The Last Heart of Darkness, Part III

Part I.  Part II.

Our hike took the better part of two days.  We were given a lift by Jeep for the first leg of our journey, but rough roads and the need for stealth quickly forced us on to foot.  Jarrod led us through deep valleys, narrow caves, and dense jungle, somehow managing to annoyingly vanish from sight a few feet ahead, only to pop out from behind a tree to wave us onward before disappearing again.

It was the morning of the third day, and the sun was already half risen in the sky when we reached the mouth of a large cave, sunk into the side of a hill.  Jarrod stood at the stony entrance, wearing his usual manic grin.  “Come, come, we are nearly to the beasts!” he cried to us.  “Simply through this cave, and we shall see them!”

For once, Jarrod remained close to us as we ventured through the cave, and I soon understood why.  The cave was a labyrinth of complex turns, narrow passages, and pitfalls, waiting to swallow the unwary traveler. My sense of unease was screaming at me to turn back, but I knew that I would be hopelessly lost.  So instead, we pushed onward, our lights doing a poor job of cutting through the darkness.

After what seemed an eternity of wandering slowly through the cold darkness of the cave, we emerged, blinking, into bright sunlight.  On a small ledge in front of us, Jarrod threw his hands wide.

“Behold, my friends!” he cried.  “Look upon nature, in its beauty!”  We both looked past him and stared in amazement.

We were gazing down into a huge valley, covered in long grass and spotted here and there with small clumps of trees.  Mountains rose sharply on one side of us, while plains stretched off into the distance on the other side.  The scene was beautiful.  But my eyes were fixed on the animals.

Fewer than a thousand feet away, a herd of rhinos was making its way through the tall grass, down the side of a hill.  A herd.  I counted no fewer than fifteen adults, and half as many juveniles.  All of them sprouted both horns.  There was no sign of guards, or indeed, any other humans.  This was impossible.

Beside me, the American’s mouth had dropped open.  I felt like I had the same expression.  “This is impossible,” I muttered.  “There’s no way that a herd of rhinos that size could still exist in the wild.”

The American shook his head.  “I think it’s more impossible than that,” he replied.  When I turned to look at him, confused, he extended a meaty hand to point skyward.

As my gaze rose, the meaning of his words instantly became clear.  Despite heavy cloud cover, the scene was still brightly lit.  Although clouds obscured one sun, the second sun, hanging slightly lower, was still shining down brightly.

There were two suns.  I took a step back, trying to comprehend what this meant.  “We aren’t on Earth any more,” I said hoarsely.  “Somehow, we’ve gone somewhere else.”  I turned on Jarrod, confused and angry.  “What have you done?”

Jarrod merely shrugged, still looking infuriatingly unconcerned.  “It is a different place,” he said, “but it is still Nature, yes?  And there are still the animals you seek, free and in the wild!”

“Not quite,” cut in the American.  He had been peering now at the rhinos as they traipsed their way through the tall grass.  Now that the first ones were emerging from the tall grass on the side of the small pond at the base of the hill, we could see that they had six thick gray legs, rather than four.

Other than these small differences, however, I realized that the scene still looked uncannily like Africa.  The trees seemed fairly normal, as did the grass.  The blue sky and white clouds were also reassuringly familiar. Next to us, Jarrod spread his arms.

“It is not quite the same, but it is still the quest, no?” he said, grinning at us.  “You against the wild, to bring down a great beast!  It is the hunt!”

I had to admit that he had a point.  I didn’t understand how we had come to this other world, but Jarrod was proof that we could theoretically return.  And here, the great horned beasts before us were unguarded, ready to face off against, to challenge.  I unshouldered my pack, sliding out my Mauser.

“He’s right,” I said, making up my mind.  “And I plan to meet that challenge.”

Wrong Connection

Author’s note: Inspired by real life events!

To quote Gob, I had made a terrible mistake.

This realization slowly dawned on me as I sat in my rather cramped seat, staring out the tiny window and trying to ignore the wailing baby ahead of me in 17E. The ground had long since disappeared below us, and clouds obscured my view. Probably too late to turn around, I thought.

The realization hadn’t started to set in until after I had frantically dashed through the loading bridge at the last minute, after I had settled down into the first available seat (thank you Southwest Airlines for your lazy different methods of arranging seating), and managed to regain some semblance of my breath.  Only once I started looking around did I notice a distinct lack of heavy coats and other insulating clothing.  For a flight into the Minnesota winter, that was very odd.

Instead, everyone seemed to be in shorts and sandals.  In fact, several people seemed to have garlands of fake flowers strewn around their necks.  That really should have tipped me off earlier, shouldn’t it?

I was on the wrong flight.  I, of course, took the most logical course of action.  I waited for the drink cart, currently three rows ahead, to roll up to my aisle.  “All the alcohol, please,” I said politely to the waitress, a blonde in her late forties.  

She stared back at me, looking confused.  “Um, we have rum, vodka, and tequila, for five dollars a bottle,” she began hesitantly.

“Yes,” I cut in.  The woman still looked confused, so I decided to clarify.  “I would like six of each, please,” I said.  I fished in my wallet and pulled out my credit card, waving it enticingly.  The woman didn’t seem happy about the purchase, but she rang me up.

“Anything else?” she asked.

“Yes.  One coke, please.  Diet, if you have it.”  She scowled and passed me a Pepsi.

And I had thought myself so lucky!  After having my bags pulled aside at security, I had heard a final boarding call for my gate, and sprinted across the airport.  I was the last one down the jetway, and even though my electronic ticket had stubbornly refused to scan, the flight attendant had been gracious enough to wave me through.  Now, of course, I realized why it hadn’t functioned properly, and wished that he would have been a bit more of a jerk to me.

I reached up and pushed the call button for a flight attendant, hoping to not get the angry drink lady.  Fortunately, a young and plump female stewardess tottered over.  “Can I help you, sir?” she asked, not unkindly.

“Yes, hi,” I said.  “I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but I think I’m on the wrong flight.”  

The young lady stared back at me.  “Here, look,” I continued, pulling out my phone to access the boarding pass.

She stared at the phone.  “You know, all your personal electronics are supposed to be turned off right now.”

“Oh, give me a break,” I shot back.  “Everybody just puts theirs on airplane mode, if they do anything at all.  We’ve all seen the Mythbusters episode and know that they don’t interfere.  But look,” I pressed on, holding up my e-ticket.  “I’m supposed to be traveling to Minnesota right now!”

The stewardess examined the ticket with caution.  “Sir, this plane is traveling to Honolulu.”

“Yes, I have realized that,” I said, gritting my teeth to hold back any sharp comments.  “That is why I am asking you what to do.”

The stewardess headed off to confer with some other people on the airline.  I sipped on my tiny bottles of booze while I waited for her to return.  

Eventually, she came back to my seat, looking uncomfortable.  “I’m afraid we can’t turn the plane around,” she said, looking genuinely sorry.  Whether she was sorry for me, or simply that she had to be the bearer of bad news, I couldn’t say.  “However, I’ve spoken to an airline representative, and they agree that they should have caught this mistake.  So we’ll put you up in a hotel in Honolulu until the next flight out with connections to Minnesota.”

“How long will that be?” I asked.

She shrugged.  “Probably about three days.”  

As she tottered away, I sat back and took a long pull of alcohol.  Three days!  Three days stuck in Honolulu before I could fly back.  Three days, stuck in Honolulu, on the airline’s dime, in the warmth and sun… a smile slowly grew across my face.  

Maybe my day wasn’t going so badly after all.

The Last Heart of Darkness, Part II

Part I.

The effect of Jarrod’s approach was disconcerting.  The bar was nearly empty, and I was the only one present with a skin color lighter than charcoal.  Still, I hadn’t seen him look around once at the rest of the bar, or even pause to let his good eye adjust to the gloom inside.  He merely continued to stare at me, occasionally letting out another giggle.
I was the first to talk.  “I heard your name from the Sandline mercenary outfit,” I said.  “I was told that you would be able to arrange for me to-“
“Yes, I know what it is you want,” Jarrod interrupted, still grinning wildly.  “You want to conquer, to stare into the eyes of the wild.  You want me to take you to my special place, to face the beasts.”
Even his speech was disjointed, off-putting.  “Rhinos,” I said clearly. “I want to shoot a rhino.”
The man’s grin didn’t diminish  “Yes, the great horned ones,” he replied.  “They are there.  When the price is paid, I shall take you to them.”
“And how much will this cost me?”
To my surprise, Jarrod merely shrugged, looking unconcerned.  “Ten thousand,” he said.  “Yes, ten thousand for my services as your guide.  If we stay longer than a fortnight, maybe it will be more.”
This whole setup seemed wrong.  It was too easy, too out in the open.  Jarrod didn’t seem worried about the laws he was breaking, about the security forces that we would have to evade.  “Five thousand up front,” I said, feeling cagey.  “The rest will be paid only after I’ve gotten my kill.”
Once again, all I received was a shrug.  “Good, good,” he said.  “We will leave tomorrow, before dawn, yes?  Simply meet here, I will be outside.”  And as quickly as that, Jarrod seemed to lose all interest in the conversation.  He turned his manic grin on the bartender, who brought him a mug of something dark and foul-smelling.  He didn’t even look up when I left the bar.
That evening, I debated whether I should even show up the next morning.  Jarrod’s disinterest in money suggested that I wasn’t in danger of being robbed.  Perhaps this was a sting, the government trying to ensnare poachers in a web of trickery.  In the end, I decided that the reward was worth the risk.  Nonetheless, I resolved to remain ever alert and cautious.
The next morning, Jarrod was waiting for me when I showed up, pack and rifle slung over my shoulders.  His white-toothed smile gleamed in the twilight.  His hand was outstretched, waiting.
I grudgingly handed over the five thousand dollars that I had promised him up front.  Jarrod took the envelope and tucked it away, only pausing briefly to look inside and verify its contents.  “One more,” he said to me as he secreted the envelope away.  “One more, and then we will go!”
A few minutes later, our third party member arrived.  We could hear him crashing through the undergrowth well before he emerged into view.  I sized him up with distaste.
The other man, clearly another hunter, probably stood close to six and a half feet tall, and I guessed that he weighed close to three hundred pounds.  He wore camo pants and a once-white t-shirt, stained with unidentifiable grime and stretched tight across his stomach.  A Remington bolt-action was slung across his back, but I also noted the M1911 semi-automatic pistol strapped to his hip.  Some hunters carried a pistol to finish off wounded targets.  I preferred to simply not miss with my shots.

“Aw right!” the man greeted us loudly.  American, from his accent; somewhere in the south.  The model of what every true hunter hated.  Loud, crass, and relying on overkill instead of skill.  I gritted my teeth and gave the slightest of nods in reply.  He seemed not to notice.  “Let’s go get us some goddamn rhinos!” he nearly shouted, hefting a meaty fist.

Jarrod didn’t seem put off by the other man’s demeanor.  On the contrary, he was happy to accept another envelope of payment.  “Yes, yes, let us go,” he cried out in return, smiling broadly.  “Come.  Follow.  We have a long path to walk, and you do not want to be lost.”  He smiled even more broadly.  “No, do not get lost on this path.”

Turning lightly on one heel, Jarrod took off into the dense forest.  Hoping that I wasn’t walking into disaster, I followed, with the American bringing up the rear.

Continue with part three!

The Last Heart of Darkness, Part I

I sat in the dusty, sweltering, miserable excuse for a bar, grimacing between sips of too-warm beer.  Flies buzzed above my head, ignoring my occasional attempts to wave them away.  I was thoroughly dejected, soaking in my sweat and failure.

Nearly five weeks previously, I had arrived in the Congo, equipped with a modified Mauser double-barrel, fifty grand in good old US currency, and an iron-willed determination to bring down the Big Five.  The buffalo and the lion had both been surprisingly easy, and the leopard had given me an enjoyable stalk before I finally cornered him in a thick but isolated copse of trees.

The elephant . . . I smiled briefly at the memory.  It had required several sizable bribes just to secure a narrow window of opportunity, but I had ended up staring down a young bull, just fully grown, short-tempered and feisty.  For a long moment we had both stood our ground, two apex species facing off in the pre-dawn twilight.

The bull had tossed his head, showing his tusks in challenge.  I knew that he was about to charge, that the two heavy shells in my Mauser were all that stood between me and death.  Center-of-mass shots wouldn’t stop a headlong charge, wouldn’t drop the beast quickly enough to save me.  I needed to pierce the skull, needed a perfect shot.

The long moment ended.  The young bull dropped his head and charged.  The rifle rose to my shoulder and barked once, twice.

I needn’t have bothered with the second shot.  The first round was dead center, hitting the elephant directly between the eyes.  I had stood my ground and watched as the beast slowly and ponderously collapsed before me.

Now, seated in the filthy bar, I still felt a small twinge of regret.  I hadn’t needed the second shot.  If I had trusted my gut, had held back, I would have been able to count myself among the true elites, those that had brought down the largest big game animal in the world with a single shot.  But that small regret withered and wilted in the heat of my current rage.

I had vanquished four of the Big Five.  Only the rhinoceros stood between me and victory.  But here, I had hit a wall.  My contacts were of no help.  Bribes had failed, or had only led to dead ends.  Even my acquaintances among the poachers had merely shrugged their shoulders.  “They are too rare,” they had told me.  “Too many guards, and the punishment for trying is death.  It cannot be done.”

The hell with that.  I still had better than half of my cash remaining, and I refused to give up.  Finally, a tip from a back-alley Nambian gang member had led me here, to this miserable excuse for a watering hole.  I had been told to look for a man who went by Jarrod, who had one blind eye, who smiled too often.  “He is a crazy man,” the Nambian had told me from the shadows.  “He is touched by the creeping madness, and half of what he speaks are lies.  But he claims to know where the rhinos are, and has sold the horns before.  He is your best shot.  He was my only shot, I thought, but I didn’t share that with the gangster.

Two beers later, Jarrod finally arrived.  He entered quietly, but I knew him as soon as I saw his face.  His right eye was a milky white, with a bright blue iris.  No dark pupil seemed to be present; there was merely a disc of blue floating in the surrounding whiteness.  An idiot’s grin was painted across his gaunt features.  His lanky frame moved easily through the maze of rickety and broken chairs as he headed directly towards me.  He dropped into the chair across from me, stared into my eyes, and giggled.

Continue with part two!

Breaking Boggle.

Continued from here.

I held up the small die that I had picked up from the smoking crater at my feet.  Turning it over, I stared, flummoxed, at the vowels printed on each side.  “Why in the world are you throwing a piece of a Boggle game at me?” I asked aloud.

Across the food court, the Word Wizard cackled loudly in his grating voice.  “My spellcasting methods may be unusual, but they are wildly effective!” he cried. “Now, you will suffer a fate worse than death!”  He reached down into a pouch tucked into his belt, which I now realized was full of Boggle dice.  He made his hurling motion again, and I was forced to dodge another spellbolt.

As I ducked behind a large planter, watching the spellbolt whizz over my head to explode in a shower of sparks, I felt my cell phone ring in my pocket.  Pulling out my headset, I hit the answer button.

On the line, I heard my number two, a creepy and twisted little tech genius named Sin.  Despite the name, he’s invaluable as an assistant, offering insight into many of the criminals I came up against when collecting bounties.  “How’s the wizard going, Rayne?” he asked in my ear.

I grunted in response.  “This is barely worth my time,” I replied.  “He’s a kook, but not much of a threat.  Maybe a two, at most, on the scale.”

From behind me, I heard a shriek as I uttered these words.  Apparently, the Word Wizard had exceptionally good hearing.  “How dare you call me a kook!” Another bolt rattled my makeshift barricade.

With a sigh, I decided it was time to end this problem and collect my bounty.  I drew my handgun from its shoulder holster, and, raising it up over the top of my barrier, I fired off several shots without looking.  I was rewarded with a scream of mingled shock and pain.

Popping up over the top of my barricade, I kept my gun out as I cautiously approached the Word Wizard, now sitting, moaning, on top of one of the tables.  As I drew closer, I could see that he was clutching one leg, from which a thin trickle of blood was dripping.  Reaching out slowly with one hand, keeping the gun in the other, I swiped the bag of Boggle dice from the Wizard’s belt.

I stepped back.  I was fairly certain that the Word Wizard couldn’t do crap without his ‘special dice’, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.  I spared a quick look into the bag.  “Seriously?  And you managed to get a bounty with just this?”  I asked myself aloud.

Between soft sounds of pain, the Wizard looked up at me, a wretched expression on his face.  “Hey, come on, man,” he said.  “I mean, my only ability is to shoot bursts of energy using dice from a board game.  If I don’t make a name for myself, no one will take me seriously.”

“No one takes you seriously now,” I shot back.  “I mean, you’ve got a silly name, you’re trying to incite chaos in a mall, and have you seen your outfit?”

The Wizard looked down at himself.  “What’s wrong with my outfit?” he said plaintively, as I tightened the plastic ties around his hands.

“Look, it really isn’t that hard,” I said as I hauled him to his feet.  Something about the poor guy just made it impossible for me to stay furious at him for attempting to kill me.  “Pick out a name that sounds more dangerous, put on something black, probably with spikes, and maybe rig up a method for dispensing these,” I shook the bag of Boggle dice, “better than pulling them out of a pouch.  Turn them into energy bolts or something.”

By the time I had dragged the Word Wizard down to the office, where he would be processed and I would receive my bounty, the blood flowing from his leg wound had ebbed to a trickle, and a considering expression had grown on his face.  “Death Spell, that’s not bad,” he mused.  And I bet I could rig up some wrist launchers for the dice…”

I rolled my eyes as I pocketed the check and walked away.  Seriously, I thought to myself.  The bounties I was assigned got weirder every day.  I mean, Boggle?  Come on!

Boggle. Six letters, three points.

“Rayne, we got one for ya,” I heard from the front desk as I entered the office.

I didn’t respond immediately, instead taking the time to knock the dirt clods from my boots.  Behind her desk, the receptionist grimaced as I soiled her pristine floors.  Look, if they want the best, they’ll have to deal with any quirks I might have.  Once my soles were satisfactory, I sauntered over to the counter.

“What have we got?” I asked.

The receptionist, a tight-haired little woman who spent most of the time perfecting her scowl, gave me one of her best.  “Magic user downtown.  At the mall.  Our reporter says he’s a wizard.”

That didn’t sound too hard.  Wizards were flesh and blood, after all, and a good crack upside the head, or a few rounds from my Glock, was as good as magic.  “Anything beyond just ‘wizard’?” I said hopefully.  “What’s he doing?”

I got a shrug in return, along with a second scowl, free of charge.  “Listen, I’m just telling what the reporter said,” she told me.  “He said, and I’m using his words here, ‘some crazy Harry Potter board game shit’.  No idea what that means.”

Board game?  Still, I couldn’t be too choosy.  Jobs weren’t always plentiful, even for a . . . specialized . . . bounty hunter like myself.  I grabbed the assignment sheet and headed for the door.

The instructions were fairly clear, and I soon found myself standing at the glass doors to an oversized shopping complex.  Flashy neon signs blared at my peripheral vision, and huge banners screamed about sales on useless doodads.  Aside from the billowing smoke and the screaming, fleeing shoppers, it seemed as normal as any other mall.  Brushing dust from my jacket, I pushed open the glass door and slipped inside.

The mall was set up like a squashed spider, with wings of stores radiating from a central food court.  As soon as I reached the large, open seating area, I knew that I had found my target.  “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered to myself, actually covering my face with a palm.

Floating in the center of the mall, happily shouting and flinging bolts of energy left and right, hung a wizard.  Even without the spellcasting, I would have guessed that he was the wizard.  I don’t know if it was the sky-blue robe, adorned with gold foil stars, that he wore, or the matching pointy hat.  Perhaps it was the foot-long wand gripped in one hand.  I noted, however, that he seemed to be flinging the blasts of energy from his other hand, each one with a throwing motion.  Unholstering my gun, I stepped forward.

The movement caught his attention.  “Who dares approach!?” he shouted, and although I could tell that he was going for a menacing tone, he put me in mind of an irritated hamster.  “Who dares to challenge the Word Wizard?”

Word Wizard?  I didn’t waste time wondering about this.  Bounty hunters who wondered were bounty hunters who weren’t paying attention, and they had a high likelihood of ending up dead.  “You need to disappear, now!” I yelled back.  “If not, I’m going to have to get rid of you!”

“Rid?  Hah!” he cried back at me.  “That’s only a one point word!  You’ll have to do better than that!”  With this declaration, he hurled something at me, something surrounded by the glow of energy.

I threw myself to one side, tucking into a roll, and the energy blast fizzled harmlessly behind me, instead melting several plastic chairs.  I spun around, but was caught by a sudden recognition.  I moved closer to the smoking scorch marks of the blast and, using a napkin for insulation, carefully picked up the small item at the center of the circle.

I held it up to my eyes.  Plastic, cubic, with rounded edges and a rune inscribed on each face.  It was disturbingly familiar.  “Is . . . is this a Boggle die?” I asked aloud.

Will our hero, Rayne, survive the attack of the possibly dreaded Word Wizard?  Find out next time!  To be continued!

The Angel at the Press Conference

Standing in front of a dizzying array of microphones, the focus of a hundred video cameras, the archangel was a stunning vision.  His halo shone brightly above his head, and his grand wings stretched out on both sides of the stage.  His face would have made Michelangelo weep openly, throw down his chisel and hammer, and take up an easier hobby, like basket weaving.

Despite this glittering vision, however, Micah Farris couldn’t help but think of a newly adopted puppy, hopeful but distantly aware that its new owners would soon discover the smelly mess behind the couch.  He looked a little fraught, she thought to herself as she checked her pen for the fiftieth time.  Maybe he hadn’t been sleeping well.  Do angels sleep?

Finally, the archangel cleared his throat.  A hush fell over the assembled reporters, and the only sound was the clicking of cameras.  These would be the first words ever shared with humanity by a celestial being.  These next words would be on the headline of every newspaper, the cover of every magazine, splashed across the front page of every website.

The angel looked around at the throng.  “Erm, this all seems a bit much, doesn’t it?” he asked, sounding vaguely depressed.  “I mean, last time I was down here, you lot were still hitting each other with pointy sticks.”  A particularly loud flash went off, and the angel winced.

Latching onto the pause in conversation like sharks hunting an injured salmon, the reporters threw up their hands, shouting out questions and clamoring for the angel’s attention.  He looked hopelessly lost, but finally pointed at a large, red-faced man in the front row.

“Does God exist?” the man shouted out at the top of his lungs.  With his question asked, he sat back, grinning smugly at his fellow reporters, each of whom was inwardly cursing the fact that the biggest question had just been stolen.

The angel looked affronted.  “Well, of course he does!” he declared.  “I mean, I’m pretty confident that he does.”

This answer seemed somewhat less than reassuring.  “Wait, you aren’t sure?” asked one of the cameramen in the brief silence that followed the angel’s statement.

“Well, I’ve never met him in person,” the angel replied.  “I mean, I’ve got orders, and we keep hearing that he’s in charge, so I’m pretty sure that he’s around somewhere.  Probably tied up in meetings most of the time, though.”

A few of the reporters exchanged sidelong glances.  This didn’t feel quite right.  “What about the Devil?  Does he exist?” asked a skinny woman on the right.

The angel nodded, now looking a bit more confident.  “Oh, yes, Lucern,” he said.  “Er, Lucifer, now.  I keep on forgetting about that name change thing.  Yeah, he’s off on his own plane.  Hot place, but I’ve heard that he’s going to get central air installed, so that should help.  Nice guy, a bit absent-minded though.  He really screwed the pooch on that whole ‘dinosaur’ fiasco.”  The angel leaned back, looking satisfied.  “Next question!”

This definitely wasn’t right.  Micah opened her mouth and managed to get her question out ahead of the pack.  “Why did you come here?” she called out.  She hoped that the cameras didn’t catch the hint of a pleading tone in her voice.

The angel nodded, as if he had been expecting this question.  “Ah yes, I’m here to deliver a message,” he responded.  The reporters all perked up and leaned forward.  Now this, this was Pulitzer Prize material.

From the folds of his white robe, the angel withdrew a small folded piece of paper.  Micah was in the third row, so she didn’t have the best seat, but the paper looked like a sheet torn from a legal pad.  The angel unfolded it, squinted, and then fished in his robe again for a pair of half-moon reading glasses.

“Dear humanity,” the angel read, peering through the glasses down at the creased bit of paper.  “Please stop mucking about so much.  I know it’s been a couple millennia since my last visit, but I thought I told you all to love each other, and cut out all that ‘fire and sword’ nonsense.  Also, if I’d known you lot would obsess over my every word, I wouldn’t have made those jokes about the Visigoth slaves and the Roman milkmaid.  Maybe try to just go with the general feel, that sort of thing.  Lots of love, Jesus.”  The angel stopped, folded the piece of paper in half, and smiled at the stunned reporters.

After a moment of poleaxed silence, the angel glanced down.  “Oh, there’s a PS!” he exclaimed.  “‘P.S. Keep making those funny animal internet videos, I like those.'”

The reporters were speechless, some of them for the very first time in their lives.  The archangel looked around worriedly.  “I hope I didn’t offend anyone,” he said.  “I was told to just come down here and read the note.  I guess that’s done, so I’ll be off now.”  And without another word, he vanished in a flash of white light.

After a long minute of silence, Micah slowly closed her blank notebook.  Maybe most of the front page could just be taken up by a big photograph.  That was impressive, at least.

The Yellow Car Game: Primer

Passengers in my car are often startled when my hand shoots out, fast as a striking snake, to point at nearby vehicles.  This action is usually accompanied by a triumphant cry of “Yellow car!”.  These passengers, confused and distraught, are obviously missing out on the important part of road life that is the Yellow Car Game.  And so, for these poor souls, I present the basic lessons.  May they soon become an integral part of your driving experience.

The Game: Yellow Car

The Objective: To have the highest number of points at the end of the voyage.

Points: One point is awarded to the first person to spot a yellow car that corresponds with acceptable parameters and say aloud, “Yellow car”.  Note that each yellow car is only worth a single point; if the yellow car is passed a second time, on the same voyage, it is null and is not worth a point, having already been “called.”

In the event of a tie, in which two or more people call out a yellow car at the same time, no points are awarded.

If a person calls out “Yellow car” on a car that does not fit the acceptable parameters, this results in the deduction of one point from their current score.  Negative points are possible, although the driver may choose to negate this rule for a specific voyage.

Parameters for Yellow Cars: To be worth a point, a yellow car must be a “non-commercial” vehicle.  To eliminate small businesses, school buses, and other such vehicles, there must not be writing on the yellow car.  (Obviously, automotive brand names and license plates are ignored).

All parties must agree that a car is yellow in color.  Gold, orange, and faded tan cars are not considered to be yellow.

In the case of multiple colors on a car, the majority of the vehicle must be yellow to be counted as a yellow car.

Lime Green Cars: Lime green cars represent a special variable in The Yellow Car Game.  Rather than being worth a number of points, the first person to verbally indicate a lime green car that corresponds with acceptable parameters may choose any one other player in the vehicle.  The chosen person’s current point total is reduced to zero.

Note that to maintain game balance, the car must clearly be lime green.  Dark green, ivy, hunter, or light green cars are not considered to be “lime green,” and the mistaken verbal calling of these cars results in the loss of one point.

Variation: on long car trips, where the loss of all points would be game-breaking, lime green cars may instead result in ten points being subtracted from the total of one person, selected by the caller of the lime green car. This rule must be agreed upon by all parties at the commencement of the trip, before the first lime green car is spotted.

Variations: To increase or decrease the challenge level, the following variations may be put into play by unanimous agreement at the beginning of the voyage:

  • Moving Vehicles: Only yellow cars on the road may be counted; parked cars are not worth points.
  • Eagle Eye: Simply pointing to, or beginning to say the words “yellow car”, is enough to cause a player to lose a point if the car does not fit acceptable parameters.
  • Handicaps: Depending on the skill of the driver, they may be given a mutually agreed upon “head start”, usually between two and five points.  All other normal rules apply.
  • Orange Cars: Orange cars may be worth half a point.
Single-Player Mode: If a person is driving alone, they may choose to play The Yellow Car Game to themselves.  These scores are for bragging only, and may not be incorporated into multiplayer games.

Times When You Don’t Want "Cheap"

In this uncertain economy, there are many places where the cheap option is the best. Generic brand food bakes just as well as name brands – your kids can’t really tell if those nuggets are Tyson or not. Nobody cares how much you paid for the all-leather trim on your steering wheel. In many areas, cutting back is a wise decision.

However, there are still some purchases where the cheap option really is the worst choice. Places where you should be willing, even happy, to pay top dollar. Here are a few:

  • LASIK. “Oh, you don’t want to spend over $400?  Tell ya what, we’ll let our med student take a crack at this one. This will give him a chance to try the controls of the machine for the first time!”

  • Auto repairs.  A good repair uses dealer-issued replacement parts. A bad repair uses bubble gum and cardboard. And no, you can’t “cobble a transmission together with old parts sitting around”.

  • Fire extinguishers. You know what happened to the last guy who thought he could save a few bucks by buying “gently used” extinguishers?  Here’s a hint, he didn’t freeze to death.

  • Guns. No matter what that guy in the back alley tells you, guns do not “mellow with time like fine wines.”  You know what they do?  They explode.

  • Plumbing. I don’t know about you, but I think plumbing was an amazing invention. The less time I spend in contact with human waste, the better. And I am willing to pay top dollar to make sure that those pipes won’t suddenly put me in immediate, intimate contact with it.

And finally…

  • Donating to online blogs. Those writers work hard to provide you with your daily reading material, and they should be compensated. Preaching? Me?  Nahhh.

Boundary Waters

At Dad’s funeral, I talked about our trips to the Boundary Waters.  How could I mention anything else?  They were the most meaningful experiences we shared.

Growing up, I always felt like my dad was distant.  What kid with a working father hasn’t felt that, I wonder. He would be gone all day, and when he returned home in the evenings, he would slump down in his armchair with a beer and not make eye contact.  Our conversations were brief, never straying from the mundane.  I would tell him that school was good, grades were good, sports were good.  He would let me know that work was good, ask about chores, and then drift into silence.

But every year, we would make our summer pilgrimage, heading north, just the two of us in our beat-up sedan laden down with tents and food and canoe paddles.  We would drive north for hours.  In the car, the silence would start to feel different.  As we left civilization behind, we also left behind the awkwardness.  We felt close, almost companionable.

By the time we would reach our starting campsite, we would no longer speak.  There was no need.  We would unload our canoe, pack our supplies, and set out, neither of us speaking a word.  Even on the lake, when we passed the occasional other boat in the wilderness, our voices would remain silent.

Instead, when we saw another boat, even in the distance, Dad would raise his paddle into the air.  Held sideways above his head, he would wave it back and forth, once, twice, three times.  I never knew why he did this.  Sometimes we would get a hesitant wave in return.  Sometimes not.  Dad never seemed to mind either way.

One time, on the ride home, I asked him about the name of the Boundary Waters.  Was it once the border between the States and Canada, I asked.  Was it on the edge of an old Indian territory.

Dad never turned to look at me; his eyes remained on the road.  No, he said.  The Boundary Waters are more than that.  Water has always been a boundary, between light and dark, between life and death.  Dad talked for close to an hour, then, telling me of Charon and Styx, of spirits and nature.  I don’t remember most of what he said, but I still remember his passion, his conviction.

His funeral was a quiet affair.  There was some crying, some sad speeches, but nothing too dramatic, too emotional.  I think Dad would have liked it that way.

That was one year ago.  Today, I went to the Boundary Waters with him for the last time.  He had requested that his ashes be spread on the water.  I was the one to do it.  I loaded up the supplies, the canoe, and drove, but the silence seemed emptier than I remembered.

I paddled out into the center of the lake.  The urn of ashes sat on the bottom of the canoe in front of me, held upright by my legs as I paddled.  The water was still, the woods silent.  Drifting to a gentle stop in the middle, I lifted up the urn.  I didn’t know what to say, if there was anything to say.  I opened the top and spread the ashes across the surface of the still water.

I don’t know how long I sat there, not drifting from the center of the calm waters.  I was roused from my stupor by a soft splashing, coming from the far end of the lake, where a channel led to the next body of water.  I looked up, and could see the faint outline of another canoe.  Someone else, another hiker, was passing by.

They must have looked up and seen me.  I didn’t announce my presence, but they paused in their paddling.  Then, as I watched, they lifted their paddle into the air and waved it to me, once, twice, three times.  What could I do but wave back?  Before I could call out, do anything else, they had drifted beyond my view.