called her dad and her brother, but neither of them answered his phone. She kept driving with her phone glued to her hand as she steered her truck through the downpour.

The rain didn’t let up once she reached her house and pulled the truck into the parking spot next to the porch. The relentless shower veiled the house making it look blurred and imprecise like an impressionist painting. She dashed off a quick text message to her family practically begging someone to call her ASAP. She sat back for a moment until she realized she’d forgotten all about the Ring app notification she had received on her way to work.

She squinted through the sheets of rain to her front porch. She couldn’t see anything amiss in the blurry picture, nor could she see that any deliveries had been made. She opened the Ring app and clicked on the last movement detected at her door. It took a moment for the video to load, but once it did, Millie froze in her seat. She looked back toward her front door. Everything looked okay, but she knew it wasn’t. Far from it.

The short video showed someone in a mask approaching her front door and blocking the camera as the video went black. She watched it again to the same chilling effect. She couldn’t determine anything about the person in the short time he was visible. She checked the door to her truck to make sure it was locked. She clicked to the live view of the camera, but it was completely dark. The camera was still blocked.

Full-fledged panic consumed her as she backed the truck into the yard and headed back toward the road. She turned left and drove toward the mine. She didn’t know if whoever had approached her house was inside or not, but she wasn’t going to find out by herself.

Ring, Part One

Millie Farquar watched the lone truck buzz along the dusty road, its engine roaring and tires kicking up dirt as it sped to the intersection near her house. She could already taste the dust, gritty and scratchy as it settled in her throat. She wanted to jump off her front porch and run toward the intersection to give the driver a piece of her mind, but she knew it’d do no good. No one ever slowed down on Pit Road.

The truck spun its tires as it grabbed the asphalt on the paved road that cut in front of her house. The black ribbon of road cut through the bland plain like a tear in a dull photo. Dust still trailed behind the truck as it passed by her house. Its windows were tinted, so Millie couldn’t see the driver, but she assumed he worked at the mine. Everyone out here did, and everyone was a he except for her.

Musk was barely a dot on the map. Back at Princeton, she had pulled it up on Google Maps when she received the generous job offer from Boulder Mining, and somehow, it seemed exotic in her mind, a faraway place where adventure awaited. Now, the stark reality slapped her in the face after a few months on the job, but the paycheck and her seemingly insurmountable student loans kept her here in an old, isolated house with drafty windows and leaky faucets.

She folded her book shut and stood up from the porch swing, her boots thumping on the old boards as she went back inside. She had to leave for work soon. Another day and another dollar closer to paying off her student loans. When she had been working her way toward her Ph.D. in geology, she had imagined her life being much different when she graduated. Being one of the few women in the program had taught her how to deal with being alone, but working at the mine among a throng of grubby men took isolation and loneliness to a whole new level.

She gathered her bag for work and walked through the house to the back door to check that it was locked. She twisted the old door knob, and it refused to turn giving her assurance that it was secure. She had a routine that she followed every morning before she left for work. It made her feel safe and in control.

As she walked by the window peering out onto her back porch, she glanced at the camera she had installed as an extra security measure. Her landlord, an elderly man with a gravelly voice and a stooping posture, had chuckled when she asked if she could install a security system. He claimed he never even locked his doors when he lived in the house. Millie didn’t feel that safe, and she doubt she ever would.

The Ring doorbell camera stared back at her as she locked her front door and bounded down the steps to her truck that was parked in the bare spot of dirt next to the house. As the engine roared to life and she twisted the wheel around to leave, she glanced at the old house one last time. It wasn’t that bad. It was actually kind of cozy with its old, but sturdy bones. She felt a growing attachment to it like a reliable, old dog that never leaves her side.

Before she turned left onto the dusty road leading to the mine, she pulled her phone from her bag and checked it one last time. She had two bars of service, which was normal for her phone, but she knew that once she traveled a few miles down the road, she’d have no service again until she returned home. No notifications appeared on her home screen. She wondered why her mom hadn’t texted her back yet, but it’d have to wait until after work.

The roar of the tires on the dirt road filled the cabin of her truck. The morning sun gleamed through the dusty windshield almost blinding her as she peered just beneath her sun visor. The company truck kicked up so much dust it felt like she was driving into some apocalyptic future. She heard a shrill ping that pierced the otherworldly roar that engulfed her. She reached into her bag and grabbed her phone, poking its glass surface with her thumb to view the home screen. She saw the familiar blue logo of the Ring app in the corner of the notification, but before she could open up the app, she lost her last bar of service.

A truck honked at her. She looked up into the face of an oncoming hauling truck and swerved to the right to avoid it. Her tires rumbled at the edges of the dirt road, but she didn’t lose purchase and kept moving forward. She’d be at the office soon, but the Ring notification concerned her. Who would be at her front door this morning? She wasn’t expecting any deliveries, and even if she was, the deliveries always happened in the late afternoon in this area.

She pulled up to the office trailer and nudged the truck into the spot reserved for the geologist. She stared at her phone, but she knew it was hopeless to think she’d somehow regain service. The mine was more than a gaping hole in the earth; it was also a black hole of sorts for cell service. She tossed her phone into her bag and let out an exasperated sigh.

She could feel the heat of the morning sun building as she sat there considering whether or not she should drive back toward her house until she had cell service just so she could check who or what had triggered her camera. In the months since she had installed the camera, she’d only received notifications for delivery drivers and the occasional Mormon missionary. It bothered her that it happened so soon after she left the house, as if someone were waiting for her to leave so that they could invade her privacy.

She looked around the dirt parking lot. The mine manager’s spot sat empty, which Millie thought was odd. Carl reliably arrived early every morning. She couldn’t remember ever arriving before he did. She brushed away these thoughts and decided it wasn’t worth the time to drive back toward her house, but she’d check it as soon as she got within service range before she went home after work. The days were still long enough that it’d be daylight when she left for home, and if there was a problem, she could clearly see it before she pulled into her driveway.

She opened the door into the cacophony of the mine, and the chaos of another typical day swallowed her the moment she sat down at her desk in the ratty trailer that served as the mine’s main office. In the sea of work and requests that demanded her attention, the bothersome notification drifted further and further from her mind.

Be Better

I’ve used this analogy before, but some days, I feel like the hapless steel ball in a pinball machine – shot from the chute only to bounce around from bumper to flap for a while until I plop down the drain. I eschew the idea of predetermination or any other preconceived plan because I believe we control our own destiny, yet when all of the moving parts of our lives come together, it can feel rather chaotic like the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo.

But like Shibuya, the beauty of life lies in its chaos, the interconnectedness that draws us apart and together at the same time. If you focus too much on the messiness of the crowd and not on the feat of engineering that moves the trains in and out of the station in an orchestrated manner, you’ll freeze up and never get where you’re going. Likewise, if you focus on being hurtled from bumper to flap and back again, you’ll get nowhere. Staying focused on the things that matter despite the inherent noise is the only way to move forward.

In my almost five decades on this planet, I’ve tried multiple approaches to rein myself in and stay focused on those most important things. I’ve succeeded some, and I’ve failed a lot. I’m convinced that if your failures don’t outnumber your successes, you aren’t trying hard enough. You’re too risk adverse. Failures are painful, like burning your hand on a hot pan, but I’ll be damned if you don’t learn so much from them. Some lessons are obvious (e.g., this pan gets hot!), while others are far more subtle. Early in my life, I’d get so twisted around the axle of my failures that I’d literally shut down. Now, I’m much more sanguine about them. They still hurt, but I focus on what I’ve learned and move on.

In all of this chaos, it’s hard to boil things down to a simple mantra, but we need simple. It’s like a pinprick of light in a inky black room that preoccupies our attention. Mine is trite, pedestrian – “Be better”. Be a better husband, father, brother, son, coworker, runner, writer, human being, etc. This is not a competition with you or anyone else. It’s a competition with myself if you want to frame it in those terms. I aim to be better than I was yesterday and the day before that.

Of course, there will be setbacks. Of course, I will fail sometimes, but I will come back stronger, and I will, in fact, be better. Eventually. It keeps me moving forward.

A Look Back

I can’t believe that 2019 is nearing its end, nor can I believe we’ve almost finished the 2010s, a decade I’ll remember as much for my kids coming of age as I will for the multitude of changes I’ve experienced. We moved back to the U.S. at the beginning of this decade after living in China for three years, our kids started school, I changed jobs five times (two of them with the same company), I got serious about writing, I lost my dad halfway through the decade, and we moved to the other side of the country. Despite all that happened before this year, 2019 was a capstone for the decade.

I unwillingly inched closer to the half century mark. Aging gracefully is probably not going to be my thing. It’s not going to be pretty, so you may want to look away. When the years ahead of you are appreciably fewer than those behind you, it shifts your mindset. For me, there’s a sense of urgency, a need to get things done before it’s too late. And I’ll never know when it’s too late. In that vein, my wife and I solidified plans this year to make major life changes when our youngest goes away to college. We’ll cast off the shackles of routine and trade in our dress shoes for the decidedly more casual look of an intrepid explorer. I have a list of places I want to see that is longer than the number of years I have left.

Other than travel, I want to read and write more. I only read 16 books this year, but my “to read” list grows longer every day. I’ll definitely be reading much more in the years to come. My favorite book remains Where the Crawdads Sing, which I ready in 2018. I did get to see the author, Delia Owens, in person this year when she was on tour, and she was delightful. I admire her ability to create such a beautiful story. As for 2019, my favorite fiction book was Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, which weaves a fictional tale of a young Italian man who secretly helped Jews escape Nazi terror. Apparently, there’s some controversy around this novel as I unwittingly found out on Twitter, but it’s fiction, and I’m okay with literary liberties. The other big title I read this year was Sapiens. It’s not often I get passionate about nonfiction, but this book changed the way I think about things on a fundamental level. I highly recommend it.

It’s been almost eight years since I really got serious about writing and started writing novels. I don’t have much to show for it. I’m no closer to being published today than I was in 2012 when I started this journey. Quite frankly, querying has taken the fun out of writing, so I’m putting that on hold indefinitely, maybe permanently. I enjoy writing for the sake of creating the story. It’s enough for me to just put it on the screen and breathe life into it. The reality is that people read less given all of the media consumption choices out there, and people read much less literary fiction, so my odds of getting published are infinitesimal. The fact that the Fifty Shades books were the top-selling titles of the last decade proves to me that my preferred genre is nearing extinction, and that’s too bad because I love the slow burn of a good literary novel. I guess that’s yet another thing that proves I’m out of touch with reality. That happens when you get old.

While this year comes to an end, I still be here rambling and writing, mostly rambling. Come on back when you have the time and hopefully you’ll find something interesting. I’m still working on my latest novel, Them, which I hope to finish in 2020, but I may occasionally post excerpts or short stories as I find time. Until then, happy New Year. See you in 2020.