Sunday, August 28, 2011


The bomb went off just down and opposite the road where he momentarily stood, facing outward, rifle clutched half-heartedly, waiting for the enemy he knew would never come running over the ridge. Shrapnel struck liberally over the left side of his body. Whoever made the bomb must have been proud of the spread and devastation. He had dropped instantly, and the searing pain in his limbs and face kept him from standing back up. His hands, now free of his weapon, clawed outward reaching for a respite. Nothing went through his mind, not of the proper order of first aid, nor the three types of bleeding: venous, capillary, and arterial, nor the fact that he had all three. The hours spent in classes meant nothing to him, had no way of grounding him to this universe as the blood trickling over his clenched eyelids filtered the already diffuse yellow light into a pallid crimson darkness.

He was vaguely aware of pounding feet, jostling, rending of fabric, metallic taste, and a deep pinprick. Then he slept.

Weeks after returning to America, and days after walking without the use of crutches, he was allowed a temporary return to civilian life. His parents rolled a bag full of trinkets he had collected from the generals and important people who visited the hospital. In his pocket he kept the purple medal they had pinned on him while he lay in bed, opiates coursing though his veins. Another paper bag held two rattling yellow bottles—two pills every four hours; one in times of extreme pain. Tucked deep away were rolls of gauze, white tape, moist pads for direct placement on open wounds. The head nurse made him and his parents promise to change his last four bandages at least once a day, twice if the discharge was heavy enough. He had seen so many nurses and orderlies working over him, cleaning up his once uncontrollable defecation in the confusing days after the explosion, then later with deft hands snipping at black threads criss-crossing his skin, that he jokingly said he could be a registered nurse. In reality he never wanted to see the underside of human skin ever again.

The two weeks elapsed, much of it spent in front of the television, watching without thinking until visions of his war flashed before his eyes forcing him to mash the off button. One night he went to dinner and a movie with a few of his high school friends. They were happy to see him again and hugged him lightly, minding the noticeable bandages. They asked questions like How was it over there? They treating you all right? without ever asking the one they all wondered: Why did you go over there? Once the important parts of his story were told, all of the easily digestible and non-gory anecdotes exhausted, the conversation turned towards former classmates and their goings-on. He laughed when required, nodded to the beat of the conversation, stared into nothing during the silences, and fulfilled his social duty without ever exposing the turmoil underlying his conscious thought. During the movie, protected by darkness and singular field of vision, a few tears leaked out before he silenced them with a white pill flushed down with soda.

Every morning and night he surveyed the newly painted canvas of his body, the pits, furrows, splotches, which, only a few months ago, stood out in his mind’s eye as signs of bravery and virility. Now he was hesitant to extend his left arm and leg as the taut skin disturbed sensitive nerves, sending out alien shocks the like of which healthy bodies never experience. With quivering hands he sought out his face’s newly defining features: two perfectly rectangular bandages, one running from cheekbone to nose, the other from mid-jaw to chin, under which lay the oozing horror of his existence. He knew one day they would heal and he could no longer cover them from inquisitive eyes. From now until death, eyes will be drawn away from his blue eyes to two thick jagged lines running parallel across his face. No amount of plastic surgery, sunglasses, or baseball caps will ever truly erase the result of a brief moment of time—milliseconds—the culmination of a series of ill-thought decisions by himself and others.

At the end of the two weeks his parents left him to limp slowly towards the airplane that would spirit him back to the hospital and military life. He still had some recovery ahead, a few cosmetic procedures to endure, but one day he would be discharged and would have to make real decisions about his life. He contemplated his future and the role he would assume. Would he retain the warrior spirit which had already etched its signature upon his surface, or would he reject it and grasp outward into a world and philosophy hereto foreign to him, of which he could never interact without the scars of body and spirit forcefully altering the way he is perceived?

Pulling Teeth

Some names changed to protect the accused.

The best thing that can happen to you in boot camp besides being put on double rations, is to be sent to the dentist for a tooth pull. Yes, this sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me. Recruits go to the doctor all the time but mostly for minor complaints, like a nasty cough. If they are lucky the doctor will pity them and give them light duty, while the drill instructors wait patiently to thrash them once again. The dentist is usually for recruits with wisdom teeth poking out which need to be pulled for “combat readiness.” It's not your choice to go, meaning the drill instructors can't call you a malingerer or secretly thrash you later. I spent most waking moments of boot camp hoping to be sent to this magical land. Lo and behold, during roll call one night a few weeks before graduation, I heard the sweet words: “White: OS.”

OS? What is OS? Could it be Oral Surgery? Yes! Yes it could! The drudgery of waking up, being thrashed, yelled at, run around, booted, beaten and blistered would halt for at least half a day, perhaps even—I mustn’t get my hopes up—longer.

The next morning I was lined up and sent out with ten other lucky recruits. Never in my life would I willingly march to the dentist and actually put a spring in my step. I had to slow my pace, in case it was all in error and they sent me back full-mouthed. It was not. The technicians kindly sat me down and explained that my right lower wisdom tooth was impacted and had to be pulled out. I feigned sadness and leisurely lay back in the chair and let them go to work. The worst parts were the shots in the mouth—only a few deep needles—but I would much rather have pricks in my gums than screaming in my face.

The dentists began their work, slicing and sawing and pulling, but all I felt was the jerking of my head. One nurse gasped and said “That doesn’t look good,” but I suspect that was to try and break my cool complexion which I expertly held during the entire procedure.

Afterwards my mouth was jammed with gauze and I could not shout, or speak above a whisper. I was given a prescription (for what I did not know) and sent away. A normal recruit had to lead me back because if an overzealous drill instructor were to confuse my silence for copping an attitude someone could become upset and throw a tantrum. Having returned to my squad bay I gave my prescription to a drill instructor and went on bed rest, donning a shirt and shorts and only moving from the bed for food or the toilet. I was legally obligated to do nothing but “get better.”

The drill instructor returned from the pharmacy with a bag for me containing two rattling bottles. One bottle was Motrin, a paltry pill no better than aspirin found at any drug stone on the outside. The other though, was Vicodin, a sweet opiate which would definitely take away my ache. Granted, the dose was low, but recruits clamber for anything that will either excite or dull their senses. Our mouthwash was nonalcoholic for this very reason (why we had mouthwash when we never saw women is another story).

I am not much of a pill-popper so I mostly stuck to the Motrin, tasting the Vicodin only rarely. After a day observing my platoon go about their business from the great height of my bunk bed, I went on light duty for two days. Sadly, I had to put on my uniform instead of comfortable shorts, swapping tennis shoes for the requisite boots. But I didn't have to march or run or handle my dumb rifle. It was boot camp lite.

All of my pills were stored in my backpack, a big no-no because there was no lock separating them from other hungry recruits. One day I opened my backpack and found the Vicodin bottle was empty! No matter, I still had Motrin and I had avoided the dreaded dry-socket everyone is warned about with wisdom teeth extraction.

A few days later I was put back on full duty. I secretly hoped for them to call me back, slapping themselves for forgetting a compacted tooth. No such call came. I savored my few days of quasi-freedom as perhaps the high (or low) point of boot camp and moved on.

We had just completed marching on the “grinder” (a large slab of flat pavement meant for ceremonies) when an unfamiliar drill instructor walked up and talked to our Staff Sergeant Stahl, a burly Asian with a decided command of psychological torture. They talked quietly and the unfamiliar one took out a piece of paper and showed it to Stahl. He read it and immediately started to freak out.

“Beeman! Beeman! Get the fuck over here!” Beeman came running out of formation and stood at attention in front of Stahl. His face looked as if he knew what was coming next. The unfamiliar drill instructor grinned with recognition.

“Did you write this letter, Beeman?”

“Yes, sir,” Beeman said, his voice quivering.

“Did you write this part right here?”

“Yes, sir,” his voice quivering even more.

“Beeman here got caught writing a letter in dental today,” Stahl announced to the platoon. Writing a letter anywhere other than in your bed at night or on Sunday mornings was not allowed, especially in dental. Any time a recruit is caught the letter is snatched up and read by the drill instructor on the spot. No one ever bothered questioning the legality of such a thing.

“This is what Beeman wrote: 'I took the Vicodins I bought the day before and woke up in the morning all groggy and chink-eyed.'” emphasis Stahl’s. It was hard to decide what was the worst part: that he bought drugs or that he used a racial slur belonging to the drill instructor reading the letter. Many of the drill instructors in my company were minorities. Two of my drill instructors were black, one Latino, and Stahl was Korean. The days of racist slurs being thrown around were gone, and racism was not tolerated by recruit or instructor.

Every drill instructor in the area surrounded Beeman, the bills of their Smoky Bear hats blotting the sun, making his already beet-red face even darker.

“Who'd you buy the Vicodin from, Beeman? Who?!” Stahl screamed. Other unintelligible screams emanated from the circle of drill instructors.

Stahl was screaming in his face with an intensity much stronger than his normally subdued but strangely menacing style. Beeman started to shake and the entire platoon felt the tension build.

“W-w-w-” Beeman stuttered.

What? No! Not me! I didn't sell him anything! He stole it from me! I felt sick. This was a serious offense; I could be sent to jail, never graduate, be a felon for the rest of my life. My parents would be so disappointed. “Our son, the strong Marine, turns to selling drugs to miscreant recruits!”

“W-wiley, sir!” I sighed in relief. Wiley was a good guy, a chef-in-training back home. Our bunks were adjacent and he often tried to explain to me the science behind cooking, but I was unable to progress beyond the five basic sauces. Frankly though, I was glad it was him and not me. He wasn't present at the time, which was good for us because the tension slowly died down.

“Good...” That dreaded word was spoken whenever things were not good. Beeman was whisked away by another drill instructor, and we were all left wondering about his fate.

Wiley and Beeman seemed to have vanished; rumors flew around about their torture by the hands of other drill instructors.

The next day Beeman came into our squad bay in a run. His face was covered with sweat and dirt, so thick it seemed like he was covered with mud. His beet-red face still shone through, his eyes crying out in distress. I saw him only for a moment doing pushups, side-straddle hops (a fancy term for jumping jacks), and yelling before he ran off to another squad bay.

Some recruits said they knew what had happened. They said he was sent room-to-room to every minority drill instructor and was worked mercilessly. One popular story was spread about a particularly fiery drill instruct named Gunnery Sergeant Gonzales, someone I was blessed to not be acquainted with. He had the requisite frog voice (a by-product of near nonstop screaming), but there was something else, a demon in his throat. As Beeman was nearing his millionth pushup for the day, he let slip something in his delirium: “Oh God...” Gonzales perked up at this and bent over to Beeman's ear.

“There is no God,” whispered Gonzales, “only Satan…” Then Gonzales summoned the demon is his throat, and threw up at will right onto Beeman's back. We heard Gonzales had this unique ability and it jived with the demon motif. Anyone who was told this piece of hearsay stared into nothing and was thankful they had only heard this story.

Wiley and Beeman were gone, their things packed up and their beds empty. I saw Wiley later. He was dropped back a few weeks in training, and he declined to say anything else. Things couldn't have gone that badly. He stayed in boot camp and graduated, even after being caught for dealing drugs, which I thought would be a felony offense. During the affair I briefly considered telling my drill instructors that my Vicodin was stolen (by Wiley? Beeman? I don’t care to know) and I may have contributed to this whole mess, but then I returned to reality when I concluded it would only result in more screaming, at me in particular, and I just wasn’t willing to go through with that, especially coming off such a nice vacation.

An Investigation on the Events of July 17, 2006

We shall begin to investigate with sufficient scientific rigour the first few seconds of the events on July 17, 2006 (unknown time, presumed around noonday; location: A— Q—, I—). The perpetrator of the event (hereby known as “catalyst”), with a cargo of an unknown explosive element approached the checkpoint (hereby known as “event site”), and, after a brief scuffle, ignited his (examination of the flotsam and jetsam of the aftermath determined that the catalyst was male) cargo. Once initiated, the electrical signal traveled at near the speed of light (a specific speed cannot be determined due to the unknown material of the wires carrying the signal, perhaps copper, perhaps not) and reached the explosive material (at which time we shall call zero, the start of a new life for all).

The latent chemical energy of the explosives quickly ignited and converted to other forms of energy: sound (subtly spaced pressure waves), light (subtly spaced electromagnetic waves), kinetic, and others (unknown, string theorists must investigate). The photons (the frequency of which can be easily calculated assuming perfect black body radiation) generated from the rapid change of molecular composition were the first to emanate outward, striking the subjects, causing a negligible amount of radiation pressure (the unchecked photons stretched outward to the cosmos, mixing in with other photons and becoming indistinguishable with the light from Earth and the galaxy, stretching forever, a perfect record of the events of that day waiting for some alien intelligence to intercept and interpret) (also engaging their visual senses). Then the pressure waves arrived, applying the most amount of force, causing the subjects to visibly and extravagantly move from their original locations. The pressure wave also entered the ear canals and easily burst the eardrums, also tearing away the malleus (Latin: hammer) bone in some circumstances (other hearing apparati also disrupted in some way, including the Organ of Corti). In some cases this pressure wave was sufficient to rend large amounts of tissue, most notably in the case of the catalyst (having rended his body almost unrecognizable, also having stripped all pieces of outer garments off his body).

The head of the catalyst was cleanly severed from the torso and sent upwards with some initial velocity, with a substantial amount of longitudinal (lateral negligible) rotational velocity supplied by a one-time application of torque. The head (ellipsoidal in shape) lifted and spun, the angular momentum subtly lessening due to the change of mass as the blood (only moments ago sending nutrients such as oxygen etc to the brain allowing the mind [we shall not discuss the philosophical implications of such] to set in motion this series of events) exiting from the bottom of the head, and also due to the frictive properties of close proximities of matter-to-matter. The blood created a thin liquid stream in the air and when combined with rotation formed a near perfect spira mirabilis slowly growing in size and disintegrating, never existing for a perfect moment in time (being flattened on top [pull of gravity] and elongated on the bottom [same]).

Small bits of metal (nails, screws, other neutral constructive material), having been glued to the explosive material, shot outward, and, being forced to find some path of least resistance, flew with sharp point in the direction of travel (parallel to terra firma) until colliding with an object. Some of the bits striking walls and causing negligible damage (monetary value unknown [requires economic input]). Other bits striking human bodies and boring into them, piercing first cloth, then layer upon layer of skin until bursting into muscle tissue, blood vessels, nerves, lymph nodes, etc; the minute electromagnetic forces inherent in all things spawning friction, slowing the velocity until finally causing them to come to an uneasy and unwanted (unwarranted) rest inside the bodies (one of whom is the author).

Body pieces, having been flung upwards (other pieces we shall not discuss propelled downwards), followed a perfect (we shall not discuss quantum fluctuations) parabolic arc, slowly converting kinetic energy to potential until finally for a brief moment in time (infinitesimal) the vertical component (z in Cartesian coördinates [3D]) of the velocity vector equaled zero and the potential energy reasserted itself and caused the velocity downwards to increase linearly. The digestive tracts came down: plop. Appendages: plop. Unidentified bits of matter: plop. Finally, all forms of energy stabilized with the surrounding environment and for only a moment everything was calm, serene; each participant unwilling (or unable [due to absence of life-being or general unconsciousness]) (having never consented [perhaps incorrect as all parties chose a lifeline leading to time zero] to participate) to accept their role in the situation.

On the Banks of the Euphrates

Our patrol was supposed to be a normal one: circle around north of the city and return back, looking out for any suspicious individuals. In June, the heat of Iraq is oppressive. Everyone tried to wear the least amount of clothes possible and tried to open up avenues for a breeze to squeeze between our clothes and cool our overheated bodies. Our bulky flak jackets and helmets did not help much.

I was stationed in the rear of the patrol after screwing up too many times at the front on other patrols. My job was to periodically turn around and make sure nothing weird was happening behind us. I had already perfected the art of walking backwards without stumbling, no easy task when laden with sixty plus extra pounds.

Nothing particularly interesting happened until we reached the apex of our circular loop. A few stray dogs were wandering around and were causing trouble, threatening to bite me and others if we didn’t keep our eyes on them for too long. One dog was especially daring and slowly inched his way towards me every time I turned to face the rest of the patrol. I grew tired of the dog and tried to shoo it away by throwing rocks at him, but he never left.

Iraq had a serious dog problem. The local culture despised dogs, thinking them unclean, and thus they did not have them as pets. Perhaps they had an animal control system in place before the start of the war, but now there was none to speak of. Wild packs of dogs would roam the streets at night, barking and howling, ripping apart piles of trash haphazardly thrown in the street. There would always be a pack lounging around our base’s burn pit, hoping to catch a scrap before the whole mess went up in flames. These dogs were especially wretched; many were crippled and old, too feeble to move or attack. Some would growl at us as we threw out our refuse, but their bark was equal to their bite: nonexistent.

The sergeant leading the patrol came back and asked why I was holding up the patrol. It didn’t take him long to see the feral dog snarling only a few paces away. I asked if I could shoot the dog and put him out of his misery. The sergeant said no. Any weapon discharge could be seen as an act of aggression and start a real firefight between us and anyone ennobled by the shot. I didn’t really want to shoot the dog. My western sensibilities still had a hold on me and all I really wanted to do was scratch the poor thing’s belly.

The sergeant and I assaulted the dog with any rock we could find. He eventually took the hint and hobbled off, finally leaving me in peace. We continued on until someone near the front halted us again. I took my regular position: crouched on one knee angled slightly to the rear, so that I could observe what was happening up front and behind. I stayed in that position for a long time. The Marines in the front of the patrol were doing something, but I didn’t know what. Then it trickled back: the point-man had found an IED.

Improvised Explosive Device, a pedantic name for the most lethal thing a lone patrol could encounter on the streets of Iraq. This wasn’t my first time I had been on a patrol when we discovered something like this. Up to this point, they had all turned out to be a box of wires or some other misplaced tool. This one seemed legit, though. The suspected IED looked like someone took a mortar round and cut off the top half of the dome, leaving the guiding fins in place, then welded a piece of metal where the half-dome had been. If anyone wanted to design a decent IED, this was it.

There were no wires leading to it or antennas sticking out. We felt fairly confident that it would not go off unexpectedly. The question was: what to do with it? We certainly couldn’t put it back where we found it, and we didn’t want to take it back to base. We called the explosive experts and they told us they were too busy to deal with such a small thing. If we really wanted them to come it would take a couple of hours. We had already stayed in the same spot too long and didn’t want to wait any more. Our navigator suggested we hike out to the Euphrates River and throw it in. The sergeant agreed.

I didn’t have a map and didn’t know how far it was to the river. I assumed it was only a few minutes away. We turned down a dirt road leading between a fenced grove of trees and a lush green open field, a very rare sight in Iraq. I checked my water and saw I was running a little low. The sweat on my forehead continued to rain down unabated.

The natural pace of a patrol is very slow. Our job was to show the residents of the city that we were here and had guns, but not present ourselves as easy targets for snipers or anyone else. I was fired as pointman because I didn’t know how to walk slow. No one wants to stay out late on a patrol, especially when there is a nice flea-ridden cot to get back to. When I saw the open road ahead of me, my legs took control and I sped ahead too quickly for my sergeant to handle. I was sent to the back where all I had to do was keep a good distance between myself and the Marine in front of me. This natural slow pace is aggravating to someone with low water and no idea why a lengthy detour is taken.

No one tells the guy in the back what is happening. His is an easy job compared to those who have to make decisions. I didn’t know someone held in his hand a possible explosive device, or that the river was our goal. Most of this information I learned second-hand. All I knew was that when I turned around, no one was there holding a gun to my face, and that is how I liked it. We came up on the river, surprising some local fishermen in their boats. The sergeant took the IED and threw it directly in to the current, sinking it forever. Some of the Iraq army soldiers we were training in our patrol wanted to take a break and buy some fish. I wanted to take off all of my clothes and jump into the river. No one got what they wanted.

As we laboriously hiked back to our regular route I wondered about what we had thrown into the river. Suppose it was an explosive device. The water would slowly erode the casing, exposing the chemicals inside. With time they would dissolve into the water and float downstream. I had patrolled by the Euphrates many times and was constantly struck by the magnificent beauty of the natural oasis on its shores. Farmers grew crops using sophisticated irrigation techniques and modern equipment. Ranchers relied on the water to raise their cows and goats. For thousands of years, perhaps longer, this ancient river sustained generations of people. Now here we were throwing explosives into it.

This was in 2006, three years into the war and an infinity before it ended. How many explosives were thrown into the river, either by troops on the ground, the bombers in the air, or the newly established insurgency? It is hard to tell. The effect of all this pollution wouldn’t be noticed right away, maybe no one would connect the dots. That explosive material will find its way to the shore and into the crops. A thirsty donkey will gulp it down regardless of the strange metallic taste. Decades down the road, a young man like myself will jump in the cool river to escape the heat and a little bit of it will be absorbed into his skin. The casualties of this war are destined to increase through the ages.

We finally made it back to our regular route. By this time I was completely out of water and felt a little dizzy. The symptoms of heat exhaustion had been drilled into my brain and were now emerging from my dark conscious to flood my thoughts. Heavy sweating—this was less of a symptom than a daily fact of life—tiredness, cramps, a tingling feeling in the extremities. Was I feeling these or just imagining them? I looked at my fellow Marines to see if they felt the same way. Everyone had the same sweat-soaked grim face.

We patrolled a little more until other Marines spoke up; they were out of water, too. On average we carried one hundred ounces of water, slightly less than a gallon per person. I drank every last drop within an hour and still felt thirsty. One of the Iraqi soldiers suggested we knock on doors of the houses near us and demand they give us water. We didn’t have many options. We were still an hour out of base and no one was coming to pick us up. The first house we visited had a family inside. The Iraqi soldier spoke in a very quick and demanding Arabic and soon someone came with a cool two-liter bottle of water. Some houses were lucky enough to have a refrigerator, and sometimes the neighborhood was lucky enough to have electricity. We gathered the family together near the entrance of the house so none of them could try anything funny. The sergeant singled me out as the most exhausted of us all and told me to go inside and drink. Once in the house I reflexively sat down and took off my helmet to let my head cool. The family stared at me with wide eyes.

The sergeant yelled at me to get up and put my helmet back on. We weren’t supposed to show weakness in front of the townsfolk. Trying to stay cool is a weakness. Outside, the bottle of water was passed around and was soon gone. We gave the empty bottle back and patrolled on. With one less bottle of water, would the family be forced to drink from the Euphrates, or was what we just drank from there in the first place? The water helped a bit, enough that everyone was able to make it back to base without collapsing on the roadside.

After the debriefing I took off all of my gear and sat down with just shorts on. My buddy handed me a sealed bottle of water from a crate. We had a whole crate filled to the brim with bottles of water shipped from who-knows-where, and near it a pyramid of boxes holding weeks’ worth of food. Despite being in the shade the water was still around 90 degrees, but the temperature did little to dissuade me; I drank it quickly and mechanically. I didn’t think of how clean it was. I didn’t think of the pile of good food we had. I didn’t think back to my home and how it wasn’t in the middle of a war zone. I didn’t think about how safe I was going to be once I made it back, about the long life I am going to live. Instead I drank ignorantly as the sweat flowed down my chest like a mighty ancient river, collecting all of the dust and salt and whisking it away forever.

Shy Hostel Guy - w4m - 24

“Mind if I sit down?” He looked up to see a woman around his age, medium height, brown hair and blue eyes.

“Sure,” he said, and returned back to his laptop. She produced a book from her bag and flipped open to a dog-eared page.

A soft blue glow illuminated the man's stern face as he flicked his finger over the touch-pad in search of something. There was something he had to do online but couldn't quite remember it. Instead, he refreshed his profile page, then his bank page, then an entertainment news page. They all returned exactly what they displayed before. His bank page had columns of numbers, some black, most red, but he only cared about one in particular. Four figures, followed by a period, then two uninteresting figures: this was his life worth, the grand totality of his earnings. It was modest, somewhere on the lesser side of the order of magnitude, but he was destined to see it grow. Thus, every couple minutes or so, he refreshed the page to see if the numbers had increased yet. Since waking it had only gone down once, a few dollars after his morning coffee. He was delighted to see it change so quickly after purchasing. He was tempted to buy a croissant or something to go with the coffee solely for the reason of seeing it update so quickly.

“It is quiet in here, do you think so?” the woman sitting diagonal to him said. He was aroused by a slight familiar accent.

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”

“Is it always so quiet in hostels?” she said, setting her book down.


“I said, is it always so quiet in American hostels?”

“Oh. Maybe. Dunno.” He looked down and did another round of refreshing.

“You are American, then?” she asked.

It took him a beat to look up and respond. “Yeah.”

She chuckled. “I suppose it isn't hard to tell. I am German.”

He showed his first sign of interest. “No way, I took three years of German in high school.”

“Also! Sprechen Sie Deutch?”

“Ein bisschen.” he said, mispronouncing the ch.

A silence. He returned to his laptop, focusing now on his profile page. Mindlessly he scrolled through a list of his friend’s updates, looking to catch anyone he cared about doing something more fun than he was. Days ago he posted that over the weekend he was going to “travel a bit”, but kept the location and duration a secret in order to drum up some intrigue. A few people—none of consequence—expressed their jealousy and asked where and he declined to answer. He reached the end of the list without reading a single update, then refreshed the page again.

“Do you think,” she asked out of the silence, “that people don't talk to each other because they are afraid to be judged?”

The question went past him, but he didn't want to fuel the conversation by asking for her to repeat. Instead he only hummed an introspective response.

“Hostels are places to meet new people and experience new things. But everyone is in front of their laptops.”

“Maybe they just want some alone time,” he said, hoping she would take the hint.

“Then why go to a hostel? Why not just a regular hotel?”

“It's cheaper here, maybe.”

“May I ask where you are from?”

“The city up north.”

“And why are you here?”

“I guess I just want a profound travel experience.”

“But you are on your laptop, no offense.”

“Yeah, I got some things to do on it.” He couldn't remember what, though. Another round of refreshing, another glance at the bank account. Perhaps he thought someone would deposit a check that he wasn't expecting. After graduating high school, his father deposited a sizable sum into this very account. As far as he knew he still had the account and routing numbers, so it was entirely possible his father could deposit more at any time.

He remembered what his father had said: “This is your graduation present. You can do whatever you want with it. Go to town, I don't care. Just do me a favor and invest a little of it, okay?” It was his intention to invest some of it, but before that he contacted his friends and said dinner was on him that night. It wasn't just that night, but the night after, and the night after that. Many nights dinner was on him, and lunches, and movies, and other things as long as they weren't too much. This new-found popularity appealed to him and over the summer before college he chased it as long as the five digit sum would allow. As his friends slowly drifted away to other schools and he saw the number slowly decreasing, his father's advice to invest resounded in his ears. Only after the number had dipped below the half-way mark did he make any effort. That day he opened an investing account on a reputable website and felt that adequate. As yet, no money has changed places.

Now, he stared at the number and imagined it magically increasing, first back up to the five digit amount, then up to six, seven, eight, and deep in his imagination, nine or even ten digits. And with this money he would do things, build stuff, invest, and... buy things, and... just do whatever he wants with the money he earned working hard on things. And no one would take it away from him with taxes. Somehow he would not pay taxes.

“Online, people can make their own life,” she said, “show only what they want to show. But in real life, they can't control what is shown. That is why I think people don't like to talk to other people, because they're afraid of being judged.”

Another beat to look up. “I don't do that,” he said.

“You don't choose exactly what pictures to display?”

“No. I don't care what other people think.” He refreshed his profile. The blue banner came up empty.

“I don't want to sound old, but it seems like with the internet people are more cynical.”

“Isn't that, like, to live like a dog?”

“When Diogenes lived it, now it just means distrustful of others.”

“People can sometimes be assholes.”

“But you can’t know until you talk to them.” Again, silence, but not enough to let him return to work.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Darren.” he replied.

“Yelka. Yel like in screaming. Ka like polka from Germany.”

“Nice to meet you.” He extended his hand and shook hers half-heartedly. Only then did he notice her close-cropped ear-length hair and single dimple on the same side as her hair was combed.

“You speak really good English,” he said, “probably better than me.”

“In Deutchland we learn at a young age. Plus I love America, especially the National Parks. Have you been to them?”

“When I was a kid my family drove to Yellowstone, but I can't remember anything.”

“Are you in university?” she asked.

“Only my second semester. Got a long way to go.” His eyes flitted back to the warm blue glow.

“What do you want to do?”

“Business I guess.”

“What kind of business?”

“I don't know, managing. Business management.”

“Managing a toilet paper factory?”


“A smart businessman can make money anywhere. Why not a toilet paper factory?”

He had no answer aside from: I wouldn't make enough money there. That is too degrading. He didn't want to say that.

Their once promising conversation fizzled out, and he took this opportunity to refresh his pages. There was something he had to do before he logged off, but it kept slipping his mind. He was sure that if he kept browsing it would come eventually. He looked at his number and visibly perked up. It had increased slightly since last check. The transactions showed only one number in the black: Account Interest: $1.24. This only happened every six months and it must have happened just then. What did that make his interest rate? He tried to divide the interest by the principle but the math was too hard. Still, the number had gone up and he memorized the new one.

The girl—Yelka, he remembered—stood up and made a cup of tea. He considered packing up and leaving before she came back, but something held him there. For the first time that day he looked around the common room of the hostel. Sitting around the room, mostly alone at a table, were young and old people from across the globe, but he didn’t know that. If he polled the people he would have found out that the only continent unrepresented was South America. To him though, they all had the same look he had seen in seemingly every face he had ever met: gloom-neutral, downturn, introspective without cause. There was not one face that interested him, not one person he could imagine having a decent conversation. Why had Yelka talked to him? Was it because he was the only one in the room without this dejected face? Did she see the future promise in him?

Two women talked to each other in a corner, their conversation the only noise save a washing machine slowly churning away. Every word they said was clear throughout the room, so heavy was the silence. They realized this after a few wayward eyes caught theirs, and the conversation petered out until they retreated back to the laptops in from of them.

Yelka inspected a package of old crackers on a shelf marked “usufruct”. Most people—aside from the pedantic anglophile who put it there—read it as “u so fucked” and shied away. She returned to the table, steaming mug in hand.

“Listen, do you want to go to the museums downtown?” she asked.

He hadn’t been, and he had no reason to go. He had no plans to do anything in the city, aside from the thing on the internet that he just couldn’t remember. Without looking up, he said “Which ones?”

“The Art Museum. I heard the mining museum is good, too. Whatever ones you want.”

He took his smartphone out of his pocket and checked the battery: about two-thirds full. If things got bad and he was stuck in a boring situation, he could keep checking his sites as long as he had a clear signal or a decent WiFi source. “All right, whatever.”


As they walked the streets of downtown they talked about themselves, filling in any bits of information they thought was worthwhile. Yelka explained that she had recently graduated university with a degree in engineering physics and was taking half a year off before starting a PhD program. Darren said he was lucky to never have to take any math higher than college algebra. Yelka wanted to explain the importance of math in business and economics but held her tongue. As they waited at crosswalks for the light to turn green Darren would slyly turn away from Yelka and take out his phone and flick through it. She had no electronic devices and only looked up at the unremarkable buildings as she waited for him to return to the real world.

In the museums, the quiet nature of their ambiance suited Darren, but Yelka never hesitated to whisper into his ear. His worst sufferings came in the Impressionist section, in which Yelka was quite knowledgeable. Darren's only insight to art was to remark—to himself—that even though the Mona Lisa was Italian, it was kept in a French museum. He thought nothing of the blotchy and blurry pictures on the wall. Art would never help him in his life, until he became so wealthy to afford covering his walls with the most recent and expensive pieces, and this was only a way of impressing—had this something to do with what Yelka was saying?—other people.

Halfway into the mining museum and just before the hands-on gold panning exhibit, Darren decided he had had enough. Yelka reminded him that he paid twelve dollars for admission, but Darren decided the loss of money was worth the decrease in boredom. He stopped in the gift shop, Yelka not far behind, to look at mugs and reproduction old-time hats. When he couldn't find a keychain with his name on it, he left. The walk back to the hostel was silent. Yelka walked a few paces behind him and they never looked at each other.

When they arrived back at the hostel, Darren expected Yelka to peel off with a quick goodbye and that would be the end of the relationship. Instead, she followed him into the hallway and stopped him before a certain door.

“I’m sorry you didn’t like the museums. They weren’t that good anyway,” she said.

“Whatever. I’ve been to boringer ones,” he said.

“This is my room here. It’s private and you can come in if you want.”

“Like, private? No one else is in there?”

“Just you and me.”

He looked down and shook his head. “I don’t know, I kind of have things to do, and…”

“You can leave any time; you don’t have to stay the night. We can do whatever you want.”

“I don’t know,” Darren said, still shaking his head.

“Is it because a girl is inviting you in, not the other way around?” she asked sarcastically.

“No, it’s not that, just…”

“Is it because we are not drunk? Is that the American mating ritual?”

“What? Hey, don’t be pushy.” He looked up and scanned her features. Her limbal ring, perhaps more pronounced in her youth, was slowly fading into the blue of her eyes. She was nowhere near model status, and he could name at leave five girls back at school more attractive than her. Did she want him? Was she worth the time?

“Or you can go back to playing on your laptop,” she said, maintaining her acerbity.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Why? Because everyone was sitting there in the room, silent. I saw you and wanted to give you something to do.”

“So you dragged me to some boring museums? Thanks.”

“Were they any more boring than your computer?”

“You know what, I don’t know how they do things in Germany, but in America we don’t just make fun of people to their face.”

Yelka signed. “I'm sorry, I don't want to make fun of you; I just want to give you something to do other than sit in front of the computer. Did you see all of the people in the common room? Almost everyone was sitting in front of their laptops. Do you want to be like them?”

Darren's forehead crunched up in the middle, his eyes pleaded for an escape. “Look, I told you before, I have lots of things to do, and I can't waste time going to museums or hanging out with strange people!”

He cataloged all of the things he could be doing now: researching new investment opportunities, reading the stack of business books his father bought him, looking at all the art he would buy once he became rich. What was wrong with looking at his friend's profiles? Is it a crime to keep up on celebrity news? No, he concluded. A Man needs a break after hard work and this was his time, not the time of some random German girl who thought she was so much better than him.

“Okay,” Yelka said, “I had fun at the museums at least.”

“Yeah, well enjoy your time in America.” Darren said and immediately turned around and headed back to him room. He unlocked the cubby where he had stored his laptop earlier and climbed into bed with it. Closing the curtain on his bunk-bed, the blue light of the laptop screen flooded the only space he would ever command.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


There wasn’t much happening downtown. The financial sector hadn’t let out yet, and tourism season hadn’t begun. Only a few stray university students along with some residents milled about doing chores or trying to relax for a moment. On the roof of a department store a man dressed in black slipped a ski mask over his head and lifted a bullhorn. He stepped out over the edge of the store and peered down at the people walking around. No one looked up at him. He pulled a sack closer to him and raised the bullhorn to his mouth.

“Attention!” the bullhorn shouted. “Attention, people of Duluth!” A few people raised their heads as they plodded along but failed to find the source.

“I have in this sack a total of ten thousand dollars in ten dollar bills, and I am about to throw them into the street,” the man on the roof said, not dismayed by the lack of attention. A middle aged man dressed in jean shorts and sandals stopped on the sidewalk. He looked up at the figure on the roof and put his hands on his hips and cocked his head sideways. Just as he was about to yell up at the figure, some green pieces of paper fluttered about him.

He stooped down and picked one up, expecting to see a fake looking bill on one side and an advertisement on the other. Instead what he picked up had the unmistakable cloth feel of real money and the printing to match. He picked up another bill and saw it too was real. He glanced behind him quickly to see if anyone else was paying attention to this, then started grabbing at the money around him. He could feel more money landing on his back and saw it fall right in front of him. He couldn’t believe his luck as every bill he picked up was replaced with two more.

Across the street a woman saw the money falling and the middle aged man grabbing quickly at it. She cautiously walked across the street, never taking her eye off the money raining down. She caught a bill in her hand and looked at it intently. It must be a forgery, she thought. Still, she let out a squeal and snatched more bills out of the air as they rained down. Soon the attendants in the grocery store joined in and the small crowd attracted more attention. The middle aged man noticed fewer bills were finding their way down to him and was annoyed. He stood up quickly and his head collided with the jaw of the first woman.

Even with a bit tongue and chipped tooth she howled and punched the man in the back. Their personal altercation was soon drowned out by more and more people walking, then running to the sight of the flash mob. Above, the man dressed in black threw the last handful of money and stepped back from the edge. He turned the bag inside out and put the bullhorn inside and ran to the other edge of the building. Down below he took off his black clothing and covered the bullhorn in the bag, then walked off ignoring the shouting on the other side of the building.

A few hours later the police tallied the injuries: one heart attack, two broken bones, a stitched-up tongue, and multiple bruises. The event made the local evening news. The people who were lucky enough to grab some money and escape injury were happy, and word-of-mouth spread to their acquaintances, but didn’t go past the borders of Duluth. Some tried to search for a meaning behind the event or look for the person who did it, but nothing came up and soon the lingering exultation was all that remained.

Two days later, on a similar street at the same time, the same man climbed onto a building in Fort Worth, Texas, armed with the same bullhorn and carrying the same sack of money. The residents of Fort Worth—at least those on the street at that moment—had not heard of the events in Duluth and would never imagine such a thing happening to them. After the same short announcement the man began throwing ten dollar bills onto the street below.

This street was a little more crowded as it was the weekend as a craft beer event was going on a few blocks away. A few people had stopped to look up at the man just before he threw the money, and one woman, a mother of two and amateur seamstress, yelled “Oh my God!” in a high pitched voice once she felt the money. The scene was very similar to Duluth: distant spectators were skeptical and walked forward slowly, then ran as their hearts began to pound, hoping to snatch some free money. A patrolling police officer also ran towards the crowding thinking there was a fight. Once he saw the money, he also took a few bills and slipped them into his uniform.

After the money stopped, a shouting match started between two people—a young man and woman of no relation—who had grabbed two of the same bills. Neither were willing to let go of them. They screamed in each other’s faces and tugged on the bills as hard as they could but their unnaturally strong grip on the bills refused to release. The woman became fed up and kicked the man in the crotch. He doubled over in pain just as the policeman stepped between them and pushed over the woman, causing her to let go of the bills as she fell. The bills were grabbed as soon as they left her hands and the victors ran away immediately.

This event also made the local evening news, but no one was able to connect it with the event in Duluth, and it was quickly forgotten by everyone but the people involved.

It wasn’t until the third event two days later, this time in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that any national coverage of the events took place. An intrepid reporter saw the obvious link between them: spaced two days apart, always happening at two in the afternoon local time, and approximately the same amount of money was thrown out. Someone with a camera phone captured some grainy footage of the man on the roof, but no more evidence came out that would point to why these events were happening. The reporter was unable to offer any convincing theories.

True to form, the man climbed up another building two days later, this time in Newport, Kentucky. As he was going through his spiel, a young man—a nineteen year old McDonalds cook—remembered the news report the night before and instantly knew what was about to happen.

“This is it! This is the guy!” he yelled to no one in particular. Just then the money started to sprinkle down. With one hand grabbing randomly at the bills, he fished in his pocket for his cell phone. There his friends would believe he was actually there without some proof. Other people on the street had also seen the news report and ran to the falling money. Soon the crowd was so thick the young man wasn't able to film the event or grab any money; he was pressed on all sides by his rabid townsfolk. Still, he stared up in elation as the masked man’s hand receded and came back out laden with bills; and as they tumbled down slowly rotating in the wind, a tear came to his eye.

The fourth event cemented the media frenzy. Reporters struggled to interview one person who had caught a bill from each event. They became instant celebrities to their friends and families, who forced them to tell their tales over and over again. Most were breathless, happy that their fifteen minutes finally came. No one focused on the slew of injuries that resulted in each instance. One woman was less than excited when she saw that her medical bill for a broken rib was orders of magnitude more than the paltry amount she had caught.

After the fifth event (Rockford, Wisconsin), in nearly every mid-sized town in the lower forty-eight states, a crowd gathered near the town center every two days, congregating under what they hoped would be the roof that the mysterious philanthropist would choose. In the minutes before two o-clock, strangers would chat with each other, wondering who the person could be and why he was doing it. The general consensus was that it was all a stunt and the truth would be much more mundane than imagined. No one gave money away, absolutely no one, without wanting some in return. They admitted though, if a company was truly behind this, their stock would soar when the truth was inevitably revealed.

The sixth event went badly for the man in black. The crowd in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota was one like never before, in the town’s history nor in the last ten days, and they were there just for him. No one knew where he would end up, or even if he was in the town, so they milled formlessly on the main street. When he appeared on a rooftop, a collective scream let out loud enough that his bullhorn wasn’t able to pierce it. The crowd grew so thick that people on the edges knew they would never make it in before all of the bills were gone. Some abandoned the streets and ran around the buildings trying to cut him off once he was finished. They thought perhaps by capturing him they would receive a reward, or at least an interview on a popular morning show.

Once his bag was empty he turned around to climb off the building but noticed a few people running in the alleyway, using the dull roar from the other side of the building to guide them. He hesitated, debating whether they would stare in awe, ask him for an autograph, or attack him. Instead of risking their advances, he ran across the roof to an adjacent building—having to jump a narrow gap—and climbed down there. He was sighted though, just as he set foot on the ground. A strong emotion arose in everyone in the alleyway, not of fear, nor of happiness, but a primal urge of hunter and hunted. The man in black started to run and the few people in the alleyway pursued. He dodged past a straggler, never stopping to look back. Adrenaline flowed on both sides, each causing their legs to pump with extra fervor neither knew existed, but the man in black won out.

He dodged between two buildings and tore furiously on breakaway clothes he had on just for this purpose. Stuffing each article into his bag, he aimed straight for the center of the crowd, now beginning to break up after the collective madness. No one cared much for his quickened pace, shortness of breath, or the bag he held in his hands. Others brought bags as well, thinking they would grab so much cash they would need it. Once mingled into the crowd, he was gone, his pursuers emerging from the buildings just as he faded into the camouflage of urban life.

To some, he was a celebrity, a hero, a role model. To others, he was a cancer, a sick product of a superficial culture. To everyone though, his life was a mystery. No one knew who he was, what he looked like, what his unmodulated voice sounded like, or where his money came from. Hundreds of imposters came forth, each less convincing than the last. Copycats clambered to rooftops every day at two o-clock and basked in the boos and heckles when the crowds realized their falsitude. The entire country waited for an explanation, and if they had to wait any longer, his flash-célébrité would be violently extinguished as fast as it was lit.

Some say the event in Aberdeen, Idaho was a conversation between the man in black and society. No one heard the bullhorn or saw the money thrown; most of the citizens didn’t care to go out at two o-clock with the rest of the nation because no one cared about Aberdeen. But when money started to blow past Aberdeen Middle just as fifth period let out, the students who had been bombarded with the Man in Black by the media and their friends for the last two weeks knew exactly what had happened. The wind whipped the unclaimed money into a vortex, scattering it down the streets and into the trees. A few people valiantly tried to contain the windfall, but it soon became apparent that it would never be contained, that Nature claimed this event, and the Man in Black spent ten thousand dollars to make a point only he knew. For the next few years, lucky citizens of Aberdeen would find a crumpled bill somehow overlooked in a shrub.

An interesting dynamic built up: how does the public grow tired of someone who gives out money with no strings attached, on a regular schedule? The initial euphoria began to fade in the public conscious, and the truth began to set it: if he was really just one man, with only one fortune, then he couldn’t possibly visit all of the cities in the United States. His fortune would eventually run out, or he would be shot by a crazed assassin. How many more money drops would there be before one day the news failed to report one? Diehards went into the streets every other day and waited, some at early hours to secure a coveted spot below a hopeful roof. After the rush died down, those cities who hadn’t been dropped upon slowly stopped forming crowds. Some said they didn’t care about the Man in Black any more. They militantly ignored all mention of him. His name—or lack thereof—became synonymous with the hundreds of old pop singers and sports stars who had faded to nothingness and were nothing more than faint memories in a generation growing up without them.

The reaction of the southern part of Reno, Nevada reflected this feeling. A crowd had formed, smaller than days before, but enough to incite the requisite mass panic inherent to the events. Something else was at play, though. On the outskirts of the crowd, people knew they couldn’t possibly reach the middle and catch anything. They knew they would go home with nothing. Instead, they decided to give something back to the Man in Black. Amid the roar a cluster of boos began to dominate and soon vegetables flew at the man as he worked. The first few pieces missed, but a well-placed potato struck him in the chest. He visibly reacted, looking up from his bag in the direction of flight. He was able to dodge a couple more vegetables, but it was apparent to the crowd that his rhythm had been broken. Little less than half of the cash had been distributed, but the man in black decided to cut his losses and dump the rest.

The whole crowd began to boo as the money poured down below. Some booed out of disgust, some out of peer pressure. Others stood perplexed. A myriad of emotions flooded the crowd and nary a person could explain why. They only knew that the good times—despite being constant and fruitful—were coming to an end.

There was talk of arresting him, secret whispers in various justice departments. Some cities had built up contingencies in case he came, crimes they could pin on him so that they could be the one to take down the masked maniac. Others banned any sort of public gathering every two days. Lawyers and judges balked at the perversion of constitutional authority on display across the nation, solely to stop one person from throwing money—most likely his own—off a rooftop. Not only the general population turned against him, but also the doctors and nurses of the nearby hospitals, who had to deal with an influx of injuries all happening within a hundred foot radius of dumping sites. Heart attacks and bruises were the most common injury, but in two cases—Newport and Rapid City—people had been trampled nearly to death.

It was a sweltering day in Flagstaff, Arizona, but that didn’t stop the man in black from wearing his long dark clothing and trademark ski mask. The people on the street weren’t as jovial as other events. From a distance, a strange mist rose from their collective sweat evaporating into the dry air. Some people cursed themselves for buying into the hype and coming out on such a hot day. They couldn’t wait until a few minutes after two, when the crowd would decide he wasn’t coming and they could all descend back into their air-conditioned hovels.

When he appeared on the roof, instead of instantly starting into his speech, he stood as a statue—bag in one hand and bullhorn in other. A hush fell for a second, then doubts if he was the real Man in Black began to spread. Four days ago someone in Tucson had thrown down green leaflets for a local nightclub and was summarily booed, and many in Flagstaff felt the same thing was about to happen. After a half minute of him standing still, the first boo was belted out, then a chorus, all on the same frequency amplifying their disgust across town. But then he raised his bullhorn and the boos quit.

“Attention! Attention, people of Flagstaff!” he said. Half the crowd booed again; the other half’s faith was temporarily restored and they screamed in delight. The cash began to fall, the boos still rose up. No fruits or vegetables were lofted however, as the outliers of the group were too exhausted from the heat to try anything. Only those ennobled by the bills directly above them summoned the strength to fight against the desire to collapse in a pile of sweat.

When the crowd of people began to peel away, one body was left lying on the pavement. Some noticed it and passed on, others spoke to it and fewer shook its shoulder for signs of life. Someone called an ambulance after they noticed the body wasn’t breathing. She was an unemployed middle aged woman—pharmacist by trade—who had come out to the streets the last five gatherings. The official cause of death was heat stroke. There had been other injuries before, but she was the first death. She had three ten dollar bills in her pocket.

The Man in Black’s pause on the rooftop was puzzling to his fans and enemies. Aside from the thirty second gap, his performance was as expected. Some say he had clairvoyance, that he was looking at the woman he knew was about to die. Or perhaps he was admiring his handiwork. The tenth event was approaching in two days and many thought there would be something special planned. His waning popularity spiked a bit with conjectures about his next appearance.

On the morning of the tenth event, news stations buzzed with excitement, sending out camera crews to film the crowds starting to form hours before two o’ clock. Pundits commented on how quickly this new phase of consciousness bled across the country. Only eighteen days ago the Man in Black first stepped up on a rooftop and dominated the headlines. Since then auxiliary celebrities rose and fell, miniature fortunes were nabbed and spent, a rabid fever for money burned bright and failed to abate. For a moment, people were able to comfortably forget the horrors of the world, of the wars and famines and all the nasty things that never affected them but was still forced into their private sphere. A new, soft plateau blanketed with riches stretched before them, a gentle sprinkle of green snow floated down and caressed their cheeks. Despite the pain and anguish that came when the Man in Black failed to choose their city, a hope burned brightly in their hearts that one day he would visit them and lift them to the moneyed height in which he presided.

San Diego’s weather was the antithesis to Flagstaff’s blistering heat. The usual mild temperature dropped noticeably due to a low cloud cover moving in from the ocean. The citizens—unaccustomed to any temperature outside of a thin pleasant band—tugged on their fleeces and shivered once or twice as they waited the last fifteen minutes before two. Crowds were allowed to form downtown; freedom of assembly was harder to abate in a large and public city. However, the mayor had made a decision early in the craze that if He were ever to appear on the rooftops, a contingent of police officers would be waiting for him once he distributed his load. Police officers freely volunteered to stand around watching the crowds as it provided them an easy break from shuffling the local homeless population from one street corner to another.

Just as a nearby digital clock blinked two, a thin tall shadow covered the crowd. The citizens had to shield their eyes to see a person standing directly above the nucleus of the crowd. Just as in Flagstaff, the citizens were wary of fakes and a vein of skepticism coursed through them as he stood staring down through the slits of his ski mask. Two days ago they remembered the report of his eerie silence, and now, in the midst of an uncomfortable deafness, a glimmer of hope shone bright of the hearts of all. The only movement came from the police officers slowly ascending the building waiting for the show to end.

“Attention! Attention people of San Diego!” A roar interrupted his speech. He put his hands up imploring for silence.

“Please, please. Allow me to speak!” The crowd was confused; this was not his normal speech they had seen on the news so many times before. A bit more hand waving and the crowd quieted down enough for a single bull horn to be heard.

“You have been wondering who I am for the last eighteen days, and for good reason. I have decided to reveal myself before you, and to the world.” He slowly lifted his ski mask above his head and dropped it to the roof. He had short brown hair, frizzled from the mask, and matte-black eyes. The humble beginnings of wrinkles were forming around his eyes as he squinted at the crowd. No feature could distinguish himself from any other person in the city. Some people were disappointed in his lack of golden flowing hair and chiseled jaw.

“My name is Marcus Dmitri Branson, son of Caroline Lynn Branson and Patrick Robert Branson, and I stand before you a pauper. I have spent a great deal of money to travel the country so that I can give away the rest of my wealth. When I throw my remaining ten thousand dollars down I will be penniless, and those of you fortunate enough to catch a bill will be infinitely wealthier than I am.”

He put down the bullhorn and with one deft swoop, flung the bag filled with bills into the air with a tall arc. With every turn a few bills spilled out and drifted away from the bag. All eyes shifted from him to the bag and a hundred different calculations anticipated where the bag would land and if it was possible to reach it. Moments before the bag struck the crowd hands were thrown up and bodies balanced precariously on toes. It was impossible to jump to the bag as the pressure on all sides kept everyone locked to the ground. When the bag struck it seemed to explode in a green flash, money scattered everywhere and the pit of people nearly collapsed trying to grab it all. Nails and fists were thrown; loose strands of hair were pulled; a guttural pulse of angry voices was overpowered by shrieks of unconstrained emotion. The crowd, once composed of individual entities, morphed into an amoeba-like blob of shifting colors feasting upon a bit of green food.

Above, police officers closed slowly on the Man in Black with cuffs in hand. The first officer peered over the lip of the roof and saw only a collapsed body. As the crowd raged below, a thin stream of blood ran to meet the officer. The bullhorn lie face down in a dark crimson pool and the body acted as a dam to a congealing pool of blood. After some inspection, the officer noticed a gunshot wound on the underside of the jaw, and a revolver gripped tightly in the hands of the Man in Black.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Boy Who Loved Garlic

At 2:37 AM, Joan and Hank Redding of Shoshanna City, New Mexico, gave birth to a beautiful baby boy they christened Abram. His skin was pink and pudgy, and he would not stop crying. The doctor told Joan and Hank that this is normal in human babies and there was nothing to worry about.

Abram grew up happily and attended school just like all of the other human children. His favorite sport was baseball, his favorite position short-stop. Although children were allowed to go outside in the day time, they were highly discouraged from doing so, lest they grow to enjoy it and not want to leave it once they went through the transformation. Mr. and Mrs. Redding believed this is what happened to their son.

They noticed he would be especially tired at night after having just woken up, and would often fall asleep during class. His jeans were often stained with grass and dirt and his fingernails had a constant supply of grime underneath. One day he came home with a strange white bulbous plant from outdoors and tried to show it to his parents. After vampires had taken over, a world-wide effort was put forth to eradicate all strains of garlic. It had taken several years and thousands of vampires dressed in specially designed hazardous material suits before it was officially declared that garlic was no longer a threat. Of course there were still random outcroppings in various places, and that is was Abram found. He didn't understand why they panicked so much when seeing the plant and why they had to stay in the hospital for ten days.

Abram had grown up alongside vampires. His parents were vampires, his teachers, some of his older friends. It was all but certain that after puberty was over, he was going to become a vampire. It was as natural as getting one's driver's license. Abram had trouble with this. He liked the outdoors; he liked the feeling of the sun as it warmed his skin. He enjoyed the strange fragrance of garlic and the taste of his fingers after he handled it. His parents tried desperately to keep him indoors during the day, going so far as to bar up his windows, but he always found a way out.

They took him to a psychologist who specialized in human children. He agreed with little Abram: sunlight did feel good — to humans only. If he wanted to be a productive member of society in the future he would have to give up such silly things. It was a phase, he told Abram's parents. He will grow out of it.
During recess, children liked to reenact the Battle of Westmoreland. They would take turns, one side playing as vampires and the other as humans. Everyone hated playing as humans because they always lost. The only child who liked to play as a human was Abram. He tried desperately to change history so that the humans won that historic, decisive battle, but he always lost. As children do, his classmates ridiculed him, calling him “sapien”, “day-lover” and other nasty words. They would snarl at him and show their immature canines. Abram tried to fight, but he was all alone.

On his fourteenth birthday, in the middle of puberty, and not far from the transformation, Abram sat down with his parents. He started to cry and couldn't speak. They tried to console him, but they knew what was coming. They noticed it in his every action, in every word he said, how he carried himself and sulked whenever he was out at night. Finally he was able to stifle his sobs long enough to say it: “I want to stay human!”

His parents, despite knowing exactly what he was going to say, started crying themselves, partially out of sadness, mostly out of anger. They couldn't believe they had raised a child like him. They had given him all the human food--utterly indigestible to vampires--he could eat, warm clothes, and a roof over his head. They asked themselves: where had they gone wrong? Hank thought maybe he didn't do enough vampire things with his son. Maybe the daylight cooked his brain. Does that happen in human children?

No one spoke. Abram left for his room without saying anything. For two days he did not say a word. He attended school only so long as he was required, and would head home right after and lock himself in his room. His appetite was at a bare minimum. Joan tried to feed him the rarest of steaks, thinking that would bring him around and get him excited about being a vampire. He took a few bites and threw the rest out the window.

Abram looked in the mirror and noticed he had quit growing. His height was five feet nine inches, the same as his parents. His muscles bulged with youthful vigor and most of his baby fat was gone. A few hairs poked out of his chin. He knew the day was coming.

His friend James had gone through puberty quickly and was eager to become a vampire. Over the weekend he performed the procedure, and next Monday came in to school with brand new canine teeth and a thermos of blood. Everyone was amazed. Abram didn't say a word to him. James hadn't fully gotten used to his new existence and accidentally stepped outside in the day time to check the mail. Luckily his parents heard his screams and were able to pull him back in before anything serious happened.

Abram noticed a change in James after this. He lost all enthusiasm in being a vampire. He drank his blood mechanically, never bothering to savor it. Is that how Abram would be? Would he lose all joy in life? He tried to think of other vampires he was close to, how they acted. His algebra teacher Mrs. Honeybush was twenty-five when she was bitten during the Great War, and has looked the same ever since. She never seemed sad and still loved to teach. All vampires must get used to never going in the sun or eating good food for the rest of their lives, he hoped.

After a couple weeks Abram seemed to have returned to normal. A few of his classmates still picked on him, but he was able to ignore them. His parents never talked to him about what he had said, nor about the transformation. Then one day his parents came into his room and said it was time to go to the hospital. Abram didn't say anything. He wanted to scream, to grab onto something solid and never let go; anything to delay the transformation. Abram couldn't understand why he didn't do anything.

He stood up and marched out to the car. On the way to the hospital he looked out the window up into the sky. The light pollution of the city made it hard to see the stars. This was the sight he would see from now on: the lights of distant stars traveling millions of miles to this one earth, but never again would he see his own sun.

When they arrived a very nice doctor was ready for him. He laid down on a comfy bed and was given a strange-tasting drink. The doctor made him pull up his shirt to expose his chest, and out came a very long needle. The doctor was very gentle with him. He told him to look away, and there would be a small prick. He had gotten shots before, but this one would end his life, then change it forever. His parents were on either side of the bed holding his hands. His father was crying, his mother looked down with a scared look. Then a prick and a pressure on his chest. One word repeated itself in Abram's head as a cold feeling spread throughout his body: why?

Usually a child stays dead for a few hours at most. The doctors began to worry at the eight-hour mark. Complications were rare in healthy children like him, but permanent death was never ruled out. There was no way to help Abram through the process. Either he woke up, or he didn't. His parents were asleep when he awoke with a gasp.

“I'm -- I'm hungry,” were his first words. His tongue flicked over his new canines. A cup of hot blood was brought to him and he drank it quickly. He was cognizant of the harsh iron taste but he didn't care, the blood drained down his throat before he could even think of what he was doing. He didn't feel anything. He wasn't aware of his skin, he had no thoughts, he looked right into the harsh fluorescent light above him without blinking.

The doctors observed him for a few hours, then he was free to leave. It was a Saturday night, and he did nothing but sit at home and stare at the barren walls of his house. His parents never asked how he was doing.

Monday night came around and he left for school on the bus. The children who teased him before didn't say a word to him. Some had transformed, others were still waiting. Abram hoped they would never talk to him ever again.

When school ended he took the bus like normal, but didn't go straight home. He took a walk in the woods, strolling randomly around. He visited his favorite spots and climbed some of his favorite trees. His eyesight seemed to be better in the dark. As he was walking he smelled something familiar, but it burnt his nostrils with every breath. He could vaguely remember liking this smell at one point. Why did it hurt so much now? The smell grew stronger, he had to take short gasps and hold his breath as he walked. Things started to look familiar, he remembered loving this part of the woods. His instincts told him to turn around and flee, but his memories urged him on. Finally he found the spot: the large patch of wild garlic he found many years ago.

He remembered the long skinny leaves, and how he used to pull on them to reveal the big white bulb. He loved the taste so much that he ate an entire bulb once, before the transformation. Now he felt sickly just smelling it. He wanted so much to just sit down and--

Abram was crying from the pain, his body was shaking, his whole will was needed just to keep him standing in one place. This is what Abram was to expect with his life: the smells he once enjoyed were now poison to him. He could never do what he loved ever again. He dropped to his knees and a large whoosh of smell overwhelmed him. He coughed and gagged, spitted out blood. This was the only feeling he had left. One hand fell to the ground, then another. He lowered himself down and rolled onto his back, crushing the leaves around him. Above him the trees started to grow red as the sun rose.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


The water flowed smoothly over the rocks, with only the infrequent glint of light off the surface betraying its movement. The rock was near-perfect smooth, with subtle streaks of deeper crags carved over time. A strange blue tint emanated from the water, not from the water itself, or the sky above or the rock below, but seemingly from between the water itself. The tint of light blue was the remnant of the water's origins: a glacier somewhere far away. Once melted the water breaks free from a season-long bondage and plunges downward imbued with its origin. After a day or so, maybe longer, the water flows into a larger body: a lake, ocean, larger river, and the glacier essence evaporates and the water takes on a new aura: lake water, now tinted a dark brownish-green. The water sits there for a long time, then evaporates and all auras depart, and the water may go anywhere, perhaps back to the glacier or--

A sound behind her broke her thoughts. She turned around and faced a deer, its large pointed ears swiveling mechanically to face her. They both stared at each other, silent and still as the rocks and trees around them. Her: not wanting to spook the deer so that she may enjoy its splendor. The deer: observing the creature for signs of aggression. After a calm blissful silence the deer swiveled its ears once more, perhaps to a new sound , and each animal lost interest and went about their way.

What was she thinking about? The thought, poem, memory, something she had forgotten back home, was gone, retreating back to her subconscious. The sun was still high and there were many hours to hike before she could stop in good conscience. The trail was well maintained and not too steep or windy, just long and rolling. All of the trees looked the same, except for the occasion oddball who was unlucky enough to be struck by lightning. Those were her favorite trees because of the sheer results of power on display. She had already grown accustomed to the homogeneous landscape and her mind easily wandered. It was easy to walk and think at the same time. Her body seemed to operate independently of her consciousness. Her pack swayed back and forth as she stepped up and around obstacles.

“I won the lottery!” she said, coming through the front door.

“What? No way,” her boyfriend said, looking up quickly from his work. “How much did you win?”

“No, the hiking lottery, the one I've been talking about for a couple weeks now, remember?”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “So what does that mean again?”

“It means I'm one of the few that gets to hike up the mountain and camp overnight. I can't wait!”

“Whoa whoa--when are we going to do this? We haven't planned this at all.”

“I can only go by myself. They only allow a certain amount of people on the trail at a time. It'd be too crowded if they let everyone go on it. It's very popular.”

“You shouldn't go alone though. What if you get lost or hurt? Are you even in shape to climb a mountain that high?”

“I’ve been reading a lot about hiking, plus I've been working out and walking the local trails with my pack. I'm learning how to use a map and compass, all sorts of stuff. I'll be okay.”
“Babe, I went hiking a lot as a kid and there are serious dangers: bugs, cliffs, snakes, bears. What if a bear attacks you?”

“You don't think I can scare away a bear?”

“No, I'm just saying that when you're in the situation it's a lot different than reading about it in a book. The wilderness is no place for a girl to go alone. If you're dead set on going though I'll go with you and we can split the load evenly among us.”

“No! Like I said, the pass is just for me, I can't bring anyone else, and I can carry all of the stuff myself. It’s not that heavy.”
The argument ended uneasily, as they always did. For the next few days, whenever they saw each other they remembered the argument, and a quick scenario ran through their heads as to how to win the next part of the argument. Naturally the person imagining the scenario came out the victor.

The ground beneath her feet suddenly changed to a rubbery feel. A bed of woodchips was spread out on the trail, all coming from a log that looked like it had ripped to shreds. She read that bears ripped open fallen logs to get at the grubs underneath. There they sat exposed to the elements, where fungus and other bottom feeders-slowly ate the refuse, forming a nice thin layer of spongy material. She welcomed the chips for the pressure taken off her knees. The feeling reminded her of walking barefoot on the cool carpet of her apartment early in the morning. The trail turned back into the familiar hard-packed sand peppered with exposed rocks and jutting roots. Her hiking boots crunched over-top, an old pair she received from an aunt one birthday long ago once she finished puberty. They were hardly used.
For a few days she was proud of the boots and wore them to school every day. She would grab the straps of her backpack tightly and stroll down the hallways imagining walking on the ridge of a tall dune in the middle of a vast desert. She wanted to talk about them and brag about the adventures she would go on in the future. The only people who ever talked were her peers, and they were whispered conversations behind her back. It didn’t matter to her that she looked un-ladylike, or that her shoes didn’t match the uncomfortable bright shoes of the rest of her classmates; it was the whispering and the sideways glances that broke her down. After a particularly hard day she took them off and threw them deep into her closet. Oftentimes she wanted to sell them or just throw them away, but she always harbored a wish that she would put them back on and fulfill her childhood dreams. It was several years later until she mustered the courage to put them back on.

The sun was slowly going down, and the dark red light lit up whiffs of clouds suspended lazily high in the sky, a welcome and pleasant contrast to the blooming spring green and the constant cold gray of the boulders. She would have to set up camp soon, in an hour or less, but she was determined to get as many miles down as she could, hoping to lessen the distance of the next day's portion.

Up ahead she heard footsteps and something metal stabbing into the dirt. A local park ranger appeared from around the corner, dressed in the requisite brown dungarees, a cloth patch on each shoulder and a few water bottles and other tools on a tight belt around his waist. He had on a backpack with a compass hanging from one of the shoulder straps and a radio from the other. The radio squawked, a conversation from two other unknown rangers. He was middle-aged, wrinkly around the eyes, a few gray hairs poking out of the bottom of a floppy wide-brim cloth hat. His job served him well as not an inch of body fat could be seen on is frame.

He flashed a forced smile. Two metal poles were gripped tightly in his hands, an accessory she could never understand. Were they for balance, self-defense, a fashion item for the well-to-do dilettante hiker? Letting go of the sticks he let them dangle from his wrists, swaying alien-like with every movement of his arms.

“Hello miss! Do you happen to have our park permit on you, by chance?” he said.

“Yes, of course,” she had put the permit in her fleece, directly over her heart. Since the beginning of the hike she had shown it to two other park rangers. Regardless she pulled it out with a hurry as if she were a child desperate to show her father a new piece of artwork or high grade. The ranger took the pass from her and looked idly at it, barely focusing his eyes enough to read any of the filled portions. She promised one day to forge a pass and use that next trip to see if they would catch on.

“Is your boyfriend around?” he asked with a smile on his face.

“No,” she said, grinning and lowering her eyes.

“Husband? Girlfriends? Invisible friend?”

“No, it’s just me on this trip.”

“My... You're awfully far from the trailhead this late. Do you plan on turning around soon? The sun's going to set any time now.”

“I don't plan on turning back. I'm going to camp tonight and plan on reaching the peak early in the morning and returning the same day.”

“All the way to the top, huh? Well, the first three quarters are easy, but tomorrow I guarantee it'll get rough. You might want to drop your pack off at tree line, maybe keep it with me or another ranger until you get back.”

“Do other people do that? It seems like a pretty selfish and irresponsible thing to do.”

“Well, it’s not conventional but I think it's understandable in your case. Once it gets rough you won't have anyone to help you out. I hope you understand that.”

“I've known that since the beginning. My pack isn't too heavy and I'm pretty sure I can carry it to the top without any help.”

The ranger stared at her. He looked back down at her pass and studied it with a little more scrutiny. Then he looked back at her with the same blank stare. “Yes, I'm sure you can, sweetheart. Just don't sue us if you fall over and break your ankle.” He thrust her pass back to her and grabbed up his walking sticks and trudged off. She put it back in her fleece with less than the gentle excitement than before and walked away quickly with a slight grimace on her face.

Safely away from the trail she found a relatively soft surface to pitch camp. She tried her hardest to clear away the accumulated brush and rocks, but every year the dense trees shed layers of leaves, and the occasional tumbling rock mixes in to form a thick soup of decaying, near noxious organic waste. After it became clear there would be no flat ground that night she gave up. She did not pack a mat to save weight, so the only thing between her and the ground was a thin sleeping bag and an even thinner tent. The tent was small and skinny, suitable for one person, two if they didn't mind being uncomfortable. There was no room to stand, or even kneel; the tent rose to her waist. Outside she found a large rock to sit on and ate her meal of falafel she had fried up the day before, crunchy on the outside and soft and delicious inside. Her dessert was a vacuum-dried peach paste flattened down to resemble a piece of thick pink paper, incredibly tart but sweet enough.

Just before she slid feet-first into the tent for the night she looked up at the sky visible between the trees and was glad to see Sirius shining bright, long before much dimmer stars began their slow awakening. Taking off her boots added a great deal of relief to her swollen feet. Her legs had a dull burn running through them from the constant stomp of hiking. Her body was struggling to adapt to the extra weight of her pack, but she was driven by an energy she had never felt before.

She thought of the park ranger. He was right, the next day's portion was going to be much harder than today's. Soon she would leave the comfort of the trees, the shade protecting her skin from the sun, also the ever-present and soothing scenery. The endless switchbacks frightened her, merely because of the boredom that would soon set in as she turned left, then turned right, then left again, every rock the same general size, shape and consistency, the monotony only broken by the sparse lichen and the small rodents brave enough to scurry around the rocks eating this seemingly inadequate food.

A rock poked in her back, then she rolled over and found another rock. Her legs ached, her stomach wasn't full, and there was a constant lingering fear of failure. Her eyes were opened wide despite their lethargy as all of the small annoying things added up to a great discomfort. Now out of view of all rangers, peers, and tiny animals, she allowed herself to be afraid, and to question her reason for being there. A sense of misguided chivalry? Was she trying to get back at someone for some forgotten wrong? She crept closer to depression before she returned to reality: she was a healthy young woman who decided to climb a mountain and suffered a comparatively small amount of discomfort. How does this compare to her daily troubles? Where were the car alarms blaring in the night? The agitation of her hands after a day of typing, sitting comfortably in a padded chair? Where were the advertisements telling her to buy this because she was like that, and reminding her she had an inadequate cheek-bone structure? Where were the awkward glances from people she thought she knew but was too timid to muster a conversation? They were gone, hidden hundreds of miles away and thousands of feet below. Replacing them were the simpler, almost wholesome troubles: legs sore after a long day of hiking; back and hips sore from her pack. She had no right to complain as the water she drank was clean and plentiful. At home she had a loving family, a loving boyfriend, all of the creature comforts any sane person could ever want. She did this to herself willingly and could not complain.

She wrapped up tightly into her sleeping bag, avoiding the slight spring night chill. She had brought along a book but reading became a serious test of will when sleep was only a head drop away. After struggling through a few paragraphs she relented and put the book down and was asleep shortly after.

Dreams came quickly, as they always do for her after a particularly strenuous day. She was hiking a mountain much higher than the one she was on now. All around her were lightning strikes, falling boulders and other overtly dramatic devices. There was no trail, only a straight path leading to the top. She struggled on her hands and knees crawling over grinding rocks, barely making any headway. On the top she could see an anonymous group of people, vaguely familiar, all calling her to the top waving their arms and pleading her to move faster. The sight motivated her a bit but her progress was constant and lethargic. After feeling too much like Sisyphus she suddenly found herself on top. Surprised, she looked around for the group of people who urged her to the top, but they were gone. Finally she saw them back down at the bottom of the mountain, now suddenly shrunk to the size of insignificance. They had on blank faces and did not cheer her accomplishment.

The dream faded into another one and became irrelevant. Early in the morning the sun poked through the walls of her tent and roused her. The dream became hazy and all she remembered was the mountain. Disgusted that she would dream of the very activity while on break from that activity, she pushed it out of her mind and the dream was forgotten.

The allure of the tent and the comforting embrace of her sleeping bag made her hesitant to move. She forced herself to pack up, stuffing all of the items neatly back into their bags and packing them just as she had before. She forced down a few more dry falafel cakes and as much peach paste as she could handle before her lips puckered up from the tartness. Along the trails the trees slowly started to shrink. Moisture and air became more scarce near the top and the trees suffered because of it. Soon they would shrink to the size of a bush and disappear altogether.

As the vegetation slowly slipped away with every labored step, the realities of the rest of the day loomed. A giant granite monolith curved ever so slightly upwards obscuring the prize of the summit. Her legs ached slightly more than the night before, although somehow different, and her pack was just as heavy as yesterday. Her lungs sucked in a paltry amount of oxygen. It's easy to train by throwing on a pack and going on a hike, but the unique lack or air which defined this trip was impossible to reproduce near sea level. Her lungs were strong but were not used to this. For a moment she looked at the trees and understood why they never bothered to live up at such a height.
In front of an enchanted child a tree stretched up, maybe forever, a few branches hung down just at the perfect height. Her arms reached up and grasped the branches and her young muscles pulled up her body with ease. Finding a foothold was difficult, as it was her first time. She succeeded in standing up on the first branch and was grasping for the next in earnest, quickly learning with every tug. Down below an older woman's scream:

“Get down from there right now!” the woman cried, “You'll fall and break your neck and we'll have to pay for a coffin and headstone for you!”

The girl paused with a sullen look on her face, squatting solidly on a branch only a few feet up the tree. If she stayed the woman would keep screeching and the climb would no longer be fun, if she climbed down she would never get to see what was at the top.

“I said get down from there! That is no place for a girl like you! You should be ashamed.”

Tears welled up in her eyes as she descended from her lofty perch, but she did not cry. At the bottom the woman grabber her hand and she was sped away from the death trap. She had no idea what to say or do.

The car door opened and she was pushed inside, then locked down by a seatbelt. Only then did she cry. The woman feigned sadness and picked up a doll on the floor of the car and gave it to the child.

“Tree climbing in no activity for a girl. I'm only glad I was able to get you down before the wrong person saw. Now play with your doll and please stop crying.”
The girl looked at the the doll hoping it would bring her happiness, but nothing came from the plastic, shiny pale skin. She lowered her head and continued to cry.

A small sign with familiar orderly printing, black and geometric against the scraggly back-drop, roused her from a dream. Twelve switchbacks to the summit it read. No distances. Distances do not matter here because a foot is an abstract and arbitrary concept, only the definite sharp whip-turns have any meaning to a hiker. Small piles of rocks reminded any delirious hiker where the trail was.

Her lungs burned more with every step. The height difference became readily apparent every time she strayed her eyes from the trail. The surrounding landscape stood still while the ground underneath her shifted with every step. Her brain--despite knowing it was just an illusion--still reeled from vertigo. She wanted so much to drop her pack and turn around and not even bother with the top. But then she thought, what if she ran into that ranger down the trail? How big of a smile would he have knowing that she gave up? It would be his ultimate vindication and she did not want to give it to him.
In front of her was the mountain itself; behind, an endless jagged expanse, the trees she had emerged from became a dark-green swath with only a tiny cut at the edge betraying the trail fading into the brush. Small ponds could be seen in the distance, tucked in between two competing mountains. No little fishes swam inside and the tell-tale dull green of algae was absent, forced to find solidarity with the trees at lower altitudes. Straight up only a few whiffs of clouds ambled by, surrounded by a brilliant blue unfettered by smog, gradually shading white as it stretched down to meet the ground at infinity.

The summit was in view. The sight didn't encourage her to go any faster, only to keep trudging along at her slow but constant pace. The altitude and strain ceased to be a novelty. every ache and pain had now become a part of her.

As she rounded the lip a strong gust of wind hit her straight on, the last little obstacle laughing as it impeded her. There was nothing special on top, no banner with her name on it or a victory tape stretched tight to run through, or any other human soul in sight. She loosened the straps on her backpack and let it slide to the ground, thankful for the moment's reprieve. A brass disc drilled into a large rock welcomed her to the top and listed the elevation, a number she memorized. Tucked into the rocks was a plastic water-tight tube holding a logbook where any climber could put their name down and any message they could manage to think of. She used the pen provided--barely usable after years of neglect and multiple seasons of freezing and thawing--to scrawl her name and the date but left the message blank.

She now commanded a full view of the landscape. Everywhere there was mountains, some barren, some with residual snow. A small smile appeared slowly crept to her face. There are higher mountains, longer trails, steeper slopes and more challenging terrain, but for just this moment this mountain was hers. The smile grew larger and more confidant as the full experience slowly seeped in. It wasn't the view, however glorious, or the crispness of the air, or the solid foundation below her. The smile was not because of her senses, but from an old barrier deep inside slowly deteriorating, letting loose a flood of emotions.

A couple scrambled quickly to the top, out of breath and wobbly but jubilant. The male punched the air and let out a mighty roar. The couple hugged each other and stumbled forward in exultation. She smiled, sharing in their joy. She would go down the mountain with a new piece added to her life. Her actions would not change much, only imperceptibly, but her walk would be different, the way she held her shoulders, her facial expressions would be a little cockier and upturned, everything about her would be infinitesimally different in a way only she could understand. On top of the mountain she could see her old self staring up, see the way she once was and how she had improved just today, just this very moment. She hoisted up her pack and with a tug and little jump yanked the straps down, then set out. Only the first half of her hike was finished, but rest was downhill, into the lush forests and alongside the sparkling stream.