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.

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.

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. ❤

An Argument for why Disneyland Might Legitimately be Magical

Sup everybody, and happy holiday madness (whatever your particular flavor of that may be).

I’m 28, and I tend to be behind the curve on a lot of things. I haven’t had chicken pox yet, I watched Avengers: Endgame years after it came out, and I finally went to Disneyland for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

My fiance’s parents gifted us tickets because Mandy had been wanting to make the trip materialize for years, knowing I hadn’t been yet and wanting to be the one to take me. Add to that a couple more years of frustration and patience what with the world shutting down recently, and we finally made it happen (safe as can be) last month.

I won’t lie: I was worried. Worried that I’d heard almost three decades of hype around the “Happiest Place on Earth” and that there was no way in heck a place could live up to all the stories and expectations. I was worried we’d go, and I’d be a jaded, grumpy old cuss who was too adult for the whole place. And with how excited she was to take me, show me, and see my reaction, there was a lot of emotional investment that hinged on that reaction – and I’m no good at faking that stuff, I’ve tried.

So, along with all the fun, it was also a gigantic f***ing relief when it turns out that Disneyland is awesome. And when I say “awesome,” I mean super, incredibly f***ing awesome.

Y’all, for three days, I was a kid. At first I felt the enchantment doing its work, could see the design to the park and the reality of where I was, but that eventually all melded into the background behind the music, the characters, the food, the smiles, charms, rides, and everything else.

Y’all…Goofy waved at me. Me!! Mickey’s own buddy Goofy waved at me, and I got to take a photo with Flynn Rider while he hit us with the smolder and tried to talk smack about Maximus – the greatest horse in the Disney universe. (And you can check your arguments at the door. He’s a horse that upholds the law and friggin’ swordfights. He’s a horse that buckles effin’ swashes. #swashbucklinghorse)

But beyond the glitz and glamour of the theme park, there were a few moments that we experienced that I legitimately cannot figure any other way beyond some level of actual – and I raged against the term at first, thinking it too overused – magical influence. And I have an argument for why I think that is in a minute, so you’ll see what I mean. (If you’re boring or short on time, feel free to skip past the numbers to the juicy bit at the end. #smoothbrain #busybee)

First, I present the evidence…

  1. Uncanny Luck with Reservations
    There’s a restaurant at Disneyland called the Blue Bayou. If, like me, you hadn’t heard of it, it’s essentially a large cafe inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride where you sit under dim lighting, eat overpriced stuff, and can vaguely see park goers on the ride in the quiet background. Something also associated with the Bayou is how impossible it is to get in. Mandy tried six, eight months out from our trip to get seats and they were all booked up.
    Now, put a pin in that.
    There’s also a new ride at the Star Wars Land section of the park called Rise of the Resistance, and when I told people about our trip coming up, everyone and their DOG was telling us how we need to try and get it, and to try really hard because it’s next to impossible to do. At the time we went, you had to reserve your space online using the app, and check-in times were at 7:00am and 12:00pm, so you had two chances each day. The first time we tried, we hit ‘Reserve’ right at 7:00 and were told it was booked up, having filled up in microseconds.
    Back to that pin.
    We exit the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, pleasantly sighing at the fun we’d had, when Mandy sees the Blue Bayou hostess standing at her podium. She basically figures “What the heck?” and approaches, asking if there’s space available. The hostess mentions at first that they were, at present, booked out for the next two months. Just as we’re beginning to say our “We understand” and turn to leave, she does a quick scan of her seating chart, does one of those surprised frowns, and says that if we have time right that minute, there was actually an open table for two.
    We stand there blinking for a moment before we say, “Um, heck yes, why not?” She tells us to stay close by and they’ll call us up in a moment or two. That’s when we check the time and see it’s 11:57, and we need to start smashing that refresh button on the Disney App for the Resistance ride. It’s 11:59 and the hostess calls us up, and we hold up a polite finger with the “Wait oooone second” while we pray to whatever god will listen for a spot in line. The clock ticks over to 12:00…
    …and we made it, just at the end of the queue behind a couple thousand other people.
    Within the span of a couple minutes, we nailed two rumored-to-be impossible reservations. Disneyland just started serving alcohol in limited amounts to adults, so you bet your tookus that we celebrated with a couple of exorbitantly expensive cocktails and a dessert. It felt like the most baller move to pull, was my thinking. If we were there on a months-long reservation, you can be sure I’m not getting out of there for less than a filet mignon and a lobster tail. But with some spontaneous serendipity like that, I’m there to get sweet, get krunk, and get out.
  2. The Missing Pin
    That weekend was also when I learned of the crazy pin culture that surrounds Disneyland. You can buy them, obviously, but you can aparently also trade them with either park attendants or fellow park goers. Folks will set up “shop” out in front of storefronts with BINDERS full of specialty pins they’re collecting or trading. I like pins, but these mofo’s LOVE pins.
    Mandy has a couple of Disney pins from previous trips she went on as a kid, and one of the days while I was in the restroom she traded up with a couple and surprised me with a Maximus pin I put on my hat. Besides that, she has her core two or three she wouldn’t give up for the world and one she likes but planned on trading for a special one she was on the hunt for (we’ll get to that).
    We were all set with our pins – me with Maximus and her with her traders – as we were getting in line for the Star Tours ride. If you’re unfamiliar like I was, it’s basically a next level POV Star Wars movie where your seats lean and jounce around to make you feel the gravity of the starship movie you’re watching. We’re about to walk into the “theater” when she sighs, says “Oh, no…” and explains that her trading pin had come loose and fallen on the ground somewhere, now lost.
    Maybe it was the childlike joy and innocence I’d been marinated in for the last two days, but that missing pin left me heartbroken for her. It wasn’t just the missing property, exactly, but also the fact that the pin was a stand-in for the one she’d meant to trade it for, however easily it could be replaced. Explain it however you want, we were bummed.
    Which is what made it all the more impactful when, after the ride was through, she pulls on my sleeve going, “Evan, holy crap. Look.” The pin had somehow fallen off of the strap of her bag by her shoulder, fallen a couple of feet, and been caught by the swinging pocket of the sweater she had tied around her waist.
    I…I can’t…
    I don’t know enough about statistics to give you any numbers not out of my butt that can express how unlikely of a catch that was, and I also won’t be shaken out of my belief that it took the ghost of Walt Disney himself to make it.
  3. The Only Way to Watch Fireworks From Now On
    So, once we got off the Rise of the Resistance ride, Mandy and I each found a rock out of the flow of traffic to sit on and we just stared at the sidewalk with thousand-yard stares. It was THAT good. One of the first things I did once we came back into ourselves was text my aunt and thank her for the advice and the push to try and get on the ride because of how worth it it was. She gets back to me with some congratulations and some follow-up advice to try the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster if we hadn’t already. We hadn’t yet, so we make it our next stop.
    It’s well past sundown by this point, and on the way to Big Thunder Mountain, we notice foot traffic and lines for rides are getting pretty thin, and quickly realize that it’s because the park is gearing up for its nightly fireworks display. Mandy pauses us to ask the obvious question: Do we pause what we’re doing to try and find a good spot to watch them from? And we pretty much conclude together, “Nah, they’re cool, but seen one fireworks show, you’ve sort of seen them all,” and keep making our way to the rollercoaster.
    We were right, and it paid off. The line for Big Thunder Mountain moved pretty darn quickly and we were at the front in no time. Big Thunder Mountain is probably best described as the “least themed” of the rollercoasters in the park. Matterhorn has the bobsled and Yeti, Space Mountain has the total darkness, trippy warp-lighting thing. BTM is basically just fast and loud. That said, it’s a really smooth ride, and a lot of fun. We had a great moment to appreciate how fun it was while it slow-climbed up the second big ramp for the exterior drop, and I heard some distant, low, “Thuum, thuum-thuum, thuum.”
    We had just enough time to wonder what the heck it was when, in the sky directly in front of us right as we’re about to crest the peak for the big drop, fireworks exPLODE into an eruption of color and sound.
    Y’all, if you ever have the chance to catch a fireworks show directly beneath it from the back of a rushing rollercoaster, you have to give that sh** a try.
    But again, what was uncanny was the timing of it. A second or two in either direction and the moment isn’t the same. If we hadn’t been smack-talking the “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all” fireworks just half an hour before, it wouldn’t have been the same. It couldn’t have been PLANNED better.
  4. The Theme Park Read My Mind
    Bear in mind for a moment, that up until now, all these events (including this one) have all taken place in the same day. We were there for a grand total of three days, the first to be spent in Grand California Adventure and the next two in Disneyland proper. Grand California Adventure was awesome, no doubt, but I can see why it’s popularly held that it doesn’t compare to the mainland itself.
    So we’ve had our first day of fun, toured most of the park, eaten the food, seen the storied attractions, ridden some crazy sh**, and now we’re on our way out around 11:00pm taking the moment to slowly walk by the storefronts we’ll be perusing more thoroughly during our last day tomorrow.
    I have no idea what hits me, but while walking down that main thoroughfare on the way out, I pause in the middle of the road. Our year has been pretty rough and stressful with some real adult stuff – housing stuff, financial stuff, health stuff, job stuff, the works – and I’ve got the thinning hairline to show it. These couple of days to completely and utterly forget all that, to give ourselves over to enchantment and just enjoy it and each other’s company were…(damn, I hate to say it at risk of overuse)…magical.
    So I stopped. I took a minute to breath in the incredible relief and monumental power stored there. I turned around to look at the statue of Walt Disney holding Mickey’s hand, with the famed Disney castle aglow in the background, wondering and hoping at what kind of man Walt himself was and if he knew what the place would become. I turned back to look up at the gigantic Christmas tree in the main roundabout – oh, yeah, the whole place was done up for Christmas, shoulda mentioned that – and just felt…goddamned grateful.
    Suddenly, chuum! The surrounding lights all glare a crisp, robin’s egg blue, and a voice comes over the PA saying something to the effect of, “Hey everyone. The world has its up’s and down’s, but we here at Disney try to make your time here just a little bit magical and do some good, and we hope we’ve done that for you. Happy Yule Time, everybody.”
    And fucking snow machines start filling the air with fresh, wintry little bubbles.
    I swear to God, it’s like someone at Disneyland Command Center saw me on one of the cameras and called it in.
    “*static* Ma’am, we have a first-timer with a case of Inspiration. Permission to engage Protocol Yuletide Magic?”
    “Permission granted, Imagineer. You are free to engage. I repeat, you are free to engage.”

    When Disney eventually builds its own private military corporation to topple world leaders and fully take over the planet, I’m first in line for citizenship. Sign me up.
  5. Last Little Bit of Impossible
    Our second day in Disney proper was, like I mentioned, mostly just a second sweep. Re-doing the things we enjoyed our first time around, and making sure to go over anything we missed. This entire time, however, Mandy’s been looking for a particular pin to trade hers for: the grape soda badge that Ellie gives to Carl when they meet as kids in the movie ‘Up.’
    At this point, it’s about 11:30pm on Sunday. It’s been three days of a lot of walking, and I have a long drive ahead of me in the morning, so as we do our final sweep through the stores on our way out, I excuse myself to sit on one of the benches in the roundabout while she finishes up her own shopping. After a while, I’m about to call her when she walks up to me with a bag on her arm, hands behind her back, and tears brewing in her eyes.
    In the last minutes of our last day in the park, she found the last two grape soda pins in the last store on our way out.
    Fucking. Magic.
    (And yes, I know this post started with me censoring cuss words and has now devolved into dropping hard F’s. I even kept my language squeaky clean while in the park on our trip out of respect for the park [and yeah, the kids too, I guess]. Otherwise it just felt like I was littering the air with my profanity. But here, it’s the only thing I can think of to bring proper emphasis to how magical that shit was.)
    As she tells it, she was on her way out of the store when someone passed her holding the pin to put it back on the rack because they didn’t want it. She explained that, actually, if they were going to put it back, she’d been looking for that exact one for days and would love to take it from her. That was then overheard by the store’s clerk, who mentioned they had precisely one more behind the counter if she could use two to match with someone. The rest is history.

So, yeah, thus concludes the highlights of that trip, even if this can’t possibly encapsulate the whole experience, all of the incredible little moments that comprised the whole. Now, the important bit, the angle I think all of those paragraphs justify and why that hallowed ground might legitimately be magical.
You know the reverence we give to haunted houses? Or the sites of massacres and terrible tragedies? There’s always the talk of the ways in which all of that negative energy, after enough of it with enough time to soak into the walls or the ground, can be felt as a palpable psychic presence.

At the end of the day, good and evil are just perspectives. Light and dark are just states. Positive and negative are just directions. If something is true of one, it’s reciprocally true for the other. If enough death, sadness, fury, and negativity can soak a ground so that it’s haunted and give one the heeby-jeebies, why can’t the reverse be true? The millions of people that have walked those square miles of park over the years, brimming with joy, imagination, love, innocent wonder, and all the rest…couldn’t…couldn’t that create a kind of positive haunt which lends itself to more positivity in the way a negative haunt spins further bad juju?
Now, obviously, I don’t have a conclusive answer beyond the weight of the rhetorical question, but I think it stands to reason, to some degree. Obviously, how you feel about the original premise surrounding lasting energy soaks will affect how you think of the theory it leads to, but it seems worthy of mild consideration.

Whatever the result, I’m just glad to have formed insanely happy memories that will be lifelong. Or at least until I have children of my own, try and take them, and have the memories re-shaded with how much I hate how expensive it all is. But such is life.

Getting Laughs

“Heh heh, I’m funny.”

I don’t think it’s a wild assumption to think most of us have uttered those words at one point or another while spending time with friends or family. And if you think you are, you are. There will be different styles, different audiences our humors are best suited for, different approaches, but most folks have a good sense of humor.

And there’s a reason people pursue comedy as a way to make a living. When a joke hits, when it really hits, it can make you feel like SUCH a SORCEROR.

The first time that comparison really settled on me was at a live performance. My fiance Amanda had scored tickets to the Oddball Comedy Festival down in Mountain View, CA in the Fall of 2016. One of the performers that night was Demetri Martin, and if you don’t know him, he’s almost more of a comedic-one-man-show performer. He uses props, posters, instruments, and one-liners a lot, but this night he delivered a pure stand-up set.

What draws out the sorcerer comparison was his posture. He stood on stage without any props, any music, or much energy at all. He had on a pull-over hoodie, jeans, Vans, and hung out with his hands in his pockets. Straight up, I don’t remember his jokes, but I remember their impact. Whatever he said was so f***ing funny that my body contorted in on itself. You know what a spider looks like when it dies, the way it just withers and its limbs curl in towards the center? My abdomen hurt so much from laughing that I looked like that, only spasming with laughs, too.

I have no interest in being a stand-up performer. Not really much interest in the being The Funny Guy in the group, either. But I enjoy having a sense of humor. And like Mr. Martin demonstrated to me five years ago, when properly sculpted, words have power. Like Friggin’ Magic levels of power. And while I get a good, solid joke to land from time to time that starts a chuckle fit, I recall two moments where it made a palpable difference. On the outside looking in, the moments may not have appeared to be much if anything, and maybe their significance didn’t extend beyond my own perception of them, but…

Well, maybe you’ll see what I mean.

The first time was at an office job I held a few years ago. There was a woman who worked at the company who for the purposes of this we’ll call Olga. Only way I’ve ever found myself able to describe Olga was that she was just…Winter. It sounds overly poetic, and it might be, but it’s fitting, trust me. She was beautiful, for one thing. Her complexion was fair, but light, which isn’t to say “pale.” More like someone with fair skin who’s just come in from the cold. Her nose had a gentle point and was a shade or two more pink than her cheeks, really lending to the cold weather look, and her eyes were a deep, lapis blue that shone against her brunette hair the color of wood bark.

More to the point was her demeanor. She was a quiet person, muted and soft like fallen snow, but there was an icy…hardness to her expression at the same time. She didn’t look mean in that way or unfeeling, in fact it was a bit serene, actually; just a little cold and unreachable from the outside. Like a layer of frost, keeping with the theme here. And reading all this as I lay it out, it almost sounds like I’m making up a person or something. But you have to believe me that a lesser description wouldn’t do Olga justice.

Anyway, already-long-story-shorter, she was walking around the office trying to find something or someone I don’t remember now. I happened to be nearby and mentioned I had recently seen who or whatever she was looking for and offered to lead her to the person or place in question. I’m not always great with silence between myself and a stranger, so I took to small talk. Again, it needs to be noted that to this point we haven’t shared more than a tiny handful of words between us and I’ve never seen her expression break from a gentle neutrality.

Then, I made some joke. I don’t remember what it was about at all, but I remember the impact: Olga chuckled aloud. And not the polite, spare-your-feelings chuckle. It was genuine. (Believe me, I’ve bombed enough attempts at humor to smell the difference a mile away). It was brief, and her expression relaxed into neutrality again some seconds later, but for a moment winter had grown warm.

Like I said, magic.

The next was with a contractor I met while working on my mom’s house a couple years back. For this, we’ll say his name was Richter, because it sounds cool. In short, we had a few items around the house that needed seeing to so that it would clear a pest inspection, dry rot removal, mostly, then some stairs to build and a couple of doors to hang. Richter was similar to Olga in that his neither his expression nor the tenor of his voice rarely broke from a neutral mask. If Olga was Winter, then Richter was Stone: eternal, unmoving, silent.

And to boot, he wore reflective sunglasses.

All. The. Time.

Between his unflinching manner and his literally unreadable eyes, it was a nigh impossible task trying to relate to the guy. And in fairness, I understand. He wants to get in, detail the job, do it, and leave. The bummer is that he ran into me, and if we’re talking, I’m gonna glean a bit of humanity off you, goddammit.

And boy, did I try. Any hobbies? Nope, doesn’t have any. Interest in sports? Doesn’t touch ’em. Been doing construction long? Yeah. Period. What’d he do before this? “Nothing interesting.” Jesus Christ, travel much? Townie, born and raised. I threw jokes at him, and could watch my words glide past or bounce off him with as much impact as a ribbon on damn boulder.

But like the river carves away rock, or like the seasons will sunder stone, one of my jokes got through.

Again, I don’t remember what it was I said, who I ribbed, or the subject matter, but I got him. It wasn’t an out loud chuckle like I’d pulled from Olga, but one of those sharp exhalations through the nose followed by a lasting smile all in lieu of a proper laugh.

With words alone, I had cracked stone.

So there we have it at the end of the day, by the use of Words of Power now long forgotten, I achieved the impossible tasks of bringing warmth to winter and sundering solid rock…just if it didn’t look quite like that from the outside. The borderline between making a genuine human connection through humor however brief and being an annoying asshole can be perilously thin at times, but if the prize for managing that razor’s edge is legitimate magic like the acts heretofore described…

Worth it.

Dorian Gray is Awful…(but we might have something [else] in common)

When I first entered the adult world and started taking college classes, I went on a big reading binge of classic literary works because I was leaning into feeling smart and sophisticated. I’m not saying that that worked, but it was a good journey. I now know why ‘Frankenstein’ was terrifically tragic, how ‘Dracula’ was somehow both lamer and way cooler a tale than I’d thought it would be, and that Dorian Gray is a massive douche.

I’m serious. It’s a decade later, and despite the hundreds of stories I’ve taken in since then through the different mediums – books, movies, television, video games, etc – I haven’t found a character I vehemently despise with a greater fervor than I hold for Dorian Gray.

Now, first off, I recognize that it’s a little ridiculous, and I’ve cooled my jets some. Kurt Vonnegut has a great quote about hating fiction:

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

Well for a while, I bathed my armored boots in the sugary blood of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” for the simple reason that the protagonist is an utter shithead.

I rant about it now a lot less often than I used to, but I hold to the opinion that Dorian Gray sucks. That’s probably a good thing, though, since I think he’s supposed to be disliked. If you haven’t ever read or heard of the story, it essential goes that a young nobleman, Dorian Gray, has a portrait painted of him by his meek friend Basil. He soon discovers that the portrait, rather than he, will bear the marks of things that ought weigh heavily on the soul: stress lines in the face, silvered hair, wrinkles that come from a Liar’s Frown, etc. He struggles a bit with whether or not he’ll lead the kind of pure life that will render his portrait forever perfect and unblemished, or live wantonly since the picture will foot whatever ethical tab he runs up.

Spoiler, he opts for the latter option, like a total dick.

*RANT INCOMING*

(I’ll keep it short, but) What I can’t stand about him isn’t that he’s selfish, conceited, arrogant, smug, and manipulative, but that he whines, bitches, and is so spineless too. Whenever he’s in a position of power or leverage, he’s completely mad with whatever little power that may present him, but the moment the tables are turned even slightly, he moans, complains, begs, weeps, and mews. Then, if he gets his leverage back, it’s right back to being an insufferable ass-hat. Like, if you’re going to be a conceited, villainous asshole, at least be sure of yourself in that. At least stick to your damned guns. But to flip flop back and forth between villain and victim is SO gross, and I’m SO happy when he *spoiler* f__kin’ dies at the end.

I forgot where I was going with this, but- oh! Yeah, my car.

Right, trust me, it ties in.

I realized earlier today that my car, Phoebe, is kind of my own portrait. I took great care of her a few years ago. Got her regular washes, got her oil changed ahead of time, maintenance and check-up’s before things had a change to break, and she’s served me well for it.

Then, life got sort of topsy-turvy and difficult, I’ve really had to realign my financial priorities, and that meant Phoebe couldn’t get the same kind of treatment. At the end of the day, with everything I’ve been through and continue to work against, I try to keep my head up, shoulders back, eyes forward, and a bit of smile at the life I’ve got. Almost like you wouldn’t know things have been rough.

But my car looks like total ass now.

I’ve said from the beginning, that as my first car that I’ve had for over a decade now, I’m going to drive it until it dies. She’s in her twilight years, and BOY does she look it. But until lightning strikes her outright dead, I’m going to act as though she intends to roll on.

It’s just created a funny bit of imagery and comparison wherein it’s like I’ve endured some rough stuff, but maybe you wouldn’t know it, and meanwhile my car is bearing all the telltale signs of hardship instead of me.

And I think that’s worth a larf.

Have a good one, 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.