Monday, December 26, 2011

Jerry Gets His Wings by E. B. Davis

Church wasn’t Jerry’s favorite place. Yet, here he stood in a cathedral, dressed in torn pants and a jean vest stained with motor oil, while everyone around him wore their Sunday-best. Some even wore golden gowns that glowed in the twinkling candle-light showering from high-placed wall sconces.

He felt like a Budweiser shelved with the cognac.

Why didn’t he ever get to sit in church? The last time he’d been in one, he had served as a pallbearer at his friend Nick’s funeral. It hadn’t been a fair fight. Nick hadn’t known the other guy was packing, and so Jerry helped bury his fellow Hells Angel. The minister hadn’t been amused when they all wore their colors, those sleeves-ripped-off-at-the-shoulder jean jackets turned into vests and embroidered on the back with the motorcycle club’s winged death-head logo.

Back in the sixties, that emblem terrified a lot of people. Youth, road trips…it had been fun. Not so much anymore. The Hells Angels had expanded into an international organization with websites and sponsored events. Many members were older businessmen, even if, like Nick, some were on the wrong side of the law.

Thirty-years ago, Jerry opened a motorcycle repair shop. He fixed most of his friends’ hogs for free,  making his living off the paying customers since Harley Davidson had become fashionable. The club members were pissed-off knowing techie nerds owned more expensive bikes than they did. That was life in the new millennium. Yuppies ruled, geezers drooled. Yep, on his last birthday he’d turned sixty-five. Where had the time gone?  

Jerry didn’t belong in this cathedral with all these nice folks. But he shuffled forward as the line moved ahead. Lined up, waiting for what? He was reluctant to ask. The others in line kept their distance and stared at him every so often. When he looked down at his feet to make sure he didn’t bump the older woman in front of him, his favorite biker boots winked out from the cuffs of his pants like a comforting old friend. Why was he here?

“Dang it,” he said aloud. He would have said damn, but he stopped himself before uttering a curse in church.

The older woman in front of him turned around. If her creased forehead and grim, tight lips were any indication, she sure didn’t like him much, but then her eyes darted around the cathedral as if remembering her place. Her frown changed into a contrite smile and the lines on her face melted. Even if a bit quick to judge, she was probably a nice lady. Her eyes moved over his shoulder, and she turned to face front. He wondered what she had seen, and he jumped when a hand grabbed his arm.  

“How are you doing, Jerry?”

The man next to him looked familiar. “Okay, I guess. Don’t know why I’m here. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was coming off some hallucinogenic.”

“Strange, huh?”


“Hey, the name’s Mike.” Mike put out his hand, and they shook.

Mike wore jeans, boots and a worn-out tee shirt revealing his bulging tattooed biceps. His tattoo, partially covered by the tee shirt sleeves, looked like wings. Jerry wondered if Mike was a club member, but church wasn’t the proper place for that conversation. At least he wasn’t the only Budweiser in the group. Mike’s skin glowed, much like the golden gowns, giving him a youthful look. He also had long hair and a beard reminding Jerry of the hippie past. Out of the corners of his eyes, Jerry watched Mike. He also seemed ancient. How could he look young and old at the same time? Ageless—that was Jerry’s best guess, which didn’t make any sense at all.     

“So why are you here?” Jerry asked.

“Assisting you.”

“Assisting me to do what?”

 “Get your wings, Jerry.”

“Wings? I got my wings.” Jerry turned and pointed to the winged death-head emblem on the back of his vest.

“Not those wings, the next set is real.”

“Look, I appreciate your help and all, but I gotta go.”

“We need your help.”

Shoot! When people asked Jerry for help, he always caved. Big, Mr. Badass crumbled like a big cookie. But in this cathedral, out of his normal element, he felt spooked. “No way,” Jerry said. “I’m out of here.”

Jerry stepped out of line, striding the aisle to reach the doors at the back of the cathedral and passing those waiting in line. They smiled at him, that little smile, like Mona Lisa’s. Did they find him amusing? Amuse this, he thought, stalking down the aisle and banging open the door. I’m gone!

As Jerry walked out of the confining cathedral into the expansive night, he realized there was nothing beneath his feet. Catching hold of the door handle, he hung by his arms as his feet dangled over empty space. The cold permeated his clothing. His body started to shake from the cold, he told himself. But he knew his reaction was fear. He breathed in deeply and tried to pull himself up, looking inside the church as he struggled. The people in line were staring at him now. He noticed none of them volunteered to help him, and they still wore that little grin, but when Mike came to the door, they all turned back to face the church altar like misbehaving school kids facing the blackboard and trying to look innocent for the teacher.

Mike grabbed his right arm and swung the door toward the narthex. “No, you don’t. Not yet, without your wings.”

Jerry swung his feet up from the void until they reached the cathedral’s stone floor. Using the door for support, he stood, but he couldn’t let go of the door handle.

“It’s okay to let go,” Mike said.

“Where in hell are we?”

“Not hell, that’s for sure. We have to talk, man.”

“It looks as if we’re lost in space, a cathedral in the middle of nowhere,” Jerry said. He wondered how a dream could seem so real. He stared at Mike. His heart pounded.

With a sweep of his arm, Mike motioned Jerry to a side door in the narthex. When Jerry didn’t move, Mike pulled him forward. Jerry’s knees locked in fear. Walking was impossible. He had to get his act together and stop acting like a ninny. Clenching his teeth, he forced his knees to bend, damned if he’d allowed himself to be intimidated now. Nothing had ever scared him before—even in ‘Nam.

As if hearing his thoughts, Mike said, “Ah, yes that’s the key.”

Jerry overcame his terror and walked through the side door. “What key?”

“Pull up a barstool.”

Barstool? In church? From the doorway, Jerry looked into the anteroom. Tables surrounded a “U” shaped bar lined with worn wooden barstools. The place was empty and dark except for a few neon beer signs lit on the shelves behind the bar. The smooth countertop seemed hand rubbed, as if the fingers of a thousand sinners had stroked its surface. He’d seen people do that before—stroke the bar—as if they petted imaginary dogs to soothe themselves.

Mike pulled out a barstool and sat down. Jerry left the stool next to Mike empty, choosing the next one. Once seated, he noticed a window through which he saw the stars shining brightly, but the appearance of the star’s warm glow was deceptive. He knew that the beautiful indigo sky was cold, so cold it had felt lonely during his quick venture outside. Gazing out the window at the distant planets, he recognized Earth. His blood ran cold.

Jerry turned to face Mike. Jerry’s fist slammed the countertop as his eyes bore into Mike’s eyes. “What key?”  

“You led a brave life.”



Gravity seemed to double. Jerry felt his weight bare down on the barstool compressing its wood fibers. He exhaled. “Like, it’s over. I’m dead.”

“It’s more accurate to say ‘no longer of the flesh,’” Mike said.

Jerry walked over and placed his hand on the window’s glass. It was cold, as cold as his hand. He stared at his hand as if studying a foreign object, then he looked out the window. The glass wasn’t what separated Jerry from the Earth’s warmth and from the living. It was death. “I need a drink.”

Like magic, a bartender appeared and asked Jerry what he wanted. “I’ll have a cognac,” Jerry said, for the sake of perversity, which seemed oddly appropriate. He plopped down on the barstool.

Mike laughed. “I’ll have the strawberry schnapps, Pete.”

“How can I be dead? I feel solid.”

“You are solid, Jerry, in more ways than one.”

The bartender came back and placed their drinks on the bar, then left them alone.

Jerry took a small sip of the liquor. It burned his throat and warmed his belly. “What’s this all about?”

“You’re about to become an angel.” Mike gestured with his hands as if he had laid his cards on the countertop.

“Angel? I already am.”

“Yes, but you aren’t an angel in the way you think you are.”

“I’ve been a Hells Angel since 1966.”

“In name only.”

Jerry stood up, breathing hard, and grabbed Mike by the shirt pulling him off the barstool. “What do you mean by that?”

Mike grinned that little grin Jerry was getting tired of seeing. Everyone knew something that he didn’t. He felt confused. People usually came to him for advice. What disturbed him more was that Mike had implied he knew better than Jerry, who was a leader. He’d earned that spot in rank. Jerry released Mike from his grasp. Here, Jerry was outranked.

“Sit down, Jerry. I know you’re Mr. Badass motorcycle club, but that status didn’t get you anywhere.”

“You’re not telling me something I don’t already know. But I’m no Heaven’s Angel.”

“Yes, you are,” Mike said, like it was fact.

Jerry looked away. “Am not.”

“Some of your club’s members were bad. You won’t see Nick here. But you never were. I thought sometimes you were acting, because when push came to shove, you immediately came to the right decision. Your nature.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Mike laughed. “You hid it well.”

Jerry scowled at Mike. “Did not.” Jerry knew he sounded like a stupid kid.

“What about that blonde back in high school?”

Jerry smiled at the memory. “She sure was sweet.”

“Yep, I know. I was there.”

Jerry narrowed his eyes, looking at Mike. “I thought you looked familiar.”

“I was only there for an instant. No one else saw me except you. I left because you took charge and rectified the situation. They would have gang-banged her if you hadn’t acted like she was all yours. You got her away from them. When you drove her home, she never told her parents how close she’d come to being a victim of violence, but her thankfulness in prayer was heard in heaven. You were responsible for all that goodness.”

Jerry looked down at the countertop, rubbing his finger back and forth over the surface. “Wonder whatever happened to her.”

“She’s a grandmother of five now. Makes cookies. Retired after teaching for thirty years.”

“That’s nice.” Jerry smiled.

“Yes, one of the many you helped.”

“That doesn’t qualify me for Heaven’s Angels.”

“Why not?”

“You gotta be holy or something.”

“Saving people, their souls, is our job. You helped us often. And what makes you think you’re not holy?”

“I’m just not that good. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life.”

“Name one.”

“Broke a woman’s heart one time.”

“Yes Jerry, you did. But isn’t it also true you broke your own heart out of sacrifice?”

Jerry looked away. His throat closed. Tears blurred his eyes. He returned to the window, gazing out at Earth, and wondered where she was on that little swirling blue dot. He had never loved anyone more. And that’s why he’d turned her away. At thirty years old, how could they have married, a doctor and a Hells Angel biker mechanic? He never meant to fall in love. It had started out as a one-night stand and turned into so much more. But he knew it wouldn’t fly. No woman ever took her place. He had never gotten over or forgotten her.

“She loved you too.”

Jerry unclenched his jaw to speak. “It was for her own good. I know I hurt her, but it was the right thing to do.”

“You’re right. It wouldn’t have worked out during your lifetimes. She got married and became a surgeon, helping burn victims recover. But she never stopped loving you either.”

Jerry swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’m glad.”

“All things work according to His plan, which is always for the good.”

“If you say so. It wasn’t so good for me.”

“You lived the life you wanted.”

“Yeah, guess so, but I lost a lot too.”

“If you’re a good soul, it goes with the territory.” Mike’s eyes glistened with tears as he looked at Jerry. “You sacrificed a lot for His will to be done.” Mike paused and took another sip of his drink. “Do you remember how you got here tonight?”


“Think Jerry. It’s Christmas Eve.”

Jerry sipped his cognac while thinking. “A baby.”

“Yes, a baby. What happened?”

“I came out of the hospital after chemo. Some nut aimed a gun at a pregnant woman. And then this cathedral appeared, and I met you.”

“You took the bullet for that pregnant woman.”

“I had cancer, Mike. Sooner or later I would have died anyway. Doesn’t make me some saint.”

“You would have recovered, but you sacrificed your life.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Oh but it does. Every sacrifice has a reason even if on Earth it can’t be understood. The pregnant woman you saved is the daughter-in-law of the woman you loved. You saved her grandchild, a child who will be very much like you and serve God.”

Jerry stared in disbelief at Mike.

“There are no coincidences.”

“It was all worth it then,” Jerry said. Tears ran down his face.

“Yes, Jerry. When your doctor-lady arrives at your funeral, your friends will be quite surprised.”

Jerry laughed through his tears. “That should be some wing-ding.”

“At this moment, she’s very thankful for your presence in her life, not once, but twice. She always knew you were a good man.”

“Oh crap. If she goes to my funeral, my friends will know.”

“Too damn bad, Jerry. The truth always comes out. Own up. You were a good man, and there aren’t that many.”

“I don’t want to stick around to see that.”

“No, didn’t think you would, which is why you have to get your wings. We have work to do.” 

“You think I’m going to fly around with fluffy wings.” Jerry swiped at the tears on his face.

“It’s a little more technical than that and a bit less fluffy.”

“Will wings mess up my ‘Bad to the Bone’ back tattoo?”

“No, but I have to warn you. We may get caught in backdraft and flying dung.”


“It’s Christmas Eve, Santa’s sleigh and the reindeer.”

“Oh come on, you’re pulling my leg.” Mike smiled that Mona Lisa smile again. Jerry shook his head, “Son of a—"

“God works in mysterious ways. You’ll find out. Come on, down the hatch,” Mike gestured to their glasses. They finished their shots, and then Mike ushered him out of the bar to the narthex. At the entrance of the cathedral’s nave, everyone in the cathedral looked at Jerry smiling and applauding. The nave was empty all the way to the altar, and Mike disappeared.  

Jerry saw Mike reappear at the altar as a large soldier angel with gleaming wings held aloft. Mike, Jerry realized, was Archangel Michael. The Archangel beckoned to Jerry to come forward with the tip of his wing. People slapped Jerry on the back and greeted him as he made his way up the aisle.

“Time to get your wings, Jerry,” he heard Michael say.

At the altar, Archangel Michael bestowed on Jerry angel wings as the bells of Christmas rang. His wings felt heavy and strong. When Jerry turned to face those in the pews, he caught his reflection in a window, blackened by the night. His skin glowed with youth, but he also appeared old. He frowned.

“New heavenly body stuffed with an old soul. You’ll get used to the look,” Michael said.

“How do you get through doors with these wings?”

“There are tricks, Jerry. You’ll learn. Let’s go, you’re the best angel for this job.”

“And why’s that?”

“You’re familiar with the Pacific Coast Highway.”

“Rode it all my life. Know every twist and turn.”

“Good, we’re on accident prevention. There’s a family traveling down that slick road tonight. The driver’s angry and going too fast.”

“Not happening on my shift,” Jerry said, but when they reached the cathedral doors and he looked out into the void of space, he felt sympathy for fledgling birds on their first flight.

“Don’t worry, got your back, bro.”

“There’s a trick I have to learn. How do I fly without fear?” Jerry asked.

Michael turned to Jerry and smiled. “Have faith.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Fractured Christmas

A Fractured Christmas

‘Twas the night after Christmas

And all through the house

Not a creature was stirring

Not Dad. He was soused.

Mom pondered and worried

As she emptied a jigger

Why each year her sizes

Got bigger and bigger.

While Justin and Jenny

Counted each separate gift

To see who won Christmas

And who came in fifth

But wee little Tommy

Was filled up with joy

While he played with the boxes

And ignored his new toys.

Monday, December 19, 2011

For Those who won't be Home for Christmas

For Those who Won’t be Home for Christmas: Reflections on the holiday

Despite the lights and carols, the bells and presents, for many people this is not a joyous season. A large number of the population don’t have homes to celebrate in or don’t have family and friends to celebrate with. Age, poor health, poverty, natural disasters and estrangement from family are just some of the reasons that the holiday will not be happy.

Many who have homes will not be in them due to incarceration, hospitalization or other forced absences. Those who work in the military, medical field, law enforcement or as fire fighters and others whose economic status requires them to work will spend the day away from family through necessity and duty. People far from home, whatever their circumstances are, may not be able to travel home.

People who have lost family and friends through divorce, death, conflict and desertion miss their loved ones especially when all the world around them sings the praises of united and reunited families. Christmas miracles happen to someone else.

The blaring, blinking, ceaseless reminders to shop and spend for the holiday are reminders to members of all religions other than Christianity that they too are excluded from the mainstream.

To you who won’t be home for Christmas I hope and pray you find a spark of happiness this time of year. Maybe from the knowledge that the season only comes once a year. Maybe from the happiness of small children who you don’t even know. For you who won’t be home for Christmas I wish you find a bit hope, even if it’s no bigger than a single grain of sand. You can hold on to that hope through the dark days and darker nights. It really can be better than it is right now. You have not been forgotten.

Whoever and wherever you are, whatever your faith or beliefs, may God bless you.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Just Desserts

Bells hanging over the door to Joyous Creations jingled. Joy looked up from placing a fondant angel on top of a buttercream frosted cupcake and watched her demanding client, Frank, whom she had nicknamed, Frankengroom, track snowy footprints onto the shop floor.

Joy’s assistant, Sophia, looked towards the door. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

Joy picked up a pastry bag full of frosting. “I wish I had a guardian angel tonight. I only booked this Christmas eve wedding because the mayor and his daughter are my neighbors.”

Sophia placed sugar cookies in a pink box and handed it to a customer. “We’ll get through this. And, Joy, everyone has a guardian angel.”

Joy sighed and squeezed a swirl of frosting around the base of the angel then dusted edible iridescent golden sprinkles over her creation. Normally, Christmas was her favorite holiday. But this year, despite being busy at her bakery and surrounded by people, she felt alone. Gabe, her husband, had died two years earlier. She missed his touch, smile and laughter. Both her married daughters were busy with their own families and unable to visit.

Joy stopped and watched her client push through the line of customers. Bridezillas were common, but a Frankengroom, possessing the social skills of a reality TV star, was a first.

“Yo, Mrs. P. How far along are you? You look ready to pop. Triplets?” He pointed his finger at a large woman and used his thumb as a trigger while making a clucking sound with his tongue.

Joy grimaced. Mrs. P. wasn’t pregnant.

Sophia whispered, “His guardian angel must be busy cleaning up after him. Hard to believe he's a successful doctor.”

Frankengroom impatiently whistled the theme song from Jeopardy as he wa
ited in line. Then he shouted over the other customers, “Joy, you will be on time for my wedding reception tonight at my mansion, right?” He winked and flexed a bicep at a female customer in front of him. “With the cupcakes, right? And I want them to taste epic! If they don’t, I’m not paying the rest of my bill.”

Edging past annoyed customers, he did the finger point and tongue click then snatched up the cupcake Joy just made. He tossed the sugar angel on the countertop breaking off its wings and began eating the cupcake on his way out, leaving a trail of crumbs.

The bells hanging over the door swayed and jangled.

Later that night in the ballroom of Frankengroom’s colossal mansion, Joy stood on a ladder she’d placed next to the large tiered cupcake tower that held 1,000 frosted cupcakes glistening with green and gold sprinkles. It formed a Christmas tree shape and specially decorated cupcakes were placed at intervals to resemble ornaments. Joy carefully positioned the fondant angel on top. Sophia set two larger cupcakes, one with a sugar figure of the bride and the other with a sugar groom, next to each other on the cupcake tower and wrapped twinkle lights around the base.

Joy climbed down the ladder, thinking of her cat home alone. “I’ll be glad when I can go home, sit next to Mistletoe and put my feet up in front of the fireplace.”

“Me too, I need to wrap presents for my kids tonight.” Sophia helped Joy fold and store the ladder.

Low music began as the wedding party and guests trickled into the ballroom after the wedding ceremony in the mansion chapel finished. Joy frowned as she looked at the best man. He looked familiar but she couldn’t place him. She straightened a red frosted cupcake with an iced poinsettia flower leaning into the evergreen centerpiece. Snippets of conversation swirled around her.

“He’s a jerk. I would be better off if he wasn’t my partner in our medical practice. I can’t take him any longer. He’s self-centered with a ginormous ego. Look at the groom’s cupcake with a miniature replica of him on top. The figure is twice as large as the one on the bride’s cupcake.” Frankengroom’s best man and a guest walked towards the cupcake tree. Joy wondered if she had heard correctly. Had the best man said that?

Joy guarded the tree from mishap. The mayor nodded at Joy and snapped photos as he approached a young man. “My daughter and this reception are beautiful. If the groom went missing, it would be a fun time. I’d be a happy man.” He slapped the younger man on the back. “She should have married you.”

Joy joined Sophia in the kitchen to grab a bite of dinner while the guests were served. “I don’t think Frankengroom has many fans. What does his bride see in him?”

A waitress overheard and confided, “Poor girl was crying before the wedding. I think she was pressured to marry him.” The waitress hurried off. Joy and Sophia exchanged knowing glances.

In the dining hall, the wait staff cleared dinner plates while the best man grabbed the microphone and began talking. “Everyone gather around the dessert tree to
toast the groom and his lovely wife.”

Frankengroom shouted to him. “Yes, a toast. You couldn’t have made it through medical school without me, bro. Especially finals, right?” He wiggled his left ear with his right hand and put a finger next to his nose then pointed and did the tongue click.

The best man chewed the inside of his cheek then hoisted his glass. “Here’s to happy times ahead.”

Joy watched people clink glasses. The best man looked familiar. Now, she realized that he must be a doctor in Frankengroom’s medical group. Was it her imagination or did the bride shoot a wistful look towards the young man her father had consoled? Was he an old boyfriend? And what was that secret hand code from Frankengroom to his best man? The best man didn’t look pleased. Joy passed out plates of cupcakes to guests while studying him. She snapped her fingers realizing she had seen the best man’s photo in a recent newspaper article. His name was Dr. Howard-something, and he was hit with a malpractice suit after the death of his patient. There was more, but she couldn’t recall.

The bride and groom crossed arms and bit into their respective cupcakes. Frankengroom swallowed hard and said, “This doesn’t taste very good. At least I’ll save some money by not paying for this crappy...” He broke off, gasping for air, clutched his neck and staggered backwards into the cupcake tower. He and the tower swayed left then right in a strange confectionary tango.

Joy inhaled, watching her tower sway. “My cupcakes.” She moved in tandem with the tower while holding out her hands in a futile attempt to catch her work of art.

The tower twisted then fell to the ground, cupcakes splattering the guests like they were shot from paint guns. Huge frosting globs rained down on Joy. Frankengroom landed on top of the sugary carnage inches from her with the string of twinkle lights on his head. His new wife ran over and kneeled in the sweet goo next to him while Dr. Howard felt for a pulse then began giving CPR.

People screamed, backed away from the scene and a few grabbed their cell phones. Joy didn’t know with this crowd if they were dialing 911, tweeting their friends or taking videos for YouTube. She was shocked at the chaos and felt guilty that her first thought was for the ruined cupcakes.

Dr. Howard shook his head, stopped performing CPR and slowly stood up. “He’s gone.”

The bride covered her face with her hands while her presumed ex-boyfriend comforted her. Her father, the mayor, looked upward with a slightly bemused smile and crossed himself.

Sophia wiped frosting from her uniform then removed chunks from Joy’s hair. Joy scanned the room noting that some people had smirks of delight on their faces.

Dr. Howard jabbed his finger at Joy. “He ate your cupcake just before he died.”

Joy heard gasps, saw people’s eyes widen as they covered their mouths with their hands. She felt angered by the accusation. “Don’t blame me, maybe he choked.”

One hysterical guest yelled, “We all ate Joy’s cupcakes and could be next. Everybody, throw up!” She stuck her finger down her throat.

Sophia grabbed Joy’s arm, “You should get away from this madhouse flash mob. Go lie low in another room until the cops get here.”

Joy walked down the hallway deep in thought. Were her cupcakes responsible? There were many people milling around the cupcake tree who hoped that Frankengroom was now in a hot place. Anyone including the mayor, the bride, her ex-boyfriend, or the best man could have slipped something into the groom’s cupcake. But who hated him enough to kill him?

Joy saw Dr. Howard walk down the hallway towards her. She ducked behind a large potted plant and watched as he looked around then entered the groom’s home office. She took a deep breath, tiptoed to the door and peeked inside.

Joy saw him rifle through the desk, slamming drawers. Pausing, he looked around the room, focused on a wall filled with framed photos and walked over to it. After scrutinizing the pictures, he removed one photo from the wall and extracted a folded piece of paper taped to the back then tossed the picture on the ground. He unrolled the paper, looked it over and tucked it in his pocket. Joy ducked back behind the plant as he walked out.

She hurried into the office and looked at the numerous photos on the wall
recognizing several people she knew including the mayor and his daughter. Joy saw the discarded photo was of Frankengroom and Dr. Howard in graduation caps and gowns. She scanned the photo wall and pulled down another photo of a group of students also in caps and gowns that looked like it was taken around the same time. She found a folded sheet of paper taped on back of that photo. Unfolding it she saw diagrams of hand movements with translations next to each. She noted that a pointed finger meant correct.

Suddenly Joy remembered the rest of the article. A classmate came forward and told the medical board about cheating in medical school after Dr. Howard’s patient died. Joy would bet Joyous Creations that this photo was a group who cheated. They probably used hand codes and this piece of paper was a code sheet. She guessed that Frankengroom used it to blackmail Dr. Howard. He probably blackmailed all the people on this wall using information about them hidden on back of their photos. Joy wondered about his strange method of bookkeeping. Perhaps Frankengroom enjoyed keeping the source of his money and power close. Or, Joy thought, knowing how clueless Frankengroom had been concerning people, he needed a pictorial to identify his victims.

She turned to leave and came face to face with Dr. Howard. Taken back, she tried to dodge him but her shoe, slick with frosting on the sole, slipped. He grabbed her arm with one hand and they locked eyes.

Joy screamed. Using his other hand, he smacked her hard across the face.

She saw stars then blackness.

“Get up, Joy!”

She groggily opened her eyes. The voice sounded like Gabe; where was she? Joy couldn’t see much in the darkness although it appeared she lay in a closet. Her ankles were tied together, wrists bound in front, and a cloth fastened around her mouth. She smelled smoke and saw it seep in under the door backlit by flickering light. Using her bound hands, she pulled down the cloth to free her mouth and yelled.

Struggling to a kneeling position Joy reached up and turned the closet door knob. She winced as the knob burned her hand. She tried again and opened the door staying low to the ground to avoid breathing heavy smoke. Curtains and furniture blazed on all sides of the room. Over the din of the raging fire and her own yelling she heard faint sounds of bells jingling. Maybe her imagination was playing tricks but the bells sounded like the ones hanging over her bakery door. Her heart pounded as she continued to yell. Spasms of coughing overtook her. The bells jangled again.

“Follow the bells,” a firm and familiar voice said.

She looked around but couldn’t see anyone talking. She began to scoot on her still bound knees following the bell sound then shook her head. Why was she going towards that part of the room? It would be faster to stand up, roll over the couch and hop out the door into the hall.

The comforting voice repeated urgent instructions. “You will be okay, sweet Joy, but you need to go to the bells. Now!” At that moment the couch caught fire and it spread to an area rug blocking off escape through the doorway.

She continued her scoot crawl over the hard wood floor, scraping her knees on shards of a broken vase. The sound of bells became louder and more insistent. She spotted a wind chime hanging over a window. Joy wobbled then stood up and opened the window breathing in fresh air.

She yelled for help. Two startled firemen ran over and pulled her through the large window. Joy looked back and saw the wind chime dance wildly.

“I’m glad you kept telling me how to get out,” Joy croaked out as the firemen set her down in the back of an ambulance.

One fireman cut off the cloth around her wrists while the other put an oxygen mask on her. “It wasn’t us. It’s a miracle you escaped that inferno.”

The bells hanging over Joyous Creations’ door jangled merrily. Sophia ran over to Joy and threw her arms around her. “It’s good to see you, but should you be back at work?”

“A month of TLC from my daughters was just the thing to help me recover. What did I miss?”

Sophia ticked off items on her fingers. “You probably know the best man, Dr. Howard Rosen, is in custody for murder, arson and trying to kill you. The good doctor confessed to poisoning the cupcake with the fondant groom on top knowing that Frankengroom would be the only person to eat it. So, Joyous Creations’ reputation is intact. Rumor has it that the bride was being blackmailed by FrankenG and that she reunited with her old boyfriend. Because the mansion burned down, we may never know all the people he blackmailed. All’s well that ends, eh? But, Joy, I still get chills thinking about you struggling by yourself to escape the fire.”

“Strange as it sounds, I wasn’t alone. I felt that Gabe was with me every step of the way guiding me to safety. You were right, Sophia, I do indeed have a guardian angel.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Two Days before Christmas by Pauline Alldred

Emma struggled to avoid skidding toward the evergreen trees close to the pavement as snowflakes slanted across the country road that wound through the woods where she’d played as a child. When she’d worked as a nurse, she learned some of the veterans she cared for lived in these same woods. She wondered how her patients especially the ones with artificial limbs could survive the winter months here.110_F_28502517_Glcw4o8hLUx2CWF7uB4hmsni3lnxNPnT

The snow obscured her vision but she thought she saw movement at the side of the road. She gripped the steering wheel, fearful of spinning out. Had she imagined it? At seventy-eight, she knew she had to monitor her eyesight regularly and her last check-up had been fine. There it was again. She could barely make out the two figures trudging along the breakdown lane through the slush and ice. How could they see her or the roadway with the wind whipping snow into their faces?

Even in a blizzard, she wasn’t going to offer a ride to strangers. No point asking for trouble. Decelerating for safety so as not to skid into the couple, she glanced away from the snow-covered road just long enough to realize one of them had the shape of a heavily pregnant woman. The man held an arm around her but she still looked as though she hesitated with each step.

Emma thought of her grandkids and her daughter trying to raise them alone. If it were them slogging through this storm, she would hope that someone would stop to help them.MB900448442

She slowed to a stop not far from the couple. Perhaps they owned the car she’d seen abandoned on the shoulder about half a mile back. Leaning across her car, she opened the passenger side door and gasped as icy air rushed into the car. The young man smiled at Emma. Snow clung to his jacket and jeans. He couldn’t be more than twenty-one or –two.

“Where are you going? Can I give you a ride?” Emma said.

“We’d really appreciate that. We live a couple of miles up the road. Could my wife sit in the back and put her feet up? She’ll take her boots off.”

“Of course.”

The young man opened the back door and assisted his wife into the car. Emma waited for him to climb into the passenger seat.

A chopping blow knocked her hands off the steering wheel. The man reached across and turned off the engine. Oh My God, she was trapped with no one to help her. How could she let this happen? Emma tried to grab the key so she could jab it in the young man’s face but something thick and soft was pulled tight around her face. The woman laughed as Emma struggled to breathe.

“At least we didn’t have to wait so long this time,” the woman said. “You were a genius to think of the baby bump.”

Emma struck out with both fists and connected with an unshaven cheek.

“Bitch,” the man said.

Whatever covered her face was pulled tighter. Rough hands grabbed her right arm and yanked it to the side and backward. Emma heard the bone snap. Pain paralyzed her.

“Enough, Grandma. My arms are getting tired holding this pillow,” the woman said.

Emma heard the man get out of the car. Twisting and turning in her seat, she grasped the woman’s hands and wrestled to pull the pillow off her face. The man opened Emma’s door and dragged her onto the road.

Emma noticed the woman’s smile of triumph as she dropped the pillow onto the back seat. She’d used it as a baby bump, as a blindfold, and to obstruct Emma’s breathing. Once out of the car, the woman tried to pull Emma’s hands behind her back. Emma kicked backward and managed to free her uninjured arm. The man slapped her face hard. She fought to keep her balance. The woman grabbed Emma’s arms and secured her wrists with duct tape. Waves of stabbing pain radiated to Emma’s right shoulder and wrist.

The man tied a scarf so tightly over Emma’s eyes that it irritated them.

“You lived too long.” The man pushed Emma forward.

Stumbling in the snow, she counted her steps. It might help to know how far they made her walk. Emma still had strong legs because she’d been active all her life but she doubted whether she could outrun the young couple. She had to conserve energy.

“What do you want?” Emma asked. “Money?” She’d used most of her cash but she had a credit card.

“We take what we want. Check her pockets.”

By the amount of force used, Emma guessed the man gripped her in a choke hold. Afraid he’d strangle her if she struggled, she still felt a rush of anger as fingers probed the pockets of her jacket and pants. Finally, the man let her go and pushed her to her knees.

“Nothing except a tissue and a piece of candy,” the woman said.

“Everything’s in your car. Plus keys to your house.”

A job well done his tone implied. Snow numbed Emma’s skin. She heard an engine start. As though she were a rag doll, she was picked up and dumped astride what could be a snowmobile. Sandwiched between the two young people, she felt the vehicle jump forward and the motor’s vibrations shoot down her broken arm as they sped uphill.MB900182785

“This is a lot easier than the sled we used for the first one.” The woman’s voice faded in and out. “No one will ever see our snowmobile behind all those trees. You think of everything.”

The wind hurt Emma’s teeth. She’d lost her hat in the scuffle beside her car. Her ears ached. At last, the vehicle spun and stopped.

Hands shoved her, knocking her off the snowmobile. Emma fell hard, her right arm under her. Snow muffled her cry of pain.

“You’re fantastic, the way you always find the spot where your mom made you drop the puppy.” images, dogThe woman’s tone sounded almost conversational.

Emma struggled to sit up, to escape the wet snow on her skin. With her wrists tied, she had to push on her knuckles and kept falling back. What did they plan to do with her now—break more bones?

“Bitch was a lousy mother, would’ve let us go if she could’ve got away with it.”

Emma heard a hint of sadness in the man’s voice.

“Your classmates, the ones who put the puppy’s half-eaten body in your locker at school weren’t your friends and they still aren’t.”

“They didn’t kill it. Mom did.”

Emma shivered. The woman sounded as though she’d do whatever the man wanted. Emma couldn’t drive a wedge between them. What did the woman see in him? He obviously had issues. In Emma’s experience, men who hated their mothers rarely made considerate lovers.

“I drop out of school to get a job to help her and the second I’m fired, she kicks me out. I should’ve iced her years ago.”

“I know people who can help you with a place to live and a job,” Emma said.

“Shut up.” The hate in the woman’s voice made Emma recoil. “Let’s get out of here. She’s history.”

The snowmobile started up. Struggling to free her hands, Emma heard the chug of the engine diminish until there was nothing except the howl of the wind and the splat of wet snow falling into more snow. Pain in her broken arm dominated her thinking. She couldn’t give in to it. She bit into her numb lower lip.

Had the wet snow weakened the duct tape? Moving her body like a clumsy beached walrus, she used her frozen fingers to search beneath the snow for a young shoot or a sharp rock she could use to cut the tape. By the time she located a prickly low shrub, she no longer felt her fingers. Looping her wrists over a short branch, she pulled away from it, gasping as her right arm throbbed. Crying aloud, tugging with all her strength, she split part of the tape. She dragged her good hand free and pushed on it until she sat upright.

Her head bent forward so far that her chin almost rested on her chest, she waited for her breathing and heart rate to slow. The young couple might have left her to die but Emma had no intention of letting that happen. She needed only one hand to push off the blindfold. She had no flashlight and darkness pressed in around her. All her bones ached from the freezing temperature. Her struggling had made her perspire. She couldn’t feel the skin on her face and ears. Icicles made her hair heavy. She knew the danger of losing head heat.

She leaned against the shrub. If the prickles stuck in her skin, she didn’t feel them. Bending her knees, she tensed her leg muscles and dug her feet into the ground beneath the snow. With the help of her good hand and arm, she staggered to her feet. She took a step and stumbled as her legs shook. What was wrong with her? She’d lived in the Northeast all her life and knew cold. If she didn’t move, she’d die of hypothermia. But which way? Trees packed close together yielded no clues to help her pick a direction.

Her feet sank into deep snow. She knew the part of the woods close to where she’d stopped to pick up the young couple. The dense canopy of overhead branches blocked out moonlight so she couldn’t see the time on her watch and had to guess how long she’d spent on the snowmobile. They’d driven uphill so, whether the couple had taken a direct or diagonal route, she knew she would eventually hit the narrow clearing where fire had destroyed all the trees or she’d reach the lake. If she arrived at the clearing, she’d travel west until she found the lake. Hunters made camp close by. Buoyed by the hope she wasn’t completely lost, she stepped forward.

The first time she stumbled, she put out her right hand to save herself and cried out as the ragged ends of her broken bones jammed against each other. She had to keep moving and used her good hand to push against tree trunks to gain extra momentum. Something plopped rhythmically into the snow—she froze. Had to be paws, not feet. Prey animals sought out the vulnerable. She imagined a wolf with hot, smelly breath sinking its teeth into her neck. Teeth breaking through the skin would hurt but what about when they reached muscle and Wolf05Tbone? Snow hid any sticks or small rocks she could use as a weapon. The bite of a hungry animal could immediately cut off her air supply and blood to her brain, certainly a better death than being mauled and eaten alive.

The sound of movement through the snow receded. She heard only the wind and the rattle of ice on pine needles. Thick branches helped shield her a little from the falling snow. Trying to ignore the icy water in her boots, she imagined the orange-red of a blazing fire and the smell of roasted chicken.

Tears caused by the wind stung her cheeks. Her throat hurt and she had to take short breaths. Was this how life would end for her? Alone and so cold? As a nurse, she’d become familiar with death. She’d lived a full life. Perhaps she’d been luckier than the young couple that abandoned her. She shrank from believing people could be cruel for no reason. That would be like giving up on years of trust and hope. But she’d been stupid to offer a ride to strangers, and now thought how easy it would have been to dial 911 and gotten them assistance. The woman with a pillow stuffed under her jacket had reminded Emma of her daughter, the reason she stopped. A sentimental trusting old fool, Emma had to pay for her mistake. A pain in her side made her bend forward. She was so tired. She pulled back her shoulders. Giving up so soon, a voice whispered in her head?

She called out to her daughter and grandkids. If only she could see them once more. She leaned against a tree trunk. A long time ago, exhib_3she’d realized she had to die to make room for other generations. She thought of young soldiers destroyed before they could enjoy peace and of children suffering images,5illnesses that stunted their growth and stopped their play. Memories of what life had given her flooded her brain. Perhaps she was overdue for death but she never imagined it would be like this.

She pushed away from the tree trunk. As though they’d lost bone and muscle, her legs trembled. Her lungs burned from the cold. She made herself take another step, then another, the uneven ground jolting her spine. Eventually she’d drop into the snow. How could a seventy-eight year old heart keep up with the demands she placed on it?

Reaching the top of a mound, she expected to see the clearing but instead looked down on what shone in the moonlight like glittering metal. She’d reached the lake. Could she walk across the ice?CA8455

At the edge of the lake, she dug beneath the snow with her boots, reached sandy dirt, and used it to cover the soles of her boots to provide traction. She took a step onto the ice and instinctively tried to raise both arms for balance but her right arm hung limply at her side. There was no possibility of her walking the distance around the lake. She kept her head down, focusing on where she placed her feet. How could the cold make her stomach and bowels hurt so much?

She thought of her husband, a good man who’d died too soon. She had no idea whether she’d see him when she died but now she felt his presence. Voices she remembered from long ago whispered but she couldn’t make out what they said. Her knees started to buckle and she had to hold her injured arm to her body because it wouldn’t break her fall. She heard a whooshing sound behind her but her neck hurt too much for her to turn her head. Without trees to lessen its power, the wind scoured her exposed skin. Using her one good hand, she struggled to pull up the back of her jacket to shield her ears and face. The shrieking of the storm and the swirling snowflakes took away her hearing and vision.thumbnailCA5OLLEK She had to keep going towards the cabin she remembered close to the lake.

“Okay, Ma’am. You picked a real bad time for midnight skating.”

The human voice broke through her semi-consciousness. She smelled whisky breath and sweaty clothes. Someone picked her up, placed her gently on what felt like a sled, and wrapped course-textured blankets around her. There were two of them. One pushed and the other pulled a rope tied to the front of the sled.

“You’re vets who live in the woods,” she said.

“Don’t you dare tell anyone where we are or they’ll come around with social workers and priests.”

“When I worked as a nurse, veterans told me about your camps in the woods.”

“We’ll take you to the nearest emergency clinic,” the man with the thick beard and long hair said. “But we won’t be staying for the introductions.”

Emma reached out with her good hand to touch the man pushing the sled. “Thank you.”

“No problem. You’re the second skater we found this week.”