Three’s a Crowd?

I was having a really great dream when Paul woke me up, and of course I can’t remember it now.  Something to do with a cat?  Oh well, gone now.  I wish I could remember dreams more often.

Still, I’m glad Paul is reasonably calm in the morning. No blaring alarm, no rough shaking, just letting the motion of his own climbing out of bed wake me followed by a soft “Hey Eric, time to get up”.

I give him a head start downstairs, then make my own way down and curl up on the couch to finish waking up while he makes coffee and gets breakfast going. We’ve been living together for five years now and have this morning routine pretty well worked out.  Paul handles the kitchen and I lay on the couch.  Works for me.  I even like the blues station he tunes the radio to while he cooks.

He gets chatty once he’s had his coffee though, and today is no exception.  He sits next to me on the couch and starts talking about plans for the weekend.  All I can do is just look at him and sigh.  He chuckles and leans over, stroking my hair and kissing the top of my head.  Even though I don’t talk in the morning it’s clear that we love each other.

After breakfast we take care of getting ready to go to the office, though heaven help me if I can understand why it takes him ten times longer than me.  We walk together to the bus stop where he talks to that woman Susan who lives around the corner.  I get the feeling that she’s a bit sweet on him, and part of me suspects that he might be falling for it.  I’m going to have to keep an eye on her.  For now, though, I just keep silent, even when she asks me how I’m doing this morning.  I don’t care if it’s rude.

The bus comes and before long we’re at our building.  We walk to the corner and only have to wait a few seconds for the light.  We take the elevator up to our floor and Sally, our receptionist, greets us with a “Good morning, fellas!” that seems just a little too chipper to me.  I think she might have a thing for Paul too, and she gives him a big smile.  Like it matters, right?

“Oh, Paul,” she says as we start down the hallway, “Do you have a sec to help me with something?”

I sigh; here we go again.  I’m just going to make my way back to Paul’s office and lay on my mat by his desk.  He can find his own way back using his white cane when he’s ready.  Or Sally can walk him back herself like she has all week.  Besides, I think she snuck a little treat back there again this morning – I can smell it from here.  Mmmm…a lamb-meal doggie biscuit!  Works for me.

First Date

“I’m going to disappoint you.  But you knew that already.  I mean, this is not like the dancing was, and…”

“Look, I know you can do it – just give it your best shot.  For me, OK?  We’ll talk afterwards about how it went.  But now it’s time.  Your date’s waiting.”

It’s Tina’s voice alright.  And the guy must be Alexi.  Good.

The door opens and she steps in, closing it lightly behind her.  Head bowed, shoulders slumped, she walks toward me, looking defeated.  Her thin fingers pulling absently at the straps of a cheap bikini.

“Leave it on Tina; that’s not why I’m here.”

She raises her head, looking at my face for the first time.  Recognition, then hope, followed quickly by shame.

“Uncle Gus!”  Hands now trying to cover instead of reveal, awkwardly though, there’s too much showing, hands too small, all this happening too fast for graceful modesty. “How…?”

Her voice trails off as she starts to sob, falling into my arms, relief and hope overpowering shame.

How, indeed.  Seven weeks ago the seamy world of human trafficking and forced prostitution was something that I barely knew existed.  Then my sister’s teenage daughter disappeared.  Desperate and in a panic, Mika called me, screaming “You have to find her!”

No use explaining that a rogue computer hack was probably not her best hope.  And no use telling her to let the police do their job either.  Tina was a runaway, and unless there was evidence of a crime, then their job was just keeping an eye out.  So maybe it really was up to me.  Shit.

So I crack Tina’s e-mail account because…well, it’s what I’m good at and I have no idea where else to start.  Once inside, I see that a couple months ago she starts getting close to someone named Joey.  He’s a regular on a chat site that she likes, and I follow how he exploits her youthful rage, insecurity, and vulnerability.  At first it’s merely support.  But after two weeks the flirting starts, and once she bites, he ratchets it up, saying that he loves her and suggesting they run away together.

Next, I visit the chat sites, hack into Joey’s accounts, and learn that he’s not the cool teen rebel that he pretends.  Linking together bits and pieces from his various accounts, it becomes clear that “Joey” is actually a predator that lures kids into hell.  I learn that his real name is Alexi and he procures “talent” to be groomed and sold like common goods.  I dig hard enough that I even find some pictures of him.

After nearly two months of on-line trolling and creating a number of my own identities, I finally spot Tina on a site called ViXXXens wearing not much more than a forced smile.  I call the 800 number and make an appointment for seven o’clock, giving me enough time to get in touch with some of the guys from my rugby league.

Now, finally, I hold Tina for a few long minutes while she sobs.  No hurry; I paid for an hour.  While she cries herself out, I fine-tune my plans.  On the way in I’d spotted Joey/Alexi heading into an office behind the reception desk.  So…I know where he’s waiting.  It’s just a quick detour.

“Here,” I say as I take clothes and sneakers from the small pack that I’d brought.  “Put these on.”

She dresses quickly, shivering with fear, excitement, or both.  “I’m so ashamed, Uncle Gus.  What am I going to tell Mama?”

“Listen, Sweetie,” I say as she finishes dressing.  “We can talk about that in the car.”

Her eyes widen as she sees me take a large pistol and a small radio from the bag.  I key the mic and speak: “Leaving the room in five seconds, guys.”

“You mean… I can leave?  But Joey…he’ll…  He hurt me, Uncle Gus. I’m really scared!”

“Just do exactly as I say and you’ll be fine,” I tell her, putting the radio in my pocket.  I look in her eyes, my hand on her shoulder. “And Tina?”

“Yeah?”

“You were right,” I smile as I cock the pistol.  “He’s going to be pretty disappointed.”

The Void

I shall be eternally grateful that I never doubted.  I know that when Marshall and Bonnie told us that the spacecraft was coming, and described how we must prepare to meet it, some in our group were nervous.  But not me.  I knew a day such as this would come ever since I was a little girl.  I was ready.  Maybe that’s why Marshall asked me to be one of the last.

We began planning on the eve of the winter solstice when Marshall was contacted by the spaceship.  The travelers told him that they were making their way to Earth to rescue us before our planet was recycled, and that they were hiding behind the comet so as to avoid detection.  They would be close enough for us to send our souls to them around the time of the coming equinox.

These last few months have been busy as we continued programming while at the same time crafting our plans to leave.  Neither our clients nor anyone else on Earth knew what we were really doing, and while we held great sympathy for them, we felt tremendous joy in our coming salvation.

Finally, it was time.  Hale-Bopp was nearing its perihelion and was at its closet point to Earth.  Our saviors had told Marshall that they could board no more than fifteen of us each day, so we divided ourselves into three groups.  Bonnie would be among the first, and Marshall would go with the last.  He afforded me honor by asking me to place the shrouds, and also to disembark with him on the third night.

That first night was especially poignant as we ate our pudding after our communal dinner.  While it was hard not to be envious of the fifteen who ate the specially prepared bowls, we were all equally joyous as we knew that our souls would soon be reunited.  In the morning, I placed the purple shrouds upon the fifteen whose souls had traveled to the Next Level.

The following day’s events mirrored those of the First Departure, and again, in the morning I placed the shrouds on the bodies of those whose souls had traveled to the spacecraft.

Finally, last night, the rest ate the pudding, although I was to wait a few more hours since it was my job to place the shroud on Marshall. Just past midnight, once everyone’s souls had left, I finally was able to eat my special serving.

And now it is sunrise, and as I look out the window I see the edges of the world start to fade.  It’s not simply that it’s darkening – it’s actually vanishing into nothingness!  Each moment there is less and less of it!  Now, the void is consuming the yard, now the house, now this room, soon my body.  I wait for my soul to leave my body, to go into the void, and rush toward those waiting on the ship.  I am so very blessed to know such immensely profound joy!

A Letter Home

My Dearest Margaret,

Please forgive that this is my first letter these last two weeks.  The war has been raging with increasing ferocity and each day is more demanding than the day before.  I offer this not in the way of excuse, however, for I know how you must worry for my wellbeing regardless of what distracts my hand.

Under General Meade, our army held Gettysburg a fortnight ago, as I shall assume you have by now read in the newspaper.  While we prevailed, our casualties were horrific, as were those of the Confederate troops who fought with Lee.  The slaughter was such that I shan’t attempt to describe it lest I profane your sense of decency.

When I hired on as an army surgeon I had visions of healing those brave troops who were wounded in their fight to reunite our country.  While I am a peaceable man and not a soldier, my belief that our country should provide freedom for all was so profound that I felt compelled to contribute to the effort in what way that I could.  Now, the reality of war has provided a much starker undertaking for me – I simply struggle to remain sane in the face of so much suffering.  My earlier naiveté would be an embarrassment to me today if I my exhaustion did not disallow the luxury of emotion.

The weariness and numbness to suffering is also afflicting the troops.  Not only must they witness the same suffering as I, but they must also inflict it in kind upon our foes.  The torment can become too much for some and their minds can break.  Some grow shallow and withdrawn, others appear normal until they awake screaming from torturous dreams, while still others will explode violently for no reason, even attacking their own fellows.

For example, just this afternoon I had traveled to the railway depot to collect some medical supplies. The train was late, so I wandered into town where I ran into young Raymond Healy. You will remember him as the son of the blacksmith who made our gates.  He had grown into a fine young man and had recently become a captain in the Union Army.  I stood talking to him, both of us sharing happier memories of home, when one of our soldiers came running up the sidewalk.  Without a word, he stabbed Raymond in the chest and continued running, screaming gibberish, whence he tripped upon a loose plank, and falling upon on his own knife, soon expired.  I began to tend to young Raymond, calling for help although I knew none could come, but alas, his wound proved mortal as well.

So, my dearest, while I am safe in body, remaining behind the lines of battle in my surgical tent, please pray for my sanity.  I have seen how men can lose their minds as easily as their limbs or their life.  One day this war must certainly end, and when it does I can only hope to come home to you as the same husband who so proudly donned his uniform nearly two years ago.

Until that time, and with heartfelt sincerity, I remain your most faithful and loving husband,

Olympic Trip

It’s the same every evening.  When their mother tells them that it’s their bedtime, they beg for one more story and come running to me.  “Tell us, Grandpa,” they shout.  “Tell us again about the earthquake!  Tell us about how you met Grandma!”

“Oh no,” I tell them.  “You’ve all heard that one before.  Let me tell you instead about…”

But they all jump up and down screaming, “No Grandpa!  The earthquake!  The earthquake!”

“Are you sure?  You really want to hear it again?”

“Earthquake!” they chant as children will, “The earthquake! The earthquake!”

And so, like the night before and the night before that, I tell them.

“Well,” I start, as they gather on my lap and at my feet.  “It happened nearly fifty years ago.  They had the Olympics here that year, and I was selected to help carry the torch to the stadium.”

“The torch!  The torch!” they sing in unison, the older ones marching around in front of me carrying pretend torches, waving them up and down for the imaginary crowd to see.

“I was selected to run an uphill stretch near Morrinhos.  It was a steep hill but I was not worried because I was strong…”

“Strong!” they shout, the boys flexing their young biceps and marching in circles.  “Strong! Strong!”

“It seemed to take forever, but then the big day finally came.  I knew I would be ready because I’d slept well the night before.”

“Slept!” they shout, closing their eyes, tilting their heads, and making snoring noises.

“I waited by the side of the road, ready for the handoff.  All was quiet, and I took a moment to look to the sky and feel the warm sun on my face.  Then I heard the crowd on the hill below me as they let up a cheer.”

“Hurray!” the children shout and clap.  “Hurray!  Hurray!”

“It was the runner carrying the torch up the hill to me.  She was beautiful!  Like an angel, she ran toward me holding out the torch.  I took it from her and began my run up the hill.”

The children hold their pretend torches again and jog in a circle around me.

“I was so proud that morning!  Proud of Brasil!  Proud of carrying the torch!  And oh so proud to have been the one to take it form that beautiful runner!  And I ran, children, oh how I ran!”

The children running faster around me now, laughing and giggling.

“And then…”  I pause.  The children stop.

“And then…”  They stand stock still staring in anticipation, as if this is the first time they’ve heard the story.

“And then…I fell!” The children all throw themselves theatrically to the floor.

“At first I thought I’d simply tripped, that I’d lost my focus and stumbled.  But then…” The children all start shaking…

“But then, when I looked up, I saw others falling!  And the road was cracking!  And then rocks started rolling down the hills and hitting the cars that were parked along the road!  I was hit in the head by a stone, and it nearly knocked me out!  I knew if I didn’t get off the road that I might be killed, but I couldn’t move!”

The children freeze in place as if paralyzed.

“And then I felt a hand take my arm and start pulling me up.  I looked to see who it was, and it was the angel who had handed me the torch…”

“Grandma!  Grandma!” they shout.

“Yes, she pulled me off the road, and then we had behind a tree until the earthquake stopped.”

“Grandma!  Grandma!  You met Grandma!!”

“Yes, children, and now that you’ve heard this story, tomorrow I’ll tell you about…”

“Grandma!  Grandma!”