Socially Secure

Dave was looking forward to spending a week in California, for the first time in several years. His grandmother had held on to life through her 101st birthday, and it was only right to pay tribute to the fact in person.

Dave himself had started life in California but, upon reaching adulthood and the consequential demands of the State of California Franchise Tax Board, he decided to become a tax refugee elsewhere. Over the years he lived in various states on the eastern seaboard until finally landing in Florida, like many aging consultants. The only disadvantage to living 2500 miles away from the remains of his extended family was the need to occasionally travel across the country any time he wanted to see them. Truth be told, although he liked seeing his family, but it was much better were it to be infrequent.

So when Gram cut another notch on her yearly belt, it was time for him to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s. Gram was the last living relative in Dave’s direct line older than he. Both of his parents had died in their 70s, prematurely he felt, but the remaining field was pretty empty except for him. There were living younger siblings, but Dave wasn’t truly ready to become the oldest living relative in their family. So a trip was in order, if for nothing more than to encourage the old girl to keep on persisting.

During the last year, Gram had to move from her own home, where she had lived alone, to a managed care facility due to one fall too many. It had been a hard transition for her to go from being able to do whatever she wanted in her own time, to sharing a room with another resident on an institutional schedule. Still, the adjustment was necessary if she expected to live much longer. The fact she was in a nursing home, however nice and well managed, contributed to the non-specific guilt Dave felt along with a sense of obligation.

Gram wasn’t able to spend much more than an hour or two in a visit before tiring, which also created a dilemma for the grandson traveling cross-country. By the time he arrived at her door, he would have been traveling over ten hours, combining the flight and drive from the airport. It didn’t make sense economically, to make the effort solely for a single two-hour visit. He thought the situation over and came up with a solution. He would center his travels on where Gram lived, but see her every other day for a week. The extra day would provide a chance for her to rest, and him the opportunity to recount stories of his travels about the state on the off-day.

Dave had relatives both north and south; it shouldn’t be too hard to arrange to see them. In fact, in recent years Dave had reestablished contact with one of his peer cousins, Becky Saunders, on social media. She and her brother Steve were witty participants in the everyday social media whirl of relatives. Many were the times something Becky or Steve posted would bring a huge smile to Dave’s face.

Thinking back, Dave realized the last time he had actually seen Becky was during his high school years. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember ever meeting the older brother Steve. He must have done so, as Dave and Becky were classmates in third grade, but Steve simply wasn’t there in memory. Steve’s online sense of humor was wry, witty, and subversive – exactly what Dave enjoyed in others. Becky’s humor was similar, but the two siblings each used the other as a foil when making their posts. They lived together in Sacramento, as Steve’s health was occasionally suspect and he needed help.

Dave’s memories of Becky were of the beautiful smart cousin who seemed more cultured than her farm country cousins. She even took violin lessons, rather than the normal band instruments more common to Dave’s family. In addition, Becky’s mom always served ice cream when the get-togethers were at her home, which was a huge point-getter in Dave’s childhood rankings.

No, it would be fun to see her once more, after all it had been more than 45 years and it wasn’t likely Dave would have another chance any time soon. He planned to take them out to lunch and provide the ice cream this time. It didn’t occur to Dave the planned visits might not be welcomed, the Saunders family had a long history of simply dropping in to visit relatives whenever they were close by, but Dave wasn’t planning to do that.

Accounting for the difference in time zones, Dave sent an email to Becky asking if she and Steve would be available for lunch on Thursday of his travel week. Dave wasn’t expecting any issues, if they were actually there, the normal Saunders family answer to such a request was always expected to be an enthusiastic “Yes!” Dave spent the next several days planning for hotels and sufficient lead time to drive from one place to the other, before he realized he hadn’t heard from Becky.

Checking his social media page, he saw she had been online within the last 8 hours. Perhaps she didn’t get his email, sometimes Dave’s emails would be relegated to spam folders due to his dodgy, but reasonably priced, server provider. It would probably pay to check in using another avenue of communication, so Dave sent a quick text message using the social media platform.

“Hi Becky, I sent an email which you might not have gotten regarding a trip I’m planning to your area. I wanted to see if you and Steve were available on Thursday for lunch so we can all catch up. Let me know and I’ll make plans accordingly, Love Dave”

There, he thought, that should get through without any hiccups!

After several hours, Becky made a cryptic response. “Dave, I got the email. I was planning to respond but things got away from me. I’ll send something by tomorrow. Love, Becky.”

What the hell is this? It was a very strange response to his request, if Becky and Steve weren’t available he’d be disappointed but he would understand. People are busy and have their own lives.

Dave kept an eye out for Becky’s reply the next day and ran to read it when it arrived.

“Davey, how wonderful you get to come to California to visit. I didn’t answer you right away because I have been trying to decide how to phrase my answer. The short version is, I don’t know. The long version is much more complicated. Two things I don’t seriously discuss on social media: Steve’s physical health and my mental health. Steve has serious bouts with diverticulitis and back problems. That is part of my reason for living here with him. My own problems are the rest of the reason I live with him. I have had several nervous breakdowns/suicide attempts in my lifetime. I have a severe anxiety disorder that makes social life painful at best, panic-ridden at worst.

Don’t get me wrong. I would love to see you, but I know that I might also back out at the last minute. I tend to overthink and frighten myself into a “tharn” state of mind. (Watership Down reference)

So, can I think about it and get back to you?

With gratitude for your understanding, your loving and crazy cousin, Becky”

Dumbfounded, Dave read the email. In some ways he had known about some of Becky’s previous issues, but in the way of large inclusive families, the actual details had always been of secondary import. One of her sisters had taken her own life, years ago, but Dave hadn’t known her all that well. As he sat thinking about it, he realized he didn’t know Becky very well either. After some additional thought, he sat down and wrote out a reply.

“No worries, actually I was coming to that area mostly to see you and Steve. Don’t feel pressured by it however, as it is the result of me making a list of people I would want to visit before I cash in my chips. I’m not being morbid, no known ailments to speak of, just being reflective; it occurred to me a while back that I hadn’t seen you in more than 40 years. I enjoy interacting with you two online and wanted to do so live. I don’t really remember Steve from childhood, so with him it would be filling in blanks. I have other relatives in Redwood City too.

I laughed when you said tharn, I knew exactly what it was without a reference. I’ve had it on occasion myself (which really plays havoc when you need to interact on business), going tharn. Lost some great girlfriends in the day when they saw it. It doesn’t happen often anymore, I don’t surprise as easily, but the over-thinking aspect of it does. My brain never stops scenario analysis, ever. But I try to take more risks these days, not for the sake of it, but because it doesn’t matter as much.

I’ll play it by ear, I’m getting a rental car with unlimited mileage so could easily be there. Thank you for sharing the below, I didn’t know the back-story, it must have been hard to relate.

I’ll keep you updated on when I’ll be in the area, and leave it to you. I’ll understand either way, because it could easily have been me.

Love, Dave”

There, he thought to himself, I’ll reach out once more when it is closer to the date and see what comes of it. Dave did have other things he could do in the area, and he thought being there might provide enough pressure to break through any block Becky might be having. Getting a big hug from a long lost relative didn’t have to be a stressful experience, did it?

The other arrangements proved to be much easier to settle, as the other relatives were happy to open their schedules to accommodate the visit, the challenge was going to be doing all the driving. Gram lived in Santa Maria, California which was located close to the coast midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Dave planned to fly into Los Angeles, and immediately make the drive to Santa Maria, staying in a nearby hotel. The next day, he would spend quality time with Gram, and afterwards drive north towards Sacramento. He didn’t plan to go the whole distance, just far enough to where the next morning drive would be reasonable and arrive in Sacramento before lunch.

Dave tried to put the whole episode out of his mind for the next few weeks, as there was little point in over-thinking it. However the unsettled gap in his trip schedule kept returning to nag at his peace of mind. Several days before the trip, he reached out once more.

“Here we go, my promised update. I still plan to head up your way, for the day Thursday. Let me know if you and/or Steve feel up to a free lunch. I’m going to be there regardless; at a minimum I will visit the Sacramento area murder scenes from my new book, take some pictures, etc. I’m thinking it will add some oomph or human interest to the website marketing.

Call or send me a text on the day of or before, and we’ll take it from there.

I would love to see you, but no pressure!

Love, Dave”

Several hours passed before his computer chimed notification of a new email. Becky’s response was brief.

“At this point, unlikely. Steve has had a bad diverticulitis episode. He is still pretty weak. Where are your murder sites? I hope they are fictional.”

Dave had written a long-winded thriller which was set in the twenty largest metropolitan areas in the United States, as referenced, one of the murders occurs in Sacramento purely by coincidence. Dave used online satellite imagery to identify local geographical details for use in his story. He felt describing an existing place would add an extra level of interest for the book, after all it always worked for him as a reader. He was planning to take a number of photos to use for the website promotional text, and if Becky truly didn’t want to be seen, he could find other things to do while he was there.

At no time, however, did he consider calling off that portion of his itinerary, Becky might change her mind if she knew he was already there. One great thing about social media was the ability to check in with location information, maybe he could post a picture of an eatery close to where they lived. Dave had their address because he had sent a copy of his previous book to them before. Becky wrote excellent thoughtful reviews and Indie authors value those highly.

Setting the issue aside, Dave turned his attention to the logistics of making the trip. Two days later he was on a morning flight to Los Angeles. The best thing was the travel direction worked with the time zones to render a two hour differential, arriving in the morning in spite of the five-hour flight. The rental car pickup went well, and an hour after Dave landed he was stuck in LA traffic on the road to Santa Maria. As always, he needed to make the adjustment from the relatively relaxed driving style of a Florida beach town to the high-pressure environment of Southern California. It was a paradox Dave felt safer in the high-pressure setting which boasted better drivers, than the one with slow retirees driving late model land-whale vehicles. In Florida, you weren’t sure the driver behind you was going to stop until they actually did so.

The three hour drive went by quickly, driving up the scenic coast from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, turning inland for several miles at Gaviota Beach into the gem of a valley which held Santa Maria. Dave wasn’t scheduled to call upon his Gram until the next morning, but he drove by the facility to get an idea of how to best arrive. Then he went to the hotel in time for the happy hour free drink special.

The next day came quickly and morning went fully as expected. The extra care of the previous day paid off when Dave checked Gram out for lunch at her favorite local restaurant. He parked the car next to a facility exit and helped her traverse the last few feet to the car. Gram couldn’t move without a standup walker, but she was motivated to get to her restaurant. Gram had been going to the same restaurant for over twenty years, the staff knew her very well and always made a big fuss when she was able to come in.

“So, Davey, what are your plans for the next few days,” she asked.

Dave quickly ran through his itinerary, paying special attention to the time he would be spending with her. He talked a little about cousin Becky and how odd a situation he found it to be. The Saunders branch of the family had ever been known as welcoming and non-judgmental, Becky’s responses just didn’t compute.

“You’re still planning to go up there, right?” Gram asked.

“Yes, I have some pictures to take and she still might change her mind. If she is suicidal or depressed I don’t want to put any more pressure on her, so I thought I would just make it clear I was there.”

“Yes, but that approach only makes sense to someone who isn’t depressed, Dave. If she is deep into it, she probably has a hard time finding the energy to use the restroom, let alone getting gussied up to meet someone she hasn’t seen in forty years. Does she have any recent pictures of you?”

“Yes, I put up a few on the social media site. She has posted a few as well, meeting with other relatives I might add.”

“How well has she aged, Dave?”

“Not too bad, I would recognize her on the street, she looks a lot like her older sister and mother used to when I was young. She’s put on weight, and isn’t the slender long-haired flower child she was in her youth, but shoot, I’m not the captain of the swim team anymore either!”

“Yes, but as these things go, you still look pretty good for your age group, don’t you?”

“I not happy about the lack of hair or the extra ten pounds, but I don’t feel too bad about it.”

“I know a little bit about depression, Dave. If she feels her look has suffered and is depressed on top of it, she might want to be a shut-in and not see anyone,” Gram stated. “Fetch me some more salsa, would you?”

“Sure, here you go,” Dave said. “Gram, I don’t care what she looks like, none of that would stop me from giving her a big hug when I see her. Plus she has helped me a lot with her reviews of my books. I also admit to feeling bad I don’t remember Steve at all, I hoped to get to the bottom of it when I met him. My memory has been so good for so many years it is hard to accept I might simply have forgotten him.”

“You might, then, want to consider simply dropping by; don’t give her time to stress or think too much about it. Bring a present, chocolates are usually best, everyone likes chocolates! Once you’re there, she will see it really wasn’t something to worry about, but leaving it to her to think about on her own might not get her off the dime.”

“I hate popping-in on people, I tried it once or twice in my youth and decided it wasn’t for me.”

“If you really want to see her, you’re going to have to make an exception. Think about it, you’re going to be there anyway. Now, what should I get for dessert?” Gram turned to the menu with relish even though she knew it all by heart.

True to expectation, Gram ran out of energy after visiting two hours, and getting her back to her shared room took the last of it. She was able to use her walker without any incidents, which was amazing in itself for someone 101 years old. Dave signed her back in with the residence staff and, as he passed her room on the way out, he saw she was already preparing to take a nap.

Getting back into his trusty rental car, Dave set course for a hotel in Los Banos. On the long drive, he thought over Gram’s words, which made even more sense as he reflected. He didn’t really understand clinical depression, but knew Gram had bouts of it herself during his childhood. In her case, it was mostly caused by being a deeply religious person stuck within a bad marriage. Her health had miraculously improved when her husband passed away.

Putting the topic of depression aside, a decision would be made when Dave arrived on-site. At a minimum, he would do a drive-by of their home to see how they were living. He’d have to get some gift chocolate first, however. Gram would like to have the chocolate herself, if he decided not to drop in on Becky and Steve. Chocolate in Dave’s family was rarely, if ever, wasted.

The hotel in Los Banos was surprisingly good, and it even had a Starbucks located on the way back to the freeway, to hit for breakfast on the way out. Dave sat down with his laptop and looked over satellite images of the area surrounding Becky and Steve’s house. It was a modest single family home, looking to be a three bedroom, one or two bath, with a single car garage. In short, it appeared similar to any number of small ranch-style homes in California. Dave found a shopping mall close by their home and mapped a course for the next day’s drive. He would take the time to swing by his fictional murder sites and get photos, before deciding what to do about seeing Becky.

Just to be fully transparent, Dave made sure to update his social media status, saying he was in route to the Sacramento area and would be there the next morning. Checking Becky and Steve’s status, he saw they had been up to their usual banter within the last few hours. Perfect!

The next morning went much according to plan, just as Dave preferred. He had always taken good-natured ridicule from family members concerning the extent of his planning, but his life was smooth running compared to the rest of them. It was a trade Dave would make anytime, given the amount of unnecessary drama which constituted the lives of those making the observations.

The murder sites proved to be perfect for the book promotion web pages, and Dave snapped many photos to be reviewed later. From there it was a short hop to a shopping mall and obtaining a small gift box of boutique chocolates. It was a beautifully clear May day in Sacramento.

Today is so splendid it would be difficult to stay depressed, Dave thought, no better time to foist myself on relatives.

Feeling somewhat apprehensive, in spite of his preparations, Dave rehearsed what he planned to say when Becky opened the door. As he pulled into the neighborhood, there were children playing games in the street. When Dave was a child there weren’t any nearby parks in the area, so the street was the only decent flat open surface available. These kids had a city park around the corner, but here they were, playing on old asphalt in front of their homes.

Parking on the street, he saw an old pickup truck parked in Becky’s driveway. Looking closer, it had three flat tires and there was yard debris distributed around them, indicating the truck hadn’t moved in quite some time. It was parked squarely in front of the single-car garage, so if there was another car it hadn’t been out of the garage in a long while. The mailbox bin next to the front door was full of junk mail, and it too hadn’t been accessed recently.

Dave stepped up to the door, and knocked firmly several times. The door bell was missing a button and there was a disconnected wire sticking up, which indicated a lack of function. There was no responding sound from inside the house. Dave expected there would be some barking by their dog Buster, which he had seen online many times. Buster was supposed to be a fierce protector of the front door, but right now there was complete silence.

Dave knocked again, unwilling to accept there was no one home. Dave heard nothing but the sounds of the children down the street. On impulse, Dave set down the chocolates and, using his mobile phone, accessed the social media site. Oddly enough, Becky had posted another one of her old family pictures, not five minutes ago! Quickly, Dave posted a reply to her note, “Becky, where are you right now?”

Several minutes later, her reply was posted. “At home, where else would I be?”

“I’m at your front door in Sacramento, I’ve been knocking for the last ten minutes. I’ve come bearing chocolates!” Dave waited for a few minutes and the post was not answered. In fact Becky signed off and was no longer online.

This is bullshit! I wonder what the hell is going on? Dave picked up the chocolate then walked around the house to see if there were any other signs of life, but there was not. Something clearly was out of order here, perhaps Becky and Steve had moved somewhere which required less upkeep but, if so, no one had been told.

Dave was slowly working his mind around to investigating if there was a way into the house. He walked up to the back door, which had a dog door inset but also looked as though it hadn’t been used for a while. The dog door was secured, but Dave recognized the design and knew how to open it from the outside. A blocking insert was ejected into the house and Dave looked through the dark opening, unsure of what would greet his eyes.

The home was completely without artificial illumination, but Dave could faintly make out a kitchen area which looked unused and covered in dust. A small kitchen table looked as though it had a layer of dirt, the dust was so thick. Making a decision, Dave reached in with his arm and unlocked the back door.

He entered the house, which was totally silent except for his footsteps. He jumped as the refrigerator compressor noisily kicked on and started running. Dave opened the refrigerator door, where he found mostly empty space and nothing which appeared to be recent or edible. He opened the cupboards; they too were empty but for scattered rodent pellets and dust.

“Becky? Steve?” He called to no avail. It was strange, the electricity was on as well as the gas for the cook-top, yet the home seemed otherwise abandoned. There was water in the faucet, but brown as though it hadn’t been run in a while. Walking through the entire home, he found old dusty furniture and empty space. The bedrooms had beds without linens, one closet had dusty women’s clothes, and another held men’s. There was a rusty dog crate in one corner of what was presumably Becky’s room, but it was dust-covered as well, holding a sad water dish which was completed dried out. No Becky, no Steve, and no Buster. Checking out the main bathroom, the toilet had a ring which indicated it hadn’t been flushed in some time. The bathtub had a strange stain ring about six inches from the bottom, but also appeared otherwise unused.

Dave began to panic, wondering what he had gotten himself into. He turned hurriedly and decided to leave the house behind. The home didn’t show obvious signs of mayhem, but it was clear something wasn’t right. Dave didn’t plan on being one of those people who stand around something like this waiting for a sign from above. Better to get the hell away and talk to the authorities. Let the police sort it out!

Making sure he didn’t touch anything else, Dave took a towel, which had seen better times, and used it to wipe the dog-door handles as well as the door knob. Kneeling down from outside, he replaced the dog door panel, then stood back to inspect the results. He was breathing heavy, as if his body knew something his mind did not, sweating bullets even though the morning itself wasn’t warm.

Dave heard a twig snap suddenly behind him, then a baseball bat, hitting his head, punctuated the last conscious thought.

Sometime later, Dave awoke lying on his back in a strange position. His arms were secured to his torso by what appeared to be plastic zip ties, his legs were bound together in a similar fashion as well.  Craning his neck around, he determined he had been deposited into the dirty ringed bathtub inside Becky’s house. His mouth was gagged by a towel, his stomach heaved when he considered it might be the same dirty towel he had used earlier. Trying to get some leverage, Dave flexed his body to get out of the tub, making some small noises which sounded very loud in the silent house. Dave stopped struggling, as he heard approaching footsteps from down the hall.

“Ah, Dave, you’re awake. I was beginning to think I hit you too hard, which wouldn’t have been optimal,” A male voice said with a promise of violence in his tone.

Dave couldn’t see the door where the man stood, and didn’t recognize the voice. He tried to turn his head around but wasn’t able to see the man.

“Rude of me to stand behind you, here, I’ll come around,” A middle-aged man with graying black hair came fully into Dave’s field of vision and, closing the toilet lid sat down upon it. His nondescript body argued for having been fit once, before aging turned the conditioning into something softer but still strong. There was nothing soft, however, about the dark brown eyes which regarded Dave dispassionately.

“Dave, you just couldn’t take no for an answer, could you?”

Dave tried to reply, but the gag effectively made it unintelligible.

“I’m going to remove your gag, so we might have a small conversation. Obviously, if you shout or create any other disturbance, I’ll have to take steps to deal with it. Nod your head if you understand me? Good!” The man stood and efficiently removed the gag from Dave’s mouth then sat back down on the closed toilet.

Dave worked his mouth for a few seconds, trying to get his saliva running once more. Finally he managed a weak croak, “Who are you and what happened to my cousins?”

“Don’t you recognize your dear cousin Becky? I know it’s been a long time but I would know you anywhere, Dave.”

“You’re not Becky! Wait, are you Steve?”

“No, I’m not Steve. Actually, I am their helpful next-door neighbor Reggie in one sense, and in another much more lucrative way I am both of them.”

“What did you do, kill them and assume their identities?”

“It isn’t as simple as that; Steve died of natural causes several years ago. I had been helping Becky care for him, doing the things which required a bit more muscle around the house. Becky and I had by then formed a relationship of sorts, mostly physical. You had one lusty cousin, I can testify to it personally. One night we had a particularly loud session in her bedroom, and the next morning Steve was dead in his own bed. From what I could tell, he must have had a seizure while we were otherwise engaged. Becky was completely distraught, as she couldn’t afford to continue living in the home without Steve’s military pension. After giving it some thought, I suggested we dispose of Steve secretly and maintain the fiction of him being alive. We didn’t kill him, after all. Eventually she came around, and I disposed of the body.”

“Wouldn’t someone, one of his friends, have noticed?” Dave asked.

“No. As it turns out, he communicated with all of his friends by email and social media. These days, when telephone calls are finally mostly toll-free, people don’t call. Becky helped craft Steve’s responses to emails, and you’ve seen the results online. He is even one of your social media friends and you don’t remember ever meeting him.”

“What about the pension authorities? Wouldn’t they notice?”

“No, they work off of death certificates or informants. There aren’t enough of them to keep track of all of the recipients. We kept his bank accounts online, pay bills in his name, file tax returns accurately and on-time; you get the idea. Becky kept up the charade until I got a feel for it and began to do most of the work myself.”

“What happened to Becky?”

“I didn’t kill Steve, but I did help Becky on a little bit. About a year ago, she got sick herself, so much so she lost all interest in our other activities. That’s when it occurred to me Becky was receiving a social security check in addition to Steve’s pension, why wouldn’t I be able to collect both checks myself? Up until then, Becky had been banking the proceeds herself and primarily showing her gratitude in the bedroom. I learned a few things from disposing of Steve, and resolved to lace her herbal tea with a little something extra. It worked splendidly, I disposed of the body, maintained the normal cash flow through their accounts and acquired a nice little income stream for myself. Both of them were textbook shut-ins, everyone who wants to see them is usually warned off with stories of diverticulitis and clinical depression. That is, until you showed up today,” Reggie said.

“People know I’m here, they’ll ask questions and investigate. You should let me go, take what you’ve acquired, and depart for parts unknown ahead of the police.”

“It is more complex, Dave. Since Becky and Steve met their respective ends, I’ve found a large number of similar elderly people who have few personal attachments. It is amazing how fast you can identify them, working as a volunteer helping shut-ins. I gain their trust and loyalty, then implement the same scenario. It’s a full-time job, working all of the emails, bank accounts, and social media, to maintain the fiction of their continued existence. In the meantime, the deposits continue to come in. So, as you might understand, I’m not quite ready to walk away from it just yet.”

“I won’t tell anyone, I’ll even help keep it going. Just let me go,” Dave pleaded.

“I wish I could trust you with it, Dave,” Reggie held up something in his hand. “Tell me, what is the swipe code to open your phone?”

Dave sat in shock, working towards something, anything, which would result in him surviving the day, decided to cooperate and told him.

“Thank you, very helpful. Let’s see, mmm, you’re currently logged into social media and email. Great, let’s change your passwords to something I’ll remember, very good. Tell me, Dave, do you bank online from your phone?”

Dave recognized his life was already lost and began to scream for help. Reggie set the phone down and deliberately drew what appeared to be a surgical scalpel across Dave’s neck in one clean movement. The blood began pumping out and ran down his body towards the drain.

Reggie bent over and placed a stopper in the tub drain. “I learned a lot from Steve, then Becky. It is best to let the body soak into a lye bath for several weeks. It keeps the smell down too, except for lye. I’ll wait until you’re gone before pouring the lye solution in, but you should make your peace now, Dave.”

Dave struggled against his bonds, as life pumped out onto his chest before him. His breath air gurgled through the cut as he tried to speak once more, perhaps in denial, or perhaps a curse. Before long his mind became dizzy and he went away for good.

Humming a small tune to himself, something sang by a group of merry dwarves in a Disney film, Becky/Steve/Dave/Reggie poured lye solution into the tub once more, careful to not splash any upon himself.

All rights reserved (C) 2018 D. M. Kalin

Auntie Lu’s Death Ride

Allen got the text informing him of his cousin Diane’s death as he slept. It was waiting for him to awaken, starting his day with bad news, even before the morning cup of coffee which transforms one back into a human being. Allen was shocked, Diane was two years older than he, but growing up it had seemed like even less. As adults they weren’t especially close, but on the other hand both would always find a reason to sit down and catch up, whenever either of them came within range. Allen lived on the East Coast, but had grown up on the West. Diane hadn’t left the home turf.

Both cousins were in their early 60s, from a family which reliably managed to live into their 80s. Allen sent a text back to his brother Simon, asking for details concerning the memorial service. He decided the first order of business was to start the coffee, before going back through the scant trail which had led to the announcement.

Going onto Diane’s social media pages, he could see posts for her business had continued as normal, one as recent as the previous day. There was nothing to be concluded from that source of information, she could have scheduled running the ads months earlier. Her personal pages were completely empty of any reference to illness, although she hadn’t posted anything in over a week, which was rare.

Allen knew of a friend of hers, with an online profile, so he ventured over to Samuel’s page. Ah, the mother lode, Allen thought. From Samuel’s page, the details surrounding Diane’s death became much more clear. She had come down sick with something which looked like flu and spent more than 10 days in intensive care before finally succumbing. She had entered the emergency room with pneumonia and with treatment almost immediately went comatose.

Thinking over the timeline, Allen realized she must have gotten sick on the road trip with Auntie Lu, which was to have concluded just before Diane’s admittance into the hospital. Auntie Lu, every year or so, would gather up a group of relatives to go camping or on a road trip. Generally the trips took less than two weeks, and spanned the entirety of the Western United States. Allen wondered if anyone else on the trip had fallen sick, there was a national outbreak of flu which threatened to overwhelm hospitals, but like her death there was little information as to what had occurred.

He also didn’t understand why no one had bothered to tell him Diane was in the hospital or sick in the first place. She normally was in regular contact with him via text or social media.

As Allen sat drinking his coffee and wondered what had actually happened, he remembered something else. Several years earlier, Allen and Simon’s mother had gone on the trip with Auntie Lu for the first time, without her husband who had died the previous year. On the way home, their mother had collapsed for reasons unknown. When the doctor eventually investigated the potential cause, an aggressive brain tumor was found. The team of doctors struggled to get ahead of the cancer, but it was buried too deep. Allen’s mother had died within three months of her return.

Offhand and jokingly, Allen thought he didn’t want to be traveling anytime soon with Auntie Lu. Then he remembered another trip years earlier, after which another relative had died prematurely. Maybe the joke wasn’t really funny after all.

During the entirety of Allen’s life, Auntie Lu’s trip had been a big deal. As a child, being one of about 20 first cousins, getting selected to come along was something they had all wanted. It didn’t matter where they went, it would still be a large group, and cover upwards of a thousand miles by the time it was over. Usually the travelers would be split 50-50 between adults and minor children. Allen thought back on the three times he had ridden along, remembering the explosive laughter which always followed the punch-line of whatever dirty joke Auntie Lu was telling at the time. They would all pile into two rental vans, ten to fifteen people, and hit the road. Typically, there would be two days of travel and motels, three days of camping and two days to finally return home.

As Allen thought back, there were often episodes of illness on the trip. Some people would get car sick, and after a few days there would always be colds or the flu. There generally was a good explanation, such as the fact camping in tents when it rains is not very comfortable. During the camping phase, bathing also wouldn’t happen very much and the food itself had the chance to turn on you. Allen wouldn’t eat the mayonnaise after the first couple of days, even when he was a child. But the entire group always had a great time and no-one had ever turned down a chance to go.

When Allen was a child, he never really paid attention to how people were related to him. There were so many relatives, who could keep them all straight?  Allen didn’t even try to do so, basically taking the word of whatever known relative was speaking on the topic. As he thought it over, he couldn’t really pin down how Auntie Lu was related to himself. Everyone called her “Auntie Lu” and Allen had always assumed she had to be some far removed cousin or great aunt, since she wasn’t the sibling of either of his parents. They had called her “Auntie Lu” themselves when they were alive. Allen wondered why he had never thought about the topic before, but it hadn’t really mattered very much.

Allen waited until the West Coast had time to rise and drink their own coffee before calling his brother Simon.

“Hey, Simon, Allen here. What’s the story on Diane?”

“Hi Allen, I wondered about it as well. I only found out myself last night, and thought you would already be asleep so sent the text.”

“I wonder why the relatives didn’t say anything? I went online and saw her friends had posted some information during the whole thing, but our relatives didn’t say a word. Normally those morons are the first to organize a prayer meeting when someone catches a sneeze. I have to say they found a way to lower the bar of my regard for them even more, which I didn’t think was possible.”

“I don’t understand it either. Shoot, I live here in the area and no one even told me she was in a coma. I was told she died, via text message from her phone by one of her kids.”

“So there is no information on a funeral or arrangements? I kind of need to know if I have time to get there, takes at least a day of travel.” Allen said.

“Nothing was said one way or the other. Maybe you should call Auntie Lu.”

“Yeah, I will. About Auntie Lu, how are we related to her again?”

“Huh, I don’t really know. I thought she was maybe the sister of our grand-dad. Now I think about it, I don’t know where I got the idea. I know she was connected to someone in Mom’s family. Maybe we should ask Cousin Barbara, she does all of the genealogy stuff. I never got into it myself. Why are you asking?”

“I never got into the genealogy myself. I’m asking because it struck me as a strange coincidence people die after going on Auntie Lu’s road trips. I was joking we ought to call it Auntie Lu’s Death Ride. In all the years I can remember, I can’t think of one time Auntie Lu got sick herself.” Allen observed.

After a pause while Simon thought it through, “You know, I can’t either. You’d think she would have at least had an upset stomach with all the barfing the twins used to do.”

“Yeah, the twins still barf too much, remember when they were both pregnant and had morning sickness together? I don’t know, maybe it is all a coincidence and something you get when a widely mixed age group gets together. If there were health problems, maybe the trip just makes it more apparent. Diane was only two years older than me, though, and seemed pretty healthy the last time I saw her.”

“Same here, I had dinner with her about a month ago. She had lots of plans for her new business, and didn’t mention any health problems at all. Look, I’ll see what I can find out here and get back to you with anything new. If you call Auntie Lu, why don’t you loop back with me if you learn something.”

“I will, thanks for letting me know as fast as you did, the surprise hit me pretty hard. You just don’t expect to lose someone that way, of course it would be bad no matter how it happened. Take care of yourself!”

“You too, and stay off of Auntie Lu’s Death Ride!” Simon joked as he hung up the phone.

While he had the phone out, Allen pulled up his cousin Barbara’s number and dialed.

“Hi Barbara, it’s your cousin Allen. First, did you get the news about Diane?”

“Hi Allen, no, I didn’t. What has happened?” Barbara said.

Allen went and summarized what he knew for Barbara. She was shocked as well. Allen and Barbara had shared several elementary school class years together when they were children as they were the same age.

“The other reason I called was to ask about Auntie Lu. I’m asking because it struck me as a strange coincidence people periodically die after going on Auntie Lu’s road trips. I was joking we ought to call it Auntie Lu’s Death Ride. Then I realized I didn’t remember how she is related to us and decided to ask you, as the family’s resident genealogy expert.”

“Oh Allen, that is a terrible joke,” Barbara said between laughs, “but I don’t know either, which is very strange. Let me get my binder and see. Hmmm, whoa! This is really strange, she isn’t in my notes anywhere. My parents had always said she was our aunt, but when I did the family tree I started with the direct connections. I’ll have to look further, but so far I am not seeing her listed anywhere. Why didn’t I notice it before?”

“Isn’t she in some of the old pictures Grandmom had, you’ve got those, right?” Allen asked.

“Yes, this is really starting to bug me. Damn you, Allen, it is going to drive me crazy until I figure it out.”

“No more than me, Cuz. I might have to just ask her, I can get away with it since everyone knows my knowledge of the family tree is woefully deficient. I’ll get back to you with anything I learn. Maybe I’ll see you at Diane’s funeral?”

“Depends on when it is, I suppose. Tell them they need to do better on letting people know what is going on.” Barbara said.

“I will, talk to you soon,” Allen said as he hung up.

Time to call Auntie Lu, Allen thought to himself. He dialed once more and waited as the connection rang multiple times.

“Hello?”

“Hi Auntie Lu, it’s Allen. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“No, I always have a few minutes for my favorite nephew. I suppose you’re calling about Diane?”

For an old woman, she had a strong youthful voice. “Yes, can you tell me what happened? It just seemed strange she could be in the hospital comatose for more than a week before the news started leaking out. I know I live on the other side of the country, but social media keeps us up to date on Cousin Ed’s daily dump for Chrissake.”

“I suppose the explanation is everyone thought someone else was telling the extended family. Normally it would have fallen to your lovely mother, but as we know, she isn’t here to do it. I still think about her every day, and the things we were planning to do after your Dad passed. You know I’m not on social media myself,” Auntie Lu said.

“Speaking of Mom, it occurred to me, in jest, it historically has proven fatal for people attending your road trip.”

“Allen, you know I like a joke as much as anyone, but that one is in bad taste.” Auntie Lu said with an edge in her voice.

In the past, Auntie Lu had never shown a reluctance to give or receive jokes in bad taste. In fact, she herself had a whole repertoire on nothing more than boogers and poop. In the past, even jokes at her expense rolled off her back as though she were a duck shedding water. Allen wondered at her sensitivity now.

“I don’t mean to offend, it just seemed a noteworthy run of bad luck. Diane was pretty young, Mom was as well, and how old was Cousin Bob when he died?”

“He was pretty young as well. We have a large family, with a full range of age groups. The only thing I’ve come up with, is each person had some health issue no one knew about, and maybe they shouldn’t have gone camping with us.”

“Refresh my memory, what was Cousin Bob’s underlying health issue? I know what Mom’s was, what about Diane?”

“Cousin Bob had a faulty heart valve and, if you remember, he never went to the doctor. Shoot, that man didn’t even go to the dentist. The yellow color in his teeth was not gold fillings I can tell you that! As for Diane, we still don’t know, but I suspect they’ll find she was on an unsafe weight reduction diet. During the trip she had her own liquid diet, and seemed pretty frail to me. She had lost close to twenty pounds and told us she had only ten more to go.”

“How many years have you been doing the trip? I know of at least thirty, just from my own experience.” Allen asked.

“A long time, Allen, a very long time. In the beginning the cars weren’t nearly as comfortable, and we didn’t stop in motels.”

“So fifty years? You sure don’t seem old enough for that many.”

“I can feel every one of those years, nephew. The trip keeps me young, getting to run with kids and adults who I remember as kids. I look forward to it all year long.”

“I know, I remember jockeying for position when it came time to choose the roster. I don’t think I had any issues myself other than a cold, but Aunt Lu, how many of those trips ended with someone dying?”

“No one ever died on the trip, Allen. Usually someone will get a cold or the stomach flu during the trip, and the ride back isn’t nearly as much fun stopping every few miles for a restroom. Think about it, people cooped up in a car breathing the same air as everyone else. It would a miracle if people didn’t come down with something. People never complained about it, because the whole trip is just so much fun. When you travel on an aircraft, I’ll bet you have the same kind of issues.”

“It is definitely true I’ve caught my share of colds after a plane ride. Auntie Lu, you’ve been doing this a long time for the family and I never thought to ask you about when you were young. I know we call you Auntie, but I can’t remember for the life of me what branch you were in, I think Mom might have told me once but I have since forgotten.”

“I married into the family, with my beloved Edgar. We were never blessed with children, and when he passed young, I started the yearly tradition in memory of him. I know children don’t remember things unless they are just interested in genealogy. When you come out for the funeral, I’ll get out some of the old boxes of photos, if you’re interested.”

“I would like it very much. Speaking of the funeral, do we have any better information on when it is taking place?

“Yes, I do. We’re holding the viewing and memorial service at Gadsons this Saturday, and she’ll be buried immediately afterwards at Riverview. Diane’s church offered up a reception hall and the ladies are providing the food.” Auntie Lu said as if she was reading a list.

“OK, thanks Auntie Lu. I’ll have to scramble and get plane tickets. I’ll give you a call when I arrive, maybe we can go out to dinner.” Allen said.

“It sounds good. Oh, you could stay in one of my guest rooms instead of a hotel, if you want. No one else has claimed one yet. I don’t know why I stay here, but it was the house Edgar and I bought when we thought there would be a large family.”

“It sounds good, we can go somewhere even nicer for dinner then, since I’m saving on the hotel.”

“I’ll hold you to it, boy! I eat like a horse,” Auntie Lu chortled.

Allen laughed as he hung up the phone. The odd feelings he had before had faded away after talking to Auntie Lu. It would be great to put the entire thing to rest after she showed him all of the old papers and photos. He still felt strange, and as much as he had visited Auntie Lu in the past, no one had ever stayed over in the large two-story home. When visiting, the kids would run through the house playing various games children play, but at the end of the day they always went home.

Allen first sent Simon and Barbara an update on the funeral services and timing, then went online to work his way through the airline fare gamesmanship. His rental car was a bargain, so much so the insurance cost more than the fee. Allen was always careful when it came to finances, the last thing he wanted to do was argue with the car rental company about potential damage to their car. He had two days to get things together before getting on the plane to Los Angeles.

The time went quickly and, before he knew it, he was sitting in economy class next to a man who kept sneezing for most of the five hour flight. Allen couldn’t help thinking about his conversation with Auntie Lu and thought it would be ironic if he caught a fatal flu bug on the trip.

Allen’s flight landed on-time and he made it to the car rental facility in good time as well. Now all he had to do was brave Los Angeles traffic to San Bernardino County. Auntie Lu lived in an old section of Riverside, a town which had seen much more prosperous days and barely remembered it. Auntie Lu lived in one of the few turn-of-the-20th-century Queen Anne style multistory homes sitting on a one acre lot close to downtown. Allen remembered living in a much smaller place in Bloomington, it had always seemed such a long drive to get to Auntie Lu’s, but it was only a fifteen minute trip on a bad day. Parking on the street, he got his suitcase and walked to the front door. Allen used the old iron clapper to knock. It was exactly the same as it was when he was a child, forty years ago, except now he could actually reach it. The place itself looked older and smaller to Allen, but he could see there was someone doing maintenance. The old lead paint had been painted over at some point, but you could see the places where the lead paint had chipped off.

The sound of deliberate footsteps now could be heard through the door. The door opened and there was Auntie Lu, looking much the same as she had the last time he saw her, at his mother’s funeral.

“Hi Auntie, I made pretty good time.” Allen hugged her briefly and picked up his suitcase.

“I’ll say, the traffic just gets worse and worse it seems like. Are you hungry, Barbara and I were just going to sit down for a snack?”

“Barbara?” Allen asked in a surprised voice.

“Yes, she is staying in the other guest room. She called me after we talked and was asking some of the same questions as you, so I told her to come over as well.”

Allen followed Auntie Lu, who was moving as well as he remembered from years ago. “Dang, I can hardly keep up.”

“I’m headed to the kitchen table, I always move fast then, like a horse on its way back to the paddock,” she quipped.

They entered the kitchen, which wasn’t large by modern open floor plan standards, but had always seemed large to Allen. Barbara was sitting at the kitchen table with a loaded plate. She saw Allen and jumped up to give him a hug.

“Auntie Lu said you were coming. Allen, you’re getting old, look at all the grey hair!” Barbara said.

“Here now, I wouldn’t be so impolite as to mention artificial means of hair coloration clearly being used by a cousin of mine. The topic of age is just as dangerous for you, my dear, although you’re looking well preserved.”

“You’re looking fit too; truce? Auntie Lu has both of us beat in that regard. I don’t think she has aged at all in the last twenty years.”

“Clean living and a full wine cellar. I’m glad you’re not mentioning my hair color, Allen. Speaking of wine, should we open a bottle and toast Diane?” Auntie Lu asked.

“I don’t see why not, plenty of time to sober up before dinner. What time should we get there tomorrow?” Allen asked.

“The viewing runs from 9 am, and the memorial service starts at 11. Graveside is 1 pm to give everyone time to get there. Simon said he would drive in from Orange County tomorrow morning. We can get dinner somewhere close by tonight and eat-in tomorrow night.” Auntie Lu said.

“When are you going to show me all the genealogy documentation?” Barbara asked.

“I was thinking tomorrow evening after the reception. We’ll need something to cheer us up then. I’ve gotten the boxes out of the attic, they still might be a bit dusty, but I’m sure you’ll be interested.”

“In the attic? They might be completed ruined by now with all the summer heat, I’ll bet it gets up to 130 degrees up there in the summer.” Allen said.

“It does get pretty hot, although these old homes are better insulated against it. When this house was built they didn’t have air conditioning, you know. No, I took a quick look and the records are fine. The pictures are on the old heavy photo paper. I’ll bet there isn’t an ounce of moisture in the entire lot, so we’ll have to be careful around any flames.”

Auntie Lu handed full wine glasses to the two cousins and held her own aloft, “To Diane, taken too soon and already sorely missed.”

“To Diane” Allen and Barbara said before sipping a small amount.

The three sat drinking wine, talking about Diane, and eating from the snacks set on the table for the next hour. Allen’s suitcase had been left in the hallway, in the rush to the kitchen. When the initial hunger had passed, Barbara waved her hand in the direction of the central staircase.

“Allen, I’ll show you where you’re staying, if you like. Auntie Lu gave me the low-down earlier.” Barbara said.

“Yes, that would be helpful Barbara, I’ll tidy up in here.”

Allen and Barbara walked back out to the entry and up the grand staircase.

“Auntie Lu gave me the smaller room because I agreed to come after you did. Yours has a private bath, you bastard!” Barbara said.

Looking back down the stairs, Allen asked softly, “Did you find any old records when looking? She mentioned she had married into the family, Uncle Edgar.”

“No, I didn’t. I ended up calling her about it, because I feel I must have missed something important, and also because I’m embarrassed she isn’t represented. All these years of being there for the family and I didn’t have her listed anywhere. Did you say Edgar? I don’t think there have been any Edgars in over a 100 years. You don’t think she is that old, do you?”

“No. I’m going to wash up and see if I can think clearer afterwards. Is there an ironing board, I need to do my shirt for tomorrow?”

“I’ll bring them to your room, I did mine earlier.”

Allen showered up and since Barbara was true to her word having left the ironing board, he spent a few more minutes getting the clothes ready for the next day. He sent a text message to Simon indicating safe arrival at Auntie Lu’s, then went downstairs to join the others.

The kitchen table had been cleared of snack plates, but the balance of the wine was left in their respective glasses.

“Where did you two want to eat tonight?” Allen asked.

“Somewhere expensive, Allen is buying, Barb!” Auntie Lu gleefully stated.

“Why don’t we walk over to the Mission Inn, it might be nice to sit outside?” Allen suggested.

Barbara and Auntie Lu agreed promptly and, after polishing off the wine, set off. Riverside had become somewhat seedy in the twenty years since Allen had last walked its streets. In his youth, the neighborhoods leading into the downtown area had an upscale feel to them, and it was safe to walk with a family. Now, like so much of the inland valley, it had become more and more like the worst parts of Los Angeles. Iron bars on every window, iron fences around the lots, and large angry looking dogs defending their patch. Allen hadn’t thought much of the area when he was young, but now it looked as impoverished as some of the worst places in the world. Third world lifestyles with first world toys, he thought.

They came upon a small group of young Hispanic men sitting on a late model Chevy, smoking weed, and hanging out together. They saw the trio headed their way, and started the circling motions common to any predator pack which confronted with prey animals.

“Maybe walking wasn’t such a great idea,” Allen said.

“Nonsense, I know all the boys around here, we’ll be fine,” Auntie Lu said.

Sure enough, when the crew got a look at who was coming, their circling became random and less threatening.

“Manny! How many times do I need to tell you to take this kind of stuff out of the neighborhood? Your mother will be very disappointed.” Auntie Lu said in a chiding way.

Manny muttered something which sounded like “crazy bruja” and several more conventional Hispanic curse words Allen recognized. Manny and his crew didn’t get any closer to the three, almost as though they themselves were afraid of her.

As they walked on, Allen was amazed and said so. Normally, a situation like that wouldn’t end well for the gringos.

“Allen, you’re underestimating the fear these young men have for their mother. The fact I knew his mother, and how she would react to her friends being poorly treated, is more than enough to change Manny’s behavior. Believe me, we weren’t worth the trouble with those stakes. About the only thing these cholos respect is their mother. Regardless, it shouldn’t ruin our evening.”

Allen was able to get a table inside the Mission Inn’s open courtyard, and they proceeded to enjoy the night out. Stories about times spent with Diane were the main currency of conversation, mixing laughter with sadness.

“Auntie Lu, was there any more information on why Diane succumbed to the flu? I’m still finding it hard to believe she wouldn’t be able to survive a cold or flu. Plus, I don’t think I’m in much better shape than she was, and I never considered it to be much of a risk.” Allen said.

“The only thing which came back was that her internal systems were weak and unable to respond effectively to the virus. She had taken the flu shot several months prior, but this round of the flu was for a different strain variant. The way it was explained to me was the flu symptoms caused a cascade of organ failures, which ultimately proved fatal. The doctors wouldn’t take a position on whether her diet and self-medicating had anything to do with it.”

“Damn doctors! They are so concerned about their liability exposure, it has gotten very hard to get their honest opinion when things aren’t completely obvious. I assume they closed on cause-of-death without needing an autopsy?”

“They sat on releasing the body for a day or so, then finally agreed the case was not unusual enough to merit an invasive investigation. Hon, when people get close to sixty years of age, things go wrong with some people. It’s unusual when it happens to someone close to you, but not uncommon in the wider world. Our family has done fairly well when it comes to longevity, but a few will always be exceptions.”

“I’ll miss Diane, we had a lot of things we planned on doing over the next few years and it won’t be the same without her.” Allen settled up the bill as the group drank the last drops of their wine and picked up their take-home bundles.

The walk home was completely uneventful. The car where Manny and his crew were gathered had moved on to some other location, presumably taking them with it. The neighborhood was quiet, with no one on the street.

Allen had seen it before, in places like Tijuana further south. The neighborhood becomes a deserted prison for the people living there at night, protected by the safety of strong bars and steel doors. When Allen was young, he remembered an active evening culture with neighbors sitting in their yards or chairs and children safely running rampant in the night. This neighborhood had moved on from those days. In the back of Allen’s mind, something was trying to surface. He was trying to remember what disturbed him about Manny’s mutterings. The conventional urban Hispanic curse words were not of note, but the word “bruja” did. Taking out his mobile phone, he looked up the definition online and found it meant “witch or sorceress”. Manny wasn’t afraid of his mother, he was afraid of Auntie Lu.

By the time they returned to Auntie Lu’s home, it was about an hour before bedtime. The three sat in the kitchen, nibbling on a small dessert produced with a flourish by Auntie Lu.

“Did Manny call you a witch, Auntie Lu? Why would he say that, he had no compunction to also using terms I haven’t heard in years, thanks to living on the East Coast?”

“It’s better than being called the b-word which rhymes with it,” Auntie Lu chuckled. “Manny has had a tough time since his father died, he has had to support his mom and extended family. Frankly, I don’t think he would be able to do so without some illegal activity, he was never the best student. I think I cramp his style a bit, since I’m not frightened of him or his boys. My house has a gothic feel to it as well, from a different time. Most of the homes were built in the 50s on smaller lots and were single story. I always scare them at Halloween, with the decorations and sound effects.”

“I’m spent,” Barbara said. “What time should I set my alarm for, tomorrow morning?”

“I’ll have the coffee brewed by 7:30, but we don’t have to leave until 9:00. It takes less than thirty minutes to get to the funeral parlor, and I assume you don’t want to get there too early.” Auntie Lu said.

“No, that sounds right. What’s for breakfast?” Barbara asked.

“Chorizo scramble, in honor of Allen’s presence. I could go omelet or even pancakes if you prefer,” Auntie said.

“No, it sounds good! I haven’t had it in a while either. Good night, you two.” Barbara kissed Auntie on the cheek and rubbed Allen on the shoulder in passing.

“I’m right behind you, the jet lag is catching up with me. Auntie, I’ll help with dishes, give you a clear field tomorrow for the wonders of chorizo.” Allen said.

“You’re on, big guy! You wash, and I’ll dry.”

The two made short work of the dirty dishes, and with one final wipe of the countertop Auntie pronounced it done. Allen kissed her on the cheek as well and headed up to his room.

Allen’s dreams were very strange, similar to the time-passing movie trope of showing the world evolving from inert matter to the current date, but punctuated with a cackling Auntie Lu who was the same as she had ever been. He was unable to move, but strangely unafraid. When his world began to spin, like Dorothy caught in the tornado, Auntie Lu rode a flying bicycle laughing and pointing back at him. He woke with a start, thinking he might have had some stomach upset generating bad dreams, but upon reflection decided everything was fine and went back to sleep.

The funeral went off without any hitch, the mourners all agreed it was an unexpected but made their own rationalizations on how to deal with those feelings. The religious all focused on the wonderful life in heaven Diane was no doubt experiencing at that very moment, and professed jealousy. The secular crowd focused on how they would always remember something about her. There were palliative thoughts for everyone’s feelings.

Afterwards, at the church hall, the relatives gathered and socialized holding their paper plates with the standard church potluck fare. Allen looked around for a glass of wine, but there wasn’t an open bar at the gathering. Why are none of our relatives Catholic? At least they stock a bar to bolster the spirits of the bereaved, Allen thought to himself. As things began to wind down, Allen looked for Simon.

“Simon, I think we’re about to go back to Auntie Lu’s. She is going to show us a bunch of genealogy records and photos, of her husband Edgar and others. Were you going to join us?” Allen asked.

“No, I have an early work-day tomorrow, I’ll head straight home in a little bit. Plus, the thought of going through Auntie Lu’s records gives me the creeps. I don’t know how you can stay there.” Simon said.

“Oh, I remember. You always hated going over there when we were kids.”

“Something about her home scares me, even to this day. When I was a kid it was all I could do to be polite when Mom would drag us over there.”

“You used to play just like all the rest of us. Hide and seek, inside and out.”

“Yes, I did. If I didn’t do something to take my mind off of the fear, it would have felt like forever.”

“What were you afraid of, the house?”

“I never knew, it just felt like something was going to eat me if I stayed too long. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it persists.”

“Some places are like that, I didn’t have any problem sleeping there last night, although I remember having some bizarre dreams featuring Auntie Lu. I can’t even remember the details, I just put it down to having a lot of wine and jetlag.” Allen said.

“She does have a good wine cellar,” Simon observed, “enjoy the rest of your stay. Come out again and spend some time on my side of the state, rather than the hollowed-out husk of San Bernardino County.”

“I will, and if you ever decide to hit Florida, I have a guest suite with swimming pool access. No one ever heads my way, it would be great to play host for a change.” The two shook hands and headed their separate ways.

Allen went off in search of Auntie Lu and Barbara, finding them suffering the attentions of the attending pastor. Allen didn’t know what it was, but pastors always homed in like laser-guided missiles to the relatives who weren’t professing Christians. Allen suspected the Bible-pounding family contingent of ratting them out, but nothing could ever be proved. Allen caught Auntie Lu’s eye and signaled with a raised eyebrow if she wanted to leave. She quickly nodded assent, and turned to the earnest parish-pounder who was attempting to save her soul, in order to make a graceful exit. Barbara latched onto her like a drowning person going down for the third time and escaped as well.

“I don’t know about you ladies, but I am sore need of liquid refreshment. What do you say?” Allen asked.

“Our hero!” Auntie Lu said dramatically, “Lead on!”

The trio ran the gauntlet of last minute goodbyes from earnest relatives, and finally then were free to depart. Allen brought the rental car around and they climbed in.

“I thought we were never going to get away from the preacher. I have already blocked his name from my memory, and soon he will be completely forgotten even though the trauma will still persist.” Barbara said.

“I think he felt a duty to minister to the bereaved, it wasn’t meant personally.” Allen said and laughed.

“I don’t know about you, but as I get older I have a lot less patience for them. How about you, Auntie?” Barbara said.

“If they press too hard, I just tell them I’m a Wiccan or something else which would give them hives. It’s fun, I provide details of my midnight nude revels during the solstices. My reward is making their eyes bug out.”

“I wish I had the patience to do that, usually I just feel like an animal caught in a trap, considering chewing my own leg off to escape.”

“Well, we’re out of there. I’m looking forward to getting comfortable with decent beverages and showing you two my old photo albums.”

Barbara brightened at the prospect and chattered on topic with Auntie Lu as Allen drove back to Riverside. Allen looked over at Barbara and noticed she would look older than Auntie Lu soon. He thought of mentioning her health when a chance presented itself, but then sat formulating ways to make the point without upsetting her vanity. Auntie Lu looked technically older, but she exuded a lively energy which overcame the appearance of age. Barbara, and himself he suspected, were starting to just look tired.

Allen pulled into Auntie Lu’s driveway, and closed the iron gate behind the car. It felt safer to keep the rental car on the grounds what with Manny and his thugs working the neighborhood. They might have a fear of Auntie Lu, but Allen wasn’t going to bank on it extending to cover him as well.

The sun was just starting to go down in the western sky, a rare clear blue sky driving a beautiful sunset. California occasionally would provide a reason why people loved being there, but Allen was glad he was only passing through as a tourist. Looking around the neighborhood before following the women inside, he noticed Manny and his crew working the same patch of roadside as the previous evening. Shaking his head, Allen went inside the house.

Everyone broke to their bedrooms to change out of the more formal funeral garb and clean up. Allen put on a pair of shorts and polo shirt before rejoining the other two downstairs. In the living room, Auntie Lu had placed a group of four cardboard boxes which looked full of dusty photos and binders. She was running a dust cloth across the boxes in an apparently futile attempt at dust catching. She smiled wryly at Allen, and motioned him to open the wine bottle set out on a side table. He opened the bottle and poured three glasses. Barbara and Allen sat down on either side of Auntie Lu on the couch to better see the photos and mementos.

“Barbara, here is a photo of your Mom before one of our trips. Allen, your Dad is there on the right. They must have been eight or nine years old.” Auntie Lu said.

“I’ve never seen this one, look at those smiles! Auntie Lu, you’re there on the right?”

“Yes, the man on the left is Albert, son of Henry and Margaret. He used to help take care of the remaining land I had at the time. The year of the photo, he drove the bus we rented for the trip. It was the first year we had something so big, previously we used to form a caravan of passenger cars. We went big for a few years but these days it is easier with a pair of passenger vans.”

“Auntie, you look exactly the same except for the hair and clothing styles.”

“Thank you, Dear! You’re too kind. I think I have some more trip photos with your parents.” Auntie Lu rummaged around the box, flipping through pictures until she found the right ones. “I liked putting your parents together because they got on so well, it is always a subtext when picking the group each time. Who will be the most harmonious given the overall group composition? I did have to explain to them once we didn’t live in Appalachia and cousins were off-limits.”

“What?” Barbara and Allen asked in unison.

“Just seeing if you’re paying attention,” she cackled, “it was kind of sweet, they did have a very high regard for each other, but it was mostly innocent at the time. I teased them about kissing cousins once and your Dad, Allen, turned red as a beet. Clearly, he had thought about it. He made of point of not being as overtly affectionate with her afterwards.”

“No one ever told me anything about that, but then I suppose they wouldn’t have. We did visit a lot as children, didn’t we, Barbara?” Allen said.

“I do know they loved each other very much, but I didn’t have any inkling of anything else. But, my Mom cried for a week after your Dad died, so there was something.” Barbara said.

“The trips made everyone closer to each other, the shared experiences and all of it. When I would consider who to bring, there was always an attempt to pull in parts of the family who weren’t as close. After a good trip, they would be right in the middle of the group from then forward. Ah, here we are, a picture of your parents as teenagers.” The photo showed a handsome man and a pretty teenage girl wearing clothes from the mid-1950s. “It was the last trip they made before getting each having their own children.”

“Auntie, what happened to Albert. He was in a couple of the photos. He didn’t marry, did he?” Barbara asked.

“No, he didn’t. Unfortunately, no one knows what really happened to him. One day he went off to take care of some business in the valley and he never returned. It was a big deal when it happened, the police searched everywhere to no avail. We had been having trouble with a local family who were a bit rough, which naturally made them suspects, but no proof of foul play was ever found.” Auntie sadly said.

“I remember him being one of the dead-end branches on the genealogy map,” Barbara said, “did he live here with you or somewhere else?”

“He had Allen’s bedroom, due to it having a dedicated bathroom. My Edgar was ahead of his time when he contracted for this house, he knew people would want their own bathrooms. Here, let’s freshen everyone’s glass, Allen. Thanks, Dear! There is another bottle on the kitchen counter,” she said, “I think there are some construction photos in here somewhere. Ah, here we are! These are some pictures of the ground-breaking for this house. The man standing on the left is my Edgar. We had over 500 acres of orange groves in the valley, and the packing facilities were here in town. You could say oranges, and cheap labor, built this house.” Auntie Lu reminisced.

Barbara look at Allen over the back of Auntie Lu as she bent over the cardboard box, “Auntie Lu, what year was this? Was your Edgar the son of William and Eleanor?”

“Yes, that was him. He was so handsome when we first met, twenty years after the War Between The States ended, he really could not be ignored by one such as I.”

“But Auntie, he died over a hundred years ago.” Barbara said.

“Yes, he did. It was hard being a widow with money in those days, always some man trying to take advantage for love or money. Eventually it stopped, due to my aging and conversion of most of the orange groves to housing tracts. Over time, I had to sell the land piece by piece in order to pay state taxes. It happened to a lot of the old California families with large properties.” Auntie Lu said.

“But it makes you over a hundred years old, how is something like that possible?”

“All too easy, I’m afraid. It is hard watching the ones you love die before you will, but it is part of the price.”

Allen’s vision began to blur and his head spun as he tried to stand up, “What was in the drink?” At the corner of his vision he saw Barbara had spilled her drink and appeared to be unconscious. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness was Auntie Lu’s face, reflecting regret as well as anticipation.

When Allen woke, he couldn’t move his arms or legs and determined they had been tied. Looking around, he appeared to be lying on the floor of Auntie Lu’s basement wine cellar. One of the shelves which appeared to be built in against the cellar wall was actually a doorway to another small space. Panicked, he looked for any sign of Barbara without success.

“Barbara, are you alright? Can you hear me?” Allen whispered.

A sound came from the small bolt hole, approaching steps, then Auntie Lu looking somewhat younger than she had just moments before, came forth. “I’m sorry, dear boy. She has already asked her final questions and moved onwards to join the others.”

“You killed her?”

“Not all of her, some continues to live within me.”

“But why? She didn’t do anything to you, neither of us did.” Allen said as tears streamed down his face.

“Not yet, but it was only a matter of time when the questions start. I don’t feel badly, as you both had every opportunity to walk away from those questions.”

“What are you? A witch like Manny said?”

“I’m a lamia, a very old and wise one. Most of us don’t last long enough to pass as human, but I’ve been lucky in my personal habits.”

“Isn’t a lamia some kind of vampire? But you eat regular food and drink.”

“We live on the life force of living creatures, not the blood itself. When we used to drain blood it was because we thought the life resided there, but I learned it was not necessary, which is why I alone of my kind have survived. Even the life in plants can be tapped, but it isn’t as filling as that of human beings.”

“Have you already fed from me, is that why I am so weak?”

“Yes, I took but a taste so you would survive to have this conversation. You really are my favorite nephew, and deserve some answers.”

“Barbara is dead? Where is she?”

“She lies within the family crypt, over there. You will join her and the rest when your time comes.”

“How old are you?”

“Very, my boy, very. I knew Zeus and Hera when they were somewhat less than gods. But these times have been the very best. Family, it is what maintains my interest and connection to the earth.”

“So the trips, were just a way for you to feed without causing suspicion?”

“Yes, and for all the other good things which came out of them. The slight taste from everyone is enough to maintain my life and appearance, but not to cause permanent damage to the donors.”

“The relatives who died after such trips?”

“Unhappy accidents, my feeding would weaken that which was already precarious, unbeknown to me. I grieved deeply for each and every one. I’ll grieve for you and Barbara as well, but life is more important to me than anything which threatens it.”

“People know we’re here, how will you get away with it?”

“People will know you have left, but no one will know what happened to you and Barbara on the way to the airport. Manny is loading your things into the rental car as we converse.”

“Manny and his crew will know, how can you trust him? Why don’t you let me go and we forget this ever happened? I promise I’ll never be a threat.”

“Manny knows what would happen, first to his family and him last of all. He is no threat, Manny even worships me to some extent. Alas, if only I could believe in your promises. No, you are too much like my beloved Edgar, you won’t let it go, especially now you know of Barbara’s passing.”

“You killed Edgar too?”

“I had to do so, he learned some of the truth and would not be satisfied with half-answers. He’s in there with Barbara.”

“Won’t the bodies smell when the police come to investigate?”

“Allen, mummies only smell musty, and the wine cellar environmental controls take care of the rest. No one will ever know.” Auntie Lu bent over to touch his face, immediately his body felt weaker and his failing mind could no longer order his muscles to fight against the bonds which restrained him. Auntie Lu bent over and picked him up quite easily. She carried him into the dark space, which he could now see contained many bodies sitting against the walls. Barbara was there, recognized by her hair and clothing, but her body was desiccated to the point of dry wood. He understood why no one would find the crypt.

“Good bye, my dear. I am so sorry,” Auntie Lu bent down and set him next to Barbara before touching him for the very last time.

After a time, Auntie Lu walked back out of the crypt and closed the shelf-door with a final click. To her right was a full length mirror, which she now perused. The reflection was that of a beautiful young woman who could tempt a man before she even smiled.

“No, that won’t do. It won’t do at all.” Auntie Lu said aloud. Staring at the mirror, the reflection slowly changed to a woman of indeterminate age, bright-eyed, substantial, and clearly someone’s young grandmother. “Much better!”

She walked back up the stairs in time to see Manny on his last trip to the car.

“Make sure the car isn’t found in one piece, Manny, don’t forget the GPS tracking record.”

“Don’t worry, tia, it will vanish.” Manny said as he left the house.

Auntie Lu did a quick survey of the guest rooms and found them to her satisfaction. She decided another glass of wine was in order.

Funerals always made her sad.

All rights reserved (C) 2018 D. M. Kalin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Day

Silver sat down on one of the chairs that the movers had positioned within his family room. It had been a very tiring day and it was not over yet. He had a few more things to do before making his bed for a night’s rest.

The house was a strange custom home, set in the middle of a quite anomalous three wooded acres in Huntsville, Alabama. Surrounded by a small stone half-wall with cast iron fence pickets atop, it looked like something more suitable for old New Orleans or homes along a Deep South river. The house itself was Victorian in design, with delightfully complex arrangements of gables and deep porches, but was actually built in the 1990s rather than the 1890s. Silver had been able to buy the home for very little. Not only were times difficult for those with large mortgages, but the number of such distressed properties had depressed the sale prices to extremely low levels for buyers with cash. Silver was such a buyer.

Walking among all of the boxes and furniture deposited on hardwood floors, Silver noticed ample evidence spiders were the dominant inhabitants of the home before his arrival. It was time to do something about that situation.

Sitting down in the middle of the dining room, he called out in a way only an arachnid could fully appreciate, a summons.

After a long minute, a small figure worked its way across the floor towards Silver. It was a Brown Recluse spider, and undoubtedly the closest example of their invertebrate class.

Silver made the overture of a peaceful greeting, which was acknowledged by a waving of the spider’s pedipalps.

“I want to speak with your queen,” said Silver.

The spider silently regarded Silver, with the equivalent reply of, “what queen?”

“Clearly, my credentials should be presented. I detect that you have a web with two live prey captured within it. Please go and regard your web, returning when you have seen what there is to see.” Silver pointed in the direction of the web, flicking a finger minimally.

Silver sat still and waited for the spider’s return.

“My prey is dead.”

“Yes, it is. They should still be alive should they not?”

“They should.”

“Go then once more and see what there is to be seen,” Silver said.

Again, Silver sat still and waited.

“More prey has come, bigger.”

“Yes, the message is that I can deny or provide. I can promote or eliminate. I prefer to reach an accord. Please summon your queen.”

Without comment, the Brown Recluse turned and headed for a nearby baseboard. After a few more minutes, a mouse-sized Wolf spider made its way towards Silver followed by the Brown Recluse.

Standing in front of Silver, the Wolf spider crouched and waited for his words which were not words.

“Your Majesty, the Queen of the Spiders?”

“Yes, and sorcerer you are?”

“Yes. You may address me as Silver.”

“What do you want of us?”

“I want lasting peace between us, as this is now my home.” Silver said.

“What is peace, as you see it?”

“An absence of conflict, agreed zones to exist, agreed prey, agreed numbers.”

“What do we get, from this proposed peace?”

“Safety from the hunt, my goodwill, and food when there is none to be had.”

“Details?”

“Absence of conflict, means that I will not war on you or your kind, your kind will not trouble me or mine. Agreed zones to exist means I want to keep my living areas free of webs or the need to clean them of such. Your portion would be that I will not remove or tamper with webs elsewhere. Agreed prey, any that do not have my parole. I am particularly offended by mosquitoes for example, insects which damage my home or those who I protect are yours. Agreed numbers, control of your population since deaths by misadventure will henceforth be greatly reduced. Safety from the hunt, within the iron fences of my domain, you will not be hunted by anything. My goodwill, for unknown things still to be considered. Food, when none is to be had, ask your subject there.”

“Binding term?”

“Initially, one hundred years, binding on our descendants?”

“It is either that, move, or die?”

“Yes.”

“I agree.”

“I agree,” Silver said as his hand pushed at an invisible barrier. “As a token of my appreciation I’ve filled the webs of the webmakers and removed those species of the small whose presence offends me, within my domain.”

“May we have two days to ensure full compliance? It will take some time to move where the accord makes necessary.”

“Of course.” Silver made the parting courtesies that sovereigns do when taking leave of their peers.

Taking a deep breath, Silver walked out onto one of the wide porches. It was a fine autumn day and the trees’ leaves color was turning high. Silver sat down in one of the all weather chairs and closed his eyes. His senses detected a number of reptilian species on the property. With a grimace of concentration, he killed all of the snakes where they were. It wouldn’t do to simply exile seventy-eight snakes, eighteen of them poisonous, onto his surrounding neighbors. The chipmunks, moles, and voles could simply be given the news of their forced eviction. In his mind’s eye, Silver traced wards of limit on the surrounding property lines, which isolated his home from those who travel on the ground. Included in the wards was a provision to request an audience. That provision proved to be in force when a canine mind requested permission to approach. Silver silently granted it.

Coming up the driveway towards the house, came an older woman accompanied by a Golden Retriever named Jezibelle. The woman was carrying a large plastic container.

“I’m up here” Silver called down.

“Hi there, my name is Mercy Hawkins I live across the street and wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. I hope you like chocolate chip cookies.”

“Hello Mercy, my name is Silver Brixton. I was just catching my breath out here after seeing the movers off. I love chocolate chip cookies, indeed almost any cookie, but chocolate chip in particular. And who is this, Jezibelle is it?” Silver said as he courteously extended the back of his hand for inspection by Jezibelle.

“How did you know her name? Did I tell you?”

“I can’t say. To me she just looked like a Jezibelle. I love dogs, and up to now haven’t had the space to provide for one. I expect that will change after I settle in.” Silver rubbed Jezebel’s fur and surreptitiously eliminated the fleas, two ticks, and a small mange start. “I’ll have to get Jezi’s approval for whoever I bring in. Does she go for walks with you? I hear Huntsville has a lot of forest trails. Perhaps you’ll let her walk with me sometimes.”

“I do, when my hips aren’t acting up. She loves to go. Is Silver your given or a nickname?”

“It is a given name, and I think I got the best deal. My brother’s name is Gold and my sister is Platinum. We could go on Oprah for unusual. Now Mercy, I come from a much more direct society. So I will now speak to the unasked questions. I am widowed, without children, of independent means and artistic temperament. I chose Huntsville as my final home due to the availability of this house, I find it to be very special. I’m not a church person, but don’t mind people who are. I appreciate a cold alcoholic beverage on occasion. I don’t particularly follow football or care about The Crimson Tide, but I will fly the flag on appropriate game days,” Silver said and smiled as emphasis of goodwill.

Jezibelle leaned into Silver and positioned herself to get a better rub.

“Well, Jezibelle sure likes you. I find that she is generally a very good judge of character. I’ll leave you now to the unpacking. If you need anything or have any questions, just come on over and ask. I’ll introduce you to Ed, he would have come, but he isn’t all that mobile anymore. In the spirit of your own disclosures, I think you’ll find the neighbors very nice for the most part, and they tend to mind their own business too. Please bring the container back when you’re done with the cookies,” Mercy said.

“Thank you Mrs. Hawkins, I appreciate your gift and getting to meet the both of you,” Silver said.

“Come along, Jezi. You will see Mr. Brixton again later, he is our new neighbor!”

Jezibelle joined her owner as she headed back down the drive, looking back once with a slow tail wag of farewell.

After they cleared the boundary to the property, Silver said, “You can come out now.”

A large female bobcat came out from behind the bush where it had been sitting for the entire encounter, and set about grooming itself. Silver opened the container and took out a delicious cookie.

“The spiders say there are new rules here,” the bobcat said without words.

“Yes. You are welcome to continue living here. In fact, I would enjoy having you. But you would have to agree to the rules of sanctuary. Specifically, you may not kill or hurt any of the creatures I allow within the bounds of my rule. No creatures will kill or pursue you here either. Different rules pertain once outside of the fence, for that is not sanctuary. There will be dogs, but the same rules apply to them.”

“I would stay. What of my kits when young?”

“They may stay, within limits. We don’t need a hundred adult bobcats on our three acres.”

The bobcat smiled a toothy feline smile, “No worries on that front. We prefer to be spread out as adults. But I sense you have access to far more than three acres. How can this be?”

“Very perceptive. Perhaps I’ll show you after we are better acquainted. But for now, we’ll consider the limits that are immediately apparent.” Silver performed a similar service for the bobcat as he had done for Jezibelle. “These grounds will have little to no insect pests, one of the fringe benefits for all of the fur-bearing. You may stay for the next part if you wish. It is time for my discussion with the avian contingent.”

“Thank you for the cleansing. Yes, I noticed. I’ll just lay down in this patch of sunlight and observe.”

Silver closed his eyes, and let his senses range the skies. He called the raven, the owl, the hawk, the sparrow, the jay and the hummingbird. Three ravens soon perched on the railing of his porch, strutting back and forth importantly. An owl perched within the shade of a large tree branch. A cloud of twenty sparrows settled in the leaves of the same tree. A jay set down on an inoperative fountain basin. The hummingbird would not land, but hovered. A hawk set down on the same railing, causing brief raven complaints.

“I’ve called you here to explain the new rules of my home. Your kind will be welcome in moderate numbers, as here there will be no prey or predator. My friend, the bobcat, will not hunt you here. You will not hunt other creatures I have welcomed here. There will be no snakes. Those with nests will not lose their eggs. Outside the fence, the old rules apply. If you don’t consider that to be beneficial or the rules to be reasonable, I will banish your kind from my sanctuary. Your decision?” Silver explained and asked.

“Would we be able to nest here?” a sparrow asked.

“Yes, limited numbers for each of your kinds may nest in safety.”

The ravens croaked that they agreed, as did all save the owl who flew off without comment. Silver adjusted the wards, “The owls will no longer be able to enter these grounds. Welcome to the rest of you and we will speak again.”

Silver rose, stretched, and opened the screen door to go back inside. The bobcat followed, looking over the boxes and pieces of furniture spread throughout the house.

Silver smiled, “Please make yourself comfortable. Might I offer some refreshment?”

“A small bowl of milk would not go amiss, thank you.”

Silver opened his refrigerator and pulled out the unopened gallon of whole milk. He poured a cup into a bowl, and heated it slightly with the built-in microwave before setting it down before the bobcat.

“Thank you. Perfectly prepared and very much appreciated. I wonder whether you would also be open to accepting a female mountain lion friend of mine?”

“I would welcome such. Although it would probably be hard to sneak over here, given the location. She would have to agree to not prey on the neighbors’ pets, as that could pose a problem. You should probably agree to that as well,” Silver said.

“Of course. I already am well acquainted with Jezibelle, plus it does not make sense to hunt so close to where you sleep. My friend would also value a safe place to raise her kittens. It isn’t as hard to get here as you might think, as the city is well covered by foliage, and she would be doing so at night. One other fringe benefit is that she occasionally provides deer for her friends. Do you like deer?”

“I do. I look forward to meeting your friend,” Silver said.

“Thank you again for the milk. It takes me back to my days as a kitten. It is also nice to be understood.” The bobcat strolled over to the screen door and standing on her hind legs used the latch to exit back onto the porch as the sun started to go down.

One final task before he could pack it in for the evening. He took off his shoes and walked out onto the lawn under the largest tree. Communing with flora was much slower than with fauna. Communicating complicated ideas involving boundaries and limits, as well as ways to receive needed help, took Silver several hours of standing stock still. When complete, his trees no longer needed trimming, his lawn mowing, or weeds suffered to grow within the bounds he had set. This session was much more tiring than the previous ones.

Silver walked back into his house, and found the bobcat had already left for her evening hunt. A raven croaked greeting from above, which Silver reciprocated. The spider webs had already begun to vanish within the house, while building on the iron fence pickets surrounding the property.

Now, where did I leave that box with my coffeemaker? Silver thought to himself. It won’t do to start tomorrow’s work without a fresh cup.

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin

Final Review

The reviewer finished reading the book “Cosmic Rays; Stellar Empire Series, Volume 1” and deactivated his ebook device, pushing the button in an almost angry way.

Turning to his laptop computer, he logged into the service to start writing his review. He found the author to have a juvenile sense of character development, well seasoned by a lack of both scientific knowledge and the English language. Perhaps the reviewer was old school, but he felt that someone writing science fiction should at least have a working understanding of physics. Failing that, a consistent rule set within the novel itself would have been an improvement.

The brave new world of Indie book publishing had opened the flood gates for every poseur at art to see their works in print. The reviewer suspected that most of the new breed of authors spent their time work-shopping with other equally skilled authors or engaging in online contests that were thinly veiled marketing scams by publisher services companies, rather than actually writing. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! These authors enjoyed saying they were authors, more than having something within them which had to be written.

The reviewer used his customized online tools to learn everything possible about the author. Good, the neck-bearded idiot has an author page on social media! he thought to himself, That makes it easier. Right click the mouse, save his photo into the Final Review folder. His bio said that he lives in Covina, California with his parrot and Maine Coon cat. Nice. He’s twenty-nine, lives in Covina; Ah! here he is. The reviewer copied the address and telephone information onto a text document and saved. He also made a new folder with the author’s name and added it to the rest. Photo and text files were moved to the author’s folder. Time for a road trip, he told himself.

The reviewer mapped his route to Covina, and estimated that it would take two days to get there. Two days to conclude his business and two days to return. His bags were already packed, as his decision was made when he read the first chapter of “Cosmic Rays”. One bag contained clothing and incidentals; the second bag was a long soft-shell case. He saved the review in draft form, as there was more that he would need to add before it was fully complete. Setting his home alarm, the reviewer loaded up his camper van and set out for Covina.

During the drive, he listened to randomized songs from his extensive music collection. His collection was eclectic, with one exception. He had no rap or hip-hop music as he maintained stolidly that it wasn’t music. Artists who couldn’t play instruments, were unable to sing without an auto-tune, excessively sampled other real musicians or were little better than glorified DJs, did not receive his custom. Those artists all sang alike, used the same approaches, and often were barely discernible from their competition. The reviewer liked artists whose singing or playing would be uniquely recognizable within the first few bars. The reviewer had a standard, and it was all his own.

Upon arrival near Covina, the reviewer paid cash to park his camper van at Arrow Glen Manor RV Park and hooked the van into the electric power and Internet services provided. He unhooked his small Honda Civic from the tow rig, and set out to put the author under surveillance.

The reviewer found the location easily, and parked along the street several blocks away. Putting on his walking shoes, the reviewer walked the neighborhood where the author lived, hoping for a sighting in the daylight. As he walked he appeared to be any resident out for a stroll. He made several rounds of the neighborhood and finally approached the small house. Taking a $50 dollar bill out of his wallet, he folded it in half and rang the doorbell.

The door opened a crack and a middle aged woman asked, “Yes, what can I do for you?”

“Hello, I was just out walking for some exercise and found this sitting in your driveway. I wanted to see if it belonged to you.” the reviewer said holding up the $50.

“No, I didn’t have it to drop, I mostly have ATM $20s.” she said.

“Is there anyone else living here who might have dropped it? I know it isn’t mine, and would hate to keep it without at least trying to find the owner.”

“It might be my son, but I cannot imagine him having lost $50, since he mostly mooches my $20s. He’s at work, but should return around 6pm. If you want, I’ll leave him a note.”

“Thanks, here, you should hold on to the bill. I’ll check back tomorrow when I take my exercise if you don’t mind. I’m staying with relatives down the street.”

“You know, it is pretty rare around here to find someone so honest. Thank you. If it isn’t his, I’ll have it for you tomorrow.” she said.

The reviewer waved and walked back down the street. Clearly he would have to come back today around 6pm so that he could see the author. Getting into his car, he headed back to the RV park for some lunch and a nap. Since he had a few hours prior to meeting up with the author, there was ample time for more research.

Let’s see, he said to himself, poseur authors often spend a fair amount of their time reviewing other authors’ work. Maybe he has an account with the online marketplace and reviews books there. Ah, there you are. Let’s read of few of his reviews, shall we?

The reviewer read for a while, shaking his head periodically when reading something particularly trite. He found a review of a fellow science fiction author, who was a nominal competitor. The author criticized his peer for poor character development and lack of scientific knowledge. Hah, talk about the pot calling the kettle black! The review went on to note the author’s use of haibunish forms, which piqued the reviewer’s interest. He downloaded a copy of the book and searched for the referenced section. Reading through it, he laughed. What a pretentious wanker! Establishing himself as an expert and then miscategorizing the verse form. The book section was simply free verse without the trappings of haibun, no matter how much you squinted your eyes. He must have heard the term in a workshop and applies it to any unusual verse. This just gets better and better.

Getting out his hacking tools, he determined the current IP address for the author’s home. Running a scan, he could see that they owned several smart appliances which were hooked to the Internet. The reviewer found a TV, security system, thermostat, garage door opener, and video cams. The new Internet of Things is making this almost too easy! He compromised the security system, garage door opener and the multiple video cams. Running his commands through a proxy server in Ukraine, he set several events to occur around 9:35 pm.

At 5:45 the reviewer parked his car on the author’s street, so that he had good sightlines to the garage and front door. While he waited, he read the book the author had criticized on his ebook device. Contrary to the author’s views, the reviewer felt that the character development was fine and that, while the competing author didn’t have a scientific background, he was consistent throughout the book. Definitely not bad enough to be a candidate for one of his final reviews.

At 6:10, the author pulled his car into the empty garage. The reviewer, seeing him in person for the first time, had to hold back a chuckle. The pudgy author was wearing a 7-11 clerk smock and a fedora. The hat definitely took the curse off the indignity of being a store clerk. The garage door closed and the reviewer switched to internal video to see the author going about his business. He watched the author read his mother’s note, look at the $50 and put it in his pocket. Going into his room, he fired up his computer and brought up a document which appeared to be Volume 2 of the Stellar Empire Series. The reviewer rolled his eyes and closed things down. There were a number of restaurants close by and he had little to do until 9:00.

At 9:00, the reviewer headed back to the neighborhood and parked on a dark portion of the street. Utilizing the internal cameras remotely, he confirmed that the author was still at home. The reviewer donned his dull dark coverall and assembled the black sniper rifle with suppressor. There was a small hedge made up of poorly kept trees that formed a dark corner in one front yard. The house had dark windows as though no one was home. The reviewer crawled under the hedge and placed the rifle on a brace facing the author’s closed garage. Using the range finder, he made adjustments to his scope, then settled in to wait.

At 9:35, several things occurred in quick succession; the reviewer published his review of the author’s Volume 1, titled “Final Review” and the author’s garage door started cycling open and closed. The author looked up from reading the bad review and got up angrily to see what was happening in the garage. Nothing the author did seemed to affect the cycling garage door until he finally got a ladder and unplugged the unit.

Waiting for his moment, the reviewer fired with a sharp crack one round into the author’s torso, which dropped him to the floor. He then shot one additional round into the author’s head. His final review was complete.

Staying in place for a few more seconds to make sure that the muffled shots were not noticed, the reviewer gathered the two spent shell casings and disassembled the gun before placing the parts into a shopping bag. He then walked at a normal speed on the sidewalk until he got to his car, then he drove away.

The next day, the reviewer hooked up the car to the camper van and headed back for home a full day early. During the stops along the way, he looked for more candidates deserving of a final review.

After winning the lottery several years earlier, the reviewer had a lot more time for his favorite hobby, reading. Unfortunately, the authors he followed could only write new books so fast, thus he was forced to consider new authors. Being somewhat methodical, he would finish even the badly written books, and was offended that the bad authors would waste his, indeed everyone’s, time and money. Taking a cue from the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lechter, he had resolved to improve the quality of the Indie publishing space by removing authors who failed to meet his standards. In order to fail, the author had to be markedly lazy, not spending the time or effort to do a workmanlike job, or have nothing whatsoever to say. If they spent more time in workshops than they did actually writing, they would likely qualify once published.

The reviewer had all the time in the world to be methodical, but it had not escaped his notice that killing bad authors one at a time might not be the best approach in terms of efficiency. As he thought through the problem, he asked himself where such authors congregated. Book clubs and workshops. There the authors sat around stroking each other’s egos with no one ever saying, “Your work is crap, you should stick to your plumbing day job!”

The reviewer experienced an epiphany, What was it that every faux author wanted? Simple, a publishing house to discover them and come calling, even though they would pretend otherwise. So what if he posed as a talent scout and invited himself to their meetings? Genius!

He sat down immediately and starting working on a hack of the biggest ebook publishing platform’s author database, looking for author names, addresses, titles, revenue generated, and reviews. He was briefly amused that he had used the publishing platform’s own cloud computing service for very little cost to hack into their own databases, through multiple remote proxies. Downloading the data, he parsed it by geographical locations and started identifying clusters of potentially bad authors. Now he had a list that supported working on group removals.

He focused on Kansas City for his first group to investigate. Perusing social media he was able to look for commonalities and page subscriptions for writing clubs or workshop groups. Slowly, but surely, a list of candidates was compiled. Figuratively holding his nose, he ordered a copy of each candidate’s latest book to read, which doubtless sent them into a frenzy when their online account registered the sale in real time.

Over the next two weeks, the reviewer read each of the books, making notes for his reviews. As he finished a book, he would either circle the author’s name on his list or cross it off. Very few were crossed off but, for those that were, he wrote an online review stating that their book was not terrible. Choosing the largest group of six authors, who met regularly at their writing club Writer’s Muse, the reviewer called the organizer of the group, Patty Brauner. Patty had written three simply dreadful books about her childhood rise from abject poverty, but all with great cover art and misleading back cover marketing text. He doubted there were many repeat sales.

“Hi Patty, my name is Judge Smith, I work for a division of Bertelsmann and evaluate Indie authors for possible publishing contracts. The reason I am calling is that I’ve noticed a cluster of likely authors who are affiliated with your Writer’s Muse group.” the reviewer said.

“Yes, that is the group I founded. What is your interest?” Patty said.

“Well, Patty, it seems to me that whatever you’re doing there is working. There are a number of published authors in that group that I would like to speak with, yourself included. Is there any way that I can attend a typical meeting to meet everyone and see how things are done?”

“Why, certainly. This is so exciting! We have a meeting coming up in a couple of weeks. We meet in my home. We generally work for an hour and a half then socialize until it ends.”

“Patty, one thing I must ask of you. It must be confidential as to why I am coming to the meeting. Let’s just say I am another aspiring author. The reason is that I want to see how your journey works, undisturbed, before people start acting strangely because I represent a publisher. We can break the news during the social hour, if that works. Landing a cohesive working group into contracts is much more interesting to me than simply finding sole artists.”

“I know what you mean. Together we are greater than the sum of the parts. I’ll keep it confidential until then, Judge. If I may ask, were you named after the actor?” Patty asked.

“I get that question a lot, especially in the United States. No, the answer is much more mundane, I am afraid. My mother thought I looked far too serious for a newborn baby, thus the name,” the reviewer said thinking fast as he changed the subject. “Are you aware of any agent representation issues that I should be concerned with prior to the meeting?”

“No, none of us have used agents up until now. So far we haven’t wanted them,” Patty divulged.

“No need for it at this point, I’m sure agents will approach all of you once our interest is made plain.”

Patty provided the reviewer with the date, time and location of the meeting, and they concluded the call.

The reviewer then ordered a small batch of business cards for Judge Smith and his fictitious division of Bertelsmann to be delivered to a drop box on the way to Kansas City. He also prepared a disguise that incorporated a temporary change of hair color, close trimmed mustache, beard, accentuated cheekbones, an expensive fedora, and European-cut business attire with patches on the elbows. Should fit right in, he thought to himself.

The day before the meeting, the reviewer packed up his camper van and car with everything he might need. Checking through his list, he then set out for the Walnut Grove RV Park in Shawnee Kansas with a short stop to pick up his business cards. Upon arrival, eight hours later, he disconnected the Honda for ease in transportation.

Hooking into the RV park Internet services, he established the usual secure access to international proxies and started to review what had taken place with Patty during the last 24 hours. Had she been able to keep her mouth shut? Without too much effort, he was able to enter her email server and started reading. Patty didn’t do too badly, but she did reach out to all of the authors and urge them baldly to come, without providing any details. Good girl, he thought, you’re still a candidate! My God, she subscribes to about fifty daily writing sites. No emails to Bertelsmann checking into my credentials, good. I think we are a go!

The reviewer pulled out the package of chocolate chip cookie dough that he had prepared the night before, his own special recipe. Cutting the dough in half, he made the first few perfect batches of cookies and set them aside to cool. The final half of the dough required special treatment. These cookies were to be larger than the rest and included macadamia nuts, and a variety of chocolate chip types. The reviewer readied a small HAZMAT chamber for the completed cookies. As they came out of the small oven, he carefully dusted each of them with a powder that he kept in a small vial inside the chamber. He watched while the powder was fully absorbed and the cookies cooled. Once he was sure that none of the powder had escaped, he purged the chamber with compressed air for several minutes and loaded the cookies into two plastic containers which were placed in the refrigerator. Now he could eat some dinner and relax with a glass of wine.

The next day, he monitored Patty’s compromised email account as well as her text messages. So far, she was living up to the compact. There was no unusual traffic amongst the group other than to all confirm that they would be in attendance. As the sun started to go down, the reviewer started the process of becoming Judge. No one at the park noticed his transformation and he drove off for the meeting.

Arriving in Patty’s neighborhood he parked down the street, positioned for an easy exit. Gathering the cookies along with a Moleskine notebook he headed for the front door and rang the bell.

Patty opened the door as if she had been watching for him. “Judge? Hello, I am Patty. Welcome to our group. What do you have there?”

“Hello Patty, it is a pleasure to finally meet in person. These are some special treats I prepared for the social bit of the evening. It’s a little something that I like to do.” Judge said as he handed the containers to her “No nibbles until after!”

“Certainly, I’ll put these in the kitchen for now. Come in and meet the group. Group, this is Judge Smith a prospective new member to Writer’s Muse. Sit, Judge, we’ll introduce ourselves as we go through the meeting.”

Judge smiled and did a small hand wave to the group while sitting down. The meeting kicked off much as Judge had expected. Each person introduced themselves, made various excuses as to why they hadn’t written much during the last week, then read several hundred words of what they had written. Then the group would give constructive feedback. As each person on Judge’s list spoke, Judge would write notes within his book. Judge smiled as he imagined the meeting to be much like that for Alcoholics Anonymous, “My name is Joe Blow, I’m an author. Last week was very hard for me and I was unable to write because …” The room would respond with vocal encouragement, as payment for what they would receive when they too rendered their excuses to the group. Some of the authors had decent skills, like Patty, but nothing interesting to say. Authors who persist even when they have nothing to say are as bad as those without the skills, Judge thought. Regardless, cleaning up this nest will be a service to the arts.

Finally the meeting closed, and Patty opened up the kitchen for refreshments.

“Patty, do you mind, my process is to make the conversational rounds while handing out cookies?” Judge picked up his containers and opened them. “Patty, as hostess and one of the main reasons I’m here tonight, you get the first one of the special cookies I prepared with my own hands.”

“Thank you, Judge! I do love chocolate chip cookies.” Patty said as she took several bites. “These are so good! What is your secret?”

“Butter, tender loving care, and my secret ingredient.”

Patty announced to the group why Judge was there, creating a buzz of side conversations. Judge reiterated what he had said earlier to Patty and went on to add that he looked forward to speaking with each of them. As he passed by each person he offered up cookies depending on whether they were on the list. If they were not, he would pass them the standard chocolate chip, telling them to take more than one if so inclined. If they were on the list, he would pass the special cookies and insist that they take one.

“I must confess that my feelings will be hurt if these aren’t appreciated,” Judge said in a self deprecating way, “Consider these special cookies the same as receiving a rose, in a different kind of contest.” The authors laughed appreciatively and tucked into their respective cookies.

One person on his list refused, citing an allergy to macadamia nuts. There’s always one, Judge thought, I’ll have to deal with him in a more conventional way. He was one of those citing writer’s block during the meeting, but now he was itching to get away from the meeting, saying that he had an idea that needed to be set down before he forgot it. Judge made an appointment to meet with him the next day.

Judge stayed and made conversation with the remaining authors. He assured the persons that didn’t get the special cookie that they should stick with the group, as it was clear it was headed somewhere good. Finally, Judge thanked his hostess Patty saying he would be in touch within the next few days. Gathering his containers together, he made his way to his parked Honda. Driving away, he pulled into the parking lot of a small convenience store and became the reviewer again by eliminating beard and makeup using a container of quick wipes. Looking for any security cameras and finding none, he threw his containers, cards and the spent quick wipes into the dumpster next to the building. Running down his operations checklist, he returned to the RV park and took a thorough shower, washing out the temporary hair coloring.

The reviewer then logged into the ebook platform site and wrote final reviews for each of the authors who had eaten the special cookies. The poison they had ingested would not kill them for several days, which was more than enough time to finish what business he still had in town. The final author would require a solution utilizing firearms, given the time constraints, but the reviewer was well prepared for that eventuality. He wrote the author’s final review, as well, but did not publish it.

Using his hacking tool kit, he was quickly able to determine that the author lived alone but was a bit of a throwback when it came to new technologies. The author’s computer, which he was currently using to write, didn’t have a webcam nor did the reviewer see one within the author’s home network. It did appear that he was listening to death metal as he wrote. Of course, the home network had been compromised almost immediately due to the author not changing the router default passwords. He didn’t even seem to have an active mobile phone, or at least one on the network. The reviewer went on to social media, and found the author’s business page to be mostly dedicated to his novels without much day to day activity.

Taking a deep breath, the reviewer decided to go out once more and see if there was an opportunity to close things out that night. Failing that he would have to plan something for the next evening. Putting on his dull black jeans and long sleeved black turtleneck, he got back into the Toyota for another drive to the author’s neighborhood.

This was a much seedier neighborhood than where the Writer’s Muse group met, gang graffiti adorned any wall that would stand for it, but there did not appear to be much foot traffic by that late hour. Cruising by the author’s house, he could see a light in what looked to be a bedroom window. The street was very dark, as it appeared that no street lights were operational. The few lights illuminated the homes willing to have paid for them, but there were not many. Perfect, he thought, I guess we can finish tonight. The reviewer parked about half a block down the street, opened his laptop and checked the status of the author. Still listening to death metal and writing.

The reviewer took his semiautomatic 9mm pistol from its case, and screwed a new canister silencer onto the end of the barrel. Everything in his kit was a dull black, the final touch was to place his black balaclava into his front pocket and the pistol into a shopping bag. That wouldn’t be needed until he was off the sidewalk and inside the house. The reviewer exited his car, and calmly walked the half a block to the author’s house. Looking around, there was no one out, so the reviewer moved swiftly to the outside wall of the home. Putting on his balaclava, the reviewer tested the front door which was locked. The back door was locked as well. The author was sitting in a bedroom on the first floor.

The in-ground basement had a window well which was perfect to hide a forced entry. Scoring a circular scratch onto the glass using a special key with an industrial diamond tip, the reviewer then tapped gently inside the circle until it popped into the basement room with a small clatter. Reaching in through the hole, the reviewer unlocked and opened the window. Using a small flashlight, he looked around the room. It was finished but was apparently used for long term storage. Gently stepping down, the reviewer entered the house.

He took out the pistol and placed the empty bag folded, into one of the open boxes.

Holding the flashlight in his mouth, he walked quietly towards the basement stairs. He walked up the steps slowly, hearing each creak of the stairs as loud as thunder. He paused and realized that he could not hear the author’s death music, then realized that he hadn’t heard it at all. Perhaps the author was wearing earphones? Turning off his flash light, he slowly opened the door to the basement stairs and entered the kitchen.

The only light came from nightlights, several in the kitchen and one in the hallway. At the end of the hall, there was light coming through a partially open doorway. Listening carefully, the reviewer could hear tinny death metal music, confirming that headphones were being used.

Holding his gun in firing position, the reviewer looked through the open sections of the door. The author was against the far wall, typing and listening to the music. The reviewer slowly opened the door just wide enough to admit him, and walking softly aimed the pistol at the back of the author’s head as he approached. At two feet the reviewer stopped, braced his hands on the gun and pulled the trigb6tyg5ytnui8..

[Published posthumously from files discovered by the author’s estate]

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin

 

 

 

 

Budget Demon

“I’ve got a mojo box,
with your head on top”

Southern Culture on the Skids, 2004

Stuart could not accept Bella’s abrupt departure, even after a long month had passed.

She had played the old “I need to understand who I am becoming, alone and I have to honor my process.” card rather than just stating that the relationship had ceased to work for her. Also left unsaid was that she expected Stuart’s sole contribution to the process to be his continued absence.

Stuart was the type of person who was seldom noticed in a crowd. Not handsome or ugly, reasonably fit, forgettable haircut, decent but not expensive tastes in clothes. Non-threatening, but with a nimble mind and wit (when he chose to use it). Stuart was a fixer or strategist by profession. His core talent was being able to evaluate the opposition (however defined) and help his clients prevail by whatever creative means were most effective. He could find an exploitable weakness in almost anything.

Bella in marked contrast was an artist, volatile, wildly creative and delightful in conversation. Her look was angular and thin, but not too terribly fit. These days she sported short Goth-black hair with upscale hippy clothing, that actually had to be paid for rather than having its origins in a bargain bin. Completing the picture was an abundance of art jewelry, mostly silver. Everyone noticed Bella, wherever she went.

There wasn’t lengthy discussion before she left. No heated arguments or other unpleasantness as her things were loaded and moved to the truck. Just a quick hug, a kiss on his cheek, the admonition to “Take care of yourself” as well as an “I’ll always treasure what we had!” and she was gone.

Stuart thought that what he objected to wasn’t so much what Bella did, as the way in which she did it. Abrupt, unilateral and final. He had expected something of the sort eventually, but simply wasn’t ready to take such a drastic decision himself. They had mostly run out of things to say to one another for some time, but had continued to be comfortable and warm in each other’s company.

Of course, it hadn’t helped his peace of mind to later hear from mutual friends that she had moved in with one of her male occult group friends. Why couldn’t she have just said she was doing that, rather than an artful dodge which felt like a lie?

In the days that followed, Stuart reclaimed all of his things that she had shared, the extra closet space, refrigerator shelves, and the demands on his time. However, the hole in his heart persisted and still rankled.

So one day when she telephoned, unexpected and irrational hope had blossomed.

“How have you been? For some reason I have been thinking of you. How has your work been going?”

Stuart had been spending more time with clients, preferring to be paid if he was going to be miserable anyway, but didn’t really want to talk much about that.

“I’ve been fine, working mostly. I did write a short poem last week which I thought had some legs. Do you want to hear it? It’s short.” he said.

Several beats of silence and “Sure, let’s hear it.”

“Every day, missing
Every day, hating
Every day, loving
Every day, waiting
Every day”
,

Stuart recited, with pauses in all of the right places, as that is always important.

“What do you think?”, he asked.

“I liked the theme repetition, and the order of the activities. It begs the question as to whether the waiting is actually for love or hate? The best verse doesn’t always lend certainty, in my opinion, so well done!”, she said.

Yes, Bella, those things are certainly observable, Stuart thought to himself, but how do you feel about it?

That question was not going to be answered by Bella, not least because she hadn’t heard it. Stuart found that he had no further interest in casual conversation. Casual conversation, after such a long mental intimacy, created even more wounds which could not be overtly acknowledged. Stuart saw no benefit or future in being a friendly acquaintance, plus he had higher intimacy expectations for people he considered friends. So he thanked her politely for the call and, inventing a client meeting for which he was late, rang off.

Several days later, he met his friend Brian at a local brewpub for happy hour. Over the loud Two-Drink-for-One ambient bar atmosphere, he shared his inability to move on from Bella, with Brian.

“Stu, the real problem here is that you were too civilized. The bridge between you two isn’t well and truly burned, so you don’t know what to do next.”

Stuart thought he understood but, being thorough, asked “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“It all comes down to a difference in the way that men and women view past relationships. Women have an imaginary curio cupboard where all of their past loves are kept as figurines. Women will periodically take one down in remembrance, dust it off, heave a deep meaningful sigh and then put it back in its place on the shelf. They then will continue their day as though nothing had happened. Men, on the other hand, tend to break the figurines as well as the shelf (and perhaps the wall behind it) in order to move on. Remembering all of the good things only exacerbates the loss, for men.”

“You, my friend, have not broken the figurine and cannot therefore move on.”

Brian said this with the certainty that comes from self knowledge, and being halfway through his second round of happy hour beer.

Stuart thought for a few moments and said, “I’m not really interested in hurting her just so I can burn a bridge. I wouldn’t mind doing something that would make her appreciate, or provide a taste of, my feelings in all of this. We didn’t work out, that happens. She should feel some of the disconnect and accept some of the negative as well. Not sure how I would go about doing just that.”

“The answer is staring you in the face, Stuart. What do you do for a living? You find and exploit the weaknesses in things. Why don’t you treat her as an opponent? You already have your rules for the proper types of revenge, and yes what we are talking about here is revenge. How would you create enough cognitive dissonance or angst to make her uncomfortable and recognize what she lost in you? How much effect is needed before you feel some closure?”

Brian drained his glass, “Look, Stu. I’m about done with the New-Age-Sensitive-Guy routine for tonight. In fact, I’m planning to go ugly, early. You might want to consider that as an alternative to my suggestion, nothing like a new romance to cauterize the loss of an old one!” With that Brian lurched off towards a loud gaggle of women on his own mission.

You know, Stuart thought as he headed home to his empty house, Brian might have a point. Where would I find such a weakness in Bella? What is there about her which could lend itself to creation of discomfort, rather than tangible injury? She was honest, for the most part, so dishonesty was not an opening. Greed or avarice provides an avenue for many people, but neither really applied to Bella. What about her belief in the occult and supernatural? That might be a good choice, but how?

Stuart considered this aspect of Bella’s life to be nothing more than superstitious nonsense. While he hadn’t made it an issue during their time together, he viewed it as one of her little quirks. During the entire time they were together, he had never seen anything tangible that would support such a belief. Bella wasn’t concerned about his views on the topic other than to state that there were many more things in the universe than ever met the eyes of someone prone to skepticism. Usually, she would follow that up with a hug or a kiss as though to prove she wasn’t bothered or being critical.

She believed in spells, how about doing something along those lines? Spells probably weren’t the best choice, he decided, as spells seemed to be fairly predictable in effect. Stuart was really striving for something that created persistent anxiety or non-specific angst. The best result, from his perspective, would be for Bella to be uncomfortable or anxious, without being able to prepare against or counteract an imaginary threat. No, a spell would just enable her, or her new roommate, to simply cast a “counterspell” and consider the issue dealt with. He chuckled an aside to himself, that the counterspell would work just as well as the spell itself. i.e. not at all. No, this had to be something that would linger in her mind, even in the absence of tangible effect.

What about demons? She had mentioned on more than one occasion that she and others from her family could “see” demons. She also maintained that all demons were dangerous and should not be engaged for frivolous ends. Since Stuart didn’t believe in the supernatural, he heard those cautions as stories, little different from those of the religious. You either had faith, believing the stories even in the absence of tangible proof, or you didn’t believe them at all.

I think I will summon a demon to bother her, that should blow a cold wind up her skirt, Stuart thought. Of course, I can’t just say I have summoned a demon, she has always been able to know when I am lying. Therefore, I must do some preliminary research, follow the guidelines or process of summoning/tasking a demon, tell her what I have done afterwards and let the fun commence.

Having a plan felt better than not having one. Stuart fired up his computer and started researching online. Unfortunately, most of the search engine returns were fansites for various television shows which featured the supernatural. Clearly, those were not the right sources. He even checked the website of the occult group to which Bella belonged, SealsofFate.com, but there weren’t any obvious resources for spells or summonings, just a lot of member conversation threads on where to best find ingredients that would be put to unspecified uses.

Stuart was about to give up, when a popup advertisement appeared for “Blazin’ Bob’s One Stop Occult Shop – Locations near You!”. Stuart thought, why not and clicked the banner marked Shop Locations, entering his zip code into the form. A new browser screen opened with details of a local store which, oddly enough, was located within the Streedle Beat Mall, near Stuart’s home. Perfect and convenient.

Thinking that there was no time like the present, Stuart walked over to the mall concourse, looking for a directory. The Streedle Beat Mall had the usual assortment of retail establishments, a food court, and about a million teenagers no matter the time of day. Looking down the directory, he found the listing. The store was located in the space formerly occupied by a Radio Shack, and a motley crew of successor firms which never seemed to last long.

Dodging teenagers the entire way, Stuart walked across the mall towards the store. He noticed that the teenager density gradually diminished as he approached the door. That’s odd, he thought, I would have expected a place like this to be a magnet for teenagers, Goths if no one else.

As he entered the shop, an old fashioned bell hung over the door rang.

“I’ll be right out” a voice shouted from the backrooms of the store.

Stuart headed over to the occult book shelves and started browsing. The first few he looked through were written in Middle or Early English, without notes or references of any kind. No table of contents either, clearly these books were meant to be read cover-to-cover. Stuart was the impatient sort of reader when it came to how-to books, he generally referred to the table of contents or index prior to turning directly to the section he needed. Facing the prospect of reading through the tomes, sifting for the important information, did not appeal to him.

“Can I help you?” a voice from behind him asked.

Stuart started and turned. The small thin man was dressed in clean but shabby clothes, covered by a store smock with the Blazin’ Bob logo foremost. On a small pocket, which had several writing utensils parked, almost as an afterthought was a name tag labeled “Bob”.

“Yes, I believe I do need some help with my project.” Stuart said. The name tag registered at that point and he asked “Are you THE Bob?”.

Bob laughed and replied, “I get that question a lot. No, I am not THE Bob, merely one of the many Bob’s which run a Blazin’ Bob franchise. Blazin’ Bob only sells franchises to persons named Bob, something to do with the franchise branding and name tag economies of scale. Of course people could always change their name to Bob, as some have done, to get round that requirement. But enough of that, how can I help you today, sir?”

“I’ll get to that in a sec, because I have another off-topic question. Isn’t it odd that there aren’t any teenagers hanging around the store, I would have thought they’d be everywhere, since this kind of thing would appeal to a large number of them?”

“Not odd at all, sir. What you are seeing is the result of Blazin’ Bob’s standard Teenager Repelling Ward Kit. We find that most of our target customers are put off by having teenagers around, therefore we make sure teenagers don’t interfere with our business. Since we are in a mall, the issue is even more pronounced. We are also a responsible corporate entity, in that we don’t think non-adult persons should be involved in occult matters.”

Stuart laughed, “I may want to buy one of those as well. Several of the neighborhood children are getting on into their teenage years and you never know how that will turn out.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll make a note. Now, how else can I help you?”

“Well, I’m a bit of a novice, but I want to summon a demon. Looking through some of these texts, it is difficult to find that section based on what I seen so far. I’d prefer not to have to wade through a lot of extraneous text before I get to demon summoning.”

Bob took out a handkerchief that had seen better, and cleaner, days and blew his nose soundly. “That, sir, is fairly advanced magic. Furthermore there is a wide range of what types of entities can be summoned, as well as what it takes to do so. It might help a bit to know what type of entities for which you are aiming.”

“Can you give me some examples?” Stuart said, “I’m not familiar with the specific names or types that would be available.”

“Certainly. In general, they can range in power from small imps, say, to a prince of Hell, and the difficulty or cost increases more or less proportionately with the power. The risk to the summoner is also more or less proportional. Here, let me show you some examples from the tome you’re holding. So, if you are summoning a run-of-the-mill demon, you need something to scribe a ward which restrains the demon from attacking you (very important). For small demons, common household chalk would work. Large demons might require something as rare as charcoal from a saint’s bones. Sometimes the ingredients have to be gathered over time, such as nightshade leaves harvested in Cornwall under the light of a gibbous moon using a pure silver knife untouched by human hands. We have a standing policy at Blazin’ Bob’s that we never inquire as to why  a customer wants something, but in this case it would be helpful to understand the scale for which you’re striving.”

Stuart thought for a second and mused, “I don’t really have a need for large scale, in fact I think it should be something that only requires a reasonable amount of effort. I’m looking to do this as soon as possible, so travel to far flung places and the need for special timing should be minimized if at all possible.”

“Thank you, sir. I think I have just the thing. Have you heard of Mystic Mort’s ‘Summoning for the Mostly Moronic’, part of the Mostly Moronic line of how-to books? It’s even indexed so that you can easily find what you want.”

“I have the Mostly Moronic books on French Cuisine and HTML Programming, so that should do very well I think, they’ve always been very helpful in the past.” Stuart said.

“You’ll likely want the section for summoning an imp. That is the least difficult both in terms of both risk and the materials needed. As for materials, you can probably find everything you need at Stallmart, my cousin Robert runs a mystic materials stall there. Tell him I sent you, if it is not too much trouble.”

“Thanks, I’ll take the book! And throw in a couple of Teenager Repelling Ward Kits while we are at it, one extra in the event that the first one doesn’t take.” Stuart took out his credit card and handed it over. Revenge had never been acquired at such a reasonable price.

Bob placed the items in a shopping bag and handed it over to Stuart. “Don’t forget to be very careful on the instructions, even small demons can be a handful if not careful.”

“Thanks, I will.” Stuart replied as he walked back to his home.

Stallmart was close by, and since Stuart had decided to get everything the same day, he turned to page 187 of the Summoning book and quickly copied the list that was shown in the box labeled, “You’ll Need:” onto a convenient sticky note.

Frederick Stall of Gothenburg, Nebraska was the founder of the Stallmart national chain of shopping stores. Stall had always been fascinated by the concept of rural marketplaces, and resolved to create little stores within the enclosed spaces of large buildings across the nation. The idea was similar to an indoor shopping mall, with an important difference. Instead of just leasing space to smaller stores which managed their own business, Stall’s vision was to provide identical services and products in every Stallmart, and selling franchises to operate the “stalls” to operators. Stall’s parent company set operations and product standards, marketed, managed inventories and drove high level economies of national scale. The franchisees ran the stalls.

Every Stallmart had grocery, home goods, electronics, pharmacy, optometry, and automotive stalls. Each Stallmart also had a wide assortment of lesser known stalls, such as the Mystic Materials stall managed by Bob’s cousin Robert.

Stuart parked his car in the “Stallmart Car Detailing” stall and went inside the grand promenade to reference the store directory. I get lost every time I come in here, he thought to himself. Normally, Stuart only did his weekly grocery shopping there, as the pricing was excellent, but didn’t walk the entire store for non-specific window shopping.

Looking through the listing he found the Mystic Materials location, it was a small stall next to a wireless device boutique. Skirting the aggressive tout at the wireless device stall he scuttled into the Mystic Materials shop.

Looking around, the closely spaced row shelves which were jam-packed with small containers and the room itself smelled slightly musty. Seeing a counter bell, Stuart rang it.

“Hello? I’ll be right there” a surprisingly resonant voice spoke from a small slightly framed man. “Ah, here you are. My name is Robert, what can I help you find?”

Robert pronounced his name ‘Row Bear’, which amused Stuart. Thinking there might be an additional discount available he asked, “Yes, I have a list of the ingredients needed for a project of mine and I was referred to you by your cousin Bob over at the Blazin’ Bob shop.”

“Which Blazin’ Bob shop are we talking about? The one at the Streedle Beat Mall or the one off of Highway 15?” Robert asked.

“Why, the one at Streedle Beat.”

“Thank you, I have two cousins with Blazin’ Bob franchises.”

“Both named Bob, I suppose?”

“Of course! All the males in our family are named Robert. Some of us change how it is pronounced in order to maintain some semblance of the individual, not to mention it being a convenient conversational shortcut when talking in-family. One cousin even pronounces his name as ‘Frank’, but that is less common than simple plays on the same name like Rob or Bert.”

“Interesting, Row-Bear. Here is the list of items I’ll be needing. Do you have all of them available?” Stuart said, handing over the sticky note.

Robert read down the list, nodding his head with each entry. “Yes, we do have all of these items, however, you will also have a fair amount of each left over. While the sold quantities come in small amounts, your project doesn’t require very much. One of the minor issues imposed by working with Stallmart is that we only sell pre-packaged items, but you’ll find the prices are quite comparable to competitors selling by the unit. Is this list from the Mystic Mort’s ‘Summoning’ book? Yes, I thought so. Then you’ll have plenty of leftover ingredients for other uses, Mystic Mort specifies a lot of the same ingredients in his formulations.” As he spoke, his hands were picking items off of the shelves as he ran down the list.

Stuart shook his head, “I am only working the one project, but I’m sure your pricing will not be an obstacle. Was there a referral discount connected with Bob’s reference?”

“Absolutely, very little I wouldn’t do for dear cousin Bob. I’ll include your discount when I ring up the charges. Now, will you be paying with cash, debit or credit card?”

Robert deftly worked the register, processing the transaction. Stuart declined being added to the list receiving a newsletter, but was nice about it.

Robert handed the bag over to Stuart, “Thank you for your business, please refer your friends to us. Have a great day, and if it isn’t great, the spell for fixing that is on page 287.” he said with a wink.

What an odd experience, Stuart thought. He quite enjoyed the conversations with Bob and Robert, it reminded him of the slightly off-kilter effect that Bella always had on him. Of course, that thought dampened his mood somewhat as he remembered why he was engaged in the summoning of an imp in the first place.

He picked up his newly clean car and drove home. He resolved to do the summoning the next evening, which should give him adequate time to read and fully understand the instructions.

As Stuart read the instructions, he realized that his old photography hobby equipment would be useful, as he already had beakers and various other chemical handling equipment readily available. He hadn’t previously thought about it, but not having to use the dishes he ate off of was probably a better approach.

The next day was filled with expectation. Stuart planned to contact Bella shortly after the summoning, checking in to see how “she was doing”. He would casually drop the comment that he had summoned something that should keep her up at night, with an evil chuckle. He longed for a mustache to twirl. He’d then listen for the first indications of concern and then ring off. That would put paid to all remaining angst concerning her abandoning him, and he could move forward with his life. Who knows, maybe Brian would then be available for a late dinner?

The first step was mixing a cleansing bathing fluid. Stuart had a magnetic mixer from his photography kit that served the bill nicely for mixing things in a glass beaker. As he dropped each ingredient into the swirling mix, he solemnly spoke the prescribed words. Once that was complete, he set it aside in a fresh flask and started on the priming solution after he had washed the mixing beaker. This one required simmering heat during the preparation, which Stuart supplied using his kitchen gas cooktop. It too was set aside in a separate clean glass beaker.

So far, so good. He thought as he reviewed the next step. I guess I need to decide where the ritual should take place. Someplace convenient to the kitchen, I suppose. The granite countertop is quite expansive, although probably too slick to accept the necessary chalk ward lines. I’ll just use a portion of the last large cardboard box I got from Amazon over the countertop.

He cut the box into a 24 inch by 24 inch square, which he set atop the granite countertop. Getting his masking tape from the workroom, he taped the entire cardboard square down so that it wouldn’t slip or move. Stuart then lined up the balance of the ingredients next to the square for easy access.

Drawing the pentagram ward design was fairly simple exercise for Stuart. He took the special drawing stick, which acted like chalk even if it was not strictly speaking chalk, and drew the interconnecting straight lines into the familiar pentagram design. The center of the five-sided design was approximately 4 inch by 4 inch, plenty of room to center the provided special candle. Looking it over, Stuart considered it a credible effort, and went on to complete the full circle around the pentagram. He then poured salt onto the entire circle.

Stuart placed the candle and holder in the middle of the pentagram, dipping his fingers into the cleansing solution which he then flicked over the complete tableau while saying the words specified in the instructions. He dried his fingers on a clean hand towel, and picked up the candle lighting taper. He lit the wax taper, moving it slowly to the candle centerpiece, which caught almost immediately.

Blowing out the taper, a small tail of smoke wisped up past his nose. There was an unusual smell in Stuart’s kitchen. Must be a fragrance in the taper or candle, he thought.

Now for the final step, he dipped his fingers in the priming solution and this time flicked the solution into the flame while saying, “I summon you to bedevil, Bella my lost love, and be a blight on her happiness from this day forth.”

Stuart was rather proud of the text he had come up with and couldn’t wait to tell Bella about it. As he flicked the solution onto the flame, it flared several feet towards the ceiling and receded to just the normal candle flame height. Must have been something in the priming mix to do that, but a nice effect, thought Stuart. He flicked a few more drops onto the flame but this time didn’t see any unusual effect other than the candle sputter.

Well, that doesn’t matter, it’s time call Bella! he thought.

He dialed Bella’s number and after a couple of rings she answered.

“Hi Bella, this is Stuart! I wanted to check in on you to see how you are doing?”

“Hi Stu, things have been just fine here, how are you?” Bella asked.

“I’ve been busy on some new projects. Throughout, I was thinking of you and all of your occult studies and it occurred to me that you could use a demon around your house. So I went ahead, summoned one and ordered it to head your way.”

“Demon? I thought you didn’t hold much stock in the topic.” Bella said.

Before Stuart could answer, a large crash was heard through the phone. Bella yelled something unintelligible before she turned the same vocal volume at Stuart, “Stuart, you complete idiot! What have you done?”

Stuart was about to answer, but the phone connection went dead in his hand. He redialed Bella, but evidently she was not picking up. This had gone even better than he had imagined!

His mood lifted, he walked over to the refrigerator to pour himself a glass of wine. He lifted the glass and readied a toast to himself.

“Oh, what occasion are we toasting?” asked a cavernous deep voice behind Stuart.

Stuart whirled, spilling just a bit of wine, and saw something coming through the wall of his kitchen. It was approximately human in shape, but very hard to see as the edges seemed to be blurry. The air within the kitchen seemed to also be under greater pressure as the dark figure fully entered the room.

“Who are you?” Stuart cried, “You’ve given me such a start!”

“My name you couldn’t pronounce and I likely wouldn’t tell you regardless. You can call me Buz if that matters to you. Are you the one I have to thank for the delightful snack I just had?”

“Snack?”

“Yes, someone sent a smallish imp over to Bella’s. They aren’t much good for anything except a quick bite, but as hungry as I have been, it was quite welcome.”

“What are you?” Stuart inquired as panic started to have its way with him.

“A much better question than who I am. I am a greater demon, currently under geas to serve as Bella’s home security system. Evidently, it was easier to summon me than spend $39.99 a month for a human-monitored system. Luckily for me, my self-worth isn’t tied to that information. Did I mention I am still hungry?”

“I also see from the apparatus lying about that the imp indeed came from here. I knew that already having tracked it back, but it pays to follow the forms when engaged in this type of activity. Based on the rules under which I am bound, I am now permitted to eat you for breaching Bella’s home security. When last I saw her, she was unconscious underneath a fallen bookshelf, so I should probably get on with the eating as she might stop me, were she awake. Nothing personal, and I did appreciate the snack.” said Buz as he slowly moved towards Stuart. His form seemed to expand with each step.

Stuart backed away from the oncoming presence, running into his countertop. His mind, unable to comprehend matters, searched wildly for any option. Maybe this person, who thinks he’s a demon, is also superstitious. Quickly, he grabbed the beaker of cleansing solution and poured it all into the primer flask. A bubbling rose up and Stuart threw the entire contents of the combined fluid onto Buz’s chest.

Buz, looking down the front of his body in stunned disbelief, “You are the luckiest son of a bitch I have ever met! That’s Mystic Mort’s Geas Remover Potion or I’m a prince of Hell!”

“Now I have even more for which to thank you. However, I am still very hungry. Therefore I will still eat you, but I’ll show you a mercy and make sure that you don’t suffer more than absolutely necessary. Win-Win. How does that sound?”, Buz asked, resuming his advance towards Stuart.

Stuart’s mind was in disarray, nothing presented itself. Finally, just as the shadow of Buz’s fingers touched Stuart’s body, he cried “But I don’t believe in demons!”.

Buz chuckled, “Skeptics taste the best of all!”.

The screaming was abrupt and mercifully short lived.

The sound of chewing, however, went on for quite some time.

“Now that was a meal!”, a deep voice exclaimed accompanied by a lengthy belch. “I do have some room left for dessert, though.”

Several minutes later, in a kitchen not too far away, the deep voiced words “Bella, I’m home!” were heard.

 

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin

Breakfast with Howard

“Is that you, Danny?”, I heard as I entered the side door of my grandfather’s house in the early morning.

“Yeah, it’s me” I answered, thinking that if I were anyone else it was too late to do anything about it.

“Come in the kitchen and pull up a chair.”

I had walked the several blocks from our Bloomington, California home on Lynwood Street, crossing Valley Blvd and over to their home on Portola Avenue in the dark of the early morning. Mom always insisted that I had to report to work early, so I generally got there well before Grandpa was ready to leave. That meant a second breakfast most days. Grandpa would be sitting at the kitchen table, smoking pretty much nonstop and drinking black percolated coffee. By the time I arrived, Grandpa was polishing off most of a can of biscuits and whatever bacon Grandma had prepared. Grandpa’s biscuits of choice were the store-brand ones which came 10 chunks of biscuit dough to a can, which we could get on sale at twelve cans for a dollar at the Safeway on Valley Blvd. The bacon, could be any kind as long as it was pork. Is there a wrong kind of pork bacon?

During summer vacation and school year weekends of my early high school years I had many opportunities to work for Howard Sharp, my maternal grandfather. At the time, I wouldn’t have necessarily labeled it an “opportunity”, but with the improved vision one attains only with age, opportunity is exactly what it was.

The way my mother presented it to me, was that I had to help my grandfather. That was an argument I always fell for, as I dearly loved this particular grandfather. I made a little cash, but also learned house framing, drywall, painting, plumbing, piping, and landscaping. So yes, it was an opportunity.

My sister, brother and I were fortunate to have seven grandparents for much of our childhood (four regular and three greats). So just saying Grandpa and Grandma would have created some confusion. My Dad always referred to our maternal grandparents as Howard and Odessa. We, on pain of early death, were not allowed that verbal shortcut. To us children, they were just Grandma and Grandpa Sharp.

Grandpa was always telling stories and cracking jokes. Grandma was always deadly serious. Grandpa was an adult friend. Grandma represented the forces of order and discipline. My aunt, years later, decried that Grandma was all too often the straight person or butt of Grandpa’s jokes. That was certainly true, but as my daughter pointed out, those roles were established by the two of them long ago and it created a cohesive entertainment team. You never see a partnership where the straight person swaps places with the joker periodically, it would likely confuse the audience. Plus, a straight person isn’t usually capable of making the necessary personality switch in an effective way.

“Have some biscuits and bacon. Odessa, cook up some more bacon for Danny.” He’d flash a mischievous grin and point out an empty chair at the stainless steel trimmed dinette table.

Grandma would greet me, with as few hugs as I could reasonably manage, and then start cooking a whole new batch of bacon on the stove. One of the reasons we all resisted hugs from Grandma is that she usually wore a lot of rose fragrance. The closer you got to her the more stifling it would be. One had to hold their breath when getting a hug and kiss, if you were wanting to avoid sneezing and coughing fits. Grandpa referred to it as her “chemical warfare”. Truth told, she probably just didn’t like the smell of cigarettes which permeated their home. If you had a good sense of smell, the combination was enough to make you choke. Adding bacon, biscuits and whatever else was being cooked to the mix wasn’t sufficient to lift the curse.

Grandma was fairly short, close to five feet tall and built solid. We used to joke that she was probably five feet in circumference as well. However it was not today’s classic flabby obese look, she was farmer’s wife solid with large shoulders and legs like pillars, not a lot of jiggle. In those days, she was usually dressed as though she was going to church, with dress, fake pearls, girdle, rollup nylon stockings and sensible dress shoes. The fake pearls came off when she was being casual. (Many years later she started wearing pantsuits, well before Hillary Clinton, but that was long after I was an adult.) I can’t remember ever seeing her in shorts or a swimsuit, and I think that would have been memorable, even in the 70s.

Grandma was lacquered down, but never liquored up. Hair up and done all the time, held strictly in place by gallons of lacquer hairspray. The hairstyle was that of the Primitive Baptist Church in Texas where she grew up. As a younger child, my cousins and I would throw paper airplanes at her hair. Once, a particularly well-crafted effort crash-landed into her hair nose-first and it stuck. Grandma went through her whole day around the house not knowing why the grandkids were paralyzed with giggles. Grandpa saw it happen, just shook his head and smiled. Grandma was so straight that a whole family of jokers could work with it.

Baptists, as a general rule, are not huge fans of alcohol consumption. In fact they are primarily responsible for the continued existence of most of the dry alcohol-free counties left in the United States. Grandpa liked to have a drink on occasion, but didn’t keep it in the house in order to enjoy some semblance of marital peace. Of course, I maintain that Grandma was in fact a secret drinker and that she simply never acknowledged it. Why? Because she drank Nyquil (10% alcohol) by the gallon in order to help her sleep. Saying something is “just medicine” when it has more alcohol content than beer is difficult to justify with a straight face. Grandma had evolved to the point where she was merely a Baptist, but maintained the sartorial look of the more conservative branch. One step more liberal than the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues Pentacostals (although we have some of those in the family as well).

“Odessa doesn’t need any more of these biscuits and bacon. One of these days, her girdle is going to burst and kill everyone in the room with shrapnel!” japed Grandpa.

Grandma would wave her spatula at him half threatening, he would just laugh, cough and keep up the running dialog.

Grandpa wasn’t much taller than Grandma, not overweight but solid as well. Grandpa’s daily uniform consisted of steel-toe work shoes, belted khaki pants, tucked-in single pocket short-sleeve cotton shirt. Grandpa’s signal that he was ready for “bidness” was whenever he put his cigarettes in the shirt pocket. But that was some time later in the morning generally.

Since Grandpa didn’t ever leave until the beginning of the normal workday it left ample time for stories at the breakfast table. Later, I better understood that he was treating the tenants respectfully by starting maintenance activities after their morning routines.

Looking back though, I can’t imagine I was all that helpful. I had to be taught every task prior to being useful and Grandpa was still stronger than me when it was most needed, assuming he was wearing his trusty truss (as he referred jokingly to it). Most of what Grandpa did was manage and maintain his many rental properties as well as renovate new ones. So the tasks could range from home construction to yard maintenance, depending on what was needed at the time. Grandpa was like a vulture, always on the lookout for single family homes that had been purchased under eminent domain and scheduled for demolition. He would swoop in, place a bid to remove the home, generally buying a framed house for pennies on the dollar. He would lift the house frame up onto a trailer truck and move it to a vacant lot that he had previously prepared to receive it. Once placed, he’d reconnect and renovate the home, find a new tenant. The house I lived in was one of his better efforts. At one time, Grandpa had relatives living in about half of his rentals. Talk about underperforming investments!

“Danny, did I ever tell you about the time I tangled with the croton oil?”

“Howard!” Grandma harrumphed, “That isn’t a story for the breakfast table!”

Grandpa just raised an eyebrow, grinned and pulled on his cigarette.

I had heard this story many times before, but it was funny every time and I was not about to put a halt to it. Grandpa changed his stories just enough to make them new and interesting each time. Grandpa liked to tell stories about growing up in Oklahoma just prior to the Depression, but he also told dirty jokes once we got old enough to appreciate them. Of course, he wasn’t telling the dirty jokes in front of Grandma, as that would have brought her over the counter! In later years, long after he had passed, my aunt asked whether Grandpa ever told us dirty jokes. She seemed surprised when I confirmed that he often did, and that we told him our dirty jokes too, which he always seemed to enjoy. We knew he enjoyed them because, besides choking and coughing when he heard the punchlines, he would sometimes tell us a joke we had previously told him, only doing it better. Her question was also ironic, because this aunt was one of my main sources for dirty jokes. In fact, I would tell Grandpa jokes that she had told me, and I would tell her jokes that he had supplied. I thought it was pretty safe being a middleman, as they weren’t likely telling the same juvenile jokes to each other.

“You see, Danny, when I was a kid I used to steal our neighbor’s watermelons. Actually it was worse than stealing, we used to just crack them open and eat the hearts right there. We’d eat the heart, because that was the best part and it didn’t have any seeds to slow you down, throw away the rest. Whether you’re stealing watermelon or chickens, you have to move fast! The farmers used to have rock-salt shotgun shells and were not reluctant to put a load into your backside if they caught you stealing.”

Grandpa had an accent that I had always associated with Oklahoma. But later I would hear something very similar from Lakota Sioux storytellers. Similar in the way he formed his spoken English. It added a cadence to the stories and was quite unusual for Southern California. Occasionally I still listen to Lakota storyteller recordings and hear Grandpa’s voice.

“The farmers weren’t happy about losing their crops, so they used to leave traps for us. That is where the croton oil comes in.”

“What’s croton oil, Grandpa?”

“Croton oil is a cattle laxative, for cattle that get constipated. A very powerful, fast acting laxative. Danny, you’d think that cattle, eating all that fiber like hay and grass, wouldn’t get constipated. But they do and they can die from it. You get constipated, you feel like you’re dying, right? In a cow, all of that hay sometimes gets compressed into a plug which just won’t move. One approach is to reach up into the cow’s ass with your arm and try to stir things up by hand, breaking or extracting the plug. That isn’t always successful, you could break your arm and at a minimum it definitely leaves you feeling dirty for a couple of weeks. Or you can just give ’em some croton oil. That takes care of bidness right directly. Makes a mess though.”

“What is the farmer doing with the croton oil?” I asked.

“I was getting to that. You understand that a laxative powerful enough to work quickly on a cow is a darn sight stronger than Ex-Lax? Good! Anyhow, the farmers had a problem losing watermelons to local kids and they have a liquid laxative that is very strong. So what they do, Danny, is choose a couple or really big ripe watermelons still on the vine that are close to where we have been coming in to steal them at night. Roll them over a little, cut a core in the rind, pour some croton oil into the hole, put the plug back on the melon, setting it up so that you can’t see the plug. Then leave it there for our night visits.”

At this point, I’m day-dreaming ways to get my hands on some croton oil and who I’d like to share it with, as he goes on.

“So after dinner one night, I get a taste for some ripe watermelon. I make my excuses, and fade away into the night over to that farmer’s place. The coast looked clear, so I hopped the fence and looked for a good place to start. In the moonlight, you can see pretty well, but you still have to thump ’em to check for ripe. I found a likely prospect, broke her open, scooped out the heart and ate the first one. Delicious, so I started looking for a second one, bend down to pick it up and then I couldn’t stand up for the cramps. The flood gates opened up in the backside of my trousers and I thought I was dying right there. As much pain as I was in, I knew I couldn’t make too much noise because of the farmer’s shotgun and his dogs. So I stumble back to the road, collapsing in cramps every few feet, while that croton oil tried its best to reunite the watermelon heart with the field it came from.”

As always at this point of the story, I am already snorting with laughter in between bites of biscuit. So he moves in for the kill.

“If that farmer had wanted to, he could have tracked me home next day, as I left a pretty clear trail.”

He tucks the pack of cigarettes into his shirt pocket, “Time to get to work, Danny. We can’t sit around like Odessa, eating biscuits and bacon all day.”

And off we went to meet the demands of the day.

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin