Saturday, August 29, 2015

Flash Fiction Friday, Week 1: One, Two, Three...

To celebrate the return of Flash Fiction Friday, for this one occasion, I decided to resurrect the following story that I believe really fits into the slot of this week's prompt. Please enjoy.

One, Two, Three...

I stepped out into the frigid cold, instinctively I cowered into the depths of my heavy coat, shoving bare hands deep into its pockets. I couldn’t remember if I wiped down with my sleeve whatever I had touched, but there couldn’t have been that much. After all, I was only inside a minute or two. I was sure no one saw me, especially with this near-blizzard snowfall going on. Most people are safe and warm at home on this dreadful night. I would have been too if the evil man hadn’t taken it from me. It was supposed to be mine. I needed it to be mine. But, he wouldn’t give it up, so I took it. And now it is. Mine. It wasn’t my fault, but I’m sure you know that. If he had just given to me what was rightfully mine, I wouldn’t have had to follow him home to confront him about it. He kept trying to push me back outside and saying he was going to call the police and have me arrested. Arrested? Me? For what? Taking what was meant to be mine to begin with? No. I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t listen. He pushed me really hard against the wall by the door, and so I hit him in the head with the ashtray on the small table by his front door three---one, two, three times. It was all his fault though, but I’m sure you know that. When I got back to my flat, I took one last peek over my shoulder, but I hadn’t been followed. I took it from my pants pocket, where it had been brought safely to its new home, and I placed it with the other two. Then, they were three---one, two, three.

I should be calmer now, but I am not certain how to work my way through the events of today. All should have been complete this evening, but the evil man almost ruined everything. When I went out to the grocery this morning and I passed the novelty shop on the corner, I saw them and knew they had to be mine. One was red, one was blue and one was green. I went into the shop and I asked the man behind the counter how much he wanted for them all. There were three---one, two three of them, you see. He told me they were the last of their kind and once he sold them, there would be no more. He wanted $10 for the whole set because he told me that they play a little tune when you use them. I told him I didn’t care about any little tune. I just needed to have them all, but I didn’t have all of the $10. I asked the man if I could get two of them and come back this evening for the other and he said that would be fine. I was so excited. I took the red one and the blue one home and put them on a stand I made for them and it was so sad because there was one empty place. But not for long.

It had already begun to snow, but I needed to get the rest of the $10, so I locked up my flat with all three---one, two, three locks because you just never knew about people. My landlady is the only one I ever allow in my flat to see all my sets, and she promised she wouldn’t tell anyone that I had them. They are all such beautiful and perfect things. Three---one, two, three in all of them. I have china dolls, I have pens and pencils, I have mugs, I have drinking glasses (although I would never drink out of them), and so many others. All the same---all the last of their kind---all sets of three---one, two, three---all mine. And one empty space. So sad.

By the time I got outside, it was already hard to see with the snow coming down so heavily. Even though it was so cold, I decided to walk to the train station to get the rest of the money that I needed. The train station was a long walk for me, but I was certain I would be able to get the rest of the money I needed there, especially today. When the weather was bad, a lot more people were in the train station and they were all in such a hurry and not calm and it was easy for me to get some money. Sometimes people would just give me money if I asked them for it after I explained that I needed it to complete a set of three---one, two, three. Other times though, I had to take it from them because I needed it to complete my sets and they didn’t. When I got there this time, there was so many people, and they were all in such a hurry and running around. No one was being very nice and I didn’t want to take the time to explain why I needed it, so I decided to just take it. There was a woman on Track 9 standing by herself talking on one of those phones you can take out of your house and still talk. I walked up behind her, pulled her purse off her arm and stabbed her three---one, two, three times with the nice sharp knife I take with me when I go out because you just never know about people. When you do it from behind them, you don’t get any of their blood on your clothes, which is a good thing because then you’d have to take your coat off before you could go anywhere else, and I couldn’t do that. I only had three---one, two, three coats on and there was no way I could have taken one off, but you already knew that. I pushed her down onto the tracks and no one even noticed. People never do when they are in such a hurry and running around. 

I took her wallet and dropped her purse onto the tracks and went outside and saw that there would be enough money for me to get it. I practically ran to the novelty shop and I was ready to get it so I could complete my set, but the evil man was in there and he already had it in his hand. I told him he couldn’t have it and that it belonged to me and that the man behind the counter said he would keep it just for me. But they both laughed at me, and the man behind the counter said whoever had the money could buy whatever he had. I told him it wasn’t right. I told him I already had the other two and now I had the money to get number three---one, two, three and he couldn’t let someone else take it. The evil man told me he had already paid for it and I couldn’t have it and put it in his pocket and walked out of the store. The man behind the counter came around to where I was standing and told me to get out of his store and not to bother him anymore. I stabbed him three---one, two, three times with the same knife I stabbed the woman at the train station, but it wasn’t my fault, but you already know that. I got some blood on me that time, but it was snowing so hard, you couldn‘t really see it. Besides, I had to go after the evil man. He still had it. 

I saw him walking and that was good because I always walk. He turned down the next street and went up to one of the houses and I was right behind him. After he unlocked the door and started to go inside, I went in right after him. You already know what happened after I went in, but it wasn’t my fault, but you already knew that.

The longer the green one is where it belongs with the other two, the calmer I am beginning to feel. All is never right with the world until there are three---one, two, three. I am truly enjoying looking at my new yo-yo’s. I wonder if someone else will be taking over the novelty shop soon. I didn’t have to wait too long after the last time this happened…

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Inkitt: My New Favorite Spot to Read and Write

In case you are not familiar with it yet, let me clue you in on a new (to me, anyway) site.  It's Inkit, and it is a community for writers and readers alike.  As a writer, you can post your work and receive feedback from the community.  As a reader, you can enjoy the work of some very talented individuals in a variety of forms and genres, then provide your input and support.  What's going on over at Inkitt on any given day?  More than you can imagine.

First, let's take a look at all the genres available for posting and reading:

1.  Horror
2.  Fan Fiction
3.  Fantasy
4.  Sci-Fi
5.  Thriller
6.  Mystery
7.  Humor

Something for everyone, right?  Absolutely.

Next, there are several groups:

1.  Feedback and Reviews (Are you looking to borrow another pair of eyes or do you need reviews on your story*)

2.  Introduce Yourself (Hello stranger!  I'd love to get to know you so tell me your story*)

3.  Support and Feature Requests (Report technical meltdowns and great ideas for improvements of the product.  Get updates about new features*)

4.  Writing Contests (Ask or share anything regarding our Inkitt contests*)

5.  Writing and Editing (Discuss plots, styles, writer's block, grammar, technical and creative writing*)

*Description directly from the site.

And last, but most certainly not least, the specific Writing Contests.  Currently, there are six running, each with no entry fee.  For specifics, click on the description.

1.  Mystery/Thriller, 8/17/15 to 9/17/15.
2.  Humor, 8/7/15 to 9/7/15.
3.  Sci-Fi, 8/7/15 to 10/7/15.
4.  Paranormal/Supernatural, 7/24/15 to 9/24/15.
5.  Historical Fiction, 7/24/15 to 9/24/15.
6.  Fantasy, 8/24/15 to 9/24/15.

Again.  Something for everyone, right?  Positively.

Make sure you check out Inkitt.  I'm sure glad I did!

The Good Neighbor

Hello.  I'm so happy you decided to stop by to visit.  I'm always interested in meeting new people.  Please sit down, dear, and I'll make you a cup of hot cocoa.  That's always a nice treat on a chilly winter's day.

Let me begin by telling you a bit about myself.  My complete Christian name is Henrietta Marjorie Corcoran.  I am 62 years old and a retired school teacher.  I was married to Mr. Kenneth David Corcoran for going on 40 years.  He passed on, oh my, it's already been 10 years now.  He was such a good man -- responsible, hard-working, honest, and so helpful to anyone who needed it.  We bought the house on Maple Trail a year after we were married and the mister and I lived there together up until he died, and then I stayed on alone right up until all this bad business with the neighbors.

How's your cocoa,, dearie?  You ready for a refill?  You're alright then, so I'll continue.

Mr. Corcoran had always taken pride in his garden.  The problem really began when his arthritis took a real hold on him.  He was always in a terrible amount of pain whenever he tried to use his hands and he got so he just decided to give up, I think.  He stopped tending his flowers and vegetables and the darn weeds just took over and turned it ugly.  I never cared much for gardening, so I did the only thing I could do to rid the yard of that ugly patch.

After I disposed of Mr. Corcoran, I paid some high school boys a few dollars to dig up all those unsightly growths and set them out for the trash men to see to.  Mr. Corcoran fit nicely in our deep freeze out in the shed so it really wasn't any trouble at all.  Everyone else in the cove had kept their lots up; I couldn't let ours be the exception.

Life went along swimmingly until that terrible woman moved in next door.  My good friend, Helen, who had lived in that house, had fallen down her basement stairs a couple of months before, and her son sold it on the first offer.  He hadn't even met the woman who bought his mother's house -- did it all with lawyers.  That's how communities go to the dogs, you see.  There's no direct contact between buyer and seller, and you think a decent human being will now be residing in your dead mother's home, but instead, what moves in is just plain trash, pure and simple,

It's funny how you take care of one problem and along comes another right behind it.  Helen was as sweet as pie until she fell under the spell of the drink. She stopped trimming her grass and bushes and when she put out her cans on pick-up day, they overflowed onto the sidewalk.  That's when I decided she needed a reminder of how a good neighbor keeps up with their own.  She wasn't able to keep up with our conversation so I decided she should probably surrender responsibility for the house.  The stairs were quick and quiet.

When her son came and did all the trimming, I thought things would get back to the way they should be, but then he sold it to that horrible woman.  Cars parking all over the front yard on an the sidewalk during her Saturday night get-togethers.  That's what she called them when I went over to welcome her to the neighborhood and try to explain how things were.  She laughed at me -- at me, and called me awful names and tried to push me out the door.  This was not a fit individual for our community, and measures needed to be taken.

When she turned to go back into the kitchen, I picked up the knife that was laying on top of some boxes.  They're very useful for cutting through packing tape, you know.  Anyway, I pushed the knife in sort of off center toward her left shoulder and she went down without a sound.  It wasn't hard either.  That was just the right spot.  But, how was I to know one of her men from last night's get-together was still there and saw the whole thing.  Most unfortunate.

And so, here we are now.  They put me in this cramped little room to wait.  All this time to wait.  For what?  For them to give me a shot so they can put me to sleep like you do to a dog or a cat or something.  And why?  All because I tried to do the right thing.  Listen, hon, when you tell my story, please make sure you let everyone know that I was only trying to keep things clean and safe in my community.  That's all.  Just trying to be a good neighbor.

Dim Tim and Jukebox Johnny

Oh yeah.  This day's gone straight to hell.  Got to figure out how a simple 'go and get' went so sour.

Let me introduce myself.  Name's Jukebox Johnny.  Folks call me "jukebox' since these feet don't go near a joint unless there's a box of tunes in it.  And, 'Johnny'?  Well, that's my name.  My partner?  He goes by 'Dim Tim'.  Before you get your nose out of joint, that ain't a put-down, like I'm saying he's a dummy.  He is a dummy, but he follows orders good, and he's got a punch like those rods the dicks use when they're raiding Mr. G's game parlors.  It don't hurt his feelings, since no one knows better than Tim what a low watt he is.

Let me tell you about Mr. G.  He's the man -- really, and Tim and I work for him.  See, Mr. G don't like to get his hands dirty, so when somebody needs a lesson taught or a remind made, that's where we come in.  There's one other thing about Mr. G.  He has a different sense of humor and has to get the last laugh.  How?  Cross him, and he'll have your lips removed and put in a jar.  I heard he keeps the jars somewhere in his office.  I've never seen them, but my sources are good.

Back to figuring out how this day ended up so fucked.  The job was simple enough.  Mr. G hired a floater to pick up his cash.  Now, a floater don't belong to one crew; he just does for whoever.  Trouble with this one, Artsy Arty, he hadn't done much for anyone to build a rep, so he was kind of taken on cold.  See?

Why 'Artsy Arty'?  No matter what the job, if some beatnick lumped up some clay or dripped paint on a bed sheet and set it up on a corner. Arty'd stop and scope it out.  Shows, they call them, but it's nothing but crap really.  But Arty couldn't pass them up, so he's 'Artsy' Arty.  And 'Arty'?  Probably just his name.

So, he decided to get Mr. G's cash, but not do the deliver part.  Word went around that this mo was going to skip with Mr. G's green, so all the crews did a hands off.  Until he could connect with some ijit who didn't have the sense God gave him not to help somebody who'd cross Mr. G, he figured he'd just stash the bills in a locker.

We were sent to get the cash.  Tim and me were having a cup of joe at the diner on Fifth, and out of the storage place, comes Arty, balls of steel, like he's taking a stroll down the lane.  We come up on him and damn, if there wasn't a shitload of that fuckin' hippie crap all out on the sidewalk.  There was also a boatload of people, so Arty blends.  I went in one end and Tim in the other, thinking we'll meet up with Arty in the middle.

To be straight, it was tough to focus because the junk was all hands.  Yep.  I said hands.  Pictures of hands, sculptures of hands, snapshots of hands -- nothing but hands.  That tic in my left eye started to come back, when I saw Tim grab Arty and move him to the street.  Just then, this punk pushed his way by, jumped in a cab and yelled for the driver to get him to the airport fast.  Sorta wish I had a plane to catch about now...

Where was I?  Oh yeah.  We took Arty someplace quiet.  Couldn't figure him because he should've been pissin' his pants, but he kept laughing.  Laughing when Tim nabbed him, all the way to the warehouse, and while standing on a chair with a rope around his neck.  Tim and I both had frisked him good, but no key, and he wouldn't spill.  Went right from the storage place to the hand show to the chair.  So, what did he do with the locker key?

I guess I got kinda excited because I jiggled the chair too hard and his feet slipped off and, well, bad news for Arty.  But, worse news for Tim and me.  No Mr. G's money.

So, now, we sit, Tim and I, in Mr. G's office.  Trying to figure out what to say so we can save our skin -- well, not our skin, exactly.  I touched my lips with my fingers so I'd remember them later, when I heard Tim laugh.  Now, I have as much of a sense of humor as the next fella, but what the fuck was so funny?

I admit, there are times when I wish I wasn't so much of a sophisticate as I am, and was just a short stack like Tim.  Maybe then, I wouldn't be shaking in my fucking shoes.  He told me he remembered how he found Arty, all over a sculpture of a hand - like feeling it up.  Sorry, I didn't get the joke, until Tim corrected himself.  Arty wasn't making his move on a hand.  It was a fist.  Okay then.  What the fuck...

Arty was feeling up a...a fist?  Fuck me until a week from Tuesday.  That's what he did with the motherfucking key.  He put it in the fist.  All we had to do now was go to the corner, slide the key outa the fist, and get the money.  I stood up, and was gonna say we needed to go before Mr. G came, when Tim started laughing harder.  Said he didn't understand people, like that chump who almost knocked me down.  How he grabbed the fist, threw money down, and jumped in that cab.  I sat back down.

Since I hadn't actually seen it, Tim made my day with one last gem.

"You know," he said.  "On that statue of the fist, the middle finger was up."

I didn't say anything, but somehow, I'd already known.

Finder's Keepers

Abner Fendal felt like he hadn't eaten for days.  He couldn't remember the last time he had been this hungry.  Sissy had scolded him severely the last time she came by to check on him and had found his refrigerator and cupboards to be empty.  He really didn't like it very much when she went through his things.  Her nosing around in his kitchen was violation enough; but when she did her, as she called them, inspections on his living room, bathroom and bedroom, it was all he could do to restrain himself from telling her to leave and never come back.  He knew she would have never have tolerated his behaving that rudely, and would most likely have retaliated by forcing him to move back in with her and her family.  Abner really enjoyed being his own person and having his own place and had decided long ago never to do or say anything that might make Sissy question his ability to live independently.  If she just didn't always touch everything...

Mother had known the value in having one's own personal bits of life.  That's what she had always called them -- bits of life.  The few times she had come upon him in her room when he had disobeyed her and tried to touch some of the pieces in her special box, she had explained to him how evil it was to put your hands on other people's special things.  Evil it was, because it resulted in your taking a bit of the life from them for yourself.  She would then lock him in that dark little room in the basement that Daddy had built special for naughty boys -- the one that had the voice coming through the wall telling him over and over what a bad boy he really was.

After a couple of days, she would retrieve him, give him his bath and a hearty meal.  That was the best part, Abner remembered with a smile.  When the door opened and she was standing there with her arms reaching out for him - the voice had stopped by then, and he would run to her for his good-boy-now hug and kisses.  When Mother had come to retrieve Daddy after having locked him in the dark room for being a naughty boy, he hadn't run to her for his good-boy-now hug and kisses.  Mother said he he hadn't run to her at all.  Abner had never seen Daddy again after that.  Mother said he wasn't strong like Abner and told Abner not to think about Daddy ever again.  Soon, Daddy's things began disappearing from around the house and memories of him began to fade.  Abner was happy to see them go.  Mother was right.  He was the strong one.  And would always be.  For Her.

Abner remembered how Mother had never paid much mind to Sissy.  She had been fed and cared for alright as was expected, but Mother had never taken her on their special outings or given her a special box, nor had she ever explained to Sissy how to take care of the treasures stored within.  When Mother had died so long ago in her bed, Abner had taken her special box for his own and hidden it from Sissy.  He had taken each item in his hands and felt the life flow into him from each one; a necklace, a small comb, a bottle cap, an ink pen -- so many bits of life that she had gathered.  Sissy would have questioned where each item had come from, and would never have understood Mother's and his special times together.  He had kept his special box hidden from her all these years and wasn't about to let her spoil everything now.  At least Sissy checked on him on the same day at the same time so he could make sure his special box was secure from her prying eyes.  But she was getting suspicious lately since he had forgotten to keep food in the house and when she got that way, she would open drawers and closets and look under and behind and pull out and push in...  Abner shuddered, barely able to picture the horror of it all.  He made up his mind that after work today, he would stop at Mr. Granger's grocery on the corner and pick up a few things to put in the refrigerator and the cupboards.  When Sissy came by next time, she would look and touch and violate, but she would be satisfied and go away.

Abner looked at the wall clock above the stove.  Time to finish my breakfast, clean up and get on to work.  Abner enjoyed his job at the flower shop.  Sissy's husband had arranged for him to work there so he could get his own little place and wouldn't have to be under foot there with them.  That's what he had said to Abner, 'under foot', and Abner hadn't really understood what he had meant by that, but didn't think it was nice.  Didn't matter though.  Abner had his job watering the plants out back and got his pay every week and was able to pay for his own place.  It was small, but it was his, and that was all that mattered, and he wasn't 'under foot' anymore.  Maybe he would ask Mr. Granger what that meant when he went to pick up some groceries, if he remembered to do it.  Maybe he would.

Abner washed and dried all the dishes, frying pan and silverware and put them all away.  He wiped down the table and counters and took a step back to admire a job well done.  Perfect, he thought, absolutely.  The people who live here will never know that I was here.  One last chore though.  He had to find a little bit of life here to take with him just as he and Mother had done on their outings.  Abner looked around the living room and made his way over to a desk that was placed next to a large picture window.  The sun was peeking in through the slit in the curtains and something shiny on the corner of the desk caught his eye.  When he saw it, he knew this was it -- this was the bit of their lives he would take, a large gold paper clip.  Abner thought it probably was used as some type of book place-keeper or stack of paper binding, but it was so beautiful and shiny.  As he held it in his hands, he felt the lives and thought again of Mother and how he missed her on this, and all his outings.  But, no time for that now.  He needed to hurry so as not to be late for his job.  He exited the house as he had entered, through an unlocked window in one of the back bedrooms.  People should really keep their homes more secure, he thought, all my windows are always locked.

*         *         *

Sissy's visit this week was most annoying.  While she was nosing around Abner's own personal home, looking under and around, pushing and grabbing, touching and shaking, she kept talking.  Talking and talking and talking -- all about some person who was breaking into people's own personal homes and taking their own personal things and then killing whoever lived there.  This was a dangerous and disturbed person, she kept saying, someone who did not belong in civilized society, someone who should be locked away somewhere forever, somewhere dark and cold.  Abner just sat in his own personal living room chair, closed his eyes and kept trying to block her out, but it was so hard because she just would never stop talking about it.  She said it was all over the newspapers, but told Abner that he should be glad he didn't know how to read because the details were just too terrible to get in your head.  Well, Abner thought, if the details are just too terrible to get in your head, why are you telling me about them?  He thought perhaps Sissy deep down enjoyed these 'just too terrible' details a little and that was why she kept going on and on about them.

At least whatever it was she was going on and on about kept her from staying too long in his own personal home.  She said she didn't feel safe being out and about and was planning to go home and lock her house up tight and strongly suggested he stay home and do the same.  There was no work for him that day, and since he did have food in the house (stopping at Mr. Granger's grocery had been the right thing to do), he should just lock his doors and windows and stay put.  She got a telephone call on that little phone she carried in her pocket and told Abner something had come up and she had to run.  He never thought he'd be grateful to a little blue thing in Sissy's pocket, but since it made her go away, he certainly was.  He wondered if someday maybe he could get one of those little blue things for his pocket so he could get telephone calls, but quickly dismissed the idea.  Any telephone calls he got would probably be from Sissy anyway, and that wouldn't be enjoyable -- not enjoyable at all.

After Sissy had gone, Abner dressed for dinner.  He wan't sure what he had a taste for this evening, but was certain one of the homes on Ranford Street would have something he would enjoy preparing.  The families on Ranford Street all gathered each Friday evening for an outdoor meal at the park on the corner of Harcourt; some type of neighborhood thing.  Abner was happy he had never become part of the neighborhood thing.  All those people talking to each other all the time and shaking hands over and over -- all that touching and taking a bit of life away each time.  No.  It was better on your own, as Mother had taught him; just take a bit of life here and there and that's all you'll ever need.  Oh, how he wished Mother could see him now.

Dinner was spectacular, Abner was so proud of himself.  The hot roast beef sandwiches he had prepared, along with the mashed potatoes and potato salad, made him feel all warm and cozy inside.  That, along with the freshly brewed coffee and chocolate cake, made the evening perfection.  He wanted to have his dinner in private so he moved the bodies of the Mother, the Daddy and the two little boys into their respective bedrooms and tucked them soundly in their beds.  Blood had splattered everywhere, but Abner had found a mop and some bleach, and things were all spic-n-span in no time.  They should have joined in the neighborhood thing at the park on the corner of Harcourt.  They really should have.

Abner washed and dried the dishes, as was his duty and put everything away.  He wasn't certain if this family might be missed at the neighborhood whatever-it-was, so he tried not to dawdle.  Now, only to search for, and find, the perfect bit of life from these people.  What could it be?

*         *         *

While riding home on the cross-town bus, Abner kept his right hand in his pocket, resting on his treasure.  He had never seen a snow-globe that small before, and it had such a lovely and serene scene.  He wondered how anyone could craft such a perfect little cottage with a white picket fence and leafy oak trees on either side.  When it was shaken and the snow fell, it became a magical winter wonderland that Abner knew he would be able to enjoy for hours at a time.  Lots of life in this one; he tightened his grip on it.  Lots of life.

As Abner approached his front door, he noticed it slightly ajar.  That is not possible, he thought, my doors and windows are always securely locked -- both when I am in and when I am out.  How is that possible?  He went around to the side and, as quietly as he could, entered through the kitchen side door.  He heard drawers being opened and cupboard doors being slammed shut.  Someone was here -- someone -- looking around and under, pushing and pulling, seeing and touching, knowing...  He looked around the corner into the living room and saw a man throwing the couch cushion on the floor.

"What are you doing in my own personal home?"  Abner stepped slowly into the room.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't the retard," the man began.  "I've been watching you, retard, watering your plants down the street and shuffling your way home every night.  I was hoping your bitch would be here tonight so I could have some fun with her before I put her down.  She doesn't come around too often, does she?  What is she, your aunt or your cousin?  She sure couldn't be your girlfriend, a retard like you couldn't get anything as fine as all that."

Abner was horrified.  Yes, Sissy was annoying with her weekly visits, but this man was calling her bad names.

"She is my sister" he said angrily.  "She deserves to be spoken about with respect.  She comes weekly to check on my well-being and to inspect my own personal home, and it is a bother to me, but do not speak that way about her.  Sissy is a good person and she wants me to keep being on my own so I am not under foot in her house, whatever that means.  Who are you and why are you messing up my own personal home?  Sissy will not be happy about that.  Not happy at all."

"Well, fuck me, and then some."  The man got to his feet.  "You're not just a regular retard, you're stone-cold brain dead.  Let me tell you what I want, mister-under-foot-sissy-boy-piece-of-shit.  I want whatever valuables you have stashed in this hole, because people always leave expensive jewelry and shit like that to fuckers like you because they know you won't know to hock it.  Then, I'm going to enjoy watching you die just like I always enjoy watching them die.  But you, especially, Danny Boy, you especially,"

"My name is not Danny Boy, it is Abner.  Abner Fendal."

"Oh yeah.  This is going to be my best one yet.  I can't wait to..."

The man didn't so much see the blade coming as sensed it; but, of course, by then, it was a little too late.  He was surprised at the lack of pain as it was pulled across his throat.  He felt only warmth -- gentle and soothing, covering him like a lover's embrace.  His last thought was that this was probably the way one felt as one were dying.

*         *         *

Abner was very excited.  Today's breakfast was going to be hash brown potatoes, fried eggs, toast and butter, sausage and bacon.  He decided to go all out this morning.  Sissy had come by yesterday afternoon and issued her stamp of approval, and he wouldn't have to see her again for another week.  After got the coffee maker going, he decided to have a look around.  Lots of bits of life here, he thought, from lots of lives too, and he would take them all.  He would take them and hide them and keep them all safe from harm.  They were, after all, his and no one else's.  That terrible man thought he could take Abner's personal bits of life, but Mother had taught him well.  Finder's keepers...

Abner decided to sit and watch the television for awhile.  He didn't have one at his own personal home and liked to watch the programs once in awhile during his special outings.  He had the time.  There was no work for him at the flower shop today, and the terrible man had, after all, been considerate enough to be carrying a wallet with his name and address.  It was an adequate enough place, Abner thought, and besides, it wasn't like the man would be coming home...

Undying Gratitude

"Yes, Jamison, I understand.  But, a simple thanks would have been sufficient.  Maybe even a couple would have been acceptable, but this is too much."

"Mitch," Jamison began, speaking in the tone generally reserved for jumpers perched on the ledge of the 40th floor of a high-rise.  "This fellow of yours is obviously some sort of neurotic who feels compelled to continue to demonstrate his appreciation.  Besides, how much longer can it go on?  Give him a few more days and I'm sure it will wear thin.  Got to run.  Meeting Charlese for drinks.  Chin up."  Click.

'This fellow of mine'?  'Some sort of neurotic'?  As usual, Jamison was incapable of comprehending just how totally fucked up my life had become.

I never should have confided in that poor excuse for a human, but I was out of options.  My mother suggested I invite him over for a rousing game of canasta.  Of course, my mother had knitted an afghan covered with the faces of sheep for Ted Bundy to use on Death Row since she was certain he wouldn't be able to get a good night's rest there.  My lady, who I was planning to propose to on the day this all began, had been stronger than I had given her credit for, but she eventually came to the conclusion that I was certifiable and took out a restraining order on me.

I was alone; a cornered animal being poked with a sharp stick.  Jamison said to give him a few more days.  It had already been 12 days, 9 hours, 54 minutes, and...yes, I am counting the seconds too.  I poured another Scotch, my...who the hell cares.  I lost count hours ago.  I sat back, took a long slow sip of its soothing warmth, closed my eyes, and remembered how the nightmare began.

It was a bit after one in the afternoon on a bright sunny day - the last bright sunny day I would ever have, and I was on my way back to my office.  I had popped in to the printer to pick up a presentation and had stopped at the crosswalk.  I was soon joined by a young man in a bargain basement suit, who obviously had never seen the inside of a gentleman's barber shop.  We exchanged brief nods, and when the walk command flashed, he seemed to lunge into the street, as if his immediate presence anywhere could be that necessary.

His thoughts must have been on the contents of the burger bag he was carrying, because he didn't see the black sedan coming straight for him, or the police car on its tail, but I did.  I grabbed him by the collar of his dollar store dress shirt and pulled us both back as they careened around the corner.  We landed in a heap against the newspaper stand.  I stood up, straightened my tie and reached down to lend him a hand, and he took it into both of his, got to his feet and began to cry.

Now, I am as caring as the next man, but display of raw emotion makes me very uncomfortable.  I asked him if he was hurt and he replied he was not, but his emotions were flowing freely because I had saved his life.  I had literally plucked him from the jaws of death, and he knew from that moment onward, he was going to spend the rest of his life showing his thankfulness for my grand gesture.  I told him that wasn't necessary, but to no avail.  That was the moment my life, as I had known it, came to a screeching halt.

Morning, night, weekday, or weekend, if not in the sanctity of my office or living room, he was there.  He was always there.  Buying my coffee.  Picking up my newspaper.  Carrying my dry-cleaning.  Catching the check for dinner.  Nothing I said could dissuade him - it was like being haunted with no hope of an exorcism.  'Thank you', 'thank you', 'thank you' - that's all he ever said.  Jamison said to give him a few more days.  Can't do it.  In a few more days, I'll be looking for a bullet to eat.

As we journeyed to my office this morning, him holding my Journal and a latte, he said tonight we'd be going to his place so he could give me something I would never forget.  I knew what I had to do.  He would never forget what I gave him either.  One last 'you're welcome'.

As we left the elevator heading to his door, I noticed the place seemed deserted.  Perfect, since I had made up my mind to strike as we entered.  Quick and quiet.  I reached into my briefcase and eased out the carving knife I had brought from home.  My only fear was that if anyone ever said 'thank you' to me again, I'd go postal.  Yet, finishing this once and for all might give me some closure.

He seemed so animated as he swung his door open - it almost seemed a shame to rain on his parade, but I plunged the blade in with a ferocity I hadn't felt before.  Again and again.  He finally went down, having staggered completely inside.  I quickly shut the door and felt for the light switch.  It was over.  I was finally free.

The sight that assaulted my eyes didn't quite register for a moment.  Colored balloons and banners strung across the room:  'THANK YOU -- THANK YOU -- THANK YOU...'  I believe the defining moment was when I saw the people, Jamison and Charlese at the forefront next to our CEO, all standing in a semi-circle, all shouting 'surprise'.  Even the cop who had his morning coffee at the newsstand near my building was there.

He was giving me a party.  Something I would never forget.  The bastard.  I figured things couldn't get any worse so I kicked him in the head.  Really hard.  Maybe I should have had a bullet for lunch after all...

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Byline

Ralph noticed the room was chilly, and sparsely furnished.  He supposed that it was probably intentional on the part of the decorator since no one actually spent very much time in here while they were waiting.  The waiting -- now, that was the worst part.  Listening to the ticking of the clock, wondering what it will feel like when the chemicals start coursing through your veins, wondering what it's like when you cross over to the other side...  In anticipation of the commencement of that final journey, Ralph leaned back against the splintered slats of the wooden chair that had been provided for him, gazed indifferently at the colorless walls, and his thoughts began to drift back to where it all began.

*              *              *              *

Ralph Debumarsey picked up his cigarette from the ashtray and took a long, deep drag.  He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and blew the smoke out of his mouth in quick, short puffs.  He could feel the sun's warmth on his face as it shone brightly through the window directly in front of his desk.  He had opened the curtains all the way, as he always did when he was writing his column.  His column?  There's a laugh.  No such thing as 'his column' here in Swaying Falls.  The columns were written, the advertisements were strategically placed, and the local news was ready to roll.  Anonymity seemed to be the catchword in this burg, Ralph thought,  God forbid the folks knew the reporter's name.  Like his having a byline would violate national security...  And, what was with calling this outpost of the damned 'Swaying Falls'?  First and foremost, no falls of any size or shape were visible for hundreds of miles.  As far as the swaying crap was concerned, trying to figure that out made Ralph's head hurt.

Feeling the sun on his face while he was typing helped him to fantasize that he was somewhere else, anywhere else, preparing the final draft of the hottest story his newspaper had ever run.  Next to him was a FAX machine that he would use to send it on to his editor, who was waiting on his end, planning to run it down to the presses to make the midnight deadline.  His story would headline the morning edition and the calls and telegrams would start pouring in as soon as the paper hit the streets.  He would be congratulated for getting the scoop no one else could or had, and his colleagues would regard him with awe at the tremendous personal risks he had taken to get the story in the first place.  Just another day in the life of a newsman, he would respond to them all, just another normal day, and he would smile that haunting smile of his, get into his Jag, and head out to his next assignment.  Maybe a nuclear missile site in Beirut?  Perhaps a revolutionary camp in Central America?  Or what about right here in downtown Swaying Falls covering a bank robber who was wearing a bomb and holding a pregnant teller hostage in a second story suite of the Main Street Hotel?  Yeah.  Uh-huh.  Right.  Ralph began to laugh out loud, and then caught himself.  Crazy people laugh to themselves out loud, he thought, and I'm not quite there yet; the day was still young though.

He looked at the paper in his typewriter, and wasn't terribly surprised to see it was still blank.  The 'hot' story he had to crank out in time to meet his editor's (the owner of the town's only general store, Chester Mankowsky) deadline (whenever Chester decided to close the store and go home for dinner) so as to appear in the first edition (the only edition, that became available whenever Chester finished running off a couple hundred copies on his two hundred year old printing press) was difficult to put into words.  After all, it wasn't every day that Spengler's Feed Store began to carry a brand of feed previously available only in the state of New York.  What a coup for Jeremy Spengler and frankly, for Swaying Falls.  That will put us on the map, Ralph thought.  Hopefully, anyway, since we aren't on any maps at present.  He had to laugh again at that.  Well, at least he could still laugh.  He figured if the day ever came when he couldn't find any humor in how ridiculous this town, and even himself, were, he'd probably end up in the loony bin.  Not that that would be such a drastic change...

Ralph decided to heat up another cup of instant on his hot plate.  Mrs. Franovsky technically didn't allow hot plates in her rooming house, but she had never said anything to Ralph about it.  He was sure Mrs. Franovsky kinda had the hots for him.  Kinda.  Maybe?  No.  Not really.  Truth was, Ralph kept peculiar hours mostly, and his esteemed landlady wasn't too crazy about climbing all those stairs to reach Ralph's loft to say much of anything to him.  Loft?  There was another laugh.  Ralph's digs were what had once been a large attic used for storage.  The ceiling was level almost all the way around, but in one of the corners, there was a low spot where Ralph had to duck down to get to his small bookcase.  He wasn't sure why it had been built that way since the roof did slant in from the outside in that spot and made the house look lopsided, but, since beggars couldn't be choosers, he simply adjusted.  After all, it was a clean, quiet place to live, and he was able to pretty much keep to himself.  Not that Swaying Falls was exactly a real estate developer's dream.

Most of the folks lived in small pre-fab homes scattered in and around town, or in the town's one apartment complex.  Right.  Apartment complex?  It was one building with eight units in it.  While they were cozy, two-bedroom apartments, they were inhabited primarily by twenty-something's in transition.  Their transition being having graduated from high school and not really having any plans to attend community college or begin a career in the family business in town, whatever that may be.  They wanted to get out from under mom and pop and have their own place so they could come and go at all hours.  They would drive the two plus hours to the city to find work where they could make a decent salary, then come back to Swaying Falls and pay next to nothing in rent and living expenses.  This was done, not for any noble reason like saving to buy a home and settle there and begin to give  back to their community.  Oh no.  True, they did save what money they didn't spend on liquor and partying, but that was so they could afford what they considered a real apartment in the city.  When they could afford to move, they did just that, at record-breaking speed frankly, and neither looked nor came back.  This town was dying, Ralph knew that.  Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot anybody could do about it.

*              *              *              *

He had had his chance a lifetime ago.  He had been young, had saved his money and had left Swaying Falls for the big city life and his dream of a career as a newspaper reporter.  He possessed good instincts and a flare for the dramatic.  He knew he would have to start at the bottom and work his way up, but all he needed was the chance to prove himself to an editor and he would be on his way.  When he first arrived, he had picked up a newspaper and checked out the classified for a room to rent.  He was surprised to find how many there were; most of which were in the most expensive section of the city.  Since he had his own car and didn't have to be concerned with public transportation, he decided he would seek a place to stay in one of the gated communities that skirted the downtown area.  Every room that he checked out though was inside the glitzy home of a widow or a divorcee, who was looking for just a little bit more than a paying border.  Never really having pictured himself as a 'boy-toy', Ralph had felt extremely uncomfortable during each application process.  Whether he was employed or had a steady paycheck always seemed irrelevant.  He could feel their hungry eyes groping every inch of him as he tried to present himself as a decent, hardworking, moral human being.  He envisioned being defiled by these Harpies in the dead of night and then locked in his room, never to be seen or heard from again.  Or, at least annoyed when they tried to show him the film of their first, and only, failed screen test from 20 years ago while he was trying to do his laundry.

Ralph thought life had beaten these ladies up pretty badly.  After meeting the seventh or eighth one (he'd lost count), their faces, with the drawn-on eyebrows, lopsided fake eyelashes, surgically-implanted cheekbones and chins, and lips that had received about four too many injections that week, became a blur.  It was as if they were all the same woman who just beamed herself from kitchen to kitchen throughout the subdivision just waiting for him to arrive.  After a couple of days of this, he just knew he couldn't swallow any more vanilla-flavored coffee and scones, or look at any more polyester jumpsuits with open-toed spiked heels and toenails painted with blood-red polish and dotted with glitter.  Maybe this was not the way to go, he decided; time to look for a 'Y'.

He found a clean, quiet room at the back of the second floor.  It didn't take him long to realize that while this was a starting point for him, he'd better make sure it stayed just that.  This was not somewhere he needed to remain for long.  The other residents were all ex-wannabe something or others, and Ralph believed they were destined to remain that way, but not him; he was different.  He was going to set the print world on fire with his dynamic reporting style and controversial commentaries.  All he needed was an 'in'.  He would take any position that was available in the newsroom - anything at all, even errand boy to the big shots.  Wouldn't take them long to see what he had to offer.  Wouldn't take long at all...

Eight months later, Ralph was still in his quiet room at the back on the second floor at the 'Y'.  He had become quite close, in fact, with some of the ex-wannabe something or others.  Most of them weren't all that bad, really.  When Ralph's savings dried up because he couldn't seem to get on at any of the local papers, a couple of them hooked him up with a position at the burger joint on the corner.  It only paid minimum wage, but it wasn't like Ralph had to spend any of his meager paycheck on gas to get to work.  A couple of minutes' worth of walking and he was there.  On his off days, he stayed in his room and slept mostly.  What was the point of staying up, after all.  No newspaper, periodical, magazine, or flyer shop in the city would hire him.  It wasn't just that he couldn't get a job as a reporter.  He couldn't even get a job mopping floors in any of the media buildings.

Ralph didn't understand where he had gone wrong.  He had personally walked into the office of every editor of every publication in the city.  No one had tried to stop him as he made his way through the maze of secretaries and reporters, and as he got closer to the editor's offices, the excitement in the air was palpable.  He could hear the tick, tick, tick of the typewriters, phones constantly ringing on every desk, men and women literally running with articles in their hands trying to meet deadline.  He could picture himself as one of them, a pencil behind one ear, a smoke behind the other, sipping on his twelfth cup of stale coffee, his editor putting everything on hold waiting for his brilliant headline copy...  By the time he arrived at each editor's door, his head was swimming.  This was the life he was born to live - this was his destiny.  Unfortunately, no one had let any of the editors in on that little tidbit of information.

Every 'interview' was a carbon copy of the previous one.  Ralph would knock on the door and a voice would tell him to 'come on in'.  Friendly, but professionally detached.  The voice of someone who controlled the dissemination of daily city-, state-, and world-wide occurrences.  Ralph had never met or spoken with an editor, but he just knew they were the heart and soul of the newsroom.  They decided who covered what and when, and how much of it actually hit the streets.  So much responsibility - so much power.  Ralph wasn't sure if he should sit down or remain standing once he entered, but decided to take his cue from the man he came to see.  Once he did enter however, it didn't quite turn out the way he had anticipated.

In very newsroom, in every editor's office, he encountered a basically well-groomed, but extremely psychotic individual, sitting behind a desk covered with several stacks of papers each at least 15 inches high.  When Ralph would walk in, the man would glance up with a look of utter confusion on his face, and say 'what'.  Interestingly enough, it was not spoken as a question but more on the order of a brutal declarative.  Once Ralph regained his composure, his response was always the same.  He would state, quietly and respectfully, that he was a fledgling reporter looking for an opportunity to get in on the ground floor.  He would begin to explain how that had been his dream since he was a youth, and, it was at that point that Ralph would receive the universal sign of dismissal - the sweep of the raised hand in his direction - and the man behind the desk would retreat back into one of his stacks of papers.  Ralph figured it was a bad time; too close to deadline perhaps, so he alternated days and times and kept trying, but to no avail.  After months of what he perceived as beating his head against a wall, Ralph decided it was time to go home, and crawl inside the black hole that was Swaying Falls.

Maybe he could speak to Chester Mankowsky about taking him on as a reporter, and about possibly spicing up the town's paper.  While it would be difficult to come up with anything newsworthy there, it would be a beginning - a launching pad of sorts.  Perhaps the timing just wasn't right - planets not aligned right, or some such other thing, Ralph wasn't certain.  But, one thing he knew for sure.  He had given it his best shot and since nothing was clicking for him, he'd just go back home and bide his time.  He's save his money, and head for the city lights again.  Only this time, he's probably skip the 'Y', with all its resident losers.  There was no way he was going to be the backdoor boy-toy of some divorcee either.  Maybe he'd just save up a bit more and he'd get his own apartment or maybe buy a condo.  Give it a few months, maybe a year, Ralph thought, and I'll get on with a paper.  I'l be a bit older and have more experience under my belt.  Yeah.  I'll just bide my time.

*              *              *              *

Twenty years worth of biding his time later, there he sat.  Shortly after Ralph's homecoming, Chester did take him on, but was adamant about having him forego the byline thing.  His was a newspaper of, by, and for the town, and it somehow just didn't seem moral to try to take credit for sharing important information with one's family and friends.  Ralph knew then, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Chester was completely crazy, but, since beggars can't be choosers, he decided against an altercation.  Nothing would be accomplished; he was certain of that, and no sense making an enemy out of his only employment opportunity in the tri-state area.

And so, he still sat, staring at a blank piece of paper in his typewriter, still trying to figure out how to spark up the feed story.  Lord knows it was a hot topic thereabouts and once word got around that was the headline, the papers would be off Chester's shelves like hotcakes.  Ralph decided to wait until he had a second strong cup of coffee.  Maybe that would get the juices flowing and he could dig up some shred of enthusiasm for this story.  He seriously doubted that, but anything was worth a try.  This article did have to be written, and it did have to be written today.  Best to finish it and run it over to Chester's.  That way, he could stop thinking about it and head over to that new place that opened just outside of town.

He had heard it was a pretty decent place to eat; of course, anything was a step up from Molly's Diner.  Molly MacDill was a decent enough dame, and Ralph didn't really have anything against her, but that diner of hers was something right out of a bad movie.  Ralph ate there, like most of the townsfolk, but that was because it was the town's only eatery.  Ralph however, preferred to get most of his meals from Molly's on a to-go basis.  The place was usually packed with the I-can't-wait-to-leave-this-dump twenty-somethings chattering on and on about their hopes and dreams and plans - yes, plans.  They usually had plans, and Ralph hated them.  He hated each and every one of them with their plans to leave Swaying Falls, and get high-paying jobs in the city, buy townhouses and condos, live the good life, live a real life...

Ralph finished his second cup of instant, lit another smoke, sat down at the typewriter and began.  No sense in agonizing over it anymore, he thought, just write it.  Nobody's going to read it anyway since Jeremy Spengler already bragged to everyone within earshot of his store's doorway about carrying the big city brand of feed.  He pulled the paper out of the typewriter, folded it and shoved it in his ipnts pocket and headed over to Chester's.  Drop the article off and head on out to have dinner, he thought, shaking his head in disgust; this was going to be yet another magical night.

Ralph took Main Street going north toward Tippettville.  He kept checking both sides of the road looking for the new joint.  He couldn't recall the name, but since it would be the only other place to eat in that part of the county, he was sure he'd recognize it.  Tippettville was the closest town to Swaying Falls, but all they had was a soda fountain in their drug store.  You could get a burger and some chips and maybe a root beer float, but chances were slim to none of getting a complete meal.  Lights appeared in the distance on his left as he crossed the bridge over Wildon's Creek and as he got closer, Ralph could see the place.  The sign was on the roof of the building and flashed the name in alternating red, green, and yellow lights, some of which had already burned out.  My, my, my, he started to laugh, another high class joint to be sure.  The name, when all the lights came on together, appeared to be Soldano's.  Ralph wasn't sure what the significance of having the different colored lights was, but there were a lot of cars in the lot, and as far as he was concerned, that was recommendation enough.

The place was pleasant enough, and Ralph recognized several couples from Swaying Falls.  He figured the others had to be from Tippettville, since no one in their right mind would drive 50 plus miles from surrounding towns or from the city to come and eat here in Nowheresville, USA.  It was classier than Molly's though; they had a hostess here who seated you  Ralph hadn't been in a restaurant that had a hostess in years.  Maybe tonight wasn't going to be all bad after all.  He was shown to his table, which was in the back of the dining room and next to a table at which a young man sat, alone.  Ralph noticed the young man was looking around and jotting things down in a notebook, sipping his iced tea, taking a bite of his meatloaf, a quick drag of his cig, and then jotting again.  Ralph had never seen him before and wondered what he was up to.

"Excuse me," Ralph tapped the young man on the shoulder.   "Could I ask you something?"

The young man replied, "Sure, something you need?"
.
"Oh no," Ralph continued.  "I was just wondering.  I don't mean to be nosy, but I noticed you looking around and writing things down and I was just wondering if you were one of those food critics or health department people, or something like that?"

The young many smiled broadly.

"Oh, I wish I were something that important.  No, actually, I'm a reporter."

Oh great, Ralph thought, a freakin' twelve year old Clark Kent.

"A reporter?  For what publication?"

The young man looked down and shook his head.

"Well, none to speak of at the moment.  You see, I have always wanted to be a reporter for a newspaper or a magazine, and I haven't had much luck getting on with the city papers, so I thought maybe if I tried some small town papers, they might give me a chance to prove myself.  I don't know what kind of stuff goes on in this area, so I thought I'd start with the restaurants and write up a sample column rating them.  The problem is, this is the only restaurant around for quite a ways, except for the small diner over in Swaying Falls.  Are you familiar with Swaying Falls?"

Ralph felt stomach acid creeping up into his throat.  Boy, am I ever familiar with Swaying Falls.

"Yes," Ralph said quietly.   "I live there, and you're never going to believe this, but I'm the reporter for the local paper there."

Ralph could see the change come over the young man's face.  He was impressed alright - sitting up straighter and eager to hear more.  Oh so eager.

"Wow, a reporter?  A real reporter?  This is fantastic.  Oh, what am I thinking?  My name's Basil Hamner."

"Ralph Debumarsey here.  I report all the news in Swaying Falls.  I've got kind of an exclusive territory there.  You should come by sometime and I'll show you an issue.  Right now, it's just local stuff, but I've got plans to go county-wide and then cover state events.  I've just got some details to work out."

Ralph hoped Basil wouldn't ask too many questions about his plans to go 'global' with the Swaying Falls newsletter.

"Wow," Basil had turned his chair to face Ralph's table.  "I would love to come by sometime.  I know it's in the early stages, but I'd still like to see your operation, your office, you know.  Do you think it would be possible for me to accompany you on your rounds some time or when you go out on a call?  I wouldn't get in the way, I promise.  It's just that I've never met a real reporter before and I know I could learn so much from you if you wouldn't mind me tagging along.  Not all the time, mind you, I wouldn't want to bother you, but just sometime?  Do you think that would be at all possible, sir?"

'Sir'.  This young man called him 'sir'.  No one had called Ralph 'sir' in..., well, no one had ever called Ralph 'sir'.  It felt really good in an odd sort of way.  He wondered what the young man would call him if he accompanied Ralph on his 'rounds' to the grocer to pick up that week's specials, to the motel to pick up that week's continental breakfast menu, to the elementary school to pick up that week's dessert offerings...  Not only that, Ralph couldn't wait to have Basil tag along with him to his 'office' while he wrote his columns.  He wondered if the young man would knock himself out on the lower ceiling while climbing over Ralph's bed so he could sit next to him at the desk.  My God, Ralph thought, what the hell am I going to do now?

"Gee, Basil, why don't you let me have your number and I'll give you a call and we'll set something up, okay?  Right now, uh, temporarily, I'm working out of a small boarding house attic.  That's a laugh, huh?  Anyway, it's cozy and gives me a place to hang my hat and write undisturbed.  When I get a hot lead, Ill call you and we can meet.  It wouldn't take you long to catch up with me.  So, if you're able to pick up and go on a second's notice, because that's how the newspaper game operates, we'll play it by ear.  What do you say?"

Ralph hoped this pain-in-the-ass-eager-beaver would accept him at his word.

"That would be fantastic," Basil was beside himself with excitement.

He wrote his mobile number on a napkin and handed it to Ralph.  Basil dropped some bills on the table and put on his jacket.

"I've got to get going, got some calls to make, but you call me any time, day or night, and I'll be there in a flash.  Thanks so much, Ralph.  Uh, is it okay if I call you Ralph?"

"Absolutely," Ralph said.  "Wouldn't have it any other way.  You take care, and I'll be in touch.  'kay?"

Ralph would swear the kid was glowing as he exited the restaurant - yeah, glowing.  Ah, the fervor of the young.  He remembered the passion of his youth - one with which he used to view life in general, but now?  Well, maybe I can find something to interest this kid, he smiled to himself, something a little more exciting than Spengler's New York City feed.  But, where?

Ralph finished his meal, which wasn't half bad actually, took part of the tip the junior copy boy had left and added it to his own and left a fiver on top of his bill and made his way outside.  He decided this was going to be an all-nighter, trying to figure out some way to keep this Basil character believing he was a real newspaper reporter, and not what he really was:  A broken down, old, never-used-to-be, nobody.  But, first things first.  Ralph realized he had to seriously pee, and no way was he going back inside just to use their bathroom.  People knew when you did that, just went in places to use the toilet, and they'd talk about it after you left.  He decided to head around to the back of the building and just relieve himself in nature's own backyard.  No one would see him back there, so what harm could it do?

The man came out of nowhere, stumbling, and mumbling something about God and white sand beaches.  Ralph was just finishing zipping up his pants when the man shoved him up against the wall.  The man smelled like he vacationed in the sewer, and Ralph was terrified he'd faint, and then the man would touch him, or worse, while he was out.  That picture was too much for Ralph to accept without a fight, and he pulled himself up firmly on his feet, grabbed this creature that crawled out of the swamp, and pushed him away with all the strength he could dredge up.  A terrible cracking noise filled the air and seemed to echo throughout the alley.  Ralph looked down and braced himself, expecting to have to dodge a fist, but the man didn't move.  A pool of blood was beginning to form around his head and shoulders.  Even in the dim light, Ralph could see the man's partially open eyes were fixed in a vacant stare.

"Oh my God," Ralph gasped.  "Hey?  Are you okay?  You pushed me and I couldn't let you get away with...I thought you were going to...  Answer me!"

Ralph began to nudge the man with his foot, but the man remained still.  Damn, Ralph shuddered,, I've killed him.  He saw part of the large rock the man's head had hit when he fell and noticed the pool of blood was getting bigger.  I'd better not get any of this on me, he thought.  I've got to get out of here, got to think.  Ralph looked around and not seeing anyone, went back, sat in his car and lit a butt from his ashtray.  Got to call the Sheriff and just explain, Ralph was telling himself.  I mean, it was just an accident.  The guy's probably a nobody, clothes all messed up, hasn't had a bath in God-knows when, hanging out by the dumpster in back of a restaurant...  Wait a minute!  Wait just a freakin' minute!  Why should I set myself up for a lot of grief here, he thought, going to the Sheriff's office, telling the same story a hundred times, and what am I going to get for all this?  Absolutely nothing but a headache and a sleepless night, and tomorrow morning, nobody's going to remember any of this.  But, now, if I went inside the restaurant and hollered for somebody to call the Sheriff because I had just witnessed a, shall we way, murder out back, but can't identify the killer, well, things might turn out a bit different then.  Sure, I'd have to still go to the Sheriff's office and tell the same story a hundred times, but tomorrow morning, everybody would know about it because I'd go home and write about it for the paper.  Oh, yeah, Chester, then you'd sell your weight in papers with that story on the front page, and I would have to put my name on that one so everyone would know it happened to me.

Making sure no one was around, Ralph went back to where the man lay, still bleeding.  He looked down and spoke quietly.

"Look, you shouldn't have come at me like that, but what's done is done.  I can't afford to screw up what little of a life I have over a stupid accident.  Besides, we'll find out your name and you'll become kind of immortal when I identify you in my column.  Can you even hear me, or are you all the way dead?"

Ralph continued to look down at the man for a moment longer, and tried to figure out how he was going to handle this.  He grabbed his own shirt and pulled so as to tear one of his sleeves.  This happened, he would say, when he struggled with the assailant.  He smudged his face with some dirt, messed up his hair and tore one of his jacket pockets.  Yes, indeedy, this will work, he thought, this will work just fine.  He started to yell and stomp and pound on the wall at the back of the building, then ran around the corner and in the main entrance, breathing heavily, and flung himself on the candy counter at the front.  Everyone in the place was looking at him now.  Here we go.  Lights, camera...

This was the way it should have been all along, everyone crowding around him, patting him on the back, asking him if he was alright, trying to counsel him after his traumatic ordeal.  Ralph was in his element now.  He had taken the hands of the cashier in his and, holding back a tear, asked her to call the Sheriff because there was an unfortunate soul out back who had been murdered, yes, he did say murdered, right in front of his very own eyes.  She had gone all pale and looked about to keel over, but had managed to hold herself together long enough to pick up the phone and call the Tippettville Sheriff's office.

Ralph had never met anyone from Tippettville, with the exception of his newly acquired admirer, Basil, and this lawman of theirs was a real piece of work.  He arrived around ten or fifteen minutes after the cashier had called him, and Ralph had been directed to a chair and was sipping a warm glass of some kind of bitter purple wine the manager had given him.  As soon as he entered, everyone pointed to Ralph, their hands trembling, all remembering the life and death struggle the two men had just engaged in; one one sipping wine inside who had obviously triumphed over the attacker and the other one lying behind the building who obviously had not.

"I'm Sheriff Dan Posner from over Tippettville. Someone called in something about an assault?"

He looked over at Ralph, who was holding up his hand.

"Sir, I asked them to call you since we're closer to your town.  There's a man out in back of this building, dead, I believe, who was murdered by this man I fought with, but he pushed me down and then ran away."

Ralph believed that was a good start; not too hysterically told, fairly sequential, and vague enough not to trip him up later.  The Sheriff motioned for him to remain seated and went out back to investigate.  He returned and used his cell phone to call for the town doctor and the funeral home's hearse to come and pick up the body.  He walked over to Ralph, who finished the glass of odd-tasting wine with a shudder.

"Listen, fella, I know you've been through a lot this evening, but I'm going to need you to accompany me to the office and give me a statement.  Maybe you remember more than you think you do, and maybe you could give us a description of the guy who did that out there.  Then again maybe not, but sometimes there are small details that people think don't mean anything and they can end up being very helpful.  Do you need to see a doctor first?  Are you able to drive over, or would you like to leave your car here for the time being and ride over with me?"

Ralph knew he had died and gone to heaven.  It's about time I was treated like I was somebody, he thought.  It's about freakin' time.

"No, sir," he tried very hard not to laugh.  "I'm able to drive and I don't believe I've been injured.  Not like that poor man outside.  I don't know what provoked that confrontation out there, but it's all just so tragic.  Certainly, I'll follow you over and provide whatever assistance I can."

Ralph took great pleasure in all the pats on the back he received on the way out, and especially enjoyed the winks he received from a couple of the women.  He couldn't wait to get all this over with and get back to his room so he could write it all up and get the article, his article, over to Chester, so a special edition of the paper could be run.  This time, it would be a special edition because it wouldn't have an anonymously written copy.  This time, Ralph's name would be all over it.

When he arrived home, he immediately got the hot plate going since this was most definitely an occasion for a hot cup of instant.  His time in the Sheriff's office, providing his statement, had been brief, which surprised him.  Ralph had thought he would be given the third degree, as it were, but to his delight, the officer didn't ask him too many questions.  It was more a matter of 'do you take cream and sugar in your coffee', 'here's a legal pad and a pen to just write down what happened', 'sign and date it', and 'you're free to go'.

Ralph was stunned.  True, he hadn't murdered anybody; well, killed, maybe, but not on purpose, but still, somebody ended up dead.  He wondered why that didn't seem to be too big of a deal.  Possibly, the man was homeless and didn't have any family or friends as Ralph had originally thought, but one would think that wouldn't matter to law enforcement.  After all, a killed person was still a killed person, regardless of their station in life, right?  Evidently not here in Tippettville.  Odd behavior on the part of a policeman to be sure, but certainly beneficial to Ralph.  He had been able to get out of there lickety-split, and would have plenty of time to write his column and get it to Chester so he could get the edition printed by breakfast-time.  Residents of Swaying Falls began their meandering right after they had their morning coffee and oat flakes and Chester's was where the congregating commenced.  Everyone would see the paper and Ralph's column and then they would know - then they would all know.

Ralph wondered if he should call the kid and let him in the on the big scoop.  Yes, but after the paper hit the street - definitely after.  He'd tell Basil he'd been traumatized and needed to rest, but of course, the second he'd arrived home, he knew he had to get the column in the hopper.  That's what a reporter does, he'd say, get it down regardless of what you've been through.  That would impress the hell out of the little boot-licker, but it would also keep him out of Ralph's hair.

Ralph plumped the pillows on his daybed, put his hands behind his head, laid down and took a deep breath.  He closed the curtains by his desk, but the sun was still shining brightly through, although he didn't care.  He was exhausted and it felt great.  Sitting at his typewriter to write this column - his column - had been the easiest thing he had ever done.  The words flowed smoothly and when it was completed, he didn't even bother to go over it to make any edits.  He could feel the power of it as he held it in his hands.  This was what he had been waiting for these past twenty some odd years; this was the beginning, and there was no way Ralph was going to let this slip away from him.  No freakin' way.

*              *              *              *

Swaying Falls is alive and prospering now solely because of me, Ralph laughed out loud, and didn't care who heard him this time.  Coming home to his new digs at the downtown hotel was just another reminder of all he had done for the sorry-ass residents of this fly-speck on the way to oblivion.  Those in transition weren't transitioning anymore.  They were putting down roots, and expanding the family businesses.  Funny how murder draws them all in, he thought; one would think murder in, and around, a town would drive folks away.  Well, 'one' would be oh so wrong.

It occurred to Ralph that, after the third or fourth one, this whole process was getting easier and less stressful.  The latest was what, number six?  Let's see, he thought, first there was the disgusting creep behind Soldano's, which technically was an accident.  If only he could have known the phenomenal effect his passing had on Ralph's career.  As it turned out, the weirdo had been homeless, and no friends or relatives could be located.  Those who had been in the restaurant the night it happened had all contributed so he could have a decent burial with a headstone.  Ralph, naturally, had been the most generous donor.

Then, there was the old broad in the support shoes, toting the canvas grocery bag, who needed help climbing the stairs in the rundown tenement in which she lived.  Ralph had helped her climb the stairs alright; almost made it to the top too, before she tripped over that heavy canvas bag she'd been dragging.  Too bad, and messy too.  Nasty way to die.

The jogger in the park had been next.  He had been hydrating himself from a full flask he carried.  Ralph had guessed Crown Royal when it had fallen and spilled on the grass.  The approach had gone smoothly with Ralph joining him for a friendly late afternoon jog on the deserted trail.  They had shook hands, laughed a bit and the man had even offered Ralph a sip right before he stepped into a hole and fell and hit his head on that water fountain - hard.  You could never be too careful; holes in the ground sometimes just appeared out of nowhere.

The hooker and her john turned out to be Ralph's daily double.  They had been getting to know each other behind the sales office of the used car lot on the edge of town.  Ralph knew that spot was utilized at that time of night for happy hour, and took a chance.  He parked his car at the business next door and crept around and sure enough, there they were getting 'happy'.  Their focus was not exactly on the world around them, and it had been no problem for Ralph to come up behind the girl and hit her over the head with the pipe he had found leaning up against one of the sheds.  When she fell, the man just stodo there and looked at Ralph; didn't make a move or say a thing.  Crazy how people react in a crisis, Ralph thought.  When Ralph swung the pipe at his head and connected, the man didn't make a sound then either.  He just fell over, quietly.  Easy peasy; two for one.

Yes, tonight, number six it was - the dried up old man on his way to the drug store to pick up his asthma inhaler.  Old people shouldn't be out alone at this hour, Ralph thought.  Why, something bad could happen to them, couldn't it?  Well, something bad did happen to this one - that's for sure.  Beaten to death with his own cane right there on the sidewalk ten feet from his front door.  Darn shame.  What's this world coming to...

What the hell, who's counting anyway.  He already had his book deal signed, sealed and delivered, and he was confirmed on three cable crime documentaries.  He was thinking this might be a good time to start scaling back, what with that bottom feeder dogging him all the time.  Good ole boy, Sheriff Dan, had mentioned it in passing that he found it suspect that Ralph was always first on the scene of all those deaths he was reporting on.  Ralph had responded, also in passing, that it all came down to a reporter's instinct, but the flatfoot had appeared less than convinced.  Measures would definitely need to be taken.

It had been kind of a kick in the beginning, making those calls to the station, alternating between claiming to be a witness and claiming to be the killer, and leaving tantalizing clues at all the scenes that, of course, led absolutely nowhere.  Ralph wouldn't see Danny Boy for a couple of days, and then, out of the blue, there he'd be:  On the street in front of the hotel, a couple of tables over while Ralph was having lunch at Molly's, sitting in his car staring at Ralph coming out of the grocery...  This rummy had hit on Ralph's last nerve two bodies ago.  Time's come to leave his life as a reporter behind, Ralph thought, and cross over and assume his role of international correspondent.  Interviews, film cameos, and possibly a movie of the week; shouldn't keep them waiting.  Ralph knew it just didn't get any better than this.

The kid was coming along nicely too, following him around like a lapdog hoping to be thrown a scrap.  Contacting Basil following each murder and allowing him to type the articles while Ralph dictated had been a brilliant move.  It allowed the little suck-up to feel involved without having any real input or being able to steal any of Ralph's thunder.

*              *              *               *

The arrest, indictment and trial did all occur with unanticipated precision.  He had been charged with six counts of first degree murder.  That the death of the perv behind Soldano's had been added as murder One truly surprised Ralph.  That one, at most, should have been ruled as accidental.  At arraignment, he had entered a plea of not guilty, as expected, having been advised by the best the Public Defender's pool had to offer.

Interestingly enough, bond had been requested and granted; not the norm for a capital case.  Of course, this was Tippettville - not the norm by any means.  The case was being prosecuted there since the deaths all occurred in, or near, their jurisdiction.  The jury, however, was hand-picked from Ralph's main stomping ground of Swaying Falls, and quite the vindictive bunch they turned out to be.  As he watched and listened to them during the selection process, the air was thick with bias, but the judge was deaf, blind, and most assuredly dumb as hell.  There were no jury instructions about not discussing the case until deliberation, and the street corners and shop doorways were constantly abuzz with detailed descriptions of evidence presented and testimony obtained.

From the perspective of these two towns, this was the trial of the century.  From Ralph's point of view, this was the century's biggest practical joke.  Seeing as how a man's life was hanging in the balance so to speak, that did seem to detract somewhat from the humor of it all though.

The exhibits and photographs filled the pint-size courtroom vestibule, while most of the spectators stood along the walls and crouched in the aisles between the rows of benches.  People brought boxed lunches and coolers filled with soda pop and ice cream bars.  Ralph wondered if they were permitted to witness the execution whether they'd bring hot dogs and their toddlers' bouncy seats along.

The testimony now, that was brutal.  People he'd known all his life as quiet, unassuming small-town mopes, suddenly became hateful, accusatory vipers.  Ralph had to admit though, it did surprise him that they obviously took great relish in the fact that their words could send a fellow human being to his death.  Talk about not being able to judge books by their covers...

When the verdict was read, everyone in the courtroom cheered, including the judge and all the members of the jury.  While Ralph deemed this totally inappropriate, he did find it humorous, in a grotesque sort of way.  It was, of course, guilty on all counts, and the sentence was indeed pronounced to be death.  No real shock there either, he thought.  Bloodthirsty bastards, all.


*              *              *              *

So, here we are in the now, he thought, in this limbo, this portal between life and the everlasting.  The sedative's already been administered and soon, his eyes would close for the last time, but no sweet dreams would invade his slumber this night.  He remembered the struggle and all the heartache, all to win what prize?  A deadly cocktail administered in the State's death chamber?  Did this end justify those means?

Oh, hell, yeah, Ralph thought.  Hell feakin' yeah.  He did briefly feel a weak tug at his own heart for young Basil whose life would be coming to a supposedly painless conclusion soon, but hey:  It wasn't as if he didn't really know how the game was played.  Come on, everybody did.  Didn't they?

It had been laughably easy to set the chump up to take the fall, considering his irritating way of fawning over his self-appointed mentor.  The fool had developed tunnel vision from the second Ralph had taken him under his wing.  Leaving his butts everywhere, ripe for the taking, only to be strategically placed at the crime scenes...  What's the matter, newsboy?  Never heard of a new thing called DNA?  You pick up a bag and a flask to move them so you can sit on the only chair made available to you, and they show up later on or near a murder victim...  Oops, kid, you got to keep up with the times - they do fingerprints these days.  Ralph had never visited his protege on Death Row, and his presence had never been requested.  Odd how the boy seemed to passively resign himself to his fate.  He had wanted to learn from the best, and he had to know that he did learn from the best.  And, at approximately seven minutes after midnight, the kid was about to learn the most important lesson of all.

When all was said and done, it was all about getting the byline.  Yes.  The byline.  That was all that really mattered.