Kid Lit Book Review – A Prince, a Giant Peacock and the Gold Ring by E.K. Bowhall

In the words of the author, A Prince, a Giant Peacock and the Gold Ring “is a story that tells how important family is, and how different we all are. To be royal not by blood, but in our hearts, is a beauty that can go beyond what we can see in each other and ourselves. How one so true can break any spell and overcome any obstacle in one’s life.”

Overview

One of my goals when I review books is to simply connect readers with books.  That means matching the right books with the right readers.  The last book I reviewed, I May Fly was a book geared for very young readers.  A Prince, a Giant Peacock and the Gold Ring is almost exactly the opposite.  It is geared for an middle to older elementary age, say 2nd-4th grade.  Whereas I May Fly was a very short book both in title and in word count, A Prince, a Giant Peacock and the Gold Ring is a much longer book both in title and in word count.  I didn’t take the time to count them, but I estimate it to be roughly 2,000-2,500 words.  It is told as a classic fairy tale with the plot occurring over several years and involving quests, enchantments, sorceresses, true love, and magical creatures.  There are many motifs of the classic fairy tale incorporated into both the plot and the illustrations, done by Valeria Leonova.

Outstanding Points

With a book as long as this one, it can be difficult to keep the overall tone of the wording and dialogue consistent.  However, I would say that Bowhall definitely keeps a consistent voice throughout the entire book.  I also truly enjoyed that overall the book is stylistically consistent.  Leonova did an excellent job with the fairy tale motif.  The pages are all ornately decorated with hand drawn roses as borders and the pages themselves are made to look as if they are aged and yellowed/browned paper.  The illustrations are vibrant and full with a “Legend of Zelda” feel.  Even the font of the writing is consistent with the fairy tale motif.

The plot itself is compelling if it is a little slow developing.  There are several plot twists toward the end of the story that, although are probably a predictable for adults reading it, are fun and exciting for children. I found as I read it to my children that they stayed relatively engaged in the story.  The younger two probably more so for the illustrations but the older one with the story itself.

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Discussion and Teaching Points

One great discussion point that I saw is with the topic/theme of love.  I think that this topic is very important for children, especially in the later elementary years as they are about to get those hormones and start pursuing relationships.  I really liked that in this fairy tale, it wasn’t love at first sight, or the damsel in distress running off with her rescuer that she just met. (As a matter of fact, Alexandra rescues the prince the first time they meet).  Prince Thomas and Alexandra develop their friendship and relationship over a long time before they realize that they are in love.  I also really like that her family is involved in their friendship from the very beginning.  I think that discussing how important it is to build true friendships and not just jump into romantic relationships is important for older children about to proceed into adolescence.  Call me crazy if you want.

Another important discussion is about the values that both of them see in each other and what the King valued in the Queen.  In neither relationship is physical beauty seen as the most important factor.  Throughout the story, character qualities such as kindness, honesty, and goodness are portrayed as much more important than appearance.

As far as teaching goes, obviously this book fits into any unit on fairy tales.  A great lesson idea would be comparing this modern fairy tale with one writing a long time ago.  What themes are consistent?  What are different?  Use Venn diagrams, etc.

Elizabeth was kind enough with her time to do an author interview with me.  This is one of my favorite parts of the whole book review process as I get to hear from different authors.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

ES – So, let’s start with your book.  Say you’re in a conversation with someone and you mention that you’re a published children’s book author and she replies, “Oh wow! What is your book about?”  How would you answer her?

EB – I try to tell them as much as I can without giving the story away. It’s about a young prince whose father, the king, sets out on a quest. While his father is away, the prince meets a giant peacock who talks and wears this gold ring. As years goes by, he becomes good friends with the giant peacock but his father, the king, does not return. I tell them this is a fairy tale with a little mystery.

ES – Is” A Prince, A Giant Peacock, and Gold Ring your first children’s book?

EB – Yes, but I have another in the works.

ES – I find that every author has a different story behind the inspiration for his or her story.  What is the inspiration behind yours? When and how did you think of it?

EB – My inspiration came from when I was telling stories while trying to put a few kids to sleep for nap time at the daycare where I work. I asked the two kids to help me start the story. Once upon a time there was a prince, and he lived in a…. jokingly, I said, “cave” and the two laughed and said, “a castle.” I remember their faces. It was funny. Then as I added on I said, “One day the prince meet a fish?” as another joke and the one child laughed and said, “no a bird.” So I asked her what type of a bird and she said, “a Big Peacock.”  And well, the rest just came to me. When they fell asleep, I knew I had something. So I took notes, made a few changes, and when I got home, I wrote the story down. The two kids became characters in my story. 

ES – Your illustrator, Valeria Leonova, is Ukrainian.  How did you find her? What has it been like working with someone halfway across the world?  Where there any specific challenges associated with that? If so, how did you overcome them?

EB – I found Valeria on Facebook. It’s been great working with Valeria, a lot like having a pen pal. We have become great friends. With the help of Facebook and video chat we were able to work through any challenges.

ES – Your book reads as a classic fairy tale with magic, sorceresses, enchanted rings, etc.  Many times, there is a lot of symbolism with fairy tales. Is there any symbolism in your book?  What is it?

EB – Roses. The young girl Alexandra loves roses as did the queen. Alexandra is a big key to the story.

ES – What is life like as an author?  Have you done any book readings, book fairs, etc.?

EB – It’s exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. You get this feeling of “Wow I did it”, and at the same time “Is it good enough? Will people like it?”  

I had my book launch at Old Chatham Child Care, where I have worked for 7 years now. I have a few more book signings coming up later this summer.

ES – Do you have anything else in the works?  What’s coming next from the mind of Elizabeth Bowhall?

EB – Yes, I am working on another children’s story, a short chapter book, and a novel that I have been working on for a few years now. At first I had a case of writer’s block but writing my first children’s book has helped me unblock.

 

 

Again, thanks so much to Elizabeth for taking the time to do this.  She actually sent me a book in person and autographed it for my kids.  It was so kind of her.  If this book seems to be your cup of tea you can purchase it off of Amazon HERE

As always, thanks for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it.  If you would like to follow the blog and get email updates whenever I post a new book review, poem, or recipe, please click on the link in the lower right corner of the page.  Thanks again and happy reading.

Kid Lit Book Review – I May Fly by Brandon Baxter

My latest book review is a story called I May Fly by Brandon Baxter.  In the words of the author, it is a story about “teaching children the importance of being patient while you grow, letting life and its lessons take their due course.” Brandon was kind enough to do an author interview with me to share along with my review of his book, so keep reading after the review to hear what he has to say about the inspiration behind the story and some of the process of taking an idea and turning it into a published work.

Overview

This story is by far the shortest story that I’ve featured on the blog as of yet.  However, that does not diminish it at all, it’s simply written for a very young audience. I really enjoyed reading it and loved the illustrations.  The story is about a mayfly named May Fly who is very young and, as of yet, unable to fly.  As the book goes on, May Fly talks about having confidence in who she is and where she is in life right now and accepting that.  The story is based on a sort of play on words that is very clever.  The main character says, “I’m a fly” then “I May Fly.” So as you read it, the two sentences sound exactly the same.  The entire book is somewhat a clever play on words as it is a rhyming book.  As I read it, I pictured reading it to my own young children right before naps or bedtime.  It has a lullaby feel to it and the illustrations reinforce that aura.

Outstanding Points

The first thing that stuck out to me in this book is how consistent it is genre wise and thematically.  As I said, the book feels like a lullaby to read to a very young child as they go to sleep.  It is rhyming and whimsical.  Shannon Lloyd, the illustrator, did an outstanding job of keeping the illustrations consistent with the overall feel of the book.  They are done in a kind of hazy pastel style that is somewhat fantastical and dreamlike.  The colors are soft and soothing to create an entire ambience that is warm and relaxing.  I also really did enjoy the whole play on words that creates the book.  As a parent who is constantly forced to read the same 100-700 word books over and over and over again, it caught my interest and engaged me in the book right away.  I also like that the book was only 110 words.  I feel like it is the perfect length for what it is.  It’s not a huge story with a lot of plot twists.  It is a simple story for young children.  I think if the author had made it any longer, it would have been too much of the same thing in an effort to simply extend it.  However, as I said, I feel that the length of the book is perfect.

Discussion and Teaching Points for Parents/Guardians and Teachers

The themes in this book are great for discussion points with young children, especially those with siblings.  One of the things that May Fly says is, “I may fly tomorrow, or today.”  I think it’s probably a great thing to discuss with children that some things may come more quickly to some kind than to others.  Just because you can do something or do it better than another child doesn’t mean that you are better and just because another child can do something or do it better doesn’t mean that you are worse.  Talking about how everyone has innate and inherent value simply based on being a living creature and not based on any kind of merit is a very important discussion.

May Fly also says “Some believe I won’t fly at all.  Perhaps it’s because they think I’m too small.”  This too is a very important discussion point for children.  I believe that many times, children don’t reach their full potential because of the limits that they allow other people to place on them.  Talking to them about overcoming obstacles in life despite what others may say is critical.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book.  It was also great to be able to work with an author from my own home town of Medina, Oh.  If this book piques your interest, click on this link to check it out on Amazon.  Now on to the author interview.

ES – Is I May Fly your first book?

BB – I May Fly is indeed my first book. I’ve had previous writing experience in the past, mainly writing news copy as a sports producer and contributing as a sports writer for a couple of blogs. But, writing a children’s book has been my first foray into actual published literature.

ES – What would you say the message or theme of the book is?

BB – Patience and perseverance. It’s geared toward teaching children the importance of being patient while you grow, letting life and its lessons take their due course.

ES – How long ago did you get the idea and how long from there to actually publishing your book?

BB – The idea came to me in June of 2018, shortly after uprooting and moving to a new city. As I left for work one morning, a wall of mayflies covered the door of my apartment building. After brushing them off of me and sliding into my car, the word mayfly began running through my mind. My entire drive into work that day was in complete silence as I played around with words in my head. It would be another month before finally putting pen to paper, then another three months before meeting my illustrator (Shannon Lloyd). The first publishing didn’t occur until late January 2019, when I decided to self-publish using Kindle.

ES – How/where did you find your illustrator? Was it a process finding someone whose style fit that of your manuscript?

BB – Honestly, I give credit to connections I‘ve made. I met Shannon through a former co-worker, someone who I was simply talking with about my book. This co-worker, Rebecca, mentioned to me that a friend of hers had illustrated a children’s book before. I asked if she’d be willing to introduce us. After having my initial conversation with Shannon, I asked her to look over my manuscript and create a character that children would find to be cute and endearing. To this day I still feel Shannon nailed it on the first try!

ES – What does it feel like to have an actual published book and to officially be an author?

BB – It’s kind of surreal, it’s something I never would have thought about or expected out of myself. Had you asked 30 year-old Brandon, it would have never crossed my mind. But age and life experiences can change a person, and sometimes you have to pay close attention to those changes and what information they bring. I can guarantee you that if certain instances had not occurred in my life, I would not be a published author at this specific point in time.

ES – Would you like to have a career exclusively as an author?

BB – I would love that! I feel I might possess quite a few unique stories to share with and tell the world.

ES – Do you have any more books/writing in the works?

BB – I haven’t yet begun writing in earnest, not another story at least. I do have some ideas of continuing May Fly tales, so we’ll see where her next adventure takes us.

ES – How and where can people get ahold of your book and/or follow you on Twitter and/or Instagram?

BB – “I May Fly” can currently be purchased as paperback on Amazon and digitally on Kindle. I encourage readers to like and share my Facebook page for all kind of information about my writings, it’s called Stories by: Brandon Baxter. You can also find me on Twitter, my handle is @bbaxter8

 

Thanks everyone for reading and following the blog.  If you don’t follow and would like to, please click on the link in the lower right hand corner of your screen and enter your email.  I’d really appreciate it.  Thanks and happy reading.

Kid Lit Book Review and Author Interview – Berkley: A Nose Tail by David Hillman

“It’s ok to be different, and to be able to take what some might see as a disadvantage, and turn it into an asset.”

In the words of David Hillman, author of Berkley: A Nose Tail, that is the message of his first book.  David was kind enough to conduct an author interview with me along with allowing me to review his book on the blog.  Enjoy.

In reading your mini author bio in Berkley, it seems that you were an artist first and then wrote a children’s book. Is that pretty accurate? What are some things you’ve done artistically before Berkley?

Yes. I’ve been a commercial illustrator for some time, and became a writer out of necessity. I have a lot of stories inside me that I want to tell through my illustrations, but in order to do that I knew I had to learn how to write as well.

Do you enjoy writing in general aside from children’s books? Could you ever picture yourself writing a novel?

As I continue to write I’m starting to enjoy the process more than I used to. While I don’t think I have a novel in me, I do have an idea for an ongoing series of chapter books for middle grade readers, but that’s still far down the road.

Can you take us through your journey a little bit on your way to becoming an author/illustrator? What were some important steps and moments throughout that process?

Illustrating children’s books has been something I’ve wanted to do for some time. I’ve spent the better part of my career drawing comic books and storyboards, as well as general illustration and I’ve enjoyed doing that. Now I’ve reached a point in my career where I want to leave behind something, something that readers will enjoy for years to come.

The most important step in the process is asking myself if the idea I have is a fun one, will it make me smile? If it’s fun and funny then I’m on the right track.

Berkley is your first book. Do you have any more in the works right now?

I’m currently working on the next Berkley story and I also have a few ideas for other stories. I’m also working on offering my skills to illustrate books for other authors.

Who/what was the inspiration for Berkley?

Berkley has been sniffing around in my head for some years. Just the image of a dog with a HUGE nose seemed pretty funny to me. It’s been only recently I started to wrap a story around him.

Has everyone in your family always supported you being an artist/author as a vocation?

Absolutely! My entire family has been very supportive throughout my career, but most especially my wife. She’s been incredibly supportive, and tolerant of my insanity, how she’s been able to put up with it is beyond me.

Who in your life has been your biggest mentor?

I’d have to say it’s been my father, a writer of children’s books himself, He used to give me some of his yellow writing pads for me to draw on, and I’ve been doodling ever since.

Sadly, he’s no longer with us, but when I’m having a problem with a story I’m working on I look at his picture and think to myself, “What would dad do?”

If you could summarize the message of Berkley into one statement for children, what is it?

That it’s ok to be different, and to be able to take what some might see as a disadvantage, and turn it into an asset.

What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring children’s book author like me?

Practice your craft because you love it, not because someone tells you should do it. Also, do the kind of work you feel inspired to, be true to your own style. Early in my career I had someone suggest that I should create illustrations of a certain type, and it just didn’t work for me. The work was stiff, flat, and I got bored with it very soon. Find what you really are interested in, and practice it every chance you get. Make the next story, or the next project better than the last, and the next, and the next…

My thanks to David for taking the time to do the interview with me and for allowing me to review his book, which I loved.

Overview

Berkley: A Nose Tail is a story about a dog who is born with a HUGE nose.  His nose is constantly getting him into trouble as he loves to stick it in places where it doesn’t necessarily belong.  However, when his owner’s friend is unable to find her cat, Berkley’s nose is the only thing that is able to help.

Outstanding Points

As I’ve done more and more book reviews, the diversity of illustrations and the obvious talent behind all of them irregardless of style is amazing.  The Illustrations in Berkley are fantastic.  The detail and intricacy of them are truly remarkable.  As you can see even from the front cover, just very excellent overall.  Mr Hillman, as you can read in the interview, began his career in visual arts and illustrating, and that fact is very apparent.

I love the message behind the book.  I enjoy books with messages but also enjoy that this one isn’t blatantly stated either.  I also love this particular message as it deals with an actual physical characteristic.  In the social media driven society that over-analyzes and scrutinizes every photo, a message of self-acceptance and self-appreciation is very appropriate and relevant.

There is another message, although much more subtle, that I also love.  Warning, I’m about to preach a bit.  One of the main characters is an African-American girl.  In the book, her father is a police officer.  I love that, although it is subtly ingrained, a person of color is painted (literally) in such a positive light.

The story itself is compelling and engaging.  I enjoyed reading it.  Although for an adult, the outcome is predictable, a child would definitely be locked in waiting to see how it will turn out.

From start to finish, the story and setup of the book is consistent.  There are about the same amount of words on each page appropriate to the age level the book targets.  The storyline is coherent and complete.

Discussion Points and Teaching Ideas

Becky, one of the characters in the story, automatically assumes the worst in the story.  I think it would be good a discussion about negative self-talk and imagining the worst possible scenario.  Talk about how many times we think the worst possible thing has happened when really it wasn’t anything like that at all.  Allow students to share stories from their lives.

Jeremy, Berkley’s owner, knew about how amazing Berkley’s nose was, even when most other people viewed it as a detriment.  So, when Becky needed his help, Jeremy jumped at the chance for Berkley to prove himself.  How can we be that way as friends, classmates, or siblings?

Is it easier to see the potential in others or in ourselves?  How do you think that this should affect how we treat each other?

Allow students to create an animal that has something crazy like Berkley’s huge nose?  Have them brainstorm how that animal might use whatever it has.

What should Berkley’s next story be?  How else might he be able to use his nose to help people?

Well, that’s all.  Overall, I really liked this book and was really impressed with the art in it.  You can find Berkley: A Nose Tail in several places.

You can go to Amazon at this link Here

It is also available from Barnes and Noble Here

Or you can go to the official Berkley web page Here

You can also follow David Hillman on Instagram at @dnahillman

I really do hope you will go check it out for yourself.  You will certainly  not be disappointed.  As always, thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it.  If you want to follow the blog to receive email updated whenever I post something new, simply click on the link in the lower right hand corner of your screen.  Thanks again.

Undeveloped

Hey Everyone!  It’s been a while since my last post.  Things have been super busy at home and at the school.  I started a story for a writing contest but didn’t finish it in time to submit it.  So then it took me about two weeks writing on and off to finish it.  The title is “Undeveloped.”  The ending is meant to incite some thought as to whether or not the character made the correct decision or not.  I know that to some, the answer is very obvious but to others it will actually take some thinking to decide.  Also it ends rather abruptly because I just really wanted to finish it.  I will probably revisit it later to clean it up and revise.  If you feel like responding with your thoughts on the ending in the comments section please do.  Thank you for reading.

Undeveloped

“No, Greenland is covered with ice and Iceland is very nice!”  I was lying on the bed of my hotel room in Nuuk, Greenland. Watching D2, the second film in the Mighty Ducks trilogy, seemed fitting right now.  Although I had no knowledge of Greenlandic, the language of Greenland, I was familiar enough with the movie to know exactly what the characters were saying.  

The quote was accurate as well.  Greenland was a country that was mostly covered with ice.  In fact, nearly 80% of the country was canvassed by the Greenland Ice Sheet, the second largest single body of ice in the world.  According to legend, the viking Erik the Red had named it Greenland in order to attract people to live there after he had been banished from his native Iceland for killing three men.  He had apparently settled on the eastern shore of the island and wanted people to join his settlement. Many historians like to think of it as the first case of false advertising in history.  However misconceived it may have originally been though, the name “Greenland” was now proving to be somewhat prophetic. The ice sheet covering the majority of the island had been melting and shrinking due to the global climate change bringing in warmer air. That’s what had brought me to Greenland in the first place.  I was part of a team sent to study the island with a focus on the effects of the rapidly vanishing layer of ice and snow.

I had found during my two days in Nuuk that I really enjoyed it there.  Everything felt fresh and natural. The houses were painted vibrant colors that seemed to spring out from the backdrop of white snow and gray-black rock.  The climate and environment seemed as much a part of Greenlandic culture as language, art, and music were to other cultures. The cold ocean air whispered wondrous words of its own as it drifted through the city.  Sometimes the wind spoke long drawn out sentences in creaking planks on front porches and sometimes it spit short staccato syllables in the banging of a loose shutter. The works of renaissance artists paled in comparison to the lichens, mosses, and cow vetch painted onto the canvas of the mountains.  And the chatter from the colonies of puffins, auks, and kittiwakes created a symphony of sound that rose and fell in crescendo and decrescendo like choir of tuxedo clad choristors.

As a scientist, I dreaded what I anticipated the results of our study would be.  I thought of what beauty might be lost should the ice sheet continue to disappear as it had been doing.  Just how fragile was this ecosystem? One hundred years from now would the Greenlandic musk ox be merely a photograph in a history book?  The biggest question really was whether or not we were too late to stop it?

An avid environmental activist, I fought hard for policies that did more to protect the environment but it always seemed like the big businesses won out.  As the saying went, “Money makes the world go round.” and in this case it was making the world go warm too. As a geologist and cartographer, I had been offered jobs with exorbitant salaries to work for big oil, fracking, and natural gas companies.  I’d turned them all down to work at a research laboratory. I had always thought that I would feel like Luke Skywalker flying TIE Fighters for the Empire if I took any of the other jobs. My heart was definitely in environmental protection, not exploitation.

The pounding on my door woke me from my reverie. I rolled my eyes.  In times like these, I pictured myself like Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, as he looks to the sky and says, “Sometimes I wonder, when it gets too quiet up there, if You are thinking, “What kind of mischief can I play on My friend Tevye?”  

Really, this mischief was none of God’s doing and all of the budget’s.  Due to monetary constraints, everyone on the expedition had been forced to share a hotel room.  I had drawn the short straw and had spent the last two nights rooming with the trips official photographer Devin Hiteman.  He was, in my humble yet unadulterated opinion, as untalented as he was revolting. To call his clothing, personal hygiene, and equipment unkempt would be an insult to people who were simply unkempt.  In the three days we had been traveling and staying together, I had not yet seen him shower or even brush his teeth. To be completely honest, I doubted altogether if he had even brought a toothbrush or owned one at all for that matter.  I tried not to judge too harshly on trips such as this as I maintained a rather disheveled appearance myself, but he was another matter entirely.

“Hey buddy! Can you let me in? I forgot my room key again.” came the shout from outside the door.  I was tempted to act like I was asleep and let him stay out in the hall all night. At 1:15 in the morning, it would not have been an unreasonable response.  However, I decided against it for the sake of the other guests of the hotel. Devin would have simply kept yelling and pounding until someone had let him in the door.  I got up, walked to the door and opened it.

When I was in the fifth grade, my two older brothers had filled  my closet with water balloons as a prank. As soon as I had turned the handle, the weight of the balloons had forced the door open so rapidly that the falling balloons had all but enveloped me and knocked me to the ground, soaking me in process.  Drawing from this memory, I stepped to the side as I turned the handle. As I had suspected, Devin had been leaning on the door and, just like the balloons, his weight against the door drove it open and he stumbled in. He was clearly very drunk and stood there blinking and looking around like he was Dora the Explorer and had just asked a question to an imaginary audience who couldn’t actually answer.  

After about 15 seconds of awkward blinking, he mumbled something about helping him out of his shoes and collapsed onto the plaid armchair next to the bed.  I did not feel that the boundaries of our relationship extended to the point of actually touching his shoes, so I left him where he was and began prepping my equipment for the next day.

We had decided to travel across the ice sheet via dog sled.  Satellite imagery had already revealed that the ice sheet had been losing a total of about 200 cubic kilometers each year for the past twenty years.  If melting continued at the current rate, it would not be long before there would be serious effects on not only the Greenlandic but global ecosystem as a whole.  Scientists estimated that, were the entire cap to melt, global sea levels would raise over 7 meters; a truly catastrophic event.

One of the mission goals was to find how much the ice sheet was losing in height as well as width.  Satellite imagery was still unable to produce a conclusive measure of depth. This was going to be done via boring.  The last time that a team had drilled through the entire ice cap, it had measured a thickness of almost two miles. We would be travelling to almost the same location to drill and find a new and more accurate measurement to determine how much the ice had melted down.  Our equipment for the drilling was obviously heavier than we could take in dogsleds and was being delivered to the location prior to our arrival. We were travelling separately in order to study the landscape from the ground on the way out. Satisfied that all my equipment was in order for the next morning, I lay down on the twin bed and drifted to sleep.  

The next day started predictably enough.  Rousing Devin from his stupor was a frustrating fifteen minute process.  By the time he was actually awake and ready to go, we were already over an hour behind the schedule that we had set out.  But eventually, we were off, skimming along the snow on dogsled. The fresh frigid Greenlandic air was absolutely invigorating.   There was a chaste, virginal aura to the terrain. As we left civilization behind, I felt as if I was the first human in the history of Earth to ever draw breath in this location.  I almost felt guilty for sullying the purity of the air as we passed through. Not only was the air remarkable, but the landscape itself was as well. Having never been on an ice sheet before, I had pictured it to be a long flat blanket of ice.  I found the topography to be anything but. There were hills and valleys, mammoth ice caves, and statuesque frozen monuments seemingly carved out in tribute to the ice gods of a bygone era.

We took somewhat frequent breaks as we travelled.  We had a guide with us to help care for the dogs. His name was Artaartik but he said to call him Arty.  He was a seasoned outdoorsman, as most Greenlanders were. As we were taking our breaks, he spoke of his love for his native land.  The way he talked about Greenland, it was as if he had a tangible personal relationship with the land. The flora and fauna were like family to him.  His DNA intermingled with that of the environment in which he lived.

When we spoke of the reason for our mission, a palpable sadness fell over the group.  His face contorted in pain as if we were speaking of a family member dying of cancer in the hospital.  As scientists, we all agreed with Arty on the importance of preserving the environment and protecting the natural beauty around us.  However, we had one outlier among us. Devin had a much more capitalistic view of thing. “Come on bro. It’s just a bunch of snow and stuff.” he said.  He argued that the environmentalist “tree-hugging hippies” were holding humankind back. “It’s ridiculous,” he continued, “that you put some birds, cows, and even the moss here on the same level of importance as humans.”  I didn’t bother to correct him in that a muskox was not nearly the same thing as a cow.

That was really how most of our conversations went over the next couple of days as we journeyed out to the center of the ice cap.  We spoke of our love for nature and the importance of exercising prudence when using natural resources. He lauded the merits of industrialisation and the virtue of human ingenuity.  We revelled in the natural beauty of our surroundings and he devised plans for tourist attractions and ice castles. “This could be really big!” He kept saying. We just rolled our eyes and continued on.

When we arrived at the drilling site, we set up camp and got to work assembling the equipment.  The sheer enormity of the drill was overwhelming. Obviously with the ice being nearly two miles thick, it’s not as if there was a single drill bit.  There were stacks of bit laying neatly side by side that we would have to keep adding on as we bored deeper and deeper into the ice.

Every 50 meters, we were going to take a sample of the ice to study back at the lab.  Much like the rocks that make up Earth’s crust create the geologic record and provide us with some history of the planet, the layers of ice also could provide us insight to what Earth was like many many years ago.  

Our virologist warned us of the possibility of prehistoric viruses and bacteria that had preserved for hundreds of millions of years.  “The human immune system has not interacted with these viruses and diseases for thousands of millenia.” she said. “We need to use caution when handling the samples.”

As we finished constructing the equipment and prepared for the drilling, there was a tangible feeling of elation amongst the group.  Even Devin seemed somewhat excited though he tried to downplay it. After the first two hours of drilling however, that feeling dissipated rather quickly.  It was slow, monotonous, and arduous work. However, we kept at it, working in shifts and laboriously delving further and further into the ice underneath us.  We carefully packaged and labelled each sample of ice according to drilling depth and set them aside for the trip home.

I was on my off shift the next morning enjoying a cup of black coffee when I first felt the ice shift beneath me.  The first movement was a slight, nearly undetectable shift in the frozen top layer of snow. The second time however, I very clearly felt the entire surface beneath me drop about three inches.  After that, everything happened in quick succession. I saw six large cracks emanate from the base of the drill and spread and fan like a bolt of lighting in a thunderstorm for about a 100 meter radius in each direction.  Then an entire circle of the ice cap split into seven large triangular slivers and collapsed in on itself. And then we were falling and tumbling. Everything a blur of white snow, gray steel, and then darkness.

It took a good five minutes are us to get our bearings.  Although the light was shrouded, it wasn’t completely obscured.  There was a dim hazy glow in the distance. We had all been so disoriented during the fall that we had no idea which way to go.  We conferred and decided that any light was a positive thing and set out in that direction. However, as we approached the source of the light, we began to realize that it was not the sun producing the glow.

It also became apparent as we walked that we were not travelling in a direction that would lead us back to the surface of the ice.  The ground beneath us was sloping downward at a somewhat alarming rate. We also soon came to realize that we were no longer walking on snow and ice, but on solid rock.  Call it professional curiosity that we continued. We were walking in a gigantic ice cavern whose ceiling seeming expanded upward as we travelled down. The air was cool and moist but not cold.  I soon found myself sweating and decided to shed my outer coat and tie it around my waist. The others all followed suit and did the same.

About five minutes of walking later, we discovered what was producing the glowing light.  A large outcropping of rock was protruding out of the ice wall. The shape of the rock somewhat resembled a nose so the entire scene looked somewhat as if a stone giant had been trapped frozen in the ice but had stuck his nose out to breathe.  And sprouting out from the bottom of the outcropping, like a large bundle of fluorescent orange nose hairs, was a growth of lichen. The glow was not so faint as to be indistinguishable but not bright enough to illuminate much more than anything in about a 5 meter radius around it. “Wow,” I breathed out.  There was not much more that I could have said in that moment.

We all simply stood there entranced by what we were witnessing.  The incandescence of the lichen was not steady. It swelled, faded, and shimmered almost as if the lichen itself was breathing and with each breath produced the soft warm glow that emanated from it.  All of a sudden a hand reached out and ripped a piece of the lichen off the rock. Devin had survived the fall.

“Dude, what are you doing?” I said.  He looked at me stupidly with the chunk of lichen is his hand and shrugged his shoulders.  As we stood there, the glow from the lichen slowly faded like a candle in a jar slowly running out of oxygen until it finally died.

“Can you just not touch anything and maybe just stick to taking pictures?” I asked.

“Oh yeah!” He replied as he reached into his backpack and pulled out his camera that had miraculously survived the fall.  As he started taking pictures, I heard a click and whir sound. I looked at him. “It’s an old school camera. Real film. Sometimes I prefer the feeling of it to digital.  It feels more natural. You can’t edit like you can with digital but the pictures still turn out great. There’s something I like about taking the film and developing it.”

“Well, it might be a good idea to leave the flash off,” I said, “We don’t know the makeup of the flora and fauna down here.  The bright light could be damaging.” He nodded and continued clicking away.

We continued on down the slope til we got to a point where the land leveled out.  At this point, the bunches of lichen became more and more frequent and larger and larger.  With the increased amount of lichen, we were able to better view our surroundings. We really were in a mammoth ice cavern.  In the increased light, I could see that the ceiling was about 500-600 meters above our heads which meant that there was still a layer of ice that was well over a mile thick.  The landscape was now visible for about two miles ahead of us. Glowing hills and valleys split by small rivers lit with dancing reflections of the shimmering moss. We were now able to see that there was an entire thriving ecosystem hidden underneath the mountain of ice above us.  

We came to the bank of a slow drifting river about ten feet wide.  I reached down and cautiously dipped my finger into the water. It was delightfully warm, about the temperature of a bath that you would make up for a toddler.  Not as hot as an adult bath but not close to luke warm either. The river emanated from underneath a large rock hill that was covered in a purple shade of the glowing lichen.  “It’s hot springs.” I said “That’s what keeps it warm in here. It’s like a giant igloo warmed by geothermal heat. We might be the first people to ever set foot in this place.”

Devin stopped taking pictures for a second to realize the implications.  “Guys, can you imagine how much money we could make? Tourists would come here by the boatloads!  How does it work anymore with exploration? Like do we need to plant a flag or something to claim this as our own?”  He said the last part partially in jest but we all realized that he absolutely meant the first part.

“Dude knock it off.  This isn’t gonna be a tourist attraction.  It’s basically the only untouched ecosystem on Earth.”  I realized though that we really did have to make a decision about who to tell, if anyone, about the previously undiscovered land.  We discussed this as we sat down for a break.

The majority of the group was in agreement that we should be extremely selective in the people who we informed of our discovery.  Obviously the Greenland government had the right to know. Their policies and administration generally very much supported maintaining the natural beauty of Greenland’s environment.  They were very careful about tourism and its effect and we did not feel that they would be as eager as Devin to start carting thousands upon thousands of people down into this breathtaking new world.

Click. Whir. Click. Whir. Devin was going crazy with his camera now.  “When I make my pitch to Carnival or some other big company, I want to have plenty of pictures to show them.” He was saying.  He was cut off as we turned the corner around a sharp chunk of rock and found ourselves face to face with one of the biggest muskoxen I had ever witnessed in my life.  Its long shaggy coat hung down almost to the ground.

Unlike the normal grayish brown of the muskoxen on the surface, this one’s coat was jet black.  If not for the eyes, we might have run right into it before we noticed it standing there. Its eyes were incredible pools of milky blue.  Though not as bright as the lichen, they held a certain luminescence of their own. A soft glow that was soulful and inviting all at once.  It looked at us quizzically but not fearfully, as if we were the attractions and it was studying us and not the other way around. As we stood there, two more muskoxen stepped out from behind the rock with a small muskox calf behind.  They all had the same black coat and softly glowing eyes. Their eyes were all different hues of green, blue, and purple and all held that same peaceful inviting quality. I had never before seen anything like it.

Click. Whir. Click. Whir.  The sound of the camera broke the moment between us and the muskoxen moved along as if nothing had ever happened.  “I can’t wait to get this film developed and show this place to the world!” Devin was downright exuberant. When we proposed the idea of using some discretion in who we told and when we told them, he started getting somewhat hostile with us.  “Listen,” he said, “I’m not going to let a bunch of sad sap bleeding heart liberal hippies hold me back from being rich and famous. You guys do what you want. I’m going straight to the media with this.”

At this point we didn’t know what to do.  There was really nothing that we could do.  Legally there was nothing that was stopping him from telling whoever he wanted about our newly discovered land.  However, as a group, we decided that we should probably turn back the way we came. We had no provisions down there with us and had already walked for about 3 hours in the exact opposite direction of where we needed to go.  We decided to table further discussion about announcing our discovery until we got to the surface. I just prayed that in the end Devin would display a little more wisdom than what he had shown so far.

After a seemingly much longer and definitely much more strenuous journey back to our original location, we could now see that our initial fall had only been about 200m and then we had rolled about a half mile down the slope from under where the hole in the surface of the ice cap had broken.  The broken triangles of the surface ice that had acted as a slide on our initial fall and saved us from falling straight down had shattered, leaving a 200 meter vertical ascent to the top. Fortunately, the drill had stayed intact and provided some means of climbing to the top. It was dug into the ice beneath us but bent at such an angle that it was not a direct climb out but more of a slant.  It would not be an easy ascension but not an impossible one either.

Our virologist went first.  Gradually but steadily going up the 9 inch shaft until she crested the edge of the surface ice and disappeared.  One by one, our other team members followed suite until it was just me and Devin standing together at the base of the drill.

“After you Chief.” He said, and gestured with his hand.  “Age before beauty.” I replied as I took my first step up toward the pole.  I’m not terrified of heights, but not exactly comfortable with them either. Fortunately, at this point, it was probably sometime around midnight and once I was several feet off the ground, was unable to see anything below me.  I climbed for what felt like hours until finally I was within a few feet from the surface. The rest of the team stood around and helped me off the drill bit before calling down to Devin that he was ok to begin coming up himself.  

“Can we just leave him down there?” the group botanist quipped.  “Seriously,” I replied in jest. However, I knew that Freud would say that in every comment said in jest, there is some subconscious truth.  I pushed the thought out of my mind and waited at the top of the drill for Devin to appear. Pretty soon his head appeared and then his entire body as he struggled up the pole.  He was laboring fairly hard as he reached the surface and it took both my and one other person’s full strength to get him onto the surface.

He rolled off the drill bit and lay on his back, breathing heavily on the snow.  His breath made small clouds of vapor that quickly dissipated in the cold night air.  His snorting reminded me of the muskox we had seen down under the ice sheet and I immediately felt remorse.  The perfect, peaceful life that the muskoxen and all the other animals had previously had was about to be shattered.  To what extent, we didn’t know. However, knowing what we did about Devin, he was not keeping anything at all under wraps.  

As Devin rose to his feet, I saw in slow motion the ice surface beneath him give way and collapse.  Using reflexes I would have bet my house that he did not have, he was somehow able to grab onto the pole as he fell and hung there dangling like a marshmallow on a skewer that was halfway melted and about to drop into the fire.  He was within my reach and I immediately moved forward to grab him and try to lift him.

However, as I reached out, the image of the fluorescent lichen, slowly fading and then dying off completely flashed into my mind.  The soulful eyes of the muskoxen came into my vision. Without thinking about it or truly making a conscious decision, I withdrew my hand and took a step back.

There are moments in time that are frozen, etched in the memories of those who witnessed it.  The look on Devin’s face was one such moment. I’ll never forget the sheer shock and panic that swept through his eyes as his hands slipped and he plunged down into the dark.

There was a deafening silence then that seemed to last for hours.  I was afraid to turn around and face the rest of the group. There was no way that they hadn’t seen what I had done.  Finally I slowly turned around and brought my head up. They were standing there in a semi-circle just looking. Jensen, our botanist, was holding Devin’s camera bag in one hand.  They all were looking at me but there was no judgement or anger in their eyes. There almost a mood of quiet understanding. Finally Jensen stepped forward and tossed the camera bag over the edge and down into the abyss.  “There are just some things,” he quietly said, “that should stay undeveloped.”

Memories of Manny and Moving Forward

So I found out today that I again did not win the weekly short fiction contest.  So here is my latest short fiction piece.  It is based on the prompt, “You are spring cleaning and find something you had forgotten about completely.”  Warning, there is some somewhat adult content at the end.  Read at your own peril. 🙂

Memories of Manny and Moving Forward

I looked down and saw Marisol’s name on my caller I.D.  It had been forever since I had heard from Marisol and I let the call go to voicemail  She was the twin sister of my best friend Manny. Well, former best friend. The Army’s official statement was that “SPC Manuel Sanchez died from injuries sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath his transport vehicle while on a routine patrol.”  

That was seven years ago.  I had tried to stay close with his family.  Marisol and I had been almost as close as Manny and I at one point.  To be honest, we probably would have dated in high school if he hadn’t been my best friend.  There’s an unwritten rule there though. You just don’t date your best friends sister, especially his twin sister.  It would have been like dating him in a way.

However close we had been though, we slowly drifted apart into Facebook acquaintances over the years.  I had moved to Chicago for a my job and just kind of lost touch with them all. Marisol had moved away to Charleston to pursue her painting career.  It made me sad to think about it so I just tried not to.

Whenever I came home I would stop by and see Manny’s family. We would go to mass together then stop by his grave and pray.  My family was decidedly Irish and very Catholic. His abuelo and abuela had come to the United States from Mexico sometime in the 1950s and his family was equally Catholic.  Manny and I, though different types of Catholic, had found some connection in our faith.

We initially met playing soccer, another staple of both Irish and Mexican culture.  We played for the same travel team starting in 5th grade. He had played left mid and I played right mid.  We had hit it off instantly and quickly become best friends. Soccer is what started our friendship and we played together all through high school, but we were friends for so much more than that.  That’s why Marisol was calling.

“Hey Patrick.  It’s Marisol. My abuelo and abuela are moving into an assisted living facility next week.  We were going through some of the closets in the house and found something. If you can make it home this weekend it would be great to see you.  Really. It would be great. Call me.”

I don’t know why I hadn’t picked up.  Like I said, she and I had been almost as close as Manny and I.  Maybe I felt guilty for not trying harder to stay in touch since Manny had died.  Or maybe because there had always been some kind of attraction there that we’d always just ignored like it wasn’t.  I waited until I was on the road calling home from work and called her back.

They had found this box of trinkets that Manny and I had collected over the years.  Each piece in it was a memory of him. Marisol and I sat on the couch in the family’s living room.  She pulled out a detention slip signed by Mrs. Buckloh. “Oh I remember this!” She exclaimed. “This is from that fight with you and Sean!”

The “fight” hadn’t really been much of a fight.  In eighth grade, Manny had gotten an A on his test in Spanish class.  This other kid named Sean had failed the test and had knocked Manny’s books out of his hands and called him a racial slur.  I had basically turned and cold cocked him right in the mouth. The teacher, Mrs. Buckloh, although not disagreeing with my motives, had still rightfully given me a detention and Manny had stayed after with me.  Most of the time that wouldn’t have been allowed but she thought the circumstances warranted an exception this time.

“I didn’t know he kept that.” I said.  “My fist hurt for a week. They make it look so easy and painless in the movies.”

“Have you ever been in a fight aside from that?” she asked.

I laughed out loud at the thought. “Gosh no.” I said. “Not even close.  I still can’t believe I did that. He was just such a douche and I lost it.”

“You were our family’s hero.” She said.  “If my parents find this slip they’re going to frame it for sure.”

She reached into the box and pulled out a plastic scepter that was painted to look golden. I was encrusted with fake jewels and topped with a miniature crown.

“Ah.  The cherished and highly sought after Mr. Granville Award.”  I said. “The most prestigious of all senior class awards.”

“The inaugural Mr. Granville Award.” She corrected.

“Manny always said that no matter who else won it in later years, no one else would ever be able to win the inaugural one.” I replied laughing.  “He kept that just to taunt me.”

“Well, Mrs. C did say that it was the closest race in history.” Her tone was a teasing one full of fake sympathy.

“You mock my pain.” I said, quoting The Princess Bride, one of our favorite movies.

She countered with the correct, “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.” We both laughed and continued our foray into the box.

“Now this…” She held up two tickets to our Senior Prom.  “Best night of my life.”

I blushed.  It had been the only high school dance I’d ever gone to.  Manny, ever the suave sweet talker that he was, had convinced me to go with him and his date and had further convinced me to take Marisol.  

“Come on man.”  He’d said. “You’ve never been to a dance before and I’d way rather have you take her than some of these other jerks around here.”

I had relented and gone.  To call me awkward with girls in high school would be a compliment to what I actually was and that translated to the dance floor.  The first time a slow song came on, I had made the bathroom excuse. The second time I had gone for water. The third time, Marisol had just shook her head with an emphatic no and pulled me in.  We had kissed and that had been the end of it. I’m not sure to this day if Manny had seen but if he had, he hadn’t said anything. To be honest I don’t think he would have cared. I just thought it would have made things weird.  Marisol and I had never talked about it in true high school fashion but we both knew there had been something there.

“That was a great night.”  I said and looked back down at my feet.

“Oh come on.” She laughed.  “We kissed, it was great, and that’s all.  You don’t have to be awkward about it.”
“Oh it was great huh?”  Now she looked a little bit sheepish and dug quickly into the box again.

“Here we go.” She said, holding up a photo.  In the photo was a picture of me and Manny standing in front of a cast iron gate.

“You really saved our asses that night.” I said laughing.

“Oh I know it.” She responded.

Manny had gotten this idea in his head that it would be a good idea to cannonball into our principal’s swimming pool at 1:00 in the morning.  We had both failed our driver’s certification test the first time we took it and had walked nearly two miles to her house. We had brashly scaled the fence and jumped in without really thinking about any kind of an exit strategy.  We had also just naturally assumed for some reason that high school principals were all the kind of people who were in bed by 10:00, even on a Saturday night. Both were huge oversights on our part.

As soon as we hit the water, the kitchen lights came on.  We found scaling the fence to be exponentially more difficult when dripping wet and shivering.  We had barely made it to the street with our backpacks before the gate came flying open behind us and our principal’s husband came charging out with a baseball bat.  By some miracle, (that turned out to be Manny telling her our plan beforehand) Marisol had pulled up just in time for us to dive into the back seat of her 1999 Toyota Camry and escape the wrath that the Louisville Slugger promised.  Why Manny had taken a picture beforehand I’ll never know.

“You were so cute all cold and shivering in my back seat.” She said as she reached into the box.

“What’s this?” Marisol asked as she held up the empty wrapper of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

“That?…Well that’s…”  I had no words. “That’s a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.”

“No kidding.”  She replied dryly.  “But what is it? As in why is it in here.”

Oh boy.  This was going to be truly embarrassing.

“Well…that was from Lent our sophomore year.” I answered.

“What? you guys gave up Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups?”  She enquired. “What’s the big deal there?”

“Not exactly” I replied.

“Continue.”

I paused.  Then just blurted it out.  “We actually gave up masturbating.”  I halfway yelled.

The silence was deafening and she let me wallow in it before bursting out in uproarious laughter.  It was a solid minute before she could get out words.

“So why a Reese’s wrapper?”  She had me. I had to tell her the whole thing and she knew it.  So I just spilled it all.

“Well.  So I don’t know why, but that’s just what we chose to give up.  The problem is that people ask you what you gave up each year. Your mom asked us.  We couldn’t tell her what we really gave up so we both lied. Manny yelled out “Chocolate.” and I said “Peanut Butter.”  So we kind of looked at each other and Manny said “Reese’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups. It was the worst.”

“Why was it the worst?” She asked. “I mean she never knew right.”

“Well no.” I said. “But since we told her we gave up Reese’s we couldn’t eat those either.  So we actually ended up giving up two things that year. Masturbating and Reese’s.”

She burst out laughing again and leaned a little closer to me with a twinkle in her eye. “So what did you give up this year?”

I was stuck again because this year I actually had given up chocolate.

“Chocolate.” I said with my most sincere face.

“Oh yeah?” She said with a grin and a wink that made me glad it was really what I had given up this year. “Cross your heart and hope to die.”

“As you wish.” I said, again quoting our favorite movie.  I winked back, scooted closer, and said, “Now let’s see what other memories we can find.”

The One That Got Away

So here is the latest short fiction piece I wrote for the weekly contest I enter.  The prompt was titled “Get Schooled.”  The story simply had to be set at one of the schools they listed. The options were things like Clown College, College of Renewable Energy, and College of Funeral Services.  I chose funeral services.  I found out yesterday that my story didn’t win so I can now post it here.  Enjoy.  I always love constructive criticism.  Feel free to leave in the comments section.

 

The One That Got Away

Just stick to the rules.  That’s what I told myself when I first got into this business.  Set rules to mitigate the obvious risks and then stick to them. That’s how you survive and don’t get caught.  Rule One: Don’t know too much. With what I did, the less I know, the better. Knowing too much is what gets people caught or killed.  

As a professor of mortuary affairs at the College of Funeral Services, I was in the unique position of having a legitimate means of disposing of human remains.  I taught the Embalming I class and clinical lab to accompany it. Included in this course was cremation services. The school had an older but still effective crematorium that we used as a teaching tool.  We worked with some of the local funeral homes to get deceased bodies to show the students how the process worked. It was my unique position of having these means of disposal that attracted the Russian mob to me in the first place.

Well, to be honest, it was my dumb cousin Ronnie that really attracted them to me.  If he hadn’t come up with the brilliant idea of using me to dispose of the bodies, they would still be burying them or dumping them in lakes or whatever they did before me.  Either way, it was what it was and I now knew more Ivans, Anatolys, Vladimirs, and Pavels then I knew what to do with.

Rule Two: No live ones.  I had made that one absolutely clear at the very beginning.  I was not a killer. I was not an interrogator. I was a disposer, nothing more.  My crematorium was not a threat and not a weapon, it was tool. My job within their organization was very clear and defined and I wanted nothing to do with anything outside of it.  

Ronnie?  Ronnie was just a delivery boy.  But he was a delivery boy that violated Rule One.  His job should have been just as clearly defined as mine.  Pick up a package at Point A and take it to Point B. Leave said package at Point B while retrieving an already agreed upon payment for said package.

However, as I may have mentioned, Ronnie is an idiot.  He was forever trying to meddle in the affairs of the Russians and learn everything there was to know.  As if he had a chance to move up the hierarchy. We shared the last name of Müller which made us about as Russian as sauerkraut.  Odd that after seventeen years of running deliveries for the Russian Mob, Ronald Müller hadn’t climbed the ladder to become a boss.  I had tried to talk to him several times about it and he was somehow still convinced that there was a future in it for him.

I, on the other hand, kept doing what I was doing for the simple fact that I knew the future for me if I ever decided not to.  My motivation was not so much hoping for a positive consequence as it was avoiding a decidedly negative one.

“So why did you get into funeral services?”

The voices of the first year students in my lab shook me back into reality.  We were in the Embalming I Clinical lab and the students chatted aimlessly as they went about their work.  

“Well, I figured it was a solid career choice.  I mean it’s a business everyone is dying to get into.”

I cringed.  There were bad jokes and then there were bad jokes about funeral services.  A whole different level.

“Yeah. I don’t think that the profession is going under anytime soon.”

It just kept getting worse.  I looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes to go.  My cell phone buzzing on my desk next to me was a welcome distraction.  It was a text from Ronnie. “One coming in tonight. Crazy story. Tell you all about it when I get there.”  I replied with a simple. “Rule One. I’ll see you when you get here.”

Ronnie knew my rules but sometimes was so excited about the backstory that he felt he had to tell me.  Most of the time, I put headphones in and worked while he prattled on, not caring that I wasn’t hearing a single word he said.

My phone buzzed again. “No, this is different. You’ll want to hear this.”  His next text included a link to a news article. I went against my better judgement and opened the article. The opening headline read, “Daughter of Russian Diplomat Goes Missing.”  I didn’t read the rest of the article. Better not to know.

Class ended and the students filed quickly out.  They had much better things to do on a Friday than hang about an embalming lab.  It was 6:30 and Ronnie wouldn’t be at the school until after 9. We used a maintenance road and back entrance to get the bodies into the crematorium.  When the buildings on campus had undergone a maintenance and security upgrade back at the turn of the millenium, the cameras that had been planned for the back of the building and entrance had been cut due to budget constraints.  It was convenient but we still had to wait until dark. I decided to head to the Panera right down the road to get dinner while I waited for Ronnie.

As I sat down to my bread bowl with black bean soup, I looked at my phone and, against my better judgement again, reopened the link to the news article.  Irina Stepanov, the 27 year old daughter of Marat Stepanov had been in the States visiting her father when she had gone missing yesterday evening. The news article included a photograph and, I had to say, she was not a woman who was difficult to look at.  She had wavy dark hair and strikingly dark eyes to match. Her features were defined without going so far as being sharp or pointed. In the photo she had a slight smile that hinted of humor and her eyes belied intelligence.

Without thinking, I Googled her name and clicked on her wikipedia bio.  My intuition about her eyes had been correct. She had begun attending St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University at 14 years old.  She had received her undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and then completed a double master’s degree program in informatics and computer science by the time she had turned 20.  Very impressive.

The events and circumstances surrounding her disappearance were both mysterious and questionable according to the newspaper.  She had been seen stumbling toward the bathroom in a restaurant but hadn’t been seen since then. According to Ronnie, I’m sure the events and circumstances were much less mysterious and questionable.  

I looked down at my phone and saw that I had spent nearly an hour and a half reading.  I cleared my tray and headed to my car to go back to the school.

I found Ronnie already waiting for me at the back entrance to the building, a stupid grin spreading across his face.  “This is my shot man. I’m telling you. This is my shot and I killed it. This is big for me. This is my shot.” He had this annoying way of repeating himself when he was excited, which he clearly was.  I just wanted to get out of there and settled onto my couch with a glass of Moscato to binge watch The Office for the third time. I heard him talk without really listening. However, as much as I didn’t want to, I caught parts of how he had been the perfect candidate for the job because he was American and used to be a waiter.  Apparently he had dropped something in her drink. She had gone to the bathroom and the rest was history.

“I’m telling you man, this is”

“Your shot Ronnie.  I know. I heard.”

Really I just wanted him to leave.

“You know, why don’t you just head home.  I’ll finish up here. Go celebrate buddy.”

I didn’t need to repeat myself there.  He was gone quicker than a shot of cheap vodka leaving me with the body of Irina Stepanov; billionaire genius.  

I stepped toward the body to begin the process of moving into the crematorium when I thought for a second I thought I saw the chest move ever so slightly.  My heart stopped. I paused and watched intently. Nothing. Then again, almost undetectably, the chest rose and fell in the faintest hint of a breath.

“Shit.”  Ronnie had now violated rules number one and two in the same day.  I had no idea how to proceed. In over ten years of disposing of bodies for the mob, this had never happened before.  

In a split second I made my decision.  There was no way I could do it. I was simply a disposer, not a killer.  It took me about five minutes to head to the parking lot, pull my car around through the maintenance road to the back entrance, and get back into the lab outside the crematorium.  

By the time I got back inside, Irina’s chest was rising and falling faintly but steadily with an undeniable rhythm that showed she was in fact alive.  Ronnie was even stupider than I thought. Whatever he had used to drug and then kill her was obviously not as effective as he thought or had been administered in a faulty manner.  My instinct told me it was the latter.

I was now faced with the difficulty of how to get her back to my house.  Now that I knew she was alive, I didn’t feel right putting her in the trunk.  I was about to go Weekend at Bernie’s with her either though. However, if I laid her down in the backseat and for some reason was stopped by the police, it would be a hard thing to explain.  However, I decided that was my best option and placed her gently on her side in the fetal position.

The drive was mercifully uneventful.  She stirred slightly once or twice but didn’t wake.  My house has an attached garage so transporting Irina from the car to the house was equally uneventful.  

The next two days were spent caring for her as she drifted in an out of consciousness.  It was not nearly as awkward as I might have thought it to be. There was no screaming and trying to escape as she’d lost most of her motor control.  She seemed to be in much of a dreamlike state. Each time she awoke I spoke calmly and plainly, letting her know who I was, where she was, and what had happened.  I found that as soon as she heard me speak in English, she only communicated that way and did so very well. She had no noticeable accent and was as well spoken as someone who had been drugged mostly to death could be.

By Sunday afternoon, she was fully conscious and beginning to regain control of her nervous system and major muscle groups.  She knew exactly who she was and could recall all of the events leading up to her abduction. This surprised me. I don’t know if I had been watching too many movies and was expecting temporary amnesia or something, but it did.  

I found talking to her easier than with any human I had ever encountered before in my life.  In the space of 5 hours I had told her everything about me. I had told her about how I hadn’t every really had a serious relationship.  I told her how I hated working for the mob. How when my baby teeth had started falling out we had found out that I had something called anodontia, a condition in which the permanent teeth never grow back.  When Monday came around, I was legitimately disappointed to leave my usual lonely domicile and head back to work. When I returned home and found Irina still there, I was ecstatic. Now we simply had to answer the question of what to do now.

“Well they can’t know that I’m alive.” she said. “Then they’ll have me to hold over Papa’s head again.”

“But can he know you’re alive?” I asked.  Her reply took a long time.

“No.” she said sadly. “He can’t. If anyone but you finds out that I didn’t die, we’re both as good as dead.”

“Right.” I said.  “So what do we do?”

“Well that depends.” she said. “Can you live the rest of your life and keep this a secret? Also, what if something somehow does happen and the mob finds out that I’m still alive?  You’d be dead before you realized what was happening.”

“So you’re saying I need to get out too?” I asked.

“Absolutely.” She answered.

“Impossible.  There’s only one way out, and it’s through my crematorium.”

“Well then that’s how we’ll do it.  A crematorium.”

The “crematorium” she had in mind was actually my car.  It was a fairly simple operation. Crash my car hard enough into a pole to make it believable that it would catch fire somehow and then light it on fire.  My anodontia further simplified the matter. The fire from the car would ruin any DNA so the only way to identify a body would be through dental records. After the fifth grade, I had no dental records to speak of.  Just a set of false teeth that would also be destroyed in the fire. As for who we would be after I died, having someone with a master’s degree in informatics and computer technology helped us obtain complete new identities.  I was to become Joshua Thompson and was pleasantly surprised to find that she had given herself the same last name, Nadia Thompson.

After that, it was simply a matter of waiting until Ronnie produced another body that was the same height and relative build that I was.  Luckily, the world is not in short supply of 5’10” males and he texted me two weeks later that he had another delivery.

As Irina and I stood there watching my car and my entire past life burn, she turned to me and asked if I thought I would miss it.

I was truly ashamed of my reply. “Well, teaching at the College of Funeral Services was a great way to urn a living, but I’m ready to move on.”

Her laugh was genuine as she retorted with, “Well then, I think that this will be a very fine undertaking for you then.”

Pure gold.

Minor Indiscretions

So I started writing for this weekly short fiction contest.  They email me five prompts on Friday and I have until midnight the following Friday to respond to one of them.  Well, long story short (pun intended), I missed the deadline this week so I am allowed to just post my story on my blog.  So, I guess my lack of responsibility is your gain.

The prompt I chose was to write a story based on a meme.  I chose a meme of Kevin Hart that says “That awkward moment when you’ve already said “What?” three times and still didn’t hear, so you just agree.”  I don’t know why I chose to write my story from the perspective of a 35 year old woman but I did.  You guys can psychoanalyze that all you want lol.  So here is my story. “Minor Indiscretions.”

 

 

“You know. They always say that if you couldn’t go to jail for it, it’s probably not worth doing.”

I looked up from my drink. “No, no one says that.” I replied.  “You’ve been saying that for fifteen years and I’ve never heard anyone say it but you.”

“Maybe so.  But just because I’m the only one who says it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”  Olivia flashed her winning smile, giggled, and took a sip of her drink.

Whether or not she was the only one who said it, it was the way that Olivia lived her life.  Ever since she waltzed into my world in the seventh grade, she’d lived life on the edge. Olivia had been a rock star from day one.  As the daughter of a Jamaican father and Irish mother, she had been the only black girl in our little suburban school in northeast Ohio.  When she had transferred into the school in the middle of seventh grade, everyone had been in awe. Not only did her skin tone set her apart, but her personality was positively radiant.  Olivia had the ability to talk to someone for five minutes and make them feel like they had been best friends since birth. She was talented in almost every sense of the word; artistically, musically, athletically.  She absolutely excelled in anything that she tried. Me? Well, I was kind of just there.

Which is why it absolutely blew my mind when she had come up to me on the last day of eighth grade and said, “Listen, I need to know right now are you in or out?  Sisters’ pact.” It had caught me off guard so much that I had replied “in” without having even the slightest notion of what I was committing to. We made a pinky promise, our “sisters’ pact” right then and there.  And that’s how I found myself on a flight to Montego Bay to spend two weeks in the mountains of Jamaica.

I still haven’t the slightest idea why she chose me to be her best friend.  Like I said, I’m just kind of there. I’m not extremely intelligent, not gifted in music or art, definitely not athletically talented, and not really even funny either.  My looks are pretty unremarkable. I’m just kind of your average white girl. I’m a brown hair, brown eyes, some freckles, 5’4” B cup average type deal. If I was a car, I’d be a Honda Civic, the sedan, not even the cute hatchback style.  No one sees a Civic on the road and really thinks it’s an amazing looking car or an ugly car. No one really sees it at all. It’s just kind of there and part of the scenery.

However, whatever reasons she had or didn’t have, we were best friends.  We did everything together. My high school and college years were filled with her calling or texting me, “Tell me now, are you in or out? Sisters’ pact.”  Our sisters’ pacts almost always ended up with me sitting at my kitchen table explaining to my parents “And that’s how I ended up falling into the river.” or “And that’s how I ended up getting caught stealing from Wal-Mart to feed homeless people.”  or something like that.

I had grown wiser over the years and started asking what “it” was first.  Sometimes Olivia told me and sometimes she didn’t. The times that she didn’t were always nerve wracking but rewarding at the same time. “That’s how I ended up backstage at a Backstreet Boys reunion show.”  “That’s how I ended up as an extra in the latest Avengers movie.”

As she spoke to me now though, I couldn’t really hear what she was saying.  I don’t know if it was the drinks, the noise in the bar, or that my mind was elsewhere.  I just couldn’t make out what she was saying. I’d already said “What?” three times and could tell she was getting annoyed.  So I ended up just nodding and taking the sisters’ pact to go through with whatever scheme she had cooked up. And that’s how I ended up on a plane bound for Zimbabwe.   

After graduating from medical school, Olivia had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders and spent a lot of time travelling the world.  As happens with everyone she meets, she made friends with people from Peru to Bangladesh, Vietnam to Somalia. As we boarded the plane, she was chattering on about how this might actually work since she knew a man in Zimbabwe who trains monkeys. She also knew that the leader of the Makunde village had a pet monkey that he carried on his shoulder.  At this point in our lives, I had stopped questioning whether or not she really knew the people she said she knew or how she knew things like the fact that the Makunde village leader carried a monkey everywhere. She just did.

I still hadn’t the slightest idea of what I had signed up to do or why it involved a trained monkey.  

“So all we have to do is switch out his monkey with our trained monkey and we could really pull this off.”  

When we sat down on the plane and she pulled out our estimated travel itinerary, I started to get nervous.

Our meeting with the monkey trainer was generally uneventful.  I could tell immediately that the man, like most men, was absolutely smitten with Olivia.  He glanced at me once when we walked in and then spent the rest of the time fawning over her.  It didn’t bother me. I was used to it. When you’re a Civic driving next to a Ferrari, you don’t expect a lot of attention.  She went into the corner with him and spoke to him in hushed tones about our sordid scheme. His eyes brightened as he seemed to have just the monkey for the job.  And that’s how I ended up on a bus in Zimbabwe with a vervet monkey perched on my lap.

As strange as it may sound, the monkey was really quite pleasant and cute.  It was about a six hour ride to get from Harare International Airport to Bikita, the nearest large city to the Makunde village.  However, Olivia spent the time solidifying the details of our plan. “I know it’s risky, but the payoff is totally worth it.” I totally disagreed but what could I do?  I had made the sisters’ pact.

We got to Bikita and walked from the bus depot to a friend’s house.  She lived only a five minute walk away and as we strolled through the streets, I was once again amazed by the ease with which Olivia both stood out and blended in to her surroundings.  She was obviously not a native Zimbabwean but anyone watching her walk carelessly through the street with such confidence would have thought that she had lived there most of her life. She was as natural in Bikita as a polar bear in the arctic.  

However, when we got to her friend’s house, no one was home.  “Dammit! She said that she would be back by now!” Olivia said as we sat in front of the house.  Night was falling and I was starting to get a little more than uncomfortable. We knocked a few more times then gave up.  I figured that we would try to somehow find a hotel somewhere but Olivia had different plans. “You know. They always say that if you couldn’t go to jail for it, it’s probably not worth doing.”  “Still not true.” I thought. However, that’s how I ended up breaking into a stranger’s home at 11:00 at night in Bikita, Zimbabwe.

Olivia’s friend returned the next morning.  She had stayed late at work and slept at her desk she said.  She came in, showered, and headed back to her place of employment while Olivia and I stayed to finalize our plan.  We needed to hike out to the village under the cover of night to switch the two monkeys. No witnesses to see us come and go and the monkey wasn’t going to say anything.  

We left around midnight to begin our trek to the village.  The going was pretty easy. We followed the road the whole way.  Although I wouldn’t have wanted to drive my Civic from home on it (yes I even drove a Civic), walking along it was not difficult.  The moon was out in a cloudless sky and as we walked, I had a strange calm about what we were about to do. Depending on how they prosecuted us, the penalty could be fairly steep.  The sounds of Zimbabwe were soothing and the lack of traffic along the road was refreshing.

We got to the village leader’s hut and I began looking around for some sort of cage.  “Where does he keep it do you think?” I whispered. “Don’t be silly,” Olivia whispered back. “He sleeps with it.”  And that’s how I ended up breaking into a village leader’s hut and abducting his pet monkey.

If that was the least of our indiscretions that week I would have been fine.  It would have been a nice adventure to play a harmless prank on someone. However, Olivia had something much more devious in mind.  As the sun rose, we had taken up a surveillance post in the wildlife reserve about three miles outside the village. We were close enough to view what was happening with some high resolution binoculars but far enough away that we were out of range of the secret service agents that arrived about six hours before the motorcade.

“What do you think we’re looking at if we get caught?” Olivia asked.  “Lock us up and throw away the key? Ten to fifteen years? Slap on the wrist?”

“When,”  I replied “It’s when we get caught.  There’s no way we get away with this. It all depends though… I honestly don’t know the total illegality of it.”

Our conversation stopped as soon as the motorcade pulled in.  It wasn’t actually any kind of real diplomatic mission. It was really just an overblown publicity stunt.  The president was meeting with the village chief to announce a new initiative of U.S. humanitarian aid. It hadn’t even been officially announced hence the lighter than usual security.  There was just enough press to get a few photos and minutes of footage to air on the evening news that night. Not enough to warrant a live press conference.

We watched as the president stepped out of the black SUV that had made the trek down the road to the Makunde village and approached the hut with the elder standing in front.  Our monkey sat perched on his shoulder. We waited with bated breath as the two men talked. When they reached in to shake hands and the monkey jumped from one shoulder to the next, our breath stopped completely.  

At this point, the secret service personnel were met with a moment of indecision.  They had to take in several factors and answer several questions. First, what real threat did a vervet monkey pose?  Second, if the decision was that it posed a legitimate threat, what is the correct course of action? Do you shoot a monkey just for jumping on the President’s shoulder?  After what seemed like the longest five seconds of my life, one of the security personnel moved in to remove the monkey from the president’s shoulder. The monkey made its move and latched its little fingers onto the presidential scalp.  

And that’s how I ended up running through the jungle in Zimbabwe with Donald Trump’s stolen hairpeace stuffed in my backpack.