Entire RWM Catalog Free for Limited Time

That’s right, folks. The ENTIRE Rusty Wheels Media, LLC. catalog will boast FREE Amazon Kindle Versions from Tuesday-Saturday. (4/17-4/21) 

See which FREE KINDLE book suits your fancy from our Amazing Authors by clicking the links below:



Don’t Forget About Our Letters Contest!

Always accepting submissions.

We Dare You…

“Dear Benefactor” from Letters Never Meant to be Read: Volume II YouTube Reading and Script



Dear Benefactor,


Here I give you a great opportunity to continue on an age-old tradition of supporting the arts. No, I am not a charlatan, although I could be if I had no guilt at all. No, I am not a beggar. It just seems plain to me that I could be doing better for myself, better for the world with a change of station. If only I didn’t have this weight of impending disaster over me. This impenetrable cloud that follows, darkens my existence by stealing my time and thoughts away from my writing. Worry and debt have formed great men, but I have served enough of both to occupy a lifetime. Some find hardship and poverty to be inspiration for their best work. I have had the right amount of these disasters and I simply ask for assistance in continuing on to the next great phase.

It may seem by the opening that I am not accomplished, a loser perhaps. This is not true; I am a gentleman by the old sense. I am a person of letters and books. I am well educated, addicted to ambition as well as accomplishment, and have risen up to a certain level despite my poor pedigree. But winning in these games has not come without cost. I find myself mooring over the smallest of expenses and checking my accounts far too often.

Even a small amount of patronage would give me a little respite. I will not dawdle with this given time though. I will write and produce in such a way that you have never seen. I will be the most prolific, the unstoppable. I will be the creator of many worlds and people, for you. The small gesture to my potential will seem dainty in comparison to what I will build. Then, as time continues and I add to the pile of record, our achievements, I will undoubtedly garner interviews. Books will be written about me, about my undying tenacity, about our legacy. Only then will I divulge the real truth about you, about the goodness in your heart, about your care and generosity. I will put you upon the pedestal of time and you will be known.

If you are uninterested in the investment of legacy, then perhaps you would like companionship. Perhaps you want both, are like myself, want it all. I can offer you the sweetest of gestures, the most passionate rhythms this Earth has to offer. I can see you as you were, long ago, past those still pretty eyes, into your youth. I can look at you in wonder, your naked body on display for me, caress your hair and forgive the small tolls that time has ungratefully taken on you.

I can be your best lover, your secret in revenge against the world that has been so ungrateful. I can last long or be as hasty as you please. All of your fantasies will come to fruition, all you have to do is ask. No, tell me, say the words, and I will be whoever you want. Say nothing, and I will be myself, your everything. I do not care if you are dying, we all are. I do not care if you aren’t as pretty as you once were. I can see through the wrinkles and the grief. I am unassuming and I know no age. I span time with humor and delicate forethought. Think of your most dangerous desire, the one you fear would bring you public shame if it ever got out. Tell me. I won’t even bat an eye, only smile, and give it to you.

Please don’t think of me a tramp. Yes, I am taken, you might be too, but not in those moments. No one has all of me, but you can. He may have left recently, or long ago. Use me to parade around in defiance. Show me off to your cohorts, travel with an escort. I can speak another language. In a tuxedo, I am quite dashing. We all play roles; let me play one for you.

Is it not the same when I clock in an out? When I go away in uniform, am I not leaving them behind too? Those that I love, that are close, they need provisions. I go and get them to ensure a future. It does not matter who I am when I am away, as long as I return unscathed. It does not matter how I secure a future, but that I do. Besides, one cannot judge another who brings happiness and enlightenment into the world. I will bring you passion and joy, and you will allow for our enlightenment.

Of course, we don’t have to be lovers in the physical sense. You could simply be my publisher, my editor, my muse. I can scribe love letters to your heart’s delight. Our torrid love affair can be only in the mind, on sacred parchment that historians will marvel over. While I toil away in joy, creating a collection of books and thoughts, we can span great distance with touching moments of bliss caught on record. You can provide needed expenses, and I, a mountain of dreams.

I will still want you though, I must warn you. I am a romantic, if you have not already guessed. I will desire for your body along with your pretty mind. If that physical connection is not your choice, tease me with my own desires of the flesh. Play games, wring out of me the most desperate and sentimental words from my wet cloth. I will be loyal.

If you have found any errors in these words, good; you are doing well already. Please, beg my forgiveness. If they are filled with mistakes, let these words serve as an example of the cloud that is looming. I write in haste, eager to slip away from the bankers and the phone calls. I can assure you, I am not expensive compared to what most use their money on these days. I am not a spendthrift. I will use what is given to me by your delicate hands for one purpose and I will never appear ungrateful. I will get the cloud away from my back and write as if every day I shall perish by midnight.

Do send something soon though, a message that you are at least thinking about my offer. I am an optimist and I think fondly on tomorrow. If not, I will soon be beaten down by the doldrums of a petty, debtor existence. And while I will not give up on my dreams, I will become bitter by their making over such a long, hard road. By securing a more comfortable route now, I will ensure the necessity to pay it forward one day. I will reach down as you have here and offer a lifeline to another dreamer. I beg you to give me something more to admire about tomorrow.

I hope you are well and in good health. I hope the spring sun shines upon your face and, by morning, you have cup of tea for me and a story to tell when I arrive. Write soon.




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Book Club Discussion Questions for Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss



I am thrilled to know that a fan is using Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss for their upcoming book club. On a previous post: A Day in the Life and the Premier of Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss, I received the question: “I am looking for book club discussion questions for Worked Stiff: Short Stories to tell Your Boss. Help, please!”

Certainly the highlight of my day, this question is what makes all the time, worry, and editing worthwhile. I do believe that this salty collection is a great pick for a book club because there is something in those pages for everyone. The collection contains romance, horror, adventure, superstition, robots, jam jars, glances at the future, and friendship. Stories are both long and short. The Audible version will be out soon, from Pamela Hershey, the voice of Letters Never Meant to be Read.

If you find a story just doesn’t jive with you, skip it for later and see if the next one resonates. The Nail is my personal favorite. There are many characters and each story is so different. Feel free to let me know which ones you’d like to see more of.

The collection starts with a breast cancer survivor who finds new life and revenge in ocean and sand. The collection then veers off to Instance of Death where a man goes on a Voodoo trip to New Orleans in order to die after his life goes off the rails. This is one story that I would love to see as a movie. Many stories follow, short and long, all with common themes, one of them the plight of the working class and the consequences of debt. Not all are sad nor happy, not all contain revenge.

Something for everyone.

It all started last fall when I was underemployed. Isn’t that how all mischief starts? I feverishly wrote before the light of day. I tested live on the phone to unsuspecting victims. I was posting these and other stories on my blog.

Without further ado, below are 10 book club discussion questions. Thank you Joan R. Reese. Feel free to send an email with your address to rustywheelsmedia@gmail.com and I will send you a signed copy of the paperback version!

Book Club Discussion Questions for Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss

1. What were the themes of the book? Were they brought to life in a unique way?

2. Has anything ever happened to you similar to what happened in the book? How did you react?

3. What surprised you the most about the book?

4. Do you have a favorite story in the collection? Why?

5. Was there one story you didn’t want to end or think should be a novel by itself?

6. Were there any particular quotes that stood out to you? Why?

7. What did you think of the structure and style of the author’s writing?

8. Did one Point of View/Narration style work better than others?

8. Have you read other books by this author? 

9. Did your opinion of the book change as you read it? How?

10. Did the author shed light on the problems and joys concerning everyday people in an entertaining way? 

A Day in the Life and the Premier of Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss

This book is a salute and celebration of the Modern American Worker. Generations of unrecognized heroes who wash our cars, mow our lawns, bake our bread, douse our fires, take our garbage, teach our kids, grow our food, build our houses, mend our roads, and defend our freedom.

The American Dream is still there for all of them, hidden in plain sight, riddled with confusion and abandonment.

In an America full of unemployment, late fees, foreclosures, bankruptcy, and loss of hope…

There Are Consequences.

This short story collection includes some of the pale misery behind faults in the American Economy. Find a cab driver who lost his way, a down and out executive who stumbles onto a Voodoo curse in New Orleans, a nurse who pays the price for rescuing a man once thought loved, and a horrific, dystopian future. Discover new hope after cancer. Follow a paratrooper to manhood as he approached the deadly ground. Help the underemployed win at a game where reality TV meets nature at the crossroads of technology.

The stories in this collection contain clues, breadcrumbs dropped along a path to help you on your way.

Can You Find Them? 


This short story collection was a while coming but I am overall happy with the results. Between pulling teeth over the cover design, hiring an editor, and editing AGAIN on a 60 inch TV in a hotel in Tennessee, this has been quite the ride. How did it begin?

It all started this past fall when I was underemployed. Isn’t that how all mischief starts? I feverishly wrote before the light of day. I tested on the phone to unsuspecting victims. I was posting these and other stories on my blog. All because I read Miracle Mornings by Hal Elrod and Steve Scott and went off to the races every morning, writing whether I cared to or not. I am NOT a morning person, despite my military background, but I became one with coffee and anger.



I wrote a few of the stories while out on a case (I moonlight as a Private Investigator). I did some first drafts with Dragon Naturally Speaking, but most I crafted before anybody could get to me and ask for anything.

The first  in this series Worked Stiff: Poetry and Prose for the Common was an unusual 2nd book to put out. Yes, weird after Country Noir Modern Waste but that’s what a year in Russian school at the Defense Language Institute will do to you. Utterly demoralizing.

If you are interested in poetry, great art, or political treatise without picking sides, Poetry and Prose for the Common is good. If you are interested in selling books, it was not. What was I thinking?

Well, I was thinking about art and I am glad that was the first in the Worked Stiff Series but man was it difficult. Think layout is hard? Try adding stanzas and full page digital artwork into the mix.

Really though, I cut my teeth on that baby. And, after the first edition of Letters Never Meant to be Read, I can pull any project together.

So, naturally, a children’s book would be next, right? No!!!

I am actually working on a psychological thriller with A.M. Hounchell which I need to get back to. I will also be pulling together the next Worked Stiff: Crime Always Pays. Or, something to that effect.

Short Stories to Tell Your Boss was difficult because of editing and more and more editing. Why? Well, when you edit a novel or novella, you have mostly one POV and one tense. Short story compilations are tough and I found myself having to edit one story and taking a break before starting on another. This is after I hired an “editor”. I had to fix his mistakes too. There is no brevity as in a poetry book either.

I made the final cuts while in Tennessee, in a hotel, on active duty, plugged into a big flatscreen. That was so helpful and I am never going to edit any other way. All the mistakes were HUGE and it really helped me when I needed to read out loud.

I needed to get this out before I could move on. I know my writer buddies out there feel the same way at times. The cover design was a terrible process but I am satisfied enough for now and I can’t wait to see the print version.

I wanted this release to coincide with my KDP free promo days for the Letters Book but I hit a snag back there. This process has been a lesson in patience.

I am going to go for ACX tonight. I usually meander around awhile before doing the Audible version, but not this time.

Do tell if you see anything glaring and I sure hope you like it. My dog Maggie and I just got done with a long run and there is nobody home, and nobody will answer my calls of joyous celebration. So, I am sharing the release with you in this quiet way, for now.

Slow and Steady wins this one. May your night be wonderful and filled with dreams of paratroopers, android sex, and black mambas.



She Handles the Propane


With so many years before us yet so little time, she grabs me, commands my attention. With her words and her eyes, she makes me stand still.

“I had a weird dream last night,” she’ll say with as much expectation for a response as I waiting for the dream. Pausing for dramatic acknowledgement, and allowing her thoughts to catch up, she fills in the gaps, her account gushes with stunning imagery. The resulting tale is always hard to distinguish between the real and the manufactured. Still, I remain enthralled by the outcome, the clairvoyance, the show.

She will cook, without meanness, without the sense of repayable duty, no malice, no hardship. Exotic smells will waft from the back door, before I even open, before I’ve had a chance to turn the key and announce. I can feel a sense of home with the new smell, the calming vibration of a home cooked meal between my teeth, warming my belly. I’ve never smelled this before or knew that I was hungry for whatever it could be. My brow sweats in reaction to something foreign and unbland, a staple in her parents’ homeland. I can feel her eyes burn my right cheek, seeing how fast I gobble, observing whether I go for seconds or no. Ever eager to please, she will offer them to me but not serve them herself, and I will want.

She could chop wood as good as any man, get the job done, and talk about how fun it was. Gnats would sip on her tiny sweat and she’d be onto the next task. With her company, I could survive the zombie apocalypse, no problem. She could kill a man without remorse, providing he had it coming.

The ability to bear any burden without such laziness or complaint at the most minor inconvenience is instinctual, cultural. Her mother’s people toiled in the fields for generations as a matter of survival, not knowing of a failed existence by modern, woeful standards.

She could find a job faster than any woman I’ve known, then obtain a second. She possesses the ability to work until her bones ache before settling into the most minor of comforts.

Her muscles are hard and smooth, capable of expected labor, set upon like thick rubber bands on that fragile and pretty frame. You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but she could bulldoze an apartment. Feminine virtues are not forgotten though. They are not thrown away by excuses of long days and petty misunderstandings between the sexes. She’ll dress up all right, using time to her advantage, taking on a shimmer and glow only rivaled by the contrasting vision of her natural beauty.

Oh how common we all look compared to that mysterious figure. People are so confused. “Where does she come from?” they ask. Even when told, they haven’t got a clue. Never has such a hybrid of the Orient joined forces with the American Pacific sunset. Her figure and attitude creates a perfect design, a mixture of old and new attitudes of feminism.

You think she has no power because she doesn’t shout the word? Because she doesn’t carry signs or demand against the laws of nature? Oh she does have great power. Ready to use and in reserve.

There is no replica. People know when they see her by my side that I have somehow managed to find a first edition. Yes, a traditional, sleek, steel design in a woman that causes the rest to only gawk in awe with a jolt of satisfaction of uncovering only a small part of the mystery.

If I went to a land with more of her, the land of her father perhaps, I would not know what to do. I would be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty amongst simple hardship. In the land of a thousand hers, I would attempt to multiply myself so I could fall madly for each of them as individuals. In the process, I would become unbound.

She understands and does not shun the demands of a husband, that wolf within the coarser sex. Instead, she discusses and throws jokes upon them openly, simplifies their meaning, makes them her own. I have no choice but to reciprocate. There is no blame for the sinister, no mocking of the frustrated anger to be released, no ignoring the perversion within us all.

Household chores are not so difficult or serious. She knows when an item has been moved, she counts with her eyes, forms patterns which I have disturbed. She could toil in a field, just as all of our ancestors, and eat upon the fine fruits with such great joy and satisfaction. Apply this principle to our motors, our flashy screens, our robots, the outcome of success is the same. Hard work in, happiness out. She knows this.

When we are on an adventure, back to where we belong, we set camp and enjoy where work is abound. She does more than her share, this comes natural without expectation other than smile and attention later. I roll through my mind in horror and loathing at all the tasks that need to be done, only to find but a few made just for me.

She handles the propane. What a wonder. I could ask for water but before the words are able to leave my parched lips, she has known from my yearning eyes. She has already trekked the miles through impenetrable forest, machete in hand, snakes waylaid, and dangers thwarted. These actions are to prove and to please, not only me, but us. She does for herself as much as for me.

She could set up the tent by herself if needed. Instead, I am her worker. She points, knows what to do. I have worn the uniform, I should know these things. I do, but I also know the chain of command.

I begin to tend the wood fire out of tradition or entertainment, but she handles the propane. She knows where to buy it and how to screw it on the stove. She is in charge of the modern version of that fiery bliss, and I haven’t got a clue.

She cooks, I learn, we both fish. She catches fish and I cheer. I worry while she has already done. I am expected to hunt, gather wood, and tend to the fire, feast and rest. I can do more, would have to if on and adventure with someone else, someone with a more “modern feminist sense”. Most of the time, she wouldn’t have it, she could do these tasks better than me anyway, with more satisfaction knowing it was done right.

She grooms me, takes away the blemishes of any day, warms my soul but she does not do my laundry. She would if I asked her. Knowing she has all the power, she still yields to my will, allows her man to stand out front. Power is unbecoming for those who demand its need. True power is already commanded, it is projected upon another to implement. She knows this too.

She takes children under her tutelage, shows them how to arrange and care for the ever growing garden. These small ladies are not hers, but they are ours. Still, she listens to them, she talks to them, caresses them, and plays with them as if they came from her own body. Ever selfless, she absorbs their pain, makes them smile.

She tells me what to do after I’ve thought about doing, but before I have taken action. This causes both known frustration and a humble smirk. I could give her two guesses, she only needs one.

We could go to Bangkok and stare at the pretty girls. We could go to St. Petersburg and marvel at the history, holding hands in our fur coats. We could sleep on a train and dine from a food cart in Madrid. She would shimmy up a tree, then cut stolen fruit in the Bahamas, her skin turning ever darker while mine screamed for another layer. Her exploration in New York would not contain panic. She would wander around at first, feeling joy and bliss at the simplest of nuance or observation. She would be an expert without a map in four days.

She will be there when I am old and look at me as if I am young. She won’t perceive what I was, rather, she will giggle at the boy trapped in the old man. She will comment on the smallest of gestures, poke fun at the strange habits, and appreciate my youthful preoccupations.

She handles the propane. What a wonder.



I am a Survivor-Revised Edition

Here is another sneak peak at the revised edition of the short story I am a Survivor. This will be in my next book Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss. This will be out before May. Critiques and comments are warranted and welcome.


I am a Survivor


I am a survivor. No, I don’t have bumper stickers and I don’t go on the walks. I absolutely hate the color pink. I’m just not that kind of survivor. Marjorie tried to get me to go on some kind of fundraising march to nowhere one weekend, only a short time after my hair started to grow back from the radiation treatments. Sure, I registered for the walk, I paid the fee, and I even received a packet in the mail with a t-shirt. But that crisp Saturday morning when Marjorie first texted that she was on her way to scoop me up, I tried for my good friend, but I just could not make myself go. Of course, that meant that she couldn’t go either, at least she felt that way because she never had breast cancer. She tried to convince me over the phone, caressing my wits, telling me that I deserved the recognition, that there might be more people like me. More people like me, I loathed the thought.

The truth was, I didn’t want to meet anyone else like me. I wanted to forget any of it ever happened. I didn’t want to go back to work until I could at least manage avoidance of my husband Bill, and most days I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I was in the bathroom one morning, Billy in the shower with the heat pouring out, covering the glass with his wretched steam. I feverishly tied the bathroom door shut with my bathrobe belt and managed to undress in front of the full-length on the backside of the door. I did not feel empowered by my survival as I looked at what was left of my body that morning, or any morning. Marjorie didn’t understand.

The problem with people around you when you’re sick is that they pretend to comprehend your level of suffering. The truth is that I never wanted anyone to care. All I ever wanted was someone to talk to me like I was normal. It made me wish that I never told anybody after I left the doctor’s office that first day.

That first day when they told me that I had a sixty percent chance of survival and that they would have to do more tests.

I thought later that maybe they didn’t tell me the sixty percent part but that’s what I heard. They told me that I had a malignant tumor the size of a key in my left breast and it was a very, very good thing that they found it then, at that exact moment. I was apparently lucky. I do not consider myself lucky and the truth, the truth that I could never tell Marjorie, was that I would rather have not known.

From the first day in the office, after my general practitioner felt a lump, I felt like I was a victim of one of those snipers in the movies on the big screen. A confirmed kill, that’s what I was. From that day, throughout the chemo, before and after the simple mastectomy, onto recovery, I truly wanted to be a survivor. I did make friends with some of the ladies there who were also getting the drip. I joined support groups before my hair started growing back, but little by little, I secretly wanted nothing to do with any of it.

Marjorie wouldn’t hear any of this sad talk, but I figured that she knew anyway. God bless her heart, she tried to do so much for me and she really cared about being there in a spiritual sense, support for my backbone. But the truth was that I had no backbone, not anymore.

Yes, I appreciated her rides when I was too weak to drive myself. I appreciated her talking to the nurses and doctors when I began to not care. She thought that I was too fragile when that simply wasn’t the case, not physically anyway. I just grew so tired of talking about me. How do I feel? How was I getting along? How is my digestion? Did I wake up in the middle of the night? How was my sex life?

Oh that, well, sex ended long before my first horrifying appointment. My sleaze ball lawyer for a husband and his 22-year-old paralegal made sure of that before they gave one of my love cups the old snip snip.

Sure, Bill was real nice when we were just coming up or should I say William S. Montgomery Esq. as he was known to his even more sleazy clients. Did I marry an injury attorney? No, of course not. I married the man that I met first, how stupid. Worse than that, I lost my virginity to him. Both my parents are dead and gone now so I am free to call them what they were, stupid zealot Catholics.

Growing up, I was what most people thought the opposite of the Catholic school girl, I actually was good. I truly believed that I was to go to hell if I did not behave. I also believed in that ridiculous princess story about saving myself for the right man. What all that religious fervor didn’t prepare me for was just what the right man looked like, acted like, how he was to speak to me. I thought when I was a freshman in college that he looked, acted and spoke like Billy. Oh Billy, with that swaying brown hair that he combed only to meet me, with that worthy smile that you could just pin down and capture.  Put that in a box and just look at it. He sure was charming alright, but William S. Montgomery was not doing any charming now, not to me anyway.

Bill was the first one that I told in a fire of foolishness. I rushed right on home, calling him all the way. He didn’t answer and I still have no idea why I expected him to pick up the phone. Sitting there, giving the urgent message to call me through my car’s Bluetooth, listening to his tacky, official voicemail greeting. That was when I knew I was alone. He could say he was in a meeting, with a client, or in court. Sure, he could say that, and did all the time. While that may have been true, I knew that at least half the time he ever gave me that line, he was porking Sandy, that little blonde heartache of a paralegal that sat out front, the gatekeeper for Billy’s office. She probably stopped wearing underwear to work after the first week, if ever at all.

I imagined him trying out his paralegals during the interview process. I could see Billy fondling them for youth, caressing their breasts, their breasts without tumors, their perky B-cups. No, perhaps he remained totally professional, an air of innocence until one late night of working and trial victory all fell into place. That’s what Billy was, a right-place, right-time man with the plausible deniability to boot.

I found out for the first time when I pinged his phone, called it too and she answered, got him to take the call and then he lumbered along, telling me some kind of excuse with a totally different location marked on the digital map. One must love modern technology and a shared phone plan.

Bill had been sleeping with Sandy, if not a few others, at least six months before that first diagnosis. He was cold to me long before, and my expectations weren’t any different after I told him I had breast cancer. No, I would’ve probably hated him even more if he promised to stop screwing Sandy and actually fell through with it. I didn’t even let him try. He told me in his lawyer tone that everything was going to be alright and that he was truly sorry and just when he started to say that he was going to stop seeing Sandy, empty promises of this and that, I held out my hand and told him to shush.

Bill thought I was looking for sympathy, just like the rest. How foolish. What I was ultimately trying to say, or rather, inform him was that I would be out for a while. Out of work, out of the house, out of life and that he would have to adjust accordingly. He replied by saying whatever you need and even tried to hug me, how sweet and what a sap.

All those people were saps. The only ones I really felt comfortable around were the nurses, especially the older, hardened ones. They had seen it all before and I wasn’t going to render any sympathy from them. For that, I was appreciative. All I ever got from those nurses had been tough love and medicine. That was all I ever needed.

I truly just wanted to give up. Just like other times in my life, finishing college, getting married, having a kid, I was just going through the motions of what was acceptable within modern society. Acceptable was getting senile. Acceptable was feeling like I wanted to die. Acceptable was losing my hair and better yet, losing one of my tits.

What I really wanted to do, after that first appointment, before ever telling anybody else about my problem, was go home, clean out all of our bank accounts and safety deposit boxes, set the house on fire and just disappear. I would take my seldom used passport and find some spot on the map where there was both sand and legal weed for someone in my condition. This was my right. It was my life, it was my tumor.

Why couldn’t I just take my tumor, left breast intact and sail off into the sunset? What the hell was wrong with that? How come the doctors and nurses didn’t give that as an option? Why wasn’t there a financial advisor after the appointment, hell along with the divorce attorney too? We could sit down and discuss my real options. Where was that box to check? Where was the form for my bucket list? Was I too young? Was forty-five too young to just step out, exit stage left?

At least I had Marjorie. I really appreciated her help but didn’t show it. She did more talking about me to other people I think than talking to me, something I hated but never told her. I knew that she meant well though. Marjorie and I talked about the affair and she was quick to give me advice on the state of my marriage. She had already been through a divorce and I was there for her, so she felt like she owed me or something. I was always interested in being there for other people in times of fright or injustice or a gun barrel or cheating. But if any of these things ever happened to me, I wanted to be like a good loyal dog, trot into the forest and be alone.

Marjorie had quite the run with her ex-husband too and I figured in the man department, neither one of us were meant for excellence. Her doctor husband had been cheating on her with an older woman, the thought of that, an older woman, can you imagine? His mistress was ten years older than Marjorie and a goddamn patient too. After the divorce and after Marjorie got nearly everything on account of one of my husband’s lawyer friends taking up her cause, her doctor man headed down a real slippery slope. Marjorie’s ex ended up getting sued for malpractice shortly after their divorce and was later found by one of their kids snorting coke off a stripper’s tits in the bathroom of a nightclub. Oh, the tangled webs we weave.

Speaking of tits, after the state-of-the-art treatment, I only had one. I remember a day or two after, when I was still laid up in bed, the first time I came out and sat on the couch and had some chicken soup, Bill tried to broach the subject of getting implants. I assumed he was on some kind of hiatus from Sandy or whatever else he was growing in his slick office. Out of a sense of posterity, he showed some type of concern for my body. He hadn’t shown that level of concern for my body in five years. Sure, we had sex during that time but not one of us was ever there. It’s difficult to say that it was his entire fault, or that he lost interest in sex with me because of me, but he must have been sleeping around for a long time. Money and power will corrupt any man.

The truth was that I lost interest in the subtle dance of our youth. Sure, I put on makeup, the same as everybody else. I wore nice dresses for an office party or anniversary. I played the part of the lawyer’s wife.  I worked out at least two or three times a week, I ate pretty healthy considering what most Americans call food these days. I was still pretty skinny too, no gray hair showed that a box wouldn’t fix. I was what most people would consider a MILF, that’s the term, right? Mother I’d like to…

The truth was that Bill didn’t lose interest in me, at least not right away, I lost interest in me. It is so cliché but I felt like there was something missing. I devoted my life to my husband, his career, our son Daniel. Our son is now in his first year of law school, a horrifying spitting image of his father.

I devoted my life and what did I get? A tumor, I got a tumor. I guess some might say that I got a big house in a nice neighborhood with no crime to speak of, a bank account that I never had to worry about, a Jaguar like I always wanted, and a walk in closet all to myself. For the people in this world that think that is justified compensation for giving my life to a sleazy, no good injury lawyer who put on the charms to my little virgin Catholic ass have got another thing coming.  Billy scooped me up with a wide shovel like a cleft of snow thrown out of the walkway and I let him.

To justify my existence by all those material things would basically label me as a whore, a prostitute begging for affection. Was I a prostitute? If I was, I was expensive. Sure, sure, I was a mother and that was important. I love our son Daniel but let’s go and cover what I accomplished. I was an instrument and I bread another identical copy of him.

Not only was Daniel following in his father’s footsteps, he spoke like his father, he smelled like his father, he drank scotch like his father, and he used the same phrasing that his father did on poor innocent women. Was this all the women were good for? A vassal for the preponderance of sleaziness? I beg to differ.

I bet nobody ever talked about this in the support groups or the walks. I bet all they ever wanted to talk about was how hard it had been, how afraid they were, how difficult it was to fit into a real bra now. How hard it was to go back.

I experienced just a taste of all of this, which was why I never made it to more of those meetings. I was never afraid, just heartbroken. I do miss my left breast but I didn’t want to go back, I was pissed.

For a while, when my hair started to grow again, all I really ended up doing was sitting by the pool. It was kind of nice. I had my Kindle. I had my morning smoothies that Greta, our new aging housekeeper would make. I listened to music and took a dip whenever I wanted. There were no mirrors by the pool. Splishing and splashing was kind of fun, it felt like summer vacation and I was a little girl again. Actually, what I really felt like was a teenager. I smoked some weed that I hid from Bill. I stayed up all hours of the night watching movies, eating ice cream. I swam and read all day and I had no inclination of ever going back to work. Life was great. I could have lasted a long time just like that.

Bill would come out in the evenings, smoking a cigar and always with his scotch. Sometimes, he would take notice of my toned body as the sun began to set. How do you wear a bikini with one breast? I didn’t care to ask. One could wear a special garment, but my C-cup right baby was just enough. I felt fine within myself, that didn’t mean I wanted to go stare at my body in the mirror and look at my empty left chest. But I felt dignified, tanned, even skinny from the chemo, and I knew I still had a nice ass and I knew that Bill was somehow curious about me. He must have known at least a little but I would never sleep with him ever again.

When I first came back from the hospital, an expensive bed was set up in the lower den which overlooked the backyard, the game room where Daniel used to play pool, watch movies, and entertain friends. I stayed put right there, even after I fully recovered, even after I could tie my hair in a small ponytail. I had better access to the pool from that room anyway.

I would have lunch with Marjorie and we would gossip, do our usual thing at Café Santa Monica, the absolute best place to get a tuna melt in a hefty pita that I’ve ever had. Even when I went through the chemo, I never lost my appetite for tuna. It was the only thing I could eat for a while. It was at Café Santa Monica where I saw him, or rather, he saw me first.

Marjorie said that a waiter assigned to another set of tables kept looking over at me. I told her she was crazy. I moved my hair behind my ear, adjusted my top and blushed anyway. I refused to wear a prosthetic which called for a few strangers looking here and there, especially when I wore a tank top like I did that day and figured it was just that, a double-take for the viewer’s satisfaction. A guess that the eyes saw what was actually missing.

His name was Edwardo. He was Dominican, young, and handsome. His shaved bald head and thin mustache gave him an out of place look as a waiter despite his youth. That first night and several others, I got a hotel room, only the finest would do.

Edwardo became a part of the luxury, an amenity that I did not care about, other than that he pleased me. He pleased me and I made him and I liked the cold, yet titillating feeling of using a man. He kissed my scar as he did my other breast and I loved him for that and only that. I cared nothing for his hopes, his dreams, or his future. I lived in the moment. I got massages by the pool, ordered Daiquiris and giggled with Marjorie and texted Edwardo when I wanted, when I felt like I could use him and steal his moments, make them my own.

I moved out and into the hotel shortly after I met Edwardo, but not because of him, I did it for me. I divorced Bill and put the squeeze on him so hard, that hidden money rained down like every day was Mardi Gras. It was all for me. Bill gave me everything I demanded, his guilt ruining his bottom line and I liked the feeling of putting the screws to him, getting what was rightfully mine and then some. I stayed at the hotel for a while until I had enough, until I felt full.

I live in the Bahamas now, the sand and the ocean and the fresh seafood with occasional joint all calm my soul, my own being. Marjorie visits, sometimes for a month at a time and we drink and laugh late into the night. I call Daniel on occasion, he even visited me once but he brought a girl, some floozy paralegal he thought he could impress by whisking away to the Caribbean.  I kindly asked him to leave and never return.

I see tourist come, tourist go. I have become a part of the scenery. I talk to some of them now and then, I take on lovers when I want and I swim, oh God do I swim. Every day, I move my arms and legs, pushing and pulling the ancient water to my will. I love the water with the fish and the crabs. The surf is there for my enjoyment.

I swim naked most of the time, letting the waves push me down the shoreline the way they do, away from my starting point, my permanently rented cottage in Abaco. When I emerge from the surf, tourists and fishermen gaze in astonishment. I show my wears, one pretty scar and one breast. I walk with purpose and not a care back to my towel left quietly on the sand. The towel always looks different when I come back. Saltwater returns to the ocean, dripping off my tanned, powerful legs. I just smile at them all and wave.


“Secrets of a Husband” -A Short Story

A little while back I posted Secrets of a Wife. These two stories are actually part of a futuristic sci-fi novel I had half written that I decided looked better all cut up. This is rated R and is not for those that blush at sexual expression, no matter how strange. Feedback is always appreciated.


Secrets of a Husband


Michael remained stoic, purposeful even as people fluttered all about him. He made his way to the furnished apartment located in the industrial city center called Montorose. With many workers returning from leave, Michael seemed surrounded by the hustle and bustle of an industrial metropolis. He did notice four men following him close, walking where he walked and shadowing his every move. As he dodged travelers outside the transportation hub, a craft and driver with a Klien uniform awaited his arrival near the gate. All the way up, above the tall buildings it took him, another unmarked craft in pursuit. He made a clever little note on his communicator for John Stone, his security officer that it was only necessary to have one or two men following him wherever he went, four or five were just too many for discretion.

Arriving at the Banstock building’s roof was uneasy at its height and left Michael feeling the only queasiness from the long trip. Gravity was a little less here and he was starting to feel it like he could be blown away and still meet his death at the bottom. Down he took the elevator to his apartment, ignoring the personal assistant assigned to him and all of his offerings of comfort. He looked forward to spending time in his humble getaway that he designed himself. It was a workspace first, without all of the comforts Klienco had offered for his usual visits, except one.

Michael dismissed the assistant, claiming fatigue and told him where to meet in the morning around the usual time. Ensuring that the elevator was closed, Michael gave a knock to the door, it was a familiar call of “it’s me”.

Answering, was a beautiful woman with flowing sandy hair, blue eyes, lips with the perfect amount of moisture and the usual expecting glare. Her height was almost the same as Michaels, her muscle tone, broad shoulders, wide hips and thin middle made her look physically capable of anything, yet still very feminine.

“Hello Michael,” the woman said. “How was your transport?”

“Oh, uneventful.” He kissed her after shutting the door behind him, the embrace of old lovers. “How are you Delta? I see you’ve invited yourself in.”

Still embracing, “Don’t be silly, they let me in, but I did get the place ready. It’s been a few weeks..”

“I know, I’m sorry. But I’ll be here a few days and probably back at the end of the month for a longer duration.” He kissed her one more time for good measure, hung up his coat and hat, and took a few steps inside to set the briefcase down on the old coffee table. The place was modest but open and airy. To Michael, it felt full of ideas. The space had a large kitchen and bath, one bedroom with a king bed and desk. The living room opened into the dining room and both had shelves of old books taking up the walls and counters. The ceilings were at least twelve feet high, fifteen in some places and the books seemed to be stacked as high as they wanted to go. Michael loved to read in the old way, telling Klienco to only install one data and communication link in the bedroom over the desk.

“I’ve made dinner, your favorite. Come, relax. I can tell you are tense.” She motioned to the table where an array of simple pleasures awaited. Wine from days past, bread rolls, salad, and a chicken pasta dish for two were displayed on the table, awaiting the couple to share in the bounty. They both sat side by side, Michael got up to pour the wine.

“I was going over the accident, and I really think there is a problem with the pumps on the main lift legs of the drills.” He spoke casually as he carefully poured the glasses.

“Wait dear, relax first, then I’ll tell you everything you want. You know the rules.”

“Ah yes, the rules,” they both chuckled. Sitting down and digging in, he discovered he was indeed ravenous. Delta made a fine cook and they enjoyed the meal with simple chit chat and laughter the way they always did. Like usual, he offered her a nest on Earth, a place of her own and she declined. They never talked about his wife Linda, a sort of unwritten rule between lovers. As Michael finished his meal, he drank the rich red wine of Earth, slow and long. He realized that he could now be at rest as if his mind finally hopped off the unending treadmill of the journey.

He looked at Delta, ran his fingers through her hair and rubbed her back lightly. Delta had such girlish charm for a full bodied woman. Her choice in apparel was so casual and clean, simple yet refined. She could be arm candy, a young trophy wife, Michael thought. Or, he imagined her as an anthropologist on some distant planet discovering and cataloging remains of long dead organic life, sweaty with jeans and boots, roughing it. He could see her in a lab coat, testing rocket propulsion and working complicated algorithms in her sleep. Delta was gorgeous yet so simple. Her banter and girlish charm came so natural.

They laughed and bounced off choices of words and told stories as they ate. They both sipped wine and settled into the company. Despite her protest, he helped her clean up after the meal. When the chores were done, they found themselves awkwardly staring at each other a few feet apart in the kitchen.

“Your vital signs are normalized now Michael,” she said, lips tart with the words, yet sweet at the end of her phrase.

“Are you looking into my soul again?” he said with a grin, taking a step toward her.

“No, but I know already what there is to see,” she said smiling and closing the gap. She took his hand as if to hold it and put it around her own waist.

Feeling guilty, he said: “I hate to think that I leave you so alone, Delta.” He kissed her forehead.

“I have my sleep Michael, and I have the history of the entire human race to ponder, thanks to you.” She tapped her temple lightly with a long index finger and carefully painted nail.

“I know, must be interesting enough. A world of contradictions.”

“Fascinating.” She kissed him with such passion, and with her arms around his neck, he felt his grip around the small of her back and how inconsequential it had become, helpless at last. The kiss lingered for more than a world and he backed up to see into her stare. One eye at a time, unless he can get it just right, almost.

Inside her iris, along the edge of her pupil, he could see her only flaw. Calculations were derived, adjustments were made. The beautiful orb was almost the same as the human eye, almost. Her pupils changed size in reaction to the light with less humanity, there was more machine in the movements. The irises receded to their will, their inner design like blue diamonds, cut perfect by the sun.

Such beautiful flesh standing before him, but even more, a breathtaking machine of his design. He felt her love around his neck and her warm body, her need pinned him to the kitchen counter. He also felt the strength. She could kill him at any second. He wouldn’t even have the time to realize he was dead. Delta’s body contained more power and grace than any other machine he had ever imagined. Michael never conceived of making a human.  His concepts included drills, crude bludgeons to the touch, mechanisms for single purpose use and brainless activity. But there she was, loving him, in need and pinning him down.

Delta looked into his soul. Michael had the thought of her crushing him right there in the kitchen, which made him aroused and she knew it.

“Time to draw a bath, then, bedtime!” She kissed him and moved one of her powerful yet delicate hands to his groin, testing her appeal and his will to obey.

“That’ll do just fine, I…” He felt lost, exactly the way he should, a blank slate as she groped his warmth of flesh.

“Great!” She stopped abruptly, giving him a goofy smile. All of her perfect teeth were shown and she let down her hair, a powerful monster. “Well, come on then.” She grabbed his hand and led him into the bathroom, skipping like a school girl. Michael knew he would have to keep up with her, as the youth purred from his body in pursuit of challenging perfection.

She drew a bath while Michael just stood there, a servant to her will. In an awkward way, she made him help her undress. Then she caressed her own body without self-doubt or behavioral regret.

Michael stared, stunned by the perfect curves, the powerful nature, yet subtle design of a woman without a trace of self-consciousness. Her skin was smooth as she made him touch her. The pigment was nearly tan, muscles firm where they should be, thick and rewarding in places they should not. He began to feel sub-par to such a marvel, the water running, gathering, his thoughts did the same. Delta sensed this feeling within Michael. She halted that human reaction with an index finger to his lips and an inaudible “Shh”. She then turned to his clothes, taking them off in labor as if he were a working man with a blue collar, just coming in from the fields.

Although approaching middle age, Michael took care of himself with respect to masculinity and health. His muscles still toned, his shoulders broad. They caressed and teased all the way into the warm water, filling the small pool with their sensation and expectation of merger.

The physical part of the contact he knew was just a catalyst for a much deeper connection. She enjoyed his physical body, but it is the direct connection into his mind which she sought that could only be acquired one way. Delta could always sense and anticipate any humans’ thoughts, but with the caress, passion, and great care that came with lovemaking, she took with her the chance to dream as a human, something she was otherwise incapable of doing. This was not what Michael intended in her design, but once her brain was turned on, Delta took over the rest herself.

In a large sense, she was of her own design. Michael was simply a catalyst for the origin of creativity. Much like this meeting turned to be, a combining of bodies, a boost for her imagination. Later, when they lay in bliss, with his seed inside of her, the thoughts of humanity flowing through her brain, she would sleep as a human, an equal to Michael in her dreams.

They moved playfully about the pool, touching, rubbing, him penetrating her only slightly as Delta gave chase. She went back to caring mode, cleaning his body, inspecting his pores. This made him feel awkward again, imperfect. She loved this about him and kissed him with such passion, taking him into her after examining the slightest blemish or boyhood scar.

She programmed herself for the climax and knew just when he was close. She stopped abruptly, Michael deeply penetrating her, Delta on top in the warm water. This allowed for the marvel of contact, she stared into his eyes.

“I think we are ready to get out now, don’t you?” she whispered into his ear, kissing his neck. He nodded a slow, appreciative nod. “Good. Let’s dry off and go to the bed. Will you take me?” He moved his head up and down slowly again, knowing what she required, keeping his eruption at bay. Hard inside of her, her muscles flexed to his will and twitched around him, she was in control now but she wanted to lose it.

In bed, he took over command and slid on the edge of violence, mowing down her inhibition. She was near climax, willed it to her from his responses and thrusts. She could see a vision as he pumped into her his real-life creation, an organic seed of the future. Delta cried out in both fear and happiness as Michael released of all care or thought. After a few longing thrusts, after the power has been turned off, the pump still ran, they both collapsed. Sweat soaked and cooled the bed as it served to put out a hazardous fire. They caressed and kissed each other in the darkness, both beings beyond exhaustion.

Delta awoke early before Michael in the morning, refitted with the feeling, the dream of the furthest travel. The android has visions in the night, big and broad. Delta gave into the temptation that something superficial would lead to something so sacred beyond her large realm and capability of thinking.

Michael could smell breakfast in the kitchen, eggs and bacon, another lover’s feast. He felt nineteen, maybe twenty as he raised just his torso on the bed, legs stretching long and wide, the sheet still covering them.

He scratched his head and yawned, felt like a boy, a big lucky boy. Michael put on a robe and sat at the table. His morning coffee was already in place, she knew when he would rise. Delta hummed in the kitchen, guarded by apron, armed with a spatula. He snuck in to give her the greeting of the day but she didn’t respond. Michael thought it might be the loud grease popping, only he knew that she was certainly capable of hearing a pin drop from five-thousand yards. He moved in closer.

“I said good morning.” She spun around, holding the spatula like a dagger, ready to bludgeon and cut. Her irises were bright blue, flickering like the embers from a long chemical fire. Michael stepped back with a smile, arms in the air. “Hey now, whoa, just me…ah Delta? Just me…” She twitched and her eyes flamed down to normal.

“Oh, good morning dear, breakfast will be ready in just a moment, sit down please.”

“Yeah, sure.” Confused, Michael retreated to think about the encounter and talk about it with his coffee instead. When she came to serve him his plate and orange juice, he asked, “What was that all about? Did I frighten you? Because you sure did me.”

“I was finding your mistakes.”


“With the mine, silly. Why those men died. Last night when I hushed you, you thought it was the pumps, but just as I was cooking, I went through my third recalculation of the design on the lift legs. They are somewhat off the mark. Not the manufacturing of them, mind you, not the usual hiccup, but an actual design flaw. Klienco made them to speck, just like you created. Care to see?”

Before he could answer, she projected from her eyes the schematics and the calculations including the angles of the legs. Somewhere, somehow, the great Michael Habersham made a mistake. Together, while eating breakfast, the android attempted to explain to the human his own design flaws. Eventually, Michael understood and turned sour.

“How could I be so careless?”

“Not an easy thing to miss dear, don’t be so hard on yourself, possibly twenty, even fifty of Klienco’s top engineers still don’t know what’s wrong,” she replied.

At this, Michael almost choked on his coffee while standing up. “I have to go. I have to tell them what we know. Can you transfer those files to my communicator?” He hugged her sideways like it was Christmas and he was Santa Clause, late to deliver. “What a woman.”

“You had better put on some clothes first silly man or they’ll all think you’re mad.” He obliged, ducking into the bedroom. He was out faster than she could prepare herself by the door.

“Thank you so much, I’ll see you tonight!” He said, grabbing his hat and briefcase, Michael kissed her on the cheek, zest unto the day. The door closed in front of her, loud, the sound of hard organic.

Delta stood there, awkwardly clutching her hands. “I love you!” she called out to no one.






“Kid Talk” -A Short

Here is a little flash fiction for your busy Friday commute home.


Kid Talk

A young, pretty mother drove her two daughters on a routine trip home from school and daycare. The inevitable occurred including traffic, an intermittent heater, and the impossible task of driving as a single mom in a beat up old Buick. The inside of the car was small and with the two car seats in the back, the distance between the mother and her children was close. She couldn’t help but overhear and interject in the conversation between the two, although at times she wished she could stick her head out the window and listen to the wind instead of the constant banter between a three and a six-year-old girl.

“I wonder, do they have Disney Newborn?” Kristen asked, adjusting the seat belt.
“Newborns don’t exactly watch TV,” Mother responded as she turned into a curve.
“Of course newborns watch TV,” Kristen stated firmly, looking out the window.
“Why would a newborn watch TV Kristen?” Mom asked.

“Mommy, can I get a Disney Newborn for my birthday when I turn four?” Molly begged while attempting to make four with her small hands.

“Wait. I’m the one who asked about it, I’m the one who is about to turn seven, my birthday comes first,” Kristen yelled.

“Nobody is getting Disney Newborns because they do not exist!” Mother tried to stay calm and drive, just drive, get them home and get them fed, dishes, baths, stories, bed.
“Talking unicorns can watch TV! But only talking ones, other unicorns do not watch TV,” Molly interjected.
“Mommy, what does goûter mean in France?” Kristen asked.

“Yeah mommy, what does goooter mean in froggy language, you and Grandpa talk funny sometimes, ha ha!” Molly said while kicking the driver seat.

It’s not a frog language, it’s from France. Besides, I think it’s a cheese,” Kristen explained.

“Grandpa says Froggy languwage! And it’s my cheese!”

“Enough! Molly, please stop kicking my seat,” pleaded Mother.

“I have imagunary twin, her name is FuFu,” Molly said, pointing to the middle seat.

“Seriously?… I thought crepes come from France too but I saw them at Publix for one dollar and ninety-nine cents.” Kristen said.

“I’m hungry mommy,” added Molly.

“We’re almost home, just a little bit further.”

“Mommy, my teacher said that hula hoops come from France, but I know that she is not telling the truth because mine at home says ‘made in China’ right on the label and I’m pretty sure China is a long way from France.” Kristen declared.

China? Mommy, I want you to make me a cheese quesadilla. Mommy, can I have a cheese quesadilla when we get home?” Molly was getting hungry, she munched on her fingers and slurped her sippy cup.

All are relieved, especially mother as they pulled into the drive. She could then stop the answering of lofty questions and return to the usual simple commands of “shoes off, wash your hands.”




“Tropic Zone” -A Short Story

For all of my New York friends, this story should be fun to read. It is set there (sort of) and will likely go into the next collection of Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss. As always, feedback is appreciated.




Tropic Zone


Part I: An All-Time Low


I looked in the mirror and saw failure there in my parents’ bathroom. I was caressing this notion that every new day was a call for the willing to drum up the possibilities, every day a new adventure.

My father hadn’t felt that at all, he knew his fate. No, Dad kept his nose to the grindstone and put his shoulder in the work, simple work. He didn’t ask for much and he took little. Mom and Dad owned the house outright. They paid their bills on time, had great credit scores, according to those who cared and must have slept like babies with full bellies every night.

Not me, though, I reached for the stars, thought I was reaching for something all too real, something my father would never understand. Before I left home years ago, I took one long gaze at that distant horizon, pointed with one finger and marked the destination of no return. I had set out like a champion with the wind at my back. Only, half way there I must have called it quits, or got distracted, I wasn’t really sure. I was obsessed with multitasking.

Twenty-four summers into my short life, I had two college degrees and no job. I figured about forty thousand in the hole plus another ten after sliding across Europe for a summer during that last year of undergraduate. Then there was the crushing credit card debt. I must have bought things, just material and times shared. Well-being items that I somehow needed during my stay at both universities. Albums, dinners, train tickets, dates, beer, and the occasional pot before a hot night to cool things down a little. I seemed to always take two steps to the right, one forward, two back, and a half in the diagonal just to be sure I was altogether still stepping.

I thought I did everything right, dreaming the big dreams, never being complacent, reaching for that horizon. After almost failing that first semester, I became addicted to completion. I found myself enjoying the act of checking off the classes as the semesters neared their end. When I sought the graduate degree, the act was simply to solidify the notion that I was a winner, a doer, an expert with the expensive caps and gowns. I would never be complacent like my father and had the pieces of paper to prove just that.

What I was missing was a job, a real job. Dad had one. The guidance counselor in high school who reviewed my SAT scores didn’t talk about that. My English Lit professor who gave me my first A didn’t make any mention either and the recruiters for graduate school surely didn’t say a thing. Quotas, they all have quotas-sales goals. This was a fake world. I was living in a Disney Land for academics, but the easy dream was over and I was hiding from it in my parents’ bathroom.

Upon returning home penniless and bored, I found nothing but the same terrible fear while sleeping on my parent’s couch. My old bedroom, once decorated with honors’ ribbons, debate trophies, and golf tees, had been turned into a seldom used weight storage area, a man cave of sorts created by my father a few years back.

My mother could only repeat the previous mantra of you can do anything dear which was less than helpful. I remembered a professor in one of my classes in those big lecture halls who spoke for hours about the importance of networking and wished I paid more attention. I was supposed to make friends. Friends could get you a job. There was no other way.

Only a few offerings called but they seemed menial and underpaid. I denied the positions but sure wish I hadn’t, that was all there was. Was it? How I wished I was working somewhere, anywhere except fast food, or the movie theater, or anything in the service industry. Heck, they probably wouldn’t even take me, unless I scratched everything off of my resume and wrote GED instead.

I ran into Tammie the other day, a kind of plain girl who was on my bus route through middle school. We hadn’t seen each other in years but Tammie was a wife, a mom of two, drove a minivan, and worked forty good, hard hours as a dental hygienist. I envied her, she hadn’t left. Tammie hadn’t been out there shaking and baking in the world and tasted its immediate splendor. She wasn’t tainted and appeared happy. She didn’t have crushing student debt and a I told you so father. My old acquaintance from my youth would probably continue to make more than I could even hope.

“I can get you in down at the plant,” my father said. He worked at a wastewater treatment plant for the past twenty-two years.

“What would I do there? I’m not even sure I understand what you do there,” I responded, trying not to look him in the eye.

“I could get you in as an operator or a tech, the way I started. Pretty easy, you run machines that carry out a process, not great money but…it’s a place to start,” my father said while sipping coffee and not looking up from the paper. Good, I didn’t have to let him see me die on the inside.

“Your mother is worried, I figure you’ll land on your feet soon but she keeps tossing and turning at night wondering when. Now I know you’re not lazy and you have been trying, but the economy isn’t what it used to be. Have you thought about teaching?” he asked. My father still had the mind that teaching remained what it used to be- a semi-honorable profession with control and pride. There was no control there, the bureaucracy took it over and flipped it on its side, the pride stripped away the same when as when a rat gets trapped in those humane traps. No death, only capture, and marvel.

“Yeah, sure Dad, but even that only pays so much and I would have to get a certificate. My student loans are going to be due in a few months now and that alone will be a grand per month, not to mention an apartment, car insurance…”

“I understand, but you have to start somewhere, start a career.” I could feel his eyes upon me on that word, career, that way he did over his bifocals, past his paper, through my soul.

“But I spent so much time and money getting these stupid degrees, it seems asinine to throw that all away and not find work using them,” I pleaded like the fourteen-year-old he remembered.

I was looking for a job in the want ads one day, that’s when I first saw the words, that’s when I first saw my strange fate:

Actors Needed-No Experience Necessary

1-Year Commitment-Pay 30K

All Expenses, Room and Board Included

Send Life Story in 500 words or less and 5 candid pictures to:

Tropic Zone

121 Belleview Dr.

Ridgewater, NY 13082

No headshots, no resumes required

The first thing I did was do an internet search for Tropic Zone, sharpening a real skill I learned in college. No dice except for the Wikipedia version of the actual Tropic Zone on the globe, which was not in New York State. I found this along with other encyclopedic digital demonstrations. I couldn’t even find 121 Belleview Dr. on the map either. The town of Ridgewater only claimed to have four hundred seventy poor souls living in the surely beautiful, yet totally boring destination in upstate New York. This puzzled me at first, everything was on the map. I figured it had to be fake, a hoax, another one of those unreal jobs that asked for your credit card twenty minutes into the blatant lie of an orientation. Better luck next time, you aren’t a good fit or I can’t believe you don’t want in on this amazing opportunity! There were so many, I thought I had heard them all. There were more scams and fake jobs out there than real ones.

I figured what the hell and printed off five pictures from the last year on my phone. I could sum up everything in the five hundred words required. All the hatred, doubt, and sheer loathing rolled easy into one nice long paragraph. I took the photos from the printer and fanned them out on the table so I could look at them as I wrote, stare with pity and remembrance. The words came quick in my sarcastic and slightly funny tone. I did have a penchant for writing according to my two English degrees but never considered myself a writer, more of a critic or an editor. Yeah, I could be an editor. I described my childhood in a few sentences, my adolescence, my parents, and my education. I printed that off as fast as I wrote the thing and stuffed my life into a large envelope and sent it off the next day, the only harm done was the postage.


Part II: In the Zone


That damn drone whistle blew past my ears another time and I realized that I was standing right in front of where one of them came down, it was hovering like an industrial spider. I hadn’t seen anything so cold, so metal and foreign in days and I reacted like the cave man that I was, that I had become. The low roar meant that the resting and the easiness were over. Before, I could hide out, do deeds here or there, shine for the camera as some kind of involved extra, but not this time. I would actually have to play. I was going to be the leader now, wouldn’t be good enough to just be a player the entire exercise. That’s all it was, wasn’t it, an exercise?

I could smell the crocodiles, more than before as they were removed from their places. I would see them again in their cold, dark waters, their wet disgusting sand about them and under their clawed feet. They smelled of reptilian rot but I knew it wasn’t their own flesh, likely their last night’s prey, seasoned by the dark, brackish water that was their home, made ready for snack time.

The problem was that there were all of these mini-tasks that had to be completed before we could make our final descent, all eighteen of us. Or, was it seventeen people left? I couldn’t remember. I remembered that the viewers could see our vitals, could get visual confirmation of our losses, our fears, and our ultimate undoing.

The last level had not gone well. How could we be better this time? We were even more exhausted, even hungrier. I would have to lead the show. How was I now supposed to be the cat wrangler of eighteen of them? Or seventeen? God, I didn’t even know that stupid fact. A few were staring at me now, getting their gear ready, tired and looking for direction. Ropes, canteens, and spears seemed like toys of my youth, they were now vital and necessary. They all knew what to do but they had to hear me say it, they had to hear me give the commands. As if I was, could be, that sort of king to them.

The labyrinth ground folded upon itself like some little neat package, a never-ending maze of the wicked. Plates under our feet shift, the ground moved as some kind of puzzle. A rock formation that was to our left could be off in the distance or altogether misplaced under dark water that seeped in from below. We were forced to move with the ground, stick together and find a high spot as the plates shifted between rounds. I couldn’t fathom the structure we were in, couldn’t remember where we were on the globe, New York somewhere, right? Except in upstate New York, there weren’t hippos, monkeys, crocodiles, or snakes. Those hippos weren’t like the pink, stuffed animal variety either, they were nasty and mean. I saw one girl go out that way, the first. She was stomped to death under the water and none of us could believe it, none of us could save her. I could still hear her scream, her underwater scream. Mud and flesh and bones cracking and…She was cute too, I would have made a pass if we had the time. We were still playing around then, thinking we were on some kind of fake safari, a reality adventure like those sensational shows my grandmother watched.

There was this other girl, Sandra. I remember her asking me about my life before this madness started, before the sleep-deprived terror vacation, before the release forms and the briefings, before they took away our phones, before the deaths. She half flirted with me on the deck of the mansion by the railing that overlooked the valley before we really got started. The mansion was huge and we felt like movie stars, lucky dopes with a new found purpose. She was short but looked capable, had black hair, green eyes, a Mediterranean face and the kind of attitude I could fall in love with.

“What has brought you here to this fine establishment handsome?” I turned away from the small, quaint town and trees below and I remembered instantly wondering if she said that to every guy that showed up for casting. There were guys there that were better looking than me. Ex-Army types who stayed at the gym like it was their job, probably was their job. I hadn’t been with a woman in a while, no job and all, so I must have seemed a little nervous to her then. I was always nervous.

“Oh, just a…poking around a bit, I like mansions you know?” I said smiling. I clasped a hand around my chin like I had been surveying this one. I got a giggle out of her then but she didn’t fall instantly in love. That always depressed me, it wasn’t like in the movies, nothing was.

“I hear that we will be doing the final rounds of vetting tomorrow and by next week, we’ll be starting the safari, or, whatever it is, I’m still not really sure,” she got close to me then like she was telling me some kind of secret nobody knew. I already knew but was busy thinking about my bills, those student loans and the power of attorney that I signed. I was hoping my mother could get all the right payments made and not overpay, that would have been awful.

“Yeah, I still don’t understand where we are going either, can’t say that I really care to tell you the truth,” I sighed. “I hope I don’t get the pink slip tomorrow.”

“You won’t handsome,” she winked at me and turned to walk toward dinner. “They need at least one man of letters here, can’t all be just jocks and hot babes.”

She left me then, taking the stairs down that huge metal deck. I tried to say something clever in return but came up short. Her little hips swayed before turning around for another giggle halfway down the steps. I wondered if we would be able to find a quiet place once we started. At the time, we were sequestered from each other unless we had briefings which gave no information or tests that provided less than valuable insight. Mealtimes, we were all together in a bunch and I ate better than I had in years, buffets and rumor mills. Those were the times that Sandra and I would flirt and soft touch over subtle talk about our past. She had been a rodeo girl growing up and lived outside Atlanta somewhere. My Michigan ears took kindly to her soft drawl and those thoughtful, deep eyes. Those dark brown eyes with just a hint of black mascara dolled me right up. I was at peace then, those nights standing on that deck, overlooking the small town, forgetting all the troubles of my time.


Part III: My Turn as King

“Jim! Jiiim!” Something was shaking my arm, Sandra was standing there in front of me and I could feel the rope that was wrapped around her shoulder graze my skin, my dirty, filthy torso, my filthy everything. I snapped out of the memory and saw those eyes again, only this time they were masked by heartache, sleepless nights in trees and no mascara to be found. Her uniformed leather skirt and bra I was able to focus on first, and despite the filth of the mud and the bugs, I wanted to take her there.

“Jim, you’re up next, you’re our leader now, snap to and get everyone together before the plates shift, Jim! Are you listening to me?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here!” I said that, heard and felt the words move past my lips even though I really wasn’t there at all. My eyes fixed on the throne and I felt the plates under our feet start to move.

The structure was like a giant puzzle under a huge dome. The sun would bake down upon us, the rains would pummel our spirit, and the bugs would eat and gorge on our flesh and blood. Plates underneath our feet shifted with steam, rocks, and rumbling. The group, gathered together when this happened or risked getting separated as the plates moved in two phases, not so slow once they got going but slow enough that we managed to only lose one that way. I couldn’t even remember his name, might have been that bike messenger from San Francisco, but I figured he wasn’t cut out to be here anymore, wasn’t meant for this world. Then again, none of us were.

The game always showed you the throne first, laid with food platters of fruit, bread, and meat set out in some kind of splendor that only the Romans knew. There would be small items there as well- lotions and antiseptic, ointment for the bug bites. They would show it all to us, our daily goal, and if I was to make it, if I was to win, I would be sitting upon that throne when the fake sun went down, a kingdom for a king. Then they would take it all away. The rumbling and cracking sound would start all over again and we would be left there to start all over too, throne clicking, thumping, cast into the far distance. You could still see the throne when it moved. A banner flag tethered to the large chair on a pedestal. The ultimate goal of the day never appeared to be that far, always achievable, always there for the taking.

There were at least five or six daily tasks, deadly tasks for those less fortunate. These missions reminded me of what my overly optimistic and pudgy camp counselors called team building exercises from the Boy Scouts yearly summer gathering when I was twelve. It was a puzzle, you had to get everyone over this wall here, hop this rock past crocs, swing this way or that, and touch this boulder just so. Then the plates would shift again and the throne would appear in the distance, sometimes farther away or curved closer, depending on how they wanted our mood to shift with the ground. On some tasks, the weakest ones were the strongest. We wouldn’t even eat if each of us in the group didn’t get past the goal of the day.

The first week or so, I could feel the cameras around. They were catching interactions that people thought were secret, capturing the fights after losing a round and going hungry. I could sense their presence, knew we were being watched all the time, but I lost that feeling after a while. I suppose that’s what they wanted. Sensationalism only works after the fact, after the failure or success and all the ugly parts that fill the cracks.

Yesterday we didn’t make it to the throne and everyone was hungry and tired. The beginning of the level went like clockwork, our leader then was a former Army Ranger Captain who knew just what to do or thought he did, that is, until the monkeys came. They were so fast, moving through our ranks like a stampede of thieves.  They stole almost everything we previously found: our sharpened rocks, our saved rations, ropes, spears, and other tools gathered or made along the way. They took all but a small cache we weren’t even using anymore, the broken and afraid tools of previous rounds.  It occurred to me then that the monkeys could be unreal as one of them punched our leader in the face, adding insult to injury. The monkeys also took our flint and steel, a helpful tool used to ward off the creatures of the night which had also given us the hope of the cave people that we were. But there was that smell about them, so real, so pungent, so awful.

I was finally roused by Sandra out of my standing, the catatonic slumber of a dream and looked with purpose toward the people awaiting my commands. “Right,” I said, marching off to some distant horizon as the ground began to crack and snap with steam below our feet.

Sandra scurried along after me as we approached the group, and we jumped together over that last sinking boulder. Something felt different this time as I stood upright after the leap. The hard ground beneath us raised itself fast and high as rocks on all sides that didn’t hold were tossed below. Our new precipice, created by the shifting plates moved further upward, snapping, rumbling, cracking and I felt then that I was going to be sick. I felt that way, even more, when we came to a sudden halt and I looked over the edge, the distance had taken us at least fifty feet up. That’s when I heard the screaming.

“Ahhhh! Ahhh! Help! Somebody!” The sound echoed all around, showing the depth and we scurried over to one side. A guy named Marty who worked at an auto parts store in South Dakota was clutching a small ledge about ten feet down with his torso and forearms. He kicked wildly and screamed bloody murder for us to save him. I’m not quite sure what happened to me then, couldn’t even explain it now, but I reacted in a way I never thought possible, in a way some people call heroes never talk about. I lunged over the edge, almost spilling myself to the below. I just couldn’t reach him and he lost some of his grip with one of his trying hands in a desperate attempt to reach me.

“Stop kicking! You’re making it harder for yourself to hold on!” Someone yelled. I took that thought and ran.

“Hold my legs!” I called to the Ranger and his cohort, the largest men of the group. They held one each and I paddled my way to the parts man, refusing to look down, trusting the two men holding my own legs to keep up the faith. Someone held them too and I could feel the anchor. “Give me more!” I yelled, I could hear them strain and slump to their knees, bending over with great labor. When they slumped over, I gained a few feet going down, that’s when I first felt fear. Not fear for the screaming parts man as before, but real fear for myself and I thought my legs slipped a little and my heart sank through my brain, my life flashing a little before my eyes. No, I didn’t see my childhood, no visions of blowing away dandelion seeds at the park when I was eight or that first kiss with Summer Cleveland by the neighborhood pool, more like a flash of adrenaline, carried by the blood going to my head and all I could see was white.

In an instant, I was brought to by the whimpering and fast breathing Marty who was now within arms’ reach, whether I wanted him there or not. I had not fallen, I had not perished.

“Grab his armpits!” I heard someone yell from the top and I thought, “How the hell can I do that!” Only, I didn’t think it, I yelled it down and it echoed off the bottom. Just then I could see water rising down there and I almost fainted. I was out of my element.

I looked at Marty. I tried speaking to him in soft tones about what I was going to do. I would put my arms under his, grab my own hands behind his back and we would get pulled up. “All you gotta do is shrug your shoulders a little so I can get under them. When we get pulled up out of this, you can’t freak out and flail or we’ll both die. Marty? Marty, do you hear me? Can you do that?” I felt like I was yelling in his face when actually, I was speaking quite calm, funny how that is.

“Yeah, I hear you, just get me off of here!” he whimpered. I could see the manic tears that had rolled down his cheeks. Lucky for us, Marty was of the skinny, cigarette smoking auto parts variety. He shrugged his shoulders as best he could and I slid my arms behind him and locked my hands.

I thought my wrists or legs were going to snap off while we were pulled up from above. For those few seconds, my body was a mechanism. I allowed or ignored the pain and strain on my joints as I acted like an unmovable piece of pulley. We were lurched up with two swift, lumbering motions until only Marty’s bare feet were hanging off the edge. He passed out almost immediately after saying thank you with heavy breath. I turned over to my back and almost did the same, I could see the twinkle twinkle of stars on the edges of my vision.

I sprawled out there for a minute until I sat up, still panting. I could feel the sweat sting my eyes but I was beyond care. I could feel the high of adrenaline start to fade away from my limbs. I wasn’t injured, sore, but not injured. Sandra came over to me and I could feel the softness of her black hair touch my naked shoulder. I didn’t pass out before but I felt like it then, home sweet home until she touched my face and locked my eyes.

“Are you alright?” she asked with more than a concerned look, her hands wiping the sweat from my brow. So sweet, so soft, I thought, and I broke from the trance.

“I uh, I…think” those words just couldn’t come but I was startled to my feet by the yelling in the distance. When I stood up, I felt woozy at the height, even though our grass and rock plateau was twenty feet wide and I was near the middle of the group. I turned around and around, eyes searching for the sound of the voices coming from somewhere, yelling from somewhere.

They were at least a football field away and down a little bit too, we could just see the tops of their heads and their arms flailing, three sets of them. We could hear their cries echoing off the rock. There were two jutting cliffs between us and no swinging vines or rope bridges like in the movies.

The people beyond were a distraction. I know that now because I have had time to think about it. We wasted twenty minutes scurrying and worrying over how to get them with us, but there was no way. After the wasted time, everybody started to look around, forage for purpose or a sign, we were so used to it by now, and I didn’t even have to give the order. Minutes later, a guy named Mitch cried out that he found something, a sign from above. We all gathered around the edge and I stayed toward the back, feeling sick all over again at the height. Those who were looking around reported a glowing rock about four feet down in a small recess. These were our money makers. Touch this rock and things would happen, good things usually, or at least a change of some kind for the better. A few of them looked at me and chuckled, knowing that I wasn’t prepared to test my fate again by going over the edge. They picked another small, slender guy named Donny Nichols who was a valet in Oakland. Donny went over the edge and pressed on the glowing rock.

We all waited, the action was delayed. The smart ones knelt down when the rumbling began. Our precipice finally moved and shook a little, most of the people grabbed onto each other forming some kind of human chain, we had gotten smart. It wasn’t our spot that was changing, it was out there, somewhere, only a foggy mist started to roll in and we could barely see the shift in the distance. Finally, someone called out what they saw and it startled me to my bones when they did, the fog making everything eerie, and something about the below still clenched my gut.

About fifteen yards away, another plateau had formed, slightly smaller than the one we were on and it was a little bit lower too. There were more that could barely be seen but they weren’t in the direction of our stranded three who had stopped screaming for us.

We didn’t know what to think and I could feel the eyes start to turn my way, the comments of well, what do we do now great king? started to form in the fog. As they did, we all ducked at something flying at us, at least I thought I did but turned to see Donnie the valet had actually pulled me down. Whatever it was, flew past our heads and was coming back for another turn. Instead of ducking this time, Donnie lunged after it and caught it like a Golden Retriever catches a Frisbee, only with his arms. By the time I realized what it was, everybody was slapping him on the back and cheering. It was a vine, a thick brown vine that was connected to the above we couldn’t see, conveniently placed between our plateau and the one that appeared.

Donnie volunteered to be the first to go. A few of them tested the vine for durability and we put two and two together. We would have to swing to the other plateau, one by one, careful not to fall completely to certain death and careful not to lose the swinger that had given us both life and purpose. We had to be able to pass back to the next person and assist in the proper exits and swing.

At least the week ones identified themselves early in this regard. One woman in her late twenties just started to ball all over the place after we watched Donnie and another two swing across.

“I caaan’t!” She screamed past mucous and salt. “I can’t do it, please don’t make me do it!” Another man, a little older and grey was consoling her, only to find out that he was afraid to die as well and they were holding one another like some coalition of fear.

“We’ll catch you on the other side, we’ll be there for you,” the Army Ranger said and I looked at him, not expecting compassion. He broke it by saying through the man holding the woman, “Or, you can stay here and die.” The Ranger looked at me like they were my fault, my product and said, “just make sure they are not the last two,” before swinging over himself, he gave over a yell like Tarzan which echoed off the rocks.

The fearful pair went. They had to be convinced it was all some kind of ride at Six Flags but they swung and screamed until the group caught them on the other side. I was second to last and I didn’t showboat or hoot and holler, I just did the deed until it was over. I barely remember my first swing. I did remember my hands hurting a little afterward. The vine was made moist by the fog and the nervous sweat.

We went that way for a while, at least four plateaus later and we even caught up with our sad little three who cheered us on when we got close. This was a team exercise, yes, but it had individual feats to an extent not seen before. We couldn’t catch a glimpse of the throne yet but started to feel edgy over the hopeful end to the exercise. We knew the splendor must be close and waited for the other shoe to drop, seethed in our hunger. It had been three days since we won, too long I thought. Sure, people squirreled away rations from the last victory, but all that was taken away by the monkeys the last go around and people started to get shaky after each new plateau.

Then, we saw our beautiful harvest. A little sparkle gave way from the throne, my throne in the distance below. It was at least fifty yards away and some ways down, only this time was different, the angle was all wrong. No rope could swing that way, far too awkward. We waited, looked around for a sign on our thought to be last little piece of grass and rock before ultimate glory. I thought about eating the grass then and there but figured it would show a lack of leadership, a little less than confident wave this close to the end.

Finally, we saw the sign but it was more strange than usual, they appeared under our feet and all around. Glowing lights freckled the top of our last plateau and we giggled in excitement without knowing their meaning. One guy got the idea to stomp on one and something happened, a sound perhaps. I’m still not quite sure but we all started stomping, taking two a pair and jumping up and down like mad. The earth below was falling, a few feet each time we stomped, more if we did it in unison. The throne was closer and closer to our own height until finally the twinkles under our feet subsided and we were just above our ultimate goal, but it was still fifty yards away.

That’s when I first heard them, those little black flying devils and their screech. I never encountered a bat before. I only saw them pointed out to me in a singular fashion in some late summer night sky as a boy. There was nothing singular about these as they came tearing through our ranks like a creepy freight train and people almost bolted. One did and ended up being pulled from the edge by me and Sandra, each of us flailing our arms and screaming into the fog. That didn’t stop them, they came around for more and more until we thought it would never end.

Sandra was flailing about like the rest of us, she reached out and felt something else and yelled, “Jim! Jim! I’ve got something here, another rope and a…a swing! Jim, I think it’s a swing!” What she meant by swing was a t-bar attached to a rope, a zip line, something I had previously refused to go on at summer camp.

“Let me see it!” The Ranger yelled and felt above where Sandra was. They were sharing in the new discovery. They stood close and felt together upward and I remember a tinge of jealousy creep in at the time.

“It’s got some kind of clipping mechanism, some kind of spacer!” she yelled to me over the screech. Just then, a whoosh sound came and another appeared with another, then another.

“Permission to take the first ride?” The Ranger asked, smiling and flailing at the bats.

“Permission granted,” I said. “Just don’t touch anything until all of us get down there, and make sure everyone does the same.”

He nodded and I knew that he wouldn’t gorge on the feast before it was time. He had honor, principles, and a knowing respect for the chain of command. We were very different people but he understood what I was asking.

The Ranger went for it, hollering joy the entire ride down and giving a jumping thumbs up at the bottom. I thought then that he looked like a cheerleader on the side of a winning game night and smiled too. “Who’s next?” I beamed, grabbing onto Donnie who almost swallowed a bat, his mouth in a huge grin from watching the first man go. Almost all zinged down despite the bats that menaced our eager group.

The second to last, one man before me, was Clarence, the older man who was afraid to swing earlier. He was slated to go after Sandra and this was it, we were home free. He shook and stammered and I looked him in the eye, told him it was going to be alright, helped him get his grip and then, I watched him die.

Clarence got close, so close to the day’s victory before letting go, one arm first which ruined the balance of his decent. The second went, only a short distance from the throne plateau and I heard him yell something incoherent, all the way past the fog blanket that wasn’t there for comfort at all. He hit the ground so far below, I strained to hear the desolating chunk of his poor body hit the water and rock.

I paused. We didn’t lose anybody before to these great and unknown heights despite so many rope swings. I started to weep but I held it back and grabbed my own t-bar, the last one to go. There was no way I was going to lose my grip. This was my victory, my purpose.

I zinged down, my eyes always on the prize and Sandra, Sandra standing there, holding her mouth in anticipation, praying that I wouldn’t fall too. I didn’t, I won. I was a winner.

The group just stood there and gawked at me as if I had some kind of mark on my forehead. Actually, they weren’t looking at me, not in a personal way. They were looking at their man, at their leader for permission. Only I could grant them the device to move on, the path to end the grieving so soon without the guilt.

I got down on one knee, looked up from where we came and looked down to where Clarence went. I tried to hold back the tears. I also tried to play the part for myself, for them. I cared, we all cared when we lost another. This wasn’t an elimination game, the suits and secretive goon eccentrics running the show made that point clear enough. In fact, this wasn’t a game at all, this was life or death.

Sandra came over, put her hands around my shoulders and gave me a knowing gaze that looked sad and happy all the same, gave me permission to fly away from the bad. With that, I nodded and stood with purpose, the new purpose I had found so many vines and plateaus ago.

I locked eyes with some of them and searched for the words before I spoke, “Clarence was a good man. I don’t know much about him, who he loved…” I paused, looking up at the dark sky for the words, “but I know he was there for us…” I panicked. Giving a eulogy that nobody wanted to hear proved to be difficult and somehow wrong. I stopped short and looked at Sandra, she was sobbing but past the tears, she was looking towards the throne, her hunger and pains a reflection of the group. “We have something to do here, something to share,” I walked slowly over to the throne, head down and tired. I paused before the throne with my hand on the bronze armrest and felt a tinge of guilt before a small smile came to me, a sudden surge of victory and celebration. I mounted the large, ornate chair, picked up a goblet of cool, clear water, raised it in the air, “let us share in this bounty and feast until there is no more,” I said before taking a long, satisfying drink into oblivion.

We ate fine cheeses, fruits that tasted sweeter than anything I’ve ever had, and meats that our tired muscles cried out for in the night. We whooped and cheered silver cold water goblets that were never ending as the fog began to melt around us. The night sky was so clear we could see the stars and the moon, man the production was good. We had enough illumination to cut the night in half as our eyes adjusted and bodies were mended by the healing kits and treats abundant.

There was a small grassy pathway from the throne that led down to some kind of gorge where a spring flowed and large trees grew. We knew, had learned that these were our beds, the strong safety of time. We bathed and drank from the cool spring. The victorious frolicked and felt ecstatic about their situation, no one thinking of the plates shifting, no one wondering about the morning or the next challenge, no one mourning Clarence. We were at the mansion and saw people get cut, the endless briefings and the secretive displays for ninety days, three months of anticipation. This was our fourth month by contract and some whispered loud about this being our halfway point during the twelve months of isolation.

I found a tree. I stood there for a moment before mounting, put my hand on its bark and felt what I thought was a cool breeze hit my back. The tree’s wisdom, its solid, stout branches, and knowing leaves were there for my full belly, my tears, and my remorse.

Sandra walked up while I was still staring at the moss and the vines, my hand on the soft bark, “Hey handsome, funny seeing you around…Jim?”

I was crying, she could see through the light of the moon and she hugged me hard and sweet. “I…I told him it was going to be alright, that everything…”

She stopped me and put her finger over my lips, “Shhh…no need for that, not now.” Sandra climbed up the tree and motioned me to follow. We scurried up the side facing the throne, not the others in the gorge, and she caressed my tears away from my cheek. She pushed against me as I was straddling a large branch and without a word, she took me inside of her, kissing my lips and neck softly. I had sex before sure, but this was different. Not because we were in a tree, no, I don’t think so, but because she knew me, my dark and my light and I gave her more, thrusting my back, braced by the old main trunk. There was no regard for the cameras, they were forgotten long ago, and no care for anyone else but us.

I slept there on one of the main stalks with Sandra on my chest and the air  for the first time felt cool and different. I didn’t dream as I fell into my coma but I do remember smiling. A few hours after, I awoke and played with her hair in my hand. She stirred a little and clenched my chest tighter.

I was at peace until I felt the movement. It wasn’t a big, underground movement like the plates were known to give us, but a small, subtle, terrifying feeling at my feet and legs. I froze and wondered in my mind what it could be, that kind of time for discovery and surprise one spends just before smacking a bug and I realized what it was, a snake slithering about the large branch that my legs were perched upon, our legs.

I jerked upright and Sandra awoke to look at me, startled from her own haze. She followed my eyes and we could both see what gave us the start. A long, green and black marbled monster was staring back and I pushed her out of the tree. I don’t know why, but it seemed the right call and I was to follow suit, only I couldn’t. The snake reared up, its mouth grimacing at me, its voice that of a hoarse whisper from deep within its gut and its dead eyes stole my movements. It snapped its body with so much purpose, more purpose than I ever had and bit me, twice. I could feel the pain, the neurotoxins delivered from my leg melted flesh, delivered paralysis and I too fell like a heap from the tree.


Part IV: Returned

I don’t remember much after that, I remembered I couldn’t breathe and I remembered the white coats and masks. Aliens had taken me, one of my last thoughts, Aliens! A vision of being rushed around in a moving bed, of all things, and I wanted to care, I wanted to scream and lash out before they took me away from it all, took me away from her. Sandra and the snake, where’s Sandra? Was she bit too? Oh God!     

Then nothing. I felt nothing and I couldn’t move for a long time. I thought I might have been dead except for the dream about the small foliage, the ferns and the grasses and the mushrooms that no one dared to eat on the bottom of the forest. I was right there with it all, on the toes of the forest floor lurking, moving, slithering! Was I the snake? Was it me? I jutted this way and that, I lurched, curling up grass along my path with a pressed trail behind me. I climbed stalks and branched and came upon something sweet, something warm, and something fleshy. I jutted back up on my haunches, no arms to assist but I could make the motion anyway with a hard strength learned and I struck with force into the softness until…

“Noooo!!!” I sat up in my white bed feeling weak and disturbed. Sweat seeped out of every pore and I longed for Sandra’s affection as I touched my face, holding my hand there, feeling the warmth of my cheeks. I looked at my arm, it was fine. I looked at my feet which were jutting out from the white, alien blankets. I wiggled my toes, they were fine too. I quickly unveiled my legs and saw two large bandages wrapped around my left leg. I dared not remove them and look underneath, I could feel the pain rise up from within, still burning, that wretched tingling of the skin.

“Well, you seem to be doing alright,” I turned to the right to notice that I was not alone. Recognition came over my face and I nearly jumped straight out of the bed, almost pulling out the tubes from my arm to run, run!

“Clarence?” Hope and fear came to me all at once and the thought occurred to me that we might be, could we? No, I couldn’t be dead because I wouldn’t have this headache, this throbbing in my legs, or this fever.

“Yes dear Jim, I am alive and, so are you I might add,” he smiled at me and I calmed a little.

“But…”I didn’t give in right away. “But I saw you, and uh, I heard! Clarence, I heard you die!”

“Yeah, pretty convincing right? Hell, I heard it too! I passed out right then and there on that net hearing that thump sound that I thought was my own body breaking. I only landed a little funny,” he said, revealing his leg under the blanket, recuperating in a cast.

“But what about,” my mind stammered and I couldn’t even remember the names, the names of the dead, how sad and wrong of me. The fever took over or was it my emotions, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t even remember my own name in that instant.

“They’re fine,” Clarence said, “Alive.” I couldn’t believe it. “You’ll see them for yourself later. In the meantime, try to relax.”

Was it a dream? No, the pain was throbbing and I was sweating and Clarence was talking to me, this couldn’t be a dream. No sweet bliss could be felt that even a nightmare brings just before dawn, all I felt was a hangover and pain, deep pain and regret.

“Sandra?” I asked Clarence with a quick stare.

“She’s fine too, look,” Clarence pointed with remote to a hospital flat screen that I didn’t notice was on, it had no sound and my vision was still a little blurred but I could see everyone from a live feed near a large plant, could see them struggle, helping each other over a rock wall. I waited and rubbed my eyes, eager for that first sign and there she was, Sandra, alive and well, still in the Tropic Zone, still fighting for her life.

“I keep the sound off, that chirping and buzzing of those damn bugs really gives me the jitters,” Clarence chuckled and turned off the tube. He leaned toward me as far as he could in his hospital bed and gave me a real serious look, “I want to thank you, Jim.”

“What for?” I asked, still trying to process.

“You gave me the chance, made me take it even. I was an aging math teacher with a boring future ahead of me, scared of heights too, but you never saw that and never believed it. For that, I am appreciative.”

I tried to say something then, but before I could, a man in a white lab coat walked in with a familiar creature pinched in his hand, draped and wrapped around the white of his arm. Something green, something marbled, hideous, and I shrieked, and looked for a way out of the room.

“It’s okay Jim, he’s harmless. Hey, it’s okay. My name is Dr. Landry, and this, well, I call this one Pete.” The green, wretched serpent in his hand squeezed and hinged, its tongue licking the air. I started to pull the tubes from my arm and grab the metal tree holding my fluids for defense when Dr. Landry did something strange. He snapped his fingers twice and pressed what appeared to be a button under the serpent’s belly. The evil uncertainty went away as the mamba went limp in his arm, the tail falling down like a dead rope.

“Animatronics, my boy, the best of its kind,” he said, offering the snake to me to touch and feel. I declined with a strong shake of the head. “This one does have one-quarter of the venom that the real ones do, though, for effect. In your case, it had full effect, likely due to your malnourished state and your overall lack of sleep. You’ll be fine, though when you recover.”

“I…I don’t know what to say,” I felt angry, afraid, and stupid all at the same time. I became dazed, confused by the notion that this may be a dream after all, so unbelievable and another cloud of fear swept over me as the two men watched. Were they real? Could they be robots too? Look at them, they staring at me as I go mad, smiling, and hoping for insight into my head. How dare they? Why were they here? No one would ever believe me if I told them or warned them. Were they real? Was any of this real? I stammered all at once and slumped over into a dark sleep.

I didn’t dream and I teased with the notion of waking up, the way one does on lazy Saturday mornings with no place to go. I could see my feet at the end of the bed, feel the presence of a nurse tending to my wounds but would not give in. I loved the sleep instead and peeled away the hours. I have no idea what time it was when I awoke. I curved and flexed my torso, finishing up with a big arm stretch and a satisfying yawn. I felt saner then, ready to take on any version of reality that life decided. I was ready, and so was Clarence.

“Well Mr. Sleepy Pants, I was wondering when you would come to, I haven’t had the opportunity to try these babies out yet,” Clarence said, pointing to his chrome and pad crutches which were leaning on the end of his bed. “I have to go get some people to sign my cast son. Are you ready for dinner?”

I tried to appease him for a moment, “sure,” I said, attempting to get up and laughing, not trying very hard. I felt a little silly the way I did when I was a kid, waking from a nightmare and coming to the dawn realization that everything would, in fact, be okay. “I am hungry, though, how long have I been out?”

“Since last night,” Clarence responded.

“And it’s dinner time? Geez! But what about the Zone? Have you been watching? Tell me!”

“Nobody died, fake or otherwise, if that’s what you’re asking, not even Sandra,” he said the last bit like a mocking school kid at recess time. Clarence looked younger to me then, his black hair was thicker than before, less bald than I remembered. I wondered for a moment how I looked and didn’t care, I was hungry as hell.

It was the same buffet that we had before in a great hall in the mansion. The food was laid out in such a splendor, everything you could imagine. I dreamed about this feast earlier while sleeping on the large limbs that I could find, both hungry and loathing for the chance at a new day.

I felt a little funny at first around the other dead, still sporting my hospital gown but then I remembered Clarence was with me. His rubber bottoms of the crutches clicked and stuck with the labored pressure taking the place of his casted leg. They were happy to see us and I them, the hippo girl, the first one especially. But the group was already onto their drinks, scraps of food that I would have died for only a few days ago were cast aside in a casualty of plates on one of the cloth-covered tables. Funny, I thought, I died for this great feast. Before I knew it, I was alongside Clarence, loading my own plate, with my elbow cocked out so he could hop along too.

I ate and ate and ate. Just before I thought I would lose it all, I stopped and declared myself victorious. Salmon, crab, roast beef, lobster, cold potato salad, green salad, fruit salad, croissants and steamed with cheese broccoli. I couldn’t decide between apple or pecan pie, so I ate both. Clarence finished before me and just stared in wonder. I was pretty skinny then and only five foot nine but I packed it all away.

“You know you might get sick, right?” Clarence said, his dark brown eyebrow cocked at me in wonder, his wrinkled expression forehead became lighter than the rest of his dark skin. He just laughed while I paid him no never mind and just chewed and chewed. He pulled out his pocket watch, something the producers let him keep in the mansion, but not in the game itself, “Almost time for the viewing.”

“Is it certain times of the day? Are there commercials?” I joked through a mouthful of sweet pecan pie.

“That’s the part I don’t understand,” he said with a serious and concerned look. He was trying to capture my attention but I wasn’t having it, I was having whipped cream. “I mean, we are getting a live feed, right? Three times a day for two hours. What is the rest of the world seeing? Are there commercials? I overheard some suits talking about editing, they must be cutting this thing up somehow, take out the boring parts, you know?”

“I don’t even think I want to watch,” I said, licking my fingers. “I had enough in there, lucky to be out, lucky to have all of this. Sure, I had to get bit by a snake, or, whatever that was, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I said, lying to myself as much as Clarence. I had to watch, I had to know about Sandra.

“If it is a live feed, hell, even if it’s edited, what do they think out there? Do the viewers think it’s real? When did the show start? I know when it started for us but when did they announce? When did it show up in everybody’s TV Guide? Are people setting their DVR right now, waiting to marathon this thing on a Sunday night, eating popcorn with their kids?” Clarence chuckled at the thought and just shook his head.

“Wait,” I put my hand on Clarence’s arm to stop him right there. “If what you are saying, whatever it is your saying is true, then people think we’re dead!”

“No kidding kid. Fact or fiction? I taught math before this. What do all of my students think happened? What about the principle? Will my aunt suddenly forego my power of attorney and stop paying my car payment, my mortgage?”

“Stop Clarence, please stop,” I said, my head pounding. I thought about my mother, my poor mother and her weeping heart. I snatched the thought away and said, “If we go down this road, I will faint like I did after seeing that robot snake, I swear. Let’s just take this one day at a time, enjoy what we have,” I said, pointing to the uneaten food, “just lie to ourselves like we did in there.”

Clarence let out a big sigh and his dark brown eyes looked with worry into my own. “I suppose you’re right. Say,” he said breaking the fearful trance, “can you drum up a marker? Then I can have everybody sign my cast,” he said, pointing with his head toward the group. I nodded, letting out a big sigh of worry as well and walked toward the cheering group of other lost souls.

And so it went for three more months. Long months they were too with no Sandra to soothe my aching soul. For part of the wait, I wanted her to die and join us. Not in a sick way because I knew that it didn’t really mean death, but she didn’t know that at all. In a way, I felt sorry for her. Sandra thought I was really dead and that notion pierced me as if I mourned for her. She kept fighting through and for a time I could watch, could still feel the sweat and the muck and the worry of the nights without a true bed and the bellies without real food. Some great feats were taken by the remaining group, thrones won and lost, the plates ever shifting into new terrain. I was always so surprised at how real the trees and rocks looked when I was in the game and from above on the screens. All the different angles were shown to us from the glow of a large projector or the televisions in our rooms. After a while, I didn’t care to watch anymore.

The mansion’s library was full of books, some classics I missed out on in college, some I already read and perused again. I tore through them all, beginning with authors’ names that started in A. The leather bounds gave me comfort and I got lost in the dreams of all of them. Clarence and I opted for a suite together. I’m not sure why because the estate had so many rooms, but I guess we felt lonely in a way. We were part of a group and still felt like we should be. Six more warriors of the tropic zone died and joined us in the festivities and we tried our best to give aid with their transitions.

When it was over, there was no winner. The game wasn’t about elimination or victory. The small victories achieved between rounds meant food and the pure glory of that nourishment. The game seemed kind of cheap in the end. Not because it was fake or that I died, but that it all seemed planned. Of course, the creators, or producers, as they liked to be called, maintained the sly arrogance of secrecy, even when the dream all came to a halt.

When the final round occurred, there was no fanfare, no last whistle for the survivors of the jungle. There appeared only an open doorway for the hungry and tired, a gateway out. The double doors were opened near the final throne feast. The group won the round and some of them stopped, looked, and tossed their platters aside mid-chew. A few of them marched right through the threshold, others lingered to find if it was real, saw others go through the mirage first. Sandra was there, slowly testing the door after others ran through and our eyes met. She took a step back at first, covered her mouth and cried. I must have been a sight to see in my khakis and button-down, not only dead but completely clean and foreign to her. We walked slowly toward each other but didn’t run like in the movies. We kissed and our tears combined. Our fingers touched one another, softly playing with the clouds of our souls.

Of course, we had to attend more exit briefings, there was always that, but Sandra and I just sat together and pretended to listen to the eccentric ramblings of our producers and their robotic notions of their lawyers in tailored suits so fresh they made me want to howl like a robot monkey.

“Of course, since the airing of the first episode of The Tropic Zone about a month into your adventures, some people may have perished,” one lawyer said. “Since that time of your death, should you have received such a purely fictional fate, your friends and family may have reason to believe that fiction and may have taken unwanted action. I can assure you that no official death certificates were allowed to be filed. We have taken care of that measure. All subsequent late fees and termination payments on bills or otherwise, have been paid in full. But, there is the unknowing human element of sadness and remorse that we, the company, shall not be held accountable in any respect.  Now, if you will turn your packets to page thirty-two and sign at the bottom.”

We all signed. Reams of paper were killed for our benefit somehow. We weren’t allowed to say how this worked or explain anything to the media. We weren’t allowed to disclose our contracts. We weren’t allowed to write about our experience or profit directly from our new found fame. Every household would know our names. While we were allowed to conduct interviews, the company would arrange for them and we would be compensated by the Tropic Zone and the Tropic Zone only. I got so used to signing my name by that point. Each signature was one step closer to going home, leaving this job and getting on with my life, whatever that was.

I remember gazing at Sandra between signing, wondering what that meant for her. All this talk of leaving and we hadn’t discussed what that meant for us, for our relationship.

Clarence moved out of the suite when the rest of the group, the living, as we jokingly called them, returned. Those nights were the best I can remember. Sandra confided in me that she didn’t want to go home, couldn’t in fact. Through pillow talk in the cool darkness of our room, she told me that her grandparents raised her, took her to rodeos and let her ride horses, but they were gone now, died a few years back. Since then, she had been waitressing in a chain honkey, riding and guiding trails when she could. One night, closer to the end of our stay at that mansion, I asked her to come with me and she agreed.

When I returned home with Sandra, snow was on the ground, early for that time of the fall and we could both feel such a chill in the evening, the low burr seeped through the taxi on the way from the airport while we held each other on the cold leather. My dad came to the door first and he just smiled. I had never seen him smile that much, not since I was a boy.

“I knew it! Martha! Martha! Jim is home!” he cried, as he smacked his thigh and held me tight around the neck. Mom came to the door and almost fainted, then gained her composure and settled for a healthy weep holding my father for support.

Sandra stood there awkwardly as the three of us gathered in a group hug with buckets until my mother said, “now you must be Sandra. You’ll have to excuse us my dear, we knew you weren’t dead from the last episode.” We all laughed. “Come in you two before you catch a chill.”

I looked in that mirror again, the one in the bathroom, that same one that held my eyes over a year ago, those dopey, creaming eyes. I could hear my dad rustling up tea and snacks, mother displaying my younger achievements, photos and giggles from the living room, the way moms do when you bring a girl home that she knows is serious, even if you don’t.

Mom was right all those years, I could do anything. Now, I knew it to be true. I looked in the mirror and created a chirping in sound with my lips as I sucked an inhale, just with my mouth, the way my father did between cups of warm coffee with rich cream from his thermos.

I looked in the mirror, I saw a man.





“The Canoe Cart”- A Story a Day

Here is another short story which may present itself in the upcoming collection Worked Stiff: Short Stories to Tell Your Boss. This is written in the style of Patrick F. McManus, an outdoor adventure short story genius. For those of you who know how important fishing is for children, prepare to be entertained. For those who don’t, prepare to be educated. Happy Reading! As always, feedback is appreciated.


The Canoe Cart

Years ago, my father took me out to this pond in the middle of nowhere. It seemed like we were just wondering around for I don’t know how long but Dad knew the way. My pre-pubescent legs marched along to the purposeful soldier step, now my step. This memory has faded over time, but the tall grass combating my top-striped socks and those last school year’s sneaks are still vivid. Dad urged me to pack light, one pole each and just a few lures chosen with care: two Mepp’s spinners- golden #2, a Heddon Torpedo-frog colored, and maybe a plastic worm rig. All clipped tight in a small Plano box under my arm.

I remember feeling a tad disappointed with my budding fishing career before that day on account of getting skunked. I don’t like losing, still don’t, and I thought maybe if I had one good day it would change my own personal tide with the Fishing Gods as we headed into summer.

When Dad and I got to the pond, I surveyed the scene: stumps poking out here and there, seaweed, algae, and lily pads-everything an eleven-year-old boy needed to feel lucky. This body of water was peaceful too, secluded and small. The edges sealed off from the world by pine and birch. If you were careful enough, you could walk around the whole thing in thirty or so minutes.  The pond gave out the notion that it had itself convinced a good beaver to dam-creating an ecosystem just for us, just for that day.

I caught a fish on my first cast, then one after the other. The seven to thirteen-inch largemouth bass were so hungry for whatever I would throw, hungry to get bigger. For being so small, they all fought hard. I cackled and hooted at my many victories over nature as I reeled in each one, giving them a sloppy kiss before throwing them back, as was our custom.

This was more than twenty years ago and many fishing trips have come and gone since then. The memory of this trip is more of a happy sentiment of my re-found luck and the embedded archive, one of many time stamped adventures with my father.

My parents went looking for that old pond recently but it had been on state land and hard to find in the first place. When they figured they found it, Mom and Dad discovered that the dam had washed out but there was still a smaller pond. They were only doing some curiosity hiking, they hadn’t brought their fishing poles or anything. That’s when my father started to make big plans.

There were still unimproved trails leading to the pond with the same tall grass I had brushed through as a kid. Dad wanted to get a canoe in there but you could only drive the truck so far. That’s where the beauty of the internet came into play.

I have a family of my own so don’t live at home anymore, but I imagine my father pining over an eBay auction for a new masterful device-a canoe carrier. Turns out, they make them just for this occasion I’m telling you about, of course, they do. The darn thing wasn’t anything but two wheels, a rack, and a strap. Dad searched all around for this and when he finally won the auction, I bet he slept really well that night. I can just see him dreaming about the genius of modern man and big fish.

For this adventure, all Dad needed was a sturdy canoe and a good woman, he had both. The canoe was a 1985 vintage with my name barely recognizable in spray-paint on the bottom. This vessel had seen years of river, lake, pond, and reservoir fishing. Pontoons installed and de-installed over and over, and about five different pickup trucks.

The next weekend they had free had been torn up by rain all the days prior. The make-shift trails looked completely different to the wandering couple after the storms. My parents fumbled all around, getting muddy, sometimes making birth with the canoe in big mud puddles. They would go down a trail, realize it was wrong and double back to the last intersection. It all seemed hopeless, but still, they tried. After a while, they had no idea where they were. The outing became wet, muddy, cumbersome, and somehow comical-truly a disaster.

Mom tried her best to be a good sport during this misadventure by taking a point until she came across what I would call a M.O.A.M.P., or “Mother of all Mud Puddles”. This was the type me and my friends used to dare each other to ride through for sport. The body of water was just that, a pond itself, covering the entire trail and expanding at least five feet on each side. Beyond it happened to be the way Dad was completely sure the pond of mystery laid. Dad stumbled along the side, letting the canoe cart sail, roll, and drag through the almost three feet puddle.

Turns out he was right, and the dynamic duo finally found the pond once again. Dad tore the cart off, then they launched the canoe and quietly paddled around a bit. The scene was set for the fun and future fish stories to begin.

Only this didn’t turn out to be your usual fish story since there were absolutely no fish. No sign of fish, no frogs, no pollywogs, no minnows, no crawdads. The only thing in that pond besides the soggy couple in the vintage canoe was a mean hissing beaver. Sometimes ponds go dead-pollution, acid rain, ruined oxygen level, who knows.

Perhaps in another five to ten years, another young father will stumble across that strange body of water and its ever-changing shores. Maybe they will get the score of a lifetime, forever embedding the will of the Fish Gods into yet another small, eager soul.

My parents thought about telling everyone at work what a great place it was and regale the account of how big and plentiful the fishing had been that day. All their attentive audience would need was a canoe and a difficult to find canoe cart. Dad could tell them just where to get a canoe cart too, slightly used.