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The Captain’s Sweater

I was the cook aboard the steamship Messemer in the year 1906. En route from Edinburgh, Scotland to Bergen, Norway, we were unexpectedly trapped between two arctic ice flows. Food became scarce, and I went to the captain to discuss a sensitive matter at the urging of the sailors. 

“We can’t spare a single dog, Mr. Welch.” The captain shook his head. “They are such perishable goods when the men are hungry.”

Captain Pollock feared nothing, except maybe the ice. Not that we avoided it, all together, and so we were in the midst of it for a week, on a voyage that should have taken three days.

Like the ship, Captain Pollock puffed white smoke from his pipe. He stood at his helm in the Wheelhouse, where a sailor steered the vessel. During our meeting, the captain never looked at me. He only listened while commanding the vessel.

“Increase speed to slow-ahead,” the captain ordered.

“Aye, aye,” the helmsman, Eric, answered. His right hand grabbed the speed dial. He pushed forward and then down to the position marked ‘SLOW’’. The clicking was met with a raised chest by the captain, as if it moved him.

I looked out from the steering cabin. A thin, dark crack of water showing through two white sheets of ice was all that lay before us. I could not imagine what this narrowing passage that vanished into the distance had in store for us. 

The helmsman and the Captain seemed unfazed. 

“Captain, may I speak, sir?”

“You may, Mr. Welch.” 

“A week past, sir, when we were within sight of the northern ice flow, I saw you study the sky on that afternoon before we became ice-locked. What was the reasoning?”

He took the pipe from his mouth. “Winter is a perpetual force. Like death, it succeeds because of the absence of its opposite, not by its own virtue. It’s always there, waiting. To ward off death, we must keep ourselves alive. To ward off winter, we must keep with the sun. Therefore, I peer into the sky when I see ice.”

I looked out over the frigid deck and the endless white beyond. “It is nearly Spring, and we are surrounded, Sir.”

The helmsman shot a frigid stare at me.

“You think me blind, Mr. Welch?!” The Captain bit down on his pipe. 

“I am the captain of the Messemer. Have you lost sight? Our goal is an early arrival in Bergen to capture the highest price for our goods. Equally, a quick return with Norwegian timber before the other ships. This will produce a huge profit. You’ve come to me because they want you to roast-up a dog, and then what, another and another?” 

The captain puffed his pipe. His chest swelled beneath his thick wool sweater, that looked as if cut from a brown bear.

“I — I — I don’t know. The men are hungry is all,” I stuttered.

“Those dogs are our last chance if all goes wrong. Listen well, Mr. Welch! You chisel that jaw before climbing below deck. A speck in your eye of doubt will set the men into a frenzy. We’ll need those dogs to traverse the ice if a million tons of glacier bite this ship in half.”

“Yes, sir, Captain,” I answered. I looked at the helmsman, who stared forward. The captain stood straight. Only the smoke from the captain’s pipe moved freely.

“You’ll boil our leather overcoats before we eat a single dog. Now, return to your kitchen, and…” The captain scanned the horizon, uneasy. “Make more pudding for the crew.” He tapped his pipe. “Serve it twice a week,” he answered.

“When, sir?”

“You had better start tonight, Mr. Welch. This should ease their stomachs, and their minds, and will provide them cause for our meeting… That is all.”

#

I climbed below deck through a hatch and into the last compartment of the berth deck. There, a few of my shipmates waited in a small room with four bunks. Adam, Herschel, and Bellamy watched me intently as I descended the ladder. When I turned, they were as I left them. Herschel had his hand on the ladder rail, Bellamy sat on a stool, and Adam stood in the corner, holding a pup.

“Well, what of it?” Herschel asked with a wild stare. He stood head and shoulders above me.

I glanced at young Adam, who held the playful pup that fought with his sleeve.

“The captain did not agree.” I said firmly.

Herschel slammed his fist on the rail. His crooked nose revealed his belligerence. Bellamy stared downward, deep in thought. Adam blew a sigh of relief.

Herschel paced with his hands on his hips. He flexed his square jaw. “We’re starving to death down here.” His lips curled inward, then he pointed in the air. “While he eats his tinned meats!”

“Quiet!” I shouted, then looked up the ladder at the closed hatchway.

Bellamy straightened himself from his stoop. His face possessed a confused expression, exaggerated by a bruise around his left eye from his last disagreement with Herschel. “Oh, if I could get my hands on just one of them tins, mmm.” He closed his eyes, licking his lips.

“The ears and snouts for the dogs were pilfered,” Adam mumbled.

Herschel raised the back of his hand to Adam, as if ready to strike him. Adam flinched. He eyed the pup, then turned to me. “So, what did you talk about?”

“The captain gave the order for twice-a-week pudding, starting tonight.” I looked at each man, smiling.

Bellamy’s eyes rolled back. “Twice a week!” He repeated with elation. It seemed to invigorate him from his depression.

Herschel made a fist. “Pudding tonight! You best get started, mate.”

“And you best be in the engine room.” I answered. “The captain returned to slow ahead..”

“We hear the bell. Tommy’s down there.” Herschel smirked with confidence. “He’ll muddle through until we return. We wanted to hear what you had to say.” He smacked Bellamy on the arm. “Come on Bell, let’s stoke the boiler.”

Adam stood, wrestling with the pup. “Slow-ahead again? Well, there must be a break in the ice. Did you see it, the break, I mean?”

Herschel and Bellamy stopped before exiting a door deeper into the hull. They waited for my answer, as did Adam. 

“Uh, yes, yes, I wasn’t really looking, but there was a passage.”

Herschel’s eyes squinted.

I stood firm. “You don’t expect me to question Captain Pollock, now do you? If he says there’s a passage, by God there’s a passage.”

Adam smiled. Herschel and Bellamy appeared satisfied and pulled the door closed behind them.

In the ship’s galley, which sat above the boiler room, I used the engine’s heat to cook. We finished the dried meat two days earlier. Meals were now composed of lard and flour. The pudding was flour, water, butter, and cardamom, a favorite sweet herbal spice of the captain. 

Now, near the arctic, fish were scarce. Only mammals were present, hiding and surviving.  

Adam entered as I sprinkled the cardamom into the boiling pot.

“The captain ordered me to tell you to have the pudding ready at the five bells call, and that he will attend.”

“The captain? You can tell him it will be ready.”

Adam leaned over the pot, breathing in. “Ah.” His face ignited with pleasure.

#

When the five bells rang, the mess deck table, off from the galley, was nearly full. The ship noticeably slowed to nearly a stop, which marked concern on the faces of some men. I stood with a ladle, ready to serve.

Three men scurried in and sat, with eager expressions on their faces, and looked up in anticipation.

“Well?” Herschel pushed. 

“The captain is joining us. We’ll wait.” I answered.

From the other end of the galley and out of sight, a hatch opened, cold air wafted in carrying the smell of the captain’s tobacco. Everyone froze.

The captain turned sideways to fit his broad shoulders through the door leading from the galley. Standing at the end of the table, stoic, His head turned toward us all, but his eyes never met ours. His skin bitten with cold, matched his thick brown sweater, and his bear blended with it.

He cast his gaze forward. “I understand you are hungry,” he said with a nod. “We should have arrived in Norway three days ago. Now, we find ourselves between two ice packs. The corridor we had followed has closed.”

A deathly moan emanated from almost everyone at the table. Everyone else, like myself, froze speechless. Herschel looked at me with a scowl. I worked to not betray I’d noticed.

The captain continued, “Tomorrow morning we will put the ship to a stop and try a hunt. Eric witnessed white bears, and you know what that means… Seals. The bears are a sign the ice is loose. In a day or two, it should drift apart.”

A few nods of optimism spread around the table.

“In the meantime, enjoy a second measure of pudding… As you were.” Captain Pollock exited as he had entered.

The men let out cheers and held their tin plates in the air, ready to be served.

Herschel’s mood had lightened, but throughout the meal, he whispered to Bellamy, glancing up at me from time to time.

Everyone aboard the ship knew that I now slept in the galley to watch the provisions. It worried me. That night I curled up under a table with a knife, next to empty crates that once held onions. The smell was mouth watering, and I slept to the aroma.

# 

At sunrise, I awoke to a gunshot. I gasped, clutching my body. Soon, I heard rowdy cries top-side.   

I dressed and ran to the upper deck. The reflection of the sun on the ice was blinding.

“There! Over there!” Herschel yelled and pointed as the gangway watchman, who stood as lookout, was at the prow. He bent to reload the only rifle we had onboard, a single-shot breech-loader. A lever actuated it beneath the wrist of the buttstock. The time to load a single cartridge seemed an eternity, though the watchman had it ready in less than fifteen seconds. 

I felt my hunger claw at me with the anticipation of fresh meat, and I ran to the side of the mid-deck near Herschel. Across the ice, two small white bears scurried away, nearly invisible against the backdrop. 

The watchman fired. We stood helpless as the bears disappeared behind a cleft of ice; crumpled sheets that pointed upward where the ice buckled, less than a quarter of a mile a way. We all cringed at the missed shot.

A rope ladder hung over the port side where Herschel stood. He bent over the rail. “You scared them away, you spoony.” 

I looked over the edge to see Adam standing a five feet the ice edge. “They were just baby bears,” Adam shouted into the air and reached out with a mooring hook to take hold of the rope ladder.

Those of us on the deck turned in different directions scanning the vast wasteland of ice around us for any moving speck that could be a chance at a meal. Below, Adam swiped with the pole.

“Let me have the rifle.” Herschel shouted to the watchman. “If I was shooting, we’d have some fresh meat already.”

The watchman turned his head in Herschel’s direction and then looked away.

“Cock-up!” Herschel yelled to him.

Now, the watchman turned and walked toward Herschel, who met him half-way.

“You think you’re a handier shot?” The watchman asked. “The Navy trained me atop a swaying ship.”

Herschel walked up on him and pointed his own thumb to his chest. “And I’ve shot freebooters and marauders in the Merchant Navy. Shooting a living thing differs from shooting a target.”

The two men faced off exchanging insults. I glanced over the gangway where Adam had hooked the rope ladder and was pulling it up over the ice edge, when something flitted in the corner of my eye.

My head turned toward it. I squinted to focus through the bright white. Then, to my horror, a monstrous white bear appeared, as if spontaneously generated from the ice. “Bear! Bear!” I shouted, pointing, then remembered, Adam. All I could do was scream his name.

Herschel and the watchman ran to the edge of the ship. They both froze and turned to the rifle, which the watchman held. He unlocked the breach. Herschel grabbed at the rifle, and the two men struggled. I watched them and then the bear and then Adam who froze with the pole in his hands.

The watchman, with a firm grip, turned his body, yanking it from Herschel. 

“Hurry then!” Herschel yelled, balling his fists.

The watchman’s arms moved frantically, his hands out of sight. I could not breathe.

He turned and fired over the ship as the bear sprung forward. The shot missed. With two immense leaps, she was within reach of Adam. The watchman hurried to reload again, pulling a bullet from his coat pocket. Each second was painful.

In an instant, the bear positioned herself to strike. The monster must have stood ten feet tall when it rose on its hind legs. Adam shrieked, staring upward into the air with only the mooring pole between them. In a crushing instant, she pounced on his wiry frame.

Again the watchman fired. The bullet hit the bear, but did nothing to stop the slaughter of our friend, but inspired her to run. Which she did, along the ship and out into the vast ice field.

“Shoot it, shoot it!” Herschel yelled as the watchman ran the length of the deck, running and firing shots between each loading of the gun. 

We all followed as close behind the as we could, but there was nothing we could do. The bear trotted off, dragging Adam.

One moment, we were the only predators. Then, in a flash we were reduced to likes of mammals surviving in the cold.

“Adam!” I cried, holding my face.

The men clutched each other, gasping and turning away, some with heads hung low. Except Herschel, who appeared bitter. The mourning of Adam was short-lived when an argument broke out.

“You’re a worthless marksman!” Herschel screamed at the watchman. “You ought to be shot yourself. That was our last chance.” Herschel spit at him.

The watchman shook his head in disgust, but said nothing as the captain rushed to the main deck. We all stood at the bow as the animal vanished toward the icy cleft, where the two small bears emerged and joined the feast.

“Adam, sir,” The watchman said. “A white bear scavenged him.”

 The captain looked out over the ice. He showed no emotion. “There are no seals here now. The bear has shown herself.” Captain Pollock turned to head back to the wheelhouse.

“Permission to kill that bear, sir,” Herschel asked.

The captain stopped. “It would take the entire crew to corral a white bear and kill it… Some of us would surely die. Keep watch for a seal if you like. You may get lucky.”

Despair overcame the faces of the men on deck. Some, like Herschel, were mixed with anger. The captain showed nothing.

I dreaded what Herschel might do next and made a detour through the berth deck after leaving. On Adam’s bunk, a sleeping puppy twitched as if running in a dream. I scooped him up and returned to the galley, where I placed him in one of the onion crates. Here, he would be safe, but for how long?

#

That afternoon, I scraped the last of the lard from the barrel to mix with flour, when I heard a ruckus, men yelling and dogs barking. I followed the sound to the aft deck, where we caged the dogs in the storage room. Ice cold and dark, the room was lit with one candle. A casket with the dog’s rations, dried pig’s ears and snouts, lay tipped and empty. 

The dogs barked viciously, as Herschel stabbed at one with a mooring pole and others encouraged him with laughter. In the cold air that surrounded us, fog blew from their lips, evaporating above their heads.

“We’ll be eating this one right here.” Herschel snarled back as if he were a dog.

Captain Pollock burst into the room. “Stand down, Mr. Jacoby,” the captain ordered Herschel.

“It’s too late, Captain, sir. Adam is no longer here to take care of the dogs, so I decided how they should be cared for. Besides, this is out of your hands.” Herschel shouted. “We’re starving!” 

“We’re a day from the Norwegian coast as soon as the ice separates,” the Captain said.

“That’s all fine and good, sir, but we need to eat, and come to think of it, how come you don’t look ragged like the rest of us?”

“And you never eat dinner with us, or the pudding!” Bellamy observed.

“Because he eats from them fancy tins, he does,” Herschel declared.

Angry voices chanted, “Yah, yah.”

“MUTINY!” a voice shouted.

The captain pulled out a pistol. “Stand down or I will put you in chains on the mainland.”

“What mainland?” Someone cried.

“Chains or starvation, that’s what we get?” Herschel shouted. “Kill him!”

The angry mob of men charged at the captain.

He fired without aim into the air after Herschel snatched his wrist. The inertia of the angry crowd poured over him. Men in the rear moved into position without a motive except the action propelled them and they followed as sailors do, each taking swings. From where the captain lay, a crowd of men hunched over him, their fists and elbows turning over, and over again.

From the mauling mob, I saw Herschel stand from in the middle of it. He looked over the chaos, panting. Blood stained his shirt and his eyes kept moving until they met mine.

“There!” he shouted, pointing at me. “He said there was a passage.”

Heads rose and turned in my direction. I was a new focus for their blood thirst.

“No — No,” I begged. “I’m just the cook.”

The men looked uncertain, but were ready to act.

“He spoke with the captain.” Herschel accused. “He knew, but didn’t say.”

“I told you what I knew. The captain said the dogs were our only chance. We couldn’t eat them.”

“They were HIS only chance.” Herschel sneered. “There are only five dogs and one sled. How is that supposed to pull fifteen men? He would ride away without us if he had the chance.”

“Yah, yah!” Some men shouted.

Bellamy interrupted, “I believe the dogs were to pull the lifeboat until the ice broke and then we would row ourselves the remaining distance. I heard the captain say once.”

Everyone looked at Bellamy, and then at Herschel, who still breathed hard. Herschel raised his hand, holding Captain Pollock’s pistol. “Who asked ya?” Then he pointed the gun at Bellamy’s chest and pulled the trigger.

The blast sent Bellamy backward, open-mouthed. He lay unmoving. 

Some men pulled at Captain Pollock’s belongings.

“Give me his sweater,” Herschel ordered.

Before long, they stripped the captain down to his skivvies. A sailor had his boots, and another his belt.

Herschel tucked the pistol in his trousers and pulled the sweater over his large head, that squeezed through the neck hole like a monster being born from a womb. Herschel smiled grotesquely. “Now I’m wearing the sweater.” He gritted. “You’ll all do as I say.”

Herschel flexed his arms, admiring himself, then shouted. “Let’s get them tins!” Everyone cheered, and they dragged the captain’s body to the upper deck like a skinned animal, then followed Herschel to the captain’s cabin. 

I limped back to the galley, nauseous. My mind swirled as I looked around the room until I saw the boiling pot. I stirred it. It was the only thing I could think of doing. Chaotic sounds spread throughout the ship. Looking into the mush and mixing calmed me. I heard a scream and then a laugh. Something shattered, and then a gunshot. I dared not step out of the galley. I was ready to kill a dog as soon as Herschel gave the order. Equally, I knew my life was over as soon as Herschel decided that, too. Death, like the ice, had closed in. A heavy feeling of dread hung over me as I stirred the flour and lard. 

Tommy, from the engine room, entered. “Captain Herschel wants to see ya.” He rolled his eyes.

My heart sank into my stomach hearing those words. I dropped my ladle and exited. Above deck, a few men ate from tins, ignoring me.

I entered the steering room. Eric turned to me from the wheel with a horrid expression. The speed dial, read, ‘SLOW’. Herschel stood as the captain did, wearing the sweater and holding the pistol. Strangely, the sweater had the magnetism of Captain Pollock, from the sight of it and perhaps the smell of his tobacco. I felt Captain Pollock was still in the room, but with an unfamiliar face. 

Herschel turned with a smirk. Blood stains darkened the brown wool around the collar in splotches. His head bobbed with confidence, and his brutish face inspired unpredictable horror. He looked at me, about to speak when a bullet shattered the glass of the steering room window. We all ducked. Eric crawled toward me, where we crouched near the door. Herschel lay unmoving. Blood trickled out from under the sweater. 

Moments later, the watchman who Herschel had berated stood with his rifle in the doorway. Eric and I rose as he walked past us. He stood over Herschel and spat. Eric, without thought, took the steering wheel, and moved the speed dial to ‘STOP’. 

The watchman exited and two men arrived shortly after to drag Herschel out.

I returned to the galley as the ship glided to a complete halt. An inspiration filled me to make more pudding. It was all I could think of doing to feel normal.

After the five bells rang, men stumbled in and sat, more from habit than order. The table was far from full. Nobody spoke, and some didn’t eat, despite the gnawing hunger we all felt. Equally, our eyes never met. This, I could only guess, was because of the shame we all felt, or a habit Captain Pollock set upon us, but it felt appropriate. 

After dinner, I returned to the galley, but left the pots on the mess deck table for anyone who wanted the remains. The pup had escaped from his crate and roamed the galley. I bedded down under the table with my face near a crate, and the aroma of onions.

#

The next morning, I awoke as the ship lunged forward. It had restored a feeling of order, as much from my sense of motion as from cheers above deck that accompanied it. I pulled myself together and realized that my feeling of dread had vanished. 

In the morning sunlight, above deck, I stood with the others. There, we could all see a clear passage through the ice where the sun rose in front of us. A vast open gap in the sea stretched out before the ship. Everyone smiled and their eyes twinkled in the light. Beside us, in the cold air, Herschel, Bellamy, and Captain Pollock lay on the deck. We redressed the captain in his sweater.

###

Featured

A Death At The Moreno

Everything was grand at the Moreno Spa and Garden, a small landscaped resort abounding with broad leaf and flowering plants. Crystal clear pools flowed from one to the next, some obscured by vegetation and some open. The largest of which was the Opal Pit. A seemingly bottomless aquifer which opened like a crater and, at its deepest, where the light was dim, its angle turned somewhere unknown.

A man-made waterfall poured from a rocky crag where patrons could stand underneath as in a tropical paradise. The water flowed into the adjacent Opal Pit and beyond into smaller pools.

Men and women walked about the garden, some passive nature loving and some seeking romance. A tiki bar near the waterfall served exotic drinks, brimming with kabob’d fruits and paper umbrellas, designed to express the excess and beauty of a lifestyle indulged.

The Moreno, as the regulars referred to it, served as the perfect escape from domestic life. It was the second home of Cedric Balsworth when he went through his fourth divorce, a hideaway for Kitty King when her husband was imprisoned for tax evasion, and for Eduardo Calazans when he wanted to avoid responsibility. 

The son of a wealthy taxi company owner, Eduardo carried himself with shoulders back and a raised nose, snobbish and dismissive. He always wore an unbuttoned silk shirt of various designs. His body was lean, yet unmuscular. His physical composition demonstrated a life unaccustomed to hard work. 

On a warm sunny day, Eduardo disrobed and sat for a moment in a lounge chair. He adjusted a zipper on a yellow striped bowling ball bag, then walked to the Opal Pit, and jumped in. 

Kitty appeared suddenly next to Cedric, who, given a start, reached for his pencil mustache with a flinching hand. “Oh, Kitty!” 

Kitty stepped close to him, tippy toeing next to his tall, slender body. “There’s a turd in the punch bowl,” she said, blowing a lock of strawberry blond hair from her face and then a puff of cigarette smoke. They looked toward the Opal Pit, where Eduardo made a splash. 

“Hm?” Cedric said, pinching his narrow chin that exaggerated his rectangular head.

“What do you mean, hmmmmmm?” Kitty replied.

She took a drag from her cigarette and blew a cloud toward Cedric’s face.  

“You know that turns me on.” He closed his eyes until the smoke passed. “I said hm, not hmmmmmm,” Cedric replied. “Hm is questioning. Hmmmmmm implies sarcasm.”

“Well, then?” Kitty waited, holding her elbow above her other arm, which crossed her chest. Her cigarette smoldered with a pin stripe of smoke into the space between them.

“I don’t know,” Cedric answered. “That was the purpose of the, hm.”

Cedric turned with narrowing eyes at Kitty while a cloud of smoke erupted in his face once more. 

“I think I’m ready for a drink,” Cedric said, staring through the smoke. “How about a Negroni to start the day?”

“Sounds splendid,” Kitty answered.

At the tiki bar, Cedric held two fingers in the air. “Due Negroni per favore.” Cedric commanded with a confident smile toward Kitty, who stood motionless. 

“I’m from Ecuador, not Italy,” the athletic, square jawed bartender answered.

Kitty interrupted, “Yes, Huarton, we know, but Cedric can’t seem to get anything right until after his first drink.”

“Yes, sorry Horton.” Cedric added, twisting his mustache.

“It’s Huarton, not Horton,” the bartender snapped.

“Yes, yes, so right, so right,” Cedric shook his head.

Kitty looked out over the Opal Pit as Eduardo returned to his seat. He sat for a moment, then stood. She leaned back against the bar as her eyes widened. “Will ya get a load of that?” She said aloud as Eduardo neared the pool once again. “I swear it’s getting bigger every day.”

Cedric’s mouth dropped open with amazement as he watched Eduardo cradle his genitals with his right hand. “Good god! The man has a tumor.” 

Kitty lit another cigarette and took a puff. “I’d like to perform an operation on that.”

Cedric turned toward Huarton. “Quick, man, I need that drink.”

Kitty looked on, pursing her lips, as Eduardo jumped in. Cedric twisted both ends of his mustache.

“Here are your drinks,” Huarton said, and then stepped away.

Cedric threw the paper umbrella from his glass and took a gulp. “You’re a shameless beer wench, Kitty.” A cloud of smoke engulfed his face. Cedric’s eyes narrowed. “Nice try, but it won’t do. I thought you hated that dirtbag.”

“I do, I do,” Kitty answered. She turned, lifted the umbrella from her glass, and took a sip.

“Well, if I’m not enough for you… Why don’t you just say it?” Cedric said as his glass clacked on the bar.

Kitty smirked. “No man’s enough for me, dear, so get over it.” She turned, facing the pool.

Cedric took another large swallow, then a deep breath, and turned around to face the Opal Pit. At the same moment, Eduardo climbed from the pool. 

Kitty and Cedric both stood silent, their mouth’s open in question as Eduardo returned to his chair. His bulge had vanished.

“Hm?” Cedric questioned.

“Hmmmmmm.” Kitty added with a raised eyebrow. She twirled a small paper umbrella between her right thumb and forefinger. “That’s strange. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

Cedric’s eyes narrowed. “Who would bring a bowling ball to the Moreno?”

##

Kitty and Cedric took their drinks to a small pool known as The Lilac Lagoon. The purple flowers of the bushes had since withered. A thick green leafy hedge now surrounded it.

Kitty lounged chest deep in the water, elbows back over the edge, with a glass in her hand. Cedric sat, his legs submerged below the knees. For a few minutes, neither spoke.

“I wonder what he took from his shorts?” Kitty asked.

Cedric’s eyes shifted to Kitty and then away. “You know, Zara used to say, ‘demons lurk below calm waters.'”

“Your second wife?” Kitty asked.

“No, third.”

“Sorry, I keep forgetting. So, what does it mean?”

“It means, Kitty, that I don’t want to swim to the bottom of the Opal Pit, you conniving cat. I know what you’re thinking.”

“Who said anything about the bottom?”

“Ha! See? I was right. I don’t suppose you’d like to try it?”

“You know I can’t get my hair wet.” Kitty shot back.

“And you know I can’t go down for very long,” Cedric replied.

Kitty turned her head. “Ain’t that the truth,” she whispered.

Cedric’s eyes darted to Kitty. “What was that?”

“I said, ain’t enough vermouth… This Negroni needs more sweet vermouth.”

Cedric smacked his lips. “Tastes all right. I was thinking more gin.” He smiled.

“Light me a cigarette. My hands are wet,” Kitty said. “And tell me why I keep you around again?” 

“Because I’m a dirty scoundrel and you’re a buxom wench.”

Kitty laughed, then looked around. “Make sure nobody’s near.”

Cedric lit a cigarette and placed the pack on the ground. He took a puff, then stretched his neck, swirling his head about. “The coast is clear.” He handed the cigarette to Kitty. 

She held it in her teeth as a smile grew on her face.

“What is it, you conniving kitten?” Cedric asked. “I see you preening your claws.”

“I just had a get rich idea.”

“This isn’t going to end up like the pet ransom scheme you dreamed up?”

“Will you stop harping on that? I said the dog had a red collar, not a red color.”

“Well, I did what you said, and it was a disaster.”

“Who would paint a dog red?” Kitty asked rhetorically. “Oh, just forget about that. Now listen.”

Kitty stared through a cloud of smoke. “Remember the airport jewelry heist a few days back?”

“Yes?” Cedric questioned.

“The guy got away in a taxi.”

“Well, that’s a poor choice.” Cedric guffawed. “There’s never one when you need him. How could you guarantee a ride in such a hurry?”

Kitty looked at Cedric with half-open eyes and mouth, then scraped the ashes of her cigarette off on his thigh.

“Ouch! What was that for?” Cedric flinched.

“Don’t be a schmuck.” Kitty took another drag. “Eduardo’s father owns that cab company.” Kitty stared at Cedric wide-eyed. “Get it?”

Cedric’s eyes blazed with possibility. “Yes, yes, I get it…” He paused, then raised a finger. “The jewel stash is in the Opal Pit, and we’re going to get it!”

“That’s right, my darling Cedric.”

His jaw muscles clenched and his chest writhed with deep breaths. He downed his drink, then set the glass down. He glared at Kitty, who looked on in anticipation. “And now you’re going to get it, my little pussycat. I’m coming in.”

Kitty and Cedric returned to the tiki bar with their empty glasses. They looked out over the placid water of the Opal Pit. 

##

Kitty pointed. “This is where Eduardo rose to the surface each time.” She pointed at the side opposite the waterfall. 

Cedric nodded. “A small tunnel leads to the Blue Hole pond from there…” His eyes narrowed. “It’s not deep. You can swim through, but it gives me the creeps.” 

“Is it dark?” Kitty asked.

“Only in the middle.” 

“Well?” Kitty poked Cedric with her elbow. “The sooner the better, Eduardo’s gone.”

 “These things take time.” Cedric’s eyes focused on the pool.

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”

Cedric turned to Kitty. “Did one of my ex-wives say that?”

“No, Miles Davis, now hurry.”

Cedric stood firm. “We haven’t decided how we’ll split it.”

“Even of course.” Kitty nodded.

“But I’m doing all the leg-work.” Cedric demanded.

“Leg-work? When this is done, I’ll give you some leg-work. Now get kicking. Besides, who do you think is going to fence this merchandise?”

“Fence?” Cedric asked.

“Yeah, move, squeeze, shuffle, sell the goods. I’m the one taking all the risks.”

“Well, now that you put it that way, I guess fifty-fifty is fair, but we still need a plan. Where are we going to put it? He made at least three trips, and who knows how many before that?” 

“Leave that to me,” Kitty answered. “Right now, just see if something is there.”

Cedric took a deep breath and began stretching his arms. A voice came from behind them.

“Here you go, my love birds.” Huarton placed two drinks on the tiki bar.

Kitty and Cedric turned. 

“Hm?” Cedric smiled.

“Hmmmmmm.” Kitty’s eyebrows knitted.

“On the house.” Huarton smiled with a bow of his head.

“Why thank you.” Cedric replied.

Kitty and Cedric placed their empty glasses on the bar and received their drinks.

Kitty pulled Cedric away by the arm. “Let me show you something, dear. The gladiolus near the warm spring look just marvelous.” 

Cedric furrowed his brow. “Since when do you—”

Kitty touched her cigarette to Cedric’s arm.

“Ouch!” Cedric cried. “What was that for? I’m looking like an abused stepchild.”

“Be quiet.” Kitty glanced around. She pulled Cedric further away. “Huarton knows something,” she whispered.

“Yes, like how to make an excellent Negroni.” Cedric waggled his brows.

“No. Something about the stash.”

“How could he?” Cedric asked.

“The same way we did. Besides, he could have overheard us talking. We can’t waste any time and pour out your drink when we’re out of sight. I bet he’s trying to get us drunk.”

Cedric looked down at his glass. “I thought that’s what we were trying to do.”

“It’s time to go to work.” 

“I hate those words.” Cedric answered.

##

 The water of the small Blue Hole pond flowed from an underwater tunnel connected to the Opal Pit, only twenty feet away. Above the ground, Bougainvillea vines spilled over a fence on its far side. Crimson red flowers erupted like a lava flow. Kitty and Cedric crouched behind with the tiki bar in sight. 

“Get ready to climb in,” Kitty ordered. “We’ll have to wait until Huarton takes a break.”

Kitty and Cedric spied on the bartender as he went about his work, polishing glasses and stocking the bar. A few drinks were served. Huarton made a phone call and then left in a rush.

“He’s gone. Now’s our chance. Get in there and look.”

Cedric stepped from behind the thorny flowered hedge. He eased into the Blue Hole, took a deep breath, and then descended underwater like a sinking ship, while holding his nose. A few feet below the surface, a four foot wide tunnel opened. The light of the Opal Pit lit the other end. Cedric swam through. 

Ten feet into the tunnel, a crevasse held a large, white object. Cedric reached in and tugged, pulling on a rope that revealed a canvas sack, cinched shut. It sank to the floor of the tunnel from its weight. Cedric’s eyes bulged, straining to hold his breath. He let go and swam back to the Blue Hole. 

Cedric burst through the surface of the water, gasping for air. His mustache drooped like whiskers on a wet cat. “It’s there, Kitty, it’s there.” Cedric called out.

“The stash?” Kitty whispered through vines.

“Yes,” Cedric winced, catching his breath. “In a heavy sack.”

Cedric’s eyes lit up as he turned to see Eduardo and Huarton standing together in swimming suits and pointing. “Good God! They’re in cahoots. Can you see Kitty? Eduardo and Horton—”

“Get it before they see us,” Kitty interrupted.

Cedric took a deep breath, submerging once again, and swimming through the tunnel to retrieve the sack. Kitty watched as Eduardo approached and jumped into the Blue Hole.

Small air bubbles dribbled from Cedric’s lips and danced above his head on the surface of the tunnel as he pulled the sack. He then turned to see Eduardo in the pond, staring at him through the opening. Cedric scrambled through the remaining length of the tunnel toward the Pit, pulling on the long rope. 

He stopped at the end, his limbs spread out to the side of the tunnel, as small bubbles escaped upward from his lips. He stared into the ominous expanse of the Opal Pit. Light shone through the surface, white, then a deep dark blue fifty feet below. At its furthest depth, rocky outcrops obscured the direction of the aquifer that disappeared through meandering underground caverns and currents.

Above, Huarton scaled the side of the waterfall. He stood straight, chest out, and then leaped into a swan dive. 

Cedric crouched at the precipice of the Opal Pit, frozen, the sack pulled at his arm. Above, an explosion of foam tore through the white surface and a torpedoing figure emerged. Huarton swam in his direction as Eduardo grabbed him from behind. Cedric leaped into the vastness before him. Eduardo followed, holding on to the sack.

Though each man swam upward, the weight of the sack held them in suspended animation. In between Cedric and Eduardo, Huarton joined the fight.

A large air bubble belched from Cedric’s lips as he mouthed the word, “HORTON”. 

The three of them spun and flipped, each pulling at the sack. Cedric let go. His cheeks bulged, defying the impulse to breathe. Eduardo and Huarton continued the struggle. The weight of the jewels pulled at them as their arms and legs thrashed. Huarton rotated his body, spinning like a crocodile on a carcass, wrapping his arms in the rope. 

Cedric reached the surface, took a breath, and then looked down into the water as Eduardo released his grip. Huarton, unable to use his arms, kicked violently. The heavy sack pulled him toward the dark blue. 

Huarton seemed to smile, having the sack to himself. Then, a grimace of horror before an explosion of silver bubbles erupted from his mouth. His figure descended, blending with the murky darkness until he passed a rocky ledge. There, he vanished as if sucked into a vacuum cleaner.

##

Two day later, a crowd gathered around the Opal Pit as scuba divers emerged with the body of Huarton.

“Someone must have called for help after seeing him jump in and not come out,” Kitty said to Cedric as they watched.

“Do you see a white sack?” Cedric asked.

“No, I don’t, but I see Eduardo on the other side of the pit.” 

Eduardo watched. He looked across at Kitty and Cedric, then left.

Kitty blew a puff of smoke. “You know what that means?”

“That the jewels are gone forever?”

“Eh, eh. It means you’re taking scuba diving lessons. Eduardo’s thinking exactly what we are.” Kitty flicked her ashes. “Put down your drink. I know a surf shop that rents that stuff.”

“I’m not going back in there!” Cedric demanded. “I nearly died, and you know I can’t stay down for very long.”

“Hm.” Kitty blew a puff of smoke into Cedric’s face. “That’s all going to change, my dear. Your deep diving lessons are about to begin.”

Cedric’s eyes narrowed. “Hmmmmmm?” 

###

The Joy

I returned from the war in Europe. It was over. Yet strangely, the numbness that accompanied me through the hardest times still lingered. The blankness of emotion that was, in some ways, a shield against the insanity still enveloped me. 

Only in my dreams did an unsettling feeling arise, a drowning sensation that woke me from my sleep. A dream that always ended the same, trapped in a tank like a fish, staring out into a room distorted by a force that held me prisoner.  

I traveled home without a feeling of purpose. Rather, an internal drive like a homing-pigeon tugged at me.

I looked out from the bus window. Numb from the horror of war. 

Shell-shocked, that’s what they called it. 

The view from the window of the bus resembled the landscape of the French countryside I traveled through. And though some soldiers laughed freely, there were others that stared out of their window in quiet contemplation. I was neither of those. 

I placed my hand on the pane of glass. It filled me with a fear that I could not explain except to say that it resembled my dreams.

#

Finally, after an overnight train ride and another trip on a bus, I reached a small town. I disembarked the bus and friendly faced man reading a newspaper looked up with a smile, “Ian.”

He folded the paper under his arm and stood straight from the car he leaned against. The side of the car read “TAXI,” in large letters.

“Well, isn’t it a pleasure, boy,” Said he, as he walked closer.

I smiled, more from reflex than friendship. I knew him, yet I didn’t. He grabbed my bag and placed it in the rear seat, and then opened the passenger door. I only knew to sit, but nothing else.

“Boy, they’ll be happy to see you.” He smiled, and we drove away through what I knew to be familiar streets, but again, I could not remember.

“We got a new clock there, in front of the bank,” He said as he took a toothpick from his mouth and pointed. The convex windshield distorted the objects as they passed by its furthest edge. A sickening feeling stirred in me. 

“Your mother will be overjoyed.”

Mother, yes, my mother, I remember now.

For the first time in two years, I smiled, then looked at the driver, “Yes, my mother.” Then, back through the windshield. My smile faded.

We stopped in front of a home. “This one’s on me Ian. I doubt you’re loaded with cash.”

“Yeah, right, thanks, uh…” I hesitated and then stepped from the car.

The driver, whom I could not remember his name, pulled my duffle bag from the rear seat and dropped it on the curb.

He tipped his hat, and there was a moment of silence. “Well, it’s good you’re back. Ya look a little tired,” He said with a smirk. “I suppose I’ll see ya around.” With that, he sat in the car and drove away.

#

I stood near the street and gazed up the pathway to the house. Again, this home and street of my childhood provided no memory. 

I grew up in this house. This is where I lived.

A sudden fear rose in me, suffocating, drowning. I closed my eyes to stop nausea that lumped in my throat. 

Something bad happened, tied, screams, splashing caustic liquid. 

I struggled to breathe as I felt pushed below the surface of a murky tank of evil-smelly water.

My eyes sprung open. My heart raced as I felt something of apprehension to approach the front door, yet there was that drive to move forward. I knew this to be my truth, the purpose of my journey.

It’s my imagination, I thought with a shrug.

I approached the home. The quiet street, the trees, the gardens, all the colors were as I imagined, but only at the moment I saw them. A breeze blew past with a faint sense of familiarity, of knowing what it was, but without memory. Zombie-like, I stepped forward with an emptiness. 

In front of the home, I stopped. The house was picturesque, as if unspoiled by the world that had pulled itself apart.

Two years of fighting in a war, what did it do to me? 

For a moment, I pictured a boy that cheerfully waved goodbye to a family so many years before. When exactly that was, I was unsure. Something blurred their faces, their bodies were formless.

I took a deep breath and stepped up to the front entrance. As if out of body, I watched my hand rise and knock upon the door. A tingle of anticipation quivered through me with a notion of the old wooden door creaking. I closed my eyes and imagined the exact time it took for the door to open. I waited, and there was a call from inside the home, “Coming.” 

A woman opened the door, flowery dressed and bosomy, gray-haired and scarfed, with a kind smile and wearing glasses.

Had things changed?

Our eyes met. And though I could see the regret on her face, I knew it was because of the pain in mine. 

She stepped back and pulled the door wider. Her head tilted sideways with an encouraging grin. 

I dropped my bag inside the door as I entered, but felt nothing as the woman embraced me. I followed her direction, and she closed the door behind me. 

“Oh dear, you’ve lost it, tsk, tsk.” She sucked her teeth. “Your skin is lifeless, and your eyes have sunken. You look near death, my son.”

“Mother?” I questioned.

“Yes, my boy, you still remember a bit.” 

I looked at her, straining to make a connection. 

Mother.

“Oh, you’ve nearly lost it. We’ll just have to get you that joy back. Oh, I’m so happy you’re home. I’ll make you something to eat, my dear. Just come in and relax.”

She pulled me by the arm and lead me to a sitting room. 

“That war is over. It’s over.” She demanded.

My eyes teared. The sound of her voice, the aroma of the home, all meant something, but what?

“Mother.” I repeated with certainty.

“Oh, my dear boy, yes?” she asked with a coo in her voice. 

I stood silently, satisfied that she confirmed it. 

“Just relax. No worries now. I’ll have you back to your old self in no time.” 

She scampered to the kitchen. Her hefty hips rumbled under her flowery dress. She muttered unintelligible sentences that included names I had once heard, “The Taylors sold their house and that Conners girl was asking about you since her brother Tom returned home.” She continued about uncles and cousins that I could make no connection between.

I replied short and cordial, “Oh, ok.”

“I’ll be down in the cellar,” she called out.

“Alright,” I answered as her steps faded into an underground space I faintly remembered. I followed the circumference of the room with my eyes and reacquainted myself with the furniture and photos. I stepped near the mantel. Above a fireplace that showed no sign of use. A picture of two men and a boy caught my attention. I put my finger to the boy’s face. 

It’s me. Yes, they must be my father and uncle. 

Next to this photo was another, and then another, sequentially older. The black and white photographs provided an impulse of memories but seemed superficial.

Bungling movements in the cellar space below grabbed my attention. I walked to a doorway in the kitchen and called down, “Mother. Do you need help?” 

“No, no, I’ll be right up. Stay up there. Just take your things to your room. I’ll’ just be a few minutes.”

I stepped back through the house that led me to a small hallway with many closed doors. I opened the first. It creaked open to reveal a boy’s room.

This is my bedroom.

In the doorway, I stopped to look, then walked in. I dropped my bag on the floor and looked around the room to see a baseball, a model boat, some books on a desk, and a bed that was neat and unused. 

The old days, the old ways, the joy, yes, joy. I remember that word.

I sat on the bed and stared at the neatly placed things about the room, the ball, the bat, the boat. Each item had a story I could not remember, but there was an impulse to remember. 

Why are these things important to me?

I held the boat and looked at it. It was a child’s toy. That was all. I set it down and looked at each object with the same emptiness.

“Oh, Ian darling? Help me set the table.” My mother called.

I turned and walked back through the house, wiping my brow, blinking and dazed, then put two plates on the table from a stack she handed me.

“Better set two more. Your father will be home soon and your uncle George might stop by.”

“Father?” 

Yes, my father, why didn’t I ask earlier? 

I remembered the picture on the mantel.

“I can’t wait. How is dad?”

“Oh, he’s just fine. He hasn’t changed a bit.”

“Oh, joy!” I said aloud.

Mother turned with a bright smile. “Yes, you remember now, son, the joy. Here, sit, have some soup, and feel the joy come back.”

I sat. In front of me, she placed a bowl of soup and a spoon.

“Now, when you’re done, don’t forget to drink the broth. Drink it all down like a good boy.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” 

I held the spoon I felt I had held countless times before. The curve of the neck and shaft fit into my hand with body memory. I submerged it into the murky broth and lifted a spoonful to my lips, and closed his eyes. A briny, sour aroma wafted up into my face before I sipped. The taste was unique, yet familiar. It was singular in dimension, yet salty, meaty, and ambiguously decayed. My first instinct was to choke it off. I opened my eyes only to see my mother patiently waiting for me to swallow.

“That’s it, take it all down.”

Her request drove me forward. In her guiding moments, I had another and another spoonful until I was tipping the bowl for its last drops. 

I sat the bowl down with a clack, “Oh, I’m full. That was wonderful… The joy.” I said as I held my hand over my belly.

“Yes, yes, that’s right. Now, why don’t you lay down and I’ll call you when everyone gets here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled, then stood.

My numbness retreated as I walked back to the bedroom. There I sat on the bed before laying down and picked up the boat. I held it close to my face with curiosity. Deep inside the ship’s deck, I could visualize myself with others as if I was there, all of us together aboard a boat. Each one of us going about tasks. Casting lines, steering, and hoisting sails. 

Yes, I remember it now.

I set the model down as a queer smile grew on my face. I lay myself back and fell into a grand slumber the moment my head sunk into the pillow. I dreamt a twilight night of dreams. For once in years, my thoughts were not those of drowning but of hopes and desires. 

I awoke and sat up cheerful, alert, and optimistic. The light from the window had shifted. I knew a considerable time had passed.

What dreams.

I placed my hands over my abdomen with fingers locked. I looked around the room at the things of my childhood and smiled at the bountiful memories they brought. Then, stood and walked to the bedroom door. Beyond, I heard the gleeful laughs and conversations of many people. I pushed the door open and ahead of me was my father, uncle, from the photo. Young ones danced and ran about.

“Come here, my boy! Come here and give your dad a hug!” a barrel-chested man sang in a baritone voice.

Eagerly, I hurried to him and indulged my father’s whim and received not just one hug, but another from my uncle as well. All felt warm from the gaiety of the moment. My mother commented on the spirit of it, “Oh, it’s back in you again. It’s back.”

Everyone beamed with happiness and told stories of family splendor. I looked into my mother’s face. She was as happy and young as I had ever remembered her. I now recalled her radiance and everlasting beauty, the same as when I was a young boy. Everyone sang in harmony, “oh the joy, oh, the joy.”

My father entered from the basement with champagne bottles. They poured glasses for all, even the young ones had a taste. My mother ladled soup into bowls around the dining room table and everyone sat sipping the soup and then stood drinking champagne and still others danced about.

So filled with merriment, I spun off into the kitchen, where I found my champagne glass empty. I turned to look for a bottle and then entered the cellar where I remembered father had brought them up. I could not recall the way, but carefully I made my descent down the dark steps. A cool wet breeze blew from the rear and I followed the earthy moist ventilation. I fumbled for a light switch and recalled a dangling string with a cap on its end, a light that hung from the center of the cellar’s one large room.

Upstairs, the festivities carried over into the space below. The lumbering steps of my family resounded and the words of “Oh the joy,” were ever-present, like a chant.

I found the string and tugged it. The flash of light was blinding, and I covered my eyes. As I slowly opened my fingers, my sight adjusted. In horror, I shook from what I saw. At the back of the room, gargantuan pickle jars lined the wall. 

Electrified with fear, I shrieked. A paroxysm similar to looking out of the taxi window, but ten times greater, overwhelmed me. As horrifying as it was, I could not look away. From inside the jars, looking out, were tortured faces floating within the murky brine; contorted expression bent in the glass’s curvature.

What kind of monstrous experiment is this? This can’t be real.

Slowly, the faces looked familiar. My legs weakened, and I turned away when I realized these were the faces of everyone I loved. My father, my mother, my uncle, and cousins, and worst of all, myself. All stared back at me. Many had open mouths that held a drowning scream and the one like me floated with hands clawing at the glass. Strangely, the figures appeared younger and dressed in clothing from an earlier time.

I held my hands out in front of my face to question my existence. 

If my parents are here… then who is up there, and who am I? 

I spun from dizziness and struggled to stand. My ears rang as my heart pounded in a panic. I turned completely away in disbelief. In doing so, I turned to see my mother and father standing before me at the bottom of the steps in solidarity, hand in hand.

“You weren’t supposed to see this yet,” my mother said. “This is the joy. This is all of their happiness and life bottled up, preserved in jars that will keep us alive for many years to come.” 

Slowly, they stepped toward me. I was torn between nearing them or walking back toward the jars. I froze and closed my eyes. Then, with nowhere to run, my legs folded, and I slowly crouched to the floor, quivering, hoping this was a dream. As I held my breath, they cradled me in a smothering hug and lifted me up.

“Everything is going to be fine, son,” my father said. “Let’s go back upstairs.”

 They steered me toward the steps, matching my weak small steps. My mother’s calm voice spoke words of encouragement. Again, I felt numb, not from emptiness, but with the truth, with the completeness of everything, which finally made sense. We climbed the steps as my mother’s warm hand led the way. My father grabbed two bottles of champagne. His firm hand pushed me from behind. Something of a calmness happened between us. Above, we reentered the dining room. There I was, once again, surrounded by what appeared to be my loving family. The young cousins continued to play, and I pretended to play along as best I could. We toasted to life and everyone around me reveled in the moment’s joy and slowly I resigned to the idea that I was one of them, whatever that was.

###

Follow My Frozen Heart

My face freezes as I peer out from my mountain cave overlooking the village. The cold seizes me with shivers as my breaths quiver from sadness and anger.

The village glows through the falling snow that ever thickens. I can’t tell if I am numb from cold or grief as I peek down below at the cozy cottages resembling the embers of my fire.

Where my home sits at the edge of the forest, there are no lights. I can picture my mother laying in her bed. 

If only I had said I loved her.

My small fire pops and crackles with white flames. I sit back and poke the wood that glows orange through charred patches.

My cave is only big enough for me, but there is only me. The sides are rough and the opening is narrow. I stare out through its mouth and into a starless black. Around it, the windswept shards of accumulating ice point horizontal like teeth. Bit by bit, they grow and threaten to close as hunger and loneliness gnaw at me.

They must be searching for me. 

They won’t look far. Only a fool would leave the safety of a home in this weather, but I did.

You can’t take it back.

He deserved it. I had to do it. Everyone owed him. They should thank me, but they’ll hang me.

The fire.

With my last stick, I push the glowing parts together and then throw it in. I pull my feet close, my knees to my chest, and hide my face beneath my collar. My fingers clench, hidden in my coat sleeves. I shiver and weep for my mother, who I will never see again.

Oh, mama, I miss you.

“It’s not fair!” I cry out, but nobody can hear me as I sit against the back of my hideaway and look into my small fire that shimmers. It wavers from the gusts of frigid air that carries ice crystals from the storm. 

Blackened lines and spots are etched into the burning sticks. They resemble archaic writing on ancient scrolls. Their stories unfold as the heat scorches and shrinks the branches, releasing their memories.

I stare into the fluttering flames that dance upon the shrinking pieces of wood and drift into my memory of what happened.

***

My father made a life for us, herding goats. My mother made cheese. Now, at fourteen, I tended the goats and milked them while my father only sat and watched us. 

As we prospered, he disappeared at night. My mother said nothing, but became distant and sulked. A coldness grew between them. I often awoke to angry shouts that ended with a slammed door, and my father’s steps disappearing outside. My heart ached with a pain I could not understand.

My mother loved me, I knew this above anything else and I was her little boy. Though I was becoming a man, I cherished her touch on my cheek and the love she cooked into every meal like I was still a child. 

I escaped on mountain strolls, tending the goats. With only a walking stick and a knife, I would visit my secret place and daydream. Here I could vanish from the pain.

Upon my last return home, a large man stood at the door. Gundersen, the fat financier, stood with a smile of sadistic pleasure in a large fur coat and boots. My mother crumbled to her knees as she wept. I stood speechless as he held out a note of promise in front of our faces. My father borrowed against the farm and lost it.

A stabbing pain struck my gut as my mother released a horrid unnatural cry. Distraught, her eyes stared wildly and she stumbled to her bedroom, holding her arms over her chest in pain. Gundersen left and promised to return the next day. 

I stood alone in our cottage, petrified. The fear of Gundersen’s return was a nightmare.

Where will we go? What will we do?

I fell asleep, waiting for my father, who never returned.

The next morning I awoke to the bitter cold. Snow set on the window sills as a frosty powder misted in under the front door. A fire had not been started and everything seemed frozen from the horrific news of the previous day.

I entered my mother’s room where she lay in bed.

“Mother,” I whispered and stepped near. She didn’t move but lay pristine and angelic. I hesitated to wake her, but we had to go on. 

I put my hand to her shoulder. It felt rigid and I pulled my hand back. I reached out again. Her body was stiff. A strange sensation quivered through me, a paralyzing fear, followed by nausea. I sank with weakness but wanted to run. The sole anchor to life, my mother, was dead.

My mind swirled and I stepped back out from the room. In a panic, I ran from the home and staggered into the nearby woods. The world spun around me. I grasped the trunk of a tree, the only thing that stood strong. My feet stung with a fringed bite as I hugged this unmovable thing. The world stopped spinning and it filled me with an impulse to return.

I crept into the icy cottage. It now appeared as a replica of the place I once lived. Everything was frozen in time. Above a dormant fire pit, a cold iron pot with the last meal my mother cooked hung from a blackened bar. An emptiness tugged at my stomach, but the thought of food sickened me. 

I could not eat and I could not enter my mother’s room but tinkered with the thought she would emerge. Again and again, my mind rehearsed the moment only to swirl downward in despair knowing that she died feeling unloved. This overwhelmed me until my agony gave way to pure and corporeal hatred. My heart froze, my life ceased. Then, as if reborn, I saw beyond this crippling sadness. Though my father was to blame, Gundersen was at the heart of my hatred. His repugnant smile begged for revenge.

The snow continued. The cottage became colder. My breath fogged with the wickedness of death. I paced the front room holding my knife as I filled with rage. Then, I wandered out into the blank slate of wintery white.

Snow crunched under my steps as I ventured through the village. The homes glowed with fireplaces while the windows flashed with signs of life, laughing, singing, and some silent shadows.

I was but a shadow now. A figment that lived through the one motivation that filled my body, revenge. All sense of fear left me. Revenge burned within me. It was a wicked warmth, burning with anger. There was nothing else.

I stopped at the home of Gundersen and stood upon the landing before his front door. With my knife in hand, I waited and stared forward. As I knocked, a baritone voice surprised me from behind.

“I am here, boy.”

I turned around to the sight of the rotund man who stirred from drunkenness. Like an involuntary reflex, my arm thrust forward. The knife slid into his belly. I had the sensation of watching it happen from outside my body. My hand retracted and he fell to his knees, facing me with a howling expression of surprise. Again, the knife lunged forward and slid upward through his throat. He gagged and swirled his arms as if catching his balance.

At that moment, the door squeaked opened behind me and I heard a voice gasp in shock. Gundersen’s body tipped backward as my hand remained where it held the knife. The hair stood on my neck as a women’s scream shrilled from behind me. Gundersen clomped onto his back. I ran from the landing and out into the cold twilight.

My snow-filled steps lead me back to my home. I stood and looked at it for the last time. Then, I turned and fled to my only place of safety, my secret cave.

***

Here, I sit inside this rocky crag. The wind howls as curious snowflakes enter and twinkle before dying in the faint orange glow that surrounds me.

My head droops as I cry between shivering breaths. The storm moans through the narrowing mouth of the cave. My hunger aches, as the fire dies, and my eyes struggle to stay open.

My mother’s image fades as the flames flicker. The last stick puffs and joins the other blackened figures. They crackle and finish burning their stories as the darkening cave closes its icy jaws, as I drift into a freezing slumber and follow my frozen heart.

#

CAUGHT IN PIE TOWN

CHAPTER 1

NATE

Had you shaken a snow globe, then flash-froze it, the action, though unmoving, would still be expressed. This was the appearance of Nate Jackson. His eyes welled with a horrid vision, his hands clenched something that wasn’t there, and his mouth stretched open cupping a moan that never emerged as his motionless body lay near the entrance of a vacant lot. Something had shaken him, rattled his soul and then froze it…

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THE FLAVORIST

the-flavorist_sm

     “Mortem praeparare meum novum maximum cofectio!”Adolf Van De Groot bellows from the mezzanine above a gathering of chocolate makers in the grand hall of the Van De Groot Chocolaterie located in the heart of Brussels. 

     His commanding voice reverberates through the hallowed hall with the reverence of his great ancestors, “I have chosen you all to witness my greatest confection. Chocolate so creamy, so decadent, so perfect, it will be the joy of the world. A raging storm of flavor I have named Chocolate Thunder!”

 

 

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