Pilot Error

He swung open the closet door next to his bed and stared with soft eyes at a wooden box enshrined in emptiness on a shelf all by itself.  The grain was coarse and golden and felt like it would splinter when he ran his fingertips along its surface.  So, he ran them gently, as if petting an exotic animal that was best left still.  A warming glow seeped into his fingertips, like the sweet warmth of a freshly baked cookie.  He breathed in a slow breath through his nose and held it, savoring the aloof scent of pine smoke that perpetually hovered around the box.  The soft scratching sound of his fingertips brushing its side took him back to the forest and needles crunching beneath his boots as he scurried into the night while his father roasted venison over a campfire.

It was there, in the darkness, that he had found the box when he was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus and that quarters really did emerge magically from behind his ear when his grandfather stroked the nape of his neck with tired leathery hands.  He had been young enough to clap and giggle as his grandfather beamed at him with a smile that was almost as young as his own – one of those blessings captured and set adrift by the smile of a young boy who believes.  He had been young enough to hold the box in his hands, the sizzling glee of its warmth radiating through his body as he stared mesmerized at its adornments.  He had been young enough to believe he had found a mysterious thing, in a magical place where pixies and elves still danced in his young mind.

Even though he was older than those things now, he still kept the box neatly perched in the middle of its own shelf and listened to the stories that buzzed through his mind as he watched it.  Because everything about the box – the texture of its rough-hewn sides, the smokey scent floating up from it and the warmth that still flowed from its surface into his fingertips – lay beyond the grasp of knowing.  Where every other myth of childhood had been unveiled and skewered on the pike of knowing better, the box lay beyond the realm of knowing, perpetually humming with the promise of the infinite possibilities it inspired in the last part of him that was still a boy willing to believe.  Where a young boy had seen a magical box, an young man now saw that he had something even greater.  He had, in his closet, one of those mysteries of the universe that people would not believe and could never explain.  The universe was not a vast cavern awash in the light of man’s mental prowess.  It was a vast ocean of things unexplained and unknowable, dotted with islands of that which was understood and proudly modeled by science as it groped through the dark like an infant.  He knew this.  He knew that his box had a place in that universe.  But he also knew that he could never speak of it.  Because the stories it told came from the pictures on its side and they were something that no eyes could behold without either running into the night screaming or crashing through the door to steal it away and break it open to get at the truth behind its revelations.

For, the pictures – they moved.  Where they may have been an enigma that frightened most and then demanded the wresting of some explanation it was unwilling to provide, he understood them to be something meant only for the eyes of the one who found the box.  They told stories of sorts.  The top panel washed over in a black sky and a swarm of pin-prick stars that glimmered in constellations that he could see but not recognize.  There, on the side, a young woman stood in a stage with the halo of a yellow spotlight around her as she sang silent words he could not hear but knew had filled the darkness of both the room and the souls of the audience to whom she sang.  On the end panel a young boy stared lovingly at a single piece of cake with thick peaks of frosting while a fawning mother with closed eyes kissed his forehead.

He understood these were more than stories.  Without being able to say exactly why and certainly without being able to explain it to anybody else, he knew the pictures were promises adrift in a sea of time, either kept or pending and dreamt of by souls who, like him, refused to know better.

He pulled his hand away and the pictures stopped moving.  The woman stopped, mid-note, her mouth wide open and sweat beading along a furrowed brow as a passionate note of song hung in front of her, sung yet still unheard.  The boy’s mouth was circled tight, just ready to blow out a single candle embedded in the cake, its flame frozen in a bulbous lick of light.

He stepped back from the box, as quietly and gently as he would step back from a child who had just found the solace of sleep, and clicked the door closed.  He thumbed the combination reels of a small cash box, removed a key and twisted the bolt lock to his closet door with a satisfying clunk.  He pulled at the door to make sure it stayed closed and locked the key away before leaving his room and walking back into the rest of the world.

The box was one more thing he was going to have to tidy up.  Most of his life he knew how he would leave behind.  Mostly, he would do so unceremoniously, almost callously he was sure some would think, but he would have to, if he was going to pursue the only dream he had ever found that still burned in his soul.  The box, though, was something he couldn’t just leave behind.  He wouldn’t be able to take it with him, either, because where he was going was not the kind of place that would be kind to a strange young man and his box with magic pictures.


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Eulogy

Wilt walked through the glass door at some coffee shop on the outskirts of nowhere in the middle of the night.  The sleepy farmers slumped in the booths and truck drivers perched along the old white Formica counter didn’t even notice.  It was one of the few places in the world where his lumbering frame didn’t fill up the room.  I think he was surprised that nobody paid any attention to the grand entrance of Lieutenant Commander Wilt Mason, Naval Aviator.  I had to chuckle a little bit at that.  The imposition of modesty seemed to make him sulk just a little bit – the sort of thing that only a brother would notice.

“Carl!” he boomed.  He said it just loud enough for the tired waitress in a ridiculous pink skirt to hear.  She tried to look like she didn’t notice, but the eyes gave her away.  Wilt stuck out his hand like a lance as he marched up to the booth.  I stood up, knocked his hand aside and force him to submit to a hug.

“Six years, dude,” I said.  He grunted in protest but managed to clap me hard enough on the back to knock the wind out of me.  I coughed and then we sat down across from each other.  Pink Skirt rushed over with a greasy plastic menu and a coffee pot.  Wilt whipped the cup in front of her and started to ask her about the cream when she reached into the front pocket of her apron and spilled a dozen of those little creamer vials on the table.  Wilt winked.  There were still a few things we shared; lots of cream for our coffee was one of them.

“Give me a minute, darlin’,” Wilt said.  I had to shake my head.  She didn’t stand a chance.  Not that she was expecting to resist much.  With me, it had been a bored smile and a conscious effort not to roll her eyes.  With Wilt, well, it was different.  He was just that way.

We both peeled back the paper on creamer vials and dumped them into our coffee cups.  As we both stirred, I asked, “You’ve heard?”

Wilt didn’t seem to notice at first.  He finished stirring his coffee and placed the spoon neatly on a paper napkin, dead center.  “Yeah, I heard,” he said.  We both sat in silence for a bit and then he asked, “How’s Mom?”

“You know how she is,” I said.  “Tough Mama bear to the crowds.”

“Yeah, can’t knock Mama down,” Wilt said, beaming.

“But I think she cries at night,” I added.  “You’ll need to keep an eye on her.”

“I know.”  Wilt always knew how to do that.  I never understood Mama all that well.  Wilt and her, they were like peas in a pod.  Both of them were gruff and tough and carried Mensa cards.  The world had best just step aside when they came by.   The only big difference was Wilt had actual blood on his hands.  He’d tell you about if you bought him enough beer.  You didn’t want to hear it more than once, though.  Trust me.  You’ll see.

It was different with Dad.  He was my buddy from day one, even during those years where everybody thought we’d somehow forgotten all about that.  Some things can’t be taken away, even if you try.

“I’ll stop by tomorrow,” Wilt said.  “Just to make sure she’s OK.”

“And what about Dad?” I asked.

Wilt leaned back and narrowed his eyes, trying to stare me down.  It usually worked, but not this time.  I just waited and drank some more coffee.

“She’ll want me to go.”

“You gonna’ say anything?” I asked.

“Probably not.”

That might have been the end of it, but I had come for a fight.  For once, I was going to swing first.

 

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To Save the World

 

My friend is out there.  My mentor.  My protector.  To save the world, they say I have to kill him.  “Bring him in,” they said.  There is no such thing.  He’s not the kind of man to be brought in.  He’s not the kind of Marine to surrender.  He’s a warrior.  And he knows what he’s fighting for.

I wonder if anybody else does.

This is the end of the line.  Emmet told me they have thirty days left and that’s all she wrote.  What happens to us after that is up to the Terran Guard.  People aren’t going to just sit down and starve to death.  They’ll embrace shackles just to stay alive.  That’s survival, I guess.

If I bring him in, they’ve promised there will be peace.  They’ll let us have the Highlands.  We’ll survive.  There won’t be shackles.  But they can give us all that now.  This bargain to give up the last man we have who can defend who we are, just to let us be who we are.  This isn’t how you secure peace.

But it’s my fault that we’re on the brink.  Who am I to say?  I am a Marine.  And I have orders.  Isn’t that supposed to be enough?

 

-Colonel Ben Dekker, Enforcer Bn, Shoan’tu MEF.

 

 

My hero, Ray Bradbury

You know, I was never much of a science fiction buff, but some of my earliest memories of stories are of those written by Ray Bradbury.  My father has original editions of some of his works.  They’re probably worth something now, but to me, they were always the first memory of somebody showing me the doorway to a place in my mind that still whispers in the dark.

It wasn’t what he wrote about so much as the way he wrote it.  You know, I’ve forgotten so much of what I’ve read by Grisham or Clancy or even Dickens or Hawthorne.  But I remember, vividly, certain things Ray was kind enough to show me.  (And yes, I call him Ray, because that’s how I feel about him.  He’s like an uncle who invites to be called Ray moreso than Mr. Bradbury.)

I can still see the ferrets of automation rushing around to clutch at the clutter of things left behind as the house chimes, “Today is August 5th, 2026.”  I can’t even count the years that have passed since I read that, but it has stuck with me that long.  Or the girl huddled in the closet where the other kids locked her away while they frolicked in the sun for the one hour in seven years when it shone through the perpetual rains of Venus.  That girl still makes me cry.

And, of course, I can still smell the kerosene from Guy Montag’s fire hose while his wife swims in the delirium of drug-induced indifference.   A chilling metaphor that peeks into the reality of our modern world.  I wonder what he would think of all things thought-provoking being safely ensconced in the ethereal tendrils of the internet.  Or is the oblivion of anonymity just more kerosene?

One thing we writers are told frequently, loudly and under the threat of never being published is to avoid purple prose.  Long before I even heard that phrase and certainly a lifetime before I heard the dire warning against its use, I reveled in the way he strung words together in a form that still seems an almost sensual form of poetry.  You don’t read Ray’s words.  They wash over you with lights and shadows and the imprint of things that are real, as if he was a lost traveler who returned to us the account of things unseen and unknown that we simply had to know about and understand.  His words get into your bones.

As a young writer, I felt them gently clawing into me, as if a beast from his own mind pawed at me with sad eyes because it wanted me to understand it was important enough to draw just enough blood to make me look and see, stop and breathe them in.  And so I wrote that way, from the beginning, falling into oceans of words that I so painfully needed to transcend the conscious mind to unveil the shadows of precious things so that their truth would sift through a reader’s mind like so much golden sand.

I don’t know if that’s purple or not, but it’s the sort of thing that comes directly from how Ray’s own writing touched me.  He showed us things unseen not by showing us what they were, but by showing us how they touched the world around them.  Rockets did not thunder into the sky on torrents of flame to pierce the heavens.  No, they stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of their mighty exhausts.  She didn’t lament being old and living with a husband who had forgotten the tenderness of youth.  No, she stood between the pillars, listening to the desert sands heat, melt into yellow wax and seemingly run on to the horizon.

It’s his succulent indulgence in metaphor, resonating with every fiber of my being as a writer, that makes me love his writing so.

They say you shouldn’t emulate a writer but should develop a style of your own.  In most hours, on most days and over the years that flow back too far and yet have only just begun, I would agree.  I would never aspire to write like King or Grisham or Clancy or even Dickens or Hawthorne.

But if I found Ray as a purple flower dancing with its shadow, whispering secrets that would never be silent but always unheard as they revel in the end of all things – to be stopped by the simple act of pause as a boy watches them, knowing better than to pluck them from the ground because he can see what they mean but never know who they really are…  Oh yes, if I could ever learn to write like Ray – by God, I surely would.

And even if nobody ever read a word, the universe would whisper back across the dark cold and remember the door that has always stood open, inviting, if nobody else, my own child-like soul to see the golden drifts of what Ray told me, from that very first page.

And so, a snippet – something I wrote many years ago, a seedling in a world I now call Shoahn’Tu, whose stories still churn in the backwaters of my mind.