Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dear Blue Skies

By Chris Dankovich

Dear Jennifer Wherever You Are,

I don't know if you remember me, or the day we met. It was over three years ago, but I find myself thinking more and more about it as the days languish. Who would have thought that one moment could influence so many more?

Do you remember the day? I remember every second of it. You walked into the room with a shallow stride equal parts vulnerable and strong. You looked beautiful, if it's not too forward for me to say. Your medium-length light hair pulled back tightly. Not a strand loose from the ponytail, the way most girls leave it  and don't care. No, there was nothing sloppy about you. Your stylish dress looked tailor-made for you, and showed just the right amount of skin (hey, I couldn't not look). You had an air of confidence about you, and while I don't know if that was real, the calmness you projected was (and made a difference to me). Faked strength can still be an actual strength.

You walked in the room and looked right over at me, the only other person there. You smiled at me - that smile! - the kind that says, "I'm so glad someone's here," "I hope I'm not bothering you," "I'm so sorry" and, "Hi." That‘s how you initiated our conversation, though your first actual word was ”Hey." I said "Hey" back, with a hint of a smile myself. You sat closer to me than you seemed to have originally planned to.

You were right there, but the my ability to talk to a pretty girl didn't present itself -- I couldn't bring myself to speak anything more than that monosyllable acknowledging your existence. So I was extremely fortunate that you took up the burden of 'breaking the ice.' Most women don't: I don't know why you did. But you did. You made a joke about the nice weather we were having, and we both looked up at the graying white ceiling simultaneously. You made this cute smile that became more relaxed and natural after I started laughing. I once heard there's no humor in Heaven - it‘s how we minimize Hell (that sounds like something a psychiatrist or a guy at AA would say).

I said that I’d heard it was going to be partly sunny with a chance of rain. You asked what I thought the chances of rain were. I said it depends on where you're standing. "What about where you're sittin'?" you asked. I asked if you meant where I was sitting, or where you were. You nodded your head towards me.

“There's a high chance of storms, but I see some blue sky right now." Only then did I  notice your blue eyes, halfway closed while you were smiling.

You leaned forward and held your palms up, as if you wanted me to read them. "What about my forecast?" you asked. I scooted down the bench until I was only about a foot away. I asked where you were from. You gave me the name of a town, not a large one, a short distance away. I looked down at your hands again: they weren't shaking or clenched tight. I looked over your body, your composure, as my eyes made their way back to your face. Anxiety showed through your confidence, but never once had I seen any apprehension, nor sadness. In angst you looked down at your hands, squeezing them shut. I lightly brushed your arm with my hand, and your eyes instantly locked with mine. I saw the span of life in your eyes. I saw an angel in your eyes. And you must have seen something in mine.  You stared into them, never breaking contact, never expecting a word. Looking at the stars in the night sky, from only a foot away. It was both exciting and unbearable, the power of its meaning. I placed my hand on your arm again, this time leaving it there, lest your eyes cause tears to spring from mine. Your pupils dilated and you snapped back into the moment the force of your spirit sending a shiver through your body and mine.

I pulled my hand away, sure that I had caused you discomfort. But your stare broke from mine and followed my hand. I watched you place your hand on mine, feeling its warmth radiate through my body. The room was cold, but I started to sweat. I felt the caress of a fireplace fire after having come in from the snow. I looked back at your face, at its contours, the smooth surface and gentle curves. I longed for you to look at me and was disappointed when you did, for it interrupted the rare opportunity to look at such beauty unobserved. I spoke, trying to break the magnitude of the moment, for I worried that it may disintegrate us both if I didn't. "Your forecast - maybe a few scattered clouds. Sunny skies all day though."

That was when you leaned over and kissed me. I had no idea that it was coming. I could have fallen into your lips, refreshingly cool and comfortingly hot at the same time. Like a backyard pool in summertime. Like tears at a reunion of loved ones.

They came to get you a year, a month, a day, an hour, a minute, a moment later. You broke from me slowly as if you knew they were coming, the sensation of your closeness to me never dying, simply fading. They called your name when they opened the door, and you stood up slowly, making sure (that was intentional, wasn't it?) to brush against me as you did. You looked back at me when you were halfway there, and wished me good luck. You wished me good luck. Growing up I believed that a woman seeks comfort in a man's strength, but here you were, comforting me. I watched you walk away, longing, pleading with fate not to let you go. And when my momentary pleas went unanswered, I said the only thing which came to my mind to say as you walked away for what might be forever. "Blue skies," I called out, part plea, part promise, fully wishing. "Blue skies," you responded.

Did blue skies follow you? I cannot stop thinking about that kiss, especially over the past few months. I can still feel it. Something borne not out of desire, but emotion. That need for contact - you had found mine. It is something I will never forget. Something somehow more pure, sacred. I find myself dreaming about it. I find myself thinking about blue skies, wishing for them. The walls are starting to close in on me. Sometimes I'm not even sure anything else exists other than this small, small world. But then I think of you. Are you still there? Or have you transformed into an angel? If so, will you come watch over me? I could sure use some blue skies. It's been raining for a long time, and I'm worried the sun has set; behind the clouds. You taught me how to be strong for so long. These three years I have emulated your composure. My role model. My guardian angel. You could show me if the sun is still there. If it will rise again. If there will be a tomorrow. What's my forecast, blue skies? Are you still out there? I don't know where to write, so I'm sending this everywhere. I am still right here. It's still raining where I am, and the wind's blowing harder and harder. I can barely breath. The walls are getting closer and closer. They're whispering to me. Dear Blue Skies, are you there? If some sunshine doesn't find a sliver of sky to peek through soon, I'm going to catch my death out in this cold.


Johnny I'm Right Here

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mad Man

By Jeremiah Bourgeois

Life has been far more stressful than I’d realized as I move towards the possibility of parole. After recently having what appear to be several psychosomatic seizures over a three-day period and then being pumped with anti-anxiety medication during an overnight stay in the prison infirmary—I feel great. Better than I can remember having felt in, well, as long as I can remember.

My face felt funny for days after I left the medical floor and I feared the worst. It just didn't feel right. I thought parts of it were numb or droopy. But whenever I rubbed it, sensation was there. And when I looked in the mirror nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

Finally I figured out what was amiss.

My face was less tense.

Apparently, tranquility is so foreign to me that I found it alarming.

As for those seizures, if my suspicions are correct I am in need of some serious therapy.  I dare not speculate what it could mean if the cause is something else entirely.

Curiously, memories of things that I've written about in Minutes Before Six (such as my friend being raped following our arrival in the penitentiary, and the weeks during which guards starved me in segregation to satisfy their quest for vengeance) kept coming to me suddenly, and as I tried to stifle my emotional reactions to those long ago events the seizures would strike.

I quickly learned to let some of my emotions out to prevent being overwhelmed at such moments.

Adaptation at its finest. Survival of the fittest. Only the wise endure.

So, I'm now allowing myself to feel the emotions when necessary, painful as it is for me. Nonetheless, I seriously doubt that I'm processing the experiences in a manner that will enable me to put them behind me.  Oh well, it's working for now and that's the best outcome I believe can be achieved under the circumstances.

I've spent some time reflecting and recognize that I had built an emotional wall in order to survive a Life Without Parole. My potential freedom is now producing cracks in the psychological barrier that, until recently, has served me so well. I cannot imagine what it will be like to be free and truly feel things.





All these emotions have been muted by a lifetime of confinement.

Anger is the only feeling that I have been able to fully express.  Anger is the emotion that has shaped my destiny.  

Without it I am nothing.

Without it where would I be?

To run away from home at the age of 13 and be able to survive alone on the streets took plenty of anger, believe me.  

To endure after being sentenced to die in prison at the age of 14 took even more anger—trust me.  

And no one will convince me that the commission of these crimes foreclosed my right to be angry.

While I was not angered by the punishment imposed by the court—for I was guilty and deserved to be punished—I have long been angered by what imprisonment has dealt me.

I was angered when stories were bandied about that I was gang raped when I arrived in the penitentiary.

I was angered when I heard how amused some people were when they heard those rumors about me being forced into sodomy.

I was angered by the looks of disdain and contempt on the faces of correctional officers when they saw my fifteen-year-old frame in the general population of the penitentiary.

I was angered when people would joke about my supposed virginity as if anything about my situation was funny.

I was angered when administrators would talk down to me—taking advantage of my ignorance and lack of education—and offering nothing to cure my deficiencies.

I was angered when I found how ready prisoners were to try to take advantage of me.  

I was angered when I came to perceive the predatory nature of those who surrounded me.

I was angered when I saw terrible things inflicted upon those who were seen as prey because of their vulnerability.

So many reasons to be angry.

It is a powerful emotion.

It can drive you to destroy yourself or others.  It led me to do terrible things.  

It can also be a force that enables you to achieve what others believed was impossible—for someone like me.

Or anyone trapped in the penitentiary.  

There is no doubt in my mind that most people expected me to be nothing but a convict, chasing booty or drugs or caught up in some other sort of prison fuckery.

I proved all those sons-a-bitches wrong.  All because I was angry at what they believed would be my destiny.  

No longer do administrators attempt to talk down to me.  They know full well I am anything but ignorant or uneducated.

But there is still disdain and contempt in their eyes when they look upon me, for the correctional mindset all too often perceives a prisoner’s intellect as arrogance.

It makes me angry.

But this anger fuels me.  It motivates me to continue living above the expectations that such people have for those in the penitentiary.  

I wish every prisoner in America would become as angry as me.    

That they would allow its combustible nature to propel their rehabilitation and forge a new destiny.  

Jeremiah Bourgeois #708897
Stafford Creek Corrections Center
191 Constantine Way
Aberdeen WA 98520

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Mad Dog a Mighty Messenger

By Reinaldo Dennes

The first time I met a skinhead was about eight years ago. Tattoos decorated his body. AK-47s. Skulls. Swastikas, and this is just on his bald head. The rest of his body was graffiti, bad trips, demons of hell, even of his Fuhrer Hitler. "What's your name?" I asked him. 


Why I was drawn to him was clear to my soul and heart, but my mind rejected all he stood tor. The state of Texas, in all its wisdom, has death row inmates change cells every six months. Consequently I was only able to talk with Cujo a few times before we changed cells. I would talk and show my artwork as a way to get closer to a mad dog.

During his short time on death row Cujo had created a name for himself; he was greatly feared as a man who would stab you in a heartbeat. He hated everyone who did not look like him. And he did not discriminate between officers and inmates, mail room or Commissary workers. All would bleed. So most stayed away from him, but I sought out his company and asked if l could go outside on the recreation yards at the same time he did. Death row inmates in Texas must recreate alone, but two recreation cages are side-by-side so we can talk to the person in the neighboring cage. This is the only time death row men can talk directly to each other. All other talking is through cell walls. Religion and spiritual references were taboo topics for Cujo. He would mock and spit on Christians or Jews alike. black or white. His cup was filled with bitter hate. Cujo continued in his rage, cutting a few and stabbing others, which always resulted in a trip to the hole. So on and off, Cujo was sent to the lowest level. F-Pod, where he was deprived of all privileges. To others a dungeon, but maybe to him it was home.

Cujo broke all kinds of records for discipline -- TDCJ had to re-write the books on him. The rules state that after three months of good behavior on F-Pod, inmates are returned to the normal level. Who knows how Cujo managed to behave for three months to make his way back to level l. Maybe the desire to enjoy a breath of fresh air or a trip to commissary or a visit or two. Soon Cujo would cut again and return to the isolation where he was further tormented, deprived of all human necessities: clothes, heat, property, hygiene. It became so bad that it was best if he was kept away from everyone else so one whole pod was emptied out and devoted to the mad dog. For many months he was 'shook down` every hour on the hour. His body searched as well as his cell, 24 hours a day. When he started to sleep, time for shakedown. This went on for 30 days. Then it was reduced to every four hours. For 30 more days. Then every six hours. Then every l2. Then once a day. While all this is happening his meals consisted of compressed food loaf. With who knows what added surprise was included. For six months and then… the beat goes on. Recreation allowed only one hour a day outside. by himself. For no one liked him. Best to stay away from mad dogs.

But the light soon began to penetrate his darkness and Cujo started to reflect on his life. Finally, his soul asked if there is a God and if there is, why let his life end up this way. He remembered when he was around six years old he asked his atheist father about God and was punished for asking. He asked God to reveal him the real truth. This prepared his mind to receive a little more. God answered this lost but greatly beloved son.

Productivity on death row? These past 21 years have been for me very productive,  slowly progressing inward on my spiritual journey to the Father.  Chris is covered with tattoos and I'm clean skinned- his hate is my love, and his war is my peace. We are opposite sides of the same coin, both sons of God. I became aware that all violence and hate are done in total ignorance of the divine spirit within us all. To be in the will of God is to be in harmony with all, in peace and love.

I have no major cases, nor have I been in trouble of any kind here. Bless the ways of God. Every six months we are moved to a different cell pod.  A, B. C. D or F, and every three months a major lockdown is bestowed upon us and everyone is thoroughly searched, cell included. The captain comes to me holding a piece of rusted metal and says. "Dennes, what is this?" 

"I don't know what that is," I say. 

Hidden for who knows how many years in my cell, it has the potential of being sharpened into a weapon. "Regardless of your clean record, if it's in your cell it's yours." Go to jail. Don‘t collect any property. Straight to the dungeon. First time for me, and if I have to go again I will. For I know there was another reason I was sent there. I was thinking about Mad Dog.

I went with a smile. I arrived on F pod, Level III, a place where the air seems thicker and smells of depression and evil. I walked into 77 cell and my neighbor in 76 was Cuio. We talked every day through the back wall and went outside an hour a day together. Slowly. Cujo opened up and talked about his life. Mostly he talked about his childhood, how at age 10 he committed his first violent act. A kid had stolen his bicycle. From then he grew both in rage and violence. Every time something was done to him he paid it back twice and then some. Eventually he was sent to juvenile detention where the violence against him continued and he learned how to protect himself from inmates and guards. Turned loose in the world he fell further down the slippery path of evil and hate.

An honor to know a prisoner? I was privileged to know Chris's life story so I can reveal the essence of his conversion experience. Chris was reborn to know the will and ways of God, once he repented with all his heart and recognized how lost he was in the darkness. God saw that small but bright light in his soul, and forgave Chris. He gave him an incredible amount of love to fill the great void in his heart. For whom much is forgiven much love is felt. Chris started to love everyone and would give anything he had to any and all. But I have gotten a little ahead of myself. On the rec yard one day, Chris asked me about God. I shared with him my experience with the Urantia Book. Chris had read The Bible and didn‘t believe in a god of war, one who condemned him to hell. I explained that this book would answer all his questions and millions of others he will ask.

One day while Cujo sat in the hole wearing only a paper gown, nothing to write with, nothing to read, no mattress, no blanket, or anything at all, a guard tossed him a book that had been left in another cell. Desperate for something to do, for anything to keep from going crazy, Cujo began reading this book.

Can death row convert to life row? The change that had already started grew even more, securing his soul, anchoring him to the Father forever. He became a mighty messenger and shared his testimony with everyone. At last count he had sent 24 books to those he talked to, whether here or out around the world. After he read the Urantia Book his life was never the same. He forever knew that he was a son of God. Now the test of his faith began, just because he was born again doesn't mean all those he hurt would forget and forgive him. He had hurt everyone from guards to inmates to mail room workers to commissary workers. Maybe a few unknown others. It was their turn to pay back. 

The officers would deny him recreation, meals, showers, mail. The guards ignored him and when he asked where his food tray was or if he could shower they would say, "You verbally refused (recreation, showers. food) He would say. "'That‘s OK." The mailroom many times lost his mail.  That's OK." Commissary. After many years of not being able to go, the first few times he filled out his list they claimed, "We didn't receive it, sorry." "That‘s OK." After a while he would make another list and if he paid for sneakers they would give him shower slides. If he requested a radio they gave him a fan. He never again cursed anyone, all he would say is, "It‘s OK." Finally everyone got tired of prodding him and getting no results so eventually they left him in peace. After a few years of testing he passed all tests and became an honorable inmate with almost all liberties restored.

Love and light from a 6 x 9 prison cell? People all over the world were drawn to Chris`s
light. Each asked about his conversion and received or purchased a copy of this life changing book. Chris wanted to reach his lost son and the last time I talked with my brother he was writing a 50 page letter to his son. But he understood that when someone is not ready to listen he will never hear. Chris believed that we all will be given a chance to fully believe or reject even after death.  For who really can be destroyed for not understanding in this world.

Christopher Wilkins
Peace on death`s row? Christopher Chubasco Wilkins #999533 was executed by the state of Texas on January 11. 2017. Chris already has risen in the next world and will guide me into a higher awareness, as I guided him in this world. Truly he is a mighty messenger and continues to be one.

“My thoughts are my only demons; my demons are only my thoughts.” CCW

Reinaldo Dennes 999248
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Struggle

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.  
This story was submitted by his loving sister, Lisa, 
and we consider it a great honor to be able to share it with you

By William Van Poyck

“I always hoped he’d be a normal boy, eventually,” his father had often observed in moments of private pain. “But even when he was just a little skipper, not much bigger than a freckle, Earl was different than the others.” For as long as anyone could remember, Earl Voorhees had been different. Not in the sense of better or worse, at least not initially. Just different. As for his father, there would be no triumph of hope over experience, and between the two would lie a continuum of consequences.

Earl paced the concrete floor, as was his custom, ninety-minutes a night with a surgeon’s precision, moving in the deliberate way of men who take possession of a place by walking through it. He was handsome in an irregular way, of average height but powerfully built, with naturally broad shoulders, thick, corded limbs and large hands as square as shovels. He walked with a smooth, athletic grace and with each step his calves and forearms bulged in near caricature, like an homage to Popeye. Even his head, atop a stout neck and crowned with short dark hair, bespoke a reserved energy, like a coiled spring. His open face expressed a straightforward manner, with even teeth and clear, vivid blue eyes that everyone talked about. A man of above-average intelligence with a sharp wit and disarming smile, he carried with him an air of order, a certain gravity, a largeness reflecting the residue of a life lived in the arena.

As a child Earl was fearless, a trait which informed the core of his being. From an early age, he endured his own solitude, waging a relentless battle with fear, a private conflict experienced at the level of his soul, as Jacob wrestling with the angel at Jabbok. Earl grappled with fear as one would a tangible presence, a struggle that marked his character with its ineffaceable traces, until his ultimate victory cut itself, like the facets of a diamond, into his hardest places.

“It’s complicated the way people turn out,” his Aunt Helen was known to remark when asked about Earl. “If only his father, well…” and her voice would trail off, only to rise sharply when asked about Scott, Earl’s older brother. “He was an unfit vessel,” she would insist in her Florida cracker accent, “just a bad seed.” She would hug her Bible and blame Scott for taking little Earl down the wrong path.

Earl paced, lost in reflection, his calloused soles chafing rhythmically against the floor. He lived much of his life inhabiting the past, for the present was grim and his future elusive. He cast his mind back, peeling away the layers of his memory like a ripe onion, to those childhood days when he sensed he was capable of anything but responsible for nothing. His earliest memories of his lifelong struggle were grounded in Miami, a sleepy town still comfortable with its rural southern roots. A land of slow days and burning sun, of undulating sawgrass and fishing camps. A time just beginning to be marked by the singsong Spanglish patois echoing across domino games suffused with the pungent smoke of hand-rolled cigars.

It began as a solitary endeavor, driven by indiscernible imperatives, his jumping off of roofs. He came to call it “roofing,” and he recalled the first time at his own house. Earl remembered the beguiling call to the roof edge, the battle of will, edging ever closer, the churning gut and the taste of fear rising up to fill his mouth. Then, that moment of transcendence as he committed himself with infrangible determination and leaped. On the ground, stunned but unhurt, he triumphantly raised his arms in victory. For the first time, he felt truly alive. That was the beginning. Earl was seven. That summer, one by one, he conquered the neighbors’ homes, roofing them all, in search of ever more challenging tests. At night, unable to sleep, he stepped out of his house, roaming far and wide until he found a suitable roof. Only after forcing himself to jump, only after again feeling alive, was he able to return home and sleep soundly. Later, he drew the neighborhood boys into his competition, daring them to match his jumps. It was always Earl who emerged the triumphant winner, arms raised. And when he occasionally hurt himself he refused to acknowledge pain or regrets. The other boys’ interest soon flagged, in direct proportion to the height of the roofs, until they finally agreed Earl was just crazy and he was again left alone to his solitary pursuit.

At age eight, Earl bent a paper clip and jammed it into an electrical socket. The shock blew him across the room amid a shower of sparks. His father beat him with his belt, cursing his stupidity. The next day Earl cut an extension cord down to a three-foot section, skinning the insulation back from the tips. Plugging it in, he sweated in anxious anticipation, heart pounding, eyes locked on the shiny copper wires lying on the ground. Then, with a grim determination, he pressed both palms down on the bare wires. The violent surge shook his frame, knocking him down. But Earl scrambled to his feet and danced about like a victorious prize-fighter, relishing another victory over fear. I must make pain my best friend, Earl decided, and that became a lifetime mantra. Earl unplugged the wire and carefully put it away, but from that point on the wire became a trusted companion, stored away until the inexplicable need drew him back and forced upon him another test of will. For many years, in times of need, Earl resorted to the wire, a self-affirmation of his courage and fortitude. 

Earl stopped at the window to deeply breathe in cool air, the breath of empty space. He stared out into the luminous night, his mind drifting, the memories recurring like a skipping record. He saw, then touched the livid scar creasing his forearm like a purple vine. He was nine when he picked up a blue steel double-edged razor blade and a thought invaded his mind. It refused to leave, taunting him, telling him he was a coward unless… Earl resisted, struggled, argued and reasoned, but, in the end, he viciously slashed the blade across the underside of his forearm, from left to right. He stared in astonishment as the flesh parted, gaping open, momentarily painless and bloodless, offering the briefest glimpse of gleaming bone, white and shiny as sink porcelain, of sinewy muscle sheath and severed veins, spurting like tiny maroon garden hoses. The wound instantly filled with blood and pain, overflowing, gushing hot and red. Earl calmly wrapped a towel around his arm, walked into the kitchen and announced he was hurt. After the hospital and the many stitches, Earl was unable to explain why he did it. He felt his father’s belt that night but he only remembered the taste of victory.

“Earl could be a lovable boy,” an elementary school teacher once reflected. “He bubbled over with curiosity, and was a bundle of energy, full of life. The thing I recall the most was how much he loved to read.”

Earl turned his leg, eyeing the triangular shape scar on his calf. He was ten, perhaps eleven, when he saw Aunt Helen’s unattended ironing board, the iron plugged in, upright, with wisps of steam feathering its tip. Seized by that familiar irresistible urge he picked the iron up, clenched his teeth and pressed it against his calf, held it tight as the skin sizzled, never uttering a word through the odor of burnt flesh. Days later, when the large, ugly burn became infected his father noticed it. Earl took the belt stroke like a stoic monk, secretly pleased with another victory, and a scar to bear witness.

Earl stood sentinel at the open window, framed starkly against the rising moon. The night swung wide before him as he inhaled cool air, concentrating on his breathing technique. He suddenly thought of the father he never really knew. As a child, Earl would rummage through his father’s wartime memorabilia, hidden deep in a closet in the den. It was forbidden territory. Earl would secretly pore over these belongings, the old photographs turned yellow and cracked, the ancient newspaper articles turned brittle as egg shells. He touched them, held them, breathed in their essence, seeking an echo of his father’s true voice. The war medals, and there were a lot of them, fascinated him. In a musty old brown leather kit with leather straps and metal buckles stamped “U.S. Army”, lay the guns. A big Colt .45 model 1911 semi-automatic service pistol. A German Luger. A smallish semi-automatic taken off an Italian general he captured near Messina, Italy, in the summer of 1943. And, wrapped in a stiff, olive drab canvas duffel bag, a squat, heavy .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun. Earl held these weapons, felt their weight and heft, played war games with them, held fast by a mysterious allure that drew him back to them time and again. Earl had heard of his father’s war exploits, mostly from others, and Earl knew that these guns had been there, fought there, killed there. Alone, without training or guidance, Earl taught himself how to operate them, to disassemble and reassemble them, and in due time, how to shoot them.

Earl reached up and touched the small scar on his chest, smiling faintly. He recalled the long-ago summer when he and three buddies were exploring the South Miami woods in search of adventure. When one of the boys produced a handful of .22 caliber bullets, Earl impulsively suggested they make a fire and throw the bullets in. At first, as Earl tossed a single round in to the flames, they all hid behind trees some distance back. Bang! There was an unimpressive explosion and a small shower of embers. Earl stood a little closer to the fire when he dropped the next bullet in, while the others hung back. Bang! Again and again Earl dropped the bullets. Bang! Bang! Each time Earl stood a little closer until, finally, he refused to retreat at all. Bang! Bang! Bang! The others peered from behind their pine trees, then yelled when Earl, standing implacably, dropped all the remaining bullets into the flames. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! One by one they exploded, blowing sparks and burning sticks into the air. Smiling broadly, Earl turned, facing the boys with arms raised, fists clenched in triumph. They stared back, speechless, pointing, and when Earl looked down the blood was coursing down his chest. Only then did he feel the pain. Earl simply pressed a palm to the wound and jogged home, leaving his friends crying in fear. The wound proved not to be overly serious, a fragment of lead with little penetration. That night, after the stitches, after the belt, Earl lay in bed, smiling with satisfaction - of the four boys, he was the only one who did not cry.

“Earl tracked his life by the number and ferocity of the battles he won, as if any other time was unworthy of notice,” his high school wrestling coach had opined.

Earl reached up and touched the steel bars across his window. He was tired, though not sleepy, burdened with the fatigue of a man who has found himself on the wrong side of too many struggles. He lay down on his bunk, sorting through vague childhood memories drifting through his mind like refrains in a minor key. He settled on some familiar ones, of his own golden summer, before the serious troubles began. He was fifteen and his brother, Scott, was back in prison. Earl was befriended by Walter, a local Metro-Dade cop and charter member of The Biscayne Gremlins, a small freshwater cave diving group. Walter introduced Earl to cave diving, and when Earl had a dozen dives under his belt, Walter agreed to let him accompany some Gremlins on a special dive.

It was an impressively hot summer morning when Earl, Walter and four other Gremlins arrived at Withlacoochee Springs in North Central Florida. The particular cave they would explore was known as ‘The Blue Chute’. Eighty-feet below the surface of the cool spring lay a gaping horizontal fault line in the limestone, which opened up into an extensive network of tunnels, passageways and chambers.

Walter pulled Earl aside just before they went down. “Remember,” Walter said, gripping Earl’s shoulder, “the most important attribute of a successful cave diver is the ability to overcome fear and resist your natural urge to panic. Giving into these means to die.”

The Blue Chute extended over 2,500 feet, though its limits had never been reached. On this day, the plan was to go in about 800 feet. They would all go down together but, at a predetermined point, they would split into three separate two-man teams, going separate ways, to minimize any silt out. Too many divers together could kick up the talcum powder fine silt, blocking out all light, creating potentially fatal disorientation. Walter and Earl would team together.

The divers stood on the old macadam road, reviewing their safety procedures. Everyone knew where the emergency air tanks were; everyone knew the directions to their location in case they had to recite them to would-be rescuers; everyone knew the phone number to the nearest hospital. Each diver had two lights and four regulators: two first-stage regulators and two second-stage regulators. Each diver knew exactly how much air he had and how much he could use before he had to turn around and surface. Walter soberly reminded them that The Blue Chute had already claimed the lives of five divers in three separate accidents, the most recent just last year. Then, one by one they dropped into the crystal-clear water and descended.

Below, at the limestone opening, Earl saw the knotted white nylon line, permanently anchored by previous divers, leading deep into the black crevice. The line, Earl knew, was their life. Of all the safety equipment, the line was paramount. It was knotted in code: one knot followed by two knots meant you were going deeper into the system; two knots followed by one knot meant you were on your way out. As Earl swam through the opening, the narrow passageway immediately jogged upward, then straightened back out. Negotiating that bend, Earl saw the diffused sunlight grow increasingly dim until it finally disappeared and he turned on his lamp. There was no other light here, nothing, other than their own, and the void stretching beyond his lamp’s beam possessed the utter darkness of a tangible presence. Earl felt his pulse quicken as his heart surged perceptibly. Earl oriented himself in the pressing darkness, his entire world reduced to that narrow beam. His eyes moved in practiced cadence, from nylon line to wrist, checking his watch and computing his time. Then to his depth and pressure gauges. Then back to the white line. Line. Watch. Gauges. Then back again.

They slowly moved in single file through the narrow tunnel until, suddenly, Earl glided into a large cavern. Their lights arced across the inky expanse, probing the cavern’s limits, reflecting back from monumental stone formations manning the perimeter. Stalactites hung down from the ceiling far above, an indication, Earl knew, that this cave had once been dry. Earl hovered in effortless awe, like an astronaut in deepest space, the silence broken only by the rhythmic hiss of his regulator. The rock formations resembled grotesque medieval gargoyles hiding in the shadows and Earl imagined he was floating in a vast, primal stone cathedral. Then, the six divers floated to the center, some motioning at the numerous side tunnels branching off from the cavern, likes spokes radiating from a wheel’s hub. The divers paired up, going off in different directions.

Earl followed Walter into one of the tunnels, his heart jumping slightly as the walls closed in. He grabbed the safety line and focused on the moment. Line. Watch. Gauges. They were two hundred and eighty feet in. Seven-minutes in. Earl’s tanks were at 2,600 psi. Deeper and deeper they went into the blackness, the tunnel walls so confining that Earl’s hands and shoulders brushed their sides. His grip on the line tightened and his breathing increased. He felt his heart thumping his chest. He sought to push back the anxiety nibbling at the edges of his mind. Line. Watch. Gauges. The tunnel became narrower and his tanks banged the rocks above. How much further were they going, Earl wondered. Did Walter really know where they were going? How would they turn around? Earl pulled mightily at his mouthpiece, tasting the metallic bite of the cold air. Line. Watch. Gauges.

Suddenly, the nylon line ended as the bottom fell away and Earl shot out into an immense grotto, much larger than the first. He drifted over the vast expanse, playing his light across the chasm. He could see neither ceiling or bottom. The entire chamber was gently washed in an eerie bioluminescent blue that rippled iridescently wherever their lights penetrated. Earl felt he was suspended in the heart of an enormous liquid diamond, bathed in a soft, effulgent light of luminous transparency. He floated serenely, overwhelmed by the beauty. He was totally at peace, lost in a magical moment. Long minutes passed as both men, alone in their thoughts, floated in the crystalline abyss.

Walter appeared at Earl’s side, grinning wide, making an “OK” sign with his fingers. Then he pointed at his watch, signaled “OK”, and motioned Earl to follow. Walter slid into a dark tunnel amid a cascade of air bubbles. Earl hesitated at the entrance, his stomach knotted with indecision. There was no safety line here. He looked at his watch, then his gauges, struggling to calculate his remaining air time as Walter’s light faded down the inky shaft. He had maybe ten-minutes before he had to turn around. He felt the fist of fear grip his chest. He had to decide: follow Walter, or turn around. Forcefully, he chose to follow him. Whatever else, he could not leave his partner. Entering the narrow passageway, Earl felt his hand slam into the rocks framing the opening, knocking his lamp from his grasp. Instinctively he backed out. The light was falling, down into the dark pit, its beam lazily swinging from side-to-side. Earl immediately dove, kicking his fins violently, chasing the light downward. His heart raced as he surged downward, arms outstretched. The receding light seemed pitifully small against the infinite blackness. Down he swam, kicking harder, straining every fiber. His heart pounded and he pulled hard on the regulator, using valuable air. Slowly, inexorably, he gained on the light. It was there, just beyond his reach. With a final explosive kick he closed in and his fingers brushed the glowing lens. Then, with a terrifying swiftness, the light winked out and an utter darkness enveloped him like a black velvet mask.

Earl immediately turned, halting his descent. He was alone, suspended in total, absolute darkness, aware only of the importunate rasping as he violently sucked air from his regulator. Resolutely, he forcefully suppressed the panic and fear rising up within him. He had to think clearly. He concentrated on his breathing, focusing intently on each labored breath until his respiration slowed to an even, measured pace. A deep peacefulness came over him and his mind cleared. He knew what he had to do. 

Calmly, he unfastened his emergency light from his belt and turned it on, relieved to see the narrow beam arc through the darkness. Checking his watch and gauges, Earl knew he had to get out fast. Adjusting his buoyancy compensator, he floated upward, revolving slowly, playing his light across the grotto. He briefly wondered where Walter was. Surely he would streak into the cavern at any moment, flashing his signature grin. All Earl saw was the interminable blackness.

Wracking his memory, he desperately searched for the tunnel they came in through. The air came harder now. Slowly he drifted upward, his light probing the rock wall. Finally, Earl stopped, steadying himself with his flippers. On impulse, he struck out across the chasm, kicking powerfully, gliding across the open expanse toward the opposite side. When the rock wall emerged from the darkness he quickly flashed his light from left to right, then up and down. There, in the shadows, a darker void. Earl propelled himself forward with growing hope. A profound relief flooded him as his light illuminated a white nylon cord. Grabbing the line, he felt the knots: two knots, then one knot. Yes! Earl looked back across the vast canyon one last time, but saw nothing. Earl swam through the tunnel, forcing himself to remain calm and control his breathing, while his light bounced off the walls ahead. Sooner than he thought possible, he shot out into the first, smaller chamber, the stone cathedral ringed with strange rock formations. Earl floated, trying to orient himself. He had hoped to rendezvous with some of the other divers here, but he was alone. He recalled that there were four separate passageways radiating from the cavern, including the one leading out. That left three tunnels, beside the one he had just emerged from. He furiously tried to recall his movements upon first entering the chamber. Should he go left or right? The air came harder and he strained at his mouthpiece. Earl went to his right, flashing the light ahead. Almost immediately he came upon a narrow opening. Grasping the line, he felt one knot, then two. Earl froze, uncertain now, mentally arguing with himself. He struggled to think clearly. One knot, then two. This was not the way out. Or was it? Was it the other way around? He desperately wanted to enter the tunnel, to follow the rope to the sweet, fresh air above. No. He backed out and continued around the chamber, light probing the rocky wall. Then, just when he was ready to give up and go the other way, he saw a yawning black hole. Desperately seizing the white line, he felt two knots, followed by one. This was it. Earl pulled himself into the tunnel, clawing, kicking faster, his heart racing. Suddenly the passageway turned downward, and as he made the turn a beautiful, limpid light flowed upward. Yes! Earl shot out of the cave, into the light-filled spring, racing up, up, up. Ignoring the safety decompression, he burst through the surface, ripping his mask off and pulling in deep lungfuls of air. Gasping, sputtering, he felt an electric sense of relief. He was alive!

The other divers were sprawled on the shore, drinking beer and roasting hot dogs. There was no Walter.

“Hey, kiddo, are you OK?” one of them asked. When the divers saw Earl’s expression they all stood up. “Where is Walter?” the one diver asked.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” Earl said, pulling himself from the water. “We got separated. I lost my damn light.” Earl paused, catching his breath. “He should be coming up right behind me,” he added.

The men crowded around the water, nervously eyeing their watches, while Earl explained what had happened. After five-minutes of uneasiness Chuck, Walter’s best friend, announced decisively, “I’m going down. Steve, you come with me. Darryl, you call the hospital if we are not back in ten-minutes.” Even as he spoke, Chuck was strapping on a fresh air tank. Earl stood by helplessly, silently praying that Walter would surface, laughing at their unnecessary concern.

The two divers disappeared into the spring, their flippers flashing in the sunlight. The minutes slowly ticked by and Earl’s sense of dread mounted. Walter should have surfaced by now. After ten more minutes Earl felt sick to his stomach, the anxiety paralyzing him. Twenty-minutes later an ambulance arrived. The other divers spoke with the driver in hushed tones, ignoring Earl. Then, at the thirty-five-minute mark, the water exploded in a cascade of flashing water. Divers surfacing! Earl stared, but there were only two heads. Chuck pulled his facemask up, looking directly at Earl, then shook his head grimly. Earl’s heart sank. His knees buckled and he sank to the ground, where he put his face to his knees and cried.

It was late that evening when Walter’s body was recovered. They found him in a narrow side tunnel, possibly a victim of silt out, facing in the wrong direction, a hideous, contorted expression on his face, his diving knife inexplicably locked in his hand in a death grip. The other divers avoided Earl but he felt their accusatory stares on his back like an insistent murmured current.

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

Earl Voorhees settled himself on his hard prison bunk, a man at ease with himself, yet never satisfied with the narrow dimensions of his life. His tired mind framed difficult questions about the freedom within his grasp. He sensed the beginning of a journey whose value would best be measured by the baggage dropped off along the way. And yet, he knew, having made it his friend, pain was all that kept him alive.

That night Earl dreamed he was seven again. He was up early to greet the summer sunrise lining the horizon with a swath of Renoir Pink. He was stalking that big, silver mosquito-control plane, with its bright orange stripes, zooming low across Miami in its summer ritual, navigating its precise grid pattern, trailing its pungent cloud of kerosene-based insecticide. Closer and closer it would come with each pass while little Earl calculated the exact one that would bring the thundering plane over his house. Waiting in delicious anticipation, Earl would crouch in ambush, muscles tense, ears straining to hear that distinctive roar, grasping his carefully selected rock. Then, with an earth-shattering howl, the plane would zoom overhead, flying so low Earl could count the rivets across the shiny aluminum skin and clearly see the pilot’s face. Then, with all his might, Earl would spring up and hurl his stone at the shiny underbelly. Always, the rock fell short, and always, the pilot smiled down in amusement. One day, Earl believed, he would hit that plane and something magical would occur. Now, in his dream, the plane was there, overhead, so near Earl felt he could reach up and touch it. Little Earl reared back and threw his rock, and it sailed up, up, up, further than ever before, until it struck the shiny metal belly. Earl threw his hands up in victory and the pilot looked down, smiling, making an “OK” sign with his hand. At that moment, Earl recognized that the pilot was Walter, grinning at him as he flew by. Then, without warning, the plane exploded and crashed to the ground in a burning heap. And little Earl fell to his knees and cried.

Bill Van Poyck and beautiful Lisa

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Magic Lantern Chapter Two

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Anthony Engles

To read Chapter One, click here

Square One

Colleen sat with her arms crossed in front of her, lips pressed tightly together as she looked out the windshield. Faded white broken lines advanced toward her in a never ending succession. The weathered gray asphalt of Highway 11 separated freshly cultivated timothy and alfalfa fields in every direction until they merged with the horizon in a hazy blur.

"That‘s how bikers do it, hon," Austin continued. "They slowly infiltrate these funky little towns, and before you know it, they've got their greasy fingers in everybody‘s pie. It's their standard M.O. The local yokels are too scared or too stupid to pull their heads out of their asses until it’s too late."

Colleen bristled.

"Those stupid yokels are my parents," she said. "And Mom says there's only a couple and that they don't bother anybody. She says they keep to themselves and are very respectful. At least it won't be like the gang-bangers shooting each other every night in Oak Park.”

“Maybe not yet. Besides, we didn’t live in Oak Park."

Austin's voice was weary. He had been driving since eight in the morning and now it was close to three in the afternoon. He seemed to hunch over the steering wheel of their newer white Chevy Tahoe; his blue oxford button-down shirt hung limp from his arms. Dark stubble peppered with gray covered his jaw and made him look older than his forty-two years. Only his blue eyes- Ricky Nelson blue Colleen's mother had called them - crackled with the suspicious curiosity of a hard-bitten, big-city detective. He shook his head slowly from side to side, his eyes locked on the road.

"I still say we're making a mistake," he said. "We should have stayed in Antelope. We could have worked on our problems there just as easily."

Colleen closed her eyes and took off her glasses to rub her temples.

"There's no point in discussing it any further, so please let's just drop it. We're both tired, and I don't want to fight."

"I'm just voicing my opinion. I don't like it."

"You don't have to like it. It's not about you. It’s not even about us right now."

"How can we have a healthy fresh start if we're not in agreement on a big issue like this? It's crazy, just packing up twenty-two years of our lives that we built together back to Podunk, Nowhere."

"It's done, Austin. I need to be close to my family after everything that's happened. I just want to get back to square one. We‘ve been through this a hundred times."

"I've tried to explain --"

“No more explanations. No more apologies. We're past all. What I want is for you to support me in some of the changes I've decided to make on my own terms. It's our marriage's last chance."

Austin fell silent. He looked forward, the muscles of his jaw working while he absorbed Colleen's words. A mile passed before he finally spoke.

"Okay," he said. "Who knows, maybe you'll discover the biker mama within. Maybe run off to Sturgis with some guy named Spider."

Colleen got up on her seat and crawled over to him. She put her arms around his neck and planted several kisses on his cheeks and lips.

"I could get a tattoo," she said, making her voice husky. She bit his earlobe. "Would you like that?"

Austin chuckled.

"That could be kinda sexy," he said.

Colleen smiled and returned to her seat. The tension that hung between them since Biggs Junction evaporated, leaving a still calm. She settled back and tried to enjoy the rest of the ride.

Colleen had forgotten that a true, deep-blue sky existed in places beyond Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley where the air was always a brassy, russet color. A light, bright-green peach fuzz of feed grass made its first appearance of the year -- still two days before the official beginning of spring. The distant Blue Mountains formed a dark band that stretched along the east, and then vanished in a blur of brown, green and gray to the north. Several miles to the northwest a sun-faded green water tower appeared-a lone structure in the middle of nowhere that rose from the earth like a steel sentinel.

"Walla Walla," Austin said.

He kept his eyes forward and said nothing more -- the two words hung malignant in the silence of the cab for several miles. Colleen breathed a quiet sigh of relief that Austin had decided not to drag out those old bones; the subject had not been broached for several years and there was no reason to bring it up now. The situation was like a simmering stew made from foul ingredients that no one ever dared to lift the lid to check. Thankfully, Austin had never used that part of their history together as a weapon against her to make her life any more hellish than it already was.

Just under a year ago, Colleen had been a cross word and a slap away from throwing a few things in a suitcase and walking away from Austin and their marriage. She had given him two options: They could both return to Vermilion together as a couple so that she could be close to her family, or she could return alone and Austin could stay in Antelope or live wherever he wanted -- maybe not alone but without her. Up until several months ago, Colleen's self-esteem was perhaps a bit tarnished but remained largely intact. Now it stood battered and cracked with heavy structural damage; without positive reinforcement and nurturing, it threatened to crumble around her. She had been forced to make drastic decisions for the sake of self-preservation, and with the support of her parents, she would stand firm.

Colleen fiddled with the turner on the stereo. She settled for a country station, partially for clarity, but also because Austin enjoyed Rodney Atkins-a subtle way to extend their delicate armistice. She leaned back and smoothed the front of her dress--a cotton paisley print she had selected for comfort over fashion. Her feet were delightfully bare, with her favorite sandals kicked off to the side.

"Everything okay?" Austin asked. He reached across the cab and gave her hand a squeeze. Colleen realized that she had fallen into a thoughtful silence since passing the prison town. She looked over at Austin and mustered a genuine smile; the one that he used to say could light up a room.

"Yeah," she said. "a little nervous, maybe."

"About what?"

"I don't know," she said- "Change. The unknown. I'll be okay."

"Of course you will. Just keep it simple."

Keep it Simple.

Colleen kept the annoyance off her face and held her tongue. Austin had picked up the phrase at his first A/A meeting and beat her over the head with it ever since -- long after his brief and futile attempt at complete sobriety. Simplicity was what she had chosen when she decided to marry him after her high-school graduation so long ago. Get married have babies raise them in a loving family environment, an environment where the father doesn‘t disappear for days at a time, and when he doesn't come –

Colleen stopped herself. She took an eraser and wiped the chalkboard in her mind. She had to stop thinking like that, just as she had finally learned to curtail the little nips and jabs that had always been on the tip of her tongue, tiny malicious arrows, ever ready to fly. Besides, she was tired of being a bitch; she just wanted to forgive and move on.

They ascended a low rise, and the small farming town of Northfield spread out before them, a veritable portrait of rural mediocrity. Its own water tower stood as a rust-streaked graffiti covered exemplification of such -- a local artist had devoted an exorbitant amount of time and white paint to create a giant swastika with tines pointed in the wrong direction.

Long ago, Colleen and Austin had spent many nights driving around the back roads of Northfield. He had been a senior, she a junior. Sometimes they would drive down here after the football game on Friday nights. Austin would drink beer and drive around while they planned their future together. They always wound up at the end of a dark old farm road in Austin’s 65 Olds Delta 88, in the back seat as big as a single bed. With the windows rolled down, they would listen to the crickets and breathless words of undying devotion to each other -- words that people barely older than children had any business using. It was on one of those nights that Colleen had given Austin her virginity.

As they drove through Northfield, Colleen managed to keep her emotions in check until they passed the Tastee-Freeze where Austin had proposed to her. He always swore that he had been inspired by the John Cougar song. Colleen stole a glance at him to see if they were anywhere close to being on the same plane, any sign of recognition or vestige of nostalgia. He caught her though and looked at her intently.

"What's the matter? Do you have to go to the bathroom?"

Colleen had a lump in her throat and couldn't speak. She shook her head, but with too much enthusiasm. She wanted to lunge over to Austin's side of the truck, take his head in her hands, and kiss him hard on the mouth, to tell him that she should have seen it coming and tried harder to be a more attentive, impassioned wife-not just the mother of his daughter. Not just the woman who spent her days cooking and cleaning. She wanted to spring on him like a panther and punch him in the face over and over and scream obscenities at him until blood flowed from his nose and mouth for what he had done to their lives and their marriage. Instead, Colleen folded her arms in front of her and looked out her window at all the new strip malls and shopping centers as Northfield passed by.

Northfield behind them, they drove north on Highway 469. They passed through another verdant stretch of timothy, the ankle-high tender young grass reaching toward the mid-afternoon sun. After several miles of pasture land, the Tahoe began another winding ascent into a more mountainous terrain; towering ponderosa and tamarack pines crowded both sides of the road, throwing cool flickering shadows upon them. Colleen cracked her window and the crisp smell of the forest rushed in.

30 miles of hairpin turns and wooded hillsides rolled by before they crested the rise that overlooked Vermilion in the saddle of the valley, split in two by the sinuous Snake River. Colleen sat up in her seat like a giddy young girl, excited at the prospect of new beginnings. They descended a gentle wooded grade and soon crossed the four-way intersection with the old Shell station to the left across the street from the Quickie-Mart. A new motel, the Thunderbird, took up the entire block on the northeast corner.

"Sure you don't want to check in?" Austin asked. "We could probably still get a room without a reservation this time of year."

Colleen shook her head.

"I‘m sure. We'll have fun."

They crossed the muddy expanse of the river and the bridge landed on the north bank where Highway 469 turned into Dora Road. Colleen was astounded at how touristy this part of town -- once just sagging buildings half-empty and failing family businesses -- had become; both sides of the street were lined with quaint shops that sold hand-blown glass figurines, hand-crafted leather goods and even full-sized fountains made of copper and brass, tastefully stained with verdigris. There was a feel of local artistry here, possibly the hub of Vermilion‘s cultural entity, but it had carefully kept pretense at arm’s length. Sidewalks were swept and tidy and the plate-glass windows gleamed from recent washing. Fresh asphalt paved the street-flawless black with immaculate white stripes down the center.

"Smells like dirty money," Austin said.


Their new home lay a mile and a half down a washboard and pothole-riddled gravel road called Lariat 5 miles north of town. Here the pines yielded to thick stands of larch and oak amidst heavy patches of foliage and wild berry bushes, still gray and leafless awaiting the vernal equinox to resurrect them.

Beyond a sharp bend to the right, the forest on the northern side of the road opened up to encircle a small cluster of two mobile homes and a dilapidated brown cracker-box house with beige trim in a clearing. They drove slowly past the first mobile, a weathered single-wide with a vintage Camaro parked in front- -shark-gray dappled with flat-burgundy primer spots.

Set back 40 yards beyond a shabby yellow lawn sat another home, positioned parallel so the front slider faced the road. The trailer was bisque colored with long vertical streaks of dried rust from old screws, fronted with a home-made porch made out of plywood and two-by-fours -- the railing bowed and stone colored with age. Moored in front was an early seventies Ford LTD that seemed in danger of being swallowed by knee-length dead grass.

The tiny brown house was theirs and faced inwards. The three domiciles formed a square with an invisible side adjacent to the road. A mighty juniper tree provided a permanent and majestic central point in this ramshackle array of man-made junk. Austin pulled into the gravel drive in front of the house and cut the engine.

Colleen stepped out of the truck and stretched. Her ears buzzed from being on the road, but there was no other sound except for the ticking of the engine -- no nearby traffic or other city noise that had been woven into the fabric of her life for so long. The absence of even a distant car alarm or siren seemed surreal. Austin made a noise of disgust.

"Swell," he said.

Near the thick trunk of the juniper lay four metal trash cans dumped on their sides. Garbage littered the lawn, scattered about by local dogs or animals. Several Hefty bags sat chewed open with dirty diapers, beer cans, spent coffee filters with moldy grounds and a wide assortment of other trash strewn about in a 15-foot radius from the tree.

A child‘s scream shattered the afternoon stillness. A half grown black Lab trotted out from behind the trailer in the back lot with three laughing children in hot pursuit. The dog carried a piece of chewed up Styrofoam in its mouth-the type that raw meat comes on wrapped in cellophane from the grocery store. There was movement behind the sliding glass door of the far trailer, and Collen thought she saw the shadow of someone looking on. She and Austin watched the kids' futile attempt to capture the over-grown puppy for a few moments, then climbed the steps to the covered porch.

Inside the house, Colleen was greeted with the distinct smell of new carpet and Pine-Sol. She smiled and inhaled deeply through her nose. The living room to the left and kitchen to the right were devoid of any furnishings. An island covered with Formica separated the two rooms with cabinets that hung from the ceiling. Colleen bent down at the knees to run her fingers along the new beige shag carpet. She enjoyed the way it felt.

"I'll bring our stuff in from the truck," Austin said from behind her and went back out the sliding glass door.

Colleen stood again. She began to explore the layout, starting with the kitchen. A fresh coat of wax had been recently applied to the slightly-yellowed linoleum floor. A full-sized bay window at the front of the kitchen faced south and overlooked the heavily-wooded forest across the road, another unexpected joy.

Austin came in with a sleeping bag under each arm and a suitcase in each hand. He dumped everything on the floor in the center of the living room.

"Want help?" Colleen asked.

"There‘s just a couple of things left. Finish your inspection."

Colleen smiled and went to the large picture window that faced east. An abandoned garden plot ample enough to provide for a large family lay covered with rotting vines and oak leaves with a dense forest of trees and thick underbrush beyond.

She walked down the hall and looked in the first doorway on the left. The small closet-size room would serve as temporary storage space since this house was a third of the size as their last.

Colleen inspected the small bathroom and laundry area then moved to the far north-end of the house to the spacious master bedroom. A single three-by-six window provided outside light from the north wall. Colleen leaned against the doorjamb and in her mind arranged the furniture that would arrive tomorrow. While she stood there, brow creased in concentration, Austin came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. He nudged her ponytail aside with his nose and kissed the nape of her neck. Colleen‘s body involuntarily tensed up, but only for a split second -- enough time to strain the brief interlude. Austin released her and took a step back. Colleen felt the urge to say something but Austin broke the silence first, mercifully allowing the awkward moment to pass.

"Your back is going to hate your guts for deciding to camp out on the floor," he said.

"It'll be romantic," Colleen said. She put her arms around his waist, trying to capture the lost moment. "Maybe we can fool around."

It had been almost a year since they had slept together and Colleen surprised herself by suggesting it. Austin blinked, also taken momentarily aback, but he recovered quickly. He kissed her on the lips. He had just slipped his hand around to her lower back when a tentative knock on the glass of the front slider reached them.

"Ah, must be the welcome wagon," Austin said. "I don't suppose you packed any Rid. My scalp itches just looking at those brats."

"Shhh! Let's just go greet them and try to be nice neighbors," Colleen said. "For once."

Colleen turned Austin around in the doorway, swatted him on the butt, then pushed him gently towards the living room. Austin rounded the corner and hesitated when he saw their visitor. Colleen almost ran into the back of him.

The young woman was in her early to mid-twenties with a voluminous crop of blond hair that spilled out through an opening at the back of a simple ball cap. She was short and quite full figured and wore a black T-shirt, extremely-tight jeans with ripped knees and tennis shoes covered with old food and grease. She held a parcel of aluminum foil while she looked absently out towards the road. Colleen thought that if the girl gained an ounce she would be overweight, but as she stood now, she had a figure like one of the bombshells that drove men crazy back in the forties and fifties. The hair stood up on the back of Colleen's neck, and she prepared to extend her claws.

Austin beat her to the slider and slid it open. The young woman ignored Austin's Officer Poncharello smile, however, and looked past him, directly at Colleen. Her dazzling-blue eyes were the color of sapphires hidden in the freezer.

"Hi," she said, "You must be the Millers."
Her voice was shy with a latent obnoxious quality that Colleen assumed would blossom as they became better acquainted. The girl extended her hand nervously, almost dropping the aluminum foil package. Colleen smiled and took the girl's hand, reaching underneath Austin‘s arm.

"We are. I'm Colleen and this is my husband Austin."

Austin shook the young woman's hand politely.

"I'm Tina. Me and my husband Cody live over there."

She turned around and pointed to the trailer across the dead lawn, the one with the Camaro parked in front. Colleen could hear the three kids screaming and laughing behind the back trailer.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Tina," said Colleen. She relaxed, seeing that Tina focused on her instead of Austin. Austin was aloof, but well behaved.

"Cody ain't home right now, but he told me to come over and make you feel welcome," Tina said. She extended the package towards Colleen. "Here, these are for you guys."

"What's this?" Colleen asked. She took it and lifted a part of a loose flap of aluminum.

"Oatmeal cookies. They're okay, I guess. I ate one to make sure I wasn't poisoning you guys or anything. They're kinda salty."

Colleen laughed politely and invited Tina in. Austin tried one of the cookies. He raised his eyebrows and nodded dramatically. Colleen shot him a warning look not to overdo it.

Tina took a single step into the doorway, and then froze as if obeying a previous order not to proceed any further. When she knelt down and ran her fingers across the new carpet as Colleen had done, Colleen felt an immediate kinship with their pretty new neighbor.

"We seen the carpet guys over here a couple of weeks ago," Tina said. "The old stuff that came out was pretty nasty. The whole place was."

"Why?" asked Colleen. "Who lived here?"

"Her name was Edith. She was a real sweet lady, but she had a bunch of cats that stunk real bad. It took Big Norma and me a week to scrub this place down."

Colleen and Austin looked at each other.
"Big Norma lives back in that trailer at the end of the lot," said Tina. "Those three pests chasing that stupid dog around belong to her. Patty paid Norma and me to clean this house up. Patty's your sister, right?"

"Yes," Colleen said. "The place looks wonderful. Thank you."

Tina shrugged and blushed slightly, then turned away. The last of the late afternoon sun slipped down towards the horizon and caught her hair in an explosion of platinum and light.

"What happened to Edith?" Austin asked.

Tina looked at him full-on for the first time.

"She died. She didn't have no family or nothing. Just them nasty-ass cats. Kinda sad."

"Poor lady," said Colleen. "Maybe sometime you could show me what she had planted in her garden."

"Oh, she had all kinds of stuff," said Tina, suddenly animated. "She even taught me how to can vegetables. I got my own set-up and everything."

"Maybe we could plant some things together," said Colleen. "I've always wanted a full-sized garden."

"I'd like that," said Tina.

Tina stuffed her hands in her back pockets and looked out at the lawn. The three kids came back around and cut a diagonal path across the grass. The Labrador puppy stayed just ahead of them and disappeared behind Tina's trailer, his three pursuers close behind.

"So, when‘s all your stuff gonna get here?" Tina asked. She pointed to the pile of sleeping bags, luggage, and cooler. "I hope that ain't it."

Tina snorted and laughed at her own little joke then became serious again.

"I‘m sorry, I shouldn't be so nosy. Cody says I need to learn to mind my own business."

Colleen shook her head.

"You‘re perfectly fine, hon," she said. "The moving truck should be here tomorrow morning. We wanted to be here, so we got here early."

"We thought we'd camp out tonight," said Austin.

"Outside?" Tina asked.

Austin laughed, and Colleen elbowed his arm.

"He meant we're going to sleep in here, on the floor," said Colleen. If Tina's feelings were bruised, she did not show it.

"Oh," she said. "Well, if you guys need anything, let me know. I‘ll be home in a few hours."

"Why don't you stay, Tina?" Colleen said. "We have beer and stuff for sandwiches."

"I'd like to take you up on a beer, but I can't. I have to get to work. Cody'll be home tonight, but it'll be real late. Maybe I'll bring him over to introduce you guys tomorrow."

Colleen and Austin followed Tina out to the porch. With some effort, she extracted a set of keys from her front pocket. The black Lab pup bounded into the yard. The three kids appeared from the back of Tina's trailer - still running, but slowed down by half, their faces flushed and sweaty. The oldest boy brandished a hatchet or hammer handle that he apparently intended to use as a club to brain the puppy. The next down in age was a little girl with blond hair that needed to be washed. She held a rusty leash that lacked three feet of chain. The youngest boy was around four years-old with bright-red hair that sat like a sweaty mop on his head. All three kids wore dirty clothes that were in bad repair and fit poorly. They all stopped in the middle of the lawn and tried to regain their breath. The dog stopped several feet away and turned to face them. It panted and wagged its tail. After a brief pause, the kids started the chase again. The pup sprung gleefully into the air and led them across the lawn once again.

"That's Joshua, Micaela, and Ezra," said Tina. She pointed to them in turn from the oldest to the youngest. 

“Big Norma's on welfare and don't do nothin' but pump out brats and clean out the food bank once a week. The money she got from your sister for helping clean your house is probably the only she's earned since she had Joshua."

The three kids ran in front of the porch, close enough for Colleen to detect the odor of perspiration. Tina suddenly addressed the trio in a loud voice. 

"Why don't you kids stop spending so much time chasing that stupid dog around and spend more time picking up trash. I don't see why I should have to pick up shitty diapers when I don't even have a baby."

The kids skidded to a halt and looked up. The oldest, Joshua, glared at Tina.

"We‘re trying to catch him so we can take him down to Safeway to find him a home. Then he won't get in the trash anymore, Mrs. Busybody."

"Besides, you ain't our boss, Tina," said the girl, Micaela.

Tina exhaled with contempt.

"Fine. I hope you all get bit and get rabies. I'm gonna laugh my ass off when they put that long-ass needle in your stomachs."

"Why don't you shut your fat mouth, Tina!" said Joshua.

The three were off again. As if to taunt Tina, the Lab pranced toward the juniper tree and snatched up a rolled-up, disposable diaper in its jaws. It made two or three bounding leaps, tail wagging furiously to celebrate the find, then loped back around and stopped in mid-motion to throw its pursuers off the trail. It then bolted towards the steps that led up to the porch where Colleen, Austin, and Tina stood. 

Colleen gasped and stumbled backwards. She grabbed Austin's shirt for balance and swung behind him. The dog broke left at the last second and darted back onto the lawn.

"I was only kidding, hon," said Tina. "He‘s only a puppy. He ain't bit no one yet."

Colleen's heart pounded in her throat. Her mouth had dried up, and it was difficult for her to breathe. Still, she managed a smile.

"I‘m okay, I'm okay," she said. "He just startled me."

A loud bellow vibrated the wooden porch they stood on and echoed into the forest across the road. The command was unintelligible to Colleen, but the three kids understood it; they stopped in their tracks, turned on their heels and walked towards the back trailer with heads hung grudgingly like child laborers returning to the sweatshop. On the swayed, weather-beaten porch stood a mountain of a woman in a faded-yellow moo-moo.

"Big Norma," Tina announced. She looked at her watch. "Shit! I gotta go, I'm late!"

She trotted down the steps and walked quickly towards the Camaro, her keys jangling and body jiggling in all the right places. The Lab thought she was there 
to play until she picked up an empty tomato can and hurled it in its direction.

"When my husband gets home I hope he fills your black ass with buckshot, you little fucker," Tina said.

Colleen looked over just in time to see Austin openly enjoying the young woman's charms. She sighed and took him by the hand then led him into the house.

Colleen lay awake in her sleeping bag and listened to Austin's ragged breathing as he slept soundly next to her. She envied his heavy slumber - brought on by many hours of driving and the several cans of Coors he had drank to wash down two sandwiches. There it was again, Colleen thought. Why did she continually put a negative spin on everything?  

When would she finally be able to find her strength and move in a positive direction?

Tina had come home several hours earlier, but the bare-bulb porch light on her trailer still glowed, lighting up the lawn and much of the living room where Colleen and Austin were camped out. They had found a spot in the northwest corner where they could hide from the glare and make love in the semi-darkness. It was not the light that kept Colleen awake, however it was the silence. Without the sounds of the city, Colleen's mind had no distractions to focus on. She seldom drank because alcohol gave her a headache. When it was quiet and she was wide awake, she could slowly and painfully dissect herself with laser-
like precision.

Colleen shifted positions and lay on her side, facing away from Austin. She replayed their lovemaking session in her mind over and over. It had been eleven and a half months since the last time, but she realized she wasn’t ready, not emotionally. She had just gone through the motions, made the right movements or noises at the appropriate time, enhanced by words of praise and sighs of satisfaction. The very first time Austin had peeled her panties off with trembling fingers in the back of his car, she had responded the same way. How old had she been then? It didn't matter - her breasts were budding and she had had her first period over a year before, but in her teen mind it had been too soon. Only now it wasn't the fear of getting pregnant, her father finding out, or being labeled a slut at school that squeezed her heart or impeded the flow of blood to her pelvis: It was the image of the other woman that haunted her. It had felt like the whore stood over them while they copulated, her hands on her hips and eyebrows raised. You've got to be kidding, Austin. How can you actually enjoy fucking her after you've been with me?

Colleen had met Dianne Fletcher and her own husband once, during the Policeman's Ball one year at the Exhibition Hall on J Street. Colleen could not remember the husband's name or any of his unremarkable features, only that he sold insurance. Coleen remembered that much because he had approached her while she was standing off to the side casually observing how good Austin and Dianne looked together. The husband - Tom or Nick or whatever his name was-had the audacity to ask Colleen about their coverage while Austin and Dianne accepted a joint award for service in the City of Sacramento.

The affair technically never happened. Neither Austin or Dianne ever admitted that they had traversed those boundaries, Dianne's actual words to a legion of reporters that day on the steps of the State Capitol - the official last day of Austin's career as one of Sacramento's most productive detectives. Even under the crushing weight of hostile reporters and questions about other departmental corruption that cut to the bone, Austin and Dianne had looked like a beautiful couple - equanimous and unscathed under the barrage; Austin with his military cropped hair and block-cut C.H.P.-style mustache that he used to wear, Dianne with deep flame-red hair, flawless skin and impeccably tailored navy-blue power suit.

Colleen sat up. She tried to will the images of Dianne Fletcher from her mind, but with no success. She crawled quietly out of her sleeping bag and crept over to the cooler wearing only panties and an over-sized T-shirt. She pulled out a can of Coors, flicked an ice cube off the top, then returned to the dark corner of the living room and leaned against the wall. When she popped the top, Austin grunted in his sleep and rolled over, mumbling something unintelligible. Colleen took a sip of the icy-cold beer and savored the mild alcoholic aftertaste it left on her tongue; she knew that although only a few drinks would give her a headache in the morning, she would be able to spend the rest of the night in peace.

By the time Colleen finished just under half the beer, her brain felt fuzzy. Tiny lights popped in her vision and her tongue felt chilled and thick. She got up and walked bare-footed across the carpet into the kitchen, momentarily exposing herself to the harsh light on Tina‘s porch, and poured the remaining beer down the sink. While she stood on the linoleum, she felt the floor begin to vibrate - lightly at first - until a deep rumble shook the house as though a police helicopter was flying overhead. Colleen darted over to the slider to peer out, careful to stay out of sight.

Two choppers pulled into Tina's driveway and stopped behind the Camaro. The ground thumped for several seconds, then both bikes simultaneously fell silent. Colleen watched the two bikers dismount and walk up the steps. The two entered the trailer and the porch light went out, plunging Colleen into complete blackness. She returned to her sleeping bag and looked at the Indi-glo of Austin's watch before falling into a beer induced, dreamless slumber; it was 2:48.

To be continued...

Anthony Engles 832039
Coyote Ridge Corrections Center
P.O. Box 769
Connell, WA 99326
My name is Anthony Scott Engles, born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1965.  After a brief stint in the Navy, I pretty much roamed around the country, waiting tables and bartending.  I settled in Spokane in 1994, then got pretty heavy into survivalism and related activities.  I got in a shoot out with Stevens County Deputies in 2003 and wounded one of them.  I’m serving a 30-year sentence in Washington State, where I have done the majority of my writing.  I have one short story published and several unpublished short stories and poems.