Avoid it at all costs!!!!!!! New fiction.

Bad Publicity

By: S. Scott Bullock

Carolyn Trendall opened her eyes and had no idea where she was. She knew she was in some sort of odd room. A living room/dining room/kitchen, combo sort of room. She knew she was seated on an ugly, threadbare, burnt orange chair. She knew she was dressed in a horrible blue faded house dress kind of thing. She knew that she was wide awake and she knew that it was cold. She shifted in the ugly chair and looked behind her. She saw a door and looking around further, realized that she was in some sort of mobile home. A trailer. A double-wide she thought they were called. She looked down at her feet and saw that she was wearing very shabby, brown, faux-leather house slippers and that the carpet beneath those slippers was a burnt orange, brown and mustard, tri-colored 1970’s shag. She suddenly felt an urge to bolt for the door but had no idea why. She actually didn’t know the ‘why’ of anything at that moment.

As she contemplated standing up she heard sounds coming for the very back of the trailer. She assumed the bedroom or bedrooms where back there. Then a voice. Shouting.

“And if you give me any more-a-your crap about it I’ll really hit ya next time. I won’t be pullin’ no punches no more. I mean it Charlene. Next time, I’m takin’ you out. And not for dinner.”

Just then the person that the voice belonged to burst into the room where Carolyn was sitting. Still utterly unable to comprehend her situation she just sat there, mute, as the man came crashing in shouting at her.

“You get your damn panties in a bunch over the damn stupidest things Charlene. And I DID NOT hit you. I pushed your ugly ass away from me and you fell down and if you tell anybody anything different, I’ll bury you. I swear to father God, I’ll freakin’ bury you!”

The man grabbed his coat off a hook by the door and as he put it on he turned and looked at Carolyn. His gaze was terrifying. His eyes were bloodshot and his greasy blond hair stuck to the top and sides of his head. His teeth were bared and Carolyn could see the spaces where two of his teeth were missing. He was unshaven and it looked like he may have bruises on his cheek and neck. He stared at her for what seemed forever and then spoke. Quietly this time. And this quiet speech was far more terrifying than the yelling.

“I am two loads away from being done with you, Charlene.” He hissed. “I’m goin’ to Carl’s now. I’m gonna get drunk. Then I’m gonna come home and you know what I’m gonna expect. And you better be ready. You better be wearing that see-through thing I like and you better have a cold beer and my smokes on the table. You better be smilin’ and you better be hot for me. Or I swear to father God, I am gettin’ my shotgun and I’m unloadin’ both barrels into your eyeballs. One barrel in each eye. You get me?”

Carolyn stared.

“But I’m not…” She whimpered.

“YOU GET ME!?!?” He screamed at her.

She nodded her head, yes.

“Good.” He said in the scary quiet voice and walked out of the trailer slamming the door behind him.

Carolyn sat. Terrified. Her mind was reeling. What was happening? What the hell was happening to her. Was this a nightmare? Was she asleep? Had she lost her mind?

She slowly stood up, unsteady on her feet. Pain shot up her back into her neck. She looked at her arms and saw bruises and scrapes. Her desperate need for a bathroom was the only thing keeping her from bolting out the door and running. ‘Running WHERE?’ she thought. She walked toward the

back of the trailer, winching from pain and the desperate need to urinate. She found the bathroom and quickly lifted the ugly house dress. She saw that she wasn’t wearing any panties and that fact made her stomach roll over. She sat down hard on the toilet in a semi-collapse. She thought she was going to vomit but then the relief of peeing took over her whole body. She peed for what seemed like an hour and the relief was sublime. Her body shivered as the last drops of urine fell into the filth-splattered toilet bowl. She cleaned herself with the remains of a roll of sandpaper toilet-tissue that was sitting on top of the sink counter and stood up. She thought of washing her hands but again realized the danger she was in. She needed to flee. Quickly. That beast was going to come back, but from what he said, she knew she had some time before he did.

She left the bathroom and found the bedroom. She went to the closet and looked inside. She found what she was looking for. Clothes. They were really ugly, but they looked the right size. Carolyn grabbed a denim blouse and a pair of faded 501 jeans. She pulled them on quickly and they indeed fit her. The jeans were a little snug around the waist but this was NOT the time to worry about exact fit. She saw a pair of woman’s cowboy boots on the shelf above the clothes rack and grabbed them. She went to the beat up early American dresser and frantically pulled open the drawers. She found a pair of socks and grabbed those. She thought for a moment of getting a pair of panties out of the same drawer, because her naked skin was already feeling troubled by the tight denim pants, but then thought better of it. The last thing she wanted was this monster’s wife’s intimate apparel that close to her own privates. If she was his wife. Probably not. Probably some pitiful girlfriend, beaten down spiritually and physically by that sub-human animal. He was insane. Obviously insane and had somehow confused her with his girlfriend. But how had SHE gotten there in the first place, wearing a hideous house dress and torn slippers?

She sat on the unmade bed and felt a mattress spring dig into her thigh, she pulled on the socks, then the boots. She was not surprised when they fit. It seems that Neanderthal’s wife or girlfriend or whatever, was Carolyn’s size. Out of shear habit she assessed herself in the mirror above the dresser. She looked surprisingly stylish for what she threw on in sheer desperation. She had a brief thought that she was, after all, a fashion model and she could make anything look stylish. This miserable and horribly frightening situation proved that fact. Looking at her face in the mirror she also saw a prominent bruise at her left jaw line and a black eye beginning under her left eye. She had no idea how she got the bruises or black eye. No recollection at all. That thought scared her to her core. What was going on? Where was her memory?

She heard a noise outside the bedroom window and was yanked from her reverie. She spun around and headed for the bedroom door and in the process knocked over the bedside table. A half-filled water glass, an alarm clock and a stack of paperback books flew to the floor. The glass shattered and water covered the splayed stack of books. Carolyn saw that they were romance novels, all by the same author. She made the quick mental assertion that romance novels would be perfectly appropriate for the battered female occupant of a double-wide trailer. She flew to the front door, threw it open and ran into the cold night.

She ran out of the trailer park and onto a street. It looked like a main thoroughfare. Lots of traffic going in both directions. She contemplated hitching a ride then quickly dismissed the notion. She was not about to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. She flipped a mental coin and decided to turn right and head, what appeared to be, north. She took her first step in that direction and her right foot slipped out from under her. She ass-planted on the side of the highway and realized she had slipped on a huge pile of dog crap. Even through the pain of the fall she managed to chuckle at the absurdity of the situation. Here she was, Carolyn Andrea Trendall, one of the highest paid fashion models in the world, sitting splay-legged on the side of a rural highway, boot-heel deep in dog shit and having NO idea how she came to be there.

Out of reflex she reached for her cell phone. It wasn’t in her pocket. Because the pocket, like the pants, didn’t belong to her. She stood up painfully and began to walk. Where she was going, she hadn’t a clue, but she figured she’d know when she got there.

What seemed to Carolyn to be about an hour later she saw a town a short distance ahead of her. She picked up her pace and felt, for the first time since she opened her eyes in that hellish trailer, a struggling glimmer of hope. If she could just get to a phone she’d be able to get help. She needed to call Barbara. Her best friend, her mentor, Barbara Payton always knew what to do. But Carolyn knew that even Barbara was going to have a challenge with THIS situation. Still she felt confident that Barb would know what to do. How many hundreds of scrapes had Barb gotten Carolyn out of? Too damn many to even consider. Barbara was a miracle worker and could turn tragedy to triumph with a simple sentence.

As Carolyn got closer to what she thought was a town, she realized that it was actually just a strip mall, a diner and a gas station. All the shops in the mall were closed but the station and diner were open. She looked at the lighted diner sign with big city judgment. Even in this cesspool of fear and confusion she could still muster that condescending, privileged attitude.

DUMPLIN’S DINER

Best Chicken & Dumplin’s in Alabama

Carolyn’s upper class posture suddenly slumped away. It was replaced with astonishment and terror. She shivered and spoke aloud to the chilling air and the diner sign.

“Alabama.” She said quietly. “I live in New York. How the hell did I get to Alabama?”

The ‘ding-ding’ sound of the bell at the gas station brought her back to reality. A rusted blue pickup had pulled in for gas and the driver, an old man who looked remarkably like Santa Claus, was singing along with the radio. She only heard a little of it but knew right away what it was. It was a hymn. A favorite of her father’s mother. A retched woman who used the bible and God as a weapon. Sometimes literally, as Carolyn remembered. Her paternal grandmother, Nunna they called her, hit her once on the back of the head with her treasured, gigantic, King James version of the good book. And she had struck her only because Carolyn had confided in her the unrequited love she felt for a class mate. Carolyn had seen stars whirling around in front of her after that assault and made a silent vow to never more accept her Nunna nor religion as viable resources for solace.

“Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee,” The Santa Claus man belted out. “How great thou art,” then with a huge finish, “HOW GREAT THOU ART!

The Santa Claus man looked over at Carolyn and saw her staring.

“Praise the Lord!” He shouted to her.

Carolyn nodded to him then turned toward the diner. Her head swam again. ‘The bible belt.’ She thought. ‘Alabama and the bible belt.’ She couldn’t be more out of place. She was a jet-setter for heaven’s sake. She’d had dinner with Brad and Angelina. She had met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

She was the face of Donella cosmetics. Her over-made-up, photoshopped visage graced billboards and magazine ads.

“This cannot be happening.” She whispered to herself as she opened the door to Dumplin’s Diner.

“Sit anywhere you want honey.” A woman in her 50’s, skinny as a chain-link fence post, and wearing a waitress uniform straight out of a really bad ‘B’ movie, called out to her from behind the counter. “We’re dead in here tonight so the whole place is yours.”

“I don’t want…” Carolyn stopped short as the waitress went through the swinging door into the kitchen. She walked over to the counter and took the stool nearest the kitchen door. The diner smelled of old bacon grease and pine-sol and the florescent lighting gave a greenish tint to everything in the place. Then the swinging door flew open and the bone-thin waitress came over to Carolyn.

“You want a menu honey, or do you know what you want?” She said smiling and baring tobacco stained teeth.

“I just need a phone.” Carolyn said, and as she did tears began to burn her eyes. She swallowed them back and said, “Do you have a phone I could use. I need to make a very important call. It’s an emergency and I’ve lost my cell. I’ll pay any charges.”

“Oh shoot honey.” The waitress began. “That storm, night before last… could you BELIVE that storm?! … That storm, night before last, took out the phones. It took out the power too, but they got that back on this morning.”

“But I just…” Carolyn lost it then. Tears began to flood from her eyes. She dropped her head and sobbed.

“Oh shoot honey. What is it darlin’? What is it?” The waitress came around from behind the counter and put her hand on Carolyn’s shoulder. “I have a cell phone, darlin’. You want me to call someone?”

Carolyn looked up and into the waitress’s eyes. The waitress saw the bruises and black eye then.

“Oh shoot honey. You’re hurt. Who did that to you? You want me to call the sheriff darlin’?”

“NO.” Carolyn said a little too loud and strong. “No. I can’t have the pub… I can’t…”

Carolyn saw the waitress’s mouth moving but what she was hearing didn’t come from it. She was hearing Barbara Payton’s voice in her head. She was hearing Barbara laying down one her edicts. She was hearing Barbara say, ‘Avoid bad publicity at ALL cost. Never talk to the press outside of an interview. Never involve the police and I repeat, AVOID BAD PUBLICITY.’

“… I’ll just go fetch it.” The waitress finished.

Carolyn had no idea what she was going to fetch, but she was hoping it would be a phone. The waitress came hurrying back in talking a mile a minute.

“Mine was dead, honey, but Dumplin’s has a little juice left in the battery.”

Just then an enormous woman squeezed herself through the swinging door. Her skin was blue-black, like anthracite coal. She was wearing a filthy, cover-all apron and conservatively weighed four-hundred pounds. But she had the face of an angel. Even with the worried expression she was currently wearing, her’s was just about the most beautiful face that Carolyn had ever seen.

“This is Dumplin’, honey. She owns the diner.” The waitress said pointing to the large lady. “Here’s her cell.” She handed the ancient flip-phone to Carolyn. The waitress turned to Dumplin’ and said, “I gotta step out for a smoke, Dumplin’… all this has got me riled up. I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”

“Those damn cancer sticks are gonna be the death of you, Sissy-Ann.” Dumplin’ said, wagging a sausage-sized finger at the waitress.

Carolyn opened the flip-phone and stared at the keypad. Her mind was a blank. Technology reared its ravenous maw just then and bit her on the ass.

“I don’t know the number.” She said wiping the last tears from her face. “All the numbers I call are stored on my phone. I just press the person’s name I want to call. I don’t know any of them by heart.” She looked up at Dumplin’.

“Call 411.” Dumplin’ said scrutinizing Carolyn’s face. Then, “Do I know you, sweetie? Don’t you live around here?”

Carolyn’s mind swam then began to race. Dumplin’ must have seen her magazine ads. She MUST NOT be recognized. Avoid bad publicity at all cost.

“No.” She said firmly. “No. I’m from New York.” She stood up and turned away from Dumplin’. “I’ll call information. I’ll call 411.” As she pressed the three numbers on the grimy old flip-phone, Sissy-Ann the waitress came back into the diner.

“Colder than a witch’s…”

“Sissy-Ann!” Dumplin’ stopped the waitress mid sentence. “Not when we have a customer.”

Carolyn stood with her back to the two women and talked quietly into the phone.

“Can I have the number of Barbara Payton, New York, New York, please?”

As Carolyn waited for the number, Sissy-Ann and Dumplin’ began their own surreptitious conversation.

“She look familiar to you?” Dumplin’ whispered to the waitress.

“I thought so too, when she first came in.” the waitress whispered back.

“Has she been in before?” Dumplin’ asked.

“I don’t recall that.” the waitress said while taking a quick glance at Carolyn’s turned back. “I think I’d remember her if she came in. But she could have come in during the day shift. That’s why she’d look more familiar to you than me.”

“I wonder who hit her?” Dumplin’ said.

“Some back country asshole.” the waitress said.

“Sissy-Ann!” Dumplin’ chided. “Your mouth is ugly. You got a ugly mouth.”

Carolyn closed the flip-phone and turned around.

“She’s not listed.” She said quietly. “My friend is not listed. Just her publisher’s number. And they’ve got to be closed. It’s late.”

“Her what?” Sissy-Ann asked.

“Nothing.” Carolyn said handing the phone to Dumplin’. “Thank you for the phone. I owe you a dollar for the 411 call, but I don’t have my purse.”

“Don’t you go worryin’ bout no dollar now little girl.” Dumplin’ said smiling. “You come over to the counter and sit yourself down and I’ll get you a hot coffee. You hungry?”

Carolyn was surprised to find that she was, indeed, hungry. After all the shit she had been through it wasn’t hard for her to believe that her very well trained appetite was feeling a little out of control.

“I’m starving.” She said sheepishly. “But my wallet.”

“Don’t you worry bout no wallet.” Dumplin’ said leading Carolyn to the counter. “Sissy-Ann get this little girl some coffee and a menu.” Then to Carolyn. “It’s your lucky night sweetie. Anything off the menu is free tonight. Special Dumplin’s Deal.”

Carolyn remembered what she had thought when she first saw the Dumplin’s Diner sign and a wash of guilt flowed over her. Nobody in New York would care for her like this under these circumstances. Not in New York.

“I’ll just have some eggs if you have them.” She said. “Scrambled?”

“Scrambled it is. You like bacon, sweetie?” Dumplin’ asked her through a beautiful smile.

“Yes, I do. Yes, please.” Carolyn said smiling back despite her situation.

“And some hash browns. Would you like some of Dumplin’s Diner’s world famous hash browns?”

“Carbs.” Carolyn said reflexively.

“What sweetie? Cars?” Dumplin’ asked, her brow furrowing a little.

“Carbohy… oh forget it…. yes please I would LOVE some world famous hash browns.”

“White, wheat, sourdough, bagel or English muffin?” Sissy-Ann chimed in reflexively.

“Bagel please.” Carolyn was now grinning from ear to ear. “With loads of butter and even more cream cheese, please!”

“I’ll get all that started.” Dumplin’ said heading to the kitchen. “Sissy-Ann, you sit down next to … hey sweetie, we don’t know your name.

“Carolyn.” Carolyn said.

“Well that’s Sissy-Ann and I’m Doneetra but please call me Dumplin’. Sissy-Ann, you sit next to Carolyn and find out how we can help her out.” Dumplin’s huge frame swirled around and squeezed itself through the door to the kitchen.

Sissy-Ann motioned for Carolyn to get up.

“Let’s go over to a booth, honey. These stools are murder on the derriere.” She pronounced it Dairy-urr.

They moved to a booth toward the back of the diner and slid in. Carolyn’s mind was racing again. Should she tell them who she was and what had happened, WAS happening to her? Could she trust them not to talk about it. NOT to call the police or the press. Carolyn smelled the unmistakable aroma of frying bacon and knew right then and there that she should trust them. These were good people. They’d help her.

Carolyn began to speak and the words poured from her completely out of her control. She told Sissy-Ann her name and who she was. She spoke of waking up in the trailer and the abusive monster who threatened her and called her Charlene. She told Sissy-Ann of her escape from the trailer, her long walk to the diner and all the events leading up to the present. Carolyn barely paused to breathe and was so relieved by finally telling her story that tears were rolling down her cheeks and wetting the table between her hands. When she finished she looked intently at Sissy-Ann and spoke her last, most important words.

“So I have to contact Barbara, my friend Barbara Payton, she’ll know what to do, she always knows what to do.”

At that moment the kitchen door swung open and Dumplin’ came in with three plates of food. They were piled high with eggs, bacon, sausages, bagels, hash-brown potatoes and breakfast steak. Dumplin’ skillfully juggled the plates over to the booth and set them down in front of Carolyn.

“Here sweetie.” She said. “You eat all of this. Your butt is too skinny. I brought you a big breakfast steak too. You eat that all up now. I’ll get you some flat ware and a proper steak knife. Eat.”

Dumplin’ looked at Sissy-Ann.

“So. How do we help our new friend here?” She asked.

Carolyn started to recount the story for Dumplin’, but Sissy-Ann stopped her.

“You eat.” Sissy-Ann said to Carolyn. “I’ll tell the story.” Sissy-Ann turned to Dumplin’ as Dumplin’ put the flat wear and napkins in front of Carolyn. She spoke solemnly. “This here girl”, She began, “is a famous fashion model.”

By the time Sissy-Ann had finished telling Carolyn’s story, Carolyn had finished over half the food on her plates. She put her fork down and looked at Dumplin’.

“Thank you so much for your kindness.” She said. “I promise I’ll repay it. I promise…”

The door to the diner flew open and the monster from the trailer stormed in, followed closely behind by the hymn singing Santa Claus. The monster walked to the middle of the diner, spotted Carolyn sitting at the booth and snarled over his shoulder.

“Yep, that’s her. Thanks Bucky. That’s her.” He stepped closer to the booth. “Charlene,” He growled. “You get your skinny, white ass in the truck. You get in now or I swear to father God, I’ll pick you up and tie you to the hood. NOW!” He stepped closer to the table and Carolyn’s hand brushed against the steak knife Dumplin’ had brought her earlier.

Barbara Payton sat at her writing desk in her beautiful upstate New York Gothic mansion and took a sip of her tea. The IBM Selectric typewriter hummed and blended with the sound of Mozart coming from the stereo. Barbara wrote everything on that old Selectric. She refused to go computer. She had written her first book on that thing and she vowed that she would write her last on it too. She sipped the remains of her tea as her assistant knocked quietly on the door.

“Come in.” Barbara called out. “I’m at a stopping point right now.”

Barbara’s assistant, Lea Drake, came into the room. She wore an old fashioned business suit and looked like central casting’s version of an executive secretary. She carried a teapot in one hand and an electric tablet in the other.

“I’m stuck. I’ve written myself into a corner.” Barbara said.

“Have you been online at all this morning?” Lea asked grinning.

“No.” Barbara said. “Why?”

“May I read you something?” Lea said.

“Yeah. Why are you grinning?”

“Just listen.” Lea said putting the teapot down and opening up a page on the tablet.

“A rural Alabama woman fatally stabbed her common law

husband Friday night in a Grove Field, Alabama diner.

Charlene DeLance stabbed Macon Brunard in the heart

with a steak knife after a brief altercation in Dumplin’s Diner

in Grove Field. Brunard died at the scene.”

“Well that’s lovely.” Barbara interrupted. “But just why should this interest me?”

“Hang on.” Lea said. “The good part’s coming.”

“When police and paramedics arrived on the scene

they were met, one officer reported, by an

unbalanced and ranting woman. She was, according to

officer Donald Teak, ‘Screaming like a banshee and

running amok.’ When police finally restrained the

woman she was asked her name and to explain the

circumstances. She told them….”

“You ready for this?” Lea interrupted herself.

“Yes.” Barbara said. Then sarcastically. “The suspense is killing me.”

“When police finally restrained the woman she was

asked her name and to explain the circumstances. She

told them her name was Carolyn Trendall and that she

was a famous model from New York. She said she had

no idea who Macon Brunard was or why he was after

her. She told police she had felt threatened by him

and subsequently stabbed him.

Carolyn Trendall is a character from a series of

Romance/Mystery novels written by Pulitzer Prize

winning author Barbara Payton.

DeLance was taken to a nearby hospital for

mental evaluation and disposition.”

“How ’bout that?” Lea said grinning. “You were just YESTERDAY saying we needed a little publicity!”

“Fantastic.” Barbara said. “That crazy broad just gave me the best gift EVER. And unlike good old Carolyn Trendall who says we should AVOID bad publicity at all cost…. Barbara Payton says, there is NO SUCH THING as bad publicity. Now. Go do something secretarial. I think I found the next twist for my book.

Homeless. But helping the hopeless. New Fiction from yours truly!

Homeless

By: S. Scott Bullock

The man sat cross-legged in the shade of a billboard advertising the latest Mercedes ‘S’ Class. His clothes were caked in filth and his face and hands grimy. It was August in Los Angeles which translates to hotter-than-hell, yet the man was wearing a tattered sweater over a shirt and knitted vest. He was sweating profusely and would occasionally wipe his brow with crumpled pages of a newspaper he had at his side. The newsprint left black streaks on his forehead, cheeks and hands, multiplying his look of addled destitution. He sat on the sidewalk in front of a used furniture store on San Vicente Boulevard. The blanket he sat on was printed with fading images of Sponge Bob Squarepants which once, no doubt, covered a child in warmth and happiness. Now it simply gave his bony-butt some respite from the unforgiving concrete.

He held no sign. No ‘Will Work For Food’ or ‘Homeless Vet Can You Help’. He simply sat. His head down and staring at his dirt-washed hands as they rested in his lap. Sometimes, the most wondrous of times, someone would give him something as they passed by. Sometimes food. Sometimes money. It gave him hope. That kindness from others gave him hope for mankind. Especially because he never asked for help. He never begged. And he would reward that kindness. He would. He made sure he would reward it.

“I told you to get the frig from outta the front of my store!” A fat woman in a too-tight caftan said to him from the doorway of the furniture shop. “You don’t move and I get my baseball bat you homeless piece of filth!”

The man didn’t look up. He simple rolled off his Sponge Bob blanket, picked it up along with the newspaper, shoved them both into his big black trash bag, and walked away from the store and the cruel fat lady who had yelled at him. He was okay with moving on though. Nobody who walked by had given him anything for a couple hours so he had nobody to reward. It was time for a new location. Maybe his luck would change in a new place.

He turned the corner and moved up a small side street. He turned another corner, walked around an old Hollywood style bungalow apartment, and was back on San Vicente, about a quarter mile further up. It was a residential section of the very long street and he knew he had to walk a good ways to find a suitable spot among some businesses. As he stepped into the street to cross to the other side he saw a flash of red in his peripheral vision. He heard the roar of a car engine. A sports car. Then an excruciating pain. Then the sky. Then blackness.

The conference room was ice cold and Kimberly sat quietly trying not to shiver. Her nerves, chilled by this over zealous A/C, were making it nearly impossible to sit still. She rubber her arms up and down, hugging herself in the process, as the conference room door opened. Alan Masley, a short, round man with a comic book comb-over came to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down.

“It’s warm in here.” He said. “Caroline, is it?”

“Kimberly.” She said pulling her hands away from her arms.

“Oh. Sorry. Kimberly.” Masley opened a file folder. “I’m Alan Masley. Do you prefer Kim?”

“No.” She said a little too sharply.

Masley looked up startled.

“Sorry. No. I really hate ‘Kim’. Don’t know why. Maybe because my brother used to make fun of me all the time. He’d say ‘Kim, Kim her brain is dim!’ And stuff like that. You know how brothers are? Do you have a brother Mr. Masley?” She was rambling from nerves.

“Alan.” Masley said looking back down at the file.

“Your brother is Alan?” Kimberly asked.

“What?” Masley said looking up at her again.

“Your brother?”

“I don’t have a brother.” Masley said confused.

“Who’s Alan?” Kimberly said genuinely confused herself.

“I’m Alan.” Masley said closing the file folder. “You called me Mr. Masley. We use first names around here. Equal playing field and all that other tree-hugging B.S.”

“Oh.” Kimberly said through a chuckle. “I thought you had a brother named Alan. That was almost like ‘Who’s On First’ !”

Masley stared at her.

“The routine? Abbott and Costello? Who’s on…. Aren’t I supposed to meet with Mr. Rusk?” She finished, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. She was also beginning to perspire despite the sub-zero temperature in the room.

“Andrew.” Masley said flately. “He prefers you call him by his first name.”

“Okay. Aren’t I supposed to meet Andrew?” She asked, shifting in her seat.

Masley stood up and walked over to the credenza. He picked up the coffee pot from the maker and held it up to Kimberly.

“Coffee?” He asked her.

“Yes, please, black. And hot! It’s freezing in here.” She chuckled again.

Masley poured two cups of coffee. He opened six packets of sugar and poured them in his cup then three creamer cups. He stirred his coffee and brought both cups back to the table. He set her cup in front of her.

“The thing is Kim, is that Andrew has sort of disappeared.” Masley brought his cup to his mouth as the conference room door swung open. A woman in her fifties, brown bobbed hair, tailored suit, and business high heels stormed into the room.

“You’re kidding, Alan? Right? You’re kidding?” She spat the words at him.

“What?” He said to her putting his coffee cup down.

She pointed at Kimberly.

“You’re telling a total stranger that we can’t find our CEO?”

“Listening at keyholes, Trish?” He said smiling a humorless smile at her.

“Who needs keyholes with your big mouth?” She said lowering her own volume. “I could hear you halfway down the hall.” She turned to Kimberly. “I’m sorry… Miss?”

“Parton” Kimberly answered holding out her hand. Trish ignored it.

“Miss Parton. Andrew, Mr. Rusk, is unavailable for your meeting today as he is across town taking care of some last minute business. Ask Wayne at the front desk to reschedule you for next week. Okay? Nice meeting you. Have a great day now.” She moved toward Kimberly and pulled her out of her chair.

“But we didn’t really meet.” Kimberly said standing up.

“No we didn’t.” Trish said pushing Kimberly through the conference room door. “Front desk.” She said and turned back toward Masley.

“You’re freakin’ certifiable, Trish.” Masley said sipping some coffee. “Sir-Tee-Fiable.”

“Listen to me you fat-fart.” She said stepping toward him.

“WHOA!” Masley said sitting forward. “You watch yourself Missy or I’ll have you over my knee!”

“In your dreams, you sickening bag of bile.” She went to the credenza and poured herself some coffee. “We’re in deep, Alan, and he isn’t here to bail us out.”

“Would you fill me in on what we know, please. I just got back. Remember?” He got up and refilled his coffee.

She reflexively moved away from him as he approached.

“I won’t bite, Trish.” He grinned at her. “Unless you want me to.”

“You out-repulsive repulsive. You know that?” She said moving to the conference table. She sat down and pulled the file folder Masley had brought in closer to her. “Kimberly Parton.” She said reading. “Another one of his ‘hopefuls’? I wonder if she’s any relation to Dolly.”

“She certainly bore two great resemblances.” Masley said sneering and cupping his hands in front of his chest. “If you get my drift.”

“Your drift smells as bad as your breath, Alan.”

“So sweet. You’re so very, very sweet, Trish. Now. Fill me in.” Masley sat across from her at the table.

“He was doing his weekend long, end of the month, charity, slash, philanthropy, slash, giving back bullshit.” Trish began.

“Also known as throwing away perfectly good money.” Masley finished off his coffee and got up to get more. “More coffee?” He asked, holding the pot up toward Trish.

“No. So he goes off on his weekend ‘giving’ spree and he disappears. One-hundred-fifty grand in ‘charity’ cash, one and a half million dollar, fire-engine-red Ferrari and all.”

The nurse’s station was small, under-equipped and understaffed. Working at ‘County’, as the hospital was nick-named, was a thankless and difficult proposition. Nurses here were dedicated to helping people. So dedicated in fact that the horrible working conditions were only an annoyance and not a deterrent. Two nurses, on the midnight to noon shift, sat at the meager station sipping tea between rounds.

“Bed one is iffy.” The white-bread, blonde nurse said to the African-American nurse. “He came in this afternoon. Poor guy was crossing San Vicente and some lunatic in a bright red sports car slammed into him, threw him ten feet into the air and just kept on going. He’s got major head trauma, severe facial injuries and a broken left tibia. Surgery patched him up but we need to keep a close eye on him.”

“That’s sick.” The African-American nurse said. “Running him down and then splitting. That’s really sick.”

“The fortunate are never held accountable, Tina.” The blonde nurse said and blew on her tea. “The cop told me that a witness said the car did stop and check the guy. But get this, this poor homeless guy had a black trash bag with him and the guy in the sports-car took it and THEN drove off!”

“A trophy maybe?” Tina said.

“A what?” The blonde nurse asked.

“I saw this movie on Netflix last Wednesday.” Tina began. “No wait. It was Thursday. No wait, Tuesday. Oh. Anyway. It doesn’t matter. Must have been Wednesday, though. This serial killer named Donner Butterman kills homeless people for fun. Like hunting. Like a sport, ya know?”

The blonde nurse leaned away. “Ewww.” She said and sipped the last of her tea.

“Yeah.” Tina said. “Gross. He was played by a really cute actor though. I can’t remember his name. Ethan somebody or Justin. Or Frank. Nobody real famous. Willy? I don’t remember. But he was really cute so it was really hard to hate him for killing all those homeless people. Cute and creepy.”

“Like so many of my boyfriends.” The blonde said chucking.

“Yeah!” Tina guffawed. “So this Butterman guy kills the homeless people and then takes something of theirs and then glues the stuff he took from them all over the walls of his basement.”

“Yuck.” The blonde said picking up a clip board and standing. “Gotta go check on our charges.” She said and walked away from the station.

“I’ll start at the other end.” Tina said getting up.

A month later the homeless man was discharged from the hospital. He had no memory of what had happened to him. As a matter of fact he had no memory at all. The man in the red sports-car not only took his black trash bag, he also stole the homeless man’s memory. The head trauma had been severe enough to erase the poor soul’s past. And the reconstruction from the facial trauma was so extreme that when he looked into the mirror, he saw a deformed stranger gazing back at him. A lost stranger. He didn’t know his name or where he was from. He didn’t know what led him to this life. He didn’t know anything.

The county placed him in a downtown Los Angeles homeless shelter where he worked to pay for room and board. He served meals and cleaned the kitchen. He did laundry and cleaned up the puke in the bathrooms. He more than earned his keep, in puke-cleanup alone, but he didn’t mind any of the chores. He was grateful. He found himself feeling grateful all the time. Even on the ugliest days when his leg was hurting him or some new bum showed up and puked on his shoes.

He had taken the name a nurse had given him in the hospital. She had told him that she didn’t like calling patients ‘John Doe’. It was too impersonal. So she had named him ‘Sam’. ‘Sam Vincent’. Because that’s where he came from. San Vicinte Boulevard. He liked that name very much. And he had fallen a bit in love with that particular nurse.

Sam had been at the shelter for three weeks and he had already made it his home. Or like the people who place and adopt animals call it, his ‘forever home’. He had made good friends of the other live-ins and staff. He had no idea or memory of his past home or homes, but he had a strong idea of where his current home was. And he felt that he truly belonged there. No one made fun of his misshapen face. No one joked about his odd voice. His vocal cords had been permanently damaged when the hospital intubated him incorrectly and now he could only speak in a hoarse, distorted whisper. No one cared about those things. They only cared about him. The inside him. And he was once again grateful.

Every seat at the twelve-seat conference table was taken but one. The head of the table. The seat that belonged to Andrew Rusk. President, Founder and CEO of Rusk Properties. And current missing person.

Trish Bermudez stood up. Her chair was next to the bosses unoccupied one.

“Okay, gentlemen, let’s get this wake started.” She began and picked up a file folder in front of her. “Here is how it stands. He has been incommunicado nearly two months. The longest time he has ever done this. The last was three weeks in 2014 when he decided that the Maoris in New Zealand needed funding for a National Indigenous Peoples Services Center and he went down there with six and half million to help build it. The time before that was two weeks in 2012 when he went to Arkansas to end child hunger and spent four million on the Southern States Food Bank.”

“Tree-hugging B.S.” Alan Masley chimed in. He sat on the opposite side of the boss’s empty chair.

“Alan.” Trish said, with a tone that one uses to address an unruly child. “Tree-huggers are obsessed with preserving and protecting the environment. Not people. Andrew Rusk is obsessed with helping people. And please hold your outbursts till the end of the meeting. Thank you.”

“Blow it out your ass, Trish.” Masley said and several men at the table chuckled.

“Ah, Alan. Ever the eloquent wordsmith.” Trish said and the others at the table laughed. “All that aside, gentlemen, we are in deep shit. Andrew is supposed to meet face to face with Hiroshi Kagoshima of Nippon Shore International one week from today. As most of you, if not all of you, know, Kagoshima only deals face to face. He does not do email, snail-mail, Skype or Google Hangout. He doesn’t use the phone and he doesn’t text. Face to face. That meeting is set for one week from today. In this very room. This deal has 2.26 billion in the balance. And as of today, the upcoming face to face meeting is minus one face. Our face, gentlemen and ladies. Andrew Rusk.”

“When’s the last time anybody saw him?” A young man in an expensive Italian blue suit asked.

“As the briefing papers we gave you two days ago say.” Trish looked at the young man and raised an accusatory eyebrow. “He was last seen on Friday the 5th of August leaving here in his Ferrari. His nephew was with him. He had one-hundred-fifty thousand dollars in paper-banded stacks of ten thousand each. Petty cash for him. And… well… for lack of a better word. He vanished.”

“They found the car though.” Alan chimed in again.

“Yes.” Trish said scowling at him. “I was getting to all that, Alan.”

“Get to it faster Trish, our asses are growing roots.” Alan sneered at her.

“Police found the Ferrari just south of the Canadian border. It had front end damage and it was left in an unattended parking garage. We reported it as stolen so we didn’t get them or the press involved in this. We can’t afford to have this information out in the world right now. Mr. Kagoshima could very well kibosh the deal if he knew how unstable things are right now.”

“The nephew?” An older man in a well-worn gray three piece suit said.

“You didn’t read the brief either, James?” Trish said scowling. “Why the hell did I bother printing out all the copies?”

“Remind me, Trish. I forget things. I’m old. And I drink.” The older man said.

“Andrew’s twenty-one year old nephew, Malcolm Andrew Rusk, is MIA as well.” She said flatly.

“The punk.” Masley said and got up from the table. He went to the counter and picked up a bagel. He buttered it and slathered it with cream cheese.

“Yes, Alan. Your normal hyperbolic, verbal-flatulence happens to be right on target this time. The punk.”

Sam Vincent opened his eyes and squinted at the light coming through the open-curtained window. It was 6:30am, but he didn’t need a clock to tell him that, he knew by the quality of the light. He loved this time of day. It was an hour and a half before he had to go to work and it gave him time for coffee, extra sugar and no cream, and time to read the paper and think. He was a blank slate and he knew it. He could write on that slate anything he wanted. He was free to create his life, and the very idea of that thrilled him to his core. His life was a world of possibilities.

He sat up in his cot, stretched, leaned to one side and farted.

“Shit. Man.” One of his five roommates, Darnell Plimpton, said. “Why you always got to be doin’ that every goddamn morning?”

“Because, Darnell my man.” Sam said in his odd voice. “The Lord sayeth… ‘Better out than in’.” Sam laughed, stood up, farted again and began making up his cot.

“You stink like last weeks cat box.” Darnell said burying his face in his pillow. “Why you got to be get-in’ up so damn early anyways. Your shift don’t start till eight.”

“I can’t hear what you’re saying when you’re bitin’ the pillow, Darnell.” Sam said bending down and pinching Darnell’s butt through his blanket.

Darnell spun around and violently slapped at Sam’s hand.

“Keep yo fuckin’ hands to ya self.” He said. “Fuckin’ homo.”

“I’m afraid you’re wrong on that one, Darnell. I don’t remember much, but I do remember my love of the ladies.” Sam said walking to the bathroom. “I’ll be off to my morning ablutions now, my good man. Tah.”

“You a fuckin’ nutjob, dude.” Darnell said.

Sam stopped in his tracks bent forward, pulled down his pajama bottoms and flashed his bare butt at Darnell. There was a tattoo of Winnie-The-Pooh on his left buttcheck.

“Give Winnie a kiss.” Sam said.

Darnell rolled back onto his stomach. “If he ain’t a homo, he should be.” He said into his pillow.

Half an hour later Sam walked into the industrial kitchen of the shelter. It was already in full breakfast-preparation mode. The room smelled of fresh-brewed coffee and bacon and was spotlessly clean.

“Coffee’s poured. It’s on the counter.” A beautiful, old African-American woman said. She moved from one side of the kitchen to the other like a dancer. Her movements belied her age. “Extra sugar, Sugar.” She said and winked at Sam.

“I’m desperately in love with you Gracie and I want you to run away with me to the Bahamas!” Sam said picking up his coffee mug.

“I’m eighty-six years old, Sugar. I don’t run. To the Bahamas or no place else.” Gracie said pulling a huge fry pan from a metal rack of pots and pans. “You want some eggs before you start up?”

“Nope.” Sam said, sipping his coffee.

“Bacon?” She asked him.

“Nope.” He replied.

“Hash browns?”

“Nope.”

“Pancakes?”

“Nope.”

“How are you gonna work as hard as you work on a empty stomach?” She said setting the fry pan on the industrial stove top.

“Shear will and a big helping of your love, Gracie.” He said grinning at her.

“Don’t shit a shitter, Sugar.” She said returning the grin. “The newspaper’s in the bathroom. Edward was readin’ it on the crapper. You might wanna put on some latex gloves if you wanna read it now.” Gracie went to the huge refrigerator and pulled out five dozen eggs. “You know Edward.” She said.

“All too well.” Sam said pinching his nose shut. “Did you read it this morning, Gracie?”

“Did indeed.” She said cracking eggs into a huge bowl.

“Anything worth knowing?” Sam asked her, getting up to refill his coffee.

“Looks like we got a bit of a reprieve.” She said, still cracking eggs.

“How so?” He asked her.

“That fella who owns all this property ’round here turned up missin’” She opened a second carton of eggs and begin cracking those into the bowl. “Japanese fella don’t wanna buy it now, so we are gonna have some more time to help the hopeless.” She looked up into Sam’s eyes. “I asked Jesus and he answered.” She said wiping some egg off her hand.

“Did Jesus tell you how long we have?” Sam said sitting back down.

“Don’t be fresh.” Gracie said moving to the refrigerator.

“I’m not being fresh.” Sam began. “I’m serious. Did you get a feeling from the article in the paper or from your convo with Jesus how long we have before this place is sold out from under us?”

“The paper said that the Japanese man backed out and there’s no plans at this time for a sale. It also said that the company wasn’t doin’ nothin’ till they find their head honcho.”

“You talking about Andrew Rusk?” Sam said putting sugar in his coffee.

“Yeah. Him.” Gracie said and poured some milk into the egg bowl. “You want some eggs?” She asked him again.

“NO THANK YOU!” Sam shouted with a grin. He stood up and brought his mug over to one of the massive sinks. He rinsed it out. “Gracie, my love. We are going to figure out a way to keep our home safe. We are going to figure it out.” He went to Gracie. She turned her cheek up to him and he kissed it. “We’ll figure it out.”

Alan Masley stood in the doorway of Trish’s corner office. He was chomping on four sticks of Juicy Fruit gum.

“Are you just going to stand there and chew your cud or have you got something to say?” Trish said looking over her reading glasses.

“It’s been six and half months.” Masley said chomping.

“Newsflash.” She began. “I am very well aware.” She pushed her glasses up her nose and pulled open a desk drawer. “Unless you’ve got something important to say, I’ve got several important things to do.”

“Clients are jumping ship.” He said rubbing his back against the doorjamb. “Damn my back is itchy.”

“Try showering.” She said.

“Wanna join me?” He sneered. “I’ll wash your back and you can wash mine.”

“I’d rather shower with Norman Bates.” She said opening a file folder.

“Who?” Masley asked.

“WHAT do you want, Alan?” She slammed the file shut, pulled her glasses off and looked up at him.

“Rusk Properties owns eight square blocks of downtown L.A.” He began. “The Japs pulled out four months ago.”

“You’re repulsive, Alan. Go away.” She said putting her glasses back on.

“Wait.” He said stepping into Trish’s office and sitting down on her sofa. “The Japs pulled out and now that asshole homeless advocate is setting the wheels in motion to get the building they are in declared a Historical Landmark. He can do it too. The building is over a hundred and fifty years old.”

“I know all this, Alan.” Trish said leafing through her file. “What do you want?”

“We need to…” Masley began. “We can turn this around, Trish.”

Trish closed the file again, took off her glasses and set them down on her desk. She sat back in her chair, crossed her arms over her chest and looked at Masley straight in the eye.

“How?” She asked

“We develop it ourselves.” He said. “We diversify. We no longer just buy and sell real estate, we develop real estate.” He stopped. He inhaled. “Well?” He asked finally.

“That’s it?” Trish asked him raising her eyebrow.

“Whether or not you like it. Whether or not anybody likes it, knows it or admits it, you and I are running Rusk Properties now. We are co-vice presidents that have become co-CEO’s. And until Rusk comes out of hiding or comes back from the dead or comes back from what-the-fuck-ever, we are in charge and we have got to keep this place above the water line.”

“By developing?” Trish asked flatly.

“Yes!” Masley said standing up. He walked over to her desk and leaned down. “Give me your trash can.” He said.

“What?” Trish asked confused.

“Give me your trash can.” Masley repeated.

Trish reached down under her desk and pulled out the brass metal trash can. She handed it to him. Masley spat out the huge wad of chewed gum.

“Oh, Jesus, Alan.” She said recoiling. “Can you get ANY more disgusting.”

“I’m too excited to chew and talk at the same time.” He said handing her the trash can back.

“Thank god you don’t have to walk too.” She said and put the can back under her desk.

Masely sat back down on the couch and leaned forward with excitement.

“First we get this homeless bullshit and that deformed hoarse-whispering freak off our back.” He began.

“And how do you suppose we do that?” She said rocking back in her chair.

“We donate that portion of the properties.”

“What?” Trish shouted.

“Wait.” Masely said calmly. “We donate the little southeast corner of the properties that the homeless shit-hole shelter occupies. We donate it to the City of Los Angeles with a proviso.”

“Do tell.” Trish said rocking back again.

“That the building IS declared a Historical Landmark AND that it becomes not JUST a homeless shelter, but also an ultra-hip rehabilitation facility. I’m thinking ‘The Andrew Rusk Center For Human Advocacy’ or some such other tree-hugging bullshit.”

“Who pays for that?” Trish asked with mounting interest.

“We do.” Masley said leaning further forward. “We sell Catalina shore. It’s a piece of crap for us anyway. Drop…say…. eight million of the profits into the shelter. Build the sucker into a facility that not only takes in the crap-pantsed homeless but also the rich and famous heroine addicts. They live together. Build there lives back up together. All kumbaya and shit.”

“And what exactly do we gain?” Trish asked.

“First of all, the freakin’ write off will be amazing. I already crunched some numbers and we would actually MAKE money off this deal because of the current codes. Second the damn publicity will be like God himself sent a letter of appreciation and recommendation to us. The Rusk Foundation will be synonymous with Mother Teresa. Then, once that dump is revamped, we can develop the properties around it. We can make the area ultra-hip chic. Lofts and artsy shit. Rent them out to rich hipsters for a butt-load of money.” ”

“Wow.” Trish said.

“RIGHT? Isn’t this an incredible idea? Masely asked excitedly.

“I wasn’t ‘wowing’ at your idea, I was ‘wowing’ at the fact that you know what synonymous means.” Trish said leaning forward. “However.” Trish put the stem of her glasses to her lips. “This idea’s got legs.”

“You bet your pretty Mexican ass it does.” Masely said leering.

“My ass, as the rest of me, is Puerto Rican. You racist idiot.” She said picking up her office phone. “I need to make some calls. This could be big.”

Sam Vincent sat in the newly renovated kitchen of ‘The Andrew Rusk Self-Actualization Center’. He sat at one of the new kitchen counters on one of the new kitchen stools. He had his coffee, (no cream, extra sugar), in front of him in the same mug that he had been using for the past two years. The very mug that Gracie Washington had handed him his first cup of coffee in when he arrived at the run down homeless shelter. He loved that mug. It represented so much to him.

“You want some eggs?” Gracie asked him as she pulled a brand new giant fry pan from the brand new pots and pans rack.

“Gracie my love.” He began. “You have been asking me that same question for over two years. Don’t you know the answer by now?”

“I’m hoping one day you’ll wise up.” She said moving to the refrigerator for eggs. “Your skinny white ass just keeps gettin’ skinnier. You work too hard and eat too little.”

“I love you, Gracie. Will you marry me?” He said taking his mug to the brand new sink.

“Sugar.” She said putting eight dozen eggs on the counter. “I’m eighty-eight years old and you look to be about forty-five.”

“If I die, I die.” Sam said laughing.

“That’s a terrible old joke.” Gracie said. “Much like yourself.” She picked up an egg, looked at it for a moment then put it back in the crate. She walked over to Sam who had returned to his stool.

“You saved our home, Sugar.” She said taking his calloused hands into her tissue-paper-skin ones. “You and those fancy ACLU boys got that company to pay out and do the right thing. You saved our home. I love you for that, Sugar. I’ll love you for that till the day I die.”

“I didn’t do it alone.” He said looking deeply into her brown-black eyes. “Lots of people helped and the Rusk company decided to help us on their own.”

“For the taxes.” She said wrinkling her already well-wrinkled nose. “Not from the goodness of their hearts. I can tell you that much. But then. The end results the same. We live in a fancy mansion now and we still get to help the hopeless. That’s what matters most. Helpin’ the hopeless.” She let go of his hands and went back to her eggs.

Malcolm Andrew Rusk, his middle name given to him by his late parents in honor of his father’s brother, sat in a quiet corner of The Highwayman Pub, in Abbotsford Canada. Seated with him was Jason Miller, a somewhat seedy musician slash criminal with long black, greasy hair and a tattoo on his neck that read ‘Pussy Lover’. They both were on their third pint.

“It’s been over two years, dude. You MUST have killed him.” Jason Miller said.

“It was never in the paper. They just say he’s missing. But I’m still not going back. The Beaner and the Jew are running the company now and I don’t stand a chance with them. Anyway, he said he was gonna cut me loose on my twenty-first birthday.” Malcolm said picking up his beer mug.

“Maybe they never found out it was him.” Jason said lighting his hand rolled cigarette.

“Is that weed?!?” Malcolm asked looking around.

“No.” Jason said laughing. “Home rolled. Cheaper and better. Want one?”

“I don’t smoke.” Malcolm said leaning away from Jason. “It kills you.”

“Gotta die of something.” Jason said taking a deep drag off his cigarette. “Is that possible though? That they never figured out it was him? Didn’t you say he was in a Halloween costume or something?”

“Not Halloween.” Malcolm said and downed the last of his beer. “My uncle was batshit. He was charity happy and ‘give money to the needy’ happy. So get this. He dresses up as a homeless guy. He puts on filthy clothes and rubs mud into his long hair. Let’s his beard get all scraggly and he tells me that we are going to give money to the helpers. He called people who help other people helpers.”

“Clever.” Jason said sarcastically.

“So we go out in his Ferrari with a bag full of money… like over a hundred grand and he’s gonna give it away to anybody that makes an effort to help him out. He’s gonna sit on the sidewalk like a homeless dude and if somebody helps him out he’s gonna give them like ten grand!”

“Fuck.” Jason said and took a deep drag off his cigarette. “I woulda just kicked him.”

“Yeah.” Malcolm began. “Me too. Anyway, I was supposed to follow him around at a safe distance in the Ferrari and keep half of the money in the trunk till he needed it. He had half in that trash bag he was carrying. I freaked. I mean come on. The dude is gonna piss away over a hundred grand. I needed the money more than some shit on the street. So I revved up the Ferrari and plowed into him. You shoulda seen it. He flew like twenty feet into the air, man. It was hilarious. I grabbed the bag and split. You know the rest. You found me in this very bar, my man.”

“I did indeed, my dude.” Jason said snuffing out his cigarette. “And now this new deal is gonna make us even richer than your Uncle the perv.”

“Perv?” Malcolm asked.

“Didn’t he like flash you or some such pervy stuff?” Jason lit another cigarette.

“Oh.” Malcolm laughed. “No. He did that to everybody. If you said something he didn’t like he’d B-A you. You know, moon you. He had this tattoo of Winnie-The-Pooh on his ass and he’d turn around, drop his pants and say, ‘Give Winnie a kiss’.”

Coffee, anyone? New Fiction

The Important Questions

by S. Scott Bullock

WAS it obsession? Was it pathological? Was I a stalker for Pete’s sake? Or was it truly and simply, love at first sight. Love, that is, with a liberal tablespoon of lust tossed in. I fully believe that it was the latter, but who knows, I could be nuts. Many have said that I am ‘one pint short of a quart’.

But regardless of pathological obsession or simple love, this woman was beautiful. No. Beautiful does NOT cut it. She was all of the beauty in the world rolled up into a beautiful, woman-shaped package and topped with some beauty sprinkles and tied up in a beautiful, beauty bow. She was… well… you get the idea.

I first saw her on Monday the sixteenth. I was in my usual seat, way in the back of the ‘Your Morning Jolt’ coffee house. I liked it way in the back. Nobody was ever back there at my favorite table because it was right next to the little hallway that led to the restrooms and any time anybody went in or out of the toilets, especially the men’s, the stink would waft by a little. You know that smell. Pee, poop, urinal cakes and Pine Sol. It doesn’t make for an appetizing accompaniment to one’s morning coffee and sweet roll. But I put up with it because I love that table so much. Way back in the back, up against the wall and private. Plus there is an electrical outlet right below it and I could always plug my laptop in and not have to depend on the battery, and plus-plus, the bathrooms weren’t really used all that much so the odoriferous assaults were few and far between.

So, anyway, I first saw her when she came in Monday morning and went to the counter to order. She was juggling three or four books and she almost dropped them when she went into her purse for money. Some clown in a button-down oxford shirt and man bun jumped up to help her with the books, but she declined his aid. I was glad. It showed she had taste. Never accept help from a yuppie-hipster. That way lies madness.

She gathered up her books and her purse and headed to an empty table by the window. She sat down and I saw, for the first time, the true color of her hair. The sun was pouring through the window and it shattered her hair into a thousand facets of color. Red and gold and auburn and rust. Her hair was a crown of roses. And her face was a gift from God. (I don’t believe in God, but after seeing her face I began to question the possibility of his existence). And what shade was her skin? Alabaster? No. Milky? No. Creamy? No. What was that shade of skin? What was it? There wasn’t a word yet. There had not been a word invented that could describe the color of her skin. So I guess I’ll just have to call it pearl-white. Her skin was pearl-white. Iridescent white. I swear to you it looked like it glowed from the inside. I’d never seen anything like it. And then her body. Holy cow. She wasn’t one of those tuning-fork-legged, anorexic pool cues. Oh no. This one was round in all the right places with not a single hard angle to be found. Well… no hard angle on her anyway. But that’s being vulgar, and I may be MANY things, but vulgar is not one of them.

As you can tell I was smitten immediately. And that was even before I had seen her eyes. Because, when I finally saw her emerald green eyes, it was game over for this California transplanted Indiana farm boy. Smitten became ‘where have you been all my life’ and I knew then and there that this angelic creature was going to be with me for the rest of my life. I know it’s kind of girlie, but I swear when I first saw her eyes, I heard wedding bells and started planning the ceremony in my head!

But I’m ahead of myself. Before I saw those eyes, I just sat back at my favorite table and watched. For three days, each morning at 8:15 precisely, I watched her come into the coffee shop and go through the exact same procedure.

She’d go up the counter, place her order (a large Caffè Latte and a glass of water) fumble with the three or four books she was carrying while digging into her oversize purse for her wallet. She’d pull out the wallet, almost drop the books, recover, and then pay the barista. She’d then shuffle over to one of the tables by the window, drop her books on it and put her purse on the chair next to her, then she’d sit down and wait for her order to be called. Every morning. And every morning I became more and more enchanted with this angel on earth.

On the second day, Tuesday, as she went up to the counter to get her finished order, I got up from my seat and casually walked by her table. I acted as if I was looking for something or someone out the windows but I was really spying. I wanted to see what books she was reading and I saw that they were all books about Silent Movies and the Silent Era. When I saw what they were a rush of adrenaline coursed through me and made my head light and swoony for a second. I couldn’t believe my luck. She turned toward her table and me. I must have looked like a real dope, standing there with my mouth hanging open and my hand on my forehead. I regained some composure and pretended I was waving goodbye to someone outside the shop and I walked back to my table as she made her way back to hers.

I sat down feeling unbelievably happy. This was an incredible coincidence. I loved silent movies! I knew everything about them. And this was going to be the perfect way to strike up a conversation. I settled it in my head that, day after tomorrow, Thursday, would be the day that I would finally talk to her. I opened my laptop and began to refresh my memory about all things ‘Silent Movies’. I kept glancing up at her, I couldn’t help myself. She was sipping her coffee and reading her books. She was highlighting parts of them with a yellow highlight marker and making notes on a legal pad with an old fashioned, very fancy, fountain pen. It was hard for me to concentrate with her so near, but I kept at it. Then, she finished her coffee, closed her books, put her notepad and pen back in her purse, rose and left. My heart sank a little when she left. I had the fear that the next morning would come and she wouldn’t show up. But I put my fear aside and went back to my studies.

Wednesday morning was no different. I sat and watched as she came in at 8:15 and did her morning dance. I watched her read and write and highlight as I continued to brush up my knowledge. I watched her finish and leave and I felt that little sadness again. I went back to my laptop and tried not to think too much about the next morning.

Thursday morning came and I got to the coffee shop just before it opened. I waited for the manager to unlock the door and when she did I headed straight for my table. This was a new manager and she didn’t give me the normal greeting I was used to. She just smiled at me and said ‘good morning’. I smiled back as I made my way to my spot. I put my laptop down and went up to the counter. I ordered my double espresso and two chocolate biscotti. I picked up my order at 6:15 and returned to my seat. I opened my laptop and continued my studies. Two hours. I had to wait two hours before she came in.

8:15 came and 8:15 went. No beautiful angel. My heart not only sank this time, but fell out of my chest rolled across the linoleum floor and banged against the dirty wooden base board at the bottom of the far wall. Or so it felt. It was still in my chest, beating too fast. I can tell you this though, I have not felt such sorrow before or since.

But then the sorrow fell away and a great light, joy replaced it. At 8:23 she walked in the door, juggling her books and her purse and heading to the counter. I wanted to rush up to her, hug her and say ‘You’re Late!’, but I knew that would be weird to say the least. Instead I looked down at my open laptop and waited for her to settle in. After about fifteen minutes she was fully settled, sipping and reading, so I drew in a great breath and stood up.

“Buster Keaton was my favorite.” I said to her, my heart beating out of my chest. She looked up from her book.

“Sorry?” She asked.

“Silent film comedian.” I said. “Buster Keaton was my favorite.”

“You know Silent films?” She asked.

“I love them.” I said. “I’m somewhat of an expert on them too.”

She just stared at me then for what seemed like hours. She didn’t say anything. I was about to turn and walk away, my tail between my defeated and embarrassed legs, when she broke her silence.

“You’re not weird or crazy or an escaped lunatic or anything are you?” She asked me with no sign of a grin or sense of humor at all. I was a bit taken aback, but forged ahead. No turning back now.

“Um.” I stammered. “Um… no… holy cow no! I just really love old…” She cut me off.

“Good.” She said smiling. “Go get your coffee and come sit with me. I’ve been watching you over there watching me. I wondered how long it would take you to come over and say hello.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“You’re cute.” She said smiling. “But more importantly you are the only other person in our generation who even knows that movies were silent once. And that bugs the heck outta me.”

‘Heck’. How perfect that she didn’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’. She was a lady, in the truest sense of the word. I walked over to my table and retrieved my fourth coffee and laptop. I walked back to her table not feeling the floor. My stomach was alive with the biggest swarm of butterflies I had ever felt in my life. My mind was swirling and whirling with imagined possibilities. She moved her books and made room on the table for my stuff.

“So, are you really an expert?” She asked me holding up her ‘Stars Of The Silent Screen’ book.

“Maybe I should say that I’m well read on the subject rather than an expert.” I reached for the book and in the process spilled my coffee all over the table. She grabbed up her books and pad as quickly as she could and jumped up, but coffee still splattered them.

“OH SHIT!” I said. “I’m sorry. I’ll get some napkins. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She said dabbing at her legal pad with her napkin. “No real damage. The books are mine, not the library’s, so you’ve not committed any crime. I’ll get some more napkins.” She walked towards the counter as the barista came over to the table with a bar towel and wiped up the mess I had made. So much coffee from such a little cup. It was everywhere.

“Thank you.” I said to him. “I’m a klutz.”

He winked at me then and said quietly enough for only me to hear.

“Don’t stop now, dude. You’ve almost got her. Whatever the cost. She’s worth it.”

And I knew what he meant. This girl, whose name I didn’t even know yet, this girl was worth any and all of it. She was the grand prize of all grand prizes. Just then she came back with a stack of napkins.

“Oh. It’s all cleaned up.” She said.

“John helped. The barista, John.” I said looking at my hands. “I’m sorry. It was an accident.”

“Oh Please.” She said smiling at me and taking my hand. “It’s no big deal at all.” Then with a great big grin. “I didn’t feel a thing. And even my note pad survived with only a few stains. I’m Katherine by the way.”

“Oh. Yeah. Zack.. I’m Zack.” I reached out my hand to shake hers. She had a hold of my other one and we laughed as she extricated one in order to shake the other.

“Lucky you don’t use a laptop or ipad or something electronic. I would have killed it with a single sweep of my clumsy hand!”

“I’ve got a desktop in my apartment.” She said sitting back down. “I transfer all my notes to it when I get home. I don’t like to study or do my reading there. I like it here. By the windows with a great cup of coffee. I can’t make coffee to save my life so I come here. Don’t you love their coffee? What’s your favorite Keaton silent?”

I was so enthralled by how she was speaking that I didn’t even hear what she was speaking about. I only noticed that all of a sudden she had stopped talking.

“Hello?” She said smiling. “You in there?”

“Oh. Sorry.” I stammered. “What did you ask me? Was it about coffee? I’m sorry I zoned out.” I attempted to cover my absolute enamor-induced brain fart with a stupid verbal dance. I think it worked though.

“Sometimes I talk too fast.” She said pointing at her mouth. “I asked if you loved the coffee here and also what your favorite Buster Keaton silent film is.”

“Oh. Yeah. I love the coffee and the one where the house falls on him.”

“You don’t know the name of it?” She asked. “I thought you were an expert!”

“Not an expert, just very well read, like I said, but my brain doesn’t seem to be functioning at full capacity today and I can’t remember the darn title.” I was still verbally tap-dancing.

“It’s called Steamboat Bill Jr., and was a 1928 feature-length comedy silent film starring Buster. Released by United Artists, the film is the last product of Keaton’s independent production team and set of gag writers. It was not a box-office success and proved to be the last picture Keaton would make for UA Keaton would end up moving to MGM where he would make one last film with his trademark style. Steamboat Bill Jr. was directed by Charles Reisner. How ’bout that for well read?”

“That,” I said grinning, “is WELL read.”

“It’s part of my Thesis.” She said. “The Continuing Influence Of Silent Cinema And Silent Screen Stars On The Modern Day Filmmaker.”

“Oh.” I managed. “Impressive.”

“And you want to hear an amazing coincidence?” She asked.

“What would that be?”

Steamboat Bill Jr. is playing, this very afternoon, at The Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue. You wanna go see it?”

I was gobsmacked. Was she asking me on a date? Could it really be this…

“I need you to stop now, Zack.” Dr. Warren said firmly but with compassion. “You’ve gotten way off track.”

Zack stopped talking immediately and shifted his gaze toward the doctor.

“You were doing very well up to the time you walked over to Katherine’s table. Although you fudged a little about knowing anything about silent movies. You don’t really know that much about silent movies, do you Zack?”

“Why do we have to meet in here?” Zack asked with a tinge of anger. “I hate the florescent lights. They make you look green.”

“It’s the facility’s psych clinic, Zack. It’s my office and it’s where I hold my sessions. Now, please answer my question.”

“I don’t remember it.”

“Yes you do. But I’ll ask it again. You don’t really know that much about silent movies, do you Zack.?”

“I know the stuff I looked up on my laptop. After I saw her books. I know that stuff.”

“Okay.” Dr. Warren began. “We’re going to go over it again. We are going to start with the important questions I mentioned earlier. This time, however, I’m going to stop you if you stray from the truth and I’m going to pull you back on course. Okay?”

“Okay.” Zack said, crossing his arms and looking like a freshly scolded little boy.

“Put your arms down at your sides and relax, Zack. I only want to help you though this.”

“Fine.” Zack said flatly.

“First question, Zack. Was it obsession?”

“I don’t think it was ob…”

“Zack.” Dr. Warren interrupted. “Was it obsession?”

“Yes. Dr. Warren. Yes. It was obsession.”

“Second question, Zack. Was it pathological?”

“Yes. Dr. Warren. Yes. It was pathological.”

“Third question, Zack. Were you a stalker?”

“I really think th….”

“Zack. Were you a stalker?”

“Yes. Dr. Warren. Yes. I was a stalker.”

“Good.” Dr. Warren said. “Now. Tell me again what happened between you and the young lady at the coffee shop.

“I saw her come in on Monday. I fell in love at first…”

“Zack.” Dr. Warren said firmly.

“I became obsessed immediately. I found out what she was reading and did some research of my own. I watched her for three days and..”

“Zack.” The doctor repeated.

“I stalked her for three days and on the fourth day I went over to talk to her.”

“Then what happened?” Dr. Warren leaned forward and put his hand on Zack’s knee. “What happened then, Zack?”

“I went up to her table and said the thing about Buster Keaton.”

“And?”

“And she asked me to sit…”
“Zack.” Warren said, cutting him off. “What happened when you said the thing about Buster Keaton?”

“She told me to ‘fuck off’.” Zack said flatly.

“And what happened next, Zack?”

“I turned around and walked back to…”

“Zack.”

“I picked up her fancy fucking pen and I stabbed her in her fancy fucking throat!” Zack shouted.

“How many times, Zack.”

“I stabbed the bitch twenty-three times in her stupid, nasty-mouthed throat!” Tears began streaming down Zack’s cheeks and he wiped at them, swatting them away like annoying flies.

“Zack, I need you to tell me what happened next, but I also need you to calm down. Tell me calmly what happened next, okay?” Dr. Warren put his other hand on Zack’s other knee.

“Then, that stupid barista John came up and pulled me away from her and he said that I was killing her and that whatever she had done to me it wasn’t worth killing her over, and he pulled me away and pushed me down into a chair and took the pen away from me and got some towels and tried to stop her bleeding and the blood was everywhere and there was so much blood everywhere, I couldn’t understand how so much blood could come from such a small woman and then I went and sat down at my favorite table and I watched the police come in and the ambulance guys and other people all staring at me and coming for me and all the blood, and then I was here.” Zack stopped and tried to catch his breath. “I don’t know how I got here. But then I was here.”

“You still don’t remember your arrest?” Dr. Warren asked quietly. “Or your trial?”

“No.” Zack had calmed but tears still flowed from his reddened eyes.

“We’ll, work on all that, Zack.” Dr. Warren patted both Zack’s knees. “Well work on that. But that’s enough for today. You’ve done very well. I’ll call the orderly to take you back to your room. Zack, I’m very proud of you. You’ve truthfully answered the most important questions, now we just need to fill in the rest.

“She’s very beautiful.” Zack said.

“Who?” Dr. Warren asked.

“Your new assistant. She’s very beautiful. I can’t stop thinking about her.” Zack said as the orderly came into the room.

Don’t go to sleep… or you may dream….. New Fiction

Poe Be Damned

By: S. Scott Bullock

Lenore sat up in bed, her sleep shattered by the raging storm. Lightning filled the bedroom with blinding-white, ice-cold light. Thunder exploded simultaneously. The storm was a ravenous animal crouching outside her window. It was roaring and clawing, trying to get inside and devour her. She felt the old familiar terror rising up in her again.

Lenore looked over at her husband and stared, mouth agape. She was once again astounded at what he could sleep through. She leaned in closer to make sure he was actually breathing. Lightning blazed again and the thunderclap was so loud and so immediate that she flinched forward in fear. Sadly at that moment her husband shocked awake and raised up in a jerk. Their heads banged together in a moment worthy of The Three Stooges.

“Owwwww!” Lenore shouted, laughing at the same time. She rubbed her forehead and felt a bump already rising.

“What the hell?” Her husband said, rubbing his own ravaged forehead. “Why did you…”

Lightning again. And exploding thunder.

“Shit!” He said getting out of bed and heading to the window. “What the hell is going on out there?”

“It woke me up.” Lenore said getting up and going to her husband. She hugged him from behind.

“Scared the poop outta me.” She hugged him tighter. “Especially because I was in the middle of one again.”

Eddy, her husband, turned toward her and pulled her against him.

“Again?” He said quietly.

“Yeah.” She said and lightning filled the room with a painful flare. “Man! That is one heck of a…”

The thunder was so loud and so immediate that both she and Eddy jumped away from the window and fell backwards on the bed, laughing.

“Holy sheet!” Eddy said laughing.

“You can say that again!” Lenore countered.

“HO-LEEEEEEEE SHEEEET!” Eddy shouted. He rose from the bed and went to the light switch on the wall. He flicked it up. Nothing. Then up and down. Nothing again.

“Power’s out.” He said and lightning flashed across the bedroom. Both he and Lenore clinched their whole bodies in anticipation of the thunderclap. It didn’t come right away.

“It must be further a….” Lenore began and BOOM, another earth shattering crash.

“Sounds like the whole damn world is coming to an end.” Eddy said. “There’s no way we’re going back to sleep. I’ll go get our camping lantern.” He walked out of the bedroom and headed to the basement.

“I fear it is coming to an end, my love.” Lenore said to the empty room. “I fear it is.”

The storm battered on for more than eight hours. Lenore and Eddy huddled in bed. She spoke of her dream to him in those sleepless hours of the raging storm. Her recurring nightmare.

“How long has this been going on now?” Eddy asked her. Rain battered the window, shifting directions with the wind.

“Like I’ve told you a million times they started when I was ten. But they have been on and off my whole life.” She lay her head on Eddy’s chest and inhaled the smell of him. Peppermint soap. Night sweat. Musk and watermelon. She, nor he, could ever understand or explain how he could smell like freshly sliced watermelon. But he did and she adored it. She adored him. Every single thing about him. He was her savior, her knight in shining armor. He was her everything.

“But just lately, like the past month or so, the are constant and relentless and are driving me insane.”

“Short trip.” He said poking her side. He brushed her curly, jet black hair off her shoulder.

“Not funny, Edgar.” She said pushing his hand away.

“And they’re always the same?” He asked, gently rubbing her arm.

“Same theme, different circumstances.” She said rolling off of his chest. She sat up. “This rain is crazy. I wonder if our basement will flood again.”

“You’re changing the subject.” Eddy said sitting up.

“Because it scares me, Melon Man.” She said softly, like a frightened child. “It scares me so bad. She’s trying to kill us. She’s been trying to kill me my whole life and now she wants you too.”

“But it’s just a dream.” Eddy said, feeling woefully inadequate.

“But it’s not.” Lenore stood up and walked toward the bathroom. She reflexively reached for the light switch and flipped it impotently upward. “Shit.” She said softly. “I need to light the candle in here.”

She walked into the bathroom. Eddy heard a drawer open and then the unmistakeable sound of someone rustling through the cast off necessities that occupy every junk drawer in the world. He heard the sound of a match being struck and watched as the flickering warm light of a candle flame illuminated the bathroom. The candle light cast Lenore’s shadow against the open bathroom door, it undulated with the flicker of the flame, and Eddy felt a sudden stab of unfamiliar fear.

“Why?” He began. “Why isn’t it just a dream?”

“I gotta pee.” She said and closed the bathroom door.

“You want some tea?” Eddy shouted toward the door, picking up the lantern.

“Yes, please.” She shouted back from inside the bathroom. “With honey, Honey.”

When Eddy came back with the tea, balancing a tray and the Coleman lantern, Lenore was back in bed and propped up with pillows. She helped him with the tray and they both crawled back under the covers. The thunderstorm was a little quieter but the rain was torrential and sounded at times like handfuls of gravel being thrown on their roof and at their windows.

“The basement’s gonna flood.” Lenore said sipping her tea. “Oh, the tea’s perfect.”

“Just like me.” Eddy said grinning.

“Yep. Like you, Melon Man.”

“So.” Eddy said dropping the grin. “Why isn’t it just a dream?”

“Shit.” She said and put her mug on the night stand. “You’re not going to let this one go, are you?”

“No.” He said

“They are too real to just be dreams. I know that sounds crazier than batshit, but that’s the only way I can say it. Too real. I wake up from one of them and it’s just as if it had happened in real life. I wake up from them and stare at the ceiling or at the nightstand or at you and I think, wait… is this real or was that real or…” She trailed off and looked down at her hands. “Am I even real?”

Eddy put down his mug and pulled her to him.

“You’re real.” He said moving a strand of hair from her face. “Would you like me to show you right now how real you are?” He moved his hand to her breast and caressed it softly.

Lenore pushed it away gently.

“I can’t right now, Melon Man. I’m sorry, but right now I just can’t.”

Eddy lay back and pulled her toward him.

“Then just stay here against me and tell me about this last one.”

“She was in the closet when I opened it to get my coat. She stepped out and I started walking backward away from her and she held out her hand and it was full of pills. She kept saying, ‘take these, take these and you’ll go away. Take these and you’ll go away forever. Take these and by tomorrow night you’ll be dead and gone and forgotten’.”

“And then?” Eddy asked. “I mean, yeah that’s spooky, but not really terrifying?”

“That’s why I don’t like to talk about it, Eddy. You can’t possibly understand. Unless you feel the absolute terror that I feel in these dreams, you can’t understand.”

“I’m sorry.” He pulled her a little closer to him. “Has it always been the same woman. All these years, in all these dreams?”

“Yes.”

“What does she look like?”

“What does that matter, Eddy.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she represents something to you. Maybe she… oh crap, I don’t know. Just, what does she look like?”

“She’s tall. And has very long, very straight red hair.”

“That’s it?” He said puzzled. “Tall and ginger?”

“No. That’s not it. She has blue eyes, a small nose, very full lips. Her legs are long and slender, she has a tiny waist and big boobs. She has slender hips and a round ass. She has creamy white skin, freckles on her nose and a beauty mark on her right cheek. Her teeth are a tiny bit bucked and glistening white. When she smiles, two deep dimples appear at the sides of her mouth. She walks like a trained dancer and talks like she studied at Bryn Mawr. She smells of ‘Joy’ perfume. She has a french manicure that she changes the color of occasionally but never to anything bright or gaudy. She has a small birthmark on the inside of her left wrist, I think it’s called a wine stain. She always wears tailored clothes and usually in shades of lavender or purple. When she is angry her eyes squint and her brow furrows and when she shouts it sounds like a smoke alarm. She’s thirty-five right now and she always carries a giant handbag that never matches her clothes or her shoes.” Lenore stopped and inhaled deeply.

“Could you be a little more specific?” Eddy said grinning.

“Yeah. I can. She wants to kill us.” She said without humor or hint of smile. “Dead.”

“Any idea why? Does she ever talk to you or tell you why?”

“Sometimes she just stares. Sometimes she talks a blue streak, repeating things like, ‘You MUST go away! You must leave me alone! You CAN’T have that. You MUST die!’”

The wind made a radical shift in direction and rain ravaged the bedroom window. The sound was beyond angry and made both Eddy and Lenore stop speaking and stare at the deluge. At that moment Lenore began to weep. Softly at first, trying to hide it from Eddy. But then all her control left her and loud, pounding sobs racked her body. Tears poured from her eyes and her raging sorrow matched the raging storm.

“Oh my god, sweetheart. What? What?” Eddy sat up and faced Lenore. “It’s just rain. We’re safe. We’re okay.”

Lenore couldn’t speak through the tears. She shook her head and sobbed. Trying to catch her breath, she looked up into Eddy’s eyes. She felt him then. Truly felt his strength and his love for her. It poured from his eyes like the tears did from her own and like the rain did from the sky at that very moment.

“We’re safe.” He repeated.

“Not. The. Storm.” She managed, gulping air between each word.

“What then? The woman? Your dreams?”

“Yes.” She managed. “Yes. She… She… She….” She stopped herself. Clamped her mouth shut tight and willed herself calm. She slammed her balled fist down on her thigh and shoved the terror back down into the slimy black cave it had crawled up from. She pulled away from Eddy and sat up straight on the bed.

“I won’t do this.” She said in a voice filled with fury. “I will NOT let her win this.”

Thunder rumbled impotently off in the distance.

“Storms far away now.” She said quietly. “Rain’s not. But the storm is.”

“Nice metaphor.” Eddy said taking her hand.

The light from outside the window began to change from pitch black to dark gray as the sun began its rise. The rain continued, but now it was a steady fall, not the flailing wild waves from earlier.

“It’s morning.” Lenore said. “And by tonight, we’ll be dead.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it.” Eddy pulled her to him and they began to make love.

Annabel stepped into the elevator the same way she had every week for the past year. She stepped in, turned toward the front, pressed the ’15’ button and stared up at the numbers as they changed with each floor passed. She shifted her oversize tote from her left to her right shoulder and adjusted her snug, knee length skirt. The beautiful lavender color of her outfit reflected off the polished chrome walls of the elevator. She loved purple in all its permutations. The elevator dinged and stopped at floor ’12’. An overweight woman wearing a beaded caftan stepped in pressed the ’14’ button.

“I’d take the stairs.” The woman said. “But I’m too damn fat to make it the two floors. I’d drop dead of a coronary on the landing of the fourteenth floor and mummify in the stairwell.”

Annabel just looked at the numbers. Not sure of how to respond.

“You sure smell pretty, sweetheart, what’s that perfume?” The woman said pulling the beaded caftan away from her belly.

“It’s ‘Joy’.” Annabel said to the numbers above the door.

“Well it sure does make you stink pretty.” The woman said smiling.

The elevator dinged and the doors snaked open.

“This is me. Have a great day, darlin’” The woman said and clomped out of the car like a rhino in a rush.

The doors closed and then opened again on the fifteenth floor. Annabel stepped out, turned right and headed for the double doors at the very end of the long carpeted hallway. She passed by door after door with engraved name plaques glued to them. The names, Cyrus Bandary, DMD’, ‘Roz Friedman, Ph.D’, ‘Frederick O’Brien, MD, Pediatrics’ flashed by her peripherally as she made her way to her destination.

Annabel stood in front of the double doors at the end of the hall and glanced at the nameplate.

Eugenie Lalande, MD, Ph.D

She stood for a moment staring at the plaque and hoping with all her might that this was to be the beginning of the end. She opened the door and walked into the office.

The receptionist slash secretary looked up and over her glasses.

“Hi Annabel.” She said pushing her arm mounted monitor to the side. “She’s on a call and running about 5 minutes behind. I’ll let her know you’re here. Your hair looks GORGEOUS today. What am I saying? It ALWAYS looks gorgeous. You can’t get that color red out of a bottle, that’s for darn sure. Trust me, I’ve tried.”

“Thanks.” Was all Annabel could muster.

The inner office door opened and Dr. Lalande stepped into the reception area and up to her secretary’s desk. She didn’t acknowledge Annabel.

“Email, Julius Rodman and tell him that I’m sending him a possible MPD. His name is Arthur Gordon Pym. That’s P – Y – M . He’ll be calling him for an appointment.”

The secretary motioned toward Annabel. Dr. Lalande turned toward her.

“Oh. It’s that time already. Hello Annabel. Come on in my office.” Dr. Lalande led the way.

“Right away, Madeline, okay?” She said over her shoulder. She let Annabel pass by and closed the door behind them.

“Sit.” She said and moved to her desk.

“You don’t want me on the couch?” Annabel asked.

“Nope. Not today.” Dr. Lalande said reaching into a file drawer and pulling out a folder. “So, I spoke with Dr. Usher and he agrees that while your case, your situation, isn’t unheard of, it is very rare.”

“And?” Annabel said setting her tote bag on the ground beside her chair.

“And, it’s going to take some aggressive pharmaceutical intervention on top of the therapy we’ve been at for the past year.”

“You’re going to drug me?”

“Not exactly.” Dr. Lalande leaned back in her chair and put her index fingers into a steeple shape. “Recurring dreams are not at all unusual. Recurring characters in all your dreams is a little more unusual, but a recurring character that has been in your dreams all of your life and has grown in age in tandem with yourself is very unusual.”

“I’m a freak?” Annabel asked without expression.

“Hardly.” the doctor said smiling. “But you are one for the books.”

“Those are books I’d rather not read.” Annabel said looking down at her hands.

“In our year together we’ve discovered why you dream of her. We’ve discovered what the particular dreams at the particular times and passages in your life mean. And why you have them. When you were ten years old and you wanted that bike so badly and your mother and father got you books, you first dreamed of her.”

“Yeah. And SHE got the bike.” Annabel said feeling the old familiar jealousy claw at her heart.

“And in school, she got the best friends and in college she got the quarterback boyfriend.

And she got the great job you wanted and the car you wanted and the house you wanted. She got everything you every wanted but couldn’t have and she got to do all the things you wanted to do that you never got to do.” Dr. Lalande paused.

“Why is it so bad now?” Annabel asked knowing the answer, but asking anyway.

“Don’t play me, Annabel. You know why.”

“I do?”

“Tell me why Annabel.” Dr. Lalande leaned forward and put her hands on her desk.

“Because the bitch has a husband and I don’t and her husband loves her the way I’m never going to be loved and…” Annabel’s voice trailed off.

“And?” Dr. Lalande asked pulling her glasses from her face.

Annabel sat. Silent.

“Okay. I’ll say it out loud then. Because she’s about to get pregnant. After that storm and all that conversation, Eddy started making love to Lenore in your last dream and she is going to get pregnant and you can’t. You can never get pregnant.”

Annabel began to softly weep and Dr. Lalande handed her a tissue.

“You’ve created a counter part who gets all of your deepest desires. You’ve given her everything you’ve ever wanted but you begrudge her every gift. She comes in your sleep, and has come in your sleep for 25 years because your subconscious was trying to give YOU those things. But your brain betrayed you, Annabel. Over those years your brain habituated and wired itself to dream these dreams as an outlet. But your conscious mind hates the woman that your subconscious created. Hence the turmoil and unrest in your life.”

“How can I stop it?” Annabel said wiping the tears from her cheeks.

“With this.” Dr. Lalande pulled a small paper from the folder and handed it to Annabel.

“What is this.” She said looking at the paper.

“It’s a prescription for the pills we talked about last week. I consulted with Dr. Usher and he agreed that you would be perfect for the trial of this medication.

“What does it do again?”

“It blocks your dreams. It’s like a reverse melatonin.”

“What’s mela…? Annabel started.

“Melatonin is a sleep aid that, in many people, causes vivid dreams. This pill, the pill that Dr. Usher is head of the trial for, does the exact opposite. It effects the area of the brain that creates dreams. It dampens it. Shuts it down.”

“So I’m never going to dream anything again?”

“Not for a period of about six months. After that we wean you off the medication. People have to dream. It’s vital for mental health, but if Usher’s studies prove true, you can last nearly a year without dream activity and still be healthy. And six months is more than enough time to rewire your brain. To un-habituate it. You take that pill and as of tonight, Lenore and Eddy and all the other inhabitants of your dream world will be dead and gone. I promise.”

Annabel smiled for the first time in ages. A genuine feeling of hopefulness swept through her. “I hope so. I hope SO much so.” She said still smiling and looking down at the prescription.

“Go see Dr. Usher and he’ll fill that and come see me next week at our regular time.” Dr. Lalande stood up from behind her desk. She walked with Annabel into the reception area.

“Next week, same time for Ms. Leigh, Madeline.”

“Holy cow!” Madeline shouted. “I’ve been seeing you here for what, like a year now, and I just realized you name is Annabel Leigh!!! Annabel Leigh, just like Edgar Allen Poe!”

“My father was a Poe fanatic.” Annabel said. “We’re supposed to be distant relatives. And he thought it would honor Poe to name me that. But quite frankly it has been the butt of too many jokes in my life for me to find it honorable.”

“Oh but I LOVE Poe.” Madeline said grinning a snaggle-toothed grin. “My favorite quote in the whole wide world is from him.”

“And what quote would that be Madeline?” Dr. Lalande asked.

“Well.. I can’t remember which of his poems it’s from, but it goes:

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

“Oh.” Dr. Lalande said turning to Annabel. “After tonight, they’ll be gone. Next week then Annabel. ”

“Yes.” Annabel said opening the outer office door. “Next week.”

If you love dogs as much as I do, I think you might just like my story….FICTION

A Real Dog Lover

By: S. Scott Bullock

“Jonesy.” The old man said smiling. “You’re the best dog in the whole wide world. Did you know that boy? Did you know that?” The old man patted Jonesy on his jet black head and scratched behind his ear. Jonesy raised his head and partially opened his beautiful chestnut-brown eyes. He looked up at the old man, his lids at half-mast.

“You drowsy, boy?” The old man said rubbing Jonesy’s head. “That’s the medicine I gave you a little while ago. Like I been tellin’ you, you got to heal up, boy. So you can’t be runnin’ round crazy.”

The sharp sound of the bell of an old style rotary dial phone shattered the calm. The old man pushed himself up from the brown and tan Lazy Boy recliner with a grunt and a sigh. Jonesy raised his head and cocked it toward the phone.

“Lay still, boy.” The old man said walking over to the old style telephone table. He sat down on the Early American chair and picked up the receiver of the ancient black phone.

“Hellooooo.” He said in a sing-song.

“Hi Gumpy.” A woman’s voice said.

“Is this my favorite granddaughter?!” The old man said grinning with joy.

“I’m your only granddaughter, Gumpy!” She said laughing.

“You’re still my favorite!

“Guess what, Gumpy.” The woman said.

“The patent is off of Post Toasties?” He said, still grinning.

“No. Gumpy.” She said solemnly. Then with great excitement. “You’re gonna be a Great Gumpy!”

“Oh my land! Oh my land!” The old man shouted.

Jonesy lifted his head, held it for a moment and then dropped it back onto the floor.

“And.” The woman said. “We’re coming down to see you!”

“Oh my land. I am so happy for you, my sweet girl. I am so happy.” He shifted the heavy receiver to his other hand. “When are you coming, sweet girl?”

“Three weeks, if that’s okay.”

“Better than okay. Wonderful. I can’t wait to hug you and Carl. It’s been way too long. Way too long, sweet girl.”

“Five years, Gumpy.”

“Too long.” The old man wiped at the moisture gathering around his eyes. “You’ll be able to meet Jonesy!” He said, excited.

“Who, Gumpy?”

“My new boy! Jonesy!”

“Oh, Gumpy.” She chided. “Not ANOTHER dog! Where’d you find this one?”

“He found me.” The old man said looking over at the sleeping Jonesy. “Actually we met under some pretty bad circumstances.”

“What circumstances, Gumpy?”

“I accidentally hit the poor boy with my truck!”

“Oh my God!”

“He was runnin’ along side the road and I didn’t see him. I swerved to miss a squirrel and banged right into the poor fella.”

“Is he okay?”

“I brought him home and fixed him up. It broke both his hind legs so I put em both in casts.”

“You still have the office at home, Gumpy?”

“Of course. Old veterinarians never retire, we just wait till it’s our time to be put to sleep.” He said and laughed her favorite ‘Gumpy laugh’. “Besides, lots of folks around here still need my help once in awhile. Sick horses, dry cows, and what not.”

“How’s he doing now? What’s his name again?”

“Jonesy, and he’s doing great. I have to keep meds in him so he won’t hurt himself worse. Makes him drowsy and silly as all heck, but it keeps him calm and still. I can control him that way. He’s only been with me five weeks, but I feel like I’ve known him and loved him forever.”

“You’re a precious, special man, Gumpy.”

“Still got you fooled, huh princess?”

“I thought you were done with dogs after Sally Lynn passed.”

“Men like me are never done with dogs, sweet girl. They’re in our blood and our souls. I tried to be done, but it didn’t work. Jonesy showed me that I wasn’t done.”

“Oops. Gumpy, I’ve got a call waiting and it may be Carl, can I call you back?”

“You go talk to your man, sweet girl. You don’t need to call me back. Tell him I said ‘hello’ and just be sure to call when you’re coming down. I have to de-stink the guest room.” He said and laughed. “I love you, sweet girl.”

“I love you too, Gumpy. Bye.”

The old man hung up the phone and walked back to his recliner. He sat with a loud thump and another grunt. He picked the TV remote up off the Early American double level side table and punched the on button. An old Sony, twenty-five inch CRT set crackled into life.

“Time for ‘The Price Is Right’, Jonesy.” He said. “This new fella’s okay, but he’s no Bob Barker, I’ll tell ya that much.”

Jonesy twitched on the floor next to the old man’s chair.

The evening news was finishing up on the TV and a beautiful blonde woman was saying something about mass murder and a missing teen. The old man punched the mute button.

“Nope.” He said to the TV. “No bad news. Got no room in my head for bad news.”

He waited for the opening credits of ‘The Price Is Right’ before unmuting the TV. As the show began, the old man pulled a pipe off the standing ashtray next to his chair. He picked up a tobacco pouch and filled the bowl of the pipe with Cherry Stone tobacco. Soon the smell of cedar from the paneling and years of hardwood burned in the fireplace would be joined by the homey smell of cherry tobacco smoke. He lit his pipe and curls of smoke twirled up and away from his face. He sat back into his recliner and pulled the lever that raised his feet. As Drew Carey asked for bids on the first item, the old man began a walk down his own personal memory lane.

“You don’t know this, Jonesy.” He said. “But I was a big hero in the Korean War.” He pronounced Korean with the accent on ‘Ko’. “I was a medic. Saved a lot of fellas. But more important I saved lots of dogs. Halfway through my stint we were on R&R in this tiny village called Sung Houang. Me and my buddy, Dougie Babajian, Dougie was an Armenian fella, anyway, we were havin’ lunch at this little place in the middle of the village.”

The old man leaned forward, relighted his pipe, and sat back again.

“When we finished eatin’ I asked the Ko-rean fella what it was we just ate and he told me it was dog.” The old man looked down at Jonesy. “Sorry boy, but I didn’t know. Well, I grabbed a hold of that fella and I backed him against the wall. I pulled my gun out of my holster and I held it to that fella’s head and told him to pray to God or Buddha or whoever he believed in because I was gonna take the top of his head off with my side arm. Well, he starts sayin’ all this Ko-rean stuff and cryin’ and wailin’ somethin’ fierce. His wife comes runnin’ out and falls right to her knees in front of me, beggin’ me not to hurt her husband. Well, I’ll tell ya, Jonesy, that really got to me. That poor lady in front of me, beggin’ at me that way. So I pushed that fella down into a chair and I sat down real close next to him, pointing my side arm at him the whole time. I told him that if I ever got wind of him killing a dog again, I’d shoot him sure as sunrise. I said it to his wife too, who was still kneelin’ and beggin’. And you know what, Jonesy? He swore he wouldn’t, and his wife swore on it too. I told him that I was friends with every other American service man and if any one of them came by and saw dog on the menu or a dog tied up or even a pile of dog poop anywhere near his place, I’d come back and take the top of his head off. I was lyin’ about knowing every other grunt, but he didn’t know it. And from what I heard from the fellas I knew who R&R’d in that village later, he never served up dog again. I’m damn proud of that Jonesy. Damn proud.”

The motion sensor light in the backyard went on and there was a small clatter of metal hitting metal. Jonesy stirred and raised his head slightly.

“You hear that too, boy? What the heck.” The old man got up from his chair, grunting and sighing, and headed for his back door. He opened it and looked around. “I don’t see anything.” He said. “Hello?” He called out to the night. “Somebody there?” He turned around and stepped back inside.

“Racoons.” He said walking back into his den. “I’ll be there in a minute Jonsey, I need to get my dinner. I’ll feed you when those meds wear off before you’re next dose.”

The old man pulled a pot out of an under-sink cupboard and a knock came from the front door.

“Who?” The old man said heading to the door. He opened it.

“Hank!” He said to a uniformed state trooper. “What a nice surprise. Come on in.”

“It’s not a visit, Sam. It’s official.” The trooper said.

“Well. Oh my. Okay, what can I do for you?”

The trooper pulled out a four by five photo of a handsome young African-American man.

“Have you seen this guy?” The trooper asked. “Anywhere around here?”

The old man took the photo and considered it for a long time. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pair of close-up half glasses. He put them on and considered the picture further.

“Nice looking young fella.” He said. “But not familiar at all. Who is he?”

“Missing kid.” The trooper said.

“Come in for a cup of coffee, Hank.”

“I can’t, Sam. Wish I could. Gotta go check out some other folks. Thanks though.” The trooper took the picture back from the old man, shook his hand and walked away.

“Good luck, Hank.” The old man said and closed the door. He walked back into the den to check on Jonesy who was still sleeping and twitching on the floor. “Good boy.” He said and returned to the kitchen.

Sitting back down in his recliner with a TV tray in front of him, he finished off a bowl of chili and beans and drank the last of his Bud-Lite Lime. He put the bottle on the tray and got out his pipe and tobacco. He loaded up the bowl and lit the pipe. He punched the remote and the TV crackled to life. The local news was beginning and he quickly muted the sound.

“Nope.” He said to the TV. “No room in my head for bad news.”

The sound he had heard earlier in the backyard happened again.

“Racoons. I sure hope they find something to eat.”

Jonesy began to moan and move around a little. The old man looked down at him.

“Are you wakin’ up boy?” He said and patted his head. “Are you hurtin’. I’m gonna go get your meds and some food for you. How about that, boy? Lemme turn up the sound for you.” He said and unmuted the TV.

The old man walked out of the den. A pretty, African-American news anchor was speaking on the TV.

“The eighteen-year-old is still missing. More on that story in a moment, but now here’s Mika with the weather. An overly coiffed, middle-aged man with an orange tan came on the screen and began pointing at things on a map. When he was finished, a commercial for Tide laundry soap came on and the old man walked back into the den. He carried a dish of wet dog food and a syringe.

“You hungry my good boy?” He said and went to Jonesy. He knelt down with great effort and several grunts and groans. The news came back on and the pretty African-American anchor continued the story from earlier in the program.

“Police found evidence of a struggle and blood on the north side of Rural Route 58 yesterday morning after a routine traffic stop of a drunk driver. The blood type matches that of the missing youth. Unseasonably warm weather and lack of typical rainfall left the evidence intact. It could have been there for the five weeks since the youth’s disappearance.

The old man pulled the duct tape off Jonesy’s mouth.

“The youth, Duane Denzel Jones, was reported missing last June and his disappearance follows a pattern of teen-youth disappearances in this area that have occurred annually for the past five years. No direct correlation has been officially speculated but this disappearance is eerily reminiscent of last year’s disappearance of Sally Lynn Wilcox.

“Please untie my wrists” Duane said to the old man, barely able to speak. “They hurt me so bad.”

“Don’t you start yippin’ now Jonesy.” The old man said patting the jet black head of Duane Jones and scratching behind his ear. “I’m gonna feed you and give you your calmin’ down medicine.”

“My legs.” He cried out. “They hurt me. I can’t move em.

“Five weeks now.” The old man said. “Five weeks now and you ask me the same questions every time your medicine wears off. Five weeks, Jonesy.”

“I’m in a cast? Why are my legs in a cast?”

The old man spooned a glob of wet dog food from the bowl and held it to Duane’s mouth.

“Here you go boy.” The old man said. “Eat your food.”

“Please.” Duane said. “Please untie me.”

“Can’t do that Jonesy. But I will tell you this, and I think it’ll make you happy.” The old man put the spoon back into the dog dish and set it on the table. He picked up the syringe and gently pushed the needle into Duane’s arm. He pushed the plunger down.

“You’ll be asleep again in no time.” The old man said. “And next week your casts can come off. And while your under for that, we can kill two birds with one stone. Because, just like Bob Barker says… Always spay and neuter your pets.”

Duane slowly fell back into a drugged stupor. The old man patted his head and turned the channel to Gilligan’s Island.

“I love you, boy.” He said.