Tag Archives: short story

The Fourth Wall

15 Sep

The Fourth Wall*

 

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Charlie Dipple walks into the modest living room from his bedroom and stands in the middle of the space, just behind the large couch that forms the anchor for a seating area. Two comfy chairs are on either side of the couch and are perpendicular to it, framing three sides of the area. End tables with Tiffany lamps help define the seating area. An oval oriental rug with an ornately carved round coffee table forms the focus of the furniture.

Doors leading to his bedroom, a bathroom, the kitchen and a second bedroom are located on three of the four walls. The apartment door is on the far right wall, and has a peep-hole as well as several locks fastened to it. The fourth wall is comprised of two glass panels separated by a two-panel sliding glass door. The sitting area is oriented so that it faces that wall.

Dipple looks out the glassed wall at the skyline of Manhattan. He walks around the couch and one of the chairs and sits in that chair. He plucks a newspaper from the coffee table, switches on the lamp next to him, pulls out his black-frame half-lensed reading glasses and opens the newspaper with both hands, spreading it before him above his lap.

Then he hears it.

A cough.

Putting the newspaper down on his lap, his head cocked to one side, he says, “Miriam? Are you home from work?”

No answer. He shrugs and resumes reading the newspaper.

Again, a cough.

“Miriam? Sounds like you’re coming down with something, Dear,” he says, assuming Miriam has not heard him call to her, and that she is busy in the kitchen.

“Shall we have the leftover veal, or do you want to try the new French restaurant on West 64th, or would you rather go to Buvette? I don’t really have a preference. The veal would be fine, but I am in a bit of a French mood.”

No answer.

“Can you not hear me talking, Miriam?”

No answer. He puts the paper back on the table and gets up to walk into the kitchen, disappearing behind the mahogany swing door.

“Miriam?” His voice is muffled behind the door.

Dipple re enters the living room, a look of consternation on his face.

“That’s odd! I could have sworn Miriam coughed from one of the rooms!”

Cough.

“The bathroom!” He hurries to the bathroom door and knocks gently. “Miriam, are you in there? Is everything okay?”

No answer.

“Maybe the guest room,” he says, and crosses up to the guest bedroom door and exits, closing the door behind him.

He re enters and stands perplexed, scratching his head.

“You are losing it, Charlie Dipple!” He crosses to a wet bar buffet against the wall and pours himself a drink from a crystal decanter. “Bottoms up!” he toasts himself, and swigs the drink.

“Ahhh! Nothing like a smooth bourbon to calm my nerves. Really, everyone hears things that aren’t. And everyone talks to themselves, which is also normal and you don’t have to worry,” he said, crossing back to his chair. “Unless – unless you begin to talk to yourself in the process – which is EXACTLY WHAT I”M DOING!”

A wave of laughter.

He stands abruptly, and walks to the glass wall, looking out.

“Okay! THAT was NOT my imagination! THAT was someone laughing! Not just someone, but a whole shitload of someones laughing!”

More laughter. And a cough.

Dipple puts his nose against the glass wall, staring intently, his hands cupped on either side of his face in attempt to ward off the fading sunlight. His liquored breath steams the glass in a roundish pattern. Then he stands back, and moves upstage to his chair. He grabs the newspaper angrily, shaking it open, and begins to read.

Another cough. And a laugh.

He continues to read, gripping the newspaper tightly.

Silence.

A titter.

“I’m ignoring you,” he says through clenched teeth, still obscured behind the newspaper. Then, very slowly, he drops the newspaper on the fourth wall side, peering around the paper.

A low wave of laughter.

He jumps to his feet and storms back downstage to the window, crumpled newspaper in one hand.

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?”

More laughter.

“Are you SPYING on me? Are you the government, for God’s sake – ‘cause I pay my goddam taxes. Reluctantly, I will admit.”

More laughter.

“Who and where ARE you? You can’t be out in the air! We’re thirty-eight stories up!”

Titter.

He begins to feel the glass surface with his hands, rubbing as though cleaning it.

“No microphones. I don’t see any drones outside. What the effing-hell is going on here?”

Laughter.

“I’m warning you! Shut the eff up or I’m gonna do something really drastic – I mean it!”

More laughter.

He exits upstage to his bedroom and comes back in a moment with a handgun, which he frantically loads with a bullets.

“I am NOT kidding! I don’t know what the eff is going on, but it is NOT funny!”

More laughter.

He takes the gun with both hands, walks down to the glass wall, and draws the gun up level to his eyes, pointed at the window.

Laughter

“PLEASE! PLEASE STOP LAUGHING! DON’T MAKE ME DO THIS!”

Hysterical laughter.

He shoots six times until the revolver is spent, and only the click of the hammer is heard.

Silence.

Dipple drops his arms to his side, gun in one hand, and begins to sob.

Slow, crescendoing clapping.

Dipple looks up, and realizes the clapping is for him. He stands straight and tall, arms to the side, and bows deeply from the waist, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Bravo! Bravo! BRAVO!

He exits into the bedroom and shuts the door.

All the lights in the apartment dim to black.

A few moments later a loud bang is heard from the bedroom.

Silence.

A key rattles in the lock of the door to the apartment, and the door cracks open. A woman’s hand slips in through the crack and flicks the light switch on the wall next to the door.

The lights come up.

A dapper woman, attractive, enters, laden with several shopping bags.

She crosses toward the kitchen door.

“Charlie, I’m home! I’ve got some things to go with the leftover veal, but if you’d rather, we can go out. I’m kinda in the mood for Italian.” And exits into the kitchen, the swinging door flapping to a close behind her.

Laughter.

†††††

 

*All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
;

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii

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The Blink, Conclusion

9 Jun

The Blink

Conclusion

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Like Sequoia, Adams had eventually slumped down over the hours awaiting nightfall. As the sky and the forest darkened, members of the tribe stoked the campfire into a roaring blaze, which they continued to heap wood into. The heat from the fire roasted the two prisoners. Adams was able to twist partially around, and cool himself. Sequoia, whose feet were a few inches above the ground, was not able to twist as easily as he.

The members of the tribe were busy with preparation for the evening’s ceremony. The women painted the men’s faces and bodies with colors mixed from clay and ashes and berries. Fearful scowls were drawn on the already somber profiles, and here and there came a “whoop!”

Children sneaked close to Sequoia and Adams, dared by their friends to touch or prod one of the two. Her being a witch, and him perhaps being a Wanderer lent more than a measure of bravado to the antics of the young “warriors.”

As dire as the situation was, Adams remained strangely calm. He had no idea what tests he might be subjected to, but he could imagine. Cutting, perhaps. Impalement of parts of his body. He had seen enough movies of white men tortured by the Red Man. Who could know how accurate those depictions were?

Adams wondered if push came to shove, whether he could make his escape by willing himself to blink a special blink. Obviously any blink was not the trick. He had already blinked many thousands of times since noon to no avail. If he could somehow learn how to manage this — what? Gift? He started to laugh. This “gift” was the reason he was how many years into the past? Was the reason he was trussed up like a pig, almost. Was the reason whatever bad was going to happen, was going to happen to him.

He countered the bad with the good. He had never seen the earth, or space, or the galaxies as when he first traveled. He had never seen the world so green, or the skies so clear. He had never smelled the rain so fresh, nor tasted water from a creek that he was not afraid to drink. He had never seen such a ravine-haired beauty as Sequoia, her large eyes filled with life and wonder, her round face begging for his touch.

He shook his head to return to reality.

The activity of the tribe abruptly became more frenzied. Warriors began to dance and leap around the fire, which was fanned by their activity, and spewed sparks into the smoky air. Several drums began to beat in the dark parameter of the clearing. Women joined the men, and children joined the adults.

It reminded Adams of the scene in Lord of the Flies when the hunters reenacted their chase and frenzied killing of the pig.

Someone’s going to die soon, he thought, still unafraid for himself. It was Sequoia he feared for. They believed she was a witch. They banned her from the tribe, and then went out to hunt her down. She was the target of this rage and insanity.

It depended on him. Her life was in his hands. And whatever was necessary, Adams braced himself to save her.

The drums stopped as suddenly as they had begun. All of the tribe members fell to the ground where they were. The tall man emerged from the darkness and walked into the circle close to the fire to be seen by all. Half his face was painted white, and the other, black. He carried a long spear, adorned with white feathers from the stone blade to the end of the shaft. He slowly thumped the ground with the spear three times.

“Unelahuhi approaches on the light of the stars,” he said. “She will judge the pale man. She will prove his metal, and as a result I will know how to deal with Sequoia. Bring him here and truss him.”

Adams was cut down from the horizontal pole and crumpled to the ground. Two men grabbed wither arm and dragged him to the tall man. Other men brought three poles which were about as long as Adams was tall. Two were crossed and midpoints, forming an x. The third pole was lashed at the crossing, and extended backwards, the opposite end thrust into the ashes at the edge of the fire, supporting the x at a slight tilt backwards.

Adams was lashed to the cross, his wrists on the upper ends, and his ankles to the lower ends. The fire behind him, Adams struggled against the poles, but it was useless.

The tall man approached the bound prisoner, and pulled a large stone knife from a leather sheath. The blade was glassy in the firelight, chipped to a fine edge. The tall man cut away the leather shirt top Adams wore as though it was paper.

“Who are you?” the tall man asked.

“My name is Kyle Wyndham Adams.”

“Where do you come from, Kyle Wyndham Adams? Where is your tribe?”

“I come from far in the future. Beyond your grandchildren’s grandchildren. Beyond the edge of the sky. Beyond the light of the moon. Beyond all dreams you will ever dream.”

“Are you a Wanderer?”

“I don’t know.”

“Your blood is silver if you are.” The tall man made a thin cut from Adams’ right breast across his chest and down to his left side. Adams bit his tongue from crying out. He could feel his blood rush out from the cut and run down his belly to his thighs.

The tall man looked intently at the blood.

“Unh! It is red.”

He then made a second cut from Adams’ left breast the opposite way across his chest, forming a large x.

Sweat poured from Adams’ face and neck, and his clenched jaws and taut neck and shoulders belied the pain. He was quiet.

The tall man took his finger and traced it across Adams’ blood swathed chest. He looked at his finger in the firelight.

“Unh. Once again, it is red. If you are not a Wanderer, what are you? A coyote? The dog that follows Sequoia? If I put my knife where the bloodlines cross, will you not change into your true spirit? Yes, you will — or you will die!”

With that, the tall man took the knife in both hands and placed its tip at the intersection of the bloody x. He closed his eyes and tilted head back to look at the full moon that bathed the clearing in its blueish light. He inhaled deeply, and tensed every muscle in his neck and shoulders, arms and hands.

“FATHER! NO!” came a loud scream from where Sequoia still hung from the pole.

Adams blinked, and everything slowed to a near stand-still. He felt his spirit pull away from his body as before, yet as before, his body was still alive.

As he rose with the sparks of the fire, he looked where Sequoia was tied. Her body seemed to hang in the air, and as he watched, Sequoia twisted and jerked frantically against the pole, breaking free. At that instance, she turned toward the tall man where Adams’ body still struggled against crossed poles, the tall man’s knife beginning to prick at the center of the bloody x.

She leaped, jumping incredibly high and towards the two. As she soared, Sequoia’s body became a blur. It shifted from that of a woman into a large black cat. A puma? A leopard?

The tall man dropped his knife and turned towards the beast, which crashed into him, throwing him to the ground. Then, turning and slashing Adams’ body free from the rack, the animal bore him on its back and disappeared into the dark forest.

Above the fray, Adams’ essence tried to follow the escaping animal and his body. Instead, he was forced higher into the dark night, and shot up into the air high enough to see the surrounding countryside bathed in moonlight.

He continued up. To the stratosphere. To the edge of the galaxy. Into deep space, all the while wondering what he had seen and what had happened.

Far into the deep he finally stopped and turned, and began the journey back, feeling his arms and legs drag behind. Back to the galaxy. Back to the stratosphere.

Finally, he came back down to the curving switchback road and the sports car, where he leaned in the direction of each turn, ascending to the top of the mountain.

His head and face throbbed with his pulsing heartbeat. He tried, but could not grasp or clarify the instantaneous flash — a dream that was blurred to the point he could not bring it into focus.

Adams parked and carefully picked his way on a well-worn trail that snaked through the rock formations until he stood — nearly alone — on an outcropping of rocks.

The sun had begun its slow descent in the western sky. All along the undulating rises of mountains separated by darkening valleys were hundreds of mountain homes. He sighed and wondered what it might have looked like a thousand years before. When everything was unspoiled and pristine.

A slight gust of wind whipped over the outcrop and blew into his face, and there was the faint aroma of a campfire, wafting up from the valley below.

Kyle Wyndham Adams blinked.

§ § § § §

Author’s note:

The Blink is intended to be one of five stories compiled under The Sugar Chronicles. Each story will be inconclusive in many ways if considered separately, which may frustrate you as a reader. Be patient. Each story will be woven from similar themes and characters. Or perhaps ancestors or descendants of characters. If you are reading this and are a writer, you know how coveted are comments, and not of the “I loved it” or opposite reaction variety. The whys are critical for any writer to hear. Why did you like a particular character — or not like the character? Was the dialogue convincing? Were there challenges in terms of storyline, credibility, consistency?

— LSM

The Blink, Chapter Three

2 Jun

The Blink

Chapter Three

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

They were bound to a pole that rested on their shoulders, hands crossed and lashed with leather thongs above the pole. Sequoia walked behind Adams. The men walked along either side and at the front and rear of the processional. They carried their spears at the ready. None spoke.

They followed a feint trail through the woods. Where the pathway was too narrow, the side guards waited, and caught up when it widened.

Adams wished for the urge to blink, and even tried to make it occur by will, but nothing happened.

I suppose this is what is to be, he thought to himself.

The group crossed the creek several times, wading through the water. Adams wondered if his moccasins would begin to tighten on his feet and wear blisters on his heels. He figured that was the least of his worries, and then realized he wasn’t worried for some reason.

The lead warrior suddenly made a loud whoop sound, which was moments later echoed deeper in the woods by another voice. The trail broadened, and spilled into a large clearing. At the center of the clearing was a large fire, crackling with nearly transparent flames in the noontime sun.

About the clearing were huts built of wooden pole frames and covered with various animal skins.

Old men and women and children were busy about the camp in various industry, from weaving to cleaning skins to preparing fish to eat. Large bulbous bags hung from tree limbs, and dripped water slowly. They did not appear to Adams to be skins, but perhaps the bladders of large animals. Perhaps deer or even bear.

The tribe came alive with talk and noise when the group entered the clearing. Many drew near and spat derisively at Sequoia. Some threw small stones and sticks at her. The guards made no effort to stop the assaults, but pulled the two to the edge of the clearing, and tied the cross stick horizontally to a birch, making sure the two captives were secure and unable to escape.

Their chatter was initially merely jabber to Adams. He tried to blink once more, and as if wax had fallen from his ears, he was able to hear and comprehend.

“The witch!”

“And her coyote!”

“Sequoia will see her end tonight. It is a full moon.”

“Do not say her name! You will incur the wrath of the night demons!”

“Look how pale her dog is!”

The two were poked and prodded by those who timidly approached and quickly reached out, as if expecting either Sequoia or Adams to suddenly free themselves from their binding and leap out.

Chatter rose and fell as more of the tribe entered the clearing from the woods and the lodges. Soon no distinction could be made of the chorus of voices, which quickly grew louder.

A tall man entered the clearing from one of the lodges. He wore a tall headdress fashioned of a broad leather band across his forehead with plumage from several different fowls. Across the man’s chest were scars that appeared to be part of some design — straight lines running diagonally and parallel from each pectoral muscle across to his chest to his abdomen from either side.

The man strode with purpose to where Sequoia and Adams were tied. His expression was not anger, but stern. His looked at Sequoia and she bowed her head. There was a strange mixture in his eyes, as of disappointment as well as love. That turned to curiosity when he looked at Adams, and stepped towards him.

“You are very pale,” he uttered in a low, gravely voice. “Where is your tribe?”

“I have no tribe — at least not in this place or time.”

The man looked closely into Adams’ eyes, as if to peer into his soul.

“Are you a Wanderer?”

Somehow Adams knew exactly what he meant. “Yes. You have seen other wanderers?”

“I have heard of them. My father and his father and their fathers were aware of wanderers. You are the first I have seen.”

“What will you do with me?”

“You will see tonight.”

“And Sequoia?”

“Her fate is yet to be known.”

“You will kill her?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On if you are truly a wanderer, or something else.”

“What something else?”

“Ah, I think you know.” He turned away and motioned to the crowd to disperse. Two of the men with spears crouched down to either side of the bound prisoners.

The tall man motioned to one of the children to give Sequoia and Adams something to drink, and one of the water bladders was brought for them to drink from.

The water was cool, and tasted slightly of offal. Adams guessed it was an acquired taste, and resisted an immediate urge to vomit. He knew he needed water, however different the taste.

The pole supporting Sequoia and Adams had been tied to the birch at a height that he was flat footed, but because she was much shorter, dangled a few inches above the ground, her weight on her tied wrists.

“Are you okay?” he asked in a whisper.

She groaned in reply, “What is ‘okay?'”

“It means are you well?” He realized how saying something and getting someone to understand what you mean is a challenge. Especially in this particular situation.

“I am not well. The leather cuts into my wrists. But I can tolerate this. I have known worse pain.”

“What are they going to do to you tonight?”

“As the Wise Man said, that depends on you.”

“How?”

“You will be tested.”

“For what?”

“To see if you are a Wanderer, or something else.”

“How will they test me?”

“We should not talk of this any longer. You need to rest your mind and your spirit. That will be the best way to prepare for what is to come.”

“But what is to come?”

“You will see.”

 

§ § §

The Blink, Chapter Two, continued further

31 May

The Blink

Chapter Two, continued further

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Three things happened in that instant: a tomahawk, thrown by one of the men who were chasing them, stuck with a loud thud into the trunk of a white birch tree just to the right of Adams head; he grabbed Sequoia’s hand and they were transported immediately to the top of a rock outcrop; and, he understood her.

They stood amazed. She, that they had suddenly escaped to the mountain top, as if by magic. He, that he could understand her.

“You are a god!” she declared in awe, dropping to her knees and bowing low to the ground.

“No! I’m no god!” He touched her on her shoulders and urged her to stand, but she remained trembling at his feet.

“I saw you come to earth yesterday! You were like a burning star, and came down near the mountain of the old man. In the sudden storm you came.”

“Sequoia — I promise you — I am just like you. I am flesh and blood. No god!”

“How is it you speak Cherokee?” She looked up, but averted her eyes from his.

“How is it you speak English?”

“English?”

“You’re speaking it now. It’s my native language. My tongue.”

“Cherokee. You are speaking it now. It’s my native language. It’s my tongue.”

Adams crouched down to her level and took her face in his hands.

“I don’t know how to explain this. Whether I’m speaking Cherokee, or you’re speaking English? I guess it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that we understand each other.”

She nodded. “You made this happen. You are a god!”

He pulled her up to stand.

“Okay. I can understand why you think that. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure if I don’t have some special powers. I don’t know how to explain it, though. Honest, I’m just your ordinary old guy, who is as confused as you are.”

“You are not old. You are a young man.”

“Thanks, Dear — but I’m sixty-six.”

She laughed. She took his hand and held it palm up.

“That is not the hand of an old man.”

He looked. It was true! Somehow his hands weren’t covered in loose skin, or overly wrinkled. He drew his hands to his face, and felt smooth, taut skin.

“Here!” She pointed at a small rock indentation that held water. He looked into the mirror-like water, and saw not the old Kyle Adams — but a young man, instead.

“Je-sus! What the hell is going on here?”

“Who is Jesus? What is ‘hell’?” Sequoia asked innocently.

Adams laughed, “Honey, I don’t have the time nor the inclination!”

He walked out to the edge of a rock ledge and swept his arm broadly.

“You see all of this? All these mountains and trees?”

She nodded.

“Yesterday — which, come to think of it, is really probably many tomorrows away — there were roads winding through the forests and up and down the mountains. There were houses and buildings and farmlands cut out of everything you see! The sky was hazy and not nearly as blue! There were many, many, many people and buildings and cars and airplanes as far as you looked.”

“I don’t understand,” she said somewhat fearfully. “None of that was here yesterday. It’s been like this since I can remember. It’s always been like this. It will always be like this. And what is a car and an airplane?”

“You have no idea! No, it won’t always be like this! It will be different, I promise you! And all of this,” he gestured again, “will no longer be. It will be gone. There will not even be a memory of it.”

“You speak crazy.”

“I guess it seems like that.”

“If you are not a god, how did we get away from the men of my tribe? How did we suddenly appear up here? Where did you come from? You were nearly naked when I found you. Why is your skin so very pale? What tribe are you from?”

“I can’t answer all your questions, and the ones I can answer, you won’t believe me. Hell, I don’t even believe it! Here is what I know — somehow I came to be here in your time. I — I blinked. And it all happened in the blink of an eye!” He laughed at himself. “So, for some reason I don’t understand, I was taken out of my world and my time and place here — in your world and in your time. Let me ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“Why are you out here alone? Why are you not with your tribe? Why were those men after us? Are they from your tribe?”

She turned her face from him and looked out over the sea of hills and mountains, fading like waves into the distance.

“I was banished from my tribe,” she said in a low voice.

“Banished? Why?”

“I cannot tell you.”

“Sure you can. I just told you about me. You at least owe it to me.”

“Yes, I owe you much. You saved my life.”

“What? You think those guys were going to kill you? I thought they were after me!”

“Yes, they were going to kill me.”

“What about me?”

“And you, as well.”

“Why?”

“Because you are with me.”

“Sequoia, why were they going to kill you? Tell me!”

“They believe I am an a-tsa-s-gi-li.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know that word. What is an a-tsa-s-gi-li, please?”

Before she could answer, several men emerged from the brush surrounding the summit and encircled the pair. They bore spears, which they held at the ready, the stone tips pointed at Sequoia and Adams. This time, there was no urge to blink.

“An a-tsa-s-gi-li is a witch,” she finally said.

§ § §

The Blink, Chapter Two, continued

29 May

The Blink

Chapter Two, Continued

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Kyle Wyndham Adams awoke in early morning, the time of day when everything is cast in a soft sepia light, and the sun is still well below the trees. The campfire smoldered, a curl of smoke barely visible. To the side of the fire were the remains of dinner — bones and soft tufts of fur. It was a rabbit. Adams’ stomach growled.

He could hear the creek nearby, and the chatter of birds overhead in the trees. He wondered whether he was still a front-page story in their conversations, or if the uniqueness of the naked man had slipped from their tiny minds.

His neck was incredibly sore, and he gingerly rotated his head, hearing muscle and sinew pop with the effort. He scanned the forest around the small clearing. She was nowhere to be seen, but he knew she was about. At his bare feet was neatly stacked doeskin clothing of some sort, plus a pair of moccasins. He twisted in his position, and felt the rawhide binding chafe against his wrists.

Then, as silently as a dream, the Sequoia emerged from the forest, caring what appeared to be a pouch or bag.

“I see you’ve been out shopping,” he said, breaking the natural silence.

She barely acknowledged him, and put the pouch next to the fire ashes. Kneeling, she carefully blew into the ashes, and sprinkled small twigs on her area of focus until a yellow flame licked up. She added more wood previously stacked by the fire until the campfire came fully to life, crackling with flame and heat.

She took another long twig and pulled something from her pouch, and skewered it onto the twig. It looked like some sort of crawling bug, but was difficult to see from where he was tied.

She pulled another “bug” from the pouch and skewered it as well, then lay the twig with its fare on a rock next to the flame.

Crayfish! They were crayfish! And they wriggled in pain on the skewer as the fire’s heat slowly cooked them. She pulled one of the crustaceans off the skewer and bit into its reddened head, juices running down her arms to her elbows. She brought the remaining crayfish to him, and offered the head to Adams. He opened his mouth slowly, conveying his reluctance with one raised eyebrow.

It was crunchy, but sweet to the taste. He chewed the head slowly, thinking at some point his mental revulsion would take over, and he would vomit it out. But he didn’t. The meat in the small crayfish tail was delicious, and even the shell and legs were good.

He smiled at her.

“You know, this would cost you a pretty penny in a New Orleans restaurant,” juices running unrestrained from the corners of his mouth.

She tilted her head and looked at him, as if pondering something, then pulled out her knife and cut him loose from the tree.

Di-le-di,” she ordered, motioning him to get up.

He slowly pulled himself up, feeling the resistance of joints nearly locked from long disuse. As he stood, she gathered the clothing and held it out to him. There were two pieces, a top, decorated with leather fringe, which he slipped over his head.

The pants necessitated him taking off his fern skirt. She stood and watched him until he looked at her and motioned she turn away and not look. When it dawned on her that he wanted his privacy, her face blushed, and she turned her back to him. She brandished the knife to let him know not to try anything foolish.

He slipped the pants on. They were ample enough for him to move and bend.

“Well, how do I look?”

She turned and gave a nod of approval. Then pointed at the moccasins.

“Hope they fit,” he grinned, sitting down to pull the soft coverings onto his feet.

They fit, although a little tightly.

“I guess they’ll relax over time,” he said. She looked on approvingly. He pointed at the moccasins and said, “Shoes,” then wriggled his toes on both feet and said “Feet.”

“Feet. Shoes,” she echoed back.

“Okay, then — now what? I mean, you didn’t go down to Stein Mart and pick up the clothes, right? And you didn’t go out and kill a deer and make this stuff. I mean, you might have, but it wasn’t last night or this morning. Which means there are more of you around.”

She watched him talk, obviously confused at what he was saying. She pressed her hand to his lips.

“Okay … I talk too much.” She pressed his lips again and looked away, as if listening to something.

“Shhh!”

She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the brush around the camp area, motioning him to crouch down and be quiet. He felt clumsy, but obeyed her silent directions.

Just behind the sound of the gurgling creek he thought he heard voices. He strained to see into the woods where the creek flowed, and thought he made out some thing or some one moving stealthily among the trees.

Yes! There was someone! He looked at Sequoia who once again urged silence with her eyes.

A voice from the trees.

Another voice, further to the side, and closer.

Adams looked at her to see what kind of trouble they were in. Maybe he should stand and announce himself and get over the growing tension. How bad could it be, after all. But Sequoia’s look was grave.

Two men, dressed much in the same clothing Adams now wore, stepped quietly into the camp area. One knelt to the fire and warmed his hands. He saw the pouch and examined it, pulling out a wriggling crayfish.

They were not particularly large men, but lean and hard-featured. The one that pulled out the crayfish bit into its head, sucking the shell of its content.

Tsi-s-du-na!” he announced to his companion, who walked over and looked into the pouch, disgusted at finding it empty. He threw the pouch to the ground and began to circle the area, looking for marks.

He pointed out the fern skirt Adams had discarded, and the two began to search more intently.

Adams felt a touch on his sleeve, and Sequoia tugged him gently, indicating with motion of her head it was time to retreat. He didn’t hesitate, and turned to follow her, crouching low. Unlike her, though, he was unused to being quiet — especially in the woods — and stepped heavily on a fallen tree branch, which snapped loudly.

The two men turned instantly toward the noise, and began to approach.

Shit! he thought to himself. The jig is up!

At-li!” Sequoia said in a harsh whisper.

“What?” As with his first experience, Adams felt the blink coming on.

RUN!

§ § §

The Blink, Chapter Two

26 May

The Blink

Chapter Two

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

She was young, but strong. She pinned his arms down with her knees, which peaked from beneath a doeskin cover. Her look was fierce, and made more so by the decorative scars on her cheeks and nose. Her black eyes shone from beneath thick eyebrows, and her facial features were noble in ancestral design. Her aquiline nose, while dominant, was not unattractive, and her pursed and ample lips, inviting.

“Uncle! I give up,” Adams repeated in a calm voice. He smiled. She frowned.
He looked in the direction of her knife, still held tight against his throat. He tried to indicate through various expressions how harmless he was, but she would have none of it.

A breezed fanned smoke from the fire over them, and the smell of the cooking animal was strong.

He smiled and sniffed in an exaggerated fashion, looking over at the fire with his eyes, and murmuring “Mmmmmm!”

She sat straight up, and moved her knife to the side, but still held it in threatening fashion. She looked at the cooking animal, and back to him.

Ja-yo-si-ha-s?”

He looked at her quizzically and shook his head.

“I don’t understand.”

Ja-yo-si-ha-s?” she repeated, then moved her hand to her mouth as if eating something.

“Yes! Yes! I am hungry! Ja-yo-si-ha-s!”

They smiled and he made an attempt to sit up, but she quickly brought the knife back to his throat and shoved him back. She said something and motioned him to roll over on his stomach. When he obeyed, she grabbed both arms behind his back, and bound them together with a long leather thong.

Then she motioned him to get up, which he found awkward with his arms bound until she helped by pulling on one of his arms. Her knife pressed to his bare chest, she prodded him towards the campfire, and against a young sapling, where she had him sit with his back against the tree. She bound him to the tree with another leather thong.

Her eyes always on him, she moved to the campfire and took the spit down, leaning one end on the ground and holding the other end up while she sliced pieces of meat from the animal. She ate one of the pieces, and closed her eyes with pleasure, then brought a slice to Adams.

He opened his mouth and she fed him the bit of meat.

It was delicious!

He nodded and smiled, muttering “Thank you!”

Wa do,” she replied. “Thank you.”

She continued to eat and feed him, still careful to keep a safe distance, though he was bound to the tree. At one point she pointed at his skirt made of ferns. She lifted up one of the ferns that covered his crotch and giggled.

U-le-lv-ha!” She covered her face with both hands and shook her head. He laughed with her.

“It’s like a kilt,” he said. “You know, like the Scottish men wear? Nothing underneath!” And he laughed heartily. “What is your name? I am Kyle Adams,” and nodded his head. “Kyle Adams.”

She repeated, “Kyle Adams.”

“Name. It’s my name — what people call me. What do your people call you?” He was painfully aware how difficult it was to communicate without using his hands.

“Name? Kyle Adams?” Then it became clear to her. “Dagwado!” She thumped on her chest and declared brightly, “Si-quo-ya! Dagwado … Si-quo-ya! Name!”

“Your name is Sequoia?”

“Uh! Dagwado Si-quo-ya!” and stood and danced about excitedly. Then she knelt in front of him and poked his chest, “Kyle Adams!”

Her voice was loud, and echoed into the darkness. She smiled, and her deep eyes sparkled.

“Siquoia,” he said, and implored her with his eyes and motion of his head to please untie him. She sat back and stood, shaking her head “no.”

“Tla! TLA!” She marched back to the fire and sat on the other side, peering at him through the dying embers. Then she lay down on her side, watching him intensely, gripping her knife tightly.

A log shifted in the fire, and a last spray of embers showered the campfire. As uncomfortable as he was, Adams fell asleep, exhausted.

§ § §

The Blink, Chapter One, continued …

26 May

The Blink

Chapter One

Continued

By L. Stewart Marsden

The only things on Adams’ mind were to find the source of the smoke, and not die. Both were challenges. Once he made it to the base of the peak he had spotted the smoke from, there was no way to see its plume. The forest thickened and night had fallen. All he could see of the starry sky were small openings in the forest canopy.

He came upon a small creek that appeared to run in the direction of the smoke, but couldn’t be sure. He bent and cupped his hands, drinking thirstily. He reasoned that anyone trying to survive in the wilderness would need a source of water, and as the smoke appeared to be quite a distance from the lake he had spied from the summit earlier, he followed its flow.

The way was much easier. Spongy moss grew abundantly along both sides of the creek, and the underbrush was less dense. He had picked up a long, straight branch to use as both a staff and a weapon, should he need one.

The creek bent and wound through the woods unpredictably. He became more alert around the large turns.

It surprised him that he was doing so well physically. A man half his age would be panting and straining. He thought perhaps John Andrews was a bit premature in wanting to put him on blood pressure medication.

“You are living too recklessly, Kyle. The pressure of your work, your diet — it’s like you’re tempting the fates.”

“Look, Doc — everyone dies of something, right? I’d shrivel up to nothing if I had to be so consumed about a little fatty steak. Look at you, for cryin’ out loud! You’re what — fifty? And I bet you work eighty-hour weeks easy.”

“I’m forty-eight.  One-hundred hour weeks. And I’m going to retire to Bimini when Tracy completes college.”

“You’ll be dead before I am! And I’ve got almost twenty years on you!”

Flat out. That’s the speed Adams wanted to maintain. Whether working or playing or whatever -ing he was involved in. Flat out. And when he checked out? Boom! Like that — the snap of a finger.

His father often told of a good Navy buddy who was friends for years after the war. The two had gone to a dockside restaurant for lunch in Tampa, and as Tom slid into his side of the booth, he sneezed three times, then collapsed dead.

“That’s the way I want to go!” his dad often repeated. “Sneeze three times and then — poof!”

But his dad didn’t go that way, and lingered weeks in a hospital bed.

“Not me. Carpe diem! Eat, drink and be merry!”

Adams knew all the trite and fatalistic phrases that dealt with death. Some of his exes, and most of his friends thought he should have been a NASCAR driver, or a test pilot.

He rounded a long, easy bend of the creek and caught sight of light flickering against the trunks of trees ahead.

The fire!

His heart raced, and he felt the blood throb in his temples.

He crept slowly towards the source of the light, making sure to keep hidden by brush or trees.

He neared the fire, and could hear it crackling as flames arose into the dark air, exploding showers of red-orange flecks of ash that billowed up with the smoke. There was no one by the fire, and he could see no one in the darkened edges of the firelight’s reach.

Yet he could feel the presence of another.

Where were they? And how many?

Two forked sticks were stuck upright on either side of the campfire, and a longer stick hung just above the flames between them, like a spit. On the spit was the roasting body of an animal, which sizzled in the heat.

He sniffed. Whatever it was, it smelled wonderful! Adams’ bowels gurgled in response to the aroma.

Where are they?

As the thought entered his mind, he heard a loud shriek, and felt someone pounce on his back, pull his head back with one arm and thrust a knife under his chin pressed to his neck. The odd thought “wisdom is the better part of valor” came to mind, and he relaxed — indicating with his body that he had no intention of struggling.

“Uncle!” he cried aloud, then dropped to his stomach and slowly rolled onto his back.

His attacker — his foe — was a woman, and held the knife against his neck and shook her head, as if to say, “Don’t try anything!”

§ § §

The Blink

25 May

The Blink

Chapter One

By L. Stewart Marsden

Kyle Wyndham Adams blinked, which in and of itself was nothing unusual. He had blinked countless times during his sixty-six years, and for many reasons.

This blink, however, was different. Like an oncoming sneeze, he knew he was about to blink, yet instead of it being an instantaneous fraction of a second, the blink slowed to a fair creep, as though time suddenly down-shifted to a lethargic pace.

As he blinked, he felt himself — or the essence of himself — pull away from his body. Not pulled away, as if he were taffy being stretched, but pulling away in the sense of fleeing — escaping.

One moment, he was driving a switch-back road in his smart sports car, top down, sun and wind rifling through his long, gray hair. The next moment, he was feet above the bright red car with its driver, and getting further away. The car bore steadily up the switchbacks, its driver leaning into the turns and shifting gears in the ascent.

He hadn’t died, obviously. Merely vacated. And what was left of him in the car below was oblivious to the change of condition.

Then he felt a new compulsion, and Kyle Wyndham Adams craned his neck upwards to the deep blue sky above, dotted with small puffs of white clouds. He blinked again, and found himself high above the earth at cloud level, all below him stretching out in an immense patchwork of color.

Another blink, again staring upward into the deepening blue above, and he was at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere and on the cusp of the expanding, eternal dark and light of space.

He had sensations of movement — of the passing of air over his essence — and of slight variations of heat and cold. He sensed his body — his head and face and neck and shoulders as he looked, blinked, and moved. His arms and hands, legs and feet were like trailing wisps of transluscence. He felt himself breathe, and air filled his lungs to a capacity he knew he could hold forever, if necessary. But he knew that would never be necessary. He was safe and unharmed, and would remain so if he chose.

The earth spun slowly behind him like a beautiful blue-white agate — the most perfect shooting marble one could ever want or play Ringer for.

He looked out into the expanse and blinked, finding himself so deep in space he could see the entirety of the Milky Way. Even as he looked, small bursts and flashes spotted the vacuous darkness — like blinks. He knew innately creation was playing out before him, and that new and strange things — planets and objects and beings of all sorts — were coming into existence. At the same time, great and small lights suddenly went dark, as if a light switch had been tripped. The ends of suns and worlds and vast histories.

He was struck by how satisfying and expected everything was. He hadn’t fallen into an anxious state, asking who, what, when, where, why or how. It was as though he had always known the answer to each question. Now was a matter of confirmation of those answers.

It was his moment of Ah!

Serendipitously, he reversed his direction along the invisible trail, and began tracking back, following luminous markers left as if to guide him. A thin line of return urged him along, and as he neared the familiar, he felt himself pulsing and speeding up, his trailing parts stretched far behind him.

He reentered the earth’s atmosphere, which seemed to him less cloudy and clearer than before. He fell headlong into dark and bulky storm clouds, and shared the sky with torrential rain and wind, that soaked and buffeted him about arbitrarily.

Finally, he returned to the mountain slope where his blink launched his brief journey, and as he did, so returned the thoughts and feelings that had cluttered him before the blink.

Just before he landed, before he impacted into the soft-soiled mulch of a thick mountain forest, he realized that everything was different.

§

He had regained form, but was stark naked. So painfully aware was he of that nakedness that he immediately looked for some way to cover himself. He was tentative and careful moving through the thick undergrowth of the forest. The steep incline of the hill added more to cope with, and he slipped on fallen pine needles and tumbled down until his descent was abruptly stopped by a rotting tree.

He lay still, panting. His skin began to itch from the touch of bark and pine needles and various vines. A shaft of sunlight pierced through the tightly woven canopy of oak and elder branches and their bright green leafs.

It was still spring, he judged from the size and color of the leaves. That hadn’t changed. Thankfully it was not terribly cold, although his skin was pimpled from the chill air.

He stood to a crouch, expecting a hiker to break suddenly through the brush.

“Hi there! I see you’re naked! Well, imagine that!”

He caught fleeting images of birds darting through the treetops. He heard their various avian chatter, and imagined him to be the source of their conversation.

“Have you seen the naked man in the forest? Look! Down there! Such a vile and ugly creature without his plumage, don’t you think?”

Adams worked his way carefully back up the hill, thinking he might find a break in the forest at some point where he could see beyond his close confines. His tender feet were sensitive to every step, and immediately reacted to any twig or stone that he stepped on. Thorny vines hung from low-hanging branches and attacked his bare ankles and calfs.

He came upon ferns, and fashioned footwear by stripping Virginia Creeper and using the vines to bind the ferns to his feet. He did the same in covering his genitals and buttocks, making a belt of vines braided together, and anchoring large fern fronds with it as a skirt.

“If the board could only see me now,” he said aloud, remembering how he had raged about the financial jungle out there, and how the company needed to behave with primitive aggression, attacking and debilitating its competition.

“Survival of the fittest,” he had let echo in the room of head nodders as his hand slapped the mahogany board table.

He smiled at the irony, and continued his ascent.

He finally began to reach the summit of whatever hill or peak or mountain he was climbing. Trees thinned, and grew shorter and more gnarled. Groupings of granite erupted from the forest carpet more frequently, until the stone took over and the vegetation all but disappeared.

His fern shoes wore more quickly against the rock, and as he was afraid he might slip, he pulled them apart. The perfect recyclable footwear. But again his feet were unprotected, and he had some distance yet before reaching the climb’s summit. The going was slowed.

By the time he reached the top, the sun had begun to sink, and a blue-gray mist shrouded the valleys below. At the sun’s retreat, the air quickly cooled. He felt his scrotum and penis shrivel in response. It would soon be dark. He could not remain at the top of this peak overnight. He was tired. He was thirsty. His bowels groaned with hunger. The joints of his body reminded him he was not a young man, although he seemed less old since his journey began.

His nakedness reminded him he was not in his board room. “Survival of the fittest” reechoed in his mind.

He slowly rotated, scanning the world below for some sign of life or refuge. A large lake glistened with a sky rose-reflected surface many miles below and away. A source of water. Otherwise, the darkening tops of pine and oak and other trees undulated below. No roads. No lights. No houses or farms. No cleared areas.

A lone eagle soared above and kreed forlornly into the sunset sky.

He wondered if he could intentionally blink this away. Perhaps he could look up and shoot out into the darkening sky, into the stratosphere, into deep space again. He tried.

Nothing happened.

He wasn’t panicked, though, but strangely calm; as when he observed the interstellar creations and conception of new things and new life.

It was a trace of smoke that turned his head. The smell of burning wood, split and dried, roasting hot somewhere and emitting a trail of barely perceptible aroma. Comforting. Inviting. Alluring.

He turned his head and saw the thin wisp of smoke rise above the forest below. Cocking his head, he smiled. It was reachable. It was an attainable goal. It was within his ability.

He began the careful descent, filled with a new hope and a new venture. No stocks or bonds. No corporate takeovers. But a better hope provided by a thin wisp of smoke gesturing to him from the dark below.

§

The Christmas Portrait

13 Dec
Illustrated by Ray Ferrer

Illustrated by Ray Ferrer

The Christmas Portrait

By L. Stewart Marsden

The Cortwright family flowed onto the beach to their own music. Moneyed, socially privileged, and oh-so-much-better than the average beach goer, they claimed a section of the ocean horizon for the annual family Christmas portrait photo session.

As with the years before, the Cortwright girls, Kendra and Kiley, were dressed in white cotton linen dresses, their blonde hair curled and coiffed carefully, even though the whipping sea breezes pulled and teased their hair apart. Kester, the lone Cortwright male offspring, wore khaki Bermuda’s and a navy button-down collared shirt. He was also blessed with thick, blonde hair.

The only difference in these portraits from year to year was the age and height of the children, and the age and wrinkles of the adults. Everyone was tastefully tanned — from a regimen of slow burn at the club spa over a period beginning after the Christmas school break until the beach trip. No session more than five minutes. You avoid skin cancer that way.

Behind closed doors, Granpa Cortwright referred to his progeny as the “Aryan no-necks,” in honor of his favorite play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Granpa and Granna Cortwright wore matching outfits of light in fabric and color. Granpa sported a Panama hat with a black headband. It kept catching in the wind and tipping forward on his tanned gray-haired face. His white open-necked button down shirt billowed with the breeze, and his dark green aviator sunglasses tipped slightly at the end of his nose. He was the tallest of the group, even though his back stooped from age.

Granna was as elegant-looking as the Queen of England, with soft white hair and deep blue eyes. Her blue and green floral moo-moo flowed regally about her ankles and calves. Around her neck hung hammered silver water lilies, with perfect rose-tinted pearls placed at the center of each bloom. The necklass cost Granpa a small fortune — the spoils of a near-divorce when Granna accurately guessed he was dallying with one of his office staffers.

The lone legal heir of the Cortwright empire, Kyle Adams Cortwright, was sufficiently bored of the annual photography event, and struggled down to the beach in order to hold up his end of the line. Dutifully, he sported khaki Bermudas he bought at the Augusta National pro shop at The Masters in the spring a year ago. He paid $500 for them. The Masters logo was stitched onto two of the wide belt loops that were positioned prominently on either side of the fly, and he always tucked his shirts in to get the most for his money. “Don’t want to hide those boys with a ninety-dollar shirt tail,” he grinned.

His navy button-down collar shirt matched his wife Kassie’s, and was starched so that even the strongest wind would not move the material.

Kassie Cortwright was the “photog wrangler” for the event, bedecked with two digital cameras — an inexpensive Kodak point-and-shoot, and a pricey Canon, which she allowed no one to touch. While not a bloodline Cortwright, Kassie was clearly the matriarch-in-waiting, and directed all in order to get those “precious candid” shots so carefully choreographed for the best lighting and background. Kassie would later retouch each photo with her computer software in her studio.

She was “arm candy” for Kyle, who could have had his pick of fillies from the finest Southern stables in a five-state area. He married her as much for her name as her pedigree. “Kyle & Kassie are Kute & In Love!” was printed on a banner that hung over the club swimming pool at their wedding reception, which was when they decided to name every child with a “K” name. The banner eventually ended up over the back wall of their basement rec room. The “v” had peeled off due to moisture in the basement long before the birth of Kester.

Kyle had made a feeble attempt at pre-law at Chapel Hill before discovering the competition was too stiff for his liking. After his freshman year, where he nearly flunked out of school due to his attention to pledging and his inattention to academics, Kyle transferred into the School of Business. There he averaged his way through the rest of his college career, aware he had a sure thing with his dad’s company when he graduated.

Kassie’s accomplishments at Carolina amounted to a degree in Social Philosophy, and President of the Tri-Delts for two years. She was the most photographed coed in the Yakety Yak for three years running. She knew because she and her sorority pledges counted the pictures every fall after Rush Week. Most thought there were so many pictures of her because she had fallen hard for one of the yearbook photographers and had plied her good looks and other “qualities” in trade. She never denied it to close friends. It added to her mystique.

Her outfit matched Kyle’s. Her navy button-down collared shirt was starched stiff, and she also wore khaki shorts from Augusta National, although she didn’t have to make the trip to the tournament to get them. Like her mother-in-law’s neckless of silver and pearls, Kassie Cortwright had learned of the spoils system. Kyle was a chip off the old man’s philandering shoulder. He brought back something of value for her from every “company trip.”

Kassie’s plan was to take various sets of photos: the kids; the women; Granna and Granpa Cortwright; Granna and Granpa with the girls; Granna and Granpa and Kyle – every conceivable combination, which were many. And, finally, the group shot. Then there would be the inevitable “candid shots” of everyone.

As long as Granna and Granpa survived, Cortwright and Milliken (Kassie’s maiden name) family members would receive the group shot, embedded in a pre-cut, pre-printed Season’s Greetings from the Cortwrights card. Whenever Granna and Granpa both died, a photo of the two would go out, embedded in a pre-cut, pre-printed We Will Miss Them This Season card, that would include the obituaries of each as an insert. That card stock was carefully stored in the attic in a moisture-proof container. The obits were saved on the hard drive of Kassie’s computer, awaiting only the final date for each.

Socially, politically and otherwise strategically important friends of Kyle and Kassie Cortwright would receive the main Cortwright group shot, sans grandparents, embedded in a pre-cut, pre-printed Happy Holidays! Another Fabulous Year to Celebrate!, along with a two-page printed update on the highlights of the past year for Kendra, Kiley and Kester, as well as herself and Kyle.

All cards were assembled, stamped with Kyle and Kassie’s signatures, addressed and stamped to reach destinations no later than two weeks prior to December 25.

And it all began here, with the photography shoot. On the beach.

Of the various compositions, Kassie was able to test shoot with the Kodak for position and light and background for all shots; and she could shoot the final takes with the Canon on shots she was not in. She used her tripod and the automatic shutter for shots she was in. Granpa offered to take the shots which she was in and he was not, but Kassie wouldn’t allow it. Despite his success in business, she didn’t think Granpa Cortwright would be able to meet her high standards. But he always offered, and she always politely declined the offer.

Today the lighting was perfect! It was overcast enough to mask out the shadows created on a sunny day. That meant no flash. Kassie’s digital cameras would do the rest, automatically adjusting for focus and existing light.

She corralled the family members into a group and began to explain who and what the shots would be. Kyle grinned and shook his head, aware no one was listening.

“I can help with the shots,” offered Granpa.

“Just everyone listen. LISTEN!” The wind off the ocean blew her words in the opposite direction.

“Kendra, Kylie and Kester – you’re first. Everyone else, wait over there,” Kassie directed. She drew an X in the sand. “Kids, stand here!” And, as kids are want to do, they assembled about a yard from the X.

“No! ON the X! Stand ON IT!” Her words whipped westward by the east ocean wind.

All of the other beach-goers stood back in awe and mused over the spectacle. They watched from their sun-sheltered umbrellas; from their adjustable beach chairs with a variety of bottled water, sodas, and other drinks in hand.

Tall, skinny surf skimmers daringly slipped on micro-thin wave water, stopping and pulling up within the imagined line of limits on either side of the photography shoot. Everyone honored the invisible barrier. Joggers and walkers circumvented the area. Swimmers stayed to either side of the fifty yards of “reserved” background, the same way they did whenever someone was surf fishing.

Except for one person.

At first he was walking up the beach at a rapid clip. When he neared the area of activity, he made no effort to skirt back up the beach to avoid being a bother. In fact he walked into the forbidden zone and slowed down. You might even say he came to a crawl, bending over as if to sift through shells in the shallow water.

Kassie was amok focusing her Kodak point-and-shoot on the cotton clad kids — directing them to stand closer, to smile, but not smile like that, and quit elbowing each other, and Kester, put your hand down, and a hundred other orders, and finally pressing the shutter button and looking at the shot only to discover a man walking through the background!

“What the h—!” she exploded, and the man, who had not yet completed the distance behind the kids, stopped, and turned to look at Kassie. He cocked his head to one side, scratched his protuberant and hairy belly, and proceeded to walk back to the surf water directly behind the children.

Kassie was aghast with the clear violation of polite protocol whenever someone was about to take a picture — that of stopping and waiting until the camera clicked before walking into the camera’s shot frame! If someone happened to walk into a picture unawares, the next protocol would be an embarrassed apology — given profusely — and then quickly walk away.

This man — this hairy ape — covered from head to toe with thickly matted fur — neither stopped nor apologized! Instead, he lingered at the water’s edge — still well within the camera’s range!

Kassie shot a glance to Kyle and ordered him with her eyes to take care of the situation. Kyle shrugged, and while the Cortwright family looked on in mixed horror and amusement, he shuffled down to the hairy ape, whose feet were now sinking in sand.

“Good morning, Sir!” Kyle offered in his best and most friendly voice. He prided himself in his ability to strike up a conversation with even the most menial of people.

“Hey.” The reply was short and gruff.

Kyle sized up his opponent quickly. He was older, probably late fifties — maybe sixties. He was shorter than Kyle by several inches, but outweighed him by probably more than a hundred pounds.

He was endowed with what Kyle called “man breasts” because of his weight, and his great belly protruded out around his midriff. With the exception of the top of his head, his body was covered with hair, a mixture of silver, white and some black strands. Tufts arose from his shoulders like military epaulets. His eyebrows were thick bushes, and his beard, though mostly shaven, was dark on his face. A thick bush of hair poured from the middle of his lower lip and down the middle of his chin, lopped off at the first of three folds of fat girding his neck. His nose was bulbous and red, pigmented by an obviously non-abstinent lifestyle. His deep-set eyes were dark in color, and peered from beneath the thick brows like an angry beast.

Along his left arm, from the shoulder to his wrist, were the words “Luck be a Lady tonight,” and was festooned with poker chips and poker card hands from straights to flushes. Once his arms had been muscular, Kyle could tell. Probably a military career man, he thought. Noncom no doubt.

The most unusual visual aspect of the man was from just beneath his neck and straight down the middle of his ribs and belly, the right half of the front of his torso was completely devoid of hair. Half of his torso was thick with hair, the other, tanned, leathery skin. And tattooed on that bare canvass of his torso was the naked profile of a very well-endowed raven-haired woman, whose bared breast was tipped with his actual nipple — hairless, at that. “I have had the time of my life” ran along her profile from breast to groin.

“I was just wondering if I could persuade you to move away from the background of the photos my wife is taking of our family, and –”

“Fuck you,” the man interrupted, his tone low and even. No anger evident.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s French. It means I don’t gotta move away from the background of your friggin’ photos.”

“Well, of course! I mean, you don’t have to — uh, gotta — move away. It’s just that it would be the polite thing to do.”

“Well, shit on that! Maybe the polite thing to do would have been your family goes to a studio for your Gee-Dee photos.”

The Cortwrights began to take note of the discourse between Kyle and the man they were describing to each other as gorilla and monkey in whispered voices.

“See,” the man continued, “if I ain’t mistaken, this here’s a public beach. It is open to all. And not just to the socially elite! Am I right?”

“In that it’s a public beach, you are. In that you are inferring my family is socially elite, you are not.”

The man lit a cigar he pulled from behind his ear and puffed quickly. Then he turned to wave at the Cortwrights with his cigar-stubbed hand.

“I’m not inferring it  — you think you are.”

“How’s that?”

“By coming down here year after year and parading your little blonde-haired family, dressed up in white cotton and khakis and such. You take over this particular section of the beach for your own private photography session! Only it ain’t so private — and you parade for all to see. This expectation you have of the rest of us? Why, it’s no more’n the expectation of the aristocracy that us plebeians bow and scrape to your every need — no matter how asinine or inconvenient it is!”

The Cortwrights were somewhat stupefied by the ape’s vocabulary.

“How do you know we do this every year?” Kyle asked, somewhat paranoid that this man might have been stalking them over the years.

“That your cottage for the week?” the man asked, pointing to a huge three-story coral-colored cottage.

“Yes,” Kyle responded, suddenly sorry he had done so.

“See the one next to it?” The man pointed to a small, one-story cottage with a flat roof. “The brown one? I rent that one. During this same week every year. I’ve done that for thirty-two years.”

“Thirty-two years. That’s, that’s a long time.”

“And, for the last five years, you and your fucking-perfect family parade themselves on this public beach and take over! You take over with your white cotton dresses and with your khakis shorts and with your blonde hair and with your poses and your photos. You take over with your attitude. With your expectations.”

“I don’t know what to say?”

“Not much you can say. Long as you keep coming out here, I’m going to be here, too. In the background. Near the edges of your photos. Staring out at whoever gets these photos.”

Suddenly, a very angry Kallie stormed up, cameras swinging against her body.

“I don’t know who you think you are, or why you are doing what you are doing, but I’m going to ask you once — nicely — to move on until we’re through here!”

“Okay.” The hairy ape remained standing in the water, puffing on his cigar.

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, ask. Nicely.”

“Will you pleeeeease move away from behind my family so I can take these photos?”

“Nope.”

Kallie grabbed Kyle by the arm and jerked him a few steps away.

“Get that man out of here, Kyle Adams Cortwright! Make him go away!”

“Can’t.”

“WHY NOT?!”

“Public beach. He’s got just as much a right here as we do. That much I know from my intro to law course.”

“You’re not going to do anything, are you?”

“Nope.”

By this time the girls and Kester were getting bored, and Grana and Granpa were approaching the time for their morning digestive constitutional. Also, more and more spectators were gathering around the dramatic confrontation. A few were using their cell phones to video.

“Kyle! I demand you get this — this — MAN out of here before I lose it!”

Kyle shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the hairy ape.

“You see, my wife’s going to lose it in a minute if she can’t take her pictures.”

“That should be interesting!” the hairy ape puffed, “especially if this is her not losing it.”

“There’s nothing I can do to persuade you to move?”

“What, like money?”

“Well — sure. How much?”

“More’n you got, Bud.”

“I’ve got a lot.”

“Two million.”

“Wha —?”

“Three, then. Three million.”

“Who the hell —?”

“Already told you. I’m your neighbor, Neighbor! I’ve been coming down here a long, long time. I’ve been enjoying my walks on this beach for almost three decades longer than you and your family! It’s a public beach! And I can stand anywhere the hell I want to!”

“You don’t have to yell!”

“I’m so sorry! Don’t worry about your wife losin’ it! You worry about me losin’ it!”

“Okay! Okay! Look, Mister . . .”

“Poluski.”

“Mr. Poluski, I recognize our coming out here and, well, owning the beach for an hour so we can take our family photos bothers you! But — really — what is one hour? It’s over and done and the beach is yours again and no harm, no foul! Right?”

“See? There it is!”

“There what is?”

“That subtle thing you elite do.”

“Just what is it we do?”

“The ‘no harm, no foul’ thing. Everywhere you go, you impose your desires on the rest of us — while trying to convince everyone that your way is harmless. Even that it’s actually good for us! Like the big corporations that go to a third world to rape and plunder their resources — promising that everyone will benefit from the digging and the drilling and the cutting and the ‘developing.’ Then, the bulldozers level everything and the land is stripped to the bone; and the rains come and the floods come and the topsoil and everything good about the land is washed away and the people are left naked and starving and diseased and dying!”

“Oh. That subtle thing.”

“Then, you come out here and once again try to impose your will on us! What if every rich family in America decided to come down to this beach and parade their families out for an hour of shooting pictures? Have you thought of that?”

“No, but I’m guessing you have.”

“You’re damn straight, I have!”

“Mr. Poluski? What if we move down the beach — away from this area — and take our pictures there?”

“I’ll just move to where you are. See, it isn’t the where you do it — it is that you do it at all!”

“The principle of the thing.”

“Ex-ACT-ly!” He puffed his cigar. “If I let this continue, then I may as well give up. The elite, the bourgeoisie will have landed and won and the proletariat will have no hope at all. We will be upended and buried.”

Kyle thought a moment while staring at the hairy ape — the philosophe — the socratic short, fat man with the tattoo of a naked lady on one half of his torso. He could tell the man’s determination went well beyond a rational disposition. And, the fact the man lived in the cottage next to theirs added to the potential danger.

“Well, Mr. Poluski. As I don’t have three million to hand you to end your strike —”

“I wouldn’t take it, anyhow.”

“Yes — I assumed as much. And, you seem persistent in your quest to keep us — the elite,  the bourgeoisie — from imposing our will upon the common man –”

“To the death!”

“Right. Then, I shall cede to your demands, and my family and I will not pursue our photos today, or any other day, for that matter.”

“You will?”

“I said so, didn’t I?”

Overhearing the conversation, Kallie’s expressions reflected both horror and anger. Kyle raised his hand in peace to her, shook the hairy ape’s hand, and turned to his family.

“We’re done here,” he called to them, and reached his hands out for his girls to grab, and the family began to trudge back up the slope of the beach to their cottage, leaving Kassie behind in confusion.

She turned back to the hairy ape, who was at the very end of his cigar, hands on hips, stomach pooched out, reveling in his apparent victory. As three bikinied girls walked by, Kassie drew her Canon to her face and clicked a picture of the enemy.

Perhaps this would be the Holiday Greetings picture she would send out this year. She turned and stormed after the Cortwright family, her cameras swinging wildly from her body.

Poluski watched after her as she wriggled toward the cottage in the loose beach sand. Gradually, slowly, something dawned on him as he stood knee-deep in the surf, and he began to realize that this confrontation had ended too quickly — had been too easy a win. Then the words of Demosthenes drifted up from his memory, “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.”

Poluski threw his near-spent cigar in the water and watched as the butt bobbed in the surf like a small boat. He laughed aloud, and continued his walk on the beach. They would be back – and he knew it. He began to hum La Marseillaise in eager anticipation.

 

The Christmas Portrait is reproduced from Through the Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories by L. Stewart Marsden, and available on Amazon.com.

Split Rock new addition: The Lie Detector

3 Sep

A new addition to the story Split Rock: The Lie Detector.