War’s Ember

Sanctuary from the fire.
Sanctuary when home is gone.

Gibad clung to his fuzzy bamabat toy—what was left of it. Just a black jeweled eye hanging by sinew and a fearsome claw extended from a paw where there used to be eight. Stuffing and filth. But most importantly, a dull red patch of intact plush fur that Gibad kept pressed tightly against one ear, his other little tangerine-colored hand held against his other ear. He didn’t want to hear the bad sounds, so he’d hidden in his tiny cave.

Gibad was afraid of many things. He’d been afraid that morning when Daddy and Uncle Roft had hollered their war cry, their plasma sabers raised high. He had been afraid of their strange laugh. They had shouted words like death and kill and genocide. They didn’t like the Koterans very much—the tall, green-skinned men from the next planet over.

Daddy said Koterans were stupid and didn’t need their planet, and he would take it from them and give it to Gibad.

Gibad didn’t want a planet. Gibad just wanted to hide from the fire that now rained down from the skies.

Everyone was gone. Everyone but Gibad and his toy bamabat, that he called Bat-bat.

He’d been in his cave all day, waiting for Daddy to come home. He’d watched the loud men and women, singing and cheering as they’d shot into space. Up they’d gone like thunder, leaving white streaks in the sky. And then the white streaks had turned to black plumes, one by one, like smoke bubbles popping in the sky, with loud crackling noises. Some sounded like fizzes, as they cartwheeled back down—the spaceships. Gibad wondered if one of them was Daddy’s.

But he didn’t like that kind of wondering; it was too scary, and so he pressed Bat-bat tighter over his ear, imagining the soothing soft meowing snort that real bamabats made. This one wasn’t real, but Gibad wondered if maybe Bat-bat was just a little bit real. Maybe Bat-bat could hear Gibad’s thoughts. Because when Gibad squeezed him, Bat-bat always made him feel safe.

Gibad looked around his tiny cave. He and Bat-bat played here alone all the time. Daddy couldn’t even fit. Gibad could wriggle in through the crack in the rock wall, nice and deep, to where it opened up to a chamber big enough to sit in. Then he could peer out and watch the people go by and they wouldn’t even know he was there. Except Daddy. It was their little secret. Grandma didn’t even know. One day, Grandma had stood right outside the cave and asked, “Where is Gibad? It is past his nap time.” Daddy had replied, “Who can say?” and he’d given the dark crack in the rock wall a wink, knowing Gibad was watching from inside.

Sometimes Gibad would throw a long string out of the crack as if he were casting a line to fish, and Daddy would tie a plump, juicy oveetle plum to it, or kabo dough, wrapped in its own leaves. Gibad would pull the string back and have a wonderful, magical lunch, and watch through the crack as his daddy sharpened his sabers, singing a song about war and glory.

Where was Daddy now? Gibad dared to peer up, again and again, trying to find him, but he couldn’t see a ship. He couldn’t see anything but red.

Fire poured like water in the evening sky. He’d never seen fire do that. He saw the red glow, felt the heat. But it was the sound. Gibad didn’t want to hear the screams. That’s why he kept Bat-bat pressed to his ear. He tried to sing Daddy’s song, but there were too many words, and Gibad was very small.

And then, when the screaming stopped, he didn’t want to hear the silence, either. Because then, Gibad would be alone.

So much red. So much fire, but now he could see the black night sky, and glowing flickers, and everything was getting darker and darker. He looked up again. He didn’t see a ship or his Daddy. Just darkness.

The fire had raged on, burning his house, burning his village, burning his world, but finally, the flames had tasted enough tinder. Finally, there was nothing left to burn. No one left to burn.

The fire that had frightened Gibad so, was finally turning to glowing embers, the dark night taking over.

Where was everybody? Where was Grandma? Where was Daddy?

Gibad didn’t like the dark. The cave was always dark, but the crack had always been like a happy window of life, where he could watch children racing by, playing with their stik-stiks, pretending to be great warriors. Once, Gibad saw a little purple slug-bug sliding along the ground, and it had moved so slowly that it had taken till naptime to pass out of sight.

But now, the embers had cooled. What had been a wall of fire in the broad daylight, was now down to one last pebble of red ember in the dark night, and it was fading, fading… fading…


All was black. Gibad strained his eyes. “I’m scared, Bat-bat,” he whispered. “I can’t see anything.”

His six tiny orange fingers felt his soft friend. He felt the glossy smoothness of Bat-bat’s eye, and the string it hung by. He stroked the single claw. And he remembered that Bat-bat was a ferocious fighter. He still had a claw. If the Koterans came to get him, Bat-bat would keep him safe.

But… Daddy never said the Koterans were mean. He always said they were weak and would be easily… easily… he remembered the word. “… conquered,” he said out loud.

“Bat-bat, I don’t think Daddy conquered them. I think maybe they got mad and conquered us instead.”

Gibad had been a brave little boy, as brave as he could be, but now he thought there was no reason to be brave. There was no one to be brave for. “Bat-bat, I think we are alone.” Gibad stroked the plush softness of what he knew in the dark to be a red coat, stroked it harder than he ever had, as if his life depended on it, and wept until sleep overtook him.


Gibad woke to the pink sunrise sneaking through the crack in the cave and shining in his eyes.

Gibad dared to peek around Bat-bat, to the strange hazy, smoky sight of the blackened village. Nothing but charred stumps and gray cinder, and skeletons of houses, looking like the ones he liked to make from broken twigs.

“What should we do, Bat-bat?” He was relieved to see his bamabat’s funny grimace, and hanging eye, and soft red coat. “I don’t like the dark. I’m glad it’s morning. Aren’t you?”

Bat-bat nodded back and forth to Gibad’s prompting.

“Should we go out?”

Bat-bat stared back in silence with a dangling eye.

“Maybe we could just take a look.”

Gibad scooted closer to the opening. He wriggled through the crack—not all the way, just most of the way, so he could see better. And he gasped.

“Look, Bat-bat! Do you see it?” He stuck his bamabat out of the crack to show him. “It’s your brother! Your real brother!”

There before him, looming at four meters high, was a living, breathing bamabat, its crimson fur glossy from meticulous grooming. Someone had taken very good care of this one. A black, shiny saddle perched on his sloped back, and his jet-black eyes did look like jewels. His funny lopsided sneer made him look comical—that was the appeal of bamabats. They looked like they couldn’t hurt a fly. Their eight claws on each front paw told another story. One swipe could kill a hundred men. At least that’s what Daddy always said. Now, Gibad realized that it probably wasn’t true. Maybe one man.

People were afraid of bamabats. But Gibad loved them. And he loved Bat-bat. Maybe as much as he loved Daddy, and Grandma. He already loved this real one too. He just knew a bamabat could never, ever hurt him. And so, Gibad wriggled further and stepped out of the cave. After the terrifying night, Gibad found his face wet with tears of relief and joy. It was like a dream. His favorite animal in the universe had come to save him!

Gibad stood, his face beaming, and he stretched out his little orange fingers. “Hello, Mr. Bamabat. I’m Gibad!”

The bamabat turned to Gibad, towering over him with his long neck craned, and snorted, spraying wet sandy snot.

Gibad laughed, wiping the slime off his face. “You’re funny! Can I pet you?”

The bamabat flicked his red pointed ears back and clawed the ground.

“It’s okay, buddy. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Hey! Get back, kid!” a booming voice with a strange accent shouted in alarm.

Gibad turned to see a huge green man stomping frantically toward him. A Koteran! Gibad froze in fear. The man, with a blue-black full beard and gray armor, grabbed the bamabat’s reins. “Don’t you know you could have been killed, little man? A bamabat can rip you to shreds!”

Gibad didn’t know what to think. So, he held up Bat-bat. Somehow, he thought that would help explain that they were friends.

Gibad watched the man walk his bamabat to a blackened post and tie him there. Gibad thought to run for his cave. The giant Koteran could never reach him in there.

But the green man didn’t look angry. He looked worried, the way Daddy looked when Gibad was hurt or sick. The man approached Gibad. Walked right up to him and took a knee. He was so close, and so still, that Gibad dared to touch his bushy dark beard. It was softer than it looked. Spongy.

“I am Kerrvo. Where’s your family?” he looked around, his eyes watering at the devastation. He closed his eyes and hung his chin low.

“Daddy is in the sky. Grandma is in the house.” Gibad didn’t look at the house. He didn’t want to see it because he knew that it was all burnt up.

Kerrvo nodded. They both were silent for a moment. Gibad noticed Kerrvo’s ears were pierced with large black hoops, and he had dark gray boots so large that Gibad could have stood on them with both feet.

Gibad whispered, “They are gone, aren’t they?”

Kerrvo nodded sadly. “Yes, little man. My family on my planet is gone too. And my childhood village, and most of my country. Maybe you and I can make a promise. No more war. I don’t like it, and I bet you don’t either.”

Gibad felt his eyes burning. “Did you kill my daddy?”

“No. But my people did. And your people killed my family. And I think that’s pretty terrible, and stupid, and a waste, don’t you?”

Gibad’s shoulders trembled, but he tried once more to be brave, as his daddy would want him to be. “I always thought war was stupid.”

“Yeah. You’re pretty smart, for such a little man.”

“My name is Gibad. Are you a warrior?”

Kerrvo sighed deeply. “No, Gibad. I was just sent here to survey the land. I am actually a simple bamabat rancher.”

Gibad’s eyes widened. “How many bamabats do you have?”

Kerrvo held back a grin, noting the boy’s enthusiasm. “Seventy-nine. Amazingly, my ranch was spared. And those bamabats back home need feeding and training and riding, and I sure could use some help…”

Gibad beamed. And then something felt funny in his belly. He frowned. “My daddy doesn’t like Koterans.”

Kerrvo nodded. “Yes, I figured. There’s a lot of that going around. My daddy didn’t like your people either.”

Gibad glared. “What’s wrong with my people?”

“Same as what’s wrong with my people. They like to fight.”

Gibad squeezed Bat-bat, confused. “I don’t like to fight.”

Kerrvo let out a sad, soft rumbling chuckle. “I don’t like to fight, either. I like to play with bamabats.”

Gibad got another funny feeling in his belly. Sort of a guilt, and a confusion. “I like to play with bamabats. It’s my favorite thing in the whole world.”

Kerrvo nodded to Bat-bat. “May I? I promise I’ll be very careful.”

Gibad reluctantly released his grip.

“Well,” said Kerrvo, giving Bat-bat a serious inspection, “he’s got a wonky eye.” Kerrvo squinted at Gibad suspiciously. “Did he get this wound in battle?”

Gibad giggled, incredulous. “No. I pulled on his eye when I was little, to see what would happen.”

“I see. When you were little, huh?”

Gibad nodded, wondering why Kerrvo was trying not to laugh.

Kerrvo took off his military insignia pin and shoved the needle through a wad of thread still stuck to the back of Bat-bat’s eye jewel. He secured it to Bat-bat’s face, tucking the pin beneath the jewel so it wouldn’t show. “There. Good as new. I bet he can see a whole lot better now.”

Gibad grabbed Bat-bat and pressed the plush red spot against his cheek and was flooded with confusion and sorrow. “I want my daddy.”

“I know, little man. I’m sorry. I’m real, real, sorry.” He sank to the ground and let the boy cry.

“I don’t like you. I don’t like Koterans. I want my daddy, I want my daddy, I want my daddy.”

“I know. I know. I wish I could fix it for you. I really do. This whole universe is a little bit crazy.”

“I don’t like you!” Gibad shouted. He kicked Kerrvo hard in the shin and ran to his cave, squeezing into the crack.

Gibad wriggled through to the tiny cavern, but instantly was overtaken with fear and the terrible memory of the bad sounds and the raining fire. He didn’t want to be there, but he couldn’t go out. The bad man was out there. The man his daddy hated. He was big, and green, and he was Koteran. So, he was bad.

He hugged Bat-bat, feeling the coolness of the eye jewel. He held the jewel to his puffy eyes, swollen from crying and smoke. The jewel felt good, and Gibad was glad the eye was fixed.

Except a bad man fixed it. A very, very bad man. Daddy was dead. Bad man. Bad, bad Koterans–all of them.

Gibad grabbed the eye in a rage and tried to pull it off. “Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad!” he shouted. But as hard as he pulled, the jewel stayed put. Soft filtered light shone on Bat-bat’s face. Bat-bat looked sad. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pull your eye.” Gibad lay on the ground and sobbed inconsolably.


It was pitch black when he woke. He thought he was back in his room at home. At first. But he felt the sand and stone beneath him and remembered. And he was so hungry and thirsty. He was confused. It had been morning, and now it was night. Had he slept all day? And where was Kerrvo? “Hello?” he called out timidly.

“Hello, little man. I was getting worried,” came a voice from just outside the cave. “I have some dinner for you. Come on. You don’t have to look at me or talk, and you can hate my guts and kick my shin all you want to. I promise I’ll just sit here and take it. Okay?”

Gibad wriggled through the crack and poked out his head, ashen. “I don’t want to hate. It gives me a stomachache.”

“Me too.” Kerrvo handed Gibad a canteen, who drank deeply, and then he handed Gibad a ration bar that smelled like bread and salt.

Gibad took a cautious bite, then ravenously chomped on the dense malty brick. Finally, Gibad stared up at the stars. “Where will I live now?”

Kerrvo let the question linger in the night air, as he put away the canteen and rations. “First things first. We’ve had our dinner. Now, it’s the bamabat’s turn.”

Gibad jumped to his feet, his heart thundering in his chest. “Can I feed the bamabat?”

Kerrvo strode on ahead to hide a smile, his tall body leaning down to grab his bucket of seed. “Do a good job, little man, and I’ll let you feed all seventy-nine of ‘em.”

The Fourth Wall: Death By Dying


Acting is a deadly serious business

“Vomit’s Better with ketchup.”

Keelie threw a rubber knife at Will’s head. “You’re disgusting.”

“I’m serious. Watch.” Will squirted ketchup into a jar of ‘pureed squash’ baby food. “Okay, Keelie, don’t swish it around, just hold it in your mouth. No swallowing.”

“As if I would.” Keelie adjusted the rolled-up socks in her bra and smacked her barely pubescent hot pink lips. “For the love of the craft. Bottom’s up.” She carefully poured the mix in her mouth, trying not to wince at the slimy texture, and nodded.

Glancing around the basement, Will held up his phone, ready to take a video. “Okay, Jack, you’re up.” He hit ‘record.’ “Death by Dying: Take two. Rolling.”

Jack, a head taller than Will and built like a linebacker, with black eyeliner and a trench coat, screamed an over-the-top, “I skinned your cat—and I’ll kill you too!” He held up a wadded-up black boa dripping with strawberry jam—not a bad illusion of cat fur and chunks of flesh, at least when he kept it in motion, shaking it in Keelie’s face.

Keelie spat out the fake vomit just as he stabbed her in the gut with the rubber knife.

Jack cursed as the reddish formula splattered all over his face. Keelie’s realistic scream pierced their ears, and she collapsed with an odd rattle in her throat, her legs folded under her as she toppled to the floor, dead.


Jack grabbed a rag and swiped his eyes. “Gross. Next time, don’t aim at me, Keelie.”

Will stared at his video. “The lighting was better this time. And Keelie, that was brilliant. You barfed bloody puke all over Jack. It looks really real.” He looked up with a freckle-faced grin. “Okay. Next shot is the funeral. Change into that black dress, Keelie.” He set down his phone.

Jack fussed with a makeshift coffin that he and his woodshop class had pieced together. “It needs some lining inside. We could use a tablecloth.”

Will shook his ginger head. “Coffins are lined with satin. My mom has some yellow satin sheets. I’ll be right back. Keelie, come on. Get off the floor. Get dressed.” He wiggled a toe into her side, but she didn’t budge. She was always stretching the story past the film, breaking the fourth wall, trying to freak them out.

He turned and walked up the carpeted steps. Halfway up, he noticed he was treading ketchup footprints. He groaned. “Crap. My mom is going to kill me. Hey Keelie, you’re a girl. How do you get ketchup out of the carpet?” That’d get her. He knew more about cleaning than she did. Keelie was a slob. And hated sexist remarks. That’s what she got for holding up the film. He carefully removed his shoes and grabbed a scrub brush and cleanser from the hall closet. “Just a second, guys—” He knelt down to scrub a red splotch but frowned. It didn’t smell tangy like ketchup. It smelled more metallic, like raw steak. Like… blood. His brow furrowed. He pressed his fingers into it and held it to his nose. “What the hell?” There was no doubt what it was. “This is blood.” He turned his head slowly. “Keelie?”

She looked pale. And she was completely still. Her chest wasn’t rising and falling. She wasn’t breathing. The nape of his neck prickled, his flesh growing cold. “Hey… Keelie. Get up. Seriously…” He noticed a red puddle forming, expanding, under her. “Keelie!” His mouth went dry. He could only watch, for a moment. For a moment, his feet wouldn’t work. He still had the scrub brush in his hand. It slipped through his fingers with a thud and tumbled down the stairs, bumping against Keelie’s high-heeled feet. She didn’t flinch. The puddle grew. “Oh… shit.” His breath staggered and he bolted down the stairs. “Keelie!” He turned to Jack with horror. “You hit her too hard! She’s really hurt!”

Jack stared back with no emotion. “You told me to kill her, so I did. For the love of the craft, Will.” His left eye twitched.

“Jack, she’s bleeding, hard! I’m not kidding!” Will knelt down to Keelie and shook her. “Keelie?” His eyes watered, realizing this was no game. “Keelie!” he screamed. He touched her bloody waist and saw that the wide cloth belt of her dress had been sliced. Or stabbed. He pressed down with his fingertips in a state of disbelief and very distinctly felt punctured skin where the knife had penetrated. The skin gave way, and his thumb slid slightly into the wound as a gurgle of blood bubbled out.

In a panic, staring with horror at her, Will backed away like a crab on all fours. “Jack! For god’s sake! What did you do? Did you use a real knife?”

The silence was eerie.

“Jack?” Will stood slowly to see Jack’s eyes glazed over, staring at him. Jack was holding a knife. A real one. And the tip was a wet crimson.

Jack almost indecipherably waved the knife. “Is one good?”

A tear slid down to Will’s chin. “What?”

“Is one enough? Or should I kill again?”

Will’s eyes froze on his best friend, who seemed to have snapped. “Jack, call 911.”

Jack frowned gently. “Why? We’re still filming.”

Will squeezed his eyes closed, gathering his wits. “Jack. Keelie is hurt. We need to call 911.”

Jack lifted the knife. “If I did that, I’d have to stop filming.” He nodded to Will’s phone, which he’d propped up on the counter, recording the scene.

“What the hell? Jack! Snap out of it!” He ran to get the phone, but Jack stood in his way.

“I’m sorry, Will. I told you; we’re still filming.”

Keelie groaned softly. Will rushed to her side. “Keelie!” He gathered her in his arms and pressed down on her wound. “Hang on, we’re getting help.”

Jack stepped close. “Put her down, Will, I’m not done yet.”

“You psycho sonofabich! You stabbed Keelie!”

Jack crouched down. “Yes, but she didn’t die. I need to finish. I need to finish her.” He pointed the knife to her.

Will lunged at him, grabbing his wrist and struggling for the knife. But Jack easily twisted Will’s thin arm and held the knife to his throat. “Let me finish, Will. Get in the closet and let me finish, or I’ll do you right now.”

Will felt the metal press against his jugular, felt the point of it. It didn’t hurt—not yet, but one false move, and he’d be spurting blood.

“Closet, or death?”

“Please… stop…” Will whimpered. “Keelie needs our help.”

“Keelie needs to die. Now, I’m going to ease up, and you are going to get in the closet. Understood? You know I’ll just overpower you again. And this time I’ll stab your eyes.”

“Please…” Will couldn’t think. “Please, don’t hurt Keelie.”

“But Will, I did hurt her. You told me to.”

“It’s a film! It’s fantasy! Wake up, Jack!”

“I’m more alive than I’ve ever been, Will.”

Keelie whispered, “Help me, Will!”

“He can’t. He’s too scared. Aren’t you, Will?”

Will could see Jack was lost in the film inside his head. So, he decided to use that to his advantage. “I know—let’s put Keelie in the coffin! Alive! And we can nail it shut!”

“What? Keelie moaned. “Will—what are you doing?”

Jack sneered. “On it.” He tucked the knife in his back pocket and scooped Keelie up as she screamed in pain and fear. He carried her to the coffin.

Will knew Keelie’s phone was upstairs in her purse. He just needed an excuse. “Wait! The satin sheets!”

Jack dropped her roughly into the coffin and closed it. “She doesn’t need it. This is better. Creepier. A rustic coffin. Get some nails.” He turned to see Will creeping up the stairs. Jack ran and grabbed Will by the ankles, dragging him back downstairs.

“Get me out of here!” Keelie screamed, pushing on the lid, too weak to open it all the way.

Jack’s dark eyes drilled into Will. “Nails. Now. And a hammer.”

Shaking, Will rummaged through a toolbox and grabbed a box of nails and a heavy-duty hammer.

“Hurry up.” Jack held the coffin closed to the sound of Keelie’s weak pounding.

Will handed him the box of nails, which Jack took with one hand, holding the coffin lid down with the other.

Will took the opportunity and swung the hammer as hard as he could at the back of Jack’s skull. Jack sank to the ground, dazed.

Will shrieked, filled with hysteria, and swung down again and again, as chunks of flesh and brain matter spewed. Jack lay motionless, and still Will swung, screaming from his gut, until his energy was utterly spent.

Will’s chest heaved, and he hung his head down, panting and sobbing. The hammer dropped from his hands.

The air was deathly still.

Finally, he heard the creak of the coffin lid.

“I think you got him.”

Will looked up to see the coffin was open. Keelie was resting her head on her folded arms, examining the mayhem. A bit of bloody brain clung to the side of the coffin, and she scooped it with her finger. “Mm. Brie and cranberries.” She popped it in her mouth. “Help me out, would you, Jack?” She sat up and pulled her blood-filled hollow belt from her dress.

Jack peeled off his brain-bashing wig and more brie fell in glops onto the basement floor.

Will yelled, “Cut!” and grabbed his phone. “And… that’s a wrap.”

Acting is a deadly serious business

A Christmas Worth Forgetting

Sometimes the blessing is in the forgetting…

The doorbell clanged and the whole family moaned. Everyone except Florence, who headed for the door, exasperated. “Kids, be nice to Uncle Brian. I mean it. It’s Christmas Eve, for God’s sake.”

“But he’s so mean.” Jillian plopped a bowl of mashed potatoes onto the crimson tablecloth, smoothing her Christmas-colored plaid skirt.

“Not mean. Just crotchety. Do as your mom says. Play nice.” Jim leaned over the golden-brown turkey, carving generous slices, his black brows furrowed in concentration.

“Dad, Uncle Brian’s totally mean.” Kai threw a pea at his sister Jillian and got a smack on the head from her wooden spoon. “Just like Jillian,” he added, scoffing.

“Ha ha.” Jillian’s heels clicked-clicked into the kitchen. “You’re so lazy, Kai. Come help. Get some ice for the water glasses.”

Kai’s gangly teen legs kicked back his chair. “Yes, commander.”

With a blast of frigid air, the front door opened. Florence called out, “Look who’s here, even through a snowstorm!” She reentered the room with her blond middle-aged brother, whose wrinkled trench coat matched his scowl.

Jillian sighed under her breath and placed a smile on her red lips. “Hello, Uncle Brian. Nice to see you.” She gave him an arm’s length hug. It was the best she could do.

“Damn. Turkey for dinner.” Brian shook his head and threw his coat on a chair. “It’s not Thanksgiving, last I checked.”

Kai walked around the table, aggressively plunking ice cubes into water glasses.

Brian watched him with disgust. “I see Kai wants to give us all a disease. Did you even wash your hands? I’m not drinking from those.”

Kai’s face turned pink with anger, and he plunked harder.

Florence closed her eyes to gather strength and took Brian’s arm. “Come on, brother. Ease up a bit, okay?”

“Fine. I’m drinking scotch, anyway.” Brian’s eyes drilled into Kai’s. “Neat. Guess what that means? It means, no ice. And for god’s sake, won’t anyone make that boy cut his damned hair?”

“Brian! Stop.” Florence pleaded.

Kai grabbed the bottle of scotch from the counter and slammed it on the table. And snatched a large handful of ice and threw it in a scotch glass. “You’re getting it on the rocks today, asshole, and next time I’m spitting in it.”

“Kai!” Florence blanched, shocked. “Please; all of you…”

Brian didn’t even blink. He grabbed the glass and slowly dumped the ice onto the floor, smacked the glass down, grabbed the bottle of scotch, and took a deep swig. “Merry fucking Christmas.” He stepped back and his foot slipped on an ice cube. He toppled backward, smacking his head on the tile floor, and lay there, out cold.

“Oh my God! Call 911!” Florence shouted. Jillian stood for a moment, stunned, then ran to get the phone.

Florence knelt by her brother. “Jim! Kai! Help me get Brian on the couch.”

Jillian frantically shouted their address to dispatch and finally stepped into the living room, announcing, “They’re on their way.”

Brian lay still and pale on the couch, and Florence knelt beside him. Kai sat nervously in the armchair across the room, jiggling a foot, with his arms tightly folded. “Sorry, Mom.”

Florence placed ice under Brian’s head and glanced up at her son, noticing his eyes were watering with anger and guilt. “He did it to himself, sweetie. He was completely out of line.” She sighed deeply. “He’s got a goose egg, but I think he’ll be okay.” Jim rubbed her back in silence, shaking his head.

Jillian sat on the floor and took her mom’s hand. “What the hell made him like this, Mom?”

Florence smiled sadly. “Believe it or not, it was love. A few years before you were born.”

Jillian frowned delicately, her dark eyes studying her uncle’s face. “What happened?”

Florence shrugged. “Veronica happened. He fell in love. Hard. They were going to marry, but she left him at the altar. He was humiliated, and he never recovered. He said he wouldn’t ever open his heart again, and he never did. And it poisoned him. Turned him into… this.”

Jillian cautiously touched her uncle’s shoulder, as if she might get bitten by a snake. “He looks peaceful. Isn’t that strange? I’ve never seen him without a frown.”

Brian stirred, his eyes fluttering, then opening slowly.

“Hey!” Florence’s lips parted to a smile. “There you are! You scared us.”

He tried to focus. “Hi.”

Florence giggled, relieved. “Hi, back. How are you feeling?”

He touched the back of his head, adjusting the ice pack. “A bit of a headache, but other than that, I’m fine. How are you?”

Florence laughed. “I’m fine. We’re all fine.”

“And… who’s we?” He started to sit up.

Florence gently pushed him back down. “Hey. Not so fast. You fell.”

“I’m Brian.”

Florence eyed Jillian, concerned.

Jillian patted his shoulder. “Hey, Uncle Brian. That’s your sister, Florence!”

“Nice to meet you,” he said.

The doorbell rang and a moment later, a petite female paramedic was by his side with a med kit. “Sorry, we’re short-staffed. The ambulance will be late. I had to take my own SUV. This storm…”

Florence looked at her, frightened. “My brother Brian fell and hit his head. And… I don’t think he knows who I am!”

The paramedic smiled kindly at Brian and tucked her red hair behind her ear. “Hello, Brian. I’m Sophia. How are you feeling?”

His lips pulled into a grin. “I think I’m okay. I guess I fell. I don’t really recall doing it, but I have a lump to prove it!” He chuckled, wincing.

Jillian and Kai exchanged glances. Uncle Brian was being strangely polite. Something was definitely wrong with him.

Sophia flashed a light, checking his pupils. “Brian, do you know who these people are?”

Brain turned his head, examining the crowd, and pointed to Jillian. “This young lady here says I have a sister.” His eyes rested on Florence. “But I don’t really recall. Everything is just a little fuzzy.”

Florence’s eyes welled with tears. “Do you remember our house growing up? The one with the bright red paint and the swing set in the back? And our black lab, Orin?”

He shook his head, confused. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I… don’t.”

Jillian mouthed to her brother, ‘Ma’am?’

Kai stood and stepped to his side. “I bet you remember me, Uncle Brian. I make you really mad sometimes. Pretty much, all the time, actually.”

Brian’s forehead creased. He struggled to sit up, and Sophia helped him. “Why would I be mad at you?”

Kai smirked. “Because sometimes you’re a humongous ass.”

Brian’s eyes widened with amusement. “Oh! Well, sorry about that!”

Sophia laughed. “Well, Mr. Popular, I need to take your blood pressure.”

Brian grinned, examining her freckles and heart-shaped face. “I love red hair.”

Sophia raised an eyebrow as she placed the band around his arm. “Fresh, too!”

“Not fresh, just honest.”

She shook her head. “Okay, Don Juan, stick out your tongue and say ‘Ah.’”


“Aha!” Sophia stared at him, accusingly.

Florence interjected, worried, “What is it?”

“He’s got the sassy tongue.” Sophia smiled at her. “He’ll live.” She turned back to Brian. “But you’re going to need an MRI. So sorry about the delay with the ambulance.”

Jim sat straight. “I could drive him to the hospital.”

Sophia shook her head. “The roads are pretty slick. Best to just keep him here for now.”

Brian leaned back and closed his eyes.

“… and awake.” Sophia poked his shoulder.

“Always vying for my attention, aren’t you, Sophia,” he crooned.

She raised an eyebrow and turned to Jillian, teasing. “Is he always like this?”

Jillian shook her head adamantly. “He is literally never like this. This is new.”

Florence took Brian’s hand. “Actually, this is how he was, before…”

Brian frowned curiously. “Before what?”

Florence wasn’t sure if she should bring up the forbidden subject. But maybe it would jar his memory. “Before… Veronica.” She held her breath.


Florence shot a glance at Jim.

Jim folded his arms and sat back, thinking. “This is interesting. Take away the memory of Veronica, and…”

Florence’s eyes widened with hope. “And the poison is gone!”

Sophia’s head jerked up. “Poison?”

Brian asked, “Was I poisoned?”

Jim waved his hands at them. “No, no. It’s a figure of speech. He had his heart broken years ago and hasn’t been the same since.”

“Um—sitting right here, folks.” Brian added, “I’d probably be embarrassed if I could remember anything about it.”

Florence tenderly asked, “Do you remember her, at all? Anything about Veronica?”

He shook his head and shrugged.

Sophia frowned. “I don’t think we need to dredge up bad thoughts. How about creating new memories? It’s Christmas Eve. And I smell a delicious dinner.” She craned her neck. “I believe I see it sitting on the table. Why don’t you all go eat, and I’ll stay with Brian.”

“Hey, no fair. I’m hungry too,” Brian said playfully.

Sophia’s face brightened. “Well, appetite is a very good sign. Any nausea?”

Brian shook his head.


“Nope. My head is clearing, too.”

“Do you remember these guys here?”

He smirked. “No, but I sure remember this gorgeous redheaded paramedic who came to rescue me.”

She ignored him but couldn’t hide a subtle grin as she turned to the family. “Go have your dinner.” She turned back to Brian. “If you promise to behave.”

“I’ll be a perfect gentleman.”

Kai headed for the dining room. “That’ll be a first.”

To his surprise, Brian laughed good and hard.

Florence beamed and kissed his forehead. “I don’t care if you don’t remember me. I am so happy to hear your laughter!”

Brian noticed tears in her eyes. “Hey. Um… sister—Florence, is it? Don’t cry. Please. I’m fine. I feel fine. My memory will come back—right?” He looked with hope at Sophia.

Sophia leaned close to his face and said intently, “I believe it will, Brian. I truly do. But remember, your life is filled to the brim, right now, with amazing new memories just begging to be experienced. You’ve got your family here, who obviously care a great deal about you…”

Kai shouted from the other room, “I don’t.” After a pause, he added, “Just kidding.”

Brian scratched his chin. “I actually kinda like that kid. Who is he, again?”

Kai called back, “Your favorite nephew, Kai.” He came strolling back in, gnawing on a turkey leg. “Want some?” He shoved the leg two inches from his uncle’s face.

“Hell, yes!” Brian snatched it from him and took a bite. “Mm-mm, I love turkey,” he said with his mouth full. “Why on earth do we only have it on holidays?”

Sophia chuckled. “Hey, easy now with the solid food. You should be drinking water. You need to hydrate.”

“On it!” Kai ran to the table and grabbed a glass of ice water. He sauntered back. “Here you go, Uncle Brian. The ice was hand-selected by me, placed in that glass by my own fingers.” He wiggled them in his uncle’s face.

Brian took a sip. “Hand-selected? I feel so special.” He raised an eyebrow, confused at Kai’s behavior.

Jillian slugged her brother’s arm with her free hand, the other one carrying a steaming plate. “Leave your poor uncle alone.”

“What? We’re bonding. Aren’t we, Uncle Brian.”

Brian shrugged. “Sure.”

“How’s the water?” Kai stared intently at it while eating mashed potatoes.

Brian examined the glass. “You didn’t piss in it, I hope.”

Kai involuntarily spat out potatoes with a burst of laughter.

Brian groaned. “Oh, God. You did piss in it.”

Kai couldn’t breathe for a minute, he was laughing so hard. “No. I promise. Nothing but ice and water. But if you’re not nice…”

“Geez! Okay, I’ll be nice. Please don’t ever piss in my water, and this is a very strange conversation.”

Sophia packed up her equipment and tilted her head to Brian with a teasing grin, her hair tumbling over her shoulder. “Looks like you’re feeling just fine, Brian!”

Brian was caught off guard, breathless for a moment. She was just so lovely.

“What?” she asked, curious at his intent stare.

“I just hope… we can be friends. In all seriousness. I haven’t laughed for years.”

Florence nearly dropped the plate she was carrying, shocked. She turned to Jim. “Did you hear that? Is he starting to remember?”

Jim held a finger to his lips. “Shh. Just watch.”

Sophia chatted softly with Brian.

Jillian headed for the living room, but Jim touched her arm. “Wait.”

Kai, seated again in the living room chair, shot them a glance. They all heard waves of laughter mixed with gentle conversation, from Brian and Sophia.

Sophia’s brow furrowed at a new cell phone message. “The ambulance is stuck in the snow. It’s not coming.”

Brian stood. “I’m glad. I haven’t felt this good in years. Will you join me for dinner? My sister’s an excellent cook. And Jim always carves the turkey extra thick.”

Sophia grinned and took his arm, strolling to the dining room, and the rest of the family followed. “Well, look at you! You’re remembering!”

He stopped in his tracks and frowned at the revelation. He studied Sophia’s stunning emerald eyes. He turned to his punk-ass nephew, Kai, with that mop he called hair. Then to his kind sister, Florence. There was Jim—a good man. And Jillian, his teenage whirlwind of a niece. “Yes…” he said, as if a veil was lifting. “Yes, it’s all coming back to me.”

Sophia nodded. “Well, this will be a Christmas to remember!”

“No.” Brian said it sharper than he’d meant to. “I’m sorry.” His voice softened. “I just… remember… everything. I remember…” he cringed as if he’d been pierced in the gut with a hot poker. “I remember… hate.”

Sophia slipped her arm from his and said gently, “But you no longer have to claim it. Hate… that was the other guy. The man I met tonight was actually kind of sweet.” She stepped back, knowing this was a family moment.

He looked around, deeply pained. His eyes rested on Florence. “Oh. Oh, Florence. I have been so… cruel.”

Florence cautiously stepped to him. “No. Not cruel, brother. You’ve just been lost.”

His lips trembled and he hung his head. He whispered, with a broken voice, “I’m sorry.”

Florence held him tight, and, though he was a tall man, he buried his face in her shoulder and shook with silent tears.

Florence whispered, her eyes wet too, “Oh, how I’ve missed you, little brother.” He lifted his head, and his sister wiped his tears. “Merry Christmas, Brian.” Florence stood back, patting her own cheeks dry with her sleeve.

Jillian ran up and flung her arms around her uncle. “Merry Christmas, Uncle Brian. This is my first real hug from me to you.”

“Thank you, Jillian.”

She stood back and nodded sincerely.

Jim extended his hand. “Nice to have you back.” He cocked his head. “Are you back?”

Brian nodded. “I think so. Yes. I believe so.” He slowly shook his brother-in-law’s hand.

Brian looked at Kai with eyes still glassy and pink. “How shall we do this?”

Kai shrugged and extended a fist. “I promise I won’t piss in your water if you promise not to be an ass.”

Brian bumped his fist. “Works for me.”

Sophia cleared her throat. “The weather is clearing. I think I’ll just slip out. It looks like you’re in good hands, Brian. And get an MRI in the morning. Until then, if you get any headaches, nausea, or dizziness, please call 911.”

“Or… perhaps I could call you directly?” Brain gazed at her with hope.

“Oh… that is against protocol…” Sophia smiled shyly.

Brian nodded. “Of course. I understand.”

“But I would like to follow up on you. Perhaps I could have your number… sir?” She held back a smile, mustering up a professional demeanor.

Brian cleared his throat and held back his elation. “Of course—ma’am.” He handed her his card.

She smiled enigmatically. “Merry Christmas, Brian.”

“Yes. Yes, it sure is. The best one yet.”

She waved his card in the air and turned away, but he saw her reflection in the window, and she was beaming. As she opened the door to a dusting of snow, he swore he heard her whisper, “Yes. The best one yet.”


Look Up!

Look up! What do you see through the car window? The Alps. The Pyrenees. Three seas and an ocean.

Look up; beauty is everywhere!

You finally rest on a rock and write about the power in the crashing waves; rainbows vivid as if on a paper sky; and theatrical clouds and sunrays showing off feathered plumes, ribbons of light, black sinister robes, and pastel baby blankets.

Look up! What do you see in the towns as your tires roll through? Grand citadels. Quaint villages. Stone entries built for horses, threatening to scrape the paint off your car doors.

At last, you sit at a cafe and write about the ghosts you see at that ancient wellhead—a servant bustling with a bucket. A horseman dipping a ladle. A fair maiden dropping a coin. You hear the clip-clop of horses, the call of merchants, and the clang of church bells. You don’t need to imagine the bells; time couldn’t quiet their iron.

Look up! What do you see on those windy country roads? Cliches you now understand; Ireland is truly emerald. Fairy tale castles and thatched cottages really exist. France and Italy’s vineyards are as beautiful as they say.

In time, you stop by a babbling brook and put to words what your heart sees; a bridge that spans generations. In the middle, you hear the past—clashing steel as each side wars. You see the present—the same middle adorned with pink ribbons from a wedding, both sides united in love.

Look up! You are home now, in your ordinary house, your ordinary yard. You have nothing left to write. Everything is ordinary.

A hummingbird zips close and hovers, giving you a knowing look; reminding you there is no such thing as ordinary.

Liscannor, Ireland

Ireland beckons

Liscannor, Ireland: rest, rainbows, and rejuvenation.

Liscannor. A tiny town on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. There’s Lahinch across the horseshoe bay, with white houses pebbled along the hazy kelly hills. I ask a local how to pronounce it.

“To the English, it’s pronounced Lis-CANN-or. To the Irish, it’s Liscannoooor,” she says with a ghostly purse of the lips and a brogue roll of the tongue.


Travelers, weary from a month on the road, we settle into a cozy beach cottage and light a fire in the black stove. A previous dash to the country store has rewarded us with a crisp wine, and we clink our glasses. As the room warms, we peel off our layers of coats and scarves and finally sweaters, our socked toes curling to the heat as we bask in the embers.


A strategically placed Irish novella beckons from a bay window—first him, then me, and then we chat about secrets hidden between delicious words.

A tumult hurls rain sideways, loud as breaking glass. The lap blanket gets pulled to the chin with a smile.

A season in a day here, soon the sun gleams and glistens, turning grass the famous emerald, and gray stone to a true gold. And, yes, a rainbow, its full arch so clear that if we each run to a side, we swear we’ll be soaked in its paint.

In the past, the village folk got together and created a park with lovely stone benches. Not facing each other, but each facing the sea. There is no sitting across for such a view—Ireland is for holding hands and silence and stirring of souls.

The Atlantic is a raging, smashing, crushing giant bull, stomping and snorting, tossing the spray straight up with such a mighty blow, that the water is momentarily suspended there, afraid to come down again. And soon, with a season in a day, it whispers and laps and shimmers gently to lovers and sleeping babies over smoothed rocks and boulders, and seabirds can tiptoe on its shores once more.


He is now making breakfast—our last before we leave. And I am on a stone bench, pondering, then simply being. The stone is chilly through my jeans. And it’s time to go. The sun filters glowing ribbons down on me, whispering stay. But that’s the beauty of Ireland. You never really leave, once you’ve been here.

Liscannor Ireland
Stone benches for pondering and just being



Crossing Bridges

Bridges to each other
Building bridges for peace, because that’s who we are.

Bridges are everywhere, all across the world.

You may see ancient stone bridges standing a thousand years. If you listen for ghosts, you can hear the march of soldiers, the creak of wagons, the clip-clop of horses.

Turn a verdant country corner.

Just there, between the poplars, you will see a quaint bridge with playful wrought iron, a hundred years ‘young.’ A tell-tale pink ribbon hints at a recent wedding and life’s warm, wonderful continuity.

From deafening swollen rivers to the smallest giggling brook, we build bridges to connect to each other—to family, neighbors, strangers, foreigners… enemies.

The waters divide; we join. We do. We build those bridges because we hope. We are always hoping, we have always hoped to join together. The human spirit is more powerful than a raging river.

We panic sometimes. We get suspicious. We suddenly fear the other side. We knock our bridges down.


A storm blackens the sky, and we forget the sun ever shone.

For a while.

But that is not the definition of “us.” We are better than our fear.

The river shimmers from a tiny crack in the desolate clouds, that first glimmer of light, and we suddenly remember. Curiosity returns, as constant as the flow of the river.

And, like our ancient ancestors everywhere—our mutual family carrying our shared DNA in their blood, we pick up that first stone and drop it in the water. Because THAT is who we are. And, with childlike innocence, wobbling and precarious and full of dreams, we take that first step to the other side.


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Zen Radar Rainy Day in France

Rainy day in France

Zen Radar Writing in Europe

I have a Zen radar, which finds the cool artsy places to work. As a copy editor and writer, my office is wherever my heart says, “Here.” I search around, laptop in hand, and when I feel that “mother’s hug” I know that’s the place where the magic will happen. I do that at home each morning with my Zen radar on, searching for the “feels.” Hmm. Livingroom on the comfy couch? Sun’s a bit bright. Office with a candle lit? Strong possibility. Backyard swing with the hummingbirds? Mmm. There’s that hug feeling.

On the road in Europe, my Zen radar blips constantly at “the perfect spot” because they’re everywhere. When my hubby and I have a long driving day and I’m working in the car and we’re zipping past castles, seas, mountains, and villages nestled in valleys or clinging like barnacles to the side of a cliff, my radar can sometimes scream HERE! Wait—HERE! No—HERE! HERE! HERE!” These are the moments I respectfully put away the manuscript and sponge in the beauty of our little rock hurling through space. That’s as important as breathing. That’s how the artist finds stories.

Europe in the fall so far has been sweater weather at best. At last, in France, it begins to sprinkle. My hubby Anthony dons a coat and scarf and steps out for a long day of outdoor work.  Today, it will be in the mud. Not a problem if you make it an adventure, which Anthony always does.

Too soggy for my computer, my outdoor office is traded for two propped-up pillows and a down-filled duvet in our cozy hotel room.


Thunder punches the clouds, and a deluge floods the streets—and surely my spouse as well, as the mud turns into creeks outside.

And here I am, warm and cozy, sorry for my soggy spouse, happy that my Zen radar is on overload with an artist’s stormy-day atmosphere.

I have a record-breaking day for pages done. I am thrilled, and my soul is full.

Sundown, Anthony tramps in, and we are both starving—we haven’t eaten since our early breakfast.

We drive to the nearby ancient city of Gordes—one of those “clinging to a cliff like a barnacle” towns—and walk the streets. Turns out, this is the day they have closed for the season. On top of that, it’s Monday.

We drive to the next town, and the next. “Y a t’il des restaurants ouverts?” Any restaurants open? Nope. None.

With the wipers swiping buckets in a frenzy, we finally come upon a grocery store. Opening the car door, rain dumps on us as we laugh our way in, soaking. With no access to a stove or microwave, we buy a prosciutto salad, goat cheese-and-fig wrap, and a bottle of rosé.

Back under the duvet, together this time, clinking glasses, we enjoy an astonishingly delicious dinner (that came to 20 euros total.)  My Zen radar signals again. After all, I have my sweet man, a perfect impromptu dinner, and France in the rain. Magnifique.



Good Morning, Polignano a Mare…

Morning over the Adriatic

On a balcony overlooking the Adriatic, dawn fails to wake sleepy tourists; I have the view all to myself. Little sparks of light speak of fishermen, assuring tonight’s dinner will be ‘sea to table.’

A soft voile mist blankets but cannot veil, and mottled silver breaks through steel clouds—morning won’t be held back any longer.

Ten centuries prepared, old town gazes, steadfast, through long black rectangle eyes, from rustic peach stone facings here to whitewashed monuments there. All stand, precarious yet without fear, on a crumbling, stratified rock cliff.

I see the church bell through the arched window of the tower. That will wake the tourists, I think with a teasing grin. This feast for the eyes can’t be wasted on just me.

But then—never wasted when a soul is fed.

Patchwork Muses in Umbria, Italy

Patchwork Views and Cobble Strolls

Follow the cobble to find your muse!

I walk down an ancient cobbled path, to a view of vast rolling hills, like a quilt draped over a pile of sleeping cats. Squares of green tufted candlewick trees, a plain beige patch here, a striped green and brown vineyard there, a golden plowed field with mustard peeking through in vivid yellow.

Descending steep stone steps, I see a grotto with a statue of Mary to the right, and a marble bare-breasted maiden to the left. Viva l’Italia!

The wind is soft as the sky, with its gentle haze muting the colors—just a little. Italy doesn’t do ‘muted’ for long.

I arrived in the dark, delivered to the tip-top via a treacherous drive up, up, up, inches away from the craggy crumbling bluff, the driver confident and nonchalant.

The thing is, that’s how to do it. Perceived danger is a funny thing. Like the light mist, it can be gently dismissed by a calm confidence that all will be well.

A surprise gust of wind catches my attention and hair. Yes? I ask the sky as if it will answer. I often open my ears to the possibilities, the avant-garde, and the muses skipping and floating, invisible and playful.

“You see me?” I ask out loud as my dark tresses flail about. “I see you, too.”

Talking to the wind is not crazy. It is connecting to all that is, not just the plain old atoms and molecules and facts and the concrete.

What is wind, anyway? Molecules, tossed about wildly, carrying the atoms of people and trees and dinosaurs and stars. That’s the real circle of life. Oh, the stories an atom could tell.

A cat, its coat patched in shabby gray, meanders, nonchalant as the driver, and is on her merry way after a rather royal sniff to my offered hand. A queen walking among the common folk in disguise, her cloak didn’t fool me—the flitting tail was a dead giveaway.

Silver-edged clouds glow uncannily, stealing the scenery—they want their moment, too.

Patchwork clouds and patchwork fields and patchwork cats; patchwork atoms and patchwork me. We’re all just pieces of each other, really—we people, animals, earth, sky… cats.

I smile.

I’m no philosopher, but that sits well with me, as I sit, well, in Umbria.

What Lurks in Dreams

What Lurks in Dreams

dream, nightmare, demon
Sometimes it’s best not to dream…


On a hospital bed at the California Dream Institute, Cal woke up flushed and clammy. And furious. He’d failed again to control his dream.

“That was a bad nightmare.” Dr. Kline nodded to the erratic line graph that spiked like an earthquake reading. She pulled the electrodes from his forehead. “Did you catch that bad guy you’re always after?”

“Not yet. Next time.”

Her ruby lips parted into that delicious smile. His tortured dreams were almost worth the reward of her fingertips on his skin.

“Your pulse is still high.” She ripped electrodes from his chest.

“Ow.” Cal studied her, his face stoic. Always stoic. The rapid heart rate readings? That would be Dr. Kline’s proximity. A secret that would never be revealed. He needed to keep her safe from Bob.

Bob. Cal had chosen the most innocuous name he could for his nemesis, to take some semblance of power away from the demon who haunted his dreams nightly.

Cal could have named Bob what he really was—Brain-Eater.

He shuddered.

Noticing his own fear, he repeated to himself, Bob. Bob. Bob. The mantra always grounded him.

Like a ribbon in a gentle breeze, Dr. Kline floated into a leather seat and crossed her legs. God, she was perfect.

“Cal, how many more times are we going to do this?” Her smile looked suddenly… placed there, for politeness’ sake.

He felt a rush of disappointment but knew it was for the best that she wasn’t interested—in him, or the experiment. “Until you stop taking my money, or I catch Bob.”

“Bob. The guy in the dream.”

Cal frowned playfully to hide a cringe. “Yes, the… guy in the dream.”

She frowned and slipped on black-rimmed glasses, and somehow got even prettier. “Cal—I’m not sure this is the right approach. You believe your nightmares will stop if you actually catch—and kill—Bob?”

“Ah, yes. You think I need a shrink.”

She leaned uncomfortably close to Cal’s face. “I think you need a friend. Tell me about Bob. Please. Maybe… maybe I can help. I have a good imagination, I’m open-minded, and I don’t have a judgmental bone in my body. Come on. It’s been two months. I think I’ve earned your trust by now.”

Cal considered it. He longed to tell her everything. But—then Bob would come for her, too. Bob was attracted to fear. Bob said that fear made the brain taste good. Something about the flood of adrenaline.

Dr. Kline smacked her lips at Cal’s evasive silence, glanced at the clock—five p.m.—and stood up. “That’s it. This is way against protocol, but…” she closed the door and snapped shut the blinds, “… this is an emergency.” She walked to her desk and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. Grabbing beakers, she poured two stiff drinks. She shoved a glass in his hand and commanded, “Drink. Now.”

Chuckling under his breath, Cal muttered, “Drinking.”

“To Bob, may he rot in hell.”

Cal shot her a shocked glance, but she was kicking off her shoes and nestling back into her chair. He composed himself and said blankly, “To Bob.”

She downed the whiskey in a cheek-rounding gulp. He followed suit, and she poured them another one. Stiffer than the last.

The clock ticked on the wall. Tic-tic-tic… mesmerizing and oblique and fuzzy.

He saw her lips moving, chatting about minutia, her voice blending with the clock. He was getting quite drunk. Otherwise, he never would have done it. He never would have said it. But he simply couldn’t help himself. “Bob is real.”

“Aha! I knew the whiskey would work!” She stabbed a finger at him. “Wait. So—you know Bob, in real life?”

Cal shook his head. Here goes nothing. “No. Bob’s a demon. He visits people in their dreams, and he kills them if they get scared.”

She frowned, obviously attempting to sober up. “Kills them—for real?”

Cal nodded. “Seventeen dead so far, in the ten years I’ve been aware of him.”

She folded her arms and sat back in her chair, looking skeptical as hell. “What are their names? These victims.”

This was Cal’s ace in the hole. He pulled out a folded hand-written list from his pants pocket. “Here. Google these names, if you want. They’re all dead. And I saw each and every one of them in a dream the night before they died. Bob killed them in my dream. The next day—they’re dead, in real life.”

Dr. Kline snatched the note and her phone and did a quick Internet search. She got two people into it and narrowed her eyes. “Okay. So, you have dead people on a list. You could have gotten those names from…”

“The newspaper. Yeah, yeah. Check the dates.”

She studied the coffee-stained, hand-written note that he’d obviously been carrying for ages. “So… at first glance, it looks as though you wrote their names the day before they died.”

Cal nodded. “That is correct. I’d wake up from a nightmare and write the name of the person in my dream—the one being terrorized by Bob.”

She shook her head, her hair falling in her face. She swatted it back. “You could have just written the wrong date after the fact.”

Cal was drunk, yes. But—he was aware that he had a chance to shut his mouth—to shrug and laugh and pretend it was all a joke. Instead, he murmured as quietly as he could, “Check the back.”


Screw it. He raised his voice. “Check the back of the note. What I just wrote down a moment ago, while you were pouring drinks.”

She flipped the note and read the most recent item on the list. “John Embers. October 30th.” She looked up curiously. “That’s today.”

Cal nodded, already feeling guilty for involving her.

She squinted, thinking. “So—according to what you’ve told me, this… John Embers was just killed in your nightmare—the dream you experienced here in my office, not an hour ago.”

Cal nodded. “Yes, that is correct.”

“Bob—scared him to death?”

Again. A moment where Cal could shut his damned mouth and leave the pretty lady out of it.

Dr. Kline refilled their glasses. “To John Embers, may he beat the odds.” She downed her drink, and Cal followed suit.

He just couldn’t keep quiet. “Bob didn’t scare John to death. He scared him into immobility. When they’re scared, he can make them immobile. And then he…” for god’s sake Cal, shut up. This was the point of no return. It was the whiskey. Or maybe Cal was tired of sharing the burden alone. He blurted out, “He makes them frozen with fear, and then he eats their brains.”

Dr. Kline did something completely unexpected. She laughed. Not just laughed, but the gut-wrenching, arms wrapped around the belly, tear and snot and drool kind of hysterical laugh that borderlines on mania. She toppled to the floor, squealing. “Oh—oh—my god, I’m dying here!” She sat up abruptly, serious for a split second. “Oh—get it? Dying? Oh, no, it must be BOB!” Peals of giddy sniggering continued.

Cal was at a loss. In a way, it snapped him back and cleared his head. She didn’t believe him. Good. Time to do the right thing. Cal smirked. “You liked that, huh? I got you!” he forced a dark chuckle. “I’d better catch a cab home tonight. We’re still on for tomorrow, same place, same time?”

She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her doctor’s smock and managed to control herself. She even feigned sobriety. She remembered she was a doctor with a patient, and it was pretty damned funny to see her stand up, put her hand out for a professional handshake, and trip over her shoes. Too drunk to blush, she shoved her toes into her high heels—on the wrong feet—and opened the door. “Same place, same time. Good night, Cal.”


The next day, Cal entered the office, and there stood Dr. Kline, white as a sheet.

He pressed his lips to hide a smile. Hung over, are we, doc? Turns out, that wasn’t the problem.

“What the fuck, Cal?” She held her phone to his face. The screen showed a story about the mysterious death, of one John Embers.

Cal squeezed his eyes shut. “Told you.”

“Did you do it, Cal?” Her voice was ice.

His eyes flew open again. “What? No! Of course, not. I told you. It was…”

“Bob? Your imaginary friend from your dreams? You’re seriously going to blame… Bob?” Dr. Kline looked equal parts furious and… scared.

Oh shit. No, no. Don’t be scared! “I went straight home last night. I swear.” His face brightened. “The taxi driver! He can tell you—he dropped me off at home!”

“You could have taken your car afterward…”

“My car was here!”

“You could have taken another taxi. Enough, Cal, tell me what happened. The truth, this time.”

Cal was at a loss for words. He slumped into the leather chair. “It wasn’t me.”

“We’ll see about that,” she snapped. “He’s probably your neighbor. You probably walked there. I’m checking where he lives…”

Cal watched her eyes widen in confusion as she tapped the phone screen, and he knew he had won the day. “He’s not from here, is he? They’re from all over the world. Bob’s victims. One was from India. The closest one so far was in Kentucky. Where did John die?”

“Australia,” she whispered and sank onto the hospital bed. “He died in Melbourne, in his office. Just keeled over and died.”

Cal nodded.

She stared intently at him. “His brains were not eaten. There wasn’t one word about brains.”

Call shook his head. “No. That’s just how he kills them in the nightmare. I think it marks them for death, and the next day they just drop dead of ‘mysterious causes.’”

“I’m a doctor. There’s no such thing as ‘mysterious causes.’ You have a stroke, an embolism, a heart attack…”

“Or they can’t find a single anomaly, as in Bob’s victims. That’s how you know.”

“Know what, exactly?”

“That Bob killed them.”

She opened her mouth to argue but had nothing to say.

At first.

She jumped up. “Get on the table.” She grabbed him surprisingly roughly and made him lie down. She slapped electrodes on his temples and chest. “God damn you, Cal, you are making me feel insane. I am a doctor. An educated, rational doctor. So, here’s what we’re going to do. You are going to have another nightmare. You’ll write down the name, and then we both spend the night, here. And we don’t leave. Not to eat, not to pee.”

“What if I have to…”

“Shut up, Cal, and go to sleep. You will not make me look like a quack. There is a logical explanation. I am proving your theory wrong.”

“Very well.” Cal was back to his stoic self. And falling asleep on command was never an issue. Bob only ate brains during Cal’s sleep. Bob had told him before, that when Cal didn’t sleep, Bob went hungry. So, Cal was the most sleep-deprived person on the planet. Still, a human goes mad with too little sleep. So, Cal had decided to purposefully sleep, with the aid and supervision of a sleep doctor—the ravishing Dr. Kline, to be precise. And Cal was absolutely determined to find a way to kill Bob.

Dr. Kline dimmed the lights. Cal heard the quiet whirring of the monitors and gave his heavy eyes permission to close.

Dr. Kline said something funny as he faded off to sleep: “You know, they say that every character in your dreams is yourself.”

Yes, thought Cal, I’d heard that before, too. Of course, it didn’t apply to Bob, who was an actual demon.

But—what if it were true? What if Cal was Bob? No. That’s not right. What if Bob was Cal? Somehow? And, if Cal could manifest Bob, could he therefore control Bob? Cal was astounded by this revelation—this theory—and was anxious to put it to the test.

Cal opened his eyes to a haze of white.

“Hello, Cal.”

There he was. Bob. Looking very much the demon he was. Red skin, horns, and a tail. Cal had long ago figured that Bob’s image had been created in Cal’s mind with the help of the Hollywood stereotype. It didn’t make Bob any less real.

“I smell fear.” Bob hissed, his black lips curled into a seductive smile. “She’s very pretty.”

Cal’s heart jerked in his chest. No! Not Dr. Kline! He hadn’t said it aloud. Nevertheless, Bob answered, “Yes. Dr. Kline.”

Cal glowered. “She’s not scared in the least. She is a scientist. She doesn’t believe in you. Sorry, but today, you starve.”

Bob’s eyes drilled into Cal’s. “Oh, my, yes, she is scared. Terrified.” His forked tongue stroked slowly across his lips. “I can’t wait to taste her.” He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply as if smelling a steak on a barbecue.

“You won’t touch her. I can promise you that.”

Bob grinned lustfully. “You’re scared, Cal. You like this one. That’s even more enticing. It’s your fault she’s going to die. How does that make you feel?”

Cal’s hair stood on the back of his neck, his throat dry.

Bob’s eyes rolled half closed, aroused by the smell of Cal’s fear. He took a deep, staggered breath. “More. I want more. I’m so…” his head turned sharply to Cal, “… hungry.”

Cal bolted, his terror building. He ran, blind, through the white mist, and careened straight into Bob, whose nails dug into Cal’s shoulders, holding him still. In a sing-song rasp, Bob said, “She’s scared; so scared! She sees the monitor. It’s spiking all over the place. She thinks I’m killing you. She thinks I’m…” Bob leaned into Cal’s ear, “…eating your brain.”

Cal remembered the strange thought—about Bob and him being the same character. And so, Cal calmed himself. He took a deep, cleansing breath and filled his heart with the truth—that he was in love with Dr. Kline. Cal let the pure love fill his essence. Not the lust—that needed to be put aside. Cal focused instead on the sweet, deep, ache he felt every time she bit her pencil, or twirled that one curl of hair that rested on her shoulder or offered her soft handshake for their daily greeting. The scent of the room when she was in it. The times she’d jiggle her left foot.

The mist was fading noticeably. Cal hung on to the love and wore it like a shield.

Cal studied Bob’s black eyes. They looked… curious, at first. And then they widened with the realization that something was different. A change was taking place in this dream realm. Cal was gaining control.

Bob’s face contorted in rage, and he lunged at Cal.

“You are nothing but air, Bob. Nothing but air.”

Bob’s body fell right through Cal, as if Bob had no substance. Bob was evaporating.

Cal smiled. He thought of his heart monitor. He could feel his heart rate, slow and steady. And he knew Dr. Kline would be happy about that.

“No one is scared, Bob. You have nothing to feed on. You—are me. And I am you. There is only one of us.”

Bob gurgled, deep in his throat. “Yessss. Only one of us! It will be me, you fool.” He cackled with a blood lust. “I want her brain. You want her brain.”

“I want you dead, you sonofabitch.”

“Death…” Bob hissed, “is relative.” His chin jutted up and he shrieked and writhed, bathed in pleasure and pain.

Hurricane-force winds snatched and tore at Cal, but he pictured Dr. Kline’s smile, concentrating with all his might. “Go…”

Bob clawed at the air savagely.


Bob laughed manically, roaring “Brains brains brains brains!”

“hell!” Cal scissor-kicked Bob in the gut and sent him flying.

He watched as Bob split apart, atom by atom, with a piercing wail. A mush of red and black meat and rotten bones and pus swirled and funneled up to the sky with a revolting stench… and vanished.

With that, Cal opened his eyes, awake.

“Oh, thank god, I was so worried!” Dr. Kline stroked his forehead and gently pulled the electrodes off. She held his hands and sat him up. “Did you get the name of a victim?”

Cal smiled, relieved. “There was no victim. I won. He’s gone forever.” Cal couldn’t believe the close call. The next victim would have been Dr. Kline. He looked into her beautiful eyes, tempted to tell her how he felt. That it was his love for her that grounded him, that left no room for the other guy. He thought, for a sick minute, that if he were in fact, Bob, and they had joined together, then Bob would be released into the world in corporeal form. And then, there would be no stopping Bob at all.

Cal shook his head. No. It was the love that had saved him. Saved Dr. Kline, too. He dared to reach up and subtly touch that curl on her shoulder. “You were right, Dr. Kline. I was all the characters in my dream.”

Her brow furrowed. “What? I never said that.”

Cal grinned, incredulous. “Yes, you did. Just as I faded off to sleep.”

She laughed lightly. “I certainly did not. Maybe it was Bob.”

Cal was suddenly overwhelmed by her scent. He needed her. Now. Without permission, without question. He grabbed her forcefully, inhaling.

She giggled. “Cal… wow. Took you long enough.”

He groaned, deep in his throat. And pressed his teeth to her neck, her hair, her scalp, and bit, his teeth nipping her flesh.

“Ouch! Hey—you’re scaring me. Cal! Cal?” Struggling at first, her mobility slowed until she was still as a statue, her eyes widened in horror.

He opened his mouth impossibly wider, inhaling her adrenaline, and feasted.


Hey readers, you can also find this story published on Reedsy!

AND, you enjoy the macabre, Here’s another story of mine, about reaping what you sow…  What Goes Up