Friday, August 30, 2013

The ships

"Do you think they're looking back and wondering how we're doing?" Jane Jane asked.

"Doubt it," I said. It was just like making off with some trinket prize. You grasp it tightly in your hand and run as fast as you can, never looking back. "Bet they're pushing Jupiter by now."

The fire was nearly dead, but it was so hot for a late summer night that we didn't want to heap additional wood on it, let alone move. Fast winds brought sweet relief, like gentle hands from above parting the clouds so stars could smile down and give us kisses goodnight. Jane Jane traced constellations with her fingers. I watched her watch the world above as the breeze tossed my hair.

"Will they ever return?"

"Doubt that too."

Why would Bobby come all the way back to say hello if he couldn't be bothered to say goodbye? The ships launched in a hurry when the skyfire came. I went down into the bunkers with everyone else. Bobby never showed. Afterward, I was told that we waited down there for nearly a month, but I honestly couldn't tell you how long it was because I spent half the time in a daze of fevered worry. When I came out of it, they were all gone and we were all that remained.

"Once you light out, you don't come back," I said. "Why the fuck would you come back here, anyway?"

Jane Jane grunted languidly, neither in agreement or dissent. Her family was entirely Earth-bound, so I didn't expect her to exactly empathize.

"Jupiter," she said, pointing a finger to a flickering white dot in the Northern horizon. "Gorgeous."

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Derrick camped at the bottom of the narrow wash, up against a slope that wasn't quite steep enough to prevent someone from scrambling up it if necessary. He lit a fire of dry moss and twigs and kept it small. I hid behind an old fir about 50 yards downwind, breathing the thin wafting smoke that floated over and watching him spoon some vegetable out of an unmarked tin can. His face was a half-moon, only partially lit by the fire.

I shadowed Derrick from out near Astoria. He and a small group of people I didn't recognize tried their hand at fishing off long-abandoned concrete docks. I could have told them it's still a dead zone, and they unsurprisingly came away empty-handed. Can't even scrape meager shellfish from the hulls of rusted, half-sunk ships. Pity, really. Even if you know the outcome and hopelessness squeezes your stomach more than hunger, just threading line into the Pacific makes your mouth water.

When he dumped his line and cut loose heading east, I followed. He meandered at first, trying to supplement the contents of his sack, scavenging burned or collapsing houses, failing at hunting, and eventually turning to foraging. After the second cold and rainy night, he gave up and cut a straight line, shadowing the Columbia for two more days before turning inland. The whole time he didn't come across another person, and he didn't discover my presence.

I knew my orders. But each time I saw him, dirty and helpless scouring the countryside for any handhold, thin and desperate staring blankly into a pathetic fire, I balked. Instead, I slept the cold and eventually misty night behind that fir, woke before sunrise, and continued to follow.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

His teeth

"Why the hell are you wearing teeth like that?" I asked.

The small yellowish necklace was draped around Linsell's neck and down across his bare chest. I counted 20 strung teeth on a first look and decided not to count again.

"Don't I look menacing?" he asked.

"You look like an idiot," I said. His jaunty smile became a pouty scowl.

"You're just jealous. Look mean with this."

"We needed supplies more," I said. "And where the hell did you find so many of them, anyway."

"Dentist's office. Couple of miles from here. Pretty well picked over, for the most part. Don't worry, Benji, I snagged a few tools and other odds and ends, too."

The necklace swung gently, back-and-forth across his chest as he spoke. Whenever his wavy hair moved to cover the necklace, he flicked it aside and with a whip of his head.

"How'd you string 'em up?" I asked.

"Needle and some thin wire. Bore a hole with one, run the other," he said with a grin. "Easy."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The small key

"Got what I need?" Daggett flashed a sour face. "Cause if you don't."

"It's right here." I flipped him the small key.


"Go down to Ash and hang a left. Go all the way until the cul de sac. It's that blue and purple house. The basement's unlocked. In the back corner, under a pile of rags and junk there's a hole in the floor that unlocks the mechanism. Just push it down and to the left once you turn the key."

Daggett was missing both of his front teeth and his breath was rotten like the maggots he picked out of his food. When he smiled, the remaining yellowed nobs framed the hole like a window onto a dark, awful world.

"What about Jamison?" he asked.

"He's dead," I said.

I took the key from Jamison's corpse after Daggett's men were finished with him. The problem was they made me listen to their destructive work. Running wasn't an option; I'd just end up on the wrong end of their business later, and they couldn't let me go because they needed me to tell them where Jamison kept his stash. But they weren't forcing my eyes open, so I shut them against the hiss of fire on flesh, the scream and then faint chatter of a tooth dropped on concrete, of a man struggling to breathe and wheezing until the last gasps of life slipped from his lungs like stale air from a bellows.

"Too bad, so sad," Daggett said, and then belted out a wheezing laugh that degenerated into a hacking cough. He spat. "Get over it kid. We've got a lot of fun left for you."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


The laundry hung undisturbed. Neither wind nor gravity nor the hands of man had dislodged it in these last three months. I left the alley and wandered over to the clothesline.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Linsell asked.

"Leave me alone," I responded.

A voluminous off-white sheet was the first of it, suspended by more than a dozen wooden pins. Faded circular coffee stains and patches of blood were the evidence of both life as it once was, and life as it was just before things changed. I ran a hand along the soft cotton and noticed how dark my skin looked in comparison.

"We can't stop here," Linsell said. "It's going to be dark soon."

He was right, but I didn't care. These breaks became more frequent when we moved through neighborhoods. Out in the wilds, it was easy enough to put one foot in front of the other, to trudge over grass and wood and stone, to keep going and forget. But among the remnants and ruins I often lost my way or lingered, staring into windows and standing in gardens like a mystified museum guest.

"I'm cold," I said. "Hold on."

I set down my pack, grabbed a brown wool sweater from farther down the line, and pulled it over my head. It was scratchy against my face and arms and clung close around my chest. The cool autumn breeze used to be benign, a relief after dire summers. Now it cut like a razor, gently but repeatedly, and with shocking ferocity.

"Fine, whatever," Linsell said. "Happy now? Can we fucking go already?"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Salt and pepper

The man twitched and scratched his week-old salt and pepper beard. His eyes ricocheted around the bus, shooting to the driver, out the window to passing cars, and back to me, sitting to his left across the aisle.

"Maybe it's something I have to do myself," he said, voice soft and nervous, like he needed to tell just one person and didn't want anyone else to hear him.

He wore pajama bottoms and a green shirt. Both were torn and stained brown with dirt. His fingers also wouldn't keep still, and he alternated between tapping them in his legs and touching his face.

"Know what I mean?"

At the next stop, he shifted behind me in the confusion of people moving on and off the bus. Suddenly, I was faced with his big grey eyes, wide and pleading, and hands that crept up the back of my seat, closer to me.

"They told me not to come back," he said. "But maybe you can help me."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Leaves, too

Yellow leaves float on
Cold, clear water and stick to my
Skin. The stream passes,
River to ocean, taking
Time and my memory too.


We huddled together on the wooden bridge, so close our arms and legs nearly locked, angling for the briefest of glances of something pure. A man in a white uniform directed traffic. His arms were wide and he became like a stone post, face a mask of grim determination, body merely an obstacle in the road. People flowed like water from a dam. They bottled up behind him, full of an intense pressure. And then suddenly they shot loose, the way open.

The color attracted us desperately. We leaned over the railings. Below, a creek that ran through a narrow valley under the bridge. A riotous rainbow of leaves dotting the trees that lined its way down. I smelled sweet sugar from the nearby vendors preparing their food. Even though it was not yet sunrise, a heat rose from the thick crowd and the man next to me removed his glasses and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.

I felt dizzy, and I grabbed onto his jacket to keep myself upright. He wrapped a thick arm around me and drew me close, speaking a few words in a language I didn't understand. I understood the concern in his tone, and could only nod. Somewhere in the crowd a child cried out.

We waited for that glint of light to ascend, to crest the mountain and illuminate us.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Wind and wood. My hands
Bleed, worn raw. Are we alone?
I can't feel that way.
Let me hold you and touch each
Person you've ever held dear.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Flash: Water from a
Big sky. Dust mixed with roadside
Lavender. Rain soaks
My clothes, washes memories
To rivers, away, away.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Shifting darkness

I tasted salty sweat and it stung my eyes. I ran my hand down my face and wiped it on my leg. Air rushed down the narrow hallway, cooling my bare chest.

"Who's there?" the man said.

He was afraid. I could always tell. There was a tinge in the voice. It broke slightly, forced too hard to be strong. Steps are slow and uneven at first, then quick in panic. What was that echo? Do the creeping shadows hide something sinister? Am I okay?

"I've called the police."

He hadn't. He was all alone down here. No flashlight. No backup. Only an imagination and a weak lightbulb for the entire hallway to protect his soft body wrapped delicately into a useless uniform. The service elevator could have been safe, but he walked away from it. He let me get behind him. I know he heard me.

"They'll be here in five minutes."

A shadow, a whisper was all he had against the shifting darkness, against me. We feared it as children, but were taught to ignore instinct and believe in simpler truths. No such things as ghosts. Everything's okay. Daddy's here to protect you.


Then I came for him.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Kindling in a hot
Rush, fire sweeping the forest
Floor. You do nothing
Except watch from afar and
Hope winds don't blow it your way.

Monday, August 5, 2013


The night was moonless and dark. Under the shadow of office buildings and apartments, the street was even darker. I circled for long minutes, passing young women smoking and taxi drivers idling and reading magazines. I repeatedly unfolded a crumpled map, glanced at it, and stuffed it back away in my coat pocket.

Then I saw a warming yellow glow behind an opaque screen that called to me. Hadn't I passed this way before? I slid open the door and faced a long, narrow hallway. A lone violin's music hauntingly wafted along. The air was rich with fruit.

I crossed over a pool of small stones and sat on one of nine stools along a rough-grained wooden bar. The man behind the counter had lily-white hair but looked youthful. He more flowed than moved, like he was walking on air.

"My portal opens to those who want to find it," he said. "What can I get for you?"

The wall behind the man was lined with sake bottles of all shapes and sizes in a riot of color like the leaves of an autumn forest. My mouth was agape, head as far back as it would go, staring up to the top bottles that were coated in dust.

"Take me on a journey," I said airily.

He poured out three small glasses from three different bottles. The first was cloudy, but with a warming sweetness like afternoons in a sun-drenched orchard. The second was as cold and clear as pure water, but it tasted like dark, sweet earth. The last was hot and it weighed me down like a deep sleep, making my eyes fog over.

"Who are you?" I asked, mouth tingling, dripping.

"Just a man," he said as he refilled each of my glasses. "If I make my door narrow enough, I can do what I love for those who want to enjoy it."

Friday, August 2, 2013

A secret

Little tomato
Under stifling sun. Sweet red
Juice drips down my chin,
A secret stolen quickly.
I won't tell them if you don't.


A hallmark of passage through Japan is stamp collection. On side tables at entrances to museums, cultural centers, and even malls, chains loop between multicolor ink pads and rubber stamps. Children gather expectantly, grasping pieces of paper and grinning wide, awaiting their reward. Parents huddle nearby, breathing smoke and stale air.

The entrance to the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka presents a diminutive stamp to passers-by, three mushrooms pressed in brown ink. One smiles shyly. On the slopes of Lake Ashi near Mt. Fuji, travelers disembark from a ropeway car and board a ship colored in flamboyant reds and blues. Many stop first for the red ink stamp commemorating the journey.

Train stations have the best stamps. Underground, they paint a prideful picture of life just outside and above. Sometimes it's modern, with skyscrapers drawn in ink lines. Tokyo's stations were often this way. At other times they pay homage to history, and you press down rubber to see palaces, pavilions, and grass fields long withered by time, covered by concrete. Kyoto offered many such stamps.

I have a small black book filled with many of these colorful scenes. I waited in line behind children half my size to get them. Attendants and parents flashed concerned or annoyed glances at first, but then shrugged and moved on when their kids returned, faces and fresh ink shining under fluorescent light.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


My umbrella beads
With dew in midnight mist. The
Station's empty. I
Grip the handle and await
The train that will take me home.

The blue umbrella

I found a plastic umbrella under a bench at the train station. It was blue and perfectly acceptable, with a scratched handle being its only fault. The top opened smoothly. Its spokes were intact. And it kept the rain off my glasses and hair, ensured my clothes were dry.

We met just outside of Kyoto, on the empty platform where no one but us waited to return to the city. The opposite platform was inundated. New trains arrived every seven minutes, and a fresh flood of faces waded out to begin the mile-long walk up to the temple where the leaves were turning unimaginable, cartoonish colors.

"Another umbrella?" my wife asked. We already had a plastic umbrella, clear and a little small, a child's umbrella. It found us in Osaka, at the city aquarium, where one of an army of children let it slip from tiny fingers, only to end up in mine.

"This one's busted," I said. It was. Our clear umbrella stuck a little when we tried to open it. "Plus it's bigger. And blue."

"Fine. Whatever."

I propped our clear umbrella against the bench and picked up the blue one. It was heavy in my hands, and I hooked its end on my forearm as the train arrived to take us back into town.

"See you around," I said to our old umbrella as we boarded the train.

The train moved quickly, pulling away from the station. I looked out the window and watched the clear umbrella grow distant and then vanish, out of our life, but perhaps into someone else's.