Writing Update, Free Ebook

I released Bonds That Bind late last year. It took time for me to realize it but my release of the book was contrary to what I stand for. To remedy this, I am now giving my collection Bonds that Bind for free here on Writings By Ender. If you enjoy it and want to support my writing, you can still by the book but I want to make it accessible to everyone. https://writingbyender.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/bonds-that-bind.pdf This is the link. No strings attached, straight-to-download. If you wish to support me and my writing after reading the book, you can buy it on Amazon here(reviews are nice too): https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M5BIGM7

Link for readers in the UK : https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/B01M5BIGM7/

Thank you for your time! 

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Short Story: We Bleed Together

Jackson lived by himself in a single bedroom apartment where there was more liquor in his refrigerator than food. The building itself was near-condemned. The outer walls surrendered to the damage of the cumulative decades and had mostly crumbled. With no other support, the inner-walls and weakening foundation bore the load. There was no main door as the door frame withered years ago. Jackson’s apartment was as decayed the building. He had nowhere else to live though, because he was a laborer. He made enough to survive until the next paycheck if he fasted five or six days out of the fourteen. He didn’t decide to be a laborer — even though many don’t choose to be. Common advice family and friends gave Jackson was “follow your dreams”, so he majored in English. His parents, who believed in fostering their child’s dream, floated Jackson money so he could carve out his novel. Life’s bifurcating roads led him another way. In the days preceding his writing the climax of his novel, Jackson’s fiance, Daphne, died. Working as a laborer kept him away from his manifold dreads and far away from a pen.

Jackson left home for the bank. Paycheck in back pocket and Chase bank fifteen minutes ahead was his biweekly ritual. Jackson walked exclusively. He walked to work, home, the bar, the pharmacy and even to the next city. Cars stressed him growing up. He didn’t dare drive until he was twenty-three and then it was out of necessity. Cars were nothing more than hunks of metal — and often times plastic — propelled forward by manifold micro-combustions. They were inherently dangerous. Their inherent danger was disguised from the general public through “advanced safety features”, but Jackson knew better. A year and seven months ago Daphne died in a car wreck. She was the safest driver Jackson knew and the day of the accident was no exception. The Hummer next to her wasn’t as skilled. The tank-of-a-truck merged left but swiped the sedan’s rear bumper. She swerved into a small pick-up where she was likely killed on impact. If that didn’t kill her, the subsequent twelve cars that piled onto the crash would have. A pool of blood united the dead. The pool of one mixed seamlessly with the pool of another’s and only thorough DNA analyses could differentiate the former owners of the spilled blood.

The bank was the most exquisite place Jackson had ever been. This was a portion of the main reason he trekked in the severe heat and bitter cold. Grey stone tile sprawled the floor. It was vastly different than the one his mom used to take him to — the linoleum tile knockoff was an eyesore. Thick bulletproof glass windows encompassed three of the four walls. The back wall, in which the safe was nestled, was protected by several layers of concrete and wall. Jackson recognized some, but unknown faces composed of a majority of the crowd. There was, like there was every pay period: Ms. Comer, the maid from across the street, the babysitter who used to come in with his dad, and the preacher from one of the non-denominational churches.

All waited to cash a check. Waiting was the worst part. Jackson never liked standing idly. He always had to be doing something, otherwise he had to dedicate time to doing nothing. Waiting in line was purgatory. It was the odd in-between of being active and having to be idle. A time when his vivid nightmares of Daphne’s death returned. There was always so much blood. He tapped his foot subconsciously and distracted himself with his phone. The line inched forward.

In front of him was a mother and her child. He noticed the daughter first because she stood proud with her natural curly hair. Not one ounce of her was embarrassed for who she was. She was a brown-skinned girl who was not sorry for being black. Jackson was astounded to such natural and unforced confidence. Then he looked at the child’s mother and realized how she grew up that way. The mother stood tall. Not in height but within herself. She seemed to tower over the others despite being no taller than 5 feet.

The preacher was towards the front of the line. He had a similar confidence of the mother and child. The Preacher’s found his calling, Jackson guessed. He knew the stories of the Army tank mechanic-turned preacher. He served twenty years active duty in the Army. He deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom multiple times and lost friends every deployment. After retiring, he promised his wife he’d devote his life to peace. Jackson was impressed with the man. People said the preacher exaggerated his stories but the innate darkness in his eyes — a darkness not even perfect commitment to God for an eternity couldn’t dispel —  spoke all the truths necessary to be credible.

Men in ski masks recklessly wielding handguns broke the tedium. One of them had his masked rolled up which revealed the flesh around his mouth and he fired two rounds at the ceiling above, taking out a light. Silence followed. Those wise enough went prone immediately but there were a few who stood completely still. The gunfire locked them in their place and rendered them incapable of movement. He threatened to shoot anybody who remained standing and all but one sat down. There is a mindless power to self-preservation. It lingers one long after the mind shuts down. The man who remained standing wasn’t frozen in place but rather he was trying to be the hero in this story. By all means he looked the part with broad shoulders and certain eyes but a quick pistol whip brought him to the floor in complete submission. Two thugs guarded the door, one kept the patrons quiet and the leader demanded money. Even at gun point the clerks were safe. They stood behind a bulletproof glass security system meant for the occasion. They looked panicked but knew they couldn’t be harmed.

The man with the rolled-up mask, the leader, rubbed the back of his head. If he wound up empty handed his effort would be for nothing. He grabbed the collar of first person he saw. The barrel rested cold on the hostage’s head. The weight seemed funny to the hostage. Something with the power to stop life shouldn’t be so light. It wasn’t an equal exchange. The man was in his 70’s. Jackson had never seen the man before but he pitied him. He knew what came next. “If we don’t start getting money, I’m going to start killing people. I’ll start with this old fuck and for every minute after, I’ll kill someone else.”

The first gunshot narrowed Jackson’s view. The 70 year old was dead in a pool of his crimson matter. The leader of the thieves moved to the next hostage, a thirty year-old woman in business casual. She didn’t cry but her fear was palpable. “Thirty seconds or she gets it,” the man said. Then there were police sirens. He diverted his attention from the woman to his men. “Make sure the police knows we have hostages. We’ll have to keep the rest of them alive if we want to negotiate our way out.” Jackson stared at the deceased that was a few feet away. The old man’s blood crept slowly along the grey tile, filling in the cracks and venturing further out still. Bits of brain matter littered the floor near this filth. This was death. It’s not a beautiful passing but a rapid and gore-filled shift from life to death. Jackson shuddered.

The leader addressed his hostages, “Listen up. Empty your pockets and toss what ever shit you have into this bag,” He spoke and held up a black trash bag. “Phones, wallets, keys, I want all of it. After go sit in that corner over there. One misstep and I’ll fucking shoot you.” One by one the patrons emptied their lives into the bag. Most were stoic but some cried. Jackson wasn’t unemotional but rather he was numb. He dumped his phone and wallet in the bag and sat with the others. Next to him was the preacher. He had his head bowed in a silent prayer. The little girl with the curly hair had begun to cry. The mother consoled her child as if her life weren’t at stake, as if the only thing that mattered in the world was her daughter’s well-being. She was strong even in the aura of death.

There was one sentry posted near the guard but he made his way between the men at the front and his boss towards the back. After a single time the preacher understood the sentry’s pattern and after he left his spot in front of the hostages he whispered to Jackson, “Do you believe in God?” He clutched a wooden cross as he asked. He looked directly into Jackson’s eyes. Jackson tried to maintain eye contact as he spoke but he shied away at the strength of the preachers resolve.

He wished he wasn’t going to tell a preacher of his Atheism in a time of probable death. Times like these were meant for reminiscing on good times or finding a way out of the situation. They were certainly not made for conversations about God. He answered anyway, “No, I can’t say I do,” Jackson whispered.

“Will you pray with me anyway,” he asked. “Not for you, but for me.” Jackson was dumbfounded. A devout Man-of-God was asking an Atheist to pray with him, not for Jackson’s damned soul but because the preacher was seeking comfort. Jackson nodded. He bowed his head with the preacher who whispered another prayer. The words didn’t matter, they hardly ever do. The raw emotion and truest display of mature character made Jackson realize his still embryonic character. There were only a few people who could have heard the words but everyone felt it. His sincerity and piety at a moment where death seemed certain seemed to give the hostages a sliver of hope. Instead of looking down at the floor, many of them were starting to look up “Amen.” The priest lifted his head but before he could whisper his thanks to Jackson, the sentry came back around.

One of the clerks lost control of his knees at last and fainted. He had succumbed anxiety and could not bear it any longer. On his short trip to the floor he smashed his head on the black granite counter top. Blood sprayed on the other clerks. The thieves had their lucky break. The tellers were willing to deal with the leader since one of their own was injured. The exchange was simple: their safety to get their coworker to an ambulance for entrance to the safe, but no safe combo. He had plenty of other hostages to barter with anyway. They walked free carrying their unconscious friend. The fallen man’s blood leaked spotted the bank’s floor as they carried him. A few drops mixed with the blood of the old man.  The leader propped open the door and called one of his men using the codename “Rex”. Rex was the sentry going back between the hostages, the front and his boss. Rex was supposed to crack the safe.

With Rex gone, there were only two sentries making sure the police couldn’t enter the building, and one of those still had to watch the hostages. The leader did as he pleased walking from the hostages, to the front with his men, to the back where Rex was working on the safe.

As soon as the leader left his post with the hostages to check on things out front, the preacher started talking again. “My name’s Don.” He held up his hand to shake.

“My name is Carlos Jackson, most people call me Jackson though.” Jackson took the preacher’s hand in a firm shake. Eye contact was still quite difficult.

“Why don’t you believe in God, Jackson.”

“Don’t think this is the time for this.”

“You’re not wrong, but I’m curious. Curiosity usually gets the best of me. You seem like a stand up man, a bit shy and lacking some confidence, but a genuinely good person. So I’d like to know your story.”

Jackson sighed and resigned to tell a fragment of his story. He whispered, “I never had a religion to begin with. God wasn’t something brought up in my family. By the time I could understand it I thought it was silly.” There was no mention of his wife. How when she died the part of him that was still desperate to reach out to a god died to. What kind of God would allow her death?

The preacher’s eyebrows raised. “So you discount the idea of God altogether?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Based on what?”

Jackson paused for a moment. “A lot of evidence points to him not existing.”

“Don’t you mean a lot of evidence discounts my Christian God?”

“Well, yeah. Each bit of evidence brought up on the Christian side has fallen short next to science.”

“You’re not wrong,” The preacher had to pause his thought, the leader made his way back to the hostages. The thugs were growing irritated. Rex hadn’t cracked the safe, the police despite a complete breakdown of communications, were poised to react. They paced faster and were excitable. Even the noise from a hostage clearing their throat caused them all to look around nervously. Before long, the leader returned to his partner towards the front of the bank.

“You’re not wrong,” He said clinging to the last words he uttered, “Us Christians have tried, in vain, to stand against the rationality of science. But this doesn’t discount God as an entity, but just as we have come to understand it. You can deny my God, but I find it irrational for you to deny any God based on the evidence that refutes our childish attempts. A rational person looks at the evidence. They’d look at the evidence and realize nothing’s been proved for or against. I’m not asking you to believe in God but isn’t not believing in Him based on no real evidence just as silly as my believing in it?”

There was gunfire. The man with the rolled-up mask heard the SWAT team enter the building from the roof via A/C ducts. He panicked and fired his weapon towards the hostages. The hostages screamed. Then there were more gunshots. The leader’s goons fired in the same direction. Within a second of the gunshots firing, the SWAT team arrived with a flashbang. In a display of ability and training, the SWAT team disposed of their hostiles. The hostages were laying in a pool of blood massed from the firing squad. The number of fatalities wasn’t exactly clear, everyone was prone on the floor and completely immobile. The soup of blood was the American melting pot. Those who were forced to bleed had bleed together. Together they formed a thick red plasma. Some ex-hostages rose from the bath. First the confident mother and her child. The child’s eyes had gone blank. In her gorgeous curly hair were bist of brain matter. Her face and clothes were soaked in blood. The man in front of her had been shot in the head and bled onto her. Soon a few others followed. Medics rushed in. Both the preacher and Jackson were shot. The first responders announced Don the Preacher dead at the scene. Jackson coughed up blood. His lungs collapsed. Then it all went black for Carlos Jackson, too.

***

I’m not asking you to believe in God but isn’t not believing in him based on no real evidence just as silly as my believing in it?” was the first thing he heard after being resurrected by the trauma surgeon. He expected to see the preacher but no one was there. No one waited by his bedside waiting for him to recover. He remembered what happened. Maybe time slowed down, maybe his perception sped up, but Jackson saw the bullet enter Don’s forehead. It didn’t pierce right through. It took it’s time shredding the flesh, shattering the cranium and turning it to mush. He saw it all before he felt a bullet hit him. It was a dull pain at first thanks to the adrenaline. Then there was a cataclysmic pain and he fell to the floor.He felt his face on the preacher’s warm blood. He was bleeding too. He pictured their blood becoming one forming a new being. Then he surrendered completely to the void.

He thought of Don’s last words. A man who spent 20 years killing people to protect others had died at the hands of an unskilled bank robber. He pictured Don’s military veteran burial. He pictured his wife crying, the men in military garb, the American flag folded carefully on the casket. It wasn’t fair for Don the preacher to have died.
He mulled over Don’s words like one would a holy text. He knew its meaning but tried to look deeper. He hoped to find something within himself or without himself that would give him the resolve to answer the question. He was out of the hospital in after two weeks due to complications with an infection. Through all that time the only answer Jackson could master for the kind preacher was, “Maybe you’re right.”

Short Story: Of Flowers

Of Flowers

   The room smelled of flowers. Haralson was altogether disgusted by the sweet smell wafting from the rosebush just outside O’connor’s bar. He didn’t want to be there. The scent of rose was overpowering and it distorted the taste of his IPA. There was also the problem of the bar’s patrons. Mobsters, loan sharks, and other undesirables met there daily. They spoke in loud, drunken voices not intimidated by police. Freelance criminals made the bar home, too; they used the protective umbrella of the mob to run their private enterprises. Most were money-lenders, some were fences, and there were some black market dealers as well. James Haralson had a meeting with the infamous loan shark Dan Flanagan.

   A month and a half ago, Haralson borrowed fifteen thousand dollars from Flanagan to pay various overdue expenses. The bi-weekly payments didn’t matter, neither did the high interest rate. Keeping his apartment and car was enough to justify the desperate end. Haralson already missed his first payment two weeks ago. Haralson learned through rumors how Flanagan operated, so he expected Flanagan to beat him with a metal bat. He only got a friendly phone call. Yet, he wouldn’t be able to pay the second payment either, which is why Flanagan forced him to this meeting.

   Flanagan walked into the bar and brought with him a sweet rosy aroma. Everyone fell silent. High ranking mobsters rose to greet him. Flanagan smiled as he shook hands of men who told stories about the many men they had killed. Haralson straightened his posture as Flanagan approached. He stammered but Flanagan silenced him with a lift of his index finger. “You fucked up, friend.”

   Haralson nodded. “You… You know I’ve got a problem. I just need time to recover.  I can get you the money. I promise.”

   “I’m not looking for promises anymore. You know how well I’ve treated you in comparison to these lowlives. If you weren’t a friend of mine you’d be in deep shit, but here we are having a polite fucking conversation.” Flanagan’s eyes were sharp and refined through the years. He looked at Haralson and asked, “You haven’t forgotten what happens to someone who misses a third fucking payment, right?” Flanagan hated swearing but it was effective.

   Haralson said, “yeah… you’ll off ‘em. I promise you, Greg, I’m good for this. Next payment… two weeks from now I’ll have exactly what you need.” Haralson clenched his fist under the table trying to hide his overwhelming fear and anxiety. He knew Flanagan could read anybody, though he still tried to mask his terror.

   “Yeah, I’ll kill you. So what are you going to do exactly two weeks from now?”

   “Pay you.”

   “Good. So we have an understanding. Fifty-five hundred dollars saves you from a bullet.” Flanagan snatched Haralson’s IPA from the table and downed the rest of the bottle. He left the pub reminding Haralson a last time of the consequences of missing another payment.

   Haralson’s head spun. He felt dizzy and ready to surrender his chili cheese nacho lunch back to the world. The room spun and loud voices that were once tolerable grew to cacophony. He stood but his shaking legs urged him to sit back down. Haralson confronted the singular idea he didn’t normally consider: death. It was unpleasant. Memories he once used to calm himself were seeped in the dye of mortality. The people in his memories would one day die, just like he would one day. Just like he will if he doesn’t give his money to Flanagan. Doing so would be difficult; he was a chronic gambler.

   Payday was soon and Haralson knew he would have a problem saving the amount needed. For the following week Haralson stuck to eating cheap meals and avoided bars and clubs.  He needed to avoid any scenario that he would be urged to spend money. Haralson scheduled his day by the hour: from teaching classes, to his commute back home. As long as he had specific appoints to keep — even if the appointment was with sleep— he would be less inclined to devolve into his gambling.

   He attempted to replace gambling stimulants with blaring television and equally loud background music. When he graded papers he listened to the radio and watched hospital dramas. The method stopped the brunt of the gambling desire but it still lingered. He had the same plan for the following week. He increased the distractions by adding books on top of music and TV.

   There was a pervasive idea that seeped into Haralson: the simple thought that he would die alone. He was thirty-two and starting to feel his prime slip by. He hadn’t showed interest in anybody who showed him overt affection. It was a habit. His nature was to refuse affection directed at him. There were times he wished to have someone to share his time. They were fleeting though and easily distracted by casino lights and sounds. He had no choice to confront his thoughts now. The fears grew as the distractions became less effective. For the first time in a while, he had to think that unwelcomed thought:

   “I’m lonely.”

   Following, were aches in his chest and a palpable emptiness. He wanted to share his life with someone but he had rejected everyone. There was no one to call — everyone was too busy for him. Haralson paced around the house desperate for a solution to his growing discomfort. He knew, as all addicts do, that only gambling would soothe the ache. I’m stronger than that, he thought. His arms and legs shook anyway. He wanted to sleep but loneliness dominated all assets of his mind. Unable to sleep or relax, Haralson decided to take a walk.

   It was dark, just past 9 P.M, and there were already a few people wandering the streets. They were loners, bar wanderers and the lonely hearted moving desperate to find a group to belong. Haralson remembered being a drifter of that sort. He would walk into bars to buy a single drink and made conversation with other patrons. Most of them gave Haralson a cold shoulder and continued with their conversations. Following rejection, he moved to the next bar. There were also groups that spent their time outside; They would have loud conversations as if the quiet of the general public didn’t matter. Haralson was rejected from these crowds too. The longer the night endured, the more he resembled a drunken bum. There were times, too, when he ran into his student’s parents. They always acted like they hadn’t seen him.

   Haralson walked to achieve an idle mind. As he saw people laughing on the streets, Haralson’s loneliness overwhelmed him. Each group, each person was a reminder of his past rejections and fortified the idea of his loneliness. Haralson thought, no one would care if I died and moreover, the thought was correct. He did the only thing he could to stop the line of thinking: walk five blocks west to the Springs Casino.

   It was an obnoxious bright place with signs that seemed stuck in the 1950s. People in suits walked in and out as frequently as those who dressed in sweatpants. Haralson entered the building. A young woman at the front desk greeted him, “Hello Darling, are you here to play?” He nodded his head and walked past her. The bright lights instantly changed his mood. The colors and sounds reminded him of previous times he had spent there at the casino and he was happy. The slot machines beckoned him. They pleaded that he spend his money. They cried in high-pitched, 8 bit inspired voices for Haralson. He sat down in front of a dollar machine and started to play. The process was automatic: When he ran out of cash pulled out more, and he repeated it until the banker told him his card was declined.

***

   Flanagan spent his time between cracking collar bones and maintaining his ties to the mob. He ran his gig independently of the them, and he got respect for it. Flanagan made sure people knew his name and why he had busted them up the way he did. It made him one of the most brutal criminals around, not out of malice. Those who associated with Flanagan by choice, rather than money owed circumstance, had a pleasant time around him. It was a matter of business: If you didn’t screw Flanagan over, he wouldn’t do the same to you. If you happened to cross the line, you were more likely to end up with a bullet in your head than be forgiven.

   Flanagan found it hard to spend his free time in the city. Whenever he walked into a bar or grocery store, the entire establishment froze. Patrons looked among themselves to figure out who messed up. Most of the time, he was just shopping or trying to unwind for the day. There is a luxury in being a feared criminal, but one of its perks certainly wasn’t friendship or even basic human closeness.

   The Friday Haralson spent his paycheck gambling, Flanagan was watching television and relaxing with a beer. He didn’t watch sports and also didn’t like many of the TV shows airing; he thought they were derivative, uncreative garbage. There was nothing else to do, and not even Flanagan wanted to work all day. He was into the climax of a hospital drama when one of his cohorts called. The ringing startled him. “Hello?”

   “Guess who decided to spend their money at the Springs?” a gruff voice said.

   “Was it Derek? The porn producer?”

   “Nah. That teacher you seem to like.” Flanagan hung up the phone. He knew this would happen. He tried to convince himself Haralson would be different, surely he would pay up. However, the banker confirmed Haralson spent all of his money, which mean he had to act. Even as his mind told him to let it go, he grabbed his jet-black 9mm pistol and headed downtown.

***

   Haralson, after coming out of his delirium, headed towards the exit. The bright lights and sounds couldn’t soothe him. They cemented the mistake he had made. The ambiance of the casino reminded him of each mistake. The machine’s video game noises reminded him of every time he won but kept playing until he had nothing. Now he truly had nothing. Soon Flanagan will find out, Haralson thought. At the front door were two large men who were not the typical bouncers. Haralson recognized both brown coated men. He turned to the back exit. He ran through a crowd but the henchmen weren’t following him yet. He exited the building through kitchen, and heard a yell over the bustle of the casino; it was Flanagan. He ran through alley ways turning corners as fast as he could. He knocked over anything he could to slow his imaginary pursuers. He kicked down trash cans and moved dumpsters to block the way. He could feel Flanagan’s presence. Haralson knew Flanagan would be armed with the jet-black 9mm; he had seen him fire it plenty of times before. If Haralson couldn’t escape, the next bullet Flanagan fires will be in his skull.

   He winded the streets heading the same general direction. Flanagan would come looking for him, so he had to distance himself from the casino. He kept northward even as the street signs looked unfamiliar. The sun started to rear over the mountains. He was exhausted. Haralson had no choice but to find a place to sleep. It couldn’t be in a hotel, it would be too obvious, so he found a quiet alley beside a dumpster to rest. It smelled like decomposing flesh. He looked around to find the source of the smell and found a nest of dead rats. With no better place to stay, and certain that the smell would keep most people at bay, he put his coat over his body and closed his eyes.

   Sleep never came though, his nerves sharpened from adrenaline and his heartbeat rattled his body. Any sound, be it footsteps or otherwise, startled him. He wasn’t safe outdoors. His only chance at even a little peace would be to find a hotel room with multiple exits. Haralson got up and walked among the public, who started to rise for their Saturday. He walked to the nearest ATM and got a  $100  cash advance. A hundred dollars was nothing in comparison to the debt he owed.

   Haralson searched the city for a few hours. He moved through alleys and walked along bigger streets only if crowds would hide him. He was looking for a hotel tucked away in the city. It had to be not far outside of town to be obvious but not too nondescript to look like someone may hide there. Haralson saw glimpses of men in brown coats, like Flanagan’s men, in the corner of his eye. Haralson didn’t know if he was actually seeing them or hallucinating from lack of sleep. He even saw Flanagan’s face in some of the morning runners. He had to be near, Haralson thought. He stopped at a regional hotel whose name he had seen from the street but at which he never bothered to stay. He felt the massive presence of the henchmen behind him, yet there was no one when he turned to face them. He saw Flanagan’s face in the front desk clerk, too  He smiled in a crooked way, just like Flanagan did. Haralson froze in place and started to sob; he realized that he had met his end. The man’s face changed to one of a chubby, young male.

   Haralson confronted the man. “I — I need a room. How much are they,” he asked mumbling in one syllable.

   The clerk, after staring at Haralson, said, “A room is 80 bucks a night, sir. Do you have a preference of floor?” Haralson indicated the first floor by raising his index finger.

   He handed the clerk the hundred-dollar bill and after a moment of typing the clerk gave Haralson his room key.  Before he left Haralson asked the clerk, “What’s your name? you look familiar. Did we go to school together?”

   The man shook his head, “Name is Chris Thomas. I don’t think we’ve ever—”

   “Listen Chris, there is a very dangerous man after me. He wears jeans and a sport coat and has his hair all slicked back, you know, like old school. He’ll come in with at least two men. Those guys are large. Probably six-foot five or so. If you see a man resembling him even a little, call the police then call my room. I swear to God Chris, if you don’t call me when he comes, I’m going to leave your name on this sheet of paper,” he said waving a page from a notepad with the hotel ledger. “And I will tell him before he puts a bullet in my head that you tried to help me escape. And you do not want to be his target. He might not kill you but he will certainly torture the hell out of you until you’ll want him to. You got it, right? I hope you’re not a fuck up, for both our sake.” Haralson headed to his room still sensing Flanagan. I can’t escape him, Haralson thought.

***

   Flanagan was pissed. By the time he arrived to the casino his crew lost track of Haralson. He sent his men looking for him and got into a taxi himself to look around.  Even in taking less-used roads, Flanagan was unable to find Haralson. He thought to himself just how much he regretted ever seeing this guy as a friend. Hours passed and Flanagan hadn’t received a word from his henchmen. The sun was rising over the horizon and, despite how peaceful the sunrise made him feel normally, he was angry. It mocked his inability to catch Haralson. He called Bruce, the lackey who had called him the night before.

   “Where the fuck are you?”

   “We’ve been tracking him all night,” Bruce said after yawning. “We only catch glimpses of him then he’s gone. We’re in the next city, Dover, just out of downtown. I’m sure we’ll see him again, you should come down”. Flanagan called a taxi and headed to Dover. The taxi ride, although only 20 minutes, had been entirely too long. On his way to meet Bruce, Flanagan saw a homeless man sleeping on a park bench that looked like Haralson. He had his hand on his gun read to draw but as he got closer the man’s face changed. Flanagan sighed and continued on his way to Bruce.

   Bruce mentioned to Flanagan that they had seen him again. “He came out of an alley  a little ways back and took off. He looked tired as hell.” They didn’t see him in downtown and none of the hotels there recognized his face — even when encouraged with the sight of a gun. Flanagan had a suspicion he was around, an intuition honed from working with people of Haralson’s sort for years. Flanagan thought, Haralson decided to stop in this city. He tried to walk the city in Haralson’s shoes. He imagined himself a depraved man running for his life, hiding in holes and sleeping near gutters. Except, he thought, scared men don’t sleep. Especially not in the open. There were too many opportunities for the hunter to sneak up on them and end their life. Haralson would be in a place where he could let his guard down, potentially even sleep, and still have a route of escape.

   Until mid-afternoon Flanagan and his crew went to every hotel and motel in the area, and they asked each clerk if they had seen Haralson to which they said no. In the late afternoon Flanagan found the Oceanview Hotel. The attendant there was about his age and a bit chubby. Flanagan flashed his gun then asked the man, “Have you let a Haralson in here today? He probably paid in cash and looked like he hadn’t slept. I’m a really good friend of his and I need to see him immediately.”

   The man stammered, “Yes he checked in a few hours ago. He told me to call the police and his room if I seen you. Then threatened to make me an accomplice. I didn’t do anything. I’ll give you his room number and everything but I don’t want to die!” Flanagan nodded and the clerk wrote down the room number 104 and gave him a coded key. Flanagan gestured to his men to go outside to block his escape. Flanagan walked down the hallway. He was sweating. He always sweated in the pending moments of killing someone, but he was otherwise completely adjusted to murder. He drew his gun as he passed 102. Then 103. 104.  He slid the keycard to the lock and the light shone green.

   He swung the door open. The last bit of the afternoon sun leaked into the room and filled it with a golden brilliance. The wind flew through the open curtains. It carried the distant scent from the ocean but was overpowered by a bittersweet smell that emanated from the center of the room. In the middle, a ceiling fan tried to spin against an obstacle which created a whirring sound. Haralson’s belt was wrapped around the base of the fan and around his neck. He was limp and long dead. As the body dangled, his flesh changed in chunks from tanned skin to black rose petals that were carried by the wind about the room. Flanagan sat in the hotel room chair for hours watching his friend decompose into ebony flowers. An hour after sunset, the last petal started to fall. The wind swept the petal outside where they both danced then faded abruptly.

The Bird That Flew Overhead

  My dad died a few years back. The doctors told me after his liver failure that it was pancreatic cancer. He was always a secretive type, prone to hold in his emotions and ailments to a fault. When he started getting sick he suffered in silence, and even though it was obvious to others, nobody wanted to tell him to visit the hospital because of his aggressive stubbornness. This attitude ultimately lead to his death; if he were to have started treatment early on, he could have survived. When he died, Mom came into a great deal of money from life insurance, and, ever since, my 26-year-old brother and I have been living with her. We didn’t stay for emotional attachment or to give emotional support to the new, grieving widow, but for her money.

   The sun had set hours ago, which meant Mom had been asleep for a few hours, and I was lying in bed straining to read over my brother’s conversation. As he talked with his friend their volume increased, which caused the wall that the headboard of my bed rested on to vibrate gently with every word they said. I had read the same paragraph at least three times before I noticed I was getting distracted and instead opted to leaf through an old college pamphlet. Up until last year I was a psychology major at Arizona State University, where many of those from my hometown end up. It wasn’t so much the course load as the incessant meaninglessness of pursuing a degree that made me drop out. The life of debt common for college students and graduates, where those with master’s degrees even end up working in some cafe. I escaped that fate before I was overwhelmed by it. 

   I leafed through the pamphlet in a half-hearted attempt to avoid eavesdropping on my brother’s conversation. But when I gave in and started to listen, their voices had dropped to whispers. Overwhelmed by curiosity I placed my ear against the cold, thin, wall but the most I could hear was the word “casino.” My brother, Dave, who had been working at a convenience store since he graduated high school, never had gambling money and had never even been to one, a casino. I thought he wanted to have a good time at the Sonora Casino; it was Friday and would’ve been a perfect time to go. I didn’t want to be left behind on a night of certain debauchery, so I ran to the kitchen in hopes of catching them mid-planning and guilt them into inviting me. They must’ve been distracted because they didn’t even turn their heads to acknowledge me when I heard Dave’s friend Carlos whisper in his accented voice, “And I know where we can get the guns”. 

   My mind went blank and tried to find sense in his words at the same time while the gravity of their meaning crushed my heart. I was stunned. I wanted to say something but only thoughtless stutters came out of my mouth. Carlos twisted his head away from my brother and looked at me and past me simultaneously. They sat on opposite sides of the table wearing nearly identical clothes: hoodie and jeans. Dave had never been particularly fashionable and chose comfort over pleasing his aesthetic sense, but he still held an air of unmistakable attractiveness. The opposite was true for Carlos, who had surrendered himself in his war on acne and had no standards of hygiene. Not knowing what to do, I sat in a chair between the two conspirators and waited. The clock’s ticking seemed to grow into consecutive explosions before Carlos finally spoke.

   “Dre, I want to let you in on a project.” He whispered as his eyes darted around. After a brief pause he continued, “Before I say anything I need you to promise you won’t snitch.” It was my turn to take a pause; I knew the plan would only be trouble and the recognizable danger that rested in my brother’s eyes seemed to prove what I felt. But despite my hesitations I promised I wouldn’t say a thing.    

   Carlos detailed the plan in a way that made him seem the mastermind. “You know that casino on the highway? Well, heard from some friends that the security is pretty loose there.” I looked at him as he spoke and I recalled then how his every sentence needed an intermission before he could begin again. He continued, “There’s a the cash exchange on the first floor that’s loaded. They even got a safe in the back. All we would need to do is hold the floor hostage. Take the money in the register and the safe and by the time the police come, we’ll be gone.” 

   I winced at “hold the floor hostage.” I’ve imagined many scenarios for life and the myriad ways they could unfold, and this was not one of those. A more deviant recess of my mind was seduced by the prospect of money. I depended on my mom for food, clothing and shelter, and my idea of freedom that I yearned for as a late-teen crashed around me when I had to move back in. My legs shook and my palms were sweaty; even the promise of wealth couldn’t rid me of my nerves.

   “So…that’s it?” I said. Major portions of the plan seemed to be missing from the explanation and made me skeptical. The truth is the thought of an armed robbery made me uncomfortable to the point where any lack of detail would have turned me into a skeptic. If I tried to poke holes in the plan Carlos would postpone his scheme and ultimately forget about it, so I continued to emphasize the missing parts. “How would we even escape? There’s just a long stretch of freeway in both directions. The police would catch us by then.”

As if not hearing my plea, Carlos demanded, “You’re going with me. You both are. If you don’t go, I’ll make sure Jose knows. He’ll know if you snitch, too. He has ears everywhere, you know what I mean?” The bald-headed, muscular behemoth of a man that called himself Jose — even though his real name was Ernesto — was the right hand of Esteban de la Cruz, a prominent gang leader. Jose felt a certain pride in his position that he would tell anybody he had more than a minute-long conversation with. I assume he told people to instill fear, and, in fact, when I had first learned of his gang origins I was intimidated and had made sure not to cross him since. But for others his willingness to divulge the information brought about rumors of him working for the police. If everyone had known, the police, too, had to know. But still, the man had a brutal air about him and not only has he killed before but people who know Ernesto the most know that he has killed for as little as a spot in line.

   With the threat of the savage man, I had no choice but to follow along. I accepted the demand with a little nod and headed back to my room. It was certainly cluttered. When I was younger I had plastered the walls with posters of my favorite bands, all of which were now “on hiatus” or disbanded. The only addition to the room since childhood was a small desk, and it happened to be the only thing I kept organized. I alphabetized each book on the shelf and always place my computer 6 inches from the ledge. At that time the computer was open and close to the back but my head was spinning and I was minutes from making my lasagna dinner reappear. So I shut off the three desk lamps that lit up the entirety of my room, kicked some dirty shirts into an increasing pile of laundry and tried to sleep. My rest was segmented by bad dreams and fits of sleeplessness, and by the time the sun rose, I had only slept two hours.

   The whole world seemed to know it was Saturday morning — the birds tweeted songs of joy, children who were not at school were out playing in their yards, and even the sun was an uncaring, unwavering entity seemed to shine with a happy light. I woke up wanting only to forget about the day I was going to be forced to have. Possible scenarios ran through my head, still misty from the first minutes of being awake, and all of them ended in death or prison, places I never imagined myself being before. I looked into a mirror as I brushed my teeth. The purple baggage under both my eyes and the looseness of my skin made it seem I had aged ten years in a night. Disgusted by myself, I decided just to put on fresh clothes to meet Carlos and Dave for our morning heist and high-speed chase down the freeway. 

   The rest of my morning was going to be a series of yells, sirens, and gunshots, so to find even a brief moment of silence I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, but they were already seated, surrounded by cups of coffee and cans of energy drinks. I looked Carlos into his bloodshot eyes as I asked, “So, when are we going?” He didn’t respond but grabbed the keys to his early 2000s Nissan Versa, an efficient but ugly car, and signaled both me and Dave to follow. The car was filled with instant food packaging and wrappers and the papers that matted the floor smelled like they were decomposing. Being forced to the back seat, I had to move a mountain of clothes, a mix of clean and dirty. What I thought would be an endless onslaught of speaking our final words, the car ride ended up being the quiet moment I was looking for. The only noise, which kept me grounded in reality but didn’t detract from the peaceful moment, was a radio playing a pop station I tended to avoid. Carlos drove down the desolate highway, and both Dave and I looked out into the expanse of sun-hardened sand and the lonely trees, which grew despite the devastating heat. The desert was still, even in the wind, and it had an innate calmness that could soothe the mindful onlooker. A solitary bird flew overhead with slow beats of its wings and screeched. I shouldn’t have been able to hear it but the sound echoed within me. I stared into the desert hoping it would peer back and pass on its secret to endless tranquility.

   The casino came into view. It was the sort that people built when they think a city is going to become popular. The type of place that is supposed to hold many guests who never come. A completely unnecessary building, the sole highrise tower amid a city of two-story buildings, a pillar of waste. I couldn’t imagine this place being “loaded” like Carlos said, but I was in no position to question him, not while the threat of Ernesto “Jose” Rodriguez lingered. The parking lot was half-filled and there was a noticeable lack of luxury cars, like the rich had no need for gambling. Carlos parked the car without problem close to the restaurant entrance and bothered to back the car into the parking spot to help our escape. 

    I stayed in the seat, paralyzed by fear of holding up the place, running from the police, and the ultimate exchange of gunfire that the day would end in. The red-eyed, irritated Carlos got out of his driver’s seat, originally grey but blackened through years of sweat, and walked toward the trunk. As Dave sat in an equal fit of paralysis, I found the strength to get out of my seat and meet Carlos, whose shaking hands prevented him from opening the trunk for a minute. He showed me a dull black duffle bag that rested on top of more compost paper and year-old food and opened it. Inside were rifles with names I could never remember or cared to know, gun magazines, rope, and black ski masks. My legs threatened to shake to relieve my nervousness but I didn’t waver in front of the mad burglar. I looked at the rifles with an awareness I haven’t had since: The hellbent mission would mean my death and the guns would be the catalyst. I struggled to think of a plan. My brother continued to look straight forward at the casino as if he were looking into an abyss of horrors. He would spend his only time in a casino being afraid for his life. 

  “You know what would be funny and sorta cool?” I asked with unnoticed shakiness in my voice. “If we were to go to the bar and drink a bit before we rob the place. You know, make sure Dave has a good time at a casino?” It must have been his ever-apparent exhaustion, or sympathy for his childhood friend, but he nodded and closed the trunk. “Let’s show him a good time,” he said with a faint voice. We walked into the building, hardly dressed for the occasion, and took the elevator to the top floor to “The Lucky 7.” The elevator, small and ill-decorated with multicolored tiles and movie posters of old-school movies, rose silently. Carlos continued to shake, but Dave was unchanged by the new plan with his eyes forever forward and slowly dying as their color faded. The vivid blueness had become dull and grey and I understood that as a sign of impending doom. The door opened to the brightly lit bar, which, aside from one other customer and the staff, was empty.  

   The room was equally plastered with old movie posters that worshiped the aesthetic of another era while blatantly ignoring its history, which was filled with racism and bigotry. The staff seemed unsatisfied and many of their eyes looked like the dreary grey ones I saw in the elevator. We sat at the bar on stools that were too high from the counter. On the other end was a man who winced at his whiskey every time he sipped, dressed in a suit obviously from the previous night. His presence made me uncomfortable, like he was an outsider to our world but looked like an ordinary man with disheveled hair and an unclean conscience. At this distance I could make out his deep brown eyes. Carlos ordered a Corona and lime. Dave, only a passenger in his body, ordered an IPA and a cup of water. That day would be the last one I would spend on Earth and I wanted what I drank to reflect that prophecy of my imagination: a shot of tequila, no salt or lime. A bitter testament to life and what I had achieved in it.

   We drank for hours. Carlos consumed any type of alcohol he wanted and I stuck to the tequila. Carlos, drunk on rage and corona and vodka, started to shake aggressively, which alarmed no one but me and the man who sipped his third whiskey. The staff had come to ignore the crazed man because of his loud outbursts at nothing particular and perhaps at his own fate. Dave only became present enough to pick up his beer and drink before falling back into his waking coma. As if a bell tolling to mark a death, Carlos slammed down his glass and yelled, “That’s it! I’m fucking sick of this shit.” He pulled out the gun that he kept tucked away in the back of his pants and ordered the cashier to open the register. I yelled not only to show how dumbfounded I was but also to show my innocence in the situation. “What the fuck are you doing, Carlos?” He didn’t listen and instead looked directly into the eyes of the cashier, whose shaking made it take longer for him to open the register.

  The man who sipped whiskey made eye contact with me and put his index finger to his mouth to hush me. With the empty bottle of whiskey in his hand he walked, keeping his head low and knees bent, and despite having finished off the bottle snuck around behind Carlos with meticulous steps. Quickly, the hero smashed the empty bottle over the head of the man who had become mad. While Carlos was dazed he took the gun away and removed the clip, but he had forgotten to remove the bullets. Carlos rushed his assailant, who had been backing up, and tackled him to the ground. When the would-be-hero hit the floor under the weight of Carlos he howled. The red-eyed man pinned the stranger’s arms under his knees and started furiously punching his face like he was driving it into the ground. After a moment, the man stopped moving and was barely breathing. Carlos yelled at the bar employees to get him some rope as he found his gun and put the clip back in. They found him three strands of rope and a belt, which he used to bind the brave but stupid man. His arms were forced behind him and his legs bent as if in prayer, and he was tied in that position.

  I sat at the barstool helpless as Dave ignored the world of inevitabilities and stared into his IPA. I’m not sure what would become of Dave if we made it out of this alive, but something had broke in him even though there was no audible snap and no complaints of being a broken man; just indifference and slight sadness is all that seemed to remain of him. Carlos looked beyond the glass windows that overlooked the unmoving desert town and for a moment I thought I saw some humanity return to him. But instead he put the gun to the head of the man who fought to stay conscious and shook as he was about to pull the trigger but again stopped. He seemed dissatisfied as his eyes darted around the bar. Instead he aimed at a panes of glass in front of his victim. He fired five separate times causing the glass to shatter and fall. With his gun, he broke a bigger hole into the glass,  enough to push a man out. Then both men, the devil and the hero, looked directly at me, one pleading and one demanding, but I was well aware of my own powerlessness. Carlos turned back to the the man who looked at me still and started nudging him off the ledge with his foot.

  I started to get off the barstool, but everything I did felt slow, and meanwhile Carlos was quickly pushing the man off the edge. I finally stood up, the man mostly out of the building and tried to push Carlos out of the way but I had acted too slowly. The man began his descent to his concrete heaven below and I stood on the left of the corrupted man. A feather glided just in front of view. It was a magnificent red, pulsing with bright energy. I stared at the feather as it floated eye level with me, and then there was a bright light — it didn’t come from the feather, but rather from outside. The brightness expanded and I soon saw that it wasn’t just a light but a fire that was growing fast. The fire rose to the top floor of the casino where us three desolate men contemplated our fate and faith. But the fire didn’t burn. From the fire first emerged a shape that was as familiar as it was unfamiliar. It was a wing bright red and vibrating with darker energy. Another wing emerged opposite that, then a beak, and slowly the massive fire-bird emerged from the fireball.

   The god-like figure was adorned in flames and had eyes I recognized. It slowly beat its wings and looked from Carlos to me, and at that moment I knew where I had seen the eyes. The light-brown ones with black craters in the iris, that were both distant and unmistakably kind. The bird let out a screech and let the fire envelop the floor. The flames felt cool as they lapped at my skin, leaving  goosebumps on the back of my neck, but just next to me I heard Carlos yell. The yell was cut short, and when I looked over to my right, Carlos was gone and the window was repaired. I looked around the clean and ordered bar where everyone stood in equal disbelief. I looked to Dave and knew it had passed.

   Carlos’ car wasn’t in the parking lot when we finally were able to go home after the police had questioned us about the fire and the gunshots, but we had no reason to lie. The police were incredulous but reluctantly let us go.  When we got home we immediately slept. For the first time in five years I dreamt. The crimson bird followed me overhead with its wings that pulsated with unimaginable power as I drove away from the city oppressed by the sun. When the city was far enough behind, the burden of expectation vanished and I smiled to welcome the unknown.