Broken – a short story

The coffee mug slipped out of my hand. I watched it, seemingly in slow motion, as it fell to the floor. I wondered if this might be my lucky day, and it wouldn’t break. That was a vain thought, and I knew better. When it hit the hard Saltillo tile floor, it exploded and sent shards of pottery across the kitchen. “Oh well,” I thought, “at least it didn’t have coffee in it!” By the time that I’d swept up the pieces the muffins were ready. I took them out of the oven and placed them and the fresh coffee on the kitchen counter. I hoped that the aroma would draw out my visiting daughter and son-in-law. It seemed to have my desired effect, and they emerged smiling

It was an inviting Houston spring morning. We took our muffins and coffee outside and sat around the patio table. The dogs greeted us thrusting their soft expectant noses in our laps. Their tails waged in happy greeting. The garden, always its best during the spring, was bursting with growth, and our roses bloomed in a magnificent profusion of color. The setting was peacefully idyllic. For a while, we chatted about the garden, and then my daughter turned to me and casually asked, 

“Mum, what did you break this morning?”

I had already forgotten my mishap, and so I replied, “Oh, nothing, just a coffee mug. Why do you ask?

She smiled and looked at her husband, “This morning David remarked that he hadn’t heard anything being broken this visit. I was just chiding him when we heard the crash echoing down the hall. We had to laugh because he is so right!

I nodded in accord. Sometimes I wonder why I break so many things. Is it because I move too fast, or is it my eyesight or perhaps eye/hand coordination, or merely a case of pathological clumsiness? It has always been a problem. Nowadays, I am thankful for Replacements Inc which I have bookmarked in my computer. My casual one item accidents are so commonplace that they don’t upset the household. Sitting there sipping coffee and enjoying the spring air, I let my daughter’s question prompt my recollection of a more dramatic calamity during my early teens. Looking back, I wondered whether it was the natural precursor or jinx which set me on my clumsy path

It happened when I was growing up in Durham in the north of England. From time to time, my parents gave dinner parties. My mother was a superb cook, and my father had an excellent wine cellar, and so these parties were elaborate affairs. Guests were first ushered into our formal ‘drawing room’ with its full-length pale blue curtains, and robin’s-egg-blue upholstered chairs. Here they were served my father’s signature ‘gin and it” cocktail. After an appropriate time, the party would adjoin to the adjacent dining room where a magnificent table awaited them. Against the backdrop of full-length golden- -yellow damask draped windows stood a long mahogany table polished to such a high gloss that you could see your reflection in its surface. Each place setting was immaculate, fine China, antique three-pronged Georgian silver, crystal glasses, brilliant linen and sparkling candles in silver candelabra

My mother didn’t have kitchen help so first course was generally already set out on the table. My father usually poured a light white wine to accompany this delicacy. When it was finished my parents would hurry the dirty dishes out of the room. The kitchen was remote from the dining room, and so they stacked the dirties on our large breakfast table in our breakfast room adjoining the kitchen. With a flourish, my mother would then present her main dish, and my father would pour an accompanying wine. So, the meal progressed, the dirties were again whisked into the breakfast room, and desert was served together with a sweet white wine. When they had finished eating they would go back to the drawing room to drink coffee and nibble on After Eight chocolates. I imagine that my father served after dinner drinks, brandy and scotch, although I don’t remember. Conversation would wax loud, and they sat and talked until late

While the dinner was in progress on my sister, and I were banished to our room. My parents didn’t have a dish-washer and so after the guests left they would clear the table and slowly work their way through the accumulation of dirty dishes stacked upon the breakfast room table. On the occasion of my recollection, my sister and I decided that we would creep downstairs and do the washing-up as a surprise for our parents

The design and layout of our kitchen was a mess. Looking back, I am amazed that my mother managed to produce her trade-mark culinary marvels in such poor surroundings. It was a large room but, unlike modern American kitchens, it didn’t have lengths of built-in cabinets or continuous counters or an island. Along the side with a window was a large double sink with draining boards on either side and beyond these on either side were full height built-in cabinets in which china and glass were stored. My mother had two trestle tables which she placed in front of these built-ins to serve as staging areas / work surfaces when the ‘good’ china and glass were not in use. On the occasion of a dinner party, they were pulled out into the room to give access to the cabinets. Along an adjacent side was the oven, cook-top, another small table, and tiny under-counter style refrigerator. The other sides were mostly taken up by doors, larder door (it is cold enough in the north of England for the larder to serve like a refrigerator), an outside door, and the breakfast room door leading into the rest of the house. My sister and I adopted the two trestle tables as staging areas and began with the glass.

We took turns being washer-up and drier. Sixty glasses got washed and successfully put away. Then we began on the plates, bread plates, appetizer plates, and dessert plates all without mishap. The next step was the dinner plates which we stacked on one of the trestle tables ready to wash. That was when I noticed that the heavy Waterford crystal water jug was also on the trestle table. I decided that it could be emptied and put away without washing and took it off the table.  To my horror the table tilted and deposited all twelve crown-something dinner plates on the floor. They all shattered

At this point, I showed tremendous presence of mind and had to comment that at least they were still dirty! Looking back, I can only speculate that sometimes nervous laughter is the best way to relieve tension. We shoveled up the mess, and disposed of the broken pieces in the trash. We swept and washed the floor and finished our self-imposed task by washing and polished the antique silver flat-ware. By now the enormity if the breakage had begun to sink in and knowing how wild my mother could be I decided that I’d rather not face her initial outburst and that the better part of valor was to retire to my bedroom

The dinner party broke up soon after I went upstairs. When my parents returned to the breakfast room and kitchen to begin their clean-up my mother’s first comment was

“It’s immaculate – so clean!” Then she looked around and asked, “But, where’s Jane?” I’m sure that my absence was odd and that she wished to thank us together.

My sister, with her honed sense of drama, responded. “Oh, Jane ……, – she’s upstairs committing suicide!

The Locked Room – short story

Philip stood next to his parents and stared at the locked door. It was obviously a bedroom door except the hardware, unlike the other bedroom door privacy knob-sets in this luxurious ski rental property was a deadbolt lock. An elegant gold-tone plaque was attached to the door; on it, in black letters, was the word “Ursula.” Philip looked quizzically at his dad.

Sensing his son’s question, his father returned his glance and remarked: “Yep, I agree. A dead-bolt locked bedroom in a rental property doesn’t make sense. I can’t imagine why an owner would want to turn a four-bedroom, sleeps-eight, into a three-bedroom, sleeps-six. I can only assume that it has been converted to some kind of store room.”

“Okay. Dad,” responded his eighteen-year-old son, “but why the second-best bedroom on this upper floor, why not one of the lower level bedrooms like the one I am to sleep in?”

His mother looked at the two and chimed in, “I agree with you, Philip. What’s more there are almost a dozen lockers in the mud room and a couple of locked closets in the other bedrooms all with names on them. Surely there couldn’t have been a need for an additional store room. In my book, it is very odd!”

Philip’s father disliked conundrums and so, he waved his hand dismissively and turned away from the offending door. “I say, whatever the reason, we should be happy as it got us this lovely extra-large home with the three bedrooms that we need together with all the amenities of a larger home, Jacuzzi, sauna, large dining and living room, the list goes on!”

At that moment the two teen-age girls of the family pounded upstairs accompanied by shriek’s and giggles. “Come on, you slow pokes, we only have a few days, why are you staring at a locked door? It is gorgeous outside, let’s get some skiing in before dark!”

They descended to the main level. As they passed through the living area they paused to admire a magnificent view of Steamboat Springs and the ski slopes. The afternoon sun made the snow sparkle white on the west facing slopes. They could see the skiers in their multi-colored clothing weaving down the slope making fantastic blurs of color.  Philip and his dad exchanged a high-five as they hurried after the girls. This was the first year that the family had taken their annual ski holiday here, and they liked what they saw.

Hours later, they returned tired and happy. They entered through the ‘back’ mud-room door next to a bear-mauled trash room door. Philip took out his phone and snapped a picture of the bear’s strange claw marks. He wondered whether they were merely an attempt to break down the door or a more significant marking of territory. While his parents and siblings played cards upstairs he surfed for bear information and posted the image on Facebook. He found time to re-read Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury’s children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” which was displayed in a helpful collection of children’s books in his allotted bedroom. He ruminated on the possibility that even when the object of a quest is known the final denouement may defy that initial preconception.

The next evening, the family took a hot steamy sauna upon their return from skiing. The sauna with its glass door was adjacent to the locked door affording Philip time to stare and wonder. He still couldn’t rationalize the concept that the room had been converted into a mere extra store room. Did it house a piece of forbidden equipment or maybe crime-scene evidence? Later he returned to try to look through the keyhole without success; he even attempted to pick the lock. Lock picking looks easy in movies but, to his chagrin, he discovered that in this case it wasn’t. He listened intently and thought that he heard grunt-like sounds inside the room. He also noticed a faint shadow of a stain in the tan-colored Berber carpet immediately outside the door. He mentioned his observations to his dad who dismissively stated that the house was part of a duplex, and the sounds were undoubtedly coming from the adjacent tenants muffled by the wall insulation. As for the stain, well people often spill things on carpets.

The following morning, Philip went and stood outside the door to ruminate on its mystery. As he stared he had a break-through thought. The room was a bedroom, surely it had windows! He quickly slipped down to the main level and outside to investigate. He was right; the room did have windows. He identified two, which overlooked the main entry porch roof. There was a planter on the porch and, over it, a hole through the roof to allow natural irrigation. Philip saw that he could easily climb up on the planter and haul himself onto the roof. Then it would be easy, he thought, to navigate the roof and look in through the windows. He decided to return from the slopes early so that he could put his plan into execution unhindered by parental scrutiny.

The climb onto the roof was easier than he expected, however the crawl across ten feet of snow covered roof was more challenging. The snow was not thick. He brushed it off with his gloved hands and found footholds on the anti-slip roof hooks. To his amazement he found that both windows were open. He peered in and saw what looked like a normal bedroom; queen-sized bed with attractive cream and red comforter, bedside tables with lamps, a dresser with TV on top, and a closet. Hard as he tried he could detect nothing unusual. He pushed his anti-glare ski goggles onto    his head and looked closer. He observed that the closet door was ajar enabling him to see its contents strewn on the floor. They consisted of a grey blanket and an enormous stuffed animal. It was the sort, he thought that one wins at carnivals; except this one wasn’t pink, it was black. He noticed that a couple of small teddy bears like the one he had as a child were also mixed in the pile. He was disappointed and wondered whether he should give up or climb into the room for further investigation.

He was still considering options when one of the teddy bears moved its snout and made a small grunt. Philip shuddered and griped the cold window sill. Was he hallucinating? No, this was no delusion for the movement triggered a chain reaction. The large furry object also grunted and gently rolled; then it shoved the small teddy bear towards it’s stomach. Philip’s feet slipped, the snow-covered roof was slick and he almost fell off as the realization came that these were not toys but a live black bear and her cubs taking their annual winter torpor.

Some notes about Black Bears
The black bear’s torpor is a winter sleep in which breathing and heart rates slow down, and body temperatures are slightly depressed. Hibernation refers to a sleep in which the sleeper’s body temperature is drastically reduced. A bear in torpor does not drink, eat, urinate or defecate but can respond to danger signals and moves occasionally. Although Colorado Black Bears generally weigh between 100 – 450 lbs. they are not aggressive toward humans. The most dangerous animal in Colorado is the moose who is fearless and will charge at random. In the fall the bears, who are intelligent with good memories and a very acute sense of smell (ten times better than a dog) will raid dumpsters and anywhere that they can smell food (even in unlocked cars which they know how to open.) Their fall hyperphagia, or voracious eating, is to get fat enough to support their winter torpor when they will lose about 27% of their body weight. Black bears copulate in June after which the fertilized embryos go into stasis and, if the mother gets fat enough in the fall, they implant and grow. A litter of one to three 1 lb. cubs are born in January. From then until spring the cubs nurse on their sleeping mother. Bears have been known to make a basement of an occupied human residence into a winter den. The upper bedroom at the house, featured in my story, was visited by a bear in the fall. The animal got in the same way as Philip. I speculate, that the bear visitor may have been looking for a convenient winter den.

Vanya – a short story

This is a completely new story  with a new character. It is my second response to the challenge to take Liam from the ‘Doc Salvages the Past’ and tell his story from his point-of-view. In this narration I let the characters take off and the story morphed. The Donner Memorial State Park remains the setting. The story  is appropriate for October – I hope that you enjoy it!

I sit in Dad’s hospice room holding his hand. The room is cozy, more like a private home than an institution. There is even a photograph of Dad with us, his three sons, standing in front of the Donner Memorial State Park monument on his bedside table. Dad and I enjoy the room’s calm, until Vanya arrives. When she makes her uninvited, unexpected entrance I groan. She looks the same as usual, which is to say, ageless and dead-beat gorgeous. She is skinny and moves, or glides, with silent grace. As always, she reminds me of Grimm’s Snow White; hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow and those lips, yes, lips as red as blood. If I had a magic mirror and asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” I might easily get the response, “Vanya is the fairest of them all.” Every time that I see her, she is dressed unconventionally, and now, is no exception; a floaty thigh-length purple top, skinny black tights and purple platform shoes. She murmurs a greeting to me, and Dad stirs. He opens his eyes and sees her. He grins, the first smile that I’ve seen in days. No, that’s not exactly correct. It’s more than a smile, he beams at her, pleasure oozes from every pore. Obviously, unlike me, he is delighted to see her:

“You came!”

“Yes, I came!”

She reaches and takes his hand in hers. Her finger nails are unnaturally long and exquisitely manicured with red polish. She brushes my hand aside; her touch is electrifying but icy cold. A nurse enters the room. She takes Dad’s vitals, then beckons to me. We step outside.

“His vitals are much better. Earlier, as I told you, I thought that tonight would be his last. Right now, I think that I was wrong. Anyone can see that he is much better……….” Her voice trails off as though she is in deep thought, then she says, “Can it be that he is responding to her; and anyway, who is she?”

“An old friend.” I say, for I don’t know who she is. Is ‘an old friend’ a way to describe someone who we only meet when we take our annual 4th of July trip to The Donner Memorial State Park. Does it describe someone for whom we have no contact information. “Her name is Vanya” I add, as though this information might help.

I go back into the room and instantly get the impression that these two don’t want me with them. Vanya must sense my reaction, “I’ll spend the night with him. You may go home and sleep.” As she speaks I watch Dad’s face, he is nodding and smiling confirming that this is his desire.

The call came at dawn: “We are so sorry. Your Dad passed away during the night.”

I should have been there. I sigh and, full of sorrow, I drive to the Hospice. Vanya has vanished. Dad looks white. He is pale and shrunken, but his face is seraphic, incredibly happy. I sit beside his body letting my grief wrap around me as I mentally plan all the things which I must do. When I place my hand up to his face to stroke his cheek, I notice a spot of blood on his pajama collar and two red spots on his neck. I can’t be sure, but I know that I’ve seen these marks before. I don’t remember where, or when and decide not to say anything to the hospice staff; all I now wish to do is to follow Dad’s last instructions, cremation and ashes to be scattered at Donner Memorial State Park.

Vanya doesn’t come to the memorial service, but it is well attended. My two brothers are there together with our mother, who divorced him when I was five. Even my estranged wife makes it. Of course, Anna, my thirteen-year-old daughter, who has always lived with me, is also in attendance. She was especially fond of her grand-pa and is taking his death hard. I vow to myself to give her more of my time, after all I’m all she has. I invite anyone, who wishes, to join Anna and I on July 4th at the Donner Memorial State Park to scatter his ashes. Several days later, I drop by and the undertaker gives me Dad’s urn inscribed with his name in gold script. This is not what I requested. My instructions were something inexpensive, simple; this thing looks like a lidded version of one of the vases my mother filled with gladioli when she lived with us. Dad would have hated it; I accept it anyway because, obviously, Dad is past caring. I take it home and place it on my hall table in preparation for its final trip to the Park.

By the time that July 4th rolls around my grief has numbed; and there is a layer of dust on the outside of the urn. Anna and I decide to take our boat to enjoy the water, Dad would have wanted us to go on with our lives. I’ve booked our usual spot in the Splitrock campground. It is furthest from the visitor’s center and the location of the Donner Party’s fateful winter 1846/7 camp-site. I don’t want to be near the place where they starved and froze in the apocryphal blizzards of that winter. I hate even being near the place where they are reputed to have resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. In our more remote campsite we pitch our tents and turn-in early.

The next morning it’s there in the site next to ours. I stand in the dawn and stare, not at the distant shimmering lake but at Vanya’s camper. Just as in the past, she’s turned up during the night, and of course we didn’t hear anything. When Dad was alive, he’d hurry over to welcome her and so begin his hectic July 4th holiday. I remember how happy he always was but how tired he’d become and how it took several months at home for him to regain his strength. In those days, I assumed that it was because he would spend the days with us kids and then as soon as it was dusk he’d go over to Vanya’s and do whatever they did together. Now I come to think of it, I remember where I saw those two little spots before. It was on Dad’s neck as he drove us home from our holiday. I do not go over to Vanya’s, but Anna does. I wait ten minutes and then amble over to rescue my daughter. I am terse and rude but manage to invite Vanya to assist with the ashes.

We hike through the tall pines to a high overlook where Dad loved to come. The “we” is Anna, Vanya and I. The rest of the family and friends, including my two brothers, claimed other family commitments. I am annoyed but not surprised. For once I’m thankful for Vanya’s presence; she somehow makes the little ceremony more dignified. Although it is overcast Vanya wears dark glasses, a becoming hat, long-sleeved shirt and swirling long skirt. We say a few words and cast the light ashes into the wind. It amazes me that Dad has been reduced to this soft dust. I’d love to know how the undertaker does it.

In the afternoon Anna and a girl about her age from an adjacent camp site and I go surf-boarding. I drive, while they surf-board. Anna gives me the James Avery cross and chain that I gave her for her birthday entry into the teens. She tells me that she is frightened that it might get damaged or lost. I don’t have any pockets, and so I put it on.

That evening we make hot dogs over a camp fire. At sunset, Vanya joins us. I surprise myself by feeling a tinge of jealousy as she pays considerably more attention to Anna than to me. In the flickering firelight, Vanya looks like an unblemished teenager, one of Anna’s friends, although I know that she has to be over fifty. Some, like my ex-wife, for instance, might be tempted to kill to know her secret.

When it is time for Anna to turn in Vanya surprises me with an invitation to go for a short moonlit amble up the trail. I am so taken aback that I agree. The night is balmy, the moon full and bright, but I trip on a boulder. Vanya reaches for my hand, hers is cold but I take it rather enjoying the implied intimacy. I am becoming attracted to this enigmatic person and hate myself for doing so. We come to a patch of short grass in a clearing among the trees. Vanya, seemingly impulsive, suggests that we lie down and star gaze. I surprise myself by agreeing. Well, you can imagine the rest, one thing led to another and pretty soon we are in a tight embrace.

“Do you want to know why your Dad loved my company?” she hisses into my ear, her mouth so very close to my neck.

“Yes.” I murmur, for I am sure that she is about to show me.

She bites. I gasp in momentary pain but as my blood begins to flow I am raised to another realm. I am writhing in supreme ecstasy. As I twist and moan in pleasure, my shirt becomes loose and Anna’s little cross is exposed. I don’t know how Vanya sees it, but she does. She lets go, and the pleasure ceases.

“Why do you wear that? You mustn’t if we are to commune.” I reach to tear it off, but she restrains me, “You have had enough for now, maybe another day!”

I sit up and stare at her, “So you are a vampire?” I whisper, and she nods. So many questions run through my mind. I ask, “Do you always give such pleasure?” Again, she nods and I continue, “So that is why…….?” I don’t finish my question, as now I don’t need to.

We walk back to the camp-ground in silence but when we reach her camper, I ask another question.

“So why the interest in my daughter? You keep your lips off her, do you understand.”

She smiles her enigmatic smile, “Again, you have it all wrong. I mean her no harm. She is a virgin who hasn’t reached menses. I am near death for I am about a hundred and eighty years-old. I became what I am in this very place. Cannibalism, no, there was no human cannibalism but there were vampires they had to keep alive that winter. I was one of the Donner Party able to receive the vampire kiss and so here I am today. Before I die, I wish to prolong myself and transmit my characteristics to someone.”

I look at her searching her inscrutable face for a clue, “Convey what to her?”

“Convey her the gift of superior strength, the gift of immunity to human diseases, the gift of long life. I can do all this by one gentle nibble.”

“But” I stammer, “Won’t she become like you, a vampire, a lonely being thirsting for blood.”

“Like me, in exchange for blood, she will give pleasure beyond compare. She will pay her donors with a high. It is an experience which humans, like your father, will eventually wish to exchange their lives to repeat again and again. Think about it. Already you know that you will come back for more, and when you do I shall give you what you want, and you will give me what I want.”

The following morning Vanya’s camper was gone and the park was in uproar, apparently one of the campers took a midnight walk and fell into a cleft among the rocks. His body is mauled and a lot of blood lost. The park rangers speculate this to be the work of a bear or mountain lion. It rained in the early dawn, and footprints are obliterated. The police interview everyone, myself included. I do not share my concerns, they would surely ridicule such a strange story. It takes almost the whole day for things to return to normal by which time there is Vanya’s camper rolling back to its site next to our tents.

What next I wonder? It was easy to give the James Avery piece back to Anna and to tell her to wear it all the time, but I know that is not enough. I ponder deeply on the quotation attributed to 12-year-old, Elizabeth Kregan, in 1853. It is carved into a rock near the Donner Memorial statue. It reads:

No one knows the strength of kindred love until it is tried.”

Is my kindred love being tried? Do I have the inner strength and love to save my daughter and forgo a repeat of the most unimaginable acutely addictive pleasure which Vanya gives?

Liam’s story

When I posted my story “The Doc Salvages the Past” one of my readers challenged me to write the story from Liam’s point-of-view. I made two attempts. In the first, which I call “Vanya,” the characters took off in a different direction so that all the story retains is the setting. I intend to publish this story next week. The second attempt, ‘Liam’s story’ stays closer to “The Doc Salvages the Past.” I leave it open-ended as it didn’t want to wrap up neatly; perhaps one of my readers can offer an enticing idea for a conclusion.

Dad is on dialysis. It has been so long that we now give up hope of finding a compatible AB negative kidney donor before this thing takes him away. He is stoic and tells us to go on with our lives. I’m the oldest, at twenty-five, and he says that nothing would please him more than if I take my two brothers and the boat and spend July 4th at The Donner Memorial State Park.

We are known as  ‘The ‘three Ls’. ‘The three Ls ?’ you may ask; so I’ll explain. When Dad, Laurence, or Larry for short, met and married Lilly, they decided to celebrate their union by baptizing their children with names beginning with ‘L’. Kind ’a stupid, I say, but there we are. I’m Liam, the first born; then there is Lesley, who goes by Les, and Lenard, who has always been little Len. One Hallowe’en, we dressed up as red devils with pointed tails and horns; we said that we were “the three Ls from Hell.” Our school friends must have liked the alliteration because it became our nick-name and, much to our collective chagrin, stuck throughout our school years. 

We three Ls arrive at the park late afternoon and set up camp. The moraine dammed lake glimmers, a resplendent blue and the park smells of pine trees and damp earth. The air is crisp and bracing. The campsite next to ours is taken by a single young woman. She is frantically working to put up her tent. It is obvious that she knows nothing about tent raising, and so I walk over and offer my assistance. I introduce myself, and she responds that she is Doc. Anna. Soon I have her small tent securely erected, and she offers profuse thanks. She is not bad looking, and I can tell that she is taken by me. She says that she is going to the Visitor’s Center to learn about the park’s history. I plan to take the boat out with my brothers, so we part

I watch her from a distance as she walks to the Visitor’s Center. I find that place spooky because the memorial statue on its twenty-two-foot-high pedestal looms over everything. On this balmy July day, it is hard to imagine the twenty-two-feet of 1846/7 snow that the pedestal represents. The man in the statue’s group shields his eyes as he looks toward the future but the woman by his side clutches her baby as she faces ahead as though searching for what he sees. The child behind them looks exhausted; she crouches on her knees behind the man’s left leg. I often wonder if they are intended to be a representation of the ninety-plus poor souls who got marooned in this place the winter of 1846/7, and does it also memorialize the forty-nine survivors from the group, the ones, who, starving and freezing resorted to cannibalism to stay alive

We, three Ls, have a great time on the lake and return to our campsite exhausted and ready for food. We cook hot-dogs over a fire. Food tastes so much better out-of-doors especially when it is washed down with copious amounts of beer! It is dark by the time that we start to toast marshmallows for s’mores. Anna comes up the path. She looks utterly miserable and dejected. She seems to be talking to herself. I call out to her, 

“Hey Doc Anna, come and join us for toasted marshmallows!

She hesitates, and looks at us. By now we three L’s are bare-chested. We may be ‘The three Ls from hell’, but I know that we look great, more like every girl’s dream of ‘The three Ls from heaven’. We are sun-tanned, virile and happy. Our campsite carries a lingering aroma from our meal mingled with male musk and pine needles. The fire welcomes with crackles and dancing flames. She seems about to reject my offer but then starts to walk toward us

“I’d love to.

We exchange pleasantries and laugh a good deal. Doc Anna tells us about her medical school experience. I wonder if she tells us to let us know that she is single and available. Another odd thing; why does she introduce herself as Doc. Anna, why not plain Anna? I decide that this is a strange one, maybe a match for all three Ls. The beer relaxes her, and she gets emotional. She tells us that she is an insomniac suffering from nightmares. I must say that it the most unusual approach I’ve ever heard but play along. I only half hear her narrative about her night-mare as I am evaluating options. By now, I am sitting beside her with my arm about her shoulders to “comfort’ her. She snuggles against me

Now she is rambling on about the fated Donner Party. Apparently, she is descended from one of the survivors and carries a personal burden of guilt associated with the alleged cannibalism. I suppose that she is alluding to that biblical thing about the sins of the fathers visiting on the children, so I remind her that we are all descended from Adam and Eve and Cain and Able. If my brothers hadn’t been there to cramp my style, I’d have put some effort into seducing her and would have ended up in her tiny tent. As it is I walk her over and gallantly wish her good night

I awake in the night, probably due to the beer, and get up and walk over to the camp facilities. On the way back, I glance at Doc Anna’s tent. She has a flashlight on, and I can see her silhouette. It is odd; she is twirling what looks like a knife and appears to have something on her knees. She is making a soft moaning sound. I ask myself what she needs with a knife in the middle of the night. I creep back to my tent. A little later I hear an animal screaming I run outside. Doc Anna’s tent is empty. I begin to worry and check on Les and Len. Both are snoring peacefully. I trek back to the facilities. I go into the women’s side. I check every stall. It is empty, no sign of Doc. Anna. There is a full moon, and it is bright outside. I return to my tent and lie looking up at its walls. Bent figure looms into sight. I see the knife again, what is she doing?

 

 

The Doc Salvages the Past – a short story

The wind drifted up the valley and ruffled Anna’s hair. She pushed a stray lock back behind her ears and momentarily closed her eyes to enable her to concentrate on the landscape’s aroma; pine needles, freshly cut grass, wild flowers, sun-tan lotion. She breathed in deeply. She relished the crisp mountain air as it filled her lungs and gave her hope. She whispered a quiet prayer to the breeze:

“Please, oh, please blow away my demon. He is consuming me! Please show me what I must do to banish him.”

She stood near the Donner memorial statue in the Donner Memorial State Park; her gaze was out to the north-west and down to Donner Lake. Even as she worried about her problem, she couldn’t help but admire the vivid blue of the water’s smooth surface. The color drew richness from the harmonizing surrounding green slopes. Anna had studied reports about this place and knew that the lake filled an ancient valley, carved by a glacier with the glacial moraine serving as a dam on the western end. The peaceful vista satiated her with admiration and gave her hope.

She turned and walked to the visitors’ center to read about the Washoe people and, of course, about the ill-fated Donner party. She hadn’t expected the manner in which the park established a memorial to them; and had not thought that their cannibalism could have a compelling explanation, one which reasonable people might understand, even to the extent of memorializing their journey in the naming of a State Park. She speculated that the child depicted in the trio of the huge memorial bronze statue might be her ancestor who crossed the Sierra Nevada as part of the Donner Party in 1847. She gazed at the statue for some time. It was mounted on a twenty two foot plinth; reputed to be the depth of the snow that fated winter of 1846/7. She raised herself on her to reach up and touch the bronze memorial plaque. Even on this summer day the metal felt cold; at touch she felt a surge of emotion coursing through her body.

“I’m sorry, so sorry.” She murmured and then, since dusk was descending she walked to the camp grounds to find her tent. The adjacent site was occupied by three friendly brothers. Earlier, they had helped her erect her tent. Now Liam called out to her:

“Hey Doc Anna, come and join us for toasted marshmallows!”

All through medical school Anna had been a loner, but now something about Liam’s voice, not to mention the recollection of his piercing blue eyes when he had earlier helped her erect her tent, drew her in. She paused and smiled,

“I’d love to!”

They sat around the fire roasting marshmallows and making smores and talked of many things. Everything was so friendly that Anna lost her reserve and told the brothers about her long, lonely, years of medical school resulting in her present status as a urologist specializing in renal failure. They were astonished and told her that it seemed odd that she should be a specialist in the very affliction which was taking their father. They told her that he had AB negative blood, the rarest blood type of only three in a thousand. Consequently, he had been waiting for a kidney donor match for too long. Dialysis was only just keeping him alive. They feared that he would die before a match was found. Anna offered her deepest sympathy.

Later, they discussed their reasons for visiting Donner Memorial State Park; and the brothers, almost proudly, told Anna that they were descended from one of the Donner Party survivors. To her surprise, she detected no remorse, sorrow or embarrassment in the brother’s boast. She inquired whether they felt regrets or lingering embarrassment relative to their heritage. They laughed at her inquiry pointing out that everyone has something odd in their family’s past.

“Indeed,” Liam said, as he stuffed in another marshmallow, “no one can escape Cain and Able!”

Perhaps it was the location, or the fact that these men were complete strangers, but something about their exchange opened Anna’s reserve, and she began to tell them her story. As her tongue loosened she knew that she was going to tell them about the horrible demon who haunted her sleep, a night-mare so terrible that she couldn’t seek help because disclosing the truth would be too humiliating and painful.

“You see,” she said, “I admit that I am also descended from one of the Donner party survivors. In my dreams, I come to this place every night. It is cold, there are deep snowdrifts everywhere. I am little, frightened and starving.’ She sighed and was about to halt her revelation when Liam drew close and gently put an arm around her.

“So, you are here now; and, a beautiful woman, I might add. Didn’t you tell us that you are a urologist? So, here you are, a successful person living the American dream, the very dream that the Donner Party sought. Isn’t that reassuring?”

“No, it isn’t” she shook her head. “For, you see, after anatomy class in medical school, my dream always ends the same way. Driven by hunger I go outside our make-shift animal skin tent and there, standing in the snow, is a huge vat of formaldehyde. You know, one of the vats that they have in medical school anatomy labs. I’m a medical student again. I smell its pervasive odor. It is pungent. I tremble and try to wake up, but I can’t. Instead, I go and put my hand into the murkiness of the vat and pull out a kidney. I wake up in a cold sweat as I start to eat.”

The three brothers were silent. Overhead Anna heard the tree leaves rustling in the wind. She heard the flames eating the logs in the fire pit. She heard her own heart beating abnormally fast. For what seemed like an eternity she felt isolated alone knowing that her confidence was a mistake. Then Liam was rocking her back and forth like a small child. His touch was gently reassuring.

“It isn’t you! It is only a night-mare. One hundred and fifty years have passed. You are not to blame.”

Anna felt emboldened and so she spoke again. “The problem is that I know that it is a night-mare, but I can’t stop it. It has got to the point that I fear going to sleep. Some nights I just don’t sleep. Of course, eventually I get so tired that I have to, and then it comes again, ending at moment that my lips touch the kidney..”

This time even Liam was unable to offer a platitude.  The four sat in silence, letting the fire consume the logs and die down. The stars glistened in the dark sky, and the moon threw shadows around them. Anna, savored Liam’s closeness. She began to doze off. Suddenly, she jumped up and flung her arms in the air, her voice loud and happy,

“I’ve got it! I’m AB negative. The tests will prove that there is a full match. I know it. This is a miracle. The debt will be paid. We will both be cured” She looked deep into Liam’ astonished blue eyes,

“For, you see, I am to give your Dad one of my kidneys.”

 

Cedars in the Parking Lot

Nate Newman arrived early on the first day at his new job in Austin. He drove into the parking lot which flanked six recently-constructed new buildings interconnected by covered walkways and looked for his assigned building. The rows of cars were separated by continuous beds of trees which Nate saw as attractive rows, almost walls, of Christmas trees. When he located his destination, he parked and got out of his car, stretched and paused to take stock of his surroundings. That is when he noticed that the trees were not Christmas trees but cedars – Austin’s scourge.

Nate was a procrastinator and now wondered if he was doing the right thing in starting to work for a company which must be crazy. Yes crazy, he thought, nuts or plain stupid to plant this invasive tree. He thought back to numerous articles urging responsible Austin landowners to cull cedars where possible citing it as an alien predator, which sucks moisture from desirable indigenous trees, like oaks and pecans. What worried him even more was the thought that he would have to park among these monsters in the cedar fever season. Annually, in late December and early January, when the cedars were covered with pollen and release their loads into the air with dramatic puffs, he succumbed to congestion, headaches, sneezing and hot flushes and was so miserable that he always had to have his doctor give him a series of curative shots. He wondered how he was going to cope with a parking lot immersed in the source of his annual affliction. He almost got back in his car and drove off.

Inside the building Nate’s new boss, Wallace Walker, greeted him warmly and undertook to give him an office tour. He apologetically pointed to boxes strewn everywhere and explained that they were in the process of moving into this just completed building. He guided Nate to his assigned office and then, as they ambled toward the coffee station they paused at a perimeter window to gaze outside. The view reminded Nate of his concern about the cedar trees. He looked at Wallace and asked,

“Isn’t it odd to have a parking lot planted with cedar trees?” he paused to assess Wallace’s reaction and continued “that lot is going to be lethal for a cedar fever sufferer like me!” Wallace’s reply was instant,

“Don’t worry it is going to be changed!”

“That’s a relief!”

“I’d better explain so that you don’t worry. We instructed our Houston based architect to retain an award-winning, Californian landscape designer. His signature is dramatic plant groupings, and his design concept for the parking area was that we should have walls of living green dividing it into ‘rooms’. It wasn’t until the trees were planted that we realized that they were cedars!”

“That must have been quite an awakening” said Nate.

“Yep. You could say that. Guess that’s what you get with designers from out-of-town. Of course, we have instructed them that it is an unacceptable design error and must to be changed. They balked at first but have agreed to remove all sources of ceder pollen allergens from our site.” Wallace paused and looked around then he lowered his voice into a confidential whisper, “It will probably cost them $70,000; but then we can’t and won’t have cedar fever trees where people park!”

Just then they saw a young woman wearing a bright-red tea-shirt with the words ‘MISS CHEAP’ in bold white letters across her chest. She was weaving in and out among the trees. Wallace noticed Nate’s stare and gave an explanation,

“That’s our architect’s project manager!” he chuckled, “It is part of the same story associated with our famous Californian landscape designer. Before the cedar tree fiasco, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give us a landscape design in budget. Our senior management called for a meeting at our New York headquarters to discuss the problem. At the meeting the young lady you see out there, repeated her plea for a less costly landscape design.” For a moment both Wallace and Nate stood gazing out. Then Wallace continued his narrative,

“Upper management agreed with her as the landscape budget was set at $1 million while the cost estimate for the Californian’s design was over $2 million. Our company has also has an in-house architectural design manager who feebly attempted to support the expensive design concept. Suddenly, our Californian stood and walked to the floor-to-ceiling glass window. For a few seconds, he stared out onto New York, and then he turned to face the meeting, stamped his foot like a petulant child, and shouted,

‘I quit! I can’t go on. I’m stuck between Miss Cheap, and Mr. Good!’

“It was memorable moment. Ever since that meeting our architect has gone by Miss Cheap and our design manager by Mr. Good.”

After his tour, Nate spent the morning getting settled in his new office. At lunch-time, he slipped out to his car and was surprised to see Miss Cheap weaving in and out between the trees near his car. She was an attractive woman and looked friendly. She smiled at Nate. He stepped over to face her,

“Good morning, or is it afternoon already?” he began. Then, encouraged by her friendly smile and responsive greeting he continued, “You’ve been out among these cedars all morning. I’m curious to know what you are doing especially as Wallace Walker, my boss, tells me that they are all going to be replaced? Cedar fever and all…….”

Miss Cheap paused and smiled.

“Yes, I agree, we can’t have cedar fever allergens in the parking lot. But it is not that simple. You see the Austin cedars are not cedars.”

“Not cedars? But, but cedar fever is very real.”

“Oh yes, I know, cedar fever is real. The culprit is actually a juniper, Juniperus Ashei whose pollen has a biochemical coat which irritates the nostrils. These trees are Juniperus Virginiana whose pollen is larger than that of Ashei and generally not allergenic. However, in a population already sensitized by Ashei the Virginiana pollen can aggravate symptoms.”

“So, they are going to be replaced?”

“Well, yes, and no; you see the Juniperus Virginiana has dioecious reproduction.”

“Err, yes? dioecious reproduction?”

“Yes, that’s the botanist’s way of saying that the Juniperus has both male and female trees. Only the male trees produce pollen. I’ve spent the morning tagging the males for replacement with more females. Thereby we retain the design concept and save half the cost of replacement, some $35,000.”

“So, Miss Cheap, that sounds reasonable, but how do you know which are which? They all look the same to me.”

“Simple, the females have berries on them!”

Gifts of Thanksgiving

Keith looked miserable when he shared his sad news with his smoking buddies. He was a charismatic character who generally livened up the group with his jokes and good humor. He could extract something to laugh at from almost any mundane office meeting. The smoker’s group stood in an otherwise unusable corner of the parking garage in the area defined by building management as ‘The Smoking Area’. It was equipped with a dismal-looking park picnic table with attached seating together with a large trash container. The smokers generally didn’t use the bench but stood looking out onto a patch of green weeds growing along the building’s property line. Today even the sunlit highlighted greenery looked forlorn while the rest of the spot with its hard-grey concrete surfaces made a gloomy back-drop much in keeping with Keith’s mood. The smokers inhaled desperately as they tried to draw calm out of the tobacco. Keith, the saddest looking of them all shared his news.

“Another miscarriage!”

The whole office knew his story; how he, and his wife Kitty, had been trying for years to have a child. Each time that she conceived they thought that this pregnancy would be different. But then their joy would be turned to sadness when she miscarried. Of course, they had been to numerous doctors but all the medical profession could tell them was that sometimes these things happen. It wasn’t reassuring. Everyone offered their condolences but no-one had a pat soothing platitude to offer; they had all been used up in response to Kitty’s earlier miscarriages. Keith dolefully told his colleagues, that although he and Kitty were in their late thirties, they were going to see if they could adopt.

Six months later, Keith blissfully announced that Kitty was now into her second trimester and was carrying this baby longer than in any of her previous pregnancies. The staff shared his happy mood. Kitty got to her ninth month. They staged an office baby shower, and when the baby was born all went to the hospital to view the cute baby dressed in blue, who, all agreed, already looked like his Dad.

When Keith returned to work after his paternity leave, he no longer came the smoker’s corner. Standing in the break-room holding a mug of hot coffee he explained that he had given up smoking in thanksgiving for the birth of his son. He received appropriate congratulations while all secretly monitored his actions to see if his vow was serious. He never faltered. Several of the other smokers took inspiration from his action and also gave it up. General office gossip endorsed his action with the additional rationale that it was a wise action as smoking doesn’t go with small children.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. The miscarriages of the past were in forgotten. Keith was ecstatic. He told the entire office that he, and Kitty had always wanted two children. In due course, a beautiful baby girl was born. After his paternity leave, Keith talked freely about his next act of thanksgiving.

“I want to give my daughter every advantage. I gave up smoking as an act of thankfulness and celebration for the birth of my son. I’ve thought about this long and hard. I know that I have to give up something as an act of thankfulness for my daughter. So, after due thought I am giving up alcohol to acknowledge the blessing of having a daughter.”

He explained that both, he and Kitty were second in the birth-order in their homes and had often felt twinges or resentment that parents become increasingly blasé with each successive child. They, neither of them, wished this to happen to their children. The office gossips discussed this decision of Keith’s. Some rationalized that alcohol also doesn’t belong with responsible parenting, while Keith’s drinking buddies sadly accepted that Keith’s increased home responsibilities would keep him away even if he hadn’t given up booze.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. Keith’s joy was less effusive as he said that he and Kitty had only wanted two children. However, when he returned to the office, he announced that for this child, his act of self- denial was to give up caffeine. He still frequented the break-room where he took to standing holding a huge mug of iced water and amusing everyone with his wit.

“No more children,” he declared, “We can’t afford three as it is; and besides, I’ve nothing else to give up in thanksgiving!”

The office gossips found it harder to pin an additional rationale onto the ‘no caffeine’ decision. Some observed that three children in diapers meant many sleepless nights, which might make caffeine a morning necessity. Others said that the nocturnal interruptions made anything, which inhibited sleep a ‘no-no” even in the morning.

Life has a way of taking over and about nine months later, Keith announced that Kitty was pregnant with their fourth. He didn’t ask for input on what he should give up in thanksgiving for this child, who he stated absolutely had to be his last. No-one helped him make his decision, although the topic was hotly discussed behind his back. No-one needed to tell him for he knew; of all his children, this child, his last, was to receive the dedication of his most significant act of self-denial.