Welcome to Iowa

Jimmy Emerson via Creative Commons

Orchid made a call to a friend in Iowa, trying to keep the panic and unprofessional thoughts out of her voice. The friend hadn’t seen what she was looking for, but his casual reassurance that he would look into it settled Orchid’s nerves for a few hours. Usually she would be furious—murderous. But the phone call from her bagman had sent her into a quiet panic. Had the runner simply taken off with the money, she could kill her way out of the situation. Hunt him down. Get it back. She believed him when he said it was stolen. Vanished. No way to track it down in time.

She still had to try to get Bashar back. He was running, but she didn’t hold that against him. She thought about running, too. The Eastern Europeans would be by in less than 24 hours looking for the money. They wouldn’t entertain excuses. Orchid didn’t fear most men, but she feared these guys.

“Jesse,” she said into her Nextel.

Chirp. “Yeah, boss?”

“You’re in charge. I need to take off for a bit?”

Chirp. “Um. Okay. How long?”

“Not long. Just need to look for something.” She paused. “Up north. Iowa.”

Nothing's too hard for God

Marshall Astor via Creative Commons

Bashar made the drive once a week from Columbia to Kansas City. I-70 wasn’t much to look at, but he liked the alternating billboards that told the story of his life: religion and porn. A mega-church advertising Sunday services, then an adult bookstore trumpeting a sale. John 3:16 in tall letters. A quarter mile later, a gentlemen’s club reminding motorists that they had girls who were not just nude but all nude.

The job was boring, but it gave Bashar time to pray. When he arrived in KC, the men in sunglasses would inspect the guns in silence. They’d nod, and hand over a locked briefcase and a small stack of bills that Bashar knew was his cut. It was always tempting to pull into one of the clubs on the way back. Or even at one of the churches. His money would be welcome at either. But he knew better than to stop until the money was safe in Orchid’s hands.

It all went wrong with six words: what’s the worst that could happen? The passenger seat, where he left the briefcase, was empty when he got back.

Bashar turned the car north and drove.

Don't Mess with Texas

Nils Geylen via Creative Commons

Jennie Sherman believed that Texas was big for a reason. She wasn’t from the South, but she was so far removed from the North she didn’t remember it. The Lone Star State suited her because she was her own lone star, and she felt the land in her bones.

“Don’t mess with Texas, and don’t mess with me,” she’d say with a silly-serious laugh. Jennie knew people thought she was overdoing it, but Texas was big to accommodate people with big personalities. At least, that’s how she saw it. That’s why she fit in so well.

The job at the bank didn’t pay much. It seemed ironic. When the men in the ski masks and ten-gallon hats came in and asked her to fill the bag, she leaned over the counter.

“If you take me with you, I’ll show you where the gold is,” she whispered.

“Gold?” the man whispered back. She imagined he was handsome underneath the wool.

“Lot of it,” she said with a wink.

Everything in Texas was bigger. So if you were going to commit a robbery in Texas, Jennie thought, might as well make it a big one.

Young America, Minnesota

MoxyJane@Spiral Bound Images via Creative Commons

Got a view of the lake out the back of my house. Beyond that, a low hill and then another lake. Ten thousand as you travel ‘round this place, so they say.

In the summer they got mud at the bottom and grass on the edges. Wintertime freezes them over and the kids slide across their tops.

Many, though none of the ones I can see from my rear window, have docks and little boats that sit on top. Some, like mine, hold secrets down at the soft bottoms.

I’ve been married thirty-eight years next spring. My wife is a loving and hardworking woman, if a little plain and dull.

Sixteen years ago I met a lady who was everything my wife is not: glamorous and lazy; distant and exciting. She lit up my life, for a time.

Thing is, no one threatens Wally Cobb. I’m a family man. You don’t threaten my family. That lady didn’t see things my way. She was always looking down on me.

Now I look out at the lake behind my house.

And I’m the one looking down.

I met a new lady. Good thing there’s another lake. Beyond the low hill.

Lightning 1

azglenn via Creative Commons

Way out on the non-existent wind, off where the twilight sky is that bruising color between purple and gray, you can see the sparks. The low clouds just before dusk have a hunger, and they gnash their teeth until sparks come off. You don’t even have to stare too long or very hard.

We drove toward those sparking rips at a pace that might have made one think what we wanted was to light ourselves up in those arcs of static that glass the ground. Maybe if you’re hit just right you turn to glass yourself. But that wasn’t it. We had flashing blues and reds behind us, and a trunk that hung low on the axles. Fitting, I suppose, where we were headed with all that gold. First we needed to get across the Grand Canyon state, where the real canyon is between the lives lived by those who only watch the lightning sparking on the horizon on hot autumn nights, and those who live in pursuit of hungry clouds and intimidating sunsets.

The road blazed past; we heard harmonicas on the radio; we pretended the roadblock wasn’t just ahead. It helped to watch the sparks.

Suitcase

Eric Smith via Creative Commons

Eight years with Jamie began to feel like a relationship with a child’s talking doll, just a series of catchphrases repeated regardless of context or appropriateness. Priscilla thought she might have a clean getaway, but she couldn’t find her cat or her keys and the latch on her suitcase refused to snap. Jamie came home early, saw the pile of belongings.

“You’re leaving.” Jamie made it into a half question.

“Yeah.”

“Do I get to ask why?” Catchphrase. “Did I miss something?” Catchphrase.

Priscilla picked at a fingernail. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Little late for that.” Those green eyes looked flat, painted on.

“You weren’t supposed to see.”

“I think I’d have figured it out.” Jamie stood. “I don’t get it. Didn’t I give you everything? Everything you wanted?” Catchphrase. The catchphrase. An arm reached for Priscilla, “Cil—“

“No!” she withdrew. “Not everything! Of all the times you asked me that, did you ever bother to find out from me what I wanted? You gave me everything you thought I wanted.” Tears fell.

There was a pause. “That’s not the same thing, is it?” Jamie asked.

“No.”

Jamie said, at last, the phrase Priscilla had waited to hear.

lock

Donald Townsend via Creative Commons

Ah, there you are. Come on, sit down. Sure, anywhere is fine. Shoo the cat if you need to; that’s it, just move that stack of papers. Not sure why I hang on to all that old stuff anyway. Pardon the dust, we don’t get many visitors here. Tea? Biscuit? Water? No?

Now. Then. Let’s see it.

Mercy, where are my manners? Forgive me, I’ve waited so long… Please.

Oop! Careful there. Yes. Unwrap it slowly. I know it feels solid and sturdy, but it’s surprisingly delicate.

Ah.

Oh, there I go. I’m dreadfully sorry. I—

For heaven’s sake, I’m such a mess. Excuse me, it’s just a handkerchief I need, please give me a moment.

All right. Do pardon me. I hadn’t expected to be so overcome. But it is beautiful, isn’t it? I haven’t seen it in so long. Such… a long… time.

Well, that’s quite a question! Might as well ask my age, mightn’t you? Never mind when.

What’s that now? A reward?

Ho ho ho. Yes. Haruum. I think we can find something… suitable.

Give me one moment.

Ha! Found it.

Oh no. Don’t try to run. The door is locked, I’m afraid.

Now.

Hold still.

ABAC Myrtle Beach Christmas

Judy Baxter via Creative Commons

White latex gloves on a steering wheel, a cigarette burning close to the off-white wrinkles. Hugo “Hug” Kinson grinned for no reason and ignored the occasional stare from the passing Saturday traffic. A body in the trunk, Steely Dan on the radio, Gerorgetown in the rearview, freedom down the line. He shifted his considerable weight to one side, passed gas. Hug laughed. What a day.

It got weird when Donald Fagen changed the lyrics. “You’ve been tellin’ me you’re a genius, Hug, but you forgot the bag. The cash is sittin’ on the table for anyone to find. Sucks to come so far just to find you don’t have what it takes. Them Broad River angels won’t have pity for your kind.”

Hug snapped off the radio. The chili dog sat badly in his gut, extra onions licking flames up into his chest. A generator-powered road alert sign read, “A neighbor heard the gunshot.” He chewed the inside of his lip.

Flicking the butt out the window, he startled and swerved when the GPS’ silky voice piped up, “In ten miles, you’ll realize you’ll never get away with it.”

Hug kept driving.

fall sunrise rays 2

eric lynch via Creative Commons

She was eleven years old and read books college professors found taxing, but she had never spoken a word. She looked out the window.

A gleaming metropolis, edged by a sprawl of neat lanes with freshly planted trees, each lined with a customized, uniform house. Beyond are smaller townships and people with affectations of rural life: practiced drawls and feigned luddism. Further still, a few genuine farms run by overall-strap corporations and straw hat multinationals. A patch of genuine wilderness. Fences around rock formations.

The machine works on assumptions. Belief powers the cogs and the cogs automate the daily grind. Assume the sun won’t click off. Believe the ground won’t fall away. Predicate existence on the low-sample-size status quo. Talk about short-sighted as if the long view ten year forecast were not mathematically indistinguishable.

Devastation is measured by the consumer. Tolerance for extinction is dependent upon public relations, and the girl saw it all. More than data, she saw connections and referential interactions folded back on themselves.

She placed a hand on the window and felt the warmth of the day.

“Here it comes,” she said. It was momentous. No one heard. She began to hum.

Cork

Niklas Morberg via Creative Commons

The hole opened behind Pieter’s head on April 1st, which made everyone guess it was an elaborate April Fool’s Joke. He assured them it was no joke. At first, he rather enjoyed the attention. But as days faded into weeks, the novelty wore off. It hovered there, six inches behind him,  invisible unless he looked into a mirror. It made sleeping difficult.

It began to move.

By June it was three inches behind him, a two-inch gap in reality, distorting the world at its edges like a tiny drainpipe pulling in bathwater. In October it touched Pieter and he felt the pull against his scalp in a constant, silent vacuum pressure. The doctors and scientists found it fascinating and promised test results, but Pieter stopped returning their calls.

On Christmas morning it started to grow and engulf. The news cycle passed over and Pieter was forgotten. A year after the opening Pieter’s head was no longer visible. Physicists said it existed somewhere, but it could not be retrieved. Months later the hole stopped around Pieter’s shoulders, the edges looking stretched. It was good, they said, the hole might have kept growing. Pieter corked the bottle and saved the world.