Tuesday 17 June 2014 – Rough day at work. Ran some errands then went to the cigar store for a smoke and a root beer and hoping for some much needed relaxation, smoking, talking and laughing with the guys. Left the cigar store about 8 and took my bike on the interstate heading north on 65 toward downtown Nashville not really sure of where I wanted to go. Started to get off the highway on Broadway figuring I’d take a quick ride downtown and see what was up. At the last second I decided against it and picked up on the throttle. The tailpipes growled as I picked up speed, and, checking over my left shoulder for any cars coming up, I passed a semi, then a car, then an SUV, then two more cars. Then there was open highway and I had another decision to make. Left on 40 heading west towards Memphis or right on 65 heading north towards Louisville and to my home state of Indiana? The split is coming up quickly…make up your mind. And then I heard Horace Greely in my mind and leaned the bike left toward Memphis. “Go West, young man…” That lingered in my mind for a little bit until a few miles up the road I saw the sign for Briley Parkway, Highway 155. I had been down this road before at night and in my car. I didn’t remember much because it was a long time ago. I flipped my blinker, checked over my right shoulder and took the exit with the speed limit marked 45mph at 55mph. On the little four lane state highway there wasn’t much traffic northeast of Nashville at this time of night. the sun was going down on my left and there was a coolness in the air that belied the 79 degrees listed on the First Tennessee bank marquee a few miles back. As I crossed over Eatons Creek Rd., I hit the throttle again. The tailpipes growled again as if to thank me for letting the Beast stretch its legs. The rumble broke the stillness of the mist that was beginning to settle in the valleys as parents got their little ones to bed and they themselves settled down for the evening. I crossed over 24, then a minute later passed 65. Traffic started to pick up now being so close to the interstates and Opry Mills Mall. I let the throttle go and was down to the speed limit in a second, the crackling sound of the tailpipes still sounded mean and it was sort of whining to me that it still wanted to go fast. “Easy there, beast,” I said. “I’ll let you play again tomorrow.” I passed up the mall through the twists and turns passing the Bridgestone building and a half-dozen 20+ story office buildings. I took the exit for 40 east towards Knoxville and the Nashville International Airport and was soon on the familiar road heading home. I sort of felt bad for the beast and I asked he’d like to stretch a little bit more before we got home. He said yes, and so when we hit the gradual incline by the Percy Priest Dam, I opened up the throttle for the last time that night. The Beast narrowed its eyes, dug its tires into the pavement and let out a growl so loud the kid in the tricked out Honda who likes his beats fast and his bass down low had to have heard it. The Beast was satisfied and purred contentedly the rest of the way home and was asleep, the engine crackling as it cooled down, before I could take my helmet off. I wasn’t far behind it.
The early morning mist enveloped the valleys in central Kentucky where Rikki had her farm. Having put up the horse in the barn the night before, she only had to saddle him up and hit the trail. As she walked in the barn, the familiar scent of hay and horse wafted past her making her smile.
“Good morning ‘Mater. How are you this morning,” she asked of her beautiful copper sorrel. ‘Mater walked up to the gate and stuck his head out. Rikki took him in both hands and rubbed the sides of his head and kissed the bridge of the horse’s nose. ‘Mater grunted his approval and swiped his head against Rikki in a playful gesture. Rikki laughed and opened the gate, leading the horse out.
She quickly and expertly lifted her trail riding saddle on ‘Mater and buckled everything nice and snug giving him a pat on the rump when she finished. Rikki hopped up with all the enthusiasm she remembered having when she used to ride on her papaw’s farm when she was a girl.
It was because of her papaw that she was doing this now. After he died, Rikki’s dad had given her a box labelled “Rikki Ann” in her papaw’s scratchy handwriting. It was full of things that they had shared as she grew up. Things that reminded her of him the instant she saw them. At the bottom were some things that she had never seen before though. There was a picture of him and Rikki’s mamaw when they were young from before they were even married. There were other photos of her family, including some of her dad. But what most intrigued her was a program from The Kentucky State Amateur Rodeo. She looked through it and under the heading “Adult Roping and Bronco Riding” and the third name from the top was Pete Berry. “Papaw was a rodeo cowboy,” she asked herself out loud.
She didn’t know why, but after seeing that, she decided she wanted to be in a rodeo also. She always loved barrel racing when she went to a rodeo, so why not try that. With the help of a family friend, she bought ‘Mater, an already experienced barrel race horse.
She trained with ‘Mater every day and her friend trained her every weekend for two years before finally feeling comfortable with entering an actual rodeo.
And here she was, the day before her first rodeo. She was nervous and she knew ‘Mater could sense that. So she took him out for an early morning trail ride to help calm both their nerves. She hopped up and rode ‘Mater right out of the barn.
They rode to the back of the property about a half mile away to a place where Rikki always felt her papaw’s presence. This morning was no different. She got off the horse and draped the reins over the horn on the saddle and stood there soaking in the early morning light filtering through the mist.
“Well Papaw,” she said out loud. “Tomorrow is it. I’ll be in a rodeo just like you.” She pawed around at the brush with the toe of her boots, her hands stuffed in her pockets. “I just want you to know I’ll be thinking about you and I hope you can help me out. Keep me calm, you know how I get in front of a crowd. Well, I guess that’s about it. I love you Papaw.”
She got back on ‘Mater and already felt at ease. ‘Mater sensed Rikki’s calmness and mirrored it in his gait. They headed back to the barn where Rikki would clean ‘Mater up and then load him in the trailer and head out for the hour and forty-five minute trip to Louisville.
They came over a ridge and within sight of the barn and Rikki leaned forward and patted ‘Mater on the back of the neck. “You want to run, ‘Mater?” Horse and human were so connected to each other that ‘Mater took off without Rikki doing anything to spur her on.
She closed her eyes, completely trusting ‘Mater, and felt the cool wind blowing through her hair. Time seemed to slow down and she could hear the steady but heavy breath of ‘Mater swiftly carrying her toward the barn with each powerful stride.
When they reached the barn, she got down and patted ‘Mater on the neck and scratched behind his ears. “Come on, ‘Mater,” she said and walked into the barn to the washing stall with ‘Mater following close behind.
Rikki washed and combed him and led ‘Mater to the trailer that was already hitched to the truck. “You ready for this,” she asked ‘Mater. ‘Mater bobbed his head up and down in the very human gesture. “Ok, come on,” Rikki laughed as she walked the horse into the trailer.
Rikki waited down at the back of the chute and made ‘Mater walk around to burn off some of the excitement they both were feeling. ‘Mater walked around feeling completely at home in the loud and massive arena. Rikki, however, had never done this before, had never been in front of such a crowd, and had never been more nervous in her life.
She got in line as her name was called. There were two riders in front of her who seemed like they were going on a trail ride back home. They showed no signs of nervousness. She wondered how they could do that, and decided to try to not be nervous by concentrating on her ride.
She envisioned herself riding ‘Mater through the chute and up to the first barrel, she saw ‘Mater carry her through to the second barrel and deftly stop and change direction to the third barrel. She saw the same thing happen on number three and then ‘Mater run as fast as he can past the first two and back through the gate. She saw it all in her mind and repeated it once more.
She found she was more calm and at ease now. ‘Mater felt it and looked over his shoulder at her and seemed to say, “You’ll be fine. I’ll take good care of you.” Rikki smiled and patted him. She was next up.
As the horse and rider came back into the alley after their ride she got ‘Mater into place. Rikki took a deep breath, closed her eyes and thought of her papaw. She knew he was watching her and looking over her right now. She could feel his presence right there in the arena. She heard the buzzer signaling that they were ready for her run.
She opened her eyes, took another deep breath and said to herself as much as she did to ‘Mater, “Let’s do this.”
She kicked ‘Mater with both heels and hollered “Come on!” He took off faster than she had ever felt him move. She held on tighter than she had ever done before. Half way to the first barrel she felt time slow down just as it had earlier when ‘Mater took her to the barn.
The wind whipped past her causing her hair that was being held down by her Western cowboy hat to flap up and down on her back. She heard ‘Mater’s breathing again and felt the power as his hoofs pounded the dirt below them. It was the most exhilarating feeling she had ever had.
The first barrel was coming up quickly. At the last second she cried, “Woah,” and neck reined the horse. He stopped almost on a dime and rounded the first barrel missing it by mere inches. As he came around the barrel, Rikki lined him up with the second barrel and kicked him again. She kicked with each stride and ‘Mater obliged giving his all for her.
They repeated the turn on barrel number two and then she felt something, something that wasn’t supposed to happen. She didn’t know what it was, she couldn’t nail it down. The saddle felt soggy the way a car feels when you drive it with tires with very low air pressure. Her first thought was she missed something while tacking ‘Mater out of the trailer. Panic welled up in her gut as the third barrel got closer and closer.
‘Mater was sprinting and she didn’t know what to do. If she stopped the run she could go flying over ‘Mater’s head. If she kept going she could be flung off the horse and into the wall or she could slide off on the other side and crash into the metal 55 gallon drum.
She didn’t know what to do so she trusted her horse. She knew ‘Mater had to have felt the same thing she did and even though ‘Mater was a horse and didn’t think like a human, she knew he did everything he could to protect her just like she did for him. They were connected somehow, whether it was through her papaw or just one of those rare connections some people have with their horses. So she trusted the horse. And the horse kept going.
Rikki slowed ‘Mater at the last possible second fully expecting to be flung over his head but she wasn’t. Then came the turn and after she wasn’t flung off before she thought this was when she’d be flung into the wall. But ‘Mater turned on a dime for the third and final time and once again she stayed in the saddle and the saddle stayed on the horse. When Rikki lined him up with the gate she kicked him with both heels and ‘Mater went flying to try to shave every tenth of a second he could from the time.
They raced through the gate and came to a stop in the alley under the arena stands. She came out of her time slowing trance and hopped off ‘Mater to see what happened with the saddle. She was vaguely aware of the crowd in the arena erupting with cheers but figured they were cheering for the next racer.
She looked under the horse and couldn’t believe what she saw. The girth was gone! It just wasn’t there. It had somehow snapped at two different points at the same time. It was a miracle she was still alive! She stood up straight and looked at her horse and reached around his neck and pet the side of his head. He bent his neck and nuzzled her and then straightened out as two men came running up to her.
“Miss! Are you alright, Miss?” They came running up to her panting. One of the men held the girth that had broken off and went flying as ‘Mater kicked it up right after rounding the second barrel.
“I’m fine,” Rikki said still not quite believing what happened.
“We thought you were a goner! Hol-y Cow! I saw that strap break loose and I turned my head. I thought you were going to go flying off. I really thought you were gone.”
“I didn’t know what happened. I mean, I felt something, but I didn’t know what it was. I just trusted my horse. He’d never do anything to endanger me but I don’t even know if he knew what had happened,” Rikki said still in shock.
“Well, you are one of the luckiest riders I’ve ever seen. It’s a miracle you didn’t go flying off that horse. Someone’s watching over you.”
She instantly thought of her papaw. Could it be that he held the straps or held the saddle in place? She had this vision of him riding behind her on ‘Mater lighter than air but with the strength of an angel, holding the saddle while she rode.
The thought brought tears to her eyes and she was fully aware now of everything around her. She started shaking as the realization that she could have been paralyzed or worse, dawned on her.
After about five minutes of just standing there stroking ‘Mater and trying to calm her nerves, another man came up to her. He was older and seemed official and had that air about him as a man that is used to giving orders and having them followed without question.
“My name is Bob Dressler and I’m the senior executive for the rodeo. You, my dear, are the luckiest young lady I’ve ever seen. I wanted to tell you personally that you came in with the fastest time today. Young lady, you won this contest by two tenths of a second. Two tenths. Do you hear that crowd out there? That’s for you.”
She was aware of the crowd but wasn’t aware of what they had been chanting for the last minute. She could hear the feet stomping like thunder above her. She made out the sound of the chant, “Rik-ki Ann! Rik-ki Ann! Rik-ki Ann!”
She took the man’s outstretched hand and shook it. She smiled and didn’t didn’t say a word.
“We’d like to present your trophy out in the arena if you’re up to it.”
“Sure,” Rikki said. “I’m up to it.” She turned to ‘Mater and smiled at the horse she felt connected to even more if that was even possible. “Come on, ‘Mater.” She walked toward the arena with ‘Mater following, his reins draped over the horn of a saddle that was still on his back that shouldn’t be.
As she came out of the alley and into the arena with ‘Mater following behind her, the arena erupted with cheers that was deafening. She would normally have felt so out of place in this situation but strangely, or not so strangely, she wasn’t nervous or embarrassed.
Once again, she felt her papaw’s presence and attributed it to her feeling so calm. She grinned and waved to the crowd. She turned around, took her cowboy hat off and waved it at the crowd grinning like a little girl who just got a pony for her birthday. Rikki turned again and looked at ‘Mater who had turned with her and she could almost see her papaw standing next to him.
“Thank you, Papaw. I love you,” she said to the seemingly empty space beside her champion barrel riding horse.
Mesha woke up on a haystack in a barn. It wouldn’t have been strange for this to happen twenty-five years ago because she grew up out in the country and on a farm with horses. But it was strange right now for the simple fact that she had gone to sleep the night before in her bed.
She sat up and looked around, her blue eyes seeing rather well in the dark, and picked at strands of hay that had gotten caught in her long blonde hair. She was in the loft of a barn, that much was obvious. But she didn’t know where she was, or how she had gotten there.
The first of the birds were chirping as they found their worms for breakfast and quickly gobbled them up. She saw she was near a ladder that went down to the ground and figured she’d better have a look around to see just what was going on.
She got to the bottom and turned around and saw the very beginnings of the day. The pale blue light from behind her gave just enough light to see the huge wheat field. She walked out of the barn and knew she wasn’t near her home. The next thought she had was, “I think I AM in Kansas, Toto.” The thought made her chuckle as the impact of her not being where she was supposed to be hadn’t fully registered yet.
A dog barked in the distance. She turned to her left and walked around the barn. She faced the rising sun and saw a meadow full of pink and white hollyhocks and tall green grass. About two hundred yards away there were covered wagons arranged in a circle. It took her a moment to register this because she had never seen them before. These weren’t the covered wagons she had seen in the old John Wayne movies she watched with her dad when she was a little girl. These looked like traditional gypsy wagons!
She turned around to walk back the way she came and for the first time realized the barn she had come out of wasn’t a typical barn either. It seemed to her to be some sort of white-washed stucco, or maybe it was dried and hardened mud. And the roof was made of thatch!
Also for the first time, she began to feel a little panic rise up in her chest because she had no clue where she was or how she had gotten there. A cool breeze passed over her and she shivered, not knowing if it was from the breeze or out of her growing panic. With the breeze came the smells of a fire and she assumed it was coming from the circle of gypsy wagons.
Seeing no signs of activity in the house nearby, she reluctantly started toward the circle of wagons to see if she could find out where she was. A dog ran up to her and trotted next to her with is tail wagging and it reminded her of her own dog. In fact, the similarities were uncanny, from the light khaki color between his eyes and the random pattern on his back. The only real difference was this dog was a little bit thinner, more than likely from a lack of food and more running around. And of course it couldn’t be hers because she wasn’t anywhere near her home.
As Mesha got closer to the band of wagons, the dog darted away and disappeared under a wagon and behind the big wheels. She admired the intricate wood work on the side of the wagon and ran her fingers across it. Looking up there were two small windows with dark red curtains covering the people on the inside from the morning chill. She could only imagine who was in there or what their story was. She was brought out of her thoughts by someone clearing her throat.
She turned around and saw a young girl of about twelve or thirteen years old standing behind her. As soon as their eyes met, Mesha knew there was a connection between the two of them, but what it was she didn’t know.
“Hello,” Mesha said quietly. “Who are you? Where am I?”
The little girl smiled and said something in what sounded like Russian. She looked as if she expected an answer, but Mesha had no idea what else to say, let alone what was asked of her.
“What,” she asked. “I don’t understand you. Where am I? Where is this?” She opened her arms and looked around motioning to the fields and the house that was behind the barn. The girl only smiled and made a motion that she could only mean as “Follow me.”
Mesha walked around the wagon and soon was in the middle of a little community of gypsies. They had tables and chairs sitting close to their wagons and small camp fires were blazing to help keep the chill off the mens’ bones as they sat down and smoked their pipes talking about the day’s work ahead. A few women came out of the wagons and put bowls of something, Mesha couldn’t tell what, in front of the men and they heartily ate. Some children were playing with the dog that was the first to greet her as she approached the circle.
She was led to the largest of the wagons and was told to sit at the table. Without understanding the words, she understood the meaning and sat down, watching the daily routine of the little wandering community.
A moment later, she heard shuffling in the wagon behind her and the door opened. She heard tentative footsteps on the stairs and a few moments later stood before her the matriarch of the community. She didn’t know how she knew, only that it was true. The girl helped the old lady over to the table and into the chair. As soon as she sat, the girl went back into the wagon.
Mesha sat there, not knowing if she was supposed to say something first or wait for the old lady. So she sat quietly and watched the community wake up and start the day. The girl came out of the wagon carrying a tray with two cups and a teapot. She poured one cup and gave it to the old woman and poured another one for Mesha. The girl smiled at Mesha and left.
There was something so familiar about that girl. There was a bond there, but she still couldn’t place it. It seemed to be right on the edge of her thoughts but she just couldn’t grasp it. The silence was broken by the old woman.
“You do not know where you are, no?” The old woman spoke in a thick Russian accent.
“No, I don’t,” Mesha answered. She took a sip of the hot tea and was pleasantly surprised. It was very good and wasn’t like any other tea she had ever had. It had some sort of berry flavor with a hint of woodiness. As if they pulled the branch off the berry bush and steeped it in the water.
“Then you do not know when you are either.” The old lady smiled as if she was going to enjoy telling her. She took a sip of her tea and motioned for Mesha to drink up.
Obeying the old woman without a thought, she took another sip and in disbelief stared at it as she put the cup down. The flavor was stronger than before, yet there was nothing in it to make it brew. She noticed little swirls of something in the otherwise clear liquid and thoughts of poison or drugs seeped into her mind. She felt fine and then something else dawned on her.
“You know English?”
“I know a great many things, child,” the old woman said cryptically. “I know your name and where you are from. I know you will not believe me when I tell you where and when you are. They never believe.” She chuckled and continued to drink, eyeing Mesha closely.
“So where am? When am I?”
“You are in Ukraine. Part of the Soviet Empire. The Great War has just ended. You’re grandmother, Malenka, has not yet gone to the United States for she is just a girl of twelve or thirteen years. She will escape the Holodomor which will happen in ten years time from now. That will be her reason for leaving her family and moving to your country where your mother will be born and your brother and your sister.”
Mesha looked at the old woman in disbelief. The old woman had used the same “thought” as she did when she first saw the girl outside the circle and estimated her age. She hadn’t even realized she’d done that until just now. And how did she know about her siblings? “You mean, I’m in the past? In Russia?! You’re right, I don’t believe it.” Without thinking she took another sip of tea and the wonderful flavor seemed to explode in her mouth. She looked at the nearly empty cup in amazement. Her mind raced with questions she didn’t know how to ask or in what order to ask them.
“You have many questions, I know. They will not be answered as you will soon be returning to your home. You will have to figure out the meaning of this on your own. You are not dreaming, child. Trust me.”
“But how? I don’t even know you? How can I be back in time halfway across the world? It’s impossible! Who are you?”
“You know me even though you have never met me. My blood runs in your veins. You have a bond with the girl don’t you? You’ve felt it haven’t you?”
Mesha couldn’t believe her ears. How did the old woman know this? “Yes. There is something about her that is so familiar.”
“Malenka,” the old woman cried out. The girl came out of the wagon and stood next to the old woman. She spoke something in Russian to her and the girl went inside and a short time later came out with a tiny package wrapped in brown paper. She handed it to Mesha and smiled that very familiar smile. The girl turned to the old woman and said something to her. They had a short conversation and the girl went back inside the wagon.
Mesha looked at the package and noticed that it had her name written on it in the neat and orderly penmanship of a child in school. It had her name on it!
“You’ve been expecting me?”
The old woman smiled. Her smile too seemed familiar. “Yes, my granddaughter and I have been expecting you. She made this gift for you. She said you are very pretty and that you have her smile.”
Mesha’s mouth was open but words were not coming out. “You mean,” she stammered. “That’s my grandmother? That’s my grandma Molly?” She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. She picked up the cup of tea, but before she could drink, the old woman interjected.
“Stop! You must not finish that yet, for when you do, you will be returned to your time. Open your gift first.”
With trembling fingers she untied the string and carefully unwrapped the paper. Inside she found a long piece of cloth with a red triangle at each end with a little design in it. The point of the triangle was attached to the long, tan piece of cloth with small, rectangular indentations of a different texture all along the length until the point of the other triangle was reached. She felt its coarse material and felt the bumps of the rectangles. She looked up at the old woman.
“It is called a lestovka. A prayer cloth. It was supposed to be made of leather, but we didn’t have any so we improvised.” She smiled. “Unfortunately, we are almost out of time, my child. When the tea gets too cold and the flavor dies down, so does the effect and you will be stuck here with us.”
“There is no time. Drink up. You will figure out the meaning of this some day. I am sorry I cannot give you any more. Goodbye my great-great granddaughter.”
Mesha didn’t want to go, she had so many questions, but something made her drink the last of the tea and just as the flavor peaked in her mouth she bolted upright.
Something was ringing. She looked around and found herself in her bed, in her room, in her home. The phone on her nightstand was ringing. She looked over and saw it was her mother.
She shook the cobwebs from her head and thought she had just woken up from a dream. A very realistic dream. She picked up the phone and answered it.
“Hi Mesha. How was your visit?” Mesha heard the chuckle on the other end of the phone not believing what she was hearing. Was this a joke? Was she dreaming? Was it a coincidence? What did she do yesterday that would make her mother ask how her trip was. The questions came faster than the answers and vaguely she heard her mother saying something to her again.
“What? What did you say, mom?”
“I said look in your other hand.”
Mesha looked down and under her hand, laying on the bed beside her, was the lestovka and the piece of paper with her grandmother’s handwriting on it.
Sam woke up on a bright sunny, yet chilly November morning. The warmth from under the covers was reason enough to not get out of bed. His pregnant wife, who was sleeping soundly next to him, was the perfect reason not to get out of bed.
Sam rolled over to face his wife, Sara, and gazed upon her. She glowed even when she was asleep. These were the perfect moments that he lived for. Just to look at her.
He reached over to stroke her hair and moved a lock behind her ear and then ran his finger down her cheek to her chin. She stirred and smiled before opening her eyes and looking at Sam.
“Good morning, beautiful.” Sam said with a smile.
“Morning, honey,” she answered. “What’s for breakfast?”
“Whatever you and junior want,” Sam said with a smile.
“Bacon. I would like some bacon. And an egg.”
“You stay right here. I’ll be back in a few minutes with bacon and an egg.”
Sam got up and went to make his wife breakfast. He heard his cell phone ring a special ringtone. He froze and the blood drained from his face. He went to his phone and looked at the display. It read Unavailable. The phone rang for the fourth time and he answered it, but no one said a word on either end.
“Hello,” he stammered.
“Mr. Smith?” The voice was soft and inviting. She had a sweet southern accent and the image of a short, beautiful woman with wavy flowing auburn hair came to his mind.
“No, I think you have a wrong number.”
“Is this 848-5083,” asked the voice sweetly.
“No, it’s 848-5038,” came the automatic reply.
“Silly me! I’m so sorry to disturb you.” The line went dead and he stood there with the phone still pressed to his ear. A million questions went through his mind all at once overloading his circuits. He began to tremble and dropped the iPhone to the ground causing the glass to splinter just as if it was a windshield that was hit with a bullet.
What did they want him to do? Why now after seven years of silence? He trained nonstop for two years for this and waited for seven. What the hell is going on?
He went back into the bedroom and looked at his wife who was just beginning to maneuver out of bed. Sam started to get dressed and didn’t say anything.
“Honey, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost!”
“I, uh, it was the office. I’m so sorry but I have to go in for a little bit.”
“But Sam, it’s Sunday morning! They never call on a weekend.”
“I’m sorry babe. They just said it was urgent.” He avoided eye contact with her. He hated to lie to her, he was never good at it and she could always see through it. But lie he did, and she didn’t seem to notice.
He finished getting dressed and went to the side of the bed where she silently sat and gave her a kiss on her forehead and then knelt beside her.
“I’ll give you a call when I can. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to make your own bacon and eggs this morning.” He smiled, lifted her pajama top over her swollen belly and kissed it before he left without saying goodbye or I love you.
Sam sat on the park bench overlooking a pond with the city skyline as the backdrop. It was still chilly out and he took a sip of steaming coffee while he waited. He impatiently looked at his watch for the third time in as many minutes. Every jogger, every dog walker, every person that walked past him caused the pit in his stomach to be a little deeper. What could they possibly want now?
“Hello, David,” a male voice said behind him. He began to turn and thought better of it. “How’ve you been?” An older man walked around the bench and sat down beside Sam. Sam didn’t say a word.
“You never were one for unnecessary talk, were you?” When Sam didn’t speak the man laughed. “Right. Well, I’m sure you’re wondering why you’ve been called here. After all, seven years four months and nineteen days is a long time to go without hearing from your employer. The truth is, we didn’t need you until now. We have a job for you. You’re not going to like it, but if you don’t do it we’ll do it for you and it will not be pretty and you’ll be included in the contract. I wanted to get that out of the way right off the bat. Are we clear?”
Sam paused and considered his options which weren’t many. “Clear,” he said quietly.
“Good,” said the man jovially. “I don’t need to remind you why you volunteered for this job do I?” He emphasized the word “volunteered”.
“Good,” he said in the same jovial tone as before. “All you need to know is this contract is high priority. An enemy of the state that has eluded us for years who we just found three days ago. This is a terrorist that has bombed clinics, refugee camps, cafes, hospitals, you name it, they’ve bombed it.
“She joined al Qaeda as a special operative in 1999 in Lebanon. Her two brothers were a captain and a major in the Lebanese army and deserted to join the terrorist group with her. They aided the men that attacked New York in 2001. She’s pretty important if al Qaeda allowed a woman to be in the inner circle.”
Sam sat there and listened not knowing what else to do. He had trained for this. To be a sleeper agent. To do one job and then disappear. To help his country in its time of need. To do his patriotic duty. He knew he received paychecks from the government, but they went to a secured bank account that he would get the information to only after the job, whatever and whenever it was, was done.
The man reached under his coat in the special breast pocket and pulled out a large envelope. It was paper-thin and sealed. He handed it to Sam, who paused before he took it.
“I’m going to need more information if I’m going to find and kill this terrorist.” He couldn’t believe he was saying this. He never willingly hurt anyone in his life let alone killed them. But he was caught up in the patriotic fervor of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and signed up for this knowing full well what it entailed. But that was eight years ago. He was a different man eight years ago. He had a wife now, and a baby on the way. He had two other people to think about now. He wasn’t on his own with no family to answer to like he was back then.
“There’s a photograph in there, David, of the contract. That’s all you’ll need. On the back of photograph is an address. When the contract is filled, you will go to that address and ask for John Carter. You will be shown into a room with a safe deposit box. In that safe deposit box will be the bank account information which will be your paycheck and a key to another safe deposit box. Further instructions will be in that box.”
The man got up and started to walk away as if nothing had ever happened.
“Sir,” Sam called out to him. The man stopped and turned around to face him. “I don’t mean to question your judgement or the agency’s judgement, but am I really capable of filling a contract on such a dangerous terrorist?”
“David,” the man said as he took a few steps closer to the bench, “We conducted an extensive background check on you eight years ago. We know your background. When we found out about this terrorist, we went back seven years ago and tracked your every move up until last Thursday. You signed a contract with the government of the United States of America. You will fill this contract and you will fill it gladly because it will protect future citizens of this country. You will then drop of the face of the planet. Sam will cease to exist just as David has ceased to exist. You will grow old and bounce your grandkids on your knee and will not be able to tell them of how you saved them from the terror and horrors that children all over the world suffer through every day. You won’t be able to tell them that. But you will be able to talk to them and bounce them on your knee. That is reason enough for you fill this contract. Your physical life will continue on even though Sam’s will not. You will be monitored periodically for the rest of your life. You won’t know if the nice lady next to you in the checkout line at the grocery store is an agent or not. You will not know if your child’s little league coach is our agent or not. You will not know. But as long as Sam ceases to exist, you will not have a problem. You are capable of doing this. We wouldn’t have assigned it to you if we didn’t think so.”
With that the man turned on his heels and walked away. Sam sat there for a minute which seemed like an eternity holding the envelope in his hands. He turned it over and slid his finger under the sealed flap and ripped it open. He felt inside and pulled the photograph out. He looked at it and his heart stopped beating for a fraction of a second. The picture caused his breathing to stagger and he felt as if he was punched in the gut. He was looking at a fifteen year old photograph of his wife.
To be continued…
This short story was inspired by the song Copperhead Road by Steve Earle.
In the middle of the hills in Eastern Tennessee lie the charred ruins of small cabin that dated to colonial times when the area had all been virgin forest except for a tiny settlement of trappers and hunters which banded together for protection from the Cherokee Indians.
In addition to the dangers of Indian attacks, the area was home to a large population of copperhead snakes and the settlement became known as Copperhead. With the rise of Knoxville and Johnson City in the mid 1850s, Copperhead fell off the map and the town was abandoned. But Copperhead Road, which was the main street of the town, still existed in the early part of the 20th century known as the Roaring Twenties, and it’s at the abandoned cabin where our story begins.
Tommy walked quietly on the fallen leaves in the forest with his shotgun held loosely in one hand and a satchel slung over his shoulder. Every now and then he would stop and listen to what the forest was telling him. It was mostly quiet today so he kept walking. Lost in his thoughts, he wandered clear up to the cabin. After a moment, he realized where he was and he gripped his shotgun a little tighter, his senses more attuned to his surroundings.
This is it. This is where his pa had told him never to go to. Bad people lived up here. Godless people who would just as soon take your soul then give you the time of day. He was a little bit scared and a little bit intrigued all at the same time; the way most 16 year olds see danger.
Tommy saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a man pointing a rifle at him. He saw a few more men coming out from behind the trees and he pointed at them from the hip.
“Don’t you raise that pop-gun at us, boy. ‘Less you aim to die today.” Tommy relaxed his grip and let the gun point back down to the ground. His legs started to tremble. “What’re you doin’ in these here parts, boy?” Tommy’s mouth went dry as cotton.
“Uh…just huntin. Sir,” Tommy managed to say. He could hear his father say clear as day, “You stay away from Copperhead Road, son. Nothing good comes from up there.” Tommy thought he was going to die. His father had successfully scared the crap out of him and here he was about to have the crap literally scared out of him.
The man who was talking lowered his gun and the others followed suit. “You’re Bill Anderson’s boy, ain’t you?”
“Yessir,” Tommy said.
“You’re pa ever tell you to stay away from here?”
“Good advice, boy. Why you around here then?”
Tommy shifted his weight nervously. “I, uh, just sorta lost track of where I was I guess.”
“Well you shouldn’t lose track of that around here. Shouldn’t lose track of that anywhere. Now go on, git.”
Tommy shifted his weight again. They didn’t seem like the devil’s people. They’re letting him go after all. He wanted to ask them why they didn’t want anyone nearby. Why did people say they were so bad? “Uh, sir? Can I ask you a question?”
The man stood there perplexed. Nobody had ever stuck around long enough for him to tell them to git, let alone ask a question. “What is it, boy? Ain’t got all day.”
Tommy looked at the man square in the eye. “What do you do here that everyone says you got to keep away from Copperhead Road?”
The man grinned and spit tobacco juice on the ground. “You know why. Everbody knows why. Nobody wants to do anything ’bout it though so we keep on doin’ it.”
“You make good money at it? Is it exciting?” Tommy asked with growing curiosity and confidence.
“You sure do have a lot of questions, boy.” The man walked closer to Tommy to get a better look at him. The other men stayed put.
“Uh, I’m sorry sir,” Tommy stammered, his confidence wavering. “My pa said you was… uh, bad people and you’d kill me if I came up here. But you don’t seem too bad to me if’n you’re lettin’ me go and all.”
The man walked up to Tommy and stood a good three inches taller than the still growing boy. “Well boy, I ‘spect some people think we’re bad. We do bad things from time to time. But I reckon most people do bad things from time to time. Don’t you?” He looked at Tommy with steely eyes before continuing without waiting for an answer. “What we’re doin’ isn’t nothing too bad. What our pa’s did ‘fore us, and their pa’s did ‘fore them. We just have to do bad things ever now and again cause it’s against the law now.”
Tommy processed this as fast a boy could. A million questions came up in his mind and he figured he’d have a million more if only a few were answered. But the one question he wanted to ask the most came blurting out of his mouth before he could stop it. “Is it fun?”
The man started chuckling which evolved into a full-blown belly laugh. The other’s behind him started laughing too. “Is it fun?” he mocked between laughs. Tommy looked embarrassed as his face became hot and red. “Boy, let me tell you somethin,” he said as he regained his composure. “We get drunk whenever we want. We get to drive souped up cars real fast at night with the headlights off. We get paid good money and we get any girl we want. Ain’t that right boys?!” The half-dozen men started hootin’ and hollerin’. One even shot his rifle up in the air. “Yeah, I guess you could say it’s fun.” He spit another stream of tobacco juice on the ground about an inch from Tommy’s boot without even looking. “You wanna see for yourself?”
Tommy’s eyes lit up. “For real? Me?”
The man chuckled at the boy’s enthusiasm. “Yeah, you. Course you know you can’t tell no one at all about our operation. Not your daddy, not your girl, not even your little brother.”
“No sir. I won’t tell a soul.”
“Well good then. You come back here tomorrow mornin’ and we’ll get you started. You’ll start at the bottom of the barrel and work your way up, now. It’s hard work, boy, but you’ll get to play hard when the workin’s done.”
“Yessir!” Tommy was all grins as the man started to walk away from him.
He walked back the way he came thinking about what he had just done. Had he sold his soul to the devil just for curiosity or the chance to have fun? Were these people really bad and just pretended to be ok? He recalled a sermon one time where the preacher said the devil can show himself as an angel of light sometimes. He shivered at the thought that he would go to hell because of this. But his youthful mind was full of money and girls and booze and all kinds of fun. Tommy put a little spring in his step on the way home. He was now in the moonshine business.
To be continued…
Remy passed through the cemetery at twilight on a brisk November evening. The sky along the horizon looking out to the vast Pacific Ocean was a rich tapestry of reds and oranges. The sky directly above was a brilliant shade of lavender which gave way to the deep, rich blues that faded to black over the eastern horizon.
Remy looked up and through the lavender in the sky, the first of the stars were beginning to twinkle. He saw Abigail’s star, lazily hanging over the Pacific following the sun. Her star was actually Venus, the planet named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. How appropriate, he thought, that Abbey’s star was the planet Venus.
Remy remembered the first time he ever set eyes on Abigail. They were on a cruise from Le Harve, France to Portsmouth, England, and finally to New York City. It was the third day after leaving Portsmouth he was ambling on the deck early in the morning when he saw Abbey watching the sun rise leaning on the railing. Being the consummate Frenchman, he thought quick on his feet and grabbed the nearest set of flowers he could find, three-day old lavender blossoms that were beginning to wilt in salty ocean air.
“Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle,” he said softly not trying to startle her. Abbey jumped anyway and put her hand to her heart.
“Oh my, you gave me a scare!” Abbey giggled.
“For you,” Remy said in his seductive French accent holding up the flowers to her. “I am sorry they appear to be old but, you see, this was the best they had out here.” He waved his hand over the vast ocean before them and handed her the bouquet of flowers. Remy saw the twinkle in her eye when she looked up at him while smelling the lavender blossoms. In that moment, he knew he would marry her. Years later, she would confess to him that she too knew in that very same moment she would marry him.
“They’re beautiful. Thank you.” She involuntarily shivered, partly from the chill in the air and partly from the effect Remy had on her. She turned around and watched the sun peek its face above the horizon. Remy took his jacket off and put it over her shoulders. She could smell his cologne and she closed her eyes and leaned back into him. After a few moments like this together they began to talk and walk which would last for hours that day. One of the first things they talked about was the ‘morning star’, which Abbey refered to as hers. He explained it was Venus and that sometimes it was seen in the west as the ‘evening star’.
They were very nearly together every moment the rest of the trip to New York under the watchful, albeit very tired eye of her tutor, who also served as guardian on her grand tour of Europe.
Determined to make a name for himself and to win Abbey’s family over, he made a small fortune for himself with some shrewd, if not shady, business deals in New York. He would not let Abbey’s father think he was to marry her for her money. Abbey’s father was a gold speculator and had also made a small fortune mining for gold. He established other businesses and ventures and was very well-known and respected in the whole of Northern California even before Abbey was born.
Remy smiled fondly at the memories he had of Abbey and the life they built together. He smelled the fresh bouquet in his hands and looked up to Abbey’s star with a tear in his eye. “I love you more than anything, ma chère,” he said in his still thick French accent. He put the flowers on her grave, said a silent prayer and walked away. He strolled for a little bit enjoying the solitude, but still wishing his Abbey was walking beside him. He left the cemetery and vanished under the gated archway on Evergreen Street amid the noise and bustle of Santa Cruz in the early 21st century.
Shortly before Abbey’s 50th birthday in 1919, she would succumb to the ravages of the Spanish flu epidemic. It left Remy heartbroken, and every year he would put lavender flowers on her memorial headstone in Evergreen cemetary on their wedding anniversary. Remy was buried beside his beloved wife in 1935.
Every year, people will find bruised and wilted lavender blossoms on Abigail’s grave. The legend says that Remy’s ghost still puts the flowers on the grave on their wedding anniversary and the flowers wilt and age because they pass from their world to ours. Nobody has ever seen the ghost or any fresh flowers and, therefore, nobody really knows the true story of The Lavender Flowers.
This week’s challenge is to pick a song and write about how it changed your life. Or a musician, band or composer or lyrics or something musical and how it changed, inspired, or moved you.
For me this is an impossibility. Music truly is the soundtrack of my life. So many moments in my life have music tied to them. Corny music, serious music, happy music, weird music, rock, classical, country, blues, oldies, movie soundtracks…it’s all shaped me in some way.
If I want to think of my very young childhood, I can listen to Hey Good Lookin’ or You Are My Sunshine and think of my mother singing to me. If I hear the song In The Summertime by Mungo Jerry I’m taken back to my freshman year of high school and my first serious girlfriend. Lazy Mary takes me back to Aunt Mary and Uncle Phil’s house for big Saturday afternoon Italian meals. Alan Parson’s Sirius takes me back to the early 1990s when I watched the Bulls with my dad. Just the beginning two notes of Just A Little by Liberty X brings back the gut wrenching memories of my first real heartbreak. The name “John Williams” reminds me of my years in my high school concert band. Even More Blues But My Abcessed Tooth Is Fine Now Thanks takes me back to high school jazz band and winning second place in the Augustana Jazz Festival my junior year. Blues Before Sunrise, Rhapsody in Blue, Zorba the Greek, L-O-V-E, Wanted, Theme From Batman….the list goes on and on. All of these songs take me back to a moment in time.
So this is a continuation of the exercise I posted about last week. I took a word from column A and one from column B and came up with “Depressed Hitman”. This is a scene about how he came to be in the hitman business. For all of you out there that speak Russian, please forgive the translations if they are incorrect or don’t make sense. I don’t speak Russian and was using Google Translate. Leave me a comment if I said anything wrong and I’ll correct it. And leave your comments on what you think about this post. Ideas, critiques, questions, praise…it’s all welcome here.
Brooklyn – 1986
Yuri stood on the corner of 4th Street and the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, New York on a late summer evening. He had been a soldier for Russkiy Medved’, the Russian Bear, since he was twelve years old running errands for the mob boss. Now, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, he would be initiated into the circle known as the medvedya lapu, The Bear’s Paw, or just the lapu. The youngest ever.
He stood there trying to hold his emotions in, but the nervous energy leaked out in the form of pacing up and down the boardwalk in front of the little cafe waiting for The Bear and his lapu and chain smoking Marlboro reds. He started smoking them because the Marlboro man reminded him of John Wayne and loved to watch John Wayne movies. Cowboy was a nickname he had gotten recently and he like it.
Yuri checked his watch again for the fourth time in as many minutes, impatiently waiting and wishing he was in the cafe. But the boss told him to wait outside and wait outside he did.
“Hey Cowboy!” Yuri turned and in a flash a black hood had been thrown over his head and he was being manhandled somewhere. He hadn’t heard a car or van pull up though. He fought his assailants and cursed them in Russian. One of his kicks landed, somewhere, and he heard a deep guttural groan. He must have gotten one in the nuts he thought triumphantly. He doubled his efforts to get free, but his leg was caught by someone else. Yuri used the leverage and landed another kick to what he thought was the guys face. Despite these minor victories, he was losing the battle and the kidnappers managed to force him into a van.
“Leave them,” he heard someone say in Russian as the van peeled out. He felt a massive blow to his head that sent shock waves through his body. He saw stars despite the bag over his head and fought for consciousness. He barely felt the second blow before he lost his battle. The last thought he had was that this was death and he would never wake up.
Yuri woke up with a splitting headache. “Where am I?” he thought. “I’m alive, but, Oh God my head.” He looked around, everything was fuzzy. Slowly, as his eyes adjusted to the light from a single light bulb hanging over him, he realized he must be in a warehouse of some kind. He could see rusty metal shelves on his left with old moldy boxes on them. An abandoned warehouse. He had no idea how long he’d been out so he could be anywhere. Boston, Pittsburgh, maybe they drugged him too and he was back in Russia.
Panic started to take over his body. His slow, strung out breathing became rapid and jagged as the thought of the KGB crept in his mind. He had heard stories about the KGB and that was probably the one thing that scared him the most.
“But why would they want me? I’m in America. I was six years old the last time I was in Russia. They couldn’t possibly be after me.” He relaxed a little bit with this thought and and tried to move his arms. They were tied behind his back to the wooden chair. He struggled vainly and realized his legs were tied to the chair too.
The struggling made his head pound harder, if that was even possible, and he stopped to gather his strength and thoughts. “Ok, I’m tied up to a chair in an abandoned warehouse probably in America somewhere. I was waiting for The Bear because he was going to make me the newest guy in his lapu. Did I do something wrong? Is it the Medved’ that had him kidnapped? Was he being framed for something? Was it the FBI? The CIA? Did they want him to rat on his family? Not a chance of that happening. Sviney.” With that last word, pig, he spat. His head didn’t hurt as much now. He tried turning to look around.
Everywhere he looked was dark except in under his light bulb. Shadows mostly. He cleared his throat and heard it echo. A big room. Maybe the main warehouse. Was he being watched right now? He struggled again, lightly at first, and when there was no additional pain, he struggled a little harder.
Whenever Yuri was in trouble, he would always think, “What would John Wayne do?”. It seemed silly sometimes, but it served him well so far. So he thought, what would John Wayne do? He would try to get free first of all. But he was tied to the chair. Could he maybe cut the rope with one of the support beams on the metal shelving? He stood up as best he could, bent over at the hips, and hobbled inch by inch over to the nearest shelf. The strain was beginning to cloud his eyes as the pain of his head intensified again.
He managed to get to the shelf, turn around and start running his hands up and down on the edge of the metal support beam. It wasn’t cutting. He pushed harder. He thought he could feel the rope being cut a little. He doubled his efforts and pushed harder still. He began to see stars and knew that he wouldn’t do himself any good if he passed out again so he backed off. But it was too late. The beam he was using failed and the shelf and all it’s contents came crashing down.
Yuri froze and listened after the last of the boxes of ball bearings had scattered into the darkness. Surely someone must have heard that. They’d be here soon and he still wasn’t free. He had to get out of this before they came or he would die. He knew it.
He went further down the isle to another support beam and could just make out a wall at the other end of the room. Maybe he could smash the chair. He stumbled to the wall and weakly tried to smash the chair. He felt weak. Stars were getting brighter and his head was getting lighter. He stopped to catch his breath and try to gain his strength. He tried one last time, mustering all his energy and threw himself at the wall. The chair crumpled and he managed his way out of the tangled mess.
He picked up a broken, jagged chair leg and leaned up against the wall trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head. His head pounded and fought to stay conscious. He thought he heard a door open, but couldn’t be sure if it was really a door or just the pounding and ringing in his ears. He controlled his breathing and the stars went away and throbbing pain gradually went down to a dull roar.
He heard footsteps. He was sure of it. He held the chair leg like a sword and backed away against the wall. How could he get out of here alive? They knew where they were, he did not. They didn’t have knots the size of Moscow on their heads and shoulders, he did. He saw a man stop under the same light bulb he had woken up under. Yuri didn’t know the man, but knew he was dangerous just by his presence. Yuri fought to control his bladder as the man turned and seemed to look through the darkness that separated them right into his eyes.
And then it happened. He heard a noise to his right and instinctively swung the chair leg. It connected and he heard fabric tear. Another man tackled Yuri from behind and with all his might, Yuri swung the chair leg back like he was paddling in a canoe. The jagged end lodged into something and a split second later the man released him and howled in pain.
Adrenaline coursed through Yuri and motion caught his eye through the tunnel vision. It was the man from under the light. Yuri froze. He felt the cold barrel of a gun pressed up to his forehead.
“In the time it takes you to try and hit me, I can pull the trigger,” the man said in a New York accent which stunned Yuri just as much as having a gun pointed at his head. The overhead lights turned on in pairs down the long warehouse floor bathing the space in a weak fluorescent light.
As the lights warmed up and filled the warehouse, he heard someone clapping above him and looked up to see The Bear watching and smiling from a balcony.
“Yuri!” Ivan Koliansk said in his thick Russian accent. “Yuri my boy! You have done well.” He disappeared over the railing and Yuri heard footsteps coming down the metal staircase. He looked at the light bulb man with the gun still pointed to his head and turned back to where The Bear was coming down.
“What is this?” Yuri asked weakly.
The Bear walked up to Yuri and smiled, “This is your initiation into the lapu. We had to see how you would react and how tough you are. It is also a very small taste of the pain you will suffer if you rat on us.” Ivan looked around Yuri and saw one of the guys leaning up against the wall, the chair leg embedded in his side. His breathing was staggered. He would probably bleed to death in a few more minutes. “He knew the risks,” he said more to himself than to anyone in particular.
“Yuri, you have done very well. In case you are wondering, you decommissioned Gregor by kicking him in his petukh. He swears he will never have children now. You shattered Little Ivan’s jaw. He will be eating out of a straw for a few weeks. And over there,” he said, pointing to the half dead man on ground, “is Dimitri Andreyev from Los Angeles. They were going to try to get you to rat on me. But you didn’t!” He patted Yuri’s cheek as a father would to his son. “Good boy.”
Yuri stood there, bloodied and exhausted, not believing what had just happened. He thought he was going to die, but it was only a test. A test he seemed to have passed with flying colors as he was now the youngest ever allowed to be in the inner circle of The Bear. At least now he can approach every situation he will encounter knowing he has faced death and lived to tell about it. He has no fear.
I have this book called The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates and in it there is an exercise for building initial ideas for a story. You pick an adjective from column A and a noun from column B and go with it. So I picked “Depressed Hitman”. Why is our hitman depressed? Is it because he’s a hitman? Maybe because he always wanted to be a ballet dancer but was initiated in the mob, and now he wants out so he can pursue his dream of being in The Nutcracker. OK, so we have a hitman that’s always wanted to be a ballet dancer because his uncle Gregor was back in Mother Russia. The image I have in my mind of a Russian hitman is a big burly guy with 2 day old stubble and crew cut. Not the image of a ballet dancer. Should the tone be one of humor as is the case here? Or should it be darker? Maybe our Russian hit man is depressed because he’s a hitman, and he has seen enough blood and families torn apart. He wants to be callous, but he can’t do it anymore. Now what if he wants out so bad that he hatches a plan with someone he’s supposed to hit. Maybe it was someone that stole money from the Russian mob boss in New York. Maybe he’s good at stealing money so they make a plan where the guy will steal more money, and the hitman will provide the “muscle” to get it. It’s an unlikely alliance that could prove to be a decent plot line.
Maybe I’ll try to write a scene tomorrow.