The after-effects of winter

Well, after a teasing start (that featured highs in the upper 40-low 50’s mixed with no less than two ‘sticking’ snowfalls), Spring seems to have finally grace my region with it’s presence. Yesterday, it got into the mid-60’s, which prompted me to get out do some yard work. Today, with the morning temps already in the 50’s, I decided to haul the bike out and run the first errand of this year on it.

I was expecting the tires to be low, which they were, but beyond that, my ride was in fine shape. Very little rust had accumulated on the chain, and outside of some early noisiness, the brakes worked fine. The shift mechanisms were in good shape, barring the drive sprocket shifter, which still has a tendency to not travel far enough to slip the chain back onto the ‘1st‘ gear.

The ride out was enjoyable, but reinforced an observation I’d made the day before: I am badly out of shape.

The yard work was to take care of some trees that had gained ground in my raspberry bramble. One, a sumac, had found a spot deep inside the bramble where it was virtually impossible to get at. Brambles tend to ‘migrate’ (or at least mine does), and last year the grown around the sumac finally began to thin. So, it was Target #1 on my list, followed by a pair of stumps that I have to take down again every few years. Target #1 had had enough time to get to around 2 1/2” in diameter, so it was a good-sized tree to go after with my trusty bow saw. The stumps had smaller suckers/saplings sprouting off them, so I decided to take the lot and attack them as close to the ground as I could, where they were nearly as thick as my main task.

Wading into a bramble, even a section where most of the canes are dead, requires protection. If I could find a good, fine chain mail shirt that hung down to my wrists, I’d be tempted to buy it just so I’d have something I could get in amongst my canes in and not end up a bleeding mass of cuts and scratches. Not having that, I defaulted to my usual, an old hooded sweatshirt from my days in the ‘crete-yard’ (ask me about it someday if you’re curious). It did it’s usual okay job, though I have a cut on my left wrist I still don’t know how I got. Thing is, by the time I got done, I was sweating and feeling tired.

Today’s ride brought the same garment out to give me something to break the wind, but I didn’t need to bother. On arrival at my destination, I was again sweating, and my legs were telling me they were not amused with me. Perhaps it was just the need to break myself in, but after picking up what I’d gone for, the ride back was not half as tiring, even though it was far longer due to a train parked in town blocking traffic. Maybe my legs just needed to be ‘called back to their duty’?

One thing is clear, I need to get off my butt and get active again. If the weather holds, I hope tomorrow to take my first crack at an old friend: the local bike trail. If things cool off, or the rain that’s predicted to come in for the weekend arrives early, that might not happen. But I do need to get moving, to get exercising, before I end up rooted in one spot.

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Desert death

The Greyhound to Los Banos, Nevada hadn’t been a ‘real’ bus, more like a big minivan. But George was glad to be out of Oregon. He’d worried the police might sweep down on him since he’d killed a serial killer in Eubanks, Oregon. You didn’t just murder a local without consequences, and he’d expected some sort of bulletin for the prime suspect. Then again, as far as the world was concerned, George Ishkowa was dead. That, and his limited interaction with the other residents of the hostel, were probably what had saved him.

A story on one of the supernatural ‘conspiracy theory’ sites he frequented brought him to Los Banos. People spoke of disappearances. Single people passing through the small town in the middle of the desert sometimes vanished in the night. Then hikers had discovered a body.

That body, a man in his early twenties, had exhibited signs of hard work in excruciating conditions. Blistered hands, barked shins, a partially-healed cut across the scalp like he had slammed his head into something before his death from dehydration. The stomach had reportedly been empty, as if the man had been worked for days without food. The hikers had found the body beside a huge saguaro cactus, the matriarch of a grove that stood in the midst of complete nothingness.

More outlandish were the second-hand stories of the search by local authorities for traces of how the body had come to be where it was. Supposedly no one could find a track anywhere near the body, but when dogs had been brought in, they had struck a trail. The scent they traced had taken their handlers miles through the desert. At first, it had been a meandering path, as if the dead man had stumbled in a confused daze before dying, then it became an almost rule-straight line as if he’d known precisely where he was going. The trail headed away from Los Banos towards the desolate Eugene Mountains, but by the end of the first day, the there was no sign of any dwelling or anywhere the man might have come from. Then, when the search was taken up the next morning, the dogs only went a few miles before stopping. They had not stopped for a creek, of which there were surprisingly few, nor some other place where a scent might be lost by a dog. No, the report spoke of the dogs, eager for the trail, suddenly stopping, first to snarl, then to whimper in fear of something their handlers could not see. Trackers attempted to find a cause for the strange behavior, but no bear or other predator, nor any sign that a similar animal had been present, was found. Stranger still, it had proven impossible to persuaded the dogs to go further.

The bus driver stopped, but as George prepared to step off, the stout woman’s voice had come from behind him. “Are you sure you want to get off here?”

“Yeah, I hear the hiking in the desert around here is fantastic.”

“You’re going out in that and hike…for fun?”

George looked back, found a look of incredulity fit to match the tone that question had been uttered in, and nodded. “What can I say, I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.”

The driver stared at him, mouth hanging open, then shook her head like a dog trying to shoo a fly away. “As my Dad would have said it, whatever floats your boat. I guess for you, it’s tramping around in the middle of the Backside of Hell.”

George caught the emphasis, the almost explicit capitalization of those words. “Why do you call it that?”

The driver waved her hand as if trying to encompass everything outside her front windshield. “This place used to be a big mining district. As long as there was gold, or silver, or something else valuable to mine, they’d go out into the desert hoping to ‘strike it rich’. Most of them ended up going home with nothing to show for their time here but a broken back and lungs full of rock dust.” She favored George with a knowing smile. “My granddad prospected around here, just before he went off to World War Two. He always said almost getting killed by kamikaze attacks saved him from dying for sure in this desert. If that doesn’t tell you how bad this place is, I don’t know what will.”

It wasn’t the answer George had hoped for, but it gave him someplace to start. He gave the woman a smile, then took the final step and went to find the truth of what was happening in Los Banos.

#

The truth turned out to be elusive. George was able to find out the dead man was named Frank Ingram, but what had brought him to Los Banos, or how he’d ended up in the desert, were as much of a mystery as the day he’d stepped off the bus. With no clues, George decided to see if he could reach the spot where the dogs had stopped.

The problem was, nobody normally went where he needed to go. The more he thought about it, the more that fact stood out. In a desert seemingly filled with hiking and ATV trails, a section that people avoided was strange. So, when he heard that a pair of men taking their ‘off-roader’ out for a test near where he wanted to go, he hitched a ride. For George, with his undead body, carrying enough water to get out of the desert wasn’t a problem, but he carried a pair of large water bottles to convince his hosts he wasn’t going out to commit suicide. They were roaring along, George feeling like he should be hanging onto something to keep from rattling around the back seat of the crew cab, when the phone GPS chimed.

“Hey, HEY! Can you stop?”

Even shouting, he wasn’t sure he’d been heard until the the truck ground to a stop. Both of the men in the cab stared at him. The driver was the one who finally spoke. “You want to get out here?”

“Umm, yeah, why?”

The stare grew even more incredulous. “You don’t know?”

Maybe it was hoping for too much, that these two would have some clue as to what was happening out here in the desert, but George asked anyway. “No. What’s wrong with getting out here?”

“You didn’t hear? Some guy was found, not too far from here, like….dead.”

So much for getting information from these two… “Yeah, I heard about that. I was kind of hoping to find out why he was out here.”

That drew a pair of blank stares before the driver spoke up. “Why?”

George pinched his nose and fought the desire to shout out his frustration with people who had a level of callousness that allowed them to ignore the fact that someone had died in this vast emptiness. It wasn’t an easy struggle, so he grabbed the door handle and let himself out.

#

The rising breeze gave George his first hint he was near where he wanted to go. It had begun to pick up as the Sun set behind the mountains, and as it did, the rattling of plastic flapping came to George’s ears. The sound that led him towards the cactus was the yellow police tape, still strung in place around the spot where the dead man had been found. The winds had blown any tracks that might have remained away, leaving no clues for George to follow. Some CSI wannabe had neatly outlined where the body had lain in more police tape, this staked tight to the ground. That was where he sat down, looking over the shape in the fading light towards the surrounding desert.

The saguaro was now little more than a dark outline against the fading sky, but in all that vast space, it would have been the only real shade from a pitiless Sun. George laid his hand on what would have been the chest of the dead body and wondered what his final moments were like. Had he cursed those who had brought him to this point? Had he felt at peace for escaping from whatever hell had made this desolate spot seem better? The breeze died with the light, and in the silence that followed, George felt a presence. It had none of the violence, not a bit of the intense anger he’d encountered in other spirits. No, here he felt relief, like at the end, the man who had breathed his last here was at peace with his decisions. George tried to reach out, to draw that spirit to him, but all he gathered was an impression of a hole in a hillside. The spirit fled as George tried to press it for more memories of that place, leaving nothing but an impression of terror in its wake.

Overhead, the sky had become that endless black you only see far from people. The constellations, so easy to pick out where the sky never reached such a profound darkness, were lost in a sea of stars. All about him, the faint rustling of small creatures coming out to live their lives could be heard. George rose to find the ground about him lite bright by starlight, the hills standing out like cardboard silhouettes against the sky-glow. “Well, fuck it, guess there’s no point in sitting around waiting for sunrise.”

George soon found out that walking through a desert by star light was far harder than he’d thought. Slopes were far more difficult to judge. Soft spots in the sand looked solid. Twice, he stepped on rattle snakes that struck at him and connected, reminding him that being undead had advantages. Through it all, he kept moving. The sunrise found him in the foothills of the Eugene’s.

The impression he’d gotten from the departed spirit drew him leftward, towards a flat-topped hill that would have been a mountain anywhere else. He was closer, but still not at its base, when the Sun went down. That night brought other lights besides the stars. A string of lights led from a low building into an opening so deep the lights diminished into nothingness. Somewhere in the darkness a generator clattered as it kept them all working.

George saw a shadow move across the lights and crouched low before advancing again. Another form moved in the darkness, and the cold glint of a steel barrel revealed an automatic weapon in the hands of a guard. George froze, instinctive caution taking control of his actions. Then he remembered that he was dead, that no mortal weapon could harm him, and he moved closer. In close, he heard the screech of a wheel in need of lubrication before the the cart it was fitted to appeared. Four men shoved it towards the mouth of the tunnel under the direction of a guard armed with an AR-15. All of the men on the cart had the painfully thin frames of people worked too hard with too little food.

George saw that what they pushed was an old-fashioned mining cart, like something out of an old Western movie. It ran on tracks that ended on a raised platform. Beneath the end sat a large dump truck. As he watched, they brought their load to the end and with a heave that took all four of them, emptied it into the truck bed. For a moment, the four figures stood together, leaning against the cart they’d been pushing like it was the only thing holding them up. A voice echoed off the rocks, too faint to distinguish the words, but the tone made the meaning as clear as the gesture the guard made with his weapon. He wanted the laborers to get back to their back-breaking work. They shambled, two to a side, around the cart and began shoving. One man slipped, fell, and the man with him stopped pushing to help him rise. The cart slowed, and the guard came around it. Now the voice was loud enough for George to make out.

“Get your fuckin’ asses back to work! Now, damn it, or I’ll put a bullet in both your worthless skulls!”

The two men rose, one with the other’s arm over his shoulder, and together they threw themselves against the cart. It’s speed rose, but evidently not enough for the guard.

“Faster, damn it! We ain’t got all night. That truck loads before sunrise, and none a you worthless bastard will get fed if it ain’t, hear me?”

The cart picked up speed, but from what George could see, none of those pushing it had been fed regularly for days. “That sick fuck probably takes away their food as often as he can.” he muttered to himself as he started moving towards the entrance to the mine.

He slid down into a low gully and a form appeared before him. This form had no gun, no defined shape at all, just a black blob that stood between him and the mine. A voice like an echo from the grave addressed him.

La muerte te espera.”

George had had enough Spanish-speaking friends to get the jist of what the spirit was saying to him, that death awaited him. He rummaged around his rudimentary Spanish to come up with a reply. Ya estoy muerto, amigo.”

The form moved closer, resolved into what might once have been a handsome young man before someone had savagely beaten him. The head tilted one way, then another, then nodded.

Sí es usted. Vienes a vengarnos?”

The meaning of that last sentence was unclear to George, the earnestness with which it was said led George to conclude this spirit wanted what was happening to stop.

Los detengo, lo prometo.

The outline faded, leaving nothing but a whispered reply behind. “Bueno.”

That was when George saw the gully was really a burial pit. A skull lay at his feet, and scattered around him lay others, along with all the other bones of the human body. Many of the skulls were damaged, partially crushed or missing the entire top like they had exploded. A low snarl caught his attention, and George saw a partial corpse move as if it were alive before a skunk emerged from it dragging a string of entrails. Blessing the undead body that didn’t vomit, he moved to the far edge of the pit and climbed it as steathfully as he could.

He saw the two guards from earlier had moved, and one of them was headed his way. Had he made some noise that caught the man’s attention? George slipped back down the pit and did his best to disappear into the darkness.

George hadn’t needed to worry. As he watched, the guard stopped at the edge of the pit, unzipped, and pissed into the open grave. The casual indifference of that act of disrespect made up George’s mind about what he would do.

This man would die, as would all those who worked with him.

Bladder relieved, the guard turned his back on the grave and began zipping himself up. He never finished. George was up as soon as his back was turned. Before he could react to the sound behind him, George grabbed the man’s head and snapped his neck with a twist so violent the face turned towards him. He saw the man’s mouth open in shock, then go slack as he died. An AK knock-off on a web strap hung from the corpse’s shoulder. George took it before kicking the body into the pit that held so many innocents while hoping the man he’d just killed was already in the hottest pit of Hell.

Now, with one of their own missing, it was only a matter of time before the guards figured out something was going on. George abandoned caution and advance on the mine opening. His path took him past one of the structures he’d seen from a distance. Up close, he saw it was little more than a crude framework of 2X4’s, bare on the outside and covered on the inside with sheet rock. The rhythmic creaking of springs and exaggerated moans coming from inside told him not all the prisoners here were men slaving their lives away in the mine. He kept moving, hoping he could free the men in time to rescue whatever woman was being raped later.

The tunnel stretched further than George anticipated, but luck was with him. Nobody stood guard at the entrance, nor did he encounter any guards until he could hear the sound of hammers on rock. He crouched down, advancing with more caution, until he saw the outline of a man sitting in a niche carved into the rock. He lounged back, his butt resting on what looked like an old sofa cushion, another one behind his back, his head facing down the tunnel. George straightened and advanced with what confidence he could muster, hoping to bluff his way up to the guard, and beyond.

He didn’t need to worry. Here, the noise of excavation was loud enough George couldn’t hear his own footfalls. He unslung the AK, and the motion must have caught the guard’s attention. He started to turn, but the rifle’s stock slamming into the side of his head laid him out cold. An AR stood by his crude guard post, and George collected it. He could see the rock face now, a dozen emaciated men wielding hammers and picks beat the stone, trying to break pieces off. Behind them, his back turned to George, stood the guard who’s threatened the cart crew. He dashed towards the man, but one of the workers saw George’s rush and his wide-eyed gape gave him away.

The sound of gunfire in that confined space was like thunder. George felt something hitting him, but no pain. He hit the guard running, sending both of them sprawling. George tried to push himself away, to get some room to swing, but he didn’t get the chance. Seeing their tormentor down, the prisoners attacked. The first hammer blow sent brains all over George’s face, and he narrowly escaped being struck himself as other blows rained down on the now-dead guard. Several minutes filled with mutter curses and the grunts of men swinging as hard as they could passed, then the fury drained from the imprisoned. They stood in a rough circle, panting from their efforts, as George pushed himself to his feet. He let his eyes take in the men about him. Most were Spanish, but some weren’t. He addressed them all, hoping someone in the group would understand him.

“We need to get out of here, now. Those shots are going to tip off the guards outside that something’s up.”

One of the Spanish men stepped forward, a smile on his face and a Midwestern accent on his lips. “Don’t worry, they shoot folks in here all the time. Usually, they say we’re getting to ‘uppity’ or not working fast enough. Sometimes, I think they do it because they’re bored.” He stopped talking and held out a hand. George took it, and felt a strong grip behind that calloused hand. “I came down here from Duluth, from a job in an iron mine no less, to do some hiking. Never imagined I’d go from driving a dump truck in an open pit mine to a slave in some unlicensed uranium mine.”

George looked around, the inborn fear of radiation overcoming him, and the man in front of him chuckled.

“Don’t worry, kid, it’s not radioactive enough in here to fry your nuts or anything. Some of these guys are going to need checking out, but they’ll need to be in a hospital for malnourishment, so it’s not like that’s the only thing they need to worry about.” He stopped, his eyes narrowing as he looked at George. “Speaking of hospitals, how come you’re still standing? I saw his hit you at least three times, but you’re not bleeding.”

Time to get his mind on other things. George thought and did just that. “Don’t worry about that, worry about getting out of here. There are more prisoners here, aren’t there? We need to get them, and we need to get everyone the hell out of here before the guards figure out you’re trying to escape.”

“Easier said than done, kid! They told us all we’re at least two days walk from anything like a town. Worse, they said the police in that podunk town, Los Banos, were on the take and knew we were out here. So how the hell do we escape?”

George gave him a smile. “You said you drive a dump truck for a living, right? Think you could drive one to keep living, cause there’s one right outside the entrance to this mine.”

“Hell yeah! Show me that bitch, and I’ll make her stand up and howl if it means getting out of here. But what about the guards? They hear that thing start up, they’re gonna know somethings wrong.”

Stooping, George picked up the dead guard’s AR-15 and held it out. “Well, we’ve got this, plus the two guns I walked in with. If we’ve got anyone here who can use them, maybe we can convince the guards it’s better to let us go than to die trying to stop you.”

That brought a fierce smile to the other man’s face. “It just might be possible. Hell, even if it ain’t, at least we can have the pleasure of killing a few of those bastards before they kill us. Thanks for coming, by the way. I’m John, John Sandoval.”
“Good to meet you, John, I’m George Ishkowa. Do you know Spanish, maybe enough to ask if any of these guys know how to use these guns?”

“Yeah, I do. One of my uncles has a farm down in Jalisco, we used to go visit him when I was a kid.” John faced his fellow prisoners. ¿Alguno de ustedes puede usar estas armas?”

Several hands went up, including one belonging a scrawny, pasty-faced red-head. “I was Air Force, military police. I can use one a them things.”

John gave the man a look. “Don’t doubt you can, Ken, but you can barely walk. You gonna be able to keep up if we gotta make a run for it?”

The red head pushed forward, snatched the AR out of George’s hand, and popped the clip off. He flipped a lever on the side of the weapon, then pulled back on a small handle George hadn’t noticed, sending a bullet flying. Stooping, he retrieved a clip from the pocket of the dead guard and slammed it into place before working the handle again. He turned to George, then John, a toothy grin on his face. “Cocked, locked, and ready to rock. Any of those bastards tries to stop us, they’re meat on a stick as far as I’m concerned.” Two men who looked little better than Ken took the other weapons, and after a quick check, the group headed outside.

Everyone stopped short of the mine entrance, then George and the armed men moving forward. One man made a dash for the hut from which the noise of sex could still be heard. An inarticulate shout, followed by a crash, spoke of the violence that happened. The light inside the building illuminated four women, one of them looking like she should be in high school, following their rescuer out the door. It wasn’t a lot of noise, but it must have been enough.

Somewhere in the darkness, a shout rang out, and everyone followed George as he sprinted towards the truck. Up close, the truck loomed like some mechanical monster in the darkness. John seemed happy to see it. He gave a laugh before running for the ladder that climbed to a cab far above. “Damn, I never thought I’d see one of these babies again! Wait for me to get in the cab, then send everyone else up. There’s a ladder to access the dump bed, but the cab door has to be closed to access it.”

John went up, far more nimble that he’d been before, and as the door closed behind him, George pulled the young woman to the ladder and pointed up. She looked up the ladder, then turned a wide-eyed stare at George. He opened his mouth and froze, unable to think of the words to tell her she needed to climb. One of the older women came forward. “You want her to climb, sí?”

“Yes, but I can’t remember how to say it. Can you explain she has to go up this ladder, then up the one next to it. All of you need to climb up and get in the back of the truck, entender?”

Sí, I tell her.”

What followed was far too quick, and far too quiet, for George to understand. Whatever the older woman said was enough. The young woman went up the ladder, followed by the interpreter, then the rest of the people. George waited until the end, then climbed as far as the cab. John gave him a thumbs up, then reached forward to punch a button. The roar that accompanied that act drown out any chance of George addressing him. The dump truck lurched forward, then began circling to the right following a track visible in the headlights. Something struck sparks off the door frame in front of George, and the quick rattle of gunfire from over his head told him the guards were trying to stop them. The headlights swung across a straight stretch of road, and with a howl, the truck accelerated along it. There was a final burst of gunfire from above George, then nothing as they lumbered their way towards freedom.

#

San Carlos was even smaller than Los Banos, but the sheriff there fed everyone before taking statements from John and all the other captives. George stayed in the background, refusing all the praise heaped upon him. He didn’t want to talk to the sheriff, or even talk to the people he’d helped. He was happy for them, and glad he’d solved the problem of the dead hiker. But he knew there was no way to explain the three holes in the middle of his shirt, and the gaping holes behind them would have been impossible to ignore. Saying he wanted to find a phone, George Ishkaw slipped out of the sheriff’s office and walked down the main drag of San Carlos in search of a ride. It was time to move on.

Walking away.

“I am beginning to hate this story.”

I recently left a critiquing group. I joined them to get feedback on a finished novel, and ended up starting another while I was in the group. The reason for this was the suggestion from group members that I should consider ‘trunking’ the finished novel to gain some ‘space’ between myself and it. I already had the idea for the new novel in my head, so it wasn’t exactly like they had to twist my arm to get started on the new project. So I give them full credit for bringing the current WIP out of my head and into my computer.

Early on, while working on the new project, I was able to get feedback within a few days of finishing a chapter. But I started gaining ground, so the feedback became more and more a looking-back experience than a immediate input. Reacting the the feedback became a routine: submit a section of the chapter, go to the meeting to hear what everyone had to say, then a few days after the meeting, go over my notes and the commented copies everyone sent back to be. Once I’d gotten a feel for the feedback, I could form a consensus of what everyone thought I needed to change/drop and decide how to incorporate it all into the manuscript.

I’d been through another meeting and was wading through the commented pieces when I read the line that opens this piece. It was the first comment I saw from that person, and as you can imagine, it kind of knocked me back. I gave it some thought, and decided that I couldn’t sit across the table from a person who’d written something like that, so I contacted the person who moderated our group’s online presence and asked to be removed from the list of people getting mail. I had planned to give myself a meeting or two, then maybe I’d go back and discuss what had happened with the person who’d sent me that harsh comment.

But as I thought about that meeting, I reflected on past meetings. As I did, I came to realize that while everyone else was supplying positive comments and feedback on all the other submissions, when my turn came, most of the feedback seemed to take the form of how the person speaking thought I could ‘improve’ my story. I should make this character more forceful. I should make another character react differently because the speaker didn’t think said character would act that way. I should bring what was nominally a background character to the fore, make them more of a main character.

It wasn’t always like that. In the beginning, the feedback and comments would point out areas I’d had trouble with, like showing versus telling. But over time, that sort of feedback became less prominent, replaced with more and more ‘advice’ on how to ‘improve’ my story.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m not the next Shakespeare, or anywhere close to that good. I know that if I get a chance to start working with an editor, I’ll probably have to make changes, some of which I might not like. But to have other writers try to tell me how my characters should develop, to have them try to redirect the arc of my story…no.

It is my story.

These are my characters.

Part of me wanted to go back and shout this at the people in the group, but I knew it would be a pointless exercise. Worse, it would do nothing but generate negative feelings in the group, and between me and the group. So I decided to quit the group and hope I can find some other group to work with, or even a ‘critique partner’.

But there is one thing I wanted to pass along. Critique groups are generally A Good Thing, but there have to be limits. If you’re asked to read a piece and offer your feedback, remember that it isn’t your story. No matter how much better you might think you could write the piece, remember:

It’s not your story.

If a character does something that’s completely out of character, you should let the writer know. If there’s a plot hole, let them know. Spelling, showing versus telling, structure, all of that’s fair game.

But do not ever tell another writer how you think their character should act/react

Don’t tell them how much better the story would be if a character were emphasized more.

But always, always remember that it is not your story, and you have no place telling the author how to make it ‘better’.

A particular shade of green

Green.

She remembered the first time she saw that damnable shade of green.

Kate had just turned ten, and rather than risk buying something she would hate, Laura had taken her out to buy that important gift. That was how the two of them had ended up standing in front of the display case. Laura pointed out the gift she thought would be ideal, but her Kate had fixed on what she wanted before her mother could finish raising her hand.

“I want this one, Mom!”

What Kate was pointing at was….green. Not a calm green, or a dark green, but a green close to mint. A green so aggressive that it could almost be called violent. Laura motioned towards the item she’d chosen.

“Isn’t this one better? It’s just the same, and you won’t have to worry about it clashing with your clothing.”

“But Mom, I like this color! Besides, you said I could chose what I wanted, and I want this.”

“But sweetie, will you like it next year? Or even next week?”

“Then I’ll get another.”

Laura decided it was time to put her foot down. “No, you won’t. Remember, this is your birthday present, and I am not going to buy you a replacement just because you changed your mind.”

Kate faced her, feet planted, and showed she was her mother’s daughter by matching stubbornness with stubbornness. “Fine, Mom. Then I promise if you buy this for me, I won’t ask you to replace it.”

Laura looked at the green again and shuddered. “Fine, but you can be sure I’ll remind you of that promise.” And with that, the decision what gun to buy her daughter was made.

Laura also remembered how Kate had stood in front of her, gun pointing at her mother’s face. “Mom, I told you I’m going out with Harry, and that’s that.”

“Harry’s trouble, sweetie. He’s been arrested, and he’s….”

Laura had seen her daughter’s finger tighten on the trigger and stopped talking. “Mom, I don’t care. I love him, and that’s all that’s important.”

“And what will you do if he decides to turn violent on you, shoot him?”

“Mom, he’d never do something like that!”

Now Laura stood over her daughter’s still form, and that vile green gun lay nearby, in Harry’s dead hand. Her daughter had called her just twenty minutes ago. Harry was high again, on something that made him violent. Kate said she was going to try to talk him down, as she had so many times before, and nothing Laura could say would dissuade her from trying.

The three red holes in her daughter’s chest told Laura how the effort had turned out. Harry had had the grace to kill himself, and Laura found herself fighting the desire to kick his lifeless form. But she knew Harry was just the end of the story. As the police screamed up in front of the apartment building, Laura feel to her knees beside her daughter.

“Why did I buy you that stupid gun? Why did everyone insist you needed a gun? Why?

On hubris

Hubris.

It’s a word that can be applied in numerous situations, but is most commonly associated with its root definition: an over-arching self-confidence that allow a person to believe they can do no wrong, or will never fail to do something once they have set their minds to it. It’s not a pretty state of mind, and recently, I found out what it’s like when your own hubris comes back to bite you in the ass.

Most of my day-to-day computing I do with Linux. I use it because it’s free, robust, and there are enough variations of it to suit almost anyone’s taste. There are, however, a few things that I need Windows for. I don’t use these applications often, which means I don’t use Windows very often…and there lies the rub. To get both systems on one computer, I use what’s known as a ‘dual-boot’ hard drive, where on start-up, the computer asks me what operating system I want to use. It works great, allowing me to keep my first love (Linux) at my finger-tips, while keeping the ugly stepchild I don’t like to associate with (Windows) close at hand when I need it. But like all my stuff, I endeavor to keep my different systems secure, which is where hubris comes into play.

I know and remember my Linux password because I literally use it every time I log in. I relied on my memory to also hold my Windows password…which, it turns out was my downfall. I hadn’t used Windows for several months, so when I needed to access the application I kept in that operating system a few weeks ago, I powered up my computer, told it to boot to Windows…and when the log-in screen came up, I drew a complete blank as to what my password was.

To give you an idea of how much hubris I was exhibiting, Windows offers you the option of leaving yourself a hint as to your password. I had decided to leave, in my hint line, one word: Remember.

Yeah, not at all helpful.

I’ve racked my brains, trying to pull the password out, and I still draw a blank. So, I decided to see if I could recover/reset my password. After a fair amount of research, I found there were several options for doing something like this. You can buy password hacking/cracking packages, but the good ones tend to be expensive, and the free/cheap ones have a bad habit of installing ‘junkware’ on your computer, or worse, installing links to dubious web pages that carry malware. There is one free software package, called Ophcrack, that doesn’t install junk on your hard drive and will regularly crack most passwords. Unfortunately, after several attempts to get it to work, I have found I can’t. Why? Good question, one I’m not sure I can find the answer to. There are other options that allow you to just reset the password on an account, but I have found that they are intended to computers that have only Windows partitions on their hard drives, and my dual-boot option leaves them wondering where to go.

There is a process that allow you to do a reset under Windows. The easiest requires you have to a “reset” CD made up, which of course I didn’t do. There is another option, not for the faint of heart, that involves going in through the command line to reset a users password. Unfortunately, when I tried it, it too can’t find the proper partition due to my hard drives unique set up.

So, here I am, stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place, all because I let my hubris rule me. Please don’t be me, don’t let your confidence in your own abilities rule you.

Fun at the polls

What?”

Paul hadn’t intended to yell, but the poll watcher’s statement that he wasn’t on the voter roll was unbelievable. He’d been voting since he turned 18, and hadn’t missed an election since then. He also knew he’d sent his registration form back in plenty of time for the county recorder’s office to have processed it and renew his registration. The elderly woman in front of him shrank away from his yell, but she looked away as she answered.

“It’s like I said, sir, your name isn’t on the roll. I also can’t let you cast a provisional ballot without at least two federally-recognized pieces of identification. I’m sorry, but that’s the law now.”

Paul struggled to keep his temper in check, but even to his ears, the sarcasm in his question was clear. “So what counts as a ‘federally-recognized’ ID?”

“Well, your drivers license counts, so does a firearms owner ID. Or a passport, or any other photo ID the government approves.”

“But I’ve never been out of the US, so I don’t have a passport, and I don’t own a gun, so I don’t have one of those ID cards either. About all I have is my license, isn’t that enough?”

Paul caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and saw a bulky red-headed man move to stand beside him. He faced the man in time to see his eyes sweep up and down Paul once before he turned to the poll watcher. “This guy giving you trouble?”

“No, he was just asking…” Paul interrupted her. “No, I’m not giving her trouble, she’s giving me trouble. I’ve been voting for almost forty years now, and voting at this polling place for about half that time, yet she says I’m not on the rolls.”

Red-head turned full-on to face Paul. “I don’t give a damn if you been votin’ here since Noah came over. If you ain’t on the rolls, then you don’t get to vote, got it Pedro?”

“The name’s Paul, Paul Sanchez, and who died and named you god?”

Red-head was nearly a head taller than Paul, and he leaned down to make that size advantage inescapable. “Paul, Pedro, I don’t care what your name is. You aren’t on the roll, so get outta here before I decide you’re ‘disturbing the peace’ and call the cops to arrest your worthless ass. Understand, or should I get someone to interpret that for you?”

That was it. “What are you going to ‘interpret’, stupidity? I understand that real well, thanks. I’m just wondering why the renewal form I sent in for my voter ID doesn’t seem to have been processed, and I don’t think you know the answer to that question, do you?”

Paul had expected the big man in front of him to get angry at being challenged, but rather than snarl, he laughed. “Well, if you don’t know the answer to that question, it’s you who needs help with stupidity. It’s cause of the Working to Assure a Secure Poll Act, that’s why.”

Paul knew the law. Passed in the wake of repeated claims of fraudulent voting, it was being challenged in the courts, but was still on the books. But he’d never heard anything about it barring people who’d been living in the US since the day they were born their right to vote. “What the hell do you mean? I was born here! How am I not allowed to vote?”

Red smirked at Paul. “Yeah, but what about your parents? Were they born here?”

“Hell yeah! My Dad’s family has been in Texas since it declared independence from Mexico, and my Mom’s family has been in America since the 1920’s.”

Red leaned down again, bringing his face close enough to Paul’s that their noses almost touched. The smirk spread, became a wicked grin. “Yeah, and you got proof that both their families came into the US legally? Cause if you don’t, then they was here illegally, and that means you’re not a citizen, got it?”

“How the hell am I supposed to get proof of something than happened a hundred, two hundred or more years ago?”

“Ain’t my problem, and it ain’t the problem of these poll watchers either. Now get out.”

“What about you, Red? Have you got proof your ancestors came to the US legally?”

“Name’s Sean, asshole, and yeah, my parents people all came over from Ireland at some point…and all of them went through Ellis Island too.”

“And who gave them the okay to come here?”

“Are you thick? Like I said, they came through Ellis Island.”

“Yeah, but who said the federal government had the right to decide who came to the US?”

That got a laugh out of Sean. “You really are one stupid bean, aren’t you? Did you sleep through civics, or didn’t they teach it in your school?”

Now Paul gave Sean a smirk. “Yeah, but who said the federal government has any real authority? Didn’t the first Europeans find people here already, people with their own governments? Did those Europeans ask permission to come here? Did they get approval from those governments to settle in America?”

“Hey, that was different!”
“How? Weren’t the Founding Fathers just the descendants of a bunch of illegal aliens?”

“Watch your mouth, bean! Those were the greatest people in the world!”
“Why, because they stole a continent by killing off the rightful owners? Weren’t they just a bunch of violent thugs who took what they wanted at gun point?”

Sean’s face went nearly as red as his hair as he started to shout. “Okay, that does it! You just earned yourself a trip to jail, big-mouth.” He brought his cell out and raised it to his ear. “911? Yeah, I’m at the Fifth Precinct polling station, and we’ve got a trouble maker here. Doesn’t have proper ID, refuses to leave, and he’s making threatening statements too. I need an officer to come take out the garbage.” A moment’s pause, and Sean smiled. “Thanks, officer. I’ll be waiting by the door so I can point the guy out.” He tapped the screen before continuing to address Paul. “So the cops are on their way, Pedro. Maybe you can get away if you make a run for it.”

Paul gave him a smile, because for the first, he felt cheerful. “I’m not running anywhere, you brainless fuck. If I’ve got to go to jail to challenge this stupid law, then I’ll do it gladly.” he let his smile morph into a sneer. “It is kind of funny, you calling the cops. For all your swagger, you have to have the police deal with someone who’s smaller than you.”

The remark had the effect Paul had hoped it would. Sean’s face went scarlet as he threw a roundhouse right that Paul dodged without effort. Paul’s fist connected with the bigger man’s stomach, and he folded with a gasp. “And that’s another reason I should be voting, ten years, US Marines, Recon. Don’t ever call me ‘bean’ again, you asshole, or they’ll need a wet-vac to clean up what’s left over after I get done with you.” Paul lifted his eyes to sweep over the poll watchers. “I take it you all saw his throw the first punch, and me do nothing more than defend myself?” When everyone nodded, Paul stepped back, clasped his hands behind his back, and went into the parade rest his body still remembered. The cops would be there soon, but the Marines had taught him there was nothing he couldn’t overcome if he put his mind to it.

“W.A.S.P. Act, this Marine’s coming for your ass.”

The Protest

Mayor James whacked his gavel down, hard, but the sound of its impact could barely be heard above the growl of angry voices that filled the city council chambers. The space wasn’t packed, but the crowd’s indignation gave it a presence far larger than its numbers. Matt McClaine watched his face turn red with anger at being ignored. Keith James had been mayor of Carswell’s Corner for nearly a decade, and like most men in such a position, his sense of self-importance had grown with his time in office. Matt had seen it far too many times in his years as a reporter, the way some people took getting elected to even as insignificant an office as mayor of a small town like Carswell’s Corner as a sign that they were somehow above the norm. Mayor James leaned towards the mic in front of him, and tried to use his control of the rooms sound system to gain control of the situation.

“This meeting of the Planning Commission is hereby adjourned!”

He didn’t quite shout the words, but the margin between a shout and the volume he used was small. It didn’t calm the crowd. No, it had precisely the opposite effect. Several members of the crowd openly shouted back.

“What do you mean? We haven’t even been given a chance to speak!”

“What about wanting ‘public’ comments? I came here to have my say!”

“We’re going to be heard! You can’t just….”

Mayor James’ face went from red to full-on purple with rage as his shouted response drown out everyone.

“I said this meeting is adjourned! And if I need to, I will have call for the security officers to clear this room.”

Talk about throwing a match into a pool of gasoline…now, even those who had patiently, politely waiting for their chance to speak rose to join the chorus of protest.

“You can’t do this! We have a right to express our opinions at hearings!”

“Yeah! You can’t just shut people up!”

Matt looked towards the main exit, and saw the two police officers who nominally served as security for the meeting had their eyes fixed on the front of the room. They weren’t worried about the crowd, they knew they could bully them out of the room if called upon to do so. They were just waiting for the signal from the mayor to start shoving people around. It was something they had plenty of experience with.

Like most small towns, Carswell’s Corner maintained all the proper forms, looked and acted like a democracy…but in reality, it only keep those forms in place to give the citizens the illusion that their voices mattered. The real decisions were made quietly, behind the scenes, when the proper people got the proper ‘incentives’ to make the decision some company wanted.

Carswell’s Corner had once had a thriving downtown, and sported four grocery stores ranging in size from a corner mom-and-pop shop to decent-sized chain stores. Then the ‘big box’ had come to town…and corporate management clearly knew how to deal with small-town governments. The land for the store had been bought from a real estate company run by relatives of council members. Most of the city council, who had never bothered advertise their candidacies before, suddenly had money to spend on yard signs and window posters.

And that support had brought further ‘considerations’ from the city government. The mom-and-pop shop suddenly learned that the ‘grandfathered’ lay-out was no longer considered ‘safe’. Not surprisingly, the price of fixing their problems were far too high for them to afford. Then, the property taxes for the bigger stores had suddenly jumped.

The number of groceries dropped until only one remained, at which point the city played its trump card. As the suppliers of electrical power for the whole town, the municipal utility was free to set prices as they saw fit…and they saw fit to increase the rates for ‘commercial’ properties like the last grocery store.

The move might have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that when management posted signs that the store would be holding a ‘going out of business’ sale, they also gave the reason why they were going out of business. People railed about the decision, and Matt’s paper had received a multitude of letters to the editor complaining about the move. The decision to hold a protest at the Planning Commission meeting, which among other things controlled the utility, had gained support quickly.

But like every other town meeting, the Planning Commission operated to the strict guidelines of its agenda; and that agenda was set, in advance, by the members. That agenda included time for the public to speak, but the protest was known, so a small group of ‘public’ commenter’s was in place before the first citizen stepped through the door. Not surprisingly, they occupied most of the seats in the front row, spots that would gain them the first chance to speak.

And oh, did they speak. There was praise for the ‘fiscal responsibility’ of ‘ensuring’ that the utility department was bringing in enough money to cover future expansion. There was a statement in favor of letting the ‘free enterprise system’ determine winners and losers. The dog-and-pony show ended with the manager of the ‘big box’ store announcing plans for a substantial donation to the local park district. And with that, the public comment segment was closed and the meeting had rolled to its foregone conclusion.

Matt checked his notes, made sure the photos he’d snapped were saved to his cloud account, and closed the cover on his tablet. When the protest was announced, he’d known it would fail. He would have his story written up in half an hour of starting, then his editor would go over it to make sure Matt had filtered out his indignation, and that would be the end of it. The whole farce would be duly reported as another glorious example of American democracy, and Matt would collect his paycheck.

He’d been a good mouthpiece for so long that he’d come to accept his own hypocrisy, and even when it was so obviously on display, he did what he always did. He chalked his inaction up to the knowledge that there was nothing he could do. The system had been broken for so long that there was nothing anyone could do. He knew the city politicians would remain in power because the voters would rather have a corrupt government they knew than a clean one they didn’t. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but that small sliver of the honest human he had once been still hated it all.