The Magic Well

Lord, save me from Creativity.

The Muses ClioEuterpe, and Thalia, by Eustache Le Sueur, c. 1652-1655. Public Domain.

Writers know that when pen touches paper, magic happens. But if we have any sense we deny it. We do our best to ward it off. Far better to develop a craft—a set of skills that give us a place to go and a map to help us get there—than to blithely follow the Muse. 

So we plop our best writing pants in our best writing chair four hours each day. We bat out five hundred or five thousand words per session. We outline our story. We biograph our characters.

And, Lo! the magic happens. 

“Naturally,” we say, explaining: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” 

Ho hum.

Were we to admit that writing is what Red Smith said it is—sitting down at the typewriter, opening a vein, and letting it bleed—we would abandon the quest altogether, for few could bear sitting down to write with no surety that anything at all would come out.

We cling to our practical, scientific methods because we think they will at least yield a concatenation of words on paper. From there, it’s only a matter of revision.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash.

When something halts the magic, even when something blocks the flow of those humble superstitions we use to summon the magic, we plunge into despair. We can’t get the juicy stuff out of writing, because we can’t even rattle the dry bones from which the magic is to sprout.

Last week I went to the hospital and got my left hip replaced. I have been through this with my right hip, and, earlier, with both knees. The surgery is traumatic but not beyond endurance. The problem it causes for a working writer is the operating room anesthesia and the opioid drugs prescribed for post-surgical pain. These divine formulae wipe out, for days, the mind’s ability to concentrate. 

Nothing now impedes the fresh flow of literary magic. But an ineffable fuzziness keeps my brain from forming a few simple sentences to get the ball rolling. I’m stuck.

There is nothing to do but wait it out. Sooner or later the drugs will wear off.

I am still waiting. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Lost in the Woods

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

[Larry pic]

Read Time: 18 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

AN OLD MAN NAMED CARL SAT ON HIS PORCH, idly carving on a piece of wood. Nothing had come to him.

He studied the dog at his feet, Chief, who lay across the top step of the porch and snored peacefully. Chief was one of those fire-company dogs, white with black spots now gone gray. “Sleep well, old damnation. Reckon you got it coming to you.”

Carl’s gaze leapt to the pickup truck that stood by the road, dwarfed by tall trees on either side. He could not recall what color it had been, but it was nothing like that color now. Except where rust showed, it was muddy gray, not much to look at. But it still got Carl down to the store for supplies and back up the mountain as soon as he had filled his order. He knew the town people watched him, scratched their heads, and probably thought him a crazy old coot. But he couldn’t help that. Nothing could help.

Wood. Photo by Charlotte Harrison on Unsplash.

He sighed. He had carved Chief plenty of times, in all positions, and the pickup more than once. Maybe he should whittle out one of those fairy tale princesses. He used to carve them for Celia, who was partial to them, but had not done one in years. He shook off the shreds from his aimless whittling and took a new interest in the wood. Where in this block of pine would he find a princess? He saw a line and pressed the tiny blade where he wanted it to cleave.

“Hiya!” said a young, chipper voice. “Whatcha doin’?”

Carl looked up and saw a boy, standing a few respectful feet from the bottom of the steps. He stood fearless, looking up at Carl with eyes that pierced his heart.  

Chief raised his up ear but showed no other interest. He knew about boys.

“Just whittlin’, I reckon,” Carl said. He looked the lad over—six or seven years old, wearing a red shirt and blue shorts. “Where’d you come from?” 

“From home.”

“I mean, how d’ye come to be here, right now?”

“Walked.” He marched around in a circle, showing how. 

Carl pressed his lips together. When did kids get to be so sassy?

“We’re renting a cabin. Down the road. Me and Mom and Dad. For two weeks. It’s a vuh-cation.”

Carl examined his carving. “Is that a fact?” He drew another stroke down the block of pine. 

“Yessir. Can I pet your dog?” 

“Why ask me? He’s the one you’re addressin’.”

The boy frowned in perplexity. “What’s his name?”

“Calls himself Chief.” Oughtn’t take too much off the lower end. Princesses need room for their full skirts.

“Chief. Hi, Chief.” The boy sidled ever so carefully toward the spraddled dog. Chief raised an eyelid. The boy placed placed a hand in front of his nose, which hung off the top step along with his downside lip. Chief sniffed the hand, then licked and yawned. Courtesy rendered, he resumed his nap.

“He’s a nice dog,” the boy said in a tone of awe.

“He’s a ball of energy today,” said Carl. “Not this perky when he’s tired.”

#

“Where’s Kit?” It came to Genie that she had not seen her son for—how many minutes? Too many, here in this wilderness. She stopped stuffing food into the cupboards and looked out the kitchen window. Seeing no boy, she looked plaintively at Gus. “I told him to stay close.” 

“When did you ever know Kit to heed instructions?”

“Not yet.” She giggled nervously.

“Well, he’s only seven. Plenty of time yet for growing up.”

“If a bear doesn’t eat him first.” She shuddered.

Gus sighed. “Relax. I’ll go find him.” He strode out the door, down the steps, and out toward the gravel road that wound past the cabin. 

Genie felt mildly reassured. If Gus was not concerned, why should she be? He knew the woods better than she. Where did all that confidence come from? She longed to explore that, but all her experience told her to tread carefully. 

When they were dating—he first asked her out across the circulation desk at the library—he had been a handsome, impertinent young man. “Who are you?” she had asked. “Call me Gus,” he replied. “Now how about that movie?” She had countered, “I still don’t know who you are.” He spread his arms, offering himself for inspection. “I am a humble design engineer.” She looked at him quizzically. “And you want to see Pride and Prejudice?” He feigned confusion. “Something wrong with Jane Austen?” She knit her brows and questioned herself inwardly. “I guess my first thought was, for an engineer, you have a taste for the finer things.” He smiled from ear to ear. “That’s why it’s you I’m asking out, Marian.” “It’s not Marian, it’s Genie. And it’s a date.”

At dinner, after the show, Gus had chatted amiably about Elizabeth Bennet and Mister Darcy, measuring the film against fine points of the book—another shock to Genie’s system. But when she asked anything about his background—his youth, where he grew up, were he went to high school, he clammed up. He shunned all her questions in the nicest way, referring her to his employer, a design-build construction company, who he said would vouch for his honesty.

While falling in love with him, she assumed he would someday share his personal story. But now, eight years and one son later, she still knew nothing of his life before they met. Something had wounded him terribly, and he had walled it off. 

She was hurt that he would not share. All in good time, she thought, as always.

Gus was gone a long time in search of Kit, and she began to worry. Then she saw him coming up the path from the road. Alone, but not upset. That could mean anything.

She ran out on the cabin porch to meet him. “Yes? Tell me. Quick.”

“Relax.” He grinned. “There’s an old sawyer’s cabin a mile up the road. I thought that’s where he’d go.”

“Why did you think that?”

He shrugged. “Because that’s where the road leads. Anyway, I snuck up, hid in the road, screened by bushes, and saw him holding quite a parley with the old man and his dog.”

“Our first day here, and he’s out bothering the neighbors. But you didn’t you bring him home with you?”

“I wouldn’t say he was bothering the guy.”

“You said he’s a sawyer. Doesn’t he have work to do?”

Gus sighed. “Was a sawyer, years ago. Right now, it looks like he’s just a whittler. Probably hungry for any human contact.”

She squinted. “How do you know he was a sawyer?”

“Why else would anybody live up here? He doesn’t rent tourist cabins, I’ll tell you that. In fact, we were lucky to find this one.”

How deftly he changes the subject. “Speaking of which, what prompted us to come to this out-of-the way place for a vacation, anyhow?”

Gus frowned. “I, uh, found it in the paper.” 

“It’s our first vacation ever. You know Kit would have been delighted with Disney World.”

“And he’ll be delighted with these woods, too. You wait and see.”

“I won’t feel good until he’s back in my view.” 

“Well, here he comes now.” Gus pointed. “And all on his own. No coercion.”

Kit skipped in from the road, a smile on his face and an object in his hand. “Hi, Mom. This is for you.” 

He gave her a small wood figurine, less than six inches tall. “It’s a fairy princess. He said you’d prob’ly like it.”

“Who said?”

“The old man up the road.”

“Does this old man have a name?”

Kit shrugged. “His dog’s name is Chief.”

“Aren’t you afraid of dogs?”

“No. I like ’em now.”

“How much money should I send back with you?”

Kit gave her a look of incomprehension. 

“You know, to pay for this fairy princess.”

His eyes widened. “Oh, you don’t have to pay. He said it’s a gift.”

She stood perplexed.

Gus swatted her playfully with a dish towel. “There you go, Genie. One day in the woods and already the forest gnomes are giving you gifts. That wouldn’t happen in Orlando.”

#

When the lad showed up again the next day, Carl was working on a dog. 

The boy’s eyes moved from the real dog reclining on the porch to the wooden dog in Carl’s hands. “Is it Chief?” 

“I reckon it is. He’s the only dog I’ve got to model by.”

“But—”

“I know what you’re gonna say. The real Chief is just like a lumpy rug on the floor. Sometimes I wonder if he’s drawing breath. But this Chief I’m holding is standin’ up and rarin’ to go.”

“Yeah.”

The lump of basswood, on which the old man had worked all morning, had started to show a fair likeness to its original, except for posture. The flop of the ears and the hang of the dewlaps were dead on. Tiny striations from Carl’s blade gave the impression of Chief’s hairy coat, with even the dark spots suggested by minute cross-hatchings. The dog rose on his back legs, front paws flailing the air, as if leaping to snatch a treat from Carl’s hand. 

“You see,” he told the boy, “this is how old Chief looked a few years ago, when he was a gay young dog.”

“Chief is gay?”

“Happy. Playful. That’s what I mean. Just like this.” He held the object for the boy’s admiration. Carl was proud of his work. He might be just an old buffoon in a cabin in the woods, but he knew a thing or two about beauty.

The boy, who had told Carl his name was Kit, asked, “How old is Chief?”

Carl scratched his chin, as he often did when ciphering. “Well, let’s see, it’s about fifteen years ago I got him, and he was just a wiggly puppy then.” 

“Did you buy him at the pet store?”

Carl chuckled. “Oh, no. When you live in the right kind of place, people give you nice dogs like this for free.”

“For free!” Kit jumped up and down on the porch, causing Chief to turn back over his shoulder and protest. 

“Let’s go inside a minute, and I’ll show you something.” 

The boy followed Carl into the dim, cool cabin. Carl switched on a light. “Look at that.”

Kit’s eyes roamed the room. Every surface held carved figurines—in all woods, painted and unpainted, varnished and unvarnished, stained and unstained. They were in two or three subtly different styles, which the boy would not notice, but all bore the fine marks of Carl’s favorite tool, his simple, two-bladed jackknife. He had heard that there were knives especially made for woodcarving, but as long as he had a good, sharp pocketknife, what did it matter? 

Kit roamed the room, looking at dozens of forms—deer and badgers, Chief, the pickup truck, miniature tree trunks of the species from which they were carved, even beetles and toads. He reached out to touch a magnificent stag, and Carl wanted to shout, “Don’t!”—but he bit his tongue. What did it matter? The boy might as well touch them.

Carl picked up an eight-inch carving of a strikingly attractive young woman in a simple dress, looking back over her shoulder. He showed it to the boy. “This was my wife, Celia. When she was young. I lost her before I found old Chief. He never had the chance to know her goodness.” 

“How did you lose her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” Kit’s eyes were big and round. Carl did not know whether the boy had any idea what death meant. Still less how quickly a fast-growing cancer could destroy a life.

Carl set the carving of Celia back down and picked up a smaller one, a little boy in cherry wood, an impish smile on his face. “It’s our boy, Otto. When he was little. He was fifteen when I lost him.”

“Did he die?” 

“No, no. At least I haven’t heard if he did. No, I lost him by sending him away. I was bad to him.” 

#

Gus wondered what he had gotten himself into, and how he would get himself out. And whether he wanted to get himself out.

“This is the forest primeval,” Genie said, spreading her arms as they hiked up the road. 

“That sounds like a quote.”

“Longfellow. ‘Evangeline.’ ” 

“If primeval means original, then Longfellow was talking about someplace else. This is all second-growth timber.” Gus stopped and gazed up at the canopy of trees. “Old second-growth.” 

“And did you just happen to know that?  Or are you an expert forester as well?” 

He shrugged.

“Anyway,” she said. “It feels primeval.”

“Well, there may be something in that.” He grinned. “Lots of primeval feelings up here on this mountain.”

Genie sighed as they walked on. “Sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Gus pointed to a bend in the road ahead. “Now hush up. Just beyond here is where the old man lives.” 

“And we’re hushing up because?”

“Just take a look for yourself, and you can judge whether Kit’s in any danger from this old geezer.”

“More likely the other way around, I’d think.” 

“Shh. Lower your voice.”

#

The planes of Otto’s face, caught in a large piece of cherry wood, revealed a smoldering anger. The anger became more focused as Carl worked. Clearly the anger was aimed at him, the carver. Accusatory woodcarving. Will wonders never cease.

He had begun work in the wee hours, unable to sleep. Now it was mid-morning. He whittled calmly but with weariness. 

Chief and the boy watched in silence until, at last, Kit could not contain himself. “I thought you said this was the same boy.”

“It is.”

“But he doesn’t look the same.”

Carl met the boy’s eyes. “The one you saw yesterday—Otto was about your age. I’ve made lots of carvings like that. But I’ve never before carved Otto when he was fifteen.”

“Why not?”

“Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.” Carl brushed a few crumbs of cherry off Otto’s face. “That’s why you think he looks different. He’s older.”

“But he’s not happy, like the other one.” 

“I’m afraid you’re right. He’s not.” The boy nodded, frowning, and Carl wanted to explain. “Nothing can make him happy. That’s how he was at that age.”

“Why?”

“His mama passed away. I didn’t know how much that hurt him.” 

“Why not?”

Carl sighed. “I was unhappy too. So I could only see my own grief. Not his. I’m afraid I beat him.” 

“Beat him?” The boy’s eyes showed shock. “You mean . . . ?” His hands formed small fists and plowed into his own thigh as he sat there on the porch step.

Carl hung his head. Finally, he picked up the knife again and continued work on the anguished figurine of his son. “Anyway, that’s why he looks unhappy.” 

“What happened after that?”

“He left home. I never heard from him again.”

Kit’s head whipped around at a sound.

Carl looked up. 

A woman walked in from the road. “There you are! I found you, you little rascal.” A young woman. A city woman, he guessed. A bit noisy, but she couldn’t be all that bad, raising such a fine young son. “Sir, I’m sorry. I hope he hasn’t been bothering you.” 

Carl set down his knife and the block of cherry and stood up. Now he could see the young man trailing behind the woman. He looked furtive, or embarrassed. As if he would like to reel her back in. “Genie,” he said. 

“Mommy,” said Kit. “This is the man who gave you the princess.”

She smiled warmly into Carl’s eyes. 

The young man came up even with her.

“Howdy, Ma’am,” said Carl. “Hello, Otto.” 

“Hi, Pop.” 

Her mouth dropped open and she stood there looking first at Carl, then at Otto. 

Otto turned to face her. “Otto Augustus,” he said. “Named after my grandfather.”

Carl cast his eyes downward. “God rest his soul.”

Kit jumped up and down. “Dad’s name is Otto? Cool!” 

Otto put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s a long story.”

They all stood a moment, letting their thoughts settle. 

Chief scratched his ear listlessly. 

“Well, don’t just stand there,” said Carl. “Come on up here, where I can get a good look at ye.” 

The End

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Alibi

Read Time: 1 minute

DEAR READER:

X-ray of hip replacement. Mikael Häggström. Public Domain.

Your New Favorite Writer will undergo hip replacement surgery Wednesday, January 13. It’s not that big a deal. I’ve been through it before, and my surgeon is first-rate. 

But there is a lot of folderol involved in preparing for, undergoing, and then recovering from this kind of an operation. It also involves the use of drugs that may conjure a state of confusion more pronounced than my usual state of confusion.

I was going to post a new short story this week, but what with everything else, I have not had time to finish it. So I have given you instead a sour commentary on the shenanigans in Washington and what they might signal as far as the rest of us are concerned. That will have to hold you for the time being.

WATCH THIS SPACE. I will be back before long (two weeks? a month?) with a new short story for your entertainment. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my other stories or my nonfiction commentaries.

See you on the other side.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

No. We’re not.

Read Time: 7 minutes

We are not “better than this.” 

Rioters storm Capitol. VOA News.

Would you please stop saying, “We are better than this”?

Where have you been living?

“This” is who we have become. It did not happen yesterday. It does not date from 2016, when we elected Donald Trump. It does not stem from 2000, when Bush and Gore arm-wrestled for the Florida vote all the way to the Supreme Court.

I have watched us devour ourselves for more than fifty years. It has all been out in plain sight.

One expletive at a time, we have destroyed all trust in our most important institutions, which is to say we have destroyed all trust in one another.

We have become a nation of character assassins. Oh, so casually. As if the words we use to describe one another do not matter. In reality, they are practically the only words that do matter.

The Mirror Test

If you feel incensed about some political issue, and you express your moral outrage by calling a politician you have never met “an ignorant f*ck,” you are not solving the problem. You are the problem.

If you recognize yourself in the paragraph above, and you say, “Well, what else can I call someone who approves of starving the poor?”, you have not brought light to an important issue. You have only defended your calumny by blaming its victim. 

If you are stalwart in your casual infamy, I suppose this feeling of self-righteousness reflects your internal fear that someone will disapprove of you. You signal your virtue to deflect attention from the void within.

Were your outrage at the opposition truly righteous, you would accurately describe the problem, analyze and dispel misguided attempts to protect the problem, and work at building relationships of trust with those who can help solve the problem. You would not start by calling names.

Death of Civility

There was a time—we who witnessed it are shrinking in number—a time when people generally addressed one another in terms of dignity and even a bit of formality. 

When politicians disagreed with one another, they said things like, “I would like to point out to my Learned Colleague . . . .” 

Of course, these studied phrases, like “Learned Colleague,” “Distinguished Opponent,” or “Esteemed Friend from the Other Side,” were deliberate euphemisms. They were consciously inserted in place of what the speaker may have really thought—“liberal jerk,” “conservative bastard,” etc. 

You may call such circumspection insincere. I call it wise. Politicians in those days knew that words can calm or inflame, and that your opponent of today may be someone you need to call on tomorrow for help in a larger cause. Harsh words can burn bridges.

On account of a war held in the 1960s, I was removed from the United States for a period of time. When I returned in 1969, donned civilian clothes, and began to resume my education at a major university, the culture to which I returned smacked me in the face like an arctic tsunami.

The most vulgar terms of personal abuse had become common currency in the mouths of otherwise cute coeds. The students and campus-hangers-on around me were more interested in heckling, belittling, and humiliating those in positions of power than in reasoning with them. Their exemplars were Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. And they had been reading Saul Alinsky, who said, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”

All this “ridicule”—not to mention snarling hostility and physical intimidation—was justified under the exalted rubric: “The Politics of Confrontation.” Sounds like a book title, or an undergraduate seminar, doesn’t it? 

This bombastic, bellicose barrage of invective was justified as the verbal equivalent, at home, of the incendiary bombs being dropped on Vietnamese villagers. It was fighting fire with fire. Because of the moral horror being fought, no weapon was too crude to use in fighting it.

Nobody—or at least nobody virtuously fighting the Establishment—bothered to note the toll that the incessant berating of strangers would take on the moral fiber of our nation, and on the previously sacred notion that a person’s public character was an important personal possession not to be trifled with.

Self-Hatred and 500-Pound Chickens

Since then, we have been through repeated waves or cycles of public sentiment, some to the Left and some to the Right. Partisans of both sides have been tempted to substitute casual slanders for reasoned arguments. They have almost invariably succumbed to the temptation. 

Character assassination has gone from being the sport of self-styled revolutionists on campus to being the common currency of elected officials when talking about one another, and even when talking about masses of people seen as the Other Side’s Base. One’s political opponent is always seen as playing exclusively to his or her base, who may be dismissed as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, mind-numbed Zombies, or “Deplorables.” 

All of this bad-mouthing, whether from high politicians or ordinary people, has the inevitable effect of making us hate ourselves as a people. We can’t even see how much self-hatred is involved in all this—because everything is the Other Side’s fault.

That’s the dynamic that enabled the left-wing disgraces in Portland and yesterday’s right-wing disgraces in Washington.

Our chickens have come home to roost. They were such cute yellow fuzzballs when they left the nest. Now they are 500-pound bombs, and they are sitting on all our heads.

Stop This World, I Want to Get Off

I mention these things not because I wish to be a Cassandra. 

I want us to get better as a nation, to become a more responsible people. But we ought to understand that we’re not going to flip some switch and suddenly gather around a campfire with guitars, singing “Koom-Bah-Yah.” 

We have made a mess of ourselves over the decades. If it can be undone at all, that too will be the work of decades.

What must happen is the regeneration of kindness and the rejection of reflexive malice in our hearts.

Sorry to have to tell you that.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Huff, Puff

Read Time: 5 minutes

STOP THE PRESSES!

Or start the presses. At any rate, do something with the presses. 

This week I will miss the regular Tuesday unveiling of my latest short story for your comments and critique. You’ll see the story—I hope—on Wednesday. Maybe Thursday.

“So what’s such a Big Deal, New Favorite Writer, to interrupt the stream of new stories? You can’t just feed the chickadees and then leave off in the middle of a cold, dark winter, you know. We want our stories! Rumble, rumble rumble! Mutiny, mutiny, mutiny!”

I beg of you, Dear Readers, get hold of yourselves. Chill out. Keep your collective shirt on.

My Lame Excuse

You may recall I’ve been bravely storming the bastions of literary lionhood, as noted hereherehereherehere, and here. Oh, and here.

Though my historical novel, Freedom’s Purchase, has yet to secure a locked-in publication contract, it has come close more than once. I made the momentous decision, about two-and-a-half months ago, to decline a publishing contract that was offered, because I just didn’t feel the contract, and the business relationship which would develop around it, were a good fit. 

Since then, I received another request for a full manuscript read. The publisher in question ultimately passed on my manuscript—but they gave it a chance and gave me some reasons for their pass. I set about improving it, moving from fourth major draft into fifth major draft.

Late last week I got another full manuscript request from an independent publisher. It looks like a good company to be published by, and their request was cordial and businesslike. But, yikes!—I was in the midst of the latest revision. With no time to spare in filling the publisher’s request, I had to rejigger page numbers and such, so my book would appear smooth and professional, even though it’s not yet fully revised. An editor is never pleased when she finishes Chapter 13 and immediately bumps into Chapter 15, with no Chapter 14 in between. I had to make sure there were no little oversights like that in the manuscript I sent. 

The time spent responding to this new read request could not be spent working on this week’s story. That’s why I’m running behind.

The Silver Lining

I cannot predict whether the new publisher will like my book well enough to offer a contract. Only time will tell—probably a month or even two. But one thing that’s apparent is that my query materials, synopsis, etc., are becoming increasingly fine tuned. That’s why I’m getting read requests. Sooner or later, one will result in a published book. 

The manuscript itself is one of the query materials. Publishers and agents want to see the first chapter or two, to help them decide whether they’d like to read further. My manuscript is stronger now than it’s ever been. 

Meanwhile, I write these weekly short stories as a way to sharpen my narrative skills, which remain rudimentary. None of this comes easy. At least, not to me. I have to work at it.

Putting in the Time

Which brings up another topic: Time spent. Nothing writes itself. The only way to get it done is to sit in one’s chair and bang away on one’s keyboard. I believe my esteemed spouse thinks it foolhardy to spend as much time writing and revising as I do. And I’m positive it’s giving me a more sedentary lifestyle, which is not good. But you do have to put in the time. For me, it’s urgent that I do it now, before my literary impact becomes posthumous.

So I’ll put in the time to finish the first draft of the next story, which is about an old man and a little boy. You won’t want to miss it.

Once it’s posted, I may not have a chance to post another before Tuesday, January 13, when I am scheduled to have my hip replaced. If all goes well, that may slow me down for a few days.

But have no fear, Gentle Reader: I’ll be back. You can’t get rid of me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What Time Is It?

Read Time: 4 minutes

WHAT! 2021, ALREADY?

Swept up in the mad whirl of life, I did not see this coming.

It was Milo Bung who informed me. 

He stood on my front stoop in casual clothes and formal mask. Even Milo has learned to mask up. He shivered in the pool of arctic air we have lately inherited from the Canadians. “Well? You just going to stand there and let me freeze to death?” 

“Oops, sorry.” I opened the door and let him slip inside. 

He stamped his feet and adjusted his mask. That is to say, he took it off. He’s been in a bubble for months and so have I. We’re both of an age where we’ll be next in line for the vaccine.

“What’s got into you?” Milo demanded. “Did you actually not know last night was New Year’s Eve?”

“I slept through it, like most other things. To tell you the truth, I was preparing to suck the remaining joy out of 2020, but now you tell me the chance is gone.”

“Wake up and smell the coffee, pardner.” That was a hint.

François Villon. Public Domain.

“Come on, I’ll make some.” I led him into the kitchen and sat him down. “The years go by too fast. Où, I ask you,  sont les neiges d’antan?” This was a bit of Gallic ju-jitsu, intended to trap him into a long-winded discussion of an irrelevant subject. 

Dear Reader, perhaps I’ve neglected to mention that after his unfortunate stint in the Marine Corps, Milo picked up a master’s degree in French Medieval Literature. So he would know I merely meant to ask, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” But he would not be able to resist a mini-lecture on François Villon. That was my theory, you see.

Milo surprised me. “? I’ll tell you . They’ve been piling up around our ankles and knees for years. Now we’re up to our ribcages in them, and I can tell you, they’re going for the throat.” I had never seen such intensity from my old school chum. But I shared his concern.

Let me explain, Dear Reader, in case you, through no fault of your own, are among the metaphor-impaired. My old friend the French scholar was referring to years. The separate snowfalls are just harbingers of time. And indeed the years do pile up around one, just as successive snows will eventually swamp the hardiest mountain cabin.

Cabin in Snow. Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash.

I poured coffee and set it before him. “What do you propose we do about them, Milo—all these neiges?”

He took a sip, made a grateful face, and gave me a canny look. His eyes measured me, from the top of my snowy head to the gnarled hand resting on the curved handle of a cane, and on down to its rubber tip, planted on the linoleum near my questionable legs.

“You’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ve got baggage to throw overboard yet. Go up to the hospital in a couple of weeks, get that hip replaced, and by spring you’ll be good for another fifty thousand miles.”

I smiled. “It’s wonderful what they can do now, isn’t it?”

He frowned. “Me, I got nothing like that left to improve. I’ll just have to get by on sheer force of personality.”

“Gee, Milo, what if you run out?”

He scowled. “I’ll make up something else, you slippered old pantaloon.” 

I stared at him through the spectacles on the end of my nose. He had assured me of fifty thousand more miles, but from where I tottered, fifty thousand didn’t seem like all that many. 

Nonetheless, when he took his homeward way, I was cheered. After all, I had received encouragement from no less than Milo Bung, direct lineal descendant of Aethelred the Unready, and third cousin to Slats Grobnik.

Happy snowfalls to you all.

Larry F. Sommers,

Your new favorite writer

Snow Angel

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 11 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

STARBRIGHT, AGE SEVEN, LAY FACE UP IN NEW SNOW. She waved her arms and legs with all her might. After six sweeps, she sprang to her feet and leapt clear to the sidewalk.

Snow Angel. Unknown author. Public Domain.

She turned to look. It was a perfect angel, though small because she couldn’t make it any bigger. Even so, it filled the square of terrace between sidewalk and fireplug in front of the four-story building where she lived. 

She prayed it would be enough.

She went in and, holding her red rubber boots in her hands, ran up the stairs. Thirteen steps each flight, for a total of fifty-two, like the suits in her deck of worn cards. 

“Hi,” said Uncle Dave as she entered. “I saw you down there. What did you make?” 

She stood over the rubber mat. “An angel. Do you like it?”

Uncle Dave brushed snow off her coat with his fingertips. “I do.” 

“How come you’re here? Where’s Wanda?” 

“She went across town to be with her family. So I’m filling in.” He went to the window and peered down. “Of course. That’s an angel all right. Look here what I made.” He pointed to a scraggly green tree.

“Only God can make a tree.” She enjoyed pointing out Uncle Dave’s errors. 

“But I made it stand up in the corner. And I’m going to make it pretty with balls and lights and tinsel. You can help.”

Uncle Dave’s coat was draped on the end of the sofa. Shirtsleeves rolled up, tie loosened, he lowered a string of lights over the scrawny tree. Starbright grabbed a fistful of tinsel and reared back to throw it.

“No, wait. Ornaments first.”

“Oh.” She giggled. “I forgot. Uncle Dave, I did something bad to Mommy.”

He paused and looked at her. “Yes?”

“I called her a mean old lady.”

“Not nice.”

“I want to tell her I’m sorry, but I’m not. It’s true, and people should say true things.”

Uncle Dave squinted. “Uh huh. Why is she so mean?”

“That’s what I’d like to know!”

“But why do you think she’s mean?”

“She won’t take me to see Grandma and Grandpa for Christmas.”

Uncle Dave draped the lights with care. “We’ll have a jim dandy Christmas here. I’ll come over, and you and your mommy and I can open presents and sing songs and—”

“We never see Grandma and Grandpa!” 

“Now you can start hanging ornaments. I know your mom would feel better if you apologized to her first thing tomorrow.”

“But what I said was true, and true things should be said.”

Uncle Dave mmphed. When the tinsel was hung, he warmed a pizza he had brought with him. They played war and slapjack with Starbright’s dog-eared cards until late. 

“Oops! Look at that, it’s past nine. Time for you to go to bed.” 

They hung her stocking on the coat tree by the front door, because there was no chimney. Uncle Dave said that in multiple-unit apartments Santa Claus used the front door like anybody would. She believed Uncle Dave because he knew all about apartments. 

#

Dave sat in the arm-chair, the one with the displaced spring in the seat cushion, lost in thought. 

After a while he got up, opened Starbright’s door a crack, and listened. Satisfied with the sound of her rhythmic breathing, he got a small tumbler of ice cubes from the tiny kitchen and poured in a shot of Laphroaig from the slim silver flask in his inner coat pocket. It was his one indulgence, although he could easily have afforded others. 

He held the bitter Scotch whiskey in his mouth, savoring the taste of smoldering peat and creosote. Life was like that. Some of the vilest things could turn out to be all right.

What did the Old Man have against Candy, when all was said and done? Dave had gotten to know her better since Willard’s passing, and she was all right. She was doing her best. What more could Dad and Mom demand? 

#

Starbright stood in a field of snow. Clean, white snow that sparkled like diamonds. Not a house or building or car or fireplug in sight. There were only trees, evergreens half-buried in hills of snow.

She had grown incredibly tall. She seemed as tall as the distant trees. 

Then she saw Santa coming across the fields toward her. He was walking, taking big steps in his black boots. She wondered where his sleigh was, and his reindeer, and his pack.

When Santa got closer, she saw that it was not Santa, but a woman, or maybe a man, in a long, flowing robe. He, or she, had a very peaceful look on his, or her face, and said, “Fear not.”

Starbright looked up to see the figure, who was much taller than she, even though a moment ago she had been as tall as the trees. She suddenly knew it was an angel, because she saw the wings on its back, six of them, fanning the air just the way she had fanned the snow in front of the building with her arms.

“When you wake, you must go and ask your mother’s forgiveness.” 

“But what I said was true!”

“The lips of the wise do not tell everything they know to be true.”

“Oh.” Starbright had never thought of that.

The angel nodded. 

“But,” Starbright said, “when will I ever see Grandma and Grandpa?”

“You are not meant to know by what means your needs shall be provided.” 

Starbright stared up at the angel. She could not fathom what the angel had just said, but it was too late to ask, for the angel was gone.

#

Candy rose early so she could shower, dress, and run a brush through her hair before Starbright woke. Dave would arrive early, and Candy did not want to be caught in night dress. It meant she didn’t get much sleep after coming home from Tiny’s, where she waitressed until bar time. But what else was new? 

Starbright, pajama-clad, toddled in. “Oh, Mommy, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Candy stared at her surprising daughter. “You’re forgiven, you know that. What am I forgiving you for?”

“Oh . . . you know.” 

Before Candy could reply, there was a knock at the door. Good heavens, Dave was here already. 

“Come in,” Candy said. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas.”

Dave carried an armful of packages, which he tumbled down onto the sofa. 

Candy took his overcoat. “I haven’t started cooking yet. Sit down and relax. I’ll rustle up a big breakfast, and we can open presents after that.”

Starbright looked disappointed at the order of things, but she might as well start learning about delayed gratification.

“Here. This might help.” Dave dived into a sack on the sofa and pulled out a tray of store-bought cookies. He held them out to Candy as she returned from hanging his coat.

“Cookies? Thanks, but how’s that breakfast? Both of you just cool your jets, and we’ll get around to treats after—”

Another knock sounded at the door. 

Dave looked at Candy. “Are you expecting someone else?”

She shook her head, and with an expressive shrug went to the door and opened it.

Her father-in-law, Thomas Campion, the Thomas Campion of Campion Realty, stood there, his height and breadth filling the doorframe, a sour look on his face. “Well, Candace? Can we come in?”His wife, Marge, in fur, stood behind him. She elbowed him aside and shoved her way in. “What he means, my dear, is Merry Christmas. It’s so delightful to see you again.” She smiled a thousand watts, including about forty watts of real warmth. She shoved a stuffed bear out ahead of her and wiggled it at Starbright. “Here you are, Bright! Santy left him at our house for you. His name is Geoffrey.”

, thank you!” Starbright stepped forward grinning and hugged the bear, nearly her own size. “I just knew you’d come.” 

Candy’s gaze shifted from Starbright’s radiance to Tom’s discomfort and Marge’s tension. “Yes. Do come in. Sit down.”

Dave swept his packages off the sofa. “Right here, Dad. Get comfortable.” He held out the tray Candy had just ridiculed. “Want a cookie?” 

The old man reached forward, inspected the assorted cookies peevishly, finally pinched a ginger snap between thumb and forefinger. “Thank you.”

Marge held her arms out to Candy and folded her in a clumsy embrace. 

“Candy was just about to make breakfast,” Dave said. Then, to Candy, “Weren’t you?”

They all stared at her.

“Yes, indeed.” She had bought enough ham and eggs for three. “Pancakes. How many can you eat?” 

Tom, holding a half-eaten cookie, looked up from the couch. “You needn’t cook for us, Candace. I mean, it’s a nice thing—”

“What the old fool means is, how can we impose on you, considering . . . .” 

“Considering both of you cut me and Starbright out of your lives when Bill died?”

At the word “died,” Marge winced.

“I know what’s wrong with me, but she’s your only granddaughter.” Candy found she was breathing heavily.

Starbright caught her by the sleeve and pulled her down. She cupped her hands around Candy’s ear and whispered. It sounded like, “Wise mouths don’t blab everything, even if it is true.”

Candy smiled. “Pardon my manners. Of course you’re welcome here. Tell Dave how many cakes you can eat and I’ll get cooking. Starbright, go to your room and get dressed.”

#

Starbright made a detour to look out the window. Four stories below, the snow in the little square lay undisturbed. 

A presence loomed above her head. Uncle Dave.

“No angel,” she whispered. “What happened to it?”

Uncle Dave craned his neck so his face was up against the glass and looked down. “Mmph,” he said.

#

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Christmas Traditions by Smith & Wesson

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 13 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

MAMA KEPT THE GUN MY FATHER USED TO END HIS LIFE, which is how it came to be in the pocket of my ratty overcoat twenty years later as I stalked down St. Paul Avenue with murder in my heart.

It was a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber Police Special, a six-shot revolver made of blued steel. It took years for Mama to part with the simplest of Dad’s personal effects—clothes, underwear, socks, watch, cufflinks. She never did get rid of the gun. 

She kept it hidden in a box on her closet shelf, above the limp, dispirited dresses. At age twelve, I snooped all over the house. I fancied I knew all Mama’s secrets. Often when she was still at work, I climbed up on a chair, lifted down the Thom McCann shoe box, removed its lid, and stared at the blue revolver. It had its special place, like a treasured heirloom, kept safe to be handed down to the next generation. Sometimes I played with the bullets in the little box beside the gun. I always put things back before Mama got home. 

Lucille, my older sister, had left to make her own way in the world. She had put all the distance she could between herself and us. I can’t say I blame her. 

All that was long behind me on this cold Christmas Eve. I was now the star of my own drama. 

“I’m leaving,” Angie had announced in the small kitchen of our crappy little upstairs flat. 

“Where you going?” I asked in all innocence. “We need milk or something? I can go.”

“No. I mean I’m leaving you, Eddie. For good.” 

“What! Leaving me?” Then, a moment later, “Who is it?”

She picked up her tiny overnight case from under the kitchen table. “None of your business. But if you must know, it’s Sal.” I had not even noticed the overnight case.

“Sal the saloonkeeper? You’re dumping me for him? What’s he got over me?” I grew hot under the collar, shouted right in her face.

She stood there, bold as brass. Then her eyes softened. “I’m carrying Sal’s child.”

At that I exploded. 

I’m not sure what all I said. I am sure I did not lay a hand on her. 

But she laid me out with words, just as surely as David slew Goliath with a stone.

“A woman wants children, Eddie. I got tired of waiting. Sal gave me what I wanted. You wouldn’t, or couldn’t.” 

She walked out with that tiny case, leaving me alone with Bathsheba, the snappy little Pomeranian bitch I had given her last Christmas. I never wanted a dog. But better a dog than a little hotheaded boy.

I yelled down the hall. “What about the mutt? Don’t you want her?” 

The empty hallway bounced my voice back at me. 

The nerve. The sheer, unmitigated gall. She can’t treat me that way.

I pounded my fists on the wall until the little red fur-ball started yapping. I walked circles on the floor. Then I remembered. 

I went to the bedroom, pulled out my bottom drawer, and lifted out the gun, which had become mine when Mom died. Funny thing, I never could bring myself to get rid of it either.

Those bullets were still in the little box. I loaded the gun, jammed it in the pocket of my overcoat, and went out. 

Angie had left me for Salvatore Balistreri, the tavern-keeper. Now I was gunning for him. Somehow I always knew it would come to this. Dad was a hothead and I was a hothead. Like father, like son. 

My mind was clear as I sloshed through the snow to Sal’s place. It had calmed me some to slide the bullets, one by one, into the chambers of the rotating cylinder. I only loaded five, because I’d heard it’s bad luck to carry a gun with a live round under the hammer.

We lived in a run-down section of Milwaukee known as the Third Ward, an old Italian neighborhood. Now, in 1976, they were building highways through it. One of the last holdouts against progress was Balistreri’s bar. 

I couldn’t help notice the tavern seemed festive. Evergreen boughs draped its lighted front. The door had a fresh coat of red paint. You could call it fire engine red or church door red. Same difference. 

I pushed in through wall-to-wall celebrants, who all had the advantage of me by several drinks. The swirl of tobacco smoke and alcohol fumes was baptized by the smell of garlic as Sal’s sister Loretta danced by with a tray of hot pizza. Merry-makers toasted a small Christmas tree that sat on one end of the bar, hung with lights, tinsel, and small pictures of Italian saints. 

All this warmth around me, but I was an icicle.

Angie, on a stool at the bar, turned her face away when she saw me. Never mind that. 

I rounded the end of the bar to confront Sal. “Who the hell you think you are, loverboy? Who are you, Casanova?” 

I went to grab his collar. He fended me off. He was half a head taller than me, maybe a couple years older. His dark face turned darker, as if he knew to be ashamed of himself. 

He softly placed a white towel on the little shelf behind the bar. “Let’s have this talk outside.” 

He led the way out through the back door, into the alley behind the bar. 

I jumped him. “You’ve been screwing my wife!” 

He threw me back off and held up his hands. “Look at yourself, Eddie. No wonder she don’t want you.”

“Yeah?”

He glowered. “What kind of man is it, won’t give a girl a little bambino?”

My hand dug for the gun. My finger found the trigger guard.

“Angie don’t wanna see you any more. Neither do I. Beat it.” He turned and walked back into the bar as I pulled the gun out of my pocket. 

I raised it to fire just as the door closed.

Standing there, a bewildered baboon, I couldn’t believe it. I had come on purpose to kill him and frittered it away in talk. 

What if I went back in right now and shot him dead behind the bar, right in front of Angie? 

But I should go in the front way, like a man. I ran down the alley, turned the corner, and walked half a block to St. Paul.

I slogged down the street, went on past the front door of Balistreri’s, and found myself on the southbound ramp of the new Hoan Bridge. The city fathers wouldn’t connect the freeway that led to it, so people called it the Bridge to Nowhere. How fitting.

There I was, trudging up the long slope of the bridge, a pedestrian in the middle of an interstate highway with no cars on it. I saw a yellow flicker far away—maybe a hobo camp on the south shore under the south end of the bridge.

It was a long walk, like a mile, to the top of the bridge. But having started, I kept on to the highest point, dead over the Milwaukee River where it entered Lake Michigan. 

I looked down at the black water, a hundred and twenty feet below me. If the fall didn’t kill me, I’d perish soon after in the frigid water. The river would push me out into the lake and I’d never be found.

I felt the weight of the gun in my pocket. A surer way. Quicker. Less terrifying.

“Say, buddy, I hate to bother you . . . .” 

“Huh?” I turned away from the rail. A man stood there. 

A hairy old face, a Packers stocking cap, a bundle of heavy layers. The top layer was fur, like an old-time raccoon coat. “I wouldn’t bother you. It’s just, the pup ain’t et in a coupla days.” A ragged white snout poked out the top of his coat. A dog, some kind of terrier, with a big black nose and dark, hungry eyes.

“You carry it in your coat?” 

“He can run and jump all right, but it’s mighty cold tonight.”

How had I missed this bum’s approach? The moonlight showed his tracks in the snow, coming up from the south end of the bridge.

“You walked all this way to ask for a handout?”

“If you could just spare a coupla bucks, we could have us a meal.” 

The dog made no comment, just stared at me. 

I gave the old tramp all the cash in my wallet. “Here, you might as well have it.” 

His face lit up. “Thank you kindly.” He tucked the bills inside his coat. “God bless you, sir.” He turned and hiked back the way he had come, stepping in his own footprints.

I pulled out the gun. Now was the time. 

The bullets were old, from Dad’s era. I wondered if they would still shoot. Perhaps I should fire a test round.

I had never fired a handgun, so I held it in both hands, afraid of the kick. I aimed down at the river, squeezed the trigger. BAM!

Yes, the bullets were good. And no, the kick wasn’t too bad. 

I looked around, wondered if the gunshot would bring the old panhandler back. But he was gone, footprints and all. Already back at his campfire?

Imagine a guy like that owning a dog. At least the mutt would get a bite to eat, if the old guy could find a store open around here this time of night. I thought of Bathsheba, back at the apartment. I imagined her doggy impatience and felt a twinge of guilt.

Maybe that first shot was a fluke, the one good bullet in the box. I squeezed off another shot into the river. BAM! That settled that. 

Three rounds left. I only needed one of them to work.

Bathsheba could fend for herself. Maybe somebody would find her.

Here I was, the hothead son of a hothead father. In my hand is the gun he used on himself. I have it because my mother saved it for me. A family tradition.

A proper end to a crappy life. I couldn’t even make my marriage last. My wife dumped me because I couldn’t face the thought of another kid like me. Then that Dago bartender moved in on her, so she used him to get what she wanted.

What a sap I am, to kill myself for Sal Balistreri

I pointed the gun at the river. BAM! Take that, Sal. BAM! There’s one for you, Angie. 

I heard a whimper. Nobody closer to me than a mile.

There had been no sound, but it had sounded like Bathsheba. 

If I had been Dad, I would have plugged big Sal back at the bar, and then plugged Angie for good measure, and then shot myself on the spot. 

But I’m not Dad. 

Bathsheba whines to be fed, to be taken outside. Nasty little bitch, none of this is her fault.

BAM!

I fired the last shot into the river. 

I squeezed the trigger once more, to be sure. Click. 

The shakes came over me. I opened my hand, let the gun go. It fell one hundred and twenty feet into the dark water. The night was so still I could hear the splash.

I turned and stomped back in my own footprints, headed for home. Warm little Bathsheba needed me.

Photo by Biswarup Ganguly, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

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The Fiddle

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 13 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

THE FIDDLE WAS SWEET, because it was subtle.

Rounding errors, applied in not-quite-random fashion to millions of accounts. Half a cent here, nine tenths of a cent there. Billions of times. 

“Two Cents” by opensourceway is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Chuck himself would never have stumbled upon it, if he hadn’t known where to look.

The rabbi dumped earth on Morton’s wood coffin. Who knew the company’s chief information officer was Jewish? He hadn’t looked Jewish. But it was a bit of great luck. Jews had to go into the ground within twenty-four hours. Chuck would have preferred cremation for Morton, but it hardly mattered. 

At this point, delay was victory.

As mourners dispersed, Grayson stood by his huge black SUV. He  lifted an eyebrow. Chuck drew in a breath and headed that way, the plain, useful Stephanie just behind him. Grayson’s driver stood watchful at the left front door. A second young stalwart, equally watchful, hovered at the right rear fender.

“Get in,” said Grayson. He dived into his steel cocoon wihout a backward look.

Chuck climbed in, the driver closing the door behind him. Stephanie stood outside. 

Grayson had already perched in the right-hand seat as Chuck settled himself on the left. The blunt-faced CEO pierced him with an accusing stare. Standard operating procedure. Annoying, but it apparently served him well. As the underling, Chuck would have to speak first.

This was his first visit to Grayson’s mobile command center. It was plush. Folded into the door was a small work table, which he doubted Grayson ever used. The windows did not look thick enough to deflect machine gun bullets, but Witherspoon swore they would do just that. Witherspoon ought to know. As CFO, he had paid for it. 

Chuck met Grayson’s eyes. “Roomy.”

“It’ll do.” Grayson frowned. “Is that all you’ve got to say?” 

“Sad about Morton. I thought he was healthy.”

“Yes. What about this Jamaican alert?”

Chuck sighed, spread his hands. “Nothing’s been compromised, I can assure you of that. All our accounts are clean as a hound’s tooth.”

“Don’t give me hounds’ teeth. External hacking is not the issue. They’re alleging fraud on our part.”

Chuck held up a finger. He opened his door.

His drab assistant stood just where she had been left.

“Stephanie, anything further on Jamaica?” 

She glanced at her tablet, fingered it, narrowed her eyes. “Our correspondent finds two of the Jamaican bank’s partners have underworld interests. He thinks local regulators are bearing down on them, so their claim on us is a smokescreen for irregularities of their own.” She opened her eyes wide, threw her shoulders back, and stood at attention to await further orders. 

Chuck closed the door, shot an inquiring look at Grayson. The man raised his eyebrows. “Your Miss Pinsky seems on top of things.”

“She’s the best there is. My secret weapon.” 

Grayson rubbed his chin. “Don’t let this get lost in the shuffle. Our good name is involved.”

“Of course.”

“Meanwhile, there is a hole in the org chart.” Grayson stared at him.

Chuck sat mute and stared back. Two could play that game. 

After an eternity, Grayson smiled. “You’ve done a good job, Chuck. I know your background is in cybersecurity, but I’m giving you the whole information slice. You’ll be CIO.” 

Now was Chuck’s time to speak. “Thank you.” 

“I won’t say you’re welcome. More like, don’t let me down.”

Chuck nodded.

Grayson reached for his copy of the Journal. “It pays half a mil. Get with HR Monday and work it out. I’ll sign whatever.”

The driver, alert to some obscure signal, pulled the door open, and Chuck stepped out. He and Stephanie walked to where his Jaguar was parked.

Chuck accelerated smoothly away from the graveyard. “He’s going to make me CIO.” 

Stephanie guffawed.

“What’s so funny?” he asked. 

“Oh, the irony.” Tears of mirth rolled down her face. She arched an eyebrow. “If you don’t know about irony, I’ll be happy to explain it to you later . . . in private.” She fingered her cell phone.

Chuck’s blood raced whenever she talked about private things. But back to business. “He’s likely to retract the offer before the weekend’s out.”

She met his eyes and laughed merrily.

They left the Jag in a city lot two miles from the cemetery.

A gypsy cab pulled into the lot. Stephanie gave the driver a thumbs-up. “Right on time. Gus is famed for his poor memory.” 

The driver, Gus, got out and stowed their two backpacks in the trunk. “Where to?” 

“The airport’ll do,” said Chuck.

#

The Hotel Carrasco dining room was the most elegant place in Montevideo, but it was Stephanie who made it sparkle. Nothing about the real Stephanie was drab or unexciting.

Chuck raised his glass in a toast. “To us and our . . . how much was it, again?”

She smiled. “Fifty million, give or take.” 

“One third in Credit Suisse, one third in the Cayman Islands account—”

“And seven hundred pounds of gold bars, at this moment flouting the waves in the hold of a tramp steamer.” 

“Hope she makes port. I didn’t pack SCUBA gear.” 

Stephanie giggled. She raised her glass of cabernet. “Fifty million keys to a better life.” Her gaze told Chuck he was the only man in the room. Maybe on the planet.

Stephanie was the only woman who had that gift, as far as Chuck knew. His rapid climb from nowhere had bypassed girls entirely. They had been outside his focus.

About when the firm hired him to guard its data, Stephanie had come into his life. They met at the chess club. Chuck was a sharp amateur player. Stephanie, on the other hand,  could have been a grand master. She beat him routinely with no word of apology. She just smiled that secret smile that melted his heart. 

He hired her as his assistant. Over long dinners she started to share herself. Like Chuck, she came from a hazy past and coveted success. Her tastes were unrestrained by cost. 

He realized the company would never pay him the amount needed to give Stephanie a life that would satisfy her desires. But he began to see a way. Bit by bit he worked out his special algorithm, the one that skimmed fractions of cents from billions of transactions in such a clever way that no one noticed. Of course it couldn’t last forever, and it had not. But here they were, fifty million richer. Grayson, eat your heart out. You can keep your fucking half million a year.

With Chuck absorbed in the programming details—refreshing the fiddle often to keep obvious patterns from emerging—Stephanie was mistress of all logistics, from the practical to the romantic to the downright steamy. Seven years had flown by in a delightful way.

She was staring at him. “Penny for your thoughts.”

He smiled, “Grayson may already have tumbled. But he’ll lose our trail in Sao Paulo.”

“I told you those backpacks would come in handy.”

“I’m still winded from hiking around the border stations,” he confessed. “And when does our ship depart Uruguay, exactly?”

“Eight a.m. tomorrow. We’ll have just enough time for a little . . . irony. Followed by a good night’s sleep. You’re not as young as you used to be, you know.”

Chuck stared at her with admiration. “You’re like a Swiss train conductor. Everything comes along exactly when needed.” 

“Easy-peasy. It’s a slow freighter with a skipper willing to bend his schedule for us.”

“Yes? What kind of skipper is that?”

“He’s—you remember Gus, our taxi driver?”

“Yes.”

“Well, good, because he doesn’t remember you. The captain of the vessel is like that.”

#

Stephanie pulled the Russian fur closer about her shoulders. Nights near Sochi carried a chill, never mind the palm trees and Black Sea breezes. But that was the very reason why those cute little black sables scampered through the Siberian woods: To be slain so that Stephanie could stay warm on cool nights.

Chuck came around and opened the Lamborghini’s passenger door. “Who was that gorilla ogling you at Victor’s party?” 

“Gorilla?” She levered her Manolo Blahnik alligator boots out of the car, then stood up.

“You know, the hairy guy in the cheap suit.”

“You are wrong about him, my dear. That was a very expensive suit. Italian.”

They climbed the steps of their dacha. Chuck, with a nod, tossed the car keys to Sergei, the silent majordomo. “So who was he, this well-heeled Italianate fashion idol?”

“Arkady Maximovich Greshkin.” 

“The billionaire?” he asked as they entered the front room.

She slipped off her boots. “Multi billionaire, if you must know.”

“Funny. When he was drooling over you, he looked like some stevedore from the Jersey docks.” He loosened his tie, undid the collar button, and sighed as imprisoned neck flesh sagged out. 

Stephanie pouted. “I can’t help the effect I have on men.”

 “Speaking of which . . .” He rounded on her, wrapped her in his arms. As always, she swayed into his embrace and prepared to play the little tongue games that so easily stoked his libido.

She could have become bored with his endless demands for sex, if it weren’t for her workmanlike approach to it. But she was spared the bother, as the door crashed open and four gorillas in genuinely cheap suits grabbed Chuck. 

“What the hell—” 

One of the goons smacked his head with a short club, and Chuck sagged unconscious. Each taking one arm or leg, the four hauled him out the door. 

The swiftness of the action left her breathless. 

Arkady’s men, of course. 

She followed them, peeked out the window by the front door. They were bundling Chuck into a battered ZiL sedan. 

You had to see it as predestined. Chuck and Stephanie were already down to their last twenty million. Soon the only thing between Stephanie and starvation would be the seven hundred pounds of gold locked in the cellar vault. Before long, she would have had to do something. 

It was thoughtful of Arkady to take care of this for her. She would not have to arrange anything special for Chuck, as she had for the late Morton, whose only fault had been curiosity.

And then, of course, there was the fact that Arkady would prize her more, having seized her as a trophy from another man, than if she were merely a sexy millionairess on the loose.

One of the gorillas came away from the ZiL carrying a sledge hammer, which he used to smash the parked Lamborghini’s windows, doors, and fenders. I wonder if Arkady’s commanded them to piss on the upholstery. But no. The automotive symbol of Chuck’s manhood now fully depreciated, they got in the black sedan and drove away. 

Poor Chuck. 

The butler Sergei, among other duties, oversaw the security men who invisibly guarded Chuck and Stephanie in their lovely dacha, kept the riffraff away. Sergei’s obvious lapse in loyalty to Chuck would of course not apply to the bereaved Stephania Mikhailovna Pinsky. But just in case, she would give him one of the little gold bars.

Meanwhile, she had better freshen herself up. There was always the possibility the oil and gas tycoon would show up unannounced to claim his prize.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mister Billionaire-ski.

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Encounters With Monsters

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 16 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

PRISCILLA FLEW BEHIND SEAMUS, just above him, off to one side, safe and carefree. Her filoplumes, tiny feathers that tracked the angles of her plumage, signaled neither discord nor danger.

Everyone honked for joy, as usual in migration. Priscilla loved honking her way south beside Seamus, their offspring behind them, their friends all around them. Even more, she would love flying back home in spring to raise a new brood of fuzzy goslings. Seamus would be with her all the way, to father her chicks and guard them.

The long V of the squadron veered, flew lower, wheeled. They came down on a pond of water that had a broad field of grass beside it. Priscilla had been here before. It was a good place to rest. An open place, where you could see scary visitors when they were still far away. Scary animals, scary birds. Or monsters.

Priscilla feared monsters most. They walked on two feet like geese but had no feathers. They had long legs, ungainly bodies, gangling wings. Their call was not a proper honk but a garbled bellow. Priscilla had seen monsters many times and had always steered clear of them. It comforted her to know that Seamus and the other ganders kept lookout.

The squadron stayed at the pond three days, eating grass from the field and weeds they plucked with their beaks from under water. On the second day, monsters came near to throw rocks. Their featherless wings useless for flight, the monsters used them instead for mischief. They could pick up stones with their forked wingtips and hurl them great distances.

The geese near the rock-throwing monsters leapt into the air and honked.

Bigger monsters came then, twice as big as those that threw rocks. They bellowed. They shook their wings at the smaller monsters. The big monsters chased the little monsters away. When all the monsters had gone, the geese settled back down on the field and pond. 

Priscilla was glad the rock throwing had ceased. It would be nice to stay another day or two. She wandered to the very edge of the field, where stood a thicket of woods. 

Night was falling. Soon it would be dark.

Seamus honked suddenly, as loud as he could. Priscilla’s filoplumes prickled.

A red fox trotted out from the woods, his head low. Priscilla was nearer to the woods than any other goose. Seamus flew right past her and landed in front of the fox. He stretched out his neck and honked. Other ganders joined him. They all hopped forward, hissing. The fox turned tail and trotted back to the woods.

Priscilla stood spellbound as Seamus and the others drove off the fox. A dark form swooped into view above her. She honked out a scream. 

Sharp claws jabbed her wing. A huge owl was trying to carry her off in its talons, to make her his dinner. She honked and beat her wings as hard as she could.

Seamus heard Priscilla’s screams. He flew straight at the owl, who struggled to lift Priscilla off the ground. Seamus crashed into the owl, pecked with his bill, and beat with his wings. 

Priscilla was pulled off the ground. The strong talons squeezed her wing. Something broke, her wing jolted. Help! she honked. 

Other ganders joined Seamus, bashed at the owl.

The owl opened his fist and flew off, chased by honking ganders. 

Priscilla fell to the ground, crying. 

Seamus landed beside her. He touched her hurt wing with his beak. Then he huddled next to her to keep her warm while she shivered from fright and pain. The two of them hunkered in the field, beside the pond, away from the fox’s woods. Seamus kept a sharp watch on sky and ground all night long.

Geese leaving. Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash.

The next day, Schuyler, the squadron commander, said it was time to fly south again. When the sun sank low, Schuyler took off from the pond. A hundred geese rose with him.

Priscilla was not in the squadron as it circled over the pond, ready to fly south. She could not fly. She lifted her head with longing as her friends stretched out their wings, formed a long V, and departed. 

Seamus remained on the ground beside Priscilla. He stayed to guard and protect her.

The squadron had left them lonely.

And in peril. Seamus did not stray far from Priscilla’s side. He stood sentinel, his white chin strap sweeping both ways as his head swiveled to scan field, pond, and sky.

If the fox came back, it would be hard for the two of them to fight him off. 

What if the monsters came again? That could be even worse, because monsters were bigger than foxes or owls, and they could throw things. The thought made her filoplumes itch.

As one day led to another, Priscilla could only walk around the field, her limp wing trailing on the ground. When she swam in the pond, it was better. The water held the wing up nearer her body, where it hurt less.

She ate grass and weeds, but still she got weaker. Seamus brought her food. He gave her a shiny, wiggly thing that he caught in the water. She gobbled it down. 

But the air was colder. The ground was colder. The water was colder; at the pond’s edge, it turned to ice. What would they do when the whole pond froze over? How would they get through the winter with all their friends away in the south?

A lone monster loitered one day by the fox’s woods. Seamus stood erect, alert, his head level at the top of his long neck. He honked.

The monster frowned and watched the two of them. Then it took a scary black thing in its wingtips. It held the black thing before its eyes. Priscilla shivered. 

Seamus honked again, twice, and took a step forward. The monster slouched away. 

The next day, Priscilla weakened. She could not get up to drag her broken wing over the ground. Seamus brought weeds from under the pond. He laid them on the ground near her beak and made a hopeful noise. Eat.

She did not feel like eating, but she tried. 

More monsters showed up. A gaggle of monsters came into the field from all sides. Priscilla and Seamus were alone in the field. They knew who the monsters were after.

Priscilla struggled to her feet and stumbled toward the water. It was her only way to flee the monsters, since she could not fly. Seamus stretched out his neck, bobbed his head up and down. He ran back and forth from one monster to another, honking, hissing, beating his wings. But the monsters kept coming on.

Priscilla collapsed. A monster threw something large over Seamus. A moment later, Priscilla’s world went dark. 

She felt herself lifted, then dropped into a small, dark space. She tried to move, but walls enclosed her. She was bumped. She heard a strange sound and felt more bumping. 

She heard a gander’s honk. She knew it came from Seamus. He did not sound happy, but it made her happy just to hear his voice. 

After more bumps and swaying, light chased the dark away. Priscilla blinked and saw a monster in front of her. She honked in terror. She had never been so near one of them. 

It squeezed Priscilla with its wings. Pain shot through her injured wing. The monster lifted her out of the small, dark space into a bigger place. Roomier—but it was still a monster place under a monstrous sky—a sky of white, full of small black dots. Parts of this monster sky held strong lights, like little suns but not so bright.

Two monsters stood her up between them on hard, shiny ground. The monsters bellowed at each other. Priscilla quaked.

One monster reached out its wingtip to torment Priscilla’s broken wing while the other one held her still, throttling her neck just below her white chinstrap. She saw that the tips of their wings forked into many branches that could move together or apart to hold things. The monster holding her bad wing wiggled it, moved it this way and that. The pain was intense, but it went away when Priscilla fainted.

When she awoke, she was tied up. But the monsters had made a poor job of it. She found she could stand and move around. Her bonds only trapped the one bad wing. Priscilla smiled to herself. The monsters’ cruelty had actually made her feel better, because the bound wing now clung to her body and did not drag on the ground.

They picked her up and carried her to another place that had a different kind of monster sky. They put her down on a bed of soft straw. But Priscilla paid scant attention to that, because Seamus was there.

The two geese came together neck to neck. Seamus wiggled for joy, and Priscilla did too. The monsters left to do their dark deeds. By evil magic, the light left at the same moment the monsters left. 

Priscilla did not care. She did not need light. She snuggled up by Seamus and went to sleep. 

The light came again, bringing the monsters with it. Priscilla and Seamus honked at them. The monsters bellowed back at them, but Priscilla thought that in this case they bellowed just for show. By honking, Seamus and Priscilla had shamed the monsters into bringing food. They left corn and wheat on the ground, then went away again. 

Priscilla and Seamus ate. They had earned this meal by standing up to the monsters. 

Priscilla heard a splash. Turning her head, she saw Seamus swimming. Even though this prison field was not very big, it had a small pond. Seamus and Priscilla ducked their heads under the water but found no delicious weeds. Of course. The monsters had made this pond as a place of torment. But the chance to swim pleased Priscilla.

One day followed another. Sometimes the monsters took Seamus and Priscilla to a different field, a big one with fresh air, sunshine, and a normal sky of blue. But the air was cold, and there was snow on the ground. When the monsters chased them back into the smaller monster field, Priscilla grieved the loss of open air, but at least she felt warmer.

The days piled on each other. The monsters sometimes untied Priscilla’s bad wing, but then after they looked at it they tied it up again. After many times, they seemed to give up on the idea of binding her wing at all. Priscilla stretched both wings for the first time in ages.

But now, just when Priscilla had regained the use of both wings, the monsters no longer took the pair of geese to the place with the open blue sky. They kept them under one of their monster skies all the time. 

Priscilla began to lose hope that she would ever see the blue sky again. She would never fly through that sky in a squadron of geese, never reach home, never raise a new batch of downy goslings. Why even try to eat the grain the monsters brought?

Seamus waddled around their little field, looking up at the strange, bumpy sky in this monster place as if he hoped to see a V of homeward-bound geese. But this bumpy sky could not hold such a thing.

One day, when the monsters came, Priscilla’s feathers stiffened in alarm. Something was amiss.  

The monsters chased Priscilla and Seamus around their small field, drove them into a corner, and grabbed them with their hideous unfeathered wings. They stuffed the geese into small places, like before—separate small places for Priscilla and Seamus. 

But these places did not seem so dark as before. Priscilla could see out in front. She stuck her beak out, but something stopped it. Something thin and cold, with square spaces between. Still, she could see. Maybe she could see a way to escape.

The monsters lifted the geese in their small places and put them down on something. Then came strange noises and a lot of bumping. Then they were lifted back down. 

Priscilla peered out and knew where she was. 

It was the pond with the field beside it and the fox’s woods. The place where the monsters had seized them so long ago. Blue sky above the pond. Warm air filled with sunshine. And all over the field—geese.

Priscilla must act. At last, a chance to escape the monsters. She flapped her wings and honked like mad. Seamus, from his small place, did the same. 

Their raucous protest must have confused the monsters, because the thin, cold grid in front of her swung outward, and then nothing blocked her from the sky.

Priscilla burst out, all fury. The monsters bellowed, but she flew right past them.

Seamus broke out too. 

They flew away from the monsters and landed among a hundred geese who waddled around the field. They looked for friends, listened for voices they knew. 

But they saw none, heard none. They did not know this squadron. 

Strange ganders approached, necks coiled, heads low, and hissed at them.

Then Seamus raised his head and swiveled it around. Priscilla scanned the sky. She heard a far-away honking, one which included their friends’ voices. She heard a clear call from Schuyler.

Their own squadron came and circled the pond. Priscilla leapt upward and climbed the air toward the squadron, honking in joy. Seamus flew just behind her. 

Schuyler! called Seamus.

Schuyler honked a return greeting. 

Their friends opened a space on one side of the V. Seamus and Priscilla claimed it. With the field and pond occupied by another squadron, Schuyler gave the command to fly on to the next rest area. Priscilla followed right behind him. 

Priscilla’s heart raced as she rose with her friends to cruising altitude. All foxes, owls and monsters defeated, she was back where she belonged, headed with Seamus for their northern home and a new brood of fuzzy goslings.

#

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