The Dream

I owe this story to my daughter Diana. We were talking one day and she gave me the outline for it. I asked her permission to write it up. She graciously agreed. Diana this one’s for you.

It came to her at the end of a horrible day, concluding the last miserable week of a wretched month.  Sara Jones was sixteen at the time, and she thought of it for the rest of her life in capital letters: “THE DREAM.” 

During the thirty-day stretch of torment preceding THE DREAM, Sara discovered she had failing grades in three of her six high school classes, and her parents were divorcing.  Her closest friend moved to Australia. In a two-word text (“Wr dn”), her boyfriend broke up with her.  The next day he sent Sara a snap chat video of him and her older sister making out.    

On the morning of the day of THE DREAM, Sara awoke to a warm breeze fluttering the curtains on her window carrying with it the sweet scent of blooming lilacs.  Red-tinted morning sunlight winked through the moving curtains.  The clatter of pans being removed from a cupboard and dishes placed on the dining room table drifted up from downstairs.  Sara luxuriated in the prospect of a perfect late spring Saturday confident that life had dealt her its worst.  From here on out, all the cute boys would flock to her, the queen bees grovel at her feet, especially that bitch Corinne, and all things designer would be on sale.

Sara stretched and shrieked in agony as someone dragged cheese graters across her arms and shoulders.  Two hours later, at the hospital, a surprised ER doctor (“highly unusual in a person your age”) diagnosed the red blotchy welts on her arms and shoulders as shingles.

Home from the hospital, Sara stared at the sandwich on the plate in front of her in an opiate-induced haze that reduced the fire on her arms and shoulders from a 10 to 9.5, as her mom announced they were moving from their home near Boston to Meadow, Utah.

That evening, her pain having subsided somewhat, 6?, 6.5?, Sara insisted on taking her dog Patches on their nightly walk.  Ten minutes into their stroll, Patches darted away after a passing garbage truck, ripping the leash from Sara’s hand. 

Sara hobbled after Patches, her pain inching up the scale.  Patches caught up with the truck just as it hoisted a garbage can upward.  Somehow, Patches’ leash became caught in the truck’s machinery yanking him off the ground.  He sailed high over the truck’s edge and in a million-to-one-no-one-would-ever-believe-it-if-you-wrote-it-in-a-story moment, arced right into its compactor.  Patches’ squeals sounded high over the compactor’s motors crushing the trash, and Patches, into a solid cube of refuse.

 That night, after hours tossing and turning gingerly on her bed, Sara finally rested her head on her tear-soaked pillow and collapsed into oblivion. 

She found herself seated on a park bench beneath a cloudless, robin’s egg sky.  Her pain had vanished.  A breeze caressed her smooth unblemished skin, stirring the trees behind her into whispers.  The breath of wind perfectly balanced the sun’s heat into glowing warmth enveloping her entire body.  Glancing down, she ran her hands across the Gucci Silk Duchesse Dress she’d been admiring just the other day.

A wide, manicured lawn stretched from the bench down to a sparkling lake.  The scent of new mown grass and honeysuckle transported her back to a magical summer she had spent with her aunt and uncle.  This must be a dream, she thought. But it was unlike any dream of Sara’s young life.  This dream lacked the vagueness and indefiniteness of a dream.  Reality pervaded this dream; she was more alive than when she was awake. 

Maybe she had finally achieved her goal and was in a lucid dream, something she had attempted many times before without success.  She turned her head to the sky and imagined herself floating upward from the bench into the heavens.

 “It’s not that sort of dream.”

 The voice startled Sara.  She lowered her head.  “Grandma, what are you doing in my dream?”  She had a horrible thought.  “You’re not…dead are you?”

 “No, I mean, yes…wait just a second.”  Her grandmother lifted her left hand palm upward and using the index finger of her right hand appeared to manipulate something on her palm as if it were a touchscreen.  “That shouldn’t…where is it?  Ah, there’s the problem.  Now I just need to…there that’s got it.” 

Her grandmother disappeared replaced by a tall woman with a kind, familiar face.  Sara was certain she had met her before and affection was associated with the meeting, but she couldn’t place the circumstances.  The woman wore a simply tailored, blindingly white gown.  Her hair, each strand neatly in place, was the color of fresh, untrammeled snow.  Her attractive face was tanned and lined, but not heavily, just enough to project mature wisdom from a well-lived life.  Her age was indeterminate; she could have been thirty or sixty.

 Sara stared at this new apparition with narrowed eyes.  “You’re not my grandmother then?”

 “No,” the woman shook her left hand and frowned at it.  “My appearance generator is supposed to produce an image that is authoritative yet comforting, without being overly familiar.  I’m afraid the familiarity setting was just a little high.”

 “You’re not dead then?”

 “Certainly not, I’m an angel, and I’m here to deliver a message.”

 Sara cocked her head and eyed the woman.  “Where are your wings?”

 The woman waved away her objection.  “Popular misconception based on past abuses of appearance generators by some of my more whimsical compatriots.”

 Sara rolled her eyes.  She was already tiring of this part of the dream and wished she’d move right to the part where she could fly and change things around.  “Fine, whatever, give me the message and leave, so I can get on with my dream.”

 “Sara, I really am an angel.”

 Sara regarded her with skepticism.  “An angel?  I don’t think so.”  Sara again surveyed the surrounding beauty.  “No, you’re part of my dream, a particularly annoying part, at the moment.”  Sara turned her gaze back to the woman.  “But I can’t seem to make you disappear so, if my subconscious has a message for me, I—”

 The woman transformed into a brilliant pulsing ball of light brighter than anything in Sara’s experience.  Sara screwed her eyes closed and averted her head at the change, but the light shone through as if her eyelids were no barrier at all.  Parting her eyelids a fraction, Sara found to her surprise that she could look at the light directly despite its blazing intensity.  Moreover, compassion, acceptance and kindness flowing from the light in great waves, overwhelmed her, filled her with awe, drove her to her knees and bowed her head.  The light winked out.

Sara raised her head.  The woman was back.  She reached down and helped Sara to her feet.

“Sorry about that.  It’s against the rules, but I had to convince you, and I’m really rather busy at the moment.”

Sara shook off her confusion.  “Wow.  Okay, you’re an angel.  But…”  Something the angel had said when it looked like grandma.  “I asked if you were dead and you said yes.”

“Ah, well,” the angel said with chagrin, “about that, I’m afraid there was a slight miscommunication.  I’m not dead as you can see.”

Sara stared at the angel, understanding flooding her mind.  “Grandma’s dead.”

The angel nodded.  “It happened just after you fell asleep.  You’ll receive official word when you wake up.”    

Sara tried to feel bad, grandma had lived with them for several years when she was younger and, during that time, had prepared most of the meals, taken her to dance and cheerleading practice, and tucked her in at night with hauntingly beautiful lullabies.  But, hey, everyone dies, and an immensely powerful being had a message just for her

“So, you have you have something to tell me?”

The angel squared her shoulders and seemed to increase in height.  Her voice rang out reverberating through the immensity of the landscape of Sara’s dream.  “Sara Jones, you have been weighed and found worthy.  Your exemplary responses to the extreme challenges of your young life have garnered you the blessings of heaven on earth.  In two years on May 18 you will purchase a lottery ticket at the convenience store on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and 58th Street.  It will be the sole, winning ticket for a prize of Eight Hundred Fifty Eight Million Five Hundred Ninety Thousand Three Hundred Twenty-Six Dollars and Four Cents.  You will use your wealth to alleviate the suffering of millions of your fellow beings and at the end of a long and blessed life in others’ service will be received into the Divine Presence to dwell eternally in everlasting glory.”

Sara was stunned.  Sure, she’d had a difficult month, but she couldn’t bring to mind any way in which she’d been particularly noble and, in fact, now that she considered it, some might view sabotaging her boyfriend’s chance to make the varsity basketball team so he could spend more time with her or kicking Patches when she found out about her grades to be less than exemplary.  Ah well, gifts and horses and all that. 

“Okay,” she said, drawing the word out.  “I just have a few questions.”

The angel huffed, glanced at her right wrist and actually tapped her foot with impatience.

 “So, you said something about al..al—”

“Alleviating the suffering of millions of your fellow beings,” the angel finished quickly, clearly anxious to be about some other business. 

“Yeah, that.  But I can use this money for myself too, right?  I mean, since I’ve been so good and all.”

The angel stopped tapping her foot and narrowed her eyes fractionally. “Yes, certainly, as long as you don’t go overboard.”

“Meaning…?”

“Meaning your compassionate heart should warn you of excessive selfishness and act as a natural brake on any self-centered impulses you might encounter.  Look, is that it?  Because I really have to go.”

Sara knew she should have a million questions, but her mind blanked.  She shook her head.

“Wonderful.  I look forward to meeting you at your life’s end.” 

Sara opened her eyes to sun streaming through her window.

The next two years dragged.  Sara quit high school because what, after all, was the point?  She refused to move with her mother to Utah, instead passing the time living with friends and distant relatives–the length of her stay determined by the time it took her host to stop recognizing Sara’s superiority and fulfilling her basic needs, which admittedly from a certain cramped perspective could be seen as substantial, but which Sara more realistically understood as barely adequate to her divine position. 

In the end, having run out of friends and family willing to take her in without compensation, Sara resorted to promises of extravagant wealth which she delivered with such sincerity and conviction that she managed to remain housed and fed until two years had passed.

On March 18 two years after THE DREAM, Sara stood across the street from the convenience store on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and 58th Street.  She was poised to collect her reward and begin living a fabulous life.  She’d already planned her first purchases; she had her eye on several exquisite Louis Vuitton dresses, Prada handbags and shoes and, of course, homes in New York and Los Angeles and probably a private jet for the commute.  Sure, she probably should help people too, but there was plenty of time and money for that later.

Sara waited for the light to change.  Across the street, a young woman her age walked towards the convenience store.  She looked familiar.  Just before entering the store, the girl paused and turned toward Sara.  Their eyes locked.  It was like looking in a mirror–if you fixed the hair disaster and gave her decent clothes and some makeup.  

The girl smiled and turned away.  Sara frowned.  Just as the light turned green for her to cross, Sara’s phone text alert sounded.  She pulled the phone from her pocket.  Ugh, it was from her mother and long.  She didn’t have time for this–destiny awaited.  She crammed her phone back into her pocket. 

Distracted by the riches across the street and angry at her mother for annoying her on the cusp of greatness, Sara stepped out into the street without seeing the car on her left whipping around the corner in a right turn and catapulting her thirty feet in the air.

Sara opened her eyes.  She was on the bench from THE DREAM, but on the lawn before her a woman sat behind a desk glancing through a folder.  Sara rose from the bench and marched up to the desk.  “Where am I?”  Sara said.

The woman closed the file and regarded Sara coolly.  “You’re dead.”

Sara laughed.  “That’s not possible.  I can’t be dead.  I’m supposed to win the lottery and live a long life and go to heaven.  There must be some mistake.”

The woman smiled with indulgence.  “You are,” the woman glanced down at the folder, “Sara Jones correct?”  Sara nodded.  “Then there’s been no mistake.  Where did you get this idea you’d win the lottery, live a long life and go to heaven?”

 Sara gaped in astonishment which quickly turned into indignation. “The angel, she told me.  Two years ago in a dream in a place just like this.  She promised me.”

The woman frowned and opened the file again studying the contents carefully.  She glanced up at Sara.  “An angel you say, in this place?”

Sara nodded vigorously.  “Damn straight,” she said her voice rising, “an angel in this place.” They’d better straighten this out fast so she could get back to her plans. 

The woman pursed her lips in disapproval then looked straight ahead.  Her eyes lost focus.  Moments later the angel from THE DREAM appeared next to the desk adjusting her dress. 

“Finally,” Sara said.  “Tell her what you promised me about the lottery and get me back to earth.”

The angel held up her left hand forestalling Sara and turned to the woman at the desk.  “What are we looking at?”

The woman held up the folder and pointed to its contents.  The angel studied the folder glanced at Sara and at the folder again and shook her head.  The angel walked to Sara, took her gently by the elbow, and led her to the desk.  “I think we can clear this up.  Please place your hand on the desk, Sara.”

Sara laid her hand on the desk.  The angel and the woman behind the desk leaned forward and studied her hand.  They sighed in unison.  The woman leaned back in her chair; the angel straightened up.  Sara looked from one to the other.  The woman looked away; the angel fidgeted with her hands.

“There’s no easy way to say this,” the angel said finally.  “Sara, there’s been a mistake.”

“Mistake?” Her voice squeaked despite her attempt to sound calm.

“Yes, about the lottery ticket.  It seems you are the wrong Sara Jones.  It’s a common name and you both look so much alike. I assumed you were the one.”  The angel glanced at the seated woman. “I mean, what are the odds really?”

The woman nodded in sympathy.  “Even for humans the resemblance was remarkable,” the woman said.

Turning to Sara, the angel said, “I should have sequenced your DNA before discussing the lottery ticket with you.”

Sara collapsed to the ground along with her shattered dreams.  She wasn’t going back to earth to live in luxury; she wasn’t going back at all.  She was dead–before all the good stuff.  It wasn’t fair.  She thought she should cry, she wanted to cry, but in whatever form she was, that was denied her. 

After a time, she again noticed her surroundings–the perfect weather, the impeccable vibrant landscape–and remembered the second part of the angel’s promise.  She levered herself to her feet and stood tall.  She was strong.  This reversal wouldn’t defeat her.  She looked the angel squarely in the eye.

“Fine,” she said, “I forgive you.  Let’s just skip to the part about eternal happiness in the Divine Presence.”

“Ah, well,” the Angel said, “about that….”

The End

The title does not refer to anything sinister, but rather to a joyous moment, at least for some. Yesterday I wrote those words upon completing the first draft of Prospector’s Choice, the working title of the third and final book in the Artifact series. Excitement all around!

The City On The Plain

View from my house. Well, not quite, but it’s really close I promise.

Okay, rant time. (If you ask The Lovely Marianne it’s always rant time with me. That’s unfair and in another post I’ll mount my soap box and deliver a vigorous harangue in my defense. )

The City of this blog post’s title is Denver and these words triggered my rant: “The lure to Denver comes from the desire to reach its majestic peaks…” The writer was moving across the country and gave the above as one of the reasons for his move: Denver’s “majestic peaks.” Over the course of my life, I have heard countless talk about moving to Denver to be in the mountains and it drives me nuts because while if you squint real hard from Denver you can kind of make out what are possibly mountains on the distant horizon, being in Denver is no where close to being in the mountains.

Denver: the City on the Plains. Look real hard in the distance. Would you call those Denver’s “majestic peaks”?

Now, contrast that with the view from my home. I live in Sandy, Utah a suburb of Salt Lake City. I took the photo at the head of this post a five minute walk from my home. Don’t believe me? Here’s another one.

Mountains above Falcon Park.

That park in the foreground is a five minute walk from our house. A twenty minute drive takes us into the mountains.

Silver Lake.

And with an hour and a half hike from such a drive we can be here:

Now that’s in the mountains! That’s the LM and yours truly in the mountains above Alta.

From Denver, you’d have to drive hours, just to find a trail head for a hike like this. Grrrr.

Look, I wouldn’t describe my house as being in view of “Sandy’s majestic peaks.” Other places in the country can more credibly claim to have majestic peaks than my home. I’m just saying that Denver’s marketing department has gotten away with some serious misdirection here.

Okay, end of rant. The Lovely Marianne had threatened to take my keyboard away so I’d best stop. Just remember when you hear the name Denver think of plains not mountains.

Stranded on an Island Part 2

I guess if you have to be stranded somewhere, it might as well be gorgeous.

Last time on Stranded on an Island, we made it to Amesbury. At this point you really should revisit Part 1 to remind yourself of the adventure thus far because this next bit followed hot on the heels of that first (mis)adventure and contains a recurring theme. This is a long post. Settle in, grab your favourite drink and join the adventure in jolly old England.

At Amesbury, we stayed the night at the Mandalay.

Here it is: the Mandalay

I know, it’s not much to look at from the front, but it has a beautiful garden behind and at the time we really didn’t care what it looked like, we just wanted a bed.

The Lovely Marianne in the Mandalay’s gardens. See, much prettier.

After rising and enjoying a full cooked English breakfast

Not the most flattering picture of Catherine. Sorry, Cat.

we were on our way to Stonehenge.

That’s Stonehenge in the background.

From Stonehenge we made our way to the Eden Project in Cornwall. It should have been relatively easy to travel from Stonehenge to the Eden Project–they are both well known destinations after all. But our GPS decided that as pampered American tourists, our vacation would not be complete without a runaround. Ignorant of our machine’s malicious intent I blithely followed its direction when it told me to turn left on this road.

Well, it may not have been this exact road, but it was one that looked just like it.

Now, heaven knows I’m not Sherlock nor even Watson, but I sensed something amiss. This did not look like the approach to a tourist attraction that sees more than a million visitors a year. It looked instead like an accident waiting to happen because that road was as narrow as it looks and I expected death (or at least serious injury) around every bend. But in my naive innocence I trusted the infernal device. We followed this track for about ten minutes then were instructed to make a couple of turns and finally another left turn to

Not this again!

Yeah, it was the same road. To the consternation and furious honking of the car following, I slammed on the brakes before entering the lane and after backing up managed to squeeze my way past the entrance to this “road”. With great reluctance, seeing that I wasn’t falling for its trap, the GPS gave us appropriate directions and we ended up at the Project.

The Eden Project–very large greenhouses.

Our daughter Catherine picked this destination. The project is a series of lovely greenhouses (I think they call them Biomes, but they look like greenhouses to me) hosting different ecosystems.

The Lovely Marianne and yours truly inside a greenhouse.

As I mentioned, the Eden Project is located in Cornwall. You know what else is in Cornwall? That’s right Doc Martin!

That’s the Doc (on the right) in front of his home in Port Wenn (really Port Isaac).

In the year before our trip I had consumed all the Doc Martin episodes available and loved them. The show is set in the mythical town of Port Wenn and was filmed on location in the actual town of Port Isaac on the Cornish Coast close to the Eden Project. Well that was enough for me. Totally fanboying it, I booked a room in Port Isaac and that was our next destination. But we had to get there first.

On our way out from the Eden Project I was driving on a road that merged into another at an angle from the right. I had a yield sign for which I duly slowed down while checking over my right shoulder for oncoming traffic and seeing none proceeded on my way only to have a car appear from nowhere whipping past me, the driver laying on the horn. A hundred yards down the road he pulled up at a stop light with me right behind. His door opens and out steps scarecrow. His limbs were sticks and his hair was wild–Christopher-Loyd-Back-to-the-Future wild.

Yeah, that head on a scarecrow.

And he was pissed, screaming at me like I’d killed his dog. It didn’t help that I couldn’t stop laughing–that just provoked increased intensity. He wanted me to get out of the car and take him on. At least, that seemed to be the gist of his spittle flecked rant. I didn’t think he really meant it though. How could he? He looked older than I, was five ten and must have weighed a hundred and twenty soaking wet as they say. I let him rage until he got it out of his system and got back in his car after flinging one last gesture in my direction.

Okay, off we went glad that the drama was behind us–next stop Port Isaac.

As we approached Port Isaac, our GPS instructed us to make a left turn down a road that would lead us to town. Still not aware of the electronic devil’s plans, I obeyed its command. A few minutes later we approached two sets of poles set in the roadside. A sign set next to the poles announced that if your care wouldn’t fit through the poles, it was too wide and you couldn’t proceed. I inched forward with a sharp eye on the side mirrors. We had a good two inches to spare.

The road into town, only the posts were straight when we were there and they must have taken down the sign.

On we drove not appreciating what lay ahead. In a few minutes we discovered the reason for the posts.

This was a bit concerning.
Now I was definitely worried.
This was more than I had bargained for.
Then we were in the middle of town.

Now, the truth was we did not have lodging in Port Isaac itself, but about a mile further down the road in Port Gaverne. Getting there was a trip as well.

Making our way through a not terribly vehicle friendly town.

Fine, easing our way along the strait and narrow, we made it through town. But that wasn’t the end of our worries.

What’s around that bend?

Yeah, it was that narrow and the question in the caption wasn’t rhetorical because

Really that did happen.

I’m not making this up. I don’t have an actual photograph but an actual photograph would have looked worse. We rounded that bend and faced two cars coming up the hill. Hill, you say? That doesn’t look like a hill. Okay,

See? There was a hill.

It’s easier to see from this angle and the two cars we faced were at the bottom of the hill. Fortunately, they decided that we had the right of way (maybe because they knew a crazy American was driving the other car and if he’d had to back up on that hill would have driven clean over the cliff killing the car’s passengers and driver) and backed down, as in drove in reverse to the bottom of the hill.

So, we made it to the bottom and our hotel. I was prepared to heave a great sigh of relief, but the English Road Gods had not finished with us yet. We had to find some place to put our car.

That’s our hotel. See the car park? You can’t because there isn’t one.

So, yeah. A sign promised that a short way past the hotel we would find a car park. The lovely Marianne agreed to investigate while I waited clutching and releasing the steering wheel, sweat pouring down my back, fearing the need to move my car through another dimension to get out of some mad Englishman’s way because there was no way I would be able to maneuver it in this one.

The Lovely Marianne returned forlorn because the car park was full. I was pretty much at the end of my rope by that point, ready to abandon the entire adventure and catch the next plane home.

It truly was.

Yes, you see down at the bottom of the hill right across the street to the west from our hotel was a little car park.

That’s the car park. Our hotel is behind us in this picture.

And right where that blue car is on the left, that car (well, not that car, but the car that was parked in that spot when I was in the depths of despair) left. Shouts of joy and thanksgiving rose to the heavens as soon as our car was firmly ensconced in that spot.

The only lingering fly in the day’s ointment revealed itself when the Lovely Marianne opened her door to a loud crack. Upon inspection, I discovered that during one of our mad dashes around the Eden Project, I had grazed an obstacle and put a crease in the door right by the joint where it connected to the body. Not great news, but we were safe in a beautiful place.

So, once settled, the Lovely Marianne and I walked back the way we had come to Port Isaac. I had the LM take a snap of me opposite Doc Martin’s surgery (upon which a prominent sign was posted declaring the place to be PRIVATE PROPERTY upon which NO TRESPASSING was permitted.

Me geeking (or nerding, or fan-boying, I’ve never been quite sure of the proper term) out over visiting a place I had seen on TV. It sounds pathetic when described like that, doesn’t it?

And we returned to our hotel at sunset.

We stopped along the way for a picture.

In my memory, the night we spent in that hotel has a magical, otherworldly feel to it. Our room was just above the little out door seating area you can see in the picture. It was a warm night. We propped our window to enjoy a little breeze. Along with the breeze subdued conversation murmured from diners below, occasionally punctuated with gentle laughter. I drifted off to convivial sounds of good friends enjoying a pint.

The next day dawned clear and bright. Before we departed we took a walk to a little headland and drank in a sweeping view of the Cornish coast.

Magnificent. The Coast, not the people. Except for the LM, she’s magnificent.

Upon returning from our morning constitutional we were off again. Being in Cornwall, Catherine wanted to experience a cream tea for which Cornwall is famous. Our hosts at the hotel had pointed us to a tea house in Tintagel only a few miles up the coast. Our destination that day was Liverpool where we had reservations on a ferry for an overnight crossing of the Irish Channel to Belfast. The LM had relatives in Belfast and our itinerary called for us to spend a few days there.

Our ferry reservation required us to be at the terminal in Liverpool at 9:00 pm. Our trusty GPS told us it was a four hour trip–plenty of time to stop by Tintagel, grab a cream tea and visit King Arthur’s birthplace. I was not and am not an Arthur buff, but I’d read the Crystal Cave and Once and Future King and The Dark is Rising series, so Tintagel sounded cool (even if I still have not mastered its pronunciation. Every time I say the name the person I’m talking to says “You mean Tintagel?”)

Being a slow learner, I input Tintagel as our destination into the demonic machine and away we went. Winding our way along a narrow coastal road from Port Garverne, we soon came to a larger roadway. Relieved at not having to repeat our Port Isaac experience, I calmly turned onto a road that was a boulevard by comparison. Little did I know what fate had in store.

A few miles down the road, the unholy device demanded a left turn onto a narrow track. Truly, I cannot say what came over me. Had I been in its thrall the entire time? Or had I pledged my soul to it only in that moment. Whatever the case, I obeyed the fiendish voice and made the turn.

As with all such mistakes, at first the going was easy and my confidence rose. Then

Does this look familiar?

Yep back on the one track roads. Only this time the two cars coming in the other direction decided they had the right of way and I needed to back the car to a suitable turn out spot which it happened was a few hundred yards away.

I crumbled under the pressure of backing while operating the car from in what God intended to be the passenger seat. Catherine had to get out of the car to guide me. Even then I wandered into the verge before straightening out. After a few moments of terror, we let the others pass and were on our way.

To this day, I’m not quite sure what happened next. We arrived at an intersection. I recall the blasted machine telling us to turn left, but after we had done so, it wanted us to go back the way we had come. I couldn’t turn around so we continued on until we came to a car park.

The Car Park

I pulled in to try to get our bearings. When I got out of the car, Catherine had already exited and stood with her face screwed up as if she were fighting tears.

“Catherine what’s wrong?”

She lost the fight. Tears flooded down her cheeks and she sobbed unable to speak. I gave her a hug and she blurted out between sobs, “We have a flat tire.”

Sure enough on the passenger side where I’d run the car into the verge the rear tire was flat. I reassured her that I could change the tyre. The Lovely Marianne suggested that she and Catherine try to find someone who could direct us where we needed to be while I changed the tyre.

As I finished they returned. The woman they spoke with said that GPS mis-directions were legendary around there. Last year, she told them, a bus driver transporting German tourists foolishly heeding his GPS had taken the route we followed. The bus had wedged into one of the narrow bits. It took three days and heavy equipment to free it.

Well, tire changed we loaded back up. Catherine declared at that point her desire for a cream tea had escaped along with the air from our tyre. She wanted no more English back roads but insisted (fortunately for us) on proceeding straight to Liverpool. It was 11:30 or so and our GPS told us we’d arrive at the dock at 4:30. I wondered out loud how we were going to occupy our time between then and 9:00 pm, but figured we’d find something to do.

Hah.

Our route to Liverpool took us on steadily more roomy roads until we arrived at the M6. M for motorway–the equivalent of an Interstate Highway in the US. Ah, the freeway. Yeah, that lasted about fifteen minutes.

At the fifteen minute mark we slowed down and slowed down and stopped. Okay, traffic slow down. I can deal with this. We will still arrive at 4:45. Time passed. Our arrival time ticked forward. 5:00. 5:30.

We moved again things opened up. We were on… Nope another slow down. 6:00, 6:30, 7:00. Moving agai….7:30, 8:00. By this time we were seriously panicked. We had moved and made some progress, but when our arrival time hit 8, well. We had booked accommodations in Belfast and spent four or five hundred dollars on the ferry ride. We had no idea whether we could catch another ferry the next day or if everything was booked.

8:15, 8:30. They had told us if we hadn’t checked in by 9, we’d lose our spot.

Finally, the traffic thinned and at 8:55 we were at the dock.

Catherine with our car. The picture was taken at 9:23.

We made it! Those were an exhausting three days (Parts 1 & 2). But there we were on the ferry and ready for a good night’s sleep. The rest of the trip was incredible and beautiful and thankfully calm.

As a post script. You will recall from Part 1 I paid $300 per tyre at the rental car place for the Mercedes tyres. Maybe it was the Mercedes tyres and maybe the rental place ripped me off. You will also recall that I had creased the passenger side door where it joined the body resulting in a huge cracking sound whenever it was opened. So, when we got to Ireland, I found a tyre shop and a body shop. I bought my own replacement tyre and got the body guys to do what they could for the door. It almost looked okay, but at least it didn’t crack when we opened it. The rental car place didn’t charge me for any damages.

We were supposed to return to England and Ireland this year, but you know that story. Maybe it was providence and we were spared even more harrowing adventures. I suppose we’ll never know.

Artifact Book 2

That there is one amazing cover.

That’s right! Dawn’s Reach (Artifact Book 2) is now available from Amazon.

This thrilling follow on novel from Prospector’s Run is certain to delight and amaze. Grab your copy today!

More Flash Fiction

Now this image is related to the post, so pay attention.

A number of years ago (five, to be precise) I was perusing the internet and ran across a blog with a post titled Friday Fiction: 100 Word Challenge. The post included the image above and the challenge was to write a one hundred word story inspired by the image. I accepted the thrown gauntlet and penned (well, keyboarded) the following.

She had brought the money.  Raggedy girl like that, I didn’t think she’d pay. It was just like one of them dime novels.  Sneak into the room at night nab the doll and leave a note. Andy told me it would work; I didn’t believe him.  It was his idea really, “done it lots,” he’d said.  “They pay every time.  They sure love them dolls.” But where had Andy gone now? 

The girl raised her eyes with a smug half smile.

I heard gravel crunch and the snick of a shell pumped into a shotgun. 

“That’s him Daddy,” she said.

Ten Word Stories

Yeah, this picture is completely unrelated to the post, but I like it.

This year the Storymakers writing conference was virtual (of course). Yesterday, I listened to a class on using nuance in writing. One of the exercises the instructor suggested was writing ten word stories. So, being the obedient and dutiful student that I am, I composed a few. Some work better than others and with some I explored what a different feeling I got from changing a single pronoun. Anyway, here they are. If you have suggestions for improvement, let me know in the comments.

The ticking clock echoes in our…my empty house.
My day began with bliss and ended in agony.
Your friend request has been declined.
After the accident, my second call went to voicemail.
Unsigned, the papers on my desk screamed failure.
I stare at the papers awaiting my signature.
He slams the front door. Tires squeal. I’m alone—finally.
Trembling with anxiety, I open the envelope and shout for joy.
The question hangs in air between us. Yes, she says.
My father’s shoulders slump. I could offer comfort, but I don’t.
I chamber a round. Almost finished. I won’t miss again.
The monitor line flattened. He is free at last.
The monitor line flattened. I am free at last.
Puzzled, I considered the stranger. “I’m your sister,” she said.
“Can I help you young lady?” “Hi dad,” she said.
Across the crowded room, he mouthed the words: “I’m sorry.”

The 7/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

In my Masterclass writing class Neil Gaiman suggests as an exercise that we write something while imitating another author’s writing style. On occasion I attempt this when writing announcements for Thanatopsis, our book club. In the following as you will see we read Stuart Turton’s book The 71/2 deaths of Eveylyn Hardcastle. I’m not sure how successful I was. Incidentally, the person responsible for sending announcements, putting together reading lists and taking care of other Club miscellany has been called “The Girl” since the Club’s founding in 1984. When I volunteered to undertake those responsibilities a few years ago I adopted that title.

Tree limbs lash the air, the screaming gale wielding them like whips. Steel clouds shading to black in the west stream overhead, distant lightening stabbing the ground amid a low, delayed, continuous grumble. The storm is not here yet.

But it’s coming.

Fear, a heavy, icy blanket, drapes itself over my shoulders, weighing me down and freezing my limbs into immobility. I shouldn’t be here.

Before me on a slight rise, a house droops in decay. Brown it must once have been judging from bits of stain clinging forlorn to the gray siding.  A single dim lantern glows behind vaulting windows, its subdued light concealing more than illuminating the room within the glass.   On crumbling concrete, I’ve halted my ascent up the cracked, broken drive toward the structure sagging in mourning for its lost youth and vigor.

I must continue.

Why?   

I ransack a shattered memory for any shard that might explain my presence, my terror and my compulsion. Flickers of light entrance me only to wink away when I reach for them before I even manage a glimpse. I’m here, now, but how I came here or what my purpose, hides behind a curtain as black as the approaching tempest. A curtain that also obscures my name.

Unable to contain the force that drives my limbs against all my power of resistance, I plant a foot then another convulsing like a rusty, broken automaton up the steps to the weather-beaten, faded front door. The universe splits white as the Gods arc from heaven to earth shaking its foundation and loosing a torrent on my unprotected head, icy streams flowing under my clothing along shuddering limbs and torso.

A woman, wide-eyed and trembling, cracks the door peering at the apparition dripping ponds on her doorstep. After a heartbeat she flings it wide. “Kevin!” she exclaims and gestures me within. “Inside with you this instant. You’ll catch your death out there.”

Kevin. I roll the name, but it doesn’t fit easily on my tongue. It’s not me, though the woman believes it to be. My fear does not flag at the sight of the woman, middle-aged, trim and pretty, but she is not the source of the dread crushing my lungs and slamming my heart against its cage. That lies beyond the threshold in the dimly lighted room.

She grabs my naked arm, her hand warm on my pallid, clammy flesh. Unable to resist the woman’s insistence and still driven by an unseen force I stumble inside the doorway and puddle in the entry. In the gloom, hardly relieved by the sole, dingy, yellow lamp, sagging, torn couches resting on threadbare, unravelling carpet face the towering rain-streamed windows.

The woman speaks. But a thunderous explosion envelopes her words and rumbles them away in booming echoes. On one of the couches, I glimpse an open laptop and its baleful, blue white glare is a knife in my eyes. I flinch from redoubled fear at the sight of my terror’s source. Not willing to leave me be, the woman clinches my arm, forces my gaze on the machine and speaks again, urging and insistent. “The book club notice.” Her voice rises on her own wings of fear. “You have to send the notice!”

Suspended between duty’s irresistible force and horror’s immoveable object, my limbs rattle like the writhing storm-thrashed trees without. Inch by inch, duty overpowers fear and I approach, then take up the machine. My fingers dance across its accursed keys as if each threatens to burn my flesh to bone. I type:

Book Club

Tuesday March 31st

Host: Virtual on Zoom. See log in link below.

Review: Lark

Book: The 7 and ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

I hit enter and my missive flies—electronic packets fleeing to their destinations. Fear, having failed to obstruct my goal, collapses in a smoldering ash heap, leaving me spent and hollow. In tandem, as if its fury was gathered in terror’s service, the storm falters and passes and a single ray of light limns the now smiling woman in a golden halo. My consciousness flickers, its entire force having been expended in this one task. But before blackness descends an odd inner voice etches a curious salutation on my mind.

Ever diligent in my duties, I remain,

your humble servant,

The Girl.     

JACK ON TRIAL

You’ll hear more about this gavel below.

As a Christmas gift this year, some of my children gave me a Masterclass by Neil Gaiman on storytelling. One of the writing assignments in the class was to take a fairy tale and retell it using one of three prompts: you’re a psychiatrist analyzing one of the characters, you’re a newspaper reporter reporting the story or you have the character explain his actions to a jury. 

Well, it wasn’t hard to choose from that list. So, I give you

JACK ON TRIAL

Hands clenched to still their trembling, Jack rose from the table and walked stiffly to the witness stand.

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?” Mashed together and drawled in a bored tone, the words lost all their meaning to Jack’s ears. The bailiff stared at him and yawned. Just another in a series of witnesses—nothing special here. Nothing special unless you were on trial for your life.

“I do,” Jack said, a quaver in his voice despite having rehearsed this moment ad nauseam with his lawyer. Seated, his hands out of sight below the witness box, he worked them open and closed trying to subdue his screaming nerves. The Bailiff shuffled off to his seat and closed his eyes almost immediately nodding off. With an effort of will, Jack stopped himself from shifting in his seat and wiping the sheen of sweat from his upper lip. His lawyer and drummed that into him.

“You’ll look unreliable, like you’re nervous and have something to hide. You don’t need to smile and pretend you’re happy, but sit up straight, don’t move around and when you talk address the jury and look them in the eyes.“ He stopped pacing and pointed at Jack. “People like it when you look them in the eye. They don’t trust you if you don’t.”

Jack was happy to look toward the jury now and away from the gallery where two giants sat on the front row glaring at him, their unblinking, beady eyes glittering with hate under huge shelves of bone, topped with eyebrows resembling nothing so much as wild forest undergrowth.

His lawyer rose and moved to stand in front of the jury allowing him to answer his questions and talk to the jurors at the same time and not coincidently avoid the hulking masses of vengeful malice on the gallery’s front row. His lawyer smiled at him and although he knew he didn’t have to return the smile, he tried to anyway only to have his lawyer widen his eyes in alarm and give a subtle shake of the head. His attempt must have been as bad as it had felt and he allowed it to fade away.

“Jack,” his lawyer said, “tell the jury a little about yourself.”

“Objection,” the prosecutor said, not bothering to stand. “Calls for a narrative.”

“Sustained,” the judge said.

After an annoyed glance toward the prosecutor, his lawyer had explained that on this kind of opening background material such a question was unlikely to draw an objection unless the prosecutor was being a jerk, his lawyer said, “How old are you Jack?”

“Eighteen, sir.”

“And how long have you lived in Midsomer County?”

“All my life, sir. I was born in the same farmhouse I lived in all my life—where I still live.”

“Do you live alone?”

“No, sir. I live with me mum.”

“No father?”

Like they’d planned it, when he got to this part, he lowered his eyes. Then he got an idea and pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. When he raised his eyes to talk to the jury like his lawyer had told him to do, his lawyer looked annoyed and he remembered him telling Jack not to overdo the emotions because jurors didn’t like faked emotions. Sure enough two of the jurors looked back at Jack with open disbelief. Jack didn’t have to fake the burning red cheeks from embarrassment. “Me dad died when I was a baby.”

His lawyer nodded. “I see. And how does your Mum make a living?”

“We’re farmers. Well, she’s a farmer and I help out around the farm doing odd jobs, chopping wood, weeding the farm, milking the cow, you know, stuff that needs doing on a farm that me mum has a hard time with.”

“How well does your farm do?”

This time the prosecutor stood. “Objection, relevance, he’s on trial for murder and last I looked impecuniosity was not a defense to taking another’s life.”

Annoyed again, his lawyer said, “It goes to his state of mind your honor, the charge here involves premeditation.”

The judge massaged his jaw. “I’ll allow it, but you’re on a short leash here, counselor.”

“How well does your farm do, Jack?”

Jack shook his head. He was starting to relax now as they moved into his story. “We’re dirt poor. Most years the Farm gives us enough to live, but that’s all. Mum makes all my clothes from the little wool she’s able to buy with money. She cards and spins the wool then weaves it on our home made loom.” Jack glanced down at his homespun and pulled at his shirt. They had debated whether to have him wear his old clothes. He certainly would have been more respectable in the clothes he’d been able to afford after his adventure, but in the end they decided that looking pitiful was more important. “We’ve been poor all our lives.”

At this the prosecutor visibly rolled his eyes and shook his head. One of the jurors glanced in his direction with a half smile. The jury had already heard testimony about how the goose had made them rich and changed their lives. The prosecutor had tried to coax the singing harp to testify, but all he got for his trouble was a series of sad lullabys.

“The prosecution will be counting on the jury to forget about how poor you used to be and think of you as having always had money. We need to remind them that at one time you were down and out,” his lawyer had told him. “Stick with the homespun.”

“We never had much to eat and we never had much money. What money we did make from selling our crops we had to spend on seed for the next year and on the few things we needed that we couldn’t make for ourselves.”

“Did you always have enough money to buy seed for the planting?”

“Until this last year, we managed every spring to buy some seed—not always a lot, but we managed until this last year to buy at least some.”
His lawyer looked concerned and swept that concerned look across the jurors. “But not last year?”

“No.”

“What happened last year?

“Last year the harvest was too small. We needed everything we had just to stay alive and when the spring came, we had nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Jack shook his head and had no trouble allowing sadness to reflect on his face. He remembered that conversation. His mum had been in tears on the floor, sobbing because they were hungry with little in the house. Without the seed they wouldn’t be able to plant and when the food ran out they would starve to death. This time he didn’t have to pretend. He allowed the tear to run down his cheek.

“Nothing. We had food for a couple of months, but with no seed to plant after that….” He shrugged.

His lawyer paused allowing the jurors to experience his client’s despair. “After that?” his lawyer prompted in a soft voice.

“We would die.” Jack couldn’t keep the hardness from his voice or his face. “Have you ever seen someone starve to death?” He looked each juror in the eye with the question. One by one they met his eyes and looked away. “I have. Our neighbors one year. Just like us, they had a bad harvest and had no money for seed in the spring. We couldn’t help. We had just enough to keep our bodies and souls together. But they…It was hardest to watch their little girl. She was three and couldn’t understand what was happening. She cried—a lot. Until she was too weak.”

The words hung in the air, his lawyer leaving them there for the jury to taste the desperation. In his mind Jack saw Katie again, listless eyes, sunken cheeks, hair falling out in clumps, stick limbs and bloated belly, lying in her mother’s lap as flies crawled across her staring eyes. Neither she nor her mother had the strength to move.

“What did you do?”

Jack shook himself into the present. Haunted by his vision of the past, he forgot for a moment where he was. Had someone spoken?

“What did you do?” his lawyer asked again.

Jack closed his eyes to give himself a moment to think, but Katie was there waiting for him. His eyes snapped open. She haunted him enough in his dreams; he didn’t need her following him awake. “We, uh,” Jack massaged his forehead. “Mum said we had to sell the cow.”

His lawyer looked at him urging him to continue.

“So, I took Bess and started off to market. On the way, I met a strange old man.” He resisted the urge to look to the gallery for his mum, knowing that the giants blocked his view and glad of that for the moment. He had a hard time facing his mum with the next part. “He, uh…he offered me magic beans in exchange for our cow.” Jack lowered his head. Despite the fact that his adventure had turned out well, except for the part about being on trial for murder and theft that is, he was deeply ashamed of this part. “And I agreed,” he said in a low voice.

Jurors stirred at this, some with indrawn breaths, some with quiet chuckles, some with anger.

“You exchanged your cow for ‘magic beans’?”

Jack looked up sharply wanting defend himself reminding himself that he’d been right.

“He said they’d grow right up to the sky overnight.”

“And you believed this strange old man you’d never seen before.”

Jack nodded. He had a million excuses at the ready—he’d been tired, hungry, delirious—the old man had cast a spell on him. But as when he’d returned to his mum, they all rang hollow in his ears.

“How did your mum react when you returned home?”

“She was furious, said I’d been swindled, that I’d been a fool and now we were going to die.” Jack’s cheeks burned again as he recalled the feeling like he had awakened from a dream to discover he’d committed a horrible crime. Renewed shame at his having been such a dolt sending streaks like lightening down his limbs. He tried to console himself with the outcome, but the feeling wasn’t so easily displaced.

“I ran to my room and tossed the beans out my window. I couldn’t face Mum that night, so I stayed in my room and after a long time fell asleep.”

“And when you woke, was anything different?”

Jack beamed. Now they were getting to the good part. “Yes, sir, something was different! There was a giant beanstalk growing outside my window straight up to the top of the sky, just like the old man said. I was so excited, I wanted to wake Mum and show her the man was right and here was this giant thing. But then I thought how is this better than before? Can we eat the beanstalk? Can we get seeds to plant on the farm? No, I says to meself I have to reckon how this can help us before I tell mum.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I did the only thing I could think to do with it. I climbed it.”

“Did you find anything when you climbed it?”

“Yessir. Right at the top in the clouds I found a giant house. I thought that was strange ‘cause I’d never heard tell of houses in the clouds, so I thought I should explore. I went to the door which was open a crack and slipped inside–”

Jack stopped abruptly at his lawyer’s upraised hand.

“Now think carefully before you answer the questions I’m about to ask.”
His lawyer stared at him expectantly. Jack nodded.

“Were there any signs before you reached the house or on the house itself telling you not to trespass?”

“Nossir.”

“Any signs saying it was private property?”

“Nossir.”

“You said you’d never heard of any houses in the clouds. When you saw this house, did you expect to find anyone living in it?”

“Nossir. People don’t live in clouds. Well, me mum sometimes says I have my head in the clouds, but I think she means something different by that.”

Some of the jurors chuckled at this and his lawyer looked pleased. Maybe he was getting the hang of this testifying thing.

“Okay, continue. What did you find in the house?

“Well, I saw this huge table and chairs and what looked like a giant kitchen and in the kitchen was this enormous, giant woman. She must have heard my footsteps though I was being ever so quiet, because she turned and when she saw me marched toward me. I turned to run, but she was faster and grabbed me by the back of me shirt.” He reached behind his back and hauled up his shirt at the collar to illustrate. Once again a few giggles rippled through the jury. “She hauled me into the air like I’d lift a cat and turned me to look her right in her horrible face.” Jack had forgotten for a moment that the very woman was on the front row. He didn’t look, but in his mind saw her glower deepen. “I was ever so scared, but then she talked to me and acted real nice like. ‘Do you want some breakfast’ says she. Well, thought I, I don’t remember my last decent meal. So, even though she looked ever so fearsome and I knew it might be a trap, ‘yes,’ I told her, ‘that would be kind.’”

Again with an upraised hand, his lawyer called on him to stop. “You were in court yesterday, weren’t you, Jack?”

“I was.”

“And you heard Mactildis the giant testify?” He pointed to the female giant on the front row. Having gathered courage from reciting his story, Jack leveled a defiant look at the giant. “She testified that you crawled under a closed door that was prominently marked with a sign that said ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING ESPECIALLY HUMANS’. Do you recall that testimony?”

“Yessir, and it’s not true not a word of it. It happened just like I said.” Jack scooted back in the witness box as Mactildis shifted and, with a menacing growl, half rose in her seat.
Jurors gasped and shrank away; the unseen gallery buzzed and the courtroom echoed with the sound of the judge’s gavel. “Order,” the judge said pointing at Mactildis. “I don’t want to have to have you removed.”

Mactildis shifted her glare to the judge and growled, then lowered herself in her seat. “We knew.” Mactildis said and her voice was stones tumbling in a landslide. “No justice for Giants among humans.”

“Continue with your account, Jack.”

“Well, she set me down on the table and gave me milk and cheese. And I’ll tell you, I was so hungry it was the best food I ever had, only when I had a few bites I hear this great rumbling stomping noise coming from somewhere past the kitchen. And all of a sudden, there was this great booming voice. And I’ll never forget those words. They chill me even now. ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ he says ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.’”

The gallery buzzed with outrage and the jurors were aghast. Mactildis snorted and looked away, but her somewhat smaller companion leaped to his feet while the judge pounded away with his gavel. “Liar,” he shouted pointing at Jack, “Dad would never say that. We only eat Frenchmen or Germans if we’re really hard up.”

“Order!” the judge shouted until the crowd quieted and the young giant had resumed his seat. “One more outburst from either of you,” he pointed at Mactildis and her son, “and you’ll both be taken from here to a holding cell. Are we clear?”

Sullen, the young giant held the judge’s eyes for a long moment, then bowed his head in submission. The judge motioned for Jack to continue.

“Like I was saying, this giant was stomping on his way to the kitchen and Mactildis gets all worried. ‘It’s my husband,’ she says. ‘He’ll want to eat you for breakfast.’ So she picks me up she does, throws me into this pot. Jack rubbed his shoulder. “That hurt it did. Thought I’d broken me shoulder.”

His lawyer nodded in sympathy. “What happened next?”

“‘Don’t stir until he’s asleep after his breakfast,’ she says and slams a lid on the pot. Nearly took me head off, but I wanted to see what was happening so I lifted the lid just a bit. And this really great giant stomps into the room then stops, lifts his head and sniffs. ‘You’re sure there’s not an Englishman nearby?’ he says. ‘Because that sure smells like one and it’s making me hungry for Englishman Bone Bread. You know, the kind you used to make back when we had a steady supply of Englishmen.’”

Mactildis’ son scoffed and shook his head and the judge shot him a warning look.
His lawyer nodded. “Were you afraid?”

“Yessir, scared to death I was. Here was this bloody great giant wanting to kill me and grind up my bones for bread. You bet I was scared. I was shaking in my boots, weak kneed, faint hearted–”

The lawyer frowned and shook his head a fraction and Jack stopped.

The lawyer eyed the jury with a meaningful look. “Afraid for your life?”

Annoyed at the repetition until he remembered their script, Jack nodded emphatically. “I was afraid for my life. I knew if he got his hands on me, I was a goner.”

The lawyer shook his head in mock horror. “Go on.”

“Well, while Mactildis was getting breakfast ready her husband opened a closet and dragged out this hen.”

“A hen?”

“Yeah, scraggly, sickly looking thing and he plunked it down on the table in front of him. ‘Lay,’ he says to this poor critter. I almost gave myself away at that point laughing so hard. Who’s ever heard of a hen that lays cause you tell it to? ‘Lay,’ he says again and when nothing came out he reared back and smacked the hen off the table. ‘I said, lay.’ There he was hitting and screaming at this poor hen, no wonder she looked awful.”

Shocked, and letting the jury see the full extent of his outrage, the lawyer said, “This giant, Mactildis’ husband, was cruelly abusing that poor animal?”

“Yessir, and for a long time by the look of that miserable creature. Well, he picks her up–”

“The hen.”

“Picks up the hen and slams her on the table again with this horrible glare until the hen laid an egg. But it weren’t no ordinary egg, nossir. It was a golden egg.”

“A golden egg?”

“Yessir, an egg made of gold.”

“Then what?”

Jack puffed out his cheeks and scratched his head pretending that he was thinking about what came next, just like they’d practiced. “Well, the giant ate his breakfast and afterwards pulled out this golden harp with a young girl’s face on it. You’ve seen it,” he said speaking directly to the jury. “’Sing,’ the giant said, but the harp wouldn’t so the brute reared back,” Jack lifted his arm behind him to demonstrate, “and smacked her face.” Jack brought his arm down to illustrate, misjudged his swing and slammed his hand into the witness box. Through eyes tearing with pain, Jack saw his lawyer close his eyes and shake his head. Jack shook his hand and bowed forward holding it. When the pain had subsided, he glanced up. His lawyer stood cupping his chin in his palm looking annoyed. A few jurors looked alarmed, the rest were smiling.

His lawyer twirled his finger. “Let’s wrap it up, Jack.”

“Well, anyway,” Jack continued, “The harp played and sang a lullaby and the giant fell asleep. Once he was asleep, Mactildis took the lid off me pot and told me now was my chance. I was about to run for it when I saw the miserable abused hen and the poor mistreated harp and I decided I couldn’t leave them behind, so I gathered them up and took off. But something must have awakened the giant because when I got to the beanstalk he roared out of the house calling me a thief and shouting about grinding me bones for bread, that whole fee fi fo fum bit again.” He stopped and looked each juror in the eye. “I was afraid for my life,” he said slowly and distinctly, proud of himself for being able to make that vital point once again. “That giant was going to kill me if he caught me and beat up on the hen and the harp again, so I was afraid for their lives too.”

“Afraid for your life,” his lawyer gave the jurors a significant look. “Did you think to try and defend yourself.”

Jack shook his head. “Against that bloody great giant? Are you bonkers? I knew I didn’t stand a chance. There was only one thing I could do to save meself, the hen and the harp and I did it.”

“What was that?”

“The giant was on the beanstalk now after me. So I got to the bottom of that beanstalk as fast as I could and I chopped it down.”

“With the giant on it?”

“Yessir.”

“Did you know your actions would kill the giant?”

“Yessir, but I didn’t have a choice. He was going to kill me and hurt the hen and the harp. The only thing I could do to save my life was chop that beanstalk.” Jack sat back in the witness box, pleased that he’d almost made it through his testimony until he remembered he was supposed to be sorry about killing the giant. He’d never understood that part, but he snapped his face into reluctance.

At this point, something stirred the gallery, but Mactildis and her son blocked his view, until a man showed up and bent over saying something to the prosecutor.

“Now, Jack,” his lawyer said. “You indicated before, you were in the courtroom when Mactildis and her son Jep testified, do you recall that?”

The man speaking with the prosecutor pointed back toward the entrance to the courtroom and the prosecutor glanced back in that direction then turned his attention to Jack and smiled.

“Yessir, I was here and heard everything.”

“You heard them testify that you snuck into their home and stole those valuable possessions the hen and the harp.”

“Yessir.”

“And haven’t you admitted to that theft here today?”

Okay, they’d practiced this over and over. He had to get this right. With sadness he looked at the jury. “The only thing I’m guilty of is saving the hen and the little girl in the harp from slavery and pain. That’s all they were for that giant–slaves to be beaten until they performed. That can’t be a crime, can it? Saving someone from a life of pain?”

His lawyer nodded in agreement. “You also heard their testimony that their husband and father tried to reason with you before you descended the beanstalk? And that when he followed you down, he was pleading with you to return the hen and the harp?”

“I heard them say that, but it weren’t true.” He turned to the jury. “You know giants,” he pointed to Mactildis and Jep who were seething with anger. “You saw their tempers. How can you believe the fairy stories they told?”

His lawyer addressed the Judge. “Your honor, the defense rests.”

The judge turned to the prosecutor. “Any cross?”

The prosecutor stood and buttoned his suit coat. “No, your honor, but the state does wish to call a rebuttal witness.”

Confused, Jack looked to his lawyer. He hadn’t mentioned any rebuttal witnesses and he’d said the state had to disclose all witnesses they were going to call.

Concerned, his lawyer said, “The state hasn’t disclosed any rebuttal witnesses, your honor.”

The judge looked at the prosecutor. “Oh, but we did, but I said we hadn’t been able to locate him. I’m informed just now that we have and he is here ready to testify.”

Dread settled in the pit of Jack’s stomach. He could only be talking about one person.

“The state calls Vassy Heymon to the stand.”

Again the gallery stirred.

Thump, something wooden struck the courtroom floor.

Thump…Thump….Thump.

From behind the giants Vassy emerged, his peg leg thumping as he made his way to the witness stand.

Jack watched his progress with horror until he stood at the base of the witness stand. “Hello, Jack” he said.

“What are you doing here?” Jack hissed with a furtive glance at the jury. “I thought you were out of the country?”

Moving slowly, Jack stepped down from the stand. Vassy caught his arm as he passed by and breathed in his ear. “I’m sorry. They caught me and offered me a deal.”

Numb, Jack couldn’t move.

His lawyer took him by the arm and guided him to the defense table. “Who is he?” his lawyer whispered. “When we saw his name as a potential witness, you told me he was no one and not to worry about him. Well, he’s clearly not no one. Who is he?”

Jack waved him away, staring as Vassy settled himself into the witness chair and with a grunt, pulled his peg leg straight until the peg, starting just below his knee, stuck out the side of the witness box. Age and experience had etched lines deep into his face and weather had stained it mahogany and coarsened it. Wizened. He’d heard Vassy described that way once and after looking it up had decided it fit.

The bailiff who had perked up at Vassy’s appearance stood to administer the oath. He waited on Vassy. The prosecutor rose with a smirk in Jack’s direction then faced Vassy.

“It’s customary to stand while taking the oath Mr. Heymon.”

Vassy scowled, a vile look the lines on his face reinforced as they fell into an obviously well worn pattern. “Well, I’ve heard tell,” he said in a deep, hoarse voice as worn as his face, “that it’s customary for prosecutors to go—“

A shot exploded from the judge’s gavel. “That will do, Mr. Heymon. Bailiff, please administer the oath.

“Raise your right hand, please.” Vassy lifted his hand from his lap. The Bailiff frowned and glanced at the judge who remained impassive. The Bailiff continued. “Do you swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”

“Sure,” Vassy growled, “stranger things have happened.”

Flustered, the Bailiff gave up and scurried back to his chair.

The prosecutor, lips puckered as if he’d bitten into a particularly sour lemon, approached the witness. “Mr. Heymon, do you know the defendant, Jack?” He pointed at Jack.
Still in shock from seeking Vassy in the courtroom, Jack twitched his head to the side.

Vassy contemplated Jack, his scowl softening into sorrow. “Yes.”

“How do you know him?”

“Couple months ago, I ran into him on the road to the market. Him and his cow.”

“Was that the first time you had seen the defendant, Jack?”

Vassy sighed and he shook his head. “No.”

Puzzled, Jack looked a question at Vassy. Vassy shifted his gaze to the prosecutor.

“When did you first see the defendant, Jack?”

“A couple months afore that.”

“How did that come about?”

Vassy sighed again and inspected his fingernails. “I was checking him out, watching him from afar, watching that little farm of his and his mum’s fail. Watching them scrape and scrimp trying to stay alive.”

“Why?”

“Because I had a project in mind and I was looking for some help.”

Outrage kindled in Jack’s heart. He’d been tricked!

“What project was that?”

Vassy leaned back in his chair and laced his hands across his ample stomach, settling in. “When I was young, about Jack’s age, I met an old man who told me what I thought at the time was a tall tale. He claimed that he’d visited a land in the clouds where giants lived. He said he used to visit them all the time; got to know ‘em real good. Said they was friendly folk. Oh, sometimes they’d eat the odd stranger who showed up in their lands, but they was always Frenchmen, with the occasional German when they was really hungry.”

On the front row, Jeb nodded vigorously a vindicated smile on his face.

“He told me they was all rich on account of their magic. They all had golden harps and hens that gave them golden eggs. And he wanted to me to help him steal one of them geese that laid golden eggs. He invited me to go with him and get the lay of the land. So, I did. He had this beanstalk and he took me up there to the giants for a couple of months and showed me around. After that he and I decided on the best house to rob. He was going to distract the giants in this house, while I went in and took their hen. Well, we needed a new beanstalk, so I could sneak up without being seen so he gave me three beans. The day came and I planted ‘em and climbed. I snuck up on the house and sure enough, there he was in the front room yaking away with the giants. I wiggled my way into the house and headed to where we knew they kept the hen.”

He shook his head. “I almost got away with it, but before I could get out of the house, the darned hen cackled. They caught me and figured out that the old man in their parlor was working with me. They ate him first. Then they came for me. But young and strong as I was, they decided to eat me a piece at a time.” He slapped his peg. “They took part of me leg first. But before they could get to the rest of me, I escaped and practically fell down that beanstalk. I chopped it down right quick before anyone could follow.”

He stopped and closed his eyes. “I tried to forget all about the giants and their treasure.” He opened eyes glittering with greed. “But that gold. It burned in my imagination, taking my sleep, stealing my appetite. So, I set out to find more magic beans. It took all me life, but finally last year,” he smiled, “I found them.” His smile faded. “But what was I going to do?” He slapped his peg again. “I couldn’t climb no beanstalk. No I needed someone young, someone desperate, someone like Jack.”

Resentment boiled Jack’s blood and he wanted to scream at the old man, at the jury, at the prosecutor. They had no idea what it was like scrabbling in the dirt for meagre handfuls of grain, not even enough each day to cut hunger’s gnawing, sawing edge.

“When I met Jack on that road, I already knew he was my man. I explained my whole plan, a plan I’d thought on long and hard for forty years. Even so, he almost got caught.” Vassy lapsed into silence.

The prosecutor cleared his throat. “So, you and Jack agreed that he would rob the giants and you would split the profits?”

Vassy nodded. “Yeah, that was the plan. And it would have worked, but he roused the giant…and murdered him.”

The courtroom erupted. The giants, both leaping to their feet, screamed at Jack while in the unseen gallery cries and moans competed with the bellowing giants. From the gallery Jack heard “Help her she’s fainted.” Was that his mother? The judge’s gavel rang out almost unheard in the commotion.

All the noise faded from Jack’s consciousness as the import of what just happened shut down his senses. Was that enough to convict him of murder? Of theft he was now almost certainly to be seen as guilty, but murder….If they got him on murder he’d hang and that would almost certainly kill his mum.

After a few moments, the judge’s gavel began to have an effect and the chaos quieted. Breathing hard, the red faced judge finally stared at the silenced crowd. “One more outburst like that and I’ll clear the room.”

“The prosecution rests.”

“Cross?” the judge asked Jack’s attorney.

His attorney eyed him for a long moment then shrugged. “Nothing, your honor.”

Hours later, the Judge excused the jury for deliberation. Jack had sat through closing statements and instructions in a fog. Nothing registered. His mind rang with the imagined words: “guilty, taken and hung by the neck until dead.” They couldn’t do that to him could they?

“Now we wait,” his attorney said.

And wait they did. Five hours after being excused, word came back. The jury has reached a verdict. As the jurors filed in none looked in Jack’s direction. To no avail Jack tried to catch the eye of a few.

“Has the jury elected a foreperson?” the judge asked.

A woman stood up. “I am, your honor.”

“Have you reached a verdict?”

“We have your honor,” she said and held up a piece of paper.

“Please pass it to the Bailiff.”

The Bailiff took the piece of paper and delivered it to the judge. The judge studied the paper for a good minute in the midst of a silence so profound, a cough from the gallery echoed like a gunshot. The judge handed the paper to the Bailiff who plodded back to the foreperson and delivered it.

“What is your verdict?” the judge asked.

The foreperson cleared her throat and looked down at the fluttering paper in her hand. “On the count of murder in the first degree, we the jury hereby find the Defendant….”

Why Hallmark Movies Are Like Theoretical Physics

Yesterday I finished a fascinating book. Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder.

The Book

In the course of her book, Dr. Hossenfelder describes in a general non technical way how at times in the past theoretical physicists have predicted the existence of particles that had not yet been seen in any experiments. It seems, if I have this right, which is no sure thing by any means, that physicists form theories by extending mathematical formulas that have been shown to describe our reality. In performing such extensions, on occasion theoretical physicists will posit the existence of a particle or particles because that particle or those particles are necessary to the proper functioning of the formula. For example, as I understand it, please see caveat above, for many years the Standard Model of particle physics as generally formulated posited the existence of the Higgs Field and its corresponding particle, the Higgs Boson even though it had not been seen. Physicists were confident of its existence because it was necessary to complete the Standard Model’s formulas. And in 2012, the Higgs Boson was observed confirming the theoretical prediction.

So, last night the Lovely Marianne and I were watching a Hallmark Movie (yes, we will occasionally view Hallmark movies, but I feel I must now make a ritual denunciation of them as shallow and cheesy and…fill in the blank). Anyway, last night’s fine piece of cinema was A Princess for Christmas.

The Movie

In the movie, we meet Jules who after her sister and brother-in-law (Charles)’s tragic deaths is responsible for their two children Maggie (6?) and Milo (14?). Charles it seems was the estranged son of Edward, the Duke of Castlebury (Castlebury being one of the many tiny European monarchies desperate to marry off their royal offspring to American youth). One day out of the blue Duke Edward’s butler shows up on Jules’ doorstep. Duke Edward wants to mend family fences and invites his grandchildren Maggie and Milo to spend Christmas at Castlebury Hall. Jules, of course, is invited along as well.

Okay with the stage set, here is where we combine Hallmark and Theoretical Physics. Jules and the children had just arrived at Castlebury Hall when the Lovely Marianne asked, “When do we get to meet Edward’s other son?”

“His what?” I ask because there has been no mention thus far of a brother to Charles. As far as we know, the deceased Charles was Duke Edward’s only child.

“His other son. The Duke has to have another son.”

And sure enough, not a minute later Ashton, Charles’ brother, Duke Edward’s second son drives up in a sports car.

And it hit me. Just like a good theoretical physicist, The Lovely Marianne postulated the existence of a thus far unobserved character. She was certain of his existence even in the absence of any factual basis for her supposition because he was necessary to the formula. Her perspicacity was demonstrated when we observed that character, thus confirming her theoretical prediction.

Who says formulaic, cheesy entertainment can’t be educational?