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The Womanless Man, Continued, 10

20 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 10

L. Stewart Marsden

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . .

* * * * *

Almost immediately after the words came out Stew regretted them. What the hell was he doing? It was his old self kicking in — the one who wanted to reach out and grab Simone’s hand for comfort. The needy man. 

What was he looking for? A friend? A lover? A companion to take that final walk with?

Whatever he was looking for, he knew how it was going to end — badly. For him, but more regretfully, her.

“Look — I, uh,” he stammered, withdrawing his hand. She looked confused, and a bit hurt.

“Did I …?”

“No! No, you didn’t do anything.” He was about to say “it’s me,” but knew how flat that would fall. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then continued.

“Simone, I haven’t been with or pursued or entertained another woman since I divorced my Ender Wife. That’s almost seven years. This is the first time I haven’t been married for any length of time in the last  — what, nearly fifty years! I’ve been married most of my adult life! Not to the same person, I’ll grant — but marriage can be habit-forming! Especially for me!

”Do you have any idea why I call her that? Ender Wife?”

“I assume because she was your last wife.”

“Partially right. I’ll give you five out of ten points for that,” he smiled. “It’s because my intent is she is the absolute last person I will fully commit to and then hurt. And I especially don’t want to hurt you!”

There was a pause as the waitress came to the table. 

“Can I get you two another?”

They both quickly nodded yes, and she scooped up their glasses and disappeared toward the bar.

“Stew, we’re just having a drink. I don’t need you to fully commit to me in order to enjoy your company. I haven’t asked you to go to Vegas with me, or even to the corner drugstore for that matter.”

“You enjoy my company?”

“Is there an echo in this room? Yes! I find you strangely attractive. You’re not a physical specimen …”

“That’s my next goal. An Arnold Schwarzenegger body.”

“I guess I meant to say I am attracted to you. I don’t know you very well, except — you know — sponge bathing you at the hospital. And I want to. I want to get to know you better. What I do know is not to rush with you. God, I don’t rush with anyone! And don’t take that to mean I’ve been on a spree up here with every eligible man. I’m like you in a way. I’ve been content to do my work, have a few laughs with friends, then go home and watch whatever I want on TV. Cook what I like, healthy or not. So I was just like you before the bear, and just like Higgins.”

“What?”

Serenely independent and content before we met,” she sang softly.

“Yes! Exactly!” he said.

The waitress brought their drinks. Simone stirred her martini during the awkward silence.

“One of my favorite quotes,” she finally said, “is ‘I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.’”

 “Jane Eyre,” he said, smiling with recognition.

“Wow! I’m impressed! See? That only adds to your attractiveness.”

“Tell that to my Ender Wife.”

“You have an inward treasure, too. Apparently she quit digging for the gold. So maybe the bear did us both a favor?”

“It’s a helluva thing to go through in order to have an awakening.”

“I agree. So, Stew — here’s to awakenings,” and lifted her glass.

Skol!” he responded, lifting his glass to touch hers. “Does this mean we can be friends?”

She smiled. “I thought we already were. But, yes — as far as I’m concerned, friends is fine. In fact, friends is great!”

Still, the known and unknown mixed in Stew’s mind. Once burned, shame on you. Twice burned, shame on me. He half expected her to add “for now,” but she didn’t. Was she pursuing him? She definitely liked him. He thought of Sally Fields, “You like me!” Was he that pathetic? But Brent had nailed it.

Then he asked, “Do you happen to have five dollars?”

“What? Sure. Why?”

“I don’t carry cash. I’ll pay you back. I swear I’m good for it! I have a gambling debt,” grinning.

“You owe the mob? Guido is after you for five dollars?”

“Something like that. I made a bet with Brent and I lost.”

“I’m not going to ask. Better I don’t know.” She handed him the money.

* * * * *

To be continued . . .

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The Womanless Man, Continued, 9

18 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 9

L. Stewart Marsden

 

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . .

* * * * *

“A toast! Here’s to getting that cast off your leg!”

They clinked glasses. Hers was a dry martini, his a Tom Collins.

“I, for one, am going to miss having to sit on the john with my leg extended on a footstool.”

Simone smiled and sipped her martini, swizzling the pearl onion around in her glass. In the background a jazz band laid down the mood music, and their table, overlooking a vast sea of blue mountain tops at sunset set the perfect stage. Stew was nervous, but also strangely at ease at the same time. He wondered how that could be.

“That’s one thing about your work I couldn’t do,” he said.

“What?”

“You know — the bedpan thing. I would’ve quit the first day I had to do anything like that.”

“It’s just a function of the body. It’s not like some of us never go to the bathroom or anything.”

“I don’t know … I’ve met some pretty constipated people in my time on earth.”

She laughed.

“Taking care of my business is one thing — but taking care of someone else’s? Jeez!” he said.

“So when you are in a relationship and the two of you are growing older, you would object to helping your partner?”

“One, I’m not in a relationship. Two, my dad ended up doing that for my mom as her Alzheimer’s worsened. But he never let on — didn’t tell any of us kids about the strain and stress he experienced.”

“That’s sad. He couldn’t afford help?”

“Sure he could. But that would have been an admission of weakness on his part. Plus he didn’t want us kids to know how really far gone Mom was. And I think he realized how very important she was to him. Not that he didn’t love her all those years. He hadn’t appreciated her.”

“For better and worse.”

“Yeah, don’t remind me. They were married over 60 years. I know there were rough spots, but they stuck to each other through thick and thin. More than I can say for myself. Or my siblings. Of the four of us, three of us went through divorces, and my brother and I went through one more. But enough of this cheery conversation! Tell me why an attractive and bright woman like yourself has never married.”

“I’m a perfectionist.”

“No man is good enough for you?”

“Not that. No man can put up with me for long.”

“So no serious love over the years?”

“One. Someone who was so compatible with me it was scary.”

“What happened?”

“We agreed it was too much. Too much commitment, too much of an uphill battle, too many complications to have to navigate, especially in the south.”

“He was black?”

“No, she wasn’t.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. Back in the day.”

“So, you are …”

“I’m still looking. For the right person.”

“The right woman, you mean.”

“No, not necessarily. Love knows no boundaries, right? I consider myself an equal-opportunity-faller-in-love person.”

“I’m not sure I believe love conquers all. It’s not like Romeo and Juliet overcame theirs. Nor yours. Or mine, for that matter.”

“Perhaps in a strange way they did.”

“That’s an extreme solution, if you ask me.”

“What about you? What do you see down the road for yourself — relationship-wise?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve come to the point — especially after two failed marriages — maybe it isn’t for me. I mean, I never thought I’d divorce either of the women I married. Well, actually, they divorced me. But I made it expedient for them. It’s a bit nit-picky to say one or the other called it quits. We both did. Just like we both said I love you and I promise till death us do part. God, I’m rambling!

“Anyway, what I found once I was single is everyone around me tried to fix me up.  It’s like they were uncomfortable for me to be around them when I didn’t have someone hanging from my arm. I was broken and needed fixing.

“And I tried the social match sites. What a joke! Half the women posted photos from a decade or two ago, and all of the bios read the same: I want a man of God who can be strong for me! And all of them love long strolls along the beach, for chrissake! I hate the beach! It’s okay for a few days — but what the hell do you do there? Bake in the sun and treat your third-degree burn? How many shells does one need to take back home? And the sand is everywhere! In your underwear, in your bed, in your car!”

“So you’re not a beach person, I take it,” Simone grinned.

“When I moved up here my sister asked me what the hell I was doing living in the mountains? She thinks “cold” is a four-letter word! She doesn’t get it!”

“How many times has she visited you up here?”

“Zero! I’m sorry — I’m ranting again.”

“I totally understand. You know what you don’t want. Do you know what you do want?”

“That, my dear, is the question. I thought I had it all figured out until the bear attack. I had sworn off pretty much all contact with the enemy.”

“Enemy?”

“Women. I don’t mean that literally. Look, one of my dad’s favorite songs came from My Fair Lady.”

“I love that musical! Which song?”

“Remember when Higgins is incredibly frustrated with Liza?”

“That was pretty much all the way through the play.”

“But in one instance, he slams down a book and asks Pickering, ‘why can’t a woman be more like a man.’”

“Oh, yes!” She wasn’t offended. She nodded her head and laughed. “And we women say, ‘why can’t a man be more like a woman?’”

“I suppose. Where’s the fun in that, though? See, this is where you know God has an evil sense of humor. Adam is doing just fine in the Garden of Eden, tending things and naming everything. He’s content. Not a care in the world. And God says, ‘Well, Adam, how’s your sex life?’ Adam shrugs his shoulders, not knowing what sex is. God decides Adam needs a mate. Does he ask Adam? Does he give him a little foresight as to what this will eventually mean? No. He makes an executive decision. So he puts Adam under and removes one of his ribs. And from that rib — ” 

“— He fashioned Eve,” Simone joined in.

“Exactly! He now has a mate and doesn’t know why or what to do with her, plus a malformed rib cage. And do they get married? Does one of the animals in the Garden step forward to perform the ceremony? Maybe a penguin? No! They live in SIN (which God had not invented yet, by the way)! Without the ‘benefit’ (he made quotes with his fingers) of matrimony!”

Simone began to titter, restraining herself from outright guffaws. A couple at the next table were more engaged in what Stew was saying, and laughing.

“The thing is,” he continued, “there were no rules of engagement back then. Like the birds and the animals. By the way, I wrote a poem in the sixties for a poetry class. Wanna hear it?”

“I have a choice?” she laughed.

“It’s a haiku. Well, not according to the strict definition — but it goes like this — if I can remember it:

Then they simply said,
In God’s holy name we wed,
And went straight to bed!”

The couple at the next table burst out laughing.

“Thank you! Thank you, all! My next show is at 9 pm — be sure to tip your waiter well!” He bowed slightly from where he sat.

She reached across the table and put her hand on his — just a touch.

“You said you thought you had it all figured out, until the bear attack. What about the bear attack?”

Stew inhaled and exhaled, as if gathering courage.

“Well, not so much as the bear attack than what happened after the bear attack.”

“What happened after the bear attack?”

“You happened.”

* * * * *

Continued . . .

The Womanless Man, Continued, 8

16 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 8

L. Stewart Marsden

 

Go to previous installment . . .

Go to story beginning . . .

* * * * *

“Come in! Come in, please!”

Stew was surprised and glad to see her. She stepped into the room.

“I was in the neighborhood, as they say, and thought I’d drop by to see how you’re doing. I hope you don’t mind.”

“God, no.”

She looked about for a place to sit. Stew pointed to the empty twin bed beside his.

“I’m sorry I don’t have a chair in this room.”

“I’m used to sitting on the edges of beds.”

“I suppose you are. Well! As you can see, I’m getting along.”

“I see that. And Ida has the situation well in hand, too?”

“Yes — she’s working out fine. But I hope to send her on her way soon.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t mean I’m going to fire her — because I’m better. I mean, it’s temporary, this home care situation.”

“Oh. True. But you agree it’s nice to have her here to help out.”

“Sure. Still, I’d rather be on my own as soon as possible. I like the independence. So, how are you?”

“Same old same old.”

“Brent asks about you whenever we talk.”

“I bet. He’s … one of a kind, he is.”

“Yep. But I like him. I know if he weren’t with Martha he’d be knocking on your door.”

“Martha? His wife?”

“Girlfriend. His wife died a few years ago.”

“Oh. Sad.”

“He seems to make do. Every chance he gets, if you ask him.”

“What about you?”

“What about me what?”

“Are you making do?”

“Depends what you mean. If you’re asking do I like my life, I’m very satisfied. If making do is code for something else, then all I got to say is there’s more to life.”

“You’re never lonely?”

“You know, if it was 400 years ago, that wouldn’t even be a question.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Men lived in the woods, hunted and trapped. They were gone from civilization for months. They knew how to be still, how to read the forests, how to listen.”

“A skill long-lost to most men,” she laughed.

“You know Daniel Boone moved every time he could see the smoke from a neighbor’s chimney. Thought they were too close.”

“Not sure that’s true.”

“The point is, men have lost being part of the wilderness. Take Brent.”

“You take him.”

“The man is very much into that. Guns and hunting. Sometimes he comes back from hunting with nothing, but does he care? Not a bit. It’s the experience.”

“That’s what we women do when we go shopping. It’s the experience!” she grinned.

It was a nice smile. She was pleasing to look at. Not matronly, like Mrs. McGuilicutty. Not young, either. He wondered how old Simone was. She wore her hair short, swept smartly about her face and head. Like a pixie cut. It was auburn, with a shock of white at the part. Her eyes were deep green — large and round. Her nose tipped slightly at the end, and her lips were moist and perfectly shaped.

“How old are you?” he heard himself ask. God, where did that come from?

“Just shy of sixty, if you have to know. Why?”

“No reason. You look a lot younger is all. I figured you were in your early fifties. I have a daughter who will turn fifty in a couple of years.”

“Ah. So how many children do you have?”

He gave his accustomed answer of “Five, that I know of,” as though fishing for a laugh. She laughed. “The truth is just five. And three grandchildren. And you?”

“One daughter. She’s forty-eight. And two grandchildren. They live in Colorado. Her husband is with the Air Force. He’s a career military guy. Don’t get to see them much. Every other Christmas. His folks live in California, and it’s easier for them to travel west. Plus it’s a lot closer than North Carolina. Still, you’d think with him being in the Air Force he could wrangle that more often.”

“And your husband?”

She looked down uncomfortably.

“I don’t mean to pry,” he said quickly.

“No. It isn’t like I haven’t asked you personal questions. Plus I have knowledge of your body — I’ve seen you naked!” she said in a loud whisper.

“That must have been a total shock!” he grinned.

“Truth is I wasn’t married. Alayna wasn’t part of the plan. She’s my daughter. I was young and foolish — you know, the stereotypical teenager who thought she knew what she wanted. Turns out he wasn’t so thrilled when I told him I was pregnant. He let me know fast it wasn’t his problem, and he went on his merry way. I think he became a judge out in east North Carolina somewhere. I’ve thought more than once about showing up around election time and spilling his past to the local news station.”

“But you are better than that.”

“Not much. There were times — what with a baby and kicked out of my home — I was ready to fold. So, long story short — I got my GED and then worked as a waitress while I went to community college.”

“Who kept your daughter?”

“My parents finally forgave me, and when they realized Alayna was not at fault, they helped out. In fact, I went back to live with them.”

“And here you are.”

“And here I am. Well, enough about me. How are your wounds healing? Want me to check?”

“So you are on the clock, then?”

“No! I thought you might like me to make sure everything is okay — no infections or anything. Put my nursing education to work.”

“Sure. But they’ve got me so pumped with drugs I don’t think anything could survive more than a few seconds.”

She stood and sat on the edge of his bed, and carefully lifted up his pajama top, revealing a large bandaged area. She put on a pair of latex gloves from a box on his bedstand that Mrs. McGuilicutty used when cleaning his wounds. 

“Does this hurt?” she said as she lifted the edge of the bandage. He tensed a bit — partly because of the sting of adhesive pulling away from skin, but also at her touch. He could smell her nearness.

“No. It doesn’t hurt.”

She examined the area, and gently prodded with her fingers. “How about that?”

“Still fine. No pain.”

Ida walked in to observe. “That probably needs changing. There are more bandages and antiseptic on the dresser. Do either of you want a cup of tea?”

Both nodded. Simone crossed over to the dresser and gathered what she needed to change his bandaged area.

“Looks good, Stew. Have you been able to get up and walk? I know it’s difficult, but getting up is good for you.”

“I didn’t want to bother Mrs. McGuilicutty.”

“For chrissake, Stew! That’s why she’s here!”

“I know.”

“How about I come by tomorrow and take you to the Y? I’ll help you take a couple of laps in the gym, and we can talk to the trainer there as to what kind of exercises you can do that will help.”

“Wait — Simone, don’t you have better things to do?”

“Sure I do. But in your case, I’ll make an exception.”

* * *

“The beef stew will be ready soon,” said Mrs. McGuilicutty, sticking her head through a crack in the door. “I think Simone has a thing for you,” floated through the door as she closed it, and he could hear her humming on her way back to the kitchen.

His phone rang.

“What!?” he nearly shouted, seeing Brent’s name appear on his caller ID.

Brent chortled on the other end. “I love it when you talk to me that way!” he said. “So … I see Simone came to see you!”

“How do you know that? You can’t see my condo from yours.”

“I can when I walk the dogs and have my binoculars with me,” he laughed. “So see what I told you? She definitely has it for you, Stubie! And she’s a hottie! Good looking, nice legs, nice —” 

Stew cut him off, “She just dropped by to see how I was doing is all. Being nice.”

“Yeah, but being nice for a reason. I’m telling you, Buddy. Carpe diem! You gotta strike when the iron’s hot. Get it while you can! Waste not, want not!”

“You’re full of it.”

“I know — but you love it! So when is your first date?”

“It’s not a date, but she’s gonna take me to the Y tomorrow to help me begin some rehab exercises.”

“That’s a date, Stubie.”

“No it’s not.”

“Okay then — a bet: ten dollars says after the gym she wants to take you out for a bite to eat.”

“Five.”

“Alright, you cheap bastard — five.”

“You’re on.”

“Gotta go, Stubie — me and Martha have a wild night planned. Plus I gotta go online to see what I can get for five dollars!”

* * * * *

Continued . . . 

Brush Up Your Vampyre

25 Jan

 

 

Brush Up Your Vampyre

By L. Stewart Marsden

“First of all, the real vampyres — the epitome of bloodsuckers — are conclaved in Washington, and have been on the seat of government for years. Not even a notch below are the Religionists, who have throughout all time preyed on the innocent.

“But you already know this. They don’t hide in coffins, or lurk in dark castles. What is the saying? Ah, yes … they are hidden in plain sight. They campaign from their soap boxes and pulpits, and spread the fabrications that if elected, or in the case of the priest, obeyed, all will come to see the light.

“You know Jesus was a sanguisugent? That’s the preferable term for us. It’s so much more palatable than vampyre, which is archaic and not at all modern or correct in its connotations. And, yes, I know it’s an adjective — but we use it as a noun. 

“You are surprised about Jesus? I don’t know why. Do you know your scriptures? Let me refer you to the upper room the day before he was to meet his fate by crucifixion. He and his disciples were at table. What a stupid lot they were! Oblivious of the schedule, save one. Poor Judas. Talk about your holy scapegoat!

“In my own inadequate translation, Jesus took the bread and broke it, and told his disciples to take and eat. This is my body, he said, to a pack of twelve pathetic wolves, one whose ambitions were to overthrow the Roman government at this man’s behest. Eat me, he basically said. Was that anything like today’s use of the terms, Eat me? Wouldn’t that be ironic! The Lord of the Universe telling his hairy dim-witted companions to go bugger themselves! Ha! 

“And, to top it all off, he poured out the wine. I happen to know on good authority where that chalice is, and guess what? It contains no more magical powers than a plastic sippy-cup a toddler uses to learn how to drink.

“This is my blood! You could say that Jesus was the very first sanguisugent. The first vampyre. Imagine the Holy One embracing the horrific. Like eating pork if you’re a Jew. And so they drink. They all drink. I can hear Jesus encouraging them: that’s it … drink it all up like a good boy! You dripped some on your chin!

“Then he said out of the blue, one of you will betray me. First, if Jesus already knew that, and if Judas was the designated betrayer, how exactly is that betrayal? He nods at Judas, while all the other dupes are protesting Is it me? He says, go do what you must, and Judas slinks off. He had no choice. Which kind of fits into Calvin’s philosophy of predestination. So years earlier, when Judas is suckling from his mother’s teat as a baby, she gently rocks him and coos, ‘My little tee-nok! One day you’re going to be so effing famous!

“Each was infected by the blood of Jesus. No, you say! It’s wine. It’s symbolic. Tell that to the Pope. We make sanguisugents the same way. They drink our blood. Like a transfusion. So Jesus was a vampyre, plain and simple!

“Given your knowledge of us is based on so many misconceptions, I feel the obligation to correct you on the matters of sanguisugents. In this day of false news, it goes without saying a great deal of harm has been propagated over the centuries. The correct information is out there for all to see. We hide nothing — and operate in the open like the politicians and religionists. But’s it’s deteriorated into so much Hollywood crap that I and my colleagues are quite embarrassed. 

“So I offer you this oral primer in order that the record be set straight. I mean, sanguisugents matter, too! By the way, quite a bit of information can be found on Twitter and other social media. You have only to know where to look, and how to validate its veracity. I don’t think snopes.com is particularly helpful in that regard, but you can type in #sanguisugents when you have the time. Makes for excellent bedtime reading, by the way.

“Shall we begin, then?”

The Origins and Characteristics of Sanguisugents

“Shall we begin, then?”

“It’s not known how long sanguisugents have roamed the earth. I believe since the beginning. As with Man, who began either millions or thousands of years ago, depending on your science or religion, he and she were very primitive compared to us today. Their baser instincts of survival kept them busy. Included in survival was the necessity not to draw attention to themselves. Hence they were loners, and did not travel in hoardes. 

“How we were introduced onto this earth again remains speculation. Oh, there are a few sanguisugents who are practicing anthropologists, but their research has so far yielded nothing in that area. Plus they have to be very circumspect about their work. What university, pray tell, would fund a project on the Origins of Sanguisugents? Too bad Darwin wasn’t one of us. None of us wanted to volunteer for the crews of his ships going to the Galápagos Islands. 

“Some speculate that we are aliens, planted here as an experiment. Well, that’s just crazy, if you ask me. I have yet to see a UFO, by the way. Is there life out there beyond our galaxy? Not sure. Don’t care. Until ET smacks me in the face and garbles out “phone home,” I’m satisfied with the status quo. I mean, can you believe the things people get into?

“What is true is there was a spate of time when things that go bump in the night became the trend. Mary Shelley’s monster. Stoker’s Dracula. And who the hell knows where the werewolf thing developed? Somehow I can’t see the connection between shape-shifting and Riding Hood’s grandmother. But it was excellent fodder for stories that amused and thrilled. We do so love our hair-raising moments, don’t we?

“Like the population of the earth, one would expect sanguisugents to be everywhere after all this time. Especially if we resembled at all how we are portrayed. But there are only so many castles. Eventually, we would have gone through our supply of lifeblood and everyone would be a Sanguisugent. Then what?

“The truth is we maintain a reasonable and constant percentage of sanguisugents in proportion to the total world population. And we never grandstand. No Tee shirts, no parades, no National Sanguisugent’s Day, no protests, no political movements. Really … when you have a good thing, why upset it?

“We are in every nation on all continents and you rub shoulders or bump into us everyday. Why, you might even have friends who are sanguisugents, or you might work with a sanguisugent! We are of every color of the human spectrum, and are common, everyday people as well as accomplished scientists and artists. Some of your favorite movie stars or entertainment celebrities are sanguisugents. How have we accomplished being so much part of the fabric of civilization? How have we blended in so well? How have we mastered hiding in plain sight?

“There are so many things sanguisugents are and are not. Over the centuries quite a list of attributes has grown involving their nature, mostly due to the hysterical reactions of the clergy, and the lack of true understanding of medicine and biology. 

“For example, we do not sleep during the day in the dirt of our graves. Frankly, I find the graveyard a bit creepy to my liking. I’ve owned several Sealy Perfect mattresses, and one memory foam mattress (for which I am most disappointed). Sleep technology has come a long way since corn shuck mattresses and plank bed platforms. And I like pillows, and sheets and blankets — especially if they are color-coordinated. 

“I love to snuggle! I sleep best on my right side, and am pretty sure I have a deviated septum — but seeing as how I am perceived to be a deviant, I suppose that comes with the territory. As a result, I’m told I snore.

“Oh, by the way — I sleep at night, like everyone else, save those who work third shift. I pity them.

“We do not burn up in the sunlight and crumble into a pile of burnt ashes. I go to Cancún during the winter to tan and rest. The Carpathian Mountains are not — I repeat — not a vacation destination for us! Look at my skin — it’s not pale at all! I’m hardly anemic! On the contrary, my red count is just fine, thank you. It baffles me how these myths come to be! 

“Oh, and this — this is my pocket mirror which I use to see myself to comb my hair. See my reflection? Also fake crap.

“I don’t need you to invite me into your home in order to cross the threshold, and you can put out as many garlic wreaths as you like. I love garlic — especially in Italian dishes! Roasted garlic is the best.

“One more … there are so many of them proliferated in novels and on TV these days … make the sign of the cross all you like; throw holy water on me; say the typical exorcism commands in a loud and forceful voice — it doesn’t make any difference to me. Personally I’m tolerant of the beliefs of others. I respect your right to have archaic and senseless beliefs despite the results of making you a pawn to organized religion. Or disorganized religion. Either way, that’s your right. But your beliefs do not constitute truth to me. And if that’s the case, those efforts at warding me off with your spiritual blathering are wasted energy. Whatever makes you happy, I say.

“I don’t die. So you can’t kill me with stakes or lopping off my head or any of the countless ways the “good guys” dispatch us “bad guys.” That’s because I’m not alive — not in the sense you are. 

“That’s why the blood thing. My bone marrow doesn’t make blood cells. And since I have to have blood flowing to bring both oxygen and nutrients to my body so that I can move and think and speak — just like you in that regard — I must transfuse. I don’t even know what my blood type is anymore, and forget donating to the Red Cross Blood Drive! Now, I won’t say I haven’t made the occasional withdrawal from the blood bank — but that’s really frowned upon by sanguisugents. 

“Yes, it’s a bitch, but the payback is unbelievable! I mean, there were times I’d look around and have a BA-SINGAS! moment. I’d tell myself, YES! H.G. Wells got that right! And when I look at those silly memes on Facebook — the ones that tout people born in a certain year? Who have lived through so many times and technological advancements! I laugh out loud! Actually, that’s one way to tell if someone is a sanguisugent. They burst out laughing almost spontaneously after reading one of these ridiculous statements! YOU think YOU’VE lived through a lot!? I lived through the War of 1812. I was at Dunkirk. I jumped headlong into a VC burrow in Cambodia. Those historic events still reside in some part or parts of my body.

“I could have my PhD in World History and teach at Cornell or Harvard if I so chose. But that would be dangerous. Somewhere along the way I’d probably slip up and start talking about The Battle of the Bulge as if I were there. Which I was.

“But I digress …”

My Rite of Passage

“But I digress …”

“I became a sanguisugent in the year 1725. As we say, I “passed over.” Not exactly dead. Not exactly alive.

“I was a third-generation cobbler in the small village of Kisilova, which lay at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and east of what is now Belgrade in Serbia. I know … Stoker’s stomping grounds. What can I say?

“At the time I was considered old at fifty-six. Humans did not have the modern day advantages of the medicines and science of today. A simple cold or infection of a small wound could result in death. And as a poor man, there was no consolation of inheritance, nor absolution by the Church. The rich, as with today, prevailed; the poor, died and were forgotten.

“So it was that I had no grand expectations beyond my skills and meager ability to provide for my family. I benefitted from no family name nor inheritance. There was no lottery. There was no Silicon Valley. There was no promise of anything more than what a man could scratch out with hard work and honesty. At least in that regard, I was proud. 

“Then a man came to me from Belgrade — someone who was well above my state in class and education — with a strange request. I had made him several pairs of boots over the years. He wanted me to cobble more than a dozen pairs more for him, and made this proposition:

“‘I would like to invest in your company.’”

“‘But I have no company, Sir.’”

“‘At the moment, that is true. However, in the New World, there is a great need for your skills. And I propose to move you and your family to a place called Boston, and there finance your industry, and help you grow it.’

“‘You will apprentice other cobblers — as many as you need in order to supply that new land with good footwear. I will be your benefactor, and will extract a small portion of your proceeds as my part of the arrangement.’

“‘I don’t understand why you would do this, good Sir.’

“‘It is to my advantage. You have a very practical and unique skill. I can’t even buckle my own belt without someone else to help me!’

“We laughed, I shook his hand, and the deal was struck. Within weeks all that I owned of value was packed into shipping barrels, and I and my family began the long trek and sail to America, and the town called Boston.”

“We arrived in the spring of the year. Boston was the center of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, overruled by a governor appointed by King George, and who had the remotest senses of empathy toward its inhabitants.

“In an instant I understood what my benefactor had envisioned, as all about the port and as far as the eye could see, building and industry was loud and robust.

“He had the good sense to send an advanced emissary, who not only procured housing for my family, but also bought a sizable warehouse. A large sign adorned the two-door opening, which read  Blagojevich & Company, Ltd. I remember standing and staring at the sign, as if in a trance. 

“‘In this location you will employ and train a dozen apprenticeships in the arts of cobbling,’ my benefactor told me. ‘Instead of shoes and boots customed to the fit of each wearer, we will develop a scale of measurements that will fit the majority of feet. The unusual foot will not be within our parameters. That way, we can sell a range of shoes and boots throughout the colonies.’

“This was a marvel to me. Who thinks of things such as these but the man with unrestrained imagination? And I was instantly under his spell and vision.

“We began, and had to turn away applicants. Mere boys were our choice, as suggested by my benefactor. Not one person with any experience, he had directed. That way, there were to be no preconceived notions of how things must be done. I was to be the master, and they, the disciples of a new approach.

“The apprentices slept, ate, and worked in that warehouse. The unwilling were let go. The slackers met with the same fate. Only those who were able to catch the fire of what we were attempting made it. Eighteen and twenty-hour days were standard. And soon the warehouse bins were crowded with shoes and boots of many styles, from dress to work.

“My benefactor toured many potential customers through the establishment. Not those of ordinary ambition. These were primarily men, with an occasional widow of means, who looked to the inevitable westward expansion of the colonies. Shoes and boots fit a necessary niche. Most of the prevailing business was in trade of cotton and tar, tobacco and lavender. 

“I never questioned his reasons for anything. My part of the pact was to produce, and to produce en masse. The future, as far as I could tell, seemed very bright.

“Until the day I fell ill, that is. The new climate, the long hours, my age … all began to work to the detriment of my health. Congestion, fever, lack of balance all combined to confine me to bed. 

“A barber was called in, who consulted the Saints’ days and determined the best times for bloodletting, which was common in the day. I smile today because of what I now know, that the best of physicians is only as successful as his knowledge is broad. Daily I weakened, growing more and more feint and anemic. While the business continued in my absence, my benefactor realized all was in jeopardy as my condition worsened.

“One night, when I was nearly delirious, passing from a state of consciousness to delusion, my benefactor came to my bedside, after shooing out my wife and closing the door. He drew a candle to my face and sat, smoothing my sweated brow with his warm hand.

“‘My friend, you are not well.

“‘No,’ I replied. His face was lit by the flickering candlelight, and his shadow was cast on the wall and ceiling.

“‘I have something that will give you both strength and longevity. But it comes with a price that I cannot explain at this moment. I ask that you trust me — as you did when I first came to you with my business proposal.

“I didn’t care about either strength or longevity at that moment. I was sick, and perhaps with an illness unto death. I only wanted to return to my work and my family. There was too much at stake for me to consider any long-term prices — or consequences. Who worries about consequences when the only way out of a burning building is to jump from a third-story window?

“As for trusting my benefactor — well that was of no consideration at all. Of course I trusted him! And if this was a life-death situation, which I believed to be true, there could be no hesitation on my part.

“He took from his vest a barber’s razor ornately fashioned of silver. He then unbuttoned the sleeve of his shirt, and rolled the cloth back to reveal his arm. I could see the deep blue-green of his veins coursing his forearm. He took his ascot, and tied the arm tightly near his underarm, then tapped his veins. They pulsed and engorged with each touch, the blood underneath nearly visible to my eye. 

“I was mesmerized. I could hear the tell tale thump-thump as the rich liquid pumped methodically. The tips of his fingers reddened and swelled, as though they would spew forth fountains of red. 

“‘Tip your head back, and arch your neck,’ he commanded. I obeyed, feeling the strain from muscles connecting my chin to either side of my neck, and running down to my sternum.

“‘Open your mouth.”

“I did. He lifted and turned his arm over, making a quick slice with the razor with a horizontal stroke. He untied the tourniquet from his arm and his blood immediately spilled into my open mouth. At first, I gagged.

“‘Swallow quickly! Do not spit it out!’

“I did as he ordered. I fought my reflex and swallowed, as though fighting to ingest something foul and putrid. His blood continued to flow into my mouth, and slowly its metallic taste changed into a flavor I cannot begin to describe. It was an elixir — an exotic aphrodisiac — a rare red wine from the finest vineyard — and it warmed my throat and whole chest area, then seeped down to my loins. Whatever wonderfully surprising taste you’ve ever experienced can only pale in comparison.

“As the fountainhead flowed into me, all of my senses awakened to incredible levels. Smell, touch, sight. I heard him repeating, as if a mantra, ‘For this is my blood of the new covenant …’ He spoke it in Slovakian, ‘Toto je moja krv novej zmluvy.’ Slowly he repeated the phrase, and with each repetition, began to slump as I gained more and more strength. It was his strength I gained. His lifeblood. It was … his life.”

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“My metamorphosis occurred over a time span similar to that of a newborn. Feedings were more frequently needed, and for shorter bursts of time. Also, since my teeth had not yet come in, I lapped — decidedly more messy than later on when I could siphon. Hence the sources of my early diet were from the freshest and most undiluted. Later I was better able to appreciate more aged supplies. I am trying to be mindful of your possible revulsion in these descriptions. 

“My benefactor was obliged to ‘shop’ for me and provide the nourishment I craved. Luckily — or maybe etiologically-speaking — there is no such malady as colic among sanguisugents. I never experienced stomach cramps. I would get hungry, yes — but that was normal. And, believe it or not, I could supplement my diet with regular food such as I would have eaten before my transformation. In fact, those foods were necessary to keep my teeth clean. I’ve known many sanguisugents who were on a strict blood diet, and their teeth began to turn slightly pink over the years. Today those purists have new dental products, like teeth whiteners, to do the work. Frankly, I prefer the broader food spectrum, which also has the benefit of keeping my breath as well as — well, how shall I say this? — my expellations a bit sweeter than if I dined only on blood.

“To those on the outside, there was no indication anything had taken place — that I was different from anyone else. At least at the start. Later, over the years, family and friends would marvel at my continued youthful appearance, and my lack of wrinkles or age spots or hair color changes. Throughout the years there have been instances when people suspected something about me was not right — when I had to be especially on guard. 

“Hence the energies expended to stay out of the limelight. Do you know where that term developed, by the way? Before modern theatrical lighting, stages were lit using cylinders of heated lime. These cylinders were placed at the apron of the stage, and produced an intense white light. I have a thousand tidbits of information like this learnt throughout the centuries.

“But, I have wandered afield once again.

“Now I was in debt to my benefactor on two counts: my growing business in Boston, and my very life. While he continually poo-poohed any intent to reap from what he had sown in me, the thought nevertheless lodged in the back of my mind that something never comes without expectation.

“From my growing shoe concern, my benefactor was able to explore offshoot industries, and, as he had with me, invested in other businesses, such as mercantilism. He would help help his mentees set up stores, where customers could find all manner of supplies for their homes and industries. He bought en masse from blacksmiths items such as nails and cookware; from weavers various cloths (and he also imported cloth as well); from farmers, grain; from importers, sugar and the dreaded teas (he found no way to avoid the tariffs, and grumbled loudly and often of the insult to injury heaped upon his enterprises as its results).

“As civilization slowly edged westward, so did his mercantile investments. Again, it was a niche that he predicted would help usher in the total colonization of America. Even local Indians came to trade at his mercantile stores.

“I remember he and I had a long conversation about the future one night beside the hearth in my home where he was a frequent and welcomed visitor.

“‘Peter, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I feel the restless spirit of this people straining to be loosed. It is not only the potential of this Promised Land they smell and taste, but the desire to be ahead of what will become hoards from now until whatever end God has planned. Being first means being in control. It means power and wealth. And these are folk who, in their original lands, had no access to either. It was all a matter of birthright — and that stream of selectivity did not produce the very best results. Now, common and plain men such as yourself — and I mean this in only the most positive way — have every opportunity at success. Only they themselves can impede their ascension.

“It finally became clear to me as we talked, what my benefactor had done for me by plucking me from my homeland, where generations of my ancestors had toiled in the same mud, along the same streams and fields, and answering to the same power mongers. 

“‘I owe you everything I am and shall become,’ I told him.

“‘And I tell you that nothing is owed me. You are the right person at the right time in the right place. That you realize that, and that you pledge to yourself to always be at the fore of this vanguard is all the gratitude I need.’

“Yet that still small voice in me spoke clearly, ‘For the moment.’”

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“Over the next few years, it was clear my benefactor had more than retail in mind. That trade was strong, but with the growing tension between the colonies and England, another form of commerce began to appear; another niche. He encouraged me to branch out into other related products made of leathers, such as belts and straps and horsewear items such as bridals and reins — even saddles. 

“I have met many of the men of history you have only read about. I knew Paul Revere, for example. And there were others. John Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson. And most importantly, I met George Washington.

“I rose economically and socially, and took every opportunity to invite whomever to tour my warehouse at their convenience. I also travelled extensively to New Amsterdam before it became New York. I went often to Philadelphia, where my friend Ben Franklin and I broke bread and drank many a stein of lager together. I knew Aaron Burr, but at a distance. My benefactor warned me that Burr seemed more calculating than sincere, which proved to be the case later when he shot and killed Hamilton. 

“Philadelphia was also the site of my second shoe-making warehouse, albeit there the concentration was on the other leather products. While I understood the reason for product expansion and diversity, I didn’t understand the timing, and asked my benefactor during one of our fireside chats.

“‘You are like a turtle with your head inside your little world! Look about you and sense what is coming.’

“‘And what is coming?’

“‘War. As surely as the rings about the full moon warn sailors of an impending storm. It will be hastened by that urge you and I have discussed. King George is the only barrier to these colonies completely breaking from the stockade, and like wild horses escaping, we will run amok. But first, the war.’

“‘That will be disastrous!’ I said.

“‘Only to those who are not prepared to ride the current. Do not be swept aside, Peter. All we are doing is to advance not only our prospects for wealth and power, but the country’s as well.’

“‘Country?’”

“‘America, my friend! We have only begun to tap into what this land has to offer. It can be fallow field no longer. It must be cleared and plowed and planted and worked! The leaders of the colonies are no fools! They see this, and gnash at their overlord. The wealth they have come to know is only the gleanings as far as they are concerned. They itch to possess it all, and no king across the ocean can, or has the right to deny them! You cannot be satisfied, Peter! As you now know the exhilarating power and sensations of blood, as you begin to realize you are no longer a pinpoint in history and have no limits, you, too, must not be satisfied. I am not satisfied! I will drink of this country to my fill, and then drink and drink again!’

“‘In this unequaled Paradise, you and I are gods! Remember what the Christ said, In my Father’s house are many mansions …’

“‘So we will prepare for war, you and I. We will supply all and whatever is necessary for the conflict, however long it will be, and for the ultimate victory!’

“‘The idea of war is foreign to me.’

“‘It cannot be. You cannot stand on the bank of a great river and expect to go anywhere. You have to jump into its midstream and be carried off.’

“‘Off to where?’

“‘To eternity, Peter. That is our destiny. Eternity.’”

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“At the time I wasn’t sure if my benefactor meant we would be on the fields fighting or not. It was only later, when the conflict began, I knew we would be suppliers of war. That our main course of action, aside from the actual products of boots and backpacks and other supplies essential to victory, was to propagate the rumors of war. We were to remain inconspicuous to the efforts of freedom, and hence, to becoming a highlighted part of that history.

“We were also able to dismiss ourselves — for the moment — from the direct link to death by “keeping our hands clean” of armaments. I thought it was a conscious separation from the blood of battle by not investing into tooling and forging of muskets and cannon, gunpowder and bayonets.

“But my benefactor had deceived me on that count, and was studying more efficient ways of mining the ores essential to foundries and their product. Like the manufacture of shoes, he had envisioned mass production of many components for both westward progress as well as war.

“‘Imagine,’ he proposed at dinner one evening, “How quickly the world would have been tamed into a progressive culture had Gengis Khan or Atilla the Hun — even the Romans — only had possession of gunpowder during their reigns! For centuries the bow and the arrow was the only way to avoid the far riskier tactics of hand-to-hand combat. 

“‘Even with muskets and canon, one soldier can only carry so much gunpowder and musket balls. Plus shooting and reloading is multi-stepped and time-consuming. It’s one thing for hunting, but quite another for facing a battalion of the enemy marching straight at you.

“‘And as far as canon? A horse is necessary, and there must be roads to avoid harsh terrain. And that doesn’t count the cannonballs and the difficulty of transporting them!’”

“While he fixed his attention on more mundane items such as wagon rims, I could tell he had set one portion of his thoughts aside to develop concepts of war machinery. 

“The majority of his efforts were dedicated to production and assembly methods. For example, he developed the idea of round casting wheels for items like screws and triggers guards and stock butts. He envisioned long lines of quickly-produced parts, at the end of which another conveyor belt took the parts to lines of assemblers.

“‘It is possible, in my mind, to have a fully-functioning long rifle assembled from start to finish in less than a day, and at least 30 to 50 rifles total from each production line!’”

“So while his plants and warehouses produced primarily non-lethal items, his mind whirred continuously on what he called The War Machine.”

“And among those people of influence with whom he mingled, it was not a difficult task to stretch both their imaginations as well as their pocketbooks to invest in his dreams.

“As uncomfortable as I was over this ominous trend of thought, I comforted my conscience with the thinly veiled thought nothing I produced actually killed anyone.

“Which may come as a surprise to you, given what I am. How could a sanguisugent be so ruled by conscience when his very life and continuation depends on the death of another?”

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“I would ask that you please remember the power of eternal life is such that certain types of reason are rendered useless. I know it sounds little more than an excuse to say it, but it is far more complicated to the one who struggles with such a dilemma than to those on the outside who have not one iota of understanding.

“I suppose I could actually blame the Church, because without it and its myriad of rules and boundaries, of exacting perfection to become perfect, I would have never agreed to the transformation in the first place.

“No priest, no pastor, no evangelist would ever dare diminish the power of the blood. That would be sacrilege — and a one-way ticket to eternal hell. At least among the Christian believers. Purgatory is one of those Catholic beliefs — which the ‘true’ believers discount (depending on who is calling themself a true believer) — and involves more purification. In a way, it discounts the power of Christ’s blood and introduced a reason for the money generator of the Catholic hierarchy — indulgences.

“Anyway, I digress again. For the sanguisugents, to appease our human sense of on-going and religiously-produced guilt, we have come to adopt a fairly common mentality about our sources of blood. No, we don’t rob the blood banks (unless in absolute desperation); nor do we drain vermin or other animals of their blood. That’s almost too horrible to think about.

“Our practice is to help not only ourselves, but society, in selecting sources who — if left unchecked — would either do or continue to do evil and harm. We refer to them as The Dregs. Fortunately for us, and perhaps unfortunately for humanity, there is an endless supply of The Dregs in life.

“These are those who are mean-spirited, self-absorbed, chronically bad people. They are recognized in all walks of life, although they tend to dominate in certain areas. Politicians come to mind right away. As do others. 

“Luckily our feeding, as I mentioned earlier, is not constant. We have a healthy diet of various foods. And our need for fresh blood is not spontaneous. We maintain control and can choose the when and where. I am not, for example, overwhelmed by temptation at the sight of a pulsing carotid artery in an exposed neck. As a rule, in fact, the neck is not the location we use — but rather the femoral artery along the inside of the leg. Less likely to be detected, and certainly doesn’t splatter the provider’s blood all over their shirt or blouse for the world to see and panic over. 

“Perhaps you would entertain an account of one of my sources?”

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“Once my teeth came in I was on my own in terms of sustenance. Of course they were sore for a bit (no pun intended), and not exactly how I had imagined, which was big fangs growing where my incisors were. Nope. My fangs, and those of other sanguisugents are more like the hollow fangs of a rattlesnake. They lay flat in the ridges of the roof of my mouth. When I am ready to feed, the tissue surrounding the fangs engorges in anticipation, and the fangs basically pop out. I inject into the wound saliva from a cavity in my sinuses that thins the blood, making it much easier to flow into the teeth. I use my tongue to lap up any spillage during the process.

“My fangs are replaced often — especially whenever I eat roast corn — and they snap off. I have to be careful not to swallow them, and normally discretely pull them out and cover them either in a napkin or under some other food item on my plate.

“There is nothing quick about feeding. Even though I bite the femoral artery, I have to linger down there for quite some time. Depending on the cleanliness of my donor, it can range from a very pleasant time to something more like a ‘hold your nose and bite’ experience. Like voting.

“The duration of what we now refer to as the ‘transfusion time’ is several hours. Many considerations come into play, such as where can I take my donor so that we will not be interrupted or discovered? Also, there is a fine balance of keeping my donor alive, should I choose, and them expiring during the meal. That was definitely a learning process. 

“Thankfully, if I am able to keep my donor alive, the fang wounds heal quickly — within an hour. And the donor has no recollection of anything. They awake in the morning with a pretty severe headache and feeling drained of energy. Within a day or two, all returns to normal. I don’t make it a habit to revisit a donor continually. Plus I like to spice things up with a variety of bloods. For example, it is quite true that the Italians are hot-blooded — spicey-hot, that is. Norwegians have a slight fishy taste, but if you are into sardines, it’s rather good. 

“Another consideration is that whenever I dine on blood, I tend to puff up to the point it’s noticeable, as I’m normally lean-faced and on the trim side of body size. Sometimes I take to bed after supping, complaining to those who know me that I am suffering from a bit of indigestion — which is not far from the truth. My father used to lecture me, ‘moderation in all things,’ but that would be like telling a child in a candy shop to restrain himself. Alas, I’m afraid I lack the self-discipline to restrain my appetite when I feed. As, I imagine, is the difficulty with those unable to take small portions and not overdo it at dinner. 

“That is the process normally. While there is some selectivity involved, targeting a donor is normally a passionless rote. Except where the goal is to rid the neighborhood, or town, or country of a person who needs to be removed. In other words, the process is predetermined unto death, and the donor is someone either the individual sanguisugent (or a group of sanguisugents) has targeted. These targets are not only hated by my kind, but generally by the majority who are aware of their true natures.

“As I’ve said earlier, while the gamut is wide, these people are tainted by similar traits. Power, greed, lust — perhaps the seven deadly sins best describes these abhorrent excuses for humanity. They tend to be hypocrites at every turn. They prey on the lowly and the poor. They take advantage to profit themselves whenever opportunity arises. They are rude and uncaring people. Literature abounds with these characters, as does real life.

“So it came to happen, shortly after I had passed over and adjusted to my new life, that I came across one of these odious and foul fiends. He was my very first ‘kill,’ and I shall always remember not only how he came to cross my path, but how I initially struggled to come to plan and carry out his demise.” 

* * * * *

“He was the father of one of my apprentices, Jacob, who was a hard-working, intelligent and enthusiastic lad of twelve. Jacob’s father brought his son to me as a result of an advertisement in the Boston Gazette. The man told me his wife had recently died, and that he was the sole caretaker of five children, Jacob being the eldest.

“This was before I fell ill and went through the passage. When I first met the man, I sensed there was something amiss with him, but passed it off. Over the months, however, I became increasingly worried about Jacob, who seldom expressed a desire to go home to visit his family. The boy was thoroughly caught up in learning his trade, which I had assumed was due to his enthusiasm. 

“I sent all apprentices home for Christmas Eve and Day as a rule. Jacob was reluctant to leave. 

“‘I’d as soon stay here, if you don’t mind. There’s not much room for me at home anymore.’

“‘I insist, Jacob. I planned to let the hearths die out, and it will be too cold for you here.’ So he obeyed me. When he returned, his head was wrapped in muslin, and his left eye blackened. He moved slowly, and winced as in pain. I called him aside at midday.

“‘Tell me about your eye and head, Jacob.’

“‘I fell cutting firewood. It’s nothing.’

“‘Pull your shirt up, son.’ He revealed a torso bruised black and blue. I reached out to touch his side and he dropped his shirt and put up his arms defensively, ‘NO!’

“I was beat at the hands of my father when I was young — but I early on decided the beatings were justified, and even the result of something I did or didn’t do. But the memories of both the physical and emotional hurt had lingered, and I knew what was going on.

“Consequently I did a little sleuthing of Jacob’s father. I found he was poorer than I had first imagined, and there were more than the four of Jacob’s siblings crammed into a dilapidated wooden shack of a home. He had also taken in a woman — not older than a mere girl — to watch his children and provide for some of his baser needs, which included more than cooking or keeping his house tidy. The woman also provided services to others, bringing in barely enough money to survive, which her keeper took half and spent at the local pub for drink and other favors.

“He himself did odd jobs — when he was sober — which meant he worked very little. His demeanor was dark and brooding, and he complained of ‘God’s curse’ on his life, and was in the verbal habit of shifting blame from himself to whomever for his condition. He treated his children with the same disdain, shouting, shoving, and threatening when he came home after long spells of drunkenness. 

“I wondered how such a man could not end up in jail, or at least in the public stockades on a regular basis, but most chose to ignore him and leave him to his own designs.

“I knew what I must do, which I had never done before. A semblance of acknowledgment regarding ‘Thou shalt not kill’ remained after my rite of passage. I know people who mince words on ending someone’s life to fit their particular point of view. I’ve heard the term “consistent view of the sanctity of life. These days, a woman who is impregnated ‘by accident,’ — though for the life of me I don’t know how the term ‘accident’ is reconciled — sees ending the pregnancy by abortion as nothing more than terminating a fetus. The soldier who peers down his rifle scope at his enemy, is vanquishing a foe. The executioner is ‘carrying out justice.’ 

“I am no more for the wages of war being killing, to the wages of sin being execution. But I am convinced there is a time and a place and a reason to intervene on the behalf of the innocent — which is how I came to justify my actions then, and how I now justify my actions. Ecclesiastes says as much — a time to kill. It doesn’t address the whys nor the wherefores. It doesn’t differentiate as far as motive, or justice, or revenge or self-defense. It simply says there is a time to kill. There was really no considering to be done, other than when and where. Since the man was a constant threat to his children — who were helpless against him — so, I reasoned, it must be soon.

“One night I followed him to his favorite pub, where I awaited him in the shadows of the night. At last he emerged, waving his arms for balance, and staggered into the streets. I approached him face on.

“‘Well, if it’s not my Jacob’s benefactor, Mr. Whoever-you-are …’ he slurred with barely recognizable diction.

“‘I wonder if I might have a word with you Sir,’ and pointed to the muddy alley bordering the ale house, ‘… in private.’

“‘For you, my most illustrious acquaintance, anything!’

“The timing and location were perfect. As I fed, I held his wrist to monitor his heartbeat. Instead of concluding before the pulse stopped, I held fast, my head and heart beating and swimming in rage. It was as if I were a conquering lion, tearing open his prey, stopping to roar with victorious might and finality.

“The Gazette ran a small item on him that was buried deep within it’s pages.” 

The body of Jonathan Hooker was discovered in an alley adjacent to The Flying Boarhead early Tuesday. Hooker apparently died of exposure, having passed out sometime during the night.

“No one ever claimed the body, and his remains were interred in the paupers’ cemetery down near the harbor. He was not missed, and I noticed a decidedly happier and content aura around Jacob from that point on. I also regularly visited Jacob’s home where I donated both items as well as currency for the subsistence of his siblings.

“We are not so black-hearted and evil as we have been made out to be.”

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“Fear and ambition. Two marked traits of the colonists, and not at opposite poles from each other. One motivates the other, as I have observed. During those last few years before war with King George finally broke out, each was in a race to dominate the minds and souls of we who had left everything behind to stake out our futures in the Americas.

“Once established and, having conquered the basic necessities, each man realized that the constraints of position, wealth and power that had once ruled over destiny were no longer as oppressive and limiting as in the various fatherlands. To some extent, of course, it existed in the colonies, but we soon drew strength from a common cause and purpose: to be finally unshackled from Britain, and to turn our eyes to beyond the Appalachians. I believe someone called it our manifest destiny some years later.

“But that ambition was tempered by the presence of the native Indians, who had been slowly routed from their homelands on the eastern seaboard to areas west. Initially, they were at a disadvantage with their spears and clubs and arrows, which were no match against the long rifle and cannon. Perhaps it was that frustration that stirred the innate savagery they displayed in war and in defense of further migration of the White Man. 

“The French were more than delighted to arm the Huron nation in helping claim territory along the Ohio. As to that, the British were similarly inclined to supply the Iroquois and seek them as allies. This war with the French and the Indians ultimately pushed our adversaries across into Canada, but with much bloodshed. Despite the losses, the gain was more than worth it: access to the Ohio and the rich lands beyond.

“For me, with my business growing faster than either my mentor or I could have believed, the opening of the west was opportune for two very important reasons: enlarging our mercantile influence, and providing us a chance to relocate — very important when you do not age, and those around you do.

“Tragically, my wife died in giving birth, as did the child. I put my heirs in charge of the business concerns once I knew them to be competent. And then I left under the excuse of seeking continued growth. It also removed me from the distinct possibility that as matters with the Crown worsened, I would be expected to provide leadership on the field. That was something I did not want, not only because I detest war in all of its fashion, but the fact I could be wounded, or worse. How embarrassing to be carried into the surgical tents with a mortal wound and the doctor not find any trace of a musket ball in my body! It might arouse more than a little curiosity, which I knew would not be good — for me, but especially my family. We were not long past that era during which suspicion and fear of was considered sorcery caused the deaths of many, many mortals. That would put in jeopardy those I love, and was unacceptable.

“And so, buckskinned and supplied with items to use for trade and purchase, I employed the services of an older Cherokee named Kanuna, which means “bullfrog.” While thin and creased with age, Kanuna’s deep voice was marked with confidence. He was a loner, and made his way through the years avoiding antagonizing others. He was also a bachelor, and told me once he had no time for wives or children. 

“‘They are like carrying a heavy load of brush up a steep slope.’”

“While I didn’t entirely agree, I knew that my future would eventually become a life like Kanuna’s, where love and commitment to another person would always end the same way — with the death of that loved one. Unfortunately, love doesn’t care for one’s philosophy, and finds a way. The same with friendships.

“Kanuna was to be my very first fast friend, and someone who would know everything about me. He was also the first I chose to transform.”

ƒƒƒƒƒ

“I’m far more discriminating when it comes to transforming someone who will face an unimaginable future. The vast majority cannot handle such a change. My peers are not so — how shall I say? Intuitive nor demanding. They are those who give the vampyre a very bad name. Ask anyone about vampires, or rather, sanguisugents — and they will recite nearly chapter and verse on traits and behaviors of my kind without so much as an iota of real and practical knowledge. Like witches. So misunderstood! So wrongfully mistreated. As was my friend Kanuna and his people.

“In conversations about the Cherokee and the Pawnee and other tribes, we danced about truth and fiction late into the evenings, huddled around our dying campfires as we travelled. 

“‘The White Man has only one image of us, and he sees us as savages who stand in the way. He does not value nor respect us as hosts, who allow him to enter our lands and cut our forests and deplete our deer and beaver and buffalo. We are like the grizzly to him — to be feared and overcome — not valued for our knowledge of the ways of the Great Spirit, or the other spirits he has peopled this land with.

“‘A man can stand but so much disregard for himself and for his land. Then a man must respond.’

“‘Yet the White Man sees that response as savagery,’ I would comment. 

“‘We are men of peace. We are not those who foul the land or steal from it. You White Men take and use as you see fit. Yes, even you, although you are not as bad as your brothers. And you are distinguished among men as well. You cannot die. Your prey are deserving of your hunt — they are the sick of heart and mind. I know you practice a code of honor that I admire. You do not take for the taking. 

“‘I am an old man. My warrior days have ended, and I chew on berries and leaves because my teeth cannot tear meat. My bones whisper to me, the trail soon ends, and it is time for me to lie down with my father and his father. And though I understand death is a part of all men’s destiny — at least until I met you — I would rather walk on and hunt and thrive once again. You have the power to help me through that gate, do you not?’

“‘I do.’”

“‘What I fear is the wisdom of the ages slips away. Great men die with their treasures of knowledge before they can pass it on. Though I am leathery and feint of breath, I am a great man, too.’

“‘Yes, you are.’”

“Shall I join my father and his father and not share what I have learned? Shall I turn my back on my brothers and bid them good fortune on their journey without showing them the path?’”

“‘Kanuna, as much as I love you, as much as you are my brother, you don’t know what you are asking. You will not return to the young man you once were. Yes, you will have new strength and new teeth, and no longer pay attention to Death’s shadow. But there is a curse to my life as well. I outlive everyone I care about. I hide who I am from nearly everyone — not in fear for myself, not for my kind, and not because we would be killed. But because I cannot imagine anyone not wanting eternal life. Not the eternal life bespoken of in the Christian Bible — so remote and veiled. But one of this world, of flesh and blood and feeling and experience. This wisdom is not for everyone.’

“‘And yet you told me.’

“‘And yet I told you.’

“‘Will you allow me to be haunted and teased by this? Do you not find me deserving?’

“‘It isn’t that. You, of all I know — even of my mentor — are the most deserving of all.’

“‘But?’

“‘I want to know you have measured your desires against the truth. I cannot abide the guilt I would have to endure if you have the slightest doubt, and if you regret your decision later.’

“‘For me it is like climbing a hill at sunset. Perhaps like your Christian Bible suggests. The light is fading and darkness grows about me. The path is more difficult as night falls. Yet I know that as I crest the hill, I will see the sun and feels its warmth on my face and my breast. I will breathe and my lungs will glow. I will raise my arms to the West, and make my chant, and smoke my pipe. I know it is a selfish thing I ask, and as you warned me to be unerring in my choice, I would too ask you to deny me this if you are in any doubt. Either way is fine with me. Search your heart, too, my brother.’

“I did not transform him at that time. I took his words as truth and intent sincere. I also took his advice to search my own soul deeply. You thought Sanguisugents had no soul? Think again. Some of us would rather not have one. They turn, and then realize in horror what they had begged for; what they had against what they wanted, was forever more, lost in the transaction. I cannot tell you how many Sanguisugents I know who mourn their decision. But, too late. Too late. Too late!

ƒƒƒƒƒ

“Kanuna was adept at reading trail signs — the minutia I could never detect, such as a strand of hair, or a broken twig or an impression in the mud. He knew the tracks of bear and deer and raccoons and rabbits and more, and could tell how many and which way or even how fast the animals traveled. He was serenely connected with all around him, and he mystified me. 

“‘How did you learn all of this, Kanuna? You look at the sky and predict the weather. You smell the air and know a certain animal is lurking about, tracking us. How?’

“‘At the beginning, The Old Man made all from the same dirt, and fashioned us in the same way. He gave us eyes to see — but then with a sight that went beyond what you and I see now. We once saw into the hearts of all his creation, from the bear to the brook. Each then had a purpose and a place, which was to be a part of his perfect will.

“‘The Old Man gave all ears, to hear our brothers and to soar with the music of the land — the whistling grasslands, or the strong voice of the river. The last thing he gave us was our mouth, so that we would see and hear first, and only then speak. Then, his wisdom was in everything, and no one spoke before carefully considering his words. Of all the weapons I carry, from the long stick to my knife, my mouth and the words I choose are the most dangerous.’

“As I listened to him, I marveled at his wisdom and understanding. I compared this simple man’s outlook to the vast majority of people I knew and had known. None matched his eloquence at explaining how the world was once fitted together, with each piece dependent on and in harmony with the other. I vaguely knew of various religions whose practitioners were of similar disposition. I had once met a man from China when I lived in the old country, who talked to me of a philosopher whose sayings directed life with simplistic sayings. But Kanuna didn’t talk philosophy. He talked of what he believed as real and tangible elements. Of spirits, and of a universal brotherhood with all the living. For example, before he took the life of a deer or other animal necessary to feed us, he would thank that beast for its sacrifice. It’s flesh and blood were to be our communion. Much in the same way I came to know of and appreciate the power of the blood I drank to empower me. It was his respect and care for the donor that astounded me.

“I could only liken it remotely to the Jews, who slaughter their animals with a holy prayer performed by a rabbi.

“May it be your will,
Jehovah my elo’ah and elo’ah of my ancestors,
the most Merciful of all,
the One who desires the repair of every being that has transgressed without exception,
even those who have angered you many times —
If she is delivered for slaughter trapped as a gilgul being,
Caught within the body of a domesticated animal, wild animal, or bird I am slaughtering,
Then may her spirit be repaired by the blessing that I have said over her slaughter
and over the kashrut of the knife
as you have commanded it.

“So sacred is the life — of man or beast — . Since that time with Kanuna, learning about his beliefs and becoming convinced in the purpose of life, that I began to revere and respect each and every sacrifice I administered. And while not Jewish, nor adherent to any particular religion, I began uttering that Jewish prayer each time, which I began at the transferring of Kanuna.”

“Not exactly your image of the scary, evil vampyre, eh?”

ƒƒƒƒƒ

To be continued …

 

 

 

 

Zoid Man: Chapters Six and Seven

20 Dec

Zoid Man

Chapter Six

 

It was lunchtime. The “set-up” was a go, literally, as Jack and Benny sat in adjacent stalls in the boy’s bathroom. The greasers were already in the far area towards the windows, blue smoke billowing around their heads. Harland Gillette was one of the smokers, Jack had made sure.

“So Terry has this big jar of change, and he keeps the darn thing in his garage.”

“His garage?” Benny was the straight man, but he had difficulty from sniggering.

“Yeah.”

“How much you reckon is in the jar?”

“Lots. Maybe fifty dollars.”

“Fifty dollars?” Snigger.

“At least. Probably a lot more.”

The boys flushed at the same time and emerged from the stalls to wash their hands. Jack held the spigot open for Benny as he washed, then Benny returned the favor.

“What’s he saving all that change for?”

“I think he wants a new bike. To replace his stolen bike.” Jack took a quick look in the mirror, catching eyes with Harland, who sucked smoke up into his nostrils and glared. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“No. I would never do that.”

They grinned at each other as they left the bathroom. The trap was set.

* * *

Terry was Terry Zimmerman. He was more than willing to help Jack and Benny gather coins from friends who were also willing to join in the cause. Nearly everyone who donated coins had been a victim of theft.

Neither hero let on who the suspect was, but when they explained how the trap would work, nearly all their friends wanted to be a part of it.

The jar they used was a huge Mt. Olive glass pickle container that Jack’s father kept on the bar in the basement. Jack had to eat two large pickles to empty it, then drained out the sour liquid and washed it down as best he could.

“Whew!” Benny face soured when Jack unscrewed the bright yellow lid and the two began to shovel change into it. The coins clinked on the bottom at first, then nestled into a massive layer about two inches thick. Jack took the bottle of silver nitrate he had swiped from Doc Nick’s supply closet and poured the entire contents over the coins. The two then worked together to carefully tilt and careen the jar so that the coins were coated in the chemical.

They placed the jar along the front entrance of the garage at Timmy Zimmerman’s, against the wall, slightly hidden.

“Don’t you want to put it in plain view?”

“No. It can’t be an obvious trap.”

And they waited through the night at home in their beds.

At six-thirty in the morning Jack’s home phone rang.

“It’s gone!”

“All of it?”

“Most of it.” Timmy sounded excited, and Jack could hardly wait to get to school.

At Frankton Junior High students arrived early, except for the very few who rode the bus. Harland was one of those.

Students gathered in small clusters according to their grade, their gender, and which neighborhood they lived in. It was very cliquish. The greasers also had their little groups, and they normally collected in an area near the large magnolia tree that dominated the front lawn area of the school. Littered about the ground were the butts of hundreds of cigarettes. Coveys of girls also gathered not far from the tree, with coy almost-teen girls tittering and peeking at the greasers.

Every now and then someone would shout “PINK-BELLY!” and a hapless seventh grader would take off across the lawn, chased by a posse of screaming boys, who would catch and upend their victim, pull his shirt up, and beat mercilessly on the boy’s stomach with the flats of their hands until his belly burned a bright red.

Jack and Benny stood in their own dyad, stamping their feet against the October cold.

“So, you gonna do it?”

“Yeah. It’s now or never. Wish me luck.”

Jack strode nervously over to the magnolia tree, seeking out Harland with his eyes. Harland was lighting a cigarette when he spotted Jack.

“Hey, Harland.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I was thinking I’d give you an advance.”

“An advance on what?”

“You know — the monthly blackmail payment.”

“You little turd! I ain’t blackmailing you! I’m insuring you against the trouble you’d be in if certain people knew you were hanging out at Henrys, is all.”

“Sure. Insurance. Well, here’s next month’s premium.”

“Premium?”

“Payment, then. For the insurance.” Jack dug out a dollar bill from his pants. “My mom gave me two dollars for lunch today, and I can get by on one.”

“Oh, sure. Thanks.”

Harland reached for the bill. His hand was covered with blotches of black.

“Hurt your hand?”

“Huh? Oh, naw. I was working on my dad’s car. Engine grease is all,” and he took the dollar and shoved it into his pocket, then turned back to his cronies.

Jack couldn’t help grinning broadly at Benny as he walked back. The school bell rang loudly, and the yard full of teens and preteens turned toward the building and another boring school day. Except Jack knew this day was not going to be so boring.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Jutsie Smith looked at Jack and Benny as if they were nuts.

“I can’t do that! What are you thinking? If I get caught, for sure I’ll lose my position as an office assistant! No telling what else! I could get suspended!”

“Jutsie — that’s not going to happen, I promise! We’ll help, too. Benny and I will keep lookout. Just his address, that’s all we need. And you don’t even have to write it down! Just show it to me and we’re done! Honest!”

“Yeah, I’ll be the one that’s done!”

Jack tried to put on his best sad puppy face — the one Jutsie could never resist. He reached across the cafeteria table and took her hands in his. All about them was the chaos of students lost in their conversations and lunch. No one paid them any heed. Benny sat and munched on Jutsie’s potato rounds, nodding, his eyebrows raised with anticipation.

For years Jack’s parents called Jutsie Jack’s little girlfriend. As they grew, her cherub face and curly hair began to show promise of burgeoning beauty. Jack, on the other hand, had grown gawky. So their future together faded very much like the black and white scalloped-edge photos had over the years. But it was that history that Jack counted on.

“Pleeeeeease! Jutsie, please help us out!” he implored, squeezing her hands.

“Oh, all right! But this is the first and the last time!”

Jack and Benny erupted with their victory! Jutsie, on the other hand, simmered.

Jutsie had office assistant duty the very next period after lunch. After the bell, she grabbed two hallway passes and scribbled on them, then marched officiously to the class Jack and Benny shared, handing the notes to their teacher.

“Jack Carter and Benny Sampson, you are wanted in the office.”

A wave of oohs filtered through the class as the two joined Jutsie and followed her out of the classroom and down the hallway.

“It’s working!” Benny said as they headed for the school office.

“Will you shut up?”

“Sorry, Jutes.”

The office was empty, other than a secretary busy in the corner typing something. The Principal and vice-principal were still out to lunch — one of the perks of working in school administration.

Benny positioned himself inside the glass-paned wooden door to the office where he had a clear view of the hallway in either direction. Jack nonchalantly walked to the long counter where he stood expectantly as Jutsie walked behind it to a large card catalog filled with narrow drawers. She quickly opened one of the drawers and fingered through index cards until she found what she wanted.

Gillette, Harland.

She cupped the card in her hand and walked to the counter where Jack awaited, and slid the card face-down across the smooth surface. The secretary who was typing looked up and noticed Jutsie and Jack.

“Anything I can help with, Jutsie?” She smiled politely, but there was that elderly aura of suspicion that all adults — especially in a school — posses.

“No, thanks, Mrs. Green. I’ve just got to get a few supplies for Jack’s teacher. So, this is all she needs, right?” She flipped the card over so Jack could read the address. He wrote it on the palm of his hand with a pen fastened to the counter by a beaded chain.

“Yeah. That’s it.”

Jutsie walked back to the card catalog file and slipped the card back into place, then stooped down to grab a box of chalk and a ream of paper. She handed the items to Jack, who nodded his thanks, winked, then hustled out of the office, Benny on his heels.

“Did you get it?”

“I got it.”

“You know, Jack, I think Jutsie likes you!”

“Shut up.” And they headed back to class, where Jack presented his surprised teacher with a box of new chalk and the ream of paper.

* * *

Harland’s house was quite a hike. Jack and Benny decided to meet late at night and bike to the location. They wore their superhero costumes. Jack’s cape bothered him, and he was afraid it might get caught in the gears of his ten-speed, so he balled it up and shoved it under his sweater.

“You’re looking a lot like me, Jack.”

“Zoid Man.”

Taking shortcuts where they could, and staying off the main roads, they zig-zagged the distance to Harland’s street address. His house was at the end of a dead end street, which turned from pavement to gravel, and finally to scraped dirt.

“Wow! This is definitely the other side of the tracks!”

The house was very small, and constructed of cinder blocks. Metal frame crank out windows peaked out like dark eyes in the light of the street lamp from where the road changed. A thin strip of smoke fingered upward from a masonry chimney stack on the roof.

To the side of the house a dirt drive descended to a backyard that was lower than the road level. An old sedan rested on blocks, and the area around the car was strewn with old tires and a car seat that had been removed. A rope swing with a short two-by-four hung from a branch of a large oak tree.

The boys walked quietly down the drive. Towards the back of the small yard was an old metal shed. Jack nodded towards the shed and pulled out his flashlight. He shined a light on the structure. There was no lock on the door. He crept to the shed and tried to open the small door. It wouldn’t budge. Benny took his flashlight and went to the rear of the shed, shining a light on the ground as he walked.

“Psst!”

“What?”

“Come back here! There’s a window!”

Jack hustled to the back of the shed, where Benny was shining his light through a window into the building.

“Look-ee here!”

Jack pressed his face against the cold glass and peered in as Benny scanned the interior with his flashlight.

Lawnmowers. Basketballs. Bikes. Charcoal grills. And, an empty Mt. Olive glass pickle jar, with a few coins still inside it. And more.

Jack and Benny could barely contain themselves. Until they heard the snap of a twig as someone stepped on it, and were suddenly bathed in the bright light of a flashlight.

“You boys mind telling me what you’re doing here?”

It was a policeman.

 

 

Copyright © 2015

 

Zoid Man: Chapter Five

18 Dec

Chapter Five

 

The older boy’s name was Harland Gillette, like the razor. Jack and Benny identified him from his yearbook picture in the Frankton Junior High yearbook. The picture was two years old, and Harland looked nothing like he did now. He was much younger and smaller in the picture. Not too different from Jack, for that matter.

Jack’s brother said Harland had been a couple of grades behind him.

“He played on the 7th and 8th grade football team and started his very first year. He was okay. And fast. Running back, I think. I was in high school, and his name got talked about in the locker room as someone to watch. Then he kind of disappeared all of a sudden. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Kind of bumped into him a few days ago, you know.”

Over the next few days Jack and Benny worked on catching Harland as the mysterious neighborhood thief. Things started to go missing once again. A lawn mower from the Sizemore’s shed. One of the Rankin girl’s bicycles — and brand new, too! Axes, shovels, basketballs — a wide sundry of things.

In Mr. Nickers’ science class, the teacher somehow got off track of his lecture and rambled. Jack took advantage of the moment to shoot up his hand to ask a question.

“Doctor Nickers, if you wanted to catch somebody stealing something, how would you do it?”

He wasn’t a real doctor. But everyone called him doctor. Doc Nick behind his back. He was rumored to have a fondness for his female students.

“Actually, I heard of a case in another school where someone was going around stealing loose change from the teachers’ desks. We all keep a little spare change for emergencies, like a student who forgets to bring lunch, or can’t pay a fee or something.

“Anyway, John Howard, a science teacher like me whom I knew at the school came up with the idea of treating coins with silver nitrate.”

“What’s that, Doctor Nickers?” The other students figured out early in the year if you kept Doc Nick off the day’s lesson, you could avoid all kinds of work.

“Yes, well it’s a chemical that used to be dropped into the eyes of newborns to prevent blindness. And for other things as well. Some people think it’s a cure for warts. Anyway, Mr. Howard rinsed a lot of change in silver nitrate and left it on his desk for all to see. He figured that sometime during the day the change would be stolen.”

“Was it?”

“It sure was. So here’s the catch: when the thief took the money, she got it on her hands.  A chemical reaction took place, turning her skin dark black where she touched the money. So chemistry,” he said, tapping the rolled down periodic chart with his wooden pointer, “can be used in many useful ways.”

“You said ‘she.’ A girl?”

“Not all the bad people in the world are boys.” He grinned and winked at a very attractive female student seated at the front of one row of desks.

Jack continued.

“Where do you get silver nitrate?”

“I suppose at the drug store. I might actually have some.”

“Would you show us how it works?” The class seemed to perk up at what would definitely detour Doc Nick for another twenty minutes.

“Everyone turn to page 68 in your science book and read the section written on the board. I’ll go see if we can do the experiment.”

Books flopped open and the entire class breathed a sigh of relief as the teacher opened a closet door at the front of the class and switched on a light.

Rumblings of whispers and titters of laughter rippled throughout the classroom. Nickers called from within the closet,

“Quiet down, class!” and continued to rummage through his shelves, until at last, he found the silver nitrate.

“Aha!” He came out of the closet with a triumphant look, holding a small amber bottle in his hand. On the top of the bottle was a rubber squeeze-top dropper. Opening a drawer in his desk, he scrounged for change.

“Jack? You asked to see how this works — so come be my Guinea pig.”

Jack walked to the front of the classroom. Nickers had spread nickels and dimes into a small tray. He put on his thick, elbow-length gloves, and strapped on a pair of safety goggles. He carefully unscrewed the bottle and pinched the rubber squeeze top to draw up some of the silver nitrate.

The rest of the class stood up and craned their necks to see.

“Not sure how much to use. Heck, may as well get ‘em soaked.”

He pinched several droplets of silver nitrate onto the change in the tray with the dropper. Then he plucked a wooden tongue depressor from a glass jar on the desk and stirred the coins, making sure each was coated with the chemical.

“Okay, Jack … your turn. Reach down in the tray and pick up some of the change I’ve coated with silver nitrate.”

“Should I put on gloves?”

“Oh no! Then it wouldn’t work!”

“Is this dangerous to do? Is it poisonous?”

Nickers stopped to think a moment, then quickly said, “Heavens, no! Not a bit of danger. Of course, I wouldn’t put my hands in my mouth until you scrub the silver nitrate off them. Don’t worry about a thing!

“Now, quickly — grab some coins with your bare hands and rub them about. That’s it. Keep rubbing them. Now, put the coins back into the tray, and hold out your hands, palms up, so that everyone can see.”

Jack obeyed, and turned toward his classmates, extending his palms out and up. As he and others watched, his skin began to discolor. First to a chocolaty-brown, then dark brown, and finally to black.

The class gasped at the transformation.

“And that’s how the thief was found out! She didn’t know any better than to wash her hands — although plain soap and water wouldn’t do the trick had she tried. And when the money was discovered missing, all the teachers in the school had their students stand, hands out like Jack here, and the culprit was caught!”

“Uh, Doctor Nickers?”

“Yes, Jack?”

“Just how do I get this stain off my hands?”

“It should eventually wear off.”

“How long for that to happen?”

“Two … three days, I imagine.”

The class period bell rang out loud, and the students in Doc Nick’s class shoved and milled their way out into the hallways while Jack stood behind, looking at his stained hands.

Zoid Man: Chapter Four

17 Dec

Chapter Four

 

Henry’s was a package store about three blocks from the school. You could get pop and gum and candy, plus other stuff, too. A back Coke cooler, it was said, was full of anything but Coke. And Henry didn’t ask questions nor require ID. He was in business to make money.

And he sold cigarettes with the same stipulations: as long as you had the money and could pay, he’d sell it to you. That included chewing tobacco and girlie magazines, as well.

The latest Playboy Playmate of the Month was tacked to the inside of the bathroom door, and all the guys flocked to Henry’s on a monthly basis.

Henry observed all from his barstool perch behind the small counter near the cash register. A sign on the front of the register said in faded red letters, THIS STORE PROTECTED BY SMITH AND WESSON. Behind him along the wall were cubby holes for hundreds of packs of cigarettes, all cellophane-wrapped and brightly colored. The store itself was elbow-room only, with shelves of various products lining the walls, and a center shelf-like island with even more stuff. From hair tonics to shoe polish, every cranny was utilized.

Various aromas hit the nose depending where you stood in the store. Tobacco, bread, Clorox and others mixed in the tiny store.

On the counter was a glass container that housed a hotdog cooker, and a dozen dogs were in various states of doneness, turning slowly on the metal rollers. Henry’s had the best hot dogs in town, next to the Dog House, of course. The monthly inspection grade at Henry’s was never above a C, although once it had received a C+. Everyone thought Henry had bribed the inspector that month.

The rough kids — the greasers — would skip the school cafeteria during lunch and go to Henry’s, where they downed a couple of hotdogs and smoked cigarettes. One or two would get a drink from the Coke cooler, then swig back nearly the whole teardrop container of Binaca, while splashing half a bottle of Canoe so that no one could smell the beer or cigarettes.

No one was supposed to leave the school campus during lunch. They were required to eat in the cafeteria, which served up the same old slop on rotating days. Even the faculty avoided the school food, opting to either bring in homemade meals, or quickly drive to the new MacDonalds a few blocks away. Each — students and faculty — had to keep an eye on the clock in order to be back in class at the bell ending lunch.

Neither Jack nor Benny had been to Henry’s before, and when they opened the screen door and pushed open the glass door it was like walking into the hallowed halls of manhood. Henry looked up from his perch behind the counter, the stub of a cigarette still moldering between his yellowed fingers.

“Hey, boys. What kin I getcha?”

The boys looked all about. There was so much to take in! Plus the mystique of Henry’s heightened everything.

“Hot dogs,” said Jack finally.

“Mustard, ketchup, onions and chili?”

“Hold the onions. Two. One for me and one for my friend”

Henry grabbed two paper plates and put a bun on each, splaying them open, then picked the hotdogs from the cooker and carefully nested them in the buns. He squeezed out watery ketchup and mustard along the meat, than ladled a generous amount of chili from a pan on the back counter.

Putting the plates on the counter, Henry asked if they’d like a drink.

“Coke. Real coke is fine. Not the other …” stammered Benny, half-smiling.

“Only kind I got. Anything else? No? Seventy-five cents.”

Jack paid Henry and the two went back outside in front of the store, where a small wooden picnic table baked in the sun, and flies buzzed about the various empty paper plates strewn about.

As they ate in silence, two “greasers” from school approached the store and went inside. They came back out minutes later with hotdogs and Cokes. One reached into his jeans jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Jack elbowed Benny and nodded toward the guy, who opened a hard-pack container. It was white with two red chevron stripes running from top to bottom. Tareytons!

Jack cleared his throat and looked at the guy, who cupped his hands expertly around a match he struck to light the cigarette pinched between his lips.

“Uh — you smoke Tareytons I see.”

The older boy pulled in a long drag of smoke, and pushed it out of his mouth to sniff it into his nostrils. Cool!

He blew a cloud of smoke into the air, no hint of a cough or gag, and turned to look at Jack.

“Yeah.” He stared at Jack as if trying to place him in his memory, as if trying to unclog a recollection that was stuck in a crack.

“I smoke ‘em too. Wondered if I could bum one from you?” Jack tried to be nonchalant and tough.

“You go to Frankton?”

“Yeah. Me and Benny do. Sure.”

“Who’s your homeroom teacher?”

“Butts.”

“Ha! Butts! Great name for her, right?”

The duo laughed in agreement.

“Well, you and Benny … I ain’t got but five more butts myself. I’ll sell you a couple, though. Five cents each.”

“FIVE CENTS!” Benny blurted out. “A whole pack’s only a quarter!”

“Then go buy yourself a pack. I’m no charity. And it’s not like I know you or anything.”

“Five cents is fine.” Jack dug in his front pocked for change, and pulled out a dime. He gave it to the boy.

“Who is your homeroom teacher?”

“Dickers,” said the older boy, handing over the two smokes. Dickers was the shop teacher. He was the keeper of all the school’s “challenged students.”

“Oh, you’re in the seventh grade, too.”

“I live in the seventh grade,” he smirked, taking another drag on his cigarette. “Been there going on my third year.” He held out his matches to Jack.

“Oh, that’s all right. I’ll smoke ‘em after school. I’m hoping to play basketball next year, and don’t want coach to smell it on my breath. I have gym next period.”

“I got some Binaca you can use. Go ahead. I bet you never smoked before!” he grinned.

“Well . . .”

Jack looked at Benny, who shrugged his shoulders and wiped some mustard off his lips.

“Okay.”

Jack and Benny held their cigarettes pinched between the ends of their thumbs and forefinger, while Jack also tried to strike a match. It wasn’t working. The older boy grinned and shook his head.

“Gimme those,” he ordered, and Jack handed over the cigarettes and matches. The older boy put both cigarettes into his mouth and lit them on one match expertly, as though he had seen every James Dean movie there was. He handed the cigarettes back to Jack and Benny, who gingerly placed the smokes to their lips.

Benny puffed on his, but not in — out — pinching the cigarette daintily.

Jack brought his cigarette to his lips, mimicking the boy, and took a long draw of smoke into his lungs. Immediately he gagged and started to cough uncontrollably.

A few other greasers had noticed the transaction and had formed a semi-circle around the circus scene. Their audience exploded in laughter.

“Wow! What’s your name?”

“Jack.”

“And does Jack have a second name?”

“Carter.”

“Carter. You gotta older brother? Jerrod?”

“Jason. His name is Jason.”

“Ah. Jason Carter’s little brother Jack. I know where you live. Up above the triangle in the Emerywood section. So, Jack — that was impressive! Let me guess — this is your first trip to Henry’s, right? And this is your first time smoking.”

“No — it’s not! Smoking, anyway,” he managed to rasp.

“Second, then. So what is a good boy like you and your pal doing at a place like Henry’s? I bet your momma would go nuts if she knew you were here. Am I right? And especially if she knew you were hanging out with a greaser. And Coach! What would he say? Or your brother Jason? I bet they wouldn’t be happy about this.

“Wonder what if would be worth to you for me to keep quiet about this little escapade of yours? A buck?”

Jack stared helplessly at the older boy. Benny put his cigarette out and backed out of the middle of the small circle. The other boys were nodding and laughing at the situation. Reluctantly, Jack dug back into his pocket, and pulled out a wadded up dollar bill. He held it out for the older boy to take.

“Smart man, Jack. This’ll keep me quiet … for … say — a month.”

“A month!” Jack gasped.

“That’s cheap, Jack! Comes to about three cents a day. Almost the price of a cigarette on the open market!”

More laughter from the gallery.

The older boy stepped up to Jack and bent to put his face inches away. Jack could smell the mixture of cigarette smoke and Binaca and Canoe.

“A month from today, come back with another dollar. If you don’t, it won’t go well with you. Do you understand?”

Jack nodded.

The older boy looked at his watch.

“Oops! Gotta run! The bell’s gonna ring in five minutes. Remember, Jack — a month from today. One dollar. Not too much to ask for peace of mind, right?”

He and his group laughed, slapped each other on their backs, poked each other in the arms, and took off back to school.

Jack and Benny stood in the wake of the older boys’ exit. They looked at each other and said, simultaneously, “Shit!”

 

Copyright © 2015, Lawrence S. Marsden

 

Zoid Man: Chapter Three

8 Dec

Zoid Man

Chapter Three

Copyright © 2015

 

The students and faculty at Frankton Middle were abuzz the next day.

“Did ya hear? Someone got shot last night!”

“I heard a bunch of gangs got into it at the triangle.”

“Me, too! A shootout! Guns blazing! Gang members getting’ killed! Three or four, I heard.”

Jack and Benny listened and kept their mouths shut. Both rolled their eyes and shook their heads as each new update rifled through the school.

At lunch, mock gun fights broke out among the boys, who feigned getting hit, and collapsed “dead” on the tables, peaking to see if any of the girls showed any concern over their demise.

“What’re we gonna do, Jack?” Benny had cracked open his tin lunch box and began to twist open his thermos of tomato soup.

“Here’s what we’re not going to do: we’re not going to panic! You heard the stories, nobody got it right. Nobody’s dead. You and me — plus our mystery friend — are the only ones who know the truth.”

“Okay. So what’re we gonna do?” Benny dipped the corner of his egg salad sandwich into his soup, which he had poured into the thermos cap.

“We hafta find out who that was in the triangle last night.”

“Did you recognize him?”

Assuming it was a him, no, I couldn’t tell who it was. I think he’s around our age, though. He wasn’t really big, and he took off fast. He wasn’t a grownup.”

“So the question remains … how do you plan to find out who he was?”

Jack tried to think. The noise of the students in the cafeteria was louder than normal, given all of the speculation of last night’s gunfire. Then he remembered the match being struck.

“Cigarette! That’s it! Our mystery guy struck a match and lit a cigarette!”

“That’s how you’re going to find out who it is?”

“Look … superheroes got to work with clues, and the cigarette is a clue! He lit it on the street and took a few puffs. Then, when he heard you, I remember he put it out in the street. Dropped it and squished it out with his foot.”

“He didn’t hear me —”

“— And then he started to head our way across the triangle. I’ll bet you a buck the cigarette is still there, and after school we need to look for it.”

“I still don’t see.”

“It tells us what brand he smokes. Or what brand his parents smoke, anyway. Either way, it’s a clue. And it’s better than anything else we got.”

“So we find the cigarette … what then?”

“There’s only a few guys smoke at Frankton.”

“Greasers.”

“Right.”

“But they’re really tough guys, Jack!’

“The tougher they are . . .”

“— Yeah, the harder we fall!”

“For a superhero you sure are whimpy! Maybe that should be your sidekick name! Zoid Man and Whimpy!”

“Ah, shutup!”

* * *

After school the duo met at the park and began to walk the area Jack saw the mysterious figure light the cigarette. They were into the search several minutes when Benny saw the crumped end of a filtered cigarette in the edge of the grass near the curb.

“Got it!” He lifted his trophy up, pinched between his thumb and finger. Jack hurried to his side and took the butt to inspect it.

“Great. He’s a Tareyton smoker.” His tone was sarcastic.

“What’s wrong with smoking Tareytons?”

“They fight.”

“What? I don’t get it!”

“That’s their ad. Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.”

“Oh. Well, that doesn’t make our guy a fighter just ‘cuz he smokes them.”

“Maybe not. But he probably thinks he’s a fighter.”

“Everybody thinks they’re a fighter.”

“I don’t. I know I’m a fighter!” and he hit Benny hard on the shoulder for emphasis. “Cassius Clay has nothin’ on me. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” He hit Benny again on “sting.”

“Ow! STOP IT!”

“Okay, Whimpy!”

“So we have one cigarette. How’s this going to lead to our guy?”

“Let’s assume he didn’t buy it. Probably he stole it from his parents. Maybe went into his mom’s purse and slipped one out. Or took a pocketful from a cigarette case.”

“Okay.”

“Then we gotta check out the neighborhood first. See what brands parents smoke, or what brand they leave out for guests. If we find anyone that uses Tareytons, they go on the suspect list.”

“Well, I guess that leaves me out. My mom puts out Kents.”

“Dumbhead!” And hit Benny one more time for good measure.

The boys began their first leg of searching out the source to no avail. They checked with friends as to whether their parents smoked, or what cigarettes they kept out for visitors. It seemed a bit odd to Jack that as a whole, parents would warn kids not to smoke, and then smoke themselves, or have ornate boxes of loose cigarettes all over the house.

“You’ll stunt your growth!” they would warn. Well, if that’s the case, why do all the doctors smoke? Didn’t make sense.

Jack didn’t smoke because he hated his gag and coughing responses. It was similar when his father first let him taste a beer. Ugh! What was with that? And his older brother only smoked when he was around girls. Never in front of the parents. He smoked Marlboros on account so many movie and TV stars smoked them. That was the one thing Jack didn’t admire about Jason — he caved to social pressure. He had read about social pressure in an article Jutsie Sloop gave him at school one day.

“Here. You need to read this!” And handed him a folded copy of Teen magazine, which he slipped quickly under his shirt.

Later he read nearly all the other articles in the magazine before dutifully looking at the prescribed piece. The article, written by some famous female psychologist, warned girls of the dangers of wanting to be like everyone else. Jack scoffed at the advice because he knew he wasn’t likely to fall into that trap. AND he wasn’t a girl, anyway.

It took Jack and Benny the better part of two weeks to satisfy themselves that the Tareyton cigarette did not tie into anyone they knew very well.

“What now?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking we could check out the smokers at the school.”

“You kidding? What — we just walk up and ask ‘Do you smoke Tareytons and are you the guy in the triangle the night of the gunshot?’”

“No. We play it cooler than that. We go to the Dog House at lunch and ask for cigarettes from the guys.”

“Jeesh, Jack! Now I know you’re mental! May as well go up and ask a greaser to smash us in the face!”

“Do you have a better idea? Look, Benny, superheroes are super for a reason. We’re smarter than everyone else, for one thing, and we’re not afraid to do what needs to be done. Am I right?”

Benny couldn’t argue with superhuman logic. To do so would merely start Jack on a Whimpey rant.

“But Jack, the break-ins have stopped since that night. Maybe the gunshot scared the bejesus out of the guy and he’s seen the wisdom of stopping his evil ways!”

Jack put his arm condescendingly around Benny’s shoulder.

“Benny — this guy is smart. He’s only waiting for the coast to clear. Let things die down. Kids are still talking about it. I don’t believe he’s gonna change his ways that quickly. Zoid Man and Whimpy still have our work cut out for us.”

“Bernard.”

“What?”

“You called me Whimpy. My superhero name is Bernard.”

“Right.”

Zoid Man: Chapter Two

5 Dec

Zoid Man

Chapter Two

 

Benny and Jack lived next door to each other, and had since second grade. Their upstairs bedroom windows faced each other, which made for late night communications of a variety of sorts. Mostly hanging out their windows and whispering in loud tones until one or the other’s parent called up the stairs and ordered them to “GO TO SLEEP!”

Jack was tall and skinny. He looked like something put together with Tinker Toys, his knees and elbows grotesquely larger than his spindly arms and legs. Once he tried to remedy his physique by sending away for a Charles Atlas book on how to overcome the ninety-pound weakling syndrome. He never received the book, and his money (change taped to the clip out order form) was not returned. Which he figured was all well and good because he barely tipped the scales at 75 pounds anyway. He hoped he would inherit some of his older brother’s muscle and strength, but didn’t count on it, as Jason and he were as different as day and night.

Still, he wasn’t half bad at basketball, and hoped to make the jayvee team at Frankton Junior High next year when he was in seventh grade.

Benny was squattier and rounder, the product of parents who were similarly squatty and round.  He was more or less resolved to his physical status, although he dreamed of one day growing into another body type.

Where the boys connected was in their competition at fearless feats. Jack’s brother said they were just stupid, and the things they did hadn’t anything to do with feats.

“You’ll be lucky to make it to thirteen,” he warned them.

There were those moments when Jack had to agree with Jason. Like when he was on the roof to the house and saw his mother turning down their street in the car. He jumped from the lowest level roof of their split-level house, but it was still a lot higher than he counted. Lucky the lawn was Zoysia grass, and its thickness cushioned the landing.  It still hurt and knocked the wind out of him.

Then there was the time Benny and he took a length of binder twine and soaked it in gasoline, then stuck one end of it into the gas can and lit the other. The flame went out midway, and the boys thought better of it, pulling the twine from the can.

Once they climbed to the top of a huge magnolia tree in Mrs. Foy’s yard and built a platform treehouse. It wasn’t very sturdy, the boards pried off a discarded wooden pallet, and most of the nails bent or mangled in the construction process. Playing with matches from their perch, they managed to set the yard below — which was comprised mainly of fallen dead leaves — on fire. Jack scooted down the tree to safety while Benny froze with fear and had to be rescued by firefighters called by a neighbor who was watching the excitement. The magnolia was completely scorched on one side, yet survived for several more years.

Firecrackers, tube-strapped slingshots, BB guns — the duo did everything they thought was on the edge.

When the neighborhood break-ins began, Jack and Benny realized destiny had dropped a huge opportunity into their laps. That opportunity was to become heroes.

Just before eleven that night Jack aimed his flashlight at Benny’s window a few yards away. He began flashing the signal — three quick flashes, three longer flashes, and three quick flashes. He continued until Benny’s sleepy face appeared at his window, who made the A-OK sign with his thumb and fingers and disappeared.

The triangle was formed by three short residential streets down the hill from where the boys lived. A full moon cruised the sky above, streamlets of clouds breaking across its bright surface. The night air was filled with the chirruping of crickets, and was chilled with the advance of fall.

Jack waited for Benny by the mimosa tree in his front yard. Should a car happen by, the wide trunk was easily large enough for him to dodge behind it. He heard the back screen door of Benny’s house creak open and slam shut.

“Jeesh!” When Benny finally crept up, Jack shined his light in Benny’s face.

“Cut it out! I can’t see! ‘Sides … someone is bound to see it!”

“No worse than you slamming your back door!”

“I didn’t mean to.”

Jack quickly surveyed Benny’s outfit with his light.

“What the hell do you have on? You look like a prisoner!”

“My other PJs were in the wash.” He wore stretch pajamas with wide black and white horizontal stripes. In addition, he wore a black mask — like the Lone Ranger’s.

“I guess it’ll have to do. At least no one will recognize you.”

“My mom would.”

“Well your mom is not likely to be out tonight, right?”

Benny followed behind Jack, who walked angrily off towards the triangle.

“Wait up, will ya?”

When they reached the triangle, they headed for a small copse of oak trees at one of the points.

Benny took his flashlight and stuck it in his mouth and turned it on, then moaned at Jack.

“Cut it out! Get serious, Benny!”

He turned the flashlight off. “So, what’s the plan?”

“We wait.”

“Wait?”

“For anything unusual.”

“Like what?”

“Like a sound or noise. Like someone out late at night — maybe someone walking around. Someone who shouldn’t be out here at this time of night.”

“Like us?”

“No, Stupid! We’re supposed to be out here, remember? We’re the good guys! Although you really do look more like a bad guy.”

They sat down. A car drove by, and the two flattened themselves on the ground. Jack could feel his heart beating in his chest and hear it in his ears. When they could no longer see the headlights of the car, they relaxed.

“Whew! We gotta be on the lookout.”

“Jack?”

“Yeah.”

“What if someone catches us out here and they think we’re the ones who are breaking into people’s garages and sheds?”

“Why would they think that?”

“Have you looked at yourself lately?”

“Oh. Well, no one’s gonna catch us. We’re too smart. We’re the superheroes, remember?”

A short time passed where neither spoke. A street lamp on the other corner of the triangle buzzed loudly, and moths and bats played in and out of its bath of light.

“Jack?”

What!” His response was a bit quick and angry.

“What are we going to do if we hear something?”

“Well, we’ll investigate.”

“How?”

“We will sneak over wherever the noise is coming from and look. Quietly, of course.”

“And then what?”

“If we see someone, we’ll shine our flashlights on them and yell out for them to stop, and then tell them who we are.”

“Oh. And who are we?”

“Benny! What’s got into you? Why we’re Zoid Man and Benny, the ultimate superheroes for good!”

“Ah. But, if we’re trying to keep our identities a secret, why am I called Benny?”

There was silence as Jack thought of an answer.

“Good point. We should have thought of that before. You need a name.”

“Yes! What name?”

Again, Jack took time to think.

“Aha! Bernard! We’ll call you Bernard! Zoid Man and Bernard! How’s that sound?”

“But that’s my real name.”

“And nobody calls you Bernard!”

“Sometimes my mom does.”

“Okay, look — this can all change later. But are you okay with Bernard?”

“I guess.”

Suddenly Jack flattened down on his stomach and motioned Benny to do the same. His index finger was pressed to his lips, and he pointed off in a direction toward the other end of the triangle.

There, walking slowly, was a dark figure who features were hidden in the shadows. The figure walked up one of the streets that bordered the triangle, and stopped and looked about from time to time. The person was dressed in dark clothing, and wore what appeared to be a ski mask or something. His or her face was covered.

The figure stopped about halfway along the road and lit a cigarette, puffing a large cloud of smoke into the night air.

Benny nudged Jack.

“What do we do?”

Again, Jack tried to motion Benny to hush. Then he slowly reached inside his underwear and pulled out something metal

“What is that?”

“A gun.”

“A what?”

“Shhh!!!”

The dark figure looked in their direction, stumped out the cigarette with his foot, and began to cross the triangle in their direction.

“Shit!” said Benny, rather loudly.

The figure began to trot.

Jack jumped up and pointed the gun at the dark figure.

“That’s far enough! I’ve got a gun and I know how to use it.” His voice trembled with fear.

The figure continued toward them.

“Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!”

Blam! The gun went off, the blast echoing throughout the night air. A plume of smoke hung just above Jack’s head. The figure dropped to his chest, then turned and scrambled off into the night.

“Come back here, you coward!” Jack pursued as far as the other end of the triangle, with Benny blubbering “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!” behind him, trying to keep up. House lights and porch lights started going on all around the triangle, with an occasional “What the hell’s going on out there?” screamed out.

“Oh shit! He fell. Did you hit him? Do you think you killed him? We gotta get out of here, Jack!”

“I didn’t hit him. It’s a blank gun. And don’t call me Jack, for chrissakes! My name is Zoid Man!”

Copyright © 2015

Zoid Man

4 Dec

Zoid Man

by L. Stewart Marsden

 

Chapter One

 

Benny found an old footlocker in the corner of the attic, barely noticeable under several taped cardboard boxes.

“Hey — lookit this! I bet there’s a goldmine in here!”

Jack looked up from rummaging through a shelf of aging shoes, dulled from dust and cobwebs.

“Check it out. I’m looking for shoes.” And as the words left his mouth, he found them: wrestling shoes his older brother wore in high school. High topped, with steel eyelets running up the leggings, and worn shoe strings, broken and knotted in several places. They were solid black, and perfect — other than the size, which was about three times larger than Jack wore.

“Voila!” squeaked Benny, fishing a rubbery droopy thing from the trunk.

“What the heck is that?”

“It’s — well, I don’t know … some sort of old rubber hat.”

Benny fit it on his head. It was white and had plastic flowers on it. Straps dangled from either side and its sculpted form fit snugly on his noggin. He grinned and modeled the cap in the sunlight that streamed through the one attic window.

“Well? I think it’ll do great! I mean, other than the flowers, it’s perfect!”

“I ‘spose. It looks kind of silly.”

“But with your goggles and your cape and all, it works!”

“We can try it and see.”

Jack and Benny spent the rest of the afternoon digging through boxes in the attic, and came up with a yellowed sheet for his cape, as well as an old Afghan sweater with a V-neck.

In his bedroom, with the door locked, Jack put the pieces together. The pantyhose his mother had thrown out went on first, then the V-neck and the whitey tidies.

“The underwear looks stupid! Why do I have to wear these?”

“Because Superman and Batman and all the other guys wear underwear, that’s why.”

“Those aren’t underwear.”

“Well, make do with what you got.” So Jack reluctantly slipped them on.

“See? Looks great! Now the cap and the goggles.”

Jack stretched the rubber cap over his bushy hair, then pulled the flaps over his ears, fastening the strap under his chin.  He fitted the green plastic swim goggles over his eyes, and turned to grin at Benny.

“Wow! Just need to find a way to attach your cape, and you are Zoid Man!”

“Should we sew it onto the sweater at the back of the collar?”

“Nah. I brought duct tape for this very reason.” Benny stretched an arm-length of silver tape and bit it off the roll. He then tore small lengths and carefully taped the yellowed sheet onto the back collar opening of the V-neck.

“Looks really big.” Jack looked at himself in his closet door mirror. The cape flopped onto the floor and dragged as he walked back and forth. “It’s too big. Fix it.”

Benny took out his pocket knife and began to size the cape, cutting down either side and at the bottom, until it met both boys’ approval.

“How’s that?”

“Better.” Jack squinted his eyes and looked into the mirror. Not half bad, he thought to himself. He closed his fists and put them on either hip, elbows out. It was the classic superhero pose. All he needed was a sunset to silhouette him on a tall mountain.

“You look great!” Benny stared in awe at his friend and nodded. “Zoid Man! So now what about my costume?”

“Huh? Your costume?”

“Aw, c’mon, Jack! Don’t be a shit! Yeah … my costume. Zoid Man and Benny, remember?”

“Right. Okay, what’d you have in mind?”

“I don’t think we can match yours. There was only one of those caps in the trunk, and my mask isn’t goggles. That would look weird.”

“Well, Robin doesn’t have a mask like Batman.”

“I’ve got a pair of solid yellow stretch pajamas. That might do. And some sort of thingy to cover my eyes. Maybe like Zorro?”

“What about shoes?”

“My sister has a pair of fake moccasins with like fake fur on the insides. They zip up at the front.”

“Sounds good.” But Jack wasn’t listening. He was looking at the whitey tidies and wondering how he could change the color.

“So, I’ll go and get that together. Wanna come with me?”

“Nah. I gotta figure out what to wear as a belt. Batman’s got his utility belt, and Superman has that yellow belt.”

“You could use your Scout belt.”

“Yes! Great idea!” Jack opened one of the small top drawers to his dresser and stirred through its contents.

“When do we start?”

“I guess tonight.”

“What time and where?”

“Meet me at the see-saw in the triangle. Eleven o’clock.”

Eleven? Couldn’t we meet earlier?”

“Scared?”

“Scared? Oh, no! I just — uh — I have a test in Mrs. Butts class tomorrow is all.”

“Crime, Benny, happens late at night. And if you want to be a superhero crime fighter, you have to know that.”

“Oh, I know. Okay. So I’ll go and get my uniform together. Will you signal me before you leave?”

“Sure. Three quick flashes followed by three longer flashes followed by three quick flashes.”

“S-O-S!”

“Exactly. And Benny, whenever you see me in my uniform, call me Zoid Man, not Jack. We need to protect our identities.”

“Right — Zoid Man.”

 

ZoidMan