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  1. Somehow this went missing, so I'm adding it back to my blog)
    Link back to part 1

    He didn’t see much of her for the next three days. Then it was time to outfit the Barge for the next set of field measurements. Thomas and his team of technicians would be accompanying Dr. Vandermeer on the mobile test platform. The test apparatus was expected to create an energy field that would distort local space in accordance with the Vandermeer Theory. Past experiments had produced measurable effects, but there were still discrepancies from the predictions. This trip was intended to generate a stronger field than before for more precise measurements. But bending space in close proximity to a crowded research station was considered somewhat rash. The 90 meter long platform, nicknamed the Barge, was used to conduct all the Hermes tests at a minimum distance of 50 kilometers from the station.

    Sarah pulled Thomas aside while Erin and Josef were assembling and aligning the power collimator for the field generator. “I just want you to know, I’m not avoiding you.” She looked down at her hands. “At least, not for the last day or so. I’ve just been so busy getting ready for the test.”

    Thomas gently lifted her chin until she was looking into his eyes, and waited.

    “Tom, what is it like? You’ve lived so long, you must have seen everything. How boring does it get?”’

    He laughed, but stopped when a flash of anger touched her eyes. “I’m sorry, but that was funny. You couldn’t have known, though. The only time I have ever been bored was before I knew I wouldn’t die any time soon.”

    She frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

    “Sure it does. I only got bored when I couldn’t decide what I wanted to spend limited time on. When I discovered that I had time to spare, I became more interested in everything. The more I see, the more I realize there is to learn. Seen everything? When everything keeps changing and evolving? How could I ever be bored?” He brushed back a loose strand of her dark hair. “And you’re really wondering how I can’t be bored with you, after all the women I have loved.”

    She looked at him impassively, then dropped her eyes and nodded quietly. “It crossed my mind.”

    “Other men have had women in their pasts, but that doesn’t prevent them from loving. In fact, they often learn from previous relationships.” He squeezed her hands reassuringly. “I am with you, and only you, Sarah Vandermeer, every part of me. And I have never met anyone like you before. You are the most wonderful, most important person in my life.” He kissed her, and she clung to him tightly and sobbed.

    That night, they made love as if for the first time, then slept entwined and at peace. In the morning, they joined the rest of the tech team on the Barge and prepared to launch. The team worked as a well tuned machine, and they soon released the moorings. Sarah stole a look at Thomas as he played the thruster controls with the finesse of concert pianist. She didn’t think he saw her watching, until he winked without looking her way. Warmth rose in her cheeks as she turned quickly away.

    Thomas fired the braking thrusters, and soon the Barge was holding position 52 kilometers from the station. Josef ran through the final checks on the field generator, and then Thomas began ramping up the power according to the test plan. After three hours, Sarah took the data collected so far to the analysis lab amidships. An hour later, Thomas brought the next block of data to her. He turned to leave, but she stood up suddenly as he turned to leave.

    “Wait. These last few readings don’t look right. When you get back to the generator, put it on hold at the current level and run a diagnostic on the instrument array.”

    Thomas looked over her shoulder. “I see what you mean. But what could …”

    There was an abrupt lurch, and everything in the room flew against the aft wall, including Thomas and Sarah. He slammed against the bulkhead first, and felt something hard penetrate his back. Then Sarah slammed into him, and he lost consciousness.

    Sarah tried to catch her breath as she rebounded from Thomas and drifted across the room. A computer screen tumbled toward her, and she brushed it away. The only light in the room shone from the two recessed emergency lights. As she rotated in free fall, she found herself facing Thomas and her stomach lurched. A piece of conduit had been twisted away from the wall and was penetrating his abdomen. As she stared, his eyes opened. He looked down at the protruding piece of metal and grimaced. Then her rotation faced her away from him. When she again was facing him, he had pushed himself away from the wall, and was drifting toward her. The bloody section of conduit was still attached to the wall behind him. He caught hold of her and they drifted close enough to the far wall to seize a railing. They began to assess their predicament.

    The power returned as the automatics restored critical systems. Thomas opened the door and entered the main passageway. The corridor pressure doors had all sealed when the power failed. He headed toward the field generator room where the other three techs were, but the second pressure door he reached refused to open. The vacuum warning light was blinking red.

    Sarah had brought the computer back online. She was looking in disbelief at an image from the exterior camera mounted on the antenna array. The entire forward third of the Barge, where the field generator had been housed, was gone. She couldn’t see any wreckage, but the end of the remaining hull section looked like it had been stretched like taffy to jagged points. She heard Thomas reenter the room behind her.

    He spoke quietly. “The corridor is breached between here and the field generator. I can’t tell what condition the others are in.”

    She turned the screen so he could see. “They’re all dead. The generator must have collapsed into a singularity. There’s nothing left up there.” Her voice was flat with shock.

    He joined her, and she held on to him. He was the only reality, and she clung desperately to him, afraid to let go. Then she remembered, and fumbled to lift his shirt. The puncture was still raw and ugly, but it was closed and looked as if it had been healing for at least a week.

    “Even knowing that you – I would never have believed this if I hadn’t seen it myself.”

    He looked at her carefully. “Are you all right?”

    She nodded. “I think you saved me. You cushioned my impact.”

    “That isn’t what I meant.”

    “I know what you meant. I’m fine, Thomas. I really am. But Josef, and Walt, and Erin…”

    “Yes. There is no possibility anyone could have survived that. As you said, the field must have formed a singularity and everything nearby was pulled in. Fortunately the filed collapsed when the generator vanished. But it had to have been quick. They probably never even knew what happened.”

    They sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, Sarah spoke.

    “Can we still maneuver? We have to get back to the station.”

    Thomas nodded. “I’ll check. The engines are in the aft section, so we should be ok.”

    He sat down to the computer and began the engine checks. Forty minutes later, he pushed back from the terminal. “The engines are fine. But we have a problem.” He sighed. “We aren’t where we’re supposed to be.”

    Sarah looked at the screen, which was pitch black with a sprinkle of stars. “What am I looking at?”

    Thomas pointed to one star, brighter than the rest. “As far as I can tell, that’s the Sun. At least I hope it is. If it’s not, we’ll never find a way home.”

    “That can’t be the Sun. That would place us beyond Neptune.”

    “Farther than that, I’m afraid. Judging by the magnitude, we’re at least several light months away.” He chuckled dryly. “Congratulations, Doctor. It appears your theories are on the right track.”

    She punched his arm. “Thanks a lot. For all the good it will do anyone. We’re dead too, and it won’t be quick like the rest of the team.” She stopped. “Well I am, anyway. What will happen to you?”

    “My body will shut down without oxygen. If they ever find us, I might revive, but I don’t know if I can stay suspended indefinitely. I drowned once, and nearly 200 years passed before I found myself beached on a desolate stretch of shore. But finding one tiny piece of wreckage in interstellar space? I don’t see much hope.”

    Sarah looked at this man she loved, and he suddenly seemed unreal to her. She held him, and he held her. Eventually they slept, exhausted and full of despair.

    Several hours later, Sarah sat up suddenly. When Thomas finally stirred an hour later, she was busy at the computer. She looked up at him, and her eyes sparkled. “We may have a chance after all.”

    Thomas watched her, a smile on his lips. He loved watching her thought processes at work. She was clearly on to something.

    She waited, but he said nothing. “We have a full set of spare components for the field generator, enough to rebuild it. And we know the power profile we used for the test. With a lot of luck, we might be able to reproduce the accident, and retrace our path. We can’t expect to get back to the station under our own power, but maybe we can get close enough to signal for a rescue.”

    He thought for a moment. “But wait. We’ve lost a considerable part of our mass. Won’t that cause us to overshoot on the return trip? How can we compensate?”

    Sarah shook her head. “No, mass isn’t part of the equation, as far as I can tell. What matters is the strength and geometry of the field. That will be the same, or at least will be if we can apply the same power profile. But I’m not sure yet which direction we need to align the generator. The field was directed forward, but were we thrown with it or opposite it?”

    “We were thrown against the rear bulkhead,” He began, but Sarah was shaking her head.

    That could have been from either the jump or the reentry. We need to be certain.”

    Thomas nodded. “It will take a while, but I should be able to determine that once I have a more accurate idea of where we are. We have life support for nearly five weeks.”

    “We need to keep as much of that as we can in reserve after we repeat the jump, to allow time for rescue. I’ll begin assembling the other field generator while you go stargazing.”

    Four hours later, Thomas joined Sarah in the aft hold. She had most of the main field generator assembled, and several of the power components were unpacked and secured nearby.

    “We traveled point-six-three light years in the direction the field was projected. To return, we will have to point the aft of the Barge toward where we need to go. You realize we won’t have maneuvering jets once this end of the ship collapses, right?”

    She nodded. “Right, I thought of that. But we should be able to take our shot tomorrow. Why don’t you start assembling the power stack.”

    He heard it in her voice. “What aren’t you telling me?”

    She set down the tools and pointed to a shattered assembly in the corner. “The power control interface is beyond repair. The initial accident slammed it into the support column. There’s no way to control the power profile remotely or by a program.”

    “Damn! So one of us will have to ramp the power manually.” And it won’t be her, he decided.

    They worked in silence for several more hours, until Thomas set down his tools and made her put hers away as well. “No more today. We can’t afford any mistakes. We should get a good night’s rest and finish tomorrow.”

    They made dinner together, choosing the best from the stored supplies. This had been reserved for a celebratory feast at the conclusion of the test run. Now it felt like a funeral spread. They spoke little, and not at all about the looming decision. After the meal, they lay in each other’s arms, taking comfort in quiet intimacy.

    They shared breakfast, then labored to complete the field generator that would take one of them home. Each was determined that the other would be the survivor. Finally, the last component was assembled, and the final checks were completed. The decision could no longer be delayed.

    Thomas spoke first. “You should secure yourself in Erin’s cabin. It’s in the best condition of the remaining rooms, and there is nothing left in there that isn’t secured.”

    Sarah was shaking her head vigorously. “You aren’t in charge here, Mr. Gordon. Hermes is my project, and I get to make the hard decisions. You’re going home, and you will continue to live your extraordinary life. Besides which, you can survive longer if it takes more time for a rescue ship to reach you. That’s my final word.”

    Thomas put a finger tenderly to her lips. “Forget it. There’s only one way this can go. I’d love to have spent the next 50 years with you, and I want to live. But there is no way I will trade two lives for mine, especially these two lives.”

    She gaped at him. “How did you know? I only found out after we launched from RS-6.”

    “You forget. I’ve been around a while. I have learned to see details other people miss, and to know what they mean. I knew you were pregnant when we were preparing the launch. You need to bring our daughter home safely.”

    “Or son,” Sarah began, but stopped when she saw Thomas’ smile. “Ok, daughter.” She paused. “Tom, do you think she’ll…?”

    Thomas shook his head. “No. She is not my first child. I have watched my children being born, growing old, and then dying. Whatever I am, it is not passed on. But that’s fine. She has a wonderful mother to raise her, and she will live a full life.”

    They shared their final hours in slow, tender passion. They held each other for a long time afterward. Thomas made sure Sarah was properly secured in Erin’s quarters, and made his way to the aft hold. He adjusted the ship’s attitude to line it up with the distant sun, and began applying the power, following the program exactly. Five hours later, he keyed the intercom. “If this works, it should take place between three and five minutes from now.”

    “We will never forget you, Thomas Gordon.”

    “I love you, Sarah Vandermeer. Live well. Promise me that.”

    “I promise.”

    The seconds ticked by, and Thomas began to worry. It was approaching the five minute point, and nothing had happened yet. If it took much longer…”

    Sarah felt the ship lurch once more. She was well secured, but the main impact this time was deep within her heart. After what felt like days, she unfastened the restraints and surveyed the damage. The aft of the Barge now matched what was left of the forward end, and the stars slid past as the ship tumbled. The attitude thrusters were gone, so there was no way to stop the rotation. Then the sun slid past the viewport, and its disc looked the right size – Earth normal. As the wrecked ship continued to turn, she saw a tiny blue speck, larger than a star, although too small to pick out individual features.

    She had come out closer to the Earth than to the station. She set to work restoring the systems that had shut down during the second jump. Within hours of powering up the distress beacon, she received a weak voice message, and was able to transmit a reply. A rescue ship matched course with the crippled Barge on the eleventh day after that.

    Around eight months later, I was born. It’s hard to keep a low profile when your mother has entire planets named after her, but I’ve managed. With half a galaxy to roam, I’ve been able to lose myself when needed. But I treat every moment as precious. As my father knew, so do I. Nothing lasts forever.
  2. This was my entry for Short Story Competition #7, posted 28 August, 2007. I am copying it into my blog not because it's a great story (it's not), but because it's an example of dialoguing with a created dialect/slang.


    Jace settled deeper in his seat, and took a deep breath. He was shaking, but tried not to show it. A moment later, he heard Xan getting up from his chair on the other side of the room. Jace removed the headset with its twin displays in time to see Xan leaning over him, grinning insanely.

    “Que or que, that was ice, ver?” Xan asked enthusiastically.

    Jace forced a grin. “Ver, was max cryo, as adverted! When that vamp full screened me, shivered me for ver!”

    He meant that part, anyway. As soon as the vampire rose up, filling his view, the emotion circuit had kicked in, shooting a genuine stab of fear through him that was so real, he still felt sick inside.

    Jace had been gaming for years, and had eagerly jumped on the mind-directed gaming bandwagon when it began six years ago. In the last year and a half, the emotional feedback mod, or EFB, had become the new hot item. It had begun with the underground porn games, when designers successfully learned to induce waves of pleasure at key game moments. But within the last month or so, a new trend began to develop, with a broader range of induced emotions now incorporated into games. Xan had become enthralled with the new Blood Mistress game he had just demonstrated to Jace.

    Still, as unpleasant as the experience had been, Jace began to feel strangely tempted to repeat it. The realism and adrenaline rush made it an unforgettable experience, even though the horror genre wasn’t his favorite.

    His game module beeped, reminding him of the time. “Xan-san, must fly! The stonies will be pulling back right quick!”

    The stonefaces no longer patrolled this part of town after dark. Summer always saw an increase in random violence, but this summer had turned bad, and that was ver! Ever since a cruiser had been literally ripped open and the two stonies inside mauled to death, the police had taken a new strategy of containment. They now only patrolled the perimeter of the neighborhood after dark, and venturing outside within the zone was pure suicide. Jace hurried back to his place before the patrols retreated for the evening, and sealed the heavy steel door of his nest.

    He threw together a quick meal from leftovers, then settled in for some gaming. He started with Lust Bunnies, but after he maneuvered past the Skankies and the costly Cashcows, and picked out a willing Sweetbun, he sighed and pulled off the headset, utterly bored.

    He couldn’t get the rush of terror from Xan’s game out of his head. A fight game with a good EFB would be ver cryo, and he was sure there must be one out there. He onlined his game module, and began a search. Meanwhile, he put his headset back on and scanned the news channels.

    The city was turning into a war zone. No one really knew why the violence and destruction had spiked so sharply. The summer of 2014 had become as notorious as 9-11 had been as a new era of fear and loss. Some suspected that terror cells had infiltrated the States, and were behind the runaway lawlessness. Others blamed the drug kings and the weaponeers for stirring up the psychies. An entire block in the Asia zone was still burning for the fourth day running.
    Jace pulled off the headset. The search was still running, so he decided to let it continue overnight. He sighed and crawled into his sleepsack.

    He woke to a crashing boom outside. The sun was just cresting over the apartment block across the street, but a dancing orange light from the street was competing with it. Jace looked cautiously out through the window, and saw the shredded shell of a mail truck engulfed in flames. A thick black smoke curled around the wreckage. A fire truck arrived, flanked by a pair of heavily armed cruisers to protect it. Jace turned away, and remembered the search he had started.
    The list of EFB fighting games was longer than he had expected. Some of them appeared to be one on one dueling games, and he filtered them immediately. He sorted them by popularity, and perused the details of the top ten. One of them, Urban Mercenary, looked particularly intriguing.

    He decided to ask Xan what he knew of the game, and called him from the game module. After several blips, he gave up. Xan must be asleep, or too wrapped around a game to care about answering calls. Jace decided to go ahead and purchase the game. He keyed in his purchase code, submitted to the retinal scan, and spoke the response to the challenge question. The game download began, and would be completed by midday.

    Jace checked his task list, and began his sales calls for the day. By early afternoon, he had earned enough commission points to call it a day, but he also submitted a game review on Blood Mistress to earn a few extra bucks.

    Urban Mercenary had finished downloading, and had auto-updated with the latest enhancements. After a hurried lunch, Jace settled into a chair and entered the intro stage.

    He was lightly armed for this phase, on foot patrol through a city much like his own. When he passed a liquor mart, a man carrying a machine pistol rushed out, firing a burst back in through the doors. Jace felt a wave of rage wash over him, and he drew a hunting knife and rushed the thug. He forced himself to feel a stronger rage, and saw his opponent falter in response. Pretty basic fight gaming so far; the user’s emotions gave a fighting advantage, but this game took it a level higher by giving him an initial anger surge. Jace drove his knife into the thug’s chest, and felt a surge of satisfaction flood through him.

    He played two more warm up scenarios, and each time rode the EFB made him feel like he was actually there, fighting to keep the streets safe. Exhausted, he took a dinner break, and brought up the news. As he expected, the mail truck bombing was mentioned, after several other violent acts. Suddenly he sat up, and selected a replay of the segment.

    “The bomber, identified as Alexander Fitzpatrick, a resident on Market Street, was caught in his own explosion, and was pronounced dead at the scene…” Jace sat back, stunned. There had to be a mistake! It couldn’t have been Xan, he’d never do something like that. He dialed Xan from the game module, and got a disconnected station message.

    He’d grown up with Xan. Xan was a layabout, a ver hedon who liked nothing better than gaming and telling bad jokes. Xan as a bomber made less sense than the Sizzler Steakmaster going vegan. Unwanted tears blurred his view of the headset screens.

    He attended a wake for his friend later that week. Everyone there shared his disbelief, and many declared that he must have just been caught in the explosion purely by coincidence; Jace was troubled though; Xan would not have been out on the streets that early. He had no answers, not even good questions. He woke the next morning with a headache.

    Feeling a need for distraction, he started up Urban Mercenary for the first time since he had learned of Xan’s death. After several hours of play, he decided to get a buzz on. He knew he was out of Tequila, and Tequila was clearly necessary. It was still early in the afternoon, so he headed out to the liquor store around the corner. As he opened the door, he nearly bumped into a customer loaded with a double armload of clinking bags. He shoved past angrily, nearly knocking the man over. He seethed as he heard the man cursing under his breath, and felt an urge to go after him.

    Back at the apartment, he got ripping drunk, and passed out in his chair. He woke in the middle of the night, stumbled to the commode, and vomited until he ached. He woke again soon after sunrise, sprawled on the bathroom floor.

    Over the next couple days, he worked the minimum he could get away with, and spent every spare moment playing the game. He could not get enough of the emotional extremes, fierce rage, fear, and rewarded with waves of excitement and joy with each victory. Most of the time, he’d celebrate afterwards with tequila, or vodka, or rum.

    On one of his excursions to restock his liquor supply, he passed two Asians talking animatedly and laughing. A surge of anger gripped him, and he balled his fists and advanced on them. “Shut the f*** up, and stop laughing!” They stared at him and began to back away. He lost all control of himself and lunged at them. He pounded at them until both lay motionless on the pavement, and began kicking them, with a feeling of euphoria singing in his skull. He heard a siren wail behind him, but kept on kicking the bloody corpses.
    Hands grasped him roughly from behind. He turned as his rage reasserted itself, and he attacked the stoneface like a berserker. He never felt the shot that took him down.

    That night, Chas Morgan set aside his newly downloaded Urban Mercenary game, and listened to the evening news. He shook his head in dismay at the story of a senseless hate crime, two Chinese cousins brutally murdered in broad daylight. The killer was thought to be a drug addict at first, but the drug screens all came up negative. The reporter speculated that a new drug must be circulating, not yet covered by the standard drug tests. The rise in hate crimes was rising alarmingly, and authorities were still at a loss about its origins.
  3. The point of this exercise (in truth, it was a Short Story Competition entry) was to tell a short story solely in dialogue (beats were permitted). I chose to have more than two participants to make it more interesting.

    Table Talk

    “I’m starving,” said Ken. “It’s been a day from hell.”

    “That it has.” Laura stared at the menu.

    “Can I have pork chops?” asked Jack.

    “No, Dad, they don’t serve that here.” Jack waved down a waiter.

    “I like a good chop,” sulked Jack.

    “They don’t serve chops here, Dad. Seafood and steaks.”

    “Good evening, sir. Can I get you something to drink?”

    “Yes, I’ll have a bourbon and water, she’ll have a Chardonnay, and an iced tea for my father, please.”

    Laura interrupted. “I’ll have gin, instead. Crushed ice.”

    “Ok, that’s a bourbon and water, gin over crushed ice, and an iced tea. I’ll send your server over to take your dinner order.”

    “You never order gin with dinner.”

    “Well, things change.”

    “Why can’t I have what I want? I want chops.”

    “Please, Dad, keep your voice down. It’s a surf ‘n turf. They only serve steak and seafood. Besides, last time you had chops, your teeth bothered you all night. Look here, they have the crab cakes you always like.”

    “I got a phone call today,” Laura said.

    “Oh. Okay. I like crab cakes. But none of that pink sauce. I don’t like that.”

    “Right, Dad, no remoulade sauce. I’ll tell them. Phone call?”

    “Hello, I’m Stefan, and I’ll be your server tonight.” He set down the drinks. “Are you ready to order?”

    “I’ll have Lobster Newburg in Puff Pastry, with the Caesar Salad,” said Laura, before Ken could speak.

    “Uh, yes. I’ll have the Seafood Casserole, with a baked potato, loaded. And Lobster Bisque. He’ll have the Maryland Crab Cakes, with mashed potato, and chopped broccoli.”

    “And no pink sauce.”

    “Oh yes. No remoulade sauce with the crab cakes.” Ken sipped his bourbon.

    “And another of these.” Laura handed the empty glass to Stefan.

    “Stefan, huh. Steve, more likely,” Ken joked.

    “Jennifer Welkes.” Laura glared at Ken. “That’s who called me.”


    “Yes, oh. I’m sure you can guess the rest.”

    “I don’t like this tea.” Jack made a face. “It’s too bitter.”

    “Stir in some sugar, Dad. No more than two packets though.” He turned to Laura. “Look, honey, it only happened once, by accident.”

    “Accident? What, like a slip and fall, Kenneth? Or was it a rear end collision? Well?”

    “I mean, it just kind of happened. It was after a dinner meeting with a client, and we were both a bit drunk, and tired—“

    “Kenneth, she told me everything. You chased her for months, then threatened to make her job go away.”

    “Honey, she—“

    “Don’t you dare call me that.”

    “She’s lying. She’s incompetent, and she’s making this up because she’s about to be fired.”

    “She just got a transfer and promotion. Today. But you’re right about one thing. Someone is getting fired.” She stood, and gulped down the drink the waiter was holding out to her. “Don’t bother coming home. I’ve had the locks changed.”

    “Wait. Your dinner…” Ken emptied his glass, and handed it to Stefan. “I need a refill.”

    Jack leaned forward. “Kenny, my boy.” Looked Ken in the eye. “You’re an idiot.”
    maidahla likes this.
  4. Dr. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center has his fifteen minutes of fame this week. Perhaps that is why he is stubbornly sticking with his plan to ignite a fire on Saturday, September 11, 2010. He and his benighted followers intend to ignite a firestorm of hate, with copies of the Qur'an as kindling.

    According to the DWOC website, they are "... a New Testament Church – based on the Bible, the Word of God." But the lofty rhetoric notwithstanding, he seems to me to better represent the Prince of Lies. Since when is God's Word the voice of hatred, intolerance, and ignorance? He claims he is not killing anyone, he is only burning books, but surely he knows what he is attacking is the very faith of the people of Islam.

    I am no fan of any organized religion. Many of the world's worst atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. But the religion itself is not really at fault. It is those who twist those beliefs to justify mayhem and murder who are at fault - cowards like the 9-11 terrorists and the hooded assassins of the Klu Klux Klan. But the terrorists who hijacked airliners and used them as missiles against civilians no more represent Islam than the hooded lynch mobs of the KKK represent Christianity.

    As an American, I condemn the actions of Terry Jones. He does not represent America. He does not represent Christianity. He does not represent any moral high ground.

    He has more in common with Osama bin Laden, spurring hate through words, and inciting violence from a safe distance.

    Note: The above is my opinion, and does not represent any official position of the site or its owner.
    maidahla likes this.
  5. This is in response to another challenge, that it would be impossible to write an interesting story about a man walking down the street twiddling his thumbs.


    Despite its name, Broadway at half-past nine on a Tuesday morning closes in on you. Matt paid the vendor for his breakfast, a foot long hot dog with onions, mustard, and sauerkraut, and took his first bite. Around him, people hurried past in nearly every possible direction. Even with the density of the crowd, there was almost no jostling. Men and women in suits, with briefcases or shoulder bags, hurried past bronzed and bearded laborers in dungarees and printed tees without making physical or even eye contact. Smells constantly swirled past as well. Pungent body odor gave way to a whiff of patchouli, followed by a passing cloud of cigar smoke. A strong fragrance of perfume gave way a moment later to a nearby toke of weed, and all around was the aroma of varied foods from the line of vendor carts along the curb.

    Matt wadded up the empty wrapper and dropped it into the nearest trash receptacle. The air was already turning muggy. He stepped out into the thick of the crowd, and began walking slowly up the street. He causally laced his fingers in front of him, and started to roll his thumbs.

    The crowd changed almost instantly. A bubble of open space formed around him. A gray-haired woman with a lavender silk scarf and a conservative medium grey suit glared at him as she shifted her path to avoid him. A thin man in a black jacket and jeans, and a glowing Bluetooth earpiece, paused from his loud stream of Spanish and caught Matt’s eye. Then he quickly looked away and stepped to the side, nearly colliding with a muscular black youth with a shaved head and half a dozen chain necklaces.

    Something struck Matt’s shoulder from behind, and he stumbled but did not fall. A stocky, heavily-inked biker with greasy black hair and a bushy beard swept past without looking back.

    Matt took a deep breath, but kept on twiddling his thumbs. He drifted over to a produce stand in front of the Commerce Bank, out of the main flow of pedestrians. But he was not beyond their notice. Faces turned toward him in contempt, while others turned pointedly away from him. An aging drag queen with frosted curly hair and heavy makeup winked lewdly and blew him a kiss.

    “Wassup with you, man? You high on sumpin’?” A man with stringy hair, badly in need of a shave and some new clothing was grinning at him through broken yellow teeth. “Got any to share?” He laughed wheezingly and shuffled away.

    Matt varied the twiddling, sometimes rolling his thumbs forward, sometimes backward, sometimes alternating every second or two. He kept what he felt was a harmless expression, or maybe it was just a vacant stare.

    “Hey you!” Matt turned toward the voice. The produce vendor, a short Asian man in a Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts, was facing him with his hands on his hips. “Get outa here! You’re scaring away my business. Now move it!”

    Matt smiled and nodded his head, and joined the crowd again. He found a new spot in front of a Borders book store, where a standing sign easel left a void in the flow of the crowd. He glanced at a clock across the street. Not even ten o’clock yet. The crowd was beginning to thin somewhat after the peak morning rush. A youth with blue hair and a face full of metal body art stared at him from across the street for several seconds, then hurried away.

    A street performer approached him, and began mimicking him with exaggerated motions. Matt ignored him, and after a few minutes, the performer shrugged broadly with a shake of his head, and instead followed a shapely redhead, copying her every move as she window shopped. She caught his reflection in the window of a jewelry store, and laughed. She reached into her purse and dropped a dollar bill into his proffered hat, and they walked off in different directions.

    The blue-haired youth returned with three of his friends. They started twiddling their thumbs, too, and stepping in front of passers-by, blocking their path. Within less than a minute, an impatient woman they confronted gave one of the boys a shove. One of the others, a round-headed young man with his black hair cut to a dense fuzz, grabbed the woman’s arm and shook her. A moment later, a patrolman was on the scene.

    Matt dropped his hands and slipped through the crowd. He looked in vain for a Metro entrance, and instead hurried into a crowded deli, his heart thudding. He joined the line for the espresso counter, and pulled his cell out of his pocket and dialed. Frank answered on the second ring.

    “What the hell did you do, Matt, start a riot?”
    Matt kept his voice low. “Never mind. You won the bet. I couldn’t go the full hour.”

    Frank laughed. “I’m surprised you made it this far. I’ll bet another twenty you get arrested before the end of the hour.”

    “I’ll take that bet. See you in thirty.” Matt snapped the cell closed, and planned his next move.