Child’s Play (fiction)

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The day Mrs. Yarborough arrived a child came with her. They were to live in the guest house on a grand estate. She certainly wasn’t going to leave her daughter with distant relatives while she tutored another man’s prodigy, Lilly. This was the day that Lilly met Aisha; and, so a bond was born. So strong was this bond that time, space, money, age, or indiscretion couldn’t touch it, much less tarnish it.

Aisha was French-creole, originally growing up in Louisiana, except during her stay with Lilly. Immediately, Lilly and Aisha shadowed one another. One could not be found without the other sternly in tow. If someone was up to no good, everybody knew they were both in on it. If caught, they were equally punished. They both devised schemes, but Lilly was usually the planner while Aisha the executioner. Lilly spent lots of time on look-out so their plans could unfold. They were in a constant war with the boys that played street hockey in Lilly’s neighborhood. Their favorite activity was to prank those wretched creatures.

The day the war started the boys, who were only a few years older than the girls, were playing street hockey during the summer. Otherwise, during the rest of the year, the boys were preoccupied playing ice hockey for their school. But the boys would not let Lilly or Aisha play with them in the summer, even though they both had inline skates, sticks, and protective gear. The boys said the girls were too young and too little. The boys laughed at them and their protective gear. Then, the boys started setting up their goal net in the street in front of Lilly’s gated driveway. The boys wanted to rub it in and it worked. Never had two girls so hastily agreed upon revenge than on that day. If the girls couldn’t play street hockey with the boys, then the girls would make sure the boys couldn’t play, either. And, so the summer war was on.

“We should tell your uncle and get him to make them move that goal,” Aisha adamantly proclaimed.

“No. That would take all the fun out of it. Let’s see how much we can get away with first,” Lilly suggested.

After a momentary pause to go over it in her head, Aisha replied, “I like the way you think!  Okay, I’m in.”

They pinky swore on it and the summer’s fate was sealed. That day sent a rush through Lilly that she’d never felt before: the warm companionship of a best friend.

Lilly was great with numbers and devised a point scale based upon successfully executing missions without getting caught red-handed. The girls decided to prank each boy, but make him think his buddies did it. How much trouble they could get the boys into once the prank was pulled counted for bonus points.

However, if the boys managed to gain substantial satisfaction by pulling any jokes of their own, the girls lost their points for the week. The boys would learn what was in store for them soon enough. The girls hoped that by being hockey players, the boys might catch on to the point system, but never did. Stupid boys.

The girls’ command center consisted of Lilly’s tree fortress, as they called it. It was wired with electricity and plumbing and was more like a condo built around a majestic tree than any kind of home-spun tree fort of old wood. Instead of a rope ladder, it had a spiral staircase that wrapped around the tree leading to a back porch. Bean bags riddled the interior floor. Video games and big screen TVs centered the main living area. Lilly, also, had a separate room she referred to as the “laboratory” where she worked on special projects for her advanced electronics and computing tutor, Mrs. Yarborough. Lilly even had an art room with a window as a wall overlooking a lake to inspire her creativity. She had a baby grand piano in there, too, which she played beautifully. Yet, the girls renamed this the “war room” and they drew up schematics of the neighborhood on top of the baby grand while planning their raids on the boys.

The girls were serious about reconnaissance and would watch the boys in the street by duplicating and, then, rerouting the estate’s security feeds to Lilly’s tree fortress.  They also used sonic laser targeting, one of Lilly’s “special projects”, to get audio from outside the gates. They watched and listened to what was happening during the street hockey games on the living room screens. They knew what the boys argued about and what made them celebrate. They even knew which boy would get mad if anyone talked smack about his momma. But Aisha believed in first-hand intelligence, too.

Six boys comprised this “boys only” hockey team. Drew was a defenseman and their Captain. Nick rounded out the defensive pair. The triplets, Ron, Tom, and Jon, made up their offensive line. Andy was the goalkeeper. The “penalty box” was Lilly’s driveway: the boys’ choice, but a perfect one for the girls’ efforts. Stupid boys.

Aisha showed Lilly how a master of manipulation went to work. She wanted the boys to think they were safe outside the confines of Lilly’s gate. Aisha would strike up conversations with her little head pressed against the bars proclaiming that she was bored while Lilly studied. The boys tried to ignore her, but Aisha was the kind of girl that could make you feel like spilling your guts. They fell for it every time.

Aisha wanted to unearth what the boys would never talk about during a game. She managed to get most of their dirty laundry – their fears, the names of the girls they liked at school, their favorite foods, their birthdays – pretty much anything Aisha wanted to know. All one boy had to do to reveal another’s secret was to take a bad hit or penalty. Then, they sat in the penalty box steaming mad, chirping away in Aisha’s ear. She discovered that Drew’s parents were going out of town, which, finally, set the pranks in motion.

Drew’s parents traveled from time to time and left him without a sitter since they considered him old enough to be responsible at fourteen. It was Drew himself that told Aisha about the party but was quick to point out that only girly girls were invited, which did not include her or Lilly.

On the night of the party, the girls “borrowed” Mrs. Yarborough’s satellite phone. Instead of calling the real cops, they called Drew’s parents pretending to be the cops. They wore voice modifiers that Lily built to make them sound like adult men. The “officers” gave Drew’s parents the opportunity to keep them from going over to the house if they could have a neighbor handle the situation.

Drew’s parents called Nick’s parents, who caught the entire team of boys with liquor, weed, and girls. They were all grounded for a week. Lilly and Aisha were free from the boys outside of the gate for seven whole days. When the boys were finally allowed to play street hockey again, the girls rode their bikes down to the end of the driveway. With a toot of their banana seat bike horns, police sirens played and the girls giggled. The boys didn’t get it. Stupid boys.

It didn’t take long for the hockey boys of a small town with large mansions to get a reputation for being the bad boys on the block. The boys loved it, which kind of back-fired on the girls. So, they lost their points for the week and set out to make things right again in the universe.

Next on the girls’ hit list were the triplets. They were the oldest of the bunch, turning fifteen at the end of the week. They couldn’t wait to get their learners permits so they could learn to drive. The day of the written test came and all three boys passed with flying colors. Their father agreed to take them all for a spin the next day.

Knowing this, the girls prepared. Aisha watched internet videos on how to build a homemade “Slim Jim” and, then, did it. She practiced using it on some older model cars owned by the mansion staff, but always locked the cars back up before scampering off. Lilly designed and built a device that gave off a small-ranged electromagnetic pulse (EMP). This device would temporarily disable all electronic devices within its range. All Lilly needed was one that would disable cameras and alarms for five minutes at a time. It was a lot to do within a week, but the girls were ready when the time came. They waited until the night after Ron, Tom, and Jon passed their tests and, then, at the witching hour, the girls slipped out of Lilly’s compound estate to go to work. Lilly’s EMP device worked well enough to disable the estate’s security feed, so they could slip out. The girls followed the tree line, up the hill, toward the triplet’s house.

The EMP device also worked on the security system for their estate grounds and the used Volvo the boys were going to take for that spin. Aisha was quick with the Jimmy. They were in. Out of Aisha’s knapsack came the biggest bag of glitter the girls could get at the town craft store. They dumped all of it into the air conditioner intake vents. They worked quickly and were back home in time to get in a good night’s rest.

In the morning, the girls heard fighting at the end of Lilly’s driveway. There were the boys, the triplets covered head-to-toe in glitter fist fighting the other three glitter-free boys. By the time the girls managed to ride their bikes to the end of the driveway, all six boys had enough glitter on them to be mistaken for a woodland fairy. The boys stopped fighting just long enough for the girls to roll up to the gate and each toss a handful of glitter into the air with giggles. The boys stood there dumbfounded. Points earned.

This time, there was no doubt about it; the boys finally knew that war had been waged.

That night, the boys tin foiled Lilly’s entire gate, for what they thought would keep them hidden from the girls’ prying eyes. But, the girls just watched them on TV, instead. Stupid boys. That day, the stubborn boys didn’t take the tin foil down even though it was reflecting the heat of the sun right into their faces. Their bodies dripped with sweat and their eyes squinted. The remaining glitter from the day before still sparkled on their uniforms.

Finally, the girls quietly made their way down Lilly’s driveway. Their arms went crashing through the tin foil like caged zombies, grabbing at the boys as they sat outside the gate drinking water. The goalie nearly choked. The girls ripped down the rest of the foil and made silver snowballs to throw at the boys, which they immediately swatted back at the girls with the end of their hockey sticks. The silver foil, snowball fight went on for a while, until the girls announced a truce at sunset. Particularly suspicious, the boys waited for the trick.

“Hey, Drew,” Aisha started, “You know, I think you’re kind of cute.”

“Me, too,” added Lilly in an innocent voice, “in that Tomato Head kind of way.”

“It’s Potato Head, silly,” Aisha corrected with a smirk.

“Tomato, Potato,” Lilly responded. “Whichever.” Lilly and Aisha slid mirrors and moisturizer in between the gate grates, turned around and whistled while they held hands and skipped back to the tree fortress.

Drew picked up one of the mirrors. In the dimming light, he could finally see the purplish sunburn starting to blister around his lips. He looked at the other boys. Their own tin foil master plan had done them in. Another week went by without any street hockey and the girls kept their points.

The girls knew they had to step up their attacks now that the boys were in on the war. Lilly used her lab computer to hack into the boys’ cell phones. Not only were their voice calls and text messages cracked, but so were their pictures and music files. Lilly sent a picture of Nick flexing naked into his mirror to Andy’s mom with a “bow-chicka-wow-wow” song in the background. Then, Lilly sent a duplicate message to every boy on the team. After that, Andy wasn’t allowed to play outside with the team anymore, and Nick couldn’t be coaxed out of his room. The team was two down, one of which was the goalie, Andy. Drew was forced to step in as the only defender against the triplets for their games. Yet, again, the girls rolled up on their bicycles and began showing each other their phones and laughing hysterically. The boys called it a day and didn’t finish their game. Points earned.

The four remaining boys, led by Drew, tried fast to retaliate. They hatched a plan to fill water balloons with rubber cement to chuck at the girls if they came anywhere near the driveway gate the next day. The boys didn’t consider that the girls were still tapped into their phones. In their defense, not one of them knew that Lilly and Aisha, together, may have been evil geniuses. Still, stupid boys.

Territorial, to say the least, Lilly was quick in the lab mixing chemicals and plant mash into a funnel as Aisha held out their balloons while wearing rubber gloves and goggles. They were ready for the boys’ ambush.

As bright as any other summer day, the boys stopped playing street hockey as soon as they saw the girls coming. The girls, however, wore hooded raincoats with slickers and had a stack of water balloons of their own in their bicycle baskets. They stopped their bikes well away from the gate.

The boys did not retreat, but instead, continued with their rubber cement strategy. They threw their cement-filled balloons high into the air, over the gate at the girls, but none had an arm good enough to reach them.

The girls used slingshots to skyrocket their balloons at the boys. The balloons exploded on the street and splashed upwards, others rained down right on their targets, although Aisha was a better shot than Lilly. The girls dowsed the boys with Lilly’s green concoction. Satisfied, the girls rode back to the tree fortress.

The boys wiped themselves dry with their sports towels and resumed their game. However, within the hour Ron was the first to scratch his neck. Then, within minutes, every other boy was driven mad by itching. Lilly had used liquid poison ivy in her balloons. To this day, Aisha doesn’t know how she came up with that one. But if there was one thing Aisha really loved about Lilly, it was her ability to improvise.

While the boys’ parents were in a frenzy to find calamine lotion anywhere they could, Lilly explained to Aisha that she sometimes she walked around the property lakes and woods to pick poison ivy and poison oak. She was already doing experiments with it in her laboratory before the fight but still insisted on lecturing Aisha on the dangers of making chemical weapons. But, Aisha was hard to convince when another ten days went by with no boys and no street hockey. Points earned.

With the boys locked inside, stripped of their cell phones and dignity, the girls finally felt the freedom to venture beyond the front gate of the property. They rode their bikes to the top of the high, steep hill, pedaling hard, only to race each other down as fast as their banana seat bikes could carry them. At the bottom of the hill, the girls skidded to a stop in front of Lilly’s gate.

Lilly said, “You know, Aisha, maybe we went a little hard on the boys.”

“What? Are you crazy? This has been the best summer ever!” was her reply.

“Yeah, but it’s not like the boys really have a choice about where they can play street hockey. We live at the bottom of the hill. They can’t play at the top, in case one of their balls rolls all the way down here,” Lilly said with some practicality in her voice.

“Forget them,” Aisha protested, “All they had to do was let us play, too. They brought it all upon themselves.”

“Is that, right?” called out a voice from in the distance. “Fire!”

Aisha’s eyes focused like a hawk’s, but before she could warn Lilly about the snipers in the window, the paintballs started buzzing by their bodies. The girls fell off their bikes and landed on the hard pavement. They screamed as the fast-moving paintballs exploded against their bare skin. They were scratched and slightly bloodied with welts forming red swells all over their arms and legs.

“Hold your fire!” yelled out a single voice. Drew and Nick walked around from behind a tree. When the girls looked back in the direction the paintballs had come from, Andy and the triplets gave a little wave, and, then, refocused their sights on the girls.

“So, you think you can just run around and do whatever you want? Now, it’s about time we taught you a lesson about messing with a hockey team,” Drew threatened.

“What team? You’re dreaming! You’re just five barely pubescent boys and a fat goalie!” Lilly shouted.

“Hey, I’m gonna grow out of that,” Andy defended from his window perch.

“Alright, you asked for it,” Drew replied.

“What’s going on down here?” came the voice of sweet relief from Lilly’s Uncle. “What the hell do you boys think you’re doing to my girls?”

Nick stood by Drew in shock and could barely stammer out a response. On cue, the girls huddled and started crying. They held on tightly to one another to keep the other from turning her crocodile tears into bursts of laughter.

“Get the hell out of here and don’t let me see any of you down at the bottom of this hill, again!” Lilly’s Uncle yelled out and, then, proceeded over to the girls, who pulled themselves together.

“Young Ladies, that’ll be quite enough out of the two of you – glitter, hacking, and poison ivy balloons? I’ve had enough phone calls from these boys’ parents to last a lifetime.”

Lilly tried to break in, “But, they started it!”

“No, they didn’t. They just wouldn’t let you play a game with them. And they were right. You are too young and too little to play with them. Now, you got hurt, anyway. Are you happy, now?”

The girls looked at one another. “No, Sir,” they said.

He continued, “Now, both of you go to the study in the main house. Consider the tree fortress closed for the rest of the summer and you’re both grounded.”

“But, what are we going to do all day?” Lilly whined as Mrs. Yarborough approached. Aisha stiffened up.

Aisha’s mother told them, “Grammar – in English and French. You’ll be learning proper grammar rules for the rest of the summer. Maybe that will teach you to be proper, young ladies.”

The girls looked at each other defeated. Points no longer mattered. The summer war was over. There were, now, causalities on both sides.

Lilly’s Uncle continued, “Lilly, Aisha, you’re both too smart for this. Now, move it.”

The girls walked back to the house.

Mrs. Yarborough turned to Lilly’s Uncle when the girls were out of earshot and said, “Don’t worry, Harry. I’ll teach them – gloating only gets you caught.”

Harry looked at Mrs. Yarborough. “That’s always a tough lesson.”

She replied, “Not half as tough as grammar, though.”

They both laughed. Harry continued to chuckle as he spoke, “Well, you’ve got to admit, they make a great team.”

Mrs. Yarborough smiled and said, “They do.”

Return to JennWhittaker.com

 

 

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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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Dream Walker (creative nonfiction)

boy-447701_640As I nestled within my white, four-post bed it was just like any other night in the Florida winter. Non-natives always underestimate our winters. They don’t realize that the high humidity at forty degrees can cut through the thickest layers of clothes straight to the marrow of your bones. My mom gave me a plush, heated blanket, which I turned to the highest setting. My room was a mishmash of construction projects gone by. The carpet was a knotted, burnt orange, no doubt the original carpet from the 1970s built home. The carpet had long been replaced by another that was deep blue throughout the rest of the house, expect the bedrooms. Each, including mine, kept their rusty orange matted naps from years of wear with a well defined dividing line clearly cut out at the door jam.

Half-heartedly, my parents attempted to make my room more feminine by adding frosty pink wallpaper covered with minuscule white dots. Water damage from a brutal hurricane season warped the end wall, the largest wall of my room by far. They nailed up thin wood paneling of a sky blue and gray faux marbling on that wall alone to hide the brown, dried water stains that seemed to bleed from atop the ceiling. The clash of colors and design was epic.

I always slept with my simple white ceiling fan on. It had two speeds: off and ready-for-take-off. It kept the room as cold as a walk-in freezer. I sometimes stayed awake at night trying to see my breathe while looking up at that fan. Its rapid gyration brought with it both a soothing whoosh of white noise from the jet stream of downward air, while simultaneously creating the ever-present risk that it may come crashing down on me at full speed, as it wobbled too and fro in its hectic pace, chopping me to even smaller child-sized bits. Every night before I drifted off to sleep I wondered if that would be the night.

I clutched the stuffed monkey my grandparents gave me while my brother was in the hospital recovering from yet another surgery on his legs and hips. I was too young to understand why he always received so many presents when it wasn’t his birthday or Christmas. My monkey was a consolation prize that I held firmly by the neck every night. I snuggled under my pile of blankets and pulled them over my entire body, warm and cozy, protected from the cold on the other side, except for my nose and forehead. I had to breathe. I wrapped the comforter tight and fell into a sleep that must have been a close cousin to death.

I’ve always been a hard sleeper never stirring for fire alarms, gun shots or sonic booms. I occasionally slept in my brother’s room on his top bunk, but, somehow, always woke up the next morning on the floor feeling as rested as ever. The fall never woke me. My father finally felt the need to nail a long two-by-four to the top bunk as a makeshift railing to keep me firmly in place. Since learning to speak I’ve also chatted the night away in gibberish, more often than not. My family was rather used to the occasional stray call from my room at night regarding the elephants caught in the strawberry patch, of which I had neither.

Before this night I may have mumbled some, randomly kicked at my sheets and turned clockwise in my bed, but I always stayed in bed. However, this night, whether from the cold exterior of my room or from the sauna created under my covers by the new electric blanket, this night I got out of bed in hysteria.

I ran towards the hall leading to my parents’ room at the other end of the house, but stopped immediately short, right at the door jam. I just couldn’t make the transition from my rustic orange carpeting to the brilliant blue of the hallway that seemed to ebb and flow like an ocean before my feet. My perspective slowly narrowed so that the kitchen in the middle of the house looked like a mirage miles away from me.

“Buddy!” I shouted through my brother’s open door, which was adjacent to mine.

“Buddy!” His name is not Buddy; it’s Richard after my father, but I call him Buddy to this day, a privilege he allows only family members and our remaining childhood friends. Finally, Buddy appeared in his doorway and stopped at the door frame, which he held onto for balance. He’d learned to walk four times now. It would require another two times before his surgeries were complete.

“What?” he replied sleepy and annoyed.

“Go get Dad!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.

“What is it?” My sudden alarm brought his senses out of the night.

“Look!” I screamed pointing down at the newish blue hallway carpet.

“What?” He looked in the direction I was pointing confused.

“I can’t…” I began to say as I lifted one foot and kept it in the air, hovering at the door jam. I jerked my foot back to my side.

“What is it?” Buddy asked examining the hallway with more intent.

“Don’t you see? Go get Dad!”

“You go get Dad,” he retorted in a more probing fashion than an antagonistic one.

“I can’t!” I shouted looking down the daunting hallway in front of me as the walls collapsed and reconfigured as if at once breathing while daring me to try to make a run for it.

It was at this point that my older brother, smarter than I ever gave him credit, realized that I wasn’t fully awake, a favorite time of his. He held countless conversations with me in the night through our wall while he was in body casts up to his chest that were entirely lost to me the next day. Sometimes I wonder what he confided in me while I was sleeping.

We went back and forth as my brother tried to coax me out of my room and into the hallway. I tried sliding my feet slowly, but that didn’t work. I jumped in circles, jogging in place at the junction of that dividing line of carpeting. I tried getting a running start, but always lost my courage. He managed to get me to hang my body over the hallway carpeting like a maiden carved into the front of an ancient ship, but I couldn’t command my feet forward. He almost persuaded me to jump, except that I realized I would then be completely engulfed by blue and there was no way I was doing that.

“Nothing there,” he laughed, holding onto his door frame more from laughter than for balance.

“Nothing there, again,” he continued with each of my failed attempts to rally myself to this seemingly insurmountable task. I wasn’t stepping foot on that carpet. His laughter brought him sliding down the door frame as his body no longer had the strength or will to hold itself up any longer.

His laughter horrified me as ferociously as the hallway with its mishmash of mismatched carpet preventing me from moving my body pass the break in color continuity. Our exchanges went on in an alternating chorus of shrills and laughter until my brother collapsed to the floor holding his tummy full of giggles no longer willing to try to stand back up.

Finally, my father, surely poked awake by my mother from all the commotion, came barreling from their room toward our end of the house. Before he left the safe confines of the kitchen linoleum I held my palms out screaming, “Stop!” He did right where the linoleum met the blue carpeting. I watched his feet intently protesting loudly anytime they neared the threshold of the hallway. If my father tried to start down the hallway I would shout, “Nooooo,” so emphatically it would stop him in his tracks every time until he was marooned on that linoleum island. I felt that it was my daughterly duty to save him from taking that one, last, unseen step off a formidable cliff face into the churning blue abyss below.

“Buddy, what did you do to your sister?” my dad barked as debacles such as this were usually his fault anyway. My brother couldn’t breathe in any orderly fashion to present his defense, still writhing on the floor, face red and contorted from his attempts to stifle his laughter now directed at my father for complying with my demands in the first place.

“Look!” I began again.

“Look at what?” my father’s head and body bobbed and weaved, turning in all directions as if dodging a killer bee. This only made my brother burst out again, though he finally managed to get the words out:

“Dad! She’s still asleep!”

“What,” my father exclaimed. “Are you serious? This is not funny, young lady!”

“Yes…it…is,” was all my brother could muster in-between gasps for air.

In that moment my father realized that as sure as I was standing there, screaming at him with eyes wide open I was, in fact, asleep.

Being cut from the same cloth as my brother, the entire “conversation” began again, yet this time it included the curiosity of my father. He walked straight to us down the hallway leaving me dismayed by his escaped from the confines of the island kitchen. His bravery awed me silent. Determined to find a rational explanation for my agitation he started with logic. He asked me arithmetic questions, which I answered correctly. He asked what day it was, but that one stumped me. It was then that a mischievous smirk started across his face finally acknowledging my brother out of the corner of his eye as the master detective.

This time, as a team, my brother and father tried to convince me out of my rusty room. My father offered to carry me back and forth down the hallway to prove that I was imagining things, but my eyes and mind never met his. I was far too consumed by the pastel flower vines growing out of the wallpaper on either side of him. He sat down Indian-style next to my brother, now resting his back against the door frame. I got down on my hands and knees to examine the carpeting closer convinced they were both floating there just waiting for me to plunge head first into nonexistence. They stared at me. I stared at the magic they somehow possessed.

They would be satisfied if even a single toe touched the deep blue carpeting of the hallway; but none would be satisfied that night. I no longer had any reason to go down the hallway as my father had somehow made it safely to me. Finally, after all their efforts of reasoning and mutual enjoyment, my father sent my brother back into his room, both now laughing at their utter defeat. He simply turned to me and said, “Honey, go back to bed. And for God’s sake, turn off that blanket. You’re fried.”

And so I did.

I don’t remember the trip back to bed and it’s likely my father turned off the blanket himself, but I woke the next morning to the bright sunshine and ever-present whirl of my ceiling fan. As I walked toward the kitchen, pass my brother’s room, he jumped out at me with an, “Ah ha!” I looked at him like he’d lost his mind and kept walking without thought or consequence of carpeting, linoleum and wallpaper. He must have been waiting there all morning for that moment. His laughter after I passed could have echoed around the world.

I never slept with an electric blanket again. I can only wonder in the thirty years that have passed, living alone for most of them, how many door jams in the mishmash of life I’ve stood at, toes halted at the dividing line, in false fear or hallucination.

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The Ringer (fiction) by Jenn Whittaker

sugar-shanty-2667506_640On a long, winding, flat, snowy dirt road through the woods two boys walk in the afternoon. Andrew “Stitch” Haider, sixteen with black, wavy hair, and dark green eyes stands 5’9 and is well built for his age. His twin brother, Devon, walks with him towards a cabin somewhere in the woods of Canada. The motor of a school bus churns away in the distance.

“So, it’s inherited. That means it’s ours now,” Stitch says to his twin brother with authority.

They walk in silence for a while until they make it around a bend in the road that barely brings an aged cabin into view. It’s a clear day. The land has been in the family for generations. Off in the distance the cabin stands shifted on its foundation. It is timbered all around, but an additional metal roof with grooved sides sits on top now so the snow glides off easily. There are some modern epoxies patched around the edges with a lacquer sealer, but they were made by unrefined hands with a careless foreman.

Upon seeing the cabin Devon breaks the silence. “You know, I’m glad that bastard’s finally dead, but we need to take the summertime to make reinforcements and repairs. And to clean the godforsaken place.”

“I agree. Maybe the Batcher’s will let us take some of their extra sheet metal to re-tin the roof.”

“The Barkley’s 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, Devon continues, “Do you really think we gave him a proper burial, though? I know, it’s in the family plot and all, but should we have left his jersey and the rings like that, just to rot away?”

“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.”

“Don’t talk about Mama like that. You know, just because he’s gone doesn’t mean my love for the game is, too,” Devon challenges, remembering the tough times of pond hockey.

“What about your love of scars? Do you want the ring he wore on his left hand because that one was for you? And do you think I want Righty so I can match it to the indentation under my chin? Isn’t it funny that we’re all ambidextrous?” Stitch pauses.

“Runs in the family,” they shout together.

“You don’t have to be a dick about it. It’s over. It’s finally over,” Devon proclaims with a skip into the icy air, turning and sliding gracefully onto the path ahead of his brother. Now walking backwards in sync, the two momentarily look like a moving mirror surrounded by the whiteness of fresh fallen snow.

“Look, we still have to be smart about this. If anyone finds out that he’s dead before we turn eighteen, they’ll take us, separate us, and we might end up in an even worse situation.”

“Really? Worse? Different, okay. But worse? Who are you kidding?” Devon quickly retorts with a hop in his step. He lets out a sigh of relief. “Uh, he’s just gone. Just like that. Poof. Finally, 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 eyes can see. Evergreens seem like a mirage of paradise cast upon a white, snowy ocean.

Devon continues, “Besides, how is anyone going to find out? The Barkley’s are twenty-two miles east, the Batcher’s thirty west, and town twenty south.”

“He did tell Dr. Bartholomew to shove it two years ago; he was the last one to ever come around at that point,” Stitch adds while thumbing the bottom of his chin.

“But how are we going to get any money? Did he stash his somewhere? The bastard was loaded, but never bought a damn thing, except liquor and cigarettes. God, how are we ever going to get the stench out of that cabin?”

“We’ll just throw out that rickety recliner.”

“Oh, lets 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 as his wavy, black hair wafts in the light wind.

“As far as money goes, we’ll make it the way we always have – odd jobs or stripping timber and selling or trading it. It’s not like 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. That reminds me. We have to keep doing that or people will definitely get suspicious. But don’t you dare drink a drop. We’ll just use it for target practice. Besides, we hunt almost everything we eat, except for the chickens and your stupid garden. We don’t need that much money,” Stitch calculates.

“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 up to the feed store to sell. And we can always sell the cigarettes at school and turn a profit,” Devon contributes.

“True,” Stitch agrees.

“Hey! What if we just tell them all that we’re getting home-schooled now? You know how Mrs. Birch is always complaining about the bus ride.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Stitch scolds sharply. “The school would have to get a signature for that. Mama’s been gone for eight 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 look in on us?”

“Don’t talk about Mama. That 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 just left us here knowing that he wouldn’t stop. The first time we ever met them and they took her and left us behind. Is that family?”

Devon turns back around to walk on the other side of Stitch than he started. “We’re the only family we’ll ever need. Even Mama doesn’t understand that.”

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

“They took her when 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 eight,” Devon protests.

“We always had. Once we got big enough he stopped picking on her.” Stitch’s jaw clinches shut.

“I’d rather it us, than Mama. You know that’s not her fault. And we just got a letter from her last week with a new drawing. At least they let her write us,” Devon encourages.

“It’s probably a good thing the old bastard wouldn’t pay for the postage for us to ever write her back when we were little, not that her parents let her put a return address on the letters anyhow,” Stitch reminisces.

“But, at least she’s warm in Brazil. I’m sick of chopping firewood. One day, I’m going to leave all this behind and go play hockey in the big leagues and have a house with a fireplace that has a remote control. The forest can take back this piece of shit cabin for all I care.”

Upon the first creaky step up to the cabin, Stitch stops and looks seriously at his whimsical brother. “The big leagues, huh? What? You want to be like him someday?”

Devon punches Stitch in the arm. “We’ll never be like him.”

“You literally just hit me, dumbass.”

“Ah, shit. Habit. So what?” Devon retorts.

“So, if you want to go play pro hockey, keep it on the ice. I’m sick of it at home. You said freedom. Let’s start with that,” Stitch demands.

“You ‘re not going to quit playing hockey, are you?” Devon gasps.

“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.”

“Not without you,” Devon states plainly.

“You’ll be waiting a long time.” Stitch kicks a few gravel rocks off the frosted porch.

“How about eight years?” Devon bursts out.

“Why of all numbers would you pick eight?”

Devon leans against the railing, which whines as though it may give way under his tall, wide athletic frame. “I was thinking it could be our lucky number.”

“Why?” Stitch asks perplexed.

Devon pleads his case. “It’s for infinity. All or nothing.”

Stitch opens the unlocked door and walks inside the dark cabin, which is the same temperature as the outside air. The only light that breaks through comes from two small windows and misaligned cracks in the walls. “Sixteen years too late, if you ask me.”

Still in the brightness of the porch, Devon snatches at the opportunity. “Okay, then. Sixteen it is. I’m going to change my number to 16 and you change yours to 61. In eight years, when we’re twenty-four, we’ll go back to his grave and decide then if those rings mean a damn thing to us or not. Besides, I plan on having my own ring by that age. How do you think the old man would like that looking up from hell?” They both chuckle.

“That’s a good one. You better do it,” Stitch encourages.

“I will, if you will,” Devon insists.

“Promise?” Stitch asks.

Devon stands in the doorway facing his brother inside converting day into night with his shadow. He puts one hand in the air and another over his heart, “On my father’s grave.”

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Axle (fiction)

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The dirty, white van screeched to a halt, just missing her. She couldn’t believe her eyes. The van had been mounted sideways on new axles. Why, she thought. There must be a rational explanation, but no. Out popped a fiery blonde with tangled waves in her hair that fell to her chin, her features pointy but appealing. She got out to inspect her van.

“Here. Put this on,” she said with no introduction as she handed the enchanted girl an eye patch. It wasn’t as small as a pirate’s patch, but a large, black post-surgical patch that came to a soft point in front of her eyeball so that she could still blink behind it.

“It’s the only way to see,” the blonde continued. She was his best friend. She knew it without any words passing between them.

One of the back doors fell open flat, like a tailgate, since it sat sideways, as the blonde popped the handle. The new girl peaked inside.

“Cool,” was her awkward response.

“Not really,” said the blonde. “We can’t eat at the table.”

The girl bent down a little more to see through the door and, sure enough, a small round table was mounted to what would have been the bottom in any plain, old caravan. No, this one jetted out of the left wall. She could see through the sparse, metal interior straight to the windshield. It looked like the driver and passenger seats had been remounted in a normal position. They sat with the windshield facing out. No, the van was just twisted in the middle, the front wheels mounted on their plain, old, regular axle. It was only the back axle that had been retooled. There was no glass in the skylight that sat on the right side of the van. The glass in the windows on the top and bottom were also missing.

“Sit up front. Hurry! Let’s go!” she commanded.

The girl did as she was told, maybe to get in the blonde’s good graces, but felt instant vertigo as she did. The blonde pushed the gas pedal to the floor and before she knew it, they were swerving back and forth as the velocity held the girl in her seat. She hadn’t bothered with a seat belt. It was a van that had seen a lot of gravity.

The lot they steamed through must have been measured in acres with flat, creamy cement. Only one tree stood off to the left side, somehow immune to the cement ground. Tall grass and whippersnappers demarked the line of sanity on all four sides ending the horizons. There he was watching, holding onto the chain-link fence with his tender hands.

“He’s a pompous academic, you know,” the blonde said flatly as she continued to dodge things only she could see. The eyepatch wasn’t helping the girl at all.

“I know. I kind of like that about him,” the girl stated with no emotion.

He hadn’t been so pompous when she laid almost naked on the four-post bed with a cushy down mattress. She wore nothing but his open robe. Another girl laid there, too, but she had her clothes. How funny, thought the girl.

“Why would you be here? Are you his girlfriend?” she said to the other woman.

The other woman began to explain, but the words coming out of her mouthed turned inside out, going back into her throat. So much so that her words became softer and softer until she was mute. Our enchanted girl felt like an intruder and got up, putting her clothes on, again. Then, he walked through the door to stop her.

Their ages matched perfectly, but his black hair was already riddled with salt. He shook it out and took the girl into his tight, muscular arms and wrapped them around her waist. They stood nose to nose because his grasp had brought her body up against his, making her feel taller. The other girl on the bed was plump and upset. Her black, moldy face crunched up and he shooed her away while never losing eye contact with the girl. He had been a rock climber once, which explained his muscles, before becoming a Ph.D., which came with all the benefits of student sex.

“She’s a graduate,” he protested to the other woman. The other gave up and collected her yellow purse from the ground and exited the wide-open space of the bedroom.

Once the other was gone, they kissed, the girl trying passion, as he remained tight-lipped, sucking. Her face was twirling, almost lost to a black hole. It wasn’t a marvelous kiss, so she tried again. Again, she was met with the same kiss, but he rubbed her close to him with a moan. He was trying passion and that meant the most.

He took her clothes back off and went down on her. Now, the sucking kiss felt right. That explained it. She’d teach him the difference later. But he knew he had Chlamydia and he warned her that they should wait. After consideration, she did. It would clear up soon, she knew, after the season for it.

“So, what does this mean moving forward for our future?” he asked, sincere.

“You mean you want more than this?” the girl felt surprised.

“You’re a graduate and capable,” he said. “Meet me at the festival parade,” he followed up with, not explaining his meaning, but her butterflies knew exactly.

She couldn’t wait but had to. She despised this season.

“I have to go feed my dogs, you understand,” he said as he walked, shuffling the papers beneath his feet. “I can grade later.”

She went to get some coffee out of his pot, waiting for his return, as his two cats, already fed, twirled between her legs, putting on a fluffy show. It was a sign of good times to come. He wanted a future.

With that future upon her, the day of the demolition festival arrived. Now, being vetted by the wonky blonde, she could start to see the derby with her good eye behind the patch. The blonde made it out. With stretching metal creaking, the van tried to keep up.

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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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