Act of Contrition

In the deep-rooted shadows upon which the forest stands, where nothing grows but moss and the debris of winter-felled branches, Scott Lang and his brother Tony heard the stuttering k-r-r-r-k like someone opening the door to a derelict shack.

But near all around them, there were no such homes except last spring’s birds’s nests and the torn-up insect domicile buried within a pine upon which a woodpecker hammered another k-r-r-r-k.

“This noise where there’s nothing around creeps me out, man,” Tony said.

“Some of us, little brother, find such ‘noise’ a blanket of comfort, the caress of natural music far from the crash and soul-crunching violence in city life, the promise of peace,” said Scott.

“Okay, I get it, but does it take sloshing all the way out here just to find your precious quiet? Besides, it’s so damn dark here, how the hell am I supposed to see anything well enough to shoot it?” Tony said, swinging his rifle in carefree arcs.

“Your life always comes down to noisy violence. It killed Mom. I don’t want to know who else. Can’t you just enjoy some serenity for once?”

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? Now where to something I can enjoy?”

“You’ll never get it, will… Wait, what was that?” Scott said.

“Where?” Tony said, swinging the muzzle of the 30.06 toward the shadows.

When the echo of the k-r-r-r-k made by four rapid shots from the .22 Scott pulled from his pocket faded, he sighed. After a few seconds, he heard the birds begin singing again. He could actually hear his heartbeat settle down as the wind strummed the tall pines like harp strings. And he was pretty sure there had been only two witnesses to what he’d done.

He made a silent Act of Contrition to one.

“Peace, Mom, just like I promised. At last, some peace,” he whispered to the other.

Just Enough

“Think she’ll answer?”

“I don’t know. It’s been so long since we talked. At least with a civil tone.”

“Then why the hell are you calling her in the first place?”

“To hear her voice again, I guess.”

“A voice you haven’t heard in…”

“Fifteen years or so.”

“Lotta things can change in fifteen years.”

“Or so.”

“Yeah. Like maybe she won’t recognize your name, let alone your voice.”

“Sometimes you just have to take the leap.”

“And all this leaping and listening serves what purpose?”

“Closure.”

“Closure of something for which there never was an open-sure.”

“That’s because I never tried knocking.”

“Oh, is that what they called it in the 90s?”

“Shut up. I’m serious. I never admitted my, my…”

“Infatuation? Obsession? Hallucination?”

“You can always leave, you know. You’re not helping my anxiety about this one bit.”

“And rightly so. Do you seriously believe that a woman you knew as barely a friend will be interested in talking to you for the first time in fifteen years, let alone being open to your ‘knocking’ her?”

“No. I don’t. But if I don’t try, even just saying hi, I’ll never have that moment like at the near end of ‘Love, Actually.’ You know, when Keira Knightley comes running out of her house, with her husband — Chiwetel Ejiofor no less — back inside waiting for her, to chase after Andrew Lincoln, since he professed his pretty much undying love for her.”

“Yeah, and she kissed him and gave him a sigh and a look like, ‘too late, but maybe if you tried hitting on me before MY HUSBAND did, I’d have been down with you being the male half of this It Couple in hip London circles. So maybe…’ Is that what you want?”

“Well, maybe. But actually, I’d be happy with what happens next.”

“Which was?”

“He walks away from his great love feeling somewhat like he’s found a kind of closure. And he says what I want to feel, one way or another.”

“I repeat: Which was?”

“He says, ‘Enough. Enough now.’ I just want that.”

“What?”

“Just…Enough.”

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have a bit of flash fiction I cobbled together selected to win a weekly competition, Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. At 250 words or less, I think I may have just ‘cobbed’ it together. I was stunned and heartened by that honor. To say I needed that approbation of late can’t be overstated. I’m hurting in the creative part of my life as much as the others. So this week, folks were supposed to take a snippet of words from my story (the first line up there) to write a new one. I couldn’t get to it then, but felt the urge today to try. I’m afraid I just let the voices go and this is what happened. First draft, free write., too long for the competition. But for my writing muscles and creative needs? And my heart? Just Enough.

Cheating. Death.

Source: Dreamstime

Edmund Deane pulled his Subaru up to the figure in the gray hoodie and baggie jeans hitchhiking on Rte. 9 and thought how you didn’t see much of that anymore.

“Where ya headed?” he asked when he rolled down the window.

“North,” came the faint reply. 

Now, Edmund didn’t like surprises when driving the back way through the Adirondacks, but the surprise of that voice and the face shrouded within that hood was one he felt he really didn’t need. They belonged to a pretty girl of no more than 18. And as Edmund was about to say he was heading west (Which he wasn’t; he just didn’t need some possibly underage girl in his car alone.), she opened the door and took a seat.

“Thanks, mister. I just gotta get as many miles as I can outta this shit hole before dark,” she said as she put her backpack between her feet.

“Um, okay. Any particular area you want to end up?”

“Plattsburgh, Montreal. At this point I’m in no position to be choosy,” she said, smiling an endearing but practiced smile.

“I can take you as far as Plattsburgh,” Edmund said. “After that, you’re on your own.” She twisted in the seat and looked back over her shoulder as the Subaru maneuvered through an S in the roadway.

“That’d be great.”

After that, she was silent, save for a “hmmm,” “yup,” or “nope.” Edmund guessed he just asked the wrong questions.

Finally, just south of Elizabethtown, the girl turned to him, pointed at his ring and said, “You ever cheat on your wife?” 

“What?!”

“Cheat, roam, cast your seed in distant fields, break your marital vows’s ’til death do us part’ part.”

“I don’t see as that’s anybody’s business but mine. And my wife’s, of course.”

“So should I take that non-denial as a Yes?” she said, studying Edmund’s eyes.

“Look, I’m doing you a favor here, and you haven’t exactly been conversational, let alone forthcoming, for the past forty miles,” he said.

“I kinda thought that’s what I’m doing. Starting a conversation.”

“One would usually expect to talk about the weather or the Yankees or where they’re from or school in a situation like this.”

“I have no control over the weather, I don’t like sports, I haven’t had a home in four years and I don’t go to school.”

“I see. Well, what is it you do then?”

“Fuck,” she said as matter-of-fact as she would, “I’m a checkout girl at Price Chopper.”

“Excuse me?” Edmund could feel his face redden and stomach tighten.

“You know, screw. For money. Though not enough around here. That’s why I’m headed north. To some cities where the markets and demand for my service might be stronger.”

“I see. Aren’t you a little young for such…”

“Are you shitting me? Don’t you read the papers? Listen to the news? I’m almost over the hill for what most of these bastards want these days. So I gotta strike while the iron, among other things, is still hot.”

“I see,” Edmund said. 

“By the way, Allysin.”

“Excuse me?”

“My name. Allysin. You never asked.”

“Thank you. I’d prefer that line of discourse rather than the preceding uncomfortable talk.”

“That’s not my real name, of course.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s my, shall we say, ‘stage name.’ I spell it A-L-L-Y-S-I-N. Get it? Ally’s Sin. Cute, huh?”

“Just darling,” Edmund said. 

“You never did answer my question, umm… Shit, you never gave me your name, either,” Allysin said.

“Edmund,” he said.

“Really?” she said with a laugh. “You go by Edmund?”

“It’s my name.” Now Edmund’s discomfort was nudging into annoyance. He thought about pulling over and tossing her the hell out near Deerhead.

“Well, Eddie, you still haven’t told me me yes or no about stepping out on the little woman,” she said.

“My wife’s dead. ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” he said, thinking the roadside here looked like as good a spot as any.

“Sorry, man. That’s rough. I understand those poor folks can just lay there and linger for quite a while.”

“She did.”

“So is that when you cheated?”

“That’s it.” Edmund said, pulling the car off to the side of the road and screeching to a stop. “Get the hell out of my car.”

“Okay. Okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like to know more about the male mind. After all these years, it’s still tossing me some riddles I can’t answer. I got a lot to learn. It’s why I had to get out of town so fast back down there.”

“You certainly do have a lot to learn, young lady,” Edmund said, his pulse thumping in his temples.

“Really, I’m sorry. The Life tends to deaden a girl’s feelings for others sometimes. Since all anyone wants from you, on a good day, is what passes for lovin’. You could say your name was Beyoncé, or even be her for that matter, and they wouldn’t give a shit. They just want to get their rocks off. So, while I’m giving them a fair performance, I’m more than likely also thinking about what I’ll have for breakfast at the all-night diner,” Allysin said.

“But that doesn’t give you any right to hurt or insult people you don’t even know. I’m trying to remember my wife when we were young and she was a beautiful, vibrant girl. I don’t need your help in remembering the ugly parts of her last days.”

“Sorry, Edmund. Okay, I’ll get out here. I may not make it to Plattsburgh by dark now, but I’ve been in worst pinches. So, I’ll just leave you and …shit. Is that fucking snow?”

Sure enough, the first flakes of a snowfall rolling down the Champlain Valley settled on the hood and windshield of Edmund’s car and transformed into tiny puddles.

“Damn it. I wanted to be in town before the snow hit,” Edmund said. “I can’t just leave you out here in the middle of a snowstorm. Close the door, Allysin. I’ll get you to Plattsburgh, but that’s it. And no more questions.”

“Sure, Eddie. I owe you a solid, man. I’ve got a few bucks here you can have for some gas.”

“No. I was going this way anyway. You were just going to be a good deed I could do on a crap weather day in the North Country. You looked pretty forlorn there by the side of the road,” Edmund said.

“Well, I was,” Allysin said.

“Yes, you were. How’d you ever end up in this situation anyway?”

“I thought you said no questions.”

“You’re right. None of my business. Sorry. Radio silence from now on. Besides, this snow’s getting heavy and I should keep my mind on the driving,” Edmund said. 

“Nah, it’s no surprising story. Had a mother who drugged herself to death and a drunk ol’ grandma. Each of them had slimeball boyfriends, if you could call the motherfuckers boys. And, depending on the day and the amount of intoxicant they were havin’, I was either in the way or their idea of a guest towel,” Allysin said.

Now it was Edmund’s turn to “hmmm,” “yup,” or “nope.” 

The snowflakes were getting larger, clinging to one another. That combination of their size and the speed of Edmund’s car made them hit the windshield with a constant patter of dull splats. A sign said I-87, the main highway between Albany and the Canadian border was only two miles ahead.

“I think it would be a good idea if we left this road and got onto the Northway. They take care of that better in the snow the nearer we get to Plattsburgh,” Edmund said.

“Sure, Edmund. Quicker you get there, the sooner you’ll be rid of me,” Allysin said.

“Oh, I guess you’re not that bad a traveling companion, Allysin,” Edmund said. “You’ve had it rough. Too much hard life for someone so young. Like I said, I just didn’t need to be reminded of…that time.”

“Sure, Eddie.”

As Edmund pulled onto the main highway, twilight had pulled the curtains on that Thursday. The storm had taken care of the blinds. The headlights of the southbound vehicles glared brightly into northbound lanes of traffic.

“Wasn’t expecting it to get this bad this fast,” Edmund said.

“Well just keep the tires and your eyes on the road, man,” Allysin replied, her voice a little higher pitched, sounding more like the teenager she was than the woman she’d become.

From behind, a speeding Kenworth’s white-hot halogen lamps filled the interior of the Subaru with a harsh daylight, starling Edmund and Allysin.

And as the sliding semi bumped the back end of the car, they each looked at one another and, for a moment, Edmund saw Jill Bentley from work on that late night they had sex under a light in his office building’s empty parking lot.

Allysin looked and wondered if this is what her dad might look like had her mother not been such a party girl she knew who her little Alicia’s father really was. 

Edmund saw the light reflected in Allysin’s eyes and for the first time realized they were flecked with gold, just the way his Susan’s were. How they read his eyes from a face and body unmoving while a machine gasped air out and coughed air into her lungs. Those gold-flecked eyes he couldn’t look at for long because he knew she couldn’t know, yet was certain she did.

And Allysin blinked and saw Boomer Grandjean about to hit her again and again, just like he always did when he’d had a day’s worth of Spice. Okay, and whenever she cheated him on some of his cut of her take. The way Edmund’s eyes grew so large were just like Boomer’s after she’d stuck him four times in the chest that morning.

The Kenworth blew past them going about 80, swerving a little too and fro, while Edmund tried slowing the Subaru and his heart. With a sigh, they each knew they had cheated death at that moment. The truck had kicked up a cloud of white which now surrounded them like they were flying through a cloud, a whiteout illuminated in Edmund’s headlights.

Allysin grasped the dashboard and said, “Sweet, Jesus! I half expected I’d be seeing angels in this stuff a few seconds ago.” 

Edmund reached over and placed his hand on Allysin’s, taking his eye’s off the road for a second. In that moment, though, the trailer appeared out of the snow in front of them, jackknifed, ninety degrees to the roadway. 

And that was that. Two people, each cheaters in their own way, had cheated death together. Maybe Death has a moral code, though, recognizing there should be some kind of penance for such sins. Or maybe Death is a vindictive bitch who does not stand for being cheated at its own game. Ultimately, Death always wins.

First story-ish thing in a long time. This was supposed to be a response to writer Cara Michaels’ weekly Menage Monday feature. I was to write a flash fiction piece of no more than 250 words using three prompts: That photo up there, the phrase “can’t cheat death,” and the premise of a road trip. As you may know, I’ve been struggling lately with my creative life, so I just jumped in and kept writing until I thought I was done. I’m not, but this is as far as I’ll go with this first draft.

In Tennessee Whiskey Veritas

At Pete and Ginny’s cafe cum gin joint, the bar runs from the bright front window down to the shadows by the kitchen door. The light here gets progressively darker as you walk along the mahogany and brass path from our perky entrance to possible perdition, as if you’re diving deeper into the ocean.

Today, it looked like one of our regulars, Ben Frazee, was exploring the Marianas Trench of alcoholic melancholy. At the far end of the bar, Ben seemed to be sucking in darkness as much as booze, like he was hoping to suffocate — or drown — whatever lick of flame he still carried for his now-ex Kasie Dellasandro.

“Hey, Ben. What’s happening, brother? Pete been taking care of you?” I said as I came on shift. He merely raised his chin in greeting, mumbled something and then stared back into his glass, somehow deeper than the six inches of melted silica, Tennessee ethanol and frozen H2O that sat before him.

“Dude, if you looked any lower you’d be staring at the world from under those rocks,” I said.

“Does it matter? Maybe that’s what I need, a different point of view, like looking through the bottom of this glass. Even at six bucks a shot,” Ben said as he sucked down that last puddle of whiskey. Then he crunched on an ice cube and I shivered a little.

He pushed the glass toward me, saying, “Y’know? Things looked much better. Gimme another glass of enlightenment, Kenny.”

“Girl trouble?” I asked while shoveling him his Jack and Coke.

“Does it matter? All us birds perched on this mahogany are here for some sad reason, otherwise we wouldn’t start drinking at noon on a Tuesday. Now would we?”

“Well, that makes the boss glad. But even after five years of distributing liquid psychotherapy, sometimes serving the tail end of this early crowd makes me feel kinda guilty.”

“Don’t. I’m fine. We’re all fine. And no bitch will ever drive me to drink. Or that’s what SHE said. I can drive just fine on my own and if not, then there’s always Uber. Of course, then a bitch might be driving me FROM drink.” Ben, quieted for a second and then let out a laugh at his own drunk joke. But I couldn’t laugh at the poor guy.

“So maybe you might slow your roll for a while. Okay? Make me feel a little better.”

“Aw, okay, Kenny. You know, I always liked you. Straight shooter, good listener, you don’t overdo the ice , you don’t stick any fruity-ass fruit in my glass and you don’t chintz on the whiskey. You’re a saint, brother,” Ben said as he extended his hand to shake mine. When I let go, I noticed there was a ten-spot stuck to my palm. 

I told him the next one was on me, but that would be it for a while. I thought he was going to cry right there, but I wasn’t sure of the exact reason. Sometimes drunks are hard to figure out.

At my break I slipped away from the noise to call Kasie to tell her how Ben was handling their breakup.

“It doesn’t matter, baby. Don’t forget to pick up some milk on your way here after closing time. Gimme a call so I can…turn the on porch light for ya. Okay?” she said. Then hung up.

When I got back behind the bar, I noticed Ben was gone and never touched his last drink. I took a sip before I dumped it. That’s when I realized I forgot to ask Kasie what kind of milk she wanted. I decided it really didn’t matter. I’d go home to my place after work instead. 

Sometimes women are hard to figure out. Just like some drunks. Love is too. But what the hell does that matter, either?

 

Taken

Photo copyright K. S. Brooks.

In the evening she told me her name was Kahwihta. And when I asked how many in her basket, with what I figured was a universal kind of gesture, she held up two hands and shook all the fingers, then one hand with the thumb and first finger extended.

Tékeni iawén:re,” she said, which I guess meant a dozen.

“Well, now, that’s enough apples to make a fine pie,” I said. But I was sure flour and cinnamon were in short supply here near Ta-ra-jo-rees, the village of the Turtle Clan. I was camped on the south shore of their River Flowing Around the Mountain. We call it the Mohawk.

I’d been surveying there in the wilderness for three weeks. The geography was perfect for one supporting grazing and farming, which is what Mister Proctor, the land speculator, had sent me to assay.

Sir William Johnson, His Majesty’s agent among these people, had warned me off, lest I incur a deadly suspicion among his charges. I believe he was trying to keep this land for his own devices, since he has become almost one of the natives and keeps a Mohawk woman, who he calls his wife.

And if she looks anything like Kahwihta, I can understand why.

With what pieces of the language I’d learned, I said, “Konnòn:we’s,” which I think meant “I like you.” Since she dropped her head and giggled behind her hand, I surmised I must have said the right thing. So I reckoned I might as well try to be more like Johnson.

Kwah tokén:’en sén:ta’wh?” I said, which I believed meant to have a good sleep. I pointed at her and then to myself and then the soft fur robe on the floor of my tent.

Kahwihta giggled again and laid down, which surprised and encouraged me in a very fine manner. I was hoping the language of love was as universal as the poets say. I laid down next to her and pulled the robe over us. In the light from my campfire through the canvas, her skin glowed like polished bronze. 

Kahwihta turned toward me and repeated, “Kwah tokén:’en sén:ta’wh.” After that, I remember nothing of the night.

Next I know, I am waking, waking with this vicious pain behind my head, lying there in the open beneath the trees. My tent is gone, as well as my gun, powder and lead, surveying instruments, maps, ledgers, drawing tools, everything. Well, not quite everything.

I still had the clothes on my back and my knife. And there on the robe next to me were seven red apples. I surmised Kahwihta must have felt some remorse that probably one of her brothers entered the tent and tried to crush my skull with his warclub. That he failed was scant comfort in light of the bloody, swollen gash on the back of my head. 

I stumbled to my feet and felt a dizziness like I’d not known before. Thereafter I fell to my knees and spewed my previous day’s victuals on the ground next to me. 

I felt it wise to leave behind, in greatest haste, the village of Ta-ra-jo-rees as best I could, lest Kahwihta’s brothers returned to take my clothes and life, too. So I gathered up my robe, tying within it the seven apples of regret left by the comely Kahwihta. I then crawled on my hands and knees, like some beast of the wild, into the dense forest surrounding me.

It took me four days and every apple to reach Fort Hunter to the north by east. 

I should be quite grateful to Kahwihta, for I’m sure it was through her intercession that I am here today to tell my story of that verdant valley and the beautiful Mohawk girl. I blame myself, my arrogance and my poor language skills for all of this: my failed mission, the loss of my gun and the tools of my profession. and my near-death. 

You see, one of the old scouts at Fort Hunter told me what Kahwihta means in the Mohawk tongue. It means She Takes it With Her.

Indeed.

This story started out as a hoped-for 250-words or less piece of flash fiction for the weekly contest at Indies Unlimited website. But then, as usual, creative momentum and a too-long-dormant story-telling muscle went on a spree.  Yeah, it’s rough as a cob, but it’s just shy of 700 words, so it still qualifies as flash. And I feel better for having stuck with it.

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

Finally, after all the miles, the training, beatings I took as a kid, the beatings I handed out as I got bigger, I was here.

After all the amateur bouts for nothing but experience, the prelims for little more than bus money, the sparring, the body shots I’d take on purpose, the headshots I didn’t, the blood, the sweat, the loss of old friends, the making of new enemies, I was here.

Vegas, the big one, the championship of something more than a gym, a city, a state, some little pissant boxing fed, to the bigger ones, to this.

And now it’s all up to me. I’ve never been more fit, more excited, more ready for anything in my life. All the kid’s daydreams, the dreams I made, the dreams I had, the dreams I’d shattered, I’d seen it all on the way up. I saw it again before I left home.

“Daddy, you going to beat that guy?” my son Dakota said to me, breaking into the last little bit of positive thought meditation I had before I took my flight to Vegas.

“You know it, Ko. You and I worked really hard to get ready for this one, right?” I said. I’d kept Ko and his mother with me in my last weeks of training, even though old Eddie Marcin, my trainer, said it was bad business for a championship fight.

“You need to an absolute animal when you step into that ring, Jose,” he said. “That means on the bleeding edge of want, want for the belt, want for the fame, the money, want for your woman, your kid, want to put that guy on the canvas, but most of all, want to do anything to get out of there alive with your hand raised. Having your family here takes away some of that want, as far as I’m concerned.”

“C’mon, Eddie, you know I’ve never been sharper or fitter. I beat a guy better than this chump champ in five rounds at our last fight,” I said. Just as I saw it in my meditation, in my last dream before the bout.”

“You and that dreamy shit. I never had a fighter just sit and do nothing for a half hour like you do. Like you was taking a freaking nap or something, right there in the gym.”

“I’ve been doing it my whole life, since Mrs. Ito taught it to me back at Maria Regina in Gardena. It kept me from becoming a gang banger, kept me clean, kept me focused and kept me in touch with who I am and where I want to go. I’ve seen it all ahead of me along the way. And now I’m here. And you try telling me there’s no power in what you call napping?” We’d had this argument before. I think he was just trying to fire me up.

“Yeah, well now I want you to take a real nap if you can. I want you fresh as an eager virgin when you hit the ring,” Eddie said. He left the hotel room with the rest of the guys. And that left me alone with my thoughts again.

It started out as a meditation, but I must’ve fallen asleep, because this was as vivid a dream or whatever the hell it was as I’d had during all my training for the belt.

I felt myself sitting in the forest, like we were in Yosemite or someplace. With my eyes closed, I could hear Maria and Ko calling me. But I couldn’t open my eyes. It was like they were swollen shut, like I got stung by a bee or something.

But Maria and Ko were coming closer to me, so I just went with it. I mean the sun was warm on my face, I felt a great peace and I could hear what sounded like a roaring waterfall nearby.

“Jose, please be careful with this man,” I heard Maria say. “I never worry about you in the ring, but this is something different. Just make sure you come home tomorrow, okay?”

“Not a problem, honey. This is my dream, right? And I’ve been making dreams come true all my life.”

“I’m not worried, daddy,” Ko said. “I’m even giving you this for luck. Just to keep you safe and bring you home.”

And just as I could feel his hand touch mine…the dream ended. I was suddenly in a state of confusion because my dreams always have an ending. That’s when I heard the phone ringing next to me on the nightstand. The screen said Maria and Ko.

“Hello,” I said with must have sounded like fat, mushy lips.

“Hi, Daddy. You all ready?” I heard Ko say on the other end.

“You bet, Champ. Tomorrow we’ll be both be champions, right?”

“Jose?” I heard Maria say, “I couldn’t keep him from calling you. I’m sorry, I know you’re probably resting.”

“It’s okay, honey. Just had a little nap and now I’m ready to go. Even dreamed about you guys.”

“You did?” It was Ko again. “Was it a good dream?”

“Sure was. In fact, you were just about to give me a good luck charm in it when the phone rang.”

“Really? ‘Cause I did give you one. It’s in the pocket of your gear bag. Didn’t you find it yet?” Ko said, sounding a little disappointed.

“Oh, sorry Ko. Old Eddie, he took all that stuff and kept it with the other things I’ll need for tomorrow. I’ll look for it when I get to the arena. Under the brightest lights, little man!”

“Yeah! Well, what I gave you was just to keep you safe and bring you home.” Ko said.

“Jose? I’ll let you go and get ready now, baby. Be careful. And know we love you anyway you come home tomorrow, Champion or not. But you will be champion when you get home. I know you will,” Maria said.

“Thanks, sweetness. You and Ko just wait and I’ll bring you home the fanciest belt, and a check for about nine million to buy us an ever bigger house to come home to,” I said.

“Don’t want a bigger house. Just you. Buena suerte, mi amor,” Maria said. And then they were gone.

By the time Eddie, me and the boys got to the arena, all hell was breaking loose. I had all I could do to make sure my cup, as well as my sweet-ass trunks with Maria and Dakota embroidered in gold script, were each on in the right direction. But I was focussed, man. When they made the introductions, all I could see was that want Eddie talked about. I was on the bleeding edge of it and I was going to make sure I sliced this dude up and was the one whose hand was raised and walked out of that ring to go home the champion.

That guy across the ring, I didn’t even give him a name in training for him, he came at me like a bull, but I met him with enough jabs and counterpunches to keep him off me. We felt it each other out for three rounds and then I began to execute the plan I’d seen in my meditations. It was going as I planned. But my waking dreams never envisioned that sweaty slick spot on the canvas. My foot slipped just a bit, my guard dropped and that son of a bitch caught me a shot right between the eyes. I dropped to my knee and he caught me another one.

Now the whole world felt like a dream and I knew he’d hurt me, could feel my eyes swelling and blood dripping into them. What was it Tyson always said: “Everybody has a plan until you punch him in the mouth?” I got it in the eyes. But this wasn’t going to keep me from the sight I’d seen in my mind for twenty years. I’d seen my hand raised and that’s what was going to happen.

I came out the next round knowing I’d have to drop the guy fast before the ref stopped the fight because of my bleeding or I went blind from the swelling. The swelling, just like in my dream. I managed to step outside a couple of his jabs, each time popping him in the side of the head, a left hook and then a straight right, which I countered with a right uppercut to the button. And then it was his turn to go down on his ass.

But not for the count.

“Jose, man, you better get to this guy soon. I dunno if I can keep your cut together much more and, shit, your eyes are swelling fast,” my cut man Bobby Delaware said.

“You got him figured out, Jose. That punch he got you with was a fluke,” Eddie screamed above the crowd’s roar like it was a waterfall. “Now finish him. I don’t know how much longer you got, either. But I know it’s enough. Now put that sumbitch down!”

Bobby’s use of the chilled steel press on my brows had helped a little and even I knew this was probably my last shot at this guy before the ref called the TKO on me. SO went right at him. Threw everything I had at him while taking more shots to the body and head than I ever had in two and a half minutes. But with about thirty seconds left in the round, I caught him on the temple with a straight and hard a right as I’d ever thrown. And down he went like a sack of wet clothes.

And stayed down. They took him away in an ambulance. Me, they stitched up in the dressing room. Good doc in Vegas. I’d see the plastic surgeon on Monday.

I was the one who had his hand raised, who had his eyes closed, who heard the waterfall, who had done everything I’d seen in my dream, except for one thing. I reached into my gear bag and found something hard and in the corner of the pocket. When I pulled it out I saw it was one of Dakota’s Hot Wheel toys. The ambulance. I put it on the shelf and the last thing I remembered was seeing it there with the bloodstains from my hands from wiping my eyes. And then everything went black.

My dream had come true. Everything, like that last dream. Except for the abrupt wakeup. This was an abrupt sleep.

They took me home the next day in an ambulance, but I came home, safe for the most part.

This is my sixth and last story of this winter’s Six Weeks, Six Senses project from Sarah Salecky. This themed story is about the “sixth sense” some of us have. Maybe it’s instinct. Or maybe, like Jose, it’s the ability to meditate and dream of his future. And then make those dreams happen. The photo prompts were a young man (with some seriously knobby knuckles), a B&W scene of a club or arena full of people and bright lights shining from the ceiling and finally, a toy ambulance sitting on a white shelf with red smudges.

No, I never did do Week Four, but I’m working on it..from the neck up.

A Certain Light in the East

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

This was a Christmas unlike any Skyler Van ever experienced, so far removed from the small tree in the three-bedroom ranch back in Bethlehem, outside Albany. She had no memories with which to compare the way her boyfriend, Schuyler Hewson and his family made their season jolly.

But the Hewson’s celebration triggered one memory which sent Skyler to the back of their living room, with its red-flocked wallpaper, glittering eight-foot spruce and away from the huge hewn-stone fireplace with its mantle full of embroidered Christmas stockings. One of them read “Skyler.”

But she couldn’t stand there with the Hewsons next to the warming glow of their roaring Christmas fire. The pungent aroma of the burning kindling, dusted with a pinch of some sort of evergreen incense, the tang of which Schuyler said tasted of Christmas, tasted of something quite the opposite to her.

“You feeling okay, Sky?” her boyfriend asked, putting his arm around her shoulder.

“I think I might need some air, Schuyler. Maybe that Christmas punch of your grandmother’s was a little too potent for me after all.”

“Well, it’s been known to grow hair on your chest. But don’t tell my sister I just revealed her big secret,” he replied with a grin.

That grin was one of the things that drew Skyler to her now-boyfriend in the first place. That and his sense of humor and confidence.

They’d met a year before at the Starbucks on the Yale campus, each grabbing for the same cup when the barista called, “Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

Truth is, Schuyler never saw her there, since she barely came up to his armpit in height. And that’s where her arm came from–her left, his right. Each suffered from morning blindness and deafness until they had dipped into the mountain-grown elixir some Incan god gifted the Western Hemisphere.

She was an Asian girl in a knit cap and scarf. And she looked up at him and said, “I believe that’s my coffee”

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “He called my name and the drink I ordered.

That’s when the other barista walked over and called, ““Sky-ler? Double-shot, skinny, eggnog latte, cinnamon, no nutmeg.”

They each looked at the cup in their hands, then the one on the counter, then back at one another and then laughed.

“Here,” Schuyler said. “This is a coincidence for the ages.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The fact the names are the same is one thing, but who the heck orders the exact same oddball espresso drink as I do.”

“I guess I do. By the way I’m…”

“Schuyler, I’d imagine,” she said.

“And so are you, I gather. I haven’t seen you around here before.”

“Well, since your eyes are way up there and your attention is even further up, I imagine I could be pretty hard to see little five-foot-nothing me down here,” Skyler said.

“You in a hurry? Anyone with our particular tastes in Starbucks drinks maybe should see what else they have in common,” the six-three Schuyler said.

“Not today, but I’ll be here tomorrow and I won’t have a class until 10:30. Maybe then.”

“Great. I’m looking forward to it, Skyler…?” The vacant name holder hung in the air by its interrogation mark.

“Van. I’m Skyler Van. And you’re…?” she said, hanging out her own opening.

“Hewson. Schuyler Hewson.”

And, starting the next day, their relationship built up to and including next Christmas Day. From eggnog lattes to strawberry smoothies, to Pumpkin Spice and back to eggnog. All with a little cinnamon.

Outside the Hewson house that evening, Schuyler followed his girlfriend. He found her leaning against a wall with her eyes closed and taking deep breaths.

“What’s the matter, Sky? You look so sad. I thought bringing you here to celebrate with us might make you happy, We do put on quite the ostentatious show, I grant you, but the spirit is universal,” Schuyler said.

“Oh, it’s been wonderful. Look, I’m even wearing Christmas lights, for Christ’s sake,” Skyler said, fingering the necklace of bulbs she wore.

“True, you make a very cute little tree. Much cuter than that behemoth in the living room.”

“Why thank you…I think,” Skyler said with a weak grin.

“Aw, man. You’re not feeling well, are you? I told Mom not to have the cook put so much pineapple, brown sugar, clove and ginger on the ham. Non-Hewsons might find that a little too much for their stomachs. Plus that damn punch. Ya see, that Manischewitz wine my grandfather slipped us when we were eight or ten was the gateway drug to this bacchanal…”

“No, Schuyler, I just felt….uncomfortable by the fire, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah, the old man really builds that bad boy high, doesn’t he. I always wondered how the ell Santa was going to make it down the chimney with that thing going all night. Poor son a bitch would end up barbecued and…”

“Schuyler, stop,” Skyler cried, her voice cracking like the logs in the Hewson hearth.

“What? Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry, my family’s Christmas parties can be pretty overwhelm…”

“No, Schuyler. It’s not your family, nor the ham, nor the punch. It’s my family that’s putting this sickening taste in my mouth.”

“You mean the cultural difference? I thought Buddhists didn’t mind celebrating Christmas. Think Jesus was some kind of Bodhisattva or whatever,” Schuyler said.

“No, that’s not it, either. We even have a Christmas tree back home in Bethlehem. It’s another thing I don’t talk about, so…”

“C’mon, Sky. I thought we had a deal. If I did something to overstep my bounds with your Vietnamese culture or religion, you said you’d let me know so I could do better,” Schuyler said, pulling his girlfriend closer.

“I…I don’t know if I can this time, hon,” Skyler said. A tear clinging to the corner of her eye.

“Help me make it better, Sky. Really. Was it something I said?”

“Kinda.”

“Well, I’m sorry, whatever it was. But unless you tell me, I can make the same mistake twice. I never want to upset you like this again.”

“It really is the fire.”

“Like I said. The old man, he..”

“Not your father, Schuyler. My grandmother,” Skyler said with a sob.

“I don’t get it. Your grandmother died years ago back in Vietnam. Before your family came to the States, you told me.”

“It’s how she died. And what you said about the fire and Santa and the image was just too much. My family still can’t take the whole sensory panoply of a fireplace, a bonfire, even fireworks.”

“Oh, man. You mean she was killed by an explosion or in a fire during the Vietnam War?”

“No, Schuyler. She WAS the fire,” Skyler said, trembling in Schuyler’s arms.

“Was the fire? How does somebody… Oh! You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do. After my grandfather was killed in the war, she became even more devoutly Buddhist, especially when my dad came here to go to Cal. So he wasn’t there to help her until just before she and a few nuns sat in the street with their gasoline cans and…and…”

“Holy shit. Sky, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“Who could? Who really could understand how grief and faith and protest can intersect in such self-inflicted horror on a street corner in Hué?  Skyler said. She looked up into Schuyler’s eyes.

“No. I’m afraid I have no sense of that, I’m sorry. How can I help you, Sky?”

“Just hold me. It’s freakin’ cold out here. I don’t think I can go back in your living room for a while. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the photos of that day and it made me very sick. Seeing your fire just triggered it again, Your parents think I’m some kind of Asian punk weirdo, Don’t they?”

“No, of course not. And screw them if they did. What do you say we go back inside to the kitchen and have something to drink to help wash that taste out of your mouth? No punch. Maybe I can make an eggnog latte?” Schuyler said with a grin.

“Okay. But how about a strawberry smoothie? Christmas is over anyway. And can you come to Albany for New Year’s? I think this is going to be Năm của kẻ si tình,” Skyler said and hugged her boyfriend close.

“What’s that mean, said the willing-to-learn-Vietnamese half-Jewish boy,” Schuyler said as they headed toward the back door.

“Year of the Love Birds. I love you, Schuyler.”

“And ‘Anh yêu em,’ Sky. Told you I was willing.”

After a holiday-induced break and creative malaise, I’ve jumped back into responding to Sarah Salecky’s Six Weeks, Six Senses feature. This past week’s theme was the sense of Taste. One of the photo prompts was of a forlorn young Asian girl in a knit hat and a light-bulb necklace, another of a pink drink, and the final of something aflame in the middle of a street. Not sure I did Taste all that much justice and my use of the pink drink is weak, but the other two photos evoked this story of two kids from different cultures – on many levels – whose love seems like the real deal.