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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Market Day - No. 322

Whacking his reed on Turtle's wide rump, Jared urged the horse along the rutted path.  The recent rains, he noted, had helped deepen the gullies worn by previous wagons and exposed the rocks and roots once hidden beneath winter's snow and ice.  Spring, however, had melted the white blankets and had buds and now leaves sprouting on the tree branches overhanging the trail into town.

When voices and the clatter of wheels invaded the surrounding stillness of farmland, Jared peered up ahead

"Sounds like everyone's out today," said Ewan. 

"I don't think you care so long as Zara's there."

At Turtle's nose, where he led with one hand on the reins, Jared heard his older brother's derisive snort.  He didn't need to spy over the bay's withers to see the blush he knew shaded Ewan's freshly shaved cheeks.

Galloping hooves came up behind them before Ewan managed to formulate a retort.  Instead, he clucked and angled Turtle to the side.

Jared laid a hand on the bay and watched the rider near.  The fellow, decked in a velvet tunic of midnight blue with dark leggings, slowed to walk around their ladened wagon. The dark stallion with a sock on its front foreleg pranced and whinnied at the slower pace.

"Morning, sir," said Jared.  He bobbed his head in lieu of doffing a non-existent cap from his chestnut curls.

"Morning."  The rider tipped his wide brimmed hat pierced with a peacock's feather.  "Is Avington far?"

"Just up ahead, sir."  Ewan pointed down the lane where the first hint of the town's walls and the entry gate peeked over the next rise.

"Excellent."  He flashed a broad smile.  "Good luck to both of you."  With that he touched his hat’s brim with his gloved fingers, kicked in his heels, and charged forward.

Jared blocked the spray kicked up by the stallion and wiped the spatter coating his hand clean on his trousers, adding to the mottled assortment of stains.  He frowned though, watching the speeding rider disappear over the roadway's crest.

"Why do you think he was in such a hurry?" asked Ewan.

"Maybe he knows Zara's there."

"Hey."

Jared smirked, but twirled the reed in his hand as his suspicions rose.  The sound of the crowd and the view of other wagons and riders now visible as they trod up and over the final hill stirred his nerves into a boil.

"You don't think...."

"Think what?"

"Never mind," said Jared. 

He shook his head and tossed away the notion today, of all days, the Citadel’s Committee might be passing through.  Swiping at the weeds emerging out of the stone wall flanking their trail, he kept his eyes downcast, lest some sight confirm his pessimism. 

It didn't matter if they did come, he reflected, the rider's feather had more of a chance of being chosen than I do.

Sighing, he kicked a stone down the lane and they settled into the quiet rhythm of footsteps, the squelch of Turtle's hooves in damp earth, and creak of the wagon's wheels.

Turtle whinnied at the first burble from the town’s encircling stream, the watery gurgle undercutting the growing roar audible through Avington’s opened gate.  Ewan shifted in order to walk backwards and coaxed the horse over the stone bridge. 

"You're all right," he cooed.  He tipped his head to the side and nodded.

Jared applied a quick rap on the horse's rear and a nicker later, Turtle's thudding step turned into a clap when his shoes met rock instead of dirt.  They traversed the bridge, and headed through the gate and into a sea of sound and colors.

With the reins in hand Ewan kept Turtle from balking as they joined the flow of residents and arrivals making their way to the center square.  Along either side shops had their doors open and outside had display tables strewn with goods.  Hawkers bellowed about their wares, the cacophony rising as the clustered buildings grew closer and the stories mounted.  Shadows stretched and scents saturated the thoroughfare. 

Jared's stomach rumbled at the fresh bread offered by the bakers and the morning sausages sizzling from an open-aired hearth.  He grinned, however, when Ewan slowed during their passage by the green-shuttered Emerald Inn.  Searching the crowd, he spotted the bright blonde mound of Zara's hair. 

She poured beer out of a beaded pitcher for the clustered diners loitering out front, clay cups in one hand, steaming pasties in the other.  As if sensing Ewan’s blatant stare, she turned toward them, smiled, and then glanced into the Inn’s nearest window.  Discovering the coast apparently clear from her watchful lioness of a mother, she skittered over to them.

"It's about time you got here!" 

Ewan gave her a wink.  "Miss me?"

Zara blushed but managed to huff at the same time. 

"You'll understand," she said and Jared frowned when she came to his side.  "It's exciting isn't it?!"

Jared exchanged a wary glance with his brother and made sure to keep his eyes up and a prudent distance between himself and Zara's tested bodice. 

"What's exciting?"

"They're here, the Citadel’s Committee, today!  And rumors are they’re doing a lottery. It’ll be the first in years."  She swept her arm out to indicate the crowd.  "Why else would the town be in such a buzz?"

Jared stared at her, then at the throng.  Market days were typically hectic but he was forced to give into the evidence before his eyes.  Well dressed riders like the peacock-feathered man added a certain luster to the morning, and all the eligible young men he could see looked scrubbed and stood straight in their festival finery. 

Glancing down, he plucked a clump of mud from amid the manure, ink, blood, and wax on his tunic.

"Oh," said Zara, following his gaze.  "You hadn’t heard?"

Ewan barked a laugh.  "How would we way out by the tributary?"

"Well, that's what you two get for living so far away," said Zara. 

He shrugged.  "You'd like it if you gave it a chance."

"Me?  On a farm?"  She laughed and tossed her curls.  "That'll happen as soon as you get picked for the Citadel."

"Then don't hold your breath," said Ewan, "I wouldn't be caught dead in a city like that."

She drifted over to him, the bounce in her stride subdued.  "Don't you think it'd be amazing?"

"It'd be crowded," said Ewan and started adjusting the buckles on Turtle's harness.

Zara clutched her pitcher close and shook her head.  From the Inn, her mother called out her name.   She winced and Jared nearly leapt when she grabbed his arm again.

"Come by later and I'll find you something for breakfast."

"Okay," said Jared.

Ewan looked wounded but quickly turned the expression into ambivalence.  "What about me?"

"Only if you promise to be nice," said Zara starting to weave back through the crowd.

"Oh I can be nice," said Ewan with broad grin.

Zara managed to look appalled while flushing, but scurried off at her mother's second bellow.

Jared followed her back to the Inn's diners and then stood on his tiptoes to peer deeper into town.  The throng spilled out to either side where the buildings gave way to the market and he thought he spied a platform in the center, by the main well.

"You think she means it?"

“Means what?”  Ewan glanced back toward the Inn.  "About breakfast?"

Jared settled back into their suddenly too-slow pace.  "About the Committee…about the lottery."

"Maybe.  Why?" 

Jared looked away, attempting to disguise his sudden anxiety in a casual perusal of leather goods displayed on a hand-drawn cart. 

"You don't want to go to someplace like that do you?"

Jared grunted noncommittally.

"Don't get your hopes up,” said Ewan.  “I'm sure they've already chosen some highbrow to fill their slot, and rigged the lottery for the next highest bidder."

With a wince at the likely truth, Jared patted Turtle's rump and encouraged the horse along. 

Ewan resumed his lead and they gradually entered the main square.  A left turn brought them along the produce quarter and Turtle navigated the narrow lane between stalls before stopping behind their farm's station.

"Get that unloaded," said their mother between counts of coin into the outstretched palm of a radish buyer.

“Yes, Ma,” said Ewan.

Jared already had his hands full with a basket of dirt crusted leaks.  He gathered up those remaining on the board propped up on crates serving as a makeshift countertop and set the load between the dwindling pile of potatoes and the season’s first carrots.  Ewan towed the onions out and as Ma hawked, they gradually emptied the wagon.  The u-shaped stall bulged with produce, enough Jared suspected to give every person in the main square a decent lunch. 

When the next customer squeezed up to the counter, Ewan started filling a burlap bag with her order.  Relieved for the moment, Ma turned, her straw bonnet fluttering in its shade of her weathered face and stuffed a small sack into Jared’s hand.  He felt the coin through the thin leather and squirreled the bag into his tunic’s inside pocket until he could add the amount to their ledger.

"Have you heard?"  Ma licked her thumb and scrubbed at his cheeks.

"About the Committee?"

"About the lottery.”

Jared backed away but found his retreat from her cat-bath hampered by a tied up Turtle.

"They're going to make the announcements at midday," said Ma.

"What does it matter?"  He flinched away when she tried combing out his bangs.  "Someone's already paid for their place.  This will be a formality."

"You don't know that."

"That's what's happened before."

Ma sighed and wiped her hands on her skirts.  "You're as dour as your father."

"Can I get some onions?" 

With a shake of her head, Ma swiveled toward the gruff man now at the counter, a smile on her lips. 

"Of course."

Another customer appeared and the morning waned as Jared joined Ma and Ewan selling their seeded, plowed, and plucked harvest.  Through each transaction, he couldn't help notice the center platform between the skirts and caps, passing horses, hounds and wagons, raised parasols and shouldered baskets.  His pulse started racing when he caught the flash of maroon and the flat topped hats of the Citadel’s Committee at the constructed stairs.  The peal of the midday bell and the arrival of the town's Magistrate, however, nearly stopped his heart altogether.

The same stillness infected the crowd and as one, the market square turned inward, all eyes on the stairs and those gathered upon the platform. 

"Good day everyone!"  The Magistrate spoke through a conical cone, his voice amplified and flowing over the surrounding thatch and stone tiles.  "I know you're all eager to hear what's to come so I won't delay...much."

A round of laughter trickled through the crowd.

"I'd just like to welcome the Citadel's Committee to Avington and encourage you all to show them the best our little town has to offer."

"What else would we do?" 

The shouted come back made the crowd roar.  Beaming with good humor, the Magistrate then waved his hand for quiet. 

"I trust you will.  And with that, I'll turn the announcements over to Committeeman Rey."

He handed the amplifier over to a plump man who's bulk strained his maroon cloak.  His voice emerged with surprising depth and hushed the crowd like fog quiets the morning.

"I appreciate your attention," said Rey, "and I'll endeavor to keep this selection short as I'm sure you'd all like to return to business."

A bird tweeted from a rooftop and the throng seemed to hold its collective breath.

"This year,” said Rey, “we at the Citadel are going to be selecting two students from each township instead of taking in a single candidate.”

The crowd rippled with surprised murmurs and when his knees wavered, Jared braced himself on the counter. 

“One," said Rey, raising a gold ringed finger, "will be an inherited position.  The second, selected from a lottery of eligible and interested young men."

Ewan tipped his head and whispered.  "What are they talking about?"

"Listen and you might find out,” said Jared.

"The hereditary position,” said Rey, “has gone to Hugh Maesters."

Everyone began to peer at one another, searching for the owner of the name.  Jared shoved aside the remains of mustard greens and knelt up on the counter.

Ma neared his side.  "What do you see?"

"The rider with the peacock feather," he said.

Ewan squinted at him.  "The one riding the socked stallion?"

"Yes," said Jared.  He shaded his eyes from the peaked sun.  "He's shaking Rey's hand."

A round of hearty applause rippled through the square, and a few called out good luck.

"And now," said Rey.  "If I could have all young men of age who feel themselves capable of the Citadel's challenge come up to the platform."

Murmurs rose to a pitch.  Jared spied capped and coifed heads starting to make their way to the center and made out a few faces: Gerry, Walt, and even young Paul.

"Come on," said Ewan.

Jared frowned when his brother yanked on his arm.  "What?"

"You're going up there."

"Me?  Like this?"  He gestured at the stains and wrinkles on his tunic and trousers.

"Go on," said Ma, "you’re the smartest of the lot."

Jared stared at them both, dumbfounded.  When Ewan dragged him from the countertop, he staggered, his feet thumping numbly on the ground.  With a spin and a shove, his brother started them moving.  Ewan followed like a rock slide, and Jared found had nowhere to go but forward.

Once they exited the stall, Jared fought for his breath, lost even more so when those they passed patted him on the shoulder and back.  Best wishes and encouraging smiles blurred by on faces he recognized but whose corresponding names slipped from his mind like melting butter. 

Committeeman Rey's, however, rang loud and clear when they entered the cleared ring around the platform.  Other young men, all from town, stood in two wavering rows before the set of stairs.  A broken line of maroon-garbed Committeemen began fencing them in.

"Stay put," whispered Ewan. 

He gave a parting whack and turned to head back the way they’d come, but Jared grabbed his sleeve before his brother could vanish.

"You're not leaving," said Jared beneath his breath.

Ewan snorted.  "Even if I were smart enough, I'm not interested."

"But—"

"If that's everyone," said Rey, "we can begin."

Ewan scowled at the peach-faced Committeeman who motioned them into line with the rest. 

“Please,” whispered Jared.

With an audible grind of his teeth, Ewan took his place.

 Jared tried to mimic his calm while another Committeeman strode down the front row, holding a cloth sack finely worked with gilded and crimson thread.  He stopped before each fellow who then reached inside.  Their hand reemerged clutching a dowel with a colored tip, the first orange, Gerry’s black, the next sky blue, and then mustard yellow.  Paul pulled one of white before the Committeeman rounded the row and offered the sack to Ewan.

"I don't—"

Jared silenced his brother with a jab in his ribs.  Rubbing the spot and glowering, Ewan thrust his hand into the sack and returned with a dowel tipped ruby red. 

The Committeeman moved on, and facing the bag’s gaping mouth Jared gulped.  Closing his eyes, he sunk his hand.  Curved wooden sides teased his fingertips but then one filled his palm and he clasped tight.  Withdrawing his selected stick, he stared at the yellow tip, as merry as a daffodil, and wondered what fate the color meant.

He had to wait until the others in line had their own selections. 

The fellow beside him snatched one of evergreen, the next beige, Walt plucked a golden tipped dowel and let out a little hoot, and the last held his indigo selection in both hands as if fearful it might take flight.

"The candidates have made their choices," said Rey to the crowd.  "And now, so will I."

The same Committeeman brought a smaller sack to Rey, its sides patterned with similar gold and crimson.  Staring down at their lines, Rey cupped the bag in his plump hand and reached inside.  The clap of wooden chips smacking against one another made Jared's heart race and his palm grew sweaty around the dowel he clutched in a tighter and tighter grip.  The sound finally ceased and Rey withdrew a closed fist.  He stretched out his arm toward them, and then one by one uncoiled his fingers.

Before his thumb straightened, Jared spied the hue.

Ewan murmured a one word curse Jared couldn't quiet hear through his mind's stunned silence.

Rey lifted the ruby red disk up for the crowd to see.  Down the line, the young men hung their heads, and then turned to see who had earned the precious chance fate had denied to them.

Jared dropped his eyes to the yellow tip in his hand.  He swayed when Ewan nudge his side. 

"Take it," whispered his brother.

With a weighted gaze, Jared transitioned from his dowel to the red tipped one Ewan held down at his side. 

"What?"

"Take it and go."

Forcing himself to look up, Jared found his brother's features as stern as their father’s.

"You're not a farmer, Jarry," whispered Ewan.

Jared dropped his eyes back to the dowels and watched Ewan shoved the red tipped stick into his hand.

"Go," said the fellow to Jared's left, the one who’d picked green.  "Go for the rest of us."

Jared found the man’s earnest face contorted, envy mixing with encouragement.

"He's over here," shouted Ewan, while he waggled his yellowed dowel for all to see.

"Come up, young man," said Rey, beckoning with both hands.

Ewan gave him a shove, and holding the ruby-tipped dowel, Jared staggered forward. 

Nearing the stairs, he steadied his gait, but never once let his eyes shift from the Committeeman waiting for him atop the platform.  He didn't think he could face his brother or risk seeing Ma out in the crowd.  Through the growing applause, however, he heard Ewan's victorious howl and Ma’s brief shriek when he stepped into view.  The crowd’s cheers overwhelmed both as he clasped Rey's outstretched hand and the uncertain future he and the Citadel offered.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Facing Extinction - No. 321

With her eyes shut, Anna inserted the metal tab into the clasp and tightened the belt across her lap.  Her skin smelled of steel and overused cloth when she brushed away pooling tears with the heel of her hand.  The scent of sunscreen and Caribbean salt barely tinged her nose anymore.

The seat beside her rocked and a shadow cooled her cheeks.  Sniffing, Anna turned and stared out the window where the sky tinted into amber and magenta.  She tugged her gauzy, hibiscus patterned overshirt close and inched toward the oval window.  The thick pane, however, kept her trapped inside.

"Sorry," said the new arrival when he jostled the row. 

In the window’s reflection, Anna watched the towering man doff a frayed baseball cap, revealing a reddened scalp.  Ducking low, he held onto a set of thick frames while avoiding a smack of his forehead against the overhead bins.  He plopped down into the neighboring chair, adjusted his glasses with stubby fingers, and then stuffed a tattered rucksack at his feet.  With a grimace, he wiggled into what Anna suspected was a similarly too-thin seat cushion. 

Plush chairs circling the pool side tables seemed to reach out of her memory and cradle her in downy softness.  Breezes hinted with chlorine coiled out of the depths, and she felt a pair of strong hands glide over her bare shoulders, his skin warm and his touch as gentle as it'd been all night.

The elbow into her side knocked her from the reminiscence.

"Sorry," the spectacled man said again.

Anna gave him a small grin although her mouth didn't seem up for the effort.  "It's okay," she whispered.

"Are...."  He crinkled brushy eyebrows above his frames.  "Are you okay, Ms?"

"Hum?"  She met the older man's concerned gaze for a heartbeat, and then looked down at her shirt’s floral pattern.  "I'm fine.” 

She bit her lower lip to keep it from wavering.  The sharp sting shot through her mouth and straightened her spine. 

You're a big girl, she chided, you made the logical decision.

With the chastisement echoing, she forced a broader grin and raised her eyes back to her neighbor’s reflecting lenses. 

"I'm fine, really."  She uncoiled one hand from around her arm and motioned at his safari-style jersey.  "Doesn't look like you were on vacation."

"Me?"  He chuckled and then turned his cap between his hands to face the faded the Stanford University logo above the brim.  "No.  Work.  I’m a biology professor and we," he motioned up the airplane's aisle where the other passengers kept boarding and a pair in similar dishevelment sat, “were on a grant."

"A grant for what?"

"Bird hunting."  He set the hat on his knee and his voice took on a comforting cadence of someone used to public speaking.  "There's a species of parrot, a Psittaculidae, on one of the outer islands.  It's a beautiful thing.  Smallest of its kind.  Red as a ruby with a bright lime-green belly.  It has this massive beak in proportion to its face," he added outlining the nose on his own sun-baked and beaming face. 

"Sounds unique," said Anna.

"It is.  The problem is no one's seen in for ten years."

Drawn in by the tiny bird’s plight, she tilted her head, suddenly curious as to how the story might end.  "And?"

"Well," his shoulders slumped, "we had about as much luck as the last group looking for it.  Six weeks of mimic calling, backcountry hiking, camping and…."  He held up both hands, revealing empty palms. "Nothing."

Anna clutched her arms as the idea of the lost little bird deepened the pit already gaping in her gut.  "So do you think it's really gone?" 

"All the evidence points that way."  He leaned closer and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.  "But I like to think there's a pair hiding somewhere.  Maybe up in the cliff tops, living, breeding, somehow hanging on."

Her lips curved at the glimmer of hope in his eye despite the proof he’d seen.  "That seems very optimistic of you."

With a shrug, he sat back in his chair.  "Better that the alternative, or dwelling on what's to come."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, we're going to have to explain ourselves, explain our bills I mean, when we get back.  Grants are one thing.  Having something to show for it is something else and few institutions like it when it looks like you just wasted their money on a tropical holiday."

"That I understand."

He cocked his head this time.  "Were you out here for work as well?"

"Me? Oh no," said Anna.

"Vacation, then?"

"Yes."  She wilted into the seat and half hoped a margarita would appear in her hand.

Her neighbor lowered his voice, a paternal thread dulling his inquiry.  "From what I can tell it looks like you had about as much luck finding what you were looking for as we did."

"Oh I found something," she whispered. 

Her gaze drifted into the seatback tray table, the muddy gray the hue of wet sand at dawn, the surrounding tweed a darker shade than Gabe's coppery hair.  His Caribbean colored eyes glittered from her memory, his laughter in her ears.  His serious expression during their debates on environmental legislation and how else to make the world a better place softened with the satisfied dimples on his cheeks as he lay among pillows and silken sheets.  She felt his arm around her naked waist, the heat of his chest fueled by the slowing beat of a once sprinting heart warm against her cheek.  Her lips blazed with their last kiss, surrounded by the saccharine perfume of plumerias in the hotel's entryway.  The floral scent undercut the mint of his toothpaste and the oaky taste of him underneath.

"...change seats," said her neighbor.

Anna shook her head when the offer processed.  "He's on his way to DC already.”

"And you're stopping in LA?"

"No.”  She blinked and found her eyes damp.  Sniffing, she dug a crumpled tissue from her pocket and dabbed her fluttering lashes.  "Allergies," she said after a quick nose blow.

"Of course." 

Her neighbor gave her lie an understanding smile. 

"I'm heading all the way to Vancouver actually," said Anna.

"Canada?"

"Yes, I'm an engineer up there."

"You don't say."

Anna balled up the tissue and glided onto the bedrock of rote explanations.  "I design and oversee the construction of carbon neutral homes.  It's a small firm, but we're growing fast.  I'd just finished up a major build and decided to take a break before the next project."

Her own rambling curve left Anna glancing out the window again. 

"I wanted a break.  Something easy, relaxing...not...."  She ripped the tissue in two and stared at the ragged edges.  "It's the right thing to do," she whispered, "the logical thing.  We decided it together.  It wouldn't work out...him in one place, me in another, let alone a resident of a different country." 

She looked up at her neighbor, his brow furrowed like the beach at low tide. 

"That makes sense right?"

He shook his head. "I'm not sure I understand your question."

"It wouldn't work," she said, her hands tightening on the two clumps of tissue.  She felt the flimsy sheets beginning to melt against her sweating palms.  "I've got a job, a life, a career.  I can't just pick that up and move and he can't either.  It'd be crazy...stupid.  Right?"

Her neighbor twirled his cap in his fingers and then stared at the logo above the brim.  "You make a logical argument."

"I know."  Anna fell back into her seat and slammed down the window shade.

"But,” said her neighbor, “I find logic carries more weight in science than it does in life."

Peering at the bits of tissue littering her lap like dandruff, Anna bit her lip and listened to the hefts and grunts, the seat groans and apologies of the other passengers settling in for the flight.  A few laughed or talked in low murmurs.  One flight attendant passed by to help load a primary-hued paper bag into the overhead bin.  The sides crinkled with his shoving, and Anna jolted when the lid smacked down.  An oppressive sense of claustrophobia smothered her and doubled when a man of island-proportion claimed the aisle seat in her row.  She set her hand on her belt's buckle and flipped up the window's shade. 

Night had fallen outside, and the airport's lights silhouetted the palm trees and twinkled brighter than the stars eking out of the velvet sky.

"What am I doing?" 

Her whisper misted on the plastic.  Finding her reflection lacking an answer, she tipped her head forward and rested against the oval curve. 

Around her the bustle began to dwindle, fewer belts fastened, and the shuffle of books, papers, or bodies against the cushions quieted.  The flight attendant marched up the aisle with a methodical tread and Anna felt his gaze on her bowed shoulders when he strode by during his inspection of the passengers in his care. 

His passing glance made her feel somehow smaller and more a piece of cargo than a person. A piece of cargo to be hauled three thousand miles across an open ocean dotted with islands and a swath of land where other people lived and loved.  A piece of cargo to be delivered back to her apartment with a suitcase of dirty laundry, a wounded heart, and an array of new deadlines a part of her still felt eager to face come Monday morning.  And yet a piece of cargo she wanted desperately to shove thorough the window and leave on the tarmac.

No, she corrected, to label and ship off to DC.

Anna closed her eyes and bit her lip again.  The pain failed to hold back the film of tears pooling in her eyes.  She planted her elbow on the armrest and shoved a fist under her chin, hoping her neighbor wouldn't disturb her sleeping feint.

He opened an issue of Scientific America instead.

"Excuse me," said someone up the aisle.

At the voice, Anna snapped open her eyes and caught her heart in her throat. 

"So sorry," the voice said again.

The flight attendant marched by on an intercepting course.  "Can I help you sir?"

"I'm just looking for someone."

Anna stiffened down to her painted toes.  Her head turned although a voice inside of her warned against it, warned against what her eyes would see, what logic said wouldn't be there, couldn't be there.

"Ms?"  Her neighbor's frown entered her peripheral vision.  "Is everything okay?"

"I’m not sure," she said, snaring Gabe's attention over the interceding seats from where he stood in the aisle, straining to peer past the flight attendant's blockade.  When he saw her, Gabe’s dimples reappeared.  “Maybe....”

“Ah...I see.”  Her neighbor unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned toward the rotund man beside him. "Excuse me, sir, but I think the young lady has a parrot who is in need of this seat."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sea Squall - No. 318

The umpteenth set of waves pummeled the port side of the ship and tossed Rex away from the last cleat.  He grabbed a taut line and mopped his brow, his clearing sweep knocking back the hood of his slicker.  The sunny-yellow jacket, however, had long since proved useless. 

Rain and sea spray soaked him from curly black bangs to his rubber boots, and each staggered step squelched.  Tipping forward, he leaned into the squall and ensured the rope knotted around the metal remained fast.

"Get—" 

The howling gales sliced up Smyth's order from the starboard rail.  Rex, however, suspected what the Captain wanted him to do.  Swiveling at the railing, he aimed toward the wheelhouse. 

A sudden rock of the boat cast him into a lurch toward the single bulb sputtering in the small hut sprouting out of the deck.  The light swayed with each list, and blinked in and out like a lighthouse signal.  With each arduous stride, Rex grabbed onto the strapped crates, the bulkhead leading into the hold, and on barrels locked under tarps, and dragged himself nearer to the tempting beacon. 

The next shift of the ship, however, shoved him against the wheelhouse wall.  The tilt nearly pulled his feet out from under him and he gripped the window sill, fighting to stay upright.  Peering down the sloped deck to the starboard side, he gasped when he made out water against the clouds. 

The wave rose, its frothy lip towering half as high as the ship was long.  In his similar slicker and neon-orange life vest, Smyth climbed from the railing, looking like star in a sparse sky.

"Grab on,” shouted Rex, although he felt the words ripped from his tongue and flung overboard, like Eddie and Wane what seemed like hours earlier.

Shuddering at the thought of joining them, Rex clung to the sill.  He closed his eyes and gripped tight.

The wave crashed, and water barreled into his chest, threatening to carry him away.  Then, something even harder smacked his torso.  The something gained fingers or arms, and in his weary mind, Rex imagined a sea monster, tentacles and all, wrapping him up for dinner.

The beast clung, but sputtered as well and out of the pounding rain and whoosh of waves, Rex thought he heard his name.  He squinted through the sheet of water and found Smyth latched onto his arm.  With a pull, he dragged the Captain toward the relative safety of the sill where they both held on until the ship righted.  Finding his feet again, Rex steadied and the Captain thumped an appreciative slap on his back.

"Inside," said Smyth between catching his breath.

Rex nodded and arched his arm, providing a handhold for Smyth to complete the journey to the door now swinging open like an untethered sail and revealing the bulb’s weakening throb.  Smyth labored to the threshold, held onto the frame, and stuck out his hand.  Rex grabbed on and with the Captain’s help and his own shaky legs, he made his way into the wheelhouse.

Like his body beneath his slicker, the walls, windows, and roof of the cabin had failed to keep the inside dry.  Sparks and sizzles emanated from the dials on the communication panels and the navigation system had darkened.  A flash of lightning and thunderous boom shook the remaining panes in the windows, but the brief flash illuminated the wires strung overhead.

"The cables are still up," said Rex. 

The observation though seemed less than satisfying when the machinery they meant to power sat sopping.

"Check our position," said Smyth. 

He pulled the door shut through the ankle-high water flooding the cabin and then turned to the radio where he began testing dials.

Rex spread his feet wide and braced one hand on the soaked calendar pinned to the wall.  He bypassed the inert panels where more exact details might have been calculated and leaned over the map pressed beneath the clear plastic of the navigation table.  Spray obscured much of the coast and depth markers but he rubbed the surface with his freshly calloused palm and smacked a finger down at their last known position.  Keeping his finger set, he peered at the compass imbedded in the counter and began a bit of mental arithmetic.  The speed of the gales and their general south to southwest vector set against the time on his still ticking watch provided a rough gauge.  He drew his finger along the map, following their probable path off Hatteras and out to sea.

"35'50" by -70'30," he shouted, and then quieted his voice as the walls at least cut down on the winds’ howl, "or somewhere close to that."

"It'll be good enough," said Smyth.

"If we can even reach anyone," said Rex.

"Working on it." 

Squatting before the radio, Smyth pried the front panel free with a flat-head screwdriver.  He did the same with the intercom's front face, then handed over the tool and removed sheets.  Rex clutched both close, and caught himself from falling upon the Captain when another swell threatened to capsize the ship.

Smyth slammed his shoulder into the map hutch, the pitch helping him yank a cluster of wires from the second system.  He did the same with the radio and then began weeding through the black, brown, yellow, and red lines.  Filtering through the tangled mess, he traced a few back into the darkness beneath the counter and separated two, a red and black, from each.

"Knife?"

Rex tossed the panels aside and dug into his rubbery slacks for his Leatherman.  He pried out the blade with pruned fingers he could no longer feel and then set the handle into the Captain's hand.  He propped himself on table while the Captain stripped the wires and then crossed the copper ends.

The bulb overhead brightened and the radio dials sputtered to life.  Smyth snatched the receiver.

"Mayday, mayday," he said, "this is the Pauline V.  Our location 35'50" by -70'30 and drifting south-southwest.  We need—"

The radio whined into static before falling silent. 

Smyth tweaked the wires then cursed and stuck smoking fingers into his mouth.  With a frustrated grimace he chucked the receiver onto the counter.

Rex winced when the next tilt flung his hip into the table’s corner and caused the bulb to pop.  In the sudden darkness, he imagined the deep purple his various bruises might achieve if he lived long enough.

"You think anyone heard?"

"I'm not sure," said Smyth, "keep your fingers crossed."

"Hell," said Rex, "I'll cross my toes and arms and anything else I've got if it'll work."

Smyth bared his teeth in what Rex thought was supposed to be a grin.  In the pale gleam of lightning and foam, the expression looked more like the smile of a skull.

"We’ve done all we can,” said Smyth.

“Tell that to Eddie and Wane.”

The Captain’s features turned grim.  “Maybe we’ll get the chance.”  He pivoted and wedged himself between the map hutch and the counter.  “Until then, we’re just going to have to ride it out.” 

Pocketing the tools, Rex followed suit on the other side.  He pinned his soaked and weary muscles between the navigation table and the darkened electrical paneling for the rig.  Crossing his arms, he buried his hands into his armpits, seeking what remained of his body's warmth. 

Sleep seemed out of the question given the rocking of the ship, but fatigue overcame his fear and he found his eyes closing, his chin falling to rest on the bulky front of his life preserver.

He couldn't say how long he sat there, bombarded, utterly numbed and half-woken every time the door swung and allowed in another gulp of the sea.  The fits and starts of slumber, however, continually revealed the dark night, the hurricane’s rampage, and the delicacy of their condition.
 
Taking refuge in his sporadic dreams, Rex listened to sea gulls and the shouts of welcome from the docks.  Hearty handshakes wore out his arms.  Hanna’s hugs made tight and kisses made fervent from worry left him breathless.  They had moment of quiet for Eddie and Wane, of course, but their memorial shifted into the savory meals and celebration of life and the hash mistress that held their livelihood.  From the pier afterwards he watch the sun sink into the sea, Hanna at his side, and wondered how the storm had ever been so bad, how the thrashing had seemed to never cease.

The calm he stared at in his imagination seeped out and cradled him in a bubble of sudden stillness.

“Rex?”

The Captain’s voice drifted over the placid waves, and the next shake felt like a hand on his shoulder rather than water beating at the hull.  When Rex surfaced, he found himself staring at the Smyth’s anxious face.

“What is it?”

“Listen,” whispered the Captain.

And then, out of the fog and quiet, Rex heard a gull’s squawk right before the muffled bellow of another ship’s horn.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Breakout - No. 317

As I fell, I realized I should have listened.  Back in Doc’s office though, the news had been too dire to comprehend and far too hard to accept.

Not as hard or as that last slam into the boards, however.

I snorted, then cringed when the pain laced down my back.  It ended at my waist although I sensed the echo trailing into my legs.  Legs that had moments before been burning with effort in my breakout skate toward goal. 

Their right defenseman had succumbed to my feint.  He'd swooped off, stick out, hoping to intercept the puck, but I had pressed on.  The second charged, and I’d dropped low, pulled the puck in tight by my blades and spun.  He'd swiped at my skate and tipped me off balance.  I remember barreling into a third, one of their wingers and the one who finally tossed me into the boards. 

His weight had smashed the breath out of me, like so many before.  But when the defensemen I’d duped joined in, I’d heard the crack.  That's when the stuffing had gone out of my knees, when I’d realized only the two thugs pinning me against plastic were keeping me upright.

While the crowd pounded and roared on the other side, the winger kicked the puck out from between my feet and they’d dropped back once it’d spun free.  I’d watched them skate down the rink, pass up to their center who’d threaded Race and Erikson, and then raced by Valdimir and who’d flung the puck into the net past Grable.  The wail of the buzzer had filled my ears as ice smacked into my shoulder and I’d sagged onto my back. 

The referee’s whistle blew, and I wondered if they'd call off the goal.  We'd been down a man, so it seemed only fair.

Gazing up at the scoreboard, I willed the numbers not to change while the cold soaked through my jersey and padding and coated my skin.  My helmet had fallen off at some point and the chill ate into the back of my skull as I stared.  The score stayed tied, two to two, and the clock stopped with ten minutes forty-three seconds left in the third. 

From nearby the ice shook, blades cut, and snow fell upon my chest.  Their goalie towered over me, his mask with its eagle beak lifted up to reveal a bearded face and scowl.  One of the defensemen, by his number the one I'd spun past, showed up, stick held like staff in his gloved hand.

"You okay?" 

The goalie's Russian accent muddied the words, but the intent seemed genuine.  His concern also spiked a worry in me when I couldn't quite figure out how to answer.

In the rink’s stunned quiet, soled shoes tread onto the shaved surface in delicate thumps.

"Is he conscious?"

Doc, led by a gliding linesman, waddled between my two opponents and knelt at my side.  His sweater's high collar covered his neck, leaving his head hanging above evergreen like a peach in a tree.  His fancy flashlight flashed in my eyes and I winced.  I raise a hand to brush him away and found my stick still clasped.  I let go and worked out of the sweat of my glove in order to wipe more sweat from my eyes.

"I'm here, Doc," I said, although with my tongue felt so sluggish I imagine they heard only mumbling. 
The evidence, however, remained the same.

"And how do you feel?"

I swallowed and found myself not wanting to answer.  "You tell me."

He sighed and raked a hand across his balding pate.  "Get a backboard and neck brace.  I want everything now!"

I grabbed his free hand, suddenly needing to hear some kind of diagnosis.  "Doc?"

Doc stared at me, then cast his gaze to the ice and rubbed at his temple.  By then, the referee had called for time and Ted and Coach had arrived.

"How bad is it?"

Doc looked up and I kept staring at him, hard, like I'd stared down goalies during penalty shots.  Sighing, he pointed down my legs, the legs I couldn't confirm were there. 

"Get a boot off, Ted."

"Doc?"

"Do it."

Coach glowered.  "We should get him off the ice."

"I need to know," I muttered.

Coach knelt by Doc's side and smoothed his tie against his button down shirt.  "You're awake."

I would have nodded but a materializing pair of medics pinned my head between these bright yellow pieces of foam and started lashing them around my head. 

"I'm awake Coach."

His glove-sized hand landed on my shoulder, the pads beneath my jersey making a thud. 

"Almost there," said Ted.

Coach and Doc turned to look down at where he worked at my laces.  I couldn't feel him, of course, but I saw the damp strings flinging from my right boot.  Ted bowed his head, bangs obscuring the grimace I imagined joining his grunts of effort.  Freeing the boot, he inched back, letting Doc have access at what I could confirm would be a corn-chip ripeness. 

With a wobbly walk, Doc squatted by my socked foot.

“Close your eyes,” he said, “then tell me what you feel.”

With a sigh, I did like he told me to, like I had in his office when he’d explained what another thumping in line with what defensemen A and winger B had delivered might do.  Behind my shut lids, I’d blotted the picture of vertebrae he’d shoved under my nose and the articulated spine model he’d waggled, showing me how the disks between the bones could be offset and cause damage to the cord threading my back.  I heard him suggesting I stop skating, to explore other avenues in the sport. 

By the time I’d left his office, however, I’d already made up my mind.  This game was my life and as long as I could stand, I’d be playing.

But now, I wasn’t standing.  Now I was lying on my back beneath an audible quiet while the hushed crowd waited, while Coach waited, while the referees, linesmen, and even the opposition waited for me to see how I was doing.

I closed my eyes tighter and tried to figure out an answer.

And then, I felt the pressure on my big toe, felt the warmth of Doc’s pinching fingertips, felt the blood returning to my legs as if a shower had been turned on. 

“This little piggy,” I said and opened my eyes.

Coach thumped my shoulder again and grinned.

“He’s got feeling at least,” said Doc, his professional tone untouched by my sarcasm.

“Damn right I do.  I just need to walk this off.”  I tried to get up but the two medics by my head stopped me. 

“No,” said Coach, “we’ll take it from here.  You’re done for tonight.”

“Maybe longer,” said Doc.

I ignored the implication in Doc’s grim statement and stared up at the ceiling.  While he gave directions for getting me on the backboard, I wondered when I'd take my next shot on goal.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

One Name - No. 315

Adam stood rigid before the wall of windows while Leon paced before the doorway, casting quick glances at the view.  The crowd within the stadium below swayed, their voices muffled by the thick panes.  Red, white, and blue banners as well as American flags fluttered over heads while others billowed upon the stage.  At the podium the intermediary host gestured, her finger pointed toward the ceiling as if she might launch into a Superman-style flight. Her wide mouth articulated invigorating words causing a cascade of vibrant motion on the floor, like a hive of bees with news of spring.

Pausing at Adam’s side, Leon stared, and then resumed his tread.  "How do they look?"

Turning from the windows, Adam topped off the glass of water waiting on the suite's bar.  The half melted ice sloshed, and the chilled beads coated his sweaty palm. 

Holding the drink, he scanned the half dozen monitors dominating the opposite wall.  Percentages filled two, tally bars in shades of red, blue, green, and honey yellow another pair.  The last had muted news reporters speaking from the floor to their studio's across the nation.  As their soundless drone continued, percentage digits dropped and the bars shifted with the updated surveying data running through the various computer programs.  Rows rearranged and never ceased their fluctuation, but the highest remained on the top.

Adam adjusted his grip on the glass, the fresh touch cooling the sudden rush of feverish warmth on his skin. 

"I'm not sure," he whispered.

"You?  Not sure?" 

"Not tonight."

Leon's rhythmic gait stopped short.  Adam kept staring at the screens while the stouter man neared.  He raked back his flop of bangs but stopped with his hand atop his head and whistled.

"You're kidding."

Adam dropped his gaze from the tell-tale calculations.

"We better get her ready," said Leon. 

He spun in a circle and then stilled, as if unsure into which direction to sprint.

"She has time," said Adam. 

He didn't bother to check his watch.  The countdown in his head left three minutes to the delegate tallying deadline.

On cue, the doorway connecting their suite with its neighbor opened.  A barrage of wordless shouts, questions, and requests tumbled across the threshold.

"I'll keep it in mind," said Diane, her tone diplomatic as ever. 

She laughed at a reply Adam failed to make out.  Walter's bulk interceded and Diana managed a parting wave over his shoulder while backpedalling into the room.  She shook out her arm only after Walter shut the door.

"Make sure to get her number," said Diane with a rub of her bicep, "the program sounds promising."

Walter clasped his hands and put his back to the connecting doorway.  "You can't say yes to everyone, ma'am."

Adam offered the glass of water when Diane reached his side and joined his staring contest with the monitors.  She sipped and bared her teeth against the cold.

"I'm not saying yes, Walter.  I'm keeping it in mind."

"Yes ma'am." 

Walter stuck his head back through the door.  Through the cacophony, Adam spotted Suzanne, her Bluetooth stuck to her ear.  Walter beckoned her over with a crooked finger.

"Get the Senator's contact information."

"Yes sir," said Suzanne and she darted off into the other room’s throng like a mouse navigating a well-known maze.

Closing the door, Walter resumed his post. Within the suite, the quiet thickened, broken by the snap and pop of ice in Diane's glass and the monitors' hum.  Carpet began crunching under Leon’s bouncing feet during his hover by the windows.

The countdown in Adam's head ticked toward zero.  Numbers on the screens solidified, and the bars of color firmed.  The reporters gestured toward the stage where the podium stood empty, awash in a spotlight and expectant of the next arrival.

Diane finished her water and clutched the empty glass.  "Is this what you anticipated?"

"No, ma'am," said Adam.  "I thought it'd be closer."

"You hold me in such high regard."

He smirked at her sarcasm.  "On the contrary.  It was the delegations I wasn't sure about."

"I think I'm glad they proved you wrong."

"You think?"

Pivoting on a heeled toe, Diane strode to the bar.  She set down the glass and Adam watched her contemplate the assortment of gin, scotch, whiskey, and vodka bottles on the mirrored tray.  His stomach tensed, but she lifted her hands from the counter and turned her back on the tempting assortment.  Tugging on the lapels of her trim beige jacket with its patriotic pin, she lifted her chin, and smoothed her features of worry, of weariness, and the trepidation Adam spied just below the surface. 

"Gentlemen,” she said with an envious calm.  “This is only round one.  We still have a job to do."

Adam nodded, and motioned for Leon to open the room’s third door.  He hurried to obey, exposing the stadium’s back corridors.  Diane marched into the concrete hallways, her heels a clacking announcement of her progress. 

"I can't believe it," said Leon. 

He laughed with a squeaking pre-adolescent pitch, and repeated the sentiment as he scurried after her.  Walter followed, a stoic shadow in their wake.  He glanced over his shoulder with his hand on the knob.

"Aren't you coming?"

"No," said Adam.  "I should get to work on tomorrow."

"You don't have it planned out already?"

Adam met Walter's gaze.  The handler's brown eyes sparkled, providing the sole indication the numbers on the screens had had an impact.  With a grin, Adam inspired a further break in Walter's restrained fa├žade.

"I have a few ideas,” said Adam.

"Better get started then, she’s going to have her hands full."

“Aren’t we all?”

With a snort, Walter shut the door, completing Adam's self-imposed solitude.  As his pulse quickened into a drum roll, he crossed the room, folded his arms, and stared down at the crowd. 

The banners and flags had vanished, lost admit the suits and ribbon-circled boater hats.  Only the state indicators remained upright while the mass of black, blue, and dots of other colors milled.

Gripping the sleeves of his dress shirt, Adam waited.  He realized he held his breath when he found his chest burning during the announcer’s march across stage. 

At the centered podium, he raised both hands, requesting quiet.  The starched envelope he held gathered the crowd's attention like a magnet.  Even with the glass dampening the ambient noise, the whole floor seemed to quiet further, as if everyone's breaths had been stolen at once.

Bobbing on the anxious sea, the announcer finally broke the seal and withdrew the insert.  He stared at the name for what seemed like hours.  Without looking up, he leaned into the microphone and spoke.

Adam couldn't read the other man’s lips across the distance, but he heard the name all the same.  The crowd did as well. 

As indicated by the calculations filling the monitors at his back, a greater number than he had expected celebrated.

Seconds later, Diane walked out onto the stage alone, although Adam imagined Walter on guard in the wings beside a twitchy Leon.  With her appearance, streamers leapt into the air, named placards wiggled, and balloons showered.  Waving both hands, she beamed a proud and satisfied smile.

Adam lost sight of her behind the array of tissue paper and bulbous orbs. Turning away from the windows, he inhaled to the soles of his road-thinned loafers and set his mind on the tasks waiting for tomorrow, each a step toward ultimate victory and a start of four years making change, making a difference, and maybe, if they were lucky, making history.