In the Midnight Hour

TRIGGER WARNING/CONTENT WARNING

I’m adding another story here that requires a little explanation and a trigger warning. I never though much about such things until I submitted this to a magazine and got a poison pen letter response. They said several nasty things and also included that I should have included a trigger warning. I’m pulling the story from submissions for awhile, maybe permanently. It has some graphic imagery, but I don’t think it rises to the level of trigger warning. My thoughts are that if you need trigger warnings, you probably should not be reading anything on the internet. I know from experience that sexual assault is an awful experience that affects you years beyond the physical act, so don’t come after me saying I’m insensitive to survivors. I’m one. That gives me some standing. Anyway, consider this your trigger warning. Copyright issues prohibit me from including song lyrics in a story, but imagine Wilson Pickett crooning “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour.”

TRIGGER WARNING/CONTENT WARNING

SEXUAL ASSAULT, VIOLENCE

In the Midnight Hour

            I screamed with every fiber of my being. I screamed as if the very devil were after me, which in a sense he was. I screamed loud and long.

***

            I guess I can blame my parents for some of what went wrong. After all, they were the models who taught Bobby and me most of our life skills. And they were as selfish and self-centered as they come. Or are those both the same things? They put their own needs before everything else. It’s my opinion that if you have children, you at least spare a little thought for how your actions affect them. I mean, now that I’m fourteen I realize that my parents are real individuals with dreams and desires of their own, not just cardboard cutouts as stage props in the movie of my life. I don’t think their whole lives should revolve around the kids. But there is a middle ground where you consider your actions and how your children will see them. Our parents never had this quality.

            When I was in first grade, Bobby was my hero. He was ten years to my six and although he wasn’t the biggest kid in fourth grade, he could soundly thump any second grader who dared to pick on me. He took his role as big brother seriously. And soon he branched out to thump the bullies who picked on my friends. All the girls swooned over my handsome brother, and as it became clear he was protecting my girlfriends, they all wanted to be my friend. First grade was rather grand. But not our home life.

            That was the year Mama and Daddy began going through a rough patch. Daddy worked at an office and Mama stayed at home. I’m not sure, but I think the trouble involved money. They would snipe for what seemed like hours, reminding me of the distant rumbling of a big storm. Then suddenly it would erupt, like a clap of thunder. Both had a temper, and they had no qualms about screaming at each other, slinging invectives and accusations. I got that word, invectives, from Mary Jane Slater. She thinks she’s so cool because she’s read so many books. I think she’s stuck up, but it’s still a cool word and describes exactly what Mama and Daddy did. He would call her lazy and a spendthrift. She would call him a lowlife cheater, though I don’t know what he cheated on. Sometimes she threw cups or plates. Daddy would knock pictures off the wall. The sound of something shattering accompanied every fight. To this day, the sound of shattering glass makes me want to curl up into a little ball.

            As you might expect it scared me. It scared me badly. I would run from my room and jump in Bobby’s bed and burrow under the covers. I’d roll myself into a ball and snuggle up to his midsection. He’d put his arms around me and whisper that it would be okay.

            “It’s okay, Joni. Don’t cry. You’re safe with me. I won’t ever let anything happen to you.” Only later would I find the wet spot on my head where his tears had fallen. He would hold me and rock me, long into the night, as we weathered the storm of our parents. He was my rock and my protection. He loved me. He said he would always protect me. And I foolishly believed him.

***

            I heard someone say hindsight is 20-20. That’s so true. You never notice all the little things people do as they are happening. Only looking back do you say, “Oh yeah, I should have noticed that.” Nobody ever thought anything was wrong with Bobby. I was the one to worry about. He was a perfect student, straight A’s throughout primary and middle school. I was a competent A/B student but had conduct issues. I just didn’t like being restricted and told what my role as a lady should be. I wanted to be who I was, not some character from history. Girls don’t talk like that, girls don’t do that, ladies don’t behave that way. All I heard was don’t. Well, I wanted to DO. So, they labeled me a problem.

            My parents quickly forgot any notes sent home. They were too busy leading their lives to worry about school problems. The only time they met with my teachers was once when the administration dragged them in for a ‘consultation’. It quickly became clear in the meeting that the teachers knew me better than my parents. The meeting accomplished little more than getting me grounded for a week. But even that didn’t last. My parents just lost interest.

            They took a little more interest in Bobby; he was ‘the Son’. However, it was only a glancing interest. They didn’t seem to notice that he had no friends. The younger boys were afraid of him because he bullied them mercilessly. His peers thought he was a jerk. At least that’s what Mary Jane Slater said. Although he was handsome, the girls avoided him because he had this permanent sneer emblazoned on his face. Everyone could sense a feeling of cold calculation emanating from him. Mary Jane said he gave her the willies. Maybe. But to me, he was just my brother Bobby.

            At home I was the problem, too. If something got broken, Bobby always convinced me to take the blame. He said that Daddy would beat him, but they would only ground me for a week. And we knew they’d forget to enforce it. It seemed reasonable, so I always went along. He remained the perfect child.

            I remember how he didn’t like it when I brought home Mr. Whiskers, a stray kitten. He said he didn’t like cats. I figured Mr. Whiskers could melt any person’s heart and tried to get him to play with the kitten. Mr. Whiskers didn’t like Bobby, though. He laid his ears back and hissed. Within two days, Mr. Whiskers had disappeared. There was a suspicious scratch on Bobby’s arm, but I never had the courage to ask him about it. I think that’s when I started to be afraid of Bobby.

            Just before the Bad Stuff happened there was a telling moment in the car. Bobby was sixteen. He had just gotten his license and Mama and Daddy would send him on errands in the car. He loved to drive around. One night, Mama sent him to the store for something. She told him to take me along. It had been raining earlier, and the streets glistened like silver in the early evening under the streetlights. He was driving Daddy’s big Oldsmobile. As we were driving through a residential section, we saw a couple out for a stroll. I tensed when Bobby sped up. What was he planning? As we roared past the couple, he swerved to plow through a puddle sending a wave of muddy, oily street water over the couple. As we kept going, I could hear them yelling. I looked back and saw we drenched them. They were shaking out their coats, furious at what had happened. Bobby had a satisfied sneer on his face.

***

            Late summer meant evening thunderstorms. A short time after the incident with the car, we were having a late-night boomer. I used to be afraid of thunder and lightning. I would go jump in Bobby’s bed and cower under the covers while he held me. I understood the weather now and no longer needed his reassurances. This storm seemed to circle us. It would intensify and then simmer down, only to start up again a few minutes later. It went on into the night.

            BOOM

            I snapped awake. I had been dozing, not deeply asleep as the rumbling went on. I opened my eyes just as lightning flashed the room. In the brief light, I saw the outline of a man. Terrified, I couldn’t move or speak. Another flash revealed it was Bobby. I was so relieved. At sixteen he was almost a man, now.

            “Bobby, what are you doing here?” I whispered. He came over and sat on my bed.

            “I couldn’t sleep. I remember how you used to come sleep with me when there were thunderstorms.”

            “I was a little girl then. I know thunder can’t hurt me now.”

            “Little Sis is growing up,” he smiled as he said it. I could tell because the lightning briefly illuminated his face. “Can I hold you for old time’s sake?” He pushed back the light sheet I had over me and stretched out next to me. He wrapped his arms around me like he used to, but we were closer to the same size, so it didn’t work like it once did. He was shirtless, wearing only his pajama bottoms, and it felt weird for him to be holding me like this. But I let him. For old time’s sake.

            When he laid down beside me, a part of my nightshirt caught under him, causing it to pull taut against my chest. The lace decorations rubbed roughly across my newly budding breasts, causing me a quick intake of breath. Each breath caused it to rub again, and I found I was breathing shallowly to avoid it. I could feel Bobby’s breath on my neck, hot and uncomfortable in the humid room. I shrugged trying to create a little distance, but Bobby wouldn’t let go.

            “Bobby, let go. I’m hot,” I complained. He relented a little. The movement caused his hand to brush across my breast.

            “Oh. Little Sister’s nipples are hard. You excited about having a man in your bed?”

            “Don’t be stupid.” Luckily, the dark kept him from seeing how deeply I flushed.

            “I don’t know. Seems kinda definite to me.” Then to my horror he began stroking my breasts. Involuntarily, the nipples became even harder. “Seems like somebody likes this.”

            “Stop it. Stop it, now, Bobby. Stop it or I’m telling.” A renewed flash of lightning illuminated an iciness I had never seen in his eyes before. He slapped my face, then grabbed both my wrists and whispered directly into my ear. “You ever say anything about this, and I will hurt you. I will hurt you so bad you will never forget.” He removed one hand from my wrist and began brazenly fondling my small breasts.

            “Don’t,” I whimpered. He stopped, then he placed his hand on my neck and began squeezing. I couldn’t breathe. I could see his still silhouette, dark against flickering light from distant lightning, his face in shadow. I tried to pull his hand away with my free hand. Then I began hitting him in the side with my fist. Nothing moved him. I began seeing sparkling lights around the edge of my vision. Suddenly he released me. I gasped as much needed oxygen returned to all my systems. I wanted to get away from him, but he still had me trapped. I feared what he might do to me.

            “Don’t fuck with me,” he hissed. “I can make you suffer.” He returned to fondling my breasts. “I can hurt you in ways you never imagined. Just like that fucking cat. Why not lay back and enjoy it?” While my anatomy had little choice but to send sensations of ecstasy, my brain interpreted them with disgust as my brother assaulted me. Tears slid from my eyes as I cried as silently as I could. He slid his arm under me to encircle my neck, reminding me he could strangle me if he so chose. His other hand slipped under my cotton shirt and then slid down inside the front of my panties. I had only been having my periods for a few months. I silently wished I was having one now. He deserved to get a bloody hand. I clamped my eyes shut as he tried to slide his finger into my opening. I was dry and it hurt. At the same time, I could feel him pressing his groin into my backside, the lump in his pajama bottoms noticeable. He humped me like this for a few minutes then stiffened with a groan. We lay still for a moment. Then his arm around my neck began to close. I had both hands free and reached up pulling at it. Once he felt he had made his point, he eased the pressure.

            “Remember what I said.” Then he crept out of my room. I felt so dirty I wanted to get in the shower right then, but how would I explain that in the middle of the night? I balled myself up in my sheet, buried my head in my pillow and sobbed until I fell into an exhausted sleep.

***

            Even my self-absorbed mother noticed my pale complexion and dark smudged eyes the next morning.

            “Goodness, I hope you’re not coming down with something,” she said as if every childhood illness I had was done for the express purposes of inconveniencing her. Bobby glared at me with a warning in his eyes.

            “I’m fine,” I mumbled.

            “You’ve always been so sickly,” Mama said. What the hell? I’m hardly ever sick. “Sunshine, here’s never been sick a day in his life.” Mama ran her hand over Bobby’s hair. ‘Sunshine’ beamed at her. I wished them both dead.

            Bobby didn’t return that night, but I couldn’t have stopped him. My door had no lock. I considered pushing my dresser in front of it, but it was too heavy to move.

But Bobby was not done with me yet. Not by a long shot. Every few nights, I guess when the teen-age urge got too much to bear; he came to my room. I just closed my eyes and tried to be elsewhere in my brain. That didn’t last as Bobby wanted more participation from me. I just dully looked at him the first time he said that.

            “I’m going to stick it in your butt, your pussy, or your mouth. You decide.” My first thought was the butt, so I wouldn’t have to look at him, but I considered how painful that must be. I refused to play his game, so he decided on my mouth. That didn’t satisfy him, though so he would jerk himself and then finish in my mouth.

            By this time, anyone paying attention would have noticed that my life was falling apart. I ate almost nothing, I rarely bathed, never washed my hair, spoke to no one. I had no interest in taking care of myself. I just wanted to be dead but was too afraid to do even that. Mama decided I had anorexia and lectured me nearly daily. She also said if I didn’t take better care of myself, she would come into the bathroom and scrub me herself. Like that would ever happen.

            My few friends left at school knew something was wrong but didn’t know how to reach me. I withdrew and shut everyone out. One of them one day texted me a magazine article about ‘Girlpower’. It was all about stepping up, defending yourself, being your own person. All the things I used to be. It brought tears to realize how far I had fallen. It also caused me to take stock. Bobby would be at home at least two more years so I could expect the abuse to go on that long. I knew there was no way I could live like that. Something had to change. The easiest way was to kill myself or failing that, him. But how?

***

Looking back, I’m surprised how long it took me to realize that there was another path out. It was brazen, Machiavellian and very much the old Joni. It was dangerous, but I had to go for it. The next time Bobby came to my room, I chickened out. He had me conditioned to submit to him. I realized it would be harder than I thought. Not knowing his schedule made it more difficult to psych myself up. Two days after my last attack, I noticed Bobby fondling his testicles in the living room when he thought no one was watching. It aroused him. I knew I could count on a visit that night.

            Late, after everyone else was asleep, he slipped into my room. There was a half moon, making everything in my room seem silver. I could make out Bobby’s figure with the silvered permanent sneer marring his face. He knelt on my bed, pushed his pajamas down to his knees, and straddled me. I gathered up my courage and said I was tired of the same old thing. Why not try putting it in my pussy? Even in the dim light, I could see his eyebrows go up in surprise. He quickly shifted his knees and laid down over me, fumbling under my shirt to strip away my panties. I had to work quickly. As soon as he sprawled on me, I wrapped my legs around him, locking us tightly together. I threw both arms around his neck and pressed as hard against him as I could. Then I was ready. I screamed with every fiber of my being. I screamed as if the very devil were after me, which in a sense he was. I screamed loud and long. I continued screaming until I heard the thumping from my parents’ bedroom. Bobby was fighting, trying to get free but could not break my hold. As my bedroom door burst open and a second before the light came on, I released him and began beating at him. My scream changed to “Get off! Get off me!”

            “What the hell!” Daddy roared as the light flickered on. The tableau he saw was me trying to cover myself and Bobby crouched over me, pajamas down, cock erect and a guilty look on his face. Daddy was on Bobby in a second, grabbing him by the neck and actually throwing him across the room. Mama rushed to me, pulling up the sheet to cover me and shielding me in her arms.

            “In your room!” Daddy yelled at Bobby, who scurried out like the vermin he was.

            “Oh, poor baby,” Mama crooned. Maybe she had finally found her calling.

            “Did he hurt you, I mean, did he do anything to you?” Daddy asked. I made my eyes wide and round, looking fearful. I shook my head.

            “He said he’d hurt me if I said anything,” I whispered, just loud enough for them both to hear.

            “Oh, baby,” Mama cuddled me again. Daddy stormed out. In the light from my overhead fixture, I saw him turn left to their bedroom. He came back a moment later carrying his big leather belt. He entered Bobby’s room, across the hall from mine. Bobby would get a thrashing. Good.

            “It wasn’t like that, Daddy,” Bobby whimpered. “She wanted it.” The smack of skin on skin sounded loud even across the hall. Daddy had given Bobby a good slap to the face.

            “I don’t want to hear another filthy word out of your mouth! Pull those pajamas down. You seem to know how to do that well enough.”

            Mama held me tight, but she cringed with each smack of the leather across Bobby’s backside. Various cries and shrieks from Bobby accompanied each blow. It was all music to my ears. He got fifteen licks. Nowhere near enough, in my opinion. Daddy stopped at Bobby’s door as Bobby lay on his bed sobbing.

            “Don’t come out of this room until I come for you.” With that he slammed the door with all the finality of a jail cell.

            “Are you really okay, kitten?” Daddy said, sitting on my bed, morphing from avenging father to tender father in an instant. I said that I was but let them know about Bobby’s bullying at school, his implication in the disappearance of Mr. Whiskers, and all the times he had bullied or talked me into taking the blame for things broken or gone wrong. I may have added a few that were my fault, but I was building a case here. I also poured out a flood of tears, but these were real. I found that once they started, I couldn’t get them to stop.

            “My God! My poor child. I had no idea. How did you let this go on?” he angrily asked my mother. She was quick to take the bait, and they readied for another battle.

            “Please don’t fight. Not tonight. I’m scared. I’m afraid of what he’ll do to me.”  I managed to say this between whimpers as my bout of crying died out. They both looked ashamed for a moment.

            “Don’t you worry, baby. He won’t ever hurt you again.” Daddy promised. Wow. Maybe military school? Daddy went down the hall to the pantry. When he came back, he had a length of cord in his hands. He wrapped one end around the doorknob to Bobby’s room and secured it. Then he tied the other end to the door to the bathroom beside my room.

            “You’ll have to use our bathroom if you need one tonight, but at least we know that little creep can’t get to you. You’re safe now. Tomorrow we’ll figure out a permanent solution. Do you think you can sleep?” I nodded, dashing tears from my face.

            “I think I’ll sleep here for a while,” Mama said. “I’ll just feel better knowing my baby is safe.” Wow, Mama was in the running for Mama of the Year. She and I dozed for about an hour, then she got up and went to join Daddy. I laid there for a minute. One more thing I wanted to do. I got up and crept across the hall to Bobby’s room. I scratched softly at his door.

            “What?” came his ragged, tear-stained voice.

            “Bobby, it’s me,” I said with sympathy in my voice. “Does it hurt so awfully bad?”

            “Y-yes,” accompanied by a sniffle.

            “Good!” And I slipped back into my room.

Always and Forever

Some stories just kind of land in my head, coming from some mysterious place in my subconscious. Others have to be built from pieces that I find laying about my head. This is one of the latter. I was driving to dance practice one afternoon, the day after my birthday in 2018 and felt the urge to write so I began thinking about my next story. I had only written seventeen stories so still had no idea what I was doing (as if I do now at 75 and counting?). I decided I wanted to write about college aged individuals. I thought about people I knew in college and interesting things that had happened. For some reason I remembered a girl who drew the attention of another girl who befriended her and then refused to let her have a social life. She consumed her. I wondered if that ever happened to guys. So I decided to write about it. Then I went and danced for an hour.

After dance practice on the drive home I came up with the names of the characters and some of their characteristics. It’s important for me to know who my people are since I like to allow them as much agency as they will take. That may sound a bit crazy, but I recently read an article that showed 63% of authors allow their characters to drive the story. I’ve believed in doing that for a long time but just didn’t say much since people would think I’m crazy. At least I know I’m in good company.

The female detective in the story has an interesting genesis. I was having some issues with a part time job. I had to contact the home office (on the other side of the country) several times. The person I spoke with was a Ms. Garza. I thought, “What an interesting name.” I have never met Ms. Garza but my detective is kinda like how I envision the employee. I’ve even brought Detective Garza into other stories. Why drop a perfectly good character with whom you are already familiar? And once again, it’s written first person. I seem to prefer that style. I guess it’s my vicarious way of having a life. Anyway, here’s my tale of a touch of madness.

Always and Forever

            “I must be cursed,” I muttered, head in hands, elbows propped on my knees. Bryson sat beside me on the sofa. He put his hand on the back of my neck and kneaded lightly.

            “Come on, bro. You don’t believe that,” he murmured.

            I turned my head to look at him, my eyes red and swollen from crying.

            “How else do you explain it? Every girl I like something awful happens to her.”

            “Well, you do seem to have rotten luck, but that’s all it is. God ain’t out to get you or any shit like that.” He smiled, but didn’t laugh. The situation was too grave.

            “I think someone forgot to tell God.” I had been a wreck all day. I got the call early that morning from Francie that Jenny, my Jenny, my girlfriend Jenny had been killed in a fall from the seventh floor of her dorm. The dorm had outside walkways to the suites with only waist-high railings. I always thought it was kinda unsafe what with how we college kids get, but had never heard of anyone actually falling. Until now. Now Jenny. Aw, shit. Here I go again. I can’t stop the tears.

My roommate Bryson is a champ. He’s been sticking close, getting rid of callers and visitors, keeping a bottle of water nearby, handing me Kleenexes. Taking care of me. He’s good at that. Always has been. Ever since freshman year. We met when he rescued me from some jocks. They seemed to think it was fun to pick on someone significantly smaller. Bryson jumped in, bumping chests with the leader, called him Shit-For-Brains and stood them down. He’s not any bigger than me, but he doesn’t take shit from anyone. He reminded them and they slowly worked out in their lumbering jock way that if they took the time to beat us up, they would probably get in trouble with their coach, might even miss some games. We’ve been best friends ever since. We room together, hang together, pledged the same frat together, and go places together. People say we even look like brothers. In a way, we are. Best friends, always and forever.

“Kev, why don’t you go lie down for a while,” he suggested.

“Yeah,” was all I could muster, and trudged back to my bedroom. It was what, 1 pm? Yeah, Sunday afternoon. Bryson was right behind me.

“I got a lot of homework to do, so I’ll be in the living room if you need anything. I’ll get us something to eat later. You don’t worry about it,” he told me. Yeah, Mr. Take Charge is on duty.

***

I managed to get some sleep and felt much more human by that evening. Numb, but human.

“Crap, I think I have an Econ quiz tomorrow,” I said, looking at my books for the first time since Friday.

“You aren’t seriously thinking of going to class tomorrow?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Dude. You just had a shitstorm all over you. You are in no shape for some dickhead professor’s quiz. I hate to be blunt, but a death in the family is an excused absence. Take it, bro. You need it, whether or not you think so.”

“Jen…” I couldn’t get her name out without choking. “She wasn’t exactly family.”

“Girlfriend, same thing. You guys been together for a couple months. In college that’s like years.”

“I’ll see how I feel in the morning. Right now, I think looking over my Econ notes might keep my mind off other things.” But it didn’t. Saturday night Jenny should have been with me but had texted that she didn’t want to see me. I called, but she didn’t answer. I texted I was coming over and she texted that she didn’t want me to. So I sulked around the apartment. And now, this. Shit. I should have gone over.

***

Monday morning was gray and threatening rain. It was a perfect match for my mood. Bryson was up and puttering around early.

“Dude, you look wasted. Did you even sleep?” he asked.

“Some. I need to get up with Francie. See if she knows if they have made any arrangements. For Jen… Jenny.”

“Oh yeah, she called. Said the police haven’t released her to her family yet. Being pissy about drugs being involved.”

“What? Jenny didn’t do drugs. At least not that I know of,” I said. But I hadn’t thought Marcie was still doing drugs, either.

“Girls do some crazy shit when you ain’t watching ‘em.”

There was a knock at the door. Bryson started for it.

“You want to head back to your room? I’ll get rid of whoever it is.”

“I have to face our friends sometime. I’ll just leave if I feel like falling apart. I think I have that part perfect by now.” I amazed myself that I could say something so flippant.

There were two strangers at the door; a man and a woman. They were dressed in nice suits, nothing fancy, just business attire. Jehovah’s Witnesses, I thought? They introduced themselves as Detectives Garza, a short, matronly female and Wilson a taller, tired-looking man. They asked to come in. Bryson didn’t move from the door.

“We’re dealing with a tragedy right now. Come back some other time,” he said.

“Yes, that’s what we’d like to talk to you about,” said Garza. “Are you Kevin Jennings?”

“No, and he’s not seeing visitors right now. He’s had a shock. As I said, maybe later.”

“And you are?” asked Detective Wilson.

“I’m Bryson Johns. This is my place, too.”

“Look, Mr. Johns, here’s the deal,” Detective Wilson said. “We need to talk to Mr. Jennings about a suspicious death and we can do it nice right here, or we can send some uniforms to firmly assist on his presence down at the station. You can pick.”

My skin went cold at the word ‘suspicious’. What the hell?

“Bryson, let them in,” I called to him, standing to walk to the door.

“You sure, bud?”

“Yeah. I need to know what’s going on.”

Detective Garza brushed past Bryson. “Well, Mr. Jennings, we were hoping you could tell us.” She crowded into my personal space.

“Me? All I know is what Francie told me.” I backed up a step.

“The roommate, Francine McDonald?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Why don’t you tell us what you know, beginning with the last time you saw the deceased,” Garza instructed. Well, so much for the pleasantries.

I gasped a little as my throat closed. My Jenny was now ‘the deceased’? I realized I was hyperventilating. Bryson was suddenly there beside me, leading me over to the sofa.

“It’s okay, bro,” he crooned to me softly. “It’s okay. Just breathe slowly.”

Then to the detectives, “You dicks are scaring the crap outta him. Can’t you see how broke up he is?” Bryson said accusingly. He planted himself between me and the detectives. “I have enough pre-law classes to know what you can and cannot do. Now you go easy on him. If you upset him again, this interview is over.” He sometimes goes bulldog when defending me. I always feel so safe when he’s around. I haven’t always surrounded myself with the best of people. But knowing that someone has your back no matter what, is so comforting and even humbling. It’s also kinda great. I know Bryson has my back.

The detectives looked sourly at each other, and then Garza nodded. They all sat. Bryson sat on the sofa beside me, lending me strength. The detectives sat in the two chairs facing us.

“Mr. Jennings. I’m sorry for your loss. I understand this can be a difficult time for you. We just need to find out what you know. Miss Stanton’s family needs closure on this, just like you do,” Detective Garza said, proving that she could play nice when she wanted. “When did you last see Miss Stanton?”

“That was Friday night. We were at a party at my fraternity.”

“Delta Tau Upsilon?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand you and Miss Stanton seemed to have some kind of disagreement that night. Can you fill me in on that?”

“What? Oh, it was nothing. She said she thought I was flirting with some other girls.”

“Were you?”

“What? No! Jenny is my girl. Was my girl,” I said as my throat closed again. I swiped at the tears. Garza had the decency to wait a moment. Bryson handed me a tissue and put a hand on my arm. The simple gesture gave me strength.

“Why would she think you were flirting?”

“I don’t know. She said someone told her to keep an eye on me. Probably one of her bitchy girlfriends. You know how girls are.” Detective Garza’s steely glare showed that perhaps she did not know how girls are.

“So you didn’t take her home?”

“No, she went with a girlfriend.”

“One of the ‘bitchy’ ones?” Garza asked sarcastically.

“Sorry. I’m just a little frazzled,” I said. Bryson glared at the detectives.
            “Easy, detective,” he warned.

“So you didn’t see her last night?” Garza asked.

“No.” I elected to leave out the angry texts.

“Saturday night. Date night. I thought you’d be with ‘your girl’, as you call her.”

“I think she was still pissed about Friday and said she wanted to cool off.”

“You think?”

“Well, she didn’t say why. Just that she didn’t want to see me,” I said huffily.

“So you went to see her, talk some sense into her?” Garza led.

“What? No.”

“Did Miss Stanton do drugs?”

“No, not as far as I know.”

“And how far is that?”

“I don’t know. She never mentioned drugs.”

“We got a tox screen,” Detective Wilson interjected. “Seems she was high on acid. She flipped right over the rail outside her suite. Seven floors down is a long way to fall. Maybe she thought she could fly.”

“Hey!” Bryson said forcefully. “I done told you, if you can’t be civil you can take your ass outta here.” Wilson bristled, but Garza’s hand on his forearm settled him.

“Yes, she could have fallen accidentally. Or someone could have helped her. Her suitemates said they were at a mixer. She stayed up in her room. Alone. They didn’t know about any LSD,” Garza continued.

“So what has that got to do with me? I don’t do drugs.” At least not anymore.

“Where were you Saturday night?”

“I told you. Jenny didn’t want to go out, so I stayed here.”

“Can anyone vouch for you?”

“I can,” said Bryson.

“Bryson,” I said warningly. “Don’t lie about this. You were at the frat. You tried to get me to go. I just stayed here.”

“Mr. Johns, if you have had all those pre-law classes you would know that lying to a detective is a misdemeanor. Don’t make me take you in.” Bryson just continued glaring. At this point I’m not sure Detective Wilson could take Bryson in.

“I don’t think anyone saw me here, but I was here. I’m innocent until proven otherwise.”

“Interesting turn of phrase, Mr. Jennings. Do you feel guilty about something?

“No, just a figure of speech,” I didn’t like her tone.

“We have a witness who places you at Miss Stanton’s dorm about 8 pm. ME says she fell about 10 pm. Why are you and your friend lying about your location on Saturday evening?”

“Bryson was just trying to be helpful in his own clumsy way. But I’m not lying. I was here. Anyone who says different is lying.”

Garza stood up abruptly. “I think that’s all we need for now. We’ll be in touch if we have more questions. I know you college kids have restless feet, so please notify the police if you plan to leave town. Good day.” They showed themselves out as Bryson and I sat on the sofa stunned.

“Dude. They think you did it. We need a lawyer.”

***

I was a basket case. On top of losing my girlfriend, now the cops think I killed her. How do things like this happen? Thank God I had Bryson. He called my parents when I asked him to. I was too freaked out to talk to them. They said they were calling a lawyer they knew, and he’d help me. Mom stressed that I not talk to the police without him present. And the standard parent lines—Don’t worry. Everything will be okay. We love you.

***

I went back to classes on Tuesday, for what it was worth. In three classes, I took exactly zero notes. I have no idea what the professors said. I’m not even sure I was in the right classes. Nothing makes sense right now. This will play hell with my grade point average. I guess your GPA doesn’t matter too much in prison. Shit. This is serious. I’m so fucking scared.

***

Detective Garza contacted me late Tuesday and invited me down to the police station “to fill in some gaps.” I told her I’d come in Wednesday if my lawyer could schedule it.

“Lawyer? You have something to hide, Mr. Jennings?”

“No, but you and your friend seem to have painted a bull’s eye on my back. I’m just making sure you play by the rules.” I was amazed my voice held steady long enough to say all that.

“Whoa, dude. That rocked!” Bryson exclaimed after I hung up. “Show ‘em you got balls.”

***

My folks’ lawyer friend, Mr. Fallon, had an office in town and he set aside time for us to talk and then said he’d meet me at the police station. He was very reassuring. He said that so far all they had was “supposition and innuendo”. “That and five bucks might get you a latte at Starbucks,” he joked. I felt so much better. Then I told him everything and his demeanor changed. He became grave.

“I’m glad you told me. They are sure to find out and use this against you. I’ll do what I can to get ahead of it, but it looks bad. Still, no smoking gun. Garza’s a bulldog, but she’s fair. Wilson is a piece of shit.”

***

I pictured the worst from all the TV cop shows, but I wasn’t put in an “interrogation room”, or cuffed to a table or anything. We met in a relatively attractive, comfortable office. Mr. Fallon was at my side and reminded me I didn’t have to answer anything I didn’t want to and to look to him if I had a question.

Garza led with her ace.

“Mr. Jennings. Did you ever know a Marcie Gray?”

Oh shit.

“Yes.”

“You are aware that Miss Gray is deceased?”

“Of course I am.” What are you, stupid? I said in my mind.

“In what way did you know Miss Gray?”

“She was my girlfriend during sophomore year.”

“And you know how she died?”

“I object to you baiting my client, Garza. You have the file; you know exactly what he knows.”

“Just trying to get it in the record for this case. She died of a bad reaction to poisoned street drugs. Seems she got hold of some speed with a high strychnine content. Isn’t it coincidental that both your girlfriends died from drug-related causes?”

“That’s not a legitimate question, Garza. And the record shows that my client was in no way involved in his friend’s drug use. He didn’t know she was using and definitely wasn’t her supplier.” Except I did know she had used, and I knew her supplier. I just thought she had stopped.

“So he says. It’s just the old smoke and fire adage. But let’s move on. Do you know a Laurie Lee? I believe you called her Spooky Lee?”

“I don’t call her that. At least not to her face. She was Marcie’s roommate. She’s weird. Everyone calls her Spooky. She moved in with Darlene after Marcie died.”

“Yes, I see that here. It seems that Miss Lee and Darlene Massey didn’t care much for you. They said you were abrasive, argumentative, made threats and hit Miss Gray.”

“That’s a lie! I never hit Marcie. I’ve never hit any woman. Spooky and Darlene were a couple of bitches. They did everything they could to turn Marcie against me. Then they told lies about me.” The arguments I had with Marcie were mainly about those two bitches.

“Now why would those nice girls say such bad things about you? What did you ever do to them?”

“Nothing. They just couldn’t stand that Marcie didn’t have time for them when she was seeing me. They wanted her all to themselves.”

“Yes, and you and Marcie fought about that, didn’t you?”

“Hold on, Garza,” Mr. Fallon said. “What are you getting at?”

“I’m just establishing that your client has a problem controlling his anger issues around women.”

“What anger issues?” I exclaimed.

“Garza, we’re here as a courtesy. We’re not here to help you go on some fishing expedition.”

“What anger issues?” I asked again.

Garza continued. “Isn’t it true that you have a prescription for Ativan to control your violent tendencies?”

“What? No! It’s for agitation and impulsivity. I have trouble concentrating sometimes. That’s all. Why are you trying to make me sound like some kind of lunatic?”

 “Yes, impulsive actions like helping someone fall from the seventh floor, or adding strychnine to speed, or sending dead flowers and a chopped up doll?”

“We’re done here,” said Mr. Fallon, disgust dripping from his voice. “Come on, Kevin.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What dead flowers? What chopped up doll? That’s crazy stuff. Hold on, Mr. Fallon. I want to know what they’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about Paula Warren. Recognize the name, Mr. Jennings?” My stomach dropped.

“What? What’s happened to Paula?”

“Why should you care? I believe when you broke up she called you a ‘monster’ and to leave her alone. Paula seems to be one of the lucky ones. She withdrew from school before someone could kill her.”

“I didn’t know she withdrew,” I said. I really didn’t. I had dated Paula briefly during my junior year. She said something about harassing phone calls and noises outside her apartment. I slept over a few times to check, but nothing happened. I mean, no harassing calls or prowlers. Plenty else happened, but that’s neither here nor there. Then she said she thought it was me doing it. Someone was feeding her lies.

“Well, what did you expect after you sent her a box of dead flowers and the next day a box with a doll chopped up into bits? A doll with blond hair just like Miss Warren. Of course she left. For her own safety.”

“What? I never did that. That’s sick.”

“Well, the UPS guy picked your picture as the guy who sent it.”

“But that’s impossible. I never did anything like that.”

“Then, there is Susan Cummings.” The nightmare seemed never ending.

Garza continued. “You dated her after Miss Warren. We have a statement from her you seemed mentally unbalanced, and she was afraid of you.”

“I don’t know what was going on with Susan. She said someone was stalking her and leaving threatening messages on her phone. She said someone called and told her I was crazy and would hurt her. I wouldn’t hurt her. I’ve never hurt anyone. Why is this happening to me?”

“Well, look at it from my perspective,” Garza began reasonably, too reasonably. “I have four girls here, two dead and two terrified. And the common denominator is you. What am I supposed to do with that?”

My first thought on what she could do with that probably wouldn’t help my case so I went with my second thought.

“I’m being set up. Someone is trying to ruin my life. I’m being systematically set up.”

“Now what makes you so important that someone would go to all this trouble to ruin you? Doesn’t really make sense, does it?” Garza just looked at me.

“It’s that Spooky bitch. She’s behind it. She told me she would get me one day. Said she wouldn’t rest until everyone knew what a monster I was. Monster. That’s it. Both Paula and Susan said someone told them I was a monster. It’s not exactly the most common word. It must have been Spooky. I’ve seen her slithering around campus lately, turning up where I am, like she’s stalking me.”

“And why would Miss Lee think you’re a monster?”

Oops.

“Um, because I took Marcie away from her. She was very possessive. She hated me for taking Marcie. I don’t know. She’s crazy. She probably blames me for Marcie’s death. If she’s the one who told you I was at Jenny’s on Saturday, you can forget it. She’s out to get me.”

“Yes, I’m sure we’ll be talking to Miss Lee. Now are there any other girlfriends, dead or alive, that we should know about?”

“Not funny. Not at all,” Mr. Fallon said. He put his arm around me and escorted me from the police station.

***

“So according to your lawyer, they got nothing on you?” Bryson asked.

“Yeah. Put together it all looks bad, but there’s not enough facts there to hold it together.” My interview with the police still freaked me, but I was starting to calm a bit.

“Unless they find more evidence,” he cautioned.

“No. There is no more evidence. I didn’t do anything. It shouldn’t have gone as far as it already has.”

“Hey, man. Not to scare you, but police plant evidence all the time. It saw a TV show about it. They could come in right now and claim they found a kilo of cocaine and lock your ass up forever.”

“I’d just tell ‘em it was yours.”

“That’s cold, man. After all I done for you, you’d rat me out like that?” he asked, acting wounded.

“In a heartbeat.”

He had a point. I don’t think Detective Garza would plant evidence. Hell knows what Detective Wilson would do. Mostly he just sat in and glowered at me. He’s got Bad Cop down pat. Garza’s Good Cop could use some work.

“It’s that Spooky bitch who’s the problem. I bet she set the whole thing up.”

“What spooky bitch?” Bryson looked bewildered.

“That crazy girl who was Marcie’s roommate. She hated me.”

“Oh, yeah. The crazy one. I remember her.”

“The cops will talk to her. I’m sure she doesn’t know about you or she’d have the cops all over us by now.”

“You sure about that?”

“Pretty sure. She hates my guts. She knew I introduced Marcie to a dealer. She just never knew who. Marcie was smart enough not to tell her.”

“You don’t blame me, do you? I mean, you know I didn’t try to hurt anyone?”

“Bry, we’ve been through this. I hated you for a while. I know I accused you of killing Marcie. But I saw how it affected you. You couldn’t have known you had a bad batch. That was your source’s fault. We all took our chances using street drugs. And if anything good could come from such a fuckup, at least it made you turn your life around and me stop using. You know I’m good with what happened.”

“Yeah. At least I was low-level enough that my connection just beat me up and said there’d be worse if I ever opened my mouth. Piece of cake.”

“I watched you, Bry. What happened with Marcie almost killed you. You blamed yourself. You didn’t even argue with me when I blamed you. You were in a very dark place. As much as I loved Marcie, it hurt me more to see you in such pain.”

“But you pulled me through, bro.”

“Hey, that’s what bros do. It’s me and you, bud. Always and forever.”

“I do remember her and that Darlene chick, with the white-painted face and all the black clothes and shit. A real freak show.”

“Yeah? You know Darlene thought you were pretty hot.”

“Oh, don’t tell me stuff like that. There are some things you can’t unhear. She was the spooky one, you ask me. What’d Marcie ever see in them, anyway?”

“You get thrown together freshman year, make friends, and it sticks. Look at us. Except for the fact that you are apparently hot to Goth chicks I don’t know what I see in you.”

“Same at you, asshole. But you know that’s not true. We have something special. This strange connection. I felt it the first time I saw you. We’re a good team.”

“Yeah, it’s weird how it just happens. What are the odds of finding someone who can end up as close as we are?”

“That’s what Marcie said. That we’re good for each other. That we look out for each other. She’s the only girlfriend you had that I ever really liked. The others didn’t stack up. Paula and Susan were no way good enough for you. Well, I kinda liked Jenny. But you two were getting way too serious. Sometimes it felt like you were leaving me. It’s me and you, bro. Always and forever. We’re bonded. We belong together. I’m no homo but you know it’s always bros before hos. It’s us against them. We’re like Butch and Sundance, or Thelma and Louise on testosterone.”

“As I recall, those didn’t end too well.”

“Well, you know I’d take a bullet for you, bud.”

“Yeah, I believe you actually would.” I suddenly noticed a tear roll down his face.

“What’s this? What’s wrong,” I asked with concern. Bryson never cried.

“I fucked up. I fucked it all up.” More tears streamed out.

“No man, nothing’s fucked up. We’re good.” I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Yes, I did. I didn’t mean to. I just got so scared.” He was literally sobbing now, his breath hitching.

“Come on, dude. Let’s talk about it. You’ll feel better.”

“I can’t. You’ll hate me. I can’t live if you hate me.”

Something was really going on with him. I went over to the sofa and sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulder.

“Hey, you’re my brother, remember. Always and forever. Nothing’s going to make me hate you.”

“I love you, man. You’re my other half,” he whimpered.

“I love you, too. Always.” He had his face against my shoulder, still crying pitifully.

“I didn’t mean it.”

“Mean what?”

“All the nasty shit I said about you. It was just to make them go away.”

“What nasty shit?”

“I told Paula and Susan you were crazy, a monster. A real whack job and you might attack them. I told Jenny, too. I don’t think she believed me, though.”

I sat up, pushing his face off my shoulder.

“Bryson. What are you talking about?”

“Those girls. They weren’t good enough for you. And they were coming between us. I couldn’t let them take you away from me. I need you. You complete me. You belong to me.”

“Oh shit, Bryson. What did you do?”

“Nothing much. Susan was easy. I scared her a little with some phone calls and scratching around her condo. Once she thought it was you, she left. Paula was harder. I ended up sending her some stupid stuff, dead flowers, cut up doll. It scared her real good.” I watched as he told me this and his face lightened as if he was enjoying the memory. Then his face crumpled again.

“I didn’t want to hurt her,” he said through renewed tears. “She made me.”

“Hurt who?” I asked, but was afraid I knew the answer.

“Jenny,” he said in a small voice. Oh, fuck. Is he saying he killed Jenny? Oh fuck, oh fuck.

            “She called me to come see her that night. I won’t at the frat party. Oh, I’m so sorry. Please don’t hate me.”

            “Just tell me what happened, Bryson. Please.” I said it as evenly as I could.

            “She was mad as hell. She said she knew I’d been dicking with her, trying to scare her. She said our attachment was unnatural. Unnatural! That’s what she called us. She said she would tell you what I was doing, and you’d hate me forever. I couldn’t stand that. I love you. You belong with me.” He curled in on himself, sobbing.

            “Go on, Bry. Get it all out.” The tears were now flowing down my face also.

            “We fought. When I knocked her down, she hit her head on something and it knocked her out. I know I did wrong, but I was so scared. I fucked up. I fucked up because I thought I was gonna lose you. I had a tab of acid on me. I still deal a little. I didn’t tell you because I knew you hated it. I put it under her tongue and tied her up with her sheet. Once she was tripping, we went outside on the balcony. I told her she could fly while on acid. She wanted to try.”

            “Oh my God, Bryson.” I couldn’t come out with any more than that.

            “It hurt so bad to do that. It was even worse with Marcie. I hated dosing Marcie. It liked to have killed me to do her like that. But she was taking you away. You hate me now, don’t you?” He didn’t make it a question. He knew.

            “I fucked up so bad. If they take you, then we can’t be together. If they take me, we won’t be together. Now I’m afraid you might leave me. There ain’t but one way out.”

            He slipped his hand down between the sofa cushions and pulled out a pistol.

            “Shit, Bryson, put that thing down before you hurt someone. Where’d you get it, anyway?”

            “I’ve had it a long time. Just in case. We can really be together like this. A suicide pact. It will solve all our problems. We’ll be together forever.”

            “Yeah, I want to be with you bud, but we’ve still got a lot of living to do. There’s so much we haven’t done yet,” I babbled, playing for time.

            “I’m sorry, Kev. I fucked that up. We got no future. I guess we really are Thelma and Louise.”

            Suddenly the door burst open and Detective Garza and Detective Wilson charged in, weapons drawn.

            “Bryson Johns, drop the weapon!” she shouted.

            Bryson looked over and fired at her. The shot hit her in the chest and she actually flew a few feet backward from the impact. Before she had landed Detective Wilson unloaded three shots into Bryson’s chest. He got a surprised look on his face and dropped the pistol. Wilson raced up and kicked it away. He looked back to Garza, and she shouted, “I’m all right.”

            I grabbed Bryson and cradled him against my chest, sobbing harder than ever. He smiled and whispered, “Hey bro, you do still love me, don’t you?”

            “Of course. Just me and you, dude. Always and forever.”

            “I’ll be waiting. I know you’ll find me. You belong to me.”

***

Detective Garza filled me in the next day on all that had happened. Spooky Lee was actually working with the police. She had told them I had connected Marcie with a drug dealer and they’d been watching me to try to find him. They knew that I did not go out the night Jenny was killed. They were just trying to rattle me to see what they could shake loose. One break came from my saying that Bryson was at the fraternity party. They checked, and no one remembered seeing him there. They finally found a cam shot of a person entering Jenny’s dorm who had no business there—Bryson. At the interview at my apartment, Detective Garza noted how similar both Bryson and I looked. She got a picture of Bryson and took it to UPS and the clerk immediately identified him. He had been a bit iffy on the picture of me. The girl who said she saw me at Jenny’s dorm also identified the picture of Bryson. She later said she just assumed it was me because I was always there. From leads from another investigation Detective Garza had figured out that Bryson was the dealer who supplied Marcie. As she looked into Bryson’s past she found he had a sealed juvie record. She had to get a court order to open it. Once she saw it she called in all units and raced to our apartment. They had treated Bryson as an adolescent for antisocial and sociopathic behaviors. He became obsessed with people or things and ended up destroying them. He lied without remorse and showed no empathy. Just as she arrived outside our apartment the surveillance team watching through a part in the curtains saw Bryson draw the gun. She said she was just thankful that she had taken the time to put on her Kevlar vest.

***

I’ve tried to put this behind me. I’ve spent umpteen hours on my therapist’s couch crying my eyes out. I think I’ve shed enough tears to float a damn battleship. If getting the emotion out that way is effective, then I’m well on the way to being cured. I’ve been thinking a lot about Bryson. I knew he was clingy, but had no idea he was so sick. Am I that naïve or was he just that good at it? I’ve read up on his particular pathology and saw a lot of parallels. It’s kind of eerie looking at it in hindsight. All the signs were there. But I think they got one thing wrong. They said he showed no remorse or empathy. I believe he did. I think in the end he was sorry for how he had ‘fucked up’ as he put it. And obsessive or not, I’m damn sure he did love me. He loved me with all his warped heart. And I’ll try to remember him like that. My best bud. Always and forever.

The Visitors

I’ve decided to retire a few of my stories and figured this place would be a good rest home for them. I wrote The Visitors on April 9 in 2019. I think of it as a kind of Twilight Zone story. Imagine Rod Serling in his suit and skinny black tie, lit cigarette in hand saying “Submitted for your approval; a small world going about its business. They are about to face the unknown. Strange people from another planet. Are they friends or are they foes. Or maybe a little of both. Little do they know they have just crossed over to… The Twilight Zone.”

The Visitors

            The Visitors arrived nearly a year ago. It seems longer. It’s amazing how quickly the astounding becomes the commonplace. We just take it in stride and keep on going. Astounded hardly encompasses the world’s reaction to the knowledge that other sentient beings inhabit our universe. We were all taken by surprise. Contrary to the conspiracy nuts, the government had no prior knowledge of aliens nor were we keeping extraterrestrial bodies in cold storage in some secret government bunker. From the clearance I have in my job with the Global Security Department I know these things.

            As you are surely aware, we have been watching the sky for ages looking for signs of other life. Since the modern era, we have used radio telescopes and electronic imaging to test for evidence in the night sky. Ironically, we did not detect the Visitors until they were nearly upon us. Their ship’s small size, low reflectivity, and we suspect, stealth technology, rendered them invisible to our instruments. Once our astronomers detected them, it was clear they were headed toward us and only a few weeks out.

            There was general hope that the news might encourage holdouts to join the world body. We have been marching steadily since the advent of the technological age toward one world government. It is only common sense considering the global marketplace controlled by trans-national corporations. Nationalism had become old-fashioned, even quaint. All the democratic republics and constitutional monarchies, basically the western hemisphere, quickly merged. The totalitarian regimes, whether philosophical or religious, refused to cede their limited power. By the time we detected the Visitors, some 80% of the world’s population were allied with the World Union. We kept the olive branch extended to the holdouts. As you well know, they were intransigent. The world was quickly leaving them behind, but they refused to budge. There was hope that the knowledge that there were aliens, possibly hostile, might move them to join in the common defense. Sadly, it did not.

This was the major concern. Were the newcomers hostile? As we huddled around our TV sets, computer screens, tablets or phones, that was the great fear instilled in our hearts. What were their intentions? Our world was in sorry shape, but it was ours. It was home. Yes, we’ve polluted the oceans, clean water is becoming more and more rare, deserts are encroaching. We’ve multiplied like vermin, never stopping to consider can we sustain this growth, this lifestyle? Everything has a tipping point. Have we passed ours? I think more were coming to think the consensus was, yes.

            We had hoped that with the economic might of the new World Union things might change. Poverty, hunger, homelessness would be eradicated. Maybe space flight to find elsewhere raw materials that were disappearing here. But the structure makes the government unwieldy and infighting is rampant. Politicians are more concerned with maintaining their power, than aiding the world. Now this new potential threat had them talking to each other, consolidating, using the word “we” a lot more.

#

            A few days out, we began receiving radio signals from the craft. We put our best people on it, but it remained unintelligible. It repeated; the same message over and over. There was general hope that the message was “We come in peace” and general fear it was “Throw down your weapons and keep your hands where we can see them”. Commerce slowed to a standstill, the markets plummeted, and the world waited. Troops were called up and all our military capabilities were primed but were we really any match for a civilization that could send ships across the galaxy? 

            The Visitor craft took up an orbit farther out than one might expect. Our strategists quickly surmised that this was to place them outside the range of our most advanced missiles. Neither a hostile nor peaceful move. Simply prudent.

            Our cryptologists had not been sitting around wringing their hands. They had streamed linguistic information to the Visitors. They hoped that between their linguists, ours, and the common language of mathematics, a dialogue could quickly be opened.

            Our space-based telescopes were all trained upon them, scanning them in every way devisable–visible spectrum, x-ray, infrared, ultra-frequency, even with newly discovered gravitational waves. It revealed not much. The craft was outwardly inelegant, at best. But I guess that really isn’t a concern in interstellar space. It was the general size of an ostentatious house. You know, the kind to prove to the neighbors you aren’t struggling like everyone else.

            Then our astronomers received a message that we could understand. It said, “Meet us” and listed geographic and time coordinates. It turned out these were the coordinates of the newly established world capital. And the time was high noon. The Visitors had apparently learned enough about us to know we were politically aligned and that our Union spoke for most of the world.

#

            My position did not get me a place on the dais at the first encounter with an alien species, but I had a closed-circuit feed that was more than what the networks could air. The crush near the capital building was incredible as the meeting time approached. I imagine every video device in the civilized world was tuned to this historic moment. The astronomers reported that a small craft had detached from the original ship. No larger than our largest automobile, it was dropping toward the meeting coordinates. Our monitoring stations reported that the module was circumnavigating the globe, perhaps to allow the heat of entry to the atmosphere to subside. Suddenly people started pointing to the east. All the cameras swiveled to that direction. Telephoto lenses could just make out a white dot approaching. More detail became visible as it neared. We could detect small wings, probably more for stability than lift. It glided with very little sound directly over the cheering crowd and came to a standstill hovering over the landing coordinates. Then it gently lowered. Standing on legs instead of wheels, it looked for all the world like a commuter plane, just with smaller wings and lower to the ground. A doorway on the side popped open and a small set of steps automatically folded out. A hush fell over the crowd. The momentous occasion was upon us. First contact.

            As the world held its collective breath, a figure emerged from the dark interior of the craft. It was tall, much taller than us and more slender. However, it was vaguely humanoid. It had two lower limbs for locomotion and two upper limbs for manipulation. The round protrusion on top was the approximation of a grotesquely deformed head. It dressed all in silver, but the ‘head’ was bare. It was ugly. No doubt about that. Beyond just alien, it was incredibly ugly. Also, quite hairy. Its skin appeared to be rubbery, almost like a mask. What appeared to be eyes were too close together and with oddly shaped pupils. What I assumed were ears were too large and set at an awkward angle. It had some sort of metal register in front of its lower face. I found this was a device that amplified its voice and translated its words to our language. Our President bravely strode across the space separating them. The lights flickered as hundreds of cameras recorded the historic moment. When they met, you could tell that the visitor was a full head taller than the President, and we considered the President tall. The President hesitated, not exactly sure of the protocol. The Visitor looked at him and raised its right forelimb, hand extended. I could see it had an extra digit. The President smiled and grasped the hand. The cheering was deafening.

#

The following day’s newspaper headlines summed it up. “It’s official: They come in peace!” crowed the Chronicle. “We are peaceful, says Spaceman,” reported the Monitor.  I, along with everyone else in the world, breathed a sigh of relief. Not only that, but what wonders might they show us? Cures for stubborn diseases? How to bring back drought-stricken lands? Cheap, clean energy? The speculation of hoped for wonders was endless. Had we survived our long childhood and were now about to take our place among the interstellar community? What wonders await?

            I pulled every string I could to get myself into meetings and on panels working with the Visitors. Not only was I curious, but it definitely would boost my career prospects. That is how I became privy to information that many will never know.

            They told what their name for their race was, but it was unpronounceable to our mouths. We had no writing system that stood for the unusual sounds. It loosely translated to “people of the world” We continued to call them the Visitors.

It also turned out the Visitors were new to spacefaring, only having recently developed a hyperlight drive. Their leader was cagey about how it worked and was unwilling to give our engineers access to his ship. He glibly advised that they could provide us some scientific help but did not want to disrupt our development by dumping technology we were not prepared for into the marketplace. They said their home was far out in the Sagittarian Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. There were ten of them and they were en route to explore a world near Epsilon Eridanus when a previously undetected black hole had slung their ship off course. They detected our radio waves and came to explore our solar system. There was some damage to their ship, and they asked our help. Our President offered the world’s resources. Undoubtedly, this would open up many avenues for new technologies.

#

The Visitors intrigued our ethnologists and biologists. There were apparently two genders like us, they reproduced sexually and brought forth their young live. They seemed like us in many ways. But there were also the differences. Something about them was incredibly repulsive, almost like an innate dread of their appearance. It surprised me to find such xenophobic bigotry within myself, but soon found many of my friends felt similarly. They were just so, well, alien.

#

Their leader made his first appearance alone. However, when the President wanted to honor them with a state dinner, eight came. Their leader said someone always had to be monitoring the ship. Also, the leader sent down ahead of time food for him and his compatriots. He said our food was unpalatable to his kind. The President’s chef was crushed. He was hoping for world headlines and appearances as the chef who served dinner to the Visitors.

            Their leader toured around a bit, making appearances, speaking of a new age of cooperation between our people. He assigned his subordinates to selected factories to retool them to coordinate the repairs on the alien ship. No one factory got all the business. It was spread out so that the technology could not be held secret. The Visitors said this was their gift to the planet.

#

            It seemed to go so well. First Contact had been made and we would all be great friends. At least that is how it appeared. Although I am bound by confidentiality rules to never disclose my part, I like to feel that I had some hand in saving us from certain invasion.

            I have a lifelong friend who must remain nameless whose teenage son is extremely adept with technology and doesn’t mind operating on the shady side of the law. He boasted to me his son had hacked into the old Department of Defense back before the World Union. And he covered his tracks, so they never knew. He couldn’t prove it, but I had no real reason to doubt him. I had yet to see a system his kid couldn’t break in to. He wanted his son to tell me of a discovery he had made. He had hacked into one of our space-based telescopes near the Visitors’ ship so he could look at it. Simple curiosity. He discovered what he considered a major flaw in the Visitors’ security. Their ship-wide intelligence network was not shielded. He could detect the radio waves much like our internet. I scoffed that he could link into an alien system when my two brands of office computers can’t even talk to each other. He said it was simple engineering. Physicists like to proclaim that we cannot know if the basic laws of mechanics are the same everywhere in the universe. But he said hackers know that there are only so many ways of packing information and sending it electronically. The simplest, most elegant design is a binary system.

#

            When he brought his son in to see me, I could see something had upset him. The kid’s wide eyes and rapid breathing made me realize he was scared. He told me he had uncovered frightful information. He said I should probably take it to the President. I asked him to walk me through what he had found. He said that hacking into the Visitors’ system wasn’t very hard for someone as adept at him. But the initial flaw he discovered wasn’t exactly a flaw. Once into the system, he found all the important files and documents were encrypted. Even he had failed at breaking the alien encryption. Technology, logs, mission notes, everything was off limits. Except the library. We assumed the library was not encrypted to allow crewmen to easily browse the collection. Using a translation app which had been leaked onto the internet, he translated some titles and downloaded a few books.

One was a general history of the Visitors. He showed me the translation, and I was appalled. The Visitors were at best vicious marauders, nearly like locusts that pick an area clean and move on. Every civilization they have encountered they have enslaved, robbed and subjected to genocide. They had nearly destroyed their home world and were now searching for new ones to rape. That was likely to be the fate of any unfortunate world around Epsilon Eridanus. And now they had found us. I used every bit of capital I had to call a special meeting of the President and military chiefs that night.

#

            The President and his men were aghast at our claims, saying there was no way the Visitors were lying to us as we were saying. Why should they believe some teenage criminal? They said he could have easily created fake documents to deceive them into believing the Visitors were working against us. In the end, due to my insistence the President arranged for several of his most adept technology people to sit with the boy. He opened up his computer, hacked into the space telescope platform, and then intercepted the Visitors’ intranet. He browsed into the library and downloaded several documents. Even a few pages of the most innocuous seeming book immediately illuminated the Visitors’ credo of taking what they wanted by force. The President and his chiefs were all there to witness this. It was a somber group that reconvened in the Situation Room in the early hours of the morning.

#

            Many hours later, they were agreed. It seemed the Visitors had been thrown off course and their home world was unaware of our location. Their mechanism for sending a message to their home world would not work this close to our planet and in this area of space. It was imperative that they not leave or find any way to contact their home. The fate of the world was at stake. One of the President’s tech advisors asked for a private moment. They huddled and eventually seemed to decide. The President cleared the room of everyone except the four top military generals, his technology advisor and me. I could remain because I had brought the Visitors’ perfidy to light. My friend and his son had to leave.

            The President outlined an audacious plan that if discovered could be disastrous, but no more disastrous than the Visitors revealing our location to their home.

#

            Several weeks later, the repairs were finished, and the Visitors said their time with us was at an end. The President ordered a big farewell banquet in the capital city. Once again eight of the Visitors attended. They made speeches, toasts were returned, and the camaraderie seemed genuine.

            After the final speech, the President joined the Visitors and prepared to walk them out to their landing module. Suddenly a shot was fired. The secret service men swarmed the President and ushered him and the Visitors quickly into a protected area. The protected area was filled with soldiers who quickly mobbed the Visitors and got them into shackles. The leader seemed to recover his wits quickly and tapped the communication device on his lapel.

            “Blake, it’s a trap. Get the ship out of orbit. Now! Come in. Come in.”

            “I’m sorry, captain,” the President said. “Your ship is no longer available. We have discovered what you are and cannot let your people destroy us as you have countless others. The parts we repaired for you, several contained explosives. We detonated them at the same time we arrested you. I regret the loss of your two crewmen, but the rest of you may remain as our guests. Perhaps we can find ways to work to our mutual benefit.”

            “You lying, lizard-faced son of a bitch,” the leader growled.

            Our President clicked his foreclaws at such an insult. “Perhaps, but I have saved Darzha from the plundering and pillaging that the history of your Earth is rife with. Hopefully, our history will remember me kindly for that.”

The Fourth Reich

This story is a basic take off on Star Trek. I’m a trekkie from way back. I loved the original, hated The Next Generation, didn’t care for the one with Kate Mulgrew, liked Enterprise and never saw many of the other spin offs. Most of the movies were awful. I like the new crop with Chris Pine, et al. Although I share the dismay of many that they have destroyed the canon with the disruption of the time line.

This story was picked up by Scarlet Leaf Review and ran on March 10, 2020.

The Fourth Reich

            “Incoming gravitational pulse, Captain!”

Almost as soon as Science Officer Karen Jordan got these words out, the ship jolted with a mighty shudder.

            “Sorry, sir. It was traveling near light speed. The signal reached us only seconds before the surge.”

            Suddenly the red beacon on the wall began flashing and a loud klaxon signaled the ship’s computer had initiated a red alert.

            “Computer. What’s going on?” Captain Mundy shouted to be heard over the alarm.

            “The gravitational pulse indicates a black hole in the local star system. Its attraction may overcome ship’s thrust. Event horizon imminent,” said the dispassionate voice.

            “Captain, our engines are struggling to get free of the pulse,” Helmsman Anderson reported.

            “Divert more power to engine.”

            “I’m giving her all I’ve got, sir.”

            Captain Mundy hit the comm button on the arm of his captain’s chair.

            “Jones. I need more power. Divert it from everything but life support if you need to.”

            “Diverting,” Jones called back. “I’m sending you all I’ve got. I’ve cut off everything but the kitchen sink.”

            “Well, cut that off too if you need to. I need all the power we’ve got sent to my engines.”

            “Still sluggish, Captain,” Anderson said.

            “Set a course along the line of the gravitational pull and see if you can peel away. And Karen, see if you can turn off that damn bell,” the captain ordered. The shrill alarm ceased.

            “How did we stumble in this hole anyway?” the captain groused.

            “It’s not on our charts, sir. Remember we are charting new territory. We’re farther out in the Sagittarian Arm than any ship has been. Our sensors had swept this area. The computer should have notified us that space was warped in this area.”

            “Well, log it and report it back to Earth Command. And find out what’s wrong with that computer. I don’t want any more surprises.”

            “Aye, sir.”

            “We don’t seem to be able to pull away, sir,” Anderson told him, his voice a mix of frustration and growing alarm.

            “Are you giving it everything? Hyperdrive and impulse?”

            “Everything, sir.”

            “Can we polarize the tractor beam and push away from the center of mass?” the captain asked.

            “That’s just the problem, sir,” Jordan said. “It’s really like a hole. It feeds on anything we send its way. There’s nothing to push against.”

            “Sir, there’s a small planetoid ahead. It’s in a higher orbital plane. Our thrust plus the tractor beam may enable us to pull ourselves out.”

            “Do it,” Mundy said, wiping his brow and pushing his blond hair back up on his head. Longer than regulation but in space, who cares?

            He watched while Anderson flipped switches and dials expertly at his consol. He’s just a kid, Mundy thought. At 21 David Anderson had zoomed through the Academy and now was on his first space mission.

            “Put it on visual, Karen.”

            On the large view screen they could see an irregularly shaped rock, a couple of miles long and maybe a third as wide. It was slowly pinwheeling like a thrown bowling pin. A fat bowling pin. They could hear the hum as the tractor beam locked onto its target and began pulling. The rock appeared to grow in size, indicating they were getting closer. Anderson’s plan was working.

            “Captain, our engines can’t sustain this much strain. If we don’t cut back soon they may blow. Then we won’t have any power.” Jones was shouting on his comm over the alarm that had begun clanging in the engine room.

            “And if we don’t keep it up, we’ll be having our dinner at the center of a black hole. Keep it coming, Jonesie.” Mundy could visualize Jonesie in the engine room – overalls, stained tee shirt, graying hair sticking up in all directions. In his estimation the best damn engineer in the fleet.

            With an electrical crackle, a spark flew out of one of the dials on Anderson’s consol. He jumped back to avoid being shocked.

            “Captain, we just lost engine two. We’re starting to lose altitude.”

            “See if we can lock onto the rock with our talons. That should give us some room to catch our breath.” Anderson folded his six foot two frame back into the helmsman’s seat.

            As they were near enough to the asteroid the ship shot out several grappling hooks. They reeled the ship in and drove pitons into the rock to secure the ship. The asteroid continued pinwheeling on with the ship along for the ride.

            “Jonesie. How long until the engine is back online?”

            “I dunno, Captain. Maybe never.”

            “Not acceptable. Get my engine running. That’s an order.” 

            “Will do, Captain.” If anyone could fix a broken engine in space, it was Jonesie, he thought.

            “Suggestions, gentlemen?” Captain Mundy said, looking around the bridge.

            “Sir, once we get engine two back online we can wait until the planetoid is between us and the black hole. We could polarize the tractor beam as you suggested and push ourselves toward a higher orbital plane. Once there we could look for other masses to pull or push against. We might be able to crawl out by stages that way.”

            “Mister Anderson, remind me to give you a raise,” the captain smiled. He clicked his comm button again. “Jones, I need that engine.”

            “Working on it, Captain.”

***

Captain’s Log

United Earth Ship Superior

Captain Robert Mundy

Star Date 3428.7

Earth Date April 20, 2316

Our exploratory and mapping mission into the Sagittarian Arm of the galaxy has been interrupted by discovery of a black hole. We were pulled into its gravity well and are working on plans to get out. Engine two is temporarily out. No casualties or injuries in the 20 ship personnel. Captain out.

***

            “Karen, get this and my last five log entries encrypted and sent to Earth Command.”

            “Aye, Captain. It may take some time. I can’t send it via any media except subspace. Nothing else can overcome the gravity well.”

            “How does subspace do it? Maybe we can use that technology to our advantage.”

            “Not unless we can make ourselves microscopic. Subspace uses quantum entanglement to overcome the issues with gravity, speed of light and distance. That only works on the subatomic level. However, if we don’t get out of this black hole’s grasp, we will soon be the size of those subatomic particles.”

            “Explain,” the captain asked. His forte was military, not science and he had no problem deferring to Karen Jordan’s obviously immense intelligence and vast store of knowledge.

            “Yes, sir. As we get closer to the center of mass our bodies will be subjected to greater and greater gravitational pressure. The ship’s force field will protect us for a while. That won’t last long as the force increases. It will give away and we will be crushed. Then the ship will collapse like an old-style aluminum can. Our mass will remain the same but our volume will continue decreasing as we fall into the hole. But the radiation may kill us first.”

            “What happens when we hit bottom?”

            “No one knows. There may be hundreds of star systems already in the hole. The pressure will be so great that eventually the atoms will collapse. When the electrons connect with their nuclei there will likely be a tremendous release of energy but our equations fail us. Einstein theorized an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, what some people call a wormhole.”

            “Time travel, Karen? Surely you don’t believe in that.”

            “If Einstein believed it, it’s good enough for me. He said it would open a portal to another place and time, possibly another universe. Unfortunately, we won’t be alive to see it.”

            “Unfortunately,” Mundy echoed.

            “Our complement of scientists is having a field day with this. No one has ever been able to study a black hole this closely before.”

            “I wonder why,” Mundy said sourly.

            “They understand that we are in trouble, but you know how scientists are. They are feeding the computers data as fast as they can to be encrypted for shipping back to colleagues on Earth. Gloria was just telling me about the anomalies she has spotted just outside the event horizon.”

            “What kind of anomalies?”

            “We don’t know. Wrinkles or tears in the space/time continuum.”

            “Space/time continuum? I think you just exceeded my pay grade, Lieutenant. Carry on.” He watched as she headed back to the labs to ride herd on his “resident eggheads” as he called the ten scientists on the mission. As her superior officer he maintained a friendly distance. As a man he admired how her rear filled her uniform and undulated, creating the infinity sign as she walked, her short blond cut bouncing gaily. She’s twenty-five and I’m twenty-nine, he thought. She’s beautiful and I’m somewhat handsome (he knew some of the female scientists had their eye on him. One of the male ones also according to his First Officer). Any other place and time, he mused. If only we could drop into that wormhole. He smiled ruefully as Major Donovan approached.

“Smiling at your science officer’s ass, Captain? Hardly regulation, but I have to agree with you.” Ben Donovan was a rugged man of thirty-five, decorated and proven on many occasions. He had earned distinction but then was reassigned to a desk. War horses aren’t needed in peace time. He had requested to come along on this mission as security. He said his other option was to put a laser pistol to his head.

“What’s up, Major Donovan?” Mundy asked. As a military man himself, he trusted Donovan as much as anyone on his bridge team.

“A minute of your time, if I may.” Although Donovan technically outranked Mundy, as he was Marine to Mundy’s Navy, he always deferred to Mundy as the commanding officer of the ship.

“Shoot.”

“I want to know if our situation is as dire as it sounds. Some of the eggheads are getting a bit skittish. I need to know if me and Jorgenson are going to have a riot on our hands.”

Donovan and Lieutenant Kevin Jorgenson, the other marine, had been attached as their “security team”, although he wasn’t sure how much security a couple of jarheads could provide. But who knows what they were likely to encounter, and a few hired guns might come in handy.

“We have a plan, such as it is. If it doesn’t work, well, yeah, we’re in dire shape. Jordan doesn’t think our scientist friends will cause much trouble. They’re having fun with their toys and the black hole right now. If worst comes to worst, we can lock’em down.”

“I wanted to make sure I have authorization to keep order.”

“Just use non-lethal force, and only as necessary. I’d hate to get out of this at the last second and have to explain dead scientists to Earth Command. My ship, my responsibility.”

***

“Captain, I’ve got engine two running again. It’s jury rigged but it should hold. Unlessen you try to get it to do more than a ship this size is supposed to do. These are small engines, Captain. Not what you’re used to in the Navy. Fortunately, the failsafe knocked if offline before it had a chance to go kapow.” Jones’ voice sounded weary.

            “Mister Anderson. Do we have a target?” the captain asked.

            “Yes, sir. We do. Another large asteroid. Fortunately, we are passing directly under it while our little rock is between us and the center of mass of the black hole. On your mark, Captain.”

            “Mister Jordan, let me know when we are in optimum position,” he ordered, using official Navy terminology for the lieutenant.

            “Aye, Captain. Position coming up. In three, two, one. Now.”

            “Engage,” the captain ordered. Since the ship’s artificial gravity remained constant and overrode all external stimuli, the only indication that they were moving was a faint rumbling from within the ship.

            “Thrust at maximum, Captain. Tractor polarized repulsion also at maximum. We seem to be gaining ground,” reported Anderson.

            “Alright, Davie,” Mundy had come to stand by Anderson’s chair, bent over, his head close to the second lieutenant. “At the halfway point we flip the tractor and switch polarization at the same time, locking onto the new asteroid. No second chances.” Everyone sat quietly as the seconds elapsed.

            “Now, Davie!” Mundy was amazed at how quickly the young man’s hands flew over his console.

            “Target acquired, and … traction.”

            “Captain, I’m warning you. The engines ain’t liking this one bit,” Jones called almost immediately.

            “I’m not asking them to like it. Just do their jobs. Give me fifteen more seconds.”

            “We got maybe 20. No more.”

            “Come on, Davie. Pull!”

            “Grappling hooks away,” Anderson said. “And contact. Cut engines.”

            “Reel us in and lock it down. Well, done, Mr. Anderson.” He patted the young man’s shoulder. Anderson sat back, quite pleased with himself.

***

            The bridge door opened and First Officer Commander Jennifer Newly strode in. Her black hair was pulled into a tight bun and everything about her looking fresh and pressed. She had served nearly five years with Mundy. She repeatedly made sure to be assigned as his second. She knew he had the makings of a great captain and wanted to learn from him. And she had decided he wasn’t that hard to look at, either. She felt that, together, they made a formidable team. Mundy was inclined to agree.

            “Reporting for shift, Captain. You may be relieved if you wish.”

            “Good to see you, Jen. Take the con. Mister Anderson, brief the commander. Lieutenant Jordan, with me. We have a scientist to go see.” He and Jordan left the bridge, with Jordan wondering what this was about.

***

Despite its name, UES Superior was not a large ship. An inelegantly shaped floating box, it was fifty meters long, ten wide and twenty deep. It resembled two old style mobile home units, one stacked atop the other. It was divided into a small bridge, science labs, five closet sized cubicles for the scientists who had to double up, and six for the crew. Only Mundy had a private room. Or private closet as he called it. There was also a small workout area crew were required and scientists were “recommended” to use to maintain their muscle mass while in space. Finally, a dining area/meeting room that would accommodate all twenty of them, with a little crowding. The scientists worked in shifts, five sleeping while five had the labs. Similarly, Captain Mundy and Commander Newly traded off, as did engineer Commander Casey Jones and his assistant Lieutenant Digger Emory. The other four crew, Jordan, Anderson, Cain and Dr. N’duru also rotated as needed.

***

            It took nearly two days to find another large body to use. At least they assumed it was two days. None of the chronometers worked in the event horizon vortex. They could determine very little except that there was a violent maelstrom of matter and energy surrounding the ship.

            They attempted the maneuver just as before. However, shortly after starting, Karen shouted “Gravitational wave!” Everyone grabbed onto whatever they could as the wave slammed into the ship. It sent them tumbling along the orbital path. Fortunately, the shielding was strong enough to keep them from being crushed as they bounced around the orbital zone like the ball in an ancient pinball machine. By the time they had established a modicum of control over their ship Anderson shouted, “Holy moley, we’re headed straight into the hole!”

            “Pull out, pull out!” Captain Mundy ordered, keeping the panic he felt from his voice. Because of Anderson’s quick thinking and sharp reflexes, they managed to pull the ship up and it shot across the surface of the waves of hot gases like a stone skimming across a lake. They had lost a significant amount of altitude, although they had no way of measuring how much. They could hear the groans and growling of the ship hull as the force field tried to shield them from the crushing gravity this deep in the black hole. They had swung around the hole like a rock in a sling around a hunter’s raised hand.

            “Captain, I can’t get an accurate gauge,” said Anderson. “But it would appear we’ve been slung into a superfast eddy. We’re spinning around the hole like crazy. Maybe as much as 0.9 light speed. This ship isn’t built for such speed. If it weren’t for the force field and gravitational pressure we’d have already spun apart.”

            “So, if we hit light speed we’ll start going back in time and can avoid this mess?” Captain Mundy joked.

            “I wish. Even our school kids don’t believe that anymore,” Commander Newly said. Considering the predicament they were in, she had taken to remaining on the bridge during her down time. “There’s no going back in time.”

            “Except maybe through a black hole,” said Lieutenant Jordan winsomely.

            “That’s pretty much that, then,” said Mundy. “We’ve got no more aces up our sleeves. Karen, can we get a last dispatch off to Earth Command?”

            “Negative, Captain. We’re so deep in the hole even the quantum realm is affected.”

***

            Over a few days they successfully attached themselves to several larger bodies caught in the same super-eddy and gained a little more distance from the black hole, but were unable to move further. Their velocity made it impossible to grab large bodies outside the eddy. Lieutenant Jordan said it was just as well. The sudden jolt of the reduction in speed would probably tear the ship apart.

            The crew spent a week maneuvering the ship to the upper edges of the eddy only to have the gravity drag them back down. It required constant monitoring to keep them out of the black hole’s hungry maw.

            “I doubt we can do this much longer,” Mundy said, speaking to the entire crew and scientists. “The toll on the superstructure of the ship is too much. It will eventually give. I suppose we have a few more days, less than a week before the hull is breached. I imagine it will be a quick, but quite painful death. I will authorize desensitizing pills for all military personnel who want them, but I expect everyone to be at their stations from now on. We will meet this like a disciplined team. N’duru, as medical officer, could you take over distributing suicide pills to the scientists who may want a quick exit?”

            “Sure thing, Captain.” She left the bridge to carry out her assignment.

            “I guess this is where I’m supposed to say it’s been an honor to serve with you. It sounds so trite, but actually it sums up how I feel. It has been an honor. Thank you, sir,” Karen said. Mundy could hear the held back tears in her voice.

            “Same here, Karen. Chin up. Best damn science officer ever. I’ll put that in your permanent file,” he said with a grin. She gave him a tremulous smile.

            After Karen left the bridge to confer with the scientists Jennifer Newly came up to Mundy’s chair.

            “I just wanted to echo what Karen said. It truly has been an honor to serve with you. Five years now. We know each other so well. I can almost anticipate your orders before you give them. It’s just awful that it has to end this way. If there’s anything like an afterlife I guess I’ll see you on the other side, Rob.”

            “Yeah, feels like we’re an old married couple. See you too, Jen. If we both go the same way,” he said with a smile.

***

            For the rest of the day they all sat at their stations, pretending it was like any other day. Most of them had no family back home. That was why they had chosen a multi-year mission into space. Anderson kept Mundy apprised of what the psi on the outer hull was, and how much it could withstand. He also reported that radiation inside the ship was reaching critical levels.

            They were near to breaking and another gravitational surge like the last two would flatten the ship. Their hearts barely had time to leap into their throats when Karen yelled, “Gravitational surge, but it’s coming from …”. That was all she managed to get out before the wave struck the fragile little craft.

***

Admiral’s Log

WAF ship Konigsberg

Reich-Admiral Zariah Als

15.13.578 Anno Imperium

The crew has become restless as we have been weeks without a prize. My research into ancient records indicate a ship was lost in this area over 900 years ago, back during the United Earth years. There is no record of another ship salvaging it so it should be somewhere in this star system. I’ll check the black hole first. A smart captain would have devised a way to park himself at the event horizon if he were captured by it. Perhaps that ship is circling there still, with near thousand-year-old corpses guarding their treasures. Admiral out

***

            The scuttlebutt is that we are looking for a ghost ship lost a thousand years ago, thought Bunde Christophe Verhoven. If I’m in a boarding party and come up against a skeleton, I hope I hold my shite together better than poor Bujonjoe did. I had befriended him, although I’ve had to act in the past few weeks as if I never did. I feel like I deserted him. I’m most ashamed of that. Such a sensitive soul as him should never have been in the military. He was not cut out for it. But his family forced the issue. His old man was a hard-core Nationalist. He swore his son would serve and advance or die honorably. Well, Buj did neither. He stuck his laser pistol in his mouth on wide dispersal and vaporized his head. When we found that freighter a couple months ago Buj had been on the boarding party. He stumbled and fell into a partially decomposed body. He screamed and scrambled back, spewing vomit all over himself. Even worse, he pissed himself. The men laughed at him. But they felt he had cracked under pressure. He could not be trusted. He was no longer part of the team. He started getting hazed pretty hard. I saw the bruises from the beatings he was getting. The dark circles under his eyes told me he wasn’t sleeping, or wasn’t being allowed to sleep. He avoided messhall and hardly ate a thing. He confided in me the last time I saw him alive that the three guys who everyone knew were the worst of the sadistic bundesleiters had gang raped him. He was frantic and didn’t know where to turn. It was even worse luck that he was serving with an old pirate like Als. And I don’t use the word pirate lightly. Als, with his one eye and broad girth is much like the lawless brigands that sailed the oceans of old Earth some two thousand years ago. But the Supreme Leader and the Empire turn a blind eye to his activities as long as he gets results. Als pays as little attention to his men as to the law so the worst of the bullies run the barracks. They had identified Bujonjoe as a weak link and he was being removed. As far as he was concerned, he took the only path he could see. I just feel sorry for him.

***

            “So tell me, Reichsmagister, what do you see?” Admiral Als asked his science advisor.

            “There might be something there, might not. If it’s beyond the event horizon we won’t be able to see it.”

            “I’m aware of that. But our quantum entanglement device can detect telltale signs at the quantum level if there is something in there worth pursuing.”

            “Yes, but at the cost of a huge expenditure of energy which we are already running low on.”

            “But think what we might find? The records say a science ship was lost in this area. It may have had those sun charged batteries we lost the technology for. Just think if we found those. An endless supply of energy for me. And for the Empire at the right price of course. And a science ship. No telling what surprising technologies it may hold. So much was lost in the Glorious Revolution.”

            “If it is your command, mein Herr.”

            “It is.”

            “As you wish. Heil!” he gave his admiral the straight arm salute.

            “Heil.”

***

            Poor Buj. Being raped was the ultimate dishonor. Man on man sex was nothing new. On spacing ships with a hundred men and no women it was not uncommon. Some barracks had men who liked it and provided for their platoon. In others, the weaker men were just taken and forced. Even that had a modicum of honor since they were providing for the esprit de corps. But to be raped for no other reason than to show that you could be signifies the victim is no man. He is no more a man than is a slave. He is as low as a woman and used as one. I am not sure if that message is what sent Buj over the edge or if it was just a cumulative effect. I’m not sure I could handle it as long as poor Buj did. God, I hope I hold my shite together if I’m on that boarding party.

***

            “Mixed news, mien Admiral,” said the Reichsmagister as he entered the bridge. He stopped and sketched a short bow before continuing. “It appears from the QED signature that a ship is hiding in the jersa surrounding the hole.”

            “Not hiding, Reichsmagister. Just the victim of a power beyond its ability to control. Just as we would be if we ventured too close.” Then, as if just making sure, he turned to the helmsman. “Helmsleiter, be sure to keep a respectable distance from the event horizon or you will feel the sting of my laser baton on your back.”

            “Jawohl, mein Admiral.” Helmsleiter Kell’s eyes grew wide and round at the thought of the Admiral’s laser baton.

            “That sounds like good news, Reichsmagister. Can we get a fix on it?” asked the admiral.

            “Nein. It moves around the black hole at nearly the speed of light. May as well try to capture an electron as it speeds around its nucleus.”

            “That is not acceptable Reichsmagister. A thing that can be measured can be captured. I will not come this far and be denied my prize. It is your duty to determine how we will acquire it. I will give you until this time tomorrow to work it out. Dismissed.”

            “Heil!” said the Reichsmagister with his straight arm salute.

            “Heil.”

***

            It looks like I may be off the hook, after all. Even if there is a derelict to be salvaged we apparently can’t get to it. The admiral gave the Reichsmagister until today to figure it out. The guys say he’s got nothing. The admiral doesn’t like hearing no. The Reichsmagister will at least wind up in the brig and we may be rounded up to see a public torture. It’s been a while since anybody pissed off the old man that much. Word gets around. They say the Reichsmagister was on the bridge till late last shift. He supposedly had some animated conversations with Commandant Michaelik Smits. I don’t know what that was about, but I bet he was trying to work out how not to end up in the torture booth. I don’t particularly like the Reichsmagister but no one deserves the torture booth. And I don’t like being forced to watch the agony of a man as he is tortured. An object lesson, Als calls it. Als is a savage bully who likes hurting people. Unfortunately, he is just the kind of man the Empire breeds and promotes. I hate this whole stinking culture. I hate what they did to Bujonjoe. And I hate what they are trying to make me become.

***

            “Heil, mein Admiral. I believe I have devised a method of extracting the derelict ship from the cloud of jersa.” The Reichsmagister looked haggard from his sleepless night.

            “Oh? Enlighten me.”

            “Commandant Smits. If you would be so kind. Please bring up the black hole with the suspected orbit of the ship as predicted by the QED.” A black sun appeared on the screen, blacker than the black background. It was most visible as a black circle in the group of background stars. A red dot circled the black sun so rapidly it seemed to be a solid line. It was at a forty degree angle to the WAF Konigsberg, only partially visible from their angle.

            “Now, Herr Kell,” he spoke to the helmsman. “Please realign the ship’s orbit by fifty degrees longitudinally.” The helmsman looked to the Commandant.

            “Do it,” he said. Once they had established a new orbit the Reichsmagister said, “You see now that our orbit is perpendicular to the salvage. Bring us to this point in our orbit, Herr Kell,” he said, pointing to a spot on the small map in front of Kell. “Now show us a ship’s view of the orbit of the salvage.” The diagram on the large screen showed the same black spot. But now the red dot was circling the back spot in a wide flat circle, always in sight.

            “We can capture what we can measure, you said, mein Admiral. But to measure it we must see it. From this vantage we can figuratively see it or at least detect it continuously. That will allow us to capture it. I propose to polarize our tractor beam to a circular pattern, set it to detect only metal, turn it toward the orbit of the salvage and see what fish we catch.”

            “Masterful and logical. Just as I expected of you, mein Reichsmagister,” said Als with sincerity in his voice. “Helmsleiter, make the changes the Reichsmagister has recommended.”

            “Jawohl, mein Admiral.” The young helmsman’s fingers flew over his control panel. He knew Admiral Als had little patience and was not to be kept waiting.

            “Ready, mein Admiral.”

            “Proceed.”  

***

The crew of the UES Superior were near to breaking and another gravitational surge like the last two would flatten the ship. Their hearts barely had time to leap into their throats when Karen yelled, “Gravitational surge, but it’s coming from …” That was all she managed to get out before the wave struck the fragile little craft. “Above,” she barely managed to yell. The hissing, pinging and bonging from the craft moving around the slurry of the black hole increased.

“It looks as if we’re moving against the momentum of the debris, not toward the black hole,” said Anderson peering through a porthole. “That’s not possible.”

“Maybe another black hole has moved into the neighborhood,” offered Jimmy Cain, a helmsman who wasn’t on duty but had decided to meet the end among his friends. He was so young, just out of the Academy, he made Mundy feel like an old man. He was an odd match as Anderson’s counterpart at the helm. At five feet six he was the shortest height the Academy would accept.

            “No, we’d have noticed it before now,” said Jordan.

            “Well, we’re definitely moving. And up, away from the black hole. I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.” Anderson was delighted.

            “Well, I don’t like my staff standing around with their collective thumbs up their asses. Something’s going on and I want answers. Pronto!” Everyone scrambled to their stations and managed to look industrious although no one knew exactly what to do.

***

            “We must find a way to slow down the craft. Once it leaves the soupy jersa surrounding the black hole it might fly apart slinging around at nearly the speed of light. Helmsleiter, can you use the tractor beam to retard their speed?”

            “Jawohl, Herr Reichsmagister.”

            “Then do so.”

***

            “Captain. The ship is definitely caught in a gravity wave from above. But the wave is coherent, not natural. It’s as if we’re caught in a tractor beam.” Karen Jordan came up with a theory that seemed hardly plausible.

            “We’re movin’ at near the speed of light. Ain’t no tractor beam can catch you when you’re doin’ that,” Casey Jones gave his opinion. As the expert on what was physically possible with machinery, what he said carried weight.

            “We’re slowing down,” Anderson called from his console. “It’s like our engines are being overridden.”

            “Cut our engines, Davie. Let’s save them for when we need them. Somebody or something has us in a trap. I want to know who or what and why. Give it to me, gentlemen.”

            “I think I know,” said Anderson softly, yet everyone turned. “Look at this.” The screen showed an exterior view from the ship. It was obvious they were rising through waves of gases and energy, star dust and micrometeoroids. And right in the center, possibly light minutes distant was a glowing dot. A dot that the console indicated was a spaceship. A spaceship that was not registered on Earth.

            “Oh shit,” said Mundy. “First contact.”        

***

“Captain. I really must demand that you let me speak with the aliens. As the only one aboard with diplomatic experience it is only reasonable,” scientist Harry Albright said. “No offense, but with your military background and military thinking you are liable to cowboy us into an interspecies war.”

            “No offense taken,” Mundy said gritting his teeth. He really hated dealing with these people. That’s what he had Karen for.

            “Harry, you know NASA and World Council protocol is very clear on this. The commander of the ship that makes first contact is to represent Earth unless an actual credentialed diplomat is on board,” Jordan chided him.

            “That’s ridiculous. This is too important a moment to be left to amateurs.”

            “We haven’t even determined if they are friendly or hostile. Before I let you invite them in for tea and crumpets I want to know a little bit more about them.”

            “It’s attitudes like that which get us into wars. I wish to file a complaint.”

            “Take it up with Earth Command.”

            “Hmph! If you are going to continue to refuse to see reason on this, at least agree that Dr. Righter and myself will sit on the committee that receives them. There’s no telling what kind of faux pas you may commit.”

            “Dr. Albright. Let me put this as diplomatically as I can. No fucking way!” He knew Earth Command would be all over him about this, but the momentary satisfaction was worth it. He strode out.

***

            “Karen, is it possible for them to hold us in a tractor beam at this distance?” Mundy asked.

            “I don’t think possible is the question. They undoubtedly do have us in a beam.”

            “Well, they saved our asses. We need to thank them. Establish communication. And give us a little push with impulse, Anderson. I want to at least give the impression that we are coming to them of our own will.”  

            “Captain, I’ve done some scans on them. They don’t have any kind of shield up to prevent scans.” Commander Newly said.

            “So, either their shields are down to show friendly intent or they don’t fear us enough to put up shields or they just don’t have shields. Keep our shields up, Jennifer, until we know more about them. What did your scans find?”

            “A mixed bag. Their engines seem more primitive than ours, but they do have hyperdrive, obviously. They are also heavily armed. I doubt our shields would last more than a couple of salvos. Heat signature would indicate there are warm-blooded creatures inside.”

            “Good. I really didn’t want to meet up with any lizard people. I hate lizards,” said the captain, only half joking.

            “Or bug people. The movies about bug people give me nightmares,” admitted Anderson.

            “Alright. Let’s keep our wits about us. Anything yet, Karen?”

            “Negative, Captain.”

            “Send everything we know so far to Earth Command. Do it subspace. If they detect the message they may mistake it for hostile intent, or they may trace it to Earth. No need in announcing where we’re from until we know more.”

            “Will do, Captain.”    

            “Captain!” Commander Newly called. “I’ve got something on my system. It looks like a message. It’s an old style system of amplitude frequency modulation, we haven’t used it in decades or even hundreds of years.”

            “Good. Feed it into the computer to start working on a translation. Is it directed at us?”

            “No, sir. It was sent in the other direction. I guess back to its base or fleet.”

            “Holy shit,” Jimmy whispered it so only Anderson heard it. “Captain, Captain, you gotta hear this.”

            “What, Jimmy?” asked Mundy.

            “Well, you know I’m a technogeek, right? I mean I have a kind of skill with computer systems. I can hack into just about anywhere. I think I just hacked into the intership system of the aliens. They’re speaking English.”

***

            “Commandant Smits,” called Helmsleiter Kell. “The salvage appears to be assisting our tractor beam.”

            “What do you mean ‘assisting’?” asked the Commandant. Admiral Als walked over to stand near the helmsman.

            “The salvage seems to be pulling away from the black hole, as if trying to come toward us.”

            “That ship has been stuck over 900 years and has accreted a ton of sludge and spacemud. It was probably just stuck and then broke loose. No chance of us losing it?” the Commandant asked, seeking assurance. Losing Admiral Als’ salvage ship would send them all to a prison planet.

            “No sir. We have a good grip and our beam is strong. And as I said, it’s not fighting us. It’s trying to come toward us.”

            “Interesting,” said the Reichsmagister from a nearby console. “I’ve noticed the ship’s energy signature. Its systems seem to be still running. Imagine that. After 900 years. They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

            “Yes. A worthy prize,” gloated the Admiral from his perch above all the others on the bridge.

            “Commandant! I am getting a communication from the salvage ship,” the communications officer said. “It is a regular signal, I don’t recognize the frequency. I can’t tell if there is any message imbedded, just a regular pinging.”

            “Bah. It’s probably an automated distress signal. It’s probably motion sensitive, set to start if the ship is disturbed. You are all as nervous as my maiden aunt. Herr Kell. How long until we get the ship into our cargo bay?”

            “Four hours, mein Herr.”

***

            “English? What the hell? Are you sure about that, Jimmy?”  The captain was out of his chair and standing beside Lieutenant Cain, looking at his console.

            “Their system is primitive. My little sister could hack into this. But look at these interoffice messages. English. Some of the wording is a bit off, but that’s what it is.”

            “Ok. Keep looking. Karen, Jennifer. Thoughts?”

            “Not a clue,” Jennifer said.

            “I’m stumped, too,” Karen said, shaking her head so that a lock of blonde escaped her band and fell in her eye. She absentmindedly brushed it away.

            “Captain,” Jimmy called again. “I can get into the log of where the ship’s been, cargo, armament, registry, personnel. Everything but the captain’s log. The encryption there is more sophisticated. It may take me a while to break it, but I’m sure I can,” he said with a sniff of pride.

            “What have you found out.”

            “Nothing that makes sense. It says it left Earth a couple of years ago. They have 90 personnel, mostly soldiers. Heavily armed. Under an Admiral Zariah Als. A lot of the titles involve ‘reich’. And the system of dates is weird. Apparently, it’s the year 578 AI. And, uh, well there was something about being involved in the Martian uprising. The ship was instrumental in causing the collapse of the dome over the Martian capital, causing everyone inside to die. That was like a million people. My gramma lives there,” there was a note of worry in his voice. “It matches nothing in our computer’s data base.”

            “None of that makes a bit of sense.” Mundy was perplexed as anyone.

            “Ship’s registry is WAF Reichsboot Konigsberg”

            “WAF?” asked Mundy.

            “Uh, it says World Aryan Federation.”

            “Oh my god. Neo-Nazis? That explains all the pseudo-German crap. I didn’t think there were enough of them to make a difference,” Newly said. “Have they taken over while we were gone?”

            “No. We’ve been in contact with Earth the whole time, except when we were in the event horizon. Wait a minute. I noticed something earlier but didn’t follow up. The stars are wrong,” Jordan said.

            “Stars?” Mundy asked.

            “Computer. Analyze star field and match with current star charts,” she ordered.

            “Complete,” said a disembodied voice.

            “Based on star position what is the date?”

            “Star date approximately 5739.”

            “That’s not possible,” said Mundy. “Computer. Recalculate.”

            “Working. Star date 5739, unable to calculate decimal based on available data. Earth date 3220, unable to calculate month and day based on available data.”

            Anderson said what everyone was thinking. “But that’s like 900 years difference, in the future.”

            “No. The computer must be malfunctioning, taking in some erroneous information,” Newly said. “Or affected by the black hole’s radiation. Either that or we have to believe that we have time traveled into the future. Which isn’t possible.”

            “I wonder,” said Jordan. “I have a theory. Let me get to my console.” Once sitting at her station, she began typing and bringing up various charts and queries. “Damn. It works out. I never would have believed it.”

            “Karen, what’s going on? What have you figured out?” Mundy asked.

            “Maybe a rational answer. It involves relativity. Science has found that Einstein was correct in most of what he theorized. One of the effects of relativity is that the faster a ship moves, the slower time passes within the ship. A ship going from Earth to Alpha Centauri at half the speed of light could get there in 8.5 years to outside observers, but the crew will have only experienced it as a year or so. Experiments have proven this is correct. Well, we were in that black hole for what, a week, maybe two? Davie said we were accelerated to .9 the speed of light in the super-eddy. According to my calculations, and Einstein’s calculations back them up, what we experienced as ten days, at .85 light speed the rest of the universe would experience as 900 years.”

            “No. That can’t be right,” Mundy stated.

            “The math is correct, Rob,” she almost never called him by his first name while on duty.”

            “Ok. I got into their history files. It says the World Aryan Federation defeated United Earth 578 years ago, 2642 CE – old style, hence the date of 578 Anno Imperium – ‘in the year of the Empire’. Shit. Pardon, Captain. It really happened. They’re not aliens. They’re us. We’re in the future. And from what I’ve seen in their files, we’re fucked.”

***

            “Commandant. Come quickly.” Kell motioned to Smits. “Look,” he said once Smits was at his station. “Heat signatures from within the vessel. There are warm blooded creatures inside.”

            “Unbelievable. How many?”

            “Impossible to tell. I’d say maybe 15, certainly no more than 25.”

            “You sure it’s not just mold growing on the decomposed bodies?”

            “No, Herr Commandant. It has to be actual warm-blooded creatures.”

            “Interlopers. Someone may have salvaged it before we got here? How unfortunate. For them,” said the Admiral. “We will have to relieve them of their burden. Anyway, they were stuck in the event horizon. I’m sure they will be very grateful for our rescue.”

            “Communications officer. Can we contact them?”

            “I believe so, mein Admiral. At least I can send a message to them. Whether they answer is the question.”

            “So be it,” barked Als. “Send them this. Attention to anyone who may be on the vessel we have in tow. I, Admiral Zariah Als, have claimed this vessel under Space Salvage Laws of the World Aryan Federation, Third edition. Under Chapter 2, section 7 of said regulations I claim possession of the vessel and all contents. The vessel will be brought into our cargo bay. Resistance will be met with overwhelming force and perpetrators will be dealt with harshly. You will be apprised of your disposition at a later date.”

***

            “That doesn’t sound very friendly,” commented Mundy upon hearing the message from Als. I would like to be ‘apprised of my disposition’ before I deliver myself into his hands.”

            “Sir, I found their Space Salvage rules while digging through their library,” Jimmy said. “It says that any abandoned or stranded space vessel may be taken for salvage only by a military commander. All cargo and contents become the property of the salvager. Section 7 states that any ship that is not registered with the Federation is contraband and any personnel taken are considered criminals and may be sold as slaves.”

            “Slaves?” Jordan exclaimed. “No civilized people allow slavery.”

            “Maybe not in our world. But it looks like we’re not in our world anymore,” Jimmy said. “And it’s worse than just that. Women have no rights. They are the property of their father or husband. They aren’t allowed any kind of public life. Most never leave the house.”

            “Keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant. Isn’t that what they used to say,” said Newly. It wasn’t really a question. Her tone of voice showed it was a condemnation of the whole system.

            “We’re not going to just give up to them are we, Captain,” asked a wide-eyed Anderson.

            “Hell, no,” growled an angry Jonesie. “Gimme a blaster and I’ll take out a dozen or more before I go down. And I can set off a couple of neutron grenades for good measure. Jonesie ain’t nobody’s slave!”

            “But this is a science ship. We have no weaponry,” worried Dr. Harry Albright. He and Dr. Gloria Righter were called in to represent the ten scientists on board. “Surely they can be reasoned with.”

            “Dr. Albright, I’m a reasonable man and I’m all for reasoning with our new friends, but I’m beginning to think that ship has sailed. I’ll make nice for now, but I’m not opposed to letting loose a little of our force against them. Jimmy, how many are on that ship?”

            “Infrared imaging indicates 90.”

            “We have 10 warriors here. Each of us have to take out nine bad guys. I like our odds” Major Donovan said with a grim grin.         

            “Captain, you’re going to get us all killed, or worse,” complained Albright.

            “Maybe Dr. Albright. But I don’t fancy being a slave to some latter-day Nazi. You and the scientists can hang back if you want, but I’m going in with a plan.”

            “What’s the plan, Cap,” asked Jonesie.

            “Well, I think we need to tread softly for now. Much as I’d like to, we don’t need to go in with guns blazing. We’ve determined that their technology is way behind ours. I guess they must have lost a lot of it in some war. They don’t need to know that. Jimmy said even his sister could hack their system. He and Anderson and Jorgenson are tech whizzes. If we can get them into the bad guys’ ship system we could throw ‘em a few curves. I imagine they’ll keep us together at first. Albright, Righter, you keep your scientists together as much as possible. If we’re going to make a break it needs to be early on. I don’t want to leave anyone behind but if it’s between that and getting everyone else out, I will leave your ass behind. If I say move, your people need to move.”

“We’ll be ready, Captain,” said Righter, while silencing the blustering Albright.

“Good,” Mundy continued. “Dr. Righter, tell your people to encrypt access to everything they have. If this goes sideways, I don’t want to give them anything easily. My team. Make nice. Get them comfortable. Encourage them to brag about their system. The more we know, the better. Jimmy, encrypt all ship’s documents.”

            In the meantime, Mundy sent Admiral Als a neutrally worded response saying that his crew were a science team and posed no threat to him or the Empire. He said they were stuck in the black hole, but not derelict. He indicated that they were duly registered with United Earth which he assumed was no longer dominant. He asked for asylum for the eminent scientists on board who could undoubtedly provide new and valuable technologies to the Empire. He got no reply.

***

            The Konigsberg quickly became visible out the portholes. It bristled with antennae and what were undoubtedly guns. It was obviously a warship. And it was huge. They later discovered the majority of its size was made up of the large cargo bay. It yawned before them like the maw of some ravenous beast of prey. Soon they were completely engulfed. Their ship settled in the artificial gravity of the bay and their gauges showed the air pressure was quickly approaching Earth normal.

            “Looks like it’s showtime, people. Look lively. We want to make a good impression,” Mundy smiled, hoping to cheer up the somber group.

            His officers all had on their dress uniforms and the scientists, well, they were still a motley looking crew. Through the porthole he could see the main gate into the bay open. A detachment of about twenty soldiers trotted in and fanned out to keep the ship under armed guard.

            A burly man and a slimmer one came in last and looked expectantly at the ship. Mundy unlocked the hatch and a short ramp opened. He led his group out, the crew marching orderly, the scientists crowded together and frightened looking. They stopped short in front of Admiral Als. The man was Mundy’s height, broad and dressed in a uniform with many medals and stripes. His greasy gray hair was pulled back in a queue. A black patch over one eye gave him the look of a pirate. Mundy suspected it was more than just a look. He had a short, grizzled beard and appeared to be a hard worn fifty. The man beside him was shorter, younger and dressed in a black uniform. The insignia on his uniform denoted Commander rank. Looking at Als, Mundy brought up his right hand offering a military salute. Als just looked at him and sneered.

            “My name is Captain Robert Mundy, commanding the United Earth ship Superior.”

Als gave him a backhanded slap. There was the sharp intake of breath among Mundy’s officers but no one moved.

            “You have no name unless I say so. You are a slave and are only to speak when spoken to. You all live and die at my pleasure. Do you understand?”

            “Yes, Admiral,” Mundy replied tightly. No man had ever struck him and walked away unscathed. Als would not be the first, he vowed.

            “As part of the cargo of the salvaged vessel you are my property. Please me and you will be kept in my service. Displease me and there are unpleasant alternatives. Eighteen of you. Is that your full complement?”

“Yes, Admiral.” Als motioned to his soldiers and four trotted up the ramp to search the ship. A moment later they came out and the leader nodded to Als.

“Where is the ship you came on? Did you jettison it into the hole?”

“The Superior is our ship.”

Als grabbed Mundy by the throat and lifted him to his toes.

“You lie! You have slipped onto the ship I have claimed like vermin. My Reichsmagister has ways of extracting information. You will tell me what you know, in time.” He lowered Mundy who had begun to turn blue. As the captain massaged his throat, Als strode over to look at the scientists who cowered before him.

            “I hope you creatures have brains for your bodies are no good for work or sex. I probably couldn’t get fifty credits for the lot of you. The crew is more promising, especially the females. And a negress. There aren’t many out here this far from Earth. I feel certain I can earn a healthy sum selling you.” Dr. N’dutu looked at the admiral with disdain.

            Dr. Albright shakily stepped forward.

            “Admiral. I represent the scientists of Earth. At least the old Earth.” That was all he got out before Als grabbed him by his mouth.

            “A representative are you? That makes you a leader. Leaders don’t make good slaves. Always troublemakers. Smits,” he said. The man in black drew his pistol-like weapon from his waist and handed it to Als. He turned it and fired a short blast of energy at Albright’s midsection. He immediately crumpled to the floor. Several of the scientists cried out. Mundy made a move to approach him but was stopped by Als’ hand on his chest.

            “I usually don’t waste my resources but I believe this one has more value as a lesson than on the market. You need to reconcile yourselves to your new status. Speak out of turn to a free man and you will get a severe and painful reprimand. Cross me and you will get the same fate as this slave. Take him to the disposal,” he said to Smits.

            Smits crouched over the man. “He lives still,” he said.

            “All the better. To the disposal.” Smits signaled to two soldiers to come and help. They lifted Albright with one under each arm. Though grievously wounded Albright managed to raise his head and mutter unintelligibly. They drug him to a chute marked ‘Disposal’. The soldiers hefted him up and tossed him in head first. They closed the chute. There was a suctioning sound. Several of the scientists gasped.

            “That slave is now free. Free to roam the void as he floats about in space. Anyone care to join him? No? Good.” Turning back to his companion he said, “Smits, see to the disposition of my new slaves.” With that he walked out.

***

            In their holding cell it was pandemonium. Most of the scientists were wailing. Others were throwing recriminations at Mundy for bringing them into such a dangerous situation. One seemed catatonic.

            “Shut up, damn you!” he cried. “You know the situation we’re in. You can work with it or die. I’d suggest you grow a little steel in your spines and show these savages what you can do. If you don’t, they are liable to throw you out the disposal like Albright.” There was silence as they all stared at him as if he were the enemy. He had only told them the truth. He sat down on the floor beside Newly.

            “We might as well work on the assumption they are listening in,” he whispered in her ear.

            “Agreed,” she said quietly without moving her lips. “Then again, their technology is primitive.”

            “You and Karen get around to everyone, including the scientists, without making it obvious. Maybe get Anderson to help. Remind them that they are to cooperate for the time being and keep their eyes and ears open. We need to gather as much intel as possible.”

***

            Mundy had no sense of time. They were in a windowless room with constant lighting. Jimmy had already whispered to him that with a pick Digger had secreted in his shoe either of them could easily disengage the ancient lock on the door. Good to know.

            After what seemed like hours the man in black came in followed by an assistant and six armed soldiers. He carried what looked like an old-fashioned riding crop. Mundy rose and stood in front of his people indicating he was the one to speak to. He didn’t try to speak first. He had learned that lesson.

            “Good,” sneered the man. “You wait for your master to speak. That is the first and often the most difficult lesson for former free men to grasp. I am Commandant Smits. It is my unenviable task to advise you in the ways of slavery, to ease you into your new situation, as it were. This is Bundesleiter von Hoek. You will address us as master at all times.

            “As you may have surmised, while you are the property of Admiral Als, you are to submit to questions and directions of all officers on the Konigsberg. Officers only. You will be advised if you are to entertain the troops.” He leered evilly at this remark. He stepped forward, moving Mundy out of the way with a wave of his hand and looked over the scientists.

            “Mein Admiral wishes to know if his property has any scientific value. You,” he said, pointing the crop at Vince Rhodes. “Yes, you will do to start. Guards, take this one for testing.” Two of the armed soldiers grabbed Vince by either arm and marched him out of the cell. He looked back over his shoulder, terrified.

            Smits casually strolled back toward Mundy and his officers. He stopped and used his crop to lift Mundy’s chin. “If you were five years younger I might make use of you. You’re definitely attractive enough. But a little older than what I like. Pity. Now you, on the other hand,” he said looking at Karen and running the crop down her arm. “You are also just what I like. Guards, take her to my quarters.” He turned and left with von Hoek in his wake as two guards grabbed Karen. Mundy and Anderson tried to intervene but were clubbed into submission by the remaining soldiers.

***

            Vince was returned what seemed like many hours later.

            “I was terribly frightened but they just wanted to test my level of knowledge. I quickly outstripped anything they knew. They are terribly backward. I’m amazed that at their level of physics that they are actually spacefaring. They are much like us back at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

            They pulled Maynard Johnson next.

            At long last Karen was returned. She was being dragged by two soldiers. They opened the door and unceremoniously threw her in. Mundy and N’dutu rushed to her side. She was badly beaten and still bleeding from a number of wounds, some serious looking. Her uniform was in shreds. They applied what first aid they could. When she was able to talk she said her right arm might also be fractured. They formed a sling with Mundy’s overshirt.

            “Apparently slaves are also used for sexual pleasure. That is what Smits wanted. I went along for a while, trying to be nice, but put him off. He got a little too personal so I let him have it, and I don’t mean my body.” Mundy smiled grimly considering this. Karen was the best hand at martial arts on his ship. She regularly handed Mundy his ass at sparing. “Yeah, I kicked his ugly ass good until the guards got into it. It took three of them to take me down but I got some good licks in. Two of the guards are in sick bay because of me. And that slimy bastard in black will be walking funny for a few days. Donovan said we each needed to take out nine. Only six to go for me, Cap,” she grinned weakly through swollen, bloody lips at Mundy. “You guys need to catch up.”

***

            A germ of a plan took root in Mundy’s brain. When they brought Maynard back several soldiers arrived with food. It wasn’t anything fancy, just bread, thin soup and water, but they were all famished. Mundy had noticed that when Smits had dismissed him as too old for his sexual tastes, von Hoek’s eyebrows raised. He also noticed after that how von Hoek took a long last look at him. Von Hoek was supervising the soldiers setting out the food. Mundy stood close to him and made eye contact. He smiled in a seductive manner and licked his upper lip with the tip of his tongue. With a smirk he strolled away, rolling his hips. Newly once told him when drunk that he had the “best damn ass in the navy”. Message delivered, he thought.

            After the meal the soldiers took Larry Bostwick for testing. When he returned several hours later the lights dimmed. There were eighteen blankets piled by the door. They huddled on the floor, seeking comfort in each other. They had only been down a short while when the door opened and von Hoek and four soldiers entered. “You,” von Hoek pointed at Mundy. “And…that one,” pointing at Jimmy. They were both quickly grabbed and hustled out of the room. They were taken down a corridor but then separated.

“Where are you taking him?” Mundy asked.

“Silence, slave. You do not speak unless your master addresses you. Aren’t you concerned for yourself rather than this other slave?” von Hoek asked.

“Jimmy is my responsibility. You’re in a command position. You should understand,” he reasoned.

“Oh, tut. We’re past all that. You have no responsibilities other than pleasing your master. And right now, that’s me. Smits may have thought you were too old, but he likes little boys anyway. I understand the bitch he pulled kicked his ass. She’ll be severely disciplined for that. The admiral ought to have her whipped or throw her to the troops for sport, but with her looks, she’s worth too much. She’ll bring him a fortune on the open market. You probably will, too. But for now, you’re just my type. And don’t worry about your little friend. A couple of the guards I owe a favor to saw him and thought he was cute. They asked for some play time with him. He’ll be fine. They know not to permanently damage the property of the Admiral.” Mundy felt sick at the fate of poor Jimmy.

The guards deposited Mundy in what he supposed was van Hoek’s quarters. Deposited was the best term seeing as they walked him in, dropped him on the single bed and walked out.

“Now, slave. Let’s review. The guards are just outside. One word from me and they will beat you senseless. I can also recommend to have you gelded, take the fight right out of you. Make me happy and I’ll see about cutting short your little friend’s time with the guards. I’ve seen the looks you gave me. Let’s not pretend. You can begin by taking off your shirt.” The thought of even touching van Hoek made Mundy’s skin crawl. The man was skinny, had bulging eyes and receded hair. The officer’s uniform did little to improve the image. Still, Mundy had a plan and enough experience to know how to remove his undershirt seductively.

“Nice,” purred von Hoek. “I like a man with a little hair on his chest.” He came close and slid his hand along Mundy’s chest, allowing hairs to slip between his fingers. Stepping back a pace he quickly removed the tunic of his uniform. Mundy was repulsed at the sallow, sunken chest that was revealed. Then von Hoek was back on him, kissing his neck and mouthing the area around his ears and where his neck joined his shoulders. Mundy slid his hands up von Hoek’s chest, slowing to caress his nipples. Von Hoek hissed an intake of breath and then groaned his pleasure. He grabbed Mundy’s head and kissed him on the mouth, his tongue seeking entrance. Mundy slid his hands up to cup von Hoek’s head also. Then with a violent wrench he twisted it until von Hoek could see his backside. But by then von Hoek could see nothing. He was dead.

Mundy allowed himself a momentary shudder to rid himself of the essence of von Hoek. Then tapping his earlobe he whispered, “Donovan. You there?”

“Been waiting on you, Cap. What’s the situation?”

“Where are you and Jorgenson?” They had stayed behind in a hidden compartment when the crew went out to meet Als.

“Still in the Superior. We went out and got the guards. There were four of them and three techs. Those disposal chutes are really neat. Anyway, we have new uniforms and weapons. And sorry about Dr. A. We were watching from inside the ship.”

“Good, just outside the cargo bay is a map of the ship. I’m in a private quarter on deck B, number 25. Think you two can get here on the double?”

“Sure thing. See you in five.”

“I think there are two guards on my door.”

“No problem.”

While he waited, Mundy put von Hoek’s body in his closet. If anyone were to casually glance in the room they wouldn’t notice anything amiss. A few moments later there was a sizzling sound of an energy blast, as if from a laser weapon outside and then a quiet tap at the door. It opened to reveal Donovan and Jorgenson in WAF uniforms with a dazed soldier held up between them and two more lying apparently dead in the hallway. Mundy raised his eyebrows at Donovan.

“Mr,” he glanced down at the soldier’s name tag, “Zmeckis here got a little too interested in our presence. We cocked him and the next soldiers we met we just told we were taking him to sick bay.” Jorgenson had already dragged the two dead soldiers into the room as Donovan talked. He ripped the cover off the bed and tore strips from it. They securely gagged Mr. Zmeckis, tied his arms and legs and loaded him in the closet with von Hoek. It was a tight fit. They loaded the other two into the small bath.

“Von Hoek is, or rather was officer level so he must have some kind of security clearance. See if you can get onto the ship’s systems from his connection, Jorgenson,” Mundy said.

“Security on this system is for shit,” Jorgenson said disdainfully. “It’s an open book to me.” He went over the ship systems and conferred with Donovan. After a short time Donovan sat on the bed with Mundy.

“Ok, Cap. Here’s the plan. Jorgenson is going to divert all bridge control to engineering. He’ll have to do if from engineering, though, so you and Jorgenson head on down to engineering. Here’s a view of it.” Jorgenson showed him a screen that was apparently a live feed from engineering. They could see three guards and two engineers. “You two will need to neutralize those guys. Jorgenson then can lock all control systems into engineering. Bridge will notice it immediately, but I will create a diversion so don’t worry about them.”

“Still, it won’t take the eighty or so soldiers left long to get there and break in.”

“No, it won’t. That’s why Jorgenson is going to do his stuff in two minutes, tops. Then you two are outta there. He’s going to release the clamps on the ship and disable the tractor beam and weaponry. Then scuttle the whole system.”

“We can’t get the ship out without the bay door open and if the door is open we can’t get to the ship.”

“I got it covered. Jorgenson said there is a fifteen second delay function on the air lock. Once y’all are in, I press the button and run like hell for the ship.”

“What are our chances of pulling this off?” Mundy asked.

“Seriously? I’d say slim to none. You got any better ideas?” Mundy had to shake his head that he didn’t.

“Let me bring Jennifer up to date.” He tapped his lobe again and talked softly to his second in command. She reported that everyone else was in the cell except Jimmy.

“Keep trying to open his frequency. We’ll do what we can to find him.”

“Problems, Cap?”

“Jimmy Cain is missing. Some guards grabbed him the same time they got me. He could be anywhere. Jennifer’s trying to raise him.”

“I don’t like to leave anyone behind but if it’s between getting 18 people off this ship and zero, I know where I stand. You’re the Cap, though. I’ll leave it up to you.” Donovan handed him the laser pistol he’d pulled off a guard.

“Jorgenson, ping me when you’re in place.”

“Roger.”

***

They only encountered two soldiers on the way to engineering. They shot them both and gained two more hand weapons. Mundy hated killing indiscriminately, but this was a battle situation. Jorgenson tugged his earlobe when they were in place. He palmed open the door and they went in all four guns blazing. They quickly had engineering under control and Jorgenson got to work on the controls. Mundy pinged Jennifer and told her to get their people moving. He told her Digger could open the door and she and Anderson could neutralize the guards. The scientists would have to help Jordan. He specifically reminded her that lethal force was acceptable.

By the time he finished giving orders Jorgenson was grabbing him and heading for the door. By this time the red alert lights and horn were blaring. As they were exiting the control room Jorganson lobbed a couple of neutron grenades behind him at the engine core. The entire ship lurched when they went off, detonating one engine with them as well.

They fought their way to the cargo bay. Resistance was light seeing as the ship was caught off guard and chaos reigned. Donovan had apparently disrupted their chain of command by destroying the bridge. As they were getting near their destination they ran up with Donovan. His eyes were bright. It was clear he was in his element. Mundy’s ear pinged and he heard Jennifer saying they had heard from Jimmy. He said he was in pretty bad shape and disoriented. He doubted he could make it to the cargo bay on his own. She gave them his coordinates.

“I’ll get the boy. You two get to the ship,” Donovan said. Mundy wanted to disagree, say Jimmy was his responsibility but the reality was that Donovan had the better chance of getting himself and Jimmy to the ship alive. As they approached the bay they heard laser pistol fire and a familiar roar.

“Take that, you filthy Nazi scum!” Jonesie was giving the Nazis what for. With Mundy and Jorgenson coming up on their rear they were quickly dispatched. No time for prisoners.

“Good work, Cap. Any more of them filthy buggers?” Jonesie asked. He seemed eager for more action.

“I believe we’re in the clear for the moment. You help get all the passengers in the ship. And I want my engines ready to go, pronto.”

“On it, Cap.” He ran for the ship.

Jennifer was warming the engines when Jorgenson pushed Mundy toward the ship.

“You go. I need to be able to give covering fire for Donovan if the baddies beat him here. Then I’ll open the bay.”

“No both of us can give more cover. Then we can all get on the ship. The fifteen second delay…”

“There’s no delay. We just said that to brook argument. Donovan’s plan all along was to get us all on the ship and open the bay himself. He’s got enough neutron grenades in his bag to destroy the entire ship and he plans to do it. So if he doesn’t make it, I need to open the door. I’m not about heroics or any of that shit. I just have a job to do and I do it. It’s the Marine way.”

Mundy remembered when the mission began he had wondered if two Marines would be of any use if the situation got hairy. Now these two Marines had together saved all their lives. And willingly gave theirs in doing so. Mundy was not a man given to much emotion, but damn, he thought, that was brave.

He got to the ship. Jennifer already had the engines ready. All he needed was to engage and they’d be on their way. He saw several laser shots hit the door above Jorgenson and he returned fire. Then Jorgenson turned and looked at Mundy through the portal and hit the ‘emergency open door’ button. Inside the cargo bay you could hear the great whoosh as all the air rushed out of the opening door. He saw Jorgenson crouch on the other side of the door and return fire again. The bay door was about halfway open when it stopped. Then slowly it began to close.

“Oh, shit. Als’ people found an override,” Mundy said. He had to think quick. “Jennifer, shields on maximum. Davie, on impulse power, back us up as far from the door as possible.”

“Captain, you’re not thinking…?”

“Damn straight. Full power forward. Engage!” To tell the truth, he wasn’t sure if the ship would survive breaking through the cargo bay door. But he didn’t see any reason to stay behind. It was now or never. The Superior was a tough little ship and survived crashing through the door, leaving twisted metal in its wake. They flew clear of the larger ship. Anderson yelled “Yeehaaa!” as they burst free. Their spirits all soared with the little ship.

***

Donovan had planned on lobbing two neutron grenades into the bridge. If Als was there at the time, he was a goner. Good, Mundy thought. With the havoc they created in the engine room, he doubted they would ever leap to hyper space again. Hell, impulse might even be a challenge. Without controls the weapons were offline, as was the tractor beam. Now for the really crazy part of my plan, he thought.

“Captain, we’re being followed,” reported Anderson.

“What? How?”

“Apparently it’s a shuttle craft. It doesn’t have much range, but it’s fast and sensors show it’s armed.”

“Shields aft, full power!” Mundy yelled, expecting a proton torpedo or laser cannon blast.

“Sir, we’re being hailed,” Karen told him.

“Patch it through.”

The connection was tenuous and the words were scratchy but the message came through loud and clear.

“Got room for four hitchhikers, Cap?” Donovan crowed.

“You old devil. I thought sure they got you,” Mundy said, overjoyed.

“It’ll take more than a few dickhead Nazis to take me out. I got a couple of presents for you. See you in five. I just have a couple of torpedoes to get rid of.”

“Karen. Aft screen,” Mundy commanded. Before them they saw the little shuttle craft and the huge Konigsberg looming in the background. Two tiny missiles shot out of the back of the speeding craft, headed for the mothership. Both were direct hits, setting off a chain reaction of other explosions. Within moments the ship was shambles. Ironically, there was little left to salvage.

Within five minutes the shuttle had come up alongside the Superior. Anderson connected it with the grappling hooks. Donovan said they had four space suits so they could tether and walk over. The airlock was small so they had to come in one at a time. The first one in and out of his suit was Jimmy Cain. No one was more glad to see him than Anderson. He wrapped Jimmy up in his long arms.

“Bud. I so thought I’d lost you.”

“I so thought you had, too,” Jimmy deadpanned. His face was badly bruised but he seemed to be holding up well, until suddenly he collapsed, weeping.

“I’ll take him to our quarters,” Anderson said. He helped Jimmy out of the room. Dr. Vera Jong, who had an extensive background in counseling followed them. Jimmy might need to talk with her a few times.

Second through the door was Jorgenson. Mundy hugged him and slapped him on the back.

“Our other present is coming next,” Jorgenson said.

An unknown man took off his suit next. He was young, pleasant looking and seemed very frightened.

            Jorgenson said, “Meet Bunde Christophe Verhoven. He found Jimmy, shot three guards who had Donovan pinned down and asked for asylum. I didn’t see how we could turn him down. He said he couldn’t stand anymore of Als, the Nationalists or the Empire. I think the guy finally found his moral center.

            They all cheered when Donovan came through the door.

“Mundy,” he said. “Against all odds, that crazy plan worked. I never thought it would.”

            “Well, pretty much anything is possible with two leathernecks and an old squid. Hell, I’ll even say Semper Fi.”

“Ok, the testosterone’s getting a little thick in here,” said Jennifer.

            Anderson appeared in the doorway with fire in his eyes.

            “You filthy bastards!” he raged at Verhoven. “You freaking assholes! Your soldiers raped Jimmy. I swear I’ll kill every one of you. He lunged at the soldier but was intercepted by Donovan and Mundy.

            “Easy, cowboy,” Donovan crooned softly.

            “Stand down, Anderson. That’s an order. This man saved Jimmy and Donovan’s lives and has been offered asylum. We can’t blame him for what the others did.” Mundy held on to Anderson as he cried in his arms.

            “I’m so sorry for what they did,” pleaded Verhoven. “The Empire breeds violence like that. That’s what I want to get away from.”

            “Well, we may be a lonely little outpost of civilization, but welcome aboard, soldier,” said Mundy.

             “I hate to break up the party, but we still have a huge problem. We’re nine hundred years from our time in the middle of an evil empire.” Jennifer looked at Mundy expectantly.

            “Speaking of improbable plans, I have an idea,” Mundy announced. “Before we got deep into the black hole Karen and I had a talk with our physics expert Dr. Righter. Her calculations show that the anomaly she found at the black hole was most likely a wormhole.”

            “Most likely as in really might be or wishful thinking?” asked Jennifer.

            “Somewhere in between,” admitted Karen. “Einstein theorized they would be in the center of a black hole, but Gloria’s equations and data indicate this to be an extra-solar temporal distortion, i.e. a wormhole not in the center of a black hole.”

            “Is that even possible?” Jennifer wanted to know.

            “Who knows what’s possible? Gloria says she’s convinced her math is correct. If we fly the Superior into it there’s a good chance the shield would keep it from crushing us. It would probably be navigable and should deposit us somewhere and sometime else, not sure where or when.”

            “Good chance, probably, might? Why don’t we just follow the yellow brick road while we’re at it? Maybe we’ll end up in Kansas,” Jennifer was unconvinced.

            “At this point, if I found a yellow brick road, I’d follow it. We know what this time in this universe holds for us. I don’t want to stick around. This wormhole is a chance to escape. There’s no guarantees. But if we survive, it will put us somewhere, sometime, in some universe. Odds are, whatever we find, it will be better than what we’re leaving. It would be hard pressed to be worse.”

            “I’m in,” said Donovan, with Jorgenson nodding.

“If our friends are going into the black hole, I guess we should, too,” said Jorgenson.

            “What?” asked Mundy.

            “While we were in the engine room, I entered a new flight plan and gave the ship a push. It’s set to drift right for the middle of the black hole. I decided that a black hole was a nice resting place for their black hearts.” Donovan raised his fist, grinning, and Jorgenson bumped it.

            Dr. Gloria Righter spoke up. “The scientists have decided we want to go, also.”

            “I think we all want to go, Captain,” said Karen, and Jennifer nodded.

            “Alright. Everybody buckle in. It’s going to be a rough ride.”

Over the next few minutes everything in the ship was battened or stowed. The scientists buckled in and the crew took their places.

            “Dr. Righter gave me the coordinates for the anomaly. All laid in. Awaiting your orders, Captain,” Anderson said. He decided it felt good to be able to say that again.

            “Engage.”

Sharing Christmas

I have a part-time job where I fly around the country reviewing companies for an accreditation agency. At least I did until the coronavirus hit. I may get back to it someday. Back in 2018 I was reviewing an agency in Alabama. I finished up and had about a three hour wait for my flight in the Birmingham airport. I gotta tell you, there ain’t much to do in the Birmingham airport. But I had my laptop with me. It was November 16 and airport was all decked out for Christmas. I was feeling the Christmas love and this is the story that flowed out. I got it all on paper (or at least in a computer file) and dressed it up the next day. A little magazine picked it up and it was printed in Down in the Dirt magazine (awful name, I know) in the May 2020 issue.

Sharing Christmas

After my first marriage fell apart, I was in a very dark place. What began as a trial separation became permanent. I went through a depression, shut myself off, stopped eating, that kind of thing. It wasn’t all bad; I lost some weight. With the help of a counselor and a support group, I survived it all. I remember the turning point vividly. I was in my company’s offices, standing outside my office, looking down the long hallway. People were arriving for a meeting. I noticed one of my coworkers coming down the hallway. She was about six feet tall, in skintight white Capri pants, high heels and a flowery top (yeah, inappropriate for a business meeting). Her long hair was curled around her shoulders. It bounced around as she strutted down the hallway like it was a fashion runway, smiling and greeting others, basically owning the place. She just had that kind of personality. I was never really attracted to her, but at that moment I noticed how vivacious she was, how full of life. It was as if a fog lifted. It was like in The Wizard of Oz when the film went from black and white to color. A seismic shift. My life was Technicolor again.

Now that I had returned to the Land of the Living, I felt I was ready to venture out and meet people again. Friends recommended the Long Branch Bar where most nights people went to actually socialize and dance, not just hook up. So, I took myself there. First night, the first two ladies I asked to dance turned me down. My already bottomed-out self-esteem took another beating. I just hung my head and skulked out of the place. But I came back, made friends, and became a regular. I honed my already fairly good dance skills and became a desirable dance partner. Oblivious as I always am, I didn’t realize that I was apparently already desirable real estate. Once I got some new clothes that fit, a new haircut and a new attitude, one woman in my office said the other ladies had deputized her to let me know that I was officially hot. Wow. Glad this happened before #MeToo. I’ve never thought of myself as attractive. I was a nerdy kid and now figured I was just a nerdy adult. It was a kind of heady moment.

Over the next year I went through a succession of romances, each a bit bizarre in its own way. At one point, I faced a choice between a woman eight years younger than me (28) and a lady eight years older than me (44). I went out with both of them for a while. I determined eight years is just over the limit for generational change. Kay just had a different mindset than me, plus a son only ten years younger than me. Jenna, on the other hand, just hadn’t matured yet. She was all about the party. However, I followed my hormones and stuck with Jenna for about 8 months. It did not end well. I’ll just leave it at that.

            Then there were the Silent Stalker and the Game Player. I may be attractive, but I was definitely attracting the wrong type. They reminded me of a comment by a comic that the difference between Charles Manson and the women he dated was that at least Charlie had the common decency to LOOK crazy. At this point I got the feeling that I was just finished with women. I needed to take a break. My gay friend offered to introduce me around the gay club, but that wasn’t the kind of break I was looking for. Just a brief hiatus from women. I decided I could be happy with my own company, go where I wanted, stay out late and do the things I liked. It was very freeing in its own way. Who knew a smile would capture me?

            That’s what started it all. A smile that just lit up the room. Well, that and the Martin Luther King Jr holiday and a lame horse. Lena was an avid horsewoman. She would ride her horse mornings before work. That particular January her horse was lame so she couldn’t ride. She had a Monday off for the King holiday with no plans for Sunday evening. A friend suggested she try the Long Branch. She went, and she found she enjoyed it, and so kept coming. I didn’t notice her at first, but we ran into each other in February when she asked me to dance. When I saw her later across the floor, she smiled. Her whole face lit up like one of those Renaissance paintings of the Madonna. She totally captivated me. After weeks of being one of my regular dance partners, I realized I wanted to explore more. To hell with my hiatus from women. Biology trumps all.

            Lena turned me down on my first four requests for a date. Each one she claimed the same thing: she had a house guest coming into town and couldn’t be available. Well, I’m not an idiot; I know when I’m getting the brush off. I decided I could settle with just being friends. Then she asked me out. She later told me that she really did have house guests and realized that I probably wouldn’t ask her out anymore, but she was interested. She invited me to a baseball game. It turns out the game got rained out before we even left her house, so the date turned into an evening sitting in her living room just talking. Probably actually a great way to start a relationship.

            That summer was pretty wonderful. We saw a lot of each other, tried fun new things, went to the beach, picnics with the symphony, and the State Fair, just datey kinds of things. By the fall, I was in that place where you begin to wonder where this is going. Was she just a convenient partner for doing things or was there more going on? I’m sure everyone recognizes that point in relationships.

            My birthday came in early December and I received a birthday card from her. This was back before Facebook. Getting a card by mail from someone who wasn’t my mother or grandmother was its own kind of intimate. She came over to visit me on my birthday and I told her I would go out on Sunday to pick up a Christmas tree. My family always put up the Christmas tree the weekend after my birthday. My mom said it was important to separate the two holidays. Lena expressed surprise that I was getting a tree. I was living in a small apartment and would be gone most of the holiday time visiting family. As far as I was concerned, that didn’t matter. I said as long as I am able, I will always have a Christmas tree. It’s my favorite holiday, not for any religious reason, but as a symbol of happiness and childlike wonder at the magic of it all. Peace on Earth, goodwill to all; that kind of stuff. My depression was gone, I’d just had a hell of a good year and was ready to celebrate. I told her I had gotten custody of half the Christmas decorations and if what I had wasn’t enough, I’d go out and buy more. I’m all about Christmas, no Grinches allowed.

            So, Sunday, I bought a six foot Frazier fir and set it up in my little sun room. Soon the entire apartment smelled like Christmas. That aroma always brings back enchanting memories of Christmases past. I pulled out my allotment of decorations. I strung the lights I had and stood back, considering if that was enough or if I needed more lights. As I stood wondering, there was a knock on the door.

            I opened the door and there stood Lena with a box filled with vintage Christmas ornaments.

“Can I play?” she asked. I pulled her in and we were like two kids decorating that tree with ornaments from our childhoods, stopping frequently to explain the important memories attached to each. When we finished, the tree was full, was gaudy and was gloriously Christmas. We stood back to admire our handiwork. I looked at her and though we were alone, the moment seemed sacred enough to require a soft voice.

“Merry Christmas, Love,” I murmured.

“Merry Christmas, Sweetie,” she replied. We sealed it with a kiss. What happened next is none of your business, but we validated Christmas as my most favorite holiday. But we weren’t just celebrating the holiday. We were celebrating each other. How through all the twists and turns and ups and downs we had ended up together in this moment. How lame horses and Monday holidays, Madonna smiles and bad romances had led us here. How through it all we had each found someone worth sharing a Christmas tree with.  It was so unlikely. So unexpected. So random. Yet, so perfect.

Halloween!

Halloween! The Hell you say. What’s the big deal with Halloween? Halloween was a big deal to us kids when I was growing up. I mean, wow, an excuse to get candy from the neighbors and eat it until you threw up. Who could pass up on that? And back then you could eat the apples and oranges you got in your bag without examining them for needles and razors. And the dressing up was kinda neat. I loved trick or treating until I was about 12. After that, a Halloween dance at school was always nice. I liked school dances. I wasn’t afraid to get out on the floor and was considered a good partner by the girls. I always had dance partners. And sometimes we’d meet in the upper bleachers or behind the bleachers. But that’s a story for another day.

All the dorms and frats had big Halloween parties in college and that’s when I began seeing outlandish and frequently group costumes. It was off the hook crazy. And I loved it. I was less adventurous. Just give me a sheet and I could rig up a toga. Twine some ivy around my head and, hey, I’m an ancient Roman. Not to mention the toga parties. But again, a different issue for a different day.

 My parents never put up Halloween decorations. Come to think of it, I don’t know anybody that did. I mean some people, like us, put a Jack o’Lantern on their front porch, but that was about it. This was the 1960s and 70s South. Everyone I knew was Baptist and they had decreed that Halloween was of the devil. Maybe they were right.

What are we celebrating, anyway? All Hallows Eve. The night before All Hallows Day, the day all the saints are worshipped and any saint that doesn’t have a special day, well, this is for him or her. If it’s a Catholic thing, then Baptists are sure it’s a thing of the devil. In Mexico it is El Dia de le Morte, the Day of the Dead. It’s a particularly ghoulishly named celebration of our ancestors. While the whole shebang seems wrapped up in Christianity, somehow Halloween has taken on the trappings of the other side. Who wants to be an angel for Halloween when he can be a first class Satan?

These days Halloween has morphed into a major holiday. Maybe Hallmark and Hersheys  are to blame. It seems nearly every house in my neighborhood has their trees, bushes and porches wrapped in orange lights. There are larger than life blow up black cats, headless horseman on his steed, with a pumpkin as his head, ghoulish demons or is it demonic ghouls. What is a ghoul, anyway? Ghastly and ghostly heads and streamers hanging from trees. And one house has about twenty skeletons trying to get in.

Hope your neighborhood is properly decorated and hope you don’t get TPed. Remember doing that? Of course you do. Happy Halloween to all. This week my story is actually a memoir. It’s about a fun time I had on a Halloween about 46 years ago. Enjoy!

The Ghost of Halloween Past

The summer after I turned sixteen I was allowed to buy a car. We lived way out in the country so becoming self-mobile was an important step. The sudden freedom to come and go as you please was wonderful. No more asking Mom or Dad to take you “to town” to buy things. No more borrowing the family sedan for dates. It was just incredible.

            It turned out one of Mom’s friends at work had a son who was entering college and couldn’t carry his car so he wanted to sell. It was a metallic blue 1966 3-speed Mustang. Probably one of the sexiest cars ever. It’s now a classic. But back in 1973 it was just a seven-year old car. I got it for $500. I was soon recognizable far and wide by my “blue ‘stang”. And it didn’t hurt that girls didn’t mind being seen riding around in such a cool car. I can’t say that I was ever cool, but my cool factor sure moved up a few notches with that purchase.

            But this story isn’t about the car, only what the car made possible. My friend and I were casting about for something to do on a Thursday night. It happened to be Halloween night. Two sixteen-year-olds and Halloween are usually a recipe for trouble but we were (fairly) good kids. I came up with an idea.

            First you have to understand the situation out in the country where I lived. Our community was about a dozen houses stretched along a couple miles of country road on both sides of a country church. Then there were the outliers farther out or on even further back roads. Our church boasted a constant population of about 100. The local kids wanted to be part of “trick or treat” (free candy, duh) but they had to get their parents to take them to nearby villages where they really didn’t know the people. Also, the people in our community were always disappointed that we couldn’t participate in giving out goodies because no one trick-or-treats in the country. Our church came up with a nice idea. All the members of our church who wanted to give out Halloween goodies would leave their porch lights on. All interested children would meet at the church at sundown. An elder with a pickup truck would pile the kids in the back and drive to all the church member houses so the kids could do their thing. And along the way, they would pick up information about other neighbors, not members of our church, who might also have some treats. Of course, that wouldn’t work in 2019 because it’s illegal for kids to ride in the back of a pickup, but this was a simpler time.

            So, about sundown I picked up my friend and had an old white bedspread. While the kids were inside the church for a required prayer and mini-sermon before the main event, he and I pulled up behind the church. I took the spread and went out into the graveyard beside the church. I crouched down behind a tombstone and waited.

            The kids all came filing out of the church in their various costumes. There were about ten of them ranging from about 4 or five up to about 12. They climbed in the back of the truck all excited. As the driver turned on the engine, I rose up from behind a tombstone with the bedspread over my head. I raised my arms and started loudly moaning. At the squeal from the first kid who spotted me, I began moving toward the truck. Soon all the kids were screaming in fear and glee at the Halloween ghost. The driver, seeing what was happening sped off and the chorus of squeals died into the distance.

            Totally pleased with myself, I got back in the car and drove about a half mile in the opposite direction the truck had gone and pulled off into a wooded road so my car was hidden. I stood beside the road in my white disguise. Soon I heard the roar of the old pickup coming my way. I raised my arms and waved them back and forth. The truck driver began blowing his horn to get the attention of the kids in the back. As they sped by me they were all shrieking once again in glee.

            After they had passed, I drove to an old farm house and parked behind the barn. I went out into the field beside the house and hid behind a bale of peanut vines. This was one of the last stops. As the last kid was climbing into the back of the truck, I stood up and began running toward the truck waving my arms and howling. The kids all began screaming, “Go! Go!” to the driver. He timed it and pulled away just as I was getting close. I ran after the truck a little ways still carrying on. The kids were loving it.

            That was it for the night. My friend had only gone along for the company. He stayed in the car and told me alternately I was “weird” or I was “crazy”. But he had a smile when he said it.

            On Sunday there was still a little chatter among the young kids about the ghost they saw Halloween night. My friend and I never told anyone. So, if you were a kid who saw a ghost while trick-or-treating on Halloween night in 1973 in eastern North Carolina, I’m the Ghost of Halloween Past.

Inna Gadda da Vida

Some of my early stories seemed to have musical allusions. There was Little Red Corvette and Hear Me Roar (from I Am Woman). After writing this story, the title just came to me and seemed so appropriate. I don’t know if the story about how the song got its name is true or is just apocryphal, but it’s a great story so I’ll tell it here in case Millenials don’t know. Iron Butterfly was a heavy metal band way back in the day. They only ever had one hit, In the Garden of Eden. On the day they were going to record it, the lead singer showed up stoned. They decided to do a practice cut anyway. So he struggled through the lyrics, shouting “Inna gadda da vida, baby.” The producer liked it that way so that became the official name and the official lyrics.

I subtitled the story “A Fractured Fairy Tale” as a nod to my childhood favorite cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle. Looking back at those old cartoons I realize there was a lot of adult content that went right over my head back then. I also chose it because I heard a comic say that researchers have found that the King James translators of the original manuscripts of the Bible made a mistranslation. It seems the opening words “In the beginning” should read “Once upon a time”.

This story appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review on April 11, 2020.

Inna Gadda Da Vida

A Fractured Fairy Tale

In the beginning… oh hell, forget that. There was no beginning. Gods are eternal beings. We always were. At least that’s what I think. The Big Guy says he created me, but he says a lot of things that ain’t necessarily so. Anyway, after an eternity of sitting in darkness doing squat, he got the idea of creating a universe. I don’t know why it took him so long to come up with it. Being all-wise and so forth, but refer back to the disclaimer above. My memory of fourteen billion years ago is a bit hazy, but we were all here then; me, Michael, Gabriel, YHWH and the rest. Yeah, he calls himself YHWH. As the lord of all creation, you’d think he could buy a vowel. But he’s so touchy about things like that.

***

So, his followers have a book that says he made the entire universe in six days. Nope. In usual YHWH fashion he dicked around for five days and then pulled an all nighter. That’s why he did such a shitty job. I mean platypuses and penguins? Give me a break. This universe has amateur night written all over it. And if you’re a cosmologist, yes this is the first iteration. It definitely could use a reset. His followers say there was a reset a few thousand years ago with a big flood, but no, that was a local thing. It was just a big oops on YHWH’s part, anyway. He’s like a bull in a china shop. No finesse. But I digress.

***

            Anyway, he created everything. And as his book says, he created man, “male and female created he them.” Basically, they were golems. Look it up. He called them Adam and Lilith. Then he created a ton of animals and told Adam he could name them. So Adam named them Harry, Joe, Eugene and so on until YHWH stopped him and explained that’s not what he meant. Adam wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. So he started over, “dog, cat, fly”… No one seemed to care what Lilith wanted to call them. Her job was to tidy up the garden and sweep out the elephant shit. “Emu, lion, blue-tailed skink”…

***

            YHWH liked to come to the garden and sit with them in the evening’s cool. He’s always had a problem with the heat. Fortunately, it never bothered me. He liked things as they were. He’d sit, Lilith would fawn over him and Adam was still naming animals… “mosquito, mouse, wombat”.

***

            Things were slow in the ether one day, so I decided to drop by Eden to see how things were going. I caught up with Lilith carrying a huge load of elephant shit down to the river.

“Let me help with that,” I said.

“Thanks.” In the background I heard… “monkey, cobra, antelope”…

“You know, it would be easier if you wove some of those grasses into a basket, or we could take some poles and make a travois. Something like that would work better.” She just looked at me blankly. Seeing as she was buck naked, I figured out they hadn’t gotten around to inventing things yet. So, I went more basic.

“How about fire to cook your food, or for warmth?”

“It is always warm here. What is cook? Our food is the fruit, berries and nuts all around us.”

“How about tools to help you do your work?”

“We do no work. Adam names the animals and I clean up. That is how it has always been.”

This was worse than I’d thought. YHWH was keeping them ignorant. Buck naked, no tools, no art, totally vegan, not a lean steak in sight. It was just wrong. These talking animals had so much potential. It was just a waste.

“Hey, Lilith,” Adam interrupted us. “I gotta go to the beach. YHWH wants me to name all the animals in the ocean. I’ll be back in a few days. By the way, I just named gorilla and he shit all over the place. Be sure to clean it up.”

Okay, I thought. This is just ridiculous.

“Lilith, girl. I need to show you something,” I said. “Let’s go to the center of the garden.”

When we got there, Lilith shouted, “Shit! That freaking gorilla got crap on everything. It will take me all day to clean this up.”

“Not to worry,” I said. I pulled a little power from my center, waved my hands and the gorilla crap all faded away.               

“You can do that?” she cried incredulously.

“No prob,” I bragged.

“Show me how.”

“Uh, I can’t. I can do it, you can’t.”

“Oh.”

“But come with me over here. We have these two trees. The tree of knowledge and the tree of life,” I showed her.

“Yeah, YHWH said not to mess with them. They’re deadly.”

“If YHWH said you could eat whatever you wanted, then why would he put something deadly right here in the middle of the garden?”

“I don’t know. YHWH moves in mysterious ways?”

I walked up to the tree of knowledge and picked off a piece of knowledge fruit. It was golden, luscious and ripe. “Here, taste this. I think you’ll see things differently.”

She took a bite, golden juice dribbling down her chin. She giggled and wiped it off. In a few more bites it was all gone. She looked around with her eyes wide. “What a fool I’ve been. I’ve been working like a slave here while Adam sits around on his fat ass and does nothing but call out stupid words like kangaroo or boomslang or tell me to fetch him a bunch of grapes. And YHWH just watches and laughs. I’ve been so stupid.”

“Not stupid. Just ignorant. There is a difference.”

“Just wait till that jerk gets back. He’s going to get a piece of my mind.”

Not so good for Adam, but maybe Lilith could kick start humanity toward its destiny.

***

            When Adam got back, Lilith was waiting for him. She uttered for the first time the four words that have forever struck fear in the heart of every man — “we need to talk.” It didn’t begin well, never got better and ended worse. “Fuck this shit. I’ve had it with you, YHWH and the whole garden thing. I’m packing my fig leaf and leaving. The Nephilim are having a rave over in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Gabriel’s my ride. I’m outta here!” was how she left.

“Fig leaf?” Adam asked.

***

            Sometime later, I came upon YHWH wandering around Heaven glowering. He’s always had a hairtrigger temper and is generally cranky, but today he looked quite perturbed about something in particular, not just his general unpleasantness.

“What up, Big Guy?” I asked.

“I’ve told you don’t call me that. And I’m pissed at Lilith. That shameless hussy has gone and left Adam. He’s been moaning that he has too much work without Lilith to help him. He said she took off with Gabriel. Said she called him a sadistic son of a bitch and a dickless man. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she’s been eating off the tree of knowledge. I probably made a mistake making them out of equal mud. I’ll fix it though. I’ll make Adam a new helper and I’ll make sure she knows her place.”

So he did and called her Eve.

***

            Adam finally finished naming all the animals. YHWH let him skip the big lizard looking things because they weren’t going to survive anyhow. Now he could devote more of his time to laying about the garden and directing Eve in what needed doing.

***

            Lilith eventually heard that Adam had a new maid, so she sneaked back to Eden for a look-see. She was not surprised. Adam was lying on a bed of leaves, hand in his lap, fondling his balls. He was getting a little thick around the waist. Eve was looking a little worse for wear, fetching him food and keeping the animal shit in the garden cleared. When Eve was out of sight of Adam, Lilith grabbed her arm and said, “Girlfriend, we need a heart to heart.”

It didn’t take her long to get Eve to the tree of knowledge and have her eat a piece. Eve, now a smart cookie in her own right, decided to bring Adam into the fold so she took him a piece of the fruit.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s knowledge.”

“Isn’t a little knowledge a dangerous thing?”

“Don’t be cute. Just eat the damn thing.”

Once both their eyes were opened they realized how empty their lives had been. They’d had no purpose, no dreams, nothing to look forward to. Now they did. Especially the sex which they explored enthusiastically. Eve remembered how Lilith had worn a grass skirt. She realized that a little near nudity was more erotic than total nudity. It’s all about the tease. So, she fashioned leaf skirts for both of them. Adam was dubious, but when Eve threatened to cut off the sex, he immediately complied.

***

All this time, YHWH had been dealing with a black hole situation over in the Andromeda galaxy. Remember this was his first shot at universe making. He wasn’t a physicist; didn’t know dark matter from Darth Vader and the galaxy was in a mess. He finally got everything back in order. He came back and just wanted a quiet evening in the garden. When he got there, no one was around.

“Where is everyone?” he wondered. Usually they ran to meet him. He wandered around until he heard giggling coming from some bushes.

“Adam, Eve. That you?” he called. There was hurried whispering and then the two crept out of the bushes, blushing and their hair in disarray. The little leaf skirt did not hide Adam’s rapidly dwindling erection.

“What’s going on here? What were you doing in there?” YHWH demanded.

“Uh, nothing,” Adam said.

“And what’s with the skirts?”

“Well, it was kinda drafty here in the garden and…”

“Bullshit!” roared the Almighty. “You’ve been eating from the tree of knowledge, haven’t you!” he accused.

Then came the first ever case of someone being thrown under the bus.

“It’s all Eve’s fault. She made me eat it,” Adam babbled. Eve’s eyes flew open wide.

“What?” she screeched. “You blame me? You’ve been happy enough to fuck all day long. I think you get a little responsibility here, too, Bucko.”

“Eve, who told you to eat from the tree of knowledge?” YHWH demanded.

For about a nanosecond she thought of ratting on Lilith but she decided she was better than Adam. There is such a thing as female solidarity. She cast about for ideas and noticed a snake walking by.

“It was the snake. Yeah, the snake. He told me to do it,” she exclaimed, pointing at the snake. YHWH whipped around and pointed his finger at the snake. Lightning came from his fingertip and suddenly the snake was on the ground, his legs turned to ash.

“What the fuck did I do?” whined the snake. YHWH pointed again, yelling “Silence!” and the snake’s tongue split in half and all he could say was “Ssssshit.”

YHWH was having an old-fashioned hissy fit.

“From this day forward the three of you will be enemies. The snake will be poison and seek to bite you wherever he finds you. Man and woman will fear him and beat his head in with clubs. Men will no longer understand women, nor women, men. I will make their minds think differently. And since you like sex so much there will be consequences. You will do it to create more people to be slaves to my whims. And you will bear them in intense pain.” He was on a roll.

“What’s Adam’s punishment?” Eve asked.

“Um, I don’t know. I’ll think of something. Maybe he has to cut off a piece of his dick and if you kick him in the balls, it’ll hurt real bad. Yeah, and he can only come once a day. Now get the hell out of my garden!”

***

            So, there you have it. That’s how I helped man escape the slavery of the garden. YHWH has bumbled along a few millennia since then, fucking up one thing after another. Couldn’t even keep his son from being killed, although that was an idiotic plan from the get go. He spends a lot of time slandering me. And my name? Oh, I’ve had many names. Morning Star, Light Bringer, Prometheus. But my favorite is Lucifer.

The Park Bench

I’m not sure where this story came from. It starts out very normal but soon it starts taking weird turns. I didn’t plot out the story, I just went where it wanted to take me. I have to say that I agree with Reggie’s closing comments.

I wrote it in February 2019 and it was picked up by Ariel Chart Review and published October 21, 2019.

The Park Bench

            “I think I’ll wear my blue polo shirt today,” muttered the elderly gentleman. He was going on his several times weekly walk to the park. Ellie might be there. She always said his blue shirt made his eyes sparkle blue. He said his eyes were green, but Ellie said the shirt made them turn blue. She loved blue eyes. He also felt he needed a sweater. It was a bit chilly this spring morning so he pulled on a navy sweater to ward off the cold and set out.

            Reggie, the doorman, held the lobby door open for him. “Good morning, Mr. Dawson,” he said as he always did.

            “Good morning, Reginald. Lovely Friday for a walk.”

            “Sure is, Mr. Dawson.” The kid always had a smile for him. I need to tip him more next Christmas, he thought.

            The park was only a block away. It was a lovely oasis in this mammoth city. His apartment building wasn’t the Excelsior or the Dakota but it was in a nice neighborhood. He crossed the street and shuffled onto his little patch of green. He could have dressed more casually but today he felt like wearing his charcoal pants and shiny tassel loafers. He wanted to look sharp in case Ellie came along.

            He found his usual park bench and settled down. The seat was a little cool to his behind, but soon warmed. He opened the little bag of bread crumbs he always brought and began tossing little bits out to the pigeons. The birds were so used to him and others feeding them that they had become quite tame. They would sit on your arm or shoulder and let you feed them. He did NOT let the birds get on him. They were filthy, carrying God knows what kinds of germs. And they would shit on you without a moment’s notice.

            The sun came out from behind a cloud and he could feel it warming his face. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back and inhaled.  A nearby blooming lilac bush covered the automobile smells of the nearby traffic. It was so nice and peaceful.  A simple getaway from the hurly-burly of life. He relaxed with the gentle cooing of the pigeons. This is nice, he thought, so nice.

            As he soaked in the warmth of the sun he noticed movement coming from the other side of the park. A lady was coming his way. He would recognize that walk anywhere. It was Ellie. His Ellie.

            She approached him strolling sexily. She was wearing a green sundress. It was a bit cool for it, but she didn’t seem to mind. It fit her beautifully. He always thought of her in the summer. She was a summer creature. Beautiful and blonde.

            “Good morning, Henry. I’m so glad you came today,” she said by way of greeting.

            “It’s a beautiful Friday morning. You knew I’d be out today.”

            “Yes, I can always count on you. Do you mind if I sit for awhile?”

            “Oh, where are my manners. Please, please, have a seat.” She settled on the bench beside him, her hip touching his. She always liked to sit close. He did, too.

            They sat in companionable silence, each enjoying the presence of the other. After a bit, Ellie tilted her head and rested it on his shoulder. Oh, he loved it when she did that. It made him feel so close to her. It brought back all the memories of their love.

            She stroked his arm lying along her left thigh. His arm was covered with snowy white hairs. Her skin looked so young in contrast.

            “Ellie, you are so beautiful,” he said. “It’s been, what twenty years, and you’re just as beautiful as the day I killed you. You know how much I regretted that, don’t you?”

            “Henry, it’s been more like fifty years. You’re starting to slip in your old age. Yes, my skin is still as supple as it was when I was thirty. And, no Henry, I don’t blame you. What I did was unpardonable. But I was so angry and you knew I was always a bit unstable.”

            “Yes, my beautiful Ellie was so flighty. One of the many things that made me love you,” he grinned with the memory. Then his face darkened. “But, Ellie. Little Leonora? How could you? She was to be the best parts of both of us.”

            “But she wasn’t. She was sickly. She cried all the time. It became so I couldn’t bear it anymore. And then, you and that secretary.”

            “Now, Ellie, don’t misremember it. My secretary had nothing to do with it. That was all your imagination.”

            “I know that now, but it was so real. I knew you loved her more than me. You were going to leave me and take Little Leonora away. Even though she cried all the time, I couldn’t lose the only piece of you that I had,” Ellie said through sniffles.

            Henry kissed her hair. “Well, it’s all in the past now. We had to move on.”

            “Some of us,” she said. He could just catch a mischievous tone in her voice. He looked down and saw she was grinning. “I’m glad you got away with it. As much as I would have loved to have you here, I’m glad you had a good life and could come and tell me about it.”

            “It was touch and go there for a bit. Good luck it was shoddy policework.”

            “I didn’t come near you with that shot. You shot yourself after you took the gun and shot me.”

            “You know how hard it is to shoot yourself? You’re trying to pull that trigger knowing it’s going to be the worst pain you’ve ever felt. Only the grief I felt for Leonora and you was worse. I never thought I’d get over it. If you hadn’t been able to meet me in the park I would have gone crazy.”

            “I was the crazy one, remember? The ‘crazy heiress who killed her baby, tried to kill her husband and then shot herself’. A murder-suicide gone bad.”

            “And thanks for the money, by the way. It has helped the business.”

            “Oh, Henry. Let the business go. Stay here with me. It’s beautiful here. There’s a little Argentine bistro across the park. They have a band that plays tangos at night. Remember how we used to tango? Stay with me and we can tango again.”

            “Ellie, you know I can’t stay. I have too many people counting on me. Maybe someday I can put it down, but not now. I’d feel so irresponsible.”

            “Am I that unimportant to you now? Have you forgotten me totally?”

            “No, Ellie. You’re the love of my life, the center of everything. But how could you respect me if I just chucked everything. That’s not who you or I are.”

            “I know. It’s just that I miss you when you’re gone.”

            “And I miss you. I miss you so much. Without you here in the park I might have picked up that revolver long ago and finished what you started.”

            “Do you still have it? Oh, do it, Henry. Do it.”

            “No, Ellie. The police took it. And I’m getting old. We’ll be together soon enough.”

            “I hope so, Henry. I do so miss you.” She laid her head back on his shoulder and sighed.

            “And I you, my love.” He patted her hand.

***

            Reggie Harris, in his sparkling white orderly uniform, stood looking out the window into the courtyard. A light snow was beginning to fall. It wasn’t sticking yet but would soon cover the dismal little patch of weeds with the bench in the center.

            “Shouldn’t you go get your vegetable?” Orderly Denny Haskell asked, with a smirk.

            “Don’t call him that. I like Mr. Dawson.”

            “He’s a nutcase. Look at him. Sitting there in the snow wearing his pajamas and a ratty old bath robe. He’ll probably catch pneumonia out there,” Denny said.

            “He doesn’t know it’s snowing. Where he’s gone it’s beautiful and warm and there are people who love him. He always comes back saying ‘It was a beautiful day in the park. Ellie wore her sundress.’ Doc wants to force him back to reality. I say let him stay there. He’s happier there. All that’s left for him here is sitting in this dingy dayroom waiting to die. He’s over 90. He’ll die soon anyway. Let him be happy.”

            As they were talking the old man got up from the bench and shuffled into the dayroom of St. Anthony’s Hospital.

            “Good day, again Reginald. It was a lovely day in the park. I saw Ellie today. She wore her sundress. Yes, she looks beautiful in that dress. Carry on.” And he walked off to his room.

Escape to Paradise

One of my passions is ballroom dance. I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years. I’m nowhere near competition level but I consider myself rather competent. Another passion is cruising. I’ve been on 18 cruises. I like traveling and I hate living out of a suitcase. This way I get to unpack once, but I’m in a different place every day. Food is provided and pushed all the time, there is constant entertainment, and they make my bed. What’s not to like? All but two of my cruises were specific dance cruises. See passion number one. A new passion I’ve picked up in retirement is writing. I don’t claim any talent at this but I enjoy it. Since I’m not trying to support myself, I can write whatever I please and not care what anyone else thinks. Even with this attitude I’ve had seven short stories picked up by magazines. Six have been published, I decided not to let go of the seventh one.

This story is a combination of all three of my passions. I get to write about a cruise and ballroom dancing. It also involves abusive partners, mystery, the scent of ginger flowers and very strong drinks with tiny umbrellas. Well the last two items are up to you. So pull up your chaise and tropical drink of your choice and enjoy.

This story appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review on January 21, 2020.

Escape to Paradise

 At 8 pm on a Thursday in January, there was a knock at Jenna’s door. She looked through her peephole and began shivering. It was Dusty. Dustin Randall, her ex-boyfriend. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t let go. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who nearly put her in the hospital the last time he beat her. Which would be the LAST time he beat her, she had decided. She had packed her bags and left him. First, she fled to the Women’s Center. They helped her get an apartment. She never gave him her new apartment location. Someone must have ratted her out.

 “Go away, Dusty!” she shouted through the door. She was aware he could hear her through the cheap thin material.

 “Come on, baby. Let me in,” he wheedled.

 “You’re not supposed to be here. I have a restraining order.”

 “Yeah, my daddy’s getting it dismissed. Come on, babe. I just want to talk.”

Jenna closed her eyes and prayed for strength. The results of their last ‘talk’ had not yet healed, leaving lingering yellow and green marks on her face and arms. 

 “I’m calling the cops!” she yelled.

 “And what are they gonna do? They’re all on my daddy’s payroll.”

 “My lawyer said I could call the State Troopers. They don’t kowtow to your family.”

 “You don’t want to make me mad, Jenna. You know how I get. You just bring the misery upon yourself. Don’t make me hurt you.”

 “Go away! I’m done with you. I don’t ever want to see you again. Can’t you get that through your thick head?”

 “You know I can’t do that, honey. We belong together. You and me. You belong to me. And I aim to keep what’s mine. Now open this fucking door!” Jenna had just finished dialing 911.

 “911 Emergency. What is the nature of your emergency?”

 “There’s a man trying to break into my apartment,” she whispered.

 “Are you able to get out of the apartment?”

 “No. He’s at the only door.”

 “Do you know the identity of the intruder?”

 “Yes, my ex-boyfriend. I have a restraining order against him.”

 “I’ve already dispatched the police, in the meantime..,”

 “No. The police are on his daddy’s payroll. They won’t do anything. Can you send the State Patrol?”

 “Sorry, ma’am. We’re only connected to the police. Your police department is not owned by any family. They will protect you. I suggest you get into the most secure room you can and barricade the door. The police should be there in five minutes.”

 Wham! Jenna dropped the phone at the sound of Dusty trying to break the through the door. She could hear the faint squawk of the 911 operator still trying to talk to her. Jenna scurried into the kitchen, clawed open a drawer, and pulled out the revolver she had just bought. Checking that it was loaded and that the safety was off, she put her back against the wall directly in front of the door. With arms extended, holding the gun with both hands, Jenna pointed it at the door. The end of the revolver trembled violently.

 “Dusty, go away! I have a gun.”

 “And what do you think you’re gonna do with a gun? I ain’t scared of you, girl. You ain’t got the balls to shoot me. We gonna have us some fun. You ever heard of being pistol whipped?” Wham! A huge crack appeared in the door. 

Wham! The thin veneer of the door shattered. Dusty pushed his arms through, knocking the plywood out of his way. He leered evilly when he saw Jenna ten feet away, scared out of her wits. She usually thought he was so handsome, and he usually was. But when he got that evil look on his face, she knew she was in trouble. He forced his way into the room. Before he said anything, Jenna fired the pistol at him three times. All three missed, mostly because she turned her head to the side and closed her eyes as she fired.

 “What the fuck, girl? You gonna pay for that.”

 Jenna fired the remaining three shots. At least one hit him because Dusty went down howling in pain. Bright red appeared on his thigh. She could hear sirens in the distance.

 Dusty looked at Jenna through the grimace of pain on his sweaty face.

 “You have just signed your death warrant, bitch.”

***

 The police swarmed in a few minutes later. They immediately recognized Dusty and knew what was what. Jenna was disarmed and taken into custody. They called an ambulance for Dusty. She called her lawyer from the police department. Since she was in her own apartment, had a restraining order and a broken-down door her lawyer could bully the night cops into not booking her but releasing her to him. Mr. Randall would probably fire them.

 As he drove her to a friend’s house he said, “Too bad you didn’t kill the bastard. Save us all a lot of trouble.”

 “He said he is going to kill me. He means it, too.”

 “Well, he’s going to have to wait. Violating the restraining order, breaking down your door, communicating threats. We might put him away for a while this time.”

 “No, we won’t,” Jenna said with defeat in her voice. “His daddy will just paper over it. He’ll be bandaged up and out on bail by morning. He’s never going to stop. Not till one of us is dead.”

 “That’s just defeatist talk. Come on. There’s a new judge who isn’t owned by the Randalls and I think I can get this before him. We might get that ass some serious time.”

 “You really think so?” For the first time there was hope in her voice.

 “Yeah, I do. Here we are.” He pulled up in front of Arlene’s house. Arlene was Joyce’s half-sister. Joyce was Jenna’s best friend. Joyce’s apartment would be the first place Dusty would look. Dusty didn’t know Joyce had a half-sister which made it a perfect hideout. Arlene opened the door as they got to the porch. 

 “Come on in, honey. That bastard acting up again?”

 “Ms. Connors, thanks for taking Jenna in like this. Remember, for both of your safety, the Randalls mustn’t find out she’s here.”

 “I ain’t scared of Dusty Randall. Let that punk set foot on my property. I got a shotgun and I don’t miss. I’d love a chance to blow his ass clear across North Carolina.”

 “I love your fighting spirit but please, lie low. Good night, Jenna. Get some rest. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He left.

***

 When her lawyer called the next day, the news was as expected—not good. They had released Dusty on bail that morning. He never went to the jail. His family arranged for him to be held overnight at the hospital. The Randalls were making noises about suing her, but her lawyer explained NC law was on her side. The broken door, the recording of the 911 call and the all-important restraining order proved that she was within her rights to defend herself, with deadly force if necessary. The good news was that he had the case placed before the new unbiased judge. The bad news was that the case wouldn’t be heard for another month. Until that time, Dusty was free to do as he pleased. 

 “He knows where I work. I can’t take a month off. He’s going to find me and kill me.”

 “We’ll work something out,” he said.

***

 On Monday morning, Jenna drove her five-year-old Honda Civic to the State Employees’ Credit Union where she worked. She didn’t see Dusty’s Camaro anywhere in the parking lot, but still waited for the security guard to come out to escort her into the building. She worked in an office, not as a teller, so Dusty would have to get past the security guard and locked doors to get to her. She knew he was crazy enough to try it, though. 

 After work, the security guard walked her out to her car. As she pulled away, she thought she saw Dusty’s blue car a few blocks behind. Since he didn’t get any closer, she figured he was trying to tail her to her apartment. As planned, she drove straight to her attorney’s office in a highrise. It had the benefit of a gated parking lot. The gate guard watched as she entered the building. Once inside, she went through the building, out another little-used service entrance, across an alley to where Arlene was waiting. Tomorrow Arlene would bring her back to enter through the side entrance and she would take her car to work. Jenna knew this would not work for long. Dusty was a lot of disagreeable things, but stupid was not one of them. Crazy, but not stupid. That’s what made him so dangerous. He would figure out there was a ruse and discover it. But she had a few days.

***

 “Aruba? You think I can afford to go to Aruba?” Jenna exclaimed over the phone to Joyce. It was Wednesday evening.

 “Yes, you can. My brother and his fiancée are having to cancel. They can turn the tickets over to us. They’re willing to let them go for half-price. It’s a steal. And it leaves this Saturday. You can get away from dickhead and relax. By the time you get back, it’ll be 14 days closer to the hearing. Less than a week to go at that point.”

 Jenna was hesitant. She had vacation time and her boss at the credit union was very supportive and concerned about her situation. It was a near certainty that she would approve the time off. But a cruise? Such a luxury seemed almost obscene considering the trouble she was facing. But then again. Fourteen days without having to hide, look over her shoulder, be constantly on edge would be heaven. 

 “How much?” she finally said. Then, “I’m in.”

***

 Jenna packed in her apartment on Thursday night with a State Trooper guarding her. She realized she hadn’t obsessed about Dusty for several hours and was feeling a little happy again. Just one more day to go.

***

 As she ate her lunch on Friday at her desk, as she usually did, Jenna heard a commotion out in the lobby area of the credit union. Someone was shouting. She walked over to the security station near her office and looked at the console, which had a view from all the security cameras in the building. Sure enough, in the lobby was Dustin Randall, red faced, probably a little drunk facing off against two security guards. He ranted while they just impassively stood in front of the door that gave access to the rest of the offices. Her boss showed up beside her.

 “That asshole needs to get shot, and not in the leg,” she said. “You’re doing the right thing to get out of town for a few weeks. Send me a postcard. I can stick it on my refrigerator as my inspiration to get back into my bikini.”

 As they watched the camera footage, Dusty seemed to wind down his rant and give up. He turned as if to leave, but it was just a feint. He swung back around with a roundhouse punch aimed at the first security officer’s jaw. The officer reacted in time and only got a glancing blow. Immediately the guards jumped on Dusty, taking him to the floor. In no time they cuffed him, with him screaming obscenities and Jenna’s name, waiting for the police to come pick him up. Jenna revised her estimation of Dusty. Looks like he is stupid, after all. Well, she thought, this will keep him tied up until tomorrow. It looks like I will get away.

***

 “Wow, I didn’t realize how big it is,” Jenna gaped at the Ocean Flyer, pride of the Cormorant line, as they were boarding.

 “Yep, just us and 2,000 of our closest friends,” joked Joyce. 

 Once on board, they hustled up to the Lido deck for the buffet lunch. Sitting at a table, looking out over the palmed resorts of Fort Lauderdale, Jenna momentarily wondered if she was just having a wonderful dream. She was so afraid she’d wake up to find Dusty breaking down her door. This is paradise.

 “Forget him,” Joyce said, placing her hand on Jenna’s. “At least for the next 14 days. Relax, unwind, get drunk, flirt with some cute guys. That’s what vacation is for.”

 “You’re right. Tell the waiter I’ll have a margarita. And find me some cute guys.” They both laughed gaily. 

***

 There were so many activities on board the ship they hardly knew what to do first. They would be at sea for two days before any island stops so they’d have plenty of time to explore. Jenna found one activity that she considered a must.

 “There’s an orchestra playing ballroom music in the Queen’s Lounge after dinner. Let’s go.”

 “Ballroom? Seriously?”

 “Yes. I took lessons for a couple of years, BD, Before Dusty. I let that get away. I want to reclaim something that he has no part of.”

 “Okay,” Joyce said dubiously. “But you’re buying the drinks. And if it’s all old folks, I’m outta there.”

***

 It turned out there were mixed ages in the lounge and several single men. That immediately caught Joyce’s eye. She and Jenna were attractive young ladies, so they quickly caught the attention of the men present. A very attractive fortyish man came to their table.

 “I’m Jack, a ship dance host. May I have this dance?” He held his hand out to Joyce. She giggled girlishly and accompanied him to the floor. Two minutes later, after she had walked all over his feet, he resignedly returned her to the table. 

 “Sorry, guess I should have told you I don’t know how to dance,” she said to him sheepishly. Jenna could tell he was biting his tongue. “You should ask Jenna here. She’s a bona fide ballroom dancer.”

 “Joyce! I am not. I haven’t danced in two years.”

 “It’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back easily. May I?” the host asked. Jenna allowed him to lead her to the floor. She could tell it was a foxtrot.

 “I only know American style foxtrot,” she said. It impressed the host she recognized it was a foxtrot and that she knew there was a difference in styles. He beamed, took her in dance hold and moved off. Slow, quick, quick. Jenna found that it came back. They floated around the room effortlessly. This is what dancing is all about, she said to herself. It’s like flying. Just skimming along, free and easy. We’re like Fred and Ginger. Oh, how I have missed this. When the host returned her to her table, he commented it was one of the best dances he’d had recently and hoped she would allow him to dance with her again later. She smiled and assured him he was welcome anytime. She felt like she was glowing.

 “Ooh. He likes you,” Joyce giggled. “And so debonair. Looks like Cary Grant.”

 After another song, a young man, upper twenties, their age, came to their table. He was cute, and Jenna found his nervous look endearing.

 “I’m nowhere near as good as you, but do you want to dance? I’m Drew, by the way,” he said to Jenna. It was a rumba. Jenna figured even a novice could probably handle it. 

 Drew proved that he had a basic understanding of the dance. He only stepped on her a few times, but mostly he did basic moves. This gave her an opportunity to talk to him.

 “So, are you enjoying the cruise?” was all she could think to say. She grimaced at how trite it sounded.

 “Slow, quick, quick,” he said. “Can’t talk. Counting. Slow, quick, quick.”  She giggled and allowed him to finish the dance without further interruption. 

 He returned her to her table and asked Joyce to dance, but she said no. She decided she wasn’t a ballroom dancer and was content to just watch. Plus, she was on her third hurricane.

 Drew came back a couple more times that evening to ask Jenna to dance as did Jack. The third time Drew returned her to the table, Joyce asked him to stay awhile.

 “Shtay awhile,” she drawled. “It’ll shave ush all time.” He looked at Jenna and she just grinned. Joyce was a lovable drunk. Drew pulled up a chair and sat by Jenna. 

 “Look at that old couple,” Jenna pointed out a couple in the crowd. It was a waltz so nearly everyone was dancing. “They aren’t doing anything fancy, but they look so happy. They’ve probably been dancing with each other 50 years. It’s so romantic to be so comfortable and in sync with someone. Her eyes are closed. She’s probably remembering the handsome boy she fell in love with.”

 “Her husband or some other guy?” Drew asked. Then he winked and laughed.

 “Oh, you,” Jenna chided and swatted his arm lightly.

 “You are such a romantic,” he said. “It’s nice to find that. I’m afraid I don’t see it all that much.”

 “Drew. You have a southern accent. Where are you from, anyway?”

 “Well, I grew up in Winston-Salem. That’s in North Carolina. Now I work for a bank in Charlotte. Me and my buddy Bill decided to take a cruise together. He’s probably up in the disco putting moves on underage girls. He’s a mess.”

 “Hey, we’re from North Carolina, too. Just outside Greensboro. And I work in a bank. Well, at least, a credit union.”

 “Wow, howdy homegirl,” he laughed. They heard a snore and noticed Joyce was out. 

 “Well, I guess I need to get Sleeping Beauty to bed. Come on, girl. Up.” She grabbed Joyce’s arm and dragged her up. Joyce stumbled a little, and Jenna put her arm around her. 

 “Let’s go, babe. Goodnight, Drew. I hope to see you around the ship.”

 “Night.”

***

 Midmorning next day found Jenna ensconced at a small table on the Lido deck enjoying the sunshine and a breakfast of fruit. 

 “I swear I’m not stalking you. Really. Cross my heart.” Jenna looked up and Drew stood by her table with a tray of food. 

 “Well, good morning, have a seat,” she invited.

 “Thanks. Where’s your other half?”

 “In bed with an ice pack on her head.”

 “Ouch.”

 “That’s what she said,” she quipped. “How about Bill?”

 “Oh, he’s out at the pool chasing a bikini.”

 “Already? It’s barely past 10,” she asked with surprise.

 “I guess the early bird gets the bimbo,” he said.

 “You don’t seem to think much of Bill, sometimes.”

 “Don’t get me wrong. I love him like a brother. It’s just he has no judgment. He just thinks with his, well, his smaller head.” Jenna couldn’t help but giggle. 

 After breakfast, Drew went to check on Bill. Jenna thought a walk along the deck would be nice. As she neared the front of the ship she saw people gathering at the rail and pointing. She went to see what was going on. Just fifty yards away she saw a family of dolphins leaping about playing and having a marvelous time. Everyone was exclaiming and taking pictures. She was as charmed as anyone. She looked up and saw people on other decks had also noticed the dolphins. About two decks up she noticed a handsome man, a very handsome man with an evil leer. He was staring at her. It was a face she knew all too well. It was Dustin Randall. She froze for a second and then bolted. She raced as fast as she could back to her room. Once inside, she bolted the door and slumped to the floor leaning against it. Her heart felt as if it would burst.

 “What’s going on?” Joyce croaked blearily from her bed.

 “Oh my god, Joyce. Dusty is on the ship.”

 “What? He can’t be? How would he even know?”

 “Hell, his family knows everything that goes on. They probably had your phone bugged or something. I just saw him on deck, staring at me.”

 “Are you sure it was him?”

 “Joyce. I lived with him for six months. I know what he looks like. He’s here. He’s come after me. What am I gonna do?”

 “We need to see the captain.”

***

 They soon found out that no one can just ‘see the captain’. The purser’s office directed them to the security office. 

 “So you think your boyfriend followed you on this ship?” said Chief Security Officer Nigel Scott.

 “Yes.”

 “Has he made contact or threatened you in any way?”

 “No. But I have a restraining order that he can’t come within a thousand feet. Anywhere on this ship is inside that. And he knew I was coming on this ship.”

 “What’s the name?”

 “Dustin Lee Randall.” The security officer pulled up a computer file.

 “No one by that name on the manifest. Does he have an alias?”

 “Not that I know of.”

 “Well, there’s no one with that name listed. And our security is too tight for any stowaways. Maybe you just made a mistake.”

 “It wasn’t a mistake. You took pictures for our key cards when we got on. Let me look through the pictures and I’ll find him.”

 “I can’t let you go through our files, miss. That’s about a dozen breaches in security protocols. And even then, there are about a thousand men on this ship.”

 Jenna pulled out her phone. She didn’t have service on the ship but the camera app worked. 

 “Here’s his picture. Can you look for him for me?”

 “Miss. I have more important things to do than look through a thousand pictures trying to find a person who isn’t even on the ship.”

 “Oh, please. I’ll never be able to relax if I think he’s here. He’s said he will kill me.” She hated playing the damsel in distress, but this was an emergency.

 “Okay, look. Go to the purser’s desk and buy some phone minutes. Send his picture to this number.” He handed her a scribbled number. “When I have some free time, I’ll try to run through the guest photos. All right?”

 “Yes, thank you.”

 Jenna followed his instructions and then locked herself in her room. 

 “So you gonna stay here in the room the rest of the cruise?” Joyce asked, hands on her hips.

 “What else can I do?”

 “Oh, babe. Get over it. Go and live it up. There’s like a hundred people around you all the time on the ship. He’s not going to try anything here. Plus, there are hunky deck crew, totally kissable, too, standing every few feet on the deck. They can surely take care of him. You’re safe here. Safer than anywhere else. Don’t let him take this away from you.”

 “You think so?” Jenna was unsure. 

 “I’ll be right beside you. If I see him, I’ll scream bloody murder. Everyone will be watching. Probably taking video.”

***

 Joyce was recovered by the evening, but sipping only ginger ale. She raised an eyebrow as Drew approached their table in the Queen’s Lounge. 

 “Mind if I join you ladies?”

 “Please, sit,” offered Jenna. After a moment, Joyce gave Jenna a pointed look. A look that said ‘go for it’.

 “I’ve got a roll of quarters I need to throw away. I’ll be in the casino if anybody needs me,” she said airily and walked away.

 “Is it something I said?” Drew looked puzzled.

 “No, just Joyce being Joyce.”

 They danced to several songs. While he was nowhere near the skill level of the dance host, Jack, he was competent. Jack claimed a few dances, but he had to work the entire room. After about her fourth dance with Drew, Jenna said, “You should probably dance with some other ladies or people might talk.”

 “Let them talk. I enjoy dancing with you.”

 Jenna knew she was blushing, but it was nice to be getting positive attention for a change.

 “You seem preoccupied. I hope I’m not boring you,” Drew breathed.

 “Oh, it’s not you. I just had a bad moment today. I thought I saw my boyfriend.”

 “Boyfriend? Um, am I in the way?”

 “My ex-boyfriend. He’s been harassing me. I think he’s on the cruise, the bastard.’

 “I don’t want to get mixed up in any weird domestic stuff. Why don’t I go sit at another table?”

 “Don’t go, Drew. He’s not going to cause any trouble. I alerted the ship. They’re looking for him. As Joyce said, we’re always surrounded by like a hundred people. What’s he going to do?”

 “You sure. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

 “You won’t. You’re the nicest thing that’s happened to me in a while. I’m enjoying it.” Drew smiled self-consciously. She thought she saw a hint of a blush. It was adorable.

 “We’re stopping at the private island tomorrow. Care to explore it with me?” he asked.

 “I’ve already talked with Joyce about hitting the beach.”

 “Bring her. If I can pry Bill away from his bikini bimbo, we can make a foursome.”

 “Sure.”

***

 Drew showed up at the gangway the next morning alone. 

 “No Bill?” Jenna asked.

 “The bikini apparently held more promise. I swear she’s not even 17.”

 The three of them left the ship and were soon walking along the sand under palm trees. It was the middle of January and here she was in paradise. Bright sunshine, sparkling water in a shade of blue only seen in the Caribbean, gentle breeze softly scented with tropical flowers and coconut. If only I could stay here forever, Jenna thought. Stay here with someone like Drew.

 “Listen, you kids. I don’t need a sunburn as my souvenir, so I’m going to park it in a chaise under a palm tree. I’ve got a novel full of heaving bosoms to keep me occupied. You go have fun.” Joyce shooed them away. So they explored. Jenna had a delightful time. Drew turned out to be quite charming.

***

 That evening the purser found her at her dining table and asked to see her for a moment.

 “Security Officer Scott has checked the photo you provided against the passengers. It doesn’t match anyone on board. I’ve talked with the captain. Our security team will remain on alert, but we feel sure it was just mistaken identity. It’s happened before. Please try to relax. Here is a complimentary pass from the captain for a day in the spa. Please enjoy.”

 Back at the table, she told Joyce that there was no sign of Dusty. 

 “I was sure I saw him.”

 “Your nerves have been a mess, girl. You probably just saw what you fear. Kinda like your worst nightmare.”

 “I guess.”

***

 After dinner, they went back to the room to freshen up. Joyce said she had actually won money at the casino and would try her luck again.

 “Anything beats watching you and Casanova make cow eyes at each other.”

 “Joyce!” Jenna was shocked.

 “Hey, I just call it like I see it. He’s way hunky. I say go for it. I’m okay with the old bra on the doorknob, but I’m not spending all night in the library. Make it a quickie.”

 “Joyce! You’re scandalous. I’m not bringing Drew back to my room.”

 “Okay. Go to his. But mark my words. Sex is in the air.” She leered playfully and left before Jenna could throw anything at her.

 Jenna changed to a dress a little less formal than her dinner wear and headed for the lounge. She left her room and began walking up the long narrow hallway. You could see nearly the entire length of the ship here. It was dimly lit and kind of spooky. There was no one about except a gentleman coming from the direction she was heading. She started out. She suddenly noticed the man’s limping walk looked familiar. Her heart flew into her throat as he got close enough for her to make out his face. Dusty!

 She turned and fled back to her room. She could hear his running steps behind her.

 “Jenna! Stop, damn you!”

 She zipped her card in the lock and quickly slipped in the room and bolted the door. As she leaned back on the door, sobbing, she slid slowly to the floor. Would this nightmare never end?

 Once she was relatively together, she called the security desk. She explained that regardless of what they had told her, someone matching the description of her ex-boyfriend had just chased her back to her room. She realized she was sounding hysterical but couldn’t help it. Before long Security Officer Scott, her room steward and the ship’s doctor were in her room. 

 She accepted a sedative from the doctor. “He called my name. I know his voice. Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”

 “I’m sorry, miss, but I just don’t see any way he could have gotten on the ship. I have passed the photo you gave us to all ship’s personnel. If he is on this ship, we’ll find him. There is a suite available on the King’s deck. Entrance to the deck is key carded. We can upgrade you and your roommate there for extra security if you wish. No charge, of course,” the security chief offered. 

 The purser had paged Joyce, and she burst into the room.

 “What’s happened? Jenna, are you okay?”

 “No. Dusty IS on board. He chased me down the hall.”

 “Oh, shit. Sorry, guys,” she apologized for her colorful language.

 “I was just telling Miss Davenport that we can upgrade the two of you to a more secure deck.”

 “It’ll be a bitch to move all this stuff again,” she groused.

 “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your steward can arrange for some porters to transfer your belongings.”

***

 By nearly midnight, they had moved into the new suite.

 “Nice digs,” noted Joyce. “We actually can turn around without bumping butts.”

 “Yeah,” Jenna said wanly. She was a little spaced by the sedative. Joyce sat on the bed beside her.

 “Jenna, level with me,” Joyce said seriously. “What’s going on? Did you really see Dusty? Or do you just think you did? I mean, be honest. How could he have gotten on the ship with no one knowing? It doesn’t make sense.”

 “Not you, too,” moaned Jenna. “No one believes me. Do I have to turn up with a fucking knife in my chest to make you believe me?”

 “Oh, no, baby.” Joyce tried to soothe her, taking her in her arms. “I believe you. If you say you saw him, then you did.” Jenna just folded herself into a ball in Joyce’s arms and cried.

***

 Drew found them at a table during lunchtime the next day. He came up to their table, smiling.

 “Ok. This time I am stalking you. What happened last night? I missed you in the Queen’s Lounge.” He suddenly noticed her pallor. “Oh god, what’s happened? The boyfriend again?”

 “Yeah, he attacked her last night,” Joyce told him. 

 “Oh my god. I thought the ship said he wasn’t on board.”

 “Apparently the ship fucked up,” Joyce said tersely. 

 “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

 “Well,” Joyce said. “I gotta take a leak. Stay here while I go.”

 “Your friend has a way with words,” Drew murmured, trying to lighten the mood. Jenna just looked at him. 

 “She’s just angry. Dusty has ruined her vacation, too. He poisons everything.”

 “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this. You are such a nice lady.”

 “Thanks. I think I’ll go back to my room.” She got up to walk away.

 “Shouldn’t you wait for your friend?” 

 “Oh yeah. Walk me to the elevator? They restrict my deck entry. I’ll be safe from there.”

 He walked her down to the nearest elevator.

 “I know you’re feeling low right now. But I hope you come to the Queen’s Lounge tonight. It’s just not the same without you. I’ll miss you.”

 Jenna made a half smile. “I’ll see.”

 The elevator opened, and some people got off. She got in, with a group of people, pressing ‘King’s Deck’ on the panel. Drew seemed quite taken with her, she thought. She was somewhat taken with him, as well. Too bad the cruise was such a bomb. She could really do with two weeks of mindless flirting.

 The elevator stopped. A few people got off, a few got on. When the elevator stopped on the Queen’s deck, most people got off. It required a key card to go further. As the last person exited the elevator, Jenna glanced in the mirrored wall and almost died on the spot. The reflection showed that Dusty was right behind her in the elevator. 

 “I said I’d kill you,” he hissed. He grabbed for her arm, but she evaded him, and dove out the rapidly closing door, screaming. By the time security personnel had arrived, the elevator was long gone. One of the deck crew lifted her in his arms like a child and carried her to sickbay. 

***

 Hours later, Joyce helped Jenna climb into the bed in their suite.

 “It’s going to be all right, babe. Don’t you worry. Joyce is here and everything’s going to be fine.”

 “No, it’s not. They think I’m crazy. You do, too. Everyone does. Maybe I am.”

 “Now, that’s crazy talk. You know I’m with you on this. You just get some rest.”

***

 The next day, the ship’s doctor, purser and captain came to see her.

 “Miss Davenport,” the captain began. “We are terribly upset that your vacation has been marred by problems on this ship. My crew and I have done everything we can to ensure your safety, but I don’t know what else we can do. Tomorrow, we will dock in Curaçao. There is an American embassy there. If you wish, my staff will assist you in contacting them to arrange air transport back to your home destination. Unfortunately, we cannot offer a refund since the voyage is nearly half over, but if you have purchased trip insurance, our ship’s doctor will assist you with filing.”

 Jenna thought for a few moments. “Yes, I’d like to go home. Joyce, I want you to stay. There’s no need to ruin both our vacations.”

 “Nothing doing, hon. We’re in this together. I go where you go. Besides, I’d have a crappy time without you here to enjoy it with me. Looks like it’s time to pack.”

***

 “You up for dinner in the dining room tonight?” Joyce asked later that day.

 “Yeah, I think so. Might as well use it while we can. I have enjoyed the food on this cruise.”

 “You and me, too. A couple more days and I’d have to break out my fat britches.”  Jenna had to laugh.

***

 After dinner, Joyce said, “Come on. I’ll go with you to the Queen’s Lounge. You know Romeo will be there looking for you. And don’t worry. Neither of us will leave you for a second. Total protection. But you need to unwind a little.”

 “You don’t like the music. I hate to make you go through that.”

 “Oh, hell, girl. I’ve gone through much worse for a lot less. Just buy me a couple of hurricanes and I’ll be fine.”

 As soon as they found a table in the Queen’s Lounge, Drew showed up.

 “I was so worried about you,” he said to Jenna. “Are you going to be okay?” She had taken a half a sedative tab after dinner, so she felt she had a grip on her nerves. For now.

 “Thanks, Drew. You’re a dear. I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”

 “That sounds a lot like goodbye,” he said, puzzled.

 “It is. I’m leaving the cruise tomorrow. The captain said I can get a flight back to the US from Curaçao. I just don’t feel safe on the ship anymore.”

 Drew’s breath caught quickly. “Are you sure that’s the right thing to do? To just toss the whole vacation?”

 “I don’t know what else I can do. Constantly look over my shoulder waiting for him to attack me? That’s not a vacation. 

 “Joyce, talk some sense into her. She’s just giving up.”

 “Why do you care?” Joyce asked. Drew got quiet. 

 “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know I’m not allowed to have an opinion.”

 “Joyce, you don’t need to be rude,” Jenna said. “Drew, I’d love to stay. I’ve had such a nice time with you, but it isn’t working. I’m a nervous wreck.”

 “Well, it’s just that you’ve become kind of special to me these past few days. You seem to understand me and are so nice. Aw crap, I don’t know how to say it. I like you. And I’d like a chance to know you better.”

 “Drew, don’t start. We’re from different worlds.”

 “What different worlds? Charlotte and Greensboro are what, a couple hours apart? Maybe we were meant to meet.”

 “Oh brother,” Joyce said dryly. “I’m on the Love Boat.”

 “Well, at least, can we dance?” he asked. They danced several dances. Drew seemed determined to keep her dancing. He really is taken with me, she thought.

 A rumba came on. Drew pulled her close, very close. She realized she enjoyed dancing this closely with him. His face was close to hers. He kept looking into her eyes. Oh god, she thought. This feels like one of those trashy novels Joyce loves. He leaned in, as if hoping for a kiss. What the hell, she decided. Give him a nice memory. She opened her mouth to him. Maybe the sedative was just kicking in, but she was feeling a bit lightheaded. Or maybe it was the kiss. Damn! He’s good at this. A moment later, he had his mouth by her ear. 

 “Oh, Jenna. I think about you so much. I’ll be lost without you. Won’t you reconsider leaving me?” he whispered in her ear.

 “I’m not leaving you, Drew. It’s this ship. I can’t be on a ship with my ex. And I’m sure he’s somewhere on board.”

 “Jenna, you’re tearing me apart.”

 “Drew, please don’t make this any harder for me.”

 They remained in the lounge until the band quit at 11, but Jenna could tell the life had gone out of Drew. She’d been unaware of how deeply he felt. She liked him, too, but he was way ahead of her. The ladies gathered their belongings to leave. 

 “Will I get a chance to see you tomorrow?” he asked. She would swear there were unshed tears in his eyes.

 “We’re doing an early breakfast. I’ll be at Lido at 7.”

 “Okay. Bye.” He looked down at the floor. She felt awful.

 “Drew, you’ll be okay. Just do like Bill. Go chase some bikinis.”

 “I’m not interested in bikinis,” he said like a truculent little boy.

 “Joyce, go on. I need to talk to Drew.”

 Joyce looked at Drew. “She has a curfew of midnight, young man. Not a minute after. Got it?”

 He gave her a half-hearted grin. “Yes, ma’am.”

 Jenna laced her arm through Drew’s. They strolled up the incline out of the lounge into the central part of the ship. He turned right, and they went through the double doors out onto the deck. There was a half moon out. It cast enough light on the water that you could see the outline of an island in the distance. It was quiet and romantic. Drew dropped her arm and propped both of his on the deck railing, looking down into the dark sea.

 “Drew, I’m sorry.”

 “Are you? Was I just a game?”

 “No, Drew. You know I care for you.”

 He petulantly snatched his arms off the railing. He jammed his hands in his pants pockets and started walking away, down the deck. Jenna followed. 

 “Drew, I’m not trying to hurt you.” He passed a windbreak and stopped again at the railing. She came up to him. It was darker here. He pulled her gently into himself. She had to admit she liked his arms around her. It had been a while since she felt safe in a man’s arms. He was leaning in again, so she helped and reached her mouth toward his. She also had to admit she liked kissing him. She was becoming lightheaded again. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that half tab. But it was hours ago. It should have worn off by now. She realized she had trouble keeping her balance. Drew supported her.

 “What’s wrong, hon?” he asked. “Like my kisses that much?”

 She found that she couldn’t get her tongue to work to answer him.

 “That’s okay, baby. You don’t need to say anything. Dusty said you always talk too much.”

 What? her brain flared. She tried to struggle, but could not control her body.

 “Shh, honey. Everything’s okay. It’s just time for you to take a swim. You’ve been depressed and talking crazy the past few days. I’ll say I tried to get to you but you jumped before I could stop you. I had a bit of trouble dosing your drink tonight. That bitch of a roommate of yours wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I can tell she’s hot for me. She’ll need consoling after you go overboard. She’s not bad looking. I can probably get her in bed in no time. Whadaya think?”

 Jenna was paralyzed and could only look at him with eyes wide with terror. 

 “You were so easy. You just ate up my sad little boy routine. Dusty said you’d probably spread your legs for me before the week was out. I was hoping for some of that before you went over, but you had to mess it up. He ain’t even on this ship. He’s back in Greensboro. You were crazy to think he’s here, but it works in our favor. Now the whole ship thinks you’re nuts. Anyway, this is where we part ways.” He put an arm under her to lift her over the railing.

 She heard a click and realized it was a gun being cocked.

 “Stop right there, Mr. Wilson.” It was the Chief Security Officer Scott. “Release Miss Davenport and turn around slowly.” When Drew released her, she fell to the deck. The momentary deflection of the guard’s attention gave Drew the moment he needed. He jumped past the guard and raced down the deck. Two burly deck hands cut off his exit. They cornered him. With a crazed look back at Jenna, he dashed to his right and sailed over the railing. A deckhand ran to the side and threw over a life preserver, the other ran to the wall and rang the man overboard bell. The security guard came and propped Jenna up. “Good thing I kept an eye on you.” Once again, a deckhand picked her up like a child and carried her to sickbay. 

***

 Jenna was sitting by her attorney in a courtroom twenty days later. It was the beginning of February, so she was the only one in the courtroom sporting a suntan. She got it during fourteen glorious days in the Caribbean. Once she had realized Dusty wasn’t on the ship, she could relax. She realized she had experienced hallucinations, but they had seemed so real. The ship’s doctor said that was common in survivors of abuse. The final eight days had done her a world of good.

 “Guilty,” the judge intoned. “Sentencing to be on…” he looked at the court calendar. “The 24th of February. Bailiff, take him away.” The bailiff led Dustin Randall in an orange jumpsuit from the courtroom.

 “Your honor. I’m Mr. Mills from the District Attorney’s office,” said a man approaching the gate separating the attorneys from the courtroom. “We’d like to request a delay in sentencing of Mr. Randall until the disposition of our case. I have three warrants for the arrest of Dustin Lee Randall, his cousin Andrew Scott Wilson and his father, D. Jarratt Randall. We plan to charge them with multiple felonies including bribery, racketeering, wiretap, suborning felonies, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to hire a murder, attempted first degree murder, kidnapping, assault with intent to kill, witness tampering. And there may be more.”

 “Your honor,” the Randall lawyer objected. “These charges are all hearsay. A spurned woman violently attacked young Dusty and now they want to drag the Randall family name through the mud. The family has suffered enough. I move to drop the charges as baseless.”

 “Objection overruled. The charges will stand. Sentencing is delayed. Since we relate the counts to the current tort, the clerk will calendar them on my court dates. Court adjourned.”