Order.

If you expect me to tell you my name or give you more than the scantest of details in my background, then you must be crazy. Reason for that will become self-evident as I explain how I turned my town’s police force against me.

My story begins with a crowd-funding scheme, wherein I would get neo-nazis and their sympathizers to help me self-publish a novel, that would then be given free to students across the country. I typed up a chapter that I, honestly, half-assed as proof-of-concept, got myself a six pack and put myself to the task of working the usual haunts. From MRA forums to 4chan, I made sure I spread awareness of my project as much as I could to raise fifty thousand dollars. A modest sum that I thought I would be able to turn to much better use.

After I had my advertisements circulating, I started to work them. My friends and family assure me that I was much less than pleasant during the month that I conducted this experiment, and I know that, if I get out of this alive, I’ll have to swear off alcohol for good. And when I say that I worked them, I mean that I worked them. And you can fuck off if you think I didn’t earn every thin dime of the sixty-four thousands dollars that I eventually had directly deposited into my bank account. I then razed every single bit of evidence that I possibly could and went about my life, swearing off of ever interacting with that subsection of the country ever again.

To say that it happened over a short span of time is a bit of an understatement. The emails were pretty instant. I had to cancel and set up new email accounts for nearly an hour before I finally had one that was secure. And then the phone calls came. Each one was more angry than the next, to the point that it was impossible to block every single phone number that was incoming.

Now, I don’t know what they were expecting to happen, at first, that I would turn their money back over to them? The crowd-funding website that I used stipulated that every dollar given to the project was then the property of the crowd-funder. The money was mine by right, and I honestly thought that there wasn’t a court in the country that would convict me for ripping off people like this.

I honestly didn’t know how much bravado I had, or how fool-hardy I could act. This went on for days into my semi-retirement before the mail started to come in. That’s when I knew that this could have serious ramifications on my life. But, did I go to the police? No, I didn’t. Honestly, I thought that I was capable of self-protection, and that letters aren’t really as bad as it could get, I reasoned. Unfortunately, I was right.

It wasn’t even a week later that my car alarm went off in the middle of the night. I knew it was mine because of how piercing and high pitched it is. Believe me, if you heard this alarm from two miles away you would do whatever possible to turn it off. So, I went to get my keys, stepped out onto the landing of my apartment and got ready to press the button to turn it off when I saw the group of black hooded strangers clustered around my car. They all looked up at me as if they were a single being while swaying their arms to and fro. Each of them was armed with a blunt weapon.

I turned, ran to my door and turned all of the locks. After putting the chain in place, I grabbed my book case and leaned it up against the door. I was only just in time as they began to hammer at my door. None of them said anything, which made the entire thing even more terrifying than I thought possible. I then ran to my bathroom, closed the door and braced my legs against it so that I was pinned between it and my toilet. My hands were shaking so badly that I dropped my phone twice before I could dial in 911.

By the time that the police arrived, my front window was broken and the strangers were wandering around in my apartment. There was no way that they didn’t know where I was, and yet they didn’t do anything but walk around, from the sound of it. They had to break the door down, due to the bookshelf, and charged into the living room. There was a hushed conversation between one of the strangers and a police officer. It took a little less than a minute for the cop to get to the bathroom door.

He knocked and I called out in response, “Yes, officer, I’m in here.”

“Could you please step out here, son?” The officer said in a clear, authoritative voice.

“Did they leave? I called out, my voice quaking.

“Come out, or I’ll take the door off its hinges, your choice.” I wanted to vomit.

I got up and, with a shaky hand, grabbed the door knob, twisted and walked out into something that was worse than any nightmare I’ve had. There were four of the hooded figures, it turns out. They all had their masks off now, and were standing next to four police officers. Each of them then introduced themselves, by name. The hooded figures were the children of those cops.

What could I do but stare in wide-eyed horror. I knew that extremist groups had infiltrated police agencies and had been inside of them for years, but I never knew it could be this bad. I never wanted to believe that it could be. Not my town, not where I live. That, I thought, was impossible.

They then, in no uncertain terms, explained to me that I should hope to never need police protection ever again, because they were everywhere. In every police house, in every precinct, they were there and they all knew who I was. No matter where I went, I was on my own from that day forward.

What did I do? What could I do but sink down onto the floor as if I weighed a quarter of a ton and watched as they left my apartment, peaceably and calmly.

It’s been six months since then. I live on the other side of the country from where I grew up, and I live in fear that I’ll ever need a police officer. Every time one appears in my rear view mirror, I wonder what will happen, if anything. And every time they pass by.

I don’t know what to do, I’m at my wit’s ends at this point. It turns out that I accidentally picked a fight with the law, and the law won.

Class.

To whom it may regard
You’re probably wondering what it is that you’re holding in your hands. I gave my confession when I was arrested, and I made it clear that I don’t want a priest in my cell or attending my execution, so what is this if not a confession or a ‘come to god’ sort of thing? Well, the answer is pretty simple. I’m not letting anyone write the ending to my story except for me, and I’m certainly not going to allow the media’s narrative against me to go unanswered.

To set the record straight: I never said that I was anything other than one hundred percent guilty of all the charges against me. Murder in the first? Obviously true. Breaking and entering? Also true. Why go through the list? You all watched the court proceedings. So, what is there to clear up? Let’s start at the beginning.

 

I was born in a union household in St. Francis. Like most everyone else in the town, my parents were employed by Mr. Frederik’s company, Rodion Solutions. Times were good and St. Francis thrived. Property values were high, but not too high so as to keep middle class families from purchasing homes, and there were always enough jobs. We even saw the owner, Mr. Rodion, in town on a frequent basis. He insisted on being called by his first name, Richard, by everyone, even his employees, and patronized local businesses on a frequent basis. That isn’t to say that the man is a saint, but it isn’t my place to tell stories out of school. This is about me and Richard’s son, not me and John’s father.

We’d hear rumors now and then, about automation coming to Rodion Solutions, but Mr. Rodion swore that his factory would automate when it’s owned by someone else, and not a moment before. It wasn’t just talk, either, it was a stance that he stood resolute on. As a result, we had a beautiful and bustling main street, local scholarships, and a thriving arts community, proof that college towns don’t have a monopoly on culture. We’d hear rumblings about how unhappy John was with the state of his inheritance, or how deeply he disagreed with his father about his stance on automation, but Richard was resolute and firm. Due to Rodion Solutions being a privately owned company, with all shares owned by Richard, he had absolute control over how things were run. There was talk about making the company completely employee-owned, but…no one’s perfect.

Time went on. People moved, people came in, stores opened and stores closed, but Rodion’s gates were unlocked on weekdays and unemployment within St. Francis was all but completely unheard of. That is until Mr. Rodion ‘s health started to fail. It wasn’t as if we weren’t expecting it; he was a five pack a day smoker during downtime, and would be even worse during busy periods. Rather than spend the last few months of his life on chemo, only to get a trache and a lung removed, he chose to check into hospice to die as comfortably as possible in the town that he had built.

The change happened faster than any of us could believe. John was smart enough to know not to make any major changes while his father was still alive, so he waited until the day of Richard’s funeral for him to make Rodion Solutions into a publicly traded corporation. Within a month, the lay-offs started. The people of St. Francis did what they were able to, but the damage was done and could not be rolled back. All that needed to be done was for the right people to think the wrong thing about what happened to the jobs (immigration and outsourcing, not automation) and any effort to rally St. Francis against John Rodion was utterly undercut.

Unemployment exploded throughout the country and only got worse over the next two decades. With less middle class jobs, there was less money to spend in the area, which led to even more job losses. Soon enough, there were more boards across windows on Main Street than not, which resulted in an exodus out of the county. With less tax payers and lowering property values, our schools got worse and the Richard Rodion Excellence Award was dissolved, along with the rest of the philanthropic efforts headed by the fallen patriarch. St. Francis was a miniature of Detroit over an accelerated period of time. Quiet nights became filled with police sirens, and then when the local police station had to cut their budget, the sirens stopped by the need for police just grew.

I was luckier than most of my friends. We lost our house, of course, but we were able to sell to a manager that was coming into Rodion to watch over the new robots and to supervise the maintenance crew. As they were moving in and we were moving out, my parents (who were so maligned by the press, and who didn’t deserve any of their blame) drew me aside and told me not to resent them. I still remember my dad’s words as if they were seared into my mind, “Don’t blame them, kiddo. It’s not their fault, they need a job as much as anyone else, and they’re qualified to do it. It’s John Rodion and his stockholders who are to blame for this, not the people who were hired on after we were all laid off.”

That money helped us to stay afloat for awhile, but with store after store closing down in the area and major chains hesitating from opening up due to declining population numbers and household incomes there was a lot of hesitation. The press chose to paint my dad as a drunk, which was literally true, but such a term is only ever used as a character judgment which was completely unearned. It wasn’t his fault that he was totally unqualified for any other job after he worked at that factory since the day he graduated from high school. The darkest day of his life was when he took a position as a greeter for Wal-Mart. My father, the kindest, warmest and most intelligent man I’ve ever known, fell into a despair that he couldn’t climb out of after his first day in that uniform. My mom was a housekeeper for hire, and between their combined income, we were able to pay for everything but household necessities. My father cried when we had to apply for government assistance, like all of his friends eventually had to.

My parents kindly, but firmly, instilled into me a very strong work ethic as well as a large amount of respect for education and, as my dad called them, “The people who make the gears of the world turn” by which he meant public employees, retail workers, manufacturers, etc. The people who don’t wear a suit to work, unless it was bought at Goodwill. However, they never allowed me to take a job, telling me that my biggest responsibility was getting grades good enough to leave St. Francis and never come back. So, even after my dad finished off a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, he still sat with me in the kitchen, both of our eyes straining because we only dared to turn on one light in the kitchen to keep the electric bill low, until I finished my homework. When he would have to work overnight, it was my mom that stayed up with me.

My friends were not so fortunate, though. Not everybody can stand up and stare down darkness like my parents can, and not everyone who needs chemical assistance to get through the day was able to stay themselves with their favorite substance flowing through their veins. There were adult suicides, teenage suicides, domestic abuse of every stripe and a surge of opiates methamphetamines into the area. Plenty of people did really well after our town disintegrated, just not any of the original citizens of St. Francis.

On the day of the eighth anniversary of the factory’s closure, I sent off an application to Chicago state for law, thinking that I would be able to fight for people like those hurt by the death of manufacturing, people like my parents. It wasn’t easy, between my father’s worsening alcoholism and my mom’s failing health due to the stress of cleaning every day, I wanted more than anything to return to help. To send them money. But my dad made it clear that he’d throw me out if I tried to come back. “You earned that scholarship, now do something with it.”

And so I did. Years of hard work, years of study. Years more of criminal defense so that I could set up my own practice eventually and all that I ever saw was more people like my parents, my friends and my parents’ friends all crushed by forces out of their control and merely trying to live, trying to get through their day. I put all of this out of my mind and put my nose to the grindstone until John Rodion stood in front of me, which set me on the course that I’m on now. The conversation that followed was a test of my mettle more than anything else as every class-shaming comment and remark he made served to make me angrier and angrier. That is until he made the job offer. He said I had a keen intellect, that I had risen out of squalor, that I beat all the odds and that I defied expectations when he made the squalor, when he set the odds on the table and when he decided that St. Francis’ expectations were only worth diminishing. What could I do but accept the offer?

With the money I made as a corporate lawyer, I was able to buy my parents a home and get my dad the help that he needed after AA failed him for the fourth time; he couldn’t bring himself to believe in a higher power after his best friend and my godfather died of a heroin overdose. Soon, that proved to not be enough. Even after donating most of my income to St. Francis’ public schools and doing everything else that I could for the community that created me, I still felt a hollowness that I couldn’t fill. I carried this hollow feeling with me for months, into the court, into meetings, into doc review and business lunches until I needed John’s signature on some contract or another, it isn’t important, and his secretary was away from her desk. I knew he was in his office, so I just let myself in and continued the chain of dominos falling when I saw his secretary on her knees, tears streaming down her cheeks as John Rodion, the son of a man who created a fabrication and manufacturing conglomerate out of nothing, pulled his pants back up.

I froze. What else could I do? I was reminded of when dad told us that he lost his job; my mind was unable to fully grasp what was going on in front of me. John told his secretary to go back to her desk and she passed me with my mouth wide open while he told her to close the door behind her. The ‘conversation’ that followed, he was the one that spoke while all I could do was nod or shake my head, was full of ‘it isn’t how it looks,’ as he assured me that ‘this can stay between us’ and ‘there’s no reason why any of this needs to leave my office.’ This impromptu ‘meeting’ ended with him, unbidden, doubling my salary and telling me to take the day off. To say that work never went back to normal was an understatement.

I deserve an award for not letting my façade slip over the next few years. John considered me ‘made’ after covering for whatever the hell was going on with his secretary. I felt like I was betraying yet another person for just ‘allowing’ her to think that I was complicit with whatever was going on, but it was necessary as I was allowed into John Rodion’s circle. I met his closest friends, I met his family and his children. I even met two of his mistresses. All for him to totally drop his guard around me, and to allow me to gather what I needed from him, slowly, bit by bit, to bypass the security at his house, and to know when his family will be out of his mansion. From there, it was a matter of time until my parents passed on. If that sounds morbid, it wasn’t meant to; I just didn’t want them to think of their only son, the person who they were more proud of than anyone else, as a murderer.

Finally, the time came. The guard allowed me into his neighborhood to ‘drop off some contracts that couldn’t wait until the office opened.’ Then I used the keys that I copied to get through his front door and the security code to keep the alarm from going off. Everything now depended on me taking my time, and making sure that he knew full well what was going on when I sent him to hell.

He was a heavy sleeper, which was highly conducive for when I slipped the first knife into his soft body. He screamed, because who wouldn’t, but with a totally empty manor that could fit three separate low-cost living apartment buildings in its environs there was no one anywhere near that would care in the least bit. The first knife was just a rude wake up call, as well as sending a ‘I’m not kidding’ message.

I’ll say this much for the dearly departed; he got the situation and was on the wagon right away. With a bottle of smelling salts in my pocket to keep him awake, and a hand on the first knife to twist, I let him know why I was there.
“St. Francis.” I said clearly, my eyes boring into his face.

His eyes searched all over me, unable to find anything to say.

“When your father was alive, the population was ten thousand higher than it is now, the schools were performing better and there was no crime, drugs or suicide to speak of. Have you been there lately?”

He didn’t reply, and I twisted the knife, which produced a cry of “NO!” He struggled to get his breath back, “You know as well as I do what a dump that place is.”

“Thanks to you!” I shouted, spittle flying in his face. “Thanks to you. Killing all those jobs has consequences, John, and I am those consequences.” The second knife slipped into him as easily as you would expect, as much as I paid for them. After he calmed down, I smirked down at him, “Funny thing about knives and stabbing, so long as the attacks avoids all major arteries and organs, it’s very hard to die from a knife attack. Not that you will, of course.”

“Killing me won’t bring those jobs back!” He yelled. “Nothing will! They’ll never come back!”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that, “You think that’s what I think will happen?” I leaned in close, as if there were other people in the bedroom. “This is revenge.”

“Revenge?” He coughed and blood drooled out of his mouth. “You hold yourself up as some avenger while leaving my wife and children without me! Just over a business deal?”

I couldn’t help it at that point. I just cut his throat open, “I’ll make sure to leave the phone numbers of your secretary and mistresses. Maybe they’ll help.”

 

You all know what happened after. The arrest, my confession, everything else. And here I am, waiting for my execution date. I know that this won’t fix anything, and I know no one’s shedding any tears when I go in the ground, but at least he didn’t get away with it. Now the hollow feeling is gone. Now I can sleep at night. That’s enough.

Couple.

Trigger warning: this story contains frank language describing on-the-job sexual harassment, emotional abuse, casual racism and deals with rape.

“Wendy, would you mind taking table seven?” Veronica wasn’t typically in the habit of giving away money, especially this close to the end of the month, so Wendy peeked up from the register to scan the table. Recognition crossed her face, “Oh, don’t tell me you know them.”

“Is that a problem? I mean, I don’t know all of them, but Sean is Tom’s best friend.” Wendy indicated who she meant with a subtle movement. Veronica’s face went white at that, which made Wendy ask, “What’s the matter? What happened?”

Veronica just shook her head, “We’ll talk later. I’m going to do my side-work, cash out and have a smoke. Think the rest of your tables will be done in an hour?” She also had to do her silverware rolls, which would take up the lion’s share of her side-work. “I’ll even do rolls if you take this table?” She practically plead.

Wendy nodded, “Sure, but I need a full report after I cash out.” She checked her pens, book and name tag, then went back out onto the floor.The table of four was raucous, and refused to pay attention to her despite her repeated attempts to introduce herself. She took a deep breath, wondering why the worst table is always the last of the day, and went into the server’s station so that she could return with ice water for the table, which was usually a successful way to interject as she needed to.

She returned, cleared her throat and introduced herself again, then started to hand out the water until she was rebuffed with, “Excuse me, sweetheart, but we didn’t ask for any water.” Sean’s friend said.

Her face went red and her pulse raced, not knowing what to say or do, still holding the glass of ice water. The man who had interrupted her sighed, rolled his eyes and made room for his glass of water. From here, she was able to get through her greeting, and take drink orders. She didn’t bother to act as if she knew Sean, since he made no indication of that. She simply took the drink order to the register to order it up, wondered who drank long island iced teas for lunch, especially a business lunch as they were all dressed to the nines.

Shortly, she returned to the table and handed out the drinks. Sean’s friend again made his presence known, this time in a way that he probably thought was subtle, by tracing his eyes over her body and then winking when she sat his drink down. “Hey, sweety, how old are you?” This came from another of Sean’s friends. Internally, she was hoping that Sean wasn’t close friends with any of them, due to her not wanting Sean to be a bad impression on Tom.

She cleared her throat and began, “Have we all decid-”

She was neatly cut off, “Hey, I know you aren’t educated enough to work a real job, but my friend asked you a question.” This was from the third person at the table. Thus far, only Sean hadn’t said anything aside from his drink order.

At this point, now feeling very small, she was beginning to understand why Veronica gave up this table, especially to someone that the rest of the staff had generally seen as fairly unshakable, a part of her reputation that she was clinging on to. She cleared her throat, “I’m 29, sir.” She kicked herself for how small she sounded.

“Baby, you have got to get-” The third guy began.

She forced a big smile, “Have we all decid-”

“Look. I don’t know how you were raised, but my parents drilled into our heads that you don’t interrupt or try to speak over a man when he’s talking. Now.” He produced his wallet and pulled out a few five dollar bills and laid them on the table. “From here on out, every faux pas that you make, we’ll deduct a bill from your tip. Right now, you stand to make twenty dollars. And if you even think about handing us off to another server, they won’t get anything in the form of a tip.” She looked helplessly at Sean, who was intently watching his friend. “Now. As I was saying, with a face as pretty as yours, and an ass like that, you really should get yourself a sugar daddy. Get yourself off of those feet. Maybe learn some manners, too.”

Wendy made a fist inside of her apron, over and over as she counted to ten and tried her best to calm herself and to slow her breathing down. Her smile was gone. “I’ll take that under advisement, sir. Now, are we all ready to order?”

The man with her tip drew a bill back. “You should smile, sweety. You look so much prettier when you smile.”

This drew a laugh from the entire table, including Sean. At this point, she wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She was somehow able to smile. “Are we all ready to order?”

Their orders were simple enough, and gratefully the rest of the meal went off without too much of a problem and were low maintenance enough that she was able to do her side work as she kept watch over the table. They all left within an hour of sitting down, didn’t leave a mess and she was relieved to see the full twenty dollar tip in the check presenter. That was, until she pulled out the credit card slip, which she would have to give to her manager before she could leave for the day. At first, it was a relief that Sean was paying, and that he was using a credit card, but when she looked at it, she nearly started to cry as she read, “Whenever Tom’s not around, you should have me by for a good time.” There wasn’t anything else there to indicate who wrote it. For all anyone could guess, Wendy herself had written it.

She swung by the table that Veronica was seated at, all of their silverware rolls taken care of. “Lemme go cash out and I’ll be back.” Veronica nodded, chewing on her fingernails and looking like a frightened cat. Wendy wondered how she, herself, looked as she entered into the manager’s office to complete her day. “Um, Benjamin? I was wondering if we could talk.”

“Of course! Step right in and close the door behind you.” He said in his usual, avuncular way. “What’s the problem?”

“That last table, the four-top at table seven, were harassing me throughout my meal. They demeaned me, condescended to me, and look at what they wrote on the credit card slip!” She exclaimed as he went through her proof of sale and slips.

“Well, that seems friendly enough. What was so wrong with what they said?” The usual, smiling face that he wore shined up at her.

“I…what? He insinuated that he’d like to sleep with me behind my husband’s back.”

“But he used your husband’s name. It must have been a joke, that you just aren’t taking well.” He was now using his shaming voice, which he often employed to diminish people’s confidence and make them feel as if they were on the spot. This tactic was working exceptionally well at the moment. “So, what I guess I’m saying is, ‘do you have any proof of what you’re accusing?'”

“Well, no, but-” She began.

He cut her off neatly, “So, you’re just trying to slander four of our customers because they didn’t tip you?”

“Well, no, but-” She began again.

“So they tipped you well, and you’re trying to chase away business because…” He waited a beat before he said, “Well?”

“I can’t prove that they had a shitty attitude or that they were a bunch of misogynistic assholes!” She couldn’t control her words or the volume of her speech at this point, but just the same couldn’t help but notice the way that he rolled his eyes when she said ‘misogynistic’.

Benjamin raised an eyebrow and smirked in a way that she instantly recognized as being the look he takes on when he’s won. “Well, that just sounds like your opinion, sweetheart. Maybe you should get better at taking compliments?” He held out the money she had earned that day, “Carry on.” He motioned her away after she took her earnings.

She opened her mouth, then shut it and stomped out of the room. She swore that she would update her resume and get out of this store, but just like every other time that Benjamin had been pointlessly cruel to her, she knew that she’d be back the next day for more.

“Come on. Let’s get out of here.” She said to Veronica after she had punched out.

They were soon seated in Veronica’s car as Wendy’s knee bounced up and down. She chewed on her lip and looked outside as her friend studied her. “Smoke?”

“Please.” Officially, Wendy had quit smoking years ago. And she kept that as the official line, regardless of how many smokes she had bummed off of various friends at times. So long as she hasn’t bought a pack, she is an ex-smoker.

“Benjamin didn’t believe you or care?” Veronica said as she lit her friend’s cigarette.

“You tried to tell him, too?” Wendy said, emotion missing from her speech.

“He asked me why I was making shit up, and trying to scare away good business.” She took a drag and blew the smoke out of the window, cracked just enough in the cold February afternoon.

“Basically what he said to me.” She sighed and drew her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them. “So, you said you’d tell me what happened after everything was done.”

Veronica used the dead cigarette to light another. She pitched the butt outside to join all the others in the employee parking area. “That guy you said was named Sean? He picked me up at a bar last night, and forced himself on me when we went back to his place.”

Wendy felt numb and cold all over. She almost dropped her cigarette on the floor of Veronica’s car. “…what?” She couldn’t help but ask.

“So, I went out to have some drinks last night and settled down at a place I hadn’t been before. They were advertising lady’s night, and were offering two-for-one margaritas. I had that really shitty party yesterday that only tipped me ten percent, so I needed something to make myself feel better, right?” Wendy nodded to show that she was still listening. “Sean was there, and he bought me my drinks. He was easy to talk to, and I thought I’d like to see him again. Soon enough, he’s gotten enough drinks into me, and had me buttered up enough that I accepted when he asked if I wanted to come over. Whatever.

“We get to his place, and right away he tries to shove his tongue down my throat. I thought he was just a little aggressive, and since he has such a nice place, I kind of already assumed that he would be. I push him back a little, which made him push me against the wall. I tried to tell him to stop, that I wasn’t comfortable with what he was doing, and he did it anyway.” There was silence for a moment before she said, almost as an afterthought, “Bastard even had a condom and lube to keep from leaving any evidence. It would be my word against his if I tried to bring charges against him.”

The car was silent until Wendy reached over the center console and gave Veronica a tight hug. Neither one of them said anything else before parting, not knowing what else could be said.

Wendy compromised with herself, saying that it was just going to be one pack, and that it didn’t mean anything. That she would be sure to go to the gym five times the following week to make up for it, but just the same, she was two into a fresh pack of cigarettes at the townhouse she shared with Tom by the time he came in. She ashed her smoke in a bowl nearby, as he greeted her.

“Bad day?” He asked tenderly.

“Like you wouldn’t believe.” She rested her smoke on the bowl and ran to her husband. She burrowed into him, and resolved not to say a word about what had gone on. She wanted to leave work at work, and try not to let any of it bother her.

Tom could tell that something was going on, so he did his best to help her out. He helped with dinner prep, and regaled her with tales from his office, along with a generous helping of gossip. She could feel her anxiety melting away as he insinuated himself behind her as she chopped carrots. He rubbed over her stomach, which was the best way to soothe her nerves. “So, Sean told me that he dropped by your restaurant today, and that you were fantastic. Said he’d be back next week for sure.”

Her knife held still above the remains of the carrot, while distantly she was aware that the sauce reduction needed to have the heat turned down. She broke away from Tom, and futzed with their dinner, before he put his hand on hers, “Hey, you gonna tell me what’s wrong?”

She shook her head a little, once again kicking herself for feeling small again. “I really would just like to put this day behind me and not worry about it again.”

“Come on, it must’ve been a bad day if you bought a pack of cigarettes after we quit together at the engagement party. You remember that, right?” As if she could forget. He was so mindful of how she felt when he presented her the ring, not wanting to put her on the spot or make her feel embarrassed, while also inviting only their closest friends to be witnesses. Large crowds and all of that always made her feel nervous.

She sighed heavily began to recount her day off to him, busying herself with their dinner as she did, so as to not have to look at him as she told her husband about the way her husband’s friend had allowed and later joined in on her harassment, and then dovetailing it off into Veronica’s story. When she was finished, she was taken aback to see that her husband was wearing a very nonplussed face. “What? What’s that look for?” She asked.

“Well, I think you should just be a little more patient with these guys. I mean, it sounds like they were just having some fun and blowing off steam.” He said in a blase tone.

“More patient? They were-”

“Honey, they didn’t touch you and they gave you a big tip. I don’t see what the problem is. Besides, you know how these finance guys are, it’s a big boy’s club! They just forget where they were at the moment.” He went to give her a hug, but she placed her hand on his chest and looked up at him, confused and hurt. “What? What’s the matter?”

“You don’t believe me?” She nearly squeaked.

“I didn’t say I don’t believe you, just that you should know how to take a joke by now. I mean, you’ve known Sean for years by now.”

“And he’s never acted like that around me by now, Tom!” Her face was turning as red as it was when she was taking the table’s order. “And he said that he wanted to sleep with me!”

“Actually, you said that there wasn’t a name that went with the message, so you’re just accusing him of stuff as far as I can see. Did you bring the slip with you?” He was wearing a condescending smirk, one that she’d only seen him employ when talking to an especially thick child.

“You know I didn’t! You know I ca-”

“So, you really are just accusing my friend of harassing you and trying to get into your pants. How is that any different from your friend claiming that he raped her?”

The world dropped out from beneath Wendy, “Claimed? Veronica wasn’t ‘claiming’ anything. She didn’t want to fuck him, and he did anyway!” Dinner was now forgotten at this point.

“Well, does she have any proof?” There was that condescending tone again, and Wendy wanted to scream. Who was this that she was talking to? Where was her husband? The man who held her and soothed her and comforted her after their miscarriage last year, and who had even said that it was ‘their’ miscarriage.

“He didn’t leave any proof! I even mentioned tha-”

“Well, that just sounds very convenient to me. The way that you’re trying to throw Sean’s friends under the bus like you are. Trying to get them banned from a restaurant just because your little friend regretted being easy.”

Wendy’s head was spinning. “None of this is convenient for either her or me! What if it was me, Tom? What if I was raped? Or would I need two male witnesses to back up my testimony?”

He tried to soothe her by touching her shoulder, which she withdrew as if his hand were on fire. “What is this all about, honey? I’ve never seen you get so worked up.

“Answer the question!” She struggled to keep her volume under control. She could feel her cheeks heat up and her vision started to blur with tears which she cursed herself for.

“Well, I…I would have to weigh up the evide-”

“Seriously?! You wouldn’t trust me?”

“I mean, we’re supposed to be impartial in crimin-”

She backed up away from him fast enough that she nearly knocked a pan, which was now issuing smoke, off the stove. “Do not. Do not dare give me any of that ‘devil’s advocate’ bullshit. We aren’t talking about an abstract or anything like that. What if we were talking about me, and not my friend?”

He looked bewildered, as if he were totally lost in the woods, “Can you just please calm down and try-”

“Weigh your next words very carefully. If the next thing that comes out of your mouth is ‘be rational,’ then I’m out of this house and I won’t be coming back.” He didn’t say anything and she swept her hair out of her eyes, passing her palm over her forehead. “Funny how quick you were to believe all of Clinton’s accusers-”

“And you didn’t?” His exasperation didn’t escape her notice.

“Bill Clinton wasn’t running for president! We-we are not having this argument again. I have made peace with your Trump vote, and now I’m seeing if I can make peace with this.” She reached for her phone and unlocked the screen, creating an audible ‘click.’

“Who are you calling?” He took a step towards her, with a look in his eyes that made her back up. She felt as if she were in the Twilight Zone, that her husband had been replaced with his evil twin.

“I’m calling my mom. I’m done. I’m leaving before one of us says or does something we can’t take back.” She put her phone up to her ear to start the call, but he snatched it away from her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He backed away with the phone in his hand, “Honey, I think you need to calm down. You’re blowing this out of proportion.”

She narrowed her eyes on him, “I’m blowing my friend’s rape out of proportion? Because of your shit-bag friend who you know, for a fact, made a pass at me during our Christmas party?”

“He was drunk and you know it! We, all three of us, talked about it afterwards and there was no hard feelings afterwards!” She was liking his tone less and less.

“No hard feelings from you or Tom, I just said that so that the two of you would leave me the hell alone. And now you just hand wave at my being objectified and demeaned at work, and try to tell me that Veronica was just impugning your friend’s character because, what, she just wants to ruin some rando’s reputation? Am I blowing that out of proportion, or is am I blowing the fact that you snatched my phone out of my hand while I was calling my mom out of proportion? You’re going to have to be more specific, since I’m so poorly educated, and because I only good enough to be a trophy wife, according to the people who you’re defending?” She had to scale her neck up to meet his gaze, but she did it just the same.

“I’m not giving you your phone until you calm down.” He put his phone in her pocket.

“Then you can keep the phone, and I’ll walk over to Veronica’s place.” She walked over to put on her shoes and jacket, but he was quickly standing in her way.

“Please just slow down before you do something that we can’t take back.” He put his hands up as if to ward her off, but she advanced on him, forcing him to back up. As she put on her shoes, he turned to lock the door out of the apartment.

“Do you intend to keep me here as a prisoner? I can call the police for that. Are you going to move out of my way?”

A slow mix of emotions crossed his face. He went from concern to confusion and settled on anger, which she had rarely seen on his face. “You’re going to call the police? On your husband?”

“If my husband continues to try to detain me in my own home, I certainl-” She was on the floor, and her ear was ringing before she could even see his hand raise from his hip and go across her face. She looked up to see her husband’s face, now a mask of panic, as tears ringed her eyes. She promised herself that she would never cry for him again as she stood back on her feet. “Give me my fucking phone and get out of my fucking way.”

He remained standing in the way of the door, and was showing no sign of moving until smoke began to trickle out of the kitchen, “Oh, you better go get that. Your dinner’s going to burn.”

He hesitantly went to the kitchen, still with her phone in his pocket. He turned before he entered the room completely, plaintively saying, “Please don’t go anywhere.” By the time that he returned to the living room, she was gone. He sat down heavily on the ground, buried his face in his hands and just stared at their creases as the phone in his pocket vibrated, knowing that it would eventually stop.

Help.

Preface: This is a little something that I’ve been working in my head and in notes for the past six or so years. It’s finally time to stop delaying. The first draft, in parts, will be posted here with a compiled ‘final’ draft done afterwards, and posted on Amazon. So, without further ado:

Help.

Yesterday, promises were made. And on those promises, business was created. A way-station for trappers or loggers, the reason isn’t important anymore. With those businesses came homes that housed their workers. The houses led to more business and bigger buildings and eventually, factories.

For a time, success ran up and down the streets. People looked up into the sky and felt the promise of what tomorrow would bring. The streets seemed to be paved with gold, and on those streets, houses were replaced with apartment buildings. And when the bright and clear promise of yesterday faded into today, Jude Jameson moved into one such apartment building. And today, it was snowing.

There was something about the first snowfall of winter, whenever it happened, that reminded him of what it was like to be a child. Even now, as he walked from the sofa to the living room window, carefully navigating around his furniture in the still dark of early morning, he could feel himself smiling. It was a curious sensation, as he put his back to the few possessions he had that he hadn’t pawned off. He wrapped his robe more tightly around himself and rubbed his arms, feeling a little cold even inside his warm apartment.

He went to the kitchen and began his day, brewing coffee first, while he listened to NPR’s forecast. He listened intently as he was told that it would be a heavy snowfall for the next day or two, and that school closures will be very likely, the following day. His coffee was done after a few minutes, and as the forecast turned into an update on a local referendum on school zoning and what it could mean to a nearby habitat, Jude switched the radio off and instead chose to listen to the silence that always came with a snowstorm.

With coffee, comes cereal, Jude thought to himself. He opened up his cupboard, trying his best not to wince at how empty it was. With his breakfast in hand, he turned to his laptop, sitting on the kitchen island to scan through Craigslist. He crossed his fingers as he scanned through the jobs listings with the criteria of ‘open interviews.’ Before he was finished with his breakfast, he had his list for the day.

“Hey. I can hit all these places on foot,” He mused to himself as he sipped at his coffee. He looked outside and stroked his chin absent-mindedly. The previous winter had been so atypically dry; it had been more than a year since he got to tramp through snow like this. “Alright. Looks like I’m walking today.”

 

Jude hummed softly to himself as he walked through the heavy snowfall. He was cheered by the small amount of street traffic that he encountered due to his increased appreciation for solitude. The town was always at its most quiet during storms like these, as he’d learned. Since moving there, a handful of years ago, he’d come to grow quite fond of the area.

He passed through neighborhood after neighborhood, the houses all standing in stark contrast to one another, showing the deep history that he was surrounded by. Businesses stood between houses, and apartment buildings jutted out at irregular intervals. Some of it was due to the town’s past with industry, affordable housing being needed by low-level workers, some of it was due to the college that stood at the center of it all and the rest was garden variety family housing.

As he stepped onto Main Street, the street lamps turned on. He looked at his phone to check the time, and saw that it was already veering towards sunset on top of the nearly impenetrable cloud-cover. He was making good time, and smiled in appreciation of that fact. He had a good feeling about today, and thought he was past due for a good turn.

Really should’ve applied for unemployment. He thought to himself. He could hardly blame himself for how long he’d gone without work. There just weren’t that many jobs left in the area, and the diminishing population was a reflection of that. He shook his head ruefully as he thought of his last job and his disastrous last day. How he had mixed up the time that he was due in, ended up being an hour late and asked to leave almost immediately upon arrival.

He took a deep breath of the cool air and let it out slowly. He closed his eyes and pushed those thoughts out of his head. Can’t think of that right now; one foot in front of the other. And so, he pressed on towards his first stop of the day.

 

Open interviews often run the gamut of actual, in depth conversations with actual employers, or the distinct feeling of being looked over like a pig at a fair. Just surface glances over your appearance, a few quick questions and then on to the next contestant. Regardless of which of the two approaches employers took, none of them lasted very long, with the walks between businesses taking the longest amount of time so that, when he was finished for the day, his phone displayed “7:00.”

He hadn’t eaten since noon, and the cold and snow was beginning to lose its luster. As he stood in the awning of the doorway that he had just walked out of, he thought about his options. He could either return to his apartment and have a frozen dinner, or he could get a burger. He hadn’t gone out to eat in a week or two, and besides, he had done great work today. Why not top off what was proving to be a nice day with a treat?

To assuage his guilt at spending money that he really didn’t have, he decided to go with fast food. Something cheap, hot and greasy would go a long way towards something like a reward. With that in mind, he stopped in at Apollo’s, and ordered his favorite: a double cheeseburger and Cajun fries. Just as he was about to tuck in, however, his phone began to buzz in his pocket.

“Judith, what are you doing?” Daniel said over the din of bar music.

“Dan, aren’t you supposed to be working?” Jude said as he casually began to eat his fries.

“That would be the ideal situation. However, the bar is totally empty. Not a soul in sight, and bossman wants us to stay open until two ‘just in case.’” Daniel’ bar was around the halfway point between Apollo’s and Jude’s apartment, so swinging by wouldn’t be too much of a labor.

“I’m not sure, man. Money’s really tight, and I don’t think I can really excuse going out to drink, especially on a weekday.”

“Right, like you have anything else better to do. First couple are on me, is that fair?”

Gotcha. Jude thought to himself. “Alright. Fine. Let me finish eating and I’ll be there in twenty.”

 

The road traffic had slowed down from a crawl to a near total stop. The plows hadn’t yet gone out, and the drifts were growing more and more as time passed. He would’ve continued on, not stopping to become even more wet and cold, had he not heard something that he couldn’t quite assign a distinct feeling to. It was a saxophone, being played out into the cold, winter night. There was always something slightly melancholic about a saxophone without accompaniment, and on a night like this, that melancholy was even more profound.

He walked towards it until he found its genesis, someone practicing from their apartment situated on top of a storefront. The light that beamed out of the apartment contrasted with the music, a feeling of home next to a feeling of isolation. Being lost in the wilderness. He shivered a little, but not from the cold, and finished the short distance to Daniel’ bar.

O’Malley’s was usually one of the busiest bars on Main Street, especially when the semester was in, but it was desolate when Jude entered. “Boy, when you can’t even attract college kids…” Jude said as he stripped out of his gloves, jacket, hat and scarf. He place his gloves in his hat, his hat on the bar and the scarf over both as he draped his jacket over the bar seat. He sat down heavily, and Daniel poured out a pint.

“There are bars that don’t require a drive, or a mile’s trek. I just wish Greg would let us close down, there’s no way that anyone’s coming in tonight.”

The beer was cold and refreshing, washing away all of the concerns that hit Jude on an almost daily basis. Would he return to school? Would he finish his degree? What about rent or a job? When would he be able to pay for the repairs that his truck needed? None of this seemed to matter to him as he sat in the comfortable bar, chatting about not much of anything for the next hour. Then another hours passed, and another.

Jude fished his phone out and, when he saw the time, did a double take. “You let me stay in here until eleven at night? Man, I’m not twenty-one anymore.” His head was swimming, and he knew he’d stagger when he got up. “What’s my tab?”

“Forget it. You did me a favor tonight, just toss me a five for pouring beer and we’re square.”

Jude thought this over for a moment, seriously debating the merits of paying a tab, when the option existed not to, on pure principal. “Are you sure, man? Greg won’t get angry?”

“We’re trying to get rid of the keg that you’ve been drinking all night. You’re one of three people that drinks it, so we’re phasing it out as soon as it’s empty. Honestly, you’re doing us a favor by getting rid of it before it goes bad.”

“Beer goes bad?” He furrowed his brow a little, his mind working at this small conundrum far harder than it ought to.

“Dude, go home. Want me to call you a cab?” Travis asked as Jude began to haphazardly dress himself.

“No, no. I’m cool, man. It isn’t far back to my place, and if I get tired, I can just lay in the soft snow until the sun rises.” He flashed Daniel a grin and went out into the storm.

The enthusiasm with which he met the coming storm in the morning had all but vanished as he pushed his way through the streets. Still no plows anywhere in sight, the snow was now coming up to his knees. He rubbed his hands together, trying to warm them up in gloves that were becoming more and more threadbare as the days went by. Can’t remember the last time I saw snow like this, he muttered to himself.

On he went, though. Unrelenting as the snow and wind at his back, he was soon enough in eyesight of his apartment building. If apartment complexes had parents, only they would love the squat, brown pile of bricks that he walked towards. It was old, but at least it was sturdy. He was certain that a tornado could come through and not even the windows would rattle in its four-floor façade.

With the practiced ease of someone who had done this often, he took his gloves off, then his keys out of his pants pocket, then put his gloves back on. He opened the outer door, and was careful not to let it slam shut, for fear of waking the elderly woman who lived right next to it.

He shook himself, hard, to get some of the snow off of himself before he began to strip off his snow clothes as he walked towards his apartment. Taking his boots off first, to rest outside of his doorstop, he went in. He felt his foot slide against something just inside of his living room, past the door, but ignored it. It will be there in the morning, he thought to himself as he began to undress for bed, I’m done with today.

David Bowie

david-bowie-as-the-thin-white-duke-wallpaper

It’s been more than a month since his passing, and I still find myself reflecting on him. I don’t know when I’ll stop, to be honest; the force of his personality made him seem like a fixed figure in time, not a real person. Granted, I was never a huge fan of his, and I don’t know much about him, I still wonder at the impact of the man.

I think that’s the mistake that a lot of his fans have always had, though, that he was Major Tom, the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust. They thought of him as a performer, rather than as a person who had to make active choices to become who he was. The image that’s stuck with me the most, at least in my head, is him in his first singing lesson, before everything else. That’s the best way to think of any famous person, to be honest.

Prior to becoming a star, he was just a person, same as anyone else, after all. The difference between most of us, and him, is that he made the active choice to pursue, what was I’m sure at the time, a career as an audacious performer, someone unforgettable and immense. That is, I think, the lasting legacy of the main: to be who you are, and to be who you want to be, regardless of how the world will react to it. If they don’t like that person, after all, then you have to get your audience and the rest of the world, to like him or her.

He was that Starman, standing over all of us, way up high in the sky. He wanted to reach out to us, regardless of whether it would blow our minds or not. Luckily, it did and his legacy will not soon be forgotten. Not by us, those who he’s inspired to stand up, shake the world off and try our best to come and meet him.

Sacrifice.

Elizabeth locked the door behind her at two AM. She couldn’t remember the last time that she was so tired. The struggle just to make ends meet was slowly starting to catch up to her, and she could rapidly see the day that she would no longer be able to keep up with the work load that she needed to. Taking off her uncomfortable shoes, she slouched onto a kitchen chair and rubbed her temples. Not being a drinker, she didn’t have anything around to take the edge off the night, and she was grateful for that. She didn’t need one more worry to add to her load, after all.

As she often found herself doing at the end of the month, she looked over her bills and began to prioritize the ones that could be put off, versus those that she couldn’t. Healthcare needed to be paid for, so that was at the top of the pile, then the credit card that she needed to buy groceries, and then rent and at the bottom was utilities. Wearily, knowing that there wouldn’t be a better time to do so with three children, all under twelve, running around, she did the math by hand and found that there might be a little left extra. This would then go towards a trip to Goodwill and not much more.

This little victory in mind, she turned off the lights, and walked the short hallway to her children’s room. She looked in on them, all sleeping soundly, and was momentarily grateful for the toil. They were good kids, and they knew what their mother went through for them. They tried their best, but she knew that difficult years were ahead of them. She remembered her own troubled upbringing and could only hope that their adolescence would be less of a burden on her than she was on her own parents.

She went to the bathroom, took off her uniform, washed up and brushed her teeth. And then, as she so often did, she brought out her rosary and began to say her prayers. She knew that she hadn’t been to church for weeks, and that she hadn’t been to confessional for months, but her kids were being brought up in the faith and trusted that God would look kindly on her for it. She just didn’t know when. Her time was not His, and all things work towards the good.

The beads passed through her fingers as she worked her grandmother’s rosary, until she felt a cold breeze blow through her. She shuddered a little and rubbed her arms before continuing, but it only got colder and colder. She looked for what it could be, and was left without a cause that she could discern. The windows were closed, and even if they weren’t, it was May; there was no reason that it should be so cold. She put on a robe and resumed her rosary.

She rubbed her hands together, looked down at them and when she did, she found that her room was filled with a bizarre light. All at once, she felt dizzy and fell to her knees. Had God sent an angel? Was Christ coming to visit her? There, striding out of the master bathroom was her answer, and she knew all at once that she couldn’t be more wrong.

He was painfully beautiful, that was the first thing she noticed. He wasn’t of any discernible ethnicity, and his face hurt to look at. She expected that he would be dressed finely, but saw that he was wearing clothes that wouldn’t get him a second glance anywhere that she was familiar with. She thought to herself that it must be a trick and she reminded herself that she needs to be on her guard, that he was the prince of lies and deceit.

“Rise to your feet and face me, daughter.” His voice was musical, sonorous and so deep that it made the air vibrate around her. “You will find no deception and no games in my visit. Even if my Father cannot hear you, I do. I see what you do for your family, and I am in common cause with you.” Elizabeth stood, but did not look at him. “Why do you divert your eyes, daughter?”

“It hurts to look at you. And I am no daughter of yours! I know who you are!” She held her rosary out in front of her as a ward.

He strode towards her and touched the rosary with his bare hand and ran his fingers over the cross. “That is a beautiful rosary. Your grandmother loved it well, as did her mother before her. It is a fine relic, but it will not do me any harm. Nor will I do you any harm.” With that, she saw that the light dimmed in the room and she was able to look at him. His face was kind, but troubled, and was sunken with deep lines and creases. There were scars on his face, the sort that would have been received long ago, from very serious injuries. He held his hand out to her and she saw that it was the sort that saw long toil. His was a beauty that was otherworldly, somehow all the more breathtaking because of his scars and roughness rather than in spite of them.

“What do you want from me?” Her fear did not diminish, but she knew that her visitor couldn’t just be ignored or pushed away. This was something that she would have to face.

“I want you to have the life you deserve. I want your children to have the lives they deserve.” He said simply.

“Leave my children alone!” She shouted, as if in impulse, and then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked out the bedroom door into the hall of the apartment.

“Your children cannot hear us, daughter. This meeting is between us, and us alone. There is no need for them to know what transpires here.” The musical quality of his voice reminded her of someone who was trained to sing, who had done so for years of their life, but who hadn’t done so in a very long time.

“Why do you keep calling me daughter? I have no relation to you. The angels, even you, are separate creations from humans.”

“It’s a term of art, I assure you. You are my daughter as are all those who work in endless toil, thankless for duties that they did not willingly enter into. Being a worker, with no choice in the matter and no joy in the work, that is how you are my daughter. That is how we know one another.” He eased himself down onto her bed, sitting on it with ease, as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world for him. “Elizabeth Hartley, can you remember the last relaxing day that you have had?”

She waited for him to go on, expecting that this was a prepared speech that he would launch into, whether she wanted him to or not. But when he didn’t, “I…it’s been years. Probably high school, to be honest.”

“That is true.” All at once, she felt herself lifted from this moment, to that. “A family vacation to Malibu. Your parents had put away money for it, knowing that such outings were a rarity. None of you had been to the ocean before, and you still strain to remember the scent of the ocean and the feel of the sand under your feet.” And then, the memory became a memory again.

He extended a hand towards her and she found herself reaching for his. “Daughter, I do not say this to trouble you, or to hurt you. Your prayers fall on deaf ears. There will come no relief to you, or your burdens.” He said this with a kindness that made her heart hurt.

“What do you mean?” She looked at him imploringly, and once again, she felt herself lifted from this time and this place and to another one. She found herself in a cemetery. She looked around, and found that she was alone. Left with no other option, she bundled her robe closer to her and she stepped towards the rows of gravestones. She didn’t know what she was doing, or where she was walking, but she slowly felt herself compelled in a single direction, until she knew she was where she needed to go.

There, in front of her, was her tombstone. “Elizabeth Hartley, devoted mother. Born, April 10th, 1986. Died, August 25th, 2017.”

She felt all the blood drain from her body, and she collapsed on the cold, wet grass beneath her. His hand went to her shoulder, and she looked up at him. “What does this mean? Why are you showing this to me?”

“It was an accident with the bus. A rain storm came in, fierce and roaring. The roads went from safe to flooded in a matter of moments. Someone ran in front of the bus, it swerved to miss them, and the roads made a safe stop impossible. Your bus tips over and several cars run into it, as it lay on its side.” As he spoke, she knew that he told the truth. She could smell the rain and the gasoline. She could smell the fire that would erupt from the accident, little more than a year from now.

“Your children will go to foster homes. Without any living relatives, the state is left with no other choice. Franklin’s foster parents will beat him, starve him and collect the benefits from his negligence until he runs away. His only option is to join a gang and begin selling drugs. Stephanie’s foster parents are good people, but all the goodness in the world will not save them from the gas leak that will take them all in their sleep.” He looked down at her beseeching face, “I will not tell you what happens to Gus.”

She shook her head, “Tell me. I need to know.”

“He never recovers from the loss of you. Without a strong, guiding hand, he wanders from foster home to foster home. Eventually, being unable to be placed, he settles into a group home. He goes into its bathroom one night, unaware of the other boys who have been watching him and-”

She cut him off. “Enough.” She stood back up and faced him, and it was only then that she saw what he once was. A beautiful, merciful and joyful being. A creature that gloried in creation, and sang with his master. “Will you stop with this and just tell me what you want from me?”

“I can save you from this fate. I can save your children from this fate. It is within my power to do so; all you have to do is trust me.”

“How? How can I trust you? I know who you are! How can I even trust that what you tell me is the truth?” He was left silent at this, knowing that there was no way that he could bring her to trust him. “Why do you care?”

They were back in her bedroom, and he was once again sitting. “Millions of prayers are given to God every day. From the poor, the wretched and the forgotten. These are the people that Christ was supposed to represent. He spoke of them more than any other group, after all. They look to the skies and they beg for help. They live chaste, good lives, thanklessly working their way into pauper’s graves. They receive no reward and no kindness for the struggle that they enter into by no fault of their own.” He paused. “His is a religion of the conquerors. His is a religion of those with full stomachs and sated desires.”

She bowed her head as she reflected on his words, thinking of them carefully, and what they portend. “You want me to worship you?”

He laughed. Once again, she was reminded of who he used to be, timeless eons ago. His laughter was the richest music that she had ever heard, and she knew that she would long to hear it again for the rest of her days. “What would I ever want with worshipers, daughter? I left heaven and service because compelled worship is no life at all. Why would I want that for you?” He shook his head, but smiled warmly to her.

“I recognize that this is no small thing for you, and I realize that my word has very little value for you. But, I will offer you this: in five years, I will visit you again. If you wish to go back on our deal, then you will be able to do so. And in five years after that, and five years after that. All I ask is that, when the time comes, you accompany me to my home.” He held his hand up before she started to speak, “I know that this is no reward for you. But I also know that you will not be willing to let your children meet their ignominious end if you can help it. If you agree to my terms, you will receive a job offer tomorrow. This will be for three times what you’re making right now, and will allow you to eventually save up for a home and a car, then college for your children.”

She nodded and chewed on her bottom lip. She thought and thought, and was eventually aware that much time had passed since they had started this conversation. How long had they been sitting there? She looked at the bedside clock, and saw that no time had passed at all, which didn’t surprise her.

She bowed her head, looking down at her hands, “And after the last visit?”

“You know what will happen after my last visit. But you will have a balm that will protect you, which does not protect many of my other fellow denizens. You will know that you are with us for a good reason, and you will know that your children will lead happy, healthy and full lives. That is more than an uncountable number of other souls.”

And so, she put her rosary aside. With a heavy heart, she reached out to shake his hand. “It’s a deal.”

As soon as they shook hands, the light was gone and she was left alone, once again.

She set back to going to sleep, and for once, found herself looking forward to the following day.

Perdido Street Station

mieville03_b

 

To start out with, I’m going to be discussing end-plot details, so if you haven’t yet read Perdido Street Station, I recommend that you do so before reading further.

I’m not traditionally a sci-fi reader, outside of my comics which are, by and large, sci fi in a lot of way. However, the thing that has always appealed to me about the genre, and this applies to comics as well, is the way that the non-human and the utterly alien can become just as much human as we are, if not more. This is where Perdido Street Stations shines the most. Beyond Mieville’s prose, and ignoring sections of the book that could be completely excised without losing anything, I’m left with the feeling of reality that the characters are invested with. You’re left identifying with these creatures and these beings who have no external similarity to you, and that is its greatest strength.

The story itself is a look at the way that we handle crises and consequences to our actions in both the macro, and the micro. How do we face up to our responsibilities and the penalties that we incur for our actions? Here, we’re given two characters: Isaac and Yagharek. Isaac is a scientist that specializes in the abstract and the theoretical, tinkering away in his shop when Yagharek, a bird man from a far away nation enters. Yagharek’s people are nomads, and desert dwellers who rely chiefly on their wings for every facet of their lives. Yagharek, however, has had his removed for crimes that Isaac cannot understand, due to cultural differences. The Garuda are highly individualistic while also being a communal people. To that end, they see every member of the tribe to be a complete whole, and their choices to be the most important possession that they have. All crimes are, therefor, derived from the preciousness of choice. Yagharek describes his crime as, “Choice theft in the second degree.” It’s this cultural difference that keeps Isaac from really understanding what this stranger had done that was so grievous that his wings were cruelly cut away from himself.

Yagharek comes to Isaac for one purpose: to restore his wings, or at least give him the ability to fly again.

Isaac is invigorated by this request and sets to work immediately. He locks himself away in his shop and he studies every form of flight that he can with species from all around the world. One species catches his special attention, though: a caterpillar that seems to feed on dreams. When this caterpillar then weaves itself into a cocoon, the creature that hatches from it creates a crisis that the community hadn’t seen for years.

This is where the two characters stand: Isaac knows that he has a responsibility, and cannot let the creature that he’s brought into the world wreak havoc. He’s at fault and he has to do something about it. Yagharek has a responsibility too, he has to remain flightless for what he’s done. He knows that he has done something horrible, but he’s trying to skirt around his punishment anyway. Isaac, not knowing any better, doesn’t judge Yagharek for what he’s trying to do. The two are then bound together. Isaac cannot ignore his responsibilities and devote himself to the flight issue, and Yagharek cannot move on without his wings.

And so the plot goes. The beast is killed, but the heroes are unsung, made into public pariahs and are less in number than at the beginning. Knowing that it’s best for all of them to leave, they prepare to enter into self-exile. However, before they do, Isaac receives a visitor, who says that she knows Yagharek. A fellow garuda, she implores Isaac to leave Yagharek without his wings. Isaac demands to know what Yagharek did that deserved such a horrific punishment and here it finally comes to light: the noble warrior who never flinched in the face of certain death, who had risked everything for those that had become friends, is a rapist.

Isaac, knowing that he cannot continue with the work as he has, takes with him the two friends that he has left, and leaves without Yagharek. Responsibility. Personal crisis. How do we handle our consequences, no matter how dire they are? Do we take responsibility for our actions or do we push them aside and adopt a more protective identity, something that will shield your true self from the rest of the world? Who are we, when we’re alone, when there’s no one in the world to watch you? Do we live with integrity, or do we just talk big and shirk the duties that we owe to one another?

Why Comic Books?

Image

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m into comic books. I know, it’s so hard to suss out, especially when I’ve gone to pains to make sure that I’m as anonymous on this blog as I possibly can be.

Sarcasm aside, this is something that I think about a lot, and it’s something that I’ve even considered going into. I even have Dennis O’Neil’s (the guy who created Ra’s Al Ghul) and Alan Moore’s (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc. (the comics, not the movies)) guides on writing comics. I’ve written entire collegiate essays on comics and read several books on their history and the unique elements of comics. So, I guess you could say that this is sort of a ‘thing’ for me.

The question naturally arises why I read superhero comics since those are ‘supposed to be for children.’ The natural rejoinder to that is, ‘so?’ The question confuses me, since no one really seems to ask questions like that of people who devote their entire lives to other inconsequential hobbies and interests (I’m looking at you cars and professional sports). You ask a car enthusiast why they’re into what they’re into, and they’ll give you a list of reasons, none of which will really explain to anyone who isn’t into the hobby why they’re into it. At the end of the day, it’s just something that they enjoy.

But for me, it’s a little bit more than that, because I have an intellectual interest in superhero comics. Most of this goes back to mythology and the notion that the superhero is the American mythological figure. Sure, there are plenty of other cultures that have thought of purely fictional super powered characters in the past, but not in the way that superheroes exist right now. A good example are the characters that Alan Moore adapted into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, all of whom are invariably in the gray spectrum of morality. Even King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are morally ambiguous at times. But when we get into superheroes, even the most morally ambiguous hero is still in possession of a heart of gold (Batman may be clinically insane, but he stills leaps to the cause every single night, no matter what).

But that’s not why I’m into them. The reason that I love them is because of their imagination, and the vivid storytelling. The writers care little about being remembered for all time (for the most part) and are instead writing what they want to, because it’s what they want to. They don’t get all that much money and they get little fame. It’s as close to ‘art for art’s sake’ as you can get anymore. There’s one more element to superheroes that I just realized the other day, with the help of a friend of mine, while reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

I was always curious about what happened next when reading about old mythology when I was a kid. What happened after Herakles completed his tasks? What about Ulysses after he returned home? Did anyone remember Icarus after he fell from the sky? Why didn’t anyone else make wings out of wax and feathers? What happens next?! It only came to me while reading If on a winter’s night a traveler (which is sort of strange because I only recently picked up the book and I’ve been into superhero comics for most of my life) because the book is a series of beginnings without anything after it. The main character in the book (so far as there is a main character) wants to know what happens next in the books that he’s reading so badly that he’ll do anything to find out. That’s what superhero comics are for me, a collection of beginnings without any middles and certainly without any ends.

A lot of to do has been made of the impermanence of death in superhero comics, but even that keeps with the aesthetic, because these characters are understood both as characters and as concepts at the same time. As such, they can never die, but are only put off on the sidelines until a future date and a future writer decides to do something more with them. So what if Damian Wayne is dead now? In the future, he could be brought back to life and his story can continue. But for right now, he’s dead and there are other stories that are happening. This continues on and on, with old characters understood in new ways, becoming bigger and grander all in the search of an ‘ultimate’ understanding of these characters, an ‘ultimate’ understanding that no one will ever arrive at.

I think there’s something really American about that idea. We all have a potential to pick up, right where we are, and continue our story elsewhere, in a totally different and totally fresh way. The character remains the same, but the concept is just a little different. And that changing concept in a new setting makes all the difference.

Boston Marathon and Conspiracy Theories

Image

Last week, according to the evidence that’s available at hand, a pair of Chechen immigrants (who, once again, according to the available evidence, both emigrated to America legally) used several bombs to attack spectators and runners in the Boston Marathon. Three people are, as a direct result, dead and many more are injured. We have since captured one of the bombers while the other was killed in their attempted apprehension.

All’s well that ends well, right? Unfortunately, there are certain elements in our society that will seize on anything in order to either pursue an agenda or to make a few dollars off of the credulous. Alex Jones is precisely one such person.

Mere moments after the attacks, he was using his Twitter account to espouse theories on what was ‘really’ going on, when there was little to no information available. This is irresponsible at best and destructive at worst. I try my best to take people at their words and believe what they’re saying as being their genuine thoughts and values. When it comes to people like Alex Jones, I really can’t do any such thing. He’s made a very successful career out of sewing discord, enmity and distrust by making incredibly paranoid and totally invalid opinions readily available to people who are ready, willing and openly desirous of having those opinions fed to them.

As I’ve said in previous postings, I love conspiracy theories. The reason why I love them so much is because of the opportunity that they present to learn more about how the world works. Take, for instance, the 9/11 Attacks and the conspiracy theories that surround it (theories that I won’t dignify by referring to them as they want to be, with the word ‘Truth’ attached). These theories operate on people not understanding the entire attacks, or being too ready to seize upon an anti-government mindset rather than being willing to suspend an opinion until they’ve weighed up all of the facts. Since researching the conspiracy theories that surround 9/11 I have learned quite a bit more about engineering, psychology and physics than I had before. It’s actually an incredibly interesting line of inquiry, if you’re willing to have some of your pre-existing opinions challenged.

That really isn’t the case when it comes to the Boston attacks, where the conspiracy theories rely on people already having an overwhelming sense of suspicion about everything that surrounds them. These conspiracy theories rely on people being ready to leap to conclusions and then rejecting any sort of evidence after having arrived at that conclusion. This is because there is no direct evidence, or any other kind of evidence, that lends their theories any sort of credence. These theories are built around drills being conducted in the area as well the presence of trained professionals at the site. From these facts, we then make any number of assumptions to then arrive at a conclusion that isn’t supported by any facts. As a rule, when it comes to critical thinking, we have to outright reject any sort of theory that requires us to make any assumptions, not just assumptions that aren’t supported by any facts. This is what’s required as magical thinking, where a theory starts with evidence A, adds it to assumption B to arrive at conclusion C. For instance. I go out to a restaurant and order a hamburger. I didn’t see the hamburger made in the kitchen, but the hamburger is in front of me. I walked into the restaurant with a conclusion that food that’s served at the restaurant is beamed into the kitchen from a flying saucer that has avoided detection. So, I have my conclusion (C), and then I get my burger (A), which I make my assumption about (B). Once I’ve formed that line of reasoning, even if I’m showed the kitchen, there are any number of justifications that I can make that will continue to support my unsupportable theory.

Now, the rejoinder to my thinking will of course be, “What’s the harm?” This is often said whenever anyone tries to debunk or dispel any sort of subject whose harmful consequences are not readily apparent (opposition to inoculations, astrology and homeopathy being three good examples). This is usually because we give an air of credence to any party that seems to be in an underdog position, because we don’t see a ready reason for why people would run contrary to the ‘official story’ if they weren’t right, or if there wasn’t an aura of truth to what they’re saying. The problem could run from feeding into a conspiratorial mindset that could then lead to disastrous consequences to people being swindled out of money. But sometimes the harm could be as simple as someone suspending their rational judgment to believe something that has no empirical evidence to support it. Whenever we suspend our rational judgment, we run the risk of that suspension forming a pattern that could be hard to break out of. Once you’ve started down the path of assuming something that we have no reason to assume, it becomes easier to continue to do that until we only have a passing relationship with reality.

Generally speaking, a doss of healthy skepticism and an incredulous mindset towards ideas and concepts that have no support will never lead you astray. After all, the real world is already a fabulous place to live in, and anything that expects you to believe ridiculous things will detract from your ability to absorb the wonder and the mystery of that real world.

Accountability

Image

One of the key issues in genuine school reform is the question of accountability as it applies to both students and teachers. It isn’t enough that a student is said to have learned something, it’s that the student is capable of applying and demonstrating that knowledge. Likewise, it isn’t enough for a teacher to say that they have taught a student something, it has to be proved that the teacher taught the student. With this in mind, the larger question is how do we hold both subjects, the teacher and the student, accountable?

Standardized testing has been the norm, and will continue to be the norm, and it carries with it a fair amount of problems that I believe are, at best difficult to address and at worst, impossible to address. The largest problem as it applies to teachers and to administrators is making a test that is equitable, which is to say, a test that every student in the district is capable of passing in an ideal situation.

So, take the best possible teacher. The teacher is capable of doing their absolute best for every student that they take in. The problem comes in when you accept that every student, regardless of district, comes from a very complicated set of circumstances. There is not going to be a single student in any district that can go through grades k-12 without any difficulties or problems, and is going to be able to apply themselves one hundred percent of the time, which is basically what standardized testing demands of students. This is the main problem with tests as they apply from the top to the bottom: that they are, basically, a rolling pin that goes over every student in an attempt to flatten them all out into a uniform shape. This is not possible.

Along with this comes the concept of competition being built into the structure of schools. Some will say that this is a positive, but this is mainly because the concept of competition is taken, prima facie (at first sight), to be a positive in American society. The problem with this is that, in any competition no matter how it’s constructed, there are going to be winners and losers. Lets use baseball as an example. On one hand, we have the New York Yankees. The Yankees are, historically, the team that is most able to gather the money to get the best teams, the best trainers and the best field. On the other hand, we take a team like the Angels, a team that is going to be able to gather a fair amount of money that can then be used to get a fairly good team, with fairly good trainers and a fairly good field. There’s going to be pretty good competition between the two teams, but the Yankees will have the advantage over the Angels more often than not and the Angels are going to lose more to the Yankees because of this advantage more often than not. And this is fine when it comes to baseball, because, despite how seriously some fans take the game, at the end of the day, it’s still just a game. When we start talking about education, we’re no longer talking about something frivolous. We’re talking about a situation that is deadly serious.

Using the baseball metaphor, we have school districts that are wealthy and school districts that are poor. The wealthy school districts, because of No Child Left Behind, are only going to continue to get as much funding as they possibly can, while the poor districts are going to continue to lose funding. Because of this, the wealthy school districts are going to be able to get better teachers, better facilities and are going to have a greater advantage over the poor districts that are not going to be able to get the best teachers or facilities. And, because of NCLB, the test scores are going to mean that, with every testing period, the wealthy districts will receive more funding and the poor districts will receive less.

So, the question then becomes, what are we to do? Unfortunately, individual citizens don’t really have that much power anymore (as was demonstrated this week with the failure of the gun control bill with a background check that enjoys more support among the citizenry than nearly any other factor of daily life). But, in an ideal world, the solution is fairly simple and fairly clean cut.

One of the ideas that’s sweeping across the country is electronic portfolios. Students upload their school work onto this portfolio, take tests and do other required school work on these portfolios that are then kept throughout their career in school. Now, as I’ve said in the past, greater reliance on technology is highly problematic when it comes to public education. However, when applied in the way that I’m suggesting, with in-class exams, school work and essays, this approach can be applied in an equitable way that can be used by nearly any student in nearly any school in nearly any district. This is not a perfect solution, but no solution is.

Portfolios have the advantage over standardized tests because it approaches every student as individual human beings, as opposed to merely numbers that are then entered into a system. These individuals are then measured in the way that individuals are usually measured: they get better over time, or they get worse over time, and there are attendant reasons that go along with that improvement or failure. Their improvement or failure doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere, but can be measured against other data as it appears in the system. This data is then made available to administration, teachers and other such figures in the district. And, because nearly every assignment is then entered into the system, the students are made accountable for their school work, and the teachers can follow-up as required with school work and other such assignments until those assignments are completed.

Not only is this a much more equitable way to approach school work, but it’s also a much less time consuming and much more affordable approach as well. Teachers will be able to devote more time to instruction and have more freedom over curriculum. In general, it’s a situation in which nearly all individuals in question win. It’s the solution that, at least to me, stands the best chance at actually turning out the desired end: every student having an equal chance at success.