I just finished recording the audio version of my short story “The Wise Ones,” from A Consternation of Monsters. Unlike most of my audio efforts, this was a particularly annoying recording session because my stomach refused to stop gurgling throughout it.
I’m certain a gurgle or two will try to sneak through into the final version, but hopefully most will be excised in the upcoming editing process.
This audio version of “The Wise Ones” is not, however, for the Consternation of Monsters Podcast, though an excerpt from it may be used there yet. Instead, I’m recording and in many cases re-recording straight up, big boy, audio book versions of all of the stories from Consternation for a forthcoming audio book project.
Thus far, I’ve recorded “The Hocco Makes the Echo,” “Nigh,” “Old Country,” “…to a Flame,” “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk,” “The Ones That Aren’t Crows,” “The Wise Ones,” and “Limited Edition.” The two that remain are the longer stories “The King’s Last Nacho” and “Puppet Legacy.” After they’re in the can, I can start in on the editing and mastering of the whole project.
These are not the radio drama/audio book hybrid adaptations I’ve done with the podcast. (Love them, though I do.) Instead, they’re standard audio-book narration for the forthcoming,
first quarter 2016 (um, er… 2017) audio book version of A Consternation of Monsters, to appear on Audible.com and iTunes. I figured with my recent toe-dip into the realm of audio book narration, why the heck should I not do my own audio book? And, gurgles be damned, I’m having a blast doing it.
And speaking of my inaugural sojourn into audio book narration, The Black Star of Kingston is now on sale at Audible.com, iTunes, and at the publisher’s website, StoryWarren.net. If you have young folks in your life, or just a two-hour car ride ahead of you, it’s a good `un, if I do say so, thanks to the story and characters provided by Sam Smith. The characters and story were already there, I just tried to do vocal justice to them.
The short story adapted for this week’s podcast, “Short Straw,” is not one that appears in A Consternation of Monsters. Primarily this is because the story does not feature any actual monsters, unless you count the concept of Santa Claus or the slow march of death. (Technically, the concept of Santa Claus does appear in A Consternation of Monsters already, mentioned in “Puppet Legacy,” but it is not within the confines of a Christmas story. So there.) No, it’s one of my mundane stories, meaning stories that seem to be set entirely in the real world, with no magical realism. That said, I still wanted to do a Christmas podcast this year, so I chose my one Christmas story that I had at hand to adapt instead.
The events of “Short Straw,” as I mention this at the end of the podcast, come about as close to nonfiction as my stories tend to get. I still classify it as fiction, because while the events depicted did indeed happen, I have no idea of the real identities of any of the people involved outside the analog characters of me and my father (Aaron and Rob) and I had to make up all the dialogue, or at the very best paraphrase it. Plus, a minor part of the story, while still true, did not occur at that prison, or even in that state. This is what writers do, though: weaving together strands of truth to tell a stronger tale. Most of it was gleaned from my memory, or my memories that have been altered by the telling and retelling of this particular story by my father over the years. I’d say, though, that the only lines of dialogue that I know for certain are verbatim from reality are probably the last two lines of dialogue in the story.
So, if you’ve not yet heard the story, go and listen to the podcast adaptation and come back to read the behind the scenes report below.
When I was a wee lad I became infatuated with detectives. Probably my first exposure to the concept of them was Sherlock Hemlock, the little green deerstalker-clad puppet from Sesame Street, who was based on Sherlock Holmes. Not much later, my father bought me a collection called Gateway to Mystery which featured an abridged version of Conan-Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which was my favorite story from that book. I decided that I would one day be a detective myself. I began cultivating this by carrying around a red-plastic magnifying glass, which I used to examine every clue I could find.
In December, 1976, though, life changed in the Fritzius household. A few days following the birth of my baby sister in San Antonio, TX, my mother passed away. Her body went into toxemia poisoning, which led to the formation of a blood clot which went to her brain. She went into a coma and never came out. It was a very sad time for the whole family, but my dad tried to keep my spirits up as best he could. For almost the entire month of December, following her death, my dad would give me a new present every morning. It was his way of trying to take my mind off things. And those presents continued arriving each day all the way to Christmas. One of the ones I received closest to Christmas was a noisy and obnoxious Fisher Price toy train. (The very kind you can hear in the podcast.) I loved it dearly and carried it with me wherever I went, showing it off at every opportunity. We were inseparable.
On Christmas Eve, my father decided to up the ante on the presents. We had traveled from Texas to Wayne County, Mississippi, to the home of my Mamaw and Papaw. Dad had taken me into town for some last minute Christmas shopping and it was on our way out that we passed by the Wayne County Court House, where the police department was based. He had the idea that it would be a great present if I could meet an actual detective, so we went in to see if any were still there, accompanied, of course, by my new train. The man at the desk, whose name I do not know, told us that the detectives had gone home for the day, but would be back on Monday, as Christmas fell on a Saturday that year. As we were leaving, the man asked my dad if I might like to see the jail. What followed in my memory pretty much matches the events depicted in the story. I was asked if I wanted to try out a jail cell, and I declined. I then met a prisoner in a single unit cell, who asked about my train and how come Santa Claus had brought it to me early. “You be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see me,” was his departing line. Then there was a group cell filled with probably three or four men, one of whom was indeed sitting on the toilet. They too inquired as to my special relationship with Santa, that I might get a present early. I proudly showed them how my train worked. They then also told me to be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see them, to which I again did not respond. It seemed to me that if they were in jail then they had clearly been bad, so Santa would not be paying them any visits unless it was to drop off some coal. They didn’t even have any stockings, though.
And then, there was another man in a single cell toward the end of the row who had heard my name spoken and asked me what it was again. He was, as my father recalls, waiting there until he could be transferred elsewhere. I remember sensing his sadness as he told me that he had a little boy named Eric back home. I recall sensing the weight of the moment and not knowing what to do about any of it, so I just kept quiet. Meanwhile, my dad was practically in tears.
As we left the jail and were headed back into the hall, the prisoners, in unison the prisoners all cried out “You be sure to tell Santa Claus to come see us!”
“Okay,” I said. “Be good.”
And to this day, despite all my comedic roles over the years, that line might have elicited the biggest laugh I’ve ever received. It just destroyed everyone. Probably helped set me on the path of comedic performer.
The following Christmas, a friend of my dad’s named Lucy wrote up this story as a short piece that was published in a Louisiana newspaper. I have the clipping now, though I did not when I penned my own version. Lucy mentions the death of the boy’s mother at the beginning, hooking the reader with some sentiment from the start. She also fictionalized her version of the story a bit, adding the detail that my character had never seen snow and really wanted to for Christmas, but was stymied by the fact that it happens so rarely in Mississippi. At the end of her version, as the father and son leave the jailhouse, it begins to snow. It’s a nice bow to tie around the story.
And it was because of Lucy’s version that I resisted writing my own for many years. I felt like Lucy had already written it and I didn’t want to appear to be trying to tell the same sentimental story twice. Eventually, though, I decided that the story belonged to me and my dad and I was free and clear to write about my own life if I wanted to. So, in the mid-oughts, for my writing group’s Christmas party, I wrote the first draft of the story in a couple of hours. I stuck closer to the truth of the original events, so no snow was mentioned. I also left out the part about my mother’s recent death prior to the story because I felt like it tread too close to playing on emotions. The one event I included that did not take place that night was the part where Vardy spells out “A-R-M-E-D- R-O-B-B-E-R-Y” and Aaron responds “A-A-R-O-N can spell too.” (I actually said that, but to a lady in Texas, as she was trying to spell something to my dad that she didn’t want me to understand. I didn’t understand it then, either, but had decided to do some spelling of my own since that seemed to be what folks were doing. She didn’t know this, though, so she was a bit shocked.) The story was a hit.
In subsequent drafts, I added back the suggestion that the father in the story looked sad, much like Perry Pittman had following the death of his wife. I figured that since the story was told from Vardy’s viewpoint, I couldn’t exactly reveal the details of the death without it feeling forced. So it’s suggested.
This brings me to the matter of the names of all these characters. Like I said, I don’t know any of them. So I took a page from the TV show Quantum Leap. The story goes that show creator Donald Bellissario, knowing that the 5th season’s finale would likely be the series finale, set out to write an autobiographical episode including details and characters from his childhood. All of the characters in the show were named after people he knew. So since I needed local names, I wove in those of folks I knew. Vardy is the name of my Papaw’s brother, who died long before my birth. Ezell is the name of the owner of Ezell’s Fish Camp, in Chunky, MS, (a town name I found delightfully funny as a child). Brewer is a common name for the area, and I knew a number of them from my Mamaw’s church. Perry Pittman is a combination of two names, as Mr. Perry was the owner of Perry’s Fishcamp, a regular after-church haunt of my grandparents’, and Pittman is the last name of my Papaw’s friend Bilbo Pittman (Velma, also mentioned, was Bilbo’s wife). The Masons were another family from church. Zack was named after Zackey Manning, my grandparents’ nearest neighbor. And Bo was a man who married my mother’s cousin, who later ran a country store in the tiny town of Peov, Mississippi.
This story will likely be collected one day, as I have a number of other “mundane” stories that need a home. It will likely also appear in an eventual collection of my Aaron stories, when I have enough of those. In the meantime, it’s a podcast, given out for Christmas.
As my dad is fond of saying, Merry Churtmint. And a Merry Churtmint to you and yours.
On December 24, 1976, Sgt. Vardeman “Vardy” Odom drew the short straw from Old Ezell’s broom and landed himself Christmas Eve desk duty at the Wayne County Police Department. He expected nothing more exciting than a drunk to pass by his desk that evening. What actually came through his door, though, quite nearly changed his mind about Christmas Eve desk duty.
“Short Straw” does not appear in A Consternation of Monsters. In fact, it does not feature a monster at all (unless you count the slow march of death in his plaid sport coat). However, the story does feature two characters who appear in multiple stories in A Consternation of Monsters in a based-on-a-true-story Christmas tale intended not to chill hearts, but to warm them.
On a day in 1983, Martin Riscili receives the most important phone call of his life. His late father’s mobster “associate,” Jimmy Jambalaya, has just phoned to alert Martin to his imminent death by Jimmy’s own hand. His house is watched. His phone line is dead. Jimmy’s on his way. And the only thing Martin can think of that might yet save his life is his grandmothers’ quilt.
If only he could remember where he put it.
A story of crime and punishment and contractual terms with forces beyond our understanding.
This is a live radio-style adaptation of the short story “Old Country” from the collection A Consternation of Monsters. This was recorded live on October 12, 2015, at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg, W Va. It stars Sarah Elkins as Melissa, Shane Miller as Martin, the author himself as Tino and The Warrior, and a special appearance by Dr. AC as Jimmy Jambalaya.
Please visit Dr. AC’s horror movie review blog, Horror 101 with Dr. AC, for information about how you can pledge to support his charity efforts in the Scare-a-Thon October Horror Challenge.
Had a blast at the Lewisburg Literary Festival this weekend! Sold a goodly number of books and the “cemetery” performance of the play adaptation of my story “…to a Flame” had a fantastic turnout and, despite some initial sound problems, went nigh on perfectly. A big thanks to Devin Preston for co-starring with me. You were a great Virgil Hawks. And thanks to Dr. Larry Davis (the original Virgil Hawks in the Greenbrier Valley Theatre production from a few years back) for introducing us. As I told Larry, I’d planned for Devin and I to do a reading of “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” for the cemetery reading up until two weeks ago when I realized that the already in-existence “…to a Flame” stage play would be a more satisfying fit for a performance. If I’d thought of doing it sooner, I would have had Larry and another local actor, Curtis Pauley, step in and star. But I thought it was too much to ask on too soon a notice. Since Devin and I were already supposed to be involved, and since he can memorize lines like a super human, it seemed the way to go.
Apologies should be issued to the handful of folks who waited at the Old Stone Cemetery, the original location for the play, rather than the revised location of the green space in downtown Lewisburg. The story of why the location had to be changed the day before the event is long and wrought with controversy. It is also one I do not plan to tell here (though it miiiiiiiiiiight get told in a podcast in the very near future… just sayin’). Needless to say, we at the LLF dropped the ball in not sending someone to stand in the cemetery and redirect traffic. And Devin got chewed out for it good by the folks who stood there for half an hour waiting. Again, this is entirely our bad. In what little defense we have, though, my acting partner and I were simultaneously trying rehearse for the first time in over a week, test our wireless microphones, load sound equipment, and paranoidly checking weather apps on our phones to see if it was about to pour rain on said equipment. (Nary a drop.) It slipped our minds that some folks might not have gotten the memo about the venue change, and for that we are sorry.
Thanks also go to Eliot Parker, who held down the fort for Publisher’s Place’s table in our Literary Town Square and shared proximity to the Mr. Herman table. Thanks also to S.D. “Sam” Smith, author of the fabulous young person’s book The Green Ember and his publisher at the Story Warren, Andrew, who both kept us all entertained (and fed, cause Sam bought us lunch on Saturday).
Thanks to Cat Pleska, Fran Simone and Ed Davis for leading great workshops and traveling a distance to be a part of the event. I got to interview Ed for the West Virginia Writers podcast, but I’ll repost that here as well when it’s edited and ready to go.
Thanks to all the folks behind the scenes at the LLF (Greg Johnson, Josh Baldwin, Cindy Lavender-Bowe, Mary Cole Deitz, Erin Hurst, Laura Lee Haddad, Sarah Elkins, and so many more) for all the time and effort they volunteer throughout the year and throughout the event to keep things running smoothly. Very few fires had to be put out. Thanks also to Aaron and Monica Maxwell, co-founders of the event, who stepped down from the LLF board this year, but who still did quite a bit to make it happen and are missed dearly. (We never knew exactly how much work you guys did for the LLF until we had to do it in your absence. It took six of us to pull it off and we still got things wrong. Hats off to your three years of making it happen and for what you did to assist this year. Come baaaaaack!)
And thanks to my lovely wife for womaning my table while I had to go do introductions for speakers, rehearse plays in alleys, and haul sound equipment. She sold more books in two hours than I did before she got there.
The latest episode of the Consternation of Monsters Podcast adapts my story “The Ones that Aren’t Crows.” It is is one of three award-winning stories in the collection, the others being “Nigh” and “…to a Flame.” However, when this particular story won 2nd place in the Animals Category of the 2011 West Virginia Writers Annual Writing Contest, it did so under the title “Native Arts.”
I never liked that title. I often don’t like my first choice of title and tend to use them as placeholders until I can find something that feels like a better fit. It was not until a later draft of the story, a revision I made prior to a live-reading of it, though, that the new title suggested itself and felt perfect.
As to the origin of the story itself, it is a quad-fold affair.
The first fold: Back in 2007, the wife and I took a two-week trip to her home state of Alaska. It was a three week trip for her, as she had gone up to present a poster at a medical conference, in her capacity as chief resident at the local hospital. (She likes to downplay the significance of the chief resident part, as she was the only person in her program for that year, so she was the only available candidate to be chief resident. I maintain she would have been chief regardless of other candidate availability, but that’s a question for an alternate universe.) I flew up after that first week and we rented a Winnebago in which to vacation, touring around Alaska to see the various places where she’d lived and grown up. Our first leg of the journey took us down to Seward, where we spent a couple of days on the shores of Resurrection Bay–occasionally venturing out onto the water for chilly June tours of the Kenai Fjords and the glaciers that could be seen there. Oh, and the whales. We saw a goodly number of whales, though due to the slowness of our camera we mainly took pictures of their tails as they disappeared again beneath the surface. The ranger on the tour was sure to point out the restricted speeds for the tour boats in the bay, done to give whales plenty of time to get out of the way. We had a great time.
One of the things I noticed during our trip, though–which brings us to the second fold–was the amount of native Alaskan art on display, everywhere you went. There were brightly-painted totem poles in most of the places we visited, as well as other totemic art that depicted whales and bears and birds and fish, all with bright red, teal, black and white coloration. Curious, I began reading up on the traditional stories of the native peoples. They offer some very interesting tales of how the world came to be, and the interesting gods and figures who helped shape it. The standard fantasy trope of “what if these aren’t just myths” began to ring in my head. Or, more importantly to a common theme in the stories I write (and those of many other writers) what if belief in the myth is the power necessary to make it real?
Another source of inspiration, perhaps the third fold, came during one of a number of, perhaps, ill-advised solo hikes I took during our time in Alaska. I like to explore, especially when there is the promise of a cool view, or a waterfall to be seen, and I’m willing to go above and beyond to reach that goal. I always invited the wife to come along, but she’s rarely interested, especially if the journey will require strenuous physical effort. One of my hikes, in Valdez, was to try and climb up the lower section of a mountain, to try and reach a step where the lower part of the mountain jutted out, creating a natural incline that continued on up to a much higher elevation. It looked like the sort of thing a person could reach and then walk up to get a great view. The wife thought the plan was foolhardy and a lot more work than I knew, but I insisted on trying it. Because neither of our cell phones worked well there, I said if I didn’t come back in an hour and a half she was to assume I’d been lost or eaten by a bear and call the authorities. It was, as she predicted, more difficult than I’d thought, because to simply get to the foot of the mountain meant having to walk pathways through the thick brush leading up to it. While in those paths, I came upon the remnants of a lunch interrupted. There was a plastic grocery sack which had been torn open and its contents shredded. My memory of this is that it was a grocery store pre-made sandwich and some chips, but all food items were gone, leaving behind shredded remnants of their packaging. The most curious item from the mess, though, was a 16 oz plastic soda bottle, its cap still in place, but empty due to a VERY large tooth hole in the side of the bottle. (I thought I had a picture of this, but evidently not.) The tooth hole, to my eye, could only have been made by something the size of a bear. I was then on my guard, as this meant bears were in the area, or had been in the area. I still continued on my trek, though, eventually making it to the foot of the mountain, and then, slowly, step by step, handhold by handhold, clawed my way up the steep slope of the foot of the mountain. It was tough going. But while I did it, the image occurred to me that it would be super creepy if, suddenly, I were to discover the claw marks of a bear on the side of that slope, except the claw marks in my image were of a bear being dragged UP the slope by something much larger. And I instantly knew what that something would be. It’s the same creature that went on to inspire “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” and is a short story that may yet appear in next year’s volume of tales. (I did manage to make it to the top of the step, but it took way more work and way more time than I’d planned for it to. By the time I got up there, it was time to head back or risk the wife calling out the authorities.)
The fourth fold of this tale’s origin happened over a year after we returned from our trip. We had left Lewisburg and moved to Princeton, WV, in 2008. I had been looking for a job there, but things were pretty scarce. So I began seeking other possible employment opportunities. I saw an ad online for a job as a transcriptionist. I thought this might be something for me, since I type superhumanly fast. The application process involved learning the formatting, in which the transcriptionist types all the words being heard, down to the ums and uhs, and any incidental sounds or other business that can be heard–doors opening in the background, coughing, sneezing, etc.–is included in bracketed statements. I learned the format, took the transcriptionist test and thought I did pretty well. Never heard anything back from them, which led me to believe that what they were really trying to do was sell me the expensive transcriptionist foot-peddle-pause button, which seemed to be mentioned a lot in their materials as being something serious transcriptionists used. I didn’t bite. But I did think that the idea of a short story formatted as a transcription was something I’d not seen before. I even thought of a way for the format itself to become part of the storytelling. After that, it was just a matter of plugging in a story and I knew just the one that would fit.
As I said before, this story has been read live on a couple of occasions and turns out pretty well. It does require a second reader to provide the transcription notations. I’ve always read the captain’s part, with someone else doing the transcription voice. The first time I read this live, back in 2011, my wife did the voice and was excellent at capturing the cold, flatness I heard in my head. Unfortunately, when I recorded that reading, only I had a microphone, so her voice could not be heard in the recording. The second time, she was unavailable for a reprise, so I recruited my friend and fellow actor Joe Lehman. We performed it for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s Literary Tea series in 2013. I had a much better recorder by then and we were both miked. It was a great performance, too. Joe was great at keeping the exact same tone on each of his repeated words and I felt especially in good bronchial form as the captain. Unfortunately, when I stopped the recorder after the show, something went amiss and the recording vanished into the ether never to be seen again. It was a tragic loss, as that would have been a recording for the archive and probably would have been podcasted in some form long before now.
I’m still pleased with how Episode 04 turned out, though. The text-to-speech program I used for the transcriptions is not without his charms. I may have to hold on to it for future use.
“Wolves and Stones”
Atop the low mesa, in the scorched-orange glow of the setting Arizona sun, a Mexican Gray Wolf paced in frustration. Few humans have ever seen a member of this rarest of North American species of wolves, fewer still have ever heard one growl, and fewer than that could claim to have heard the gurgle of hunger pangs coming from the stomach of such a creature. The man seated on the edge of the mesa’s cliff, a few feet away from the wolf, might have been able to accomplish all three of these rare feats, had he only been paying attention.
The wolf eyed the old man silhouetted against the sun. Even squinting against the light, the wolf could see the long and stringy gray fur of his quarry as it fluttered behind his head in the breeze of dusk. Similarly caught in the breeze were the strings and ribbons of the torn fabric that still adorned the man’s body. Dozens of growing shadows also stretched out from the many paw prints the wolf and his pack brothers had left in the dust of the rock shelf over the past months.
The senses of wolves are fine-tuned receptors of many levels of information broadcast by their prey. They can tell, for instance, when an animal is wounded by the rhythm of its breathing. They can savor the delicious smell of fear and know from it precisely when their prey is about to bolt. The old man, however, gave off little information, which was frustrating, for the wolf. He may as well have been concentrating his senses on a blank patch of air for all the good it did to turn them on the old man’s body. The man’s smoky blue eyes—which were on some days closed, but more often, as they were now, merely narrowed—remained focused on some place in the far distance, motionless and with no indication of internal activity. The only emotion any of his pack brothers had ever been able to sense from the old man was an occasional flicker of deepest regret. And, as this was an emotion alien to wolves of any species, neither he nor his brothers we able to recognize it as significant. The man appeared much as other gray-furred humans did when they neared the end of their lives. However, there was something about him that made the wolf certain this human was far older than he appeared. The wolf could smell the old man’s blood—even beneath the layers of grit that coated his pale skin, but its flow was almost imperceptible. The wolf listened. After nearly a minute, he heard the beat of the man’s heart, the stir of his blood, and then silence once more. Instinctively, the wolf knew this was wrong, for animals and humans were creatures of blood, even those foolish enough to stray into this place of heat and dust. Blood was their essence and their life—both of which were the wolves’ right to take as they pleased, or as they dared. A creature whose life did not flow even as fast as that of the hated greenshells was not a natural creature. However, as the wolf had long ago reasoned, it was still blood. This old man—whose blood refused to flow properly, whose skin refused to rend beneath fang, whose bones refused to break when, in impotent rage, he and his pack brothers had toppled the man’s body from the edge of the cliff—was a continuing puzzle in the wolf’s mind. His pack brothers had all but given up, but the puzzle was what brought the wolf back to this mesa nearly every day. His own chipped teeth served as an ever-present reminder that this stone-like man had not yet been caught, despite the fact that he had also never fled.
Padding two steps closer across the still scorching surface of the dusty mesa, the wolf allowed himself a whine of irritation. His impulse was to rush at the man, to bound off of the muscles of his back and send his body over the edge again. At barely seven cactuses in height it was not a long fall to the desert floor. To investigate the fallen form, though, would have required a journey back along the mesa, to where the treacherously steep and rocky terrain gave way to a more easily traversable slope down to the desert floor. Despite making that same journey many times, he knew that it would be a fruitless waste of previous energy. And, as always, he would only find the old man at the foot of the mesa, his body still bent in its seated position, unharmed save for fresh rips in the fabric covering his body. And there the old man might remain undisturbed for days, or even weeks until it would one day be found seated again on the edge of the mesa’s cliff, eyes staring into the distance, face timeworn like that of the mesa itself. None of the wolf’s pack brothers had ever observed the man making the return journey to his perch, nor had any of them ever seen an indication of movement from him. But clearly he did move when it suited him to do so. Fungus, one of his pack brothers, claimed to have once seen an old woman on the mesa as well. He claimed she had emerged from a wooden cave in the air and had carried a shiny stick. She had screamed noises at the old man for some time, but even then he did not move and the old woman returned to her wooden cave in the air and closed its door. None of the other pack brothers had witnessed this, none of them had seen the wooden cave, and none of them would admit that they did not know what a wooden cave looked like let alone how it came to be in the air. Fungus was crazy.
The wolf remained seated a few tail lengths distance from the old man and waited as the evening slowly grew darker. Prey of a more animated nature would be stirring before long and the wolf knew that his hunger would soon be sated.
In the distance, across the dry lake bed overlooked by the mesa, there came a humming, growling sound. Within a short time, two lights appeared to accompany the sound and the wolf knew that this signaled the approach of one of the long, armored, round-legged beasts that had been tamed by the humans. The wolf had seen such beasts before, but their territory was usually limited to the long gray stretches of flat rock the humans had arranged on the far side of the lakebed. On occasion, however, the humans and their beasts had strayed into his pack’s territory. The wolf knew that he must be on his guard for moving humans were less predictable than the still old man.
As the long beast came closer, the wolf could see that it was black and with two fins at its rear, much like the creatures he had seen rushing through the distant rivers in the rainy season. It stopped moving some distance from the foot of the mesa, perhaps not wishing to venture close to some of the larger rocks that had fallen from its face. The beast stopped growling, but light continued to pour from its eyes. Presently the black armored sides of the beast opened, causing a low buzzing sound that only ceased when the humans had emerged from the beast and again closed its sides. The wolf could at once smell their sweat and then their blood. It was pumping just fine. Then the humans began to make their usual noises.
“You have got to get a new ride, man!” one of them said, striking the side of the beast with his foot. The wolf observed that the man’s lanky form might lend itself to swiftness.
“I said I was sorry,” the other one bellowed. He was taller and stouter than the lanky man. The wolf didn’t understand him either, but thought the big man could prove to be a powerful, but slow opponent.
“No A/C, broken window crank… It’s like an oven in there! Probably cooler in the damn trunk.”
“If I’d known we were coming all the way out here, I would’ve borrowed a different car,” the bigger man said. “Maybe Donny’s new one.”
“That hatchback piece of shit? What an asshole!”
“Hey, he got a great deal on it.”
“I don’t care if he got it for free,” the lanky man said. “It’s still a hatchback piece of Japanese shit and Donny’s an asshole for buying it.”
The wolf felt a flash of anger from the big man, but it quickly subsided. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’ll get plenty cool here once it’s all the way night. We could probably just leave him and go. He’d be froze by morning.”
“We’ll leave him, all right,” the lanky man said. The man then reached into his clothing and produced a small white stick. His paw then seemed to catch fire and he touched the tip of the stick into the flames until smoke began to puff from his mouth.
“Let’s do this,” the lanky man said.
From his perch on the mesa, the wolf watched as the two men walked to the rear of their beast to open what must have been its armored, flat tail.
“Oh, look. He’s awake,” the lanky man said. “Get him out of there.”
The bigger man reached into the rear of the beast and, with some effort, withdrew from it another human. For a moment, the wolf entertained the notion that the humans were born from their armored beasts. But then he became distracted by the new sensory combination of sweat, blood and, most deliciously, fear, as the newly born man was dropped to the ground. It took a moment to see the new man clearly, but his top legs appeared to be bound behind his back and his lower legs bound at the ankle. The bound man smelled younger than the first two men, scarcely older than a pup, but he wasn’t a small man either. Another growl of hunger escaped from the stomach of the wolf and he padded closer to the edge of the cliff, watching as the big man looped his paws into the pits of the bound man’s top legs and pulled him along the desert floor and into the light of the beast’s eyes. The lanky man followed and propped one of his leather-covered lower paws onto the beast’s lip.
“Hiya, (NAME REDACTED),” the lanky man said, puffing out his smoke. “Welcome to the desert.”
The bound man made noises, but his jaws were covered by something.
“What’s that? You don’t like it out here?” the lanky man said. He laughed. “Aww. Ain’t that sad, Mike? (NAME REDACTED) comes out all the way out from the East Coast and he doesn’t want to see the sights.”
The big man gave a chuckle. “Yeah, it’s a… it’s a real shame.”
The lanky man leaned down over the prone, bound man and began making louder sounds. “It is a shame. Cause if (NAME REDACTED) didn’t want to see the desert, all he had to do was stay home in the first place. Right, (NAME REDACTED)?”
The bound man made an aggressive sound from beneath his mouth covering. The lanky man flashed with anger and struck out with one of his lower paws, connecting with the bound man’s midsection. This elicited a muffled groan of pain.
“No, if he’d just stayed home and played in his own sandbox, we wouldn’t have had any reason to give him a ride to ours.”
The bound man made more muffled noises.
“Oh, look there, Mike! I think (NAME REDACTED)’s starting to see the light.”
The big man laughed, but he smelled nervous.
“What is it they say about hindsight, Mike?”
“Um,” the big man said. There was a long pause. “It’s good to have?”
“That’s right,” the lanky man said. “It’s good to have.” He then reached one of his paws into the back of his leg-coverings and returned with something heavy and black. “Trouble is, it’s only useful to have it if you’re still around to learn a lesson from it afterward.”
The bound man instantly began making louder, more frantic sounds. His heart was racing. Fear was pouring out of him, causing the wolf’s mouth to water. He wished his pack brothers were near. Together, they might have a chance of catching at least two of these men before any of them could hide in the guts of their armored beast. After frustrated months of wondering what an easy human meal might taste like, this opportunity was tantalizing.
“Sorry, (NAME REDACTED),” the lanky man said over the cries of the bound man. “Some mistakes you only get to make once. If it’s worth anything to you, though, we’ll be sure to send (OTHER NAME REDACTED) a condolence card for you.”
The bound man’s body thrashed, striking out with one of his back legs, which had apparently come free of its binding. The lanky man dodged out of the way, scarcely avoiding the strike and the bound man’s foot connected with the lip of the beast instead with a thunk. The armored beast did not cry out.
“I told you to tie him good!” the lanky man screamed, his fire stick falling from his mouth.
“I did!” the big man shouted. Anger. Nerves. Fear.
The wolf now stood at the very edge of the cliff. He could see the bound man still thrashing on the ground, rolling partially out of the beast’s eye lights. If it were half an hour later, he would have rolled into pitch blackness, but in the twilight he could still be seen even by the humans. The wolf could smell the sweat and dirt that now caked the man’s face, could practically see the blood roiling beneath the thin skin of his neck. He longed to sink his teeth into that neck. Without his pack, though, he did not dare move. For now, he would simply stay upon the mesa, next to the stone-like old man, and watch.
The lanky man shouted below and waved his heavy black thing some more until the big man seemed to find his motion. He stepped around the edge of the armored beast, leaned over and struck out with a clenched paw. The motion wasn’t precisely quick, but it was powerful enough to still the movements of the bound man. The wolf could smell urine almost immediately, but the bound man’s heart was still beating strong.
“Where’s the rope?” the big man said.
“Fuck the rope. Just do him.”
The big man looked down at the bound man. “W-what?” he said.
The lanky man bore his teeth. The wolf could smell firestick smoke and onions on his breath—pathetic plant-eaters. “We didn’t drag him out here to play dress up, Mike. Do him.”
“But I… I don’t want—” the big man said. The wolf could feel the pulsing of his nerves.
“You’re doing this,” the lanky man said. “If you want to keep working for Lance, you’re going to have to prove yourself useful. He knows you’re good for fist work, but he says you ain’t got the stones for nothing else. I’m the one that set him straight about that. Got it?” The lanky man turned the heavy black thing over in his paw and held it out to the big man. “Do it.”
That was when a rock fell from the upper face of the mesa. It fell five cactus heights before impacting noisily against the slight slope of the otherwise almost vertical face of the mesa. The wolf didn’t know if his own weight had caused it to fall, but he could see that it had drawn the attention of the men on the desert floor. They had turned toward the sound and were holding their paws up to block the glare from the armored beast. While the sun had already set, the wolf knew there was possibly still enough light for even the humans to make out his shape and that of the old man. The wolf stood his ground.
“Something’s up there,” the lanky man said after a time.
The lanky man moved to the rear of the armored beast and reached inside its still open rectum. He brought out another stick, the end of which burst into light, and turned its beam in the direction of the mesa until it found its target, shining directly onto the old man’s glass-eyed staring face.
“It’s a dude,” the big man said.
The wolf drew away from the beam, but his movement must have been noticed, for the light quickly flicked into his eyes.
“It’s a dude and his dog,” the lanky man said. “Probably some Indian off the reservation, or something. Probably drunk.”
“But he might have seen us,” the big man said.
“Yeah. No shit.”
The light flicked back onto the old man’s face and remained there as the lanky man walked forward toward the cliff face.
“Hey! Hey, mister? Nice night for a walk, huh?” the lanky man said, bringing the heavy black thing up just behind his light stick. “We’re just out here, playing a trick on this friend of ours. You want to come down and see?” The lanky man paused for a moment, watching.
“He ain’t moving, Tito,” the big man said. “You sure he ain’t dead?”
“He’s got a dog,” the lanky man said, moving again toward the face of the mesa. Then he tripped over one of the many loose stones in plentiful supply near the foot of the mesa and stumbled forward, flailing his top legs to keep his balance. His light flickered down for a moment to check his footing, but returned quickly to the wolf’s face and then the old man’s.
“Got some primo whiskey in the car, man. Firewater?”
“What are you doing?” the big man said from where he remained near their beast. The lanky man stopped moving and seethed, but didn’t shift the light from the old man’s face.
“I’m just coming over to invite our new buddy up there to play a little game with us.”
“Yeah,” the lanky man said. “That’s right, Buddy. Play a game with us. Your doggie can play, too.” The lanky man again raised the heavy black thing behind his light. “I like to call this game, `Target Practice,’” he said.
The black thing spat out three bursts of fire that were louder than thunderclaps. The wolf dropped into a startled crouch, but had already felt the vibrations as two of the fire bursts struck the face of the mesa below, sending more rock raining down. The third struck the old man’s knee, rocking him on his perch, but doing no damage. Even the cloth covering of the man’s legs was untouched, for it had been torn away during the old man’s many tumbles from the rock at the hands of his pack brothers.
Carefully, the wolf raised his head to see over the cliff. The lanky man was covering his face with one of his top legs against the shower of rock chips. Then his light shone again across the old man’s unchanged face.
“Did I hit him?”
“I… I dunno,” the big man said. The wolf could smell the big man’s fear nearly as strongly as that of the bound man before. And beyond the edge of the armored beast, the wolf could hear a low moaning from where the bound man lay.
The lanky man lifted the heavy black thing and it spat another burst of fire and noise. This time the thunder burst struck the old man on the chin and flew off into the sky.
“He moved! I saw him move!” the big man called. Indeed, the wolf saw that the old man had been rocked back from the force of the burst, balanced momentarily on the pivot of his rear. Then he fell forward again into his seated position. Other than a small spot where the fire blast had chipped away some of the crust of sand and dust on the old man’s chin, though, there was no sign that he’d been struck at all.
“Goddammit!” the lanky man shouted. “How am I missing? He’s only like 50 feet away!”
“I seen him move,” the big man called again.
“He ought to be running,” the lanky man said. “This old fuck’s either dead drunk or dead stupid.”
The wolf peered over the edge of the cliff, but was hit by the beam of light and jerked his head back. Another thunder burst sounded, sending up a blast of rocks from the edge of the cliff where the wolf’s head had been moments before. Then another burst followed, this one bouncing off the old man’s shoulder, spinning his body around slightly until his bent knees caught on the edge of the cliff.
“Son of a bitch!” the lanky man screamed. The light beam danced frantically across the old man’s front. There then followed a loud click and an angry cry from the lanky man. “Shit!”
The light vanished. The wolf couldn’t see what was happening below, but from the sound of it he didn’t need to see. He could hear the lanky man’s pawsteps as he moved back down the slope of the foot of the mesa.
“Bring me the bullets from the map box!” the lanky man screamed. Even as he was making this noise, though, the wolf could hear the sound of rocks sliding beneath the man’s back paws. The lanky man’s heart rate increased as he flailed his top legs to compensate. More stones could be heard sliding as the man scrambled through them, and then there came a shout that ended abruptly as the lanky man’s body struck the rocky slope. Instantly, the wolf could smell the tangy scent of blood in the air, just as he felt the sharp increase of the man’s body systems reacting to pain. The wolf’s mouth watered anew and he stepped back to the edge of the cliff. Now he could see the lanky man below, lying awkwardly on his back amid the rocks. The light stick had tumbled further down the hill, as had the heavy black thunder-spitter.
“Tito? Are you okay?” the big man called from near the armored beast.
“My leg… my back… my goddamn leg!” the man moaned between gasps for air. He tried to bend to reach for his shin—which the wolf could smell as the source of the blood—but the lanky man was scarcely able to raise his own head. The big man ran toward his fallen friend, but he too tripped on a rock and went flailing through the darkness before regaining his balance. He reached the light stick and used its beam to guide him to where the lanky man lay. There followed a long time during which the lanky man screamed a number of times in anger as well as a number of times in agony as the big man attempted to help him to his paws. They were so engaged in this that neither of them noticed that the bound man had risen to stand upright beyond the armored beast. Just as the big man was at last able to raise the still howling lanky man to a standing position, the now unbound man pulled open the side of the armored beast, causing the buzzing to return as he climbed into its guts.
“What the hell?” the lanky man shouted.
The beast roared to life, causing its eye lights to blaze even brighter.
“Get him! Stop him!”
The big man stood still, supporting the lanky man’s weight.
“He’s taking the fucking car!” the lanky man screamed. “Get him!”
“The gun! Where’s the gun?!” the big man said.
“Go! Get him! Just fucking get him! Go! Go!”
The big man let go of the lanky man, who crumbled into a screaming pile. The wolf then saw the light stick beam darting along the ground as the big man ran through the rocks as best he could toward the armored beast. It was too late, though. The unbound man had guided the armored beast to move backward and then to turn its round legs toward the lake bed. It then leapt forward, bounding smoothly back in the direction of the human’s usual territory—where their hard, gray stretches of land extended from horizon to horizon. The big man ran after it, but, just as the wolf had suspected earlier, he wasn’t very fast at all. The light still clutched in his paw, swinging as he moved, the big man continued to run after the armored beast long after the red fin lights and the white light of its still open rectum had vanished. Then the big man tripped and the light stick dropped and went out.
From his perch on the top of the mesa, the wolf threw back his head and howled. A moment later, he felt glory at the mixture of pain and terror that exploded from the desert floor below. In the distance, he heard a return cry and he bounded away to greet his pack brothers and lead them to what might only be their first kill of the night.
Seated on the edge of the cliff, his body cocked at a slightly acute angle, the old man remained, his expressionless, stone-like face staring into the cold desert night.
Copyright 2010-2015 Eric Fritzius, Mister Herman’s Publishing Company. All rights reserved.