Category Archives: Stories

The Neighborhood

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IMG_6777There were still two weeks of school left in those early days of June but that wasn’t why Mike was in a crappy mood. The real problem was that each day was growing longer, the sun well above the horizon, the sky alight late into the evening. It was putting a crimp in Mike’s style. Winter had been easy but now he wasn’t protected by the cover of darkness until almost ten. With his curfew set at eleven, his window of opportunity narrowed to less than an hour. The truth was it was pretty difficult to rip-off enough houses in that one hour to cover all his needs: a small supply of pot for the weekend and perhaps concert tickets or Jordan shoes – the extras his parents refused to cover.

Mike worried about the dark all week. Each night while listening to music in his room or watching Tosh.0 on Comedy Central, he would steal a glance out the window and note the time of complete darkness. He swore as each day passed, the nighttime staying away longer and longer. By the time Friday arrived Mike was sure that the setting of the sun and his eleven p.m. curfew were exactly the same. It ticked him off that he had to worry like this. He was fifteen years old, for christssake, and would be driving in two months. An eleven p.m. curfew was for middle school kids.

Mike was in an especially pissy mood as he made his way down the stairs that Friday night. It was hard to stay quiet when you were angry but he wanted his parents to believe he was up in his room for the night. When he reached the foot of the stairs, he paused, listening. He could hear his parents in the family room. He knew they were on the green striped couch, snuggled close, watching some boring old movie from the eighties.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” he heard his Mom say under her breath and his Dad let out a gale of laughter. Mike glanced quickly at the TV as he passed the room, just long enough to see the man and woman on screen seated a table in a diner. He rolled his eyes – so stupid! – but kept moving. He rounded the corner to the kitchen, carefully opening and closing the door that led to their two-and-a-half garage. Mike slid between the two BMW’s and through the side door to the outside. He was free.

As he walked away from his house he thought back on the first time he stole money from a neighbor. It had come quite by accident. Mike was at a party at Denver Connor’s house (while his parents were out of town). He was upstairs at Denver’s desperately searching for an unoccupied bathroom because after waiting ten minutes outside the first floor bathroom, he was pretty sure that Hugh Kennedy and Jenna Colin-Keeper were doing it in there. Once upstairs Mike had run straight to the largest bedroom knowing there would be a master bath within. All the houses in the neighborhood had large master suites and private bathrooms with sunken tubs and double sinks. It was a sure thing. Mike had planned to be in and out quickly but as he was leaving the room he spotted a bundle of cash on the dresser. Mike had pawed through it and was shocked to count more than three hundred bucks in the pile – ones, fives, all different denominations. Enough variance that Mike figured there’s no way the owner would know exactly how much was there. If he swiped a few (four) 20’s, it wouldn’t even be missed.

When Mike got home that night and pulled the eighty bucks out of his sock, he was struck by how easy it had been. It was as though it had been a sign; a suggestion on how to get the cash he needed until he turned sixteen and got the job his Dad had procured for him at Running Fit. Mike thought about the houses in his neighborhood, of how many he’d been in already for one reason or another. He knew the ritzy homes were stuffed with stupid china and ugly paintings, but that wasn’t all. There always seemed to be a lot of cash around, too – “hidden” in cookie jars or sock drawers in these houses. He’d seen his friends take money from those places whenever their parents asked them to pay for the pizza at the door or gave their kids cash for a movie. And what’s more, not many of the houses in the neighborhood had burglar alarms, which seemed super stupid to him considering how much pricey stuff each held. But he had heard his parents talking about getting an alarm system last year and they had decided not to after listening to all the neighbors say it was just a waste of money. It was a gated community, after all, and the neighborhood deputy patrolled through the streets often enough to make everyone feel safe. What Mike knew that they didn’t was that Deputy Pete was a stone cold pothead – he was actually Mike’s source when he needed to score! Mike was sure that Deputy Pete was high and useless most nights that he drove around his neighborhood. His neighbors were such fools.

And so it was that on any given Friday night Mike knew he could find at least one house in the neighborhood with a second floor window unlocked. People always assumed there was no need to check on the second floor windows. After all, who could get up there? But it was easy for Mike to shimmy up the sides of his neighbors’ houses using their own trees or left-out step ladders or tall trashcans. His rock wall climbing at Planet Rock out on Jackson had finally paid off. Once Mike was on the first floor roof, he’d slip through a second floor window like a mouse under a door. He didn’t even realize how lucky he was that the neighborhood had been designed by a common builder who preferred this type of layout.

Mike had had a successful run since March but he thought tonight’s venture might be his last until fall when darkness descended earlier in the evening and provided him more cover. Tonight he was going to hit the Fitzgerald’s. He was in track at Westwood with Jordan Fitzgerald and Jordan had been bragging all week about his family’s trip to Carmel this weekend. Mike knew the Fitzgerald’s house would be empty. They always set a timer to switch the living room light on at 9:30, but Mike also knew that in the back of the house where Jordan’s bedroom was, it would be dark and accessible. Easy peasy.

The crickets were chirping like crazy, the twilight sending the insects into a frenzy of nighttime anticipation, as Mike crept down the block towards the Fitzgerald’s. He was early and wary of being spotted, so he kept away from the sidewalk and walked close to the oak trees that lined the lane like a very tall fence. It was nine-forty-five when he rounded the corner on Kennedy Lane and headed towards the Fitzgerald’s. One of the Lannigan’s dogs barked as he scooted by and Mike cursed the mutt under his breath. When he was a few houses away from his target, he spotted a man on a bike pedaling his way. It had to be stinky Neil Armer, he thought. Neil was a professor at the university and rode his bike everywhere, even in the winter. Grocery store, restaurants, work. Everywhere. And in the summer when the weather was hot and humid, you could smell Neil from a mile away.

There was a dead leaf or random piece of paper stuck in one of the spokes of the bike, and it made a clicking sound over and over again as he pedaled. Mike couldn’t believe Neil wouldn’t even stop to remove the noisemaker. What a loser. Even so, Mike didn’t want to chance stinky Neil Armer catching a glimpse of him casing the neighborhood, so at the next oak tree, he slipped behind it to wait.

The nubby bark poked into Mike’s back but he remained still until he heard Neil pass. He scooted around the tree, his t-shirt catching on the wood spines for a second, and watched Neil pedal away. Mike pulled out his phone. It was only 9:50 and he knew he had at least another ten minutes before he could make his move. His new position against the side of the tree was comfortable and since he was only two doors down from the Fitzgerald’s, it seemed like a perfect place to wait.

In his new position he could clearly see the fake German front of the Nicholson’s Tudor. The window at the southwest corner was brightly lit and the curtains drawn back. Mike could make out each piece of furniture in the room clear as day. He could even distinguish the watercolor paintings on the wall. Mike had come across this type of thing before. The setting sun in June was slow and mesmerizing and Mike thought it caused some folks to forget to draw their curtains. Watching his neighbors through those windows at night was like watching Reality TV or a performance on a stage although most ‘performers’ never knew they were being observed. Mike always laughed because it reminded him of when he’d come across people in cars picking their noses – as though because they were invisible in their vehicle and had some sort of privacy shield.

Mike glanced back at his phone and then darkened the screen. Nine fifty-five and the sky almost black. He was ready to get outta there. He stared into the lit room at the corner of the Nicholson’s house willing the time to hurry on. He was getting bored. Suddenly two people moved into the room, surprising Mike out of his stupor. A small woman dressed all in white, and a very tall man in a suit facing away from the woman. The woman jabbed the man in the back and he whirled quickly to face her. The man began to gesture dramatically, his arms flapping like a flag in the wind.

“This should be good,” Mike thought and settled against the mighty oak.

Mike didn’t know much about the Nicholsons. They had moved into the neighborhood only a couple months back and seemed to keep mostly to themselves. Their daughter, Cally, was a year behind Mike at West and a bit of a ghost. She seemed to float through the halls without notice. The few times Mike had taken even a moment to look at her he couldn’t even see her face. Her long hair hung forward over her eyes and her head was cast down. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever heard her voice.

Mike stared at the two adults in the window, obviously Cally’s parents. Her father was so tall he literally towered over the woman. Surely he was at least a foot taller than her. He looked massive. His jaw was large and square and it reminded Mike of a Marvel super hero. But it wasn’t a handsome face, really. No, Mike thought, there were too many flat planes and his skin was ruddy and splotched. At first Mike thought the man looked stupid but then he changed his mind. The man looked mean. Tall and mean. A bully. And he was no longer talking to the woman, he was yelling. His mouth grew wider and wider, the cords in his neck flexed and strained.

Mike swallowed. Suddenly this didn’t seem like such a good idea, this spying on the neighbors. Before tonight most times it had been only boring. Once he saw two people kiss and the man grope at the woman’s breast. That was at least interesting. But this… it was… uncomfortable. And yet, he couldn’t quite look away. It was like a car crash unfolding in front of his eyes – the nasty escalation between these two adults that played out in the small window theater at 271 Kennedy Lane.

As Mr. Nicholson continued to yell, Mrs. Nicholson began to shake her head back and forth, her arms folded in front of her, standing her ground like a tiny mountain. She was an older version of her daughter except her hair was cut in a short bob and she had the middle age squishies around her belly.

A car turned the corner and Mike crouched lower to avoid the headlights. He watched as the car drove by – a late model Mustang, the exact car Mike would choose if he was sixteen and a millionaire. Mike stared after the Mustang for a few seconds, his mind full of sports cars and fast women, but when he saw a quick movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned back to the Nicholson’s window.

Mrs. Nicholson was bent over clutching her stomach. For a moment Mike thought she was throwing up, but then Mr. Nicholson grabbed his wife at the nape of her neck, the perfectly streaked hair tugged back into a small bunch. With his bulldog hands he forced her head up and back. To Mike she no longer looked so defiant and immoveable. Now she looked tiny and afraid.

Her husband slapped her across her face.

“Shit!” Mike squawked and then covered his mouth. He looked around to see if anyone had heard him. A light on the second floor of the Nicholson’s house clicked off and Mike knew it had to be Cally, upstairs in her bedroom, trying to shut off her world to the nastiness inside her own house. Go to bed, don’t listen. Maybe she had earplugs?

Mike’s skin began to crawl. He was sure some night creature was inching its way up his arms, but there would have had to be dozens of them to make his entire arms feels so creepy. He rubbed his hands over the goosebumps and swallowed.

Mr. Nicholson was still slapping his wife, knocking her back on her feet, then punching her in the stomach. After one particularly vigorous slap, Mrs. Nicholson grabbed the curtain to steady herself. It was then that Mr. Nicholson realized the curtains were open to the world; that all the neighbors could be witnesses to his abuse. He moved quickly towards the window and as he clutched at the corner of the curtain, Mrs. Nicholson pivoted and fled. The curtains flew shut. Less than a minute later the garage door began to swing open. Mike moved further to the side of the tree but could still see the black Mercedes begin to back out of the garage. He was sure that Cally’s mother was driving the car but at the end of the driveway when he had a clear view of the front seat, he realized it was Mr. Nicholson in the car, fleeing from his own violence.

There was a small movement on the second floor. Mike watched as the curtains in Cally’s bedroom parted slightly and two shadowed bodies, close to identical female forms, peered out into the darkness. When the car motored away from the house, the two figures retreated from the window, safe, at least for the time being.

Mike sat back on his hands, his legs shaking. It was getting close to ten-thirty and his window to commit a burglary was growing ever short. But it didn’t matter anymore. He no longer had a taste for it. In fact, his tongue felt swollen and fat, the flavors in his mouth bitter and awful.

He had never seen anything like it before; well, maybe on HBO when he watched the shows his parents said he couldn’t. But witnessing such violence live was horrible, shocking. How often did this happen, he wondered. How many nights did Cally hide in her room?

His parents were so boring and normal and they irritated him every day – but they never hit each other. They never yelled. They seemed to even like each other. Suddenly Mike felt a swell of gratitude for his parents and a flourish of adolescent shame for never before realizing his dumb luck.

Mike struggled to his feet and peered around the oak tree. All was quiet. He stumbled at first – his feet were numb! – but then picked up the pace and headed back to his house. What must it be like to live in the Nicholson’s house, he wondered. How did Cally survive? He no longer wondered why she walked around school with her head down, her hair in her face, her voice silenced. He bet if she ever opened her mouth at school it would be to scream.

Mike plodded through his neighborhood, back to his own, boring house. He stared straight ahead. Never again would he chance a look into someone’s window, and he knew he wouldn’t rip-off another house after tonight. It seemed so lame and stupid. Pathetic. Instead on Monday he thought he might look for Cally between classes, maybe try to catch her eye, if that was possible, give her a smile, a head nod. Maybe he’d say ‘hey’. It wasn’t much, he knew, but at fifteen he didn’t know how to open the window any wider. He didn’t quite yet grasp the concept of saving a soul or throwing someone a lifeline. But he did know how to be neighborly.

The Moment

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FullSizeRender (7)Who is that girl, Luke wondered as he stared at the woman twirling her straw. She was sitting at a table three down from his sipping on a soft drink in a place that sold mostly coffee. Seated across from her was a woman he worked with – Ella White. The sun spread across their table, across the girl, and in that moment she looked so sweet and guileless that Luke couldn’t look away. She was lovely – there was no question of that – but her beauty wasn’t what drew his attention to her. It was her vulnerability; he could actually see it right under her surface! Something raw and painful – so devastating it had almost ripped her apart. Luke didn’t think that particular ache had been a part of the girl forever. No, she sat too upright, was too focused to have always been wounded. There was even a slight smile illuminating her face as she listened to her friend. Yes, there was an inner strength in her, still – he could tell – even if it didn’t burn as brightly as it had before.

Before what, he wondered.

Luke tried to decide if she reminded him of his first, true love. The girl’s face didn’t resemble the woman he was thinking of but there was something similar about the two of them. He didn’t know if they walked with the same, gliding ease, or if the girl pushed her long bangs from her face as seductively as his first love had. But, there! – was that the same tilt of the head? The same long, graceful fingers?

It was an exceedingly rare occurrence to find Luke at the coffee shop because a) he was alone, and b) he was eating lunch. His typical modus operandi was to double-team everything he did, including lunch. He’d devour an apple as fast as he could while speed-walking to a meeting; he’d gulp down half a sandwich while conferring with a colleague. Was it fate that caused him to be alone and in the coffee shop at exactly the same time as the girl? To have the moment even to notice her?

He thought he’d stop at Ella White’s table when he left, introduce himself and see if the girl was, indeed, as fragile as he thought. He was curious to see how she affected him up close. He’d need to be careful, though. He knew that a wounded bird such as the girl would instinctively be wary of new people, guarded against any further torment. But it felt vitally important to meet her. It felt like – hell, how frickin’ corny, he thought – his destiny.

Luke smiled at himself but just then, before he could make his move, Ella White and the girl rose from their table and walked towards the exit of the coffee shop. He watched as they moved through the door and around the corner, and as quickly as a hummingbird flaps its wings, the moment was gone.

Lost. For always.

The Fire of 79

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IMG_2647Bay Place Hotel was ancient; well over a hundred years old, situated on the large, open-mouthed river that split Blue Tide in two. The hotel was marvelously ornate, and back in the 1920’s and ‘30’s it had been the place to be – the home of bootleggers and beautiful flappers. In 1979 – on the night of the fire – it was still the finest hotel in town with both a decent restaurant and a lively bar that stayed open until midnight.

On November 30th of that year, a small spark in the off-code wiring flickered into a flame behind the wall of room 1003. Since alarms and sprinklers were not mandated at that time, the fire continued to silently grow until a curl of black smoke settled over the couple in 1003. At 12:07 a.m. Barbara Reed began coughing in her sleep, startling awake her husband, John. The Reeds stumbled through the dense smoke to the door and fled the room. They pounded on doors, sounding the alarm as they ran.

The guests on the first floor were lucky. Because of the Reeds, everyone was able to get out. Unfortunately the elderly couple in the room 2003 – the room situated directly above the Reeds – wasn’t so lucky. They slept through it all and died of smoke inhalation in their sleep, never even aware that the end was upon them.

The other guests on the second floor flung themselves out the low windows to the cold ground below, safe and alive. The worse injury any of the window-jumpers suffered was a broken arm. A few twisted their ankles but in all, the survivors were ok, milling aimlessly about the lawn of the hotel in various stages of shock and undress. Only a few had enough time to throw on their street clothes. Most everyone else wore only pajamas and were huddled together, shivering. There were three sorry individuals who were actually naked, self-consciously wrapping themselves in their arms, waiting until someone could offer them a blanket or other covering.

The fire fighters arrived within four minutes but by then the old, rotten wood of the century-old hotel had turned to kindle. The fire was too hot to even approach and the firefighters hosed it down from a distance, frustrated. It continued to roar viciously into the night, licking the sky with its fingers, brightening the midnight clouds with its orange and yellow flames.

The fire chief sat on the lip of his truck gathering the names of those who had been inside, both guests and staff. The hotel wasn’t full – it never was – but he still couldn’t come up with an exact number of people in the 35 rooms. Darrell McCavidge, the hotel manager, thought there may have been 20-25 guests in the hotel that night but couldn’t be sure. The guest registry had burned up with the hotel.

Darrell McCavidge did know that three staff had been still working after midnight when the fire started: the night clerk dozing behind the desk, the bartender who was closing up just as the fire had started, and the maintenance man, Lou Parker. All were accounted for except for Parker.

As the hotel melted away and daylight dawned, the firefighters spotted the bodies of the unlucky couple from the second floor. People gasped and cried when they saw the burned flesh and bones. The Medical Examiner from Center City was called and when they were pronounced dead, the coroner backed up his hearse and gathered the remains into body bags. The hearse wailed as it pulled out on its sad and lonely journey to the morgue.

By noon, a fine mist began to saturate the city. The Fire Chief determined that the remains of the building were finally cool enough to begin the search and rescue mission for Lou Parker. His firemen stepped gingerly on the scarred wood and scrap metal of what had been known as Bay Place Hotel, calling for Lou Parker, hoping against hope. There was an old, stone basement in the hotel and they thought it was possible he could be trapped down there, unconscious, but most of them knew better. If he was in that stone basement, he was dead. No one could have survived the smoke and fire. And if by some miracle he had, he had no doubt been crushed when the building had imploded.

But they didn’t know something Lou Parker did: that hidden behind the enormous four-legged furnace in the stone basement of the hotel was a concealed door of steel. Open that door and you would find a long tunnel leading underground and away from the hotel.

When Lou had first discovered the tunnel many years ago, he had only meandered into it for a few paces before turning back. He didn’t feel that it was his place to explore further since he was just the maintenance man, after all. He had to admit, though, he was curious and on days when the work was slow, he would find himself standing in front of the door, thinking about what could possibly be down that long, underground tunnel.

He had been in the basement when the commotion started the previous night, but he hadn’t noticed the fire until fingers of smoke wiggled their way through the vents and down to the basement. By the time Lou made his way up the stairs to the ground floor and opened the door, the hotel was already fully engulfed. Black smoke hung thickly in the air stinging his eyes, scorching his throat, rushing quickly through the door.

He slammed the door and ran back down the stairs and through the stored linens and boxes of light bulbs in the basement. He scurried behind the monster furnace and threw open the door to the underground tunnel.

And then he ran.

He ran through the darkness, stumbling over his own feet once, the ground beneath him wet and slick with moisture. The dankness of the river hung heavily in the air and a stray drop of water fell onto his head every few feet – a plink of coldness. As he ran he heard rats scurrying out of his way, their long nails scratching through the wet dirt. Every few moments he’d risk a glance over his shoulder, worried the thick smoke had followed him to his death. But it seemed the old metal door to the tunnel had held the fire back.

When he reached the end of the tunnel he was surprised; he hadn’t expected it to just stop. Had he not been forced to slow his pace as the ceiling overhead became lower and lower, he would have crashed head first into the concrete wall.

Lou could smell the murky water close now. The river was most likely just on the other side, held back only by a retaining wall.

And he was trapped.

If the tunnel had been built strictly to hide those bootleggers so many years ago, why would it wind under the city for over a mile with no exit, Lou wondered. With a concrete wall at the end, the police could have simply followed the tunnel to its finality and arrested the criminals trapped there.

He began to paw at the walls, running his hands over the slimy surface. Surely there was an exit somewhere, he thought. The concrete crumbled a bit under his touch but was solid. Frustrated, he reached over his head. Where he stood the ceiling was approximately six feet high. Lou Parker was well taller than that so he was forced to crouch as his fingers searched the cold stone ceiling.

And then finally – Eureka! He felt the texture of the ceiling change from stone to metal, his hands circling a wide metal plate slotted into the ceiling. Lou moved his face closer and squinted his eyes. He could just make out the outline of a hatch and to his great relief could tell that it was definitely large enough to accommodate a man. And it had a latch!

When he pried it open, he expected to see daylight but there was still only darkness. It appeared that the metal plate had been carpeted over from the other side. Lou reached into his tool belt, pulled out his box cutter and sliced through the old musty carpet, bits of fabric and carpet padding sputtering back into his face as he worked.

When Lou lifted himself through the opening, he found himself in an abandoned shack at the edge of downtown – probably the old house of the bridge keeper and his wife, he imagined. It was a dank, stone structure with a rusted sink and an old, broken stove in one corner. A small bedroom and an even smaller bathroom were off to one side, two mildewed, brittle towels still hanging on the edge of the bathtub. The windows were covered by lumber from the inside. Lou thought he could just pound the plywood from the windows and break the glass but to his chagrin he found the windows and doors had also been fitted with iron bars. From what he could tell there had definitely been security overkill to protect such a shabby place. It had probably been abandoned for the past fifty years.

Lou Parker sighed and sat down heavily. He knew he had been lucky to escape the fire but now he was trapped yet again. He had nothing in his tool belt to cut through iron bars and it was 1979 – far before the advent of cell phones.

He grabbed his hammer and pounded out the glass and plywood from the front window, anyway, until only the security bars remained. As he thought, the building was alone and abandoned, very near the rushing sounds of the river and away from any other structures. He hoped that if he yelled loud enough, someone would eventually hear him.

It took two days.

The firefighters, who knew nothing of the hidden tunnel, were stumped by the lack of a body back at the hotel but assumed the fire had reduced Lou Parker to ash. The coroner was close to signing a death certificate when finally a couple of kids scrounging for scrap metal near the river had heard Lou’s cries and ran to the diner up the block to call the police.

In December the place once known as Bay Place Hotel was completely razed and the rubble and debris hauled away to the junkyard, and as 1979 rolled over to 1980, Lou Parker packed up his old Chevy and drove away from Blue Tide for the last time. He had decided to relocate to Chicago to be near his daughter and her family. Lou wasn’t a superstitious man but figured that once you escape death in one place, it’s probably not a good idea to stick around. Who knows when your luck might run out?

The Likes of Jerry McCoy

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FullSizeRender (7)Not long ago the Blue Tide Express reported that a long-time, beloved teacher at Glenmore High School had been charged with child molestation and rape, and it had been going on for a long time. Jerry McCoy had been an educator at Glenmore for 30 years.

McCoy was a tall, scrawny man with a too-wide smile and a bad comb-over. Often he looked as though he’d heard something funny, the crooked smile plastered on his face pretty much his sole expression. It was interesting; his smile seemed to signal how harmless Jerry McCoy was, or if unfortunate, perhaps telegraph his feebleness. It seemed like that, anyway. It didn’t occur to people that his smile was all about the pleasure he felt at winning in his game of deception. Because, you see, along with this bad hair and slanting grin Jerry McCoy also possessed a twisted desire for young boys.

For 30 years McCoy was considered by faculty and non-molested students alike to be one of the best educators in town. He won Teacher of the Year five years in a row and regularly led a popular continuing education seminar for other teachers. He also worked tirelessly in the community, volunteering long hours at youth service events and camps. His reputation was spotless.

When he retired from Glenmore Jerry McCoy expected to take up painting or writing in his leisure; maybe attend a boys’ basketball tournament here and there. It never occurred to him that his very first special friend had been worrying and wondering and replaying bad memories and being hospitalized and losing jobs and losing relationships and losing himself for the past 30 years. When ‘Student Zero’ finally hit rock bottom at the age of 40 and killed himself in an alley in New York City, his suicide note clearly detailed his abuse as an 11-year old at the hands of Jerry McCoy. While Student Zero was never able to tell his story while alive, Student Zero’s older brother had no such qualms. You see while Student Zero had run from Blue Tide and his torturous memories 30 years ago, his older brother had stayed and become the local police chief.

Jerry McCoy’s retirement was to last only two weeks.

McCoy was sitting comfortably on his wide front porch thumbing through yesterday’s Blue Tide Express when he heard the patrol car pull up. He thought nothing of it. Bo Baker was one of his regular golfing partners.

As McCoy rose to greet Chief Baker and his men, he couldn’t help notice the Chief’s hurried pace; the man was almost running to the porch. And his face – it was so violently red that it almost looked purple.

“Hey there, Chief. What can I do you for?” McCoy asked. He held out his hand in greeting.

Chief Baker slapped his hand down, grabbing McCoy’s arms roughly and pulling them behind him.

“We KNOW, Jerry, you sick son-of-a-bitch! We know! I brought these men with me,” he pointed over his shoulder at the two patrolmen, “so I wouldn’t kill you myself.”

McCoy stared at Chief Baker for a second and then all the color left his face like paint down a drain. He tried to say something but nothing came.

Suddenly his wife, Sheryl Anne, appeared at the door.

“Jerry, what’s going on?” she quivered. “Why are these men here?”

McCoy straightened up and turned to her.

“It’s all a mistake, honey,” he said, holding his head high and his shoulders back. “You’ll see. Don’t worry!”

As McCoy was led away, Sheryl Anne ran behind him keening at his heels. He stumbled several times on the walk to the squad car, and neither the Chief nor his two patrolmen helped him up when he eventually fell. As a matter of fact if you’d been there you’d have seen the Chief arch his foot back, ready to kick the shit out of McCoy as he lay on the sidewalk. There are some men who deserve to be kicked when they’re down, the Chief figured, but he’d stopped himself.

“I knew he’d get ‘kicked’ enough in prison,” he later told his family.

In jail one day after a shower in which a couple of convicts taught McCoy what goes around comes around, he was said to have found Jesus. After that he regularly attended mass and met with the penitentiary’s priest every few days. He even became a lay minister. Around his neck hung a gaudy gold crucifix Sheryl Anne had bought at Walmart during the trial. He told everyone he was at peace and was good with God, now. He had been reborn.

Reborn or not, McCoy wouldn’t be on this earth long enough to truly repent. He died in prison not two years later. One minute he was standing in the prison church listening to Father Colin’s midday service, and the next he was slumped in the pew, bible still in hand, dead as a doornail.

And that was that. It seems even Jesus couldn’t stand the likes of Jerry McCoy.

 

The Dreamer

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BeThat Helen – she was quite the dreamer, and quite frankly, there wasn’t a much more for her to do. She was settled in the world, her goals in life fulfilled long ago. She was old and yet mostly content except for when her back acted up, and on those days she stretched and touched her toes until she felt the aches and pains tremble and release. She lived comfortably in the old farmhouse on the hill, warm in the winter and cool in the spring. No, Helen wasn’t a dreamer in the sense that she desired more out of life. She was a champion dreamer in her sleep.

It was true. While most of Helen’s friends had trouble remembering even one dream per week, each night Helen had four or five – in living color, as they say – vivid and real. At one point years ago she set a pad of paper and a pen on her small nightstand intent on writing each one down but it became bothersome quickly and she soon gave up. Instead, over her morning Earl Grey, Helen would sift through each night’s dream, cataloging them in the genre in which they seemed to fit: insecurity dreams, dream-visits, and the love dream. Oh, there were others; others that were indefinable and muddled – the dreams that made no sense at all to Helen no matter how long she struggled over them. Those dreams were like the paintings by Picasso or a Tim Burton film – confusing, annoying and somewhat disturbing. She pushed them away easily and with her force – a pin to their balloon – they deflated.

Mostly she had the other three type of dreams these days. She thought it was funny she would still have insecurity dreams – those where you find yourself at school in your underwear or discover that you’d been fired from your job. Helen figured that those types of dreams should be long gone. She hadn’t been in any type of school for over 60 years, and as for a job, her days at the checkout counter at the grocery store had ended when she turned 70. Her supervisor had said it wasn’t about her age but if she was honest with herself, she’d have to admit that she had slowed down by then. The new cashiers seemed to race their customers through the lines like NASCAR drivers but Helen’s scanner beeped at a slower, more unhurried pace. She was the Barry Manilow to the new cashier’s Red Hot Chili Peppers – and yes, she knew who they were thankyouverymuch. She preferred the slower melody but she knew from the looks of some of her customers, ‘they didn’t. “Will you hurry up!’ was right on the tip of their tongues. When Mr. Marshall installed the automatic checkouts to further speed up the tempo – poof – she was no longer needed.

But that was 12 years ago and as time went by her dreams about work had mostly disappeared.

Helen savored what she defined as her visit-dreams. She could never quite be sure if she was completely sleeping when they occurred or if perhaps, a loved one had descended from heaven to visit her in the night. She didn’t much care one way or another. She was just happy to see her family again. Many of these dream-visits were from her beloved father who would appear to her in his work boots outside the old tract home where she was born. He had been dead more than 30 years but each time she saw him in a visit-dream she would gasp with joy, so happy to see his familiar face, that square jaw, that sparkle in his still stunning blue eyes. Her mother visited her less often in her dreams and Helen figured it was because she was so young when her mother had died – only five – and the impression made on her in life wasn’t as significant. She’d had step-mother from the age of seven until mid-life but she found she never dreamed of Stella. Stella had been a perfectly fine step-mother and Helen wasn’t sure why she didn’t dream of her but figured it had to do with a sense of guilt she’d feel if she dreamed of her step-mother more than her own mother. At 82-years-old, Helen didn’t ponder this too much. It would have just been a waste of time and what would have been the point?

Some of her favorite dreams were the wonderful visit-dreams from the twins. Jimmy and Ron, eight years older than her and inseparable, had taught her how to fix cars and swing a baseball bat and smoke a cigar. She thought they must have truly wished she had been born a boy and had spent the first ten years of her life trying to convert her to one. She didn’t mind. She had the great fun with them every day and it was clear they adored her. Jimmy and Ron were her best friends and she missed them so vastly sometimes that she felt her heart cave into her chest and didn’t know if she’d ever be able to rescue it again. They had lived well into old age and had been gone for only two years – Ron dying a mere three months before Jimmy. Since then Helen had awoken each morning with a dull ache in her chest and had to remind herself that neither brother would be visiting her that day. Once she was up and had brewed her tea, though, she always made sure to flip a cheery salute to the heavens, calling out ‘Good Morning!’ to each brother.

Last night Helen had her singular dream about love, or rather about a long-lost love, that is. Her visitor in this dream had been her one true soul mate in her life. She could say that now with certainty and also without guilt or shame. At 82 she understood life almost better than she wanted to and one of the things she understood was that love was love. It was grand, it was messy, it was epic, and if it was in your heart, there really wasn’t a good way to get rid of it. Besides, who wants to eliminate love? It seemed to be the only thing that made sense in the world.

Helen had lost her husband long ago. He was a wonderful man and together they had created their own love and a good life. She had been one of the lucky ones, and she knew it, but even so, he wasn’t the one she dreamed of when she dreamed of love. It was Joseph Randolph, the man she had met in her twenties when she was too young or too torn apart or too-something to realize he was the one. She hadn’t seen him since before 9-11, randomly running into him at an old folks’ card party at the town hall back in 2000. They had chatted for a moment but Joseph had been called over to a table and she’d left soon after. When he came to her in her dreams, now, she felt giddy and young. Something lifted from her soul in those dreams; something heavy that had been with her forever, and when that happened, she could breathe in a way she never could before. Whenever she woke from that dream her first moment was tinged with sadness and regret for not following the path with Joseph, but soon the happiness of being with him, even in dreamland, spun through her and the rest of the day was peaceful and light.

And so it goes each night when Helen switches off the cigar lamp next to her bed, and the old farmhouse where she’s lived forever becomes still, she knows not what she’lldream of. But like an ongoing overture both fresh and familiar, she’s sure she’ll drift somewhere interesting, living life in her dreams, wherever it takes her, whoever guides her there, softly and surely like the melody of a sweet song.

Rare Beauty

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IMG_7489She stared at the plant, mesmerized. There must be 50 buds on the Christmas cactus, waiting to open. There they sit, one on each branch near another, the promise of beauty so close, within reach. Just once a year and for a very short time, her mother’s old Christmas cactus blooms into glory, all red stars bursting the spectacular. And then they’re gone; the cactus shut down and dormant for another eleven-and-half-months.

Christmas, itself, had been like that when she was a kid: magical, not replicated any other time of year. And it was condensed, too – just a week or two – so people were happy, not tired and cranky and overwhelmed by two months of Christmas songs. Now it seemed like just one of the seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Christmas.

Brigadoon! – she suddenly remembered. Yes, the name of the play was Brigadoon, the tale of a Scottish town that appears but once a century. A century!! She had watched the film version as a child and had been both fascinated and afraid… frightened by something so rare as a town that shows up every 100 years. But when she had seen it at the local playhouse years later, she hadn’t been afraid at all. She had lived some life by then and knew when you come across something so singular, so beautiful as Brigadoon or a once-a-year Christmas cactus or love – especially love – you have to grab it.

Life seems to clip along like those clydesdales on the Christmas beer commercial, she thought; ever faster, speeding by like pictures in a kaleidoscope – there’s a snapshot of your high school graduation, the dog you owned when you were five, your mother in her hospital bed. How did that all go by so fast? So very fast.

Lately she had let some things go; it was time and they were just too hard to hold onto. Others – her connection to your best friend, her commitment to play her guitar every week – she held onto tightly because she knew she was still living a life, even if she was older, even if she may never see her mother again or that first true love.

And she knew there was remarkable newness to her old life – babies in the family, scrubby trees that you get to watch grow to sturdy oaks, puppies that lick your face raw – and that her own life was unique and rare and fragile. If she was lucky enough to be around again next Christmas, she knew without a doubt that the cactus would open again – right on time – in a burst of glory and promise, reminding her that everything old can be new again, too. Even love.

Sammy and Alex

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cowboySammy and Alex were nine years old the summer they discovered Sammy’s father had killed a man.

It was early June and the spring’s delicate blooms were beginning to lose their battle with the heat. Soon the heartier lilies and black-eyed susans would take over, basking in the warm, summer sun, brightening the foot paths and flower boxes. School was finished for the year and kids ran laughing through the neighborhood, high on their freedom, excited for summer.

Sammy and Alex’s neighborhood was still pretty rural back then. Most of the homes sat on large cut-outs of property, some with yards big enough that you could actually play a baseball game in the back, if you could corral enough players, that is. These lots weren’t ‘lawns,’ per se, but rather large plots of dirt in which a combination of wild flowers, crabgrass and weeds grew. One family down the road even had an old gray chicken shack huddling in their back yard. If you were unlucky enough to live next door to them, you were doomed to hear their rooster crow its morning wake-up call every single sunrise.

In the neighborhood, the cars were old and the road remained unpaved; it was just a narrow, gravel path, really. The aged trees were thick and tall and there was an army of lovely willows scattered about. Many of the willows grew near the road and their branches hung low over the ditches that ran up and down it. Sammy loved the willow trees – he felt like Tarzan as he swung on their branches – but he hated those ditches.

The ditch in front of his house was shallow, mucky and green. Baby frogs and crawfish skittered and crawled in the channel’s stagnant water, jumping away whenever a shadow passed. In just a few weeks, though, that would all change. The small town had finally dug up enough money to upgrade the sewer system and bury the ditches once and for all. When Sammy heard this bit of news, he almost jumped for joy; he knew his days of accidently slipping into that disgusting water were numbered. You see, it was that summer when Alex decided the two boys would try to jump the ditch every day. Alex was the one who made it across unscathed – every time. Sammy, in his worn tennis shoes and a full two inches shorter than Alex, made it most of the time but when he miscalculated and landed – splat – in that awful water, he was horrified. The muck that clung to his backside was smelly and thick and it made Sammy gag. He could hear Alex cackling each time he had to run back to his house to clean off. That laughter followed him all the way into the bathroom until the whoosh of the shower’s water finally drowned it out.

The day the haulers from the city arrived with truckloads of sewer pipes intent on burying those despicable ditches, Sammy was happy, indeed. He and Alex watched as the workmen laid the huge, concrete tubes on the grass down the entire street, nose to rear. The digging and installing would come next but for a few weeks those pipes lay there, running down the edge of the road like a giant, immovable snake. Sammy heard his Pop complain one day that all the grass underneath them would die but Sammy thought that was a funny thing to say. Their lawn was full of weeds and crabgrass and if those pipes found any actual grass to kill, it would be a miracle.

After the men in the haulers unloaded the sewer pipes and left the neighborhood, Sammy and Alex ran out to explore. For once Sammy was glad to be smaller than Alex. He could almost stand up inside the giant concrete tubes while Alex had to crouch way down. The two boys crawled in the pipes, winding through three or four of them. When they’d come upon two that weren’t placed exactly nose to rear, they’d pop up between then giggling, hoping to scare the bejesus out of the other kids in the neighborhood.

Almost better than scooting inside of the pipes was playing on top of them; running and jumping from one to the next, rolling down the sides into the tall, green grass. It was as though a giant toy truck had delivered a load of oversized Legos for their own, personal fun.

And then one morning a few weeks after first dropping off the pipes, the workmen returned. They were to begin digging that day, intent on laying the sewer system underground and completing the job by week’s end.

“Dammit,” Alex said and Sammy looked around quickly. He wasn’t allowed to swear and was worried that someone would overhear. Alex just sneered. Sammy knew that Alex could get away with almost anything. His Dad wasn’t around much and his Mom was a meek woman who, according to Alex’s older brother, ‘liked to drink.’ She didn’t seem to be able to handle Alex and his three siblings very well and they ran wild through the house and the neighborhood, his family’s bad reputation growing as each brother got older.

Even so, Sammy sometimes wished he was part of Alex’s family. It seemed so free and easy at his house. Alex could do anything. He never had a bedtime. He didn’t have to take his shoes off at the front door. He could eat potato chips and peanuts for dinner. But then Sammy would pull his chair up to his own dinner table and begin eating his Ma’s buttermilk fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, and he knew that nothing was better for dinner than that, not even potato chips and peanuts. And he would feel bad for Alex for a while without fully understanding why.

It was a cloudy day when the workmen came back to finish the job. Sammy and Alex sat in the tall grass to watch them unload their diggers and shovels. It wasn’t every day that they could witness a real-live construction project from their own front yard. It was almost like a TV show!

Sammy sat crossed legged observing, concentrating and watching every move the men made. Alex leaned back on his elbows, a stalk of grass with a flared tip dangling from the corner of his mouth.

“This sucks,” Alex said and Sammy looked around again. He didn’t know if ‘sucks’ was a swear word or not but he figured it probably was.

“Yeah,” Sammy replied when he was sure no adults were around.

It was sad to think that their concrete playground would soon be buried but then Sammy remembered it meant no more brackish ditches to fall into and he smiled to himself, careful not to let Alex see. Before much digging could happen that day, however, the full summer sky opened up with a clap and rain began to barrel down in sheets. Sammy could hear the downpour thump against the workers’ trucks and he thought, surely, rain that hard would have to leave dents. The boys ran to Sammy’s front porch and watched as the workmen broke for cover in their vehicles.

“Ha!” Alex cackled. “Even God doesn’t want the pipes buried.”

Sammy looked at Alex curiously. Even though Alex’s Dad wasn’t around much and his Mom was ‘a drunk’ (again, according to Sammy’s older brother), Alex seemed to really believe in God. Sammy knew that Alex and his brothers attended church most every Sunday and he didn’t understand it. If his Ma and Pop didn’t force him, he would never go to church and voluntarily sit through the ancient priest’s boring sermon. Alex’s belief in God was something Sammy would ponder much more as an adult – he thought it was probably one of the reasons Alex was able to cope with so much as a kid – but now at the age of nine, he just thought Alex was crazy.

When the storm didn’t abate after an hour, the trucks pulled away, the men fidgety and unwilling to sit in their cabs any longer. The boys let out shouts of “Hurray!” as the men left, happy for the reprieve, or in Sammy’s case, at least happy they could run through the pipes one last time. Soon, though, the dreariness of the day began to dampen their chipper moods. It was too rainy to play or explore or find adventures outside but still they lingered on Sammy’s front porch in a kind of limbo. When you’re nine years old and it’s summertime, being stuck in the house is the absolute worst kind of day.

Finally, though, bored and itching to find something to do, they headed inside. The boys usually hung out at Sammy’s house even though Alex lived right next door. There was always something good to eat at Sammy’s and his Ma was home most of the time. Sammy’s Ma corralled the boys as they entered.

“Honey, you boys go over to Alex’s for a while. I’m heading out to visit Cousin Maxine,” she said as she picked up her car keys.

Sammy looked at his Ma to make sure she meant it and she added a curt nod. He knew that she didn’t especially like him hanging out at Alex’s house but also knew that Alex’s Mom or one of his older brothers were usually home, and if there ever was a true emergency, they could handle calling 911.

The boys ran through the rain and the wet grass to Alex’s house, shaking off like dogs as they closed the back door. The house was quiet and dark.

“Mom?” Alex called out. “Mom?”

Alex walked from room to room searching for his Mom and his brothers. When he came up empty he turned to Sammy with a wide grin.

“Hey, my Mom’s not here, either!!” Sammy frowned.

“We should run back over to my house to catch my Ma,” he said.

“Come on!” Alex countered. “We have the house all to ourselves here!”

But Sammy insisted and Alex, who almost always got his way relented, mostly because he was hungry and hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday’s lunch of cold tomato soup. They ran back through the tall grass and rain to Sammy’s house, slipping and sliding on the wet floor as they stuttered inside. They could tell right away that Sammy’s Ma was already gone. He looked at Alex nervously.

“Now what?” Sammy asked.

Alex smiled. He had that glint in his eyes that Sammy knew meant trouble. Over the years Sammy would see this look many, many more times but even so, he would follow Alex on whatever misadventure he had conjured up that day. It wasn’t until teenage Alex started to really mess up and get into breaking-the-law-kind-of-trouble that Sammy’s Ma put an end to them hanging out together.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Alex cried. “We can take care of ourselves until your Ma comes back. Come on! Let’s explore!”

Sammy cringed but, as always, followed behind Alex.

Alex had always been fascinated with Sammy’s old farm house; there seemed to be small nooks and crannies everywhere. Sammy’s bedroom even had this funny crawl space which they sometimes made into an indoor cave. Alex’s house was more modern with nothing of great interest save the empty concrete basement where the boys used to ride their tricycles years ago.

The two boys headed down the long hall of the white house, Alex barging ahead greedily while Sammy lagged behind, hoping something else would distract Alex from snooping. When they reached the door to the master bedroom, Alex stopped suddenly and Sammy crashed right into him.

“Hey!” Sammy said rubbing his nose.

“Your Pop is at work, right?” Alex asked, suddenly timid at the thought of Sammy’s Pop. For some reason Alex had always been afraid of Sammy’s Pop, perhaps because he was actually around unlike his own Dad.

“Yeah,” Sammy responded scrunching his nose up and down. “He’s at work.”

Alex turned the knob and stepped through the threshold. True to form the master bedroom was spotless. The family’s prize quilt lay flat on the bed, army-straight. On the dresser were a series of small perfume bottles, lined up like soldiers. Next to them were a tortoise-shell hairbrush and a small jewelry box closed tight.

A second knotty-pine dresser was pushed against the wall and matching nightstands sat on either side of the bed. Sammy had seen all of this before, of course, but hadn’t truly been in his parents’ bedroom often – his Pop discouraged it.

The boys rummaged around for a while, searching under the bed and opening the dresser drawers until Alex pulled out one of Mrs. Lang’s white bras and waved it around.

“Quit it!” Sammy yelled.

Alex smirked but put the garment back and closed the drawer. He moved over to closet.

“What do we have here?” Alex asked and swung open the door.

The closet was bigger than you might expect for such a small room and it was packed with clothes. There were shoe boxes stacked on the top shelf and a large metal case sat next to them. Sammy had seen his mother with this case before and he knew it held their important documents: marriage certificate, birth certificates, taxes, receipts; boring adult stuff.

“We should get out of here. I don’t know when my Ma will be home,” Sammy whined as he backed out of the closet.

But Alex didn’t hear him. He was buried between Mrs. Lang’s oversized dresses and Mr. Lang’s dark work uniforms, leaning further in.

“Wow!” Alex exclaimed. “Sammy, come in here.”

“What?” Sammy answered nervously.

“There’s a hidden passageway at the back of the closet. It’s kind of small but I’m going to scoot through and see what’s on the other side.”

And before Sammy could utter one objection, Alex’s legs were gone.

“Alex?” Sammy whispered.

He wasn’t sure why he had whispered other than he was worried that perhaps Alex had disappeared forever. Just the other day Sammy was reading his Outer Space comic book and Captain Adams had vanished into a worm hole, gone.

Alex’s head popped back through the clothes and Sammy staggered back in surprise.

“You gotta see this,” Alex said and disappeared into the jungle of parental clothes.

Sammy hesitated but curiosity got the better of him and he followed Alex through the clothes and then through the small opening at the back of his parents’ closet. Alex was standing up on the other side and when Sammy got to his feet he could tell they were in another closet, but instead of clothes this one held banker boxes full of files. Alex slowly turned the knob and cracked open the door.

“Wow!” he said. Sometimes that’s the only word a nine-year-old boy needs. “What is this?” he asked Sammy who was peering over his shoulder.

“Oh, shit!” Sammy said and both boys dissolved in laughter for a moment, the curse so unexpected from Sammy’s mouth.

“It’s my Pop’s den,” Sammy answered when he regained his composure. “We’re not allowed in here. He says it’s his private space. He locks it whether he’s in there or not.”

“Jackpot!” Alex exclaimed and began to move into the room.

Just then they heard the den’s door begin to rattle and the boys dodged back into the closet, head first. Alex quietly closed the closet door behind him.

“I thought your Dad was at work!” he hissed.

“He was!” Sammy whined.

Sammy felt sick with worry. He knew he’d be in trouble for a number of reasons – being home alone even though it wasn’t his fault; exploring his parents’ bedroom and going through their drawers; and worse of all, discovering the secret hatch to the even more secret den.

“Shhhh….” Alex said. “I hear voices.”

It was true. Sammy could clearly hear his Pop enter the den followed by another man with a voice that was deep and gravely and sounded vaguely familiar. He wanted to hightail it out of there but was afraid they would make too much noise. The two boys remained in the closet, unmoving, breathing shallowly.

“Goddammit Frank,” the unknown man said.

“Hold on,” Sammy’s Pop answered and he could hear him close the den’s door and turn the lock.

“I thought no one was home,” the man said irritably.

“No one is home,” Sammy’s Pop answered, “but better safe than sorry.”

The men moved around the room and it sounded as though one of them settled into a chair. The other one was pacing, agitated.

“Calm down,” they heard Sammy’s Pop say.

“Calm down?? What the hell, Frank?? I asked you to scare the shit out of that asshole, not kill him!!”

Sammy’s jaw dropped and Alex turned to him wide-eyed and pale. It was the one and only time in his life that Sammy saw Alex look less than cocky and confident and that scared him even more.

“It’s not going to cost you more,” Sammy’s father said, “so don’t worry.”

“You think I’m worried about that??” the man answered incredulously and the sound of his pacing increased.

“I don’t know what you’re worried about, Tom,” Sammy’s Pop answered. “I’m the one who killed the guy.”

Sammy’s Pop laughed then and Sammy’s knees buckled. He would have fallen but Alex grabbed his elbow at the last second. Alex pointed to the hatch and mouthed, “We have to get out of here.”

The boys slowly and quietly backed out of the den’s closet through the hidden hatch and into the bedroom closet. They inched out of the closet – praying that a squeak would not escape the hinges of the door– and crept out of the room. Soon they were speed-walking down the hall, through the kitchen and out the back door of Sammy’s house. They had forgotten all about the rain and the ditches and the giant tubes down the road. Instead, as by mutual yet unspoken agreement, they ran directly to the crooked old shed in Sammy’s backyard and threw themselves inside.

++++

They were drenched and out of breath and Sammy thought he was going to throw up.

“Man, oh man, oh man,” Alex kept repeating. He was excited and agitated but he didn’t look afraid. Sammy was afraid. His whole world had titled on its axis and was slipping off into space, never to be found again.

“Your Pop killed a guy!” Alex stage-whispered.

“Shut up!” Sammy said.

The shed was small and hot. The lawn mower sat to the side, silenced for now but it looked menacing to Sammy, ready to eat anything in its way. Along the walls Sammy’s father had fashioned boards with hooks for his tools, and the shears and clippers and ax threatened to fall from the prongs and cut them to pieces.

Sammy’s head was spinning. What had his Pop said? ‘I’m the one who killed him.’ He shuddered. How could his Pop be a murderer? Was this the same man who came home from work each night whistling and calling out, ‘What’s for dinner?’ Was this the same man that showed Sammy how to throw a baseball, who mowed the lawn every Saturday afternoon, who brought his Ma daisies every so often? It didn’t compute.

Sammy looked over at Alex who was waiting for him to say something.

“Holy crap,” Sammy sputtered.

“I know!” Alex said. “And I thought my family was messed up.”

The boys were silent for a while, mulling over the turn of events on their rainy summer day.

“We should figure out how it happened!” Alex, again.

“Are you crazy?” Sammy asked.

“No, really! It’s like a murder mystery and we could be the detectives and gather clues. We should go back into the closet right now and try to hear what they’re saying!”

Sammy shook his head crazily back and forth.

“No way! If my Pop catches us, he’ll kill us!”

The boys looked at each for a moment at Sammy’s turn of phrase and burst into laughter. It was gallows humor but it felt good. The tension eased a bit after that.

“You know, it’s kinda cool,” Alex said. “Your Pop’s a badass.”

“Yeah,” Sammy agreed because he wanted to be cool like Alex. “We should head over to your house, now. My Ma will be back soon and she’ll go to your house looking for me.”

The rain had stopped by then and the sun was peeking out from behind some clouds, struggling to establish its dominance. Humidity hung heavily in the air. The roar of the sewer trucks rumbled in the distant on their way back to the neighborhood, but neither Sammy nor Alex cared any longer. There were more important things at hand.

++++

“Sammy,” he heard his mother call later that day, “come on home, now. Dinner.”

Sammy and Alex had spent most of the afternoon inside at Alex’s house, huddled together in his room. Even though the rain clouds had completely dissipated and the sun was bright, there were things to do.

A pad of paper sat on the floor in front of the boys with notes in Alex’s scraggily hand writing. They were trying to come up with all the reasons Sammy’s Pop would kill a man: revenge, maybe for running him off the road (Pop’s car did have a crunched-in back bumper); stealing money from Pop (it never seemed like Sammy’s family had any money); killing Pop’s own Pop (although Sammy had been told his grandfather died of a heart attack, but now who knows?). When they remembered that the reason Sammy’s Pop had killed a man was because Tom Grundy had asked him too, they changed tactics. Sammy ripped off a new sheet of paper and Alex began scribbling down the names of potential victims. This was substantially harder as they didn’t know many adults but they noted a few: Pop’s boss at work, Aunt Maxine’s husband, Cousin Manny.

Across the street they could hear the trucks start to power up, the jaws of the diggers grinding into the earth. After a while when they couldn’t think of any additional victims, the two boys wandered back outside to watch the workmen absently, their minds still clouded by the discovery of murder most foul.

Soon Sammy heard his Ma call him for dinner. He felt his heart pound and his stomach roll at the thought of facing his Pop.

Sammy trudged back towards his house, his head down. In the warm yellow kitchen Sammy pulled out his chair and sat down heavily. There was meatloaf and baked potatoes and canned green beans on the table. His Ma had made a salad with fruit cocktail and cool whip and for a moment he felt happy.

“What’s new with Maxine?” Sammy’s Pop asked his Ma between bites.

“Oh, you know Maxine,” she answered. “She’s such a gossip. She said there’s a rumor going around that John Jackson is missing.”

“You don’t say,” his Pop replied.

Sammy stopped mid-swallow. Who was John Jackson and why was he missing? Could he have been murdered? Could John Jackson be the victim his Pop and the other man had been talking about? Suddenly the meatloaf felt very dry in his throat and Sammy started to cough.

“Drink some milk,” his Pop said and then turned back to his Ma. “I think that John Jackson may have messed with the wrong fella. You know how hot-headed he was.”

Was? Sammy thought and his stomach flipped and dropped. The table was silent for a moment, the three of them contemplating just hot-headed John Jackson was, and Sammy wondering if his Pop did something about it.

“Sammy,” his father said and Sammy almost fell out of his chair. “What did you do today?”

“Nothing!” he responded much too quickly.

“Whoa, son. Quiet down. I was just asking how you spent your day now that you’re outta school.”

Sammy stared at his father. Did his Pop know that he’d been in the empty house with Alex? Did he know that they’d found the hidden passageway? Could his Pop see the guilt written all over his face?

“I was at Alex’s all day,” Sammy responded then stuffed a forkful of potatoes in his mouth, the lie and the potatoes catching in his throat. Just then the cuckoo clock in the living room chimed on the hour and Sammy swallowed his potatoes in a rush, which started him coughing again.

“Honey, are you getting sick?” his Ma asked, worry etched on her brow.

Sammy shook his head but then immediately regretted it. If he had said he was sick, he could have been excused from the table. He could have rushed to his room and been far away from his Pop, from the confusion of the day.

“I had an interesting day at the office,” his Pop offered.

“Oh?” his Ma.

“I had a meeting with Tom Grundy. You remember him?”

“Sure,” she answered.

“He was here last summer for the Fourth of July barbeque, right? Didn’t Tom work with that missing man – John Jackson?”

“Yes, he did,” Sammy’s Pop answered grimly. “They didn’t get along too well. Tom always said John Jackson was an asshole.”

“Frank!” his mother said and pointed to Sammy.

“Sorry. A-hole.”

But Sammy wasn’t shocked by the curse nor did he snicker when he heard it spew from his Pop’s mouth. He was thinking about Tom Grundy who he now remembered, too. At the barbeque last summer Tom Grundy had asked Sammy if he played baseball and who his favorite player was. He remembered that deep, bass voice of Tom Grundy’s, almost like a foghorn in the night. Tom Grundy was the voice he had heard in the den with his father that day; the same Tom Grundy that worked with the missing man, John Jackson who, apparently, he didn’t like.

“Anyway,” his Pop continued. “Tom had asked me to complete a project for him recently and he was surprised how thoroughly it had been done. At first he wasn’t happy that I had gone beyond what he asked but then I convinced him it was best my way.”

“Wonderful,” Sammy’s Ma said. “I’m sure your way was the right way.”

“No it wasn’t!” Sammy shrieked and both his parents swiveled their heads his way in shock.

“I mean,” Sammy continued, “why didn’t you just do what he asked in the first place?”

“Sammy?” his mother asked, cocking her head to the side.

“What’s the matter, son? Don’t you think your old man can make better decisions than Tom Grundy?” his Pop asked.

Sammy stared at his Pop, the man he loved most in the whole world; the man with the kind eyes and half-grin. No, he thought. It couldn’t be true. His Pop just could NOT have killed a man. He was too good, too normal. But his Pop had admitted that he met with Tom Grundy today, and it sounded like their project had been to make sure that John Jackson disappeared for good.

“May I be excused?” Sammy asked. “I guess I don’t feel so good after all.”

“Of course,” his Ma said. “Go lay down and I’ll check on you later.”

Sammy bolted from the table and raced to his bedroom shutting the door behind him. He crossed to the open window and peered out hoping Alex was outside or looking out his own bedroom window towards him.

“Alex?” he whispered hoping against hope. “Alex?”

But there was no answer. He was on his own.

++++

It was his Pop who checked on him later that night.

“How ya feeling, son?” he asked.

Sammy had been dozing on his bed and was surprised to find that it was completely dark even though this early in the summer the sun didn’t set until almost ten. He must have been lying on his bed, still in his shorts and t-shirt, for more than three hours. He felt sloggy and off.

“Ok,” Sammy finally answered his tongue thick from sleep.

Sammy’s Pop sat down on the edge of his bed and looked towards the window that faced Alex’s house.

“You know, sometimes your old man has to do things he doesn’t like. Being a grownup is hard.”

He glanced back at Sammy and Sammy nodded; he didn’t know what else to do.

His Pop’s eyes moved again to the window. The moonlight was very bright and it reflected in patches off his Pop’s face like the moon, shadows of both light and dark. The baseball wallpaper his Ma had plastered on his walls looked sinister in the murkiness. The cartoon bats resembled weapons, ready to kill a man with one fell swoop. Sammy closed his eyes tight and wished the day had never happened.

His Pop continued.

“Sometimes I have to do what I think is right for the family. I’m responsible for taking care of you and your Ma and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But once in a while I may have to do things that are hard and not very enjoyable. Today was one of those days.”

Sammy nodded again and prayed to himself, ‘Please don’t tell me you killed a man. Please don’t tell me!’

“You’re a good kid, Sammy. Your Ma and I have tried to raise you right and instill in you a sense of right and wrong, to respect others, and to never lie. My job as your Pop is to make sure you learn those lessons. Do you understand that?”

“I guess,” Sammy mumbled.

“Good because today when Tom Grundy came over, I asked him to help me teach you a lesson about privacy.”

Sammy looked up, confused.

“Son, I didn’t kill a man,” his Pop said. “I knew you and Alex were in the closet listening. You were spying on me and I needed to let you know that you should never invade someone’s privacy like that. It isn’t right. When I figured out you were in the den, I knew I had to teach you a lesson about snooping so Tom and I made up a story about a murder.”

“But what about that missing man – John Jackson?” Sammy asked, unsure.

“Now, don’t be mad at your Ma. She didn’t want to go along with it but I asked her say a few made-up things at dinner about this John Jackson character. He isn’t even a real person. I gave you a chance first, though,” he continued. “I asked you what you were doing and where you were today and you said you were at Alex’s the whole day, which wasn’t true. I’m sorry to trick you this way, son, but sometimes I worry that Alex is a bad influence on you. Now tell the truth, Sammy. Would you have gone into our bedroom and through the closet to the den if Alex hadn’t suggested it?”

Sammy quickly shook his head no.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Now I feel sorry for Alex. His Ma’s pretty unhappy and his Pop doesn’t seem to be home much so he’s got it rough. And in some ways I think Alex is good for you. You need to take some risks in life. You need to not be afraid of everything. And I think Alex helps you in that way. But today you two boys crossed the line and then you lied about it.”

Sammy looked at his Pop and the darkness of the day fell away. The baseball bats on the wallpaper were just tools of a game. His Pop was just his Pop, the same man he always knew, the one with the half-grin.

“I’m sorry,” Sammy said.

His Pop looked at him tenderly and ruffled his hair and Sammy jumped into his arms. Even if he was almost ten years old, sometimes he still needed a quick hug from his Pop, especially when he had just righted the world on its axis again.

“Wait ‘til I tell Alex,” Sammy said and his Pop smiled.

Hungry

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orangesJordan peeled the orange slowly, savoring its fresh, citrusy smell. She was in the stacks of the library, her books and papers spread over the desk like peanut butter on toast. She had made sure to arrive at the graduate library early enough to secure one of the small study rooms lined up in a row on the third floor. There were only eight of the pantry-size rooms so she was lucky to find one empty, even this early. The quiet within one was complete and Jordan’s mind automatically shifted into scholar mode whenever she sat at the desk. She usually stayed for hours, churning through the work. But for some reason, today was different.

Jordan had set her alarm for 7:00 a.m. and had trudged the mile from her rental through the campus and past the dorms and the fraternities that morning. It was Sunday and all around was quiet and still. She could smell the bread and bagels baking at the Donut Hole, the only hub of real activity so early on a weekend. Most undergrads were sleeping off their night of partying or just sleeping in, period. The others Jordan saw walking on campus that morning were likely graduate students like her, and their party days and undergrad classes were years ago. It was serious business – getting a PhD. The competition was high and the courses tough and the idea of college as fun was all over. Graduate school was a job; a brutal, exhausting, do-or-die job.

She walked up the steps of library and waved at an acquaintance from her gross anatomy lab but didn’t stop to chat. She had much to do to be ready for the exam the next day. Still, once Jordan unloaded her bag and sat down at the desk in the small study rom, she couldn’t focus. After 15 minutes of shuffling and moving her books and notes and pens around, she began to peel the orange, its heady smell enveloping her completely.

And then she thought of him.

Jordan had met Charlie before but years ago and nothing special had clicked between them. Perhaps she had been in a relationship at the time, or he had been hanging with the guys. This time, however, as she and Meg walked down the cool sand towards the bonfire last night, she spotted him immediately. He was at a nearby table whipping together what turned out be an amazing crab dish. She watched him slice and fry and throw spices and vegetables and things she didn’t recognize into a big black pot. His hands moved so quickly; it was like a musician coaxing the sweetest song he could from an instrument. After just a few moments, Jordan was completely enthralled and continued to watch Charlie as he finished up the prep of the food and then placed the pot on the grate over the fire. He finished it off with a spritz of orange.

Jordan shouldn’t have even gone to the beach last night, but Meg had insisted, telling her that her head would explode if she studied anymore. Besides, Meg said, Jordan was getting too skinny and there would be a guy who was in culinary school at the bonfire who was cooking for the gang. Normally she could brush Meg off like a crumb on her lapel but her defenses were down and before she knew it she’d said yes.

It was late September and while the sun was out over the water, the breeze was chilly that night. Jordan had brought a bulky sweater but soon her shoes and sweater were tossed to the side and she was diving in the sand for the volleyball and drinking ginger beer on the sidelines. She had forgotten how good it felt to relax, to laugh, to be among friends. Her life over the last year had been all about school but now, in the midst of beach and the smell of good food, she realized how starved she had been for life.

Charlie was playing on her side during the volleyball game and she swore she could feel his warmth next to her. But that was silly, wasn’t it? Still, she felt his nearness and he smelled delicious, like the spices he cooked with. Was it bay leaves? Rosemary? Corriander?

Later sitting next to him on one of the three picnic tables the gang had pushed together, she felt happy and light. She was noshing on the crab and saffron rice and jambalaya Charlie had whipped up and thought she had never tasted anything so wonderful. The flavors were both subtle and dramatic; specific tastes were highlighted at first and then others came to the forefront as you chewed and swallowed the food. It was orgasmic.

Jordan laughed and drank and ate way too much at the bonfire. She hadn’t felt that full in a year; not since she and Meg had celebrated the end of their first year classes and threw together a Mexican feast to die for.

Jordan shook her head slightly, trying to release herself from the memory of last night. She plopped a slice of orange in her mouth and bit down releasing the sweet juice. It was time to think about anatomy, she knew, and Jordan opened her notebook and stared at her notes for a few minutes watching the words move around the page like a blender combining separate ingredients into a meaningful something. She knew it was kind of hopeless, though – she was still so full of him, of his food, of his magic – but her mind told her to keep studying. There’s no way she could blow off an entire Sunday just to see him again; to head to the concert downtown where he’d be; to relish in the street food of Octoberfest… brats, pretzels, beer. To relish in him. Her stomach growled and her chest tightened as she thought of him.

Jordan chewed on another slice of orange. There was a light knock on the door and it startled her. Her head was swimming and for a fleeting moment she thought with certainty that Charlie was at the door. But of course that would be crazy. She only told him she was studying today, not studying at the grad library on floor three behind the stacks in the small, private cubes.

She opened the door to the study room. A campus policeman stood on the other side, glaring down at her.

“There’s no eating in the library,” he said.

“Oh,” she said, embarrassed, “sorry.” Jordan pushed the orange into her bag.

“You have to leave, now” the cop told her.

“What?” she asked incredulously. “I didn’t steal a book or anything if that’s what you think.”

“No, that’s not it. Listen, we don’t really care about eating in the library but when we get a complaint, we have to reinforce it. And an orange? Really?” he raised his eyebrows at me. “An orange is probably the worst thing to eat in a library. The fragrance is everywhere. One of the students complained saying it was too distracting.”

Of course, Jordan thought. The smell was distracting, it was vibrant and fresh and so very, very appealing. And suddenly she found herself famished, again. She packed up her belongings and walked with the campus cop to the door and out of the library and headed directly to the concert downtown and Charlie.

A Halloween Story

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catI was just six years old the year my brother took me trick-or-treating on Halloween. I had just uncovered the true meaning of the holiday (haul in as much candy as possible). Previous years I had been happy to dress up and attend one of the neighborhood parties and afterwards trick-or-treat at perhaps three or four houses on the block. This year, however, I had heard all about the value of widespread trick-or-treating from my fellow first graders and I wanted in.

I hadn’t realized what I’d been missing.

A few days before Halloween, I approached my parents, indignant. “I don’t want to go to any stupid party on Halloween,” I told them. “I want to trick-or-treat all night long and get lots and lots of candy!”

My parents looked at each other, tired from their long work days, and sighed. They were already getting older then, my father well past 50.

“Ok,” my mother said, “but I can’t take you because I have to be home to hand out candy and your Dad’s working the midnight shift.”

She glanced around. Unfortunately for my 14-year-old brother happened to be in the room and was promptly assigned the duty. He was to take me trick-or-treating on Halloween night for an hour… somewhat limiting my take of goodies but not unreasonably so, I figured.

I wore my Halloween costume to school the next day and when I got home, I stared at myself in the mirror, trying my best to look scary. I thought my witch costume was beautiful: all black and shiny and fierce. When you’re six years old you think that handmade costumes are absolutely the best. For my first Halloween my mother had sewn a spotted puppy outfit, complete with long, floppy ears. I swear I could remember wearing that costume, chewing on the ears, but I was only ten months old at the time so it must have been later. When I was three I came across the puppy costume stuffed in the back of my closet and my mother gave it to me as a stand-in for the dog I requested daily. I dragged that gutless puppy around with me for months and named him Snoopy. A few years later when I was eight or so I discovered that you no longer want to wear costumes sewn by your mother. What you really want – no need — are the plastic, store-bought kind with the suffocating masks that all your friends have. You will probably be quite mean to your mother to get such a costume.

But not this year. This year with my fancy black pointed hat and satiny cape, I thought no one in the world had a better costume.

By the time it was 5:00 on Halloween evening, I could barely sit still, so impatient to start my hunting and gathering of candy. My brother finally came out of his room around 6:00 dressed as a hobo. He had found some ratty old clothes in the shed, and he wore one of my mother’s filthy gardening hats on his head. There was dirt smeared on his face and he carried a long stick with some kind of knapsack attached. He took one look at me and turned to the linen closet.

“Put that stupid plastic pumpkin down,” he said. “Here, take this.”

He tossed a pillow case at me, and I looked at him perplexed.

“If you want to get a bunch of candy, you need something big to carry it all,” he explained.

Brilliant!

I opened the case and looked greedily inside at the vast amount of space available for chocolate bars and caramels. No stupid raisins, please!

“Let’s go,” he said and we were off.

As we left I glanced at the jack-o-lantern we had carved earlier that day, its face reflecting a sinister smile from our porch. My father had lit the candle only minutes before – as dusk had settled into night – and the pumpkin’s face glowed creepily back at me.

At first it was kind of scary approaching houses that were not familiar to me, but my brother was always just a step or two behind and soon I became bold. Halfway through our trek I decided I wanted him to wait on the sidewalk while I sang out my “trick-or-treats” alone. I was rewarded with many, many chocolate bars and was so pleased that I didn’t even frown when Mrs. Harper slipped the bag of raisins into my bag. I would offer those to my brother for helping out!

“Come on,” he said. “It’s been an hour and that’s all you get. I want to get home and go to the party at Doug’s.”

Doug was my brother’s best friend and lived just a block over from us. Sometimes I thought he was actually part of our family, he was at our house that much. I knew his dinner preferences as clearly as I knew my brother’s – hot dogs, spaghetti, chili. I knew the TV shows they liked to watch – Dark Shadows was a favorite. They both had the shaggy hair popular in the mid-sixties, but both seemed to veer away from the true craziness of the time. In fact, my brother would be married in less than five years.

The hour of trick-or-treating flew by and although I really wanted to keep going, I was actually pretty tired and knew the second best thing next to trick-or-treating was getting home, dividing the candy into piles – all the Milky Ways here, all the suckers there – and then eating one from each.

We turned and headed home.

The sky was very dark now and I could hear the shuffling of feet through the leaves. It was both spooky and fun – a perfect autumn night illuminated by the splendid yellow moon overhead. We walked down our block and waved to some of the older neighbor kids who were still heading out, some to trick-or-treat, others to Doug’s party. Tommy Green was dressed as a soldier and he fake stabbed me as he walked by.

Up ahead was our house and I noticed a big kid dressed as a baseball player trick-or-treating there. I could see my mother fill his bag and close the door. The baseball player turned to leave but then paused and turned back towards the door, considering something. Suddenly he pulled out his baseball bat and started to smash our jack-o-lantern, stringy orange bits of pumpkin flying everywhere. My brother stopped in his tracks, unsure what to do. The baseball player was big and definitely older than my brother and he was giving our pumpkin a good thrashing.

“Oh no!” I cried dramatically, tears quickly spreading down my checks. “He’s killing our pumpkin!”

My brother looked down at me, his dirty face strained. I had stuffed my fist in my mouth, whimpering, my perfect Halloween suddenly turning into a horror show right in front of me, ruined. He looked back at our house and made up his mind.

He sprinted towards the pumpkin murderer.

“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, stop!!”

He was almost upon the guy and I stared in horror. My brother was going to get smashed in the head by the baseball player just like our pumpkin, I was sure. Splat. Instead the kid picked up the pulpy mess of the pumpkin, ran towards my brother and shoved it hard into his stomach. My brother gave a weird “Ouf” sound and fell to the ground. The pumpkin killer ran into the darkness, and I ran to my brother. He got up slowly, stooping over to catch his breath and then began to pick up the remains of our pumpkin. Surprisingly after all that pumpkin abuse, it still had one good eye and most of his mouth.

We walked to our porch together and he carefully placed it back where it belonged. I had to admit, it looked even scarier now all mashed up, and I grinned up at my brother.

“Well, there you go, kid,” he said, “a real-live trick on Halloween.”

He looked down at his ruined hobo costume sadly. I think he later realized that you can’t really ruin a hobo costume; the added pumpkin stains only made it look more real. I grabbed him around the legs and hugged hard. He looked surprised but squeezed me back. As a six-year-old I wasn’t sure if I was hugging him because I was scared or because I was glad he wasn’t splat like the pumpkin or because he took me trick-or-treating. Mostly I think I hugged him because he saved my pumpkin.

The next day when I got home from school there was a small, stuffed pumpkin sitting on my bed. My brother would not admit that it came from him – he told me the Great Pumpkin brought it for me while I was at school.

I believed that for a long time.

Nice Work Mr. S

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pumpkinJust how tall can you be to still qualify for trick-or-treating, I wondered as I stared at myself in the full-length mirror. It wasn’t strictly an age thing, I had decided. I mean, there wasn’t some Halloween guideline that stated you could no longer trick-or-treat once you were a teenager. I knew that if you could pass for 11 or maybe even 12, you were still in the ballpark. But it was the height thing that got in the way. Once you were above five feet tall, the adults started looking at you with cynicism in their eyes.

I was lucky. At 13 I was still shy of five feet tall and appeared much younger than my years. My best friends were Paige and Kimber and they lived in the lithe and model-tall world of the blessed:  blonde and blue eyed teenagers. Next to them I was nearly invisible. But this one night – this Halloween night – that would play to my advantage. I was sure that if I dressed in the stupid princess costume I had found at Kmart, I’d be able to pull off some successful candy gathering. I know it sounds stupid for a 13-year-old to want to trick-or-treat, but it’s not like any of us would turn down a free Snickers bar.

Kimber and Paige didn’t dress up but I was resplendent in my full-fledged princess costume. Paige had even put sparkles on my face. The three of us looped around the neighborhood for a while, hunting and gathering. We saw only a few of our other friends, mostly boys from our class trying to scare the younger kids. Most every kid out that night was much younger than we and it made our chances of procuring candy much dimmer. Many of the adults pulled up short when they saw three teenagers at their door but a couple of time Kimber said, “Come on, Sis. I’ll buy you a bunch of candy for your 11th birthday,” and before we could leave the porch, the home owner would be overcome with guilt and tell Kimber and Paige how wonderful they were for giving up their night for their kid ‘sister’ and then ply us with chocolate bars and peanut butter cups. We would try not to giggle as we scooted to the next house.

Towards the end of the night we stopped at our neighbor’s house, Mr. Sossa. His porch light had been left on but there was no one home – a hand-written sign told us so.  On the white wicker chair perched on the porch was an empty basket with some ripped candy bar wrappers and a note that declared Please Take One. I laughed out loud at that. No self-respecting trick-or-treater was ever going to take just one if there wasn’t a guardian watching the candy. I would guess that the second or third kid that came upon the candy stash had swooped up the entire contents. But then it occurred to me – what if Mr. Sossa was pulling a fast one? What if he hadn’t put out any candy at all? What if he was sitting in the back of the house, avoiding the hassle and expense of Halloween and everyone who came across the empty basket thought he was some nice dude who left candy even when he wouldn’t be home?

“Nice work, Mr. S,” I whispered under my breath.

“I’m getting tired,” Paige whined. She was always the most wispy of the two blondes and I felt overly protective of her.

“I think we can head home,” I answered as I looked inside my plastic pumpkin. I was thrilled to see it was nearly full of chocolate bars and caramels, sweets that would carry me until the Christmas season when the holiday candy would, again, be free and easy.

The three of us plowed into my house and we dumped our stash together on the floor of the family room. Of course my haul was the largest but we had agreed to pool our wealth and we went about sorting through the candy and bargaining over Milk Duds and Skittles like little girls. I saw my mother beam at us from the kitchen and then a sad smile settled on her face. I think she knew before we did that this was probably our last Halloween trick-or-treating.