Charles Willoughby’s youth was an ordeal of beatings by his God-fearing father and seductions by his grossly obese mother. A warped and cruel man, he marries a woman who is willing to submit to his jaded sexual demands. However, when she bears a child not of his loin, he holds her and the child captive on his isolated farm and severs all ties with the nearby town. Then when his wife is killed, he is left with the girl. Although his religious beliefs preclude him from killing her, he doesn’t feel obligated to treat her humanely.
The girl, Taffeta Moonrose, is treated like a dog under Charles’ care. But one day, she finds herself free when Charles has a heart attack. Now, weak with hunger and on her own, she ventures forth into an unknown, hostile world in a desperate search for food. After stealing from the towns people all summer, she becomes known as the wild girl of Ashville.
When Matt and Toby Claybourne arrive at a nearby cabin on vacation, they learn of the “wild girl” and become determined to find and adopt her. When they finally do find her, their relationship with her becomes one that will change each of their lives in ways unforeseen.
This is a story that will grab your attention right from the prologue and won’t let you go until you’ve finished the very last page. It will take you on a rocket ride of emotions that will allow you to hate, entice you to love, tease you with hope, and leave you crying with a smile on your lips.
What Charles Willoughby does to his wife and her bastard child begins you on a journey filled with fear and humor, suffering and joy, sorrow and redemption.
Charles Willoughby’s youth was an ordeal of beatings by his God-fearing father and seductions by his grossly obese mother. A warped and cruel man, he marries a woman who is willing to submit to his jaded sexual demands. However, when she bears a child not of his loin, he holds her and the child captive on his isolated farm and severs all ties with the nearby town. Then when his wife is killed, he is left with the girl. Although his religious beliefs preclude him from killing her, he doesn’t feel obligated to treat her humanely.
The girl, Taffeta Moonrose, is treated like a dog under Charles’ care. But one day, she finds herself free when Charles has a heart attack. Now, weak with hunger and on her own, she ventures forth into an unknown, hostile world in a desperate search for food. After stealing from the towns people all summer, she becomes known as the wild girl of Ashville.
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If Mark Wilkerson had to listen to any more of that morbid organ music, he was going to throw up. A migraine beat against his temples and tears rolled down his cheeks as he stood propped against his crutches, his dislocated shoulder aching. Through bleary eyes, he viewed the three closed coffins at the front of the viewing parlor. Gold glitter on white satin ribbons across the caskets read, “Devoted Father,” “Loving Mother,” and “Baby Sister – Sabrina.” She was only six.
Ornate floral arrangements surrounded the closed caskets, their florist shop fragrance adding to Mark’s migraine. He ran his hand across the smooth surface of his mother’s coffin; fingered the satin ribbon. She was in there, at least what was left of her, but he would never see her again. Never again would he feel the warm touch of her lips on his cheek when she kissed him good night.
His weepy eyes abruptly gushed with tears. What happened? He still wondered, shaking his head. Even though he’d somehow survived the accident, he still didn’t know anything about it. All he knew was what the County Sheriff’s deputy and the doctor at the hospital had told him; that he and his family had been in a tragic, fiery accident on the Carquinez Bridge on Christmas Eve.
The doctor also told him his memory would probably return, but it could take some time. He’d called it “dissociative amnesia," whatever that was. He said it was often caused by severe emotional trauma.
Mark’s grandmother, Emily Wilkerson, told him he’d performed with the family at a rest home earlier that night, but he couldn’t remember that either. He felt, more than remembered his father had been angry about something. Then there was Amanda Bonfili. What happened on their date? Or did they have a date? He just couldn’t remember.
Mark moved to his father’s casket. How could he live without him? His dad had been his greatest inspiration, his best friend. He looked down at the casket as his tears rolled. How could he live with the guilt of knowing their last words may have been spoken in anger? He’d never even had a chance to say I’m sorry, if he’d done something wrong or even good-bye. Somehow, he felt he might have been at least partly responsible for the accident. “Forgive me, dad.” His cries escaped his lips in a whisper, “for whatever I did. I’m sorry.” Tears stung his eyes and he wiped them on his sports jacket sleeve.
He wished he could see his family just one last time, but the undertaker had told him their bodies were too charred. The thought horrified him and Mark agreed it would be better to remember them as he’d last seen them alive.
At least his sister, Amy, was being spared the funeral ordeal. But she was still in a coma and her condition was serious. The doctors said she could have brain damage if she survived. That sounded worse than his amnesia.
The accident had only been three days ago and tomorrow, after the funeral, the coffins would be lowered into the cold ground. Is that all there is to life? Mark wondered, To live your life then be discarded like some trash. Hanging his head, he wished he could have died in their place, or at least with them. How Amy and he had survived was a mystery.
Moving to Sabrina’s casket, he laid his forehead against her tiny coffin. “Dear God! Please make this go away. Make them come back.” But even as he prayed, he knew God couldn’t make that happen, assuming He was even real. After all, why would an all-powerful, loving God take away the people he loved most; his parents and his six-year-old sister who had so much to live for, the family Amy and he needed?
Why? The question kept repeating over in his mind, as he wiped his eyes again. Why did his parents have to die and of all people little Sabrina?
SABRINA! Mark wanted to shout, as if it would bring her back.
He missed his baby sister every bit as much as he missed his mother and father.
“Sabrina,” he whispered.
He would never see her again. Tears rolled down his cheeks as Mark thought of her charred little body inside the tiny coffin and the pain she must have endured in the fire. She didn’t deserve to die.
Mark felt a warm hand on his shoulder. Straightening with his crutches, he leaned into his grandmother’s arms. “Go ahead and cry,” she said. “It’s good to let it out.”
Mark leaned down and laid his cheek in the hollow of her neck. He could smell her sweet, old ladies perfume. “Why?” he asked. “Why didn’t God protect them? Why did He let Sabrina die and not me? She didn’t even get a chance to live her life.” He turned away and tightened his fists on the crutch’s handgrip.
He felt his grandmother’s warm fingers turn his chin. “Mark, I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for me too and it will be hard on Amy when she comes home.” His grandmother choked on her words then blotted her eyes with her hankie, “if she does. Son, we don’t always understand why He allows things like this to happen, but my mother always told me, ‘what we see today as a tragedy, we may look back at tomorrow as a blessing.’” Emily hugged him tighter and stroked his hair.
“A blessing? How can losing almost my entire family ever be a blessing?” Mark huffed and pulled away. His head throbbed even more. Then looking back at his grandmother, he said, “If I ever find out who caused the accident, I swear… I’ll… I’ll kill him…. I promise that.”
“No, Mark. Don’t think like that. It was just that, an accident. You need to forgive them.”
“I can’t, Grandma. I just can’t.”
Charlotte brushed her shoulder-length, golden blonde hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear while the sea breeze tried to blow it back. Her heart leapt at the sight of a ship out at sea as it rolled in the swell of the rising tide. Could it be a pirate ship? Why hadn’t she been more vigilant? If they came ashore there would be little chance of escape.
She spotted a smaller boat rowing towards her, heading straight for the beach. Her breath caught in her throat. What should I do? Is there enough time to save my little sister? Beth looked oblivious to the danger, chasing after a feather that blew away in the wind. By the time she reached her sister, they would be in clear view. Maybe I should save myself. At least one of us might survive. No. She couldn’t possibly leave Beth to the mercy of those murderous pirates.
Time ran out. It was now or never. The boat reached the shore, and its dubious occupants began to clamber out.
The loud cry made her jump. She snapped back to reality and spun around.
“Are you daydreaming again?” Her mum let out a frustrated sigh. She placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and steered her in the direction of the car park at the edge of the beach. “Can you help take some of this stuff back to the car, please?” She handed her an armful of bags stuffed with damp, sandy towels. “We’ve still got a lot of things to do before we go home tomorrow, and you haven’t even bought anything for your friends yet. If you get your skates on, you’ll have enough time to pop into the shops across the road.”
Charlotte wrinkled her nose at the thought of their holiday coming to an end, and cringed at the prospect of going back to school the following week. She scooped up her own towel and trudged through the sand, mumbling how unfair it was making her do all the work even though she was only ten. “I notice Beth’s not helping.”
Her dad grinned as she struggled to the car. “We’re going to grab some food. Take-away, nothing but the best for the last day,” he said as she reached him.
“Not McDonald’s again, Dad,” she remarked with a hint of sarcasm, dumping her load on the floor.
“No way! Fish and chips tonight.” He wore his silly grin that never failed to make her smile.
“Whatever!” She smirked. “Mum said I could have a quick look at the gift shops just across the road.”
He put the discarded bags into the car and slammed the boot. He slid his sunglasses up to his receding hairline, slipping his hand into his jeans pocket. “Do you need any money?”
“Nah, it’s okay. Mum gave me some yesterday.”
“Are you going to take Beth with you?”
She folded her arms and shifted her weight to one leg. “Do I have to?” She loved her six-year-old sister to bits, but she was the most annoying person in the whole world. “I’m not going to get much shopping done with Beth tagging along.”
His face brightened with a grin. “I’m only pulling your leg.” He nudged her playfully. “We’ll take Beth with us and meet you back here in ...” He paused to gaze at his watch. “Let’s say, in about fifteen minutes, okay? Don’t go far!”
She sighed with relief. “Okay. See ya later.” She left, fumbling through her pockets to check she still had her money.
Crossing the road, Charlotte admired the pretty seaside town lined with buildings all the way to the top of a hill, overlooking the sea. Interesting old houses displayed colourful shop fronts, and a local market filled any spaces in between. She ambled along the well-worn paving stones, not really paying attention to the task of buying gifts for her friends. With her hands in her pockets, she wandered past stalls that spilled out across the path, packed with beach balls and buckets and spades.
She paused for a moment outside an arcade, drawn by the sounds and flashing lights that filled the air around the neon-lit building. Fighting the urge to spend the last of her money on a teddy-grabbing machine, she continued to trudge up the hill, losing interest in her mission with every step.
Halfway along the road she stopped, stepping into an alley to shelter from the glare of the sun. She leaned her back against the bright-red tiles that decorated the archway. Each one contained a small figure. They reminded her of characters from a fairy tale. She turned to examine them closely, running her fingers over the textured surface. Something about them held a strange attraction.
She gazed into the alley. It led a fair way back, but in the gloom she could see the front of a grubby-looking shop with a large ‘Sale’ sign in the window. She strained her eyes for a better view, and wondered if she should have a look just in case she could pick up something unusual for Mum. After a moment’s thought, she decided she had nothing to lose and wandered a little closer, checking over her shoulder as she went.
Reaching the glazed shop front, Charlotte stood on tiptoes to see over the half-frosted glass that obscured her view of the inside. Despite being taller than most kids her age, the contents of the store remained a mystery. She paused at the door before giving it a shove and peering through the gap. Inside, it looked much smaller than expected, with tall shelves standing against the outer walls, each laden with an assortment of objects that appeared better placed in a junk shop.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, but curiosity urged her forward. She stepped inside. An old-fashioned till perched in the centre of a small counter at the far end of the shop. Behind it hung a set of drab curtains with tiny pinholes, allowing slivers of light to seep through. The whole place had an air of gloom and smelt musty and damp.
“Hello. Are you open?” Charlotte called out.
When no one responded, she browsed the shelves, discovering some odd, hand-carved figures, similar to the characters on the decorated tiles around the archway outside. She picked up one that resembled a garden gnome and turned the carving around, searching for a price label. Nothing. That’s not much help. She placed the grotesque figure back down.
A bright flash caught her eye when she turned to leave. She stared at a small bookcase resting against the back wall beside the counter. A gentle glow of green light illuminated the shelves, tempting her to venture further and take a closer look. She crept through the aisle and bent down to examine a small, glass snow dome nestled amongst a variety of clay pots. It looked out of place with the other articles displayed in the shop.
She reached out and touched the surface with the tips of her fingers. The cool surface tingled, a strange yet alluring sensation. With a quick check over her shoulder, she picked it up and tipped it upside down. She cupped the delicate item in the palm of her hand and held it close to her face. No snow.
Inside the crystal orb, a tiny globe like a miniature planet revolved in slow motion, casting eerie shadows against the dreary walls. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“Yes, it is beautiful,” a gruff voice sounded.
She spun around and stumbled back a step. Behind the counter stood a large figure wrapped in a gray cloak, similar to the drab curtains that hung behind him. From what she could see of him in the gloom, his scruffy, charcoal hair hung down to his shoulders. Dark eyes peered out below bushy eyebrows, making his thin face look gaunt and pasty. She shuddered. He gave her the creeps, popping up from out of nowhere and staring at her as though he had never seen a customer before.
“I am sorry if I surprised you. I did not mean to make you feel uncomfortable,” he said, as if reading her mind. “You are very welcome here.”
She put down the small ornament and walked along scanning the contents of the shelves, picking through the strange collection of knickknacks. The entire time, she sensed the old man’s stare following her. She considered leaving, yet the eerie glow from the snow dome kept drawing her gaze back to the bookcase. The temptation from its hypnotic light got the better of her, and she walked back to pick it up again. “How much is this?”
A broad smile lit up the man’s face. “Take it, child. I have no use for it in my shop.”
Her eyes widened. “What, for nothing? I must give you something for it. I’ve got money, you know.”
The old man shrugged. “Well, if you are that keen on striking a deal with me.” He raised one of his bushy eyebrows. “All I will ask is for you to take great care of such a beautiful item. Promise me you will be good and always tell the truth.”
“I always tell the truth anyway. I hate liars!” she declared, a little puzzled by such a strange request. “Is that it? Is that all you want?”
He bellowed with laughter.
She placed one hand on her hip. “What’s so funny, then?”
“I am sorry.” He leaned closer across the counter. His weather-beaten face creased with concern. “Telling the truth is not always an easy thing to do, especially when you find yourself in trouble.” His expression lightened. “I am Goffer, the shop keeper, and if I am not mistaken, you will find yourself in trouble if you do not hurry. Time is getting on.”
Charlotte glanced at her watch. “You’re right!” She rushed to the door in a fluster, but stopped before leaving. “Thank you! Thanks a lot. That was really nice of you.”
Goffer stood motionless, barely visible in the shadows. “I would not be so quick to thank me just yet.”
The second exciting installment of the William Brody African Ocean Adventure Series: African Treasure:
After rescuing the kidnapped village girls, Brody has been hailed a hero by the people of Pemba. In thanks for his bravery and leadership with their safe return, he’s presented with an old wooden sailing dhow. Back to living the dream on the island, Brody’s days are filled with sailing the coastline, diving, fishing and enjoying life to the fullest…that is until his life is turned upside down once again…
A crazy race for lost treasure….
When diving one day, Brody finds himself fighting for his life against a school of sharks. Narrowly escaping death while trapped in an underwater cave, he discovers the hilt from a sword. After some investigation, he realizes this is part of a larger haul, so the hunt is on! But the Kaya Bombo - a radical Islamic group – also have their eyes on the prize. They want the treasure to return the island to Sharia law and will not let anyone or anything get in their way.
Time’s running out…
Now it’s a race against time as Brody battles the terrorists and the ocean to find the treasure and escape. With bullets flying, Brody will do whatever it takes…but only if he can manage to stay alive long enough to claim the prize.
Laurel stood in the rain at the side of a busy two-lane highway. She looked slowly, methodically, up and down the long stretch of each lane. Her frame was dripping wet, unsteady, floundering. Her place at this desolate spot, far from a store, or a crosswalk, or a sidewalk, had no purpose or explanation, but no one noticed.
She looked to the sky with outstretched arms. Her body swayed. She looked at the ground and again at the sky. Crying now, crying so hard that her shoulders heaved, and her body quivered, and then she threw herself prostrate in front of a large truck. The truck driver reacted in an instant, and steered around her without slowing as if she were a pile of trash on the road. She had failed; her frustration compounded her pain.
Cars swerved as their tires skidded on the slick road and on the wet, grassy shoulder, all drivers working as desperately to miss her as she was desperate for them to run her down. Even now with her moment of decision past, with all the conviction she could muster, she still wanted to die, and end the suffering. She was searching for death with the same tenacity that most humans clung to life.
The highway traffic had stopped in both directions, and she lay in the road crying, humiliated. Horns honked. People yelled and cursed at her.
“Get out of the road!”
“What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
What was wrong with her? Was she crazy? Or did she suffer with a pain that no one but she could know? Did anyone care?
With all the cars and trucks warned, and their lethal force muted, she just stood up and casually brushed the loose asphalt and pebbles from her arms. An eerie calm took over her face. She wiped off her dress and stepped casually back to her spot to wait again for death.
Cars began to move along now. Drivers passed, staring with an array of expressions. Some shouted for the inconvenience she had caused them; a shout of anger for the five minutes that she had delayed their lives while seeking to end her own. But they all drove by, carefully, with their windows rolled up, the air conditioners on high, windshield wipers swishing back and forth, and radios playing. The public moved on, and the individuals who were recognizable and unique in their cars while stopped, were now just another soulless mass of anonymous traffic. She could use the anonymity as a tool to achieve her goal, her quest for death, but if she knew them, maybe not.
If anything, she had empathy for others. She could reach into the soul of anyone she met if given a few minutes of quiet conversation; that was her talent. She could feel their pain, anxieties, frustrations, sadness, or she could dance with their joy, but not today. She did not want to know the person who would be required to take on the burden of her death. But someone would carry the weight this day; she could no longer bear the pain.
Vines of depression had inched their way through the cracks of her psyche, and had grown heavy like kudzu on an old, abandoned farmhouse. The vines had grown fast and destructive in the fertile holes of her soul, and the weight brought her down.
Cars began to speed up now. The traffic was back to normal running slightly above the speed limit. A few traveled too fast swerving in and out, cheating their own deaths. If anyone noticed the woman, wet in the rain, they chose not to stop, they chose not to help her; they were too busy to care.
She stood on the edge of the road, staring straight ahead, waiting for the karma of the right moment. She teetered in one spot. She was not afraid of doing it, she was not afraid of dying, she was afraid of living.
The rain eased and the road steamed. She was at peace. The air seemed fresh and the breeze warm. It had been a beautiful day before this summer storm arrived. She looked up as the clouds parted, and the sun blazed through hotter than before. She could hear the splatter of another rain shower coming. She stood motionless and stared back at the pavement as her long black hair hung straight and dripped on her shoulders. Her dress was molded to her frame. Her hands were balled up into fists held firmly at her sides. She would end it, but just a few more breaths to breathe, a moment more to live.
A horn piped a harsh warning. She looked up, and saw that it was the forceful herald of a moving van, barreling towards her at full speed. She watched the oncoming traffic with the caution of a pedestrian waiting to cross the busy road. The heavy truck careened forward with all of its force and noise and weight. Perfect.
On the edge, at the last moment, she cast herself prone directly under the huge front wheels of the van. One wheel rolled over her legs crushing the bones beneath the knees. The force moved her more parallel than perpendicular. The remainder of the truck rumbled harmlessly over her body.
The truck driver immediately applied his brakes, brought his truck to a rapid stop, jumped out, and ran back to her. The rain came again and poured down.
“Why didn’t you kill me, you son of a bitch? Why didn’t you just kill me? Why? Oh God, just kill me!” She screamed, and cried, and rolled on the ground propelled by an agony beyond her physical wounds.
The driver looked into her anguished eyes and fell to his knees. He put his hands to his thighs to brace his unnerved body. “I’m sorry, lady, I…” he stammered.
“You should have killed me.” She draped both arms across her face and cried. “I want to die…would someone just kill me?” She screamed, and then began to sob uncontrollably, unconcerned with her injuries.
The driver took off his shirt, folded it, and put it behind her head. She screamed. He looked at her grotesquely mangled and bleeding legs; a bone was exposed through her skin.
“Why didn’t you kill me? Why? Why?” She wailed and held her hands up to the sky. “Oh, God just please kill me.” She dropped her arms to the ground, twisted in pain and sobbed.
Other drivers were now helping. A man proclaimed himself as a doctor, and worked to stop the bleeding. The driver looked into her eyes again, but they were blank as if her soul had escaped and left her body to deal with this disaster. On his hands and knees in the road, he too started to sob. Finally, he sat beside her, wrapped his arms around his knees, and looked up to the heavens. Sirens wailed in the distance and a crowd formed an inquisitive circle around the two pained souls.
“Why did you hit her, Hank? Were you drunk again?” Bubba tossed a clipboard onto his desk. “They didn’t put anything on the accident report, but I think the cops cut you a break. I bet you told them you were a veteran. You’re always leaning on that excuse.”
“No, sir, I was not drunk. It all happened so quick, there was nothing I could do, Boss.”
“Why did you get so involved? After the ambulance left, you could have just got back in the truck and drove away like most people would’a done, but not you. No, you leave my truck with a whole houseful of furniture on the side of the road, and ride with that lady to the hospital.”
“Somebody had to go with her. She didn’t have anybody.”
“She had the ambulance EMTs and the police. She didn’t need you. What the hell good did you do her?”
“I was there for her, sir. Somebody needed to be.”
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll be lucky if she don’t sue us.”
“I don’t think she will. She said she wanted to die. She was screaming at me, asking why didn’t I kill her. Everybody heard it.”
“Well that’s just great. Some ambulance-chasing lawyer might just sue us because you didn’t kill her. Do you know how much that accident cost me?”
“No, sir, I don’t. It was a terrible and unavoidable accident, and I’m sorry.”
“Well sorry don’t pay the bills, Hank. I’m not paying you for the time you were off the job, and I’m docking you two days wages for the downtime on the truck. Now get back to work.”
Hank’s boss, Bubba Jaborski, was a wide, fat man with thick fingers and a large belly that protruded with a look that mimicked a late stage pregnancy. His neck had two rolls of fat and his body looked as if he might explode at any moment. Diminishing strands of hair combed over his baldhead and held in place by some repulsively aromatic adhesive jell was the only feature well tended. The strands never moved, even when he sweated as he did today.
“Remember, I’ve got your monthly job report and it’s due to your parole officer next week. I know he wouldn’t want to hear bad things about your performance.”
“But, Boss, you know I’ve done all you’ve asked, everyday, all the time.”
“Yeah, well I didn’t tell you to run over nobody.” Bubba mopped his forehead with a dirty handkerchief and stuffed the cloth back into his pants pocket as he struggled up the stairs to his office. Hank hung his head in frustration and went back to work. He was anxious to finish his day of drudgery.
It had been a two weeks since the accident, and Hank thought maybe tomorrow evening he would go to the hospital to see if she would agree to accept a visitor. He hadn’t had a drink in two days and planned to make it three. If he could leave the bottle for three days, maybe he could leave it alone for four. The last time he had gone more than five days without a drink, he had had no choice. The correction officers had frowned on drinking in prison. Two years behind bars had helped him kick the pain pill habit, but slowly he had drifted back to alcohol and the calming influence of marijuana. He needed something for the pain.
His time in prison, and now still on probation, had put severe limits on his job prospects. He meant to keep this job despite his boss. He needed the work. The meager veterans’ benefits were not sufficient for financial survival, and he was determined to improve his life. Prison had been a warning, and a discipline that had brought him out of his cycle of sorrow, self-pity, remembering, and getting high. He wanted and needed something else or someone to help break him out. He had prayed for it, and thought maybe this accident had been the answer. He needed to go to the hospital tomorrow.
Hank stood at the doorway for ten minutes unsure of what to say. Finally he stepped forward with no better plan than when he had arrived. “May I come in?”
“Who are you?” She propped herself up on her elbows.
“I, uh, I’m the guy who hit you. I, I, just wanted to see how you’re doing and to…well, to apologize.”
“Oh…no need to apologize. I wanted someone to kill me.”
“Ma’am, I’m real sorry to hear you say that again.” Hank moved further into the room and stopped at the foot of her bed.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s what you said before, when I hit you, and I’m real sorry for that. Maybe if I had been more alert, maybe if I had not had a drink before I started driving.”
“Please stop. I jumped in front of you, that’s it. So stop apologizing.”
Hank was quiet for a moment. “Mind if I sit awhile?” His shy gaze turned to the floor. “I ain’t got nothing else to do, and I thought I’d keep you company this evening.”
“Oh great, you have nothing to do so you just came to the hospital to see poor me.” She lay down on her pillow and stared at the ceiling. “Don’t put yourself out.”
Hank sat in the visitor’s chair next to the window. “I’m sorry, ma’am, that ain’t how I meant it to sound. I meant, I wanted to come say I was sorry, but it was…damn, I ain’t no good at this. I don’t have the words, but I know what I feel, and you’ve been a picture in my mind since the accident. I just had to come see you, and tell you I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t an accident.” She continued to stare at the ceiling.
“Well it was to me, and I can’t get your face out of my mind. I see you crying on that road and yelling at me like it was my fault you weren’t dead, and I can’t get nothing right.” He dropped his face into his hands and started to sob. “I can’t do nothing right, even when it comes to accidentally killing someone.”
She turned her head to look at him. “What’s your name?”
After a moment, he said, “Hank.” He did not look up.
“Hank, it’s okay. It was me who jumped in front of you. I wanted someone to kill me, but I guess I don’t want that now. It wasn’t right for me to blame you. I was at the end of my rope, and I’m pretty much still there. Except now my legs are broken to add to my troubles.”
Hank wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve, stood up, put his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans and looked out the window.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Laurel. But didn’t you know? How did you find my room?”
“I knew your last name. It was on the accident report the cops gave me.”
“I keep telling you, it wasn’t an accident.”
He turned. “Well, that’s what you say, but the police gave me an accident report so that’s what I’m calling it.” His palms were sweaty. He rubbed the side of his jeans a couple times and briefly looked at her, the room was silent for an uncomfortable period.
Hank finally asked, “You got anybody to help look after you?”
“No. Why do you care?”
“Well, I didn’t want to cause no trouble with your husband, or boyfriend, or whatever.”
“Umpphh. You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Who’s helping you? You got family to help?”
“No.” She bit her lip, and looked at the blank TV through another awkward silence.
A nurse walked in with a dinner tray, set it on her overbed table, and rolled it into place. “You need anything, hon?”
“How about the TV? Here’s the remote, just press this button to turn it on and this button is the channel selector. You can also raise and lower the bed with these buttons right here.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve mastered it already after a short two weeks in this hospital.”
“Okay, but you’re new to this room, just trying to help.” She checked Laurel’s blood pressure, and gave her a small plastic cup with medications. She stood beside the bed waiting for Laurel to swallow the pills.
“Okay, okay, Nurse Ratched, I’ll take the meds.”
The smiling nurse left.
The two sat in silence as she ate her fruit cup and picked at beans and meatloaf.
“Why did you want to die?”
“Who are you, my shrink?”
“No, I’m just interested in what could be so bad that a person like you would do something like that.”
“A person like me? You don’t know what kind of a person I am.”
He unbuttoned a shirtsleeve and very methodically folded the sleeve over and over stopping just short of his elbow, and then did the same to the other sleeve.
Finally he said, “No, ma’am, I don’t know you, but you’re a nice looking lady, you seem smart, and I think I’d like to get to know you.”
“Why? Why would someone want to know me? Why would you, especially you?”
Hank finally looked into her dark brown eyes. “Cause I saw something in your eyes that day when it happened. When you were looking at me, and yelling at me, it was like I could see into your soul. I’ve never had that kinda feeling before, it was weird. I’ve never felt that close to anyone, except maybe once.”
“What did you see?”
He placed a leg over his knee and picked at the laces on his heavy leather shoe. “I saw pain, and a soul with no love, like an empty hole, in outer space. And I saw frustration; it was something you couldn’t fix… And I felt like I was looking in a mirror.”
Laurel looked down at her dinner and pushed beans around, but didn’t eat. She moved the table away from her bed and lay back. She was silent for a time.
“Maybe you’re seeing things.” She looked at him curiously.
“Well, maybe I was or maybe not.” Again, Hank searched for the right words. “You would be the one to know.”
She closed her eyes. After a few moments, she pressed buttons on the remote. They sat for a long while and watched TV. No words were spoken until a nurse came in to check on her, and told Hank that visiting hours were over.
“Can I come back tomorrow, Laurel?”
“Yes.” She pressed a button and the bed reclined. “Please close the door when you leave.”
“Good morning, Laurel. I’m Doctor Harrell. How are you feeling today?”
Without a glance, Laurel asked, “What kind of doctor are you?”
“I’m a psychiatrist. Have you ever been treated by a psychiatrist?”
Laurel looked out the window, and said nothing.
“Do you mind if we talk awhile? I’d like to see if we could help you.”
“Laurel, I’d like to find out what’s going on in your life. It appears you’ve had a difficult time recently.” The doctor moved to the side of her bed. “I’d like to discuss what happened the day the truck ran over your legs.” She flipped open a notepad and pulled an ink pen from her pocket. “Were you having a bad day?”
“No one cares.” They both sat silent for a few moments. “That bad day you’re talking about was the best day I’ve had for a long time.” Laurel spoke flatly while she looked around the room, and avoided eye contact.
“We do care. Can you tell me why you jumped in front of that truck…why you wanted to kill yourself?”
Laurel hugged a pillow to her chest and stared at her toes peeking out of the white cast covering her broken legs.
“Laurel, I can only help you if you share with me. I understand that you may not trust me now. But you are a beautiful lady with a lot to live for. I’m sure we can help resolve the issues that have made you want to hurt yourself.” The doctor paused waiting for a response, but none came. “You can have a wonderful life.”
“No, I can’t,” Laurel snapped. She closed her eyes and lay back in her bed.
“I’m going to prescribe some additional medication for you. We’ll have you continue with an anti-depressant. I’ll come by again tomorrow, and maybe we can talk some more.”
Laurel lay motionless and said nothing.
At the moving company warehouse, Hank pulled his time card from a gray metal cardholder and punched-in at the company’s antiquated time clock. He put his lunch box in the small, cluttered break room. A long, rectangular window high on the wall revealed an orange glow as the sun lit the eastern sky. Another positive day, he thought and then walked to the rear loading dock.
“Hank, I’ve got a delivery for you. Get two men from the warehouse to help you. This is a good customer, and I need you to get it right. If I find out you’ve been drinking, or that load doesn’t get delivered on time, then you’re done. Remember, your monthly performance report is submitted tomorrow.”
“Okay, Boss. I promise I’ll do my best.”
“Well, you better.”
Hank went to the warehouse and announced the job opportunity to the crews sitting on the loading dock waiting for work. The crews didn’t get paid if they weren’t on a job, and most were eager for the chance. Hank picked two reliable men that had previously worked with him. Those not chosen, grumbled or threw verbal insults toward Hank as he walked away. The trio climbed into a twenty-five-foot diesel-powered truck, perfect for the job, and drove out of the lot.
Occasionally as they worked, Hank’s hands quivered, but when he wasn’t carrying furniture, he shoved them in his pockets so no one could see. He needed a drink, but he needed to be sober more. To stave off the craving, he smoked a chain of Marlboro cigarettes and guzzled water. Driven by the work and a new strength in his will, he fought the urge and completed the job without relenting to his alcoholic demons.
His crew finished a good hard day’s work, and they were satisfied. The customer paid and tipped generously for their efforts, and they returned to the warehouse tired but proud.
“Boss, we got it done, and the customer’s happy. He gave us double the normal tip.”
“Why, what did you say to him?”
“Nothing, sir. We worked our asses off and he saw it.”
“Let me see the tip money.”
“But, sir, I really need that extra cash.”
“Yeah, well I need to withhold taxes on tips, so let me see it.”
Hank handed him the two hundred dollar tip. The boss took five twenties and gave Hank the remainder.
“That should cover federal, state, social security, unemployment and any other taxes I’ll have to pay.”
“Don’t want to hear no more about it. Now get outta here if you want to keep this job. I’ll call you when I need you.”
“Any time, sir. I need the extra work.”
Hank had trouble getting full-time work or better conditions. After jail time, few companies would hire a man, and if they did, it was usually only part-time. The work was hard, the owners were harsh, and the treatment of former felons didn’t always follow the law. There were few complaints from parolees; it was the job or back to prison.
Bubba used the situation to his advantage. Hank’s parole officer was one of Bubba’s special friends, and Bubba was generous to his special friends.
Today, Hank took his money and went home. He showered, dressed, and ate a sandwich. On his way to the hospital, he stopped at a convenience store for smokes and chewing gum. He stared at the beer cooler. It held him, it called him, but he didn’t move. His hand moved to the glass door handle and he held it, he squeezed it. A young man stepped up looking at the beer, but hesitated.
“Excuse me, sir.”
Hank moved back, broke the strong grip of desire, and walked to the cashier.
“Anything else for you today, buddy? We’ve got all our Budweiser products on sale.”
“No, no. I’ve got what I need,” Hank said and left with his hands and his will shaking.
Hank knocked on the partially closed door.
“Hello? Laurel? May I come in?”
He heard a toilet flush and moved back into the hallway. After a few minutes, a nurse came out of the room.
“May I go in?”
“I think so.” She stepped back into the room. “Laurel, you have a visitor.” She held the door open for Hank. He shuffled in hanging his head and looking at his feet. Even at his age, he was still shy, especially around unfamiliar women.
“Hi,” she said as he moved to the visitor’s chair by the window.
“Hi. How are you today?”
“Like I was yesterday. Why?”
“How are your legs feeling?”
“Like a truck ran over them.”
“With a morbid sense of humor like that, you must be feeling better.”
“Mystified?” He chuckled.
“You don’t give up, do you?” Laurel looked him over. “Did you shave today?”
“Shave?” Hank rubbed his face and his chin. Was it that bad?
“Yes, shave. You know with a razor on your face. Looks like you’ve gone a couple of days without. Is that the way you normally keep yourself?”
“No, well sometimes. It depends.” Hank was embarrassed.
“Depends on what? Either a man shaves everyday or he doesn’t.” Laurel took a drink of ice water and crunched on the ice in one side of her mouth.
“Why are you so sad?” he asked.
“Hmmm. That’s a long story.” She shook her head back and forth.
“I got time.”
“I won’t be in this hospital long enough to tell you.”
“How long before you get out?”
“They say in another week, maybe two, but I don’t have anywhere to go, so for the sadness question, maybe that’s reason number uno.” She raised the bed a little higher.
“Don’t you have a home?” Hank looked perplexed.
“I did once, a nice one, but I’ve been living in shelters off and on for the last two years. With these legs, I won’t be able to get there, so right now I don’t have a plan.”
“Oh.” Hank looked at the floor. Now he was really at a loss for the right words.
“They can’t just put you out on the street with your legs like this. You can’t walk. What’s the use of fixing you just to put you out on the street?”
“I don’t know, but that’s how the system works. I guess Medicaid will only pay for two more weeks, and somebody has to pay.”
“Maybe I can help. You could, you could, maybe stay at my place until you can arrange something else,” Hank spoke the words – my place – so softly, he wasn’t sure that she had heard him.
“Arrange something? How the hell am I gonna get a place? I’ve got nothing.”
“We’ll work something out. There’s an agency or welfare or something to help. There’s gotta be something.”
“I’ve tried before and there’s nothing.” Laurel answered with a voice of resignation.
“Well, like I said, what about staying at my place for a while, maybe till you get back on your feet.”
This time she heard him. “Your place? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, I’m serious. I want to help. I need to help.” Hank stood and moved to the side of her bed.
“I don’t know, man. I mean I just met you. I don’t know who you are. You could be an ex-con or some serial-murderer preying on injured, helpless women.” Laurel looked past him, and stared out her window.
Hank moved to intercept her gaze. “I have two bedrooms. We can share.”
“I’ll think about it. Seems kinda strange. Me and you sharing a place, too weird.” She moved her eyes away from his and to the end of the bed. She was shaking her head no.
“We can get to know each other while you’re here in the hospital, and you can decide later.” Hank moved to the window and looked down into the parking lot. They were both quiet for a while, contemplating their path.
“Why did you do it?” Hank asked.
“Why do you care?”
“I told you. When I saw your eyes, something changed; something was different. I can’t explain it, but it got inside me. I need something to care about. You’re that something that just came to me outta nowhere. It’s like fate, or God, or something put you in front of me as the answer to my prayers.”
“You prayed for this to happen?” Laurel’s mouth hung open bewildered.
“Not like what happened. I prayed for something to change my life. I prayed hard. I think this changed me. I think this was my answer.”
“I’m on some pretty powerful pain medication so that sounds weird to me right now. They also gave me something for depression. Duh. So I’m a little more cordial than my normal self. Don’t take my carefree attitude for the real me, or one day if you hang around, you may be disappointed.”
“Why are you so sad?”
“You asked me that before.”
“Did I?” Hank turned to look at Laurel and smiled.
“I tell you what, Hank, you tell me a story, and then I’ll tell you one.”
“What kind of story?”
“A story about what makes you want to hang out with me, about why you thought my eyes were a mirror to your soul. By the way, that’s pretty heavy.”
Hank hesitated, arched his back and seemed to be struggling with a thought. He put his hands in his back pockets. “That’s hard, I don’t know…maybe.”
“Maybe? I’m sorry, but that’s the deal, Hank. I’ll show you my soul if you show me yours.” Now Laurel was watching him intently, looking for clues of insincerity in his body language. Was this guy for real? “I don’t need any more trouble in my life, and I’m thinking what I see is trouble. So if I don’t know who you really are, then I can’t decide if I want you to keep coming around.”
“Okay, I suppose that’s fair. What do you wanna know first?”
“Your choice, cowboy, but it’s got to be something that tells me who you are, not some normal run-of-the-mill tale about you, and your buddies out drinking or hunting. Something real.”
“Well, okay, but it won’t be pretty, I promise.”
Hank worked another difficult shift at the moving company. He had only smoked five cigarettes today. When happy hour arrived, instead of heading for his favorite bar on upper King Street, he went to the hospital. As he entered Laurel’s room, a nurse was giving her medications for the evening.
“How y’all doin’ today?” Hank asked cheerfully.
“Afternoon, cowboy. We all are doing fine, all things considered. My day has been just swell. Used a bed pan, had a sponge bath, got a shot in my butt that still hurts, and watched Jerry Springer because I couldn’t get the remote to work, just swell. How about you?”
“Not as good as I’d like, but better than some.”
“Tell me a story, Hank. I’ve been waiting all day to hear it.”
Hank took off his hat, moved the visitor’s chair closer to her bed and sat. “Well, I reckon I been thinking about what to tell you, where to start and all. Like what part of my life would tell you who I am, and there really ain’t no place to start but at the beginning with me and my wife.”
“I was married.” Hank stopped for a moment and looked down. “But we done skipped ahead, so I got to tell it straight through or I can’t tell it at all. Otherwise it don’t make no sense.”
“Okay, sorry. If I’ve got anything, I’ve got time so please just keep going anyway you like.”
Hank paused, gazed at the floor with a blank stare and then snapped back to the moment.
“Grew up in a small town in west Texas. At eighteen, I married my childhood sweetheart, Angel. And, man I’m here to tell you, she was my angel back then; cute as a bug’s ear and sweet as sugar on peaches. We were in love, hot and heavy, couldn’t keep our hands off each other for the first couple years. Angel couldn’t wait to have babies; that’s all she talked about. We had a child about four months after we was married. Had another a year later. The two kids were great, and I loved being a daddy, but two little ones will sure slow down the romance.
“I worked at a rancher’s feed store. It was hard living for us, but we had young love to cloud that reality. Wanted something better for my family, but to make more than minimum wage in those parts, you had to work on an oil drillin’ rig or mining. Both jobs were hard work, long hours, and dangerous, and I might not be able to come home every night. I couldn’t stand the thought of that, not being home with my Angel and our two little ones. I mean they were the reason I worked. Hell, back then, they was everything to me.”
Laurel looked at Hank more closely now. For a moment, he had a sparkle in his eye as he smiled with the good memories, when he talked about his kids. She noticed a red tint in his short-cropped hair and on his cheeks, the fading freckles from his youth. In the memory he told, she could envision him as a young married man, cowboy hat tipped back on his head, and beaming as his kids played outside a house trailer.
“So I kept looking around and finally found a chance to get a little extra money and to earn some free college by joining the army reserves. A lot of guys did that out there in our county. No big deal, military drill once a month and two weeks in the summer. And then the Iraq War and Afghanistan came along. Got called up and had to train and go overseas for eighteen months in all. Lost my job at the feed store cause they had to have someone work it while I was deployed.
“We had been married five years the first time I went to war. Came back on leave after nine months and I was so anxious to see my Angel and the kids, I thought I would bust. But when I arrived at the airport, she wasn’t there to meet me. I had been travelin’ for twenty-four hours, came straight from the desert, and I had to catch a cab and wait outside my trailer for four hours. It was late when she got home.”
A dark mood erased his smile. Laurel sensed the change.
“I sat in the dark on a picnic table and watched. She stumbled around like she wasn’t sure what to do, and then started fiddling around in her purse for a cigarette, lit it and finally walked to a neighbor’s trailer. The kids came bustin’ out that trailer door, crying, upset. ‘Where you been, Mama? Where you been?’ They were grabbing her dress. The little one had his arms up begging to be held. But she didn’t answer them, didn’t hug them or nothin’. Just looked down on them like she was put out with the whole thing. The neighbor was pissed, they argued and the lady just turned around disgusted and slammed the door.
“Angel yelled at ‘em, told the kids to ‘shut the hell up’ and then drug ‘em by their hands back over to our place. Before I was deployed, she had never talked to our kids like that. She had never treated them like that. I was shocked and mad, but I didn’t say nothin’; just sat there.
“When she got to our yard, I stepped out of the dark and under the front door light so they could see me. My oldest, a sweet little girl, ran to me. The younger one, a tough little four-year old boy, he wasn’t so sure. My wife shoved him towards me. ‘Go say hi to your daddy, son.’ She reached in her purse for some gum and took another drag on her cigarette while watching the kids hug me. I looked at her and she just stood there with a hand on her hip.
“I didn’t want to fight or fuss at her. I mean, I had just got home after nine months where all I could do was think about her and those two kids. They had been my whole life, really the only people I knew and loved. They were my family.
“Although I had only been gone about nine months, it seemed like we had both aged fifty years. Young love weren’t there no more.” Hank picked on a loose thread on his jeans and let out a sigh.
Laurel sat still and quiet, studying the sad memory hanging on his face.
“My Dad had run off when I was ten and my momma died from lung cancer when she was fifty-two, the year before I got called up to go to war. My wife’s parents had moved to Washington State, and we didn’t hardly ever hear from them. They wandered around a lot; sometimes we didn’t know where they were for months at a time. So we were pretty much on our own.
“The last we heard from them was when they called us collect, just before I deployed to Afghanistan. Normally when they called, Angel would never want to tell me what they said, but somehow it always ended up about money. Angel would always send them a hundred dollars cash; cash that we couldn’t spare. So this time, I was secretly listening on our bedroom extension. The last thing they asked was if I was killed how much insurance money would the government payout, said they could use a little if that were to happen. Now ain’t that some in-laws for you. I get so mad every time I think about it; I just try not to. It don’t help.
“I guess Angel was bored setting out there in the high plains with no job, no family, nothing much to do but raise the kids. I’d like to say I couldn’t blame her, but hell, I was fighting a war for us…not just for my family, but for our country, and she couldn’t keep her pants on for nine months.”
Hank paused, looked at the floor with a blank stare. A moment later he continued. “I thought she loved me, but when it came down to it, maybe after the thrill of teenage marriage and all, maybe it was just lust, it sure as hell wasn’t love no more.
“We kinda made up while I was home, but she acted like being my wife, and my lover was more her duty than something she wanted. She said she was sorry for not meeting me at the airport. She said she got mixed up, thought I was coming the next day. But when I left to go back to the war, I could see she was just waiting for me to leave. She dropped me off at the airport four hours early. Said she had things to do, and she didn’t want me to miss my flight.
“Sure ‘nough about six months after I left, I got a letter from her. She said that she had sold the trailer and had moved to South Carolina. Said that she wanted a divorce. Then she said the kids were fine. She told me she hadn’t heard from her parents in months and then tells me what the kids have been doing and writing about everyday stuff that I would normally love to hear. But she had said she wanted a divorce, like it was just something that happens every day, like ‘Oh, by the way, I want a divorce.’ God Almighty.”
Hank paused again. He was shaking his head back and forth and his knee was bouncing rapidly like a nervous twitch. Laurel did not move. She searched his blank face. An announcement from the nurse’s station broke the spell.
“So there I was in Afghanistan with no way to do nothin’ about it, and my wife sells everything we own, and moves my kids out of the state, halfway across the country, and is living with a man she met in some bar. I don’t care how you slice it or dice it or try to reconcile it, that whole deal is just wrong. But there was nothin’ I could do.
“I thought about it for a long time. Hell, I didn’t have nothin’ else to do sitting in a sandbag bunker on top of a hill in that Godforsaken, shithole country. I’d look out over the village in the valley and see families living in mud huts and they were happy or at least it seemed that way.
“Their kids came outside and played every day with rocks and sticks and splashed in the creek. They loved soccer. We gave the kids a couple soccer balls that some company had donated to help us improve moral and to help get the local people to maybe like us better. Not sure it worked, but it was better than if we just ignored them. We would go out on patrol and visit them. The kids played with those soccer balls every day and they thanked us. They were all smiles. Kids are like that everywhere in the world until they get older, and someone teaches them to hate. I guess we all start out that way; innocent, I mean.
“At night, someone would shoot at us from that village and from the mountains surrounding us. Funny, those villagers that talked with us and let their kids play with us; those same people would try to kill us at night. They were good at playing for both sides. I reckoned their lives depended on it.
“So like I said, I had a lot of time to think about my marriage and my wife and my kids. I was hurt and mad and frustrated, but none of that would make a hill of beans to my situation. I reckoned my deal was a lot like the village. No matter what we had done or said, nothin’ would change, and we could just sit there and watch ‘em, or we could kill them all, or we could just pack it up and leave, and nothing would change that place, just like nothin’ I did was gonna change the situation with my family.
“I figured, even if Angel saw the error of her ways and came back to me, I could never trust her again. The only upside would be my kids; they were still young enough to love their daddy, and they would come back to me with smiles and love. Unless she had tried to teach them something else bad or wrong about me to try to make it okay to do what she’d done. I didn’t want her to teach them to hate. So I just sucked it up, and did my duty, and sat in that sand-bagged bunker for another few months until my tour was up.”
Hank was looking down at the beige-and-brown-flecked tile floor. He wiped his eyes with the back of his arm just as a nurse walked in to check on Laurel and take her dinner tray away. She came in with a smile, but immediately sensed the mood in the room. Laurel sat with a somber face looking at Hank. No words were spoken until the nurse asked, “Do you need anything?”
“No, ma’am. Thanks.”
“Sir, visiting hours will be up in another thirty minutes, but take your time, no hurry. Just press your call button if you need something, Laurel.” She walked out.
“Hank, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault. I reckon it was mine.”
“I don’t really know you well enough to be the judge, but I’m not so sure of that. That was an intense story. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I haven’t told anyone that story since I got back.”
“I guess I owe you one now.”
“Yeah, I reckon you do.”
“But it’s kinda sad, too.” Laurel hung her head as she thought about it.
“Well, I thought that was what we were doing, getting to know each other and attempting to purge our demons.”
“Yeah, I suppose we are.” She paused and looked at Hank with compassion. “Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want to wait to hear my story another night?”
“No. Might as well keep going. I’ve just finished the easy part. I reckon I got more to tell another time.”
“Oh my, that was easy?” She composed herself, took a drink of water, lay back on her pillow, and looked at the ceiling.
“When I was six years old my family went on a picnic to our favorite mountain lake. We loved it up there. It was a deep, spring-fed lake with crystal-clear blue water, surrounded by mountains and a beautiful field of wildflowers. The park was remote, but a few people came up on the weekends. My mother was still okay then, at least as far as I could tell. I mean her mental state seemed normal. My dad, he was like the mountains, big and strong and always there to take care of us. He loved us more than anything in the world. He told us so every night when he tucked us in, and we said prayers together.
“That day, my older sister, Trish, and I were sitting on a flat rock with our dolls having a tea party. I was getting a little old for that and so was my sister, but she played with me anyway. She called the shots, and I looked up to her to help me sort things out, and show me the way. You know how it is with kids; she was my big sister. She knew everything. But now that I look back on it, I think I was overly dependent on her. She even talked for me when we were around strangers. I was just too shy, I guess.
“Mom and Dad were sitting on our picnic blanket with our younger brother, Blake. He was almost nine months old and cute as a button. Sometimes Trish and I played with him like one of our baby dolls. We’d dress him up and feed him. We loved him.
“My older brother, Frank, had climbed to the top of a high rock ledge. He was fifteen, almost sixteen, and we both had idolized him, but he didn’t want us around much, especially that year.
“That year had been hard for him. He had started to hang out with some boys that Dad didn’t like. They were snarly, rude delinquents that would tear things up, shoplift, smoke, and cause general trouble around town. I don’t know why my brother would go around with them, maybe because they were older and seemed cool to him.
“He changed a lot that year. He argued with our parents, and stayed in his room when he was home. The skin underneath his eyes turned a little darker, like an older person’s might do. Trish and I, even at our age, we noticed the change, and we also noticed that sometimes he was higher than a kite, full of energy, and other times, nothing made him happy. I didn’t know about that condition back then, but later we were pretty sure he struggled with a bi-polar disorder at an early age.
“That’s odd and hard to know or understand with a kid. We, or society, usually write the behavior off to being young and having too much energy or hormonal changes. It’s easy to ignore with a young teenager.
“We saw him smoking and drinking a beer once behind a neighbor’s garage, and he threatened us, and told us not to tell. The older boys laughed at us, and at him too. My sister told Mom, but she didn’t do anything. I think she was scared of my brother. But my bother heard Trish telling Mom, and the next day, she found her favorite doll hanging upside down from a small tree in our backyard with its head cut off.
“A week later my brother came in late, and my dad met him at the door. My brother had been drinking. Oh boy, did they have a blowout. Two mornings later, my dad found the tires on his truck slashed.
“After that, my brother would just sit or sleep in his room all day. My sister and I knew he was sneaking out late at night, and coming in before dawn. He would tell us about bad people that he had seen riding around in the neighborhood. He had taken one of Daddy’s guns out a couple nights. He told us he was gonna kill those people he had seen because they were checking out our house to maybe rob us or hurt us. We were scared of him and of those people. We never saw the people he thought were stalking us, but at our age that made things more mysterious and scary. We told Daddy about the bad men and he said not to worry, but of course we did.
“We discovered later these people were only in my brother’s imagination. He was so paranoid about a lot of things. He thought everyone was out to get him. It’s sad, but you could not convince him any different. He was so sure about it; he had proof he said.
“One night Daddy smelled something odd coming through the venting system. He walked in our brother’s bedroom, and Frank was smoking pot. He had a full bag right there on his bed.
“Daddy called the cops. Frank got off easy ‘cause he was a minor, but he was put on probation for two years and had to stay at home or with the family all the time. He got even weirder after that.
“With all that trouble, he was still beautiful. He had Mom’s blue eyes and a perfectly cut face. He was slim and well built and could have been a good athlete, but he had never seemed to care about that, at least not after he started hanging out with those older boys.
“And there he stood, on that bright, sunny, summer day, high up on that rock in all of his youthful glory. Mom and Daddy were sitting on the picnic blanket watching him, smiling, thinking maybe this was just the thing. Our family was all together, happy, perfect.
“The climb to the top had been difficult, and they seemed proud of him, watching him make his way up that steep rocky climb. Me and Trish were watching too, proud of how strong our big brother was and how happy he looked.
“We had been praying for this, because that’s what the preacher told us to do. I know Daddy had hoped that the bad days were behind us, and he had faith that things would be okay. But that’s how it goes, at least for me, just when you think everything is going to be okay, and you let your guard down, then life slaps you in the face with all it’s got.
“My dad waved at Frank, and took out a camera to get a shot. That’s when my brother pulled a joint out of his pocket and lit up so everyone could see. He smoked it with exaggerated antics to make sure everyone could see what he was doing. He drew in deeply on the joint and blew it out as a show. My dad started yelling at him, and my Mom was pleading for my brother to just come down. ‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘Be careful.’ My dad yelled, ‘you little son-of-a-bitch, what do you think you’re doing?’ Frank looked at them and smiled. He held his arms out wide and then looked to the sky. He stepped to the edge of the cliff and fell backwards into the lake. He landed flat on his back. The splash was huge.
“The drop was easily a hundred feet, maybe more. I’m not sure. When you’re a little kid, some things seem so much bigger. Well, it was high enough, I guess. The lake was really deep. It took a couple of days for the sheriff to get divers up there to find his body.”
The room was quiet. Hank sat motionless and Laurel wiped a tear away. She sighed heavily.
“There was a sad mood and rhythm at our place for a long time. My mom went into a sort of trance through the period while we were waiting to find his body, and the funeral, and for a few weeks after that. She and Daddy didn’t talk much for a long time; maybe they never did talk much afterwards. It was like Frank’s death killed our family’s spirit.
“I guess the hardest thing for us was leaving the lake that night. We were pretty much on our own. People dove in and looked, but could find nothing. The spot where he hit the water was hard to swim to, and dangerous for people. My mom kept looking at the water and crying like any minute he was gonna just pop right up, and shake his head and say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m good.’ My dad went at it every way he could, swimming, diving down deep until we thought he had drowned too. He climbed that dangerous rock to try to look down into that clear water, but saw nothing. I felt so helpless. I held onto my doll that whole night.
“As I got older, and had my own child, I was stymied by the thought of that moment, and how hard it would be as a parent to quit looking. How do you give up the search with something like that? How can you decide to walk away, get in your car, and drive home leaving your child in a deep, cold grave. ‘Don’t worry, son, we’ll be back tomorrow with help. Just hang in there.’ That was a long drive home and the start of a long slide down.”
An announcement came softly through a speaker outside the door. “Visiting hours are now over. All visitors are asked to exit quietly.”
“I’m sorry, Laurel. I’m so sorry about your brother, about your family.”
“Well thanks, Hank. It’s been a long time.”
“You said a long slide. Has the pain of losing your brother been what’s got you so down?”
“Well, like I said, it began a long slide. I’m kinda tired now. I guess the pain medicine is taking effect.”
“Did you say that you had a child?”
“Hank, I’m tired, please.” Her eyes were red, and a tear was running down her cheek.
“Shall I come see you tomorrow?”
“I’d like that.”
Drada Koehn is a fearless, formidable fighter ensnared in a presaged war against the northern humans. When the Speaker foretells their victory upon discovery of the name of death, she sets out to unravel the mysterious prophecy. Now, bound by duty and honor, Drada faces untold horrors with her companions, searching for what may never be found. In a story of unexpected twists, she soon finds that her resolve to see the quest done will be the fortune or doom of her people.
I closed my eyes and spoke quickly before my courage failed me. “I am the Fire Wielder of my generation, so I am the sort of weapon which, if the evil of my father comes to life inside me, it will be nearly impossible to stop me.”
Chatham stared at me, his jaw clenched tight.
I let out a deep breath and pulled a blade from my saddle bag. I used the combined power of my fire and the Seal of Solomon to encase the blade with both ice and fire. I stared at it for a moment, then resheathed it and handed the blade to him. “If you see evil come to life inside me, take this blade and plunge it into the base of my spine to paralyze me,” my hand shook with fear. “I am a healer, so it will not kill me . . . unless you then take me to the cliff of the dead . . . and throw me over.”
Chatham gaped at me, his mouth working silently before he shook his head. “Milady, I cannot do such a—”
Tears filled my eyes. “Chatham, please. I cannot allow myself to become like my father. Please. I beg you.” This was the only way. I had to be certain. He had to help me.
After a long moment, he reached out and took the blade. “I give you my oath, Milady, if I see evil inside you, I will do as you ask,” he said earnestly.
As the sunset over the headland at Kings Beach, an elderly couple watched as the passenger liner “Sun Beauty” sailed out to sea on its next voyage. The couple were in the twilight of their lives, and they had shared a beautiful life together. They had earlier that day, spent time with their children, grandchildren, and their great granddaughter while they celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary.
They shared a bottle of Muscadean, a white wine produced from white Muscat grapes grown in Ballandean, hence the name. A light, easy drinking aromatic semi-sweet white makes it perfect served chilled for that warm summer day picnic. They discovered the wine on a weekend visiting Queensland’s Granite Belt wine region and, at once it became “their wine.” Later on, the owners of the winery opened an outlet at nearby Mooloolaba, and while he could still drive, he managed to call in about once a month.
When the sun had set, he dozed off in his favourite chair, placed to take in the picturesque outlook over the entrance to Moreton Bay. She was comfortable with him dozing off, and she knew he was at peace. Although now in his eighties, they both liked to look back at the uncertain times, at the peak of World War two when they first met, and how over time, their love grew.
Although the population considered Australia to be safe at the start of the war, as Europe and Germany were on the other side of the world. Attitudes changed with Japan entering the war. Japan shared the same Ocean as Australia. Although Japan and Australia were successful trading parties before the war, with Japan attacking Pearl Harbour and making menacing overtures towards Singapore, Australia was now at war with Japan.
When Darwin was bombed for the first time in February 1942, the government played down the damage to the public. The general population knew nothing of other bombing raids at Broome, Mossman, Derby and even Katherine.
After the midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour in May, it had become impossible to disguise that an impending threat became real. This became even serious when rumours began the spread about “The Brisbane Line.”
When it became seriously believed by the government and military that Japan would attack Australia, it needed to be quickly decided what areas should be protected. Because Australia was a vast island with the majority of the population confined to the southeast, in February 1942 General Ivan Mackay drew a line on the map of Australia. This line stretched from the coast north of Brisbane to west of Melbourne. Although no record of the “Brisbane Line” was being activated, many believed, (and some still do) that the line was implemented and all of the country north and west of the line was to be abandoned.
The other item kept from the public, concerned that during the twelve months between May 1942 and May 1943, 25 ships were attacked within forty miles of the New South Wales coast.
The government began to realise that unless they could control panic, large numbers of the population may abandon the major cities like Brisbane.
Because of its proximity to the Pacific battlefronts, Brisbane was the crucial point for resupplying the troops in battle. The Americans developed it as a Major Naval base, including a vast submarine base. In 1942, General McArthur set up his headquarters for the Pacific in Brisbane. Brisbane needed a civilian population to make sure the smooth running of so many essential services.
The government and the military were in a “catch 22” situation. Secrecy needed to be maintained for security, and yet, the population needed to be reassured of their safety. This, compounded by the military distrust of elected politicians, as well as the parliamentarian’s need to placate their constituents. A unique approach obviously was needed.
The member for Port Macquarie and now the defence minister, David Millar called an urgent meeting of his department heads to see if a solution could be found. Because of some of the difficulties, the meeting was held in Sydney. As it happened, in the same hotel that the defence department rented rooms, the senior media lecturer at Queensland University was with colleagues in a get together of their own. Tom Walker was the former editor of a major newspaper who also had extensive experience producing newsreel films. Tom and David were friends from the University of New South Wales, where they both studied. When the defence Minister ran into the media lecturer in the hallway, they made time to have a few drinks and reminisce about their university days.
It was during this time that the Minister started to conceive the basis of how Tom may be able to offer a solution to his problem.
Although they realised, the invasion of these cities by the Japanese would be remote; a specialist public relations unit still should be instigated. It could give reassurance through movies (newsreels) and newspaper articles that would show to the civilian population the defences were in place.
With Brisbane is becoming the headquarters for the allies command for the war in the Pacific, it would become necessary to play down the military importance of Brisbane as a target.
A by-product of these films would be to discourage a Japanese invasion, as they would show the Japanese Brisbane was too difficult a city to invade.
They finished their talk with Tom agreeing to put a concrete proposal together. He needed to show how it would also work including the resources needed. This plan was required to be able to be presented to the War Cabinet by the end of the week.
Being the driven person that he was, Tom was able to put the basis of his proposal together in just two days.
He approached the task as if preparing a lecture for his students. He defined exactly the end achievement needed. What would be the best way of achieving the result? What resources are needed? He was able to present a written proposal two days later.
To reassure the residents of Australia that there was no need to evacuate their homes and thus maintain a steady civilian population to enhance the war effort, I propose to set up the following civilian unit.
1. Reporting directly to, the Defence Minister, this unit will work, in conjunction with the military authorities, but the military shall have no control over the activities of the unit.
2. The unit would make newsreel motion pictures depicting the defence efforts of an area without divulging crucial information that the enemy may not know of.
3. The movies are to be processed and scripted before handing over to the distributors, who will then add the scripted soundtrack using their staff.
4. Regular newspaper and magazine articles are also to be produced.
5. Staff required would be
a. A General Manager to oversee operations and report to the Minister
b. A Cinematographer, who would produce the movies and supervising a cameraman. He would also act as the second cameraman.
c. A Journalist to write articles and the scripts for the movies.
d. A personal assistant to the General Manager who would also act as a secretary and other duties when needed.
e. A driver who must be competent in small boats and all types of motor vehicles. Would also be an aid in labouring and any other tasks as required?
6. The budget would be set by the Minister and vehicles, camera and other equipment to be supplied by the military where available. But the unit would buy directly when needed.
7. The Military are to supply accommodation including living, office and workshop space independently from the military accommodation. The Military is required to provide security for this area.
To his surprise, Tom received a call from the minister that afternoon is telling him it had been approved without alteration. A meeting was set up the next day with the minister and his senior staff. The chief of the defence forces would also be attending.
David told him the cabinet wanted this unit to be operating within a fortnight.
David arranged for Tom to use a parliamentary office in Canberra to enable him to get the ball rolling. Some of the minister’s staff members were allocated to generate all the legal and performance documents needed so that Tom could start with the recruitment. His first need would be for a personal assistant.
David suggested Jill Robertson, 32-year-old, a career public servant with the defence department. She had previously worked for David Millar before he entered politics.
She was married to Colonel Bob Robertson, an Australian military liaison officer attached to the British Air Ministry in London.
Her knowledge of the public service, politics and military protocols would make her invaluable in dealings with government and defence personnel. Not having any ties would enable her to travel as required.
David assured Tom that, as he would be operating a division of the Ministry of Defence and all members of his unit would be paid by the department, so would all expenses. In fact, even though there were shortages of materials and other supplies, Jill would order everything under the auspices of the department. Therefore, all suppliers would, under the wartime regulations, have no alternative than to supply the unit in preference to all others. This would also mean that the unit had priority over the three military branches.
All accounts would be forwarded to the department for payment. This also meant that all the unit’s civilian staff would be treated as Commonwealth Public Servants.
Tom was relieved that he would have no supply problems to hinder the operation.
Ministry Communications Unit
David arranged for an interview and within two minutes, Tom decided that she was ideal, and she wanted the job. Jill transferred to Tom’s unit that afternoon. Jill was an extremely good-looking woman. She stood about six feet tall with a body would make most Australian women envious.
Tom, hearing that the famed Australian filmmaker, Charles Chauvel, was in Canberra that afternoon, had one of his staff arrange for them to meet at the Canberra Hotel.
Although Tom couldn’t reveal much about the unit, he told Charles enough, so it was possible to ask if Charles knew of any suitable candidates for the Cinematographer's role. Charles had no hesitation in recommending Bill Munro, who had worked as an undergraduate cinematography assistant to Charles.
Bill, raised up, on his parent’s farm in central Queensland near Roma, went to boarding school at Toowoomba Grammar and a cinematography graduate from Queensland University. Being 22 years old and single would also be helpful.
As Bill was in Sydney, Tom met with him on Monday morning at an office that Jill acquired near Victoria Barracks.
In two short days, Jill arranged for working offices in Sydney and Brisbane, while the Army provided living and working accommodation near the Eagle Farm racecourse. The army also supplied a car in Brisbane and when required in Sydney and Canberra.
Over the weekend, Jill moved into the Brisbane accommodation while Tom, taking advantage of being in Sydney, met up with his two daughters. Both were staff car drivers at Victoria Barracks, which made it easy to catch up when he was in Sydney.
The meeting with Bill concluded remarkably successful, although he advised Tom that he needed a week to tidy up his current projects. He did, however, know of a young cameraman who would be ideal for them. Tom agreed to give Bill the week to tidy up and then, he was to join him at Eagle Farm the following Monday.
Tom also gave Bill the approval to employ the Cameraman, who lived in Clayfield, the next suburb to Eagle Farm.
On Tuesday when Tom arrived at the Eagle Farm property, he was impressed with what Jill had been able to organise, on such short notice.
She heard of an experienced journalist, Joe Grady. Joe, a feature journalist for the last ten years with the Brisbane Sun, had resigned from the paper with the intention to join the army.
Joe was thirty- years old and married to Joan, a nurse working in the burns unit at Royal Brisbane Hospital. Ninety percent of her patients were R.A.N. and RAAF personnel, injured while on duty in the Pacific. Both were career orientated although, Joe wanted to join the army. Jill met Joan several years ago at a conference, so on Saturday when she arrived in Brisbane, Jill gave her a call. She heard about Joe resigning, and she asked if he would see Tom before he enlisted. They made an appointment to meet with Tom on a Tuesday afternoon. Tom, being familiar with Joe’s work, looked forward to meeting him.
Joe and Tom hit it off at once. Joe could see the importance of the role and, even if he wasn’t to add a by-line to each article he wrote, he was allowed to keep copies for his resume after the war.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Minister arrived in Brisbane and called on Tom. He was impressed with the speed the unit set up. Tom explained that they could not arrange for film equipment until Bill came on board, the following Monday. He explained to David that the only position not filled was the driver.
David suggested that Alf Watson may be suitable.
Alf, a 23-year-old single man, grew up in Port Macquarie and worked on fishing boats. He had driven semi-trailers to market and is a good 'bush mechanic.'
When Alf was rejected by the army on medical grounds, because of his flat feet, he appealed to his local Member of Parliament and family friend (David Millar.)
As David had known Alf as the son of a friend, he never hesitated in recommending him to Tom. “Alf will be an ideal member of his team because of his driving ability, knowledge of the sea and his mechanical ability as well.”
When Tom called Alf, he jumped at the opportunity as he realised, it would be far more interesting than in the army, and he would still be contributing to the war effort.
Alf was on the next train north.
During the first week, Jill set up important meetings with the local Military commanders, where the Minister explained what was about to happen. He instructed them to brief Tom on the entire military (army, naval and air force) tasks surrounding Brisbane. They all agreed the first movies would centre on the sea approaches to Brisbane.
They felt most of the strategy for the defence of Brisbane seaways would be known to the Japanese anyway. There is only one shipping channel into Brisbane, and they were sure that the Japanese would have extensive charts. These would’ve been gathered before the war while Japanese cargo ships regularly carried cargo in and out of Brisbane.
Knowing the shipping routes, it would be a simple exercise for the Japanese intelligence to estimate where shore defences would most likely be located. Tom arranged for the Navy to take him on board for a journey between where they met incoming convoys and the Brisbane River.
This survey journey took place on Tuesday after Bill arrived. The first task he needed Bill for was to make a list of the photographic equipment he needed.
Jill would use her talents to make sure it was all available within days. Tom become amazed at what Jill could organise. He often wondered if Jill knew there was a war on and led to equipment being in short supply. If Jill asked for material, Jill got equipment. The acquisition of a truck and small boat created no problems for Jill.
The rest of that week the unit worked together and settled into their new roles. It was decided that they should wear army style work wear, and they were given “All Area” passes. This allowed them to enter restricted areas at any time. The unit was given the imposing name of “Ministry Communications Unit.”
They all now signed the Official Secrets Act and to make their job easier when moving around they were given talks on a broad range of military subjects covering all three services. They needed to be able to recognise all badges of rank for both Australian forces as well as American forces. They also needed to know operational requirements of the Navy as well as the army.
Their quarters at Eagle Farm consisted of a separate room for each person with shared toilets and showers except for Jill, who had her own. Joe had a room, although he usually stayed at home when not required. In the office block, they all had their workspace.
Alf was allocated an area allotted for his truck. This would be where he parked it, and could do any services that the army didn’t do. He also used a general store room that he stored any timber or other supplies that may be needed.
Bill had a comprehensive workshop where he could store all his equipment and prepare the film stock. All the processing of the film would be carried out at the Milton Kodak Laboratories.
The film, by its inflammable nature, was required to be stored in a special fireproof vault that somehow Jill found.
An American Air Force unit, being next to the Eagle Farm compound was ideal for meals. Jill arranged for breakfast and dinner to be taken at their Officers Mess while, lunch was sandwiches that Alf would collect after breakfast. They often joked about Alf being probably the only driver who ate in an Officer’s mess anywhere in the world. Jill had also arranged for tea making facilities to be available at their compound.
They started the day that they were to have their first journey with the Navy, by having the whole unit being assembled on the Hamilton wharf.
This was the same day that their cameraman, Fred Williams, joined them from the south coast. He signed the “Official Secrets Act” paperwork on the dock. Their vessel, a harbour tug, usually travelled through the channel with every convoy in the case of an incident.
As they departed the port, they looked at Fort Lytton on the southern side of the river. The fort had been erected to protect Brisbane from the Russians in the 1870s. The tugs captain pointed that the North West shipping channel ran from the Brisbane River to Caloundra. After leaving the river, the channel runs northeast to around Cowan Cowan on Moreton Island, and then it turns North West to Bribie Island where it then rounds Wickham Point at Caloundra and heads out to sea.
They saw defences at Cowan Cowan and again at Skirmish point on the Southern end of Bribie Island, and again towards the northern end of Bribie.
At the high points of Caloundra, they could see lots of activity and undoubtedly, a lookout or two. The tug captain told them of the trenches, barbed wire and other measures that extent to well past Currimundi.
On the return journey, they observed the tight formation of the ships in the convoy, and how the escorts weaved in front of the convoy. This was to make sure that no submarines were amongst them. The same procedure took place at the rear of the convoy.
Tom thought that the journey well worthwhile, but he knew a lot more knowledge of the defences would be needed. Before the planning of the projects could start he needed to be more familiar with all the activities around the Caloundra and Bribie Island regions.
A two-day fact-finding mission was arranged to take place on the Wednesday and Thursday of that week.
Tom wanted to have the cameras rolling by the following Tuesday. Meanwhile, there were meetings to be had with the printed press, as well as with the two newsreel companies.
Tuesday morning Tom met with the editors of the two local newspapers and explained his mission to them. They both agreed they would take and publish the articles Joe would write and give them by-lines of a staff journalist. They also knew that being a War Cabinet mission, secrecy of the source along with the need not to alter the transcripts were vital.
After lunch, Tom arranged for the team to meet at the Breakfast Creek Hotel. This was a “getting to know you” exercise. Tom stressed the importance of their job and he could take the luxury of relaxing for the first time since he had run into David. In only eighteen days the unit developed from a concept into a fully functional branch of the defence ministry. Jill commented that, in all her years in public service, she had seen nothing happen so fast.
At the beginning of a semester at the University, Tom had used the following exercise many times. It involved getting everyone to tell their life story to the group. They adjourned to a private room that Jill had organised and with jugs of beer on the table and a supply of nibbles Tom started the ball rolling.
“After I gained my degree at the University of New South Wales, I started out my working career as a cadet journalist with the Cumberland group in Parramatta. As a young man I met my wife, and we had two lovely daughters within two years. I became a feature editor for the whole group in less than ten years. When I was preparing an article to focus on the benefits of the new Harbour Bridge, I happened to stand right in front of the official party. I was amazed at the audacity of Captain de-Grout in cutting the ribbon. This led me to think words could never adequately describe the mood and reactions of the Premier and all the official party. The looks of amazement mixed with anger could not be captured in words alone. This led me to think about exploring the possibilities of working with film.”
“The following year I became editor of the Daily Telegraph and even though I enjoyed the work, I still had this nagging feeling about the inadequacy of the printed word.”
“I stayed there for three years before I joined the Cinesound Company as a journalist working on the scripts for newsreels. This led me to become a producer supervising the story choice and managing the film crews for them.”
“It was about this time that my marriage collapsed, probably because of the long and odd hours I worked, and it left me with the task of raising two teenage daughters by myself.”
“I realised that to bring up the girls, my life needed to be more organised, and I needed to be home far more than in the past. It was around this time that the media studies faculty at the University of New South Wales was put into place. I applied to join this faculty and became the first media lecturer.”
“War came along, and the girls were now young women. They both joined the WRAAC on the same day and now drive staff cars around Sydney.”
“About a month ago I was in Sydney for a meeting when I ran into David Millar, whom I had known from my student days. David suggested we have a few drinks, and it was during this time that the formation of this unit developed. David went back to Canberra and asked me to put a proposal together. Within two days David had presented my proposal to the Cabinet and Cabinet approved it unanimously.”
Jill was next to telling her story. She was apprehensive at first being acutely aware of her husband’s position and careful not to infer that her position in the public service had anything to do with her husband’s station in life.
“I was born in Sydney and spent most of my teenage years at the beach. I love the surf, and I am extremely motivated to be the best of whatever endeavour I undertake.”
“I went straight from high school into the public service as a clerk. I noticed those around me who sought a career in the public service had university degrees. This led me to enrol in a business studies program with a major in government studies.”
“An opportunity arose to transfer to Canberra that I jumped at. After all, Canberra was the place for an ambitious public servant to be.
Canberra was good for me as I started to get promotions even though still studying for my degree.”
“Canberra was also good for me as this is where I met my husband, Bob, a cadet at the Duntroon Military College. We married later that year and made a firm commitment not to start a family until later on.”
“Bob was more of an administrative officer and as it turned out the army is short of young administrators. They had plenty of leaders and field officers but, short of those with highly developed administrative skills. This was good for us as it meant Lieutenant, and then Captain and finally Major Robertson worked at Army Headquarters in Canberra.”
The following excerpt is from a scene near the middle of Murder In Absentia. Felix finds himself on a ship attacked by pirates at night. This is one of my favourite scenes, for several reasons. First, I get to write a fight scene, and as Murder In Absentia is primarily a detective mystery there aren’t a lot of them. I have also done a lot of research into realistic sword fighting techniques, and I get to write one properly, which is always a good feeling. Second, is that as a writer I get to play with the tempo of the story. By carefully choosing words and crafting sentence lengths, I hope to evoke the feeling of urgency and breathlessness that occur within a fight. I will let you be the judge of the results.
I woke up to urgent yells from heavy slumber. Not bothering with clothes, I grabbed my dagger and ran outside to the deck. A ship larger than ours was heading straight at us under power of oars. Their crew were silent, no drums to keep pace and no shouts. That they were pirates was evident from the vessel itself. A fast and decked bireme, its prow was painted with large blue eyes, slightly slanted to give a menacing look as they stared at us. Its sail was folded and the mast down, the pirates were ready for battle and boarding. A row of men stood at the railing, armed and ready with ropes and planks.
The pirate ship was perhaps three hundred paces from us, and by their angle and equipment I knew that they did not intend to ram us, but rather angle next to us and board us. Piracy does not make profit by sinking treasures — these come from the robbery of goods, selling the crew to slavery and holding any notable passengers for ransom.
Our crew was frantic, everybody suddenly awake after last night’s celebrations. Margaritus was yelling orders, the sailors were hoisting the anchor and going to the oars. Aulus Didius looked particularly dishevelled, not yet recovered from yesterday’s enchantments, and seemed unable to focus on the events storming around him.
With two hundred paces between our ships and us barely moving, it was becoming obvious that they would gain on us and that we would have to fight if we wanted to escape capture. Margaritus had broken out the weapon stores, and the crew and divers each grabbed a tall oval shield and a short gladius, and braced on the side facing the pirate ship. I picked up a shield and grabbed the handle inside the shield’s boss with my left hand, though I elected to remain armed only with my trusty dagger.
Margaritus yelled at the remaining crew to put up the sail with the hope that Didius Rufus could conjure sufficient winds, as the oarsmen armed themselves instead to prepare for boarding. I stared out across the dark waters watching the moonlit vessel closing in on us rapidly. At this distance I could make out the individual faces of the pirates and the murderous intent written on them. I wondered what mess I had gotten myself into and whether I would live to see the morning.
With fifty paces to go, the pirates banked oars, grabbed ready bows and let a volley go. All of us in the front lines raised our shields and managed to absorb most of the volley. Only two of our men were hit, though from the quick look I cast in their direction the wounds seemed slight. Our ship did not have a means to return fire — it was not a navy vessel, and was designed for the specific operation of the divers. It relied on speed generated by its resident incantator, who unfortunately seemed in a state of battle shock like a green recruit. The lack of a proper night guard could only be blamed on Margaritus.
Thirty paces to go, and another volley of arrows. This time one man fell down when an arrow that ricocheted from a shield lodged itself in his neck. The deck became slick with the blood spurting from his wound. Margaritus was shaking Didius Rufus by his shoulders, yelling in his face to get the wind up.
Ten paces, and the pirates cast ropes with hooks onto our rails, dragging us closer. We dislodged the hooks and struck at the ropes, but within the space of a deep breath the pirate ship bumped into ours, shaking the deck under our feet. The two ships screeched like racing chariots colliding.
The pirates were upon us. With wild cries they jumped from their ship onto our deck, swinging swords, axes, hooks and clubs. I braced my shield, and as the pirate who targeted me tried to land his curved sword in a neat arc from above straight on my head I took a step back, causing him to miss his mark and forcing him to stumble as he landed, and immediately with my full weight behind the shield I jumped and slammed into him, forcing him backwards and the boss of the shield knocking the wind from his lungs, yet still with his back against the ship’s rail he tried to raise his sword to protect himself, but I knocked it aside with my shield and plunged my knife deep into his chest. His eyes widened and a gurgling, rattling sound came from his throat as he lost balance and fell overboard, splashing into the waters in the space between our ships.
What followed was a mad free-for-all battle. The pirates were ferocious, the deck was slick with blood and the air was heavy with the din of fighting, the shouts of enemies colliding and the cries of the wounded.
“Let him go! No! stop! Pull him back in! Pull him back in!” yelled Jemma. She struggled but was firmly pinned against the rock face by Bollo. Jemma was up against the back wall of the walkway behind the waterfall. She watched helplessly as Todda and Jud held her best friend under the white torrent of water. Each of them was holding an arm and Gonga was spluttering and struggling to breathe, desperately trying to get out from under the force of the water. Todda and Jud were older and much stronger, so Gonga’s struggles were in vain. Bollo laughed even louder as Todda yelled, “Let’s see if we can wash this stain off once and for all!” referring to the white splash of hair in the centre of Gonga’s chest. He was the only gorilla in the entire band that had one, and was tormented mercilessly for it by Todda and his gang.
After school, Gonga met Jemma and they were enjoying a leisurely stroll past the three big boulders, under the old tree they affectionately knew as ‘Old Bow-Legs’ and up to the walkway behind the waterfall. It was easy to see why they nicknamed the tree because if you looked at it quickly out of the corner of your eye, it looked like a bow-legged old man. The walkway behind the waterfall was about halfway up the cliff, and enjoyed a good view over the pool and river at the bottom of the waterfall far below. As they were halfway through the walkway, the gang closed in – again! Todda had blocked the exit in front of them, while Jud and Bollo blocked the entrance behind them. As the three advanced on them, Todda yelled, “Time to wash you off, freak!” and grabbed him by the arms.
Now Gonga spluttered and gasped as the monumental force of the water knocked almost all the breath from his battered body. Gonga clung desperately to the ledge with his toes while Todda and Bollo stood laughing. Gonga was leaning back precariously, his chest, shoulders and face taking the full weight of the waterfall. Every time Gonga tried to pull himself back in, he was pushed backwards under the curtain of water again. Looking up, he could see the water falling down onto his chest like a relentless, white-water guillotine. He could vaguely hear yelling and laughter coming from the other side of the water curtain but was too scared to take much notice. Just as he thought he was about to die, he was yanked back through the heavy, stinging water and shoved up against the rock wall next to Jemma.
“Leave him alone, you cowards,” she screamed. Gonga’s legs felt like jelly, but Todda held him up, a vice-like grip around his throat.
“No boys. It looks like it’s permanent after all!” shouted Todda above the roar of the waterfall and punched Gonga on the white spot in his chest. Gonga slumped to the ground as Todda let him go.
Gonga ambled through the thick undergrowth down to a pool at the river’s edge. As soon as he arrived, he sat down and studied the water. He was the first to the water this morning, so he had to be extra careful. A few months ago a small gorilla had been caught by a crocodile, never to be seen again. Gonga sure didn’t want that to happen to him, so he scanned the water very carefully for any signs of movement. The adults had built a fence and placed it underwater at the back of the pool, but that was no guarantee of safety. He stood up and moved toward the water, but a movement in the trees above caught his attention and he stopped. He thought he had seen something grey coloured, and was just peering up when he glimpsed it again and a branch came crashing down into the pool. Just then, a huge crocodile jumped up out of the water, snapping its jaws loudly at the intrusion. The croc settled slowly back into the water, until only its eyes and snout were visible. It watched Gonga for a short while before turning around and heading to the back of the pool, where it swam straight out into the river and disappeared downstream.
Gonga waited until the pool was calm again, and thought about how lucky he was that the branch had startled the croc, checking his hands to see if they were still shaking. He threw a few pebbles into the brown, murky water, and said “the fence must be broken”, to no-one in particular. Once he was satisfied it was safe, he walked in up to his waist and, shivering slightly, started washing his face in the chilly water. “I wonder where my friends are?” Gonga thought to himself. “They’re normally here by now.”
Just then the water next to him exploded and he was absolutely drenched! Gonga jumped sideways and screamed loudly, thinking that the big croc had returned. He scrambled toward the side of the pool and looked back to see Todda in fits of laughter. Todda had swung out over the pool on a jungle vine, and bombed Gonga, landing in the water right next to him. Jud and Bollo were hiding behind a tree and howled with laughter at Gonga, who was still trying to wipe the water out of his eyes.
Todda and his two friends started pelting him with mud, saying to each other, “Aim for the white target, boys!” Just as Gonga was getting pelted, his friends came to his rescue. Splat! Splat! They peppered Todda and his gang with some of their own medicine. Thonk! Bollo howled as he was hit in the ear by a hard piece of mud.
“I didn’t know there was a stone in it! Honest!” said Jemma, but a sly little smile afterwards told Gonga and his friends otherwise. Jemma was always up to some sort of mischief!
“That’s enough!” shouted Mrs Brackengood, freezing everyone with her stern voice as she walked into a chaotic classroom. Everyone went silent, waiting to see what would happen next.
“Okay,” said Todda, casually throwing the hairpin over Jemma’s head, and out of the classroom.
Jemma’s eyes widened and, stepping on a log, launched herself high into the air to catch it, before it was lost forever. She caught the hairclip, but landed awkwardly on the side of a log. This sent her flying into the railing at the edge of the classroom. There seemed to be a split second where it held, but then the wooden posts shattered spectacularly, and Jemma dropped out of sight down the side of the cliff!
“No!” yelled Gonga, scrambling to the spot where Jemma had just disappeared. “Don’t go near the edge!” shouted Mrs Brackengood, but it was too late. Gonga was already flat on his belly, peering down the cliff face. He saw Jemma a little way down the cliff, her eyes wide with fear, clinging desperately to a narrow ledge with both hands. The broken railing made a nasty scraping noise, as it swung back and forth across the cliff face next to Jemma.
“Jemma, Are you okay?” yelled Gonga. Jemma nodded shakily as she clung to the ledge.
“Can you reach the railing?” called Gonga.
“No!” she grunted, breathing hard from her efforts. Gonga grabbed the broken railing and tried to swing it back and forth to reach Jemma. It was heavy and difficult to swing with just one hand. No matter how hard he tried, he was just not able to get it to swing close enough for Jemma to grab. The rest of the class was shouting encouragement, but it was just a vague background noise to Gonga and he was tiring out quickly. Just as he put all his effort into one last swing, he saw a grey arm appear from a crack in the rock face and give the railing an extra push in Jemma’s direction. Gonga was surprised, but only had time to think about it very briefly before the railing reached Jemma. She grabbed at it with one hand, the other still clinging desperately to the ledge. The wooden post snapped almost as soon as she grabbed it, sending the railing swinging wildly in the opposite direction. She scrambled and clung to the ledge again with both hands.
“Grab the leathervine part, Jem!” shouted Gonga. As the railing swung back toward Jemma, she grabbed one of the leathervines and wrapped it around her wrist. The railing jerked as its swing came to a sudden stop, almost pulling Jemma from her grip on the little ledge. She tested it to see if it would take her weight. There were loud cracking noises as the rest of the railing threatened to pull free from the cliff face.
Everyone in the classroom yelled, and Gonga shouted, “Help me! Grab the railing!”
Jemma looked at the mist-covered river below them and found that she couldn’t see the other bank. The mist enclosed their rope about halfway across the river.
She eyed this warily and said, “I’m chickening out. You go first!”
“Okay,” said Gonga with an adventurous twinkle in his eye. He climbed onto the vine, hanging upside down by his hands and feet. “Be careful!” said a nervous Jemma, but Gonga had already started across, their rope bouncing as he moved along. He was soon over the middle of the river and disappeared from Jemma’s view into the morning mist. All she could see was the bouncing of the rope. It gave a few big bounces and then went still for a while. Jemma’s heart almost stopped, but she heard no splash. The leathervine soon resumed its normal, gentle and rhythmic pattern of bounces. She waited anxiously for some signal to know that it was her turn. It was only once Gonga had disappeared into the mist that she thought about the fact that he didn’t have a safety rope in case he fell into the river.
Gonga’s heart was pounding as he moved hand over hand across the leathervine, despite his show of bravado in front of Jemma. Once he reached the middle of the river and was swallowed up by the mist, he found the vine even more wet and slippery. It was harder going now and he was straining to see through the mist. Suddenly a bird flew right past his face. It was such a shock that he instinctively put a hand up to protect his face and caused his other hand to slip off the wet vine. The vine bounced wildly up and down as he held on with his feet. He was hanging upside down over what he could only assume was the middle of the river, unable to see anything except for white mist. It had been great to see the mist over the river in the mornings, but now the mist was not so pretty anymore. Once the vine was still again, he slowly reached up and grabbed the vine with his hands again and started moving. He inched across through the mist, gripping the leathervine much harder than he probably needed to. He was relieved when he finally exited the mist, seeing that he was almost over land already. He sped up slightly and was soon in the branches of a large tree where he found the hook neatly lodged in the crook of two branches. Relieved, he sat there a short while, his chest heaving until he caught his breath.
Jemma waited anxiously on the other side of the river. There had been no splash and the leathervine had stopped moving now. She wondered if Gonga had reached the other side safely. Just then she heard a small splash. She couldn’t see anything except the ever-widening ripples where something had landed in the water below her.
The Russian state of Sverdlosk was the Soviet Union’s center of fringe military research during the cold war. There, terrifying biological weapons, capable of inflicting unspeakable horror, were intensively researched and developed. Every single medium and long range armament in the Soviet arsenal was repurposed to deliver these lethal agents to anywhere on the globe. The cold war eventually ended. The research did not.
Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.
Sun Tzu – "THE ART OF WAR"
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Image Courtesy of Sally Cronin Tummies full, when we left the restaurant around 12:45., the weather had become humid. http://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/shanghai/west-nanjing-road.htm (what’s on offer) The shopping area is pedestrian-friendly with an occasional trolley/mini tour bus. Prominent...