A Thread of Human-ness

We all have

Uniqueness

in

Common

And

Conform

in

our striving to

be

Individual

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

November 28th, 2014

A Thread of Human-ness

All rights reserved

“Colored” Signs and White Robes (No, I Will Not…a poem for Black youth)

Don’t tell me to ‘get over it’ because it makes YOU uncomfortable,

The founding of a nation on blood and chains should make you uncomfortable!

And though the institutions no longer exist, the attitudes of slavemasters yet prevail, 

Freely and proudly expressed!

So be it, but let this be too: the history of my ancestry DOES NOT BEGIN with bondage,

but the history of my ancestry HERE does, and so I will celebrate the TRIUMPH of their SURVIVAL, so that

I might sit here today and use this machine to type these words:

You will no longer brand me ‘animal’

or grind my dignity under your heel.

You will have no access to my joy

And I reject your invective as the source of my sorrows.

I do not seek your approval to grow and thrive and be.

I have no master in you, and you have no servant in me.

I will be free, in spite of, not because of, your documents that proclaim the very liberty for all men 

you’ve revealed to be a lie. 

You don’t get to define me, if you don’t want to know me.

You don’t get to classify me, when you don’t want to live next to me.

You don’t get to objectify me, because I am not here to amuse you.

You don’t get to nullify me, and say I shouldn’t be here: WE are the nation’s only IMPORTED immigrant.

I will not get over the chains I’ve never worn,  not get over the whippings, lynchings, beatings, rapes, torture, castrations, hunting hounds and K9 cops, bombings, hoses, “Colored” signs, white robes, shotguns, fires, burning crosses, burning bodies hanging from trees and bridges and tossed in rivers, broken and dismembered, and soil soaked in blood and lost years behind bars from false accusations I’ve never experienced, because I stand on the remains of all the rubble and remains of those lives; they are yet a part of me, and whether or not you “understand” it, it is nevertheless so.

And so I say again: I am FREE

but I, and my children, and their children

will not EVER

‘get over it.’

Sharing Homework with Cheerleaders: A Cautionary Tale

Nothing made my day brighter in high school than when there was a game pending, and the cheerleaders would walk around the school in their outfits, pleasant distractions from the daily drudge of learning. They carried themselves like queens, however, and we males would smile and nod and greet, trying not to ogle, and then wipe the sweat and drool from our faces when they passed. One of them happened to be in my homeroom, and in she walked, strong, shapely legs in a short skirt,  and all the bells and whistles in my heart rang with adoration, and not a little lust, but I was tongue-tied around pretty girls, like most nerds.

She was a nerd too,  with aspirations of being a writer, so the yearbook said when we graduated, but she was also a cheerleader: popular, pretty, capable of breaking hearts with a dismissive swish of the hand, and I was a tragic figure, secretly in love (and not a little lust)  hiding my feelings.

Then, one bright magic morning, in her cheerleader outfit, she approached me, and I felt the stupid grin spreading, willing it to go away, and making it worse. And then she smiled at me! I was, for whatever reason, deemed worthy of her smile.

And then it got better: she spoke to me. If it had been manly to swoon, I would have done so on the spot.

“Alfred, did you do the homework for English class?”

In the midst of controlling my swoon, I thought: Who doesn’t do homework for English class? But I replied that I had.

“Can you let me borrow it; I didn’t get the chance to do it.”

Chivalry, thy name is Alfred. I produced it, and handed it to her, thinking again: We’re both in the honors class; surely she knows how to paraphrase and make it her own.

At lunchtime she gave me back my homework, and later that afternoon, I submitted it to Mr. D. He was my favorite English teacher, a large man with a droll and deadly wit. He wore Van Dyke whiskers, and had the memory of a herd of elephants. I took several elements of style from him in my own career later on, though I never got to tell him.

The following day, he distributed the homework back, and on mine was a bright red ‘D’ with the comment: “Who copied from whom?”  He looked at me askance, and said nothing, and I took the paper in a silence of my own, thinking “How did she screw this up?”

Class was taught, and then over, but since he was my favorite teacher and LOVED my writing, encouraging me often to pursue it, even up to the time I graduated, I felt I owed him an apology. Here’s what came out:

“Mr. D, I deserve this grade for what happened, but really? You should know who copied from whom.”

His laughter boomed as he nodded, and said “Okay. That’s what I thought.”

I walked away, restored to myself, the spell of the cheerleader broken forever. Until she signed my yearbook.

Wearing her cheerleader outfit.

Dammit….

Quest

A knight set out upon a Quest

The Lion blazon on his chest

To rescue him a maiden fair

From wizard’s cold and darkened lair

“Fair maiden,” cried he, “I have come

to take thee back to thy kingdom.

“We must make haste! ‘Tis dusk I see

and we have many miles to flee!”

The great oak door that barred his way

Did not yield to the axe’s sway

“Fair maiden, do not take a fright.

I think the moon shall rise tonight.”

He swung until his arm was sore

And in due time broke down the door

He burst inside and flushed deep red

For there he saw upon the bed

The maiden and the wizard locked

And both of them complete defrocked

And breathing hard and laughing soft

within the wicked wizard’s loft

She started up. “Get out!” she cried,

“And tell not what you here espied!”

“But maiden…” cried he, sore and vexed

Not seeing she was oversexed

“Get out, you empty armored head

or ‘pon the road they’ll find ye dead.”

And this was what the wizard said

And so the brave knight turned and fled

The knight, his courage gone astray

Vowed he would Quest no more that day

that month, that year, that century!

He still lives with the memory

Of lovely woman’s treachery.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

Quest / Day of the Dark Full Moon (compilation)

December 10th, 1983

All rights reserved

Halloween Huntress: Chapters 5 and 6: Sometimes you just need help

Chapter 5:

“We’ve got t’leave,” said Orliss.

He spent the rest of the day packing what he needed for the road. Being a hermit, of sorts, there was always a travel bag at the ready.

He opened Meralys’ closet to Jaika; nothing was an exact fit, so she took what felt snug, and left the rest. There were also riding clothes, an unexpected and welcome bonus, so she took those as well.

“We was farmers once, and Meralys loved ‘er horses,” Orliss explained.

“You must tell me more of your life once we’re on the road.”

“I daresay we’ll not have th’ time, missy.”

He still called her ‘missy.’ She’d given up trying to change it. Besides, it could also be her name; no one need know her real name here. As of now, only two men who’d she’d had no intention of meeting, and had stumbled into quite by accident, knew it.

And then she received another startling revelation, from none other than Orliss himself.

“But you must tell me how it came to be that a young woman came to be traveling alone.”

She looked up, surprised, a smile of shocked amusement on her face.

“Your accent’s a ruse,” she said.

He smiled, “You’re quick. A good one, isn’t it?”

“Very much so, but why?”

“Helps me fit in, gain information. When I’m drunk though, it doesn’t seem to be a character. But it was ever my intention to fight back. With you here, that will make it easier.”

“He said we were to be wed. He knew my name, and when he left…I felt…”

“We’ll have to look into all that. Now’s not the time. We need to be gone by nightfall. I’ve a feeling he’ll be back, and he won’t be alone, and he won’t have those dogs.”

She nodded, and couldn’t repress a shudder, which he saw.

“Jaika.”

She sighed, and composed herself.

He placed a meaty hand on her shoulder. “I know. You’ve been swept up in a series of events that make absolutely no sense to you. I can’t explain how they do. I don’t know why you’re here, or why Dominick is after you, or me, for that matter. He won the war when he killed Meralys, and I was too devastated for thoughts of revenge.

“But I let him take the woman I love from me, and did nothing about it.

“I can’t allow that to happen again, but I can’t promise you it won’t.

“The truth is, the years of dissipation were real, and have taken their toll, but now there’s what’s left, and I have to use it to rid the world of him, and not just for you.

I don’t know the part you play; I’ve read no great books, and there’s no ancient prophecy.

“In fact, we had a somewhat shaky beginning.”

“Yes,” she reddened at the memory. “We did.”

“This is a strange and dark place; you’ve doubtless felt its power. That’s where I’ll need your wood lore; you’re under no obligation to stay, and I can see you to a ship this very afternoon that will give you safe passage, but I’m asking: will you help me?”

“I will help you, Orliss. If it wasn’t for you, I likely would not have survived. He’s attacked me twice, and there’s no denying there’s a bond. I felt it. I have to break it, but I don’t know how, and that’s where I’ll need you.

“So, partners then?”

His hand was still resting on her shoulder, and she put her own hand over it.

“Partners.”

******************

They left the cottage empty and set out for the town to buy horses.

Jaika had to admit that in her travels, she’d never met anyone like Orliss. There was more to him than met the eye. He’d been stinking and drunk, and she’d been violent and desperate and frightened out of her wits, and in a few days, they’d become totally different people, though she was still frightened out of her wits.

Her travels up until now had been solitary; she slept when she needed to, ate when she was hungry, and traveled often to the point of exhaustion, wandering, seemingly aimless, but now knowing it wasn’t.

None of what happened to her now seemed coincidental, but she hoped she wasn’t some sort of celestial pawn, even though the darkly divine nature of her encounter was already a factor.

Gods of the forest, is that why you removed your protection? If so, you’ll not find me a willing puppet to your unknown plans.

Chapter 6:

 

   The bargain for horses struck, they rode back on the dirt trail that led to the temple.

“I’ve not seen it in many years. I went as far as the tavern, and it seems the devils were content to leave me be, after they destroyed me.

“Now, that’s not the case.”

They arrived on the temple grounds. It sat in the middle, a circle of smooth walls like an aged, empty turtle shell.

The ivy leaves were beginning to turn with the season, as were the trees, edged with the slightest of red and orange and gold.

We must kill him before winter.

   She stayed at the top of the trail, holding the reins of their horses as they grazed, and Orliss investigated.

There was no way she could bear to go near it right now; it was enough she might have to later.

He peered through the cracks, same as she did, but he didn’t stay long to observe anything, or so Jaika thought, as he walked around it rather quickly for his size.

She wanted to call out, to ask him if he saw anything, but the demon priest might not necessarily be nocturnal.

Orliss stopped, seemed to be thinking of something, then walked toward the back of the temple, but instead of going around again, he walked through the high wild grass.

Jaika only saw trees and weeds. It seemed to her there was nothing to mark it as a path.

Curious, she dismounted, tied off the horses, and went to follow him.

**********************

He was standing at the edge of a cemetery, the stones faded, fallen, and the gates broken. There was a low-lying fog covering the grassy ground, burning off slowly in the mid-morning sun.

She came and stood next to him.

“Who’s here?”

“Most of the people I’ve known.”

“Meralys?”

“No.”

She pressed no further, and let him have his moment, and started to walk back toward the horses.

“Don’t go, Jaika.”

She’d learned that when he called her name, things were different, so she stayed, standing beside him, scanning the mossy, discolored markers.

After a moment, she said “We should be going, Orliss.”

He sighed, and nodded. “There’s just one more thing left to do. Something I should have done years ago.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re going to burn the temple down.”

“Orliss, it’s stone, and there’s nothing in it. You’re not thinking clearly.”

“Oh, stone burns, Jaika. There’re different kinds of fire.”

“You’re talking in riddles.”

“I’m going to bind the spirits in this place.”

She went quiet at that, put some stray strands of hair behind her ear, losing the set of her shoulders, sighing.

“Is this something I should be a part of?”

He turned to face her. His eyes held a tenderness, but also a glimmer of fire.

“You already are.”

“But you’ve burned your books.”

“I’ve help.”

Jaika didn’t want to know, so she asked no more questions.

*********************

He sat on the stained marble bench, and closed his eyes.

Jaika took the quiet time to look around.

The gravestones, faded with age and stained with elements, listed precariously in their slots, all but toppled, the names and dates long obliterated.

The high grass extended all across the plot land, and the mausoleum sat squat and dark, a diseased mushroom full of decay and vermin, a black blot on the green field.

She shuddered. There was something tainted and palpable in the air, like demon breath.

Orliss, some memory tapped, began to chant in a soft voice that pushed against the silence, chipping away at it.

Jaika didn’t know if he was praying, or casting a spell, but either way it looked like he would be a while. She went to check on the horses, and stayed with them to reassure them that their riders were still close by.

She ate a small snack while she waited.

The fog had burned off, and the mild warmth and clear skies of the early afternoon belied the peril they faced, and as the morning lazed into the afternoon, Jaika saw spread through the fading mist where Orliss sat.

The nervous horses whickered and stamped, and Jaika moved out of the range of their hooves. Fighting panic, her hand trembling, she drew her short sword, and went to investigate.

Orliss was where she’d left him, but what was in the light got her attention.

There were people, hundreds, of all ages, standing by their markers, but something about them was very strange.

Jaika realized that their features were just the veneer over their bones, and the wounds and diseases that ravaged them were visible: there were murder victims , their ghastly wounds almost translucent in the afternoon sun.

And of those who were mutilated: she could see their severed limbs flickering where they’d been hacked, the bloody stumps of meat and gore still dripping spectral blood.

Those who’d died of diseases, in childbirth, in accidents, all bore the marks of their passing, she saw the skeletons just underneath the veneer of flesh. The people were buried dressed in their finest formal wear, which was now little more than scraps, hanging like dead creepers from their limbs.

Sunken eyes, missing teeth, swollen tongues, open sores, torn female clothing, bruised faces, tilted heads with rope burns on their necks, and heads of glorious female hair ridden with lice, and small children with smiling mouths full of worms and centipedes pushed back against Orliss’ magic with a palpable malevolence.

He might have been marble himself, though his whiskers flew about him like a halo of tumbleweed, and sweat stains ruined his clean clothes.

Vermin began to appear and tentatively sniff at him, and began to snap at his flesh.

They went right through Jaika, as if she wasn’t there at all.

He flinched, and winced, and gasped, but picked right back up and didn’t stop chanting until, finally, he did.  As he stood, he brushed the vermin from his body with a fell sweep of his arm, and  Jaika gasped as they vanished. It had all been illusion to get him to stop.

A spirit-man came forward, his transparent flesh desiccated, and pointing what was left of his finger at Orliss, he spoke telepathically.

Jaika heard his voice in her head; it sounded like wet, shifting gravel, grating and unpleasant. She bore it for Orliss’ sake.

You should be here among us, priest.

“I know, and I’m sorry, but I’m not.”

We could make it so you are.

   “Or you could tell me where Thonian ran off to fight.”

You name him! Oh, your boldness

  “I’ve no time to sit here preening with you; do you know where he is, or don’t you?”

If we did, we would not tell you, for your magic is weak, and cannot compel us. But it is as you say: we know not where he has gone.

    Why do you disturb us, Orliss?  A woman’s voice was speaking now, as she made her own way to face him. Have any of among us haunted you?

  “No.”

Then why do you seek us?

   “This is my friend Jaika.” He extended his arm in her direction, and their broken eyes followed it to land on her. Jaika tried not to tremble.

” Thonian has marked her for his bride. I cannot allow it, and in the process of stopping him I might…I might be able to…free your souls.

The outburst was immediate, with some opting to pass through him and kill him, and still others to finish hearing what he had to say.

The latter won.

This is a bold claim, from a man whose magic has passed into legend.

“And yet I say it.”

Making no promises!

“But telling the TRUTH! DAMN your obstinate, bitter, foolish minds!”

Along with our souls, you mean? The woman spoke to them both, not unkindly.

Orliss seemed to deflate. “I meant…will you help me find him?”

The staring seemed an eternity.

A breeze stirred, and Jaika gagged on the stench from the risen dead, and held her breath; if either of them said anything now, they would lose their cause.

The two spirits that spoke to Orliss conferred, then walked among the others.

The early afternoon went into the late afternoon by the time the two of them returned.

Yes, Orliss. For the sake of our souls, we’ll be glad to help, but if you fall into the river of doubt, the stream of surrender, your souls are forfeit to us.

   Are we agreed?

   Orliss looked at Jaika, and after considering, she gave him a nod.

“We are,” Orliss said.

Then we take our leave, until tonight.

They slipped back into the ground in clusters, angry at their awakening, but excited to be involved in what could be the ancient land’s new beginning.

© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.

2014

All rights reserved.

Waiting on the World to Change

A few years ago, I heard a song by John Mayer called Waiting on the World to Change, a song about idealistic and virtuous youth waiting for the corrupt and evil aged to die off. The song’s most telling lyric went as follows:

“It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair,

So we keep on waiting for the world to change.”

I thought it rather lightweight  for a protest song. I also thought it was the most naive thing I’d ever heard from a young man who’d traveled the world several times over.

Why would you wait?

Still, it will be interesting to see what unfolds while you do. Here’s why:

The ‘love your brother’ and ‘equality for all’ generation, when they began to experience true competition for resources as a result of their policies to ensure that equality in the 60’s, became the ‘angry white men’ of the 90’s and began working to repeal the very laws they enacted, becoming, in the process, worse sell-outs and hypocrites than they accused their corporate fathers of being in the 50’s.

And the computer, an invention of the Boomer generation which Mr. Mayer is waiting to go the way of the dinosaur, has upped the ante considerably, and taken things globally in an instant.

Today, a segment of the 60’s generation of love, peace, equality and freedom throws rocks at immigrant children, repeals voting laws, advances the aims of the very corporations they once vehemently denounced, and seeks to distance themselves from those who they were once like in the past;  the other segment is permissive and apathetic in their adult responsibilities to the point of letting the country fall into anarchy.

So no, dear young people, you can’t afford to wait on the world to change. You are going to have to wade into the American wasteland, and get blood on your clothes, and get in peoples’ faces, and make unpleasant sacrifices, and make your voices heard. There is seldom a birth of a new thing without some labor pains being involved, and getting stoned like your grandfathers did for most of their first thirty years is not the way to go about it.

I’ve heard the saying: “These kids live in a different world.”

No you don’t; you live in a different time.

Yes, it is a scary, parasitic, greedy, lustful, materialistic, and intimidating time enhanced by constant connections and distractions, and things baying at you for your attention and money, but you are not in a different world; you’re on the same planet, and as far as we know, it’s the only where you can live outside of a clunky spacesuit, and without devices that will keep you from becoming a runaway hot air balloon.

So let me ask you, Mr. Mayer and company:

Can you really afford to spend it waiting?

Will you?

D Generation

pripyat-abandoned-school

The state of education in the US is deplorable.

Now that we’ve stated the obvious, sensei, what’s the solution?

Stop looking for innovative ways to teach students that include the whole child. Teachers must hold parents accountable to see to their own child’s emotional needs, just as parents want to hold teachers accountable for the academics. I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t be involved in their students’ lives at all; by default, they already are, I’m saying there are aspects of the child’s life that are not the teacher’s responsibility, though it seems that increasingly, the circumstances of their students’ lives, regardless of income level, dictate they have to be.

We are now fostering feelings instead of dealing with academics, and consequently the children of today can’t read, write, spell or multiply; America is falling fast on the international front because we no longer treat our children like they have brains capable of being challenged.

Did you ever think you’d see the day America adopts teaching methods from other nations instead of being a leader?

It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. The rich kids are arrogant and selfish, and the poor kids are angry and rebellious, and the teacher has to deal with those two extremes and the spectrum in the middle, teaching to multiple learning types, with special needs kids thrown into the mix.

Administrators must stop being cowed by the fear of potential lawsuits and state, clearly, their policies on bullying, dress codes, class behavior and school citizenship. If it doesn’t come from the TOP DOWN (no pun intended on the dress code), your teachers are adrift with no paddle when trying to enforce these things individually in their classrooms.

“But the culture has changed.” That’s because it was capitulated to and not challenged. I had a student once whose mother was in prison, and had told her daughter: “It’s okay for you to give teachers attitude if they give you attitude.” With her mother’s backing, she proceeded to do the first part, not taking into account the second part, because she had very loose interpretation of teachers “giving her attitude,” which was pretty much “be quiet, sit down, and do your work.” Instead, she was allowed to take class time away from students who were doing exactly that, as well as interrupting lessons with her nonsense.

And when her Mom got out she was all too happy to come in and challenge the school, on more than one occasion, until the district finally had enough and expelled her child, who I guess by now has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is doubtless in jail. I overheard another student tell one, “My dad hates teachers.” Obviously, since she was failing her own classes because of her father’s mindset, they both felt justified when he came in to rant.

Kids I had in sixth grade were getting locked up their first or second year of high school, though I delivered the message over and over again. Another time there was a kid with an alcoholic mom who me and another teacher were finally able to get to who graduated high school early.

And then there was the boy I met in sixth grade who was growing up in a family of nine, determined to be an A student, and well on his way to achieving it.

So what’s my point?

At some point, circumstances cannot be blamed. I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but I didn’t have a lot. What I had was two parents who realized how important exposure to the world beyond the streets of the South Bronx was, and who tolerated no nonsense, even though they weren’t together. I had a mentor who looked out for me, and I had, for the most part, my love of reading to sustain me. At some point, I looked around the decaying neighborhood of my childhood and said, “There is nothing here I want to be a part of,” and so I hit the books.

With my decision came all the accompanying name-calling and bullying, but I was determined and stayed my course. When I left the neighborhood to move to a new one, I never looked back, and I never went back. Recently I pulled it up on Google Earth, and there is less there now than before. The large 5 story pre-war structures are mostly gone, replaced with a one-story project building, and the neighborhood I moved into (another part of the Bronx which was not yet labeled, “South”) which I left after I got married, now has security gates on the building where I lived.

You HAVE to give your children options. Clean your neighborhoods, re-prioritize, organize, meet to advance your child’s education, and not to blame others for dropping what is essentially your responsibility. Yeah, circumstances can be daunting, but they needn’t be overwhelming. You have the power to change things, but if you don’t, who will?

It bothers me that people can’t seem to see the contributions they make to their own imprisonment. My daughter once asked me who would I be if I didn’t have the parents I did. I was honest enough to say that I couldn’t answer that question, because I had those parents, but it didn’t seem like anything complicated they did, or spectacular, or used any kind of pop-culture strategy, they simply did what they were supposed to. I knew my report card was going to be reviewed, and I knew that I couldn’t announce to my family that I was being held back. I knew they would ask me what I had for homework, and I knew that they loved me enough to keep me in line.

As for getting out of the bubble I lived in, the subways and gypsy cabs were available to everyone. I don’t know why more people didn’t take advantage of it, seemingly content to hang out in the neighborhood for the most part. When I got old enough to ride them myself, I did, and went back to revisit those places my parents had taken me, to see them with older eyes and a different view, to walk streets where I was a stranger and sometimes unwelcome, but I needed the reinforcement to stay motivated.

I was fortunate too, that NY was a multicultural mecca, and that Manhattan was the convergence point for all of them. My route usually started at Columbus Circle and went up as far as 125th St to as far down as West 4th St, and sometimes into the South Street Seaport. I met people, and saw things, both good and bad. I observed, and I learned, and I listened.

I was comfortable in Irish bars and Times Square dives that sold cocaine (never got in a bar fight, or robbed, thank God; and no, I didn’t buy any coke. Patrons who did usually wound up with the dealer’s people ‘looking’ for them. Trouble a new father didn’t need, didn’t want, and stayed away from, thank you. In that regard, the South Bronx taught me well all by itself).

As a result, I was comfortable in the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History.

I went to the Apollo and Carnegie Hall and Broadway.

I went to baseball games and ballet performances.

It all shaped who I was, and informed me that there was a better way to live, and a better way to do things. I didn’t achieve a lot of it because I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels in PA (see previous post),  but the awareness of it kept me in pursuit, and as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

Today, it all shapes my writing, probably to a larger extent than even I realize, since I’m finally, for the first time, doing it for me, rather than as an assignment, in my 50’s.

So let’s see what happens with this writing thing….

In summary:

Teachers are NOT the enemy.

YOU are the vanguard of your child’s future.

You can hold the teachers accountable if they don’t do their part, but do yours. 

It matters to your child the most when you do.

Making Warr (Excerpt 1)

My name is Warren, an unassuming name, but you’d be wrong to make assumptions: They call me Warr, because it’s all I’m good at making. And I’m really, really good.

1: The room was stifling, rank with the scent of tangy sweat. Flies crawled through my blood, biting, sipping, itching, but I couldn’t scratch with my hands tied behind my back. My lips and nose were swollen from the blows, and it was hard to breathe around the stifling, stinking gag to get air through my mouth.

The goon had his fingernails pressing into a leg wound, and I snarled, muffling through the gag, tensing against the bonds. “Tell us.” The goon pressed harder. I couldn’t help it, and cried out in pain. He let up, and the relative relief was welcome. We all sat breathing for a time. Sweat trickled into the wounds they’d inflicted, burning.

Telling began to seem like a good idea, but if I did, my squad was all dead, and I was hard pressed to believe these guys would really let me go. Goon took the gag off, looked in my eyes, and grabbed me by the neck, not squeezing, just holding it in his meaty, sweaty hand like a set of keys. The thin man sitting in the chair behind him cleaned his glasses on his tie, looking at me.

“I will ask you one more time. Your life is forfeit if you remain silent, and we will find your squad and kill them all the same.” Somehow, I managed to find a bubble of saliva to help me speak.

“Then why do you need me to tell you?” My voice croaked from my dry throat.

“To save us the time of searching, of course.” “Go to hell.” “You first.” The goon looked in my eyes and head butted me. The stars were beautiful, but the room went dark and I saw them fade like a child’s innocence.

2: When I woke up, the goon and the mastermind were on the floor, surrounded by areolas of blood, and in the chair sat the most lethal, beautiful woman I ever met, trimming her nails, expertly, with the point of a really big knife. Lliya, at times my nemesis, at others, my lover, and sometimes both simultaneously. I had no idea which one was going to kill me, and sometimes, I didn’t think I’d care.

The gag was out, but I was still tied up.

“Good morning, handsome.”

“Is it?”

“Interesting. I thought you’d say ‘Thank you, gorgeous.’”

“Really?”

She stood, walked over to me; I actually felt a little sliver of fear. Looking into my eyes, she put her hand with cool fingers and light pressure, capable of anything, on my swollen cheek

“Say it.”

“Thank you, gorgeous.”

She slinked behind me, untied my wrists, knelt, untied my ankles, her mouth close to my crotch, with a small smile on her lips.

“Having fun?”

She smiled up at me, undoing the last of the knots. Her smile dazzled, her eyes sparkled with erotic mischief.

“My dear Warr, you know I only keep you alive so I can kill you myself. But not like this. Not sporting, and all that crap.” “I agree.” She rubbed my wrists, bringing the stinging tingle of circulation back, then I took care of my ankles.

“Get up, darling.”

I did.

She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”

“Yes, but not at my job.”

She looked back at the dead goon and the mastermind, then back at me, the point of her knife slowly twirling at the corner of her smirking mouth.

“You sure?”

Ouch.

3: It took some time for the swelling to go down. Lliya tried to stay, but that was too volatile a situation. I still remember the kiss she gave me when she left.

Captain Kriley and some of the guys came to see me, debrief me over what the squad accomplished without me, and razzed me hard for getting caught, but praised me for not cracking under the beating I took.

“We’re gonna beat your ass for getting caught, but we’ll wait til you heal.”

“You had to go the bathroom again, didn’t you?”

“Your face still looks like a catcher’s mitt.”

And on it went. I tried not to laugh, because it hurt my ribs, but they had no mercy. Soon, Kriley dismissed them all, sat across from me all serious like.

“Lliya?”

I nodded.

“Yeah.” He sat back, steepled his hands, “I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve recruited her instead.”

“Me too. She said I stunk at my job.”

“You did get caught.”

“First time, Captain.”

He unsteepled his hands, put them in his lap. “True, but sometimes, once is all you need. There’s guys don’t come back from once. You know that. So what should we do now?”

“Let me go after her.”

“What does she know, you need to go after her?”

“Nothing. I like the curve of her backside.”

“You can go all puppy-dog about it on your time. I’m not asking again.”

“She knows who’s behind the killing.”

“She does?”

“Yes.”

“And you know this how? She told you?”

“She set it up.”

“And you know this how?”

“The little man in the wide tie told me. Somehow, she knew we were here, tipped him. I was blindsided,” I touched the swelling behind my ear, “and they got me. The rest of the squad went on without me.”

“Your feelings hurt?”

“Captain, I’m just running the facts by you.”

“Sorry. No more busting your chops. But those aren’t facts. Yet.”

I nodded. “If she knew we were here, how come she didn’t know where we went? She could’ve followed us herself and taken care of it. We never would’ve saw her, or known she was there.”

“Part of the reason I want to go after her.”

“She’s long gone, and we got better things to do.”

He let that sink in, then got up to leave. “Leave it alone, Warr. She’ll mess you up in the head, if she hasn’t already.”

That ship had sailed a long time ago, but I didn’t bother telling him that.

“Feel better,” he said, and walked out.

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

4: Flash! I remember glass breaking and the sound of copters, keen and fast, flying low over the neighborhood, and the sound of rapid shooting. Flash! My wife ran to the window to see what was happening.

Flash! In an instant she became a pile of molten skin, boiling blood, and bone shards, her head plopping on the bed beside me, looking at me with a question in her bloody, sightless eyes.

Flash! Men in black uniforms and helmets with black visors hitting me with sticks and boots and fists.

Flash!    They carried me out, but as I was losing consciousness, I registered it all. People were screaming and running. The confusion was deliberate, and unnecessary. I would have gone quietly had they knocked. Women and children were lying prone in the streets, bleeding out, their husbands’ bodies vainly over them in a futile gesture of protection, family blood mingling in eternal rivulets of unison.

Flash! Tubes in and out, fluids flowing to and fro, in me, out of me, cycling through again, and men in white robes, outside of the plexiglass tank that contained me, talking in hushed tones about what I was to become. I heard them. Every word, but I never told them.

Flash! Tests, chemicals, more tests, more chemicals, straining against tight bonds, pushing, pushing, until they ripped free, and more men in black with sticks came for me. They say seven of them died before they found the tranquilizer that saw me behind thicker plexiglass. I had no idea where I was, or why. I had no clue why they wanted to turn me into a killing machine, but in the end now, it doesn’t matter. Now, they are the ones I hunt.

5: I’d lived in a quiet neighborhood, with good neighbors (mostly), and a good wife. We had no children, because I was mostly on the move, and never knew if I was coming home. I wouldn’t have liked it if Candace left, but I would have understood. She didn’t, and I loved her all the more for it.

We often went to the countryside on weekends, to a cabin I’d built there for us, our little hideaway, where we let ourselves air out the tensions of the week, and left our inhibitions in the car. I liked the mountains that took the sunset into their valleys, liked the silent, circling hawks, majestic in their flying, lethal in their descent. I liked the way the grass rippled like green water when the wind blew across it. I liked that Candace wanted to share it with me. I liked to think that we were happy, before she died.

And then, I didn’t think anymore, about anything that wasn’t my mission: find the insufferable bastards that blew her head off, or die trying.

*******************

Back on the job, still a little bruised up, but I was gonna hurt someone if I didn’t get out of that hospital bed. It was nothing a ballerina couldn’t endure. I was debriefed: we did not find what we were looking for, so we had to keep looking, except now it would involve traveling, which we all hated, so everyone was gonna have an attitude about finding it.

Kriley suspected that Llya tipped them off, but I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she’d do, even though she lived to destroy us. Sometimes, even your enemies had codes of honor they wouldn’t break. And that meant that it was somewhere here, on the squad, working close, with access to plans and supplies, maps and computers, spy equipment, and weaponry.

It was shaping up to be a fun time.

I sighed, sipped coffee, looked at the clock, put the double frame pictures of Candice in the top drawer, sipped some more coffee, watched the clock some more, turning it over. Who could it be? Why would they do it? Money? Too simple, but simple may have been enough.

Revenge? Ambition? Jealousy? Too many questions would lead to me getting paranoid and shifty, and if someone else was thinking about this, I might be the one under scrutiny. I breathed deep to slow everything down, and reviewed what I knew of these guys in my head.

Kriley was by the book, and only by the book. His frustration with the job we did was mostly tied to the fact that everyone else, me included, was only loosely affiliated with the book. We cut corners and took shortcuts and risks, even when it came back to bite us. There wasn’t always time for the book, though Captain Kriley always insisted there was.

Colanto was stand-up too, but too eager to get home to his live-in girlfriend. If she was hoping for wife-hood, she’d be waiting forever. He tended to ditch overtime, and wouldn’t volunteer or take on extra if it wasn’t a direct order. He was a great shot though, and you could rely on him to take it when he needed to, and sometimes when he didn’t, just to expedite things. He was the obvious choice, and in this job, you never overlook the obvious, because very often, that’s what they wanted you to overlook.

Arlo was older, more settled, had seen his share of firefights, and knew what it took to survive. He was still rugged and broad, if a little more gray, but that only gave him more of an aura of authority, which he was not shy about wielding. I would be the most disappointed if it was Arlo who leaked.

Duncan, “Dark Horse” we called him, the quiet one, was the least likely. He never said much, didn’t seem to have a blink reflex, and had an unnerving intensity to be absolutely still, settling in like a big cat on the hunt, seemingly lifeless, blending in, until he was ready to strike.

The results were always lethal, and none of it fazed him. If it was him, he’d give me the most trouble, only because he was such an ex factor.

Lastly there was Eberdine, affectionately called Ed, the lone female on the squad.

She had cinnamon skin, sea-green eyes, and a body that promised heaven, and could send you there in a heartbeat with a blow, a blade, or a bullet to the temple.

She was the smallest, and perhaps, skill for skill, the most covert among us, hiding in places you wouldn’t think to look, coming back to you with information you swore was confidential, and knew there were no witnesses. She enjoyed it. “Keeps me sharp,” she always said. If she was the leak,

I was going to have a hard time catching her, and who knew how long that would take.

Tonight, He said, one of you will betray me. I learned that somewhere. It was heavy with foreshadow, simple and fearful, with a heartfelt agony of broken trust behind it, a sense of inevitability, and unmatched bravery in the way the victim stayed the course.  

6:  The conference room was big, manfully appointed, and too cold from the canned air that blew threw the inconspicuous vents overhead. The large monitor in the front of the room held the image of man with his face in deep shadow, track lighting glinting off the silver letters on the marbled black granite wall behind him:

STEELE INDUSTRIES       

“Were we compromised?” Shadow-face asked. “No sir,” Kriley answered. “Commander Warren didn’t break, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.”

He didn’t exactly throw me under the bus, he just kind of tossed me underhand. “Commander Warren. What have you to say for yourself?”

“I’m….sorry?” The squad chuckled, but Shadow-face wasn’t amused.

“Yes,” he said, “you are.”

That brought an even bigger chuckle; first Lliya, now Shadow-face. I had to learn not set myself up.

“The mission, sir?” Kriley said, mercifully switching the conversation back to its original purpose.

Shadow-face sat silently for a moment or two. “You will proceed to Nanjasi, sans Commander Warren.”

“Sir?”

“He is suspended, effective immediately. He compromised the safety of the squad, and has become a liability.”

“But sir,” said Kriley, “he’s one of our best all around tactics operatives; I could really use him in the field. Would you reconsider, sir?”

“I already have,” said Shadow-face. “I was going to fire him, effective immediately. Meeting adjourned, Captain. You and the rest of the squad will leave for Nanjasi first light. Sans Commander Warren. “Am I clear?”

Kriley’s jaw twitched with the unsaid.

“Crystal, sir.”

The monitor winked out. He looked at me. “You’re on vacation. Where will you go?”

“I’ve always wanted to see…Nanjasi.”

“You think this guy was born yesterday? He’s probably already got tails on you.” Kriley was right.

“And no,” he said, “you will not spot them, and no again, you will not shake them.” Right again.

“You done with your vote of confidence?”

“I am.”

I left, but I didn’t go home. Not right away. Not for awhile. I went to find Lliya, but I didn’t go after her. Not directly.

“Ed, where would a woman go if she didn’t want to be found?”

“Well, certainly not the bedroom.”

I flashed a phony smile, nodded. “Good. Now where?”

“Shopping, a chick flick, lesbo book store, feminist AA meeting. Why do you wanna know?”

“I’m looking for a woman.”

Ahem.”

“Not in that way.” “Well, now I’m insulted.”

“Hey, you said not the bedroom…”

She arched a playful eyebrow:  “It’s not the only room…”

“Come on, now.” I pleaded, chuckling.

“Okay, okay,” she was smiling herself. “She doesn’t want to be found?”

I nodded.

“Women don’t disappear not to be found; they wouldn’t go off to a cabin somewhere in East Loserville to get away from the Mister. They go somewhere to think, to calm down, to get past the emotions.”

“Where would that be?”

“A park, a coffee shop, somewhere public where she could be alone among people, because she’s afraid she’ll act out if she’s wrong upstairs. So there’s someone there to call for help.

“With me?”

“Yes. Learning.”

“Indeed,” she said. “Glad to hear it. Know where to start?”

I thought about it.“No.”

“Should I come with? I’ll ditch you when we’ve found her.”

“Sure. Thanks. Why’s your name so damn weird?”

“I changed it to Eberdine. It was actually weirder.”

She laughed at my expression. “Let’s go find your killer girlfriend.”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

We walked, arm in arm, off to start my vacation, looking for a woman that didn’t want to be found.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

March 3rd

2014 All rights reserved

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