Conflict Resolution

Conflict Resolution

or

On the Impracticality of the Application of Newton’s Third Law to Human Behavior in a World Where Butterflies Sometimes Flap Their Wings

A man in an orange scarf and a tweed flat cap walks down a city street at three minutes past midnight toward an engagement for the evening, lost in pleasant thought about the possibilities of the night ahead. Another man, a rather burly working class sort with a bald head and brown teeth, walks in the opposite direction at the end of a long day of drinking in the pub. As they approach, the man in the scarf snaps-to just in time to meet the burly man’s eyes and offer a polite nod. Simultaneously, the burly man reaches out and brusquely knocks off the man in the scarf’s flat cap. He says something, but the man in the scarf does not catch it, only that it was intended as an insult.

“What’s that about?” the man in the orange scarf asks before he is even able to turn around. The two men face each other, the tweed flat cap a line drawn in the sand midway between them.

 

The Rationalist

“Fucking wanker,” the man in the scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.

“Whaddye call me, boy? A wanker, am I? Call me a wanker again and see what happens.” The burly man swells his chest. He’s three inches taller and 80 pounds heavier than the man in the orange scarf.

“No, no, you don’t seem to understand how this works,” the man in the scarf says. “You get the satisfaction of knocking me in the head for whatever reason suited your fancy. In return, I get to call you nasty things like wanker and asshole and douchebag. Then we go our separate ways. It’s the only fair and equitable resolution.”

The man in the scarf then turns on his heel and continues on his way to the evening’s engagement without further event.

The burly man stands stuck in place watching the man in the orange scarf go, stumped and bewildered by his unassailable logic. Later, at home, the burly man decides the man in the scarf was mocking him. He decides to give the man a good knock in the nose if he ever sees him again, or at the very least a knock to the next sort he comes across with the same irritating look about him.

 

The Misanthropist

The man in the orange scarf sweeps his flat cap off the ground in disgust. The burly man waits for his victim to either provoke him, in which case he will satisfy his desire to pummel this fellow with such an irritating look about him, or to cower away, in which case he will revel in exposing the man’s cowardice.

“The only sort of man who knocks another fellow’s cap off for no good reason other than to establish dominance like a mangy street dog is an extremely unhappy one,” the man in the scarf says.

“Am not,” says the burly man, unsure if he has been provoked to the level necessary to justify breaking the man in the scarf’s nose.

“Oh, I assure you, you are. Just look at you. You are a bully, which means no one loves you, not even your own mummy. You hate your father because he was mean, and you hate him more because he was still better than you. You have no real friends. You are unliked by your coworkers. You don’t even like yourself, which is why you smell so bad and don’t take care of your teeth. I’m sure your wife hates you because you are stupid, poor, mean, incapable of understanding her, and you think watching football over fish and chips at the pub is a form of foreplay. I’ll bet she’s cheating on you. Wait. She is, isn’t she?”

“I’ll … I’ll kill you. I’ll fucking kill you.” The burly man balls his fists as he says it, hushed almost to a whisper. He turns so red that the man in the scarf can see it even under the dim streetlight, tipping off his impending charge.

“I’ll kill you. I’ll fucking kill you,” he yells, chasing the man in the scarf down the street. But the man in the scarf is much faster and the burly man gives up the chase quickly.

The man in the orange scarf goes on to his evening’s engagement without any further event. The burly man returns home. His wife isn’t there again. He stares at a picture of her for two hours, then retrieves a shotgun and leaves a fair portion of his skull and brains painted against the living room wall. In the next day’s evening paper, the man in the scarf reads about the suicide, but not connecting the name to his assailant, merely laments the wretched condition of working class sorts.

 

The Confrontationist

The burly man waits for the man in the scarf to either provoke him, in which case he will satisfy his desire to pummel this fellow with such an irritating look about him, or to cower away, in which case he will revel in exposing the man’s cowardice.

“Fucking wanker,” the man in the orange scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.

“Whaddye call me, boy? A wanker, am I? Call me a wanker again and see what happens.”

“You’re a fucking wanker. A douchebag asshole who bullies people to compensate for a small dick and a mild case of retardation.”

The burly man bulls toward the man in the orange scarf, loading up a devastating haymaker. The man in the scarf steps toward the bully, inside the sweeping blow, and efficiently thrusts the heel of his right hand upward into the man’s nose, disorienting him. A second thrust, fist to Adam’s apple, leaves the burly man choking. A straight kick to the burly man’s kneecap buckles his leg and renders him incapable of giving chase. The man in the orange scarf then looks from side to side and, seeing no witnesses, makes haste away to the evening’s engagement, which he enjoys despite a slightly swollen hand.

The burly man’s wife finds him in their bed, bruised and battered, the next morning upon returning home from a night of adultering. Two broken picture frames and an emotional rant later, she makes good on a promise to leave him if he got into another donnybrook at the pub. His leg is too injured to walk and his pride is too hurt besides so he doesn’t go to work. The burly man’s boss, who likes him not in the least, fires him as permitted by the union after three no call-no shows. Within a month, the burly man is on the street, abusing alcohol and heroin, mugging men and women in dark alleys.

 

The Therapist

“I’m serious. Explain to me why you would do something so asinine,” the man in the scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.

“Cause I felt like it and I do whatever the hell I want,” the burly man says.

“Oh, come on then, there has to be more to it than that. You must have passed other lone men walking down the street, yet you chose to humiliate me. Why?”

“Because you’ve got an irritating look about you.”

“Well, now we’re getting somewhere. And why do I have an irritating look about me? Is it my clothes or has God just cursed me with an irksome face?”

“I don’t like you mugs with your prissy scarves and stupid caps. You’re all a bunch of college boys who thinks you is better than everybody else. Just looking at you makes me want to choke you with that pretty scarf right where you stand.”

“You will do nothing of the sort. My mother knit this scarf when she had cancer to cope with the pain. She died two days after she finished it.”

“I … I’m sorry. My old man died of the cancer.” The two men stand quietly in their place for several moments.

“Well, no use us standing out here in the cold facing off like enemies. Let me buy you a beer and see if we can’t understand each other. If you decide even then my sort is as irritating as you thought, you’ll at least get a free drink or two out of the deal.”

The burly man studies the man in the scarf, searching his face to find some hint of a trick. Finding none, he saw no reason to turn down a free beer. The two sit in a pub down the street discussing their lives and aspirations until the pub closes at one in the morning. The burly man evokes the man in the scarf’s empathy with tales of the cruelties done to him and his siblings by well-to-do children growing up in an old industrial town. The man in the scarf earns the burly man’s respect, if not his admiration, for listening to him fairly.

The man in the orange scarf then departs for a late arrival at the evening’s engagement. The burly man returns home without his old insecurities about the educated classes, which provides him a sense of self-respect that ostensibly ends his days of pub brawling, allows him to save his marriage and drastically improves his personal hygiene.

 

The Pacifist

The man in the orange scarf holds the eyes of the burly man for a moment, then shakes his head, picking up his scarf in disgust. He turns on his heel without a word and continues on his way to the evening’s engagement. He thinks the man a brute, then tells himself not to consider the matter for another moment.

Exactly what I figured, the burly man thinks. Those types with that irritating sort of look are always cowards. He continues down the exact path he was on before the incident ever occurred. Wherever that may lead.

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Let’s try this flash fiction thing

Author’s note: Long form fiction is more my speed, but the output required since starting the creative writing program at the University of Edinburgh has put me on to writing more short stories. And, I have to say, I kind of  like it. Now, imagine my surprise when I discover there is such a thing as “flash fiction.” It’s like the shitty fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants personal blogging of the short fiction world. I’ll be a natural! Kidding, of course. Perfectly respectable authors — very poor, perfectly respectable authors — write flash fiction. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I tried my hand and came out the other side with the two pieces below. One overly sappy and nostalgic, the other openly mocking myself, my classmates and the profession I’m attempting to pursue. So, yeah, it can be tough to find balance in 1,000 words or less. 

Enjoy!

The Things that Make Me

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Look at that snow come down. I’ve always said as long as I can sled in the snow, I’m living life the way I want to live it. With gusto. Wide-eyed, childlike enthusiasm.

My damn hip dysplasia doesn’t much agree with gusto and childlike enthusiasm, unfortunately. I had to give up sledding ‘round about nine years ago. Dancing, too. Roberta and I loved to dance. There are other things I can get along doing that let me keep the spirit of ‘em, though.

I reckon I gave up tennis about the same time the hair started growing out my ears. Unrelated, I believe. Chronic shin splints kept me off the court. Surfing, that kept me young at heart for years. I was part of the original Surfin’ USA generation all the way back in the ‘60s. Had a nasty spill back in 1997, I believe it was. Doctor said I broke two vertebras. Said I was lucky to walk out of the ocean. Luck’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. Doesn’t feel lucky I can’t even body surf any more. Neck’s too weak, doctor says. Too big a risk a wave could roll me on my head. Poof. Out go the lights.

Never really loved golf, but loved emptying a cooler of beer with mi amigos and bumper carts down the 18th fairway. Rheumatoid arthritis in my fingers took that one away. Arthritis nabbed a few trademarks of my joie de vivre, come think of it. Can’t walk outside if it’s too cold. Can’t toss the grandkids around the way they like. Well, don’t tell the doctor, I still toss the littlest one around a bit, but I pay for it in spades.

Been years since I played volleyball. Collapsed arch took away that one back in the ‘80s. You should have seen me jump. I bet Foggy Andrews once that if we put a mattress down on the far side, I could jump clean over the net. I’ll tell you this, I never had to pay Foggy a dime.

It’s been here in just the last few years that I lost my strong constitution. I miss Madame Zhang’s Szechuan House so much some nights I swear I will sneak into Roberta’s drawer, snatch the car keys and drive out for some spicy fried duck. Driver’s license be damned. I can see just fine. But the gig would be right up once Roberta caught me camped out on the pot for 48 hours. Mexican, Cajun, good Italian. Hell, I can’t eat a bit of it. Not even the fake Chinese with no bite. Everything Roberta lets me eat tastes like Saltine crackers. Can’t drink either. I said goodbye to red wine and whiskey a while back. They give me the farts. The bad kind.

That business, I don’t let it get me down. I told you I’ve still got some tricks up my sleeve. The spirit of the thing hasn’t gotten away from me yet. It’ll take more than a little hip dysplasia to knock me down.

Take fishing. No, I can’t handle the rod anymore on accounts of my arthritis. But I can teach it. Show my grandkids how to tie a fly on right, fish the best spots, down to what side of every fallen tree to cast to. The big ones are getting right good. The little ones, they don’t have the patience yet, but I showed ‘em my old tricks for catching frogs by the pond. How to corner skinks and lizards and grab hold of ‘em so they don’t get squished.

Now there’s a good cover of snow, I’m about to unveil my new plan to hold on to the spirit of it. I’m going to tell ‘em they don’t know how to sled the way Grampa and his amigos used to do it. Get ‘em all riled up. They’ll climb all over me. Tell us, Grampa. Tell us. Tell us. Then I’ll take ‘em out to the hill and tell ‘em how to make a ramp, a nice big ramp. A proper ramp. And I’ll tell ‘em, you’ve got to sled down this hill and hit that ramp hard if you want to sled the way Grampa and his amigos used to do it. I’ll be, it’s going to be a hoot watching those little buggers pop off their sleds like popcorn. Pop! There they go!

It took longer to figure all this out than it did for the hair to fill in my ears. But I come to realize hip dysplasia and shin splints and arthritis and all that mess can keep me from doing what I like, but no ailment can keep me from loving what I like. What I’m saying is just because I can’t show off much gusto don’t mean I’m not full of gusto. I can’t do the hokey pokey, but I can still act like a kid.

An old feller who still loves remembering his days on a sled got the spirit of it just as much as any man still riding his.

Creative Writing Student Uses the Toilet

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I step into a dim and steamy windowless cuboid where the two Cs – cleanliness and contemplation – co-exist in a harmonious parallelogram with the three Ss most known to be the domain of this sanctum of human privacy.

Damp and humid, the warm air clings to the topography of my body as I shed the layers obfuscating my unexplored southern hemisphere. How I long for intrepid Polo or Magellan, de Gama or Drake to discover the beauty, relieve the angst, absolve the shame buried within these hidden treasures and my tissued heart. Crystalline droplets form on my crooked nose and furrowed brow, lingering vapors condensing to deposit the serenity of my roommate’s ritual shower onto flesh where it soaks me with the infinite echoes of his singsong voice.

I twirl as an ungainly toddler does imitating a waltz, gracelessly depositing my downy posterior on a humble throne of porcelain with a dull thud reminiscent of the falling dreams of trying times gone by. Its faux mahogany cover a clever ruse disguising the intent of its service, unmasked as it embraces my girth. The dark synthetic grains whisper of African mysteries and hypnotize my consciousness, steering my sanguine eyes along swirling sands, round and round, as the tribal drum beats deep down in the chasm of my soul, pulsating the elastic of my rectum like two hairless palms drumming the taut hide atop a mighty djembe. Round and round, my bedazzled gaze follows over the precipice into the shimmering lake below, its surface a mirror reflecting age-old insecurities from which I cannot look away and so I shatter it with heavy missiles forged not only by the indiscretions of my past, but by the blood, sweat and tears of the noble Nebraska corn farmer, the lonely mustachioed Guatemalan toiling over orchards for the future of his children, the weary union man in the factory, the aspiring adolescent full of dreams that one day her spatula will be replaced by judge’s gavel or author’s pen.

The cesspool betwixt my loins is assaulted with the gross domestic product of our nation’s history – one thousand technological innovations, one million engineers’ dreams, one-hundred million men and women fighting for minimum wage and better working conditions – condensed into a single package. I reject history with such sudden aggression that my body shudders, ejecting without ceremony a sullied past into the unconsecrated burial ground of its watery grave so that I may cleanse my corporeal existence of old sins and rise anew, fresh and untainted by the failings of our unscrupulous world.

My vision grows dim as the cuboid incubates me like a womb does an unborn child. The commercial detritus of sanitation, hygiene and beauty disappears from before me as my sight withdraws from the world, like the universe contracting within the enormity of a black hole at the end of time. And then my vision and mass explode forth once again with the force of the origin of all things, before Jonah or Noah, Sodom or Gomorrah, Adam or Eve. By my eyes alone, the Big Bang is witnessed and all is light. All is white, blinding, radiant light riding swooping electromagnetic waves so bright it must be seen by taste and smell.

But oh, sweet lament. Oh, terror of nights. The light, it is a Siren, heralding brave fools to tragic misfortune. A blinding trick that opens my senses to peril, a creeping chimera escaped from Dante’s Inferno. It is goblins I smell and ghouls I taste and their foul deeds wrinkle my nose and dizzy my mind as tears pour forth from the corners of my eyes along the channel of my nose like water rolling down the great aqueducts through Rome.

I extend my arm and take hold of the brass dagger that will vanquish this malodorous creature back into the depths of its realm with a single earnest thrust. Down, down I thrust, and the belching, gurgling screams of the underworld are transmitted through the liquid medium of space before reversing in the eddying chaos of the churning vacuum. Melancholy aqueous cries for mercy go unheeded as I light a candle to the fickle, feckless gods who rule such grim chambers as these. I pray for answers, for understanding, for explanations of why this world is filled with injustices horrific as Caledonian battlefields, but do not expect answers from impotent deities in the lofty molecular density of this syrupy durian atmosphere.

Their reply is rich with fetid cruelty, and my eyes open once again to sip the solemn truth from my tropical chamber of agony and torment. “It was still too steamy,” they cry. “Why is there no window to open,” they lament. “You should have waited,” they chant.

I should have waited. But it was not my fate. I should have waited. But I could not.

The existential crisis of Boltman

boltman

All of my girlfriend’s friends wanted me bad. They were all after me because I was Boltman. Not just a guy in the suit, but like the real thing. It was a pretty cool dream.

I was living in this shitty little camper behind a chop shop run by a bunch of Mexicans, but it didn’t seem to impact my cred with the ladies. When you’re the living incarnation of the most badass mascot in the NFL, pretty much anything you do – even living in a crap camper surrounded by sketchy Mexicans – also seems badass.

I catch my girlfriend’s friend Leigh snooping around my camper. She’s freaking hot. I mean, not in real life. In real life, she’s kind of cute, but she’s bulimic and her hair’s gross and limp and starting to fall out, and her teeth are brown, and her breath is disgusting. In my dream, it’s her, just hot. And she has these lightning tattoos on her cheeks that are so badass they do Boltman proud. She looks like one of the tat-faced Romulans from that Star Trek reboot a couple years ago, but hot.

She reaches up on top of my camper and finds a baggie of weed and she’s like, “You smoke weed? I didn’t know you were so cool.” Then she gives me this look and since it’s my dream, I know she wants to bang. I don’t think we did. I kind of lost that part. And I don’t know why I hid my weed on top of the camper. That was pretty stupid. Even in San Diego County, it rains sometimes. In real life, I keep my supply in Boltman’s head. Dude, there is no better way to hotbox than putting on Boltman’s head. I’ll let you try it sometime.

The last part of my dream I walk over to the chop shop and apparently the Mexicans respect the shit out of me. Makes sense, though. A) I’m Boltman. B) They’re like, “Hey cabron, we see you over there at that camper. All your girlfriend’s friends want your pito. You be the shit, mein.”

I lean my elbow down on a car they’re working on and I’m like, “Que pasa, chicos?” One gets up and gets me a cup of coffee. Some of that strong Mexican blend shit. And we looked at my bag of weed because they wanted to see how dank my nugs were. And that’s about it. Pretty dope, right?

I told that story to Danny Woodhead in the tunnel before the game yesterday. We’re like the same height so we see eye to eye. Haha. Get it? Nah, but it’s tough being an undersized mascot just like it is being a small running back, so he gets me. After I told him the story, he said, “Yeah, man, that’s cool. I’m going to get locked in on this game now, though, so talk to you later.” He’s a pretty cool dude.

It’s not like I wasn’t taking the game serious. I took it real serious and the whole world knows what’s up now. Sportscenter Top 10, baby! I mean, Sportscenter Not Top 10, but what’s the difference? National TV exposure, man.

We had to win the game to make the playoffs. This was the first season in four years the Chargers brought Boltman back on the field and I’m thinking, yo, if we make the playoffs, they’re going to realize Boltman is the good luck charm. They’re going to put me on salary and sign me to a long-term contract and shit. Pretty good for a kid from San Diego Community College with a mascot school certificate, right?

Some people say mascots don’t make any difference in the game. That’s bull shit. Cheerleaders, true, but mascots have at least as much impact on the game as assistant coaches. Not like offensive coordinators. That’s stupid. But like the running back and linebacker coaches. You doubt me? Way back in 1996, Morten Andersen – best kicker in NFL history – missed a 30-yard chip shot that got the Jacksonville Jaguars into the playoffs in their second year in existence. Go back and look at the replay. Notice those goalposts swinging back and forth right before the kick when Andersen’s lining up? Look closer. That’s Jaxson de Ville, the best mascot in the NFL today, shaking the goalposts. Andersen got Jedi mind tricked. Wide left. Speaking of Jax, the NFL had to change mascot rules to try and stop us from winning games after he freaked out the Pittsburgh Steelers offense by running up to their huddle with a lifesize doll of their quarterback and stomping its head in.

Now the NFL says we “are prohibited from engaging in any acts of taunting opposing players, coaches or game officials.” Boo. But we still get the crowd hyped when the team needs noise, make life suck for opposing fans so they don’t ever come back and we do other things.

Yeah, we can do other things. I got my big shot yesterday against the Chiefs and I took it.

We’re tied 24-24 and the Chiefs are driving late in the fourth quarter. Their quarterback completes a pass into field goal range, but the idiot threw it down the middle of the field and they’re out of timeouts. They rush the field goal unit out while the clock’s ticking down. I’m on the sideline like, “What do I do? What do I do? What would Jax do?” Then I see this Chiefs fan jump out of the front row onto the sideline. This asshole is trying to run onto the field so he can get play stopped. That’s the rule. Fan on the field, automatic stoppage of play and the clock. He’s trying to buy their damn kicker time to get set up.

Boltman is not having it! The best thing about my Boltman costume is it’s pretty unobstructive. I’ve got a big lightning bolt foam head – he’s so badass, rocking Oakleys and this big grin that says, “Yeah, I’m a boss” – and then a muscle suit for my arms and upper body, which I don’t even really need because I’m a physical specimen already. But other than that it’s pretty much just me in shoulder pads and a Chargers uniform. Backflips, round offs, cartwheels, I can do all that acrobatic shit. Fans go nuts when I do back handsprings the full length of the field when we run out of the tunnel before kickoff.

The point is, this Chiefs fan doesn’t know what he’s stepped into. Security sees him, but he’s coming right at me. This is meant to be. Boltman to the rescue. I get a running start at him and he thinks it’s funny. Hey, look at this mascot coming right at me! Then I drop the boom. Diving tackle, fully airborne, WrestleMania style. Right into this dude’s ribs. Perfect form tackle. Dwight Freeney would have been proud.

I turn around just in time to see Ryan Succop running into place. He never gets a chance to get lined up and misses a 41-yarder. Chargers win in overtime. We’re going to the playoffs. You’re welcome, signed: Boltman.

So you know the party is on! The team’s all going out to Fluxx to celebrate. I know how the players roll so I get there at the same time as them and everything. The line isn’t just out the door, it’s around the block, but of course the bouncers are letting all of us in ahead of everybody. Peeps didn’t even care. They all start spazzing, clapping, pulling out their iPhones and snapping pictures. I’m waving back at them when this big ass bald bouncer with a half dozen fat rolls on his neck (why are they always big bald guys with fat necks?) puts his hand on me. I’m like, “Easy, big guy. I’m with the team.”

The jerk has the balls to be like, “You don’t look like Danny Woodhead and as far as I know there ain’t no other midgets on the team.”

I was about to get rowdy with that comment, but Phillip Rivers came up right next to me and I say, “Hey Phil, tell this dude I’m with the team, please.”

He says, “I ain’t never seen this boy in my life. Don’t let him through, Little John.” Man, Phillip Rivers knows who I am. He sees me in the locker room all the time. He’s such a redneck asshole. That’s why nobody likes him.

I’m about to explain to this bouncer – how original, a big guy called Little John – that I’m Boltman when Danny walks up and another bouncer lifts the rope for him. I yell, “Danny, Danny. It’s me. Tell this guy to let me in.” But I guess he didn’t hear me because he just kept walking in with his girl and a couple other dudes. Woodhead’s a pretty cool guy.

“I’ve had about enough, little man. Back of the line or you’re never getting in this club again.” That’s what he says to me. Can you believe it? Boltman, the guy who wins the game that gets the Chargers into the playoffs, standing in line with the rest of the commoners. Fine. I go to the back of the line. But I still get in like an hour later.

“Give a nig a little bit of power and he can’t help get carried away with it.” That’s what I say to this decent-looking girl with her ass hanging out the back of her dress. Damn, I love San Diego weather. She turned back to her girls. Whatever, she’s not even that fly and I can’t turn my game on yet because I’m still so mad at that nig. I’m not a racist or anything, it’s cool to call them nigs. I call Malcolm Floyd my nig all the time and he just shakes his head because it’s funny and that’s our thing. Malcolm Floyd is a goofy looking nig.

I’m about to tell this big bouncer what I think about him, but I calmed down standing in line for an hour so I decide to play it cool. I stared him down, though. I don’t care how tall he is. He acted like he didn’t see me because he was talking to these two club skanks trying to get in. But he knows what’s up.

It’s hot as hell in the club so I pop open another button to let my pecs do the talking. I told you I don’t need that Boltman muscle suit. And it must be my lucky day because I turn around and see Leigh on the dance floor with two other club skanks. Maybe it was just because of that dream, but her skinny legs were fly in that miniskirt. She used to get PO’d at me for calling her stork legs, and my girlfriend bitches at me about how you shouldn’t mess with the body image of girls with eating disorders, but I don’t know what I was thinking. Her legs were so sexy the way she moved when she danced. She doesn’t have any chest to speak of, but that’s all good because she’s got one of those tight little white girl booties. Like she’s still 14 or something. I hate those big hips and booties all the guys on the team are always talking about. I try to tell them to quit listening to rap videos because that shit is disgusting, but they don’t listen.

I decide I’m going to go surprise Leigh and show her my skills on the dance floor then apologize about calling her stork legs. I close my eyes for a second and I see her face in my dream. She’s so hot with those face tats.

I grab her around the waist from behind and grind right up on her. We had to take all these dance classes at mascot college and I’ve got mad rhythm. I forgot that Leigh’s a jumpy bitch, though, and she turned around and pushed me and yelled, “Get off me, asshole,” before she even saw who I was.

“Damn baby, chill out. It’s just me,” I say.

“Oh God, Frank. You’re such a disgusting little freak. You know Alice is meeting us here later.” Then she and her girls walked off. I was going to hit her with a comeback about her small tits, but I guess Alice is probably right about bulimics and that body image thing. I’m firey. Small guys got to be. But I’m not cruel. Damn, I forgot Alice said she was coming to Luxx. Having a girlfriend suxxx, dude.

I don’t even have a chance to get off the dance floor when I hear this voice say, “You’d probably have more luck with the ladies if you wore your Boltman costume, Franky.” There’s always an asshole, right?

I turn around and who should it be? The Mother Fucking San Diego Chicken.

The Mother Fucking San Diego Chicken (photo: USA Today)

The Mother Fucking San Diego Chicken (photo: USA Today)

I mean, he’s not in his chicken suit, but it’s the guy. He used to be my hero. I idolized him. He was the greatest. The greatest of all time. Philly Phanatic, my ass. That’s just East Coast bias, for reals. But then I met the guy and he’s really the biggest jerk of all time. I’ve already had to deal with the bouncer, wait in that freaking line and get dissed by my girlfriend’s twig bitch friend who’s totally busted compared to in my dream. I’ve had it. It’s time to let the panther loose.

I say: “Don’t they have an age limit for getting into this bar?”

He says: “Don’t they have a height requirement?” Oh hells naw!

“Obviously not, Chicken, because I came in with Danny Woodhead tonight. Who’d you come with, you old ass has been?”

“Funny. I came in with Woodhead, too. His little girl Gia loves my act. He’s a pretty cool dude, that Danny Woodhead. I thought that was you at the entrance. I said, hey Danny, did you hear someone call your name? He said keep walking.”

Damn. It was already embarrassing to get caught like that, but getting betrayed by Danny? That hurt. Especially after what I did for the team.

“You know what pal, I don’t care how old you are. This ends tonight. This is my town. I’m going to mess you up right here, right now.” Seriously, though, I wouldn’t hurt an old guy like that. He knew what I was talking about. Mascot challenge, right there on the dance floor. I know he can’t do half of his moves anymore, but he’s too proud to admit it. Pathetic old man should have retired years ago, but he can’t handle giving up the fame so I’m going to have to take his heart. I’m in pretty dope shape so I can probably pull off all my moves until I’m 40, but I swear, when I can’t do back handsprings down the entire field anymore, I’m just going to have myself euthanized or something. What’s the point of living as an old washed up has been?

I yell at some dudes to clear some space and, let me tell you, the San Diego Chicken got served. Served. I did a backflip, straight into a front flip, trotted a couple circles doing fist pumps to get the crowd into it, then busted out some sick break dancing. Chicken has nada on me.

But before that jerk had a chance to try and come back at me, these three guys walked up behind him and were like, “Hey Pollo Loco, who is this douchebag? He giving you trouble?”

Then, I hear that big redneck’s voice right behind me. Phil says, “You mean you guys don’t know? This is Boltman. He won the game for us today.” It’s kind of hard to pick up sarcasm when the DJ is thumping bass like it’s going out of style, so for a second I actually thought he was defending me.

Then this smart ass anonymous nobody beside Phil yells, “More like Flying Faggot Man.” That big redneck Rivers and everybody starts laughing at me. God, I hate Phillip Rivers. You know what, I’ve had about enough of this crap. I bounce out of there, but don’t’ think I’m going to let that Chicken forget he got served so hard he didn’t even attempt a comeback.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of my shitty night. I get a cab and on the way home I check my voice mail. I’ve got one and I’m hoping maybe it’s my girlfriend because right about now I could use a little support, or some pussy, or something. I don’t know.

But it’s not her number. I click on the message.

“Hey Frank. It’s Sean O’Connor.” He’s director of stadium and game day operations. “Look, Frank, I’m sorry to have to do this, but that stunt you pulled today, tackling the Chiefs fan, we’re going to have to let you go. Spanos demanded it specifically. You’re fired, Frank. Between you and me, I think you’re going to be OK. Judges hate fans that run onto the field. But you violated security protocol, and Spanos says it’s your neck if the guy decides to sue. You can come clean out your stuff and turn in the Boltman costume between 9 and 10 tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Frank.”

Man, I couldn’t help it, I start crying in the cab. Crying like a little bitch. This is not how my day was supposed to end up. The cab driver asks me what’s wrong. I say, “I’m not Boltman anymore.”

Saying it hits me like a ton of freaking bricks. I’m not Boltman …

Happy Jack – Chapter 1

beach

Editor’s Note: This post is the first chapter of my recently completed novel manuscript “Happy Jack.” Enjoy!

Forward from the author, James “Fish” Fishman

The man who you will read about in this account is real. There are no shortage of hospital records, college transcripts and public tax files to prove he exists.

The psychic and emotional powers I will describe this man as possessing are, however, open to skepticism. But there is no doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of the hundreds of eye-witnesses interviewed for the writing of this account, of his unique abilities. These witnesses testify with stunning consistency to the sensation of euphoria experienced in his presence, the lengths to which he went to please them, the feeling of addiction and withdrawal when he left their lives.

What does it mean to make everyone happy?

In my personal experience with Jack, his presence causes your pleasure synapses to fire like crazy. You feel high in a way that no drug compares, but you’re not aware that you’re being acted upon by an outside force. If that were the end of it for Jack, I wouldn’t have much of a story and Jack would probably be a much different person.

In describing his own perception of his “special trait,” Jack told me over beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans early one eventful summer morning that “I just understand what people need to be happy.” He couldn’t elaborate, and I can’t ask him to elaborate now because as you will see that morning was the last time I would ever be able to speak to Jack. From that conversation and more with the very few others who knew Jack’s secret, I gather he was often incapable of articulating why he performed a certain action to guide someone to happiness even they didn’t know how to acquire. His understanding is one of instinct. Some other force imbues him with the answer and guides him to provide it, all while Jack is left with only the space in the corners of his mind to contemplate why, chewing on the question as he would another of his favorite doughy beignets.

We do have some indication that Jack’s condition is not unprecedented. In many cultures, but most prominently passed down through the oral traditions of Haitian Voodoo practitioners (Vodouisants), folklore exists telling of children who bring happiness to all those who set eyes on them. The evidence suggests these children in Haiti were hunted down and taken from their homes by Voodoo priests and priestesses in order to please spirits. It seems they never lived long thereafter. But I find it fitting that the strongest history, anecdotal and superstitious as it may be, of people with this power comes from Voodoo folklore. Vodouisants, after all, have altered the course of Jack’s life even more than I have.

The end product, the exterior effects of his peculiarity and not the mysterious cause, was what first drew me to the man known as Happy Jack.

When I met him on Dauphin Island, that precious accumulation of Gulf sand dangling like a fragile golden chain below the slender neck of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, soon after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, those exterior results looked like the human-interest story I needed to get my producers off my back.

I could always see a story and built a career on jumping right in with no regard for consequences. For those of you familiar with my career as the CNN news caricature Fish Fishman, you may recall some of my more famous – or infamous – TV moments. If CNN needed to throw someone into the middle of a hurricane, I was their man. If CNN needed to put someone in a flak jacket and let bullets and missiles fly over their head in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Sudan or Detroit, I was their man.

More notoriously, if CNN needed to cover a snowstorm that wasn’t so snowy or a flood that didn’t really flood, I was the man willing to pile up snow in a field or stand in the middle of a drainage pond to give my cameraman the shot CNN needed to convince the viewing audience that we were delivering to them a major news event.

Of course, in the budding age of camera phones and social media, I was caught completely unaware when my “good shots” became viral internet sensations capturing the insanity (and inanity) of 24-hours news television. I used to blame CNN, the producers, but I was complicit undermining the serious journalism career I had hoped to create.

In that sense, Jack is my salvation. He was compelled to help me achieve my dream.

But, at first, I only saw the story. The story right in front of me. The homeless man risking his life to rescue people trapped in homes they thought would keep them safe before the hurricane reduced them to splinters.

I didn’t begin to sense the bigger story, Jack’s personal story, until much later. To be precise, in April 2010, when I met Happy Jack on Dauphin Island for the third time while on assignment to cover the BP oil spill. When he disappeared, and I felt the symptoms of withdrawal described again and again in the testimonials collected for this work, I began to grasp the nature of what I had encountered. A skepticism I didn’t know I was clinging to eventually melted away. I saw that Happy Jack possessed magic, or something – a power, a gift, a supernatural ability.

But I still didn’t fully understand what device drove this man until after I tracked him from Dauphin Island to a tiny apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where I found him standing over a perverse sex addict chained down in his bed. That’s when he explained it to me, and she asked for help.

Along that tortuous path, he fulfilled his obligation to steer me to happiness. To help me get over my fear of starting over. Earnestly pursue becoming the serious journalist I so fiercely desired to be. Let go of Fish Fishman and just be James again.

I needed to be James to tell his story the right way.

It took many nights, and many long arguments with my editor, to best decide how – and in what order – to recount Jack’s life. In the end, we decided to unveil the secrets as they would have been revealed to Jack.

In this decision, I worry the following pages are somewhat not in keeping with the principles of good journalism. I sometimes withhold context the reader is owed to frame what was happening to Jack during certain periods of his life. I will break a best practice for any journalist: I will bury the lead. I won’t always attribute facts and opinions to their source. In some cases, this anonymity is used to protect my sources. Jack was involved with a countless number of individuals in New Orleans whom the word “shady” does not even begin to describe. But I have at times chosen to forego attribution because I do not want it to get in the way of the reader experiencing Jack’s predicament more intimately.

In exchange for forgiveness in these matters, I hope I can reward readers with a proper understanding of a person who secretly fought the biggest war imaginable. He could never win more than a few battles, and yet he chose to fight for us.

I did not write this account to convince you of the authenticity of a mystical being. I wrote it because Jack Hazelwood is an incredible man who has done more to help the depraved, forgotten, snakebit people of the Gulf Coast than anyone. He deserves to be mentioned with the greatest of our modern saints: Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Mandela.

His story deserves to be told.

Wuddle Wuddle

Editor’s note: It’s the holiday season and I needed to lighten the mood. So seeing as my stories generally involve crooks, ne’er do wells, bad people or bad things happening to good people, I decided to share this bedtime story I wrote for my newest niece. A little break from the usual…

Wuddle wuddle, I want a cuddle
cried Little Lenny to the frog in the puddle

Little Lenny, I am befuddled
what’s so bad that you need a cuddle?
Are you in some kind of trouble
asked the frog from deep in his puddle

Wuddle wuddle, I NEED a cuddle
demands Little Lenny as her face starts to ruddle.

So concerned was the frog down in the puddle
he leapt away, leaving behind a big bubble
Off to the bears, the frog did scuttle
A very wise pair, and a most loving couple

Wuddle wuddle, Lenny NEEDS a cuddle
the frog from the puddle told the bear couple

Who needs such a thing came the bears’ rebuttal
There are bigger things with which we all struggle
Then the bears began to kiss using their muzzles
The frog knew not to interrupt as they both nuzzled

Wuddle wuddle, how to solve this puzzle
of why Little Lenny needs her big cuddle?

To the beaver I’ll go, thought the frog from the puddle
Beaver’s wiser than the bears, at least by double
The answer to this riddle, he’ll surely decouple
For Little Lenny’s sake, the frog’s effort redoubled

Wuddle wuddle, why does Lenny need a cuddle?
Please tell me, beaver, before her heart starts to buckle

For little ones, the strength of a cuddle
is like mud that holds my dam from falling to rubble
Now go along, frog, catch the next shuttle
before Little Lenny’s cries become raucous and ruckle

Wuddle wuddle, thanks a bundle!
The frog said to the beaver before turning to hustle

On his way back, he ran into a mother quintupled
Mrs. Rabbit, who gave frog one more idea to juggle
Frog, she said, you’re being a thick knuckle
In the matter of cuddles, the answer’s more subtle

Wuddle wuddle, if Little Lenny cries for a cuddle
reach out and hug her with your frog arms so supple

So the frog made haste to give Little Lenny a snuggle
And her sad little cries turned into a chuckle
She found her thumb, and began to suckle
Off to the land of dreams, she was carefully smuggled

Wuddle wuddle, thought the frog returning to the puddle,
sometimes it’s just nice to have a good cuddle

An honorable vagrant

OCMD

To say Glen “Grub” Harvey had a past would be overstating the matter. It would come too close to implying that he was somebody who had actually done something.

In truth, Grub was born onto the cold porcelain of a dirty bathtub in a Baltimore row house as a nobody, was raised a nobody by a couple of nobodies, and meandered through life as a nobody until he reached Ocean City 19 years ago. Nothing from then until now has improved his status as a societal nonentity.

He is, however, a somebody to the Ocean City police and Maryland public court records. The White Marlin vodka-swilling alcoholic, bipolar, high school dropout might have had a half-decent shot at scraping by on the up-and-up with some support from a halfway house or an employment program for the mentally ill, but he was a nobody to that end of the system, too. No one – not the police or the courts – ever connected the dots to get Grub on the radar of public resources for people like him. He was anonymously tucked away on the Eastern Shore, the local legal system’s toy to torment like a stray dog that wandered across the wrong kid’s path.

Calling Grub a stray dog is probably too generous. Even the mangiest stray dogs occasionally get adopted. No one adopts a stray human.

Grub is what society would call a non-functioning alcoholic and the police call a public nuisance, but a dispassionate observer would be forced to acknowledge his admirable knack for providing his own basic necessities: vodka, food, shelter.

Unfortunately, this talent is what made him a somebody to the Ocean City police when the rest of society could not care less about his comings or goings. Grub arrived in Ocean City on September 29, 1994, at the age of 36 with nothing more than the stinking clothes on his back and a stolen Army issue duffel containing a ripped sleeping bag, a liter of vodka, an empty tin of Skoal packed with $3.48 in change, and a faded Polaroid of him and his mother placing cheap tinsel on a sparse Christmas tree. His time of arrival was not by coincidence. Grub was seeking the opportunities of Ocean City’s exploding real estate market.

With $3.48 to his name, he was not in the market for a new condo, per se, but he was searching for one. In the early years of the Clinton-era upturn, word spread among Baltimore’s astute community of homeless that Ocean City’s housing boom had turned the town into Easy Street, so to speak. Prospering blue collar types from Baltimore, Annapolis, Wilmington, Philadelphia and as far away as Pittsburgh were buying up condos like candy and using them at most as rental properties from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Some didn’t even bother renting and the condos provided steady shelter for opportunistic hobos for up to 11-and-a-half months of the year. In some of the newer super developments, homeless squatters outnumbered actual condo owners 5- or 6-to-1, an entire secondary population of uncounted citizens.

That first winter and ensuing spring were salad days for Grub, but the squatters got too greedy. Their presence became too obvious (the bellwether of the end of a free ride for any group of homeless) and the cops had to act. Grub, along with dozens of other vagrants including many good friends from Baltimore, were swept up before the 1995 beach tourism season began and charged with a litany of offenses from breaking and entering to vandalism to resisting arrest and second-degree assault, for those unwise enough to try evading arrest.

Unlike the resisters who were locked up all summer, Grub was back on the streets in a few days, but with the condos filling up with tourists and seasonal cops fleecing the island like cockroaches, there was nowhere to hide. Nowhere to get drunk in peace. He spent the summer in and out of the clink on convictions like drunk and disorderly conduct, loitering, public nuisance and other such trivialities.

Grub never resisted and, even in his often drunken stupor, was always polite. He was a mouse among men. A lamb. But he became a known commodity to the cops. They didn’t all pick on him, but one or two in particular took special joy harassing the hobos. Those ones knew when they saw him, there was probably something they could charge him with. So they did. And so Grub’s rap sheet grew quickly.

But Grub didn’t want to leave Ocean City. There were way too many vacant condos for the cops to police so plenty of opportunity to live the good life. Besides, he had never found a cheaper vodka in all the United States than White Marlin, an Eastern Shore specialty. He could buy a half gallon for $5, and was always shrewd saving the nickels and dimes he begged on the Boardwalk until he had enough to buy the large volume. It was Grub’s rudimentary understanding of economies of scale at work while every other scrabbling bum scrambled off to the liquor store as soon as they had the $1.39 needed to buy the 375 milliliter flask-size bottles.

As quickly as his rap sheet grew, the judicial system grew tired of Grub, particularly Judge Albert Munson. The judge wasn’t a cruel man, but the endless circus of young punks and ne’er do wells paraded in front of him on the unchanging pattern of drunk, disorderly and lewd activity, offering the same lame excuses, made him tersely practical. The longer he could put away repeat irredeemables like Mr. Harvey, the longer it would be before he had to deal with them again.

Grub didn’t mind the max sentences that much. His offenses were never serious enough to get him transferred out of the Ocean City jail – just 60- and 90-day type jobs – and most of the repeat inmates in the city jail knew him well enough to leave him be. So what did he care if he was freeloading in a condo or getting three square meals a day from Uncle Sam? It was all a roof over his head. Well, he did hurt for a lack of vodka when he was in the slammer. That part wasn’t pleasant one bit.

After 19 years of the same pattern repeating, every 90 or 180 days, Judge Munson was quite sure his stomach ulcer couldn’t take it if he saw Mr. Harvey in his court room again. And he threatened him with exile to make his point, even though he had no legal authority to issue such a sentence.

Grub was telling Andy about the judge’s implosion during his last appearance in court, and how he made a vow to stay out of trouble for the rest of his life. He had just returned from a 30-day stint in the city jail to the top-notch “Starting at $800,000” condo he and Andy had been squatting in, without interruption, through the last three months of peak season.

The vow wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounded. Grub was only 55, but severe cirrhosis of the liver and lack of adequate healthcare (he proudly touted his record of never going to a doctor or dentist his entire adult life) meant he’d be lucky to eek out another five years. He looked to anyone to be at least 75. His bulbous nose was red with burst capillaries and his ruddy cheeks folded into deep creases down his weathered and pockmarked face. He had an ample amount of dirty grey hair left on the top of his head, and near as much sprouting from his nostrils and ears. His teeth had not fared so well, with less than half of them left brown and rotting in his mouth.

“Judge Munson, he been right good a me ‘n’ I ain’t aimin’ a disappoint ‘im,” Grub told Andy, a squatter he knew from Baltimore that he had shared residences with for the last six years. Smart squatters always worked with at least one other to watch their backs – for help avoiding the police and for protection from their own kind. Some of the more malicious wanderers were like to slit a rival’s throat while he slept if it meant they could pry a handle of liquor from his cold, dead grip.

Most people outside of Maryland wouldn’t have understood two words Grub strung together. He spoke in strings of sound that offended the ear – half crazy hobo developed through years of suffering untreated nerve and anxiety disorders and half local Baltimore, a dialect that sounded like a proper southerner with a sack full of marbles inserted into the pouch of each cheek. Andy shared a similar background and pattern of speech and understood Grub just fine.

“Na man, that a lotta horse shit, Grub, you in ‘n’ outta clink e’ry dang month, be back in ‘ere next week, betcha handle White Marlin. You best gone backa Bawlimmer. Gack gack gack.” “Bawlimmer,” of course, was the proper regional rendering of “Baltimore” and “gack gack gack” just a sputtering of nonsense sounds. Andy suffered from a nervous tick that acted on him something akin to Tourette’s Syndrome, forcing errant syllables out of his mouth at the end of almost every spoken thought.

Grub was going to put a finger in Andy’s chest and tell him he accepted the challenge, but the disagreement had rattled Andy’s nerves and he was pulling a make shift straw and tin foil pipe out of his pocket to light up a rock of crack. Grub couldn’t abide by hard drugs. As previously noted, Grub had an admirable knack for surviving and alcohol was his choice for a vice because it was much better for his posterity and still allowed him to self-medicate his troubles away. Not that Grub ever reasoned the choice out so thoughtfully.

Instead of starting a fight, Grub decided to head out to the Boardwalk. It was the last big night of Sunfest, Ocean City’s final peak season festival before slowing down for the fall and Grub’s last chance for serious easy money. He grabbed the bright pink child’s tutu picked up at the Goodwill for a dollar and headed out the door. Grub learned years ago that people are much more inclined to loose some change from their pocket when laughing at you than when they feel sorry for you. No one wants to be made to feel guilty by a sad old drunk.

Grub had a pretty good audience gathered and folks were pouring their dimes and quarters out into the discarded Boardwalk Fries cup he used to hold tips. He set up outside the rock ‘n’ roll arcade so he could dance to the music, tunes from real bands from the good ole days like Styx and Jefferson Starship. He was wearing a pair of stained jogging pants under his tutu, but when he felt like the crowd was as big as it was going to get, he dropped trou right there on the Boardwalk to reveal a hot pink thong on under the tutu. The crowd responded with catcalls, laughs, a rousing ovation and – sweetest sound of them all – a waterfall of change into his cup.

He started shaking his backside at onlookers having the biggest laugh, and even rubbed it up against an obese woman wearing a T-shirt that said, “Tequila Makes My Clothes Fall Off.” Her even more obese husband thought it was a riot so Grub snatched a piece of his funnel cake while the fat man rubbed tears from his eyes with his free hand.

Grub was still rubbing it on the fat woman when the crowd suddenly quieted. He should have known right then, but he was high on the thrill of entertaining the crowd and figured he just needed to up his antics again. He turned around to attempt a handstand, and there Pfc. Mendez stood between the obese couple, arms crossed, 18 inches from Grub’s face.

Shit. Good thing he didn’t take Andy up on the bet.

For one split second, Grub thought about running. Then his instinct for survival kicked in.

“Aw heck, c’mon Off’sir Menda, I just come outta slammer. Gimme a break, off’sir. I ain’t meanoharm, off’sir.”

“Public nuisance, indecent exposure, lewd and lascivious behavior. There are minors out here, Harvey. We might just be looking at child sex offenses here. You better get used to the slammer because it looks like you’re going in for a long time, bub.” Like most police forces, Ocean City’s is tug-and-pull between good cops and bad cops, those who want to keep the peace and those who get off on making people’s lives hell. Pfc. Sean Mendes was a world-class example of the latter, a “mean summabitch” as Grub and Andy called him. In the summer when Ocean City’s population swelled from 7,000 locals to between 200,000 to 400,000 people, the force simply didn’t have the resources to monitor its own. Pfc. Mendes knew it. Provided he didn’t do anything too stupid like billy club some dipshit teenager into a coma, he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. The island was his oyster, and Grub’s dirty hide was a pearl.

“Please, off’sir. I n’ain’t drunk’er’nuthin’, off’sir.”

“Judge Munson is not going to be happy about seeing you again so soon, bub. What do you have to say about that?”

“Ain’t you s’pose read m’rights, off’sir?”

Pfc. Mendes wrenched Grub into an arm bar and struck his elbow into the back of the man’s neck. Grub threw his back into a melodramatic arch and screeched. “Let’s add resisting arrest to the charges, Mr. Harvey.”

“Aw please, Off’sir Menda. I ain’t hurt no’ne. Naw. Jus’wan’go home, off’sir.”

Pfc. Mendes drug him off to the city jail in his pink tutu and thong, but not before collecting his tip cup, which was overflowing with more than $20 – what would have been enough to supply Grub with White Marlin for more than two weeks. Fortunately, the jail still had his prison jumpsuit from that morning so he didn’t have to suffer the injustice of facing arraignment in front of Judge Munson in a tutu. The judge shook his head in frustration when he saw Grub, read the charges, and set bond at $1,000. It may as well have been a million.

Unfortunately, late summer is the worst time to get charged with a crime in Ocean City, particularly if you don’t have money for bail. The backlog of cases from a summer’s worth of late night drunken shenanigans means a wait of months to get your day in court. After 62 days in jail, Grub finally got his.

For all Pfc. Mendes’ threats on the Boardwalk, Grub ended up only facing an indecent exposure charge and performing without a license, a violation of city ordinance. But indecent exposure was serious business if Judge Munson meant to keep his promise. It carried a maximum three-year sentence, and Grub had never done time like that. He was sure to get transferred to the county jail or maybe even upstate with that kind of time.

“I could sure use a drink” was Grub’s primary conscious thought in response to his predicament as he sat in court. In fact, he said as much to his public defender, Miss Erickson. She was a real pretty lady, although she already seemed to have the spirit beat out of her and she wasn’t even 30 yet. That didn’t bother Grub one bit when he was sitting in the front row directly behind the defense table, waiting for his number to be called by the judge. Her blouse slipped up her back just enough to reveal a small Celtic knot tattoo just above her barely exposed white panty line.

“Glen Harvey,” Judge Munson called.

“Yessir, hee y’onah,” Grub replied.

“Come on. Let’s get this over with. What do we have today?” The judge dug into the charges and glanced through the police report. The name Pfc. Sean Mendes caught his attention as much as the description of events.

After Grub waived his right to a jury trial, the assistant Worcester County District Attorney working Ocean City District Court that day called Pfc. Mendes as the prosecution’s only witness. Mendes offered a predictably embellished recounting of events. Miss Erickson tried to press him on a couple of the more lofty claims, but the officer deflected her thrusts with an air of boredom, repeating over and over the standard issue response: “To the best of my recollection, that is how I recall it.” It was a no-win situation for Erickson. Even though Judge Munson, the assistant DA and every frequenter of the courtroom knew Pfc. Mendes was full of shit, it was his word as a sworn officer of the law against a drunken, homeless lifetime con. The judge had no choice but to take Mendes at his word, even if his disdain for the young officer was only slightly more veiled than the contempt he held for Grub. Simply put, no judge could set the precedent of taking, one-against-one, the accused’s word over a police officer’s.

Miss Erickson informed Judge Munson that the defense had no witnesses. Although she perhaps should have said that Mr. Harvey did not have the resources to afford an attorney who would make the effort to find the witnesses on the Boardwalk that day who would expose Pfc. Mendes’ trumped up claims for the lies they were.

“Mr. Harvey, do you have anything to say before I make my judgment?”

“No, he does not, your honor,” Miss Erickson said.

“Yeah I do, y’onah,” Grub interrupted. Miss Erickson eyed him with a look of exhaustion, then waved her hand toward the judge as if to say, “Go ahead, hang yourself.”

“You may proceed, Mr. Harvey. I’d like to hear this.”

“Well see, y’onah, I jus’ wanna say I ain’t try a hurt no’ne. I’s just out ‘ere try a gib folk a laugh, y’know, shake my lil’ toosh a bit.”

The entire courtroom burst into a fit of laughter. Judge Munson couldn’t stifle a short chuckle of his own. The four reporters in their customary spot on the second row behind the prosecution scribbled “shake my little toosh” as fast as their hands could manage.

“I understand, Mr. Harvey. You have a unique talent for entertaining people. Other than me, that is. On the charge of indecent exposure, I find you not guilty.” The judge turned, baring his dark jowly scowl, toward Pfc. Mendes, sitting comfortably next to the assistant DA. “Officer Mendes, this is the sort of frivolous nonsense that has my court backed up to next century and I’m sick of it. I am quite sure there was a better way to handle a homeless man in a tutu than dragging him off to jail where he has been a great cost to taxpayers. If we are going to start convicting people for showing off their cheeks on the Boardwalk, then you’re going to have to haul in every single young woman on the beach. I am warning you, do not bring nonsense like this into my court again.”

Grub felt such a well of excitement rise into his chest that he thumped the solid maple defense table with his fist in celebration. Even Miss Erickson was inspired enough to smile at Grub and lay a kind hand on his shoulder.

Judge Munson turned back to Grub.

“You’re not off the hook yet, Mr. Harvey. There’s the matter of performing on the Boardwalk without a license. You do not deny that you were performing for a crowd without a license?”

“Nuh’uh, y’onah.”

“Well, that is punishable by a $500 fine or up to 90 days in prison. Do you have $500, Mr. Harvey?”

“Nuh’uh, y’onah.”

“I didn’t think so. Well, a permit to perform on the Boardwalk can be obtained at City Hall for one dollar. I also have the authority to issue a performer’s permit. Do you have one dollar to pay to the court today for your permit, Mr. Harvey?”

Grub’s head sank. “Nuh’uh, y’onah.”

“I have a dollar. I can pay for him, your honor.”

“No, I’m afraid not, Miss Erickson. That’s a kind gesture, though. Glen Harvey, I find you in violation of local ordinance requiring a permit to perform on the Ocean City Boardwalk and sentence you to serve 90 days in prison with credit for 62 days served. That’s 28 days, Mr. Harvey, as a warning to you. It could have been three years. Remember my promise. Do not let me see you here again.”

For the likes of Grub, it was still a triumphant day in court. He celebrated scoring a major victory over Pfc. Mendes, although he knew the officer would hold a grudge for sure now and be champing at the bit for payback.

The final 28 days in city jail flew by and Grub burst onto Coastal Highway with a spring in his step. Only nine blocks to the condo and a big night with Andy and his almost full half gallon of White Marlin. Grub could always trust Andy with his liquor. He much preferred crack or meth. It made them ideal roommates.

But when Grub got back to the condo, his internal alarm started sounding as soon as he snuck up the stairs to the third story corner unit. The window at the far end of the condo, which he and Andy always left wedged open with a small plastic doorstop, was bashed out. It was a completely careless act – not just because it drew the attention of residents and, inevitably, the cops, but winter was just around the corner and the cold Atlantic wind was a miserable bedfellow on long nights.

Grub heard voices and was about to turn tail and run when he deciphered one of them as Andy’s. He was relieved. He needed to get deep into a handle of White Marlin, but more pressing was the Polaroid of him and his mom from Christmas 1968. He didn’t remember Christmas 1968, but he did remember that the picture used to have Christmas 1968 scribbled on the back before he spilt vodka on it and the date rubbed off.

He crunched against fallen glass, carefully navigating his way through the window. The two men within heard him and scattered, but Andy caught a glimpse of his old roommate before fleeing out their escape route.

“Aw shit, it just Grub. Aye Grub, when you get out? I seen’n’a paper you got charge wi’ some incident ‘sposure. Figgered judge’d lock you up aleast three a fi’ year. Gark gark gark.” Andy looked nervous. His left eye was twitching and he batted at it like it was a pestering fly. He didn’t introduce the man standing next to him, and in fact looked more like he was trying to pretend he wasn’t there.

“Who him?” Grub asked.

“Beano,” the man answered for himself. “And you is good for nothing but trouble. Andy told me how them cops foller you around, just lookin’ to bust ya. We don’t want none of that attention ‘round here so maybe you best move on, Grub.”

“Whadafuck, who you talkin’ me li’ that?” Grub felt extremely agitated. He needed a drink and now. He burst past Beano and Andy into his room. At first his White Marlin vodka bottle was nowhere to be seen, but then he saw it in the corner among a pile of assorted empty plastic liquor bottles. The room was trashed. Grub felt ashamed. He always took pride in keeping the condos where he squatted in perfect condition so the owners would have minimal worry after he was inevitably found and chased off.

The stink of stale urine hung in the air. Grub could see the yellow piss stain spread across the white carpet in the corner by the pile of liquor bottles. His sleeping bag had been co-opted into an arrangement of tattered blankets that presumably belonged to Beano, an outsider Grub had never seen before. There were discarded bits of food – half-eaten sandwiches with molded crusts and festering meat, melted pieces of candy fused to the carpet – everywhere, not to mention a suspiciously large blood stain smeared across the wall. There were a hundred cigarette butts cast around the floor and twice as many burn marks on the carpet and walls.

“I’se sorry, Grub, I needa sumbody watch m’back. You getchya ass thrown in the clink alla time, can’t watch m’own ass alla time.” Andy had materialized behind Grub in the doorway to the room. Grub didn’t turn to address him.

“M’gone, Andy, jus’ ge’dasumbitch tell wheredago ma Polaroid and I’ma g’on git.

“Polaroid? One ya mamma? Ah shit, Grub. Grick grick grick. Gack gack.” Andy looked in pain trying to stop the nonsense sounds from bursting forth. He looked troubled in every way.

“Waddyamean, ah shit?”

“What dipshit is tryin’ to say to ya, Dipshit Number Two, is that we burnt up that ol’ass picture of ya mamma cuz it was gettin’ cold and we wanted us a little fire.”

Grub emitted a wild sound, the sound of rage, as senseless to the human ear as Andy’s nervous noises, but filled with such pure animalistic passion that it would surely have been recognized by any great predator – a wolf, a bear, even a lion. He launched himself at Beano, but the much younger, much stronger man caught him by the neck and used his momentum to sling him head first into the wall. The pain was immense, Beano’s brute force sending his head inches deep through the sheetrock.

Beano proceeded to kick Grub in his ribs repeatedly. Grub didn’t bother trying to defend himself. His survival instinct kicked in again. He was a mouse. A lamb. Or better yet for the occasion, an armadillo or a possum. The more meekly he could take his beating, the sooner Beano would get bored.

But Andy, damn him, Andy couldn’t bear the sight. He was weaker than Grub, reed thin from years of malnutrition and crack and meth abuse. He clubbed Beano over the back of the head with a glass beer bottle, which just served to piss him off more. Beano grabbed Andy by the shirt collar and repeated his move of launching him headlong into the wall.

Andy, unfortunately, struck a stud. There was a sickening crack that didn’t come from the wall and Andy’s body collapsed to the ground in an awkward contorted mass.

“Shit.” Beano grabbed a coat from a pile and took off out the window. In his haste, he slashed his wrist on a chunk of glass still attached to the frame and left a stream of blood along the concrete railway and down the stairs.

“Andy! Andy! C’mon. Lookame.” Grub shook Andy’s shoulders vigorously and smacked his face. Grub had decent instincts for many things, but proper care for major neck trauma was not one. He didn’t think it mattered. Andy wasn’t moving. And his neck was pointed in an awful direction compared to the tilt of his shoulders. Grub slapped his face again.

“Gawdammit quit hittin’ me.” Andy didn’t open his eyes, but he turned his head toward Grub and grimaced in pain. He lifted his hands and placed them against his cranium like he was squeezing a melon.

Grub had a hard time holding back from hugging Andy, but his joy was short lived. He caught a glimpse of a dark figure staring in the front window in his peripheral vision and thought Beano had come back to finish the job.

But it was worse.

“What kind of fuckin’ retard soap opera do we have here?” Pfc. Mendes surveyed the two men sitting battered against the busted wall, the putrid piles of trash in the condo, the broken window and the blood that he had followed up the stairs to the unit. “Don’t look at me so surprised, you idiot. I followed you from jail. Did you think I was going to let you embarrass me like that in court and that was going to be the end of it?”

“Please, Off’sir Menda. T’ain’t whatta look. Beano. It all Beano. Hedunnit. Please, off’sir.”

“Save it, bub. This is some serious shit here. Forced entry. Destruction of private property. Third-degree burglary, easy. Maybe first-degree burglary and first-degree assault, once I track down this bleeder and convince him it’s in his best interest to testify against your ass. Oh, Judge Munson is gonna nail you for 10 years, no doubt. If he’s not feeling like such a pussy, you’re gone for 20.”

“Please, off’sir…” It wasn’t even a real plea, it was a whimper. Grub was no legal expert, but he had been in court enough times to know the deck was stacked against him. He knew what it looked like, and what it looked like was enough to convict a man like him.

Pfc. Mendes radioed for back up and didn’t even bother to tell Grub to stop when he got up and walked to the back bedroom. He knew Grub was a mouse. Not going anywhere.

Grub rifled through the empty bottles. As luck would have it, the handle of White Marlin still had a good four shots of vodka in it. Seemed even a hard thug like Beano couldn’t handle White Marlin on its own. Grub downed it in one long swill, then lay down and closed his eyes.

He became an armadillo. A possum. He hoped he could get his hands on some vodka upstate. He hoped his liver would give out before he got there.

Wankers

bull

Dickhead Pete is still fairly hammered as he bears off Wall Street into the dazzling new $2.6 billion Morclays Goldlynch & Co. headquarters.

His ‘We Are the 1% Party’ got a little bit out of hand last night. Cristal Beirut. Belvedere Unfiltered Jello shots (for the ladies, natch). Johnny Walker Blue. Ice luge. Hot new interns (dude interns not invited, natch). Anorexic models. Spin the bottle. Fuck the bottle. Prude intern exit stage left. Anorexic transvestite model. Fist fight. Lines of coke. Eli Manning. Lines of coke with Eli Manning. Bad head: non-prude hot intern. Puke on non-prude hot intern. Exit stage left. Good head: anorexic transvestite model. 4:30 a.m.: pass out. 5:15 a.m.: alarm. 5:33 a.m.: break alarm. Shit-shower-shave. Puke again. Visine. More Visine. Boot coked-up models (tranvestite and original recipe). Depart Tribeca bachelor pad. Red Bull. 5:59 a.m.: arrive at office.

Not bad for a Wednesday night.

Dickhead Pete lives for this shit. The last time he showed up at work this bombed, Ron Chancellor, head of derivative investments, called him into his office. Ron was starting up a new division – Innovative Investments – and he wanted Dickhead Pete to be his lead dog, his general in the field.

“So what do you say, DP? You game?”

“Who are you talking to, boss? Fuck yeah I’m game. Let’s do this shit up.”

Ron was a legend at Goldlynch. You don’t turn that dude down when he comes calling. And Innovative Investments was like nothing the bank had ever done. No limitations. No asset classifications. Most important, no questions. Mission: max returns. The recession was over, investors were tired of conservative bull shit, asset-backed securities were dead. Goldlynch needed to invent a new game to hit their marks and keep their good name as the smartest guys in the room. Innovative Investments was it.

“DP, you are a tremendous dickhead,” Ron said. “But I’ve seen a lot of dicks come and go at Goldlynch and none of them have your touch. You shit money. Pick your team. You get a blank check this quarter. Get me 15 percent-plus returns and you get another one next quarter. See how we play this game?”

Good times. Slow fucking elevator. Red Bull No. 2.

Editor’s Note: I am currently shopping this short story to literary markets. With a little luck, I’ll provide a link to the published version in the near future. Fingers crossed!

Elizabeth Lake

IMG_4270

Epic. That was the only word that came to mind.

Charlie surveyed the snow-capped 10,000-foot rocky peaks before him, split by a deep valley and winding glacier-fed streams that led the way to Elizabeth Lake. Glacier National Park was everything Charlie ever imagined – remote and untamed. He and his three oldest friends had finally reached the Chief Mountain trailhead that marked the real start of their trip.

“Guys, look. It’s Canada. Fuck you, pussies!” Mitch Berg, better known as Shitberg since time immemorial, unfurled one middle finger and grabbed his crotch in the general direction of the U.S.-Canada border station just down the road.

“Great to see you’re still an asshole, Shitberg,” Frank said. “What did Canada ever do to you?” Frank had once been the wildest guy Charlie knew. He would eat, drink, smoke or snort any substance put in front of him. Anything. But unlike Shitberg, he managed to grow up, get married, have kids and get fat like every other well paid white collar man in Houston.

“Figures Franky Fatass would love the Canucks. You’re a pussy just like them. I bet you and every one of those dirty Canucks would wash the Queen’s taint with your tongues.” All class all the time, Shitberg mimicked the motion he had just described.

“That’s disgusting,” Charlie said. “Have you guys even bothered to look around? Look at where we are. This is the trip we’ve always wanted to do together.”

“This ain’t no trip I’ve always wanted to do. I said we needed to go to Vegas. I belong in the woods like I belong in water. Those are places black folks go to die.”

Rob was the biggest enigma of the quartet, all friends since grade school. A decorated member of the Coast Guard, highly intelligent, and an insatiable appetite for any white woman who even approximated the naughty librarian look. He clung to certain black stereotypes like he needed them to remain a card-carrying African American. He took pride in not being able to swim, he refused to drink any alcohol but cognac, and he believed nature was something you needed a shotgun to keep out of your house. He was also the most stubborn man Charlie had ever met, which made it all the more shocking he had finally consented to join the guys for two nights in the far corner of northwest Montana.

Charlie loved camping, he loved hiking, he loved the wild. Working for a nonprofit back east to preserve the Chesapeake Bay, he spent most of his days outside. But Glacier was a different beast altogether, and he had reasons for all of his best friends to experience the adventure with him.

Frank had gotten soft – literally – earning high six figures as a senior engineer for ExxonMobil down in Houston. Rob needed someone to hit him over the head with nature because once he actually tried something new, he usually loved it. Shitberg, well, Charlie’s only slim hope for Shitberg was some sort of spiritual awakening that could overcome pretty much everything about him. If anything could do it, 20 miles through the most beautiful backcountry around, to Elizabeth Lake and back, was it.

“Hey Frank, you must be hungry just thinking about having to do this hike. You want some hot sauce?” Shitberg unclipped his bear spray and pointed it in Frank’s face. One well aimed shot of the high-power pepper spray would be enough to send any grizzly running for the hills.

“You might want to save that for the bears. There are plenty of them out here. How about a cookie instead?”

A handsome, lean, extremely tan man stood, his arm outstretched between Frank and Shitberg, holding a bag of chocolate chip cookies. He might have been the same age as Charlie and the gang, but he somehow looked younger, more alive. The grin on his face was sincere, as if nothing could be better than meeting a group of fellow hikers.

“Who the fuck is this guy?”

“It’s someone being nice, Shitberg. Something you have no fucking clue about,” Frank said.

“Actually, my name’s Dan. Nice to meet you guys. You headed down to Elizabeth Lake tonight?”

“Yeah,” Frank said. “How ‘bout you guys?”

“Yeah, us, too.” Dan gestured to a man and woman in their mid-30s a few parking spots away. “My friends over there are doing a bit of traveling and I offered to show them Glacier.”

“So you’re some kind of expert, huh? Are you one of those nature guides for pussies who can’t hack it on their own?” To Shitberg, all human beings were enemies worthy of his derision until proven otherwise.

“Not exactly, but I know the place. I grew up down the road in Babb, sort of an honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe. Now I work around Glacier on wildlife studies and conservation projects. Tagging and tracking threatened species, measuring how increased tourism impacts the native grizzly population. Stuff like that.”

Charlie could feel himself getting excited. Dan was a kindred spirit.

“Hey, if you guys are hiking to Elizabeth Lake, mind if we join you? We don’t know the flora and fauna out here, and it’d be great to have someone to educate these cro magnons.”

As soon as Charlie asked, he saw the couple’s heads snap up, trepidation in their faces. Nothing like having Shitberg around to make a great first impression.

Dan felt their stare, but appeased them with a reassuring smile.

“Sure, we’d love to hike in with you guys. You make so much noise, we won’t have to worry about spooking any grizzlies.”

“Are you kidding me,” Shitberg said. “Fat Frank’s ass smells so bad, there won’t be a grizzly anywhere within 10 miles.”

“Actually, when you’re in Glacier, you can bank on there being a grizzly a lot closer than that, especially when the smells are … interesting.”

Rob picked up a discarded walking stick on the edge of the parking lot and started swinging it like a baseball bat, mumbling something that went about like: “Ah, hell no. Told Charlie I won’t doin’ this shit.”

Dan managed to take Rob’s mind off the dangers of nature, real and perceived, in the first five minutes of the hike. And the couple turned out to be friendly, after all.

The guy was Michael, an Aussie from Brisbane and a serious adventurer. He was traveling the world when he met Kate 18 months ago. They had met Dan a year ago in the jungle in Vietnam where he invited them to Glacier.

“Most people say they’ll come visit, but it never happens because it’s so hard to get out here,” Dan said.

“I don’t bull shit. When I say I’m going to do something, I bloody do it,” Michael said. Kate beamed at Michael, love in her eyes and the half carat diamond studs in her ears.

After two miles, the group emerged from a thick alpine forest into a vast meadow carpeted in an artist’s palette of colors. The snaking Belly River shimmered to the west, as hauntingly blue as the glacial ice that fed it. Small stands of birch and pines dotted the landscape, looking like apartment complexes for bears. But above all, the mountains loomed. They formed a backdrop dominating the landscape, a constant visual contrast of black rock and thick veins of shining white snowpack not yet melted by the early summer sun.

“They look like walls to me,” Rob said. “Don’t you know you can’t be putting a black man behind stone walls.”

“He’s a funny guy.” The easy grin rose onto Dan’s face as smoothly as the sun rises in the morning.

Dan was like Captain Planet.He could name every wild flower, from the flaming orange and red Indian’s paint brush to the tall, white-capped bear grass. He spotted deer and elk, even big horn sheep high on the mountaintops. He told them the history of the park, taught them about his work trying to stop invasive lake trout, and bewildered them with tales of 50- and 60-mile cross-country ski trips across Glacier, alone, in the dead of winter to trap and tag the native wolverine population.

“When you guys get back in civilization, you’ve got to Google ‘M3 badass of the week.’ It’s about this wolverine we tagged named M3 – Male No. 3,” Dan said. “M3 once ate through an eight-inch log to break into a trap just to kill the rival wolverine inside.”

“Bullshit!” Shitberg offered.

“I’m serious. All that was left was a little bit of fur and bloodstains on the snow. After he killed the wolverine, M3 ran straight up the face of that mountain over there – Mount Cleveland, the highest peak in the entire park – and over to Canada in less than four hours. He’s unreal. If I had my choice of running into an angry bear or an angry wolverine, I’d take a bear every time.”

The group rounded a bend in another stretch of thick forest and saw, to Rob’s great pleasure, a 100-foot-long swinging bridge over the rushing Belly River. Rob charged ahead with the walking stick he had found, ignoring the “one person at a time” sign as he barged past Kate. He turned back to the group on the opposite bank, slammed his stick down on the bridge and in his best Gandalf voice bellowed, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

No one was laughing. It didn’t take Rob long to notice the looks of fear on his companions’ faces. He followed their gaze to his left. On the bank were two black bear cubs splashing in a shallow eddy, and in the shadow of the tree line was an adult female – their mother.

Rob turned and froze, staring at the bear. She was maybe 30-feet from him.

Everyone froze, except Dan. He moved slowly across the bridge. “Don’t stare at her Rob. Look at the ground in front of her. Back away slowly.”

Rob listened, but the mother bear started to stamp the ground with her forepaws.

“Fuck this,” Shitberg said, “I’m going to shoot that bitch.” Shitberg shouldered past Charlie as he unzipped his pack and drew out a Glock.

“No, he can’t shoot it!” Kate cried.

Shitberg stumbled across the unsteady bridge, Glock brandished in front of him. His weight shook the entire structure, and Rob almost fell over trying to back away from the bear.

“Shitberg, stop!” Charlie yelled. “If you knock Rob over, that bear is going to charge him when he’s down.”

Shitberg stopped in the middle of the bridge, but he didn’t lower his gun.

“That’s a 100-foot shot and you’re on a moving surface. You’ll never hit that bear. You’ll miss it, or you’ll wing it and just piss it off. Put the gun down.”

With all the noise, the bear was distracted from its deadly focus on Rob. When it took in the growing crowd of humans on the bridge, it thought better of the situation and bolted for the woods – its two cubs chasing not far behind.

The verbal beating Shitberg took from Rob left his pride so wounded he took to quietly grumbling to himself for the next hour about it being his right to bring a gun into a national park. At one point, he informed Frank that “waterfalls and rainbows are for unicorns and faggots” when Frank tried to get him to hike a side trail down to Dawn Mist Falls, an 80-foot waterfall with a floating spray of mist that reflected a perfect rainbow.

Charlie wouldn’t have blamed Michael, Kate and Dan for splitting off after someone they didn’t really know started waving a gun around, but Dan made an effort to smooth things over.

“Most people never see a bear in Glacier. You can’t blame anyone for a bad reaction in a situation like that. He just wanted to protect his friend, as stupid and dangerous as it was.”

He told Michael and Kate in confidence later that with the freak blizzards that blew through Glacier this time of year, it was just too dangerous to diverge from the itinerary they left with the park rangers in the backcountry permit office, so they had best get used to the idea of sleeping in the same camp with their new acquaintances.

By the time they reached the small foot of Elizabeth Lake campsite, the group’s mood was sour.

Charlie was relieved to see people sitting in the site’s shared fire ring and eating area, just to have someone new to ease the tension. Wishful thinking, as it turned out.

Dan, Michael and Kate were already to the side pulling out food and prepping their packs to go up over the bear pole when Charlie, Shitberg, Frank and Rob made their way to the fire pit where the two men sat.

“Howdy,” Frank said.

The two men stared at them, but didn’t say a word. Didn’t move. Their stares were cold, searching.

“Y’all camping here?” Charlie broke in before Shitberg said something offensive. “I think we might be sharing camp with you tonight.”

Nothing. Silence. More stares.

At the very moment it became too awkward to bear, the one with a scraggly beard that looked more like a few long, curly public hairs pasted on his cheek spoke.

“We’re camping here.” That was it. The other one, clean shaven with glasses and a boy’s face, never said a word. Never budged.

“Umm, alright. Well, I’m Charlie, that’s Frank, Rob and Mitch…just call him Shitberg. We’re going to pick our sites and set up camp. See you guys later.”

“Shitberg,” the boyish-looking one said, as if he was trying the name on like new skin. “Shitberg.”

“I’m Nevis,” said the pube-face guy. “This is Benson. The sites up next to ours are open.”

“Fuck that, I’m not sleeping anywhere near those guys” Shitberg whispered to Rob, not so discretely.

The gang walked up the trail toward Elizabeth Lake, away from the common area. “Shitberg,” Charlie heard Benson say one last time.

The trail emerged from the wood to reveal the smooth glass surface of a large lake, reflecting without flaw the towering rocky peaks that hugged its shores on three sides. Spring waterfalls poured off the tops of the peaks, boring caves down through the veins of snow tucked into the crags of the mountains only to emerge again below as trickles cascading into the lake.

Among the limited supply of campsites, two faced the lake and its storybook view. Rob was standing in the middle of one of the sites pointing his walking stick at the perimeter babbling about “neither white man nor bear shall pass this line, but white ladies can come on down.”

Shitberg was pushing Frank down the short entry trail from the second site.

“I got here first, Shitberg. You can’t just take my spot.”

“Fuck you, Frank. I’m not sleeping by those fucking creepers. You’re just going to have to jerk off quietly so they don’t try to crawl in the tent with you.”

“Fine, Shitberg. Fine,” Frank said. “You can have it. I hope a giant fucking sinkhole opens up and takes this site and you with it.”

Frank stomped off almost 300 yards, around a curve in the lake to a point where the stony shore was broad. He slammed down his pack and began to pitch his tent.

“What do you boys think of this view? It never gets old.” Dan had emerged on the shore from his site. He picked up a smooth, brick red stone and flicked it across the undisturbed reflection of the mountains, breaking the calm with a chain of ripples as the stone skipped across the surface.

As Dan followed the stone, his eyes changed focus from the lake to the shore beyond it.

“What’s he doing?”

“Shitberg stole his site and he wants to be by the lake so he’s setting up over there,” Charlie said. “I know he’s supposed to camp in the designated area, but it can’t hurt for him to camp on the shore, can it?”

“It won’t hurt the park, but it might hurt him. Bears are more likely to investigate the scent of one person than a camp full of them.”

By the time they came back to the common area to start dinner, Frank couldn’t shut up about how superior his spot was to anything in the camp.

“I can see it all. I’m going to see every single star in the sky tonight.”

“Have you looked up lately, Frank? You ain’t seeing shit if those clouds keep coming,” Rob said.

“Easy bro, don’t be harsh,” said a huge man with the longest, thickest, nappiest head of hair Charlie had ever seen. Everything about him was super-sized, from his towering height to his bulging forearms to the black snakes he called dreadlocks. Charlie didn’t know hippies came in extra large. This giant Hippie Dude strolled into camp with a 20-something Hippie Chick who Charlie would have found highly attractive if not for the two dozen lip, nose, ear and chin rings laid through her face like a railroad track. They were old friends of Dan just passing through to say hello.

Charlie followed the Hippie Dude’s glance up to see the gathering clouds. The darkening sky above had changed from navy to charcoal grey. Glimpsing around trees down the long belly of the lake, he could see a wall of cloud. In Glacier’s deep and dramatic valleys like the one that housed Elizabeth Lake, weather wasn’t able to go up and over the mountains, so it just shot through the twists and turns at ground level.

On cue, a frigid wind kicked up. Everyone crowded as tightly as possible around the small campfire’s pathetic flame, which still felt like the center of the sun compared to everything outside its glow.

“I hate the cold,” Kate reminded Michael several times, despite being bundled in a high priced mountain climbers jacket that was worth as much as Charlie made in a week.

“If you want to warm up, this’ll do the trick,” Hippie Dude said, producing a clear baggie full of rich green buds. “In honor of Dan, just the man we were hoping to see this summer.”

Hippie Dude rolled a generous joint and passed it to Dan, who took a small hit to avoid being rude, then quickly passed it on to Michael and Kate, who took their turns. Rob made his excuses about being in the Coast Guard while explaining how he would have back in the day. Shitberg informed the group he was a lawyer and didn’t smoke weed like a degenerate douchebag. Much to Charlie’s surprise, Frank took the joint in hand and pulled in a massive hit.

“Frank, you haven’t smoked since college. You had to stop because it makes you paranoid,” Charlie said. “Do you think it’s a good idea to have a freak out way out here?”

Frank gave Charlie a smug stare as he took another deep hit, which he promptly choked on.

“Easy, big man,” Hippie Dude said. “There’s enough to go around. No need to get greedy.”

As he had done all day, Dan showed his knack for lightening the mood.

“You know that bear you tangoed with today, Rob? She was just a black bear – maybe 150 pounds. Out here, we just consider black bears nuisance animals. Like raccoons. A big guy like you should have just shooed that little girl off.”

“Shoot, that’s all you Dan the Man. I’m not messing with no bear. Did you see those teeth? I don’t care how much it weighed, that bitch looked hungry.”

“You’re a smart man, Rob.”

“What about you, Dan? I bet you’ve had some close calls; all the time you’ve spent out here on your own,” Charlie said.

“Well, yeah. I’ve had a few. I’ve had bears stand up on me. I’ve come between a mother grizzly and her cubs.” Dan went quiet for a moment. Kate snuggled closer to Michael on the large wooden log they shared. A cold wind ignited a new bundle of dry pine twigs from the dying embers, and the orange glow seemed to illuminate only Dan’s face from the encroaching dark.

“I’ve actually survived an attack, with contact. I was skiing into the park last fall for a study and I started seeing tracks. I knew I was in trouble because it was a terrible year for huckleberries, and the bears were hungry. We’ve never had so many bears showing up in campsites and going after livestock.

She came out of the woods right in front of me. She started popping her jaw, clacking her teeth, stamping the ground. I had my bear spray out, but the wind was all wrong, blowing right back in my face. I didn’t have time to adjust my position before she charged. I didn’t even have time to get out of my skis. I don’t care how much training you’ve had, when a 400-pound grizzly charges you, you’re going to panic. I fell down. All I could do was close my eyes, turn my head, and start spraying. I lifted my other arm and covered my neck, and that’s when I felt her hit my side. I thought I was dead. I don’t know how long I lay there. Maybe 10 seconds. Maybe a minute. But when I finally opened my eyes, she was gone.”

“Damn,” Rob said. It was the only sound in the woods.

“A week later, that bear jumped two hunters. She tore one’s arm right off and he bled to death. The other hunter shot her and killed her. She had cubs so the park service had to catch them and sent them off to zoos. Once they learn to hunt people from their mother, they’ll do it their whole lives.”

As Dan’s final words escaped into the forest, they were answered by the sporadic big drops that signal the start of a coming shower.

“I think that’s our sign to float on. We’re set up at the head of the lake” Hippie Dude said. “How about it, babe?”

“It’s nature, man,” Hippie Chick answered.

As they departed, the quiet was shattered. The bottom fell out of the sky and ice cold rain spat through the thin canopy of pine overhead. Then it began to mix with sleet. Covered by a small tarp, the gang wolfed down the mac and cheese Charlie had just finished boiling.

Even in those miserable conditions, Frank said it was the best mac and cheese he had ever had.

“That’s because you’re a fat fuck and you’re high as a fucking kite,” Shitberg said. Frank laughed, and half-chewed macaroni noodles poured out of his mouth onto Shitberg’s lap. The entire crew burst into a fit of laughter like it was contagious.

After running a trash bag up the bear pole, the guys sprinted off to their tents through a blanket of darkness, racing for cover before getting completely soaked. Frank disappeared into the night, lost to the fog and black of night, but Charlie could still see the light from his headlamp dancing against the falling rain.

Charlie felt perfectly warm tucking into his winter sleeping bag after stripping off his wet clothes. Despite some rough patches, he was excited his friends actually went off to bed in good spirits.

Charlie drifted into a dreamless sleep, his fatigued body and mind both ready to give in to the weight of the exhaustion pressing down on him. He remembered nothing until Frank’s screams.

He had forgotten where he was, but Frank’s blood-curdling screams called him to the zipper that permitted his escape. As he emerged into the woods, the cold sting of the wet frost on his still-bare feet sharpened his senses and reminded him that he was in Glacier, and that Frank had camped out of the site almost a quarter of a mile down the lake shore.

The rain and sleet had stopped, but the fog was thick, opaque like frosted glass. In the hollow space over the lake between Frank and the campsite, the suspended droplets of moisture refracted his screams. It sounded like he was everywhere, nowhere.

Charlie heard Frank’s voice, rotten with fear, yell “no” and “stop.” Then he heard one final scream, a scream of pain, agony. Then silence.

Charlie almost ran into Dan dashing from his site to the shore. Dan didn’t say a word, but the unclipped bear spray in his hand spoke. As they sprinted down the shore, Charlie made out the colorless silhouettes of Rob and Shitberg, wraithlike in the gloom.

Dan yelled for them to wait, and they held up. “If it’s a bear, you might run right into it while it’s in a frenzy. You don’t want that. Start making a lot of noise right now and stay close.”

“Fat Frank’s probably just having a fucking freak out,” Shitberg said. “That asshole can’t handle his weed.”

The four men began clapping and yelling as they moved down the shore more steadily, eyes searching the grey waste. Shitberg clenched his Glock. The outline of Frank’s tent emerged from the murk, or what would more appropriately be described the wreckage of Frank’s tent.

Another object lay next to the tent, but Charlie couldn’t make it out – whether it was a log or a rock. At 20 feet, the color finally started to emerge. There was red. Too much red. A thick, muddy red covered the shreds of Frank’s beige tent. Fleshy bits and chunks hung from the splinters of a shattered tent pole, dripping more red into a pool that soaked the smooth stones of the broad beach.

Charlie fell to a knee and retched. When he looked up, the object was directly in front of him. It wasn’t a log or a rock. It was Frank’s leg – part of it. His thigh down to his knee. Carnage on either end. The rest was nowhere in sight.

Rob stood frozen in silence, his stare locked on the piece of Frank’s leg. Dan surveyed around them, on guard should the bear come back. Only Shitberg seemed able to move. The sick bastard walked slowly to the collapsed front end of the tent. The door rendered moot, Dan lifted the top and looked in a large hole.

“Oh God dammit,” Shitberg said to no one. “It’s a fucking abortion in there. A fucking abortion.”

He dropped the tent and covered his mouth.

At that moment, the others from the camp showed up. Their jackets and boots made Charlie painfully aware of how exposed he was. The stones under his feet were like ice packs. He began to shiver.

“Bear attack,” Nevis proclaimed, pointing at several huge tracks in the soft sand on the gentle slope leading up to the trail from the stony shore.

“No fucking kidding,” Shitberg yelled at him.

“If a bear tries to come into your tent, it has bad intentions,” Benson said in the strained, high pitched voice of a much younger boy. Charlie did not like the sneer on his lip one bit. It was somewhere between lurid curiosity and sick pleasure.

“What’s that?” Dan said to Shitberg, pointing to something dark sitting by the foot of the tent. Shitberg reached down to pick the object up. He shook it, and a splatter of blood whipped across Benson’s shoe. Kate made a sound of revulsion and tucked under Michael’s arm.

“It’s a fucking candy bar wrapper. That fat, high fuck had the munchies. God dammit, Frank.” Shitberg’s eyes began to water.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Rob said. “This place is crazy. I’m not going down like Frank. Let’s go.”

“And how are we supposed to get Frank out, Rob? We can’t just leave him here. He has a wife, three kids. We have to bring his body home,” Charlie said.

“Fine, we’ll carry him out. Let’s go.”

“Frank weighed 300 pounds. We can’t carry him out. It would take everyone here.” Charlie looked to the others for help.

“We have to meet two friends on the west side in two days,” Benson said. “We barely have enough time to get over Logan Pass. We can’t help you.”

Charlie’s gaze turned to Michael and Kate. He was sure he could count on the good-natured Aussie and Dan to help, but Kate spoke first.

“Charlie, I’m sorry about your friend, but this is his fault. I’m not letting some irresponsible fat man from Texas ruin our trip because he couldn’t make it through the night without a candy bar.”

“Bitch, I will kill you where you stand,” Shitberg roared. Michael stepped between them like a bolt, a knife materializing from nowhere into his hand, an inch from Shitberg’s chest.

“Easy, mate. Just calm down and we’ll get this sorted without you getting sorted.” Shitberg backed away, spat and sat down on a rock a few feet away. Rob looked sick as he continued to stare at the gore oozing out of the detached leg.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Dan said. “Rob’s not maintaining. He’s in no state to be out here, so – Charlie – you, Rob and me are going to hike back to the Gable Creek Ranger Station. We’ll leave Rob with the rangers, and they’ll radio in a helicopter to lift Frank out.”

“That bear is still out there. I don’t know if we should split up.”

“The three of you can’t carry him alone, Charlie. You said it yourself. And if you could, the scent would still bring bears down on you.”

Charlie chewed his cheek. The pain of early frostbite on his toes made it impossible to concentrate. He couldn’t think. His oldest friend was dead.

He exhaled. “Fine. What else?”

“First, all of us – Michael and Kate, we need you, too – are going to wrap that tent and … umm, everything else in your tarp, tie it off, and run it up the bear pole. Every bear in a 20-mile radius is already catching wind of this. He needs to go up now if you want his wife to have something to bury.”

“You two,” Dan said to Benson and Nevis as they tried to quietly slip away. “Tell everyone you see about what happened. Tell people they need to go another way. You can manage that, right?”

“Sure,” Nevis said.

“Thanks for nothing, assholes.” Shitberg continued to sulk on his rock.

“Michael and Kate, as soon as we’ve tied Frank’s body, hike down to the head of the lake. Shitberg, you should go with them. You’ll all be safer in a bigger group.”

Charlie still didn’t like it, but he swallowed his protest.

It took them half an hour to collect Frank’s body, wash his camp site down and run the mess up the bear pole. Then and during the hike to Gable Creek with Dan and Rob, Charlie was having a hard time warming his body. Despite doubling up two pair of dry wool socks, his feet stung with cold and his toes felt stuck by large bore needles every step.

He fixated on the pain as the group had fallen into an unsettled silence. No one knew what to say. Idle chit chat seemed pointless. They were walking Frank’s wake.

Charlie and Dan knew better, especially with a known man-killer in the woods, so it was no surprise when they snuck up on a large adult male black bear less than 100 feet from the trail on the edge of a grove of shimmering dwarf birch trees.

Rob bolted.

“Rob, wait,” Charlie yelled.

It was no use. When Rob decided he was going to do something, he did it. And there was no reasoning, nothing you could ever say to stop him.

Dan kept his eyes on the bear, but it didn’t react. After watching Rob, it peacefully returned to the tall grass it had been snacking on. Once out of the bear’s sight, Dan said they needed to track down Rob. People in a panic in the wild could hurt themselves; badly.

Dan started running at measured pace. Charlie tried to follow. He didn’t last five steps before the pain in his feet exploded. White light flashed in his eyes and then his surroundings went dark. It was excruciating.

He yelled to Dan that he couldn’t run; to get Rob without him; that he’d meet them at the ranger station. Dan hesitated a moment, but then turned and ran even faster. Charlie had to remove his hiking boots and socks. It took five minutes of rubbing his feet before any normal sense of feeling came back. His toes were red and swollen.

Charlie had to find a make shift walking stick to help support his weight before he could go any further.

As he struggled down a slippery hill, the trail nothing more than a mud slick after the rain, he noticed several hikers gathered below. He recognized the spot as the short side trail down to Dawn Mist Falls. It was hard to believe it was just yesterday that Frank was posing on the boulders below the gushing waterfall for a photo. That was the last photo that would ever be taken of Frank.

As Charlie approached, his stomach began to clench. The people seemed agitated, scared. And then he saw Dan among them. His face said it all.

“What happened?”

“Someone’s dead down there,” a man with two hiking poles and two sons close by his side answered. “It looks like a bear attack.”

Please no, Charlie thought. How long had Rob and Dan been gone? 20 minutes? 30, maybe? How long would it take? Dan looked aimlessly at the mud, trying to hide from the questions in Charlie’s eyes.

“I wouldn’t go down there,” the man said. Charlie ignored him as he shouldered past the bystanders. He could no longer feel his feet. He could no longer feel his body. He couldn’t see the forest around him. It was all dark, except for the brilliant silver white rush of the waterfall and the swirling red pool of water below it, where a black man in tattered water- and blood-soaked clothes lie mutilated on the bank.

No. Not Rob, too, Charlie thought. How could this happen? Why did he leave the main trail? What kind of fucking psycho bear stalks a group of hikers for miles?

It had to be the same bear. One man-killer was rare enough; two was unbelievable. But why would it have wandered three miles immediately after making a meal of Frank? Charlie wondered if the bear’s appetite was so insatiable that after its first taste of man, it decided to come to the place it knew was most crowded with people. Did Rob somehow think he’d be safe by the waterfall and he walked right into the bear’s trap?

It didn’t add up. It didn’t make any sense to Charlie, but he wasn’t thinking straight anyway. All he could do was look at Rob, still clenching the walking stick from the parking lot. On one end was a lash of blood and a bit of grizzly fur.

Good. Rob would have wanted to go out fighting, not cowering while he got eaten alive by his worst nightmare.

“This bear is a killer, Charlie. Our friends need us.” Dan had emerged at the trailhead. “I told the hikers up there to stay together and get out. They’re going to alert the park rangers on their way out. We have to get back to Shitberg and Kate and Michael.”

“What about Rob?”

“Rob is dead, Charlie. The others are still alive. We need to stick together in as large a group as possible until the helicopter comes to lift us out.”

Charlie was numb. He should have been terrified. A killer bear had already taken two of his best friends and was somewhere in the woods, somewhere very close, but all he could think about were Rob and Frank. No, think wasn’t the right word. His mind was dead. He just saw pictures of their faces, of all of them together when they were teenagers.

Following him in sullen silence, Charlie noticed Dan had started limping, too.

“What happened to you?”

“Me? Ah, I fell running after Rob. The trail was slick. That’s why you’re never supposed to run in the backcountry. I fell into a rock and busted my ribs up pretty good.”

Charlie didn’t have any sympathy. Two of his best friends were dead, and the frostbite on his toes was threatening to stop him from ever making it to the head of Elizabeth Lake.

But they only had to make it back to the foot of the lake before finding Shitberg. As they approached the camp, Charlie looked right to see the blue tarp that held the mess that was Frank’s remains. What he saw was Shitberg with both hands on his Glock, rotating slowly in a circle under Frank’s body.

“What are you doing, Shitberg? You’re supposed to be at the head of the lake.”

“I’m not letting some scum-sucking mother fucking bear snack on Frank. Fuck that. I will shoot every bear in this whole fucking forest if they try to come after him. Look, I already killed one of those ugly sons of bitches.”

“What?” Dan said. “You killed a grizzly? How?” Dan raced into the camp site and Charlie hobbled behind.

“How the fuck do you think, The Man? I shot him right between his beady little Satan eyes and split his skull open with a few 9 millimeters. Yeah, he thought he was going to taste some Shitberger with Frank’s hot sauce on top. Well, fuck you bear. You didn’t know you had just rolled up on I’m the Mother Fucking Shitberg!”

“I know this bear. This was a beautiful bear,” Dan said, crouching down next to the obliterated bone fragments that had been the top half of its skull. He rested his palm on the shaggy fur between its hulking shoulder blades.

“Fuck that beautiful bear. It ate my friend.”

“Wait, how long ago did you shoot it?” Something wasn’t adding up right to Charlie.

“I don’t know, a couple of minutes ago. I’m surprised you guys didn’t hear the shots. I’m still all fucking wigged out. I can’t stop shaking.” Shitberg told the bear to fuck itself and kicked its hulking side, neither having its intended effect on the bear given its current condition.

Charlie and Dan looked at each other.

“Could it be the same bear?” Charlie asked. “Do you think it took off straight from the waterfall back here?”

“Wait, what the fuck are you talking about?” Shitberg said.

“Shitberg, I don’t know how to tell you this. Rob’s dead. It looks like he got killed by a bear. We had to leave his body down by the waterfall. It wasn’t more than an hour ago.”

“What the fuck, man? What the fuck?” Shitberg started to panic. He paced and spun around, his finger never leaving the trigger of his Glock. “No, man. Not Rob. Fuck that. No, no, no.”

Dan spoke calmly. “Take your finger off the trigger, Shitberg. Try to slow down. Try to breath.”

Shitberg threw the gun at him.

“There, Dan the Fucking Man. You know everything; you keep the gun. Because all that experience in the wild has done us a fat fucking load of good so far.” Shitberg stormed off to the lake shore. The cold wind that blew out the storm had churned up the lake surface. The once still mountains now kicked and thrashed in the water, vacillating as if some earthquake for the ages was beginning to fell them.

Dan walked over to Shitberg and set the gun down by his feet, then started to hike out toward the head of the lake. Charlie hung back.

“He’s just trying to help. He’s doing what he’s been taught; what every serious backpacker is taught.” Shitberg turned his shoulder away. He was the only childhood friend left to Charlie, but Charlie did not have it in him to humor Shitberg’s pouting while their lives were still in danger. He turned to walk to the head of Elizabeth Lake.

“Hey, where are you going? Wait for me, man. Don’t leave me here alone with the bear bait.”

Shitberg followed like a recalcitrant puppy, but Charlie paid him no mind. His focus now was on the campsite at the head of the lake. A pair of tents were plainly visible just inside the tree line, but something was off. Charlie didn’t see anyone. Not by the common area, by the lake, by any of the tents or in the woods.

He couldn’t imagine Michael and Kate would be in their tent blind to anything approaching. Dan should be there, too. And where were the inhabitants of the other tent?

“What the fuck are these tracks?”

Charlie looked back to see what Shitberg was looking at. There, in the muddy trail, was a fresh set of animal tracks. Five toes, claws pressing into the soft earth ahead of them. Too small to be bear or mountain lion.

“I think those are wolverine tracks,” Charlie said.

“Oh, hell no! M3 is not going to eat my face off; not after all this.”

Charlie picked up the pace toward camp, the same direction the wolverine tracks headed.

Less than 50 yards from the campsite, Charlie saw it. He expected it this time. Two bodies sprawled out on the ground by their tent. Now he could see the splattered blood sprayed up on their $750 Hilleberg Rogen tent. Charlie could just make out what was left of Kate’s high price winter coat.

“Oh, what the fuck is this?” Shitberg moaned. “I can’t fucking take it anymore, man. I’m gonna be sick, Charlie. What the fuck is going on out here?”

This wasn’t a bear. Wolverine tracks were printed into the mud everywhere, circled around the tent and Michael’s and Kate’s bodies. Their faces and limbs were shredded. Blood, pulp and bits of flesh stuck to their bones like melted cheese and marinara, their gnawed intestines strewn out onto the soft ground around them.

But at that moment, Charlie knew beyond the shadow of any doubt it wasn’t a wolverine that killed Michael and Kate, either. And a bear didn’t kill Frank or Rob. There was a killer, but it wasn’t any wild animal. Someone out there that wanted them to think animals were killing them. It all came clear. Bears didn’t just stalk one group of people up and down the woods. Wolverines didn’t just mutilate people in campsites. It was idiotic, once he thought about it.

“What do you mean it’s a fucking serial killer? Look at these bodies, Charlie. They’re like ground beef. A person couldn’t do that.”

“They could with the right tools. Don’t you remember what Dan said about M3? Wolverines are fearless and relentless. It wouldn’t have run away just because we strolled in to camp. It would have defended its meal. It would have eaten until its stomach exploded.”

Shitberg pondered Charlie’s explanation a moment, then cocked his Glock.

“I bet it was those little shits Nevis and Benson. Rob knew there was something rotten in Chinatown about those fuckers.”

Charlie couldn’t argue. Something was definitely off with those two, but he didn’t have time to think it through before they heard voices coming from the woods ahead.

“Hide,” Shitberg whispered. He sprinted to a tree, waved Charlie to climb into the tent, then sprinted deeper into the woods. Charlie listened, but immediately realized he was a sitting duck if anything happened to Shitberg.

As Charlie bailed out of the tent, he heard four shots ring. He tripped and fell on Michael’s body, smearing his hands in what was left of his chest cavity. It was still warm. He ran until he found Shitberg up the trail, standing over the bodies of Hippie Dude and Hippie Chick.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Shitberg kept repeating. “I saw two people. I thought it was Benson and Nevis.”

“What the fuck, dude? That was not kind.” Hippie Dude sat slouched in the middle of the trail with his hand over his stomach, blood soaking his shirt, two holes marking where Shitberg had shot him. Hippie Chick lay in the trail dead, one bullet through her chest, the other through her eye. Bits of skin hung from her facial piercings.

“Do you mind grabbing the baggie out of my bag, bro. This is not cool, man.”

Shitberg stepped over Hippie Chick and moved behind Hippie Dude, unzipping his bag to produce the same baggie of weed he had shared last night, a glass bowl and a lighter. He packed the bowl and handed it to Hippie Dude with the lighter.

Hippie Dude lit the bright green bud and drew a hit so long and deep that the entire bowl burned down to ash. Hippie Dude’s eyes widened, and then went cold. The bowl fell from his hand. He never even exhaled. The smoke slowly wafted like geysers from the two bullet holes in his stomach.

“I’m going to go to hell. Fuck.” Shitberg picked up the bowl and inhaled, choking on his deep quaff.

“Look, Shitberg, this is a messed up situation, I know. But you thought they were murderers. We can figure this out, but we’ve got to start moving. Benson and Nevis are still out there.”

There were trails around both sides of Elizabeth Lake back to the campsite at the foot of the lake. The killers would expect their prey to stay together to scare off bears, so Charlie and Shitberg would split up instead, always staying in sight on opposite shores of the lake. Benson and Nevis wouldn’t want to expose themselves while someone could see them from the other shore.

Shitberg kept his gun. Charlie took both cans of bear spray.

They had just rounded past the widest part of the lake when Shitberg started waving to hail Charlie. He yelled something, but the sound that made it across the lake was no more than a garbled whisper. Then Shitberg disappeared into the woods, his red Washington Nationals jacket swallowed by the trees.

“Fucking idiot,” Charlie whispered. Then he took off.

He thought he had nothing left, the needles in his otherwise numb feet leaving him clumsy and off balance, but Charlie’s desperation tapped into a new reserve. He ran a mile around the lake to the point where he thought Shitberg had entered the woods.

He was exhausted. Out of breath. Defenseless should Benson and Nevis jump him then.

Charlie edged into the woods and caught a flash of red out of the corner of his eye.

Shitberg’s Nationals jacket was hung by a tree limb; his shoes, pants and sweatshirt neatly folded on the ground below. His gun rested on top of the pile. Charlie picked it up and ejected the clip. The bullets were gone.

He knew Shitberg was dead.

They were screwing with him now. Somehow they knew that Charlie and Shitberg were on to them, so they didn’t even bother killing him like an animal. They took his body and left his stuff to send Charlie a message. We know you know, it said. And you’re next.

Charlie felt everything well up inside him in one pulsing moment, like a volcanic eruption blowing the top clean off a mountain.

“Fuck you, you mother fuckers! I will kill you!” The primordial scream made his will to survive well up inside. He realized he had to start thinking differently. He had to do something rash, unpredictable, something the killers would never be ready for if he was going to get out alive.

Every ounce of his body wanted to run to the ranger station, to let the authorities protect him. But that’s exactly what Benson and Nevis would expect. They could ambush him. He’d never see it coming.

He looked up through a hole in the canopy and saw the snowy peak of one of the 10,000-foot monoliths that protected this valley. He saw the unscalable cliffs, the rock slides, the dripping wet surface.

That was his path to salvation. That was his way out. And if the killers followed him, maybe they’d slip off the side of the mountain and die a slow death so Charlie could have some sense of vengeance.

He started to climb.

It would have been difficult regardless, but the numbness in his toes made it impossible to feel the ground beneath him. He fell, over and again. There was little hope, but to turn back was hopeless. Charlie pressed forward, away from hopelessness. The valley was death. The ridge above was salvation. It would lead him all the way back to the parking lot, to his car, to the key he had hung under the front bumper.

Charlie knew the odds, and he chose to defy them. The rocky mountainside turned into a cliff, but crags and veins of broken rock zigzagged diagonally up its face. It was an expert’s climb, but it could be done. Day after day of kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay watershed had made him strong, but every man has his limit. Charlie was past his. His arms started to go numb like his toes. His biceps didn’t respond when he asked them to pull his body. But he slipped, and flopped, and grabbed his way up. Up and up.

How long it took, he couldn’t say. The valley below was cast in shadow, but the sun shone brightly behind Charlie as he reached up to what he thought was one more ledge. He couldn’t pull his body up, so he took yet another risk. His feet dangling below into the abyss, Charlie began to swing his torso back and forth. With one final surge, he swung his leg up to the ledge and stared 1,000 feet down a vertical face to the mountain slope far below. Somehow, his dead toes caught on a groove in the rock. He carefully worked the rest of his body up to see that this was no ledge; it was the top of the mountain. He made it. He was going to live.

As Charlie stood up and began to dust himself off, he heard a noise. Clapping.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Each clap mocked him more than the last.

“Well done, Charlie. I didn’t think you had it in you.” Charlie heard Dan’s voice, then saw him step out from behind a cut in the rock. “I was just sure I was going to see a good tumble, but you’re developing a habit of making things harder for me.”

“You? Why? … What did you do with Shitberg?” Charlie couldn’t move. The climb had sapped his will to fight. Both cans of bear spray had fallen out of his pocket during the climb.

“That piece of shit you call a friend? I had to make him suffer for shooting that beautiful, innocent creature. There are so few bears and so many assholes. I put an elk antler through his chest a half dozen times and left him naked bleeding to death in the woods. When the rangers find broken elk antler splintered in his bones, they’ll say he’s the first person killed by an elk in Glacier National Park history.

I thought about stamping big horn sheep horns into your chest and leaving you for dead on the cliff. I’ve got a whole bag of animal teeth and claws and horns to kill you with. But one too many one-of-a-kind deaths might look too suspicious. So instead you get to go over that cliff you just worked so hard to climb.”

“I get it,” Charlie said. “I see. You’re a fucking eco-terrorist. You’re taking it out on us because of what society is doing to grizzlies. But why us? I work for an environmental nonprofit, for God’s sake. What did I do?”

“You? You’re a good guy, Charlie. You were just in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong friends. I lured Michael and Kate out here to kill them, pretentious posers burning carbon dioxide to fly all over the world like it’s their personal playground. But your friends were even bigger assholes. An Exxon oil man? A soldier? A fucking Washington lobbyist? They all deserved to die. I was going to let you go to tell the tale, until you figured it out. You saw right through it, Charlie. Those in touch with nature understand wild animals, but the world thinks they’re all monsters. They’ll buy it. They’ll eat it up. Every TV station, magazine and newspaper in the country will come to Glacier to report on the killer beasts. After a week, they’ll leave, but the tourists won’t come back.

With any luck, the National Park Service’ll shut access to whole stretches of backcountry. Those bastards let Glacier turn into a fucking zoo. If the park service can’t manage a resource this magnificent, I’m going to do it.”

The cool, calm façade Dan had kept up the last 36 hours had melted away. He was fidgeting, pacing, almost yelling at Charlie. A new ray of hope emerged in the back of Charlie’s mind. He was exhausted, his body defeated, but Dan was manic and ranting. Charlie needed him to lose control.

“So it makes you feel good to kill innocent people to protect bears? You’ve actually convinced yourself you’re doing the right thing? What a one-of-a-kind psychopath you are.”

Dan stared at Charlie, a golden glimmer in his eyes as the yellow sun shone across his body and made him look like some kind of god framed against the blue sky.

“You think I’m the only one?”

“Benson and Nevis!” They were part of it all along, Charlie thought.

“Benson and Nevis? Those flamers? No, no, no, Charlie. They’re as harmless as fat free yogurt. Gay lovers that come up here every summer to get away from the bigots in Montana, and meet up with other men. Haven’t you heard? The backcountry is one big gay orgy every summer. No, it wasn’t them. River and Solstice had the great pleasure of killing Frank and those rich assholes. Oh, how bad I wanted to kill Frank. I wanted to jam an oil pipe down his throat and drown that fat fuck in black crude, but I had to lay low and earn your trust.”

Charlie smiled. A wicked, awful smile.

“What are you grinning at Charlie? The irony of peaceful hippies killing? Hippies aren’t just stereotypes. You mock them. Call them Hippie Dude, Hippie Chick, but they feel the earth’s pain with me. They knew what needed to be done.”

Charlie’s grin grew broader. He started to laugh. Dan’s face turned red.

“No, I guess it’s not the irony. I think you’re just losing it, Charlie. I think it’s time for you to die.”

“You’re right, Dan the Man, it is the irony. It’s just too ironic that my friend you hated so much capped those fucking hippies without even knowing they were killers. The hippies are dead, Dan-o. Smoking joints in the Big Dispensary in the Sky.”

Charlie started laughing again. This time a hysterical laugh. He couldn’t help himself.

“Lie,” Dan shouted, but his face showed he knew otherwise. He charged.

Time slowed, and Charlie remembered. He remembered Dan’s fall on the rocks. It wasn’t a fall at all. Rob had figured him out and fought back before Dan killed him. Rob was a big, strong man, and a strike or two from that heavy walking stick would have broken ribs.

As Dan bore down on him, Charlie launched his body, turning every ounce of his weight into a projectile. The impact against Dan’s ribcage caused a sickening pop inside his ribs. Dan’s grunt turned into a howl of pain, but it disappeared as the air in his lungs was forced out. Charlie unleashed a torrent of right hooks into Dan’s hurt side. One after another as he pushed, pushed Dan around, and then back toward the cliff. Just as he was ready to send Dan hurtling over the edge, Dan realized what was happening. With a surge of adrenaline, he grabbed Charlie’s jacket and tried to spin him around.

They both went over the edge. Charlie watched Dan plummet 1,000 feet in a flash. His sprawling body shattered on the rock below like a dropped melon. Charlie couldn’t yet grasp why he hadn’t fallen arm-in-arm with Dan, and then he turned, ever so slowly. His jacket had caught on a rock at the cliff’s edge; he was dangling like a freshman hung from a locker. This is why you buy the expensive gear, Charlie thought. No rips or tears, guaranteed for life.

Late in the night, Charlie hobbled cold and weak to the Canadian border crossing. Startled from his copy of Hunting Illustrated, the U.S. border guard gawked in stunned horror when Charlie slapped his dirty face and bloody hands against the closed window.

It was over. Finally over.

The border guard called in the park rangers and police. Authorities everywhere had heard about the bear attack at Dawn Mist Falls and had already discovered a series of gruesome animal killings in the park. Search parties had been all over the trails looking for missing groups and evacuating all hikers out of the backcountry. The border agent said the last 12 hours had been pandemonium.

There’s an understatement, Charlie thought.

But when the police brought Charlie in for questioning and it was time for him to explain everything that had happened to him, to his murdered friends, in the last two days, something didn’t feel right. He opened his mouth expecting to tell the detectives how they had been set up to die by Dan and the hippies. How they were supposed to become a national story that would drive Glacier’s tourist numbers down, maybe even get the park closed.

But that’s not what came out. He heard himself lie about the bear they ran off from Frank’s tent, how Shitberg had later shot it when it came back to finish them off. How they tried to get to the ranger station to report what happened, but were attacked again. How they found Michael and Kate at the head of Elizabeth Lake, and how Shitberg had panicked when he saw movement in the woods and shot the hippies dead. How Shitberg lost it and ran off after he killed them, and Charlie hadn’t seen him since. How he and Dan had feared for their lives in the valley, and tried to climb out to escape, only for Dan to fall tragically to his death.

It was so unbelievable, they believed it. How else would all those bodies have been mutilated in ways that only a bear or wolverine could do?

Charlie would have done anything to bring his friends back, but that wasn’t going to happen. Being killed by wild animals was tragic, but that story would allow their families to heal and avoid the festering hate that lingers for years after a loved one’s murder. Their legacy as a cautionary tale would do far more good than becoming caricatures in some made-for-TV movie about the bear claw serial killers.

In the end, Dan was right. Glacier needed protection. If Charlie couldn’t save his friends, at least he could save Glacier. Close the floodgate, shut down the rotating doors of disrespectful tourists destroying the beauty and serenity and wildlife that made it one of the last special places in America.

Charlie closed his eyes and begged his friends for forgiveness. As far as anyone would ever know, he led them to their grisly deaths. And through their death, new life for the grizzlies of Glacier.

The most irrelevant game

Blimey, if it isn’t the bean and toast eating bastard himself! How’s it going man? You enjoying not having to worry about dental hygiene anymore? Find a nice snaggle-tooth Manchester bird to settle down with on cold nights?

No, it’s fine. I’m on a train. On my way to the Congressman’s funeral.

Are you serious? You haven’t heard? My God, the BBC has its head so far up its ass selling you people socialist propaganda. It’s been all over the news here. The Congressman, as in my Congressman, the guy I worked for the last four years. He got shot. He got shot in a fucking duel.

No, I’m totally serious. A fucking duel. Like pistolas. High noon on a dusty road.

Yeah, one might say he lost.

This story is currently being pitched and is therefore temporarily removed to comply with many publications’ publishing guidelines. With any luck, this note will soon be replaced by a link to the story as published by the world’s smartest utopia of excellent short fiction. 

The Travel Less Roaded

Life changes are afoot!

For the first time in my life, I’m going to fully dedicate myself to creative writing. I’ve accepted an offer of admission to attend the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where I’ll start work on my Master’s of Science in Creative Writing degree (that’s right, people, I will be a full blown scientist of creative writing when I’m done).

I’ve put my notice in at work and the boat leaves for the UK on August 15 (quite literally, the boat – the Queen Mary 2, to be exact).

So what happens between now and August? Well, I start developing the habits of a writer – lots of reading, writing every day. But not before a little celebration first. The wife and I couldn’t possibly pass up an opportunity to mark this momentous life change without a good old fashioned right of passage.

Se we’re packing my crusty Nissan Versa up with the dog, a tent, a couple of sleeping bags and not nearly enough pairs of socks and going on a road trip across America from June 1 to July 6.

During that time, the wife and I are going to be blogging together on our new blog – The Travel Less Roaded, so please check it out and see if we’re dropping by a town near you. In July, jayhodgkins.com will be my full time writing home base.

Here’s to hoping a little life, love, the pursuit of happiness and some overseas education inspires plenty of enrapturing new prose. Until then, I’ll let the words of others explain myself:

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” – Paulo Coelho

“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.” – from Baz Luhrmann’s Wear Sunscreen