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Personal Essay, Short Stories

Canyoneering: Not just for crazy people like me

canyoneering | surviving suicide | depression | coping strategies

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

I’m pretty sure that when William Hickson popularized this proverb back in the 1800’s, he was primarily teaching the value of perseverance. But there is also a subtle message of hope in this short sentence: if you keep trying, you will eventually succeed.

There was a time, in my not-distant-enough past, that hope was elusive and success seemed like an impossibility. I was miserable. The thing I was hoping to succeed at was suicide. And I was horrible at it.

I tried a drug overdose (I have a miraculously resilient liver and kidneys); cutting my throat and wrists (I now have several embarrassing scars, a smile that leans to the left, and some nerve damage); and shooting myself (I chickened out). I even gave dehydration and exposure a try (there are some breathtaking views in the arid foothills north of San Antonio, Texas- but if you’re planning a 3-day walk-about, I would recommend sun screen and plenty of water). Apparently, suicide by more conventional means wasn’t going to work for me. My failure to complete a successful suicide was almost as depressing as the depression that prompted me to try in the first place.

I was ready for something drastic.

Looking for a drastic alternative was probably the only reason I let myself get talked into something called “canyoneering.” The email invitation I received had pictures of climbers dangling from smooth cliffs, and dark caves, and guys shimmying across ropes. It also contained a lot of warnings: DANGEROUS was in all-caps.

This sounded drastic enough to get me off the couch. I dredged up the motivation to take my first shower in days and agreed to meet with the trip organizer over lunch.

 

Michael

The trip organizer, Michael, was an accountant by day and epic trip coordinator by night. He was also part of a men’s group at Concordia Lutheran Church that I had been loosely affiliated with before I relocated to The Abyss. Nearly all of the guys in this group were busy with successful careers and families, but none of us were extremists by nature. Michael was the exception. Normally soft-spoken and unusually precise with his words, I watched this unassuming man come alive as our conversation shifted from the how-have-you-been’s and sorry-to-hear-about-that’s to the upcoming adventure. He began to glow to charisma and confidence. Even though I was tangled up in self-loathing and despair, his dramatic transformation forced a left-leaning smile out of me.

And Michael never asked me the question. He never asked, “what are you so depressed about?” As I saw it, there were really only two ways to answer the question: 1.) I had either done (or neglected to do) something horrible, in which case I deserved to be punished, or something tragic and beyond my control ruined any chance of a meaningful life. In either of these cases, wouldn’t a good friend be obligated to help put me out of my misery? And 2.) I could try to explain the mental implosion I was enduring. Most people can understand mental EXplosions… unleashing destructive energy through violence or bad decisions. How could I explain something that stole all of my energy, built up silently inside me, and destroyed my ability to think logically, concentrate or feel anything other than an overwhelming and undefinable sense of doom? Then finally, when I couldn’t endure it anymore, latching onto the sweet promise of escape through death?

Fortunately, we didn’t go down that path. Instead, he focused me on the trip ahead. I nibbled on a slider (registering without surprise that it was my first meal in two days) as Michael tried to convince me that some fresh air and testosterone-fueled adventure would snap me out of my funk. He jittered with anticipation as he promised chances to rappel across bottomless sink-holes, scale cliffs of “slick-rock,” and conclude with a blind dive into Lake Powell. All, he said, under the supervision of guides trained to ensure our safety.

An idea took root over the course of our conversation and grew. There would be plenty of opportunities to engineer an “accident.” I paid selfishly little attention to the impact my “accident” would have on the group. Instead, I was lost to the promise of relief that would come from finally taking a fatal plunge.

 

The desert on the lake

After indulging in a solitary and cheerless (but expensive) last hurrah at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, I joined the rest of the group to caravan up to our houseboat on Lake Powell. We met our guides: three wiry, nimble, good-hearted guys that seemed to be everywhere, making sure everyone was safe and following instructions. My nemeses.

By the second day (after we had all demonstrated proficiency with our safety gear and followed all instructions), our guides began to relax. There were exhilarating moments, and beautiful vistas. We started to form bonds that were stronger than the ropes connecting us.

Despite all this, I was still desperate to have an “accident.”

It looked like my moment arrived as I waited for John (a tall lanky engineer with a contagious barking laugh) to spider-walk across a gaping sink-hole. One of his hands lost purchase on the slick sides of the sink-hole and before we knew it, he was dangling from the safety rope.

He was welcomed to the other side with shoulder-slaps and jokes about the implications of tall guys with weak hands quickly enough, but I saw that if I didn’t fully secure the safety rope to my harness, I would be free to fall as far as the sink-hole would let me.

 

A Really Bad Idea

My hands were sweaty and shaking. John was still commanding most of the attention. I shimmied out, face-down over the hole, extending my arms and legs to maintain contact as I approached the widest point. I didn’t see bottom, just an endless supply of black. My weak arms and legs trembled as I tried to work up the courage to let go. Just do it. The black beneath me began to expand, blocking everything else out, until it was just me struggling with a desire to let go and an instinct to hold on.

The instinct to hold on grew stronger as my limbs fatigued. A series of “maybes” began to play out in my mind: maybe I could do meaningful work again; maybe I could love (and be loved by) a good woman again; maybe my life was worth living. At the time, these “maybes” were only fragments of images, but it was clearly Hope forcing its way into my consciousness. For the first time in years, I decided I wanted to live. Really give life another try. But I was stuck. I barely had the strength to hold on, much less continue to spider-walk to the other side. The safety rope was tangled uselessly around my rescue-eight. I couldn’t hold on long enough for the guides to scurry out to me.

Now that I wanted to live, I was going to die.

I tell myself in hindsight that I couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, let myself be killed by something as pitiful as irony. No way. My body released its reserves of adrenaline and I forced myself to inch closer to the other side. With each movement I reaffirmed my commitment to live again. The blackness was still there beneath me. I still felt an urge to yield to it, but this urge retreated to a more distant, nearly nostalgic position.

The sides of the sink-hole drew closer as I advanced, allowing me to bend my limbs and get a little more leverage. I was going to make it. I crammed years’ worth of thoughts and internal dialog into the time it took me to reach the safety of the other side, even though the whole event was over in a few moments.

 

The plunge

I can’t remember much after reaching the safety of the other side and joining the rest of the group. Did anyone notice how close I came to going “gentle into that good night” (as Dylan Thomas writes)? Were there celebratory shoulder-slaps for me too, signifying that I had earned the right to be one of the guys? I can’t remember.

I do remember that we concluded the day’s canyoneering with a dive into Lake Powell. We rappelled individually down one of the cliff faces that borders the lake to dive from a narrow ledge about 5-meters over the water. Then we swam back to our houseboat for cold beers and a chance to polish our stories of heroism for the folks back home.

When it was my turn on the ledge, I stared out over the water. It was calm and dark and huge. There was some similarity between the welcoming appeal of the water and the black pit I had met earlier, but mostly I was hot and the water was going to be a refreshing way to cool off. I also fought the same instinct to keep holding on. Don’t do it. Don’t risk a crazy leap into the unknown.

I jumped.

 

P.S. A sincere thanks to John and Michael, not only for reviewing this, but more importantly, for showing the kind of brotherly love and support that helped me to hold on when I wanted to let go… and to let go when I needed to drop the garbage I was holding on to.

 

A merry band of brothers basking in the glory of another successful adventure

A merry band of brothers basking in the glory of another successful adventure. Little did I know this adventure would help me remember that I wanted to live again.

 

After several failed suicide attempts, an expedition into the treacherous canyons near Lake Powell I rediscovered the will to live again

After several failed suicide attempts, an expedition into the treacherous canyons near Lake Powell I rediscovered the will to live again
Living Abroad, Personal Essay

What is an (Almost) Unsalvageable life?

What is an Almost Unsalvageable life

I rarely drink in public anymore. To be fair, I don’t do much of anything around large groups of people. I don’t drink in public because I prefer to do my drinking in places where crowd control won’t be an issue, but also because I seem to get cornered by strangers that need to unload a secret or issue they’ve been struggling with. As they tell me about losing their job, accidentally running over their dog with the car, and/or cheating on their husband, my nervous visual search for an emergency exit must look like everyone else’s empathy and attentive listening.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t care. Sometimes, we make such shameful messes that bar-stool confessions to strangers seems like a reasonable first step on the road to redemption. I get that. I really do. I’m quickly draining the dregs of my Jack and Coke to scurry to the exit because I can’t do anything meaningful to help, aside from listening. I wish I were still the guy that had life all figured out and could share its secrets. I wish I had a spray-bottle of life’s “stain-remover” that we could use to clean up messes. But I don’t.

 

For this reason (and several others), this post is particularly difficult for me to craft. I’m about to be the guy that unloads a pile of issues that I’ve been struggling with. There will be some surprises. However, you deserve to know what you’re getting into. So, I’m sorry in advance. The next round is on me…

 

I turned my otherwise idyllic life into a big pile of steaming mess in 2010.

 

A 13-year marriage ended in divorce. My ex-wife assumed sole custody of our adopted daughter. I medically retired from an 18-year military career as an Air Force surgeon/scientist. There was nearly complete alienation from friends and family. Not much sleep.

 

I was depressed. Very depressed.

 

I wasn’t much good at committing suicide (fortunately), but good enough to earn three ICU stays after each attempt. Persistent efforts from psychiatrists, psychologists and pastors to counsel me back from the precipice fell on deaf ears. Cocktails of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and even antipsychotics didn’t have much effect (aside from drastic swings in my sleep patterns and weight). Twelve sessions of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) left me with a profound distrust of uncapped batteries and electrical outlets. And depression.

 

I lived in limbo for two years. Unable to commit suicide, but too miserable to live.

 

Between periods of profound malaise, I experimented with life-threatening adventures in the hopes that fate would finish what I couldn’t. I tried parachuting, canyoneering, and even eating Taco Bell regularly. It was delicious fun, but I kept surviving. In fact, it was during some of these outdoor adventures that I made a surprising discovery. I enjoyed being outside. In nature. I could think more clearly. And, thank you sweet baby Jesus, I could get a full nights sleep again.

 

I eventually found that it wasn’t the thrill-seeking behavior that provided a reprieve from my crippling depressive symptoms; it was the directed movement surrounded by living things. I didn’t need a helmet (or Mylanta) any longer to regain the necessary focus and motivation to start putting my life back together.

 

Hiking is now my medication of choice. And I’m not the only one. It’s a thing now – it’s called Ecotherapy. It seems to be working for me: I’ve been able to venture out of my dad’s storage room (AKA “the cave”) long enough to travel most of Europe; I’ve convinced an amazingly patient woman that I’m stable enough to marry; and I haven’t had a severe depressive episode in three years.

 

My life is still a big pile of steaming mess, but its getting better. I think I’m ready to take on the challenge of a long distance hike, to feel like I have a purpose again, and to connect with people in a meaningful way…

 

Thank you very much for sticking it out with me (and I don’t blame you if you had the urge to run for the exit). I guess this means you’re either incredibly patient, it’s a slow news week, or (hopefully) you’re my kind of people.

Short Stories

Escape from Bucharest

The 10-hour train ride away from Bucharest was either a trip back in time, or a view beyond the apocalypse. Angry faded graffiti covered the overpasses and returning train cars. Decimated factories groaned through glass-fanged window panes. These gave way to abandoned vehicles, piles of rubble and trash. Finally, finally, vegetation and even trees claimed more of the view. Solitary single-story homes were brightly painted and surrounded by overgrown gardens. Sunflower fields kept a uniform watch on the progress of the sun. Then there were honest-to-God peasants. And they walked in front of sway-backed horses that pulled rickety carts loaded with firewood or hay.

I sipped on my Coke, imagining the reception I would receive if I stood surrounded by a group of these peasants, bringing them into the 21st century with gifts of iPhones and tractors. Usually I saw grateful gap-toothed grins and baskets full of fresh vegetables held by trembling children, but the fantasy ended with a trio of hunched crones spitting hate-filled curses at me.

 

When the train arrived in Arad, an orderly cue of taxis waiting to carry passengers to their final destination and clusters of eight-story cement apartment buildings killed my illusions about Transylvania. I’m not saying that I expected a mythical land populated by vampires and gypsies with magical powers, but I was hoping for a few weeks of freedom from scurrying around in a big city.

 

I had convinced myself (and eventually my wife Monica) that I needed to spend a few weeks alone in the countryside. Monica and I squinted at the thumbnail pic of a cozy looking villa located deep in Transylvania (home-cooked meal included daily) and I booked it. Fresh air, fresh food and friendly people transported straight from the Shire that thought my American accent and atrocious Romanian was adorable. It was just the sort of comfortable adventure I needed to appreciate Romania again. And ideally, I would finally make some progress converting a writing hobby into something more meaningful.

Beyond the train station, crowds of people rushed ant-like in and out of the same shops found in Bucharest. I began to suspect that I might have benefitted from a bit more planning when a man approached me.

 

“Are you Gabriel Burkhardt?” he asked in English.

 

“I am. And you must be Dragos Alexandrescu.” The owner himself offered to give me a ride when I booked the villa, which I took as a reassuring omen of better things to come.

 

“Bine! Come. Please, let me take your baggage. We have many kilometers to reach our villa.” The man was short and spherical, with a full head of iron-grey hair and a craggy face. He flicked his wrist towards the back passenger window and an old woman got out. He made no effort to help with my luggage or to introduce me to the old woman.

The old woman fussed in a language I vaguely recognized as Romanian while two dogs tried to sneak past her. She managed to keep them pinned in the car before closing the door. Her red-knuckled hand touched mine as she reached for my suitcase handle. It felt as dry and callused as a piece of driftwood.

 

“No. It’s no trouble. These bags are heavy,” I said, but she was already hefting my suitcases into the trunk with ease.

 

The drive out of Arad wasn’t as dramatic as the train out of Bucharest, but the demarcation between city and countryside was very distinct. Eight-story buildings became three-story buildings, ground floors were still cluttered with shops and restaurants, and intersections transitioned from stately round-abouts with fountains or austere statuary to parallel streets with traffic lights.

Then, a gas station on a landscaped elevation dominated by a squat RomCom marquis dared us with its smiling blue and yellow logo to proceed at our own risk. There was nothing but undeveloped field on either side of the two-lane road beyond it. Dragos didn’t slow his monologue about local sights and history, or his little red Dacia, as he swerved up to a fuel pump.

 

“You should get what you want now. There are not so many choices near Villa Alexandrescu. But that is what you need for your writing yes? No city distractions and busy people? Yes?” He pushed his paunch in with a hand to clear the steering wheel and got out with a grunt.

 

The old woman sat scrunched and silent between two dogs, one a German Sheppard puppy with huge twitching ears and the other a grey-snouted Border Collie. If they moved, she snapped in rapid and unintelligible Romanian. I couldn’t remember how to ask her if she wanted my seat in Romanian aside from saying “you want” while gesturing at the passenger seat I was in. She scowled at me, but didn’t respond. I realized then that asking her if she wanted while gesturing animatedly at my lap could be interpreted in more than one way.

 

I couldn’t make my exit any more awkward, so I just got out of the car and headed in to stock up on junk food. The food selection was impressive for a gas station, and Monica would have cringed to see the pile of comfort foods I scored: Pringles, Snickers, Coke, Haagen-Dazs. Anything I recognized as a product also available in the states. I also grabbed two Davidoff cigars and a bottle of Jack Daniels (maybe there would be something to celebrate).

 

“Villa Alexandrescu is 25 kilometers from here. Here is nothing except unused Gypsy land,” Dragos said once we were back on the road.

 

I felt an uneasy vibe coming from the back seat. It may have been the dogs panting on the back of my neck, but just in case, I asked Dragos to tell his mother that I didn’t mean to offend her when I offered her my seat. He flipped his wrist up in annoyance and said she wasn’t his mother, that she was his girlfriend’s mother, and that she was where she belonged.

I asked him how long he owned Villa Alexandrescu. There was quite a bit of hand waving as he explained that there was some legal dispute over the ownership of some of his property, and that he could only raise fowl, but once the courts settled the case, there would be sheep too.

 

“Villa Alexandrescu is also a working farm?” I asked. The scenery passing my window was so rugged, I had a hard time imagining anyone bending this land to his will.

 

“It is certain!” he said. “There are fresh tomatoes and cucumbers even now, and fruit trees and chicken and geese. This is a surprise for you, but these are American Geese! You know them yes?”

 

I wondered again if my expectations for a quiet countryside bed and breakfast were unrealistic, but I kept an open mind. An adventure was part of what I needed anyway.

 

I started to spot deserted buildings that were being reclaimed by trees and shrubbery when he turned off the pavement onto a packed dirt road. I was surprised to see these cement shells so far from civilization and wondered what purpose they had served.

In answer to my silent question, a child rode an oversized bicycle out of a doorless opening in a building surrounded by vegetation. I wouldn’t have noticed him if it weren’t for his bright clothes. There were more bright clothes draped from a line between two trees.

 

“People actually live in these buildings?” I asked.

 

“It is certain! The Funar family lives here since my grandfather. It is not so good as it was. There is no money for repairs.” He looked at me quickly then returned his attention to the narrow dirt road. He slowed to let a trail of chickens cross. “Do not worry. They will not trouble you. They do not like the dogs.” I didn’t know if he was talking about the Funar family or the chickens.

 

Then he stopped for no reason. There was a scrunched line of sentinel pines to my right that I couldn’t see behind. What looked like a huge cinderblock, split in half and separated by a stone path, blocked my view to the left. We had to be close and I hoped that he wasn’t trying to give me a tour of the local ruins before checking in at Villa Alexandrescu.

Before I could phrase a polite deferral on the unscheduled tour, the old woman and dogs got out of the car. She went straight for my bags. No fucking way. Dragos performed another exit maneuver and said, “Come! Let me show you Villa Alexandrescu. I must return to the city soon. My girlfriend makes dinner.”

The dogs had already scouted the path, both marking the same spot before disappearing between the buildings. I heard chickens clucking excitedly and a rooster crowed. No fucking way.

 

“This, this is the same villa that I reserved? From the website?” I asked.

 

“It is certain! A peaceful, secluded, rustic getaway. And home-cooked meal included daily!” he quoted from the website.

 

I was standing outside the car, too stunned to stop the old woman as she struggled to get my luggage up the path between the buildings. I held on to the car door and pulled my cell phone out. “There is no service here.”

 

“Come! Let me show you.” He bent slowly at the waist while making a wide scooping motion with his arm. I followed, if for no other reason than to get my suitcases back from the old woman before she scavenged them.

The density of chicken shit on the path increased as I walked between the buildings, making it impossible to avoid. The structure on the right had two waist-high openings pocked with glass shards. Debris covered dirt floors. He noticed me trying to look deeper into the darkened recesses. “That was the store rooms for winter. We don’t use that now,” he said without slowing. There was a faint but pungent smell of rotting meat.

Just get your bags back and make him take you back to Arad. And hope that there isn’t a gang waiting to mug me. 

 

            I didn’t try to hide the horror on my face as I turned the corner. A flock of chickens scampered over bare dirt. The Collie herded them while the German Sheppard puppy chased behind, learning the ropes. No sign of the old woman.

Dragos was demonstrating the hand-crank for the well, then pushing aside a mildewed curtain to show me the outdoor shower and warning me to tell the old woman if I wanted a shower so she could heat the water. Neither of us acknowledged the miasma surrounding an isolated hut in the middle of chicken territory. It announced its own purpose with nauseating clarity. The sight and smell made everything else a little less repulsive by comparison, but not much. He identified the clumps of vegetables struggling to survive as he marched past each wire wrapped boundary.

 

“Stop!” I said. “This is not what I was expecting. Just, give me my luggage back and take me back to the city so I can find a hotel room.”

 

“I don’t have time to drive you to find a hotel room this night.” Dragos was unperturbed. “Come. Your room is ready. Let me show you. You can write and eat and enjoy the countryside. I will come back. Take you to the train so you can return to Bucharest.”

 

He pointed one of his square fingers at a counter beside the door leading inside, telling me to leave my snacks there in the “kitchen.” I still hadn’t seen the old woman, or more importantly, my bags.

Inside was a windowless square space. No one was waiting to mug me. And there was my luggage, unopened and next to an oversized couch covered with a pile of sheep-skin blankets. A little fire was going in a stone fireplace. Dragos began opening the doors to a very cool secretary desk and told me I was welcome to use any of the books in the “library.” An ancient grandfather clock stood guard in a corner nearest the door. Its tarnished brass pendulum dangled motionless and time was frozen at 5:37. There was a brown smoke ring on the walls about a foot from the ceiling, like a scum-line in an old bathtub- which would have been a nice addition to Villa Alexandrescu.

Dragos ushered me back outside. A campfire was flickering and crackling playfully beyond the geese pen (“See American Geese just for you!”). Dragos pointed out the servant’s quarters. It was a shack in the process of becoming one with a plum tree. Instead of a door, a brightly colored blanket hung over the opening. “Go there if you need anything. She will get it for you,” he said. Mashed plums littered the ground but I didn’t see an obvious path to the shack.

 

The old woman was already cooking dinner in a cauldron suspended over the campfire. She had changed into a sky-blue smock and moved with a silent efficiency that surprised me. Dragos still didn’t acknowledge her, instead he directed me to a handmade table with four mismatched chairs that was sheltered by an enormous tree with weird green fruit.

I was still watching her scurrying around the campfire, entranced by the dancing flames, when Dragos hurled one of the green fruits at the ground. Fascinated, I gawked as he recovered a walnut shell from the pulverized remains of the green fruit. He crushed the shell between his hands. Then he plucked another from the tree and tossed it to me. “You can eat whatever fruits you find,” he said as I struggled to get at the meat inside my prize. “Stay. Relax. Write. I will be back tomorrow, the day after at latest. If you don’t like it, I will take you to the train. You will return to your wife, your life, to Bucharest.”

I imagined returning to Monica, head bowed as I listened to her propose more reasonable solutions to my difficulty adjusting to life in Romania. Not an option. I can handle this.

 

Dragos stayed just long enough to pour two glasses of homemade wine and toast my success before turning me over to the old woman. Soon I had a belly full of fish soup, which was delicious despite the occasional stab from elusive bones, and a head spinning from too much wine. The old woman nodded at my Multumesc! Aceasta este delicios, but wouldn’t speak or join me.

 

My prayer that the rooster would stop its relentless nagging the next morning was the first wholly desperate and sincere prayer I can remember since I’d stopped wearing pajamas with footies. I eventually crawled out from under a pillowy pile of sheepskins to face the day. No sign of the old woman or the dogs.

I tried to write. Nothing came to mind. I looked through the tattered books on the upper shelf of the secretary desk, recognizing Romanian translations of Dickens and Tolstoy. I felt like all stories were really the same. Somebody was born, lived, and by some means, died. That was pretty much it. I stared at the dead grandfather clock, willing it to start moving again. It didn’t.

 

Tictoctictoc

Dance for merriment’s sake

Tic-toc tic-toc

Rest my weary heart proclaims

Tic…toc

And Beat no more

 

Some indeterminate time later, I left a handwritten copy of this six-line tribute (the sum-total of my day’s efforts) in the dusty base of the clock and ventured outside again.

 

The pens were open, which allowed the chickens and ducks and geese to congregate freely. Lots of pleasant clucking, honking and productive scavenging. The old woman had also returned. She sat at the table drinking wine from a cocktail glass and just watched me as I sat down opposite her. The dogs waited attentively in the near distance, aware but not intruding.

Now that we were both sitting, facing each other, and not moving, I noticed her skin. It was the brown of old mushrooms and hung loosely over forearms that were bigger (and probably stronger) than mine. Her face had no particular expression, though the deep and interwoven grooves had a certain pattern that seemed like it wanted to mean something. I was sure I could see laugh lines around her squinting eyes.

 

“You’ve got this smile,” I said in English, knowing she couldn’t understand me, but feeling the need to hear my voice after a day of silence. “Its like you’ve got your own private little joke. How do you do that? You’re in your 60’s, working for nothing, and living,” I swept my arms around, trying not to focus on the outhouse, “like this.”

 

“That’s the trouble with you people in the cities,” she responded in accented English.

 

“You speak English?” I felt betrayed.

 

She didn’t answer my question directly. Instead she said, “You are too busy going someplace better to notice good things, good people.”

 

“I notice,” I said. I felt like I was being scolded for some reason and I wasn’t going to give her the high ground by asking her why she didn’t tell me she could speak English earlier.

I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it in one pouty swallow. “When Dragos comes, I’ll have him take me to town to pick up some wine that won’t make us go blind. And maybe some better apples.” I took a mealy apple wedge from the bowl in front of her and pitched it towards the approaching flock of geese.

 

“Why search for fruit to buy when you can pick it from trees growing right at your feet?” She sounded irritated, exasperated. Then she made a point of stuffing one of the better-looking wedges into her mouth.

 

“You don’t want me here, do you?”

 

She managed a smile, despite a full mouth. Took her time chewing. Once she finished she said, “Go back to your life. Eat your own fruit. Leave me to mine. Yes?”

Flash Fiction

The Rainbow Man

The most inspiring art jumps from canvases thick with new beginnings. That’s what I tell myself as I survey a flat littered with evidence of my failures. Each unrealized attempt to convey the contents of my mind is entombed within clumpy coats of nearly concealing paint. I see specks of orange and blue peeking through splashed on layers of suppressive gray and white to see where they betrayed their creator. Good God! The unventilated poisons wafting from these abominations are finally addling my brain.

In my eagerness to escape, I hardly take time to don a cravat. White gloves cover any speckled pigment remaining on poorly washed hands, and my unkempt hair is confined within a top hat. Cane and coat complete my costume: no need to advertise my distress.

 

Parisian spring taunts the senses en route to the Louvre. It is nauseating. Beauty is available for purchase along the bustling Champs Elysees; however, one must endure the odor and clamor generated by the relentless stream of prancing horses and their carriages. Irrepressible life flits tree-to-tree along avenues of the Jardin des Tuileries. Love lounges within easy reach of couples that litter its lawns. Bah!

A silent vender spreads a slimy coat of strawberry jam over a crepe with a flourish, but the whole spectacle has become so repugnant I throw it away in disgust without taking a bite.

 

I do not find asylum within the shrine to my mentors. Some still labor on rickety scaffolds to complete another masterpiece before they die. I cannot suppress a suspicion that these geniuses, waving their wands in flawless arcs, are naive to the bitterness of the blemish.

Their towering creations, each scarcely contained within gilded frames, fail to revitalize me. While I aspire to have my own work displayed on these hallowed walls, I must accept that it is providence rather than merit that has delivered the patronage necessary to afford a presentable costume.

My habit, duty, is to dispense a bit of wisdom to the amiable students floundering behind easels on my way out, but today I fear they will breach my facade. Fortunately, most have clustered around an unfamiliar man offering to paint portraits for a single franc. I, like the students and more than a few passers-by, am inexplicably drawn to him.

Hunched on a three-legged stool, he smears red and blue in haphazard dollops with each forefinger, green and yellow with dabs from middle fingers, and blends with rainbowed palms. Pulsating plumes from his gnarled pipe keeps time for his rasping fingertips.

Pausing, Painting, Pausing.

 

He delivers a completed canvas. The recipient’s fingers float adoringly above oily crests and troughs. Formerly flawed strokes form the perfectly raised foundation of a portrait that would otherwise be impossible to create. This saint of the stain takes no notice of the transcendence in his beneficiary as deft hands move a new canvas into place, but a careless observer might mistake the practiced shift of his pipe as a smile.

Carving Paradise

Chapter 1

Some random guy gets out of his muddy red pickup and walks the sidewalk towards Emma and James. He doesn’t trigger the stranger-danger alarms Emma’s parents still cram into her 13.4-year-old brain. Maybe his saccharin smile doesn’t match his brand new Cincinnati Reds ball cap and oversized supermarket sunglasses. Still, Emma wouldn’t be surprised to see him walk right on by.

But he doesn’t.

 

He isn’t exactly body-builder big, this guy, but definitely not a desk-jobber either. And even if her twin brother James is expecting something, this guy is too fast. That artificial smirk hardly changes as he smashes his fist into James’ nose.

James crumples like an empty can of Mountain Dew. This guy makes sure James isn’t moving before turning his attention to Emma. She wants this to be a movie where things happen to other people. She could eat popcorn. James’ ever-present arm would be nearby to grab just in case. Instead, she stands there looking at James on the ground as blood oozes from his freshly broken nose.

 

Then this guy, he pokes her almost tenderly through her t-shirt with a needle-tipped syringe. It triggers a wave of warmth that spreads from her shoulder and leaves paralyzing nothingness in its wake. Emma can’t resist, before the nothingness washes over her, a guilty satisfaction that James will understand how it feels not to have a perfect nose anymore.

 

 

***

 

“C’mon sleepy Sassy. Time to get up.”

 

 

***

 

Emma skips the groggy transition from drifting through nothingness to complete alertness as she realizes her back is on fire. Her wordless shriek propels her to her feet and she’s trying to yank off her scalding shirt. No good. Hands and arms aren’t working right. She falls back down. Feet and legs not working right either.

“Easy does it. Eeeasy.” The voice reaches her from underwater. Something about that seems off. Ears aren’t even working right. Pain and panic hog all her brainpower. A gentle pressure rolls her onto her side. There is immediate relief as a layer of air separates her unburnt shirt from her back. She dimly picks up a final fading fragment from the underwater voice before the nothingness engulfs her again…

“You just got yourself a little close to the fireplace is all.”

 

 

***

 

This time, Emma tumbles out of the nothingness in stuttering fragments. Warm back (definitely not scalding). Fluffy pillow under her head smells of vanilla and bedhead. Bristly longhaired rug underneath her is both musky and dusty. Throat tickles. Loud pop from the crackling fireplace behind her startles her eyes open. Weird wooden statues all over the place. Some are looking at her. Blink. Soft incandescent light from above and flickering flames from behind throw ominous shadows. Blink.

At the edge of her haloed vision is a clunky wooden dinner table, partially enclosed by a bay window. Lacquered figures mounted on bark-crusted pedestals guard each gap. Beyond that is glossy blackness. She thinks the windows are some kind of trick because she has never seen the outside look so dark. No street lights, no traffic, no McDonalds arches proudly serving as glowing urban north stars, and definitely no neighbors watching the latest episode of Two and a Half Men on their big screen TVs, just black.

 

Where am I? Her brain, still rebooting, supplies an obvious and unhelpful answer. Some huge cabin, in the middle of nowhere.

Where’s James? This creates more panic than waking up in a strange place. Rather than providing an answer, her unhelpful brain calls for backup, which in this case means moving her head to look around. There! There he is. See, we found him. Awwww, he’s sleeping.

Emma calls off her brain’s premature celebration as it processes more of James. He is in a typical James sleeping pose, hands between his legs, knees bent. Except his hands are tied, his face is speckled with crusted blood, someone went crazy with the purple eye shadow, and his nose is mangled.

 

Of all the twin features she got stuck with, Emma hates that they have the exact same nose. Long and straight, it keeps going until the narrow tip overhangs the nostrils, hiding them unless someone gets real close (which never happens, except once with James when Amanda Bennett kissed him, with tongue). James’ nose looks confident and always points him in the right direction. The same nose, surrounded by Emma’s puffy cheeks and soft chin, along with a nervous tendency to bob her head when she wants other people to think that she knows what they are talking about, makes her look like a hungry pigeon.

 

This is my fault. Emma knows it’s her fault, not only because everything is always her fault, but also because her brain is finally filling in some of the blanks. See, James was walking her back home early (again) from Claireborne Academy. James, although less than two inches taller, was a much faster walker and Emma has to swing her skinny bare arms ridiculously in order to keep up. Born 23 minutes after James and behind ever since.

 

“Slow down! Its not my fault Mrs. Patterson made you leave class again just to walk me home.” She adds, “Your precious friends won’t do anything without you around anyway.” James only reply is the vvvtt-vvvtt of his clashing corduroys as he walks even faster.

“Not that you’ll stick up for me when Mother finds out, but I barely even pushed Linda.” Emma is forced to pause long enough to catch her breath. “I mean, I hardly pushed her, but she was such a baby.” Two more deep breaths, then she spurts to catch back up to James. “She had to act like I made this huge fight and then she started crying, like a scared little baby.” She doubts he is paying attention to her, but continues anyway. “Then of course everyone had to come over to her.” James’ corduroy replies slow. He puts a hand in front of Emma’s wrist to slow her down. She is so tangled up in the day’s drama that James has to grab her wrist before she also notices this guy coming towards them…

 

“Hey there sleepy Sass! Glad to see you finally decided to wake up.” The voice comes from behind Emma and startles her back to the present. Still lying on her side, she quickly rolls into a less vulnerable sitting position, now facing him. The Cincinnati Reds ball cap and cheap sunglasses are gone, but this is definitely the guy that rearranged James’ face. He is sitting on the couch, elbows resting on knees, leaning forward slightly, his fingers interlinked. His smile is genuine and warm and it creeps Emma out.

Unable to move or respond, Emma continues to stare. She doesn’t notice his flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled to mid forearm, or dirty, rugged looking cowboy boots that look like they’ve seen some things, or his wavy brown hair cut minimal-maintenance short. Just that toothy grin, and a pair of penetrating hazel eyes.

“Sass, you know I try not to judge your friends and all, but this one’s got some problems.” He tilts his head in James direction. “Every time I try to get him up he goes berserk. I finally had to tie him up. For his own good.”

“Why…Why did you bring us here?” Emma asks, before she realizes she doesn’t want to know the answer. His reaction, wide-eyes and eyebrows tenting, makes her wonder if she should feel guilty for forgetting that today was National Psychopath day or something.

“I’m sure your mother was gonna take you to your friends, but when I saw you just walking on the sidewalk, I knew fate was telling me that it was time for us to have that quality father-daughter time I been promising for so long.” A thrilled grin takes control over his face. “And there’s also this” he says, with outstretched arms, “Look, your ol’ man finally finished our cabin!”

 

WTF. Seriously… W.T.F.

 

“Now, can you help me get your friend up? I thought that it would be alright to bring your friend along too, but, it doesn’t look like its gonna work out after all.” He finishes with an indifferent shoulder shrug.

“You’re gonna let him go?” Emma asks. Of course perfect James is going to walk away from this. I’ll be stuck playing make-believe with this psycho lumberjack while he gets to go home to mom and dad and all his friends. I’m sure somehow he’ll be the hero too. Everybody’s happy. The less vocal part of her brain that is relieved her twin will escape doesn’t get any time at the microphone.

He’s already kneeling over James, untying the cords around his wrists, and sitting him against the wall. “C’mon over here. I think it’ll help if he sees your face first thing. Maybe he won’t freak out this time.” When she doesn’t move, he pauses to give her his full attention. “Don’t worry Sass, I’ll always be here to protect you.”

Several harsher-than-necessary slaps and James’ eyes snap open. He braces to lunge forward. However, seeing Emma’s unharmed face in front of him saps his impulse to fight.

“Easy does it. Eeeasy.” The voice directing James is calm and in control.

“Who da HELL are jou, and why di’ jou bri’g us here?” James trumpets. Emma almost laughs at his rediculous new voice.

“I guess I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. I’m Sara’s dad. Ted Mallory.” He extends his hand towards James in a grudging display of good manners.

Recognition dawns on James’ damaged face. “Sara Mallory… da Sara Mallory from Golden Junior High?”

 

Everybody, including Emma, knows about Sara Mallory. She was popular (Sara, not Emma of course) and on her way to becoming a rock star in both the swimming pool and on the track field. One of those things probably got her invited to Doug Mitchell’s Spring Break Pool Party even though she wasn’t Claireborne. James wanted Emma to tag along too. “C’mon Em, it’ll be so crowded no one will care that you’re there so long as you don’t do anything crazy.” Mother wouldn’t budge. “No essay, no party. You know grades matter this year.” Emma didn’t really want to go to a party for Claireborne’s own Doug Mitchell anyway. Her barely-boobs and pasty skin all exposed in the retarded one-piece swimsuit everyone said was still fine for now. No thanks.

So Emma missed the chance to see Sara Mallory leap from popular to legend. The Golden Globe article was vague on specifics, but Emma overheard Greg Parker tell Samantha Ellsworth that when Sara jumped off the roof if she’d gone another foot closer she totally would have made it into the pool. Instead her head hit the lip of the pool so hard it cracked the cement. James was in the front of the house playing basketball so he couldn’t give her any details, and wouldn’t if he had them anyway. Emma couldn’t get a good look over the perimeter wall into the pool area, but she did see a construction truck in the driveway both times she rode her bike past.

Claireborne parents made a huge stink- inadequate supervision, unsafe conditions, legal repercussions. Nobody heard much from Sara’s mom, but rumor had it she was way under medical supervision. Sara’s reclusive every-other-weekend father, some genius with wooden sculptures, but not so good with people, let his lawyer do the public speaking. The message was mostly forgiveness and celebrating her life. Claireborne leadership urged parents and students affected by this tragic event to attend the funeral (even though she was a Golden Jr. girl) to aid in the grieving process.

Emma was not one of those students. She was however desperate for an excuse to get out of an oral presentation of her still incomplete persuasive essay. She rehearsed her appeal, “I even heard that Mr. Mallory is going to donate one of his famous wooden sculptures at the cemetery.” She presented her case during dinner. Lawyer-father continued to scroll through emails on his phone with one hand, pasta filled fork in the other, “You shouldn’t have led with the fact that you don’t know the girl.” Mother’s stony dismissal was more emphatic, “What kind of girl would want to take a field trip to a funeral? Besides, you’ve already fallen too far behind.” Mother took James to buy a new suit for the funeral.

 

“Sass? Earth ta Sass! C’mon, it’s time to say goodbye to your friend.” Emma stands mute at the apex of an isosceles triangle whose points, represented by Mr. Mallory and James, draw closer together. James’ anger distorts his speech even more. “I’b dot going abywhere withou’ by SIS-ER!” He times the last word to coincide with what would otherwise be a glancing blow. Mr. Mallory catches the errant fist, then uses it to casually spin James around until his wrist is pinned between his shoulder blades. Further upward pressure sends James to his tiptoes.

“I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in front of my Sass.” Flexed forearms strain the rolled cuffs of his flannel shirt and forces fleshy worms to squirm under his skin.

“Her dabe is EBBA! A’d this “Sath” tha’ you keep thaying… the’s FUC-KIG DEAD!”

 

These barely intelligible (but still pretty harsh) words send Mr. Mallory into sleep mode because the pressure keeping James on his toes relaxes in parallel with their captor’s facial features. Face sags until it’s just a pair of frantically scrolling hazel eyes. Emma is mesmerized by the glossy blackness beyond the bay window reflected in those twitching eyes.

James takes advantage of the reprieve and begins to pirouette his arm free, careful to avoid eye contact throughout the awkward maneuver. Emma is too slow to make the transition from witness to participant in their escape before Mr. Mallory’s internal power plant resumes operations.

 

“Its…time…for…you…to…go.” A reanimated Mr. Mallory punctuates each word with torqueing twists on James’ re-pinned wrist. James responds in sync with involuntary squawks until his contorted wrist broadcasts a nauseating crack. Back arched, on his toes, James wails. Emma pounds on Mr. Malory’s back, kicking his legs, tears surging, and she’s screaming, “Let him go!”

Mr. Mallory marches this ear-splitting parade to a locked wooden door. James loses the fight to stay conscious. Mr. Mallory hefts James to his off shoulder, and after absentmindedly barring Emma from following, descends the stairs behind the door. Emma beats on the door. It doesn’t block out the muffled clamor of what sounds like luggage thrown around by irritated baggage-handlers.

 

Emma stops hammering when the door opens and Mr. Mallory returns alone. Her heart takes over where her little fists left off. She is backing away before her mind- It’s my turn now- shifts focus away from James. Two long strides puts him within arms reach and Emma realizes it’s too late to run.

 

“Please don’t hurt me.”

 

He puts a substantial hand on each of her scrawny shoulders. Emma scrunches her eyes shut. It didn’t work the one time she rode a roller coaster and it isn’t working now.

“Sass, open your eyes. Please, look at me.” His voice is tender now, but way too close for Emma. She opens her eyes. He is stooped down at her eye-level. “I’m sure you’re upset Sass. You’ve gotten used to your mother letting you have all sorts of friends and do all sorts of things with them. But, that’s what got you… hurt.” Despite her crappy grades, Emma is smart enough to know that silence is the best way to avoid joining James behind the locked door. “Look at what your friend (he takes his hands off her shoulders long enough to put up air-quotes) tried to do to me in our own home! Its one thing to throw punches, and even horrible lies, for no reason, at me. Who’s to say he won’t do the same thing to you? Huh? He had to go. Just had to. You understand that don’t you? That I love you, and that I will NEVER let anything, or anyone hurt you ever again?”

His gaze is imploring, unwavering. “Yes sir.”

“C’mon now,” he chuckles, “There’s no need for all that. I’m still Dad and you’re still my perfect Sass. Right?”

Despite the whole Kumbaya vibe, Emma can’t keep herself from looking at the locked door before answering. “Yes… Dad.”

 

He beams at her the exact same way Mr. Edwards did that one time she got all the differences between a parallelogram and a trapezoid in geometry. Dad puts a sweaty arm around Emma’s shoulders in a good-natured side hug as he rotates them away from the locked door to survey the living room. The victor and his cringing prize.  “Great. Now it’s just us. Just like fate planned.”

 

Emma searches for unlocked doors and windows as best she can after Mr. Mallory (Dad) goes to bed, thinking that maybe just this once, if she gets away and brings back help, she’ll get to be the hero. Of course, no luck. Groaning and creaking floorboards keep narcing on her. She really wants to, but she can’t do anything for James other than endure his faint groans escaping through an air vent near the dinner table. And even if there is a way through the locked door, it’s way too much of a risk to her “perfect Sass” status.

 

***