Friday, July 14, 2006

Charlie's Peach Tree

“Let me get that for you, Mrs. Woods.”

Sally Woods looked up from the ground where she had dropped her mail to see Sheriff Dixon exit his cruiser and jog toward her. He nodded a greeting, and knelt to pick up the scattered envelopes.

“Thank you, Sheriff,” she said. “My back won’t even let me pick up something off the ground.”

“Don’t mention it,” Dixon said as he stood and handed Sally her mail. “I was just on my way downtown for a cup of coffee.”

“Good night for it.”

“Sure is. By the way, Lizzy wanted me to thank you for that wonderful peach pie.”

“Oh, you’re so welcome. Although, I’m afraid there won’t be too many more.”

“Why, Mrs. Woods, I do believe that might just break Lizzy’s heart. Mine, too.”

“Well, it’s my hands, you know.”

“The arthritis?”

“The filling isn’t so bad, but I make the crust from scratch, and I won’t settle for any store-bought crust.”

“I’d expect nothing less.”

Their attention was drawn to a small group of children enjoying the light snow. Dixon watched Sally’s face.

“Are you getting along alright, Mrs. Woods? Everything okay?”

Sally sighed. “Oh, yes. Things are as fine as they can be when you’re as old and broke-down as me.”

Dixon nodded as a cold wind blew across the yard. Sally pulled her sweater tight across her chest.

“Gettin’ colder in the winter,” she said. “Cold comes earlier and stays later anymore.”

“It sure does seem that way.”

“You live in one place for fifty years, Sheriff, the weather can’t fool you.”

Dixon smiled. He stood with her for a few more seconds. “Well, Mrs. Woods, I’ll not keep you out here in the cold any longer. Let me help you back inside—“

“Oh, no, you don’t. I can manage.”

“Is there anything you need done in there? You have any trash that needs taking out or anything like that?”

“No, Sheriff, I’m set for the evening, but I thank you for asking.”

“Well, if you ever need anything, even if it’s fetching the mail, you don’t hesitate to call, you hear?”

“I hear. Good evening, Sheriff.”

“Evening, Mrs. Woods.”

Sally slowly made her way into the comfy Folk Victorian home. She thumbed through the pieces of mail, discarding most without opening. She stood to do the sorting, since sitting down and getting up was quite inconvenient. The last piece was a letter from Henry, who was husband to her old friend Betty. Odd thing was, Henry never wrote. It was always Betty.

She knew before opening what the letter would say.

Betty was gone, Henry wrote. Went to sleep one evening and never woke up.

Sally put the letter down, and made her way slowly and painfully to the kitchen sink. She stood at the sink and looked out the window above it. A smile broke through the wrinkles on her still-beautiful face. There, in the center of the backyard, in the dusk, stood the peach tree. Charlie’s peach tree. The snow fell softly upon its empty branches. The fruit had been gathered, its leaves fallen, and it would stand barren and lonely until spring.

Her husband had always wanted a peach tree. He had worked hard to buy Sally this nice home, but before he could plant his peach tree, the cancer got him. The only thing the doctors seemed to know about his illness was its quickness and cruelty.

She had been so young when she lost him. Only thirty years old. She never loved again. Never even considered it. On the day of his funeral, she planted the seeds and waited anxiously. When the little sapling finally fought its way to daylight, her heart skipped a beat. She sat on the ground all that day, just looking at it.

She remembered what he had said as he lay on his deathbed upstairs.

I’m gonna come for you, Sweetheart.

Sweetheart. His pet name for her ever since the days of their courtship, when he would play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” on his violin as she blushed red as a beet.

His eyes were open, but they looked into a world different from the one his body lay in. She didn’t know what he saw, but she didn’t dare distract him.

When the tree gives you the fruit, I’m gonna come for you.

Those were his last words. She didn’t understand what it meant then or now.

The darkness to the east was slowly chasing the sunlight away. Sally put Henry’s letter in the desk drawer she used for special keepsakes. The house seemed so large and she felt so small now. Betty and Henry had moved to Florida years ago, and Betty never stopped trying to convince Sally to join them, but there Sally refused to leave the peach tree.

Sally lit a candle and made her way into the den, which had been converted into a small bedroom, since Sally could no longer navigate the stairs. She sat in an upright chair to read a little before going to sleep. She read a couple of paragraphs before closing the book and setting it on her lap. She watched the shadows on the ceiling as the flame danced on the wick. The hypnotic display of light and shadow made her eyelids grow heavy . . .

Sally thought she heard a noise. A small draft blew through her bedroom and she pulled a blanket over her shoulders.

Another noise. Coming from the living room. She struggled to her feet and pulled the door open a crack. She thought she heard music. A violin. The song was heartbreakingly familiar.

“Who’s there?” she called out. Her body may have been weak, but her voice was strong.

The music continued, and there was no doubt now that it was her song. She heard someone humming along to the violin.

Confused yet unafraid, she fetched her candle and walked down the hallway and into the living room.

She saw a shimmering apparition sitting on her faded sofa. A young man in his early twenties, wearing brown trousers and suspenders and a white, long-sleeved shirt. A battered railroad hat lay next to him. He did not notice her at first, so absorbed he was by his playing. When the translucent figure turned to look at her, he stopped playing. The air rushed from her lungs as she recognized the handsome face.

“Charlie? Is that you?”

“Hello, Sweetheart,” he said, beaming that beautiful smile of his.

“Are you a ghost?” she asked, feeling silly.

Charlie chuckled. “I suppose that’s what you could call me.”

She went to the sofa and sat down next to him. She reached out to touch his face, expecting her hand to pass right through him. To her amazement, she could feel his smooth, warm skin.

“Charlie, what is all this? Where’s the cancer?”

“It’s all gone.”

She looked at the violin resting in his lap. “Where’ve you been all these years?”

Charlie stood, and walked to the kitchen sink window. He pointed out, and Sally knew he pointed to the tree.

“Out there.”

“In the tree?”

“In a manner of speaking, I guess.”

“You’ve been haunting a peach tree for fifty years?”

Charlie laughed again. “No, Sweetheart, I’ve been near the tree, only in a different way. I’ve been with you all this time, watching over you.”

Sally thought for a moment. “Yes. I know. Now that I hear you say it. I’ve known all along.”

Charlie walked back to the sofa.

“How come I couldn’t see you until now?” she asked.

Charlie smiled big. “Because, Sweetheart, I couldn’t show myself until it was time for me to come for you.”

“What do you mean?”

Charlie stood and offered his hand. She took it, feeling a rush of memories at the roughness of his skin and the strength of his grip. He helped her to her feet. They walked toward the back door in the kitchen.

“Oops,” he said suddenly.

He trotted back to the sofa for his violin. He took her hand again, leading her on. She watched him pass through the locked door. Sally closed her eyes until she realized she had just passed through the door herself.

When she opened her eyes, the snow and darkness was gone, replaced by brilliant sunlight and vibrant colors of spring. The peach tree was in full bloom, its plump fruit hanging from its branches. Charlie sat down against the trunk of the tree and patted the ground next to him. Sally looked down at her hands as they hung at her side. The wrinkles were gone. Her hands were smooth and youthful again. She put her hands to her face and felt smoothness there also. She sat on the ground next to Charlie. He played and sang songs for her. He told her funny stories and she laughed. She had never laughed so much.

Sally’s delivery boy summoned Sheriff Dixon when she did not answer the doorbell. Dixon found the door unlocked. He eased the door open and poked his head in.

“Mrs. Woods?” he called out.

He stepped into the house. He heard nothing.

He walked through the living room and kitchen. He noticed a ragged hat of some kind on the sofa.

He went down the hallway and entered the makeshift bedroom.

She sat in her chair, eyes closed and silent. A blanket and a book lay on the floor. He looked closer and saw that her chest did not move. He gently placed his finger on her neck. Feeling no pulse, he quietly whispered an order into his radio.

After standing by her chair for a moment, he took the blanket off the floor, and placed it around her. As he did, he noticed the contented smile on her face. He later told his wife it was the most peaceful smile he had ever seen.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Men of Oak

What a hellish night it had been so far, and the worst was yet to come. Daniel stole a quick glance out the window of his family’s sturdy stone home. The sun had gone down hours ago, and darkness cloaked the land in full. There was no rain. No wind. No ominous clouds drifting across a full moon.

As Daniel watched, there was nothing to suggest that merciless evil roamed the countryside. All he saw was the lush green land of his native Ireland glowing under the moon. He saw no sign of the Men of Oak, although he knew they could appear over the far hill at any moment. No one knew where they would go tonight, when all things dark and malevolent ruled the island, but they always appeared somewhere. There was no escape if they came to your door. No way to escape the fear and pain. It was only a matter of degree. It would be bad, or it would be worse.

Daniel’s wife, Peggy, came up behind him. She placed her hand on his shoulder. He nearly cried out in fright. He threw her a reproachful look.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s all right,” Daniel said, feeling foolish in spite of the fact that there were no brave men to be found on the Night of Fire.

“Are the candles out?” he asked.

Peggy nodded yes.

“Would you please make sure?”

Leaving candles lit on this night of all nights could be a fatal error. Lord knows what they might attract. Peggy left to check the house again.

Daniel had no idea what time it might be. No idea how much longer they must endure. Several times his heart stopped as he thought he saw the flickering orange glow of torches approaching from beyond the hill.

He thought of Declan. Declan had been the unfortunate one last year. When faced with his choice, he had offered his youngest daughter. Despite such a despicable and cowardly act, no one in the village would have viewed him with anything but sympathy. However, the Men of Oak had not been pleased with his offering, and . . .

Daniel shuddered and tried to refocus his thoughts.

The sound of Peggy’s panicked voice gripped his heart in terror. It was not her tone of voice that frightened him, but the words he heard her saying.

Jenny, what are you doing? Put it out! Put it out right now!

Daniel raced through the house toward his daughters’ room. He felt a leaden sense of dread as he spotted the shimmering flame on the head of a candle on a high shelf. Peggy stumbled over the bed in a frantic attempt to reach the light. Daniel stepped up on the bed, clutched the candle and ground it out on his palm. He didn’t notice the pain, nor did he notice the heavy, wood-bound book that tumbled behind the bed. Nor did he notice the strange design scratched onto the floor.

He slumped on the bed, drenched in sweat. Peggy tried to catch her breath, her hand resting on her bosom as she struggled to breathe normally. Eight-year-old Jenny stood watching them. Tears welled up in her frightened eyes at the sight of her parents so panicked. The younger daughter Colleen sat up in bed, still bleary-eyed and not quite comprehending.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Jennifer said pitifully.

Daniel waved his daughter over.

“It’s all right, Precious. Do you understand we can’t burn candles on this night?” he asked as she sat on his lap.

“No,” Jennifer said. “Why are candles bad tonight?”

Daniel and Peggy exchanged an apprehensive glance.

“Jennifer, the world is made up of pairs. Do you understand?”

Jennifer nodded yes.

“Boy and girl, dogs and cats, day and night . . . and good and evil. Do you know what evil is?”

“Yes. Mrs. McKay at church says that’s when Ol’ Scratch tries to get us to do bad things.”

“Right, but in this world, evil must be allowed to exist as well as good.”

“And tonight is the night evil gets to roam?”


Daniel was relieved that Jennifer was able to fill in the blanks, but still unnerved to hear her last response.

“Why are you and Mommy scared? Is evil going to get us tonight?”

“No,” Daniel said, hoping his uncertainty didn’t show. “Of course not.”

“But it does get some people. Doesn’t it?”


“Why? I thought God protected everyone.”

“The ways of God are not for us to understand.”

“It’s okay. I won’t let the evil get us.”

Daniel reached up and patted Jennifer on the head.

“Good girl.”

Daniel sat slumped on a chair, resting his head in his arms as they rested on the windowsill. He tried to fight sleep, but every few seconds he would flinch awake in terror, only to calm himself by the sight of the empty, dark countryside.

Then he heard it.

No!” he whispered to himself.

It was almost undetectable to the ear. Almost. Daniel knew the sound of deep voices chanting as well as anyone. Most everyone had heard the chanting before when the Men of Oak ventured to a neighboring house.


His wife came running to him with a face that glowed white under the combination of her fear and moonlight.

“What is it?” she asked, praying her fear was unfounded.

“Listen,” Daniel said. “Do you hear that?”

Peggy listened, and after a few seconds she heard the chanting herself.

“Oh, Lord!” she sobbed.

This time a flickering glow did appear on the other side of the hill. It grew brighter until it became a group of shimmering torches carried by shadowy figures in black hooded robes that hid their faces. Their chanting was deep and guttural, as if otherworldly creatures were using their mouths to speak the unspeakable. Daniel estimated they were about thirty in number. Not that it mattered. Even one of them was more powerful than a hundred mortal men.

“They’re not coming here,” Peggy said hopefully. “They look like they are going to the Kinney’s.”

Daniel said nothing. This was the closest look at the Men of Oak he had ever suffered through. Were they going to move past? He watched for a few more seconds. They turned up the small path that led to their front door. They were not moving on to the Kinney’s.

“Go into the back room. Take the girls and lock the door.”

What?” Peggy asked in disbelief. “You are not going to defy them are you?”

“I am. I will not hand over one of the girls to those beasts.”

Peggy could not believe nor understand.

“Daniel, I want you to come to your senses.”

“It is my option to resist. Is it not? Those monsters cannot force their way into a Christian home.”

“But the demons they summon can! You know the consequences of defying them. They will unleash a demon that will kill one or all of us through fear, the worst kind of death.”

“We are thinking human beings of faith, are we not? We can use our faith to defeat the fear.”

“Remember what you told Jennifer? It is a world of pairs, where evil must be allowed to exist. You know that. How can there be good without evil?”

“I will not send one of our daughters out there to face those creatures alone!”

The chanting grew louder. They could hear their footfalls on the ground.

“You have no right to condemn us all,” Peggy said, furious.

“How can you expect me to send one of our children out there to be ravaged, tortured or God-knows-what-else? They are here for a sacrifice, Peggy. Don’t you understand that?”

“All I understand is that it is useless to resist them. People have tried to find ways to defeat them for thousands of years. What makes you think you can win?”

The dark voices of the Men of Oak grew louder still, and they could hear the crackling of the fiery torches.

“If you are so determined to offer them a sacrifice from this family, then step outside and be done with it. Otherwise, go to the back room and lock yourselves in with our children.”

With angry, bitter defeat on her face, Peggy stood and fled into the back room as Daniel heard the Men assembling before his front door.

Daniel Conroy.”

Daniel flinched in fear at the sound of the booming growl of the Man’s voice.

Tonight a sacrifice is required of thee. Send forth your offering.

Daniel crouched by the window, his clothing soaked in perspiration. The hoods obscured most of their faces, but he could see their thick beards and the rough, wrinkled textures of their skin. The faces looked as though they had been carved out of a tree trunk. They stood silent, waiting for him to act.

“No!” Daniel found himself shouting out, frightened by how loud his voice sounded.

The man who spoke turned to one of his companions. This second man held two items: a hollowed out gourd and a bucket. The gourd contained a candle made from the fat of a human. He also knew the contents of the bucket. The bucket was used on those who resisted. People rarely resisted, but sometimes, people got foolish.

The Man with the two items dashed the gourd to the ground, where the vegetable and its grisly contents splattered across the grass. He raised the bucket and placed his hand into the dark liquid.

Daniel could not see what the man was doing; he didn’t have to. He heard the man’s hand scraping along the door.

Peggy appeared from the rear of the house.

Daniel,” she nearly hissed. “What on earth is going on? Did I hear you tell them no?”

Daniel said nothing. Peggy heard the scrapes on the door. She put her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide in fear.

“My, God, Daniel, do you know what you’ve done?”

Daniel merely watched her.

“You’ve killed us all. You know the legends!”

“Perhaps that what they are. No more than legends. Maybe it is nothing more than superstition,” Daniel said quietly.

Peggy pointed to the front door, where the scraping sounded for a few more seconds and then stopped.

“You call that superstition?”

Daniel looked outside. The men were leaving. They resumed their chants and set out to find another house. They would keep going until they found a household that would give them what they wanted.

Peggy pulled the door open. Daniel looked at her as if she were a crazy woman.

“Peggy! What are you doing? Shut that this very instant!”

Ignoring him, Peggy ran out of the house.

Wait! Wait! We will give you what you want! Come back!

Daniel ran out after her, surprised his legs could move in such a state of absolute fear.

Peggy continued to call out to the Men of Oak. They ignored her. The Conroy house had its chance to obey, and one chance was all anyone ever got. Daniel tackled his wife before she got too far from the house. Lord knows what they might have done had she reached their group. She struggled mightily, almost escaping a couple of times, but Daniel was finally able to pull her back to the house. When they approached the door, they saw the symbol: an upside-down five-pointed star surrounded by a circle. Daniel did not have to guess the dark liquid substance that was used to create this most unholy work of art. Peggy noticed the symbol, and nearly broke free of Daniel’s grasp in a tantrum of panic.

Let me go! That’s the sign! Satan will kill us tonight! Let me go! Let me go!

Daniel got her inside and shut and barred the door.

“Enough of this! No one will kill us tonight! We will survive this night by using our minds.”

Daniel looked out the window.

“They’re gone,” he said.

“Only in body are they gone,” she said. Her voice a monotone of defeat and fatigue.

She got to her feet, and began to walk toward the children’s room. Daniel watched her walk away, wishing he could think of something to say that would raise her spirits. She stopped and turned to face him.

“One of us—perhaps all of us—will be dead by morning. You know that,” she said.

“I know only what the legends say.”

“How can you call it merely a legend? You’ve seen it proven true every year. Those who do not offer a sacrifice to the Men of Oak will have their home invaded by a demon of fear.”

“I’m not convinced that this evil force is more than the work of powerful imaginations!”

“Imagination or reality, what’s the difference? Those people are just as dead, just as surely as any one of us will be.”

Daniel did not have the energy to debate further.

“I’m going to the girls’ room,” she said as she turned away.

Daniel went to the bedroom and lay down to sleep. Although he felt unprotected by the empty space next to him where Peggy usually lay, he refused to let his mind be used as a weapon. How many of those other poor ignoramuses simply envisioned all the demonic assaults from the black corners of their minds until their overworked hearts simply gave out? Daniel Conroy had an education. He had been taught in the basics of science, mathematics and history, knowledge that he taught to the schoolchildren in his school in the hopes of turning them into people with reason, not emotion.

He looked at Peggy’s place in the bed. She would probably stay with the children all night. Finally, mercifully, he fell asleep.

Daniel sat up suddenly, wrenched from his sleep by something he could not identify. He looked around the room quickly, his breathing hurried. The unexplained reservoir of bravery that had fortified him in his confrontation with the Men of Oak had emptied. He was afraid again.

“Peggy?” His voice boomed in the darkness. A heavy blanket of silence gave him his only answer.

A noise came from the children’s bedroom. He threw back the covers and ran to the hall. The house was bathed in inky blackness. Not a candle burned anywhere. He tread lightly to the children’s bedroom, hoping to see his family sleeping soundly.

He sighed gratefully when he detected the outline of their bodies lying still on the floor. Peggy had a child under each arm. He smiled as he watched his family sleep.

His eyes began to adjust to the blackness as he watched them. As their shapes began to become more defined, he frowned.


He hoped to wake only her and not the children. Peggy did not respond. What was that on their clothes? He reached down to shake his wife awake. He jerked his hand back when it touched something wet. He didn’t have to see it in the light to know what it was.

“Oh, my God!”

Peggy’s eyes opened, and a faint red glow replaced her beautiful brown eyes.

I’m sorry, He’s not here! The sound coming out of his wife’s mouth sounded like a thousand raspy voices speaking underwater.

Daniel backed out of the room as his wife began to rise up. As he turned to run, he noticed the two girls stirring.

“It’s your imagination.” Daniel said, not quite believing himself.

Although determined not to let his imagination get the better of him, he found it hard to believe that his senses of sight, hearing and touch could all be conspiring against him.

“Only a dream, only a dream,” he said to himself as he ran down the hall. He pounded his fist against the walls as he ran, hoping to jar himself awake.

He had to run. Run! Anywhere! He collided with the door; the bar still securing it shut. He swore and desperately yanked the bar out of its rest. He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see his beloved family slowly marching toward him.


He flinched at the sound of the awful voice coming out of Peggy’s mouth. He ignored it and pulled the door open. A surge of relief swelled through him as the liberating cool air swirled around him.

He didn’t know where he was going. He just had to run. Only until daylight must he endure. At sunrise, evil’s playtime would be over. He glanced behind as he ran, seeing the bloody trio growing fainter as they continued to walk after him at their demonically confident pace.

The grass grew taller and trees surrounded him as he entered the woods. Here he could hide. The Men of Oak were no doubt down near the village, demanding their hideous sacrifice.

He leaned against a tree to rest and listen. The woods were quiet, which worried him. Normally, the woods would be alive with sound. He heard soft footsteps again.

Their eyes glowed red in the darkness. He held his breath and waited, hoping they would not see him. They walked in his direction as if they knew where he hid.

Daniel did not panic. He only need run for a little while longer. The Sun would save him soon.

He took three steps and found himself swept up into the air in a large net. He thrashed about, trying to escape, only to find himself more entangled. He gave up and looked about. He dangled about eight feet off the ground. Peggy and the girls stood still, staring straight ahead.

Peggy!” he screamed, hoping to snap her out of her possession.

Peggy continued to stare straight ahead.

He opened his mouth to scream again, when the forest started to move. The sounds were familiar—wood creaking and groaning, as if the trees were stretching awake from a deep sleep. Several of the surrounding trees began to shrink and change their shape. Their sinister limbs drew in closer to the trunk until they vanished. Some of the limbs did not vanish. They began to look like . . .

“Arms!” Daniel squinted to make sure he was not hallucinating.

The trees were changing their shape, quickly now they became men in black robes.

Daniel began to struggle even more desperately than before in a futile attempt to escape the netting that held him.

The Men stepped forward until they formed a circle. In the center of the circle, Daniel’s wife and children stood directly under him. Knowing that escape was impossible, he collapsed in exhaustion and waited to see what happened next. Sunrise had to come at any moment.

The Men began to chant, and seconds later a searing column of flame burst through the ground. Daniel cried out, begging his family to run away. They did not move. They stood calmly and quietly as the flames consumed their clothing, then their flesh. The intense heat soon reduced his wife and daughters to a smoldering pile of charred bones.

Daniel wept in his roped cage. He felt himself being lowered toward the flames. He struggled harder than ever before, as the heat and smoke choked his lungs. He prayed desperately for sunrise. It had to come soon.

It had to.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Byron's Last Ride

“Never fails to take your breath away, does it?”

Byron’s father spoke of the stunning view of Earth from the panoramic viewing window in the orbital dwelling they called home.

“No,” Byron answered.

Two hundred and fifty miles below, Planet Earth sailed along regally in space. Byron’s finger tapped idly on the slender glass in his hand as he watched the passing continents and oceans. Thirty years of living had not dulled his appreciation for the sight.

He listened to the sounds of laughter, conversation and clinking glasses emanating from the reception being held in his honor. Pleasant music from a corner stereo filled up any remaining pockets of silence.

“How do you feel?” his father asked.

“Good. I really feel good,” It was an honest answer.

“What did the doctor say?”

"I have about a week before things get really bad."

His father quaffed the rest of his drink. “Any symptoms yet?”

“Minor ones. Nothing debilitating. Not yet.”

“I see.”

“How’s Mom?”

Byron’s father glanced behind to the gathering of people in the elegantly decorated apartment. He caught sight of Byron’s beautiful mother making the rounds, visiting and thanking people for coming.

“She’s fine. Disappointed, of course, but fine. No parent ever expects their child to take the ride before they do.”

“I know.”

The two men resumed their silent gaze of Earth.

“Do you ever regret not growing up on Earth?” his father asked.


“Me, too. Where would you have chosen to live?”

Byron thought for a moment. Africa.”


“Yes. I fell in love with it during our vacation there. That would have been my home.”


“Sometimes, I wonder what it would have been like to walk on its soil or swim in its rivers and lakes. Just once, I wish I could have done all that under my own power, without those cursed machines.”

Their orbital home rotated at a velocity that provided gravity at two-thirds that of Earth. While it gave space-dwellers prolonged life by sparing them the harmful effects of Earth gravity, it robbed their bodies of the ability to withstand Earth’s gravitational pull, and they were forced to move about on Earth with the aid of walking machines. It was the price space-dwellers paid for their longer lives.

A man in a gray and blue bodysuit wove through the crowd toward Byron. Heads turned and people whispered as he went by. He stood next to Byron, gave a slight nod of the head and left as briskly as he arrived. Byron turned to his father.

“It’s time,” Byron said. “It's ready.”

His father turned and faced the gathering.

“My friends! May I have your attention please?”

The dull chattering died down.

“Thank you all for coming. As you know, we are here to say farewell to our friend and son, Byron.”

Polite applause swept through the room.

“I’m sure most of us thought we would see the Great Beyond long before Byron. Byron always was the impatient one. Born premature, graduated early . . . I guess this is the proper order of things.”

Muted laughter followed as Byron smiled.

“I could go on, but I suppose that wouldn’t be appropriate. I’m afraid that bittersweet hour is upon us. I ask you all to say your quick goodbye as you make your way home. Thank you again.”

People set their glasses down and quickly formed a line to shake Byron’s hand or give him a hug as they left the reception. There no tears, only smiles, well wishes and a few expressions of jealousy. In a matter of minutes, Byron and his parents were alone in the apartment he had called home most of his life. The official returned.

Byron took one last look around the apartment, remembering holidays, conversations and other random memories that leapt out, demanding to be considered one last time.

Byron turned to take in one more look at Earth. The ride would leave with the planet at his back, so this was his last opportunity. Africa slowly made its way across the viewing window. He studied the brown terrain, trying to pinpoint an area he might have called his own. He focused on a green area near a lake. That would have been the place.

He turned away and left with his parents to follow the official. They walked down a quiet, carpeted hallway. The group stopped before an unmarked door. The official tapped a code into a keypad, and the door whisked open. The official led Byron and his parents into a small foyer. He opened a second door and turned to Byron.

“I’ll be in here when you’re ready.”

He stepped through the doorway, leaving them alone. Byron shifted his weight, wondering what to say.

“How long do you think you’ll wait?” his father asked. His mother looked curious.

“Well . . . I don’t know. To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought.”

“You ought to at least wait until you’ve passed the Moon,” his mother said.

“Oh, yes!” his father said. “I’ve heard it’s a grand sight as you fly over. They always salute the pods flying by.”


“Absolutely, they give you a ‘Fare Thee Well’ with strobe lights and spotlights as you pass over. I wouldn’t miss it.”

“I don’t think I will.”

They stood in silence. Byron’s father extended his hand, and Byron took it. Byron’s smile faded to a look of nostalgic sadness.

“Goodbye, son,” his father said with more of a croak in his voice than he was comfortable with.

“Goodbye, dad.”

His mother hugged him tightly around the neck. “We’re so proud of you. We’ll miss you!”

“I’ll miss you, too, Mom.”

They stood facing each other.

“Well, then,” his father said, standing up straight. “We’d best be going.”

“Okay,” Byron said. “I’ll see you on the other side?”

“You can count on it,” his father said.

His mother smiled, and Bryon felt relief that he detected only the slightest bit of sadness behind it.

They turned and walked out of the room without a backward glance.

Byron entered the next room and saw the one-person pod sitting in the center of a small hangar. The official stood outside the tiny spacecraft typing instructions into a computer housed in a side panel. The pod stood about ten feet high, and widened to about twelve feet wide at the center.

“Ah, hello, Byron,” the official said as he closed the lid that protected the computer. “Are you ready?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Right this way.”

The official led Byron to the entrance of the pod. Byron mounted three steps and entered a small cockpit. He saw computers and machines similar to the ones in his apartment.

“All the amenities are here. Food processors here, toilet facilities through that hatch on the left. If you’ll just go through that opening to your right . . .”

Byron went through the opening and settled into the chair in the cockpit. The official leaned in and strapped Byron to the chair. He tugged at the restraints, making sure they were snug.


“Oh, yes. Very comfortable.”

“This will be where you spend most of your time,” the official said. “The chair reclines for you to sleep.”


“Everything is automated, navigation included. We will not initiate contact under any circumstances.”

“I understand.”

“If you need to contact us for any reason, just use voice command on the computer.”

“Got it.”

“If you want to read a book or view a film on the display screen, just speak the commands like you would at home, and the computer will do the rest. There’s a food and drink console to your right. The only thing you have to activate manually is the sleep button.”

The official pointed to a red, plastic-capped button to his right. That was the button that would end the ride. Byron stifled a chuckle at the term “sleep button.”

“When you feel that it’s time, take this key—“ he held up a small brass key on a chain, “and unlock the cap. Your thumbprint is coded into the computer. You must hold your thumb on the button for five seconds.” He placed the key ring around Byron’s neck.

“What happens then?”

“You won’t feel anything. The sleep air is colorless and odorless. After you press the button, you’ll fall asleep.”

“Then what?”

“When the pod’s computers no longer detect vital signs, it will self-destruct.”

“I see.”

“Any more questions?”

“Just one. How long do people wait before they . . . “

“It’s always different. Some wait hours, some wait days. Some have even waited years.”


“It depends on the individual and their ailment. If you’re asking my advice, I’d say hold out until your symptoms begin to cause you discomfort. It’s quite a view.”

“So I’m told.”

“Anything else?”

Byron sighed heavily, excited and nervous at the same time. “No. I don’t think so.”

“In that case, I’ll seal you in.”

“Thank you.”

The Official shook Byron’s hand. “Sail on, my friend. And remember, a man’s life is his own.”

“Thank you.”

The Official ducked out of the pod and shut and sealed the hatch. Byron watched with fascination as the hangar doors slowly slid open, revealing the Moon framed by a glittering carpet of stars. It did not quite match the splendor of the view he had of Earth, but it would certainly do.

The pod eased forward as the small engines gained power. When the pod floated free from the hangar, the engines activated, and the pod darted away. Although the pod’s propulsion started with moderate power, it slowly gained momentum until the craft bulleted through space toward the Moon.

A gentle wave of contentment settled over Byron as he contemplated the view before him. Although the Moon slowly grew larger, the stars didn’t change. He wished he had the time to approach the nearest star.

He looked down to the computer screen, situated below the viewing window. The word COMMAND? flashed on the blue square.

“Open Library,” he said.

Complying. Book or article?”


Fiction or non-fiction?


Please state desired author or title. Or begin general search.

Byron thought for a moment. He wanted to hear something old. Something before space travel and space living was a way of life for humanity. Something written when the concept of humans traveling in space was a silly idea. For that, he would have to go back centuries. But how many? He could ask the computer, but he wanted to try to remember on his own. When did humans first fly into space? If his knowledge of history served him, he estimated it was the middle of the twentieth century. The computer patiently waited for his command.

“Scan first half of twentieth century, recommend titles alluding to space travel . . .”

He looked up at the glowing white sphere.

“ . . . the Moon in particular.”

Moments later, the computer spoke. Recommended title: First Men on the Moon, author, Herbert George Wells.

Byron nodded in satisfaction. “Accepted. Begin reading.”

A pleasant female voice began to read the tale as Byron settled back to watch the Moon get larger.

As I sit down to write here amidst the shadows . . .

As the narration continued, he passed over the Moon.

His father had been right. The passage over the moon was spectacular. The docking stations and tall buildings greeted his passage with a dazzling array of flashing lights.

The voice continued to read. It had read the same title five times, but Byron had yet to tire of it. The more he listened, the more exciting his journey became. Feeling like a fool, but not really caring, he waved to the inhabitants of the moon colonies. He was certain that somewhere down there, people were waving to him. The pod quickly passed over the Moon, and the sparkling light display was suddenly over. He leaned back into his chair, and he heard the voice reciting what he now knew to be the last few paragraphs.

The Moon was gone from the dark, sparkling canvas ahead, and the interior of his pod grew dark. He smiled contentedly as he listened to the story. It was said—although Byron had no idea how anyone would know—that those on their last Ride always knew when it was time. It did not matter, Byron supposed. They were right.

He removed the key chain from around his head and inserted the key into the plastic cap covering the Sleep Button. He turned the key, and the cap fell away. His thumb hovered over the button as he wondered what his last thoughts should be. He thought of old friends. He thought of Africa. When he thought of Mom and Dad, his thumb settled on the button. He heard a soft hiss as the air began to change. He settled back into his chair and immediately began to feel drowsy. He could not help but marvel at the speed with which it worked. He felt so tired. His eyelids grew irresistibly heavy, and he drifted into sleep.

The voice continued to read his selected book as a second voice spoke over it.

Life signals no longer detected. Disintegration sequence initiated.”

The pod began to rumble and shake as it began the process of destroying itself. Just before it completed its final duty, before the craft and its occupant became part of the universe, the first engaging voice concluded its narration.

. . . out of all speech or sign of his fellows, for evermore into the Unknown—into the dark, into that silence that has no end.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Disquieting Experimenters

Witch blood. Populace disgrace. Decay where conclaves. Unhallowed be pillars grow? Gray seed boy to the exhibit.

Bones along kitchen?

Terror out! Flamboyant, alone, called unexplainable. Some grinned! His that three hills and poor countryfolk.

Thought something outside.

Cheap in discovering monstrous gate! Earth’s truest sight.

Obscenely still.

Horror them! Village and show God. Born three mountains! August outcome. Third, roused from scream!

The of, indeed, for unmistakably, for back with whine sounds among shrubbery!

Summoned aloud! Trembling, when fallen the instrument.

Undecayed much, than wholly voices.

Something horrible to lead?

Expectancy to revelation?

Morning, where distant of human useless bar. Horror, and that wilder away cease! It seen and tortured room?

Disquieting experimenters.

Blood there.

Death found that countryside.


Horror somewhere?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

There's a Clown at the Door

“Dad, there’s a clown at the door.”

Ted sighed at the declaration by his 6-year-old son, Bradley, who’d been telling a lot of whoppers lately. Ted sat up straight on the couch, ready to upbraid his son for lying and interrupting the football game when he heard his wife’s voice echo in his skull.

It’s just a phase. Don’t get so upset. Just humor him until it goes away.

“A clown, huh?” he asked, his voice straining to maintain a patient tone.

“Yup.” Bradley’s voice had not a hint of humor.

The front door stood to the left of his son, beyond a small patio. To his right, the stairs and the hallway to the kitchen. Behind him, the dining room. He faced into the living room, where his father tried to watch the television. Ted could not see the front door from where he sat.

“What does he want?”

“He wants to take Molly for a ride.”

Molly, Bradley’s 2-year-old sister. Ted rolled his eyes.

That kid. He considered a lecture about the dangers of constantly telling fibs, even in jest. However, the sounds of a roaring stadium crowd from the television caught his attention, and he eased back down onto the couch.

“Okay, fine. Let him take Molly for a ride.”

He heard Bradley’s pajama-covered feet quickly thump up the stairs. By the time they came thumping back down—his footsteps a little slower— Ted was once again oblivious to everything but down and yardage.

It remained silent for the rest of the first half, but not two minutes into the third quarter, Ted’s lazy Monday night was interrupted again.

“Dad, the clown’s back.”

Fully willing to play along now in the interest of getting rid of his pest of a son, he amiably said, “What does he want now?”

“He wants to take Patrick for a ride, too.”

“Patrick, eh?”


“First your little sister, and now your little brother?”


“Where is the clown going to take them?”

“I don’t know. Just for a ride.”

“When is he bringing them back?”

“He isn’t.”

Ted sat up, looking back over the couch at his son with bemused curiosity. “You mean he’s going to keep them?”

“I guess.”

“Well, why don’t you go ask the clown what he is going to do with your brother and sister if he isn’t bringing them back.”


Before Ted could say another word, Bradley padded off toward the front door. He heard his son scamper through the patio, heard the creak of the front door opening and heard Bradley’s voice. He listened with small concern for another voice, but heard no one else. He chuckled to himself as Bradley came trotting back into the living room.


“He said he isn’t bringing them back because he’s hungry.”

Ted’s face drew into an offended scowl. “Bradley, that’s not a very nice joke to make.”

“Sorry,” Bradley said with the voice of someone unfairly accused.

Ted rubbed his temple, his wife’s words ringing in his conscious.

“Can Patrick go too?” his son prodded.

“Yes,” Ted almost barked. Bradley ran off again.

Ted returned to his game, and threw his arms up in frustration as the replay showed the trick play paying off big. He quaffed the last warm swallow of his beer, and considered going for another when he heard soft footsteps again. He decided to lay low until his son finally decided to retire to his room for awhile.

It was peaceful for almost another hour. Ted moaned and squeezed his eyes shut when he heard Bradley coming into the living room again.


“What does the clown want now?”

“He wants mom to go with him now.”

“Well, you don’t have to ask me for that. Go ask her.”

Prepare to take your own medicine, Honey.

“She’s asleep.”

“In that case, don’t wake her up.”

“But, what should I tell the clown?”

Ted felt himself on the very edge of sanity. When would this kid tire of his relentless fantasizing?

“Tell the clown to go wake your mother up and ask her himself.”

Ted chuckled as Bradley jogged off.

He woke with a flinch as the crowd erupted in cheers again. He glanced at the VCR clock. He’d dosed off for nearly twenty minutes. A loud thump sounded from upstairs, and Ted sat up.


Bradley ran into the living room. “Yeah?”

“What was that noise?”

“Oh, that’s just the clown. He’s up in your bedroom getting mom.”

Ted sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Bradley, that’s enough. It’s time for bed. Now, I want you to stop all of this. It’s late, and I don’t want you waking up your mother. You know she has to get up early every day.”

“What should I tell the clown?”

At that moment, Ted thought he might very well explode, but he somehow found a way to cap off the steam.

“Bradley,” he said very patiently, “I want you to tell the clown to bring everyone back and go home. It’s time for you to go to bed.

“But, mom’s just leaving for her ride with the clown!”

Ted didn’t know how much longer he could play along. The escalating crowd noise told him he was missing another amazing play. He gave a dismissive wave of the hand. “Fine. Let mom take her ride. You go to bed.”


Ted sighed with relief as Bradley left. He had never seen such an active imagination, not even in himself when he was that age. He had just resettled himself into the couch when Bradley came into the living room again.

“Dad? Can I ask you one more thing?”

Ted summoned all his willpower. “Yes?”

“The clown wants to know if you’ll go for a ride, too.”

“No. I’m not getting up. Sorry. Tell him no.”

Ted waited for a few seconds. Bradley thumped to the front door and quickly thumped back.

“He said he’ll carry you. You don’t have to get up.”

Ted chuckled in helpless frustration. “Okay then. Tell the clown to get in here and carry me away.”

Bradley ran out of the room. Ted heard the front door open and shut with a thud. He heard Bradley making his way back to the living room. Only this time, something was different. He didn’t hear the soft pat of his son’s feet. These steps were much heavier, louder and spaced further apart. Ted giggled to himself as he imagined his overly creative son trying his best to mimic the long, heavy strides of an adult. Ted shook his head and grinned as the footsteps reached the couch.

That kid.