That Time I Upset a Karate Master

(I came across this gem while digging around through some folders on my laptop. It’s a story back from 2019, and I think one of the first ones I shared on here. That said, it’s been a bit since it’s been aired out, and I don’t want it to ever be said that I pass up an opportunity to humble myself with an embarrassing tale. Like the Half Man from clan Lannister once said, “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
So, before further adieu, a story about me f***ing up in front of a whole bunch of people…)

If I may, let me set the scene:

We’re in a martial arts studio currently packed full of kids in their gis, parents line the room, an old guy with a white ponytail stands in front of them all, and there’s a giant tiger painted on one wall with its claws sinking into a big ol’ Ying-Yang. The front door is open so you can hear the cars passing and see the Chinese food place across the street. I’m a cheerful, curly-headed eight-year-old in the judo class that’s wrapping up. I’d just earned my orange belt probably the week before, so I’m smiling big and feeling powerful.

Class wraps up, we bow to one another, and clear the mat so the karate students could have their time. I grab my dufflebag and head off to the bathroom to change, knowing some sweet, sweet orange chicken and fried rice will soon be mine.

Let’s pause real quick to address two personality traits that will soon unfortunately take center stage. They don’t sound that bad, but by their powers combined led to the most embarrassing moment of my life (and I’ve farted in front of a middle school crush in gym class).

One, I’m generally a pretty jolly, easily excitable guy. It was true as a kid and has largely remained that way into adulthood.

Two, it’s really, really, really easy to mess with me. Like, I’ve had to grow a thick shell of skepticism to protect my soft, gullible underbelly, but that doesn’t always work (and has actually been used to enormously great effect, but more on that later – lookin’ at you, Pierre). Nonetheless, I’ve seen more than my fair share of gas-lighting and stupidly easy pranks.

Right, we all set? Good.

So class wraps up, I grab my duffle bag, and hit the bathroom to change. To this day, I have no idea how to explain what took over, but I started singing. I don’t remember what it was or why I felt the need to do it, but I apparently felt a song in my heart and needed the porcelain throne to know it (maybe it was the acoustics). I don’t even remember what song it was, but I’d wager good money it was Celine Deon’s “My Heart will Go On” or something. So picture that.

Anyway, about a minute into my solo, there’s a knock at the door. First hunch that comes to mind is that it’s my friend being impatient for the bathroom, so I pause, tell him to give me a minute, and get right back to belting out my tunes. I only get a couple more words in before there’s another knock. It never crosses my mind that maybe he has to poop or something, so I tell him again, a little less patiently, that I’ll be out in a second and try once again to resume my singing. Immediately, the knocking continues.

Now, I realize what you’re probably thinking, oh Rational One: “Hey, Evan, it’s probably a kid who needs to poop. Give up the john.” And to you I say, “Yeah, that would have been great advice at the time. I really wish I’d had you there” (not IN the bathroom, God, but you get what I’m saying).

What did I do instead? Well, you remember that orange belt I was so proud of? I coiled it up and whapped it against the door like it was a disagreeable stepchild and I was a parent in the 1930’s.

…yup.

I was proud. I’d stood up for myself, didn’t fall for my bully’s antics, and stopped the knocking. I looked at myself in the restroom mirror and put my hands on my hips proudly.

The silence was interrupted by three more knocks, this time quiet and timid ones.

I threw on my pants (yup, hadn’t gotten those on yet) and opened the door. To my shock, I wasn’t met by my friend Troy, but Sensei Ponytail. I don’t remember what he said, I was just too busy looking at the ROOM FULL OF STUDENTS AND PARENTS PRETENDING NOT TO LOOK AT ME.
Like, shit. I wish they’d just laughed outright. Trying to spare my dignity in that moment as I realized what I’d been doing was like emotional keelhauling – which Adult Me now congratulates Ponytail for doing. I can honestly say it was a fuck-ton (metric, of course) of character-building in a pretty small window of time. But my mind was suddenly arrested by imaging that first minute before the knocking, the minute where they’re all just sitting there, listening to me, smiling and thinking “No. What? He’s- he’s still- he’s still singing? Like, he knows that door is thin as hell, right?”

He brought me in front of the karate instructor as the students went to their drills and I apologized to him. To this day, I’ve been as sincere as I was in that moment probably just a handful of times. He played the Tough Guy move and told me to give him push-ups until he got tired.

I did…like, three.

Remember the “orange chicken and fried rice that would soon be mine”? Mmhm, well, I focused on that a lot more than push-ups as a kid, so when he called for push-ups, he got, like, three. A heartfelt and earnest three, but also shaky as hell and absolutely no more than that. All the while, the parents’ hot gazes bored into the back of my head like angry little gophers.

I’d love it if this was my superhero origin story and I could tell you that today I’m a total Marine-bodied stud who doesn’t take his morning shit without pumping out fifty push-ups, but I’m super not. Instead I’ve chosen just to never sing loudly in bathrooms like a dick again. (If you sing in bathrooms, by God more power to you. Just don’t be a dick about it.)

Anyway, on that note, catch y’all later.

The Laundry Disaster of ’05

I’ve alluded before recently that I can take instructions a little too literally at times, and that that’s had a history of getting me into funny spots. As I’ve thought on it, I’ve come to realize that’s actually been a bit of a longtime habit and not something I’ve just started doing in recent years.

One occasion that is a favorite of my mother’s to bring up was a time I ruined an expensive household appliance as a kid.

The year is 2005 – got up to a lotta sh*t when I was twelve – and I’m upstairs in my room. I’m probably playing PlayStation when my mom calls up the stairs, “Hey Evan, make sure you do your laundry.” I probably make some complaining, groaning sound, to which she out-groans me and shouts, “Just take all of your clothes and do a load, okay?”

Well’p. You heard the woman.

So I do. I take all of my clothes, jaunt down the stairs, start the load with an indeterminate amount of detergent, and bound back upstairs to get back to my game. About thirty minutes later, I hear my sweet mother’s voice again screech, “God DAMMIT, Evan!”

Hmm, can’t be too good news what follows, me’thinks.

I peer around the corner of the top step to see the door to the garage open, light spilling from the doorway, and a ton of smoke. Thin, white smoke, so not a huge fire or anything, but still: a lot of smoke. I run down the stairs, look in the garage, and see the dead, fried up remains of what used to be the washing machine, choked to death by an <ahem> unknown assailant. She asked me what I did, and I told her: I took all of my clothes and did a load of laundry.

All of my clothes, a load of laundry.

What she didn’t care too much for was the way I’d taken all of my clothes – dirty ones, clean ones I thought I’d “freshen up,” snow pants I’d worn once a year ago and no longer fit, a sweater I’d worn last Thanksgiving that had gum on the sleeve for some reason, a dress shirt or two that was hanging in the abyss of my closet, everything – and stuffed it all super-pack style mercilessly into the yawning pit of the twenty-year-old appliance.

That poor machine died a thankless, inglorious death.

I’m not saying that I stand by the actions of my twelve-year-old self, but it does make me think I might be part genie for the way I can happen to find any possible Monkey’s Paw approach to requests.

Take THAT, Ancestry.com!

My Peak as an Athlete

I’m going to put up here at the top that this may be one of those better-in-person stories to recount, but ah well, let’s give it a go.

I’ve mentioned recently that I got up to a lot of stuff when I was twelve. Don’t know why, but I guess that tiny age in particular was one for trying new things and getting into the unexpected. One of those things happened to be joining my tiny Lutheran middle school’s basketball team, despite having next to absolute zero interest in doing so. But heck, it gave me a shot at some street cred, so I went for it. Said street cred, much like my level of interest, amounted to zilch, but I got a good story or two out of it.

A thing to note: our basketball team sucked. Not that we didn’t try, not that we didn’t win a game or two, but we sincerely weren’t very good. To put it another way, Disney wasn’t about to use us for any inspirational children’s sport movies. We were so not-good, that when we won, I usually felt that it wasn’t exactly because of skill on our part, but that the opposing team was either having an off day or somehow shockingly worse than us.

But even a broken clock gets it right twice a day.

We were having a scrimmage match against another school and we were doing surprisingly well up to that point. My moment of glory came after they managed a basket on us, I had the ball out of bounds and was passing into our point guard, a fast wiry kid named James, when he suddenly passes it back to me. I was shocked, because I never run the ball up the court. As the tallest (and fattest- ahem “big boned”) kid on the team, and in fact the entire tiny school, I played center. That meant I was responsible for defense, rebounds, and not much else; definitely nothing that involved actually handling the ball. So I reacted accordingly.

“What the heck are you doing, dude?” I ask James loudly, flabbergasted.

“You take it up this time,” he replies calmly before continuing up the court. I follow him, dribbling the ball with clear uncertainty.

Dude,” I stress to emphasize my point, “I never do this though.” I don’t know if our coach privately asked him to do this so that I can practice, if it’s a setup for a prank or mean joke, or what, but I’m continuing this dialogue in the whole open air of the court, in front of him, the parents who are watching, the other team, everybody. “I’m no good at dribbling!”

“Don’t worry, you got this,” he says as we approach the half-court line, then separates. The opposing team was running a man-on-man defense, and I can see the kid who’s going to guard me, having listened to my whole bunch of complaining about how much I suck, closing in on me like a shark that’s smelled blood.

“James, man,” I continue to call after him as the kid closes to within a couple paces, “I can’t! I don’t know how to-” I cut myself off, pump-faking a one-handed pass to the right, which draws a lunging reaction from the kid guarding me. My teammates are positioned wide around the three-point line, so the key was wide open. I cut to my left then up the center for an easy layup, then I start back peddling down the court like the whole thing was an easy planned con, rather than a completely, artfully seized accident of opportunity.

But what makes it my peak, what really makes it an unforgettable moment, was the look on my classmate Kylie’s mom’s face in the audience: eyes wide, jaw on the freaking floor. Because all the yammering I was doing beforehand was completely legitimate – I NEVER run the ball, I never handle it, dribble defensively, none of it, and I’d been a pretty terrible player long as anyone had seen me in action. So no matter how surprised I might have been, it didn’t hold a candle to the upturned expectations of those watching.

I guess, looking back now, that it also seared into my mind the value of the “Fake it til you make it” school of doing things.

Who’da thunk it?

Another Tragic Cookie Tale

What’s up, everybody?
Not that long ago, I briefly alluded to having a terrible cookie-related story to share. (I’d argue “terrible” in the sense of the tragedy it represents, rather than the quality of the story, but really that’s up to you to determine, I guess.) And before I begin, I’ll admit a disclaimer up at the top here that I understand perfectly well how, from the outside, it looks like I’m totally full of it and making something up. I’m not. But besides asking for your trust, I don’t have much evidence to offer by way of earning it.

Anyway, let’s have a larf…

It was holiday season, the year is 2012, and there’s a plate of cookies in the break room at work. Chocolate chip, everyone’s favorite. Next to the little white plate is a short stack of papers with the deliciously simple recipe printed out on them. As it turns out, the secret to the recipe is a sprinkle of sea salt on the top. <Mmm’waaa! Chef’s kiss>

Now, at this point, Amanda’s already known for being the genius behind the baked goods that I bring in, so I see this as a wonderful opportunity to show everybody that Evan here’s got some chops with an oven, too. So I swing by the store on my way home, throw on some music, and whip up a batch of cookies. Next morning when I bring them in, everyone is telling me to pass along their thanks to Amanda for the tray of treats. I rebut and tell them that, actually, I made them to share.

That got it’s fair share of laughs.

That attitude spreads itself around the office for the better part of the morning until finally, around midday, I snap and begin countering with, “Okay, f**kers, this time I’ll film it!” So I do. I grab any stray ingredients I might need from the store again that day after work, kick off another kickass montage, set my camera up on its little tripod atop the refrigerator, and get to work.

Y’all, I was in the zone. Every movement is second nature, my measurements are precise, my area is pristine (always clean as you go), and the cookies came out even better than before. I was even throwing in some swag and showmanship, posing for the camera as I went. When I’m done, I set the cookies on a cooling rack, turn the oven off, and retrieve the camera from its perch…

And find that I never hit the record button.

After my heart re-inflated after dropping out of my ass, I packed up the cookies and figured, what the heck, I can always just get Amanda to act as my witness later. Besides, these cookies are bomb.

Naturally, the next day at work, got all the same rounds of, “Oh, tell Amanda thanks!” and “Whoa, two days in a row, huh?” And when I told them everything I’ve just shared with you, of COURSE nobody bought it. And when, weeks or months later, I had the opportunity to have my fiance admit to everyone that the cookies were my doing and not hers, to her credit, she did…

Which nobody believed. And it continues to haunt me to this day.

But f**k it. I know. God knows. You do now too. That’s good enough for me.

I guess just remember: Check the temperature. Check your time. Check your batteries, and I guess check that you hit the damn record button.

High School Age Catharsis

It might be the encroaching presence of my thirtieth birthday looming over the distant horizon a year-and-change hence, but I’ve been finding myself strangely reminiscing over my teen years a bit more lately. And that comes in a few forms. Basking in warm memories, obviously. Laughing at the folly of my youth, even more obviously. But also the growing that was done in those years. Namely, the first time I had an experience that gave me context for the idea of “catharsis.”

I’ve never made any bones about how this, being my own tiny slice of the internet, is basically a glorified little public diary. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad as heck to have you here and any involvement/feedback I get on here is received like a warm batch of cuddles; but it remains just that, a place for me to stream my consciousness a little, workshop some things, limber up some mental muscles at times, and post stories that I’m positive will never see the (Say it with me, now) Light of Day otherwise.

What it boils down to is that writing’s healthy, I find. It helps you expunge some of the plaque that builds up in your machinery, and offers a net to catch pesky wandering thoughts, granting the peace of mind that you have them now, no longer risking them to forgetfulness. It’s cathartic. And the first time I can remember discovering that for myself was when I was seventeen.

Brief back story: I went to religious private schools off and on growing up. Catholic one year, then most of my middle school years attending a little Lutheran school. That meant a lot of religious inundation, and a Judeo-Christian lens for most existential explanations growing up. That meant it felt, while freeing, a bit culture-shocky when I attended public high school and made friends who didn’t think that way. Also meant I was in for a bit of a metamorphosis as I encountered more and more new ideas that challenged the worldview established growing up.

The tipping point, funnily enough, was reading “A Dirty Job” by Christopher Moore. In summary, it’s about an average Joe that accidentally becomes responsible for ferrying souls, essentially, from one life to the next. It painted something reminiscent of a case for reincarnation, and had a very humanizing and personal (while hilarious) prism to it. But it stoked a bunch of questions I’d felt building the last couple of years.

Maybe…God…wasn’t. Wait, what? Maybe…this – this being life – isn’t structured as neatly as I thought. But if that hasn’t been right, then- but if not, then…what? Wait, what?

With the challenged worldview, I wasn’t given a thoroughly convincing new answer to replace the firm ones I’d known until then, only questions.

I didn’t call it this then, but it was a bit of a spiritual crisis. I felt a little cast adrift all of a sudden. And at seventeen, with proper adulthood and college around the corner, it came at a hell of a time. I had questions. A LOT of questions. Plus thoughts, theories, models trying to draw themselves in my brain, what felt like a forced but unsubstantiated new way to look at the world, and a lot else all competing for rank in my mind.

It. Drove. Me. Nuts.

For any other Avatar: The Last Airbender fans (which you should be, because it’s awesome), looking back on this is what gives me a greater appreciation for Zuko’s arc; specifically when he decides to help Aang rather than hunt him, and that identity/spiritual warring sends him into fever-stricken convulsions.

But while it’s tough, I think it’s an objectively beautiful part of the human experience.

Anyway, I felt insane for the better part of a week, at least. Stopped hanging out with friends, f**ked off my homework, the whole nine. Until one day, during my free fifth period, I went to the library and wrote it all down. I scratched out every thought that plagued me, every unanswerable question, every idea and model until my hand cramped. Then at the end of it, I set my pen down and instantly felt better, like someone had thrown a valve and the mental pressure just evaporated. I’d taken all the chaotic thoughts and questions, captured them, and sealed them in ink on paper.
And just, oh boy, I recommend it as a matter of good practice to anyone who finds or has found themselves feeling in similar straits.

Take care of yourself, you’s guys.

The Snoopy Cookie Disaster of ’99

I meant to put this out before Christmas, but the holiday season being what it is, it – like my practiced habit of delayed shopping trips – comes now at least a couple of weeks after I planned on doing it. And if I’m being honest, even this is too much preamble for the story that follows; but heck, I’m like an enthusiastic gravedigger for leash cemeteries: I love burying the lead.

Tortured similes aside, HI EVERYBODY. Here’s to hoping your respective holiday celebrations were everything you hoped for and more, whether that was caroling, gift giving, traveling to see family, or baking cookies. Speaking of baking cookies – haHA! I told you I’d get to the point eventually! – I’m not very good at it. (Well, actually, I’m not bad, but that’s a story for another time. One story at a time, Evan! Focus!)

This time in particular, I was about six or seven years old, it was Christmas time, and my Mama Bear was having me help her bake a batch of cookies out of a tube. I remember distinctly that they were cookies with Snoopy placing a star atop a little Christmas tree, and while I’m not, I should be really good at baking because even at that age, I’m very good at following instructions. My critics might counter that by saying I can be an overly literal drone, but I prefer to think of myself as an adherent listener. (God, as I write this, there’s another story that comes to mind, too. Okay, more to come, I guess.)

On this particular occasion, we were all huddled on the couch watching a movie while the cookies baked and my mom says to me, “Evan, would you go grab the cookies and take them out of the oven?” I smile cheerfully, pop up, and skip into the kitchen to do what she says like a good little boy.

precisely what she says.

It may not have occurred to you, being a normal person and without all my tortured leadup, that Mom left out the seemingly bloody obvious yet crucial step of donning oven mitts to her instructions. So I dawdle up to the oven, open the door, take out the cookie sheet, and it isn’t even until I’m going to place them on the stove top that my bare hands finally inform my brain that they’re holding a slab of aluminum that’s above 350 degrees Farenheit. My brain receives the message and runs the appropriate protocol: I drop the sheet, scream, and cry.

What followed may have been a memory of my mom asking me what the hell I was thinking and why the heck I didn’t put on oven mitts or at least a dish towel, but my brain must have blocked that part out too.

A developing young mind, and all that.

Anyway, (belated) happy holidays and a merry New Year and stuff.

Highland Falls, NY

One trope I had at one point or another felt was a lazy narrative device was the what I called “unexplained calling.” You know the one. The call to adventure wherein a character’s motivation to go to a place or do a thing doesn’t come from interpersonal conflict or an aspect of their past, but just a feeling they get. They set about their adventure because they feel called upon to do so. You don’t need to substantiate it or justify it. They just feel that way.

A little bit of life experience has told me that that kind of sh*t sometimes totally just happens, though.

Now, I can – like with any example of the above gripe – do a psychological deep-dive on the in’s and out’s of maybe why the motivation manifests the way it does, and with the confession I’m about to make, I will.

When I was a kid, we moved around a lot for the sake of my dad’s health some, but mostly my mom’s job mobility. Born in Oregon, spent some time in California, moved out to Kentucky, up to New York, and back to the west coast. In New York, we were in a tiny little hamlet called Highland Falls. A quick check to Google Maps will show you it’s along the Hudson River, and about forty minutes’ north of New York City. It’s tiny, a drive-through town. We lived there for about two years while I was six and seven years old before we moved out to California where I really did my growing up.

So even though California has become my home state and where I’ve spent most of my life, part of my brain has remained doggedly rooted to Highland Falls, and I’ve been what I can only describe as “viciously nostalgic” for that little village ever since moving away. Now, I’m no psychologist beyond the garden ‘armchair’ variety, but I have a hunch as to why I’m that way. When we moved out here and I turned eight, it began a long series of life events and landmarks, from 9/11, my dad passing away, and a series of new schools as we continued to bounce around, to the tumultuous nature of teenager years with all the first’s that come with them and every struggle that’s followed since in my twenties. If I had to guess – and I do, citing my aforementioned lack of credentials as well as not being an all-knowing genie – my psyche sort of sees that quiet little town as The Good Ol’ Days, and the move out to California as when The Trouble Began (“Trouble” being just what growing up is). So it latches onto my foggy memories of that time with the rose-tintiest of rose-tinted glasses.

Even accepting that as true enough and explaining somewhat rationally where the impulse comes from, it doesn’t really stop me from really wanting to visit the place again. Which, to put that into perspective, would mean taking time off of work, organizing flights, rental cars, hotel stays, and more, all totalling to a couple grand of travel costs…to see drive-through town that can’t possibly resemble the one I knew growing up.

For…what?

Like, really. For what? To see a childhood home I lived in for two years that’s probably been repainted? Is that really worth the time and the price tag? No. Of course not. The obvious work around is to just look up my old address on Google Maps and take a Street View tour of the town, if the nostalgia means so much to me, right? Well, guess what smart guy? I already did that. Here’s the thing: The street I grew up on is the ONLY ONE that the Google car DIDN’T map out. So what we have now is an implacable calling to a small New England town in the middle of nowhere, to see a house that shouldn’t hold any value to me sentimental or otherwise, and a global mapping service that has said house strangely blurred out, only fueling this feeling of mystery.

The way I see it, this can only go one of two ways.

One: I fly out there, rent a car, the Whole Nine, and I make it to my childhood house to find the town even smaller than I remember and the house with new owners who would be understandably perplexed to see a thirty-year-old staring at their front door with his sole explanation that he lived there more than twenty years ago. The town is just a town. My childhood is well and truly gone. The house is just a house. There is no calling. I just wasted a couple thousand to see a regular old town like any thousands of others and should reexamine some things in my life.

Two: I fly out there and all the rest, uncover some real eldritch, funky Stephen King sh*t, and am never heard from again by my friends and family.

I guess, if for positively no other reason than posterity, let this post stand for the record when, in a year or two, I decide to make the pilgrimage, announce it on here, and this blog abruptly ceases being updated forever. Like, I know I take breaks here and there, but if I say “Hey, I’m off to Highland Falls. I’ll update you,” and y’all never hear from me again, it’s some weird It stuff. Aliens. Monsters. Men in Black, some kind of funky stuff, and this meager slice of the internet can stand as dubious proof of that.

So…I guess…’til then, right?

Ciao.

Misfit Holidays

Misfits.

Mis-fits.

Missing fits. Fits that miss.

Misfits.

It’s funny. Words can come up so often that we ascribe certain meaning to them that’s beside their literal intent. Like “intercourse” just means an exchange between to people, usual dialogue; but it’s used so often as a euphemism for sex that that’s just what it means now. “Misfits” is the same way for me, just meaning someone whose behavior sets them apart (albeit usually in a negative context, but alas).

It’s probably because they’re surrounded by the two popular kids – Halloween and Christmas – but I’ve long felt that Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve/Day are underrated and don’t get enough attention. Coming by my contrary nature, well, naturally, I consider these my favorite holidays. Thanksgiving, to me, is as pure as western holidays can get, being about time with loved ones and gratitude. It leaves aside all the bells, whistles, and commercialization as the big ones, focusing instead on the important stuff. The meat and potatoes. Brass tacks and all that jazz.

New Years is the same way. It’s a reset button. You get a new year, a clean slate, a fresh start. As such, I really like making Resolutions, and genuinely enjoy keeping to them as best I can. I of course understand that life will make other plans, so they aren’t ironclad, but I use them to better myself as best I can. Not with things like “Read more” or “Be kinder,” because with those you can read a pamphlet or hold the door open for someone once and feel like it’s been checked off.

For 2021, for example and among other things, I set some financial goals and wanted to read ten books. I overshot my financial goals (thank God) and am set to finish Book #26 just in time for 2022.

I started this thinking I would list out my Resolutions for 2022, but I’m gonna recall that. Resolutions genuinely are better as personal goals for you to know, you to accomplish, and you to share (maybe) once they’ve been accomplished. Broadcasting your intent is GOOD, no doubt, but maybe just with BIG moves. Studies somewhere allegedly show, I’ve heard, that broadcasting intent for small achievable goals makes one less likely to finish what they start because we’ll usually receive encouragement for said broadcast then give way to complacency and laziness from there; and I can believe that (totally unverified bit of factoid I’ve just shared with all of you).

Point being this: I hope this New Years, it being one of my favorite holidays, you take it for the healthy reset and opportunity it represents and that you make the most of it. Set some goals, write down your lists, and take steps to make them happen.

Good luck, everybody. Tough to remember sometimes, but we’re all in this together, and I’m rooting for you. ❤

Faith: More Advice from a Wizard

Sup, y’all. Been a second.

I took my pedal off the gas a bit lately when it comes to making scribbles (my term of endearment for the time-honored art of literary practice), handling a move, job change, usual life drama, and all the rest have just gotten in the way. Those, and I’ve kept chugging along with this reading binge I’ve taken on this year.

I’m a sucker for New Years Resolutions. Like the rest of us, I’ve abandoned my fair share, but managed a doable list of items this time around for 2021. One of them was that I wanted to read/finish ten paperbacks before the years was up…

…I’m halfway through #23.

Of those, a fair share have been from the Dresden Files series of novels by Jim Butcher, stories about a Chicago-based wizard and private investigator. They’re fun. Well written, paced well, exciting, imaginative, and just plain good. From time to time, it gets deep, too. There come points here and there where the narration reflects on aspects of the human experience that resonate frighteningly well. We covered one life lesson a couple of months ago, and I’d like to share another excerpt from his work today about faith as he sees it:

“But there were some things I believed in. Some things I had faith in. And faith isn’t about perfect attendance to services, or how much money you put on the little plate. It isn’t about going skyclad to the Holy Rites, or meditating each day upon the divine.

“Faith is about what you do. It’s about aspiring to be better and nobler and kinder than you are. It’s about making sacrifices for the good of others – even when there’s not going to be anyone telling you what a hero you are.”

-Harry Dresden, Changes, pg. 251-252

Self-improvement, at the end of the day. You obviously can’t give all of yourself away, you can’t help everyone on the planet, you have to take care of yourself, but it’s a good compass heading, a good reminder of our shared responsibility to help those around you when you’re able.

Aaaaaand now I’ve gone and made it sound a bit preachy. So here’s something dumb to balance it out: “Why did the baseball stadium get so hot after the game ended…?”

Because it lost all of its fans.

Have a good night everybody!

Ciao.

Little Red Rock

One of the hardest things to do as a writer, it seems, is to handle the crippling loneliness that constantly threatens to drown you like the black waters of a high tide you don’t notice until their chill is constricting your chest and-

Ahem.

What I meant was, one of the hardest things to do as a writer, it seems, it to do just that: Write. Finding a place to start. Staring at a blank page. Making the dream theater in the your brain real on the page. Like, it doesn’t seem that hard, but there’s some strange paralytic element to the act of…just doing. It’s a skill that takes time to cultivate, and the bummer is that there’s no real trick to it. The way to do it is to just friggin’ do it; and the more you do it, the more momentum you build and the easier it gets.

A byproduct of that is you wind up writing a lot of crap. And not in the sense of how much content you create, though that’s true to. I mean a lot of the ideas you have, flesh out, and bring to life through effort and time will inevitably suck. But what’s cool is that the more you do it, the more crap you generate, the more gems in the rough you come across, and the more stuff you have to look back on and go, “Hahaha, wow. Once upon a time, I thought that was a good idea. Geez.”

Like this one.

Technically, the story that follows was the result of a drunken New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago. There was a deadline approaching for a magazine that held a call for cheesey, sci-fi/horror taking place in space. This totally fit the bill, but…it’s…just not real good. I’ve kept it in my folder for manuscripts I’ll pitch to open calls for stories and sling it at anyone asking for something like that: cheap horror set in space, but I definitely recognize that I rushed the story to a conclusion I thought was funny and then have never since bothered to edit it or fix.

So, if you have ten minutes you’re looking to burn on a piece of bad sci-fi/horror fiction that ends in a badly told “Tell me about the rabbits, Lenny” joke, I present…

Little Red Rock

Mars.

A tiny, copper light among the stars that inspired priests, storytellers, and astronomers for millennia. Does it have water? Did it have water? Or little green men with ray guns, flying saucers, and big heads?

The first Mars rovers and probes sent back images of bare rocky expanses. They were boring but at the same time so exciting because they reminded us that Mars was a place, a very real and reachable place. These boring pictures were lauded as an awesome expanse of the frontier. They kept news cycles around the globe busy for about two weeks before the latest and greatest political scandal stole back the headlines. The pictures almost fell into comfortable obscurity when the rover sent back new images, interesting ones, the ones the world was really waiting for. December 18th, 2021, the Mars rover sent back images of a large, angular structure, embedded into one of the planet’s innumerable rocky, red cliffs.

Right on time for Christmas.

In a brand new, cooperative Space Race, efforts mounted to get boots on the red planet and, just four incredibly short years later, the Ares mission launched. On board was a team of six international specialists. Head of Linguistics and Communications Anthony Gomez, Chief Technical Officer Tanisha Roberts, and Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Thompson made up the team’s military arm. Chief Geologist Makoto Tanaka, Chief Medical Officer Victor Andrade, and Chief Biologist Sonya Manesh comprised its civilian science wing. Together, they represented both the world’s best and brightest as well as Earth’s attempt at a potential diplomatic contact with an extraterrestrial.

Initial reports from the Ares mission began as they would go on: short and usually upsetting.

Six months into space flight, Officer Andrade succumbed to an illness, allegedly resulting from a previously undisclosed or unknown serious food allergy to peanuts. Then, stemming from a course deviation and near miss with Phobos, a miscalculation put the shuttle’s landing off its mark by some forty-eight kilometers. To follow, a hard landing left Officer Gomez with injuries to his leg and spine. He was stable, but after it was deemed necessary to take the shuttle’s Ranger to the site of the structure, it was voted among the crew that Gomez was to stay behind.

The Ranger departed the shuttle January 23rd, 2027, at 16:00 Earth’s time. Its last transmission was received at 17:43 of the same day as it approached the structure. The crew described a mountainous, angular facility with strange runic markings about much of the face of its walls and thick cables which were woven into the rock like roots from a tree. The transmission was broadcast live on Earth to a global audience which hung greedily on every detail and set thousands of historians immediately to work on their dissertations. The excitement peaked as the transmission described an even stranger sight.

“There’s…what, it looks like a door,” said Officer Roberts’ voice over the radio. “It’s opening! The door to the facility is opening and- what in the? It looks…there’s someone there. Two legs, arms, my God! It looks human- well, humanoid. But blue, like it’s made of light. A hologram of some kind maybe? It looks like it’s…waving to us? Yes! It’s greeting us! Contact, I repeat, we have made contact! Holy crap, this is incredible! Approaching the door now!”

With no word since then, Officer Gomez and the rest of the world were left to wonder what it was the rest of the crew of the Ares mission had discovered inside.

*

“Duck! Duck goddammit!” Thompson slammed his hands against the viewing glass. “Above you!”

“Now on your left, Sonya!” Tanaka shouted. “Fuck, Roberts, can’t you shut this thing down?”

“I’m trying! He’s locked me out!” Tanisha pushed a button and her voice rang out of a speaker in the chamber they were all watching. “You have one more wave, Sonya. Get ready.”

Things were not going well.

On the other side of the glass where the three crew member stood, Sonya Manesh gave a weak thumb’s up. She was in a blank room with featureless chrome walls. She was dressed in an orange and white jumpsuit, drawing heavy, gasping breaths, and her hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. She had a deep cut on her left arm and various singe marks on her other arm and legs.

“Final commencement agility testing,” came a voice with a thick Russian accent over the speaker. “Will now begin. I am wishing you good luck.”

“Fuck, come on Kestrel! That’s enough!” Thompson shouted.

“But the testing must be beginning soon. These are rules.”

“Can’t you just rip out the wires or something?” Tanaka whispered to Roberts, who was frantically searching the console in front of them.

“You want me to just start ripping things out?” she hoarsely whispered back. “We barely understand what this place is, let alone how it was built. I do that, who knows what would happen?”

“I do,” came the Russian voice over the speaker again. “Also because I am hearing you. Your whisper is very bad.”

“How about instead of these tests, you just let us-”

“Anyway, testing starts now!”

A red light on the wall beside them turned green. Inside the room, dozens of small nodes began to emerge from hidden creases in the walls. A light hum filled the chamber as beams of light shot across the room and connected between the nodes, forming something of a fractured grid of lasers. Sonya spun around, wildly taking note of the several new deadly lines of burning plasma. She began to panic.

“Guys? Guys, there are way too many! This is so many more than last time!” she cried.

“Keep your head on straight,” Thompson shouted into the microphone on the console. “That’s an order!”

“You can do this, Sonya. Just stay focused,” Tanaka followed.

The nodes began to move slowly across the walls, shifting the lines of light with them. Sonya ducked out of the way of one, dove off to the side of another, and flattened herself against the ground to avoid a net of more. Seeing another line descending on her, she rolled out of the way, and then narrowly missed another beam that slid under her with a quick hop.

“She’s doing okay,” Roberts breathed to herself, her thumb off the microphone’s button

“She isn’t out of this yet,” warned Thompson. “But she’s doing alright.”

“See?” A blue figure statically phased into being behind them. It appeared to wear a jumpsuit and an ushanka hat with a hammer and sickle symbol just above the forehead. Its arms were crossed and it wore an exaggerated smirk on its flickering face. “It would not be test if there was no winning. You were all worried.”

“It shouldn’t be a test at all, you son-of-a-bitch,” Tanaka shouted.

Sonya rolled out of the way of another beam, but caught her foot on yet another. It cleanly sliced off a portion of her shoe and she howled, fell to the ground, and held her foot. In her moment of stillness, a third beam twisted in her direction. She threw herself out of its way, but too slowly. It passed through the peak of her bent knee and after a stunned moment she let out an agonizing scream.

“Turn this off, now!” Thompson shouted at Kestrel. “Do it or I swear to God I will tear this place apart. Discoveries and exploration be damned, I will hunt your Commie-ass down if you don’t let her go!”

With an unnerving precision of movement and suddenly grave expression, Kestrel’s head turned towards Lt. Colonel Thompson. “It sounds to me like someone is volunteering to be going next.” The two held a hard gaze for a long moment, before Kestrel suddenly smiled again. “But! You are correct,” he said, facing Tanaka. “It is no longer test. With leg like that, test is failed. I will proceed with the deactivating of the testing equipments.”

Kestrel’s blue form flickered and then dissipated entirely. The crew members turned around and saw that, one by one, the nodes in the testing chamber were deactivating. When they were all again recessed into the walls, a door on the far end noiselessly slid open. A door in their own viewing room also opened and Roberts held her thumb to the microphone’s button.

“You’re done here. Kestrel’s letting you out, you won. We’re coming to get you, hon. I know it’s gotta be hard as hell, but get yourself out of that room. Crawl if you have to and we’ll meet you back in the anteroom. Okay?”

Sonya Manesh just lied on her back and cried for a long moment, but with heaving sobs managed to get herself to her feet and began walking with support from the wall towards the newly opened door.

“Alright, she’s moving. Let’s do the same,” said Thompson.

They made their way out of the room, but as Roberts was about to step through, something caught her eye. She turned and saw a small dot appearing on one of the walls. A shock pulsed in her heart as she realized what it was and ran back to the console. She jammed on the microphone’s button as the beam shot from the node whirred across the room towards the limping scientist.

“Sonya!” she screamed.

“Oops,” the speaker crackled.

*

The remaining crew members of the Ares mission were gathered into a small, dark room, lit only by four small light emanating from the floor’s corners. Roberts was slumped against one walls with her arms around her knees, Tanaka leaned against another with his hands in his pockets, and Thompson paced back and forth like a boar.

“Okay,” Kestrel said, slapping his spectral hands together. “You are having questions?”

“You’re goddamn right we do!” steamed the Lt. Colonel. “She passed your test, why in the hell did you kill her anyway?”

“Whoa, whoa. It was technical malfunction. Facility is old. These things have bad luck of happening.”

“Why?” Tanaka asked softly.

“Why, what, comrade?”

“Any of this? We still don’t know who you are, what you are, or why any of this is necessary.” He slumped his shoulders defeatedly. Thompson and Roberts both looked to the Russian ghost.

“Ah, well, that is long story. But is short also, because most of it I am not remember. I was, long time ago, cosmonaut, part of Red Eagle mission, 1967.”

“Wait, what?” asked Roberts, rising to her feet. “You were part of the Space Race of the sixties? But that was to the moon.”

“Ah,” shook Kestrel. “You Americans wanted moon. When you Americans got moon, U.S.S.R. figured hey, what is better? Moon or Red Planet? Red planet made better symbol for win over you western capitalists. Figured, eh, ‘go ahead and keep moon, we have Red Planet. Fuck your moon.’”

The crew members of the Ares looked to one another with what was either astonishment or utter disbelief. Tanaka was now the one pacing and Thompson was leaning against one of the walls.

“Wait,” said Tanaka. “Then what are these tests for? And how did you guys build all of this?”

“Well, two are sort of same,” replied Kestrel. “Firstly, big head boom discovery-” the hologram made an exaggerated motion with his hands of his head being blown up, complete with a cartoonish face expression, “-is that this was already here. Whole building. We wanted to radio back and tell of discovery, but landing was bad.”

“So then what did you do?” asked Roberts.

“We did what could do. We explored, saw what station building could be use for, what Kremlin would want station be use for. Training. Mining. All things to win next big war. Then, we found strange room, I fell asleep in strange bed and when I woke up, comrades were dead and I was like this…blue. Bleh. Blue.” The image shuddered as if in disgust.

“You wanted,” began the Lt. Colonel slowly, “to start up a war base on Mars?”

The spectral Russian nodded proudly.

“That’s about the stupidest fuckin’ thing I’ve ever heard!” The barrel-chested military man began howling. Roberts and Tanaka looked at each other uncomfortably, and Kestrel faced Thompson with a stern look on his holographic face.

“Sir, I wouldn’t egg him on.”

The Lt. Colonel continued to laugh. “And what’s he gonna do, huh? He wrapped us up into one of those death gizmos already. He ain’t nothing’ but pixels, anyway.” Thompson moved to walk through the projection that was Kestrel but stumbled back, finding the man of light to be surprisingly solid. “What the hell?” was all he could utter before he was lifted up by the throat.

“Sir!” Tanaka shouted.

“Leonard!” followed Roberts.

“Wait.” Kestrel stopped suddenly and set Thompson back on his feet, whereupon he immediately fell to the ground gasping and coughing. “You are named Leonard?”

“Yeah, what of it?” he coughed.

The ghost that was Kestrel giddily jumped and pranced around the room. Singing incomprehensibly to himself as the three others shared unnerved glances. When he finally stopped, he walked up to Thompson, stopping just short of the man’s nose. “Your turn, Lennie,” he laughed. The wall behind the Lt. Colonel slid swiftly open and closed behind him again as Kestrel kicked him through.

“Hey, what the hell is this?” they heard the military man’s voice faintly through the wall.

“It is last test,” replied Kestrel, his back against the wall Leonard had just been pushed through, facing the others. “Tell us what you are seeing.”

“I ain’t tellin’ you shit!”

“What do you see?” Kestrel’s voice boomed and they could hear a whirring on the other side of the wall.

“Is this really necessary?” Tanaka asked, almost pleadingly. Roberts just shuddered quietly. The two looked at one another. Without words, the glance they shared said all that needed saying. Whatever mind was trapped inside the projection they called ‘Kestrel’, whether it was from time in isolation or from frayed wires elsewhere in the facility, it was a mind that was cracked and broken.

They weren’t leaving this place.

“Eiyah! Okay, okay. Jesus, put that thing down,” came Thompson’s voice again. “It looks…ah, it looks like there’s a screen in here?”

“Yes? And?” Kestrel appeared to be silently chuckling to himself. “What else is there, comrade?”

“Ah, hell. Um, looks like there’s a farm house, maybe? A lake too, or a pond? What the hell is this supposed to be about, anyways?”

“What else? Is part of visual acuity testing and for communication skills. Very important.” Kestrel leaned forward, whispering over the others’ shoulders. “You know,” he said quietly, “I never actually hated you Americans. In fact, I was always big fan of proud American work ethic, grit much like Russia, and your American literature. I was big fan particular of your ‘Of Mice and Men’.” He winked at the two remaining crew members of the Ares and back to the wall he called, “What about the rabbits, Lennie?”

“Yeah, looks like some fuckin’ bunnies too. What of-”

There was a muted bang and dull thud on the other side of the wall. Kestrel chuckled silently into his hands, but then suddenly stopped as though his ears had just pricked.

“I’m sorry comrades, but that is all for the testing. Thank you for time and the participating, but now is time I go. Wish well and things.”

Just like that, the blue figure of Kestrel flickered once, twice, and then ceased to be. Tanaka and Roberts both silently looked at one another, each shaking, as one by one, the lights in the corner of the room they were in slowly dimmed and went black.

*

Communications Officer Anthony Gomez lied on his cot feeling the medication he’d found in Andrade’s station. The unbearably sharp pains in his back and leg, a slipped disc and fractured femur he was certain, had been reduced to dull aches for the time being. He stared out of the shuttle’s port window at the setting martian sun. It was funny, he thought, that this was truly the most lonely he had ever been, but he was alright with it. Whether it was the morphine talking or not, he couldn’t help but find the last rays of sunlight that splayed out over the canyons of that barren waste to be the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Where the hell are you guys?” he whispered to the ceiling.

Just then, a light flared to life at his station. He groaned, but slowly rolled off of his cot and limped over to the console. Fortunately, at little over one-third Earth’s gravity, he only stopped at a spasm in his back once on his way there. He slumped lightly into the seat, grimaced, and answered the hail.

“Finally, you guys. I thought you’d forgotten about me.”

Silence.

“Hey, you there?” Gomez ventured again, more nervously this time.

“Evening, comrade.”

END

PS – Holy crap, I just realized I set the date for news of a structure discovered on Mars for a few months from now. Let this also, officially, count as me friggin’ calling it, if that happens. Because I wrote this almost two years ago before the rover touched down, for the record; and yes I do expect to be hailed as a damned prophet for my abilities…if it pans out. Otherwise, ahem, y’know, I’m just kidding.