Sunday 30 June 2019

Neon In Our Veins

by James Bates

iced mocha

Dad stopped working on the combine, took off his cap, wiped his forehead and looked to the north. Grandpa and I stopped working, too, sweat dripping into our eyes, thankful for a break. It was blistering hot for early September, over ninety degrees, and out in the middle of our soybean field there wasn't a bit of shade. We all watched the old pickup spewing a plume of dust as it raced down the county road.
            Dad put his cap back on and turned to Grandpa and me with a perplexed look, "That's Lilly. What can possibly be so all fired up important?"
            Grandpa and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, neither of us having a clue, but, we did know one thing, if my mom was in a hurry, there must be a good reason.
            She turned off the road and raced across edge of the field, the truck going air borne over deep ruts made by farm equipment, then pulled up to us fast, slamming on the brakes and sliding to a stop, dust billowing all around . Mom didn't even bother to get out, just yelled through the open window, "Dad, you've got to get to town quick. Jerry Jorgensen called. They've got an emergency with that big hotel sign of his."
            My humble but talented grandfather was the most sought after neon sign repairman in Redwood County. "What's the matter?"
            "He didn't say, but there's some fancy pants guy, the governor, I think, and a bunch of his cronies coming to stay. He needs you right now."
            Back in the fifties, the Prairie City Hotel, nestled on a picturesque bend of the Little Sioux River, was the premier place to stay in southwestern Minnesota. It was about twenty miles from our farm.
            Grandpa looked at my father who shook his head and said, "I can't go with you. Take Jack Junior, instead. I need to get this combine un-jammed."
            Grandpa scratched at the prominent blue vein on his neck, a move that caused me to subconsciously reach for the small vein just forming on my own neck. He nodded toward me and looked at mom, "What do you think Lillian?"
            My heart leapt to my throat. Grandpa had lived with us for a number of years and had his workshop in an outbuilding back behind the barn. From an early age I had tagged along after him, showing an interest in the work he did with neon signs. He liked my company, I guess, and had already taught me about electricity and shown me how to bend glass to make tubes and how to add neon and lots of other cool stuff that you needed to know for neon sign repair. But I was only eight years old. Usually Dad helped if grandpa need it, but not today. We were in the middle of the soybean harvest and he was too busy getting that troublesome combine up and running.
            I watched Mom. It was up to her to make the final decision. She and Grandpa held each other's gaze for a moment while I held my breath. I'd give anything to go along. Finally, she gave him a quick smile and then looked at me. I could see something in her eyes. I was pretty young and the real question was, was I ready? Mom hesitated only a moment before silently nodding, as if to herself, and then said, "Yes, J.J., you can go with Grandpa, but for Pete's sakes, be careful." Inside I silently cheered.
            It took us thirty minutes to get to the hotel located on the corner of Main Street and Riverview Avenue. It was imposing three story red brick structure with gleaming white trim that had a wide, twenty step entryway adorned with a beautiful black wrought iron railing. A small crowd had gathered. When we arrived Jerry was waiting for us on the steps, literally wringing his hands. He ran up while the truck was still rolling and said, "Thank god you're here, Bill. The governor is coming soon. The sign's out. Oh, man, this isn't good."
            Grandpa got out of the old pickup, put his hand on the distraught man's shoulder and calmly said, "Don't worry, Jerry, my grandson and I'll take care of it." He turned to me, "J.J., let's get going."
            We dragged our ladders out of the back of the truck, set them against the side of building and climbed up. Grandpa quickly deduced the problem; a transformer had blown, and he proceeded to fix it while I handed him the tools. We had the repair completed and the sign back in excellent working order in about half an hour; plenty of time before the governor and his entourage showed up.
            Later, after the sun had set, Grandpa loaded me in the pickup and we drove back to town. When we got to Main Street, he parked a little ways down from the hotel and we watched the hectic scene on the street. Nearly a hundred townsfolk had gathered and there were three or four different news crews milling around, everyone eager to get a glimpse of the governor. I don't think Grandpa saw any of it. He only had eyes for the hotel's neon sign, Prairie City Motel, illuminated with glowing colors of red and green and blue.
            After staring in reverent silence for a moment, he pulled me close and pointed past the front windshield, "See, J.J., look at how pretty the sign looks. The reds and greens are so vibrant, and that blue is my favorite color."
            "It reminds me of a castle in Wonderland," I said, thinking about my favorite television show.
            "I couldn't agree more," Grandpa grinned. "It's magical." He paused touching the blue vein in his neck and then added, "I'll let you in a little secret. Neon makes me feel alive inside."
            Grandpa was as much a poet as he was a skilled craftsman.
            I'll never forget that day. For the next twenty-five years I helped grandpa, traveling to the rural towns of southwest Minnesota, repairing neon signs. I loved the work. After he passed away, I stayed with it. This year, I've started bringing my nine year old grandson Johnny along and he loves it as much as I do. There's lots of work for us. They don't make neon signs anymore, everything is LED. That's okay. Nostalgia for the old days is in fashion right now, and there are a lot of old signs out there. We're busy all the time.
          We were driving home from a job the other day when Johnny turned to me and asked, "Granddad, do you think we have neon in our veins? You know, like blood?"
         I laughed, thinking he was joking, but one look told me he wasn't. He was deadly serious.

          I thought for a moment, thinking back over the years to all the signs my grandpa and I,  and now Johnny, had repaired. I took my time before finally answering, "You know what? Honestly? You might have a point. I think maybe we do."

            He sat back in the seat of my old pickup and looked out the window. It was a warm, sunny afternoon in late fall and fields of golden corn were waiting to be harvested. For the first time I saw a blue vein pulsing in my grandson's neck just like the one in mine. Like my grandpa's. He smiled and nodded his head, as if to himself, and said, "Yeah, I thought so."    

About the author 

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Mused - The BellaOnline Literary Review, Ariel Chart and Potato Soup Journal. You can also check out his blog to see more:

Saturday 29 June 2019

Uriel's Machine Part 3

By Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik 

Forest Iced Tea

He stood, stooping to drink deeply from the water, his head bowed gracefully and his neck reclining downward was he drink. As the raft that carried me came to a stop adjacent to him, he stopped drinking and stared purposefully at me and the subtle waxy candlelight that glinted from the glassy lantern I held in my left hand, the book, the pen and the compass in my right. I stepped off the raft tentatively, careful not to fall into the current which I could almost picture happening. And sure enough it did. The wind blew through the trees, rustling the leaves hurriedly, as if conveying an important message and blew me raft the tiniest amount to the left, forcing me to fall into the water, dropping the lantern and the other articles onto the bank as I fell. The river water was so cold and deep that I knew I was never to climb out. I feared I was never to climb out and the book and pen were floating away as I floated on the bank. I began to imagine that graceful animal on the bank taking it upon himself to rescue me with his magnificent sweeping antlers as I felt myself running out of breath. And once again, sure enough he did. I was saved by a stag and found myself trembling on the grassy darkened river bank. “Fair morrow, dear friend.” The stag spoke in a low cultured tone. I sat there in disbelief. Can a stag talk? I felt he sensed this as he stared at me, perplexed “Dear friend, do I take from thou art weary from thou travels and fatigued from the path?” he continued in the same collected tone
 “Hello –“ I began in a voice thick was trepidation as I had not come across many talking furry mammals at home with the possible exception of my classmates 
“’Hello,’” he quoted. “I hath not heard that utterance previously. Would you kindly inform myself of thy meaning?” he asked.  
“It is a greeting,” I said, still disbelieving. 
“Very well then, dear friend, hello, you may address me as Gilidore. I am the protector of the realm from where we do find ourselves to the Wild Circle.” He attempted a smile “I must ask, art thou thee aware of any action from The Shadow Master from whence thee came?” 
“The Shadow Master? You know of him?” I said in surprise. Perhaps there had indeed been some truth in what Uriel had said.
“Indeed I do. He is a most malevolent presence in my realm.”
“What has he been doing?” 
“He hath been undoing the realm with tricks and illusions of a most mysterious nature. That is all I am willing to say on the matter.” 
“Gilidore, I have been sent to triumph over The Shadow Master to protect the-“Then it dawned on me, did Gilidore protector of The River Realm not know he was in a book? He did not know that he did not exist. He did not know he was a character someone wrote about.

It flashed through my mind that I should tell him truly of my quest to destroy The Shadow Master, but even as I whispered those words in the corners of my mind, I understood their stupidity. I could not tell Gilidore, an archaic talking stag who believes he is protector of The River Realm or he would cease to believe to destruction of The Shadow Master to be of the utmost importance and I was coming to understand that without Gilidore, I had no hope of achieving my goal. Gilidore suddenly looked concerned with wide chestnut eyes gleaming with what almost appeared to be tears but they were not tears like I had seen; they were milking in appearance and of purest starlight as if they had been captured in a tiny crystalline glass from the heavens as they permissively fell to earth. 
“Dear friend, thou shalt freeze from the water that clings to your clothes, ” he whispered, the starlight falling down from his eyes. He was right. I must find myself new clothes. Picking up the book once more I wrote, my wet hands slipping over the pen:  As she stood up from the grassy bank, she saw in the corner of her eye what looked like a long dress in gold and green with sweeping embroidery and long wide sleeves, a cloak and pair of boots beside it. And sure enough as I finished penning my words upon the smooth parchment, I found myself peering out of the corner of my blue eye to see the garments tucked away, suspended from a towering willow tree which cast a great shadow reaching across the ground. 
Gillidore looked at me in utter surprise. “Did they just appear?” he said with startled eyes “Well, that was most fortunate.” I walked over to retrieve the items “What is that book thou art holding?” 
“That is nothing, ” I found myself saying rather defensively.  “It’s just a journal.” 
This was a lie Gillidore readily believed and as I changed into the new garments, delighted to be away from the cold dampness of my previous clothing, I found myself looking back at him and feeling a little bad for deceiving him and wondering if I perhaps shouldn’t have done. After all, Gillidopre was Protector of The River Realm and as such surely had a right to know the comings and goings of his realm and perhaps this was the sort of this Gillidore needed to know – perhaps he could help me on my path? Perhaps he knew where The Shadow Master was. Perhaps he could use the book to protect the realm? On the other hand, perhaps he would destroy it and I could be encased inside a fantasy world forever.

It was a strange thing. 

Friday 28 June 2019

Uriel's Machine Part 2

By Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik

sparkling spring water

A strange brown surface emerged straight ahead of me and Uriel’s Machine. An odd smell circulated in the air around me; a conspiracy of wood, spring dew and ink. I looked around and realized I was inside the large trunk of a willow tree. Could I be inside the tree in the book? If I was, then I’d be able to find the door out of the tree. It sounded bizarre even saying it inside my head. But I looked around and sure enough there was a door. Picking up the book and checking the pen and compass were still safely ensconced in my pocket, I pushed the door open and fell out of the tree and onto the leafy bark covered woodland floor of The Enchanted Forest. Above me, there was a leafy canopy fluttering with the subtle breeze like butterflies on a summers’ evening, with brightly coloured flora peeking out from the gaps. Shaking my head, I brushed the hair from my eyes and stood up. The EnchantedForest was beautiful. Bright rays of sunlight twinkling down to the earth through the trees; gentle blossoms which grew from a brightly coloured epicenter and spread out to become purest white; and dragonflies. Remembering my task, I removed the copper compass from my pocket and it opened unaided with a sharp click. It had three hands; one silver one showing usual compass directions; one bronze which didn’t seem to stay still for long that I could grasp the use of; and a gold one which gleamed in the light and seemed to show where I should go, like a map.

I walked slowly in the direction the gold needle was indicating and soon found my ears met with the soft babbling of a stream. As I continued along my course, the noise grew louder and I soon found the source; a large river tripping over grey and brown pebbles, rubbed smooth by the current. The soft tweeting of birds accompanied the water and beautiful dragonflies in more colours than I will bore my reader with danced and flittered above in the dewy air, their reflections lingering only for a moment upon the surface. As I stopped at the mossy bank of the river, I noticed the golden needle had begun pointing down the river, but there was no way through as the towering trees which stooped over the water and tickled at facet had trunks like columns which created a wall, blocking me from walking any deeper in to the forest. The compass must be mistaken. It was at this point that I decided to sit down. This quest wasn’t going anywhere and the rays of sun poking through the canopy above were dying away and soon the woodland floor would be in complete darkness. Sitting down on the river bank, I opened The Enchanted Forest book to see if anything had changed. To my surprise, I saw myself in inky black pen sitting down upon the papery riverbank. How could this be? I was not in the book. I had never even heard of this book until a few hours ago, or days, I forget. And there I was; in the book, the only readable part of the text: And she sat there staring blankly into the book, awaiting an answer that would never come, for she had forgotten the rule of The Imagination. This annoyed me. No one had told me this rule. What was The Rule? And how on Earth had I ended up written and draw inside a book? Then it dawned on me, perhaps it works both ways; if I could come up with a solution to get myself down the river, past the wall and wrote it in the book, would it appear before me? Taking out the pen Uriel had stuffed into my pocket alongside the compass I started to write in a shaky, scrawled hand: She began to write in the book of how she would proceed on her journey; would she fly over the leaves into the beyond or would she grow gills and plunge herself into the freezing depths of the river and swim along her course? No, she would retrieve a raft with leaves for a sail and wooden planked tied together for the body and a lantern because that would be require, as night would fall upon The Enchanted Forest and herself soon enough.

Sure enough, a raft precisely like the one I had just described appeared on the surface of the cool river. This was impossible. Or certainly improbable. But it was somehow true. Standing up, I stepped carefully onto the raft and it did not move. Itilted a little to the side and it still did not move. Testing the theory again, I opened the book once more and wrote leaning against the mast: She stepped on the raft but it would not move so she wrote in her book of the subtle wind that would bare the scent of spring and the joys of movement to the raft and would carry her and the raft onward in her journey. And once again, a breeze did come, fragranced with honey and flowers and the soft dew in the air which blew the raft onward with me clinging tentatively to the mast. The scenery began to change, the forest became much darker and the trees thickened and had hardly any gap between, but there was now a tiny thin winding path of mud lined with cobblestones leading away from the opposite riverbank. Upon the darkened bank, a majestic stag stood and stared at the raft eagerly. The compass in my pocket rattled in its shell once more. Could the stag be a harbinger of The Shadow Master?

Thursday 27 June 2019

Uriel's Machine Part 1

By Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik 

warm mead


I would let them consume me,
Swallow me into the pages
And take me far away
Into lands of magic and mystery
Where nothing is impossible
And all is imagined in the mind,
Into a land where anything can be true
And yet all us comprised of lies; stories,
Into lands of heaven and hell
Where I can fight for good
And consume all evil before me,
Until it becomes me

It was not a long time ago, dear reader, that my narrative takes place. It was in the summer a few years ago, when I found myself employed for the first time in a small library not far from my house. The whole affair was quite peculiar. I was offered the job without any references or even a CV as I was still in education and the interview questions were far from the norm; all about the paranormal and do I believe what I read in stories and I could go on but I do believe I’ve made my point. I was interviewed by a young man whose name I never caught. As I understood it, he was leaving to job as he was moving to the city and the employer Professor Uriel (a man I never did find out the first name of) required someone to replace him. It turned out, that person was going to be me. When I was offered the job (having been the only candidate) I was thrilled because it seemed fairly easy and the hours worked well and the pay was excellent all things considered. I was informed that I was to begin work the following week.

I arrived for my first day with an unusual spring in my step. On the face of it, there was nothing unusual about the outside of the building apart from the elaborate swirling architecture that adorned the entrance and the pointed turret that sat on the left side of the structure. Indeed, the building was gothic, but it was in no way sinister for it’d been here longer than I had and it was a library. As I entered, I noticed an odd fragrance in the air, it was unlike anything I had ever smelt before with tones of honey and warm bread and ink and parchment and something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on, which I now know to be the smell Uriel’s Machine as its getting powered up.

I first saw Uriel through the gap between the door and the wall as I walked into the main library. He was sitting quietly behind a large oak desk eating a piece of toast with honey lavishly spread over the top. I soon realized where the smell was from. He was a tall man with lively blue eyes and dark hair which he seemed to brush from his eyes every few seconds. He wore a black suit with a clean white shirt and a no tie. He saw me as fast I observed him and greeted be with a simple word of “Visitations” scarcely looking up from a large leather bound book he was reading. Unsure of whether to approach him, I waited at the door and smiled at him. Shaking his head and brushing his hair from his eyes once more he looked at me and smiled back. “Do come in,” he said rather quietly. I entered slowly as if I was afraid he would be scared of a sudden movement and no sooner had I made it half way into the incave in which the desk was situated, he returned to his book. As I got closer, he looked up for a moment and indicated the seat opposite him for me to sit in and looked back at his reading materials once more. As I sat he looked up quickly and said in a rather worried tone “Read this.” 
“Out loud, Professor?” I said rather confused. 
“It doesn’t matter, just read it and tell me what you see.” 
Still most puzzled, I read the page of the book he passed to me over the desk. Well, I tried to read it. It certainly wasn’t English. Nor another other language I had ever heard of. “Professor, I’m not sure I understand this. Is it in Latin or something?” 
I passed the book back over.  
“So it’s not just me?  That was  good to hear.  I thought I was losing my mind a little for a moment."
"Well, it isn’t good to hear in the slightest because that means that there is something very wrong with this book. Seriously wrong. My dear, could you run and fetch the other copy of this book we have? Then I’ll see if it’s got the same issue.” He seemed to trail off as he finished and looked at an arch way to indicate to me the way to the books.

I put my bag on the floor and wandered into the library. It was massive. And empty. The library was empty. And it was completely silent. The place was full of books. Old books. I walked between the rows of shelves and my footsteps didn’t seem to emanate any sound, yet the floor was old dented wood. When was the last visit by the public to this place? And if it was so irregular for a visitor to come visiting, why did they engage me for the summer? It look me a while to find the particular volume he had requested and when I did I had to blow the dusk off the book to reveal the title deeply embossed in faded gold letters into the royal blue leather covering. The Enchanted Forest. I opened it to see the letters in the same condition as the other copy. It made no sense. And the pictures were inky and perfect and in no way spoilt. It was wonderful. Inky trees and rivers and a stag with swirling swooping antlers and a dragonfly soaring above the waters, his willowy reflection swimming into view from the facet of the river. It looked for a moment almost as if the inky scene was moving. But that’s not possible. Remembering my task, I took the royal blue book back through the archway to Professor Uriel. He was waiting anxiously having finished his honey toast. 
No sooner had I reentered the room he began “My dear, did you see that? The stag ran across the page and the dragonfly flew over the river!” 
I looked at him very confused. 
“Oh my this is all far worse than I had feared! We don’t have much time. I’m too old to be able to go, my aura has settled. Yours hasn’t. I can see it in your eyes. You’ll have to go. But I warn you, if something happens to you in the book, it happens in real life. I always feared this might happen. The Imagination has been corrupted and I only have an idea of how to fix it. I’m so sorry to ask this of you but if I do not, I fear The Imagination will fail and all these books will become defunct and…” he trailed off again “I’m sorry, but we don’t have much time.”
 I didn’t understand what he meant.
 “You take one book and I’ll take the other and I can watch what’s happening inside and if anything happens to you I can try to imagine a way to save you but my mind is not what it used to be.” He finished, catching his breath.

He stood and shepherded me out of the room and to a small oak door with a rusted lock and a pointed crest. 
“Professor. I still don’t know what’s happening.” I shouted almost angrily. 
He didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t know what to do. Was it possible that he thought that I could enter the book and do something that would fix the words so they weren’t jumbled or whatever it was that was wrong with them? Professor Uriel was such a strange man. But I could see in his eyes that he seemed to genuinely believe that I could help and perhaps there was an adventure to be had. He unlocked the door with a large coppery key from his inner blazer pocket and ushered me through. To my surprise, the room was not a broom cupboard and in fact was very large with a glass ceiling and three glass walls with shining crystalline panes and oaken lattices which gave the place the appearance of the greenhouse. “Professor, please tell me what’s going on” I insisted. 
Uriel turned back to be calmly and whispered in his previous permissive tone “My dear, he is back. The Shadow Master. I met him first when I was at university and he tried this in my books. But then my imagination was strong enough to use the machine and I could fight him by myself but I am too old now. I fear if you do not help, The Shadow Master will take over and The Imagination will be lost.” He finished, his eyes wide. 
“What machine?” 
“This one, ” he stated proudly. Uriel indicated a large machine in the corner of the room with what looked like a red velveteen seat and a fan at the rear. What looked like a podium in copper sat ahead of the seat. “My dear, you sit there and put the book on the platform and believe that this will work," he said very quietly. His quiet tone scared me. He quickly ushered me to the seat and I looked at him with eyes full of trepidation, what was going to happen? Who was The Shadow Master? Was Professor Uriel insane? If I put the book on the platform and sat in the chair and believed (whatever that meant) would anything even happen? “Take the compass, it’ll guide you, and bring the book with you so you can see it all unfold.” He put the compass in my pocket along with an old ink pen “And please don’t forget to believe. That’s the most important bit. If you don’t believe The Imagination won’t work. Hurry. The Shadow Master won’t wait and neither will The Imagination.”
My body began to shake as Uriel’s large wrinkled hang pushed my shoulder down, allowing my body to fall permissively down and sink into the cushioned seat. Uriel looked me in the eye and placed The Enchanted Forest down on the podium open to the first page; an inky willow tree with swirling branches and a twisting trunk and beautiful sweeping leaves, bowing to forest floor. An odd door with a pointed crest (not unlike the one Professor Uriel had taken me through previously) stood at the base of the tree trunk. Closed.
 “Goodbye” Uriel whispered. He slammed a green button with the sweaty palm of his left hand and the world began to flash before my eyes. A shining cascade of colour flashed and twinkled in the corners of my eyes with nothing but inky blackness ahead of me accompanied with a strange noise. Was I entering the book? That wasn’t possible. None of this was possible. But maybe it is was because Uriel believed in it. As the sound became less frequent and the pitch became lower, I found that the array of light shades that were flashing in the corners of my eyes were changing more slowly and became decidedly green and grown and blue. I found myself reaching into my pocket to check the copper compass Uriel had given me was still there. It seemed to be rattling a little inside its metallic shell. I held it steady. I braced myself as the colours stopped changing.

And suddenly, everything stopped.

Drink - warm mead

By Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik

Wednesday 26 June 2019

The Cross-Country Race

by Clive Aaron Gill

sports drink

“Run to beat your personal best today,” said Coach Martinez, a man with iron-gray hair and a spreading paunch. “You’re competing with the top runners. Steve, you’ve got a good chance to lead your team to victory, plus win the race individually.”
“Yes, Coach,” I replied, knowing I needed to win to get a college scholarship. My adoptive parents couldn’t help me financially, and I didn’t want to graduate from college with huge loans.
“Your old rival, Red, from The Bishop’s school, is your strongest competitor,” Coach said. “He’s gotten faster. If he’s in front of you, expect him to run shoulder to shoulder with his running buddy to block you. Go around them or push through.”
“I will, Coach.”
My team of ten from San Pasqual High School in Escondido, California wore royal-blue T-shirts and faced Coach. All year we had looked forward to the seventy-first cross-country invitational at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California.
“After your practice run yesterday, you know the twists and turns of the course,” Coach said, his eyes roving to each boy. “Remember to pump your arms. Tuck them in. Focus on your breath.”
During the last four months, we had built endurance by running three miles, six days a week to prepare for this event.
“When things get rough, stick to it.” Coach slammed his fist into his hand. “You have all improved your times since you started training this year. Jacob, you having a bad day?”
“Got a headache, Coach. I don’t—”
Coach interrupted him with a quick wave of his hand. Running will take care of a headache, Jacob. At first, it will get worse. Embrace the pain. Run through it. By the time the race is over, your headache will be gone.”
Jacob nodded with seeming acceptance.
“Listen up,” Coach said. “Keep an even pace, including up and down hills. Tune out all distractions. Brandon, you look distracted. Are you mentally ready?”
“I was imagining our team winning. But I’m ready now, Coach.”
“Think like winners and you will be winners,” Coach said. “Remember, in life, you choose to be good or great. Are you ready to be great?” he bellowed.
“Yes, Coach,” we shouted.
“Go get ’em.”
My team members and I huddled in a circle, our arms over each other’s shoulders.
I shouted, “We are runners.”
The other boys replied, “We are runners.”
“We can,” I yelled.
“We will,” they whooped.
“Go, Golden Eagles,” we all screamed, jumping up and raising our fists.
A red-tailed hawk circled above us as if surveying the tightly packed athletes at the start area.
A warm wind blew against my face, and I smelled the nervous perspiration of those close to me. My girlfriend had said I seem to run without effort, although it sure didn’t feel like that. Being tall gave me a longer stride than most other boys.
At the start line on the former airstrip, I jogged in place with my running buddy, Joker. He earned his name because he loved to tell entertaining stories.
Dat, an immigrant from Vietnam, a thin boy with dark brown skin, stood beside me. He recently dreamed he had finished in fifth place for our team. The best he had managed until now was seventh. At this meet, he was determined to finish fourth or fifth, because only the first five runners’ scores in each team were counted in the team competition. He wanted his grandfather, who traveled with us, to be proud of him. His grandpa, a former general in the South Vietnamese Army, had boarded one of the last flights out of Saigon before the North Vietnamese Army captured the city.
Dat turned to look at the crowd of spectators in the bleachers.
His grandfather shouted, “Dat, run hard.”
Dat waved.
Dat’s running buddy was nicknamed Mousey because he had round cheeks and tiny eyes.
The race starter walked to the side of the competitors, twenty yards in front of the start line.
Some boys coughed. Others stretched their hamstrings. I took deep breaths to calm my nerves while visualizing myself breaking the finish line ribbon.
“Stand still,” the race starter said through a microphone. “Toes behind the line.” He blew a long, loud blast of his whistle. “Contestants to your marks.” He raised a red flag and the starter gun.
Matt and Zack, who stood behind me, were running buddies. Zack, nicknamed Rabbi, believed he could help people with spiritual ideas.
Coach was especially proud of Matt who had a kidney disease. Joining the team as a sophomore, he came in last during practice runs. He improved until, in his senior year, he finished six seconds after me in a cross-country meet. He once told me, “Every race is a fight. But I enjoy being part of the team.”  He earned the name, Champ.
“Bang.” A puff of smoke rose and the starter’s flag came down.
We ran forward, jostling for good positions. Some nervous participants sprinted. I recalled Coach’s warning to pace ourselves, and I settled into a steady rhythm with Joker, our feet pounding the asphalt of the old airstrip. We turned onto Valley Loop, a flat, dirt road. Live oak trees and green grass grew on the sides. For the first mile of the three-mile race, we maintained our pace, packed close together and kicking up dust. With Joker running by my side, I got my second wind and overtook panting athletes.
Running up the first and longest hill with four hairpin turns, Red and his running mate ran side by side in front of Joker and me. Joker tried passing on the right, but they blocked him. Then Red’s running buddy doubled over and collapsed at the edge of the path, holding his stomach as if he had a cramp. Red looked back, and Joker and I overtook him.
I again remembered Coach’s words as I ran up the slope. “Change gears to shorten your stride. Lean forward and keep a steady pace.”
Joker and I reached the top of the hill, then ran down to the U-turn at the bottom.
Poop Out Hill, the steepest incline on the course, was next, and I gasped while I climbed it.
A short distance from the top, a flock of crows, startled by the runners, flapped their wings and wheeled up with screeches and hoarse caws.
After coming down Poop Out Hill, Joker and I led my team members. Red ran a few yards behind us.
We climbed the gentle slope of Reservoir Hill and ran down the steep descent to the last curve before the flat finish area.
Coach stood at the side of the road, clapping and yelling, “Kick it in. C’mon. Pick it up.”
Champ and Rabbi passed Joker and me.
Champ tripped, staggered and fell as heavily as a sandbag. He grunted as he grazed his face and hands and swallowed brown dirt. Red hurdled over Champ’s spread-eagled body and ran in first place.
“Joker, Rabbi,” I shouted, “keep going.”
I stood over Champ. “Get up. Let’s go.”
He leaned on his elbow, shaking and wheezing. “Damn.” He tried to stand but swayed as if drunk.
“Come on,” I screamed, “you’re Champ.”
He raised his hands in an expression of surrender.
The rest of the boys in my team ran past us and sped toward Red, Joker and Rabbi. Spectators at the finish area in the Hilmer Lodge Stadium cheered.
Joker sprinted and caught up to Red. The onlookers in the bleachers applauded and shrieked. Then Red increased his stride and finished first. He raised and pumped his fist.
Joker, Rabbi and two other team members finished in the first four positions for my team.
Mousey and Dat ran alongside each other, their legs moving in unison, shoulders heaving.
Mousey pulled ahead stride for stride, and the screaming crowd leapt to their feet.
“You do it, Dat,” his grandpa shouted in a hoarse voice. “Go, go, go.”
His grandfather’s words seemed to give Dat a jolt of energy. He caught up to Mousey ten yards before the finish line and leaning forward, crossed ahead of him in fifth place.
Runners who had completed the race, walked with their hands on their hips. Perspiration stained their shirts. Some boys bent over. Others collapsed onto their backs.
I held Champ’s hands, then lifted and steadied him. We were the last two competitors, and I knew I’d lost my chance of getting a scholarship.
We jogged forward and were greeted by a roar from the spectators. After we crossed the finish line, Champ fell to his knees at the side of the track, shaking with sobs and gravelly breaths, his nostrils flaring, sweat dripping from his forehead. Team members crowded around to commend us for completing the race.
Coach ran up and told the team members to walk for five minutes to cool down. Then he gestured for us to sit around him. He squatted and removed his sunglasses. “Jacob, do you still have a headache?”
“No, Coach. It went away after the first two miles.”
“Good. Dat, you gave it your all to make fifth place.”
“Thanks, Coach.”
“Steve, you did good to help Champ finish.”
All the team members gave Champ and me high-fives.
“The judges are tabulating the team results,” Coach said, his voice cracking. “But I know we didn’t win. Wherever our team does place, I’m proud of you all.”
“We pushed hard,” I said.
 “Yes, every one of you did. Steve, although Red won today, a Stanford scout told me he knows your stats. And he liked what you did for Champ. He said you’re an emerging talent. He’d like to talk to you.”
I grinned, and my teammates gave me fist bumps.
Coach looked down as his tear rolled into the powdery dirt.

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Hey Cowboy

by Alex de Cruz 

spring water 

After I discovered my hometown fiancee had been cheating on me, I’d been devastated, and grew weary of friends and relatives saying, “I heard your wedding was called off. What the heck happened?” 

I’d mumble something like, “We both agreed; we just weren’t right for each other.” 

I started to avoid people I knew, which was hard to do in a small town like Alamosa, Colorado. I needed a fresh start, so I jumped at a job offer from a big medical software company in Madison, Wisconsin. 

In a university and high-tech town like Madison, a lot of people I met soon asked “Where’d you go to college?” 

My answer, “Trinity Junior College in Alamosa, Colorado,” didn’t impress them. 

Several said, “All you have is a junior college degree, and where the hell is Alamosa,” with a condescending tone in their voices. A few realized how obnoxious they sounded, and then apologized, “Oh, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded”. 

I thought about saying, but never did, Hey, you conceited ass, I was the first one in my family to ever go to college, and learned how to write computer code through online courses and hard work, which I get paid very well doing

Although I’d made some superficial acquaintances in Madison, I couldn’t call any of them real friends. I’d met a couple of women, who’s company I enjoyed, but didn’t foresee any becoming a serious relationship. 

One day I was sitting at Starbucks, when a woman near me remarked, “Excuse me, but I just noticed you’re reading the same book as me.” 

I turned my head to the left and saw a young woman about my age, who had a smile that just radiated warmth. She dressed conservatively, but was so pretty she stood out anyway. We started chatting and really hit it off. 

Her name was Maria and before she left she gave me her phone number. 

The next day I texted Maria about getting together for dinner, and was pleasantly surprised that almost immediately I received her response, “Sounds great.”

We went to Mollie’s Pizzeria for dinner. By the time her vegetarian lasagna and my Margherita pizza arrived, we were feeling very comfortable talking to each other. 

As Maria was telling me more about herself, she confided, “I just moved here from Minneapolis. I’d been living with this guy for two years and we were talking about getting married.” 

“I came home one day and all his stuff was moved out of our apartment. I was really hurt.”

Before I’d even thought about it, I said, “Well, he was a fool. Any guy would be lucky to be with someone so wonderful as you.”  

After I said it, I realized I meant it though.

Maria blushed slightly, and then added, “Maybe his leaving me was for the best; who knows. He was charming and a great guy, as long as he got his way, and also somewhat of a showoff too.”  

I went on to tell her how sorry I was, and then shared my own experience with my fiancee back in Alamosa with her. We obviously had a lot in common.

While I was walking Maria home, she mentioned that she worked at a riding stables while she was in high school, and said, “I’d love to find a good place around Madison to go horseback riding.” 

“Gee, I know a great riding stables about an hour away that this old cowboy-type guy named Charlie owns,” I responded.

“I’ve gone there several times and gotten to know him. He’s got some good horses and there’re nice riding trails,” I added. 

And again, Maria surprised me by right away saying, “Great, let’s go together this weekend.” 

I’d grown up on a small cattle ranch in Southern Colorado near Alamosa and had ridden in junior rodeo for several years as a teenager. My ranch and rodeo history was something I tended to brag about too much and I wanted to avoid doing that with Maria. 

It was getting late and I decided that rather than telling her then, I’d wait and just bring it up casually when we were riding.

When I phoned Charlie to make reservations, mentioning Maria’s riding 
experience, he said in his usual drawl, “Yeh, I remember you, cause you’re a good rider. I get so damn many beginners here, who’re a pain in the ass.  I’ll have a couple of my good horses ready for you on Saturday at ten o’clock, okay.” 

When we arrived at the stables, two horses were saddled for us. Charlie walked over, his ever-present Stetson hat pulled low, looking like the Marlboro man, but one that didn’t smoke. 

He remarked to me, “I’ve got Corky here for you. I ride him myself. The only thing is you’ve gotta make sure he knows you’re the boss. Do you think you can handle him?”  

Corky was a beautiful chestnut-colored stallion and I eagerly replied, “Sure, no problem!”

He said to Maria, “Misty shouldn’t give you any trouble and be a nice ride, young lady.” Yes, Charlie was old fashion and used terms like “young lady.”

Maria reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a carrot she gave to Misty, a nice looking bay-colored mare. I could see they’d get along just fine.

Once we were mounted up and ready to go, Charlie said to me, “You know the trails and don’t need a guide. Just take it easy on the horses. Misty’s going out with other riders today and I’m riding Corky later.”

The day was perfect for horseback riding, sunny, but not too warm, with a light breeze rustling the vibrant-green spring leaves. The air felt alive with a symphony of chirping birds, although you frequently couldn’t spot them hidden in the new foliage.

Maria enthused at one point, “Isn’t it just gorgeous? Look at that pretty carpet of little purple wildflowers over there. Do you know what they are?” 

“Yeh, I think they’re crocuses,” I replied. I took a deep breath, inhaling the wonderful fresh scents of spring.

We walked or trotted the horses on the trails through the woods and galloped across several open fields, giving Corky and Misty quite a workout. Corky and I were getting along like old friends and Maria seemed to be very happy with Misty. 

As we entered a broad meadow, I lightheartedly challenged Maria, “I’ll race you to that old oak tree on the other side.” Without saying a word, Maria kicked Misty and took off like a flash. I had to really push Corky to catch up. We finished neck and neck; Maria rode very well. 

When we reached Miller’s Creek, which bordered Charlie’s property, I suggested, “How about taking a break here.” 

Mostly we just sat soaking in the moment, feeling the warmth of the spring sun on our skin and listening to the sound of a natural world alive with new life. The horses were standing in the shallow water, noisily lapping it up. 

Maria looked wonderful. She was just glowing.

We were almost across the final pasture and nearing the corrals and barn. You could sense the horses’ anticipation of getting the riders off their back. Maria sighed, “This has been terrific. Too bad it’s over.”

I chimed back, “Let’s have one last gallop across the pasture.” 

Maria frowned and replied, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. The horses need a rest, you know. Remember what Charlie said.” 

I noticed an old oil drum at the far end of the field. Since I still hadn’t told Maria about my ranch and rodeo-riding background, the idea occurred to me to put on a little rodeo-riding show for her. I’d then tell her my story on the drive back to town.  

I told Maria, “Watch this,” and gave Corky a firm tap with my heels and slap with the end of the reins, combined with a couple of loud clicks of my tongue.  

Corky dug in his heels, kicking up some dirt, and we were off like a rocket.

We raced down to the barrel, did a nice tight turn around it, and started galloping back. We were really flying, when Corky decided he’d had enough. 

Without any warning, Corky virtually did a ninety-degree turn in mid-stride. One instant I was sitting on a saddle with a horse under me, and the next I was soaring through the air. 

I hit the ground with a heavy thud.

I was lying flat on my back with the wind knocked out of me, and somewhat dazed. I lay there for more than a ten count, while I caught my breath and tried to figure out how badly hurt I was. 

As I raised my head up, there was Corky standing off to the side.

At least I’d been lucky in my choice of a landing pad. Since it was a pasture, there was a thick mat of grass. The outcome could have been very different, if I’d come down on something hard.

When I finally stood up, I glanced toward the stables. Not only had Maria been watching, but Charlie and a couple of the stable hands had caught the show also. I’d made quite a fool of myself.

I climbed back in the saddle and walked Corky to the stables. 

After getting there and dismounting, Charlie walked over. He didn’t look pleased and snapped, “Hey cowboy, that was quite the stunt. Don’t you recall my saying, take it easy on the horses? The young woman seemed to understand.”

As soon as we got in the car, I turned to Maria and said, “I apologize. I should have listened to you. It was a dumb thing to do.” 

She replied, “I’m really glad you didn’t get hurt, but what you did reminded me of my old boyfriend.”

I didn’t know what to say beyond, “Maria, I’m really sorry.” 

To relieve the silence in the car as we drove back to Madison, I turned on the radio to my favorite classical music station. Maria spent most of the time watching the scenery.

When we got to her apartment, she opened the car door and hopped out before I could get out to open it for her. She leaned her head back in and said, “Thanks very much.” then turned and walked to her front door. 

I’d really screwed up, but hoped she’d get over it.  
After a few days, I texted Maria about getting together after work at the same Starbuck’s we’d originally met at. 

I got this text back, “N/A.” She was also “not available” for anything else I invited her to do over the next several days.

When I phoned her, the call went to voicemail and she never called back.

About the author

Alex has had a passion for fiction and writing since reading Hemingway as a teenager. Recently, he's become a devotee of flash fiction, short story, and creative nonfiction writing. Alex has stories in Potato Soup Journal and Down in the Dirt, as well as flash fiction pieces forthcoming in Scarlet Leaf Review and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.