Tenacity is the Key to Arm-Wrestling a Giant

I’ve mentioned once or twice the life-changing trip I was lucky enough to make when I was sixteen, a student ambassadorship program called People-to-People. It was a mashed together group of about thirty of us Californian kids with another gaggle of maybe a dozen Texas teenagers, and all in all we traveled across six countries around Western Europe: England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. We were escorted by several chauffeurs who were part of the program, a couple tour guides, and our mainstay coach driver: Bjorn.

Bjorn was a big Austrian guy. Stout, dense with muscle beneath the padding, tall, and I’m sure his damn bones were heavier than a normal man’s. As a rambunctious sixteen-year-old, I knew a trophy when I saw one. So while going about our way in the U.K. (rhyme like that deserves a song, I think), I challenged him to an arm-wrestling match. His reply? A big, jovial smile and a bellowed, “Heh-heh-heh. No.”

Was that enough of a signal for me? Of course not. So for weeks, literal weeks, I pestered him. We saw the Louvre, the Palace at Versaille, the famous Dutch windmills and fields of tulips, Bonn, Germany, and so many other sights, and every step of the way I’m bugging Bjorn: “How about now, big guy?” “Aw, what? Scared of me? Weird, but probably good.” “Come on, I’ll make it quick. I promise.”

I carry on so much, so loudly and consistently, that over the course of the trip it becomes a point of interest for the rest of my travelmates. But every time, his answer is the same: “Heh-heh-heh. No.”

Finally, we’re at a hotel in Switzerland for our last night celebrating with a big old dinner and dance in fancy clothes. It was great! We had food, friends, music, some memories we’re already reminiscing over, and others being made that night to last a lifetime.

It was only missing one thing…

So I found Bjorn sitting by himself enjoying a book in the hotel’s rather sparse lobby. I approach, confident yet almost pleading, and ask again. “Bjorn. Man. It’s our last day. Can I finally crush you in an arm-wrestling match?” Around me is a small group of friends who’d heard I was going to pester him again. He looks from me, to the others, to his book. With a short sigh, he fits in the bookmark and sets it down, then with a big, beaming smile says, “Okay.”

You’d think he told us we’d won the lottery. We explode with excitement, and my buddy Peter runs off to grab a camera (phones didn’t have reliable cameras by default, back then – Christ that ages me some). We find a suitable table, a ring of spectators encircles us, Peter starts rolling the camera, Bjorn and I clasp hands and set our elbows, and with a nod show we’re ready. We get someone to referee, and they wave the flag (<ahem> napkin <ahem>) for us to start.

Immediately, I lean in full-bore. I’ve talked this up for weeks and poked the bear, I would not be made a fool of so easily now. So I throw my full weight and strength and strain into beating Bjorn. I will not let up, I will not give in, I will not allow myself to lose. And to my utter astonishment, I’m actually holding my own. Obviously I’m not demolishing him, but I’m actually being competitive. Our clasped hands are wavering at high noon, neither side able to gain ground, but also not losing it. This is amazing!

Then I see his face…

He…he was so calm, it was like he was holding the door open for a nice lady rather than arm-wrestling for life and honor.

So I ask him, my voice straining as I blink away the sweat, “Bjorn, are you even trying?”

His response? “Heh-heh-heh. No.”

At which point, he slams my hand back onto the table so quickly and with such absolute power he might as well have thrown me out the window.

If someone only tells you stories about times where they win, it’s an almost sure mark of insecurity and they’re almost certainly lying. With that understanding in place, let me tell you with utmost confidence that Bjorn kicked my ass that night. And you know what? It was awesome.

Circus Throws and the Value of Perception

Being a kid in high school means being an idiot, or at least it did in my case. You do dumb stuff, and you’re supposed to. Most will say that it’s because it’s for the experience of growing and becoming wiser, but that’s only about half of it. The main reason is because, if you survive it, you should come out of it with some funny stories to tell people later. Yes, of course, you should learn from them too, but they should also be good at parties.

This one was sort of a lesson in what happens when you give power to those who aren’t ready for it, kind of like teaching an unstable person forbidden martial arts. You’re arming them with an ability they aren’t otherwise fit to use. Such was the case when some poor idiot taught two other poor idiots how to perform what they called a “circus lift.”

Basically, you grab your left wrist with your right hand while standing opposite someone else doing the same, and then you each grab the other persons right wrist with your open left hand. What you should have between you when you’re done is basically a net of your arms. We were told – unwisely, as time would show – is that you can toss willing participants really, really high when you have them sit on your newfound arm-net. Just bend with the knees, count to three, and launch them.

And you know what? It works. It really, really works.

My buddy Peter and I became a regular sideshow attraction most lunch periods by the Senior Steps, taking volunteers and hucking them up into the air. We got good at it and an eensy, teensy bit famous for it. So it just became what we did for a few weeks. Then we had That Day happen. You know the one, the one that earns those capital letters, and the fateful dun-dun-duuuun piano bass.

It had rained pretty heavily the night before, and our usual launch pad was the grassy slope next to the Steps. As you could imagine, it was still slick and muddy by the time lunch came around, and that should have given our regularly schedule launches cause for postponement. But this wouldn’t be the Tale of Two Idiots if we did that. So of course we kept throwing people that day. (And in our defense, it should be The Tale of About a Dozen Idiots given how people kept stepping up, despite the slippery conditions.)

It comes to our last throw of the day, and a friend of ours steps up – we’ll call her Ana, for the sake of this. So Ana sheds her backpack, takes a seat, we do our countdown, we launch her, and…well, you know those times you get a feeling? A Bad Feeling? It’s the moment directly after doing some irrevocable that forces you to raise your eyebrow a bit and think, “Uh-oh. That might have been a bad idea.”

Right away, you can see that Ana’s trajectory and mid-air balance are off. She went pretty high, too. The way she hit her arc and is on her way down doesn’t look too promising, but there’s nothing to do but cringe and see how she ultimately sticks the landing.

She does not stick the landing.

What happens is she breaks her damn ankle. It was a loud, pretty sickening cracking sound that I can still hear pretty clearly in my head when I think about it. I remain pretty proud of my instincts, because I didn’t waste any time in acting. It was pretty clear precisely what had happened, and I’m off to the nurse like a lightning bolt. I’ve always been a tall kid, and as a seventeen-year-old Energizer Bunny, I made really good time. I get to the nurse, quickly explain what’s happened, and lead her to the site of the accident.

The only problem is that I didn’t tell anyone I was doing that. So to everyone else, I just threw this girl in the air, heard her ankle break, and Usain-Bolt’d out of the scene like a complete a**hole.

Things wound up alright in the end, and I’m a lot better at communication nowadays.

Little Surprises

Who doesn’t like little surprises now and then? They’re good for a little spice to keep life interesting, to break routine, or to provide a serendipitous little boost when you might not have known you needed it. It can happen when you see a friend you weren’t expecting to, get some good news, find those five dollars in your wallet you forgot about, or happen to come across a box of .45 calibur magnum rounds of ammunition in your mother’s kitchen cupboard.

Yeah, that sh*t happened as we moved her out of her last house, the one she’d lived in for sixteen years. Turns out we’d been keeping the plates and cups within inches of what is technically a tiny box of controlled explosives for almost two decades.

Got them turned in/disposed of at the nearest police station, but just…damn. It’s food for thought, you know? Never know what’s in the walls, n’ stuff.

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.

Never Challenge an Exhausted Nurse to a Duel: A Childhood Lesson

A friend of mine is going to school for nursing, and part of her college path was a sociology course. One of her assignments was to survey some people she knew with a little questionnaire they’d given her. It was a list of nineteen items, each describing some sort of transgressible action; stealing money from an old woman’s purse, for example. They ranged in severity from cheating on a math quiz to blowing up a hospital for religious reasons. The goal of the exercise was to have those surveyed rank the items on the list from Least Severe to Most Severe, One being nothing and Nineteen being top of the chart, and then give their reasons for their rankings.

It was really insightful.

The gist of the results seemed pretty much what you might guess: We ranked things higher on the list depending on the amount of impact the action had and/or how negligent the action was. For example, we pretty much all put ‘blowing up a hospital for religious reasons’ high up on the list, but her father had it lower than us, and when we asked why, he cited the religious motivation as the factor for lenience. Similarly, when we compared our rankings of ‘murder for hire,’ her mother ranked it a little lower than us because “at least it was just a job, y’know, it wasn’t personal.”

The item that jumped all over the map between us was ‘hitting a child.’ The friend who was enrolled in the course had it somewhere floating around Fourteen, its peers being things like ‘stealing medication’ and ‘committing a hit-and-run.’ I gawked and asked her to justify it, and she did so by explaining the way violence against one so young can have very far-reaching consequences. Then she asked me how I’d ranked it.

Like, Three.

Then came the million dollar question. “Did your parents ever hit you?” I asked. To which I remember her scoffing and saying something to the effect of “Of course not. You?” I laughed an nodded emphatically. I had two such occasions to share, specifically.

The first, no matter how you slice it, was funny as hell. My mom was a lifetime Labor & Delivery nurse that worked nights. That meant that she was in the room where babies popped out into the world. It wouldn’t be until I’d become an adult that I was even halfway able to appreciate how bone-achingly difficult and exhausting that must have been to do while also raising a child and caring for an abusive husband. Yikes.

But I was an energetic little brat at times, an only child, and had very few friends growing up. So in the summer time, I mostly lived in an empty house by myself that had to remain quiet so my nocturnal mother could sleep. That didn’t keep me from craving attention and play time when I was about ten, though, and so one morning in particular she comes home and collapses in the living room recliner (like you’d do), and I start bugging her to hang out. I have a couple plastic lightsabers, the kind you hold a button and flick out with your wrist, and keep tapping her foot to have a duel with me.

Again and again, she waves me off, saying “Not right now” and such, but I just keep tapping her foot, asking, aggravating her, and saying “C’mooooon.”

Eventually, she springs to her feet, and I excitedly toss her the blue one. After all, I was about to have a duel, and I’d been practicing. We were about to have an awesome fight like there were in the movies: striking, parrying, fancy footwork, dodges, all the the rest. I guess somewhere in my excitement, I forgot that jedi have to be careful in their duels because their swords are actual plasma whereas mine were plastic.

Exhausted, cranky nurses don’t give a shit about your plastic swords or your fancy footwork. She walked me down, just raising and lowering her lightsaber in vicious blows with all the grace of a Bionicle action figure, until I was in a corner calling mercy. She dropped her lightsaber to the ground and walked off to bed saying, “There, I win.”

To this day, it was one of the biggest G moments I’ve seen out of another human being.

The second (which was actually the first – I’m telling them out of order, sue me) was a bit more serious, but is a story I tell more often. This time, I was nine, and my father had just passed away. It was maybe a few weeks to a month or so after his death, and we were still working out the dynamic in the house. She was no doubt totally spent, and I was a bit frayed, too. We were having an argument about something assuredly stupid, but what was important was how and where we were. She was sitting on the living room couch by the left arm rest, and as I think on it, I think she might have been crying. I was standing right beside her on the other side of the arm rest, and I was screaming over whatever the fight was about. I was throwing a tantrum, in short. Of course, I don’t remember at all what was being said, but I finally hit the right note, struck the right nerve, and her hand suddenly snapped back with all the quickness and automatic un-intention of a mouse trap being triggered.

She hit me right across my face, and there was just a stunned silence for a good five-count. Tears welled up and worked their way down my face, and I ran off to my room. Later, I came back out and apologized and we’ve been terrific friends ever since.

So, am I advocating for that kind of thing? Hell no, of course not. BUT I’m simply sharing that in my particular case, a lot of good came out of it.

I’ve also had this idea for getting middle school teachers to learn muy thai to settle unruly students, but so far it hasn’t really caught on more than getting me weird looks.

Maybe one day…

Another Trip Around the Sun

To each their own, obviously, but when I was about sixteen I learned one of the secrets to happiness.

I was about that old when my uncle had one of his birthdays and I asked him how he spent it. “Oh, took the day off to slept in a bit. Wife went to work, so I cleaned up the house some, then I took myself out to breakfast. After that, I got a haircut and went to go see a movie. It was nice.”

I don’t think I said it out loud, but the inside of my mind sounded something like this: “That…um, wow. That does sound kind of nice, actually. You…you can just-…you can just do that?”

To me, at that age, birthdays were something that had to have a bang. It was expected to have some kind of party, some kind of event or get-together. So when he said he’d quietly celebrated his birthday with an easy day with himself, nice, little tokens, and time without expectations, he might as well showed me how to turn lead into gold. In that moment, he was an alchemist and had just showed me how to craft the Philosopher’s Stone.

With the exception of my twenty-first, I have striven to live each birthday in the same easy fashion ever since, and it really is the key to happiness, I find.

If your thing is big ol’ shindigs and how-to-do’s, by God, go for it. Love it, the occasion, the time, yourself, all of it. But damn, being given the tacit permission to enjoy an easy day free from any obligation is…just, such a treat.

Slept in a little bit this morning, got some cuddles, finished a mystery novel I’ve been reading and started another, showered and got doughnuts. Now, I’m sitting in a coffee house writing to you guys, with plans to have shwarma later with my mother, and bet on UFC fights while scarfing tacos sometime after that.

And fuck me if that isn’t exactly how I want to spend the day.

Y’all have a good one. Or, rather, whatever kind of day you damn well please. Life is hard, and these little oases of downtime are…boy, they’re a joy.

Sin Walkers – Draft Workshop

Another year, another round of contests in the books.

Okay, I say that, but the thing I’m going to share is from a contest that’s underway. The following has been submitted and we’ll see how well it does.

If I haven’t shared this before or if you’re new, I like to take part in the NYC Midnight fiction contests from time to time. This time around was their Flash Fiction bracket, and they go like this:

You have 48 hours to write a story of a thousand words or fewer. You’re given a genre, a location, and an object which all have to be represented. So, say for example, your given genre is ‘Fantasy,’ placed at ‘a restaurant,’ and featuring ‘a length of pipe,’ you can see how you’d have to piece together those elements into a little diddy.

This time around, I was given ‘Horror,’ ‘a clifftop,’ and ‘a crowbar.’ I forgot that the weekend over which the contest was held, I actually had a number of obligations I’d committed to, so instead of forty-eight, I crammed this out in two.

The synopsis: “A group of five friends is on route to a weekend getaway when a highway accident diverts them, and the night quickly descends into terror as they flee from a monstrous hunter.”

Still though, I think it came together alright.

Sin Walkers

I’m sitting in the back seat of Travis’s Ford just watching the streaks of nighttime rain worm their way across the cold glass. We’re on our way to my dad’s cabin, and everything is just as normal as it always is. Travis is talking about this new job he’s about to land, and Chris is pretending to listen. Sarah won’t look up from her Switch, and Patrick sits between us pretending not to sneak glances at my legs. I fog up the window with a sigh and go back to counting the lines in the road when Chris suddenly shouts.

“Watch out!”

I don’t have time to see what it was or even to think. Travis wrenches on the steering wheel, there’s the screech of metal against the guard rail, and then just gravity. My stomach lurches into my throat, and I feel myself screaming. The cab is chaotic with light, dark, noise, and force all battling for rank. I think we swept right over the clifftop, tumbled end over end, and finally crashed through some trees.

My ears are ringing. In turns, we all fall out of the truck. I’m dizzy. Sarah pukes. It’s minutes before anyone says anything. There’s a howl in the distance behind us.

“Everyone alright?” Chris asks finally.

“I don’t know,” is all I can whimper out.

“Did you guys hear that?” asks Patrick, looking back up the short cliff we’d careened off.

Travis huffs. “It’s just coyotes, dumbass.” Then to Chris, he says, “What the fuck was that for, man? You ran us off the road!” He shoves him.

“I don’t think coyotes sound like that…”

Chris growls back at Travis. “There was a guy standing in the middle of the road!” he shouts. “You almost plowed right into him!”

Patrick doesn’t have time to do more than yelp when some kind of huge animal tackles him to the ground. It’s dark and raining. There’s a roar and a grisly crunch as Patrick’s screaming stops.

So we scatter. I bolt off into the woods crying like a maniac, and Chris manages to follow. I don’t know where the others go, I just run. I dart through trees, cut through bushes, jump over rocks, anything to obey this primal need to flee. I hear Chris breathing and struggling behind me, but there’s another noise too.

It doesn’t sound anything like a coyote.

We keep running, leaping over roots and dips in the ground, and I hear water ahead. I charge ahead with the last of what my legs will give me and dive right into the forest stream. We make it to the other side together and glance back. On the other side of the stream is this…thing. It’s partially hidden in the shadows of the trees, but it looks like a person with yellow eyes.

And the eyes are seven feet from the ground.

The thing looks from us to the stream, then steps back and growls. It disappears from view, but we can hear it running away along the stream, trying to find a way around.

“What the hell was that thing?” Chris asks breathlessly. “Did you see what way the others went?”

Another howl on our side of the stream keeps me from answering, and we start running again. About a minute later, we find the edge of a fenced property. We make our way through a hole in the links and can see that it’s some kind of scrapyard or cemetery for old cars. Chris finds a rusted crowbar on the hood of an old Chevvy, and uses it to get us into a ramshackle storage shed.

“I don’t know,” I say at last. I try in vain to wipe my wet hands off on my pant legs, but I wind up just nervously wringing them together and I can’t get them to stop shaking.

Chris gives me a confused look. “What?” he says.

“The thing that…” I swallow a lump in my throat. “The thing that killed Patrick. I have no idea what that is.” I start crying again. “I just hope Travis is okay,” I sob.

He moves to put his hand on my shoulder, but we both hear something.
“Chris? Chris, Rebecca!” a voice from outside shouts. “Where are you guys?”

“Travis?” Chris calls. He sets the crowbar down and jogs out to find him. I move to follow, but my heart begins racing anew, and some deep survival instinct anchors me to the spot. Something leaps out from behind a crushed car and shoves its arm through Chris’s chest.

It’s tall with taut skin, pink and white like it’s been burned, sickly shining with the rain. Its limbs are unnaturally long and has fangs like a big cats. It rips into the dead meat of Chris’s neck, but stops when it sees me. It howls this clicking, wailing shriek and starts stalking right toward me. With eyes fixed on mine, its mouth opens impossibly wide and its throat starts to quiver and vibrate. “Chris? Chris, Rebbeca!” comes the voice, perfectly like Travis. “Where are you guys?”

It lunges at me, and I react just in time to catch its head in the door. A clawed hand breaks the glass, rips into my shoulder, and I hear something break that adrenaline tells me to ignore. The wood quickly begins to creak and splinter, but I grab the crowbar Chris left behind and bash its skull over and over again until it stops moving.

I curl up against the back wall and just hug my knees with my good arm. I think about Patrick, about Chris, about Travis, and just pray to God and against hope that Sarah got away. Then I hear something outside, just audible over the drumming of rain.

Voices.

“Chris?” calls one from my right.

“Rebbeca!” calls the same voice from my left.

“Where are you guys?”

“Chris? Rebecca! Where are you guys?”

They’re getting closer.

Why You Should Tip Big

I once heard somebody say, “Everyone needs to work a season of retail during the holidays so they know not to be disrespectful,” and I respectfully say, “F*ck that.”

Not because I don’t think people need better manners on the whole, mind. In fact, most definitely the opposite – all too common nowadays is it for people to feel insanely entitled – I just really don’t want to work a season of retail. Rather, I don’t want to work any retail, if I can help it, precisely for the above reason.

But that’s one of two occupations that experience a ton of entitled crap from a largely unforgiving public. The other, of course, being restaurant staff. (And yes, yes, before we go any farther, clearly there are other jobs that have to endure this too, but let’s focus here for today.) From complaints, to demands, to unreasonable privilege-seeking, Martha who grooms dogs or Bruce that manages a car lot seem to suddenly find a gem-crusted crown atop their domes the moment someone shows them to a booth at an Applebee’s.

And even setting those cultural, societal, (dumb) norms aside for the moment, working for damn-near free/”grovel wages” would be reason enough for the title. So yes, tip big if you find yourself able.

I tip between 20%-30% on average regardless of the bill for a number of reasons that will soon make painfully clear that those figures are in no way some sort of ‘humble brag.’ The first being that I can never remember what’s proper: Is it 15%? 18%? Is that with gratuity, or without? Was there a gratuity this time? I don’t want to leave 15% when 18% is the norm, and now that person thinks I’m stiffing, them or making a negative comment about their help, or something. So, if for other reason than laziness, err on the side of a touch more than a touch less.

Another shade to that reason too, actually, is embarrassment. Not at my powers of retention regarding customs, but at…hmm, expectation? Let me put it this way, if it’s Valentine’s Day and your classmate (pretend for a moment we’re in grade school, it makes the mental exercise work) gives you a Valentine’s Day card that states simply “Will you be my Valentine?” is that a sincere gesture, or just witnessing the fulfillment of a perceived obligation? Right? So if you’re given that card, it doesn’t say anything special and isn’t really even for you, it was just done out of tradition, but now you have to thank them or you’re the turd; but if you aren’t given a card, oof, well now you’ve been snubbed. Ouch.

But if you get a card from a classmate that goes a little above a beyond…? Oooo, that’s kind of sweet. That card has some hand-drawn glitter art? Got a little chocolate that comes with it? A personalized note? Oh, lawd, well now it’s kind of touching.

I don’t see how tipping is really all that different in form from the above situation with Valentine’s Day cards. It’s a win-win, too. If the service was great, the bonus tip sends the message, “Hey, you there, for real, thanks for taking care of me today.” And even if the service was awful and the person was kind of a butthole about the whole thing, you leave with the satisfaction that that person is probably going, “Aw, jeez. Well now don’t I feel like a rube…”

Moral victory secured.

But really, even all of that is just because I enjoy crafting a torturously long wind-up to my real point. And what I really draw from when I press this, is the following experience.

There was a time I went out to lunch with a friend (shocking, I know – I have FRIENDS), and I covered the bill. My memory’s a little fuzzy on who it was with, I don’t quite remember where we went, what we ate, or even clearly how many years ago this was, but I do very clearly remember what happened as we were leaving. I left a pretty sizable tip for all the above reasons (maybe closer to 30-35% this time; I was doing alright), and did so in cash just because it was what I had on me. As we were walking to the door, the fellow who’d served us ran interception and asked me if I’d made a mistake. Honestly perplexed, I just raised an eyebrow, smiled, and said, “No. No mistake, that’s yours.”

Now, there were no tears. No heart-pouring tales of hard times. But there was an indescribable look in his eyes that I didn’t know at the time I would one day understand intimately well. On the surface, he was just really grateful, and a bit surprised, so I took it that way. It was nice. Put a pep in my step, and I got to be That Guy (the good kind, not the bad kind) to somebody that day.

Fast forward a few years to Fall 2019, life’s gotten pretty hard. I’d left my job somewhat ambitiously only to wind up pouring most of myself and my worldly goods into a family emergency (Don’t regret it, do it again in a heartbeat only smarter), dropped classes I’d promised myself I’d finish that semester, had maxed out credit cards, and had $1.63 in my checking account…

It was rough.

I had a job lined up, but it didn’t start for another week. So I was taking a walk to a local deli, and I was going to put that last dollar and sixty-three cents to work (technically, I also had a paper dollar and two quarters in my pocket, as there’s a debit card minimum set above $1.63 at most places) on a cheap roll and a mini cup of salad dressing, which I knew to be a $1.25 in total. I get to the counter, and I guess prices had gone up, because the register rings me in at $1.89.

I stare at the numbers. My stomach drops out, anxiety and embarrassment prickle my scalp in turns, and I start muttering to myself about how it’s okay, I’ll just put the cup of dressing back. The fellow behind the counter waves it off after a moment with a smile. “You’re in here all the time,” he jokes. “Let me cover this one.” He presses a button on the machine and the balance goes to $0.00. I don’t know precisely how I must have looked to him, but in that moment it occurred to me with a painful lucidity that I must be giving him the same stare that waiter had given me years back. I choked out the same, whispered “Thank you.”

I barely made it to the door before I was bawling my eyes out.

So there you have it. You never know where someone’s at, and there’s no risk in being kind. Not just nice, but kind. Really, it’s a “There but for the grace of God go I” type of tale, a reminder to be kind in all those ways that can help even if you aren’t around to see it and it costs you next to nothing, because you could very well at some point wind up desperately grateful to be on the receiving end of a token like that.

Throw in that extra two bucks, Money Bags. You could make someone’s day, or leave an impact so deep and meaningful someone will preach about it online years later.

Ciao, everybody.

A Quick Rant: Unicorns are Badass

Hey-o. It’s that time again.

I’ve been (thankfully) busy of late, which has also sort of rekindled this dry lil’ well…hmm, mixing those two bits of metaphorical speech is kind of contradictory.

…anyway!

Yeah, I’ve been finding myself more and more over the past couple of days thinking, “Oo! That thought might be one for the blog,” and then jotting it down. So the next couple of days will be seeing some of those, but I figure we’ll loosen up with the easy one: Unicorns are kind of badass.

There’s a beloved coffee shop in town – we all have one that’s our go-to – and this one is particularly special due to their decor. They’re very outwardly LGBTQ+ friendly, meaning rainbows and sparkles EVERYWHERE. Their mascot, for lack of a better term, is a bright silvery unicorn. And that places brings about so much comfort and productivity, a real writers’ haven, that it inspired the very deep thought: God, unicorns are pretty badass!

To the point where, now as an adult, I’m really at a loss as to why they ever were considered as “sissy horses,” or a symbol for little girls meant in a pejorative way. They’re a freakin’ stallion with a freakin’ horn on their head. You’re talking about a strong, magical, terrifyingly intelligent equine with a weapon on it’s face. What, it’s cool for rhinos and dragons to have horns on their faces, but give one to a horse and suddenly it’s nansy-pansy. Get the f*ck out of here. If we’re riding into battle, I’m taking a unicorn (or a centaur – probably a better conversationalist) any damn day. There’s no lack of stories placing unicorns as lieutenants in fantasy armies, incredibly valued for their blood, horn, mane, or overall wish-granting abilities, and thankfully more and more stories where they gore an mf’er with that fancy piece they’re sporting (thank you Cabin in the Woods). They were one of my favorite Clans in Legend of the Five Rings (like, two of you will get that reference, maybe) and now I can understand why. This has all seriously absorbed me, too, to the point where I’m considering decor for my office space, just so I can start those conversations. “Evan, why the unicorns?” “Intruder, why NOT unicorns?”

Anyway. Been fun, but I’ve beleaguered the point to hell and back and now I gotta be off for a day of manual labor.

Catch you again soon!