bjneblett
Traditionally published author of two books and numerous short stories. New contemporary urban fantasy book, Planet Alt-Sete-Nine due 2017
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Written by bjneblett

July Cool

July Cool

by BJ Neblett

© 2008, 2013

Burning July,

Sidewalks hot as

The tip of the smoldering punk

Clenched tightly between

Teeth and gum

Like some fancy cigar,

Because we were cool

In red hi-tops

And white T shirts,

Sleeves rolled

With empty Marlboro packs

Like the older dudes,

Because it was cool.

Cool as the locking blade

Knife ordered

From the last page of

A Green Lantern comic book.

It bounced in the back pocket

Of our torn jeans

Stained with rainbow badges

Proclaiming our cool

Bloody nose red

And fishing hole green

And the wide dirt brown stripe

From sliding into home.

Torturous July,

Stealthy pendulum

Hovering

Between youth and tomorrow,

When we were cool

And not yet cool.

Like the tarnished silver ring

That spent July sleeping

In that cool little pocket in my jeans.

I bought it from Woolworths

To give to Amy Johnson

In the flickering coolness

Of a Saturday

Matinee.

It felt warm

And full of promises,

But I didn’t give it to her

Because I was too cool

Or not cool enough.

And Chris called

Me a coward

And he was right,

So I bought popcorn

With my last four bits

Just to hear Amy’s

Freckled laughter,

And taste her hazel eyes

That made my stomach bubble.

Enchanted July,

When days exploded

With sunshine

And dandelions

And wishes,

Like the Black Cats

And Lady Fingers

We ignited with the punks

We pretended to smoke.

When shy fireflies

Sang in Morse code

And bold butterflies kissed.

When I got my first pair

Of Matador Boots

But had to wait

Till September

To wear them to school

Because they were cool,

And they made me cool.

Sultry July,

Of watermelon days

And transistor nights,

When one Willie Mays

Was worth two Richie Ashburns

Unless you lived in Philly,

That magical July

Our club house

In the woods

Became the smoking spot.

No more un-cool punks

No, we had Salems

From mom’s purse

And Chesterfields

For twenty five cents a pack.

They burned our throats,

Like the warm Schlitz beer

Timmy stole

From a neighbor’s garage.

Then the smoking spot

Became the drinking spot,

The same spot

Where I first touched Robin

In that spot,

And Amy knew

And killed me

With her hazel eyes

That made my stomach bubble.

Ineluctable July,

Of inky nights

Spent hanging out

Because we were cool.

Trouble matured with us

From play ground

To bowling alley

To pool hall.

We were too old

For the curfews

We ignored.

Too old and too cool,

But too young to drive,

Except for the cars

I stole

To impress the guys

And to win back

Amy Johnson

Who told me

I was just too cool.

Too cool for the July

That melted too soon

Like the tangerine sun

And the jealous moon

And Amy’s hazel eyes

That made my stomach bubble,

That cool July.

For Amy, wherever you are, thank you.

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Written by bjneblett
July Cool
July Cool
by BJ Neblett
© 2008, 2013

Burning July,
Sidewalks hot as
The tip of the smoldering punk
Clenched tightly between
Teeth and gum
Like some fancy cigar,
Because we were cool
In red hi-tops
And white T shirts,
Sleeves rolled
With empty Marlboro packs
Like the older dudes,
Because it was cool.
Cool as the locking blade
Knife ordered
From the last page of
A Green Lantern comic book.
It bounced in the back pocket
Of our torn jeans
Stained with rainbow badges
Proclaiming our cool
Bloody nose red
And fishing hole green
And the wide dirt brown stripe
From sliding into home.

Torturous July,
Stealthy pendulum
Hovering
Between youth and tomorrow,
When we were cool
And not yet cool.
Like the tarnished silver ring
That spent July sleeping
In that cool little pocket in my jeans.
I bought it from Woolworths
To give to Amy Johnson
In the flickering coolness
Of a Saturday
Matinee.
It felt warm
And full of promises,
But I didn’t give it to her
Because I was too cool
Or not cool enough.
And Chris called
Me a coward
And he was right,
So I bought popcorn
With my last four bits
Just to hear Amy’s
Freckled laughter,
And taste her hazel eyes
That made my stomach bubble.

Enchanted July,
When days exploded
With sunshine
And dandelions
And wishes,
Like the Black Cats
And Lady Fingers
We ignited with the punks
We pretended to smoke.
When shy fireflies
Sang in Morse code
And bold butterflies kissed.
When I got my first pair
Of Matador Boots
But had to wait
Till September
To wear them to school
Because they were cool,
And they made me cool.

Sultry July,
Of watermelon days
And transistor nights,
When one Willie Mays
Was worth two Richie Ashburns
Unless you lived in Philly,
That magical July
Our club house
In the woods
Became the smoking spot.
No more un-cool punks
No, we had Salems
From mom’s purse
And Chesterfields
For twenty five cents a pack.
They burned our throats,
Like the warm Schlitz beer
Timmy stole
From a neighbor’s garage.
Then the smoking spot
Became the drinking spot,
The same spot
Where I first touched Robin
In that spot,
And Amy knew
And killed me
With her hazel eyes
That made my stomach bubble.

Ineluctable July,
Of inky nights
Spent hanging out
Because we were cool.
Trouble matured with us
From play ground
To bowling alley
To pool hall.
We were too old
For the curfews
We ignored.
Too old and too cool,
But too young to drive,
Except for the cars
I stole
To impress the guys
And to win back
Amy Johnson
Who told me
I was just too cool.

Too cool for the July
That melted too soon
Like the tangerine sun
And the jealous moon
And Amy’s hazel eyes
That made my stomach bubble,
That cool July.


For Amy, wherever you are, thank you.

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Written by bjneblett

Pickup

by BJ Neblett

The night we met she rolled her eyes at me. Later that night I rolled them back to her.

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Written by bjneblett
Pickup
by BJ Neblett

The night we met she rolled her eyes at me. Later that night I rolled them back to her.
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Write a horror story in two sentences.
Written by bjneblett in portal Horror & Thriller

Me

by BJ Neblett

There it stood, the creature from the ID. An amorphous reflection in the cracked mirror.

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Write a horror story in two sentences.
Written by bjneblett in portal Horror & Thriller
Me
by BJ Neblett

There it stood, the creature from the ID. An amorphous reflection in the cracked mirror.
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The last time you saw her...
Written by bjneblett in portal Poetry & Free Verse

Beer And Broken Dreams

Beer And Broken Dreams

BJ Neblett

© 2015

The black Toyota Camry sported no sun roof, had a small parking lot dent to the right front fender, and a prominent purple Huskies decal. A Hillary For President bumper sticker screamed from the car’s rear bumper, while a pair of chrome palm trees, embracing the Washington state license plate, declared the vehicle’s Florida origins. Matched luggage, along with several hurriedly packed boxes cluttered the back seat and rear window shelf. They had been hastily captioned in green felt marker ink as Linens; Books; Knick Knacks, and Kitchen Stuff. The baggage that obscured my view of the sweet, sandy haired driver needed no identifying tags. I was familiar with their sad contents: Forgotten Promises; Broken Dreams.

A well manicured hand with a white tan line ringing the third finger appeared through the driver’s window. “Here, you finish it, I have to go…”

I took a long pull from the can of Bud Light. It was her favorite. And my final tangible link to her.

“Text me when you…” The rest of my words were lost to the revving motor.

Pulling away from the curb, the sedan’s tires slipped and hesitated for a moment on the wet pavement. I watched as the car’s taillights disappeared into the mist. The half empty container of warm beer in my hand was the perfect metaphor for our relationship. As a writer, some of my best work had come at the hands of heartache and frustration. Being totally crazy about someone you cannot have is great food for inspiration. I sensed a best seller in my future.

“Text me,” I repeated to the empty parking space.

A whisper of wind swept through a young maple tree; its branches reluctant to relinquish their hold on the changing season. They seemed to ask, “Where exactly lays that fine line between hopeless romantic and helpless fool?”

As I stood there alone in the rain, I discovered three things about myself: I am a hopeless romantic. A hopeless romantic is a pretty cool and amazing thing to be. And I don’t care much for the taste of beer.

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The last time you saw her...
Written by bjneblett in portal Poetry & Free Verse
Beer And Broken Dreams

Beer And Broken Dreams
BJ Neblett
© 2015

The black Toyota Camry sported no sun roof, had a small parking lot dent to the right front fender, and a prominent purple Huskies decal. A Hillary For President bumper sticker screamed from the car’s rear bumper, while a pair of chrome palm trees, embracing the Washington state license plate, declared the vehicle’s Florida origins. Matched luggage, along with several hurriedly packed boxes cluttered the back seat and rear window shelf. They had been hastily captioned in green felt marker ink as Linens; Books; Knick Knacks, and Kitchen Stuff. The baggage that obscured my view of the sweet, sandy haired driver needed no identifying tags. I was familiar with their sad contents: Forgotten Promises; Broken Dreams.
A well manicured hand with a white tan line ringing the third finger appeared through the driver’s window. “Here, you finish it, I have to go…”
I took a long pull from the can of Bud Light. It was her favorite. And my final tangible link to her.
“Text me when you…” The rest of my words were lost to the revving motor.
Pulling away from the curb, the sedan’s tires slipped and hesitated for a moment on the wet pavement. I watched as the car’s taillights disappeared into the mist. The half empty container of warm beer in my hand was the perfect metaphor for our relationship. As a writer, some of my best work had come at the hands of heartache and frustration. Being totally crazy about someone you cannot have is great food for inspiration. I sensed a best seller in my future.
“Text me,” I repeated to the empty parking space.
A whisper of wind swept through a young maple tree; its branches reluctant to relinquish their hold on the changing season. They seemed to ask, “Where exactly lays that fine line between hopeless romantic and helpless fool?”
As I stood there alone in the rain, I discovered three things about myself: I am a hopeless romantic. A hopeless romantic is a pretty cool and amazing thing to be. And I don’t care much for the taste of beer.


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Trident Media Group is the leading U.S. literary agency and we are looking to discover and represent the next bestsellers. Share a sample of your work. If it shows promise, we will be in touch with you.
Written by bjneblett in portal Trident Media Group

Satan's Blood

BJ Neblett

© 2014

October 30, 2000 11:16 PM

My current address reads Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia. I’m doing a five year bit for drug possession. The feds enhanced my sentence because I was caught carrying a gun. A stupid little chrome Berretta .25 more suited for a woman’s purse. The damn thing didn’t even belong to me. It was my girlfriend Anna’s. She insisted I take it along. You never know what kind of weirdoes and low life you’re gonna’ run into these days when you are dealing.

Not like the old days.

Then, a little weed, a couple of blotters of acid, some Boone’s Farm apple and its peace and free love for everyone. If you were lucky some cutie hippie chick in torn jeans and tie-died halter would invite you to join the party. Hell, you didn’t even have to smoke. Just take a deep pull of the Maui-wowie atmosphere and chill to the Dead.

Not today.

Today you meet some hyped up street thug who is shakin’ so bad you could use him to mix paint. And you know he’s packin’, too. As are his two homies sitting in the purple juke box with the 20” rims across the street. As is the skinny chick in the blown afro and hot pants. As is the prismatic pimp leaning on the light pole, she’s rubbin’ against. As is the old dude in dirty Tee shirt and suspenders, leaning out the third floor window, watching as daddy shakes-a-lot stands in front of you trying to count his Benjamins.

Everybody’s packin’. You gotta protect yourself. The feds don’t care. They’ve got a real hard on for gun cases these days.

Actually, I’m anything but a drug dealer. Sure, I sell a few tabs of ecstasy and maybe a tiny amount of coke. But I’m small potatoes. Very small. One or two buys a month max, just to supplement my income as a free lance photographer. Man, I don’t even use the stuff. Not since Carter went back to being a peanut farmer and disco crawled back into the slimy pit it slithered from. Honest. It’s strictly a business. These days you do what you have to do to survive. Am I right?

The gun charge also upped the ante and landed me in a federal pen instead of a low or medium facility. Thanks, Anna. Being in prison is bad enough. Pens are the worse, and Atlanta is the worse of the worse.

Built over a hundred years ago, Atlanta has maintained it’s hard as nails reputation as well as its foreboding appearance. Other joints have been remodeled, modernized, updated or torn down. Not Atlanta. Indoor plumbing, running water and electricity are its only concessions to civilization. Even the tall battlements capped with gun towers were left unchanged. Together with the rough stone construction, they give the place a medieval feel. Like something out of the Marquis de Sade’s nightmares.

Inside it’s downright creepy. The dark narrow corridors echo and ring eerily. The antiquated pipes scream and belch. And the cold stone walls bleed a dark rust red color. Satan’s blood the inmates call it.

This is the place that broke the likes of Al Capone. Alcatraz must have seemed like a picnic after Atlanta. Here James Cagney and Edward G Robinson get the chair in old black and white flicks. This is the place no convict wants to go. In the entire world there is no more desperate place than Atlanta Federal Prison.

I rolled restlessly in my bunk. The hard plastic mattress crackled like fire, beneath me. I have two years and two months left on my sentence as of today. The crude calendar etched into the bottom of the bunk above told me so. I took the homemade scribe and marked off another day, then returned it to its hiding place. The scribe is only an inch and a half long, made of soft aluminum scrounged from a wall rivet, and barely sharp enough to scratch the flaking layers of decades old paint. But it’s considered contraband. If you are caught with it, and if the guards aren’t in a good humor, it could be considered a weapon. Then you find yourself in the hole for thirty days. And when you get out some of your hard earned good time has evaporated into thin air. And here at Atlanta the guards are rarely in a good humor.

Actually, five years isn’t too bad a stretch these days. And for a place like Atlanta it’s a walk in the park. The sad reality is many of these guys will never again see a sunset that isn’t crosshatched with chain link and razor wire.

My cellie, Nathan leaned over from his top bunk. “Hey, School, lets me check your radio, man.”

I handed him up the small, overpriced Sonny Walkman that’s sold on commissary. Nathan’s not a bad kid, for a murderer. When he was nineteen he knifed a guy during a botched drug deal. That was five years ago. He’s looking at twenty five more.

There is a kind of perverse unwritten code among inmates; a status and pecking order. Take Nathan for example. According to the code, anybody can shoot a person. It takes balls and nerves of nails to gut a man up close. Nathan is shown respect and fear. Even by some of the guards. I know he’s just a scared kid surviving the only way he knows how, in a world he didn’t create and doesn’t understand. Then again, aren’t we all?

“Thanks, School.” Nathan settled in above me. I could hear the vulgar, repetitive hip hop lyrics hammering out of the tiny ear buds. I wondered which would blow first, the cheap speakers or his ear drums.

Inmates speak a language all their own. Anyone over forty is School as in old school. It’s a term of respect. For the most part the older guys are looked up to and treated well by the other inmates. I’m fifty-four and white, a definite minority in the system. For the last few years the feds have busied themselves trolling the city sewers for serious offenders. Mostly what they’ve caught are street punks in their teens and twenties. Obnoxious and usually illiterate, toss them in with harden, older criminals who are only interested in doing their time quietly, and you’ve got the makings of real trouble.

To make matters worse, the system is overcrowded to the max. Three men in two man cells isn't unusual, especially when you heard in a bunch of temporary hold overs. That was the situation this Monday night.

Lights had been out for about ninety minutes when the door to my cell creaked open. A tattered green mattress hit the floor. It was followed by an old wool army blanket and a stained sheet. A lanky figure in orange overalls three sizes too big for his needle frame stood silhouetted, as the guard removed his handcuffs.

“You can’t treat me like this,” he screamed in a cracked, scratchy voice.

The solid steel door slammed shut with the heavy ominous metallic clunk common to jail and prison cell doors everywhere. The stranger gave the door an ineffectual kick and cursed.

“Welcome to the block.” Nathan had one ear bud out and was hanging out of his bunk like a hungry vulture. “Whats you gots for me, homie?”

“What?” The stranger turned. Gold shone from between two fleshy lips in the dim light. “Whats you say, boy?”

“You can’t come into my house empty handed,” Nathan spit back.

The stranger’s eyes flashed white with anger. “I gots nothin’ for you, bitch. Nothin’!”

I wasn’t worried. I’d seen Nathan’s jail house act before. For the most part that’s all it was, just an act.

He rolled over, replacing the ear bud. “Sokay. For now. But your corn flakes are mine, pops.”

The first thing every con does when he hits a new facility is try to establish his toughness, his manliness, his street cool. Peacocks struttin’, it’s always ninety-five percent show and five percent blow. It’s a prison ritual as old as prison itself.

The stranger grunted and looked down at me. “And what’s your friggin’ problem?”

I stared back up at him, “Three men in a cell for starters.”

He kicked at the mattress then turned around and punched the cell door harder than he meant. Stifling a chuckle, I could see the grimace on his face in the pale yellow moonlight filtering in through the small window.

“Yeah, well, I ain’t doing this!” he barked, then raised his voice. “You hear me you dumb ass bastards, I ain’t doing this!” And he kicked the door again.

“Hold it down,” I said. “You’re disturbing the rats.”

The stranger spun around, his eyes searchlights in the dark. “Rats? They ain’t said nothin’ ‘bout no rats!”

“It ain’t the two legged kind,” I said.

“And it ain’t the rats you gots to worry about, pops,” Nathan quipped and let out a sick giggle.

I smiled to myself and rolled over. Inside, a cold shutter shook my body.

Our guest noisily settled down, making himself at home on the concrete floor. I was still awake an hour later when the scratching started. Almost imperceptible at first, it grew louder, closer.

“What’s that?” There was fear in the stranger’s voice.

“I told you, rats.”

“You was serious about that, boss?”

I turned over. The stranger was sitting up in the middle of his mattress, the blanket clutched at his throat. He looked like a frightened little girl who had just heard the boogie man.

Maybe he wasn’t that far off.

“Relax. They seldom come in here. If one does just throw your shoe at it,” I replied.

In the cell’s dim twilight I could see the stranger was close to my age. He wore a short nappy afro, graying at the temples. His large nose had been broken more than once and an ugly hook shaped scar marked his left cheek. The air in the cell was cool, but sweat beaded his grooved forehead as he tried to settle back down. His road mapped eyes remained fixed on the large gap at the bottom of the cell door.

“Don’t worry,” I teased, “they don’t eat much.”

The stranger sucked in a shock of air and grabbed for his shoe.

The scratching continued. It echoed off the drab green painted walls. I could hear the stranger breathing on the floor next to me. Nathan’s words rang in my head: it ain’t the rats yous gots to worry about.

More scratching.

Closer.

Instinctively, I reached down and tucked the trailing blanket into the sides of my mattress. Parents tuck their children in snugly, telling them to keep their arms and legs under the covers. It breeds a sense of fear into them. A fear of what lurks under the bed. It wasn’t what might be under my bunk that frightened me.

A clatter of chains rattled down the hall: the guards making their count.

Midnight.

The stranger shuffled nervously.

Every inmate hears the story of Satan’s Blood his first week here. The story varies, grows with detail and intensity…and gore…depending on who’s doing the telling. But the basic, grizzly, unfathomable true facts remain the same.

October 31, 1934 4:35 PM

Roger Zaha wore an oversized chip on his shoulder like a medal of honor. He was angry. Angry at life for the lousy trick it played on him. At least that’s how Roger Zaha saw things.

For seven long thankless years he worked as a guard at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. The work was honest and steady. It provided an ample living for his wife and son.

But Roger Zaha was a malcontent.

He grew up hard and fast in Atlanta’s toughest tenement. Everything Zaha ever had he fought and scratched to gain. He clawed his way up to a respectable job and position in a clean, quiet community. It was the height of the Depression and a man couldn’t ask for more.

But Roger Zaha wanted more. Hell, he’d paid his dues, he deserved more.

Zaha resented the other guards. None of them had gone through what he did, Depression or no Depression. Yet here he was, almost thirty, and no better off than the rest of them. He hated them for it. And he didn’t bother to conceal his anger.

He was the one who pulled himself up out of nothing. He was the one who made something out of himself. It was time he got what he deserved.

“Hey, Zaha!”

The words came from cell F66. Molech’s cell. Zaha worked in a section of the prison known as the tombs. Here the worst offenders remained caged in their 8x10 cells twenty-four hours a day. None would ever be returned to society. Ahriman Molech was the worse of them all. Molech had coldly immolated his three young children, burning the house down around them while they slept, just to collect the insurance.

“Zaha, come here.”

Molech’s voice was crushed glass in velvet, sibilant. Yet it cut through your ears like razors. His shale black eyes were the devil’s own, never looking at you but piercing straight through your flesh. When he spoke, you felt the gelid fingers of his breath on your throat.

“Zaha!”

“Wa’da ya want, Molech?”

“You know what today is, Zaha?” He curled one thin, barely perceptible lip into a pointed smile. “It’s Halloween, Zaha.”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Halloween, Zaha. You know witches, goblins, and the undead.” He let out a laugh that chilled the guard. “Wouldn’t you like to be with your kid?”

“Leave it alone, Molech,” Zaha replied angrily. He rapped the cell bars with the end of his wooden shillelagh.

Molech’s sneer grew. “I know what you want, Zaha. I know what you think, what you dream.”

“You don’t know nothing.”

The dim cell light cast Molech’s shadow large and misshapen on the rough stone wall. To Zaha it looked like a hulking beast ready to strike.

“I know you’re right,” Molech said. He paused and leaned closer. “You’re better than these illiterate monkeys who prowl around here in their starched uniforms like zombies, much better than them.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I can help you. I can arrange it so you never have to work again… ever.” Molech’s exaggerated face jutted from between the bars. His voice hissed in Zaha’s ear. “Think about it, Zaha. Everything you need brought right to you… laid at your feet. You won’t have a thing to worry about.” Molech’s words were sure and quiet as a prayer at midnight. “I can give you what you want…”

“You’re crazy as a loon, Molech! How can you do anything for me?”

Molech laughed again then squinted at the guard. “What’s the matter, Zaha? What are you afraid of? You got nothing to lose, except this crummy job. You got no faith in your dreams, Zaha? Afraid of what they may cost you?”

Zaha reared back and spat on the floor of the cell. “I ain’t afraid of nothin’! Do you hear that, Molech, nothin’!” he barked, shaking the shillelagh. “You’re as crazy as they come!” Zaha gathered himself and stared back into Molech’s serpentine eyes. “But I’ll tell you something, Molech. I ain’t crazy… no, sir. But for what you said… why… I’d pay any price… any price in hell!”

Molech relaxed back from the bars, the crooked grin melting into a satisfied smile.

The next morning Roger Zaha awoke to a nightmare. He was dressed in prison fatigues and stood behind the bars of a cell. Cell F66.

“What the…hey!” Zaha grabbed at the barred cell door and shook it fiercely. “Hey,” he screamed, “what the hell… what’s going on… what is this… some kind of crazy joke?”

“What’s the matter, Zaha?” A voice from one of the cells called out. “Don’t like the accommodations?”

“Oh, he’s too good for this,” a passing guard snapped back.

Another laughed. “Yeah, don’t you know… Zaha’s better than us!”

“Not anymore he ain’t!”

The cell block erupted in hoots and shouts and laughter. Tin cups raked and rattled against iron bars. Zaha covered his ears from the rising din. “This can’t be real… it can’t be…”

When he looked up, a uniformed guard stood outside his cell. But it wasn’t a guard, it was Ahriman Molech! Zaha lunged at him, grasping through the bars. Molech laughed and turned aside.

“Never have to work again,” he said. His voice was icy and hollow. “Everything you ever need, laid at your feet… at your feet, Zaha!” Molech’s footsteps clattered down the hall, the shillelagh rapping against one iron bar after another, his laughter dissolving in the distance. Just before he disappeared out of sight, Molech raised an arm, snapping his fingers.

At that moment a piece of paper floated down into cell F66. Zaha snatched it up in mid-air. It was a newspaper clipping dated Friday, January 18, 1935. Zaha’s hands trembled as he read:

(Atlanta, GA) Roger Zaha, the man known as

the Halloween butcher, began his life sentence

today at the federal penitentiary here in

Atlanta, the same place he had worked as a

guard. After a sensational trial, Zaha, 29, was

found guilty of the brutal Halloween night

murder of his five year old son, Roger Jr. Zaha

allegedly used a butcher’s knife to dismember

the boy’s body before burning it to conceal the

crime. During the trial, a police spokesman

testified that the cellar walls of Zaha’s Fulton

County home were splattered with the child’s

blood. Unconfirmed sources have stated Zaha

told police he sacrificed his son to appease Satan,

making vague references to Leviticus 20 and

Jeremiah 19 in the Old Testament.

The scream reverberated throughout the prison: the echoing howl of a banshee; the plaintive bay of a wolf caught in a steel trap; the cries of a thousand faceless tortured souls; the tormented scream of a madman.

“I’ll get you, Molech!” Zaha cried out, slumping to his knees. “I’ll get you! As God is my witness, I’ll find you! If it takes me eternity, by hell I’ll find you, Molech! I’ll make you pay… by Satan’s blood I’ll make you pay! Molech…!”

The inhuman screams continued through the night. In the morning Zaha was found in a heap on his cell floor. His bones were broken. His body was covered in thick crimson welts, ugly festering purple and black bruises, and dozens of deep cuts and gashes. It was as if some sinister hand had thrown him about like a rag doll. Dark rust red colored blood was splattered across the cell walls.

Roger Zaha recovered. He spent the rest of his life in cell F66. He didn’t work. Everything he needed was brought to him, just as Ahriman Molech promised.

Zaha died in 1974, still vehemently claiming his innocence. Shortly after, inmates began to mysteriously disappear throughout the prison.

Eighteen to date.

Since that January night in 1935, Atlanta Federal Penitentiary’s halls echo with torturous screams. And its cold stone walls run rich with the dark rust red inmates call Satan’s Blood.

October 31, 2000 2:25 AM

The scratching continued.

Waxed louder.

Closer.

I could feel the presence of a pair of cold, unblinking eyes. They stared out from a shadowy corner; searched the dusky light for an errant cornflake or a few stray bread crumbs.

It’s nothing.

You get used to the nightly scratching and prowling after a while. Some of the guys save their breakfast cereal to feed the rats.

Like I said, it’s no big deal.

Unless the scratching stops.

The scratching stopped after a time. There was a frantic flurry of nails trying to gain traction on the slick, painted cement floor. A few feckless squeals.

Then silence.

You see, the rats know.

“Thank God, theys gone,” the stranger mumbled hoarsely. “That’s ok, right, boss?”

From the position of his voice I could tell he was sitting up again, probably huddled in the middle of his mattress, the blanket clutched at his throat.

I wanted to speak, say something. Tell him: no, it’s not ok, ‘cause when the rats run away…

A dry terror crawled up my throat, silencing my words, stitching my lips together. Above me, Nathan folded himself into a tight ball. I knew he was facing the wall, covers pulled over his head, an unavailing defense against the unknown. His usual position when the scratching stopped and the rats ran away.

I knew the position too well.

Boisterous hip hop blared from the tiny ear buds. Nathan had cranked the Walkman’s volume. As if music could drown the fear. From beneath my own covers I cursed for not keeping the radio myself.

The first scream is always the worse. No matter how many you experience. The piercing shriek grabs you by the balls. It squeezes so tightly the back of your brain aches, like the first stabs of the mother of all migraines.

I knew the stranger wanted to say something, maybe scream himself. He shuffled nervously on the floor. Fear had stitched his lips together as well.

If you are not too terrified to listen – if you dare listen at all – you might discern a voice in the truculent wailing:

“Molech!”

Shrill. Strained. Raspy.

“Molech!”

Tortured. As if imparting pain.

Another twisted howl rent the stagnant air. Then the pounding began, far down the hall.

“Molech!” Blam!

Hollow. Metallic.

Searching.

“Molech! Blam!

Closer. Four cells down.

“Molech!” Blam!

Three cells…

…two…

A low, algid fog crept into the cell, like the Avenging Angel.

“Sweet, Holy Jesus.” The solicitous stranger’s whispered prayer floated up from the floor next to me.

“Molech!”

Blam!

The pounding thundered, as if we were trapped inside the breech of discharging cannon.

Blam!

Lights flickered on at five AM. The food traps in the cell doors hammered open one by one. Footsteps scuffled outside the cell.

“Hey, I thought there were three in here?”

Bleary eyed I accepted the plastic trays from the guard. On the cell floor lay the tattered mattress, old army blanket and stained sheet.

And one lone shoe.

Trembling, I passed a tray up to Nathan.

“The marshals’ probably yanked his ass up out of here during the night,” another guard replied. “You know how the feds operate, they never tell us anything.”

Nathan and I ate our cold cereal and hard, butter-less toast in silence.

It wasn’t the federal marshals.

The stone walls in our cell dripped silently…

…an icy rust red…

Urban Fiction/Horror/Fiction

18 and up

3,771 words

BJ Neblett

Excellent short story for collections of horror, urban fiction or general fiction

Prison is bad enough, but what if the prison is haunted?

A young man finds himself in federal prison, locked away in the infamous Atlanta State Prison. He soon learns first hand the frightening secrets contained behind the cold iron bars and ancient concrete walls.

This work will appeal to New Adult and adult readers of general fiction, horror and sci-fi/fantasy.

BJ Neblett is a full time writer with two books and numerous short stories published. His newest novel, Planet Alt-Sete-Nine, a contemporary urban fantasy is due out Fall 2017. BJ teaches creative writing classes at Seattle's famed Hugo House for Writers and has taught ACE writing classes in several locations. He can be found in his Seattle home playing and listening to music, surrounded by his classic guitar collection and his thousands of records.

BJ graduated from Marple Newtown High School where he majored in writing and poetry. After service in the Army he began writing in earnest, being mentored by several writers and writing groups. Drawing on a 30 year career as a radio DJ, BJ finds inspiration in the crazy, colorful characters he has encounter, as well as the irony he finds all around. Preferring the short story format, his writing style encompasses strong characters and richly defined plots.

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Written by bjneblett in portal Trident Media Group
Satan's Blood
BJ Neblett
© 2014

October 30, 2000 11:16 PM
My current address reads Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia. I’m doing a five year bit for drug possession. The feds enhanced my sentence because I was caught carrying a gun. A stupid little chrome Berretta .25 more suited for a woman’s purse. The damn thing didn’t even belong to me. It was my girlfriend Anna’s. She insisted I take it along. You never know what kind of weirdoes and low life you’re gonna’ run into these days when you are dealing.
Not like the old days.
Then, a little weed, a couple of blotters of acid, some Boone’s Farm apple and its peace and free love for everyone. If you were lucky some cutie hippie chick in torn jeans and tie-died halter would invite you to join the party. Hell, you didn’t even have to smoke. Just take a deep pull of the Maui-wowie atmosphere and chill to the Dead.
Not today.
Today you meet some hyped up street thug who is shakin’ so bad you could use him to mix paint. And you know he’s packin’, too. As are his two homies sitting in the purple juke box with the 20” rims across the street. As is the skinny chick in the blown afro and hot pants. As is the prismatic pimp leaning on the light pole, she’s rubbin’ against. As is the old dude in dirty Tee shirt and suspenders, leaning out the third floor window, watching as daddy shakes-a-lot stands in front of you trying to count his Benjamins.
Everybody’s packin’. You gotta protect yourself. The feds don’t care. They’ve got a real hard on for gun cases these days.
Actually, I’m anything but a drug dealer. Sure, I sell a few tabs of ecstasy and maybe a tiny amount of coke. But I’m small potatoes. Very small. One or two buys a month max, just to supplement my income as a free lance photographer. Man, I don’t even use the stuff. Not since Carter went back to being a peanut farmer and disco crawled back into the slimy pit it slithered from. Honest. It’s strictly a business. These days you do what you have to do to survive. Am I right?
The gun charge also upped the ante and landed me in a federal pen instead of a low or medium facility. Thanks, Anna. Being in prison is bad enough. Pens are the worse, and Atlanta is the worse of the worse.
Built over a hundred years ago, Atlanta has maintained it’s hard as nails reputation as well as its foreboding appearance. Other joints have been remodeled, modernized, updated or torn down. Not Atlanta. Indoor plumbing, running water and electricity are its only concessions to civilization. Even the tall battlements capped with gun towers were left unchanged. Together with the rough stone construction, they give the place a medieval feel. Like something out of the Marquis de Sade’s nightmares.
Inside it’s downright creepy. The dark narrow corridors echo and ring eerily. The antiquated pipes scream and belch. And the cold stone walls bleed a dark rust red color. Satan’s blood the inmates call it.
This is the place that broke the likes of Al Capone. Alcatraz must have seemed like a picnic after Atlanta. Here James Cagney and Edward G Robinson get the chair in old black and white flicks. This is the place no convict wants to go. In the entire world there is no more desperate place than Atlanta Federal Prison.

I rolled restlessly in my bunk. The hard plastic mattress crackled like fire, beneath me. I have two years and two months left on my sentence as of today. The crude calendar etched into the bottom of the bunk above told me so. I took the homemade scribe and marked off another day, then returned it to its hiding place. The scribe is only an inch and a half long, made of soft aluminum scrounged from a wall rivet, and barely sharp enough to scratch the flaking layers of decades old paint. But it’s considered contraband. If you are caught with it, and if the guards aren’t in a good humor, it could be considered a weapon. Then you find yourself in the hole for thirty days. And when you get out some of your hard earned good time has evaporated into thin air. And here at Atlanta the guards are rarely in a good humor.
Actually, five years isn’t too bad a stretch these days. And for a place like Atlanta it’s a walk in the park. The sad reality is many of these guys will never again see a sunset that isn’t crosshatched with chain link and razor wire.
My cellie, Nathan leaned over from his top bunk. “Hey, School, lets me check your radio, man.”
I handed him up the small, overpriced Sonny Walkman that’s sold on commissary. Nathan’s not a bad kid, for a murderer. When he was nineteen he knifed a guy during a botched drug deal. That was five years ago. He’s looking at twenty five more.
There is a kind of perverse unwritten code among inmates; a status and pecking order. Take Nathan for example. According to the code, anybody can shoot a person. It takes balls and nerves of nails to gut a man up close. Nathan is shown respect and fear. Even by some of the guards. I know he’s just a scared kid surviving the only way he knows how, in a world he didn’t create and doesn’t understand. Then again, aren’t we all?
“Thanks, School.” Nathan settled in above me. I could hear the vulgar, repetitive hip hop lyrics hammering out of the tiny ear buds. I wondered which would blow first, the cheap speakers or his ear drums.
Inmates speak a language all their own. Anyone over forty is School as in old school. It’s a term of respect. For the most part the older guys are looked up to and treated well by the other inmates. I’m fifty-four and white, a definite minority in the system. For the last few years the feds have busied themselves trolling the city sewers for serious offenders. Mostly what they’ve caught are street punks in their teens and twenties. Obnoxious and usually illiterate, toss them in with harden, older criminals who are only interested in doing their time quietly, and you’ve got the makings of real trouble.
To make matters worse, the system is overcrowded to the max. Three men in two man cells isn't unusual, especially when you heard in a bunch of temporary hold overs. That was the situation this Monday night.

Lights had been out for about ninety minutes when the door to my cell creaked open. A tattered green mattress hit the floor. It was followed by an old wool army blanket and a stained sheet. A lanky figure in orange overalls three sizes too big for his needle frame stood silhouetted, as the guard removed his handcuffs.
“You can’t treat me like this,” he screamed in a cracked, scratchy voice.
The solid steel door slammed shut with the heavy ominous metallic clunk common to jail and prison cell doors everywhere. The stranger gave the door an ineffectual kick and cursed.
“Welcome to the block.” Nathan had one ear bud out and was hanging out of his bunk like a hungry vulture. “Whats you gots for me, homie?”
“What?” The stranger turned. Gold shone from between two fleshy lips in the dim light. “Whats you say, boy?”
“You can’t come into my house empty handed,” Nathan spit back.
The stranger’s eyes flashed white with anger. “I gots nothin’ for you, bitch. Nothin’!”
I wasn’t worried. I’d seen Nathan’s jail house act before. For the most part that’s all it was, just an act.
He rolled over, replacing the ear bud. “Sokay. For now. But your corn flakes are mine, pops.”
The first thing every con does when he hits a new facility is try to establish his toughness, his manliness, his street cool. Peacocks struttin’, it’s always ninety-five percent show and five percent blow. It’s a prison ritual as old as prison itself.
The stranger grunted and looked down at me. “And what’s your friggin’ problem?”
I stared back up at him, “Three men in a cell for starters.”
He kicked at the mattress then turned around and punched the cell door harder than he meant. Stifling a chuckle, I could see the grimace on his face in the pale yellow moonlight filtering in through the small window.
“Yeah, well, I ain’t doing this!” he barked, then raised his voice. “You hear me you dumb ass bastards, I ain’t doing this!” And he kicked the door again.
“Hold it down,” I said. “You’re disturbing the rats.”
The stranger spun around, his eyes searchlights in the dark. “Rats? They ain’t said nothin’ ‘bout no rats!”
“It ain’t the two legged kind,” I said.
“And it ain’t the rats you gots to worry about, pops,” Nathan quipped and let out a sick giggle.
I smiled to myself and rolled over. Inside, a cold shutter shook my body.
Our guest noisily settled down, making himself at home on the concrete floor. I was still awake an hour later when the scratching started. Almost imperceptible at first, it grew louder, closer.
“What’s that?” There was fear in the stranger’s voice.
“I told you, rats.”
“You was serious about that, boss?”
I turned over. The stranger was sitting up in the middle of his mattress, the blanket clutched at his throat. He looked like a frightened little girl who had just heard the boogie man.
Maybe he wasn’t that far off.
“Relax. They seldom come in here. If one does just throw your shoe at it,” I replied.
In the cell’s dim twilight I could see the stranger was close to my age. He wore a short nappy afro, graying at the temples. His large nose had been broken more than once and an ugly hook shaped scar marked his left cheek. The air in the cell was cool, but sweat beaded his grooved forehead as he tried to settle back down. His road mapped eyes remained fixed on the large gap at the bottom of the cell door.
“Don’t worry,” I teased, “they don’t eat much.”
The stranger sucked in a shock of air and grabbed for his shoe.
The scratching continued. It echoed off the drab green painted walls. I could hear the stranger breathing on the floor next to me. Nathan’s words rang in my head: it ain’t the rats yous gots to worry about.
More scratching.
Closer.
Instinctively, I reached down and tucked the trailing blanket into the sides of my mattress. Parents tuck their children in snugly, telling them to keep their arms and legs under the covers. It breeds a sense of fear into them. A fear of what lurks under the bed. It wasn’t what might be under my bunk that frightened me.
A clatter of chains rattled down the hall: the guards making their count.
Midnight.
The stranger shuffled nervously.

Every inmate hears the story of Satan’s Blood his first week here. The story varies, grows with detail and intensity…and gore…depending on who’s doing the telling. But the basic, grizzly, unfathomable true facts remain the same.

October 31, 1934 4:35 PM
Roger Zaha wore an oversized chip on his shoulder like a medal of honor. He was angry. Angry at life for the lousy trick it played on him. At least that’s how Roger Zaha saw things.
For seven long thankless years he worked as a guard at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. The work was honest and steady. It provided an ample living for his wife and son.
But Roger Zaha was a malcontent.
He grew up hard and fast in Atlanta’s toughest tenement. Everything Zaha ever had he fought and scratched to gain. He clawed his way up to a respectable job and position in a clean, quiet community. It was the height of the Depression and a man couldn’t ask for more.
But Roger Zaha wanted more. Hell, he’d paid his dues, he deserved more.
Zaha resented the other guards. None of them had gone through what he did, Depression or no Depression. Yet here he was, almost thirty, and no better off than the rest of them. He hated them for it. And he didn’t bother to conceal his anger.
He was the one who pulled himself up out of nothing. He was the one who made something out of himself. It was time he got what he deserved.
“Hey, Zaha!”
The words came from cell F66. Molech’s cell. Zaha worked in a section of the prison known as the tombs. Here the worst offenders remained caged in their 8x10 cells twenty-four hours a day. None would ever be returned to society. Ahriman Molech was the worse of them all. Molech had coldly immolated his three young children, burning the house down around them while they slept, just to collect the insurance.
“Zaha, come here.”
Molech’s voice was crushed glass in velvet, sibilant. Yet it cut through your ears like razors. His shale black eyes were the devil’s own, never looking at you but piercing straight through your flesh. When he spoke, you felt the gelid fingers of his breath on your throat.
“Zaha!”
“Wa’da ya want, Molech?”
“You know what today is, Zaha?” He curled one thin, barely perceptible lip into a pointed smile. “It’s Halloween, Zaha.”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Halloween, Zaha. You know witches, goblins, and the undead.” He let out a laugh that chilled the guard. “Wouldn’t you like to be with your kid?”
“Leave it alone, Molech,” Zaha replied angrily. He rapped the cell bars with the end of his wooden shillelagh.
Molech’s sneer grew. “I know what you want, Zaha. I know what you think, what you dream.”
“You don’t know nothing.”
The dim cell light cast Molech’s shadow large and misshapen on the rough stone wall. To Zaha it looked like a hulking beast ready to strike.
“I know you’re right,” Molech said. He paused and leaned closer. “You’re better than these illiterate monkeys who prowl around here in their starched uniforms like zombies, much better than them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can help you. I can arrange it so you never have to work again… ever.” Molech’s exaggerated face jutted from between the bars. His voice hissed in Zaha’s ear. “Think about it, Zaha. Everything you need brought right to you… laid at your feet. You won’t have a thing to worry about.” Molech’s words were sure and quiet as a prayer at midnight. “I can give you what you want…”
“You’re crazy as a loon, Molech! How can you do anything for me?”
Molech laughed again then squinted at the guard. “What’s the matter, Zaha? What are you afraid of? You got nothing to lose, except this crummy job. You got no faith in your dreams, Zaha? Afraid of what they may cost you?”
Zaha reared back and spat on the floor of the cell. “I ain’t afraid of nothin’! Do you hear that, Molech, nothin’!” he barked, shaking the shillelagh. “You’re as crazy as they come!” Zaha gathered himself and stared back into Molech’s serpentine eyes. “But I’ll tell you something, Molech. I ain’t crazy… no, sir. But for what you said… why… I’d pay any price… any price in hell!”
Molech relaxed back from the bars, the crooked grin melting into a satisfied smile.

The next morning Roger Zaha awoke to a nightmare. He was dressed in prison fatigues and stood behind the bars of a cell. Cell F66.
“What the…hey!” Zaha grabbed at the barred cell door and shook it fiercely. “Hey,” he screamed, “what the hell… what’s going on… what is this… some kind of crazy joke?”
“What’s the matter, Zaha?” A voice from one of the cells called out. “Don’t like the accommodations?”
“Oh, he’s too good for this,” a passing guard snapped back.
Another laughed. “Yeah, don’t you know… Zaha’s better than us!”
“Not anymore he ain’t!”
The cell block erupted in hoots and shouts and laughter. Tin cups raked and rattled against iron bars. Zaha covered his ears from the rising din. “This can’t be real… it can’t be…”
When he looked up, a uniformed guard stood outside his cell. But it wasn’t a guard, it was Ahriman Molech! Zaha lunged at him, grasping through the bars. Molech laughed and turned aside.
“Never have to work again,” he said. His voice was icy and hollow. “Everything you ever need, laid at your feet… at your feet, Zaha!” Molech’s footsteps clattered down the hall, the shillelagh rapping against one iron bar after another, his laughter dissolving in the distance. Just before he disappeared out of sight, Molech raised an arm, snapping his fingers.
At that moment a piece of paper floated down into cell F66. Zaha snatched it up in mid-air. It was a newspaper clipping dated Friday, January 18, 1935. Zaha’s hands trembled as he read:
(Atlanta, GA) Roger Zaha, the man known as
the Halloween butcher, began his life sentence
today at the federal penitentiary here in
Atlanta, the same place he had worked as a
guard. After a sensational trial, Zaha, 29, was
found guilty of the brutal Halloween night
murder of his five year old son, Roger Jr. Zaha
allegedly used a butcher’s knife to dismember
the boy’s body before burning it to conceal the
crime. During the trial, a police spokesman
testified that the cellar walls of Zaha’s Fulton
County home were splattered with the child’s
blood. Unconfirmed sources have stated Zaha
told police he sacrificed his son to appease Satan,
making vague references to Leviticus 20 and
Jeremiah 19 in the Old Testament.
The scream reverberated throughout the prison: the echoing howl of a banshee; the plaintive bay of a wolf caught in a steel trap; the cries of a thousand faceless tortured souls; the tormented scream of a madman.
“I’ll get you, Molech!” Zaha cried out, slumping to his knees. “I’ll get you! As God is my witness, I’ll find you! If it takes me eternity, by hell I’ll find you, Molech! I’ll make you pay… by Satan’s blood I’ll make you pay! Molech…!”
The inhuman screams continued through the night. In the morning Zaha was found in a heap on his cell floor. His bones were broken. His body was covered in thick crimson welts, ugly festering purple and black bruises, and dozens of deep cuts and gashes. It was as if some sinister hand had thrown him about like a rag doll. Dark rust red colored blood was splattered across the cell walls.

Roger Zaha recovered. He spent the rest of his life in cell F66. He didn’t work. Everything he needed was brought to him, just as Ahriman Molech promised.
Zaha died in 1974, still vehemently claiming his innocence. Shortly after, inmates began to mysteriously disappear throughout the prison.
Eighteen to date.
Since that January night in 1935, Atlanta Federal Penitentiary’s halls echo with torturous screams. And its cold stone walls run rich with the dark rust red inmates call Satan’s Blood.

October 31, 2000 2:25 AM
The scratching continued.
Waxed louder.
Closer.
I could feel the presence of a pair of cold, unblinking eyes. They stared out from a shadowy corner; searched the dusky light for an errant cornflake or a few stray bread crumbs.
It’s nothing.
You get used to the nightly scratching and prowling after a while. Some of the guys save their breakfast cereal to feed the rats.
Like I said, it’s no big deal.
Unless the scratching stops.
The scratching stopped after a time. There was a frantic flurry of nails trying to gain traction on the slick, painted cement floor. A few feckless squeals.
Then silence.
You see, the rats know.
“Thank God, theys gone,” the stranger mumbled hoarsely. “That’s ok, right, boss?”
From the position of his voice I could tell he was sitting up again, probably huddled in the middle of his mattress, the blanket clutched at his throat.
I wanted to speak, say something. Tell him: no, it’s not ok, ‘cause when the rats run away…
A dry terror crawled up my throat, silencing my words, stitching my lips together. Above me, Nathan folded himself into a tight ball. I knew he was facing the wall, covers pulled over his head, an unavailing defense against the unknown. His usual position when the scratching stopped and the rats ran away.
I knew the position too well.
Boisterous hip hop blared from the tiny ear buds. Nathan had cranked the Walkman’s volume. As if music could drown the fear. From beneath my own covers I cursed for not keeping the radio myself.

The first scream is always the worse. No matter how many you experience. The piercing shriek grabs you by the balls. It squeezes so tightly the back of your brain aches, like the first stabs of the mother of all migraines.
I knew the stranger wanted to say something, maybe scream himself. He shuffled nervously on the floor. Fear had stitched his lips together as well.
If you are not too terrified to listen – if you dare listen at all – you might discern a voice in the truculent wailing:
“Molech!”
Shrill. Strained. Raspy.
“Molech!”
Tortured. As if imparting pain.
Another twisted howl rent the stagnant air. Then the pounding began, far down the hall.
“Molech!” Blam!
Hollow. Metallic.
Searching.
“Molech! Blam!
Closer. Four cells down.
“Molech!” Blam!
Three cells…
…two…
A low, algid fog crept into the cell, like the Avenging Angel.
“Sweet, Holy Jesus.” The solicitous stranger’s whispered prayer floated up from the floor next to me.
“Molech!”
Blam!
The pounding thundered, as if we were trapped inside the breech of discharging cannon.
Blam!

Lights flickered on at five AM. The food traps in the cell doors hammered open one by one. Footsteps scuffled outside the cell.
“Hey, I thought there were three in here?”
Bleary eyed I accepted the plastic trays from the guard. On the cell floor lay the tattered mattress, old army blanket and stained sheet.
And one lone shoe.
Trembling, I passed a tray up to Nathan.
“The marshals’ probably yanked his ass up out of here during the night,” another guard replied. “You know how the feds operate, they never tell us anything.”
Nathan and I ate our cold cereal and hard, butter-less toast in silence.
It wasn’t the federal marshals.
The stone walls in our cell dripped silently…
…an icy rust red…



Urban Fiction/Horror/Fiction
18 and up
3,771 words
BJ Neblett
Excellent short story for collections of horror, urban fiction or general fiction
Prison is bad enough, but what if the prison is haunted?
A young man finds himself in federal prison, locked away in the infamous Atlanta State Prison. He soon learns first hand the frightening secrets contained behind the cold iron bars and ancient concrete walls.
This work will appeal to New Adult and adult readers of general fiction, horror and sci-fi/fantasy.
BJ Neblett is a full time writer with two books and numerous short stories published. His newest novel, Planet Alt-Sete-Nine, a contemporary urban fantasy is due out Fall 2017. BJ teaches creative writing classes at Seattle's famed Hugo House for Writers and has taught ACE writing classes in several locations. He can be found in his Seattle home playing and listening to music, surrounded by his classic guitar collection and his thousands of records.
BJ graduated from Marple Newtown High School where he majored in writing and poetry. After service in the Army he began writing in earnest, being mentored by several writers and writing groups. Drawing on a 30 year career as a radio DJ, BJ finds inspiration in the crazy, colorful characters he has encounter, as well as the irony he finds all around. Preferring the short story format, his writing style encompasses strong characters and richly defined plots.
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Write about your worst one-nighter.
Written by bjneblett in portal Romance & Erotica

One-Eyed Redhead From Texas

BJ Neblett

© 2015

 So, here I am. Ok, but where is here? The room doesn’t look familiar. My eyes are too fuzzy to focus on anything. Damn, I haven’t been hung over like this in a long time. Can’t quite turn my head enough to get a good look at anything; almost but… Ow! Oh, damn, let’s not try that again. I need to just lie here for a while and let things settle.

Yeah, like I have a choice.

Ugh, my tongue feels like it needs shaving. And my left foot is asleep. It’s starting to tingle. The needles and pins are bad enough… but shit, my nose itches. Can’t… can’t… quite… reach it… Damn.

What the hell is that sad wailing coming from across the room? Oh, the radio. “You’re not helping my head any there Willie, crying about blue eyes in the rain.”

Well, at least the bed is comfortable.

Ok, Brad, easy boy. Let’s just relax, take a deep breath and gather our thoughts. Think man think… How did I get here? Think back. Yesterday, what happened yesterday? Well, Connie came by at 11 AM demanding her alimony check. Bitch woke me up out of a good sound sleep.

No, not that far back you idiot! Last night… what did you do last night?

You know, this would go a lot easier if you’d stop yelling. The top of my head already feels like it’s about to blow off.

Great… now I’m talking to myself… out loud! Why in the hell can’t I scratch this? Nothing’s worse than an itch you can’t scratch. That’s what she said… last night. “There’s nothing worse than an itch you can’t scratch.” Only I don’t think she was talking about her nose.

Nose… prose… pose… Rose… yeah, Rose that’s it… her name was Rose. Red Rose, yeah, she had red hair, wild flaming red hair. Now where was that? Let’s see… met with the guys for happy hour drinks; hit on the cute bartender. Ha, that went nowhere fast. And then I went to Molina’s for dinner. Man I’ve gotta lay off those double stuffed tacos. And finally I headed over to the monthly social… yeah, the monthly neighborhood social. Lately it seems to be getting just a little too social, if you know what I mean.

She was standing alone at the far end of the bar; just standing there, not really talking to anyone. That should have been my first warning.

Since when do you ever listen to anything I tell you?

Just pipe down and let me figure this out, ok? One voice at a time in my head is plenty.

She was attractive, even pretty, in a kinda hard sort of way. Not exactly what I go for in a dame. But it was early, the night just beginning. You have to play the bar scene right, loose and easy. No reason to fill up on appetizers right off.

“Hi, what would you like?”

The bartender, now there was a main course if I ever saw one.

“Hello there, beautiful; how about a gin and Seven-up, and your phone number, with a wedge of lime?”

“Oh, don’t worry; I’ll be sure to wedge it right in there!”

Ok, O for two with bartenders so far tonight. But she did make a mean drink; three fingers of Gordon’s and just a splash of Sprite in a small rock glass. That should have been a warning, too: easy on the alcohol, Dude, it’s gonna be a long night. But if I recall, the talent was slim and a bit long in the tooth. Typical of these so called socials; pot belly mid-life crisis in search of divorced painted, tainted muffin top with low self esteem. By my third drink, lonesome Red was starting to look better and better.

“Hey, gorgeous, how about another drink down here?” I figured the copious amounts of booze she poured would kill any lingering cooties from her spitting in my drink. I grabbed my glass and sauntered down the bar towards Red.

“What’s a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?”

She peered at me over the rim of her glass with one milky blue eye. Tilting her head back, she downed the remaining half of brown liquid in a single gulp. That should have told me something. Bright red lip prints rimmed the tall pilsner as she grinned over at me. “Well, hello there, Darlin’! How’r y’all doin’ tonight? My, you’re a real cutie pie!”

Well, this was more like it.

“I’m doing just fine. My name’s Brad.”

“Pleased to meet ya.” Her ham fisted shake rattle the bones in my extended arm. “You can call me Rose.”

It was then I noticed her right eye. It stared unblinking at me for a long moment. Then suddenly it began to wander about the bar like some lonesome searchlight. Her other eye caught me staring back. “Oh, I’m sorry, I…”

“Oh hell, honey, don’t you worry none about it. Shoot, I’m used to people checking me out. I lost this baby roping cows down in Amarillo in ’09. Ain’t nothin’ to it.”

“Oh, ok… so… so you’re new here I take it.”

“New as the morning dew; been in town just a couple of months. Figured I’d come here and meet up with some of the neighbors, if you know what I mean.” Rose winked her good eye at me, sending the other on a dizzying lap around the room. “I’m from Dumas. That’s a dusty little spot in the Lone Star State near the Oklahoma boarder.”

“Oh, Texas…”

“Yup, born and bred, a Texican through and through. Just like the song.”

“Song…?”

“You know, She’s the yellow rose of Texas...” Her voice screeched above the juke box, causing heads across the room to turn. “…As sweet as she can be… Only I’m red. You can call me Red… Red Rose.”

I downed the remains of my own drink. Setting my glass on the bar, I signaled for the bartender. “What are you drinking?”

Rose eyed the glass in her hand curiously. “Number six.”

“Number six… what, what’s a number six?”

She pointed to a hand scrolled sign of drink specials above the bar back. “Drink number six.”

“Oh, well, what’s in it?”

Setting the glass next to mine, her painted lips twisted. “Damn if I know.”

That should have been another sign. But by now who was counting. The blonde bartender begrudgingly snatched up the spent glasses. “Two please,” I motioned, “number sixes.”

Rose held up a hand and the bartender stopped. “Hold on there, missy, not so fast.”

“But I thought you said you were drinking number six,” I asked glancing at the sign.

“Shoot… I was… Now I’m up to number seven!”

Doing my best to avoid direct contact with the intimidating glass eye, I smiled thinly and held up two fingers. The bartender’s parting smirk was anything but reassuring. A few minutes later she returned with two oversized shot glasses filled with a murky greenish gold concoction. Rose’s good eye widened and the bartender shook her blonde locks, grinning in anticipation.

Raising her glass, my buxom companion called out, “Through the teeth and over the gums, look out stomach here it comes!”

Reluctantly, I touched her glass to mine. Following Rose’s lead I downed the strange liquid in one gulp. The potent liquor ricocheted through my body from my toes to my brain, finally settling in a burning knot into the bottom of my gut. “Holy crap…!” I managed between gasps for air. Satisfied with my pained expression, the bartender moved on.

Regaining my composure, I excused myself and headed to the bathroom. Dry heaves did little to alleviate my distress. I decided to just man up and go with the flow. It’d been a while since I’d gotten laid. Maybe a ride on a wild Texas filly was just what the doctor ordered. Splashing cold water on my face, I headed out for round two… or was it eight?

Rose met me half way across the bar and grabbed my wrist. “C’mon,” she yelled over the din of the music, “let’s see if you know how to two step.”

I don’t know a two step from a ladder rung. It didn’t matter. For thirty minutes Rose led me around the dance floor like a steer with a nose ring. Her pointed boots found my stumbling shins more than a few times. Finally we collapsed onto a pair of stools at the end of the bar. Rose slapped me on the back, nearly knocking me out of my seat. “Ye-ha that was fun; you know, you ain’t too bad for a city fella! With a little practice, I’ll have you doing the Cotton Eye Joe in no time!”

The bartender returned. This time she carried two long fluted glasses filled with clear, bubbly foam. “Number eight,” she clucked with a sadistic sneer, “enjoy.”

The rest of the evening is a hazy blur. I remember we didn’t make it down the entire list. Her warm wet tongue buried in my ear, Rose decided it was time to leave after number twelve; reassuring me we’d soon return to sample the remainder of the house specials. There was a cab ride that included a head in my lap and a grinning cab driver who seemed unable to keep his eyes on the road. And something about Texas and the rodeo I didn’t fully get.

And so here I am, lying in a strange bed, in a strange room, with a Texas sized hangover, while Willie Nelson laments about all the girls he’s loved. My position, while certainly new to me, isn’t all that uncomfortable. The feeling is starting to return to my left foot, despite its being bound to the bed post. And if the ropes on my wrists were just a tad longer I could reach my nose to scratch it. All in all, everything considered, not a totally bad situation I guess. I’ve been in worse.

And the sex… what I recall of it, was great.

I think I can hear Rose rooting around in the next room. I wonder what else she has in mind. I just hope she was kidding about the branding iron!

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Write about your worst one-nighter.
Written by bjneblett in portal Romance & Erotica
One-Eyed Redhead From Texas
BJ Neblett
© 2015

 So, here I am. Ok, but where is here? The room doesn’t look familiar. My eyes are too fuzzy to focus on anything. Damn, I haven’t been hung over like this in a long time. Can’t quite turn my head enough to get a good look at anything; almost but… Ow! Oh, damn, let’s not try that again. I need to just lie here for a while and let things settle.
Yeah, like I have a choice.
Ugh, my tongue feels like it needs shaving. And my left foot is asleep. It’s starting to tingle. The needles and pins are bad enough… but shit, my nose itches. Can’t… can’t… quite… reach it… Damn.
What the hell is that sad wailing coming from across the room? Oh, the radio. “You’re not helping my head any there Willie, crying about blue eyes in the rain.”
Well, at least the bed is comfortable.
Ok, Brad, easy boy. Let’s just relax, take a deep breath and gather our thoughts. Think man think… How did I get here? Think back. Yesterday, what happened yesterday? Well, Connie came by at 11 AM demanding her alimony check. Bitch woke me up out of a good sound sleep.
No, not that far back you idiot! Last night… what did you do last night?
You know, this would go a lot easier if you’d stop yelling. The top of my head already feels like it’s about to blow off.
Great… now I’m talking to myself… out loud! Why in the hell can’t I scratch this? Nothing’s worse than an itch you can’t scratch. That’s what she said… last night. “There’s nothing worse than an itch you can’t scratch.” Only I don’t think she was talking about her nose.
Nose… prose… pose… Rose… yeah, Rose that’s it… her name was Rose. Red Rose, yeah, she had red hair, wild flaming red hair. Now where was that? Let’s see… met with the guys for happy hour drinks; hit on the cute bartender. Ha, that went nowhere fast. And then I went to Molina’s for dinner. Man I’ve gotta lay off those double stuffed tacos. And finally I headed over to the monthly social… yeah, the monthly neighborhood social. Lately it seems to be getting just a little too social, if you know what I mean.
She was standing alone at the far end of the bar; just standing there, not really talking to anyone. That should have been my first warning.
Since when do you ever listen to anything I tell you?
Just pipe down and let me figure this out, ok? One voice at a time in my head is plenty.
She was attractive, even pretty, in a kinda hard sort of way. Not exactly what I go for in a dame. But it was early, the night just beginning. You have to play the bar scene right, loose and easy. No reason to fill up on appetizers right off.
“Hi, what would you like?”
The bartender, now there was a main course if I ever saw one.
“Hello there, beautiful; how about a gin and Seven-up, and your phone number, with a wedge of lime?”
“Oh, don’t worry; I’ll be sure to wedge it right in there!”
Ok, O for two with bartenders so far tonight. But she did make a mean drink; three fingers of Gordon’s and just a splash of Sprite in a small rock glass. That should have been a warning, too: easy on the alcohol, Dude, it’s gonna be a long night. But if I recall, the talent was slim and a bit long in the tooth. Typical of these so called socials; pot belly mid-life crisis in search of divorced painted, tainted muffin top with low self esteem. By my third drink, lonesome Red was starting to look better and better.
“Hey, gorgeous, how about another drink down here?” I figured the copious amounts of booze she poured would kill any lingering cooties from her spitting in my drink. I grabbed my glass and sauntered down the bar towards Red.
“What’s a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?”
She peered at me over the rim of her glass with one milky blue eye. Tilting her head back, she downed the remaining half of brown liquid in a single gulp. That should have told me something. Bright red lip prints rimmed the tall pilsner as she grinned over at me. “Well, hello there, Darlin’! How’r y’all doin’ tonight? My, you’re a real cutie pie!”
Well, this was more like it.
“I’m doing just fine. My name’s Brad.”
“Pleased to meet ya.” Her ham fisted shake rattle the bones in my extended arm. “You can call me Rose.”
It was then I noticed her right eye. It stared unblinking at me for a long moment. Then suddenly it began to wander about the bar like some lonesome searchlight. Her other eye caught me staring back. “Oh, I’m sorry, I…”
“Oh hell, honey, don’t you worry none about it. Shoot, I’m used to people checking me out. I lost this baby roping cows down in Amarillo in ’09. Ain’t nothin’ to it.”
“Oh, ok… so… so you’re new here I take it.”
“New as the morning dew; been in town just a couple of months. Figured I’d come here and meet up with some of the neighbors, if you know what I mean.” Rose winked her good eye at me, sending the other on a dizzying lap around the room. “I’m from Dumas. That’s a dusty little spot in the Lone Star State near the Oklahoma boarder.”
“Oh, Texas…”
“Yup, born and bred, a Texican through and through. Just like the song.”
“Song…?”
“You know, She’s the yellow rose of Texas...” Her voice screeched above the juke box, causing heads across the room to turn. “…As sweet as she can be… Only I’m red. You can call me Red… Red Rose.”
I downed the remains of my own drink. Setting my glass on the bar, I signaled for the bartender. “What are you drinking?”
Rose eyed the glass in her hand curiously. “Number six.”
“Number six… what, what’s a number six?”
She pointed to a hand scrolled sign of drink specials above the bar back. “Drink number six.”
“Oh, well, what’s in it?”
Setting the glass next to mine, her painted lips twisted. “Damn if I know.”
That should have been another sign. But by now who was counting. The blonde bartender begrudgingly snatched up the spent glasses. “Two please,” I motioned, “number sixes.”
Rose held up a hand and the bartender stopped. “Hold on there, missy, not so fast.”
“But I thought you said you were drinking number six,” I asked glancing at the sign.
“Shoot… I was… Now I’m up to number seven!”
Doing my best to avoid direct contact with the intimidating glass eye, I smiled thinly and held up two fingers. The bartender’s parting smirk was anything but reassuring. A few minutes later she returned with two oversized shot glasses filled with a murky greenish gold concoction. Rose’s good eye widened and the bartender shook her blonde locks, grinning in anticipation.
Raising her glass, my buxom companion called out, “Through the teeth and over the gums, look out stomach here it comes!”
Reluctantly, I touched her glass to mine. Following Rose’s lead I downed the strange liquid in one gulp. The potent liquor ricocheted through my body from my toes to my brain, finally settling in a burning knot into the bottom of my gut. “Holy crap…!” I managed between gasps for air. Satisfied with my pained expression, the bartender moved on.
Regaining my composure, I excused myself and headed to the bathroom. Dry heaves did little to alleviate my distress. I decided to just man up and go with the flow. It’d been a while since I’d gotten laid. Maybe a ride on a wild Texas filly was just what the doctor ordered. Splashing cold water on my face, I headed out for round two… or was it eight?
Rose met me half way across the bar and grabbed my wrist. “C’mon,” she yelled over the din of the music, “let’s see if you know how to two step.”
I don’t know a two step from a ladder rung. It didn’t matter. For thirty minutes Rose led me around the dance floor like a steer with a nose ring. Her pointed boots found my stumbling shins more than a few times. Finally we collapsed onto a pair of stools at the end of the bar. Rose slapped me on the back, nearly knocking me out of my seat. “Ye-ha that was fun; you know, you ain’t too bad for a city fella! With a little practice, I’ll have you doing the Cotton Eye Joe in no time!”
The bartender returned. This time she carried two long fluted glasses filled with clear, bubbly foam. “Number eight,” she clucked with a sadistic sneer, “enjoy.”
The rest of the evening is a hazy blur. I remember we didn’t make it down the entire list. Her warm wet tongue buried in my ear, Rose decided it was time to leave after number twelve; reassuring me we’d soon return to sample the remainder of the house specials. There was a cab ride that included a head in my lap and a grinning cab driver who seemed unable to keep his eyes on the road. And something about Texas and the rodeo I didn’t fully get.
And so here I am, lying in a strange bed, in a strange room, with a Texas sized hangover, while Willie Nelson laments about all the girls he’s loved. My position, while certainly new to me, isn’t all that uncomfortable. The feeling is starting to return to my left foot, despite its being bound to the bed post. And if the ropes on my wrists were just a tad longer I could reach my nose to scratch it. All in all, everything considered, not a totally bad situation I guess. I’ve been in worse.
And the sex… what I recall of it, was great.
I think I can hear Rose rooting around in the next room. I wonder what else she has in mind. I just hope she was kidding about the branding iron!

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We're all caught in their strings, our actions aren't all our own.
Written by bjneblett

Ripples

BJ Neblett

© 2010, 2015

June 9, 5:45 AM

San Rosario, Colombia

The child’s crying had awakened the old man in the middle of the night. He sat on the edge of the tiny bed watching as the five year old stirred in a fitful rest. Loving concern clouded his soft, kind eyes. Every few minutes trembling hands rinsed a tattered blue handkerchief in a basin of cool water lying on the floor. He returned the damp cloth to the child’s forehead. Her eyes struggled to open and she softly moaned.

“Easy, my child, I am here. Grandpa is here.”

His callous hands gently stroked the girl’s long raven hair. It was matted and soaked with sweat. Juan Carlos looked about the tired darken room, sighing heavily. The front of his worn cambric shirt heaved with weary muscles. The child’s fever had not broken; if anything it was worse.

He rose, stiff bones popping like kernels of corn in a fire. “Be brave, mi Niña,” he whispered, tenderly patting the girl’s shoulder, “be brave.”

Outside, somber shadows began to stir as the first breath of light touched the silent village. A puffy white mist kissed the earth, causing Juan Carlos to feel as if he were walking in a cloud.

“Someday,” the cracked lips proclaimed to the air, “someday I will know what it is like to walk among real clouds. Then there will be no more problems… no more troubles.” His voice trailed off. He had reached the square wooden house of Victor Manuel.

“Victor, my friend,” Juan Carlos called out in a voice heavy with the hour. “Victor Manuel, are you awake?”

A brown gibbous face appeared in the open window. It wore an unkempt moustache and a kind expression. “Juan Carlos you old goat, you stalk the streets like a ghost. Come inside, it is early. We will drink some of our special coffee which the Americans prize so highly.”

The old man shook his head, white stubble of his beard glistening in the yellow sunlight. “No, there is no time. Please, I need your assistance. My granddaughter is very sick. She has great fever. I am afraid for her. You must take us in your truck to the hospital in Vélez.”

“María Elaina, sick?” Victor Manuel blessed himself and disappeared. The front door to his home creaked open. “The hospital you say… the hospital is well over one hundred kilometers away, in the next valley. It will take us most of the day to get there. Are you sure my friend?”

Juan Carlos nodded, “I am sure.”

“This I will do for you, of course, but what of the beans? The big trucks are supposed to arrive today.”

The senescent face twisted in protest. “The trucks can wait! Already the men from the company expect too much from us. They work us hard and pay us nothing. It is because of them I must take my poor Niña across the mountain! They refuse to even provide our village with a doctor. And for what…” Juan Carlos spat on the ground, “just so some rich gringo can enjoy the special coffee that grows only here in our little valley!” He looked Victor Manuel in the eye. “Tell the men of the village to stay home… stay home till I return. There is no work today; maybe no work tomorrow.”

Victor Manuel opened his mouth to challenge his old friend and boss. He was cut off by an indignant wave of the other’s hand.

“I am in charge and it is my decision,” the old man said arrogantly. “I do not wish to hear about shipping schedules and deadlines. All I care about is my sweet little María Elaina. Come, the day grows old as we speak.”

By the time the crescent moon lay contentedly over the mountain, María Elaina lay under comfortable white sheets, resting peacefully. The fever had been reduced but she remained a very sick little girl. Juan Carlos shifted his position in the chair next to her bed. He would stay with his granddaughter at the hospital until she was better. Victor Manuel had returned to the secluded valley. The coffee beans would wait a few more days. The people of the village who grew the rich and rare beans prayed for little María Elaina. They understood.

The big international company that purchased the valuable commodity did not understand.

Nor did they care.

June 12, 8:19 AM

London, England

Nigel Bannister paced the thick green carpet of his plush twelfth floor office overlooking the Thames. Outside, a steady drizzle played against the smoke tinted windows, reflecting Bannister’s mood. On the expensive mahogany desk waited a steaming cup of English breakfast tea, while three yellow lights on the multi-line telephone flashed impatiently.

Bannister ignored them.

The intercom buzzed, pulling Nigel Bannister from his thoughts. “Excuse me, Sir. Mr. Cooke is here. And I still have Mr. Howard, and Mr. Smyth, and Todd Worth on hold.”

Bannister stopped pacing and frowned, his aquiline nose flaring. Finally he approached the desk and pressed a button. “All right, all right Miss Hastings… very well, let me speak to…” Bannister paused. Smyth could wait. He knew when he finally faced his boss he’d better have some serious answers.

Nigel Bannister was a good, albeit brusque man; a company man. After Oxford, he’d gone from buyer to vice president of export. Bannister knew his beans. He knew and understood the coffee business inside and out, perhaps better than he knew and understood the people he dealt with every day. But Nigel was also a cautious man. He was used to making important decisions in his own time, on his own schedule, after he had considered all angles, weighed all his options. This business with the small plantation in Colombia had popped up rather suddenly. And Smyth, his boss, wanted it disposed of swiftly and quietly.

“No,” Bannister corrected himself, “send in Cooke. And I’ll speak with Howard in a moment. Tell Smyth and Worth I’ll call them back momentarily.” With that Nigel Bannister closed the intercom. He nervously fiddled with the four-in-hand knot of his silk tie from Harold’s, painting on a plastic smile as the door to his office opened.

“Roger, old chap, good to see you again… been much too long…”

“How are you, Nigel? How’s the misses?” The two men stiffly shook hands, considering one another like prize fighters in a ring.

“Oh, fine, fine, thanks… now, what’s all this rubbish about San Rosario, eh?”

Roger Cooke was a field man for the company. He enjoyed his work, loved the people and countries he dealt with, and had no use for big cities, board rooms or four-in-hand ties. His sudden summons to the home office both surprised and annoyed him. He was glad Bannister had come right to the point. The sooner he could return to the field and his duties the better.

“There’s not much to it actually, Nigel. The growers are dissatisfied with conditions. It’s nothing new. Only it seems one of the children nearly died because there was no doctor nearby. She’s in the hospital in Vélez. It’s the same problem I’ve been pitching to you for years. The growers just need some improvements. They want the company to provide the village with a doctor and a medical facility.”

Bannister’s thin lips pursed, his steel eyes narrowing. “Damn nuisance, this business. It’s like the whole planet is on some health care kick or something; only why now, Cooke, why the work stoppage now?”

“Well, it seems the girl is the granddaughter of Juan Carlos. Carlos is the foreman of the plantation and a village elder. The people love and respect him. They…”

“Yes, yes,” Bannister interrupted impatiently. “So this Carlos character is the key to this whole mess then?”

Roger Cooke studied his vinegar faced opponent carefully. He knew his type. Twenty years behind a desk had hardened him to the needs of the field. The simple people of the towns and villages who grew the beans were the heart and soul of the company. Cooke knew this. Cooke also knew that the company looked upon them as no more than numbers; pluses and minuses, assets and liabilities; pawns in a global game with extremely high stakes.

“I think we need to listen to Juan Carlos this time, Nigel. I think…”

Once again Cooke was cut short by his superior. “Now listen here, Cooke. The world wants its coffee when it wakes up in the morning. It doesn’t want excuses. It doesn’t want to hear about some five year old; or her stubborn old grandfather; or some jungle village without a doctor.” Bannister let out a contemptuous snort. “And neither does the board of directors! In twenty years I’ve never lost a shipment nor had one delayed for any reason… hurricanes, revolutions, old men and children be damned!”

He paused, once again fiddling with the knot of his tie. No need to get all worked up over this, he thought. The solution is simple. He looked up at Cooke. “Your man in Colombia, this Howard chap, he’s a good man?”

Roger Cooke bristled at the inference of the question. “James Howard is a fine man. I picked him myself. This is what I do, Nigel… I know the field, and my people. If Howard says the situation is serious, then I trust his judgment.”

“Yes, quite… fine…” Without another word, Nigel Banister strode over to the large mahogany desk and pressed a lighted button on the telephone. “Hello, Howard? James Howard, are you there?” he bellowed into the speaker box.

“Yes, Sir, James Howard here…”

“Good, good, this is Nigel Bannister in London. Roger Cooke is here with me. Now listen carefully, this is what I want you to do.” He turned, his unforgiving gaze falling upon Roger Cooke. “I think it’s time for some changes. Find me a new foreman… I don’t care who… that’s your department. But I want this trouble maker, this Carlos fellow out… and I want him out today! Get those people back to work! And tell them I’ll hear no more talk of a doctor or health care or whatever… understood? And for God’s sake get that shipment on the trucks! Got it?”

Bannister didn’t wait for a reply. He snapped the speaker box off, severing the connection. His trademark confident half smile returned. “Well, that should take care of that, eh what? That’s how we handle things here in London. Decisions, that’s what I do, Cooke, handle problems; make decisions.”

August 3, 10:32 AM

The Hamptons, New York

Valerie White had a hangover. This was nothing new for Valerie White. Not to say that she was an alcoholic. No. But Valerie White enjoyed the way alcohol made her feel. She liked the way it loosened her, relaxed her. And she loved the way it made all of the troubles and tribulations of being young and rich and beautiful and single seem to disappear. What she didn’t like was the way it made her feel the morning after. And this particular morning after was a doozey.

It was her birthday, her twenty fifth. Valerie and a couple of close friends had gone out to celebrate over a simple dinner. But nothing in Valerie White’s life was ever simple. By midnight the friends numbered over thirty, some of whom she didn’t recognize. And the party had moved to a private corner of the hottest and trendiest night spot in New York City.

Now Valerie lay in her oversized bed, watching her posh and over done bedroom slowly revolve about her.

“Did daddy buy me a carousel for my birthday?” she moaned.

“What’s the matter? You always said the world revolved around you.” Valerie’s kid sister Amy swallowed a sagacious smile. “Close your eyes, it’ll help.”

“When I close my eyes I see little pink spots,” Valerie reported uneasily.

“Here, drink this.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, Amy held a steaming cup to her sister’s lips. Valerie took a long sip.

She almost gagged.

“Eeew! What is that stuff?”

“English breakfast tea,” Amy replied, stifling another giggle at her sister’s distress.

Valerie half opened one eye, sniffed cautiously at the tea, wrinkled her pert, perfect, expensive nose, and pushed the cup away. “Yuck! How can they drink that stuff? No wonder the British are all prune faced and stuffy! Where’s my coffee?”

Amy rose, setting the cup on the night stand. She looked down at the prone figure of her big sister. “Some role model you turned out to be! No wonder mom and dad decided to have me.”

Valerie’s road mapped eyes yawned fully open and she glared at Amy. “Just get me my coffee… please!”

“Sorry, we’re all out. Daddy had the last this morning. And the city as well as the country and the rest of the world are dry as prohibition. Since the major coffee bean growers went out on strike in support of the independents nobody is getting their coffee fix, nobody. Daddy says it all has to do with health care or something, I don’t know. But coffee futures are through the roof. I’ve never seen daddy happier.”

“Great… the rich get richer… meanwhile, I’m riding a king size Sealy roller coaster and my tongue feels like it needs shaving.”

Reaching the door, Amy stopped, turned and smiled sweetly. “Try a cold shower. Happy birthday, sis,” she chirped with a devilish grin and was gone.

By noon Valerie was feeling almost human. She wandered into the large, ornate, over done White family study. “Mother, father,” she announced in a serious tone, “I’ve made a decision.”

Her sister, sprawled on the floor with an Archie comic book, rolled her sparkly hazel eyes. “I’ll alert the media.”

“That’s nice honey,” her mother answered without looking up from her knitting.

“Ah, there you are. Happy birthday, Princess,” her father called from behind his newspaper.

Valerie surveyed her family, shaking her pretty blonde head. She started to leave, but then changed her mind. “No, I’m serious. I’ve decided to quit drinking. Not just cut down or anything, but quit completely, cold turkey.” Holding up one hand, she dramatically cupped the other over her heart. “No more alcohol for Valerie White. I’ve learned my lesson, especially if I can’t get any more coffee.”

Amy dropped her comic book, “Maybe I should notify the media.”

“That’s nice, honey,” her mother calmly repeated.

Valerie’s blue eyes narrowed and she scrunched up her face. “Daddy, what do you think?”

“Whatever you like, Princess,” he replied, stealing a peak at his oldest daughter before returning to his Wall Street Journal.

“It’s ok with him,” Amy commented slyly. “He doesn’t deal in alcohol futures.” With that she grinned, sticking her tongue out at her sister.

“Well, it’s my decision, and from this moment on no more alcohol,” Valerie called out, ignoring Amy, and stomping one dainty foot in petulant determination.

“And what about Brad Harrington?” Amy asked, voicing her parent’s thoughts. “Don’t you have a date with him tonight?”

“Oh… well…” The question made Valerie pause to think. Boorish Brad was bad enough, but sober? She wasn’t sure if she could take the obstinate heir while sober. “No,” she said at last, stomping her foot again. “No, I’ve decided. Valerie White is on the wagon. Brad will understand.”

“I don’t understand…”

“What?”

“What…?”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘What?’”

“What?”

Valerie grabbed Brad Harrington by his Sean John collar, dragging him from the tightly packed dance floor.

“Hey, watch it. You made me spill my drink,” Brad protested over the bone numbing thump of the trendy club’s bass. “What’s with you tonight, anyway?”

“What’s with me?” Frustration twisted Valerie’s carefully made up face. “You hardly said a word to me all night. Then you drag me to this nauseating human freak show…”

“Are you kidding? This is the hottest new joint in the city! Even the Kardashians would have trouble getting passed the door. But here we are, babe!”

“So what…”

Brad grinned broadly, surveying the sea of undulating bodies. He signaled for a fresh drink. “Lighten up, will ya…”

“I just thought tonight could be different,” Valerie admitted with a tightening catch in her throat, “that we could maybe go some place quiet and talk.”

A waitress arrived with a pair of purple martinis. Brad snatched them from the tray with a wink to the attractive brunette. He made no attempt to conceal his obvious admiration for her shapely figure as it seductively weaved through the crowd. “What did you say, babe?”

Valerie looked hopelessly at her date. By now all she wanted to do was flee the officious club and its obnoxious clientele. “How come I never noticed that before?” she said softly.

“What’s that?”

“How you never look at me when we talk… hell… we never talk!”

“What do you mean? We talk, we’re talking now.”

“No! We’re not, Bradley… look at me… look at me!”

Their eyes met for what seemed like the first time. Valerie wasn’t sure if it was the flashing dance floor lights or the clarity of sobriety, but she didn’t recognize the man standing in front of her; the man everyone assumed she would marry.

“What?” shouted Brad angrily. “You know, you can be such a drag when you’re not drinking.”

Valerie White squirmed uncomfortably on the hard plastic seat. People, buildings and billboards flickered past like a movie out of sync, framed in the grimy window pane.

“My life,” she murmured, “that’s my life… blinking past… out of focus… distorted.”

“That’s not a good sign.”

The young man sitting across from her, studying her carefully seemed to appear out of nowhere. He wore faded jeans and an old corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows. A reassuring confidence graced his dimpled face.

They were the only two in the car. Valerie thought he looked like someone you’d find on the back cover of some stuffy best seller. “I’m… I’m sorry…”

His smile warmed the cool conditioned air. “A beautiful woman riding the subway alone at night, talking to herself… that’s never a good sign.”

“Oh, well… I was just thinking… thinking out loud I guess.” Her moist blue eyes gazed into the night. “About my life,” she continued with a sigh, “how it seems to be flickering past, right before me…”

And the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round, painted ponies go up and down

The verse pulled Valerie from her reverie. “That’s pretty… are you a poet?”

“No, not a poet… a journalist, an out of work struggling journalist I’m afraid.”

Valerie felt herself blush. “And here I am… I’ve never had to struggle for anything in my life.”

“Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are, sweetheart,” the stranger mouthed through a clenched jaw.

For the first time that night, Valerie smiled. “I know this one… Humphrey Bogat, right?”

“Close enough… Hi, I’m Bill Brown.” He moved to the seat next to her, his hand sliding comfortably over hers like a fine Italian leather glove; his engaging smile widening till it tugged at the corners of his mocha eyes.

“Hello, Bill… I’m Valerie White.”

“And what is lovely Valerie White doing riding a New York subway train alone at night?” He was still holding her hand in his.

“Oh, well, I’m not going far… just downtown.”

“You must be taking the scenic route then.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m afraid this train goes to Flatbush.”

“Oh, it does? I mean…” Now her pink cheeks blazed crimson. “Flatbush… that’s in New York right?”

“Well, there are many who would dispute the fact, but yes, it is. I take it you don’t ride the subway very often.”

Glancing down at her Dolce and Gabbana silk dress, her Ugg heels and Fendi purse, Valerie couldn’t help but laugh. “What was your first clue, Sherlock?”

“Let’s just say I had a hunch,” and they both laughed.

“Tell me, Bill, what’s it like in Flatbush?”

“Oh, you’d hate it… the streets are narrow and worn; the houses are old and they all look alike; and the redolent air hangs heavy with the sautéed scent of a hundred nationalities.” His voice softened in deep reflection. “But the people, Valerie… the people are real, and honest, and hard working, and kind, and friendly, and just about the greatest bunch of nobodies you’d ever care to meet.”

The train rocked and shook and the star crossed couple found themselves pressed together in the darken car as the lights blinked and dimmed.

“It sounds like a wonderful place.”

Valerie White awoke feeling strange. She lay in her oversized bed trying to analyze the alien sensations coursing through her body. Her head didn’t throb to a dissonant drum; her eyes didn’t protest the daffodil dayspring, and her mouth didn’t feel like a litter box. No, she thought with a refreshing clarity, none of the usual symptoms. Instead, Valerie felt rested, alive, energized. She even found she actually had an appetite for breakfast. And she didn’t miss her coffee.

Valerie White was sober and happy…

… and in love.

August 5, 1:10 AM

Flatbush, New York

“I think you’re totally out of your league, that’s what I think.” Rob gave his roommate a pitiful look. “And I think you’re totally nuts.”

“Quiet, you made me lose count again.” Bill Brown scratched his head then scratched thru the figures he’d just written on the yellow legal pad. He stared at the meager stacks of fifty and hundred dollar bills lined up like an undisciplined band of mercenary soldiers. With a sigh he began to count again. On the bed next to the tired particle board desk from K-Mart, lay his passport; a well traveled, over stuffed army surplus back pack, and the worn leather case that housed his aging laptop.

“Some poor little rich girl you met on the subway gives you her cell phone number and right away you become Don Quixote, off on a noble quest.” Rob threw up his hands and laughed, “The things we do for love.”

Bill finished his counting and tucked the money into a Harley Davidson wallet chained to his belt. “That’s not it at all, Rob. You don’t understand. This is what I do.”

With no attempt to conceal his bemused expression, Rob replied. “Oh, yeah, I forgot… the renowned investigative reporter who’s going to change the world. Ok, Clark Kent, suppose you explain it to me.”

Bill peered at his friend from across the top of his spectacles. “It’s not because of her,” he began patiently, “well… not exactly… it’s something she said, something that clicked in my mind. As we were talking she mentioned health care. At first I just figured she had changed the subject.” His face adopted the dopey expression of a beagle in love. “She can be kinda hard to follow sometimes…”

“You mean scattered,” Rob mused.

“No, not scattered…”

“Flighty…”

“No, complex…”

“Hair brained…”

“Enigmatic…”

“Not the sharpest knife in the drawer…”

The reporter looked at his friend, the dopey expression giving way to acceptance. “Ok, scattered.”

“And because ‘lil Orphan Annie confuses health care concerns in this country with striking coffee growers, you’re off to South America. Meanwhile, every legitimate reporter is in London getting the real story.”

Bill ignored the dig. “No… no, it’s not because of her, but her name. I didn’t connect the two until today. She said her father told her the strike was over health care.”

“So, who’s her papa to have inside info the rest of the world isn’t privy to?”

“Her father is Wayne White.”

Rob let out a long low whistle. “Wow, Daddy Warbucks himself! If anyone should know…”

“Wayne White should know,” Bill said in agreement, finishing the thought.

“That’s some hunch you’re playing, my friend. I don’t know if I’d have the coconuts to empty my piggy bank on the word of some ditzy blonde…”

“Scattered,” Bill corrected.

“…scattered blonde,” Rob acquiesced. “You know, any one of Ms. White’s outfits is worth more than that entire bank roll you’ve got strapped to your hip.”

The realization gave Bill Brown a start and a chill. “Yeah, I know… I know it’s a gamble… but something tells me… besides, I’ve made the decision, and the reservations. It’s the red eye to Rio; puddle hopper to Cartagena; train to Vélez; then over the mountains and through the woods by Jeep I go, in search of coffee and a story.” He grinned up at his friend, slinging the olive drab back pack over one shoulder. “By the way, I borrowed your Nikon.”

“Hey! That’s my best camera!”

August 7, 3:06 PM

San Rosario, Colombia

Some sixty hours later, a weary, bleary eyed Bill Brown sat in a small square wooden house, eating flat bread and drinking his first cup of coffee in weeks.

“I can see why your beans are prized so highly,” he said with sincerity. “This is beyond a doubt the best coffee I have ever tasted.”

Juan Carlos scratched his stubbly chin and snorted indignantly.

“Juan Carlos, do not be so rude… where are your manners?” Victor Manuel turned to his guest. “Por favor, excusa, señor. Do not mind my friend. It was his granddaughter, little María Elaina, who was very sick.”

“I’m sorry, señor Carlos. I am glad that María is better.”

“You think this gringo is going to help us?” Juan Carlos snapped, ignoring Bill’s concern. “You are a bigger fool than I, Victor. He is just like the rest.”

“No!” Bill almost shouted, catching himself as the two men raised their eyebrows. “I’m sorry… no… no, I am here to help.”

“You must understand,” Victor said with a sigh, “we have been told that before. Men of the company have come to our village these past months, men like yourself, with fancy cameras and other gadgets.” He pointed to the open laptop and small digital recorder resting on the table between them. “They talk and talk and then they go away, and still we hear nothing.” He folded his sun browned arms across his broad chest. “The radio tells us of other growers in other places and of their demands. They want this thing and that thing… but there is never mention of our village or of a doctor. I do not understand… so much talk…”

“That is because the company has kept your village and its needs out of the papers. But I am not from the company,” Bill said softly. “And I have not come here to talk, señor Manuel. I have come here, to your village, not to talk but to listen.” He looked over at the old man. Juan Carlos’ dark eyes were the color of the coffee beans he grew and loved. “Señor Carlos, I will listen. Tell me your story. And I promise you, I will do everything I can to see to it the whole world hears your words; hears the truth.”

With a shrug Juan Carlos spoke. “It is not an easy life. But we are a hardy people. We love these mountains; they have been good to us. The coffee business I know nothing about, nor do I care.” A confident smile splintered the ancient face. “But the beans… the beans… this I know. It is not an easy thing, raising the beans here. But as you yourself have said, it is a good crop we have.” He relaxed, leaning his chair back on two legs. “The men of the fincas – where the beans are grown – are patient people… they must be… you cannot rush the beans. The trees must be hand planted, and then hand pruned; watered by hand and looked after. They require much attention, like a bebé.

“Harvest time is year round and the beans are handpicked, sorted by hand; washed and sun dried, and then allowed to ferment.” His expression grew serious as he placed a knurled fist firmly on the table. “It is only then, at the precise moment, that they are ready to be sent away. San Rosario coffee is the best in the world,” Juan Carlos proclaimed proudly.

“The work is hard, yes,” Victor Manuel continued. “But it is what we do… what our fathers and their father’s fathers did before us. And it is what we teach our little ones. We do not ask for machines and trucks and fancy factories. No, that is not our way. Our life is simple; it is a good life. All we ask is that our children do not have to suffer as poor little María Elaina. The company owes us that much.”

August 9, 11:58 PM

Washington DC

“So, are you going to run it?”

The managing editor of the Washington Post loosened his tie and top two shirt buttons. His sleeves were already rolled and perspiration marked his furrowed forehead. The east coast was in the middle of a devastating heat wave and the air conditioner struggled to meet demand.

“I’d be a fool not to. This is dynamite stuff. And the interview with the little granddaughter is Pulitzer material.”

“But he’s an unknown, a nobody…”

The editor looked up at his assistant. “We all were at one time.”

“What about our man down there, Riley?”

“Riley is a fool! And he’s damn lucky he still has a job. If I hadn’t needed him to confirm what is in this exposé he would have been gone. This story was right under his nose all along!” The editor mopped his brow, tossing the article on the desk.

“So, you are going to run it.”

“I’ve made the decision.” The Washington Post chief grinned. “Tomorrow morning unknown reporter B. Brown will find his story front page center with a by line. Before noon every paper, news agency, TV and radio station will have picked it up. And by dinner time he will be the most sought after journalist in the country, if not the world.”

“And we’ll have on hell of a scoop.”

The editor scanned the galley proofs with satisfaction. “Mister Bill Brown, your life is about to change.”

August 11, 9:15 AM

Joplin, Missouri

Steve Fields sat in his small office, drinking ice cold buttermilk. He re-read the article for the third time. The accompanying photos tugged at his heart, making him think of his own young granddaughter. Bill Brown’s exclusive exposé of the London based international conglomerate and their treatment of the coffee growers was headline news. The Washington Post story had been picked up by newspapers worldwide, including the Joplin Globe. Fields sipped his milk and smiled. Maybe… just maybe…

He made up his mind. The big, affable mid-westerner rose and strode into the outer office. “Mrs. Marshal, have every department head assemble in my office, please.”

“Yes, Mr. Fields.”

Fifteen minutes later, Steve Fields surveyed the stunned faces on half a dozen employees. “Any questions?”

Silence.

Finally a soft, timid voice spoke up. “Sir… are you… are you sure, sir?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“This is all very well and noble of you,” a more confident voice advanced. “But you’ve got to think of the customers. What will they say, and will they go along? And what about sales? Since the new chain supermarket opened up around the corner on Range Line Drive, we’re barely staying afloat. This store can’t take any more losses.”

Fields grinned. “That’s why I hired you, Tom. You are always the voice of reason. That and because you’re my son-in-law.” Nervous laughter circled the room. “I know the situation, of course… but I’m glad to see each of you is aware as well.” He leaned back in his chair. “This store is fighting for its very existence. Being an independent is never easy. My father and his father’s father faced even tougher times… wars… the depression. It’s during those hard times that people look to their friends, their neighbors, and the community. The independent has been the backbone of commerce in this country… it still is. But more importantly, the independent is looked upon as a community leader.” He tossed the copy of the Joplin Globe onto the broad, round meeting table. “You’ve all read the story. You all know what those people in South America are up against. I couldn’t in good conscience drink another cup of coffee now, even if I could get one. It’s David and Goliath all over again. But this time David needs all the help he can get.”

Steve Fields ran his fingers through his thinning, graying hair. He looked each of the men and women assembled before him in the eye, deciphering their expressions. “I don’t want any of you to get the wrong impression of my altruism. I am doing this as much for the store as for the coffee growers. It’s a gamble I’m sure. But one I’m willing to take. I’ve made the decision. We’ll all have to work hard and pull together and keep a positive attitude. A few well said prayers would be appreciated as well.”

By noon, every product sold by the London based conglomerate had been removed from the shelves of Field’s Family Market. Along with the missing coffee, tea; crackers; cranberries; cat food; canned meats, and a number of other products disappeared. Each item was replaced by a neatly printed handbill. It read:

Dear valued customer, as long as the parent company

of this product refuses to see to the needs of the small

village in Colombia on whose production of coffee beans

they rely, Fields Family Market will refuse to carry any

of their products. We apologize for any inconvenience

this may cause our customers. We thank you for your

support, and encourage others to join our boycott.

A copy of the handbill along with a letter explaining the store’s position was forwarded to London.

That night the market owner counted the spots on his bedroom ceiling instead of sleeping. He tried counting up his savings and investments in case of a forced early retirement, but discovered it too depressing. By five AM he abandoned any hope of sleep and reluctantly rolled out of bed.

When Steve Fields arrived to open his store he found the parking lot cluttered with mobile remote vans and satellite trucks. Several starched, shinning TV reporters, followed closely by huffing camera men, rushed over as Fields exited his old pick up. A microphone with the CNN logo was among the many thrust in his face. “Mister Fields, can you please comment on your decision to pull the London company’s product from your shelves?”

By the next day the media circus had abated somewhat. The new story du jour became the hundreds of chain stores and independents across the country that had joined in the boycott. The Joplin Globe ran a feature on Steve Fields, proclaiming the gutsy store owner a home town hero and a national inspiration. The impassioned speech he’d made to his staff just two days earlier was featured in a side bar. It was printed nearly word for word with some additional patriotic pumping. The David and Goliath remark was picked up by the New York Times and soon became a catch phrase with the media. Fields couldn’t decide if he should kiss or kill his over eager son-in-law.

But the gamble paid off. The small family owned business began to thrive again. Old customers showed their support and new patrons flocked to the small maverick store that had challenged the large international conglomerate.

August 30, 9:27 AM

London, England

Todd Worth settled into the thick winged back leather desk chair of his plush twelfth floor office overlooking the Thames. Outside, a cheery yellow sun cast it contented smile on the smoke tinted windows, reflecting Worth’s mood. On the expensive mahogany desk waited an iced can of Pepsi, while a single yellow light on the multiline telephone blinked impatiently. Worth ignored it, staring blankly at the framed photo of his new sports car.

The intercom pulled Todd Worth from his thoughts. “Excuse me, sir, Doctor Hawthorn is here.”

Worth mumbled to himself, a strand of sandy blonde hair falling across his smooth, tanned brow as he reached for the speaker box. “Thank you, Ms. Schafer. I’ll see him in a minute.”

Pressing the flashing yellow button, he lifted the receiver to his ear. “Hello… Todd Worth here… what’s that? No, no… I’m afraid Nigel Bannister is no longer with the company… yes, that’s right… took an early retirement, I’m in charge now… yes, quite… very good.”

He hung up the phone, his last words echoing sweetly in his mind: I’m in charge now…

Todd Worth was a good, albeit casual man; a company man. He learned the coffee business from his father. From plantation to export to refining to packaging to shipping to merchandising, Todd Worth knew his beans. He spent twelve long, sweltering years in South America as a company representative, dealing with plantation owners, cartels, drug lords, dictators and revolutions.

The next decade Worth spent dealing with hurricanes and sea sickness, riding the endless blue green waves of the Atlantic. He’d graduated to the position of senior supervisor of shipping. The fancy title translated into interminable hours at sea babysitting the company’s cargo of coffee beans.

Then for six years Todd Worth rode a desk. He was finally back in England, this time checking and rechecking the status of shipments to the company’s numerous distributors. The work was boring and repetitive. And, it seemed for a time he would ride this desk to retirement.

But Todd Worth always considered himself a lucky man.

The unexpected and troublesome work stoppage had mushroomed into an international incident. Coffee growers all over the world refused to pick or ship the valuable commodity. Chain stores and independents across the US and Canada canceled major orders, removing from their shelves all products produced by the coffee conglomerate. Consumers around the globe stood in support of the boycott for better conditions for the people of the tiny village of San Rosario. Common stock of the London based company plummeted, with no bottom in sight.

But Todd Worth’s luck held true.

Forty eight hours earlier Worth was in the right place at the right time when aging CEO Smyth pointed his finger and made his decision. Now Todd Worth was enjoying his first full day as vice president of export and international relations.

Worth rose, confidently fiddling with the Windsor knot of his hand painted silk tie from Soho. The door to his office opened and a man with graying temples, round spectacles and a limp entered. “How are you, Todd? My, it’s been a time hasn’t it?” The two men shook hands, sizing up one another like a pair of British bulldogs.

“Yes, quite, Quincy, quite some time. How are things at the hospital?”

They took up positions in matching arm chairs near the oversized window. “Oh, well, running along smoothly as ever, you know.” Dr. Quincy Hawthorn considered the opulent office. “I must say, you’ve done well by yourself, old chap.”

“Yes, yes, we’ve come a long way since Eaton, haven’t we?” Worth turned in his seat, his brown eyes narrowing. “I need your help Quincy old man, I’m up against it. Surely you’ve heard about this mess in South America. I can’t see how anyone could avoid it. That school of yours has recently graduated a fresh batch of interns. Perhaps you could fine me one willing to pull a year or two of service in Colombia. The company’s setting up a wonderful little clinic in a place called San Rosario. It will be well equipped and maintained; there’s a fine hospital nearby and the pay is decent. It should be a great experience as well as quite the adventure for the right chap.”

The doctor studied his flaccid faced friend carefully. He knew what medical facilities in remote places could be like. He knew that the nearby hospital was in Vélez, a grueling full day’s journey. And he was aware that this was as much a publicity ploy as a humanitarian effort. Still, Worth was right. The medical experience gleaned would be invaluable to a young doctor just starting his practice. He thought of his own years with the home service as a young doctor in India.

Dr. Hawthorn smiled, nodded and made his decision. “Ok, Todd, I’ll find you a doctor. I’ll start the process immediately. In fact, I think I just might have the perfect candidate.”

Rising, they strode to the door. “Thanks, Quincy. I knew you’d come through for me. Ring me up as soon as you have somebody.”

As the office door closed, Worth’s own words returned, playing over like a stuck record: I’m in charge now…

He grinned slyly. “I’m in charge now,” he said to no one, straightening his tie. “And I make the decisions. You got your health clinic thanks to a lot of bleeding heart liberals and that senile old duck running this company. But just step out of line again and you’ll have to deal with Todd Worth!”

September 6, 6:39 PM

Flagstaff, Arizona

“So, you’ve made up your mind?”

“Yes.”

“And that’s it? You’re back home less than a month and you are leaving again?”

“Dad, I…” Paul Chandler slid the half eaten meal from in front of him. Across the elegant dining room table his father eyed him curiously. “Dad, I know it hasn’t been easy for you since mom passed away.”

Dr. Thomas Chandler balled his linen napkin, tossing it onto the table. “I told you, Paul, your mother has nothing to do with it,” he replied, closing his eyes and his mind to the bitter memory. “Lord knows I’ve missed her these last two years. But I’m fine, son, just fine.”

Paul smiled across the room. He loved his father and would do anything for him. He understood his father’s pain. There wasn’t a day that went by he didn’t miss his mother. He remembered how proud she was the day he started college, following in his father’s footsteps. His mother had been his biggest fan and strongest supporter during the difficult first years of pre-med. It wasn’t fair. She never got to see her son graduate from medical school.

“Why do you think we sent you off to that school in England?” his father asked for about the tenth time since Paul broke the news. “We wanted the best for you; you are a part of this family, and a part of the family business, Paul. You and I are a team. Your Uncle Jack and cousin Jess are looking forward to you joining us at the clinic.”

“That’s your dream, dad,” Paul said patiently, “not mine. At least it isn’t right now. Perhaps in a couple of years, after…”

“After what?” his father interrupted. He caught himself. He didn’t mean to raise his voice. But this wasn’t the way it was suppose to be.

“Dad, those people in San Rosario need me.”

“Those people don’t even have any kind of a facility for you yet. If you are determined to go, what’s your hurry?” Chandler faltered, the words welling up in his chest. “I need you, son, here at the clinic, the way your mother and I always planned.” Rising from the table he began to pace. “I’m sorry, Paul, it’s just so hard to understand.”

Paul’s quiet blue eyes turned inward. “The Grand Canyon…”

“How’s that…?”

“The Grand Canyon,” Paul repeated softly. “Do you remember that trip we took to the Grand Canyon?”

The question caused the senior Chandler to stop and turn. “Why, you couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old.”

“I was six. And we never made it to the Canyon. Remember, dad?”

Dr. Chandler’s stern face softened. “Yes…”

“Traveling up route sixty four,” Paul continued, “we were flagged down by that Hopi Indian family. The woman was in heavy labor, a breach birth. You saved her life… and the baby. But not just that, you made the decision to go with them all the way to the hospital, over seventy miles away. You wouldn’t leave her until she was out of danger. For two days mom and I waited in that old motel room while you remained with your patient. By then our vacation was over and we had to return home. Later you took me aside and explained. You told me no one, regardless of who they may be, should have to suffer for lack of medical attention. I was never so proud of you. It was then and there I knew I wanted to be a doctor… just like my father.” He rose, moving to his father’s side. “Now I am a doctor, dad, just like you. And I’ve made my decision.”

Dr. Thomas Chandler smiled and nodded at his son but said nothing as he walked out of the room.

Young Paul Chandler looked up as his father entered the kitchen. “Good morning, dad. How are you? I haven’t seen much of you these last two days. Is everything ok?”

Dr. Chandler poured himself a glass of juice. “I’ve been very busy; had plenty to occupy my time… and my mind. Son, I…”

“Dad, don’t… please. Everything is set. I’m leaving in an hour.”

Setting his glass aside, Chandler grinned broadly at his son. “Yes, I know: US Air flight 90 to LA; American Airlines from LAX to Panama City; then Aeromexico to Bogata. The train and Jeep trip into the hills promises to be interesting. It should be quite an adventure. Hopefully, the medical supplies I’ve arranged for won’t be far behind us. We should arrive in San Rosario sometime Thursday.”

“We…?”

Chandler placed a loving hand to his son’s arm. “You are right, Paul. I’ve lost sight of why I became a doctor. Thanks for the kick in the pants.”

“But, what about the clinic here in Flagstaff?”

“Uncle Jack can handle it while we’re gone. He’s got Jessica and a great staff. Hell, the place practically runs itself. I doubt if I’ll even be missed. I’m sure your mother would approve. Besides, I told you, we’re a team.”

Father and son embraced warmly. “I love you, dad.”

“I love you, too, son.” Wiping a stray tear, Dr. Thomas Chandler ran his arm around his son’s shoulder. “C’mon, we’ve got patients waiting for us in San Rosario.”

September 15, 7:45 AM

Seattle, Washington

Rick McConnell was running late. Not having his morning coffee didn’t help his disposition. “What do you mean?”

“I’m sorry; I just didn’t have time yesterday. I’ll stop by Tully’s this afternoon.”

McConnell swallowed hard, struggling to contain his anger. “Damn it, Laura, I ask you to do just one thing, just one! You know how important this meeting is to me. If I can get on old man Baxter’s good side I’m a shoe in for a promotion.”

“And the best way to get on his good side is with that special coffee,” McConnell’s wife replied patiently. “I know, you’ve told me.”

Reaching for his briefcase, McConnell started across the kitchen. “Then you know how much he loves his coffee. Because of that nonsense with the growers, it’s been months since he’s been able to get any. That specialty coffee shop promised the first shipment would be on their shelves yesterday!” He nervously checked his wrist watch. “Let’s see, they should be open now…”

“No, Rick, surely you’re not thinking… that’s all the way up in Ballard, the only store that carries that blend. Your meeting is in forty five minutes. You’ll never make it in time.”

Rick McConnell’s kiss barely grazed his wife’s cheek as he barreled out the door. “I’ll make it…”

Thirty minutes later, McConnell’s Ford raced down 15th avenue. On the passenger seat rested a package of rare, expensive coffee beans: San Rosario Select Blend. Up ahead the Ballard Bridge began to lazily creek open, allowing a fishing trawler to glide silently beneath. Traffic on the busy thoroughfare slowed to a stop.

McConnell cursed aloud, pounding a fist to the dashboard. Ignoring the red flashing warning signals, he wheeled the silver Taurus onto a side street. A block further the speeding vehicle violently broadsided a minivan as it backed out of a driveway.

Five year old Mary Ellen, on her way to her first day of pre-school, was killed instantly.

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We're all caught in their strings, our actions aren't all our own.
Written by bjneblett
Ripples

BJ Neblett
© 2010, 2015

June 9, 5:45 AM
San Rosario, Colombia
The child’s crying had awakened the old man in the middle of the night. He sat on the edge of the tiny bed watching as the five year old stirred in a fitful rest. Loving concern clouded his soft, kind eyes. Every few minutes trembling hands rinsed a tattered blue handkerchief in a basin of cool water lying on the floor. He returned the damp cloth to the child’s forehead. Her eyes struggled to open and she softly moaned.
“Easy, my child, I am here. Grandpa is here.”
His callous hands gently stroked the girl’s long raven hair. It was matted and soaked with sweat. Juan Carlos looked about the tired darken room, sighing heavily. The front of his worn cambric shirt heaved with weary muscles. The child’s fever had not broken; if anything it was worse.
He rose, stiff bones popping like kernels of corn in a fire. “Be brave, mi Niña,” he whispered, tenderly patting the girl’s shoulder, “be brave.”
Outside, somber shadows began to stir as the first breath of light touched the silent village. A puffy white mist kissed the earth, causing Juan Carlos to feel as if he were walking in a cloud.
“Someday,” the cracked lips proclaimed to the air, “someday I will know what it is like to walk among real clouds. Then there will be no more problems… no more troubles.” His voice trailed off. He had reached the square wooden house of Victor Manuel.
“Victor, my friend,” Juan Carlos called out in a voice heavy with the hour. “Victor Manuel, are you awake?”
A brown gibbous face appeared in the open window. It wore an unkempt moustache and a kind expression. “Juan Carlos you old goat, you stalk the streets like a ghost. Come inside, it is early. We will drink some of our special coffee which the Americans prize so highly.”
The old man shook his head, white stubble of his beard glistening in the yellow sunlight. “No, there is no time. Please, I need your assistance. My granddaughter is very sick. She has great fever. I am afraid for her. You must take us in your truck to the hospital in Vélez.”
“María Elaina, sick?” Victor Manuel blessed himself and disappeared. The front door to his home creaked open. “The hospital you say… the hospital is well over one hundred kilometers away, in the next valley. It will take us most of the day to get there. Are you sure my friend?”
Juan Carlos nodded, “I am sure.”
“This I will do for you, of course, but what of the beans? The big trucks are supposed to arrive today.”
The senescent face twisted in protest. “The trucks can wait! Already the men from the company expect too much from us. They work us hard and pay us nothing. It is because of them I must take my poor Niña across the mountain! They refuse to even provide our village with a doctor. And for what…” Juan Carlos spat on the ground, “just so some rich gringo can enjoy the special coffee that grows only here in our little valley!” He looked Victor Manuel in the eye. “Tell the men of the village to stay home… stay home till I return. There is no work today; maybe no work tomorrow.”
Victor Manuel opened his mouth to challenge his old friend and boss. He was cut off by an indignant wave of the other’s hand.
“I am in charge and it is my decision,” the old man said arrogantly. “I do not wish to hear about shipping schedules and deadlines. All I care about is my sweet little María Elaina. Come, the day grows old as we speak.”
By the time the crescent moon lay contentedly over the mountain, María Elaina lay under comfortable white sheets, resting peacefully. The fever had been reduced but she remained a very sick little girl. Juan Carlos shifted his position in the chair next to her bed. He would stay with his granddaughter at the hospital until she was better. Victor Manuel had returned to the secluded valley. The coffee beans would wait a few more days. The people of the village who grew the rich and rare beans prayed for little María Elaina. They understood.
The big international company that purchased the valuable commodity did not understand.
Nor did they care.

June 12, 8:19 AM
London, England
Nigel Bannister paced the thick green carpet of his plush twelfth floor office overlooking the Thames. Outside, a steady drizzle played against the smoke tinted windows, reflecting Bannister’s mood. On the expensive mahogany desk waited a steaming cup of English breakfast tea, while three yellow lights on the multi-line telephone flashed impatiently.
Bannister ignored them.
The intercom buzzed, pulling Nigel Bannister from his thoughts. “Excuse me, Sir. Mr. Cooke is here. And I still have Mr. Howard, and Mr. Smyth, and Todd Worth on hold.”
Bannister stopped pacing and frowned, his aquiline nose flaring. Finally he approached the desk and pressed a button. “All right, all right Miss Hastings… very well, let me speak to…” Bannister paused. Smyth could wait. He knew when he finally faced his boss he’d better have some serious answers.
Nigel Bannister was a good, albeit brusque man; a company man. After Oxford, he’d gone from buyer to vice president of export. Bannister knew his beans. He knew and understood the coffee business inside and out, perhaps better than he knew and understood the people he dealt with every day. But Nigel was also a cautious man. He was used to making important decisions in his own time, on his own schedule, after he had considered all angles, weighed all his options. This business with the small plantation in Colombia had popped up rather suddenly. And Smyth, his boss, wanted it disposed of swiftly and quietly.
“No,” Bannister corrected himself, “send in Cooke. And I’ll speak with Howard in a moment. Tell Smyth and Worth I’ll call them back momentarily.” With that Nigel Bannister closed the intercom. He nervously fiddled with the four-in-hand knot of his silk tie from Harold’s, painting on a plastic smile as the door to his office opened.
“Roger, old chap, good to see you again… been much too long…”
“How are you, Nigel? How’s the misses?” The two men stiffly shook hands, considering one another like prize fighters in a ring.
“Oh, fine, fine, thanks… now, what’s all this rubbish about San Rosario, eh?”
Roger Cooke was a field man for the company. He enjoyed his work, loved the people and countries he dealt with, and had no use for big cities, board rooms or four-in-hand ties. His sudden summons to the home office both surprised and annoyed him. He was glad Bannister had come right to the point. The sooner he could return to the field and his duties the better.
“There’s not much to it actually, Nigel. The growers are dissatisfied with conditions. It’s nothing new. Only it seems one of the children nearly died because there was no doctor nearby. She’s in the hospital in Vélez. It’s the same problem I’ve been pitching to you for years. The growers just need some improvements. They want the company to provide the village with a doctor and a medical facility.”
Bannister’s thin lips pursed, his steel eyes narrowing. “Damn nuisance, this business. It’s like the whole planet is on some health care kick or something; only why now, Cooke, why the work stoppage now?”
“Well, it seems the girl is the granddaughter of Juan Carlos. Carlos is the foreman of the plantation and a village elder. The people love and respect him. They…”
“Yes, yes,” Bannister interrupted impatiently. “So this Carlos character is the key to this whole mess then?”
Roger Cooke studied his vinegar faced opponent carefully. He knew his type. Twenty years behind a desk had hardened him to the needs of the field. The simple people of the towns and villages who grew the beans were the heart and soul of the company. Cooke knew this. Cooke also knew that the company looked upon them as no more than numbers; pluses and minuses, assets and liabilities; pawns in a global game with extremely high stakes.
“I think we need to listen to Juan Carlos this time, Nigel. I think…”
Once again Cooke was cut short by his superior. “Now listen here, Cooke. The world wants its coffee when it wakes up in the morning. It doesn’t want excuses. It doesn’t want to hear about some five year old; or her stubborn old grandfather; or some jungle village without a doctor.” Bannister let out a contemptuous snort. “And neither does the board of directors! In twenty years I’ve never lost a shipment nor had one delayed for any reason… hurricanes, revolutions, old men and children be damned!”
He paused, once again fiddling with the knot of his tie. No need to get all worked up over this, he thought. The solution is simple. He looked up at Cooke. “Your man in Colombia, this Howard chap, he’s a good man?”
Roger Cooke bristled at the inference of the question. “James Howard is a fine man. I picked him myself. This is what I do, Nigel… I know the field, and my people. If Howard says the situation is serious, then I trust his judgment.”
“Yes, quite… fine…” Without another word, Nigel Banister strode over to the large mahogany desk and pressed a lighted button on the telephone. “Hello, Howard? James Howard, are you there?” he bellowed into the speaker box.
“Yes, Sir, James Howard here…”
“Good, good, this is Nigel Bannister in London. Roger Cooke is here with me. Now listen carefully, this is what I want you to do.” He turned, his unforgiving gaze falling upon Roger Cooke. “I think it’s time for some changes. Find me a new foreman… I don’t care who… that’s your department. But I want this trouble maker, this Carlos fellow out… and I want him out today! Get those people back to work! And tell them I’ll hear no more talk of a doctor or health care or whatever… understood? And for God’s sake get that shipment on the trucks! Got it?”
Bannister didn’t wait for a reply. He snapped the speaker box off, severing the connection. His trademark confident half smile returned. “Well, that should take care of that, eh what? That’s how we handle things here in London. Decisions, that’s what I do, Cooke, handle problems; make decisions.”

August 3, 10:32 AM
The Hamptons, New York
Valerie White had a hangover. This was nothing new for Valerie White. Not to say that she was an alcoholic. No. But Valerie White enjoyed the way alcohol made her feel. She liked the way it loosened her, relaxed her. And she loved the way it made all of the troubles and tribulations of being young and rich and beautiful and single seem to disappear. What she didn’t like was the way it made her feel the morning after. And this particular morning after was a doozey.
It was her birthday, her twenty fifth. Valerie and a couple of close friends had gone out to celebrate over a simple dinner. But nothing in Valerie White’s life was ever simple. By midnight the friends numbered over thirty, some of whom she didn’t recognize. And the party had moved to a private corner of the hottest and trendiest night spot in New York City.
Now Valerie lay in her oversized bed, watching her posh and over done bedroom slowly revolve about her.
“Did daddy buy me a carousel for my birthday?” she moaned.
“What’s the matter? You always said the world revolved around you.” Valerie’s kid sister Amy swallowed a sagacious smile. “Close your eyes, it’ll help.”
“When I close my eyes I see little pink spots,” Valerie reported uneasily.
“Here, drink this.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, Amy held a steaming cup to her sister’s lips. Valerie took a long sip.
She almost gagged.
“Eeew! What is that stuff?”
“English breakfast tea,” Amy replied, stifling another giggle at her sister’s distress.
Valerie half opened one eye, sniffed cautiously at the tea, wrinkled her pert, perfect, expensive nose, and pushed the cup away. “Yuck! How can they drink that stuff? No wonder the British are all prune faced and stuffy! Where’s my coffee?”
Amy rose, setting the cup on the night stand. She looked down at the prone figure of her big sister. “Some role model you turned out to be! No wonder mom and dad decided to have me.”
Valerie’s road mapped eyes yawned fully open and she glared at Amy. “Just get me my coffee… please!”
“Sorry, we’re all out. Daddy had the last this morning. And the city as well as the country and the rest of the world are dry as prohibition. Since the major coffee bean growers went out on strike in support of the independents nobody is getting their coffee fix, nobody. Daddy says it all has to do with health care or something, I don’t know. But coffee futures are through the roof. I’ve never seen daddy happier.”
“Great… the rich get richer… meanwhile, I’m riding a king size Sealy roller coaster and my tongue feels like it needs shaving.”
Reaching the door, Amy stopped, turned and smiled sweetly. “Try a cold shower. Happy birthday, sis,” she chirped with a devilish grin and was gone.
By noon Valerie was feeling almost human. She wandered into the large, ornate, over done White family study. “Mother, father,” she announced in a serious tone, “I’ve made a decision.”
Her sister, sprawled on the floor with an Archie comic book, rolled her sparkly hazel eyes. “I’ll alert the media.”
“That’s nice honey,” her mother answered without looking up from her knitting.
“Ah, there you are. Happy birthday, Princess,” her father called from behind his newspaper.
Valerie surveyed her family, shaking her pretty blonde head. She started to leave, but then changed her mind. “No, I’m serious. I’ve decided to quit drinking. Not just cut down or anything, but quit completely, cold turkey.” Holding up one hand, she dramatically cupped the other over her heart. “No more alcohol for Valerie White. I’ve learned my lesson, especially if I can’t get any more coffee.”
Amy dropped her comic book, “Maybe I should notify the media.”
“That’s nice, honey,” her mother calmly repeated.
Valerie’s blue eyes narrowed and she scrunched up her face. “Daddy, what do you think?”
“Whatever you like, Princess,” he replied, stealing a peak at his oldest daughter before returning to his Wall Street Journal.
“It’s ok with him,” Amy commented slyly. “He doesn’t deal in alcohol futures.” With that she grinned, sticking her tongue out at her sister.
“Well, it’s my decision, and from this moment on no more alcohol,” Valerie called out, ignoring Amy, and stomping one dainty foot in petulant determination.
“And what about Brad Harrington?” Amy asked, voicing her parent’s thoughts. “Don’t you have a date with him tonight?”
“Oh… well…” The question made Valerie pause to think. Boorish Brad was bad enough, but sober? She wasn’t sure if she could take the obstinate heir while sober. “No,” she said at last, stomping her foot again. “No, I’ve decided. Valerie White is on the wagon. Brad will understand.”

“I don’t understand…”
“What?”
“What…?”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘What?’”
“What?”
Valerie grabbed Brad Harrington by his Sean John collar, dragging him from the tightly packed dance floor.
“Hey, watch it. You made me spill my drink,” Brad protested over the bone numbing thump of the trendy club’s bass. “What’s with you tonight, anyway?”
“What’s with me?” Frustration twisted Valerie’s carefully made up face. “You hardly said a word to me all night. Then you drag me to this nauseating human freak show…”
“Are you kidding? This is the hottest new joint in the city! Even the Kardashians would have trouble getting passed the door. But here we are, babe!”
“So what…”
Brad grinned broadly, surveying the sea of undulating bodies. He signaled for a fresh drink. “Lighten up, will ya…”
“I just thought tonight could be different,” Valerie admitted with a tightening catch in her throat, “that we could maybe go some place quiet and talk.”
A waitress arrived with a pair of purple martinis. Brad snatched them from the tray with a wink to the attractive brunette. He made no attempt to conceal his obvious admiration for her shapely figure as it seductively weaved through the crowd. “What did you say, babe?”
Valerie looked hopelessly at her date. By now all she wanted to do was flee the officious club and its obnoxious clientele. “How come I never noticed that before?” she said softly.
“What’s that?”
“How you never look at me when we talk… hell… we never talk!”
“What do you mean? We talk, we’re talking now.”
“No! We’re not, Bradley… look at me… look at me!”
Their eyes met for what seemed like the first time. Valerie wasn’t sure if it was the flashing dance floor lights or the clarity of sobriety, but she didn’t recognize the man standing in front of her; the man everyone assumed she would marry.
“What?” shouted Brad angrily. “You know, you can be such a drag when you’re not drinking.”

Valerie White squirmed uncomfortably on the hard plastic seat. People, buildings and billboards flickered past like a movie out of sync, framed in the grimy window pane.
“My life,” she murmured, “that’s my life… blinking past… out of focus… distorted.”
“That’s not a good sign.”
The young man sitting across from her, studying her carefully seemed to appear out of nowhere. He wore faded jeans and an old corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows. A reassuring confidence graced his dimpled face.
They were the only two in the car. Valerie thought he looked like someone you’d find on the back cover of some stuffy best seller. “I’m… I’m sorry…”
His smile warmed the cool conditioned air. “A beautiful woman riding the subway alone at night, talking to herself… that’s never a good sign.”
“Oh, well… I was just thinking… thinking out loud I guess.” Her moist blue eyes gazed into the night. “About my life,” she continued with a sigh, “how it seems to be flickering past, right before me…”
And the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round, painted ponies go up and down
The verse pulled Valerie from her reverie. “That’s pretty… are you a poet?”
“No, not a poet… a journalist, an out of work struggling journalist I’m afraid.”
Valerie felt herself blush. “And here I am… I’ve never had to struggle for anything in my life.”
“Don’t ever be ashamed of who you are, sweetheart,” the stranger mouthed through a clenched jaw.
For the first time that night, Valerie smiled. “I know this one… Humphrey Bogat, right?”
“Close enough… Hi, I’m Bill Brown.” He moved to the seat next to her, his hand sliding comfortably over hers like a fine Italian leather glove; his engaging smile widening till it tugged at the corners of his mocha eyes.
“Hello, Bill… I’m Valerie White.”
“And what is lovely Valerie White doing riding a New York subway train alone at night?” He was still holding her hand in his.
“Oh, well, I’m not going far… just downtown.”
“You must be taking the scenic route then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m afraid this train goes to Flatbush.”
“Oh, it does? I mean…” Now her pink cheeks blazed crimson. “Flatbush… that’s in New York right?”
“Well, there are many who would dispute the fact, but yes, it is. I take it you don’t ride the subway very often.”
Glancing down at her Dolce and Gabbana silk dress, her Ugg heels and Fendi purse, Valerie couldn’t help but laugh. “What was your first clue, Sherlock?”
“Let’s just say I had a hunch,” and they both laughed.
“Tell me, Bill, what’s it like in Flatbush?”
“Oh, you’d hate it… the streets are narrow and worn; the houses are old and they all look alike; and the redolent air hangs heavy with the sautéed scent of a hundred nationalities.” His voice softened in deep reflection. “But the people, Valerie… the people are real, and honest, and hard working, and kind, and friendly, and just about the greatest bunch of nobodies you’d ever care to meet.”
The train rocked and shook and the star crossed couple found themselves pressed together in the darken car as the lights blinked and dimmed.
“It sounds like a wonderful place.”

Valerie White awoke feeling strange. She lay in her oversized bed trying to analyze the alien sensations coursing through her body. Her head didn’t throb to a dissonant drum; her eyes didn’t protest the daffodil dayspring, and her mouth didn’t feel like a litter box. No, she thought with a refreshing clarity, none of the usual symptoms. Instead, Valerie felt rested, alive, energized. She even found she actually had an appetite for breakfast. And she didn’t miss her coffee.
Valerie White was sober and happy…
… and in love.

August 5, 1:10 AM
Flatbush, New York
“I think you’re totally out of your league, that’s what I think.” Rob gave his roommate a pitiful look. “And I think you’re totally nuts.”
“Quiet, you made me lose count again.” Bill Brown scratched his head then scratched thru the figures he’d just written on the yellow legal pad. He stared at the meager stacks of fifty and hundred dollar bills lined up like an undisciplined band of mercenary soldiers. With a sigh he began to count again. On the bed next to the tired particle board desk from K-Mart, lay his passport; a well traveled, over stuffed army surplus back pack, and the worn leather case that housed his aging laptop.
“Some poor little rich girl you met on the subway gives you her cell phone number and right away you become Don Quixote, off on a noble quest.” Rob threw up his hands and laughed, “The things we do for love.”
Bill finished his counting and tucked the money into a Harley Davidson wallet chained to his belt. “That’s not it at all, Rob. You don’t understand. This is what I do.”
With no attempt to conceal his bemused expression, Rob replied. “Oh, yeah, I forgot… the renowned investigative reporter who’s going to change the world. Ok, Clark Kent, suppose you explain it to me.”
Bill peered at his friend from across the top of his spectacles. “It’s not because of her,” he began patiently, “well… not exactly… it’s something she said, something that clicked in my mind. As we were talking she mentioned health care. At first I just figured she had changed the subject.” His face adopted the dopey expression of a beagle in love. “She can be kinda hard to follow sometimes…”
“You mean scattered,” Rob mused.
“No, not scattered…”
“Flighty…”
“No, complex…”
“Hair brained…”
“Enigmatic…”
“Not the sharpest knife in the drawer…”
The reporter looked at his friend, the dopey expression giving way to acceptance. “Ok, scattered.”
“And because ‘lil Orphan Annie confuses health care concerns in this country with striking coffee growers, you’re off to South America. Meanwhile, every legitimate reporter is in London getting the real story.”
Bill ignored the dig. “No… no, it’s not because of her, but her name. I didn’t connect the two until today. She said her father told her the strike was over health care.”
“So, who’s her papa to have inside info the rest of the world isn’t privy to?”
“Her father is Wayne White.”
Rob let out a long low whistle. “Wow, Daddy Warbucks himself! If anyone should know…”
“Wayne White should know,” Bill said in agreement, finishing the thought.
“That’s some hunch you’re playing, my friend. I don’t know if I’d have the coconuts to empty my piggy bank on the word of some ditzy blonde…”
“Scattered,” Bill corrected.
“…scattered blonde,” Rob acquiesced. “You know, any one of Ms. White’s outfits is worth more than that entire bank roll you’ve got strapped to your hip.”
The realization gave Bill Brown a start and a chill. “Yeah, I know… I know it’s a gamble… but something tells me… besides, I’ve made the decision, and the reservations. It’s the red eye to Rio; puddle hopper to Cartagena; train to Vélez; then over the mountains and through the woods by Jeep I go, in search of coffee and a story.” He grinned up at his friend, slinging the olive drab back pack over one shoulder. “By the way, I borrowed your Nikon.”
“Hey! That’s my best camera!”

August 7, 3:06 PM
San Rosario, Colombia
Some sixty hours later, a weary, bleary eyed Bill Brown sat in a small square wooden house, eating flat bread and drinking his first cup of coffee in weeks.
“I can see why your beans are prized so highly,” he said with sincerity. “This is beyond a doubt the best coffee I have ever tasted.”
Juan Carlos scratched his stubbly chin and snorted indignantly.
“Juan Carlos, do not be so rude… where are your manners?” Victor Manuel turned to his guest. “Por favor, excusa, señor. Do not mind my friend. It was his granddaughter, little María Elaina, who was very sick.”
“I’m sorry, señor Carlos. I am glad that María is better.”
“You think this gringo is going to help us?” Juan Carlos snapped, ignoring Bill’s concern. “You are a bigger fool than I, Victor. He is just like the rest.”
“No!” Bill almost shouted, catching himself as the two men raised their eyebrows. “I’m sorry… no… no, I am here to help.”
“You must understand,” Victor said with a sigh, “we have been told that before. Men of the company have come to our village these past months, men like yourself, with fancy cameras and other gadgets.” He pointed to the open laptop and small digital recorder resting on the table between them. “They talk and talk and then they go away, and still we hear nothing.” He folded his sun browned arms across his broad chest. “The radio tells us of other growers in other places and of their demands. They want this thing and that thing… but there is never mention of our village or of a doctor. I do not understand… so much talk…”
“That is because the company has kept your village and its needs out of the papers. But I am not from the company,” Bill said softly. “And I have not come here to talk, señor Manuel. I have come here, to your village, not to talk but to listen.” He looked over at the old man. Juan Carlos’ dark eyes were the color of the coffee beans he grew and loved. “Señor Carlos, I will listen. Tell me your story. And I promise you, I will do everything I can to see to it the whole world hears your words; hears the truth.”
With a shrug Juan Carlos spoke. “It is not an easy life. But we are a hardy people. We love these mountains; they have been good to us. The coffee business I know nothing about, nor do I care.” A confident smile splintered the ancient face. “But the beans… the beans… this I know. It is not an easy thing, raising the beans here. But as you yourself have said, it is a good crop we have.” He relaxed, leaning his chair back on two legs. “The men of the fincas – where the beans are grown – are patient people… they must be… you cannot rush the beans. The trees must be hand planted, and then hand pruned; watered by hand and looked after. They require much attention, like a bebé.
“Harvest time is year round and the beans are handpicked, sorted by hand; washed and sun dried, and then allowed to ferment.” His expression grew serious as he placed a knurled fist firmly on the table. “It is only then, at the precise moment, that they are ready to be sent away. San Rosario coffee is the best in the world,” Juan Carlos proclaimed proudly.
“The work is hard, yes,” Victor Manuel continued. “But it is what we do… what our fathers and their father’s fathers did before us. And it is what we teach our little ones. We do not ask for machines and trucks and fancy factories. No, that is not our way. Our life is simple; it is a good life. All we ask is that our children do not have to suffer as poor little María Elaina. The company owes us that much.”

August 9, 11:58 PM
Washington DC
“So, are you going to run it?”
The managing editor of the Washington Post loosened his tie and top two shirt buttons. His sleeves were already rolled and perspiration marked his furrowed forehead. The east coast was in the middle of a devastating heat wave and the air conditioner struggled to meet demand.
“I’d be a fool not to. This is dynamite stuff. And the interview with the little granddaughter is Pulitzer material.”
“But he’s an unknown, a nobody…”
The editor looked up at his assistant. “We all were at one time.”
“What about our man down there, Riley?”
“Riley is a fool! And he’s damn lucky he still has a job. If I hadn’t needed him to confirm what is in this exposé he would have been gone. This story was right under his nose all along!” The editor mopped his brow, tossing the article on the desk.
“So, you are going to run it.”
“I’ve made the decision.” The Washington Post chief grinned. “Tomorrow morning unknown reporter B. Brown will find his story front page center with a by line. Before noon every paper, news agency, TV and radio station will have picked it up. And by dinner time he will be the most sought after journalist in the country, if not the world.”
“And we’ll have on hell of a scoop.”
The editor scanned the galley proofs with satisfaction. “Mister Bill Brown, your life is about to change.”

August 11, 9:15 AM
Joplin, Missouri
Steve Fields sat in his small office, drinking ice cold buttermilk. He re-read the article for the third time. The accompanying photos tugged at his heart, making him think of his own young granddaughter. Bill Brown’s exclusive exposé of the London based international conglomerate and their treatment of the coffee growers was headline news. The Washington Post story had been picked up by newspapers worldwide, including the Joplin Globe. Fields sipped his milk and smiled. Maybe… just maybe…
He made up his mind. The big, affable mid-westerner rose and strode into the outer office. “Mrs. Marshal, have every department head assemble in my office, please.”
“Yes, Mr. Fields.”
Fifteen minutes later, Steve Fields surveyed the stunned faces on half a dozen employees. “Any questions?”
Silence.
Finally a soft, timid voice spoke up. “Sir… are you… are you sure, sir?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“This is all very well and noble of you,” a more confident voice advanced. “But you’ve got to think of the customers. What will they say, and will they go along? And what about sales? Since the new chain supermarket opened up around the corner on Range Line Drive, we’re barely staying afloat. This store can’t take any more losses.”
Fields grinned. “That’s why I hired you, Tom. You are always the voice of reason. That and because you’re my son-in-law.” Nervous laughter circled the room. “I know the situation, of course… but I’m glad to see each of you is aware as well.” He leaned back in his chair. “This store is fighting for its very existence. Being an independent is never easy. My father and his father’s father faced even tougher times… wars… the depression. It’s during those hard times that people look to their friends, their neighbors, and the community. The independent has been the backbone of commerce in this country… it still is. But more importantly, the independent is looked upon as a community leader.” He tossed the copy of the Joplin Globe onto the broad, round meeting table. “You’ve all read the story. You all know what those people in South America are up against. I couldn’t in good conscience drink another cup of coffee now, even if I could get one. It’s David and Goliath all over again. But this time David needs all the help he can get.”
Steve Fields ran his fingers through his thinning, graying hair. He looked each of the men and women assembled before him in the eye, deciphering their expressions. “I don’t want any of you to get the wrong impression of my altruism. I am doing this as much for the store as for the coffee growers. It’s a gamble I’m sure. But one I’m willing to take. I’ve made the decision. We’ll all have to work hard and pull together and keep a positive attitude. A few well said prayers would be appreciated as well.”
By noon, every product sold by the London based conglomerate had been removed from the shelves of Field’s Family Market. Along with the missing coffee, tea; crackers; cranberries; cat food; canned meats, and a number of other products disappeared. Each item was replaced by a neatly printed handbill. It read:
Dear valued customer, as long as the parent company
of this product refuses to see to the needs of the small
village in Colombia on whose production of coffee beans
they rely, Fields Family Market will refuse to carry any
of their products. We apologize for any inconvenience
this may cause our customers. We thank you for your
support, and encourage others to join our boycott.
A copy of the handbill along with a letter explaining the store’s position was forwarded to London.
That night the market owner counted the spots on his bedroom ceiling instead of sleeping. He tried counting up his savings and investments in case of a forced early retirement, but discovered it too depressing. By five AM he abandoned any hope of sleep and reluctantly rolled out of bed.
When Steve Fields arrived to open his store he found the parking lot cluttered with mobile remote vans and satellite trucks. Several starched, shinning TV reporters, followed closely by huffing camera men, rushed over as Fields exited his old pick up. A microphone with the CNN logo was among the many thrust in his face. “Mister Fields, can you please comment on your decision to pull the London company’s product from your shelves?”
By the next day the media circus had abated somewhat. The new story du jour became the hundreds of chain stores and independents across the country that had joined in the boycott. The Joplin Globe ran a feature on Steve Fields, proclaiming the gutsy store owner a home town hero and a national inspiration. The impassioned speech he’d made to his staff just two days earlier was featured in a side bar. It was printed nearly word for word with some additional patriotic pumping. The David and Goliath remark was picked up by the New York Times and soon became a catch phrase with the media. Fields couldn’t decide if he should kiss or kill his over eager son-in-law.
But the gamble paid off. The small family owned business began to thrive again. Old customers showed their support and new patrons flocked to the small maverick store that had challenged the large international conglomerate.

August 30, 9:27 AM
London, England
Todd Worth settled into the thick winged back leather desk chair of his plush twelfth floor office overlooking the Thames. Outside, a cheery yellow sun cast it contented smile on the smoke tinted windows, reflecting Worth’s mood. On the expensive mahogany desk waited an iced can of Pepsi, while a single yellow light on the multiline telephone blinked impatiently. Worth ignored it, staring blankly at the framed photo of his new sports car.
The intercom pulled Todd Worth from his thoughts. “Excuse me, sir, Doctor Hawthorn is here.”
Worth mumbled to himself, a strand of sandy blonde hair falling across his smooth, tanned brow as he reached for the speaker box. “Thank you, Ms. Schafer. I’ll see him in a minute.”
Pressing the flashing yellow button, he lifted the receiver to his ear. “Hello… Todd Worth here… what’s that? No, no… I’m afraid Nigel Bannister is no longer with the company… yes, that’s right… took an early retirement, I’m in charge now… yes, quite… very good.”
He hung up the phone, his last words echoing sweetly in his mind: I’m in charge now…
Todd Worth was a good, albeit casual man; a company man. He learned the coffee business from his father. From plantation to export to refining to packaging to shipping to merchandising, Todd Worth knew his beans. He spent twelve long, sweltering years in South America as a company representative, dealing with plantation owners, cartels, drug lords, dictators and revolutions.
The next decade Worth spent dealing with hurricanes and sea sickness, riding the endless blue green waves of the Atlantic. He’d graduated to the position of senior supervisor of shipping. The fancy title translated into interminable hours at sea babysitting the company’s cargo of coffee beans.
Then for six years Todd Worth rode a desk. He was finally back in England, this time checking and rechecking the status of shipments to the company’s numerous distributors. The work was boring and repetitive. And, it seemed for a time he would ride this desk to retirement.
But Todd Worth always considered himself a lucky man.
The unexpected and troublesome work stoppage had mushroomed into an international incident. Coffee growers all over the world refused to pick or ship the valuable commodity. Chain stores and independents across the US and Canada canceled major orders, removing from their shelves all products produced by the coffee conglomerate. Consumers around the globe stood in support of the boycott for better conditions for the people of the tiny village of San Rosario. Common stock of the London based company plummeted, with no bottom in sight.
But Todd Worth’s luck held true.
Forty eight hours earlier Worth was in the right place at the right time when aging CEO Smyth pointed his finger and made his decision. Now Todd Worth was enjoying his first full day as vice president of export and international relations.
Worth rose, confidently fiddling with the Windsor knot of his hand painted silk tie from Soho. The door to his office opened and a man with graying temples, round spectacles and a limp entered. “How are you, Todd? My, it’s been a time hasn’t it?” The two men shook hands, sizing up one another like a pair of British bulldogs.
“Yes, quite, Quincy, quite some time. How are things at the hospital?”
They took up positions in matching arm chairs near the oversized window. “Oh, well, running along smoothly as ever, you know.” Dr. Quincy Hawthorn considered the opulent office. “I must say, you’ve done well by yourself, old chap.”
“Yes, yes, we’ve come a long way since Eaton, haven’t we?” Worth turned in his seat, his brown eyes narrowing. “I need your help Quincy old man, I’m up against it. Surely you’ve heard about this mess in South America. I can’t see how anyone could avoid it. That school of yours has recently graduated a fresh batch of interns. Perhaps you could fine me one willing to pull a year or two of service in Colombia. The company’s setting up a wonderful little clinic in a place called San Rosario. It will be well equipped and maintained; there’s a fine hospital nearby and the pay is decent. It should be a great experience as well as quite the adventure for the right chap.”
The doctor studied his flaccid faced friend carefully. He knew what medical facilities in remote places could be like. He knew that the nearby hospital was in Vélez, a grueling full day’s journey. And he was aware that this was as much a publicity ploy as a humanitarian effort. Still, Worth was right. The medical experience gleaned would be invaluable to a young doctor just starting his practice. He thought of his own years with the home service as a young doctor in India.
Dr. Hawthorn smiled, nodded and made his decision. “Ok, Todd, I’ll find you a doctor. I’ll start the process immediately. In fact, I think I just might have the perfect candidate.”
Rising, they strode to the door. “Thanks, Quincy. I knew you’d come through for me. Ring me up as soon as you have somebody.”
As the office door closed, Worth’s own words returned, playing over like a stuck record: I’m in charge now…
He grinned slyly. “I’m in charge now,” he said to no one, straightening his tie. “And I make the decisions. You got your health clinic thanks to a lot of bleeding heart liberals and that senile old duck running this company. But just step out of line again and you’ll have to deal with Todd Worth!”

September 6, 6:39 PM
Flagstaff, Arizona
“So, you’ve made up your mind?”
“Yes.”
“And that’s it? You’re back home less than a month and you are leaving again?”
“Dad, I…” Paul Chandler slid the half eaten meal from in front of him. Across the elegant dining room table his father eyed him curiously. “Dad, I know it hasn’t been easy for you since mom passed away.”
Dr. Thomas Chandler balled his linen napkin, tossing it onto the table. “I told you, Paul, your mother has nothing to do with it,” he replied, closing his eyes and his mind to the bitter memory. “Lord knows I’ve missed her these last two years. But I’m fine, son, just fine.”
Paul smiled across the room. He loved his father and would do anything for him. He understood his father’s pain. There wasn’t a day that went by he didn’t miss his mother. He remembered how proud she was the day he started college, following in his father’s footsteps. His mother had been his biggest fan and strongest supporter during the difficult first years of pre-med. It wasn’t fair. She never got to see her son graduate from medical school.
“Why do you think we sent you off to that school in England?” his father asked for about the tenth time since Paul broke the news. “We wanted the best for you; you are a part of this family, and a part of the family business, Paul. You and I are a team. Your Uncle Jack and cousin Jess are looking forward to you joining us at the clinic.”
“That’s your dream, dad,” Paul said patiently, “not mine. At least it isn’t right now. Perhaps in a couple of years, after…”
“After what?” his father interrupted. He caught himself. He didn’t mean to raise his voice. But this wasn’t the way it was suppose to be.
“Dad, those people in San Rosario need me.”
“Those people don’t even have any kind of a facility for you yet. If you are determined to go, what’s your hurry?” Chandler faltered, the words welling up in his chest. “I need you, son, here at the clinic, the way your mother and I always planned.” Rising from the table he began to pace. “I’m sorry, Paul, it’s just so hard to understand.”
Paul’s quiet blue eyes turned inward. “The Grand Canyon…”
“How’s that…?”
“The Grand Canyon,” Paul repeated softly. “Do you remember that trip we took to the Grand Canyon?”
The question caused the senior Chandler to stop and turn. “Why, you couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old.”
“I was six. And we never made it to the Canyon. Remember, dad?”
Dr. Chandler’s stern face softened. “Yes…”
“Traveling up route sixty four,” Paul continued, “we were flagged down by that Hopi Indian family. The woman was in heavy labor, a breach birth. You saved her life… and the baby. But not just that, you made the decision to go with them all the way to the hospital, over seventy miles away. You wouldn’t leave her until she was out of danger. For two days mom and I waited in that old motel room while you remained with your patient. By then our vacation was over and we had to return home. Later you took me aside and explained. You told me no one, regardless of who they may be, should have to suffer for lack of medical attention. I was never so proud of you. It was then and there I knew I wanted to be a doctor… just like my father.” He rose, moving to his father’s side. “Now I am a doctor, dad, just like you. And I’ve made my decision.”
Dr. Thomas Chandler smiled and nodded at his son but said nothing as he walked out of the room.

Young Paul Chandler looked up as his father entered the kitchen. “Good morning, dad. How are you? I haven’t seen much of you these last two days. Is everything ok?”
Dr. Chandler poured himself a glass of juice. “I’ve been very busy; had plenty to occupy my time… and my mind. Son, I…”
“Dad, don’t… please. Everything is set. I’m leaving in an hour.”
Setting his glass aside, Chandler grinned broadly at his son. “Yes, I know: US Air flight 90 to LA; American Airlines from LAX to Panama City; then Aeromexico to Bogata. The train and Jeep trip into the hills promises to be interesting. It should be quite an adventure. Hopefully, the medical supplies I’ve arranged for won’t be far behind us. We should arrive in San Rosario sometime Thursday.”
“We…?”
Chandler placed a loving hand to his son’s arm. “You are right, Paul. I’ve lost sight of why I became a doctor. Thanks for the kick in the pants.”
“But, what about the clinic here in Flagstaff?”
“Uncle Jack can handle it while we’re gone. He’s got Jessica and a great staff. Hell, the place practically runs itself. I doubt if I’ll even be missed. I’m sure your mother would approve. Besides, I told you, we’re a team.”
Father and son embraced warmly. “I love you, dad.”
“I love you, too, son.” Wiping a stray tear, Dr. Thomas Chandler ran his arm around his son’s shoulder. “C’mon, we’ve got patients waiting for us in San Rosario.”

September 15, 7:45 AM
Seattle, Washington
Rick McConnell was running late. Not having his morning coffee didn’t help his disposition. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry; I just didn’t have time yesterday. I’ll stop by Tully’s this afternoon.”
McConnell swallowed hard, struggling to contain his anger. “Damn it, Laura, I ask you to do just one thing, just one! You know how important this meeting is to me. If I can get on old man Baxter’s good side I’m a shoe in for a promotion.”
“And the best way to get on his good side is with that special coffee,” McConnell’s wife replied patiently. “I know, you’ve told me.”
Reaching for his briefcase, McConnell started across the kitchen. “Then you know how much he loves his coffee. Because of that nonsense with the growers, it’s been months since he’s been able to get any. That specialty coffee shop promised the first shipment would be on their shelves yesterday!” He nervously checked his wrist watch. “Let’s see, they should be open now…”
“No, Rick, surely you’re not thinking… that’s all the way up in Ballard, the only store that carries that blend. Your meeting is in forty five minutes. You’ll never make it in time.”
Rick McConnell’s kiss barely grazed his wife’s cheek as he barreled out the door. “I’ll make it…”

Thirty minutes later, McConnell’s Ford raced down 15th avenue. On the passenger seat rested a package of rare, expensive coffee beans: San Rosario Select Blend. Up ahead the Ballard Bridge began to lazily creek open, allowing a fishing trawler to glide silently beneath. Traffic on the busy thoroughfare slowed to a stop.
McConnell cursed aloud, pounding a fist to the dashboard. Ignoring the red flashing warning signals, he wheeled the silver Taurus onto a side street. A block further the speeding vehicle violently broadsided a minivan as it backed out of a driveway.
Five year old Mary Ellen, on her way to her first day of pre-school, was killed instantly.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by bjneblett in portal Simon & Schuster

Seven Seconds

BJ Neblett

© 2006, 2012

4:38:03 PM

He placed the cold steel barrel to his temple, feeling it press against bone. The scarred right wrist was steady, the shoulder relaxed, as he’d been trained. Standing in front of the mirror, his dry brown eyes burned with concentration. The muscles of his right hand contracted. The trigger began to move. His cracked lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile so many girls and women found appealing.

A muffled thump startled him from his sleep. Rubbing his eyes, the boy slipped from his bed and wandered into his parent’s bedroom. His father lay on the floor clutching at his chest. Sweat beaded his strained forehead. The man looked up at his young son.

“Get your mother,” he moaned through contorted gasps for breath. “Hurry…”

The boy stood there in his cotton pajamas smiling affectionately at his father. At last he turned and started down the hallway. Pausing on the carpeted stairs, he returned to his room and flicked the light switch.

“Daddy gets mad when I leave the lights on,” he reminded himself.

He made his way through the living and dining rooms of the modern split level home. In the kitchen, the boy stopped to look in the refrigerator but changed his mind. Silently he padded down the six steps to the paneled den.

His mother looked up from her reading. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“You should be in bed… it’s late.”

The black and white TV set flickered. Two men faced each other in the middle of a dusty street. Spitting tobacco into the dirt, one man made a sudden move with his hand. The other, wearing a white hat and a silver, star shaped badge, deftly slipped the Colt Peacemaker from its leather holster, thumbing back the hammer. In one swift, lethal motion he pointed the pearl handled revolver and pulled the trigger. Twenty paces away the first man jerked back a step. This time he spat blood, then fell forward.

The boy smiled.

“Did you hear me?”

“Daddy said he needs you.”

“What does he want?”

Still smiling, the boy looked up from the TV to his mother. “I don’t know.”

When his mother reached the bedroom it was too late.

That was the first time he killed.

4:38:04 PM

A warm shaft of sunlight filtered in through the open window. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle. He squeezed the trigger tighter, feeling the tension on his index finger.

“Bang, bang!”

“You missed me, stupid.”

“I did not, you’re dead!”

The ten-year-old pointed his index finger at his friend. He cocked his thumb back. “You couldn’t shoot straight if your life depended on it, Chris.”

The one named Chris laughed aloud then took off running across the spacious back yard.

“Bang, bang!”

His friend took off after him.

The two boys chased each other through the swing set, around the plastic above ground pool, over a metal jungle gym. Still laughing, Chris scrambled up a tall old oak tree, followed closely by the other boy.

Fifteen feet up, Chris spun around and shimmied backwards, onto a long, sturdy branch.

“You can’t kill me,” he taunted.

The other boy watched his friend move further away. Chris’ right ankle came to rest inches beneath an electrical power line.

“Don’t move!”

Chris froze in place, “Why not?”

A warm shaft of sunlight filtered through the leaves. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle.

A crooked half smile crept across the boy’s face, “Because… there’s a snake crawling up your right leg.”

Chris jumped.

The arc of white light blinded the ten-year-old momentarily. When his vision returned, he saw Chris’ face twisted in pain. The mouth was frozen open in a silent scream.

The acrid scent of ozone filled his lungs. He thought it smelled like burnt chocolate.

4:38:05 PM

He was fixated on the image in the mirror. The odd juxtaposition of chrome and flesh fascinated him. Intently staring at the reflection caused his eyes to begin to water. A single drop rolled down his cheek, landing on his bare chest.

The cold, unexpected drops of water brought chill bumps to his tanned skin. Startled, the teen jumped from the blanket which lay sprawled under a friendly shade tree.

“Why you…”

Jenny giggled and side stepped his lumbering grasp. She continued to laugh at the prank, her young, firm breasts straining the material of her two-piece swim suit. This time he managed to get a muscular arm around her tiny waist.

“What am I gonna do with you?” he said, pulling her close.

“That’s what you get for falling asleep on me. I thought we came out here for some fun.”

Sun bleached locks trailed down her back like fine Spanish moss. He ran his fingers through them. He loved the way she felt in his arms. “So… fun is what you want, huh? Ok…”

Pushing at his taut stomach, she laughed again and broke free of his embrace. “Not your kind of fun,” she teased.

He watched as she ran to the edge of the lake. Pausing only long enough to turn and stick her tongue out at him, she splashed a few steps into the water, then jumped and dove in head first.

The teen waited. Seconds passed. Where was she?

The surface of the water erupted. A tangle of arms and screams and matted blonde hair shattered the tranquil summer day.

Something was wrong.

Jenny continued to flail about. He saw her slip beneath the surface. She popped up again, her mouth and eyes wide.

He was a strong swimmer.

He didn’t move.

Fifty feet away Jenny continued to struggle. She repeatedly sank and surfaced. Panic flashed in her pretty blue eyes.

She is beautiful, he thought.

Again, she sank. A single hand clutched at the air. Each time she remained under longer.

As he watched, she came up again. Jenny’s expression was pained and puzzled. Her mouth opened for oxygen. Or to scream, he wondered which.

At last she disappeared, the cold beryl water folding over her like a shroud.

4:38:06 PM

A fly buzzed his vision. It distracted him. His grip relaxed. Cursing, he drew a deep breath, releasing it slowly…

… slowly.

He adjusted his hold on the pistol and began to move his finger again.

The flies were almost unbearable. A small squad of men shuffled restlessly in the hip deep swamp. They swiped at the pests, trying to remain as quiet as possible, all except for their leader. The stoic sergeant seemed immune to the insects that buzzed about his face. His eyes were fixed on a path which ran out of a nearby clearing and skirted the swamp.

He didn’t want to be drafted. He was having too much fun playing college ball, drinking beer and barely passing his courses. But then his grades sank even lower from too many parties and too few attended classes. He lost his deferment and his number came up.

During basic, he surprised himself at how readily he took to weapons and hand to hand training.

On the path something moved in the half moonlight. He raised an arm. His men quieted and settled. A line of Vietcong snaked out of the clearing towards his position. His squad was to remain hidden until the enemy passed. Two squads were deployed up ahead. They would ambush the VC from either side of the trail. His orders were to wait. They’d attack only if the enemy began to fall back.

He hated his orders.

The black clad Vietcong slinked past. Each carried a deadly Russian made automatic weapon. A large spotted fly landed on the sergeant’s cheek. This time he swatted at it viciously.

The sound of the slap broke the evening. Two dozen VC turned weapons at the ready. The sergeant gave a loud shout and opened fire. Then all hell broke loose.

Startled, the two squads rushed down the trail. By the time they arrived the fighting was fierce, often man to man. In the end only two of the enemy remained alive. The young sergeant counted nine confirmed kills of his own. But the combined US and ARVN forces suffered heavy losses.

With the area secure, the sergeant marched the two bound prisoners deep into the jungle. Twenty minutes later he returned.

Alone.

In Saigon he received a promotion and a bronze star for the valuable information on enemy installations he gleaned from the captured soldiers.

4:38:07 PM

He squinted to clear his eyes. He watched as the hammer crept back further. The stiff mechanism squeaked in his ear.

The squeaking continued.

It came from the rear of the comfortable single story ranch house. Returning home early from his job at the tractor supply store, he stood in the entry way listening.

He knew that sound.

He smiled. A sly, crooked half smile.

Retrieving the Winchester from the coat closet, he made his way silently down the hall. The squeaking grew louder. It was now accompanied by muffled laughter. It came from the master bedroom.

He kicked savagely.

Two naked bodies twisted in the pale light as the locked door flew off its hinges. A dark haired man rolled off the bed, landing clumsily on the floor.

“No!” the woman screamed as the rifle was leveled.

Two shots split the early afternoon.

After his wife’s tearful testimony, a Texas grand jury refused to bring charges.

Two months later they divorced.

4:38:08 PM

His tightening hand began to tremble from the tension. The hammer continued to retreat. The cylinder started to rotate. He licked his parched lips. They tasted of salt.

The salt rimmed, over-sized shot glass left a ring. He threw back his head, draining the Adobe Gold tequila, bit into a wedge of lime and then turned the spent glass upside down. It and fourteen others formed a perfect glass pyramid on the bar.

Almost falling, he staggered off the stool and through the flapping half doors of the tiny border town cantina. Fumbling with his keys, he managed to start the old brown pick-up. Dust and gravel spat from the rear tires as he barreled out onto the narrow two-lane. Three miles later he was doing sixty. The truck swerved and lurched, weaving across the center line.

At the top of a rise it met a sedan head on.

The force of the impact knocked both doors open. He flew from the truck to the soft grass shoulder. The vehicles, locked together, skidded sideways. They violently flipped, rolling several times before coming to rest in a ditch.

Dragging his bruised body up, he watched the wreck explode in flames. The vacationing

family of five never had a chance.

4:38:09 PM

The last of his breath escaped through clenched teeth. He blinked as the hammer snapped into position.

Click!

He stood motionless, sweating, the gun still pressed to his head. He looked down. The tightly clinched left fist opened, revealing six .38 caliber bullets.

His lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile. Slowly he raised his hand and began to laugh.

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Simon & Schuster is one of the world’s leading publishers and we are always looking for fresh new voices. Write a story, chapter, or essay about whatever you like. The 50 best entries will be announced by Prose and read by our editorial staff for consideration.
Written by bjneblett in portal Simon & Schuster
Seven Seconds
BJ Neblett
© 2006, 2012

4:38:03 PM
He placed the cold steel barrel to his temple, feeling it press against bone. The scarred right wrist was steady, the shoulder relaxed, as he’d been trained. Standing in front of the mirror, his dry brown eyes burned with concentration. The muscles of his right hand contracted. The trigger began to move. His cracked lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile so many girls and women found appealing.
A muffled thump startled him from his sleep. Rubbing his eyes, the boy slipped from his bed and wandered into his parent’s bedroom. His father lay on the floor clutching at his chest. Sweat beaded his strained forehead. The man looked up at his young son.
“Get your mother,” he moaned through contorted gasps for breath. “Hurry…”
The boy stood there in his cotton pajamas smiling affectionately at his father. At last he turned and started down the hallway. Pausing on the carpeted stairs, he returned to his room and flicked the light switch.
“Daddy gets mad when I leave the lights on,” he reminded himself.
He made his way through the living and dining rooms of the modern split level home. In the kitchen, the boy stopped to look in the refrigerator but changed his mind. Silently he padded down the six steps to the paneled den.
His mother looked up from her reading. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You should be in bed… it’s late.”
The black and white TV set flickered. Two men faced each other in the middle of a dusty street. Spitting tobacco into the dirt, one man made a sudden move with his hand. The other, wearing a white hat and a silver, star shaped badge, deftly slipped the Colt Peacemaker from its leather holster, thumbing back the hammer. In one swift, lethal motion he pointed the pearl handled revolver and pulled the trigger. Twenty paces away the first man jerked back a step. This time he spat blood, then fell forward.
The boy smiled.
“Did you hear me?”
“Daddy said he needs you.”
“What does he want?”
Still smiling, the boy looked up from the TV to his mother. “I don’t know.”
When his mother reached the bedroom it was too late.
That was the first time he killed.

4:38:04 PM
A warm shaft of sunlight filtered in through the open window. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle. He squeezed the trigger tighter, feeling the tension on his index finger.
“Bang, bang!”
“You missed me, stupid.”
“I did not, you’re dead!”
The ten-year-old pointed his index finger at his friend. He cocked his thumb back. “You couldn’t shoot straight if your life depended on it, Chris.”
The one named Chris laughed aloud then took off running across the spacious back yard.
“Bang, bang!”
His friend took off after him.
The two boys chased each other through the swing set, around the plastic above ground pool, over a metal jungle gym. Still laughing, Chris scrambled up a tall old oak tree, followed closely by the other boy.
Fifteen feet up, Chris spun around and shimmied backwards, onto a long, sturdy branch.
“You can’t kill me,” he taunted.
The other boy watched his friend move further away. Chris’ right ankle came to rest inches beneath an electrical power line.
“Don’t move!”
Chris froze in place, “Why not?”
A warm shaft of sunlight filtered through the leaves. It was accompanied by a cool breeze. It smelled of honeysuckle.
A crooked half smile crept across the boy’s face, “Because… there’s a snake crawling up your right leg.”
Chris jumped.
The arc of white light blinded the ten-year-old momentarily. When his vision returned, he saw Chris’ face twisted in pain. The mouth was frozen open in a silent scream.
The acrid scent of ozone filled his lungs. He thought it smelled like burnt chocolate.

4:38:05 PM
He was fixated on the image in the mirror. The odd juxtaposition of chrome and flesh fascinated him. Intently staring at the reflection caused his eyes to begin to water. A single drop rolled down his cheek, landing on his bare chest.
The cold, unexpected drops of water brought chill bumps to his tanned skin. Startled, the teen jumped from the blanket which lay sprawled under a friendly shade tree.
“Why you…”
Jenny giggled and side stepped his lumbering grasp. She continued to laugh at the prank, her young, firm breasts straining the material of her two-piece swim suit. This time he managed to get a muscular arm around her tiny waist.
“What am I gonna do with you?” he said, pulling her close.
“That’s what you get for falling asleep on me. I thought we came out here for some fun.”
Sun bleached locks trailed down her back like fine Spanish moss. He ran his fingers through them. He loved the way she felt in his arms. “So… fun is what you want, huh? Ok…”
Pushing at his taut stomach, she laughed again and broke free of his embrace. “Not your kind of fun,” she teased.
He watched as she ran to the edge of the lake. Pausing only long enough to turn and stick her tongue out at him, she splashed a few steps into the water, then jumped and dove in head first.
The teen waited. Seconds passed. Where was she?
The surface of the water erupted. A tangle of arms and screams and matted blonde hair shattered the tranquil summer day.
Something was wrong.
Jenny continued to flail about. He saw her slip beneath the surface. She popped up again, her mouth and eyes wide.
He was a strong swimmer.
He didn’t move.
Fifty feet away Jenny continued to struggle. She repeatedly sank and surfaced. Panic flashed in her pretty blue eyes.
She is beautiful, he thought.
Again, she sank. A single hand clutched at the air. Each time she remained under longer.
As he watched, she came up again. Jenny’s expression was pained and puzzled. Her mouth opened for oxygen. Or to scream, he wondered which.
At last she disappeared, the cold beryl water folding over her like a shroud.

4:38:06 PM
A fly buzzed his vision. It distracted him. His grip relaxed. Cursing, he drew a deep breath, releasing it slowly…
… slowly.
He adjusted his hold on the pistol and began to move his finger again.
The flies were almost unbearable. A small squad of men shuffled restlessly in the hip deep swamp. They swiped at the pests, trying to remain as quiet as possible, all except for their leader. The stoic sergeant seemed immune to the insects that buzzed about his face. His eyes were fixed on a path which ran out of a nearby clearing and skirted the swamp.
He didn’t want to be drafted. He was having too much fun playing college ball, drinking beer and barely passing his courses. But then his grades sank even lower from too many parties and too few attended classes. He lost his deferment and his number came up.
During basic, he surprised himself at how readily he took to weapons and hand to hand training.
On the path something moved in the half moonlight. He raised an arm. His men quieted and settled. A line of Vietcong snaked out of the clearing towards his position. His squad was to remain hidden until the enemy passed. Two squads were deployed up ahead. They would ambush the VC from either side of the trail. His orders were to wait. They’d attack only if the enemy began to fall back.
He hated his orders.
The black clad Vietcong slinked past. Each carried a deadly Russian made automatic weapon. A large spotted fly landed on the sergeant’s cheek. This time he swatted at it viciously.
The sound of the slap broke the evening. Two dozen VC turned weapons at the ready. The sergeant gave a loud shout and opened fire. Then all hell broke loose.
Startled, the two squads rushed down the trail. By the time they arrived the fighting was fierce, often man to man. In the end only two of the enemy remained alive. The young sergeant counted nine confirmed kills of his own. But the combined US and ARVN forces suffered heavy losses.
With the area secure, the sergeant marched the two bound prisoners deep into the jungle. Twenty minutes later he returned.
Alone.
In Saigon he received a promotion and a bronze star for the valuable information on enemy installations he gleaned from the captured soldiers.

4:38:07 PM
He squinted to clear his eyes. He watched as the hammer crept back further. The stiff mechanism squeaked in his ear.
The squeaking continued.
It came from the rear of the comfortable single story ranch house. Returning home early from his job at the tractor supply store, he stood in the entry way listening.
He knew that sound.
He smiled. A sly, crooked half smile.
Retrieving the Winchester from the coat closet, he made his way silently down the hall. The squeaking grew louder. It was now accompanied by muffled laughter. It came from the master bedroom.
He kicked savagely.
Two naked bodies twisted in the pale light as the locked door flew off its hinges. A dark haired man rolled off the bed, landing clumsily on the floor.
“No!” the woman screamed as the rifle was leveled.
Two shots split the early afternoon.
After his wife’s tearful testimony, a Texas grand jury refused to bring charges.
Two months later they divorced.

4:38:08 PM
His tightening hand began to tremble from the tension. The hammer continued to retreat. The cylinder started to rotate. He licked his parched lips. They tasted of salt.
The salt rimmed, over-sized shot glass left a ring. He threw back his head, draining the Adobe Gold tequila, bit into a wedge of lime and then turned the spent glass upside down. It and fourteen others formed a perfect glass pyramid on the bar.
Almost falling, he staggered off the stool and through the flapping half doors of the tiny border town cantina. Fumbling with his keys, he managed to start the old brown pick-up. Dust and gravel spat from the rear tires as he barreled out onto the narrow two-lane. Three miles later he was doing sixty. The truck swerved and lurched, weaving across the center line.
At the top of a rise it met a sedan head on.
The force of the impact knocked both doors open. He flew from the truck to the soft grass shoulder. The vehicles, locked together, skidded sideways. They violently flipped, rolling several times before coming to rest in a ditch.
Dragging his bruised body up, he watched the wreck explode in flames. The vacationing
family of five never had a chance.

4:38:09 PM
The last of his breath escaped through clenched teeth. He blinked as the hammer snapped into position.
Click!
He stood motionless, sweating, the gun still pressed to his head. He looked down. The tightly clinched left fist opened, revealing six .38 caliber bullets.
His lips curled to one side. The same sly, crooked half smile. Slowly he raised his hand and began to laugh.


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We are a literary agency seeking fresh talent. In 200 words or more, demonstrate your writing talent. We will be in touch with any and all promising participants throughout the rest of this quarter.
Written by bjneblett

Rain At The Intersection Of Tomorrow

BJ Neblett

© 2016

Bennie lit his fifth Camel of the evening, flicking the spent match into the neon gutter. The pooling colors twisted and melted in a rain-soaked kaleidoscope of desperation. Taking a long drag on the unfiltered cigarette, he savored the breath. He could feel the bite of nicotine as it burned what was left of the soft fibrous tissue inside his lungs. A thick blue cloud floated in the air when he finally exhaled, coughing up phlegm in the process. He spat the yellow green wad to the wet pavement and coughed again. Ripples radiated in the standing water where it landed, transforming the reflected grey buildings into amorphous monsters from the Id. The big man smiled and spat again.

It had been another long, trying day. The incessant rain was now in its fourth day and showed no signs of letting up. Downpours were common in the area, but even the old timers were pressed to recall when it had rained so hard for so long. But Bennie didn’t mind the rain. Sitting alone on the corner bench, with his thoughts and his memories, was one of the few joys he could claim. And the rain always seemed to cleanse and renew everything, from the trash strewn city streets to Bennie’s own heavily laden soul.

Hot ash singed Bennie’s calloused fingertips as he drew a final deep lungful of smoke then flicked the smoldering remains into the street. Relaxing back, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.

A young woman sat poised at the far end of his bench. People often hurried past, heading for the transit stop two blocks down, or to some other self-important destination. But the old bench sat mostly forgotten at the corner of a deserted crossroads. Even the self-proclaimed street artists and aerosol taggers, determined to deface every building, bench and sign in the city, ignored the isolated intersection. Save for a few friendly foraging pigeons, Bennie always had the bench to himself.

Bennie turned.

He was alone.

Wiping rain from his eyes, he reached into the breast pocket of his denim shirt. A flicker of yellow danced in the rain to his right. With a toss of her head, the young woman flipped back a strand of blonde hair.

Again, Bennie turned.

Again, he was alone.

“Crazy,” he mumbled.

A sudden gust of wind rustled the few remaining leaves reluctant to release their tenuous grip on the street’s lone maple tree. In the summer it provided shade from the hot sun. But now, with winter rapidly approaching, the old growth tree stood naked, stripped of its color and dignity; thick barren branches still affording a modicum of protection from the steady rain.

Bennie lit his last cigarette, returning the empty pack to his pocket. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said aloud. A second, stiffer breeze arrived, sending a shiver through his body, and carrying with it the sounds of laughter. Bennie pulled the grey knit stocking cap low across his forehead. “Great, now I’m hearing voices,” he mused, as a single brown leaf tumbled in the air, a final graceful dance before dying.

The laughter continued.

Without moving, Bennie shifted his gaze to the right. Seated at the end of the bench, the young woman leisurely turned a page in the book she read. Her skin was the color of a warm sandy beach; her long hair that of the noon day sun. Barefoot, she wore a sheer white sleeveless dress that remained dry and crisp despite the rain.

Bennie twisted in his seat. A flash of lightning turned the grey afternoon a brilliant amber. Two brown squirrels chased one another up the side of the maple tree, disappearing into a small hole in the trunk. A tall, thin man trotted past, briefcase in hand, holding a newspaper over his head as he splashed down the sidewalk. One by one, up and down the block, street lights winked on.

But Bennie sat alone on the bench.

Shaking his head, Bennie rose and flipped the collar of his worn leather jacket. He could still hear the faint sound of laughter over the rolling thunder. He turned and headed for home, making his way through the rain.

+++

By the time Bennie arrived home the storm had broken. Pausing on the second floor landing, he had to stop to catch his breath. When he reached his apartment he was coughing and wheezing again.

The apartment was a simple, clean, third floor walk up in a struggling working class section on the city’s east side. Life in the city was never easy for Bennie. He had lived here all of his adult life, his monthly payments remaining reasonable, thanks to a weakening economy and stiffly enforced rent controls. He fondly recalled days when the buildings were brightly painted; tall oaks lined the unsoiled white sidewalks, and children played freely in the well manicured parks. That was before most of the factories and major employers were hit with cut backs and layoffs; before the population shifted away from white collar families; before desperation and doubt took up residence in the once social neighborhood. Drifting from job to job for several years, he finally landed a production manager position at a local plant. During the economic downturn, government contracts kept the facility out of the red, and a demotion to supervisor kept Bennie out of the unemployment line. His job at the factory was long, hard and dirty. But the work was steady and the pay provided an adequate living for him and his wife.

Bennie met Kate the first day of junior high school. Fate placed them side by side in home room; an inexplicable, mutual attraction kept them together. Slender, with flowing chestnut hair and bright emerald eyes, Kate was studious, artistic and beautiful. Large and deliberate, Bennie was a loner who struggled in school, preferring to work with his hands. From the moment they met they were never apart. After high school Bennie accepted a job in the city. Against her parent’s wishes, Kate eagerly joined him, the unlikely pair happily making a home in the small brownstone apartment. A year later they married.

Bennie knew the pause in the rain wouldn’t last long. That morning the annoying man on the television had smiled stupidly, pointing to his digital map. An approaching line of thunderstorms would prolong the deluge. Firing up his first cigarette of the day, Bennie wondered why everyone on the Weather Channel looked like they were made of plastic with painted expressions. Images of a factory churning out robotic talking heads kept him company on his way to work.

Slipping out of his coat and hat, Bennie dropped his keys into a plum colored bowl. Kate had fashioned the colorful ceramic in pottery class, proudly presenting it to Bennie their first Christmas together. Grabbing a towel to dry off, he headed to the bedroom. From the top drawer of an old chest Bennie pulled a carton of cigarettes. It was empty. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he mused aloud. Kicking off his work boots, Bennie flopped down on the edge of the bed. On the nightstand sat a framed picture. The woman in the photo wore a dark lavender summer dress and a bright smile as she waved from the building’s front steps. Bennie tenderly touched the familiar image. “Another day, Katie girl…” he whispered. Wiping away a tear, Bennie lay back on the bed and was instantly asleep.

+++

The rains continued, alternating between a steady drizzle and sudden violent cloud bursts. By now the sewers were nearing their capacity and most of the streets held standing water. Public transportation remained congested, running well behind schedule. Many shops and offices elected to close down until conditions improved. Some meteorologists had optimistically promised the storms would end soon. But the rains continued.

The persistent showers brought with them an eerie tranquility that Bennie found strangely relaxing. The city’s non-stop clamor fell silent, replaced by the steady soft patter of rain, accompanied by occasional thunder claps.

Bennie had wisely switched from his beloved leather bomber’s jacket to a heavy rubber rain slicker. The bulky coat made him feel like a child on his way to school. Its bright yellow color made him look like the school bus the child rode. But it kept him warm and dry as he splashed through sidewalk puddles and gutters turned rivulets. Reaching the corner, the bench came into view. Water dripped from the brim of his rain hood as Bennie paused to look around. A host of sparrows, with feathers ruffled against the cold, clustered together beneath the rotting eaves of an abandoned market. Newspaper and trash dammed the mouth of a storm drain as water percolated up through a manhole cover. Now totally devoid of leaves, the mighty maple tree did its best to shelter the vacant bench. But no cars plowed through the flooded streets; no one hurried to the bus stop; no one loitered on the corner.

Bennie was alone.

With a contented sigh, he fired up a cigarette and settled down on the end of the bench. “Well, here we are again, Katie girl. You always loved the rain, didn’t you; loved to cuddle up in front of the fireplace on a stormy night.” Holding the match before him, Bennie became lost in the flame.

“I love to watch the flames; how they jump and leap and change colors.”

“Are you sure you’re warm enough, sweetheart?”

“Of course, I’m fine.”

“I really am sorry about all of this. I shouldn’t have brought you here until we had some furniture; or at least until the gas and water were turned on.”

Kate reached up, tenderly placing her hand to Bennie’s cheek. “Don’t be silly, it’s fine,” she said, snuggling deeper into the big man’s arms. “Besides, it’s more romantic like this, don’t you think, Bennie bear?”

It was their first night in the city; in their new apartment. Shortly after dawn, Bennie had rolled up to Kate’s house in his old pickup truck. He found her sitting on a suitcase at the end of a long circle driveway. Bennie didn’t need to ask. He knew how Kate’s upper-middle class family felt about her relationship with the lumbering boy from the wrong side of the town. He knew her father had threatened to cut her off when she refused to attend a prestigious East Coast university. And he could easily picture in his mind the final falling out as Kate announced to her parents her intentions to enroll at the city college and live with Bennie. In silence, they loaded Kate’s suitcases and few possessions into Bennie’s truck and drove away. They now cuddled together in front of the apartment’s fire place, keeping each other warm.

Bennie pulled the blanket tighter around them, kissing Kate on the forehead. “You always see the good in everything, don’t you Katie girl. How’d I ever get so lucky?” He reached for his pack of cigarettes. It was empty.

Kate snatched the empty pack, tossed it into the fire and smiled up at Bennie. “Seems like a good time to quit.”

Bennie flicked the spent butt into the rain swollen gutter. “Of all your wonderful things, you never could get me to quit smoking,” he said aloud. “I’m sorry ‘bout that Katie girl.”

“That’s a very lovely name.”

Bennie glanced up, “Pardon…”

He was alone.

“Katie, it’s a lovely name. Kate, Kathy, Katherine…” The voice was soft, feminine and refined, yet held a childish quality. It floated in the air between rain drops; over the distant thunder, reaching Bennie from the far end of the bench. “Such a pretty name; you don’t hear it used much these days, do you?”

Bennie spun in his seat, searching up and down the block. He sat by himself in the rain. Suddenly something stirred in his peripheral vision. Without turning, Bennie shifted his gaze to the right. A young woman in a lacey white sun dress sat at the end of the bench.

“I can tell by the tone in your voice she must be special to you,” she said.

Bennie stared straight ahead in silence. Were the flashes of lightning playing tricks on his vision? Was she an optical illusion? What about the voice? He had distinctly heard her voice through the steady rain fall. Glancing to the right again, Bennie realized it was the same apparition from the previous day.

“It’s nice to have someone, isn’t it?”

Rubbing his eyes, he slowly turned his head.

She was gone.

Taking a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, Bennie coughed and laughed hoarsely. “This is crazy.” Lighting up, he exhaled a deep pull of blue smoke.

“I’m curious, what is that you’re doing?”

Bennie carefully studied the potent cigarette in his hand. “Katie always said these things would affect me,” he announced. “I just didn’t know they would make me crazy.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he heard the woman say, “I shouldn’t be so nosey.”

Looking straight ahead, Bennie’s brown eyes slowly shifted to the right. The young woman appeared again out of the corner of his eye. She now sat facing him, leisurely twirling a long strand of yellow hair with her finger.

“It’s… ok…” he replied hesitantly. “You’ve really never seen a cigarette?”

“No, no I haven’t. What is that cloud coming out of your body?” She watched intrigued as he exhaled and then coughed hard several times. “Why do you do that to yourself?”

“I don’t know.” Bennie closed his eyes and pictured Kate. She had once asked him the same question as they sat together on the back of his pickup, in their high school parking lot.

“Why do you do that to yourself?”

“I don’t know.” Bennie tamped out a half smoked cigarette, flicking the butt aside. “Because I enjoy it so much,” he managed between fits of coughing.

“Yeah, I can tell,” Kate replied, and they both laughed.

It took a month but Bennie had finally worked up the courage to talk to the pretty girl sitting next to him. One day before history class, the shy seventh grader steeled up false courage and approached her. With unabashed candor, he admitted to more than just a passing interest in the captivating brunette. Kate demurely replied she felt the same. The news only abetted his uneasiness at talking with girls. But Kate hung in there, patiently waiting out the awkward stares and embarrassing false starts. In time she discovered an inquisitive, tender and caring young man with a love of animals and all things mechanical. In Kate, Bennie found a beautiful, intelligent, fun-loving partner who accepted him unconditionally.

Kate scooted across the truck’s tailgate, her bright green eyes finding his. “You know, we’ll be graduating next month. You really should try and quit.”

“Oh, so that’s how it goes, huh?” Bennie teased. “After what, five years together it’s time to change old Bennie?”

She pulled him close, holding tightly. “I’d never try and change you, Bennie bear. I just love you too much.”

Opening his eyes, Bennie discovered the storm had slowed to a heavy mist. Sunlight began to break through narrow gaps in the gray clouds. He flipped back the hood of his rain slicker and turned his face to the warming rays. “That’s more like it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will last.”

His observation was met with silence.

Facing straight ahead, Bennie searched out of the corner of his eye.

He was alone.

+++

The brief pause in the rain didn’t last. A new round of thunderstorms soon settled in over the city. Arriving home, Bennie stripped off his work clothes, stepped into the shower and set the faucet to hot. The steaming water felt good, relaxing and soothing his tired, sore body. As it rained down from overhead, Bennie recalled his earlier encounters on the bench. He shifted his gaze to the right and concentrated. Instead of the young blonde woman, Kate’s rainbow shower curtain came into focus.

“We can’t afford all of this, sweetie.”

Kate dropped four large shopping bags in the middle of the empty living room. She turned and headed back out of the apartment’s front door. “C’mon, Bennie bear,” she called, “there’s more down in the cab.” Shaking his head, Bennie followed dutifully in silence.

That evening the tiny apartment resembled the aftermath of an explosion in Macy’s home wares department. Bennie sat on the floor surrounded by Rachael Ray pots and pans; a thirty-two piece set of lavender and black stoneware dishes; a full size microwave complete with cooking accessories, and an imposing Shark vacuum cleaner. “But Katie girl…” he said, setting aside a queen size periwinkle comforter set.

His pleas fell on deaf ears. Kate excitedly unfolded a shiny plastic shower curtain. “Isn’t it cool? It will definitely brighten up that drab little bathroom!” It was vivid yellow with wide bands of colorful rainbows arching above delicate unicorns rendered in lilac and iris and amethyst and a dozen other shades of purple. “And I got a matching rug, trash can and towel set! We can paint the walls a pale yellow to match.”

Bennie’s stare moved from the gaudy bath accessory to Kate. “It looks like something you’d see while on acid.”

Her pert nose wrinkled. “Oh, it’s not that bad. And we both agreed what this place needs is a splash of color.”

“And how are we going to pay for all this color, Katie girl?”

“You don’t need to worry about that, honey.”

“Why not…?”

Turning, Kate began to refold her purchase. “Because, I used my parent’s credit cards,” she whispered softly. Her words were barely audible over the crackling of the stiff plastic.

“What?”

With a sigh, Kate dropped the shower curtain and knelt beside Bennie. “I said I used daddy’s credit cards.”

“I thought we talked about this, Kate.” There was disappointment in his voice.

“I’m sorry Bennie bear,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder. “I just wanted to make a nice home for us.”

Bennie wrapped his arm around Kate’s waist, lovingly kissing the top of her head. “I know Katie girl, I know.”

“Anyway, it’s his stupid fault. He knows better; he should have cut up those cards the day I left. Besides,” she added with an indignant snort, “they owe us a house warming present.”

Pulling Kate close, Bennie couldn’t help but laugh.

Stepping out of the shower, Bennie wiped his eyes with a plush mauve towel. He stood staring into the bathroom mirror. “Damn, is that you, Big Ben?” he asked the reflection. “What happened to you, man? You’re looking old.”

“Life,” his reflection replied, “life. That’s what happened; too many dreams and not enough time; too many cigarettes and too much pain.”

+++

Bennie sat on his bench, tearing pieces of bread and dropping them to the ground. A blue dappled pigeon cautiously circled the doughy prey before stabbing at one with its pointed orange beak. As if expressing gratitude, it raised its head, winking a round black eye at its benefactor, and then swallowed the treat. “You’re welcome,” Bennie replied. Despite the steady rain fall, several other pigeons soon arrived, methodically pecking and waddling with anticipation.

“…for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet the Father feeds them…”

With a start, Bennie looked up. He knew the passage, and the voice. “That’s… Matthew,” he managed through a suddenly dry mouth. Without turning, he uneasily looked to his right. The young blonde woman appeared once again in his peripheral vision. Perched at the end of the bench, she wore the same long white sun dress and sat facing him.

“Yes, it is,” the woman replied. “You know your Scripture.”

“My… my mother… when I was little… she would read to me.” Bennie looked to his left. A black sedan made its way through the intersection, sending ripples of water across the sidewalk, scattering the pigeons. The street beyond lay deserted. “Do… do I know you?” he asked, returning his gaze to the side.

“Oh, I’m sure you don’t. My name is Cassiel.”

“That’s an unusual name; very pretty.”

“Thank you. It means solitude and tears; kinda fits me, I guess. I love to come and sit here by myself. You’re actually the first person I’ve ever seen sitting on my bench.”

Bennie shifted uncomfortably. Her bench…? What was going on? Who was she? Turning his head to the right, the woman disappeared, returning only when he again faced forward and peered out of the corner of his eye. Where had she come from, and why couldn’t he look directly at her? Concentrating on keeping her within his vision, Bennie struggled for words. “I’m sorry,” he said at last, “but… are you real? I mean, am I hallucinating or imagining you or something?”

“Oh, my, I certainly hope not,” Her laughter brightened the rainy afternoon. “Yes, I’m real; I am as real as you believe me to be.”

Still uncertain if he might not be dreaming, Bennie found himself becoming intrigued with the lovely woman with whom he shared the bench. “I’m sorry. My name is Bennie.”

She propped an elbow on the back of the bench, resting her gracefully pointed chin in her hand. “It’s very nice to meet you Bennie. And I think it sweet of you to feed those birds.”

He’d forgotten all about them. Shredding the remaining slice of bread, he tossed the crumbs to the speckled blue pigeon, which had returned for more. “Well, with the rain and all I just thought maybe they’d be hungry.”

Cassiel turned, holding out her palm. “Rain…? What rain?”

Her reaction caused Bennie to glance up. Cold drops of rain fell from one of the maple tree’s branches, landing on his forehead. “The rain, it’s been raining for days. Surely you can see it; feel it.”

Looking around, Cassiel shook her head. “What are you talking about? It’s a beautiful, perfectly clear day.” She stretched out her bare arms, lush locks of golden hair trailing down her back as she tilted her head skyward. “The sun is big and bright and oh, so warm on my skin.”

“But… the rain…” The sound of her laughter returned Bennie’s gaze.

Cassiel raised a delicate hand to her mouth and pointed. “I don’t know about any rain, but I guess maybe that explains one thing anyway; why you’re dressed so oddly on such a pristine afternoon.”

Straining his eyes, Bennie realized once again her dress was dry. He could see the rusted red fire hydrant situated next to the bench. Beyond that, the street, the sidewalk, several abandoned buildings, an old Ford van, and a pair of trash cans came into fuzzy focus. Rain fell everywhere, pooling on the broken cement, streaking the Ford’s windows, and bouncing off the trash cans’ metal lids. But the young woman remained dry. Her dress was fresh and wrinkle free; her skin smooth and tan; her yellow hair hanging loose and long, as if some invisible barrier shielded her from the weather. And there was something else. Shadows caressed Cassiel’s neck and shoulders, moving as she did, following the patterns of a late afternoon sun.

Examining his own wet slicker and jeans, Bennie rubbed his tired eyes. “Oh, Katie girl, what have I gotten myself into this time?”

“You keep talking to her, is she here also?” Cassiel asked.

Bennie sat up straight and looked around. “No, no, she’s not. Why, can you see her?”

“No, I just thought…”

He sank back into his seat. “Oh…”

Cassiel heard the disappointment in Bennie’s voice; she could sense his desperation. “I’m sorry, Bennie. She must be someone very special to you.”

“C’mon, you can do it, babe!” One by one the candles flickered and then went out. Rapidly running out of air, Kate began to laugh. Three candles remained lit atop the chocolate cake. “Aw, that’s too bad, Katie girl, you didn’t get your wish.”

Catching her breath, Kate shot Bennie a punch to his arm. “Hey, no fair, it’s your fault. You used too many candles.”

“… 27, 28, 29, 30… no, that’s right, exactly thirty.” Another, harder shot to Bennie’s shoulder and he grabbed her up in his powerful arms, “Happy birthday, Katie girl,” and they kissed passionately.

“I love you my Bennie bear. Wanna know what I wished?”

“Hey, don’t you know,” Bennie replied, holding Kate at arm’s length. “If you tell, your wish it won’t come true.”

Kate puffed out her bottom lip, looking up at Bennie. “Well, according to you I’m not gonna get it anyway.” Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged tightly, burying her face against his chest. “I wished that we would never have to be apart.”

Bennie could feel her tears on his skin. “That will never happen, Katie girl,” he said tenderly, lovingly stroking her hair, “I promise, never.”

Tears mixed with the rain, running down Bennie’s cheeks. “Yeah,” he said, sighing deeply. “She’s special.”

+++

Slowly, the city had begun to return to normalcy. With the immediate threat of serious flooding passed, shops and businesses reopened, buses arrived and departed nearly on schedule, and people once again took to the streets, resuming their daily routines. The string of thunderstorms had moved on, leaving in their wake light but persistent showers. One optimistic forecaster on the evening news had even cheerfully announced an end to the unseasonable deluge. But the sun remained absent and the rain continued.

Unable to sleep, Bennie sat by the fireplace, curled up in his favorite chair. Lighting his last Camel, Bennie crushed the soft pack in his hand, tossed it into the fire and began to cough. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said, exhaling grey smoke. The saying brought a smile to his face. It was one of Kate’s favorites. Ditching fifth grade one day with three of his buddies, Bennie watched in awe as the boys passed around a stolen Marlboro. When the cigarette came his way, Bennie warily accepted, inhaling as the others had done. It made him dizzy; he coughed and felt sick to his stomach. By the end of the week, Bennie was buying packs of Marlboros from the older kids, eventually graduating to the stronger, filter-less Camels. From the day they met, Kate had made clear her feelings on smoking. But she never nagged or lectured him about the habit.

A cold shiver passed through his body and he reached for the mosaic patterned throw blanket on the back of the chair. Wrapping it around his shoulders, Bennie raised a corner to his face. He could still smell Kate’s sweet delicate scent in the soft material. Relaxing back into his chair, he recalled the strange events of the day. Cassiel appeared in his mind’s eye, dry and warm and happy, perched at the end of the bench. Her bench she had called the old wood and stone relic. How many times had he referred to it as his bench? And yet, through all the years, except for Kate, he had never seen another person using it.

“Stop it Bennie, someone will see!”

“That’s the idea, Katie girl. I want the whole world to see.”

She slapped at his arm, glancing around nervously. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. Someone will see what you are doing; a policeman, he’ll arrest you for defacing public property.”

Undeterred, Bennie dug his pocket knife deeper into the stubborn wood. “You ever see a cop around here, sweetie?”

Kate moved closer, trying to prevent anyone passing by from witnessing her boyfriend’s deliberate defacing of the bench. “I think you accomplished your goal. You’ve carved our names and initials into every tree, telephone pole, fence and park bench between here and city hall.”

Bennie stood, admiring his handy work. “There, I hereby claim this bench in the name of Bennie Parks and Kate… Kate…” He looked at her sheepishly. “What was your last name again lady?”

“You know my last name very well, silly man,” she replied with a shake of her head.

“Well… I forgot.” Returning the knife to his pocket, Bennie retrieved a small black satin box and opened it. “Maybe this will make it easier for me to remember.”

“Oh, my God,” Kate nearly screamed. She sat straight up, her eyes growing as big as saucers. “You… are you… is this… does this…?”

Bennie pulled a gleaming Marquise cut diamond engagement ring from the box. “Here, before you jump out of your skin.” Slipping the silver band onto her slender finger, he dropped to one knee, staring into Kate’s moist eyes. “Will you marry me, Katie girl?”

A month later they were married by a minister in a simple ceremony. Kate’s parents refused to attend.

After work, Bennie casually walked the nine blocks to the bench. Although exhausted, an unnamed urgency drove him forward. He rarely slept well anymore. His usual routine consisted of working too hard and too long until he collapsed on the bed into a heavy, erratic sleep. Even then he often awoke in the middle of the night to violent fits of coughing and wheezing. Recently, the bouts were becoming more frequent and troublesome. Bennie had spent the night curled in his chair, falling in and out of a fitful sleep, his tortured dreams drifting between fond memories of Kate and confusing visions of Cassiel.

Reaching his corner, Bennie paused to take in the scene. Despite the steady sprinkling, everything appeared normal. Water had receded from where it once pooled on the uneven pavement. An oversized trash truck lumbered down the street, its dirty, worn metal body refreshed by the recent downpour. Even the squirrels once again played tag up and down the side of the old maple tree, stretching their legs after their long confinement. Settling into his spot on the bench, Bennie retrieved two Saltine crackers from his lunch pail. On cue, a speckled blue pigeon landed at his feet. “Sorry old guy, that’s all there is today,” Bennie said to the attentive bird. He sprinkled the crumbs on the ground and the appreciative pigeon started his pecking dance.

“They know you, the birds. My mother always said you can trust a man who is trusted by the animals.” Cassiel smiled from her end of the bench. Her long blonde hair was pulled into a fluffy ponytail and she now wore a simple white cotton wrap dress.

By now Bennie had mastered the art of facing forward and looking sideways. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Hello. Were you expecting someone else?”

“No, no… hello, but tell me something, please.” Bennie glanced around then cast his eyes toward Cassiel. She sat as before, fresh and dry and beautiful, warmed by an invisible sun. “What, what do you see?”

“Well, I see a troubled but handsome guy wearing a wet yellow slicker,” she replied in a coy, flirtatious tone.

“No, I mean, look around you, what is it you see, in front and in back of you; on either side?”

Cassiel didn’t seem to understand. She tilted her head, her eyes narrowing. “It’s another beautiful, sunny day,” she stated flatly.

“Go on, please. Tell me, where are you? What does it look like?”

Uncertainly, Cassiel twisted to her right, slowly looking around. She glanced skyward then turned, facing straight ahead. “Well, I’m sitting on a bench in a lovely park. There’s soft green grass and lots of tall old trees for shade.” Her voice rose with excitement. “Oh, but not right here; that’s why I like this bench so much. I can sit and let the sun warm me all over. If I get too hot, I can dangle my feet in that stream,” she said, pointing to a place beyond Bennie. “And there’s a young couple over there on a blanket. I see them here a lot.” Cassiel raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. “Oh, he just kissed her!”

Bennie sighed, resting his head in his hands. “A park,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry, Bennie. Is there something wrong? Did I say something?”

“No, no,” he replied, slowly looking up. “But I don’t see any of that. Look at me; look at how I’m dressed, what I’m wearing. You said it yourself, ‘dressed so oddly on such a pristine afternoon.’ But it’s not, Cassiel. It’s cold and it’s raining and I’m in the middle of a big, grey, dirty city. When I look at you,” he paused, shaking his head at the irony. “I can only see you out of the corner of my eye; you exist only in my peripheral vision. And when you are there it’s like you’ve been filmed in front of a green screen and digitally inserted into my world. I don’t understand why it’s happening, or even if it’s real.”

“I’m so sorry, Bennie. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could help you; I wish I knew the answers.” Cassiel wanted to touch Bennie, to hold and comfort him. She reached out her hand but something stopped her. Bennie raised his head, and looked to his right. Cassiel came into view. She smiled. “You can see me, can’t you?”

“Yes, yes I can.” Bennie could feel the rain on his face. He could hear the soft cooing of the pigeons. He could smell the air, fresh and clean, scrubbed by the rain. And he could finally see the young woman who had danced in the corners of his sanity. But he still didn’t understand. “I can see you. But I’m still here in the rain. I still don’t know if you’re real; if any of this is real.”

“It’s as real as you want it to be, Bennie.”

+++

The next day, Bennie hurried through the rain, heading for the corner and his bench. He looked forward to seeing Cassiel. It was nice to have someone to talk with; someone who listened and empathized. Who she may be and where she came from Bennie still didn’t understand. He thought of the science fiction TV programs and movies he’d seen; recalled the works of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and HG Wells he’d read in school. Was Cassiel an alien, sent from another planet? Had she crossed over from another dimension, another time? Or was she just a product of his imagination, the result of too many dreams and not enough time; too many cigarettes and too much pain?

He didn’t care.

“It’s as real as you want it to be,” she’d told him. Bennie believed it to be real; wanted it to be real; needed for it to be real.

Reaching the corner, Bennie lit a cigarette and settled onto the bench. Cassiel was already seated at the opposite end. Taking a deep satisfying puff, he turned to his ethereal friend. “Hello,” he called through several hacking coughs.

“Good afternoon, Bennie.” Cassiel smiled but her expressive eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “Is it those smoke sticks of yours that make you cough?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Then maybe you should stop.”

“Yeah, maybe I should. You really don’t have cigarettes where you are; you’ve never heard of them?”

“No, we don’t. But it would seem to me they can’t be very good for you.”

Bennie considered the half smoked stick in his hand. “Actually, they can kill you.”

“Oh!” Cassiel replied, surprised at the casualness of his comment. “Then why don’t you quit?”

“It’s not that easy.” Bennie’s voice dropped, his tone turning ironic. “Besides,” he added softly, “it’s too late for me.” He took a final drag then flicked the remains into the gutter. It hissed and sparked in protest, sending up a thread of blue smoke as a rain drop struck the hot ash. “Tell me about you.”

She stared off in thought for a moment. “Not really much to tell. I teach at a school not far from here. You can see it if you… oh,” she felt her cheeks start to redden, “sorry. Anyway, its break time now, at least for the next few days.” Cassiel sighed, adjusting her position on the bench. “I was an only child; both of my parents are gone. I love the sun and reading and talking with friends and, well, you know normal stuff.”

“You never had children; married?”

“No, no, I didn’t. What about you, Bennie?”

He pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt then stopped. He could hear Kate’s voice in the rain. Seems like a good time to quit. Returning the cigarettes to his pocket, Bennie relaxed back on the bench. “Kate,” he said quietly.

“The woman you talk to…”

“We have to talk, sweetheart.”

Bennie looked up from his chair. “What’s on your mind, Katie girl?” Reaching down, she pulled the partially smoked cigarette from his lips and tossed it into the fireplace. “Uh oh, am I in trouble?” he asked.

“No, but…”

“Come, talk to me,” Bennie said, patting his leg.

Kate climbed into her husband’s lap. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh…” They sat in silence for a time. Bennie cradled Kate in his arms, tenderly stroking her hair as she studied his reaction. Slowly his initial shock at the news began to fade. “Wow. But you don’t seem very excited about this,” he said at last.

“No, it’s not that. It’s just…”

“You’re ok, aren’t you?” Straightening in his chair, Bennie looked at his wife, knowing she could read the panic in his face. “I mean, everything’s how it should be, right?”

Kate held a finger to Bennie’s lips. “Shhh, no, no, Bennie bear, it’s nothing like that. I’m fine. The doctor says everything is as it should be and I’m in excellent health.”

If it hadn’t been for his wife perched on his lap Bennie would have come up out of the chair. “Doctor…? What doctor? What…”

“Yes, Bennie bear, the doctor.” Laughing, Kate grabbed his face, kissing him hard on the lips. It was all she could do to calm him down. “I’m pregnant, sweetheart,” she explained patiently. “I’ve seen my doctor. He’s made an appointment for me with an obstetrician. I’ll be seeing a lot of doctors.”

“Oh…”

“So? How do you feel about having a little Bennie running around here?”

A wide grin split the big man’s face, “Or maybe a little Kate?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you Bennie bear?”

“Seems like a good time to quit smoking,” he replied.

“Yes. Kate, the woman you hear me talking to, my little Katie girl.”

Smoothing the front of her white dress, Cassiel turned, tucking her legs beneath her. “Tell me about her, Bennie, please.”

He looked across the bench at his new friend. “We met in junior high. She was so beautiful and smart. I don’t know what she ever saw in me.” Bennie rubbed his stubbly chin. “You know, I can’t remember a time when we were apart. After school we moved to the city and married. Man, it wasn’t easy. But my Katie girl, she never once complained.”

Bennie’s deep love for Kate shone through his tired eyes; resounded in his voice. “She sounds like a wonderful person,” Cassiel encouraged.

With a nod, he continued. “We talked about having children. But it just didn’t seem to be in the cards for us. Then one day she came to me. I was going to be a father.”

“Oh, how sweet; was it a boy or a girl?”

“A girl,” Bennie replied with a proud smile. “Little Katie Anne.” The color began to drain from his face, taking with it his smile. “One day she called me at work. She’d started having early labor pains. By the time I got home the ambulance was there. I figured she’d called it. But she hadn’t. As she left for the hospital, Katie became faint and had fallen down the apartment stairs. She died the next day. The doctors couldn’t save our baby.”

+++

It was the first time he’d ever spoken of his wife’s death. Looking up, Bennie’s eyes found Cassiel’s. They were damp. He saw she felt badly for having inquired about Kate; wanted to say something to comfort him. It did no good. Lighting a cigarette, the big man wandered off in silence as the rain began to pick up.

Arriving at the apartment, Bennie discovered his nose was bleeding. It took some time to get the bleeding under control, but he eventually managed to undress and fall asleep. It didn’t last long. Around midnight he awoke. The fits of coughing and wheezing were now steady and more violent. Making his way into the bathroom, Bennie splashed cold water on his face. It felt good. But he didn’t recognize the reflection staring back at him from the mirror. “You look like hell,” it said.

Bennie laughed hoarsely. “You should see it from this side,” he replied between coughs. Bending down to splash more water on his face, Bennie began coughing up blood. Around 4:30 he finally collapsed.

When the alarm buzzed, Bennie’s eyes flew open. He lay across the bed motionless, staring at the ceiling. Something was wrong. No, not wrong, different. As he sat up, the bedroom came into sharp focus. He could clearly hear the rain as it lightly beat against the window. “Great, another day for the ducks,” he quipped. But his voice was sharp and deep, lacking its usual roughness; his words clear and crisp. “Damn, I must be dreaming; or else dead.” Bennie started to reach for an open pack of Camels on the night stand. Instead, the picture of Kate caught his attention. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said, gently touching the image. Leaving the smokes behind, Bennie headed for the kitchen, dropping two slices of wheat bread into the toaster. For the first time in months he’d awoken with an appetite.

Showered and dressed, Bennie glanced around his apartment. Hundreds of fond memories filled his mind, bringing with them a contented smile. A pack of cigarettes sat atop the fireplace mantel. Ignoring them, he slipped into his old leather bomber’s jacket and headed out the apartment door. Down on the sidewalk, Bennie stopped to stretch in the rain. He breathed in deeply. The air was cool and fresh. It felt good as it filled his lungs. At the corner, Bennie turned right instead of left. When he arrived at the bench, he found Cassiel waiting.

She reached out to him. This time nothing stopped her. “It’s as real as you want it to be, Bennie.”

Slowly, hesitantly, Bennie extended his arm. Their fingers touched. Instantly the rain ceased and the clouds disappeared. He found himself with Cassiel in the middle of a beautiful park. They stood in front of the familiar bench, surrounded by trees and grass and warm sunshine.

Cassiel took his hand. “Let’s go find your wife and daughter,” she said. Hand in hand, Bennie and Cassiel strolled off.

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We are a literary agency seeking fresh talent. In 200 words or more, demonstrate your writing talent. We will be in touch with any and all promising participants throughout the rest of this quarter.
Written by bjneblett
Rain At The Intersection Of Tomorrow
BJ Neblett
© 2016

Bennie lit his fifth Camel of the evening, flicking the spent match into the neon gutter. The pooling colors twisted and melted in a rain-soaked kaleidoscope of desperation. Taking a long drag on the unfiltered cigarette, he savored the breath. He could feel the bite of nicotine as it burned what was left of the soft fibrous tissue inside his lungs. A thick blue cloud floated in the air when he finally exhaled, coughing up phlegm in the process. He spat the yellow green wad to the wet pavement and coughed again. Ripples radiated in the standing water where it landed, transforming the reflected grey buildings into amorphous monsters from the Id. The big man smiled and spat again.
It had been another long, trying day. The incessant rain was now in its fourth day and showed no signs of letting up. Downpours were common in the area, but even the old timers were pressed to recall when it had rained so hard for so long. But Bennie didn’t mind the rain. Sitting alone on the corner bench, with his thoughts and his memories, was one of the few joys he could claim. And the rain always seemed to cleanse and renew everything, from the trash strewn city streets to Bennie’s own heavily laden soul.
Hot ash singed Bennie’s calloused fingertips as he drew a final deep lungful of smoke then flicked the smoldering remains into the street. Relaxing back, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.
A young woman sat poised at the far end of his bench. People often hurried past, heading for the transit stop two blocks down, or to some other self-important destination. But the old bench sat mostly forgotten at the corner of a deserted crossroads. Even the self-proclaimed street artists and aerosol taggers, determined to deface every building, bench and sign in the city, ignored the isolated intersection. Save for a few friendly foraging pigeons, Bennie always had the bench to himself.
Bennie turned.
He was alone.
Wiping rain from his eyes, he reached into the breast pocket of his denim shirt. A flicker of yellow danced in the rain to his right. With a toss of her head, the young woman flipped back a strand of blonde hair.
Again, Bennie turned.
Again, he was alone.
“Crazy,” he mumbled.
A sudden gust of wind rustled the few remaining leaves reluctant to release their tenuous grip on the street’s lone maple tree. In the summer it provided shade from the hot sun. But now, with winter rapidly approaching, the old growth tree stood naked, stripped of its color and dignity; thick barren branches still affording a modicum of protection from the steady rain.
Bennie lit his last cigarette, returning the empty pack to his pocket. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said aloud. A second, stiffer breeze arrived, sending a shiver through his body, and carrying with it the sounds of laughter. Bennie pulled the grey knit stocking cap low across his forehead. “Great, now I’m hearing voices,” he mused, as a single brown leaf tumbled in the air, a final graceful dance before dying.
The laughter continued.
Without moving, Bennie shifted his gaze to the right. Seated at the end of the bench, the young woman leisurely turned a page in the book she read. Her skin was the color of a warm sandy beach; her long hair that of the noon day sun. Barefoot, she wore a sheer white sleeveless dress that remained dry and crisp despite the rain.
Bennie twisted in his seat. A flash of lightning turned the grey afternoon a brilliant amber. Two brown squirrels chased one another up the side of the maple tree, disappearing into a small hole in the trunk. A tall, thin man trotted past, briefcase in hand, holding a newspaper over his head as he splashed down the sidewalk. One by one, up and down the block, street lights winked on.
But Bennie sat alone on the bench.
Shaking his head, Bennie rose and flipped the collar of his worn leather jacket. He could still hear the faint sound of laughter over the rolling thunder. He turned and headed for home, making his way through the rain.
+++
By the time Bennie arrived home the storm had broken. Pausing on the second floor landing, he had to stop to catch his breath. When he reached his apartment he was coughing and wheezing again.
The apartment was a simple, clean, third floor walk up in a struggling working class section on the city’s east side. Life in the city was never easy for Bennie. He had lived here all of his adult life, his monthly payments remaining reasonable, thanks to a weakening economy and stiffly enforced rent controls. He fondly recalled days when the buildings were brightly painted; tall oaks lined the unsoiled white sidewalks, and children played freely in the well manicured parks. That was before most of the factories and major employers were hit with cut backs and layoffs; before the population shifted away from white collar families; before desperation and doubt took up residence in the once social neighborhood. Drifting from job to job for several years, he finally landed a production manager position at a local plant. During the economic downturn, government contracts kept the facility out of the red, and a demotion to supervisor kept Bennie out of the unemployment line. His job at the factory was long, hard and dirty. But the work was steady and the pay provided an adequate living for him and his wife.
Bennie met Kate the first day of junior high school. Fate placed them side by side in home room; an inexplicable, mutual attraction kept them together. Slender, with flowing chestnut hair and bright emerald eyes, Kate was studious, artistic and beautiful. Large and deliberate, Bennie was a loner who struggled in school, preferring to work with his hands. From the moment they met they were never apart. After high school Bennie accepted a job in the city. Against her parent’s wishes, Kate eagerly joined him, the unlikely pair happily making a home in the small brownstone apartment. A year later they married.
Bennie knew the pause in the rain wouldn’t last long. That morning the annoying man on the television had smiled stupidly, pointing to his digital map. An approaching line of thunderstorms would prolong the deluge. Firing up his first cigarette of the day, Bennie wondered why everyone on the Weather Channel looked like they were made of plastic with painted expressions. Images of a factory churning out robotic talking heads kept him company on his way to work.
Slipping out of his coat and hat, Bennie dropped his keys into a plum colored bowl. Kate had fashioned the colorful ceramic in pottery class, proudly presenting it to Bennie their first Christmas together. Grabbing a towel to dry off, he headed to the bedroom. From the top drawer of an old chest Bennie pulled a carton of cigarettes. It was empty. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he mused aloud. Kicking off his work boots, Bennie flopped down on the edge of the bed. On the nightstand sat a framed picture. The woman in the photo wore a dark lavender summer dress and a bright smile as she waved from the building’s front steps. Bennie tenderly touched the familiar image. “Another day, Katie girl…” he whispered. Wiping away a tear, Bennie lay back on the bed and was instantly asleep.
+++
The rains continued, alternating between a steady drizzle and sudden violent cloud bursts. By now the sewers were nearing their capacity and most of the streets held standing water. Public transportation remained congested, running well behind schedule. Many shops and offices elected to close down until conditions improved. Some meteorologists had optimistically promised the storms would end soon. But the rains continued.
The persistent showers brought with them an eerie tranquility that Bennie found strangely relaxing. The city’s non-stop clamor fell silent, replaced by the steady soft patter of rain, accompanied by occasional thunder claps.
Bennie had wisely switched from his beloved leather bomber’s jacket to a heavy rubber rain slicker. The bulky coat made him feel like a child on his way to school. Its bright yellow color made him look like the school bus the child rode. But it kept him warm and dry as he splashed through sidewalk puddles and gutters turned rivulets. Reaching the corner, the bench came into view. Water dripped from the brim of his rain hood as Bennie paused to look around. A host of sparrows, with feathers ruffled against the cold, clustered together beneath the rotting eaves of an abandoned market. Newspaper and trash dammed the mouth of a storm drain as water percolated up through a manhole cover. Now totally devoid of leaves, the mighty maple tree did its best to shelter the vacant bench. But no cars plowed through the flooded streets; no one hurried to the bus stop; no one loitered on the corner.
Bennie was alone.
With a contented sigh, he fired up a cigarette and settled down on the end of the bench. “Well, here we are again, Katie girl. You always loved the rain, didn’t you; loved to cuddle up in front of the fireplace on a stormy night.” Holding the match before him, Bennie became lost in the flame.

“I love to watch the flames; how they jump and leap and change colors.”
“Are you sure you’re warm enough, sweetheart?”
“Of course, I’m fine.”
“I really am sorry about all of this. I shouldn’t have brought you here until we had some furniture; or at least until the gas and water were turned on.”
Kate reached up, tenderly placing her hand to Bennie’s cheek. “Don’t be silly, it’s fine,” she said, snuggling deeper into the big man’s arms. “Besides, it’s more romantic like this, don’t you think, Bennie bear?”
It was their first night in the city; in their new apartment. Shortly after dawn, Bennie had rolled up to Kate’s house in his old pickup truck. He found her sitting on a suitcase at the end of a long circle driveway. Bennie didn’t need to ask. He knew how Kate’s upper-middle class family felt about her relationship with the lumbering boy from the wrong side of the town. He knew her father had threatened to cut her off when she refused to attend a prestigious East Coast university. And he could easily picture in his mind the final falling out as Kate announced to her parents her intentions to enroll at the city college and live with Bennie. In silence, they loaded Kate’s suitcases and few possessions into Bennie’s truck and drove away. They now cuddled together in front of the apartment’s fire place, keeping each other warm.
Bennie pulled the blanket tighter around them, kissing Kate on the forehead. “You always see the good in everything, don’t you Katie girl. How’d I ever get so lucky?” He reached for his pack of cigarettes. It was empty.
Kate snatched the empty pack, tossed it into the fire and smiled up at Bennie. “Seems like a good time to quit.”

Bennie flicked the spent butt into the rain swollen gutter. “Of all your wonderful things, you never could get me to quit smoking,” he said aloud. “I’m sorry ‘bout that Katie girl.”
“That’s a very lovely name.”
Bennie glanced up, “Pardon…”
He was alone.
“Katie, it’s a lovely name. Kate, Kathy, Katherine…” The voice was soft, feminine and refined, yet held a childish quality. It floated in the air between rain drops; over the distant thunder, reaching Bennie from the far end of the bench. “Such a pretty name; you don’t hear it used much these days, do you?”
Bennie spun in his seat, searching up and down the block. He sat by himself in the rain. Suddenly something stirred in his peripheral vision. Without turning, Bennie shifted his gaze to the right. A young woman in a lacey white sun dress sat at the end of the bench.
“I can tell by the tone in your voice she must be special to you,” she said.
Bennie stared straight ahead in silence. Were the flashes of lightning playing tricks on his vision? Was she an optical illusion? What about the voice? He had distinctly heard her voice through the steady rain fall. Glancing to the right again, Bennie realized it was the same apparition from the previous day.
“It’s nice to have someone, isn’t it?”
Rubbing his eyes, he slowly turned his head.
She was gone.
Taking a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, Bennie coughed and laughed hoarsely. “This is crazy.” Lighting up, he exhaled a deep pull of blue smoke.
“I’m curious, what is that you’re doing?”
Bennie carefully studied the potent cigarette in his hand. “Katie always said these things would affect me,” he announced. “I just didn’t know they would make me crazy.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he heard the woman say, “I shouldn’t be so nosey.”
Looking straight ahead, Bennie’s brown eyes slowly shifted to the right. The young woman appeared again out of the corner of his eye. She now sat facing him, leisurely twirling a long strand of yellow hair with her finger.
“It’s… ok…” he replied hesitantly. “You’ve really never seen a cigarette?”
“No, no I haven’t. What is that cloud coming out of your body?” She watched intrigued as he exhaled and then coughed hard several times. “Why do you do that to yourself?”
“I don’t know.” Bennie closed his eyes and pictured Kate. She had once asked him the same question as they sat together on the back of his pickup, in their high school parking lot.

“Why do you do that to yourself?”
“I don’t know.” Bennie tamped out a half smoked cigarette, flicking the butt aside. “Because I enjoy it so much,” he managed between fits of coughing.
“Yeah, I can tell,” Kate replied, and they both laughed.
It took a month but Bennie had finally worked up the courage to talk to the pretty girl sitting next to him. One day before history class, the shy seventh grader steeled up false courage and approached her. With unabashed candor, he admitted to more than just a passing interest in the captivating brunette. Kate demurely replied she felt the same. The news only abetted his uneasiness at talking with girls. But Kate hung in there, patiently waiting out the awkward stares and embarrassing false starts. In time she discovered an inquisitive, tender and caring young man with a love of animals and all things mechanical. In Kate, Bennie found a beautiful, intelligent, fun-loving partner who accepted him unconditionally.
Kate scooted across the truck’s tailgate, her bright green eyes finding his. “You know, we’ll be graduating next month. You really should try and quit.”
“Oh, so that’s how it goes, huh?” Bennie teased. “After what, five years together it’s time to change old Bennie?”
She pulled him close, holding tightly. “I’d never try and change you, Bennie bear. I just love you too much.”

Opening his eyes, Bennie discovered the storm had slowed to a heavy mist. Sunlight began to break through narrow gaps in the gray clouds. He flipped back the hood of his rain slicker and turned his face to the warming rays. “That’s more like it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will last.”
His observation was met with silence.
Facing straight ahead, Bennie searched out of the corner of his eye.
He was alone.
+++
The brief pause in the rain didn’t last. A new round of thunderstorms soon settled in over the city. Arriving home, Bennie stripped off his work clothes, stepped into the shower and set the faucet to hot. The steaming water felt good, relaxing and soothing his tired, sore body. As it rained down from overhead, Bennie recalled his earlier encounters on the bench. He shifted his gaze to the right and concentrated. Instead of the young blonde woman, Kate’s rainbow shower curtain came into focus.

“We can’t afford all of this, sweetie.”
Kate dropped four large shopping bags in the middle of the empty living room. She turned and headed back out of the apartment’s front door. “C’mon, Bennie bear,” she called, “there’s more down in the cab.” Shaking his head, Bennie followed dutifully in silence.
That evening the tiny apartment resembled the aftermath of an explosion in Macy’s home wares department. Bennie sat on the floor surrounded by Rachael Ray pots and pans; a thirty-two piece set of lavender and black stoneware dishes; a full size microwave complete with cooking accessories, and an imposing Shark vacuum cleaner. “But Katie girl…” he said, setting aside a queen size periwinkle comforter set.
His pleas fell on deaf ears. Kate excitedly unfolded a shiny plastic shower curtain. “Isn’t it cool? It will definitely brighten up that drab little bathroom!” It was vivid yellow with wide bands of colorful rainbows arching above delicate unicorns rendered in lilac and iris and amethyst and a dozen other shades of purple. “And I got a matching rug, trash can and towel set! We can paint the walls a pale yellow to match.”
Bennie’s stare moved from the gaudy bath accessory to Kate. “It looks like something you’d see while on acid.”
Her pert nose wrinkled. “Oh, it’s not that bad. And we both agreed what this place needs is a splash of color.”
“And how are we going to pay for all this color, Katie girl?”
“You don’t need to worry about that, honey.”
“Why not…?”
Turning, Kate began to refold her purchase. “Because, I used my parent’s credit cards,” she whispered softly. Her words were barely audible over the crackling of the stiff plastic.
“What?”
With a sigh, Kate dropped the shower curtain and knelt beside Bennie. “I said I used daddy’s credit cards.”
“I thought we talked about this, Kate.” There was disappointment in his voice.
“I’m sorry Bennie bear,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder. “I just wanted to make a nice home for us.”
Bennie wrapped his arm around Kate’s waist, lovingly kissing the top of her head. “I know Katie girl, I know.”
“Anyway, it’s his stupid fault. He knows better; he should have cut up those cards the day I left. Besides,” she added with an indignant snort, “they owe us a house warming present.”
Pulling Kate close, Bennie couldn’t help but laugh.

Stepping out of the shower, Bennie wiped his eyes with a plush mauve towel. He stood staring into the bathroom mirror. “Damn, is that you, Big Ben?” he asked the reflection. “What happened to you, man? You’re looking old.”
“Life,” his reflection replied, “life. That’s what happened; too many dreams and not enough time; too many cigarettes and too much pain.”
+++
Bennie sat on his bench, tearing pieces of bread and dropping them to the ground. A blue dappled pigeon cautiously circled the doughy prey before stabbing at one with its pointed orange beak. As if expressing gratitude, it raised its head, winking a round black eye at its benefactor, and then swallowed the treat. “You’re welcome,” Bennie replied. Despite the steady rain fall, several other pigeons soon arrived, methodically pecking and waddling with anticipation.
“…for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet the Father feeds them…”
With a start, Bennie looked up. He knew the passage, and the voice. “That’s… Matthew,” he managed through a suddenly dry mouth. Without turning, he uneasily looked to his right. The young blonde woman appeared once again in his peripheral vision. Perched at the end of the bench, she wore the same long white sun dress and sat facing him.
“Yes, it is,” the woman replied. “You know your Scripture.”
“My… my mother… when I was little… she would read to me.” Bennie looked to his left. A black sedan made its way through the intersection, sending ripples of water across the sidewalk, scattering the pigeons. The street beyond lay deserted. “Do… do I know you?” he asked, returning his gaze to the side.
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t. My name is Cassiel.”
“That’s an unusual name; very pretty.”
“Thank you. It means solitude and tears; kinda fits me, I guess. I love to come and sit here by myself. You’re actually the first person I’ve ever seen sitting on my bench.”
Bennie shifted uncomfortably. Her bench…? What was going on? Who was she? Turning his head to the right, the woman disappeared, returning only when he again faced forward and peered out of the corner of his eye. Where had she come from, and why couldn’t he look directly at her? Concentrating on keeping her within his vision, Bennie struggled for words. “I’m sorry,” he said at last, “but… are you real? I mean, am I hallucinating or imagining you or something?”
“Oh, my, I certainly hope not,” Her laughter brightened the rainy afternoon. “Yes, I’m real; I am as real as you believe me to be.”
Still uncertain if he might not be dreaming, Bennie found himself becoming intrigued with the lovely woman with whom he shared the bench. “I’m sorry. My name is Bennie.”
She propped an elbow on the back of the bench, resting her gracefully pointed chin in her hand. “It’s very nice to meet you Bennie. And I think it sweet of you to feed those birds.”
He’d forgotten all about them. Shredding the remaining slice of bread, he tossed the crumbs to the speckled blue pigeon, which had returned for more. “Well, with the rain and all I just thought maybe they’d be hungry.”
Cassiel turned, holding out her palm. “Rain…? What rain?”
Her reaction caused Bennie to glance up. Cold drops of rain fell from one of the maple tree’s branches, landing on his forehead. “The rain, it’s been raining for days. Surely you can see it; feel it.”
Looking around, Cassiel shook her head. “What are you talking about? It’s a beautiful, perfectly clear day.” She stretched out her bare arms, lush locks of golden hair trailing down her back as she tilted her head skyward. “The sun is big and bright and oh, so warm on my skin.”
“But… the rain…” The sound of her laughter returned Bennie’s gaze.
Cassiel raised a delicate hand to her mouth and pointed. “I don’t know about any rain, but I guess maybe that explains one thing anyway; why you’re dressed so oddly on such a pristine afternoon.”
Straining his eyes, Bennie realized once again her dress was dry. He could see the rusted red fire hydrant situated next to the bench. Beyond that, the street, the sidewalk, several abandoned buildings, an old Ford van, and a pair of trash cans came into fuzzy focus. Rain fell everywhere, pooling on the broken cement, streaking the Ford’s windows, and bouncing off the trash cans’ metal lids. But the young woman remained dry. Her dress was fresh and wrinkle free; her skin smooth and tan; her yellow hair hanging loose and long, as if some invisible barrier shielded her from the weather. And there was something else. Shadows caressed Cassiel’s neck and shoulders, moving as she did, following the patterns of a late afternoon sun.
Examining his own wet slicker and jeans, Bennie rubbed his tired eyes. “Oh, Katie girl, what have I gotten myself into this time?”
“You keep talking to her, is she here also?” Cassiel asked.
Bennie sat up straight and looked around. “No, no, she’s not. Why, can you see her?”
“No, I just thought…”
He sank back into his seat. “Oh…”
Cassiel heard the disappointment in Bennie’s voice; she could sense his desperation. “I’m sorry, Bennie. She must be someone very special to you.”

“C’mon, you can do it, babe!” One by one the candles flickered and then went out. Rapidly running out of air, Kate began to laugh. Three candles remained lit atop the chocolate cake. “Aw, that’s too bad, Katie girl, you didn’t get your wish.”
Catching her breath, Kate shot Bennie a punch to his arm. “Hey, no fair, it’s your fault. You used too many candles.”
“… 27, 28, 29, 30… no, that’s right, exactly thirty.” Another, harder shot to Bennie’s shoulder and he grabbed her up in his powerful arms, “Happy birthday, Katie girl,” and they kissed passionately.
“I love you my Bennie bear. Wanna know what I wished?”
“Hey, don’t you know,” Bennie replied, holding Kate at arm’s length. “If you tell, your wish it won’t come true.”
Kate puffed out her bottom lip, looking up at Bennie. “Well, according to you I’m not gonna get it anyway.” Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged tightly, burying her face against his chest. “I wished that we would never have to be apart.”
Bennie could feel her tears on his skin. “That will never happen, Katie girl,” he said tenderly, lovingly stroking her hair, “I promise, never.”

Tears mixed with the rain, running down Bennie’s cheeks. “Yeah,” he said, sighing deeply. “She’s special.”
+++
Slowly, the city had begun to return to normalcy. With the immediate threat of serious flooding passed, shops and businesses reopened, buses arrived and departed nearly on schedule, and people once again took to the streets, resuming their daily routines. The string of thunderstorms had moved on, leaving in their wake light but persistent showers. One optimistic forecaster on the evening news had even cheerfully announced an end to the unseasonable deluge. But the sun remained absent and the rain continued.
Unable to sleep, Bennie sat by the fireplace, curled up in his favorite chair. Lighting his last Camel, Bennie crushed the soft pack in his hand, tossed it into the fire and began to cough. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said, exhaling grey smoke. The saying brought a smile to his face. It was one of Kate’s favorites. Ditching fifth grade one day with three of his buddies, Bennie watched in awe as the boys passed around a stolen Marlboro. When the cigarette came his way, Bennie warily accepted, inhaling as the others had done. It made him dizzy; he coughed and felt sick to his stomach. By the end of the week, Bennie was buying packs of Marlboros from the older kids, eventually graduating to the stronger, filter-less Camels. From the day they met, Kate had made clear her feelings on smoking. But she never nagged or lectured him about the habit.
A cold shiver passed through his body and he reached for the mosaic patterned throw blanket on the back of the chair. Wrapping it around his shoulders, Bennie raised a corner to his face. He could still smell Kate’s sweet delicate scent in the soft material. Relaxing back into his chair, he recalled the strange events of the day. Cassiel appeared in his mind’s eye, dry and warm and happy, perched at the end of the bench. Her bench she had called the old wood and stone relic. How many times had he referred to it as his bench? And yet, through all the years, except for Kate, he had never seen another person using it.

“Stop it Bennie, someone will see!”
“That’s the idea, Katie girl. I want the whole world to see.”
She slapped at his arm, glancing around nervously. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. Someone will see what you are doing; a policeman, he’ll arrest you for defacing public property.”
Undeterred, Bennie dug his pocket knife deeper into the stubborn wood. “You ever see a cop around here, sweetie?”
Kate moved closer, trying to prevent anyone passing by from witnessing her boyfriend’s deliberate defacing of the bench. “I think you accomplished your goal. You’ve carved our names and initials into every tree, telephone pole, fence and park bench between here and city hall.”
Bennie stood, admiring his handy work. “There, I hereby claim this bench in the name of Bennie Parks and Kate… Kate…” He looked at her sheepishly. “What was your last name again lady?”
“You know my last name very well, silly man,” she replied with a shake of her head.
“Well… I forgot.” Returning the knife to his pocket, Bennie retrieved a small black satin box and opened it. “Maybe this will make it easier for me to remember.”
“Oh, my God,” Kate nearly screamed. She sat straight up, her eyes growing as big as saucers. “You… are you… is this… does this…?”
Bennie pulled a gleaming Marquise cut diamond engagement ring from the box. “Here, before you jump out of your skin.” Slipping the silver band onto her slender finger, he dropped to one knee, staring into Kate’s moist eyes. “Will you marry me, Katie girl?”
A month later they were married by a minister in a simple ceremony. Kate’s parents refused to attend.

After work, Bennie casually walked the nine blocks to the bench. Although exhausted, an unnamed urgency drove him forward. He rarely slept well anymore. His usual routine consisted of working too hard and too long until he collapsed on the bed into a heavy, erratic sleep. Even then he often awoke in the middle of the night to violent fits of coughing and wheezing. Recently, the bouts were becoming more frequent and troublesome. Bennie had spent the night curled in his chair, falling in and out of a fitful sleep, his tortured dreams drifting between fond memories of Kate and confusing visions of Cassiel.
Reaching his corner, Bennie paused to take in the scene. Despite the steady sprinkling, everything appeared normal. Water had receded from where it once pooled on the uneven pavement. An oversized trash truck lumbered down the street, its dirty, worn metal body refreshed by the recent downpour. Even the squirrels once again played tag up and down the side of the old maple tree, stretching their legs after their long confinement. Settling into his spot on the bench, Bennie retrieved two Saltine crackers from his lunch pail. On cue, a speckled blue pigeon landed at his feet. “Sorry old guy, that’s all there is today,” Bennie said to the attentive bird. He sprinkled the crumbs on the ground and the appreciative pigeon started his pecking dance.
“They know you, the birds. My mother always said you can trust a man who is trusted by the animals.” Cassiel smiled from her end of the bench. Her long blonde hair was pulled into a fluffy ponytail and she now wore a simple white cotton wrap dress.
By now Bennie had mastered the art of facing forward and looking sideways. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Hello. Were you expecting someone else?”
“No, no… hello, but tell me something, please.” Bennie glanced around then cast his eyes toward Cassiel. She sat as before, fresh and dry and beautiful, warmed by an invisible sun. “What, what do you see?”
“Well, I see a troubled but handsome guy wearing a wet yellow slicker,” she replied in a coy, flirtatious tone.
“No, I mean, look around you, what is it you see, in front and in back of you; on either side?”
Cassiel didn’t seem to understand. She tilted her head, her eyes narrowing. “It’s another beautiful, sunny day,” she stated flatly.
“Go on, please. Tell me, where are you? What does it look like?”
Uncertainly, Cassiel twisted to her right, slowly looking around. She glanced skyward then turned, facing straight ahead. “Well, I’m sitting on a bench in a lovely park. There’s soft green grass and lots of tall old trees for shade.” Her voice rose with excitement. “Oh, but not right here; that’s why I like this bench so much. I can sit and let the sun warm me all over. If I get too hot, I can dangle my feet in that stream,” she said, pointing to a place beyond Bennie. “And there’s a young couple over there on a blanket. I see them here a lot.” Cassiel raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. “Oh, he just kissed her!”
Bennie sighed, resting his head in his hands. “A park,” he muttered.
“I’m sorry, Bennie. Is there something wrong? Did I say something?”
“No, no,” he replied, slowly looking up. “But I don’t see any of that. Look at me; look at how I’m dressed, what I’m wearing. You said it yourself, ‘dressed so oddly on such a pristine afternoon.’ But it’s not, Cassiel. It’s cold and it’s raining and I’m in the middle of a big, grey, dirty city. When I look at you,” he paused, shaking his head at the irony. “I can only see you out of the corner of my eye; you exist only in my peripheral vision. And when you are there it’s like you’ve been filmed in front of a green screen and digitally inserted into my world. I don’t understand why it’s happening, or even if it’s real.”
“I’m so sorry, Bennie. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could help you; I wish I knew the answers.” Cassiel wanted to touch Bennie, to hold and comfort him. She reached out her hand but something stopped her. Bennie raised his head, and looked to his right. Cassiel came into view. She smiled. “You can see me, can’t you?”
“Yes, yes I can.” Bennie could feel the rain on his face. He could hear the soft cooing of the pigeons. He could smell the air, fresh and clean, scrubbed by the rain. And he could finally see the young woman who had danced in the corners of his sanity. But he still didn’t understand. “I can see you. But I’m still here in the rain. I still don’t know if you’re real; if any of this is real.”
“It’s as real as you want it to be, Bennie.”
+++
The next day, Bennie hurried through the rain, heading for the corner and his bench. He looked forward to seeing Cassiel. It was nice to have someone to talk with; someone who listened and empathized. Who she may be and where she came from Bennie still didn’t understand. He thought of the science fiction TV programs and movies he’d seen; recalled the works of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and HG Wells he’d read in school. Was Cassiel an alien, sent from another planet? Had she crossed over from another dimension, another time? Or was she just a product of his imagination, the result of too many dreams and not enough time; too many cigarettes and too much pain?
He didn’t care.
“It’s as real as you want it to be,” she’d told him. Bennie believed it to be real; wanted it to be real; needed for it to be real.
Reaching the corner, Bennie lit a cigarette and settled onto the bench. Cassiel was already seated at the opposite end. Taking a deep satisfying puff, he turned to his ethereal friend. “Hello,” he called through several hacking coughs.
“Good afternoon, Bennie.” Cassiel smiled but her expressive eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “Is it those smoke sticks of yours that make you cough?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Then maybe you should stop.”
“Yeah, maybe I should. You really don’t have cigarettes where you are; you’ve never heard of them?”
“No, we don’t. But it would seem to me they can’t be very good for you.”
Bennie considered the half smoked stick in his hand. “Actually, they can kill you.”
“Oh!” Cassiel replied, surprised at the casualness of his comment. “Then why don’t you quit?”
“It’s not that easy.” Bennie’s voice dropped, his tone turning ironic. “Besides,” he added softly, “it’s too late for me.” He took a final drag then flicked the remains into the gutter. It hissed and sparked in protest, sending up a thread of blue smoke as a rain drop struck the hot ash. “Tell me about you.”
She stared off in thought for a moment. “Not really much to tell. I teach at a school not far from here. You can see it if you… oh,” she felt her cheeks start to redden, “sorry. Anyway, its break time now, at least for the next few days.” Cassiel sighed, adjusting her position on the bench. “I was an only child; both of my parents are gone. I love the sun and reading and talking with friends and, well, you know normal stuff.”
“You never had children; married?”
“No, no, I didn’t. What about you, Bennie?”
He pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt then stopped. He could hear Kate’s voice in the rain. Seems like a good time to quit. Returning the cigarettes to his pocket, Bennie relaxed back on the bench. “Kate,” he said quietly.
“The woman you talk to…”

“We have to talk, sweetheart.”
Bennie looked up from his chair. “What’s on your mind, Katie girl?” Reaching down, she pulled the partially smoked cigarette from his lips and tossed it into the fireplace. “Uh oh, am I in trouble?” he asked.
“No, but…”
“Come, talk to me,” Bennie said, patting his leg.
Kate climbed into her husband’s lap. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. “I’m pregnant.”
“Oh…” They sat in silence for a time. Bennie cradled Kate in his arms, tenderly stroking her hair as she studied his reaction. Slowly his initial shock at the news began to fade. “Wow. But you don’t seem very excited about this,” he said at last.
“No, it’s not that. It’s just…”
“You’re ok, aren’t you?” Straightening in his chair, Bennie looked at his wife, knowing she could read the panic in his face. “I mean, everything’s how it should be, right?”
Kate held a finger to Bennie’s lips. “Shhh, no, no, Bennie bear, it’s nothing like that. I’m fine. The doctor says everything is as it should be and I’m in excellent health.”
If it hadn’t been for his wife perched on his lap Bennie would have come up out of the chair. “Doctor…? What doctor? What…”
“Yes, Bennie bear, the doctor.” Laughing, Kate grabbed his face, kissing him hard on the lips. It was all she could do to calm him down. “I’m pregnant, sweetheart,” she explained patiently. “I’ve seen my doctor. He’s made an appointment for me with an obstetrician. I’ll be seeing a lot of doctors.”
“Oh…”
“So? How do you feel about having a little Bennie running around here?”
A wide grin split the big man’s face, “Or maybe a little Kate?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you Bennie bear?”
“Seems like a good time to quit smoking,” he replied.

“Yes. Kate, the woman you hear me talking to, my little Katie girl.”
Smoothing the front of her white dress, Cassiel turned, tucking her legs beneath her. “Tell me about her, Bennie, please.”
He looked across the bench at his new friend. “We met in junior high. She was so beautiful and smart. I don’t know what she ever saw in me.” Bennie rubbed his stubbly chin. “You know, I can’t remember a time when we were apart. After school we moved to the city and married. Man, it wasn’t easy. But my Katie girl, she never once complained.”
Bennie’s deep love for Kate shone through his tired eyes; resounded in his voice. “She sounds like a wonderful person,” Cassiel encouraged.
With a nod, he continued. “We talked about having children. But it just didn’t seem to be in the cards for us. Then one day she came to me. I was going to be a father.”
“Oh, how sweet; was it a boy or a girl?”
“A girl,” Bennie replied with a proud smile. “Little Katie Anne.” The color began to drain from his face, taking with it his smile. “One day she called me at work. She’d started having early labor pains. By the time I got home the ambulance was there. I figured she’d called it. But she hadn’t. As she left for the hospital, Katie became faint and had fallen down the apartment stairs. She died the next day. The doctors couldn’t save our baby.”
+++
It was the first time he’d ever spoken of his wife’s death. Looking up, Bennie’s eyes found Cassiel’s. They were damp. He saw she felt badly for having inquired about Kate; wanted to say something to comfort him. It did no good. Lighting a cigarette, the big man wandered off in silence as the rain began to pick up.
Arriving at the apartment, Bennie discovered his nose was bleeding. It took some time to get the bleeding under control, but he eventually managed to undress and fall asleep. It didn’t last long. Around midnight he awoke. The fits of coughing and wheezing were now steady and more violent. Making his way into the bathroom, Bennie splashed cold water on his face. It felt good. But he didn’t recognize the reflection staring back at him from the mirror. “You look like hell,” it said.
Bennie laughed hoarsely. “You should see it from this side,” he replied between coughs. Bending down to splash more water on his face, Bennie began coughing up blood. Around 4:30 he finally collapsed.
When the alarm buzzed, Bennie’s eyes flew open. He lay across the bed motionless, staring at the ceiling. Something was wrong. No, not wrong, different. As he sat up, the bedroom came into sharp focus. He could clearly hear the rain as it lightly beat against the window. “Great, another day for the ducks,” he quipped. But his voice was sharp and deep, lacking its usual roughness; his words clear and crisp. “Damn, I must be dreaming; or else dead.” Bennie started to reach for an open pack of Camels on the night stand. Instead, the picture of Kate caught his attention. “Seems like a good time to quit,” he said, gently touching the image. Leaving the smokes behind, Bennie headed for the kitchen, dropping two slices of wheat bread into the toaster. For the first time in months he’d awoken with an appetite.
Showered and dressed, Bennie glanced around his apartment. Hundreds of fond memories filled his mind, bringing with them a contented smile. A pack of cigarettes sat atop the fireplace mantel. Ignoring them, he slipped into his old leather bomber’s jacket and headed out the apartment door. Down on the sidewalk, Bennie stopped to stretch in the rain. He breathed in deeply. The air was cool and fresh. It felt good as it filled his lungs. At the corner, Bennie turned right instead of left. When he arrived at the bench, he found Cassiel waiting.
She reached out to him. This time nothing stopped her. “It’s as real as you want it to be, Bennie.”
Slowly, hesitantly, Bennie extended his arm. Their fingers touched. Instantly the rain ceased and the clouds disappeared. He found himself with Cassiel in the middle of a beautiful park. They stood in front of the familiar bench, surrounded by trees and grass and warm sunshine.
Cassiel took his hand. “Let’s go find your wife and daughter,” she said. Hand in hand, Bennie and Cassiel strolled off.


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Juice
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