Underground Tourist


(ok, I know this is a flash fiction blog, but this is a little more than a flash)

Underground Tourist

“Hey, Mel.  Can you take a look at the error in the ATM service layer?” said Robbie from the next cube.  “It’s not a priority, just happened to notice it in the system logs.”

“Sure, yeah.  No problem. Message me the log.” said Melchior, chewing on the end of a ballpoint pen. He was tall– even sitting down–late twenties, vainly chiseled physique, scruffy face, dark hair, his piercing brown eyes focused on the computer screen in front of him.

“Ok,” said Robbie.

Bloop

“Got it,” he said.

Melchior opened the log file and made a quick search for the error.  “You heard of UTNMessageRouter.java?” he asked.

“Dude, there’s like a million source files in this banking system.  I haven’t heard of most of them. You could code PresidentFoxSucksCocks.java and no one would notice,” said Robbie, the Fox regime never far from his thoughts.

Melchior opened the code and examined it.

“Come here, Robbie.  Check this out.”

“Ok.  Did you find the error?”

“Not yet but take a look at this.”

Robbie, a stocky, compact man, 30, with a mustache that might be decent in ten years entered Melchior’s cubicle, one of forty cubes on the 22nd level of the Bank of Greater of America building in Oklahoma City, and looked over Melchior’s shoulder at the screen.

“Have we ever used an Apache Camel router in this system?”

“Doesn’t sound familiar.  What does it do?”

“It watches file folders.  You drop the right kind of file in a folder, it picks it up and does something with the data, gets rid of the file.”

“So?”

“So?  And that doesn’t strike you as weird?  We’ve never used Camel to my knowledge.  Not the whole time I’ve worked for BOGA. No one introduces new 3rd party code without approval from the leads, and you’re a lead.”

“Look, just fix the bug, ok?” said Robbie, stepping out of his cube.

“Ok, whatever.”

Taking a sip of his government-issued-excuse-for-coffee, Melchior analyzed the code, chewing his pen. He found the path to the folder the code was watching, logged in to the server, and looked in the folder. It was loaded with files with names ending in “.utn”.

Whatever these files were, he knew they shouldn’t have been there.  The router should’ve been picking them up. He followed the code trail leading up to line 376.  There you are you, you little bugger.

“Fixed it,” he said.

“Oh yeah?  What was it?” said Robbie.

“Someone forgot to put a null check on a date conversion.”

“Typical shit from the ATM team,” said Robbie. He grimaced as he took a drink from his mug, “Your fix goes live this afternoon.”

“Nothing like testing in production. Ok, I’ll keep an eye on it,” said Melchior turning back to his computer, closing the file, but leaving the folder full of the strange files open.

For lunch, Robbie and Melchior walked down to a sandwich shop on the corner. November was approaching and a stiff breeze was just starting to burn their ears as they pulled out their travel visas and swiped. The door opened and the college kid with the sandy blond hair and a look like he’d just smelled a sweaty gym socks said, “Welcome to Chimpy’s”

They ordered up and took a seat by the window.  Outside, a man with curly hair and a satchel strapped over his shoulder was trying to swipe his card, but the door kept making a nasty buzz; a buzz that made Melchior’s and Robbie’s hearts race.

Seconds later a black van pulled up, tires screeching to a halt. Two men in black fatigues with automatic weapons jumped out and dragged him into the van without even a moment for him to scream. The van door slammed shut and the van sped off, to where nobody seemed to know.

Robbie shook his head and said, ”Second one this week.  This is not right. Someone needs to do something about this.  I don’t know what or who, but something needs to be done.”

They ate in silence, as did the rest of the patrons, not knowing if one of them could be next.

Later that afternoon at the office, Robbie talked to Melchior from his cube saying, “Looks like your code fix went in ok.  Did you figure out what that thing is supposed to do?”

The fluorescent light above them began to buzz and flicker. “No, it was heavily encrypted,” said Melchior.  He remembered the folder full of files and went to close it up, but when he did he could see that the router was working.  The stack of files was gone, but every few seconds he could see a file or two show up and then disappear quickly. Something or someone was dropping files into this folder in real time.  Out of curiosity, he started trying to click one with his mouse to open it up and examine it. After a half dozen tries he managed to get one.

He opened it, but it was just gobbledygook, so he dropped it in his pirated decryption software and waited.  As it ran, he pulled up his company email app. He’d received a company-wide email that said that due to an incident at lunch, their lunch privileges were being revoked.  They were welcome to eat in the break rooms or the cafeteria.

He checked back with the decryption. It must have been checking every encryption algorithm from here to kingdom come, but just as he was about to give up, it bleeped and flashed.  It had found a match.

The message had been decrypted.

Be at North Penn and 10th Oklahoma City, OK 5:30 pm

On a hunch, he edited the file to say 5:45 instead of 5:30, encrypted it, and closed it.  It disappeared from the folder.

“Hey, Robbie.  Do we have an ATM at North Penn and 10th?” he said.

“Lemme check,” said Robbie, from his cube.

Melchior could hear him punching a quick search into his keyboard.

“Yeah, we do. Why?”

“Do you want to take a little field trip after work?” said Melchior.

“As long as it’s before curfew, I don’t want any trouble.”

Melchior got up from his desk, walked around to the entrance of Robbie’s cube and hung his arm over the cubicle wall. Robbie turned around in his chair.  Melchior said, “It’s like, an hour-and-a-half before curfew. I’m sure it will be fine. Besides, probably won’t take more than a few minutes”

Robbie touched his mustache, subconsciously wondering if it had somehow filled in a little bit more since the last time he checked it. “Ok,” he said, glancing at his watch. “That’s like in 20 minutes.  Sure we have time?”

“Yeah. It’s just over at the Ten Pen area.”

“Ok, but do you have your travel visa?  They will take away whatever privileges you have–or worse–if they catch you without one.”

“Dude, I just used it at lunch.  Just chill. Not that it’s worth much anymore since we got night time tourism revoked,” he said.

“Well, you and pretty much everyone we know…except for the Clarkes.”

“Yeah, well the Clarkes can suck my dick.”

Robbie scoffed and said, “Ok, I’ll go,” and pointing at Melchior hard he said, “but we need to be in before curfew.”

“Few minutes tops,” said Melchior. “Let’s go!”

Robbie grabbed his sports coat and Melchior went back to his cube to grab his sleek, black bomber jacket.  They clocked out with their cards at the door and made their way to the parking garage. Melchior’s transport had technically been made by one of the big-name American carmakers, but the government had baled it out and was now running it.  He thought that it looked about as sexy as his Aunt Cynthia who wore an ankle length denim dress, slip-resistant loafers, and her hair down to her waist in a ponytail; an expression of her obsession with all things horse.

In the transport, Melchior put my visa in the ignition and Robbie said, “Are you sure this thing will take us there?”

“Yeah.  It should go to any BOGA Location–that includes ATM.”  Then he said, “Cynthia, take us to the ATM on the corner of North Pennsylvania and 10th.” He waited, never quite sure what the computer would say.  But the approval bell rang, and the computer said, “Destination approved.”  The transport started, backed out and began driving to the parking garage exit.

“I fuckin hate these things,” said Robbie.  “I miss my 2018 Challenger. That mother had some rev, you know?  Plus, I could drive it–really drive it–like wherever the fuck I wanted to go.”

“Seems like another world ago.  Can you believe it’s been eight years?  And two years of this Greater America shit.  Do you think it will be over soon?”

“I hope so.  I mean, he said it would be just until we were secure.”

“Said every dictator ever,”

“Shit man, you want to be arrested?  This thing has ears, you know?”

The car took a right and switched into the left lane.

“Right, right.  We were talking about Castro, right?  Just a little history lesson.”

“Right.  Glad you’re doing your homework,” said Robbie, looking at the cabin computer cautiously.

Downtown to Ten Penn had been a twenty-minute drive in rush hour before the government issued, self-driving transports.  The system was so efficient now that they would be able to get there in 8 minutes according to the onboard GPS.

At first glance, the city looked no different than it had before the Greatening.  The buildings were all there. The streets looked no different. And yet, everything was different.  The restaurants had one by one shut down, except for the ones exclusively patroned by the privileged few who still retained their tourism clearances.  There were cameras everywhere, and men in black carrying automatic weapons policed the streets

“So what is this all about?” said Robbie.

“I’m not sure.  Remember the error?  Well there was some weird shit going on. I found this encrypted message. It said to meet somebody here at 5:30. I just wanted to see what it was about.”

“Dude, are you crazy?  You find a hidden message in the state banking system that says to meet at some random ATM and you want to know what it’s about?”

“Come on, man.  Aren’t you a little curious?  I checked the logs on that code.  It was checked in with a dummy account.  That’s like really fishy. Aren’t you a little curious?”

“Not in the least.  Let’s turn this around.”

“The route has already been approved.  We’re almost there. Let’s just check it out.  Look, here it is,” he said as the transport pulled into a parking place right in front of a convenience store with an Bank of Greater America ATM by the front door. “No one here.  No police. No big deal.”

They got out and Melchior checked his watch.  5:28. He looked down both streets where he saw the old Nic’s Grill train car and a restaurant that used to be called the Hungry Frog which was now an exclusive bar.  There were cars driving people home in transports; white, gray, and blue.

“Ok, when 5:30 comes around, Mel” said Robbie, “We’re out of here.”

“Deal,” said Melchior. He checked his watch again, “Aaaaaand 5:30.”

“Ok, can we go now?”

“Just hold on a second,” he said.

At that moment.  A black van tore around the corner and screeched to a halt.  Two men in Black fatigue jumped out and ran toward them.

“Hey, guys!” shouted Robbie trying to pull out his wallet, “We have our–”

But it was too late.  They had a hoods over their heads and were being muscled into the van.

“What did we do?” Melchior shouted over the van engine, but there was no answer.

“Goddamn it, Mel,” said Robbie, “I knew some shit like this was going to happen.”

But there was nothing to be done but wait as the van knocked them into each other.  After 10 minutes or so the van stopped abruptly and the door was sliding open with a lurch.

“Ok, this is your stop, guys,” said a man’s voice. “Do you have your cards?”

They pulled out their cards.  He took them and heard a buzzing and a beep. “You won’t need a sponsor next time. These will work at any Bank of Greater America ATM.  Just swipe and wait for the receipt. It will tell you where and when to meet for your next excursion.” He handed them back.

“This is what’s going to happen,” the man said, ”We will take you in. You’ll have a great time, then we’ll come and get you at midnight. This van will return you to your cars.  Your cards have night time privileges now, so no one will hassle you when you drive home, and no one will be the wiser. Got it?”

“Ummm…” began Robbie, then Melchior elbowed him and said, “Got it.”

“Oh, one more thing. If this place gets busted, you’re out of the UTN for life.  Got it?”

“Right.  Remind me,” said Melchior, remembering the name of the files ending in “.utn”. “What does UTN stand for?”

“Underground Tourist Network.”

“And that would make you?”

“Your tour guide,” he said.

Quickly and blindly, they were led onto a sidewalk and down a flight of stairs.  They heard an electronic bleep and were led into a room with a lot of people talking and music playing. They could smell Chinese food.  Their masks were removed.

What they saw was a low-lit nightclub, with a jazz band on stage fronted by a gorgeous dark-skinned woman in a sequined gown.  An Asian man in a maitre ‘d tux greeted us. Neither of us had not seen any people of color in months.

“Welcome to Chuck Wo’s!  Your cards please?”

Melchior turned around to ask the men who had brought them in what was happening but they were gone; then he turned to Robbie.  He was also bewildered, perhaps more. They pulled out our cards and examined them, then examined Melchior and Robbie comparing their faces to the faces on the card.

Melchior and Robbie looked at each other nervously.  Perhaps this is when their folly would end.

“Yes, Misters Johnson and Terrell.”

“Um…” Melchior began.

“Come this way,” said the maitre ‘d.  He led them through a crowd of men and woman having more fun than they had had or seen anyone have in months.  The people drank champagne and Manhattans and beers. A woman in a red dress smoked a cigarette with casual, coolness.  Two men stood by the stage bobbing their heads and ogling the singer.

The maitre ‘d led them to a small table for two, gestured for them to sit and said, “Are these seats suitable for you?”

Seeing that Robbie was still dumbfounded, Melchior said, “Yes, sir.  These will do fine.”

“And can I bring the gentlemen a drink?” he said.

“Make it two old-fashioneds; rye whiskey, please,” said Melchior with growing confidence.

“Very good, sir.  And will you be needing a menu?”

“Sure!” said Melchior, “We are starving,” He nodded at Robbie; encouraging him to nod with him.  He nodded, dazedly looking at the band.

“Very good, sirs,” he said, and he swept away meandering deftly through the crowd, avoiding servers with large trays and one man stumbling back to his table with two cocktails in his hands.

Then Robbie spoke.  “What the fuck is happening?” he whispered harshly.

Melchior shook his head, “Well, I’m thinking we took somebody’s reservation.”

“Yes, but what is this?” he said, pointing around the room.

“This is obviously some sort of underground club we were lucky enough to find.”

“May I remind you that tourism is restricted to those with approved tourism visas?”

“Yes, I’m just as delighted as you are.  I’ve needed a night out. Look at this place,” said Melchior, looking around, “This place is fuckin’ hot!”

“We could be detained indefinitely for this!” said Robbie, as the singer finished her number and the audience began to clap and whistle.

“Look at these people,” said Melchior.  “Do they look worried? Something about this place is obviously very secure.  They fucking hacked the central system for the Bank of fucking Greater America!  Let’s just enjoy ourselves!”

“Shit, we–”

“Have nothing to do, but enjoy ourselves, Robbie.  We have no idea where we are, and no way to get home until 12.”

“Your old fashioneds, gentlemen” said a beautiful Asian woman in a silk cheongsam dress carrying a tray. She set their drinks in front of them on napkins, and then put a plate of steamed dumplings between them.

“Chuck Wo’s famous spicy pork dumplings, courtesy of Chuck Wo himself.”

“Why thank you, Miss–”, began Melchior.

“Feng Mien,” she said, with an alluring smile. “Tonight we have a very special treat for you: Chuck’s special Peking Duck served with a jellyfish salad.  Mr. Wo prepared it himself.”

“Um…” began Robbie.

“Sounds great,” said Melchior.

“Very good, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Terrell.  These dishes were his grandmother’s. He is very proud of them.  He only makes them for special guests. Enjoy” she said, leaving.

Melchior looked at Robbie and raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, there you go!”

“Dude, we have to get out of here.”

“Why?  VIP treatment?  Chinese delicacies? Beautiful women?”

“Um, men impersonating police?  Illegal clubs? Mistaken identity?  Dude, we are in deep shit!”

“Now hold on, hold on,” said Melchior, lowering his voice, “If we leave now, we risk getting arrested anyway.  I’ll take my chances here.”

Robbie scoffed and swigged his drink.

The band started playing again, a slow sizzle of an introduction.  Then the singer began, singing almost entirely with her breath. “There was a boy.  A very strange enchanted boy…”

“She’s pretty good, right?” said Melchior, mesmerized.

But Robbie was not paying attention.  He was looking nervously around the room as if expected a rhinoceros to trample him at any moment.

“Robbie, Robbie, relax,” said Melchior distracted by his nervousness and grabbing his arm. Melchior caught the attention of the the waitress, “Feng Mien, yes,” he said, “Bring us another round of drinks.”

“Listen to me, Melchior,” Robbie said. “I want my wits about me.  I don’t want to relax. I want to get out of this alive.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Get out of this alive?  We are living for the first time in months.  I don’t know what made this fucking miracle happened, and I don’t care if this is the last meal I eat.” Said Melchior, and Robbie pulled his arm away from him.

“You know?” he said, “I just had this feeling that something bad was going to happen tonight.  I should have trusted my gut.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” said Melchior, lowering his voice.  “Now quit being a little bitch and look around you.” Melchior looked around the room.  Two tables over were a couple of women wearing elegant cocktail dresses . “See this shit?” he said nodding his head in their direction. “When was the last time you saw that kind of talent?”

Robbie looked hesitantly over at the two women. One of them took notice and smiled.  He averted his eyes quickly, but Melchior gave her a quick nod back.

Elsewhere, on the corner of 10th and Penn, two young men were waiting for something.

The one with neatly trimmed beard, turtleneck and black leather jacket said, “Are you sure the message said 5:45?”

The short stout one with the shaved head and silver earring pulled out a slip of paper from his pocket and showed it to him.  “Says right here.”

“Man, I want to fight this thing, you know?” said the man with the beard.  “I’m sick of living this way. I want to play my part.”

At that moment, a black van pulled up four guys jumped out in black fatigues and tried to cuff them.  The men struggled, the guy with the beard landed a right hook, but a man in black clubbed him in the head with a nightstick.  They were led at gunpoint into the van, never to be seen again.

“Let’s go talk to those girls,” said Melchior.

“Nuh-uh.”

“Yeah, come on,” said Melchior.

Robbie gave Melchior a hard look, one that might have sat him down in his seat before the Greatening had occurred, but things were different tonight.  He felt alive and willing.

They got up and made their way over to where the women were sitting.  Melchior said, “Hey, can we buy you two a drink? We’re new in town and don’t really know anybody.”

One of the women, with wavy blonde hair and thin but very expressive eyebrows smiled and said, “Sure, but we’re not from around here, either.”

They pulled up a couple of chairs while I found a server.

“A round of,” said Melchior turning to everyone then back to the server and said, “Do you serve a negroni?”

“Excellent choice, sir,” he said. “Four negronis, Compliments of Mr. Wo.”

The women looked at each other with looks of surprise, but Melchior was getting used to the treatment, and also curious.  “Tell Mr. Wo that we appreciate his hospitality.”

“Perhaps you will have a chance to tell him yourself.”

Robbie stepped on Melchior’s toe and ground it into the floor. Melchior stifled a yelp.

“I look forward to the opportunity,” said Melchior.

After the maitre ‘d left, the woman with the copper red hair and pale, porcelain complexion said “Wow, compliments of Mr. Wo.  Who are you guys?”

Melchior could feel Robbie getting ready to stand up so he grabbed Robbie’s knee under the table and said, “Like I said, we’re new to the neighborhood. I’m…Johnson…and this is Terrell”

“No first names?”

Melchior considered this carefully, they were there as Johnson and Terrell.  He didn’t want to blow it so he wanted to play it safe, not knowing what the real Johnson and Terrell were named.

“Not tonight, babe,” he said with a wink.

“A man of mystery,” said the blonde, to the redhead.

Melchior elbowed Robbie who cleared his throat and said, “So, what are your names?”

The blonde said, “I’m Roberts and she’s McClelland. No first names for you, no first names for us,” she said with a sly laugh.

Then Feng Mien came with a large tray and said, “Would you care to eat your dinner with the ladies?”

He looked at them and McClelland said, “Only if they share.”

“Deal,” said Melchior.

“Very good, Mr. Johnson,” said Feng Mien,and she arranged the plate of duck and the salads on the table.

As they ate and chatted, Robbie began to come out of his shell a little bit. McClelland even seemed to be taking a liking to him.  After their plates were cleared and the band finished their set, the maitre ‘d approached their table.

“Mr. Johnson and Mr. Terrell, I hope your evening has been to your liking.  I see you’ve made some new friends. Delightful!”

“We’re having a wonderful time Mr.–”

“Li,sir.”

“Yes, thank you. It’s been a very interesting evening.”

“Mr. Wo, your esteemed host, would like a private audience with you. If you would come this way.”

Robbie looked at Melchior sternly, and for the first time that evening, Melchior began to feel uneasy.

“Can you show me to the bathroom?” said Robbie suddenly.

“Of course,” said Li. “I’ll come find you when you are ready, but I ask you, do not keep Mr. Wo waiting for long. He has much work to do tonight. The men’s room is on the other side of the bar.  I can show you if–”

“No, we got it,” said Robbie, and he took Melchior by the arm and began to pull him through the crowd.

When they got to the men’s room, Robbie shut the door and locked it.

“This has gone too far, Mel!  I’m stopping this right now. We have our visas, and we have our phones.” He pulled out his phone. “Great, no bars!  Whatever! We can find our way back to our car and get out of here.”

“Ok. Ok. I get it.  This is getting scary, I know,” said Melchior, calmly. “Ok, if you really want to leave, then let’s leave.”

“Thank you,” he said, with visible relief on his face.

He unlocked the door and we headed for the entrance.  Two men were standing by the door. One looked at the other and then stepped in front of them.

“Mr. Johnson? Mr. Terrell?  Mr. Wo is waiting for you.”

They turned around and Li was waiting for them, “Come, come, he is waiting.”

Li led us through red, velvet curtains next to the stage.  The musicians were backstage laughing and smoking weed. The singer was applying lipstick at a small vanity. She looked up and smiled at Melchior.  Then Li continued to lead them down a dark hallway until they reached a door. He opened it and gestured for us to enter.

They entered a study with dark, wood-panelling walls, books, and shelves of Chinese artifacts.  A venerable looking Chinese man was sitting at a stately desk.

“Ah yes.  My new Misters Johnson and Terrell,’ he said, rising and bowing.  “Please have a seat.”

Melchior bowed and elbowed Robbie to do the same.  Anxiously, Melchior sat down and so did Robbie, giving him a surreptitious glance.

Mr. Wo sat down, “I’m so glad you’ve decided to join us in our little,” he paused,” resistance*.* We had a glitch in our system otherwise we would have contacted you sooner.  Excuse my men. I did not want you to leave before we had a chance to talk.”

Melchior nodded, not sure of what to say.

“Hand me your cards,” he said.

They handed him their cards and he pulled out a small machine. He put first my card in and it buzzed and beeped, then Robbie’s.

“Now, these cards will get you into any establishment in the UTN–Underground Tourism Network.  Consider them carte blanche–unlimited access and credits to our many underground entertainment venues. I only ask that you swipe this daily at any of the Bank of Greater America ATMs.  You will have a role to play before this is over. Have fun. Enjoy your little taste of freedom courtesy of the UTN. But when it is time, you will get your chance to fight for all of our freedom,” he said staring Robbie in the eyes with intensity.  “We will not let this Fox get away with his crimes. He will stand trial. We will restore democracy!” said Wo, slamming his fist on the desk.

Melchior looked at Robbie, he was on the edge of his seat with fight in his eyes.  He turned to me and nodded.

Mr. Wo regained his composure and said, “Li, please escort these fine gentlemen back to their tables.  Make sure they are well taken care of for the evening. Show Johnson and Terrell to a private room and bring in their new counterparts, Roberts and McClelland. They have much to discuss.”

When they got to the door, Robbie said, “Mr. Wo?  We will not fail you.”

As Li was escorted them to a private room with the beautiful women, Robbie stopped in front of a woman who was smoking and said “Hey, can I bum one of those?”  She smiled and handed him a cigarette and a lighter; two things we hadn’t seen in a year before Chuck Wo’s. He lit up and took a long drag. His body relaxed. He turned to Melchior and said “Mr. Johnson.  I don’t care about the clubs, the drinks, the ladies…none of that shit. You can have all of that you want. I don’t really know what we’re getting ourselves into, but if it means kicking that asshole out of the White House, I’m in.”

Melchior reached out for his cigarette and took a drag himself. Then he pointed it at him and said, “You’re a crazy motherfucker, you know that?”

“But can I ask just one favor?” said Robbie, straightening Melchior’s collar and smiling his first real smile of the evening, “Next time?  Will you just fix the damn bug?”

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Men’s Room Confessional


“Excuse me?” asked Henry.

“How long since your last confession?” repeated the raspy, time-worn voice from the next men’s room stall.

“I’m sorry, are you talking to me?”

“Yes, my son.”

Henry shifted uncomfortably on the toilet seat.  He suddenly felt trapped in this tiny stall that stunk of Friday night drunkenness and piss knowing that he had business to take care of with a potential loony in the next stall.  First of all, stall-talk in general was not within his comfort zone.  He valued his privacy too much.  Secondly, either this guy was joking or he was dead serious, and joking would be the lesser of two evils.

“Ha ha.  That’s pretty funny, but it you don’t mind–”

“Would you like to pretend that I’m joking?  Because we can do it that way if you like.  It’s up to you, my son.”

Dead serious it is.

“Listen, I don’t know what you’re up to over there, but I just want to take care of business and get out of here.   So, if you don’t mind–”

“Most men who come through here are hesitant at first.  I completely understand.”

“Look, I’m not even Catholic.”

“Neither am I,” he replied.

“And I haven’t been to church in years.”

“Hehe…and this certainly isn’t a church.”

“Yeah, no shit.  Pardon my French, Father–er, or whatever you are.”

Although a little incense wouldn’t hurt right now.  Jesus Christ!

“Look, you may never have this opportunity again.  I’m offering you 100% anonymous confession.  I don’t know you, you don’t know me.  It doesn’t matter to me what you’ve done or who you are.  What matters to me is that you find absolution…if that’s what you need.”

“I’m doing just fine.  I’ve managed to make it this far without confession or absolution or whatever.”

But he wasn’t fine.  He knew he was lying to the man, perhaps even to himself.  His marriage was in the crapper.  He had few friends to talk to.  He was on his way to becoming a divorced, lonely drunk .   As he sat in the restroom of his favorite pub, five whiskeys down, little to lose that he wasn’t already losing, the weight of his sins began to materialize out of the fog of the emotionless stupor he’d been living.  His heart sank.  His eyes welled with tears of pain and regret. As crazy as it seemed, he decided to play along.

“Ok, listen,”  he spoke in tones hushed and strangled by rising emotion,  “I’m not sure why, but I trust you.  So how does this work?”

“Simple, you tell me what you’ve done wrong.  And I offer you forgiveness and a penance.”

“Ok.”

The words did not come immediately.  He began to draw them together from images and deep longings and deeper regrets.  He spoke for the first time about the affairs and the constant stream of lies he’d been living with.  His fears of his daughter becoming like the women he was using, or worse…

that his daughter would grow up to marry a man like him, a man like his father.

Dad.  Dear old dad.  It’s no wonder I turned out this way.

The music and chatter from the pub vibrated the walls around him.  There it all was, hanging in the air around him, the stench of his sin and pain and struggle, and the source of it all.

All the old painful memories of his neglectful, womanizing, drunken father who he had not seen or spoken to in twenty years came rushing make to his consciousness, and a vow formed on his silent lips.  I will NOT become my father.  It’s not too late.  I WILL NOT become my father.

“My son,  are you truly sorry for your sins?”

“Yes! Yes I’m so sorry.  I am so sorry, Father.  But what can I do?  Tell me.  What do I need to do?” he pleaded.

“Go home and beg for forgiveness from your wife, before it’s too late.  And if she is still willing, let her help you.  Do whatever she says to do.”

“Ok”

“And make me a promise.  When you’ve gotten your life back together again, I want you to take a turn on the other side of this wall.   Hear someone’s confession, just like I’ve done for you tonight.  And then offer them forgiveness.   Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, Father, anything.  I’ll do it.”

And then the words that had never meant anything to him before, pierced his very soul.

“My son, you are truly forgiven.  Go in peace.”

you are truly forgiven

He did not know until this moment how much he needed to hear these words.   He knew he didn’t deserve them, but somehow he was receiving them anyway.  And for that moment, he truly was at peace.  His mind was clear.   In sharing his heavy burden of pain and guilt and shame and wrongs, he could see new possibilities.  Like a tiny flame lit from the kindling of dead twigs on a cold night, hope was born in his heart.

“Thank you, Father.  Thank you.”

Quickly, he washed up, and left to pay his tab.  As he headed for the exit he glanced back to the men’s room for a moment, hoping to catch a glimpse of the unlikely priest .  And as he did, he saw an older man emerging.  Even in the dim light of the smoky pub, he could see tears glisten in his eyes.  Henry stopped and stared hard.  Through the tears, through the wrinkles, and through twenty years of absence he recognized him.

The man he had just this night called Father, was the man that he had once called Dad.

And in that moment Henry knew, that this could not have been a chance meeting, and that this was not just about the sins of one man, but two.


The Ballad of the Butcher’s Daughter


There was a stranger who walked alone,
Who came from far away.
Who sought a job to feed his mouth,
And a bed for which to lay.

He reached a town with open gates,
And began to look around.
The people there did stop and stare,
Not a friend there could be found.

He came upon a butcher shop,
And dared to venture in.
He pulled his hat down off his head,
And was welcomed with a grin.

“Good morning,” said the Butcher,
What business have you with me.?”
“I’ve traveled far to find a job,
Do you have a job for me?”

The butcher looked him up and down,
And rubbed his chin in thought.
He said, “You’ll work for room and board,
My pay for you is nought”

The stranger wept in gratitude,
And bowed his humble head.
The butcher kindly handed him,
And little loaf of bread.

The Butcher gave a warning glance,
And said, “I have one rule.
You’re not to touch my daughter fair,
She is my precious jewel.”

The stranger stood up tall and straight
And made a solemn vow.
“I shall not look upon her face,
Or you may butcher me like a sow.”

That night he came for supper,
With the Butcher and his wife,
She brought a honeyed ham
And a fork and carving knife.

The Butcher carved the ham up,
And served it with a wink,
The Stranger caught his meaning,
His cheeks and ears turned pink.

That night in the Butcher’s barn,
He lay in softest hay,
And wondered of the maiden,
How long he couldn’t say.

Then late at night as he slept,
Another wandered in,
He woke to find the maiden,
Her mouth an open grin.

They kissed and stroked each other,
His love for her he spoke,
Until the cock crowed three times,
The two of them awoke.

And then the Butcher opened
The barn door with a bang!
And saw the frightened lovers,
Their heads they now did hang.

“My daughter!” cried the Butcher,
As he stood over them and fumed.
“I love her!” cried the Stranger,
But he knew that he was doomed.

The town did never see him,
Nor never again did meet.
But the Butcher’s ham and pork chops,
Had never been so sweet.


Hostage


Brian sat with the other forty-five hostages, trying desperately to make sense of what he was hearing; hoping to find a pattern in the steady stream of gibberish pouring from the captor’s ever smiling mouth. Brian scanned the room for some sign of recognition in the eyes of the other captives who lined the four white walls, and realized that most had simply given up.  They sat resigned and hopeless…hostage.

For a moment, Brian suspended his effort to interpret what his captor was saying, and focused on his face.   His smile was devoid of feeling and without humanity.  It spread grimly across his coffee stained teeth.   And although he smiled, his eyes were dead… lifeless.

Recognition’s dawning was so gradual that it was hardly perceptible.  At first it was a word, repeated throughout the endless discourse.  A word in which the captor appeared to be…appeared to be what?  Proud of?  Was the captor proud of his word?  He polished it with his voice as a prized ruby or emerald.  Eventually, it seemed as if whole phrases might be making sense, but just when he thought he might grasp their meaning and relevance, they would dissolve into obscurity.  No, it was only single words that truly registered in Brian’s mind.  They were persuasive words, without meaning yes, but persuasive; and steadily repeated throughout the captor’s seemingly mindless rambling.

He spoke  of “alignment” and “impact” and “transparency”, and “synergy”.  This was the word he was most proud of. Synergy. That and “win-win”.  The words swirled energetically around the room at first, but ultimately fell to the floor empty.

Brian carefully considered his quandary.  Could he escape? Could he somehow persuade his captor to make a halt to his madness? He wondered why exactly they were all there, and what the captor’s motives might be; motives for holding forty-five adults hostage in a corporate boardroom.  But his demands were clear enough.  They were to listen to each word that was spoken no matter how absurd or incomprehensible.

Then the pace of his words began to slow.  Could it he be that he is running out of words?  And rather than building his presentation to a meaningful climax,  the captor’s talking dwindled, his words as stale as his smile,  until there was nothing left to do but open up the floor for questions.  But what do you ask of a madman?  Some stood and offered token questions perhaps hoping to ingratiate themselves to the captor, while the rest sat in painful silence; praying for mercy.

The crisis ended as innocuously as it began.  Brian and the other hostages were released except those who were asked to “go offline” with their questions.  The relief in the room was palpable as, one by one, each returned to their cubicles; some stopping to chat, some stepping into the restroom for much needed assuagement. The captor, satisfied, returned to his corporate office on the east coast to gather more words and plan more meetings.  It was over, and work…true work…could resume.


#5MinuteFiction Week 39: Teapot


His ears and face were burning red. Why was he on the verge of tears? Was it fear or shame? Was it the thought of bearing his father’s disappointment? Poor kid. But the teapot…

The teapot had always been in my life. It was a great loss. I couldn’t even speak to him about it yet. It wasn’t that I was angry with him. Loss is just…loss. I could still see the bright green, ceramic teapot sitting on my grandmother’s stove. I could see her pouring out the afternoon tea. Feel the steam on my young face.

It didn’t matter whether or not he’d been careless. I just needed to look at it for a moment trying to imagine how it could be repaired. He would have my forgiveness soon, but first the loss. What would my mother say if she saw it lying here in pieces? That it didn’t matter? That Grannie didn’t really like this teapot that much anyway? That accidents happen? Probably.

“Dustin.”
“Yes?”
“Come help me clean this up, ok?”

He didn’t look at me. I could tell he was trying to hide his reddened cheeks and teary eyes from me.

As we collected the broken pieces, I put my hand on his shoulder and smiled his face up to mine.

“Hey, accidents happen. Don’t take it so hard.”

In my own voice, I could hear my mother’s and her mother’s. It was ok.


Bay City Runaway


Walking Home On a Foggy Night - William Buckley Jr

She didn’t move.  She didn’t even blink.  She just stared back at me with a single question in her weary eyes . I still wasn’t sure if she was actually there.  After downing five drams of single malt some time earlier, I had passed out and had only just awoken at the sound at the window–actually, my body still slumbered in a scotch induced stupor, but my eyes were awake, and the shock of seeing someone at my window in the middle of a cold night had set my ears ringing.  But even still, I understood what she was asking.

I could just make out her face in the dim, halogen porch light of my Powell Street home on the edge of China Town.   I’d seen her earlier that evening down the street outside of Foley’s when I stepped out into the foggy night for a smoke.  She’d approached me, ghostlike and wordless, communicating her desire to bum a cigarette with a faint hand gesture.  I didn’t speak and I barely even looked at her, save a single moment of eye contact as I lit her cigarette, then she walked away glancing back at me once.  In her eyes I could see her need, and on her face I could see the bruising of a cruel hand.

A dilemma had frozen me in the stare, our eyes locked in an unanswered plea.  I’d met my share of hustlers in this bay city, but,  she was so lovely that  it would almost be worth the hustle.  But no, the need on her face was real, and she couldn’t have been more than seventeen.

But why me?  Why would she follow me?  Why not a friend or family…or a shelter?  Jesus! I was a stranger to her–a drunken, lonely bastard of a man on the street; too young to be her father, too old to be her lover.

I broke the stillness with a nod.

She was pale and shivering from the cool, damp night.  I watched her intently and silently as she passed over my threshold into my living room.  No words had come to my mind, so I did not speak, and even if they had, my tongue would have been too slow to form anything but foolishness.  She sat on my couch, and I handed her a heavy woolen blanket.

She had not been on the street for long, I guessed.  She didn’t smell badly–only of damp, night air and Marlboro.  Her clothes looked relatively fresh–jeans, hoodie, backpack, and sneakers.  I poured her a brandy from a crystal decanter–the one thing I kept for myself–and sank back down in the leather club chair where I’d just moments before been sleeping and had been every night since I’d moved in three weeks earlier.   She put the glass to her lips, her eyes never leaving mine.  Her mouth showed only a trace of grimace from the strength of the drink as she swallowed.

She broke the silence.

“I’m Amy.”

I took a sip of  scotch, and cleared my throat a bit.

“Hey, Amy.  I’m Brian.”  The words hung around my spinning head as if they weren’t mine.  “How can I help you?”

She shrugged her slender shoulders.  “Can I crash here tonight?”

“Why here?”  I replied, clumsily, perhaps even coarsely.

She shrugged again.  “I guess you were nice to me in front of the bar?”

“Look,” I started, “if this is a hustle,  I….”

“It’s not a hustle!”  she shouted, her voice breaking.  “Listen, I just need a place to stay tonight.  That’s all.”  Silent tears began to rolled out of her eyes pleading for just an ounce of mercy.

“Ok, ok.  Relax.”

Gesturing toward me, she said, “I guess you seemed–I dunno–like you’re running away from something, too.”   Her body relaxed into a slump as she dried the tears on her hoodie sleeve.  She sniffed and  took another sip of brandy making a sour face this time.  She put it down on the coffee table between us.

“Do you need to call anybody?”

She shook her head, and pulled the blanket close around her.

“Amy, are you ok?” I asked, my tone softening.

She nodded and settled back into the couch.  She seemed so at home…or maybe just too exhausted to care.

I watched her sleep for a while and listened to her breathing–almost peaceful– unconsciously timing it with the ticking of the mantel clock.  Asleep, her face was a child’s, spoiled only by the green and purple bruise under her right eye.

She was gone when I awoke the next morning, the runaway.  The blanket was folded on the arm of the couch exactly as it had been when she’d arrived, brandy snifter put away.  I might never see her again, and I wasn’t really certain I’d ever seen her at all.

As I let the steam from my freshly brewed coffee rise to my face, I pondered her words:

you’re running away from something, too…

For more


Final Pilgrimage


He meditated on the sound of his boots pressing into the freshly packed snow, a million crushed snowflakes singing out together in fatal communion, while a burning Camel Blue that had promised peaceful succor in the icy sting of winter hung weakly from his lips.  He’d walked this path many times, and he wondered how many more times he would need it.

The snow around the tiny building of glass and aluminum was undisturbed, artfully sculpted by the sweeping winds of the Oklahoma plains.   He entered the smokers’ shelter as if it were a sacred chapel, and in some ways, it had been.  First kicking the snow from his boots, he sat down at the table and extinguished the cigarette in the glass altar that awaited his ashen offering.

For a moment, he listened to the wind pressing it’s force against the northern wall of the structure and pondered peace.  Would this next smoke bring him any peace?  Would it trigger the dopamine rush that began his worshipful love affair with a god that rolled itself in white and brown paper?  Doubtfully, he fished deeply in the pockets of his woolen, smoke-stained pea-coat and fingered the smooth, steel of a Zippo and the sharp corners of a cardboard Ark of the Covenant of sorts.   Ritually tilting and patting the half-empty pack, he eased out a cigarette and lit the end with a crack of flame.

Each puff was a dying prayer to a dying god.  Plumes of faintly felt bereavement poured from his mouth and nose.

After driving the final paper nail into the now dead altar, he dropped the pack and the Zippo in to the waste basket, knowing that this would be his final pilgrimage.  Slowly endeavoring the return journey to his office, he let the cold hand of Winter caress his cheeks numb hoping for some kind of purification.  From deep within his ruminations, an old idea awoke in his mind, that peace–true peace–had not forgotten him.  It sang its song under his feet, whistling in his stinging ears, cracking a new fire in the dark places of his restless heart.


Lenten Man


The Lenten Man - David Wilson-Burns © 2010

“Where am I?”

“Oh my God.  Phillip.  You’re in the hospital, honey.  You had an accident.  Oh sweety.”

His neck cramped with pain as he attempted to survey the room, his eyes eventually focusing and settling on a praying woman at his bedside.  He squinted at her through the bandages and crushing pain in his face and began to cry hot, stinging tears. Something terrible was wrong, but he knew this woman.  Somehow, he could feel her love flowing through his veins. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.

“Jessica.  You’re Jessica,” he croaked, his voice barely audible.

“Yes, sweetheart, it’s Jessica.   I’m your wife.”

“Jessica.  Yes.   I know you.  Yes, sweetheart.  Yes, I’m your husband…so confused…don’t remember what happened…can’t remember. ”

“Honey, just rest.   You’re going to be ok.  God is taking care of you.”

All the time she’d been holding his hand.  And she kept holding and patting his hand as she bowed her head and wept in a low, murmuring stream of sobs and prayers.

“Yes, God is taking care of you, Phillip.”

God, thought Phillip. Yes, God.   God is taking care of me.

Glimpses of the last forty days began to form in his aching head.  Glimpses of prayer and fasting and worship and study of scripture.   These things he held on to, turning them over and over in his mind like precious jewels that he could scarcely believe were his.   They were nearly all he had left.  He thought of his wife who was holding his hand.  He thought of —Yes, children–his two beautiful children.  And he thought of his God…who took  care of him

Phillip’s memory never fully returned.  He remembered pieces of his childhood.  He remembered how he and Jessica had met.  He remembered falling in love with her.  He didn’t remember the days his children were born.  He wasn’t even there, but he didn’t remember that either.  He just remembered that he loved them.  He didn’t remember the nights of pouring stinging, numbing booze down his throat, the endless string of one night stands with roadside bar girls, or the times when he threw his fist into other drunken men’s faces.   He didn’t remember Easter night three days before, when he plowed his truck into an the 60-year-old, oak tree a half mile from a bar off route 77 with a fifth of bargain whiskey in his gut.

The only span of his life that he could remember with any completeness or clarity was the the forty days before his accident.   The forty days of Lent in which he annually–miraculously–managed to straighten out his crooked ways out of devotion to the God of his mother and her mother before her.  The forty days that had kept his wife hoping and praying desperately year after year for a permanent change…for a miracle to save their marriage.

To Phillip, those forty days were his life,  and they would continue to be his life.


Lost and Found Street Hustle


Stepping off the curb onto a dim lit street, Connor dropped an expired Marlboro and crushed it with the sole of his boot as he continued across.   He was not sure where he was heading at all– just heading–thoughts of life and age, and shoulds and shouldn’ts on his mind, cold, damp bay air nipping his ears.

Too old to start smoking, too lost to care.  Up the hill or down?

He turned down the San Francisco street not looking ahead, just down.  On he walked, past house gates, over steamy sewer grates, across quiet side streets and further into the night.

“Hey!  Hey, man.  Slow down.  Lemme aks you somethin’.”

Connor turned to see a scruffy, street-worn black man of indeterminate age.  His light brown skin was punctuated by dark freckles across his nose and cheeks.

Great, more street hustle…fine..nothing better to do

“Yeah?  What do you want?”

“Hey hey, man…relax.  I don’t want nothin’..shiiiiit.  I just wanna aks you somethin'”

“Ok, so ask.”

Connor kicked the gritty sidewalk with his foot watching the tip of his boot and discreetly touching the pocket that contained his wallet.

“Come here, man.  I ain’t gonna bite you.  Shiiiiit.”

Every phrase he uttered broke into a raspy cackle which caused him to bounce and shake his head.

“I’m standing right here in front of you, man.  What the fuck do you want?”

The man took a step toward Connor as if he were about to intimate something to him.  The smell of cheap musk cologne barely masked his stale bodily filth.  Connor held his ground, but sharpened his senses for anything.

“You from around here?”

Connor shrugged.

“You got any weed?” the man asked.

Connor shook his head, keeping his face darkened by a brown, corduroy driver cap.

“Why?  You know where to get some?”

“Shit, man.  If I knew dat, I wouldn’t be askin you.”  What teeth were remaining gleamed yellow under the street lamp.

Connor relaxed his posture a little and smiled.  “Sorry, man.  Got nothing.”

“Das alright.  You just look like the kinda dude who might be able to help a brutha out.”

Connor chuckled.  “Oh yeah? Whatever you say.”

“Hey, listen.  Check dis out.  Man, you ain’t gonna believe dis shit. I’m gonna show you somethin you ain’t NE-VAH seen on no brutha.”

Connor held up his hands and took a step back, still smiling, “Whoa!  Now hold on!  I don’t need to see nothin!”

“Nah nah nah…it ain’t like dat, yo. ”

The man reached up, and with all the flare of a magician offering his audience a slow reveal, pushed the front of his raggedy toboggan hat up over his forehead.  Connor squinted and took a step closer as the man pointed with a dirty index finger protruding from his finger-cut glove.

There on the mans wrinkled forehead was a scratched-in homemade tattoo of a symbol that Connor truly was surprised to find:  a tiny swastika.

“That is fucked up! That is sincerely fucked up man!”

For a moment, they were just two men on the street laughing at the surprise and oddities of life.  The man laughed and wheezed at his own bizarre joke.

Wanting to know why a black man would have a swastika on his forehead, but not wanting to linger any longer on a lonely street past midnight with a bum, he looked further down the street and then back at the jovial beggar, he said, “Ok, man.  Umm…yeah…thanks for that.  That what truly weird, but I’m smiling, so thanks.  See you around, brother.”

“Ha ha!  Alright, yeah, I will.   Hey, but…maybe spare a few dollars?  Just need to get me a burger or something.”

“Shoot, I’ll do you one better.”  In a moment of rare clarity, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his pack of Marlboro Reds, a lighter, and a ten dollar bill and extended it to him.

“Alright, brutha!  Das what I’m talkin about.  Sure you ain’t got any weed?”

“Yeah, man, I’m sure.  Later.”

Before Connor had even taken a step, the man was lit and taking his first puff.

As Connor reached the next crossing light, he could hear the mans voice echo after him, “Thaaaanks!”

And Connor walked on, this time headed for his hotel, ready to give up his wandering…at least for tonight.



Cheap Irish Whiskey


“Why’d you fill my sorrow with the words you borrowed?” mourned the Irish singer as Eric stepped in from the cold city street.  The singer sang with his eyes closed in a revery to misery on the small stage at the end of the long, polished wooden bar–a meticulous and lavish tribute to Irish pub culture.

For a moment, he felt as though he were intruding on a sacred event.  The singer’s passionate outpouring of music and love and sorrow kept his audience rapt.   But thunderous applause and raucous thumping and cheering broke the spell as the song came to a close, ending their set.

“Tank you! Tank you! We’ll be comin’ back after a piss and smoke, so don’t you be going anywhere!”  he said into the mic, and the packed bar settled into a steady rumble of chatter, some streaming out onto the street for a smoke as well.

Eric scanned the bar for a seat, and saw a woman putting on her coat and slinging her purse over her shoulder.  He pushed through the crowd to claim her stool before anyone else spotted it, brushing against warm bodies, through a scented haze of beer and fish and chips.

Got it! But the triumph provided only a glimmer of joy.  He had come searching for a missing piece of himself, hoping to find it in a connection or lose it in a bottle of whiskey.  Seeing nothing but doting couples, armchair basketball coaches, and lonely bastards like him , he started with the whiskey.

The bartenders wore white dress shirts — a white as Jesus fucking Christ’s robes after the goddam transfiguration — with green and black striped school ties, and long aprons.  They tossed bottles and slammed drinks and chatted customers while he perused the whiskey shelf for the perfect drink to start his evening.

A bartender stopped by and raised wiry, grey eyebrows at him.

“I’ll have a double Laphroaig 10 neat. And can you pour it in a single-malt glass?”

He grabbed a small brandy snifter and held it up for Eric to see.

“Closest we got, pal!”  said the old bartender, his voice like the grit on a damp side-street.

Eric glanced down at all the other patrons.  Pilsners, Rocks glasses, tumblers, wine glasses, high-balls, old fashions.

Not wanting to be the dandy with the snifter, he shouted back, “Just pour it in an old fashion.”

The bartender smiled and nodded and reached up for the green bottle with the simple white label and poured out to the brim.

As he set it in front of Eric he raised his eyebrows and said, “Single malt drinker huh? You know they used to sell this Laphroaig stuff as medicine back in the prohibition days,  right?”

Laughing, Eric replied, “Yeah! No one could believe anyone would drink the shit for pleasure…smells like iodine and burnt tar.”

Despite the Friday night rush, the old bartender grabbed a shot glass and poured himself a dram of the same.  Raising it he said, “Cheers!” and the two clinked glasses. The bartender tossed his back and Eric swigged a large gulp of his double.

“I see what they mean,” he said, grimacing. ” I’ll stick with my Chivas, pal!” and he was off.

For a moment, Eric was lost in a reverie of swishing, sniffing and tasting the scotch, dwelling on it’s finer points, then he remembered why he was alone.   Who am I kidding?  Who’s gonna want to be with me.  She sure didn’t. The last place he wanted to be was in an empty apartment.

“Hey, so what’s the deal with that stuff, huh?” came a woman’s voice to his left — surprisingly close.  She nodded at his drink.

“Did you witness that bit of foppery?  Hehe…ummm…yeah.  Sorry about that.  I should just order drinks like a normal guy.  That’s fuckin’ embarrassing.  I just like to pretend that I’m not going to end the evening drunk off my ass on cheap Irish whiskey crying and singing along with O Danny Boy.”

She laughed hard and grinned broadly at him, and he half-smiled back at the petite young lady with punky red hair, mischievous eyes, and soft features.

Her smile and laughter lifted him out of his brooding enough to say, “What are you drinking then, darlin?”

“Cheap Irish whiskey.  No kidding!  The cheapest they got!”

With that, Eric broke into laughter with her, their legs brushing up against each other, his rough edges softening.  He placed one hand on her bare shoulder and motioned to bartender. Still laughing, he held up two fingers and pointed to her glass.   Then he raised his glass of expensive single malt to her glass of sweet Jameson on the rocks and straightened his back for a solid toast.  She followed suit, and they locked eyes.

“To cheap Irish whiskey!  Without which it would cost me a goddamn fortune to get you drunk enough to sing along with me!”

Her smile warmed and her eyes grew soulful in his bold gaze as she clinked her glass to his.

Leaning in to his ear, she said, “I’m Kyra.”

“Eric,” he said, taking in her perfume.

She extended her hand and he took for a moment–so warm and soft, the first feminine warmth he’d felt in a long time. His ex had become so cold–at least to him–in the end.

“So, Kyra, are you here by yourself, too?”

She laughed, the alcohol taking effect, “Uhhhh…interesting story.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Not really.  I got stood up, but I liked the band, so I just decided to stay — ”

“And drown your sorrows in a few of these?” he said, smiling, and grabbing the freshly poured Jameson.

“Yep!” she said, raising her glass again to his.

“What a fucking asshole.”

“What?  Me?” she giggled.

“No! Ha ha!  The guy who stood you up.  I’m lookin’ at you and thinking, this guy either got run over by a truck or he’s fucking crazy.”

Her face turned crimson, she looked down, and asked, “Why is that?”

“Because now that I’ve seen you, I can’t take my eyes off you,  you’re so beautiful.”

Still looking down, she shook her head, “No I’m not.  Don’t say that.”

He couldn’t stand it–a beautiful woman like this who just wasn’t seeing it.  Gently, he touched her face and nudged her chin until she looked him in the eyes again.

“Kyra, listen to me, I don’t lie.  I wouldn’t bullshit you.”

She did not speak.  Shhe steadily returned his piercing gaze and the whole bar around them faded away, and for a moment, Eric found that piece of himself that was missing…in Kyra’s  green eyes.

The band returned and began a new set, a soulful ballad.  “Nothing unusual, nothing strange. Close to nothin at all…” the singer crooned.

Eric grinned and extended his hand to her.  She took it and let him take her in his arms for a dance.

His heart glowed both with the warmth of the whiskey and the warmth of her lovely smile, which never quit–even through the solemn occasion late in the evening when the entire bar joined together in singing “Danny Boy” before the two of them stumbled out onto the cold street together, her on his arm, cheap Irish whiskey on their breath.