Klan Candy

Being the public relations person for the Ku Klux Klan must be a thankless job at best. At worst, it’s probably any PR person’s living nightmare, somewhat akin to persuading the public that anthrax has many convenient household uses, or that, despite the unpleasantness, Hitler did encourage strong economic development. Charlie Watkins always marveled at these attempts to somehow add a positive spin to guys in sheets, waving Confederate flags around outside the unemployment office, while shouting “White power!” at the top of their lungs. He found himself pondering this as he held in his hand a bag of candy-coated chocolate drops, no doubt meant to be a generic knock-off of M&Ms, but emblazoned with three large, Gothic Ks and the tagline, “Join the Klan!”

The package ended up in his mailbox one Saturday morning, part of a varied assortment of sweets, all bearing the same message, and including an eight hundred number on the back of each packet to call for more information. Charlie wasn’t sure how these folks had gotten into his subdivision. He’d never known any of his neighbors to belong to clandestine hate groups, but one could never be absolutely certain. Mr. Braxton over on Maple Lane did drive a pickup, and sometimes struck Charlie as a little too sympathetic to states’ rights.

To learn more, Charlie visited the Paytons, his next door neighbors, to see if they had received any candy. Marge Payton greeted him, then retrieved a similar package of sweets that had arrived that same morning.

“What are we supposed to do with these?” she said. “It’s not even good candy. What if the kids see this?”

“Why don’t I just take it off your hands, Marge,” Charlie offered.

“Really? You’d do that?”

“Sure, what are neighbors for?” Charlie said. “I’m guessing everyone on the block got one.”

“Probably,” Marge said. “Cynthia on the corner called me to say she got one.”

Charlie turned to face the street. “Then I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

He retrieved several Whole Foods bags from his garage, then went to every house on his block, collecting candy. When he exhausted his block, he started hitting each street in the subdivision.

“Hello, I’m your neighbor, Charles Watkins,” he’d say to whoever answered the door. “You wouldn’t happen to have gotten any Klan candy today would you?”

After much success collecting candy in his subdivision, just for good measure, Charlie went into the next subdivision, where he was equally successful at finding the goods, accruing nine large paper bags full of it. He thought long and hard what to do with it, when an idea came to him.

Charlie got a couple of the large plastic jack-o-lanterns he put out for Halloween, and filled them with the candy, placed the bags, and jack-o-lanterns in his car, and headed off to the city.

Arriving at a gas station in town, Charlie spotted three large black men having an animated conversation at the air pump, while a fourth put air in the tire of a Chevy Suburban. Charlie parked nearby and approached them carrying one of the jack-o-lanterns.

“Could I interest you fellows in some Klan candy?” Charlie said.

The men looked around at one another and one said, “Klan candy? What the hell is that?”

“Why, it’s candy distributed by the KKK,” Charlie said, holding out the jack-o-lantern. “See? I found it in my subdivision this morning.”

Each of the men took a packet and stared at it. The one who’d spoken up, continued, “What you bringing this down here for?”

“Just being neighborly,” Charlie said. Pointing at one of the the packets, he went on, “Oh, I failed to mention, there’s a number on the back, where people can call and thank them for the candy.”

The men looked on back, then started to laugh. One of the other men, nodded emphatically. “All right. We got you.”

“There’s plenty more where this came from. Can I give you some to share with your friends,” Charlie said. One of the guys took a Publix bag from the Suburban.

“We’ll do just that,” the first man said.

After setting them up with lots of candy, Charlie drove around distributing the packets to anyone he could find hanging around at groceries, churches, gas stations, barbershops, and nail salons, then gave some to the mostly Spanish-speaking guys outside a home improvement store, and left the remainder with the staff at the regional headquarters of the NAACP. Along the way, he made many new friends, and amused countless individuals.

Once all the candy was gone, Charlie headed home, secure in the knowledge that he’d done his good deed for the day.

Back home, his wife Mira noted the missing bags. “So you got rid of it all, eh?”

“I sure did,” Charlie said. “I just hope the guys in the Klan appreciate all the work I did for them today.”

“You’re a humanitarian,” Mira said, before letting Charlie know he wasn’t off the hook for cutting the back yard that afternoon.

“A humanitarian’s work is never done,” he said with a sigh, before heading out back.

 

The Miracle of the Magic Dollar

Carlton walked into the third-floor break room of the Atlanta offices of Bickering Plummet and approached the snack machine in the far corner. It was six-thirty in the afternoon and Carlton had been at his desk since seven-ten that morning, with no signs of his day ending anytime soon. Fortunately, for Carlton, the machine contained his favorite snack, the Cinnamon Crumbcake, which only made an appearance once or twice a year, so Carlton drew some consolation from that. The Crumbcakes had actually been in the machine for several days, but they had been trapped behind a gooey looking honey bun that seemed well past its expiration date, and Carlton had not wanted to purchase such a disgusting looking item just to free them. At last, a secretary from the fifth floor, who was trying to purchase potato chips, accidentally keyed in the wrong number and liberated the Crumbcakes, so Carlton had been enjoying them ever since. Carlton was certain he was the only one in the office who ate them, and his suspicions were borne out by the fact that every day the number had not decreased from the last time Carlton purchased one.

At the machine, Carlton was happy to see there were still four of the Crumbcakes left, so he removed a dollar from his wallet and put it in the slot. The machine whirred and dropped his selection but then, rather than giving Carlton his change, the machine spit out the dollar he’d put in. Carlton was taken aback by what had just happened and contemplated his next move very carefully. Assured in the reality of what he had just experienced, he put the dollar back into the machine and requested another Crumbcake. Once again, the machine made its whirring noise as it dispensed his selection and once again, it spit out the dollar, rather than giving him change.

Overcome with awe, he immediately stepped away from the machine and removed his shoes, because he realized that the ground upon which he was standing was holy. Carlton had never been a religious man, but he was convinced that he was now in the presence of the lord. He performed the miracle twice more, securing the remaining Crumbcakes, then gathered his manna from heaven and took them to his desk.

After safely storing the goods in one of his drawers, he casually strolled over to the cubicle of his coworker Bart and leaned in.

“What’s up?” Bart said, without looking at Carlton, obviously feeling the effects of a long stressful day in front of his computer terminal.

“Go into the break room, put a dollar in the snack machine, and make a selection,” Carlton said.

“Why?” Bart said, in a voice that suggested he was in no mood for foolishness.

“Just do it. You’ll figure it out.”

Carlton returned to his desk as Bart rose and headed toward the break room. Several minutes elapsed, before Bart appeared at Carlton’s cube, wearing a wide grin, and holding several packages of chips and crackers.

“Man, that’s cool!”

“I knew you’d think so,” Carlton said.

“What do you think’s causing it?”

Carlton pondered the question a moment, then shook his head. “It’s probably just out of change, but I choose to see it as a miracle from the lord.”

“Are you serious?”

“No, but to think otherwise means we’d have to report it,” Carlton replied.

“Good point,” Bart said before returning to his desk. Holding his hands aloft, he proclaimed, “Praise be to the lord!”

For the next several days, Carlton and Bart dwelt in the land of plenty, and whenever someone would approach either of them for change to use in the machine, they gladly complied, not wanting to give away the sacred knowledge to which they’d been entrusted.

Finally, one afternoon, as they were in the break room contemplating what they wanted from the machine, Rose, the facilities manager came in to purchase something.

“You guys actually going to get something or are you just window shopping?” she said as she stepped past them.

“Need some change?” Bart spoke up quickly, as Rose took a dollar from her pocket.

“Why? I’ll just use a dollar.”

Before either man could intervene, Rose had deposited her dollar and selected the numbers corresponding to the Sour Apple Twizzlers. Just as always, after dispensing the item, the machine returned the dollar to her.

“Did you see that?” she said, holding the dollar up.

“See what?” Carlton said, looking away from her.

“I put in a dollar and the machine spit it back out,” Rose responded.

“I didn’t see anything,” Bart said.

Carlton shrugged. “Me neither.”

“That’s a load of crap,” Rose replied. “You were both standing right here.”

Carlton stepped forward and confronted her. “We choose to see this as a miracle from the lord — the miracle of the magic dollar. You don’t question miracles; you just rejoice in them, as I’m sure it says, somewhere in the bible.”

Rose put her hands on her hips, and tilted her head.

“This isn’t a miracle,” Rose said, “the machine’s malfunctioning.”

“The effect is miraculous regardless of the cause,” Carlton said. “I refuse to question the vessel through which the lord makes his presence known.”

“How long has it been doing this?” she asked Bart.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied.

“Guys, this should have been reported,” Rose told them. “This is someone’s livelihood, you know.”

Bart leaned toward Rose and spoke in a confidential tone. “Look, I understand that when stuff like this happens, the snack guy gets ripped off, but seriously, eighty cents for Cheezits? Even in the wide world of overpriced vending food, that’s excessive.”

Rose considered this. “Yeah, you’ve got a point. I mean, I can get these Twizzlers at Costco for about twenty cents a pack. There’s the distribution angle and all, but still that’s a pretty hefty markup.”

“Besides, this machine has ripped me off plenty of times, and I rarely complain about it,” Carlton said. “The way I see it, this just evens it all out.”

Rose shook her head. “I’ll give you until the end of the week, but if no one else calls this in, I’ll have to. It’s my job, you know?”

“Bless you, sister,” Bart said, making the sign of the cross in front of her.

“Cut it out,” Rose said and walked away from them. “Close of business Friday, got it?”

The following Monday, the vending guy returned and fixed whatever it was that had been causing the machine to dispense the dollars. Carlton watched in silent resignation as the vendor restocked the shelves.

“Hey, buddy,” the vendor said in a cheery tone. “Got any requests?”

“What about the Cinnamon Crumbcakes?” Carlton asked.

The vendor shook his head. “Sorry guy, they’ve been discontinued. They weren’t very popular, from what I hear. Strange, because they always sell out at this location.”

Carlton nodded and headed over to Bart’s cubicle.

“Is it done?” Bart asked, to which Carlton nodded.

“Let us not lament that which is past,” Carlton replied in the cadence of a preacher. “Rather let us take solace in knowing that for a brief moment, we were in the presence of something greater than ourselves. That’s something we can tell our kids one day.”

Bart thought about it, then said, “I don’t have any kids.”

“You know what I mean,” Carlton replied.

“Amen, brother.”

Truth versus Evidence

Naomi hates bananas. She hates the look of them, the smell of them, the taste of them. She never buys them, not for herself, not for her family.

One afternoon, Bobby, Naomi’s youngest son is in the kitchen when a monkey climbs through the window holding a banana. The monkey gives the banana to Bobby, then proceeds to wreck the kitchen, ripping open boxes, spilling rice and beans and cereal all over the shelves and floor, scattering pots and pans. Then, just as quickly as it entered, the monkey climbs back out the window and disappears.

A few minutes later, Naomi enters the kitchen and finds the mess, with Bobby standing in the midst of it. Furious, she asks Bobby what happened. He tells her about the monkey. Naomi shakes her head.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” she says. “If you’re going to lie, at least be believable.”

“But the monkey gave me this,” Bobby says, and hands the banana to Naomi.

She looks it over, looks at Bobby, then back to the banana. Every instinct she has tells her Bobby created the mess and is lying about it.

But where did he get the banana?

Night Terrors

Abby could not remember when or why, but at some point, she learned to dread the night, the darkness and stillness which seemed to envelope her when the sun slipped from the sky. Equally so, she dreaded the inevitable times when she could no longer fight the urge to close her eyes and drop off to sleep. She had become proficient at staving off sleep, eating late, drinking two or more cups of coffee after dinner, finding endless ways to occupy herself so she didn’t think about sleep. Still, it always seemed to overtake her, and when she could no longer resist, she’d lay upon her bed, curling into a ball, and close her eyes, telling herself it would only be for a few minutes. The fear she felt at these times was understandable, because it was when she released herself to sleep that she became most vulnerable, not to forces outside herself, but to the dark and horrifying images inside her head.

Tonight was no exception. From the moment she closed her eyes, the apprehension was there and before she even realized it, she was alone, walking along a darkened street, the only sound were her feet clicking along cobblestones. She did not recognize the place, could not recall ever being in such a situation, but an eerie sense of familiarity consumed her. The building numbers and street names meant nothing to her, and she could not see anyone else around. She walked on for what seemed an eternity before she began to sense she wasn’t alone. She looked around, but could see no one, but the feeling would not leave her. She quickened her pace, though she had no idea where she was going, nor where she would be when she arrived, but still she moved quicker. She became aware of the sound of footsteps behind her, but when she looked, no one was there.

Now she was running, turning corners quickly, hoping to lose whoever it was who was after her, but the faster she moved, the closer the sound seemed to be. She could hear a voice, which seemed to emanate from all around her, though she could not identify the source, nor what it was trying to say to her. It sounded like a low murmur, like the sound of an announcer on a television in another room. The only part she could make out clearly was the repetition of her own name at regular intervals. Suddenly there was a light behind her, tracking her every move. The footsteps seemed to be right behind her. She was running as fast as she could, but the harder she tried to push herself, the less ground she seemed to cover. Her legs felt heavy, stiff, as though she were carrying a heavy weight, but still she pushed on, not wanting whoever was behind her to catch her. She turned another corner and was met with a blinding light and out of the midst of the light, a figure sprang at her, grabbing her arms.

Abby awoke screaming, drenched in sweat, gasping for air, her heart pounding, her entire body trembling, and it took her several minutes to orient herself, to realize she was in her room, at her home, safe. She sat up, and turned so she was sitting on the edge of the bed, and tried to catch her breath. She buried her face into her hands and concentrated on the sounds around her, the clock ticking, the hum of the air conditioner, the drip of the faucet in her bathroom, the sound of traffic in the street. She inhaled deeply, held it for several seconds then exhaled slowly, and repeated this until she felt herself becoming calm again.

It would be a long time before she could again try to sleep.

Dead Man’s Hat

Inspired by “Small Change” by Tom Waits.

Lenny heard the shots. Hell, everybody on the block heard the shots, but nobody saw anything. Nobody ever saw anything, not even those who were there, looking right at whatever was happening. They especially didn’t see anything because they knew what would happen to them if they did. Lenny knew, so he made an extra effort to not see anything. Like when he saw Artie go by, and enter the arcade. Lenny knew it was only a matter of time when he’d need to look away. So he did.

Arthur DeSanto had been in town for about a week, from Chicago he claimed. Lenny hadn’t met many people from Chicago. He’d get a lot of New Yorkers asking him if he knew where they could find the Times, but Artie was the first one from Chicago, or at least the first to say so. Artie got kind of quiet when Lenny asked why he was in Atlanta, and Lenny knew not to press him. Other than that, Artie had been pretty talkative, asking about the night life, such as it was. Lenny told him about the San Souci and the Domino but Artie had already found them and didn’t seem too impressed. There was also the Clermont over on Ponce, which Lenny mentioned to Artie.

Artie was staying in the Grady Hotel, which was why Lenny had the opportunity to get to know him a bit. Artie never seemed to have anything to do from two to four, so he hung out near the diner, chewing an enormous wad of gum and quizzing Lenny about baseball players on cards he had in his pocket. Artie was a collector, he said, though Lenny couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to hang on to those things once the gum was gone. As a kid, Lenny had been a fan of the Crackers when they played on Ponce, but didn’t follow the sport on a national level. He hadn’t yet warmed to the new team they brought in from Milwaukee and hadn’t been out to the stadium they built for them South of town. Artie was fairly knowledgeable, but Lenny got the strong sense Artie was just showing off, which didn’t really impress Lenny all that much, but he didn’t want to seem rude. Lenny figured Artie just needed someone to talk to and Lenny didn’t have a whole lot to do until the afternoon edition came out anyway.

Lenny was a news boy, hawking the Journal in the afternoons on Peachtree between Ellis and Cain Streets downtown. He’d been doing it for about a year, among other odd jobs, after dropping out of school to help his Mom make ends meet following his father’s death. Lenny was the oldest of two boys and two girls, so he saw it as his responsibility to step up once his father was gone. He liked working for the Journal, even if he was just selling papers, because his dream was to be a writer, covering the mean streets of his hometown of Atlanta. Because of this, he always kept his eyes and ears open, and only turned away when he knew it was in his best interest to do so. He liked to study people, though, see how they dressed, how they carried themselves. He could usually guess someone’s profession by what that person was wearing, and working outside a hotel he encountered a fine mix of people from all over.

What caught Lenny’s eye when he first saw Artie was the hat. A porkpie, they were called, dark brown and made of felt — not the sort of hat one usually saw around Atlanta, which is why it made such an impression on Lenny. He never saw Artie without it, not even when Artie was in the diner, eating. He didn’t take the hat off or hang it up like other guys would do. It was always perched atop his head, like Artie expected to run out at any minute and didn’t want to risk leaving it behind. Artie was a nervous sort, small and wiry, and not much taller than Lenny, who, at sixteen, was just a hair over five nine. During one of their discussions, Artie let it slip that in Chicago, he was known as “Small Change” and Lenny felt the nickname suited Artie, who seemed small and unimportant, the sort most would pass by unless he gave them a reason to stop. Beyond that, Lenny had no idea what Artie did for a living, if anything, and Artie wasn’t the sort to volunteer the information.

In the aftermath, people would say Artie was an idiot, thinking he could run to Atlanta and be safe. Nobody was safe in Atlanta, but most of them didn’t know it. Artie knew it. He wasn’t safe anywhere. There are just some folks you don’t mess with and the consensus was that Artie should have known that. Lenny was never a hundred percent sure exactly what Artie had done to or to who, but whoever it was wasn’t the sort to forgive and forget. Artie seemed to sense the end was coming. Each day when he’d stop and talk, he’d seem more nervous, looking over his shoulder, asking if anyone had been looking for him. Once, when a car backfired, he practically jumped out of his skin. Whatever it was, he wasn’t telling Lenny. “The less you know, my friend, the less you know,” Artie would repeat, often without prompting from Lenny.

Both the Constitution and Journal fudged on the details of the crime, stating only that Artie had been shot multiple times by an unknown assailant, most likely a robbery gone bad. Lenny had seen him, though, sprawled on the ground, his head resting against the base of a gumball machine. Lenny knew the real story — five shots, one in each shoulder, one in each knee, then the final one between the eyes, with a single, unspent cartridge beside his head. Everybody on the streets knew whose signature that was, even the cops. Nobody could prove it, though, and that was the show stopper. The kicker was, whoever did the deed this time used Artie’s own gun, the .38 snub nosed revolver he kept in his coat pocket, which was found, empty, a few feet from the body. Lenny imagined Artie going for it, but being a couple of seconds too late. The type of men he was facing needed to be surprised to get the drop on them. It takes a special kind of man to look someone in the eye then shoot him multiple times and Artie just wasn’t the type. Whoever killed Artie probably went home, had a nice dinner with the wife and kids, and never gave it a second thought.

Lenny was halfway down the block, just a few yards away from the entrance to the arcade when it all went down. He’d seen Artie nervously head inside, after ignoring Lenny’s usual greeting, “Hiya, Artie,” as he passed. Lenny had also seen the man in the black suit and the grey fedora pass by with two other fellows dressed less formally, who entered the arcade behind Artie. He’d seen the flow of teenagers leaving quickly and that’s when he knew it was time to turn away, to focus on something else for a few minutes, until he knew all was clear. It took maybe five minutes, but then the shots came and the three men who’d followed Artie in exited, not in any hurry, and passed Lenny as they headed to the end of the street. One of them even stopped to buy Lenny’s last paper, and waved off the change Lenny offered him, with a cool, “Keep it, kid,” before they disappeared around a corner.

Then the buzzards descended, Wally from the shoe shine stand, Hazel from the coffee shop next door, Frankie from the clothing store across the street. They grabbed what they could easily remove from the body and beat it quickly. By the time Lenny got there the corpse had been picked clean, no watch, no wallet, no cufflinks or ring. But there was one thing left, and, for Lenny it was the prize. Lying just to the right of the body, away from the quickly spreading pool of blood was the hat, where it must have fallen when Artie reacted to the first shots, or maybe while the men were “talking” with Artie beforehand. Lenny stepped over and picked it up, examined it to be sure there was no trace of blood, then walked to the mirror and tried it on. He’d need to grow into it, but he had to admit, it looked pretty good on him.

Lenny straightened his jacket and walked out of the arcade wearing the hat. He breathed in the early evening air, then turned right and headed South, just as the first of the police cruisers rounded the corner with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Lenny didn’t stop. Nobody had seen him going in or coming out. Nobody ever saw anything. He had no idea how the situation would eventually be resolved, but he knew he was going to write about it. As he strolled away from the scene, words began to form in his head.

“Small Change got rained on by his own .38,” he thought and nodded with satisfaction. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket, and headed off to the Journal to collect his day’s pay, with a slight bounce in his step.

The Spitting Spiders of Borneo

In the pantheon of colorful characters, few could match Andy’s uncle Calvin. A world traveler, Calvin would show up at family reunions every few years, full of stories of the odd cultures, and creatures he’d encountered in some distant land. This made him a perpetual favorite among the kids, and almost as soon as he stepped through the door, he’d herd the young folks together and immediately launch into a fascinating tale from one of his journeys.

“Kids, have you ever heard of the spitting spiders of Borneo?” Calvin said with his characteristic bombast.

Heads shook.

Calvin leaned in and addressed them in a confidential tone. “Well, in Borneo, they have these giant spiders — and they spit!”

The children excitedly looked around at one another. “Ooo!”

The adults never seemed to have much use for Calvin, and were glad he spent the majority of his time regaling the children with his wild tales. Andy’s father, Jack, in particular, dreaded Calvin’s visits, claiming it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Calvin to hit him up for money for some hare-brained scheme or another, but Andy didn’t care. He loved Uncle Calvin, and always looked forward to Calvin’s return.

“Andrew,” Calvin would often tell him, always using his full name, “a man needs adventure. Why I hope I never grow too old to don the old fedora and take off for parts unknown.”

Calvin was actually Andy’s mother’s uncle, the youngest of her father’s siblings, born well after Andy’s great-grandmother thought she could have more children, and was only a few years older than Andy’s mother, Gloria. When Calvin wasn’t around, Andy frequently heard his family say Calvin was spoiled as a child, his parents lacking the energy or motivation to discipline him. He grew up pampered, coddled, and with an unrealistic sense of his own importance. Most of his brothers and sisters had left the house by the time he started school, so he had his parents undivided attention, and so long as he didn’t get into too much mischief, they were content to let him have his way. When he announced, shortly before he graduated high school, that he wanted to tour Africa, his parents were more than happy to send him off, so they could once again have the house to themselves.

From that point, it was one adventure after another for Calvin. Andy had no idea what Calvin did for a living, and neither did anyone else in the family. Inquiries about Calvin’s employment status were often met with the cryptic, “I have many irons in the fire, let me tell you.” Whatever these might be, Calvin kept them to himself. Jack generally tired of Calvin quickly, so his visits to the family were usually very short.

One morning, while Calvin was staying with the family, Andy heard a knock at his door just as he was waking up.

“Come in,” he called.

Calvin entered and very dramatically tip-toed over to the bed where he crouched down so he’d be at eye-level with Andy.

“Up for a little adventure, Andrew?”

“What do you mean?” Andy asked, still sleepy.

“I’m off to track the elusive black mamba,” Calvin said. “Thought you might like to tag along.”

“Black mamba?” Andy said. “Is that a snake?”

“It certainly is,” Calvin said. “It can outrun a cheetah! The terror of the forest.”

“I don’t think we should be fooling around with one of those,” Andy said.

“Nonsense!” Calvin said. “I’m well-versed in how to handle myself around them. I could give you some pointers if we encounter one.”

“Okay, I guess,” Andy said. “Where do you want to go?”

“I thought we might take a hike around Mystic Lake,” he said. “Perfect hunting grounds for our steely prey.”

“Isn’t that where they found the naked dead guy?” Andy asked.

“It certainly is,” Calvin replied. “Perhaps another victim of the elusive black mamba!”

“I don’t think they’re letting people go up there now,” Andy said.

“Son, nothing’s off limits to men of adventure,” Calvin said. “Now get some hiking clothes on and let’s hit the road.”

When they arrived at the wilderness area, the road leading into it was closed, so Calvin parked just outside and retrieved a backpack from the trunk.

“Andrew, my boy, looks like we’re in for some hiking,” he said.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Andy said. “They’re pretty strict about people being up here.”

“Not to worry,” Calvin said, “you’re with a responsible adult.”

Not totally assured, Andy followed Calvin into the woods. They found a trail quickly and moved deeper into the forest. Along the way, Calvin would stop and point out some interesting type of foliage, or direct Andy’s attention to a deer or other woodland creature. As they were circling back to find a place to rest and have some snacks, they were overtaken by a park ranger.

“Excuse me, what are you two doing out here? This part of the park is closed in the off season.”

Calvin put his arm in front of Andy and said in a low voice, “Let me handle this, Andrew.” Addressing the ranger, Calvin said, “You might say, we’re on a botanical excursion.”

“A botanical excursion,” the man said. “What does that mean?”

Calvin sighed.

“If you must know, we’re tracking the elusive black mamba.”

“Black mamba, as in snake?”

“That is correct.”

“What makes you think you’ll find one out here?” the ranger said.

“Why, this is the perfect habitat for one,” Calvin said authoritatively. “They prefer the wetlands, marshes, bogs, quagmires — you name it.”

“You’re talking about the black mamba — the poisonous snake, right? Have you ever seen one?”

“No. They’re very elusive,” Calvin said. “Thus the name the elusive black mamba.”

“Considering that mambas are native to Africa, I’d say they’re very elusive in this part of the world. How did you even get up here?”

“We hiked.”

“From the road? That’s nearly three miles.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a brisk walk first thing in the morning,” Calvin said. “Gets the blood pumping.”

“Look, you can’t just go traipsing around in these woods like this,” the man said. “We found a naked dead guy in the lake just last month.”

“We’re not planning on going in the lake,” Calvin said. “Now, if you’ll excuse us—”

“Not so fast,” the ranger said. “I’m going to have to call this in.”

The ranger stepped away from Andy and Calvin and took out his phone. After a moment, he looked over his shoulder and said, “Yep, it’s them all right.”

Finished, he put away his phone and came back. “You wouldn’t happen to be Calvin Alexander would you?”

“As a matter of fact, I am,” Calvin said. “I see my fame precedes me.”

“Not quite,” the ranger said. “A couple named Jack and Gloria Martin called the police to say you disappeared with their son Andrew.” Looking at Andy, “I guess that’s you.”

“Yes sir,” Andy said.

“A simple misunderstanding,” Calvin said. “I’m positive I left them a note.”

“Right. At any rate, they want him back, so I’m going to have to ask you both to come with me.”

They were taken to the main ranger station. When Andy’s father got there, he was furious.

“I’ll take my son,” Jack said, pointing at Andy. Indicating Calvin, he continued, “As far as I’m concerned, you can dump this one in the lake, with or without clothes.”

“Oh, come on, Jack, the boy’s in perfect condition,” Calvin said. “I’d never take him someplace truly dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Jack said. “They found a naked dead guy out there.”

“And if I’d seen any dead naked men running or swimming around, I’d have gotten the boy out of there.”

Jack grabbed Calvin by the arm and drug him into a side room, closing the door behind them. Andy couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could tell they were having a very heated discussion. After several minutes, they emerged, and Calvin seemed a bit subdued.

Jack went to Andy and said, “Come on, Andy, we’re getting out of here.”

“But what about uncle Calvin?” Andy said.

Calvin went to Andy and bent down.

“It’s okay, Andrew,” Calvin said. “I just need to have a few words with the rangers. I’ll be by later to get my things.”

“You’re leaving?” Andy said.

“You know me, always on the go,” Calvin said, jostling Andy’s hair. “Not to worry, I’ll be in touch.”

Calvin gave Andy a hug, then Jack took Andy home.

After that, Calvin’s visits became much less frequent, and he never again stayed with Andy’s family when he was in town. The last correspondence Andy received from his uncle was just before he headed off to college, a post card depicting the Amazon rain forest with a note on back stating Calvin was headed off to look for some guy named Rockefeller. Andy lost touch with Calvin after that, but he always hoped that someday they’d link up again, so Calvin could show him the spitting spiders of Borneo.

A Debt to Pay

Annabelle Collins wheeled herself out to the back porch of her home in Kirkwood, and watched as Paul Searcy continued his yard work. It had been nearly ten years since Searcy had become a part of her everyday existence and nearly twenty-five since he first entered her life. As she watched him work, she again experienced the mixed feelings his presence brought to her. He looked in her direction and gave his customary nod.

“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said.

In all the time she’d known him, he had never called her by her first name. It was always “Ms. Collins” or “ma’am.” Annabelle didn’t mind. She liked the formality of their relationship, as it provided her the appropriate amount of distance from him. Distance was important to Annabelle, particularly when it came to Paul.

“Hello, Paul,” she replied. “The garden’s coming along nicely, I see.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Paul said before resuming work.

Annabelle went back inside and maneuvered around the furniture of the living room to get to her computer. To one side was a pile of medical files waiting to be transcribed, but Annabelle ignored them and went on the Internet, checking her email, then her Facebook account. Finding nothing that interested her, she rolled away from her desk and wheeled around so she could view Paul through the back window. He was tall and his upper body was well developed, and he went about his tasks quickly and energetically. By all measures, he was an attractive man, polite and soft-spoken, and loyal to a fault. Still, Annabelle regarded him with ambivalence, never quite able to get past how they had become acquainted, the reason he was now a part of her life full-time.

As a young man, Paul had been reckless and impulsive. He did not believe he would live long and decided to party as much as possible. By the age of twenty-two, he was already known to the local police for a variety of minor offenses, mainly involving alcohol or disturbing the peace, but he was generally thought of as more of a threat to himself than others, so no one intervened. One evening, while drinking heavily he hopped into his truck and headed off to purchase more beer. That’s what brought him to the same cross-street where Annabelle, who had just gotten the green light, was headed into the intersection to make a left, unaware her life was about to take a horrible turn. She was home from her second year of college, out to visit friends, and paid little attention to the dark pickup, barreling toward her, until it ran the light and T-boned her car, right at the driver-side door, snapping her spine just above her waist.

When she awoke in the hospital several days later, she was greeted by the news she’d never walk again, and may never be able to live an independent life. In the meantime, Paul had been arraigned and was sitting in jail, his parents refusing to put up the money to bail him out. What he could remember of the accident played over and over in his head, and he wondered if he should just save the state the cost for his trial and find some way to end his life right then and there. But something happened to Paul in that cell. For the first time in his life, he decided to take responsibility for his actions. He instructed the lawyer the court appointed for him not to fight the charges. He would plead guilty, accept the maximum sentence the Superior Court of Georgia chose to give him, which ended up being fifteen years, and he’d do the time, which is what he did. Inside, he became a model prisoner, earned his degree, learned a trade, and was the perfect candidate for early release, but every time the subject of parole came up, Paul refused to consider it.

Annabelle defied her doctors’ expectations, and successfully underwent rehabilitation, learning to get around in the chair that now took the place of her legs. It wasn’t just her body that was broken, though. She’d lost her spirit as well. As she gained enough freedom of movement to allow her to leave her parents’ home and get an apartment by herself, she also began to retreat from the world. She did not return to school and became withdrawn from those who’d known her all her life. At the time of the accident, she’d been seeing a young man at her school and they had looked forward to graduation, after which, they’d marry and start a life together. After the accident, Annabelle grew more and more distant from him, until they stopped communicating at all. The last report she had of him was that he’d married another woman and moved to the West Coast.

She rarely left her apartment, rarely had visitors. Even her parents had not been there often, beyond the time they helped her move in, and usually the only time they saw her was when she made her infrequent visits, usually preceded by a call asking her father to pick her up. She completed her degree through computer coursework and settled into a job as a medical transcriptionist, lonely work, staring at a computer screen all day. The bulk of her time when she wasn’t working was spent surfing the Internet, interacting with people she did not know and had no desire to meet in person. Eventually, she earned enough to afford a small house not far from her parents, which is where Paul found her about a year after being released from prison.

When he first thought about visiting her, he wrestled with the decision for several weeks. He knew she probably wouldn’t want to see him, and so, when he made the decision to proceed, he didn’t call first, just looked up her address and made plans to stop by some afternoon. He had no idea how she’d dealt with the aftermath of the accident. Other than her presence in court on the day of his sentencing, he’d not seen nor spoken to her and then she’d been silent, staring blankly at him conveying nothing of how she felt.

On her trip outside to get her mail, Annabelle noted the man standing at the bus stop a few houses down and something about him seemed familiar to her, but she concluded that he must be someone from the neighborhood and paid him little attention. She hardly knew any of her neighbors, so she had no idea who belonged and who didn’t. After she’d gone back inside, ten or fifteen minutes passed before the doorbell rang and she was surprised to find the same man at her door. As was her custom, she’d locked the iron security door outside, so when she opened the front door, she knew there was a safe barrier between her and her visitor.

“Can I help you?” Annabelle said.

“Ms. Collins? I’m Paul Searcy.”

It took a moment for the years to fade away, but suddenly she was again looking at the face of the man who’d put her in that chair. He looked a good deal older than the disheveled twenty-two year-old who’d sobbed as he repeated, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry,” from the witness stand at his sentencing. She had not reacted at the time, still emotionally numb from the experience, unlike her father, who angrily took Paul to task for his actions. In the intervening time, she had come to regard the scene with contempt, feeling his whole show of guilt was an act put on for the court. Now, he stood before her, much taller than she remembered him, with a military-style buzz cut, his shoulders back, and looking at her with his head turned slightly away from her.

“I remember you. What do you want?” she said coolly.

“I was hoping I could talk to you a moment.”

“I honestly don’t think there’s anything for us to talk about,” she said. “I wasn’t even aware you were out of prison.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “I was released last year.”

“Isn’t someone supposed to notify the victims?” she said. “Should you even be here? I mean, aren’t you violating your parole or something?”

“I’m not on parole, ma’am,” he said. “I served the full term. I guess they figured I paid my debt to society.”

“That’s really nice to know,” she said, a note of sarcasm evident, “I’m really proud of you. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

She started to close the door, but Paul put up his hand.

“Ms. Collins, please, I’d really like to have a few words with you,” he said. “I promise you I’m not here to harm you—”

“More than you already have?” she spit back at him.

“That’s fair, I suppose,” he replied, looking down. “I just have a few things to say to you and once I’m done, I’ll leave and won’t bother you again. I swear.”

Annabelle stared at him a long moment. Seeing him brought back a rush of emotions she thought she’d buried and her first instinct was to slam the door and call the police. Something in how Paul presented himself suggested to her he was sincere, however, so despite her misgivings, she unlocked the security door and rolled back into the living room, allowing him to enter.

“Twenty minutes,” she said, “and if I tell you to go, you go — understand?”

“Of course,” he said. He went to the couch and sat.

“How’d you get here anyway? I didn’t see a car.”

“I don’t drive, ma’am,” he said. “They told me I could probably get my license back, but I’d rather not get behind the wheel again.”

“That’s good news,” Annabelle said, dryly. “So what is it you need to tell me?”

“I wanted to see how you were,” he said, “how you’re getting along.”

Annabelle spread out her arms.

“Here I am!” she said. “Is that all?”

“No, ma’am,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of time to think the last fifteen years. I’ve always tried to imagine what I’d say if I got the opportunity to talk to you— I guess now that I’m here, the words are a little hard to come by.”

“Time is short, so make something up,” Annabelle said.

Paul stared at her a moment, then chuckled.

“What?” Annabelle said.

In response, Paul reached into his pocket and removed a photo which he held out for Annabelle to take.

“I was just thinking you haven’t changed all that much,” he said.

She rolled over and took it from him, finding it to be a photo of her from college.

“Where did you get this?” she said.

“Your father,” he said. “About a month after I went to prison he visited me and gave it to me.”

“My father went to see you?” she said holding up the photo. “And gave you this?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “He told me he wanted me to always have a reminder of what I’d done — like I could ever forget.”

She handed the photo back and rolled away from him. “That sounds like my father.”

“I understand both your parents are deceased,” he said, “my condolences.”

“How do you know that? Have you been stalking me?” she said. “Maybe it’s time for you to go.”

“No, ma’am,” he said, sliding to the edge of the couch, “it’s not like that. I ran across their obituaries when I was trying to find your address.”

“Okay, well your time is running out none-the-less,” she said with urgency in her voice. “So whatever you have to say, just say it.”

Paul nodded. “As I say, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I did. I’ve always wished there was some way I could make it up to you, but I realize nothing I do is going to be sufficient. I thought, maybe if I saw you, talked to you, I’d be able to think of some way to help.”

Annabelle shook her head and sighed loudly.

“I get it. This is some sort of twelve-step thing where you go around asking for forgiveness from all the people you’ve hurt. Well sorry, Paul. I’m all out of pity.”

“I don’t want your pity, or your understanding, or your forgiveness,” he said. “I don’t deserve any of that. I’ve never forgiven myself for what I did. I never will.”

“Then what do you want?” she asked.

He lowered his head. “I took your life away from you. I’m here to offer you mine.”

Annabelle stared at Paul for a long time, totally caught off guard by what he had just said to her.

“Are you saying you want me to kill you?” she finally said.

“No, ma’am,” he replied. “I want you to use me.”

“Use you for what?”

“Whatever,” he said. “Maybe you need work done around here. Maybe there’s something you can’t do. Whatever you need.”

Annabelle again shook her head.

“Unbelievable,” she said to him. “You think you can come in here and do a few odd jobs and everything will be okay between us.”

“You’re not understanding what I’m telling you, ma’am,” he replied. “I’m not talking about doing a little work for you. I’m talking about being there for you, for whatever reason, from here on out.”

“You mean, like a servant?” she said.

“If that’s what you need, yes,” he told her. “If you just need somebody to fix things, or build things, or just someone to talk to, I can do that too. Whatever.”

Annabelle considered his words for a long moment.

“I think, if I’d ever tried to imagine how this meeting would go, this would have been the last thing I’d have come up with,” she finally said. “What makes you think I’d even want you around here? You went to prison? You paid your debt? Well guess what, you got out.” She indicated the chair. “I’m still there because of you and I’ll never get out.”

She rolled away from him then turned to face him again. “And now you expect me to have you around my house? Working here for who knows how long? My god! The mere fact that you’re still sitting there, that I haven’t gone into my room and gotten my baseball bat and beaten your brains out is a testament to the remarkable level of restraint I’m showing you now.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am,” Paul said with some hesitation.

“I don’t even know what to say at this point,” she replied. “I am officially stunned into silence.”

They sat without speaking for a long time and Annabelle took the opportunity to examine Paul. She’d carried the image of the remorseful young man around with her ever since the trial, but the man who sat across from her now seemed completely different, calmer, and more thoughtful. Since the time of his emotional pronouncement at his sentencing, she had never believed him to be sincere, but now, looking at him, she began to suspect he might be telling her the truth, that he truly wanted to make amends for what he’d done. Still, she had no reason to trust him. As she considered what her response would be, Paul glanced at his watch and rose.

“Well, I guess that’s twenty minutes,” he said. “I appreciate you taking the time to hear me out.”

“Wait, you’re really just going to leave?” she said.

“I told you I would,” he replied.

He started toward the door.

“I could use a ramp,” she said without facing him.

“Excuse me?” Paul turned back toward her.

Annabelle wheeled around so she was looking at Paul.

“The only way I can get out back is to go out the front and around the driveway,” she said. “If I had a ramp to the back porch, I could go out the back.”

Paul considered it.

“I learned some carpentry in prison,” he said. “I could do that.”

Annabelle nodded.

“After that, we’ll see,” she told him. She rolled toward him then pointed, “But understand this. I am not your friend. I am not your charity case. When I need something, I’ll let you do it, but otherwise, keep your distance.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Paul said. “I can start tomorrow if that’s okay with you.”

Annabelle nodded. “That’s fine.”

Annabelle considered the time in between her accepting Paul’s offer and now. Having him around had been difficult at first, but the more he was there, the more she grew accustomed to having him there. She eventually let him move into the basement, so he could be around if she needed any help in the evenings. He kept the house and yard in good shape as well as keeping her company, and over time he had become a reassuring presence in her life. She was not sure she would ever consider herself to be his friend, and she was pretty sure she could never forgive him, but, at least, she knew she could trust him, and for Annabelle, that was all that mattered.