The ABCs of Being Alice-Anne

Alice-Anne Andrei-Abbott was named after her grandmothers, neither of whom she ever met. But she was taught that each were women of great strength, faith and devotion to their families. 

Couple that bit of parental whimsy with her mother’s desire to keep her maiden name and Alice-Anne, who was wee bit of a thing, always found herself first in line for everything in school.

Divorce may have excised her father, Adam, from her life, but Alice-Anne would never drop her double-monikered surname, not even when her mother asked if she would.

“Everyone I know is a one namer, Mom. For crying out loud, even you,” Alice-Anne told her mother when Audra Andrei posited such a change after Alice-Anne graduated from high school.

“God damn it, Allie, this would be a perfect time for you to claim your own life from connection to a deadbeat dad’s names.”

“How can you say that, Mom?”

“I just did, Allie, it’s time.”

“Just because you don’t want anything to do with Daddy, doesn’t mean I have to erase that part of me from knowing who I am,” Alice-Anne said.

“Knowing who you are, Allie?”

“Like I haven’t noticed how you’ve removed any photos of me from when Daddy lived with us? Mom, my name — all my names, even those dead old ladies — make me who I am and it’s important to me not to get lost in the crowds I’ll meet in college.”

“Now I get it,” her mother said, her eyes narrowing.

“Oh, really, Mother? Please enlighten me with your epiphany about what I’m trying to say or do.”

“Quite simply, you say you want to stand out, but you’re actually afraid of becoming your own woman.”

“Right, haven’t you been listening to me? Say what you want to say, but I’m keeping my names.”

“That’s it, huh? Under no circumstances will you drop your father’s – the father who walked out on us over ten years ago — that father’s name?”

“Why do you really want me to do this, Mom? Extra-angry because you’re turning 50 next week and now he’s finally remarrying someone half your age, someone who actually buys into his narcissistic bullshit, someone without a puny little bookworm daughter who’s so so so so proud of how her mother raised her totally on her own and how I don’t want to lose his name because it’s a constant reminder that there are two sides to everyone and carrying around that extra weight has made me one fiercely strong little bitch? Exciting, huh?” Alice-Anne said as she  flexed her arms in a strongman’s pose.

“Yes…no…what?”

“Zero chance of me changing my name, Mom. All I can say is, no one’s ever going to make me turn into something I don’t want to.”

“Better not even try, huh,” her mother said with a resigned grin.”

“Correct, Mommy. Damn it, I feel like beating up a large man right now, or maybe just crushing a disgustingly decadent burger, fries and ‘nilla shake over at Bad Daddy’s,” Alice-Anne said.

“Eating sounds like a less offensive, more legal way to go, Allie.”

“Freshman fifteen, here I come,” Alice-Anne said. 

“God, if you play this right, you might weigh in at a solid 105 by the time you graduate college. How would any of us recognize you?” Audra said with a laugh.

“I’m Alice-Anne Andrei-Abbott. Just stand back because no one’s going to mess with me.”

“Kinda like this new you I never knew existed,” Audra said as they walked out of the house.

“Learning more about myself every day, actually.”

“More than I ever did, it seems,” Audra said, gazing out the window. 

“Now let’s get out of here and enjoy ourselves one of the last times before you’re seen with your college girl daughter come September.” 

“Ow!” Alice-Anne said in the restaurant as her mother reached out and gave her hand a tight squeeze.”

“Promise me you’ll always be my little girl?”

“Quite depends on how many of these fries I can wolf down, I think. Really, Mom?”

“Seriously, Allie, Alice-Anne, my all grown up, thinking for herself young woman, just don’t…you know.”

“That’s another reason I’m keeping all my names, Ms. Andrei. Very important that people know who I am, but also who I come from. Why are you crying now, Mom?”

“Extra onions on this burger. You know how they get to me.”

“Zesty things, like us,” Alice-Anne said, winking from what she was sure were the invisible onions on her mother’s burger.

You’ll have to forgive the going-nowhere-and-not-very-fast nature of this little story. It was an exercise I attempted in order to break out of this creative stasis that’s enamored me for the past several months. “What exercise?” you might ask. Give each sentence a closer look, at least at the right-hand end of it. Now the next one. And the next…

I wanted to finish it with my first circuit, but ended up going around twice. Let’s just say it wasn’t as easy as ABC, but was fun to meet the character of Alice-Anne. That first sentence just sort of magically appeared on the top of the page and dragged me across the creative river from there. (And yes, I cheated on the Xs. You try breaking out of something like this. You’ll cheat, too.)

Better a Pocketful of Respect Than a Fistful of Lightning

Tuesday was a red glowing promise on the eastern horizon as I blinked the tobacco smoke and whiskey from my eyes as I stepped outside the gambling house. That’s when young Jesse Fountain ran up behind me.

“Do you want to see?” he said. He was pretty lucky I was so tired and my hand was a second slow behind my eyes and head.

“See what? Can’t we talk after I get a few hours sleep?” I said.

“This can’t wait. Do you want to see the piece I bought?” he said, leading me down the alley between The Grand and Mrs Pynchon’s house of horizontal delights.

“Piece of what?” I said.

“A gun, Daniel. I bought me a gun.” Jesse said. He reached down and pulled back the long canvas coat he received from the effects of his brother Matthew, an old acquaintance of mine who was a sometime deputy, other times cheating gambler. When Jesse’s hand came out of its folds, it held a nickel-plated pistol. He pointed its business end directly at my chest, where a triphammer suddenly started banging.

“Jesus Christ, Jesse. Be careful with that thing” I said, as I pushed the .38 caliber muzzle down and away from my chest. If you don’t know, let me tell you, any gun pointed at your vitals has a way of waking you up no matter how sleepy you might be.

“Sorry, Daniel. Isn’t she a beauty?”

“I have two questions. First: Why do you want a gun like that? Second: Who in the world would sell you a gun like that?”

“I want it for protection. And Dutch Van Dorn sold it to me. Actually, I traded my horse for it, now that I have Matt’s.”

“If Van Dorn’s involved, I’d be careful squeezing off any rounds lest the damn thing blow your hand off. But again, why? And put that away.”

“You know. I want it for…protection.”

“Jesse, having a gun don’t mean you can use it. For protection or anything else. That thing was made for one purpose.”

“Yeah, to show everyone I’m not a man to be trifled with.”

“No, a double-action Colt Lightning is made to kill other men.”

“See?”

“See what?”

“Ain’t nobody, not from around here or some yahoo up from Texas, gonna mess with a man like me who can pull his iron and get off six shots without once slowin’ down to cock the hammer,” Jesse said, once more pulling out his eight-year-old roan’s worth of backbone.

“I’m not gonna tell you again, Jesse. Put that thing away. If a lawman sees you waving that around at me in an alleyway, he’s likely to get the wrong idea and drop you like a sack of corn.”

“I’d like to see him try.”

What is it they used to say? “God created all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”? In my times lawing in some cowtowns in Kansas and Colorado, I met too many young fellas bought into that bullshit. Some, either touched in the head by going too long without liquor or women or getting too much of either too quickly. Or maybe just plain touched. They believed a gun made them more than equal. Jesse was one of those sad cases that qualified on all counts.

“Shot it yet?” I asked.

“Yep, yesterday afternoon behind the stable. Pretty good shot if I do say so.”

“That’s nice. Loud, wasn’t it? What you shoot at, cans or bottles?”

“Cans…and a chicken”

“I’ve yet to meet any cans — or chickens — that can draw a pistol and return fire with mortal intent. But congratulations, I’m sure you showed those horses who’s boss.”

“Stop it, Daniel. Told you, I won’t be disrespected no more.”

“Jesse, I want you to listen close. I’m telling you this for your own good. A gun — even a wonder weapon like your Lightning — won’t earn you any extra respect. In fact, I can attest to the fact it can get you less. Or killed.”

“I told you, I’m a dead-eyed shot, Daniel.” Jesse’s tone changed. I’d heard it maybe a hundred or two times before and I was ready.

“And I’m telling you that will not be enough to change how people regard you. I don’t want to see you turn out like Matthew, s’all. Listen, you’ve always been a good boy…”

“Don’t you call me that. I’m not a boy.”

“No, not really anymore. But you’ll always be a kid to me, Jesse.”

“What do you mean?” I knew I was taking a chance, but I needed to prove something to him.

“I mean I’ll always think of you as Matt’s little brother, tagging along and watching him swagger into a room, gun slung low, eye’s cold, looking for some mark he could hook while he bottom-dealt…”

“Take that back, Daniel, or I’ll…”

“You’ll what?” I had him.

Jesse reached for his Colt, but he had to pull his coat out of the way. As he looked down, I pulled my pistol and cold cocked him a good one with the barrel. I flagged down Deputy Charlie Bassett, who was making his rounds, and we hauled away young Jesse and, minus his Colt of course, stuffed him into the calaboose.

“Charlie, see if you can hold onto that Lightning, will ya? The kid is in no way one to own a piece like that. Same damn gun the likes of Hardin carries, for Christ’s sake. Maybe you can talk some sense into Jesse before…”

“I know. Maybe you taught him a lesson, though, Dan.”

I left Dodge that day and headed over to Trinidad, Colorado for a couple of weeks. When I got back, Charlie met me and told me the story over a couple of beers.

Seems after his two of nights in jail, Jesse and his gun left the safety of Charlie’s hospitality and right off he walked into the Long Branch and tried big-footing some Texas cowboy. They told Charlie Jesse reached first, but he fumbled his draw. The cowboy didn’t.

“Caught his hand in his coat pocket,” Charlie Bassett told me. “Lying there, four fingers of his right hand tucked inside his pocket and thumb hooked outside. With the exception of a .44 caliber hole in his head, I thought he looked rather respectable that way.”

I nodded.

“Good, good. It was only a matter of time, I guess. But that’s all the boy was ever looking for. Respect.”

Built this Western from a 250-word something I wrote for a mini-competition this past week. It’s still in Draft 1.5 form, but you know I love to share my frontier stories. So bear with me as I try remembering how.

Full Circle

“What do you wish us to do?” the doctor asked, his benevolent demeanor, but with a double-parked, motor-running, it’s 4:58 on Friday vibe.

You never think about making the ultimate decision for someone you love. You divert yourself with other thoughts. What’ll the family say? How can I face myself after this?

“There’s no coming back for her,” the doctor said. But there’d be no coming back for me, either.

You stand still for that second, three heartbeats replacing the one normally filling that space.

“Okay.” My throat locking in that word and out the air.

The doctor does what he does. Then we wait. Not long. But a whole life together in an instant. She closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths and… Gone.

But in that instant everything changed. All from one second of indecision to decision.

I had to make the same decision for my Dad, a year later. Everything comes full circle, they say. But you don’t want on this ride more than once.

I’m sure the weepers thought me an unfeeling bastard. The doctor gave the same rap about no coming back, for the best, no-resuscitate order. Then…

“Well?”

In that second, the guy for whom agreeing to have his dog put down changed everything, nodded and said, “Okay, Let’s do it.”

Then I began to breathe again, as others began sobbing. They could never make this decision. But, like I said…in less than a second…changed everything.

I’d cry later.

Like A Picture Drawn In Lavender

The fields of lavender stretch like bolts of corduroy from where we bask in summer sunlight. Their perfume wafts sweet and intoxicating, when we need not their breath, for she knows we must be living in a dream.

A breeze combs the wales this way and that. They dance like rows of tiny willows, swaying to the tunes of that aeolian flute rising from the sea, that brilliant mirror of the sun’s face. Does she know it can never be my face?

“Where are you?” she asks, as if my thoughts are always somewhere else. But I’ll be with her all day. “The light is perfect. Do you wish to draw me? Shall I disrobe?”

Within these purple fronds I’m sure she cannot see my smile. Neither is it lecherous nor amused. She’s not some whore like in the village tavern, nor is she some silly child. She is earnest, yearning, waiting for me to memorialize her today. Some instrument of recollection for when she is old and alone.

Then the tear forms at the corner of her eye, as realization crosses her mind like a cloud.

She’s recalls I’m heir to the darkness, yang to shining yin of this Provence light. I can record my chiaroscuro impressions of her, but they’re fleeting. I’m leaving, evening drawing me in its charcoal-covered hands, drawing me as a stick man of two-dimensions, drawing me longer and narrower as I near my vanishing point out there beyond these fields of lavender.

 

The Visions of Henry At-the-Water and He Pounds With His Left Hand

Frances Canyon Pueblito ruins, New Mexico. Photo by T. Mietty, June, 2007.

“Another twenty, twenty-five,” Hank Atwater said as he counted the tufts of white drifting on the edge of his property, lonesome as clouds in the late-spring New Mexico sky. 

“They must be dropping like flies,” he said as he scanned the scattered sheep herd. 

“I know. Reminds me of the shipping fever we got back when I was a little one in aught-nine, but they was beeves,” his son Chet said with a chuckle.

“You think this is funny, Chester Mateo?” Hank’s eyes flashed beneath the shade of his sombrero. 

“No sir, I was just comparing how they’re all fine on Tuesday and dead on Thursday.” Chet had learned the hard way that hearing his father use his proper name followed by the baptismal name his mother gave him was akin to the warning of distant thunder. A storm could be coming.

“These ain’t cows we’re talking about, boy. And it ain’t these stinking, bleating blankets on the hoof, either. These are real people, despite what your grandfather would have you believe. And they been here a hell of a lot longer than he was. Even longer than your mama’s supposedly conquering Spaniard ancestors,” Hank said. He would’ve spit if he could work some up in his mouth.

“If these Navajo keep dying off like this, there won’t be any more sheep or wool or people living out here. And if there’s no people, then all you see is the flat nothing you can’t see in an old painting. No spirit, no soul. And if they can get sick, that means we can, too. You understand that, Chet?”

“Yes, Pa. I get it. But how’re you gonna stop these blanket-heads, I mean these folks, from getting sick? Or makin’ us sick?”

“That, Chester Mateo, is the problem. No one knows. Yet.”

Hank spurred his horse east, but veered off the main trail toward the edge of the Navajo reservation, toward the hogan of his friend Klah Etsiddy. Etsiddy’s family lived beneath an old pueblito tower of adobe bricks and mud. Normally, Hank would know his friend was home by the smoke coming from the smithy his grandfather built within the pueblito after The Long Walk from Arizona.

As they rode nearer, even Chet was aware something was different. All he heard was the wind. By now, he should be hearing the ring of Etsiddy’s hammer on his anvil, turning red-hot iron into tools or horseshoes. His father broke the silence as he spurred his horse into a lope toward the hogan, from which no smoke rose either.

“Lefty, you here?” Hank called out his friend’s nickname as he jumped out of the saddle. In the Navajo language, Klah Etsiddy meant He Pounds With His Left Hand. 

As Chet reined up, he saw his father approach the front of the house, then stop short a couple of yards from the entrance as a figure emerged from the shadows in the doorway. 

“Come no closer, Henry At-the-Water,” Etsiddy said. “I wish you well, my friend, so I ask that you stay back from my home. The evil spirit of your war against the Kaiser has invaded the Diné, I think.”

“Are you sick, Lefty? Is Johona all right? Your Mom, The kids?”

“We are not yet sick. But we are not attending the great healing ceremonies with other families because my mother is so feeble now. But you know she is a blessed medicine woman and a hand trembler. She had a vision that this great sickness was coming.”

“A vision? You’re kidding, right?” Chet said as he alit onto the hard-packed dirt in front of the hogan. AS he strode toward the doorway, his father roughly grabbed his arm.

 “Yes. She saw the saddle catch fire on the old horse’s back when was not near any flames. So we have eaten of that horse.”

Chet still couldn’t believe what he heard. “What?” he said as he scanned Etsiddy’s corral. “Out here in the middle of nowhere, no doctor for fifty miles. An old grandma and kids. And you ate one of your only ways of getting help?” Chet asked. Hank shot him another of his thunderstorm looks.

“My mother knows what to do, Chester At-the-Water. I took one of my other horses to warn my neighbors, but they aren’t so…accepting of Mother’s gifts. So we will stay here and follow the old ways.”

“Pa, I can’t take anymore of this blanket-head hocus-pocus shit. I’m gonna start for Gallup. I’m stopping at the Jennings’ spread on the way.”

“I would feel a lot better if you went right home, Chet. Your Mom might be needing you until I get there,” Hank said. But, with a squeak of leather and of huff of breath from his mount, Chet was already in the saddle and headed to his girlfriend’s father’s ranch.

“I swear. That boy will be the death of me, Lefty.”

“He is young and has not found his way yet, Henry. He needs guidance and knowledge of the spirits inside him and around us.”

“He needs a swift kick in the ass is what he needs. So what is it you and your family really gonna do, Lefty? I worry about you out here.”

“Mother said we should be safe. She was taught by her grandfather who was a great hatalii during other such sicknesses. We have seen illness as bad as this before.”

“I don’t know, my friend. The doctors still don’t know what this thing is or where it really came from. Some say France, where they were fighting the war. Some say Kansas, where we trained boys to go fight there,” Hank said, pushing the brim of his hat back.

“As I said, Henry, any way you look it is the evil shadow of that war begun this sickness, as sure as the many rivers like the webs of spiders are born of one, Tółchíʼíkooh, the river you call Colorado.” 

Well, just the same, if I didn’t know you and the Diné as you taught me, I’d haul you back to my place, just to be closer to a doctor.”

“Henry, I am already closer to any doctor than you are. She sleeps on the other side of my hogan,” Etsiddy said with a chuckle.

“What’s she sayin’ to do?” Hank said.

“We are now supposed to stay away from others, keep our life force close within us. After today, I will not see you until this is over or in the next life. I only leave the hogan to go to the pueblito or to tend the animals. We will pray and keep ourselves clean. Mother says I should not go to my forge because it will make my hands too dirty.”

“She wants you to keep your hands clean? How the hell…?”

“Yes, it is what she was taught. We have many things to do. The children will learn from Mother, Johan and me more in the next weeks than they would in many months. This illness could be a good thing for my family.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, compadre, but I learned a long time ago not to pooh-pooh the teachings of the Diné elders. They proved too right too many times. Hell, you’re all still here, aren’t you?”

“Many won’t be after this, Henry. I have cleansed myself in a great sweat and seen this in a vision, too. I pray you take Mother’s warning to heart for yourself and your family. Keep close to home. Keep clean. Stay happy. Pray. That’s the best way I can explain it to…”

“A white man?”

Both men laughed.

“Well, Yá’át’ééh, Klah Etsiddy, my friend. You keep well, okay?”

Yá’át’ééh, Henry At-the-Water. I hope to see you when the sickness is gone.”

But Hank Atwater and Klah Etsiddy did not see one another again.

Hank decided to adhere to his friend’s mother’s advice, but his son did not. That day, Chet stopped off at the Jennings’ place where his girl, Alice, was nursing a tickle in her throat. With a peck on the cheek, he left for home.

In a week, she was dead. 

In ten days, so were Hank Atwater and his wife. But, for some reason, not Chet.

When word of his friend’s death reached the hogan of Klah Etsiddy, the Navajo blacksmith arose from listening to his mother teach his children about how the Diné Bizaad continued to survive in this difficult land over the centuries. His children kept her alive she told her son many times. 

“Even with all our prayers and Mother’s knowledge, the great illness took my friend. But I will always believe Henry At-the-Water had a vision of his end,” Etsiddy said to his wife. 

“He always told me Young Chester Mateo At-the-Water would be the death of him.”

Man, I’ve been aching to write one of my Western stories for months. Who knew that the Coronavirus pandemic would be the impetus for one? Upon rereading it, I believe certain spirits have whispered to me how I might grow this tale into something greater. Nevertheless, I wished to share this infant story with you at this time.

Oh, and I did my usual quick and nerdy research for this this story. The Navajo did, as they are with COVID-19, suffer horribly with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. But, anecdotally, some families were not touched so severely. And Edittsy’s mother prescribes how they say they did.

 

A Matter of Honor

They think I don’t hear them, but I do. Or at least I hear the hum of their talk with words bobbing up every now and then.

It certainly bests the sound of breathing, the crackle of my neck turning left and right on the cot, or the heartbeat that longs to feel hers, just to make some poetry that probably doesn’t rhyme anymore.

But out in the hallway, I’m pretty sure the guards are talking about me. I hear “bastard.” And maybe that was a “poor,” which I’d appreciate if this wasn’t the eve of the dawn we’ve been waiting for. Or dreading.

There! I’m pretty sure that was a “governor,” but it just as well could have been a “southerner,” or a “lovin’ her.” They all could apply to me. Though I’m not sure Yankees understand family and honor like we do.

I probably deserve the dance I’ll do when the sun clears the horizon. Eye for an eye and all. Carpetbaggin’ sumbitch deserved every last ball I put in him. Wish’d I had Daddy’s LeMat to wipe the grin off his face with a shotgun blast, too.

But some Yankee’s probably got that, too. Took everything, eventually, didn’t they? Saber, gun, horses, farm, Mama’s honor, my…

I heard the lock clank.

“All right, I’m afraid it’s time. Ya know, I’d have shot that scoundrel, too, Missy. If it’s any consolation. I take no solace in hangin’ a twelve year old girl,” the glossy-eyed, red-nosed sergeant said.

When there are no more of their culturally established defenders around, some women grow up fast to protect themselves and their own. Especially in a mid-19th Century rural society. This 250-word story reflects such a young woman doing what she decided needed to be done in a family whose men were erased by war. It’s in response to that first sentence up there, the prompt for this week’s Thursday Threads feature from author Siobhan Muir.

1919

As Alice put another cold compress on Frankie’s forehead, I had my hand on her shoulder and felt it heaving up and down.

“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. But when I looked in her eyes, they were dry. What I felt was not sobbing. She’d been suppressing her coughs, so she wouldn’t wake Frankie.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll take over now,” I said.

“Thank you, Frank,“ Alice said, pressing her burning cheek to mine. As she left the room, I heard her cough…hard.

For a year, I’d seen buddies die in front of me, nearly ripped in half by German Maxim machine guns, wrong place/wrong time in an artillery barrage, and now a cold that killed in only a few days. I’d seen it France. I was told by some of the boys soldiers were dropping like flies at Fort Riley in Kansas. We slid more than twenty over the side of the Liberty ship bringing us home to the States. They told me it had hit New York City, too.

I was beginning to feel guilty about how some folks were saying we Doughboys brought the sickness back to America, this Spanish Influenza. I didn’t need that kind of help. War can make a guy feel guilty all on his own.

Frankie murmured something and started coughing, a weak, choking sound, so I propped him up a little more. But I knew even that wouldn’t help much.

I’d gone to France because I was drafted, not to make the world safe for democracy.

I fought there to take care of my buddies, but you can’t take care of someone vaporized by an 88mm shell dropped on his head.

I stayed alive to get home to Alice and Frankie, to see my boy grow up. To feel the warmth of my wife again. Tonight I felt feverish heat.

I heard the bed springs ring in the next room, then heard Alice cough again. And again. And again.

You feel so helpless at a time like this, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life. How do you prepare for this? How do you prepare for dying by the hundreds and thousands? Or one at a time.

Frankie tried coughing again and he sounded like he was drowning and I could barely take it anymore. Such suffering for a kid. He opened his eyes and looked at me that same way. And that day broke through the thin crust I’d try to grow over the memory.

I saw that German kid in the middle of that shell hole again. It was full of water that had this yellow-green scum on top of it – the residue of their mustard gas. 

Me and my buddy Charlie Oakley had him covered with our Springfields and motioned for him to come out. But he wouldn’t. He just kept yelling – no, screaming – “Hilf mir, bitte.”

Then the boy, he wasn’t more than seventeen, I’d guess, he kind of fell over and his face went into the water. And he looked like he had shrunk by about a foot. He fell again and between the stagnant water in the shell hole and that Mustard residue, he started choking, drowning really.

Charlie said, “Shit, the kid’s stuck in there. Bottom of the hole must be all mud. I’ll fetch him.”

“Let him go, Charlie. He’s just another Kraut,” I said and spit into the water.

But Charlie was a preacher’s kid from North Carolina and it was obvious since all the way back in training at Fort Slocum that his mama raised him a real Christian gentleman.

Charlie slogged around to the far side of the crater and slid about halfway down. You could see how he was trying to figure out how he could reach the kid. 

“Hey, Frank, come over here. Hold my hand and I think I can grab this kid’s collar,” he said.

The mud in France is a living thing, you know, a monster that’ll suck your boots right off your feet and then eat your toes for dessert. As I clopped-plopped over to Charlie, the mud in that shell hole must have had enough of the German kid and it decided to try an American.

Charlie’s feet slid out from under him and, like on a sliding board, he flew out over the edge and fell flat on his back in that poison water and sticky mud. I ran over as fast as I could, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the German kid anymore, either.

“Charlie!” I screamed. I mean I screamed. Then I saw his head bob back above the water. But that was all I saw.

“Frank! Help me! I don’t want to die like this. Help me, buddy.” Then he went under again. 

He came back up, but all I could hear was this gurgling in his throat. His eyes were wild then they settled down. Just his face was above the water now. He stared at me like a yellow-green picture of Jesus in Gethsemane. Kind of pleading. And I knew what he wanted me to do.

I remembered what Jesus said that night. I looked into Charlie’s eyes and said, “Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Charlie sort of nodded and I raised my rifle and squeezed off the most difficult shot I ever took, even though my target was only seven feet away. Charlie disappeared, but the image of his face didn’t. Never will.

Frankie stirred again, shaking me out of this memory. I saw the whole thing in but a second or two. This time Frankie’s breath came like a fingernail swiped on a washboard. It sounded so much like guys who’d caught just enough gas to singe their throat and lungs, but not kill them. Not until they got to the hospital in Étaples. Then they’d get sick, dying there a day or two later. Fever. Lungs giving out.

Like Frankie’s did that night. Honest, they did. Alice lasted two more days. I’d been home three weeks and I can’t help but wonder. Did the influenza kill them or did the war?

Last night, I had that nightmare again where Frankie and Alice are neck-deep in the water and mud of that shell hole and pleading with me to save them. I raise my rifle, but just as i bring my rifle to my shoulder, I woke up. I eventually fell back asleep.

But then, a new dream. I hear the scream of that 88mm shell and it’s falling on top of me instead. I wake up and I realize it’s been me screaming. Again. But that 88mm falling on me? 

Oh, how I wish.

This story is a beefing up of a 250-word mini-flash I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. That version won the week’s contest. This version is the first draft of a more complete study of war, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a world-wide pandemic. Needless to say, it was in many ways inspired the coronavirus infecting folks worldwide. I just built around a similar illness from 100 years ago. 

Who’s The Man?

“Where the hell’s Rosalie?” Pat Bowman asked as he peered over his son Mark’s shoulder toward the front door.

“She was here this morning, Dad,” Mark said with a sigh. He sighed a lot these days, though he tried not to.

“Wasn’t that Becca?” Pat said. 

“Well, yeah. Becca was here, too. A little while ago. Rosalie came this morning, though.”

“I would’ve sworn…” Pat’s attention refocused on the television.

“She’s the one who came earlier, Dad. Trust me.” Mark decided to hold his big inhale this time. Sighing didn’t make Mark feel any better about his father or his own role as Pat’s health proxy and primary caregiver.

Besides, what good would sighing now do? The doctors and therapists explained to him how his father’s condition would become frustrating. Then would come the hard part. Mark closed his eyes and tried not to think of what the hard part would be like in light of the past three months.

“Who the hell thought this stupid ostrich was a good idea to sell insurance,” his father, a retired business executive, said. 

“It’s an emu, Dad. But you’re right. It sucks. Annoying as hell.”

“Stupid fucking bird. Assholes must think we’re idiots. If some ad man brought me this concept I’d throw him out the window. See if he could fly as well as some damn ostrich.”

“Relax, Dad. It’s only a commercial.” Mark was seeing more of these tirades all the time. And they hurt.

He recalled how when they were kids, his sisters Rosalie and Rebecca and he couldn’t go to sleep without listening to their father tell them a silly story.  Never the same one, unless they asked for one. Pat Bowman put the “gentle” in “gentleman.”

Mark thought of the time back at Yale when he the cops hauled him in after trying to score some weed off an undercover. Pat drove from Albany to New Haven in a blizzard to bail Mark out and drive him home. Not once did he raise his voice or issue a profanity. Not one “damn,” let alone a “fuck.”

“You’re better than this, Mark. You know the difference between right and wrong, and the law says what you were trying to do is wrong,” Pat said. 

“It’s a stupid law, Dad. But, yeah. Sorry. I fucked up,” Mark said, his chin to his chest as he stared at the floor board.

“Careful of your language, Mark. Words have power I don’t think you fully understand yet. How you use them communicate as much as what you’re trying to say. I tried my whole life to set a good example for you. Maybe I slipped up — slipped up — somewhere. Always remember, you’re my main man, pal. When I go, I want to say ‘My boy Mark is The Man.’ Not ‘The *blanking* Man. MY Man.”

And so he was.

Mark’s mouth twisted into something between a grin and a grimace thinking of that night. “MY Man.”

“When the hell is Rosalie coming? Was that a car?” Pat said, trying to rise.

“Sit! Yep, It’s Rosalie,” Mark said with touch of relief.

“Hi, Mark. You get some rest. Hi, Dad,” Rosalie said as she breezed into the living room.

“Thanks, Ro. Later, Dad.” Mark said, and kissed his father’s forehead.

“So, is there anything I can do for you, Dad? Need a drink, something to eat?” Rosalie said. Just so she knew she’d have his attention, Rosalie stepped between her father and the television screen.

“Yeah, get outta the way. And can you tell me who that guy was who just left?”

This is a larger version of a 250-word story I wrote (Yes, I WROTE!) Thursday in response to Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads  flash fiction mini-competition. It was probably better at 250. Somehow, though, my piece won. Never ceases to floor me when one of my simplistic, minimalist stories garners some bit of approbation. It’s humbling and encouraging. Those are two ingredients any writer needs to make his or her next bit of creative sustenance. 

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.