Pre-School, (excerpt from DYLAN)

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Art takes his lunch break to buy a used calculus book, teacher’s edition, at the old bookstore on Pine Street in the small town of Birchwood, Colorado. When he returns to work at the exclusive seasonal golf resort and winter ski lodge, he cuts out the answer section. He thumbs through the book reveling in its musty air. He wonders if it could be this book that changes the world. His optimism runs deep, but his little girl gives him every reason to dream. He sits in his shabby office with the book and tries to decide on an equation. He works out the puzzle himself first using the answer guide to cheat. He writes the equation out on an old, small, wall hanging chalkboard where she’ll look when she comes to visit him.

During the winter, ski lodge members keep themselves busy on everything from bunny hills to half pipes to black diamond ski trails. Rescue crews work with snow machines, trolling the property for injured patrons throughout the season. Art snow plows for the lodge during most of the winter season but leaves the crew early in spring to start readying the course. Now, opened for a week, the golf resort buzzes.

The frost has long melted away from the golf resort, situated at the furthest base of the mountain, and golfers send their balls high in the air adjusting for windage more than other qualities. The driving range is full and a junior greenskeeper is out in his caged ball collector supplying members an easy target. The six-hole putting green is active, players walking up to drop three or four balls, trying to assess the speed of the greens for the day; some practice their short game at the chipping area or getting out of the sand at the bunker before heading out for their round. Art’s building is a well-maintained shed a long way out from the fairways. His personal office inside isn’t as pristine as its exterior would lead anyone to believe, but he keeps it tidy.

Right on time, Lilly enters the maintenance shed at the back of the golf resort and weaves her way through mangled weed-eater lines and past dirty mower blades to reach Daddy’s office tucked in the corner. She finds him in his usual position, hunched over a pile of paperwork doing inventory. Plastic boxes along with red drawers inside metal shelving all possess labels with a content count. Art insists he must account for everything at the end of each day. As Lilly shuffles along the cement floor he raises his head to greet her with a smile. He is slow to remove the reading glasses from the tip of his nose, revealing his deep blue eyes. He whirls his chair around.

“Come here, Lil’ Bit.” Art opens his arms wide. Lilly’s hair feathers as she jumps into his lap. She closes her light green eyes and hugs Daddy. Their new outdoor tans match perfectly. They giggle, and Art swirls his chair like their own personal merry-go-round. The warmth of his hug along with the aromas of dried sweat, fresh cut grass, and years of layered oil make him smell like a seasoned greenskeeper. After a spell, he slows down the chair. “Did your mother cut you loose already?”

“Yes, sir. Is the old lady giving you a tough time, again?” Lilly nods at a troublesome red mower. Art’s face crinkles.

“This darn thing has been on its last leg for years, but she keeps on kicking. My time may be better spent trimming the greens with scissors on my hands and knees.” Art complains to himself more than to Lilly. “You haven’t even been alive as long as this hunk of metal has been around.” He tosses a small wrench at it.

Lilly hops off Art’s lap, puts her kitty cat book bag next to the desk, and peers inside the drawer he left purposely ajar. She walks to the wall and studies the chalkboard. Her eyes dance with excitement across the markings as her tiny shoes leave footprints in the white, fresh fallen chalk dust. Each week Art puts a new equation on the chalkboard related to the topic she’s studying in mathematics.

“Daddy, what is this?” Lilly examines the chalkboard. Art points.

“These are graphs approaching infinity infinitely. It’s the math of limits called calculus. I picked out a new book you might want to start working on.” He leans back in his chair. Lilly looks back to the chalkboard and, then, back at Art in amazement.

“I thought I was almost done,” she continues in an awe-stricken tone. Her notion tickles Art, her innocence precious.

“Were you hoping to be done? Are you bored with math, Lilly?”

“No, sir. I just didn’t know the equations I work on match graphs like these…calculus. How come you didn’t tell me? This is astounding news.” She over exaggerates her words as her limbs flop around. Lilly tends toward melodrama. Art takes it like a champ.

“Honestly, Lil’ Bit, it didn’t occur to me you didn’t already know. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what it’s like to be brand new.” It didn’t occur to Art that she never heard the word calculus before today. Kids three times her age struggle with the subject. Lilly picks at the exposed cushioning in Art’s chair as she leans against his shoulder.

“How much longer will I be brand new? I’m getting pretty big now, Daddy.”

“Oh, you still have some growing to do, little one.” Art chuckles, tickling her.

“Daddy, I’m so far behind. How will I ever catch up?”

“Catch up to what, Lil’ Bit?” He takes hold of her hand. She puts a finger to her lip.

“The rest of it…” Her voice trails off as if already pondering the journey in her mind. Art is far from perfect, yet he takes every opportunity, be it by tantrum, disappointment, or victory, to convey his lessons to Lilly. She is his little sponge and she’ll never forget.

“In time, Lilly. You’ll learn one after the other in stages to comprehend the next lesson.” Art releases her hand. “Why don’t you grab your new book out of its drawer?” He smiles. Lilly rushes around his chair and finds the used red and orange teaching manual. Her mother, Jennifer, home-schools Lilly but does all the official work online for her. It’s far too simple for Lilly. Still, they must keep up appearances. Jennifer possesses three master’s degrees: liberal arts, linguistics, and history. What Jennifer doesn’t teach Lilly, Art adds to with his own lessons. It’s always Art who reveals the next exciting math subject with their special chalkboard.

“How does calculus fit in?” Lilly wonders aloud as she reads the title on the chalkboard, again. Art seizes the opportunity to reinforce his teaching moment.

“Well, back in ancient times, mathematicians discovered geometry, and, then, much later in the 17thcentury, another mathematician used it to make calculus. Remember, it’s one after the other.” She’ll understand. His Lil’ Bit can make connections in ways he hasn’t fathomed, or perhaps can’t because of his own preconceived notions. Lilly clasps her hands together and stands on her tip toes.

“Maybe this time I can learn calculus with the kids at school down the mountain.” Art feels the room spin at high speed while his daughter watches him with wide eyes and a hopeful grin.

“If that’s the way you want it, I will discuss it with Mommy. What do you want to do with this calculus book?” He tries to placate her; she doesn’t bite.

“I’ll take it to school with me, of course,” Lilly announces, hopping. Art tries to settle her down.

“Before we decide, how about you take a quick read through what is in front of you? Let me know afterward.” Art takes a deep breath while Lilly continues to bounce.

“Daddy, I want to go to school.” Art shudders at the thought of his daughter living in an adult world while still a nine-year-old child. He needs some air to clear his head.

“I’ll be right back.” Art stands and walks out the back door. After he leaves, Lilly drops the book on the ground and kicks it. Warm air enters Art’s lungs but offers no relief. Even at the back of the sprawling golf course with a blue sky overhead, Art feels claustrophobic. Inside, Lilly begrudgingly picks through the pages of her new book as she sits Indian-style with one tiny fist under her chin. Her knees poke out from under her dress. She enjoys reading the teaching tips for instructors.

Lilly lifts her head for a moment and stares at Daddy’s desk. She knows better than to search out the other textbooks waiting in a drawer somewhere. He notices everything. Those books are probably more advanced; she already knows calculus. She scans the chalkboard. Daddy picked out a worthy question. She’ll work it out for him the way he wants. She finds a lot of trick questions in calculus that annoy her.

Coming over the back nine, Art sees a pudgy man whose broad shoulders fill out his expensive suit, which he wears with cowboy boots. He appears much older than Art, even though they are only a year apart in age. He stands Art’s height at 6’2. He used to be in decent shape. Hell, they both were back then. Though this is a surprise. Harry Lowensteen, Art’s best friend from childhood approaches. It’s been a week since their last staff meeting. He notices Art’s discomfort.

“You look green around the gills there, old chum. I hope it’s not on my account. I should have called to tell you I would be here today. I’m sorry to pop in on you.” The summer wind washes over the men in a sweet fragrance. Wind chimes in the distance jingle. Art cracks a smile.

“Hell, Harry, it’s your mountain. You can come and go as you please, don’t you agree?” Art tries to tame his mess of salt and pepper curls. Harry watches, slow to speak.

“I’m not here on business. I’m here about Lilly.” Harry fiddles with the buttons on his suit. The wind gusts and dies out repeatedly, fluffing and flattening his polished, deep brown hair. His light olive skin glows in the bright daylight. Art rubs his hands back and forth, each clutching at the other.

“Funny you should mention her. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. She wants to attend school down the mountain, again.” His knuckles turn white as he continues to wring his hands. It was apparent at nine-months-old Lilly was special when she spontaneously began to read. Her first book was Alice in Wonderland. Jennifer started reading it to her while Lilly sat on her lap, but then, one day, Lilly just began reading it herself to Jennifer. She talked, walked, and potty-trained early. Harry pops Art back into the moment.

“She wants to experience the outside world. Why not let her? You’ve kept her hidden like a hermit on this mountain for long enough. I’m getting sick of this, Art.” Harry’s not sure how he’s supposed to broach the confession he came to make. Art is none the wiser.

“Oh, now you have a problem with it? This whole thing was your idea.” Art isn’t taking any grief off Harry, even if he’s the boss. They’re talking about Lilly, not work. But Harry doesn’t take guff off anybody, especially not from his best friend.

“I never imagined you’d keep her locked up in some ivory mountain tower. She was young and vulnerable when she was a baby. She’s growing up, Art – whether you face it or not. Let her roam. Take her off the grounds. At least, find her some playmates. Plenty of the staff have children. Invite them over. She’s nine, without a single friend her own age.” Even as he lobbies against it, Harry takes advantage of the fact, too.

With no friends, Lilly absorbs and applies her advanced education faster than even Harry realized she could. It takes her under a year to progress through a set of tutors. Now, where does he start? Art is clueless to all he’s done. Harry loses the conversation for a moment, wrapped in his own thoughts. Art continues to balk at Harry.

“She has plenty to do on the grounds. We buy her a new snowboard every year because she’s growing so fast. And the hockey. We can’t forget about the hockey.” Art points his finger at Harry. “She might lose her little fool mind if she didn’t have these ponds to skate circles on from daybreak to dusk. Does it remind you of anybody?” Art feels the stress building pressure behind his eyes and blinks wildly, as if blinded by the sun. Harry ignores it.

“What do you want to do, Art? Do you want to sit here and reminisce about our days growing up playing hockey? Or, are you ready to admit Lilly deserves more than what’s on this mountain?” Art doesn’t know about the tutors. At first, Harry wasn’t trying to take full control over Lilly’s education. At least that’s what he tries to believe.

“Oh, please, Harry.” Harry’s ears become red, fuming.

“It’s summertime, Art. All the kids are out from school. She has plenty of things to do and no one to do them with,” Harry yells over the wind. Art walks in small circles, pacing back and forth, a caged puma losing its mind from an unfit enclosure.

“It’s my job to protect Lilly. Besides, those kids have parents I can’t trust around her. You have no idea what it takes to raise a gifted child,” Art snaps back. Harry’s face jumps alive.

“Is that so?” The tutors at the mansion answer directly to Harry. He’s gone to great lengths to keep it hidden in the shadows. Art loses his cool.

“She has plenty of things to do on her own, Harry. You own an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a paved track, the golf course, the tram – you even built her that damn tree fortress last summer. This is a child’s paradise.” Art flails his arms around as if Harry built the world himself. Harry’s voice loses its resolve as his eyes drift toward the ground.

“It’s lonely without anyone to share it with.” Harry grew up on this land an only child. He didn’t enjoy all the bells and whistles he added over time; he experienced how isolating this mountain can be. Art has no idea what it’s like. Harry isn’t cutting him anymore slack for it. He can’t afford to at this stage of Lilly’s life. Art pauses, puts his hands on his hips and faces Harry.

“Besides, she’s not up here for playtime, Harry. She’s here to study. None like her exist out there in the world. Believe me. I checked.” Art has a massive surprise coming his way, though now Harry isn’t sure he’s in the proper state of mind to hear it. Harry’s been using that excuse for as long as he can remember to justify his secrecy, even to excuse himself for it.

“You’re right, Art. The isolation here works perfectly to provide her time to focus on her educational growth, but you say it’s you and Jennifer doing it all, right? Nobody else?” Harry already knows the answer to the question more thoroughly than Art can imagine.

“No. You pay for the language tutors and the piano lessons. I allowed you that because Jennifer wouldn’t stop bitching at me until I did. Just because you’re a billionaire with endless resources doesn’t mean I am, because we’re friends. Don’t you understand?” Art puts a hand on Harry’s shoulder feeling sorry for him. Sometimes it seems to Art that Harry believes his fortune is his only defining attribute. Art knows better.

“Don’t be a mule, Art.” Harry can tell their conversation, thus far, has made Art dig in his heels even more than usual. Harry holds back the truth about what he’s done. He’ll wait for a better time. Disappointment sets into his bones like screws. He failed again. Art has no trouble with his own confidence.

“I know what’s best for Lilly. I’ll talk to Jennifer when I return home from work.” Art stares at Harry, who lets out a frustrated sigh. Art takes a step back and glances at Harry sideways, with an eyebrow raised.

“It’s strange timing that you’ve come by now, Harry.”

“Jennifer called me. She knows it’s time, bro. Something’s got to give.” Harry sees the conversation has gone circular. “Call it an early day and take her home to Jennifer.” Harry points to the greenskeeper’s shed. Art glances back at the shed where Lilly is waiting inside.

“Thanks, Harry.” The old friends bump knuckles. Harry pivots and walks away the same way he came.

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Hitchin’ (excerpt from, DYLAN)

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A semi engine turns over and air brakes release. My eyes open to see the shady underside of the tractor-trailer moving on either side of me. As the truck pulls away, I’m left lying in the middle of the asphalt parking slot between two slanted yellow lines, my head on the rucksack. I squint into the noon sun before shielding my eyes with my hand. I turn my head, roll the rucksack onto my shoulders, and stand in one fluid motion. Groggy, I make my way inside the truck stop convenience store.

I peruse the store interior picking out a honey bun and three large bottles of water. The grungy cashier watches. I catch his eye every now and again as I shuffle through the aisles in no hurry. Excused by his station, a watchdog at minimum wage, the crust in the corners of his eyes crack memorizing my movement, evaluating my intentions.

“We don’t allow vagrants in here. Don’t even think about asking to use the bathroom.” He stands high above the counter arms crossed against a bulging chest. I rush him. His heartbeat throbs through his neck as I toss a twenty-dollar bill onto the counter.

“I’ll look any way I want.” My stare pierces him. The cashier’s hand grazes my own as we exchange money and I feel dirtier for it. I head for the exit while he continues to eyeball me and leans over the counter.

“You look like you don’t even care.” He sure is perceptive. I glance over my shoulder on the way out.

“I don’t.” Outside the filthy store a wall of heat greets me. I head back to the public bathrooms for weary travelers and after taking a baby wipe bath start for the highway sick of this wasteland.

A car comes out of the rest stop and slows down beside me, its driver’s side window rolling down. The driver is a middle-aged man and a young boy occupies the front passenger seat. The driver cranes his neck out the window.

“Howdy, there. It’s a scorcher today. You need a ride somewhere, hun?” The man’s outdated glasses slip from his nose as he speaks, and he pushes them up with one finger. His bald spot shows under his combover.

“How far are you going?” I survey the highway on-ramp never meeting his eyes. Wavy lines of blurred heat make their way above the asphalt.

“Across Arkansas. I’m taking my son to his mother. This should be our last stop in Oklahoma. Where are you headed?”

“Biloxi. Mississippi.”

“Woo-ee. You got a ways ahead of ya. I’ll take you as far as I’m goin’. I’m Gary, and this big man over here is Robbie. Hop in the backseat.” Gary’s voice reveals more pep than rational, but I never pass up a free ride. I jump into the backseat of the air-conditioned, gold sedan and toss my rucksack onto the worn cloth seat relieved of its weight.

“So, what’s your name?” Robbie swivels toward me in the backseat. He’s a freckled redhead.

“Dylan.” I buckle my seatbelt.

“That’s a boy’s name,” Robbie snickers. Gary’s demeanor changes.

“Don’t be rude, boy. Mind your manners.” Gary slaps Robbie hard on the back of the head, a ring on his hand clunking against Robbie’s skull. I interject as if the exchange never occurred.

“My parents didn’t want to know whether they were expecting a boy or a girl, so they picked a name that works for both.” I’m no savior, though pity the boy. His face turns red with a concoction of embarrassment, pain, and resentment. Gary wears shock at my explanation, not for the boy.

“In this day and age? How the hell did they know what color to paint your nursery?” Gary eyes me in the rearview mirror taking in all he can.

“Green, sir. They painted it green.” I drop the conversation and stare out the window.

“Huh,” Gary muffles.

“Daddy, can we listen to the radio?” Robbie whines.

“Sure thing. Hope you enjoy country, Dylan, cuz it’s all they play ‘round here.” Gary smirks through the mirror, again. I adjust the rucksack.

“It’s your car, sir…if you don’t mind, I might take a nap for a bit.” Sleep contributes to my disconnected depression even as it serves as the best reprieve from it.

“Sure thing. Call me Gary. No need for formalities, Dylan. Relax. It’s a long haul through Arkansas.” He adjusts his mirror. I lean against the rucksack and close my eyes. The Moonlight Sonata playing in my head drowns out the twang coming from the car speakers…

Jerked awake by the pressure of the seatbelt grinding its way into my skin screeching tires pierce my ears before the car summersaults. Glass, blood, bodies, and soda splash around the interior as we roll, metal scraping and crushing into an accordion. As the car rocks to a standstill belly-up the radio projects static that barely registers over the deafening ringing in my ears. The world continues to spin. I unlatch the seat belt, hit my head on the roof, and gather my rucksack. Disoriented, I toss it out a shattered window and crawl my way out behind it. The smell of burning rubber and radiator fluid permeates the air. Gary and Robbie hang in various states of injury and consciousness.

“Need help.” Gary’s voice shivers as he gasps, a goldfish out of water. I turn my eyes from him.

“Someone will be here soon.” I climb a small embankment back onto the scrap-metaled road. Gary turns his attention to his son and his voice trails off as I see the other car. Gary bellows.

“Robbie? Robbie!”

I hear his cries in the increasing distance and leave the pair to fend for themselves. Of course, I could put in a call for help, but can’t risk it. The driver in the other car didn’t survive.

If I call two unanswered questions will remain: where is the female voice who made the call and why did she flee the scene? I can’t afford any more people searching for me and sure as hell can’t stick around. It’s either my survival or theirs. I manage my own; they can wait for the next car to come by. A passerby will make the call.

The sporty, black racer on the asphalt smokes smashed from the head-on collision. A woman remains contorted and mangled, crushed in the driver’s seat, where the engine block now resides. A peach, high-heel shoe dangles from her foot twisted in an unnatural position. I slow to gaze at the disfigured woman, enchanted. It feels familiar.

Turning my head in either direction to see an empty two-lane highway, I pick up a side mirror lying in the road and evaluate the superficial cut above my eyebrow. I take off my T-shirt. Underneath, I wear a blue tank top; my bra straps show. I wipe the blood off with my sopping wet T-shirt and stuff it into the rucksack. I dig further still and pull out a black umbrella, open it, and limp down the road under its shade.

My mind wanders. The road has changed me, jaded my heart, drained me of all compassion. I’m as hardened as the pavement beneath my feet. I figure that’s what nearly three years on the run would do to anyone my age.

I can afford a car. I have plenty of money stashed away in bitcoin but can’t risk a paper trail. I stayed off the radar this long living a hobo’s life, drifting from one highway to another. I feel no compulsion to change my ways. Besides, I’m not done mourning. I wonder if that time will ever come. I don’t have to live this way; I can’t seem to muster enough courage to care. I have no real destination other than Biloxi this time around. So, I keep moving.

***

Walking under the umbrella, shaded from the sun flying high within the sky, I fall back in time. Savant, they said; Genius, they said; Elegant, they said. They will do anything to grip me within their clutches once again.

A truck slows down grinding its gears to a halt next to me. I close the umbrella and step onto a bright chrome platform on the passenger side of the cab. A man with blond, straggly hair under a camouflage hunter’s cap sits in the driver’s seat. He spits tobacco juice out his window. His brownish-yellow tinted teeth show while he runs his tongue over them making a suction sound. He wears a few days’ worth of stubble with the corners of his mouth crusted and cracked. The repulsive man raises his voice, so I can hear him outside over the engines low growl.

“You hitchin’ or trickin’?” I peek inside the window.

“Hitchin’.” My inflection serves as a warning. This shtick is nothing new and the trucker’s response is predictable.

“Too bad. Go on, now. Off the truck.” He tries to shoo me away like a fly. I stay on the platform.

“I can pay for a ride, man.” That should do the trick.

“Is that right? How much?” His voice changes a bit, not entirely convinced I’m telling the truth. However, we’re not done bartering.

“How far are you going?” Even through the window, repulsed by the musty odor from the cab and the stains under the trucker’s armpits, my body recoils. Then again, I probably don’t smell much better. He takes a quick glance up the road.

“Atlanta.” It’s more than enough mileage for my purposes.

“Drop me off in Mississippi?” I ask devoid all niceties. I’ll make my own way south. The trucker scratches at his stubble.

“How much?” His beady eyes grow greedy.

“A hundred bucks.” It’s more than he deserves. He lifts his chin.

“Up front.” He stretches out his hand to the passenger side window. I take the rucksack off in a hurry and use my knee to stabilize it against the truck. I dig inside a pocket while the man perches up in his seat to watch my hands. I count the bills by memory and pull out the cash. I open the door before forking any over.

“Well, hop on in. We have us a deal.” He spits out his window, again. I place the rucksack between my knees and hand him the cash. “What’s yer name, girl?” He snarls. I buckle my seatbelt.

“That doesn’t come with the cash.” The trucker stashes the wad in his pocket as he thrusts his hips toward the steering wheel while watching me.

“You know anything ‘bout the wreck back there that had me jammed up?” He nods over his shoulder.

“Neither does that.” I drop it. Someone made the call. The trucker continues his inquisition.

“Just awonderin’ how a hitcher has that kind of dough. You rifle through some wallets?” He eyes me suspicious. I’m sick of his voice already.

“I wasn’t there. I’ve been walking for a while. Heard something behind me though.” The less I admit the better. The trucker huffs, skeptical.

“And you didn’t check up on it?” His eyes stalk over my face.

“Wrong direction.” I survey the inside of the cab. Greasy, purple velvet curtains fall behind the seats separating the sleeping quarters from my field of vision. The trucker notices.

“Ya ain’t got much to say, huh? Hell, it’s alright. If ya ain’t suckin’ me off, then der’s no reason fer yer mouth to be open anyhows.” The man takes a beer bottle from a square cooler with a red top in between the seats and twists off the cap, tossing it onto his dashboard. He takes a long swig and doesn’t offer any. I don’t ask.

“Are we going or what?” I peer out by the side mirror as the truck starts off. We can make it to Mississippi before sundown and I need to cross that state border. The wind blows through my hair, so I tie it back. He drives. We don’t speak. Country accents come over the CB. The man occasionally responds to ASS-SMASHER-101. At the Mississippi state line sign, the grimy man pulls the truck off onto the shoulder of the road and activates his hazards.

“A deal’s a deal.” A smug grin grows across his ugly face.

“Pretty literal, huh?” I sneer at him sideways with my leg still propped on the dash. He chuffs.

“I found ya on the road; yer out on the road. I need me a workin’ girl at the next stop.” He makes no bones about it. As I gather the rucksack, the man puts his hand on my arm with a strong grip. “Unless you got some more cash in der.” His lips spread across his foul teeth. I stare at him with dead eyes.

“Remove your hand.” My body stiffens. His fingernails dig into my skin and triumph fills his voice.

“Guess that answers my question. Too bad you’re a dumb slut.” The man moves fast and pulls a sawed-off shotgun with a wood pistol grip from the side of his seat closest to his door and points it in my face. I scoff.

“You’re not shooting me. That’s a mess to explain to the next girl.” He takes aim.

“Damn sure will. Don’t ya worry ‘bout that. Leave the sack and climb out.” He nods his head in the direction of the door. I peek out the corner of my eye at the gun barrel to the redneck holding it while still leaning over my rucksack.

In a flash, I knock the shotgun forward above my head toward the windshield with my forearm, twist the barrel so it won’t fire, and pull the trucker over to me by his shirt. I head-butt him and rip the shotgun out of his oily hands. I twirl it back on him.

“I’d like a refund.” I raise an eyebrow. The man smirks and his misaligned teeth show while he ignores the blood dripping from his broken nose. He spits a pool of bloody tobacco at me but misses. It drips down the dashboard.

“Go on, then, lil’ girl. Pull that trigger. It ain’t even loaded. Besides, ya ain’t got it in…” I pull the trigger; it clicks. The man’s eyes open wide and a sinister laugh escapes him. I smile right back.

“Too bad. That was the easy way.” My smile drops. The trucker growls.

“Damned bitch. Now yer gonna pay fer dat.” The trucker lunges at me as I flip the butt of the gun into the man’s chin, cracking his teeth as others sail out his mouth. I twirl the shotgun like a baton into his temple. He groans as his head begins to fall in between the seats.

Smashing the back of his head with the grip of the gun he falls face first into the middle of the cab on top of his cooler. I bash the back of his head in a frenzy. Each time I pull back more blood splatters until a heavy slurp calms me down. I fall back into the seat out of breath and throw the shotgun onto the floorboard.

I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror more annoyed than shocked by the red streaks running down my cheek and use the velvet curtains to wipe the blood off my face. I wash my hands over the man’s corpse with the leftover beer from the bottle in the cup holder.

The trucker’s body, wedged sideways between his seat, drapes over the cooler. I kick the man’s torso aside and pull out a fresh bottle of beer. I take my cash out of the trucker’s jean pocket. Out of the ashtray I snatch a lighter with the image of a naked woman on it using boobs as a gauge for the lighter fluid level.

I dig in one of the rucksack pockets and pull out a remote and a metal gizmo the size of a roll of quarters and close all the windows. I step out of the cab with the bottle of beer leaving the silver device in my seat. I knock the door shut with my hip and activate the remote.

A glow illuminates the cabin as red, slow streaks make pass after pass behind the windshield. Then, the color fades and the remote beeps. I reopen the door and fetch my gizmo. I use a travel-size bottle to spray the outside handle and platform of the truck. The engine idles.

I stash the lighter, spray bottle, gizmo, and remote into a side pocket on the rucksack and pull out a full set of new dirty clothes. I change next to the truck stuffing the bloodied clothes to the bottom of the rucksack. I take out my umbrella, open it, and limp down the highway into Mississippi. I twist the cap off the bottle in my hand and take a swig of beer.

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The Ringer (excerpt from, DYLAN)

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On a winding, snowy, dirt road two boys walk in the afternoon. Stitch Haider’s black, wavy hair pops against the pure white snow. His dark green eyes focus on the ground as his tall athletic frame casts a long shadow behind him. His twin brother, Devon, walks with him toward a cabin somewhere in the woods of Canada. The motor of a school bus churns away in the distance. Stitch keeps his hands deep within his jacket pockets and his collar turned up around his neck.

“So, it’s inherited. That means it’s ours now,” Stitch turns toward his twin brother to explain. “The land has been in the family for generations. It’s why he moved us here.” The pair walk in silence for a while until they make it around a bend in the road, which brings an aged cabin off in the distance into view.

The cabin sits shifted on its foundation with a rusty metal roof having grooved sides on top so snow glides off. Updated epoxy patches riddle the exterior, sealed with lacquer, all made by unrefined hands. Upon seeing the cabin, Devon breaks the silence.

“You know, I’m glad that bastard’s dead, but we need to take the summertime to make reinforcements and repairs. And to clean the godforsaken place.” Devon constructs a list of chores in his head. Stitch nods.

“I agree. Maybe the Batchers will let us take some of their extra sheet metal to re-tin the roof.” He surveys the cabin in the distance, small so far away. Devon squints to see it.

“The Stones could lend us their backhoe so we can dig a new outhouse. Could there be a better time to make a fresh start?” Devon smirks at his brother sideways as they both burst into laughter. As it dies out, the silence grows thick. Devon walks with his head down, too. “Did we give him a proper burial though? It’s in the family plot, but should we have left his jersey and the rings just to rot away?” Devon kicks at the snow beneath his feet. Stitch’s face crumples.

“It was proper enough. Why shouldn’t they rot with the old man? It’s all he ever cared about anyway, except for the whisky and smokes. Even Mama could remember that.” Stitch hits a nerve. Devon snaps his head toward Stitch.

“Don’t talk about Mama that way. And just because he’s gone doesn’t mean my love for the game is, too.” Devon challenges his brother remembering better times. Stitch takes one more step down memory lane.

“What about the scars? Do you want the ring he wore on his left hand because it was for you? Or, should I keep Righty, so I can match it to the indentation under my chin? Isn’t it funny we’re all ambidextrous?” Stitch pauses.

“Runs in the family,” they shout together, laughing once again. Devon pushes Stitch.

“You don’t need to be a dick. It’s over.” Devon skips into the icy air and turns, sliding onto the path ahead of his brother like he was born on skates. Walking backward in sync with Stitch, the twins move like two sides of the same mirror against a cloudy background. Stitch probes Devon’s eyes.

“We still need to be smart about this. If anyone finds out he’s dead before we turn eighteen, they’ll separate us, and we might end up in a worse situation.” Stitch propels his brother backward. Devon glares at him cross and glides on the hardened ground.

“Really? Worse? Different, okay. But worse? Who are you kidding?” Relief washes over Devon. “Ah, he’s gone. Just like that. Poof. Freedom. Fuck you, Jim Beam,” Devon flicks off the sky, “and thank you kindly, Cirrhosis,” then takes a dramatic bow. Stitch watches his antics with stoicism.

The forest jets from the ground towards the sky surrounding the unkept road as far as the eye can see. Evergreens seem like a mirage of paradise cast upon a snowy ocean. Devon continues.

“Besides, how is anyone supposed to find out? The Stones are twenty-two miles east, the Batchers thirty west and town twenty south.” Devon hop steps backward to regain his brother’s gait. Stitch rolls his eyes before he speaks.

“He told Dr. Bartholomew to shove it two years ago; Doc was the last one to come around by then.” Stitch thumbs at the bottom of his chin. Devon stumbles over a rock but regains his composure.

“What about money? Did he stash his somewhere? The bastard was loaded, yet never bought a damn thing. God, how are we ever getting the stench of cigarettes out of the cabin?” Devon’s mind races. Stitch searches for the simplest solution.

“We’ll just throw out that rickety recliner.” Devon has a better idea.

“Let’s burn it and cook moose meat over it. It’ll be smoked, smoked moose.” Devon impresses himself with his wit and wears a goofy grin. His dark green eyes sparkle against the grey day. Stitch is back to more practical concerns.

“As for money, we’ll make it the same way as always – odd jobs or stripping timber and selling or trading it. It’s not as if the bastard ever went to the store or gave us anything. We picked up his liquor and stogies because everyone in town knows he’s a miserable shut-in.”

Stitch pauses his train of thought and snaps his fingers. “That reminds me. We need to keep doing that or people will get suspicious and pay more attention.” He points to Devon. “Don’t you dare drink a drop. We’ll use the bottles for target practice. Besides, we hunt almost everything we eat, except the chickens and your stupid garden. We don’t need much money.” Stitch shrugs. Devon pokes Stitch in the chest.

“Hey…don’t make fun of my garden. You like carrots and potatoes as much as I do. It’s not like you help me in the root cellar anyway. Besides, we always have left-over eggs to take to the feed store to sell. And we can sell the cigarettes at school for a profit.” Devon’s resourcefulness impresses his brother.

“True.” Stich believes they can manage this. Devon tries out another idea.

“What if we tell them all in town we’re home-schooling now? Mrs. Birch is always complaining about the bus ride.” Devon concocts the story in his mind. Now, Stitch isn’t so impressed.

“Don’t be a fool,” he scolds. “The school would require a signature for that. Mama’s been gone for years. Everyone knows that. And, exactly, who would believe that pile of shit would teach us anything but hockey? Why would you want to invite anyone to check in on us?” Stitch has always been more practical than his flighty brother. Devon’s face grows stern.

“Don’t talk about Mama. It wasn’t her fault and you know it.” Devon stops and stands proud against the drooping branches heavy with snow. Stitch walks around him without missing a beat.

“Yeah, well, when they took her, they didn’t want anything to do with his sons. They left us here knowing he wouldn’t stop. The first time we ever met them, and they took her and left us behind. Is that family?” Stitch wears his anger like a badge. Devon turns back around to walk on the other side of Stitch than he started.

“We’re the only family we’ll ever need, bro. Even Mama doesn’t understand it.” He throws an arm around Stitch. Stitch shoulders it off.

“That’s because he beat her until she was so brain damaged, her parents had to come and take her away from us.” Stitch fumes as his sweat steams against the frigid day. Now, Devon offers practicality.

“They took her because we were the same age as she was inside. We would have been taking care of her then. How could we do that? We were twelve.” Devon stresses his deep voice. It doesn’t satisfy Stitch.

“We always had. Once we were strong enough, he stopped picking on her.” Stitch’s jaw clinches shut. Devon’s compassion seeps through his voice.

“I’d rather it us than Mama. We received a letter from her last week with a new drawing. At least they let her write us.” Devon’s encouraging, though it doesn’t uplift Stitch’s spirit any. He sneers, instead.

“It’s not like they let her put a return address on the letters.” Stitch mentions, heartbroken. Devon has a faraway gaze in his eyes.

“At least she’s warm in Brazil. I’m sick of chopping firewood. One day, I’m leaving all this behind to play hockey in the big leagues and I’ll own a house with a fireplace that has a remote control. The forest can take back this piece of shit cabin for all I care.” Devon waves his hands at the cabin in a dismissive manner. Upon the first creaky step up to the cabin, Stitch stops and faces his whimsical brother.

“The big leagues, huh? What? You want to be like him someday?” Stitch crosses his arms. Devon punches him.

“We’ll never be like him,” Devon protests. Stitch stares him down.

“You literally just hit me, dumbass.” Stitch rolls his eyes. Devon examines his hands, flips them palms up, and shrugs off the comment.

“Shit. Habit. So what. Don’t be so touchy.” Devon laughs. Stitch sighs in frustration.

“So, if you want to play pro hockey keep it on the ice. I’m sick of it at home. You said freedom. Let’s start with that.” Stitch turns for the door and Devon grabs his arm.

“You’re not going to quit playing hockey, are you?” Devon’s eyes lock onto Stitch watching every muscle in his face. Stitch shakes his head.

“Hell, no. When we’re on the ice, we’re on the ice, but when we’re not, just, no more hitting. I don’t want to be like him. That’s why I don’t care about those stupid rings or jersey. If you want them go get them. It’s only been a week.” Stitch points in the direction of the burial site.

“Not without you.” Devon releases Stitch’s arm. Stitch reaches for the door.

“You’ll be waiting a long time.” Stitch turns around and kicks a few gravel rocks off the frosted porch. Devon appears sheepish all the sudden.

“Let’s do it in eight years,” Devon blurts out. Stitch shoots him a sharp scowl.

“Why of all numbers would you pick eight?” Stitch hates that number. Devon leans against the railing, which whines as though it may falter under his weight.

“It could be our lucky number.” Devon shrugs.

“Why?” Stitch tosses his hands in the air perplexed. Devon regains his confidence.

“It’s for infinity. All or nothing. That’s what we’re in it for.” Devon’s voice exudes pride. Stitch opens the unlocked door and walks inside the dark cabin, which is the same temperature as the air outside. The only light breaking through comes from two small windows and misaligned cracks in the log walls.

“All or nothing, huh? We’ve seen how that works out.” Stitch dismisses him. The boys haven’t always lived this life. Still in the brightness of the porch, Devon snatches at the opportunity, more optimistic than his brother.

“Okay, then. Eight it is. We can both change our numbers to eight, too. It’s not like we’re going to play on the same team much longer. When I go in the draft, that’s when I’ll change mine. You change yours when you head off to college, Brainiac. After eight years, we’ll return to his grave together and decide then if those rings mean a damn thing to us or not. Besides, I plan to earn my own ring before then. How do you think the old man would like that looking up from hell?” They both chuckle.

“Nice zinger. You better do it,” Stitch encourages. Devon makes a bargain.

“I will if you will.” Devon insists they always work as a team. Stitch sizes him up.

“Promise?” Stitch tilts his head to the side. Devon stands in the doorway facing his brother inside converting day into night with his body. He puts one hand in the air and the other over his heart.

“On my father’s grave.”

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Horror Cliche (creative nonfiction)

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He must have seen me in the crowd after the hockey game, but by being fixated on the players that were making their exits and signing autographs for kids, I hadn’t noticed him. Distracted, I missed anyone taking a special interest in me. Being alone, I certainly didn’t do anything to draw attention to myself. Completely amused by a group of grown men geeking out like teenaged girls, giggling and bouncing around while taking turns getting their pictures taken with the visiting team captain, I wasn’t on guard.

I left the arena late. I was that lone woman walking toward her car in an empty parking garage that sent a chill up my spine. Looking over my shoulder, my steps echoed against the concrete. Nothing was there, except the fluorescent lights overhead. Only a few steps to the sanctuary of my car, parked near the elevators, I quicken my pace. But, if horror flicks have proven anything over the years, it’s that the inside of a car provides only the illusion of safety. Once inside, just to quiet my inner paranoia, I glanced into the backseat. All clear. My relief brought with it a sigh and, then, a nervous giggle. Since when was I so high strung? I chalked it up to my imagination. That was a classic bad horror movie mistake. So, I started the car and drove up the spiral center ramp of the arena garage and washed it all out of my mind in seconds. Another misstep.

Ten seconds later, two levels up, and just inside my peripheral vision, I saw the figure of a guy coming toward me. White t-shirt. Red shorts. I had plenty of time to make it by him. The fact that he was out there registered, but I didn’t really focus on it. But, then he sped up. He practically jumped out in front of my car. I slammed on my brakes. He threw his hands onto the hood and the crash sent a jolt straight to the core of my bones. Our eyes met. I knew I hadn’t hit him, but just barely. The look on his face was blank, but I got the feeling he wanted to talk.

He looked like he recognized me. He looked down at me and started to make his way from the front of my car to the driver’s side window, holding my gaze.  With his motive unknown, in the few precious moments I had left before he reached my door, my mind went into fight or flight overdrive. But, something different about this encounter stood out. I wanted to roll down the window and ask him if he was alright. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But what about the bad horror movies?

Now, face-to-face with possibly a deranged, kamikaze stranger in a deserted parking garage, I felt trapped.

I held his gaze, watching for the second his body stepped past the hood of my car. The moment he did, I gunned the throttle. The car whisked by him and up the next concrete ramp. I clipped his wrist with my driver’s side mirror. As I reached the top of the ramp, I glanced into my rear-view mirror expecting him to be gone because everything about this was creepy. To my surprise, he was standing at the bottom of the ramp with his hands thrown up into the air. I stopped, again. I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Yet, I couldn’t risk an open confrontation and drove off. I wasn’t about to die in some sort of awful parking garage horror flick cliché. Perhaps, I overreacted. If it hadn’t been his intention to frighten me, he realized a moment too late. It all went wrong. I escaped and no one followed me out of the garage.

I can’t remember the face of the man who jumped out in front of me that night. But, driving home, I thought that, perhaps, the man was actually a stranded fan. Chances are his car battery just needed a jump. Under the examination of that possibility, I suddenly felt ridiculous for my hysterical reaction.

But, then, again, maybe that was the set-up. Cliché horror movie murder averted.

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Herbie (flash fiction)

wolf-spider-1509051_1920The wolf spider, perhaps better known as the barn spider, terrorized my youth. Growing up my father insisted that these disguising tarantula-like, hairy beasts were a household contributor. They ate bugs that didn’t die despite the pest man’s best efforts. My father always kept one inside and named it Herbie. I don’t know if he actually went to the barn to collect Herbie, but I find that hard to believe since the barn had been long overgrown with weeds and ivy since the divorce. I think, more likely, that the spider just popped up one day and he felt the need to give it meaning. However, he did corral it into his room for safe-keeping.

I found out about Herbie shortly after I killed him with a broom in the living room. My father was distraught. This is when my father shared his knowledge of wolf spiders being bug filters, regardless of their tendency to jump. I quivered at the thought of one catapulting itself onto my forehead as we squared-off, it deceptively still, me with broom in hand, deceptively still. I told my father to keep Herbie in his room. The consequences of noncompliance being certain death at the blue handled broom we kept in the pantry. Mother would have never allowed this…Herbie, not the broom.

With each death, my father’s face went red as he shared his disgust…with the killing, not with Herbie. But no matter how many of the endless killings occurred, my father kept his conviction of Herbie’s necessity. There were eight Herbies before my father did give up his collection thanks to me. He gave up on the marriage, the barn, my murderous path, and finally, Herbie itself.

Long after I’d moved away I encountered yet another wolf spider. I did not name it Herbie. I did not keep it in my room. I killed it. In my victory came resolution. I let go far easier than my father.

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Night March (fiction)

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I don’t know who started the nightly march, but the idea seemed to be working. We all walked back because there wasn’t enough room for adults. We remained in our huts, taking our chances, after escorting the children to town. If the children didn’t go, the rebels had more reason to attack the village at night. Then, they’d steal the little ones in the darkness to man the rebel army. Too young and traumatized to know to run, they were led away compliant. Why didn’t they scream, the little ones? They’d start to cry, but get beaten for it. Instead of crying more, their tears dried up.

We marched the children every night for hours to a town that had a building with a gate that locked. They had lights, too. The wrought iron didn’t seem like much of a deterrent to me. Weren’t they just gathering all the little ones into a farm ripe for the picking? It was hard, the march back, leaving the little ones behind. In the black jungle with the mothers, no one talked.

The rebels had machetes and guns. We had them, too. I also had my M4 with an adjustable butt-stock to accommodate my short arms. So, we marched.

I didn’t speak whatever language I heard them use, but they didn’t speak our language either. I know the look of tired terror and grief on any face. We understood all the same. A woman with no French pointed to the man, angry that he was with us. She had no trust for him. I motioned a little circle around us with my hand, pointed to him and, then, my heart. I pointed at him, again, hit my gun and, then pointed into the forest. She understood, but kept beside me, never fully assured. No one spoke English, except for the Aussie man.

I knew it was about more than just the children. A mother would come, with the children she still possessed, to the camp when the husband abandoned her for shaming him. The gang rapes weren’t enough to conquer these women. Broken they came, but not conquered. They must be the strongest women on the planet.

The scars were the worst. They were torn inside and out. I wasn’t the doctor, but stood guard as she examined them. She spoke French, too. New women arrived daily. Rebels used sticks on them, others penetrated them, and, still, others liked to use the barrel of their handguns. Sometimes they fired. Even some of those women lived. You’d tell me it wasn’t possible and to come home, but I stayed.

Once during the day after the return march, the children played with a soccer ball a little low on air. I had to go behind the hut and out into the bush to vomit. The sight was unbearable and the truth that they’d be alone without us, like they’d been in their villages when the rebels came for them, was a heavy burden. Sometimes, I just couldn’t keep the food down. I rested on my knees next to the putrid puddle and cried, trying not to wail for them, for all the inhumanity because no one greater came. They had no resources to encourage international armies to land on foreign soil, nothing to plunder for themselves. The civil war raged for years before I got there. I usually get paid for jobs, but this was pro bono. I’d collect myself and return to camp or not. That’s when the Aussie stood guard.

I’d take my days to the jungle. I waded through the lush vastness crouched down waiting for a shot. The homemade silencer worked well enough after the manufacturer one broke. They were always close-by, sitting, waiting for the March to begin. They’d try to break it up and run-off with the little ones that they could grab. You remember the woods, the draws, the spurs, the hills, your knuckles. In these parts, the birds stopped chirping. They’d be close then. It wasn’t me. The birds knew me.

In the neck. That’s the spot. Painful, silencing, and efficient enough. They always stood then, gasping. The others’ heads popped up. Easy enough. One, two, three, four, like whack- a-mole. You remember that, surely. I’d empty the magazine every time. They’d retreat, but they wouldn’t know which way to go. I had spares. You remember when they taught us that: attention to detail, back-ups for the back-up. But I’d be solo there on the daily hunt. The Aussie’s excursions alternated with my own. He remembered. But I always found them first. I could smell them; it was in their blood, their crimes. It was a stench different from my own. That’s when I bathed with water, so they couldn’t smell me. I’d stay downwind that week. Remember that?

I was more effective than the Aussie.

“Watch for the broken sticks or flattened leaves,” I’d tell him.

“From their inexperience in the arts,” he knew.

“Makes for easy pickings, but they spread out’,” in case he didn’t know.

“All lookouts,” he’d say.

They watched.

One at a time. That’s how it was. The deeper I’d go, the closer I’d get to the commander of that band. He’d never return. My scope still worked fine. I’d save him for last. Remember, no prisoners. No mercy, they taught me that. I boiled from the inside out. The sun was no match for me. Land nav. I was the best back then. Couldn’t run worth a damn, but I never got left behind, never got us lost. But, I didn’t need to run. I didn’t perch, either. Too obvious. They aren’t’ deer and their meat is worthless. There wasn’t any deer anyway, just chimps and birds. They perched and I protected them, too, making the rebels starve. I’d leave them to rot. Theirs would come to gather them when the stench found them. That way I’d find them, too. Too easy, but slow. They had only numbers on us, few skilled. They’d been the little ones once, but lost and assimilated now. Rebels, every one.

No blood on my hands. I’d return with some rabbits for stew. Everyone was excited. The ladies smiled and the children more. I don’t know how. Dinner was by the fire. They’d dance, those that could. The others clapped. I’d sit and clap, too, before the march. My knees were fine. Finer was the hunt.

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Homesick: A Geographical Whirlwind (fiction)

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I’m happy to be back. After a two-year return to my birth state some of the things I disliked most are now the most comforting, familiar. I don’t even mind the thickness of the humidity in the air. This place is teaming with life, from the neighborhood cats to the wasp that occasionally gets trapped on the screen porch. I don’t even mind the bugs so much. There is a plethora. Except for the cockroaches. I never missed those.

I made it to D.C. where to my great disappointment it was just as humid as Florida. I still knew no relief. I hadn’t traveled anywhere else. D.C. was more conservative than I imagined in my liberal leaning mind, though there was that one time when they put up fences all around town for the G-8 summit. This was before the permanent barricades installed after 9/11. I felt naked in a tank top. The attire of the vast majority were full suits, ladies too. I only went to one so-called protest where people sat on the lawn of the National Mall smoking pot. The first time anyone asked me if I had been to the mall, I thought it an odd question because who has never been to a shopping mall? But that’s what the locals call it, The Mall. Just like locals call it the National Airport, not Reagan. It has several metro stops. The first time I rode in a metro I stuck my hand in the doors as they were closing, thinking they operated like the elevators I’ve always known. But the doors did not open back up, trapping my arm. Passengers pried the doors back open so I could jump on before the underground bullet took off. It frightened me, then, but I eventually found myself nodding off on long metro rides soothed by the sway of the cars. I walk too slow for this city.

From my stay in the Arizona desert, the still, yet crisp air gave me sweet relief from the humidity of my life and silken hair-days. Tumbleweeds, thick with thorns, collect against fencing barren of any spectacular pop of color. Bestowed upon me is an appreciation for the floral hues of Florida. I didn’t even know tumbleweeds really existed. I thought they were simply made up for movies. My whole life I lived under this misconception. I don’t know why. No one ever told me they didn’t exist. And grass! How green the Florida grass grows and how fast. I never felt the true meaning of the word “lush” until I returned home after seeing some of the world.

Arizona is where hands dry out and skin painfully cracks. I have never used so much moisturizer. The static electricity is unavoidable in winter. I was always shocking my poor, sweet kitty cats. And they sometimes shocked back, all accidental by everything involved, except the static. I enjoyed the convenience and security of carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

The occasional snow in the southwest is made more confusing because the standard road procedure to lay down small pebbles for traction, not salt to melt the snow away, causing pebbles to spit up from the road. I had to get my whole windshield replaced each year I was there. Where Nor’easters are common they have the practical sense to use salt. That’s on the other side of the country.

The ticks up north are unbearable in their numbers. Entire neighborhoods are being hazed in masses with the most poisonous insecticides, yet it cannot keep them in check. Misquotes, while always troublesome and annoying, are easily deterred by screening.

In the northwest, it just isn’t available. They just don’t do it. They have bugs, too, though the high altitudes and cooler temperatures keep the population limited. I just can’t believe everyone doesn’t see the benefit of screening. In Florida, it can’t be lived without.

I never thought I’d hear myself say that I’m happy to be back. No state tax. It was all I could do to get out of here at the age of twenty-four. It took much longer than expected.

The Midwest is pleasant in the springtime. I visited once before spending five months in Missouri, which many affectionately call Misery. Humid still, but worse with the mixture of unrelenting heat without a sea breeze in summertime. The sweat pooled in the heels of my boots.

Chicago, oh, Chicago! I stayed at The Drake, like Princess Diana, though I’m sure in a different suite. I was working as a cocktail waitress in a dive bar next to a pizza place in a strip mall when the news of her violent death came over every station on the TV sets. But that wasn’t in Chicago. The Drake was and the Blackhawks define Chicago, now a dynasty close to royalty. The Europeans have their royals, South and Latin Americans and many in the far East have their dictators or religious heads of states. In the U.S. we have athletes worshipped just the same, if not more.

I missed Little China in a brush with New York, but not in Portland. The statuesque entrance was less colorful than the Little China in D.C.

Then off abroad to Germany. It’s cleanliness admirable. Every view was of the picturesque Bavarian southern country-side with fields of flowers in bloom to be used in the production of diesel fuels. It’s the Alabama of Germany. The odors from the sugar beet factory offset the pleasantry, and, then, even further, by the abrupt smell of manure in the planting season. The spargel really is worth it.

The Netherlands, land of tulips and channels, with outdoor cafes in the center of town and a striking width for bicycle lanes, is only improved upon by the ease of public transportation, even if pick-pocketing is a nuisance for foreign travelers. The shots at the bar of the brilliant turquoise “Liquid Cocaine” (in translation) almost overtakes the hash and mushroom experience. But the Van Gogh Museum is not to be missed. A canned jigsaw puzzle of a famous work, though I cannot now recall which, still waits to be pieced together. It holds a place of honor on my bookshelf as a memento from the trip. I am inspired to re-visit the Salvador Dali Museum in nearby St. Petersburg. That’s St. Petersburg in Florida, not Russia.

On the bookshelf, too, sits the piggy bank resembling an Alice-In-Wonderland-like bunny bought in a thrift store. It contains various versions and forms of European currency – the euro, the kuna – oops, I forgot about the Canadian penny (that is generally accepted by most stores in the United States). I wonder if this is more a reflection of the common physical characteristics of our pennies than on the value placed upon the economic stability of our northern neighbors.

The kuna hails from Croatia whose coastline is made of colossal granite mountain ranges and canyons with cliffs that drop right off into the Adriatic Sea. The Grand Canyon is less impressive.

Slovenia is small and poor.

The architecture of Vienna will take your breath away at every turn. The shopping District is like no other. Its magnitude like no other. My addiction to Swarovski starts here, though fine crystal is also made elsewhere, but this is the crème-de-la-crème. Their jewelry dazzles and sparkles.

I skipped France because I wasn’t with a man I loved, which I believe is necessary when visiting Paris for the first time.

On the Charles Bridge in the Czech Republic, Prague is like Vienna, but dirtier, sexier. It has an astronomical clock tower in the center of the town square. I have my portrait done by a chalk artist. It all feels so Bohemian in the moment. His rendition is not of my liking, but I pay for it anyway. Do I really look like that? Now, I’m someone with a portrait of myself. How pretentious of me, but it, too, is a cherished souvenir. This one stays turned around facing the wall in the back of my closet.

Over the year since I’ve been back I’ve lounged on the deserted, sandy beaches of the Space Coast with the Atlantic Ocean crashing at my feet. This is my favorite spot. One day, I’ll return as I ended up in Key West this time around. Four square miles is too small for such a great number to live and visit. I never partied on Duval Street as I don’t drink and once spent New Year’s Even down there when I was a teenager. I don’t expect it could get any better. I miss the saltwater taffy, but now trade relations could open up with Cuba a mere 90 miles offshore.

San Diego brings temperate weather and personalities. A coastal cousin, in the least, full of Navy ships.

Now I’m at the University of Tampa campus, a pristine oasis with prime channel-side real estate. Silver, spun minarets reflect the shining sun. I now feel the word “nestled” when thinking about the buzzing city of Tampa one block over. I hope to be well-written one day and that my works can be used as examples for Spartans to come. The Spartans in Tampa, not in Greece.

I haven’t made it by there yet, but fancy the cuisine.

Home again, domestic. I had to move away to appreciate it. Now I’m back, but not for good.  Anywhere I go in the world I can look back and Florida is home. I wish I had a stone globe in my study, containing a hollowed-out space for a spirits compartment. Haphazardly, I’d slowly spin the cold stone and just wonder where this story of mine is going to end up next. I wonder about the screen porches, humidity, the exchange rate, the bug population, the cultural heritage, is it landlocked? I wonder.

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