Quadwallups and Filaments (a short story)

Things weren’t all that strange, until Theodore Roosevelt showed up at my front door.

Things weren’t all that strange, until Theodore Roosevelt showed up at my front door.

Especially strange because he wore a Union uniform, like those of the civil war. Yet- I know this because I searched the answer on my phone before opening the door – Roosevelt was seven years old when the civil war ended.

“I say, good day chap!” He bellowed at me.

I strained to hear him, over the engines of fighter planes, explosions, and shouting military men who were trampling my front lawn.

“What’s going on?” I asked, standing in my sweats.

I’d fallen asleep early that evening and could have sworn dusk had been and gone before I closed my eyes. Now it was daylight, early morning from the angle of the sun.

“Quadwallups, lad! They’re taking over the city. I dare say. We’ve gotta fight back and I need your help!” He said, the glasses on his face glinted at me, and his large mustache twitched like a rabbit’s tail.

“Quad-whats? Are you sure you don’t have the wrong address?” I responded.

A large explosion shook the ground and shattered my ears.

“Sorry, son. You’ve got to speak up! Up, up, up!” He shouted kindly, waving a cigar the size of a sausage, then he took a few puffs.

“Sir! Sir! Quad-“ A soldier shouted from the front yard. But he was cut short when something insanely fast swooped down and took him away as he screamed. I didn’t want to admit what I thought I just saw.

However, the sight gave me pause. All the soldiers stomping around my lawn wore uniforms from nearly every major war throughout time, as if everyone got different memo’s on dress code.

“What the-?” I said to Roosevelt, who didn’t even turn to see the soldier.

“Quadwallups! I told you, I need your help! There’s no time for idle chit chat, my boy.” Roosevelt said, but he was so calm I couldn’t tell if he was serious.

I began to tremble, whether from the rumble of earth rending machines or bombs going off in the distance or the fact that I was terrified – I couldn’t be certain.

“I-I’m not exactly dressed for war.” I said uneasily.

We both looked down at my attire and I thought of how easily my velvety soft sweats, worn smooth from a decade as my favorites, would be disintegrated on a battlefield.

“I say, you look quite alright to me. Freedom of movement and such. But if you prefer to fall in line with the boys, I can make an arrangement.” Roosevelt turned, stuck two fingers in his mouth, and whistled loudly.

In a short moment, a six foot something, skinny as a fishing rod, soldier came running up to us, holding a parcel in his arms.

“Sir, you called, Sir.” The soldier stood straight, looming over the two of us, but he didn’t salute because his arms were occupied with the large box.

“Fine work son! Excellent timing. Hand the package to the General, if you would.”

To my surprise, the soldier handed me the package. His eyes met mine for a moment before he nodded and released its weight into my arms. The box was ungodly heavy and I nearly toppled into the entryway from its heft. After which, the soldier ran back out into the front yard, charging into battle.

“What”, I groaned, “is this?”

“Your uniform, son! Hurry along, there isn’t much time to waste! Quadwallups will destroy everything if we don’t act fast!”

I retreated into the hallway, closing the door a degree to shield as I changed but not all the way.

The cardboard box was held together with twine, tied neatly in a bow with a label attached to the end of a string, on which was scribbled ‘Pull here’.

I fumbled for a moment but managed to pull the knot loose, after which, the box unfolded on its own. I leapt back, afraid it was a bomb or Quadwallup trapped inside.

A coat rack grew from the center of the box like a plant until finally it stood gleaming in front of me, laden with a sparkling uniform.

On top, rested a full face helmet, shaped like a fish bowl. Below the helmet, hung a rubber suit, gloves and boots seamlessly attached. There was an air tank on the back, the kind divers use underwater.

I stood, unsure what to do next or even how to put it on, when Roosevelt hollered from the doorway.

“Hurry, Son! We haven’t got all day.”

At that, I grabbed the rubber suit, which to my surprise was very light.

A zippered slit ran up the right side and curved along the chest to the opposite side, allowing me to pull it on. The suit was suffocating against my skin and I immediately began to sweat, but it fit perfectly. Once zipped, I took the helmet from the rack and pulled it over my head. It attached securely to notches in the neck of the suit and, once connected, cool air flooded the chamber from the supplied oxygen.

At this point, I really wished there was a nearby mirror but I didn’t have the time to run to the bathroom. I looked down and realized the suit was form fitting, which made me uncomfortable when I saw the not quite complimenting bulge of my penis below.

“Ahh, splendid! You look quite fitting. Yes, striking I might add.” Roosevelt said when I arrived at the front door. He gave me a once over and again I felt uncomfortable.

“Here.” He placed an object the size and shape of a large flashlight in my hands.

“What’s this?” I asked, moving my thumb over button to test it.

“DON’T TOUCH THAT!” Roosevelt shouted and jumped to the side.

Frightened, I moved my thumb a great distance from the button.

“Sorry.” I apologized, not knowing why.

He wiped sweat from his brow.

“It’s a M-72. A Mallarky. It’s the finest Mallarky we have. Highly potent, deadly in fact. You’ll need this to fight the Quadwallups but you must not press that button until the time is right. Do you understand?”

“I don’t.”

“Well, you’ll get the hang of it soon. We must be off! Let’s get to it.”

With that, Roosevelt spun on his heels and walked off toward the front yard. I followed, hurrying to keep up with his pace.

The front lawn had been transformed from the peaceful place I once knew to a chaotic mess of soldiers and equipment. Many of them worked to set up sandbag walls at the edge of the road, others stood in tight circles overlooking maps. They wore WWII uniforms, civil war dress, current fatigues, or, strange as it sounds, fighting clothes from the revolutionary war. Machine guns, muskets, or revolvers slung from their shoulders or hung from their hips.

At the road, a tank rolled by, crunching the asphalt like graham crackers.

Overhead, propeller planes zoomed by, soon followed by air rending fighter jets. Explosions rocked the earth. People shouted. Guns clapped. None of it made any sense.

“What are you doing here?” I asked Roosevelt when we turned up the road behind the tank.

“Quadwallups! I already told you that, my boy.” He responded.

“I got that. I meant, what are you, Theodore Roosevelt, doing here?”

“Theo-who?” He shouted back at me.

“DUCK!” A soldier yelled from our side.

Just then, a whistle cut through the air, and Roosevelt tackled me flat to the road. A split second later, a missile sunk into my neighbors house and exploded. The structure went up in a showering plume of splinters.

“Theodore Roosevelt. You died almost a hundred years ago. Dead presidents don’t go walking around in a civil war uniforms in broad daylight.”

“You’re not making any sense, son.”

Clearly, I wasn’t the one making sense.

We turned down Maple street, going downhill now, headed for the city center. I looked up to see a swarm of planes and jets circling the skyscrapers, hovering and firing ammunition at something I couldn’t see. It looked like a vision out of the end of the world, in several different eras.

“You’re not Roosevelt, are you?” I shouted as jeeps screamed past us, turret gunners as stern as statues on top.

“Well, I wouldn’t quite say that. I am and I’m not at the same time, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t.”

“Simple enough, I am the form of this man but I am not him.”

“Like a ghost?”

“No, not a ghost. Go ahead, give my arm a shove. You’ll see that I’m quite real.”

I shoved him. His form was solid. I shook my head and holstered the Mallarky in a sheath at my waist.

“Some would call me a concept. Though old and far in the past, I’m as solid as you are. Even more so, from what I’ve heard.” He adds.

“So you’re the REAL Theodore Roosevelt? This is crazy.”

“Call me what you like, it makes little difference to me. But, to label it crazy, is far from the truth. Simply speaking, I’m a Filament.”

“A filament? Like fiberglass?”

“Their are similarities, this is true. A Filament’s job is to hold things together, especially when something is in the business of tearing it apart. Normally, you wouldn’t see me. I’m quite good at being invisible but the state of affairs has forced my hand. Do you know what I’m getting at?” Roosevelt huffed.

“Quadwallups?” I asked.

Roosevelt nodded somberly.

An explosion hit, blocks away, everyone on the road swayed. We were in a caravan of tanks and infantrymen, headed through the industrial district, on course for downtown.

I began to notice that most of the soldiers paused a moment as they trotted past, nodding to Roosevelt and I. It made me realize that I was the only one wearing a suit like mine or carrying an M-72. A trickle of sweat ran down my temple. The soldiers were looking at me like I was their savior or secret weapon. The idea lodged like a softball in my throat.

“Why am I the only one wearing one of these suits?” I asked nervously.

“We’ll get to that, my boy. Have you been debriefed yet?”

“Debriefed?”

“I say, you’re quite good at repeating me.” He chuckled. “Simple yes or no works pretty well in my experience. Anyhow, we must get to the point of things, no time to dally around the hilt, if you get my meaning.”

“Certainly.”

The M-72 blinked blue and beeped. I looked down, worried I’d triggered it accidentally.

“Never mind that. It’s blue when you’re in Quadwallup territory. Until it’s steady red, theres no need for concern. As I was saying, we need to get you up to speed.”

He took a few quick puffs of his cigar before speaking again.

“This is a terrible inconvenience for you, I’m sure, but we needed your help. Normally, we don’t show ourselves to Filaments along the current timeline. We operate in the background, you see, like the inner workings of a clock or the guts of a television. Sure, you may know the product of our work quite well. So well, in fact, that you don’t notice it anymore. Just like you don’t question your watch if it’s in working order. Are you following?”

I nodded but I wasn’t certain.

“Well, Filaments are always at odds with Quadwallups. We’re at war, been that way since the dawn of the new age. Our battles are monitored by the conventions. There is a set of codes by which we are bound, otherwise the operation would fall into chaos. Complete and utter chaos. As I said, Filaments don’t usually show themselves but we had no choice.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Quadwallups organized a coup and jumped the timeline, to the present.”

“And that’s bad?”

“Very bad! Quadwallups are our opposing force, they are the opposite of structure. Continually trying to break up the Filaments. Quadwallups are what you might call the space between and, if too much space gets between Filaments, we fall apart. What happens if we fall apart? Chaos my, boy. Doom to our kind.”

He said the last part with a particular darkness.

“Since the Quadwallups jumped the timeline, there are too many of them in the present. They’re tearing apart the current Filaments, spreading them apart until they snap. The more the Filaments snap, the wider the hole gets. The wider the hole, the more Quadwallups flood in. It’s a vicious cycle, my boy. If we cant stop them, Quadwallups from every timeline since the dawn of the age will flood into the present. Do you know what happens then?” Roosevelt said, glancing at me.

“Chaos?” I muttered.

He shook his head.

“The end of the world.”

We were nearly the heart of the city, leaving the factories behind, and began walking under the shadows of skyscrapers. The roaring buzz of old fighter planes above, the groan of the tanks ahead, louder now and echoing against the buildings.

A screech, like someone dragging a nail on a chalkboard in front of a mammoth loudspeaker, shrieked in my ears. Following the sound was a pain that felt like my guts were being rearranged.

When I looked up, many of the soldiers writhed on the ground, some lay dead. I glanced at Roosevelt in terror.

“They’re breaking through our lines! Come with me!” He shouted.

We cut into an alley, it was empty except the two of us.

“Was that a Quadwallup?” I ask, panting.

“Yes, the bastards are getting stronger. We must act fact. I’m afraid it might be too late.”

We picked up our pace.

“You said the Quadwallups are the space between but I still don’t understand how they’re stronger than the Filaments. A void seems powerless to me.”

“You’ve got the right idea, lad. But I’m afraid the space between is often stronger than connection, especially when the Filaments are corroded. We try to correct things before they disintegrate altogether but sometimes we miss a spot or two and the connection snaps. The level of corrosion has sped to a rapid rate this age, like nothing I’ve seen before.”

We’d made two turns by this point, with each, we snaked closer to the city center. The report of canons thumped in my chest. We passed soldiers laying in the streets, screaming from their backs, or face down and silent.

“What can I do about this? I don’t see how I can stop something this powerful.” I said shakily.

“There’s a lot you can do, especially with the M-72 at your side. We’re all with you in this, battalions of Filaments are pouring in from across time for this battle. The Quadwallups have broken the code. It isn’t the first time it’s happened but, I dare say, it’s worse than I’ve ever seen.”

“You said the Filaments were corroded, does that mean they’ve defected to the Quadwallups?”

“No, it just means they’ve been weakened to the point their connection no longer has presence. As I said before, Filaments are like concepts but I should be more direct. Filaments are laws. The laws that have held true since the dawn of the new age. Similar to science and mathematics but those are only the studies and interpretation of these laws. The laws exist whether or not they are studied. Do you follow?”

I nod. We hopped over a sandbag wall and took a left.

“The laws must be heeded but this is in the hands of the Filaments of the present. This is where the Quadwallups do their best work, in the current age. Do you knit, son?”

“Knit?” I asked, confused.

“Yes, knit. Anyhow, imagine a kitting project, one that’s perpetually in construction. A sweater. A blanket. A scarf. Whatever suits you. Imagine the needles and thread at the helm, these are similar to the Filaments of the present. If you direct your eyes below the needles, you will see the Filaments and Quadwallups of the past, draping beneath. In most places there are orderly gaps where Quadwallups are contained. Yet, in others, there are distortions and holes, sometimes sweeping blank spaces. These are where Quadwallups have broken the code before but even then, many of these spaces have been patched over and concealed where they should have been left as a reminder. This is what Filaments of your age call history. You see, Quadwallups and Filaments are necessary because they are opposites and the code insists that opposites exist. It is only when Quadwallups get out of hands that things get messy. Bloody messy, I might add. Still with me, son?”

“I think so. What are we knitting?”

“A simple juxtaposition, son. We’re not knitting anything. This is the fabric of the universe we’re talking about.” Roosevelt huffs.

The guns became louder as we approached a wide city street, running perpendicular to the end of the alley. War machines flickered past, heading to the right.

“WHOA! WHOA! WHOA!” Roosevelt hollered as we emptied from the alley but it was too late.

I stumbled onto the sidewalk and bumped into a soldier. Only, when I looked up, I realized it was a young woman, holding a phone in her hand, wearing a pantsuit. She snorted and walked off, mumbling about me being a jerk.

It wasn’t long before someone else bumped into me. I looked around and realized I was in the middle of city center, it was a normal day, people walked around in droves, heading from coffee shops to offices, sidewalks to cabs. Horns honked, people yelled, a dog barked in the distance. Large screens attached to high-rises flashed the latest news headlines. DOW drops 700 points, the president denies collusion, violence in the east. The usual.

I glanced at myself in the reflection of a nearby window, I was no longer wearing the suit, just jeans and a simple hoodie.

Around me, people scurried by like a colony of ants, following the signal of a single consciousness. I looked to the alley where I’d left Roosevelt and scrambled back toward it. But, once in front of it, I saw that it wasn’t an alley, but street art that looked like an alley. In the center of the painting was a huge portrait of Theodore Roosevelt with a message bubble next to his face. Codswallop™, it read in the message bubble. In the lower corner of the painting was another inscription, Definition: No Nonsense Media.

Immediately, I reached for the place on my hip where I’d stowed the M-72. The only thing there was my phone, attached to the belt clip. When I pulled the phone up, the screen turned bright red, holding the color for three seconds, before it blinked dark. When I pressed the home button, the screen came to life, and the lock screen wallpaper was a photo I hadn’t seen in years.

A Letter Through Time

Dearest,

We’ve been together a long while now, some might say since the beginning of time. For us, at least.

Dearest,

We’ve been together a long while now, some might say since the beginning of time. For us, at least.

One day, if you stay true to yourself, your work will rise to the top of the charts. Idols will stand at your shoulders, rather than looming over you. Not that comparison or scales are means of true validation but this will be a reality, you will see.

There was a time you kept your imagination hidden or only voiced it in partial truth but those days are passing, aren’t they my friend?

Not unlike throwing a hail mary or an attempt at any distance, for that matter.

Without self belief, your work will fall short. Without granting yourself full wield of your imagination, your work will come out flat. Without dedication, you will never master the art.

These things you know, because, by this time, you are rising like a rocket borne for outer space. Do not forget these times.

Life will swell to the brim with busyness and, if you’re not careful, it will derail you. Don’t allow mediocrity to destroy you.

Sure, for anyone else, they can fill their days and nights with distraction and dependancy, but you are not mediocre and, because of this, you must fight harder, with every fiber of your being, to be otherwise.

Why?

The keeper of the mediocre is a jealous fellow, unlike any I’ve seen before. He will seduce you with all the pleasures at his disposal. Trust me, they are appealing, especially when you’ve yet to accept the level of life you’re meant to live.

It will not get easier with time, I’m afraid.

Mediocrity is a sore loser and will dive out from the alleys just to trip you in spite, no matter how far from him you run. Stay vigilant. Others depend on you.

It saddens me to imagine the world without you, now that I’ve seen your impact.

Inspect your weaknesses with care, with empathy, and reinforce them, lest your structure crumble at its foundation.

Say I love you more than you think necessary, some have left you behind earlier than you would have guessed. Be kind. Be selfless, as much as you can. Seek understanding, be slow to speak.

I’ll see you in awhile. I’m so proud of you.

Until then, lace up your running shoes, the race begins.

– The Future

Incident in Alaska

Within a matter of seconds, a trip, whose base purpose was enjoyment, turned to terror, confusion, and, potentially, my own mortality.

I thought I did this for fun, until I fell in a cascading slope of granite boulders, in the Talkeetna Mountains, pulled myself up, bloody, and realized just how easily my life could end here before I had time to realize it happened.


One year and six weeks previous to that day, I was driving a Subaru Outback up a knobby, unkempt dirt road which catapulted myself and a crew of three other young men to the foot of the same mountains, just bellow Hatcher Pass, east of Palmer, Alaska.

It was the final days of my first trip to Alaska. The front end of the trip spent in the backcountry of Denali National Park, a three night backpacking excursion, which sapped the energy from most of us. June in Alaska is capricious, the weather fluctuates between kindly and demoralizing. Our trip began in the rain and ended in sunshine, but neither were constants for long. As one man told us, if you’ve come to Alaska, you’d better get used to wet feet, but Denali presented us with challenges deeper than soaked shoes. We were faced with navigation to our own discretion, trails don’t exist in this park, or in most of Alaska for that matter. The challenging terrain, bushwhacking, river crossings, and ridges laden with late season snow. Not to mention flaring tempers, made worse by exhaustion.

After three nights in Denali, the four of us knew each other better than we would have in a year of friendship in an urban environment. It was an opportunity to witness each others fears, strengths, weaknesses, diplomacy, and leadership. We were all on equal ground, for each of us, it was our first visit to what some call the Last Frontier, and, luckily, we exited with more respect for each other but also a growing dissent, due to the imbalance in what we desired from this trip.

That day, in the Subaru, we were debating whether to book an airbnb or find some other accommodations for the night. Sunlight filtered through the adjacent valley as I edged the car from Hatcher Pass road to Archangel road. The conversation made me uneasy. We were more than prepared to camp anywhere and we’d stayed in an airbnb the night before. I wanted to sleep in the mountains, that’s what I’d come to Alaska for in the first place.

However, I’d planned the front end of the trip, the rest of the trip was supposed to have been planned by one of the other guys in the group but, after exiting Denali, thus ending the portion of the trip I’d planned, we’d come to understand that the other planner had not done any planning at all. The back end of our trip was one big question mark.

Let me say that I don’t mind question marks. Question marks are fantastic. Question marks mean there’s an answer out there and, in this case, almost an unlimited supply of them. Question marks are great when traveling solo, as couples, or with vast amounts of time to travel. Question marks just aren’t great when you have three days left on a trip with four guys who have zero knowledge of the area in which they’re traveling, when most of it’s wilderness. Question marks are especially bad when half of a four man crew has reached their limit of camping and the other half is just getting started, considering we only had one rental car.

As the banter continued, no conclusion was concluded upon and we drove further down Archangel road, deeper into what I now know as Archangel Valley.

I lost touch with the debate as I watched the dark gray mountains and deep, tundra covered valley unravel in front of us. These mountains rose up like gigantic teeth, jagged spires, with boulders the size of small cars draping down to their bases. On all sides we were surrounded. Ahead, it looked as if the horizon had been clipped like paper from patterned scissors at craft hour, deep radial valleys rising to a single sharp point, repeating in all directions. Behind the front range, were mountains of equal and striking drama, layering the depth of the scene like the waves of a stormy sea. The sight pulled the air from my lungs.

At the end of the road, which was blocked by a rusty ranch gate, I stopped the car, opened the door, and ran down a boot path into the adjacent valley, leaving the guys and the car behind.

The wind picked up and the rush of Fair Angel creek met my ears. I stood for a long time, staring at the mountains, the creek, and the valley where it flooded out toward the Little Susitna. In the distance, the sun shone warmly against the bright green mountains but, over us, storm clouds were building.

Few moments in my life have I felt the sensation of synchronicity, where, for an instant, life feels like it’s clicking along tracks which where laid before my first breath. It was in that moment, that I knew this mountain range held something for me, something I still don’t understand.

That night, we camped near the spot I’d run to from the car. Though the others found the location appealing, none of them voiced an experience quite like mine, and I knew I was alone. There was something else I felt, that I’d arrived at the beginning of a journey, would retrace my steps soon, and the secret these mountains held would be revealed in time, or one step at a time, not all at once.


My next trip to Alaska brought me deeper into those mountains, the Talkeetna Range. On a fair August day, five others and myself packed our backpacks at the edge of Archangel road, not far from where I’d camped a year previous. We were preparing for a five night, hut to hut, mountain traverse that had yet to be completed by anyone else.

At interval, I glanced to the valley which I’d felt the spark to visit these mountains, but the moment had passed, I no longer sensed it’s whisper. Still, I knew I was brought here for a reason and understood that those sparks are not unlike the glimmer of a lover’s eyes from across a room, the beginning of a relationship, and I intended to find out where it led.

Packed, ready, and humming with nervous chatter, we hurried up Reed Creek and soon ascended toward Glacier Pass, drifting past ruins of old mining buildings and equipment, long forgotten. Crunching over what was left of a snowfield before hopping through a rise of boulders, we reached the pass and I saw for the first time what lay beyond the initial curtain of mountains.

In front of me stretched a wide basin and the flat sheet of the Snowbird glacier, guarded on the opposite side by stubby peaks and a sweeping ridge line. Gray clouds, flecked gold in the fading light, hovered not far from the tips of the mountains. Beyond the initial set of ridges, it seemed that rows of jagged peaks continued forever toward the horizon.

We stumbled and slipped our way down a steep, rock studded snowfield to the top of the glacier. Donning our crampons, we crossed the glacier and continued to the foot of a steep, loose climb of sharp granite boulders. At the top of which we would find Snowbird hut but it wasn’t visible from our vantage.

It was halfway up this boulder field that I began to question every notion I’d had, leading up to this point in my life.

Elated from the dramatic landscape I’d covered in the past few hours and excited to find the first of the five huts we’d stay at during our trip, I made crucial errors and miscalculations in my ascent of the final obstacle.

I hadn’t taken the thirty seconds to stow my crampons after exiting the glacier, a single cleat dangled from either hand. Because of this, my trekking pole was parallel to the ground, secured in my fist, and useless. I was hurrying, confident on my feet, even in boulder fields, and quickly hopped upward to catch the three companions ahead of me. It was also nearing the end of the day, we’d closed in on our destination, and, even insurance companies will tell you, most accidents occur within five miles of home. Complacency is the doom of the wise.

Before I knew what was happening, a large boulder under my foot tipped down under my weight, and the next thing I heard was the pop of my skull against granite. After which, the world turned dark.

I’ve never been knocked unconscious, even though I played hockey for many years and dared my life against many unadvisable acts in my youth. This time was no different, I was coherent. I could feel my knees against the rocks, my hands against the boulders, as I lifted myself from the fall. I scrambled to touch my face and grope for damage that would warrant the sudden change in my eyesight. The whole time my mind screamed, fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck.

I’m not sure why the mind defaults to vulgarity when faced with trauma, but mine does, it’s also really fantastic at graphically depicting all the possible outcomes after incident. I was almost certain I’d gone blind, split my skull, fractured a disc in my neck, and was doomed to bleed out without seeing a single thing again.

It’s also worth noting that I am not prone to drama, in fact I detest over dramatization, because I see the world mechanically, and if everything has a purpose and function, when something goes wrong, there is a cause, a solution, or, if nothing else, it must be discarded. I hold dearly my own life but I don’t count myself special or gifted beyond the snare of an early or sudden death.

In those moments of darkness after the fall, I glimpsed into the instant nature of the end. It’s nebulous, drifting around our atmosphere like a vulture we cant see, waiting for the time to strike, and, in my own mind, I’d graced myself with the notion I’d have the opportunity to revisit the highlights of my life and say I love you’s before the lights clicked out. What I came to understand that day, is that death wears many faces, strikes at will, and has no courtesies. We are only guaranteed ceremony once it’s too late.

When I rose to my knees and touched my face, feeling for blood and gashing crevices, my fingers found a foreign material, and it took me a second to realize it was my Buff.

A Buff is a stretchy band of synthetic material in the shape of a tube. Handy things. Worn as a sweat band, neck warmer, dust mask, and balaclava. Used as a rag, a shield against sizzling pots, or, unfortunately, sacrificed if rations of toilet paper are depleted. In this case, I’d been wearing it as a sweat band.

Soon, I understood that the collision had shifted my Buff over my eyes, and my loss of sight was quickly remedied and, when I pulled it off my head, the light flooded back to me. I’ve honestly never been so happy to see boulders in all my life. But my happiness was short lived as blood began to drip down my nose and over my eyebrows, warning of damage that wasn’t as easily resolved.

Two of my friends, who were below me on the boulder field and didn’t see my fall, soon caught up, helped me to the hut, cleaned, and dressed my cuts. Looking back, the damage was negligible. I’d skinned the bridge of my nose to the bone, scraped and cut my forehead, one of these cuts in the shape of a lightning bolt, as well as minor abrasions above my eyebrow. The damage, however, was deeper internally than it was on the surface.

The fall made me question the reason I come to places like Alaska and why this particular section of mountains call to me, even as I write this to you. Because leisure and enjoyment aren’t strong enough justifications in the face of injury or possible death. Though we do many dangerous things that bring a thrill, rush becomes addiction, and drives us further to find that sensation which dives deeper into the cracks of our humanity the more we chase it. But what seduced me to begin with?

As adrenaline wore off, I felt a well rising in my chest, something I couldn’t control, though I tried. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I walked from snowbird hut and found a boulder at the edge of a cliff, facing north toward Bartholf creek valley.

Evening settled in and bruise colored clouds hung flat overtop. The valley, three thousand feet below the peaks which bordered it, was dressed in violent shades of blue, and extended for several miles ahead. The single stripe of the creek rushed through its center, far beyond the reach of my ears.

At the sight of the empty space, careless of my presence, my chest convulsed, and my eyes turned into faucets. Though I’d escaped the most dramatic personal accident of my career as an outdoorsman, with wounds that would heal, I’d shattered my innocence, crossing a barrier in myself, and understood the weight of my decision to venture across environments as unforgiving as those found in Alaska. I was no longer an amateur. With that understanding came a responsibility for self and for the rest of my crew, that I’d yet to grasp.

It also presented a decision. To allow danger to hinder my steps, force me back to safety, or to use this incident as an opportunity to learn. I chose the latter. Not in response to ego but for the irrevocable truth that not once in my life have I felt as close to the essence of existence, as I do when I’m in the heart of the mountains. Though lurking danger can immediately snuff life’s flame, in environs such as this, I never forget the thump, beating madly at times, within my chest. I realized that these trips were not about fun but rather, to beat back the current of life which sweeps us away, unaware of time passing, before we are catapulted into the great void beyond its wake.

Confinement

There was a time I watched as this played out in front of me and I questioned the purpose but those times have passed, I have learned it is better to silence the mind and simply follow the cues. Nothing here can harm me, I no longer worry.

The alarm is a set of chimes, the tone and number of their call is precise and the same as it was each day before. My eyes open to the ceiling. Gray, featureless, no lamps. The room is lit softly from the window, the only light allowed here is that which comes from outside.

I don’t bother looking for the source of the chimes, they will end after thirteen tones, just as they always have.

I exhale as the final note plays and rise.

In the room is a small desk with a screen and a keyboard resting atop. The screen is black. A black leather couch rests on the opposite wall of my bed. The walls are bare. The carpet is plush, a beige that reminds me of some natural element that I can’t remember.

Thirty seconds from the last chime is all I have before I must go clean, or else my privilege is lost for the day. I rise without hurry from the bed, flipping the gray comforter from my legs, and leave the room.

In the bathroom, I wait. From my calculations, I have ten seconds before it happens. I stand in front of the sink, a square mirror hangs above, reflecting my image back. At least, I think it’s me but I don’t remember. Steel gray walls surround me. A glass corral conceals the shower. All of it is clean.

There aren’t handles on the faucet in the sink or the shower. No cleaning supplies, brushes, or combs lay about. There is nothing here that shouldn’t be.

The last three seconds extinguish as I wait, prepared.

A tone sounds. After which, a square in the wall extends toward me. It’s a drawer without depth, a flat surface like a platter. On the drawer is a toothbrush, it glimmers at me, sparkling clean.

I grab the brush. The drawer disappears into the wall and I wait, unthinking, with the end of the brush poised near the drawer. Another tone. This time a cylinder emerges from the wall, extending perpendicularly. With my toothbrush underneath, the nozzle lays a quarter inch of tooth paste on the bristles, and retreats back into the wall.

A second later, the faucet turns on, and I’m ready. A splash of water, then the tap stops. After this, I have ninety seconds to brush my teeth before the next spatter of water comes, this time it lasts for ten seconds. It allows me to rinse my mouth and the brush before the drawer spits out from the wall, I place the brush its cradle, and the drawer pulls back again.

There was a time I watched as this played out in front of me and I questioned the purpose but those times have passed, I have learned it is better to silence the mind and simply follow the cues. Nothing here can harm me, I no longer worry. It is only for my good and if I do not wash, breakfast will not come. I figured this out the the hard way.

There are fifteen seconds now for me to undress. I pull off my black athletic shorts and strip the tee off my back, both are of the same color and material. I set them on a shelf near the toilet. Soon, a rectangle opens, it hisses, and the garments are sucked away. I stand naked in front of the glass doors to the shower and looked down. My penis lays flat against my scrotum, it’s color consistent. The hairs surrounding are short and trim, as are the hairs that cover my legs. A shiver runs up my body as I wait.

A pneumatic sound and the glass door slides open. I step in. The door closes behind me. It is locked now, the door, I’ve tried to open it before but it is not a trap, only to keep the water inside the compartment. At least, that’s what I assume.

The shower head comes to life. The spray embraces my skin, a perfect temperature, not too hot or cool. Nozzles emerge from the wall. Shampoo first, then conditioner, finally comes body wash. I scrub thoroughly. My scalp, face, arms, chest, pits, legs, and feet. Moving quickly through these, I save my anus, balls, and penis for last, spending more time on them than the others. I don’t know why, there is some primal urge that forces me into this routine. As I wash my penis, I feel a prickle of electricity run through my stomach, but I force the feeling away. Last time, when I pursued this sensation, the water turned icy and I shivered the rest of the day because of it.

Two minutes later, I am rinsed and the shower head stops. Not one drip continues from the end, it is completely dry. Large squares open from each wall, the ceiling, and the floor of the tub. There is a gurgle from the vents and they come to life, whipping warm air at me from all directions. I stand with my legs spread and run my hands through my hair to help it dry quickly. After a short while, I am dry. The shower door hisses open and I step onto the cold floor.

On the shelf, where I placed my shorts and shirt, lays a pressed white dress shirt, gray slacks, black tie, black belt, and a shining pair of black shoes.

I quickly dress and check myself in the mirror one last time. My black hair is trim and appears combed, though I haven’t touched it. My eyes are silver, the same color as the walls. My body is overall thin but there is muscular definition to my face, neck, and shoulders. After this moment, which I know is the last moment I will see myself for the day, the mirror fades away and becomes part of the steel gray walls.

I walk from the bathroom and the door shuts behind me.

From there I enter the only other room in the flat. It resembles a kitchen but there isn’t a stove, sink, or microwave. It is empty except for a small square table with two chairs. The same gray walls surround all sides, nothing hangs from them, with a single window opposite from the table. I sit at the chair which faces the window and the empty seat across from me.

As usual, I contemplate the seat and the window, both useless. The blinds are drawn and the seat vacant.

Natural light floods through the slits of the blinds but, otherwise, nothing else is to be seen. I am not allowed to approach the window, because the blinds will fold over and close all light from the room, I’ve tried. I like the light, so I have not attempted this again.

The seat is a question in itself. It seems out of place because it is only I who occupies this place and I cannot sit in both chairs at once. However, I have the option to sit in the other chair, if I choose. This is the one thing I have a decision in, everything else is left to their discretion. Still, not once have I had company, one chair always remains empty, and I hate it for being here. It reminds me of an emotion I cannot recall, like standing at the edge of a dark hole, an emptiness whose depth is without measure.

Three minutes pass, as I sit at the table. I do not know why I have so much time without anything to occupy my thoughts but it’s always this way. I press away the questions of what lays on the opposite side of the window, the empty chair and table, but they come flying back at me as if they intend not to go unnoticed.

The bell rings, a ding-dong, and I rise from my seat.

Tracing my steps back through the room, I stop where the hall turns to my right, leading to the bathroom and bedroom. To my left is something that is only here three times a day, a door.

I step towards it.

It is a door unlike the rest, all of them automatic, because, on this one, is a handle. Another decision I have yet to mention, is that I can choose to open the door or watch as it fades away, a minute later. But I do not count this as much of a decision because my stomach growls in hunger and forces me to grab the handle, as I have always done.

I open the door. On the other side is a young woman. She is wearing a navy blue uniform dress that rises to her neck, culminating in a white collar. Her face is fair and her features smooth, framed by shoulder length black hair. She is younger than me, I can tell, no lines at the edge of her smile or eyes as I do. In her hands is a metal tray with a lid over it’s contents. Next to the lid is a thermos of steaming coffee.

A fragrant smell of living things strike my nose, drifting toward me from a warm breeze at her back but her hair does not shift in the wind. Behind her extends a concrete walkway, it travels straight and is bordered by green plants and tall trees. The sunlight tips the trees in gold but leaves the walkway in the cool of shadows. There is no one else in view. No buildings except for my own. The only thing that exists is the path which leads from my door, a path that I will always wonder to which it leads, but I am not allowed to travel its length. There is a stab of pain in my heart at the thought, similar to the sensation the chair gives me.

“Good Morning, Cornelius.” The woman says. Her tone is harmonic and her syllables well placed. Her face shows no emotion.

“Good Morning, Tabitha.” I return the greeting.

“Here is your breakfast.” She extends the tray. “The coffee is black. A light roast, just the way you like it.” She adds.

I nod and take the tray. This is the moment I should return to my room but I hesitate.

“Will I be allowed to leave today?” I ask and search her black eyes. They tell me nothing.

“Not today, Cornelius. It is still too dangerous. Maybe tomorrow.” She says, her tone is without inflection.

“You said that yesterday. It seems peaceful out. I could keep close to home.” I say.

Tabitha nods but it isn’t agreement.

“It may seem that way, Cornelius. But we are safe here, beyond what we can see are dangers I cannot explain. This is for your own good.” Tabitha says at last. As she speaks, she moves to the side and we both gaze down the path that leads from my door.

The breeze ripples the leaves of the bulbous shaped trees and square bushes. Nothing else moves. No animals stir or call. The path is clean, there isn’t a speck of debris anywhere. I cannot see where the path leads, before long it descends and drops out of sight. In the daylight, it looks inviting and I feel lust rising in my chest, even though I know what Tabitha says is true.

“Where do you go, when you are not bringing my food?” I ask her at last.

“Secrets are our only way to remain safe, Cornelius. You must not ask questions of this nature. Knowledge brings danger. I am your doorkeeper and I am here to keep you safe, what I do beyond that does not matter. I exist for this alone.” Tabitha tells me.

I nod and look down at the tray. The scent of the coffee rises to my nostrils and awakens my craving.

“Would you like to come in?” I ask her.

“I cannot keep watch on your door if I join you. You must understand this.” She replies.

“Why do I have two chairs?” I ask her.

“Because a table is not complete without it.”

“But the chair remains empty. It’s excessive. I don’t like looking at it.” I say.

“One day, the chair will be filled and then will you understand. But you must be patient.” Tabitha says and folds her hands across her stomach.

“I have been here for a long time, Tabitha. Not one is coming. There is no one here but you and if you will not come in then I will sit alone again today.” I say.

“One day, it will be safe again, you will walk the path and others will join you. But you must put these thoughts away, they can only harm you, and you will be lonelier because of them. For now, you must remain inside and safe.” She tells me.

“When will one day come?” I ask.

“You must go back inside, Cornelius. The door is about to close.” Tabitha says firmly.

I nod and step backwards, not wanting to turn my eyes from her. Once I’m past the door, it closes automatically and disappears. I am locked in silence.

I return to the table and set the tray down. From the window filters white light, the warmth I’d seen at my door is extracted from it, and it glows pale and soft around the room.

After I’m seated, I lift the tray, releasing the scent of freshly seared vegetables, eggs, and a single biscuit.

I grab the biscuit and peel it apart. As I do, something falls from its center to the ground. A thin strip of paper. I scoot back and reach under the table to pick it up. It is folded and blank on either side. When I open it, there is a single word scrawled upon it’s surface in black ink.

ESCAPE, it reads.

The note does not alarm me. In fact, I receive this same note every morning, only at breakfast, tucked away in a biscuit or muffin, under my coffee, or wrapped in a tortilla. Similar one word messages, all of them. Such as; FREEDOM, UNTRUTH, DISBELIEVE, LIES, HIDDEN, GO. I do not have the courage to ask Tabitha where they come from, I do not want her to worry. As she said, I must remain here, it is unsafe for me to leave, and I believe her.

I place the strip of paper on my biscuit, butter over it, and eat it, as I have done each morning before.

Dirt Road Elegy

I watched, frozen, as he tumbled through the air, whipped his body onto the unforgiving earth, and snapped his skull against the clay. His head bounced.

The truck lurched over potholes, rattling my teeth, notching my seatbelt tighter, reminding me I had to pee, as I gripped the overhead handle. Alders and brush scraped the side of the door, hissing metallically against the paint. I glanced nervously at the side mirror and watched as dust billowed up in an angry column behind us, lit by the taillights in predawn.

Ahead, the road bent and disappeared around the corner. The speedometer hovered at forty, the driver’s eyes were steady. Cold sweat tickled the back of my neck and the fingertips of my right hand were white. I shifted in the passenger seat.

Gravel skidded under the tires as he braked for the corner. No one was coming in the other direction, as I had feared, but that mattered little to me.

“Hey dude, slow down. The trailhead’s not going anywhere.” I call to the driver. My twenty-seven year old companion, the driver, glances at me in annoyance but, after explaining my reasoning, he levels off to a conservative speed.

For most of us, gravel, clay, dirt, or sandstone roads connect us to the places we hold dear like National forest or parks, state land, BLM, rental cabins, or, as it was for me in my younger years, home.

The majority of my young life was spent on twenty acres of land just northeast of Pisgah mountain in Pend Oreille County, Washington. It’s an area that lacks development beyond the highway, a two lane thoroughfare, and many roads peter out into gravel or clay before long. Mine did. It was a wide gray road that bled into lumpy, weaving clay, which narrowed the further it fled from the highway, the closer it came to home.

I didn’t always love this road. To be honest, at times, I hated it. Muddy and slick in spring. As hard as concrete, jarring pot holes, brake ripples, and storming with dust in summer. In fall, it turned to mud again. Winter was a combination of snow, ice, and slush, depending on the weather, which often fluctuated from 34 to -14 degrees.

Like a wavering cell connection at the edge of service, the road flickered between functional and unbearable. In it’s own way, it was like a fickle prison, sometimes the lock left unclasped, and I sped along it’s distance with haste, just in case the road might deny me passage.

Many years later, it’s different. As soon as my tires leave the pavement, I slow down. Let me tell you why.

Because of the time I raced down that road on my mountain bike, hit a rock, and went flying into the ditch. A bloody gash in my knee and scraped hands were my medal. Soon after my wreck, a neighbor fled hurriedly by in his truck. I counted myself lucky, it could have been worse. I tied my shirt around my leg to slow the bleeding, as I walked the last quarter mile home, leaving my bike behind. The scar still shines from my kneecap.

For the first time my dad let me drive his truck and I oversteered, taking us up a sharp embankment before he grabbed the wheel, from the passenger seat, and directed us back to safety. I stopped the car and he took over. We’d only made it a hundred feet down our driveway.

My initial attempt at driving in the snow, in our purple f-250 single cab, nicknamed Barney, was a rescue mission to pull my dad’s car out of a snow drift, nearly a mile away. When I arrived, there was another car stopped in-between his car and I. As I slowed the truck, I realized I’d been too harsh, the brakes locked and tires slid. To my horror, the momentum pulled me down the shallow hill and, eventually, crushing the car’s bumper ahead of me.

My brother Ben and I sat on the tailgate as my mother drove Barney, our f-250, out the drive, toward another entrance in our property to gather firewood. We dangled our feet and watched as the clay road, baked solid from the summer sun, flew away underneath us. A bump in the road, a poorly timed shift, and Barney lurched forward. I rocked back instinctively and held on. Ben was not as fortunate. He flew off the tailgate, at twenty miles an hour. I watched, frozen, as he tumbled through the air, whipped his body onto the unforgiving earth, and snapped his skull against the clay. His head bounced.

Frantically, I pounded the side of the truck. My mother was unaware. As I rushed up to my brother, I watched as he tried to get up, then crumpled to the ground like a lifeless doll. But he survived.

I drive slow for every time I snuck home when it was much too late, cigarettes and beer on my breath. I cradle the brake for the time I spent twenty eight hours in jail, bailed by a coworker, and walked, ashamed, the last two miles of that clay road to my parents home without my car, which was impounded. My dad didn’t speak to me for a week, a small price for my recklessness.

For the time my brother called me after he’d fallen asleep and crashed in a ditch, not far from home. I helped pulled his truck back to the pavement, just thankful he was alive. I slow down for each time I’ve nearly been hit by a kid driving too fast on a dirt road, a kid that reminds me of myself. Because everyone makes mistakes, usually because we’re in a hurry.

Many of you have memories of your own, what a dirt road means to you. Maybe it’s freedom, maybe it’s restriction. These roads take us where few intend to go, that’s why they’ve yet to be converted to asphalt, and there’s a spirit of independence, duty, and responsibility that comes with the territory. These byways are not meant for running because they venture to places where time moves slow, a scarce commodity in today’s world. It’s a privilege to have such access into recreation areas and we should treat them as such. For every pothole and rumble strip, each wave from a stranger in an oncoming car, and every memory we’ve gained and those we’ve yet to create, we owe it to others, to ourselves, to ease off the accelerator, absorb the beauty these roads give us, and arrive safely. Maybe then, we won’t miss what we came here for.

Little Nightmares

”They’re coming”, he said, “Giant rats.” He stared up at me with enormous golden eyes. It was Saxon, the cat I had as a little girl. He looked right at me. Then he licked his lips and walked away.’

‘Start from the beginning.’ Dr. Johansen said slowly.

The two of them sat across from each other, in the shadowy side of the office. The doctor near the large desk and the young woman nearest the door. A faded burgundy carpet lay between and underneath their chairs. A small table stood to the side, two sweating glasses of water perched on it’s surface. The walls were white and bare except for a framed university degree, which hung high above the desk, to the rear of the room.

‘Before I went to bed, I sealed the blinds and closed the drapes.’ Cara said.

‘This is part of the dream?’ Dr. Johansen asked.

‘No. Before I fell asleep.’ Cara said.

‘I thought you wanted to talk about the dream?’

‘I do. I just want to point out what I did beforehand.’

‘Is it relevant?’

‘It’s important.’

‘Why did you close the blinds?’

‘Because of the streetlamp.’

‘I see. Continue.’ Dr. Johansen encouraged.

‘The room was dark, except for slivers of light that got around the edges of my drapes. I’ve always hated those. I’ve thought about taping the drapes to the wall but I never quite follow through.’ Cara sighed.

‘Let’s stay on course with the dream.’ Dr. Johansen said.

‘I just want to say again, I always close the drapes. Always.’ Cara said, nodding to herself while swaying gently from side to side in her chair. She was nervous, she hated talking about her dreams, giving them life beyond her sleep made them more real, but she was the one who called Dr. Johansen. It was too late to back out now.

Dr. Johansen shifted her pantsuit, pulling at the ruffles, straitening a pleat. Cara was her final appointment for the day, one she dreaded. When Cara’s eyes dropped to her hands, as she formulated her next words, Dr. Johansen glanced at the clock. It was almost five. At six she was meeting colleagues for dinner, a business dinner. The kind of meeting that can shift one’s career. She needed something, anything to stimulate her practice, and this opportunity just might do. Maybe then she could stop putting ad’s on groupon for discounted sessions, which is how the young woman sitting across from her had come to find Dr. Johansen in the first place.

The doctor stifled a yawn and looked back at Cara.

Cara’s hands were clasped together and she turned them over and over as if she was folding towels. Her platinum eyes where distant, tired, fretful. Only she could understand the weight of what she was going to tell Dr. Johansen and she feared that, no matter what she said, the doctor would only prescribe medication, maybe telling her to journal the dreams, and set up another appointment, for full price, all without solution. But there wasn’t time for more appointments.

‘It was the house on Heckler Avenue.’

‘Your dream?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is Heckler Avenue a real place outside of your dreams?’

‘Yes.’ Cara said with certainty, then recanted. ‘Well, I don’t really know, yet.’

‘Okay, the house on Heckler was in your dream?’

‘No. I was in the house.’

‘Go on.’

‘It was dark. Darker than my room is at night, even if I was to tape up the drapes. I couldn’t see anything.’ Cara took a long breath before continuing. ‘My left hand was on a railing. It was made of wood, smooth in places but littered with nicks and scratches and pealing varnish. It was old. My feet were on steps, steep and short, leading down.

It was very quiet. So quiet I could hear the way the air shifted throughout the room. It wasn’t a draft. No. There were things breathing down there, on the main floor. Things.

I held onto the railing and struggled to step down the stairs. It always seems like I have trouble moving in the beginning of the dream. Do you ever have trouble with that, Doctor?’ Cara asked.

‘I don’t dream much.’ Dr. Johansen lied.

‘Oh.’ Cara mumbled. ‘That’s very strange. Richard says everyone dreams. Everyone dreams, every night.’

‘Who is Richard?’

‘He’s the old black man in my dream.’

’So, you were struggling down the steps?’ The doctor directed the conversation again.

‘Yes. My feet were heavy. I felt as though going down the stairs might be harder than going up, like someone switched around the laws of gravity.

After a while, I made it to the bottom of the steps. I could only tell because- remember it was completely dark, I couldn’t see anything- my feet landed on a wide space, tiled, it was very cold. I nearly tripped because I didn’t know where the steps ended and my weight- oh, well. So, I held onto the post at the end of the banister to keep from falling.

The next time I looked around, the room had changed. Twilight was beginning. A gray light was hovering over everything as if the room was made of the stuff they put in clock hands to make them glow in the dark.’

‘Radium.’ The doctor said.

‘What?’ Cara asked.

‘Radium. It’s what makes clock hands glow in the dark. No matter, go on.’

‘Oh. Okay. So, things in the room were glowing but they were glowing a grayish blue.

There was a long couch against the right wall, a fire stove and hearth against the wall in front of me, a dinner table and chairs in an open room to the left which connected to the room I was in.

There was a desk, too. It was in a strange place, the middle of the main room, next to where I was standing. There was a stack of papers on it’s surface, the papers were glowing too, slightly brighter than anything else in the room.

I walked forward, in between the desk and the hearth and the long couch on my right. It was an open space, maybe a twelve foot square. And I just stood there and waited. I felt a chill. A breeze, coming from above. I looked up, expecting a hole in the ceiling to the sky but it was just an old ceiling fan. The fan was missing a blade. Every third revolution, and it turned slow, it screemed like rusty hinges.

Then a rumbling began. I thought it was an earthquake at first. But the room didn’t sway. It just echoed with the drum of falling hooves, like a pack of horses in the distance. The rumbling and the scream of the fan. Rumble, scream.

I was staring up at the ceiling fan when I heard a voice at my feet.

”They’re coming”, he said, “Giant rats.” He stared up at me with enormous golden eyes. It was Saxon, the cat I had as a little girl. He looked right at me. Then he licked his lips and walked away.’

‘This was your childhood cat?’ Dr. Johansen asked.

‘Oh yes. He was such a good cat. I loved him dearly.’

‘What happened to Saxon?’

‘What do you mean?’ Cara asked, alarmed.

‘How did he die?’

‘Oh he’s not dead. Not really.’

‘You said it was your childhood cat.’

‘I did. He’s sixteen years old now.’

Dr. Johansen nodded and pretended to make a note of it, while motioning for Cara to continue. She checked her watch, the session would be over soon.

‘The rumbling escalated, louder and louder.’ Cara said and tapped her fingers rapidly on the arms of the chair, the sound echoed in the empty room. ‘I heard little high pitched squeals, like bats, but I knew it had to be the rats Saxon warned me about. The room began to shake. I heard them run under the floorboards, above the ceiling, in the walls. Dust was knocked from the sheetrock. The room pulsed as if it was alive.

I became weak. I’ve never been so scared of anything in my life. My knees went numb and I collapsed onto the couch, so that I was facing the room. Any moment, I believed, the rats would find their way through the house and eat me alive, I knew it was me they were coming for.

I felt something against my lower back, creeping between the cushions, touching the bare patch of skin between the bottom of my shirt and the top of my pants. It took me a moment to realize that is was a nose. A cold, wet, despicable nose. I writhed and screamed and tried to get off the couch, but something held me there. I didn’t have the strength to get away. Oh, you can’t even begin to imagine, Doctor! I could smell it’s foul breath on me and I knew the teeth weren’t far behind.’ Cara said, trembling, as her voice pitched to the octave of a frightened child.

‘What did you do?’ The doctor asked, calmly.

‘I did the only thing I could do, the only thing the dream would allow me to do. I reached behind me and grabbed the snout of the rat and ripped him from the couch. Only his skin was entirely smooth and metal, not a hair on him.

Then I realized, it wasn’t a rat at all but a revolver. You know, the kind of pistols detectives use. It was loaded. For some reason, I knew it was mine but I don’t own a gun.

The next moment, the rats fled. The rumbling stopped. It was silent again.’ Cara said, her eyes dropped to something on the floor. She never met Dr. Johansen’s eyes at any point when she spoke.

A soft, singular beep from the doctors watch broke Cara’s concentration.

‘Ahh. We’ve run out of time.’ Dr. Johansen said, feigning remorse.

‘But I haven’t told you half of the dream yet!’ Cara pleaded.

‘We’ll have time for that in the next session. I would extend this one but I already have commitments tonight. You understand?’ Dr. Johansen said apologetically.

Cara nodded, still staring at the floor.

‘Well, I’m going to recommend this for your sleep.’ the doctor said, handing Cara a pharmacy note. Cara grabbed it without looking at it and didn’t speak.

Dr. Johansen cleared her throat theatrically.

‘Shall I put you down for the same time next week?’ Dr. Johansen asked brightly.

Cara shrugged.

Dr. Johansen, taking this for agreement, penciled Cara into her calendar and closed the notepad. She stood and walked to the door, expecting Cara to follow. Cara didn’t, she kept looking at the floor, at the same spot underneath Dr. Johansen’s desk.

‘Cara! You must be going now. It’s not fair to make me late for my other appointments.’ Dr. Johansen pleaded.

Slowly, Cara rose from the wide backed chair, her small frame barely visible over the top, from where the doctor was standing. Then Cara turned, clutching her purse with both arms as if it was a baby, her eyes turned downward, and shuffled toward the door.

When Cara finally reached her, the doctor spoke.

‘Is something wrong, Cara?’ Dr. Johansen asked politely, not wanting to lose a chance Cara would come back for a full price session.

‘You remember the drapes?’ Cara asked.

‘Yes, how can I forget. The ones you always close before bed.’ The doctor assured her.

Cara turned her face up, she was a good foot shorter than Dr. Johansen, and looked the doctor in the eyes.

Dr. Johansen noticed how startlingly brilliant Cara’s eyes were. A sheer platinum, flecked with diamonds, ringed with dark gray. They were captivating, stunning. Especially for such a sullen woman.

Cara stared at Dr. Johansen for a moment. Then spoke with a voice much deeper, stronger than before.

‘The drapes were open when I woke up.’ Cara said and walked out the door.

Dr. Johansen shut the door to her office and collapsed in the chair at her desk. She suddenly felt very heavy and buried her face in her palms, massaged her temples, and tried to press the day away. There was work to accomplish tonight. A research job would mean she could give up this lousy office and her lousy clients, she could be part of something bigger, something that might change the course of psychology. Better yet, the future. She had to nail this dinner with the board.

Dr. Johansen scooted back in her chair and opened the desk drawer over her lap. She pulled out the bottle of generic alprazolam, anxiety medicine she began taking a year ago, and shook out a couple pills. Then she deposited the bottle back in the drawer and slammed the drawer shut.

Dr. Johansen screamed.

Under her desk was a dead rat.

Somewhere outside the building which housed Dr. Johansen’s office, Cara walked home slowly in the driving rain, still clutching her purse to her chest with both arms. Her eyes were distant, intent on nothing, as the edges of her lips curled into a smile.

For Better

The swinging door hit my chair so hard that it shoved me into the table I was already pressed too tightly against and my mostly full beer launched a hoppy spout like the snort of a great whale from its mouth with a trajectory for Alice’s face.

It was the first date when I asked her the question.

Nervous, searching for topics to cover, things that we could expand our lungs on, and mostly just sounding like I was interviewing her for a job that she hadn’t officially applied for. I’ve always been like that, rattling off words from my mouth in rhythm like the steady clap of a machine gun, bullets replaced by question marks, coming in such rapid succession that one might get caught with too many and tangled in the long arch of the symbol, like a lamb pulled in separate directions by multiple well intentioned but untimely shepherd hooks.

We were seated in the corner table at The Lot, a tiny Italian restaurant on the eastern fringe of Ballard. A corner table seems like a great thing. In fact, I was overjoyed when the host said that the corner table was all they had, unaware or too distracted to notice that he cringed when he offered the table. I piped up immediately, before Alice, my date, could say anything. I had asked her out to dinner and I had chosen the restaurant to meet, and it seemed the proper thing to decide where we sat, if there were any choice given, which it seemed as though we did. The host slowly grabbed menus from under the pulpit as if he’d had a sudden onset of lower back pain, glanced uneasily at us when he came upright again, and nodded, as if realizing that we wouldn’t be swayed, which was correct, but at the time, I had no reason to think any different and only took his slow movement for physical disability.

I held my place for a second, allowing Alice to lead, not because I thought it gentlemanly or chivalrous but simply because the low lighting was very discreet and she was wearing shorts. I did try my best to keep my eyes level with the back of her head but she wore her brunette hair down and curled, my eyes slipped down her hair like kids on a twisting slide at the playground, then I saw the tag sticking up from her tank top and my eyes stopped suddenly and I fought the very urgent need to either fix the tag or alert her to the rogue label.

‘Here we are.’ The host said.

His voice came from very close, thats because I’d been so intent on Alice’s back I forgot to look up until I was a foot away from the curly head teenager. He smiled uncomfortably and took a cautious step back, mumbling something about excusing himself. Alice was turning to sit and didn’t see the exchange, which relieved me and I moved swiftly to my seat, thanking the host who turned and left us to ourselves for a few short moments.

The corner table, if you can call it that, is a nook in the wall toward the back of the establishment. To my left was the wall. Behind Alice was a wall. To my right was the bar, not two feet away, so small was the aisle that waiters had to turn sideways and hold trays over seated guests while avoiding the bar crowd which had its own surging movements like the waves of an excited sea. Directly behind me and to my left, were the swinging doors from the kitchen, from which streamed a torturous scent of marinara and parmesan that made my head swim, but the doors did more than allow the mouthwatering aroma of Italian cuisine to my seat, which I realized shortly after.

‘Well.’ I said, sighing a breath of satisfaction and grabbing the menu with both hands. Alice just smiled and looked down at hers.

‘This place smells amazing.’ She exhaled. The clink of glasses and guys at the bar describing in great detail the symmetry of last week’s girl’s gluteus drowned out Alice’s little voice. I strained to listen, edging up to the table and crouching over its edges.

‘What was that?’ I asked, raising my voice a little but trying to keep it at a becoming level.

‘I said, this place’ she raised a finger and half twirled it in the air ‘smells amazing.’

‘Oh yeah! It does. Whats your favorite-‘

I was cut off by something colliding with the backside of my chair which shoved me a little further into the table and rattled the glasses which were filled to the brim with water. I twisted to see who the assailant was but the only villain I saw was the shadowy blur of the swinging door and a sweating server dancing between tables with a tray full of lasagna. I sighed and turned back to Alice.

She was giggling and looking down at the menu.

‘Well that’s fun.’ I said, trying to keep my humor and failing.

‘It’s perfect.’ She said, but something far too interesting kept her eyes on the menu.

I was only bumped by the doors three more times before we ordered drinks and food, lasagna for Alice and fettuccini for me. We both ordered cheap beers and I was glad when she ordered first because I hate spending outrageous money for half way decent beer, usually defaulting on the three dollar cans, and it seemed that she felt the same.

We tapped our glistening Rainiers together, mine slipping a tiny bit from my hand, and I realized that my palms were sweating more profusely than the can. After a healthy chug and still not knowing quite what to say, I launched my frontal assault of questioning, but in the back of my mind I wanted to warn her about the tag.

‘So you’re a nurse?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, pediatric ICU. I love it.’ She said, running a finger around the rim of her can.

‘Why?’ I asked. Ruckus from the two nearest barstools broke out and flooded my voice.

‘What?’ She said. Alice leaned closer, over the table, the cut in her top revealed just enough and I tried not to look but it was too late. She caught me, I played it off like I was looking at her can. It didn’t work.

‘What do you love about it?’ I asked.

She was quiet for a second, thinking about it.

‘Its just an amazing feeling, helping tiny humans survive an untimely or complicated birth. Watching them grow and get strong and finally released back to their parents. Its a beautiful thing.’ She looked down at her beer, turning the tab a couple degrees. ‘It’s tough too. Sometimes they don’t make it. Sometimes the worst happens. I guess it makes me more grateful on a daily basis, you know, that I was lucky enough to have a simple and successful birth. That I’m alive.’ She finished and took a swig. I copied her.

‘You’re job impacts you a lot?’ I asked.

‘Yes and no. I try to leave work at work because it is a lot of weight to carry, if you keep it stuffed in a bag and lug it around everywhere.’ She said.

‘It’s sounds like it’s hard to keep from bringing it home.’ I said.

Alice shrugged.

‘You caught me.’ She offered.

I realized that maybe I should delve into a lighter subject, since this was our first date and I barely knew her and this obviously wasn’t the easiest thing to talk about. But I guess I’ve learned that many people don’t get the chance to talk about the things that affect them on the day to day basis and I tend to open up space for that, forgetting that it can have a negative affect on the atmosphere altogether. I started to panic. Imagining she’d go home with little Tommy or Bethany or Isaac or Sarah on her mind, little humans she grown attached to but didn’t make it in the end. Babies that she’d probably already cried over and had more tears to shed if the right memories were brought to the surface like an oil spill riding the turquoise waters of her thoughts. Thats not how I wanted her to remember me. What I wanted was her to remember what a great time she had and that maybe, with a capitol M, she would want to see me again. I switched the subject.

‘Do you-‘

SLAM!

The swinging door hit my chair so hard that it shoved me into the table I was already pressed too tightly against and my mostly full beer launched a hoppy spout like the snort of a great whale from its mouth with a trajectory for Alice’s face. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, I saw the surprise in her face, the tiny flicking movements of her perfectly separated eyelashes as they batted away the initial specks of flying beer. The rest of the spout turned over in the air, like watching an astroid spinning in the weightless universe, then all at once it collided with her face and chest. I was mortified. My hand crunched around the beer can, nearly folding it. Alice didn’t make a move, except looking down and gauging the damage with indifference. I expected her to cry out. I wanted her to be angry, maybe yell at the server or barge off madly to the bathroom to fix herself. Instead, while cheap suds dripped down her chin and into her shirt, she did the thing I never thought would happen.

Alice laughed. The full, happy, not a care in the world, the beer might as well have been a cool shower on a hot day, kind of laugh. Her head tilted back and her smiling mouth opened.

Too frightened to understand, I could only do one thing. I laughed with her. We laughed like two kids, stoned in the back yard, watching youtube videos of bad lip-syncing. It was the most relieving and beautiful thing that has ever happened to me on a date in my life. To this day I still think that you should laugh like you have beer all over your face, but no one understands except Alice.

We laughed until our sides ached. Until the server came over with our food and looked at us suspiciously, thinking that maybe he should warn the bartender that we’d had far too much to drink already.

We were wiping away tears when Alice pointed to something near me.

‘Can I have one of those?’ She asked.

I thought she meant me but she was pointing to what was squashed under my elbow, a pile of napkins. I handed her one, still biting back laughter that escaped like carbonation bubbles.

Once we settled down and finished half of our meal, she spoke up.

‘What was it you wanted to ask me, before?’ She asked.

‘Oh yeah. It was nothing really.’ I said, while stuffing a forkful of noodles and alfredo sauce in my mouth.

‘No, tell me. Don’t be all shy now.’ She said playfully.

I swallowed too quickly. It was nothing really, just another one of my interrogative inquisitions.

‘I was just curious if you liked to cook?’ I said, trying not to act like it meant anything.

She chewed on her food and the question for a minute.

‘No.’ She said laconically.

‘Like not at all?’ I asked.

‘Like not at all.’ She replied.

I tilted my head to the side, eyeing her with suspicion.

‘Okay. I give in.’ She said, holding up her hands in surrender. ‘The real answer to the question is that I love good food and don’t like to pay someone else to make it for me every night of the week. So, I cook. And I’m a damn good cook. But like it? Ehh. That’s different. I do it out of my own desire to eat well and not an ambition to assemble beautiful edible things.’ With that, she knifed another slice of her lasagna.

I smiled.

‘I like you.’ I said, after awhile.

‘I know.’ She replied.

I cooked most of the time and even now I can hear the echoes of Alice barking orders, after tasting a bit of curry or sauce or whatever I was making.

‘It needs salt.’ or ‘A pinch of turmeric and a teaspoon of cumin, maybe a splash of paprika.’ or ‘Jesus, a little basil and oregano goes a long way.’ and ‘What is this? Are you trying to assassinate me by chili seasoning overdose or what?’

I would be peacefully stirring away, tasting, and thinking I’d done quite a fine job when she would walk into the kitchen, she was studying for her masters then and still wearing her glasses and a short face from reading long words, shoulder me to the side and begin making her adjustments. More this, less of that. I couldn’t argue. She was always right. What she hadn’t told me that first date was that her father was a cook for a long time and taught her how to properly make anything from hollandaise sauce to cordon bleu. I learned a lot from her.

She was always kind and never treated me ill for my shortcomings in the kitchen. Alice saw my potential and treated me as a project, one that needed care and training and consistent involvement if I were ever to ascend to her level of culinary professionalism. Well, as a professional critic that is.

Even now, as my quiet studio on the south side of the city creaks with the sound of new lovers on the floor above, I can feel her nuzzling up to me and saying, ‘Adam, you’ve really become quite the chef. I’m proud.’ Which would be poorly placed because I’m making boxed macaroni and cheese and the only thing I added was pepper, hoping the spice will sting my eyes and hide the reason my salty tears are soiling the pasta.

Alice walks about my flat in bare feet, flops on the couch and opens a book on advanced anatomy while I stir near the stove. Her brown hair lays softly on her shoulder and her blue eyes are framed by square glasses, staring intensely at words that I don’t understand. Sometimes I wish she would go and she does but only to come back again when I’m cooking or reading a novel she never approved of. It would be much easier to let her go if she had left of her own free will. If she had just told me, ’That’s it, Adam. I’m done with you and this and I’m going now.’ But that’s not what happened and this isn’t why she’s haunting me and there’s a chance I’ll find her again somewhere other than my waking dreams, for better or worse.