The Worm or The Death of a Hypochondriac

 

cab

The news announcer’s shrill voice rang out, ripping through the bedcovers, stabbing into Marty Stark’s covered ears.

“There is fear of a new flu epidemic. Experts are dubbing it the “Chicken Flu” because it is believed to have originated from a chicken virus strain that has somehow mutated with a human flu virus. Three children in Hong Kong have died from the new strain and there is more concern about it spreading to the United States and Canada.”

Marty removed his hands from his ears, slammed the off button down on the clock radio and sat up. “Great! Chicken Flu! Now we have to be afraid of chickens!” He walked into the bathroom and took two aspirin, stuck his head under the dribble from the sink faucet and swallowed hard, trying to get them down before they disintegrated in his mouth.

“Why are they always from Hong Kong? What’s the deal with Hong Kong? They can’t keep viruses to themselves?”

The hot shower ran down the back of his neck and head, and he felt calm, almost serene for just a few seconds. That’s all he wanted. Just a few seconds of quiet before his hectic day began.  Marty was lulled into mild denial; he didn’t really have to go to work and face a mountain of emails, (approximately 1256 ) didn’t have a meeting at two this afternoon with his biggest pain-the-ass client. The Super Bowl party the night before was great, but his head pounded with Margareta’s Revenge. Oh, and why did he have them with salt? Dehydration was not the ideal way to face Monday morning after the big game. And what’s with the Super Bowl on Sunday night? Why can’t they have it on Saturday so you can sleep in the next day? His eyes shot open as he remembered some of the words he’d spoken at the party. Hey, Babe, how’s it going?Did he really say that? That chick, Billy’s friend, my God, had he asked her out? What happened after half time? Oh, yeah, that cute blonde. Somebody’s cousin, what’s her name. Images of the office popped into his head, and he forced himself out from under the hot torrent of water just in time to see the time on his alarm clock. Shit. Running behind by twenty minutes.

The Choco Bean Coffee Plantation was packed, and Marty waited in a long line that snaked halfway around the store for his double latté. What was her name? Susan, wasn’t it? Or Sally? He got his latte and crossed Massachusetts Avenue and up to Boylston Street. He looked at his watch and realized he’d never make it on time if he didn’t hurry. He started to run, thinking what a sorry sight he must be with his briefcase flying, coat tucked under his arm, huffing and puffing around old ladies and nannies pushing blue strollers, all the while trying not to spill his drink, the big, dark circles under his eyes feeling about three inches deep, off-setting his grotesquely bloodshot eyes. And oh, man, why did he have to eat so much of that seven layer bean dip? His stomach tossed and turned almost giving up the 22 ounces of water he’d slurped down waiting in line at the coffee shop.

Marty didn’t see the cab as he raced across the street, only his latte as it flew above his head, almost in slow motion. Then the yellow hood of the cab came into view as he twirled slowly above the street. He didn’t remember hitting the pavement, only the  old woman screaming like bloody murder.

The cab driver got out and was babbling something about brakes and the light change as he ran up to Marty. Bystanders murmured. A frantic buzz surrounded the accident. The scene embarrassed Marty as he lay there looking up at the sky. Latte stains on his shirt and pants. How could he ever live this down? Marty sat up and smiled at the crowd. A few of them actually cheered. The old lady and the cabbie called for him to lay still, but he would have none of it. The crowd slowly dispersed and he heard the sirens, but Marty didn’t care. He got to his feet, picked up what was left of his dignity and his latte and headed toward the office.

**********

After finding a clean shirt in his lower desk drawer and changing into it, Marty sat at his desk and rubbed his throbbing temples. He took a deep breath and clicked on the space bar of his desktop computer. A black blob slowly twirled and danced on the screen. It resembled a fat worm. What the hell, he thought. Where’s my screen saver? Before he could do anything about the computer problem, his eyes started to ache. Sharp pains, like stabbing needles forced him rub his eyes. He got up and shut off the overhead lights, sat behind his desk, and closed his eyes, just praying the pain would go away.

The office door burst open and Guy Paterson, the tall, unkempt, nerdy computer tech looked in.

“Hey, you awake in here?” Guy said, pointing to the ceiling lights.

Marty sat up. “Yeah. Come on in, Guy. Just watching the screen.”

“What’s with the lights?”

“Got a bit of a headache.”

“Here’s the ten bucks I owe you for the game. You called it, Marty. The Patriots crushed it.” Guy tossed a crumpled ten spot on the desk.

What self respecting New Englander would bet against the Patriots in the big game, Marty thought with contempt. “Thanks, Guy. Hey, there’s this thing on my screen.”

“A what?”

“On my computer screen. There’s this thing I’ve never seen before.”

“A thing?” Guy said, in a mocking tone. “Like The Thing, from John Carpenter’s The Thing? Is it gonna assimilate you?” He had constantly chided Marty about his lack of computer knowledge. According to guy, nobody knew anything about computers except Guy, the all-knowing office guru of computer tech wizardry. “Well, then. Let me take a look.”

Marty was already sorry he’d asked, as Guy sat on the desk and leaned toward the screen, his fat thighs smothering some of Marty’s files.

“Come on Guy! Over this side.” Marty laughed and pushed him back.

Guy came around the opposite side of the desk, and they both stared at the screen. The image appeared to be an out of focus, borderless, 5 x 7 black-and-white photo, twirling and scrolling across the screen in a wavy pattern. Guy touched the space bar on the keyboard, and the screen changed to the desktop.

“It’s a screen saver. What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, first of all, what the hell is it? I mean, I didn’t load it and it’s out of focus and…” Marty pulled up the screen saver options and punched in a selection. The indistinct black and white image appeared on the screen.

“There it is,” said Guy.

“Yes, there it is. But, I have no idea what this is. It was on my computer when I came in this morning. I didn’t put it there, and I have no idea who did.”

Guy grunted and made a clucking sound as he pecked at the computer keyboard.

“Well?” said Marty.

“It looks like someone loaded a photo onto your computer and set it up to be your screen saver. You didn’t do it?”

“No, I swear, never seen it before.”

“Well, then you’ve got a hacker.”

“My office was locked. I lock it every Friday.”

“No, no. Not a thief, a hacker, doe doe. From the internet,” said Guy. “Or…Maybe it’s a new internal program connected to the mainframe. Hmmm….”

Guy’s cell phone rang, and he took the call. “This problem, again? Yeah, yeah, okay be right there.” Guy walked to the door and turned to Marty. “Hey, what can I say? I didn’t do it.”

Guy started to close the door.

“Wait.”

Guy poked his large, shaggy haired head back into the room. “Yeah?”

“Could this photo have been loaded from the Internet without me knowing it? Downloaded somehow?”

“Could be. You have to watch what you open. Sometimes you have to open an email to do it, though. Be careful, there’s lots of scary stuff out there!”

The door started to close again.

“Guy! Just wait a second, will you?”

“Sure, Marty. Anything for you, Man. I’ll just tell Mr. Hart I was late for his little Monday morning pep talk because you have a screen saver demon.”

“Could someone have a remote program that locked onto my computer and put the image in there?”

“Actually,” Guy said, in an ominous tone, then paused for effect, “Yes, there’s a number of ways, Marty. That’s what all those nasty little worms are about.”

“What do you mean, ‘worms’?”

“Well, if you want to get romantic about it, somebody could send you an email, a love letter say, that had a worm attached, and as soon as you opened it, pow! You’re taken over, baby! Worm moves in, you’ve lost control.”

“They can control my computer? Do you think that’s what happened?”

“I don’t know,” said Guy, starting to show signs of concern. “Look, let me run a diagnostic after the old pep talk. I’ll give you a call after lunch.”

Marty sat back, taking a long, deep breath.

“Deal?” asked Guy.

“Yeah. Should I not use my computer until you let me know? I have a client sales pitch at two.”

“I think you’re fine,” Guy said, frustration starting to seep into his tone. “Got to go.” He backed away from the door and quietly pulled it it closed.

Marty sat back and looked at the strange image dancing on the screen. He clicked to the screen saver option to get a better look. The image was basically two small, dark spots and a larger black spot in a sea of gray. He touched the screen, and the image disappeared. He searched the options screen, and the desktop, but couldn’t find where it went. After a few minutes, the screen saver kicked on. GO PATRIOTS! scrolled across the screen. That was the screen saver Marty had put in the computer before the Super Bowl.

“Huh!” he said. “What do you know, it’s back.”

He pressed the space bar again and noticed a dark, blue-black bruise on the back of his left hand. Shit, what the hell is that? The accident must have caused more damage than he realized. Glancing down at the back of his hand, he could have sworn he’d seen the bruise move. He watched for a few seconds more and laughed to himself. He was being silly. Bruises don’t – The bruise crawled a few inches up his arm, like an ameba finding its way in a Petri dish. Marty jumped to his feet, pulled his sleeve up to his armpit. The bruise was traveling fast, just under the skin. It wiggled and pulse and almost seemed to smile at him. His heart pounded. He felt dizzy. The accident, he thought. He remembered being hit and seeing the crowd, but…he didn’t pass out did he? Perhaps he shouldn’t have refused an ambulance. My God, he was sick! A walk-in clinic was just down the street. Maybe he should go there, get checked out? Just the thought of going to a doctor calmed him, but not enough to stop him from running half way there.

***************************

When Marty reached the clinic, he was out of breath. His heart was pounding in his ears. He walked quickly up to the front desk and found it was unattended. The woman sitting inside the clerical support area behind Reception looked strange; a mist-like aura surrounding her. Marty’s head was still pounding, and he was starting to have problems with the bright lights. Everything seemed to have that mist-like halo surrounding it.

“Can I help you?” The receptionist walked to the window and smiled

“I had an accident. This morning, on the way to work.”

“Oh?” she asked.

“I have this bruise…” Marty blinked, trying to clear his vision. The lights were stabbing his eyes. “I was hit by a cab.”

“Oh, dear. Fill out this form. The doctor will see you as soon as he can.” She handed him a clipboard stuffed with papers.

Marty sat on one of the green plastic chairs and tried to read the forms, glad to be the only patient in the waiting room. His arm itched, and he pulled up the sleeve to take a look. The bruise was on the inside of his forearm now, spreading up to the shoulder. A fresh shot of adrenaline coursed through him and his heart skipped a beat, then raced on, upwards of 130 beats per minute, Marty guessed. He stood up and turned to the girl in the office window.

“I think I need to see the doctor, now.”

“He’ll be right with you,” she said.

“I don’t feel good.”

“He’s with another patient. We’ll get you in as soon as we can.” She smiled, and he swore he saw a slight wink, but he wasn’t sure through the strange haze that obscured his vision.

Marty returned to the chair in the waiting area and tried to write his name on the form, but he felt like he needed reading glasses. All the headers for the lines were blurry. He put his head in his hands and whimpered softly. Then he remember to take a long deep breath, count to five and slowly let it out for another five count.

The door next to the reception window opened. “You can step inside now.” A plump middle-age nurse in a white uniform motioned him into the room.

“I didn’t do the forms.”

“Bring them in, we’ll finish them in here.” She smiled. Her voice was soothing and calm.

Marty felt a little better when he sat on the table in the curtained-off exam area. She checked his blood pressure and temperature.

“How am I?” he asked.

“You’re blood pressure is a little high. Are you nervous?”

“I was hit by a cab, and I have this bruise on my arm.” He held his arm out straight, exposing the nasty bruise.

“Oh, that’s not too bad.”

“It was on my hand before. Now it’s on my arm, like it moved.”

“Bruises don’t move,” she chuckled.

A short, balding man with a round pot belly, and dressed in a white lab coat strolled into the room.

“I’m Doctor Babcock. How are you?”

“I have this bruise. Do bruises move, because, I think this one moved?”
“Oh?” Babcock stood back, studied his chart for a second. “Let’s take a look.”

Marty held out his arm. The doctor took a penlight and shined it on the bruise. The nurse leaned forward to get a better look.

“Hmmm.”

“What?”

“Have you been out of the country, lately?”

“No.”

“Do you own any chickens?”

“What?”

“Any contact with birds?”

“No! Why?”

“There is a new flu. A virus they are calling Chicken Flu.”

“You think I have Chicken Flu?”

“No, no. The CDC wants us to ask all patients these questions for tracking purposes.” The doctor pointed to the bruise on Marty’s arm. “How did you do this?”

“A car accident,” said the nurse, helpfully.

“I was hit by a cab.”

“Ouch. While walking? A pedestrian? ”

“Yes, I was walking and suddenly, there it was. I must have flown fifty feet. People were staring at me. The whole world stopped and I was just hanging there in the air.”

They stared at him patiently. He suddenly became self conscious of what he was saying and how panicked he must seem to them. “Then, I came down.”

“I bet. Did you lose consciousness?” asked the doctor.

“No, no. At least, I don’t think so. I was on the ground. I spilled my latte and then I was back at the office.”

“Have you been missing time?”

“I don’t remember. Time? I guess I missed some time, because the next thing I knew I was sitting at my desk. And there was this thing on the screen.”

The nurse and doctor gave each other another glance.

“Why don’t we get an x-ray of that arm?”

The nurse nodded as the doctor leaned in to get a better look at the bruise. The doctor’s bald spot reflected light in Marty’s eyes, and he noticed that only a few straggly hairs still covered his oily scalp. How can a doctor have an oily scalp problem and not cure himself? And why does he have a comb over? This is the guy that I’m supposed to trust with my life? Immediately, his confidence in the doctor was shaken. Who was this fat, balding man with a greasy scalp? He couldn’t even take care of himself, how he could expect –

“Wouldn’t Chicken Flu make you sick with a cold or something?” Marty blurted out, wanting to take control of the situation.

“We don’t know what that flu will do. It came from chickens. People don’t respond like chickens,” said the doctor, then Marty swore he heard him cluck. Just two little clucks, like a chicken. Cluck, cluck. 

Marty laughed, feeling like he was in a bad practical joke, half expecting Guy and some of the folks from work to start laughing in the hallway, give the joke away. “So, you’re telling me, I get hit by a cab, and I get the chicken flu?” Marty paused, then clucked once. “Cluck.”

“I didn’t say you have the flu, sir. I said we are checking all patients.”

The doctor turned and was already gone out the door when he noticed the nurse fishing through some draws to his right. She turned to Marty, held up a paper gown and said, “Put this on.”

He took the gown and said, “I’m sensitive to light, too. I see halos. You have a halo.”

The nurse smiled slightly. “Must be because I’m an angel.”

Marty let that roll off his back. “And that cab driver, he looked foreign. Maybe he traveled to where they have the flu and came back? Can you get it that quick? The Chicken Flu, in an hour?”

“I don’t think so,” said the nurse. She took Marty by the arm and slowly walked him to x-ray room.

His light problem seemed to be getting better now. He could almost make out the X-ray technicians features, who seemed to be a balloon faced monster with horned rimmed glasses who had silver braces on his teeth. Of course, there was no monster, he knew. He laughed to himself, and began to calm down. He could take a joke as well as anybody. Cluck, cluck, indeed. Marty smiled and took a few deep breaths after the x-ray. He was even feeling a bit calm while being led back to the exam room.

After a few minutes, Dr. Babcock walked into the room and stuck an x-ray of Marty’s arm and shoulder onto the light panel. Dr. Babcock stroked his chin, turned his head sideways and again made the clucking noises while he studied the film.

“How’s it look, Doc?”

“It’s not broken.”

“Yeah?”

“What about my eyes?”

“You may have a slight concussion.”

Marty leaned forward on the gurney and peeked over the doctor’s shoulder. There on the x-ray, seemingly embedded in Marty’s arm, was the fuzzy black-and-white image from his computer.

“Whoa! What is that?” asked Marty, his voice cracking, a rush of adrenaline doing the giddy-up on his cardio.

“I’m not sure. Bruises don’t usually show on x-ray like this. Hmmmmmm.” Dr. Babcock fastidiously straightened the few hairs left on his head and stood back, staring at the x-ray like it was an expressionist painting.

“Well, it keeps moving. Look!”  Marty held up his arm. The bruise was almost to his chest. “What do I mdo? What is that?”

“Boy, you’re a nervous one, aren’t you?” Babcock said, with a cluck.

“But that thing was on my computer! You understand? That black spot thing is on my arm and now my chest. They said it was a worm. The same thing is on my computer! I have a worm! It’s a worm! A computer worm and I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Marty had visions of inch long, black glistening slug-like worms squirming around under his skin, eating flesh, boring holes through his body, and finally reaching his spine and then soon, eating his brain. His brain! Then the notion came over him that it was all in his head, and perhaps he was losing his mind, like meth-heads do. They see bugs, crawling on their skin and in their eyes. Maybe the concussion was doing this? Or perhaps he was dreaming. He’d wake up from a nap soon, and all this would be gone. It was all a strange, crash induced hallucination dream. That’s what this is, he thought.

“And you keep clucking at me like a chicken.”

“Come on, now.” The doctor smiled, his finger on the x-ray. “It’s a superficial bruise.”

“You gotta help me, Doc!”

The doctor turned to Marty. “You need to remain calm. Okay? Look at me.” He held out his hand. “I’ve got twelve patients with the chicken flu, you don’t see me running around yelling about worms, clucking up a storm, do you?”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not infected.”

The doctor put his hand to his chin for a second, as if to think, then he said, “I’m going to call an ambulance to take you to County General.”

“What? Why? Am I dying? Oh, my God, am I going to die?” Marty jumped to his feet and grabbed his clothes, shoving his leg into his pants. He tripped himself, falling to the floor. The doctor started to help him, but stopped himself before touching Marty’s arm. Marty looked up at the doctor and saw the hesitancy on his face.

“You’re afraid to touch me, aren’t you? You’re frightened by me. This thing I have!”

The doctor shook his head, clucked twice, and waved his hands in front of him, as if to warn him off.  “I’m just concerned. That’s all.”

Marty reached out to the doctor, and Babcock backed away toward the door. “What are doing? I need your help! I’ve got a worm, don’t you understand! A worm!”

“Settle down, now. Cluck. I’ll get you something.” He called out to the nurse for some lorazepam.

“I touched the screen and the worm went into my hand! You understand?”

The nurse brought in a small bottle of clear liquid. Babcock started to load a syringe with the substance.

“What’s that?” asked Marty.

“Just something to calm you down.”

“I don’t want to calm down. We have to do something about this worm!”

The doctor held up the loaded syringe and turned to Marty. “Roll up your other sleeve, cluck.”

“No, I don’t need that! It’s the worm. We have to get it out!” He pushed the doctor away, knocking the syringe to the floor. “You keep clucking at me!”

Doctor Babcock abruptly turned and ran from the room, holding his arm where Marty had touched him. Marty snatched up his clothes and followed him into the hallway. Babcock disappeared behind a door marked, Office. Marty ran to the front-desk area, but the place was empty. He ran back into the x-ray room, but no one was there.

He found his way back to the exam room and hurriedly put on his clothes, thinking; I have a worm. A worm! And he could feel it working its way under his armpit, gnawing at his flesh, boring a path through his body, knowing that if it reached his heart, he would die.

Marty got to the front reception area, and heard clucking coming from behind another  door.

“Are you in there?” he yelled. “Hey, Doc, why are you hiding from me? Nurse?”

It was no use. They weren’t going to help him. No doctor could. Sirens wailed from a few blocks away. He ran to the exit door. They were coming closer. Coming for me, he thought. He imagined a paddy wagon, him being loaded in with chains wrapped around his wrists, the driver saying, “Better watch him, Len. He’s got the worm.” The driver’s pencil-thin head would open in a rabid, sharp toothed grin as he poked Marty with a stick to make him move. He’d be an animal in a cage. The beast with the worm!

Marty ran into the street, not seeing where he was going, knowing only that he had to get away, had to find out about the worm before it was too late. Instinctively, he turned and headed toward his office.

****************

Marty opened his office door. Guy sprang up from the desk chair.

“Marty, what happened to you? You look horrible.”

Marty grabbed Guy, pulling his tie until his face was close enough to smell the tuna fish sandwich he’d had for lunch.

“You did this, didn’t you?” he huffed.

“Did what?”

“The worm! The worm! Look at it!” Marty lifted his shirt. The bruise covered parts of his chest and armpit.

“Geesh, Marty! You better get to the doctor.”

“I’ve been to the doctor. He just clucked at me! It’s the worm. The worm, Guy! Don’t you get it?”

“What worm?”

“Okay, that’s enough. Get back, you idiot.” Marty pushed Guy out of the way and ran to his computer. He frantically pawed at the keyboard, trying to find the screen saver. “Come on, Guy! Help me find it. I’ll show you what I’m talking about.”

Guy stood back, watching fearfully, and looking like he didn’t know what to do next.

“Come back over here. Take a look at my computer. I can’t find it.”

“You gotta calm down, Dude.”

“Just do it!” Marty yelled.

“No, I mean it. Calm down,” Guy said, and he took a few steps toward Marty.

Marty suddenly realized how crazy he must seem. He took a deep breath, then stood and graciously presented his chair for Guy to sit. “How’s this, Guy? See? I’m okay. Come. Take a look, will yah?” He had taken a deep breath and smiled politely, but he knew he wasn’t going to be calm. His heart pounded against the wall of his chest. He imagined that wall contracting, turning black, with the body of that worm thing surrounding his heart, squeezing the juice from it, sucking every ounce of blood he had left, its gnarly, spiked teeth delving through his tender flesh. Marty’s knees were weak, and he felt faint, but he managed a smile as he held the chair for Guy to sit and start his work.

Guy hesitated a second, watching Marty suspiciously.

“Find the image, will you please?” Marty asked, baring his teeth in forced smile.

Guy came around the desk and clicked the keyboard. After a few minutes, the dark image popped up on the screen, slowly twirling like a roast on a spit.

“There it is.”

“What is it, Guy? Is it a worm?”

“I tried to tell you when you first walked in, but you were going nuts.”

“What?”

“It could be part of a worm.” Marty’s body tightened. “But it’s a photo,” said Guy.

“Yes,” said Marty, as he watched the lethal image. “It looks like an out-of-focus photo.”

“Yeah, but what I bet you didn’t know I have software to remedy this,” Guy said.

“What do you mean?” asked Marty.

“I can clean up the image. Look.”

They both stared at the fuzzy blobs on the screen. Marty felt a muscle spasm in his side and grabbed it, clutching what he thought might be the worm as it slithered its way into his chest cavity.

“Can you make it clear?” Marty said, sweat pouring down his forehead so profusely he had to wipe it from his eyes with his shirt tail.

“Keep watching it,” said Guy, a bit cocky now, confident in his almost magical control over the computer.

Guy went into a program, pulled the photo from the screen saver and started to press the number pad. Marty leaned forward, looking over Guy’s shoulder.

“See? It’s getting clearer,” Guy said.

At first, Marty couldn’t tell what it was. Perhaps it was at an angle he hadn’t expected. It appeared to be taken from way up high. As he took in the whole image, he began to understand what he was seeing.

Guy turned to Marty. “What is that, a car?

“Yeah, a taxicab,” answered Marty. “A yellow cab.” The pain in his side was getting worse now.

“And that, right there. Look!” Guy pointed to what appeared to be a crumpled lump of clothing. “What is that?”

Marty took a deep breath. He could feel his head starting to spin as recognition slowly crept upon him.

“And that, that looks like a guy standing in the street,” said Guy.

“Yeah,” said Marty. “Like a cab driver.”

“But what is this?” Guy pointed to the bundle of clothes.

“That? That’s me, Guy. That’s me.”

Guy turned to Marty and said, “What?”

The word what echoed through Marty’s head as he slowly opened his eyes and faced the early morning sky. It was a lovely deep blue with just a few clouds. He turned his head slightly, and an old lady crossed herself as she leaned in, her wrinkled face sadly looking down upon him. The cab driver stood above, yelling something about traffic lights and brakes, and waving his arms around. Marty tried to say something. The cabdriver and the old lady leaned in to listen. Marty took the cabbie by the collar, put his lips to the driver’s ear and whispered, as a pang of relief fluttered through his chest.

“At least…”

“Yes, yes, at least?” parroted the cabbie. “At least, what?”

And with his last, dying breath, Marty said, “At least it’s not a worm.”

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   Deppea Splendens               

 

desert

    The two men dripped sweat after the short chase. They sat in the broiling patrol car, hot and miserable, in the mid-day heat. Officer Barrett wrote in his log.

The prisoner looked up and smiled. “Hey hombre, they say if you breathe in the smoke of the burning Deppea splenden plant, you will come face to face with the demons that hold you back. They are hidden in a world of shadows, far away from the life you truly should be living. You know what I’m talking about?”

Officer Barrett kept writing in his book and didn’t look up.

“You know, that gentle nibble, the irritation gnawing at you until it bites at your soul?”

Officer Barrett wiped sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief, and glanced in the rear mirror at his prisoner.

“You got illegal plants, Golton?” Barrett asked.

“Illegal? That plant? No. Extinct in the wild, very endangered world wide.”

“Extinct huh?”

“The smoke sets you on a journey you wouldn’t believe.”

“I know you don’t have anything on you, unless it crawled out your ass. And I ain’t going there.”

“I know where to get it. Close by.”

“I don’t smoke amigo. But you keep talking like this, I’ll book you on more than just being a public nuisance and you can spend more time in lock up. Understand?”

“I can get it for you now. You see what it can do.”

“I can see it did wonders for you. Why don’t you just shut up?” Officer Barrett chuckled as he wrote in his log.

“You see what I mean? I have an offer for you that could change your life and all you can do is write in your police book. Why don’t you look around, Hombre? People are living other people’s lives.”

Barrett stopped writing, glanced in the side-view mirror for oncoming traffic, then merged the patrol car onto the single lane highway.

Golton made a clucking sound with his tongue and rested his head against the back door. The desert heat penetrated the car and washed over the men in rippling waves.

“Hey Hombre, how about turning up the air in this bucket?”

“Don’t worry about it, we’ll be at headquarters in fifteen minutes.”

“You telling me you don’t have air?”

Barrett said nothing. Golton kicked the seat and slumped down.

“You kick that seat again and I’ll close your window.”

The two men stared at each other in the mirror. Golton broke eye contact and hummed quietly the Spanish song, De Colores as he turned away and looked out the window.

Distant, low mountains gleamed in the desert sun. Sequoia cacti dotted the sparse landscape. The occasional tumbleweed blew across the dusty road.

“I see a few lonely plants out there, Hombre. But none like the Deppea. She has the most beautiful flowers of any plant, more beautiful than the cactus flower. It’s purple. A deep, deep purple like you’ve never seen. I can take you to it.”

Barrett smiled into the mirror. Golton frowned. “Hey, these cuffs are hurting my wrists. Why don’t you fix them at the next stop?”

“Next stop for you is the jail.”

“Before that, I have to pee.”

Barrett started to roll up the rear window.

“No, no! Please the air is all I need!”

The rear windows came back down and Barrett smiled into the rear view mirror.

“You piss in this car and you’ll be cleaning it up.”

Golton Nodded. “Have a heart, Amigo.” But Barrett  said nothing.

They sat in silence for a while. Golton coughed and sighed, then said, “The first time I tried the plant, it was such a beautiful day. It was at my cousin Celia’s house, in the back yard. We sat under some trees there and she pulled out this small dried piece of the Deppea. The air was thin and dry that day, too, like today. Some clouds were trying to roll in from the foothills, but the sun was keeping them away. Celia, she lit this little twig and pulled a shawl over us to breath in the smoke. I coughed and choked, Amigo. Oh, man my throat closed up and I could hardly breathe. But, that was when I saw her. She came to me under that tree. She appeared to me first from a silver cloud and took the shape of a beautiful woman with long flowing gowns. She had flowers in her hair. I said to her, where do you come from? And do you know, she looked right at me with those stabbing eyes! Her eyes sparkled like little silver sparks from a blade, like tiny bits of sun. I have always been with you, she says. Then she spread her wings and covered me, took me in her arms and…”

Barrett looked at Golton in the rear view mirror.

“She took you for a ride, huh?”

“No man, she made me see. I saw my life the way it should have been instead of the way it is now. I was a different person. I was me, but a better me.”

Barrett pulled his aviator glasses down his nose a bit and glanced at Golton. “You weren’t a screw up anymore? Good dream. Too bad you can’t live it, huh? Live the dream.” Golton looked away in dismay. “Most drug trips just kill a few thousand brain cells, yeah?”

Golton looked out the window. “You wouldn’t understand even if I told you the whole story. You would just laugh. People like you always laugh at people like me.”

“At drug addicts? Nah, I’m not laughing at you Golton, I’m laughing with you.”

Golton began to cough. He gagged and choked and tried to catch his breath. “What are you doing back there?” said Barrett. He pulled off to the side of the road and got out of the patrol car. Opening the back seat door, he leaned in to see to Golton. “You pull anything and I’ll -”

The spray hit him squarely in the face. Barrett shot up straight and put his fingers to his nose and mouth. A fine, dark purple power covered his fingers. The earth began to spin. Round and round it went until he could no longer hold on, until he staggered back and fell to his knees. His eyes crossed and his eyelids closed.

“I forgot to tell you, Amigo, it comes in powdered form, too,” Golton laughed.

Barrett was rigid on the ground. His body convulsed once, and then went limp.

“Oh, shit, Amigo. Don’t die on me. I still have to get you off the road.”  Golton dragged Barrett around the back side of the cruiser and lay him face down in the dirt. He removed the keys to the cuffs and unlocked them from his wrists. “These hurt me, amigo.”

Gloton went through the deputy’s pockets, found cigarettes and matches and lit one up. In the front seat he found a bottle of water and drank it down. Water droplets tickled his nose and he rubbed his fingers under his nose and wiped. When he pulled his fingers back he saw they were purple. “No!” he said out loud and looked in the rear view mirror. The purple was in his nostrils and on his fingers. “Shit, shit!” Golton wiped his face on the deputy’s shirt. He found Barrett’s hanky and used it in each nostril, but it was too late. All he could do now was wait.

Golton sat on the front seat with the door open and stared far across the vast emptiness of the desert plane.

A small dark cloud lingered in the distance. Soon the cloud was rising up. And he could see her coming. On a galloping horse-cloud she rode. Her teeth were bright white and clenched, her hair flowing back into the wind. In an instant she was there. Her wind horse was screaming. Dust flew up into his face. She sat on the thundering horse cloud as it reared up before him. Her shadow cast him into darkness and the wind blinded him with sand.

“Have mercy!” he pleaded.

She leaned forward on the swirling horse-cloud and spread her wings.

“Forgive me mother! I am a wicked man! Please. I know I have not done what I am supposed to do. I have failed you! Please!”

Her voice rang through him like an electric current. It yanked and pulled his flesh, yet was smooth and comforting. A voice, other worldly in gravity and charm, it grounded him, pinned him to the floor of the Mother Earth and opened him like a frog on a dissection table. “You are. No more, no less than eternal truth has created you.” she said.

She picked him up in her arms and carried him far across the desert to a small oasis covered in olive trees. There she gently placed him by the water. He tried to see her, but she melted away into the sand and with her, the light of the day was gone.

He was alone in the heavy, clawing darkness for how long he couldn’t tell, until a small distant light appeared. It came close and was carried by a beautiful dark haired girl. She sat down next to Golton and looked into his eyes.

“Who are you? he asked.

She smiled a perfectly white smile and offered him a cup. He sipped and tasted, for the first time, what he knew to be his life and he spit it out. Bitterness crept inside him and he felt cramps in his stomach.

“Do you not like it?” she asked.

“It’s bitter.”

“It is what you have made.”

“I made this?”

She smiled and took off her clothes and stood naked before him.

“You are beautiful,” he said.

She turned and walked into the water and disappeared beneath the surface of the black pool.

“Wait. Come back,” he yelled.

But he knew she would not be back. He knew he was all alone. For alone is what he’d been his whole life. And he felt the stillness of this. Then he felt something very hard come to him. Not on his body but in his mind. It was hard and final and useless, and he knew it was death that he felt. Death, like the sand under his feet, was all around him and made up everything he saw. For the earth and death were the same and made of the same things. All things were living and dead at the same time.

Golton hunched down at the edge of the water and heard whispers there. Whispering voices from everyplace and no place. Pieces of words came to him and filled his heart with heaviness. Words that where whispers of what he could have done with his life, whisperings that meant nothing and all of everything. Empty and meaningless words pinched and bit at his arms and face. Echoes of choices made or ignored long ago. Black vomit full of regrets filled his heart and came out from his mouth, and he knelt down and sobbed them onto the ground. Regrets flowed from his eyes as he moaned and softly cried.

The sound to his left was love lost. The sound to his right was a wrong that could have been righted. The wind gently blew sand toward him, and in those grains, he knew, were the thousands of lost hours he’d spent doing nothing, being nothing, thinking nothing. For he was alone. And Golton wished to all the knowing grains of sand that he could have those moments back. That he could make something out of his life, if only he could have one last chance. “Please dear God, one last chance!” he cried. Then all was still, and black. And he fell asleep.

Golton awoke to a thundering voice. “Get out!” Barrett pulled Golton from the car and steadied him as they walked into the police station door. Golton strained to open his eyes. They stung and felt sand scratched as he tried to concentrate on Barrett’s commands.

“I don’t know what stunt you pulled on me, Golton. But I’ll be damned! Assault on an officer!”

“Hey, Amigo. I’m glad to see you’re all right. I thought maybe you had a bad trip or something. Some people don’t make it back fro the purple flower. It’s too much for their system. They collapse instantly and never come back. But that only a ew. It’s worth the risk, though, eh?”  Golton said, as they made their way to the processing room. Barrett sat Golton on a metal chair and cuffed his hands to the table. “Hey, Amigo. Have I told you about the Deppea, the lady in the wind? She comes to me and tells me when things are going to happen.”

“Yeah? Did she tell you you’re gonna spend forever in lock up?” Barrett said, as he filled out a form. “Resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, illegal substances….”

Another voice charged the air. “Barrett, what the hell happened to you?”

A large man stood by the desk.

“Nothing, Sarg. I got the wind knocked out of me. Damn little prick hit me with some kind of spray.”

“Yes. Yes, she tells me many things, Amigo,” Golton said.

“Well, you look like crap. Get yourself hydrated.” Sarg snickered and walked away.

Golton still could not see well, but as he turned to go with Barrett, he heard a banging against the desk, then a fall. Men scuttled toward him and then to Barrett. They said things like, “Get the EMT’s.” And, “Put his feet up.” He heard the chest compressions being performed. More men scuttling back and forth and then the far off sound of a siren could be heard as it raced across the desert toward them.

“Hey, Amigo? Are you still there?”

A voice called, “Somebody get him out of here!” And Golton was being led to a cell. The blurry path to the back was lined in tan uniforms and shiny guns and badges as the whirling sounds of a life and death struggle played out in back of him.

“Amigo. Don’t fight it. I see now what she told me. Yes, she told me she was coming. For you! I thought it was for me. But she covered me with her wings. It must have been for you, Amigo. You! You see? The Deppea Splenden never lies. I told you, Amigo. She sends you on a trip, eh?” Golton laughed and coughed. “A trip, eh?”

Golton suddenly grew very tired and rested his head on the bench in the cell. He wondered what trip the policeman had been on. If she had come to him, too. Perhaps she folded her wings on him and he had pushed her away.

The sirens were there now, just outside his door, but they could not keep him awake. They could not bring him back. He fell slowly into the desert’s swirling winds, covered only by her wings. And in that moment, he felt a tinge of regret for the life he had wasted, for the man he could have become, then he felt vaguely hungry and wondered what they were serving for supper that night.

 

 

Warm Water (part one)by CR Hinckley

Mick Cullen glided through the warm water as easily as a snapping turtle on a hot day in the bayou. Long lazy swings of his arms propelled him several feet at a time. Holding his breath for a long minute, he let it out slowly and continuously, turning his head side to side as he swam. Tiny bubbles of cool air tingled on his skin, stimulating his senses and causing his muscles to contract under goosebump skin.

The side gate opened with a practiced squeak and the young woman, tall, sleek looking in her dark blue bikini, walked into the lounge area. Mick pressed his body against the pool wall, balling the bathing suit in his hands, as she walked by. Her large brim hat and dark glasses revealed the cool image of a mature woman with a still young body, strong chin and straight nose. The edges of her lips curled in an easy smile.

She sat on a lounger and pulled a bottle of baby oil from her bag. Her tight thighs glistened in the sun as she spread the oil onto her dark skin. Mick smiled and she nodded slightly. She turned, pulling her bathing suit bottoms down a few inches to reveal a white tan line.

“Hot today,” he said.

“Mmmm,” she purred.

“Like a bath.”

“I bet.”

“The birds have been at it again,” he said referring to the crushed and broken berries that covered the decking.

“The birds?”

“They like the berries.”

She turned toward Mick, pulling her sunglasses down onto her nose, and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “I like berries.” She looked around as if noticing the deck for the first time and said, “They’ve made a big fat mess, haven’t they?”

Mick pointed to the bushes crowding the pool fence. “They’re poisonous.”

“Those?” she said.

“I hear they’re delicious, actually. Then you die a slow painful death.”

She turned onto her back and crossed her feet.

“I haven’t seen you before. New to The Chamberlain?” he asked, referring to the condos.

“Just visiting.”

“Staying with friends?”

“And you’re the welcome wagon?”

Mick laughed. “Just nosey.”

He slipped feet first down into the water, put his bathing suit back on and slowly came up again, letting the water smooth the slick his thick, black hair back on his scalp.

“I guess I can’t help myself,” he said. “I mean, I know most of the residents. Maybe I know your friends?”

“My cousin, actually,” she said.

“Cousin?”

“Sherry. Sherry Pilton?”

Mick gulped a mouthful of water and spit it out in a long stream. Sherry Pilton. That bitch. Hysterical, manic Sherry Pilton, soaking wet, running out of the pool. That picture would stay in his head forever. Man, was he drunk that night. Sherry Pilton, the head case.

“No, don’t think I know her,” he said through polished teeth.

“She’s having a little get-together later.”

“I’m going into town,” he lied. “Meet up with an old friend.”

“Her parties are a hoot.”

“Really?”

She turned sideways on the chair, white tan lines starting to pink.

Mick swam the length of the pool, catching a glimpse of her breasts as they fought to break free from her top. His mind reached for conversation.

“Where are you visiting from?” He asked as he paddled on his back near her chair.

“I’m moving in, actually.”

“Getting your own place?”

She pulled her sunglasses down again and looked over them with radiant blue-green eyes. If there was a family resemblance to Sherry, Mick sure couldn’t see it.

“I mean you’re probably looking for your own place,” Mick smiled.

“Are you in real estate or something?”

Mick laid his hands onto the deck for support. “As a matter of fact, I am, sort of.”

“Huh,” she said, smirking.

“It just so happens that I have a property that is available.”

“Really,” she said in a disinterested tone. She turned onto her side, her head away from the pool.

Splashing onto his back, he slid down into an inverted loop, slowly coming back around and up for air.

Mick turned to say something but when he saw she had turned away, he started to do laps instead.

Sherrie Pilton’s naked body popped into his mind; her dark red hair, brown freckles dotting her white skin. Man, she was a wildcat, angry and bitter from a nasty divorce, living the lonely life of a single gal. Always talking to her cat. That was enough to drive any guy away. He chuckled, remembering the way she looked at him when he told her to leave him alone. All hurt and stupefied. That girl just couldn’t take a hint, wasn’t worth the trouble, anyway. Sure she had a nice little body, but her bad habits drove him crazy. She was looking for love and desperate about it, but had no idea what he was like or what he wanted. She always wanted him to go to this party or that, or double date with one of her bimbo friends. Sherry didn’t even know the difference between Chardonnay and Cabernet. She was a white trash loser. A hick, really. Creepy. Needy all the time, like she’d get her claws into you and never let go.

He was drunk the day he tossed her into the pool. Right after that barbeque full of losers at her friend’s house, and he’d told her to get lost.

Mick floated on his back near the side of the pool. So what if she was Sherry’s cousin? What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt either of them.

“What if I was to tell you that you could have a two bedroom condo with a pool view and brand new carpeting?”

“Thanks, but I think I found a place,” she said without looking up.

“Nine-eighty a month.” He wanted to grab his tongue as the words slipped out, knowing he could get twelve. He hoped she hadn’t heard.

“Two bedroom?”

“A thousand square feet, two bedroom beauty ready for move in.”

The last tenant was a divorced mother with a ten-year-old kid. What a little brat. Digging into the walls, writing all over the closet doors with magic marker. He finally had to tell them he was moving in to get them the hell out. It took a week to clean up the mess. She was a horny little thing, but the kid was a nightmare. And he’d vowed no more kids. The little pigs weren’t worth the trouble.

“Maybe I’ll take a look, then.” She sat up and put her hat on.

“Sure. I mean, if you haven’t signed a lease.”

“No, not yet.”

“No kids, no pets.”

“What do you have against kids and pets?”

“Insurance doesn’t allow them,” he lied. “They do damage.”

“No kids, no pets,” she said.

“Good. I’ll take you over to see it.”

She gave him a why not nod and sat back in the chair.

“I’m Michael, by the way. Michael Canova.”

She smiled warmly and said, “Laura, Laura Ray.”

“Glad to meet you, Laura.” He flashed a smile and slunk down into the water, his eyes just above the surface, staring into the dark lenses of her sunglasses, wondering how long it would take him to get under that bathing suit and get her into bed.

**********

She was tall and sophisticated looking in her floral print sundress as she strolled down the hall toward the condo. Mick felt a tingle in his gut when she smiled and held out her hand to shake. He held her hand for a second longer than he should have, but she didn’t seem to mind. Encouraged, he held his hand on her back as they walked into the empty condo

Mick pulled open the blinds to reveal a view of the pool.

“That’s where we were,” she said looking at the pool area. “That was my chair right there.”

“There it is,” he said, wondering if she was really that sweet. “Let me show you around.”

They walked into the first bedroom, an empty 10 x 12 room with a sliding glass door on the closet. She nodded politely and followed Mick into the master bedroom.

“What’s that?” She looked up at the mirrored ceiling.

“Last tenant must have put that in. Never seen it before,” he lied. “I guess the bed would go…”

He stopped himself from saying the obvious and stood directly below the mirror. “Of course, that will have to come down.”

“You don’t have to go through any trouble. I’ll get used to it.”

“Yeah?” he said, surprised. He looked into her eyes and they locked for a moment, then she turned toward the window.

“So, what do you think?” he asked.

“I’ll take it.”

“Good. I’d like to let you have it.”

They smiled at each other for a few seconds. She broke it off to look at the pool.

He took in her even profile, not believing his incredible luck; a real beauty in his condo. A ripple of anticipation fluttered in his stomach and spread out over his chest. She likes the mirror. She likes the pool. She likes me. Then Sherry, the crazy bitch, popped into his head. She could ruin everything. What was he going to do about her? Calling himself Michael would help. Sherry only knew him as Mick. They’d go out, go to his place and avoid Sherry at all costs. And if he had to, he’d pay her a little visit.

 

One Week Earlier

 

Mick slapped Sherry one more time before pushing her into the pool. Just then, out the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a blue Hawaiian shirt and a bright flash lit up inside his eyes. Mick found himself on the pool deck, holding his head. A huge hairy man stood over him with his fists clenched, the Hawaiian shirt hanging loose around his chest.

 

“You want more?”

 

Mick was looking into the eyes of a maniac. Large, wild black dots in the center of a fat red face darting from the pool to him and back again.

 

“What you hit me for?”

 

“Leave the lady alone!”

 

Mick turned to Sherry. She stood waist high in the pool, her tan dress nearly transparent in the cold water.

 

“Sherry, was I bothering you?”

 

Sherry held her arms out in front of her body as if to block a body check, her lips quivering slightly. “No. No he wasn’t bothering me. He’s my husband.”

 

“That’s right,” said Mick. “You gonna stand between a husband and his wife?”

 

The thick man looked at Sherry with doubting eyes, then back at Mick. Backing away, he turned toward the pool. “You don’t have to lie to me, lady. I saw him hit you. You can press charges. Take him to court.”

 

Mick smiled, his fingers wrapped tightly around the back of a lounge chair to support his wobbly legs.

 

“What’s your name?” asked Mick.

 

“Never mind my name. I know what I saw and I don’t go for it.”

 

The big guy looked distracted suddenly, like he was confused about something. Mick took it as his chance to rectify the situation.

 

“How about you go for this?”

 

Mick swung the chair around, sliding it into the big guys shin. Big guy leaned down to grab his leg and Mick slammed him in the gut with a right. Reaching back for a good wind-up, Mick smacked Big Guy right in the nose. He went down hard, and Mick was all over him. Kicking him in the face and punching him until he lay on the ground with his arms covering his head. Mick grabbed a large, white rock from the garden near the pool fence. Holding the rock high above the guy’s head, Sherry screamed for him to stop. Mick saw the gold Detective’s shield on the big guy’s belt and backed away, dropping the rock back into the garden.

 

Sherry was screaming like hell. Mick jumped into the pool to calm her down. Blood from the Detective’s head dripped into the pool. Mick held her, fighting her flailing until at last she was a silent, quivering mess in his arms.

 

Mick squeezed Sherry’s mouth with his fingers and pulled her face close, so he could see the wild in her eyes. He held her tight and whispered into her ear.

 

“You see that fat shit over there?”

 

She nodded her head.

 

“He’s a cop. A gold shield Detective and he hit me in the head. You understand? He just hauled off and socked me without cause and didn’t identify himself. They have to do that, you know. Identify themselves as cops. And you’re my witness, you understand?”

 

She nodded slowly.

 

“That’s right. Now, if I need you to, you’re gonna testify against this fat shit Detective that he hit me first without a reason, you got that?”

 

“Yes,” she mumbled.

 

“Good. Now, I don’t ever want to see you again, understand me, you little whore? Unless I call you, I don’t want to see your fat ass around the pool or anywhere near my side of the condos, you got me?”

 

She nodded.

 

“Good. Now, go home. And if you tell anyone about this, I’ll find out. Now go.”

 

Sherry waded out of the pool and ran through the open gate. Mick chuckled to himself, seeing her run all scared like that, her stupid little purse flapping behind her legs. She looked like a water soaked poodle.

 

The fat cop was starting to move when Mick walked up and stood above him, water from his soaked pants dripping onto the Detective’s face.

 

“You are in some deep shit, my friend.”

 

Mick took the badge number down and kicked the cop one last time before walking off. Fat pig deserved it for ruining his evening.