Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Reprise: The Punishment

“Hey, Tommy, look at this!” With fiendish fervor, Butch Abernathy hurled a rock against the front of the old Pomeroy house. “That oughta wake the dead!”

“No!” Tommy cried.

But it was too late. The sound of shattering glass splintered the night. The old Victorian house shuddered, sighed, and groaned a low, mournful cry.

Butch bolted down the street. “Sucker!” he yelled over his shoulder.

Tommy turned to run, but invisible fingers grabbed his ankles. He kicked and stomped, struggling to break free but the Hands gripped tighter. They dragged him, screaming, along the weed-infested sidewalk and up the crumbling stairs into darkness as black as molasses. Then down, down, down into the cavernous depths below. A flickering lantern revealed the awful punishment that awaited him.

The Hands shoved him onto his knees, rammed his head into a wooden cradle, and yanked his wrists behind his back.

“But I didn’t do anything!” Tommy screamed.

The blade of the guillotine came slashing down.

The End

Story by Dawn Pisturino.

Graphics by Rebekah Joy Plett. Click photo to enlarge.

Published October 18, 2011 on Underneath the Juniper Tree.
Copyright 2011-2021 Dawn Pisturino and Rebekah Joy Plett. All Rights Reserved.

Published on The Brooklyn Voice, June 25, 2012.

Troberg Punishment ill

Artwork by Asheka Troberg, The Brooklyn Voice. Click photo to enlarge.

Copyright 2012-2021 Dawn Pisturino and Asheka Troberg. All Rights Reserved.

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The Seance: A Short Story

The heavy iron gates of Bellemont Cemetery stood open like silent sentries, daring her to enter. Lila hesitated, fearful that once she passed through those gates, they would close behind her, trapping her in a cold, dark, colorless place forever. Thick brick walls enclosed the historic cemetery on all sides, walls much too high to climb if she became trapped. She forced herself to close her eyes and take a deep breath, squelching the rising wave of panic inside her. Then, heart pounding, she hurried through the ominous gates and breathed a sigh of relief when they remained open behind her.

A thick line of trees leaned wearily against the walls, their branches swaying in the cold wind. All around her, the trees were alive with sound: raindrops drip, dripping off rain-soaked leaves onto the rich, mossy soil below; a merry chorus of tiny birds chattering in the treetops, flitting here, then there, delighting in their wet, dewy bower. Overhead, the sky was heavy with white and gray clouds moving rapidly with the wind. More rain threatened to fall. But suddenly, long beams of shimmering sunlight broke through the clouds, caressing the earth with wraith-like fingers, providing a glimpse of heaven, and the possibility of angels breaking into song. Raindrops glistened like silver beads of light in the trees; the last of the autumn leaves burst into fiery red and gold flame; and she was alone, blissfully alone, in a magical world.

Lila breathed in the pure, rain-washed air; inhaled the heavy odor of decaying leaves; the spicy scents of cedar and pine; and the delicate perfume of roses, pink ones and black ones, which she carried in a large bouquet in her hands. She held them to her nose, luxuriating in the sweet aroma, and felt the wetness of raindrops on their velvety petals.

A damp chill rose up from the earth, making her shiver, and she pulled her heavy, black velvet cloak closer around her. The heels of her black leather boots echoed on the pavement. The skirt of her long, black velvet dress clung to her with dampness. But she didn’t care — she was nearly there.

At a fork in the path, she stopped. Gingerly, she stuck one booted foot onto the rain-soaked autumn grass, turned stubby and brown. But the ground held firm, so she continued through the grass, feeling the cold dampness penetrate into her feet.

She walked among the ancient headstones with care, noting with sadness how they leaned and crumbled in the shadows, their weathered faces obliterated over time, their stories forever silenced, forgotten, erased from the world. But a few remained to tell their tales: Baby Emma, dead of pneumonia after two days of life in 1842; Mary Whitehead, Beloved Wife and Mother, died age 27 in childbirth, May She Rest in Peace; Harold Whitby, who died a local hero in the Civil War; and Hope Blaisdale, born 1767, Asleep in the Arms of Jesus since 1857.

So many lives, come and gone; so many hopes and dreams passed away; so many joys and sorrows extinguished forever; so many years gone by. Both the hardness and frailty of life were represented in this place, and she was overcome, once again, with the stark realization of life’s shortness and the finality of death.

She found what she wanted in the newer section of the cemetery, a gentle, grassy slope once sparsely populated. But ten years had witnessed the gradual appearance of many smooth, cleanly-engraved marble headstones, and the open, park-like feel of this section was disappearing. Many of the more recent headstones were simple oblong markers embedded in the soil, flush with the earth, to make it more convenient for the mowers. They lacked the character and history of the older stones. But here they were, and here they would stay, until decades from now they, too, would appear weathered and worn, a testament to the passage of Time.

She had insisted on a more enduring headstone to honor the memory of her dead husband. She stood before it now, examining the clean whiteness of the weeping angel’s marble arms flung mournfully over the shiny, black marble headstone where her husband’s vital statistics were deeply engraved. It was not a new idea. The Victorians had doted on the image of weeping grief. She had borrowed the idea from William Wetmore Story, an American artist who sculpted the original monument for himself and his wife in 1894. It now stood in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, where they were buried. Lila had kept most of the original design but paid the sculptor to sculpt her own image onto the angel’s face — and it was her own grief represented in the statue.

She knelt before the marble monument and placed the pink and black roses in the bronze vase embedded in the marble base. Pink for everlasting love; black for everlasting death. It was an annual ritual which had consumed her life for the last ten years. She uncovered her head, feeling the damp, misty air all around her, and traced the carved letters of her husband’s name with one gloved finger.

“Happy birthday, Jonathan,” she said softly, and tears filled her eyes. With loving hands, she brushed away a few dead leaves clinging stubbornly to the cold, wet marble. Ten years ago, she had vowed to keep his memory pristine and shining. She would not allow him to be forever silenced.

The dull ache of her everyday grief filled the empty loneliness of her life, reminding her listless spirit that she was still very much alive and obligated to remain so until either God or the devil decided otherwise; but today, on the most special day of her year, when the ritual of her grief found its most sublime expression, she needed no reminder of the separation that lay between herself and her husband. The hardness of the marble headstone felt all too real beneath her fingers; the shortness of his precious life felt all too bitter in her heart:

Jonathan Harkins

Born October 31, 1952

Died June 21, 1997

Beloved Husband, Lover, and Friend

She leaned over and kissed the cold, hard stone, unmindful of the clinging dampness or the tears streaming down her face.

“Tonight,” she said hopefully, and believed it in her heart.

* * *

At nine o’clock, when she felt certain there would be no more Halloween revelers at the front door, she stoked up the fire in the fireplace, turned down the lights, and placed a small, round mahogany table in front of the fire. She covered the table with a large square of deep purple velvet cloth and set out the wooden Ouija board and plastic planchette. She placed a small silver candelabra on the table next to the Ouija board, filled the candleholders with pink and black candles, and carefully lit each one. The effect was charmingly romantic, definitely Gothic, in keeping with her annual birthday ritual; and she said a silent prayer, hoping that this would be the year when Jonathan’s promise would come true. Then she changed into a long, black velvet gown embroidered with tiny silver stars and waited for her guests to arrive.

It wasn’t long before she heard a brisk knock on the front door, and she opened it with a large smile to admit two women of varying ages and costumes. They removed their coats, handing them to their hostess, and looked around the darkened room in expectation.

“How charming!” exclaimed a young woman with blazing red hair and large, green eyes dressed in a long-sleeved, forest green gown with red embroidery on the tight bodice. The material clung to her slender figure, emphasizing her plump breasts. “Lila, you’ve absolutely outdone yourself!” She leaned up and kissed her hostess on the cheek.

Lila crossed her fingers. “This year, Maureen; it has to be this year!”

“We’ll do our best, my dear.” She turned to her companion. “This is Madame Angeline, our guest psychic, just arrived from Boston, Massachusetts. Her reputation is impeccable!”

The older woman with platinum blonde hair and faded violet eyes was dressed in a long-sleeved, lavender-colored gown adorned with vintage cream-colored lace at the wrists and throat. An old ivory cameo was pinned to the starched, Victorian-style high collar, and Lila wondered how the woman could breathe. She stretched out her hand, and the woman took it gently, turning it over to examine her palm.

“Madame Angeline sees many things, my dear,” she said with a slight French accent. “But for you, I see a long, happy life — if you will allow it to be.”

Lila removed her hand from the old woman’s grasp. “Thank you, Madame,” she said nervously. “We will see tonight if that prophesy comes true or not.”

Madame Angeline shrugged. “A cup of hot tea with cream would be lovely. The air is quite damp outside.”

“Certainly. And you, Maureen?”

“I’ll pass. I’m nervous enough without adding caffeine.”

“Then, I’ll be right back,” Lila said. “Here, the table is all ready. Please take your preferred seat, Madame.”

Merci.” The old woman seated herself in front of the Ouija board where she could easily reach the planchette. The chair opposite was left for Lila, and Maureen took the third chair to the side.

Lila returned shortly with a serving trolley bearing a large pot of black tea and a small, white birthday cake decorated with pink and black candles.

Madame Angeline observed the cake with a strange look in her eyes, but said nothing. Maureen smiled apologetically. “Lila, dear, you really must explain to Madame what this is all about.”

Lila poured cups of hot tea for herself and Madame Angeline and sat down in the empty chair. She took a few sips of the strong hot liquid and began:

“My husband, Jonathan, was a psychologist who became interested in the paranormal when he took on a young man with schizophrenic tendencies as a patient. This young man was a gifted artist who had visions of another world after death. He painted beautiful canvasses depicting a world full of light and angels and unearthly spirits. His paintings sold well, but the young man’s visions grew in frequency to the point where he could no longer function in the real world. He began to drink and use street drugs, and he finally sought counseling for his substance abuse.

“Jonathan took the young man under his wing, so to speak, and became convinced over time that the young man’s visions were real. He became obsessed with the idea of life after death, reading every book he could find on the subject.

“When Jonathan was diagnosed with brain cancer, we were both devastated. Right from the beginning, the doctors told us it was hopeless. We tried chemo and radiation, but nothing worked. We finally turned to hospice, and Jonathan died in this very house ten years ago.

“Before he died, however, he promised to come back on his birthday and prove to me that there is life after death. We chose a special number code that only he and I knew, and if that code was revealed during a seance or Ouija session, that would be his message to me that life after death is real and everlasting.

“It sounds crazy, I know, but I have celebrated his birthday and honored his death every year for the last ten years without fail. We have hired a different psychic or medium every year, to no avail. There has been nothing but silence from the grave. We were hoping that tonight would be different.”

She reached over and squeezed Maureen’s hand. “Maureen has been my loyal friend through all of this. She has been right here with me through all the disappointment and pain for the last ten years. He has to come tonight, Madame, he has to! I don’t know how much more of this I can stand!”

Madame Angeline listened to her gravely, then closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Then she placed her fingers gently on the planchette.

“Place your fingers lightly on the planchette, and do not force it to move!” The two women complied. “Now, open your minds and hearts to the celestial realm and join me in calling on the spirit of Jonathan Harkins!”

Lila’s heart leaped in her chest in anticipation. Please, God, let tonight be the night, she prayed silently.

Madam Angeline continued. “Jonathan Harkins, ten years ago, before you passed on to the other side, you made a promise to your wife, Lila, that you would send a message to her from the other side on the anniversary of your birthday if — and only if — you were able to do so. Please come to us tonight, on the anniversary of your forty-fifth birthday, and deliver that message!”

The fire crackled in the background, and the candles softly flickered. Outside, the wind howled gently against the windows. Then the soft patter of rain could be heard upon the roof. The lighted jack-o-lantern sitting on the hearth grinned a snaggle-toothed grin, and the odor of burning wax and pine logs filled the room. But the planchette did not move.

Once again, Madame Angeline took a deep breath, let it out, and continued. “I call upon all the spirits of Heaven and Hell to dissolve the veil between life and death, spirit and flesh, darkness and light, and allow the spirit of our beloved Jonathan Harkins to break on through to this material world on this holiest of nights, when the barriers between life and death are at their weakest, so that he may impart the message he promised to give to his beloved wife, Lila.”

Lila’s heart pounded in her chest, and a thin film of sweat dampened her brow. Her fingers trembled, but the planchette did not move. She looked nervously at Maureen and smiled faintly. Maureen smiled back reassuringly, her eyes glowing like green emeralds in the candlelight.

Once again, Madame Angeline closed her eyes, threw back her head, and said loudly, “I call upon the spirit of Jonathan Harkins to appear in this room and deliver the message he promised to give ten years ago!”

Lila and Maureen each held their breath as they waited for the planchette to begin moving idly across the board, slowly at first, then gathering speed. But instead of searching for alphabetical letters or numbers or touching upon the oui or the ja or even good-bye, the little plastic instrument sat there silently, mocking them both.

Lila stared at the planchette in disbelief. “It’s no good, my dear,” Madame Angeline said quietly. “Jonathan is not going to appear.”

“I don’t believe it,” Lila said, gripping the planchette tightly. “You didn’t try hard enough. In fact, you hardly tried at all.”

Madame Angeline reached for her hand across the table. “Remember what I said, cherie. You will have a long and happy life — IF YOU ALLOW IT. Ten years is a long time to wait. You are still young — only 42, am I right? Young enough to remarry — have a child, if you like. This obsession with grief is unhealthy. Life was meant for the living. For some unknown reason, Jonathan is not able to reach you from beyond the grave. That does not mean he’s lost to you forever or that he’s suffering in any way. It simply means that it’s not God’s will that he contact you. It’s time to let it go.”

“I can’t let it go, especially when he promised –“

“People make a lot of promises on their deathbeds, my dear; sometimes, not very wise ones.” Madame Angeline stood up and prepared to leave. “If you will bring my coat, Lila, I will say good-night to you.”

Lila stared at the little plastic planchette held tightly in her hand. Ten years of grief and frustrated hope burned inside of her, and she wanted to scream. She squeezed the planchette until the plastic cracked in her hand, and she threw it on the floor in disgust. Then she grabbed the Ouija board and flung it into the fireplace, making the fire sizzle and pop.

Lila stood up and pointed an accusing finger at Madame Angeline. “You don’t believe me! You never believed that Jonathan would come back! You’re nothing but a fraud!”

“Lila!” Maureen cried. “Madame Angeline is just trying to help you!”

“She’s not receptive to help,” Madame Angeline said sternly. “Please get my coat so I can leave.”

When they heard the knock on the front door, they were all startled, then annoyed. It was too late for visitors. Cautiously, Lila opened the front door without releasing the safety chain. She peered through the open crack at a stranger visible under the porch light. He was standing in the rain holding his brown overcoat over his head. He smiled at her apologetically.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I seem to have run out of gas, and my cell phone battery is dead. Can I please use your phone? I know it’s late, but I have no other way to get home. I live about two blocks from here, at 12145 Maplewood Court. I could walk, I guess, but the weather isn’t too good out here. I’d really appreciate it.”

Lila stared at him, not believing her ears. “12145, you said? Did you say 12145?”

“That’s what I said.”

Lila’s heart leaped in her chest. “12145!” she exclaimed, clutching her hands to her breast and laughing ecstatically. She turned around. “That’s it! That’s the code! Did you hear, Madame Angeline? He’s come back! Jonathan’s come back!”

Maureen and Madame Angeline stared at her in stunned silence.

“Did you hear me?” Lila cried. “JONATHAN’S COME BACK! That man out there just gave me the code!”

But Maureen and Madame Angeline just looked at her in disbelief.

“Here, I’ll prove it to you!” Lila fumbled with the safety chain, released it, and threw open the door. But the stranger was already down the walk, disappearing into the rainy darkness. “No!” Lila cried. “Please don’t go!” She hurried after him, arms waving wildly, and calling frantically, “Come back!” until the rain and darkness engulfed him, and she was alone.

* * *

NOTE: This story is about Lila’s fear of death, her attachment to grief, and her inability to accept her husband’s death. Sometimes, authors get attached to their own words – “their little darlings,” as Stephen King would say. I would really like feedback from you, The Reader! Is the story too long? Too boring? Too wordy? What needs to be cut out? Or is it okay as it is? Please leave your feedback in the comments below – and, thanks!

Dawn Pisturino

October 15, 2021

Copyright 2009-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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Remembering Kim Lee: A Short Story

Qilin (K’i-lin) Metropolitan Museum of Art

J.J. Washington threw down his backpack in disgust. His mother lay snoring on the living-room sofa, an empty whisky bottle cradled in her arms.

She loves that bottle more than me, he thought bitterly.

Staring down at her, he realized how old and ugly she looked. Her velvety, chocolate-brown skin had grown flaky and pale, and strands of gray threaded through her matted black hair. She had been pretty and gentle once, showering him with smiles and kisses when he came home from school. But that was before his father, a policeman, was gunned down and killed during a routine traffic stop. Since then, nothing had been the same.

It’s unfair, he thought angrily. My father was a good man. He didn’t deserve to die.

He ran out of the house into the bright afternoon sunlight, slamming the front door behind him. He wanted to lash out at somebody – anybody. Instead, he kicked an empty soda can down the sidewalk, drawing disapproving stares from a woman wearing a black head scarf and carrying a bag of groceries in her arms.

J.J. shrugged his shoulders and shoved his hands into the pockets of his faded blue jeans. His green Black Pride T-shirt was ripped under the arms, and his white sneakers were scuffed and dirty. He searched the littered gutter for loose change to pocket and lost objects to sell to Mr. Levitson, the junk dealer on the corner. But found nothing of value.

He wandered into the alley behind Big Al’s Soul Food Haven and knocked on the back door. Robbie, the grizzled old cook, sometimes offered him a plateful of barbecued pork and cornbread if he agreed to wash a few dishes. But nobody answered so he rummaged through the garbage for half-eaten cheeseburgers and soggy fries. Suddenly, someone grabbed him roughly from behind and shoved him down hard onto the grimy pavement.

A gigantic black man with bulging arms and rolls of blubber straining under a white T-shirt stained with grease, glared down at him. “Kid, I told ya never to come around here again!”

J.J.’s heart pounded with fear. He picked himself up from the ground and tried to run away, but the fat man caught him with one humongous foot, spilling him onto the pavement again. Tears filled his eyes as a burning pain traveled down his left arm.

“Leave the boy alone!”

J.J. looked up in astonishment as a short Asian woman with ivory skin and close-cropped white hair stepped out from the shadows, waving a long wooden stick. She was dressed in a gray jogging suit, and in spite of the pain in his arm, J.J. broke into a wide grin. On her tiny feet, she wore lime green running shoes.

“Aw, Kim Lee, I was just giving the kid a good scare.”

“You’ve done enough. He’s under my care now.” Kim Lee stood her ground, twirling the wooden stick in her hands like a master baton twirler.

Big Al slunk sheepishly away. Kim Lee helped J.J. up from the ground and examined his injured arm. He winced with pain as she prodded and poked, feeling for broken bones.

“Just a sprain,” she announced. “You come home with me. I’ll put ice on it. Give you some hot food, too.”

J.J. pulled away. “I can take care of myself.”

The old woman smiled. “It won’t take long. Then you’re free to go your own way. I make a mean chop suey. Got fortune cookies, too.”

J.J. grimaced with pain and the emptiness in his stomach. The old lady seemed harmless enough. What did he have to lose?

“Okay,” he said reluctantly. He followed her out of the alley, past a row of rickety wooden houses with iron bars on the windows, up a flight of narrow stairs to a small apartment located above Mama Rosa’s bustling burrito shop. The smell of spicy hot chili drifted with them up the stairs. J.J.’s stomach growled loudly.

Kim Lee’s apartment was neat and sparsely furnished. But the furniture was tattered and old, and J.J. could see that she was just as poor as everybody else who lived in this part of the city. He sat down at the kitchen table, and she placed an ice bag on his left arm. Delicious smells wafted from the stove. Kim Lee placed a steaming plate of chop suey and sticky white rice in front of him, and he ate greedily. She offered him seconds, and he ate some more. He drank hot oolong tea out of a small, white cup with no handles. Finally, she brought him a single golden fortune cookie on a fragile blue plate decorated with fierce yellow dragons.

“Break it open and read your fortune,” Kim Lee told him.

J.J. broke the hard, crescent-shaped cookie into two pieces and pulled out a small slip of white paper. “A unicorn will bring you luck,” he read out loud.

Kim Lee laughed and clapped her hands. “Yes!”

J.J. snorted in disbelief. “What are you talking about? Unicorns! Nobody believes in that stuff anymore!”

Kim Lee’s dark eyes grew misty and far away. “In China, when I was a girl, villagers told stories about K’i-lin, the many-colored unicorn with a single horn twelve feet long. He possessed great wisdom and power. When he appeared, it was considered good luck. Great leaders sought him out, but he was difficult to find. He moved as swiftly as the wind, his voice ringing out like a thousand wind chimes. He only lived for a thousand years, and when he finally disappeared, there was much sadness in the land.”

“But you can’t believe he was real!” J.J. protested.

“Here, let me show you something.” Kim Lee left the room and then returned, carrying a small, black lacquer box. She opened the lid. “Take it,” she said.

J.J. pulled out a round jade pendant hanging from a red silk cord and held it in his right hand.

K’i-lin,” Kim Lee said softly.

The boy traced the intricately-carved image with the fingers of his left hand. But this wasn’t like any unicorn he had ever seen. This one had the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse. Instead of the horn protruding straight from the forehead, it made a large curlicue over the animal’s head. It was the strangest creature he had ever seen.

“That was given to me by my grandfather before he died,” Kim Lee said. “It’s very old and valuable. I’ve treasured it my whole life. It has brought me luck.” J.J. handed it to her, and she placed it carefully into the black box. “May K’i-lin bring you luck, too, J.J. Washington.”

* * *

“Crazy old lady,” J.J. muttered as he found his way back home.

“Hey, J.J., where you been? We’ve been looking for ya!”

J.J. turned to see his friends, Tyrone and Emerson, on the sidewalk behind him. “Aw, I’ve been around.”

“My brother’s taking us to Disneyland on Saturday,” Tyrone said, bouncing a basketball up and down on the sidewalk. “Wanna come?”

“You guys are dreaming. Where would I get money for that?” J.J. said.

“Anywhere you can,” Emerson cut in. “I took twenty dollars out of my mom’s purse.”

“I can’t even get enough to eat,” J.J. said. “My mom drinks up every cent she gets. I’ve already checked her purse. There’s nothing in it.”

“Then you’re out of luck,” Tyrone said. “See you later.”

The two boys walked away. J.J. looked after them with envy. Disneyland! His father had promised to take him on his eleventh birthday, but a terrible accident happened on 79th Avenue, and he had been obligated to help. The family had gone out for pizza instead. A few months later, his father was dead. J.J. picked up a rock and hurled it at a pigeon sitting on a concrete wall. Not fair, not fair, not fair . . .

* * *

J.J. moved quietly through the darkness. It was ten o’clock, and the old lady would probably be asleep. He climbed the staircase cautiously, afraid of making too much noise. Under the doormat he found a key and fitted it into the lock. He pushed the door open slowly and slipped inside. Everything was quiet and still except for a clock ticking. He pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and turned on the beam. Somewhere in the apartment he would find the jade pendant inside the little black box.

The light flashed on a large wooden cabinet with two glass doors. As he crossed the carpeted floor on tip-toe, a soft moan startled him, and he nearly dropped the flashlight in his hand.

The moan came again, and then someone cried out as if in pain.

I’ve got to get out of here, J.J. thought frantically; but not without the jade pendant. He pulled open the glass doors and there, on a low shelf, was the black lacquer box. He quickly grabbed it and hurried to the front door.

“Help me!” The cry was louder now, and J.J. stopped in his tracks. The old woman must be hurt, he thought. He remembered her kindness, and suddenly, he felt ashamed. He placed the black lacquer box back in the cabinet and opened the door to Kim Lee’s bedroom.

J.J. found the light switch and turned on the overhead light. Kim Lee lay sprawled on the carpet, her right leg turned out at a funny angle.

She saw him, and a wave of relief washed over her face. “J.J., I think my hip is broken. Call the paramedics!”

* * *

When J.J. opened the front door, his mother called out to him. “Is that you, J.J.?”

“Yes, mama.”

His mother sat on the living-room sofa, holding his father’s framed photograph in her hands. When she looked up at him, tears trickled down her cheeks. “Where’ve you been, baby? I woke up, and you were gone. It scared me. I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you, too.

“I called Pastor Harris down at the church, and it’s all arranged. I need help, baby, more help than I’ve ever needed in my life. He’s going to help us. I’m going to go to rehab, and your Aunt Jenny’s going to take care of you until I get back on my feet. I’m going to get a job, and we’ll be a real family again.”

J.J. remembered Kim Lee waving good-bye to him as the paramedics loaded her into the back of the ambulance. He thought about the jade pendant and the wonderful story of the brightly-colored unicorn named K’i-lin. The old lady isn’t crazy after all, he thought with a smile. A unicorn really did bring me luck.

J.J. gave his mother a big hug. “That’ll be fine, mama, just fine.”

Dawn Pisturino

October 13, 2021

Copyright 2009-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights reserved.

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Varney the Vampire; Or, the Feast of Blood

Project Gutenberg

Varney the Vampire; Or, the Feast of Blood, was published in serial form as a penny dreadful in 109 episodes between 1845 and 1847. These episodes were subsequently collected into a three-volume work. Both Thomas Peckett Prest (1810-1859) and James Malcolm Rymer (1814-1884) have been credited with authorship, with most scholars leaning towards Rymer. The series was published by E. Lloyd, located at 12 Salisbury Square, Fleet Street, London, England. Varney is a fine example of Victorian Gothic horror literature that may have inspired such great writers as Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe. Barnabas Collins, the daytime soap opera vampire created by producer Dan Curtis for Dark Shadows, may have been modeled after Varney the Vampire.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER I.

——”How graves give up their dead.

And how the night air hideous grows

With shrieks!”

MIDNIGHT.—THE HAIL-STORM.—THE DREADFUL VISITOR.—THE VAMPYRE.

The solemn tones of an old cathedral clock have announced midnight—the air is thick and heavy—a strange, death like stillness pervades all nature. Like the ominous calm which precedes some more than usually terrific outbreak of the elements, they seem to have paused even in their ordinary fluctuations, to gather a terrific strength for the great effort. A faint peal of thunder now comes from far off. Like a signal gun for the battle of the winds to begin, it appeared to awaken them from their lethargy, and one awful, warring hurricane swept over a whole city, producing more devastation in the four or five minutes it lasted, than would a half century of ordinary phenomena.

It was as if some giant had blown upon some toy town, and scattered many of the buildings before the hot blast of his terrific breath; for as suddenly as that blast of wind had come did it cease, and all was as still and calm as before.

Sleepers awakened, and thought that what they had heard must be the confused chimera of a dream. They trembled and turned to sleep again.

All is still—still as the very grave. Not a sound breaks the magic of repose. What is that—a strange, pattering noise, as of a million of fairy feet? It is hail—yes, a hail-storm has burst over the city. Leaves are dashed from the trees, mingled with small boughs; windows that lie most opposed to the direct fury of the pelting particles of ice are broken, and the rapt repose that before was so remarkable in its intensity, is exchanged for a noise which, in its accumulation, drowns every cry of surprise or consternation which here and there arose from persons who found their houses invaded by the storm.

Now and then, too, there would come a sudden gust of wind that in its strength, as it blew laterally, would, for a moment, hold millions of the hailstones suspended in mid air, but it was only to dash them with redoubled force in some new direction, where more mischief was to be done.

Oh, how the storm raged! Hail—rain—wind. It was, in very truth, an awful night.


There is an antique chamber in an ancient house. Curious and quaint carvings adorn the walls, and the large chimney-piece is a curiosity of itself. The ceiling is low, and a large bay window, from roof to floor, looks to the west. The window is latticed, and filled with curiously painted glass and rich stained pieces, which send in a strange, yet beautiful light, when sun or moon shines into the apartment. There is but one portrait in that room, although the walls seem panelled for the express purpose of containing a series of pictures. That portrait is of a young man, with a pale face, a stately brow, and a strange expression about the eyes, which no one cared to look on twice.

There is a stately bed in that chamber, of carved walnut-wood is it made, rich in design and elaborate in execution; one of those works of art which owe their existence to the Elizabethan era. It is hung with heavy silken and damask furnishing; nodding feathers are at its corners—covered with dust are they, and they lend a funereal aspect to the room. The floor is of polished oak.

God! how the hail dashes on the old bay window! Like an occasional discharge of mimic musketry, it comes clashing, beating, and cracking upon the small panes; but they resist it—their small size saves them; the wind, the hail, the rain, expend their fury in vain.

The bed in that old chamber is occupied. A creature formed in all fashions of loveliness lies in a half sleep upon that ancient couch—a girl young and beautiful as a spring morning. Her long hair has escaped from its confinement and streams over the blackened coverings of the bedstead; she has been restless in her sleep, for the clothing of the bed is in much confusion. One arm is over her head, the other hangs nearly off the side of the bed near to which she lies. A neck and bosom that would have formed a study for the rarest sculptor that ever Providence gave genius to, were half disclosed. She moaned slightly in her sleep, and once or twice the lips moved as if in prayer—at least one might judge so, for the name of Him who suffered for all came once faintly from them.

She has endured much fatigue, and the storm does not awaken her; but it can disturb the slumbers it does not possess the power to destroy entirely. The turmoil of the elements wakes the senses, although it cannot entirely break the repose they have lapsed into.

Oh, what a world of witchery was in that mouth, slightly parted, and exhibiting within the pearly teeth that glistened even in the faint light that came from that bay window. How sweetly the long silken eyelashes lay upon the cheek. Now she moves, and one shoulder is entirely visible—whiter, fairer than the spotless clothing of the bed on which she lies, is the smooth skin of that fair creature, just budding into womanhood, and in that transition state which presents to us all the charms of the girl—almost of the child, with the more matured beauty and gentleness of advancing years.

Was that lightning? Yes—an awful, vivid, terrifying flash—then a roaring peal of thunder, as if a thousand mountains were rolling one over the other in the blue vault of Heaven! Who sleeps now in that ancient city? Not one living soul. The dread trumpet of eternity could not more effectually have awakened any one.

The hail continues. The wind continues. The uproar of the elements seems at its height. Now she awakens—that beautiful girl on the antique bed; she opens those eyes of celestial blue, and a faint cry of alarm bursts from her lips. At least it is a cry which, amid the noise and turmoil without, sounds but faint and weak. She sits upon the bed and presses her hands upon her eyes. Heavens! what a wild torrent of wind, and rain, and hail! The thunder likewise seems intent upon awakening sufficient echoes to last until the next flash of forked lightning should again produce the wild concussion of the air. She murmurs a prayer—a prayer for those she loves best; the names of those dear to her gentle heart come from her lips; she weeps and prays; she thinks then of what devastation the storm must surely produce, and to the great God of Heaven she prays for all living things. Another flash—a wild, blue, bewildering flash of lightning streams across that bay window, for an instant bringing out every colour in it with terrible distinctness. A shriek bursts from the lips of the young girl, and then, with eyes fixed upon that window, which, in another moment, is all darkness, and with such an expression of terror upon her face as it had never before known, she trembled, and the perspiration of intense fear stood upon her brow.

“What—what was it?” she gasped; “real, or a delusion? Oh, God, what was it? A figure tall and gaunt, endeavouring from the outside to unclasp the window. I saw it. That flash of lightning revealed it to me. It stood the whole length of the window.”

There was a lull of the wind. The hail was not falling so thickly—moreover, it now fell, what there was of it, straight, and yet a strange clattering sound came upon the glass of that long window. It could not be a delusion—she is awake, and she hears it. What can produce it? Another flash of lightning—another shriek—there could be now no delusion.

A tall figure is standing on the ledge immediately outside the long window. It is its finger-nails upon the glass that produces the sound so like the hail, now that the hail has ceased. Intense fear paralysed the limbs of that beautiful girl. That one shriek is all she can utter—with hands clasped, a face of marble, a heart beating so wildly in her bosom, that each moment it seems as if it would break its confines, eyes distended and fixed upon the window, she waits, froze with horror. The pattering and clattering of the nails continue. No word is spoken, and now she fancies she can trace the darker form of that figure against the window, and she can see the long arms moving to and fro, feeling for some mode of entrance. What strange light is that which now gradually creeps up into the air? red and terrible—brighter and brighter it grows. The lightning has set fire to a mill, and the reflection of the rapidly consuming building falls upon that long window. There can be no mistake. The figure is there, still feeling for an entrance, and clattering against the glass with its long nails, that appear as if the growth of many years had been untouched. She tries to scream again but a choking sensation comes over her, and she cannot. It is too dreadful—she tries to move—each limb seems weighed down by tons of lead—she can but in a hoarse faint whisper cry,—

“Help—help—help—help!”

And that one word she repeats like a person in a dream. The red glare of the fire continues. It throws up the tall gaunt figure in hideous relief against the long window. It shows, too, upon the one portrait that is in the chamber, and that portrait appears to fix its eyes upon the attempting intruder, while the flickering light from the fire makes it look fearfully lifelike. A small pane of glass is broken, and the form from without introduces a long gaunt hand, which seems utterly destitute of flesh. The fastening is removed, and one-half of the window, which opens like folding doors, is swung wide open upon its hinges.

And yet now she could not scream—she could not move. “Help!—help!—help!” was all she could say. But, oh, that look of terror that sat upon her face, it was dreadful—a look to haunt the memory for a lifetime—a look to obtrude itself upon the happiest moments, and turn them to bitterness.

The figure turns half round, and the light falls upon the face. It is perfectly white—perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth—the fearful looking teeth—projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like. It approaches the bed with a strange, gliding movement. It clashes together the long nails that literally appear to hang from the finger ends. No sound comes from its lips. Is she going mad—that young and beautiful girl exposed to so much terror? she has drawn up all her limbs; she cannot even now say help. The power of articulation is gone, but the power of movement has returned to her; she can draw herself slowly along to the other side of the bed from that towards which the hideous appearance is coming.

But her eyes are fascinated. The glance of a serpent could not have produced a greater effect upon her than did the fixed gaze of those awful, metallic-looking eyes that were bent on her face. Crouching down so that the gigantic height was lost, and the horrible, protruding, white face was the most prominent object, came on the figure. What was it?—what did it want there?—what made it look so hideous—so unlike an inhabitant of the earth, and yet to be on it?

Now she has got to the verge of the bed, and the figure pauses. It seemed as if when it paused she lost the power to proceed. The clothing of the bed was now clutched in her hands with unconscious power. She drew her breath short and thick. Her bosom heaves, and her limbs tremble, yet she cannot withdraw her eyes from that marble-looking face. He holds her with his glittering eye.

The storm has ceased—all is still. The winds are hushed; the church clock proclaims the hour of one: a hissing sound comes from the throat of the hideous being, and he raises his long, gaunt arms—the lips move. He advances. The girl places one small foot from the bed on to the floor. She is unconsciously dragging the clothing with her. The door of the room is in that direction—can she reach it? Has she power to walk?—can she withdraw her eyes from the face of the intruder, and so break the hideous charm? God of Heaven! is it real, or some dream so like reality as to nearly overturn the judgment for ever?

The figure has paused again, and half on the bed and half out of it that young girl lies trembling. Her long hair streams across the entire width of the bed. As she has slowly moved along she has left it streaming across the pillows. The pause lasted about a minute—oh, what an age of agony. That minute was, indeed, enough for madness to do its full work in.

With a sudden rush that could not be foreseen—with a strange howling cry that was enough to awaken terror in every breast, the figure seized the long tresses of her hair, and twining them round his bony hands he held her to the bed. Then she screamed—Heaven granted her then power to scream. Shriek followed shriek in rapid succession. The bed-clothes fell in a heap by the side of the bed—she was dragged by her long silken hair completely on to it again. Her beautifully rounded limbs quivered with the agony of her soul. The glassy, horrible eyes of the figure ran over that angelic form with a hideous satisfaction—horrible profanation. He drags her head to the bed’s edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in his grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth—a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampyre is at his hideous repast!


CHAPTER II.

THE ALARM.—THE PISTOL SHOT.—THE PURSUIT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.

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Lights flashed about the building, and various room doors opened; voices called one to the other. There was an universal stir and commotion among the inhabitants.

“Did you hear a scream, Harry?” asked a young man, half-dressed, as he walked into the chamber of another about his own age.

“I did—where was it?”

“God knows. I dressed myself directly.”

(To continue reading Varney the Vampire; Or, the Feast of Blood, the book can be purchased on Amazon or downloaded for free at Project Gutenberg.)

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Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: The Dysfunctional Bennets

Photo from the Houstonia

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet clearly depict the typical unhappily married couple whose loveless marriage was prompted by social expectation and confirmed by an economic social contract. Mr. Bennet is witty and intelligent. He likes to escape into his study to read and ruminate. He prefers his second daughter, Elizabeth, because she is most like him. He recognizes that she “has something more of quickness than her sisters.” Mrs. Bennet, on the other hand, is so frivolous, superficial, inappropriate, and self-absorbed, she seems to come from a lower class than her husband. Mr. Bennet consistently responds to his wife with sarcastic comments and regards his three youngest daughters as silly and ignorant — just like his wife.

Although his property is entailed, Mr. Bennet does not seem very motivated to provide for his daughters. He expects them to follow the precepts of society and marry as well as they can, if possible. He is, therefore, willing to go meet Mr. Bingley in order to pave the way for his daughters’ introduction to their new neighbors. He has full faith that his daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, have the sincerity and moral character to find suitable husbands. He does not seem to have much expectation for his younger daughters. Despite Elizabeth’s warning, he is caught by surprise when Lydia disgraces herself. However, Lydia’s disgrace makes him realize that he has not done enough to secure his daughters’ futures. And he goes to the other extreme and threatens to severely restrict Kitty’s life until she is properly married. Mary seems to be overlooked here, as if her only expectation is to become an old maid.

Mr. Bennet recognizes the ludicrousness of a marriage between Elizabeth and Mr. Collins. He knows that Elizabeth is worthy of so much better — unlike his wife, who feels it is “the business of her life” to get her daughters married off, regardless of the unsuitability of the match. Secretly, Mr. Bennet would like to spare his two older daughters the unhappiness and torture of a loveless marriage.

Exposed to the dysfunctional dynamics of her family, Elizabeth is determined to avoid the same fate as her father. She acknowledges his faults, empathizes with him, and longs to escape her mother and younger sisters and their constant nagging and bickering. She disdains superficiality and shallowness because she experiences it every day with her own mother and younger sisters. She hates being pressured to conform to her mother’s irrational will. She is embarrassed by her mother’s uncontrolled tongue and thoughtless behavior. She is humiliated by the carelessness and impropriety displayed by her younger sisters. She wants to be better than all of them. When she sees the same vanity and artificiality in the upper classes, she is unimpressed.

Elizabeth realizes that her family is a hindrance to her chances of securing a happy marriage. She feels this even more acutely when she begins to fall in love with Darcy. When she visits Pemberley and realizes that Darcy is well-regarded and burdened with many responsibilities, she longs to be a part of his world. She fiercely defends herself when Lady Catherine de Bourgh confronts her. And when she finally gives in and accepts Darcy, her father welcomes the marriage as the best course of action for Elizabeth and her family. Darcy has proven that he is a responsible, morally upright man.

The fairy-tale ending is not unreasonable, however. Both Elizabeth and Darcy complement each other in positive ways that convince the reader that a happy marriage will, indeed, be the end result.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: Norton, 2001.

Dawn Pisturino

October 3, 2017

Thomas Edison State University

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth Bennet

How Elizabeth Bennet Conformed to her Society’s Standards and How She Did Not

Elizabeth Bennet is a conventional country girl whose life revolves around family and social obligations. She believes local gossip and hearsay, enjoys parties and balls, and socializes with the military officers stationed at the nearby village with her younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. When her mother schemes to get her older sister, Jane, married to the wealthy Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth participates in the plot. She reads, plays the piano, enjoys nature, and does all the things that country girls do. Elizabeth is different, however, because she “has something more of quickness than her sisters.” Elizabeth likes to observe and analyze the people and situations around her.

As a member of the lower landed gentry, Elizabeth understands the importance of marriage, money, and social position. When Mr. Collins asks Elizabeth to marry him, she defies her mother and social expectations by declining. She cannot bring herself to marry someone who cannot make her happy. When Charlotte Lucas turns around and accepts him, Elizabeth is disgusted by her friend’s mercenary reasons for marrying him. She doesn’t share Charlotte’s view that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”

Elizabeth forms a negative first impression of Mr. Darcy and believes all the bad gossip she hears about him. She always reminds him of his bad manners when she sees him, and he does likewise to her. When Darcy finally reveals his love to her, she becomes indignant, points out his flaws, and rejects him — once again, defying family and social expectations. Even the entailment of her father’s estate cannot sway her.

Mr. Wickham entertains Elizabeth, makes her laugh, and appeals to her sexual attraction to him. He is so charming that, if he had money, Mrs. Bennet would heartily approve of a marriage between them. Elizabeth believes all the negative information Wickham imparts about Mr. Darcy and all the positive hearsay she hears about Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth is finally forced to realize Wickham’s bad character after reading Darcy’s letter. She take s a good, long look at herself and admits that “till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Elizabeth recognizes the large social gap between Jane and Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy and herself. She admits to her sister, Jane, that “we are not rich enough, or grand enough, for them.” She is embarrassed by her family’s bad manners and behavior on more than one occasion. She embarrasses herself when she walks to Netherfield Park and presents herself with a muddy dress and shoes. Miss Bingley describes her behavior as “conceited independence.” She understands Darcy’s objections to her family. But her sole concern is with happiness, not wealth and social position.

When Lady Catherine de Bourgh confronts Elizabeth about an impending engagement to Darcy, she responds, “And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?” And when Lady Catherine admonishes her to be sensible, she says, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” Clearly, love and happiness are not dependent on wealth and social class to Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

As Elizabeth learns more about Mr. Darcy, his honesty, character, and responsibilities, she begins to conform to his expectations for her. Finally, she reveals to her sister, Jane, “that we are to be the happiest couple in the world.” Concerned, Jane tells her to “do anything rather than marry without affection.”

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: Norton, 2001.

Dawn Pisturino

September 27, 2017

Thomas Edison State University

Copyright 2017-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Right Reserved.

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Legend of the Giant’s Causeway, Antrim, Ireland

Giant’s Causeway, Antrim, Ireland

Although the Giant’s Causeway was formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, the boundless imagination and creativity of the Irish people saw something more magical in its origins.

Legend has it that Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) was an Irish hunter-warrior of great height and strength who could not get along with a Scottish giant named Benandonner (Red Man). The two went back and forth at each other until, finally, Finn challenged the giant to a fight.

Finn hauled tons of rock from the coastline of Antrim into the sea in order to build a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When it was completed, Finn bravely and proudly crossed the sea and met his Scottish enemy on Scottish territory.

To his great surprise, Finn discovered that his enemy was, indeed, a giant and much bigger and stronger than himself. He high tailed it back across the causeway. But Red Man spotted him fleeing and gave chase.

On his way back to Ireland, Finn lost a boot — which can still be seen today. The giant’s roars were deafening, and Finn stuffed moss into his ears to deaden the noise.

At home, Finn confided in his wife, Oonagh. She hid him away then greeted the giant which had followed him home.

Oonagh craftily showed Red Man huge boulders and other large weapons to give the giant a false impression that Finn was much larger and stronger than himself. She baked griddle cakes for the hungry giant, inserting the iron griddle itself inside one of the cakes. When Red Man bit into the cake, he broke his front teeth.

Feeling outsized and out-smarted by Finn and his wife, the giant left the house and headed back to Scotland. Finn came out of hiding. He dug up a huge chunk of Irish soil and threw it at the giant. The chunk of soil missed Red Man and fell into the sea, forming the Isle of Man. The hole which Finn had made filled with water and became Lough Derg — the largest lake in Ireland.

There are other variations to the story, of course, but whichever tale is told, the Giant’s Causeway will always be a marvel of natural science, a source of Irish national pride, and the creation of legendary hero, Finn McCool.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Dawn Pisturino

March 10, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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The List by Dawn Pisturino

blackjack table

 

“If I could get away with it, I’d fire you. But there’s nobody to take your place.”

Henry looks at his boss in dull silence then gives a short laugh.

“Don’t laugh, Henry, I’m dead serious. Johnson over there is the only one who does any real work around here.”

Henry stares at Johnson, who is busy directing the arrangement of blackjack tables in the Pit. A small flame of resentment ignites in his gut.

So all my work is for nothing.

Henry recalls all the extra hours he has worked over the last two weeks, even sacrificing his days off, to take care of all the little details involved in setting up a blackjack tournament. He has barely slept at night because all the annoying little details keep tap dancing around in his head. As a result, his migraines have returned with a vengeance, and his wife nags him for not taking a day off.

“There’s nobody else on day shift who can do it,” Henry wearily explains.

The phone rings early in the morning, waking Henry from a troubled sleep. The phone rings late at night, preventing him from getting to bed. Johnson, the evening Pit Boss, and Girard, the graveyard Pit Boss, are always calling him for advice or direction. Henry takes his job as day shift Pit Boss seriously and gives them good, solid answers.

As he watches Johnson waving his arms and barking orders, Henry feels himself slowly deflating like a worn out tire. He sinks down into his chair. The awful words cling to him like plastic wrap, suffocating him into silence. He has a wife and five children to support. He needs the medical insurance.

When his boss leaves, Henry’s wife Lottie gets an earful over the telephone.

“Why do you let him do this to you? Why don’t you stick up for yourself?” Her words are an accusation fired through the phone line.

“What good would it do,” Henry says. “He would probably just fire me.”

“At least, if the bastard fires you, he has to give you severance pay and unemployment. Why are you such a wimp, Henry? I feel like calling up that little twerp and giving him a piece of my mind.”

“Don’t do that,” Henry pleads. “It would just make things worse.”

“Then grow a backbone, for Christ’s sake! Why I ever married you, I just don’t know.”

I wonder, Henry thinks to himself. But he says out loud: “What I really wanna do is look that jerk right in the eye and say, ‘I quit! You can find someone else to run your stupid old tournament!”

“You can’t do that!” Lottie sputters. “You have a wife and five children to support! We need the medical insurance.”

But Henry wonders: could I really do it?

* * *

On Monday morning, the Big Honcho arrives from Las Vegas.

“We need to cut back on personnel,” he orders. “I want nine dealers fired from the Pit. And don’t worry about the legalities. We have a team of lawyers who will handle all of that.”

Henry is upset. He knows that the corporation made a healthy profit last year. He sees no reason to fire anybody. The dealers on his shift have been loyal employees. He does not want to choose which innocents will be sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed. He demurs. But the Big Honcho, pounding the desk for emphasis, pressures him to choose four day shift dealers to fire.

“I don’t know what to do,” Henry complains to his wife. “There’s nobody on my shift who deserves to be fired.”

“You can’t just fire somebody without a good reason. You need documentation to back it up. Did you talk to someone in Human Resources?”

“He specifically told us not to go to Human Resources. He says they have lawyers who will handle everything.”

“Sounds fishy to me. They’re trying to pull a fast one, Henry.”

“I know that! But if I don’t do what he says, he’ll fire me. He’ll get me for insubordination.”

“Well then, do what he says. Don’t you have any employees who are always calling in sick or punching in late? Don’t you have any new people on probation?”

“What he really wants,” Henry confides, “is to get rid of all the old people and the ugly women. He wants to hire skinny young girls with big breasts like they have in Las Vegas.”

“But that’s discrimination! He can’t do that!”

“He thinks he can. He doesn’t like anybody over the age of thirty. He only wants pretty young girls who won’t object to wearing skimpy outfits and working long hours for low pay.”

“Where’s he going to find that around here? Good workers are hard to find. This isn’t Las Vegas.”

“I know that, and you know that, but he doesn’t understand.”

“Go through your list of personnel and choose the ones with the most points against them.”

“I have, but none of them really have any points currently against them. I have good people on my shift, and most of them have been here for years. There’s no reason to fire them.”

“Explore your options. Is business slow right now? Can you cut back on hours? That would help cut labor costs without having to fire anybody. The people who can’t afford it will look for another job.”

Henry considers the idea. “You know, I think that might work. I’ll take another look at the schedule.”

***

“What’s going on, Henry? Are some of us gonna be laid off?” Margie Benson looks at him with a Big Question Mark in her heavily-shadowed dark eyes. Henry forces himself to smile. He has been instructed by his boss to say nothing about future lay-offs.

“Everything’s okay,” Henry says. “Don’t worry.” But Henry is aware that Margie is a single  mother with two young children and plenty to worry about. He has just added her name to his list of potential lay-offs because a customer filed a written complaint against her five years ago. It was all he could find in her personnel file.

“If you say it,” Margie says, “I’ll believe it. You wouldn’t lie.”

I would if the stakes were high enough.

“Margie, just try to be flexible and plan ahead, just in case things change in the future, okay?” Henry looks at her long and hard, and he knows that she understands the hidden message behind his words.

“Thanks, Henry,” she says quietly. “You’re a good man.”

Henry turns away, feeling sick to his stomach. For the rest of the say, he is haunted by the look on Margie’s face.

***

The Big Honcho calls from Las Vegas.

“This list is no good,” he shouts into the phone. “You’re being too soft on these people. Our lawyers say there are at least twenty people on that personnel list who can be fired!”

“Where are they?” Henry says, feeling his hackles rise. “I’ve gone over that list again and again. I’ve researched the personnel files. Those four people are the only ones who even remotely qualify.”

“Go over that list again! If our lawyers can spot them, so can you!”

“I’m not a lawyer,” Henry shouts back. “I’ve never had to do this before.”

“You’re supposed to do what I want!” the Big Honcho screams.

“Fuck,” Henry says under his breath.

“What did you say to me? Did you say what I think you said?”

“Yeah, I said exactly what you think I said,” Henry says proudly.

“You haven’t heard the last of this,” the Big Honcho says. “Get me that list!” And hangs up the phone.

Henry’s heart is pounding in his chest, and his hands are clammy and cold. He wipes the sweat from his forehead with an old wad of tissue he finds in his pocket. He picks up the personnel list lying on his desk and tears it in two. Then he tosses the pieces into the waste basket.

***

Henry has submitted five versions of the personnel hit list to the Big Honcho in Las Vegas. The Big Honcho has found reasons to reject all five. Henry calls him with version number six.

“Thank you,” the Big Honcho says gruffly. “And Henry — I haven’t forgotten what you said to me.”

Henry does not respond. He hangs up the phone, struggling to keep his composure.

Late in the afternoon, the Big Honcho calls back. “This list is no good. We don’t have enough documentation to fire these people.”

Henry explodes. “You said not to worry about that! You said you had a team of lawyers who would take care of the legalities!”

“Stop shouting at me.”

“I’m going to shout at you! I told you we didn’t have enough documentation to fire these people! I told you it couldn’t be done!”

“As a matter of fact, we’ve decided to put the whole thing on hold until after the blackjack tournament.”

“Good!” Henry shouts. “That’s the smartest thing you’ve said to me yet!” He slams down the receiver, not caring anymore what the Big Honcho thinks.

***

“We had considered you for the position, Henry, but your attitude just doesn’t fit in with our corporate goals.”

Henry’s boss frowns, shaking his head disapprovingly. “We’ve appointed Johnson Top Dog, and everybody — including you — will now answer to him. Johnson, in turn, will answer to the Big Honcho in Las Vegas. I hope you’re happy, Henry. If it were up to me, I’d fire your sorry ass.”

In his mind, Henry hears his wife yelling at him. “What do you mean, you didn’t get the promotion! Don’t you care about your family? Henry, we need that extra money!”

He begins to laugh.

“Don’t laugh, Henry, I’m dead serious.”

“I know you are. And you know what? I — don’t — care!”

The look of shock on his boss’ thin, colorless face turns to horror as Henry pulls a small pistol from his pocket and points it squarely at the spot between his boss’ terrified eyes.

“Now, now, Henry, no need to go postal on me.”

Henry continues to laugh as he swings the gun around and points it at his own throbbing temple. His head disappears in a cloud of smoke.

***

When Henry’s boss calls the Big Honcho in Las Vegas to deliver the news, he hears a satisfied grunt on the other end of the telephone.

“Good! Henry Jenkins was at the top of my list.”

Dawn Pisturino

Copyright 2011-2020 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

 

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The Best Gift

Christmas present

 

After nine years of marriage, Mary knew that the holidays were not a good time to ask her husband for a favor. Money was tight. The children were out of school. Her husband’s large, extended family had decided – at the last minute, of course – to honor them with their considerable presence at Christmas dinner. Christmas Day was only a week away, and Mary felt frazzled, overwhelmed, and out of sorts. She lay down on the small double bed in the master bedroom to take a nap.

It was Sunday afternoon. Betsy, 6, and Lauren, 8, were busy decorating sugar cookies in the kitchen. Their childish laughter rang through the house, a happy reminder of Christmas. Mary’s 12-year-old nephew, Jordan, lay on the carpeted living room floor playing video games. An occasional triumphant shout blended with the sound of video gunfire. Earlier in the day, he had announced his decision not to participate in any of his cousins’ childish activities. He was too old to decorate Christmas cookies, he declared; although Mary noted with a smile that he was not too old to consume half a dozen with a tall glass of milk. But he was a good boy, and Mary was happy to have the extra baby-sitting money. She had agreed to take him for the entire week while her sister was in the hospital having gallbladder surgery.

Mary wasn’t quite sure where her husband Todd had gone. He had left early in the morning before everyone was awake, leaving a note on the kitchen counter that he would be back later. She figured he was doing last minute Christmas shopping at the mall and would come home soon laden with packages. The children would greet him at the door, demanding to feel, prod, shake, rattle, and listen to each gaily wrapped gift. Then they would carefully lay them under the decorated artificial pine tree in the living room and continue to feel, prod, shake, rattle, and listen to them every day until Christmas.

Mary prayed as hard as she could that he would not go overboard spending their hard-earned money on Christmas gifts. They simply could not afford it, especially when they were expecting their third child in a couple of months.

Mary ran her hands over her swollen belly and sighed. She was not prepared to face another round of baby bottles and diapers — even if this one was a boy. She was tired and disappointed with her life. The constant pressure to pay bills, the ever-present fear of Todd being laid off, the nagging worry over providing an adequate future for the girls — the stress was tearing her apart and wearing her down. And soon there would be one more responsibility to face. She just didn’t feel up to it.

When Todd came home, she would beg him for this one favor: one of them needed to get sterilized. She didn’t care which one, but somehow, they had to come to some agreement. She didn’t want more children. They couldn’t afford anymore. She wanted to provide for the ones they had already.

Outside, the wind began to howl, and the softly falling snow grew thicker. She could no longer see the trees through the bedroom window. She shivered and drew the blanket tighter around her swollen body. Please drive carefully, she silently prayed.

* * *

“Mommy, mommy, we’re hungry!” cried the girls, jumping onto the bed.

Mary groaned sand rolled over. The bedroom was dark. She glanced at the neon orange face of the alarm clock on the nightstand. Six o’clock. Todd should have come home by now.

Reluctantly, she got up and followed the girls into the kitchen. She grabbed a box of macaroni and cheese and a can of green peas out of the cupboard and began to prepare dinner. While she waited for the water in the pan to boil, she grabbed her cell phone and called Todd. She heard a few distant rings, then nothing. She tried again with the same result. Damn this snow, she cursed under her breath. She reached for the portable phone on the kitchen counter. No dial tone. Damn! She slammed down the receiver. There was no way to get hold of her husband.

“Mommy, when’s daddy coming home?” whined six-year-old Betsy, clinging to her shirt.

“I don’t know, sweetheart. We just have to be patient. Go into the living room with Lauren and Jordan. Dinner will be ready soon.” But inside, Mary did not want to be patient. She wanted to scream, Where is he? A feeling of dread came over her. Todd would have called if something was wrong — if he was able to call. And that’s what was worrying her. He had no way to communicate with her.

She poured the dry macaroni into boiling water, then placed the peas into a bowl and set it in the microwave. She set the dial for three minutes and waited. In the living room, she heard the familiar voice of Burl Ives singing cheery Christmas songs on TV. If only Todd were here . . .

When dinner was ready, she poked her head through the living room door to call the children to the table. The room was dark, and one of them – Jordan, probably – had plugged in the Christmas tree lights. Their soft glow filled the room with radiant colors. Mary smiled, allowing the gentle peace of Christmas to fill her heart. A small delay, that’s all. He’ll be here soon.

“Dinner, everyone! Put the video on pause and come to the table.”

The two girls ran to the table and scrambled into their chairs. Jordan pushed the pause button, then walked slowly into the kitchen and sat down. “When’s Uncle Todd coming home,” he asked glumly. “I want to play video games with him!”

“Any time now,” Mary responded cheerfully, dishing up a plateful of macaroni and cheese. “So, Jordan, it sounded like you were winning this afternoon!”

He took the plate from her hands. “Aw, I do okay.”

Outside the wind howled, and Mary thought she heard a faint knocking sound. Could it be . . .

“Hey! Somebody’s at the front door!” Jordan shouted. “Maybe it’s Uncle Todd!” And he was off and running before Mary could stop him.

“I wanna go see!” shouted Lauren.

“Me, too!”chimed in Betsy; and both girls raced into the living room.

“Wait!” Mary cried. “It could be a stranger!”

She hurried after the children. Jordan flipped on the outside light and opened the front door. In the doorway stood a State Trooper wearing a heavy jacket, thick boots, and gloves dusted with snow.

“Mrs. Abbott?” he inquired gravely.

Mary’s heart sank. “I’m Mrs. Abbott.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you like this, but I’ve got some bad news for you.”

Tears welled up in Mary’s eyes, but she held her voice steady. “Won’t you come in, officer?”

“Thank you, ma’am. It’s mighty cold out here.” He stomped the snow off his boots and entered the foyer.

“Ma’am, I’m awfully sorry to tell you this –”

“The children, officer –”

“Yes, ma’am. Maybe we can send them into another room for a few minutes.”

“Children, you heard the officer. Go back into the kitchen and eat your supper.”

“Aw, I want to stay here!” Jordan grumbled.

“No, I need you to go into the kitchen. Now!”

Jordan mumbled something under his breath but turned and walked away. The girls reluctantly followed.

“As I was saying, ma’am, I have some awfully bad news for you. Your husband, Todd Abbott, was killed in a car crash an hour ago. He missed the turn down on Miles Creek Road and slammed right into that old oak tree in the bend. He died instantly from the looks of it. An ambulance took him to Mercy Hospital. He’s laying in the morgue there. You’ll need to come identify the body as soon as you can.”

Mary stared at him in horror. “No! It can’t be! she cried. “It can’t be . . .”

* * *

In the days that followed, Mary stopped living. She refused to get out of bed. Taking the sedative prescribed by Dr. Lawrence, she kept herself sedated, locked in her room, lost to the world, oblivious to her own existence. All she wanted was to sleep – long, deep, and hard – until all the agonizing pain and suffering deep inside had shriveled up and disappeared. She wanted to blot out all the memories of her life, every thought and feeling, and to never think or feel again.

* * *

“He’s dead,” Jordan said quietly, bursting into tears. “I’m never going to see him again.” The two girls, not fully understanding, began to wail.

“I want my daddy! I want my daddy!” they screamed in unison. “Mommy! Mommy!”

“Shhh . . . Hush now, my darlings. Grandma’s here.” With a heavy heart, she drew the little ones close to her breast and held them tight. They sobbed hysterically, wetting her sweater, until sleep overcame them and offered a temporary shelter from their grief.

* * *

After three days, Mary emerged from the darkness of her bedroom. Stumbling down the hallway in her old flannel bathrobe, she made her way to the kitchen and poured herself a cup of black coffee. Her hands shook slightly, and her mother stared at her in shock.

“Mary, you look terrible! Come sit down. Do you want some eggs?”

“No, I’m not hungry.”

“Then come sit down and talk.”

“I don’t think I can do that yet.”

She stood over the kitchen sink and stared out the window. The day was crystal clear with a cloudless, vivid blue sky. Bright sunshine made the clean white snow sparkle with millions of tiny diamonds. It was a perfect winter day, just right for making snowmen and snow angels and drinking hot chocolate; sledding down Jackson Hill; ice skating on Fisher’s pond; building snow forts and throwing snowballs.

“He’s gone, mother, and I don’t know what to do. How can I go on? He was my whole life. And the kids — good Lord, what kind of god takes a wonderful daddy like Todd away from his children? I don’t understand it. It’s too cruel. Those kids are never going to be the same again.”

“They’ll get through it, Mary — and so will you. You’ll do it because you have to — for the sake of those little girls — and the new one that’s coming.”

Mary turned around angrily. “I don’t even want this child! Do you know what I wanted to do? I wanted one of us to get sterilized. I don’t want anymore children! I can’t even provide for the ones I have. How am I going to support three children working part-time at the video store? Todd’s life insurance will help, but there’s the house payment, and now we need another car, and the utilities, and food — and how am I going to pay for medical insurance? I don’t even know if Todd’s medical insurance is going to cover the delivery, now that he’s gone!”

“Careful, Mary, or that baby will grow up knowing you resent it. It’s not fair to blame the child for what’s happened.”

“I’m sorry, mother, but I do resent it! I didn’t want it in the first place — and now, with all this — I just can’t handle it!”

“It’s still Todd’s baby, Mary. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

* * *

The small bronze box on display at the front of the memorial chapel was engraved with these words: “Together Forever.” Two hearts intertwined, and Todd’s name, birth date, and date of death were engraved inside one of them. Mary gazed tearfully at the 8 x 10 color photo of her husband displayed next to the urn and fingered the thin gold wedding band hanging on a gold chain around her neck. Someday, she promised, my ashes will be added to yours, and we will be together forever.

She lit a small votive candle and placed it before the framed photograph. Then silently, reverently, she reached out and touched the smooth glass inside the frame, mentally stroking the familiar features of her husband’s face. Together forever . . .

She hugged her swollen belly and felt the child inside her move. If it’s a boy, I’ll name him after you. Todd Douglas Abbott. He might even look like you! I hope he looks like you, she prayed. She closed her eyes and wept.

She remembered the day when the doctor called to tell her the good news. Congratulations, Mrs. Abbott, you’re pregnant! She had been angry at the doctor and angry at Todd. The doctor tried to reassure her that everything would be okay, but she refused to listen and hung up the phone. She crawled into bed and stayed there all afternoon, crying about her condition. When Todd came home from work, she lashed into him with angry words, blaming him, and calling him names. Instead of fighting back, he merely looked at her with a deep sympathy and understanding that calmed her down, then took her in his arms and reassured her, like the doctor, that everything would be okay. He promised her that everything would be okay . . . and now he was dead. How could she ever forgive him for lying to her? Most importantly, how could she ever forgive herself for despising him and hating this child?

Somebody touched her gently on the shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Mary.”

She turned around and looked into the deeply lined, tear-stained face of Todd’s mother. “It’s all so horrible,” Mary sobbed, throwing her arms around her.

“Yes, it is.” Todd’s mother hugged her warmly. “He was my baby, Mary. I couldn’t have anymore children after he was born. It made him more special, somehow. Just like your little one. He’s Todd’s last gift to you — the best gift! Love him, Mary; really love him. Just like you loved Todd. Because there’ll never be anymore of him in this world.” Her voice broke, and she wiped the tears from her eyes with a handkerchief.

The best gift. The words echoed in Mary’s heart. Suddenly, she understood. Looking down at her swollen belly, the agonizing pain and anger melted away, and a deep love filled her: love for her husband, her family, and this beautiful child who would carry on Todd’s legacy. A bright spark of hope lifted her up, releasing her from her fears. She grabbed her mother-in-law’s hands and placed them over her belly, tears streaming down her face.

“We’ll love him together,” she said softly.

Dawn Pisturino

Copyright 2007-2020 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

The first line of this story was provided by The First Line as a writing prompt.

 

 

 

 

 

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God is Great

allahu-akbar

The sand was blowing so hard against the windshield, he could barely see where he was going. Catching a glimpse of white at the side of the road, he cautiously turned the SUV onto the rough, sand-blown driveway of a small combination gas station and convenience store. He parked in front of the store, uncomfortably aware of the bright neon beer signs in the window. Turning off the engine, he leaned back in the seat, listening to the howling wind as the vehicle rocked gently back and forth.

“Well, that’s it,” he said quietly, looking anxiously at his wife. “We’ll have to wait out the storm. Insh’allah – God willing – it will pass quickly.” He reached over and squeezed her hand reassuringly.

She gave him a forced smile, her beautiful dark eyes marred with worry. The baby stirred in the infant seat behind her and began to cry.

“He’s hungry,” she said, unbuckled her seat belt, and turned around to check on the fussy infant. “He needs to be changed.”

The other child in the back seat, a boy of five with sleepy black eyes and a mop of thick black hair, leaned dully against the window, thumb in mouth, unmindful of the blowing hot sand. The woman placed a hand on his forehead.

“He’s still hot,” she said to her husband.

“He needs medicine,” he answered, looking at his watch. “Let’s go inside. We’ll take care of the children in there. It’s already 1:00. We can spread our prayer rugs on the floor and give thanks to Allah for guiding us to this place.”

His wife nodded obediently and pulled her black dupatta closer around her face.

* * *

“Hey, Roy, look at that!”

Blanche Carter suddenly perked up behind the cash register and nodded her permed gray head in the direction of the front door. The beer-belly cowboy leaning lazily against the counter lifted the brim of his black cowboy hat and turned to look.

“What the heck!” he exclaimed, rising to his full six feet.

“Roy,” the cashier said in a low voice. “Do you still have that gun on ya?”

He peeled back the left side of his black leather vest to show her a stiff leather gun holster nestled under his armpit. With his right hand, he unsnapped the top, giving him free access to the small handgun, if the need arose.

“Don’t worry, Blanche,” he grinned. “You’e safe with me.”

“Thank God,” she said gratefully.

They watched intently as a little man with dark skin and hair wrestled with the heavy glass door, making the cowbells hanging from the handle clang furiously. Behind him, the wind tore fiercely at a small woman draped head-to-toe in black. The man held the door open against the wind, and the woman stumbled inside, her black robes flapping, her face nearly invisible in the black folds. A loud wailing competed with the howling wind, and the woman threw back her complicated drapery to reveal an infant carrier heavily swathed with blankets, a blue diaper bag slung over one shoulder, and a small boy clinging desperately to her skirts.

Blanche narrowed her eyes at the spectacle, clenching her jaw and fists. Resisting the urge to spit on the floor, she glared at the woman angrily, feeling a thick wall of resistance rise between them.

As the dark little man cautiously approached the counter, she saw that he carried what looked like a bundle of rugs under one arm and a wicker picnic basket under the other.

“Good day, ma’am . . . sir . . .” he said politely, bowing his head, fear betrayed in his large dark eyes. “If you please, I need some liquid medicine for my son.”

Blanche waited silently for Roy to respond. She was aware that he shifted his weight slightly to create a solid barrier between her and the timid little man. A large American flag was embroidered on the back of his vest, the familiar image giving her hope and comfort. Roy was a proud American, even if he did whore around and drink too much, and he would handle the situation the way he saw fit.

“Over there,” Roy said gruffly, waving his hand to the right.

“Thank you, sir,” the little man said. “I am most grateful. Alhamdu lillah – praise be to God – for your kindness.”

Roy said nothing. But Blanche saw his body stiffen and the whiteness of his big, flabby hands as they curled tightly into fists.

Blanche wanted to scream, Get your stuff and get out! But she was afraid they would complain to the owner of the store, and she would lose her job. It was the only job available for miles around, and she couldn’t afford to lose it. Most of the desert rats around there who bothered to work a steady job commuted to Phoenix. But Blanche was too old and tired to make that long, hot journey every day. She bit her lip and glared, feeling hostile and afraid.

But it don’t make it right, she fumed bitterly. These furriners come to this here country takin’ good jobs away from law-abidin’ Americans — and we jes’ have to put up with it! The government don’t do nothin’. The country’s goin’ down the tubes anyway. That money-grubbin’ TV evangelist, Graham Robertson, is right — the end times are here, and Jesus is comin’! Won’t that be a blast! He’ll give these heathens a run fer their money. Praise be to God! Ain’t He great?

A picture of global disaster — vividly described in the Book of Revelations — filled her limited imagination. She clearly saw the destruction of the world, the cries of the damned, the end of Israel and the Middle East. But what did she care? She attended services every Sunday at Reverend Boyd’s home (there wasn’t enough money in the collection plate to build a church), fervently believed in Jesus as the true Savior of the world, and diligently read her Bible every day. She was one of The Saved!

When the Rapture comes, she thought with satisfaction, I’ll be carried up to Heaven on the wings of a dove with all the rest of The Elect. I won’t even be here when Armageddon comes! Lord Jesus, do your stuff!

She cackled suddenly with glee. “Hey, Roy, lighten up a little and show the man where the medicine is.”

Roy turned and glared at her. What the heck? his eyes said.

Blanche smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s good customer service.”

  • * * *

Ayesha looked at the big fat man with the black cowboy hat, faded blue jeans, and pointed cowboy boots and trembled with fear. This man is dangerous, she thought. Please, Allah, protect us from harm!

She felt the intense hostility emanating like a deadly radiation from the wrinkled up, gray-haired old woman behind the cash register, but she had felt that before from similar women in other parts of Arizona. She knew it originated from fear, and she expected it.

But the man was something different. He looked at her husband with hard, dark eyes — pig eyes, she thought — and he was so big! He dwarfed her husband, making Mahmood appear small and helpless. A terrible sense of foreboding seized her. They were so alone and vulnerable in this desolate pig-sty of a town. Was there even a town? Or was this all?

She wished they had never come on this trip. They could’ve spent the weekend at home, safe, sound, and secure. But Mahmood was feeling restless after being on call all week at the hospital and wanted to get away for the weekend. Let’s do something fun, he had pleaded, convincing her with boyish black eyes lit up with excitement. He worked so hard and was such a good provider, she couldn’t turn him down. So they had booked a room at a fancy hotel and spa in Phoenix and started out early in the morning.

The wind was blowing even then, but not like now! The last few miles had been torture, Mahmood driving at a snail’s pace, trying desperately to follow the broken yellow lines in the center of the road and the solid white line at the edge. They had stopped several times along the way and waited for the hot, sandy wind to abate. But it only seemed to grow worse.

Ayesha was afraid, but she kept her feelings to herself. The baby had slept most of the way, and five-year-old Akbar, who was usually so energetic, seemed to droop in the back seat. She finally realized that he was sick. He looked at her with glazed eyes, oblivious to the fearful wind, and finally fell asleep with his chin hanging down on his chest. When she touched his forehead with her hand, it felt hot and damp. The poor boy was sweating despite the air conditioning inside the SUV. Ayesha was worried.

The big fat cowboy moved now, scowling as he showed Mahmood the display of cold medicines, allergy tablets, boxes of generic headache pills, and bottles of liquid medicine. Mahmood chose the appropriate bottle, thanked the big fat man, and headed for the counter.

Ayesha relaxed a little when the old woman smiled at Mahmood and cheerfully rang up the purchase. She spied the restroom sign on the wall and carried the infant into the women’s bathroom, her older son trailing close behind.

  • * * *

Roy stroked the rough stubble on his chin and shook his head in disbelief. What the heck has gotten into Blanche? He knew she resented these foreign intruders as much as he did. But suddenly, she had decided to be POLITE and SERVE them! Was she just afraid? Hadn’t he reassured her that he would handle any trouble that came up? Obviously, she didn’t believe him. Did she think he was just another ordinary American kow-towing to these vermin who were infesting his beloved country while the government stood by and did nothing? He would show her, alright! He might be the last of a dying breed, but he would go down fighting — just like his brother did in Desert Storm.

He had been mighty proud of his brother Eddie for joining the Army and going off to the Gulf to kick Saddam Hussein’s rotten behind. He had even been proud when his brother came home in a body bag. After all, he had died bravely in battle and would receive a Purple Heart. Roy’s heart had nearly bust wide open in his chest, he was so proud. But when President Bush Senior had pulled back the troops and ended the war before finishing their God-given job to destroy that monster Saddam Hussein, he had raged with fury, going so far as to beat his wife Gladys black and blue. She had left him not long after that, fearing for her life, and he had raged even more, going on a drunken spree that lasted two weeks.

When he woke up finally in a detox unit in Phoenix, he had vowed not only to straighten himself out, temporarily, but to hate the American government that had betrayed his brother and all the other soldiers who had given their lives in the Gulf War.

After his release from the detox unit, Roy contacted all his neighbors and formed The People’s Militia. They erected a rustic shooting range in the isolated wash way back in the hills, where they met every Saturday morning for target practice. Beneath the floorboards of an abandoned barn, they constructed an underground bunker, where they were slowly gathering quite a stockpile of water, food, explosives, firearms, and ammunition. He had learned how to do this from some Mormons down in Showlow, who were preparing for the end of the world. But Roy and his gang had already agreed to begin their own reign of terror if the government didn’t get its act together. They would call themselves the Warriors of Allah and blame their crimes on the large Arab population in Phoenix. The whole idea had belonged to Jed Turlock. Now who would have thought that a grizzly old man like Jed could come up with such a brilliant idea?

  • * * *

Mahmood spread the small woolen prayer rugs, bearing woven images of the Ka’ba in Mecca, onto the hard linoleum floor in front of the cooler containing gallon jugs of milk, quart bottles of orange juice, boxes of butter, and packages of cheese. He hurried to the men’s restroom to perform the ritual ablutions, which involved purifying various parts of the body with water, then returned to wait for his wife to finish breast-feeding the baby and toileting the eldest boy, Akbar. He removed his shoes and knelt down on a prayer rug to give thanks to God.

His wife Ayesha presently returned with the children. The baby was quiet now, and she placed the infant carrier on the floor in front of a prayer rug, where she could keep a watchful eye. She measured out a dose of liquid medicine into the small plastic cup attached to the top of the medicine bottle, managed to get it into the elder boy, removed his shoes, and encouraged him to lie down on one of the rugs to take a nap. Then she removed her own simple shoes and stood quietly, waiting for her husband to begin the prayers.

He stood up and cupped both hands behind his ears, crying, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great!) Then, crossing his arms across his chest, he proceeded to chant, the sacred Arabic words rolling with melodic harmony out of his mouth. His wife mimicked his motions but remained silent.

Bismillah-i-Rahman-ir-Raheem.” (In the name of God, the Benevolent, the Merciful.)

Alhamdu-lillah-i-Rabbil’aalameen-ar-Rahman-ir-Rahim . . .” (Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe, the Benevolent, the Merciful . . .)

  • * * *

Blanche couldn’t believe her ears. Horrified by the sounds of heathens performing pagan prayers on Christian territory, she motioned to Roy to sneak around to the back of the store and stand guard at the end of the aisle. Fascinated by this strange turn of events, she adjusted the security camera so that it pointed directly down on the devout couple. She wanted to act as witness against their treacherous performance and capture them on tape.

Qul hu-Allahu Ahad, Allahu-Samad . . .” (Say: He is Allah, the One — Allah, the eternal . . .) The dark little man chanted loudly and earnestly with poetic rhythm, pouring his heart out to heaven.

Blanche was about to spew out her indignation when the musical chanting seemed to capture her soul, calming her turbulent spirits. She kept her eyes glued to the video monitor, listening intently, not understanding the ancient Arabic words, but responding to their holy sound, mesmerized by the rhythmic chant.

  • * * *

What kind of voodoo is this, Roy muttered silently to himself as he followed Blanche’s prompting and strode quietly to the rear of the store. He mentally stuffed his ears with cotton, refusing to listen to the foreign mumbo jumbo. After all, who knew what hexes and curses these people could place on him and Blanche? Everybody knew they had spread their religion across Asia and parts of Europe with the sword. Maybe now, with Saddam Hussein dead and Osama bin Laden on the run, they were resorting to witchcraft. Anything was possible, right?

He planted himself in the center of the aisle and watched from behind as the man and woman bent forward at the waist, placing their hands on their knees.

Subhana Rabbiyal-Azeem!” (How glorious is God, the Great!)

Roy sucked in his breath as reverently, deliberately, the man and woman continued their prayers, then fell humbly to their knees and prostrated themselves across their prayer rugs, their heads touching the ground.

Subhana Rabbiyal-a’la.” (All glory be to God, the Most High.)

Roy’s muscles tensed, and his stomach twisted, making him want to puke. He felt the waves of bitter anger rise up into his throat. He covered his ears with his hands, squeezed his eyes shut, and silently pleaded, Please, God, make it stop!

Then he turned to Blanche and hissed, “Make them stop, Blanche, make them stop!” But she only ignored him, spellbound, her eyes glued to the video monitor, her face shining, her eyes serene and far away.

They’ve got Blanche, he thought frantically. He took a step forward and shouted, “Stop!” But they only ignored him and began the sequence of prayer all over again.

Allahu Akbar!

Once more, Roy covered his ears with his hands, the fear and anxiety growing steadily inside him, making his heart race and his head pound. He saw his brother’s face in his mind, heard his voice in his ears, remembered the casket draped with an American flag lowered into the ground.

He died for his country, his mother said softly, wiping away the tears from her eyes. He was so brave!

He died for nothing! Roy shouted inside. Here’s the proof!

Qul a’oothoo bi rabbin nas . . .” (Say: I seek refuge in the Sustainer of Mankind . . .)

Roy thought of his brother rotting in the grave, a formless mass of flesh and bones, gone forever — and the family he had left behind. His beautiful, faithful wife, who had cried on Roy’s shoulder at the funeral. The pretty little girl with blonde pigtails who had grown up bitter and destroyed herself with drugs. The baby boy raised without a father who had run off to San Francisco at the age of sixteen, declaring himself gay.

Allahu Akbar!

More bowing at the waist. Roy slipped his right hand inside his vest and fingered the smooth end of the handgun under his arm. This is my country, he silently declared. And my God is the only god.

The man and his wife were kneeling again, ready to fall forward on the ground. Slowly, ever so slowly, Roy drew the shiny handgun from its holster and pointed it at the dark-skinned little man lying prostrate on the ground. As the man raised himself again to a kneeling position, Roy aimed the pistol at the back of the little man’s head.

Allahu Akbar!”

With a steady hand, Roy concentrated hard and slowly began to squeeze the trigger. But suddenly, clang! The cowbells hanging on the front door began to loudly ring as the heavy glass door burst open and the local sheriff came through the door.

“Thank God that wind has stopped,” he exclaimed, brushing the sand from his uniform. “Blanche! Where the heck are you?”

Assalamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatu’ allah.” (The peace and mercy of Allah be upon you.)

Startled, Roy lowered the gun and shoved it quickly back into its holster. He saw Blanche shake her head, wake up from her reverie, and tear herself away from the video monitor.

“Did you say the storm was over?” she asked blankly.

“See for yourself,” the sheriff said. “How about filling up my thermos with hot coffee?”

“Right away.”

Roy headed for the men’s restroom, his hands shaking, his legs weak and wobbly. My God, he thought in horror, nearly wetting his pants. My God, my God, what was I about to do?

  • * * *

Insh’allah, the storm is over,” Mahmood said with relief, rolling up his prayer rug.

“I’m so happy!” Ayesha said, giving him a big grin. She roused the older boy from his nap and felt his forehead. It was cool and dry. “Everything will be okay now. Allahu Akbar!

Dawn Pisturino

October 31, 2007

Copyright 2007-2019 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: Fear and misunderstanding occur any time two cultures come together and clash. I tried to show that in this short story. No offense was intended to any culture.

 

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