Saturday, November 13, 2010

Symbol War or Lioning around in Witch Wardrobe is Narnia?

by Roger Bourke White Jr.

“Come. Sit. Learn.”
Wu Doggie, the young newcomer, sat in the meadow grass next to Alstor, the gray-bearded man with the staff. In the valley below them a small army of fifty men stood arrayed for battle. Behind the army stood an unnaturally beautiful lady. Advancing towards them was a man dressed in shimmering robes with a large suitcase in hand.
As the man drew closer the beautiful woman, Cyreenik, shouted a command and the army began to maneuver. They looked good. Their uniforms were resplendent and they moved from formation to formation with razor-sharp precision.
“They look magnificent,” said Wu Doggie.
“They should,” replied Alstor. “Cyreenik has invested heavily in military symbolism.”
“They are fighting that lone man?”
“Cyreenik is. The others are her symbol.”
“He looks so confident, not a care in the world.”
“He is Osric. He is known for his skill in counter-symboling and confidence is a symbol he has invested in. Watch closely now, these are two experienced wizards so the battle will end quickly.”
Osric with his suitcase advanced to just beyond arrow range, then with a flourish tossed his suitcase into the air. Before it hit the ground he tipped it with his toe and it flew up again. As it fell a second time, it grew legs and opened up to become something that looked like half organ keyboard and half apothecary drawers.
Osric opened one of the drawers and his fingers danced over the keyboard. An invisible chorus started singing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Out of the drawer streamed a great flock of white doves that circled over him, then flew over the soldiers. As it did strange things happened below. The sharp brass points of the soldiers’ spears and arrows changed into flowers and their razor-sharp formation softened into something more … fluid. To Wu Doggie it looked as if the hardened soldiers were transforming into peace protesters.
While the doves had been gathering and flying, Cyreenik had been conjuring. Above her a white cloud appeared and grew into a dark thunderstorm cloud, complete with flashes and rumbling. When she saw what the doves were doing she paused from her own conjuring long enough to throw a black bird-shaped amulet into the air.
The amulet transformed into a black bird and flew at the doves, cawing. Each time it cawed, it split into two birds and they both cawed. By the time the flock of black ravens arrived at the doves they were of equal numbers. The ravens scratched and bit at the doves, breaking the doves’ spell. The soldiers reformed smartly into tight formation, launched a volley of arrows at Osric, then charged him.
When Osric saw the cloud building over Cyreenik, he switched songs—strains of Here Comes the Sun floated out from his organ. As he saw the arrows arcing towards him, he switched to a really fast version of the Animals’ We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place and a shining portal appeared beside him.
He kicked the organ so that it spun in the air and began transforming back into a suitcase, tipped his hat to the witch, then walked through the portal, a half second before the volley of arrows landed. The suitcase did not have a chance to follow him—instead it got pin-cushioned, stopped spinning, and landed heavily. A second later a lightning bolt from the thunderstorm over the witch’s head crashed to ground where Osric had been standing. The portal was gone and the suitcase was smoking slightly.
Alstor stood up and walked down the hillside applauding.
“Well done, Cyreenik, well done!” he shouted. Wu Doggie followed.

See the exciting conclusion at...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The Failure" by Roger Bourke White Jr.


Mankind is on the verge of creating new species of many kinds. It will ultimately create a successor species, and most likely, many successor species. Some will be created by large and deliberate efforts. But some... may be created a different way.

Chapter One

"Well, we screwed up."

"What?" Associate Professor Waterford Carrol Jones, called Jones by one and all, carefully looked over his Wall Street Journal, noting his place with his finger.

"We screwed up." It was Sam Robinson, dressed in slacks and a sweatshirt, hands in his pockets and leaning against the doorjamb of Jones' office.

Carefully Jones folded up the paper, straightened his tie, and motioned Sam into one of the chairs in front of his desk. "But how? Mother has already passed her basic performance tests. She's in good order and has been working on the problem for weeks. We've been getting satisfactory progress reports. How could we have screwed up now?

"This run was the final test before we publish. Sure, you've told me about problems, but nothing you couldn't handle. Was there something you didn't tell me about?" Jones stared at Sam. Sam showed no signs of hiding anything. He just slumped a little more in the chair and stared blankly at the ceiling.
Jones and Sam had been working together on this project for two years now. Sam would be getting his PhD next year; Jones had his. Jones was counting on their grant-supported work to launch him back into a high-paying industry position. Later in the day he'd be heading for his second interview with a Fortune 100 company, which is why he had on the tie and was perusing the paper. At forty-three, he wasn't taking any chances.

To read more, head for

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Poem-Slip Stream Dreams-Michael Tanner -edited by Stephanie Osborne

Slip Stream Dreams....
By Michael James Tanner

Drive high between the seams,
They tighten as velocity pulls at the wings of
The sub-orbital dream-making machine.

Counting down, and folding back,
Fuel, pressure, and angle of glide attack.

Hands get heavy, suit constricts legs.
Eyes blur computer, dials;
Vocalize, “Two gees, Mach one,”
This, a memory, fades
As others measure centigrade,
Sound barrier breached, as the ionosphere breaks.
Alarms, klaxons, sound; hull integrity worrisome.

I am sorry, my Mother, Father;
I must go faster now.
Fear will not stop me.
My Heart is in my ears;
Sweat pours down, salting my eyes.
The ground calls to me, “Set condition two;”
The count renews.
Telemetry failures icing in my wake.

“I trained for this; die I might
But failure is not an option.”
My nerve is resolved.
She twists and tries to break
Free from my control;
If we separate now, we break together.
The roll begins as this bird on a wire
Climbs into the black place.

It was worth it; do not miss me.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tell Me A Story About A Real Witch-ep 3

I never thought there was ever an upside to being Sandy Chase, twenty something.

...OK! An over-25-less-than-30 something, and a ghosted and ghost-sighted woman living in a run down, rust-belted Detroit. I live in an old Catholic church, I wear a wedding ring that belongs to a ghost that is my best friend's body guard, and my social life assassin.

Jake is, well, a cop. He never has stopped being a cop even after he died. I don't leave my doors unlocked at night, or the windows open on purpose, but Jake does a perimeter check every half hour or so, and makes sure that everything is locked.

"What if some maniac tries to break into the place? You are a single woman that lives alone, you can never be too careful." Jake would say. My silent answer to that is, well if some nut job did get in here, Jake has my back. I don't know worry too much about it and maybe that is part of my problem. Jake is there for me. He always has been and always will be.

Jake is great, but he needs a hobby. He never really sleeps, he is always, ALWAYS around. He doesn't peep in the shower or anything that I have been able to tell. I also happen to be the ONLY one he can talk to.

Well that was up to a year or two ago.  I was going shopping at the local Convenience store where I pick up my groceries and a pound of coffee and a pack of Marlboro's. (I don't smoke and I don't drink coffee but that has to do more with Jake and a ritual I do for him, but that's another story.) And when I was looking for new light bulbs I noticed a little girl in a private school uniform looking at some candy on the shelf.

I also noticed that the Korean counter monkey, Lee, wasn't looking at her. He seems to look at me plenty but when kids come into the store he is like white and rice, he thinks they are all out to rob him.

It's a bad neighborhood, and all, but give me a break. Another thing that tipped me off was she was alone. Eight years old in your neighborhood alone might be alright, but you don't let your dog out with out watching it here.

When ever I go anywhere, Jake is there, and he took a look around saw me with the girl and walked through the beer refrigerator into the back room. Moments later the audible sounds of bottles breaking.

"Shit lady! Every time you come in here something happens. I don't need this shit." Lee spat the words through his teeth as he slammed his magazine on the counter and went into the back through swinging doors. Jake walked back through the wall of cold drinks, and nodded to me.

I kneeled down to her level, "Hey sweetie, do you want some candy?" I said to her.

"You can talk to me?" she asked me, and began to cry a bit.

"Yes sweetie, we should go find your mommy ok?" I said.

"You know where she is?" she asked me.

"No, but let's call someone to come pick you up, ok?" I said.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Witch of Devil's Rock by Roger Bourke White Jr.


Once again the sun was setting towards the dry plains to the west. Once again the merchants halted their line of camels, tethered and fed them, and made camp for themselves. They lit fires, pitched tents, prepared food, and settled in to pass the lengthening autumn night. They had just crossed the high pass. In two days they would reach the verdant valleys to the east and in two more the first of their trading cities. This was the last time they would cross the high pass this year and they were relieved to be blessed with good weather for the passage. In years previous, many had spent days or weeks waiting for this pass to open.

The merchants huddled in the tent, ate and joked, and finally called for a story from the stranger traveling with them. “You have traveled as far as we,” they said, “but over different roads. Tell us of the strange things you’ve seen.”

“It’s true,” the stranger answered, “I’ve traveled many roads, and seen many strange things. But now that we’re over the pass I’ll tell you about one of the strangest things ever to befall me. Strangest, even though I’ve lived long and traveled far. Strangest, even though it happened when I was just a youth growing up not far from here. It’s a tale that will chill you even more than the night wind howling outside. But in the morning the wind will pass and so will your chill from my tale, for that is the way of life.”

To read more, head for Witch of Devil's Rock in the Technofiction section on my web site.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

And Where Does the Five Hundred Pound Alien Sleep?

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright 2010

"Just as parasitic disease is an inevitable consequence of the evolution of organized multi-cellular life, I suspect we will find that every civilization carries within its evolution the seeds of its own destruction.

"And in some cases those seeds must succeed in growing and bearing fruit."

 Professor Rojero De Blanco
University of Fornax
Chair on Extraterrestrial Civilizations, 1991

The great ape was advancing on me -- slowly, carefully, ready to spring at any moment. I stood there, longknife in hand, ready to meet its ferocious charge with a single life-draining thrust. Behind me the princess was clinging to my bare back, her arms wrapped about my chest. She was waiting for me to overcome this final obstacle as we fled from the evil priest who had kidnapped her. The monster looked fierce, but with her soft body pressed close to mine, I felt I had the strength of ten.

The ape closed. He was about to spring when he slowly raised his great paw and said in a soft, feminine voice, "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"What?" I squinted at his massive paw. I couldn't tell. Was this some sort of trick?

"How many fingers am I holding up?" it insisted.

His paw was fading. The princess was fading. I opened my eyes. In their place I saw a dimly-lit room. There was a female human there holding a hand in front of my face. She said again, "How many fingers?"

I didn't care. I felt miserable. I'd lost the princess. I looked around to see where she might have gone. But reality was intruding. I focused my eyes on the hand again: I concentrated hard on it... God! I'm not sure I can count that high.

"Three," I finally croaked.

"Good; you're coming out in a satisfactory fashion. You may go back to sleep, John."

Mentally, I thanked her for nothing and went back to see if I could find the princess.

To see more of this story, head for White World > Technofictionland.

-- Roger

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mommy, Why Am I Here?

by Roger Bourke White Jr.

No matter how you slice it, interstellar travel in our real world is going to be a slow, expensive, and difficult process.

This is a story about one way to make interstellar exploration faster and cheaper, but the savings come with a twist.

“Mommy, why am I here?” Mary asked with the innocence of a six-year-old. It was a pleasant spring day. The sun shone through the window over the kitchen sink. Janet, her mother, took a moment from washing dishes to bend down and face her.

“You’re here because God wants you to be here, Mary.”

“Yes, Mommy. But why am I here? What am I supposed to do … when I grow up?”

“God has something very special in mind for you, Mary, I’m sure,” answered Janet. “In the meantime, have you done your studies?”


“In that case why don’t you run outside and play for a while.”

Mary ran outside. The house was at the center of a farm couched in rolling hills of spring-lush green and covered with a canopy of intense blue sky and low-flying white cottony clouds. Mary skirted the hog pens and ran to the barn. Uncle Gustav was there half under the tractor working on the engine.

“Mary, please fetch me the 5/8” wrench, please, from the toolbox on top of the tractor.”

Mary clambered up and reached for it. As she did, she sent the toolbox clattering down. It fell solidly on Gustav’s hip.

Gustav howled. “Mary! Please be more careful.” He scrambled out from under the tractor and checked the motion of his leg. “Rats,” he said, “something’s broken. I’m going to have to go to the hospital.”

“I’m sorry, Uncle Gustav.”

“And well you should be, my dear,” he said, only slightly angry. “Please be more careful next time.”

“I will, I promise.”

Gustav limped out of the barn muttering. “If I don’t get this tractor done soon, we won’t finish the plowing in time.”

Mary wandered further into the barn where the milking was going on. Bill, her brother, and Frank, her dad, were industriously attaching milkers to the cows as the cows contentedly ate their morning meal.

To read more about Mary, and find out where she really is, head to this story on White World:

The Auspice by Robert Goble

Masses of leaves raced across the road in the dusty wind. Flocks of birds swooped and twisted in an autumn sky dim with morning overcast. Approaching the entrance to the highway, James Healey watched the birds, thinking they should have flown south long ago.

“I swear it’s that drought,” he said below the volume of the radio.

His wife, Cori, struggled with their daughter who refused to stay in her seatbelt, and didn’t seem to hear him.

A spring choked with cattails and other tall grasses divided the road and the adjacent fields. Horses grazed balding pastures. An antique scarecrow in a harvested corn field, decorated for Halloween, tilted with a lonely, blank gaze to the east, inspiring a vague sadness as if it longed for something it would never attain.

“James!” Cori gripped his arm, bringing his attention forward. The fluttering mass of birds had suddenly taken a dip into their path. Cori and the kids screamed. He slammed on the brakes as the birds pelted the windshield with frantic intensity. The remainder of the flock passed gracefully overhead, spooky, like a portentous cloud under a thunderstorm.

“Those stupid things!” Cori said.

James sat quietly, trying to make sense of what had just happened. He gave Cori a hug and a smile and then let her attend to the crying children. Looking back before opening his door, he saw the road was vacant except for the sparse path of bird destruction he left in his wake. A couple birds hopped and fluttered among the dead, unable to fly away.

“How is it?” Cori poked her head out the window with a cautious glance at the sky.

James shook his head in amazement that his windshield was still intact, marked only by a tiny smear of blood. “I think we’re fine.”

The flock disappeared over the rooftops of a distant neighborhood.

He walked to a bird, left behind, that struggled, wounded, along a skid mark, obviously unable survive that way. He lifted his foot with an urge to crush it, to put it out of its misery, and hesitated. In the middle of the deserted road, he pondered over the morality of extinguishing a life even as it gasped and suffered at his feet. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t bear the sound its little head would make under his shoe. How selfish was that? He couldn’t sacrifice his inner comfort for a moment of mercy. Was it selfishness, or did the little creature, in its own little birdie way, harbor some hope of life? It was the hope he couldn’t crush.

He walked back to the car, feeling as if the scarecrow leered at him from the corn field, its arms stretching out in long, torn tendrils of plastic, terribly black against the gray sky.

In the coziness behind the wheel, he watched, through his rearview mirror, the skid marks and the birds, which became tiny black dots that stuck out like an unfinished work of art. The same foot he’d risen in hesitation to finish off the dying bird felt nervous, nervous enough that he had to take it completely off the gas pedal and stomp on the floor. He stretched and breathed deeply; all the while his hands gripped and massaged the steering wheel until they hurt.

Cori, sweetheart?” James said.

She turned her attention from the kids to him. “Hmn?”

A sensation of being on the edge of something, a sort of delicate unreality, reminiscent of déjà vu, yet different enough he couldn’t find the words to describe it, grew in his mind.

Something was going to happen.

Nothing,” he said; and the blustery world flew past them, brown and denuded and gray.


He quietly and thoughtfully helped herd his children across the covered parking lot to the elevator. He memorized the Level Seven (lucky number seven where they always found a parking space) Row A, painted in bright blue on a concrete pillar close to his car, so they wouldn’t have to play the where-the-heck-did-we-park game when it was time to go. Cori talked about the years she worked in the mall bookstore before they were married. He nodded distractedly as they entered the clean and brightly-lit foyer where he found the button that pointed down and pressed it.

“Mommy, can I have some ice cream?” Shaely, their oldest daughter, pleaded. The boys were captivated by a shiny brass ash receptacle both parents struggled to keep them away from. Cigarette butts poked out of the sand like old worn pilings. They reminded him of the time the water level in the Great Salt Lake had dropped and exposed some old docks.

“Hello, earth to sweetie!” Cori said, waving her hand in front of his face.

He blinked and gave her a half-grin.

Shaely tugged at Cori’s shirt. A bra strap appeared on her shoulder, and his attention quickly followed.

I said are we going to get something to eat while we’re here at the food court, or did you want to go to a restaurant?” Cori asked.

“Sorry.” He pulled one of the boys away from the elevator doors as they opened. “The food court’s fine with me.”

“Thank you! That’s all I needed to know.”

“Why so harsh?”

“Let’s just get to where we’re going, and maybe we can find a hitching post to tie the kids to when we get there.”

He licked is finger as they moved into the elevator and pressed it against the back pocket of her jeans, making a hissing noise with his mouth.

“Stop that!” She swatted his hand.

He backed up, stepping on a pistachio shell. Its crunch inspired what would have been real sensations had he crushed the dying bird—the terrible pop as its delicate skull would have given away under the pressure of his foot. He winced.

The mall appeared around them as they descended in their tiny glass capsule. A large palm tree thrust past them from a planter that sat in a fountain below. Pennies glinted up at them like hundreds of drowned prisoners of luck and fate. Their descent stopped, the doors opened, and the world came to life with shopping-day movement.

“I want icecream,” Shaley chimed with the doors.

“I want the book store,” James sang back.

“I want the Body and Bath store with free reign of the checkbook, dear” Cori said.

“You have free reign of the checkbook, dear. I haven’t seen it in weeks.”

“You know what I mean, dear.” She shifted the diaper bag on one shoulder as she tugged their youngest boy along with the other hand: a perfect balancing act.

The day had darkened, and he could see through the large plate glass windows at the far side of the food court that it had begun to rain outside. It was a blustery rain, more reminiscent of summer. Lightning glinted off the skylights, reminding him of an old Van Halen song: Light Up the sky. “Here, booger, lick the bottom to catch the drips,” he said to Shaley. She held her icecream cone with both hands like a pop star with a microphone.

Cori was still ordering, and the lightning became more intense. People came in off the street with wet hair. A group of teenage girls chattered and watched some boys nearby. An old man worked on a sandwich. It felt like night.

“Do you want anything, hon?” She continued to pass along the ice cream.

He priced the steak and cheese sandwiches. What he liked was that they came with the deep-fried potatoes cut for you right there--none of that frozen, fake-flavored garbage, but then it didn’t matter what the potatoes were fried in. It was one of those things a person didn’t want to think about, like what the oil pan under the engine of the car must look like now that he’d put off changing it all summer. “I think I’ll try my luck a few counters down.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, fishing into her purse.

“I’m well suited,” he whispered.

The pierced and tattooed girl (like a walking bulletin board, he thought) who took his order, friendly in an insolent way, smiled and gave him his number; and he noticed, with a vague sadness, that she was actually pretty.

James heard Cori call his name. She waved at him through the crowd, causing him to vacillate between her and his grilling food. If, while he was away to attend Cori, his food was put out on the counter, he would risk losing it to some homeless vulture that might snatch it before he returned.

James!” Her hand fluttered, fiercely motioning for him to hurry over. With another quick glance at his order, he left his spot by the pick-up window.

“What?” he asked.”

I don’t have enough cash, and I can’t find my wallet with the check cards,” Cori said, rummaging through her purse. “I think I left it in the car.”

He saw his tray being slid onto the counter. The walking bulletin board called out his number and looked around.

I only had enough cash for my own order,” he said, remembering he’d sworn off all plastic in an attempt to stay in budget.

“What happened to all the cash you took out yesterday?” Cori asked.

The boy at Cori’s register in front of them had politeness painted all over his face; the people in line behind them didn’t look so nice.

“Mommy.” Shaely insistently tugged at her mother’s arm. “Mommy!”

Cory harshly turned to her. “What!”

“Can I have a toy?”

“Hold on!” James ran over and grabbed his tray. He returned and placed it in her hands, Shaely still tugging at her arm. Their two boys, mouths wet with ice cream, each explored the area around them in different directions.

He fished what change he could out of his pockets, and it wasn’t enough. His wallet was empty. “Don’t you have any cash at all in your purse?”

“I said, I don’t!

“Mommy!” Shaely tugged at Cori’s arm again, and she almost lost the tray. “I want a toy!”

“Can you hold on a minute?” James asked the boy behind the register.

The boy raised his hand as if to say, “Be my guest.”

“I’m taking the kids to a table.” Cori turned to Shaley and slapped her hands away. “Knock it off!”

Shaely started to cry.

“I’ll be back.” As James stepped away from the line, the person behind him didn’t waste any time rudely pushing his way forward. A furious rebuke swelled in his throat, and he fought it down with every step to the elevator.

Cori forgetting her wallet was more than just an inconvenience; it was an embarrassment, he thought, feeling the redness rise in face like a thermometer.

The crowd slowed his progress, and he gritted his teeth. Several women stopped in the middle of the promenade to greet each other, their baby strollers creating a wagon circle. It was his turn to be rude. Without begging pardon, he walked through the middle of their happy conversation and stepped over the front of a stroller.

One of the mothers spoke up. “Excuse me!”

“Serves you right,” James said, without breaking his pace.

A young lady from a cell phone kiosk approached him. He brushed her off, turning inside with frustration at Cori and the overwhelming crowd of shoppers. His long awaited browse through the bookstore wasn’t going to come any sooner, so he broke into a jog and calmed down and thought of Cori in the food court with the kids, probably suffering her own embarrassment and frustration. To blame her for forgetting her wallet wouldn’t be fair when he could have helped her more with getting the kids out of the car. He felt relief he hadn’t lost his temper at her. The first thing he’d do when he returned would be to take the boys and try to be sympathetic. Maybe there would still be a chance to save the mood of the day.

He reached the elevators and wanted to pull his hair out. The line of people waiting for a ride was three times the capacity, and the little buttons for down and up both glowed, so he couldn’t predict how long the wait would be. He had time, at least, to ponder the phenomenon that people seemed to arrive at places in groups or waves. One could enter an empty fast-food joint, and upon leaving find it full, as if the new arrivals, mostly unrelated individuals, guided by a mysterious, unseen force, had appeared at—or flocked to—that same place and time. The absence of a line when his family stepped off the elevator proved this idea to his satisfaction.

The people moved forward, and James made a snail’s progress. He found himself looking for stairs but not wanting to leave the line for fear of losing his place. He shifted from one foot to the other.

A pair of teenage lovers held hands and playfully bounced against each other, creating a tiny space between them that would open, then close; open, then close. The feeling that haunted him since he hit the birds became stronger, and through the little space created by the teenager’s hypnotic movements, the kaleidoscope scene beyond them changed and shifted, until he saw, at the other end, someone staring back at him. James reflexively pulled away his gaze.

Another group filled the elevator. The teenagers had stopped moving, blocking his view. Curious about the staring man, he stretched onto his toes to see over the crowd. The man was an old transient. James could have dismissed him, but couldn’t get the man’s stare out of his mind, a stare that made him seem ancient and knowing.

James moved forward until the old man on the bench, by then behind James, struggled to his feet to take his place in line. As James positioned himself near the affectionate couple, the doors opened. Their group seemed to move as one, and James took a place in a corner. The old man was last to enter. The doors closed, and the elevator moved upwards.

The electricity flickered. It happened so subtly that most of them hardly seemed to notice, except for a very large, out-of-breath woman with lots of bags, who let loose a gasp. She gazed into the glowing plastic in the ceiling. The young couple seemed immersed in each other. The old man gave James a lingering look and mashed his lips together; James thought he might not have any teeth.

At the next stop, the woman with the bags was the only person to step off. She seemed relieved to be free of the confining space as she disappeared beyond the closing doors. Once the elevator was again moving, the couple finally broke apart, probably anticipating their own stop.

All birds fly south,” the old man muttered. His voice, like his smell, seemed to permeate the elevator, filling the silent gaps between the occupants. The kids offered him a cautious attention. The stooped old man’s eyes rolled, sunken and moist, to meet James’.

I beg your pardon?” James said.

The boy traded places with his date, putting himself between her and the old man. Before the old man could speak again, the doors opened, and the kids slipped away. James thought of going too, but for some reason stayed riveted to his spot. Later, he would often wonder how different thing would have been had he gone. The doors closed.

All birds fly south if they want to live.”

The old, wet voice poured into James’ ears. A grin spread across the old man’s face, revealing that he, indeed, had no teeth.

James couldn’t think of anything to say. He didn’t want to bother with some crazy old bum; all he wanted to do was to get out to his car on the next stop. The door chimed. He stepped forward, positioning himself to leave, and made the mistake of turning his back on the transient.

That was the moment the power failed, bringing immediate and overwhelming darkness. The elevator ground to a halt.

James sensed movement, but before he could turn, a surprisingly strong arm gripped him around the throat, and the old man’s weight propelled them both against the closed doors. He tried to throw off the filthy, frantic body, but there wasn’t enough room to gain his footing. A callused hand snaked around James’ head. Fingers clenched over his eyes. Hot, rotten breath gurgled into his ear: “See!”

After that word was spoken, the old man loosened his grip. James wrestled the exhausted, panting mass off his back. He did see something: A thin, gray line of light at the base of the doors. He then probed the crack between the doors and found he could force them open. As he separated them a few inches, a strip of dusky light split their tiny cell in two. The old man was on his hands and knees, trying to get back onto his feet. James had the urge to give him a solid kick for good measure, an urge quickly replaced with weary compassion. The wetness of the old man’s eyes reflected up at James.

All birds fly south if they want to live.”

James worked on the doors with urgency and was surprised at how old and dusty they felt. A fresh dryness replaced the stale cellar air of the elevator. One last shove and he was through.

James’ footsteps, in the car-crowded loneliness of the parking lot, sounded loud against the silence of the power outage. The lack of emergency lights annoyed him. They’d be the first thing on his list to complain about after reporting the transient. He felt his neck for bruises, then opened his cell phone. Nothing. A dead battery and no light to guide him. He glanced back to see if he was being followed. The old man had made his way out of the elevator and moved slowly into the darkness.

Disoriented in the gloom, James thought he might have ended up in the basement level. Judging by what he could see, all the numbers on the pillars were the right lucky-level-seven blue; but a faded and peeled blue; in some places no blue at all, just a darker shadow on the concrete where paint had once been. The concrete itself seemed old. Along with piles of leaves, piles of tiny broken concrete fragments lined the walls and pillars, as if no one had ever bothered to sweep. The increasing light around the bend revealed exposed and rusted rebar where larger chunks of pillars had broken away: a shameful scene for such a new building.

Around the next bend, he stopped.

As far as he could see, cars rested, lonely and dusty, on brittle, flat tires, overwhelming him with a sense of age. Beyond the open outer walls of the garage, the gray vista of the city spread out before him. No rain; only quiet autumn cold.

Cautiously forcing his feet to move, he walked to an overlook covered with thick bird droppings. Below him a silent Main Street was jammed with dead cars, their bland windshields staring up like dusty cataracts. Leafless trees, grown beyond their planters, lined buckled sidewalks. Dry grass clogged the pavement. The rust-streaked façade of the building across the street stretched up beyond his eyesight.

As the strength in his legs began to fail, he placed a hand on the ledge and scared several pigeons into the air. A tiny, wispy feather drifted before his face, then slowly settled at his feet. Hearing loudly his own trembling breath, he swallowed and closed his eyes, terrified he might be hallucinating.

Growing up, he’d heard about a schizophrenic aunt he’d never met. Family members told how she’d lived in an alternate world, describing horrible things her medication sweetened only a little—until the day she committed suicide. Had he won the genetic lottery, having caught some hit and miss flaw that floated from generation to generation until it decided to manifest itself in him?

Oh, crap. I’m flying over the cuckoo’s nest for sure! How long will I wander on this parking level until some security guard notices and has me hauled away by the guys in white?

He opened his eyes, horrified the vision hadn’t disappeared. Refusing to look at the city any longer, he turned to face the silent, marshaled rows of cars. They reminded him of the junkyard down the road from where he’d grown up. A fun place to explore, there was something sensational and living about the crunched and mangled buckets of bolts he’d crawl through looking for spare change and anything else interesting. He once found an entire tape collection jammed under a seat. That was the summer he discovered the grinding, pounding magic of groups like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath.

No, this place wasn’t like the junk yard; it was fossilized. The dust on the cars was tomb dust, like something from the catacombs under the sand in Egypt. Head swimming, he walked back into the shadows toward the first stairwell he could see. Whether or not he was going insane, Cori and the kids were downstairs in the power outage. He had to find them.

Along the way he passed his own car, silent on flattened tires.

The gray light of the parking garage didn’t reach beyond the opening of the stairwell. In spite of the darkness, he felt his way to the first turn, then something shattered under his feet, something like old sticks. The sensations he’d imagined of putting the bird out of its misery returned. Finding a rail to lean on, he probed around with his foot, displacing things that fell, clinking into the echoing darkness. Dry bones? The farther he went, the more clogged the stairs became. Air from below lifted like a cool breath, a very old cool breath. He didn’t like how it smelled. Turning around, he pushed his way back up and out of the blackness, stumbled into that relentless, gray parking garage light, and vomited in the shadows.

“See,” that old man had said. “Seeeeeee.”

“Cori!” he screamed, his voice hollow in the mouth of the stairs.

Squeezing his eyes shut until they hurt, he shoved his hands against the cold concrete wall. Emotion rose up his throat in guttural bursts. Another breeze escaped the stairwell with its own faint moan. He ran to the top of the ramp where faded, yellow arrows pointed left and right; one pointed to “MORE PARKING ON THE NEXT LEVEL,” and the other to “EXIT.” That was it! He would follow the exit signs until he made it to the street. From there he would enter into the mall and find Cori and the kids. He couldn’t tell her he was crazy. He would just say he had the flu or something. She could drive home, and when they got there, he would take a few of the strongest pills he could find and go to bed. It was stress from work, that’s all. He had some sick leave. A week in bed would do wonders. He placed his feet on the exit arrow. Follow the yellow brick road ha-ha ho-ho he-he…

James was about to run when the old man appeared as suddenly as a light being switched on. In fact, a light had come on: the elevator light. The old man stood nearby, illuminated with that dry fluorescence only a parking garage could produce, his eyes sunken and wet as ever. His toothless mouth moved to form words that echoed without strength.

“What?” James yelled back.

A wheezy “No time” was all that managed to reach James’ ears. A ragged arm extended, aiming a hooked finger towards the elevator.

James took another couple of steps along the direction of the yellow arrow. The old man’s arm fell tiredly to his side. What James would always remember was the urgency in the man’s eyes, how it changed to a devastating disappointment when he took the direction of the arrow. Screw that old nut, he thought. But he hadn’t gotten as far as three cars when his mind finally accepted what he was seeing. It was the way the brittle, old tire of a Honda rested flatly in a drift of dirt and leaves, eternally lonely. No one had come to take back his car; no one ever would. The only life and energy were around the elevator, and that was where he had to go.

The light seemed to lose strength. It flickered like most fluorescent tubes did when they needed to be changed. James picked up the pace, watching the old man, a black silhouette between the rows of cars, shuffle away towards the ledge where James had looked out at the city. As James stepped through the doors, he saw the old man’s form stop, tremble, then all at once disintegrate into a flock of birds, briefly rotating in a vortex, then flying away, disappearing beyond the concrete pillars and cars.

James stared in shock as the elevator doors closed, cutting off his view. The elevator began to descend, and he stumbled back against the wall. More passengers joined him at the next stop. Each time the doors opened, he looked out at the cars; how vivid they seemed in their bright, polished colors, their tires full and flexible. Breath and energy surrounded him. Perfume from a young woman drifted into his nostrils as she moved closer to let another person in.

The elevator descended over the busy plaza. The doors opened, and he pushed his way through, regardless of manners. He wasn’t crazy. He didn’t have to convince himself what he’d just seen was as real as the shopping mob that moved about like scattering billiard balls. He’d received a vision, a warning. He had to take his family and immediately “fly south.”

Rain still fell against the outside windows, and the baby-carriage wagon circle near the food court was just dispersing. Running urgently, he evaded them with soccer-player precision.

Cori and the kids were eating his fries when he arrived.

“Did you get it?” She wiped her salty fingers on a napkin, then held out a hand, probably expecting to take the wallet.

“Let’s go!” He grabbed both boys with urgent swipes of each arm. The kid behind the counter watched them, aware James was back.

“Hon!” Cori sounded annoyed and surprised.

“Grab Shaely now!”

She slowly helped Shaely out of her seat.

“Grab her! Pick her up!”

“What in the world!” Cori stopped to wipe icecream off Shaely’s mouth with a napkin. “What is going on?”

He managed to hold both boys, and at the same time take a fist full of Cori’s shirt, the shoulder seams making tiny pops as he growled in her ear. “Damn it, Cori, run!”

She hefted Shaely and looked around with a paling face. “What is it?” she asked as they began to move.

“Hey!” the boy behind the counter yelled.

As they evacuated their table in the food court, James glanced at his sandwich sitting lonely in its tray. With a knot in his stomach, he led them past the book store, the cell phone kiosk (the sales girl still aggressively stopping passersby), and the ritzy office supply store that sold the pens he liked. James wanted to yell warnings to other people, but there wasn’t time. Warnings for what? That they had only minutes to get out of the mall? The City?

They turned the corner of the plaza, and a moan of anguish escaped his throat: the elevators were packed again. People lined the area all the way to the fountain; in fact, some were sitting along its edge, probably knowing they would be there awhile.

“James, please tell me what’s going on,” Cori said. She was about to put Shaely down.

James looked one way, then the other. “We’ve got to get out of here.” He found the sign that said “STAIRS” and took a few steps in that direction. The awful, cool blackness came to mind. He remembered those…bones covering the stairs, blocking the stairs. He shuddered openly. “Not the stairs,” he said. He turned to Cori. “Look at me. Whatever happens, keep up with me. Just do what I do, ok?”

She looked at him worriedly, but trustingly.

With resolve, he pushed into the crowd. “Please, folks, please, we have an emergency.” Cori took hold of the back of his shirt. The crowd parted, but some people looked annoyed. “Please, I’m so sorry,” he said.

“Sorry,” Cori said pleadingly to a lady who had a lot of kids of her own.

His sincerity bought them a place in front of the doors.

After the ride, they burst onto their parking level, interrupting the mellow, music-saturated atmosphere. Cars, some freshly wet from the rain, glinted cleanly in the soft fluorescent glow; lightning made them glitter. A gust of wind carried leaves off Main Street and spread them at James’ feet. Setting down his boys, he fought his pockets for the keys, found them, and pressed the button disabling the car alarm. It chirped as the automatic lock on the doors disengaged. He tossed his boys in one at a time, ignoring their car seats.

“Please!” Cori said. She held onto Shaely instead of opening her door.

James ran around the car and opened her door himself. “Put her in, hon.”

She took a step back. “Sweetie, I think—”

He grabbed Shaely, tossed her in, then urgently propelled Cori to the front passenger side. She dug in and refused to move. “Do you mind telling me what’s going on here? You’re really freaking me out.”

“Get in!”

Her hurtful look stopped him like a slap. Squeezing out every ounce of self-control he could, he tenderly put his hands on her shoulders and looked her in her eyes. Controlling his voice, he said: “It’s terrible. We have to go now. I’ll explain when we’re on the road. Pease get in. Please!”

“Can’t we at least buckle them in?” she asked, folding her arms.

Without another word, he propelled himself around the car, landed into his seat, and slammed the door. He turned the key with a trembling hand, and the engine roared to life. Without waiting for the engine to level out, he threw the car into reverse. Cori jumped back, a look of surprise on her face.

James!” Cori slapped the car. Her voice echoed throughout the parking level. An older couple walking to the elevator turned to watch the commotion.

He reached over and threw open her door. She got in.

The look of concern on her face turned to silent anger as she leaned over her seat to buckle the kid’s seat belts. James took a hard turn, forcing her to put her hands out to steady herself. The yellow arrows leading them to the exit zipped underneath them as if shot by some great painted bow. Ahead, the automatic arm that stopped each car at the ticket booth rose and fell like a guillotine; it was a slow, toy-like motion.

Pedestrians, unprepared for the rain, crisscrossed the sidewalk. James paid the fee, then steadily eased out of the mouth of the garage, forcing the pedestrians to stop or move quickly around his car. The blinker ticked, and when the break in traffic came, he hit the gas; the tires screeched until they caught traction over the slick pavement. Two police cars, all sirens and lights, urgently weaved through the opposite traffic, and the kids perked up to watch them pass. James noticed Cori squint her eyes as she looked through the pattering raindrops and the swish of the windshield wipers. More red and blue flickering lights approached in the distant traffic, this time from fire trucks.

At the end of the block, James turned on the blinker and moved the car into the right hand lane to turn onto the street where he would find the exit to the freeway, the freeway that would take them home. At that moment, a large flock of birds passed overhead, not the direction in which he intended to turn, but his original direction, straight ahead, South. He switched the turn signal to the left, slowed down until the car behind him honked, waited, then maneuvered his way back into the flow of traffic.

“Where are we going, dear?” Cori asked.

South,” he said. At that moment he saw her look at the stand-still traffic in the road they would have turned on. Emergency lights flashed at the other end. With coldness in his stomach he understood they had come within seconds of being blocked. Feeling a glaring mix of fortune and peril, he accelerated and managed to pass through several green lights.

“What’s happening? Will you please tell me?” Cori asked.

James thought of the Honda, ancient, on brittle, flat tires that no one had come back to claim; how lonely it was.

Something terrible.”

“You said that.”

The traffic light ahead glowed menacingly yellow. He couldn’t stop yet—not yet. Someone in a truck wanted to turn left in front of him. James accelerated, forcing the truck driver to slam on his brakes in the middle of the intersection just as the light changed to red. Cori’s hands turned white as they gripped the dashboard.

At the next intersection James didn’t feel so lucky. One after the other, brake lights appeared, and he was finally forced to stop at a red light, a very long one—at least it felt long. The flock of birds settled in some trees in a neighborhood not far ahead. He watched them and gripped the steering wheel, nervously massaging it until his thumbs hurt. He switched on the radio with hope of finding a talk or news station that might be reporting on what was happening—nothing but commercials and occasional music.

James!” Cori gripped his arm.

He jerked his head up in time to see a police car, lights flashing, pull into their intersection, stopping traffic in all directions. He looked around wildly for a way to back up.

How did you know something was happening?” Cori asked, her eyes red and moist.

I’ll tell you when we’re out of danger.”

What are we in danger of? Will you please tell me what we’re in danger of?”

I don’t know.”

They were only two car lengths away from an entrance to a K-mart parking lot. He threw the car into reverse and cursed after accidentally tapping the bumper of a BMW that had pulled up too close behind him. The owner laid on her horn, and he ignored her. He cranked the wheel to the right and drove onto the sidewalk. Several people honked at him, creating an indignant horn chorus. Hey, too bad, so sad, he thought, but I’m not going to stick around and play nice.

James!” Cori screamed.

Shrubs disappeared under the right side of the car as he swerved to miss a sign. He over corrected, and the left tires slid off the sidewalk, the bottom of the car scraping sickeningly against the curb. He was almost home free when an old woman, trying to leave the parking lot, blocked his angle to turn, trapping him on the sidewalk. He hit the horn, and she ignored him.

A man in the truck next to them rolled down his window and yelled, “Feel stupid now?”

James pushed open his door and stepped into the rain to wave for the woman to back up. Still, she wouldn’t move. Instead, she carefully checked the locks on her doors. He marched to her window. The look she gave him made her seem stubborn and defiant.

Back up and let me through,” he yelled.

She turned her head away, perhaps to look in the direction of other drivers stopped in the street a few feet ahead. James imagined her hoping someone would see her being accosted and intervene. He banged on the driver’s side window with his fist. She flinched away. The look on her face changed to panic.

. “Please,” James yelled, “my wife is sick, and I have to get her to the hospital. Let me through!”

She lowered her window a tiny bit, enough for her voice to escape. “This is a K-Mart, not a hospital.”

Gesticulating and enunciating as if to explain something complicated to a child, he said, “I need to get out of the traffic jam to get around; now please let me through.”

She finally backed up. He ran to his car, feeling an incredible sense of relief. He was about to go when someone else pounded on his window—the woman from the BMW.

Hey!” She hollered, as rain dripped from her locks of expensive, blond hair. “You hit my car!”

He pushed on the gas and lurched forward.

I have your license number, you jerk!” She raised her hands and turned to look at the other cars, probably hoping for witnesses.

Stop! Stop!” Cori said, bracing herself for another rough ride. “You need to stop. You hit that car. What are you trying to do, get a hit and run conviction? The cops are a half block away. She has our license plate number!”

That isn’t going to matter soon.”

At the same moment Cori opened her mouth to argue, the guy in the truck, who happened to see the whole incident with woman, edged into the entrance to block James off. James squealed his tires, jolting over a landscaping embankment and missing the truck’s bumper by inches.

The hard case in the truck wouldn’t give up. He raced James across the parking lot to block the other entrance. Luckily James understood the game the man was trying to play and, at the last instant, deviated from his course, turning towards the alley behind the K-mart. He sped past a loading dock and a trash compactor and a semi trailer pushed snugly against the building. As rain turned to sleet, he saw a tiny side street at the other end of the alley, one that led into a neighborhood.

I need a drink,” Shaely said.

Cori turned to her, smiled, and said, “We’ll be home soon, honey. We’ll get you one then.” Though her voice was soft her eyes sent James a glaring message.

James let out a long breath. Knots grew in his stomach and throat. Weakening from head to toe, he watched the peaceful brick homes pass until he reached another road with less traffic. He glanced up at the sky, then turned west, the direction of another on-ramp to the freeway and also the direction home.

Standstill traffic on the freeway overpass slowly appeared through sleety haze.

Crap!” James said.

What is it now?” Cori asked with tension in her voice.

We’re not taking the freeway.”

As soon as he had an opening in the next lane, he sped up, moved into the meridian, then made a hard U-turn. Traffic was also backing up in that direction, boxing them in.

Think! Think! Think!” James said, slowing down with the cars ahead. Their brake lights melted, smeared, glittered, and distorted in the windshield like a strange work of art, then the windshield wipers swept it all away, clearing the view to start the process all over again. Tiny black dots passed through the gray sky overhead, and James recognized his little flying friends. A chill went down his neck, and he felt overcome with a memory of reading Coleridge’s poem, Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

And a good south wind sprung up behind; the albatross did follow, and every day for food or play, came to the mariner’s hollo! In mist or cloud…

James’ head moved as he watched the flock, until he could see it (through Cori’s passenger window) disappear down a stretch of railroad track. Along side it ran a muddy, unpaved utility road.

Fly south if you want to live.

He immediately swerved onto the shoulder, sped up, then turned onto the little muddy road.

What are we doing?” Cory asked.

We’re getting out of here.” He said, trying to avoid pot holes and anything that might take out a tire. “The industrial area … We can follow the railroad all the way out of the city. I used to take short cuts through there when I worked as a delivery man.”

The car bounced and splashed past graffiti-covered walls and fences and dying grass turned golden-brown by the rain. James noticed the look on Cori’s face when they slowed down at a stop sign, and the ominous sound of helicopters overhead thumped through their little protective shell.

Still, no news on the radio, but a great Boston song was playing. He turned it up as far as his Cori would tolerate, then crossed the moment he saw a break in traffic.

Cori let out a soft laugh, almost a grunt.

What is it?” he asked, noticing her smile didn’t reach her eyes.

Ice cream.”

What about it?”

She whispered, “We didn’t pay for it.”

We’ll send them an IOU.”

Please, hon. Please think this through. Is this rational?”

The Boston song ended, then Styx’s Renegade commenced with its solemn a cappella.

That’s the first thing I ever stole.” Her fist was clenched on her lap. She kept looking back at the kids, who were unusually quiet.

As the car splashed through large, slushy puddles, the guitar solo in the song came to life. Fast notes recorded over thirty years before burned through the speakers as if for the first time. Backed by the heavy, pulsating organ, the windshield wipers matched the song’s steady beat; and graffiti-covered boxcars flew past, as James’ tires chewed gravel, and he prayed he wouldn’t hit a railroad spike.

They found pavement once again on a little construction-clogged one-lane road that passed some of the last, old local farms, staked out for the developer’s bulldozer. The traffic was light and free there. James was about to comment on a beautiful, rustic, picket fence, when a shrill public alert screeched over the car speakers. James’ hand flew forward to turn down the volume. One of his boys jumped and started to cry.

Do you hear that?” James asked.

Cori looked at him with haunted eyes as the official-sounding voice warned everyone to stay indoors and gave evacuation notices for the downtown metropolitan area.

It’s too late,” James said, fighting to keep the car steady. “No one had a chance to get out.”

Too late for what, James?” Cori gripped his arm.

A highway patrol car passed them, alive with lights and siren.

I don’t know. A terrorist attack? An accident?”

The inadequate words he wanted to use to describe his vision in the parking lot stayed trapped behind his lips.

Where the foothills began at the edge of the new developments, they stopped at a crossroads. Power lines cascaded toward the city. Barbwire fences lined pastures. James slowly put pressure on the blinker to the right—west—until it snicked into place and began its little rhythmic tick-tock, tick-tock. He hesitated.

Go, hon, please! Let’s go home.” Cori pleaded.

A car sped through the four way stop in front of them, ignoring the stop sign. Behind them someone impatiently honked, waited, then drove around James’ little family. The passenger of that car (an Obama 12 sticker fading on the bumper) extended his middle finger as he went by, through the intersection, turning west.

What are we waiting for?”

I want to go home.” Shaely said, with a tiny, quiet voice.

More people arrived behind them.

The gas gauge indicated more than three quarters of a tank full. James pounded the steering wheel with both hands, then flicked off the blinker. Looking both ways put his foot on the gas and traveled into ever increasing fields and farms. The sleet turned to snow. It beat wetly against their windshield.

Cori’s voice shook. “Why didn’t you turn? You missed the turn to go home. You have to go back.”

We have to go south.”

What are you talking about?”

Look, the wind is blowing from the south.”

What does that have to do with anything?” Her voice rose in pitch. Shaely watched them intently from the back seat.

As long as we head into the wind, we’re safe.”

Safe from what!?”

I don’t know, I told you! But when this is over, we’ll go back home.” It was a lie, and he knew it. It felt sour in his mouth.

Cori turned to him and put a hand on his arm. “Okay. It’s time to ask yourself: Is this reasonable? Come on, hon. Please reason with me. We can do this.”

Do what? What are you talking about?”

What am I talking about? Let’s walk each other through this.”

Cori! Please. Not right now. I have to think.”

She gripped his arm tighter, with a pleading look in her eyes. When she tried to speak again, James held up his finger and yelled, “No!” shutting her up.

The sun had extinguished early in the storm. They crested a hill, and, to his amazement, saw a long line of headlights following behind them. On the radio, now dominated by the news, a reporter declared live, over and over, how horrible the scene was. The worst part was when the reporter suddenly went silent.

Did you hear that?” James asked.

Cori didn’t answer him. In angry silence, she looked back at the kids.

Windshield wipers softly swished against the building snow. Fresh tire tracks on the road were easy to follow, but would it be the same in the open desert? He hadn’t bothered to put on snow tires yet. There weren’t any blankets or food or drink in the car. They had passed several small towns and were approaching the last gas station for fifty miles—it said so on a billboard.

Large headlights, made blurry by blowing snow, came toward them from the opposite direction, many of them, one after the other, stretching into the storm.

Military,” James said with a dry throat.

Military?” Cori—who had grown up on military bases—whispered back as massive trucks blew past with heavy, camouflaged authority. They headed north toward the city.

The one gas station in town had a line of cars that stretched nearly a block. A lighted sign advertised gas at ten dollars a gallon. Underneath it a message read: “Silver or gold gets you to the front.”

James slowed down to join the line and saw, through the white glow, that the store was crowded. One policeman directed traffic while another walked out with a man, followed by a small crowd. The man lifted a pole up to the sign and began changing his profiteering back to the market price. The people cheered.

The gas gauge indicated half a tank. With his car’s good mileage, he could drive for a couple of hundred more miles.

Though the boys slept, Shaely steadily whined: “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty.”

James looked at Cori and shook his head.

No!” Cori said. We passed the others, but we’re stopping here to get food! I’m hungry, too! Everybody’s hungry!”


Black desert hills cut against the milky glow of a sunrise yet to be. The warm south wind sang through old telephone lines and rattled a sign that read in Spanish: “Salas Limpias. El Mejor Precio. Bienvenidos al Hotel Casa Grande” James eyes traveled to the smaller sign in English below it. “Clean rooms. Best price. Welcome to the Hotel Casa Grande.”

Letting the car idle in the parking space, he found the last cracker at the bottom of the box and took a swig of bottled water. Cori breathed deeply, stretched, and rubbed her eyes. She looked back at the kids, who were still asleep, then checked her watch.

Where are we?” she asked.

Near the border,” he said, not wanting to clarify which side until she had time to soak it all in, but then quickly changed his mind. She’d have to deal with the truth sooner or later, anyway. “The U.S. border.”

The grogginess left her eyes, which sharpened into two, instant, glaring jewels in the neon lights. “We’re in Mexico?”

Si,” he said, trying to take the edge off the moment.

What are we doing in Mexico?” Why couldn’t we have gone east or west? Don’t you think you’re overdoing it a little?”

We never would have made it. We had to keep going south. We might have to go farther. I don’t know.”

Cori put her hands over her face, then clenched her hands into fists and pounded the dashboard. “So when are we going back, huh? What is this, a nice little spontaneous vacation? How do you expect to pay for hotel rooms and food and gas when we’re already in the hole?”

The kids stirred. One of the boys whined.

This is not a vacation. We’re not going back. Let me see your wallet. You have the credit card.”

No! What do you mean we’re not going back?” Cori yanked her purse away.

We can’t go back! Don’t you get it?

How do you know you haven’t overreacted?

Let’s just get some rest, and then we’ll figure out what to do next.” He took the purse and removed the card from the wallet.

On the way to the motel office, he passed an old lady with a black shawl around her head and shoulders, sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarette, and staring at the sunrise. She said something he couldn’t understand, but, though he ignored her, he still caught a glimpse of her wrinkled face and sunken eyes and lips, and the vision of the old man came back to life in his mind. Feeling a chill down his neck, he imagined the old man sitting at the table in the food court, lunatic eyes staring beyond the dead loneliness surrounding him, and enjoying the sandwich James left sitting on a tray.

James paused at the help desk as a large woman blocked the view of a television. She said, “¡Qué terrible! ¡Que barbaridad!”

A young man leaned over her shoulder and watched intently.

James cleared his throat. “Excuse me. Do you speak English?”

The woman turned around, startled. The young man straightened, but seemed reluctant to take his eyes off the television.

Yes, I do.” The woman said. She smiled sadly and glanced back at the television. “You see what happen up north. You see, no?” They close the border. Those pobres! They close the border.”

A bird’s eye view from a helicopter showed miles of cars stopped at the crossing, the same crossing James and his little family had passed through unhindered a couple of hours before. Military vehicles (on the Mexican side) blocked the freeway.

What are they saying?” James asked.

Muchos dead. The cities … everybody dying. Muertos. They try to come here, but the soldiers no let them come through.”

Several minutes passed before James was able to speak. He simply stared at the television along with the woman and the young man. Then finally he said, “Can I get a room. Do you take credit cards?”

Yes! Yes!” The woman said. “Credit card good.”

He continued to watch, not understanding the urgent jabbering of the reporters, as the woman worked at the computer. She had him sign a paper, and the price seemed a little steep for such a flea-bitten motel, but he took it anyway. She handed him a key—one of the old fashioned metal keys, not the plastic card with the magnetic strip he was used to.

God bless you,” the woman said.

James took one last lingering look at the television screen, then gave the woman, who had already turned around, a quick wave.

Outside, the sun broke over the horizon, burning the clouds with pinks and oranges. The cold front hadn’t reached that far south and, to James, it felt strange to think of snow as he passed a palm tree in a terracotta planter. The chair the old woman had been sitting in was empty. When he turned the corner he saw Cori and the kids standing by the car, stretching their legs and looking around.

Shaely needs to go potty.” Cori said.

Yeah. Okay. I got us a room.”

Go on! Go with Daddy!” Cori said, as she took the boys by the hands.

James led Shaely through the door and noticed the room didn’t look as clean as the sign advertised. Cori walked in behind them, her face seeming to give away similar thoughts.

Look at this!” James said, turning on the television.

Cori turned away. “No, please. I don’t want to see anything.”

But you want to know what’s happening, don’t you?”

I want to get us some breakfast. I thought I saw a McDonald’s down the road. Or should we eat tacos to enrich our little cultural experience?”

Shaely came out of the bathroom, crying. Cori turned to her.

I peed my pants,” Shaely said.

Cori swore. “Oh, that’s wonderful.” She turned to James. “You know we have no changes of clothes for any of us? You know that, don’t you?”

Why are you looking at me like this is my fault?”

Come here, honey.” Cori said. She took Shaely, who was still crying, back to the bathroom. “And you know what?” she said, poking her head out the doorway. “I think I left clothes in the washer. I left lights on in the house. I have steak marinating in the fridge, steak you wanted for dinner.”

James almost yelled at her, to say her attitude wasn’t fair, but he was too tired. Instead, he laid down on top of the covers, put his hands behind his head, let the boys run loose around the room, and fell asleep.


Late afternoon sun lit the edges of the curtains with a dirty, orange glow. James turned over, expecting to find Cori, but the other side of the bed hadn’t been disturbed. He sat up and swung his stiff legs over the edge and let his feet find his shoes. He’d slept hard, and his head felt thick.

In the bathroom, the harsh fluorescent lights caused him to squint. He relieved himself, then shuffled back into the room, yawning. Cori had said the kids were hungry, and he hoped she would come back with something for him. She knew he liked the fish sandwich with fries, the thought of which made his stomach growl; but then the thought of Cori taking the kids away from the safety of the motel replaced his hunger with anxiety.

On the way to the door, he passed the television, paused, then backed up. Attached to the screen with a wad of gum—the green spearmint kind Cori always carried in her purse—was a note. James pulled it off, the gum stretching long and thin and sticking to his hand. It read in that girlish writing she’d never given up since high school:


I’m taking the kids home. I could handle the President Bush conspiracy theories, and even the time you wanted me to ride my bike to work in the winter to save us from man-made global warming, but this time things went too far. You put the kids in danger. I tried to convince you your medication wasn’t a sinister plot by the Republicans and the pharmaceutical companies to experiment on you and slowly poison you to death. You wouldn’t listen. Contrary to doctor Haekel’s advice, I can’t role play with you anymore when you have these spells. I left your medication on the night stand by your wallet. Please take it. If this won’t wake you up, I don’t know what will. The check card is there, too. The lady at the help desk said there was a bus depot in town.



Still holding the note, James stepped into the full afternoon heat, the hot dry wind smothering him like a pillow. The car was gone. He ran in the shade under the arches, past the brightly painted adobe exterior, past the palm in the terracotta planter, and into the little office. The large woman he’d talked to the night before wasn’t there, but the young man sat in front of the television, watching a raucous game show featuring busty young models in bikinis.

Sir! Sir!” James said to the young man. “Have you seen my wife?”

The young man shook his head. “No…no espeake English.”

Forcing himself to hearken back to his high school Spanish days, James struggled to remember the work for wife. “My…mi…espouse…esposa! ¿Mi esposa?

¿Tu esposa? Si. Se fue hace mucho tiempo. Te dejó un mensage. ¿Sabes eso? ¿Entiendes men-sa-ge? M…message?”

James stared at the man in frustration. The MC on the television show said something that ended in a loud, obnoxious trilled R that seemed to fall from the sky like a diving prop plane. Then the man yelled, “Ella ganóóóóóóó,” throwing the O over horizon like he had the R. One of the girls went into bouncing, jiggling hysterics and plastered herself onto the lucky MC.

Message!?” James asked.

Si. Message.” The young man said.

Losing patience, James ran out the door. He passed the old woman in the black shawl. She yelled something to him, but he ignored her and ran to the busy street. His car was nowhere in sight.

Fly south!” the old woman yelled, and then cackled. “Fly south if you want to live!”

Horrified, James turned around in time to see a scattering flock of birds fill the air around the empty chair.